Category: Dogs

How to write good*

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I’m nearly done marking, and find myself reflecting on how better to structure my course next year, should I be invited to teach again. I’m also thinking about how I might structure a higher-level creative writing course: what elements are missing from my current curriculum that perhaps belong in a separate course altogether?

My goal for next year would be to teach grammar in a creative way, because without the tools to build complex yet clear sentences, it is virtually impossible to construct complex stories. And all stories are complex when you break them down: there are so many elements that go into storytelling, many of which become instinctive when one has practiced writing for years and years, but which are actually very tricky to manage–slippery to manage, evasive, elusive, invisible, unrecognized, subtle, and unavoidable. Setting, plot and sub-plot, voice, character-building, relationships, dialogue, mood, verb tense, movement through time, descriptive language, meaning, thematic layers, back-story, interior and exterior action, emotion, perspective. Have I touched on everything? Probably not. Beginnings and endings. Deciding when to tell what you know. Eliminating that which is extraneous, even though you love it dearly. Editing. Rewriting. Not becoming attached to any part of what you’ve made, so that you can cut it out, if necessary. (Writing is not like parenting: writing requires a ruthlessness that I would never draw on, as a parent.)

And here’s the issue: to manage all of these things, or any of them, really, you must construct sentences that support what you’re trying to do. There is real technical skill underpinning excellent writing.

So I find myself dreaming up writing exercises that would seamlessly include practice in the craft as well as the art. I think it’s possible. It’s kind of exciting to dream this stuff up, actually.

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This is not what our living-room looks like at present. This is my aspirational living-room.

On another note …

Things that go well, and things that do not, and things that mysteriously fit into both categories at the very same time:
– helping children practice instruments in the morning, before school
– walking dogs to meet kids after school
– being injured and unable to run and doing an hour of daily core-strength exercises instead

Snapshot 1: “Nope. I’m not going to practice this morning. I’ll practice later! After school!” “But that doesn’t seem to work. Later never comes.” “But I don’t want to do it now!” “But it’s always now. It will be now after school.” “Well I don’t want to do it right this second!” “It’s a privilege to get to play the violin. We can’t keep having this conversation.” “Ok! I will play! But you can’t comment!”
A few minutes later …
“Why are you so excited when CJ practices, but not with me?” “CJ lets me help him.” “But you can’t help me. You never played the violin.” “Your teacher can help with the bowing, but I can help with the notes.” “I don’t want to talk about it now…”

Snapshot 2: Kids running down the sidewalk after school, excited to see dogs. “Wow, you guys are fast today. You’re the first kids I’ve seen.” Small dog in pink sweater decides to stop and produce on someone’s front lawn. I remove mittens, pull plastic bag from coat pocket, stoop to clean up. What happens next happens all at the same time. Pack of schoolchildren appears. Dog slips collar and begins trotting toward street. Neighbour girl excitedly runs to pet dog who has slipped collar, and who is not the friendly dog! I toss mittens, grab for loose dog, try to hand other dog’s leash to daughter while not dropping half-filled plastic poo-bag, and warning (in what I hope are non-frantic tones) the neighbour girl away from the (undeniably cute) dog who is not friendly. Time skips in jagged leaps. Pack of schoolchildren passes, unharmed. I see myself kneeling on the quiet snowy sidewalk, half-filled poo-bag in one hand, skittish dog in the other, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with the collar. “Mom, you almost threw your mittens in Suzi’s poo!” “What? There’s more poo?” “It’s right there.” “This is way too much drama for me!”

Snapshot 3: The remains of supper are on the table. I’m lying on a blue yoga mat between the couch and the bookshelf that doubles as a computer desk. Kevin is perched on a stool near my knees, replying to work emails on the computer. I’m doing repeats of bridge, which I kind of hate, kind of intensely. Fooey is kneeling on the couch, leaning over the back, observing me from above. AppleApple is moving around restlessly on the beanbag chair near my head, observing me from above. Dogs arrive on scene, enormously excited at the discovery of a human trapped at the licking and sitting-upon level. Imaginary announcement over imaginary PA system: “Could all family members please report to the yoga mat behind the couch? Calling all family members…” The pay-off will be running again. And, possibly, abs of steel, and glutes that could crack a Christmas walnut. Bad image. Time to stop writing.

xo, Carrie

* title is tongue-in-cheek; but you got that, right?

Dear Tooth Fairy, I lost my tooth

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This happened on Friday (see above).

Friday was one of those days, which feels, at the moment, like all of the days, when every must-do is done slightly behind schedule, and therefore with ratcheting tension; that was Friday, especially so. Friday included an early-morning physio appointment, a work-related phone call wherein the phone wouldn’t work, marking assignments, work-related emails that couldn’t be ignored, taking care of the sick kid (who as of this writing is still sick!), and answering the door regarding incoming packages. It was the kind of day where I was reminded that working from home is convenient for everyone except for the person working from home. Need someone to sign for your package? Carrie’s home! Sick child needs attention, feeding, and care? Carrie’s home! The dogs are disastrous bundles of anxiety and need walking? Carrie’s home! I can hear the bitterness accumulating in my tone now. I guess I haven’t gotten it out of my system.

Not running right now (injury) isn’t helping. I’ve been walking on my treadmill regularly. Helps a bit. Doing my physio exercises faithfully. Hoping the exercises help the hamstring issue, because they ain’t helping with the excess of nervous energy.

Back to Friday. I was late heading out to pick up CJ. AppleApple had arrived home and wanted to come along and bring the dogs, who needed walking, as mentioned. Dogs proceeded to stop at several amazingly inconvenient locations and moments, en route, to relieve themselves, including once in the middle of a street (!!), which required some quick work with the plastic baggy. Anyway. We were late. I ended up leaving AppleApple in charge of the dogs near the school grounds, and running (remember how I’m not supposed to run?) all the way around the school in an effort to get to CJ before the bell rang. I was not successful. This was totally my fault for leaving so late plus bringing the dogs, mother-guilt, mother-guilt, mother-guilt, sprinting across the playground. There he was, panicking and near tears. Also, my hamstring hurt a lot, after just that short run. Which seems like not good news. But it felt like a day of not good news; or, more precisely, off-kilter news, not-quite-right news.

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As we were walking around the school to reunite with AppleApple and dogs, CJ smiled at me, having already cheered up, and I said, “Oh, and look, you’ve had a big day! You’ve lost your tooth!”

His face simply fell. “What????” He reached into his mouth to feel for the tooth.

“Did you not know you’d lost your tooth?”

“No!” He was near-tears again. The tooth had been dangling by a thread when he left in the morning. I’d offered to pull it, but he was hesitant and Kevin was in a hurry, and so we didn’t try. And now the tooth was gone, lost for real. First baby tooth of my last baby. The Tooth Fairy in me was grieving. And CJ was really worried about the Tooth Fairy too. Would she deliver without the goods?

“I think I swallowed it,” he said solemnly. “But not when I was eating my apple. I didn’t have an apple today!”

Later that evening, we problem-solved. CJ composed a note. It went something like this: “Dear Tooth Fairy, I lost my tooth. I can’t find my tooth. Next time I will let my mom pull my tooth. I hope you find it. Love, CJ.” [Note: certain portions of this letter may have been dictated by a certain mother…]

In the morning, he came running find me, clutching the note, on which the Tooth Fairy had made her reply. “Mom, the Tooth Fairy really is magical!!!!” [Note: the Tooth Fairy focused her message on brushing. Certain portions her letter may have been dictated by a certain father, who is in charge of the dental portfolio, in our family…]

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On another subject, sort of, I’m wondering how much longer to sustain the Santa Claus myth for my Fooey, who, at age 9, is seriously suspicious: “When I move out of this house, you’ll have to tell me if Santa Claus is real!” Um. Okay. I don’t even particularly like carrying out these illusions, a part of me feels deceptive, but the other part knows that the kids love and even crave the illusions; my older two were crushed when, as a novice parent wanting to be honest, I told them the truth about Santa Claus, when they asked me, around the ages of 3 and 4. Crushed! They reminisce about it to this day (not around the younger kids, however). “Oh, Mom, you just didn’t know any better,” they say, rather fondly. They’ve forgiven me. But they’re careful to make sure I keep things going for the younger two. In fact, it was AppleApple who stepped in and took charge when Fooey demanded to know why the pyjamas from Santa Claus always come from Land’s End…

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This post has gone in a direction entirely unforeseen. From griping about working at home to the realities of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. How can I be a fiction writer and be so ambivalent about sustaining illusions? Honestly.

xo, Carrie

PS This Obscure CanLit blog has been shortlisted for two prizes at the Canadian WeBlog Awards, in the categories of Life and Writing & Literature. I’ll admit to being slightly baffled about this, but nevertheless pleased and flattered.

Snapshot, briefly

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One child home sick since Tuesday. Ginger ale, tea with honey, boredom, sleep.

One child about to lose his first tooth! “Is it still there? Is it still there? Is it still there?” “Yes. You’ll know when it’s gone. There will be a little hole for your tongue to go through.” Brief pause. “Is it still there?”

One child knitting a pink leg warmer for a dog using four small double-sided needles purchased with birthday money. “That’s amazing. How did you figure out how to do that?” “Oh, Mom. You’re underestimating yourself. All you’d need is half an hour looking at instructions on the internet and you could do it too!”

One child practicing the violin. “I’ll only play when you listen.” “I’m listening.”

One woman lying on a yoga mat in the living-room, doing her physio exercises. Opens her eyes, sees her daughters hanging over the back of the couch to peer at her from close range. “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” Dogs arrive on scene, one begins licking woman’s face, the other sits on her foot. A game with a balloon is being played, solo, with every move narrated out loud. “Mom, you have to see this great play this guy just did! Who are you cheering for? Fire or Fireplace? Or wait, no, the teams are Happy or Fire. Remember, you cheered for Happy last time. Happy’s the best.” “Okay, I’ll cheer for Happy.” “Dad’s cheering for Happy.” “Ok, I’ll cheer for the other one.” “Fire? They’re okay, Mom, but they’re probably not going to win.” “I like underdogs.” “So you’re cheering for Fire? Sorry, Mom, they just got scored on. You have to see what the guy just did!” Dog continues frantic licking of woman’s face.

One daughter begins timing physio exercises with digital watch. Other daughter begins practicing the recorder. “I’ll start from the first song I learned.”

Woman calls out to husband: “I need a snapshot of this moment!”

Husband can’t hear. Husband is playing his favourite songs in the kitchen while washing up the dishes after supper.

And that’s all she wrote.

xo, Carrie

Deep abiding desire to stay indoors

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With apologies for the lacklustre photography; I just don’t have time to use my Nikon on this busy morning. #therefore #cameraphone

It’s Monday in Canada. I’m looking out at a postcard snowscape that makes me want to get out my cross country skis hibernate in front of the fire for the next six months. (Let honesty reign.) The snow and its seasonal existence should not surprise me. Yet every year it does. The car needs to be scraped, the children require mittens, snow pants, boots, hats (why are at least one or two of these items per child always missing / suddenly too small / wet or dirty / lost / apparently too geeky and uncool to be suffered, and why is this discovery always made mere moments before said children need to leave for school?), and also, to continue this long run-on sentence, the dogs hate going outside and must be sternly encouraged and dressed in little sweaters, which we find adorable but I’m pretty sure they find humiliating. In short, everything takes longer. Even that sentence. I’ve yet to adjust, having yet to admit that this is actually happening, that this white stuff actually might just stick around for awhile. Deny. This is just the first stage. Don’t worry. I’ll get to Accept, even Embrace, if I can just stick it out through Wallow, Growl, Deep Abiding Desire to Stay Indoors, and Christmas.

A few things to tell you about on this Monday in Canada.

1. For local friends, two events to highlight if you’re up for getting out:

〉 A feminist film festival is coming to the Princess this week, Nov. 18-20, featuring films on a variety of important and of-the-moment subjects, including murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada. Website and ticket info here. Spread the word.

〉 After Hours at the Waterloo Public Library, this Friday, Nov. 21, 7PM, a fundraising event for the library with food & drink, and featuring inspirational speakers, including me. Come and watch me try to be inspirational. Event and ticket info. More word-spreading, please.

2. Some nice news this morning from my Canadian publisher, House of Anansi. Girl Runner has been selected as a Best Book of the Year (#8) and a Best Canadian Book of the Year (#3) by Amazon.ca. (But if you can slog your way through the snow to your local indie bookstore, shop there instead.)

3. Question for you, people out there reading this blog: would you be interested in buying signed and personalized copies of Girl Runner for Christmas gifts? If there seems to be interest, I’m going to figure out a way to arrange for this to happen.

Mondays. They’re all about the paperwork and administration. This is today in a nutshell: make to-do lists, clear the desk, return the library books, go to the bank, renew both drivers’ licence and health card, soak the beans, and on and on. You know? So this post, I apologize, suffers from a similar tone.

Enjoy the white stuff, of the cold deceptively fluffy variety.

xo, Carrie

Photographs never taken

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Today is Thanksgiving in Canada. We ate our Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, a feast that always gives me enormous pleasure to prepare. A day of cooking is a really good day, especially when it ends with pie. But with all the cooking and eating and pie, I never got out my camera. Family visiting, cousins playing, dogs underfoot and whining at the door, a table loaded with bounty, an impromptu evening concert, babies and grandmas and wine and dishes being washed up in the kitchen by hand.

Photographs never taken.

It’s a bit ironic that I’ve gotten this fancy new blog location, on which to display my photographs, just when I find myself taking fewer and fewer. Less time to process them. More in the moment moments, forgetting to pull myself out and act as official recorder. This fall is passing in a blur. I may keep little of it, only fragments, perhaps jotted down here.

Today, our chalkboard became a mess of scheduling, as Kevin and I planned for the coming weeks month. I’m leaving on Thursday for Calgary, Banff, and Vancouver. When I get home, I’ll be off to Burlington, Toronto (several times), Hamilton, Uxbridge, zooming and darting like a bird searching for a landing spot, an anxious flitting creature unable to settle, quite.

When I’m out west, and missing my family like crazy, I’m going to think of last night, after the dishes were done and the pie eaten, and some of us were singing old songs while strumming on ukuleles, sunk into soft cushions, reclining, unwilling to say goodnight, not quite, not yet, as our eyes grew heavy. We were sleepy, tired out from a day lived fully, but we didn’t want to stop playing and singing. Not yet. Not yet. Not quite yet.

I am doing a writing exercise I’ve assigned to my students

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Insects buzz. Insects with a vibrating hum and insects chirping at regular quick intervals, like a racing pulse. Cars pass. Engines roar, mildly, louder when accelerating, heavily whirring before changing gears, puttering, brakes squeaking, a rushing sound like wind that is not wind, that is mechanical, a hush of white noise.

Shadows on yellow brick, moving as the wind moves the trees, patterned, like lace.

The dogs begin to bark. What have they seen or heard? The first to begin is DJ, loudest, the leader of this pack of two. Suzi joins, confused, eager, uncertain. DJ stops, stiffens behind the raspberry patch, behind the cluster of dead flowers, and sniffs the air. Whatever she has seen is gone. The yard is safe, again.

On the clothesline a few items hang, shirts upside-down, athletic gear airing in the breeze and sunshine. The leaves are turning colour. The sky is steady opaque blue, not quite dark, not quite light, clear behind the flame orange leaves, like an artificial backdrop for a photograph I took last year, and the year before, but not yet this year.

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photo of the changing leaves, last year

I have not taken any photos of changing leaves this year. This is not because the leaves have not changed. I don’t know why I haven’t brought my camera outside to catch the season on its cusp of coming.

I am sitting in a green plastic fake Adirondack chair, bought uptown at the hardware store for cheap. The floorboards beneath my feet are painted a rich blue, the paint also bought uptown at the same hardware store.

I turn to examine the pile of sandals by the open back door, and see instead a large spider, suspended in its web, very near me. It hangs upside down. It is alive, its legs twitch, each leg thin and ringed with a pattern of pale tan, dark brown, and a shade in between the two colours that looks mottled. Its body is fat, and also patterned in shades of brown. I would fear it, but it has lived on our porch for much of the summer, moving its web higher or lower when disturbed by one of us. I have watched it through the kitchen window suck clean the body of a large fly, a bee, draining each to a dried husk of its former self.

I am writing this because I’ve given the students in my creative writing class the same exercise. I want to feel what they feel while forced to sit and focus for 15 consecutive minutes, uninterrupted except by what they observe, their objective to seek out the details, no matter how small, and place them on the page, without judgement, without critique, simply observing and noting and describing.

It is an exercise I’ve given myself at times throughout this past year. It asks not: is this interesting; but rather: what is here to be found?

The timer rings. I don’t want to finish yet. The dogs have gone inside, and are working themselves into a sudden frenzy of emotion, howling and yipping at something they’ve seen through a window. Gradually, the noise diminishes, then stops abruptly. Here is Suzi, come to find me, her little body quivering.

Here am I, glad for the excuse to sit still and think of nothing but what is, right now.

xo, Carrie

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