Monday, December 31, 2012

Mouse View/Eagle View: Life Balance

Stress, exams, deadlines, holidays, parties, shopping, spending: that's what the end of the year typically brings to those of us living in North America.

And then there's the looming new year and all its expectations: Lose weight! Get fit! Make more money!

Life balance: yeah, right. "You have to balance client expectations with personal needs." "Too much work and no play." "Family time, couple time: they have to balance out."

If it's helpful to you to think of balance, great; go right ahead. But at any particular moment, I don't particularly want to be "balanced." I want to be enthusiastic, passionate, productive, energetic -- or contemplative, resting, processing, mellow. Intense, tense -- relaxed, loose.

Or something completely different, something that can't be measured on a binary scale. Like I want to be listening, witnessing, watching, looking, tasting, luxuriating, sharing.

For me, balance doesn't work because it's not something you can see from the mouse view at which we live every day. Balance is best seen from the eagle view.

So when I feel something -- frazzled, overstimulated, underenthusiastic -- I take a step back (or up, to continue the metaphor). What's been happening the past few days? How about the past week? Month? Year?

For example, if I'm feeling crabby and out of sorts, I can ask questions like these: in the past week, how many times have I gotten some exercise? (Probably not enough, if I'm crabby.) How many nights have I gone to sleep before 11 p.m.? How many hours have I spent working toward long-term goals ahead vs. putting out fires?

Sometimes it's appropriate to work 12 hours straight to meet a deadline -- and sometimes taking a day "off" in the middle of the week is appropriate. Sometimes work and leisure appear in the exact correct proportions in a given day -- but for me, they usually don't.

Those who prepare tax returns for a living (bless them) know that they will work long hours in late March and early April; they take vacations at other times of the year. My math professor mother decreed that the Christmas season couldn't start until she'd finished marking exams and submitted the semester's grades. Once she'd done that, she could give herself over to lights, baking, and shopping.

This is probably going to sound kind of nutty, but simply by reminding myself of mouse view/eagle view, I automatically reduce my stress -- because I no longer feel pressured to create a life that's perfectly balanced in any given moment. Or day, week, month. Or even year.

So take stock of the past year, make some resolutions, set business goals, whatever you do to celebrate the calendar's change. But spare a thought for which perspective you're adopting: the mouse's or the eagle's.
Thursday, December 27, 2012

Mouse View, Eagle View: Rejection

"Rejection is just part of the life." I haven't met a writer who hasn't said that, nor have I met one who can accept rejection without a twinge of "hey!"

One strategy that's helped me handle having writing rejected -- which, yes, is inevitable in this line of work -- is to remember to work both the mouse view and the eagle view.

For the past several years, I've tried submitting something every month. Often I submit more than one something. Often I re-send a returned piece (in what I call a "boomerang" submission), but sometimes I make "rules" to force myself to send something new (or newly revised), and sometimes the "rules" include trying a publication I haven't tried before.

Over the years, I've found it helpful to have many pieces "out there" under consideration -- that's the eagle view. I have twelve opportunities, at minimum, in a year to see a piece land in a publication. In years when I make more "rules," I have even more opportunities.

At the mouse view, I do the legwork. I try to match what I send with what that publication wants. And each rejection or acceptance gives me some information.

Sure, the rejections still sting, especially when I really thought I'd found a good match between a piece and a publication.

And because I try to keep both perspectives, each submission carries hope -- but not desperation.

The mouse/eagle view of rejection has many side benefits -- what those in the grant-writing business call "soft outcomes." The act of submitting work actually supports my writing in the long term.
  • * For one thing, I enjoy the flash of satisfaction I receive when I submit something -- submitting is act of faith, in a sense, because I believe in this piece so much that I'm willing to allow it the opportunity to "live" someplace beyond my hard drive. That feels good, so I perceive that I enjoy writing more.
  • * Also, by focusing on submitting, over which I do have control, I blunt the the sting of rejection, which is something I don't control (beyond good research and doing good writing in the first place).
  • * And because I have that goal to submit something every month, I have to keep writing and revising so that I have pieces (or pitches) to send.

So that's how looking from the perspective of both the mouse and the eagle help me handle rejection. Which may be part of the life but isn't anyone's favorite part!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mouse View/Eagle View: Whazzat?

It's that time of year. I'm sending invoices, finishing projects, meeting deadlines. It's time to see what worked well in 2012 and what might help me be more successful, however I define that, in 2013.

As I start winding down -- or winding up, depending on whether I feel clock-like or thread-like, I guess -- I find myself thinking a lot about mouse view and eagle view.

Here's how the basic concept works: Mice see things at ground level. Eagles see things from a higher perspective. Mice see blades of grass; an eagle sees a meadow. We live at mouse view; we dream and set goals at eagle view.

Of course I didn't invent the concept -- I first heard it at some corporate training something-or-other back when I went to those things. Here's an explanation of how you could apply those two perspectives at work. . Getting Things Done, summarized here, talks about runway view, 10,000-foot view, and up to a 60,000-foot view. 

Whatever the name, mouse view/eagle view is a concept I find particularly useful. Lately, I've noticed myself applying it in contexts other than life planning and goal setting (though there, too). Stay tuned.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Good Company

I'm thrilled that my essay "Words" came second* in Room magazine's writing contest! It will be published in issue 36.2, due out in the summer of 2013.

For more about the contest and a full list of winners, click here.

I'm especially pleased that this essay received recognition and will be published, because it (also) relates to my mother's Alzheimer's disease.

I'm also excited that my essay will appear with this one, "Loving Benjamin," so brave and honest! I'm sure the rest of the issue will blow my socks off, too.

Thanks, Room, for sponsoring the contest every year and for all you do to support women's writing!

*Did you hear that? "Came second" is a Canadian construction, much like "I had to be there for 8 a.m." vs. "I had to be there at 8 a.m." Am I...morphing?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


A couple of weeks ago, I bought strawberries. From that experience, I learned a couple of things.

1. Don't hoard. Use what you have. Because the strawberries are getting expensive, now that their season is done, I was saving them, doling them out a few at a time instead of just eating them daily for breakfast. (I know. Doesn't make sense. My parents were big on "saving" things as "treats," so at least I come by it honestly.)

Anyway, the strawberries: they got furry. I wish I had just eaten them, savoring them as I went along.

When I'm writing, I sometimes resist an urge to include an image. "I'll just have to take it out later," I think. "It's too many ideas," I think. And maybe I'm right. Maybe I will have to take it out later. But that's not what I'm doing -- I'm not revising. I'm writing. Maybe it won't fit -- but maybe it will inspire the image that does fit, perfectly, the element that makes the story take off. Writing and revising are two different things. Writing is not about hoarding or saving or doling out. That comes later. 

2. Don't assume. I mentioned that the strawberries are expensive -- they're going from a staple to a splurge. And speaking of cost, how does it make sense to eat something out of season when in-season produce is also available at less expense to the planet? Strawberries are only one kind of fruit, and all fruits have pros and cons. Apple pie, anyone?

About writing: I see metaphors a lot (as you may have noticed). Not necessarily good metaphors, but what I at least perceive to be Images of Great Meaning. Whether they end up in a finished work or come out (see above), they indicate Writing. I reason that if I've got me a metaphor, I must be producing writing of some kind. However, Images of Great Meaning are not the only tools in the toolbox. Perhaps this story needs a change in point of view. Or in narrator. Or in plot. Perhaps all the metaphors should come out. Try an apple instead.

Two lessons so far. Others? Probably. Time for pie!
Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What's That You Say?

While I was gone last month, I caught up on a couple of podcasts. One in particular has had me thinking ever since.

CBC's Under the Influence is about advertising, marketing, business, communication, and even some history of those general topics. I like this program, and its predecessor The Age of Persuasion, because they help me, the fish, stop and think about the water I'm swimming around in.

I haven't listened beyond this episode, It's the Little Things, because I'm not done thinking about it yet.

Late in the show, host Terry O'Reilly quotes Isadore Sharp, the founder, chair, and CEO of the Four Seasons Hotel Chain: "We are only what we do, not what we say we are."

Of course we've all heard "show don't tell." Show the antagonist kicking the cat. In the movie Titanic, the bad guy grabs a kid so he can get near a lifeboat. (Not subtle, but what about that movie is?)

Still, I think it's true: we really *are* what we do.

In the past couple of months, I have heard no fewer than three people say things like
* "I'm really a people person."
* "I'm all about my family."
* "I'm just too giving -- I put others' needs before my own."
* "I'm the kind of person who calls it like he sees it."

Perhaps you will be shocked to learn that their behavior was actually very different. A "people person" who gossiped and goaded and picked fights with others; a "family" person indifferent to the family's needs but instead imposed her idea of right on them; a person who enjoying fingerpointing and blaming and generally Monday-morning-quarterbacking.

In real life, these kinds of people are tiresome to be around for long. In a book, I enjoy seeing a character whose self-analysis and behavior are at odds, with a couple of caveats: I enjoy it IF I believe the writer is doing it on purpose and IF the character's growth (ability to see and correct the disparity) is an integrated and important part of the story.

But that's just me. And as you know, I am really and truly the kind of person who only thinks of others, which is the only reason I listen to podcasts and read and think about things -- it's all for you, Internet.

Yeah, back to work.
Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Walk on By

I'm part of an informal group that's working through Julia Cameron's Walking in this World, or as I like to call it, Walk Like an Artist (because then I get to do the Bangles Egyptian hand). We are part of a private Facebook group and check in periodically. I'm not even sure we're on the same chapter -- which doesn't matter in our universe.

A long time ago -- wow, at least 15 years -- I was part of a more structured, facilitated group that worked through The Artist's Way. I uncovered a lot of desires and fears during that process, many of which poked, prodded, and finally kicked me into pursuing the life I now live.

Walking like an artist has been a gentler journey for me, but still oh-so-valuable. What I'm discovering likely won't upend my life (I hope; I like my life a lot), but even in a life that's essentially supportive and rewarding, it's good to take stock. Through the exercises, I am remembering various interests from other times in my life, many of which still resonate (though that is becoming a word I hate). 

But of course I'm not planning to share that list any time soon. Instead, here are a few things I am not interested in: conspicuous competitive consumption, extreme sports, kickstarter campaigns to support someone's death-defying feats, following a ______ lifestyle (especially if the blank is filled with someone's name and/or involves food), creating the Halloween costume/Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year/wedding/honeymoon of my [insert family member here]'s dreams, powdered drink mixes, cleanses/colonics/restrictive approaches to the world, frugal living for the sake of living frugally, live-action comic book movies, reality tv shows, and either-or choices. 

All of those things weary me. So as part of my walk in this world, I'm just walking on by.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October's Wonder

Every month, I show the photos I used in my family's calendar for this year. You can find previous photos and a link to the text they illustrate here.

I'm not a big fan of scary movies. I am a huge fan of wonder. Also awe. And I found three illustrations of those emotions for this month's calendar page.

And by the way, this last one? It's a bear. Playing with a garden hose, right out here on our septic field. She first stopped by the side door to the house, where she left a nose print. The door was locked, or else she might have had a close encounter of the sisterly kind with my own sister, who was working in room just inside the door.

Wonder. Awe. And also a little awww. Though not much. That's a bear, after all.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012

New Appreciations

The seasons are changing. While I was gone, the trees shed their leaves. We don't have snow here, but it's chilly and grey and wet.

This time of year, I think back to the trees that fell in the spring and summer (and even into the fall), over the driveway, over the paths, in inconvenient places. I appreciate them in a new way because we're now burning them, as much for the cheerful crackle of the fire as the warmth it produces.

I've picked up a book I tried to read last year. Last year was the wrong time. Now it's the right time.

I'm pursuing opportunities, both creative and remunerative (and some that are both!), that weren't right for me before. I enjoy the challenges even as they also daunt the heck out of me.

I'm opening a (virtual) filing cabinet and re-imagining a few stories. Two years ago, I did all I could to get them to a certain point -- and I knew that point wasn't an effective point, one that told the story well. I appreciate them differently now, and I wonder what they have to teach me, now that I'm slightly different, a little new.
Thursday, October 18, 2012

Opinions Worth Having

I'll start with the obvious: an election is looming in the U.S. I've already voted a backup ballot. If my regular ballot, which I have also completed, doesn't get there in time, I'm covered.

In other words: I'm done.

Being in the U.S. for a week gave me lots of opportunities to experience others' opinions. Most noticeably and loudly, opinions about political candidates and ballot initiatives.

But also opinions about
* window, aisle, or middle seat?
* near the off-duty pilot or in a row that might, if you're lucky, remain empty?
* red or white (customer service reps at Oregon wineries are such good sports)
* celery or no celery?

Celery? Really? Yes. I have met two people with a distinct dislike of celery. To me, this is a little like disliking water: maybe not the most exciting thing ever, but not much to object to, either. But everyone has different palates, different likes and dislikes, different buttons that are pushed by different things.

I used to have firm opinions about the best place to sit in airplanes, the must-have equipment while vacationing somewhere, the maximum price to pay for a twelve-hour stay in a motel room. But as I've aged, I've become more mellow. In some situations, striving to maintain or enforce a previous opinion of "optimal" or "limit" is a lot more energy than I am willing to expend.

However, I vote with more defined opinion than ever before. Increasingly, I believe in the importance of speaking up, even if I am the proverbial Democratic tree falling in the indifferent Republican forest of my  home state. I'd love for others to hear me -- but even if they don't, I hear me. I know I'm speaking my truth. And that's what counts.

Yes, writing is similar. While everyone wants accolades -- publications, awards, money, fans -- those may or may not come. I can't control that element of the work. But I can control the fact that I'm writing, day in and day out, I speak my truth to the page. And that counts for something.

So: speak up. Vote. Write.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Clearing the Cruft

For the last couple of weeks, I've been working primarily to others' deadlines. Nothing wrong with that, at all! I enjoy working for clients. I've even managed to get some of my own writing done, though of course not as much as I do when my clients are scrambling around at their end.

A side effect of working to others' deadlines is that I can start to feel...important. I may be working during a 25-minute break between meetings and pick up an email from a client who wants me to get something back to him about 30 minutes after my next meeting ends -- something that's do-able, but just, and only because I was actually available to pick up the email. I saved the day! Yay me!

It's sorta like being a business person in a movie. Only early in the movie, before the business person (Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Cruise) learns to slow down and smell the roses and take care of their new love's kid.

Although I like the work and I don't mind at all being responsive, in large doses, the life isn't particularly good for me. I can feel myself getting addicted to the energy. Except that it's not good energy. It's energy like sticky over-toasted marshmallow energy. There's a rush, and a crash, and I get snappish during both. Not good. It's not clean. It leaves me feeling like the toasting fork after you pull the outer burnt sugar shell off and are looking at knobby bits of molten marshmallow contents. Blech.

Today, I'm embarking on a week of a different sort. I'll be with family. It will be great. Also exhausting and possibly sad and hilarious at different times. Yep, my relatives all have a performance gene, and I predict that it will be in evidence this weekend. Fortunately, I'm good at being audience.

But here's the best part: in between the clients and the family, I got to have a day. It's the best thing for clearing the cruft that's left on the toasting fork after you've attempted toasting marshmallows. In fact, that's exactly what it's like, except without the sticky residue, fire, and pointy implements.

My day consisted of taking a six-hour drive through beautiful countryside. The delays for road work didn't matter. The traffic hasn't bothered me either, knock wood, though I am taking a break to let the worst of city traffic die down before I reach my final destination for the evening. I drive at the speed I want. I stop when I want. I take the route I want. I sing in the car.

So, next time you wonder if you're getting a little too addicted to the adrenaline and find yourself whiny when suddenly your inbox gets quiet, I highly recommend driving. By yourself. And if you have a playlist full of Canadian content -- Holly Cole, Sophie Milman, Meaghan Smith, Jill Barber, and of course Molly  Johnson -- then you really are lucky. Maybe not quite as lucky as Molly Johnson's song, but close.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Healthy Gums

I've been a whirling dervish of activity in the past few weeks -- publicizing this, starting that, finishing the other (or "finishing," more accurately, because it might come back rejected), sending things out, receiving things, considering future things, scheduling things (and laughing ha ha ha because you have to laugh when you schedule), and generally verbing all over the place.

Today, I am experiencing a slight lull, during which I need to switch gears. I will walk in a moment, because that is the ultimate gear-switching activity for me. But another activity that I enjoy is thoroughly flossing and brushing my teeth and gums.

I didn't always feel this way about oral hygiene, as the shining cavities inside my mouth show. But ever since my hygienist suggested a gum brush, and I discovered the pleasure of sending it on a leisurely trip around, between, and among my teeth, I've been hooked.

This has nothing to do with the fact that I have a dental check-up scheduled for my birthday next month. (No, not on purpose: Because it was convenient for them, that's why.) I sincerely enjoy a minty-fresh mouth -- what daunting task isn't better faced with clean teeth? -- and taking time to do the flossing and brushing thoroughly makes a noticeable difference in the final results.

Which is also true of writing. I sent out something yesterday after a major revision. It has changed drastically since I first wrote the very beginnings of it, and I don't want to look up how long ago that was. Years. The story gets better with every revision, and each revision requires time. More time than I want to give it. Real time apart, when I am consumed by other writing and experiences. Time for a thorough, cold read; time for contemplation and rumination; and time for the open and careful revisions that show true (if tough) love. When I sent it out yesterday, I felt proud -- and I will still feel proud if it comes back to me with a "no, thanks."

Sure, I clean my teeth every day, just as I write something nearly every day. But some days, you know? It's a little different. There's the pure joy when you do something really well, with careful attention, and you know you have done it well.

It's well worth the time.
Saturday, September 29, 2012

September Song

This year, I've been showing the photos I used in the calendar I create every year. You can find previous months and a link to the text they illustrate here.

As you can imagine, northwestern Ontario is lovely in September. I always have more photos to choose from than room to show them. This month, I used these.

Photos of places so familiar in summer, but now with signs of changing leaves and dying grasses, are extra special, rather like seeing someone you love with new eyes. I don't have kids, but I get the same feeling when I see photos of my parents when they were young -- far younger than I am now. "Oh,  the handsome fellow in his tux, the young girl in overalls posing hands-on-hips -- they are part of who you were, too!"

It's no accident that songs about September are often poignant. It's hard not to look at the sun and wish it would hang around on its summer schedule for a few more months -- and it's hard not to feel that sense of summer slipping away as a metaphor for life. 

But the other months of the year carry their own moments of beauty and inspiration, even if you do have to look for them a little more carefully. Or so I believe.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012

New Year

Fall is still a new year for a lot of us -- whether it's a religious holiday or just the tradition of starting school.

Notebooks, crayons (or colored pencils), sharpeners, erasers, glue (or glue sticks). New books, new ideas to write in them, new problems to puzzle over and (it is to be hoped) solve.

Along those lines, Quinn McDonald, a writer and creativity coach based in Arizona, recently wrote a post called Re-Packing Your Brain.

In it, she says, "Every time we start a new project, change our business, choose a new perception, we have to 're-pack our brain.'"

Wait...we choose our perceptions? And re-packing our brain around new perceptions can, in her words, give us a "new-found eagerness"?

How potent that is -- but yeah, isn't that what new starts are all about? 

In the past few weeks, I have adopted a new routine (still doing that 25 minutes of suffering!) and, wonder of wonders, I have been writing in the morning. I'm not (not, SO NOT) a morning person. Also, I imagine that I am too important, what with all those deadlines for others, to postpone to the afternoon the work and volunteer projects.

But when I changed my imagination to be my ally in getting new writing done, I could see that my, uh, importance was also largely imaginary. Most (99%) of the time, most issues (99%) can wait. My new perception lets my imagination now take me to my work in progress in the morning, and yes, with a newfound eagerness.

Quinn's blog, by the way, is well worth cruising through, especially if you're feeling the need for new ideas and perspectives around art. I also enjoy her book. Hope you do, too!
Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Just Because

I have written before about transcending my upbringing. I have also written about zentangles in the context of projects that don't go the way you think they will.

Recently, I've noticed another way in which zentangles help me (in the words of a former boyfriend, long ago) "get over my own bad self."

I draw zentangles for no reason. Just because. I do it to do it. I have no plans for them beyond the doing of them. It's PLAY.

Hear that? That noise you heard was transcendence, folks.

In my family of origin, we had activities and we took lessons. (We also had time for lazing around, dilly-dallying, reading, and dawdling, when we could escape our mother's watchful eye. Thank goodness for siblings.) As we got older, we were expected to become more serious about our activities. I swam competitively; I took music lessons. I was expected to practice these pursuits as regularly and conscientiously as I did homework (which was top priority in our home). Because if you're going to do something, you should do it as well as possible. Maybe get a scholarship. Maybe become a professional. Who knows where excellence can lead? So went the talk in my family.

All of which had some wonderful benefits. I swam competitively (with varying degrees of seriousness and success, but enough seriousness to do organized workouts several times a week) until I was 30, when I realized I was finished. As an adult, I played in some semi-professional groups -- even practicing voluntarily and enjoying it immensely.

But for all the benefits, pursuing creative activities seriously can also feel like pressure, not play. Although I enjoy writing, that's sure not why I do it. It's my life's work. Sometimes I don't enjoy the doing of it, but I always enjoy having done it. It's rewarding, not always fun. I welcome that -- it's the "un-fun" parts, the rejection, the revision, the "not-yet-ready-to-submit" versions that I learn from. I am serious about writing, in that I seek challenges to stretch my skills and I do it for a purpose.

And drawing is *not* my life's work. It's fun. It's play. It is, as my husband says, worth doing badly. The point is, in the doing of it, to do it. And I revel in it.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012

August Company

It is, of course, September, but I couldn't resist the title. 

In August, I learned that my essay "All I Can Say" will be included in The Best Canadian Essays 2012, published by Tightrope Books. The book will be available in stores in October.

This essay was also shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards and appeared in Room 34.3

My thanks go out to Clélie Rich and the other editors at Room, and to Chris Doda and Ray Robertson of Tightrope Books.

I am also extremely grateful to Eric, an extraordinary teacher and human being, and to my friend, poet Veronica Patterson. One afternoon over coffee, I said, "I went to the funeral of a service dog last week." She leaned forward, eyes wide, and said, "And what was THAT like?" By way of answer, I started this essay. 
Wednesday, August 29, 2012


This year, I've been showing photos that I used in the calendar I make for my family every year. You can find the previous months, along with a link to the text that they illustrated this year, here.

August is the month I most closely associate with being here. We couldn't vacation before August -- my parents taught summer sessions; the competitive swimming season didn't go on hiatus until the end of July. August gave us a few short weeks of freedom before school started again, for all of us.

I try to keep these familial biorhythms in mind as I make this calendar every year. Sure, my siblings and I are all (ostensibly) adults and have been creating our own families and vacation traditions for decades. But I suspect that August  in Thunder Bay is a default setting for them -- it is for me.

And here's the view that I most closely associate with August. It's one of my default shots. I take about a bazillion pictures from this beach at all times of the year, every year, saying each time, "I can't believe I'm taking another picture at this same spot."

Even though I live here, I can still feel a frisson of "vacation!" when I see this view. Ahhhh.
Friday, August 24, 2012

Lingo: A Patterned Dish Story

Don't you love the English language?

I've written before about my devotion to reruns of high-art TV like America's Next Top Model. I have recently discovered Canadian home style icon Sarah Richardson and her "design sidekick," Tommy Smythe. You can watch reruns of Sarah's House at this link.

I find the show immensely entertaining, even beyond its content. Sarah and Tommy are funny. The show isn't a competition, so the half-hours don't include catfight scenes. Clients, tradespeople, and others on the show don't always agree, but they remain respectful and get a job done. They also work in the "real world," with actual concrete items (which I talked about briefly in relation to my summer, here).

Plus, the language!

All specialists use language in specific ways. Scientists, politicians, MBAs, therapists, lawyers -- and yes, artists, writers, and designers. My sister often emails phrases from clothing design shows, like Project Runway: "I'm giving her a sleeve," for example. (As Tim Gunn responded, "Just one?")

But rarely do they have this much fun. Sarah, after thwarted in the purchase of a patterned fabric, once decided to look for a wallpaper that "tells the same story." The patterned dish story was in the context of a dining room that, to Tommy, already had a lot of pattern: "I'm all for a patterned dish story, but by the time we get to the table, might we not need a bit of a rest?" 

And "story" isn't their only interesting use of language. Sarah and Tommy also talk about creating "vignettes" and "moments." And in response to Tommy's concerned about the the china pattern, Sarah showed him how placing the patterned china on a "biscuit-coloured" plate created a restful and beautiful border. I would have called it "white" or possibly "cream" but okay, "biscuit" it is. 

Oh, just go watch a few episodes. It's fun! Just as language should be.

And P.S.: what lingo would my characters use, given their experience and special knowledge?
Wednesday, August 15, 2012


One of my favo(u)rite aspects of summer is working outdoors. No, I don't take my computer outside -- I do (some) outdoor work in what is commonly known as "the real world."

I also go outdoors in winter, but it's more often related to play. My husband does the shoveling and snow-blowing. So when I'm out, it's to go skiing or sledding, to take pictures, or for some other recreative purpose. Like doing nothing.

The summer is different. Waaaay different.

In the summer, we maintain structures, mow grass, deal with trees. (In the winter, we clear downed trees off the driveway, but otherwise, they stay where they are until the snow melts, the sap runs, and we deal with them. Or not.) And by "maintaining structures," I mean -- well, a lot of things. Painting, cleaning, clearing, re-roofing, draining. Lots of verbs.

My point is that unless it's raining, there's always something "productive" to be done outdoors in the summer. And I always remember physical sensations that have faded during the indoor months.

This summer, we've been painting the outside of one of our camps (southern Ontario: cottage, Manitoba: cabin). I've become aware of a host of physical sensations I've forgotten in the ten years since the last paint job. For example: The hand holding the can of paint (even a small can) gets really tired and my thumb goes to sleep. I tend to hold my breath while painting. Painting is a way to do squats while accomplishing something. When I paint, I don't use all the strength in my arm (painting requires a surprising amount of finesse, even when you're coating a wall), so part of what makes me tired is the sensation of holding back. Et cetera.

Other tasks have other moments. You learn a lot about a stretch of grass while mowing it -- walking every inch of it, over and over again. Taking a shop-vac to the rafters of an attic built by your grandfather can connect you to your past in a whole new way -- if your shoulders hurt just from vacuuming, what must his have felt like from lifting and hammering? When I load fireplace lengths into a wheelbarrow to bring back to the splitter in the garage, I'm reminded how solid, how heavy wood is.

I want to remember these sensations when my life turns back inward, as it inevitably will, this winter. In a month or so, I'll re-enter a project in which people work outdoors. The physical fatigue that comes from sawing, splitting, and stacking wood is different from the fatigue of prepping for a class or analyzing story structure. If I can just remember that, really remember it, I have a better chance of getting it onto the page, where a reader can imagine it, too.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Yes! That One!

This year, I've been showing images from the 2012 calendar I make for my family for Christmas. A link to previous months (that also includes a link to the text I illustrated) is here.

When I put together a calendar, I start by making a folder in Picasa with candidate images. I try to mix winter and summer shots; I try to find pictures that are different from those available in commercial calendars. And of course, because my audience is my family, who experienced this place in the summer and have warm feelings for particular scenes and views, I include a fair number of those.

Sometimes I have text first; sometimes I find it later. I have a couple of candidates for 2013 already, but I'm always on the lookout.

After I have the file of images and the text, I set aside uninterrupted time to read the text while looking through the assembled photos -- usually at least double the number that I can possibly use -- to see what speaks.

When I got to July, I knew immediately the image I would use. The text: "...and we say, I am who I am because I have been there."

The image:

Knew. Immediately. I don't know what it is about this heron, but I saw it and thought, "Yes! That one!"

And because I'm the kind of person who can't let an experience just HAPPEN, without any PONDERING (after all, I am who I am because I have been here), I've wondered if there's a way to use that sense of recognition in writing. For example: if I look at pictures "as" a character, what could I learn about the character? Or the plot, for that matter?

Images: an under-utilized tool.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What's a Meta-Phor?

Last week I mentioned activities that don't show results until they do. Namely, rowing.

I've spent more time in a rowboat in the past couple of weeks than in the previous 12 months. Rowing is a lovely activity that engages body and spirit, while leaving the mind room to play. Ergo, I've had plenty of time to consider nautical metaphors.

Like: Ships are safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are built for. Before your ship can come in, you have to send it out. Rowers are natural historians, because they always look at where they've been; canoers (or kayakers) are natural explorers, because they always look at where they're going.

But mostly I've been thinking about the point in a long project when I despair of ever seeing progress. In the boat, it's the spot when I'm rowing out toward an island in the bay (a convenient destination for the family since 1925), and suddenly I hit a hole in the space-time continuum and ... stop ... moving.

Oh, I'm still rowing. If I look down, I can see little whirlpools where I've put oars into the water and pulled the boat along for a few feet. I'm still making whirlpools in different spots, all of which head in the right direction. But nothing else changes visibly: not my island destination; not my embarkation point, back there on the beach; nothing on any horizon. It's a moment made for existential despair.

Until suddenly, as I keep rowing, things DO change. I get visibly closer to the island. The beach I left recedes. Eventually I arrive (though the island is now a bird sanctuary, so I don't get out of the boat). If I'm lucky, I see otters at play.

But if I stopped at that point of despair, I would never get there. As long as I keep rowing, I'm bound to get somewhere.

Which of course returns to writing -- specifically, my difficulty producing coherent large manuscripts. I'm taking a lesson from my rowing experience, though. I'm in the middle of the story. In some ways, I know what is going to happen, but mostly, my job is to keep showing up at the page and nudging the story along. If I stop writing, I'll never get to the island.

It's an imperfect metaphor -- for one thing, otters also come into our bay periodically -- but hey, it speaks to me now. Besides, a metaphor isn't supposed to be a perfect representation of a thing. It's an image of a thing that is somehow similar to a thing. And sometimes, to answer the question in the title of this post, it inspires thought.

Don't despair. It's only August. There's still plenty of time to make progress this summer. Find a metaphor and let it carry you out to where the otters play.
Thursday, July 26, 2012


While I've been attending to visitors and taking a little vacation, I've also been taking some notes.

1. Mosquitoes just don't give up. How can I be more like a mosquito, except less annoying?

2. The beach never changes -- the big rocks at either end sit where they were in my grandmother's time here. But the beach is also different every day: a sunny morning feels different from a breezy, cloudy morning. The beach is different at 5 p.m. than at 10 a.m., especially if you've created artwork in the morning and a storm blows in. But the beach's essentials are unchanged. How does it do that?

3. So many activities don't seem to show results until they suddenly do. Like taking branches off trees, or pumping water up from the lake with the hand pump in the breezeway, or rowing across a broad expanse of lake, or even raking detritus off the beach. "You are what you do every day" and all that.

4. Going swimming is always worth the messing around it takes to get your suit, sunscreen, bug spray, towel, footwear, sunny spot, etc. Ditto rowing, with its oars, PFDs, WD-40, bug spray, sunscreen, shoes, cushions, and coffee. Ditto fire in the woodstove. Ditto life, I imagine.

Some of these ideas will appear later, packaged in more words, I'm sure. Hope you have had a relaxing, contemplative, restorative, exciting thrill of a mid-July.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gone Fishin'

And by "gone," I mean, of course, that I'm not gone. I'm here. Just not at my desk very much, because of having company.

Same goes for "fishin'": I don't fish, though I eat it (see "Kayaker" fish sandwich, below). I am, however, well-fillin'. Also stomach-fillin'.

Hope you are the same.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Two Helpful Hints

These days, I split my time between writing and working. Not "split 50/50" (or "split half in two," as the charming expression from the southern US goes) -- just split, as in divided, probably unequally. My schedule depends on the weather, because a lot of the work I'm doing is outdoor stuff.

Ah, the weather: unseasonably hot and humid. Suddenly the things I have to do outdoors (scrape, prime, and paint buildings, this summer) can't be scheduled into "afternoons, I'll paint." I look at the sky and feel the air. Is it both cool enough and dry enough this morning to paint? Is it too hot to be outdoors between 10:30 and 4? Is the wind shifting, thus dropping the temperature five degrees in ten minutes?

While I've been out and about (and inside staring at the sky), I've learned a couple of things. 

Hint #1. Write where it's physically comfortable. Or in my case recently, where it's cool. My office is in our walk-out basement. Working there is way less fun in February, when the sun doesn't shine in and things get nippy. However, on a hot July day, my office is mostly shaded by the deck, it's comfortable, it's tidy, and it doesn't smell of bug repellent. Basically, it's best place in the world, and I find myself heading downstairs for long stretches. As a result, I'm getting a lot of desk-type work, including some real writing, done. I also have a designated space upstairs, where it's warm -- too warm now, but pleasant on those February days when downstairs isn't as alluring. I didn't frequent it much last winter, and I didn't produce much new writing. Hmm. Coincidence?

Need further cogitation on this? Here's a story (third-hand, but useful) about how leaving a guitar sitting out in the living room increased the likelihood that its owner would actually play it every day. (By the way, Eric Barker's "Barking up the wrong tree" has fun, quick ideas and lists.) Practice the path of least resistance!

Hint #2. Use someone else's wheel. Sure, writing advice is everywhere (ahem). It's easy to get distracted by it, and troll around reading it instead of actually writing, but that's a post for a different day. At times, all that advice can be useful. When I face something related to writing that I can't quite figure out, for example. And I've found that good advice tends to find me when I need it.

Lately, as part of my planning extravaganza, I put some projects on hold until I complete the ones I have on the go. That means I have set aside ideas, notes, starts, drafts -- half-baked, fully cooked, and in between -- that I will return to. On one hand, distance is a wonderful thing. I think "time apart" is one of the best tools for revising something. On the other, it can be tough to return to and develop something originally concocted by a different version of yourself.

Enter Sarah Selecky, a writer with an excellent short story collection, newsletters, daily writing prompts, courses, and other tools. In one of her recent newsletters, she included a link to a few of her thoughts on story revision: Six ways to look at an abandoned story. One of my favo(u)rite parts of this advice is #5 -- "Expect that going back to an old story will feel weird at first." That reassurance removes a lot of my fear that "I'm not doing it right." Getting back into stories may not be easy, but finding it difficult isn't necessarily a sign to abandon the story. OK. Good to know.

There. Two things for you to ponder as you handle the heat. Just call me Heloise.
Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Moon, Spoon...

For the June page of my calendar, I used these three photos.

As I write this, the weather is unsettled, with high humidity and temperatures to match. Outside my office window, the grass is tall but too wet to mow -- a far cry from the doe/snow and ice/sunrise shots.

I love looking closely at the calendar photos throughout the year, especially when the seasons in the photos don't necessarily match the real world outside. The pictures remind me that 
seasons can change, but beauty remains. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Creative Writing Plan, Part 3: Accountability

I recently made a plan for my creative writing life. No stranger to unsuccessful planning efforts, I have found this particular planning process to be extremely helpful, and I have been sharing the reasons. This is the third and final post in the series. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.

In my first post about this plan, I talked about how setting limits helped me gain focus and (finally) some success in planning my creative writing. Last week, I described how expectations and timing worked to my advantage as I created this plan. Now: Accountability!

Most goal-setting literature tells you to become accountable in some way: get an accountability buddy, a mastermind group, a workout partner, whatever. This advice always made hyperventilate. I'm introverted. Sharing something deeply personal with someone else is not a step I take lightly.

However, I have found personal accountability helpful in some situations. For example, if you want to play an instrument, joining a group ensures that you play (during rehearsals) and gives you incentive to practice between them (making mistakes at rehearsals). If I were ever to take up swimming again, I'd try to be part of a team -- showing up at the pool would use up most of my discipline; I'd let someone else make up a workout. 

Having seen some value in accountability, I was open to figuring out how it might work in this plan. We included a more traditional "buddy" form of accountability, but I've also found a surprising element of short-term accountability in the process. 

Long-term: My partner in this planning process and I agreed to exchange draft plans and give each other feedback; we had that meeting early this month. It was extremely useful. She's also game to exchange email updates every month or so, and we have scheduled a six-month Skype check-in. I have already found myself listing what I've achieved this month, in preparation for my first email. This traditional form of accountability seems promising.  

Immediate: Another form of accountability element has proved INVALUABLE. Somewhere, I recognized that with this plan, I'm accountable to me -- every day, week, month, year. My left-brained, organized self loved the whole planning process and has stopped nattering in the back of my mind. My more free-flowing, right-brained self has buckled down to send up some words. 

I stumbled on this "accountable to me" aspect by accident. I sat down to work on my plan in a coffee shop, away from my desk. I had forgotten to bring the stack of lists from previous planning attempts (e.g., the Getting Things Done "someday/maybe" lists). So I quickly jotted down a few ideas that had been intriguing me lately. I figured I'd add in some of those "pie in the sky" things later, at home.

Then I tried to slot those few ideas into specific timeframes. I quickly ran into the irresistible force/immovable object problem: with only 24 hours in a day (many taken by other activities), "something's gotta give." Forget about adding things I didn't already have on my short-short list.

So, sadly, I assigned a pet project to 2013 (how can "next year" mean "2013"?) and another to 2014. Yes, it was sad to move them. On the other hand, they're there, on the plan. I don't have to wonder if I'll ever get to them. I don't have to second-guess whether I should be doing one of those instead of something I am working on now. I have decided. I also know that, as long as I work toward meeting my current goals, I have a good shot at addressing 2013's projects in 2013.

For a wonder, this accountability feels freeing. I'm not concerned at all about sharing progress, or lack thereof, with my co-conspirator in this process. I'm not concerned about whether I'm working on the right things. I am still concerned (excited, exasperated, thrilled, eager, frustrated) about the actual writing -- which is how it should be.

In closing: limits, expectations, timing, and accountability all worked together to make both this planning process and the plan itself extremely useful to me. In much the same way that my "25 minutes of suffering" has let me address all the things that could/should be done without freakout or burnout, having this plan lets me focus on doing the writing. And that's exactly what I needed from it. 
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Creative Writing Plan, Part 2: Expectations and Timing

With a writing friend, I recently made a plan for my creative writing life. No stranger to unsuccessful planning efforts, I have found this particular planning process to be extremely helpful, and I have been sharing the reasons. This is Part 2. Part 1 is here.

Last week I talked about how beneficial it was for me to limit this planning process, and consider only my creative writing, leaving out issues of exercise, spirituality, and kale. The basic format we used for creating our plan is at the top of last week's post. This week, I look at two related considerations -- expectations and timing.

Expectations. In my previous attempts to create a cohesive plan around my creative writing, the vision statement tripped me up. Anything I wrote seemed so...grandiose? egotistical? ridiculous? impossible?

Oh, vision statements. I've been part of reorganization/restructuring efforts at two large public organizations and a smaller private company. I've jumped off a cliff (attached to a zipline but somehow my brain didn't believe that part) in a team-building exercise. I've stood on chairs and committed to goals. (Yes, I cringe about that, in retrospect. Seriously? Standing on a chair?) And those examples were just for work. That doesn't count all the other exercises for nonprofit organizations or churches.

In my jaded experience, those "vision statement" days, fueled by muffins and peer pressure (with not a little blaming and finger-pointing), produce lots of sticky notes and flip charts but little action. Sigh.

In any case, because a vision statement was part of our template, okay, I wrote a vision statement. I actually wrote it after I wrote down the goals I'd like to complete in five years. That part felt easier, because it was more concrete: a list of projects. The vision statement, which is private, is more fluid. Mostly, it isn't something I'm all het up about. 

The reason I'm feeling more relaxed: I have relaxed my expectations. Although I would love to be a bazillion-millionaire writer of critically acclaimed works with staying power to inspire all future generations and bring peace in our lifetime, most of that ridiculous sentence depends on other people. I can only control the fact that I'm producing writing. 

Which is not to equate "relaxed expectations" with "lazy." I'm still ambitious. Just not about the elements of writing that are beyond my control. So I'm ambitious about the concrete things, the goals. But even there, I focus my goals on producing writing, not on its reception (limits). 

The reason I can relax my expectations? The timing of this writing exercise. Not "time," as in, "this took a lot of time," or "I had a lot of time to think about it," because neither of those statements is true. Timing. As in, this is a good time, both in my regular life and in my writing career, to do some planning.
  • My personal life is pretty settled -- no foreseeable deaths, births, illness, or moves on the horizon. Granted, events like these often are hard to predict. But one of the perks of having lost one's parents, for example, is that you don't need a contingency plan for it anymore. So I'm taking advantage of the relative predictability of my personal life to get this big chunk of Meaningful Life on track.
  • No one, including me, depends on my creative writing to generate income. I have other goals for income-producing writing; my husband and I have other sources of income. More money would always be nice, but this planning exercise simply isn't about money.  
  • More years lie behind me than ahead. I often pretend I'm just halfway through my lifespan. When I'm honest about the arithmetic and life expectancies, I have to admit I'm past the halfway point. If I'm not going to get serious about this "creative writing" thing now, when will I? Five years from now, I don't want to say, "Geez, I wish I could get that novel done." Sure, whatever I produce from this plan might be horrible, but at least I will have given it a shot. I won't have to wonder. 
  • I have enough experience writing fiction and creative nonfiction to know what elements of it I can do fairly easily, quickly, and well, and what elements of it receive a "need improvement" grade -- namely, plot. So I can focus on improving those "skill deficits" and incorporating them into my mix of tools. When I was less experienced, I didn't know what came easily, much less how to stretch myself into things that don't come so easily. 
In summary: limits, expectations, and timing. Relaxing my expectations around (a) creating a life-defining vision statement and  (b) expecting external acclaim and reward for creative writing let me focus on what's important to me: producing the writing. I'm able to set those limits and relax my expectations because of the timing of this planning exercise, both in terms of my personal life and my creative writing life. 

What's left for next week, in Part 3? Accountability. Yes, even my own introverted self sees the value of it. 
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Creative Writing Plan, Part 1: The Freedom of Limits

A writing friend and I just completed a brief planning process that addresses our respective creative writing lives. Here's the outline we used, along with some completely made-up examples:
  • Vision statement: "In five years, I am...." [statement of your writing self in five years. Example: a writer of poetry and mystery novellas who is confident in my use of form and imagery.] 
  • Goal statement: "In five years, I will have:" [bullet list of projects completed/underway. Example: completed four 20,000 word mystery novellas, completed a revision of my sestina-based collection "Lilacs and Lavender," drafted four other novellas, experimented with up to three writing schedules and committed to pursuing the most successful for a full year]
  • Milestone statement for this year: "This year, I will:" [bullet list of projects to complete. Example: complete the draft of novella #2 and revise #1 and #2, use mind-mapping to generate 50 images relating geology and cosmology for further exploration, write an hour every weekday morning before the rest of the family wakes up. ]
Short, sweet, simple. And extraordinarily valuable for various reasons, which I'll cover this week and in two upcoming weeks.

Most important: This plan, by design, is limited. It is a plan for creative writing.
  • It doesn't include resolution-y elements of life: to meditate every day or work out or run a 10k or eat more kale.
  • It doesn't address the writing I do as work or as a volunteer. Those activities may expand my tools, but they aren't directly related to the creative writing goals in this plan.
  • It doesn't include activities that develop craft -- like attentive and analytical reading (some of which I will do anyway), targeted reading of craft books, or taking writing courses (formal or informal). I may revise this choice, but it is right for me, right now.
This limit was important because the other things in my life seem to get done. I shower and brush my teeth. I pay bills and taxes on time. I could always exercise more, eat better, spend more time with family, or volunteer more -- but I do those things at acceptable (to me) levels. I'm more ambitious for the creative writing I want to do. So, this plan looks only at creative writing. The closest my plan gets to addressing areas "other than creative writing" is in its submitting component and its writing practice component.

A. Submitting: I will continue to submit pieces to publications, but my goals require me to focus on producing and revising words. So my submission rate (about 1 per month) will stay the same.

Here's why: I am drawn to administrivia like a moth to a flame (and often find myself sizzled, with no new writing done). Administrative work lends itself to to-do lists, completed tasks, and accomplishments. It is relatively easy to research markets, plan submissions, or print stories and put them in envelopes (or, increasingly, format documents, attach them to emails, and click "submit"). In comparison, it is relatively hard to open a vein or two and bleed onto the page. It is even relatively hard to write when I get over my bad self and just put words down, without all the the "bleeding" imagery and general sturm und drang.

Bottom line: I can push papers around and pretend I'm writing, but I'm not -- I'm doing administration. Therefore, submissions will continue at the current level -- ramping them up isn't a big focus. Note that however this decision changes (and it could), having a strategy for submitting creative work will remain a part of this plan, because that's a part of the creative process that's important to me.

B. Writing practice: I have written before about my love/hate relationship with structure and the freelancing life. Evenings? Weekends? What do they mean when it's possible to be connected 24/7? Et cetera.

I've recently admitted to myself that on long projects (like curricula, or, probably, novels), I work better when I have an outline. So rather than think that I shouldn't need an outline, that only baby writers need outlines (and I'm no baby) (am not) (NOT), that an outline is a crutch, that I need to be a real writer and write without an outline -- rather than bludgeon myself (for any longer than I have already), I'm going to (duh) work to an outline. (What can I say. It's part of my unique charm to imagine that if I can do something in a particular way, I must be doing it wrong and therefore shouldn't do it that way.)

Same with general daily routine. My life really does go more smoothly when I write early, even though I am not (SO NOT) a morning person. Summer is an especially tricky time because mornings here are reliably lovely, and this is the season for outdoor activity, so I say, "I'll write later." But the part of me saying "later" apparently means "October." Fortunately, the largest part of me has these goals around creative writing, and, furthermore, has met my postponing self before and isn't fooled by its attempts to get me to do important things "later."

Bottom line: Aside from planned and designated vacations, I'm giving an honest shot at getting the required writing done before 11 a.m. on weekdays. Note that although this particular writing practice may change, considering whether my writing practice is working for me will remain a part of this plan -- because life changes, but creative writing is an important element of my life.

And here's another important limit I put on this plan: My goals (mostly) address producing and revising words. Although one of my goals addresses published work, 90% of my goals are about production: writing, revision, submitting. Why? Because they are the things I can control (mostly). Having work published depends on others. Yes, revising carefully and submitting well, or revising with an eye toward a particular journal or publisher, can improve my acceptance rate, and I'll be doing some of that. But I won't be looking at specific publications and pitching or writing to them. I'm not writing to a market.

I can do that because this plan is about MY creative writing -- my CREATIVE writing. Which ties into next week's topics, expectations and timing.

I recently made a plan for my creative writing life. No stranger to unsuccessful planning efforts, I have found this particular planning process to be extremely helpful. I will share the reasons why in three posts: this is Part 1. Stay tuned for Parts 2 (expectations and timing) and 3 (accountability).

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

May, May Not

Here's my 2011 calendar shot for May. It's one of my favo(u)rite scenes -- all mist-erious.

Is the shot from May of  last year? No. That's ice in front of that island. It's from sometime in March. But what I like about the shot is the light,* and to me, light speaks of coming into the "yang time" of the year, when things you've been working on in the dark months see the world. 

One of those things, for me, is a sort of five-year plan for my creative writing. More about that later.

*Or at least that's what I like about it now. I reserve the right to let it tell me something different when I'm at a different point in my life and am listening for a different message. 
Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reframing Rejection

Writers get rejected. That's how it goes. Someone else is picked for a project. A different style of work is a better "fit" in some intangible way. Your work wasn't quite what they were looking for.

Recently, I've heard "no" again, after a spell of silence. I didn't enjoy it -- but I did enjoy hearing something.

My family upbringing trained me to say, "Well, that's a setback, but I can get back on track" -- and resume doing whatever I was doing, only more of it and for longer hours.

But not this time. Instead of powering through a blue period by pretending I didn't get rejected or otherwise relying on willpower, I'm reframing, which is a fancy-pants way of saying "looking at things from a new perspective."

Rejection is information. I can learn something from it. At the same time, I don't have to kill myself trying to figure out "what this means."

A rejection might tell me that

1. before I send to that journal or approach that client again, I should quickly check the most recent things they've published and what they're saying online. If a journal is open to submissions only on a particular theme, it is useful to find that out before submitting. If a client has just posted a white paper on Gigantic Software Company's Adoption of Our Software, they don't need another. It doesn't mean my work isn't good -- it might mean I should send or pitch elsewhere.

2. before I send the rejected piece (or idea) anywhere again, I should read it with careful eyes. Yes, again. Maybe I became so immersed in the world of that story or idea that I lost the connection to my target audience. (Also known as the "I know what I mean" syndrome.) Presumably the idea or story has been sitting for some time period (a couple of days, a couple of months) -- great! I've got new eyes; I'll use them.

3. before I even consider pitching the idea or submitting the piece elsewhere, I should revise. As in, a "real" revision. One that involves asking myself hard questions, like "What are you really trying to say?" or "Is this what you mean?" One that requires me to consider a whole different way of expressing this idea -- is it a full short story, flash (non)fiction, poem fragment, rant, essay, list of instructions, field guide, inventory, or something else? Although I'm usually pretty honest with myself about an idea or piece that isn't ready for submission, I am still guilty of the occasional "I'm sick of looking at this so I'm sending it anyway" submission.

So. Rejections provide information. Time to learn what I can -- and then move on.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Just How Easy is that Livin'?

It's not summer yet but you can see it from here. Even I have taken the faith-filled step of washing our winter hats, mittens, scarves, etc., figuring it's probably safe to put them away. And once the grass dries, it will need cutting -- a sure sign of summer.

Summer = vacation for those of us still on school calendars, whether mentally/emotionally or practically (by teaching, being in school, or having school-aged kids around the house).

But when you work for yourself, whether you have paying clients or just write for (soon-to-be-less-)imaginary (one hopes) readers, how do you know when it's time to quit? Not quit working -- just quit for the day, quit for the weekend, quit for the summer? Do you take work on vacation?

I recently went away for two weeks. "Recently" meaning "last month." I didn't take work -- a couple of things found me anyway, but I mostly punted them until I got home. It was refreshing.

On the daily level, I usually find it harder to determine when I'm "off work." Part of the joy of working from home is taking advantage of sunbreaks, of an invitation to go out in the canoe or watch the deer, of a really good book that's calling your name, of a two-hour lunch break. What's the benefit of working for yourself if you don't set your own schedule and allow that schedule to be flexible?

But what if that two-hour break means you feel compelled to work at night, either missing out on family time or sleep? Is that just the price you pay? When does flexibility become procrastination or general malingering? (And what a loaded word "malingering" is, so full of judgement.)

I love routine, which can work against me. Two weeks of a real vacation have re-set my routine buttons; NOT thinking about work has felt more the norm than it did before I left. It's been difficult to resume the fully productive life (though I still love those 25 minute sessions of suffering). I also don't want to resume the feeling of always possibly being "on duty."

No answers from me. But two smart writers, Seth Godin and Gretchen Rubin, have touched on this topic recently. Seth's advice, more or less, give or take: recognize that it's your choice to keep working or stop. (Also, and I'm sure this message was directed TO ME: Words with Friends can get outta hand as easily as routine email checks.) Gretchen's: set a quitting time, and then quit.

Hope your long May weekend is/was restful and inspiring! Welcome, summer.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Boy oh Boy, Girl

A few weeks ago, I got some interesting feedback on a short story. The story is written from the point of view of a guy. (Although the character is male, I would not call him a man.) The woman who read the story -- someone I'd never met before -- said that she was sure it had been written by a guy.

I took that as a compliment, because she obviously meant to indicate that the character rang true to her -- not that she found it astounding that any female person could create a convincing man (or guy).

But it reminded me of an old podcast I'd just heard: "Mad Women," an episode of The Age of Persuasion on CBC radio. The program looks at advertising, as does "Under the Influence." Both interesting programs. "Mad Women" features work from women in advertising throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The podcast goes into more detail than the material on the website and is worth listening to.

I don't buy into the idea that "only women can write women" or "for women," or even that "it takes a woman to sell consumer products, because women buy them." Perhaps it did require  a woman to recognize the ways in which women's power in the world had gone untapped to that point -- and do something about it. Since then, the discussion around gender/advertising/ consumerism/politics/writing/publishing has taken some interesting twists. The fact that the larger conversion about (let's call it what it is) power and gender continues is hopeful to me. 

And this creativity thing, it's all about imagination. Can you see the world from another person's perspective? Can you figure out what that person's problem is or what that person wants? That's creating a character -- someone an advertiser can sell a product to. Someone a reader can spend time with. The gender of the character, advertiser, or reader is beside the point. 

Creativity doesn't require superpowers or specific anatomical equipment. Just persistence (and a sharp pencil). At least that's what I learned from my mother, whose voice reverberates in my head and heart this post-Mother's Day week.
Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Taking Stock

In March 2010, I received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to support the creation of a short story collection.

Since then, five of the ten works I proposed in the collection (and revised extensively, thanks to the $upport) have found homes.

  • * "Iceberg," The Blind Hem, May 4, 2012.
  • * "Improvisation," chosen as part of the Liar, Liar project of Northern Mosaic, an integrated arts organization based in Thunder Bay.
  • * "Walking Out," South Dakota Review 49.3 (Fall 2011). 
  • * "MacDonald Variety," Prairie Fire 32.3 (Fall 2011).
  • * "Thirty-Two Faces," 11th edition of Ten Stories High, the annual anthology of short fiction published by the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Authors Association.

I have nattered around before about the difficulties I get into when I try to apply the mindset and metrics from "writing as a day job" to writing fiction and essays. However, taking stock is one activity that is useful in both arenas. The list above represents part of my journey I've come since submitting my OAC proposal in December of 2009. 

The next part is planning. I do some of this every week -- usually, close-to-the-ground planning, the "what am I sending where next" planning. I also do some fiction/essay planning every year, of the "this time next year I want that novel draft DONE" type. And I daydream, which is like planning to plan. But periodically, it's good to look somewhere between the week and the year. It's time again for me to see where other elements of that collection are, where they could go, what could happen next. 

It's an optimistic time for this kind of planning. The world is waking up. Yang Time is here. Time to get out into the world again!
Friday, May 4, 2012

Fashionably Recognized

My short story, "Iceberg," is featured at The Blind Hem today and throughout this weekend. You can find it here:

The Blind Hem is a site related to fashion. Let me repeat that, for those who have seen my extensive collection of jeans and t-shirts (and flipflops, though they are mostly for show up here) and may doubt the validity of that statement.*

Fashion. The clothing kind. Oh, here, I'll let them tell you:
Our mission is to portray fashion and personal style in an intelligent & honest way, through words and art. We believe in diversity, inclusivity, feminism and truth. Our features range from non-fiction to fiction to art and photography. We are interested in the different lenses through which personal style, feminism and society can be viewed – and we are interested in the stories behind the clothes.
Go there and read -- and although it would be great for you to read my story (and send your friends to read it, too), you should bookmark the site. Visit it early and often. They cover a LOT of interesting ground.

Thanks, Katy!

* Though I do claim to have originated the concept of the "spring sweatshirt."
Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tick Tock, Drip Drop

I've written before about time, and about how suffering for 25 minutes works for me. (Thanks, Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project.) It still works for me. Doing the taxes this year has been far less difficult (one country down, one to go). I maintain some knowledge of the complex financial tapestry that is my life, 25 minutes a week (Money Monday). I've worked through nearly all my photos and have a list the length of my arm of other projects to assign to a day.

Little bits of time add up. Recently, I noticed that process in reverse.

The other day, I used the last coffee filter in the package. (Yes, we use paper coffee filters. We're quirky geezers in some ways, and dadburnit, we like our paper coffee filters. Also our traditional 12-cup coffee makers.)

The last coffee filter: one of those moments I wasn't sure would ever occur, which is why I noticed it. We (I) go through a carton of milk in less than a week, so I'm always aware of the milk supply.* We buy coffee nearly every time we're in a grocery store, just because. But coffee filters?

two writers + working from home = a lot of coffee filters 

The thing is, coffee filters come in bargain packages of 450. At one pot of coffee a day, that's more than a year's supply. (Ha, one pot a day! Good one!! But even at 2 pots a day, it's still eight months' worth of filters.) That's a lot of filters. It feels like a lot of filters when you're buying them, at least.

One added benefit of buying coffee filters in bulk is that they aren't, uh, bulky. The bargain package can fit into the awkward corner cupboard into which little else fits and which is conveniently  located above the coffee maker.

So in my mind, we had tons of filters. In spite of the central role coffee plays in my life, I hadn't really paid attention to the steady dwindling of our supply until there it was, gone.

So, because this is what I think about, I started thinking about characters, the frog boiling in a pot of water, the camel and the straw. What is it that makes a person decide to start (25 minutes) or stop (coffee filters)? And then -- how does that person show it? What actions does that person take that shows the different way of thinking?

I set a timer every day. Every morning, I reach for a coffee filter. I suppose that someday, I might do neither thing. What do my characters do? What do they do next? What do they do differently? What does it take to make them change?

Obviously, it's time for a cup of coffee. Except that I'm out of milk.

* People here sell/buy milk in bags instead of those plastic gallon jugs. They put these bags into a plastic poury-jug-thing and serve from that. Bags! Seven years here, and I still can't do it.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012

April: the true Janus Face

So here's the deal. I'm home from vacation in Tucson, which I enjoyed mightily. It was a well-filling experience.

But, as an adult with allegiances in two countries, I allocate the entire month of April to income tax. Actually, I pay someone else to do my Canadian taxes, which helps, but there's still a lot of paperwork to assemble. 

Plus, I have this "thing" about paying someone else to help me tell the US IRS that I don't, in fact, owe taxes, because I pay up here and the two countries have signed a treaty. Therefore, I do my own US taxes. Which mostly involves whining, since the paperwork is all assembled for the Canadian accountant. But it's still a project.

 All of which is a big over-explanation of why today is another picture day. Two pictures, actually -- taken the "Day of Two Sunrises."

Sunrises actually aren't straight "up" from a spot on the horizon (a factoid I didn't really understand till I lived here). In March, one day the sun rises from behind the far peninsula, where we see it briefly, and then passes behind the island, and then "rises" again from behind the island.

 So: two countries, two sets of income tax forms. But to compensate, two sunrises to look at on the calendar. Not a bad trade.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Month is Like a Command? March

The specific day that's like a command: March 4th. Thank you, Peggy of Otowi Station Bookstore.

Here are the two shots I used for my family's calendar in March.

If you've only been here in the summer, it's hard to imagine scenes like this. Which is why I include so many winter shots.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I Love I Love I Love My Calendar Shot: February

As I mentioned last week, I'm vacationing. (Strange concept for a writer.) While I'm gone, I'm sharing photos from the calendar I create for my family every year.

I should mention that, being a word person, I often include words with these shots. In the past, I've used poems that were meaningful to my mother and grandmother, and excerpts from various other bits of writing that my mother left behind. This year, I used a quote for M. Scott Momaday, which you can read here. I divided the last three statements on the page among the twelve months of the year.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Of Calendars and Photos: January

I live in a spot that's near and dear to me and my siblings, so every year their Christmas present from me is a calendar. The old-fashioned, paper kind. It's retro!

This month, I'm taking a bit of vacation and thought I'd share some of the calendar photos here in the meantime. (You can share, too -- just link to this, please.)

January's sunrise shot, taken in September, 2011.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Walked Out

In the mailbox yesterday:

That, my friends, is the cover of the South Dakota Review, issue 49.3, which contains my story "Walking Out."

South Dakota Review is going through what it calls "an ambitious transitional phase," so now would be a really good time to subscribe or submit!

Of course, you should read a sample issue before submitting. Why not this one?? On the "subscribe" page, you'll find that the "most current" issue is only $10. Less than the cost of a movie ticket, and many more hours of entertainment.

Thanks, South Dakota Review!