Tag Archives: the writing life

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…

Writing on the Run

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I sincerely hope that I never have to go on the lam because if I do, it will surely spell the end of my writing career.  I’ve only been gone two weeks and despite all good intentions, I managed to post ONE blog entry.

[Insert picture of Banshee hanging her head in shame HERE]

Perhaps it is the nature of our vacations.  Perhaps I am not organized enough.  Perhaps I am too:

  • old
  • cranky
  • tired
  • all of the above

What the hell happened?

We brought a computer – mostly for my benefit.  Hubby doesn’t need his laptop to stay connected – he can do everything on his iPhone and he was determined to check emails as little as possible.  I vaguely remember flipping open the laptop early in our stay in Atlanta and then…darkness.

In my defense, we were SO busy in Atlanta.  Tired after the long drive from Toronto (via Cincinnati), we found we had no respite from driving while in our former Southern home.  We literally spent the entire four days there behind the wheel.  With one exception, all of our friends live waaaaaaaaay outside the city.

And, if I’m honest, I partied in Atlanta.  I hadn’t seen some of these people in nearly ten years.  I woke late and went to bed later.

Burnt out, exhausted, and with a cumulative hangover, I set out for Virginia Beach thinking a few days on the shore would restore me, get me back on track.  I thought my biggest worry would be spilling sand or margarita on the laptop.  It was not to be.

The rain poured down – inside and outside our hotel.  Our feet stuck to the room carpet.  I begged the children NOT to expose any bare skin to the bed covers.  We fled the next day.  In our haste to leave, we apparently left behind the power cord for the computer.  Ooops.

Rattled, we fled to a luxurious beachside hotel in Kitty Hawk, NC.  I felt behind in my scheduled relaxation.  It was still drizzling but I was ON THE BEACH.  Determined to get as much time with my old friend, the Atlantic Ocean, I put all thoughts of blogging far from my mind.

Washington DC afforded me no extra time either – being bitchy takes time and energy.  We were all experiencing severe travel burn-out at this point.  The best thing to do was split up – I went for lunch with a dear friend and hubby went on a museum/gallery trek with the kids.  Although we had Wi-Fi in the room, our computer had no battery power left.

We looked northward with dread, I have to admit.  Another long drive with less-than-inspiring scenery (New Jersey Turnpike) and the exhausting prospect of sightseeing in Manhattan.  The good news:  we wouldn’t have to drive.  The bad news:  we were just plain pooped and tired of being cooped up together 24/7.

No power left in the computer, no energy left in me.  I got on the Staten Island ferry hoping that some fresh air (ok, I know its New York Harbour) would perk me up.  I walked to the hotel business center and sat down in front of one of the computers.

The sign read:  Insert Credit Card here.

Free Wi-Fi in the room but not there.  Fuuuhhgetaboutit.

Oh well, I’m more of a yarn spinner than a diarist.  Maybe this is the way it has to be for me.

The piles of dirty laundry in my living room are rivaling the Empire State Building in height.  As soon as we hit the house, we each fled to our separate spaces.   This morning, cup of coffee from my neighbourhood cafe by my side, the laptop was opened.  So simple.

Staying Put

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Washington DC – Atlanta – Chicago – Calgary – Toronto – ? – ?

This is the map of my life thus far.  To me, it seems kind of boring – especially considering my husband’s roadmap.  But to some of our friends, we’re freaks.  For our vacation this summer, we’re visiting some of the places and people we’ve left behind.

Mind you, those people will not want to be called “those left behind” because that implies that they’re stuck or stagnant or stubborn or scared or…settled.

I will be packing plenty of gauze and Band-Aids – the tongue-biting will be epic as these “more stable” friends ask their age-old questions:

“Why do you move so much?

“Wouldn’t you rather just stay put?”

“Why do you insist on raising your kids in a big/dirty/dangerous/busy/foreign city?”

“Why do you live in Canada?”

Just for fun, I’m thinking of starting a rumour that we’re moving to somewhere really bizarre, even for us.  Like, Uzbekistan.

I can practically hear the howls and screeches now…ok, no.  I’ll behave.  Maybe.

Four of five Atlanta friends said they’d be gone after the 1996 Olympics were over.  Their roots are so deep now you’d think they were born and bred there.  Our Atlanta years were the years we “grew up”: got married, bought our first house, had kids.  To hear some tell it, once you have kids you have to settle down, put down roots.

My youngest was five months old when we moved to Chicago.  One whole box shipped (and lost, somewhere in Texas) when we moved to Calgary was full of Costco diapers. Kids are portable to a certain age.  Once they’re in school, moving gets harder on them.  That is why we’re stuck settled in Toronto  for the time-being.  Moving again – especially to Europe – while the kids are in high school would just be too cruel.

I’ve never understood that philosophy of settling down (geographically, anyway). I practically break out in hives at the mention.  I have friends in a certain city who don’t travel outside their zip code.  Upon hearing that we were staying in a hotel downtown, they told me “we don’t go downtown.  Ever.”  I have trouble keeping my furniture arranged the same way two weeks in a row.

Other friends have traveled abroad for business or pleasure only to scurry home bemoaning the fact that everywhere they went was so different.  Isn’t that the point? This time last year, I was sobbing as we left Barcelona.  If I’d had enough Euros, I’d have snapped up a flat in the Barri Gotic right then.

My wanderlust is evident in my writing.  For whatever reason I have a very hard time writing about where I am.  None of my stories are set in Toronto even though I live here.  My writing goes where I want to go.  This makes the travel itch even worse.  I would gladly fly away in the name of research.

I think of myself as forward-looking (as opposed to “unstable”).  I do not shed tears over places left behind.  I don’t think I’ve ever said “Let’s go back there to live!”  I reminisce about certain things of course – favourite parks, restaurants, and people.  Then I close my eyes and think of where to go next.  I want to be the eccentric old dame with “no fixed address,” hopping from Continent to Continent on a moment’s whim.

I do not blame my children for hiding the suitcases from me.  Not one bit.

What Looms

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We all have things that loom in front of us:  bills that need to be paid, projects that need completing, deadlines to meet. Like everyone else, my to-do lists seem to get longer instead of shorter.

Tonight I sit at my desk and see several things on my desk that prevent my horizon from looking smooth and placid.

A pile of bills  really should be paid before we leave on our road trip so that we don’t return to angry voicemails from creditors.  I make a mental note to run out to the money tree tomorrow morning and pull off a few hundred leaves.

The road trip looms and with it a long list of things that need to be taken care of before we put our Jetta in gear.  I start to get little pains in my chest just thinking about what needs to be done starting with double-checking with the neigbhours to see if they are actually going to look after Mad Alyss – or did I just dream that?

Traveling presents its very own brand of looming chores and worries.  Everything from making sure we have adequate cell phone coverage in the States (we don’t so we’ll have to pay extra) to making sure we’ve copied passports, hotel confirmation sheets, and pre-written letters to the Canadian Embassy – just in case.

Dear Sir:  We are absolutely, positively sincerely sorry about the maple syrup incident at the border…

What looms especially large for me is the prospect of being away from my snug little corner where I can retreat/write uninterrupted.  The lack of a definitive ending on The Novel looms alongside the worry that while I’m away, my creative juices will shut down due to car fatigue, distraction, and general vacation malaise.

Item to add to “To Do List”:  notebook/journal for stray thoughts, ideas that may come in handy later.

I ask myself:  should I worry about what looms or should I just plough ahead towards the horizon and take everything as it comes?

 

 

Wandering With a Purpose

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Writers, as a breed, are keen observers. Mostly this skill comes naturally but it doesn’t hurt to hone it.  I try to practice daily by taking a walk.

My walks are not slow meanders; they are purposeful, mindful efforts to get exercise and to clear my head of clutter and noise. I walk at a good clip but I take in everything around me – mostly because I’m worried about falling into a hole or getting mugged.

A sampling of today’s observations:

  • Pale woman, tangled dark hair thrown haphazardly into a pile on top of her head.  She has a stony, determined look on her face as she walks.  She is pushing a double stroller laden with two squirming youngsters.  Her smile is more like a grimace.
  • An angry woman.  How do I know she’s angry?  From a block away, I can hear her slamming the front door of her house, as I get closer I see her ripping open the outer screen door with such force I fully expect it to go flying into the yard.  She is pushing, pulling what look like moving boxes onto the front stoop.  There is no one helping her.  A VW bus is parked at the curb.  The germ of a story begins to form…either she or her soon-to-be-ex-husband are sleeping in that van tonight.
  • A man, Mediterranean descent, walks a good ten yards ahead of his very young daughters, one dressed in a sparkly tutu.  I know part of his story instantly – he is on “kid duty” this morning, charged with getting the girls to their day camp at the local school.  His wife is on the cool sand of the beach, partaking in an early morning yoga class…or maybe…she is farther away.  Much.

On these walks I empty my mind of all the mundane bullshit that usually resides there. What I see pours in.  Sure, I keep a wary eye out for uneven sidewalks, muggers, and suspicious dogs but mostly I look around and wonder.  I wonder about the houses, the people, their pets, their garden plantings and so forth.

A thin ribbon of roadway separates my neighbourhood from the wealthier section closer to the lake.  The houses double in size and double in price the closer to the water I get.  Cars in the driveways go from minivans to Range Rovers.  Front yard plantings get more manicured.  The stories set here can be infinitely complicated and interesting.  I love inserting scandal – it’s like icing on a warm cinnamon bun.

I make it a point to walk by one house every morning.  I call it my house in a quasi-delusional way.  It is a grand house with a superb location.  One of the original beach “cottages,” this structure is way more mansion than cottage.  Constructed of clapboard, it is a stately Victorian complete with wraparound porches and a turret.  I’ve furnished it in my head and of course, my writing retreat is on the top floor of the turret in a canopy of trees. In winter I would have an unobstructed view of the lake.

There’s something curious about this house.  I’ve walked by it for nearly three years, in all seasons.  I have never, ever seen anyone in the yard.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s not abandoned.  Quite the opposite; it is immaculately maintained.  But there is no evidence of humanity – no garden tools left leaning on the porch, no children’s toys or bikes, not even a car left outside the little detached garage.  Its generous porches are devoid of comfortable chairs, hammocks or even a stool for sitting on.

If that house were mine…oh boy, it would look loved, lived in and probably a lot worse for wear.  But damn, the gin and tonics I would serve on those porches would be killer.

Today I encountered a woman walking a black dog. On another day I encountered at least half a dozen people – all walking black dogs.  One woman struck me in particular.  She was walking ever so slowly. The dog ambled ahead with no leash.  There was something about her body language that projected deep sadness.  I wondered and wondered about her as I walked home.

“The Black Dog” is now being sent out to various places, hopefully to be published soon.

Every day brings the potential for another idea, a spark, a story born of a wander and a bit of wonder.

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

The Reunion of Truth

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Today, I have little to report from yet another extraordinary day at the Humber College Summer Writer’s Workshop not because it wasn’t extraordinary (you have no idea how long it took me to type that word correctly).  All the days have been so.  Today, though was notable for at least three reasons – but all for me personally.

  1. Our class, led by Alistair MacLeod, did not shred, eviscerate, mangle, or otherwise destroy my submission as I feared they would.  In fact, they all rather liked it or they said they did and that’s good enough for me.
  2. MacLeod actually used the words “love” with regard to the piece.  No, he didn’t say “I love this story!” but he did say things like, “I love the way you placed the character here,” or “I love the way you illustrated the scene there.”  Stuff like that – just enough to send me over the moon and back.
  3. The venerable MacLeod gave a reading of his short story “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” to the entire assembly.  His rich baritone made the words come alive, prose became poetry and roughly eighty souls were lifted in unison for twenty minutes.

The workshop ends tomorrow.  I am ready and I am not.  My brain is full to bursting; I truly believe I cannot take much more and yet I am loath to see it end.  One of the literary agents and I got to chatting this afternoon; she asked what I was working on.  I described it (badly) and she still said that I should give her a call.

Now, to The Reunion of Truth:  because I was in a state of very high anxiety on the drive to Humber this morning, I devised a little game to distract myself.  The game involves writing a story in my head.  By the time I got from the east end of Toronto to the far western Hinterlands where Humber is located, I had invented a big story about an extended family who are called together for a rather bizarre reunion.  It might not amount to much but we’ll see.  Every spare minute found me scribbling in my notebook.

A good day, all in all.

“Coming to You Live from…A New Corner!”

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Like writing in the middle of a freeway…

When last I bitched…er, I mean groaned…er commented on my workplace surroundings or lack thereof, I was writing from a sketchy, rather sticky laminate countertop smack dab in the middle of our kitchen.  Like being in the flightpath of JKF or LaGuardia.  No peace, no privacy – not even from Alyss the Cat.

Things are different now.

Last night, after a long and emotionally taxing week, Hubby dutifully moved furniture up and down two flights of stairs, patiently inhaling dust and cat dander on my behalf.  The purpose?  To give me some semblance of an office, a private corner – literally – where I can wool-gather without fear of being trampled in a stampede of children.  Where I actually have a door I can shut if things get too loud downstairs (or in my head).

Similar to mine…

The walnut desk I inherited from my mother; it was built around 1860 and sturdy it is not.  Its creaky hinges and frail joints may or may not hold up for long under incessant pounding of the keyboard. There is a padded leather insert where the laptop sits.  I just can’t lean on it as I am prone to do when thinking. Fingers crossed it will be ok.

The chair…hmmm…there is little good I can say about it except that I can adjust its height if need be.  The little wheels catch on the carpet and it is coated in dust and Alyss fur.  It needs a good cleaning.

The corner is not as cramped as I had feared it would be.  Although there is all kinds of bad feng shui – it’s a corner and my back is to the door – I have a large picture window to my left that overlooks the street.  I can watch the progress of sun and cloud; I can watch acrobatic squirrels race along the power lines as they head for the large maple in our front yard. I can peep at pedestrians as they pass,invent stories about them.

The three feet of wall that I face is badly in need of painting. The colour is a hideous no-colour colour.  I want to paint it sunset orange in protest.  Don’t be hasty, I tell myself – the colour must be given careful consideration.  It has to be something soothing but energetic, something that will compliment the strange Canadian light quality that I have yet to figure out.  At the very least, I need some art work in front of me.

My only other major concern is that this corner is in my bedroom.  The bed is mere inches away and perhaps a bit too tempting should I fall into a mid-afternoon slump.  What is to stop me from falling out of my chair and into my bed for a wee nap?  It would not be a productive habit to get into…

By and large, I am optimistic about my corner.  It’s a place, if not a room, of my own.