Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Story and its Context

I keep listening more these days. I may have some skills and know some things, but other people have different skills and know other things. Hearing their experiences is interesting. And people are always more likely to share if they have an audience. So I'm listening.

I know I've mentioned favorite podcasts before. I'm still enjoying NPR's Code Switch, maybe more than ever since the election.

And north of the border, here's a series I can't recommend highly enough: CBC's Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? By Connie Walker and Marni Luke, this podcast looks into the disappearance and murder of a young woman decades ago. Nuanced and layered, it tells a heart-wrenching story of one person, but it also gives the context for so much of the pain that lingers in Canadian culture around missing and murdered indigenous women. The residual fear and hurt of Alberta's relatives is palpable, but never exploited. Connie confesses and considers her own ethical dilemmas directly.

It's an honor to have the opportunity to hear this story. I'm grateful to the CBC for supporting its production and in awe of the skills of its producers.

Other podcasts and recurring radio shows are on my playlist, so I'm ready for treadmill season. I'm sure I'll have more to share later. But for now, I've found these two podcasts to be excellent company.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Pattern or Particular

So I've been dispirited recently. Yes, because of the election, but not only because of the election--this stew of feelings is pretty complicated, and the world seems to include a lot of people yelling at each other while others are stunned or cowering.

I recently teased out one feeling as being a problem for me: familiarity. So much today feels so familiar, in a bad way. Especially the loud messages of "you're not good enough" and "you're fundamentally flawed" and "stop taking it seriously" and "you're not important" and "you have nothing of value to offer." They're very destructive messages in a pattern I remember too well. They sap my energy.

Coincidentally, the lingering warm weather vanished, and we've been deluged with winter weather. See?
Hello, snow!

Yes, it's pretty.

But winter weather brings with it a new pattern of living. So many elements of living in the country are different in the winter.

For example, power is iffy. We were without electricity most of the weekend (and still don't have our landline phone back, which is a bigger inconvenience than I anticipated in these wireless days).

Travel is complicated. We need to leave more time to drive anywhere than we did last week at this time.

Preparation is key. We need adequate accessories--mitts, scarves, ear-warmers--because if a highway is closed or something else bad happens, we need to be dressed for the weather outside the car, not just the climate-controlled interior.

These aren't huge impositions--just patterns of behavior we'd forgotten during the warm months of the year, which lingered later than usual this year.

We'll adapt. Pretty soon, we'll automatically add 15 to 30 minutes to each trip to town. We'll start the day wearing enough clothes that we don't have to add a layer at 10. We'll have remembered where we keep the candles. We've already found the percolator that works on top of the woodburning stove--progress!

The familiarity of those patterns isn't problematic. And when I began to look at the messages that I heard as "you're not good enough," I began to see that sometimes, the issue was with how I heard the message, not the actual message.

Yes, throughout my life, I've heard a lot of the other kind of "you're not good enough." When a coworker got the same raise I did, even though his work was substandard, "because he's a man and supports a family," for example.

But not all of the recent, familiar messages of "no thanks" are part of that pattern. They're particular to my work, and I need to remember to hear them that way. Because rejection is part of the world of writing. Having WRITING rejected--my work, not me--is normal. I never exactly enjoy rejection, but it happens. Not everything I write will speak to the places I offer it. I've written before (geez, quite a bit, apparently) about mismatches between my work and publications.

Recently, I submitted something to a publication because what they'd published in the past resonated with me. However, when I saw some of the other work they were choosing in response to this particular call for submissions, I knew mine wouldn't interest them. Which is perfectly fine--it's their publication. It's also understandable, because the work that moved them didn't speak to me. Again, a mismatch.

So the recent rejections are particular instances. They may be part of a pattern of rejection OF MY WORK that I can address by better research, better revision, better targeting. But they aren't a wholesale rejection of me, my voice, what I have to offer.

As a human person, I look for patterns. Sometimes that ability works to my advantage. But sometimes I see a general pattern when I should see a more particular message. Shaking off that familiarity--and its friends, futility and impending doom--lets me get back to work.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Futility and Preparation

Over the weekend, I put on my boots and went for a walk. My idea was to follow the deer paths through the bush to get a different perspective on the beautiful place I live.

Fairly quickly, I recognized that my legs are not like deer legs. My legs are shorter and, uh, stubbier. Where deer can step elegantly among fallen tree trunks, I crash around without grace, shoving branches aside (and perhaps swearing). (Perhaps.)

Not only that, the ground is mushier than it normally is at this time of the year. Holes in the dirt underfoot--openings to nut caches and muskrat tunnels--dotted the area, and I could feel spaces collapse with every step.

Sorry, squirrels--I think I made it impossible for you to find those nuts. And sorry, muskrats; I think I messed up your tunnel system. I didn't mean to, but I recognize that my thundering around on your turf destroyed your careful preparations for winter.

My inadvertent cruelty doesn't render their work futile. First, they needed to do it--it was their work to do, and they did it. And although I may have harmed some of their work, the square meter where I thrashed around wasn't the only place where they prepared for winter. I didn't completely trash the muskrat tunnel system nor hide too many nuts from the squirrels--their caches dot our front yard.

For the past week, it's been hard to resist thinking that my own work is trivial or futile. In fact, during the past couple of years, I've had lots of hopes dashed--writing consistently rejected, projects that fell through, work that turned out to be more administrative and less artistic than I anticipated.

On the other hand, I've also had work recognized and published. Generous, intelligent people have also given me thoughtful and honest feedback on my work, providing suggestions and support that have helped me push myself. I'm so grateful to them.

With their help, I've kept doing the work--storing up nuts and building new tunnels--because that's what there is to do. It's what I do.

Even this past week, when returning to the page was more difficult than it had been in some time, I knew I'd find my way back eventually. And I have. I may change where my tunnels lead. I may find different kinds of food to store for the long months ahead. But I know what my work is.

And so do you.

This afternoon, Twitter directed me to "Creating a Tolerable World," by Terri Windling. I highly recommend her consideration of why and how we can continue to create our work in very difficult times.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Eagle

One morning last April, an eagle was out hunting, harassed by the usual complement of gulls. Birds harass each other a lot in general, and eagles come in for some special attention.

I get that. Eagles are predators and scavengers. Young birds of all kinds are vulnerable--we had a front-row seat one June morning to an eagle grabbing a duckling--so I understand why gulls and crows try to drive eagles away.

But you know what? Eagles play a vital role in the ecosystem. Eagles have families, and their families have to eat.

In any case, I tweeted about that morning; it's in the fuzzy picture below.

In case you can't read it: "With graceful elegance, a bald eagle plucked a fish from the lake, silencing the gulls."

Not necessarily my best tweet, but one that caught the attention of Creative Nonfiction magazine. To the left, it appears in print in Creative Nonfiction #61, Learning from Nature, in the compilation of Tiny Truths. Lots of interesting reading in that issue, by the way.

Today, a bunch of us are hearing yet again, "Who do you think you are? You want to run a country? You can't do that. We own this power, this society, this system--and your body, too--and you're not welcome or valued here. Know your place. Go away."

Many of us are yet again feeling pressure to live down to society's expectations. To become subservient because of our gender, sexual identity or orientation, religious beliefs, ethnicity, or abilities. To be less than who we know we can be.

To anyone hearing those messages: Ignore those gulls and grab your fish. Be the eagle you are. You DO belong here. You matter, your family matters, your voice matters. Don't listen to anyone, or any flock of screeching, bellowing, bullying anyones, who wants you to be less than your badass eagle self.

The world needs eagles. It needs you.

_______________
Interested in challenging yourself to share a Tiny Truth, to weave a story in 140 or fewer characters? You can find more information under the Tiny Truth Contest heading, here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Play

This morning, I couldn't resist playing outdoors. I produced this.

Decades ago, my husband transplanted a small maple tree from a yard in southern Ontario to the side yard here in northwestern Ontario. For some reason, it's almost always among the last of our trees to change colo(u)rs. And although the leaves on the trees in the same yard in southern Ontario turned red, the leaves of our tree up here turn shades of gold and orange.

This autumn, the greys of November came to stay about halfway through October, but today provided a bit of a respite--a warm, mostly golden-sun day, full of peace and happiness.

For this element of play I was inspired by others who create art in nature. Andy Goldsworthy is the first I was introduced to, and his work is well worth looking at. Here's some work he did with Common Ground.

I don't consider what I do to be capital-A Art, although it is creative for me. I do it for the same reasons I noodle on the the piano and I draw--because doing it, the process, that fifteen-minute period, those moments are fun. It's a chance to be somewhere, only there, and participate with that place in that time. For  me, that's the ultimate in play.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Working Hard

One of the refrains in the writing world*: "You can control only how hard you work."

In other words, you can't control what "they" are publishing these days or two years from now. You can't control who else applies for an opportunity you want or need. You can't control who evaluates those applications. You also can't control world events that may make it more (or less) difficult to share your work--a new form of technology will or won't make digital reading or paper reading obsolete, a shortage of X makes it harder or easier for Y to happen, and that means publishers do Z.

Yep, stuff happens, and you can't control any of it. So, the thinking goes, all you can control is your work. 

I agree with that. And I think it's super-important to define what you mean by "work."

Say you submit a piece of writing (or a novel) to a literary journal (or agent) and it's rejected. Okay, you can't control what your target chooses to publish (or represent). Your response is to "keep working hard." But what does "work hard" mean in this context?

* Find another publication (or agent) (or ten, assuming they allow simultaneous submissions) and send your piece (novel) again, without changing anything.

* Do extra research into agents (or publications) and rewrite your cover letter. Tell them you really admire the publication's July issue and note that they're open to experimental forms of narrative, or that the agent has a great track record representing left-handed poetry written by right-handed people

* Look again, with careful eyes, at the piece (or novel) you're submitting. Is it the best you know how to make it? No, really. Maybe it's time to read it again--especially because it's been off your desk for a while (presumably), so you have fresh eyes--and see if it's really finished or if you're just sick of working on it.

* Revise intelligently. What are you trying to do? Find someone else's work that you think does a spectacular job of what you're attempting, and study it. If you admire how a writer conveys who's speaking without using conversation tags, look closely at how she does it--Through word choice? Through a character's tendency to never finish sentences, or talk about anything BUT what's important? Through pairing action with words or perhaps substituting action for words? Whatever you find, try to apply it to your work.

* Read intelligently, doing many of the same things. What is it about this specific title in the cozy mystery (urban literary dystopia) (contemporary family comedy) genre that you enjoy so much? What does this title do that your work doesn't?

* Write something else from scratch. Get out a draft of a different poem or novel. Choose an old short story and revise that instead of working on what was rejected. Finish something new. Send that out.

* Get outdoors and walk someplace. You can be open to a magical breakthrough from the repetitive nature of walking if you want (lots of people seem to advocate that) or you can just go for a walk. Whatever you do out there (or in a pool) will be good for you.

My point is this: any of the activities above can be a reasonable definition of "work" in the phrase, "you can control only how hard you work." Learning how to define "work" in the face of a "no" is part of maturing as a writer. Getting yourself to do what you know you need to do is another sign of maturation (not only in writing). (Or so I've been told.)

My own tendency (as you may have guessed from the boldface above) is to send something out when I'm sick of working on it--or when I'm particularly pleased with a revision and mistake that pleasure for the feeling of "hey, it's done." So I'm always trying to develop my ability to revise earlier and more often. Or at least be OPEN to that idea. 

I can work on it, anyway.
____________________

* Not ONLY in the writing world, or even the world of creativity. It's one of those Life Lessons that floats around and is true in lots of situations. For example, you can't control what others think of you, but you can control how you respond to that snarky comment. 
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

More Poetry? Why, Yes

Also at Definitely Superior Art Gallery: an exhibit by Sarah Link and Riaz Mehmood.

(The link above goes to the gallery's exhibits page, so there should be way to find the description for a while, though the exhibit itself closes at the end of October.)

The art combines technology and ceramics in a bunch of interesting ways, and I encourage everyone to visit to experience its several elements.

The part I'm participating in, as one of many poets in Northwestern Ontario, is called Light Poem. In a dark room, a poem is projected briefly onto the back of a screen and then flies into bits. Motion sensors detect the presence or absence of a person in the room--and then whether that person is still or moving.

For the poem to reassemble so you can read it, you have to remain motionless.

It's a fabulous, physical reminder that sometimes the best way to experience life, and art, is through stillness--internal, external, both.

And while it's always awesome and extremely humbling to see my own work out in the world, it's really fun to see any poem assemble itself. Watching the various combinations of letters skitter across a dark screen lets you try to imagine what sort of poem they're from and predict what kind of poem they can become again.

The poems I submitted, like the ones I talked about performing last week, are part of the cache I found from a few summers back.

For the past few years, I've been focused on revising fiction and nonfiction projects, although I guess I have written some new work. But it's also humbling and revelatory to see how long it's been since I sat quietly at a page.

Perhaps it's time for that again.