Monthly Archives: April 2012

Oral Hygiene

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Today’s lesson, children, is about oral hygiene.  There are two types: real and literal.  Yes, I came up with this while a young hygienist was blasting plaque from my teeth with a tiny pressure washer early this morning.  It had been way too long since I’d had a routine cleaning and I was suffering.

Real oral hygiene, then, is taking care of one’s pearly whites so that they stay pearly and white.  As this patient hygienist used every tool in her arsenal to remove the stubborn stuff from my teeth, I resolved to turn over a new leaf which can be summed up in one word: FLOSS.

Say it with me, children:  FLOSS.  FLOSS. FLOSS.  Don’t be lazy, just do it.  End of lecture.

The other type of oral hygiene is literal.  I have now written over 300 pages of The Novel (mind you, this is still a shitty first draft).  Once I feel the story has begun and ended where it should, all protagonists and antagonists have had their say, there will be a selective oral presentation…to the cat.

My plan is (and it is vague and subject to change, whim, phases of the moon, etc) to read the sticky parts.  Parts of the novel where I really want to ensure I’m on key.  If heavy drama is required for a scene, I want to ensure that it sounds…dramatic.  The dialogue has to sound natural.  If I stumble continuously (and I’m sober), words might need to be rearranged, cut.  Sentences might have to be re-worked.  Tone and tenor might have to be adjusted.

I hate reading out loud just like I hate to floss but such oral care is necessary so that all of the words that have been pouring out of me are the right ones, in the right places.  Is it loads of fun?  No.  Will it yield a better novel?  Dear Lord, let’s hope so.  Extra care is always worth it, saving hours of painful pressure washing later on.

 

Fear of Mail

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Recently, I submitted an essay to a Toronto newspaper.  Imagine my shock when my inbox registered one new email from an editor Saturday morning.

Shock, which led to cold sweat, which led to trembling hands that hovered above the keyboard and…quickly shut down the computer.  I scurried out of the room like a frightened skunk (without the odoriferous trail, thank you.  I wasn’t that scared).  Throughout the day, I found myself staring at the unopened message that lurked in my inbox.  “I will open it in the morning when I’m feeling stronger/better/more caffeinated/alone in the house so no one can hear my wails or see me take a long pull from the vodka bottle…” I said to myself.

I pondered telling my husband but knew he would chide me for being so silly.  So I told the cat.  She rolled her eyes and turned her back on me, thus confirming that she believes all humans to be weak and inferior.  This is a kitten who charges at things she’s scared of.  Maybe I should be more like her.

Every time I get a notification from a literary magazine or an editor, I freeze.  Picture a small, helpless animal in the headlights of a car.  After thawing myself, I walk around the house for hours muttering and chiding myself for walking around the house muttering.  What are you scared of? I ask myself.  Rejection.  Rejection, resmeckshun, I say to the scared, frozen part of me.  So what! To steel myself, I convince me that the email is  without question a big old fat jeering leering rejection. My clever little mind imagines it to be a paragraph of cruel, cold, cutting remarks about the truly pedestrian, flatline-inducing banality of my essay.

The object of this exercise, as many of my fellow writers might know, is to make the usual flat, one-sentence rejection (Thank you for your submission but it isn’t what we’re looking for) less devastating, less whimper-inducing.  Preparation is nine-tenths of the battle, I say to myself.

My success rate with this home-brewed reverse psychology is spotty at best.  I very nearly always whimper.

Fear of rejection is the single tallest impediment to a writer’s forward momentum and possible success.  For years, I wrote volumes without submitting it to anyone, anywhere.  Once I tentatively began submitting, I experienced rejection just like everyone else does and I survived.  Yet, every time I am faced with an unopened email, I do battle with myself again.  I tell myself, “Hey you survived the last rejection!  You lived to write again.” Then, a very small voice squeaks out some truly terrifying words:  “Maybe it’s not a rejection?”  Dear God, who had the nerve to say that?

I opened the email from the editor at The Star, with my son standing next to me, holding my hand.  It said (and I quote): “Thanks. I will read and get back to you.”  Nothing scary about that.  The cat rolled her eyes and left the room. I exhaled.

All of Me

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We’ve all heard it before:  write what you know, write from your heart.  I did that today.  It was like giving blood and having the nurse walk away and forget about me.  I gave all of me, everything I had.

No one ever talks about the repercussions of writing from the heart.  If what you’re writing about shatters your heart, then what good are you the next day?  I feel utterly spent, depleted, empty.  Yes, it felt good to write the essay.  It needed to be written; it burst forth from me like an overdue baby.  It had to be said.  And yet, there’s nothing left of me to give to my family, my kids, hell, I even told the cat to leave me alone.

As I finished the essay, mopped up the puddle of tears that had accumulated at the edge of my keyboard, I wondered what to do next.  I thought about posting it on this blog but then I thought no, this subject matter is so important to me, I must get it beyond WeeBanshee.  So, I submitted it to a Toronto newspaper.

I’ve been told that I should start doing this on a more (cough) regular basis but I haven’t had the guts.  Today, I poured every ounce of blood, heart and soul into this piece.  I had no energy left to be cowardly (good thing).  And, often when I sob my way through a story or an essay, I’m often surprised by the good results so I figured I had nothing to lose.

Except everything.

It just dawned on me that, although publication would be nice, the subject matter is so much a part of me if the essay is rejected, it might have catastrophic confidence-busting results.  If I can write from the heart and have my heart stomped on, then perhaps that is investing too much of myself in the material.  Do I hold back?  Do I temper my passion? Instead of writing from the gut should I just try to slide by and write from my cold, dispassionate cerebral cortex to avoid being laid low by rejection?

Or, do I learn to manage the rejection – because thinking that it won’t come either way is just delusional.  Or do I just let ‘er rip, go for it and let the chips fall where they may?

Frankly, I’m too exhausted to care.  The fact is, I let ‘er rip in this piece.  I spared nothing and no one, not even myself.  We’ll see what happens.

Hot shower. Tea. Bed.

Chasing Threads of Light

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Invariably, my best words and phrases come to me in those fuzzy early morning minutes right before my alarm clock goes off.  My mind produces really good stuff then.  When I’m showered, dressed, and fully caffeinated I produce things like “she turned over in the large bed, gazed out through the dirty window glass and wondered if today would be the day she solved the mystery of her existence…”

Yawn.

I know there must be a machine out there – I think I’ve actually read about it – where you hook yourself up and the machine records (in writing?) every thought that pops into your brain.  This would be exceedingly useful to us writers whose best work is done before our bodies are fully able to sit up and write the gems down.  So many people proselytize about keeping notebooks by the bed but honestly, even if I did, I don’t think I could write fast enough.  It would be like taking dictation from Robin Williams…on speed. I lie there amazed every morning at the speed at which my mind spits out ideas, sentences, and sometimes entire paragraphs.  Some of it is quite good. These gifts are long gone by the time I fully wake up.  Sometimes I try.  I scurry, I rush.  I sit panting over a notebook, clutching a pen, eyes scrunched closed; at best, I capture a word or two.  Never a whole thread of light.

So I would gladly hook myself up with electrodes and multi-coloured wiring every night to employ such a device.  Does that make me lazy?  Am I trying to spare myself the routine of rolling up my sleeves and digging deep every day?  I don’t think so – not entirely.

If these elusive threads were just a word here or a word there, it wouldn’t be so frustrating but sometimes entire paragraphs float by on an invisible breeze.  I had one just yesterday but because I was in a hurry and had to get out the door, I couldn’t even attempt.  I remember it was deep, kind of sad – bittersweet? Nope, it’s long gone.

Sometimes, there are no words.  Sometimes I wake up (or part of me does) and I smell something.  The other day the scent of cedar wafted around me. Nothing in our house is made of cedar, there are no cedar closets, and no cedar trees nearby.  I lay in bed and wondered idly if I was having a stroke but then remembered that warning smell is burnt toast.  This was definitely cedar.

I love the smell of cedar.  It reminds me of an island I visited off the coast of Cannes when I was a teenager.  Cedar trees lined the shoreline where the boats from the mainland docked.  The whole island smelled of cedar and lavender; to this day, those are two of my favourite scents.  Cedar also reminds me of a scary cedar forest I drove through once above Fernie, British Columbia.  The whole place was like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale where things go badly for those who venture into the forest.

I’m fairly sure there were thoughts attached to the smell of cedar the other morning but they were either buried too deep or flew through too fast.  Wouldn’t it be fun to capture the threads of light before they dissolved back into the dark recesses of my scattered little brain?

Third Branch from the Top

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[The following is part of a challenge issued to me last night on the subject of journal writing.  My son, Grade 7, has weekly journal assignments where he has to write a page of anything.  Anything. Video games, dinner, splitting atoms.  He thinks it hard.  My husband agreed.  I could write about anything, I say.  Even that tree branch…”Ok, honey, make that your blog post tomorrow…]

8:59 a.m.

The squirrel flicked his tail as he sat in the crook of a tree branch.  The branch was gnarled and twisted, only partially leafed out whereas its neighbouring branches were heavy with leaf buds.   It wasn’t much, but it was home.  Third branch from the top. Doug turned his back to the dead part and inspected his tail which, frankly, wasn’t much to look at either.  He sighed and scratched behind his ear with his sharp claws and then absent-mindedly began nosing dried leaves back into his nest.  He tried not to think about finding a new home; after all, it was spring – a time of hope, renewal, and finding a mate.  A gust of wind came,the third branch from the top groaned as if one more wind would do it in completely.  Doug dug his claws into the wood and held on.  Finding a mate.  He should’ve taken care of that weeks ago but as everyone knew, Doug lived by the last hairs on his tail – leaving everything to the last possible minute.

As soon as the wind died down, Doug scampered out to the very edge of the third branch from the top.  He bounced and swayed.  With the exceptional balance that most squirrels possess, he hurriedly groomed himself, fluffed up what was left of his tail and waited as he did every morning for the little girl to walk ,under his tree.  Ha! There she was, walking as she always did with two or three other humans.  She never failed to stop and look up, waving her pale white paw at him.  He chattered at her and flicked his tail.  She showed her teeth as always and as always, Doug wondered if this was a good thing or a bad thing.  In his world, if another creature showed their teeth to you, it meant you were to get bloody.  If things went badly, you ended up as a meal.

She’d saved him when he was young – he’d fallen out of the nest and was three-quarters of the way mauled by a cat when the little girl appeared, waving her arms and making strange, loud sounds that scared the cat away.  The cat had taken most of Doug’s tail with him but the little girl didn’t seem to mind.  She put him in a box lined with soft warm things.  Doug’s mother complained about how she’d never get the smell of human off of him even though she’d nearly licked him raw when he returned. Doug’s mother had been beside herself for days – chattering on about how Doug was born with so few advantages to start with and now this – his half blond, half black tail hanging in tatters from his scrawny body.

The little girl never lingered but kept walking.  Doug sat on the edge of the third branch from the top for a few more minutes, trying to remember the smell of humans.  A spray of tree pollen covered him in a fine green-yellow dust.  He shook himself from head to tail nearly tipping himself off the branch.  He ran back to his nest, nosed back a few more of the twigs that were sticking out at odd angles.  He was supposed to meet his brother for grub digging later.  Or was it his sister?  He could never remember.

A robin landed at the end of the third branch from the top.  Doug spun in fury.  The robin – fat and fluffy, well groomed and well-fed – everything that Doug was not – eyed one of the few leaf buds on the branch and began pecking at it with his tiny beak.  Doug let out a high-pitched shriek and raced towards the insolent bird.  The robin hesitated for a moment, rudely, and then fluttered away as if he had better buds to pick at.  My branch, my branch, Doug huffed.  Third branch from the top.  It’s not much, but it’s mine.

9:14  a.m.

There.  Not polished, not prize-winning.  It just is.  Easy-peasy.

Held Together by Birds

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Returning home from an early morning dental appointment, my jaw throbbing and my head still buzzing from the nitrous oxide, I open my laptop.  I stare at it vacantly for a moment, read an email from Hope Clarke about e-publishing, feel monumentally overwhelmed and shut it.  I retreat to my bed, attempting to drink coffee without scalding my numb mouth and to get warm under my fluffy duvet.

Not exactly a “go get ’em” start to my day.  Inside this very computer lie pages waiting to be filled.  Can I do it today when I feel so depleted and defeated and it isn’t even noon yet?

I need pampering, gentle-sweet affection.  I look to the cat; she looks away.  I pick up my dog-eared copy of Bird by Bird and instantly feel better.  I’ve spoken before of my fondness, nay, my reverence for this book, its clear, sane advice on how to write.  But as I leafed through it this morning, I didn’t need advice on plot or characters.  I just wanted a friendly, funny, gentle voice in my head. Gentleness combined with a truly wacky sense of humour.  Like having a slightly dotty aunt tell you a story before bedtime.

Anne Lamott seems like every writer I’ve ever known: smart, self-deprecating, hugely insecure but enormously talented. She’s just like the rest of us, sitting down in front of her computer screen every day, waiting for the voices to hush to a dull roar in the background and praying the blank page doesn’t remain blank when she looks up at day’s end.

The blank page freaks most people out.  It doesn’t scare me. Blank pages are opportunities.  For better or worse, words never fail to tumble out of my head.  As I tackle The Novel, I find the hardest thing is knitting one day’s work into another.  I look it over and think,”What the frick was I thinking?  That’s awful!” Or, “That makes no sense – who in their right mind would try to talk to a seal?” and then I’ll turn it into a dolphin.  Things tend to go from bad to worse. I spend the first hour of every morning’s work rocking obsessively in my chair, over-thinking the previous days’ words.

At some point during the day I wrestle with fear.  I have a deep-seated fear a lot of what I’ve written is very, very bad; if read, some might think they were written by the cat after she’d got into the brandy.  More worrying is that someone might read it before it has been fixed.  (Aka “The Shitty First Draft”).  There are at least two approaches to this problem:  one, don’t worry about it.  If I get mowed down by a streetcar tomorrow, I can only hope that God has a sense of fair play (I will come back as a writer again and/or my cat will not get published before me).  Option 2 is I can put the words “SHITTY FIRST DRAFT” at the top in bold, italics, underlined at the top of every piece of unfinished work on my hard drive – just in case.

As Ms. Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor…it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft…” Without the shitty first draft, I’ve got exactly…a blank page.  A blank page won’t get me or the cat published.  Numbness has been replaced by throbbing pain but off to work I go.

The Age of Perfection

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Shameful Confession #1: I wasted a mind-boggling 45 minutes in the skin care aisle of the local drugstore yesterday, mouth slightly agape, trying to figure out which cream, serum, paste, or potion would make me feel better about my  aged, haggard face.

Shameful Confession #2: I walked out nearly empty-handed, carrying only a bag of Two-Bite Brownies even though I’m relatively sure they will do nothing positive for me.

Seriously, what the hell?  Every product claims to be a miracle, every product claims to have the perfect cocktail of ingredients to produce a mathematically “proven” percentage of wrinkle eradication.  What worries is that female consumers (like me) now consider anti-aging products as necessities.  Twenty five year olds are having work done – and not just boobs – so it is no wonder that veritable relics like me wander the drugstore aisles in search of salvation.

My Man and I were watching mindless television recently when an advertisement for anti-wrinkle cream appeared on the screen touting the latest miracle ingredient as “fruit stem cells.”  I looked over at our fruit bowl, eyeing a pear with a long stem still attached and wondered how to extract a few fruit stem cells cheaply.  Could the fountain of youth really exist in my fruit bowl?  Well, more likely there than in the bag of Lay’s potato chips that sat in my lap…

In comparison to some of the really weird stuff out there, fruit stem cells sound quite reasonable. I scanned In Style magazine’s website in my endless search for  a foundation for “mature” skin that doesn’t slide off, cake on, or feel like I’m applying some sort of epoxy.   I encountered some interesting products.

#1:  Something called a “Skin Prepping Tool” that resembles a paint roller with “teeny medical-grade needles.” Roll over your skin “create tiny openings” that will allow the serum to sink in faster.  As I read this, I had two thoughts:  Isn’t that what pores do? and Is punching tiny holes in my face really safe? This blurb actually quoted someone claiming to be a dermatologist who, amazingly, said nothing about the stupidity of aerating one’s face.  Price of this gem?  $200

#2: A device that delivers an electric charge (“painless”) to deliver hyaluronic acid to the skin.  The device looks like a mini-defibrillator complete with adorable little paddles.  Do I shout “CLEAR!” before I zap myself?  Can it be used to restart the hampster’s heart? $129

#3 A cream containing “optical diffusers” and “micronized ruby crystals.”  I want to know if the ruby crystals were nicked from Dorothy’s magical ruby slippers…Hold on, I’ll just go out back and squeeze the unicorn until it farts and get some magical glitter.

#4 According to an expert at In Style, it’s the hollow, sunken look that makes us look older, not wrinkles.  Of course there is a cream available that employs hyaluronic acid to plump up the whole face.  If delivered via the device above (see #2), I’m sure it will happen much faster.

I understand completely wanting to look good.  Sure, its a drag when I look in the mirror and see wrinkles, creases, folds, and assorted other things that weren’t there 10 years ago. I dread the onset of warm weather for the first time in my life because I believe something truly awful happened to my thighs this winter.  Most of all, I want a do-over where I can bathe in a vat of sunscreen before leaving the house every day.  I want to erase the fact that I used to use baby oil and delight in the sizzling and freckling of my pale Celtic skin.  Always a bit delusional, I called it a tan.

It’s hard to avoid the hype – ads shout at us from magazines and the television.   All I can do is drink 8 glasses of water, get my required 9 hours of sleep (ha!), eat healthy (double ha!) and apply SPF 30 or higher every day.  Oh, and exercise (I always forget that one – my bad).

To those of us out there NOT zapping, aerating, or bankrupting ourselves in the name of youth, stay strong.  Eat a piece of dark chocolate every day not because of its anti-oxidants but because it’s freaking delicious.