Category: Writing

Out-takes from this weekend’s “I need a new author photo” self-portraiture session

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on the prow of an imaginary ship, hair whipping in the wind

fake album cover

I knew it would be tough to get to my desk these past few days. And it has been. And I probably should be napping instead of posting right now (I’m feeling crummy and am actually on antibiotics, as a matter of fact). But dammit, I need to write!

Friday was a good news day. I finished marking on Thursday night, as planned, if a little later than hoped, spent Friday morning double-checking my math, and then delivered the graded portfolios to campus for pick-up, my writing hand still cramped up from all the unfamiliar work. In future, were I to teach again, I might abstain from making detailed comments and suggestions unless such feedback were directly requested by a student. But it’s what I had to offer, this time around, and it’s done now.

Almost as soon as I’d finished that fairly enormous task, which has occupied a large part of my fall, all of the suppressed anxiety about final revisions for Girl Runner kicked in. I kid you not. The anxiety must have been sitting there just waiting to pop. I literally finished packaging up the portfolios and alphabetizing them (because I am nothing if not needlessly organized), and then texted Kevin with a “Help! What’s happening to me?”-style of message.

ooh, pretty colours

He requested that I check CJ’s “feelings” handout, which we’ve all been referring to with a certain amount of seriousness since he brought it home from school. (A funny after-dinner activity last week involved CJ directing me to act out, with facial expressions, a variety of feelings. Bored. Sad. Worried. Frustrated. (“Not angry! I said ‘frustrated’!” “But this is my frustrated face!”

Pensive; also, Cold (note red nose)

Tired, yet Prepared for a Challenge?

Oh, and Happy, Excited, and Proud. I counted three positive feelings and a whole lot of not so positive ones, but fair enough. Maybe we humans have a better understanding of the gradations between unhappy emotions, and the happy ones are more mysterious, kind of lumped together into one weird and wonderful and slightly scary experiential glob. I’m noticing as I’m considering this that my happy feelings seem somehow less trustworthy than my unhappy ones. Their transitory nature seems more fragile, more vulnerable to chance (that’s what makes them scary, I think). I wonder if by thinking this way (completely unconsciously) I prevent myself from experiencing Happy as fully as I could.

Tangent. Oops.

Anyway. So I went to CJ’s feelings sheet, studied it for a moment, and texted Kevin back: Uh oh. It appears that I’m feeling Anxious.

I will slay you with my sombreness

Less than an hour passed before the phone rang. And my feelings went from Anxious to, well, Relieved, but that’s not on the feelings sheet. (As AppleApple said, “I don’t think all of the things I’m feeling are on there.”) The person on the other end of the phone was my US editor, calling with warm and believe-you-me very welcome praise for the newest draft of Girl Runner. Yes, I’ve still got the final revisions to complete, but I can’t wait to get to them, and oh man, was I ever Relieved — and no, that’s not exactly the same as Happy — to get that call. “But aren’t you ‘Excited?'” Fooey asked me when she got home from school and I’d reported the good news. And then she said, “Or maybe ‘Proud.'” Well, maybe the latter, yes — why not!

Serious writer face, with a hint of scorn?

Hauling my feelings with me from afternoon into evening, I decided to run a little further than planned while at my daughter’s soccer practice. With geeky headlamp in place, I proudly (if slowly) conquered 12km: the furthest I’ve gone since the concussion. But I woke up Saturday morning feeling a bit queasy and headachy, which could indicate a bit of a regression. Consult feelings sheet: Sad. But by evening, I felt well enough to get dressed up for a party. And take photos! And at the party, I felt well enough to stay out past our (purely self-imposed) curfew (given the early morning soccer game we had to get to). I was having too much fun to be Entirely Responsible. In short, I was Happy.

Proud. Take that, reading public

My creative project for the weekend involved trying to take a self-portrait that could work as an author photo. It was entertaining, but I’m afraid I did not succeed. I’m including here some of the many out-takes.

“That one’s pretty,” said Kevin, looking through my efforts last night (see photo at bottom of post). “It could work as an author photo.”

Calm; and possibly already had a drink?

“But could it work as my author photo?” By which I meant, is this the facial expression I wish to present to the reading public? What feelings am I hoping to conjure up and send out into the world? I’m vain, I’ll admit that up front. I’d like to look pretty in my author photo, and preferably not tired and weary. But I’d also like to look not overly serious or somber. Instead, I’d like to look like someone who you’d want to meet for tea, someone you’d trust with your story — with your feelings. Friendly, approachable, calm, but with spirit and humour. And while I’ll admit to being vain, vanity is the last thing I’d like to project.

And on this abrupt note, I must declare: End of post. I’m late to meet the school bus!

Inspirational lectures, Carrie-style

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I taught my last class yesterday evening.

We ended with a “poetry slam,” and the students got to read/perform something they’d written for the course. I brought snacks. It was fun. 
At the very end of class, I handed back an assignment and said, “And I’d like to give you all a copy of my first book.” Was I ever surprised when the class erupted in cheers. “Really? Wow, I’m so relieved,” I said. “I thought maybe it was kind of lame on my part, like, hey, guys, here’s my book …” “It feels like we’re on Oprah,” someone said (of course with irony). “Like we should be checking under our chairs.” “Yes, there’s a publishing contract for everyone under your chairs,” I said. That was a joke. But I did give them all a copy of HAIR HAT, which isn’t obtainable anyway by other means, since it’s out of print, a fact I’d shared with them in an earlier class during my inspirational lecture on “Being a Writer is All About Rejection and Disappointment”; though I had to revise my lecture somewhat after selling GIRL RUNNER the very next week. “Being a Writer is All About Rejection and Disappointment, Except When It’s Also About Your Dreams Actually Coming True!”
A few students were curious to know whether I’d teach again. I got the general impression that they hoped I would, and that they hoped I’d enjoyed teaching them. I know it will/would be easier next time, having laid out a curriculum that worked quite well, and would work better with a few minor tinkerings and adjustments. But I can only do it if I have the time. And that remains to be seen.
I do think it was good and useful work, and I’m glad to have been given the opportunity to do it. It felt, I’ll admit, like a major responsibility for which I have no training; in other words, a fairly daunting task, now undertaken, and accomplished. Except for the final marking. Oh, right. The marking.
I’ll miss the room, above.
I’ll miss the warm, comfortable atmosphere that developed in the room as the term progressed and we all got to know each other. I’ll miss hearing the students’ stories, too.
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I won’t have to miss my office quite yet, however, as I’ll be back to visit regularly over the next week or two in order to plough through that aforementioned marking. I like marking there. It’s quiet and I’m not distracted, and it feels like it’s what I’m there to do, so I do it. Also, I work hard because I want to get done and go home. There’s food at home.
Wish me luck.

Realism and kindness

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the box, in its early stages

I made a mistake last night.

AppleApple’s completed project on “the history of women in the Olympics” sat on our dining-room table, ready to be hauled in to school today. I saw an empty spot on the box (she designed the visual project using a large cardboard box with doors that open to reveal photos of athletes, with blurbs about their accomplishments). I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be the perfect tribute to fill that empty spot with a photo of the project’s author, on the soccer field, with a little blurb in the style of the blurbs she’d written about the other athletes? So I took it upon myself to do this, even though it was really late at night, and I was really tired, and in no way had the child herself asked me to.

This was my blurb: “AppleApple’s name, b. 2002. Swimmer, soccer player, runner. Aspiring Olympic athlete. Dreaming of representing Team Canada at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games.”

She walked in from swimming this morning, 7:30AM, saw her box in the dim light of day, and freaked out. “What did you do to my project?” she wailed. To say that she didn’t like my addition would be a serious understatement. She was in tears. She couldn’t explain why. (Was it because I was putting undue pressure on her to become an Olympic athlete — not my intention? No! It wasn’t that! she told me in a very irritated tone.) Carefully, I peeled off the photo and blurb, apologizing sincerely, and sincerely wondering at myself for trying so hard and getting it so wrong.

“Realism and kindness are your hallmarks,” my mom texted me this morning, on a separate subject altogether. I appreciate her encouragement.

It seems not to apply in this instance at all. That probably makes me doubly appreciative.

I would like to think that some of the time it’s true to my character.

This morning, I was re-reading blog posts from this time last year. Much sounds the same: swim meets, soccer, busy, busy, busy. But there’s one main difference. I was writing. I was writing a draft of Girl Runner, in fact. Happiness shone out of my words. This is what those blog posts told me: I am happiest when I’m writing.

This fall has been hard because I’ve been missing my writing. It’s as simple as that. I’ll get back to it soon. It’s as simple as that, too.

Based on a true story

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Last week I blogged about fiction versus non-fiction, and a friend posted a link to an article titled “Based on a True Story. Or Not.” If you’ve got time to ponder the subject, go off now and read it. If you’re in a hurry, here’s my brisk summary:

The essay is about the use of autobiography in poetry. We, the reader, tend to assume that a personal-sounding poem is autobiographical. So what happens when we, the reader, discover that a personal-sounding poem is in fact fictional? Do we have a sense of being cheated out of something “real,” or of having been fooled or tricked by the poet? Why do we want so badly to know that the poet wrote out of experience rather than imagination? Why does it matter to us?

Because it does matter, at least to many of us.

I’ve visited quite a few book clubs for The Juliet Stories. There is one question asked every time, usually immediately, a variation of: “Is this story something that really happened to you?” How I answer the question probably depends on my mood, and I often feel rather weary as I try to explain my creative process. But even if I don’t welcome the question, exactly, I don’t disdain it. I’ve come to believe the question must tap into something fundamental within us, something held in common, as readers. That we come to a story looking for truth. We come looking for the connections between author and subject. We want to believe in the veracity of what’s being told. (Maybe we want to be part of the story or become closer to it, by being witnesses rather than “mere” readers.)

The closer a story appears to be to autobiography, the more jarring it is to be told: this is fiction. We’re not comfortable with something we suspect to be full of half-truths, which are also, of course, half-falsehoods. I find it very difficult to wrestle with these distinctions. I’d rather say, “None of this happened” than “Bits of this happened”; while the thought of saying “This all happened” makes my skin crawl. I’ve got no desire to be a memoirist, clearly.

But every story I’ve ever written has been inspired by a glimpse of something actual, whether it be a house I once lived in, or the memory of an emotion that washed over me in a specific situation, or an amulet from childhood, or by knowledge I’ve personally gained cooking or horseback riding or running. I get my ideas from life. But an idea isn’t a story, an emotion isn’t a story, a glimpse isn’t a story. To make a story, I imagine what might have been if life were different. I seek alternative explanations for those things I can’t explain. I go off the trail. I wonder. I make it up.

As a fiction writer, I’m not asking my readers to be witnesses, to paraphrase the conclusion of the essay cited above. I’m asking my readers to imagine.

Curious, though. What am I asking of readers here on the blog? This isn’t fiction, obviously. This is it. Here, perhaps, I’m asking you to be witnesses.

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Yesterday at 9AM I wanted to write a post that listed in fine detail every damn thing I’d already accomplished since waking four hours previously; but I was too tired to do it, and instead went upstairs and fell into the oblivion of a nap. It will sound like bragging. Maybe it is. I don’t mean it to be. I myself am astonished and only want to record it because I doubt I’ll believe it years from now, the pace at which I’m currently pushing myself, wondering whether it’s too much, whether I’ll stumble, and badly. (Note: Kevin was working in Toronto yesterday, and usually shares half these duties.)

5:04 – Alarm. Brush teeth, dress.
5:11 – Daughter’s alarm. Help her get ready for swimming.
5:19 – See daughter off with carpooling friend.
5:33 – In darkness, leave house for a run on snowy roads.
6:29 – Home after 10.2km (slow; muscles never warmed up in the cold).
6:33 – Dash out with whining dogs for walk, chilled.
6:47 – Feed dogs. Shower. Dress. Scarf toast with PB.
7:00 – Wake eldest son to watch dogs and be on alert for rising children. Leave for pool. Listen to news on the radio, blast the heat.
7:15 – Pick up daughter and friend at pool. Feed them bananas. Chat.
7:25 – Drop off friend.
7:35 – Home. Feed myself and daughter poached eggs on toast.
7:55 – See friends waiting for elder son to walk to school, run out and tell them go; he’s sick. Call school to report his impending absence.
8:00 – Send daughter to bed.
8:03 – Wake small children. Dress smallest.
8:15 – Feed small children vanilla yogurt with cut-up pears. Empty dishwasher, begin filling again.
8:19 – Check lunch boxes, add desserts, make snack to put into smallest’s coat pocket for field trip, as per instructions on form sent home by teachers, lost, and then after much searching, found. Start load of laundry. Wash beans for supper.
8:29 – Get small children into outdoor clothes. Not quickly enough.
8:37 – Wake eldest daughter. Drive small children to meet friends for their walk to school (they usually walk there).
8:47 – Wake eldest daughter again. Pack her school bag.
9:01 – Drive eldest daughter to her school (she usually walks there, too).
9:10 – Check on sick eldest son, returned to bed. Make him a cup of tea.
9:20 – Crate dogs. Nap.
9:50 – Woken by whining dogs. Get up. Feel grumpy. Get on with it.

Perfect imaginary blog post

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Yesterday, while grabbing a book to bring along to a soccer field I mentally composed a perfect blog post. Maybe I’ll blog on my phone beside the soccer field, I thought. But the post vanished, and instead, beside the soccer field, I chatted with other parents (whom I see far more often than I do my closest friends) and watched, mesmerized, our daughters pass the ball with great skill and determination. The book stayed unopened in my hand.

The perfect imaginary blog post is not unlike the perfect imaginary book, I suspect, a subject Ann Patchett addresses in her very funny and quite serious essay on writing, “The Getaway Car,” in her new book of essays, THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE.

Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it … But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart.

Two things in that passage. One, the obvious point that writing is not a natural act; and two, that we narrate our lives, and it’s the second I’ve been thinking about most.

Yesterday, I imagined writing from inside the new car. I would tell you about the sudden shock of snow, the windshield wipers working, the warm hum from the vents. I might add in a snippet of caught conversation between me and a child. I might even admit to a burst of irritation at the stupidity of another driver. There would be the hush of tires turning. The flash of lights and the smear of their colour across the wet windshield in the early dark.

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It’s fitting that I put my book advance toward a new vehicle, as the new vehicle has become my second home in a way that seems almost outrageous when I add up the hours. I’ve undone every green dream I ever had, whilst supporting my children in their extra-curricular interests. On Monday, between 5:05pm and 9:15pm, I spent a total of two and a half hours in our new vehicle, including an hour and a half venture, around town, that had me climbing out at home with a numb posterior. During that particular round, “Aggie” and I visited a far-flung indoor soccer field, a gymnastics club on the opposite side of town, and a pool, before returning home. And it snowed the whole time. The best part was when the eldest voluntarily joined me for the final trip of the evening. “What should we talk about?” he asked cheerily, and, as we’d already covered the intricacies of the PS4 gaming system he’s hoping for, we moved on to music, and soccer, and the mall, and fantasizing about food we’d like to eat.

That’s the one good thing about all this time in the car. It’s time with the kids, and we talk, a lot.

But later, home again, kids in bed, I said to Kevin, “When I’m all done driving these kids around, I’m going to be old. That’s what’s going to happen. I’ll be done driving them, and I’ll be old.”

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photos in this post taken by child in passenger seat

Meanwhile — and this may save me — I’ll be “narrativizing” my life.


Yesterday afternoon, I listened to a Writers and Company podcast: Aleksandar Hemon interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel. Hemon uses his own experiences in his fiction, without qualms or apology: “The way I write fiction most often is that I imagine a different outcome of a situation.” Hemon observes something unfolding and ending, a snippet, a glimpse, or a straightforward hike from A to B, and he wonders: what if X had happened instead? A character might appear to be based on himself, yet he seems to harbour no worries about being mistaken for a character. In short, the line between fiction and non-fiction does not seem to trouble him. He’s writing stories, not history, whether they are “true stories” (non-fiction) or fiction. “We go toward the things we do not know in literature. To go in the opposite direction is to write only about the easy things.” (I’m paraphrasing; I took notes while listening, as non-fiction versus fiction has become a bit of an obsession while I try to teach it to my students, and while I reflect on what writing/publishing The Juliet Stories has both given me and cost me.)


I feel myself urgently wanting to use what I’ve got at hand, and to spin it into something different; “to arrive at something,” as Hemon puts it. There is life. There is the rendering of life into story. I’m missing quite a few pieces in my life, right now. Apparently I can’t squeeze everything in to satisfaction, not while driving for hours a day. What gets lost? Wouldn’t I love to host more suppers? Yes. My social life is pinched. I’m tired far too early in the evening. The laundry overwhelms. But there’s something about writing that can set life into balance, for me. I arrive at something there that I can’t here.

Lunch date with poetry

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Lunch date with Kevin. We took the food back to his office because sometimes we like to do take-out. We don’t always eat at home. It’s not that we don’t have enough to eat home, just that sometimes we like to get take-out. I’m sorry. I can’t help myself. All I can do is move forward.

This was going to be a serious post about serious things, and what could be more serious than poetry? A friend in my poetry book club made copies for the group of an article in Harper’s Magazine, by Mark Edmundson, from July of this year called “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse.” Whilst waiting in my quiet office for students to come and talk to me, I read through it, underlying bits here and there and scribbling arguments in the margins. What spoke to me directly was his suggestion that it took three qualities to write “superb lyric poetry,” (and in my mind I couldn’t help but substitute “literature” for “lyric poetry”).

First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress senes, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. … [Second,] she must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. … [Third,] the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. 

He goes on to say that ambition might just as rightly be called courage. I like that view of ambition, frankly. Moreover, I like that view of what’s required to write well, and plan to offer it up to my students before the term ends (two more classes, my God, it’s not enough!). I think most of us who are drawn to writing come with the first talent: a facility for language. It’s why we’re drawn to writing. It may also be what stops many of us from moving on much further, and why agents and publishers tear their hair out trying to get young and talented writers to write about something, and not just beautifully or masterfully or lyrically. That’s why theme is so important. You have to have something to say. But I knew both of those things before reading this article; it’s his third point that is a new idea for me. And I like it, very much.

Ambition. Courage. Willingness to put one’s grand ideas on offer for public critique. The daring required to engage. No wonder a writer needs a hide tougher than a rhino’s. How does this willingness to stand out, to say something out loud, to take a stand, to care about something publicly, how does all of this fit with the necessity of being vulnerable? Because if you’re writing about something that compels you, something you care about, you can’t not be vulnerable. It’s what makes what you’re doing matter. We all know it, as readers.

One more thought from the article, on writers who teach.

Teaching poetry means talking about it in a highly self-conscious way. It means bringing the judging facility to the forefront. … But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front part of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits.

Now. I like to think that teaching creative writing this fall has forced me to distill and make useful much of the knowledge I’ve gained instinctively over my years of practice. I appreciate being forced to bring the judging facility to the forefront. But I’ve written next to nothing of creative content this fall, and though it wouldn’t be fair to blame this entirely on teaching, I do wonder if he’s got a point. By picking something apart, analyzing its pieces, well, the thing you’re dissecting is dead, isn’t it. It had better be, for the sake of all involved. When I’m writing, it’s like coping with a living thing that seems almost unrelated to the suggestions and guidelines I keep trying to share with my students. Sure, there are rules. There are excellent, tried-and-true ways of doing things. But I’m not thinking about them. I’m writing. I’ll save the analysis for later, for revision and editing.

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For the record, I had the pork belly with the papaya salad, and Kevin had the fried chicken, and both were very very good. If you live in town, follow @westofseoul on Twitter for menu updates and to find out where the truck is parked from day to day.

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