Monthly Archives: September 2012

Curiosity

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This is actually Sable Island off Nova Scotia, not my island.

The old adage goes, “Curiosity killed the cat,” and while that may be true for hapless felines, it is not true for anyone who writes fiction.  Curiosity is like oxygen.  It breathes new life into old, tired storytellers.  Like me.

Yesterday, for reasons I cannot now recall, I was perusing Google maps.  I was off the East coast of the U.S. when I discovered an unfamiliar landmass off the coast of ______.  I’m being deliberately vague here because if I disclosed what state, I might get into trouble.

Curiosity led to further digging; the landmass is a privately owned island.  Not that this is a particularly remarkable discovery – there are loads of them up and down the east coast.  Further curiosity revealed that this particular island has been owned by the same family, uninterrupted by wars, deaths, and lawsuits for hundreds of years.

Hmmmmm…private island, ancestral lineage, old money, persistent eccentricities…I smell a story.

Enter practicality, if just for a moment.  I’m not a historical fiction writer; I cannot fathom tackling the saga of such a family through the centuries.  I’m more interested (curious, if you will) about the culture clash between the generations of such a dynasty.  Immediately, I thought of all the eccentric characters I knew growing up on the coast.  Salt air breeds not only rust but decidedly colourful people.

My mind is swimming from the mainland out to this island. A mere speck on the map, its sandy shores are barely holding their own above the rising tides. A slightly crazy patriarch.  His daughter and son – both of whom left the island wanting to discover the “real” world on the mainland.  A cast of eccentric relatives.  A family at the mercy of the tides and time.  Run-ins with storms and the Coast Guard.  A history of piracy (rumoured).  A scandal from a hundred years ago.  Bagpipes.  Shoals.  Learning to accept (and love) the family you’ve got no matter how crazy they are.

Yeah.  I’m turning off the phone.  I’m going to be busy this afternoon…I’ll be on my own private island.

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The Slowdown

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I sit unwashed and pajama-clad.  The kids are gone, the cat is riding a skateboard around my kitchen.  Bono croons in my ear thanks to my iPod.  I am trying, determined and grim-faced, to write something, anything.  Just a sentence.  Please, God. Just a sentence.

Good job, kid.  You’ve managed eight quasi-sentences; not pretty, not perfect but there they are – words on a page in a straight line, in English.  Why the sudden struggle you ask?

Well for one thing, its Fall.  As the weather cools, things tend to slow down inside my head.  I swear I was born to hibernate – me ending up as a human was a boo-boo on someone’s part.  I eat copious amounts of idiocy-inducing carbohydrates and think constantly about sleep.  Thoughts and movements become sluggish.  My husband should realize that my appearance at the gym last night was nothing short of miraculous.

More sobering: I’ve gone back on antidepressants.  For anyone who has suffered from depression chronically, you know the medication can be as much of a curse as a cure.  Apparently in order to boost mood the brain needs to come to a grinding halt.  It makes no sense to me but there it is.

I have to say that the drugs have come a looooong way since I was last at their mercy.  I remember being on Paxil one bitter Calgary winter.  I was at the stove stirring something.  In a near-stupour, I stirred that pot for an hour until someone gently took the spoon away  and stood me in a corner.  I was robotic but really not too concerned about it.

Nice.  In those days, I was driving very small children around in snowy, icy conditions.  It makes me shudder recalling how completely out of it I was.  I didn’t write.  I didn’t even think.  The modern drug that I’m on now doesn’t make me quite as dopey but I am shite at parking the car suddenly.  And I don’t care.

What I do care about is the fact that my creative tap has been shut off.  The odd idea floats by but I can’t react fast enough to grab it and set it down on paper.  The Novel is literally a chapter or two away from completion.  I wrote a pivotal scene right before I went on medication.  It was bad – it careened between happily-ever-after and desperate cruelty.  Eesh.  I’m afraid to even open the file.

I could finish it.  I could wrap everything up in a neat, tidy bow and be done with it but I know it needs a substantial re-write.  I know I’m not capable of doing it right now.  Because I need a haircut and a nap, not necessarily in that order.  It’s 9:15 in the morning.

What tidings will Winter bring?

Writing the Hurt

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My favourite scene from a Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie whose title I’ve forgotten is when she sits at her computer, sobbing buckets.  She is a writer and as such, she can do nothing else but write about her most unfortunate liaison with Jack, a gut-wrenching episode in her life.  She cries so much her computer is in danger of short-circuiting from salt water damage, she sits in a sea of Kleenex.  It is hilarious.  It struck a chord with every writer who saw it.

That which is written from the heart or the deepest part of your gut is likely to be the most authentic work.  Truth in writing resonates with readers.

Such writing is painful.  Probably on a par with having your fingernails and toenails systematically plucked out while simultaneously being prodded with a hot poker.  Or, perhaps if you were possessed by a demon and had to undergo an exorcism by a particularly sadistic priest.  Or, being burned alive.

That’s the kind of pain I’m talking about.

Writing produced in such a way is the writing you will have to hide from family members or publish under a nom de plume because invariably its about them – unless you’re very, very brave.  But that’s ok.  Nom de plumes are fun – I’ve already got three myself.

Writing the hurt is worth the pain.  The process is difficult.  I’ve paced countless footsteps in front of my desk, pushed myself away from the keyboard because it felt as though the keystrokes burned my fingers – the words hurt so much.  I’ve agonized – is it too much?  How can I say that?  Why does my mind go there?

What is this weird desperate need for attention that prompts writers to reveal, through the vehicle of fiction, their deepest fears and sufferings to total strangers? I sometimes think therapy would be healthier…

The Slow Slog to Salvation

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School is back in session.  The weather has turned with the abruptness of a quickly turned page.  Everyone is in “back to the grind” mode.  That includes me.

Aside from posting anecdotal blogs about our summer vacation, there is a virtual autumnal cornucopia of story ideas floating around my head.  On top of those, The Novel is close – make that very close – to being finished.  The Shitty First Draft, that is.  I’m already coming up with ideas on how to change it.

For the first time in  a while, I gave The Novel an entire days’ attention yesterday and it felt good, productive, worthwhile – like getting back to the gym does.  Sure, the muscles are stiff and reluctant but once they get warmed up, it’s like you never got off the elliptical or the stair-stepper or whatever.

The creative mind is a muscle that must be exercised regularly, given proper nutrition to build it, and proper rest to…well, rest it.  Believe it or not, sometimes the story needs to sit and stew awhile.  Having said that, I get ansty and cranky when I don’t “work out” the creative part of my brain – just like some people get homicidal when they don’t visit the gym regularly (I wish I was like that).

See – I’m trying to justify what a lazy ass I’ve been all summer.  I envy writers who can knock out a novel in sixty days.  At least, I think I do.  When I’m staring at the page wondering whether Aunt Alexandra should laugh off the latest tragic turn to her life or throw herself off a cliff, I envy writers  that seem to have it all figured out in advance, who can make snap decisions.

But, no matter.  It’s Fall, if not officially by the calendar then by every other indication.  It’s back to work time.  Back to the writing life that keeps me grounded, happy, and whole.

The truth is, I get grumpy when I take any time off from writing.  There is salvation in the telling of the tales.

Birthplace of a Banshee

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I have to admit, I got nostalgic as our crowded, sandy Jetta sped (figuratively speaking, of course) along once familiar highways.  Road signs pointing to places like Jamestown, Williamsburg.  Closer to DC, the signs read Woodbridge, Quantico, Potomac Mills.

Things kinda ground to a halt where they always have done:  Tyson’s Corner.

There, it seemed the Beltway, Washington’s legendary ring road, was being revamped.  An endless line of traffic stretched from suburban Virgina, across the Potomac, and well into Maryland.  Day-um.

I know the Beltway.  It doesn’t scare me or intimidate me but like everyone else who drives it, the damn thing frustrates me.  Clearly, nothing had changed in that regard.  What has changed since I left my hometown in 1993 is the sheer volume of traffic.

Jesusmaryandjoseph, the TRAFFIC.  First I supposed it was construction.  Then I mused that it was the downpour combined with the construction. Then, over one hour later, having not gone more than two miles, I considered the fact that there were too many cars on too little highway.  Looking around as we sat – what else could we do – I looked at the new lanes under construction and knew instantly they would not be enough.

Welcome home, Banshee.

Talking to friends during our visit, the consensus is that too many people drive in DC.  There is constant gridlock – on every freeway, parkway, avenue, and side street.  If a goose so much as poops on Connecticut Avenue within an hour of rush hour, it will cost motorists hours of delay.  They will sit and sit and fume and fume (as we did) and they will never see any evidence of a problem – just the endless glow of tail lights ahead of them.  The goose will have made it back to Canada before commuters in DC get to their homes.

‘Nuff about traffic.  Once we made it to our hotel, The Madison on 15th Avenue NW, we were almost too pooped to notice our luxe surroundings.  The Madison is a posh hotel where power brokers come to schmooze each other.  The game hasn’t changed in this town.  The outdoor cafe was full even as we dragged our road-weary selves in around 11 pm; everybody in it oozed something – money?  Power?  Importance?  We oozed burger grease and sand.

The linens on the bed were the finest we’d felt yet.  The decor was the epitome of understated elegance.  Thank you, Visa rewards points for this hotel I murmured as I passed out on at least 101 bed pillows.

The next morning I awoke to find my husband gone.  This is not at all unusual.  He likes to wake early and get a lay of the land before he herds us sleepy folk around.  I knew roughly where we were – the Washington Post Building was two doors down and the White House was right around the corner – but the husband likes to explore.  Plus, he’s well-trained to scope out the nearest Starbucks for me as I don’t go very far at all without a latte.

Sure enough, he had it all worked out by the time we got up.  The plan on this very, very hot day was to see:

  • The Smithsonian’s Natural History and Air & Space Museums
  • The White House (from the outside)
  • The Spy Museum
  • any other art gallery or museum that was free

The Smithsonian complex crams no less than ten museums within a mile and they’re all FREE.  The Potomac River along the Tidal Basin is also chock full of things to see – also free. That said, it’s nearly impossible to see everything in one day – the museums are huge and crammed full of fascinating (ever-changing too) exhibits.  By the time you get to the memorials on the river, you’re at risk of falling into the water due to exhaustion.

On this day, I left the museum trekking to the family; I paid my respects to the Gems section (Hello, Hope Diamond!) and then I split.  I had a lunch date with my dearest friend from DC who is like a sister.  If I ever get famous and if she ever decides to write a book – WHEW!  I’m in trouble.  That kind of friend.

I walked up Constitution Ave to 12th St. NW and hopped on the Metro at Federal Triangle.  I scurried by the IRS Building with my head down (yeah, I owe them some money). During the short walk, I noticed how clean everything was.  DC looked like it was all spiffed up for a party.  I also noticed how lovely the buildings, the trees, and the wide streets were.  It’s a beautiful city, my city.  It’s funny how we can live in the midst of beauty (for over thirty years) and fail to see it.  Was it always this nice?

Once I figured out the Metro ticket machine (thank you little old man from the info. kiosk!), I was on my way.  On DC’s Metro system, riders pay by distance; the further you go on the line, the more it costs.  Unlike Toronto where you pay $3 whether you go one stop or 20. Fares increase during peak hours.  Based on the traffic I’d seen, it was clear more people needed to ride it.

After a lovely lunch, my friend and I battled midday gridlock to get to her house in a close-in suburb.  Around six pm her husband joined us for the rush-hour gridlock back to the Metro station nearest their house.  Here’s the thing about the transit system in DC: once you get to your stop, you might still have a long commute to your house (if you live in the suburbs).  Yikes.  If I ever live there again, it will be downtown.

Over dinner that night at Irish pub in the heart of the city, the family recounted their day.  The kids’ favourite place had been The Spy Museum.  It sounded awesome – very interactive.  The kids were fascinated by the prevalence of spy games during the Cold War. Offices, hotels, and restaurants were all bugged back then.  DC was on the front lines; there was a spy on every corner.

DC is the epicenter of great power.  The architecture reflects this.  As we walked by the Old Executive Office Building my husband commented, “This whole place was designed to impress.”  Absolutely.  Maybe Washington has always had to prove itself, to “dress for success”; that’s why there is so much grandiose architecture downtown. Back in the beginning, the U.S. had to fake it til it made it.  Nothing like a lot of marble and gold leaf to accomplish the effect.

So much there wasn’t time for: the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials – I know that even my somewhat jaded teens would’ve been moved and impressed.  The Capitol Building, surely one of the most wondrous sights.  Then there’s Georgetown – a perennially hip district once full of boutiques and funky shops.  A side trip to Mt. Vernon would’ve been cool too (the kids are always asking me about George Washington).

Nonetheless, Washington, birthplace of Banshee, got a huge thumbs up from everyone.  We will surely go back and see much more.  Thanks grande dame by the Potomac, hopefully we will see you again soon!  I am proud to call you home.

The traffic, though.  Get that sorted.  It reminded me a lot of Congress:  perpetual gridlock.

Cats, Ducks and Nags

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For the uninitiated, place names on the Outer Banks seem a bit odd.  Ancient fishing villages like Nag’s Head and Kitty Hawk and Ocracoke sound whimsical at the very least.  Their history is every bit as colourful as their names.  Ocracoke was home port to Blackbeard.  Legendary Cape Hatteras  has witnessed the death of countless ships and sailors on its treacherous shoals. Corolla is home to wild horses descended Spanish ships that foundered off the coast.  The Outer Banks are so much more than just beach.

However, the beach is the primary reason anyone from the mainland sets foot on these narrow barrier islands.  There are literally miles and miles of beach and the water is warm; the waves, respectable.

I’ve been going to the Outer Banks probably since I was an embryo.  Some of the earliest photographs of Baby Banshee were taken on the beach at Kill Devil Hills where I sat baking in the summer sun in an ill-fitting red bathing suit and a small straw hat.  My last visit, until a couple of weeks ago, was when I was fifteen.

A recent issue of National Geographic magazine re-awakened a strong tide of desire to see my Atlantic beaches again.  I did some math; it had been thirty-five years since I’d been to my summer playground.  Disgraceful!

So when my husband was cobbling together our summer road trip, I knew we had to pass through North Carolina to get from Atlanta to Washington DC.  We would be so close – couldn’t we just veer eastward for a couple of days and sink our toes into some Atlantic sand?  I pleaded (it was whining).  I shed tears and lamented that my children had never dabbled their feet in the Atlantic Ocean – an oversight that rendered this East Coast girl a negligent parent.

Once my husband agreed to the detour, I regaled everyone with tales of my beachy summers – climbing the East Coast’s biggest sand dune, the Wright Brothers, how my mother used to be able to buy fish right off the piers, Mr. Midgett’s fruit and veggie truck, the cottage, the sea, the salt, the sand…

Upon our arrival at the Hilton Garden Inn at Kitty Hawk, fresh from our disastrous hotel experience in Virginia Beach, my children heard there was an indoor pool and hot tub. Seriously?  My youngest rooted around for a charger for his DS.

I stood on the balcony of our room and looked out at the ocean.  And burst into tears.  Why didn’t anyone get it?  Mind you, we’d only just arrived but still…

Gently, patiently, my husband tried to explain that to the kids it was just a beach, an ocean.  Nothing more, nothing less.  It was a hotel with Wi-fi and room service.  I grumbled but knew he was right.  It was impossible for my children (or my husband) to appreciate the meaning a place called Kitty Hawk held for me.  I came to realize that my memories were largely unshareable.

In spite of threatening skies, I ran down to the beach.  I sat down and let waves break right at my feet. Surf rushed around me.  Soon my skin and hair were caked with salt and my bathing suit was filled with sand.  I was three years old again and happier than I’d been in a long time.

My daughter appeared at my side, gazing apprehensively at the crashing waves. Here was my opportunity.  I stood up and waded out into the surf and she followed.  Soon we were being knocked around by the surf.  We were soaking wet and holding our suits on for dear life.  We shrieked with laughter and ran in and out of the water trying to escape what we used to call “the washing machine.”  The boy child was more reticent but soon he was in there too.

That night, already enamoured by the place, my husband bought an embarrassing amount of beach paraphernalia – shovels, buckets, diggers, skim boards, frisbees…as if the kids were five years old.  Nonetheless, everything (except maybe the skim boards) were put to good use. We all found our inner five-year old again on that beach.

That is the beauty of the Outer Banks beaches – they are tailor-made for family fun.  There are no nightclubs – the closest you’ll get is some dude with an acoustic guitar playing on a  restaurant’s rooftop deck.  There are no casinos and no tacky boardwalk.  There are restaurants that cater to families, eclectic clothing shops, motels run by the same family for generations, and an assortment of “beachy” tourist stores.  The most radical thing you’ll see are the mini-putt golf places built to look like pirate ships.

Mostly there are cottages – my husband and I walked down the beach for hours just looking at them.  They literally come in all shapes and sizes.  Some have rooftop decks that you wouldn’t dare have one cocktail on because getting down would be so dicey.  These cottages are awash in sand, damp bathing suits and towels, and tuckered out kids.

Family vacationing is the essence of the Outer Banks. Although there are way more cottages there than when I was a kid, the place has not lost its family feel.  Just avoid the “highway” where all the fast food restaurants are (although if you ever go – you must go to Capt. Frank’s – it’s on the highway around mile post 4 or 5.  Best cheese steak I’ve had in a while.  It’s a no-frills kind of place but it puts anything like McDonald’s or BK to shame – as it should.  Don’t let the girl behind the counter scare you.  She’s just busy as all hell.

Another good place is right by the Hilton – Rundown Cafe.  We ate at The Black Pelican on our last night but I seriously can’t remember what I ate.  It wasn’t bad – just not memorable.

Seriously, you could spend all summer sampling the restaurants there.  Some good, some tired and some have literally been there since I was a child (Port O’Call Restaurant).  We wanted to try Awful Arthur’s.  Or, Tortuga’s Lie.  Or, (ahem) Dirty Dick’s Crabhouse (the T-shirts are hilarious).  We just didn’t have enough time.  We did find time for the most amazing (and not at all healthful) breakfast pit stop:  Duck Donuts.  Made fresh while you wait, they come to you warm.  They are melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

Before I knew it, it was time to leave.  Someone I know cried all the way across the causeway back onto the mainland.  Memories flooded my brain like a storm tide.  My mom cooking bluefish in a pound of butter.  My dad flying down at weekends and skimming the surf in his Beechcraft Bonanza (giving my mother a fright).  Leaving the cottage after breakfast and being dragged reluctantly off the beach for dinner.  Paddling out beyond the breakers and floating on a raft for hours (pre-Jaws).  Falling asleep in a giant Adirondack chair on a deck overlooking the ocean, my long hair sticky and hopelessly tangled with salt.

I hope my children think well of this place I hold so dear; however, I don’t hold out too much hope.  When asked if they wanted to try to rent a cottage there next summer, both declared it the most boring place on earth.  What is wrong with these people?

I’ll be back!

I will make the 13 hour drive – alone if I have to.  And, I’m taking the puppy.  You people are on your own.

[Note:  we don’t have a puppy.  But, if we did…]

Next stop:  Washington DC  – home town!