Monthly Archives: March 2012

Writing What’s Real

Standard

Most days, I stay safe and warm in my little cocoon of fiction writing. I live in a world of make-believe which suits me just fine.  Every now and again, I peek out into the real world because something has piqued my interest or outright pissed me off.

Being a writer, my natural inclination is to put thoughts into words.  Most of the time, this has no effect on my life whatsoever but sometimes I get feedback – most of it positive but some of it is downright scary.

After posting my rant on bullying, I got some feedback that was good and scary – positive feedback with a dash of scary added to it.  A friend, fellow writer and all-round smart lady suggested I pitch my essays to newspapers and/or parenting magazines (invariably my essays have to do with my children in some form or another).

Up goes my blood pressure, on come the palpitations, and knock-knock go the knees.

To those of you out there who might be real writers (as in, earning a semblance of a living doing it), the afore-described panic attack might seem ridiculous.  Freelance non-fiction writing is what most writers do, after all, waiting for their “big break” into fiction and those elusive phone calls from the Booker, Giller,  & Pulitzer committees.

Trying to uphold my resolution to live braver this year, I went so far as to contact one of my favourite reporters at The Toronto Star.  She is not a friend but she is someone I would love to have as a friend and she is a great writer.  She responded immediately (even though she is out of the country on assignment) and passed on the name of two editors at the paper who often consider freelance submissions.

Now comes the inevitable 48-72 hours where I sit and stare at their names in the email while chewing all my fingernails off.  Part of the problem is I have no idea how to pitch a story.  There are numerous articles instructing novices like me on how to do this – instead of chewing my nails off, I will read them.

I have to keep reminding myself that hiding in the fiction cave all the time might be cozy but it might also be shielding me from opportunities out in the real world.  That is the reason so many of us blog – to write, to communicate with the outside world, and to keep an eye on what’s real.

Living Memory

Standard

I have been trying for months to articulate my feelings about two little words in the English language that, when put next to each other, cause the breath to catch in my throat:  Living memory.

It all started in 2011 when I read that the last known combat survivor of World War I had died.  The article said that first-hand knowledge of what was known as “The Great War” had effectively passed out of living memory.  Knowledge, dead.  Reminiscence, dead.  It made me sad.

The sad feeling returned a few months ago as I watched a British documentary entitled, “James May On the Moon.”  In one of the piece’s narratives, May says, “Twelve men walked on the moon; only nine are still alive.  Soon the whole episode will pass from living memory.”  The whole idea of memories, anecdotes, musings dying out left me gutted – as if I’d just realized that I, myself, was a mortal.

I was eight years old when man first walked on the moon.  Like countless other parents that day, my father insisted that his kids watch the momentous event on television.  He understood the importance of the occasion; I did not.  He remembered when  transatlantic flight was a dodgy concept.  As I watched the documentary on the space program, it hit me. In the Twentieth Century incredible strides were made, horrific mistakes were made, two World Wars were fought.  My century was when time began speeding so fast that the entire world threatened to become a blur.

I can only hope that my children want to learn about this incredible era that brought them everything they take for granted now.- I can only hope that they develop a love for, rather than a disdain for, history.  I try giving them a glimpse once in awhile.  I must go about it the right way, catch them when they’re quiet and not “plugged in” to some gadget that distracts and numbs.  When history is made personal, it becomes far less tedious than when someone lectures about it at the head of a classroom.

Some tidbits I’ve told my children:

My mother, born in 1916, grew up in Texas when not everyone had cars.  Her stories were so vivid that when I visited Austin as a little girl, I was shocked to see highrises and paved roads.  My great-great aunt was born during the reign of Queen Victoria.  I remember seeing pictures of her – her long dress swept the floor, she held a parasol.  My natural curiosity made me want to learn more about her dress, her hairstyle, and the time she lived in.  Why did no one smile for the camera in those days?

My godmother, born in 1908, was born on a tenant farm. In the Tidewater region of Maryland and Virginia, people lived off the land and the water.  The lives of poor tenants were still heavily dependent on the wealthy landowners. Everyone traveled by horse and cart while paddle steamers and some tall ships still plied the river bringing goods from across the Chesapeake Bay.  Baltimore might as well have been the Emerald City to her.

My father, born in 1915,  told stories about his acquaintance with Orville Wright, one of the Wright Brothers (Orville died in 1948, my father in 1980.)  I asked the kids in a panic yesterday if they knew who the Wright Brothers were and was most gratified when they looked at me as if I was crazy.  “Duh,” one of them said.  Mr. Wright ignited my father’s passion for aviation, no doubt telling a few stories of his own.

The words “living memory” compel me to ensure that my history doesn’t fade into the mists of time.  My kids have not matured quite enough to grasp history’s importance or its connection to the lives they lead now.  Everything with the kids is about now, now, now.  Things appear on the horizon – news, ideas, technology – so fast now we can barely keep up.  Horse and buggies – are you serious?  Rotary phones, hand tools, rabbit ear antennaes…and no such things as iPods!

Bully For You

Standard

As the parent of two children, I hear the word “bully” more than I want to.  The word bully is now defined as someone who is habitually cruel to others weaker than themselves or repeated aggressive behaviour used to hurt or intimidate another.

It wasn’t always so.  The “archaic” meaning of the word was sweetheart or a loved one.  The phrase bully pulpit meant using a position of influence or public prominence to espouse one’s views – a term popularized by Teddy Roosevelt.  In Roosevelt’s day, the term bully meant “excellent”and was used kind of like we use “Awesome!” today.

Oh,how times have changed.

My oldest child was bullied in Grade 4. Notes on the desk saying “you should die.”  The school did nothing.  Oh yes, they drew back in dismay as we outlined the extent of the abuse. They spouted the canned anti-bullying cry of “Zero tolerance!”  The hallways of the schools were lined with anti-bullying propaganda posters.  We knew the bullies.  I saw their mothers in the grocery store once a week, at the dog park.  These were our neighbours, our peers.  Parents were called, denials were made.  We were forced to put our child in another school; our entire family was infected with frustration and despair.

Interestingly, my child was accused of bullying a child in Grade 7.  As is often the case, the bullied at some point feel compelled to spread the joy, as it were.  We were horrified but on some level we understood our child’s desire to have the shoe on the other foot.  Our child was counseled, had to lead a workshop on bullying and had to give a speech (my child later confessed the sheer terror of public speaking had more effect than any lecture or punishment).  The school acted promptly and decisively.

Grade 9: Victim, again.  My child is now a strong, outwardly confident young person and yet I watch as years of esteem-building threaten to come crashing down.  I am stronger now – more proactive.  Not inclined to sit back and let the school handle the situation.  The vice-principal wishes she’d never heard of me.

Our youngest is in Grade 7. This child – not big, not especially confident – came home and confessed an act of violence against someone who was repeatedly harassing.  The bully has a reputation known to the school but my child will likely be punished because of the inappropriate response.  Was our child wrong to fight back?  I want to say yes; I want to say no. I feel the frustration and fear mount again.

What I’ve learned: bullying is impossibly complex.  It’s not just about bigger kids knocking little ones around. The process is deep and layered, involves every strata of human behaviour.  Schools sponsor presentations and put up posters.  Principals stand up in assembly and drone on while the majority of the audience is on Facebook or tweeting.  Somewhere, another Grade 4 student is reading a nasty note, being cyber-bullied, or getting shoved into a locker.

A powerful documentary has been made – a positive step but it has been given an “R” rating which would prevent it ever being shown in any school.  Parents of bullies rise up in indignation and cry, “Not my darling – he/she could never do such a thing!”  YouTube videos posted by victims go viral.  We gasp in horror and dismay; yet it never stops.

Children are bombarded daily with anti-bullying rhetoric – from adults, other children, pop icons. They hear but do they hear? Do any of us?  What are we missing?

The Hungry Games

Standard

[I dedicate this post to my children – may they:   a)never have to diet, b)never have to fight to the death in an arena, c)get in to see The Hunger Games this afternoon – good luck, little ones]

Sorry – just had to get that out there.

I am always hungry.  I think I have some sort of disorder (to add to all my other ones, of course) whereby my stomach and my brain have a failure to communicate.  My stomach is always growling.  I am rarely able to resist eating a multiple meals a day.  I can eat my weight in pasta and put my husband to shame at any meal.  My brain might be saying (yelling, shouting) “You just ate 15 minutes ago you glutton!” but my stomach doesn’t seem to get the message.  My mouth follows the instructions of the stomach.  It growls, I eat.  Very simple.

I’ve tried various diet programs – or, “food management” programs like Weight Watchers.  My brain gets very excited at the prospect of portion control.  My stomach laughs derisively – which sounds like a growl which leads me to eat another meal.  I have tried fooling my stomach by putting my food on smaller plates.  I have created great, unstable towers of meatloaf this way.  And, although I’m ashamed to admit it, my stomach sometimes convinces me to skip the plates or bowls altogether and eat directly from the pot.

I get hungrier eating complex carbs.  I eat a bowl (reasonably sized, really) of steel cut oatmeal every morning around 7:30.  By 9 I am ravenously hungry, desperately rummaging in the fridge for something quick AND healthy.  I peel a banana, trying to be good.  My stomach growls, “Are you freaking kidding me?  I want a croissant!  With butter! Scratch that – give me a whole baguette!” 

Working out complicates things.  My brain is now in cahoots with my stomach. “Eat the croissant.  You’ve earned it.  You’ve walked up hills the size of ski runs – you deserve a treat.”  At this rate, I will have to buy a whole new wardrobe of pants with drawstring waists.

Thankfully – it sounds weird but there it is – my dentist is forcing both sides into a surrender.  I’m now on what could be called The Toothache Diet or maybe The Root Canal Diet.  Fun? No.  Challenging? Yes.  Smoothies and Greek yoghurt have been my mainstays for the past two weeks.  And, the Games continue…who will emerge the winner? 

Killing My Darling(s)

Standard

I woke up this morning with a nagging feeling thrumming through my brain like the beginning of a really bad headache:  It is time to kill some darlings.  Time to submit some work and let the chips fall where they may.

Opening the Poets & Writers database of literary journals I am accosted by the sheer number of journals included.  At first blush, it always seems as though there are oodles of possible homes for any story.  However, delving deeper, I find again that out of a database of over 500 literary journals, I am considering only a handful at the end.  Now instead of feeling hopeful and optimistic, I feel inept – is this the right way to go about it?  I also feel unsure.  After reading dozens of submission guidelines, are my stories worthy?  “Send us your best work…”

Is my best good enough?

I remember an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert where she said  she submitted short stories to places like Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker when she was first starting out.   She just didn’t know any better, she claims.  I would never dare.  Should I?  To me, that takes an incredible amount of nerve – I have only recently been able to refrain from eating an entire package of Oreos after receiving a rejection.  If Atlantic Monthly sent me a rejection letter (I guess I should be so lucky – they’d probably never bother), I might go from Oreos to heroin.

I’m nothing if not dramatic; I’m sure I can’t afford heroin.

But onward I must go.  As a poet said to me recently: “You will never amount to much as a writer if no one ever reads your  work.  Reading it aloud to the cat doesn’t count.” 

Here goes…

 

Who’s That Girl? Oh S#(*, It’s Me…

Standard

Ever walked by a shop window or a big mirror, seen the reflection in the glass as you pass and wondered for a split second, “Who is that?” For once, I’d like to do it and think, “Who is that lovely, pulled-together, chic creature?”  and then realize it’s me. 

That exact scenario hasn’t happened yet.

Usually, what happens is I catch a glimpse in the glass and stifle a scream…or, at the very least I groan and quicken my pace.  But during my mini-writing retreat the reflection in the glass was inescapable.  I walked by a gigantic mirror in my hotel room between the sleeping area and the bathroom (hence the inescapable-ness); I then caught a glimpse of a grumpy looking stout woman in really bad clothing (in my defense, there was a draft in the room and I am a devout layerer.)

I stopped in mid-stride and did a double take.  Holy shitballs, I exclaimed out loud.  That’s what I look like.  I peeled off my bulky wool sweater and still the image refused to slim down.  I looked like a pear with pink and green mold growing on it.  Not a pleasant vision. 

When did this happen?  How did this pear-shaped creature take over my usual svelte self?  It dawned on me that I had perhaps taken the “fatten up to survive a Canadian winter” thing too far.  Sadder still is the realization that we had a really mild winter…

The really bad clothing problem can be rectified but the shape of me – well that’s another problem altogether and given the state of my idling  metabolism – it won’t be so easy to fix.  There are several very serious obstacles standing in my way.

Obstacle #1:  I am severely allergic to exercise.  Just the thought of planned physical activity can throw my back out or bring on a migraine.

Obstacle #2:  Exercise allergy notwithstanding, I have an unreasonable fear of fitness clubs.  I hate the music, the overabundance of spandex and sweat, the judging (bullshit, you know it happens). 

Obstacle #3:  Severe lack of funds.  Even if I could overcome #1 & #2, I can’t afford to join a gym.  I do have an exercise bike in my basement…somewhere…

and finally, we come to Obstacle #4:  Me.  As we all know, #4 is the only one that really counts and the one who drives all the others.  I see runners, joggers, and cyclists every day – I feel pangs of jealousy when I see them out there no matter what the weather.  They are better than me.  I run like a three-legged water buffalo.   I’m scared to death to cycle on city streets and that leaves walking.

But will walking be enough?  I think I will enlist my soccer star daughter as my personal trainer.  She is trained by a fairly maniacal coach who is a believer that fitness wins the game.  She can teach me some mat exercises, some core workouts, etc.  The problem is, who is going to make me do it?

I know – that stout woman in the hotel mirror.  I am finally at the point where I will do anything to avoid seeing her ever again.

 

A Night to Write

Standard

My mini-writing retreat was just what the writing doctor ordered.  My family thinks I’m nuts, my neighbours must wonder about the state of my marriage (“You’re going where?  Downtown?  To a hotel? Alone?)  Don’t most people shake their heads at us writers anyway?  We’re an odd, eccentric lot, after all, pursuing something with solitary passion that most people can’t wait to stop doing once they get out of school.

I fled the family sedan, waved to the husband and kids and entered the downtown hotel.  I was a Banshee on a mission.  Once I figured out how the door key worked, got myself a latte, and let my ancient laptop boot up, it was time to get down to the business if figuring out The Novel.  (I briefly allowed myself to acknowledge the treat of having a proper desk with a proper desk lamp – and the blessed quiet.) 

My first chore: figure out why or how my story felt so…off track.  My main character was wandering the streets of London aimlessly, kvetching about what to do with her life.  Ad nauseum.  If I’m finding it tedious, imagine what the five future readers of this book might make of it.  No one, not even my very kind mother-in-law, will want to watch this girl  flail without end.  I sipped my latte, and pondered possible solutions.  Should I let her get hit by a double-decker bus?  Should she have an epiphany about her life’s purpose just as she sees the iconic bright red bumper heading right for her?  Tempting but a tad too predictable. 

I turned to my Bible for answers.  Whenever I am at a loss, I find my well-worn copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  By some miracle, it fell open to the chapter entitled “Character.”  As usual, her wise and funny voice comforts me in my time of need.  She is gentle as she makes me realize I don’t know my main characters well enough.  Even though they let themselves into my bathroom and interrupt my showers all the time, we are not as well acquainted as we should be.

I opened a new document entitled, “Major Characters, Who Do You Think You Are?”  Referring back to Bird by Bird often, I begin the interrogations.  Questions like, “When you stand, how do you stand?  What is your body language?”  “If you were voting in the next election, how would you vote?”  “What scares the bejabbers out of you?”  “What are your strengths?”  “How do you part your hair?”  I know this stuff about the real people in my life; in order to bring life to my fictional characters, I must know these things about them too.

I’m sure this is the ABC’s of novel-writing to those of you who know what you’re doing, but it’s all new to me.  I feel like I’m learning to swim in the deep end most of the time.  Sometimes I am paralyzed by fear – the water is just too deep.  I keep Bird by Bird on my lap as I write, my little paperback life jacket. 

Next, I re-read the chapter on plot.  Here, Ms. Lamott utters some rather anxiety-inducing words:  Don’t worry about plot.  If you’ve written good characters, plot will happen.  She says it’s like sitting two people down who are getting to know each other – they will act, stuff will happen.  Let it happen.  Oh, God. 

The three most terrifying words in the English language are: Let It Be.  Something I am truly horrible at.  I am a helicopter mom, wife, person – something I really need to go to rehab to kick – and the thought of letting my characters just “be” very nearly gives me chest pains.  But, Ms. Lamott is quite firm (but gentle, of course) on this subject.  She says we cannot impose a plot on our characters.  “Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake.” Their actions regarding what’s at stake will develop the plot. 

So, I toil through the night with my characters.  I interview them, follow them, harass them.  I don’t sleep well but all the same I feel much better by morning.  Before dawn, I began to write again – back on track – with Bird by Bird resting beside me.