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. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Snow Falls

'Tis the season in which my spam folder fills with UNBELIEVABLE OFFERS!!!! and my inbox is receiving a higher-than-average share of rejections.

These missives swirl through cyberspace much as the snow, this February, swirls through, uh, "regular" space.

Meanwhile, I'm mid-revision--a deep one, the kind in which I do my prescribed daily work and carry that universe with me to a dentist's chair (to have a filling replaced) and to a screen, where I ostensibly focus on our income tax spreadsheets.




















There's a lot going on. Some of what's happening is just "typical February," and some of it's preparation for Spring. All of it is valuable, if I allow it to be so.

Happy February, however you celebrate it.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Perspective

As I mentioned last week, some months are years long, and January has been so for me this year.

Mostly in good ways.

I've eased back into routines of writing that I'd set aside for a bit, while I worked on life projects. I've been pleased to be able to add writing and still make progress on these other necessary (if dull) bits of life.

Which is not to say that January has been "a fabulous writing month" in any way other than the fact that I've been doing it.

And maybe that's all that's required.

Consider: "[W]riting, like fire, was a gift from the gods. Letters were sacred. Inscribed randomly on a shard of pottery, even without being arranged into a name or a coherent thought, they could be presented as an offering at the temple of Zeus."













From "To the Letter," by Mary Norris, in the January 14, 2019 issue of The New Yorker.

That's reassuring, isn't it? Incoherence is OK. All you have to do is inscribe some letters. Just try.
Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Un-Statistics?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about numbers and meaning. It's January, a traditional time to consider the past and look to the future.

Last week, I shared some statistics about Alzheimer Disease for Alzheimer Awareness Month. The week before, I talked about numbers and (briefly) their limitations.

Here are some more thoughts about measurements.

* A number: your salary. Not a number: the happiness (a meal at your favourite restaurant, a book of your own, a warm coat for your fourth-grader) that your income makes possible for you.

* A number: a grant amount. Not a number: the learning and freedom a grant brings--whether it enables a research trip or lets you rent a studio space with adequate ventilation to protect your respiratory and neurological health (as opposed to, say, painting on a table near a window in a stuffy basement apartment).

* A number: subscribers to and purchasers of (and/or eyeballs on) a publication. A different number: readers of your work. Not a number: how your work touched those who read it (and even those who started but stopped--because maybe they were touched and appreciated it but *couldn't* finish, speaking of Alzheimer stories).

*** A side note: your work, once published, is OUT there. Even if the publication folds, your work exists in the world. Someone a decade or century from now could theoretically find it and read it and be touched by it. Cool, eh.

* A number: a "relevance" or "influence" metric as demonstrated through hashtags or some external designation. Not numbers: how your work engages with what's happening today, whether it's set in the past or present or some never time. Whether your work affirms or challenges the status quo. Whether your work meaningfully challenges or even disrupts your own complacency.

*** Another side note: the thoughts posed above, relating to relevance or influence, don't have right or wrong answers, necessarily.

*** There isn't any greater virtue to writing about "today's events" (though there's the argument that we always do, whether we mean to or not).

*** It's not always "better" to challenge the status quo (depends on the status quo where you are, for one thing).

*** Nothing anywhere requires you to write something (or do your own artistic work) that challenges your own complacency. People like to read/experience art that's like the art they've experienced before. (Hence books in a series.) People also like to create as a way to exercise competence--to be really good at something, and do that.

* A number: 31, the days in January. Not a number: how long this month FEELS. Holy cats.

At the moment, I'm looking at contexts in which I challenge myself (writing long-form fiction and creative nonfiction) and contexts in which I am content, for now, to exercise competence in rewarding ways (doing income tax spreadsheets according to the system I've developed over the past ten years or so).

I'm also examining how I gauge success, though others might find it underwhelming (just FINISHING things feels HUGE to me), or undetectable (doing the spreadsheets early, before looming deadlines freak me out).

But I gotta say, challenging my assumptions as part of my creative process has been a great way to re-energize January. Which needs it, amirite?
Wednesday, January 16, 2019

More Statistics--Alzheimer Awareness Month

January is Alzheimer Awareness Month.

As anyone who's read my work knows, my brilliant, vibrant mother developed dementia. I wrote about its effects on our family, in part because writing is how I make sense of the world but also because, 20 years ago, I couldn't find similar stories elsewhere. I didn't know what to expect--how it felt to see or experience this condition.

Fortunately, two decades and a lot of hard work by organizations and individuals have changed that. Now, people with dementia are recognized as the experts in the disease and are encouraged to speak.

It's incumbent on all of us to listen.

The Alzheimer Society's campaign, "I Live with Dementia. Let Me Help You Understand" features the voices of people whose lives are affected by dementia. Some, like me, don't have the disease but love or care for someone who does. But many have dementia--and their voices are compelling.

Read them here: https://ilivewithdementia.ca/life-with-dementia/

The Alzheimer Society site includes a quiz: How Do You Perceive Dementia? Go take it. The results may surprise you--they did me.

Here's a statistic that shocked me the most: Only 5% of Canadians admitted they would take time to learn more about the disease if someone close to them were diagnosed. Someone they loved. No wonder isolation and stigma are among the fears of those diagnosed (and those who refuse to seek diagnosis).

Don't be among the other 95%. The site has a wealth of information about communication, safety, behaviour, and how people live with dementia. Take five or ten minutes.

Because chances are good that someone you love--maybe even you--will be among those whose lives are touched by dementia.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Statistics

Last year, I read 61 books.

This number does count re-reading titles: sometimes but not always. For example, a few times this year I finished a book and started it again immediately. That counts as one "read." But in at least one instance, I read a book in, say, July, and then read it again in October. That's two "reads."

Also, the total doesn't take into account individual articles, journals, or magazines. I subscribe to The New Yorker, thanks to my brother, and although I'm still behind, I've been working my way through my backlog. I also subscribe to a few literary journals, and I try to read those before they get too old. None of that is in this number.

So, lots of rules and explanations. Does any of that matter?

Not really.

Mostly I'm happy that reading has again become a delight. Early in the year, I slogged through books. I sorta kinda enjoyed them, mostly, or at least I was glad to have had the experience of reading them. But picking up books didn't make my heart glad.

(To be fair, I read some things that were not a good match for my interests or tastes, and I read some things that I expected to like more, but I had to read them while exhausted. Which is to say, any problems were more likely my fault than the book's.)

Since adjusting some priorities in October, my sense of wonder, curiosity, and pleasure has increased. I am again happy to read.

Therefore, I invite you to consider this: not everything that is EASY to measure is MEANINGFUL to measure.

For another example: the number of short stories you've published is a number, and it's easy to count and keep track of, and I guess it's good when the number grows.

However, publishing MORE short stories doesn't necessarily indicate that you're publishing GOOD short stories, where GOOD = a piece that represents growth or some (real or invented) person in a situation that means something important to you.

Therefore, the fact of reading 61 books is, undeniably, a fact. That number is easily countable and comparable to totals in previous and future years.

However, it is not as meaningful to me as the learning (because part of my writing work is learning) and pleasure (because pleasure is an important part of life) that those books brought me.

The difficult-to-quantify, the learning and the pleasure: that's why I read, and why I'm grateful to writers and publishers for making it possible.
Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Shout-Outs (Shouts-Out?)

Happy 2019, everyone! I hope so, at any rate.

I'm partly "back to work" today, but I'm partly still on holiday, and it occurs to me that folks other than myself might be struggling to set a direction (or goals, or intentions) for the coming year.

As "everyone" who's anyone in the Goal-Setting Guru space says, the first step is to look back.

So here's a gigantic THANK YOU to publications, and their teams, who shared my work with the world in 2018.

"Hours of Daylight," third place in creative nonfiction, Prairie Fire 2017 contest, Prairie Fire 39.2 (Summer 2018)
"Entanglement," Atticus Review, 21 June 2018. Previously shortlisted for EVENT's Non-Fiction Contest, 2017. 
"Let d Be the Distance Between Us," The Grief Diaries, Issue 4 Volume 1, The Anniversary Issue, June, 2018. 
"Atomic Tangerine," Honourable Mention in The New Quarterly's Edna Staebler Personal Essay award, Summer 2017; published in Issue #146, Spring 2018

More information about my creative work is available here.

Also, lately I've found two interesting new-to-me podcasts about creativity and creation. Perhaps they will prove useful to you.

The Uncurated Life, by Cindy Guentert-Baldo. Last week, I talked about Cindy's skill in reviewing. Pens, at it happens, but there are lessons there for all of us. Turns out, Cindy is also skilled in interviewing. Bonus: if you're unfamiliar with the world of YouTube Creators, planners, and Etsy shops, Cindy talks to a bunch of people that live and work in that space. It's fascinating. 
Art and Cocktails, by Ekaterina Popova, visual artist and publisher of Create! magazine. In another informal interview-style show, Ekaterina talks with people (and shares her own thoughts) about navigating failure, handling the fragmented attention span of many artistic interests, and setting goals and intentions. She's also got some how-to stuff. 

I say that I hope 2019 is a "better year," I don't really know what that  means. But I see "hope" as a passive word.

So how about, as we move into the new year, we plan to do what we can to make 2019 a "better year" for all of us.

Perhaps especially when that requires us to stand up and say ENOUGH--and when that requires us to sit and listen.