Thursday, December 19, 2013


The other night, I had a dream that included a Roomba, a cat, and a handheld electronic device for checking out library books. I had to get the angle of my device just right, so that the Roomba could read that I wanted to recheck my library book. The cat wasn't keen on being carried around but otherwise was just part of the mental dream furniture.

Last night's dream included a house with lots of rooms, Escher-style architecture, and Alice-in-Wonderlandish phantasmagorical and slightly frightening happenings. At one point I was carrying around an enameled basin, delivering some kind of fluid somewhere (and I couldn't find where it was to go), to someone who looked like the Mad Hatter.

Last night also included the following conversation.

  • Important person: Why are people turning in their prescription drugs? 
  • Me: Because they heard the headline about vitamins being worthless and are bringing in all their medication, not just their vitamins. You know how people are about health news.
  • Important person: Oh. Well, it can't be that important. 
  • Me (peering at label): It's probably pretty important to Mr. Ken Tenudo to be taking his heart medication. 

Ordinarily my dreams seem to come from left field. However, I can trace each of these elements back to a particular person or event in real life.

One of my Facebook friends, my sister's contemporary, has posted about her new Roomba, and that's where the cat came from, too (you know, the video of one riding a Roomba, though last night's didn't have a duck or a shark constume). I recently had to take a library book back on a snowy morning and thought about how I *could* have just read it on my Kobo, BUT NO I had to check out the paper book. (Which I'd do again, probably. I like regular books, though the Kobo has its advantages too.)

Last night's house, and especially the enameled basin, were probably from watching Victorian Farm and Wartime Farm Christmas specials on TVO. I haven't watched much online TV because our internet connection is frustrating, but I've been drawn back into it this week. The delivery, or non-delivery, of the fluid in my dream is probably my typical "late for the train" function kicking in--I had a long to-do list this morning and some anxiety about deadlines.

The conversation about drugs came from the recent reports on an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine about vitamins (info here). I've been thinking and writing around science recently, and health info is the primary window into science for most people. So when I hear headlines, I (perhaps cynically) wonder how people are most likely to misinterpret the headlines.

So what's the point? To say "thank you" to the creative neurological mechanism that lets me take raw material from life and combine it in new ways. It doesn't matter to me what the purpose of dreaming is--perhaps it really is just exhaust from what I burned in the day's engine.

But it's also a starting point. I think about which image carries the most emotional heft for me, what elements of the image keep drawing me back. As I do the holiday and end-of-year stuff, I'm also thinking ahead. And these dreams are helping me remember what's been on my mind, and what I could pay attention to in the coming months.

And dreamworld: what's up with that cat?
Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Being, Doing, Do Be Do Be Do

For the past couple of months, I've had a lot of fun. I've spoken about the possible uses of journaling. I've gone to events, met people, learned things, talked with people. People meaning writers, readers, teachers, learners.

In other words, I've been being a writer quite a bit.

I have spent less time doing the writing. And when I don't write regularly, I feel more and more like a fraud when I say, "I'm a writer." And also too, I'm able to be a writer more easily and successfully when I am not feeling like a fraud.

So, in early November, I reversed that. I did my own form of NaNoWriMo. Because I'm not a joiner so much anymore, I didn't sign up anywhere. And because I'm trying not to follow rules that don't necessarily work for me,* I made up some of my own.

For the first twelve days of November, I wrote 2000 words a day on a nonfiction project I'm researching. When I couldn't (I was sick a few days in there), I made up for it as soon as possible. It was great to get some of my thoughts down, to reflect on what I was learning, to set new tasks, to consider one writer in light of another. And now it's all in the form of words, in documents.

When I am able to return to that project, I won't have to wonder where I was. I'll know. I'll write more before I begin cutting, and I'll do a whole whackload of revising. But I won't have to start from nowhere. I have words to serve as a starting point and to abandon if necessary (with appropriate gnashing of teeth).

So that was half a month. Since then, I've been revising a fiction project. It was harder to find a numerical goal for these days, since I'm not working through a draft. I'm taking apart some things and putting some of them together in new ways. I'm writing new things. I'm recasting some stuff. It's all very satisfying, even though I can't point to a number for the day and go "woo-hoo, done!"

But the main thing is this: both types of activities in my self-defined WriMo have been doing the writing. And it feels really really good--even when it's not going particularly "well," or I have to abandon an idea that really seems on paper as if it shoudl work, or I can't find the character's voice where I think it should be, or I recognize that I don't want to write something with a cute kid in it. All of which have happened.

I've been the writer on occasion lately, too. And yes, it's easier, after a day of doing the writing. And yes, I will remember this lesson--now that I've written it down.

* I am such a good rule-follower until I don't get the result I want and then comes the Wrath of Whatever from High atop the Thing. It's a resentful wrath, too, with a millennial memory.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Walk with a Three-Year-Old

Have you ever gone on a walk with a three-year-old?

I don't have a whole lot of experience with kids in general, but I do know that "unpredictable" might be the best descriptor of the time I spend with them.

For example, if I want to spend some time outdoors as a way to give the kid a chance to "run the stink off," as an experienced grandmother expresses it, the kid just wants to be indoors (making noise or tearing up something, usually). Whereas if I want to get from Point A to Point B, the kid wants to examine every rock on the beach from all angles and otherwise experience all the glories of nature.

So lately, I've been the second kind of kid. The one who may be on a path to a destination and all, but who keeps seeing shiny things on the ground that require intense inspection. Or an opening in the brush at the side of the road that absolutely must be investigated. Or a butterfly that requires chasing.

You get the picture.

There's this nonfiction project that fascinates me, see, and I'm currently at the stage where nearly everything in the whole beautiful world feels somehow related to it. I recognize the Causabon-esque folly in that approach. Plus the sheer tonnage of what I know I don't know (to say nothing of what I don't even know I don't know) is daunting, to say the least. My project needs some limits. I do know that much.

However, my writing experiences in the past few years have also shown me the value of serendipity. When I'm interested in the moon, an article about mapping the dark side appears in a magazine; as I'm revising that piece, a different but related article appears. I didn't set out to research the moon; I was just spending some quality time with a couple of characters to whom the moon seemed to be important. Pretty fun.

So I'm trying to give my nonfiction project that kind of room. Sure, I'm still trying to keep some boundaries around my subject. But I'm also trying to keep honoring the kid who's having a whackload of fun making connections.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Links for Alzheimer Caregivers

Thank you to the Alzheimer Association of Thunder Bay for hosting such a wonderful, supportive day for caregivers and allowing me to share a little about the value of keeping a journal.

Here's a link to the handout I shared; it has the important information on it.

At the workshop, a few caregivers shared their stories and thoughts about the process. One of the caregivers said that some days with her mother are basically okay, and some days she just wants her "real" mother back. I didn't get the chance to tell her this in person, but I will say it here: it's been my experience that after a sad and difficult journey, and perhaps a time of mourning, you can develop a new relationship with your loved one. The end of someone's life doesn't represent that person's entire life, and those circumstances don't have to define your relationship with that person forever. You may not have her "back," but you can re-connect with more of her than you can see now.

And further, from the department of Shameless Self-Promotion, these links to essays about my mother and Alzheimer's:

"All I Can Say"


A third essay, "Words," isn't available online yet but you can buy the issue of the journal it appears in, 36.2, either here or at Northern Woman's Bookstore in Thunder Bay.

Again, thanks and kudos to the Alzheimer Association, caregivers, and all who support them.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013


You know how you think your life is going to go one way, and then some stuff happens, and it goes a different way?

Or maybe you thought some day you'd be "all grown up" and receive that Adult Handbook and know how to do everything.

Either way, what a surprise to discover that you can--or must--continue to learn new skills and change directions in your 30s, 40s, and (dare I say it) 50s.

The May 2013 issue of Discover magazine contains (among other fascinating insights into our world) an article about an ornithologist (birds), Richard Prum, whose theories about beauty and evolution are worth reading for themselves. The writer, Veronique Greenwood, did a great job with questions that get to important information and great quotes.

So yes, go there and read this!

A sort of "sidebar" element of the story that captured my attention relates to the reason why Dr. Prum started studying bird feathers and display in the first place: he had to punt. From childhood, he'd developed expertise in identifying bird calls. In his adulthood, over just a few years, he lost enough hearing that his previous expertise was no  longer available to him. So he switched gears. Talk about resilience.

Speaking of "never thought I'd..." moments, I am speaking (yikes) soon about journaling. My audience: caregivers for those with Alzheimer's Disease. My purpose: to show how a journal can be a useful tool at various points along the journey, for various reasons.

I expect that no one who will be in the room would have said 20 years ago that they'd be a caregiver. In 1993, I wouldn't have imagined that I'd have writing experience, plus "caring for the caregiver" experience, to share. (To say nothing of imagining speaking to a room full of people I don't know, which is still something that sounds a lot better in June than it does as the scheduled date in October draws near.)

And yet, I have the experience, and I'm happy to share it, because the sharing of my experience helps give the experience itself meaning. Which I think is sort of what Faulkner meant when he said something like "The past isn't over; it isn't even past." Plus the sharing part helps me grow and stretch.

What expertise from your past have you outgrown (or has outgrown you)? What experience from your past can you share today in the hope of making someone else's journey easier?
Saturday, September 14, 2013


I'm in a yoga class again. If I'd stopped to count how many YEARS since my last experience with yoga, I might have signed up for the beginner class again. However, I managed to keep up this week, and I enjoy a challenge, so I'm staying.

Earlier I was talking about endings and beginnings. One of the new projects in my life has more or less come to me--it's taken hold of me and won't let go. A couple of experiences this summer inspired me to start researching and writing, and now I can't stop. It's creative nonfiction, which I have written before, but mostly in response to a death. Thankfully, no one had to die for me to write the essay cycle I'm working on now.

Or rather, people have died, but their deaths are important only in that they signify the passage of time, which in turn has somehow made me one of the (ostensible) adults in the world, someone with responsibilities like an actual grown-up.

Oh never mind. The point is, I'm stretching physically and professionally, and it feels good. I recommend it highly.
Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Summer That Was

For some reason, I'm finding the change of season this year to be harder than usual. I'm really not sure why. I love autumn, even though I'm not technically on a school calendar and so have no real reason to buy notebooks and colored pencils (though I do anyway).

I have a little end-of-summer ennui most years, but it dissipates as I recognize yet again that I never have to leave here. Forty-odd years of leaving what always felt like home to "go home" to a version of life that felt temporary apparently created a lingering unconscious sense of impending doom. But I know better: Yes, I don't have to leave here this year, either. Still, that "oh no, not yet" feeling lingers.

Previously, I mentioned end-of-summer projects, both writing and other, and finding new goals. I've done a bunch of all of it. Of course, there's never enough time for all the summer projects, but we have managed some, in spite of too cold and wet, too hot and muggy, raining raining raining. Indoors and out, I can see both things that are different and things we never got around to fixing/finishing/changing.

And I know, ready or not, the seasons are changing. The heater has come on overnight a few times already. September has brought everyone's attention to the activities and meetings that they abandon during the summer. I'm actually quite excited by and absorbed in what I'm creating now. I'm mostly looking ahead. Except that I can't quite stop looking back.

So today I figured out something to help: Closing Time--not Leonard Cohen (though I'm a fan of this song), but instead, the Semisonic version. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end. Yeah. That. It helps.
Thursday, August 22, 2013

Long Live The ...

So, I'm done! I revised and revised and submitted and submitted. Whatever the results, I've done what I am able to do at this time, and I'm defining that as a victory.

Woo-hoo, yippee. Okay, enough celebrating.

And in the words of President Jed Barlet, "What's next?" I'll be finding/figuring that out in the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, the boat needs to be rowed, the wood needs splitting, structures need rebuilding and mouseproofing (yech). I may even tackle a couple of other big cleaning/clearing projects. Lots of work to keep my hands and body busy while my mind "toils" with ideas.

Happy late summer, everyone -- whether you're heading back to school or celebrating a different kind of new beginning!
Thursday, July 25, 2013

Because It's There

Recently, I told my sister I was growing out my bangs. Her response: "And then what?" which is sister-code for "WHY??"

The answer: my new hairstylist is persuasive. She thinks I could have curly hair if only I treated it correctly, which leads me to like her even as I recognize she might be daft (or trying to sell products for curly hair). And, as she expertly cut my hair, she suggested growing out my bangs.

Another answer: because it's there. It's a goal. It's something I'm moving toward, at a time when I need a hair goal (can't believe I just admitted that I need hair goals). About two years ago I decided to let my natural color take over my head, in solidarity with my brother, who was losing his hair from chemotherapy. (At a hotel recently, the woman behind the registration desk described my hair as "brown and blonde," to which my sister replied, "If 'blonde' is what we're calling 'gray' these days." She's funny.) My regular stylist went on maternity leave and I had other things to think about, and my brother's hair came in again and he's doing very well. Meanwhile, here I was, sort of dithering about my hair.

So sure, I seized "growing out bangs" as a goal. Why not?

Back to writing: A couple of years ago, I set as a goal to create enough short stories for a collection. That means I had to write a lot, way more than I thought I needed, because even my big ego admits that not everything I produce is something I am ready or willing to publish. I got an OAC grant, completed significant work -- everything I had hoped for and more -- and then life got in the way. But the collection remained a goal. Something to work toward.

I got more grants this year to help me finish. I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the down side, I hadn't yet completed a coherent collection and I felt like a fraud even applying for the grants. On the up side, I'm a better writer than I was even two years ago, and I have more skill to bring to the revisions. Which I have been doing, rather doggedly.

I'm now completing the submission materials to send to the first publisher on my list. Am I nervous? Yep. But I've produced a lot of words -- even more words than I had thought, far more than are going into this submission. I'm ready to take this step. Even if my response from publishers is a yawn, I still consider this submission (and any subsequent ones I take on) a win.

Someday, I'll need a new goal. Not yet -- more revisions, more submissions, and final reports come first. But I can see a time when a new goal is in my future. And that feels pretty good.
Monday, July 1, 2013

It's Here!

Room 36.2 has the winners of the 2012 contest in it, and that includes my 2nd-place essay, "Words."

Thunder Bay writer Joan Baril, at her blog Literary Thunder Bay, has some nice things to say about it.

It's such a pleasure to be included in Room. Their dedicated group of volunteers carefully considers submissions and creates a beautiful finished product. And they do it every quarter! Many thanks to all who work hard to make it happen.
Friday, June 21, 2013

Of the Words, I Have Lots But Not of the Sense-Making Type

I haven't been writing here as often recently because I am working on a long-term project, for which I am very grateful. It is a writing-slash-teaching project, in that I'm writing about writing and teaching writing by writing about writing.

Which means I produce a lot of words. Thousands. For just that project. Which makes me enjoy not-wording sometimes.

I'm also revising revising revising. Revising. On a mid-August deadline. And vacationing with my sister in July, culminating in a family reunion at which my husband will be able to observe a passel of Agnew cousins. In amongst the revising.

Plus with the revising of writing, with words and all.

Whenever possible I do try to go outside and do things un-word-like. I can't seem to find anything interesting to say about that.

Oh! I know!! We have seen a doe with one fawn and a doe with two fawns. Fawns are even more cute than you think they will be.

In other news, Lori A. May had nice things to say about the Best Canadian Essays 2012. Thanks, Lori!

Words. Those are among some of the ones that have ricocheted around here lately. Happy summer!
Thursday, June 13, 2013

It's Not You, It's the Writing (Really!)

So I did something good, and I'm pretending it was a sign of maturity, though I think it was instinct. Regardless, it was good. Here's what it was: I made a distinction between awards for writing and awards for the author of that writing.

Recently, I was involved in administering the NOWW Writing contest (last year's page: (mark your calendars: similar deadlines for 2014). The awards for the contest winners were given out at the Literary Awards Party in May.

In announcing the winners, I said, "The winning entry is...." Which is different from giving the award to the writer. It may sound "just semantics" (a phrase guaranteed to get my back up), but hey, we're word people, and we know the importance of words.

Here's the thing. I saw a lot of the entries in this contest, this year and in previous years. Lots of good writing didn't get awards. Screeners and judges are human, and humans have preferences. Some prefer humour, some prefer serious. Some prefer perfect little bagatelles and others prefer imperfect attempts at epic.

We all experience rejection, and I've experienced my fair share. Here are two examples of bad rejections (and yes, I have received rejections with this wording from publications) that you should ignore because THEY ARE WRONG. And then two more, that are more likely to be true.

Bad #1: The rejections that can drive me to eat popsicles on the deck say something like, "We feel you're not yet ready for our magazine." Me? Really? I'm not ready? Do you know me? This kind of feedback is guaranteed poison to someone who never measured up to standards set by perfectionist (either those in the home or those just in the head). It's personal, and it's wrong.

Bad #2: The rejections that can make me stomp around for awhile say something like, "Your writing is not yet ready for our magazine." My writing? Really? You've read it all, and all of it is "not ready"? Pfff. Same remedy as for the previous rejection.

Good #1: The rejections that are useful, though still hard to hear, say something like, "This piece isn't quite right for us." I let slide those rejections that say, "This piece isn't quite ready for us." Either way, the rejection is for a particular instance of writing: not for me, not for "my work," but just for this thing. I can choose to revise or I can just send it elsewhere.

Good #2 but rare: The rejections that are actually helpful say something like, "This part of this piece seems to work, but you might look at that." True, this perspective is just from one person. But it gives me feedback that I can consider. And of course, personal rejections are difficult and time-consuming to write, so I don't see them often and I completely understand why.

But anyway, here's the point: in the world of writing and rejection, it's not YOU, it's that piece. The way to handle any of these rejections: Behave like a writer, which is to say, you write, you revise, you submit. So go and do that.

Friday, May 31, 2013

New Journal!

Greetings! I had a post about rejection all ready to go (oh, who am I kidding) in mind, but then this happened: A new journal, several months in the making, went live today! 

It's called Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing. And the Spring 2013 inaugural issue includes two prose poems by fellow Thunder Bay writer Cathi Grandfield, as well as one of my short stories! I can't wait to look at all of it. What I've seen is simply beautiful. 

And what a journey the Managing Editor, Canadian-(from Thunder Bay, even!)-in-Australia Suzannah Windsor, has been on these past months. She took great care--in selecting her teams, inviting content, ensuring beautiful layout, and supporting the work with with marketing and publicity--and it shows. Many people have worked hard to bring it about. I appreciate their efforts very much.

They're also accepting submissions for another issue this year. Ahem. I would repeat their submission requirements here, but you're going there to read it, right?
Thursday, May 16, 2013

Overhaul, Revise, Upside-Down, Invert

Those are just a few of the words you could use to describe what I'm doing to my writing schedule.

At the risk of trying to organize myself out of a problem I've behaved myself into,* I'm mixing it up a little, at least in terms of calendars, schedules, and "Butt Meets Chair."

Yep. I'm going to try using my morning hours for my work writing and the rest of the day for my own writing. For one thing, I really can do work-person-like writing in the morning. For another, working mornings--just accepting that I gotta work in the mornings--is going to prevent problems like the one I had this week, when everything came due at once and I had to get a deadline extension.

I hate that. I am not like one who easily accepts the need for extended deadlines. I am not at all like that one.

So yup. Upside down, inside out, backside front. A few hours a day instead of a festival of panic. That's not a festival I enjoy attending. So I'm overhauling, revising, upside-downing, and inverting.

*Don't do this. Change your behavior, not your organizational method. Don't get another calendar; just do the stuff on the one you have. Why do you imagine a fancy closet organizer is gonna make a difference if you don't hang up your clothes now? You'll still have to hang up your clothes. Et cetera. And by the way, businesses are the worst offenders. If sales are low, let's rejigger the reporting structure, because that's easier than hiring better salespeople or investing in training the ones we have. Oh look, I got started. But I'm stopping now.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Beep Beep! Make Way for Awards

Y'all may not know that I was born and grew up in Oklahoma, but I did. And through the magic of Facebook, I have connected with many fine people I knew long ago.

One especially fine person, Jeanne Devlin, is the backbone and steel behind The RoadRunner Press, a literary publishing company "changing the world, one reader at a time."

Recently, two RoadRunner titles won 2013 IPPYs: Independent Publisher Book Awards! The Immortal Von B., by Scott Carter, won the gold medal for Young Adult Fiction, after winning an Oklahoma Book Award. And The Bulldoggers Club: The Tale of the Ill-Gotten Catfish, by Barbara Hay, took home the gold medal for Juvenile Fiction.

Thanks to the pleasure of my "day job," I had the opportunity to, ahem, read these books pre-publication. Both were a lot of fun, as were RoadRunner's new title for adults, Crimes of Redemption, by Linda McDonald, and Tim Tingle's soon-to-appear title, How I Became a Ghost.

These are all stories of Oklahoma, in all its red-dirt beauty (not to be confused with prettiness), sadness, humor, complexity, and diversity.

RoadRunner is also on Facebook, of course.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Hello, World!

Good May morning, people! The snowbanks persist outside my office window, and we're due for another 10 cm (4 inches) tomorrow. But if you squint at just the right angle, you can see greening in poplars and grassy patches. I'm pretending that spring is on her way.

Meanwhile, I'm also a little late in shoveling out from under some writing and work commitments. For all that I'm in no way affiliated with formal schooling, this time of year -- this year, at least -- has a distinct "end of semester" feel about it.

But something else is at work, too. Recently, I participated in Liar, Liar, an integrated arts project funded by the Ontario Arts Council (thanks, OAC!). The work is currently in the Thunder Bay (Historical) Museum -- through June 2, in fact.

My participation in the project more or less ended when I submitted my short story, "Improvisation," for consideration. Four short stories about lying were chosen. Since then, artists in various disciplines have created work (paintings, glasswork, sculpture, collage, soundscapes) around those stories and that theme.

I finally had the chance to see the artwork at the exhibit's opening reception about ten days ago. (The cookies were a little hard but people still ate them.) (By "people" I of course mean "me.") What a strange and wonderful experience to see interpretations of a short story in other media.

One of the more striking works was the sculpture entitled "Toots" by John Books, a Thunder Bay artist. (I might be biased, of course.) My story featured a cat, a trumpet player, jazz, and some lying. It's a relatively light work -- I love the characters, in spite of their flaws.

John's sculpture starts with story elements but goes deeper to allude to the sad parts of the legacy of jazz, and death, and the price artists (and we all) pay for silence and for lies. The sculpture not pretty, but it's beautiful and arresting.

Writers often send words into the ether or onto paper and rarely find out whether their work has influenced someone else. Participating in this project has reminded me that words matter. I'm very grateful to Debbie Metzler, the artistic director of Liar, Liar, and all the other participants.

So that's what I'm sitting with, even as I also frantically tie up loose ends and find my work rhythm again after vacation. It's a lovely way to greet spring. Once she shows up for real!
Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hanging from a Telephone Wire

It's been a little bit of lunatic heaven in these parts lately. We're getting lots and lots of lovely snow, which will be wonderful when spring finally does arrive. I've been on vacation someplace warm, and now I'm home.

And this integrated art exhibition is happening, too.

Not only is the exhibit open at the Thunder Bay (Historical) Museum through June 2, but also there's a reception on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m.!!

For which I am making cookies!

No lie!!

That burning smell is not at all related to either my cooking prowess or pants that might (or might not!! liars are tricksy that way!!!) be on fire. (The number of exclamation marks is in direct relationship to the amount of coffee I've had, not to the truth or falsehood of any statements they follow.)

Hope to see you there -- and if you're not in the area, the link at the Museum's website has some words about the exhibit from the visual and sound artist participants. I have read all the stories and have seen some photos of the artwork, but I have yet to see the installed exhibit. I can't wait to experience it all in person!

Many many thanks to Northern Mosaic members, whose enthusiasm has been indefatigable, to the Thunder Bay (Historical) Museum, and to the Ontario Arts Council, celebrating 50 years of support to Ontario artists.

EDITED TO ADD this link to a review (with photos!) of the exhibition by Thunder Bay artist and writer Duncan Weller.
Monday, April 1, 2013

A Showcase of Creativity

How does that interior design saying go? Something like this: One is an accident, two is just stuff, but three is a collection.

How about ten?  Ten plays in one night? Because that's an option available this weekend in Thunder Bay. The showcase for 10 by Ten will run this Saturday night.

 Okay, so technically, it's six full ten-minute plays and four shorter "scenes" from smaller plays. But still -- nine different writers, many directors (some playwrights are directing their own work), actors interpreting creative visons -- lots of creativity will be gathered in one place.

I've read a few of the plays that will be performed and they're crackerjack. Of particular interest to my household is this one:

Though the showcase is Saturday, preparations began last fall, and bringing together this "grand finale" has meant that many people have sustained enthusiasm well beyond the typical "let's put on a show!" moment. Their enthusiasm and creative energy have made it possible for writers to get a chance to see their work live and speak.

Many thanks to Janis Swanson, Lawrence Badani, Colin Stewart, and Sheena Albanese for planning and follow-through, and to everyone for participating. Saturday evening's showcase will be just the icing on the cake!
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

More About Those Essays

As I may have mentioned (a time or two) (often) (repeatedly), I have an essay in Best Canadian Essays 2012.

People up here in Northwestern Ontario are fine folks, and a couple of them have asked me about it. The anthology is available for purchase at Northern Woman's Bookstore, for one thing.

For another, I'm currently featured blathering about my essay at Literary Thunder Bay, courtesy of its purveyor, Joan Baril.

Susan Toy scooped that interview to her new site, Canadian author Reviews and Interviews.

Finally, a review is due to appear in the local paper, the Chronicle-Journal, this weekend.

That is plennnnnnty (for now).
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Left Right Up Down

One of my favorite places to visit is Indexed, a blog by Jessica Hagy, where she explores relationships between sometimes-disparate things. She uses axes, lines, curves, and sometimes Venn diagrams. I love it.

I thought of her this morning, when I was looking at the various short stories I'm (again) trying to collect. They vary along a continuum from "raw" to "stick a fork in it; it's done."

They also vary along a continuum ranging from "I'm excited by it" to "I'm sick to death of it," another continuum from "examined" to "unexamined," another from "hardly any time" to "relatively, a lot of time," and yet another from "only tweaked" to "revised extensively," by which I mean "every freaking word has been second-guessed."

I hope that the "stick a fork in it" end goes up at the same time that "examined," "revised extensively," and "relatively, a lot of time" also go up. That is, I hope I'm not investing a lot of time and getting them farther from done.

At least I know I can say that the "excited/sick to death" line is a curve -- over time, as the story takes its final shape, I do eventually find excitement in the story again.

Meanwhile, I'll try assigning each story to a point along the "raw/fork" line, to see what my priorities need to be. Fun!
Thursday, March 7, 2013

Get on it, Dyson

I try not to be a snob about much of anything, but I do have preferences about some things, and, it turns out, I have distinct preferences about the tools I work with.

I can adapt to pretty well any kind of keyboard or software, but I'm kind of "that way" about pens. I don't write a LOT with pens -- definitely not production work -- but I do write with them often. Just about every day I do spend time writing "by hand," as we now must specify, and I sometimes sketch zentangles.

Generally, I like felt tips and fine points. In the world of ballpoint technology, I have recently enjoyed using Paper Mate's InkJoy pens (and no, they're not paying me to say so). I originally picked up the package because it had all different colors of pens in it, and it said something important on the package: Effortless Writing.

Effortless! Writing! In a rainbow of fun colors! Who could resist that?

But every time I get on a plane, my pens explode in transit. Even in my carry-on. Sometimes it's overt (and I have the stains in my carry-on bag to prove it), but sometimes the process is sneaky and the pen lies in wait for me to use it. Then I sit down with my pen and a blank page in the notebook and suddenly there's ink everywhere.

Which is NOT fun. And then I either have to hunt down my most favored pens there or make do with pens that do NOT provide effortless writing. (In my head, my mother says, "Oh for pity's sake. Does it write? That's good enough. And go sharpen that pencil." Et cetera.)

Yes, this is a small thing. Yet isn't the world made up of them?

So, what I really really want is a pen I can take on a plane. Would you get on it, Dyson?
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

If Age Brings Wisdom...

And I'm not actually saying it does, but if age brings wisdom, how come these days I feel I got nuthin'?

I'm working the short stories (AGAIN), without much break between them, and at varying levels of "work," from "what was I thinking?" to "is this ready to send somewhere?"

I am discovering some very very VERY disturbing things.

If you were to name Santa's reindeer after my characters, there'd be Robert, Robert, Robert, James, Jason (formerly James), Jim, Cass, and Carla. I'm tempted to name somebody Rudolph, just to do it.

Plus I was looking through notes I've made for stories to come. They feature yet another Robert and another James.

But wait, there's more: All these people drink a lot of coffee and talk. A lot. If my short stories were ever to inspire a drinking game, you'd need to watch out for the "drinking coffee" scenes.


There are a lot of advantages to being an ahem "mature" writer. Except that I'm discovering that I'm mature only in years, in select experiences writing for other people, and in non-writing life (moving, jobs, family illness and death). And although I know there's no "there" there -- no writer is done developing, or so I imagine -- I'm still on the "developing" side when it comes to fiction and personal essays.

So yes, the years bring advantages. I certainly feel freer to write about families -- the fights and silences, the inexplicable traditions -- because I know my own parents won't be reading the stories to find themselves.

Yet sometimes I feel my characters have the same failings they would have had if I'd been writing fiction as an undergraduate student -- only the details are different. Back then, they'd have experienced heartache and hookups, intoxication (booze and independence), bad decisions and their aftermath, insistent Peter Pan syndrome, and death once removed (e.g. grandparents, accidents).

Currently, my characters enjoy drinking coffee and talking. Which is understandable, given that that's basically what my days comprise (plus a little bleeding over a keyboard). I have actually resorted to listing activities regular people might undertake in a day, just to get my characters up from that darn table. Picking up the dry cleaning, taking the dog to the vet, making supper, vacuuming -- like that.

Although I bumble along through life reacting badly and doing extremely stupid and futile things, I am reluctant to let these Roberts and Jameses and Jims and Jasons, these people who have consented to spend time with me (some of whom I actually like), do the same. That's not really fair, to them or to me. I'll have to let them be unsafe, irresponsible, and just plain wrong.

I have also checked the database of popular names, keyed to specific years, on the Social Security website for new names. Hello, Michael and John and Edward.

Sure, they'll probably keep drinking coffee. But Rob Jam Michael may also stomp off in a huff, right into the middle of a snowstorm. Maybe even -- gasp -- without gloves. Crazy. Irresponsible. You go, Michael.

ETA: See, I even knew this before, about my characters and all their coffee drinking.
Friday, February 15, 2013

Avoiding Feedback Frustrations

A short time ago, I wrote about applying the "mouse view/eagle view" concept to revision. Before I make a pass through a manuscript, I've found it helpful to decide in advance what I'm looking for. Am I checking spelling and punctuation? smoothing infelicitous phrasings? or sending the main character to Gibraltar instead of the mall?

On a related note, sometimes it's impossible for your own eyes to give you guidance about next steps. In those cases, it's important to get feedback from readers -- but which ones, when, and why?

Here's some useful advice from agent Rachelle Gardner. Boiled down, she says to carefully consider why you want input from a particular person -- is she a subject-matter expert, a wide-ranging reader of your genre, an experienced writer who can step outside of personal preference to read the manuscript on its own terms?

That last criterion is important. Say you're lucky enough to find a group of writers to learn from and hang with. It's worth asking what they read for pleasure. You might find that someone who writes lovely lyrical poems for serious literary journals just can't stay with the bleak dystopia you've created in your manuscript.

Or vice versa.

It's a delicate dance. Trust your own vision -- after allowing the manuscript a tincture of time, so you can approach it with less-partial eyes. Trust input from readers, because they can't read your mind -- but pick those readers carefully.
Saturday, February 9, 2013

Different Way to Say It

One benefit to being a (mostly) recovering procrastinator (and the reason my recovery is mostly) is that clicking around on the Internets can yield some pretty interesting stuff.

For example. I read Girl's Gone Child. I don't read it every day (recovering! mostly). I'm not sure how I got there, or why -- I'm not a parent or grandparent; on lots of wintry days, seeing pictures of sunny California simply depress me instead of reminding me that I love winter; I don't cook vegan (or much of anything, either); I don't do much that's decorate-y; I haven't read any of Rebecca Woolf's books; I don't comment...and yet.

That space is a destination I like. It's a creative space. It's encouraging, even when its people are out of sorts and life isn't rosy. Maybe especially then, because it celebrates the power of doing the best you can. (My parents were fabulous people, but sometimes the second half of "Do your best" was ": be perfect.")

And sometimes I see something at just the right time, and I think, "Yeah. Thanks!" Which was today.

Go there and read this, this specific post: She Section Week 3: A Thousand Stories

My favorite part, today:
Think of your photos as the stills to short films and remember that the truth is the most photogenic story ever told. You have a story to tell and it's awesome and beautiful and strange and imperfect and exactly as it should be.

And all the stuff about photographs, story, and point of view is interesting, too. Revise and edit! Follow the story! Et cetera!
Sunday, February 3, 2013

Best Canadian Essays: Really REALLY Real

Last August I received word that my essay, "All I Can Say," would be part of Best Canadian Essays 2012, published by Tightrope Books.

Last week, I received my contributor copies. Yes, my essay really is in it. Really truly. NOW it feels real -- like really REALLY real!

You can order a copy from the publisher -- or check your neighbo(u)rhood indie bookstore. You never know who might be carrying it!

Thanks again to Room for initially publishing the essay and to the hardworking folks at Tightrope Books for including it.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013

More Tools for Taking Stock

In the spirit of not reinventing the wheel, I point you today toward a couple of articles that ask good questions and can possibly help you answer them.

They're both on Write It Sideways: "writing advice from a fresh perspective." In the spirit of full disclosure, its founder and impresario, Suzannah Windsor Freeman, is Canadian with ties to Thunder Bay. (We met online. That counts, right?) Plus, they're about to launch a new literary magazine, Compose, which is pretty exciting and might call for further announcements here.

Back to their recent articles that are useful tools for taking stock.

This one asks whether a Writing Residency is right for you. We all long for that uninterrupted time away from it all to just write. Sometimes, that may indeed be exactly what you need. And sometimes...maybe not.

This article suggests that setting boundaries on  your goals may help make them more achievable -- and most helpfully (to me), reminds us all that we can control only what we do, not what someone else might do.

Nothing wrong with choosing to evaluate what you're doing all through the month of January, right? Right.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Successful Learning

While catching up on Macleans magazines, I ran across a profile of James Dyson by Jay Teitel. It's entertaining as well as illuminating -- well worth the read.

The paper version of the magazine used this as the pull quote on page 2 of the story:
The path to discovery is full of mistakes and false leads. You can’t do things if you’re afraid of making mistakes.

"Mistakes and false leads" might also be called "playing," and doing THAT requires me to transcend my parents' "focus on the goal" achievement-oriented upbringing.

But speaking of my parents, here's another Dyson quote -- and this one sounds even more familiar. 
You learn from failure. You don't learn from success.
My mother used to say this. I'd bring home the algebra test on which I'd scored 97%, and she'd ask, "What did you miss?" I'd deflate.

Of course, she wanted me to be humble. But mostly, she knew that to learn, you have to find out what you don't know. Demonstrating what you do know isn't learning -- it's showing off. Although as a grown-up, I'm also reminded that exercising one's competence is also a confidence-booster. 

Still, "learning from failure" is worth remembering about writing. When you get feedback -- whether it's specific "I don't understand the connection between this paragraph and your main point" or a generic "no" of rejection -- that's a chance to learn something. Dyson learned, and he invented a hand-dryer for public restrooms that actually dries your hands. Amazing!

N.B. My mother was often, infuriatingly, right. 
N.B. #2 If Dyson ever invented a vacuum that actually vacuums the room all by itself, I'd buy one regardless of cost.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Taking Stock

January is technically more than halfway over as of today, but since I haven't sent out the Christmas letter yet, I'm still going on the assumption that we can still call 2013 "the New Year."

Seriously, late December and early January are traditional times to take stock, though of course I feel the urge in September as well, when school starts. In any case, I've done that. I've updated my creative writing plan and set new goals for 2013 -- the first quarter, anyway.

And because it's a stock-taking time of year, others are considering the same topics. For example, here is an excellent essay by Jane Friedman, with the intriguing title, "How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published?"

So many excellent ideas, worth pondering. Here are a few:
* The value of reading: it gives you a good sense of what is (a) being published and (b) appealing to you.
* The value of questioning: questions can help you decide if it's time to change course.
* The value of interior goals: knowing what you want helps you get there.

My current favorite, though, is one of the questions to help you decide if it's time to change course: Are you getting bitter?

I'm not bitter now, but I have been -- yes, about creative writing, largely because finding success wasn't as easy as I had imagined, with all my blah blah blah years of experience in the writing world, working with editors, blah blah. The view from the edge of the trench is one thing; only when you get down into the trench do you see how deep the mud really is.

Bitterness is destructive, and not only to the person feeling it. It's like a disease or a burr -- the kind of sticker that gets in your socks, irritates your ankles like ants biting, and is just impossible to remove. You've probably been there: someone shares wonderful news, and a bitter person pokes a hole in it. It's impossible not to deflate a little in the presence of bitter.

One of the best antidotes to bitter: writing (something Friedman also suggests earlier in the article, when she asks if you're focusing on publishing instead of writing). On the days when I feel most like a fraud, I write. (I try to write every day, but that's another discussion.) No one can argue with the fact that I'm a writer when I write.

Another antidote to bitter: reviewing successes. So you didn't get that piece into that publication -- you finished a draft. You have four new ideas in the pipeline. You got one nice note with your most recent rejection. Your writing group really liked part of your most recent submission. Look for successes; they're there -- if you're working at your craft. And if you're not seriously working at it, well, you now know what your next step can be.

So consider Friedman's suggestions -- and go forth into the new year with new goals and habits!
Thursday, January 10, 2013


It's early January. Normally at this time of year, the bay in front of our house is frozen solid, and the days are sunny and cold, with temperatures between -15C and -10C. Understand, I'm no meteorologist; I haven't actually researched what's "normal." I know only what has been "normal" weather for the past seven years or so, since I started living here year-round.

And I know that today's high, which was something like 6C (45F, give or take) was definitely abnormally warm.

Did I enjoy it? You bet. We were out and about, running errands. One of those errands was buying water from the city water pump in town. (I'm a bit of a princess about the way my drinking water tastes, and our well is temperamental in its own unique way. The well and I are both recovering from the holidays. I'm drinking more water; that's as close to a resolution I'll see in 2013. Plus, we're generally augmenting well water with town water, 20-liter jug by 20-liter jug, till it's full and has a chance to build a reserve.) I have to say, manhandling the pump and the water jugs was much more pleasant than it is when the weather is 20 Celsius degrees cooler!

But it's unsettling. It's a little impending-doom-ish. It's just wrong to see so much grass -- more grass than snow cover.

There's a lynx in the area nowadays. It came walking past this afternoon. I love the wildlife around here, even when the squirrels freak me out by getting into the basement and the bears freak me out by showing up when there are children around. In spite of "inconveniences" like not being able to feed birds (bears love bird feeders) or plant gardens (deer love all growing things), I love the daily reminders that we share the world. We humans aren't the only creatures that matter.

But I did wonder, this afternoon, if in another five years we'll see other creatures that I'm not used to seeing here. Armadillos, for example. Javelinas.

But I can't worry too much. The year is still new; it's easy to be optimistic. I have a work contract that will keep me steadily busy for the next few months. Thanks to my creative plan, I'm clear on the creative work on my plate. So feeling a little out of synch with the natural world is okay, for now.

Still, I'd like to see some snow. So would the well. It would keep us both from being so temperamental in the future. Plus, it's just nice to be in synch with the natural world.
Friday, January 4, 2013

Mouse View/Eagle View: Revision

Ah, a new year, a new calendar page!

In the past year, I've had the opportunity to edit fiction for a US publisher and provided feedback to other writers on their creative projects. And now I'm also in the throes of revising some creative writing projects of my own.

One of the more frustrating realities I live with is that I've worked, with some success, as a writer and an editor for years -- yet revising my own creative writing remains one of the most challenging parts of the writing process.

Good news: Revision is one context in which distinguishing between mouse and eagle view can be the most helpful. In fact, it's necessary.

When I work with a client, I have to know what kind of feedback they're looking for. Do they want me to be a mouse? If so, I'll standardize their use of punctuation and verb tense, correct errors in grammar and usage, and even check the bottom of every page to see if the last word is hyphenated.

Or do they want me to be an eagle? Do they want me to track the elapsed time in a novel, so that a trial doesn't inadvertently take place on a weekend, or a mention of "three weeks later" in March doesn't turn into September? I'll look at whether the protagonists actively create the events in the story, whether I'm willing to suspend my disbelief and take a trip with the characters.

When a publishing company is looking for a quick copy edit or a proofing job, they're not interested in hearing about problems in the plot (though sometimes I can't resist pointing them out). When a writer asks for substantive input, she doesn't want me to standardize how she uses commas.

Revising my own work is also easier when I'm explicit with myself ahead of time about what I think the piece needs. Although it's relatively easy to get enough time and distance for me to correct grammar or spelling, getting perspective on larger issues in a manuscript is tougher. Time helps, and that's eagle-view time: in December, I reworked a story that I hadn't looked at for a year. The story I start on tomorrow has been "resting" for nearly two years -- which is good, because I suspect it's going to need a major overhaul.

And of course I didn't invent this concept: "levels of edit" have been around, with various definitions, for decades. Quite the useful tool they are, too!

So that's three contexts in which I have used "mouse view/eagle view" recently: life balance, rejection, and revision. I wonder how many more I can find!

Happy 2013, everyone.