Tag Archives: the writing life

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.

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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.

Creature of Habit

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Every morning I indulge in the same procrastination…er, I mean…pre-work routine.  I eat breakfast, drink a cup of coffee, and read a retinue of newspapers and/or news site headlines.

If there are no interesting headlines, I spend an inordinate amount of time engaging in headache-inducing staring contests with the cat.  Most days though, there are plenty of headlines to pique my interest.  I’ve noticed over time that I am drawn to those of a more sensational nature.

For example, this morning on CNN’s website, I found the following to be (perhaps) worth a second look:

Pastor Dances with Poisonous Snakes (video)

A note about videos – I generally never watch them especially those sent in by what CNN calls iReporters – amateurs who take videos on their cell phones and then send them in to CNN.  I won’t watch the poisonous snake video; I just liked the headline.

Here’s another one:  Lifeguard Fired for Aiding Drowning Man – This is an article that bears reading IF and only IF the headline actually has anything to do with a lifeguard being fired for helping a drowning man – a preposterous notion.  I am constantly amazed at how misleading headlines can be.

Dying Teen to 911: “Grandma Shot Me!” – sadly, this headline speaks for itself.  If I’m feeling morose, I will read on.

LeBron James Balloon Sculpture – I will look at this only if I am really irritable.  How is this news?  It might lead to a nasty email to CNN depending on how energetic I am and how badly I want to delay diving into The Novel.

27 Must-Sees on Earth – I am curious that there are only 27.  I am curious to see if I’ve seen any of them yet.

Cat Litter Linked to Suicides – How can I resist?  How could anyone resist this one?  Even if there weren’t incidences of suicide in my family, I would be curious.  I have a cat.  I am the one who empties her litter box.  Am I doomed?

Can Spanking Cause Mental Illness? (video) – again, a no-brainer.  The first thing that struck me was that it’s a video.  I am from the generation of people who were spanked as children – again, am I doomed?  Must find out…

I usually read several newspapers as well.  I start with our local paper in Toronto where I can read about the heat wave, the increase in violent crime – due to the heat wave (Canadians have very little ability to tolerate excessive heat), our grumpy mayor, and more on the heat wave…bored, I move on to The Globe and Mail which is a more nationally focused publication.

I can read about how people in Quebec are angry, people in Ontario are getting poorer by the second, the Prairies are either too hot or too wet to suit the farmers, Alberta is rolling in money but still complaining about something, and it is raining in Vancouver (it is always raining in Vancouver but somehow it’s still newsworthy).  The Maritimes are feeling left out  of something and as usual, things are rather quiet in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Either that or there are no reporters up there.  Oh, and Canadians are generally disgruntled with their prime minister but are not inclined to do anything about it.

From there, I head across the pond to England and The Telegraph. I don’t know why I chose The Telegraph; quite honestly, it’s a grumpy paper. Or, maybe Britain is just grumpy these days   Photographs indicate that David Cameron needs to eat more fibre and could someone please buy that man some more interesting ties?

I read the Mirror only for their snarky, sometimes extremely witty gossip section, 3 A.M.  Today in the Mirror: What is Cool – Scientists Discover Secret of Coolness.  Presumably, these were the scientists not working in Switzerland at the super collider discovering the Higgs boson.

After finishing this routine of news-gathering and caffeine-ingesting, I sit and stare at my computer screen for a bit, chewing my bottom lip and trying to figure out what else I can do to delay working.  Ah, I haven’t checked Facebook yet today…

 

Back to School

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For those of you without calendars, fear not. September has not arrived yet.  It is, however, back to school time for the Wee Banshee. I am preparing for a week-long workshop in Toronto where I get to have my writing er…critiqued and molded (please, God)by none other than Alistair MacLeod.

I am not prepared, mentally or physically for this event.  A certain family crisis has left me with the mental aptitude of a sea-snail (my apologies to all sea snails) and the stability of the Titanic after the iceberg.  I cry if the cat looks at me wrong; I can only imagine what Dr. MacLeod will make of me.

Dear Alistair,  Forgive me in advance.  I might snivel.  I promise to bring Kleenex.  I won’t use your sleeve. Cheers, WeeBanshee.

The seven-day workshop involves five morning sessions with mentors followed by classes featuring publishers ( Knopf Random House, Penguin, and several independents), agents, and authors every afternoon.  We can choose to submit our writing to an editor (Random House) for a “flash assessment.”  Read: flash incineration.  I think he brings one of those mini blow torches.  Given my current state, I have declined this optional activity.  The footnote in the workshop materials said something along the lines of, “An exercise not for the thin-skinned or faint hearted.”  Right now, I am so thin-skinned I am virtually transparent.

While this workshop isn’t exactly a sublime retreat in the cool rolling hills of Vermont (something I’ve always dreamed of), it is an opportunity not to be missed, regardless of my fragile mental state.  An intensive workshop with up close and personal interaction with bona fide authors and editors is a dream come true.

I’ll be the pale little banshee in the back of the classroom, box of Kleenex close at hand.  Now, I must be off to buy myself a brand new notebook and pens!  Hmmm…a back to school outfit?

The Dance

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Fiction writers live in two vastly different worlds; the world of their imagination and the world of say, dirty diapers or  full litter boxes.  It’s a delicate dance sometimes – if a writer is not careful, hands could get…icky whilst daydreaming about a story.

I’ve never been much of a dancer, frankly.  I make no secret of preferring the land of make-believe to anywhere else; however, my reality is I have a husband and two children and a cat who is overly fond of her litter box.

A bigger danger than the aforementioned icky hands is when reality refuses to wait at the side of the dance floor for its turn.  Reality could be seen as an attention-starved brat who gets quite nasty when ignored.  Reality cuts in, not with a polite tap on the shoulder, but with a resounding thwack on the back of the head.

Let’s just say I’ve woken up with a headache for the last few days.  Reality wins; if it didn’t, I’d be carted off by some stern looking men in white jackets.

Because reality can be quite a bully sometimes, the writing inevitably suffers.  Unless, of course, you’re Aaron Sorkin who commented during an interview recently that he didn’t have to live in the real world.  Gee, that’s great for you Aaron.  Congrats.  I haven’t quite reached that level of wealth or arrogance. [Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Mr. Sorkin].

Some say writers should just write and damn anything that gets in the way!  Well, ignoring reality might mean we end up homeless or sick or really, really thin – none of which will aid the writing in the long run.  An author quoted in this month’s Poets & Writers said a full-time job, kids, and a life meant that writing takes a back seat at times.  No other choice.

Dancing between two worlds can be done but I worry that I’m too much of a klutz to pull it off.  I am comforted to know that everyone suffers the same bruised ankles and trodden on toes that I do.  The dancing might have to go on without me for a while, the stories have to sit on the sidelines and rest their feet.  They will be asked to dance again, never fear.

Place

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I left the literal chill of Calgary three years ago for the hustle and bustle of Toronto.  I traded Stampede for Dundas Square; suburban malls for the Eaton Centre, Queen’s Park, Lake Ontario and a beach less than a mile away.  I’ve never been a Westerner or a Prairie dweller; those skies are too big for me.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has a wealth of history that is more familiar to me, a child of the mid-Atlantic and New England.  We have brick here, lots of it.  We have summers and negligible winters (comparatively speaking).  There is a pace and a pulse to Toronto that Calgary will likely never have but with that pace comes…or goes…or lacks…detracts…irritates…

Big cities can turn on you in an instant, a New York minute.  They promise you shelter, a degree of anonymity and then bang, literally, stray gunfire can cut you down.  It has always been so.  When I was in my early twenties, the very first apartment I had overlooked a green belt in Washington, DC that snaked between two major thoroughfares.  Sounds hopeful, doesn’t it?  A green belt in the midst of all of that asphalt.  I’d sit on my balcony at night and watch muzzle flashes in that green belt as rival gangs fought each other for that patch of grass.  I learned that gunfire isn’t “bang-bang” like we said when we were kids; it was more of a muted popping sound, depending on the wind and how close it was.

I feel insecure in Toronto now.  I feel unsafe.  I’m tired of the rudeness, the traffic, the inability to go to sleep at night without wondering what’s going to happen in the wee hours when the five pubs that surround my house close, spewing forth people in various stages of drunkenness and ill-humour.  I remind myself that this is part of the “pulse” of the place that I wanted when I fled the icy confines of Calgary.

Do I long for the suburbs?  Oh, dear God no!  I was in the hinterlands, that paved Siberia yesterday and fled towards the smoggy skyline of downtown at inordinately high speed.  Acres and acres of treeless subdivisions, row upon row of houses that all look the same interspersed with the small-to-medium shopping plazas – no thank you.  Where I live, I can walk to anything I want or don’t want; in the suburbs there is no escaping the car, the sameness.

Place has been on my mind a great deal lately.  The Novel has re-immersed me in Scotland, land of bitter conflict and soulful joy – and that’s just in my own family.  That place has a gravitational pull on me that cannot be easily explained. When I’m in Scotland everything feels raw; a feeling that scares and attracts simultaneously.  I could never live there; it would tear me apart.  Part of me wants to be torn apart.

I have been homesick lately; odd, for a gypsy.  I long for the ocean, the sable coloured sand of my youth.  I am taking my children for the first time to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where I spent every summer from birth to age fifteen. Those barrier islands change hourly with the wind and tide.  Our cottage is gone but the sand is still sand; the ocean is still my tumultuous swimming pool filled with salt.  We will go out on Avalon Pier, climb Jockeys Ridge.  From that highest sand dune, we can see both the Atlantic to the east and Albemarle Sound and the tidal inlets, ribbons of water that snake inland to the west.  We will watch the sun sink like a fiery red ball beyond Roanoke Island as I tell them about Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony.

My kids might shrug, complain about the black flies. We will trudge back to our motel and scrape sand out of places we didn’t know it could go.  But at least they will hear Atlantic surf, a sound they will never forget.  They will wade into the water and marvel at the warmth as the Gulf Stream passes close to shore there, so unlike the frigid Pacific waters off Vancouver Island – the only other ocean they’ve encountered.

In July, I’m to be mentored in a workshop by a man who has mastered the sense of place:  Alistair MacLeod.  With only a sentence or two, MacLeod can take the reader across the sea to the Highlands of Scotland then back to the pine forests and rocky coast of Cape Breton.  Reading one of his short stories last night I swear had to rub the salt spray off my skin.

I just finished a book called The Sandalwood Tree; set in India in 1947 at the end of the Raj, in a single sentence I was transported.  I could smell the dust, the dung fires and could see the colourful saris and Bougainvillea vines climbing the trees.  I don’t think I could handle the real India; however, it was thrilling to feel its life come off the pages of a book.

Is it easier to write about a place like India – so powerful, so extreme, so in your face than it is about an everyday North American concrete jungle like Toronto?  Can I make the streets of my east-end ‘hood leap off the page? Do I want to, feeling as disenchanted as I do right now?  Maybe I should take my coffee cup,sit outside in the wet-blanket heat and let it wash over me for a bit. Maybe it would help me feel the love of the place once more.

Place. It’s easy to miss even when you’re right there.