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.)