Monthly Archives: May 2011

Is it Love or Am I Just Bored?

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I’m having a writing-related crisis (as opposed to a “I’m the worst mother in the world crisis” or “Shit, I forgot to take something out of the freezer for dinner crisis”).  This writing crisis, depending on it’s resolution, could very well signal the continuation of a somewhat promising writing career or the need for me to join a therapy group very, very soon.

I think I’m a bit of a writing slut.  A floozy.  A commitment-phobe.

Consider this:  I’ve written very few characters (I can think of exactly 2) that I’ve committed more than 25 pages to.  I am somewhat comforted by the fact that these 2 characters have been with me for almost 20 years – that’s saying something, right?  Mostly though, I’ll write a character and give up 25 pages of my time and form no attachment at all.  I invent them, write them, give them breath for a little while and then leave them behind.  These are one-night-stand characters.  I write them only to get them out of my head; once they’re on the page, I’m done with them.  I don’t call, I text them or email them to tell them what a lovely time we had together.  I don’t summon them again.

In an attempt to “finish” what appeared to be “unfinished” work,  I reopened a story I’d written awhile back.  Initially written as part of a class assignment, it was brief, caustic, sharp-edged.  My main character, a woman recently widowed, was cruel but in a delicious way.  She had her reasons and  I really liked the way she stood up for herself, finally.  I was fond of her… I thought she & I might be friends.

I opened the story and began to flesh out the character.  I took it to about 22 pages and then stopped.  I didn’t like where I was headed (which was basically nowhere) and I wasn’t enthralled w/her anymore.  She wasn’t as sharp and witty as she’d been in the first 10 pages.  I kept going back to the beginning, re-reading, and hoping to light that spark again (sometimes that works – I can pick up a thread or a tone…a vibe that I’d had working before).  Nothing was working.  My new BFF was boring me to tears.

In something of a lather, I spoke to my writing coach.  “What if I’m incapable of writing more than 22 pages of anything?” I whined.  “What if I’m a perpetual sprinter and unable to run a long race?  What if I don’t have the endurance to write a novel?”  I think I even asked her if I was shallow and lazy – incapable of a long-term relationship with any of my characters…she listened patiently and then told me to keep at it.  Just write, she said.  You don’t have to love it and it can be ugly,ugly, ugly – it can be a shining example of what Anne Lamott refers to as a “shitty first draft.”

The truth is, I did write and write and tried to hold my nose against the stench – which is hard to do when you’re trying to type.  The truth is, I’m not a patient person and it irks me beyond all reason to “hang in there” and write something that I’m not…feeling in the moment.  It’s like having sex when you’re really, really, REALLY not in the mood – it’s worse than just “going through the motions.”

So, what to do?  I’ve taken innumerable deep breaths.  I am fully oxygenated now but no more into the story.  I’ve walked around the house, at first silently and then muttering to myself.  So now I have to start asking some questions…if anyone has an answer, please respond!!

Questions:  do you have to be “in love” with your characters, always?  Am I putting too much pressure on myself to write something “longer” ?  Maybe my widow friend IS a short story and not a novella or a novel?  Or, is it possible that I’m shallow and lazy and incapable of a long-term relationship with multiple characters?  What is wrong with writing short stories?  And, how will I ever know if I can “go the distance” if I don’t really hang in there, stretch myself and try?

Maybe this uncertainty is all part of the process.  Maybe plenty of writers out there type with clothespins clamped onto their noses so the stench of their shitty first drafts doesn’t overcome them…and, let’s face it, I am notoriously lazy.  I am the Queen of Lazy.  In fact, that should’ve been the name of this blog.  Sloth Queen, Queen of Inertia…

Then J.K. Rowling and her SEVEN (or is it 8?) books float into my mind..all about a young wizard (clearly she was fond of him – I mean, who wouldn’t be?)  When I think of the time, the effort, the “hang in there” fortitude this woman had – she was pregnant writing some of it (all I could do when I was pregnant was waddle between the kitchen and the sofa, whining the whole time),  I want to go eat a gallon of ice cream for breakfast…on the sofa.

I think maybe I should go revisit my two characters whose work I haven’t finished yet.  They’re probably pissed off at me for neglecting them for so long with all of these casual characters I’ve been hanging out with.  I’ll come back to the witty widow and maybe she and I will start over again.  I’ll be more patient with her, I’ll be a better listener.  I’ll bring the ice cream.

Puppy Tales

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Well, to be absolutely accurate, big-snarling-mean dog tales…

I’ve been a dog owner most of my life and I live in a neighbourhood in Toronto that you cannot live in unless you have a dog (now that our dog is deceased, I’m sure we’ll be fined or get some by-law notice).  I am also a semi-faithful follower of The Dog Whisperer so let me preface this whole sad tale with one sentence:  “I know better.”

My husband and I, when we can, enjoy a nice ramble on a Sunday morning.  Frankly, it’s our only time to get out of the house alone and have conversations with complete sentences.  We wander down quiet streets to our favourite coffee shop on Queen and then we usually go down to the lake and walk along the beach.  This past Sunday, we were both feeling a bit pressed for time (sad, on a Sunday) and hungover.  We got our coffees and immediately headed back up the enormous hill for home.

As usual along the way, we encountered about 20 dogs and their owners all out enjoying a rare moment or two of dry weather.  Also as usual, we stopped to admire and pet at least half of said dogs.  Unless the dog’s owner pulls them away, we don’t think anything of petting a neighbourhood dog – even though we should.  Again, intellectually, we know better.

We have always told our kids “Don’t pet a strange dog unless you ask the owner first.  If there’s no owner, no touch.”

Sigh.

Across the street from our block is a neighbourhood coffee house (the coffee is bitter, we don’t go).  There are always dogs tied up out front.  On this particular morning, we saw a large Beagle mix sitting quietly outside the door; no owner in sight.  Without thinking, my husband reached out his hand…and nearly lost it.  I am not afraid of dogs and as I’ve said, I’ve owned them all my life but I have never seen a dog go from Jekyll to Hyde as fast as this one did.  I do not exaggerate when I say I ran home screaming…or nearly.

What I should have done, instead of running scared to my house was go inside and find the dog’s owner and inquire as to why this creature disguised as a passive doe-eyed mutt was allowed to sit outside a neighbourhood coffee house with no muzzle on.  Granted, we were at fault, we should’ve known better BUT what if my husband had been, say, a 5 year old child instead of a grown man?  That dog’s teeth would’ve not only found a small hand but probably a little face as well.  Children do not always think when they see a dog and some children act before a parent can remind.  If that had been the case with this dog, it would’ve been too late.

My husband, when he found his voice, had little to say about the incident.  I regret not going back to the coffee house.  I should’ve but I was too rattled.  I would’ve yelled at the dog owner and then I would’ve given the dog a piece of my mind as well.  To his credit, he did look ashamed of himself afterward.  He was probably mortified that his owner would go to a coffee house that sells bitter coffee.  Maybe he wanted to be tied up outside Starbucks where all the pretty dogs go to be seen.  I just hope he didn’t end up taking a chunk out of a toddler later in the morning.

Now when I’m out for a bit of a walk, I look differently at the dogs that pass me by.  I give them a few more inches on the sidewalk than I did before.  Maybe I should’ve all along.  I feel sad about this turn of events but I’m grateful that my husband still has his hand.

Squirrel Tales

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About three years ago, I wrote the beginnings of a story about a squirrel that lived in a spruce tree outside our townhouse in Calgary.  His name was Doug.  Doug was the loudest, brashest, and ugliest squirrel on earth but he had a sort of streetwise, junkyard dog kind of charm about him.  He used to sit in the tree and lob acorns at our elderly dog.  The dog, determined to nap in his patch of sunlight, ignored him causing Doug to collapse into what can only be described as apoplectic fits of rage.

I miss Doug.  Sort of.

This morning, on my back deck here in Toronto was a squirrel of another sort.  She was large with a gorgeous fluffy tail.  Her left front paw was injured.  She sat facing my back door and as I looked out the door at her, our eyes met.  Even though her brain is roughly the size of a walnut, I knew that squirrel hated me, wanted me dead.  I could see it in her little beady black eyes.

Ms. Squirrel and I have been locked in mortal combat for the past week.  I am ahead in the fight but my position is tenuous at best.  She just hasn’t managed to chew another hole in my house  yet since I had wildlife wranglers out to close up her last entry point.  I’ve displaced her and her family from their nice cozy nest in my roof. Today, it’s pouring rain and they’ve been evicted.  I guess I’d be pissed off too.

Ms. Squirrel no doubt has sore teeth along with her sore paw.  She has been trying to chew through a metal eavestrough as well as through a clever contraption called a one-way door (made of metal mesh) that is now protruding from the side of my house.  This is the second such door we’ve had to install because Ms. Squirrel managed to mangle the first one (no doubt leading to her foot injury).

The wildlife wrangler (who is supposedly well-versed in such things) assured me Ms. Squirrel’s babies were old enough to be mobile and get themselves out of the nest without help from their mother.  The look on Ms. Squirrel’s face this morning leaves me doubting this.  The fact that she’s willing to do herself harm to get back into that hole makes me wonder and causes me to lose sleep at night.  After all, I am a mother too.  I don’t like to think about not being able to get to my children.  (Right now, one of my kids is camping by the shores of some mosquito-ridden lake in Haliburton, no doubt cold,wet and not wearing the emergency rain poncho I tucked into her duffle and it pains me).

Yes, there was anger and resentment on that tiny squirrel face this morning.  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her as she sat in the pouring rain.  Her foot hurts, her teeth hurt.  I kind of wanted to give her an apple core or something.  A peace offering.  And then I remembered that she chewed a hole in my house.  I turned my back on her and walked away but with a heavy heart.

I should probably watch my back the next time I step outside…

Your Writing is Crap and I Hate Your Tee Shirt

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Yesterday,  I received the last edit to one of my short stories from my oh-so-patient writing coach/mentor/guru with her blessing to send it forth into the world.  I was excited.  No feelings of dread, no cold sweats.  Perhaps at last, I’d turned a corner.

Or not.

About half an hour into researching a good home for my short story, my stomach began to cramp and I felt a familiar tightness in my chest.  My breathing got shallow and my head began to ache.  As I scrolled through the list of literary journals on the Poets & Writers website, I found myself singing a familiar tune.  It goes something like this:

“No, can’t submit there…they sound too highbrow.”

“Ewww…can’t send it there.  They have famous authors on their masthead.  I’m not good enough for that crowd.”

“Oh, I don’t think so…they sound too academic.”

“My story’s not edgy enough”

“Nope, nope…they require “literary excellence only.  Don’t think I qualify.”

“I need a nap.”

After an hour, I’d concluded:

  1. My story sucks and it won’t find a home anywhere
  2. All of my writing sucks and I will forever be a hack who writes “for fun”
  3. I am a talent-less frumpy-wump with horrible clothes

Don’t ask where that last one came from but you see the general direction of my mood.  Why can’t someone’s submission guidelines say something like:  We welcome all writers, young and old, who are passionate about words on a page and the stories they tell.  We don’t care if you’ve been published a thousand times or never.  Send us your best; of course, show us you’ve put thought and care into your words.  Let’s have a look…there, there, everything will be alright…

I’m all for literary excellence, please don’t misunderstand.  Furthermore, I understand that I will be rejected and not always because some editor thinks I’m crap (although some undoubtedly will).  The story and the publication have to be a good fit.  I know all of this, rationally.  Really I do.  But, in the depths of this search for the “good fit,” and after reading about 100 submission guidelines, why am I left with the impression that I’m not worthy of being published?  Ever.

So, here I sit….cowed but not completely defeated.  I need to dye my hair and put on something other than yoga pants.  I need to then return to my computer and start again.  My story is good and it WILL find a home – somewhere with editors who will take a chance on someone who was published once in an ezine that no longer exists but whose writing is solid and honest.  Because everyone has to start somewhere and giving up will get me exactly nowhere.

Right?

A Corner of My Own

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Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay, “A Room of One’s Own” that in order to write fiction, women must have a room of their own and money.

What would Virginia think of my current set-up?  I work at the dining room table on our open concept main floor.  My chair impedes the traffic flow of the transportation link between the front and back doors.  My children rush to and fro inadvertently tripping over the chair and occasionally knocking into me.  The television blares not six feet from where I sit.  The table upon which I write is piled high with bills and the paper detritus of our lives.

Monday to Friday, this arrangement works fairly well from about 9 am to 3:30 pm when the kidlets are at school.  This is my “prime time” for writing.  After 3:30, I no longer sit at the table but can usually be found somewhere between kitchen or television, preparing snacks and yelling (to reprimand or to greet, depending).

I have long pined for a writing space to call my very own.  Pining has gotten me nowhere.  I’ve worked everywhere from the floor of the master bedroom closet, inhaling the scent of my husband’s shoes to my current crowded dining table.  I’ve even worked in bed when I could find no other option.  Working on my laptop from my bed has proven to be the most annoying work station – for others.  They assume I’m being slothful; I know they are just jealous.

Of course, I’d love to have a “proper” writing studio, preferably about 50 miles from my house but in a pinch, the backyard would do nicely.  Sometimes I look longingly at our garden shed and wonder if the spiders and raccoons would be willing to share it with me.  I stubbornly believe that for me to get any real work done, I must be separate from my house, from all of the things in the house that tear my attention away from the task at hand.  At the very least, I need to have a room with a door that shuts and locks.

My fantasy writing studio would be a wooden “bunkie” on the shores of a large body of water.  It would be painted white inside with long windows that let in the sun.  There would be a desk for writing on, a small sofa for reclining on (to think, of course).  A ceiling fan would whir softly at the peak of the cathedral ceiling.  OUtside, trees would sway gently in a perpetual soft summer breeze, the water would lap gently at the shore in a hypnotizing rhythm.  The snack fridge would hum quietly in the corner, filled with healthy snacks and spring water.  And, maybe some wine.

I take a moment to dream and then, reality strikes.  I sit and type with one hand as I try to eat a sandwich.   I try to tune out the Disney Channel on the TV.  I get up and look longingly at the garden shed when suddenly I notice a large furry raccoon on the roof.  She stares at me for a moment then turns her back on me and settles her rotund self more comfortably on the rough shingles.  In the tree next to the shed, I see the small forms of her babies.  Mama raccoon has told me, in no uncertain terms, “Get yourself a closet, honey.  This is my shed and I’m not sharing.”

Mike Holmes, I’m So Scared

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Like millions of other viewers, I tune regularly to see Mike Holmes rescue homeowner after homeowner from various dwelling disasters.  I know he’s always going to “take it down, take it all down” because, well, that’s just what he does.  I wish he’d come take my house down, all down, and Make It Right.

But, sadly, I know we are ineligible for Mike’s help. We bought our little 3 bed semi in a smoking hot market.  We were one of t-e-n bidders on this house and it’s nice but nothing stellar.  We paid way over the asking price; our offer was submitted with no conditions, of course.

This week, a local realtor left a flyer in my mailbox.  There were ten “SOLDs” on the flyer; every one of them went over ask.  How many of those buyers signed on the dotted line with no home inspection?  Likely all of them.

In bidding wars, buyers who want a real shot at the house must offer at least asking price and usually a good bit more.  In addition, there must be no conditions attached to the offer.  That means no financing condition and no home inspection condition.  Frankly, if you’re looking for a house in this market, you’d better have your financing arranged in advance and your mortgage broker on speed dial.

My issue is the home inspection.  Desperate home buyers who’ve lost house after house in bidding wars must plunk down insane amounts of money AND they’re expected to forego a home inspection.  We did, reluctantly.  We figured we’ve bought enough houses to know what to look out for.  We bought this house with full knowledge of it’s issues (except the roof – but again, because of the type of roof we have, I’m not surprised).  But, foregoing a home inspection can lead to expense and disaster.  The house might need a new roof, the electrical panel could be a dangerous mess, the furnace could be a carbon monoxide leaker..all sorts of things.

On Mike Holmes’ show Holmes Inspection, he illustrates how, even when you have a home inspection, your inspection is only as good as the inspector himself.  On some of the episodes, I’m left to wonder if the inspections were done by near-sighted alpacas.  Our “hot” real estate market asks (no, insists) that home inspections be waived.  What recourse do buyers have if they buy an absolute lemon of a house?  Virtually none.  But imagine fighting for your home inspection and ending up with a blind alpaca (cleverly disguised as a competent home inspector).  I’m sure Mike doesn’t have any gaps left in his schedule.  It just doesn’t seem fair and it scares the hell out of me.

Home inspections should be mandatory regardless of market conditions (just my humble opinion). “Buyer beware” shouldn’t involve issues of safety, especially when hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent.  If, by the grace of God, a deal is done where an inspection is allowed, buyers should educate themselves beforehand.  Don’t take it for granted that the home inspector is NOT an alpaca.  Buyers should know before they hand over 110% of the asking price whether or not the home is going to blow up or fall down after they move in.

Mike, I realize we bought the house knowingly without a home inspection but I was wondering if you could have a look at…

While My Hacienda Gently Weeps

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For all of you reading this from Toronto, you know we’ve had incessant rain.  I think we had 3 days of sun in April and May isn’t shaping up much better.  Other places suffer worse than here:  Manitoba, the Maritimes, the entire Mississippi River Valley…So much rain has fallen that my neighbour a few doors down appears to have a suspicious amount of lumber in his backyard – surely for an ark – but not sure if it’s due to the rain or the coming of Judgment Day…However, I was just out and there is a strange unfamiliar light in the sky.  Again, is it just the return of the sun or something more sinister?  I’m going with SUN.

Just in the nick of time too, because I fear my little casa could not take much more moisture.  Every time a cloud crosses paths with the sun, I cringe.  I have a fan running at my feet to drown out the sound of the drips.

Our little semi-detached house, although cute as a button, has issues.  I’ve never lived in a house that hasn’t had issues and I’m about willing to give it a try, frankly.  I’m not one who deals with disasters well so why I’ve never gravitated towards a brand-new, shiny house in a brand-new shiny subdivision with brand new everything is beyond me.

Almost two weeks ago, I smelled something hinky in my daughter’s room.  She’s a soccer player so at first I figured it was the usual:  something unwashed from her soccer bag.  Yet after laundry day, the smell remained.  A week and a bit ago, I looked up at the ceiling over her window and saw a dark stain.  I knew the eavestrough outside her window had a peculiar kink in it.  I knew this because whenever it rained, it sounded like the house was under Niagara Falls.  Water would cascade down from the useless eavestrough and onto the sidewalk below.  Now I guessed the water was tired of going that way and was trying a new route.

I called several eavestrough repair companies.  One guy promptly responded and a couple of days later stood in front of my house, a $1,500 estimate in his hand.  I screamed and ran inside.  The next day, another company arrived and said it would cost me $80 to re-nail the eavestroughs and clean all of them.  Sounded better than $1,500; he assured me we had no critter holes and our roof was just fine.  Not 24 hours later, during yet another downpour, the heavens opened inside.  Water streamed from the ceiling, down the wall.  It pooled atop the window trim and ran in brown rivulets down the blinds (hmmm…guess they needed dusting).  Paint hung in ribbons from the ceiling.

I called the $80 guys.  They didn’t call back.  Providentially, one of the other companies I had contacted showed up at my front door that afternoon.  “We were in the neighbourhood,” he said.  I grabbed him and dragged him down the alley and pointed up.  While he and his crew struggled with their enormous ladder, I sang my sad song.  Once up there, the first thing he said was, “Well, you’ve got a squirrel hole up here.”  Really.  He went further up the ladder and onto the flat roof.  “Ma’am, the water is pooling up here.  Whoever did your roof didn’t flash it properly.”  He told me to back up and swept about a gallon of water down into the alley.

Were the $80 guys vision-impaired?  It doesn’t matter.  It won’t stop raining so I can’t do a thing.  With every raindrop, I hear the clink of change going down the toilet.  We’ve rearranged my daughter’s room so now if the ceiling gives way, it will miss her head although she might end up with a squirrel or two in her bed.  We wait as my house weeps softly, gently.  Sometimes it sobs- in loud wails that can be heard up and down the street.  Oh wait.  That’s me.