May 5th, 2014

Hanging with the youth

During my vacation, I offered to participate in a couple of old-leading-young type events. I had the free time, plus lots of people helped me when I was a whippersnapper, so I like to pay it forward. Plus, more selfishly, I’ve crossed the age wire where young people will talk to me socially without a reason, and I miss them. Sometimes they talk to me in social situations, but only if I am friends with their parents and their parents have taught/ordered/prodded them to be polite. That opportunity with teens or older is rare, as most of my friends have little kids–7 and under–and those ones still like me for no real reason. If I want to talk to teens or early-twentysomethings, I need to find something I have that they want, and wave it like a carrot.

Why do I want to do this? Because I’m a writer, and an inherently nosy person. I want to know what everyone is doing, wearing, thinking about, and listening to on their iPods. It irritates me that there are demographics I don’t have access to right now, and so while I’m waiting for my friends’ kids to get older, I go further afield.

Hence the two events last week. The first one was a career-day type event for graduate students/those considering grad school at UofT, run by the Backpack to Briefcase folks. Unlike previous panels of this nature that I’ve been on, no one on this panel was spouting nonsense like, “Follow your dreams” and “Be the best you you can be” so I didn’t feel I had to run interference to give elementary practical advice like “get practical skills and put them on your resume.” In fact, everyone on this panel was REALLY sharp and accomplished–I was actually the least so, and the youth weren’t too interested in talking to me. That was a little boring, but fine since they were receiving really excellent advice from my colleagues.

Impressions: students were tidy, well-dressed in mainly nondescript ways, polite and respectful. They were all obviously accomplished students and sometimes had to dumb down descriptions of their academic work so that we could understand. Almost everyone asked clear and interesting questions, though some of them seemed a little under-researched–there are lots of easy templates you can find to make a resume, so asking at a panel discussion seemed odd. But I think a lot of the folks at the presentation were not yet graduating, so it makes sense that they weren’t really ready for the job market. They were all quite sharp and poised, but I did wish they had a *little* less distain for non-academic jobs. My real advice, which no one asked for, is that they should take part-time or summer work outside of the university while they worked on their degrees, so they could see for themselves what maybe their profs aren’t telling them–every job has its good and bad bits, and none are completely fulfilling. There are many ways to put together a good life. Seeing one ideal option (professorship) and a host of lesser ones is a good way to be sad a lot of the time. Again, no one asked for that sort of advice, so I didn’t say it straight up, but I tried strongly to hint at it.

The second event was probably a lot more up my alley: the Toronto Council of Teachers of English run a short-story contest for high-schoolers every year, and if you make the long list your prize is a lunch and afternoon workshop with a local writer. I was thrilled to be one of said writers, and tried hard to be worthy of my “prize” status. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the 10 students I got to work with–actually, all the other writers said the same, so apparently there was pretty uniform awesomeness at this event.

There was little hyper-fashion in my group of 14-18 year-olds–just lots of jeans and long flowing hair for the girls, jeans and plain shirts for the boys. The girl sitting next to me had picked a pattern of holes in her black tights that looked like a solar system–gorgeous–but otherwise it was mainly the teen standard of trying not to try.

But outside of fashion, these kids were SO keen. I have a speech I make to young workshoppers about being generous in giving as much and as detailed feedback as possible, and doing the work of specifically digging into the details rather than generically chirping, “So good!” which doesn’t help anyone. These kids did NOT need these speech–right through 10 stories they kept up lending each insight, support, and genuinely constructive criticism.

The standard of the stories was also very high–obviously I had my favourites, but everything brought to the table was worth reading. If you are curious, I suggest having a browse through the many awesome stories posted on the website for the contest. You’ll be impressed!

So in short, the kids are more than all right–they are smart, self-possessed, generous and funny. I would have loved a few more hours to pick their brains about tv, movies, their studies, and their parents, but I couldn’t make that not seem creepy. There was actually a “networking event” after the Backpack to Briefcase panel, but I didn’t quite feel comfortable accosting strange young people and asking them career questions, even if it was ostensibly for their own benefit. I left quickly, with complete confidence that they’d be fine without me.

April 28th, 2014

*Once* stories on stage at the In the Soil festival

Ferris wheel at In the Soil festival

Ferris wheel at In the Soil festival

This past weekend, I went to see the theatrical version of four stories from *Once* presented by Twitches and Itches theatre company in St. Catharines, as part of In the Soil festival there. I actually tried to take a picture of the (sold out!) crowd before the lights went down, but my attempt to be unobtrusive meant that the photo is illegible. So above is a ferris wheel that was part of the festival, but had nothing to do with the play. At least it’s on the same general wavelength as the play was–cool and unexpected.

I’ve known that director Colin Anthes was working on this production for a while, and I was quite interested/excited, but I haven’t asked a tonne of questions and tried very hard not to volunteer any opinions. I figured I’d had my say in the stories, and if this group wanted to take on the task of bringing them to the stage (which I imagine was pretty hard), they deserved the right to do it any way they could think of. I learned from the very magical experience seeing the film version of How to Keep Your Day Job come to life that the best way to be amazed by your own work is to let someone else completely recreate it. It’s so stunning to see what they find.

And the *Once* play on Saturday was truly stunning. It was actually 4 little playlets: “Chilly Girl,” “Fruit Factory,” “Cal Is Helpful” and “The Words,” enacted one after another. From talking to Colin and reading this essay by one of the actors, I know that the plays came together collaboratively, with the whole cast involved, and it showed in the vigour and joy of their performances.

The cast was Eduardo DiMartino, Collin Glavac, Hayley Malouin and Caitlin Popek, the stage manager Nathan Heuchan, and the adaptor Colin Anthes. Their versions of these four stories were all incredibly faithful to the texts, while still very different from them. It was amazing how much room they found to vary pace, tone, focus, with almost no real rewriting (I think I caught maximum three small instances when the actual prose was different, each time in logical ways to make up for cut scenes or other practical matters). The humour in a number of the pieces was highlighted, the pace quickened, and some of it was simply different than I imagined. Which is good–no writer should ever get too caught up in her own imagination being the right imagination. I was also really surprised by how much music this group found in the stories–they used music in a lot of surprising ways in the plays, but actually a lot of it came from within the stories. It really surprised me, in the best possible way.

It’s possible that *Once* the play will get remounted at some point in the future, and I sincerely hope it does because more people would enjoy seeing it, I’m sure. Until then, I certainly did!

April 19th, 2014

Back(ish): *Once* play, poem repost, famous friends

Wow, I’ve never had a blog lull like this one before–and I hope to be somewhat back in the saddle as of now. The break was brought on by the insane busyness that I’m starting to think is just a part of adult life. Sometimes it’s a bit less, sometimes a bit more, but grownups who are lucky enough to have friends and family and a way of earning a living are just going to always be busy. We were in the “a bit more” side of things for all of 2014 so far, due to work stuff and (cough) trying to finish my book, but I’m heading into two weeks of vacation starting…sometime this week, and while the book is still a foot, it’s very close to done for this round. So I’m trying to do a bit more from the other categories of life, like blogging.

The other reason you haven’t heard much from me here is that I was taking my own advice not to take blogging as duty, since no one really cares that much and blog posts written out of drudgery are as unfun to read as they are to write. I haven’t had much that felt like it needed reporting, other than rants about people who are rude on the subway and in grocery stores, so I haven’t posted.

During my silence, a few interesting things have crept in, so please allow me to summarize:

–my poem Dead Boyfriend Disco got posted in a “from the archives” dealie on the echolocation blog. The poem appeared in their print journal way back in 2006, and still stands as my only published poem, as it is likely to remain. This one lone poem though seems to get mentioned and reprinted every now and again, so perhaps it is all I really need.

–the *Once* play is coming to fruition–April 25 and 26 down in Saint Catharines, you’ll be able to see it as part of the Soil festival. Here’s the Facebook invitation if you’re interested, though I know it’s far for many….*Once* presented by Twitches and Itches. I have no idea what to expect–the playwright and company worked up the play from the stories, but i don’t know more than that. I’m terribly excited, and will be there on the Saturday night to see it in all it’s glory.

–my beloved friend Fred was on Jeopardy on Thursday and won!! I had been looking forward to this for months, but it was still thrilling to actually see her face on my friends’ giant screen tv. That link above is to the full show, and though I’ve spoiled the ending for you, it’s worth watching for the fun trivia but also to see the tiny moment between when she wins and when she *realizes she won*. The Jeopardy party guests at I was with were SCREAMING, it was so amazing (too bad about the formerly sleeping baby upstairs). And then she went back last night and she won again (there’s a video out there that I can’t seem to post, but it exists). This time I was at my parents house for the holiday/to do my taxes, and again with the screaming. Quoth my brother: “Fred is really improving my life. It’s so much fun to watch something on tv I actually care about.” He was totally right. She’s back again on Monday and I can’t wait–if you have the opportunity to watch, I strongly encourage it!!

–I went to a few truly outstanding book launches in the past few weeks, and for some I’ve already read the books–that’s how exciting the launches were. I’ll try to give a report on some of these in the weeks to come, but I’m out of practice in the blogging department. So for now, wonderful things you might want to read include: Career Limiting Moves by Zachariah Wells, Mothering in the Age of Neoliberalism edited by Melinda Vandenbeld Giles (a little out of my subject area, that one, but that’s what I get for being friends with an anthropologist), Yaw by Dani Couture, and The M Word edited by Kerry Clare. That last one is what I am immersed in currently and it is SO good it’s addictive.

So that’s what I’ve been up to–not too shabby, eh?

February 26th, 2014

A few more things…

Man, I’ve got to get snappier subject lines… Anyway!

I have, as I mention above, been up to a few more things. CBC Books surveyed the Canada Writers readers on our favourite short stories–I would advise reading pretty much everything on this list.

And my story “Ms. Universe” is now posted on Byliner. If you’d like to read it there, and/or other stuff on Byliner, follow the link and than scroll down to the end of the page to get a 14-day trial of the site for free. Enjoy!

February 18th, 2014

Last Fall

Last fall I read about 550 short stories in two months for the CBC Canada Writes contest. I was a big crazy slalom, but I enjoyed myself and learned a lot. If you’re not familiar with Canada Writes contest, it’s pretty prestigious and pretty challenging–I read that many stories and I was one of TWELVE readers. In addition to the very stiff competition, the word count on the contest makes it all but impossible for me to even enter–1500 words MAX. I’m not really that kind of writer lately–I felt like I’d all but forgotten how to write an effective story in that tight a space and I was hoping that helping out with the contest would help me relearn that skill. It did, to some degree, but all really good short stories are truly just their own thing and while there’s a glimmer of “oh, I see how you did that” mainly the spell remains unbroken.

Anyway, the long list was announced on Monday–from that list of 36 it’s up to the judges to determine the shortlist. I do not envy them the task. There was plenty of dross in my pile of stories, of course, but when I passed on my selections for the long list they were all pretty damn amazing–any number could have won in my book.

If you want to read my thoughts on the three stories I chose that made it to the long list, you can do so in the little interview CBC did with me, Amber Dawn and Michael Hingston, two of the other readers. More of those interviews will follow in the next few weeks.

So now you know why I was always stressed and carrying a big pile of papers last fall….

February 13th, 2014

The Upcoming Holidays

I do not have anything new to say on the concept of Valentine’s Day–I looked it up and apparently my beliefs are exactly the same as on Vday 2011. And no one at any point has every cared for my Family Day is fascist position. So why don’t I just wish you a great long weekend of demonstrating affection for whomever you want however you want. I plan to take many naps and potentially see an aerialist.

February 10th, 2014

Cheap Writing Hacks: Characters

I’ve been reading tonnes and tonnes lately, which I guess I always do, but I’ve also been tired and busy and grouchy, and thus less patient with the lousy stuff. There’s a list of cheap writing hacks that I’ve noticed over the years–things we might do in fiction with plot or characters not because it makes sense or is interesting, but because it makes the writer’s life easier. Of course, I’m a giant snob, but to my mind they are cheating–even when I do it myself, I’m conscious of cheating–I’ll edit or rewrite or junk the story if I can’t fix it. Either I write what the fictional universe of the story demands or I don’t get to write the story–or at least, that’s the ideal I’m striving for.

In my current snarky mood, I have been mentally listing the fictional dodges I see most often–here’s a few about characters. Let’s be honest: character is what I care most about and I may well have a few unconscious hacks in other areas that aren’t priorities for me in my writing. But I’ll try to cover them later. If I’m not too tired. If you think of more hacks, about character writing or anything else, please comment to add to the list:

Prenaturally intelligent/wise-beyond-their-years children are written by people unable to write believable kid dialogue. So they about write short, slightly odd adults who like video games.

Loners are wildly popular in short stories and novels. There are any number of reasons why this is, but I suspect that a certain percentage of it is because it’s extremely hard to create the impression of a complex, interconnected social world without giving it undue space if that’s not what the story is actually about. The worst is in YA novels, because for kids their varying levels of friends and acquaintances are the whole world, but inevitably YA novels give protagonists one friend apiece, and rarely even mention other acquaintances by name.

Only children/people isolated from their families/people whose families are dead: see previous point.

Freelancers and other people with flexible schedules: see previous point but also this is a research failing. For some full-time writers, it’s very hard to imagine what a structured scheduled lifestyle with enforced contact with strangers and/or people they don’t like. So they give the characters a “freelance” gig that they spend almost no time on, and that never interferes with anything or causes them to have to do anything they wouldn’t have done anyway.

Villains are people who have no motivation other than to oppose the protagonist of a book or story, and seem to have little back story or indeed personality beyond their evilness. These people are distinct from fully imagined assholes, which everyone is welcome to write about all the time because they are so interesting.

Horrible marriages for apparently no reason: Fiction is often populated by spousal villains–jerkfaces that exist to thwart the main characters but are also somehow married to them. They have no positive characteristics and no one seems remember why they hooked up in the first place but now here we are…

***

Sorry for the snarkfest–I have had a headache for nearly a week now. Hopefully I will feel better soon and write something nice about something…

February 4th, 2014

Sometimes I do things

I wouldn’t want you guys to think I’d given up the literary lifestyle just because I rarely blog about it (or anything) these days. I do still take an interest in books, writing, and words–for the record…

February 15, 6-8:30, at The Old Nick at 123 Danforth (at Broadview), my friend Ron Schafrick will be launching his new book The Interpreters. He’ll be reading and signing, but I’ll be one of the opening acts (along with Mark Sampson. Come check it out!

My short story, Marriage, which was published in The New Quarterly last fall, was chosen for inclusion in Best Canadian Stories 2013, which will be out next fall. Very delighted!

The playwright/director/theatre guy Colin B Anthes has adapted some of the stories from Once in a live theatre performance that is going to be staged April 26 and 27 in St. Catharines. As I may have already mentioned in this space, I am SO excited about this and will definitely be there on the premiere weekend. If you live in the region or would be able to get there on those dates, please try to come. I will have more info as the situation develops, but just wanted to mention it due to the aforementioned excitement!

And I’m doing lots of other, non-literary stuff, like preparing to cast-off (at last!!) my blue knitting square; spending a lot of time failing to train my cat to do any tricks but for some reason he still really adores the process and *purrs* (very rare for him) while we’re training; visiting a bunch of babies. Oh, and one more literary thing, reading the best book ever (thanks for the recommendation, Kerry Clare!

January 18th, 2014

2014 Resolving

It’s been over a month–sorry, guys. I missed the holiday season completely on this blog–I hope you had an excellent one. Here at the Rose-coloured Ranch, the ice-storm left our power intact but stranded a householder in Moncton for a few days, so things were a bit scrambly. 2014 has actually been going fine for me, but my job has gone bananas, as it does a couple unpredictably timed months a year. It’s a good job and people have been kind to me there, so I try to role with the punches and put in the hours, but I really think I’m simply not cut out to work overtime. A few 10-hour-days, which is nothing to people in many other positions, and I am absolutely bonkers with nervous energy and fret. It’s not very nice to find out I have so little fortitude, but at least I’m certain I don’t now. I just want the month of January to be over, and with it this project.

I had been thinking about not doing resolutions this year–I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by simply getting through the days of late–but a few things conspired to inspire, so I figure, why not? I’m not going to get too bent out of shape if I don’t do these things, but…why not try?

1) Mini-M&Ms charity. I’ve always told people new to Toronto that you’ll make your life easier if you make a blanket decision about panhandlers. Maybe you give whatever’s in your pocket to whomever asks, maybe you never give on the street but donate to a charity that helps the homeless, maybe you stop and chat, maybe you pretend not to see. Whatever you are going to do, reason it out and stand by it–it’s the dithering that makes you crazy and sad. My usual policy is to give to charities like the United Way and local food banks, not to individuals, but to meet everyone’s gaze and apologize that I won’t give to them. This policy was born of being disorganized and not wanting to fumble in my bag and take out my huge wallet in front of strangers that may or may not be benign. Usually people who hit me up on the street for cash nod or shrug at my murmured apology; some even say something nice in return. Lately I’ve noticed a new phenomenon where I get some snark–one girl said archly, “Wow, that sounded really sincere.” I have no idea why she bothered–it’s a weird kind of pay-it-forward, because I’m not going to running back to shower cash on someone who said something mean to me, but it does make me think a bit harder about my own sincerity, and what I’m going to do the next time I’m asked.

Years ago, when my brother was living in Toronto and I wasn’t, he told me he used mini-M&Ms containers–small plastic tubes–to carry quarters in. They are just the right width for them, and you are able to fish them out without rummaging through all your belongings. You also know at a shake whether you actually have something to give or not, so you don’t waste everyone’s time. Of course, mini M&Ms disappeared from Canada years ago, a sad loss for many reasons. But beloved friend AMT brought me some from America recently and, delicious as they were, I couldn’t help but fixate on the container. It showed up at such fortuitous time, right when I was rethinking my street charity policy. As I type, it’s beside me, half full of quarters.

I don’t kid myself that 50 cents or a dollar from me is going to make a great difference to anyone at all. It’s the stopping and engaging that might matter, if not to the recipient, than at least to me. I’m worried that after nearly 12 years in Toronto, I’ve stopped seeing people on the street, despite my “sincere” little apologies. I’d like to start seeing again, and seeing where that leads me. Giving a little bit might help me do that–and I’m sure a few quarters wouldn’t hurt those who ask.

2) Learn to play guitar. I will count success as being able to play a recognizable tune on-key. I have had two lessons so far and have learnt two octaves of the B-flat major scale–progress. I enjoy the practicing well enough and am starting to develop some calluses. I’m also find that, as was true in my many years of piano lessons, and also with opening pickle jars, juggling, and holding hands with large-fingered men, my tiny little mouse hands are a handicap. One I plan to overcome, but the fourth fret poses some challenges for me.

3) Possibly file the papers I’ve had stacked on the floor of my office for over a year. Maybe.

4) Clicker train my elder cat, Evan, to give him something to focus his energies on so he isn’t such a pain all the time.

5) Knit a thing that has an actual purpose. I have been working on a pointless blue rectangle for more than two years.

In the number 6 slot, I could say something about my manuscript-in-progress here, but I sort of feel like at this point in the process that’s a bit like resolving to get a boyfriend. I’m going to do my best and not worry (as much as possible) about the rest. Actually, maybe that will be true on all fronts this year. That lack of worry in itself is a worthy resolution, I think.

7) Cook lots of new recipes, even ones not from the milk calendar.

8) Blog more frequently than once a month!

December 11th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews *The Pickup Artist* by Terry Bisson

Yep, I’m still working my way through my “to be read” list for 2012. The Pickup Artist by Terry Bisson is number 14 of a very confused and long-suffering 15.

Near as I can figure from his baffling website and much clearer Wikipedia page, Bisson is a well-respected American sci-fi writer with many serious, vaguely political novels to his credit. I researched this only briefly, but it sounds about right because *The Pickup Artist* read like the sort of cool-idea light-hearted adventure that serious author writes as a fun exercise and/or a wink at his fans. I found it a one-note, dull slog, but I’m not a fan (or a person who had heard of this author outside of this book) so I guess that’s why.

What is this book doing in my home, you ask? I have a theory about that. I had surgery in 2007 and it put me out of commission for a good while. Knowing this was coming, a few kind folks gave me books to read during recuperation. Some close friends gave me lovely things, but some people, just sort of generally wanting to be kind, seemed to give me books at random. I ended up with some really odd stuff, but it didn’t matter because I was both in a lot of pain and on a lot of pain medication (you’d think those two would cancel each other out, but no) and thus unable to pursue anything more intellectually rigorous than episodes of *Friends*, of which I watched many. I’ve been working my way through the books very slowly ever since I went off the codeine.

Which all just to explain what I was doing with a book in my house that contained none of the things I like about books. *The Pickup Artist* is about life on earth an indeterminate number of years in the future. The future is hazily imagined except one thing that is explained at GREAT length throughout the book–at some point, the world could not tolerate the backlog of artistic creation. New artists could not gain attention when there was so much old, excellent art lurking around for people to enjoy: how could you enjoy some new poet if you were constantly distracted by the Modernist canon? It’s the sort of logical-conclusion conversation people have late at night, and it’s interesting enough as a concept.

There’s one or two other interesting ideas–a cloning experiment gone wrong, a listening bug that convinces the target to keep it close with sexual gratification–but this book never gets past the level of the late-night ramble. The protagonist has almost no personality and certainly no backstory–apparently he was just a rule-follower who lived with his mother and dog and NEVER KNEW ANY OTHER PEOPLE. When he teams up Hank, a big-breasted librarian, it seems like things might take off, but even though they set off on a madcap roadtrip through middle America, Hank spends most of the rest of the book in sullen silence and we never learn much about her, other than that she has been pregnant for 8 years (don’t ask). She is the least interesting character in the world but she wears a mood sweatshirt that Bisson references almost every single time he mentions her. Apparently, if we know her mood, we don’t need to know anything else about her as a person.

The personal level of this book is non-existent. It’s all about the extrapolation of that one cool idea about the canon-purge. We get alternating chapters of “historical” (history in terms of the present-tense of the book, but still future from 2013) descriptions of how the laws came to be in place to delete certain works of literature, music, and visual art. Those historical chapters are shorter than the “plot” chapters, but they are crazy dull. There’s a twist at the end involving some of the historical characters and though I remembered who they were all too well, I did not care one ┬áiota.

Blech. There’s a tiny bit about the protagonist wishing he knew his absent father, but this is merely repeated, never expanded or explored. You don’t find out what happens to anyone at the end, which didn’t matter except I kinda wanted the zombie dog to make it. No one develops or learns anything, they just go places very slowly and repetitiously.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Bisson is a great writer–this book reads like it was written in a weekend, maybe at an airport–he’s probably better when he puts more effort in. But I won’t be doing that because I disliked this book enough to steer clear of this author for a good long while.

Off the shelf fail!

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