September 16th, 2014
I’ve been wanting to write something on literary envy for a while now–by which I mean being envious of others’ literary achievements or accolades (not characters in literature being envious, as I just realized this could be interpreted). And then this morning in Jessica Westhead’s Twitter feed (which, like most things JW does, is interesting and you should check out) I saw on article on that very topic. It’s Nathan Rabin’s Salon piece on being envious of John Green. It is an excruciatingly honest piece on feeling bad about how Rabin and Green were casual friends, then grew apart and Green got crazy successful. Rabin, who was pretty successful in his own right and also apparently not even in touch with Green, felt miserable in the face of Green’s gargantuan achievements. And fair enough–if you’re going to make that comparison you’re probably going to feel bad about yourself.
Myself, I’m hardly immune to literary envy (of the first kind), but it would never occur to me to be upset by someone like Green–I mean, let’s dwell in reality for a second and realize I’m never going to be a cult rock-star author whom young girls weep about the possibility of seeing in the flesh. Really, I’m ok with that–I can’t even see him from here, just read and enjoy the books. If I met him, I think I would just be pleasantly fannish and hope he remembered my name.
It’s the people are a couple rungs up from me that sometimes unsettle me a bit–I can see them from here, so very clearly. And everything a writer does–maybe everything anybody does professionally–is about getting a little better, working a little harder, accomplishing a little more than you’ve done already? So why can’t I get to that next rung?
A good answer, both for Nathan Rabin and for me, comes from Dear Sugar, the pseudonym of the (very successful) writer Cheryl Strayed. Sugar wrote a column on this very subject, and it was really inspiring to me. I’m actually not a very envious person most of the time, and so while I have definitely had days of staring at Facebook and feeling sorry for myself, most of the time I can get past it and feel good about deserving people reaping excellent rewards.
Sugar’s advice is powerful and helpful for those of us with even a touch of the green-eyed monster, though–I promise to slow down on those Facebook spirals after rereading this…
“You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself to not feel jealous. I shut down the why not me? voice and replace it with one that says don’t be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually do stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person. When you feel like crap because someone has gotten something you want you force yourself to remember how very much you have been given. You remember that there is plenty for all of us. You remember that someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own. You remember that a wonderful thing has happened to one of your literary peers and maybe, if you keep working and if you get lucky, something wonderful may also someday happen to you.
“And if you can’t muster that, you just stop. You truly do. You do not let yourself think about it. There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you.”
It’s just such simple basic advice that will, at the very least, allow the struggling writer to have more friends–and we could all use those.
Another thing that just occurred to me is that I am posting this on Giller day. I’ve actually seen nothing but supportive loveliness online today, but if there’s anyone out there secretly feeling less than lovely, please read Sugar’s column (and maybe don’t read Rabin’s–while honest and heartfelt, it won’t exactly make you feel better).
August 30th, 2014
It is with a great deal of shame that I post this, the tally of the worst wasted-food week in Rose-coloured Ranch history. I hereby pledge to do better.
–1 pint raspberries (liquefied in fridge for some reason)
–half of a litre jar of applesauce (grew blue mould)
–most of a 1-pound package of organic spinach (also liquefied in fridge; starting to have doubts about the fridge)
–3/4 full jar of Classico pasta sauce (fell out of the fridge and smashed; also many wasted paper towels, possibly destroyed slippers)
–1 raw chicken breast (fell behind some other stuff in the fridge while defrosting and was not found until paste the “questionable” date)
Things can only get better from here, right?
August 25th, 2014
I haven’t donevery many readings lately, but I’m doing a couple this fall if you’re feeling you’d like to see me read. Actually, both of these are the result of me tagging along on stuff far cooller than I…like…
September 24, Biblioasis 10th Birthday Biblioasis, amazing home of amazing literature (and publisher my first two books) is turning 10, and invited 10 authors to help them celebrate at the International Festival of Authors. I’m so honoured to be one, but much more excited to hear the others read–this is a great list. If you’re in Toronto, please join us (and if you’re not, worry not, there are other birthday activities in other cities coming up!)
November 16, Plasticine Poetry Reading series Yes, they’re going to let me read at a poetry series–amazing! But even better, the star of the evening will be my husband who will be reading from his new book, which is terribly exciting!! Sad Peninsula is onsale September 6 and launching September 30, with lots of readings throughout the fall. I am very pleased to be a part of this one.
August 24th, 2014
I was originally just going to post a review of The Fault in Our Stars by acclaimed young-adult writer John Green on GoodReads, but then I read some of the other discussions on that page on that page and decided to put it here instead. I might still post to GoodReads if I’m feeling brave later, but those teens get, um, intense about this book. They HATE it or they LOVE it, and if they LOVE it then they HATE the other teens who don’t love it, to the point of flame wars and (apparently) death threats. I’m not sure I can wade into those waters.
Nevertheless, I get it–this is a book that inspires an intense reaction. Even in me, 20 years older than the protagonists and, in Green’s own words in the Q&A at the end, not an audience he cares much about. For the first two-thirds, I was genuinely astounded at how much the book was living up to the insane hype that surrounds it. Not flawless, but riveting, and not in a way that made me feel cheap when I looked up from the book. The last third got a little slow and predictable, rounding up with a frantic chase for a document that, once found, contained no new information (this is the part I thought the teens would attack me for).
But oh my goodness, how delightful is that first chunk. Hazel Grace Lancaster is 16 and has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She has been sick since she was thirteen, and probably always will be. Her cancer is terminal, but she is on a kind of miracle drug that is staving off the inevitable for…well, no one is sure how long. Hazel is on oxygen, has thought she was about to die more than once, and has never been to high-school. This gives Green license to do something he loves to do–create a teenage voice that doesn’t sound much like most teens. In his novels (those that I’ve read), he likes to take his protagonists out of normal life (child stardom, elite boarding school) in order to escape the constraints of voice and experience that would otherwise govern a teen character. I have seen a lot of not-hardly-realism in his other books, though I did find them charming, but Hazel Grace is his greatest success so far. She has that giant vocabulary that pretentious teens since time began have indulged in (including me), is an obsessive reader and an equally obsessive tv watcher, and has some additional quirks that I recognized from the home-schooled kids I used to know–an “everything is mine to question” confidence that is thrilling or tedious, depending on the listener (many of the GoodReads haters especially disliked such riffs, like why have hurdle races when one could run so much faster without them, and what qualities of scrambled eggs make then a breakfast food? I, for one, was pretty charmed.) And she has the black humour, patience, fortitude, misery, and fatalism of the dying.
Anyhoo…she goes to a cancer support group and she meets a guy who is recovering from a type of cancer that cost him half a leg. He is dreamy and funny and wry and kind–YOU KNOW, of course, because everyone has seen the movie based on this book or at least the coming attractions. A romance ensues, a lovely doomed romance (star-crossed), blah blah blah.
But it’s really good. I say that as someone who has read a bunch of YA novels in the past two years, and knows that YA books always feature instant connections, talks long into the night, etc.–things that are always mentioned, never enacted. These kids ACTUALLY talk about stuff–the dialogue is part of the book, not summarized as “an amazing conversation.” And every YA novelist knows that kids are always playing video games, reading books, watching tv, and looking at Facebook. And texting. But I have never seen these things actually realistically depicted–it’s always again, some bizarre summary that indicates very strongly that the author rounded up a bunch of kids and asked them what Facebook and Playstation are. Green has the first ever video-game scene that was both believable and fun to read–no small task. His characters make realistic use of Facebook and text when it is appropriate to do so–at other times, they call and email and even write letters. The shows they watch make sense for their age. In short, he gets the cultural context way right.
So the romance is believable because the conversations are believeable–they exchange favourite books and then talk about then, the boy invites the girl over to watch him play video games with his friend, they watch DVDs in his parents’ living room. Oh, and they comfort their friend whose cancer has made him blind. Just enough familiarity, just enough alien, to be compelling.
I don’t want to get into an analysis of the romance and subsequent sadness too much–you’ve heard it. Suffice to say, if you want to read a very sad love story about teenagers, this one is exceptionally well done. And if you don’t, well, I would understand. It’s the little things that got me–the above mentioned cultural stuff, and the fact that the mom is pretty much the most devastating character in the book. When Green mentioned, as quoted above, that I doesn’t really care about adults, I chuckled that that’s why he doesn’t bother to write them very well. But this mom–she doesn’t actually get a name, as I recall–has a rare emotional affect for an adult in a YA novel, a nuanced pain that read as real. For the first time I believed in adult Green had written. The dad, the boy’s parents, other adults they encounter along the way are so many stick figures, but Hazel’s mom made me cry. Really. And I’m not a crier at books, at all.
I’ve been trying to keep this short so I could have space to allude to the format–I got FiOR as an audiobook (this version) and it was brilliant. Probably the reason I was affected to the point of tears is Kate Rudd‘s pitch-perfect narration. Because it’s a first person narrative and Rudd sounds credibly like a teenage girl, the book comes across as an audio diary, which makes it all the more intimate and devastating. Rudd does teariness, out-of-breathness (Hazel spends the entire book on oxygen), and several accents perfectly. And the best parts of her performance is when she is being Hazel being her boyfriend, doing a teen-girl’s lower voice to imitate a boy. So funny and accurate!
Yes, the ending does get predictable, but even then there was a few surprises. There’s also a devastating scene involving Anne Frank (no, really) that is ruined at the last moment by a bit of over-the-top-ness, and assorted other little gaffs and foolishness. But overall this is an extremely strong novel, a 9/10 in its class–and to me there are no perfect books, so that’s really saying something. But I don’t know if the teens would believe me.
August 13th, 2014
I am coming to the end of my credibility as knower of things about living single, which is sad but not that sad–it means I have been married for two years Monday, which is awesome, and people have come to picture me more with my husband than without him, which is neither here nor there but simply a fact of life. It is a little annoying when I attempt to suggest single people can be or do a certain thing and get dismissed because “You don’t have to deal with it; you have Mark.”
Of course, and lucky me, but I wasn’t *born* with Mark (that would be weird). I lived alone for ten years and for much of that was truly single–not on-again-off-again, not between boyfriends, but actually not in a romantic relationship at all. I had my good days and bad, of course, but I also learned a lot about how to make the best of the life I had.
I think I have some good advice left to give on the subject, but people are taking me less and less seriously as my married state becomes more the way they know me. And I admit, I have been guilty of saying some horrible smug-married-isms like, “It comes when you aren’t looking for it.” Ugh. No wonder no one wants to listen to me.
So here, the week after my second wedding anniversary, is my final reckoning with the most useful information I learned while living single. I will shut up on the topic from now on unless specifically asked. Promise. I wonder how long I have to be married to start giving advice on that?
Of course you can do things alone. Like public speaking, playing with big dogs, and flying on planes, the only impediment is nervousness, which lessens with practice. The idea that if you feel weird or awkward going out alone, you should stop is crazy–what if people did that on first dates? It takes time to chill out about any new experience. I started with movies, because honestly if you’re counting on a companion to entertain you at the movies you’re doing it wrong. I moved on to fast-food and food-court type restaurants, for practicality’s sake–I didn’t want to be limited in how long I could be out of the house alone by my fragile blood-sugar, and I’m not crazy about powerbars. I eventually got to mid-price sit-down restaurants like Swiss Chalet and Pickle Barrel, partly because I like them more than most of my friends do, but also because I went through a phase in grad school where I was so busy I couldn’t socialize on the weekends, but I didn’t want to sit home alone. The answer was to haul the laptop to Swiss Chalet and work there. At least I was among humans.
In all of the above scenarios, no one cared or even seemed to notice that I was alone. I found this to be a little less true in really fancy restaurants, which yes, I’ve done on my own a time or two. Those were mainly because I was travelling and someone said I had to try such-and-such a restaurant, and no one was with me to go. Those weren’t bad experiences, but a little awkward–plus I almost never go to fancy restaurants anyway, so when I do I prefer to share the experience.
The other big deal is parties. Parties are actually a bit harder because you can’t read a magazine and it can be awkward if you don’t have anyone to talk to for long periods. But it’s also great way to meet new people (something a single person may well want to do) without feeling that you’re tethered to an escort and have to make sure he/she has fun too. I started by arriving alone at parties where i knew a very good friend would be–as soon as I could find that person, I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I also did stuff like organize my time around going to the bathroom, getting a drink, getting food, etc., so that if I could keep shifting position to a) see new people and b) not look pathetic. I also learned that, within reason, it is ok to initiate conversations or insinuate myself into existing ones, even with strangers. That was big news to me! I always try to be really low pressure, so if anyone turns out to hate talking to me they can get away pretty quickly. But it’s almost always worth a try. I was gradually able to move up to parties where I knew fewer people, or was less close to them. It turns out you, or at least I, can’t really go to parties alone where I know no one. It’s too weird and sad, and I had too little incentive to stay (truth: I left an “industry party” after 20 minutes once, after having gotten all dolled up and travelled 45 minutes to get there.)
The bottom line is that you have to push your limits to get a firm sense of where your comfort zone is. Honestly, mine is my couch, and I’m sure so is most people’s, but life is more interesting when I leave it at least occasionally. It turns out I have a wider, semi-comfort-zone of things I can do and enjoy without feeling too weird. One fascinating thing my friend John once pointed out, “Being self-conscious is still being self-absorbed” or–no one cares what you’re doing except you, most of the time. When I do stuff on my own (and I still do), I felt like people were glancing at me weirdly or wondering what my story was, but almost certainly they weren’t, because who cares what some random chick who happens to be in the same restaurant as you is doing.
That’s it–that’s the single greatest thing I learned while single. It still helps to remember these lessons when no one’s around who wants to do what I want to do, I’m travelling alone, or I’ve simply had it with everyone I know. Which are circumstances that will no doubt occur for the rest of my life, married or not. It helps to be able to deal with them.
July 22nd, 2014
I have been working on this book a long time–I believe the original idea sparked somewhere in the year 2000 . I know I workshopped some very early ideas with my Concordia friends’ writing group that winter, and have been workshopping and rewriting on and off from this book ever since (about every 3 years, I’d try again). One of the many (many!) joyful things about the book deal is that now I know for sure I will have a place to put my ever-expanding list of acknowledgements. But the weird thing is, so many people have helped me with this book so long ago that they don’t even remember helping me, or in at least one case, who I am (that was an awkward conversation, let me tell you). I think I’ll try not to freak people out with the acknowledgements page–so no one who has potentially forgotten my existence–but I’m still really looking forward to writing it. Gratitude–love it!
After I posted the happy news on Facebook and Twitter yesterday, a few people asked why it would be SO LONG until the book is published–which is the sweetest thing in the world to ask. But the reasons are good ones! First, that’s how publishing rolls these days. To sell books effectively, it’s very hard to just publish things all of the sudden. Substantive edits, copyedits, page design and layout, cover design, composition, proofreading, printing and binding all take time, of course, and when you add in marketing and publicity, even more. It’s better to be later than sooner in order to get it all right. There’s books that come out faster, but mine definitely won’t be one of them…which brings me to reason number two…
SML needs a lot of work. I wrote the best book I could, and a lot of people helped me, and I am very very proud of it. But I knew it needed more, and I knew it was only by working with a really insightful editor that I’d be able to produce it. I am so grateful to Anita for wanting to do this heavy lifting with me, and I definitely want all the time I can get to make the edits and additions to the manuscript work in the best way possible. If it gives you a sense of my perspective, spring 2016 seems crazily SOON to me.
So yeah–that’s the scoop. Book in a couple years, in the meantime lots of work. In case you can’t tell, I’m THRILLED, really just bouncing down the street excited. More on this situation as it develops…
July 15th, 2014
I have done very few things for an entire decade–other than be friends with a short (though ever-growing) list of excellent humans, practically nothing as an adult. This is not because of a restless, nomadic disposition (if you know me, you know that’s pretty laughable) but simply because I took a while to find my groove. I think I have found it at last, and I really hope that a lot of what I’m doing now (career, cats, marriage) will last me a lifetime.
But before any of that, there was this little writing group. In the spring of 2004, Andrew Pyper’s short story class wrapped up and four of us decided to try meeting on our own and see what happened. We never specifically decided to be a foursome, and indeed some other members have been invited a time or two, and might yet again, but we’ve always mainly just been us.
Writing groups, as you likely know, are hard–they require the time commitment of not only showing up but reading beforehand, thoughtfully and articulately, and writing down your thoughts in some fashion. Anyone who has ever been in a workshop class, where that sort of attendance and participation is enforced, knows how heartbreaking it is to see someone flipping frantically through your story two minutes before class starts–clearly, they haven’t put much thought into it or made the workshop a high priority. So through the evolution of our group, to have those guys put the time in on every story, year after year, is an incredible gift, one I try to reciprocate at every meeting.
It’s not like we’ve not been doing anything else. Ten years as brought us, as a collective, two masters degrees, three children, and a husband, along with a couple home purchases, job changes, and pet acquisitions. Oh, and a move to the west coast–for two years we met as a threesome, with emails and holiday visits to break it up–until our wandering member completed her degree and returned to us. It was if she’d never left. We have, to put it mildly, kept the faith.
These folks have of course, over the years, become friends–we couldn’t do this kind of work together for so long (and do it over dinner parties, no less) if we weren’t compatible sorts of people. I am interested in their lives and adventures, and they have supported me in mine. But it is kind of nice that we started *first* as colleagues, as fellow-writers. There’s lots of time to talk to other writers in the “writing community”–lots of weird networking/socializing hybrid time. I have no problem with this–this community has given me lots of gentle, lightweight friendships, people I’d rush across a crowded party for, though perhaps not call from jail.
But the people you trust with the stories are a different kind of people–that kind of respect for their judgement and sensibility does not come lightly to me, nor I think to them. I’m really truly grateful to have my little group–we never came up with a name–because it’s made me a better reader and a better writer. The opportunity to see such a long arc of creative growth in these folks has been immeasurably instructive, not to mention fun. We are all so much BETTER as writers than we were ten years ago.
I have a number of awesome reading and writing friends outside the group–true literary colleagues, not the party kind–but this collective its own special thing, and it deserves a sincere happy birthday.
July 6th, 2014
Remember when I used to check in on my new year’s resolution progress every year on my birthday and call it the mid-year review? Yeah, I’m not as organized as I used to be (it turned out that bitchy friend who said, “I wonder if you would get so much done if you had a boyfriend?” was right–I don’t. There’s a few other reasons too, though.) But it is still approximately the midyear and I’ve been thinking about it so, hey, why not. Also, let’s face it–I probably would be less likely to try this if I didn’t think I was progressing decently. Those years I didn’t do check ins–there was nothing happy to report. Anyway, let’s take a look.
Here’s the old post with the original resolutions. And here’s my thoughts on how I’ve done in the first six months:
1. Mini M&Ms charity. This has been going fairly well in the sense that I have actually been giving to people. Sometimes I forget, since for so many years it was against policy, and then I have to go scrambling back on the sidewalk with my little M&Ms case. I doubt it makes me look too sane, but oh well. I have also been noticing to whom I’m more apt to give: anyone with a pet, of course, but also younger kids with kooky signs. I’m trying to go against that instinct a little, because I think everyone has it–younger, saner-looking people are less intimidating than older possibly mentally ill or intoxicated men, especially since that’s the category who is likely to smell a bit funky. I guess most of want to give to those whom we relate to, but my thinking is that the ones furthest out of the mainstream probably need help the most. Hence, I’m trying to give more to them. They don’t say thank you very often, but I’m also trying not to mind that–not supposed to be the point!
2. Learn to play the guitar. Meh, I just finished practicing so I am not at peak self-esteem re: musical ability, but it’s going ok. I can pluck out a number of recognizable tunes, and I think my ear might be getting better. Chords continue to challenge me and my tiny mouse hands, but I preservere. Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” might be in my grasp yet.
3. Possibly file the papers I’ve had stacked on the floor of my office for over a year. Maybe. This one is basically a fail–the pile is still there, and messier than ever after being attacked by a cat. But I did file a few of the papers, and I am tending to fail new papers directly, instead of adding to the pile. Of course, my definition of “file” is a little difficult–I basically mean “put in filing cabinet, anywhere.” This is problematic, I know.
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. Surprisingly, this one worked. I have trained Evan to do a high-five and assorted other small tricks. We have also mastered “sit” and are working on “stay” now, his first useful trick. He is currently at 17 seconds for stay, which wouldn’t be very much for a dog but is HUGE for a cat. I’m very proud of him. Who would’ve thought this would be my most successful resolution.
5. Knit a thing that has an actual purpose. I did actually secure a scarf pattern and wool for a said scarf, but then the friend who runs my knitting club had a baby. So no more knitting club, and I do not see the point of knitting alone in a room. I cannot knit in an open area of my home because cats, so knitting is kind of over for me for a while. I’m not too upset about it, really.
6. Something about my manuscript-in-progress. I did what I set out to do–I wrote the book I wanted to write to the best of my ability. Which is not to say it is the book it needs to be yet, but I am very optimistic about the next step. Please watch this space for more on this situation as it develops.
7. Cook lots of new recipes. Going well! I will be travelling to Utah later in the summer, and so the lovely Julia Zarankin gave me a Utah cookbook, which has lead to some culinary adventures and deliciousness!
8. Blog more frequently than once a month. Basically successful on this one–3-4 times a month on average, with some dips and overages.
While we’re on the subject, I should probably add to the list:
9. Floss daily. A resolution in previous years that I was successful with. But then I got cocky, so it’s back on the list.
10. Plan to socialize a reasonable amount every week. Not every night, because that is exhausting and also I am allegedly writing a book, but also not no nights, because I am me and shrivel up without social fun.
Well, I feel like I’m set for the next six months. What are you planning for the rest of 2014?
July 2nd, 2014
So my very exciting short memoir is now on newsstands and online in the July of Toronto Life. It’s called “Face Value” and is about the very intense jaw surgery I had in 2007. When the editor asked me if I had anything I would like to write about in a memoir piece, I was pretty positive that that event is the only thing in my personal history that would work. It consistently fascinates people I meet at parties and, really, me too–it’s maybe not the weirdest thing that ever happened to me, but certainly the weirdest that can properly be contained in narrative form.
Also, as of today my short story “At the Bar” is available as an ebook single with Found Press. Bryan Jay Ibeas did the cover and Amy Jones provided the blurb! Even if you don’t want to actually read the piece, you should at least go take look.
And that’s what’s up with me right now!
June 13th, 2014
I haven’t had a new story out since last fall, which to me is a little bit unnerving–the “Now and Next” sidebar item (look right) starts to seem a bit sad. So it is with a joyful heart that I share that my story “At the Bar” will come out with Found Press in July and “The Framer” with Little Fiction in the Fall.
Both of these stories hard the odd distinction of not being parts of collections. I mean, the characters recur elsewhere and if you follow my work extremely closely you may recognize them, but I don’t think they’re going to appear in a book any time soon. And since I have been very book-focussed the last few years, that’s a little strange and cool to me.
Both of the websites where these guys will appear are just awesome–please check them out. One of the many cool things they do is give each story they publish its own individual cover that they create for it. Which I just think is utterly delightful!