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September 16, 2015

A ride in the bucket

IMG_20150820_215945I’m something of a pathological truth-teller, which is a line I stole from Lauren Groff’s new novel, Fates and Furies, the book I’m reading right now. The interesting thing about that line being that the character described has a more ambiguous relationship to truth than the speaker supposes. Which is always the way. Truth is fudgy. I think I only have such a strong affinity for the principles of truth because lies are so easy, the slipperiest slope—and then anything one says ceases to have meaning, and then what is the point?

It’s true though I’m often willing to forsake a bit of truth for the sake of a story. Which is why I wouldn’t be surprised at all to have made up the whole thing, the story of my friend Britt and I driving down a country road outside Peterborough during the summer of 2000. How there was a hydro truck pulled over by the same of the road, a crew working on a Sunday. (At the time, I don’t think I knew the song, “Wichita Lineman”, or else I would have been humming it.) We pulled up alongside, and somehow had the nerve to roll down our window.

“Could we have a ride in your bucket?” I asked.

And I’ll never forget the so-perfect response: “I can’t think of a reason why not,” the crewman said.

And he even meant it.

And so the crewmen paused their work for a moment and gave us each a chance to put on a hardhat and take a trip up in the bucket. Violating more health and safety policies than I can dream up, though I was 21 at the time and didn’t think in those terms. Still though, we knew it was amazing. We took pictures. That vivid blue sky, the wispy clouds.

If not for the photo, I really wouldn’t believe it. I’m not even sure I really remember it happened. That ride in the bucket seems more like a figment. A figment of reality, if there exists such a thing. “I can’t think of a reason why not,” that crewman said—has there ever been anybody else with so limited an imagination? And yet. Perhaps he was dealing with a surfeit, head in the clouds literally and otherwise.

And I mention this story here now because for the past few weeks, I’ve been stuck in the past, working on a story whose roots are autobiographical. All this spurred on by my husband’s application for Canadian citizenship, and how I was rooting around in boxes to unearth his university degree (which confirms his competency in English). I found my diary from my final year of university, a diary that begins on September 14 2001 and is written by a girl who was dazzled and devastated by the world at once. And I found the scrapbooks I so painstakingly compiled back in those years, determined to preserve every single moment. Not yet understanding then that there are so many moments, if we’re lucky, more moments than ever could fit in a storage locker full of scrapbooks. Not understanding then either that I mightn’t want to hold onto everything forever. That there would be so much I’d want to let go.

When we moved back to Canada ten years ago, I got rid of a whole bunch of stuff. Diaries, scrapbooks, yearbooks, tossed out in black plastic bin bags. There wasn’t room for all of it. Who wants to go through life with so much baggage? But I didn’t get rid of all of it. Enough to fill a couple of boxes, from the years that were most monumental. So there would be gaps, big gaps, but I don’t regret it now. I don’t regret the bits I kept either, which become more and more precious all the time. But so too are the gaps, which allow me tremendous freedom both as a writer and as a human being. To let stuff go, to be allowed to forget, but also to fill those gaps with other things—creation.

To go for a ride in the bucket, I mean, whether it happened or not.

September 1, 2014

The Vacationers

vacationers-emma-straubShockingly, it was three whole long weekends ago (July 1!) that I spent a morning in bed drinking tea and reading The Vacationers by Emma Straub, which I enjoyed very much. If I remember correctly, I’d barely slept at all the night before that, thanks to Bad Iris, and this is not one bit shocking. But still, how fast the summer has gone by. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I constructed a salad out of marshmallows and Jello back in June, but this summer has been completely wonderful. Even the cool weather didn’t faze us—I sleep in an un-air-conditioned attic, after all. We had a week at our cottage, a long weekend camping, and a weekend away at my parents’, which was fun. We watched an outdoor movie. We finally managed a trip to the Toronto Islands, slipping in under the wire on Saturday. We went to the CNE today. There was plenty of ice cream all summer long, of course. Soccer and bike rides. Harriet was enrolled in two weeks of an afternoon art camp, and one week of full day camp, which made us never tire of the days we spent together. Even with the imperfect weather, we went swimming at the Christie Pits pool, and Harriet has acquired the requisite number of freckles on her nose.

I feel very lucky to be able to spend the summer with my children. Here is why I really feel lucky though—when Iris goes to sleep in the afternoons, Harriet sits down to watch a movie, and I lie down to write. And I did. At the end of June, I embarked upon a Summer Writing Marathon, which I didn’t have time for, but I never will have time, so why wait? I resolved to write 1000 words a day, and I did it (save for vacations).  On Friday, I logged in at 50,000 words. I’m on my way to writing a novel whose first draft will be completed by the end of September. And you might think that this is exciting, except, of course, this is the fifth time I’ve written a novel. But this is a first time I’ve written a novel that might be interesting, and also the first time that the process has been so exhilarating. So this has certainly been a summer highlight.

Harriet spent July watching Frozen, and then took up an obsession with Annie that has yet to abate. She has watched it near daily for the last month, which pleases me immensely, because it’s one of my all-time favourite films. I never get tired of it, and am pleased to have someone to sing all the songs with. She also talks about it incessantly, which has led to me thinking more deeply about Miss Hannigan, for example, than I ever thought I would. I am going to write a post about this one of these days…

Because of my writing marathon, I had to do all my other work in the evenings, which meant I didn’t read this summer as much as I would have liked (except for when we went away, and I read six books in seven days). And what I read, I didn’t write much about. I read Anthony de Sa’s Kicking the Sky, which I liked for its depiction of Toronto and for being not what I expected, but didn’t appreciate as much as I thought I would. I read Jane Rule’s Deserts of the Heart, whose depiction of a lesbian relationship in the 1960s was groundbreaking. I read Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson for my book club, which I didn’t love as much I thought I would, but led to such interesting discussion. And I read Letters to Omar by Rachel Wyatt, and we did an interview, which will be up here in a couple of weeks. There were a few others too (all good!), which I read for reviews that will be published elsewhere in the next while.

Harriet doesn’t start school until Thursday, so we have a couple more days of summer left. And I’m going to miss her when she goes, though I’m not going to tell her so, because when I did last year, she cried, so that definitely wasn’t my smoothest move.

January 8, 2014

On Supporting CWILA in 2014

I wrote a short post for the CWILA Blog about why I will be donated to Canadian Women in Literary Arts once again in 2014.

First, because the pies are making a difference. Quite a few people don’t like what they stand for, or don’t like what they’re saying (or something. Truth be told, I don’t really understand, though I’ve tried) but they those pies are changing our publications for the better. The 2013 CWILA numbers reflect a significant change from 2012, writers and editors now working with an awareness of gender representation in what they read, write and publish. And that’s huge. I want to make sure the count continues into the future, is even expanded, and that the “counters” are properly compensated for their work.

Read the whole thing here.

December 30, 2013

In With the New


If this is a year in pictures, 2013 only needs this one for me. Not just my favourite image of the year but perhaps my favourite image of all time, my baby brand new, sticky, shrieking and naked, yanked out into the world one day shy of 42 weeks in utero. The image I never got to see when Harriet was born, and a sign that this might be our chance to right what went wrong the first time we had a baby. Not the birth I’d envisioned, cold and sterile, my body split in two, and we were so disappointed. (It is true that whenever anyone has had a baby since, I have cried because Iris’s birth was another c-section.) And yet, this image for me was a glimpse of possibility, that this could be another story. Iris’s birth was a new beginning in so many senses–of her life, course, and of our family as four. But it was also for me a rebirth of myself, that self that had been so shattered when I became a mother for the first time. The second time, however, has been like coming full circle, a journey to somewhere familiar and brand new.

This year has reassured me even with its challenges. I used to worry that I was only a happy person because circumstantially I’ve been extremely blessed, and while I am blessed and I also think I have a chemical disposition for happiness (another blessing, though after about eight more weeks of winter, I will be telling a different story), I managed moments of happiness too in times of stress and enormous fear. I think of a week in March whilst we were awaiting biopsy results, and how we spent the week so gloriously, but then the sun was shining and I’d decided to believe in the odds in my favour (and so they were). But still. I may be braver than I think. I am also grateful that my worst fears were averted. Further, I have learned a lot about things going wrong and how these things don’t necessarily signal, quite literally, the end of the world.

“Over time, I’ve come to understand that when Jamal says that a situation is normal, he means that there are flaws in the cloth and flies in the ointment, that one must anticipate problems and accept them as a part of life. Whereas I’ve always thought that things are normal until they go wrong, Jamal’s version of reality is causing me to readjust my expectations for fault-free existence and to regard the world in a more open fashion.”–Isabel Huggan, “Leaning to Wait, from Belonging

I stood on the cusp of 2013 with a great deal of uncertainty–I was partaking in a freelance writing project that would be quite intense and something I’d never done before, and I knew there would be a newborn baby in my life again, which seemed a horrifying proposition. But I’ve met both these challenges quite impressively, and it is funny that what caused me real problems during the past year was that cystic tumour growing up on my thyroid when it had never even occurred to me that I had a thyroid. It seems you never do know, which is a promise as much as something to fear.

The world has smiled on us a lot this year. First, with the birth of our strong, healthy baby; with our brilliant summer as Stuart had 12 weeks on parental leave; with Stuart being promoted to a new job that makes him so very happy upon his return to work; with a book contract for The M Word, which I am so very proud to have my name attached to; with Harriet who manages to be as wonderful as she is annoying (and that’s huge). I like people who are 4 years old. I am lucky to have Stuart in general, who delivers my tea in the morning. I am grateful for him, and to our families for their love and support. I am also grateful for our new queen-sized bed, which means that Iris sleeping with me every night (and sometimes the “sleep” is elusive) is not nearly as bad as it sounds.

I started writing when Iris was just a few weeks old, my mind and imagination anxious to be exercised. I hadn’t written short fiction for so long–the previous year had been spent on The M Word, year before that on a  novel forever unfinished that has served its purpose but I’m done with it. But since then, I’ve been busy, and I do hope that some of that productivity turns into publishing credits in the year ahead. I’ve sent out submissions, which is the part of the battle I have any control over. That and working hard on my pieces of course. I’ve been focussing on revising and getting feedback, both of which I’d shrugged off for too long, out of fear, I think, and habit (too much blogging). I am proud of my book reviews this year, my Ann Patchett review in The Globe, of Hellgoing in Canadian Notes and Queries, and Alex Ohlin’s two books at the Rusty Toque. I am also happy to be reviewing kids books for Quill & Quire. I continue to be so grateful for the opportunity to promote great Canadian books through my job at 49thShelf–come March, I’ll have been working on the site for 3 years.

My New Years resolutions (in addition to writing and revising and submitting) is to not to any of the annoying things I complain about authors doing once I’ve got a book in the world myself. I’ll be writing more about this in a few weeks time. Will be interesting and educational to see it all unfold from the other side of the page.

My reading resolution of 2013 was to read more non-Canadian books, which is kind of a weird resolution but I was stuck in a  CanLit bubble and it was making me crazy. So I am pleased that I read outside of that bubble (and that I’ve read 4/5 of the best fiction of the year according to the New York Times). There is not reading what everyone else is reading but also reading totally out of the loop, and I feel that in 2013, a balance was struck. (I just finished reading another top-rated book of 2013, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, which was so wonderful. I am so glad I didn’t let it pass me by.) For 2014, I would like to put a focus on reading books in translation, because really “the novel” is so much richer than I’ve glimpsed by English language focus.

This year I’ve read 92 books or thereabouts, which is far fewer than I’ve read it years and years. But I’ve also read more long, long books than I have in recent years and taken my time and enjoyed them. I also know that I’ve read about as much as has been humanly possible, save for the problem of my possible addiction to twitter (which I’m working on) so I am content with the total. Content also because the books I’ve read have been so extraordinary. (I have also abandoned a ton of books in 2013, and I am totally happy with that.)

Over the past few days, we’ve been busily decluttering the corners of our apartment. We’ve made a commitment to stay in this place we love so much as long as it’s comfortable to live here, and so we’re working on that comfort and making space by clearing away all the things we don’t need. And suddenly, our house is bigger, airier, and cleaner than we thought it was–the space! (Certainly, getting the fir tree out of the living room helps a little bit. Also getting rid of that box of plates in the kitchen that hasn’t been opened since the last time we moved.)

Out with the old then and in with the new, and it’s all so refreshing, full of possibilities. Though the greatest thing about the situation, of course, is just how pleased are we to be where we are.


December 15, 2013

Presuming an ample supply of the things you like and need

From “Processing Negatives: A Big Picture of Poetry Reviewing” by Helen Guri on the CWILA Blog: 

“But, as a woman poet who increasingly reads the work of other women poets, I know that a too-large proportion of the books I love don’t get their due in the public sphere. I cannot begin to tell you how many “underrated” poets presently occupy places of honour on my shelf. I say this not to diminish the books I read or write about, nor the marketing skills of their authors, nor to suggest that I write reviews or read books out of pity—I am at heart a lazy hedonist, and do in my unpaid hours basically only what brings me immediate pleasure—but to question the context in which poetry books by women and other “minorities” are received…

Male reviewers, by the CWILA stats at least, are more likely to have their tastes taken care of—assuming, as I think is reasonable based on my experience studying friends’ bookshelves, that tastes often diverge by gender. And really there is no better illustration of this than the relative freedom many of these reviewers seem to feel, the leftover energy they seem to have, to express their dislikes too. Singling something out and saying “no, not this” is a gatekeeping behaviour. It presupposes an ample supply of the things you like and need—people don’t generally demand to have the peppers taken off their pizza if they aren’t regularly being fed.”

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.

March 1, 2012

A cool thing

A cool thing that happened lately was discovering bloggers at The Book Mine Set and Perogies & Gyoza reading my short story “Georgia Coffee Star”. They both had lovely things to say about my story, and urged other readers to check it out. How lovely to see one’s work alive in the world, and to learn that readers are enjoying it. It means a lot to me.

December 18, 2011

I had a plan once

I had a plan once, that I’d have a book before I had a baby, but it turned out that I had a book that wasn’t very good, and one can put off having a baby forever. So I had a baby, and then I wrote a lot of other things, but it’s hard to write a new book when one took you wrong before. The first (or, ahem, second) time around, you can fool yourself into thinking the objective is just writing to the end, but there’s more to it than that. It’s hard to write a book once you’ve learned that your best might not be good enough, that hard work really can come to nothing, that the doubting voices in your head might be telling you the truth. It took me three years (and many false starts) to get to the point where I was ready to start again, but once I did, I found myself tremendously liberated. There was no fear of failure, because I’d done that before and survived, and I could do so again if required. And having my illusions shattered, I knew there was no other reason to be writing another book except for the sheer love of doing it, and love it, I truly did.

I started this first draft in September of 2010, and my goal for 2011 was to finish it. The manuscript was finished a few months ago, but it was only this morning that I printed it out (on green cardstock, because what else am I going to use it for?): 128 pages, 65,000 words, absolute proof of goal achieved. And you know what? It’s actually pretty good. I’m looking forward to reading it over the next few weeks, red pen in hand, and then beginning my second draft with a blank page, new document, and trying to make it as good as I possibly can. Which is now my goal for 2012, as well as to enjoy every step along the way.

But in the meantime: hooray for right now. Another goal is to remember that hurdles are milestones.

December 7, 2011

On being in a book (!)

In 2007, my friend Rebecca Rosenblum had her story “Chilly Girl” published in the Journey Prize Stories 19. And I will never forget how exciting it was to go into the Book City at Yonge and Charles (which is, like many other bookstores, no longer with us) and her buy her book off the shelf. Rebecca’s first story collection came out the following year, and the whole thing was so exciting, but to me, nothing ever topped the excitement of that first actual book with Rebecca’s story in it.

I also remember that a bird shat on my hand as I was walking down Charles Street toward the bookstore, and the good luck that I was wearing a mitten at the time, and I remember thinking as I contemplated good luck, “One day, I want to be in a book like that one, with binding, and editors, and everything.”

Last night, a crowd of some of the very best people I know came out to the launch of Best Canadian Essays 2011, and I proceeded to have 2 pints of beer and fall even more in love with everyone. (I had to stop at 2. At 3 pints, I get feisty and start offending people even more than usual.) It was really, truly a spectacular night, and I felt honoured that my essay was chosen, that it was published along with so many other wonderful pieces, and that so many faces in the crowd belonged to people I love as I read from “Love is a Let-Down.”

I’ve got a sense of proportion about these things. I know the pond is big and I am small, but I’m still in awe of the fact that I get to swim in it. And I really would like to publish a book of my own one day, but who among us doesn’t have a dream like that? In the meantime though, I’m feeling a tremendous amount of satisfaction about an accomplishment that bird-shit on my mitten may have portended years ago: I am in a book. And more over, it’s a pretty great book.

I’ve been revelling in every bit of all this, and it feels as wonderful as I imagined it would be.

March 27, 2011

That annoying thing that women do

This is not so important, but it occurs to me that I’ve been doing that annoying thing that women in my situation tend to do. Making comments about professional tea-guzzling and reading with my feet up, and though these things are practically absolutely true, they’re not the whole picture. I have a tendency toward self-deprecation anyway (it’s just easier that way), and I also don’t find the demands of stay-at-home motherhood particularly arduous, mostly because I have only one child who sleeps a lot, and a small house that requires little maintenance (plus we keep our standards very low). Life for me is very good, though to play the role of the idle hausfrau would be disingenuous (though this does not change the fact that tedious maneuvering really is the story of my life. Let that fact stand).

I thought of an excerpt from a review I read recently of Shirley Jackson’s work (“Dye the Steak Blue” by Lidija Haas), and though I’m no Shirley Jackson, obviously, I can understand why Betty Friedan was annoyed by her, and I’m setting the matter straight here because I’m a little annoyed at myself. From the review: “Friedan called [Jackson] an Uncle Tom, one of those women who disingenuously portrayed themselves as ‘just housewives’, ‘revelling in a comic world of children’s pranks and eccentric washing machines’, affecting to find a challenge in the most routine chores and concealing the ‘vision, and the satisfying hard work’ which went into their proper vocation, as writers.”

So though my washing machine is terribly eccentric (in fact, it would be better termed a “kind-of washing machine” and it sometimes smells like it’s about to catch on fire), and though I do take pride in managing my household (which is no small task, as anyone who’s ever lived in a household realizes), I only do housework when my child is awake, and whenever she’s asleep, feet-up or otherwise, I am usually at work on something related to writing. I work very hard at this blog, on my freelance assignments, at reading thoughtfully and writing book reviews that communicate this, at writing fiction, at creating new projects and at being a part of a wider creative community. At managing to contribute to our household income through my creative work. And I absolutely love all of it. It is tremendously important to me.

So this is not to be the writer’s equivalent of those wretched Facebook statuses that made me hate mothers just as much as the rest of society does (“So you ask, do I work? Uh yes, I work 24 hours a day. Why? Because I am a Mom… I don’t get holidays, sick pay or days off. I work through the DAY & NIGHT. I am on call at ALL hours. re-post if you are a proud Mommy “). I just think I was selling myself short before, affecting a little too much, which isn’t surprising– there is unease that comes with being a stay-at-home mother. But I am also a feminist, and I’d never want to let Betty Friedan down.

Also, I much appreciate the friends who’ve been so supportive about last week’s news. Since the shock has worn off, we’re very positive about things, and even grateful that the right decision has made, in particular because it’s one we might not have been brave enough to make on our own.

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