Wednesday, August 10, 2011



Cottage Brain (from Gates Family Lexicon), n:
a state of mind associated with human withdrawal from responsibility, schedules, television, radio and ‘new media’ and increased exposure to books, naps, board games and silence punctuated by the call of the loon. Generally fostered in a highly natural environment, preferably lakeside with boat dockage and decent swimming. Characterized by loss of nouns and attention to detail and a corresponding increase in a ‘who gives a crap?’ mentality. Closely related, in effect, to pregnancy brain, menopause brain and chemo brain.

Something strange happened during my annual pilgrimage to our cottage Shangri la (depicted in these photos). Despite advances in connectedness (a newly erected Rogers cell tower outside the nearby village failed to raise a signal on my Rogers cell), the cottage was far less ‘accessible’ this July. Even the black, rotary dial wall telephone on which we’d made clandestine, local, outbound calls in previous years was out of order.

Unlike a nameless family member, I was never sufficiently motivated to rectify this condition by striking a Statue of Liberty-type pose teetering over the water on the rubble of a former dock bed hoping to raise enough signal to text her grandchildren.

I gave myself over to a stillness of the mind. While meditation of a formal sort was not employed, I noted three distinct stages in reaching my cerebral nirvana: Information decline anxiety; Boredom; and Catatonia.

And yet something strange happened about Day Eight. Clarity arose from the shroud of my mental relaxation. Picture the director of a screen epic who has the cinematographer slowly pull the camera back from the earnest face of the battle’s hero to reveal the larger picture of war’s global suffering and loss. That’s what this year’s bout of cottage brain delivered unbidden to me — the bigger picture of my writing goals.

Pulled away from the demands of urban life, its artificially-imposed schedules and information overload, my brain began to make interesting connections. Overarching story arcs appeared fully formed as I watched the sun sparkle upon the waves. Grand themes suggested themselves with little effort as I listened to the phoebes coax their young from the nest. Logical character development was laid bare as I sniffed the bonfire smoke drifting across the bay on the night breeze.

Synchronicity is a Jungian concept described by Wikipedia as “the experience of two or more events, that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, that are observed to occur together in a meaningful manner.”

My experience with Cottage Brain 2011 seems to supply a remedy to the condition of sore brain described by Linda among these pixels in her post last week, A Lot on my Brain!

Wouldn’t it be grand I mused, if all crime writers had the opportunity to go unplugged in the great outdoors for a minimum of two weeks each summer? Perhaps away from the gritty details of murderous methods and criminal motivation and victim profiles we would uncover the literary sweep the Canada Council for the Arts seems to believe our art form lacks?

As we know, they’re wrong on that score — witness more synchronicity at work in Barbara Fradkin’s blog rant from last Thursday. But let’s play along, shall we? If they will not fund our writing, how about sponsoring a cottage in the Muskoka’s, a cabin on Vancouver Island or a chalet at Mount Ste. Anne? Someplace we could commune with ‘literary merit’ and sniff the pine forests?

I can even back up this request with some science (see another bit of synchronicity from CBC Radio One, The Current’s Shift, Episode 7 @ that time among trees and nature have beneficial effects on the human pre-frontal cortex — the brain’s CEO — in charge of higher order functions.

So come on Canada Council! How about a Synchronicity Shangri la retreat for crime writers? The hydro and internet bills won’t be onerous. Heck if you give us all three locales, we’ll even share them with other genre writers. After all, a precedent has been set with your support of the Pierre Berton House Writers Retreat in Dawson City, Yukon. (See also: bertonhouse/story.html

In the meantime, let’s float this idea by our ‘making-a-living-from-my-crime-writing’ peers . . . or our grateful, wealthy fans. Perhaps one of them will get the Shangri la ball rolling with a little change in their estate planning. Anyone care to deed their tiny piece of heaven to this higher-order idea of granting crime writers an annual, un-plugged two-week wilderness parole?

Do you have a Shangri la? I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, sharpen your pencils fellow crime writers. A letter campaign to the Canada Council for the Arts is in order. Tell them I sent you. We’re a dangerous bunch when crossed.

Susan C. Gates is a reformed banker and a recovering policy analyst living in Ottawa. Her works of short crime fiction are published in recent editions of the Ladies’ Killing Circle anthologies. A member of Capital Crime Writers since 2000, Susan has served on its executive. Her first novel, Paper Daughter, has gestated longer than an elephant’s embryo. Well overdue, its delivery promises to be an arduous one.


  1. I'm pretty close out here in PEC. A mite too near to a busy road to qualify as a true shangri-la, I guess. However the sunflowers in the field next to me will be in bloom next week, and that will be truly wonderful to see. Speaking of Shangri-la, here's an advance plug: stay tuned for Gold Mountain, coming in the spring. (Vicki Delany, still can't log on)

  2. Great blog, Susan. Your little piece of heaven looks like just that. I've been at the cottage all summer. Very hard to hang onto the stresses of city life while listening to loons. I still haven't had the story epiphany though. Maybe I'm not paying attention.

  3. Sue --- your problem is you get to live in Shangri La most of the time! For my theory to work, I think a short shock in Shangri La is the necessary writing catalyst. But according to Hilton's book, the residents of Shangri La live well into their 100's and age very slowly . . . so I suspect you are living in the real thing and will have lots of time to find the writing solutions you seek. lol