Category Archives: Writing

Coffee Culture

I’ve developed a coffee house habit in the last few years, doing much of my writing surrounded by the cacophony of hissing espresso machines, moderately loud music, overheard conversations and the clink of glasses and dishes.

This new habit surprised me, because previously I’ve written early in the morning, starting about 5:00 AM, when the world is quiet and distractions minimal. My latest book, Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive was written mostly in the afternoons, at one of three or four coffee shops I rotated through.

Apparently I’m not alone. I did a quick look-around and survey at my current favorite local, Greenhorn in Vancouver’s West End ( The other patrons were a:

  • high school teacher planning her next week’s coursework;
  • graduating law student looking for work in insurance-related law;
  • traveller searching for hotels on;
  • student finishing up a course paper;
  • tattoo artist colouring in sketches with pastel pencils;
  • real estate agent who uses the coffee shop to make phone calls and meet with clients; and
  • hipster pitching his design company to the production manager for a movie soon to begin filming in Vancouver.

What I find curious about the working-in-coffee-shop habit is that the gold standard of work environments is supposed to be a space without distractions. And yet, many of us find that noisy chaos enhances our focus and keeps us attentive to a single-minded task.

Perhaps what draws us into the chaos of a coffee shop is the creativity stimulator of influences mingling. Canadian writer Robertson Davies offered this explanation of creativity in a letter to a friend: “Where the stuff comes from, what happens to it, how the unconscious and the conscious must be allowed to kiss and conmingle, and then how the conscious has to do the editing.”

Relaxation of mind is a necessary precursor to connect the disparate thoughts that emerge to be linked into the best of ideas. Coffee shops are about connecting, and their random noise and chaos seem to facilitate Davies’ kissing and conmingling of ideas.

But then there’s that point where the conscious mind has to do the editing, requiring singularity of focus more than a meeting between the unconscious and conscious. Vancouver artist Douglas Coupland, who just had an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, posted a phrase expressing the conundrum: “Multitasking is a myth; we are all serial thinkers.

All the research on multitasking confirms that our brains really are most effective when doing a single thing at a time, with one exception: music. We can simultaneously listen to music and focus effectively because different regions of the brain process music and ideas.

Perhaps coffee shop ambience is more like music than ideas, rhythmic and melodic inputs that stimulate interaction and creativity.

I’ve had both moments in coffee houses, stuck at a writing block, relaxing into the ambience of coffee culture, suddenly hit by a solution that comes from that mystic place in the mind where ideas connect in unique patterns, and then returning to my writing with the right words flowing easily and single-mindedly.

Like now: pondering the ending of this piece, I look up and see a well-tattooed and pierced young man smoothly juggling red, yellow and blue balls outside the Greenhorn, the perfect metaphor for how coffee shops inspire both inspiration and focus, the two pillars of the writing life.

Writing on the Wall

I am an inveterate collector of quotes, now on my second thick journal full of passages I’ve gleaned from books, newspapers, magazine articles, and conversations. The quote journals are fun to reread occasionally, as the phrases and sentences I’ve selected over the years reflect what was going on in my life at the time.

A few of my favorite excerpts have made it to my office wall, some calligraphied and framed, others as posters with sayings embossed over images. Perhaps my favorite came from Ed Broadbent, former leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party. He spoke at dinner for a leadership development program, Action Canada, for which I was a mentor for about five years.

One of his sentences jumped out at me, and made it to my wall: “Real leaders want to do something, not be somebody.” I discovered later that the original quote came from a 19th century French philosopher whose name now escapes me. It resonated for me because I was mentoring emerging Canadian leaders and also had just taken on a leadership role at my university, directing the Centre for Dialogue.

I’ve thought about this quote often over the years, as the leaders I respect the most are focused on what good they can achieve in the world more than what rewards or honors might be bestowed. It’s in the how we do things that determine the somebody we become; setting out to be exalted as a life objective is one of the worst ways to build a life.

My Semester in Dialogue students provided a second favorite quote on my wall, as a framed gift at the end of one of our Semesters in Dialogue. They invented a new verb: Winstonize: to cut out half the words and get straight to the point.

They had received edited pages marked with dense red suggestions for three months, mostly brutally cutting phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs from what they thought was stellar prose. I took it as an honor to have a word named after me, although perhaps they were just making fun of my penchant for brevity.

I do indeed love writing, and increasingly have been teaching workshops called “Communicating with Impact,” with brevity, clarity and focus as organizing concepts. Much of the workshop content was developed at the Banff Centre about ten years ago, where I was a founding faculty member in the Science Communication program.

That experience improved my own clarity around what good communication means, partly reflected in what became an end-of-program tradition, a poster with pithy phrases that summarized the participants’ experiences. The 2008 poster that I have on my wall includes: Tell a story, It’s all about audience, Make it personal, Keep it ruthlessly simple, and Listen.

I’ve always been intrigued by what people choose to post; a careful tour of an office wall reveals volumes about the inhabitant. In my case, it’s pretty obvious what I value as a professor: encouraging students to find the unique thing in the world that’s most important for them to do, and providing the tools, especially communication skills, to facilitate achieving their ambitions.

 Knowing your point, and getting right to it, is the essence of a life well lived.

The Feel of a Good Book

I was stunned to receive the first copy of my new book, Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive, in the mail the other day. Stunned because it is beautifully produced physically; in all the tumult of writing and revising and editing and proofs, I had almost forgotten that a corporeal book would emerge out the other side.

Bee Time is encased in a vibrant cover, with bees fading in and out of focus, shades of brown color that would be comfortable in a real beehive, and the tactile feel of highly sanded stone. The opening and closing pages are slightly thickened and lightly textured, while the intervening printed pages are colored the lightest of cream, with crisp, precise print.

There also will be an e-book, and I’ll be pleased to have readers purchase an electronic version (authors actually receive higher royalties on e-books than hard copies), but there is something lost in the digital, that intense physical pleasure that comes from experiencing a really finely made book.

There are other books on my shelves that evoke similar pleasure, enhanced by their age and my own history with them. I have an 1897 sixth edition of Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a treasured gift from former students and colleagues. I love the description provided by the antiquarian bookseller who provided it:

“Complete set. Volume one and two. Original maroon cloth covered boards. Gilt top edge. Gilt lettering on spine. Light wear to edges of spine. Nice set and solid.”

The book itself makes a point of telling you it’s the “Authorized Edition,” which makes me wonder what shenanigans were going on with someone publishing an unauthorized edition. And reading the words of Darwin from an old edition evokes images of 19th century naturalists traipsing the world trying to piece together how the natural world came to be, and ultimately our place in it.

I also have a copy of a Hebrew bible, the Five Books of Moses, a gift for my Bar Mitzvah in 1963. It was a very solid book when I received it but has been well-used, held together today with strapping tape on the binding, a number of pages bent, with stains in places where I must have spilled food and drink over the years.

The inscription inside says “To Mark: This is an Important Book, not so much for what it says, but for why it was written!” I have puzzled over what that means since I was given the Book; it’s either a deeply profound comment or one of those vague nice-sounding thoughts that doesn’t actually mean anything.

Another personal treasure is a well-read 1929 copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, its binding cracked and pages yellowed. It’s a Modern Library book, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. The Modern Library was designed to make the idea of a formal home Library affordable for the growing middle class, reflecting a cultural sea change as knowledge became more publicly accessible.

It was branded as “The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books,” and was a dependable arbitrator for upwardly mobile readers aspiring to quality tomes, providing volumes that looked elegant on a bookshelf. Modern Library still sells books today, although readers are more likely to buy the paperback editions these days, and yes, they do have eBook versions for sale.

It’s particularly satisfying to see that the art of making a well-crafted book lives on, even in this most electronic of ages. What a joy it is to think of a book I’ve written, modest as it may be, creating the kind of pleasure for others that holding many finely fashioned books has brought to me.

On Reading Anne Fadiman

I had to pause after reading the first chapter of Anne Fadiman’s spectacular 2007 book At Large and at Small: Familiar Essays. I had checked it out of the library, but this is one of those books that must be collected, and I had to have it.

I went to pick it up at my local bookstore, but it could only be ordered through Amazon or Indigo as the big-box stores don’t carry it and there isn’t a small independent bookstore in the entire city of Vancouver that has the space to stock even a slim 2007 volume, let alone a book of essays.

It’s ironic to order through the web to stock our home library, especially since her other book of essays Ex Libris has what may be the best piece ever written on home libraries. It’s a beautiful bit of writing describing how she and her new husband consolidated their individual and extensive books into one home, and in the process grew to feel more married.

Fadiman may not be a household name, but among well-read writers of non-fiction she is iconic. Her late father, Clifton Fadiman, did receive considerable public prominence as an intellectual, but he wrote at a time when life was slower and public intellectuals were held in higher regard. Anne Fadiman was editor of The American Scholar for many years, and currently teaches non-fiction writing at Yale University and mentors young writers-in-training, in addition to her own writing.

Her first essay in At Large held particular resonance for me as an entomologist, not only for its stellar writing but also because it’s about how she was drawn into the pleasure of collecting insects, butterflies actually:

To swoop your net through the air and see something fluttering inside; to snatch that bit of life from the rich chaos of nature into your own comparatively lackluster world, which is instantly brightened and enlarged; to look it up in Klots (author of a well-known mid-20th century guide to butterflies) and name it and know it – well, after you did that a few times, it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for Parcheesi.

Books of essays are awfully difficult to get published, as there is little demand for what publishers perceive as a dying genre, but Fadiman’s butterfly essay, and the quote above, highlighted for me why essay collections are such fine literature and deserve resurgence. What essays do, at their best, is name it and know it; opening that door for readers where we see what was obscure before but now, in the hands of a fine essayist, becomes obvious.

Anne Fadiman has that unusual capacity to notice things, opening doors where you didn’t even know there was a door there to begin with, until she brings you to the portal.

And her essays have sticking power. Lori and I just renovated and moved into a new apartment, our renovations designed around the cornerstone of built-in shelves to house our together-forever book collections.

I’ve never met Anne Fadiman, but by coincidence I was reading At Large and at Small as we moved in and arranged our bookshelves. Positioning our books superimposed on reading Fadiman reminded me that essays are a bit like butterfly collecting, enriching us by snatching bits of life from the rich chaos of writers’ fertile imaginations.

“The Bees” by Laline Paull

There’s a new novel out that’s climbing the bestseller charts, The Bees by Laline Paull, with worker bee Flora 717 as its main character and a fast-moving plot that reads like a Stephen King thriller.

Paull’s book is reminiscent of Watership Down, the classic 1972 novel that follows the lives of rabbits that talk and exhibit human feelings. As a novel The Bees isn’t bad; it’s an enjoyable read although the plot becomes increasingly unlikely as the author struggles towards the end to find her way out of the book.

Beekeepers might have a harder time with The Bees than civilians reading the book, partly because from the bees’ point of view we’re seen as the enemy. And Paull’s writing exhibits a blend of fact and fantasy that gets in the way of a knowledgeable reader’s experience.

She makes extensive use of poetic license, defined as the “freedom to depart from the facts of a matter when speaking or writing in order to create an effect,” certainly legitimate practice for a novelist. Still, her depiction of bees has the annoying tendency of being based in a sophisticated understanding of bee biology, but then her novelist’s license unnecessarily warps the biology to fit the plot.

Take caste, for example. Flora 717 herself is a sanitation worker, and in real life most bees do clean the hive or dump trash out the door early in their lives. But in Paull’s book the lowly regarded caste of “Flora” bees do nothing but clean for their entire lives, and other higher-ranked castes are similarly locked into a single task for life.

I doubt any task ranks as higher or lower for colony survival; the word “caste” is commonly used by beekeepers when talking about worker tasks, but not in the ranked way that it’s often applied to human societies. Further, Flora 717 herself is depicted as an oddity in that she also spends time as a nurse bee and later a forager, a typical pattern in honeybee division of labor but not usual in Paull’s imaginary hive.

Another intriguing aspect of honeybee biology that Paull gets partly right is that colonies are made up of genetic subgroups, since the queen mates with many drones. Each subgroup or patriline has subtly different probabilities of performing particular tasks, so there is indeed some genetic specialization, but in The Bees an individual bee’s genetics is her destiny whereas in real colonies worker bees exhibit considerable task flexibility depending on what work the hive needs performed at any given time.

Paull also writes in a partly knowledgeable way about laying workers, indicating correctly that they occasionally arise in the hive and lay male eggs that if detected are destroyed. She also writes accurately about how laying workers can be identified and attacked if recognized by their distinctive odor. But then she commits the error of having a laying worker produce a female egg that she herself hides from the other bees and rears into a queen, an event far outside honeybee reality.

There are two segments of the book that depict human impact on bees. One, that I appreciated, was her description of the grey film her bees encountered in the field and brought back to the hive, obviously referring to pesticides.

It was particularly tragic to read of bees I had come to know dying in the book. Like most beekeepers, I’ve lost many bees and entire hives to pesticides, and it was easy to empathize with the panic and grief depicted from the bees’ point of view.

But I balked at her hive’s perception of beekeepers as marauders robbing the bees of their hard-earned honey. Perhaps Paull’s description of the emotions bees would have when we remove honey would be accurate if bees do indeed have emotions, but she neglects the part where we take only surplus honey, leaving the bees enough to survive and thrive.

And if bees had conscious awareness like those in The Bees, they would understand that we beekeepers provide housing, medical care and other services in exchange for honey, a pretty even deal.

Paull isn’t a beekeeper, and her book was intended to portray the foibles of human societies using honeybees as a lens more than as an accurate biology text. And she is following a long tradition in which writers impart moral values to honey bees that we desire to emulate. Hard work, collaboration and valuing the collective over the individual come to mind.

I just wish she had let her imaginary bees be just a bit more like real bees, and that her grains of truth had been expanded to pebbles or even large nuggets of honeybee reality.

Now that would have been a book honeybees would have appreciated, if they could read, that is.

The Book I Didn’t Write

I didn’t write a book a decade or so ago, titled Seeds at the time. It was going to be about, well, seeds.

I had in mind a book that would cover topics such as the biology of seeds and how early farmers selected the crops they grew from wild plants. I imagined discussing agricultural practices related to saving seeds, and how crop diversity on farms had changed over the 10,000 or so years of human agriculture.

There even was a physical file in which I stuffed random information, in a cabinet that’s now almost empty since computers have made hard copy filing almost extinct.

My seed file is eclectic, including a packet of open-pollinated squash seeds, a few business cards, an article from Science magazine about seed banks, and pamphlets about an eco-organic plant sale, heritage seeds in Canada and a then-upcoming international world exhibition about organic farming.

I never did get around to writing Seeds, and doubt I ever will, but the idea popped up again the other day while I was browsing a Seattle bookstore and saw the new book Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics and Promise of Seeds. It’s by Scott Chaskey, a New York State poet/farmer widely considered the founder of community-based sustainable farming.

I got quite excited seeing his book. My first thought was that Chaskey’s book validated my most excellent idea, and I couldn’t wait to read the book I didn’t write.

Except: turns out it’s not my book. The only similarity is that the word “seeds” is in both our titles. Otherwise, his book bears no resemblance to what I had in mind. His voice is more the poet than the scientist, with undertones of mythology and spirituality, flowery descriptions of seeds and poetic waxings about farming and the spirit of the land.

I did write a book once that was published at the same time other authors came out with similar books, on genetically modified crops. Mine, Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone, was written in the early 2000’s, when GM crops were new to the marketplace. I’d hoped to be first out of the post on the subject, and imagined writing the hot-off-the-press New York Times bestseller on this topic of consuming public interest.

But, other books on GM crops came out within a few months of mine, a couple just before and a few just after. We shared the wealth of readers, and none of us hit that best seller home run. I read them all, and what struck me was how different each was, with that endless variety of authors’ voices that make reading such a delight.

That lesson of voice has stayed with me. There are many, many books on almost any subject; upwards of 2 million new books are published globally every year, 290,000 in the U.S. and 20,000 in Canada. Each is infused with the author’s distinctive writing rhythm, each telling a unique story no matter how similar their topics.

One dictionary definition of “voice” is “the distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book,” but I’m fond of another meaning: “the range of pitch or type of tone with which a person sings.”

That’s something to celebrate, the range of pitch and tone with which authors make their writing sing.

Knitting, Legos and Writing

Yes, I am a sweateraholic. One of my favourite sweaters came on a beekeeping jaunt to New Zealand, at least 15 and possibly closer to 20 years ago. I must have gotten a particularly wistful look on my face every time we’d pass sheep on the lush NZ hillsides, as my beekeeper hosts soon suggested we visit an old barn that had been converted into a hand-kint sweater emporium.

And what sweaters they were, hundreds hanging from every wall and displayed on a forest of tables and chairs, woven from the grey and brown raw wools favoured by NZ knitters, crafted by knitting geniuses. One called to me, I purchased it for a ridiculously low price, and have been wearing it happily ever since.

Until, that is, a month ago, when I discovered a hole in the arm. Lori suggested I find a fix-it knitter who might be able to repair my much-loved sweater. A call to a knitting shop led me to Corri, who indeed somehow rewove the sweater back to perfection.

But Corri lives about an hour away from our downtown apartment, and we don’t have a car. Fortunately her husband Andrew works downtown, and I arranged to drop it off and pick it up at his office.

Walking into his office was like walking into the NZ sweater barn, but not because of sweaters. Stacked floor to ceiling, on every available surface, were lego constructions, huge versions of everything from the Eiffel Tower to his favourite subject, replicas of Star Wars battleships, cruisers and the Death Star itself, perfectly rendered. He began lego-ing as a kid, and it just grew; today, he has no more room at home for his pieces, so his office has morphed into Legoland.

Corri with her knitting, and Andrew with his legos, have stuck with me all day. I imagine the clickety clack of knitting needles, beginning with only the idea enclosed within a pattern and growing into a sweater of exquisite beauty. I imagine Corri, relaxed into the rhythm of knitting, focused and relaxed, any anxiety calmed by the click click click of the needles.

And Andrew, going home into his lego den after combatting Vancouver rush hour afternoon traffic, settling in with his building blocks, beginning with an idea and step by step stacking them into a sculpture of tiny plastic legos. I imagine he, also, slowing down and calming, focused only on the next few blocks, infinite patience to put so many small parts together into a coherent whole, the time passing in a state of lego meditation.

Writing is like that. Beginning with the whisper of an idea, thousands and thousands of words to choose from as your building blocks, requiring exquisite patience as an essay, novel, poem or magazine article emerges, constructed much like a sweater slowly knitted or a Federation battleship painstakingly constructed.

Many fear writing, layering it with anxiety, but it can be more like meditation, heart stilled and mind focused, weaving together a tapestry of words and ideas, constructing a magnificent edifice from the simplest of building blocks, word by word.