Category: Writing

Jump in, no life jackets

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one of the ways she reminds me of me

One son this morning refused to wear a coat or mittens (it was -1C when he left the house). The other son, even grumpier, declared he didn’t want to go to school today. “You don’t have a choice! Now put your backpack on and get moving!” That wasn’t me speaking, it was my younger daughter, who has developed certain characteristics I find awfully familiar. I felt for them both. Neither one had a choice: she didn’t want to walk him, and he didn’t want to go. It cheered both up when I offered to walk along. Who knows what I’ll manage to get done today anyway. It’s been busy and I’m tired. Good busy, but I’m still tired.

I’m going to catch you up, which may, frankly, be exactly all I manage to get done today. This post will have a lot of photos.

paella night
paella night

Let’s begin with paella night, which was exactly as fun as I knew it would be, and maybe even more tasty. I do have the best siblings around. My brother Christian was the chef. Our version of paella packed in every meat and seafood we could think of. At one point, I realized I was eating a delectable mouthful that included chicken, pancetta, and chorizo, and probably a tiny clam, too. We drank red wine, cuddled a new baby, and quizzed each other hilariously from a Trivial Pursuit game, Canadian version, that appeared to have last been updated in 1996. I don’t think anyone napped or googled.

paella

Yesterday, Kevin and I were off to Toronto, as soon as the kids left for school. Our new car is so comfortable. It’s so luxurious. It has seat-warmers! I kind of hate how much I love it, but I do. Kevin drove. Traffic was unexpectedly light. I took photos.

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the escarpment, in passing

I met my agent, Hilary, at her office, which I’ve never actually visited, although she’s been my agent for nearly a decade. I signed some important papers.

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very important papers!

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me and Hilary

We posed for a photo. Hilary tried not to make me look short.

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me and Hilary, take two

I told her to go ahead and stand up straight. I am short! Also, she’s very tall and was wearing heels. This photo cracks me up. When Kevin first glanced at it, he thought it was a picture of AppleApple (ie. a child standing beside an adult). This is exactly how I feel sometimes on the soccer field, I must admit.

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Then Kevin dropped me off at the Anansi office, which feels very familiar to me now. Our small party headed off to a restaurant nearby for lunch.

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I was very geeky and hauled out my gigantic camera and lens to take photos. Above, my US editor, Claire Wachtel of HarperCollins, my Canadian editor, Janice Zawerbny of Anansi, my Dutch publisher, Jacqueline Smit of Orlando, and my Canadian publisher, Sarah MacLachlan also of Anansi. Mostly, I just listened, ate a very good turkey sandwich and french fries, and enjoyed a glass of champagne. Mostly, I was just amazed at the places Girl Runner has taken me already, at the connections made.

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angel

More news to report, and another meal to add to the menu: the rights have sold in Sweden! To Albert Bonniers Forlag. I said to Kevin on the drive home that it doesn’t feel like I’ve done anything I can take credit for, in terms of these sales everywhere. I wrote a book. The result is weight lifted, and lightness of heart, but what I really want is to write another, and another, and another. We arrived in Waterloo in time to see our oldest walking our youngest home from the school bus. It was slightly heart-melting.

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stroopwafels

For an after-school snack, and to cheer up one small boy who did not want to go to swim lessons (but who had no choice), I cracked open the tin of “stroopwafels,” which Jacqueline had brought with her from the Netherlands, and which the kids called “waffle cookies.”

And then we went to swim lessons. And even though he had no choice, CJ loved it, and couldn’t stop talking afterwards about how he jumped into the deep end without a life jacket, and treaded water for 15 seconds, by swinging him arms like this, and pretending to ride a bicycle. I didn’t tell him that when I saw him jumping into the deep end without a life jacket, and his teacher not exactly in arm’s reach, I held my breath in genuine fear as he went under, and almost couldn’t believe it when his little goggled head popped up again and he swam to the side and pulled himself out. “I think you actually love swim lessons,” I teased him on our walk this morning, as he continued to regale us with tales from the lesson yesterday. He grinned sheepishly. And then Fooey admitted she feels the same way sometimes: really really really doesn’t want to do something, and then discovers while doing it that she loves doing it. I figure it’s my job to keep reminding them. Just like it’s my job to walk along sometimes: my job, and my fortune.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

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Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. I woke with those words in my head, but immediately thought about how it’s today that pulls me. Today that I wake to. All those tomorrows aren’t promises. They’re overwhelming if I consider the repetition of their demands, and even more overwhelming if I consider the speed of their passage. No matter how much I do, time will turn these words to dust.

Yet how much I wanted to run downstairs and write down my thoughts. And so I have. Today pulls me.

It was my second waking of the morning. The first was much earlier, when AppleApple and I woke for her swimming. Being up already, I went for a run. It was very dark when I set out, but as I made my rounds, the sky shifted, pale light between ominous clouds, and at last a pink and blue sky that looked right out of a fluorescent painting. Shadowy crowds of crows called from the treetops, then took off flying in a seemingly endless stream. I liked this somewhat less when they flew directly overhead.

I came home to warm up, shower, and scarf a plate of scrambled eggs and bagel, then returned to fetch my swimming daughter. Tonight my siblings are coming over and we’re making paella. That’s to celebrate the sale to Spain. I haven’t properly celebrated France (the coffee and croissant were lovely, but the kids want in on it, too), nor Italy (which I kind of want to splash out on, if someone can recommend a good Italian restaurant), nor Holland, though a friend, who is Dutch, recommends kale and potatoes with sausages, or “tiny meatball soup,” both of which sound delicious (I will need the recipes).There may be yet one more country to announce shortly (!!), but I’ll leave you waiting for now. It is quite astonishing to consider the variety of languages spoken on this Earth.

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We’ve named our new truck “Aggie,” which is short for Aganetha Smart, fictional girl runner. Yesterday, I christened Aggie with a billion (more or less) errands around town to prep for paella night, and Halloween, and winter, and to replace items my swim child has lost or broken recently. Last week, for example, she lost her asthma puffer and aero-chamber. These things do not grow on trees. Recognizing her own ability to shed personal items at an alarming rate, she opted for dollar store gloves rather than those from Adventure Guide, which are, quite frankly, a shocking investment.

Elsewhere, Fooey found a dress fit for a vampire, with a hoop skirt to boot, but AppleApple rejected my suggestions and insisted on searching for something I fear exists only in her imagination: an old-fashioned formal dress (also with a hoop skirt) that would be both appropriate for trick-or-treating AND she could wear on social occasions. Yeah. Tips? She wants to go as Anne of Green Gables, and I’m not sure Anne wore hoop skirts, and that we may be confusing her with Laura Ingalls in her courting days, as we are reading These Happy Golden Years right now. In other costume news, CJ will be a clown in a suit we found in the dress-up box, and Albus is still debating. I will miss seeing them in full costumed flight, as I teach that evening. I bought some extra treats to take for the students, and I’m hunting for spooky-themed stories to read (suggestions??). Who knows, I may even throw on a costume. Would my students take me seriously as a rhinstone cowgirl? With braids? That’s all I’ve got (and it’s borrowed). I wore it to a party on Friday night, and looked cute and appropriately clad, but felt like I had dragged with me the equivalent of a wilted personality. I’m tired, it seems. Too tired to stay up late, too tired to carouse, though not too tired to spend the evening within arm’s reach of the cheese platter.

It does seem like a happy life makes room for a wide variety of activities, solo and in company, professionally and personally. Leave aside work and play, which are linked, in my mind. The bulk of my efforts goes into relationships, which are like gardens and need tending: there’s marriage and children, wider family, friends and neighbours, colleagues and students and coaches and other parents and acquaintances. When I’m down, I castigate myself for a lack of diplomacy, or a willingness to enter into conflict, and sometimes for exhaustion itself, for feeling spent. This may indicate that I’m an introvert, and yet it’s the relationships that interest me most, that feed me and that I live for. What’s left out of the equation, what gets squashed to the margins? Housework and chores, and often cooking and food. I try to leave room for meditation and stretching. Ultimately, I find, it’s dancing that falls by the wayside.

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I’ll end where I began this rambling post. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But really, today.

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.

Swimmers and writers, chanting and flutes

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Friday night, full moon. I went for a walk/run while AppleApple had soccer, and my ratio was down to 1:1. One minute of walking to one minute of running. Yesterday afternoon, I ran again, again while AppleApple had soccer, and it actually felt like running, as I upped the ratio to 1:2. One minute of walking to two minutes of running. Boy did I fly on those two-minute stretches of bliss.

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This morning I woke up early to stretch. On Saturday, we moved the dog crate out of my office and installed it in the living-room, where it takes the place of an end table beside the sofa. Classy, I know. But it means I can unroll my yoga mat on the office floor, turn on some kundalini music on YouTube, and stretch. I didn’t want it to end. The only irritatant was that YouTube played ten-second mini-commercials between songs, which sort of broke the vibe. Drink milk! Soothing spiritual music. Special K breakfast shakes! Chanting and flutes. More milk!

It’s a packed week. I needed to start it off with chanting and flutes. And apparently a breakfast shake (I went with egg on toast instead).

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she’s in the purple suit: 100-metre IM

Saturday evening saw me standing for four hours in the steamy warmth of a pool observation deck, watching AppleApple’s first meet. I still don’t quite get swimming as a spectator sport, but I completely get it as an individual challenge. It’s so different from soccer in that way. As a swimmer, AppleApple chooses for herself how much effort to pour into her practices, and how much pain she can tolerate in races. As a soccer player, so much depends on your team, on your coaches, on ephemeral unquantifiables like chemistry, and equally ephemeral quantifiables like politics. You can pour enormous effort into practices, work and compete fiercely in games, but your fate is ultimately at the mercy of other people’s opinions. I suppose it’s a bit like a writer’s career, now that I think of it. The work is an enormous part of the challenge, but not everyone is going to like your style, no matter your technical skills or intensity of focus; in a strange way, success is not up to you, as the writer. And it’s not up to the soccer player, either. You do your best, and hope it pays off. But as a swimmer, the responsibility is all yours. Assuming you have access to quality coaching and the financial support needed to train hard (a big assumption, I recognize!), the only barrier (and this is huge) is your own body, and your own mind. You earn the time you’re able to earn. Period.

Runners, too.

Amazing news yesterday: two Canadian women have broken the Canadian women’s marathon record, which had stood for an astonishing 28 years.

Ok. I just got totally side-tracked reading Lanni Marchant’s blog. She doesn’t post often, but had written a play-by-play from her marathon at the World Championships this summer, which didn’t go well for her. I’d like to read her play-by-play of what worked in her record-breaking race yesterday. Fascinating stuff (to me), even though I can’t call it research anymore, the book having been already written. My next area of research, I think, is going to take me to the U.K. Someday. Optionally, I may start in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, that being easier to access while still getting home for supper. If it’s still possible to get back and forth to Toronto, an open question given Toronto’s major traffic woes: I’ve got two possible trips to Toronto planned in the next week and I can’t figure out how to get there and back in a reasonable amount of time. Tips, anyone? I’d love to see Aleksandar Hemon’s interview at IFOA on Saturday afternoon, and am this close to buying a ticket, if only I can figure out how the heck to get there and back. (I’ve got my class reading an essay from The Book of My Lives.)

It’s been a year since … I got a haircut

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I’m a bit distracted this week.

I’m up early, I’m exercising, I’m napping, I’m ferrying children to activities, I’m sitting with good intentions at my desk, I’m making lists and plans, but my attention is a wanderer. I’ve found myself dissolved in tears. I’ve found myself bizarrely flat with calm, and the next moment zapped with elevated emotion.

It was a year ago, tomorrow, that I got the news about Juliet being a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. Strange that this same season, a year later, should occasion another, altogether different heightened career moment. I note also that apparently it’s been a year since I last got a haircut. What with all the glamourous travel, I splurged. But I haven’t had a good excuse to get one since, and may have inherited a few parsimonious personality traits that will prove impossible to kick. The children enjoy mocking me for my regular (and joyful) 50% off purchases at the grocery store (“Really, Mom? Fifty-per-cent-off yogurt?” “What? It’s organic!” “When does it expire?” “Everyone knows expiry dates are inaccurate!”) Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’d like a haircut, but need to convince myself that there’s a good reason to get one.

This morning marked the start of what promises to be a new era in our lives. AppleApple has begun early morning swim practices, thrice weekly. I woke her at 5am on the dot. She was excited, ready to go when her ride arrived (thank goodness for carpooling). I set off through eerie fog on a brisk walk, punctuated every eight minutes by one blissful minute of running. I was alone in the neighbourhood except for the man on the bicycle who was scavenging bottles from people’s trash. He said good morning, and I felt ashamed for having been afraid, momentarily, of someone up so early, working so hard.

I managed an hour’s exercise. A shower. A breakfast of poached eggs on buttered toast. All before picking up my swimmer and her friend from the pool. AppleApple devoured two bananas on the (short) ride home. She had to leave for school, and running club, while I went for a nap. Oh boy, did I need that nap.

I’m worried about her. I hope she will learn to nap, or to go to bed early. This is a big challenge, and much as I love early rising, it works only when lost sleep gets replaced.

Other sports currently being practiced by my children: football (Albus, who’s up at 6:30 twice weekly for practice); karate (Albus); swimming (CJ: “We did dolphin jumps!”); gymnastics (Fooey). And we haven’t even started soccer.

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So … distractions. Work. Edits. Revisions. Readings. Reading. Teaching. Ferrying. Truck needing repair (again!). Vertigo. Permission forms. Agendas. Signatures. Homework. Piano practice. Field trip volunteering (what was I thinking?). Local food (why am I irresistably drawn to ordering a half-bushel of eggplant for pickup on Friday? Along with a half-bushel of tomatoes? Talk me down, someone?).

Tonight, the start of what I can only hope will become a mini-tradition. I’m taking my family out for hamburgers to celebrate selling the US rights to Girl Runner. We should have celebrated the Canadian rights with … pancakes and maple syrup?

Good news comes

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“squirrel-ducks” by Barry Lorne, newly hung in living-room

Good morning.

I’ve got news. I’ve got really big news. I’ve been sitting on this news for a few days because it’s the kind of news you have to share with family and close friends in person, and because, too, I needed time to process it, and because, honestly, it didn’t seem real.

It’s real.

Here is a milestone. X marks the spot. I stood in my living-room on Monday afternoon with the phone pressed to my ear, and it seems it was sunny, as I struggled to absorb what my agent was telling me: that we’d had a pre-emptive bid for my new novel, Girl Runner, from HarperCollins in the United States. The terrific editor to whom I’d spoken earlier that afternoon wanted to buy the book. Now.

Yeah. My agent had told me I’d want to be sitting down. I told her, no way, I’m too jittery, but she was right. I had to sit down. Then I had to tell Kevin before anyone else. I texted him to come home right now. The kids, who’d been listening in with interest in the background, had to wait, but Kevin hurried. Maybe he actually ran. (As there’d been a fair bit of whirlwind build-up over the previous week, he guessed what my news might be.) Albus was so excited he hugged me spontaneously. AppleApple wanted to take photos to mark the occasion.

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it was really sunny

I felt weirdly calm.

And then there was supper to make, and swim team practice, and gymnastics, and by the time all of that was done, and the kids were tucked into bed, it was after 9, and Kevin, buzzing with excitement, was off to a soccer game. I was glad to see that he and the kids were excited, because I felt … well, I suppose it was shock.

It was the shock of a long-held dream becoming reality. In an instant. I couldn’t take it in.

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I slept surprisingly soundly that night, and woke early to meditate. (Side note: so far, I’m really bad at meditating. My brain seems to think this is useful planning and organizing time, and it’s damn near impossible to get it to alight for more than an instant on my chosen mantra. But I won’t be discouraged!)

After a night of processing the news, and after my agent convinced me afresh that this was really happening, I was able to come around to two overwhelming emotions.

Relief. Gratitude.

I’m helping to support my family. I can see the burden lifted off of Kevin. It’s almost like something visible has been lifted from his shoulders. Most critically, and here is where relief and gratitude mingle most strongly: I’m getting to do what I love. That’s what all of this means. I’m going to sit here and write books. That’s all I want to do. I’m not even very good at much else.

I loved writing Girl Runner. My mind is already teeming with another book idea, although there are more edits and revisions to tackle first. I probably can’t quite comprehend what it will be like to be part of the publicity push to bring Girl Runner to an audience, especially in a new market. I’ve never even been to New York! I sound like a little country mouse. Maybe I am. But I’m ready. I’m more than ready. I’ve been working my whole life for this, and whatever comes, however it tips me sideways, lifts me up, knocks me down, challenges and changes me, my arms are wide open. My eyes are wide open. My mind is wide open.

You’ve been part of this, too, you know. All who’ve read and commented and emailed encouragement, support, worry, kindness. You’re here, too. Thank you.

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