counter on blogger

Pickle Me This

April 1, 2019

The Narrative Value of Abortion

I am still not finished writing about abortion (or talking about abortion), not least because writing about abortion/ de-stigmatizing abortion / acknowledging abortion as ordinary is more important than it’s ever been with women’s reproductive rights and access to abortion under threat in a way I never anticipated they would be when I had my own abortion 600 years ago and even had the nerve to take my access to abortion for granted—how very 2002/”post-feminist” of me, right?

And there, I just used “abortion” eight times in a sentence, which I think was the general guideline put forth by Strunk and White in their Elements of Style. Something along the lines of, “Write abortion eight times in a sentence, then go do seven impossible things before breakfast.” (For six and under, you’re pretty much on your own.)

I keep writing about abortion because people with no experience of abortion keep trying to make laws about abortion, and the tyranny and injustice of that terrifies me. But I also keep writing about abortion, in fiction in particular, because it’s really interesting from a narrative point of view. As Lindy West writes in Shrill, ‘My abortion wasn’t intrinsically significant, but it was my first big grown-up decision—the first time I asserted unequivocally, “I know the life that I want and this isn’t it”; the moment I stopped being a passenger in my own body and grabbed the rudder.”’ And from a character-development standpoint, such a moment is pure gold for an author, along with the nuance and ambiguity that comes with the experience of abortion. The defiance, the agency, the courage—these qualities are what character is made of. And the variable ways an abortion is experienced by a couple too, if the pregnant person finds herself in that kind of arrangement. How it could bring two people together, or push them apart, or make clear a reality that’s been present all along.

The possibilities are endless, as to what can happen to a woman (fictional or otherwise) who has an abortion, and endless possibilities are kind of the whole point of abortion anyway. And not that all those possibilities are free and easy—what choice in any life ever comes with such certainty? But it’s about plot and richness and tension and balance, and knowing that a single thing can have two (or more) realities, that a reality can be true and not true at once, which is the entire jurisdiction of fiction.

So I am not finished putting abortion in my work, because of the fact of abortion in the world, regardless of whether or not it makes you uncomfortable. And maybe in this instance, your comfort is not the point? Instead, for the reader, finding abortion in our fiction brings home the ordinariness of abortion in the places where we live—our homes, our families, our small towns and big cities. Writing about abortion is not a question of changing the world, but instead of catching up with it, acknowledging the reality what life has been like all along.

March 22, 2019

It occurs to me that I’ve written a fantasy novel.

I’m finishing up a new draft of a novel I’ve written about a popular and charismatic politician whose career is derailed due to allegations of sexual misconduct a decade before. The novel’s central character is this man’s sometime-girlfriend, a young woman seventeen-years his junior who had been his employee—but something else has gone askew in their relationship (no spoilers) and they’re now estranged. What makes my novel interesting is ambiguity about the politician’s character, less so than what actually did or did not occur a decade ago. While the allegations against him may well be unfounded, smears in general upon his character are not exactly misplaced—he is indeed a forty year old man who a penchant for women born in the mid-1990s who happen to work for him. While none of that is illegal, it’s not a sign of impeccable character either. There is a small part of him that will concede that he has participated in an abuse of power—and (even if only in private) his mother would attest to that. She knows she’s let him get away with too much. It’s a good book, well plotted, nuanced. It’s been interesting to write the experiences of a 23-year-old woman who has no idea how much she still has to learn, who is refusing to be a victim. But it also occurs to me—thinking about Brett Kavanaugh’s face, and having read the memoir of the former leader of Ontario PC party whose own downfall inspired the premise of my story—that I have actually written a fantasy novel. A novel where a powerful man has a moment of contrition, for a moment questions his entitlement. “The defences of their choices would be vicious,” Megan Gail Coles writes in her incredible novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, which is the world we live in, instead of one where a mother might concede that her son could have hurt someone. I’m thinking of the incredible ending to Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, that devastating final sentence, that strict adherence to the status quo. When I read that book I didn’t really understanding how firmly committed are so many people to that narrative.

January 22, 2019

On Revising—or How I Learned to Spell ‘Excruciating.’

The title of this blog post is a lie, because I still don’t actually know how to spell “excruciating.” When I initially typed the title here, I spelled it the same way I spelled it in the image above, which I posted to Instagram, and some people thought my misspelling was the point. Ha ha, oh yes, Of course, it was. (Oh, good heavens, why haven’t they invented spellcheck for handwriting yet. Why?? Why??) But I am going to keep the blog post title anyway, because maybe I know how to spell excruciating now. (I do! For the time being.) And because the above comment is pretty typical of what I come up with in my own revisions. Because you’re never going to get it perfect. Revising is all about showing your work, and about accepting that many parts of your literary house may not necessarily be sound, and then getting on with it anyway.

For me, learning to revise was such a revelation. Because I’d come up as a writer in blogging, you see, where getting to Publish was the point. Any blogger too focussed on revising is never going to be a blogger for long, and I’d argue that revising, or “polishing” blog posts is really procrastination, a way to avoid that terrifying moment when your piece goes live. A blog post is always a bit imperfect, somewhat raw, a work in progress—it’s intrinsic to the form. But a story or a novel is very different, and before you get to Publish, you’ll be revising it over and and over again.

I’m writing this post now, because someone emailed me last week having just completed the amazing First Draft milestone. (Huzzah! Crack open a bottle of wine!). And she knows, of course, that this finish line is only just the beginning of another marathon, and she wondered if I had any advice to share as she launches forth. And it happens that I do.

  • Celebrate all the milestones. This is a bit of wisdom I learned from Sarah Henstra a few years ago, and it’s the truest thing in this whole endeavour. A story idea, 10 000 words, getting to THE END. Sometimes you’ve got to throw your own party.
  • Take breaks. When the First Draft milestone is reached, put your story away for a few weeks. Do something new and difference. Change it up. You’ll come back to your project with fresh eyes and a more open mind.
  • I like to read through my draft first without making changes, but just reading it to see what I notice, what it’s like to encounter the text from the outside. This is where I make general notes (like the poorly spelled one above) that provide me guidelines for when I really get down to work.
  • Notice the good bits. The stand-out lines, the great scenes, the twist that works—I leave check marks scattered throughout the ms as encouragement to my future self and to remember that it’s not all bad.
  • Set quantifiable goals. I find this easiest in first drafts (1000 words a day!) but with revisions, you can set page goals or time based goals. An hour or two a day of a social media-blocking app makes a very good clock.
  • Change your font, or the spacing, or the layout of your document upon embarking on a revision. Changing the look of your manuscript will open your mind to more possibilities and untether your mind from the idea that your draft is fixed.
  • Don’t be afraid to cut, even your favourite bits, the ones that don’t work, no matter how much you hope they will. I find it easier to create a new file to copy-and-paste these “scraps” to. In the end, I usually end up deleting the entire file and its contents, but a temporary storage space makes the process less painful.
  • I love the metaphor of sculpting for writing, and I love the revision process because this time I don’t have to conjure my materials out of the air. Now I’ve got the clay, but it’s raw, and I’ve got to shape it. Or else I’m using a chisel to scrape the layers off and reveal the real shape that’s underneath. Alright, you can probably tell I don’t actually know how to sculpt anything. But my point: everything you need is there now, and this is the part where you get to dig deeper.
  • Digging is different from polishing, Keep that in mind. Once again, polishing can be a procrastination—worrying about word order, or where to put your comma. These details are important, but you can worry about them later, and preoccupation with them can keep you from ever moving forward with the real work (which is DIG DIG DIG).
  • My favourite scene in Mitzi Bytes is one that was written in a later draft, and the goodness of that scene, to me, underlines my faith in the revision process. There will be parts of your book that you’ll end up writing down the line that will feel like they were there all along just waiting for you to discover them.
  • Revision is an opportunity to make your book the best that it can be. It helps to embrace this opportunity, and love it. It’s a process of discovering what your book is really about, and it’s kind of amazing and mysterious that you—its author—might not even know what that is yet. It’s actually helpful to never be too sure.
  • If you’re lucky, you might have someone in your life who is willing to read your unedited manuscript (which is a big request to make of anybody). Make sure it’s someone who cares about you and your work, and someone whose opinion you respect. Remember that every time someone reads your work, it is an opportunity to practice the art of receiving feedback.
  • And understand that the moment of realizing that your entire manuscript is garbage (which is also EXCRUCIATING) is a part of the process too. It’s always devastating to realize that your art that was perfect in theory in reality is never quite the flawless piece you imagined. But that’s what revising is for. Onward, and better and better all the time.

December 17, 2018

Lightbulbs

Photo of a cup of tea beside a computer screen in which the document's title is revealed as THIS DOWNFALL.

I still remember the day I started writing Mitzi Bytes, in late June of 2014, and how we’d had dinner out on the porch, and I had this idea for a story, and we talked about it through dinner, the conversation providing the momentum for me to finally get started. Iris was still a baby, so didn’t have a lot to contribute but Stuart and Harriet had seemed as invested in the project as I was, and that night Stuart washed the dishes even though it was my turn so that I could sit down and begin writing.

Always for me, writing books has been a family project. We spent dinner last night brainstorming titles for my latest manuscript, a #MeToo era novel about a woman whose older politician boyfriend is accused of sexual misconduct alleged to have taken place a decade before, and that that woman herself is estranged from the boyfriend for mysterious reasons, having returned alone to their hometown months before in disgrace, only makes the situation more complicated to navigate. The novel unfolds over the week that the scandal does, the story of their relationship and his betrayal gradually revealed. 

“Wow, you’ve sure done a lot thinking about this,” Harriet said to me, after drilling me on all the details, but I knew about the worn tread on the outdoor carpet on the boyfriend’s mother’s porch, and about the protagonist’s sister who runs a Montessori school, and I was more than a little proud of having impressed her. She was fixated on the hometown though, in the context of her Grade Three social studies project on communities, I think. 

“Well, what’s the major industry?” she kept demanding. “Tourism? Resource extraction?” I confessed I didn’t know, exactly. I knew the town had a drug problem, opioids, and that the librarians were trained in administering Naloxone. Harriet did not consider this sufficient. “I think,” I told her, “that the town had at one point been a manufacturing base, but then the factories closed down, as they do.” But what had the factories made, she wondered. A novelist has to be specific. 

“Light bulbs?” suggested Stuart. Yes, maybe light bulbs. The town doesn’t even have a name—maybe we could call it Edison. (I just googled to see if there is an Edison in Ontario, and there is, an Edison Mountain, named for a mine owned by THE Thomas Edison, but it turned out he didn’t invent the lightbulb after all? Further googling reveals that the incandescent light bulb was invented several times in various places all over the world—but it was two Canadians, Woodward and Evans, who sold a patent to Thomas Edison in 1879. Who knew?) 

And then we got back to titles, and Harriet suggested the novel’s title be a warning to the protagonist: “Stay Away From That Man, He’s Bad News.” And I thought about “Bad News,” because of the role the media plays in the story. Then she and Iris started rhapsodizing other possibilities: “Love in the Darkness.” “Terrible Love Story.” “The Shadow of Love’s Heart.” “Don’t Tell Mom, The Politician is a Smarmy Git”—that one was my idea. 

“Summer of Love?” Harriet suggests, but no. “What’s the season?” she asks, and I tell her autumn, fall. The novel takes place in October, and it’s raining a lot, and I start thinking about fall, falls, being fallen. “So now I now how downward spiral goes,” is a line from a poem I wrote many years ago that has found its way into my new book, which is about downfalls, the kind that happen to men and the kind that happen to women, and the distance between those two experiences. And there we had it—downfall. This Downfall. An actual title. after months of edits on Untitled Story Draft Two

Always trust in the process of discussing my novels over dinner, might be the truest writing advice I know. 

November 6, 2018

Publishing a Book is Not a Catapult

Publishing a book is not a catapult, unless you’re someone very lucky, and even if you are, I would imagine that even successful authors still have to contend with ordinary things like laundry, dry skin, and busses that don’t come. I’ve heard it on record that even the bestsellers show up at events and end up reading to empty rooms. Probably not as often as the rest of us, but still. But even though publishing is not a catapult, sometimes it is indeed just like a trampoline. Tomorrow night I get to show up at an awards ceremony and present a $10,000 cheque to the winner of the Journey Prize. And it’s funny to fit this into the context of ordinary experience, as in my husband will be taking our children to piano lessons tomorrow so I can be at the ceremony in time for the mic check, and afterwards we’ll both have to make the kids’ lunches. Or this: after spending days fretting about the fiction market and my future as a novelist, I get to fly away on an airplane to a literary festival where people bought tickets to hear me (and others) speak, and bought my books and requested I sign them. On Monday morning I took my children to school, but on Saturday people were asking for my autograph. By which, I mean, they wanted me to sign my novel, but it’s still the same thing. I feel very fortunate to have had a busy literary fall, especially since my book came out eighteen months ago. The life of a book is long, it’s true, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has worked to keep it going.

I had the most wonderful time in Sudbury on the weekend at their Wordstock Literary Festival. As Kim Thuy said to me as we were waiting at the airport, you know you’re a big deal when you get invited to a festival in a smaller city or town, because it’s amazing that they’ve even heard of you. And I know I’m not even a big deal, but it was sure nice to get to be in the company of Kim Thuy, and to meet so many readers and writers and bring books to life through great conversation. (I also got the chance to hang out with the amazing Danielle Daniel and see her gorgeous mural in person, and it was one of the best parts of an excellent weekend.) As always, I bow down to literary festival organizers, those tireless people who are usually volunteers and who pull off miracles every time. I feel so lucky for the chance to do authorial things, and take none of it for granted.

Publishing a book is not a catapult. I knew this, of course. The week before my novel came out I did a talk at a writers’ group and talked about how important failure had been to my process, about the novel I’d written ten years before that never was published, about the things I’d written that had turned out to be stepping stones to my success. “And there will always be some way to feel like you’ve not yet arrived,” I remember saying. “Maybe the book is not a bestseller, or it is a bestseller, but only for five weeks, or it’s a bestseller for months, but wins none of the prizes,” and on and on, the litany of ways for an author to feel unsuccessful. Maybe you’ll be giving a talk and nobody comes, and then the next time you give a talk and lots of people come, you’ll still be thinking about the last time. Since my book came out, many kind people have remarked upon how well everything seems to be going, how successful the book is: “I see it everywhere.” Like, all over my Instagram feed. But still. I’ve stopped correcting those people though, offering to clarify things, to underline all the ways in which I don’t measure up. I have decided that appearing successful might be the closest I ever come to being successful, and maybe there’s not even a distinction. Failure continues to be integral to my process, even though I was secretly hoping I was done with it when I gave that talk eighteen months ago. I have a feeling I’ll only ever be done with failure when I’m dead, but at least it’s never not been useful.

July 5, 2018

Writing With Children

So it seems that I am writing a novel this summer, and we’ve been here before. I wrote my first draft of Mitzi Bytes during the summer of 2014, when Iris was one and Harriet was five and would sit beside me on the couch watching Annie while her sister napped. Two years later I wrote Asking for a Friend in the same way, except that no one napped anymore, but what I did do was close the baby gate on our door and sit out on the porch with my laptop while the children were barricaded indoors with a bin full of snacks. They were allowed to watch movies, but only after they’d earned it with an hour of imaginative play—and then in the afternoon we’d head out into the world and do something fun or interesting.

I don’t know what it is about summer—when I have limited childcare and the world is calling with its sunshine—that imbues me with inspiration. It’s really quite impractical and inconvenient to decide to spend a summer writing a book, but it’s also exhilarating. For me, summer is about stretching anyway, about pushing limits. How far can we go, is a thing I wonder in summer, as the days go long and the children get filthy, and there’s sand in everything, and we’re so tired, but we keep going, because summer only lasts so long, and a terrible thing would be to give up before it did (and it always does eventually…).

So what follows is a list of what works for me with writing and being home with my children. And naturally, I recognize that I am privileged that I get to be home with my children in the summer, but before you assume it’s all too cozy, remember that I make my living from work that I must fit in around fiction writing and my children (and dentist appointments, and laundry, and shaking sand out of things) in the summer, and it’s all very busy and a juggle, but I also wouldn’t want it any other way.

  1. Write first. In the summer I have to work in the evenings after my children are in bed to make it all happen—but I never ever save my writing for that time. Because the writing is the work I’m accountable to no one else for but myself, and it would be so easy to just decide to wait until tomorrow. So I make it my first priority.
  2. Set a word count. This is why I like first drafts, because it’s quantifiable and finite. 1000 words a day works for me, and I’m experienced enough by now to know that those words don’t even have to be good—that’s what subsequent drafts are for. But this one is just to show me where there the story is going.
  3. Make my children part of the process. I make my writing a family affair, and my children know that by giving me the time and space to get my 1000 words done, they’re helping to make my story happen. When Mitzi Bytes came out, it was a big deal for both of them, because they knew they’d played a part in the book’s creation.
  4. Don’t talk about it until it’s done: I love Instagram, and take my #todaysteacup photo every day—see photo above. But I don’t post the photo until my writing session is finished—it’s a reward to myself. Don’t be #AmWriting unless you’ve written.
  5. Keep going: I’ve talked before about how I took up jogging the same summer I wrote Mitzi Bytes, but that I quit jogging because I hated it, right after I burst into tears in Queen’s Park because I hated it so much. Except for the hating part, for me jogging and writing a novel are pretty much the same. JUST KEEP GOING. One foot/one word in front of the other—it’s as simple as that. It’s such a little, manageable thing when you break it down like that. Don’t stop. You can do one more word, and then another and then another. (Although if you find yourself bursting into tears in the middle of a sentence because you hate it so much, remember that you’re also allowed to quit. To do otherwise would be stupid.)
  6. Read: I had nostalgia last weekend because I remember reading Emma Strab’s The Vacationers on the July long weekend just as I’d started writing Mitzi Bytes—I loved that book, and it inspired me. And then I went back to my blog to see what were the books I’d read just before it, and they were Based on a True Story, by Elizabeth Renzetti, and Mating For Life, by Marissa Stapley, neither of whom were my friends at the time, although now they are, which isn’t the point, but instead that I wrote a better book because I was inspired by books that were doing the kinds of things I wanted to do.
  7. Shut the door. As I’ve written before, I don’t actually have a door, but there is a metaphoric one that my children have learned to observe and respect. I also continue to make sure the snack bin is full so that their needs are taken care of. But in the meantime, I’m busy, and they know that, and they’re cool with that…
  8. …Because they’re really happy watching Teen Titans Go on Netflix!
  9. Day camp! They’re doing a week of full-day camp and two weeks of half-day camp this summer, and I’ll be motivated to use that time like nobody’s business.
  10. Keep it low key. We do fun and local (and often free!) free things in the afternoons once I’ve met my word count. Truth be told, we are a bit boring, but summer is about boring, in addition to Netflix, and as long as the freezer is stocked with popsicles, nobody seems to mind.

May 22, 2018

Mitzi Bytes and Margaret Drabble

This essay is exceedingly whiny, but makes a point worth underlining, which is “The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.” It’s true. For example, I could tell you how my Mother’s Day present was a road trip to Furby House Books in Port Hope (which is such a wonderful place!) and how I arrived to find Mitzi Bytes on their Staff Picks shelf like that was ain’t no thang. But it was a thang. Plus, and most importantly, they knew I was coming, which was undoubtedly how a book that’s three seasons old ended up there. Also it is a very good book, and I’ve been grateful for Furby House’s support of it since its released, but still. A shot of my book on the staff picks shelf (now autographed—there’s even a sticker!) does not count as full disclosure. There’s always more of the story to tell, and even the best bits are difficult to appreciate when and if they finally happen. It’s like that line from a Bob Dylan song, “What looks large from a distance close up ain’t never that big.”

Not everything needs to be big though in order to be appreciated. I think the key to keeping going in a creative career, in any career, is to pay attention to the small things, to mark your milestones, to not write off any of the tiny miracles it would be so simple just to take for granted. Like the photo above, a photo of Mitzi Bytes on the shelf at Furby House Books. In such excellent company—what a thing to share shelf space with the likes of these books. What spectacular company, basically everything I ever wanted and everything that I never quite dared to believe could come true. But there is one title in particular that stands out here, the reason I took this photo in the first place. That yellow book on the lower shelf, far right: Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises (which I loved, remember?). Margaret Drabble who made me want to write novels like no one else ever has—the first book of hers I read was The Radiant Way, which I discovered when I was still young enough to be impressionable but old enough to get it. (Rohan Maitzen just wrote a great post on the book, although she did not love it as I do.) I remember reading her books for the first time like I was discovering the world—but I was also discussing the limits of my talents and abilities and the hugeness of ambition at the very same time. It was a lot to comprehend. And so to see my book alongside hers years later is almost too incredible to be properly understood. It sounds overstated, but it isn’t. If someone had told me years ago that this photo was a thing that could possibly happen, even with the main currency of the book industry being bullshit, I would have considered this success beyond my wildest dreams.

My point being that sometimes it’s possible to arrive; it’s just the trick of remembering to notice once you get there.

May 10, 2018

My Door is Always Open

“A mother must make herself always available. A writer needs to shut the door.” —Alexandra Schwartz

  1. The only two doors in my apartment are the bathroom door, whose lock is broken, and my children’s bedroom door, which does not actually shut because the door frame is warped.
  2. When we moved into our apartment, I made an office in our garret, which is a strange narrow room adjoining my bedroom, but it was very cold and lonely there and I never wrote a thing.
  3. I have a tea towel upon which is printed the cover of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and it hangs in our living room (which has three windows, but no door).
  4. Before I had children, I worked 9-5 at a job that wasn’t very interesting and had no time to write.
  5. I am not saying a woman needs to have a A Room of One’s Own tea-towel hanging on her living room wall in order to live a rich and fulfilling life. There are many ways to live a rich and fulfilling life. But this is what works for me.
  6. When my first child was born, I was desperately unhappy. I thought that motherhood would be the thing that saved me from monotony and humdrum days, but it was worse. And so there was nothing left but writing, which I had no choice but to do with all my might.
  7. I never had anything to write about before I had children. I remember talking about this with a friend over sushi about ten years ago, about how I didn’t think I’d be a good writer until I’d experienced motherhood, the way it raises the stakes. I didn’t have a big enough investment in the world before that. I was living on a limited plane.
  8. That limit was my limit. My friend with whom I was eating sushi is not a parent and did not need to become one in order to be a brilliant writer. There are lots of ways to do this thing.
  9. Sometimes I think that people mix up “having a newborn” with “motherhood”. It is true that having a newborn is a bit like being sent to prison/being tortured/transformed into a piece of human furniture, but it doesn’t last, and the only problem is that the first time it happens you don’t know it doesn’t last.
  10. My children are nearly nine and five. I don’t have a door and so my door is always open, but my children are usually doing other things in other rooms.
  11. My first major success as a writer—a published essay wins second place in a contest, is runner-up for a National Magazine Award, appears in Best Canadian Essays, is noted by the UTNE Reader—is about motherhood, and therefore if I’d never become a mother I never would have written it.
  12. Admittedly, all this is more complicated for women who find literary success before they have children—they have something to lose, I suppose. They need to learn to work in a different way. The decision is more perilous. And yet, to think in terms of peril is possibly overdramatic. It will be fine. It will be fine.
  13. My first book was an anthology of essays I edited about motherhood. It would be unlikely that I’d have taken on this project had I not become a mother. I edited this book while lying on my couch, my laptop propped on my legs while my baby slept on my chest. It was one of the best times in my life. Sometimes she napped for ages, and I got a lot of work done.
  14. My other child was at kindergarten. My children are four years apart. I am lucky to have been able to plan this all very carefully, to have my plans work out, for the time and balance I needed in order to be a mother, let alone a mother of two.
  15. My baby no longer sleeps on my chest. Now she goes in kindergarten too. When my first daughter was born and my world was torn asunder, I used to hear other mothers say, “And now I can’t imagine my life without her.” And I thought this was lunacy. I kept thinking instead about my baby, “Where on earth did you come from and what are we going to do?” But nine years later, I firmly can’t imagine my life without either of them. And there’s also this dawning awareness that one day I’m going to have to, because it won’t be too long before they’re living lives that have very little to do with me at all.
  16. I wrote my first novel during the summer of 2014 while my one-year-old napped and her big sister watched Annie on the sofa beside me every single day and I wrote 1000 words at a time. Everybody was doing her job.
  17. Everything I’ve written since I’ve written at the kitchen table, and there’s no one else home, and I’ve grown accustomed the quiet.
  18. I don’t have another job. This is an important part of the story. Working full time, and being a mother, and being a writer is really really hard. That said, a lot of people do it. But that’s a different kind of story than the story I’m telling here.
  19. I don’t have another job, but I’ve been able to build a freelance writing career where I earn a respectable living. I am very proud of this. I’ve also been able to fit that a career around taking my children to and from school every day, other appointments, cleaning my house, grocery shopping etc. etc. There is a misconception being a writer and being a mother without another job means one spends her days, well, staring out the window and dreaming, but I can’t afford such luxuries. I’ve got a business to run. And I have to vacuum.
  20. I’ve been really lucky. I have a partner who works full-time, but who has the flexibility to share the load and support my work. I have children whose needs so far have been fairly undemanding. For other parents, it’s much more complicated and much more work.
  21. I’ve been lucky but I have also worked very hard.
  22. The stories of women who choose not to have children (or who don’t even get the privilege of making that choice) are as interesting and worthwhile as the stories of women who do have children. That said, when those women’s stories are defined in opposition to those of women who are mothers (i.e. they are sometimes made to feel that they, unlike mothers, are doing womanhood wrong) it sometimes misses the point that even women who do  go with convention and have children are made to feel that they too are doing it wrong, everything, all the time. Motherhood is no escape from this.
  23. The choice not to have children is complicated though, this is true. Once the children arrive, they’re kind of undeniable. Whereas choosing not to have children, as a friend once told me, is a choice you have to make over and over, and that’s not easy.
  24. There is this push to universalize everything that happens to a woman. But sometimes our stories are just stories, instead of facts or even destinies. 
  25. “But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality– dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers,” said Dorothy Parker. I think about this quote a lot, because sooner or later when they’re talking about those female writers, someone is going to be talking about you.

February 9, 2018

Author’s Day, by Daniel Pinkwater

Being an author always seems like it might be a little bit glamorous, which I know because I spent a large part of my life wanting to be one. Back in the days before I knew that your favourite author “spending an afternoon signing” at a big box bookstore really means she’s sitting lonely at a table, trying to coerce strangers into purchasing her book via fledgling sales and marketing techniques, unless she was JK Rowling, which she usually wasn’t. I have never spent an afternoon signing books at Indigo, mostly because I do not overestimate my own popularity and also I read that essay years ago by Margaret Atwood about signing her book in the socks department at Eatons. My first experience of encountering my novel in a bookstore only underlined to me that being an author is an exercise in mild humiliation. I’m still pretty raw about the reading I did in 2014 that nobody came to. Although I felt better after I did an event with a wildly successful author not long ago who gave me a dirty look when I suggested that all her events were well-attended—maybe the problem wasn’t just me. And also after I read Billie Livingston’s beautiful essay about a US book tour event gone wrong that ended up going oh so right. About “the spark that connects far-flung strangers,” which is why we write at all really, and the great privilege of putting a book into the world.

I don’t know if I ever thought that being a children’s author might be a less humiliating experience than publishing novels for adults, but Daniel Pinkwater’s book Author’s Day suggests that it isn’t. I also don’t really know how Pinkwater managed to publish Author’s Day, unless maybe he’d given some publishing executive’s toddler the Heimlich Maneuver and the book was payback for the favour. Because, from a child’s eye view, Author’s Day is not particularly appealing. It’s a picture book with two-page text-only spreads. The story itself is passive-aggressive as all get-out, angry, mean and completely self-serving—and I love it. My children find it weird and a little bit funny, but I think it’s brilliant. I found it in the library about a year ago, and then absolutely had to have a copy of my own, which I was able to purchase on Amazon for a penny.

The plot is this: it’s Author’s Day. A banner is hung. Everybody at the school is very excited about the visit of Bramwell Wink-Porter, author of The Fuzzy Bunny. Except, “I did not write The Fuzzy Bunny,” says Bramwell Wink-Porter to himself when he reads the banner. “The name of my book is The Bunny Brothers.” When he informs the principal, Mrs. Feenbogen, she suggests, “[P]erhaps you can talk about The Fuzzy Bunny, even though you did not write it.” In the school library, there is a box of books for Bramwell Wink-Porter to sign, and the books in that box are Bunnies for Breakfast, written by Lemuel Crankstarter. But before anything can be sorted out, Wink-Porter is dragged off to the kindergarten where numerous sticky children insist on hugging him and feeding him pancakes with pieces of crayons in them. And then he arrives in Grade One, where the children have dressed up in Fuzzy Bunny Masks and Fuzzy Bunny hats. They ask him questions like, “Was it hard to write The Fuzzy Bunny?” And then he goes to the staff room, where a teacher gives him a sandwich that was the favourite sandwich of the fuzzy bunny in The Fuzzy Bunny.

“I did not write that book, you know, said Bramwell Wink-Porter.

“I am Mrs. Wheatbeet,” said the teacher. “I have written a book too. It is called Bunnies in Love. I have it here. It is nine hundred pages long. I wonder if you would read it while you eat your lunch… If you like, you can give me your address… I will bring you the book and I will wait in the car while you read it.”

…Another teacher sat down. “I am Mrs. Heatseat. I think it is wrong that animals do not wear clothes. I know you agree with me, because the Fuzzy Bunny always wears a raincoat.”

The fourth and fifth graders give him drawings of the Fuzzy Bunny on large sheets of paper with coloured chalk that gets all over his clothes. They let him pet their class bunny, who bites Bramwell Wink-Porter on the thumb. And then he goes to the sixth grade.

The sixth graders were waiting in the library. “Hey, doofus!” one of the sixth graders shouted. “You’ve got a slice of bologna stuck to your shirt, and there is coloured chalk all over your clothes!”

They end up tying Bramwell Wink-Porter to a chair.

And suddenly I feel better about everything, and very much not alone.

November 20, 2017

Shut up, shut up, shut up

I’ve been thinking a lot about interviewing lately, mostly because I’d like to get better at doing them. Mostly because if I get better at interviewing, the proportion of time I spend listening to my own voice and wanting to die while transcribing will decrease, which is always a good thing. And because there’s a lot about being a better interviewer that is synonymous with being a better person in general, an ongoing project of mine. Becoming a better interviewer means becoming the kind of person that people want to talk to, which is always useful kind of person to be at dinner parties and other social gatherings (or so I imagine).

Before an interview I did last month, I asked a group of writers for any interviewing wisdom they might want to impart, and I received some excellent advice, including to go over your interviews very critically and apply that feedback to do a better job next time, and I think it really worked for me, because I did another interview on Friday morning which I’m about to transcribe now and there is a possibility I won’t want to die once while listening to my recording of it. It helped that the person I was speaking to was utterly fascinating and generous with her thoughts and ideas, of course, but it also helps that I really worked to obey the voice in my head commanding me, Shut up shut up shut up.

I am a pretty good conversationalist. And I am a downright superb monologist, for that matter, but that is very different from being a good interviewer, a good listener. Part of the problem is that I have to fight my reflex to crack a joke every time one seems readily available. Which that is also called interrupting. You don’t have to be funny, was something else I was telling myself on Friday morning, and it kinds of goes against my religion.

Not all my interviewing downfalls are symptomatic of my character flaws, however. It occurred to me while I was shutting up on Friday morning how much I feel compelled to interrupt as a kind of affirmation, an act of empathy. To say, Me too. Me too. I know exactly, and then proceed along a tangent with an anecdote to demonstrate just how much I do. I think the motivation here is genuine kindness as much as it is self-absorption, but it’s also such a faulty communication mechanism. Empathy has its limits, it does. Because we can’t ever really know exactly what another person is going through, and to suggest we can instead of taking the time and effort to genuinely listen and learn is ultimately counter to the project—if the project is connection.

And the project should always be connection.

Next Page »

Sign up for Pickle Me This: The Digest

Best of the blog delivered to your inbox each month!

A Boutique Online Bookstore with FREE SHIPPING right to your door:

Get My New Free Download: 5 MORE Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark!

Photo Kerry Clare with her Laptop

Coming Fall 2019:

My Books

The Doors
Twitter Pinterest Pinterest Good Reads RSS Post