The Book is Out!


cover Bee Time

Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive is more or less officially out. Hard copies have arrived in most bookstores and can be found for sale on the usual websites; the e-book will be available 6 October from Amazon and Harvard Press.

Coming up next is a whirlwind round of bookstore readings and signings, talks at various venues (for a schedule, see and hopefully lots of effusive reviews. I’m particularly excited about the “Independent Bookstore Tour” at my favorite meccas for discerning readers: Munro’s in Victoria, Elliott Bay in Seattle, Powell’s in Portland and the Boulder Book Store in Boulder.

I wasn’t expecting to have this experience again. I’ve written five books previously, the last published in 2002, and I recall proclaiming to my editor at Harvard Press that Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone was my last book; I was done. He smiled that “I’ve heard this before from writers” smile, and just said simply: “Writers write.”

It’s transcendent experience, publishing a book, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, much like I imagine bungee jumping or skydiving. It takes a great act of faith to leap, believing that the cord will hold, the parachute open, the book not fall flat on its literary face.

It’s a moment to appreciate, this publishing instant, particularly poignant because it is so fleeting. I look back at past books from a distance, with little memory of actually writing those tens of thousands of words. It’s as if there was a ghostwriter at work in a parallel universe whose book managed to jump the space/time continuum with my name on it.

Bee Time has been particularly meaningful in both connecting and reconnecting. The connecting has been between my time as a bee researcher and my current work in the Centre for Dialogue. This book is about bees but emerged from and is heavily flavored by my time in dialogue, making whole these seemingly disparate career streams.

The reconnecting has been with bees and their keepers, both entities from which I had lost touch in recent years when dialogue dominated my time. I’ve been back out to the hives recently, and refreshed my relationships with many old beekeeping friends as I’ve accepted a few invitations to speak at bee meetings.

I’m enormously grateful to bees, and to beekeeping, but my deepest gratitude remains reserved for readers. I read, a lot, and appreciate the love of language and ideas in others.

Readers have inspired me to write better, think harder, and care more. It’s a deep pleasure, this stringing of words together. The challenge of the empty pages needing to be filled remains a profound thrill.

I’ll forget Bee Time some day, similar to how my other books eventually dipped below my personal radar, but now is still that sweetest of literary moments. The book is poised, readings and signings have been scheduled, the first reviews are emerging, and the writing is still fresh enough to believe that I did indeed write that book.

Yet, a few thoughts for a next book have started whispering as intruders into the Bee Time space, still only as brief phrases not yet formed into anything like a full sentence. All too soon the lessons from the hive will have receded, supplanted by the next set of phrasings and sentences forming themselves into paragraphs, then chapters.

Writers write, with all praise to that sublime muse of creation that blesses us with the urge, and occasionally the ability, to articulate.

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.