Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Not What I Expected

Sometimes, things don't turn out the way you expect them to. Like today's haircut.

Backing up a bit...last July, my brother started a particularly strong type of chemotherapy to help ready his body for a stem cell transplant. For the first time, he faced losing his hair. In a moment of insanity, um, solidarity, I said I would grow out the gray in my hair. (At least I knew myself well enough not to volunteer to shave my head!) My stylist talked me into dying my (shorter) hair a colour that she claimed matched my natural colour. (My hair had been chemically treated for so long, in one way or another, that I honestly didn't remember what my real colour was.) Then, she said, the colour could grow out and I could look somewhat adult and respectable instead of like someone who hadn't really thought through this whole "growing out the gray" thing.

The whole growing-out process took a lot longer than I expected, and the results aren't nearly as shocking as I was steeled for. I was posting weekly photos to Facebook until I realized that they didn't show that much difference. Even today, 4.5 months after the beginning of the project, with today's cut taking off almost all of the non-natural colour, the results are a little ::yawn::. Yes, there's some gray -- quite a bit in some spots. About what I expected. Less than I feared. We'll see how long I allow it to stay.

Lesson: sometimes projects don't turn out the way you think they will.

In another example, I'm reading February, by Lisa Moore. It's thought-provoking and I'm enjoying, immensely, the experience of reading it. Her main characters are so well-drawn and she takes them places that surprise me yet are completely consistent for those people. All in all, it's making me consider a novel I've been working on for awhile (OK, years) -- the partial draft I have has been a struggle to write. The scope of the work has changed. My interest has shifted. The characters feel different to me than they did at the beginning. some of the parts I have written have that "I'm necessary to work with" feel and some just don't.

Perhaps it's time to radically re-think this project. Maybe I need to return to the novel I was originally writing -- or maybe I need to let go and allow the characters to tell me where they really want to go. I had been pushing to finish a draft, a little desperate to feel as if I were getting somewhere with it -- but perhaps where I wanted the characters to go wasn't appropriate. Perhaps my sense of urgency was misplaced.

Lesson: sometimes projects don't turn out the way you think they will.

In other news, my brother is doing very well. At some point in the past four to six weeks, he went from being a patient who works on writing projects in an hour or two here and there to a regular person who spends a lot of time working and writing and who oh yeah has occasional medical appointments. It's been really nice to be here to witness the change, gradual though it has been. He'll stay close to his transplant centre for another month, but soon he'll be back at his own home, figuring out what comes next in his life.

And so will I. I'll see what those characters have to say, check out the gray hair in the lights of my own bathroom, and otherwise get back to the regular business of living.

Lesson: even when projects don't turn out the way you think they will, they may still turn out pretty well. I wonder what lessons 2012 will bring.
Sunday, November 27, 2011

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!

So you know my story came out in Prairie Fire before I expected it to.

AND the Fall issue of Room, with my essay, has also hit the bookshelves at a fabulous independent bookstore near you. You might also find it at a chain -- if you don't see it, ask for it so they know people read it!

AND I just sent back proofs for the fall issue of South Dakota Review, which will print my story "Walking Out."

AND I got a review! Joan Baril, Thunder Bay writer and purveyor of Literary Thunder Bay, had some nice comments about "MacDonald Variety," the story in Prairie Fire.

It's been quite a fall. The best part, which I had absolutely nothing to do with, is that my brother continues to recover well.

Which reminds me, November is my birthday month, and the ability to celebrate my birthday with my brother (and his, a few weeks later) is one of the best gifts I've ever received.

With a quick swab of the inside of your cheek, you can join a registry that could allow you to give someone else an even better gift -- the gift of life. In the U.S., go to Be the Match. In Canada, check out OneMatch.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Early Bounty

The Fall 2011 Prairie Fire is out (this link is to the home page while it's the current issue; for future visitors, it's Vol. 32 No. 3) and I have a short story in it!

I had thought it wouldn't be published till Winter 2012. This is such a pleasant surprise. It will be really fun to see the rest of the issue as well. I'm still away from home (and my brother is recuperating VERY WELL, thanks!) so I am awfully glad I had my husband open the mail.

And yes, I brought writing, and yes, I am able to work on it! That feels rewarding, too.

It's a little early -- or late, depending on the country -- for Thanksgiving, but there is much for which I am very grateful this harvest season! (Which you can tell by all the exclamation points!!!)
Monday, October 17, 2011

Surfeit and Link-O-Rama

I've written before about participating in a local writing community, but since I can't get the blog's search function to load, you'll have to take my word for it.

Writing communities, and their value, can inspire differences of opinion among writers. I can see both sides: communities can be useful, and they can also be distractions from doing the work. During the seven years I've been in the process of moving here, living here, and adjusting to life here, I've found it useful to keep company with other writers.

With some writers, at some times, for some purposes.

Sometimes I feel that I know more about writing than I have actually practiced, and so I don't seek out new insights, "how to" articles, workshops, or opportunities to learn about writing. Instead, I focus on taking apart writing (my own). Applying what I know. Trying things.

Sometimes I attend readings and workshops simply to be in the same room with many people who think writing is important -- important to read and important to do. Also, my physical presence in a room can be important to someone else. My support for her courage in sharing her work at a reading can help her confirm that she is (or not) on the right track. And I end up learning, in the same way that I learn from a close, analytical read of someone else's work. The Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW) hosts a reading and a workshop nearly every month, so I have plenty of opportunity to support others, and myself, in this way.

And sometimes I attend events ready to learn. (More links!)

This past Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, NOWW kicked off a special Electronic Writer-in-Residence program, featuring the lovely and talented Elizabeth Ruth. I learned a lot this past weekend, PLUS I'll have the chance, after I revise, to get her feedback on the revision!!

At the same time, the International Festival of Authors sponsored an event in Thunder Bay, in coordination with the Thunder Bay Public Library and the Northern Woman's Bookstore. Writers James Bartleman, Johanna Skibsrud, and Jane Urquhart read to an over-capacity crowd last night, and there's a follow-up workshop with Skibsrud at the university today.

Tomorrow night is one of NOWW's regular readings and features writing for children and young adults.

Wednesday night is a book launch at the local art gallery -- Tristan Hughes, who divides time between Atikokan, Ontario (just up the road from Thunder Bay) and Wales, has set his recent book, Eye Lake, in Atikokan. It would be worth going to the launch in any case, but a couple of people have raved about the book, so it should be an extra-fun event.

I just hope I'm not completely glassy-eyed by Wednesday evening. Because in addition to the events themselves, I've been meeting people -- people from this community who I can't believe I haven't met before.

Like Susan Payetta, who sometimes lives in the Caribbean, who created Sail Rock Publishing and brought out Edward Kent's memoir of Caribbean life, Up Before Dawn.

Like Graham Strong, whose name I now remember seeing around town in a professional writing capacity and who is now also working on a novel.

Like the people in Elizabeth Ruth's workshop on Saturday, many of whom I "knew" before -- but now I've heard them talk about their work and heard their ideas for moving forward in their writing.

Like Jane Urquhart, though "meeting" is probably too strong a word for "handing her a couple of books to sign," and "from this community" is likely an inaccurate way to represent her childhood in a small mining town near Beardmore. However. I will also "meet" Johanna Skibsrud by attending her workshop, and I will "meet" Tristan Hughes by attending his launch (and possibly handing HIM a book to sign, too).

There have been so many activities that I would use the word "surfeit," except that when I checked the dictionary definitions, many go beyond "borderline excess" to "TOO MUCH, so much you feel disgust." I am definitely not disgusted! I do feel a bit...overloaded? At a tipping point?

And perhaps a bit nostalgic, if it's possible to be so in advance.

Because this weekend, I'll be leaving this physical community for a couple of months. (Hi robbers! Our vicious attack dogs will hungrily greet you if you try anything!!) I've written here before about my brother and his need for a stem cell donor. His transplant got underway last week and is by all accounts going well. But his wife needs to tend to business back home, and I'll be her backup, off and on, through December.

Yes, I'm taking writing. Yes, the miracles of technology make it possible for me to stay in touch and participate remotely. (And yes, I'll still probably appear here.)

I'm enjoying this whirlwind of activity, even though it threatens at times to blow my head right off. The writers, the times, and the purposes for participating in the writing community have all been in alignment this month. And I will miss it!
Saturday, October 8, 2011

Literally: No Really, I Mean Literally

It's October and the leaves are turning. Friday I was driving to a morning meeting in town, enjoying the vistas in front of me: golden poplar and birches intertwined with dark green spruce, balsam, and pine. The moose maple and low-lying brush have gone orange and red this year. Beyond the trees lay the lake, glinting silver blue in the mid-morning sun, and beyond that, the Sibley peninsula, Isle Royale, and Pie Island in their various shades of purple.

I came to the top of a rise and gasped audibly. The view took my breath away. Literally: a breathtaking view.

Over the years, other images used figuratively have shown me their literal roots.

One summer Saturday, the our end of the bay developed huge rolling waves, coming from town. It had been a calm morning -- the kind of morning, in fact, that my grandfather and then my mother used to warn about. The kind of morning that encouraged people to go out fishing, perhaps too far from shore to be safe. Sure enough, one of the guys out fishing didn't head back toward town soon enough. His boat and motor were too small for him to navigate the surf. So he came ashore on our beach, even though we had no dock and the rocky bottom scraped at his hull. Our beach was protected and available, and..."any port in a storm," as they say.

My sister used to go sailing with a guy named Mac. One trip was a several-day cruise through the islands off the BC coast. One evening, Mac was frowning over a chart on the table. "I can't fathom it," he said. He didn't mean that he couldn't figure out how the chart worked, or how on earth the small crew had arrived wherever they were. He meant that he couldn't work out how many fathoms of water they were in -- how deep was it, how safe they were from running aground.

On thinking about it, I can imagine other times when I must have seen the figurative in its literal sense.

"That's the way the ball bounces" -- with all the sports I've watched, surely I have seen someone suffer disappointment from a wayward basketball. I know I have been personally disappointed at crumbled cookies. (Peanut butter cookies are particularly prone to inopportune crumbling, in my experience.)

Other expressions remain figurative. I haven't hoed in a long time, if ever, so I don't know firsthand the toughness of any particular row. I've never literally thrown good money after bad, though I do understand what it means, having invested in relationships that were (to others) obviously past their sell-by date.

And that's another metaphor I have experienced in its literal sense, though I wonder what the sell-by date on yogurt really means -- isn't it already growing stuff?

It's also fun to collect mixed or mis-used metaphors. During Thursday night's coverage of the provincial election, one of Global TV's pundits said "that's throwing a monkey at the wrench" -- TWICE. Okay, it was live TV. But still.

One error grammar gurus enjoy wailing about is the mis-use of "literal" to mean "figurative." I'm sure I've done it, though I do try not to. But I also know that experiencing metaphors in their literal sense helps make me more aware of them, and perhaps less likely to err in the future.

Meanwhile, it's just plain fun.
Monday, October 3, 2011

"All I Can Say": A Timeline

This entry got long and all self-reflect-y. There is important stuff at the top, and also about subscribing at the bottom. Feel free to skip the middle.

The new Room magazine, Issue 34.3, will be out soon, and my essay “All I Can Say” is in it! Here's the cover.





Here's a link to the editor's opening essay, which starts off with my own piece.

Nonwriters sometimes ask writers, “How long did it take you to write this story?” To illustrate the difficulty of answering that kind of question, I've created a timeline of events that are (mostly) relevant to this essay.

2000 (May): My mother dies, technically from pneumonia, but really from Alzheimer's Disease. She lived in Oklahoma; I live in Colorado. I had quit writing about my mother's illness during the last year of her life so that I could be more present in it. I take up writing again soon after her death.

2001 (September): I take my first class in American Sign Language (ASL), something from my List,* with a (hearing) interpreter. She (strongly) advises us to take class at the local community college from with Eric, a local Deaf teacher. So I do, in January 2002.

2002 (June 14): Eric's hearing dog Fancy is killed by a drunk driver, and Eric is injured in the accident. Fancy's funeral reminds me strongly of my mother's, though they are also very different. I write a brief piece about Fancy and Eric, in response to a question from Veronica Patterson, a poet and friend.

2003: I continue to study ASL, now in a formal program to prepare interpreters. I work on various essays. Mostly they're about my mother.** An early pre-version of “All I Can Say” shows up. I do other writing for money. I'm not sure what I'm looking for, either in writing or life.

2004 (August): I recognize that my life isn't working. I leave the interpreting program (the fact of leaving still gives me a pang, though I would not have been a good interpreter) and begin the process of moving to Canada.*** Writing (except for work) takes a back seat to filling out forms and, I guess, life.

2005 (November): I become a permanent resident of Canada and recognize that it's time to get serious about this creative writing thing. I'm not sure what that means, but I do produce words on virtual pages.

2006 (December): I send off a version of this essay; it's rejected. I don't remember doing it, but I trust my Excel spreadsheet. A couple of short nonfiction pieces, one about my mother, appear online in Tiny Lights (http://www.tiny-lights.com/flash.php, the Ninth and Tenth flashes).

2007: A different, longer essay about my mother receives honourable mention in a contest from Riverwalk Journal (March, pub July/August). My father dies (April). I get married (August).

2008: Still writing. My new creative writing is mostly fiction, but "All I Can Say," about Fancy and my mother and Eric, won't leave me alone.

2009: I start submitting writing on a schedule: something, somewhere, every month. Turns out I don't have as much “finished” fiction as I thought I did, and there's this essay, so... I pull it out and revise it. The critique group gives me this title; a writing friend points out an important “show don't tell” toward the end. I send it off to the CBC Literary Awards (October), feeling good about the investment my entry fee represents.

2010: This essay is shortlisted (hooray!) but not a finalist (accurately so) in the CBC awards. I submit it a couple of places that “should” be interested in it, but I'm never sure it's a good fit, and the publications are all-too-sure it's not. I send it to Room (November), and I tell my husband, “I have a good feeling about this.”

2011: Room accepts it. Now you can read it!

So there's your timeline. As you can see, the answer to the "how long?" question often is "oh, a while." And if you also noticed that the "it takes a village" concept sometimes also applies to writing, well then--bonus points for you.

AND THAT'S NOT ALL! If you subscribe online, here, with the subscription code FRIENDS, you get the issue that “All I Can Say” appears in FREE! as a SPECIAL BONUS GIFT, along with your four issues, for the low, low price of $30 Canadian or $41 US! (Sorry. I do this kind of thing for a living.)

Seriously: It's a good publication, with good writing. Subscribe. Submit. (They also have a new FREE ENewsletter.)

I'm pretty happy – make that ecstatic – that this piece found its home in Room, a place where women can write about achievement and sports as well as relationships and feelings. My mother is right at home in its pages.

I'm also extremely pleased that this part of this journey has completed this loop of life's ongoing spiral. Many heartfelt thanks to all those who gave feedback along the way. Happy reading!

_________
* This List is now known as a "Bucket List," though I don't really like that designation. I'd added ASL to my List in graduate school during my Intro to Linguistics course, not long after meeting a Deaf Master's swimmer in Arkansas.

** There's a long and as-yet-untold story about the drunk driver and various legal shenanigans. It may stay untold, but it ends with a harmonica.

*** This is not as "running away to join the circus" as it sounds. My mother was born and grew up here, so I had roots and connections here.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Commitment

Some commitments are more important than others.

I know: duh.

But seriously. When you say, "I'm writing a novel," and then you don't, who do you hurt? Yourself, for sure, unless your own integrity demands that you don't write it, at least at this moment.

But what if you say "I'm writing a novel," and then just...don't, for no real reason except that it's hard, or something else was more fun? Make this kind of "commitment" often enough and sooner or later, you won't believe yourself when you make commitments, and then it's even harder to keep them.

"Oh, sure," your inner self says. "We'll see how long this lasts," whether you're committing to write a novel or run a 10K or just spend Saturday mornings with your kids. And then that inner critic claps with glee when you sleep in instead of putting in your page count or mileage, or heading off toward the playground.

You could also argue that when you don't write your novel, we all are hurt, because your voice isn't in the world, informing or inspiring or delighting us. But we don't know that. It's not an immediate hurt.

On the other hand, when you say, "Yes, I'll donate the stem cells in my blood to someone in need of a new immune system," and you don't, who do you hurt? Maybe yourself, in the same ways as above -- but you're also DESPERATELY hurting the patient and his or her entire family. You said you would, and now you're not following through.

Let me just say that my brother is fine. He has had some problems with donors, but he is on schedule for a transplant this fall (the spring transplant was a pipe dream). I can't really imagine the frustration and fear he and his wife and grown children have been dealing with during the donor issues, but I know my own frustration on his behalf, and I can multiply, and I also know about exponents. Therefore, I can guess their frustration and fear have been pretty big.

And I also know this: that just as any outsider doesn't know why someone doesn't write that novel or run that 10K, no one knows what makes a person not follow through with a commitment to donate.

This is important: There are any number of serious, vital reasons why a person might, in good faith, join a donor database and then not be able to follow through.

It's just...say so. When they contact you, say "Now is not a good time." Be upfront. Own the decision. Say "I thought I could, but I can't." That's what it is to act with integrity.

Of course, I've been talking to myself this whole time. Yes, I have continued to write the novel. I've also been revising short stories, working, and tending to other commitments. I recognize that as my brother's transplant nears, I may need to suspend work on my novel for a few months. And thanks to this rumination about commitment, I now know I need to do it with integrity: to make an explicit plan.

So thank you, anonymous donor who is enthusiastically participating in the transplant, and thank you also to the one who got cold feet. I have learned from this situation. I hope you have, too.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Loss

Loss has been on my mind lately. I've had the privilege of sitting in a memorial service for a family member. Canada lost one of its political leaders. And the U.S. observed the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Of course, I think about the stories. The stories people told. The stories that people didn't get to tell. The ones people wish they could forget. And the ones that are now lost, the stories unique to each of the individual souls no longer with us.

StoryCorps is working with family members of those who died on September 11 to record their stories. Unfortunately, it's too late to capture the stories from those killed -- how they would have described their lives, the things that were important to them. It's also too late for me to seek out my husband's cousin's memories of my husband as a young boy, of their fathers and mothers as they talked and laughed together.

Over the next few months, I'll have the opportunity to listen to many family stories. Some will be re-tellings of stories I have already heard or incidents I participated in. Some will be new to me.

And this time, when we have lost voices and remember those lost before, reminds me to listen -- really listen. No one can preserve every story, but listening shows respect for the story, the teller, and the subject. In some small way, listening helps keep that story alive.
Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Doldrums

The Doldrums (the intertropical convergence zone) are a physical place, near the equator, where winds from north and south converge. The Doldrums encompass both violent thunderstorms and what Wikipedia calls "stagnant calms." The "calm" part of which I think of more as "lack of anything happening," instead of "peacefulness." And the violent thunderstorms are most often expressed as "Omigod what happened to summer????"

In any case, several people have mentioned symptoms of being in The Doldrums lately. Maybe it's the heat, which discourages purposeful activity but doesn't erase the guilt for "wasting" perfectly beautiful sunny days. Regardless, summer is slipping away (September is THURSDAY! Autumn is nearly HERE!) and that stirs up feelings of panic or wistfulness, depending.

Natural disasters like storms or earthquakes don't help. Neither do unsettling events, like the death of Jack Layton at a young 61. We, too, are mortal. And we, too, may leave this earth before we get to do everything we wanted. And there's that summer, GONE or nearly so.

I experienced my own Doldrms a bit early, a few weeks ago, and found a few things that helped me through them, which I offer here.

1. Declare. Do you wish for more summer? Then pick a date and let it be summer until then. Autumn doesn't officially start for another 3.5 weeks -- or go wild and let September be summer all month long. Or maybe you're gearing up for a new school year or other autumnal activities. Great! Start them early, if it's not already too late. Or commit to them for real. Let summer go and welcome fall. Whether you extend summer or let it go is your decision.

2. Dream. Now comes the fun part. What do you want this time to include? If you're having another month of summer, you might need to pick bite-sized versions of those things you meant to do but didn't. It's too late to plant and tend a vegetable garden -- but you can go to a Farmer's Market and take advantage of others' green thumbs. Maybe you won't go on that two-week kayak adventure, but you can still rent a kayak for a few hours. A bonus is that you might learn that two weeks in a kayak is perhaps more than you want to do.

If you're already welcoming fall, you can look a bit farther ahead. What particular activities do you want to try this season? Visit a corn maze. Bake a pumpkin pie from the meat of a real pumpkin. Host a Grey Cup party. Get involved in the provincial election campaign. Brainstorm and doodle and mind-map. You can pare them down later -- this is the time to have fun.

Speaking of Jack Layton, one person interviewed at his funeral said something extremely thought-provoking. She said that his death is causing her to re-evaluate her priorities. While he was alive and leading the NDP, she was content to let him be the one speaking up, to let him do the work. Now that he's gone, she thought, maybe it's time for her to get more directly involved.

If you have a month of summer before you, you may not have time to complete a big project that has meaning for you. In that case, piggyback on someone else's. I'm still a fan of the Communicatrix's 50-for-50 campaign that benefits WriteGirl, a nonprofit that gets girls writing. You could also join the bone marrow donor bank in your country (see the links at right) -- it's as easy as a cheek swab.

If you're jumpstarting fall, you can also donate, and then take on a larger project that speaks to you. Again, lots of people are already working hard and need a helping hand. Maybe you get involved with the Stephen Lewis Foundation's Grannies for Africa, your local HIV/AIDS/Hepatitis C support group, a homeless shelter, a food bank. Maybe you get a gaggle of friends and go to a fancy fund-raiser together. Part of your dream should let you look back at the end of November and say, "Yeah, I did this."

Which brings us to...

3. Do. Yeah, this is the "hard" part. Here's where I make the calendar, a physical paper calendar, my friend. In August, I committed to doing a few things every day and then checked them off when I was done. It was incredibly satisfying. Check! Check!!

Two key points. First, "a few things" means you have to whittle down the list of things you dreamed of. Pick and choose. For your month of summer, one "summer bite" thing a week may be all you can handle. For your fall, maybe you add only one larger commitment (join a book club) and one smaller, one-off event (going to a gala). Or a smaller one each month. Second, accountability-commitment-reward. Jerry Seinfeld's "don't break the chain" may work for you. You may have a finely honed sense of responsibility and don't need gold stars or red checkmarks or Xs. Good for you! (Who are you kidding--you know you want a sticker. Hie thee to a back-to-school sale.)

Key point two-point-five. I also think "every day" was helpful -- as in 15 minutes of writing (new writing, not revising or editing or otherwise dinking around) every day instead of 2 hours a week, because I can find 15 minutes where I can talk myself out of 2 hours. (Plus 15 minutes was usually longer, but when it wasn't, that was OK too.) But your mileage may vary.

Lots of people have lots of advice about the "do" part. Here's the deal: you are competent in other areas of your life. You know how to do that stuff stuff. You can do this writing stuff, too. Don't make it harder than it has to be.

And that's it. I'm just home from a brief time away (aka vacation), and once I'm done happy dancing (I LOVE it here), I'm getting out my calendar and gearing up for September and beyond. I can look back at an August that included lots of productive writing, lots of being outside, and regular work. I didn't conquer The Doldrums, exactly; I just evened out the mood swings a little and kept on, and I have the checkmarks to prove it. And if I can -- well, you can, too.
Sunday, August 21, 2011

Giving: Risks and Rewards

I love it when people do nice things. It's inspiring in ways they may not even have considered. Here are two examples.

Last year, a poet friend and her sister collaborated with one of their friends who makes books. "Makes" as in hand-makes, stitches, selects paper, does the fancy folds -- really makes them, hands-on. This bookmaking friend had been part of a course in which participants discussed that question that plagues all artists: now that I've made it, what do I do with it?

Obviously, many artists want to sell things. But let's face it, not everything artists produce is something others want to own, much less pay for. Then what? Writers fill up filing cabinets (now virtual), but when you're a potter or a painter or book-maker, what do you do? How many storage units can an artist afford?

This book-maker decided she would use her skills to give to others. She came up with a theme: seasons. She recruited co-conspirators. The painting sister painted seasonal scenes, the poet wrote season-related poems, and the book-maker produced limited-edition books with this content. All of them got to practice their art. And then they held an event at a local coffee place, sold the books, and gave the proceeds to a local nonprofit organization.

And yes, it was a risk. What if she couldn't get friends to produce content? What if the content turned out to be not so great? What if nobody bought the books? What if no one showed up -- or even cared?

What I love about this example of giving, besides having a lovely book on my shelf and making it possible for my own sister to have one on hers, is that it was a risk, and it created such a win-win-win situation. Everybody did want to do it. There was a celebration, and the experience rippled out to give positive results to people who weren't even there.

[ETA this link to a review of the book, with more specifics. Well done, poet Marianne Jones, artist Karen Reinikka, and magicians at BookWrights Bindery!]

Here's the second example. Colleen Wainwright, AKA The Communicatrix, is turning 50 soon. To celebrate, she's created for herself the "50 for 50" challenge, during which she has taken on the goal of raising $50,000 for WriteGirl, an LA-based nonprofit that encourages girls to write.

As artists know, art gives you the confidence of your voice, tells you that you and your experiences matter, helps you take yourself more seriously (in the best way), encourages you to participate actively in your world -- in short, art creates spinoff benefits that can have a powerful positive influence on all of us. Giving confidence to girls who otherwise don't have much of anything -- well, that's a gift indeed. And selfishly, I want to live in a world where girls know the power of their voice: what's that worth to me? To you?

Make no mistake, the Communicatrix has a capital-F Following. If everyone who learned something from one of her posts about art, acting, or writing gave $1, she would have many times her $50,000 goal. This project is ambitious: along with raising the money, Colleen is interviewing 50 people she knows about how they became writers, the influence of their teachers, and their favorite things to read.

In other words, this project also benefits lots of people; it's also a win-win-win. However, this project is still a risk. It's ambitious. And that's what makes it extra-cool, extra-inspiring. It's what makes it a gift.

So much of creative writing (for me) is about somehow dealing with internal stuff: blocks, demons, things I absolutely cannot write about that of course end up being what I need to write about, remembering that it's the piece that gets rejected not me, blah blah the usual internal stuff.

It's so refreshing -- and inspiring, and instructive -- to see how art and writing can also be about the world "out there." What a great payoff for taking a risk: making the world better, one book and one girl at a time.
Monday, August 15, 2011

Looked at "no" from both sides, now

Sorry for the earworm, and if you're too young to have it appear naturally, here. You're welcome. This is the version (pared down: Joni Mitchell + guitar) that plays in my head. (Though, okay, I first heard Judy Collins do it; I'm American.) And this version (Measha Brueggergosman + lots of production) is also beautiful. It's obviously an enduring song.

In any case, my point: I've had the chance to "say" no recently, and being on that side of the rejection was a different kind of difficult.

A group I'm in has a great program starting (again) this fall, and we put out an RFP that elicited dozens of applications. I wasn't involved in the entire vetting process, but I joined toward the end, and since I was the one with a little time, I was responsible for bearing the news.

First I notified applicants that selection was taking longer than we anticipated. About ten days later, after much discussion and back-and-forth and research, I had to notify applicants that we had selected someone (else).

And in between, I wondered how an editorial team at a literary journal can stand it. Because guess what? Being part of the process of saying "yes" to one, and "no" to dozens of others, was difficult.

Obviously, we had criteria--as lit journals do. We used them to weed out the candidates who were slightly off-target. Even so, the list of qualified, viable candidates was long for us, as I imagine it is for a journal.

From there, we went back time and again to the audience: in our case, the people who would be participating in the program. Which candidate could offer them a good experience? What did we even mean by "good experience"? Lots of the candidates would be able to take the program in interesting directions with their expertise. Which direction was the best match for our membership at this time?

And yes, we also considered the membership we don't have, the audience we haven't quite attracted. How would candidates help us win participation from those folks?

Ultimately, we made a decision. The candidates who weren't selected were gracious; many wished us success, which we appreciate. Writers are good people.

Saying "no" isn't an entirely new experience for me. I've been on hiring committees before. But this experience was particularly illuminating. For the past several years, I've been mostly on the receiving end of rejections. Through necessity, I've developed a much more sanguine response to "no" than I once had. But I didn't really have a sense of just how difficult the decisions were from the other end.

Now, I will dig a little deeper to be even more sure my piece is a good match for a journal. I will set a piece aside for one more revision instead of sending it out because I can't quite get it right and I'm tired of looking at it on my (virtual) desk.

And I will continue to send the "thank you" notes. When you've spent an hour sending rejections, getting an email with a "thank you for your time" makes one feel a little less like an ogre.

But mostly (to get back to the song), I'm getting beyond an illusion. (Again. I knew this but I didn't KNOW-it-know-it, I just "yeah yeah I know"-knew it.) Hearing a "no" about a piece of work isn't a rejection of me, my writing ability, the ultimate viability of this piece, or anything else. It just means "not now, not for us." Really!
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Set. Sprung.

So. Still living in the country. Still fighting to enforce a line between indoors and outdoors. New opponent, though: this time, it's a rodent.

Last week, a mouse made its way into my office. I am not a fan of rodents, so my inner alarm system shrieked to alert the household to the presence of the intruder. Just trying to keep everyone else safe. That's me.

After a quick trip to the little store for peanut butter, my husband set four traps. Meanwhile, I donned my "wellies" (wellington boots, similar to these, except mine have glitter flower stickers on them) and stood by, trying to keep my alarm system from tripping again.

Soon thereafter, the intruder reappeared but eventually made his way up the vacuum hose to heaven, where s/he frolicks with friends and enjoys the absence of shrieks.

It's been several days, now, and I have heard nothing in the way of further mouse activity. (Sadly, I am familiar with its scritchings and tappings.) However, the set traps remain. I have wondered whether it's time to spring them and put them away. But that's as far as it's gone so far: wondering.

Last December, I first heard from my brother that his cancer was unaffected by chemotherapy and his future would include more aggressive treatments and a stem cell transplant. Since then, I have been set, much like those traps, waiting to spring into action, waiting for the next news, waiting to learn how I can be of service. Just plain waiting. Sometimes on edge, sometimes tired, always preoccupied. When would there be something I could do? When would my presence be necessary?

Last night, I realized that for the first time in about nine months, I'm almost completely relaxed again. Bit by bit, starting in late April, I've forced myself to let go of the alarm. I've taken a brief vacation, allowed myself to schedule events throughout the summer, and hosted my sister for a longer vacation. I have a work plan for August and am scheduling September projects. Best of all, I can think deeply about creative projects -- I again have the mental space to carry them around with me.

It helps that my brother has responded well to his latest chemotherapy. His donor is ready. A fall transplant looks probable, and his wife has a more-freeing work assignment than she anticipated. All this reassuring news helps me relax.

But really, the process started because I decided it could. And my creative spirit, which has been waiting patiently, is happy to have some room to play again.

Yet the experience of being wound up, of waiting, has of course changed me. Internally, I'm no longer at Security Level Red or DefCon 4 or whatever military metaphor you want to use. I'm relaxed -- but I'm no longer innocent of my brother's needs. He's on a difficult journey. I may have the opportunity to be of direct use to them this fall, and I'm still ready to do that. But I recognize that I don't have to be wound so tightly to be ready.

So, back to the mundane world. Maybe it's time to spring the mousetraps, wipe off the unsampled peanut butter, and put the traps away.

Maybe.

But just as I know my brother's cancer is not (yet?) cured, I know that I live in the country. I am not innocent of the vagueness between indoors and outdoors. So for now, I'm still wearing my wellies in my office.
Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Life as an Antagonist

I haven't had the joy of parenting a teenager, so I have little direct experience as an antagonist in someone else's drama. At least, not that I'm aware of. Except for...never mind.

However, I live in the country (stay with me), where the line between "indoors" and "outdoors" is porous. Periodically, critters get confused.

At the moment, we're dealing with some flies. Big, slow-moving flies. And I am their antagonist -- even their nemesis. Today, I have armed myself with a vacuum cleaner. I have conducted several sorties against them and emerged victorious in battle, though I have not yet (and may never) win the war.

Because I have seen enough advertisements in my life, and I have watched enough episodes of CSI: Wherever in my life, I know what the presence of flies indicates. (Where you see X vermin, 10X actually exist. Flies are a reliable indicator of the time of death of something, which means...never mind that, either.) Yuck.

To distract myself from those trains of thought, I have been imagining myself as a character in their epic struggle for survival. And that means I have to accept that I'm their antagonist. In their version of this story, I am Sauron, intentionally destroying "their way of life."

It's kind of fun, not that I enjoy the wanton destruction of life. I do, however, enjoy having a problem that's relatively easy to take care of, even if it means the vacuum hose has to lie around on the floor all day, since the flies persist with valiant tenacity in spite of my obvious superior vacuum ability. Periodically they regroup in clusters on the windows and sliding glass doors, and I have another go at them. But as problems go, mine beats African famine and the idiocy of American politics.

It's also a good reminder to me. I tend to fall in love with my characters and wish that no harm befall them. Since I have the power to make sure their lives consist of sitting around tables drinking coffee and chatting, they tend to do that a lot. However, for the characters to grow as actual human beings (and BE IN AN INTERESTING STORY for crying out loud), they need to overcome adversity, and I do want that for them as well.

Basically, they need antagonists with whom to struggle. Also known as conflict, which I also hate to inflict on people, even when I have made up those people.

So, as I point the end of the hose toward the metal tray at the bottom of the sliders and hear the satisfying *thwunk thwunk* of dime-sized bodies being sucked toward Oblivion, I think, "What I really need is to fall in love with someone who wants the opposite of my protagonist, and that will improve the believability of my antagonist."

Aha! That's how to fix this stupid novel. I mean, this novel I adore that doesn't frustrate me at all. Not to mention a few other short stories that as yet, uh, haven't found their final focus.

Meanwhile, take that, flies! I know that in the Cosmic Story I'm Goliath, and you Davids eventually will have the last laugh (or snack, not to be gruesome about it), so I will not crow too loudly about my victory. But today, victory I shall have! *Thwunk.*
Sunday, July 3, 2011

Seven Years Later...

Seven years ago this weekend I was in my favorite city, Washington DC. On July 3, I watched Barry Bostwick rehearse for the July 4 evening extravagannnnza (which I skipped to watch fireworks with my niece). That weekend, I sat on the steps at Lincoln's feet in the pink haze of evening while Marine One (or possibly Two) buzzed the mall. I visited with family, hung out at various tourist spots, saw parts of the city that I hadn't seen before.

And recognized that I didn't want to go home.

Standing under the awning at Union Station in a surprise rainstorm, I realized I was in that city to pursue the wrong dream. I had aimed toward a really wonderful life. An honorable life. A life that I still respect and admire. But not the right life for me.

I didn't want to go "home" to a place that I wasn't comfortable in, to a house I wasn't comfortable in, to live with people I wasn't comfortable with. I should clarify: this "not comfortable" was not the good kind of "not comfortable," not the kind of "not comfortable" that challenges you to stretch in positive ways or learn new skills that make your soul larger. It was the other kind of "not comfortable," the opposite kind. I was under constant pressure to be less of the parts of myself I cherished and more of the parts of myself I disliked.

Sadly, much of this insight is available to me only in retrospect. I went home confused and unhappy. I'd been confused and unhappy for years, but now I knew I was, and I knew that I knew. I couldn't go back to pretending that everything was fine and I could figure life out and make it work.

It took some time for me to see that if I didn't pursue the two dreams I'd had since childhood -- living near our family paradise and pursuing creative writing seriously -- I would die spectacularly unhappy, and (far worse) I would take others down with me.

Fast-forward through a lot of pain and paperwork, and here I am, living right at our family paradise and writing. Many elements of this life I predicted; most are surprises. But I'm home. Here, I'm both challenged and supported to grow, and I am allowed to do the same for others. This life may not be perfect, but it's perfect for me.

I've been back to Washington since, and I will go again. It's a special place to me, and my relationship with the city isn't finished yet. But I am, and will always be, so very very grateful for that weekend seven years ago, the one that helped me come home.
Friday, June 10, 2011

The Writer's Fantasy

Hey, writer: what's your fantasy?

Spielberg calls and wants to adapt your story for his next blockbuster, which is guaranteed to win both critical acclaim and bonanza bucks.

A publisher calls: she wants the story you're struggling with AND has developed technology that can lift it directly from your brain onto the page so that the story is in the perfect form you imagine it to be, not the slightly altered form that you're capable of actually writing IF you were actually capable of writing it and not stuck, yet this form of ESP is enough work on your part that you will also get to bask in the glow of work that's hard but not too hard.

Whew. Neurotic much?

OK, so what I experienced this week isn't perhaps a writer's ULTIMATE fantasy, but it's close.

The rejection was wrong. It was all a mistake! They want it after all!!

Actually, the mistake was probably mine. In the past 18 months, I had submitted (according to my spreadsheet) three pieces to this journal. In April, I received the third rejection. It was their really nice rejection, very encouraging, but it unmistakeably said "no."

I try for humility but I am not immune to the writer's ego, so I was (ahem) mildly perplexed at this disagreement. The story I had submitted had received some recognition (though not publication, sigh) previously. I was proud of it. The journal I had targeted was really its perfect destination -- the subject matter fit, the revelations fit, the themes fit.

And yet: the rejection. Nobody's favourite thing. However, I'm getting enough of them that I am increasingly philosophical. Lots of good writing is out there, making the rounds. This piece will find its home. Something will appear. Blah blah "positive self talk" blah.

I also joked, semi-seriously, with my sister and husband and a writer-friend or two: "What is not to love about this piece? What is wrong with this crazy, crazy world?" That kind of thing. However, and this is important to me, I tried really hard to allow for differences of opinion about the fit between this piece and the journal -- without making either of us wrong.

Then, this week...an email from that journal offering publication, with a contract, even!! The rejection had been for a different piece, something I'd submitted long ago.

Rejoicing ensued.

The publication credit itself will be great, and when it's closer to time, you can bet I'll do some shameless self-promotion.

Truthfully, though, I'm most happy that I was able to continue to believe in the piece and in my judgment for sending it to that journal, even when I thought the journal disagreed.

Because publication isn't about a fickle finger of fate in an insane world. It's about human choices. Humans make choices, and other humans disagree, and nobody has to feel embarrassed or talentless or stop writing or putting out publications, and nobody is wrong, and let's join hands and sing kum bah yah.

We want the same thing, whether we come at it from the writing or publication side: we want good, solid writing to be available to thoughtful readers who are interested in expanding their horizons.

Maybe THAT is my ultimate fantasy.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lessons from The West Wing

Ahh, The West Wing. I won't even try to explain why I have been watching the entire series from start to finish. It's not as if my life is devoid of other tasks. And it's not as if I've been watching episodes 24/7, either: just regularly. And often.

I also don't know why, when I need to rejuvenate my introverted self by spending some time away from people, I want to spent time with some of the talkiest, most egotistical, and most challenging "people" on the planet. Okay, I really do know that answer, or at least partly. I want to because I learn about writing.

Here are just some of the things I've learned.

1. The characters are active. I started to say "stuff happens," but it "happens" because the characters make it happen. "Stuff" doesn't just rain down from the heavens.

When the President experiences angst, it's because he's just authorized the assassination of the Qumari Defense Minister or he's about to get called out for not telling voters he had MS. CJ says something damaging at a press conference and hates herself for it. For about ten seconds. Then they suck it up and do other stuff.

On the show, people are engaged in what they're doing. Characters are gleeful, frustrated, gloomy, hopeful, annoyed, you name it, because of events. Even when Toby is sitting in his office bouncing that ball, it's because he's done something, surprising stuff has happened in response, and he needs to spend time figuring out what to do next. Plus, that kind of reflection is pretty rare.

My take-away: make stuff happen. Rather, make your characters make stuff happen. Not every character can work in the White House. But every character can be engaged in doing something that is important to her. All those feely things, the angsty things, the observation-of-life things, are interesting because they come from action.

2. The show thinks I'm smart. Who doesn't love feeling smart? Not every part of every storyline is resolved or explained. I have looked up stuff from throwaway lines (Smoot-Hawley, anyone?) because I wanted to. The show posits a complicated universe. Good people are in situations where they have to choose a course of action (see #1) from among the least of several evils.

And speaking of complicated, the show finds some good in everyone. Only the rare antagonist is wantonly destructive. Even the Qumari Defense Minister looks like a normal visiting dignitary when he's in the Oval Office. (No horns!) In the show, the antagonists are the protagonists in their own stories -- their actions make sense to them. They want what they want because they want it, not because it's Donna's week to have a storyline and someone has to be mean to her.

Contrast this attitude toward smart viewers with any of today's police procedural-type shows. The "clues" to whodunnit are layered in early. Okay. But at the critical "figure it out" point, a character "remembers" that clue, and we see that shot all over again, possibly in black and white to show that it's just a memory, JUST IN CASE we don't make that connection. Y'all. I got it the first time, thanks.

My take-away: readers are smart, too. I'll likely never write a character who cusses out God, in UNTRANSLATED Latin, in the National Cathedral, or who argues in UNTRANSLATED Spanish with a visitor in the Mural Room. But it's okay to write about complicated people who do interesting things and run up against resistance from other complicated people who are doing their own interesting things. Readers can figure stuff out. And they LIKE to!

3. Communication is important. What's not to love about a show in which several of the main characters are speechwriters? And the ones who aren't write white papers, position papers, and memos? And every desk has a stack of reading material several feet high?

I love a world in which you see writers work, and their work is important. In one of the episodes about the creation of a State of the Union address, Communications Director Toby Ziegler is shown wandering the halls in the middle of the day. He mutters to himself, he knocks his knuckles against the glass cubicle walls, he stops to stare at nothing, he wanders closer to Josh's office. He goes in search of pie. He's writing. I recognize it immediately. And the speeches he and Sam write, with input from everybody, set policy. They are important.

I love that world because I love to imagine that writing is important in my world, too. Well, the writing I do as work is important to my clients, and it's important to me. I hope it's important to my client's customers, too.

Sometimes I know it is. Several years ago, I wrote a few things for a nonprofit group because I believe in the group and its work. Recently I was reminded of those pieces and was proud to see them again. Proud that the group wanted to re-use them, proud of the quality of the work, proud to remember that they had touched people and are out there again, possibly touching others.

My take-away: get back to work, and do your best work, whether it's your own creative work or work (also creative!) for a client.

Oh. Yeah. Back to work. Okay. What's next?
Friday, May 20, 2011

Two Thoughts about Rejection

Two smart people have written recently about rejection.

First, marketing guru Seth Godin addresses the standard rejection advice, "don't take it personally." He says that it's not about you. It's personal to the "other guy." That person is rejecting you because that person has wants, needs, interests, whatever that you don't meet. The disconnect doesn't mean you don't provide value.

Which is true. Except that it's easy for writers to cop the "I'm a misunderstood genius" defense. Which Godin also addresses by saying, "Do your work, the best way you know how." That, to me, says "Keep learning," because it's always possible to add to what you know.

And then there's Daniel Menaker, writing in the Huffington Post about the ways in which his memoir met rejection before its ultimate acceptance. If you are as unfamiliar with him as I was, this bio is enlightening: he has written fiction, worked at The New Yorker with really good writers, and worked at HarperCollins to publish important stories (Sister Helen Prejean!). He has moved; he has shaken.

An impressive pedigree, yet many editors rejected his memoir, even with its juicy insider info about The New Yorker.

Is his lack of immediate success reassuring to the rest of us? Sure.

However, he is also just plain wrong about something. He is very happy to have had his manuscript accepted by "a great publisher and editor," because if it had not been, he'd have had to deign to approach a publisher in [gasp] New Jersey, or even [double gasp] Winnipeg.

Where, presumably, great publishers and editors don't exist.

Which is patently untrue, as those of us who are seacoast-deprived well know. (I can't speak to the publishing scene in Weehawken, of course.)

Here's the membership list from the Association of Manitoba Book Publishers. See? there are options. Manitoba is smack dab in the middle of the continent; central location has its benefits. Sure, Turnstone isn't HarperCollins, but a big fish like Menaker in a smaller pond might well have received the special treatment he apparently didn't get from his New York buddiess.

Just sayin'. Not that I'm taking Menaker's rejection of publishing in "flyover country" personally, of course. Because as Seth Godin says, it's him, not us.

And my quibble with Menaker doesn't really dilute his point: publishing isn't easy.

Writing isn't, either. But it's what's important.
Friday, May 13, 2011

Depending on the "Click"

I am not a "real" photographer. I just happen to live in a beautiful place. And lately the weather has inspired me to pick up whatever camera is handy and shoot stuff. Like this.


That's an island lurking out there.

So yesterday I was snapping away and noticed that the camera was acting funny. (Technical term! Many more to follow!) When I pushed the round "take a picture" button, the image in the viewfinder froze as it usually does, but there was no sound. No "I just took a picture" click. I wasn't sure, till I uploaded these shots, that I had actually taken pictures.

The "I just took a picture" click of a digital camera is apparently without a useful purpose. Yet I depended on it, and didn't realize how much until there it was, gone.

The experience got me thinking about writing. One of the hardest parts of working as a freelance writer has been the lack of routine feedback. Business experts may scoff at formal performance reviews, but I found them useful. Getting ready for one was a great chance for me to evaluate my own performance and plan for the future, and learning how I was perceived was usually interesting. However, freelancers usually don't have performance reviews. Though I have substituted regular check-ins of various types, the type of feedback isn't the same.

As a freelancer, it's also more difficult (though not impossible) to stick my head in the boss's office and say, "I'm thinking of this, whaddaya think?"

The real feedback is the "yes" of the assignment and then the "yes" of future assignments. That's enough, of course, to know that you've done something of value to someone.

Mechanisms for feedback can be even more scarce for creative writing. Send out a piece and not only do you sometimes wait months for a "no," sometimes you don't even hear that much--just crickets. Getting a "click" is a good reason to belong to a critique group or to meet other writers TO WRITE (not to complain about writing). And yes, to keep submitting.

But here's another thought: what if you just did the work and didn't worry about the "click" at all? Could the doing of the work be enough?

I still took pictures yesterday, even without hearing a "click." Similarly, if I'm writing, I'm still writing, even if/when I don't get feedback on a specific piece.

Do I depend too much on the "click"? Do you?

No answers. Just questions.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Little Things: Action and Reaction

If you've been on Facebook this week, you may have already seen this conversation.



I've seen it several times, and I still laugh when I see it, mostly because the action/reaction is perfect.

For example, 16 seconds in, the human says the word "bacon" and the dog's eyes shift. At 37 seconds, the human says "beef" and the dog twitches.

Whoever wrote and performed the script paid attention to the little things and got them right. Impressive -- and funny.

Little things. So important!
Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What Writers Can Learn from America's Next Top Model: Or, How Watching Reruns is NOT a Waste of My Vacation

I've been on vacation. I worked some, I played some, and yes, I watched marathons of America's Next Top Model. I learned a few things.

1. You put yourself in this position; now make the most of it. Young women try out to participate on America's Next Top Model. Then they receive critiques of their modeling ability. They have the opportunity to develop a portfolio with input and help from recognizable names in their industry. They compete with each other but they also learn from each other, from their judges, and from experts picked by their judges. Plus, they get a makeover!

Sounds a little like an MFA program, or perhaps an intensive multi-day writing workshop, doesn't it? My takeaway: when you are in a setting that focuses on learning, spend the time learning. Don't spend the time arguing with the judges (teachers, authors, editors, agents) or bragging about what you've done. You asked to participate; now make the most of what's available to you. Keep your mind open to the "makeover" that the situation offers.

That said...

2. Know what you're getting into. America's Next Top Model isn't geared toward women who want a career modeling only for catalogs. From what I can tell, and I know zip about modeling or fashion, the show is looking to develop modeling talent that can take a photo session to the level of art -- which will not necessarily look pretty. One of the cycles of the show distinguishes among catalog, commercial, and couture models.

The same applies to whatever learning situation you're looking for. If you want to write a killer, best-selling romance novel available at every airport, there's nothing wrong with THAT goal. But maybe an MFA program focused on literary fiction or poetry isn't the best place for you. Or maybe it is, if your goal is to write literary fiction. Just don't get confused about where you are. If you do, the feedback you get may confuse you, and the questions you ask may confuse those you're working with.

That said...

3. Judges disagree. Even Tyra's hand-picked panelists, who presumably share her aesthetic sensibility, often disagree about models, individual photos, a contestant's potential, you name it. This difference of opinion goes beyond the inherent squishiness of describing, in words, a specific artistic quality. What exactly does "bring it" mean? What does it mean to "push beyond" the pretty, to be "ugly pretty," to "show more of your personality"? It's interesting to watch the models struggle to figure it out, and it's interesting to watch the panelists debate.

Similarly, put three readers in a room and they may say different things about a story. They may suggest different issues to look at -- a character doesn't ring true in their experience, a plot point is unbelievable to them, this language is too plain for their taste, etc. Your task, as the writer, is to decipher what feedback is helpful to you and what doesn't give you anything to work with. You may need to ignore some of what they say.

That said...

4. Craft is important. Judges DO agree that no matter how beautiful a contestant's photos are, it's important that models can create the beautiful shots. That is, the model should be able to control her body and her face. She should know the purpose of a photo shoot, what the photographer and artistic director are going for, and have ideas for presenting herself (and her clothing) in physical space in such a way that she helps them fulfill their goal. As contestants are eliminated on the show, the judges keep the models who need little direction and consistently push themselves, learning from their mistakes. They eliminate models who "luck into" their shots.

Craft is vital to writers, too. Learn grammar; if you break the rules, do it on purpose. Develop an ear for language: know when a genre's conventions accept or even expect you to describe hair as "raven tresses," and choose to follow -- or not. If a character behaves inconsistently (and who among us real people is perfectly consistent), show me that you aren't just having a character take do a specific action for the convenience of the plot. For example.

That said...

5. It's hard but it's not ALL hard. As models participate in photo shoots or runway shows, they describe the experience with joy. They bubble over with love for what they do -- and if they don't, they tend to be sent home.

Same with writing: it's hard work. Love the hard work, but remember that it's not all hard work. Writing well is also bliss. It's a slog, and it's a joy. It's a privilege.

That said...

6. Remember: this learning experience will end. Even a winner of America's Next Top Model has to get up the next day (week, year, whatever) and go out into the "real world" to work, though the agency and cosmetic contracts make that transition a little easier. Everyone else has been sent home, though apparently many of the "losers" have gone on to successful careers in the industry.

Your program or workshop will end. Even informal experiences, like the intense time you've been working on a particular novel or story collection or poem cycle, will end. Eventually, it will be time for you to move on. Maybe you "won" and have a published or publishable piece. Maybe you just need to move on for your own artistic sanity. Maybe you'll revisit that stubborn essay someday, when your skill is better. Or maybe not.

Regardless, there's a life out there, beyond the reality show or "study bubble" you've been in, and in that life, you can (and should and must) continue to apply what you've learned. Even if your recent experience involves nothing more strenuous than spending more time than strictly necessary watching modeling shows -- because you might be surprised at what you've learned.
Friday, April 15, 2011

At Night, with Headlights

E. L. Doctorow, the American novelist, is famous for saying something like this:
"Writing is like driving the car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

(Some online versions include fog in the drive. It's hard to get a reliable source.)

Fog or no fog, that's how I'm working this week. I have this novel, see, and I have a bunch of pages of it, and I know sorta where one of the threads is going, but not really, and somehow the other thread and this thread relate. Somehow, sorta. I know what does not (absolutely must not, cannot) happen (not because it's too scary but because it's cliche), and I know what must happen for the characters to make any sense at all.

But what I really want is a Google Map, a MapQuest map, some kind of detailed map!! Or a GPS with the voice of the Old Spice Guy (James Earl Jones/Kevin Spacey) telling me when and in what direction to turn.

The thing is, Doctorow is right. I'm writing, and it's night, and there may or may not be fog, and I can see only a measured distance ahead. But as long as I keep moving, I can continue to see where to go next.

Writing isn't the only life arena in which I've desperately craved a map. I've written before about my brother, cancer, his need for a stem cell transplant, and the fact that he has a donor. He and his physicians are evaluating his recent chemo. A transplant schedule may come soon.

Or maybe not. Doctorow's rule applies to my brother's healing, as well. We have had only a rough approximation of a map -- a sketch on a napkin. As my brother reaches each milestone on the path (a second opinion and consultation, a new round of tests, a new form of chemo, more tests) the next milestone appears in the foggy dark. Maybe the transplant is still a few headlight-lengths away.

Fortunately, Doctorow's also right about this: you can make the whole trip (write the whole novel, make the whole journey back to health) that way. As long as you keep moving.
Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Opposite of a Platform

Today I spent several hours in a church hall selling a Haitian artist's painted metal artwork. To set up the sale, I exchanged a few emails with the woman who is his representative in Canada. I also put together some information about the event for the local newspaper.

During our email conversation, the Canadian representative cautioned me about releasing too much personal information about this artist, especially if this information is available online. The artist is concerned about attracting too much attention.

How many North American artists do you know who want to remain relatively unknown? My answer: none. I bet most artists have practiced the Award Acceptance Speech a time or two, in the privacy of the shower at least. (You google yourself. You know you do.)

Also, this particular artist isn't concerned about "selling out," or becoming somehow more important than his art, or any other idealistic notion.

His reason is purely practical. His community lost one of its vital young leaders in a shooting, a robbery-gone-wrong. The artist and his Canadian representative suspect that the leader's association with Canadians gave others in Haiti the illusion that he was worth robbing. People in Haiti are desperate; aid isn't getting to every place that needs it. A Haitian with a tie to North America is a good target for robbery -- or kidnapping and ransom.

How different it is in Canada and the U.S.! Here, writers "must" have a platform before (or while) writing a nonfiction book, so that your future readers pre-order your book from stores that feed data into the New York Times Bestseller calculators. If your platform is big enough, your publisher can expect more sales and therefore may invest more in marketing and promoting your book. (Yes, that's correct -- if you have been an excellent marketer, you receive more marketing support from the publisher than if you haven't marketed yourself and thus could actually use marketing support from the publisher. Those who have, receive.)

Writers are "supposed" to use Twitter and Facebook and blogs (ahem) and websites to develop this platform. In the olden days a few years ago, writers built platforms through op-ed pieces, newspaper columns, and speeches to civic groups about their expertise.

Those who write fiction hear similar advice. Agents prefer to take a writer as a client if the writer has a website and an online presence. Print-on-demand, self-publishing, and ebooks may all tweak the specifics of the advice somewhat. Also, the media through which you develop a platform has gone social, but the need for a platform is apparently beyond question.

I'm not bemoaning the need for a platform or saying it's wrong -- in fact, it's impossible to escape. Platforms are part of the landscape, just "how it is," a required part of a writer's life today. Accepted, not dangerous.

But in some countries, being an artist is physically unsafe, such as China, where artist and public intellectual Ai Weiwei was recently detained by government authorities.

And Haiti, where any success makes you a target -- literally.

So from my wee, golf-tee-sized platform, I wish this artist great success in maintaining his opposite-of-platform. I'd like him to be around to share his artwork for many years to come.
Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nobody Told Me

This week has had its share of good news.

The main thing for today is that my husband received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to write a novel he's been puzzling over for years. While the cheque is nice, it's the support that he appreciates most. (Truthfully, we appreciate the cheque a whole lot. Especially because this is tax time and therefore budget time.)

He found out maybe Tuesday. Since then he's cleaned his office, which he calls the den, and tackled a couple of other big projects (NOT his novel). Today he decided he needed more file folders. This need required a trip to town, which engendered other errands. Of course.

I know what he's doing. I've done it and I still do it. He's clearing his mental decks. It looks like procrastination. It may even feel like procrastination. (In me, it usually IS procrastination.) However, in him, it's really preparation. He doesn't multi-task, and he can't be pondering other obligations or decisions while he takes this guy he made up through this series of things that he's got planned for him, bwa ha ha.

Also of course, I am fighting the urge to say, "A year from now, you're going to wonder where this time went. You're going to look back on this time and wish you'd done more in the early days. If you set yourself the discipline now, you create a habit of hard work that will stand you in good stead."

In other words, I am on the verge of officially becoming my mother. Although I wish I could say, "Nobody told me to make the best use of my time," of course someone did. Repeatedly. Her death ten years ago did NOT silence the font of good advice I got from her and am apparently now capable of giving myself and others. But at least I am fighting that urge.

Because the line between deck-clearing and procrastinating is a fine one, and it's different for different people. My husband will find his line. I am closer to finding mine. And THAT is actually what nobody told me: that sometimes, you have to shed things before you can begin something bigger, and sometimes, that shedding process looks like goofing off, but you can tell the difference if you're honest with yourself.

Speaking of "nobody told me": This is the coolest thing I've seen in some time. Austin Kleon lives in Austin, Texas (postmodern? meta? something, anyway). He makes art/poetry using a permanent marker and the New York Times in a process called "Newspaper Blackout," which is also the title of his book.

Here, he shares How to Steal Like an Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me).

Go look at it and at his other stuff there.

Also, celebrate Poetry Month. Take your own newspaper and a marker and get to work!
Friday, March 25, 2011

Shining Through

Inspiration Green is a New York-based company website, with blog (link at the bottom of their page), about green...everything. Issues, resources, music, tech, art, food, and more.

It's visually compelling design. Especially when you look more closely and see that all those blocks with patterns are close-ups of leaves. Or tree trunks.

Plus there's this page, a compilation of glass bottles used in walls in various ways -- decorative, functional, both.

Sometimes, like now (election season in Canada), I suffer from "too many words." Images like these are an oasis. Thanks, Green Inspiration!!
Sunday, March 20, 2011

So Many Thousands

That's how many words this video is worth. During the first minute, you get to watch cracks in the earth open and close. After that, it gets even freakier.



The videographer talks of feeling woozy and wondering if he was sick. While it's interesting to know that the human body may experience earthquakes in that way, that knowledge pales in comparison to the images. Wow.

So many effective visuals from this disaster--a good reminder that sometimes, words just don't quite get there.
Saturday, March 12, 2011

Too Big, Too Small

I was all set to write about Hana's Suitcase, another fine example of the power of story and symbol, but then the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent radiation stories have diverted my attention from whatever meaningful thing I wanted to say about luggage.

However, one thread ties two events: sometimes a story is too big, too abstract to tell without making it concrete and personal--but then again, sometimes the size is the story.

Hana's Suitcase as a story is an effective way to help everyone understand the horror and human loss of the Holocaust. Hana is today's Anne Frank--a real person whose real life was silenced, leaving us all poorer. Without Anne and Hana, and without some sense of the fundamental humanity of the victims, events of the Holocaust could become less real, less immediate, and thus less horrific as time passes. The personal is vital to preserving the essential meaning of the story.

Right now, this disaster in Japan, which has both natural and human-made elements, is too big to tell coherently. We know 8.9 is a big number for an earthquake; aftershocks measuring more than 6.0 also sound big--but what does that feel like? What does a wall of water look like? Fortunately, pictures and maps (including these fabulous ones at the BBC) give context--but shots of boats and cars and vans and houses and skyscrapers don't convey what the people are going through.

News writers are looking for human angles into the story in an effort to help people around the world connect personally with the unimaginable destruction. As time passes, we will likely hear more stories about individuals.

Yet the scale is an essential part of the story. The magnitude of the earthquake is part of its horror and meaning, as are the aftershocks, the tsunamis and reflected waves. That would be a frightening-enough story. Add in concerns about radioactive leaks and exposure risks, and the validity of the information released about them to the public, and what you have is even more frightening and more sweeping in scope.

Similarly, the stories of Anne and Hana, though touching, are only two stories. Six million people were systematically killed in the Holocaust. Six million other individual stories could be told. The current population of New York City is around 8 million. The greater Toronto area has something more than 5.6 million people. Big cities; lots of people.

And, those 6 million people killed in the Holocaust represent only deaths, not those incarcerated (and not the full death toll of WWII). Add in the fact that that the deaths were caused by the actions of other people, and the horror grows. Both the scope and the systematic nature of the Holocaust are inextricable parts of the story's devastation, its impact.

I've had two recent experiences with this "too big, too small" phenomenon, come to think of it, and one in each direction. "All I Can Say," the essay that was shortlisted for the CBC literary awards last year, is only part of bazillions of words I wrote about my mother's Alzheimer's disease in the space of three or four years. I was driven to write about the disease because it was happening to her, to my father, to me, to my family. I needed to make the story concrete, to show the world (or at least myself) the human cost of a nebulous disease.

Yet I suspect that the real story now is one of scope. In the decade-plus since her death and the fourteen years since her diagnosis and illness, care for Alzheimer's patients has improved. Patients have more medications to delay the disease's onset and progression; caregivers have more community support to call on. However, the real story is ahead: as the population ages, delaying the onset of the disease won't be enough to prevent dementia disorders from straining the healthcare systems in Canada and the U.S.

And then there's cancer. About 12 million people in the U.S. have cancer (or have ever been diagnosed with cancer), says the American Cancer Society. In Canada, almost 700,000 of those Canadians who were alive on January 1, 2005, had been diagnosed with cancer in the previous ten years. Cancer has always had a personal element for me--my sister had cancer when I was still in elementary school. She has been cancer-free since I was at university, and cancer thus became comfortably abstract again for years. Then my brother was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) four years ago.

The "zooming in" process from "too big" to immediate and personal accelerated in December, when my brother's oncologist found that his CLL had not responded to traditional chemotherapy. "Donating" in relation to the human body went from abstract to concrete in the seconds it took me to read his email asking if we siblings could help. Quickly, I learned about many other abstract concepts: peripheral blood stem cell transplants, bone marrow transplants, human leukocyte antigen matching, the stages of remission. I learned the hard way that "a one in four chance of a match in siblings" doesn't mean "you have four siblings, so one will surely match you."

Be the Match and OneMatch.ca became links on my blog and on this page.

However, thanks to the 16.5 million donors registered worldwide, my brother has a donor, ready if and when his transplant time comes. Someone else has also made the journey from the abstract "what can I do to make a difference in this world" thought to a concrete "here's what I can do" action. I'm already grateful.

Events in the disasters in Japan are still unfolding. Similarly, I don't yet know the turns my brother's story will take, except that his is not a story only of disease--he's a new grandfather! My mother's story is at times as immediate to me as when she died; and at other times, it seems to have happened in a different universe. If Hana's Suitcase is any indication, perhaps these stories will continue in both "big" and "small" dimensions as long as we continue to write them.
Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book Learnin'

I'm working on an analysis of The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers--specifically of its narrative structure. I've analyzed several works during the past year, and I've learned a lot about narrative each time.

I'm also part of a group that reads and provides feedback on works in progress. Some call this a workshop, others a critique group. At the moment, our group is small but mighty, and one of my pieces is on tap for this coming week. It is always interesting to see whether this group of readers, each of whom is also a writer, confirms what I suspect to be the limitations of a story (in this case, a loooooong one). (Sadly, they often point out things I didn't even think about. Sigh.)

Both kinds of learning are important to my development.

That's why I was pleased, in reading an interview with Powers, to see him say that the workshop needs to be supplemented with direct learning about narrative technique. Here's why:

We never tell a person who wants to learn how to play violin or how to paint to go out and figure out all the skills on her own, and then come back and have a group of other autodidacts tell her whether everything is working. Surely it can't hurt a student writer to look at all the nuts and bolts that go into making a resonant story, and to work on exercises that isolate those components. In the class, I do lots of different kinds of exercises -- wordgames, syntax challenges, stylistic imitations -- as well as very close analysis of really masterful stories.


I would only add that I also learn from close analysis of non-masterful stories, with an eye to figuring out why they don't work so well. (Other books. Not this one. This one is puzzling and challenging, to the point that I can't stop thinking about it.)

The full interview with Powers relates specifically to his book Gain (1998), so I expect the interview is from that period. But there's lots of material about him online.

Although it's nice when I find justification for something I already enjoy doing, I get enough answers to "why does this work?" that I'd do it anyway. Just as I keep getting good feedback from the other reader/writers in the group.

A "both/and," not an "either/or." Love when that happens.
Sunday, February 27, 2011

How Much?

Do you believe in your writing? (No, this is not "believe in" like the Easter Bunny. This is "believe in" as in "believe in the value of.")

No, really. Do you believe in your writing?

How much, in actual dollars, do you believe? If it's hard to quantify, think about some other concrete item--say, grande mochas.

Would you be willing to forego 2 grande mochas, or pay $10, to enter your story (poem, script) into a contest?

Then go here, to the contest sponsored by the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop, and do so.

Disclosure: I'm on the Executive for NOWW. I am not involved in administering the contest, and I'm not entering it. As we used to say in the South, back when we wuz rockin' on the porch 'n' spittin' watermelon seeds, I don't have a dog in this fight. (Okay, we never said that, and nobody I knew in real life ever said that, but Southerners in movies do.) (However, I have been known to sit on porches, to sit in rocking chairs, and to spit watermelon seeds, though never all at the same time.)

Back to contests: I carefully pick and choose the contests I enter, because I'm interested in getting feedback on my writing. From some contests, the only potential feedback is "no," and I can get "no"-related information, delivered with glee and in excruciating detail, from my critique group. For free! (They love me, really they do.)

So here are the criteria I use to evaluate contests, and why I recommend the NOWW contest.

1. Affordability: Can I afford the entry fee? Most of the contests sponsored by literary magazines include a year's subscription in the ($30 to $40) entry fee--an excellent investment in literature and in the development of your own writing career, if you can afford it. (It is illuminating to read an entire year's worth of issues of a literary magazine.) But if you can't afford it--there's no shame in being realistic about finances--here's a consideration: The NOWW contest costs $10 to enter. (In Canada, that's two grande mochas.) You can enter two pieces per category. If you're a person with talents in multiple categories, consider joining NOWW for $35; that way, you can enter 2 stories, 2 poems/cycles, and 2 scripts (a $60 value) and save $25.

2. Return on Investment: What is the potential payoff? I don't enter contests that give one award. I just don't. What are the chances that my (e.g.) short story is "the one" that some judge somewhere is going to like the most? Not good. What are the chances that my short story is one of the three best that the judge will see? Better. The NOWW contest gives three prizes in each category. Money prizes. Cold hard cash. More than $10, too. Did I mention money?

3a. Company (as in, what company am I keeping?): Who are the judges? Judges for the NOWW contest are well known Canadian writers. These are people whose writing you should get to know, too. Good company, in other words. This year, Anne Compton (poetry), Fred Stenson (fiction), and Dave Carley (scriptwriting) are doing the honours. Shouldn't they have the opportunity to read your work? Previous judges have included Lorna Crozier, Pasha Malla, Betsy Struthers, and Gordon Korman.

3b. Company (as in, what company am I keeping?): Who has won this contest, anyway? The list of 2010 winners is available at the link above. A few winners from 2009 are posted to give you a sense of the kind of writing the contest attracts. All of which gives you a sense of whether your writing is competitive in this environment.

So there you go. If these criteria sound a little cold or business-like, that's because they are. I am not independently wealthy. I therefore choose to invest my money, as well as my time and energy, as wisely as possible. That sometimes means saying "no" instead of "yes."

BUT after I look at these criteria, I go back to the writing itself. I ask myself questions like these: Do I like this (e.g.) short story, am I proud of it, is it the best I can make it right now? All of which are sneaky ways of asking DO I BELIEVE IN THIS? (If I'm thinking about a contest at all, the answer had better be "yes.") Okay, then: How much do I believe in this?

Because there's one other, hard-to-quantify criterion that may be the most important criterion of all: what will entering this contest mean to me? It's actually the shadow form of the "payoff" criterion (#2 in the list above).

Your actions about your writing demonstrate your beliefs about your writing--not only to the world, but to yourself. Every time you struggle to bring a piece into existence, to make it its own best self, or to send it into the world, you tell yourself that your writing is important. Maybe it's important only to you--so what? Aren't you worth two grande mochas? (And by the way: If it's not important to you, why are you doing it?)

One of the most important reasons to enter a contest is to remind yourself that you are a writer. Your most important audience, for this act, is you.

So, if you have $10, consider entering your most darling beloved creation, which you have revised and polished, in this contest. (What, it's not darling and beloved? It's not revised and polished? You still have two weeks!) And then, pat yourself on the back--for taking your writing seriously.
Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's the Little Things

When you work as an editor, you have to make compromises to live in the real world. (Well, you don't really have to, but if you don't, you go nuts. Or drink. Or both.) Sometimes, compromise involves letting go of little things.

Here's an example: Menus. I don't edit menus. I would if I got paid for it, but when I'm out for an evening, I don't. I don't care that the menu lists "roast beef with au jus." In fact, I would say, "I couldn't care less." If you in a similar situation said, "I could care less," I might grit my teeth a little but would try not to show it. Unless you really meant "I guess I COULD care less but I'm not sure how," in which case I would know you're one of us!!!

The point is that when I'm off duty, I'm off duty. Because I can't fix all the little things in the world, especially when I'm not asked to.

But here, I'm supposed to be on duty. So you'd think I'd have noticed at SOME point in the past year that my email address (see right) was incorrect. But you'd be wrong, even though I'd looked at it and thought it maybe wasn't right but wasn't sure. It's correct NOW, though.

As that example illustrates, little things are not necessarily unimportant things. A little thing can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. A little thing can be the canary in the coal mine. (Little things are apparently hell on animals.)

In fact, Terry O'Reilly points out in this recent episode of the Age of Persuasion, little things are often taken as signals of big things. Van Halen required a dish of M&Ms backstage--but no brown M&Ms. Brown M&Ms in the bowl indicated that someone hadn't read Van Halen's contract carefully and possibly cut corners in stage sets, lighting, or other safety-related areas.

So, when I read in a book that "[t]he United States is the only major western nation...where five out of ten think the Creation myth in the Bible is literally true,"* I look for a footnote. When I don't find one, I know that the writer is, at best, sloppy. I wonder what else the writer has been sloppy or lazy or just plain ignorant about. (Quite a bit, as it turns out, but this site is not the place for a review.)

And, after receiving another rejection, I always debate whether to do another proofreading pass through the piece or just send it off without looking at it. It's tough because different people always find something different, and the person I am today editing something is a different person from the one who edited it last. I may see a different mistake this time, in which case, another pass is obviously the right choice. But I may simply have a different opinion about a phrase, in which case, another pass is a whole lot more like "making myself crazy."

I'm currently preparing a few things for submission, and I plan to let the pages "age" for one extra day so that I have the benefit of proofing with fresh eyes. Because whether I'm editing for myself or someone else, I'm on duty. And while I can't fix all the little things in the world, it is important to fix all the little things I can.

*Wright, Ronald. What Is America? A Short History of the New World Order. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2008, pp 220-221.
Saturday, February 12, 2011

Save a Life: You Can. Yes, YOU.

I had the BEST gift this week. A writer I am acquainted with sent a note commenting on my short story in Ten Stories High. It's always nice to hear compliments, of course, but her comments were thoughtful as well as supportive. (Well, she is also a writer, and a good one.)

She also said, and it's true, that we writers often wonder whether what we're doing is worth it--not to ourselves (writing is necessary for some of us), but to anyone else. Does the world need this story/novel/essay? With the explosive proliferation of content, is my writing really important to anyone else?

It's that "dark of night" question: Have I saved anyone's life? The answer: Probably not.

There are ways, though, to know FOR SURE that your life matters, if not your writing. Teaching is one obvious way. Teachers touch lives every day.

Another, perhaps not-so-obvious way is to join the national bone marrow donor registry in your country. If you donate, you can save a life. Literally.

And it might be my brother's.

Yes, my interest in donor registries is personal. My brother will have a stem cell transplant this spring and they're searching registries for a match. So I have a face to put with his particular database search. And every single person who needs a stem cell transplant is someone's brother or sister, mother or father, son or daughter.

Don't be put off by the medical aspects. Joining the registry requires only a swab of the cells inside your cheeck (just like on CSI!). If your immune system matches someone else's, you are given the opportunity to donate. Some donations are of bone marrow, which is a one-day outpatient procedure, but many donations require only blood. A recent study in Germany, home to the largest marrow donor registry in the world, indicates that of the 12,000+ donors who responded to their survey, 95% would donate again.

So if you're in the US and between the ages of 18 and 60, go to Be the Match to learn about the being a donor. If you're in Canada and between the ages of 17 and 50, go to the One Match registry, run by Canadian Blood Services.

And whatever country you live in, whatever your age or health status, remember that donors join the registry for free--which means that the registries can always use financial contributions to help cover their costs. Donations to these registered charities can help reduce your income tax burden next year.

So, next time that "dark of night" question hits, know that you hold lifesaving power inside you. You only have to share it.


My brother, looking angelic, with my sister and me. I'm the one eating (of course).