Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sweetest Words

Apropos of words you overuse, what are those words or phrases you can never hear enough of?

Here are a few of my favo(u)rites:

* Congratulations!
* Accept
* Yes
* Thank you
* Leftover turkey

Okay, your list might be slightly different. I adore turkey sandwiches, turkey soup--in fact, most things turkey. Just to be sure, I looked up "talk turkey," which has apparently shifted in meaning from "talk pleasantly" to "talk directly about difficult subjects," but regardless, yes, even that is something I prefer.

As for the rest of the words, I would like to hear these words more often--and one way I can do that is to say them more often.

Another way to hear more is to ensure that others have the opportunity to say them to me. That's another way of telling myself "take the risk: send writing out."

Hey, that's another reason to like leftover turkey: without fail, it never says "no."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Analysis: Really? "Things"?

One thing "they" say, and by "they" I mean "someone else because I didn't make this up but I can't remember who just now," is that one way to improve your writing is to analyze it. What patterns do you fall back on? What words ("just," "okay," "only") do you overuse?

But looking with analytical eyes at your own writing is tricky.

In fact, revising is hard in general, especially when the hormones of creation are still pumping through your bloodstream.

It's easier to revise writing I do for work because I'm less attached to it. Still, it's easier and more productive to revise after sleeping. One night of sleep is often enough for writing I do for work. Some 90 nights of sleep is required before I can see flaws in my own creations.

My point is that revising is easier when you have tools. Like sleep, and/or time enough to create "new eyes."

So, back to those specific "old standby" words. First, a digression.

I'm currently reading a book by John Banville, one of two I got from the library when I had time to kill and found his name on my "try sometime" list.

I started with The Sea and found it useful to have a dictionary at hand while reading it. The narrator has an impressive vocabulary and his use of archaic or obscure "ten-dollar" words helped define his character. I learned that "crapulent" has a definition (related to debauchery or drunkenness) that's slightly different from the increasingly common definition (having the aura of crap, being full of metaphorical crap). Obviously, we're talking shades of meaning here, but Banville meant something specific when he used it, and I was glad to find the specifics.

Then I started on Shroud. And in the first few pages, Banville again has his narrator using words like "crapulent." And I'm wondering if his narrators are different from each other, which then leads me to wonder if they're not all, more or less, Banville.

In any case, I wondered whether Banville is overly attached to "crapulent." Much like one of my favourite mass market novelists always has protagonists "forking up" food, usually breakfasts that include waffles.

Recently I was looking at wordles ( I'd made of the g-kids' names and it occurred to me that using wordle to analyze text would be a fun way of finding those words that, perhaps, uh, over-appear.

So I used a blog post--the one about the buzzing flies. And the most common word was...drumroll...


Not "flies." Not even "bzz." "Thing."

The Wordle was set to ignore common English words, which perhaps spared me from writing mostly about "and" or "the," I'm guessing.

But still. "Thing"?

The site is pretty cool. If I'd been motivated ("thing"??) I could have saved the wordle and done a screen capture and printed it here. I wasn't that motivated.

Okay, so finding the results might still not be all that fun. But they could be useful, and having a wordle would be funner than not having one.

A tool! To have fun with! Happy holidays, indeed.
Sunday, December 12, 2010

Questions, Questions

Recently, I've completed enough creative and work projects (which is to say, I've sent out all those manuscripts that were rejected) that I've cycled back to a story that's stymied me before. Unfortunately, it's the title story of the collection I received funding for, so bailing on it is out of the question.

And truthfully, I would cycle back to this story anyway, because I really want to finish it. I like the characters, even the ones I don't like, and I mostly know what needs to happen. I know vaguely the status of things at the end. But I get stuck when I try to go from here to there. I won't even try to explain why because basically I know I just have to do it. Fingers to the keyboard and all that.

But while procrastinating, I ran across a list of questions compiled by Julie Bush from many different sources. She calls it her Break In Case of Emergency file.

What a great idea. The questions are, as she says, "basic drama stuff" questions--which also makes them extremely useful. Questions such as
* Who wants what?
* What happens if they don't get it?
* What's the silent movie version?
* What's the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?

Like that. Isn't that last question annoying? Once I've written a scene, it's really hard to let go of it. If it exists on the virtual equivalent of paper, it breathes on its own. It has a kind of legitimacy: Look! Words!! This scene has to stay!!! Of course it can't GO! (But imagining "worst that would happen" scenarios is kind of fun.)

So, the questions are themselves useful.

And so is the idea of having a file where you store questions like that. The questions should be thought-provoking, though apparently they can be very basic, and they should take you in new directions, and they should maybe also annoy you. The file should be something you turn to when you are absolutely stuck and need to put down the hammer for awhile and pick up an awl, or a shotgun, or a boomerang, just to see how it feels in your hand, and because you suspect what you're facing isn't actually a nail that needs to be hammered.

Or if you have a burning desire to write an analogy that goes all over the place. For example. "You" meaning "one."

Just asking some of those questions about the characters in my story has shown me that the person I thought was the antagonist isn't. The scene that inspired the story in the first place may not actually end up in the story. Or it might, but the scene's purpose might be different.

And I'm going to start a file of my own with some of the questions from this list, the ones I find particularly useful (or annoying), and add to that file.

But first, I'm going to go see what happens if I set that scene to happen later in the story because what happens isn't something the main character knows about...

"What if?": the most important question of all.
Monday, December 6, 2010

Sorts, Types of

1. Out of. That's what I was last week when I got annoyed about the popularity of two adults engaged in a pointless argument. Fortunately, Wikileaks came along and engaged my snark and imitative skills.

2. Using codes. That's how people have been finding Wikileaks documents that mention Canada. It's a lot like googling yourself, which everybody does (yes, you do. Yeeees, you know you do) but nobody admits to. In terms of the Wikileaks searches, it's a little bit sad: not having much wikileaked about you is confirmation that you're a boring country. Whereas an individual who is not very google-able can be...mysterious. Above that sort of thing. An international man or women--who can even tell?--of mystery. Yeah, maybe.

3. By title. I made a playlist of Christmas songs to help keep me at my desk while I finish some stuff. I don't have a ton of Christmas music, and lots came as compilation CDs anyway, and as for the ones that didn't--well, sometimes I don't feel like listening to James Taylor or those Barenaked dudes for an entire hour. You might think sorting by song title would be even more boring--ten versions in a row of Silent Night, for example--but you'd be wrong. People actually do quite different things with these songs. I'm impressed. (Of course, you might think that my taste and perspicacity in picking holiday CDs might be a factor, though given that four are Pottery Barn compilations, you'd be wrong about that, too.) Even James Taylor's "River" followed by Sarah Maclachlan's "River" is just...interesting. Go try it.

4. By date of project finish. Oh, so many unfinished ones floating there at the top. Sigh. Bye.
Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Better Discussion

So yesterday in Toronto, Mr. Famous Atheist Journalist debated Mr. Famous Former Poltician: "Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world." To read the transcript, go here. Get a cup of coffee first, though. It's long.

And no, I didn't get through it all. Partly I'm an intellectual lightweight. Partly I am less impressed with Christopher Hitchens than most people are--and far less impressed with him than he is. Ditto Blair.

And partly, I think it's the wrong question. This statement is never debated: "Be it resolved, atheism is a force for good in the world." Possibly, atheists would say that they don't claim to be a force for good in the world. Except that they do, increasingly. Hitchens and Dawkins and their ilk make this claim when they describe people of belief as unintelligent and dangerous--when they equate all people of belief with religious extremists.

But actually, I don't think a defense of atheism as a force for good is the right question for debate, either. In fact, I don't see a need for debate. And that may itself explain my antipathy: I don't like shouting to no purpose. I don't like shouting in general. And I'm not a fan of either-or. I am all about the both-and.

So here's a better approach, in my opinion. It's from the world of security, but it works in the atheism/religion "debate" as well.

Alex Epstein, on his screenwriting blog "Complications Ensue," talks today about the difference between security (as in, airport security) and security theatre. He himself is addressing an article by Bruce Schneier in the New York Times's "Room for Debate" section, entitled "A Waste of Money and Time." Schneier makes the case that the current approach to airport security isn't working. Epstein characterizes today's security as a story-based approach, instead of a numbers-based approach.

Epstein concludes his post about security by saying that he believes that humans are hard-wired to understand and make stories. He continues

Stories are wonderful. They help us understand the world. You watch a movie about a relationship and maybe you take away an insight about your own relationship. But they are not a substitute for rational thought.

I would say it similarly but slightly differently. I think scientific facts tell us one kind of truth about our world. Stories tell us another kind of truth.

Here's some science: The cliffs outside my window are made of basalt. They've been there for about 1.5 billion years, in some form or other, emerging first from a rift as lava and solidifying into a sheet that eventually imploded. The cliffs are characteristic of the geology of this area--you can see them repeated in Mount McKay, in Caribou Island, even on the Sibley peninsula.

Here's some story: At the base of those cliffs, just outside my window here, my grandfather planted a vegetable garden some 75 years ago. He put a fence around it but was largely unsuccessful in keeping out the deer. He also built a road: using a block and tackle and his engineering ingenuity, he created a ledge around the cliff just wide enough to hold one car. Every time we walk past the garden, we look for the remnants of the fencing. When we walk down the road, we try to figure out which boulders he had to move.

Same place. Two kinds of enduring knowledge. Neither better than the other, neither more accurate. So why do people like Hitchens and Blair, and those who put them into ring, keep trying to make us choose between them? Why can't we have both kinds of knowledge?

Yes, we have to know which arena is most appropriate for which kind of knowledge. And another time, I might argue that science is itself a story--one we humans are constantly rewriting as we learn more.

But there's been enough arguing. Here's a story. Once up on a time, two powerful, intelligent men stopped taking money for pretend-arguing in a meaningless debate and instead turned their considerable powers of mind and money to fixing problems for the people in the world they care about. And those people did the same. And they did the same. Over time, starving people ate. Sick people received care. And little by little, person by person, the world became better. Less hostile.

Thanks to religion? Thanks to atheism? Who cares, really, who's responsible, if the world is getting better. And if the world isn't getting better--well, maybe we should stop arguing and get to work.

Even if, or perhaps especially if, our work is storytelling.
Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Long Haul

Today on Facebook someone linked to this article, from the NY Times. Matt Richtel writes, in "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction," about high school students' work habits, and how their schools are approaching the technology of which the students are so fond.

It's worth reading.

That said, here's a sample of my internal monologue about the article.

1. Five pages? Wow, this article is really long. It goes on for-EV-er.

2. Another article about how "kids today" are going to be seriously messed up by their fragmented attention spans? Again? Or is this one about how high school kids are undisciplined? Because when high school kids ARE disciplined, like Olympic athletes, everybody writes about how they're robots and don't have a "normal" childhood.

Response #1 is what my sister and I call "a thing made of things." I did skim the article, mostly because I was pressed for time but also because I have a low tolerance for bleats about "kids today." We've been heading down the toilet for generations, to hear the old fogeys among us lament.

I mulled over response #2 the rest of the morning, because while reading the article I kept thinking how sad it is that fewer people (of all ages) today seem interested in the long haul.

They want to walk from the last row of the parking lot and call it exercise. They want to skip one breakfast and be visibly skinnier immediately. They want to write a novel in a month--that's a novel, not a novel DRAFT. They want every single meeting of a group to provide them with a peak learning experience. They want all comments on their writing to be tender and sensitive and immediately useful without in any way indicating that the writing as it stands has flaws of any kind.

And by "they" I mean, of course, "sometimes I." I'm as prone to this as anyone, in spite of my fogeyhood.

Yet it's the "long haul" aspects of my life for which I am the most grateful.

Like: I can read music. I don't remember learning this, the way I don't remember learning to read words. But now, even though I'm not "doing music" every day, I can follow along, and my ability to sight-sing, never strong, is even coming back a little. Is it immediately useful? No, if by "useful" you mean "making of money" rather than "making of happy."

Like: I can type. In the olden days, when we sat in willow rockers on the porch in our braided pigtails and gingham bonnets after hauling water in oak buckets uphill in the snow both ways, we called it "touch-typing." My mother and I had conversations about whether, in writing, it was advisable to "compose at the typewriter" or write out a paper in longhand first. She adapted quickly to what she persisted in calling "word processors," while my father to his dying day scrawled illegibly on pads of yellow paper with ballpoint pens according to a mysterious color-coded system.

Rabbit trail. Sorry.

I do remember learning to type--twice. One summer in high school I had an intro course as part of someone's research project (university town). Only I didn't do the mind-numbing exercises "d e d space d e d space" and "j k l ; space j k l ; space" because they were (wait for it) boring. So I didn't get far. I took typing again in regular high school, when I did do the exercises because I wanted the A for my GPA. And now I can type. It was well worth the yawns, over the long haul. Yes, financially, but also, it's a tool I comfortable using to make things that ultimately make me happy.

Both skills--reading music and typing--were relatively hard-won. I didn't pursue them because I was interested in them. I pursued them because I was forced to.

And now, because I am ostensibly an adult, I have to force myself.

I don't like having to walk, pushing myself, every day to maintain (never mind improve) my fitness level. I dislike the fact that every scone that passes my lips stays with my hips and/or thighs for months. I wish I could just write the story I want to write the first time. I wish my writing didn't improve with time and reflection and hard work.

And yet, those things are true. I must discipline myself (yes, that's what we're really talking about--again). And sometimes I even enjoy the discipline, if not for the actual work, then for the result.

And THAT is what those pesky "kids today" may be missing. The chance to try something, fail, keep trying, eventually get it, and feel proud of themselves--especially if what they're learning is something not immediately "useful" or pleasant but worthy. Valuable. Something that needs doing.

Like settling in to do the newsletter, to draft the work project, to contact those who need contacting and bug those professionals who require bugging. Like paying bills, filing the financial pile, deciding what to do with that basket o' papers. Like reading the whole article, or a book that's "hard."

Or actually WRITING.

Not bubbleshooter. For example. Although I am developing a mean bank shot.

Because yes, although I'm not sure I should be proud of this, I am in some ways one of those "kids today." And my inner adult says "Time to stop blogging. Yes, NOW." Bye.
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Unexpected Brilliance

Sometimes creativity and satisfaction comes from unforeseen places.

As an example, I share this with you, from my friend Peggy, a bookseller and otherwise extraordinary person.

How many people on that stage grew up thinking, "I want to be really good at playing pop bottles when I grow up!" ??

I'm guessing the answer is "zero." And yet, given the opportunity, there they are, doing it well, having a great time, and giving the world a smile.

Sometimes the creative comes from the unexpected--playing around, meandering, exploring a trail to its end. And sometimes, people smile when you get there. Can't beat that!
Sunday, November 7, 2010

Spirited Interpreting

I already shared this on Facebook, but I wanted to post it here, too. This is an American Sign Language interpreter--I assume a professional; she's definitely experienced--performing Michael Franti's "The Sound of Sunshine."

I used verb "performing" on purpose. Most of the time, interpreters don't perform; their role is to communicate what the speaker is saying. (At least that's what I learned many moons ago.) However, in this case, I think "perform" is accurate. It's what Michael Franti does when he plays this song. It's also what she does--very well--because she has prepared this interpretation and likely performs it much in this same way every time she does it.

Even if you don't know ASL, you can probably guess that a large part of her interpretation has to do with the heartbeat. That's what she's communicating with her hands pulsing open and closed on her chest.

She uses this metaphor because, of course, Deaf people experience the "sound" of sunshine differently. The "sound" communicates itself in their heartbeat, in the vibrations they feel from music, in whatever they do hear with any residual hearing they may have. Deaf people, like hearing people, also appreciate the feel of the sun on their faces, which this interpreter also uses.

Michael Franti says nothing about heartbeats. But that's what he means: the vitality that sunshine brings after a storm, whether that storm is rain or poverty or a life without love and fun. By using the heartbeat metaphor, the interpreter captures the spirit of the song--not the literal meaning of each word, but the larger meaning of the message.

It's good stuff for a creative life. For one thing, I have learned more about the song by seeing the interpretation--the interpretation enriched my understanding of the original. I don't know enough of another written language to experience a written work in two languages, but I imagine the experience would be similar.

And of course, communicating an experience or feeling is often what drives writers to their keyboards in the first place. This interpretation reminded me to not be too wedded to "what really happened" but instead to look for the best way to communicate the larger meaning.

And to celebrate the sunshine, whether it's in rays on my face, in the sounds that reach my ears, or in the beating of my heart.
Monday, November 1, 2010

That @$&*!! Buzzing Fly

This is a season when buzzing flies multiply inside our house. During spring and fall, flies come out of nowhere (not literally but I don't want to think about the literal) and hurl themselves at the window, over and over again. They buzz. And thunk. Randomly.

Bzzzz-thunk. Bzz-zz-zzzz-thunk. Zzz. Z. BZZZZZ-thunk.

Because they move slowly, they're not that hard to kill, except that they can be sneaky. Get out a flyswatter, and suddenly they hide behind the blinds and behind furniture. When you start doing something else, the buzzing starts up again, just loud enough to annoy the hell out of you. Me. One.

And some weeks are just full of the damn things. Like this past week, which was full of doing things for others. (Aha! The meta-phor you've been waiting-phor.) Also, to be fair, last week was full of a certain amount of not-doing things, and to be fair to me, that was caused largely by a big two-day storm and a power outage that I wasn't prepared for. It's not that I mind doing things for others, either, except that doing each thing breeds several more things that could be done, that need to be done, that require/beg doing, bzzz-zzz.

And yet. The winds of time still rip those pages right off the calendar. Writing gets done, or doesn't, amid all the other tasks that circle me. Damn buzzing flies.

Yesterday, I was pretty tired. Tired on the inside. Irked with myself and others. Tired of doing, especially on a day that I prefer to spend being. A long walk helped, but I still finished the weekend feeling behind. I had to start a new work-week by scaling back expectations--my own and others'.

I don't like weeks like that, the ones that are less than I hoped before they even start.

However, sometimes that's what happens. So by the time I went to bed last night, I was pleasantly physically tired and somewhat resigned. I closed my eyes.

And then, the buzzing. In the dark. Bzz-zz-zzzz-thunk. Zzz.

I don't mind a fly that buzzes its last against a window. Rest in peace and all that. But I hate the ones that pinball off the other walls of our bedroom, that choose the corner near our bed for their death throes. Because what if those throes involve falling onto/into the bed? Landing on my face? Getting in my hair?

Of course I came awake: annoyed, attention-thready, aching behind the eyes, ready to throttle something. I turned on a light and got the flyswatter.

Silence. That sneaky so-and-so.

I'll spare you the blow by blow, but rest assured that in semi-darkness, several dark fuzzles from my husband's socks became quite dead, while the fly bzz-Zzzzz-ed on.

Eventually I realized I was only hurting myself (and the fuzzles) and figured out another fix for the problem: pulling the sheet over my head and doing relaxation exercises till I finally fell asleep.

Which, come to think of it, is also a useful strategy for getting the writing done. It's a form of extended will, a tool that helps define an environment in which you (I, one) can be successful. (Or accidentally smother, but I managed not to think about that.)

This morning, the fly was still alive, though barely. (zzz. zz.) But sometimes, when you don't pay attention to things like that, they go away. They work themselves out. Someone else with better aim or more tenacity or a better flyswatter gets the damn thing.

I was/am also alive this morning, and I did sleep some, and I'm ready to start the week of scaled-back expectations. But I'm starting by getting back under the metaphorical sheet.

Here's why: while other people are perfectly capable of swatting flies, nobody else can do my writing.

Eventually I may need to adjust my expectations around that too, most likely relating to its quality. But first I have to produce it. Scaling back expectations not allowed there.
Sunday, October 24, 2010


Procrastination. We all do it, though we may pretend we don't.

Here's an article by James Surowiecki from The New Yorker. The whole thing is well worth reading for its examination of the phenomenon: sometimes procrastination is useful and/or enjoyable, sometimes we do it even when we don't enjoy what we're doing instead, and none of is alone in practicing it. Et cetera.

However, of course I'm interested in avoiding procrastination, as I suspect most creative people are.

Surowiecki names two concepts behind "fixes" for procrastination that have led me to some interesting insights about my own process.

One concept is "willpower." Just do it. Brute force. I am a thinking, rational creature who simply does the right thing to do. One problem with willpower is, of course, that some of us don't have much. Also, it's limited: if I'm busy not eating all the chocolate oatmeal macaroons, I have less willpower to exert in other areas.

The other concept is "the extended will"; that is, tools that extend your natural, animal willpower. AKA strategies to prevent you from slacking off. These tools can be things like deadlines halfway through the semester, or computer programs that don't allow you to check your email or that give you simply a black screen and a blinking cursor instead of letting you diddle with fonts. Simply breaking down a large project into smaller steps is another example.

The insights I came to about my own process aren't particularly interesting (although I am hearing "limit choices" in lots and lots of contexts these days), but this one may be useful to others: Willpower is NOT more virtuous, or more worthy, or otherwise inherently BETTER than the extended will. So use whatever works.

After all, the goal is to create good stuff. Not to be the Willpower Queen. Right?

So go forth and darken your screen, tie yourself to the chair, or write naked. It worked for Victor Hugo (just the naked part).

But read the rest of that article first. No, it doesn't "count" as procrastination. It's research into your process.
Saturday, October 16, 2010

When Stories Matter

"It Gets Better" videos are all over Facebook these days, and they're collected at YouTube here. They feature a person--a young adult, a middle-aged adult--speaking to the camera, hoping to reach a young person who's hurting.

The audience, that young person, is any teen or tween who feels "different," and because what teen doesn't feel different, they speak specifically and directly to kids who are being bullied, at home or school, for being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered. They speak to keep these young people from despair, from harming themselves, from suicide.

Many of the videos feature extremely good-looking, successful adults--cast members from various Broadway productions, former Playboy bunny celebrities, award-winning mainstream actors. Many speak from personal experience, and many speak on behalf of friends and family.

Because, yes, we all have friends and family who are LGBT. Even if you don't know they are. Even if they're afraid to tell you.

It's great that celebrities use their power for something other than getting free stuff at awards ceremonies. But the stories I find the most compelling are those that express the pain of a person who might have grown up to be "just anybody."

Like Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns. Yes, Fort Worth, Texas. I hope his colleagues there appreciate his courage in telling his story. It is obviously a difficult story to tell. When he says, "It gets better," I know how bad his "worse" is, and I know he deeply understands "better."

This week, I've been struggling to tell a difficult story of my own. It's also from a personal experience. I finally wrote a draft Thursday and revised it Friday. It's ready to "set" for awhile.

I haven't written something like this in some time. My recent creative writing has embodied my experiences--my pain, my fear, my hopes, my secret wishes--in characters. These characters have names other than mine, different personal characteristics from mine, sometimes even a different gender. Sometimes I feel I speak on their behalf, as if for a friend, because I feel I tell their stories, though logically I know that the stories come from inside me.

The story I recently finished was mine. It was difficult to write. I debated whether I needed even to write it (I didn't want to at times), much less share it. I wondered whether writing it was worth revisiting the pain of the experience in the first place. I wondered what the cost of sharing it might be.

And then I watched Joel Burns and recognized that sometimes, the cost of telling the truth is far less than the cost of keeping silent.

I have no illusions that my story, unlike his, will radically change a reader's life. But it might, just might, get someone to think, to be a little less smug, to alter (even slightly) an opinion.

And that's well worth the risk.

So yes, I have a plan for sharing this story, and I'll post that information here. Meanwhile, here's a website for The Trevor Project, the organization that is spearheading the effort to create all the "It Gets Better" videos.
Sunday, October 10, 2010

Now Available

The Ten Stories High anthology is now out and available for purchase! ( At $5 Canadian, that's 50 cents a story (a little more if you factor in shipping and handling).

A movie costs $9 and lasts two hours. For a little more than half that price, you get ten stories--at least nine more stories than you get in the movie, with lots more variety--and you get them permanently. You can read them again in a year. You can share them with a neighbour. Et cetera.

Anthologies published in previous years have sold out. Just sayin'.
Saturday, September 25, 2010

While You're At It...

Our house has become Rejection Central in the past ten days or so. I am receiving rejections from places I'd forgotten I submitted work to.

I did wonder, because writers have that kind of ego, whether I am the target of pre-emptive rejections. Maybe word got around all of North America that I've been submitting, and the lit mags have taken a proactive approach.

You know: "The Journal of Really Good Writing is desperately searching for new, fresh voices. We publish new writers, seasoned writers, breathing writers, dead ones--in fact, anyone writing in any genre. Except you, Marion Agnew. No, not the one who lives in Ottawa. You there, in Thunder Bay. Don't even think about it."

However, I keep a spreadsheet. So I have, in fact, submitted to these places who saw fit to reject my work.

As they have said somewhere but apparently taken off their submissions page, The Fiddlehead does indeed send really great rejection notes.

In fact, their notes are so great that they made me take a hard look at the rest of my life. Suddenly, it felt lackluster. Listless. Tired and sad. So I decided to write back.

Dear Fiddlehead,

Thank you so much for your wonderfully kind words about my manuscript, which you are still not going to publish in spite of the many stellar qualities about which you wax so eloquent. As long as you are saying fabulous things about the quality of my writing, this sample of which you are definitely, oh-so-definitely not going to publish, how about mixing in nice things in a few other areas? Like could you mention how svelte I am looking lately, and how I don't look a day over 30, even though you are still not publishing my writing and I will likely die with a filing cabinet full of unpublished manuscripts, and too many cats? Thanks.

In all seriousness, I do appreciate receiving rejections if the alternative is silence. As I have written about before, specifically, here. And I really appreciate kind words and encouragement.

But another acceptance, sometime soon...well, that would be, you know, BETTER. Which means it's time to look up email submission processes, or in rare cases, get out the stamps and manila envelopes.

Discipline. Uh-huh.
Sunday, September 19, 2010


I'm going through a combination "busy time" and "dry spell."

As the fall starts, groups of which I am a part get back together. Administrative stuff needs to be done. Events scheduled. People hired. Posters thrown together and disseminated. Plans made, and many of them are mighy grand plans, indeed, since we're all rejuvenated from summer.

And all of these busy-busy activities seem awfully tempting in the morning--if I just do these things, this X & Z, then I can mark them off my list. The novel, the stories--they'll be there at 11, or just after lunch, or I'll just go for a walk, and hey it's 5 and the day's done! Guess I'll get back to it tomorrow! (Or....)

As a complicating factor, some of us are not feeling rejuvenated from summer. Some of us are a little frazzled from all the people. Some of us have come to the point in our creative work where satisfactory work is elusive. Perhaps our characters (more people!!) are surly. They demand more exciting things to do and yet are not at all specific about what those exciting things might be.

(Playing "bring me a rock, not that rock" with a human boss is maddening and demoralizing. Playing it with a character whose only flesh and blood is yours, whose actions are boring even you, when you are the person who ostensibly creates and re-creates her--well, that's the recipe for insanity.)

My point was that for some of us, eating chocolate-oatmeal macaroons is at the outer limits of our creative imagination. Nothing sounds interesting, much less inspiring.


Pinned into my bulletin board is a page out of O Magazine from several years ago. It's an essay on Faith by Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones. (The essay is available online, but it's in a form that may violate copyright so I'll let you google.) In highlighter, I have written in the margin the take-away for me: "What must substitute for faith is discipline."

As someone who struggles with both faith and discipline, I cheered loudly when I read this. No I didn't. However, I knew then and I know now that it's true.

When I exert the discipline to sit, just sit, as near to a "first thing" as I can stand in a morning, and devote that time to my creative writing, good things happen. Also, the busy-busy admin work for others gets done. When I don't, they don't.

When I put my creative writing first, there's time for everything. When I don't, there isn't.

It's not logical. It may not be factual. However, it is true.

To sit and do "my" writing, I don't have to have faith, which is good because I usually don't. I don't have to believe I'm doing good work. I just have to sit down and bring another rock. And another one. And another. Eventually I'll have a road or maybe a wall (or a cathedral!!) or maybe a just a gigantic pile of rocks, but I'll have something.

So, discipline. Sometimes that's all there is to draw on. But sometimes, that's exactly what you need.

That and chocolate oatmeal macaroons. (At least this batch has lasted longer than 24 hours. Discipline breeds discipline.)
Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Fundamental Things Apply

In creative pursuits, I do this thing (that likely showcases the size of my ego, but the need for creators to have egregious egos is a post for another day): I know the rules but think they somehow don't apply to me. And not in a productive way, either.

I also don't mean the rules of grammar. Them ones, I have a passing familiarity with, and also too, I do believe in having a reason to break them there things. (Hat tip to Stephen King.)

I'm talking about "rules" in the sense of "how to solve this problem," or "strategies I have found useful," or "received wisdom that may or may not be true but works for me, the successful writer." Rules as in tools.

Which, of course, DO apply to me, regardless of my default position of "sounds great but it probably won't won't work for me." (It's my Eeyore nature with a splash of terminal uniqueness.)

Anyway, rules. (Or tools.) Like these.

1. Goals, such as minimum time spent writing or minimum word counts, are good to have. Yes, goals for your creative work, that work you can't exactly predict. And yet, when you write a minimum number of words per day, you can accumulate a novel over time. I have accumulated about a half novel so far, much of which I don't remember writing, because after that 500 to 1000 words, I went and did something else that day. And I could pay attention to those other projects in part because I had done the creative thing. (Goals! Hat tip to "Everybody.")

2. First drafts are allowed be bad, bad, bad. (That's three words toward my word limit!) I was always a "Mozart," whose first draft mostly resembles his finished work (because he did a lot of work in his head). (This generalization may not be true but I still like that scene in Amadeus where he dictates the Requiem note for note.) I still operate this way, mostly, in writing that's a job. In creative work, however, I find that I am a Beethoven, whose manuscripts reportedly were revised nearly beyond recognition. (Drafts! Hat tip to Anne Lamott, among others.)

3. Writing is like cheese: letting it age for awhile makes for a better final product. In fact, this has become a good "tell" for me: if I still like something after letting it "set" for awhile, it probably has something that others will like. Or it may not, but I at least have the interest in the work to revise it so that it does. (Revise! This is another "everybody.")

4. E.L. Doctorow is reported to have said of writing something like this: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." I have found, in working on this novel, that I still can't map their journeys, but I know the general direction these characters are going, and I can take them (or they can take me) another couple of thousand words in that direction. Same thing the next day. And the next. (Just write!)

Here's a new one I've found that may also apply to me. A soundtrack is a useful path into a specific world. Screenwriter John August, as well as writers in other genres, like this Canadian example, creates a soundtrack for each writing project. (Read about his reasoning here.) As he writes, he listens to the soundtrack.

I have read about those who create soundtracks (and in Jennnifer Crusie's case, collages) for years. "Great idea for them," I thought, emphasis on the "them," for no reason other than assuming that for some reason it wouldn't work for me. (Plus my suspicion, also shared by Doctorow, that creating soundtracks is not the same as writing.) And then I read that John August finds soundtracks useful for switching among projects.

Of course! Songs like "Sunshine of Your Love" can take me back decades, to the outdoor swimming pool in the heat of the summer. Of course that power could help me move from a novel in the morning to the short story revisions in the afternoon. Dang, this rule could apply to me, too!

And by "dang," I mean "hooray!" (Though yes, it doesn't "count" as writing.) Here's hoping it will be as useful as the other rules/tools have been!
Saturday, September 4, 2010

Two of the Best

Recently, I have been trying to say "I was wrong" when it needs to be said. This post is far less maudlin but no less heartfelt, because I really was wrong!

A conversation with the excellent writer and blogger Susan at Mama Non Grata turned to blogs about parenting. Through the BlogHer links at Mama Non Grata I had sampled other blogs and found them less interesting than Susan's. Partly that's because Susan's blog is well written and inherently interesting, and partly because the others...weren't so much.

It's nothing personal, and that's the problem right there. I mean, I'm not a mother, so I don't need to read blogs about parenting for practical, personal reasons. Being a step-grand-mother is a totally different level of responsibility. If the step-g-kids don't eat while they're here, I shrug and send them home hungry. For example. (Not every time. They eat. Mostly.) So my personal interests lay elsewhere.

I have always made an exception for Mama Non Grata. The blog is, in part, about how a "nontraditional" family is the same as all other families, except in all the ways it's not. My own family has its "nontraditional" elements, and then of course I'm interested in a general way in all the ways people are human in this world. Plus now I know Susan and Rachel. Plus "What does 'nontraditional family' even mean anymore?" is always an interesting question. So for all those reasons, I'm a reader.

In our conversation about parenting blogs, Susan urged me to give them another try. I said "maybe" and thought "meh." Yet in the fragmented whirlwind that August became in this house, I did. And man, was I wrong!

I had run across Finslippy before and found it humorous, but I hadn't felt called to read regularly. Then one afternon when I was trying not to fret about impending company, I started reading the blog from its beginning in 2004. And the voice of Alice Bradley, Finslippy's writer, just charmed me.

What a fascinating window into the past six years of the online and blogging worlds. Finslippy addresses lots of stuff, some of it explicitly. Like
1. Privacy issues when writing about family members.
2. The persona you create when you blog (like that of columnist) and the relationship between that persona and yourself.
3. The difference between writing something that's true and something that's factual.
4. The overwhelming need people have to tell other people (especially mothers, maybe?) what they're doing wrong (in the comments, which is part of why I don't do comments; I have enough voices in my head critiquing my every move, thanks).
5. The commmunity that develops when a writer does allow comments and writes honestly about personal issues, and the support that community can offer in troubled times.
6. The hot-button issue for our culture that the relationship between children and food has become.
7. The benefits and drawbacks to living in the suburbs and the city; how do you know where home is?
8. How to watch someone you love struggle with something difficult while wanting desperately to step in and fix it, though you know you shouldn't and can't anyway.
9. Et cetera.

And no, I'm not going to link to specific posts. That's like linking to one page in a book.

The experience of reading it from start to now (not "finish") was great. For one thing, it was perfect chunks of reading for the bits of time I had. And for another, reading blogs is like sanctioned voyeurism. Who doesn't love sneaking a peek into someone else's journal? It was a whole different perspective on creativity.

So here's what I really need to say.
1. Susan: you were right and I was wrong, and I'm very glad about that. There are very interesting blogs about parenting out there, even for someone who's not a parent.
2. Everyone else: read Mama Non Grata and give Finslippy a try. And hey, if you're wondering how to jumpstart your creativity this fall, why not set aside a preconceived idea and try reading something new? It's quite refreshing.
Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sleeping Giant Writers Festival

This is where I'm going to be this weekend!

•Miriam Toews - Advanced Fiction: What is a Novel?
•Jeanette Lynes - Historical Fiction, Energize your Poems
•Richard Scrimger - Writing for Children: lies, laughter and standing on chairs
•David Carpenter - Personal Essay, Short Story
•Douglas Gibson - Learn About Publishing
•Terry Fallis - Shameless Self-Promotion

Plus readings!! That are free and open to the public!! And the Northern Woman's Bookstore will have a table, from which you can buy nifty stuff!

And socializing, which I know is kind of saying "and torture" to many writers, but hey, you might meet someone who'd be a critique buddy. Or at least meet you for coffee.

Sleeping Giant Writers Festival: the largest literary festival in northern Ontario. With award-winning Canadian writers, interactive sessions, and tons of learning at your fingertips. Don't miss it.
Saturday, August 21, 2010

What's That You Say? Oh Wait, You Can't

People have wondered why I don't allow comments here or on my border-and-boundary-themed blog, Half-Canadian.

Maybe they haven't wondered so much as perhaps mentioned, forcefully or pointedly. While I could say, "Yes, that's right! I don't!" I could also just explain.

I grew up with two intelligent, busy parents and four older and quite intelligent siblings. I spent a lot of time being cajoled, corrected, and humo(u)red. I was often told I was wrong, which is not suprising, because often, I was wrong. But sometimes I was just younger and had a different perspective.

This corner of cyberspace (does anyone call it that anymore? anyone?) is my place. Here, I get to make all the pronouncements I want. But I do try to use my powers only for good. International chocolate ice cream day, anyone?

I view this website, with its posts about creativity and writing, and my blog (about borders and boundaries and other observations about living out of one's culture) as porches. C'mon up here and set a spell with me. See the world from my perspective. Bring your own coffee. I'll be here commenting on things. Drop in awhile and move on when you're ready.

And if you want to make comments, well, you can have a blog. You can! And when you want to argue with me, or proclaim your superior cleverness, or hey, tell all your readers that I'm some kind of smart cooky, well, you can link to me here. Or here.

It's not that I don't care what you think. It's just...shhh, can you hear that? That's the noise of me thinking in my own little world.

P.S. Also, people who blog as a living or part of a living must moderate comments, and that is more serious than I want to be about this writing. I'm using my time wisely! As I must!! Since I am on the downhill slide of my life and all!!! Though still younger than my siblings, I will just point out.
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Brussels Sprouts vs. Lima Beans

Although I am fast friends with most foods, two have always been at the bottom of my list: brussels sprouts and lima beans. (We're talking common foods here, not chocolate-covered ants.)

(I make an exception for brussels sprouts sauteed with bacon in a cream sauce, which my sister-in-law and sister have made for me, because I was actually eating the bacon and cream sauce. The wee cabbages were incidental. I might even eat bacon-and-cream-sauce-covered ants.) (Probably not, though.)

However. I married a man who is enthusiastic about brussels sprouts. (One of the charming things you learn after the fact.) He is a man of odd enthusiasms, and I indulge him in them when I can. Nowadays, I don't love brussels sprouts but I have learned to like them. Sincerely.

I still don't like lima beans. Sorry, lima beans. It's not you, it's me. (It's really you.)

If given a choice between lima beans and brussels sprouts, I'd go with the wee cabbagey things. And I'd be pretty darn happy about it, too.

Analogy alert. It's a long path, though, so get a cup of coffee.

I have noticed recently that I enjoy forging ahead on the novel I've been dithering about and writing around. The dithering has been going on for a year, while I work steadily and conscientiously on many other projects (including fiction, not fictive, ones). I have done many things, some of them decent, many creative, while not-working on that novel.

But lately, after the necessities of life are finished, what do I choose to work on? The novel. Yes!

And why is that? It's partly because the book I must read for a meeting of a book club in September is Brave New World. I'm not intimidated by the book. Big Important Books like this one spawn tons of resources online. Also, my husband is the person responsible presenting this book at the book club, so I have my own in-house expert to consult, if I were to find myself mystified.

So nope, it's not intimidating. It's just darn depressing. Clinical. Alphas, betas, conditioning. Brrr. I'm on chapter 3.

It's lima beans.

Which makes my novel, which apparently has served as lima beans for a year, become yummy brussels sprouts. Writing with no apparent end in sight! Writing when you're not sure what the characters really really want! Writing when it's hard! Writing lots of words even if they're all some variation on "blah blah blah"! Yummy!! Let's go!

Yes, I will read Brave New World and assemble Some Thoughts about it in time for the meeting. But I suspect it will require the same technique with which I used to eat lima beans, when "encouraged" to as a child: hold my nose and shovel without chewing.

Meanwhile, I am nearly frolicking with this novel. Cavorting a draft into being.

Also, I'm hungry.
Saturday, August 7, 2010


It's an ordinary summer day. The lawnmower and washing machine are humming away. It's Saturday, and thus a "free" day, so I baked scones for breakfast, to my husband's delight. Both kinds of work--the "business of living" and writing--await my attention. Just plain old ordinary.

Sixty-five years ago yesterday and Monday, other ordinary people were going about their ordinary lives. Until suddenly...they weren't.

People in Hiroshima and Nagasaki died, their ordinary stories abruptly ended. But the rest of us, those who weren't killed or had not yet been born, were also affected: nuclear weapons changed the lives of everyone, everywhere.

In the early 1940s, my mother, Jeanne LeCaine Agnew, worked for the National Research Council in Montreal, in the Canadian branch of the atomic research effort. About those days, she wrote

Like everyone else who was involved in this project, I think often of the way our work has been used, and ask myself whether I would make the same decision again. Given the situation of 1943, there was no other decision that could be made. The discovery of the laws of the Universe has been our assignment since the beginning of time. The secrets of the atom are a part of this body of knowledge. Before World War II began, the study of atomic energy was well advanced in several countries. There was no way it could be stopped, only a way to hope it could be controlled by responsible people. There are many pieces of knowledge that have great potential for both good and evil. Beginning with the discovery of fire and moving ahead to television and the invasion of space, each advance carries with it the ability to help or harm. Even books are not exempt. It remains for society to take the responsibility to see that the correct choices are made. In Pogo's famous line, "We have met the enemy and they is us."*

Is this the copout of the "pure scientist," one who cares more about the laws of physics than ethics? The uncomfortable truth is, yes, it's a bit of a copout. But it also shows her practical side. My mother was interested in mathematics teaching and research: they were her areas of expertise. Others were expert in politics and public policy, and she was content to leave them to do their work. She limited her participation in that arena to voting. She recognized she could not do everything.

In the spring of 1945, my mother chose not to move to Los Alamos with others of her team, because she would have had to commit to three years of work. She hoped my father would be stateside soon and they could start a family. She wanted an "ordinary" life, and eventually, she made one.

In the spring of 1991, I started my four+-year sojourn at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a communicator. My mother was proud that I chose to go there. My oldest brother, an anti-nuclear activist, likely was not so proud but our family doesn't "do" confrontation.

I had my own ethical concerns, my own uncomfortable truths, but I also shared my mother's practicality. Nuclear weapons had existed for 45 years by then. My work was to help scientists and engineers put to civilian use some of the knowledge surrounding those technologies--advances in environmental sciences, computing, modeling, machining, fabrication, chemistry, and yes, physics. I enjoyed the work and the people very much. Northern New Mexico is a beautiful place to live. But it wasn't my home or my life's work, so I moved on. It took me another ten years to find and create my own "ordinary" life, but I have.

And the "society" my mother writes of still must struggle with the legacy and consequences of this scientific discovery. The true horror of postwar Hiroshima and Nagasaki has become "history." Cold War apocalyptic scenarios have given way to scenarios featuring post-Cold-War rogue scientists in Eastern Europe struggling to feed their families, and those scenarios have morphed to focus on 21st-century Middle Eastern fanatics who couldn't possibly comprehend the power of the sleeping dragon whose tail they're tickling.

Sadly, not nearly enough has changed since my mother wrote this paragraph in 1987. Today's perceived exigencies--not war, mere lifestyle--still take precedence over the protection of human and environmental dignity. BP's criminal negligence in its search for more oil was part of the actions it takes "for our benefit"--to keep the cost of oil low so we can live the way we do, with lawnmower and washing machine humming. This is their story. What parts are uncomfortably true?

Hundreds of thousands of people died 65 years ago. Millions of people were killed during that war. Millions have died since, not only in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but in Bhopal, Chernobyl, and New Orleans. Technology is a tool; decisions about its use, or lack thereof, have long-lasting consequences.

And where is "society" in all this? Who are the responsible people my mother wrote about? Pogo knew: they are us. We have a responsibility to use our minds for something other tracking which celebrity is in which prison for which offense. We don't have to become politicians, ethicists, geologists, engineers, researchers--we can be artists. But as artists, we do have a responsibility to use our voices, and our platforms, for challenging each other, for telling uncomfortable truths, for giving voice to stories in honour of those whose stories ended so abruptly.

So we write, some of us, on this ordinary day.

** Jeanne LeCaine Agnew, "By choice and by chance," in Still Running...Personal stories by Queen's women celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Marty Scholarship, Joy Parr, editor. Queen's University Alumnae Association, 1987.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010


As a general rule, I have access to 2.5 TV channels. And as a general rule, I don't mind my relative "cultural" "isolation."

However, on vacation, flipping mindlessly among 50-something channels is a fun novelty. And recently I saw an episode of "Hoarders." That makes three or four total I've seen so far.

Frightening. Not because it's foreign; because it's NOT foreign.

I recognize a couple of aspects of hoarding behaviour. First, I know today's routine objects are tomorrow's marvelous artifacts. My father was a historian who had done archival research. He knew the thrill of holding a piece of paper signed by someone famous. Professionally, he also understood that much of history is accidental. It's not the sheaf of Confederate money that's valuable; it's the stamp on the envelope the money was stored in. That kind of thing. Needless to say, we had a lot of junk to go through and dispose of when my parents died, some of which might have been of interest to a future historian, but oh well; that's why archives exist.

It's also true that objects can hold memories. Who hasn't heard a song and gone right back to a specific time and place? For me, "Sunshine of Your Love" = summer at the university swimming pool. So I can see that items from your own past can symbolize experiences and feelings you want to recall. And I can understand that getting rid of those things feels like you're getting rid of that person or place.

I also recognize that the behaviours I just described don't fit the DSM-IV standard for mental illness. However, I believe that some conditions exist on a continuum and I believe that I have seen behaviours on the "less severe" end of that continuum.

What caught my attention in this recent episode was something I hadn't heard before, but could of course (!!!) relate to. For some hoarders, the items they cling to represent decisions they don't have to make. Each item is still an option. They don't have to pick just one. They don't have to decide. And they certainly don't have to DO anything about these items.

I too am easily overwhelmed when I have too many options. However, even when I have an appropriate, handle-able number of options, I sometimes still resist making decisions. I don't want to rule out anything. I don't want to commit myself. (And, oddly, I am often quite capable of making quick decisions.)

All of this relates to my ability to dither instead of writing. Dithering, like hoarding, is uncomfortable, but writing, like acting on decisions, sometimes feels dangerous.

Writing can feel like the process of eliminating options, of committing to a particular idea. Each word I put down changes the story in my head from ethereal and perfect to mundane and flawed. Each time a character speaks, she becomes something less fabulous--more real. And, as anyone who has read The Velveteen Rabbit knows, being real can be a wonderful thing, but like most wonderful things, it's not without its hazards.

And then what if I can't do justice to the ethereal thing? What if I end up with something that looks more like a mudpie than a sculpture? Isn't it safer to just keep the ideas floating around in their perfection in my head?

Safer, maybe. But look at those Hoarders: They're not happy. They're not healthy, mentally or physically. And I don't want to be one.

And so I risk, and I write. (Even if I dither a bit as well.)
Saturday, July 24, 2010

Yes to This Man

John Scalzi, a writer of many things (including movie reviews, science fiction, and books), has also blogged about becoming a professional writer.

Here are two excellent things he says, culled from about, oh, a million:

Writing professionally is actual work, for better and worse. If you can accept this fact, you’ll be better off mentally to do well as a professional writer.

Yes!! Writing is work, like a job.

Also, he says this:

EVERY WRITER GETS REJECTED. You will be no different. ... If you can’t handle the idea of rejection, you’re really in the wrong line of work. It’s just part of the business.

Ah, rejection, which I have written about here before. The fact that rejection is ubiquitous doesn't make it fun. However, work isn't always fun (see above) but it can be rewarding in a character-building way. I personally drip character.

Plus I don't think it matters whether you're doing "professional" or "creative" writing, aka "writing for money" or "writing whatever I want." Both points above apply: it's work, sometimes, and rejection happens.

Many thanks to The Rejectionist, whose wise and witty blog gives me food for thought and laughter.
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Creativity on Vacation

Not that kind of vacation, the kind of which myths such as writer's block arise. The kind where you're sitting at a desk on deadline and can't think of words of more than one syllable.

The other kind. When you have visitors, or are in a different physical location supposedly "relaxing," or are doing something else that other people think constitutes "time off."

When do people who do creative things ever have time off? You might have time off from "the man," if you work for someone else, or from your own paid work, if you're able to create a hole in your schedule.

Of course, in today's economy, many self-employed find more holes than work in their schedules, but that's a different "problem."

And I use the quotes on purpose. Not really knowing what it means to take "vacation" from your creative self is a luxury born of privilege. It is something those of us who aren't in active earthquake zones, those of us whose livelihoods haven't recently been spoiled by tar balls and oil plumes, those of us who aren't facing retirement with suddenly 1/3 less money in the bank have the opportunity to complain about.

And really, who wants to take a vacation from creativity? Perhaps "vacation," in a world and life of relative wealth, is simply an opportunity be creative in a different way.

I'm taking a break from my (ir)regular life while my sister is here. We're messing around at our camp ("cottage" in southern Ontario, "cabin" elsewhere), focusing on the business of daily living (woodstove), going out in the boat, swatting flies.

Occasionally I have thoughts or even, dare I say, insights about a work in progress. Sometimes I write them down. Sometimes I trust that they'll come back when paper and pencil are handier. I am trying to document life less (less time behind a camera, less time mentally writing scenes) and live it more.

The nicest part: I enjoy the company, I like my sister, I like how she fits into life here. And I like my regular life, too. As I say: my "problems" aren't really problems.

So I also remember those who will be creating new work from pain. The pain of living in war or natural disaster. The pain of life as "collateral damage" to a company's negligent attitude toward safety, its workers, and the environment. The pain of losing a loved one and hardly being able to process that fact, because here is another aspect of the disaster coming to smack you in the head.

To them, I wish the peace necessary to make the art that will feed their souls, and, eventually, ours. And over here, I'm grateful in my life.
Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Ten, I Have One

The Niagara Branch of the Canadian Authors Association runs an annual short story contest.

This year, the 11th anniversary of their contest, my story "Thirty-Two Faces" was honourably mentioned. Ten stories total, including mine, will appear in an anthology that will come out in October.

It's worth clicking through the link above just to see the cheerful woman in the photo. That's how I feel, though rarely (if ever) how I look.

Thanks to Canadian Authors Association for holding the contest! It takes hard work to provide an ongoing opportunity for writers. We appreciate it very much.
Friday, July 9, 2010

Language Casts a Shadow

Felt & Wire, a website brought to us by the people who create Mohawk papers, has a bunch of interesting features. Interesting to people who are interested in creativity, that is.

This one in particular, an interview with Stephen Doyle of New York design firm Doyle Partners, looks into the interplay of content and form. A sampling of quotable quotes:

"Books are where ideas come from."

"I started taking out the binding and the pages and setting the words free."

"Remember, metaphor means to carry something from one place to another."

"I'm just building my own little world out of language, to see what happens."

Go thou and do likewise, and by thou I mean I.
Friday, June 25, 2010

Potato, You Know, Potato

Canadian comedian Irwin Barker, the Professor of Comedy, died Monday, too early.

Honestly, how many comedians do you hear ssaying, "I was thinking about Pythagorus the other day..."?

From Pythagorus to Pavlov, potatoes to pink entertaining man who obviously loved language. Comedians also talk about his mentorship and generosity. More about Irwin is here.

Thanks, Irwin, for setting a good example while making us laugh (and think).
Saturday, June 19, 2010

Talent in the Bay

Shy-Anne Hovorka performed at the opening of the G8 World Religions Summit in Winnipeg. Here's her video, produced locally.

Lots of creativity in this region!

Click here for all things Shy-Anne.
Saturday, June 12, 2010

Score!! Subtract One!

Edited to add material in blue.

I'm not a soccer fan, but I am apparently susceptible to images of people running on a grassy field with their arms in the air, shouting in glee. Who doesn't like to feel that sense of "Score!!" from time to time?

And since the New Yorker hasn't called to demand that I send over some of my short stories for immediate publication, I have to find those moments of "Score!!" other places.

Bookstores are dangerou$ place$ for me. I have to be really careful about buying books.* and ** I'm also very susceptible to the non-book merchandise in bookstores. So it's easier if I just stay away from them.

However, about a month ago, I got a hurry-up job for which I needed material. I scoped out a few things online but needed to browse the actual books in several different classifications and I didn't even know what to call those groups--self-help? leadership? management? business? inspirational? So I had to visit the local Chapters. I HAD to.

I bought four books. (Culled from 30.)

I didn't use any of them for that project.

However, I'm using two of them to change how I'm organizing my work life. And I'm using the other two in a different project.

A bonus of writing in the world of education is that I get to pull examples from all parts of life, and that rewards my habit of following rabbit trails online. Er, diverse reading.

So, although I can't charge any of the books back to a client (the ultimate score; free books!!), they're still business expenses. Which is a score, of a sort, if there is actual business income to charge them against. So, call it a Score! (only one !).

And now, back to staying out of the bookstore. Most of the time.
* I often make exceptions for books by people I know, especially local ones. Just last week, I added a new book of poetry to my bookshelf!

** I am desultorily reading a book about Canadian literature: Left Hook, by George Bowering. This afternoon I was passing the bookshelf where I store books till I get around to reading them, and I noticed a familiar title: Left Hook. Yes, I bought the same book off the sale table at Chapters TWICE. The good thing is that I paid $4.49 for it both times (wouldn't it stink if that other you got a better sale than yourself did?). The other good news is that I am consistent in being interested in books about Canadian literature. And in other good news, I have a gift (or door prize) at the ready. Yet it must be considered a net lo$$.
Saturday, June 5, 2010


Watch this. It's really nifty.

I suppose you could say that optical illusions "trick" the brain. But instead, what if they simply tap into the brain's natural tendency to do someting it really wants to do?

Same with writing. We carefully craft arrangements of ink splotches for someone else to see (or feel, or hear), and from that, the other person creates an entire world. Because the brain wants to.

The pertinent question: How can I improve my writing so that others' brains find it easier to suspend their disbelief and co-create a world with me?

I first saw this video on Gimundo, where I was directed from The Happiness Project.
Saturday, May 29, 2010

Writing First, Then Community

For all that I am someone who doesn't allow comments on her website and blog, I am a big believer in writing communities and I spend time participating in them.

And--I am pleased to be able to say--I also spend a lot of time writing, if in "writing" you count revising and submitting. I do define this carefully.

Freewriting and mind-mapping to figure out what the hell I really am trying to say in this essay: counts. Mowing the lawn while stewing over why the essay doesn't work: doesn't count.

Writing a cover letter and formatting a short story for a particular market: counts. Surfing around online, occasionally hitting websites I could conceivably submit to: doesn't count.

Not that the stewing while lawn-mowing or vacuuming or scone-baking (or even the surfing around) isn't useful. Sometimes it is. Sometimes I think "why don't I just say what I want to say?" But it doesn't really count as writing until I sit down and try it. And finding one "publication" that might be a target doesn't justify two hours of clicking, interspersed with games of spider solitaire (even when I win).

Same with participating in writing communities. It's extremely helpful to get feedback on specific pieces from readers. Especially when I know where those readers are "coming from," as we would say in the '70s. Every reader has preferences and limits, and I need to know those as I weigh their responses. An easy way to determine the value of a reader's response to my writing is by reading what they write. So a critique group is a useful thing. Mostly. But it's NOT WRITING until I come back to the piece, evaluate their suggestions, and start fiddling.

I am involved locally in a couple of professional organizations that have given me opportunities to raise my visibility, commiserate with other writers about recalcitrant characters, network with writers who are doing interesting things that make me think "hey I could do that, too," interact with writers who exemplify "beginner's mind" in a good way, and broaden my own skill set. I've even shared some of what I know for money and landed a couple of non-creative-writing gigs through those connections (though I am not in those groups for that purpose).

It's important and useful to do these things. But that's all NOT WRITING.

As long as I am writing TOO, actually PRODUCING SOMETHING, doing all that community stuff is great. Even introverted me enjoys it (to a point). I enjoy it a lot less when I'm not writing, and I take that as a good sign: at some level, I know the difference between writing and pretending to be a writer. I don't like hanging with people who are doing what I know I am meant to be doing (doo bee doo bee doo).

But always, always: what I do that is NOT WRITING is my choice. I'm not a victim, I'm a volunteer. I have the power to DO THE WRITING first and follow up with other responsibilities.

In this morning's surfing session, I found two blog posts that address these essential issues.

One, by Chris Brogan, outlines how he uses (and suggests others use) social media to support his efforts as an author. A sampling: get a website for the book, start a blog that doesn't exist solely to promote your book but instead builds a community, become known in your subject area beyond the book(s) you're promoting. He may be addressing mostly nonfiction writers and writers aiming toward mass market, but still--it's useful advice, all in one place, and it is easily adaptable to anyone with creative goals.

The other, by Seth Godin, describes how social media (marketing in general, really) can become demands (real demands, mind, attached to real people you may even care about) that distract you from doing your real work. His example: if you're uploading pictures from last night's party and miss a sales call, your priorities might be backward. Busyness not being equal to productivity and all.

But here's the interesting thing to me, today: both marketing guru dudes assume you have a product you're selling. An actual thing, whether it's knowledge or an e-book--or even a manuscript or book proposal. They start from the perspective that you're DOING THE WRITING.

So you know what that means. Time for me to head upstairs with another cup of coffee and face down that essay or, to avoid the tears of frustration, get back to that story draft that's coming out one. word. at. a. freaking. time. Go thou and do likewise. Our to-do lists will be there waiting when have done our day's work.
Saturday, May 22, 2010

Creative Non-Fiction Second Place

The winners of the CBC Literary Awards go up at enRoute, Air Canada's magazine, every month.

Here's a tour de force that won second place this year: "Quick-quick. Slow. Slow."

Friday, May 14, 2010

More than 1000

You have heard that whole "picture is worth a thousand words" thing. I love words, so sometimes I choose to disagree. But sometimes, the contest is not even close.

"Celebrating the Creators - Aboriginal Artists of Northwestern Ontario" is an exhibit currently open at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery (April 3 to May 23).

This video is in the exhibit.

Yes, it has words. Carefully chosen ones, though. And it's the images and music that take centre stage.

The blog about the video is here.

Nick Sherman, one of the video subjects, wrote and performs the song.

What an ambitious, beautiful project. Kudos to The Art Gallery for the exhibit, too.
Monday, May 10, 2010

Saying "No"

Nobody likes to hear "no." Yes, it's part of life. And yes, weathering rejection is part of being a writer, and yes, enduring the "no" is not unique to writers.

And actually, there is something worse than hearing "no": hearing...[cue cricket noises] nothing.

We all know the "reasons" why we hear nothing. The cost of doing business climbs. So publications, contests, and potential employers or customers view saying "no" as something they can cut out. It saves postage (although hello? email is free) and time (um, responses can be automated).

Plus, saying "yes" is fun. Saying "no" is difficult. Yes. Life is difficult.

In my writing world, "don't call us; we'll call you" is tolerable only when the publication (contest, employer, client) is upfront about it. And I still don't like it.

In any other circumstance, grow up. Behave like a professional person and say, "No." Or even, "No, but thank you for thinking of us, and best of luck elsewhere."

Because if you won't tell me "no," then I may say it to you. No, I will not submit, enter, or apply again. No, I will not buy a copy or subscribe. Not out of spite, but because an organization that can't say "no" isn't worth my time or money. It's not an organization I want to be associated with.

You know who's really good at saying "no"? Glimmer Train. Full disclosure: I have yet to hear anything other than "no" from Glimmer Train, but you can be sure I will keep trying.

You "if you hear nothing, assume no" and [cue crickets] types: you could do worse than behaving like Glimmer Train. They say "no" promptly, while expressing gratitude for being allowed to read submissions, and they're successful.

I wonder which came first: the "behaving professionally" part or the "success" part. (Okay, I don't really wonder.)
Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Way In (Starting Somewhere)

Poetry is not my specialty. I love poetic language, but I don't understand the concept of using only a few words when you can use a whole lot of 'em.

So I'm learning about poetry by reading it--at least one collection a year. (I don't call it "aiming low." I call it "starting somewhere.")

Last year I read Jeremiah, Ohio, by Adam Sol. Canadian content, a Canamerican/Ameri-nadian/ whatever writer: lots of connections there. To say nothing of the subject of the collection, which is a retelling of Jeremiah, a narrative (!!) that is itself challenging and disturbing. I found the whole experience stimulating, rewarding, and interesting.

So I didn't wait till poetry month to read another poetry collection (yep, "starting somewhere"). Last summer, Betsy Struthers was at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival, and I heard her read from her book In Her Fifties. It's divided into two parts: some prose poems set in the 1950s, and poetry about being a woman in her fifties. I liked what she read, so I bought it to read myself, too.

As I suspected, the prose poems set up a narrative that provided the way in for me. Narrative, I understand. Because of the first half, I could examine the later poems with some kind of context.

But for my official National Poetry Month book, I wanted to push myself. So I picked Struthers' Where the Night Comes Closest (sorry, the uncached link doesn't work). I knew that individual poems in the collection are related, and I knew the relationship wasn't through narrative, exactly. (Yes, I could have read up ahead of time, but what's the fun in that?) So far, so good in terms of the challenge.

Challenge is right. When it came time to read the poems and reflect, I had a hard time settling down to the task--through no fault of the poet. Chalk it up to life. It's a busy time of the year on lots of fronts. The individual poems are short, and on the up side, that means it's possible to read them in a series of five-minute windows, as the windows appear. But that's not the optimal way to read these poems, and probably not the optimal way to read any poetry.

Still, five-minute windows were what I had. So I read the poems over the course of the month. I enjoyed the process, and I admired individual poems, but the collection seemed to be inaccessible as a whole: a sphere of ice, a cloud of ecoplasm, a...something. Or maybe not. (See? Not a poet.)

The point is, I kept looking for a way in. For a "somewhere" to start.

And then I got to "Kelp." It's a relatively short poem with repeated lines that vary in meaning. "Aha!" said some part of my brain. "I bet this is a formal structure of some kind." I could tell it wasn't a sonnet or haiku, which is about the limit of my knowledge of poetic forms. As it happens, "Kelp" is a pantoum. (It says so in the back of the collection; thanks, Betsy.)

So, a pantoum. I studied the changes in meaning in the repeated lines, and I found myself slowing down. Reading. Thinking. Going forward in the book, going backward. Paying attention to individual poems and retaining something of them from one reading to the next.

In other words, I got in. I got a start, somewhere. As time passes and I keep reading--slowly--the context may assemble itself. The more I engage, the more I'll see, I suspect.

While I was reading up on pantoums, I eventually remembered reading Mesopotamia, by Bruce Meyer, in late February and early March. He came to Thunder Bay for a lecture and workshop, and I read it to prep. However, that was also a busy time. I got the gist of the collection--that was what I could do.

Luckily, Mesopotamia has lots of form poetry. And apparently I'd had enough mental wherewithal during that time to learn to pay when individual lines reappear later in the same poem. (Remember: "starting somewhere.")

So here's my lesson from the experience of reading poetry during 2010's National Poetry Month: form can be a key that gets me into the space the poet has created. At the moment, I may still be in the foyer, but at least I'm a little closer to the inside. And the foyer's a beautiful place. I like it here.

To build on last year's experience, I may even read another poetry collection before next April. (Starting somewhere.)
Saturday, April 24, 2010

True Poetry

April is Poetry Month. I'm reading a book of poetry but it takes me a long time to know what I think about poetry. So, until I can get my act together, contemplate this.

And now, go to Mr. Mali's website and buy pens. Watch more poetry. Book a workshop. Surf around until you stumble on the 13 tips for performing poetry.
Saturday, April 10, 2010

Creative Non-Fiction Winner

The winners of the 2009 CBC Literary Awards will be published in EnRoute magazine and online in the coming months. Here's a link to the winning entry from the Creative Non-Fiction category.

Many congratulations to all the winners. I'm pleased to have been included in their company.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Supporting Short Stories

I'm working on a short story collection, with emphasis on the ongoing (one might say "neverending") nature of the present participle verb form "am working."

Today I heard from the Ontario Arts Council that I received a Writer's Works in Progress grant to help support moving this project into the past tense. I am profoundly grateful and more than a little daunted. I've heard many many months (years) of "no" from many directions, so receiving this support is meaningful emotionally as well as financially. (As was getting on the CBC shortlist.)

So, here we go: Writing. Ripening. (AKA "Composing" and "Composting.") Revising. Ripening. Revising. Revising. Dithering. Revising. Proofing. Dithering. Revising. Proofing. Etc. Eventually, submitting. And submitting. Then backing up to some dithering, revising, and proofing. But moving again. Thank you!
Thursday, March 18, 2010

CBC Literary Award Winners

The CBC today announced the winners of its literary award competition here. Winning entries will start appearing online soon!

Although my essay wasn't chosen to receive an award, I'm still VERY happy that it was recognized on the shortlist. I appreciate all the feedback I got from writing colleagues along the way.

And when it does appear somewhere, you'll see that info here!
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Local Interview

A local radio station phoned for a quick interview this afternoon. Their post about the CBC Literary Awards is here.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CBC Literary Awards: the Shortlist

CBC recently announced the shortlists for its annual Literary Awards. I'm pleased that my essay, "All I Can Say," is shortlisted in the creative non-fiction category.

To see the list with my name on it, click here. The winners will be announced March 18.

I'm extremely honoured and excited to see this essay recognized in this way. It's about exceptional people and I'm pleased that readers were moved by it. Someday it will be published, and I'll be sure to share that news!
Friday, February 12, 2010


You've found the website of Marion Agnew, a former Oklahoman/Arkansawyer/New Mexican/Coloradoan who has discovered that her home was really in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, all along.

Check out the links to the right and visit my blog, Half Canadian, where I regularly contemplate borders, boundaries, and other invisible (though not imaginary) lines.

Oh, and the pictures above? They're where I live and work and play. Sometimes all at the same time.