Category: Writing

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.

The challenge

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I want to write about a subject of some difficulty to process and confess.

I’ve been thinking about how I ascribe value to the things that I do. If something is hard, I assign it greater value. If something comes easy, I assign it less. Therefore, when a task or job or skill comes naturally for me, I tend to shrug off its worth. Oh, that was easy, that was nothing.

I respond to success by accepting or seeking out tasks of greater difficulty. I readily take on challenges. I choose to do the things that will be hard precisely because they will be hard. I take on this work in order to improve underused or underdeveloped skills, and to force myself out of my comfort zone. I choose it on the premise that it’s healthy for the ego and the soul to attempt and practice activities, tasks, or jobs that expose inner flaws, that force one to confront fears, that are therefore in many ways gut-wrenchingly difficult. Any accomplishment that comes out of such a frightening and challenging place is, frankly, astonishing and wonderful.

But I’m beginning to question the wisdom, at this time in my life, of this approach.

I’m beginning to wonder whether by tackling tasks of great challenge and difficulty, tasks that do not necessarily align with my natural talents, I’m unconsciously selling myself short. Rather than resting and calling myself to go more deeply into that which comes (superficially) easily, am I displaying a kind of boredom and restlessness, a mind that demands constant stimulation, even in negative form?

I seem to be good at writing fiction. Storytelling comes easy to me, more easy than anything else I’ve ever tried, always has, as far back as I can remember. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s what I need to focus on, strictly, as a life-long cause, as a hard-earned practice.

Just because something comes easy doesn’t mean it’s not hard, that’s what I’m beginning to perceive, to glimpse, ever so dimly. In fact, it may be the more difficult path because it comes easy, because I fail to value it, because ease can lead to boredom, because by delving deeper into a natural-born talent I risk discovering my limits. And that’s bloody terrifying, way scarier than failing at something I already know I’m not particularly good at.

It seems that the challenge that’s before us is not always the most obvious.

xo, Carrie

Thought of the day: on light

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To do what I want to, as a storyteller, I need to bear witness to what is. I need to shed light. But I want, too, to bring light. And maybe that’s more about imagining what could be.

I’ve been thinking about this: about shedding light and bearing light, and how the two are not the same at all, yet I want to be able to do both at once. I want to illuminate the dark areas of our culture and our lives, and I want to bring light while doing so.

It’s a small “big thought” on a day when it seems the snow will never stop falling, nor the wind whipping. The kids are hoping for a snow day tomorrow. Maybe I am too …

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The way to do the work

Girl Runner

Ta-da! This is the cover as it will appear in the UK & Australia, available February, 2015.

I’ve given myself a crash course in discipline this week. After all those late nights, and hospitality suites, and complementary drinks, and absence of regular meals, I needed to believe that I still possessed both will and discipline.

I’m vaguely recalling that my intention for the fall festival tour was to have fun.

So good job. Mission accomplished. Not that hard to achieve after all, frankly, when dispossessed of the ordinary responsibilities of one’s regular day to day life. Even just not having to do laundry for six people: instant party atmosphere.

Now I’m back to the day to day—mostly. And I decided that the situation demanded a shock to the system, like being tossed into the deep end and told to swim, and then by necessity remembering how. So I set my alarm early every morning this week. I got up early every morning this week (except for today; apparently, by Friday, I’m toast and require more than 5 hours of sleep, especially after driving to and from Hamilton yesterday for an evening reading). On Monday I did weights, on Tuesday and Thursday I ran with friends, outside, in the dark, no matter the cold, and on Wednesday I ran with my own Girl Runner at the indoor track. She found this to be an exhilarating experience as we zipped around and around past the early morning walkers and joggers like we were wearing superhero capes. “Don’t you just feel like doing interval sprints?” she asked me after we’d done our first lap. “No, I’m not getting that same feeling,” I replied. But of course her eagerness for a challenge won out. I couldn’t let her sprint alone. I had to give chase. It was fun.

Now, afterward. Afterward I could barely walk. It doesn’t seem either possible or fair, to feel so out of shape after such a brief interlude of fun-having, but there it is. My grey hairs are showing.

I do have more grey hairs, or white hairs, more precisely, than I did a month ago. I’m not making that up.

I turn forty in a little over a month. I don’t always feel like the young one anymore. I’ve decided this is a good thing, mostly. I just have to get used to being expected to know things. Actually, I like that part of it. I could get used to that.

Back to the crash course in discipline—which includes setting timers on the writing of these posts. This blog is where I come to have fun. This is my own personal hospitality suite. And the timer just went, right when the post was going off the rails a bit. Okay, reel it in. Stop bantering idly on about aging and the happy faking of wisdom. There are other projects on which I must lavish my allotment of work-time.

xo, Carrie

Visibility cloak

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A friend said to me this morning, as we were running together in the damp, dark pre-dawn, This book is not your whole identity, you know. You are much more than this book.

I needed to hear that. Thanks, friend.

I hadn’t recognized, quite, how Girl Runner has subsumed not just my hours, my focus, my working life right now, but also my identity. I am wearing, almost as a costume, almost full-time, the cloak of person-who-wrote-Girl-Runner. It’s not an invisibility cloak; it might be the opposite, a visibility cloak. But what’s visible is author-of-Girl-Runner, and invisible is everything else. Which is why completing that race felt so very good, perhaps.

My professional life is caught up in this identity: I would not be a teacher or a guest speaker if I were not, first and foremost, the author of Girl Runner. If I shrugged off that visibility cloak, an enormous section of my money-earning life would vanish in a poof of dust.

So it’s scary, I guess, to imagine not pouring my all into inhabiting my writer self. Carrie who writes books earns a living, whether by writing books or by spinning off the writing of books into related enterprises. Earning a living has long been my goal. It’s a worthy goal, I believe.

But maybe that goal feels a little one-dimensional as I pursue it with greater success and therefore greater effort, greater demands on my time. And on my identity.

If the writer cloak were balled up and chucked into a dusty corner, or even just hung up in a closet for awhile, what identity would emerge? Would I be fearful and lost? Free-roaming? Empty? Or would I find friend, mother, baker, caregiver rising up to fill the space? Or something else I can’t guess or imagine? But I can’t imagine it, because in truth being a writer isn’t a cloak, it’s more like tough thread woven right through the skin.

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Yet I sense that other parts of me are being shadowed, right now. It’s like I planted a seed that’s grown, quite suddenly, to become a tall leafy tree, shading out all else. It’s like I’ve become that tree. But I’m not. The tree is of me, but separate from me. Can I climb its branches and catch some light? Should I wait patiently for the season to change, the leaves to fall, to crunch around in them, to see them turn to compost, wait for other seeds to grow, a forested tangle of identity, creeping on the ground and digging in roots and reaching for the sky? Can I be many different parts all at once, or can I only do/be one thing at a time fruitfully, fully, well?

xo, Carrie

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