November 26, 2010


One day after American Thanksgiving is as good of a day as any to think about gratitude. There has been a lot of upheaval and sadness and stress over the past few weeks, in every realm of my life, but also excitement and anticipation and elation. I am bursting with news (yes, book news, mostly), and a general sense of unreality that pervades just about every waking hour.

It is not the kind of state that (for me, anyway) is particularly conducive to writing, but I hope to get back into that by late next week at the latest. In the meantime, I am enjoying feeling fortunate for my work (the real work, and, yes, even the day job), the people in my life (who amaze and inspire and provoke me into hysterical laughter on a daily basis), the city where I live (today’s freezing rain notwithstanding), and all of the general benefits that go along with being an independent adult in urban Canada in this day and age (freedom from civil unrest! public transit! hot running water!).

Gosh, I’m lucky! I can hardly believe my good luck, some days. It’s a good thing to remember through the tough times.

Off to knock on wood…

November 8, 2010

The Incongruous Quarterly

Have you guys heard about the Incongruous Quarterly? Its tag-line is publishing the unpublishable, which initially made me nervous until I found out that "unpublishable" might just mean too long or too short or too weird or too raunchy or too...something. It is still their mandate to publish good writing.

The first issue is available online here.

The deadline has now passed for the issue I'm guest-editing (fiction), but there will be other calls for submissions coming up with other guest editors. Submit! It is online-only, but this is a reflection of budget, not quality.

The way that I got involved is a story that makes me happy: last December I'd shown up at one of Sherwin Tija's wonderfully strange events: the Arcade Choir. From the event description:
Forty singers stand in the middle of a room. They are not professional singers, though some of them might be. They all have iPods, and on every single one of those iPods is the Arcade Fire album “Funeral”. At a signal, they all press play and, the album loud in their ears, start to sing the opening strains of the first song of the album.
Now this singing won’t be very pretty. They’re singing not only the words, but the instruments as well. People are encouraged to hum, howl, beatbox, make any noise that will translate the songs to the audience better.
Not everyone will know all the words. The people in the choir will have listened to the album plenty of times, but not very carefully. They know how the song goes, but won’t necessarily know the lyrics. Or know them correctly.
Because the music in their ears is so loud, they won’t be able to hear themselves, their neighbours, or the sound of all of them collectively. This might result in some very bad singing, but the choir is encouraged to sing their hearts out, the way one does when you’re in the shower and only singing for the joy of it.
I showed up alone, a little apprehensive, but too excited about the event to skip it. I love that album. And singing. So I went in.

I met two other women who had showed up alone -- and both of them were writers, too. (Writers: a curious and fearless bunch.) And one of them was E., IQ's co-founder and editor-in-chief.

Me: striped and singing.
It quickly became evident that it was a lot more entertaining for the singers than the audience (who all dashed out at the first opportunity). But it was really fun and funny (Sherwin recorded is the strangest thing ever) and highly unique. I was glad I went -- even more so when E. approached me to get involved with the quarterly. You never know where or how you might meet someone and where that might take you. This is the thing that coaxes me out of the house on those nights when I'm feeling especially introverted or guilt-plagued about being behind with my writing.

November 6, 2010

Reading tonight!

I'm reading tonight at Le Cagibi as part of the Taddle Creek Travelling Series of Happenings to promote their Out-of-Towner issue. Sadly, I'm not actually in the issue (now that I've seen the actual magazine, which is gorgeous, I wish I'd known they were doing one, as normally submissions are restricted to writers from Toronto), but I'll be reading with Katia Grubisic, Mark Jarman, and Sarah Gilbert, so I can promise you will not be disappointed! (I am a big fan of Katia's poetry in general and of her excellent Goose Lane collection in particular.)

I'm especially looking forward to Sarah's presentation, which will apparently feature a projector for what I hope is an elaboration of her essay on Mile End. I'm similarly neighbourhood-obsessed, and I was excited to see she wrote about the lemon tree that (bewilderingly) continues to flourish a few blocks away from here in the back lane. I've brought other people to look at that tree, to convince me I'm not dreaming it.

I spent the morning trying to decide what to read. I don't feel like reading from Mother Superior, since I don't want to subject people I know to something that, at this point, they've probably heard before. At the same time, the novel I just finished writing is currently under submission (*fingers crossed* or, as my mother would say, pray for me) and the thought of actually opening the file again to look at it basically fills me with dread. Eeek.

So instead I'm reading from the new-new novel. I'm only about 60 pages in, but I'm still excited about where it's going, so maybe this is a good point to be reading from it. This will be only the second time that I've read from a first, unpublished draft. (The first time, at the QWF mentorship reading back in 2008, didn't go very well -- I was knee-quakingly nervous and more or less breathlessly squeaked it all out -- but I've done a lot of readings between then and now, so I'm going to blame nerves rather than the terror of reading something brand-new.)

But although I have mixed feelings about giving readings (mostly to do with nervousness), I have only one feeling about the importance of reading your writing out loud -- namely, that it is hugely important. No matter how my selection goes over tonight, I'm sure I'll at least get some ideas about things I want to change. And that's great.

If you stop by tonight, come say hi! The doors are at 8 p.m., but the readings will probably start closer to 9 p.m.

August 10, 2010

Prisoners' Justice Day

One of my favourite things about the new thing I’ve been writing is that it has a discernible topic. When somebody asks what it’s about, I can (and do) say, “The death penalty.” How simple is that? No attempt to penetrate arcane family drama or mumbling, “Uh, it’s about this family, uh, these sisters.” (Yes, that’s the current novel. I will figure out how to talk about that one at some point.) Of course, it’s not really about the death penalty so much as it is about a particular set of characters and circumstances…

…But I’m so pleased about this short-form response. Not only has it saved me some embarrassment, it has also allowed me to talk about it in such a way that I can actually receive useful contacts and information! I mentioned it to another writer when I was at Yaddo, and he immediately encouraged me to get in touch with the Innocence Project. I had also mentioned it in passing to another friend of mine, M., who yesterday sent me some emails about Prisoners’ Justice Day, which just happens to be today.

Since most of my research into prisons has been U.S.-based because of the death penalty angle, I haven’t been as frequent a visitor at as I might otherwise have been. Here is the mandate behind Prisoners’ Justice Day:

...August 10, the day prisoners have set aside as a day to fast and refuse to work in a show of solidarity to remember those who have died unnecessarily -- victims of murder, suicide and neglect.

...the day when organizations and individuals in the community hold demonstrations, vigils, worship services and other events in common resistance with prisoners.

...the day to raise issue with the fact that a very high rate of women are in prison for protecting themselves against their abusers. This makes it obvious that the legal system does not protect women who suffer violence at the hands of their partners. the day to remember that there are a disproportionate number of Natives, African-Canadians and other minorities and marginalized people in prisons. Prisons are the ultimate form of oppression against struggles of recognition and self-determination.

...the day to raise public awareness of the demands made by prisoners to change the criminal justice system and the brutal and inhumane conditions that lead to so many prison deaths.

...the day to oppose prison violence, police violence, and violence against women and children.

...the day to publicize that, in their fight for freedom and equality, the actions of many political prisoners have been criminalized by government. As a result, there are false claims that there are no political prisoners in north american prisons.

...the day to raise public awareness of the economic and social costs of a system of criminal justice which punishes for revenge. If there is ever to be social justice, it will only come about using a model of healing justice, connecting people to the crimes and helping offenders take responsibility for their actions.

...the day to renew the struggle for HIV/AIDS education, prevention and treatment in prison.

...the day to remind people that the criminal justice system and the psychiatric system are mutually reinforcing methods that the state uses to control human beings. There is a lot of brutality by staff committed in the name of treatment. Moreover, many deaths in the psych-prisons remain uninvestigated.

August 8, 2010

I saw this painting a few weeks ago at the Guggenheim. I sat and looked at it for a long time. The image here doesn't do it justice. The colours in the background are so delicate, so finely blended, so, well, pretty. Everything about it is so deliberate; I wanted to know something of what it was trying to say.

I ended up coming home and reading a bit about Kandinsky. He was a pretty far-out dude with an elaborate and esoteric theory of art (involving music, Theosophy, synesthesia). And he had a special thing for triangles. The point of the triangle is the avant garde as it moves into tomorrow, and the artist is living at the tip. Lonely. That sounds about right.

The other thing I learned about Kandinsky is that he didn't begin painting until he was 30. Astounding!

Composition VIII

In other (less random?) news, I wrote this last week about how it felt to be waiting to hear back about my second draft:

I’m waiting to hear back from my agent about my manuscript. I’m not nervous or even excited. Which isn’t to say that if she tells me it’s all garbage I won’t be upset or discouraged. I feel like, no matter what, there is a lot of work ahead. Thinking about it is only going to depress or panic me, so I plan on not thinking about it at all --- just doing it when the time comes.

On Friday, I heard back from her, and I'm relieved to report that the changes I made at Yaddo seem to be working. (Phewf!) She thinks it is perhaps a touch too long (and I agree: the second draft went up to 350 pages), is probably just about ready to submit! I'm going to do one more edit before the first week of September. Right now it has a pacing problem that mirrors the writing process (beginning & middle: slow and steady; ending: rushed).

Now to try and tear myself away from these little poems I've been playing with. My obsessive tendencies mean that I can't really switch between projects with much fluidity. Once I'm back into the draft, that's it.

August 3, 2010

how to make it into the acknowledgements

On the worst, last day of last month's heat wave, my friend J invited me over for a work date. I'd mentioned how I was finding it really hard to write and she told me she'd bought a second air conditioner for her apartment and that I ought to come over. She's working on her Ph.D. thesis (pure brilliance on Heidegger*), and has her own routines and preferences, as well as probably a pretty good sense of my writing quirks, no doubt due to me droning on and on about them now and again in the form of some sort of complaint.

Her invitation went something like this: "Do you prefer a desk or a couch? I've changed the sheets on my bed, so you can have a nap! I'll make us lunch and tea and cool drinks all day long! Here's the wireless password! I don't like music when I work, so it will be quiet. Is that okay?" (Is that okay? Can I kiss you?)

It can't always be easy to be friends with a writer. I have certain anti-social tendencies. I don't always like talking on the phone. (Not a hard and fast rule, by any means, but I've gotten out of the habit of making calls. When I sit down to use the landline at home, I usually catch myself dialing "9" first.) My friendships have adapted. We text. We email. We go on Google chat.

When the writing is going badly, I usually start to feel down and guilty and drop off the map. I miss everyone, but I don't know how to reach out when it feels like every little thing I'm doing is taking me away from the writing and I'm too miserable about it to have anything interesting to say. I'm grateful to know people who don't take this personally (or who can forgive or overlook this awful habit). I'm grateful, too, to have friends who can ask how the novel is going and be satisfied (and not visibly surprised) to receive the same answer, or variations on the same answer, ten times in a row.

I have friends who are writers, too, of course. We write a LOT of emails, then we get together when we can and drink and talk for four hours at a time. Once a month or thereabouts. Sometimes longer.

I've been feeling really lucky lately for the people in my life. I feel like they put up with me, and they prop me up. They inspire me, too. Trying to be a better friend is something that makes it onto my list of resolutions year after year.

J., naturally, was as good as her word. Her apartment was a cool paradise. She made incredible, unearthly food (yummy spicy rice and dumplings), endless tea, and fascinating refreshing tonics involving lime juice and rosewater. We sat and worked quietly (and sometimes talked), as her boyfriend generously left us to our own devices, and I made some critical headway in reading over my manuscript after a lot of days in a row of heat-induced mind mush.

* I have only a passing familiarity with Heidegger, and I haven't read her thesis, but I am assured of its brilliance nonetheless. And I'm certain that when I do read it, I'll find out everything I need to know about the big H.

August 2, 2010

It takes an ocean not to break

Still daydreaming and slacking off. I've been dipping into books and abandoning them around the apartment. Poetry is easier, but I need more suggestions of who to read. Sometimes somebody tweets a poem and I get turned on to someone new. That's when I'm lucky. I'm starting to get a sense of how casual fiction readers must get lost looking for their next book (I get lost, too, but I think from an excess rather than a dearth of knowledge on the subject).

Went to see Winter's Bone, which is apparently based on a book. One of my movie companions leaned over to complain that it was brutally slow, and since he, ahem, woke me up in telling me this, I was hard pressed to disagree, and yet it wasn't an unpleasant slowness. It felt real and hard. And it had an absolutely incredible payoff scene. I left thinking that if you could just come up with one scene like that, the rest of the story could fall into place around it.

I've also been listening non-stop to the National's new album High Violet. I saw them play Osheaga on Saturday and this has had no effect on my singular listening dedication (sometimes I find that seeing a band during the height of an obsession can kind of satiate it, for the time being, or spur it on even further). I'm wondering what kind of effect it might be having on my psyche to keep hearing lyrics like It's a terrible love and I'm walking with spiders or Sorrow found me when I was young / Sorrow waited, sorrow won over and OVER and OVER.

July 23, 2010

fortification spectrum

I had only a couple of writing-related things I really wanted to get done today. First off, respond to some friends' pages on a chapter exchange. Then maybe get back to looking at the first pages of my so-called fast novel.

Unfortunately, as soon as I sat down at the computer, I realized I couldn't make out half the screen. I shifted the monitor up, then down, then back, then started sliding back and forth in my less-than-ergonomic rolling desk chair, trying to get a new angle, before I realized that the flickering glare covering most of the left of the screen had nothing to do with the computer and everything to do with my brain.

I was a little bit scared and though I pushed through reading the pages, and even sent out one brief and probably unhelpful email with feedback, I had a hard time settling down to anything, wondering when the pain would kick in or if it would and trying to strategize when to take a Tylenol and also trying to figure out what on earth I could do with myself that wouldn't be seriously hampered by a pulsing light show.

The last checkup I had, my doctor asked me if I had ever had migraines and, not seeing what she was getting at, I rather chattily described the flickering in my field of vision I'd experienced on a couple of occasions before crippling headaches. (It's so freaky that I was kind of excited to talk about it.) She then informed me that migraines with aura were a counterindication to the prescription she was about to write for me, and instead wrote me a referral for a neurologist (an appointment I have yet to make). She offered me a one-month renewal of the medication but warned me that if it was her, she would stop taking the drugs immediately. She said, "I tend to be a very careful person. Maybe the medication increases your chances to 1 in a 100,000 instead of 1 in 300,000, but if you're that one person who does have a stroke, the odds stop mattering." Clearly, she is a very good doctor.

So I did stop, but then I started again, and now I've had the most intense aura ever -- according to Wikipedia it's sometimes called the fortification spectrum, as the flickering light starts to expand and look like the walls of a castle seen from above.

A dear friend of mine is a fiction writer who suffers migraines. A few years ago, she also had a very minor stroke, and this has made it infinitely harder for her to proofread. She just can't process the words on the page the same way she used to.

Last month in the New Yorker, Oliver Sacks wrote about the alarming case of a Canadian novelist who had a stroke and lost the ability to read. He could still write, but as soon as he put his pen down, what he just wrote looked like nonsense. It's called alexia, the inability to recognize written language.

Obviously, strokes can be a lot more serious than just losing the ability to read. But it's a frightening prospect nonetheless.

This probably won't make a difference, but I'm going to go drink a few tall glasses of water -- my go-to solution for every kind of malady, physical or psychic.

July 19, 2010

cool down and emptiness

The weather has finally cooled down here, which means a respite from tiny summer dresses back into comfy long jeans and t-shirts. It's always exciting, initially, when it's warm enough for those flirty sundresses, but I feel more like myself, somehow, when I can wear a minimum, modest amount of clothing of the sort in which I could easily undertake any of a range of possible, improbable tasks: dish washing! ditch digging! apartment fleeing! spontaneous dance partying! And truth be told, I can't remember the last time I did any writing in a rose-patterned tea dress. Jeans it is! All the cool things get done in jeans.

The heat wave also stalled me out on what I have been wishfully referring to as my "fast novel project." The concept? Write a fast novel. Sounds good, right? Well, easier said than done. (Duh, you say. To which I say, touché.) Working from a set of deadlines dubbed the "nerd grid," I've been trying to quickly turn out some pages of a novel I've had in mind, while remaining accountable to my two friends who initiated the exchange with each other in order to stay motivated through the editing progress of their own manuscripts. Deadlines are a gift, and I was (still am!) really excited about their stimulating possibilities. But absolutely no writing could get done in my apartment at 42 degrees Celsius with my one sad, whirring fan. Maybe this is not unrelated to my point about jeans above. Sitting around in fever heat in the politest alternative to underwear one can scrounge up does not inspire literary genius, or even say, a couple of average sentences, which is what I more reasonably strive for, in general. I did manage to do a bit of editing on my existing novel-in-progress, but that's it. But the problem about arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines is that once you breeze by one, it's very hard to re-conjure your existential faith in the rest of them. But we'll see.

The other problem with writing right now is that -- for prose, anyway, in my own limited experience -- one really has to be calm to write. And I'm not calm. I think a state of not calm is a great one for dreaming things up, for getting excited about a million different projects, for thinking up beginnings and endings and complications, but it is not ideal for that discipline of sitting back down (and down and down and down again) at the computer. That requires its own special kind of...I almost want to say emptiness, in which you can find enough stillness and space to let the story come on its own and fill you up.

July 9, 2010

back from the void

Even though writing and thinking about writing takes up most of my day in one form or another, writing about writing is not always something that comes easily or naturally. Maybe it's because some self-preserving part of me doesn't want to give over even more of myself to something that already dominates my life, or maybe it's because there are already so many wonderful book and writing bloggers that I don't feel compelled to add my voice to the mix. Or maybe it's because so much of working on a novel is a repetitive struggle (simply the daily alternations between emotional extremes of "The writing is going well! Hurray! Life is amazing!" and "The writing is going badly. Everything sucks.") that the documentation of the process is not always a tempting prospect. I'm not sure who wants to hear about it, let alone read about it.

So much for my excuses. Add to the above procrastination, stress, and the usual time constraints. It's hard to believe it's already July. Since January I've served on a literary jury for grants, taught an eight-week creative writing course, finished an essay for a YA anthology about fathers and teen daughters, and went to an amazing artists' colony in upstate New York. And I've finished a draft or two of the novel, too. The life-stuff in between, I don't know where that went.

That's the bare bones recap, and not at all what I sat down to write. Didn't I just finish saying that I don't want to write about writing?

January 2, 2010

Happy New Year

I'm not a huge fan of celebrating the new year in the dead of winter (here in Winnipeg, where I am right now, it's a crisp -31), but I am a big believer in new beginnings and for that reason alone it seems like a worthwhile holiday. I haven't written down any resolutions this year yet (but I should...apparently people who write down their goals are more likely, statistically, to achieve them), but I've been working on a 101 Things in 1001 Days for a while now, and my ongoing writing- and reading-related goals look something like this:

- read more American fiction
- read more British fiction
- read more poetry
- finish my novel (so close right now!)
- write another one
- try writing something in another genre (essay, poetry, etc)

In case it's not obvious from my to-do list, I mostly read contemporary Canadian fiction, and I don't plan on stopping. I've made some progress with this list (let's see, I read Netherland last year...and...uh...), but not enough that I feel I can stop making a special effort yet. If you have any recommendations for British and American writers I should be reading, I'd love to hear them.

Here's hoping that 2010 sees us reaching all our reading and writing goals!