Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Be "Another"

It's been a year of loss. Lots of people whose work influenced our world for the better are gone. Musicians, actors, writers. Artists of all kinds.

The loss of Carrie Fisher--actor, writer, advocate--hits me especially hard. Especially her, especially this year.

So, Yoda says, "There is another." Whatever or whoever he (or George Lucas) may mean by that--all that speculation feels, increasingly, beside the point.

All of us can, must, should be "Another."

Yes: speak/write, especially speaking up when power is abused. But also, find others who are speaking. Stand beside them, listening to and amplifying their work, letting them know they're not fighting alone.

NOTE: I'm not listening backward (or, you know, backwards). I'm no longer interested hearing people speak hate or even ambivalence about people who don't look like they do. I refuse to seek out voices who glorify "business sense" at the expense of compassion and equity, or who think "paying taxes" and "being taken" are the same thing. I grew up where those values dominate every conversation. I've seen how they hurt. I'm done.

Instead, I've been trying to listen outward--finding people who are leading interesting discussions at places like Code Switch, voices like that of Chelsea Vowell, news at APTN.

Listening to people whose experience of gender is different from mine. To people whose history on this continent (and on the planet) is different from mine. To people whose experience of illness and health is different from mine.

Listening also to people who know things I don't. Things about policy and science and ways we can ensure that my grand-nephews and anticipated grand-niece--and YOUR descendants--still have the chance to live on this planet.

As I release the year that's nearly gone, it's hard not to focus on the losses--loss of leadership, loss of opportunities for leadership, loss of skilled people, loss of hopes.

But I'll also celebrate 2016 as the year that showed me how important it is to listen. To be "another."
Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Best Gift

For many years, I made calendars for my family for Christmas gifts. I live in a place that my siblings and I visited every summer. The calendar was a way to show them photos of our beloved place in other seasons.

As gifts go, it was fine. I mean, printed calendars are still somewhat useful in our age of digital everything. My siblings thanked me and seemed to enjoy the pictures. I certainly enjoyed putting it together every year, but over time, making the calendar became another thing to do--another item to check off my list in a busy season.

Several years ago, in late December, I met a fellow artist for coffee. She was a large-hearted, charismatic woman, an actor and writer, who raved about my photos on Facebook. She had a fractured family and a sensitive soul and, underneath her "show must go on" demeanor, dreaded the holidays. We weren't especially close, but I liked and respected her as an artist and a human being.

At coffee, I pulled out a calendar--I always fall for the "print more and each is cheaper" sales technique, and that year a few extras paid for themselves--and gave it to her.

Really, it was a very small gesture on my part.

She spent the next hour marveling over that calendar. Each image caused her to gasp in delight. She then showed me every single page, talking about the photos as if they were art, asking me questions about how I'd chosen the image for the month, raving about the colours, the beauty, the interesting composition, the juxtaposition and echoes in the images each month, and on and on and on.

She gave me one of the absolute best gifts I've ever received: she devoted her time and attention to experiencing and appreciating something I'd created. I felt seen and heard--valued. Treasured, even.

Our world lost her to cancer a few years ago. I think about her often, especially at the holidays. I keep trying to cultivate her attitude of appreciation for art and artists. Though I haven't been particularly successful, I still try to pass along what she gave me--honest gratitude for creating something in a world that doesn't always reward creativity as well as it could.

In that spirit, thank you, all you dancers on the page, you builders of canvas and snow, you makers of sonic cathedrals, you nurturers of laughter and tears. The world is better for your presence in it.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What Will You Miss?

I'm within one package and a few cards of having my holiday obligations taken care of, and I kind of don't know what to do with myself! I'm used to drowning in guilt for missing these family deadlines.

Nobody likes guilt, right? How I've handled that in the past is declaring, "Our Christmas will be in January." Or telling myself "Better late than never!"

But sometimes, receiving the right gift in the right way--under the tree, in the stack of gifts after you blow out birthday candles--magnifies the value of the gift. It's a big part of the fun. Plus, there's a satisfaction in meeting deadlines other than those imposed on me--deadlines I choose for myself.

So imagine my surprise to learn that I actually miss the guilt from being behind.

Similarly, I spent a good part of this past year pulling together a nonfiction manuscript that I've been working on for twenty years. TWENTY YEARS! Twenty. Years.



I've received excellent feedback on that manuscript--part permission to let go of one or two previous visions I've had for it, part counsel for how to proceed, part responses to the value and emotional heft (or lack thereof) of the work itself. So fabulous. I'm really grateful for that.

Now I have a sense of my next steps. I feel energized because This Big Project is no longer sitting in boxes in my basement. It's not whispering "When are you going to do something with me?" Or giving me a false sense of investment--I can no longer think "Well, if all my new work stinks, I can go back to that"--a sort of creative form of money in the bank.

And guess what: I miss feeling the weight of all that baggage. It had been my companion for years. Of course, it's also great--really freeing--to know that I'm allowing those decades to transform it as they have transformed me.

But just as I miss the clamoring guilt over not getting the holidays done, I also miss the poking from this longstanding project.

Of course, I won't miss it for long! For one thing, a novel has taken its place in those boxes in the basement. It's more than whispering to me--it's wheedling "Only three weeks--four tops--would fix me right up!"

And here's the best part: any new space that's opened up from getting clear on this nonfiction project is slowly filling with possibilities--ideas and half-formed thoughts and images and colors and chocolate/salted caramel that may become new work.

Thanks, Big Project; so long, guilt; hello new stuff. Given the rest of the disasters this year has brought, I'm ecstatic to have had this experience this year.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Highly Recommend

Below are a few of the books I've read recently--and OK, three I haven't yet read.

Good gifts!
The top four are available as a boxed set, and of those I've only read Spring so far, but based on that volume alone, they're worth the price. Also, they're a fundraiser for The (UK) Wildlife Trusts. (And no, I get nothing from any links.)

After a respectable-yet-not-excessive amount of dithering, I've decided I will read Winter next, given that that's what's mostly happening outside and the calendar will catch up in a couple of weeks.

I'll write more about Common Ground later, because man oh man. Rob Cowen, like Melissa Harrison (not coincidentally, the editor of the set of seasonal books, above), writes like gangbusters about the natural world--specifically, bits of land in urban or suburban or exurban areas that aren't "nature" in the normal sense, but where natural things happen. Because nature. And people. And us all together.

These are by no means the only books I've read (or read in) during 2016. But these titles have spoken to me, and they might to you as well.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Story and its Context

I keep listening more these days. I may have some skills and know some things, but other people have different skills and know other things. Hearing their experiences is interesting. And people are always more likely to share if they have an audience. So I'm listening.

I know I've mentioned favorite podcasts before. I'm still enjoying NPR's Code Switch, maybe more than ever since the election.

And north of the border, here's a series I can't recommend highly enough: CBC's Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? By Connie Walker and Marni Luke, this podcast looks into the disappearance and murder of a young woman decades ago. Nuanced and layered, it tells a heart-wrenching story of one person, but it also gives the context for so much of the pain that lingers in Canadian culture around missing and murdered indigenous women. The residual fear and hurt of Alberta's relatives is palpable, but never exploited. Connie confesses and considers her own ethical dilemmas directly.

It's an honor to have the opportunity to hear this story. I'm grateful to the CBC for supporting its production and in awe of the skills of its producers.

Other podcasts and recurring radio shows are on my playlist, so I'm ready for treadmill season. I'm sure I'll have more to share later. But for now, I've found these two podcasts to be excellent company.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Pattern or Particular

So I've been dispirited recently. Yes, because of the election, but not only because of the election--this stew of feelings is pretty complicated, and the world seems to include a lot of people yelling at each other while others are stunned or cowering.

I recently teased out one feeling as being a problem for me: familiarity. So much today feels so familiar, in a bad way. Especially the loud messages of "you're not good enough" and "you're fundamentally flawed" and "stop taking it seriously" and "you're not important" and "you have nothing of value to offer." They're very destructive messages in a pattern I remember too well. They sap my energy.

Coincidentally, the lingering warm weather vanished, and we've been deluged with winter weather. See?
Hello, snow!

Yes, it's pretty.

But winter weather brings with it a new pattern of living. So many elements of living in the country are different in the winter.

For example, power is iffy. We were without electricity most of the weekend (and still don't have our landline phone back, which is a bigger inconvenience than I anticipated in these wireless days).

Travel is complicated. We need to leave more time to drive anywhere than we did last week at this time.

Preparation is key. We need adequate accessories--mitts, scarves, ear-warmers--because if a highway is closed or something else bad happens, we need to be dressed for the weather outside the car, not just the climate-controlled interior.

These aren't huge impositions--just patterns of behavior we'd forgotten during the warm months of the year, which lingered later than usual this year.

We'll adapt. Pretty soon, we'll automatically add 15 to 30 minutes to each trip to town. We'll start the day wearing enough clothes that we don't have to add a layer at 10. We'll have remembered where we keep the candles. We've already found the percolator that works on top of the woodburning stove--progress!

The familiarity of those patterns isn't problematic. And when I began to look at the messages that I heard as "you're not good enough," I began to see that sometimes, the issue was with how I heard the message, not the actual message.

Yes, throughout my life, I've heard a lot of the other kind of "you're not good enough." When a coworker got the same raise I did, even though his work was substandard, "because he's a man and supports a family," for example.

But not all of the recent, familiar messages of "no thanks" are part of that pattern. They're particular to my work, and I need to remember to hear them that way. Because rejection is part of the world of writing. Having WRITING rejected--my work, not me--is normal. I never exactly enjoy rejection, but it happens. Not everything I write will speak to the places I offer it. I've written before (geez, quite a bit, apparently) about mismatches between my work and publications.

Recently, I submitted something to a publication because what they'd published in the past resonated with me. However, when I saw some of the other work they were choosing in response to this particular call for submissions, I knew mine wouldn't interest them. Which is perfectly fine--it's their publication. It's also understandable, because the work that moved them didn't speak to me. Again, a mismatch.

So the recent rejections are particular instances. They may be part of a pattern of rejection OF MY WORK that I can address by better research, better revision, better targeting. But they aren't a wholesale rejection of me, my voice, what I have to offer.

As a human person, I look for patterns. Sometimes that ability works to my advantage. But sometimes I see a general pattern when I should see a more particular message. Shaking off that familiarity--and its friends, futility and impending doom--lets me get back to work.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Futility and Preparation

Over the weekend, I put on my boots and went for a walk. My idea was to follow the deer paths through the bush to get a different perspective on the beautiful place I live.

Fairly quickly, I recognized that my legs are not like deer legs. My legs are shorter and, uh, stubbier. Where deer can step elegantly among fallen tree trunks, I crash around without grace, shoving branches aside (and perhaps swearing). (Perhaps.)

Not only that, the ground is mushier than it normally is at this time of the year. Holes in the dirt underfoot--openings to nut caches and muskrat tunnels--dotted the area, and I could feel spaces collapse with every step.

Sorry, squirrels--I think I made it impossible for you to find those nuts. And sorry, muskrats; I think I messed up your tunnel system. I didn't mean to, but I recognize that my thundering around on your turf destroyed your careful preparations for winter.

My inadvertent cruelty doesn't render their work futile. First, they needed to do it--it was their work to do, and they did it. And although I may have harmed some of their work, the square meter where I thrashed around wasn't the only place where they prepared for winter. I didn't completely trash the muskrat tunnel system nor hide too many nuts from the squirrels--their caches dot our front yard.

For the past week, it's been hard to resist thinking that my own work is trivial or futile. In fact, during the past couple of years, I've had lots of hopes dashed--writing consistently rejected, projects that fell through, work that turned out to be more administrative and less artistic than I anticipated.

On the other hand, I've also had work recognized and published. Generous, intelligent people have also given me thoughtful and honest feedback on my work, providing suggestions and support that have helped me push myself. I'm so grateful to them.

With their help, I've kept doing the work--storing up nuts and building new tunnels--because that's what there is to do. It's what I do.

Even this past week, when returning to the page was more difficult than it had been in some time, I knew I'd find my way back eventually. And I have. I may change where my tunnels lead. I may find different kinds of food to store for the long months ahead. But I know what my work is.

And so do you.

This afternoon, Twitter directed me to "Creating a Tolerable World," by Terri Windling. I highly recommend her consideration of why and how we can continue to create our work in very difficult times.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Eagle

One morning last April, an eagle was out hunting, harassed by the usual complement of gulls. Birds harass each other a lot in general, and eagles come in for some special attention.

I get that. Eagles are predators and scavengers. Young birds of all kinds are vulnerable--we had a front-row seat one June morning to an eagle grabbing a duckling--so I understand why gulls and crows try to drive eagles away.

But you know what? Eagles play a vital role in the ecosystem. Eagles have families, and their families have to eat.

In any case, I tweeted about that morning; it's in the fuzzy picture below.

In case you can't read it: "With graceful elegance, a bald eagle plucked a fish from the lake, silencing the gulls."

Not necessarily my best tweet, but one that caught the attention of Creative Nonfiction magazine. To the left, it appears in print in Creative Nonfiction #61, Learning from Nature, in the compilation of Tiny Truths. Lots of interesting reading in that issue, by the way.

Today, a bunch of us are hearing yet again, "Who do you think you are? You want to run a country? You can't do that. We own this power, this society, this system--and your body, too--and you're not welcome or valued here. Know your place. Go away."

Many of us are yet again feeling pressure to live down to society's expectations. To become subservient because of our gender, sexual identity or orientation, religious beliefs, ethnicity, or abilities. To be less than who we know we can be.

To anyone hearing those messages: Ignore those gulls and grab your fish. Be the eagle you are. You DO belong here. You matter, your family matters, your voice matters. Don't listen to anyone, or any flock of screeching, bellowing, bullying anyones, who wants you to be less than your badass eagle self.

The world needs eagles. It needs you.

Interested in challenging yourself to share a Tiny Truth, to weave a story in 140 or fewer characters? You can find more information under the Tiny Truth Contest heading, here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


This morning, I couldn't resist playing outdoors. I produced this.

Decades ago, my husband transplanted a small maple tree from a yard in southern Ontario to the side yard here in northwestern Ontario. For some reason, it's almost always among the last of our trees to change colo(u)rs. And although the leaves on the trees in the same yard in southern Ontario turned red, the leaves of our tree up here turn shades of gold and orange.

This autumn, the greys of November came to stay about halfway through October, but today provided a bit of a respite--a warm, mostly golden-sun day, full of peace and happiness.

For this element of play I was inspired by others who create art in nature. Andy Goldsworthy is the first I was introduced to, and his work is well worth looking at. Here's some work he did with Common Ground.

I don't consider what I do to be capital-A Art, although it is creative for me. I do it for the same reasons I noodle on the the piano and I draw--because doing it, the process, that fifteen-minute period, those moments are fun. It's a chance to be somewhere, only there, and participate with that place in that time. For  me, that's the ultimate in play.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Working Hard

One of the refrains in the writing world*: "You can control only how hard you work."

In other words, you can't control what "they" are publishing these days or two years from now. You can't control who else applies for an opportunity you want or need. You can't control who evaluates those applications. You also can't control world events that may make it more (or less) difficult to share your work--a new form of technology will or won't make digital reading or paper reading obsolete, a shortage of X makes it harder or easier for Y to happen, and that means publishers do Z.

Yep, stuff happens, and you can't control any of it. So, the thinking goes, all you can control is your work. 

I agree with that. And I think it's super-important to define what you mean by "work."

Say you submit a piece of writing (or a novel) to a literary journal (or agent) and it's rejected. Okay, you can't control what your target chooses to publish (or represent). Your response is to "keep working hard." But what does "work hard" mean in this context?

* Find another publication (or agent) (or ten, assuming they allow simultaneous submissions) and send your piece (novel) again, without changing anything.

* Do extra research into agents (or publications) and rewrite your cover letter. Tell them you really admire the publication's July issue and note that they're open to experimental forms of narrative, or that the agent has a great track record representing left-handed poetry written by right-handed people

* Look again, with careful eyes, at the piece (or novel) you're submitting. Is it the best you know how to make it? No, really. Maybe it's time to read it again--especially because it's been off your desk for a while (presumably), so you have fresh eyes--and see if it's really finished or if you're just sick of working on it.

* Revise intelligently. What are you trying to do? Find someone else's work that you think does a spectacular job of what you're attempting, and study it. If you admire how a writer conveys who's speaking without using conversation tags, look closely at how she does it--Through word choice? Through a character's tendency to never finish sentences, or talk about anything BUT what's important? Through pairing action with words or perhaps substituting action for words? Whatever you find, try to apply it to your work.

* Read intelligently, doing many of the same things. What is it about this specific title in the cozy mystery (urban literary dystopia) (contemporary family comedy) genre that you enjoy so much? What does this title do that your work doesn't?

* Write something else from scratch. Get out a draft of a different poem or novel. Choose an old short story and revise that instead of working on what was rejected. Finish something new. Send that out.

* Get outdoors and walk someplace. You can be open to a magical breakthrough from the repetitive nature of walking if you want (lots of people seem to advocate that) or you can just go for a walk. Whatever you do out there (or in a pool) will be good for you.

My point is this: any of the activities above can be a reasonable definition of "work" in the phrase, "you can control only how hard you work." Learning how to define "work" in the face of a "no" is part of maturing as a writer. Getting yourself to do what you know you need to do is another sign of maturation (not only in writing). (Or so I've been told.)

My own tendency (as you may have guessed from the boldface above) is to send something out when I'm sick of working on it--or when I'm particularly pleased with a revision and mistake that pleasure for the feeling of "hey, it's done." So I'm always trying to develop my ability to revise earlier and more often. Or at least be OPEN to that idea. 

I can work on it, anyway.

* Not ONLY in the writing world, or even the world of creativity. It's one of those Life Lessons that floats around and is true in lots of situations. For example, you can't control what others think of you, but you can control how you respond to that snarky comment. 
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

More Poetry? Why, Yes

Also at Definitely Superior Art Gallery: an exhibit by Sarah Link and Riaz Mehmood.

(The link above goes to the gallery's exhibits page, so there should be way to find the description for a while, though the exhibit itself closes at the end of October.)

The art combines technology and ceramics in a bunch of interesting ways, and I encourage everyone to visit to experience its several elements.

The part I'm participating in, as one of many poets in Northwestern Ontario, is called Light Poem. In a dark room, a poem is projected briefly onto the back of a screen and then flies into bits. Motion sensors detect the presence or absence of a person in the room--and then whether that person is still or moving.

For the poem to reassemble so you can read it, you have to remain motionless.

It's a fabulous, physical reminder that sometimes the best way to experience life, and art, is through stillness--internal, external, both.

And while it's always awesome and extremely humbling to see my own work out in the world, it's really fun to see any poem assemble itself. Watching the various combinations of letters skitter across a dark screen lets you try to imagine what sort of poem they're from and predict what kind of poem they can become again.

The poems I submitted, like the ones I talked about performing last week, are part of the cache I found from a few summers back.

For the past few years, I've been focused on revising fiction and nonfiction projects, although I guess I have written some new work. But it's also humbling and revelatory to see how long it's been since I sat quietly at a page.

Perhaps it's time for that again.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Randomly Poeting

Last Thursday, I put on orange construction coveralls and, as part of a "word construction crew," read some of my work as part of Random Acts of Poetry, a project of Definitely Superior Art Gallery and Artist-Run Centre.

Now in its 12th year, Random Acts of Poetry takes small groups of poets, singer-songwriters, and other spoken-word artists into the community, bringing a moment of reflection and creativity.

See the list above? I'm not a poet, singer-songwriter, or spoken-word artist. I'm prose all the way, baby. I still agreed to participate, because I have a few short pieces of prose, although I find it difficult to keep them short. I figured I'd read one of those.

But I found something surprising in my Dropbox catch-all folder. A few weeks ago, I mentioned the writing equivalent of practicing musical scales. I even wondered about using writing prompts daily as a form of warmup--you know, like scales.

Which is what I found in that folder in Dropbox. Apparently, for a month in the summer of 2014, I borrowed writing prompts and came up with poems. I even named the folder "Poetry." Amazingly, I was proud of several of those pieces. It was fun to read them. A few may be worth saving, while others are definitely worth further "construction."

Plus the whole performance element of last week's event was fun. It was nice to be in random public places--an urban mall, a downtown coffee shop, the LU radio station--and share a creative moment with five fellow crew members and other folks who happened to be there.

I know events like Random Acts of Poetry require planning, coordination, and hard work, and I appreciate all that went into making this year's event possible. Thanks, Definitely Superior!
Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Welcome to October. The birches are in almost-full gold at the moment, but at some point this month, the leaves will swirl away. That's okay, I guess--trees without leaves show more sky and the leaves themselves do all kinds of nice things for plants and dirt and small animals.

October makes it easy--too easy?--to feel wistful about the passing of time. For all the pressing issues in the world these days, though, I wouldn't go back to childhood, not for a bazillion dollars or all the chocolate in the world. October Past had its joys, but I like October Now. (I like All Months Now a quite a bit, in fact.) But I get that some people like yesterday, too.

All of which brings me to "Skeletons," a brief piece of creative nonfiction. It's featured in this month's edition of The Walleye, a local arts and culture magazine. Click here for the page with the electronic issue, and then keep going until you get to page 81.

I hope your October Now is as much fun as, or more than, your Octobers Past.

One of my favo(u)rite reasons to prefer adulthood to childhood is my ability to vote. It's important this election, and I'm pleased to be able to do it.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Equivalent of Scales

As I mentioned last week, I recently started making music. I've been playing the piano for 15 minutes every day.

Yep, I have the usual history with piano for a mid-20th-century kid in North America. Piano lessons as a kid, forced to practice, allowed to drop it in favor of other music and sports in Grade 6 or 7.

In years past, I've tried "just playing" at the piano, but it wasn't particularly fun--in part because I wasn't playing very well. I'm a much better musician than I am a pianist, and that was frustrating.

So this time, I started with scales. Not JUST scales, but scales to start with. A scale, repeated, repeatedly. My fingers need more coordination and more strength. Starting with scales, and then practicing--really practicing--the studies I'm noodling around with has made this time at the piano a WHOLE lot more fun.

I'm sure it sounds deadly dull. The most "un-fun" part of music is the stuff you wouldn't expect anyone to listen to. Like scales, like the left hand playing on its own, like a phrase repeated (repeatedly) until the fingering is second nature, like the keys pounded until you have a pretty good sense of how loud piano has to be so you can also have a pianissimo.

The kind of thing that's crazy-making to listen to. But the kind of work that lays a foundation.

What's the writing equivalent? Prompts, maybe--writing for five or ten minutes on a random topic. Or maybe doing client work--working with someone else's words, preserving their meaning while standardizing their expression.

Both of those are ways to develop skills that make future "play" with words more productive. Maybe. Maybe not. It's supposed to be play, after all--which is by definition doesn't have to be productive. right?
Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Words Fail

Sometimes, words are insufficient. I've sure spent more than my share of time, and words, looking for a perfect metaphor for those intense events that I want to capture somehow.

And sometimes, I just can't.

For several weeks, I've been creating music every day. Just for a few minutes. Mostly to clear my head, exercise my fingers and brain, and let my heart relax. I've also returned to "making lines on paper," as I once described drawing to my sister.

I'm not particularly skilled at either music or drawing. But sometimes, words fail. Sometimes, my fingers need to do something else for a while.

Especially when a dear friend dies. Many dear people have died this week--not all of them dear to me, but every one dear to someone. Every person who dies is dear to someone, surely.

I stole the title of this post from the title of a meditation posted by a church that unexpectedly lost one of its stalwart members, a woman with a heart as big as the Tucson sky, a woman who never met a stranger she didn't turn into a friend. The full meditation is here.

If sometimes you're frustrated by your own efforts to say what it is you really mean, noodle on the piano or guitar for a few minutes. Pick up a camera and take a picture of what's at your feet. Make some marks on paper with a pencil. Bury your nose in a flower.

Let it be okay that words fail.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Sometimes you feel like one. A fraud, that is.

Sometimes you don't but have to deal with fraud anyway.

Ironic, I guess--on a day when I'm not feeling particularly "legitimate" as a writer, whatever I even mean by that, I am forced to confront the fact that even so, I'm "legitimate" enough that someone somewhere wants access to my credit.

So I'm off to look at Ryan Nickerson's artwork, here.

Ryan's cousin is a Thunder Bay writer, and she's been sharing his new works that feature our most famous landform, the Sleeping Giant. But I love the energy and cheer of all his work.

Why not check it out? It's an excellent place to see pretty things on a day that might otherwise feel less pretty.

And after that, heigh ho, heigh ho, all I can control is doing the work. Time to do some more.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


While tidying up items in a notebook I ran across a couple of questions that I've had fun investigating.

* Yes, "ignorance" and "ignore" are related.
* Yes, "routine" and "rut" are also related.

Recently I met writer-friends at a new-to-me coffee shop. I hadn't been ignoring it; I'd just never made it there. And it was great! Fun art on the walls, interesting selections of coffee, some tables. A nice place to go when I want a change of pace.

I also FINALLY got to an exhibit at the local historical museum. Again, not a place I'd been ignoring, exactly, but a place that isn't part of my routine. And it, too, was an awesome choice. I happened to go see an exhibit in which my cousin had a hooked rug, but I don't need to wait for a personal connection to go back. The permanent exhibits are interesting, and who knows what visiting exhibition they'll host next.

And both destinations and activities were inexpensive. A huge bonus.

Routines are my go-to method of managing life's vicissitudes. They work for me. Routines let me ignore some things ("I'm not working on that today; it's scheduled for next Tuesday") to focus on the things I've identified as priorities.

But yes, routines are sometimes ruts. That helpful side of focused ignoring can lead to ignorance. As in my complete lack of understanding of the skill and creativity involved in creating a hooked rug. The subject matter and techniques were so varied! I'd seen pictures in publications, but seeing works in person was mind-blowing. I had no idea. But now I do.

I've also found this place that I'll have to work hard to avoid in the future: The Online Etymology Dictionary. I could lose sight of so many priorities here!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Random Questions

We had errands today, so lots of time in the car--enough to get beyond the necessary sharing of information, through the "hey I forgot to tell you this weird thing I heard about," on to those random questions that come up.

Such as:

1. Do birds enjoy flying on muggy days, or do they like relatively dry days?
2. Is traffic heavier on the expressway or Lakeshore Drive?
3. How come we've seen only black birds today? All grackles, crows, and ravens. Well, except the pileated woodpecker. Was it because once we started noticing black birds, they were the only ones we've noticed?

I love times like this. The sharing of idle speculation. The thinking aloud. The "I know this factoid, does it relate to the question?" Sometimes, after we bring in all the stuff from the car, one of us researches while the other puts the groceries away.

Wondering about stuff together is fun. And I've found that what I wonder about, I write about. Especially when a to-do list is a mile long, even if that hour of there-and-back-again is all the unscheduled time for reflection, it can make the difference.
Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Today's Metaphor for Revision

Here's a project I should have been helping more with. Except I've been indoors, revising.

But I think what I've been doing is a lot like what's going on with this tree. Here's why.
* Sometimes you have a tree and what you need is firewood, so you take out a tree.
* Sometimes a tree falls down and you might as well cut it up (lemonade from lemons, as it were).
* Sometimes a tree hasn't quite fallen down yet but when it does, it'll destroy other stuff so you take it down and since it's down, why not make firewood.
* Sometimes a tree dies and you leave it standing because the birds find it useful.
* Sometimes you have a tree.

The thing is, it's your tree--your life experience. You decide what to do about it. You don't even have to write about it.

But if you want to write about your life experience, sometimes you have to revise the hell out of your original work. Or so I've found.

The work is improving in its new form--either through fifteen to twenty years of seasoning and perspective that lets me see and shape it more clearly, or because I just have more skill. Or both.

So. Sometimes revising is "fixing," but sometimes it's "felling" and "sawing." So I think today, at least.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016

When It's Ajar

When IS a door not a door?

When I'm revising. At least at this point in the process.

In On Writing, Stephen King said, "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." Meaning, write "for yourself" until you get it as right as you can, then think about how other people might read it.

In relation to my (APPARENTLY NEVER-ENDING) revision projects, by his definition my door is still closed. But by my definition--anything that comes after the throes of creation, any time I can return to a draft with slightly jaundiced eyes--my door is ajar.

I'm certainly not thinking, "Who would ever publish this?" or "Where should I submit this?" or "What's the word count for that contest again?" All "door open" questions.

But I am thinking, "What does a reader who doesn't know me need to know in order to care about the story I'm telling?" And, "Oh, by the way, is this even a story?" So: still trying to get it right. Sorta.

Yet, I do have some perspective. I'm far enough away from the early drafts that I can see the things I did to make myself feel better while I was pounding out early drafts--unique word choices, a shrug instead of explanation of why something's important, creating a scene that doesn't do much but justify a character's (my) actions. All "door closed" things.

Some of that stays (word choices for specific people), but much of it goes (justifications), and some has to be massaged (impact).

So yeah. Ajar. For now.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Doldrums

I'm revising a couple of things. Okay, several things. And by "revision" I mean a wide range of things, from "more" (writing new material to see if it broadens the emotional range I'm going for) to "less" (reading aloud to ensure that the words I'm using are the ones I actually mean).

Sometimes I want to throw papers in the air. Most of what I'm working on is still pixels, which are more difficult to toss into the air in frustration. Also: although creativity is a messy process, not all messes actually move me forward. (Your mileage may vary here.)

So to entertain myself, I tried to label this point in the revision process. I looked up "the doldrums," and learned that what I sort of thought meant "becalmed" has a lot more nuance. In fact, the doldrums (according to Wikipedia) include variable weather patterns--severe weather (I especially like thinking of my frustrations as "squalls") as well as those periods of calm when basically nothing happens.

In any case, that's where I am. Depending on the moment, frustrated or inspired (and both!). Trying different things. Resisting things I know I should do (cutting--the "sunk costs" thing is hard for me to overcome). Mulling over options while doing other things. Listening to podcasts to procrastinate.

This week's Scriptnotes podcast: very helpful. John August and Craig Mazin (at about 10 minutes in) talk through ways to apply The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (no I haven't read it) to your writing work. Lots of interesting and helpful stuff there. As usual.

But no podcast is going to do my revisions. That's on me.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016

To Read, or Not to Read?

August brings guests. At least in this part of the world.

Most rooms in our house have bookshelves and/or books lying around. Except for the guest room.

Which, come to think of it, maybe should be exactly the place you leave books. Or at least reading material. Although visitors ostensibly come to VISIT, there may be times when they want to hole up in a room and read. Or there may be times when they're the only person awake and would pick up something to read.

Maybe not novels--unless the guests have real problems with insomnia. But something?

With that in mind, I left a couple of fresh issues of The New Yorker in the guest room.

I just had another thought. We could move a bookshelf into the guest room and THAT could be the one we stock with local and regional writing. Hmmm.

Not before our guests arrive, though.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016


So, the wait is over. I've had some good health-related news, and, of course, some writing rejections, because that's all part of life. I'll take it.

The wait is also over for both political parties in the U.S. By this weekend, both conventions will be over, their nominees officially in place. For the most part, I avoid talking about politics in public anymore. But it's still the best theatre (or theater) in which to hone one's, um, critical thinking skills.

And, as it happens, it's a great venue in which to learn about writing--speechwriting in particular. Here are two articles about the speech Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention earlier this week.
By Roy Peter Clark, at the Poynter Institute: Eight Writing Lessons from Michelle Obama's DNC Speech. Read this to learn about the magic of three, about narrative, about pronouns, and other good things. 
By Rebecca Thering, writing at Medium: The Line I Wish Michelle Obama Hadn't Said in her Badass DNC Speech. Read this to see why people in other countries sometimes roll their eyes about U.S. political speeches. 
Now that July is nearly over, now that much of my uncertainty (and vacation) is behind me, now that political season is pushing through to its November conclusion, I'm switching gears.

Therefore, it's time for a famous quote from one of the best TV shows ever, The West Wing: "What's next?"

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Five Tips for Waiting

"If you can fill the unforgiving minute/with sixty seconds' worth of distance run" 

I didn't encounter this Kipling poem until my first exposure to sports psychology at university, but it reminds me of my parents' insistence that we spend our time in "useful" ways. And I can't shut up that Kipling-in-my-head as I wait.

Yes, this is the same waiting I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. I'm still waiting on the most nerve-wracking stuff, but not for much longer.

Meanwhile, the clock seems to be moving ever more slowly as it counts down. Some periods of time are just awkward--not long enough to complete something, too long to "do nothing" (read for pleasure or scan Twitter) without guilt. (Darn that Kipling.)

So here are some possible ways to handle those weirdo time periods:

1. Chunk the awkward time. If you have a flight, meeting, or appointment mid-afternoon, you still have the full morning to do stuff as if it were a normal day. (I can't be the only person who has to remind herself of this fact each time.) Or not do stuff, as you wish. Set a time (say 1 p.m.) to switch gears, and ignore the commitment till then.

2. Consult a list. Okay, this requires pre-planning, but lists are useful. Awkward time periods can be helpful for research or doing weird tasks. For example: looking into those potentially interesting vacation spots, discovering where to rent kayaks in town, checking whether your streaming service or local library carries a specific movie you want to watch later.

Power outages are prime times for me to use these lists--I don't know how long it will be out, so using time well is a challenge. I use a lot of email in my work, which requires electricity. (Even if the laptop battery is charged, the router needs power. I also have to remind myself of this, because all technology seems so magical.) So I have a list of things to do when the power goes out. Some of them are work things (filing, sorting other stacks of paper), some of them aren't (culling sweaters to give away, using non-electrical devices like brooms and rags to clean things). I keep the list on paper in my Filofax, because I'm analog like that and also so it's available when we don't have electricity.

3. Make a list. See #2. Maybe you have 13 minutes before a conference call and you've done everything else you can think of. You can still make a list--places you'd like to see, activities you'd like to do someday. It doesn't have to be a long list. It doesn't have to be a "useful" list of to-dos. It doesn't have to be a list with a purpose--but you might find one for it later. A list of your favorite board games from childhood might give you ideas for something to do with the kids over the weekend. Or, if you're a writer, what is your main character most afraid of--and can you make that happen? You can list all kinds of stuff. Although making a list of things you're grateful for is always useful, I tend to resist doing it--which is in itself a sure sign of its potential value.

4. Meditate. Or pray, or visualize something peaceful or cheerful or beautiful. Or do whatever makes your mind quiet and helps you remember and then become your best self. Because even if you're gearing up for something unpleasant, like an uncomfortable meeting or a confrontation, bringing your best self to it is going to make it go better.

5. Go for a walk. I spend a lot of time sitting, and my hip flexors feel it. So I'm more conscious of choosing to move. I pace up and down in airports, much as my father used to (and yes, it used to make me roll my eyes). (By the way, it's interesting to see how similar airports are. And aren't.) Even if you can't leave a reception area, you can stand up. Moving around just feels good.

Truthfully, most of these are just more organized ways of goofing off or distracting yourself. But that also helps time pass, and makes that Kipling-in-my-head shut up, just a little.
Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Vacating and Recreating

That's what I'm up to this week. Difficult as it is to leave this place at this time of the year (or, like, ever), I'm enjoying family time.

Here's something else I really really really enjoyed recently.

Come Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant

I mean, what is not to love? It's funny and insightful and goes off the rails on occasion, and what is not to love about that?

Please: do not say no to this tortoise and her current "owner," Audrey. You will laugh.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


Waiting is not my favorite thing. Probably because it is one way to demonstrate patience, also not my favorite thing.

However. So many times, it feels as if the only option is to wait.
* for a response to something
* for information
* for a choice to become clearer

"They" always advise against waiting. As in, "while waiting for responses to work you've submitted, work on something else." The theory is, this response you're waiting for won't define you. You continue to be yourself, you continue to do your work, regardless of any one particular response.

In other words, you don't cede your power to whatever it is you're waiting for. And for "power," read "time," "energy," "personhood," "identity," and other good words like that. I think of the Reeboks ad (because I'm old like that): Reeboks let UBU.

So: don't wait. That's great excellent wonderful advice. I take it when I can. When the waiting is about work, say.

But sometimes, a simple "yes/no" response to work isn't what you're waiting for. You're waiting for information. For a recommendation about a way forward. You've enlisted the help of an expert, and you are interested or invested in what that person has to say.

Even then, though, hanging around by the phone isn't the only option. Or rather, it's possible to do both: to work on something else while waiting by the phone.

It's also possible to continue working, for a limited time, on that thing you don't have information for, through the use of hypotheticals: if this, then that; if this other thing, then that other thing; if THAT this, well, then maybe THAT that.

And maybe sometimes you recognize that in any of those hypothetical cases, THIS particular solid truth remains, and then you work with that.

Which is not to say any of this waiting is comfortable. So there's a time limit on waiting. There's a time when you assume "no" and move on with that answer. There's a time when you pick up the phone yourself and say "Hey there. Fine, thanks. And you? Great, glad to hear it. Now, how about that info you're getting for me?"

And until that time limit, which I like to impose myself (more assertion of self-hood, what control issues?), I try to remember to do my work. Be me. While waiting.

Yep. Just waiting, here.

P.S. You know that Anais Nin quote: "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."

I'm like that with phone calls. There comes a time when having to pick up a phone is less painful than waiting for that call. Which is a factor in the equation I use to figure out when my end point is.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016


Sometimes you have choices.
* Put color on all your hair this month, or just cover over the roots?
* Schedule a pedicure or just throw some new polish over the old?

To bring this back to writing...
* Ignore feedback from beta readers, or accept every suggestion?

Or, here's a thing. Maybe it's not really an either-or. Maybe you have a third option, or even a fourth. Okay, not so much for the hair color, but with your toenails, yes. Your third option could be a home pedicure, something a little more thorough than throwing new polish on top of old, but less time-consuming or expensive than a salon pedicure.

Similarly, you don't have to accept feedback from beta readers. You don't have to reject it, either. You can evaluate what you've heard and decide what you think brings your work closer to what you want it to be. And do those things. Or not.

And maybe finding "the right choice" is just doing what best fits your life right now, that helps you learn what you need to know right now. So sure, slap some new polish over those flaky toenails, if that's what you have time for. Or ignore the feedback you've received, if you're so sure you want to "get it out there." But in either case, you do have to be prepared for the results.

(Just, seriously: don't mistake general feedback for a thorough developmental edit or a copyedit.)
Wednesday, June 22, 2016


This isn't about Glamour the magazine, though I loved it both long before and long after I was the age of their target demographic.

It's about something that appears in The New Yorker every week on the page with their guide to who's playing where in the city. 

Can't quite read it? (Sorry for the bad photo.) Underneath ROCK AND POP, it says, "Musicians and night-club proprietors lead complicated lives; it's advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements."

There was a time when this small statement would have represented, to me, the height of glamour. I mean, for The New Yorker to issue a public excuse for the complicated nature of my life! To be given carte blanche to be unreliable--even irresponsible--by the magazine of the intelligentsia of THE most glamorous city.

The smart set, the jet set, the rat pack, the brat pack. Like that.

My idea of glamour has changed. Or rather, maybe I've outgrown the whole concept, in the same way I outgrew the magazine.

Nowadays, I'd appreciate a good night's sleep--not for the sleep itself, but because being rested keeps my life UNcomplicated and lets me RELIABLY do the things that are important to me.

I suppose I could go about my day in sequined stiletto heels, if I wanted a dose of glamour. But yoga pants and flipflops are really more my style. And since the night life around here consists of watching herons hunt in the bay in front of the house, I think I'm good.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Showing Up. To Listen

So I'd written a big long thing but I just deleted it all, because here is the important stuff.

Last night I went to the Thunder Pride Literary Night. Here's a link to the event, which was absolutely wonderful--good writing from near and far in a supportive environment.

Because sometimes it's okay to stay home and take care of things in your own life. To be an ally in name; to listen, but from afar.

And sometimes, it's important to show up, and listen in person.
Wednesday, June 8, 2016


I'm a planner, I admit it. In fact, I was planning so hard last night, trying to see how I could make the most of my morning hours, that I couldn't sleep. So I overslept this morning, and everything ran  late. Go figure.

And yet: Eisenhower (or someone) possibly said, "Plans are worthless; planning is everything." My day has gone more smoothly than it would have, even though I forgot one key ingredient (a piece of tech, naturally) that I need to do the work I planned to do this afternoon.

But that's OK. Through the years, I have learned to punt, metaphorically. (And not in the sense of going out in that type of boat known as a punt, but in the sense of kicking away the football on 4th and long.)

So: planning or plans?

Of course, all this planning/punting relates to revisions. (What DOESN'T relate to my current work, whatever work it is I happen to be doing at the time?)

Yes. I'm revising. Or rather, I'm taking thousands and thousands (many tens of thousands) of words from almost 20 years and a lifetime or two ago, with additions, corrections, extensions, and other machinations added throughout those 20 years, and I'm building something new from those materials. Two separate plans for that work weren't successful. Time has passed. Now I have more skill, more confidence, and more sense in choosing whom I ask for help. And I'm happy to be working on this project, possibly even happier than had those early plans (either A or B) panned out.

Later this summer, I'll revise the novel I've been working on for several years. This revision will require me to let go of the original plan I had for the novel and make it better. Again, lots of material I'm happy with, and now I get to mix it up and make something new, different, and better.

Today didn't go according to plan. But my day is better--in fact, my life is better, but this is just what works for me--because I planned, both last night and decades ago.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Three Thoughts of Home

1. 'Tis the season to receive rejections (and then re-send those pieces out again). Recently, I've noticed that more rejections include words such as these:
I wish you the best in finding a home for it. 
"Finding a home": that really is a good metaphor for publishing an essay (or short story) in a publication. I've written before about feeling as if characters in a story, when it finds publication, have friends. This is a similar phenomenon.

And so even though I thought I had found the perfect publication for the most recently rejected essay, I was mistaken. It's good to know--I sure don't want it to be there if it's not welcomed. So, on to the next publication.

2. It's time for me to switch journal notebooks, and I was flipping through the one that's full. It has entries from January, when I was just back from a vacation at the holidays. In it, I wrote
Home is imperfect but it fits you like that leather couch: it gives where it needs to and holds you like you're the most beloved creature in the world. 
Some seasons are more hospitable than others and your mileage may vary from that of your loved one. For example, pollen makes Spring particularly difficult for my husband, whereas I'm not a fan of those 40-below days in January. Still, this place is home to both of us, in all four seasons, and we know how lucky we are.

3. Speaking of seasons, baseball season has begun. And my favorite rumination about home is this classic from George Carlin:
"Safe at home": that pretty much says it all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Quote for Thought

My parents treated books, all books, with great reverence. We were to TAKE NOTES, not underline an important thought in a book. We were to USE BOOKMARKS, not turn a book upside down or--HORRORS--dog-ear pages to mark the place where we left off reading.

So it is with some trepidation that, these days, I dog-ear book pages. I do it not to mark my place (I own dozens of bookmarks and enjoy using them) but in lieu of note-taking. Or to mark something I will write down in the future, when I get around to taking those notes. (I usually do get around to taking notes because then I need notebooks. NOTEBOOKS! and PENS!)

In any case, here's a quote from a page I dog-eared recently.
Which may finally be the only real difference between one place on the earth and another: how you think about the people, and the difference it makes to you to think that way.                                                                     --Canada, Richard Ford

Earlier in that paragraph, the narrator quotes a different character as saying, "Canada had everything America ever had, but no one was mad about it."

I'm not sure I 100% agree with either quote, but both are interesting to ponder, in these times when it feels as if political news is impossible to escape. Sigh.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Most of the messages "out there" these days have to do with being the unique -- the outlier:
* How does your business differ from all the others in your sector?
* What is your unique selling proposition?
* What are you adding to the conversation about your chosen topic?
* How does your project advance knowledge in a particular field?
* How do you tell a story that's been told a thousand times before in a unique way?

Being the outlier is great. It's how your book gets picked out of the slush pile/it's why customers want to entrust your company with sweeping their chimney/it's what people come to YOUR restaurant for-- when they could have picked any of a zillion others.

As I waited for a medical checkup today, I was reminded of situations in which you DON'T want to be unique. As in, healthcare. If you have a health problem, you want it to be something lots of other people have. You want it to be something that you can change with lifestyle or something they can hand you a prescription for.

Even when the diagnosis is bad enough to treat with surgery or chemotherapy, you want to hear some statements more than others. For example, you want to hear, "Yes, generally bypass surgery holds few complications and returns patients to an optimal level of health," or "Yes, we can remove your tumor and give you this form of post-surgical care, and we've had good results with that." You want to know that your surgeon has done dozens of surgeries like yours--not that you're the first one.

I was fortunate today. For one thing, I have a family practice physician, so between the Canadian healthcare system and my family practice doc, I got the adult female version of a "well baby visit," no fuss no muss. Nothing about my annoying symptoms, however unique (and did I mention annoying?) they are to me, was deemed out of the ordinary. i am so lucky!

The protagonist of this story I've been working on, however--too predictable. Gotta fix that.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Meaning of Life, Here and Elsewhere

It's part of a traditional university experience--the late-night conversations about Big Ideas, the ones that settle all the world's problems.

Once mortgages, families, and other adult realities infiltrate our daily lives, most of us don't have time to debate Big Ideas anymore. Even (or especially?) in election years, we like to make our points without listening. But maybe we should make some space for those conversations again.

A website by a Thunder Bay writer gives people a chance to ponder some of the Biggest Ideas around--as a speaker and as "listener" or reader.

Maureen Arges Nadin recently launched "The Awakening" blog to start a conversation around the question, "When life is discovered elsewhere in the Universe, will faith and science collide or merge?"

On her site, she asks four questions (listed down the right-hand side) that serve as a great starting point. People of faith, and those who aren't part of a faith tradition, can share views on what it might mean when (and Maureen says "when," not "if") life is discovered elsewhere in the universe.

Maureen has several links with related content to provide some background and further reading--topics range from astrobiology to exoplanets, with new content added to the blog regularly.

So if recent developments in space exploration have you re-evaluating the role of humans and our place in the universe, check out this blog and add your voice to the conversation.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Do Good Work

I've written before about the value of the Scriptnotes podcast. A few days after they post each podcast, they also post transcripts (and interesting links in the shownotes).

In a recent show in which they interviewed Lawrence Kasdan (writer of Body Heat and The Big Chill, among others, and oh yeah The Force Awakens, the most recent Star Wars movie), Kasdan spoke about making good work. (Boldface is mine, for emphasis.) I like this a lot.

And you have the freedom of your computer. When we’re done here today, go home, sit at your computer, and say, “What is the story I most want to tell? And I know that it’s going to be really hard to get it made. And everyone is going to tell me I’m crazy because it’s not a franchise and it’s not a brand. But I really want to tell this story.
And then work as hard as you can to tell that story. That’s actually how you do good work. And it’s also how if you are charged with creating a franchise movie, it’s the same process. What’s the best way we can do this? Without cynicism. Without presumption that people already like it when they don’t. How can I make this particular movie honorable? How can I make it true? How can I make it worth people’s time and money?

Because that's what I want: to do good work. That's how I define "successful work," too, at least on the good days.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016


Sometimes it's helpful to get a different perspective.

Even if you can't open the window, you can find a new view. Even if the window, and/or the picture, is slightly crooked.
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lifelong Learning

Yesterday I learned something new, which is always one of my favorite things to do. And bonus: it involves office supplies!

For those playing along at home who ALSO aren't 100% used to bilingual packaging for office supplies, "trombones" = "paper clips."

In The New Yorker from February 1, 2016, Nathan Heller writes, in "Air Head," about flight and airports. (Something I didn't know I was interested in until I read it, the sign of a good article.) Here's a quote from the last third.

Writers and travellers alike do their best work when they don't know what they're looking for; disorientation requires problem-solving, and a new landscape holds secrets still.... To land somewhere unfamiliar is to force yourself into alertness, to redraw whatever maps you have, to set the stage for creativity more than mere pattern-matching productivity.

I like the distinction he makes between pattern-matching and creativity. I'm not sure it's always true; I think patterns, and the process of matching them, can be the boundaries that force new kinds of creativity. But I get what he means.

A long time ago, a wise woman shared with me the difference between "new content" and "new context." A context is a place and type of learning. Content is what is learned. Learning French in class (old context to learn new content) is different from spending a month in a French-only community (new context to learn new content).

Skydiving is a whole different context, as is showing someone how to make brownies, or cutting down trees. Maybe you know how to eat brownies and have made them before--but showing someone else is a still-different way to experience them.

The "learning" part of writing an instruction manual, a newspaper feature article, or even a technical paper is in the content, not the context. I think that's how it's supposed to be--the point is placing unfamiliar content into a familiar context so people can understand it.

Back to Heller: Isn't the point of form poetry (haiku, sonnet, tercet, etc.) to provide a pattern in which a writer not only communicates content ("nice day," "I'll love you when you're old") but encourages a reader to understand something in a new way? Just wondering.

One of the most challenging classes I've ever taken (old context, new content) was in pottery. The teacher had about two lessons' worth of instruction and demonstration, and then said "the rest you have to learn by doing." I was incensed. Where were my handouts? My step-by-step troubleshooting guide?

The pottery instructor was right, of course. As I quietly spent hour after hour at the wheel, I came to know the feel of clay and the way a pot might change with a slight change in pressure. I never became accomplished, and I've never been able to put into words quite what it was I learned through my palms and fingers. And I plan to leave it that way. Words aren't designed to describe that experience. (Yet.)

But "trombone" = "paper clip"? That's just awesome.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016

New in New Orphic

Sometimes the mail brings such pleasant surprises.

The Spring 2016 issue of The New Orphic Review (a fine Canadian publication based in Nelson, BC) includes my story, "Two for Balance." I hadn't anticipated seeing it before the fall.

The story's about Thunder Bay. And love. And odysseys. I'm so glad it found a home.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

(Snow) Showers

Today I'm walking around singing, "So keep on looking for that bluebird and listening for his song." Because we're having an April Shower, all right.

This kind.

I sure hope it's snowing vi-o-lets.

Go here to hear The Velvet Fog's version of the song.

Hiya, April.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Opposite of Energy

Last week I was talking about energy, and the interactions that help me feel more usefully energetic.

This week, I still have the cold or whatever, and I still carry tissues, and I have practically no energy. (I did, however, open our last box of tissues and when I said to my husband, "We're down to our last Kleeneck," I laughed for a long time, far beyond all reason.)

So this will be a few random thoughts from someone whose sole energetic activity seems to be carrying piles of used tissues to the trash can.

1. Write Everything, or Set Down My "Pen" Forever? I'm (still) (always) catching up on issues of The New Yorker and I happened on a lovely George Saunders short story (a redundant phrase) from February of this year. On one hand, I am ungracefully chuffed that it took him four years to write it. What a regular guy he can be. On the other hand, man, that voice! That sensibility! That--wait, where did he take this?--plot! For more information about this story, here's an interview.

2. Owls seem to be having a cultural moment. Also foxes. Or maybe it's just this guy's art. Robbie Craig has lovely photos and images inspired by them, and the northern lights, and the north. (It's not just this guy's art, but I do love his art.)

3. Aha! I knew it wasn't just Robbie Craig who filled my Facebook timeline with images of birds. Here's Meg Sheepway's Dog Paw Pottery, which just this morning showed me a plate with a bird's hunting track.

4. When All Else Fails, There's a Cliche. I may write more about this later, but I've also noticed that the change in seasons reminds me of something ELSE my mother was (annoyingly) right about: "be careful what you wish for." I had forgotten that longer and warmer days + precipitation = driveway lakes = nervousness about driving back up the driveway after leaving the house = always carry wellies = good excuse for being a hermit = hey not a bad time to be sick, either.

Goodbye, March.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016


I'm doing that thing where I might have a cold and I might have just allergies, but either way, I've got a box of tissues with me at all times.

I'm not really REALLY sick--even if it's a cold, I'm not, like, seriously sick. But I AM much more aware of energy.

Energy, as in, what activities give me energy. Whose company I leave feeling energized--I may be tired, but I have a sense of possibility, of good things happening. And, on the flip side, what activities and whose company leaves me feeling hopeless, annoyed, or frustrated.

And I'm writing it down. Because the seasons are changing (hi there, Spring!), and someday our snow will melt. I'll spend more time outdoors on projects (noodling around as well as chores) that I can't do in the winter. I'll need to be even more aware of what (and who) helps me grow, and where I can contribute with the most integrity and effectiveness.

Now, please excuse me while I ignore the dishes and the errands in favor of a brief nap.
Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Word Made Flesh

One of my friends, a really excellent writer, is in the throes of a fun time. Her first novel was accepted by an agent and she's been in talks with editors and publishers. In the middle of all of the excitement and stress and "yikes" feelings, she said, "It's so odd, kind of neat but mostly odd, that other people now have opinions about my characters."

I knew what she meant! I haven't (yet) written a novel accepted for publication, but a few of my short stories have appeared in journals. Every time one is accepted, I get a little thrill on behalf of the main character: "Oh, s/he's got a friend! I'm so happy for her!" In fact, almost every time I start a story, I label it with the name of the main character until the story title emerges. It's all about that character and telling her (or his) story to the best of my ability. Letting go of that person can be wrenching.

Here's (I think) another facet of that phenomenon.

For the past few years, some highly talented and dedicated artists in Thunder Bay have put on 10x10, a developmental project culminating in a festival of ten-minute plays. Ten-minute plays are a "thing" now, with InspiraTO in Toronto and festivals in Australia too.

Thunder Bay's project focuses on developing playwrights (though it provides cool, short-term, "why not take a risk?" opportunities for new and experienced directors and actors too). After workshops about writing and revising plays, local folks submit their best ten-minute plays. A jury picks ten of them for production; those whose work wasn't chosen still have the chance to have their plays read aloud. All of the playwrights can receive jury feedback to help guide their revisions; those whose work is chosen for performance can work with a dramaturge to make their play even better.

Revision is magic enough--I'm so happy and a little stunned when I finish a good revision of a story or essay--but there's more.

Then a director gets involved, and a new kind of magic begins--someone else has an opinion about your characters, someone who has the power to help bring them to life. The magic continues through the production, as more people become involved and some actually walk around in your characters' skins.

It's all kind of amazing and magical.

Again, I haven't seen this first-hand. My husband is the playwright of this household (so far), but I will admit to standing behind him while he does early revisions. On occasion I say inappropriately intrusive things like "Omigod take THAT out or it'll hijack the entire play" and "He really needs to be a bigger jerk" and "Seriously? That joke is funny only to you." Sometimes he listens, and sometimes he's just wrong. (Kidding!) (Mostly.)

I was out of town for the first year's production, but the past two years have been really fun and interesting. Sitting in the audience, hearing people cheer or gasp when characters do something--when you've known those characters since they existed in pixels on a screen--it's, yep, odd. Also, very neat. I can only imagine how much more intense the experience is when you knew the characters in your own brain, before they became pixels.

And (back to the writer and her debut novel) a little frightening. Letting go of a character can leave writers (to say nothing of directors and actors) vulnerable.

So, back to something I first heard recommended by Craig Mazin on the Scriptnotes Podcast (recommended last week): how about approaching someone else's art with generosity of spirit?

Because those characters? They're people. And behind those characters is another person, perhaps several, through pixels and back to another person.

In fact, it's people all the way down.
Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Stories about Stories

So many stories, so little time. And then the stories about the stories.

Here are a few podcasts that have kept me company on the treadmill for many hours this winter. (And, given that ice follows snow in this region and walking remains treacherous in our neighbourhood, for more hours to come.)

They're all, in some way or another, meta-podcasts. Stories--and also stories about stories. And I think they're great, in different ways.

The one I've listened to the longest: Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters, by John August and Craig Mazin. I'm actually not a screenwriter but these guys are so incredibly generous with their time and their knowledge, and I learn something new about story, writing, professional behavior, research, accepting feedback, and tough love (not to mention two "one cool thing"s) every week. You can subscribe! You can buy all the episodes ever! And maybe you should!

The newest-to-me one: Gangrey: The Podcast. Interviews with people writing interesting things (mostly journalism-ish things), produced by the journalism and digital media program at Ashland University in Ohio. Interesting and different interviews, I might add. And, this close to International Women's Day, here's a good interview with women about women in journalism.

The one I resisted for the longest time: Serial. Yup. I didn't want to be hooked on something that wasn't complete, something I couldn't experience at my own pace. But then I listened to the first season (not all in one setting, but in a relatively brief time period), which was especially interesting because of the post-season discussions around ethical issues of re-opening old stories and talking about them in real time.

About Serial's second season, I thought, "Meh, not interested." Then one evening when my eyes were too tired to read and I wanted to be told a story, I listened to the first episode. And now I'm that person who really wishes she hadn't done that until all the episodes are up and she can control the pace. Because the voices and stories are just so interesting. I mean, really--who knows YOU, the whole you? How many facets to your personality are there? In what sense are we all characters in a giant story we're presenting to the world about ourselves?

Here's a bonus non-podcast (aka a regular website), also awesome, because it lets you see behind the stories. Nieman Storyboard, especially their Annotation Tuesday feature. But I highly recommend looking at the rest of the site, too.

I've wondered why podcasts are so popular--but I think it's pretty simple. Who doesn't love to be told a story?

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Facing Facts

You know those giant, daunting projects that you know you should be working on but they kind of freak you out to even think about, so you're not?

I'm finally within spitting distance of finishing a logistical project that has been hanging over my head for far too many years. No, not the novel that's still mid-revision. A family thing.

After several months (*cough* years?) of just moving it from one month to another's MUST DO THIS list, this morning I spent some time figuring out exactly what information I'd need. And then in an hour, I found the information. (And, bonus! I've semi-organized the piles I had to get through to find it.) And then I did some calculations. And finally I think I have the information I need to finish this thing.

(Something we are NOT THINKING ABOUT is completing this project means several others are now possible and should be dealt with. But we're NOT THINKING ABOUT THAT TODAY!! We're instead reveling in the near-finishing of THIS ONE!)

One thing I've learned about this type of yucky project is that when you finally start working on it, you often find resolution and finish the job pretty quickly. This thing that's been wearing you down for so long? Gone. And you feel so free! And you wonder why you waited!

This time, I haven't been so lucky. Yes, I have the information. It's not as cheerful as I'd hoped, but I do have it. I don't have that "Hooray! Freedom!" feeling about this project--perhaps I never will. But it WILL be done, and I WILL be free of it, even if I don't I feel it.

Which makes me think of that mid-revision novel. In the past few days, I've been madly finishing or near-finishing many short pieces and dealing with other stuff and haven't even cracked open the novel's file. Nevertheless, my unconscious has apparently still been working on it. I've been struggling with one character in particular, and through the experience of the past day or two, I have greater insight into who she is and what she'd really do.

I thought I had all the information I needed to do a good revision on this novel. But what I've learned in the past week or so (about all the characters, not just this one) means I was wrong. And although I don't have that "Hooray! Freedom!" feeling, I'm happy to have more information.

Now this revision will bring the novel significantly closer to the book I think it can be. That's a bonus benefit to finishing this project. I'll take it!
Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Awesome Things

Here are a few awesome things I've seen recently.

Love the natural world? Love words? Go here and read "Antevernals in the Anthropocene" on The Last Word on Nothing blog, in which Michelle Nijhuis (among other things) suggests coining new terms for natural phenomena in our changing climate.

In fact, the entire blog is awesome--varied and interesting. As they say on their "About" page, they provide "Science: clear, crafty, and delivered to your door." Assuming your door is a computer, I guess. Anyway, lots of great writers, lots of great content.

Here's an awesome fund-raising idea: Four anthologies, each describing a different season, all to raise money for the (UK) Wildlife Trusts. They'll be released throughout the year and are edited by Melissa Harrison (whose fiction I raved about earlier) (and who also has a new book, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather on its way in early March).

You can get the Spring anthology now. (Too bad the season isn't here in real life. Yet.)

This anthology series reminds me of a cool project at the University of Arizona Poetry Center: A Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park. The organizer of the project asked nearly 100 writers to produce a poem or piece of prose about a specific species in the park--from bark scorpion to jumping cholla (a cactus). I happened to be visiting my sister when they held a reading, and it was fun to hear the variety of work. And overall, what a neat way to involve artists in a close examination of a particular place--that gives others a way into enjoying the place, too.

The best part of "finds" like those above? They exist as products (finished writing, blogs, books, journals), but they also exist as inspiration. What have others written about changing seasons--or one of the dominant seasons--in your part of the world? What species exist right outside your door, and how can you pay attention to them and inspire others to, as well? How can you team with others who are expert and interested in some of the same things to offer interesting writing? Can you find a way to support organizations near and dear to you?

Awesome. And inspiring. Maybe spring is here after all.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Solving Problems

Q: How is assembled-at-home furniture like a manuscript?

Some ten years after putting together our "wardrobe" (a credenza from an office supply store), my husband looked at it and said, "Why don't those doors latch?"

I've been wondering for years without caring enough to find out. My husband, however, took the doors off, took the hardware off them, got out a measuring tape, and started puzzling over what he found.

At one point he called me into the bedroom and pointed at the insides of the doors. "Does this make sense to you? The pre-drilled holes show the latch goes here, like this, but how would that work? Why would the latch slide up, instead of sideways in front of this thing here? They must have drilled it wrong at the factory."

I was working on something else at the time, so I shrugged and said, "Not sure. Are you going to re-drill it?"

"I guess. That's the only thing that makes sense," he said.

I disappeared into my other project. Two hours later, he came into one of the (many, far too many) rooms where I've spread papers across a horizontal surface, the better to frown at them.

"So, I dropped a screw and figured out the door latch. The bottom surface of a shelf has a slot that holds the latch. I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't dropped that screw. So all I have to do is put the doors back on and make sure they're level, and the latch will slide up into the slot."

"Huh," I said. And thought of the novel I'm revising.

Not because I wasn't paying attention--because this novel I'm revising is like that wardrobe. I think. Maybe. I haven't been working on it ten years (yet) (close, though).  I'm revising the first full draft, but it had been through many versions along the way. Yet revising it isn't going quite the way I thought it would.

When you study literature, you develop skill at taking writing apart. When you study and work as an editor for years, you develop skill at clarifying thoughts--addressing everything from basic grammar and punctuation to word choice to organization and motivation. Neither is like writing, which is part of what makes writing fun--it's a stretch, it's organic/generative/creative blah blah et cetera.

I did those literature/editorial things for years before the creative writing thing. Recently, I've edited both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, for publishers and for individual writers. The experiences have been both fun and finite. So I thought revising this novel, once I had a full draft, would be like that: you get the thing, you point out the issues, you give it back.

Ha. Is revising fun? Yes. Finite? I hope so. The thing is, I'm responsible for fixing those issues. I keep thinking, "Why would this be like this? It should be like that." Then I change it. Then I put away the laundry or wash dishes or drive to town to run errands or hit the treadmill--and drop a screw. I see how "this" instead of "that" could work after all.

Then I have a choice, and here's where I keep hoping for finite: if "this" is better than "that," what else changes when I pick "this"? And what of those things is better than the options that come from "that," and which of the options from "that" is better? What am I giving up, what am I gaining? Plus each thing that changes could be its own "this"/"that" choice.

It's multiverses--and horizontal surfaces and papers to frown at--all the way down, y'all.

Q: How is assembled-at-home furniture like a manuscript?
A: Sometimes the initial design really does make sense. And sometimes it doesn't. And it's up to the assembler to figure that out.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


No one could ruin a Saturday morning like my father, bless him. At breakfast, he'd deflate my hope of a long mindless day--endless channel-surfing (yes, walking back and forth from the couch to the black-and-white TV to see what Saturday morning drivel was on all four channels) and re-reading books I already knew by heart--simply by asking, "What USEful thing are you going to do today?"

USEful to him meant cleaning out the garage. Picking up my clothes or otherwise cleaning my room. Clearing my homework and schoolbooks off the dining room chair where I tended to dump them (and finishing my homework, but that was a given, not really USEful). Helping my mother cook Sunday dinner, organizing the stuff on and in her desk, or matching plastic margarine tubs with lids.

In other words, doing something to contribute to the family--something my parents wanted me to do, not necessarily something I wanted to do, and preferably what they told me to do.

Since then, my definition of USEful has changed slightly. Sure, stuff similar to the list above has to get done, though I'm doing it for my husband and me, not for my parents. The "homework" and "schoolbooks" are now simply "work" and "books," but I still leave stuff lying around on more horizontal surfaces than I should. There's always laundry. And I still spend an inordinate amount of time messing around with food storage containers.

But "doing something USEful"? It's no longer the sad trombone phrase of my youth.

These days, USEful means something tangible I do to help someone. Sometimes that "someone" is me, but more often, if I really feel USEful, I'm helping someone else. The absolute best, most fun USEful times are when I get to do something that otherwise wouldn't be done at all, or that wouldn't be done with the (ahem) attention and care I bring to it.

All of which is to say that I've been immersed in a project for someone else during the past few days. I'm contributing something of value. He's grateful. I'm happy to do it. And I get to use skills (establishing and enforcing consistency, mostly*) that create an orderly product.

In fact, I've found feeling USEful to be REALLY FUN! My younger self would be astonished. I bet my father wouldn't be.

*OK, OK, I'll confess. Since I can wax annoying about how "nobody appreciates careful copyediting these days," you might imagine I'm doing that. However, not even--I'm doing ticky administrative schtuff, like stripping and adding formatting, and running search/replace for two spaces in a row, all to bring uniformity to a giant document. It's so INCREDIBLY satisfying!