Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Still the Earth remains

About a year ago, I wrote the following  for a local chapbook that didn’t end up getting published and have decided to share it here instead.


In my dream, you were the same whale that I saw: that message was clear.

A whale in a night vision, some sources say, helps the dreamer overcome fear, especially of death. You, dad, came to me in silence, from the sea, that realm of dark depths that Jung called a vast swell of emotion. I understood. You had transformed.

In the week after you died, I dreamed of the grey whale, saw the large dorsal fin, a white triangle of barnacles, bobbing too close to the beach in Davis Bay. In daytime life, I had grumbled at the cars stopped bumper to bumper one August morning, clogging the bay, not knowing who was blocking traffic. Then I saw everyone staring, out to sea, in the same direction. Whale: the one I had never seen for months, while others gloated or exclaimed over their sightings. The whale was at Roberts Creek beach all day Sunday. You missed it. A friend in Halfmoon Bay on the phone: I can hear him. Oh, there he is right now.

At last, when I had my glimpse of the sea creature rocking slowly, its languid movements swishing the ocean surface into an oval of flat water, I stopped, parked, and crossed the road in Davis Bay to gawk. I didn’t even take out my camera. I wanted to witness it directly, without a barrier, to honour such animal presence without the capture-the-moment eye that distances and objectifies, to share an open gaze of respect for this rare beast for here.

In my dream, I wasn’t sure how to respond to your whale visit. With the slow thrust of a fin you were there, then gone. Was this image meant to reassure me? Beyond the sea, where did you come from?

I worried about the real whale. It stayed between the beach and the floating raft, only about five metres offshore, in such shallow water that I feared it would beach itself. Scientists say that when whales stay close to land, they are sick or dying.

While you lay dying, you spoke from fantasy worlds fuelled by pain medication. I tried to enter these realms by talking into them with you. You thought that you were a prisoner of war, about to get released. Three weeks before your death, you were ready to go, but I did not know then, even though I’d read a book on the symbolic language of the dying.

From the beach, I could share others’ excitement at seeing such a huge marine mammal, but still worried. Last year, more whales and dolphins visited our coast than in many decades past. The ocean waters are warming. Did climate change bring us this cytacean celebrity? In multiple cultures, a whale is a swimming library, keeper of the records and history of Mother Earth, the next sign of Earth changes.

I did not see the grey whale again. I looked for it and longed to view it, but like you, it had gone.

Now I mourn for the whale’s magnificence and you. You both came to me, free in a timeless, fluid mass. You have transformed. Where will the whale end up? Still the Earth remains.

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January 7, 2012 at 11:46 am Comments (2)

The Writers’ Hub: Local authors share their words


  — Linda Williams photo                                                       — Hugh Macauley photo

Gracie & I at the Arts Crawl                Part of my first audience for a Gracie mini-reading

                                                                                                             — Heather Conn photos

I had fun last weekend introducing Gracie the goldfish, the star of my new children’s book, Gracie’s Got a Secret, at the 2011 Sunshine Coast Arts Crawl in British Columbia, Canada. I was one of 15 local authors who was on hand at The Gumboot Café in Roberts Creek to chat with both residents and tourists, give mini-readings, and sell books, of course.

 Shelley Leedahl gives a mini-reading

I enjoyed reading the first few pages of my book to young readers who sat on the steps in front of me at the microphone. Since this is my first children’s book, this is a whole new audience for me to reach. Shelley Leedahl, a poet, fiction, and creative nonfiction author newly moved to the Coast from Saskatchewan, also read from her delightful children’s book The Bone Talker. Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside in 2005, and with images by Bill Slavin, one of Canada’s top book illustrators, this poignant story has won the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award.

Michael Maser, author of Learn Your Way!

Our Writers’ Hub event, organized by Creek author Jane Covernton, featured the “soft” or unofficial launch of three local books: Gracie’s Got a Secret, Jane’s own Healing Herbs to Know and Grow, and Michael Maser’s Learn Your Way! The published works of these additional local writers were also available: Terry Barker; Shelley Harrison-Rae; Gillian Kydd; George Payerle; Dorothy Riddle; David Roche; Andreas Schroeder; Dot Scott; Marina Sonkina; and Susan Telfer. I shared a table with volunteers from the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association, who were selling their book The People’s Water, and their photographic calendar.

 Jane Covernton reads her poetry, with her new herb book, visible to her right.

From poetry and prose, to self-published work and books of international acclaim, this two-day literary event celebrated the voices of independent publishers and the power of meeting and hearing authors in person – fresh and first-hand storytelling, rather than just reading a tale on a screen. Besides locals and friends, we had visitors from California and Seattle. Collectively, we sold 92 books over two days, from display tables available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Thanks, Jane, for all of your hard work in organizing and setting up such a successful event. Since writing can often be a lonely pursuit, it was wonderful to connect with other scribes and share our written words with others.


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October 29, 2011 at 4:29 pm Comment (1)

Gracie’s ready to greet the world

This week, I received copies of my new kids’ book, Gracie’s Got a Secret, delivered straight from the printer.  It’s a thrill to show it to people and hear them admiring the illustrations. So far, I’ve only had responses from adults. The true test will be how children react to it. This is a new audience for me — I’ve never written a book for kids before. I look forward to sharing the book with listeners and readers of all ages.


I’ll be curious to see if kids “get” the book and understand its underlying message of “Let go and go with the flow.” I figured that if children could adopt this approach to life, it could save them a lot of anguish when they’re older.


Now, the process starts of “birthing” the book to the public, getting it out to bookstores and media and into people’s homes.  I’ve got a soft launch planned for Saturday, Oct. 22, as part of the Sunshine Coast Arts Crawl. The official launch, which will feature puppets and storyteller John Conway, will be on Saturday, Nov. 26 at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt.  See my Gracie events page for details. To stay informed of author readings and other ongoing activities, become a Facebook friend of Gracie’s Got a Secret.

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October 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm Comments (3)

Social media: Have we forgotten the “real” world?

At a social media seminar I attended this week in Vancouver, one of the presenters said: “The real world is so key.” She was referring to live-blogging events. I had to laugh at the irony. We have to be reminded to participate in activities that occur beyond cyber-reality? How sad.

As a writer and communicator, I firmly acknowledge the value of the Internet and social media in connecting with others and sharing information. But if this activity ends up alienating and isolating us from the flesh-and-blood world, it’s ultimately substracting from, rather than adding to, our lives. Do we chat with a near-stranger online, or visit a real friend face-to-face in a cafe? Do we choose to email rather than phone someone? Are personal encounters diminishing, replaced by Tweets and cyber-dialogue?

I think of family trips we took when I was a child. While driving through spectacular scenery, from the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert in the U.S. to the orange-red canyons and mesas of Arizona, my mom had to repeatedly urge my sisters and I to look out the window and admire the view. We were often too engrossed in some card game or crossword puzzle in the back seat to even notice what was around us. Unwittingly, we were shutting out the world and our relationship to nature. (This was many decades before the term “nature deficit disorder” was coined.)

Social media can create the same real-life siloing. On the same night as the seminar, I attended a talk and reading by musician/author Sylvia Tyson at the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt, BC. She read from her new novel Joyner’s Dream, which reinforces one family’s connection to music through multi-generations. In the Q&A afterwards, someone asked Tyson if she was on Facebook.

“I’m one of the original Luddites,” she replied. (That was a no.) Applause followed from at least one-quarter of the sold-out audience of several hundred. I assumed that those who clapped were honouring the value of person-to-person sharing, the kind of connection that Tyson created that night through her spoken word and recorded music.

I don’t advocate shunning the digital world. Let’s just keep it in perspective. To me, nothing beats the unadulterated, non-enhanced connection, in person, with people and nature. Once we’ve stopped valuing that relationship, and making time for it, we might as well become heartless cyborgs.

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August 6, 2011 at 10:49 am Comment (1)

Developing nations deserve more than “Third World” term

For decades, I’ve used the words “Third World” without thinking too much about the term. I recently wrote it in a magazine feature I was doing about people who had volunteered in different countries in Latin America and elsewhere.

After submitting the article, my editor told me that his workplace preferred the term “developing world.” I thought about this, and I agreed. The term “Third World” does have a paternalistic tone and I realized that I didn’t even know its origins.

Time for a Google search. Wikipedia explains that the term “Third World” appeared during the Cold War. It referred to countries that weren’t aligned with capitalism or the allies of the North American Treaty Organization; the latter were the “First World.” How’s that for political branding? I see now how presumptuous the language is.

The “Second World” were communist allies and the Soviet Union. So, ideology  determined the pecking order of nations. Fear, so prevalent during the Cold War, helped to cement this us-versus-them outlook and form of identification.

I’m sad that I didn’t think sooner about the associations of the term “Third World.” Such labels and unnecessary divisions serve to further a sense of global separateness, rather than connectedness. I’m glad that my editor paid attention to the language I used and offered a more current, compassionate alternative.

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July 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm Comments (0)

What’s in a head? A typo of privilege

As an editor, I find it hard to turn off the part of me that zooms in on a typo in anything from a menu to a marquee. Well, I spotted a whopper a few weeks ago in a full-page ad in The Vancouver Sun, which left me shocked at its size and brazen irony.

The four-colour advertisement, by Polygon Homes, featured a sexy young couple, dressed in black attire, as if for an upscale soiree. They stood poised between two fancy, black, wrought-iron gates, which opened onto an immaculate lawn, trimmed hedges and trees, suggesting the entrance to a palatial estate.

The ad was promoting a new real estate development, Mayfair Place, in Richmond, BC as “a collection of Georgian-inspired apartment homes.” The ad copy read that these new homes were “evoking the sophistication of London’s prestigious Mayfair district, in a sought-after location that’s just minutes from hundreds of popular shops and services.”

Okay, I get the message: these places are supposed to be classy, trendy, and full of status power. Well, guess what? Having money and a position doesn’t mean that you’re literate.  (Just ask George W. Bush.) The ad’s bold headline, which appears in at least 48-point type (about a half-inch high), reads “A Priviledged Place.”

When I first read the head, I thought that maybe they were doing a deliberate play on words but no, it’s one giant — and expensive — boo-boo. How many people looked at that ad before it went to print and never spotted this large spelling mistake, exposed in three words on a single line? So much for the power of suave images. The two models in the photo might as well have eggs dripping off their chins onto their polished attire. 

We all make mistakes, I know, but some are bigger, and more public, than others. I wonder what Michael Audain, the boss of Polygon Homes and an art collector who sits on the board of the Vancouver Art Gallery, thought when he saw this all-too-obvious error.

I love the irony of this goof, because it reduces the impact of the ad almost to a spoof, making a complete mockery of its attempt to promote wealth and success.

April 3, 2011 at 6:00 pm Comment (1)

Write it raw

Several writers around me recently complained of writer’s block. This frustrating state of non-word flow usually occurs when someone is determined to write specific content in a certain way, but his or her deeper self is saying: “No, let’s go this different way, because that’s what you truly want to say.” If the writer ignores this inner prompt, writer’s block will set in.

The solution? Let go and surrender to what wants to come out. This can be a scary about-face for those who never start writing without an outline first. It might even require switching genres. Whatever the change, the words that flow will ring rawer and truer than those you tried to constrain with a structure that didn’t fit.

I recommend Victoria Nelson’s book Writer’s Block and How to Use It. Natalie Goldberg’s free-writing exercises in Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones also provide inspiration for loosening your mind’s hold on words. This process works — I’ve done it for years. Try it, and let me know how it worked for you.

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To use writing as a spiritual practice requires immersing yourself in the unknown. Rabbi Rami, who runs a creative writing program at Middle Tennessee State University, provides three rules for this kind of writing:

  • Don’t write what you know
  • You can’t write what you don’t know
  • You must write.

Gee, and I thought that “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” was enough of a mind-twist. His first rule — “Don’t write what you know” — jarred me because that contradicts the advice that every writer learns: “Write what you know.” Yet, I get it. We need to be humble enough to know that we don’t have all of the answers. We need to be okay with not knowing where we’re headed, and to trust that our words will get us there. As Rami says: “Authentic spiritual practice . . . is about living outside the system, any system.”

He recommends that you keep writing until you find something “deeply, disturbingly troubling,” until you’ve shattered all of your expectations, and then you marvel. I can attest to this. I’ve been working on a disturbing book intensively for almost four years; I started it about twenty years ago. It has been the most challenging and painful writing I have ever done, but also the most rewarding and freeing. As Rami says: “[T]here is a liberating wisdom in insecurity.”

Writing as spiritual practice is writing to be free, not necessarily publishable or even good. One of Goldberg”s rules of writing is “Give yourself permission to write the worst junk in the world.”  I like that. Now if only I could do that when I’m on deadline . . .

March 15, 2011 at 8:37 am Comments (0)

I need a sonnet, doc — fast!

Anna Karenina to combat compulsive behavior? Wuthering Heights to ease depression and promote hope of romance? Treasure Island to encourage extroversion?

More and more readers might soon be receiving prescriptions of “two sonnets by Shakespeare, read daily until condition improves” or “five love poems by Pablo Neruda, read morning and night, for two weeks or until symptoms subside.” 

Reading and writing have always been therapeutic for me, but I’ve never thought of assigning books for emotional and medical conditions. That’s part of a relatively new practice called bibliotherapy, which is growing popular among psychologists, doctors, librarians, and teachers. (I read about this in the October 2010 issue of Ode, a magazine that I love.) It involves reading specific texts in response to certain situations or conditions.

According to Ode, ancient Egyptians called libraries psyches iatreion or “sanatoriums of the soul.” In the early 1800s, psychiatrists in the U.S.  were discussing reading as a therapeutic tool. Today, doctors or therapists are writing literary prescriptions — prose, not pills — to help with physical discomfort, disability, emotional conflict or other suffering.

The therapy involves either writing or reading or both, drawing on texts from fiction to self-help books. Whether they’re medical or not, bibliotherapists give their clients reading suggestions based on their individual situations. “Reading can change and improve how we feel and behave,” says Joseph Gold, a former English professor and author of  The Story Species: Our Life-Literature Connection.

Brain imaging studies at the University of Washington in St. Louis, Missouri reveal that some areas of the brain, active while someone reads a story, duplicate the same areas involved when people “perform, imagine or observe similar real-world activities.” Apparently, while reading, our brains simulate what happens in a tale, using the same circuits as if the same things were happening to us. Neurologically, we become part of the action.

I find this fascinating. Obviously, any good book engages us and inspires our imagination, but I hadn’t thought of the physiological impact of reading. I’ve experienced first-hand the therapeutic impact of writing, not to mention its healing results in countless writing students I’ve had. (I taught creative writing to adults with mental illness for five years, and to regular students.)

However, within the broad writing community in North America, there are those who view “therapeutic writing” as a somehow lesser genre, something beneath the purity of “true” prose or poetry. They imply that it’s self-indulgent and therefore, doesn’t rise to the universal value of literature.

Well, let them keep their snobbery. I advocate reading and writing in any form to create greater self-awareness and healing. It works. Let’s make it official. Hurry for bibliotherapy.

(For this post, I drew on Ursula Sautter’s Ode article “Reading, writing and revelation: How the written word helps refresh body, mind and soul.”)

March 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm Comments (0)

Gracie characters are coming to life


Gracie: top left and right (in blue) with her brother Freddie (top right), dad (bottom left) and mom (bottom right)                — illustrations by Lillian Lai

What a joy it is working with illustrator Lillian Lai as she produces thumbnail sketches for my upcoming children’s book Gracie’s Got a Secret. I love the process of seeing how she translates my words into images. She’ll email me and the publisher roughly nine rough drawings or scenarios for each page, and we’ll select the ones that we like best. (Lillian took 2D and 3D animation at Capilano University in North Vancouver.)

She started with multiple drawings of each character and then the publisher, William Gelbart, and I suggested changes regarding facial expressions, body shape, colours and so on. It feels like participating in a magic show: you make comments, then see the results come back to you quickly. Voila — there’s the character, looking like a real creature with a personality all its own.

This reminds me of a playwriting course I took years ago. There were several professional actors in the class and when they read one of the students’ lines, within a minute, they truly inhabited that character.  It was like witnessing on the spot the embodiment of a new person who previously existed only on the page. I love witnessing such creative talent — it’s a gift that no one can put a price on.

As a first-time children’s author, having such direct, ongoing access to, and feedback regarding, the illustration process as it unfolds is indeed a privilege. I have a poet friend who has had dozens of books published and he often never even saw the cover of his book until it was already out. In most cases, he hated it.

Therefore, I am very grateful to William Gelbart, publisher of MW Books Publishing, for giving me this insider’s opportunity to shape the visual look of the characters and backgrounds of my story. It feels a bit like playing God — and I love it.

February 15, 2011 at 10:24 am Comments (2)

Two great films embrace life and death

Last night, three female friends came over to my place to watch the 1971 classic film Harold and Maude. In previous conversation, we had discovered that this movie was an all-time favourite for all of us, so I invited them for a group screening.

What a hoot. As my husband would say, this movie “has legs” even four decades after it was made. It was wonderful to watch this much-loved flick again and savour its irreverence. This movie is a tremendous affirmation to live life to its fullest, follow your heart, and embrace both life and death as an ongoing continuum. Ironically, without my realizing it until later, this informal screening  took place four months to the day that my dad died.

I don’t want to spoil plot specifics for those who haven’t seen it, but the film follows the coming together of a death-obsessed young man and an almost-80-year-old woman who share hilarious antics to the consternation of police, Harold’s wealthy, uptight mother, his shrink, priest, and wacky military uncle. The characters and dialogue are truly delightful. Stars Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort capture the perfect blend of rebellious eccentricity, gutsy imagination, go-for-it spirit, and refusal to conform to mind-numbing routine. They’re great role models for anyone who’s a creative anarchist at heart.

I was surprised at some of the scenes that I had forgotten and relished again; to avoid a spoiler alert, I won’t recount them. Several times, the movie makes a point of mentioning that what Harold and Maude are drinking or eating is “organic”; this was 4o years ago — the mainstream world is just waking up to such choices now.

Director Hal Ashby, who also directed another irreverent classic, Being There, has a cameo in the film as a scruffy, bearded guy in a midway complex. Screenwriter Colin Higgins unfortunately died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 47. The screenplay for Harold and Maude came out of his MFA screenwriting thesis at UCLA. He also wrote and directed Nine to Five in 1980 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1982. Before he died, he set up the Colin Higgins Foundation to further his humanitarian goals.

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Another intriguing film that tackles fearlessness towards death is the National Film Board documentary Griefwalker. Made in 2008 by Tim Wilson, it follows the spiritual activist Stephen Jenkinson as he counsels dying people, their loved ones, clinicians, and “people of the cloth” to befriend death, rather than try and avoid or deny it. This Harvard-trained theologian, who canoes, traps animals, and shares a deep reverence for life, death, and the  earth, says there’s “a hole inside most of us and it’s in the approximate shape of a soul.”

The filmmaker felt prompted to explore his own relationship with death after he wound up on life support and almost succumbed to a sudden post-surgery infection. The tone and visual impact of this movie are like a moving Zen koan with captivating nature close-ups and Jenkinson’s wise, inspirational words.

You can watch the film on the National Film Board website. For true Harold and Maude fans, check out the unofficial website full of trivia about the film.

February 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm Comments (0)

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