May 11th, 2015

Things That Might Be Wrong with Your Fiction

Guys, I really do try not to be a snark-head, and this post is not intended that way. It’s just that I read a lot of fiction–stories in journals and magazines, big name novels and collections as well as those from unknowns, plus the literally 100s of fiction-contest entries I’ve judged. From this reading, I have categorized in my head a number of foibles authors of fictions often seem to have. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to fix published work and the people who run contests do not let you call up the non-winning entries and let them know where you think they went wrong. Sometimes I use what I have learned in creative writing classes, but since I am not currently teaching, I have no one to share these insights with. I do want to share–and offer some potential solutions. I’ve stayed away from problems I feel like a lot of writing advice thingums cover–like overusing research and having one-note secondary characters–in favour of stuff I haven’t seen covered too much.

Please (please please) do not assume that I am making this list under any kind of impression that I am a flawless writer. Ahahaha. It’s just that other people’s problems are far easier to spot than one’s own. I am actually writing this post as procrastination against my own writing. Yeah, I’m pathetic, but let me help you!

1) What happened: You started your project with the central character and you did a lot of free writing, character sketching, and thinking to explore who this person is. You feel you know what he or she would wear, think, eat, and imagine every second of most days. When you started writing the story or novel, you were able to write quickly and easily because you were so thoroughly in the shoes of your protagonist, but what you ended up with is very long and rambling, because you kept getting stuck spending pages  on how the character feels as s/he, say, walks to the bus stop and realizes the bus is late. All of this minutiae is helpful in learning who this person is and why what happens to him/her matters…and yet people do claim to have been bored while reading.

What went wrong: I ran into this a lot with the young writers I taught in high schools, but you also see it with grownups and even published books. In my humble opinion, what is happening here is mistaking process writing for product writing. Authors often do need to know everything about their characters; readers very rarely do. It can be very useful to free write about your characters’ childhoods in great detail, for example, because that’s going to reverberate through their later lives and a reader will be able to feel it–without there being a word about the actual childhood on the page. It can be very hard, especially for students doing a writing assignment or adults with limited time to believe that they’ve written hundreds or thousands of words for themselves, not for an audience–but that’s often the way we write.

What to do: Sometimes, we just need to write the block of wood, then carve the story sculpture out that. So do it–write about every teacher your character had in grammar school and describe her whole house and all her friends. Then go back through what you’ve written and figure out what the story is about and trim it down so that most of the text is in service of that story. I don’t know your writing process but a random shot: maybe colour coding would help? Running a coloured highlighter down the page beside the text, switching colours when you switch content. Maybe green for dialogue, blue for action, yellow for character introspection. That can help show you schematically where cuts might be needed. You might also need a trusted and literary friend to go through the manuscript and note everything that doesn’t really need to be there.

2) What happened: You wrote a story that circled around a secret–a character’s hidden past, a mysterious crime –without knowing what in fact the secret was. You wanted to experience the mystery along with the characters and when you got to the end you were pleased to come up with a fascinating denouement and the secret has now been revealed to both you and the characters. However, you weren’t able to make the ending 100% line up with what came before–some characters’ actions don’t make sense given what they knew at the time, and other “mysterious” action has no real point at all now. You might have a character who knows the secret truth seemingly lying in interior monologue, or someone acting clearly counter to their own best interests for no real reason.

What went wrong: This is not a failure of writing–writing to find out what the ending is a totally fun thing to do–it’s a failure of editing. Really the first example is, too, but it is much harder to see when you have too much extraneous information–it should be obvious to an author when some information in the book is actually wrong in the face of other info therein. And I feel several really big-deal books were published in the last few years with this sort of thing not yet worked out. I read and read, excited by good writing and an interesting plotline–I was eager to figure out where all the pieces fit and get to the end…and never really figure it out. Apparently no one cares about this sort of thing because I look up the reviews of the books and my issues go unmentioned, but I still think writers should try to fix them.

What do do: Reread your manuscript once you know the ending ad make sure everyone’s actions make sense given what they know and what their goals are even if the reader won’t know these things until the end. You may need to make a chart of who knows what when, and what their goals are, if your plot is particularly complex. Really, this is just an extension of the challenge of writing any long fiction–make sure desires, personality traits, problems, and pleasures play through throughout the book. You can’t make a character who hates ice cream in chapter 3 gobble down a bowl in chapter 7, and you can’t make a character who knows who the murderer is throughout the book have a long internal debate about who might have been the killer.

3) What happened: You based your book or story on real events that happened to you and/or people close to you. Initially you thought that you’d either just tell the story as it happened or, if you got uncomfortable with writing some personal details, lightly fictionalize and make up things to replace what seemed best kept private. It turns out both these strategies are challenging, as more details make you uncomfortable than you thought, plus some people in your life have asked you not to write about them. The fictionalizing isn’t really working out either, as it hard to make things up when you know what really happened–it just feels like lying. So you’re ending up with a lot of holes in your story–big jumps in time and event where you skip over what you don’t want to talk about. You’ve also eliminated a lot of characters at the request of the people who inspired those characters–so it feels like the people who remain in the story live in a sort of social black hole. Yet another problem arises when real events were somewhat convoluted–people showing up even though they weren’t involved, multiple locations for reasons that are irrelevant–and you’re wasting a lot of time trying to explain all this stuff.

What went wrong: A humble guess–you might be too close to the events, emotionally or in time. It’s really useful in a therapeutic sense to write out important or traumatic events in your life when you are close to them, but it’s really hard to do that artistically in a way that a reader can understand and empathize with. It’s tough to walk the line between writing that you have no feeling for and writing that you have so many feelings for that it impedes your process.

What to do: For most writing problems, I would say one solution is to have a wise friend read it over and see what they suggest, but that might not work here if you are very emotionally invested in the work–criticism of plot and characters might come into your brain as criticism of your life and friends/family/self. Waiting is the cure here; eventually you will have some perspective on what is germaine to the story and what you can safely leave out or fictionalize. You need to be able to see what you are writing as something for strangers and work to make it what it needs for them to be affected, involved, empathetic. As long as it’s something you’re writing for yourself, beautiful and important as it may be, it will be hard for others to access. Writing is always a small act of generosity–you are giving a story to your reader. Wait until you have enough emotional strength to be generous to your reader.

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That’s all the tips I have for now, anyway–I’m sure there’s loads more ways to solve these problems than what I’ve mentioned, and lots of other problems besides these. What are you seeing in stories and novels that you’d like to fix?

May 5th, 2015

The Childhood Bedroom Writing Retreat

I’ve been reading a lot about writing retreats lately. They just seem so lovely and idyllic–you go somewhere really pretty and fun yet somehow isolated and silent, and you get put up in a nice room just for you and given great meals you don’t have to cook or clean up from. You’re surrounded by people who want the same things as you do–solitude and time to work yet also later on stimulating company and challenging conversations and walks and laughs and snacks. You work so hard and so purely with no distractions that you end up with amazing new pages or spot-on revisions, a raft of new people to put in your acknowledgements and a few extra pounds of gourmet food. And a million good pictures from the gorgeous nature hikes you took every day after you finished work but before the social hour began.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? Except I don’t actually have a life I much need to retreat from. I have a pretty nice home office with a door I can close and window with an interesting view. Besides work and writing, I don’t have a lot of demands on my time–well, no, i have tonnes of them but they’re all discretionary. Hanging out with friends, going to shows, watching Buzzfeed videos all take a bite out of my writing time, but I think I would just find other friends at a writing retreat…and somehow find a wireless connection to watch more Buzzfeed videos. My one non-discretionary obligation: I have a job, yes, but it’s pretty flexible–however, since I’m paid hourly every hour I take away from work to write quite literally costs me money. I try not to be nickel-and-dime about this, but I also try not to waste time…or money. Flying elsewhere at my own expense, taking a travel day and then possible time to settle in, just to get a room of my own when I have such a room already…I can’t really justify it.

I am NOT belittling writing retreats, which sound like they genuinely do simultaneously stimulate and soothe people into producing some amazing work–it’s just not in the cards for me right now, though I would like to go someday. And yet, in the meantime, my apartment is pissing me off lately (constant plumbing issues, some other stuff) and if I stay here I have to do my own cooking and laundry. So then I thought of it: where do I know that is pretty and peaceful, I could get a room of my own for free, and someone would make me lovely meals and have stimulating conversations with me? You’ve read the title of this post so you know what answer I came up with…

It went pretty well, actually! Minimal travel time, low cost, and no settle-in/getting-to-know-everyone time since I lived at my “retreat” for nearly two decades and have known the coordinators my entire life. The food was excellent, the weather was lovely, and there were even some birds singing the apple tree outside my window.

The downside is that I’m probably more eager to chat with my family than with strangers, and they of course have a vested interest in chatting with me. As well, unlike at a real retreat, they weren’t hard at work on their own projects, so whenever I went to get a snack or a drink there was the potential of sitting down and having a 20-minute conversation with an eager participant–a temptation I rarely overcame. I’m also just really comfortable in that house and it was a relief not to be constantly hassled by cats whenever I lay down (not that I didn’t miss them, but…) so I took a number of naps!

So I wasn’t as productive as I’d hoped to be but honestly I never am–this was pretty good for me, actually. I highly recommend the Childhood Bedroom Writing Retreat if your folks have a location and a relationship with you that’s amenable to such things. Or I guess you could also put in an application Chez Rosenblum….

 

April 20th, 2015

Current obsessions: makeup and watching videos about makeup

This one is unexpected, no? But it’s true–I love to watch endless videos about the many variations on “the smokey eye” (so many!) and follow various pretty ladies on YouTube as they make themselves slightly prettier over and over again. You’ll note my tone is not entirely serious, because I’m not really sure this obsession (unlike the Fitbit, which is fun and healthy, and Tig Notaro, who is fascinating and inspiring) is doing me any good. I spend a lot of time critiquing these videos, and very rarely actually use the tips they offer. But I can’t stop watching and sometimes I actually learn something useful.

I am actually wearing a good bit more makeup than I used to, too, which is where the video obsession came from. It all started last summer when my friend Wren (whose old blog had apparently disappeared when I tried to link to it just now) asked me to stand up in her wedding. I was very honoured and happy to do whatever she asked, which was originally slated to include doing my own makeup…with smokey eyes! I bought a bunch of stuff and started ardently trying to wear it, mainly to work (oh my lucky lucky colleagues). I was really surprised by how much I like wearing makeup. I don’t have a strong visual sense or very steady hands, so as with every art class I’ve taken, drawing on my face is hard for me. I also don’t have a flawless face, which is what most of the gurus on YouTube use as a basis for makeup art. If you don’t have really clear smooth skin, enormous eyes, and regular features, it seems like it’s really hard to have a successful YouTube makeup channel, completely missing the point that most of us want to wear makeup to fake having those above things we lack.

Why do I wear makeup? Well, that’s an interesting question. For one thing, it’s a fun thing to acquire–I can spend $15 and have a nice little treat. It last a long time, does me no harm, has no calories, and keeps me busy. Friends have commented that I’m sort of over-thrifty–I don’t buy a lot of stuff just cuz. Which is actually a good thing of course, but within reason. It’s nice to have treats, and a makeup habit is actually a lot thriftier than a shoe habit.

What else? Looking better is actually somewhere near the bottom of the list of makeup perks, though of course it’s pleasant when it works out. Anyone who has seen me with much make up on (oh, the poor Mighty J–she’s witnessed some alarming experiments) knows it doesn’t always improve matters. I have yet to master the smokey eye (someone else wound up doing my makeup at that lovely wedding) and thus when I wear eyeshadow it tends to be just a wodge of one colour. All this “creating depth” stuff was obviously covered in a class after I dropped art and joined band, but I am trying. It’s fun to change my appearance, even if not obviously for the better. It’s fun to make my eyes look wider or my lips look…crooked, or bigger, or whatever. I like that makeup makes me more mutable than I thought I was.

Another big bonus about getting into makeup is girl-bonding. I suppose I’m not a typical girly-girl, but I like being friends with all of the girly-girls, so you’ll often find me doing what they’re doing. Oh, the woebegone crafts I’ve made for a similar cause. But there was a whole world of girlfriend-intimacy that was not open to me since university (when doing each other’s makeup was a regular thing) and that was makeup-bonding. As soon as I started asking about eyeliner, I got a bit tighter with a whole set of females I already like.

Let’s get this straight–even the smartest people have goof-off hobbies, so if someone’s is makeup that’s doesn’t make them any shallower or sillier than someone really into video games or archery or whatever. I find the world pretty judgy about lady interests, so I don’t make the distinction that anything is more useless than anything else based on the target gender.

But still, a number of these videos have some unfortunate cultural vibes when you get into these things. The makeup ladies in the videos–as opposed to friends of mine who wear makeup–are really deep down the appearance-alteration rabbit hole. They see 365-day-a-year spray-tan, hair extensions, and eyelash perms as totally normal and often joke about their crippingly long nails or blinding fake eyelashes. Sometimes they still look great, so all the fakery is working, but other times the three inches of dark roots (is this is a thing now in LA?) and orangey spray tan just look…sad. And they’ve spent so much time and money on it, either way–could it possibly be worth it, no matter how nice you look? Who knows.

I like to think I’m a savvy enough cultural consumer that I can avoid internalizing the YOU MUST BE PRETTIER THAN YOU ARE message, but I do sometimes do the thing where I stand two inches from the mirror and tug on my skin until a certain wrinkle or wrinkles pull flat. But then I put on some copper eyeliner (crooked) and my favourite blazing pink lipstick and I feel better. So this is a slightly conflicted post and far too long to say, basically, I like makeup and videos about makeup. Here are some of my faves in the latter category, if you care…

Lisa Eldridge is the real deal–an actual makeup artist instead of someone who likes makeup…not that there’s anything wrong with that, but her technique is a bit more professional and her style more varied than someone who just has to make herself look pretty. Her explanations and tutorials are nice and simple and she is careful to include some reasonably priced product options even though she clearly prefers the high-end stuff. She’s also the Global Creative Director of Lancome Makeup, which means her principal income does not come from her videos, and is thus not so dependent YouTube subscribers and likes as some of the other video makers (it can get a bit depressing when they ask you to subscribe/thumbs up/comment several times in a video).

Kathleen Lights is more typical of the makeup video-istas than Eldridge. A very young, stunningly gorgeous American girl, she simply loves makeup, buys a lot of it, and loves doing her own face up many different ways. What makes Lights stand out is her euphoria–she’s in her early twenties but talks like a jubilant teenager, almost always pretty ecstatic to be alive. She LOVES makeup and her joy is contagious, though all but the simplest of her look tutorials leave me cold–she explains well, but I simply wouldn’t want to look like that. One of her datenight videos featured coal-black eyelids. But it works for her, and she’s fun to watch.

Chrisspy is the only makeup-video person I’ve encountered that is even slightly funny (on purpose funny, that is). She can be a little sarcastic and silly and has also created my all-time favourite makeup video (which will teach you nothing), Little Brother Does My Makeup. So charming! She has also said on-screen that when people tell her that her often heavy and dramatic makeup is not appealing to men, she tells them she doesn’t do it for men, but for herself (her actual response was less g-rated, but you get the idea). I love it, especially since most of these channels are filled with “makeup he’ll love” ideas.

Christen Dominique is a bit less exceptional than the other three. She does very nice, easy to follow tutorials for makeup looks that are a bit too complex for me at the moment but feel achievable enough that I might get there someday. She has a doll-like persona and is clearly trying hard, but in an endearing way. Sometimes her young son appears in her videos, which is sweet, but otherwise she’s not very different from lots of video-makers out there. But she makes the list of faves for her habit of waving with both hands and the fact that, if you watch her recent videos on YouTube you will see her carefully constructed set backdrop contains a copy of Canadian short-story talent’s Spencer Gordon’s collection Cosmo. It’s a great collection by a cool author, but it makes no sense in that context and that is why I love to see it there. A little hint of my main interest while exploring a sideline.

So in short, this is how I rest my brain and beautiful my face when I need to. What silly stuff do you get up to when you just can’t think anymore?

March 31st, 2015

The Late-Onset Adult: Tax Tips

I think late-onset adulthood is fairly common in our society now–even the phrase “live at home” has developed a meaning specific to recent times (surely we all, in fact, live at home). And frankly, at 36, I’m rather proud of all the grownup things I do–I support myself financially, I shop for and prepare healthy meals, pay bills, care for cats and occasionally other people’s children, take myself to the doctor when I’m sick, travel, even drive a car if I absolutely have to. I’ve booked hotels, helped friends in trouble, run meetings, navigated strange cities, gone to parties alone, hell, I even got married. Sometimes I add it all up (usually when I’m on the subway for some reason) I’m genuinely shocked that I’m so…functional.

But I don’t do my own taxes. I’ve always found this rather embarrassing, but every year I still bundled up the papers and trucked them off to my mom. She does the whole family, and is very very good at it. She used to be part of a volunteer squad who would go to nursing homes and community centres in low-income areas and do tax returns for whomever asked. When she wasn’t able to volunteer any more (logistical reasons), she still had us to keep her busy.

But really, taxes are stressful and I’ve been feeling guilty about putting the burden on her. Also, a bit embarrassed at not really understanding my own financial matters. So I’m on a slow, easy path to tax maturity–this is year three, and I figure there’s probably about three more in the process. I thought I’d share how I’m doing this, in case you’d also like to try for tax maturity. A few caveats…

* this process probably won’t work unless the person who is doing your taxes is doing it out of love–a parent, sibling, partner, or close friend–someone who is willing to help you however you want to be helped, and spend a lot of time with you to do it. This will probably not work with, say, a professional tax preparer.

* my taxes are semi-complex due to the fact that I have both a day-job and a small business as a writer and editor. I don’t earn all that much from my biz, but it’s all in little scraps and so are the deductions I have to take against the earnings (true fact: I got a T4A for $25 this year). Plus I’m dealing with lots of little, disorganized publications and groups, so they don’t always issue their paperwork properly–or at all–so I have to keep detailed records of what actually happened to present to the CRA. This makes my taxes more confusing, and much bulkier, than those of someone who just has a job with a single T4 and then some deductions and that’s it. So that sort of person could likely zip through the process a lot faster than me.

* I do my taxes by hand, because that’s how my mom does them. Apparently there’s all kinds of software that makes things easier, but if I used them then my mom couldn’t help me and I am only halfway through the process so I still REALLY need her help. I figure in a few years, when I’ve really got things sorted, I will try to learn the software–for now, my forms come from the post office and I mail them in a manila envelope. No online tax tips here.

Ok, here we go…

Year 0 (as many year 0s as you need): Sort through your receipts and slips and give the person doing your taxes an orderly set of papers. Sift out all the unnecessary stuff. If you’re me, you keep any vaguely important paper in a box all year–receipts for things you might want to return, vet bills, notices from your landlord–and only at tax time do you sort through and shred the stuff you didn’t wind up needing. At least, I do that now–I’m ashamed to admit there was a time when I just gave the box to my mother and let her decide to do with that fully-paid dentist bill.

In addition to simply removing the useless stuff, try asking the person helping you what categories the papers should be sorted into and then do that (the first year I also organized within categories by date, but I found out that’s pointless). This allows you to not only take some of the stress off your helping person, but also start to form a basic sense of how taxes work. I actually wrote a decent story set in a tax preparation class way back in 2007 based only on this sort of info. You can learn a lot just by making neat little piles of papers.

Year 1: Show up with your papers for your mom or other helpful soul to do your taxes, but then–this is big–stay. Don’t run away and let the tax preparation process remain mysterious–stay and watch, and hopefully your person will narrate what’s going on. I’m lucky (very lucky!) in that both my folks are born teachers and my mom is at ease not only working on the taxes but explaining what she’s doing. I wish you similar luck, but you may have to ask more questions if you’re not able to follow. Don’t be too intrusive, bring tea, offer shoulder rubs, and try not to let your mind wander. This is the last low-stress year, since you’re just absorbing the process and no one is asking any hard questions of you. But again, you should still be learning.

Year 2: Ok, this is the first scary year–show up with your papers, bring your person a cup of tea and now YOU do the taxes, with your helpful person watching. This can end up a lot like year 1, in that if you stare blankly at a piece of paper long enough the person who knows what she’s doing will probably just tell you what to do next, and if you do that enough times you’ll eventually be done the whole tax return. Try to make some stabs at finding your own next move, and trust your person to tell if you’re screwing up. Keep a copy of the Year 1 tax return handy, too, so you can imitate what worked last time around when the much smarter person was doing the return.

Year 3: Do your taxes by yourself based on what you’ve learned so far, the guidance of reviewing last year’s return, and the occasional phone call (I may or may not have called my mother 6 times in March specifically about taxes) or email. At the end of this process, give the completed return (good copy, but be prepared to make an even better copy) to your person to make sure you didn’t go off the rails anywhere. This is the year I’m just completing–I handed over my forms on Sunday at brunch, and I’m feeling pretty darn proud. I guess I should wait until I get the feedback before counting any grown-up gold stars, though…

Year 4: This is a projected year, but I anticipate it’ll be similar to Year 3 except with fewer phone calls.

Year 5: I think I’ll try to learn the software this year, which means I can call for advice during the process but I can’t  show my mom the final product (because it’ll live in the internet somehow? do I have this right?) I really should be ok with that at this point, I think–especially with the in-process phone calls.

Year 6: I’m not sure this is really as close as three years out, but eventually I want to be the sort of person my mom is, tax-wise and generous with said wisdom. My aim is to take over my husband’s taxes and save him the money he’s currently spending on H&R Block, but I’d only do that if we were really feeling confident, because I find another person’s documents trickier to understand than my own. And then perhaps I’ll go further afield, wandering the streets and helping others with taxery. I shall be beneficent and carry a flaming calculator…

Well, you get the idea! Did you come to any useful life skills at a later age? How did you do it?

March 16th, 2015

On Pedagogy

My article on children learning to read, “How to Learn to Read (if You Don’t Already Know)” is out in Canadian Notes and Queries. It’s a great issue, with reviews by some of my favourite people, like Mark Sampson and Kerry Clare. Even the pieces by non-close-friends are awesome, like an article by Stephen Henighan (he seems like a good guy, but we don’t often hang) on Mavis Gallant’s mother–who knew that was exactly what I wanted to read, but it was.

My own article was a big challenge for me, because it’s as near as I dare tread to journalism. I mean, it isn’t–it has way too much about my experiences in kindergarten to be legit journalism, but I did actually interview people and track down lots of interesting information. Teaching and learning are some of my favourite topics of late. It’s no surprise, probably, since I work in textbooks but don’t actually have a background in education. I see a lot of pedagogical talk going on, and I’m slowly piecing together how things work–at least a little.

The best thing, though, is talking to actual students. I got the chance to do so a couple weeks ago, when I went to visit the Writers’ Craft class at Watertown High. It was a fun group engaged, chatty teens and I enjoyed myself though I was a bit exhausted by the end of the hour. Standing at the front of a group 25 eager faces, trying to entertaining and engaging and actually share something useful is very very hard. The coolest thing was that the teacher of that class was MY Writers’ Craft teacher, someone who taught me a lot way back in 1997. I mentioned this fact to the class when I arrived and a murmur quickly went through the room–I heard someone whisper “birthday!” It turns out that is the YEAR THEY WERE ALL BORN. I am twice as old as the grade 12s of today. Alarming. But brilliant that they still have such a great class at their disposal in the age of disappearing electives, and such a great teacher there to teach it to them. Thanks, Waterdown High–and thanks, Ms. North!!

March 6th, 2015

Current Obsessions: House-Hunting

This is almost not a “current” obsession anymore, as I’ve more or less given up on actually buying a house, and that kind of takes the thrill out of the hunt (though I’m still reading the listings, of course, with the idea that if there were something REALLY good I’d go see it). I’ve long thought that I couldn’t begin to enter the crazed Toronto housing market (remember when I pointed that out nearly a year ago?) But everyone said of course, you could buy a house and encouraged my husband and I, and for a while we got swept up and got a real estate agent, got approved for a mortgage, and started going and looking at houses.

What happened then was that we found out that having a “budget” and looking at the listings according to “price” was foolhardy. Many of the houses in our budget were gleefully described as “a handyman’s dream.” Not being a handyman, I’ve never had those dreams, I guess, and the houses just looked like neglected older homes, many with uninsurable wiring, asbestos in the basements, leaks in the walls, or oddly placed shower stalls (one place had two in one bathroom cancelling out almost all floor space; another had one that opened directly into the rec room). But there are also a small number of reasonably cute, reasonably well-located, non-disintegrating houses in our price range. We call these “lies.”

Apparently, sometimes a realtor will price a nice house really low so as to attract more interest and, oh cruel irony, bid up the price very high in the end, higher than a normal we-can’t-afford-it-house. The only house we even considered putting in a bid on recently sold for $136 000 over asking. So basically, you can’t shop by budget–you can only sort through the listings and try to imagine which houses look sad enough to actually sell for something you can afford. This gets depressing quickly.

And also, we already have a nice place to live. Well, nice enough. Well, we could probably find something nicer. Or something. We’re going to move soon, somewhere, probably. It depends on the day you ask me. The existence of the apartment we already have hasn’t really cheered me in this round of the no-house blues (considering the amount of cognitive dissonance that went into the foredoomed house-hunting of the past little while, do you think it’s possible I will forget the whole mess AGAIN and want to start all over in 6 months? Oh no!) Things that have cheered me are
–the time we went to a really posh bar for no reason with Mark’s colleagues and Mark picked up the tab for everyone, because we have a little extra money and it’s nice to do things like that
–the big snow storms we’ve had recently, wherein we did not have to shovel anything
–the fact that our pipes didn’t freeze when so many of our friends’ did (not that we do not feel bad for those friends!)
–the freeing up of Sunday afternoons now that we aren’t going to look at houses

One of the really interesting things that this process showed me is what life might be like if I were not a writer. Not that I believe I’d have more money in that scenario–I’d probably just have the same job I currently do minus the small but pleasant trickle of writing income. It’s that I’d have so much *time.* I glean from the realtor and other house hunters that some people view houses multiple times a week, even on weeknights, and then they go to a bunch of open houses on top of THAT! They read all the listings and watch real-estate tv shows! AND they think nothing of going from this gruelling process directly into major home renovations that would take up even more time. It’s shocking and baffling. I have no free time to speak of–even tonight, when I’m going to eat takeout and watch Dr. Strangelove with my husband, is a long-planned treat. There are no empty slots in my schedule. Non-writing people are weird!

Other things I’ve learned about my fellow humans come from visiting the houses themselves, such as
–other people have very few things. I recognize that many of the houses we saw were at least lightly staged and heavily cleaned, but the reason I know the lack of stuff was real is that there was no space to accommodate it. Most living rooms we saw contained a sectional sofa and a flat-screen tv hanging from the opposite wall. Often that was ALL, and if there was more it was perhaps a single framed painting and a floor lamp. I don’t think of myself as really materialistic, and yet, you want to know what my living room contains? a) 6 Billy bookcases that contain over 2000 box plus assorted framed and unframed photos, candles, and other knickknack, b) a sizeable stereo system, the last of the really good ones that were large (from around 2002), with three components (amplifier, cd player and tape player [yes, there’s also a hookup for an iPod) all on a little wheeled cart, plus two toaster-sized speakers, c) a tube tv on a large cupboard that contains DVDs, a blu-ray player, a VCR, a Wii, and a bunch of Wii games and accessories, d) a coffee table covered in house plants, e) a second coffee table used as a coffee table, with an under shelf full of magazines, f) a side table for coasters and remote controls, g) two easy chairs and a small couch, h) two floor lamps, i) two end tables turned sideways to double as a console table/shoe rack. Yes, part of the problem is that our technology is outmoded, but I can’t see spending $1000 to replace the TV and stereo just so they would fit in a RIDICULOUSLY TINY TORONTO LIVING ROOM.
–some people live without bureaus. This is more on the previous point, I guess, but fascinating in that where is their underwear and socks? Toronto people REALLY know how to use a closet, though–some of the systems I’ve seen, with multiple layers and levels, are really impressive
–things I think are necessary–like a door on the bedroom–are to some people not necessary
–some people are very very bad at home repair and apparently have no idea. Who would caulk a window themselves, get the caulk all over the glass, and just leave it like that?
–I hate basements! Hate them. Many Toronto basements are very dark and almost windowless (especially in row houses) and if they are unfinished seem to even have dirt floors. They are criss-crossed at the ceiling with both wires and clotheslines, and the ceilings are often barely 6 feet, so it is easy to self-strangle. Always the worst part of the tour.

This is becoming a rant, so maybe I’ll end it here–probably I’ll continue to obsess but hopefully not too badly. Houses–they are the flame, I am the moth!

February 27th, 2015

Why Life Is Hard for Extroverts Too

This started out as a joke post, parodying those insufferable articles about how introverts are actually must smarter, deeper, kinder, and more sensitive than extroverts. In trying to equalize our perceptions of intros and extros, the articles nearly always go too far and suggest that there’s really only worthwhile kind of human.

I don’t honestly even believe that there’s some kind of binary among humans into these two types. We all have tendencies in both directions and it’s a spectrum. And I don’t think the introverts get all that squashed in society, though maybe because I’m in the writing and editing field my perceptions are skewed–there’s a lot of quiet types here. And that’s also why I sometimes stand out as a bit more talky than some of my colleagues. In many context, I don’t think I’d qualify as an extrovert, but in the word mines, I do. Of course, I also have friends who are much much more social than I am. As I say, a spectrum.

My extroverted feelings get hurt by those stupid articles above–I’m not callous, superficial, or inane, as they always seem to suggest. At least, I don’t think I am. So I started writing this rebuttal in fun, but I think it’s kind of true, too…

Why life is hard for extroverts too…

1) I’m often lonely. I know, I know–introverted people often feel overwhelmed by being with people and need time alone. I actually feel that way pretty often myself. But the thing about wanting to be alone is, it’s relatively easy to achieve. You can go home or take a walk or go stand in the broom closet if you have to. It’s much harder when you’re by yourself and wish you weren’t. Sometimes none of your friends are available to hang out. Sometimes your husband is sleeping and has told you to quit waking him up. Sometimes no one’s online. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

2) I get rejected a lot. One of my nicer qualities, so I’m told, is I see everyone I meet as a potential new friend. The downside of this is that many people do not want to be my friend. That’s fair, but I can’t help taking it personally. If I compliment a cashier on her nail polish or blouse and she ignores me, I feel bad even though I know intellectually that this relationship is not important to my well being. Worse, people in my actual social circle sometimes don’t really want to spend a lot of time with me. When I first moved to Toronto, I did not understand that “We should get a coffee/drinks/lunch sometime” was a phrase of general approbation, and did not actually mean anything. I was forever pulling out my date book and trying to make plans. Some of those interactions actually blossomed beautifully, but some were very very awkward. I’m always the friend who is still inviting you to parties long after you’ve given up authentic-sounding excuses and started saying things like, “I think I’m going to be really tired that night.”

3) My career path does not really suit extroversion. I write books, as I may have mentioned here, and that is a task that it’s very hard to make collaborative. I’ve tried, with writing groups, reading groups, uber-involved editors, and a husband who takes an interest in my work, but sometimes I do have to sit and my office and work and there’s no one else there… All alone! I also work on books during the day, and though there’s some more interaction to that now that I’m a project manager, I’m still just at my desk a lot of hours of the day. And yet these are the things I want to do–I wouldn’t have my career any other way! I just wish a bunch of people could come hang out at my desk with me, maybe occasionally make an interesting comment about something. I’ve actually started shunning my lovely office to work in the living room with my husband and cats. Bad use of real estate, but much more comforting.

4) It’s really easy to hurt my feelings. It’s interesting that the stereotype of an extrovert is someone who is shallow and callous and not really interested in what you have to say. Since I’m so invested in other people, doesn’t it make sense that I’m invested in what they think about me? Workplace sniping, subway grumbling, arguments with close friends–they all sting, although of course to different degrees. And I’m actually paying really close attention. I used to work with someone who took great care to thank everyone for their contributions to the project at every meeting, except me. I don’t really know why she disliked me enough that she couldn’t bear to thank me for anything, but I guess expected I wouldn’t notice. I noticed.

5) Socializing is time-consuming. Introverts can get their solo-recharge time while they scrub toilets or do their taxes, but none of my friends want to come over for that (do you?) If I want to see people at least a couple nights a week–and I do–I need to make plans, send an invitation, organize a time and place and then actually get myself there, even if it’s snowing and I’m sleepy. It’s worth doing, but it means putting off taxes and scrubbing and other things I should really get done.

Wow, what a sad sack list! I was trying to ape to woe-is-me tone in the introvert articles but now I just feel really bad about myself. But actually–I’m fine! I get to spend lots of time with people and lots of time alone, just as my personality prefers. I enjoy my own company and that of others, big parties and long walks, and blah blah blah, all that other stuff introverts supposedly are the only appreciators of.

I probably shouldn’t things I read on BuzzFeed so seriously…

 

February 23rd, 2015

Photos by Mark Raynes Roberts

I had the privilege of doing a photo shoot with artist Mark Raynes Roberts as part of a project he is doing, photographing Canadian authors. It will be displayed in the fall, if you’re curious to see it. I certainly am! In the meantime, here’s a selections of shots of me, courtesy of Mr. Roberts. Eventually, when I do a proper update of this site (ie., pay someone to do one) I will include one of these in the bio section, but for now all I know how to do is post them here… Feel free to let me know your favourite…I’d be curious!

I think this one is my favourite...

I think this one is my favourite…

I like the meta aspect of the photo with photos in background...

I like the meta aspect of the photo with photos in background…

Shifty eyes...somehow one of my best looks!

Shifty eyes…somehow one of my best looks!

February 19th, 2015

Current Obsessions: Curing (or at least improving) my migraines

Much as I suggested in my last post that the internet has ruined the word brave–it used to mean fighting in a war but now it just means talking about sex–so too has the word “obsess” come on hard times. My beloved Canadian Oxford defines it as “[to] preoccupy; haunt; fill the mind of a person continually” but when someone says (as it seems they say all too often these days) “I’m totally obsessed with that nail polish/salad/tv show” they do not think of their obsession constantly. Rather, they experienced it a few times, liked it, wish to experience it again. I don’t know how obsession came to mean generic positive feelings.

In this little series, I mainly mean “obsessions” in the modern, watered-down way, but with a little edge of my own neurotic tendencies. It’s not an exaggeration to say I look at my Fitbit multiple times per hour for a total of dozens of times per day. And not this week but last, I probably listened to about 10 hours of Tig Notaro recordings.

The migraine thing is less fun and more haunting–I think about it a lot because the pain factor forces me to. There was a period last fall when I started wondering if I was destined to become one of those chronically ill people, pale and sweatshirted and worried all my friends think I’m lazy because I look fine?

I’m feeling better now but even a few days of feeling that bad scared me a lot, and I’m gotten way more serious about migraine prevention and treatment. No more letting things slide, no more organic-hearted avoidance of scary pills. Into the medical-industrial complex I go!

I’ve been here before. I’ve had migraines since I was a child–my mom and borther do too, my brother’s far worse than mine. When he was a little little kid he would just sob, that’s how bad they were. We all took some fairly strong prescription painkillers during that period, and they worked quite well. Then in my early twenties I lost some weight and the prescription I was on started being too strong for me–it made me high. I got freaked out that I was taking such a serious med and I went back to plain old Tylenol.

It’s a bad medical precedent but that actually worked for about 10 years. Things started getting worst after my jaw surgery, after I went on other prescription meds, and I think honestly with age or who even knows? Migraines are very mysterious. Until the nadir (well, I hope it was the nadir) last fall.

Migraines are weird in that, unlike most medical conditions, pain is the disease itself, not the symptom. Like, if you have a crushing pain in your chest, as bad as a migraine but in a different location, that pain is a signal to you to get to a doctor immediately or that pain will likely do you permanent damage or kill you. However, with a migraine, as far as I understand it (not positive how well that is…?) there’s no real possibility of permanent damage. Once a migraine’s over, it’s over–the pain abates, and you’re as fine as you ever were. There’s no reason to seek medical treatment except because the pain is unpleasant. It’s not actually doing anything to you.

Isn’t that weird? And random? And frustrating–because if the pain isn’t because of something else, there’s nothing to fix, exactly. Migraine treatment, as far as I can tell, can only work in two ways 1) trigger avoidance and 2) pain management. Either you don’t get a migraine, or you find a way to cope with it until it goes away.

Anyway, in the past year or two, here is what I’ve done to improve the migraine situation–mainly in category one. Please note that this is not advice–migraine triggers are different for everyone and I have some extra issues with my jaw, and lack certain others (I don’t drink).

  • almost (not quite) eliminated caffeine from diet
  • almost (not quite) eliminated aspartame from diet
  • eliminated gum (except on airplanes) (all three of those can be a trigger for me)
  •  eaten protein every morning for breakfast (apparently lack of protein can be a trigger)
  • taken large doses of B2 twice a day (I admit, I forget what that actually does, but a neurologist told me to do it)
  • made an effort to improve sleep–not just amount but steadiness. My terrible habit of waking up multiple times a night for no real reason is a potential trigger. To this end, I’ve been taking big doses of magnesium citrate at bed time to help me sleep more soundly and trying to avoid naps (but I love naps!)
  • bought a new shower curtain and had the gap behind my bathtub faucet filled (apparently mildew and mould that accumulates in damp recesses in bathrooms can be a trigger)
  • made a bigger effort to take some medication at the earliest sign of headache. I was trying to tough out milder headaches, which worked for years, but recently they just got worse until it was too bad for the medication to be effective. Now I’m trying to be proactive, though I do find the sheer number of pills I’ve been taking alarming.
  • taking whatever the doctor prescribes. No more over-the-counter stuff for me, sadly. I have an “everyday” bottle of painkillers, and another one for true catastrophic headaches. I had a different catastrophy prescription, but the only time I took it I feel asleep almost immediately. The neurologist told me if I was reacting so strongly to a “baby dose” I needed something else, so now I have a new, as-yet-untried prescription. We’ll see.

And that’s it–all I’ve thought of to do so far. The neurologist I see is really smart, but I think I might be in the least worst shape of any of her patients, so she doesn’t always have a lot of time for me. Ok, never. I’ve had a good few months recently, but I’m still very nervous. Migraines are such an inexact science, and within reason I’m will to experiment to see if I can feel better. So if you have any suggestions to feed by obsession, please do comment–I would love to expand my defenses…

February 11th, 2015

Current Obsessions: Tig Notaro

I am an insatiable consumer of music–I scan the radio, quiz my friends, and buy the openers’ EPs at concerts. My tastes aren’t very cutting edge, but I do devour new music, sometimes to the point of “using it up.” It would not be unusual for me to listen to a song 40 times in a row and then, if it wasn’t really strong or complex enough to withstand such intense scrutiny, never be able to listen to it again.

On the other hand, I don’t really like listening to recorded talking–ebooks and podcasts generally seem awkward and distracting to me. The two exceptions are during long drives and while QCing a website–both are activities that root me in place while keeping most of my mind free to get involved in a story.

But my favourite thing to listen to while doing website QCs is standup comedy. You can’t actually listen to comedic sketches or other forms of tv/web comedy while doing something visual–you may think it’s about the dialogue but try listening to an episode of *Friends* with your eyes closed–doesn’t work (that’s assuming *Friends* worked for you in the first place). But standup comedians do I’d say 85% of their work with their voices–the remaining 15% in facial expressions and gestures one does miss, but I figure that’s ok. I am working, after all.

So, I listened to most of the online oeuvres of Louis CK (devastatingly insightful and interesting, with the occasional weird little Jew joke now and again just to make me feel I can’t really like him), Dylan Moran (my heartthrob from *Black Books* but far less funny when he’s not pretending to be that character. Luckily, he is usually in character for standup) and a fair bit of George Carlin (the real deal, for sure). And then I ran out of ideas, because there is no real way to be exposed to standup comedy casually–not like hearing songs on the radio or whatever. So I actually googled “standup comedy” (what?) and I got Tig Notaro.

This was about a year ago, and the first thing I listened to was a drawn-out gag involving pushing a stool across a stage. It was not my jam and I skipped on to something or other else (honestly, I think I just didn’t have to QC any sites for a while). But somehow Ms. Notaro got back on my radar and I listened to this devastating set live from the Moth called R2 Where Are You?

The series at the Moth is called Stories and Notaro is billed as a storyteller and so she is–all the really good comedians are. But she pushes it to the next level, telling brutally honest stories from her own (very) personal life, with just this fantastic little edge of humour–like the lemon in your martini. This is not the “Didja ever notice” humour-about-nothing topical style that Seinfeld popularized (full disclosure: I quite dislike Seinfeld’s kind of comedy though I respect his talent). This is humour-very-much-about-something. About life and death, a lot of the time, actually.

Normally I’ll exhaust the YouTube catalogues for a performer and then give up, but for Notaro I bought an album, Live. I’d heard a number of interviews by that point about the live set at Largo that constitutes the half hour album, and it seemed that many people found it nothing short of revelatory. I’d listened to a lot of other sets that covered some of the same material and liked them very much, but wasn’t sure I would find this album so very full of revelations. But hell, it was only 5 bucks.

I put it on my iPod and took a snowy walk to a friend’s place last week and listened all the way, grinning, eyes wet with genuine tears, plodding through the slush. This is amazing, thrilling, surprising comedy. Some of it misfires–it was the first time she’d done the set EVER and that alone makes for fresh and interesting listening as she fumbles some of the jokes into the shapes they would eventually hold onto. But it’s just so brave and honest and funny… Blogging has kind of ruined the word “brave” but it’s much harder to be brave when you’re staring into a sea of faces waiting for you to entertain them.

This album made me question some of my stupid insecurities and wonder what I could do to live my life more fully. Most comedy can’t do that. I haven’t really gone into the content of the album because I like surprises and maybe you do too–if I could go back and do it all again, I would’ve listened to “Live” first, before I knew what it was about. So maybe you should do that–it’s only $5, it’s only half an hour–listen. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

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