Monthly Archives: September 2011

Hello Doubt, My Old Friend

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I think I don’t know what I’m doing.

This happens to me sometimes, this lurching feeling akin to throwing the brakes on at 100 mph.  So there I was, humming along at a good clip, lots of writing happening and SCREEEECH.  Full stop.

I can’t speak for anyone else but Doubt only throws himself onto the hood of my car because I let him.  I should just run him down; accelerate when I see him standing in front of me instead of slamming on the brakes.  Because I brake for him, he can then hop in the car with me and get all bossy about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.  Doubt is a bully and a backseat driver.

Ok, enough of the automotive metaphors.  Hmmm…let’s try something else.  Hmmm…nothing coming to mind.  See?  I’m plagued now by Doubt.  It is everywhere and it is affecting my brain.  All I need to do is breathe (always remember to breathe) and know that Doubt is only a temporary problem.  Of course, it took me decades to get to this point but now that I’m here, I’m not going to let Doubt push me around.

I submitted a story to my workshop.  I knew it needed work and it was only the first 10 pages.  The beginning held so much promise.  Then, it careened around and fell apart as it went; I tried to glue it back together but it didn’t really work.  At the end of the excerpt, the main character (much like the author) is sitting head in hand, wondering what the hell to do next.   And, of course, my instructor jumped all over it.  What does she want?  What is she doing?  Why is she here, there, and everywhere?

All completely legit questions.  And, I don’t have an answer to any of them.  That’s what happens when you write without a plan or an outline or even an inkling of what’s going on.  I’m not usually a fan of outlines.  I like to loll around on the sofa until the characters tell me to get my ass up and write a thread and then another and another.  Once I have the threads, I  usually figure things out on my own.  With this story, nobody spoke to me much, there were no threads and the result was as you’d expect: rather a mess.

I feel badly for my character.  I’ve left her confused and unhappy at the base of a volcano.  She doesn’t want to be there (well, she does really – she had the opportunity to leave on page 6 and she didn’t).  She’s staying but doesn’t know why.  She doesn’t know what she’s looking for.  She is running but doesn’t know from what (aside from molten lava).  I’m her chauffeur and my sat-nav isn’t working.  We’re both lost.

The upside of all of this is that it’s only 10 pages.  I can trash the whole thing (if necessary) or prune it back until it’s 1 1/2 paragraphs without shaving years off my life.  It’s not like I’ve committed myself in 500 pages to this poor lost girl.  Maybe all I do keep is the first paragraph and toss the rest.  But, first maybe I need to slow down and give some thought to who this girl is and what she’s up to.  No, not maybe.  Maybe is the handmaiden of Doubt.  It’s bad enough having Doubt around without all of his minions.

Hey, Doubt!  Go stand in the middle of the road and I’ll get in the car…

Living Up To The Hair

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In a move calculated to get some of my mojo back, I’ve just returned from the hairdresser as a maximum blonde!  Rumplestilskin would go nuts for this stuff!  Spun gold indeed!  It is shimmering, glistening, dare I say, Dazzling with a capital D – true Hollywood blonde!  I’m not kidding when I say this hair colour has taken 10 years off my face…ok, maybe 5 1/2 but still, when one’s next birthday is the Big 5-0, that’s saying something!

But…

Ain’t there always a “but”?

What about the rest of me?  Oh, sure, it’s fine if one keeps one’s eyes firmly above the shoulders – given the dazzling display of blonde awesomeness going on up there, it’s fairly easy – but  should one’s eyes drift lower, the jig would be up, as they say.

So now, I have to live up to my hair.  I think it’s a good thing.  Having this glowing halo of bedazzlement on my head will force me to give some much needed care and attention to points further south, and let’s be honest, the inside as well.  (STOP:  get glass of water; drink further 7 glasses throughout the rest of the day, sleep close to bathroom…)

Ok, I’m back…

As I was saying, living up to the hair will require taking care of the rest of me and folks, this blonde revolution comes not a moment too soon.  As I lay in bed last night, groaning in pain and feeling more than ten times my age, I thought it’s time:  either die or do something about yourself.  Ok, I know that sounds melodramatic but that’s how banshees are.  Given my age (see above), weird shit is happening to my body; most of it makes me feel bloody awful most of the time.  To a large degree this is because I lie in bed eating Oreos and doing nothing good for myself.

Those days are OVER.  Now that I’ve published this directive, I have to follow through.  Or so the experts tell me.

Step 1:  Eat better.  Just because there are cookies in the house doesn’t mean I have to eat…all of them.  If fats must be ingested, make them good, worthwhile fats as opposed to waste of time, worthless fats.  Avocados instead of Twinkies.  Drink water; ease up on the vodka.  Green tea, good.  Starbucks, bad.

Step 2: Get moving!  My husband, felled by kitty-induced asthma, can still play a squash match (albeit with more heavy breathing than his partners are used to) and live to tell the tale whereas I can barely run a mile.  In fact, I’m quite sure I cannot.  Break up with the couch, banshee.  He’s no good for you.

Step 3: Fake it til you make it.  While my lovely hairdresser Kris can take me from mousy brown to Hollywood bombshell in about an hour and a half, the rest of the renovation will take some time.  If I’m diligent, it probably won’t take as long as I think it will but deceptive measures will still have to be employed.  As in, the use of the lovely tunic length sweaters in gorgeous fall colours that complement my new hair colour and also cover a multitude of sins.  Makeup.  Making an effort can make a difference even if the only creature who lays eyes on me most of the day is a kitten.

Three simple steps to renovating a banshee.  Not too bad.  Now, I will eat a healthy lunch, basking in the glow of my luminous hair…

Don’t Let Meryl Streep Drive the Bus

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[Blogger’s note:  I’m sure the amazing Ms. Streep is a fine driver.  It was just a dream.]

At last, a dream.  After a summer of spotty, hazy, useless dreams about nothing and a September of so little sleep that dreams don’t bother to form, the pre-dawn soap opera playing out in my head was most welcome.  Well, not exactly welcome.  It was a dream fraught with anxiety because it was about the two things that cause me most to want to combine booze and pills:  time and an airport.

So stressful was the dream that I had to wake myself up.  Walking down the hall to the bathroom, I muttered:  “You do not have to be anywhere.  You don’t need to get your daughter on a plane.  Meryl Streep doesn’t drive transit buses, I’m sure Ashley Judd is a very nice lady…everything is fine…”  I looked for something to write with.  No luck.  So, folks, this is my dream diary…just for today.

I am holding a baby.  A baby with red curly hair and a very stinky diaper.  He is NOT my baby.  We’re in a restaurant.  I hand off stinky baby, I am relaxed and happy.  I’ve been shopping for my daughter.  My husband comes out of nowhere saying we’re late.  His voice is panicked and pinched.  He sounds like me.

[If my husband were ever to utter those words to me, I would drop dead on the spot but as I’ve said, this was a dream].

Stinky babies are left behind as we gallop for a bus.  We have to get to the airport.  I don’t argue the virtues of cab versus bus as I normally would; I just run blindly toting all manner of luggage and shopping bags.  I’m not a good toter, especially at a full run.  We see a bus; it’s a grim affair, painted a dull gray with painted out windows – I think it was used for the deployment of Soviet troops to somewhere unattractive like Siberia.  Anyway, Meryl Streep is behind the wheel.

I have to say I’ve seen her look better.  With  floozy peroxide hair and a Tootsie Pop in her mouth, she wasn’t looking too chic.  Nor was she in a particular hurry to get her passengers anywhere.  She’s a chatty one, that Meryl Streep.  She cannot drive and chat at the same time…in my dream.  She did everything to guarantee I was certifiably insane by the time we reached the airport.  It’s never a good sign when the bus driver has to ask passengers for directions.

The old Soviet-era bus creaks up to the airport; my husband and I leap out and are magically in the security line.  But we aren’t flying – we are only delivering luggage to our daughter who is, presumably, somewhere in the airport.  Things go further downhill.

The line is long (no dream magic here) and complicated by certain actresses (I’m talking to you, Ashley Judd) allowing their toddlers to ride the scanner’s conveyor belt, in the buckets designed for handbags and spare change, as if it were some sort of mini amusment park ride.  Magically, my husband is already through (no dream magic here either -he always picks the faster line.  I have a talent, in dreams and in real life, for choosing the slowest line).

I’m getting nowhere.  I try reasoning with Ashley Judd (nope), I try crying at Ashley Judd’s feet (no luck), I try appealing to the sympathies of others in the line (“Please! Someone compliment one of her movies!”).  No dice.  I stand helplessly by as time ticks mercilessly on. [Blogger’s note:  I’m sure Ms. Judd’s children, if she has any, are perfect angels in the airport].

My husband is now talking to my hysterical daughter off in the distance.  “I HAVE TO GET ON THIS PLANE TO GREECE!” she shrieks loud enough to make any banshee proud.  I see my husband talking to an airport official who, as luck would have it, appears to be Greek.  I trip one of Ashley Judd’s kids and I am magically through the line in time to hear the airport official say there is no time to do anything more except get my girl on the plane.  No bags, no luggage, no toothbrush.  I am beside myself.  No toothbrush?  My husband stuffs her hands full of Euros, saying he hopes Euros still work in Greece, and off she goes.

“Buy a toothbrush!” I yell to the vanishing form of my daughter.  I turn around, vaguely wondering why she is going to Greece.  I turn to my husband, still in high drama mode:  “How do we know she will actually make that flight?  How will we ever know!  What about all of these bags!” (I am getting stressed as I type – this is all too realistic).

My husband is  speaking to yet another man who looks a lot like the first man.  “We will ship her bags to the airport.”  2nd man is sure the bags will get there before our daughter does.  I am not convinced.  I want to be on that plane with my little girl…

It’s all too much for me and I wake myself up.

High drama, stress-inducing airport dreams aside, having a detail-laden dream is like gold for me.  Several of my short stories (one of them  published) were born from dreams.  Dreams are useful.  Dreams should always be written down.  Don’t edit.  The crazier, the more disconnected the better.  You can shape something good out of all the craziness later.  Trust me.

Dreams often come when I’m feeling a bit stuck.  Yesterday was such a day.  I walked around the house toting either a kitten or a laundry basket in a very foul mood (me, not the laundry basket).  I knew I should write something, but couldn’t.  I even went so far as to open Word and pull up my homework for the workshop.  All I needed were two more pages so I could submit it.  I just stared….and wandered off to find the kitten.   This dream was a beacon in a very dark night – I’m not as stuck as I think I am.

Or, it could just be that I feel like being pissed off at Meryl Streep, Ashley Judd, and Greece.

Writer Bootcamp

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[Just the fact that it took me about 5 min. to come up with that sad title means my brain is woefully out of shape.]

I could sit here and watch Alyss the Cat torture Annie the Dog all day but it wouldn’t do my writing any good.  In spite of blogging all summer, my writing muscles feel all mushy and slack much like other parts of my body.  Blogging is like a fun free-form warm up; it is not the highly disciplined training that makes a marathoner.

Case in point:  I recently submitted a short story to my writing coach and although the edit wasn’t too cruel, there was a huge problem.  I didn’t understand her comments.  No, she didn’t respond in Greek.  It’s me.  I’ve gone soft in the head.  I sat there, staring at the page and did not comprehend any of it.  Folks, this is bad.

When my writing muscles were lean and firm, I was more in tune, my ear was…keener. Even if one of my stories missed the mark, I could usually fix it easily because I knew, somehow.  It’s like singing a note that’s slightly flat.  You know it’s off – you know it’s flat – you know how to raise it just enough.  Bottom line:  I am out of shape.  My senses are dull.  So, it’s time for the wee banshee to engage in a  form of torture known as a writer’s workshop. (Should my lovely professor be reading this, I say “torture” as a term of endearment.  Really.)

Writing workshops (for me anyway) are online classes where a small group of writers submit pieces not only to the professor but to each other.  The more eyes on a piece the better – everybody reads differently, bringing their own experiences to a piece and thus the writer gets a wide variety of feedback.  Often a piece would elicit the same responses from everyone:  “Wow.  This piece sings!”  Or, one person would think it was a sublime piece of writing while another might think it downright subterranean.

Along with what I call “major” homework, the teacher also assigned weekly “exercises.”  Always my favourites, these were the wee drills that warmed me up, got my blood going, and helped me deliver on the bigger assignments.  The exercises were fun.  “Describe your car being as specific as possible without using any car terminology.”  So, I described my 2007 VW Golf as a “snack sized container of freedom.”  In another exercise, we had to imitate other author’s voices.  I remember feeling pretty good about my Hemingway but my Flannery O’Connor was cringe-worthy.  I wasn’t always good at the exercises but they were entertaining.

After doing these kinds of “warm-ups,” writing a 15 page essay didn’t seem so daunting, although right now, it would probably kill me.  I need to get back into training.  Re-learn how to “show, don’t tell.”  Keep my tenses straight.  Write tight.  Dive deep and write strong prose.  I can do it – I’ve done it before.  Just not with sluggish mind and mushy muscles.

And so, if you don’t see Wee Banshee for a bit, I’m bogged down with homework, trying to get myself back into shape again.

Read to Me

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As the grim spectre of library closures and other insane budget-wacking measures hover over our city like so many Dementors (dreamt up by our illiterate Mayor and a city council with no…um…backbone), I’ve been thinking a lot about books.  Were it not for my love of reading books, I surely might not have embarked on any attempt to write them.

Books have always been an integral part of my life.  My mother, when she wasn’t needlepointing, feeding our menagerie, or enjoying a bit o vodka, could be found with a cigarette in one hand (bad) and a book in the other (good).  We were fortunate enough to have an entire room (albeit small) in our house lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves.  I dream of having such a room in my house some day.  Oh, sorry Mayor Ford: b-o-o-k, bound paper with printed words, some big, some small.  We’ll start you out with small words and lots of pictures.

I don’t recall my mother actually reading to me; instead there were weekly trips to our local library.  I was deposited in the children’s section while my mother went upstairs to the grown-up floor.  I spent a lot of time in the stacks of various libraries all over Maryland, beginning with the Falls Road branch in Bethesda.  There was no limit on the number of books I could check out.  A particular favourite:  The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren.  God, how I loved that book (it was one of the first books I read to my daughter).

Books encouraged me to write as well.  When I was ten my sister gave me Little Women for Christmas.  That book almost caused me to miss Christmas dinner.  From that very day, I wanted to be a writer.   Reading fired my curiosity about people, places, and things far outside my little suburban Washington, DC world.  Women authors from earlier times fascinated me because the odds against them were staggering.  The fact that the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson to name a few penned works that are still read today is nothing short of a miracle.  These gifted, determined women lit the path for the rest of us.

My husband’s family moved constantly; often his only companions in a new home (Africa, Korea) were his books.  Even though he reads at a snail’s pace compared to me, he loves to read – something instilled in him by his parents.  We are proud to say that both our children are accomplished, avid readers (and writers!) even in this day of electronics addiction.  When they were little, we read to them and made sure there were books at hand.  By the time they were toddlers, they were at the library, with me following them around saying “Shhhh” the whole time.  Nonetheless, they were exposed to lots of books early.

In these dodgy economic times, we’ve had to employ some austerity measures of our own and the library has been a godsend. My kids can blast through a book in a day; as much as I love supporting our local bookstores, I also love food and a roof over my head.  Bookstores can be expensive; checking out a book is not (although returning it late can be).

When I bitch and moan about our libraries I feel guilty.  I hate waiting; if there’s a book I want, give it to me NOW.  I get frustrated when care is not taken in the stacks – books out of order, computers that say the branch has five copies of something but they don’t have any, a travel “section” with three books about Costa Rica dating from the 1980’s, librarians who don’t care…I care very deeply about my local libraries.  I want them to be well-stocked, well-organized, and well-used.  They usually score one out of three: our local libraries are always teeming with people.

What city council and our Mayor have to realize is that libraries are an integral part of any healthy community.  Community is a very important word. The city of Toronto is NOT just a bunch of buildings strung together by highways.  Libraries  provide not only an affordable alternative to book stores but they play host to a wide range of community events – seminars, play n read groups for little ones, community meetings, readings, etc.  If nothing else, they provide a safe haven for children after school (as opposed to having them wander the streets).

Save our Libraries, Mayor Ford and maybe (just maybe) Santa will bring you a Dr. Seuss book for Christmas.

Ever Since

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Of all the headlines and quotes I read in yesterday’s paper regarding the attacks on September 11, 2001, there was one that caused my heart to skip half a beat.  “Every day since then has been September 12” – Condoleeza Rice.

And so, on this September 12, I try to remember that September 12 because that day would’ve been the day we had to get up and carry on as best we could.  While  every horrible detail of September 11 is burned in my mind, September 12 is a blur except for one thing.  I remember standing on my front lawn and looking up at the sky. Another spectacular fall day where we lived, just north of Chicago.  The sky was impossibly peacefull.  And empty.  How could something so serene have, just the day before, played host to four airplanes used as missiles that would change our lives forever.

I remember as a cranky teenager when my parents would speak of days like that (they had the misfortune to live through more than one), I would yawn and roll my eyes.  “Really?” I’d ask, with the cynicism of a 16 year old.  “There’s no way one day can change an entire country’s collective life forever.”  Parents could be so dramatic sometimes.  My father, who worked at the Pentagon during WWII, would lean forward in his chair, his blue eyes blazing.  “Your generation has no idea.  And, yes, little miss smarty-pants, one day can change everything.” And then he’d launch into The Lecture about Pearl Harbor.  And still, I remained unconvinced.

I get it now, Daddy.  I wish you were around to put your hands on my shoulders, fix me with that blue eyed stare and say, “I told you so.”  Because, for his generation, perhaps every day since was December 8. How many Americans of his generation stood outside their houses the next day, staring at the sky with dread, not knowing what would come next?

The sky on September 11 was a clear deep blue we get when summer’s haze has finally flown away.  That depth of blue can occur outside of autumn; in April of this year, I looked out at a September 11 sky and fell apart.  The air had something in it – a clarity, like autumn.  A short essay was born – the first time I’d tried to write about it – and although it was the wrong time of year, it tore me to bits.  I sat at the computer and sobbed.  I hit “save” and was done with it – I never submitted it anywhere.  I wasn’t sure anyone would understand how an April sky had brought me to my knees.

I opened the file today and realized the essay wasn’t very good but it did have a certain raw energy to it.   I might give it to my kids to read.  This year was the first they asked questions about 9/11.  Tears running down my face, I tried to explain the gut-wrenching emotions, the glimmers of hope, the stories of rescue and survival. They asked very technical questions, some I couldn’t answer.  My tears confused them.  “It’s 10 years later, mommy.”  They might’ve rolled their eyes, a bit.

The day, regardless of how many anniversaries pass, will always be an open wound on my heart and on the hearts of Americans everywhere.  I hope my children never experience a day when a crystalline sky becomes a reminder of pain.

Every day since has been September 12.

Writer’s Retreat

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Thumbing through an old issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, I notice that 50% of the adverts are trying to get me to go for my MFA and the other 50% are enticing me to travel to a writer’s retreat.

Retreat.  Writing.  My idea of heaven. [Sigh].

I say this because my normal writing environment is the exact opposite of a retreat.  It’s the kitchen table.  I am in the middle of a high traffic zone.  I keep accidentally planting my feet in the cat’s food dish.  The people who are renovating down the street like to employ their concrete cutting saw just when I’m fumbling around for the right word or phrase.  My “office” is anything but conducive to the kind of quiet, contemplative thought that writing requires.

I look longingly at these advertisements for writing retreats.  One shows an idyllic pastoral setting; a huge classic barn in the middle of a quiet field.  I wonder, do we write in the barn?  Is there livestock kept in the barn?  Do we each get our own stall?  I thought about trying the retreat at the Banff Centre, in the Rocky Mountains but  I know people there and would thus be tempted to meet for quick coffees that might turn into long dinners and wine in hot tubs…and then, there’s the bears which would discourage me from taking long contemplative strolls.  I can’t be anywhere near distractions or anywhere where I’m not at the top of the food chain should I venture outside.

Here is my fantasy writer’s retreat:  by the sea (but not too close – I’m not fond of unexpected dips in the ocean).  We’ll say “overlooking the sea.”  I’d settle for “sea breezes.”  Ok, high enough over the ocean for a view but not a drowning.  I would write in a white cottage.  Or, maybe a converted lighthouse.  There would be every convenience except no kitchen.  Maybe a bar fridge (fully stocked, thank you.)  I want my meals brought to me, discreetly left outside the door in insulated baskets.  There would be plenty of hot water and down duvets (it’s chilly on the coast in the evening) but also a deck or patio for quiet reflection in the aforementioned sea breezes.  There must be an up-to-date dictionary and thesaurus on site.

There would be none of the following:

  • interruptions
  • telephones
  • televisions
  • internet (I’m easily distracted)
  • mice (if this cannot be guaranteed I reserve the right to bring my cat)
  • receptions/”get togethers”/group walks or yoga/meditation/tai chi classes at either sunrise or sunset or any other time
  • excessive airplane traffic i.e. a cottage at the end of a runway would not do

As I said, this is my fantasy retreat.  When I describe this place to my family they stare at me slack-jawed, uncomprehending and perplexed.  “Won’t you miss us, mommy?”

No.

Because here’s the thing:  it’s not forever.  It’s maybe a week.  After all, even I would drive myself crazy with nobody but myself after a week (maybe sooner – I start arguments  with myself after 3 days).  What I crave more than anything is a brief, finite period of solitude so that I can sort out all of the noise in my head, separate the crap from the possible.  I have a hard time doing that when I have to tend to other’s needs and wants.  I am not an effective divider of self.

Sadly, idyllic writer’s retreats even out in the middle of nowhere are pricey (it’s that food delivery thing and the fully stocked wine fridge, I think) so I’ve come up with a mini-retreat idea:  One night in a hotel.  I confess, when I mentioned the words “one night in a hotel,” my poor neglected husband got all excited until he realized he’d be at home with children and cat.  Here’s how it would work: check in as soon as they let me. Luggage consists of pjs, toothbrush, maybe some healthy snacks, and the laptop.  Write until dinner; order room service.  Continue to write until the wee hours, get up and start again after a steaming hot hotel shower. Stay until some hotel staffer forces me to check-out.  Do all things necessary to keep breathing but writing has to be the Main Event.

Note: the hotel has to be nice – not a dive where I have to constantly check the door for security reasons and the comforters for creepy-crawlies.  The food must be good – I don’t know why this is important but it just is.

For my part, I have to deliver.  Not a novel, mind you, but something other than grocery lists.  I’ve done this before – I was given a night at the Hotel Arts in Calgary once.  I wrote until 2 a.m.  It was all stream of consciousness stuff but afterward, I had useable material.  I came up with the opening scene for The Novel.  Dinner was yummy and I didn’t have to cook it myself.

I can do this.  I’m disciplined and desperate enough.  It’s a great way to get back on the wagon after a summer of sloth.