Monthly Archives: June 2012

Writer, Interrupted

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A little while ago, I sat on the floor of my “office” catching pages of The Novel as they spewed forth from the wheezing, smoking printer.  As I neatly stacked it on the floor beside me, a picture flashed into my head.  A similarly thick stack of paper, typed, very black ink, paper almost as thin as onion skin.

Not my work.  My mother’s.

She has been dead for thirty-four years and it is only with the gift of hindsight that I realize she was, wanted to be, more than a mother.  To her misbehaving and largely ungrateful children, she was just Mommy. However, she did her mothering with a certain distance, even though she lived right there with us.  What could have been?

I have come to view my mother as something of an enigma. She had me quite late in her life (forty-five, which in 1961 was unheard of) and because I was such an accident, she left the raising of me to others.  She was done with all of “that” – child rearing.  She also passed away when I was relatively young, before she and I had the chance to bond as women.  She never got to see me in my happy second marriage or meet my extraordinary children.

She was not a happy person.  She wanted a lot of things that she didn’t have.  She wanted to be a lot of things that she, for whatever reason, never managed to accomplish.  She studied opera singing as a young woman but an early vocal cord problem killed her voice.  She was artistic and largely ignored.  Her embroidery and needlepoint skills were amazing.  She was very smart though not formally educated.  She languished in the shadow of my father’s larger-than-life personality.  She became, as my grandmother used to say, “a wee bitter lettuce.”

What I just remembered, scarcely an hour ago, was her writing.  How could I, a writer, forget such a thing about my own mother?

When I was ten or eleven, my father left for another woman.  I could name her now; she was quite famous.  I won’t.  Bygones, you know.  His infidelity was no secret, even to a young child.  She wasn’t the first mistress but she was the one who threatened the somewhat frail fabric of our family unit.  My mother raged from room to room, finally retreating to the guest house because there were too many antiques in the main house that perhaps she was afraid of smashing.  Always the practical Scot, my mother.

It was summer; it must have been.  The windows were open and as I played alone on the wide expanse of lawn, I heard the tap-tap-tap of a typewriter’s keys coming from the guest house.  Every day for the entire summer, my mother sat at the large dining table in the guest house and wrote.

“I’m writing a novel,” she’d say through gritted teeth, a cigarette always burning down to ash beside her.  I’m sure I rolled my eyes and went about my business.  Mommy can’t write novels, I probably scoffed, even though I scribbled away every day myself.

Alone, ostracized by her social set as abandoned women often were, humiliated by her husband, my mother pounded on her manual typewriter.  She explained to me, the eleven year old and the only one left in the house, how it was going to work.  “This is just to make money.  This type of story can make money.”  Did I roll my eyes again?

(As I type this post, I cast a nervous glance at The Novel stacked next to me.  I shiver.  I decide not to give it to my teenage daughter to proofread).

My mother’s writing was her way of thumbing her nose at my father, attempting to win her emancipation, to stand up to his humiliation of her.  Not the best motivation perhaps but it got her through the summer and spared her more valuable antiques from certain ruin.  And that is all.

The story ended, unfinished, interrupted by some long forgotten event:  a cat died, a dog disappeared, I fell off my horse (again) and ended up in hospital (again).  No one knows the reason. She stopped writing.  She never wrote another thing the rest of her life.  Someone told her that her story stank, I’ll bet my life on it.  It was probably my father.  He was really good at saying stuff like that.

I look again at the absolutely mind-boggling stack of paper next to me.  I did that.  All of those words came out of my head.  Does it stink?  Yeah, probably – at least a little bit and maybe quite a lot in places.  Do I want to show it to anybody?  No!  I want to bury it in a deep, deep hole in the backyard – no, someone else’s backyard!  But, I won’t.  I’m a writer.

She was a writer too…maybe.  Just interrupted.

Scalpel, Please!

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Have you ever noticed that most surgeries happen very early in the morning?  I’ve always wondered/worried about that.  Is the surgeon really awake?  Has he had his coffee?  A good, nutritious breakfast?  Did he have an argument with his teenage daughter right before he backed the Mercedes out of the garage?

I should talk.  Here I am, in the wee hours of the morning (well, not really but it sounds so much more dramatic) with no caffeine in my system, contemplating surgery.  My victim patient is already well under anesthesia which isn’t really necessary as it’s just a bunch of words.

Ah, yes.  Time for a little cosmetic surgery on The Novel.  Cosmetic surgery like…you know…some celebrities have had.  In other words, a lot.

I’ve been walking around the patient for a couple of days now.  In truth, I have been walking up to it then scurrying away, frightened to death about what to do, what I must do.  I truly hope real-life surgeons don’t behave this way.  I’m sure they’ve got everything all mapped out before they pull on those snappy latex gloves.  Well, pretty sure.

I’ve been keeping some distance between me and the patient for other reasons besides naked fear.  I’ve been contemplating the best place to begin.  I’ve been contemplating whether it needs just a nip and tuck or an amputation.  I’ve wondered if perhaps a transplant would work – after all, there are at least six versions of this same story on my computer.  I’m quite fond of some of them; not so fond of the whole thing.

Yes!  That’s it! (Cue really horrendous German/Transylvanian accent)  I have come up with an ingenious plan (cue crazy laughter).  I will build a literary Frankenstein!  It will be a masterpiece!!! (cue more crazy laughter)

Ok, you know what this is going to look like, don’t you?  Like the result of a failed quilting class.

Maybe the Frankenstein idea isn’t so good.  More thought might be required.  It’s just that I’m impatient.  I want to get this thing fixed, sewn up, and back in action.  I don’t want to spend all summer in the operating room listening to the incessant beep of the heart/lung machine as it struggles to keep the patient alive.

Kids, this is what happens to a novel written without a plan.  A clear case of trying to run before walking (see word “impatient” above).  Because this story has been in my head for so long, I thought all I had to do was wave my hands over the keyboard and it would materialize magically. Some of it did.  Some of it didn’t.  It now has three eyes, fifteen legs, and it can no longer breathe on its own.  Hence the need for surgery.

I’m wondering if it needs more sophisticated care than I can give it?  I wonder if Dr. Sanjay Gupta is available…he’s a neurosurgeon and adorable to boot.  I’ll just make some coffee and call CNN…

More Than Words

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Now that I’ve finished marching round the house singing Rule, Britannia, I’ve resolved to get back to work.  Yesterday (in between salutes to the Queen), I read a post by Kristen Lamb.  In it, she managed to scare the pants off me – which I have to admit, she does quite often.  It’s not her fault.  I’m easily spooked.

Both she and another blogger I follow, C. Hope Clark, maintain that the act of writing, finishing and polishing something is not the end of the game anymore.  Gone are the days when an author sends an envelope of neatly typed pages to agent and editor and they do the hard work.  Authors today are required to do much, much more than write.

Much more.  Let me say it again in case you thought you’d let your eyes scamper over those words- much more.

As if writing good prose isn’t daunting enough, writers now have to acquire boatloads of knowledge about things that they might have no aptitude for.  In fact, some of the things writers should know (if they want to be anything more than hobbyists) were taught in courses they probably actively shunned in university.

I can’t think of a course I didn’t actively shun in university…I really should send them a thank-you for graduating me with a degree.

To make matters worse, we have to learn about things that didn’t even exist when some of us were in university.

For me, social media is the mystery.  Blogging?  I resisted for years – what could I possibly have to say? No doubt some of you are asking yourselves that very question about me…  Facebook (and Mark Zuckerberg) were just twinklings in the ether.  Twitter? Isn’t that a nervous laugh?  These are things we must now not only be aware of, we have to become expert in IF we want anyone other than our mothers to read our work.

Hope Clark has been documenting the birth of her novel, Low Country Bribe and frankly, I get exhausted just reading about it.  She lives in South Carolina but for a few weeks recently I thought she had moved to Pennsylvania.  Or, was it Indiana?  Between book signings, writer conferences, and other publicity events, the woman hasn’t been home much. All the while, she has maintained her presence on the Internet.  Poor thing probably Tweets in her sleep nowadays.

She has posted quite a few photos of herself, seated at cloth draped tables (no doubt she had to provide both table and cloth) with stacks of her novel beside her, smile on her face.  Maybe she enjoys this sort of thing but I don’t know.  After all, she wrote a book entitled The Shy Writer.  If any of us are shy, we need to get over it.  Now.

Hope has long been proselytizing about the need for authors to get out there, be visible, toot their own horn.  However, I think even she must be slightly gobsmacked by the sheer physical effort it takes to publicize and sell a book. (Note:  she is not self-publishing this book either).

What I’ve gathered from both Kristen and Hope is that authors must be prepared to practice in the following areas: public relations, marketing, legal, public speaking, fundraising, medical, spiritual.

Medical?  Yes.  You must be adept at restarting your own heart when the stress gets to be too much.  No agent is gonna do it for you.  Spiritual?  Anything that appeals to you, be it prayer, voodoo, dervish-ing – whatever floats your boat and gets you through the sales pitch you will have to make to innumerable independent booksellers.  It can’t hurt. Legal?  You’d better know your rights at the very least.  A course in basic contract law, perhaps.

I get chest pains just thinking about it.  So, in addition to writing well, would-be authors should also train as if for a marathon or triathlon for stamina and energy are also needed.  A firm tushie will help with those hours you sit on hard metal folding chairs as you sign copies of your book.

But, as with all things literary, there is no guarantee of success.  At least I might end up in killer shape; and, if I do it write (Freudian slip! Meant to say “right”), I will reap more rewards than just a firmer tushie.

Little Ships

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Hello, my name is Banshee and I am an Anglophile.  I should be in an Anglophile protection program as my ancestors sloshed ashore at Plymouth Rock.  But I get all teary eyed at the first strains of God Save the Queen and I need a box of Kleenex when I hear Jerusalem.  Suffice it to say,  I got weak-kneed and goosebumpy watching video of the Jubilee flotilla on the Thames.

Boats and sailing vessels of every conceivable shape and size plied the broad, tidal waters of the river that cuts through the heart of London; “our liquid history,” as one commentator said.  There was the majestic splendour of Gloriana, the first royal barge to be commissioned in over one hundred years, complete with gilded paddles.  There were kayaks and canoes (two that I saw from Canada!) and every other kind of vessel from kayak to navy warship representing the British Isles and the Commonwealth.

Nearly every boat had a story. The best of the lot was not Gloriana or The Spirit of Chartwell but that mini-but-mighty flotilla of ships affectionately known as Dunkirk’s Little Ships – a flotilla composed of both fishing and pleasure craft that sailed across the Channel in May 1940 to aid in the rescue of stranded troops on the beaches of Normandy.

The Daily Telegraph posted an interview with an owner of one of these boats today.  He talked about this special fleet and what they mean (or should mean) to Britons.  If not for the bravery of this impromptu navy, over three hundred thousand soldiers could have been lost.  That’s a staggering number.

The dramatic rescue of soldiers by these civilian vessels marked a psychological boost for Great Britain and yet harkened darker hours to come.  In 1940, things were looking grim for Britain.  The Germans had amassed a huge attack the Allies were unprepared for.  They fell back to the beaches and were trapped.   After “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” Winston Churchill gave one of his most famous speeches telling Britons to prepare for invasion as it became obvious they might stand alone .

When I was very young, I read a book about Dunkirk.  In it, two young children from the south coast of England stowed away on their grandfather’s boat, hoping for a great adventure.  The story has stuck with me – I wish I could remember the name of the book and author.Regardless of how you feel about the Queen, admittedly some of her subjects have embodied the meaning of valiant. “Operation Dynamo” shone a light on the  valour, pluckiness, and sheer British-ness of the British.  An island threatened, invaded, never truly conquered.

Fifty Shades of Okay

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I applied to a summer writing program yesterday.  I feel relatively sure I won’t get in  – especially after I read their FAQ page.  The answer to the question”what writing level is accepted?” puzzled me.  ALthough they say that they’ve taken outright beginners as well as published authors, the administrators said they do not usually work with “mass market work.”

What the hell does that mean?  They want to work with authors that no one will ever read? Call me crazy but it sounds a bit…limiting.  Are mere mortals like myself not to apply?  Or did I misunderstand the answer?  What kind of writing is good enough?  It’s a question nearly impossible to answer.

There is nothing like exceptional prose – the writing flows, the story captivates, evoking emotional responses.  As a writer, to hit those notes is a feeling unlike any other.  I experienced something akin to a “runners high” once when a teacher described my prose as “lyrical.” But lesser praise is fine.  “Very good” or  nicely done” can assure a good night’s sleep.  “It ain’t dreck” is reassuring too.  But am I good enough?  If I poll three different readers, I might get three different answers.

My answer?  No.  I will never be good enough.  Or, I will never stop trying to be better.

What constitutes “good writing” and a “good read” is incredibly subjective, as different and diverse as the shades of gray. One man’s gun-metal is another man’s pewter.  Some think gray an incredibly versatile colour, almost magical in its ability to change hue with changing light.  Others find it dull and dreary.  In a writer’s world, whether a manuscript is considered magical or dreary is for someone else to decide.  Two editors might yield two different decisions.

It has always been so and yet sometimes it seems anything can get published.  If my cat wrote something that was on trend, she might very well get published though she’d be hard pressed to use the word cat in a sentence correctly.  Can I blame the workshop admission people for having high standards when standards might be falling?

A few years ago, following in Twilight‘s wake, if your story contained angst-ridden, sexually repressed and impossibly good looking vampires, you were in.  After The Da Vinci Code, if you wrote about a)the Vatican b)Templars c)riddles hidden in the Holy Land that could only be solved by a boring Ivy League professor, you were in.  Stay tuned for a glut of  stories about uber-wealthy, sexually twisted men who deep down just want to be loved but who are, in the meantime, ok with having page after page of steamy sex.

All someone like me can do is strive to craft the best stories possible.  Trust me, I labour over every word.   I do not chase mediocrity as if it were the ice cream truck nor am I fond of thin, exclusive air.

To my craft I am: Careful. Passionate. Thoughtful. Devoted.  I think workshops should want writers like me.