Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Two That Stuck: #2019 #History

Disclaimer: I read, and I enjoy it, and I read for many different reasons. I have opinions about books, which I might share in person but will likely not reduce to stars on any of the popular platforms.

From time to time, I share books. I don't share everything, which means I quite enjoy some books but don't share them here.

I wrote a little more about reading, and books, earlier this month. Which includes links to other books I've written about.

THAT SAID ... I may write more about books in 2020.

Today, I'm saying something about two books that have stuck with me throughout 2019. They are The Cooking Gene and All Among the Barley.

One afternoon when I was old enough to think of being with my parents as "visiting" them, but not late enough in the 1990s that visits were all about my mother's Alzheimer's, a mealtime conversation turned to family history. (We Agnews were a barrel o' laughs.)

While we lingered at the table, my father pulled out a piece of paper (8.5 X 11, with printing only on ONE side so still perfectly useful) and a blue ballpoint pen from the stash (multiple colours plus one of those four-colours-in-one) in his pocket protector (BARREL o' laughs, Agnews).

And, just like that, he drew a history of our Faris connection (through his mother) back to "the immigrant." Who came from Scotland, I think, and had been a baker, and had been named William, and came in about 1781. Unless I've mixed up a few branches of the family, which is entirely possible.

OK sure he was a historian, and a social historian so interested in families and institutions of daily life. But anyone who cared to could probably confirm and correct all of that information. Records exist. And it's entirely possible that they're online.

It's miraculous to have that much family history available to you, a fact I didn't appreciate AT ALL until I read The Cooking Gene, by Michael W. Twitty. Like my father, Mr. Twitty is also a historian--of food and culture--and studies African American history through the movement of people and food. (Foodways: a wonderful word.)

I shudder at the ads for DNA testing "to determine your ancestry," because the tests are limited, and "blood" doesn't give license to co-opting a cultural artifact or practice. I mean, sure: play bagpipes and eat pasta if you want. You don't have to be Scots or Italian to do that. Just know that having ancestors from anywhere in the UK or Europe doesn't make your pasta-eating or bagpipe-playing somehow more authentic.

And for sure, Indigenous peoples are understandably leery of the limits and uses of DNA testing, as noted in a book by expert Kim TallBear.

But DNA testing can play a different role for African-Americans. As their ancestors were enslaved in Africa and brought to North America, their cultural history was lost. Through DNA testing, people like Mr. Twitty can learn some of the information my father had at the tip of his ballpoint pen.

It's not easy to interpret DNA results. Although much of The Cooking Gene is ABOUT genetics, it's also not ALL about genetics. And what he learns may be refined as more people are tested (making databases bigger and inferences more detailed and accurate).

As he says (p. 131), "Twenty years ago, someone like me couldn't even have dreamed of knowing what we know now, and I hope to be able to correct what I know over and over as the details get refined. I have no desire to be perfectly right. I just love the journey."

He's provided many wonderful resources at his blog, Afroculinaria. I strongly encourage you to read the book, at minimum.  He's also on Twitter @koshersoul and Instagram @thecookinggene.

My father's been on my mind quite a bit this past year for a variety of reasons. My book, of course. The state of the American presidency. And in general, because he would take such a dim view of our cultural amnesia. He'd probably call it what it is, deliberate ignorance.

Which brings me to the other book ABOUT but not ALL about something: All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison, which is about nature, and growing up, and history, and living somewhere vs. visiting. All of which combine to make it an irresistible read (which I wrote about here, in another context).

Two elements of the story stay with me. First, it's set in the 1930s--the autumn of 1933, to be exact. The Great War is over, but bad stuff is happening in Europe--and as Edie, the protagonist learns, in England, right there at home.

In the summer of 1933, my father was 16 and was on his way to (or just finished) serving as Valedictorian of his high school class. By the end of the decade, he was in the history PhD program at Harvard (where he met my mother, a mathematics PhD student) (at church) (of course). A pacifist and cautious thinker by nature, he was exactly of the age to serve in the military. I have a vague memory of hearing him tell about failing his PhD oral exams in the afternoon of December 7, 1941. He did serve in the Navy in Hawaii. And he would be appalled at the events occurring in North America and UK/Europe today.

The other part of All Among the Barley I'm dwelling on serves as a cautionary tale to me. The "stranger who comes to town" and sets off much of the plot of the book, Constance FitzAllen (one of the best names ever), is in the area to learn traditional ways of farming. But she's less interested in what farmers actually do and more interested in her romantic notions of what they should do because at one point, they did.

Good lesson. As I find my way here, a place I have loved with child's eyes for a long time, I must remember that I'm no longer a child. When my grandfather built our camp 96 years ago, he used the tools available. My grandparents and my parents didn't live in black-and-white or sepia, and I shouldn't try to duplicate their world in my own, different time.

Except, sigh, when it's not so different.

Besides writing novels, Melissa also writes about nature for various publications in the UK.

Here's a recent column she wrote for Caught by the River. As usual, she writes thoughtfully about what's changed for her in the past twelve months, in relation to travel and our global climate castrophe. She's honest about a travel plan she'd do differently. And she concludes, "I want to believe in the transformation I'm seeing around me. I have to hope it'll be enough."

We should all hope so. She's also on Twitter @M_Z_Harrison and a good addition to anyone's stream.

These two books challenge their readers, respectfully, and reward the investment of time and thought a conscientious reader gives them.

A few other books from 2019 will appear here in the coming months, and I have every confidence that 2020 will bring more. Good reading to you.
Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Closing in on Winter

A lot of things are going on in a lot of places.

Out here in the wilds of Shuniah, we've been playing our seasonal game, "What stinks in the basement?" We ruled out garbage and dead "visitors." Also cardboard, which can take on surprisingly foul odors.

My husband saw a wolf in our area this afternoon.* He was on his way back from town, where he'd talked to some people about furnaces and plumbing and whatnot, in his effort to diagnose the source of the smell.

Good times. Or rather, bad times, with some consolations.

But we've got a good life.

In many other places, people have behaved badly and are continuing to deny it, while others try to hold them to account. Lots of places are melting or on fire, literally or figuratively. Children are in cages, their parents in detention.

It's appalling. Wearying and worrisome.

Plus we're getting a stretch of really cold days. Am I ready for the dark winter days? Or should I order more books?**

So here, look at these pictures. Rest, revel, reflect, and read during the holidays. With a return to energy, perhaps solutions to problems--ours, the world's--will become apparent. Turn the new year with a refreshed spirit. That's my plan.






* No, not a coyote or dog. Big. Fast.
** Haha we know the answer to this.
Wednesday, December 11, 2019

So Many Good Books to Make Time For

It's the "best books of" lists. I don't make those. I don't really review books. I feel squicky giving stars on Goodreads so I don't, so far.

I enjoy a lot of books, and a lot of writers, and a lot of book businesses. And a lot of book-adjacent things, like book statistics, and when and why characters might name items. Sometimes I write about things here, and sometimes I don't.

That said, here's another book I greatly enjoyed: Daughters of Silence, by Rebecca Fisseha. I hope it appears on lots of "best books of" lists. It should.


It's challenging in the BEST ways.

Relationships aren't what they seem. Some are more destructive, some are more delightful, all are deliciously complicated.

Cultures clash, several times over: several cultures, none has the "right" answers, all make demands that while obviously conflicting, all seem reasonable. At first.

Fisseha is somehow able to covey the weight of family expectations, especially when those expectations have complex personal histories, without making the writing burdensome. Similar to when a storyteller is able to convey the absolute unending tedium that is boredom, but without boring the reader.

Dessie, the protagonist, radiates sharp honesty. She's charming and prickly and self-aware and insensitive and just not there for your expectations.

The language is lovely--you can relax into it, and it takes you into beautiful and extremely difficult places.

So, I still don't make "best books of" lists.  But if I did, this would be on it.

I actually received this book in a giveaway from Briny Books, speaking of businesses around books and other book-adjacent things.
Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Clicking Through

After a hectic month, the pace of my life has slowed. Each day still has a to-do list, and I love to cross things off. I haven't had a personality transplant or anything.

BUT. I'm aware that I have a little breathing room. I have time to click through on Twitter or Instagram and read what's linked. And so I have. I've also read many of the articles I'd bookmarked during the busy season.

Most recently, I read an extraordinary piece by Josie George, a UK writer. Her site holds many brief, pithy pieces and I've enjoyed every one. Bonus: she uploads audio files so you can hear her reading them, too.

I first read this piece, Forest. It begins with a lovely, closely observed experience of nature, both in the past when she still walked and in the present from her wheelchair. Wonderfully pleasant and evocative.

And then this:

"Nature is being repackaged. To encourage us to love it better, to save it, we are told more and more that it will make us feel good, that it is something designed to heal us. I know it is true — that it can — but I don’t know how I feel about that."

Yes! She articulated something I've been mulling over but hadn't found words for. And she goes on, taking this insight into unique spaces. I'd quote more but I don't want to ruin the surprises and connections. Go there and read this, seriously.

Suffice to say that she carefully considers the relationship between the natural world and we humans, with satisfying conclusions, the kind that should have been obvious but weren't (to me).

Her blog is populated with other excellent essays, and I look forward to her book, Nothing Ordinary: A Still Life, due for release in January 2021. Her general website is here.

It's really fun to have the time and space to sample the rest of the world again.

Go ahead. Click through. What pleasures await!
Wednesday, November 27, 2019

After the Launch and Celebration

You make cake. Apparently.


This is pumpkin spice cake, dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

The plate is Spode Christmas Tree,* of which I have plates and bowls and other random bits and bobs--salt and pepper shakers, candy dishes in many odd shapes. Most of them came to me courtesy of my father, who (apparently) enjoyed selecting random pieces and, in my adult years, found Christmas china a safer gift than books, since I often bought my own.

I've been trying to cull books, since they seem to accumulate around here, but it's tough going. For one thing, it feels cruel to remove books from our house when I just brought one into the world. And for another, some books leave our house fairly easily and rapidly, which means that many of the ones left are special in some way.

I have whole sets that my father gave to me in hardcover over the years. I haven't read James Herriot's veterinary series in decades, but my set (with my father's dated inscriptions) will stay on my bookshelves.

And then there's the half-shelf of Baseball Joe books, inscribed to my father by his mother some hundred years ago of birthdays and Christmases. I've lost count of the number of times I've read them. I'd have to check my book list to see when last I pulled one off the shelf for something other than the pleasure of looking at Gran's handwriting.

As always, I'm reminded that books aren't "just" words on a page, as if the creation of the artifact (from writing through production and shipping and sale) isn't a miracle unto itself. A book, especially one received as a present, is a thought made tangible--a gift from the past, a gift for the future, a way to touch those who have gone before and, if we're lucky, those to come.

As the year winds down, I'll make extra time for reading these gifts, with a slice of pumpkin cake at hand.

*In my family of origin, Christmas decorations were forbidden until (American) Thanksgiving, when we could start using Christmas china. While we tore up stale bread for stuffing, we'd listen to the Christmas albums (on the hi-fi yes I am a million years old you're just jealous) in a prescribed order. The Christmas tree was erected on December 21, not so much to honour my father's birthday on that day as to forestall the mess of the season until after Mom had submitted the semester's grades. Each year, we got at least one book as a present but only Daddy could hold up the take-turns of present opening to read. If you've ever wondered why one of the labels I use is "transcending my upbringing," look no further than those and similar traditions.
Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Whoa-oh-oh-oh, on the Radio

As we near the Saturday launch for Reverberations: A Daughter's Meditations on Alzheimer's, I have the opportunity to talk about the book, my mother, our family, and writing. It's been a lot of fun to chat with interested people.

Here's some official links:

On CBC Radio's Thunder Bay morning snow, Superior Morning, with Lisa Laco.

The November issue of Thunder Bay's arts and culture magazine, The Walleye. The "Five Questions" is the interview with me, done by Susan Goldberg, an awesome writer and interviewer.

And just yesterday, an interview with Heather Dickson in Bayview Magazine. Lots of neat photos accompany this one.

I keep saying how grateful I am, and it's true. For my parents, my siblings and their children and grandchildren, and our extended family of cousins. For my husband and his children and partners and grandchildren.

For the support from teachers, librarians and library programs, health-related programs, and arts programs--paid for by all of us.

For private businesses, some supported in part by public programs, for their hard work to bring to market the arts that writers and other artists create.

In these days after Canadian Thanksgiving and Remembrance Day, and leading up to US Thanksgiving, I remember others' support and sacrifice, and I am grateful.


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Surprising and Not

'Tis the season to think about consumer goods. Lots of stories in the zeitgeist about shopping, budgeting--holiday extravagance and how to avoid it. But I've been thinking about the goods we have and use every day.

Last night I noticed that I'm usually surprised when we run low on coffee filters, even though we use at least one a day, and I KNOW that we do. 

On the other hand, I'm rarely surprised when we're low on dish soap--also used daily, also by me.

That set me thinking about other pairs.

I'm surprised when I use up a tube of lip balm. I'm not surprised to use the last Q-tip. 

I'm surprised to use up a glue stick. I'm not surprised to come to the end of a roll of tape.

We're low on cinnamon--surprising. Black pepper, cloves, chili powder, and curry also fall under the same "we never use the whole jar before they mysteriously disappear" assumption. (I also don't remember buying chili powder, so how old IS it? A separate issue.)

In fact, all the contents of my spice shelf seem to stay there forever, or at least until I cull them. 

In conversations with other writers, I've learned that being too close to a work makes it difficult to judge whether elements of that work are surprising, and therefore possibly interesting, to a reader. 

I'm currently trying to select a piece to read at the book launch (in under two weeks!), so I'm considering what readers might find interesting to hear. Thank goodness I have other writers and readers in my life to ask. I may never have enough distance to know, myself.

My husband's novel-in-progress, on the other hand, fascinates me. I read and gave notes on an earlier version, so this time through isn't completely UNfamiliar, but his revisions still create surprise. 

I'll be happy to return to my own novel--it's had two drafts this past year, and it will get another, smaller revision soon. It will be fun to see what surprises it holds for me.

Having the time and support for in-depth work on a single writing project is such a glorious gift. It's a chance to fully inhabit a world and spend significant time there. 

It's a gift in another way, as well--a chance to stand back and look with new-ish eyes at previous work. 

Lots of gratitude around here these days.

And now, it's time to put on another pot of coffee (we have plenty of filters at the moment), and while I wait for it to brew, I'm going to peer at the dates on the spice jars. Some surprises are more welcome than others. 
Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Launch, Signing, and Celebration

I had a filling replaced this morning. Now that it's over I plan to lie on the couch and be dramatic--my hand on my forehead, repeating "all the drilling!"--until the numbness wears off and it's safe for me to eat lunch.

Meanwhile, here's this bit of news.


Hope to see you there!
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Creative Nonfiction Resources

Last weekend I presented a workshop about choice in creative nonfiction.

In nonfiction, you have a lot of opportunities to choose--for example, the form your work takes (whether in print, drama, sound, or some other medium), the type of research you pursue and select to include, and how personal or not you want your creative nonfiction to be.

PLUS all the techniques of fiction are available to you--setting, plot, point of view.

All you have to do is tell the truth, and be honest about times when you aren't sure. (Ha! That's "all.")

In any case, I bombarded workshop participants with handouts and even forgot two, so I'm linking to them here.

This one includes a couple of exercises we did in the workshop plus others.

This one includes other resources--podcasts, organizations, publications, you name it.

Neither is in any sense comprehensive--they're just places people can go to keep learning about creative nonfiction.

Many thanks to the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop for inviting me to present, and thanks to those who came for their patience and enthusiasm for nonfiction and writing.
Wednesday, October 23, 2019

I've Seen It!

My author copies have arrived! Surely it will appear in stores soon. When it does, I'll share that information here and through other social media.


I'm feeling lots of feels, as apparently one does when one's book appears in the world.

Gratitude, mostly--for all the support along the way. Not only from friends, writer colleagues, and other individuals. Also, support from public funding through the Ontario Arts Council, and from the private company, Signature Editions, that is my publisher.*

I'm also feeling hope. Hope that perhaps somewhere another daughter who wrestles with guilt and fear might find she's not alone, and that life after the most difficult transitions can bring gifts.

* Just pointing out that Signature is also supported with public funding, as are all private companies that take advantages of "incentives" and "rebates" or information provided by governments, or perhaps use roads and public utilities, or whose owners eat food certified safe from pathogens and take medication. Don't let election campaign rhetorical strategies fool you into believing otherwise.
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Insta Un-Worthy/Un-Insta-Worthy

Last week was Thanksgiving! (In Canada.) Happy Thanksgiving!

I made a pumpkin cake. It was fine. It was good! I mean, it tasted good. Looked okay, I guess. (Except I didn't think through the whole "dust with icing sugar" thing and cinnamon kind of gunked up my sifter, but that's a problem to be solved some other time.) It came out of the pan looking a bit fancy, as bundt cakes do.



It was also relatively easy to produce. I'd make it again except that it's suddenly hard to find spice cake mixes on grocery store shelves (possibly because of the time of the year). I could also make a spice cake from scratch and add in the add-ins, but let's not get crazy.

I took a picture of it (obviously) but decided not to post it on Instagram. It didn't really feel "Insta-worthy." And that led me to consider whether my tens of followers there would have really cared.

It's the kind of thing you think about when you've been quietly working in relative obscurity for years, with kind and rewarding encouragement along the way, and then something happens that sort of amps up the possibility for recognition. Or, you know, criticism. Like making a pumpkin cake from a cake mix with add-ins for Thanksgiving with a wonky topping. Or like having a book come out.

In a world of best-sellers and prize culture and glamorous invitations, and other trappings of the writing life it's hard to remember this: "Success" can mean different things to different people. And books. And cakes, and photos thereof.

So my cake may not be Insta-worthy. So what? I made it and it tasted good. It fulfilled its purpose.

I have similar modest ambitions for my book. Mostly, I'm excited, because books are exciting things. Inherently! I'm excited about this book because people will have the chance to read about my parents, and about Northwestern Ontario.

Books are also enduring things, even though such things as remainder bins exist. There's a chance that this book will speak to someone who doesn't even know they want to read it, at some future time when I'm off doing my next thing.

Perhaps that future version of me will be baking another pumpkin spice cake. Perhaps it will be a different kind of cake. I'm still not sure why I'm suddenly baking cakes after years of mostly not, but I enjoy doing it and we enjoy eating them. And we enjoy reading, and writing.

You know what? I think I'll post that photo of my cake after all. Why not? It celebrates gratitude, and what's more Insta-worthy than that?
Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Reverberations: Coming Soon

As I mentioned in July, my essay collection is coming out this fall! The first copies of Reverberations: A Daughter's Meditations on Alzheimer's are due to arrive later this month.

Here's the cover.


That young woman is my mother, Jeanne Starrett LeCaine (later Agnew), in her days as a mathematics student.

Kind people near and far have been helpful all along in making my semi-coherent thoughts into words into essays and now into a collection. I'm especially grateful to that apparently limitless font of encouragement and good judgment known as Susan Olding, author of the essay collection Pathologies (and much more!).

Many thanks also to Winnipeg's Signature Editions for plucking my manuscript from their slush pile and working diligently to slot it into this autumn's releases.

It feels fitting that this book finds its place in the world at the harvest season, when the birch and mountain ash are especially golden and glorious.

P.S. Part of me won't believe it's an actual thing until I hold one in my hand.
Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Different Perspective

We certainly picked an excellent time of the year for a quick business trip to Duluth!

See?


That background shows the same lake I see every morning. The birches and poplars are beautiful here--golden and lovely, brilliant against the everygreens, as you see in the foreground.

And yet, this is a different view, giving me a new perspective. I feel refreshed. I appreciate the beauty of this place all over again.

I hope everyone has the chance to do something similar, from time to time. It's lovely to choose your life again, even when you think you already appreciate it.

(Photo of Lake Superior from the lookout at Mt. Josephine, Grand Portage, Minnesota.)
Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Stolen Title: There and Back Again

(It's the subtitle of The Hobbit.) 

I'm back from vacation. I saw lots of beach and Atlantic Ocean. Waves. Piers. Sand.

Also, horses.



Since I've been home, I've Handled Many Time-Sensitive Things. Today has been more of a bust, both writing-wise and all-the-other things-wise. 

And yet. I'm managing to do the next ONE thing. (Wash bedding.) And the next. (Respond to email.) And the next. (Check in here.) And the next. (Research next steps for a project--just google three ideas I had.)

Which is also like writing and revising. (WHAT ISN'T?) You reread things, you fix something, that causes a cascading change that requires adjusting, which means an entire set of scenes can go. 

But you don't have to do all that at once.

Just the next thing. 

And sometimes doing things is easier when you remember the colour and texture of the sand (how different from the sand here), and the wind off the water (more persistent and salty). 

I enjoyed vacation. I enjoy being back home. I enjoy doing the next ONE thing. 
Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Washing Away

I'm currently on a real vacation, somewhere else.

Here's a picture of the surf I left behind. It's ramping up for autumn storms.


I hope to spend time at a different beach while I'm gone. If I can't--they've had some storms of their own--that's OK too. I'll still have completely new experiences to refresh my outlook. 

It's been an eventful spring and summer, so the timing of this break is perfect.

Happy approaching autumn, everyone!
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Writing is Gathering

With a book coming out this fall (!!) and an almost-finished novel (meaning, maybe I'm almost finished with it!), I'm noodling with new work. 

So far, it's been the writing version of what I do nearly every day: go to the beach and pick up things. Sometimes glass, sometimes other stuff I think is interesting. I bring it back to the house, take a picture, put it into a jar, look at it, think about it, take it out, look at it some more.







Will this noodling turn into anything? In a few months, will I have anything other than a jar full of driftglass, another of interesting rocks, another of broken pottery? 

Who knows. But for now, for me, writing is gathering.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Summer of Baking

Last week, I hinted that 2019 was the Summer of Baking.

The main thing I learned about baking this summer is that many things are cake.

Blueberry buckle? Cake in a square pan (when you make it in one).

Johnnycake? Also cake in a square pan. (This one shouldn't have surprised me. It's right there in the name.)

Banana bread? Cake in a long pan. Also applies to anything with "loaf" in the name.

Muffins? Cake portions in a cup = cupcakes = cake.

Blueberry cobbler? Arguably cake but also arguably breakfast (scones and fruit = breakfast).

Blueberry pie? Not cake but really good. Something about the salty crust makes the blueberries taste sweeter.

So there you have it--one thing I learned in the summer of baking: most things are cake (cake is sneaky that way).

And here is where I sit on mornings when I am trying my darndest to pretend that summer isn't yet over.


When the sun got higher in the sky, the chair started steaming from the heat. I love this place.

I also enjoy baking. Something else to ponder as the seasons change and as I'm off to find a form of cake for breakfast.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Popping in to Suggest a Read

Hi. I'm revising and waiting for feedback and attempting to prepare to launch a book. And fitting vacation in. Apparently 2019 is the Summer of Baking.

Recently, I re-read this Guardian article by George Saunders, about what writers do. You should read it too. In case the link gets stale, it's from March 4, 2017. As usual, he says things so well.
Wednesday, July 31, 2019

More Revisions

See? Here's what my most recent set of revisions looks like.




















I'm currently revising the manuscript of my essay collection, Reverberations, coming this October from Winnipeg publisher Signature Editions.

Yes! A book!

I'll share more details about it later. I've got manuscripts to take apart! Which means I may not post much in August.

Happy rest of summer, everyone.
Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Welcome Delivery

Because not every "dry well" is a metaphor.


Especially in this warm stretch of July. Especially with family visiting. We expect the well to get low--and although we'd hoped to eke it out until the family was gone, we have a solution. Water. Energy.

Which is also handy in several of the metaphorical senses of "dry well," too.
Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Revision Fatigue

"Revision" sounds like "decision," and in fact consists of a lot of decisions. Which explains why I'm sort of punchy at the moment.

Also why periodically I pick up our loppers and head into a clump of trees to open up a trail. Or take sandpaper to old wood and, later, fill a brush with paint and swipe back and forth on the sanded, wiped surface.

Here's what the revisions look like.













Note that we are still at the "duct tape" stage. In fact, the "layers of duct tape" stage. "Layers of duct tape in what may yet become complementary patterns" stage. I think the colour combination is already working, but that may be just me.

That's what later stages of revision are FOR: making a coherent whole from disparate parts.

Which means lots of decisions, mostly answering forms of the question, "how well is this working?"

I do find answers--and eventual peace in making decisions--in trimming branches blocking a path or rhythmically painting staircase railings. Tomorrow, I'm confident I'll complete a good day's worth of revisions, because I'm spending most of the day washing dishes. Lots of time for mental play there.

If nothing else, dishes/painting/path-clearing can be defined as projects of finite duration, which helps me resume projects without firm endings yet.

Revisions: not for the decision-averse. And now, I'm off to fold sheets.
Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Books are Awesome

Yes, breaking news. Books, though, really are awesome.

I  mean, look at these:

About being ordinary and extraordinary

About fear and illusion and preconceived ideas










































I'm not buying books (and bags and boots) this year, except for when I am. Which is to say, when my "wear in public" boots don't fit any longer, or (for example) when I want to read a book that's important to my novel and don't have a copy.

Which is the case with Hound of the Baskervilles. And yes, I know it's in the public domain. Yes, I could read it online. But that doesn't work for me, for my revision process. So.

So when Toronto's Gladstone Press advertised a Canada Day sale on Instagram, I jumped on it. And I got not only books but a bag. And they are all lovely.

I mean--lookit that dog's paw with a fingerprint in it. It has a topographical map bookmark, too. (The one for Mrs. Dalloway is a picket fence.)

Also: Because I'm reading a book important to my novel, I am learning that the draft requires a few further revisions. Which is why I needed to read this book. So all is going according to plan, bwa ha ha. (Actually, hahaha because plans are useless though planning is vital, according perhaps to Eisenhower.)

Surely there are books you need to read on a rainy day in July.




Wednesday, July 3, 2019

All Projects, All the Time

Summer! Project season!

Here's a couple of projects we finished recently.


The table used to be unfinished cedar, several years old. We have another just like it. Plus a bench that will resemble the tables when it's finished. The chairs were always white but were also sporting a bit of rust, as one can do when one is 30 years old.

Here's a project Nature has been working on.


Lilacs sure are pretty, especially the ones growing high enough that the deer can't get them.

These projects don't preclude others. I'm revising--even while applying paint to tables, I'm moving scenes around. I'm considering whether someone would choose the "really stupid dangerous" option or the "just dangerous" one. And I'm reviewing podcasts about story structure, with which I always could use some help.

Then I go inside and apply fingers to keyboard to try out what I imagined.

I hope your summer is blooming nicely!
Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Whatever Works

A writer friend recently read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. She's also doing Morning Pages from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way.

Another writer-friend is recruiting "bunkmates" for Camp NaNoWriMo, which is apparently the summer version of NaNoWriMo. She suggested creating your own project--not necessarily drafting a new work, which is (as I understand it) the function of NaNoWriMo, but perhaps editing or submitting or researching or something else--intensely, for 31 days.

Others are creating schedules and valiantly attempting to stick to them, even though summer is here, with all the summer things--like WARMTH and SUNSHINE and GELATO and STROLLS. (And for me, bug spray.) For many who work in a teaching capacity, summer feels like "found time," and their fear is that late August will bring despairing moments of "whaaaaaaaat haaaaaaaappened to aaaaaaaallll that tiiiiime?" (Flashbacks to childhood feels. Though I also liked school a lot.)

I, too, am transitioning from "well I'm stuck indoors so might as well make progress on this novel" time to "geez, they're showing up when?" time. Summer brings visitors, and I live here in part to make it easier for loved ones to share its beauty. But making this transition can be challenging.

Especially because I, too, want to look back in August and say, "Okay, I took care of that, and that, and now I'm ready to transition to this." Especially because I, too, respond to structure and discipline (though not necessarily the communal nature of a NaNo project). And I, too, sometimes really REALLY need a return to longtime friends with their advice and inspiration, and morning pages.

The upshot of all this? Do whatever helps you complete your work, whatever that may be. The world needs it.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019

How It Looked

I was recently at the Creative Nonfiction Collective's conference. Here are some of my favourite moments from the trip. Enjoy.

Why my novel has been "cut" from 90K words to 94K words a time or two.

On a medical building. Love art like this.


Didn't buy it. Really wanted to.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

How It Looks Around Here

I'm traveling this weekend, therefore, Spring is springing and I am reluctant to leave.

Here's what I'll return to:






I'll enjoy being with other folks writing creative nonfiction. By my oh my, it will be great to come home again.


Wednesday, June 5, 2019

A Creative Exercise

Over on her blog, Transactions with Beauty, writer Shawna Lemay posed an interesting question recently: "What words would you most like to get tattooed indelibly on your skin?"

She has a whole list. (She's also in the middle of a Springsteen phase, and she takes lovely photographs.)

It's tough to say. One reason I haven't seriously considered a tattoo is that words change meaning for me over time. I don't know that a word I wanted and needed to see daily at 30 (integrity) would be something I'd want or need to see daily lo these several decades later.

However. Shawna's right; it's a fun exercise.

At the moment, I'm toying with this: "It is a truth universally acknowledged."

Yes, it's the opening to Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps mentioning Jane Austen on the blog linked above primed the pump.

But the quote also says something about writing and the writer, I think. We worry a lot about whether "it's been done already," whether the world really needs to hear OUR version of, say, Pride and Prejudice.

We console ourselves with the various "basic plot" outlines, which all boil down to one: a stranger comes to town/someone goes on a trip (it's the same plot from different points of view).

Regardless: we take a "universally acknowledged" truth, or "truth," and we write a specific instance of it. OUR instance.

Perhaps the story is about two appealing young women, sisters saddled with embarrassing relatives, who run into difficulties making the biggest decision available to them in their current circumstances--and the difficulties are at least partly of their own making.

Whether a writer starts with the truth or the specific instances of it--perhaps the sisterly relationship or the embarrassing relatives inspire the story--a truth, eventually, becomes part of the story. Stated or not, conscious or not, we write to make a point somehow.

Other contenders: "How can there be any sin in sincere?" "Up so floating many bells down" (or, more probably, "sun moon stars rain"). "Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever" (just kidding)

See? So much writerly wisdom exists in the world. I can't pick one sentiment. But it's fun to consider!
Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Oof, Some Days

So. Some days, your back hurts.

Some days, it's not your back that hurts, but the hurting back still hurts you.

Some days, your back stretches tall and you feel invincible.

Some days, you stand and walk and bend over and your back feels okay.

Some days, you can only hang on, hoping for a stretch of sunny days to make you feel foolish for taking a jacket.

Some days are all about waiting, but not passively--resting while you wait, readying yourself to grow again.

Like this.


Some days are for blooming.
Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Agave

Agave plants bloom once, late in their lifetimes, and it's pretty dramatic--a tall (ten- to twenty-foot or even taller) spike shoots up quickly over the course of a few weeks, then sprouts flowers. (This is not a technical, botanically correct description.)

After it blooms--which can take 10 years, or 20--the plant dies. (Don't fret. It has left behind little plants. For a longer version of this story, see Charlotte's Web. Or Little Shop of Horrors.)

A friend in Tucson has been monitoring a blooming plant since early April, posting updates on Instagram. It looked like variations on an asparagus stalk crossed with a Dr. Seuss illustration of a plant ready to open buds. Just a few more days, maybe, until it flowers.

Yesterday, he posted a picture of it lying across the road--high winds uprooted it.

Imagine, all that time put in to maturing, then working so hard to bloom. Then taken out before the work pays off.

A LITTLE ON THE NOSE THERE WITH THAT "LESSON," NATURE.

In a lull between movement on bigger projects, I've been desultorily working on an essay. Emphasis on desultory. I've allowed "oh who even cares" thoughts keep me from writing.

It's okay when those thoughts prevent me from submitting a piece for publication. I even checked to see if this piece still needs* to be written, and it does. It needs to be written, so I need to do it.

In this season of foul weather (check out the weather patterns across the middle of the North American continent and stay safe, y'all), some high winds are surely headed this way.

I'll keep working till then.

* "Needs" here doesn't mean for money or anything other than some inner need I have to work out something on the page. I'm incredibly fortunate that way.
Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Restarting

I've been home for a week or so, but part of me still feels as if I'm traveling. That is to say, I'm still in the triage stage of return--what bills must be paid today, what else must be done for today's deadlines, what food do we absolutely need for today.

Meanwhile, some students and teachers are nearing the ends of their terms. As a result, or maybe it's coincidence, I've found some good advice out there lately. Wrap-up thoughts, if you will. A message to leave with people as they move ahead into the rest of their lives. 

One of my favorite online advice-givers is Lee Martin, a writer of novels and memoirs who also teaches in Ohio. Here is a recent blog post, Ten Precepts for the Writing Life. And here is my favorite precept (today): "Write because you know you'd be less human if you stopped."

And, if you are at a point in your writing life where you wonder what's next, or if you are venturing beyond the structure of a classroom, consider this list: Bernadette Mayer's List of Journal Ideas

Some of the more assignment-esque bits are near the bottom: "Type out a Shakespeare sonnet or other poem you would like to learn about/imitate double-spaced on a page. Rewrite it in between the lines."

Good reminders! Concrete assignments! Both help me manage returning from vacation and moving into a new season. Perhaps they will help you, too.
Thursday, May 9, 2019

Contrast

So last week I shared a photo of blue skies and sunny weather. That's where I was, and that's what the day felt like.

Here's how the weather is now, here:




















This photo doesn't necessarily reflect my mood.  But the changeable weather of springtime--especially mercurial this year, it seems--makes it a lot easier to be indoors unpacking suitcases.

I'm happy to be home, though. Vacations are nice, but so is getting back to work.
Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Welcome, May

I learned today that my essay "Hours of Daylight," originally published in Prairie Fire, was recognized in the Personal Journalism category of the National Magazine Awards.

Here's a picture of a blue sky on a sunny day. Because it's May! 


Wednesday, April 24, 2019

April is Poetry Month, Part 3

Disclaimer: I am not a poet. I do not write poetry, except sometimes accidentally.

Disclaimer: As a person closer to fuddy-duddy fogeydom than hipster up-and-coming-hood, I have great respect for the traditions in which I was born. Namely:
* immersion in the work that came before now, this moment when my fingers are on the keyboard
* development of skill (through education) in traditions and rules
* devotion to and respect for reflection, time, and care in expression

Disclaimer: I am not here to trash or demean "insta-poets" or "is this poetry" or "how can these young whippersnappers make millions from poetry" or whatever conversation of the moment is happening around social media and poetry. Equally, I am not here to say "we should all do this."

I'm just here to share what I enjoy. April is Poetry Month.

Last week I talked a little about my Instagram feed and the pleasures it brings. Among the images of journals, fabrics, and colourful illustrations, I enjoy an account that provides food for thought. Last week I shared Today Calls.

Today, it's nayyirah.waheed. Yes, I'm late to the party (fogey). She self-published poetry books five and six years ago. As others have, and others will. I enjoy her Instagram posts.

Again, it's a way to stumble upon poetry at random times (thanks, Instagram algorithm) throughout the day. I enjoy the experience. Maybe you would too, if you tried it.
Wednesday, April 17, 2019

April is Poetry Month, Part 2

Social media is...interesting. I appreciate its ability to connect people and try to manage its ability to exacerbate disagreements.

My (current) favourite is Instagram, where my presence is newest. I have curated what I see there carefully, so that my feed is mostly images from arts and artists, with a smattering of books, bags, and boots (none of which I am currently buying) (except within certain rules).

So, poetry. One of my favourite accounts is Today Calls, a product of artist Christof Migone. The visual is black (itself an interesting addition to what I see, given that most of my feed is so colourful), with a recording of three voices. The text each voice reads is below that day's entry.

The commentary within and among prompts is interesting. All the voices are interesting. The events that they use as prompts are interesting.

It's a really fun way to experience poetry, especially in the form of a daily moment. I haven't seen anything like it on Instagram or elsewhere. I highly recommend checking it out!

Here's a link to the project page on Christof's website. Here's a link to the project's own website.
Wednesday, April 10, 2019

April is Poetry Month, Part 1

Of all the forms writing can take, poetry still mystifies me the most. 

Prose, whether fiction or nonfiction, makes me think of lines--roads, maybe, or sidewalks, or even deertracks through grass. These lines don't have to be straight. They can backtrack or meander, they can be short or long. The lines don't even have to be connected. They can look like ||| or =. Just--they're lines. 

Maybe.

In contrast, poetry may be more like experiencing a park by sitting on a bench under one tree in that park. On one hand, you're there in that moment experiencing that bench under that particular tree. On many other hands, you're experiencing that same place in different times, different weather. You're also looking at other parts of the park, observing the blades of grass or the rocks or the cacti or the demonstrators--even if the poem doesn't direct you to look at them, they're there. All without the poet specifying those things.

Maybe. 

Maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe it's just the word count. Through the years of writing as work, creating captions--for photos or objects in museums and galleries--challenged me the  most. I prefer to tease out nuances (more and more and more words, like in this parenthetical), not distill to the "most important" points.

Regardless, April brings attention to poetry, and that's a good thing. Here are some of my favourite ways to experience it.

1. Academy of American Poets, Poets.org. They share a poem a day. You can browse poets. You can read about poets. 

2. Poetry Foundation features content from Poetry magazine, as well as poems and information about poetry and poets.

3. Vicki Ziegler, @bookgaga on Instagram and Twitter, is a Canadian social media manager and reader--and originator of one of the best ideas EVER, the Silent Book Club. She shares #todayspoem on Twitter. She's great. I can count on the #todayspoem tweets to be a bright spot in my feeds.

However you feel about poetry, why not make a point of looking for it, in one of its iterations, in April? It's a way to pass the time while spring has her weather tantrums.
Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Truth, Fact, Memoir, Fiction, History, Journalism

As I've mentioned, this Thursday evening is "Ask an Author," a panel discussion in Thunder Bay in which four writers with different backgrounds and publishing experiences answer questions.

On Saturday, participant Jeannette Lynes is presenting two workshops, sponsored by NOWW: one about novel basics, and another about historical research and writing. Fun times ahead!

Also recently, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs held its conference. If you've seen mention of "AWP 19" in the writerly social media world, that's what it refers to.

The most recent issue of Assay, a journal of nonfiction, has lots of interesting articles about nonfiction, what it is, and ways to teach it.

All of which is to say, many recent conversations (both aloud and in my head) have turned over the differences and similarities between truth and facts, creative nonfiction and journalism, historical fiction and history, memoir and memory. For starters.

As I paired and re-paired ideas, I remembered reading this recent essay about memoir at LitHub (a great place to visit when you want to read something good): "Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy," by T Kira Madden. In it she describes an incident she experienced, and looks at the way her memory and her own experiences colored her description of the incident. It's a fascinating look at the strengths and purposes of memoir, especially the importance of reflection and analysis to making writing meaningful from raw events. She discusses the two composite characters in her own memoir and their roles--who they are and who they are not.

It could all seem a little too meta, too much writing tangled up in writing about writing. Unless, of course, you also write memoir or personal essays or some other form of creative nonfiction, and you wonder on the daily how that is different from journalism and historical documents and historical fiction. And why someone might base a story on real events in a real setting, but call it fiction.

Or why, in a book club of people who are mostly readers instead of writers, people are so fascinated by "did this really happen?" in the context of novels, and how they feel about the work based on that question's answer.

My favourite part of these discussions is that there aren't concrete answers. Different people have different standards. For me, it comes down to this: a writer can't squander a reader's trust. So, as in the subtitle of Madden's essay, show your wires. Be frank with the reader about what you're doing. And let the discussions continue.
Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Fun Upcoming Event

April 4, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM at the Mary JL Black library, this is where I'll be:


That's my husband, Roy, who's currently prepping to answer questions in a panel format.

I participated in a similar event last year. It was different--in February, with one-on-one chats available.

This year's panel format will allow for those on the panel to comment and learn from each other too. Should be fun. 

This event is one of many sponsored by the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop from (roughly) September through May. Many events are free. Others have a nominal cost. All are worth checking out!

For more information about NOWW, go here.
Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Names, and Why to Use Them

Last year, my essay "Atomic Tangerine" appeared in The New Quarterly. In it I reckon a bit with names of things. 

When I moved here a dozen years ago, I wanted to learn everything about this place, and learning names seemed like a good start. 

Then I started to ask why--why did it matter whether that wildflower was a butter-and-egg or a marsh marigold? 

And after that came "so what?" A reader could probably guess that a butter-and-egg would be yellow (butter, eggs...)...and the point is??

I've been thinking about the "so what?" issues around names as I continue revising my novel, which is set in northwestern Ontario. Perhaps a character notices that the types of trees in northwestern Ontario are different from those nearer Toronto. Why bring it up at all? What does that say about him? Does he even know the names of the types of trees? 

I've recently read Melissa Harrison's novel All Among the Barley, a coming-of-age story set in farming country in East Anglia in the 1930s. One of my favourite elements of the story is how Edith, the fourteen-year-old point-of-view character, walks through their farm describing what she sees. 

I can't necessarily see what she sees from the names she uses. (I had to research to learn that the fabulously named wildflower "jack-go-to-bed-at-noon" is gold, for example. Well worth the time to learn it.) But the names mean something to Edie. She can see them--she knows this landscape, she's grown up in it. So of course she uses the names.

Another example: The family (I typed that "farmily" originally, which I like) has named their fields and meadows: Broad Field, Great Ley, Long Piece, Far Piece, Newlands. When Edie looks out over the farm, or walks among the fields and meadows, she names them casually, because to her, that's what they're called, in the same way someone might refer to Main Street or Broadway. 

In that book, that's one of the "what for?" answers; there may be others. It's a rich book, scarily prescient as to politics, and well worth reading.

It remains to be seen in my own work why characters name things--which is (part of) the fun of revision. Or so I tell myself.
Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Toast Workarounds and Multitasking

I have cut way back on small-picture multitasking, which I define as "doing more than one thing at a time." Listening to podcasts while exercising or stretching (which I actually do fairly often because they combine successfully). A less successful example is listening to podcasts while scrolling a newsfeed and ostensibly carrying on a conversation.

However. Bigger picture, I still multitask, by which I mean "working on several projects in the course of a specific time period." Within the same day or two or three, assembling information for income taxes. Preparing (cleaning and cooking) to host the book club. Revising. Writing. For example. 

Sometimes, small-picture multitasking results in toast that looks like this.


I do like almost all toast, and I'm old enough now to eat it even when it has burned bits. However. It's not my preferred toast. I am capable of better. 

But I'm not delivering because I'm not paying attention solely to the toast for the minute it requires. And because I'm not paying attention, the previous workaround I'd devised to create uniformly light-brown toast is no longer successful. See, the loaves of bread we like are too big to fit comfortably in the toaster. So I turn down the setting, put the toast in end-up, and, after one round, flip ends.

Even with my workaround, the center does usually end up being darker than the edges, because it gets two rounds. But it's not not usually this dark. Because usually, I am not multitasking in the small-picture sense, at least not in the way I have been lately.

However. In the next few days I will be able to smooth out some bumps and get back to the usual round of working. I will go back to having lovely toast, made with the skill I know I possess. 

At some point, I may even create a big enough space between projects to find a toaster that will accept the bread we like without the workaround. Just not today.

::crunch crunch::
Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Revision as Decluttering

I'm revising a novel, and not for the first time. In the previous large revision of this work, I eliminated an entire point-of-view character.

It was a satisfying revision--visible in lots of ways. The word count dropped by nearly one-third, in about five minutes. Poof, all those words, gone. (Into a scratch file, but realistically? Gone forever.)

That change required a cascade of other revisions, mostly simplifications, which required time and a bit of help.

For the past few months, I've been doing a different kind of revision, one that I think of as more on the "decluttering" end of a spectrum that includes "renovations" and "building a new house."

Taking out that point-of-view character and her whole odyssey are more like renovations, where you take off that deck that was never really useful.

Other revisions are smaller but still have easily defined edges. For example, downsizing from two bedrooms to one lets you ditch an entire bedroom's worth of furniture. That feels like the simplifying and streamlining I did after removing a character.

Now I'm working even smaller, closer to the decluttering end. I'm culling all the crap that's accumulated over the course of this novel's lifetime. I don't want to chuck everything--a lot of what's happening feels coherent. But much is extraneous.

I can't even use the currently popular "does it spark joy?" question because I'm quite fond of some of the things that have to go. They don't work, even though they're sweet moments or nice images.

I'd like to believe I'm at the "does this word stay or go?" revision, but that's wishful thinking. I'm not ready to pick up every book on a shelf--or even think about it yet.

Perhaps I'm more at the "two bookshelves are plenty in this room, so we should ditch these other two" phase.

These declutter revisions are frustratingly invisible. That's why I log the word count. It's dropping by 500 to 1000 words a day. Not quite as satisfying as ridding a house of bedroom furniture, but good enough for now.
Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Gratitude: It's Never Wrong

In the Autumn of 2017, I learned that the editors of Compose magazine nominated my essay "Bypass Instructions" for a Pushcart Prize. Such excitement! I really appreciated learning that those editors felt my work stood out in their magazine that year.

At some point, I searched online for Pushcart Prizes, looking to see when I might reasonably quit wondering about it. I saw an article by a journal editor that said (a paraphrase), "Being nominated for a Pushcart is nothing to brag about--don't even mention it unless you win one." People in the comments took issue with that approach, and others piled on to support the original poster's online eyeroll.

That post confused me--I was partly horrified at my earlier excitement (had I been bragging?) and partly annoyed at this random person I neither know nor cared about raining on my parade. Regardless, I slunk away to delete "Pushcart Nominee" from my online profile.

In the autumn of 2018, I saw tweet after tweet from writers whose work had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Their excitement reminded me of my own. It was contagious--I was thrilled for them, and re-excited about writing again in general. People are reading! They're connecting!

Most of all, I regretted allowing someone else's opinion to rob me of a bit of joy about an accomplishment.

A few years back, I heard someone who has more status in the writing community (it's a big pool, containing, like, everyone) disdain writers who "brag" about getting grants. It's not done--it's just "not cool."  S/he said this. In spite of the fact that granting agencies, today more than ever, could use the visible support of the artists whose work they fund. And in spite of the direct instruction, as a condition of receiving this agency's support, to include the fact of that support in all marketing and public-facing materials.

I have been relatively closemouthed about receiving support ever since. But yesterday, in a discussion with other writers, I recognized a couple of things.

For one thing, it's valuable to own my own excitement at the success of my work in the world. It's always nice to hear that your work has touched someone, and I want to celebrate that.

And for another, it doesn't matter if it's not "cool" to seem appreciative or grateful. "Being cool" is tiresome when you're no longer in high school. (It's tiresome in high school, too, but that's another YA novel.) A healthy sense of gratitude helps me maintain my own emotional stability, YMMV.

I'm not advocating that people adopt Wayne-and-Garth's "We're not worthy!" manner, either. It's not true. If you've done the work and unlocked the door, you belong in the room, and now that you're there, shut up and learn as much as you can. (And for heaven's sake, no gloating. Bragging really IS bad form. You do too know the difference.)

Besides, it's not about YOU. None of this is about YOU, and by YOU I mean ME. It's about the work, and a host of other factors, including timing, when lunch was served, who ate the last Nanaimo bar, and the reading habits and opinions of the few (four, three, five) people in the room.

With that, here's some news about me.

The editors of Prairie Fire thought highly enough of my essay, "Hours of Daylight," to nominate it for a National Magazine Award. Finalists will be announced in May or so, but I don't anticipate it receiving any further recognition. I was pleased to write it, happy that it was recognized and published as part of their contest, and extremely grateful that the editors liked it well enough to nominate it. So thank you, Prairie Fire!

This week, I also learned that my (most recent, much-beloved and extremely frustrating) novel received a Creator Grant from the Ontario Arts Council. This support makes it financially feasible* for me to complete my novel, and I am incredibly grateful. So grateful. Immeasurably, inexpressibly grateful.

So there. Tell someone who supports you how grateful you are. Gratitude is never wrong.

* Let's not prorate the grant amount by the numbers of years I've been working on the novel (totally my fault), and heaven forfend we total the hours I've spent on this work, or the investment I've made in honing my skills (going back to what John Irving labeled "gradual" school), or WORST OF ALL, the number of words written AND THEN DELETED. I'm just grateful for the support.
Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Gift Books and Holiday Books

I've posted previously (September, October, November), about books that I associate with specific months. (And about difficulties in old favourites.)

Folks have talked lately about "Yule Book Flood," the Icelandic tradition of sharing books and reading on Christmas Eve. What a fabulous custom!

Books have always been a part of our family Christmas celebrations. This year, too, at our "Christmas in January" celebration, I got a book as a gift--Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. It's charming and winsome, and for the first few pages I thought, "Oh this is fun."

But it quickly became more than "just" fun, important though fun is, and more than "just" funny, which ditto. I felt the ambition of the story and began seriously pulling for Arthur Less. I really wanted him to be okay--more than okay, even. Arthur became a person to me, someone I enjoyed spending time with. Greer, with a gentle touch and giant doses of humor, made me care.

As an adult, I have been known to buy a book for myself to have at the holiday season. These books, though I suppose they're gifts for myself, aren't "gift books." I think of them as "holiday books." This year, my holiday book was Louise Penny's Kingdom of the Blind. I also enjoyed it thoroughly, as I expected I would. And then I re-read the whole of her backlist, which I also enjoyed.

Gift books can be risky. They're chosen for you by someone else, who may or may not have read the book they're offering. Gift books can also feel like relationship tests: how well does this person know you? They can be perfect books for January, when your resolutions may include opening yourself to new ideas or reading something you might not have chosen yourself.

Holiday books--well, if you're buying yourself something, you should buy something you like. They're the perfect purchase for a December treat. This year I was fortunate that my holiday companion stayed with me into January.

The Icelandic tradition is a fine one to observe, wherever you live. With luck, you'll find your way out of a book doldrum, into a place where reading is fun again.
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Time and Distance

I'm revising. As I have mentioned.

And partly because it's the new year, and partly just because time is passing, I'm also starting a couple of other creative projects that have been swirling in my head.

Thanks to my sister, I have quite the stash of monoprints (specifically, prints from gelli plates, products of Gelli Arts).  We had a ton of fun this past summer playing. 

The experience was full of lessons about play, about fun, about experiments, about YouTube--many facets of creation.

And now, in this project, I have another opportunity to revise. 



Among others in the hundreds of pieces of paper I have in an accordion folder, I found the two prints above.

I quite like them. (It's okay if you don't.)

And I remember making them. They were experiments in directing paint on the plate, in braying, and in color combinations, as well as stencils. 

At the time, I didn't find them to be particularly "successful," however I defined it at that moment. Something happened that I didn't anticipate and couldn't control. I could probably go back and recreate what I was trying to do in this series, to see just where I went wrong and learn how to do it differently for future printing sessions. 

But six months later, I don't want to. What I set out to do is gone. Now I work with what exists in front of me. 

Time has given me a great gift: a certain intellectual and emotional distance from my original intent. Prints that I remember with vague disappointment now please my eye. 

And, this almost-Valentine's day, my heart. 

As I continue revising my writing, I'm applying what I learned from making monoprints: let go of what I thought I might be doing, and work with what I have in front of me.