Category: Writing

Yes and no

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Woke up early to run this morning, and woke up my eldest girl too. She wasn’t going for a run. Nope: science project due today, with a few finishing touches to complete: framing text and photos and placing them on her backboard. “Herbal Medicine.” She even prepared her own Garlic Tincture for the project. She left for school looking proud and happy and DONE! That is a good feeling.

She didn’t get a nap, but I did. Thankfully. Doing dishes at 10 o’clock at night is not conducive to early morning exercise.

I drifted down into sleep thinking about this article that’s going around called “Creative People Say No.” According to the piece, a signficant proportion of creative people say no to things they consider distractions in order to get their work done. The article irritated me. Why? Do I disagree? Do I just dislike saying no?

I don’t disagree, in fact. I know the time it takes to complete a project. The quality of that time matters, too. If you’re going deep, you need to sink down slowly, stay under, and not be presumptively yanked out. (Being presumptively yanked out seems the very definition of parenting, frankly.) I fight for my time, and resent when it’s taken away. In fact, I probably do say no quite often. When I’m deep inside a project I believe it wise and wholesome and productive to say no to the following major distractions: Facebook, Twitter, email.

But there are many things I cannot say no to.

I can’t say no to the dishes, no to the science fair project, no to the sick child, no to the solo parenting weekend due to Kevin’s work, no to providing meals and clean clothes, no to walking the dogs, at least not all the time. And there are many things I don’t want to say no to, too. I want to see my kids play soccer and swim. I want to help them practice piano. I want to meet friends for lunch and early morning runs. I want to connect and be connected, and therefore I say yes.

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Reading that article gave me a sense of panic, I suspect. Given all these things I can’t say no to, how can I possibly create? But I do! I do create. There is more than a smack of privilege to this whole “saying no” thing, an assumption that a creative person owes to his or her art an aloof and introverted life. 
That actually doesn’t work very well for me.

That said … how different would my life look if I worked in a traditional full-time job, if my office were not in my home? What would I have the privilege of saying no to, under those circumstances? We might have a dishwasher that the kids could load and unload. Kevin might share sick kid duties. Our meals might be less from scratch, or more from the crockpot. Then again, I might not be able to meet friends for lunch quite so easily.

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Kevin and I are thinking about these details quite a lot right now, imagining sharing the roles at home and at work more evenly, imagining our lives shifted slightly, again, to accommodate me stepping even more fully into work, and him stepping even more fully into home. I say yes a lot, but I’ll tell you, I would happily say no to the dishes.

My poetry book club: an interview, with notes

Photo by Nancy Forde. Humour by all of us, and some more than others.

 *Note # 1: Last month, in honour of Poetry Month, my poetry book club was asked to take part in an interview for a literary blog. And then due to a staffing change our chance at modest book club fame fell through — but we’d already answered the questions and posed for a group photo (any excuse to get together and eat cake, really!). So I’m posting our photos and responses here instead.

*Note # 2: Yes. We are called the Smeops. No. No one will ‘fess up and take credit for the name.
*Note # 3: Please imagine a friendly omniscient interviewer voice leaning toward the microphone to ask these questions. Like Carol Off on As It Happens. Humour me?
Note # 4: These are the books we’ve read since our first meeting, October 17, 2010, though not in strict order of reading. (And here is my blog post on that inaugural meeting!)
Pigeon, Karen Solie
Morning in the Burned House, Margaret Atwood
I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being, Johanna Skibsrud
Bloom, Michael Lista
Methodist Hatchet, Ken Babstock
The Cinnamon Peeler, Michael Ondaatje
New and Selected Poems, Vol. II, Mary Oliver
Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins
Human Chain, Seamus Heaney
The Anatomy of Clay, Gillian Sze
Groundwork, Amanda Jernigan
The Book of Marvels, Lorna Crozier
Horoscopes for the Dead, Billy Collins
Seal up the Thunder, Erin Noteboom
Note # 5: There will be no more notes. There will be questions and answers. Questions, more answers. And so on. And so forth. Until the end. At which point there will not appear even one more note.
Photo by Nancy Forde. We are, from left to right: Eugenia, Amanda, Christyn, Matthew, Maggie, Craig, Carrie, Karl, and Nancy.
Why did you decide to start a poetry-only book club?
Geez, these questions are hard. Reading poetry is a lonely pursuit, and that seemed a shame and possibly unnecessary. It feels great to share a good poem. – Karl
I didn’t help start it, but I wanted to join because I find that reading poetry alone is not as much fun as reading or discussing it with others. I love hearing how other people responded to or interpreted a poem, and frankly, even how different it can sound when read by other people. – Eugenia
Well, I usually tell people I like poetry over a book club because we are all restricted with time, and if for some reason you can’t read a whole book of poetry before the meeting, well you still get a feel for it and can comment, something that doesn’t usually happen in a book club.
 Second, it’s not common and so has that mystique about it as well as a little bit of my third point …
We get to be the “cool” kids. Everyone wants to be in our club! Joking aside I know I personally feel a little boost in my ego whenever I say I belong to a poetry club.
 Oh, and the food, wine, and “adult time” are also big draws. Plus I laugh the most there than anywhere else. 
 Amanda
Good question. The inward nature of the goings-on between poem and reader seems at odds with a book club. Maybe it is. And yet in my opinion, this poetry-only book club does work, somehow: we sporadically gather, chosen book at hand, noteworthy pages marked up, and if we’re so inclined, tip our experience of a poem outward into the room, in hopes of getting a little closer to it, and in hopes of being understood by the others sitting there. I didn’t start this club, but I joined in order to read and talk poetry with good people who like to do the same.  Maggie
The poetry-only book club was Karl’s idea. At first, we were only three, and we got through two Canadian collections together (P.K. Page and George Johnson), and then one of us moved, which left just me and Karl, awfully small for a club. Who reads poetry, we wondered, and more importantly who wants to join us and talk about it? I remember putting the idea out onto Facebook and my blog, and I remember my surprise and pleasure to discover that poetry-lovers are everywhere. All you have to do is ask. That was two and a half years ago. At some point, we named ourselves The Smeops. We first met to discuss Pigeon, by Karen Solie. After that, we read Morning in the Burned House, by Margaret Atwood. Our next book will be Seal Up the Thunder, by Erin Noteboom (aka the amazing YA author, and our neighbour, Erin Bow), who is an on-again-off-again Smeop. She didn’t want us to read her poems, but she hasn’t come for awhile, so this is our way of getting back at her. – Carrie
I enjoy poetry, but am more apt to pick up a novel before a collection of poems. By joining the club, I give myself a reason to read poetry. – Christyn
The club had already begun when I was kindly invited into the fold when I had recently moved into Waterloo from having lived rurally for a decade. Carrie asked me if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance. I am an English Lit alumna and, as a single mother, the idea of having adult conversation not related to Dr. Seuss (or, only sometimes related) was enticing. If I can’t get a sitter, everyone is accommodating and allows to me to host [I lied: *Note # 6: Nancy is a consummate host, and we love coming to her house! The photos were taken there, in her kitchen, and her cozy back room.] It’s wonderful to have a “night out” in my back room discussing the potency of words with people who are great fun and all have different opinions/approaches. A chance, also, to get to know members of this new community and feel some belonging. – Nancy
How does your club choose which books you will read?
Members suggest them. – Karl
Randomly. – Maggie
Haphazardly, at best. We don’t have a group leader, and at times we wish we did, but no one wants to be “uber-Smeop.” So we muddle on collectively. Occasionally, we meet without a specific collection, and bring favourite poems to share. We’ve chosen a few collections after hearing a particularly amazing poem read aloud. Those meetings are some of my favourite. I love hearing someone read a poem out loud. We have some brilliant readers in the group, although Karl will dispute his talents. Nancy can bring us all to tears. Craig does voices. I’m pretty sure he did a Yeats poem performed as heavy metal — that really happened, right? Back me up, someone. – Carrie
I think it was, more specifically, “Yeats as Metallica,” not to be confused with my own “Babstock as Jim Morrison.” Not one of my prouder moments. It was the olives talking. – Karl
People come across poems, throw out suggestions. I read “I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being” one night because a friend had sent the link to me via my blog and we all thought we might take on Johanna Skibsrud collection as a result.  Nancy
In your experience, how do the discussions in a poetry book club differ from those in a regular fiction-based book club?
I’ve not been part of a fiction book club. Anyone? – Karl
They don’t, really, at least in my experience. Members in both types of clubs interpret the works in individual ways, and share their reactions based on life experience and personality. – Eugenia
Maybe we can say that our poetry club is more than just an excuse to get drunk on wine? Sorry, that observation’s based on the book club experiences of certain household spouses who shall remain nameless. – Craig
I rather wish we could spread our idea more and show people that poetry is for everyone, not just the few literary elite. In the group we all come from different backgrounds and yet, for the most part, we generally agree on a work of poetry. We may differ in opinion on exact poems, but I’d say on the whole we agree — and we tend to like the works that are the most “readable.” (Erin would make fun of me for that word!) – Amanda
I’m not convinced there is any definitive difference. There may be a little more talk around form, language and sound as opposed to plot, character and theme, but this is of course a generalization, considering the many books that dabble in more than one genre. – Maggie
An observation: often, even people who love reading poetry feel inadequately equipped to talk about it — until they come to our book club, that is! Our conversations are lively, sometimes in-depth, occasionally moving, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Poetry wrestles with the Big Themes: life, death, memory, love. So does fiction, I realize, but a poem is so distilled. There isn’t plot to discuss, or character development; instead there are big ideas, compressed. With a poem, it’s tempting to say, “I liked this one,” or “I didn’t like that one,” so the challenge is to go beyond that and understand why (Matthew tries to keep us focused!). – Carrie
Poetry covers so many facets of life and its experiences and interpretations, that our discussions are similar (all over the map). I find that the poetry club elicits an emotional side of me that a book club never did. In the few hours we get together, every emotion can be covered. There are tears, moments of silence, confusion, anger, and lots and lots of laughter. It’s a safe place to examine life. I love seeing how each of us (so different in so many ways) will take away something so similar, yet so different from each of the collections. I walk away every time with a new perspective of life and a new nugget of knowledge. – Christyn
Well we have a historian, a few writers (who’ve also published poetry), a computer scientist, teachers, someone who works with the deaf, I’m a trained actor. We all have different passions and we certainly can disagree. But I think it’s the ability to read a collection and get a sense of a poet within a month. My favourite part of the night is when we’ve all brought found poems or ones we’ve loved or love or just discovered and we read them aloud to one another. So, whereas a book club may discuss that one book’s plot, climax, character development, emotions about certain chapters, etc. I would think the fact that we read poetry that can sometimes have been composed over decades by the poet—at different times in their lives—we get perhaps a broader spectrum of the person penning the poetry: when they were in love, depressed, enlightened, lonely, pensive. Also, it’s amazing to see the different reactions even a poem of 10 lines can evoke. The poet writes the poem but it can hit each of us in its own subjective way (as books can), but because the words/content of poetry or on a much smaller scale than entire chapters of words in books, often I think we talk about how one “line” or one “phrase” or even one “word” made the poem for us (or ruined it, etc.)  Nancy
Photo by Nancy Forde
Can you share a few of the club’s favourite collections?
My favourites so far: Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood, and Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins (not strictly speaking a single collection). – Karl
I’ve particularly enjoyed the times when we’ve goaded ourselves into sharing poetry that we’ve written. There’s great vulnerability and exhilaration in doing that. I’ve sometimes thought that a good poem is like a good wedding, because attending someone else’s wedding can make you want to reflect on your own commitments, and a good poem can make you want to cobble words together yourself. That doesn’t ring true for everyone, of course, but there’s some kind of consonance there for me. – Matthew
We hardly ever have consensus on a collection, but the poet who garnered the most positive response was Billy Collins. – Eugenia
And of course I’m going to list Billy Collins as a fav 😉  Amanda
Fortunately, there’s little consensus, which keeps the discussions lively. But every once in a while, we stumble across the sublime, and there’s pause for thought. These are the intimate moments that are great to share. – Maggie

We’ve found that a collection of poetry is almost always uneven, but the joy is looking for that poem that resonates. We don’t always agree on which poem was magical, but we like disagreeing. I’d say disagreeing keeps us together. – Carrie
The most favourite was Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room(also the most light-hearted). We also have others that bring about lots of laughter and inside jokes! – Christyn
I think Billy Collins was popular with everyone across the board and Margaret Atwood is so hard not to appreciate. I missed out on a couple of collections but fell in love with Mary Oliver and I absolutely was thrilled by Michael Lista’s Bloom, though not everyone loved it. We have good fun about who loves what and why (or why they seriously do not).  Nancy

The suddenness of Spring

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On May 6th, eighteen years ago, I met Kevin in circumstances that do not bear blogging about but which were, I assure you, youthful and spontaneous and highly unlikely to lead to marriage, children, home-ownership, and a stable future. But that’s what happened.

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I love that we met at this time of year. It’s exactly when the leaves burst out overhead, when the fruit trees and magnolias bloom, when the forsythia blazes yellow. Today, just three days past the anniversary of when we met, and already that moment of fragility and show is transforming into something else. How can the blossoms already be falling off the branches? But they are. How can the pale green just-unfurled leaves be fattening into a canopy overhead? But they are. How does the world fill itself in with such lushness, seemingly overnight?

But it does.

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Yesterday, I proofread an essay that will be appearing in the next edition of The New Quarterly, and later this year in a collection of essays titled How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting. I hadn’t read the essay for several months and how heartening it was to discover its strength and solidity. I’ve had a thought about my long-pondered non-fiction project. I’ve decided that it will be a series of essays. This essay, for example, is called “Delivery,” and it’s about the year leading up to the birth of our fourth baby. But it’s also about grief and denial and love. I have my doubts about doing memoir. My life is not that interesting. But an essay elevates ordinary experience by connecting stories to universal themes, and a series of essays can add up to the portrait of a life in flux, which is about as memoir-ish as I’m likely ever to get. I don’t like writing The End. I don’t like considering the past Done. But I do love considering the past.

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The other project I’ve been working on this week is a tight plot synopsis for Girl Runner. This will help me down the road in edits. And it will help my agent pitch the story to a film agent. Sadly, unlike in books, there are no surprise endings in plot synopses. I have to give away all my secrets.

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In Blogland, however, the secrets will have to be kept some while longer. Thanks for your patience while we wait together.

All the doors thrown open

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woman watches spring

Writing a book can be a funny thing. Occasionally it feels like control has been unintentionally ceded to some other power: the original vision just doesn’t fit on the page. The character refuses to do what the writer has planned. This doesn’t happen all that often, but it can.

Writing a life, well, do we get to that? Do we get to write our own plotlines, choose who we will become? To some degree I strongly believe that the answer is yes. Right up until it seems to be out of our hands.
I’ve had a strange week. It’s been wild, it’s been wonderful.
What can I say? Well, not everything. Okay, frankly, not much. Hardly anything at all, in fact. And I apologize for being mysterious, and will let you know that the news that I cannot tell is good, and that it is writing-related.
You know that saying, It never rains but it pours?
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soccer coach, in reflection
Throw into the mix: Kevin away in Winnipeg, a mysterious allergic reaction that sent me to the doctor, solo parenting on the weekend, having to coach our youngest’s soccer team, and several more soccer games including my own on Sunday evening, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s been … overwhelming. 
Imagine me walking uptown on Saturday with my brood of children, running errands in the brilliant sunshine. I say, “Kids, I feel ten feet tall.” “But you’re short, Mom. We’re short people.” “I know. But I feel like I’m much taller than I actually am. I feel like I’m floating.”
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I have spent more than twenty years aiming myself toward this moment. More than twenty years working to accumulate the knowledge and skill to write books that people will want to read. More than twenty years of tenacity and, let’s admit it, almost obsessive effort, even against self-doubt and the rejection that comes to every creative person who opens herself to the world. And here I am, more than twenty years on, dropped into the perfect moment in which the universe says: What you wanted? Here it is.
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The Juicy Jelly Worm

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And, suddenly, the world is green again.

I’ve got news: I haven’t signed on the dotted line, but my agent tells me the deal is done, and promises that I won’t be jinxing myself by making an announcement.

Deep breath, here goes: I’m going to be a children’s author!

I’ve read a few children’s books over the years. In fact, I’ve done the math and figure that I’ve read at least 7,665 picture books since embarking on motherhood nearly twelve years ago, although I have to wonder how many of those constituted multiple reads. You know, the favourites that got “lost” because the loving parent couldn’t bear even one more read? I also wonder whether there are even that many pictures books at the library? Numbers are not my forte.

Anyway, it’s been an education. And I know what I like. So I wrote a book for children.

The title is The Juicy Jelly Worm.

I was helped along the way by brainstorming with my kids (but of course!). I riffed on plot ideas. I wanted to make them laugh. And in the end, I wrote text that has no moral to the story (gasp!). None. The book is purely for fun. It’s approximately 700 words in length. The publisher, OwlKids, will find an illustrator to bring the story to life, and really, as a neophyte children’s author, I don’t know how the process will unfold, other than it appears to be underway.

A few more details: OwlKids is known here in Canada for publishing the popular kids’ magazines Chirp, Chickadee, and Owl (our household subscribes to all three). And the tentative pub date is 2015.

So there you have it: The Juicy Jelly Worm, coming to a library/bookstore near you, a few years from now.

Meanwhile, I present to you Spring. Appearing right here, right now!
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How to write like you look like a real writer

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writing at soccer practice

This was me, yesterday evening. I was stuck on a plot point that just wouldn’t fix itself, so I took my notebook and pen to soccer practice, rather than taking my running gear (nasty head cold, so that made the choice easier). An hour and a half later, I had the full outline for the second half of the book. It’s a short book, let me add. I still use writing advice bestowed upon our sixth grade class by a teacher I remember fondly: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. I even like the Stupid part of the saying, which would probably be dropped by teachers now (would it?). I’m not that smart when it comes to plot. That’s where I really need to apply the KISS principle.

These photos crack me up because I’m clearly not writing. Pen does not meet paper. I’ve had a few portraits taken by photographers who want me to “look like a writer,” by which they mean, “look like my idea of a writer, please.” I am then instructed to pose with a pen and paper. I can explain til I’m blue in the face that I write my books on a computer. But people want to see their writers writing. (Nancy Forde, you are the exception to this rule!)

Occasionally, apparently, it happens. I write like I look like a real writer. (Now, if only I can decipher my own scrawl …)

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see, pen not touching page

Kitten update: Turns out Fooey would be happy with a fish. She just wants a pet of her own. I guess the dogs are too communal as far pets go? We had to break it to her that a kitten would not sleep in her bed, or not for long. I still kind of want the kitten, but I’m not telling her. Maybe I have a diagnosable problem: the desire to collect living beings to care for, possibly in volumes greater than I can actually manage.

Manage. Well, even if I can’t manage them all, I can still care for them all, right? Manage and care not being the same thing, when you get right down to it.

I’ve got some news. It’s small and I haven’t signed on the dotted line, but I’m going to tell you anyway, because it’s really kind of out there news for me: I’ve had an offer for the text of a children’s picture book!!! Details to come, assuming it all works out, and dotted lines are signed, etc. I’m so looking forward to saying, “Why, yes, I do also write for children,” when asked, which is regularly. In fact, the notes, above, are on the plot to a children’s novel I’m in the midst of.

The thing I’ve discovered about being productive is that you just have to sit your butt down and write. KISS. One word after another. And if you get stuck, it’s good to have a few projects spread out and on the go in different stages of completion. It’s pleasant if the projects are quite different in nature, too.

I’ve got my ideas basket over here. My opening paragraphs bin over there. My lonesome disconnected short stories haunting the cobwebbed corners of my office. My research files stuffed into the cupboard behind me. The half-written manuscript that hasn’t found the right structure lying in wait. Meanwhile, the completed manuscript that is looking for a home is not mine to worry about, not right now. Do the work. Let it go.

The other thing about being productive is that it’s nice not to be productive sometimes. To leave your desk and computer (or pen and notebook, as it were), and go have lunch with your husband to celebrate an offer on your first ever picture book. Woot! I’m off!

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