October 13th, 2015
One of my favourite things these days is getting to do guest blogs for other writers. It’s such a great change from the novel, and really satisfying to get something written, edited, and out into the world *quickly*, which is not the path the novel is on. I did a bit on writers helping writers for Ottawa Poetry a while back, and now this week, a piece on confidence for Emily Saso‘s lovely blog Ego Burn.
Emily’s confidence series is really interesting, both because it’s something we all grapple with and because I’ve never really thought about it from quite this angle. How confident am I? How do I find the will to keep going when I haven’t written anything good in ages and/or no one cares? Is that confidence, or bloody-mindedness or habit or what? In addition to my piece, there’s a fascinating take from Erin Bedford already on the blog and more to come. I’m really looking forward to the whole series.
October 7th, 2015
I think I wrote this…in the spring, maybe? And then thought I couldn’t use it. Now I realize I maybe could, so I went back to the file and for once in this depressing year, was kind of jazzed by something I’d written. I need to do a lot more with it to suit the context and I think some of my favourite bits of the scene may be lost in the edits, so I thought I’d put it here, just as it is, before I start that process. I don’t think any explanation is required–it’s just a moment. I hope you like it–I do!
Kevin was steadfastly staring at the small window perched high in the cinderblock wall, set deep enough you couldn’t really see out, just a small bar of sky. Deirdre was petting Monica’s hair and talking about legato. I went over to Lars at the snack table. He had an entire Nanaimo bar in his mouth, standing motionless in front of the platter holding several dozen more.
“I think that might’ve been too big a bite, buddy,” I told him.
His lips bulged; his eyes were agonized. “Murf,” he said.
“Oh, buddy.” I knelt in front of him. “Can you chew?”
He started to shake his head, then stopped and I saw a ginger motion of the jaw muscle and heard, almost immediately, a weak and high-pitched retching sound.
“Eh, just stop for a sec—um…” I stood up and grabbed his arm, then half-crouched again. I didn’t want to be seen aggressively hauling a groin-high kid across a church basement. We staggered slowly towards the door to the parking lot, his face turning greyish.
Out in the snow without our coats, I felt damp before the cold hit me. I guided him up the wet stone steps to ground level, then over to a snow-covered bush. “Ok, let ‘er rip.”
It was amazingly gross—the yellow cream in the middle had mixed enough with the chocolate enough that most of what fell into the show was a beige-streaked and it had of course semi-disintegrated in the warmth and salvia, even though he hadn’t been able to chew. What a tragedy—Lars loved Nanaimos more than anything, even ants or Pokémon.
He was coughing and spitting a bit, as though he’d actually vomited, so I gave him some back slaps and rubs, just to remind him I was there for him. Then he abruptly plonked down in the snow next to the mess and began to cry.
It was around then that I most felt the wind through my restrained dress shirt and remembered that it was February. Of course, to a good uncle physical discomfort means nothing, so I knelt beside him and pulled his head into my chest, feeling the snow swamp the knees of my good cords.
By the time I got the kid back inside, wet and shivering and with an unfortunate wash of brown down the middle of his shirt, Deirdre and Kevin were standing by the door, making angry hissing whispers at each other. It was one of those moments, and there were getting to be a lot of these, when I glanced at my watch and counted the hours until I could go to work.
October 2nd, 2015
This past weekend, I went to see my husband participate in a panel on the short story at Kingston Writers’ Fest, alongside Priscila Uppal and Mark Anthony Jarman. It was a fascinating discussion with great readings alongside. In fact, the whole festival (we stayed all weekend and saw a grand total of 7 events) was fab.
But the discussion on order in short-story collections was not long enough for my liking, so I thought I’d extend it here.
So! I care about order in collections. I also care about order in albums, where it is arguably more important. Rare, in our iTunes days, that one track will actually lead into another by blending music from one to another (there was a recent Sloan album that did it, making it mind-bogglingly weird to listen to on shuffle) but usually there’s at least a bit of a gestured segway, even if the track change is marked a moment of silence. You want to carefully plan any dissonance between songss, ditto big tempo changes, keys, moods, etc. It’s not that these sorts of juxtopositions are inherently bad–or good–just that they need to be thought through. Same with stories.
Mavis Gallant said that story collections aren’t for reading straight through–one should read a story, then close the book. Stories are for thinking about, and then after a while, the next day, when you’re done thinking you come back for the next one. But realistically, I think each story primes the reader to read the next one, and it’s nice to put them in an order that’s pleasing, that creates some variety, tension, interest. There is absolutely no reason someone couldn’t eat a peanut-butter sandwich followed by a single oyster followed by a tablespoon of relish, but most of us don’t consider that a meal, or pleasant.
Which is why most short story writers really work hard to structure their collections. This is true even if there are no linkages, even if the stories aren’t taking place in the same “universe” or with the same characters. In fact, my second collection The Big Dream was easier to structure than my first Once, because the stories were linked. They didn’t all move forward in time–there were a bunch that covered the same events from different angles, and a bunch more that it didn’t matter where exactly in time you were situated. But it the stories where time mattered or was obvious, it was easy to order them. In Once, where the stories were unlinked, and had almost no crossover characters, I didn’t have any temporal line to fall back on, so the structure is all about contrasts in tone, subject matter, characters. I didn’t want two really similar stories up against each other, but I also didn’t want say, a really dark ending to precede a silly, goofy story. That’s why “Massacre Day” is the last piece in the collection–I think it’s one of the strongest pieces, but also one of the grimmest–it would be hard for anything to follow it. And it may well require the most thought from the reader, so it’s good that there’s space there to think if you want to.
I’m not saying that I got these choices right, just like I’d never even claim that the stories themselves are awesome–merely that the ordering of the stories was part of my creative process, part of what I chose to present to the reader. A novelist (a thing I am currently attempting to be) decides on structure for novel in approximately the same way, though it’s more complicated. A linearly told novel is very different than one that flashes back and forth in time, and that is clearly a creative decision; the decision to order stories one way or another is too.
So…I like to read stories in the order the author (and editor!) chose for them. A few people at the reading protested the idea that of being “told” to read stories in order, since they preferred to flip through a collection and choose to read whatever jumped out at them. Which is of course fine–and I believe it’s what Alice Munro does, someone who obviously knows what she’s doing regarding short stories. Often stories will be anthologized solo or published in magazines solo, but again an editor is making a choice to insert them in a certain spot, before and after certain other material. I am interested in those choices, in seeing how well they work form as a reader and learning how I might make better ones myself as a writer.
A collections order is not *an* order to the reader–it’s a suggestion, the author and editor’s best suggestion of how the stories might be read. Just like you are not required to look at every piece in a gallery exhibit no matter how carefully curated–there’s still lots of pleasure to be had in alternate viewings. Or in songs on shuffle, or best-of collections. But I am interested in the author’s own intentionality, and willing to be guided by his or her choices most of the time.
September 9th, 2015
I wrote a little advice-y blog post for rob mcclennan’s Ottawa Poetry blog on Ways to Help a Fellow Writer with His/Her Work. It’s an area I know well, having been giving and receiving criticism from my peers since 1997, and hopefully some of this is helpful. It was fun to write, anyway.
August 20th, 2015
I’m pleased to say that my short story “Marriage” will soon appear in Best Canadian Stories 2015. In case you haven’t been playing along at home, “Marriage originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of The New Quarterly.
This may sound vaguely familiar because I announced it once before, when I thought it would appear in last year’s edition. I’m not entirely sure why it didn’t, but mine is not to reason why–I’m happy it’ll be coming out soon. Since the last time I mentioned this story on the blog, it has had many adventures–it is the first story in this book that I am STILL writing, and very much a weight-bearing pillar in that structure. I’ll be thrilled to see it making another outing in the world. Coming this November.
August 10th, 2015
Tomorrow is my third wedding anniversary (the traditionally gift for the third anniversary is leather, which strikes me as very, very weird). My original plan for this post was an amusing antipode of the post about things I liked about being single. The planned post was to include things like always being able to taste two entrees in a restaurant and having someone to post-mortem a party with on the way home. These are true things and I do enjoy them, but most of the post was rather glib.
It’s been a rough summer for marriages in my world, or maybe I’m just attuned to it right now for some reason. I feel like I’ve been hearing a lot of people whose marriages are ending or are at least pretty troubled, and that makes me feel like I do not want to write the glib post after all.
So instead, here’s what I answered when a friend asked me how I “knew” Mark was the one. In truth, I don’t think you ever know world-without-end for-sure that someone is your forever partner–the best you can hope for is a strong lead and the will to work on making it stronger. But my first clue on this was some unimportant phone call very early on in our dating life. I forget what we were talking about, making plans to get together most likely, but when I hung up I realized something I had said could be interpreted two ways: the innocuous way I meant it, and another meaner or offensive way (I honestly don’t remember) that I had not thought of at all. I stood there staring at the phone, wondering if I should call him back or whether that would seem crazy, and then I decided it was ok to leave it alone for now. Either Mark would assume the best (correct) interpretation or he would ask me about it; either way, we would work it out. I remember being surprised at myself for thinking this–if you know my panicky, neurotic self, you’ll know this kind of confidence is unlike me–but also being quite certain I was right. And I was–Mark was completely unperturbed by my gaffe.
And that’s, I think, the best-case scenario for being in love–the confidence that you can work things out with your beloved, whatever those things might be. That’s why I think the old marital-advice line “never go to bed angry” is bullsh*t–staying up and hysterically going over the same issues endlessly when I’m too exhausted to think is not productive. Why not just get some sleep and talk when we’re calm? Why not have faith in the person I love, and in myself, that we will work things out eventually? There’s no deadline, because we are committed to each other for the long haul–forever.
I used to feel weird about kissing Mark goodnight when I was mad at him, but then I thought that’s crazy–one argument does not negate my love for him, or my love of kissing him goodnight. The kiss is a signal towards future Mark and Rebecca, the ones that are past the argument and are back to being our happy selves.
And that faith, in us, in our future together, is my favourite thing about being married. Even better than having someone to lean on while I try to get a pebble out of my shoe in the middle of the sidewalk, or someone who remembers to warn me that aioli is actually mayonnaise.
July 28th, 2015
One of the hardest things about this long edit of So Much Love I’m into (we’re over a year and still going strong) is that no one reads my work except for the purpose of finding fault. I shouldn’t complain, that’s what editing is and I’m grateful for the help–and lucky to work with amazing people–but it’s hard. I submit work to my editor, to my writing group, my husband, and I get good, constructive notes and the occasional smiley face or checkmark, but that’s not what I wrote it for. I would like people to be engrossed, moved, entertained by my writing, and until I’m through editing, that can’t exactly happen. So I’m sad.
Because of the terms of the contract, I can’t publish the stories from the book in mags or journals right now, and because of the amount of time I have free (very little) I can’t give non-book stories the time they’d need to get into publishable form. So I can’t publish anything for anyone to read just for fun. Which means I was way disproportionately chuffed to find this itty-bitty review of my story Ms Universe on Joyland a couple years back, from Maggie Mason on The Book Mine Set. Yes, it’s only a few sentences, and most of those are spent on whether Martian is an antiquated term (is it? I sincerely didn’t know, and am not doing any of the clever things the reviewer thought I was!) But it also says the only thing a writer really wants to achieve, “it held my attention the whole way through and I quite enjoyed it.”
Honestly, the writing has been so tough lately that I was incredibly emotional about finding this. Also, I have had a migraine for two days, so that might have something to do with my state. But in any case, I’m grateful and will try to make my book live up to that sentence above. It’s what we’re all aiming for.
July 19th, 2015
When I was about five or six, I had maybe the best job of my life. My parents and I were getting out of our car, which was parked at the one intersection in my little hometown. I think we were going to the video store. A woman was walking along the sidewalk, a rarity in rural areas because so few places are walkable that everyone just drives everywhere. She wore a long black wool coat and from one of the hip pockets you could see the head of a small grey kitten peeping out. If you’ve met me, or really any small child, you’ll know that I was enthralled. The woman came over to me there on the sidewalk and told me she had to go into the bank, but you can’t take a kitten into a bank. Could I hold the kitten for her until she came out?
COULD I??? Of course I could. I would not get a kitten of my own until my seventh birthday, but I was quite confident I could handle the squirmy little fuzzball. So she handed it over and off she went. I think this scenario involved one of my parents having to forego the video store so that I could be supervised whilst I supervised the kitten. I can’t remember too much about the actual kitten interaction other than it was really soft and I was so happy.
The woman came out of the bank fairly quickly and apparently not realizing this was the best thing that ever happened to me (or, I know now, of course realizing exactly and being as delighted as I was) paid me fifty cents for watching the kitten. And took the little fellow back and off she went. I come from a very small town, where people often know each other, but not always because it’s near a bigger city and people come and go. I had no idea who that woman was and neither did my folks. As far as I know we never saw her again.
This happy little memory just popped into my head and, because I have a blog I can share it with you and so I have.
July 11th, 2015
One month from today I will have been married to Mark for three years, and on that date I’ll probably post something about how much I love being married to Mark, and Mark in general. And I do–it’s almost unbearably cliche to say it, but he is actually the best thing that every happened to me. I’ll try to make an interesting list of reasons why that is the case, but of course there are some things I miss about my pre-Mark life so, one month ahead of that post, here’s this one:
–dumping my clean laundry on the couch and picking items to wear from it day by day until it reaches a manageable level to fold and put away
–always knowing how much cereal is left in the box
–being able to schedule events easily–if someone asked me if I wanted to see a movie on Saturday, I would think for a minute if I had any plans, then agree. It’s harder to remember plans someone else made and harder still to guess what they might be hoping for or planning but not yet mentioned. Plus, hooking up with someone romantically effectively doubles your social circle, because you get his too. I quite like all of Mark’s peeps, but there’s simply a lot more people to see now.
–sleeping like a starfish
–stirfried eggs, which Mark does not believe is a food, but I used to eat several times a week.
–singing myself to sleep, which I used to do when I had insomnia, but I figure is rude if there’s someone else in the bed.
–that wildly over-optimistic excitement of walking into a party or event and wondering if tonight I would meet “the guy”
–the way my friends’ boyfriends would be almost paternally nice to me as a way of making points with their girlfriends. Like fixing stuff around my place and driving me to stuff. I knew it was sad because I was the loser single friend, but it was still kind of adorable.
–no one knew how many popsicles I ate
–going to gym, then to bed without showering
July 9th, 2015
I decided to keep a diary of all the songs that have been stuck in my head, because they are so varied and random. And they don’t seem to come from anywhere, it’s not like “Oh, I heard that on the radio at the dentist’s office.” Some of these I hadn’t heard in years until one day they began playing inside my head and wouldn’t stop. Most of them are terrible. What does this say about me?
Anyway, tracking them has taught me a thing or two about the whole “stuck in my head” thing–I tend to only hear my internal music when I’m doing something that does not require my full attention, like cooking or showering. If I’m working or reading, no aural landscape. Interesting?
Well, here’s the diary, starting with the very surprising song that triggered the project. If I can recall having heard the song recently or can think of another reason it’s in my head, I have put a * beside it–all the starless entries are inexplicable!
Tuesday June 23
–evening: “Nookie” by Limp Bizkit
–later evening: “Izzo” by Jay-Z
–going to bed: “Hold Me Closer Tiny Dancer” by Elton John
Wednesday June 24
–morning, in the shower: “Poor Cow” by Elton John*
Thursday June 25
–3am, awake for no reason: “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” by Shakira
–getting ready for work: “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
–immediately after that: “Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage
Somehow I don’t have any songs in my head on the weekend???
Monday June 29
–in the elevator leaving for work, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
Thursday July 2
–in the elevator leaving for work (seems to be a popular time for songs to invade my brain), “Let’s Talk about Sex” by Salt N Pepa
Tuesday July 7
–getting off the bus at work “Sick of Myself” by Matthew Sweet
(Are you noticing there are fewer and fewer of these? I’m not forgetting to post them, the phenomenon is just diminishing. I wonder if this is like lucid dreaming, where the more you try to recall and control it, the less it happens…?)
–getting ready for bed, “Sick of Myself” by Matthew Sweet
Wednesday July 8
–morning, getting dressed, “Sick of Myself” by Matthew Sweet (I’m trying not to take this as a message from my brain–it’s just a really catchy song!)
–around 11:30pm, trying to fall asleep, “Rossland Square” (this song is noteable as being the first on the list that is in my current listening list, though honestly I can’t think of the last time I heard it outside my own skull)
Thursday July 9
–late afternoon, heading down the subway stairs after work, “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John (Geez, that guy is on here a lot.)
–evening, microwave frozen mango for a snack “You’re the One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John
All right, I’m going to end this hear because this exercise has been humiliating and proves no matter how much good music I try to shove into my brain, something in more core has lousy lousy taste. I want to think that truly complex interesting music is difficult to just play on a mental loop without thinking, but I’m not sure if that’s true. Maybe I am truly just a 90s mallrat in denial.
If you’re tempted into doing one of these mental-music diaries, I’d love to see it!