by Renny deGroot
Left-Right-Left! Maybe it’s because, decades after leaving the military, those words and the accompanying thump of boot heels hitting the parade square in precision, can still make my heart beat faster. Maybe it’s because both my parents had also been in the military and organized our family with crisp routines. Whatever the reason, discipline comes naturally to me which is a good thing because that’s what it took for me to get all the way through the drafting, writing, re-writing and editing process of successfully producing the 240,000 word novel Family Business. Discipline and having a compass.
Early on in the process I decided that I would work on the book three days a week. It was a realistic target given my other commitments. I also had a goal for each session – usually a page count and I stuck with it until I got there. I had a separate writing space in the house where I would go which immediately got me into the right ‘head space’ for writing. In the summer months I treated myself. I set up my computer outside in my screened in deck with the sound of the waterfall in the background, but it was still a mental ‘going to work’ kind of experience. So – applying myself in a disciplined approach was one element to successfully getting the novel done.
“Where’s the story?!” was a favourite cry by my first creative writing instructor, James Purdie. It was a bit like when one of my English Lit professors used to tell us to apply the ‘So what?’ rule to everything we wrote. Every sentence, every word needed to have a point. Purdie used an example that still stays with me twenty-five years later: “The King died, and then the Queen died” (not a story) “of a broken heart.” (A story!).
What I took from this was that the theme, in my case, the concept of freedom both at a macro level and at an individual level, needs to be clear and everything must be grounded around the theme. I wrote an outline to have the main milestones and timeline determined, but after that I trustedto my theme to continue to move me forward. Whether it was about the oppressive mother attempting to control her sons, or the occupying forces restricting the Dutch population, the theme of freedom was my compass that kept me moving forward. I have heard of people who prefer to have only the vaguest notion of what they will write about when they begin and that may work for them. I tried that as well once and I never got further than ten pages of aimless clutter. For me, having a framework of main milestones and a thematic compass, worked well. It still left me plenty of scope for creative discovery. How wonderful it was to realize that Tiineke was such a strong young woman and well able to deal with her mother-in-law. The characters seemed to reveal themselves as I wrote, without conscious effort on my part.
In mid May, as we honoured our Canadian military effort in Afghanistan, I reflected on my ten years with the Canadian Forces. Honing my discipline, teaching me to keep commitments, learning to set a course and stay with it – all of these skills have helped me to become a writer.
Although, to tell the truth, using an actual compass was right up there with using a slide rule; I never did quite perfect it.