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August 24, 2014

Discover The Art of Blogging at UofT

scsIt has been ages since I taught The Art of Blogging at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, but I’m so pleased that the course is being offered this fall. Online is such a fast world that blogging has changed a lot since I last taught the course, and so has some of my thinking about blogging. Moreover, teaching small blogging workshops (like at the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo!) has taught me a lot about the best way to present this kind of material and get students engaged. And so all of this will really culminate in a fresh and exciting class, I think. I’ve revised the course outline significantly (you can view it here!). We’re going to focus on learning to love the unpolished nature of the blogging, and embrace its work-in-progress-ness, and there will be lots of writing exercises to get students used to blogging efficiently. We’re going to explore using blogging in a way that fits neatly into your life, and even how blogging can make you live your life a bit better. I look forward to good discussion, sharing of experiences, lots of inspiring blog reading, and delving into the history of this fascinating medium as we all move forward as part of its future.

June 11, 2014

Well-known blogger is an oxymoron

The Andrew Sullivan era of journalism is over. Blogs — defined as “an eclectic, scattered” reverse-chronological journal, “covering everything from foreign policy to TV to religion,” often in the first-person — are all but dead.” (This was actually posted on a blog. Alas). 

It’s on a regular cycle that I come across articles about news outlets shutting down their blogs, this offered as proof that the blog is dead. All the while, I sit here typing at my blog, which I’ve been writing for fourteen years, with every intention to keep on writing my blog, first because I can’t stop and also because it’s done me a world of good professionally and in terms of general well-being. As I sit here typing at my blog, momentarily distracted by the blogs of others (who am I reading lately? I love how Sarah from edge of evening and I have such serendipitous reading habits; I’m a new reader of Alice Zorn’s blog; longtime fan of Matilda Magtree; I’ve been reading Making It Lovely since we both had daughters around the same time 5 years ago; I’ve been checking in with DoveGreyReader forever; I’m devoted to Girls Gone Child; I’ve learned so much from Rohan Maitzen’s Novel Readings; Shawna Lemary’s Calm Things; and I am so so overjoyed that Nathalie Foy is blogging books again. Oh, and you. I read your blog too. Likely, this is really so.)

So while the Andrew Sullivan era of journalism may be over, let this not be a statement about the state of the blog. First, because blogging is not journalism, and it was never meant to be. Blogging was always going to be on the fringes, so Sullivan’s new venture’s failure (in that only five pages on his site have received  100,000 page visits) is actually a statement that the blog is, um, bloggier than ever. Let it also not be a statement on the state of the blog because for many of us, the Andrew Sullivan era never registered. All the while that bloggers were making forays into mainstream media (and supposedly changing its face… until blogging died), most of us were sitting at home with our typepads, blogspots and wordpress sites. Content to be independent operators, doing our own thing, learning and growing, and pointing our modest traffic, our readers, in the direction of the world and saying, “Hey, look at this.”

It is amazing to me the way that women’s blogs have been ignored by those seeking to chronicle the history of the form. (I wrote about this three years ago in a post called, “The Womanly Art of Blogging”) Crucially, it is always the habits of male bloggers that are heralding blogging’s demise, and these are almost always political bloggers (as though political blogs are somehow blogs entire, as though politics were somehow the world—can you imagine?) but once it was a book blogger, and that too was ridiculous and wrong. It seems that everyone thinks that blogging is dead just around the same time he stops doing it. But.

All the while, the rest of us keep blogging, toiling away in semi-obscurity, and this is unfailingly true. Even well-known bloggers are semi-obscure–even those with enough ad revenue to pay the bills. Well-known blogger is an oxymoron. If it gets to be otherwise, well, maybe you’ve made it, but you’re also not really a blogger anymore.

September 27, 2013

I used to wade into fracas all the time.

I write about my children here more than I write about the wider world, the wider literary world in particular. And sometimes I feel bad about this, about the disconnect, my insularity. I don’t seem to have my finger on the button. It hasn’t always been like this either–I used to wade into fracas all the time. But then it got to the point where I could set my calendar by it–brouhaha about women writers, the Orange Prize as ghetto or goldmine, Canada Reads outrage, Giller Prize moroseness. I was writing the same blog posts all over again, in the beginning fervently hoping to bring change, hoping that if I could just explain the way things ought to be, everyone would finally understand. And then eventually despondently, as it began to become clear to me that these arguments were futile, all of us hashing out the same lines over and over again. It was even boring, and I was really tired, and there are oh so many books to read, books to write about instead. And yes, my children, who are never ever the same, even two days  in a row. So now I cease to wade, for the most part, which I fear might suggest I don’t have opinions anymore, except about out-of-date encyclopedias. Because I do have opinions, and they’re even works in progress too, but it’s progress that interests me more than opinions themselves, so I don’t bother to wade anymore.

August 25, 2013

Mary Pratt: On Blogging, and Preserving Light and Time

Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly.

MARY PRATT Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly. 2007. oil on canvas 40.6 x 50.8 cm

It is not a huge leap to look at Mary Pratt’s paintings and have thoughts turn to ideas about the containment and preservation of time. Not least of all because of her paintings of preserves, jams and jellies. Or because she shows that jam jars are containers of not only condiments, but also of light. In the essay “A Woman’s Life” by Sarah Milroy, part of the Mary Pratt book, Pratt recalls early inspiration in her mother’s jars of jelly: “Oh they were gorgeous… she would arrange them along the window-ledge–they were west-facing windows with the light coming through–red currant jelly, highbush cranberry jelly, raspberry jelly, blackberry jelly–all as clear as glass.”

In her work, Pratt also includes more prosaic containers, such as tupperware, and ketchup bottles, as well as preservation agents that capture light with a different kind of beauty–tin foil, saran wrap. Underlining this idea of preservation is that Pratt’s paintings themselves have been painted from photographs, that with a camera Pratt has been able to stop time and preserve a moment in the whirl of domesticity–a supper table that will soon be cleared away, for example. In Sarah Fillmore’s essay “Vanitas”, Pratt notes that “The camera was my instrument of liberation. Now that I no longer had to paint on the run, I would pay each gut reaction its proper homage. I could paint anything that appealed to me… I could use the slide to establish the drawing and concentrate on the light, and the content and the symbolism.”

Whilst reading the Mary Pratt book, which has been created to complement the exhibition of Pratt’s work that will be moving across the country in the coming months, I kept drawing parallels between her work and the womanly art of blogging. This precludes any arguments about amateurism of course, however much some may insist that “blogger” and “amateur” are in fact synonyms. Because Pratt is no amateur, and neither are the bloggers who make art of the form, who craft their posts themselves in order to “pay each gut reaction its proper homage.”

“…it comes from a longing to hold truth in your hands, to feel something of your own existence–a longing to feel alive… The painting of the jelly jar is really about the way that light shines through the glass, the way that light is preserved, like jelly, for all time.” -Sarah Fillmore, “Vanitas”

MARY PRATT Supper Table (detail) 1969 oil on canvas 61.0 x 91.4 cm

MARY PRATT Supper Table 1969 oil on canvas 61.0 x 91.4 cm

Pratt captures the domestic, the seemingly mundane. And yet behind her rich but also simple and familiar images lie deeper stories. Her painting “Kitchen Table”, the first she created from a photograph in 1969, is at first a quiet scene, a table at once empty and yet crowded with the remains of a meal–a ketchup bottle with its cap off, a hotdog left uneaten, crumbs on a plate, drinking glasses in varying states of emptiness (or fullness, perhaps?). And yet, as Catherine M. Mastin points out in her essay “Base, Place, Location and the Early Paintings”, “Pratt’s postwar-era family table is a site of constant labour, meal after meal–which all fell to Mary, with no foreseeable end.” On a more personal note, Pratt’s “Eggs in an Egg Crate” was the first work she completed after the deaths of her infant twins, a painting whose symbolism wasn’t clear to her until somebody else had pointed it out–that the eggs in the carton were empty.

MARY PRATT Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61.0 cm

MARY PRATT Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61.0 cm

For all their luminosity and the domestic focus, Pratt’s paintings are also wonderfully subversive. Her eggs are usually broken, is what I mean, the cake half-eaten and cut with a big sharp knife, the bananas in the fruit bowl are just a little too ripe. The meat in her “Roast Beef” is a charred hunk (and Pratt recounts in Milroy’s essay, “I can remember when I first showed it in a gallery [and] I heard a woman say, ‘Well, I guess she can paint, but do you think she can cook?'”). Milroy is correct that “In this day of highly stylized food photography…, Mary Pratt’s work seems ahead of the curve,” and yet Pratt’s food paintings are always just a little “off”–the leftovers from a supper of hotdogs, for example, or the casserole dish in the microwave. This is food that people eat, instead of a lacquered sandwich intended for a magazine cover. Hers is a messy, imperfect domestic scene, and yet there is beauty in these scenes that are captured precisely as they are.

MARY PRATT Split Grilse, 1979 oil on Masonite 56.1 x 64.0 cm

MARY PRATT Split Grilse, 1979 oil on Masonite 56.1 x 64.0 cm

Her images of meat and animal carcasses suggest something basic and bodily about domestic life, a suggestion echoed vaguely in the images of her model “Donna”. “That’s what women do,” Pratt recounts in Milroy’s essay. “They wrap things up, or unwrap them, or cut them open, or chop them, ready for the oven.” Fish are also a recurring image in her work, not surprising considering she’s based in Atlantic Canada, but here is the rarely seen flip-side of maritime life–“Salmon on Saran”, “Trout in a Ziploc Bag” or “Fish Head in Steel Sink”. They don’t write shanties about this kind of sea. And then there  is the fire, Pratt’s burning dishcloth on her “Dishcloth on Line” paintings. That same agent used to wipe down the table of dinner-after-dinner is annihilated into a glorious flame which captures the light as intriguingly (and eternally, now that Pratt has preserved the image) as do the far more innocuous jars of jam on the window sill.

Whoever thought the kitchen was a scene of mundanity probably wasn’t looking…

In her essay “Look Here”, Mireille Eagan writes that “Ultimately, [Pratt] asks the viewer to see; she tells us: “Look, here.” Which is what the very best bloggers do too, instead of “Look at me!” using their blogs to implore their readers to, “Look at this!” The result of this being the “sideways autobiography” that Eagan refers to of Pratt’s work. There is no over-arching narrative here, and instead we come to understand the depth of these writers’ lives from the objects, moments and stories they choose to include in their blogs, each individual post its own still-life. Like Pratt, these bloggers are curating their lives, crafting something permanent out of the whirl of the ephemeral. As Eagan writes of Pratt: “Her images reveal a pattern of privacies, of things half-visible, half-said–but articulated, nonetheless. They represent a lifetime of looking closely, an intimation of the buzzing pause before one turns and continues.”

Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2011 oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

MARY PRATT Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2011 oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

Mary Pratt is available from Goose Lane Editions. Read more about this stunning book here.

May 16, 2013

On book blogging and criticism

All my best opportunities usually come my way a week or two before or after I give birth, and you can’t say no. So at the moment, I am working on a review assignment I’m quite excited about, and I’m not remotely bothered that Baby will probably still be a little while in coming, because I have to get this article finished anyway. I am also pleased because from my post-partum stupour, I’ll see my name in print, and I imagine this will read as an encouraging sign from a world beyond (or behind) that I still exist, or at least that my writing does, somewhere. Anyway, none of this is really the point, which instead is that I’m thinking how much more time I spend on the books I’m reading for work than the books I read for fun, and what I’m missing. For example, the first time I read through this slim volume, I found it baffling and wondered how one was supposed to review a book one didn’t understand. And then I read it again, and again, and now all of a sudden I’ve got this ARC full of notes, crazy connections, ideas, and I’m working toward a spectacular synthesis of this short story collection which, you won’t believe it, won’t just be a summary of each of the stories contained within–who knew this was possible?

Now, fair enough, sometimes this isn’t possible. Some books are really as insubstantial as they appear at first reading. A lot of short story collections really are not very remarkable as wholes, or even in parts. I’ve been fortunate to have been assigned a book by a writer whose talent is extraordinary, and it’s this extraordinary work that has drawn me so deeply into this book I just skimmed across first time through. But it makes me wonder what would happen if I approached every book I read this closely, if I were this actively engaged, if all my unpaid reviews were as interesting and thought-out as this paid one is going to be. A few things: there is not time enough in the world, and the pay for my blog reviews is just the smallest bit, um, paltry for such dedication, and my blog is meant to be a kind of leisure for me, not labour. Also, for the past 39 weeks (and maybe even longer) I’ve been so so tired, but yes, I’ve be thinking about how much gets missed. What if the key to any book’s brilliance is just to read it enough times, to study it deeply enough? Of course, I’ve read enough terrible books to know the fault isn’t always mine, that there are terrible books indeed, that taste counts for something, that there are books and then there is *this book* I’m reading and writing in right now and which makes me consider the infinite possibilities of literature.

February 6, 2013

Blogging Like No One is Reading

172133_4680Blogging stats are important*, and I pay attention to mine, so I was a bit dismayed last summer when my traffic levels plummeted. Part of the problem of course was that it was summertime, when traffic always falls down a bit, but that didn’t fully explain what had happened. But then these things (particularly online things) are always about ebb and flow, popularity is fleeting, and I’ve found that whenever I get too confident about anything I’m up to, life itself has an amazing ability of administering a kick in the ass–which is always useful, I think, in healthy doses.

So what does a blogger do when her traffic falls off? I, of course, turned to my number one piece of blogging advice, which is Blog like no one is reading. It’s advice that is always useful, and never more so than during those times when no one is, in fact, reading. Blogging like no one is reading runs counter to traditional advice, which is to write for your audience, which is to jump through hoops and perform virtual naked tapdances in order to garner online attention, but I find such advice is always delivered by folks without a clue of what blogging is all about, with no real sense of the tradition it was born from.

To do the opposite of blogging like no one is reading is terrible advice for a variety of reasons. First, because most of the time, no one is going to be reading, and so there has to be something more than feedback from the outside world to push a novice blogger on. Second, because you’re never going to be able to predict what readers will respond to and what they won’t. It’s the strangest serendipity, and attempts to orchestrate this will absolutely drive you crazy. It will also result in the naked tap-dancing that just looks ridiculous, and never more so than when it doesn’t work and still, no one is reading. And there you are in your feather boa and your silly top hat, when dancing wasn’t even what you planned to be doing in the first place.

People to come for blogging for a variety of reasons. For many writers, a blog offers a way to keep a website up-to-date and active. An effective blog can be as simple as a news and events page updated monthly or so. Others come to blogging because they were advised to, because it would help their online cachet, though they don’t fully believe in the spirit of the thing. They believe that the blog is to bring forth results (ie traffic, ie book sales, ie fame and fortune) when the  fact of the matter is that a blog, at its most bloggish, is its own final product. So many of us blog for the sake of  the blog itself, a work of art, a creation, as eternal as a thing can be in ephemeral world of the internet. The blog is the point, the one thing you have control over anyway, rather than what anyone else happens to do with it.

The thing about blogging like no one is reading is that you really can’t go wrong. And you’ll find that this is precisely what the most amazing and popular bloggers out there have been doing all along anyway–creating something original and personal with their own interests in mind. That reams of followers were interested too was really just happenstance. (There are exceptions to this, but these are so often marketing tools rather than blogs proper. And if you don’t see the distinction between the two, then you and I were never really on the same page in the first place. And you don’t know what a blog is. But I digress…)

The thing about blogging like no one is looking is that it gives you some perspective, allows you to take a real good look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and change and develop accordingly. It is easy to get caught up in a run for readers, but when winning traffic becomes your sole preoccupation, then you’re doing blogging wrong. You’re probably not having fun either.

Anyway, of course, these are all the things you tell yourself during the summer that your blog’s traffic plummets. These are the things that offer consolation. And then when you discover that the reason behind the plummet was that your blog has been hacked and is now (unknown to you) packed full of invisible ads for Viagra and therefore search engines have seen fit to abandon you and so too has all your organic search traffic, well, you get your hack fixed of course. And the numbers come back. But you just keep on doing what you’ve been doing, blogging like they haven’t, which is what you should have always been doing in the first place.

*Note: Blogging like no one is reading and paying attention to blogging stats are not necessarily contradictory. Each has its uses.

January 22, 2013

The opposite of this scattered post would be an empty space.

IMG_02371) A friend emailed recently as she was doing a clear-out and wondered if I wanted any of her books on babies and birthing–Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Birth, Sheila Kitzinger, Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby. And it was such a pleasure to tell her no. I’d read these books already. I remember poring over Gopnik’s book when Harriet was six weeks old, desperate for some kind of understanding of this creature who’d arrived in my life. I remember the hours spent on internet forums trying to work out a pattern in the pieces of brand new life as a mother. I remember a lot of talking about talking about motherhood, the desperation of these conversations. How important they were for me to have at the time, but how there came a time eventually when I didn’t need them anymore. I have this fantasy that when our new baby arrives in the spring and my life becomes all-baby again that literature might be my one escape from the haze. That I might spend my summer reading about everything except babies, even if it has to be done in the middle of the night while the rest of the world (except the baby) is sleeping. But I’ve never had a second child before. I do not know if my fantasy will come true.

2) Motherhood still interests me, but on a broader level than the whole strollers on the bus brouhaha and whether breast is really best. The conversations I appreciate most about motherhood are those that don’t usually appear on the pages of glossy magazines, which rise above the Mommy Wars to broaden notions of what motherhood is and can be, and the ways in which different women’s lives are affected by various experience of maternity, and the elusiveness of “choice” (which is so often another fantasy, no?). Anyway, I’ve got more to say on the topic and the most exciting news ever forthcoming in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned.

3) We took a picture of my baby bump! How positively first-pregancy of us! It is not altogether flattering, as I’ve no make-up on, lighting is poor and I’ve had a cold for three days and it shows. But this is me at 22.5 weeks pregnant, which is kind of remarkable. I know many people find pregnancy pictures obnoxious, but as someone who has spent most of my life feeling fat and the last three years in particular trying to hide an unfortunate abdomen post c-section (3 years later, it is no excuse, I know, but still…) it is awfully refreshing to embrace and celebrate the shape I’m in. And it’s a remarkable thing, however ordinary, to have happen to one’s body, to change so much in such a short time, different every day.

4) I keep vague tabs in my mind of how my blog content is divvied up, the grown-up things, the kid things, the women things. I always have this notion that I’m doing terribly well when a string of posts doesn’t reference children or motherhood at all, and yet I don’t fully believe this either. My blog has always been a reflection of life as it is, and small children (and the books they read) have been a huge part of my life for some time now. I could pretend otherwise, but then I’d be left with not much to write about. Anyway, all of which is to say that I’m feeling self-conscious and babyish posting about pregnancy and belly-shots, but then here is where I’m at right now. The opposite of this scattered post would be an empty space.

April 2, 2012

My blogging course begins again.

It’s true, it’s true! My course The Art and Business of Blogging at UofT’s School of Continuing Studies is offered again starting on April 16th and runs for the next 8 weeks. I’m looking forward to it. Space is still available so register now.

March 18, 2012

On books, "buzz" and magic

“You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen the way it does in books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was just because someone on an aeroplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn’t mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn’t because you did the magic.” –Among Others, Jo Walton

It’s like magic, the way good news of a book spreads. I’m currently reading Jo Walton’s Among Others because at our last book club meeting, Deanna couldn’t stop talking about it, and then Trish tweeted, “Dying to get on the streetcar so I can get back to reading Jo Walton’s Among Others“, and this is the kind of buzz I listen to. It’s real and you can’t buy it, but I trust it because it’s the sound of real people talking about a book that’s made a connection.

But it’s not magic, of course. It’s a chain of coincidence that begins with a writer creating a work that is really good, or sometimes a work that is not very good but happens to be exactly what readers are hungry for. And then the work drifts out into the world, and of course it helps to know a lot of people well-placed to help the drifting, to have a great cover design, be published by a press that newspaper editors pay attention to, to be photogenic and/or notorious (or fictional), to have a lot of time to twitter, and a knack for connecting with your audience. But then I’m thinking of a book like Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin where almost none of that happened, and the book caught on fire. What happened with that book was the most amazing chain of coincidence, a force onto itself, and no one ever could have made that happen.

In less magical terms, I despair when I listen to men on the radio talking about an invasion of Iran or moving the economy forward as though anyone actually has any understanding of or control over how matters of war or economics transpire– these things take on unforeseen trajectories and are carried by their own momentum. You can’t plot these matters the way you plot a book, and nor can you plot a book’s reception either. I recently read a comment by an author stating that he appreciated the way that social media gives him control over what happens to his books once they’re published, but that control is an illusion. The magic is going to happen or it isn’t, and it’s unfair expectation on an author to make him think he can steer it either way, or that he’d feel responsible when magic fails to occur (except perhaps for having written a book that wasn’t extraordinary or even good. I come across a lot of terrible books in my travels. It is my opinion that more writers should be feeling such a burden these days).

Sometimes the magic should happen and it doesn’t. For example, it blows my mind (and in a bad way) that there are books on this that anybody hasn’t read yet. It’s unjust. Or that Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist didn’t win a major literary award last autumn (though magic did happen there. People loved that book). It kills me when the books I love don’t take, but it’s the way it goes, and it’s in nobody’s hands. But then I go declaring Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories as one of the best books of the year, the CBC concurs, and the book is getting rave reviews everywhere. This is what buzz is: a chain of coincidence that originates with a book that is awesome. (And now here, it’s your turn: buy it.)

Which is not to say that writers are powerless or that book marketers would be best sitting idle. Book marketing is a tool, and so is social media, and both are always going to aid the process. I recently purchased Emma Staub’s story collection Other People We Married because on one strange morning, she had turned up in every hyperlink I’d clicked on and somehow that managed not to be annoying. Now Straub is well-connected, which does help– I followed her on twitter after a recommendation by Maud Newton, who is a good person to know, I’d say. But mostly importantly, in none of the links I clicked on was Straub telling me how fantastic she or her book was. In one, she was using her experience as a bookseller to advise writers on “How to Be an Indie Booksellers Dream”. In another, she was included in Elissa Schappell’s “Books With Second” Lives feature. And then there was this. Such a chain of coincidence, I found, that obviously the universe was telling me to buy this book. And so I did.

So the writer is not powerless. But here it is, in two of these links, the magic had already happened– the book had connected with readers and they were telling me about it. In the other, Straub was putting her name and face out there, but doing so by participating in a wider community of readers and writers, giving them something other than a sales pitch.

Writers: stop tweeting the same links to your reviews over and over again (unless, perhaps, you’ve just been reviewed in the New York Times), stop spamming your followers, you don’t need to respond to every blogger’s review (and especially not if it’s a bad one), give your potential audience a reason to be interested in you besides the fact that you’ve written a book you want them to read. Social media is a conversation, and nobody likes anyone in a conversation who only talks about themselves.

But at a certain point, the writer has to take a step back and just let it happen. Magic can’t be orchestrated.

**
Speaking of magic, we high-fived over our pancakes this morning as The 49th Shelf received a shout-out on CBC’s The Sunday Edition in a discussion about the state of Canadian publishing. It was glorious.

December 19, 2011

Blogging course makes the news

Much of this Fall was consumed by the adventure my first round of teaching The Art and Business of Blogging at through UofT’s School of Continuing Studies. An article on the course was included in The Toronto Sun‘s recent continuing education supplement, and is available for your reading here. And just a reminder that the course will be offered again in the spring!

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My course
The Art of Blogging runs Fall 2014 at UofT
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My book

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"If Life Gave Me Lemons" (short story) at Joyland
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"Helter Skelter" (short story) in TNQ 130
TNQ130



"Rereading Fear of Flying" (personal essay) in The Toronto Review of Books
Fear of Flying