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!


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 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.


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


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


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. 


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 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, 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. 

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


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


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:

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


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.