Category Archives: Lesson Learned

Community in a Book: Writing Menopause

Writing Menopause is almost here. E.D. Morin and I co-edited this literary anthology of short fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and other cross-genre pieces contributed by an incredible group of talented writers. In creating this book, we’ve found ourselves in a new community.  writing menopause

Elaine and I have always been aware that we were creating a community with our contributors. Every book creates a community, and that is part of the beauty of a book. For a long time, it was just us, and then our contributors and then our publisher, Inanna. It was a great moment when all of the contributors were announced and everyone else knew who was in our community too. We continue to introduce our members on our Facebook page and invite you to get to know all of them. And now we look forward to seeing this community grow as we launch this book and reach readers.

The first review, from THIS Magazine, is out.  We are delighted that the work has been called revolutionary. It’s a credit to the whole community.

You can pre-order a copy at Inanna.

Join our community if you can at our upcoming launches.

May 25, Calgary, Shelf-Life Books

June 9, Edmonton, Audrey’s Books

June 14, Toronto, The Supermarket (with several other new Inanna releases).

A Vancouver launch is still in the planning stages, but will likely be in the fall. You can follow us on Facebook for updates and details.

And I want to say a special thanks to E.D. Morin, (Elaine) my co-editor. I’ve had post-concussion syndrome since a car accident last April (yes, almost a year). Although the book was “done” and had been accepted by Inanna for publication already when the accident happened, as anyone who has ever ferried a book to publication knows, there is always still much to do before books are on store shelves. I could not have done this on my own. I’m grateful to have had this project with it’s big, creative, wildly diverse and supportive community during this time and am especially thankful for Elaine. You are amazing.

Advice for a New Writer

Today, my physiotherapist told me that she wants to write. She has a story. She has written four pages. Her excitement was fantastic. Palpable. Electric. It made me remember how exciting writing used to be before I had this concussion and it became a struggle. Then she asked me a bunch of questions. Like I’m Stephen King or something.

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I answered, but I want a “do-over.” I want to give her a better answer than I could give when I was on the spot and having my neck moved around and sort of feeling like a big fake because I’m hardly writing at all now (because of the concussion). I want to give a better answer than the answers I first got when I started to write. I don’t want her to give up for a dozen years like I did. I don’t want her to have to feel around in the dark too much. A little feeling around is necessary, but there’s no need to be afraid and in the dark for too long.

If she had asked me another day, I might have told her to forget about writing and keep living her happy life. But today, I am an optimist, and if there is one thing writers know it is that if you are called to write, that’s the way it is.

To be clear, this is not actually what my physiotherapist wanted. She was asking for resources, for “the rules,” for information about how to share her work and who to share it with and what happens now that she has four pages. She wants to do this thing properly, whatever this thing is and whatever properly is.

It’s a tricky business, this advice giving. I have shelves full of craft books, an MFA and a history of teaching. What I do not have is an enviable publishing record. I’m not prolific. I just do my thing, something that took me years to be okay with. I toil in obscurity, as so many writers do. But I’m the writer she knows, the one that is on her table, the one that, thankfully, she feels safe enough to ask. That trust means a lot to me. I want to give her enough to keep the spark alight, but not so much to blow it out.

So, what did I tell her? First of all, I said, don’t worry about the rules too much. You’re doing the most important thing you can do right now, which is to get the story down. Just get it down. I don’t think I told her to do it fast, before she loses it, but I’ll say that now. Do it fast, before you lose it. Even if parts are in point form. Or in diagrams. Or emoticons. Or stick figures. There’s no time for grammar and corrections and worrying about your quotation marks right now. She is worried about her quotation marks.

When the story is down, you can start to worry about the quotation marks because they do matter. They really do. I told her what every new writer is told. Read Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. Those are the rules, and when you have a story down, you can revise and follow them. What I didn’t tell her is that after you’ve done that, you can break all of those very same rules. I don’t think she’s ready for that yet. Next, I told her the thing no writer wants to hear and every writer needs to hear. I told her that she will write this story many times before it’s done. What I forgot to tell her is that the first time is the most important time (except for the last) and the one that she needs to have done before she can do anything else.

Because she is sporty, I told her that learning to write is no different than learning a sport; you have to be bad before you are good; you have to practice to improve. I told her about writing groups. In my city, Toronto, there are writing groups that meet regularly at the public library. You can also join a drop-in group with the Toronto Writer’s Collective for free.

Then I suggested Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, with a couple of warnings. I told her it was a little too “inspirational” for me, a person who thinks memes like “Live, Laugh, Love” are the ipecac of social media and prefers to use cute sayings painted on wood for kindling rather than home décor. But, I explained, if you can get past that and the talk of God (or as Cameron carefully explains, whatever it is that works for you if you prefer not to involve God in the whole process), it’s a good self-directed course in learning about your own creative process, what nurtures it, what shuts it down and how to avoid the latter.

And now that I’m at my desk and thinking more about it, I want to offer a couple of other books. Most writers I know list Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones among their favourites. I find something new in them every time I read them and I’ve read them so often now they’re like old friends. And, more importantly, both are good reads, even if you’re not a writer.

Two books with more “instruction” and a solid feminist bent are Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Both speak to all of the important questions my physiotherapist will ask soon but hasn’t asked yet. These are next year’s questions, perhaps, but if she keeps writing, they are coming, and maybe having these two little slim and helpful volumes at the ready will help.

Finally, there is one other book I recommend to anyone who is transitioning from being a serious reader to a writer, and that is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

I figure this is a year’s work, so time to stop.

And I have one last piece of advice. Don’t talk about your story. Protect it a bit. Keep it to yourself. Talking about it let’s the magic out, or at least it does for me.

Was there something essential to your early development as a writer that you’d like to tell my physiotherapist about, something that might encourage her? If so, please leave a comment. We would both welcome it.

On Sticking With It

I’m nearly finished a novel. Admitting this spooks me. I’m superstitious that even talking about it will jinx it. Knock on wood. Salt over the shoulder. Fingers and toes crossed. Because nearly finished isn’t finished. And in the oft quoted (by me) immortal words of the great Gord Downie, “No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.” Who cares about a novel that is almost done but not done? No one. Getting it done is what makes the difference between the poser at a party who says, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” and the novelist.

It’s been a long process. The wonderful writer Joan Clark mentored me at the Banff Centre when I was just starting this book. She gave me the first thing I needed–encouragement. She told me I could write. She also told me that my biggest struggle would be finishing. She was right on the mark there. But she also reassured me that a lot of first novels take ten years. Well, I’m officially at the ten year mark. A decade. I have struggled not to quit, to stick with it. Somewhere in the first year, I promised myself that even if it was bad and I was the only one who ever read it, I would finish it. And I will.

Many things have stymied me as I’ve done this work. Like all writers, I have this LIFE that gets in the way. It’s hard to stay focused on writing when all this important LIFE is going on around me and I’m expected to be in it. There were times, I admit, when I dropped the novel for months at a time. Months. And when I would come back to it, it was not like meeting a friend who lives far away, a friend who you can pick up a conversation with in exactly the same place you left off the last time you spoke. No. It was like meeting an ex unexpectedly in the grocery store when you are wearing pajamas under your coat and have spinach in your teeth. No matter how intimate you may have been in the past, you and your ex stand before each other as awkward strangers. You might be reduced to talking about the weather. You are estranged, that is, strange to each other. My book and I would have nothing to talk about anymore.

Even worse than LIFE getting in the way of writing was my own lack of skill. I simply didn’t know how to write a novel. I dealt with that by studying, reading great writers, and getting an MFA. It was during the MFA that I finally learned how to work through the massive amount of writing I had accumulated on this project. Joan Clark refers to this writing as “circling.” What she means by this is that we spend an awful lot of time writing stuff that never makes it into the book. We circle the real novel, move around it, explore it from all sides and finally zoom in on it. With the help of other mentors like Sandra Scofield, I figured out how to zoom in, what to cut and what to keep and how to move from scene to scene to scene and get from the beginning to the end.

Now I have a new challenge. LIFE intervenes. So close to the end, I have a concussion. I can’t work much. I lack focus. I risk becoming estranged from my work again. One thing I know, however, is that I have to keep talking to my novel and let it keep talking to me. Even if it’s only a few sentences or words a day, we have to keep acquainted. I read a blog post today on The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer in which Sachiko Murakami talks to Vancouver writer Alex Leslie about how to keep focus on a project. Leslie says, “The one thing I’ve learned is to always keep moving. Never let it all drop. Always be doing something for your project, even if it’s printing it out and crossing out words and writing in other words, or writing a plan. Stay in motion. Give it something.”

Exactly. Every day, I’m going to give it something. Keep it in motion. Give it some energy and get some energy back from it. It’s like circling again. Stay with it. If I can’t be in it, I’ll walk around it and look at it and think about it and dip into it, change a word here and there, and then change it back. I’ll do this until I can gather the concentration to get through those last few pages. I promise. I promise myself. After all, ten years is just an average, right?

 

On Not Writing

Warning: I’m crabby. I’m about as crabby as I can be. And I know why. I’m not writing.

A few weeks ago I was in a car accident and I have a concussion. This happened despite the fact I did not actually hit my head. Since then I have been learning all about the world of the concussed. One result is I have limited screen time, like some wayward kid given a time out. Three times now, with the merest glint of improvement, I’ve sprinted out of the gate only to stumble in the first few yards. What is that saying about “fool me once….” Three times is really inexcusable. But I get it now. I’m giving myself a few minutes a day, trying to build up the minutes until I can maybe write a paragraph or a blog post or do a tweet or two. Apparently, this is what I was supposed to do all along instead of jumping into a day’s work and then wondering why I became symptomatic again.

I’ve become a little obsessed with a blog called The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer. I ignored it the first few times I came across it. Oh cry me a river, I thought. Writing is so hard. Boo hoo. Then do something else. Whiners, I thought. Yes, writing is hard. But suddenly this blog speaks to me. Writing is really hard. I don’t give myself enough credit sometimes.

Today’s post is about procrastination. Now, to be clear, what I’m doing isn’t procrastinating. It’s something else. It’s healing I guess, no matter how much it might feel the same as procrastinating. And while healing, I’ve made a little discovery: the hardest thing about writing is not writing. And my twenty minutes are up.

On Downsizing Books

For much of my life, getting rid of a book was blasphemy. Books have always been sacred to me. As a young person, I was deeply affected by an image of books being burned by Nazis. Piles of books up in smoke. In my personal Ten downloadCommandments, One Must Not Destroy Books. We all know where that can lead.

There is a scene in the wonderfully cheesy disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, in which having taken shelter from a world-destroying storm in the New York Public Library, the characters begin to collect books they will burn to stay warm. One of the group objects and clings to a Gutenberg Bible, determined to save civday after tomorrowilization until another quips that there can be no harm in burning the multiple volumes of the tax code. The point is well made. Not all books have equal value.

Three years too late, I have come across this sensible and well-written piece about downsizing books by Summer Brennan called “On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books.” It is based on Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (Aside: I like to imagine Kondo’s books gathering dust on shelves everywhere, but that reveals something perverse in my nature.) What Brennan has done is apply Kondo’s now iconic zeal to her own life in a way that makes sense to her.

Brennan captures what’s wrong with any “one size fits all” approach to book culling. She writes, “It occurred to me that part of the reason why tackling the ‘books’ stage of the Full Kondo seems so daunting is that to many of us our books don’t really belong in the category she has assigned. They are not impersonal units of knowledge, interchangeable and replaceable, but rather receptacles for the moments of our lives, whose pages have sopped up morning hopes and late-night sorrows, carried in honeymoon suitcases or clutched to broken hearts.” Yes, that is it. The piece is well worth reading if you are about to embark on a book cull.  If you need further inspiration (and another book) go to the source material. Marie Kondo’s work has been much praised and mocked (a sure sign she is on to something) but I find there is something deeply consoling in her simple rule that one’s things should bring one joy.

Joy was the last thing on my mind when I moved from Calgary to Boston three years ago and faced the daunting task and considerable cost of moving fifty years of accumulated books. I cut my personal library in half. I never wanted to count how many books went. Too heartbreaking. I did it according to the space they took up. Each shelf was halved. I was methodical. For the most part, the Canadiana and hard to find books were boxed and went with me. Treasured gifts stayed. Books that brought me back to a specific time and place stayed. In short, books that had woven their way into the fabric of my life could not be given away. I worked hard to give my discards the possibility of a second life and keep them out of the landfill. If nothing else, I owed it to the trees.

Many of my Women’s Studies and feminist books went to two local women’s centres. That felt good. Except the ones I had to keep. Again, they were too much a part of me. I don’t even want to admit which books I ditched and which I kept for fear it will say too much about me. If I owned multiple books by one author, I would tell myself to keep only my very favourites. It was relatively easy to keep only two Dickens but then I kept every Carol Shields book. These were far too precious. I gave away Middlemarch, still unread since a Victorian Lit course in the 1980s.

Oh dear. I have revealed too much.

Of all the books I gave away three years (and two moves) ago, I have re-acquired only two. Oddly, one was Anne of Green Gables. Actually, I didn’t even have to buy it. A good friend, also moving, gave me one of her three copies. In the mean time, I have spared myself the cost of moving hundreds of books around (twice) and the cost of keeping a space to store them. Trust me, I still have a lot of books. For some reason, I feel it absolutely necessary to have six dictionaries.

Hard as it is to admit, you can have too much of a good thing. Even books.

Writing from Scratch

Just as someone who loves good food might yearn to cook, my deep love of books has burgeoned into a need to make them. At first, I thought that meant I had to create books from scratch. I like this analogy. Writing starts with scratches, a few tentative pencil marks, a word or six and it grows from there. That’s how my notion to write a novel started. I’m not finished it yet, but while I’ve been at it, I’ve created a couple of other books not quite from scratch and I’m finding this work equally satisfying. I don’t have to can the tomatoes (or grow them) to make a good sauce. If what I love is creating books, editing is as satisfying a way to get there as writing. It’s not starting from scratch but maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much.

I’ve always joked that I’m a re-writer more than I am a writer. Scratching those first words onto the page never comes easily to me, but crafting them afterwards is a joy. I recently had the wonderful experience of editing the work of over fifty other writers for an anthology I created with my friend and colleague E.D. Morin. It’s called Writing Menopause and it’s been picked up by Inanna Publications who plan to bring it out in Spring, 2017. The book is a literary anthology and the variety and high quality of work that writers submitted was inspirational. As we worked to shape the anthology, I was able to do the parts of “writing” that I like the best–revising, editing, crafting–in collaboration with the contributors and my co-editor. (And I also contributed my own piece, a short story I’ve been working on for six years. Like I said, writing is slow work for me.) One day it occurred to me that the things I find most difficult about writing like starting with the blank page and the need to work alone for long stretches of time disappear when I’m editing the work of others.

Another editing project is at the printer. I’m on my way today to check the first proof and the excitement I feel is no different than when something of “my own” gets published. The book was written by my friend Tanya Coovadia. It’s called Pelee Island Stories. These are linked short stories all set in Tanya’s childhood home, an island in the middle of Lake Erie. Tanya trusted me and my fellow members of the Crabapple Mews Collective with her work, and again, I’ve had the incredible pleasure of working collaboratively with her and with the other wonderful editors in the collective to create a magnificent book.

Books are beautiful physical objects that last far longer than we do. They speak to us while we’re here and for us after we’re gone. They reach toward immortality. Being part of making them is a labour of love for me, even when the book has someone else’s name on it, or lots of other names on it. Whether I make it from scratch or not, this is work I love. Next up after my MFA, I think I’ll take a course in book binding. I’ll probably love that too.

Writing Imperfection

I once took a course called “Bibliographical Research and Documentation” which sounds about as boring as any course could possibly be. But it included one of the most profound lessons I’ve ever learned about writing and perfectionism.

Our professor, Father Leland, (both Priest and scholar) was trying to impress upon us the near impossibility of accuracy in the transmission of text. To do so, he sent us to the basement of one of the oldest buildings on campus which housed an even older printing press. It was a behemoth, massive and intimidating, a mechanical beast that looked to me like it might cause some unfortunate mangling of limbs. There were large wooden trays divided into sections that were in turn full of sorts“sorts,” single iron letters. For the most part, they were organized alphabetically but it was clear a few letters had been thrown into the wrong boxes. Father Leland demonstrated how to insert the sorts into forms. Text for a printing press is assembled in mirror image, making the process even more prone to error. We saw precisely how the page was assembled, piece by piece, letter by letter. And incidentally, we learned the origin of the phrase, “mind your p’s and q’s,” which look identical when inserted backwards and are easily mixed up in the trays. Once printed, the mistake is noticeable, especially if the font has a serif.

It had been hard enough to achieve accuracy, said Father Leland, when monks were copying text for hours by candlelight in the Monastery and trying to decipher each other’s cursive writing. These scribes could misread a handwritten word, skip something by accident, or write something twice. The printing press was a revolution for all the obvious reasons, but also created new possibilities for error. It was easy to change the word “from” to “form,” “or” to “on,” or even “god” to “dog.” And how might those simple errors change meaning and interpretation? God to dog could be a particularly juicy slip.

To prove the point, we were told to reproduce a paragraph of text, any paragraph. The assignment would be finished when we had printed one correct copy.

I chose the last paragraph from one of my favourite novels at the time, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It took hours for me to set it properly. When it was finally correct, I felt so proud that I inked the press with gold and printed the paragraph on a bright yellow card stock. It was glorious to get it right, but what a process.

I wish I could find this yellow sheet of card stock now, the text vivid and practically glowing. If I could, I would frame it and send a thanks to Father Leland. But this story is the best I can do; Father Leland died in 2005 and, after thirty years, I have lost track of the physical object that resulted from his lesson.

We writers attempt this near impossible task of accurately transmitting our thoughts. We hope that mistakes have not been made, knowing they have. We hope that our meaning is clear, knowing that every reader will bring nuance we had not imagined to the text and the meaning will change. We write knowing so much is beyond our control. Try as we might, the p’s and q’s get mixed up. Now I have a computer, a spell checker, the internet. But mistakes are still made, just like they always have been.

It seems no coincidence that I chose the last paragraph of Gatsby for this assignment. In the immortal words of Fitzgerald, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”