Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Gift Books and Holiday Books

I've posted previously (September, October, November), about books that I associate with specific months. (And about difficulties in old favourites.)

Folks have talked lately about "Yule Book Flood," the Icelandic tradition of sharing books and reading on Christmas Eve. What a fabulous custom!

Books have always been a part of our family Christmas celebrations. This year, too, at our "Christmas in January" celebration, I got a book as a gift--Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. It's charming and winsome, and for the first few pages I thought, "Oh this is fun."

But it quickly became more than "just" fun, important though fun is, and more than "just" funny, which ditto. I felt the ambition of the story and began seriously pulling for Arthur Less. I really wanted him to be okay--more than okay, even. Arthur became a person to me, someone I enjoyed spending time with. Greer, with a gentle touch and giant doses of humor, made me care.

As an adult, I have been known to buy a book for myself to have at the holiday season. These books, though I suppose they're gifts for myself, aren't "gift books." I think of them as "holiday books." This year, my holiday book was Louise Penny's Kingdom of the Blind. I also enjoyed it thoroughly, as I expected I would. And then I re-read the whole of her backlist, which I also enjoyed.

Gift books can be risky. They're chosen for you by someone else, who may or may not have read the book they're offering. Gift books can also feel like relationship tests: how well does this person know you? They can be perfect books for January, when your resolutions may include opening yourself to new ideas or reading something you might not have chosen yourself.

Holiday books--well, if you're buying yourself something, you should buy something you like. They're the perfect purchase for a December treat. This year I was fortunate that my holiday companion stayed with me into January.

The Icelandic tradition is a fine one to observe, wherever you live. With luck, you'll find your way out of a book doldrum, into a place where reading is fun again.
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Time and Distance

I'm revising. As I have mentioned.

And partly because it's the new year, and partly just because time is passing, I'm also starting a couple of other creative projects that have been swirling in my head.

Thanks to my sister, I have quite the stash of monoprints (specifically, prints from gelli plates, products of Gelli Arts).  We had a ton of fun this past summer playing. 

The experience was full of lessons about play, about fun, about experiments, about YouTube--many facets of creation.

And now, in this project, I have another opportunity to revise. 

Among others in the hundreds of pieces of paper I have in an accordion folder, I found the two prints above.

I quite like them. (It's okay if you don't.)

And I remember making them. They were experiments in directing paint on the plate, in braying, and in color combinations, as well as stencils. 

At the time, I didn't find them to be particularly "successful," however I defined it at that moment. Something happened that I didn't anticipate and couldn't control. I could probably go back and recreate what I was trying to do in this series, to see just where I went wrong and learn how to do it differently for future printing sessions. 

But six months later, I don't want to. What I set out to do is gone. Now I work with what exists in front of me. 

Time has given me a great gift: a certain intellectual and emotional distance from my original intent. Prints that I remember with vague disappointment now please my eye. 

And, this almost-Valentine's day, my heart. 

As I continue revising my writing, I'm applying what I learned from making monoprints: let go of what I thought I might be doing, and work with what I have in front of me. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Snow Falls

'Tis the season in which my spam folder fills with UNBELIEVABLE OFFERS!!!! and my inbox is receiving a higher-than-average share of rejections.

These missives swirl through cyberspace much as the snow, this February, swirls through, uh, "regular" space.

Meanwhile, I'm mid-revision--a deep one, the kind in which I do my prescribed daily work and carry that universe with me to a dentist's chair (to have a filling replaced) and to a screen, where I ostensibly focus on our income tax spreadsheets.

There's a lot going on. Some of what's happening is just "typical February," and some of it's preparation for Spring. All of it is valuable, if I allow it to be so.

Happy February, however you celebrate it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019


As I mentioned last week, some months are years long, and January has been so for me this year.

Mostly in good ways.

I've eased back into routines of writing that I'd set aside for a bit, while I worked on life projects. I've been pleased to be able to add writing and still make progress on these other necessary (if dull) bits of life.

Which is not to say that January has been "a fabulous writing month" in any way other than the fact that I've been doing it.

And maybe that's all that's required.

Consider: "[W]riting, like fire, was a gift from the gods. Letters were sacred. Inscribed randomly on a shard of pottery, even without being arranged into a name or a coherent thought, they could be presented as an offering at the temple of Zeus."

From "To the Letter," by Mary Norris, in the January 14, 2019 issue of The New Yorker.

That's reassuring, isn't it? Incoherence is OK. All you have to do is inscribe some letters. Just try.
Wednesday, January 23, 2019


Lately I've been thinking a lot about numbers and meaning. It's January, a traditional time to consider the past and look to the future.

Last week, I shared some statistics about Alzheimer Disease for Alzheimer Awareness Month. The week before, I talked about numbers and (briefly) their limitations.

Here are some more thoughts about measurements.

* A number: your salary. Not a number: the happiness (a meal at your favourite restaurant, a book of your own, a warm coat for your fourth-grader) that your income makes possible for you.

* A number: a grant amount. Not a number: the learning and freedom a grant brings--whether it enables a research trip or lets you rent a studio space with adequate ventilation to protect your respiratory and neurological health (as opposed to, say, painting on a table near a window in a stuffy basement apartment).

* A number: subscribers to and purchasers of (and/or eyeballs on) a publication. A different number: readers of your work. Not a number: how your work touched those who read it (and even those who started but stopped--because maybe they were touched and appreciated it but *couldn't* finish, speaking of Alzheimer stories).

*** A side note: your work, once published, is OUT there. Even if the publication folds, your work exists in the world. Someone a decade or century from now could theoretically find it and read it and be touched by it. Cool, eh.

* A number: a "relevance" or "influence" metric as demonstrated through hashtags or some external designation. Not numbers: how your work engages with what's happening today, whether it's set in the past or present or some never time. Whether your work affirms or challenges the status quo. Whether your work meaningfully challenges or even disrupts your own complacency.

*** Another side note: the thoughts posed above, relating to relevance or influence, don't have right or wrong answers, necessarily.

*** There isn't any greater virtue to writing about "today's events" (though there's the argument that we always do, whether we mean to or not).

*** It's not always "better" to challenge the status quo (depends on the status quo where you are, for one thing).

*** Nothing anywhere requires you to write something (or do your own artistic work) that challenges your own complacency. People like to read/experience art that's like the art they've experienced before. (Hence books in a series.) People also like to create as a way to exercise competence--to be really good at something, and do that.

* A number: 31, the days in January. Not a number: how long this month FEELS. Holy cats.

At the moment, I'm looking at contexts in which I challenge myself (writing long-form fiction and creative nonfiction) and contexts in which I am content, for now, to exercise competence in rewarding ways (doing income tax spreadsheets according to the system I've developed over the past ten years or so).

I'm also examining how I gauge success, though others might find it underwhelming (just FINISHING things feels HUGE to me), or undetectable (doing the spreadsheets early, before looming deadlines freak me out).

But I gotta say, challenging my assumptions as part of my creative process has been a great way to re-energize January. Which needs it, amirite?
Wednesday, January 16, 2019

More Statistics--Alzheimer Awareness Month

January is Alzheimer Awareness Month.

As anyone who's read my work knows, my brilliant, vibrant mother developed dementia. I wrote about its effects on our family, in part because writing is how I make sense of the world but also because, 20 years ago, I couldn't find similar stories elsewhere. I didn't know what to expect--how it felt to see or experience this condition.

Fortunately, two decades and a lot of hard work by organizations and individuals have changed that. Now, people with dementia are recognized as the experts in the disease and are encouraged to speak.

It's incumbent on all of us to listen.

The Alzheimer Society's campaign, "I Live with Dementia. Let Me Help You Understand" features the voices of people whose lives are affected by dementia. Some, like me, don't have the disease but love or care for someone who does. But many have dementia--and their voices are compelling.

Read them here:

The Alzheimer Society site includes a quiz: How Do You Perceive Dementia? Go take it. The results may surprise you--they did me.

Here's a statistic that shocked me the most: Only 5% of Canadians admitted they would take time to learn more about the disease if someone close to them were diagnosed. Someone they loved. No wonder isolation and stigma are among the fears of those diagnosed (and those who refuse to seek diagnosis).

Don't be among the other 95%. The site has a wealth of information about communication, safety, behaviour, and how people live with dementia. Take five or ten minutes.

Because chances are good that someone you love--maybe even you--will be among those whose lives are touched by dementia.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019


Last year, I read 61 books.

This number does count re-reading titles: sometimes but not always. For example, a few times this year I finished a book and started it again immediately. That counts as one "read." But in at least one instance, I read a book in, say, July, and then read it again in October. That's two "reads."

Also, the total doesn't take into account individual articles, journals, or magazines. I subscribe to The New Yorker, thanks to my brother, and although I'm still behind, I've been working my way through my backlog. I also subscribe to a few literary journals, and I try to read those before they get too old. None of that is in this number.

So, lots of rules and explanations. Does any of that matter?

Not really.

Mostly I'm happy that reading has again become a delight. Early in the year, I slogged through books. I sorta kinda enjoyed them, mostly, or at least I was glad to have had the experience of reading them. But picking up books didn't make my heart glad.

(To be fair, I read some things that were not a good match for my interests or tastes, and I read some things that I expected to like more, but I had to read them while exhausted. Which is to say, any problems were more likely my fault than the book's.)

Since adjusting some priorities in October, my sense of wonder, curiosity, and pleasure has increased. I am again happy to read.

Therefore, I invite you to consider this: not everything that is EASY to measure is MEANINGFUL to measure.

For another example: the number of short stories you've published is a number, and it's easy to count and keep track of, and I guess it's good when the number grows.

However, publishing MORE short stories doesn't necessarily indicate that you're publishing GOOD short stories, where GOOD = a piece that represents growth or some (real or invented) person in a situation that means something important to you.

Therefore, the fact of reading 61 books is, undeniably, a fact. That number is easily countable and comparable to totals in previous and future years.

However, it is not as meaningful to me as the learning (because part of my writing work is learning) and pleasure (because pleasure is an important part of life) that those books brought me.

The difficult-to-quantify, the learning and the pleasure: that's why I read, and why I'm grateful to writers and publishers for making it possible.