Monthly Archives: July 2012

Scriptura, Interrupta

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Let’s face it, sometimes life gets in the way.  In typical fashion, I come screaming around a corner, trying to do two things at once and SMACK! I run head first into it.

It is now Friday and I’ve gotten nothing done.  Nothing. Zip. Nada.  The children have both been desperately sick with a nasty flu bug – high fevers, excruciating headaches, and other assorted symptoms too disgusting to talk about.  My brain is just a hunk of non-functioning gray matter taking up space in my skull right now.

The Novel lurks in a desk drawer like a restless demon.  In the middle of the night, I can hear it scratching and banging, begging for attention.  I ignore it. The sheer daunting nature of fixing what is wrong with it, imagining more things that might be wrong with it scares the bejabbers out of me.

At two-thirty in the morning, as I fill a glass at the kitchen sink, I contemplate killing the whole project.

In my gut I know I won’t kill it and then I wonder why the hell not.  As I place cool wash cloths on a child’s fevered brow, I carry on this internal argument.  At dawn I find myself asleep at the wrong end of our  bed, curled up like a small dog.

I need to give myself a bit of a break. I am tired, half-sick, and over-caffeinated.  I begin to doubt every single thing from my use of punctuation to my ability to construct a story to whether my voice is really mine.

The absolute worst thing any writer can do is ignore the natural voice.  It would be like Taylor Swift trying to sing an aria from La Boheme. I’m no opera aficionado but I know that the result would be…painful.  If anyone tries to tell Ms. Swift that she should cut a CD of operatic classics, she should take her hair and whip that person across the face with it.

My voice is pretty well-defined.  Good thing because I’m a lousy imitator.  I know its range and that’s what bothers me sometimes – is it too limited?  Can it ever be richly layered, complex – like a very good wine?  Wine, not whine…

My voice is sounding a bit strangled right now because I’m hyper-ventilating.  Taking a deep breath, I open a book I’ve acquired entitled, A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins.  There is a passage that shines like a lighthouse’s beacon through coastal fog.

When the Irish writer John McGahern was asked how to write good fiction: “he replied that first you write one good sentence, and then you must write another good sentence to follow it.”

Alistair MacLeod said basically the same thing.  He said he takes a long time to write because he’s careful with his sentences.  He writes one sentence.  He ponders it, speaks it out loud.  Then he writes another.  It is a slow, careful process.

This book by Hodgins also recommends throwing down a first draft quickly, with no editing or revising.  Ha!  I think that’s my problem.  I keep forgetting that The Novel is still in shitty first draft stage.  It’s not supposed to be pitch-perfect and it’s ok for parts of it to be horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, and foul.

There’s life: horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, foul.  In the next moment, it’s sweet, lovely, and deeply satisfying.  Writing is no different.  Sometimes, the writer must just slow down and take a deep breath.  And, some Advil.

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The Art of Staying Upright

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Sometimes staying upright is harder than it ought to be.

Today, in my never-ending search for a comfortable desk chair that doesn’t cause me pain in my back, hips, arms, and assorted other areas, I am writing while seated precariously on an exercise ball.

I’m not sure I’ll make it.

You see, I am a Banshee of very little core – as in, core muscles.  Everyone I meet helpfully and cheerfully tells me that sitting on an exercise ball for hours on end will strengthen my core.  I ask you, do you think they sit on exercise balls while working at their jobs? Hmmm?  I think not.

Not only must I master the art of staying upright, sucking in my middle, keeping my back straight yet somehow effortlessly relaxed, I must be creative at the same time.  Truth be told, I’m not much of a multi-tasker so this should be interesting.  Some of my characters might develop fitness issues.

My middle already hurts.  Muscles that have not been engaged in…well, a long time, are now being rudely awakened.  They are not happy.

So, in the next few lines if apeijs’phk’p … that happens, dear readers, you’ll know I’ve slid sideways onto the floor.  If I had a spacious office, this would not necessarily be a problem but in my corner, there are lots of hazards.  There is a sharp-edged nightstand to my left and a metal floor vent at my feet.  If I have the misfortune of rolling backwards off this thing, I’ll be knocked unconscious by my gargantuan IKEA dresser.

So.  Now, I must focus my attention on writing instead of falling.  I’m sure I’ll master the art of staying upright eventually.

 

A Dream of Europe – So Far Away

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In my previous post, I waxed nostalgic about our BEV (Big European Vacation).  This year, we’re going old school:  overloading the Family Car, filling it to the brim with cranky teens, unhealthy snacks, a cooler full of caffeinated drinks and whatever map apps our phones provide.

Remember the good old days when maps were paper? The person sitting in the passenger seat would be in charge of the pile of folded paper maps.  This co-pilot would squint at them, fold them and unfold them, rip them and turn them every which way but the right way while the driver of the overloaded Family Car tapped the wheel impatiently waiting to be told whether to turn left or right.

Trips like these were the reason cheap, ugly motels were invented.  We’re cashing in our Visa points to pay for the hotels en route.  We are even able to stay in some pretty swanky looking places.  But, as you all know, photographs lie.

The trip has been designed to visit friends and to show the kids places where their mom grew up.  Yes, Banshee is attempting to go home again – always a tricky business.

What if these places that meant the world to me are so changed as to be literally unrecognizable?  This is a fear not without basis. Landscapes change, villages change, sand dunes get bulldozed, what if there is a Wal-Mart right down the street from the White House?

I must be very careful not to set my expectations too high.  The places where I frolicked in my youth will be different.  The Atlantic beaches might seem less like paradise now that I’ve grown up.  The salt water taffy shop that I begged my mother to take me to every summer might seem downright tacky and overpriced now.

So, as usual, this trip will become an educational trip for me- with a big lesson on managing my own expectations and not imposing mine on everyone else. And another thing: I’m American; I feel very strongly that my kids should get a taste of where I grew up, the places that mattered to me, the things that I took for granted in my own backyard. At the end of the day, though, I have to let them have their own opinions about these places.

My kids are pretty thoroughly Canadian now even though they were born in the States.  They have acquired very Canadian attitudes towards Americans – an attitude which is difficult to describe.  Consider it a sibling rivalry type of relationship.  I can only pray we do not cause some kind of international incident.

I will be blogging along the way just as I did last year.  Me being me, I’ve already catalogued a list of things to worry about:

American medical care should we become sick, injured, or otherwise impaired.  Hurricane season – late August is prime time.  Faulty memories about my hometown (where the hell is Foggy Bottom?)  My new phobia about  big city” traffic – Perhaps I should send Mayor Bloomberg a quick note of warning/apology…

I’m toast.  Stay tuned…

A Dream of Europe – A Holiday Remembered

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Yesterday, in a hung over state, my husband and I lounged in the living room watching photographs from last year’s BEV (Big European Vacation) flash across our flat screen.

“Gosh, that was a good trip.  Look how happy we were at the Acropolis.” I groaned, holding my aching head.

“Look at that sun-drenched Mediterranean coastline,” my husband murmured from the depths of his big leather chair.

“La Sagrada Familia is just weird,” I commented.  (Ok, that piece of dialogue was real; the others, not so much).

It was a very good trip.  We’ve talked about re-visiting Europe.  The conversation was pre-hangover because in the cold, harsh light of sobriety we know it will be years before we can afford to go again.

Yeah, I know all of Europe is deep in the throes of recession, depression, austerity, and in a month London will be enjoying a whopper of a post-Olympic hangover but I still want to go back.  The Banshee is getting increasingly restless.  We’ve stayed put now for three years…we ain’t gettin’ any younger and neither is Europe.  Venice is sinking, you know.

When do we say, screw it and just do it?  Take the leap we’ve been longing to take for nearly twenty years, trade the North American sizes of homes, appliances, roads, and land mass for the smaller, more economy-sized Europe?

London would be the first choice for a couple of reasons:  language and job.  I have nightmares about making a complete ass of myself in a foreign language whereas I do so daily in my native tongue with no qualms.  Also, Hubby can work in the UK on an “ancestry visa” because his grandmother was born there; London also provides the most opportunity in his line of work.

However, if money were no object: Buon giorno, Roma!  For pure romance, people watching, and authentico street-level lunacy, nothing beats Rome.   I already have my apartment picked out (it will have to be a BIG lottery win).

A photo popped up of me and the kidlets sitting on the Spanish Steps.  We looked footsore but happy. I remember how rushed we were and how many landmarks we simply couldn’t visit because we were  I was paranoid about missing the boat.  I regret not taking Hubby’s suggestion that we miss the boat on purpose and spend the night in Rome.  We easily could have caught up with the boat in Salerno.  Ah, the 20-20 rear view…

My son made an interesting comment.  The wise twelve-year-old said we should not live anywhere that felt magical because as residents, the magic would fade.  Rome would become like anywhere else – like Toronto.  I would bitch about the taxes, the hydro bills, the line ups at the market…I would likely die under the wheels of a Vespa…

So, ok maybe we don’t live in Rome.  Maybe we just have a nice, long visit.  We would immerse ourselves in the landmarks and enjoy leisurely meals off the piazza of our choice.  Then, we would return to our rented villa in the hills outside of the city. The air would be scented with citrus and the only nighttime noise – the sound of a breeze rustling through olive trees…

This is part of the “Lotto 649” fantasy loop…

The beauty of Europe lies not only in its history but also its compact size. Those of us corn-fed and raised on the wide open vistas of North America cannot conceive of driving through three different countries in a day. The sheer network of trains throughout Europe means you can go anywhere by train.  Lots of anywheres.

I long to experience that life before I get much older.  Mobility scooters don’t work very well on medieval cobblestone streets.  Nor do walkers.  Let’s do this, already.  I can hear my husband’s voice in my head:  Patience, patience.  We have to get the youngest through high school.

Ah, he’s smart.  He can skip a few grades, si?

 

 

Toronto the Good

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As I consider the online options for bullet-proof windows in my home, I wonder about Toronto’s nickname, “Toronto the Good.”  Lately, my adopted city has been anything but good as the gun violence escalates into an all-out war with innocent Torontonians caught, quite literally, in the cross-fire.

I have always gravitated towards big cities.  I was born in DC (which by today’s standards is not very big at all), have spent oodles of time in Manhattan and surrounding boroughs, lived in Chicago and Atlanta.  A big city and its attendant woes is not new to me.

My hometown once held the dubious honour of “Murder Capital of the U.S.  In my early twenties, I was adept at discerning a car’s backfire from semi-automatic gun fire.  I drove through even the best neighbourhoods with the car doors locked, always vigilant for a bump n jack as some carjackings were called then.  On more than one occasion, I woke with an acrid burning in my throat caused by tear gas.

Once, when driving to Westchester County  New York, I was forced to detour via the Cross-Bronx Expressway only to be detoured again because there was a sniper on the loose.  I pulled the fastest U-turn ever that day.  I drove back into the city  under the dashboard of my mother’s Oldsmobile.  I once surprised a thief inside my car in an underground parking garage.  Not fun.

In spite of all the violence and risk, I’ve never wanted to be a suburbanite. I would choose an absolutely rural location before I would ever again live in the ‘burbs – my husband and I have always lived in the inner city by choice. This  decision divided us from quite a few of our friends early in our marriage.  To this day, only a handful of our friends live inside city limits and some have barricaded themselves inside gated communities – the modern version of a fortified city with walls and a moat full of piranhas.  That is their choice.

Our commutes are shorter and our kids are getting exposure to all walks of life – good and bad – which they will have to know how to deal with when they grow up anyway (unless they move to Australia’s outback or somewhere else equally remote).  My kids can navigate any big city, they can read any subway map (except the ones in Athens).  They have adeptly navigated Barcelona, Rome, and London.

My kids love the city.  They love the vibe, the crowds, the restaurants.  Recently, Toronto’s deputy mayor slammed all parents who want to raise their kids in the city as opposed to the suburbs.  He cited a particular intersection:  King & John Streets.  Ironically, we had the kids down there on Friday night to meet up with their cousin.  We had the BEST time!  The streets were filled with cars, the sidewalks and restaurant patios were jammed, the theatre district is right around the corner – the city was alive.  At 10 pm when we left the restaurant, our nephew’s girlfriend commented on the masses of people on the sidewalks – yes, that’s downtown life.  That’s how it should be.  Full of people, full of life and noise and streetcars rumbling by.

Of course I am freaked out concerned about Toronto’s recent violence.  It also concerns me that our Mayor’s only solution is an antiquated “run the gangs out-of-town” stance.  Seriously?  Where are they going to go?  Violence, especially gang violence, has deep causes requiring innovative thought  – something our current city government is not capable of.  That scares me more than anything.

In the meantime, my kids will still go out and play in the streets (ok, not literally).  We will take as many reasonable precautions as we can  But, we’re not going to hide in our bunkers or help the mayor build an island in the middle of Lake Ontario for all the gangs.  We will not be fleeing to the suburbs – where, ironically, the worst of the violence occurred.

By the way, “Toronto the Good” was just one Victorian mayor’s wishful thinking.  He had high hopes of changing  Toronto’s reputation as a pit of drunken squalor by giving it a “moral” nickname.  Today, when it is used, the tongue must be firmly planted against one’s cheek.

Toronto, I love you.  You just need a mayor with a brain and a posse of innovative thinkers, not gunslingers.

I Submit to You, Again

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All writers have journals that they’d really, really like to be published in.   I have several on my list but one in particular eludes me and has done for years.

Mind you, the first time I submitted anything to anyone was waaaaay back in 2002.  I naively opened up my handy-dandy copy of Writer’s Market 2002, underlining potential homes for my great literary gems.  I still have that dog-eared book, with the words DO NOT THROW OUT written in black Sharpie across the front. As the rejection notices poured in, I grew weary and quickly lost confidence in my dream.

A year or so later, I saw an ad in Writer’s Digest for a literary journal.  I was immediately drawn to the cover; it looked clean, simple, and unpretentious.  I read their submission guidelines – they merely asked for writers to send them their best work.

My best has never – not yet – been good enough.  For some reason I refuse to give up.  I usually submit one story a year to them which is always rejected.

There are those who would advise trying to model my submissions on those already accepted by the editors.  That idea has never rested comfortably in my gut. My stories come from deep in the well; my voice is my voice.  Modeling a piece just to suit doesn’t seem right.

I’m hoping they’ll eventually publish me, if not for talent, then for sheer pluck.  They (like so many other journals) are not a paying market; this is purely a matter of pride.  I want to be able to say that “Such and Such Journal published one of my short stories.”  So there.  Then I’ll blow a raspberry.

I submitted another short story to them today.  We’ll see what happens.  Maybe in this year of progress and publication, the editors will shout, “Eureka! Where has this Banshee been all our lives!” They will not only publish me but dedicate an entire issue to my stupendous, long-overlooked talent!  Ok, I’ve driven off the road into Fantasyland now…

Am I wrong to keep knocking on their door?  I don’t know.  My writing has improved and evolved over the years; make no mistake, I have worked hard to improve.  Perhaps I need to move on.

There are other fine literary journals out there.  Being published equals not only validation but the feeling of being a solid link in the global chain of storytelling.  It’s in my Celtic DNA.  There is simply nothing more satisfying than passing down a story.

Back to Reality

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I feel a little bit as Dorothy must have felt when she “returned” from Oz – you want me to do whatChores?  Feed the chickens?  Five minutes ago I was wearing some damn nice slippers and now I’m back in my sensible shoes…

Such is the feeling of let-down and decompression since returning from the (brilliant, fantastic, awesome, inspirational – insert all that apply and they all do) writer’s workshop.  I didn’t fully appreciate how exhausted I would feel upon my return to normal life, no longer in the heady air surrounded by literary agents, editors, and award-winning authors.

Let’s just say I was a bit cranky this weekend.

I’m better now and yet I’m determined not to let this experience go to waste; it’s damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead! Dammit cat, get out of my way!  If only I could get my office chair into the perfect, comfortable position…

Two things are on my must-do list today (besides calling the plumber, mowing the lawn, and trying to get this damned chair to work):  follow-up with a literary agent that I met at the workshop and send a nice, handwritten note to the Program Director at Humber College.  My mama taught me that a handwritten note is far more meaningful than a typed one – she passed away before email was commonplace.  The poor man might just fall off his office chair when he gets it but that’s kind of the point.

I nearly made Alistair MacLeod fall out of his chair with the climax of my short story so why not the director of the Writer’s Workshop too? Alistair assured me he was fine and that the scene was “great!”  Working with him was the equivalent of wearing those ruby slippers.

The director sent us into the four winds on Friday afternoon with hopeful words.  He said he hoped that we found the workshop to be “rocket fuel for our writing.”  I share his hope; however, I feel time is of the essence.  I don’t want the rocket fuel to just puddle in my brain, unlit.  I want to ignite it and have my stories take off.

So, no rest for the weary.  I studied my notes as I drafted my email to the literary agent.  Later, I will sit a spell, give some thought to the theme of The Novel.  Careful thought.  I might try a trick that Alistair uses:  writing the last line of the entire thing.  He calls this his lighthouse – it helps prevent him from getting lost in the dark.

You could hear a pin drop as we listened to him describe how he writes.  He said he thinks.  He thinks about this and he thinks about that. He wool-gathers and it sounds so easy.  I sit, thinking and staring out at the busy Toronto streetscape. I picture my mentor who is no doubt back in Cape Breton.  I see the old gentleman perched on a bluff overlooking the deep blue ocean, his tweed cap at a jaunty angle.  He sits, quietly, listening to the distant roar of the sea, weaving thoughts and words into a rich tapestry.

Or, as he also said, stringing the words and thoughts like beads on a string until a necklace appears. It should always be so.