Category: School

Two new experiences

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snow on the roof, yesterday

New experience #1: I marked my first assignments this past week. My goal is to reward effort and engagement, as well as skill and effect, and I erred on the side of generous, which is probably a rookie mistake. I have my students handing in a finished piece along with two drafts and discussion of the editing/writing process, with comments supporting their revisions. The projects that showed greatest improvement between drafts were without exception those critiqued by friends or peers. I thought that was interesting, and shows the importance of sharing work, and of editors, even if your editor is your roommate. Even if you disagree, another perspective gives you something to argue against, and more often than not provides insight into weaknessess that are impossible for the writer to see in a time-crunched situation. I explained that I’m very private with early drafts (which are terrible, let’s be honest), and I set my work aside for a month or even longer, and then return with fresh eyes; but my students don’t have the luxury of time. I have a system of trust worked out: my first reader is always Kevin, who has to say (mainly) nice things, and of course the book never comes near publication without having been first seen and commented on by my agent (who is my second reader), and by professional editors, including copy editors and proofreaders. That’s a lot of eyeballs! And I rely on them to lift my work.

Lately I’ve been happily re-reading favourite books to find stories to share with the class, partly to add variety to the evening (I read passages outloud), and partly to demonstrate the different ways writers successfully do what they do — particularly in terms of technical considerations. Last night, I read the opening to Eden Robinson’s “Traplines,” what has very flat, stark delivery and description, with a rare punch of a metaphor to shock the system: the reader is tipped immediately into the action. I wanted to show them that, too. Then I read the opening to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?,” which begins with a long section describing furniture, zero dialogue, no flash, yet is highly suspenseful. How does he manage it? The furniture is outside on a man’s front lawn and driveway, set up like it would be inside the house, with everything plugged in, and it’s clearly no garage sale. Why? Wouldn’t you like to know? Again, even though it’s done with seemingly straightforward description, the story tips the reader immediately into the middle of something.

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dog crate as end table, in living-room

I find myself talking about plot, especially in stories, as something that can be found most naturally through setting and character, through relationships, through characters’ reactions to situations; suspense is created by partial telling, by those bread crumbs dropped on a trail. Too little, and the reader is confused; too much, and the reader is bored. It’s a balancing act. A student asked me to provide a rubric for story-writing, but I can’t. You can’t go down a checklist and write the perfect story. (Besides, forget perfection!) I have the feeling I might not be a great creative writing teacher, in all honesty, because my thoughts on the subject tend toward broad and vague rather than prescriptive, but my goals, as the course has progressed, have changed slightly: I want them to get time to write, in class, because writing is all about practice, and I want them to hear/read good writing.

Yesterday, before class, I read a fascinating essay on Raymond Carver’s relationship with his first major editor, whose name was Lish (I’ve forgotten his first name). Lish, a writer himself, claimed to have rewritten the early Carver stories so thoroughly that he felt he should have been considered a collaborator or even co-author rather than an editor. The essayist, who reviewed archived materials, had to agree that Lish’s fingerprints were all over Carver’s first two collections, which were lauded for their minimalist style. Carver’s style changed in his later collections; not coincidentally, he’d distanced himself from Lish at that point. The essayist felt that Lish’s changes (which included actually writing new endings, and removing up to 70% of the original text) strengthened Carver’s work — at least, his early work.

At the end of the essay, for comparison, were two Carver stories: the same story, but very different, and published at different times. The first version (“The Bath”) is striking for its brusque almost brutal style: it’s short, clipped, and has an ambiguous ending. The second version (“A Small, Good Thing”) is more than twice as long, and striking for its flirtation with sentimentality that allows it an ending of enormous emotional power. Guess which one I liked better? Yet it can’t be denied that Lish’s influence took Carver from obscurity and brought him to a level of fame and success — and confidence — that allowed Carver to drop Lish and head off in his own direction.

Long tangent. It’s kind of a puzzle, isn’t it. What would I do if a student handed in a finished story that had been essentially rewritten by another student? Yikes! Don’t do that, students! That’s not the kind of editing I’m advocating. And yet, Carver’s stories exist and I’ve loved them ever since I started reading them: does it matter how they came to be? I’m not sure, actually. I found myself wondering if it was Lish I was reading rather than Carver as I read “Why Don’t You Dance?” to the class last night, and did Carver have a different version somewhere else that maybe I would have liked better (since I rather like stories that flirt with the sentimental).

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!!!

New experience # 2: I spent Tuesday evening marking in my office on campus. When I checked my mailbox, look what I found: actual mail! My friend Nath sent me a postcard from England, where she’s living this year. I was touched. And excited. And I must admit that I approached my mailbox with slightly more expectation before yesterday’s class, but found it once again in its natural state. As an aside, I’m really liking my office. It’s a weirdly comforting place to come to. I’m essentially unplugged there, and undisturbed by technology. It has no personality except for that fabulously awful brown easy chair, which I can’t look at without thinking “bacteria,” but I will miss it when the term ends.

Schnitzel, beer, and a pumpkin patch

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this is where I went this morning

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this is why

Bus ride, hee-hawing donkey, straw bale maze, wagon ride, corn maze, pumpkin patch. I’ve been on field trips with all of the other kids — fire station, nature hike, a different pumpkin patch — but never with this last one; so he gets his due. This might mark the end of the line for me, the last of the field trips. Six hours a day of work-time (ie. school hours) are already too slender for my requirements. I’m going into my office on campus on Wednesday evenings for teaching prep. I’m out of the house on Thursday evenings too (for class), and may maintain the habit even if I’m not teaching this winter. I need the extra hours wherever I can find them. And everyone’s getting along just fine without me.

“If I’m going to be more of a house-husband, you might have to give up some control over the laundry,” Kevin told me, as he chauffered me to campus yesterday.

The laundry remains my only real area of total domestic domination; why am I holding on? I used to maintain exclusive management of the following: kitchen, dishes, lunches, meals, food gathering, bedding, bathrooms, vacuuming, and laundry. I let Kevin handle the basement, garbage, pets, and yard (such a classic gender split, I know). I’m down to just laundry, having acceded control over everything else. I can’t remember why I used to be so possessive of those spheres, so certain of my own superior expertise.

Where was I going with this post?

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pumpkins!

Oh, yes. Such a jam-packed evening yesterday. After being dropped on campus, I holed up in my office to work. Then we had class, cut short due to a reading planned months ago. I walked through Waterloo Park with several students brave enough to tag along, to the Clay and Glass Gallery, where a double-launch was already underway for the Wild Writers Festival (coming to Waterloo Nov. 8-10), and for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting, a new anthology of personal essays, to which I’m a contributor. I was the last to read, and had time to down a glass of white wine and fix my hair (sort of) before going on. It felt quite magical, actually. I’d slashed my essay to a reasonable reading length, and the words seemed to fall into a hushed and welcoming space.

I love reading. I want to say more about it, but everything I try to type sounds presumptuous and vain. I love the opportunity reading affords: to share a moment that has the potential to be profound. Yup, that sounds lofty. All I know is that when I’m reading, it feels exactly like what I’m meant to be doing. And that’s a good feeling.

Afterward, I went out for drinks with friends to celebrate, well, all of this.

Which is another reason I was not so extremely filled with happiness to find myself on a crowded school bus this morning.

More news, to end on: Girl Runner has found herself a German publisher! Yes, it’s true, we’ll be going out for schnitzel. And beer. The book will be published in translation, which is kind of mind-blowingly awesome, isn’t it? We were trying to figure out last night what the translation of the title might be: Madchen Lauferin, according to Google (sure to be spot on).

And, last but not least, here’s a link to a piece in today’s The Bookseller, on the UK deal.

Updating an old dream

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When I was growing up, I planned to be a writer. I would say that I dreamed of being a writer, but that’s not entirely accurate. I did dream of it, but not in the fantastical way I dreamed of owning a horse farm or of living in a straw bale house off the grid with a homeschooled brood of offspring. Instead, I planned for it. I would become a writer. I remember a very particular moment of clarity, in my parents’ house, in the bathroom (where as a self-absorbed teenager I spent many an hour gazing into the mirror), when I declared to myself that this was what I would do: I would write books.

I aimed myself at the goal with relative consistency after graduating from high school, though I floundered around a bit, seeking the right degree (theatre? music? playwriting? history?), and it took me until I was 19 (almost 20) to declare a major and work away at it like a person possessed: English literature, of course. At night, I would compose poems on my pre-Windows laptop, eyes closed, drumming out the day’s events through my fingertips and transforming the swerving emotions and experiences into imagery, metaphor, allusion, relishing the splendor of language.

I am often asked for advice on how to become a writer. Write, is what I say. And read. Write because you love to. Write what you love. Write as often as you can, doesn’t matter what: dream journal, cooking blog, poetry scribbled in the margins. And read read read for the love of it, too.

Reading for a degree in English literature can kind of kill the love, for a few time-crunched years, pencil clutched to underline key sentences and scribble down themes for future essays and exams. Nevertheless, reading widely, reading work you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, can only be a good thing in a cumulative way. I finished the degree, applied for grants, and went happily off, like a heat-seeking missile, to do graduate work, also in English literature. I was thinking I would do a doctorate and secure myself a job. But things were looking pretty grim for doctoral candidates in English literature back then, and I swiftly grasped that there was only one valid reason to go on in my studies: if I really loved it, then yes, I should. Otherwise, it was time to thank academia for my two excellent degrees, and figure out how to become that writer I’d planned to be.

Skip ahead. Skip over the boring bits, the hours and days and months and years spent writing and reading, and, of course, believing. At the age of 29, my first book was published. It took another eight years to write a second book worth publishing. By that point, I’d lived out the reality of being a writer. I’d been home with young children for years. I’d found paid work here and there as a freelancer and “mommy blogger,” which afforded me babysitting, which afforded me writing time.

I kept circling around the question: do I want to be a writer?

Wrong question, as it turns out; misleading, distracting. I already knew the answer: yes, I wanted to be a writer, and had proven that I could be. The real dilemma, the one much harder to face, and more personally painful to articulate, was whether I wanted to continue being a practicing writer if I couldn’t make a living at it. And the answer to that, I began to recognize, was no.

Last fall, I decided to switch career paths. I applied to midwifery school. (I also worked frantically on a new novel, feeling the urgency of time ticking down.) This wasn’t a decision taken quickly or lightly. I knew what it would mean: I wouldn’t be writing books, at least for the length of the degree, possibly longer. A book is the product of time and space and does not simply appear in a burst of inspiration; it’s a long-term gamble, is what it is. That’s what being a writer is, too. And my appetite for gambling was waning. This does not seem strange to me. The timing seemed ripe for a change. My youngest would be going to school full-time. I’d put my eggs in one basket for two decades, practicing a particular craft, gaining experience and technical skill, and earning praise from peers, without ever making a living at it. In most professions, this would be a bizarre and depressing outcome: imagine a doctor with two decades of training being unable to earn a living. It would be a sign of personal failure; this would have to be an exceptionally bad doctor. But in the arts, it’s practically expected, and we all understand that, even if we don’t speak openly about it. It’s the price of admission. You get to be a writer, but it’s for love, not money.

I love writing. But I wanted to support my family. I wanted to give us some stability, to take the pressure off my husband as sole provider, and, yes, to experience the reward of working in exchange for a paycheque. It was time to a get a job-job (or, more precisely, to train for a new career). I was excited and I was ready for a change — eager, even.

And then the novel I’d been working on sold here in Canada. This happened literally on the very same day I received my acceptance letter from midwifery school. I was kind of a mess.

It felt like the intersection of two possible lives. In one, I was a writer, still doing work that would seem relatively unstable to anyone with a job-job, but many steps closer to earning a living. In this version, I would be building on the foundation I’d worked so hard to lay. In the other possible life, I was starting from scratch, a student in the process of becoming a midwife, also a long-held dream. The decision was agonizing. It took weeks of “discernment” (read: long circular conversations with friends and family; thanks, friends and family), and I questioned myself repeatedly after turning down my place in the program. But there was fresh work to be done. I rolled up my sleeves and revised my new novel. I prepared for my first teaching job.

Summer trundled by. I loved sitting my office and working all day. It felt right, as it always has. It feels right.

At last year’s Wild Writer’s Festival, I was on a panel that included Alison Pick, and she was talking about her decision to work as a writer. She recalled that she’d just been hired at a job-job when her first book sold, so she was able to turn down the job-job and keep writing, and she’s never looked back. Every time she’d start thinking, uh oh, I’m going to need a job-job, something new would come along.

As far I’m concerned, that’s living the dream. Keeping at bay that wolf at the door.

So I’m publicly updating the plan I had as a teenager staring at herself in the mirror. Seems about time. What I’m planning seems no more unlikely, delusional, or ambitious than the original dream, which was, I’ll be the first to admit, highly unlikely, delusional, and ambitious. So here goes. Dare I say it out loud? I want to be a writer whose living is sustained by her writing. I want to be a writer who keeps getting to sit in her office and write, day in, day out, day in, day out. Oh, the places I’ll go in my mind.

New year all over again

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ALBUS Started yesterday. Grade seven. Junior high. New school, starts earlier, ends earlier. Walking with friends. Returned home excited, likes the idea of moving around from classroom to classroom, subject to subject, having a variety of teachers. Likes his locker’s colour and location. Did not jump on my idea of decorating it. His main worry: that he might be late for class and get detention due to being unable to open his lock. Not reassured by parents telling him this is not, generally speaking, a leading reason students get detention. Practiced piano as soon as he got home. Had no homework.

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APPLE-APPLE Started yesterday. Grade six. Same school as last year, same classroom, same teacher, same classmates her age. There are new grade five classmates added to the mix, so that’s the only real difference. One of the new students is a soccer-loving girl! So that’s different too. They played soccer together during recess, and today she took her own ball to school, as the school’s ball is flat. Did her homework as soon as she got home. Also, I brushed her hair in the morning while she was practicing piano. She didn’t object in the least. (But I didn’t have time to brush it again this morning.)

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FOOEY Started yesterday. Grade three. Same school, same wake time (7:25!), same exit time. Walking with friends and brother. Returned home satisfied with first day, reporting that she’s in her former kindergarten classroom (there is a new wing of brand-new classrooms for the all-day, every-day kindergartners). Went directly to a friend’s house after school to play. I did not, therefore, get a full and immediate report. But she did play the piano after supper: she didn’t want to practice, just noodle on a particular song that we could play together. That was nice. (And I just had to show her carefully chosen outfit in full!)

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CJ Look at this guy! He started this morning. Senior kindergarten. Will get to school using a combination of bus and walking. Gave me lots of hugs and kisses and waves as we waited outside the new kindergarten wing. There were six kindergarten classes going in, a huge crowd. His best friend is with him. He said he was excited. I came home and cried my eyes out. Can I admit that?

Now, here are some out-takes from this morning’s shoot.

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I am making them hold hands. Ha!

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We’re holding hands, we’re smiling. Are we done yet?

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Seriously, Mom. Are we done?

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Wait! How did that one look? Let me see, let me see!

And the school year begins again. And here I sit alone (save for my doggie companions, who think this office actually belongs to them), in quiet, if not at peace. Too much happening, too much to prep for, too much I can’t prep for, can only plunge into. The good news is, I’ve been able to get up early-ish to run these past two mornings, and my head doesn’t hurt. The bad news is, even during these happy running moments my mind is turning over and over in restless sifting of must-dos and worries. I think of running as a curative for my restless mind, but sometimes the mind doesn’t want its rest, or refuses to take it. I’m not fighting it because there must some purpose to it, some need it is meeting. I’m not fighting it because life has its rhythm of cycles, of tides, of pull, and rest will come again, I know.

Let the scheduling begin …

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ALBUS Grade seven, new school, French immersion, with lots of clubs and teams to join (looking forward to seeing what he’ll gravitate toward). Rep soccer: tryouts for next season start Sept. 21, with a commitment of 1-2 practices a week, plus skills (Kevin likely to coach). Piano: weekly lessons plus practice time. Passed Rookie Patrol this summer, so he’s free from swim lessons til next summer (that was our deal).

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APPLE-APPLE Grade six, enrichment program (lots of homework). Rep soccer: tryouts for next season start Sept. 21, with a commitment of 2-3 practices a week, plus skills, plus games. Swim team: six practices a week, including at 5:30 AM, Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus monthly meets (good thing I’m already comfortable rising early; too bad she’s not!). Piano: weekly lessons plus practice time. Horse riding lessons: what she wants to spend her summer babysitting money on, if she can find the time to squeeze one more thing in!

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FOOEY Grade three, French immersion. Will walk to and from school, and be in charge of her brother one way. Beginner gymnastics (her choice). Weekly piano lessons plus practice time (my choice). Swim lessons (maybe). Indoor house league soccer (probably, especially if Kevin coaches). Oodles of time with friends (my prediction).

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CJ Senior kindergarten: full days, every day. Plans to walk to school with Fooey and ride the bus home. Early childhood music, weekly. Swim lessons (probably). Indoor soccer (definitely, and Kevin will coach).

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COACH KEVIN Soccer, soccer, soccer, and more soccer. Well, what did you expect? Plus work, all day, every day, with occasional weekend training sessions. Oh, and late-night hockey (almost forgot about that!). Making school lunches (bless him) and breakfast smoothies.

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CARRIE Teaching Thursday evenings, 6-9. Writing daily, 9-3ish. Early morning exercise: weights, spin, running, swimming, yoga. Napping (often). Cooking supper (in harried fashion). Laundry. Driving children to activities and making carpool and carshare arrangements. Preparing weekly schedules to maintain all-family sanity. Readings (here and there). Indoor soccer (maybe). Poetry book club, monthly.

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SUZI AND DJ Walks (twice daily). Naps (in office). Food (twice daily, plus treats).

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ALL FAMILY (Couldn’t find a photo that included me, too.) Family skating/hockey, weekly, organized by Kevin. Bedtime reading (chapter books, out loud), as often as possible. Also considering: church (occasionally), supper invitations to friends and family (must make time for this!), and planning a trip together.

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