May 24th, 2016
In the fall of 2000, I started working on a big project called “Homing”, which I occasionally (and for years) retitled “All the Pretty Girls.” I gave up on that still-incomplete novel sometime in 2002, came back in 2004 and chucked a bunch and wrote some more. In 2005 I planned to work on it as my MA thesis andrevised some of the old material for my MA application portfolio and some grant applications, and added some new stuff along the way–including a new title, “The Scenarios.” By the time I needed to properly work on the thesis in fall 2006, though, my focus had shifted to short stories, and that is what the thesis project became–poor old *The Scenarios* went on the back burner.
I revised and edited that thesis to create my first book, *Once*, then went on to write another collection of stories before returning to *The Scenarios* at the beginning of 2011. By this point I had realized short stories worked for me as a structure, and I thought perhaps I could finally write this thing by breaking it up into stories–that would allow me to shift point of view, time period, etc., in a less weird way. And it worked because I was able to finish a draft by early in 2014, having acquired yet another title–*So Much Love*–along the way. I retained a few chapters of what I had written previously, some of which was already shaped as stories and some of which had to be sculpted into that shape. Of course, a lot had to be junked, but some of the old stuff–almost as old as the beginning–remained, albeit re-contextualized and somewhat rewritten.
The book was sold the M&S with the caveat that I would work with an editor to make into a true novel, rather than a novel in stories, as well as substantially increase the page count. Under the guidance of the tireless Anita Chong, I’ve done that–a challenging process. The lesson is, if the inherent form of the thing should be a novel, don’t write it as stories! So now, there’s a number of new chapters and all of the old stories have been reworked (a lot) to becoming chapters…and again, a bunch of stuff got tossed. But there is *still* some of the original material in there going all the way back to 2000 (or close–the memories are a little murky). But less and less–my writing at the time was different, the book was different, my goals for the characters were different, and it’s very hard to make old material fit the new mold.
Thus, this piece below, one of the original bits, is getting cut. If you have read a lot of my work, you might recognize Alan, who shows up in every book I’ve ever written–he’s a favourite, for sure. But he doesn’t really belong in *So Much Love* anymore–he had a major story that was taken out, and now this piece, an intro to his character, doesn’t lead anywhere and is confusing. He’s going to end up with 1 or 2 scenes and the occasional oblique reference and that is all. It’s sad, but it’s what the book needs–which is more important than the sentimental affections I retain for what I wrote 15 years ago.
Anyway, I present to you my darling Alan:
I find Alan, my TA, darting across my driveway as I pull in. The low beams catch the trailing edge of his long coat as he jumps up on the retaining wall by the front door to wait. He’s got his Inspector Gadget trenchcoat cinched tight. He is clutching a package to his chest. As I turn off the ignition, I notice ketchup on my right cuff from the fries I had at lunch. I roll up the cuff, and then the other one to match. I think about putting my face down on the tan, stretched plastic of the horn. Then I get out of the car into the chilly darkness.
Leaning against the hot, clicking hood, I wait for Alan to stroll over to me. If I went to him we’d be too close to the door and I’d have to invite him in. He crosses the driveway briskly; I’m sure he doesn’t want us to end up sipping tapwater in my living room any more than I do. I’m sure Gretta wants that even less.
“Professor Altaris. Hi.”
“Hey, Alan. What brings you by?”
He stops about a foot in front of me. “I brought over the marked essays, sir.” The bundle rests in the crooks of his arms, exposing the pale blue insides of his wrists.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
He shrugs, his narrow shoulders dragging up the hem of his coat a few inches around his shins.
“You could’ve given these to me next week, remember?” Nothing. “Or during the day at my office instead of in a dark driveway like this is a drug deal.” Too much alliteration. I yank the package out of his hands. “What’s the median?”
“It’s all in there, sir. But I think it was about sixty-two or sixty-three.”
“Sixty-two. Alan, we talked about this.”
Another shrug. His face is shaped like a light-bulb and completely expressionless. “The short answer will probably bring it up some.”
I start to argue and then stop. I don’t care. They’ll pass or they’ll fail, and if it’s really important to them, I’m sure the students will be happy to let me know. My shoulders curve inwards.
Alan seems ready to depart—not yet moving but relaxing into his new freedom from marking. I don’t want to interfere with that glee. “We’ll talk about this next week, Alan. In my office. Come up after class, ok?”
May 16th, 2016
Last Friday night I read at the lovely lovely Pages Unbound festival, and on Saturday I attended four panel discussions at The Festival of Literary Diversity. Aside from being a pretty festival-centric weekend, all that immersion gave me a little jolt on why literary community–some kinds more than others–are important.
From a self-involved standpoint, after TWO years of editing my book, not being able to publish stories (because they are under contract) and rarely being invited to read anywhere (nothing personal, but I haven’t been asking and most invitations are tied to book promotion), it was very very nice to get up on stage in a fancy theatre at the AGO, in the company of many impressive peers and after being so generously introduced by the wonderful Suzanne Alyssa Andrew. It was nice to be included, and listened to, and applauded for. It was nice to share my stories in a non-editorial context–my editor shows her regard for my work by suggesting ways to make it better, which I deeply appreciate, but sometimes it’s nice when people show regard by clapping, asking questions, or just saying they liked it. Just accepting what I have to offer and engaging where they can. I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to share my work, but now that it’s a bit rare, it’s especially precious.
Which was an interesting frame of mind to be in the next day when I hit the FOLD, a festival devoted to stories and voices that often get pushed off the stage, denied that very attention, engagement, and applause. You can read Kerry Clare’s run-down of the day on her blog (Kerry kindly invited me to go with her and a couple other smart women, and we attended all the same panels, so you can assume I had similar experiences, though not that I had Kerry’s level of insight!).
I actually meant to write a longer post about what I heard at the FOLD and how it made me feel, but I think I’m still digesting or am just overwhelmed by the amount of good and challenging discussion and debate I saw in one speedy Saturday. In any event, I feel privileged for getting to both speak and listen, and the listening was especially beneficial.
April 20th, 2016
Mark got me a new jewellery box for Christmas and so I cleared out the old one. I trashed the stuff that is legitimately useless (broken necklaces, single earrings) and gave anything I knew I would never wear again to my local 6-year-old (who was thrilled! 6 year olds are the best!) I found a bunch of badly tarnished silver stuff I hadn’t worn in years, went on a quest for silver polish (oddly hard to find–surely silver jewellery hasn’t gone out of fashion) and polished it all up. This process took months, but finally my setup is all worked out and I have access to a lot of pretty things I’d forgotten I owned.
Today I’m wearing a silver necklace that took me forever to polish because it has square links–it’s hard to get around the corners–but that’s also what makes it an interesting-looking piece. When I put it on, I realized I’ve had it for almost thirty years! Like most stories from my childhood, this one is weirder and sweeter than I knew at the time…
I went to a strange country school where there were only a few kids in each grade–usually between 7 and 9 in mine. Me and two girls named Jenny were the central girl population, with other girls coming for a year or two before moving away (why was the population of my little town so transient, I wonder now). With such a small group and my nerdish nature, it was easy to find myself without friends for a time, which is where I was in grade 4. Like I say, it was a tiny country school so no one was particularly mean to me most of the time, and I still got to play in any game that required quorum. Those games were often pretty rough, though–things like British Bulldog and Red Rover–and with my tendency to fall down even when nothing roughhouse-y was going on, I tended to want to stay away, even though I would have liked to play with other kids (note: I had friends and did fun outdoor stuff other years; grade 4 was just a rough one).
So I got really into being a “library helper” in my school library. I had done it for at least a year prior to grade 4–you just put books other kids had returned away during recess. I wish I could say I did it due to my intense love of reading, and I certainly liked all the books, many of which I would read or skim as I put them away, but mainly I was just looking to avoid recess.
That was the year the teacher-librarian, Mrs. Palubski, fell down a flight of stairs (at home; our school didn’t have stairs) and broke her ankle. Now that I think about it, something else must have been wrong with Mrs. P beyond a broken ankle, because she fell in the fall and took of the entire rest of the school year, but I didn’t know at the time that that was odd.
For a while we had a string of temporary subs come into the library for just a day or two at a time. Because any teacher could sub in for a teacher-librarian, often they knew nothing about libraries, so when I came in I would tell them about the Dewey Decimal system, which had become my favourite thing about the library, better even than the books or lack of other kids. It was just so orderly, and order was something I felt was sorely lacking at school, especially at yelling, pushing, red-rovering recess. I can still find things via the Decimal system, even though the libraries I’ve gone to in the past 20 years have almost all been Library of Congress style. 636 is my favourite, domestic animals (ok, I just looked it up–animal husbandry, but close enough!)
I’m sure I was an officious little dweeb, but I think the subs humoured me, partly because they realized this was the main thing going on in my life at school and partly because I actually did a fair amount of work that they, in turn, did not have to do. It was a good system.
I just remembered that maybe Mrs. Palubski was pregnant, which could be why a fall down a flight of stairs was such a problem. Or maybe it was just that by the time her ankle healed, it was time for mat leave. This wasn’t really on my priority list at the time–sorry, Mrs. P. I hope everything worked out ok for you!
Anyway, when it became clear that Mrs. P was not coming back, we got a long-term substitute for the rest of the year: Mrs. MacDonald. Mrs. MacD was young but not very young–perhaps thirty–with shoulder-length blond hair she often wore pulled back in a hair band. She had a vaguely western aesthetic, though thinking back now she might also have been a bit of a hippy. I thought she was gorgeous, but more importantly, she was really interested in the library and thus, really interested in what I had to say.
I’m not sure if she’d never worked in a library before or actually knew all about Dewey and just wanted to give me the floor, but I was thrilled that she let me give her the outline of our tiny library. I still did a lot of the shelving, but Mrs. MacD would shelve too, and we’d chat while we worked. Mainly about books–we both liked them–but also about other stuff, most lost to the mists of time. I know she had a husband, which seemed like a good idea to me, and many silver rings, which I also admired. At the time, I thought of us as two colleagues working together and passing the time of day, but now I know what I gift it is for a child to be treated as an equal to grownups, even in a tiny way. She never prodded me about going outside with my peers, and I don’t recall ever bringing it up. The problem would more or less resolve itself in grade 5, and then I would shift schools for grade 6 and finally make some real friends, so I think we both had it right in leaving well-enough alone at the time.
I was very sad when the year was wrapping up and Mrs. MacD was leaving, seemingly for good. I brought her a gift, as I did all my teachers–probably some jam my mother had made, as June is prime berry time and my mom was (and is) good at jam. And she gave me a silver necklace with small rectangular links. She loved silver jewellery and said she hoped this piece would be the start of my own collection of silver. It wasn’t, as I never buy jewellery and only have what I’ve received as gifts, but I treasured the necklace and wore it often for years, through high school and university.
Probably you’re thinking that a silver necklace is a bit of a strange gift to give a young student, and I guess you’re right. But unlike a classroom teacher, Mrs. MacD didn’t have to worry about playing favourites–she had no class of her own and I was really the main volunteer in the library (other kids would show up once in a while, then go play soccer). And it seemed like the sort of gift an adult would give a good friend, which is really what I wanted to be to Mrs. MacD–a peer she liked to hang out with, not a kid she was responsible for. She made me feel smart and cool and useful, which was a huge lift that tough year.
The necklace is still lovely, but somehow I forgot about it for a few years and let it get terribly tarnished, too much to wear, and then couldn’t be bothered to get silver polish. When I finally did, I was surprised to find how much I still like the necklace, and that it still really suits my aesthetic. I’m wearing it right now.
Mrs. MacD did indeed never return to my school, which is actually weird–the place was so far out of town that anyone willing to drive there to sub tended to get used over and over, as there weren’t that many. Maybe she got pregnant too, or decided she didn’t want to teach, or went to get her masters of library science. Maybe she wasn’t even a good teacher–I don’t know, since I saw her mainly one-on-one. I don’t know her first name or I’d google her–she’ll have to remain a mystery. But she was my cool friend when I needed one, and for that I’ll always be grateful.
April 11th, 2016
Well, I have obtained more than 1000 followers on Twitter (1004 at press time), thereby officially proving that I have no idea how Twitter works. I’ve grown to like Twitter over the years–I see a different set of people there than those I see on Facebook or blogs and those people are interesting. The subset I actually interact with is small, perhaps less than 100 people. Maybe less than 50, I haven’t done analytics on it, but my average post gets between zero and two likes, and almost never any responses–and those I do get come from people I know in reality. I don’t mind–that seems fair considering how few posts I like or respond to myself. I am a low-dosage twitter user, for sure, and I use it to bolster relationships that would be pretty fine without it. I’ve made maybe two new friends the entire 21 years I’ve been online (Hi, Kate! Hi, Emily!)
SO WHO ARE THOSE OTHER 900 PEOPLE? I’m baffled. Well, not entirely–some are bots, and some are fellow literary types who were told by crazy people that following a lot of people on Twitter “builds your brand.” So they joined, followed hundreds of people in the lit world, and then immediately stopped using twitter. There are also savvier twitter users who still believe I’m worth following but then figure out how to devise “lists” so they can prioritize the tweets they actually want to read. I have not figured out how to do that, and don’t care because I don’t follow that many people myself, but I do think twitter lists are probably a good idea. Anyway, I figure a lot of people don’t have me on their lists, begging the question why follow me at all, but it wouldn’t be twitter without mystery. So why do I have 1004 followers? I don’t know, but I’m…appreciative of the interest, I guess, and I do hope those 900 people who never say anything to me are getting something out of the deal.
And as if this weren’t enough internet pointlessness, I’ve joined Instagram!! Yes, I know, why? Mainly because a bunch of my friends stopped posting photos of their pets, vacations, children, food, and weddings on Facebook and I want to seeeeee those things. I said I wasn’t going to post anything and then immediately posted photos of my family (me, husband, cats), a cake I made, and a Jiffy tray full of seeds that haven’t sprouted yet (so, essentially, a jiffy tray full of dirt). RR–spreading her brand of nonsense to new frontiers!!! But you can follow me if you want to see any of the above. Or for some other reason that I will never divine, as has happened with twitter.
April 6th, 2016
That one of my cats will get trapped in the fridge and I won’t realize it
Losing my passport
Someone will say something racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, etc. and I’ll be too paralyzed to respond
Losing my engagement ring
Accidentally going into an alternate universe where I’m still me but my life is different
Never finishing my book
Accidentally talking to someone who doesn’t want to talk to me
Doing my taxes wrong
A Trump presidency
Mark leaving me
Someone bad happening to people I love (vague and enormous worry)
That everyone is secretly talking about me
Not having enough money for retirement
My book is terrible
Someone breaking into our apartment and not only stealing our stuff, but letting the cats out in the process
Falling down stairs
There’s a bug somewhere in here and I won’t know until it’s too late
March 30th, 2016
In the endless drudgery that is novel-completion, I am very fond of anything that is not novel-completion. Especially things that make me feel writerly without requiring me to, you know, actually write anything. That sort of thing is really the icing on the cake of this whole career choice I’m making…
So getting to talk with a classroom of college students last week about reading and writing (along with my husband Mark Sampson and the wonderful professor (and friend) Nathan Dueck was a joy and delight. So was tagging along with Mark to launch his new poetry book, Weathervane alongside Dorothy Moahoney at the fabled Biblioasis store (it’s a lovely as I’d hoped!)
And so is the prospect of getting to take part in “Burst: New Voices in Canadian Literature” on May 6 as part of the Pages Unbound festival. The wonderful and talented Suzanne Alyssa Andrew and I will be sharing the stage with a bunch of other emerging types, and I’m so excited to meet and hear them. And to read a little myself, too!
Sharing what one has written is the frosting of writing, of course–it has to be, for if you are counting on publishing and ensuring accolades to sustain you emotionally or (heaven help you) financially, you might well starve to death. Writing as well as I possibly can needs to be enough for me because it would be easier to do almost anything else and no one wants to listen to me complain about something I could easily elect not to do. But I like this line: “If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer.” (it’s from this essay by Josh Olson–warnings: snark, swears)
So I write because I’m a writer and if it’s hard it’s my problem because I wanted to tell these stories. Them being written, and available for me to read myself is the sustenence here. But I do really enjoy the icing on the cake, giving the work to others and seeing what they think–so grateful the opportunities to do so that come my way.
Possibly, frosting is on my mind of late, because I was in the States last week (after Windsor it seemed natural to go on to Michigan and see some of the rockstars we know there) and a friend asked me to see if I could find any rainbow-chip frosting. Apparently it used to be available all over North American, then only in the States, and most recently no one could find it anywhere. I googled and found that the frosting had in fact been discontinued and is now coming back. I also found this insane video of a guy who who got 7000 people to sign a petition to bring back the frosting (!!!!) and then, when invited to a party celebrating his success, seemed absolutely terrified.
Anyway, I bought the frosting and my friend was delighted. I bought a tub for myself too and am really looking forward to trying it–can 7000 people be wrong? I can’t find a way to tie this back into the post or the central metaphor, but basically: you take your fun where you can get it.
March 1st, 2016
I was moving a link from my “Now and Next” widget at right (it was from September, so very non-now) to the publications page when I realized I had meant to clean up that page, as I did with the biography page a few months ago. It’s an annoying task for the same reason it’s a necessary one–some sites have gone to the big 404 in the sky and many (many!) have reorganized their naming conventions so everything has new URLs. I also discovered that the link to the first story (which was broken, even) had somehow copied itself into every other story link, so if you clicked on the wrong spot you’d just be going to this one 404 page over and over.
Anyway, all of that’s fixed now–I’ve tracked down the links that exist and deleted those that no longer do–but for the fiction section only! I’m just not strong enough for non-fiction today–coming soon. Of course, the fact that no one pointed out all this weirdness suggests that the publications page is not getting used a great deal, so perhaps no one cares! So be it–the links are fixed, should anyone wish to use them.
February 27th, 2016
There’s definitely people in the literary community who would crucify me for saying this, but I sometimes describe writing as a lucrative hobby rather than a job. I do this not because I think writers should not be paid for their work–I absolutely do–but just for personal morale purposes. If you line up writing income beside other jobs, like bank teller or physiotherapist, and compare incomes, you’re going to feel really really bad about writing. Whereas if you make the comparison instead to other hobbies, you feel like you’re coming out ahead. Knitters I know spend hundreds of dollars on wool, needles, and patterns and what do they end up with–some sweaters. Skiers are constantly buying clothes and equipment and paying for travel, and they don’t even get a product. Whereas all I need is the laptop I would own anyway, an internet connection, and a few pens–and I’m well on my way to writing the stories I love, and maybe, sometimes, as few bucks. It’s a cheering way of thinking about it–I assume the skiers, knitters, and I all have fun, but my fun is the cheapest, and the only one that’ll put the fun-haver occasionally in the black.
That said, there are a lot of products and services targeted at writers for a hefty cost. Many of these are fun, some of them are helpful, none–beyond a decent dictionary and the aforementioned computer–are really necessary. There’s always a way round, and I would encourage anyone who is worried not to feel pressured into paying money for something just to feel more “writerly.” If you want something because you think it would bring you joy or convenience or be helpful in your work and you can afford it, great–go for it–but assume that buying writer stuff is the same as any other capitalist transaction: once the money is spent, it’s gone. The worry I have is when folks tell me they’re going to spend x on a thing for writers that is guaranteed to pay for itself when they sell their movie option or whatever. Don’t do that–those things might not be scams, but there’s no such thing as a guaranteed return on investment in this crazy game called literature.
That said, I am finally finally nearly finished with my novel, and there are few things I’m going to buy my writer self as a reward. These things are fun for me and also, I hope, a bit helpful for the book–but if it turns out that they aren’t that helpful, ok, I’ll get some joy out of them and write off the money. I’ll put my hoped-for treats at the bottom of this list, after all the other ones I’m aware of.
Writing classes: So fun and valuable to me–I’ve taken half a dozen as an adult and learned a tonne. I’ve also met some wonderful other writers who are my workshop-friends now. I no longer take classes, but we still work together and offer each other feedback on our work, so what I got out of those initial, expensive classes was the ability to create free classes of my own. It was also a real blessing to just get out in the world with my stories and have people start to read them in a very supportive environment. While I no longer do these, writing classes were a really valuable first step when I needed them.
Books: This one is so obvious I almost didn’t put it on the list. Buy as many books as you can afford. When you run out of money, head for the library or borrow from a friend, but it’s really great to own the books you love best, so you can consult them or just reread for pleasure whenever you need a hit of high-quality literature. Buying books is also a good way to meet authors you admire, because everyone likes to be asked to sign their books (people who say they don’t are LYING).
Fancy notebooks and pens: I never buy these because I get them as gifts so often, but they are nice to have. I’m much less of a longhand writer than I once was, but I do like to have books to take notes in at meetings and workshops, and good fast-running pens. True confession: sometimes I use my nice stationary at my job instead, but it still makes me happy.
Manuscript evaluations and other editorial services: In general, I would recommend the first option on this list over this one–teach a man to fish and so forth. But some people learn better one-on-one, and some have issues with a particular manuscript rather than the craft of writing as a whole, and in those cases it does make sense to seek out a professional consultation and see if the editor can help you. My only advice would be to get a recommendation on this–there’s tonnes of people doing this kind of work in a variety of ways, so you want to find someone you can trust–and then consult on exactly what you need and can afford. Real, thoughtful substantive editing on a full manuscript is a huge job, something that often takes writers by surprise (though I don’t know why, considering how hard it is to write the damn thing in the first place) and can rightly be very expensive. A manuscript evaluation–an editor reads through your book and sends a few pages of notes on what’s working and what isn’t, but mainly leaves the how-to-fix up to you–can be a lot cheaper and still really insightful. If you want to go this route but are stumped at finding someone, hit me up–definitely don’t do this via google.
Writers’ retreats: Oh, my goodness, I want to do one of these. These are basically fun little summer camps for writers–you get food and a place to stay in (usually) a very pretty or interesting setting. There are other writers around to talk to in the evenings, and really nothing else to do but write during the day. How perfect does that sound? However, these are typically very expensive, and I don’t have a good justification for taking one. If I want to spend a week writing, I just take the week off from my job, sacrificing that income, and go write in my home office. To pay to write in a nicer place, while desirable, would be hard for me financially on top of the lost income from not being at work, and I really don’t have a hectic enough home life to justify it. BUT I WANT TO. If you do this, let me know how it goes–and send pictures! EDIT: Lovely Julia pointed out to me that there are fully funded residencies in the states, and even some that make up your income while you’re there. Obviously, I’m not too conversant in this stuff, but definitely I should be looking into it!)
Professional website design: I did this one–you’re looking at it! I love Rose-coloured and I spend a lot of time on it, so it sense for me to have a pretty, personal design that suits me and my work and accommodates the things I want to share in the ways I want to share them. I’ll go back to the designer (www.createmethis.com) for site refresh for the new book, and this is one of the aforementioned treats that I’m really looking forward to. It’ll be fun to have the site look different after half a dozen years of pink and the subway map. That said, I don’t think anyone needs to do this–you more or less do need a site of some kind, so that people can easily find you bio, events, and publications all in one spot, but you can totally do that with Blogspot or WordPress.com or any of the others free or cheap self-design sites. It can make you feel lovely and professional to have a lovely professional site, but it is totally a treat (can’t wait!)
Headshots: This is the other thing I’m going to do soonish in support of the new book/because I want to. I was pretty much told I had to get professional head shots for my first book, and though that turned out not to be true, I loved doing it. Professional photographers are so cool and interesting, and so different from writers, and it’s fun to spend a few hours trying to look like a real writer. Not to mention stage-managing the shoot so that the mood suits the book, maybe buying new clothes or whatever. Totally vanity, but if you’ve spent a few years in your sweatpants writing a goddamn novel, you are entitled to a little vanity. Or so I believe. Anyway, if you don’t want to go this route, it is fine, but you should still put a little thought into it. Basically, don’t take a cellphone selfie and call it a day. Try to find a friend who has a nice camera and takes photography at least a little seriously (easy way to tell: ask your publisher to send you the specs of what they need in a photo, then ask the friend if they understand those specs–if yes, they’ve got the gig) and ask them to take the pic in exchange for dinner or something like that. Spend some time thinking about how you want to look and where you want to be in the photo, and ask the friend to take a whole bunch of shots so you have options. Then go to a nice restaurant.
There are so many more treats you could buy your writing self: business cards, specialize software, fancy writing hat (ok, that last one is not a thing, I don’t think). There’s also stuff I know nothing about, like the services of a professional publicist to promote your book. Sounds legit to me, but I know no one who has done it, so I can’t offer any advice. And there’s probably lots more that I’m not even thinking of.
So basically, write your book, do your drudgery, put in the long exhausting hours, and then buy yourself a treat or two. You’ve earned it.
February 18th, 2016
Social media keeps offering me this article about how small talk is bad and getting into serious, important, emotional conversations is where are our interactions should start, not end. Which I think, with all due respect, is garbage. In the best light, this sort of thinking comes from a place of desiring genuine connections with fellow humans, which of course is a great thing to want. But it also speaks of not wanting to put in any effort–the effort to learn where a person puts their emotional energy, where they are guarded or vulnerable, where they would be comfortable speaking deeply and where they’d prefer to stay on the surface. This idea that we can demand an instant connections, brave emotional honesty and all that entails, from our fellow humans, is a big red flag for me.
When I was dating, some of the fellows I went out with occasionally opened a first date with the baffling line, “Gawd, I hate dating.” After I had heard this a few times and stopped being paralyzed by it, I started making a gesture to leave the room, sometimes muttering, “Well, you asked me out.” Similarly, when someone says to me that they hate small talk, my inclination is to respond, “Ok, sure, so would you like to start with the existence of God, or how you lost your virginity?”
I don’t have a lot of patience with these sorts of comments. I resent the idea that it’s too much work to get to know me, that finding out what I’m like and whether we have things in common would be something this person would skip if he or she possibly could. It’s like saying “It’s too far to get to Spain–I wish it could be just 20 minutes away.” But then it wouldn’t be Spain.
Small-talk can be awkward or embarrassing, or very boring, but it can also be as fascinating and full of personality as any late-night revelation. And it’s very very hard to make new friends without it. Hell, with the person I know best in the world–my husband–a majority of our conversation could be considered small-talk. Since I already know most of his life story, secrets, dreams, goals, and ideals, we tend to talk about whatever has happened since the last time I saw him, often only a few hours before. How is that book you are reading, what did you have for lunch, who was at the party, and what did you dream about last night are some of our classics, and I rarely find the answers less than interesting, at least a little.
So for those whose small-talk contempt is born of fear and not a genuine dislike of talking to other people, here are some good ways to get into it…
How has your day been so far? This one works in any context. The most obvious is someone you see often, like a family member or colleague, but it can be fun to ask someone you just met at a party, or an old friend you haven’t seen in years, or the barista making your coffee. It allows for an answer that is as specific or general as the speaker likes, and unlike some other queries, could never be interpreted as prying. You get to present whatever info from the day you think is relevant, from your health, kids, and work, to a book you read or a fluffy cloud you saw. Using it in the long form, as opposed to, “How are you?” kind of hits home the idea that you genuinely want to know, and cuts down on the “Fine and you?” responses, though you’ll still get those from time to time.
Whereabouts do you live? What’s it like there? This is a great generic question, everyone’s asked it and been asked a million times at work, at events, at parties, but the thing is, there’s a lot of really cool stuff to be said here. Everyone lives where they live for a reason, and I’m curious to know what those reasons are. Are you near all your childhood friends’ houses? Are there lots of old-growth trees in the yards? What’s the neighbourhood like? What are the good restaurants around there? Where do you get your bike repaired? This one can go on for ages without getting boring.
How do you know the hosts? Obviously, this one works only at parties, but it’s a great icebreaker, because you learn something relevant about the person you’re talking to–where s/he works or lives or went to school, whatever the common element is. Sometimes you also get to learn something new about whoever invited you to this party, like you didn’t know she was on a tennis team or that her work had certain elements to it. You get to know BOTH people better, and hopefully the conversation spins on from there.
Working on any cool projects these days? I ask this one most often at my actual job, where the names of projects will have tonnes of meaning for me, and I’ll be able to ask pertinent questions. But I also ask my colleagues in the creative world this one–it’s less scary than “What are you writing?” or “Did you finish your book yet?” It also allows people to talk about projects that they care about that might not have the status of “work” or a “job”–renovating their homes, teaching a child to bake, learning French. I genuinely love to hear about people’s work, but I’ve learned asking “What do you do?” can be a threatening question to those who don’t like their jobs, are un(der)-employed, or don’t work in a traditional sense. This version of the question allows the speaker to talk about what genuinely matters to him or her.
Have you read any good books lately? This is a question I’m always interested in the answer to–I may even write it down for later purchase if someone speaks passionately enough. I have found I need to judge this question pretty carefully, because some people who don’t read a lot of books find it a bit intimidating–“good movies” or “good tv shows” can work just as well. In these days of highly niche content, it’s unlikely that two people will like all, or even mostly the same stuff, but it’s always inspiring to hear about new things, and hopefully find some commonalities in there somewhere.
How did things work out with X? This is a fantastic question, because it shows not only are you interested in talking to this person, you remember what s/he said last time you spoke. That’s huge–it can be so baffling if I update people on elements of my life and then when I see them again, I need to start from scratch. This is a good question to ask because you automatically know this is a topic the person is comfortable and interested in discussing, be s/he has before. And you get to find out another chapter in a story you have been following, which is always cool.
An unusual but not prying question: At my age, everybody’s asking “Do you have any kids?” which is a fine and interesting question, but it comes up a lot. I am a huge pet person, and I found when I started asking “Do you have any pets?” I got REALLY good answers. It’s just not most people are expecting at a party or a business meeting, and yet at the same time, not really personal or intrusive. People who do have pets love to talk about them, but the thing I’ve found was that people who don’t have pets still put some thought into giving an interesting answer. They talk about pets they want to get someday, animals they know in other contexts, and their childhood pets (the VP of my department told me a great story about the cat she loved as a child!)
There’s a billion more interesting questions you can ask people that will both set them at ease and draw them out–and then you can gradually go deeper and more personal if the person seems receptive. Or not. I know plenty of people with whom I can fill a good couple hours with the above questions and feel as deeply connected as when I’m talking about true love and fear of death.
The commonalities here are all of the above are questions, not demands–“Tell me how you knew you were in love!” or statements–“Here’s the interesting thing about me.” It doesn’t always work, but usually when I show genuine interest in who a person is and what’s going on in his or her life, the conversation goes good places–big or small.
February 10th, 2016
Intro: I am into giving my opinions on stuff—you might have noticed. When I combined that poverty in grad school and working at a very underused info desk at that same time, you wind up with me on a lot of market-research and focus group mailing lists. I would get free products to try and/or take surveys for money about which products I currently use or would use if they existed, and I attended focus groups with clickers and some very upbeat moderators. I have given my opinion on everything from songs on the radio to feminine hygiene to grocery stores to candy. Sometimes they even ask me about politics! I resigned my major focus-group affiliation a few years back. I regret that a little–$100 for talking about gum for 2 hours–but really at this point in my life I need 2 hours more than I need $100. On the other hand, I continue to do and like the surveys. My recompense is free products and the occasional little cheque in the mail–which is fine, I like the perks and the surveys are a good quick break from more strenuous work.
This is all just background to my new project, which is via Influenster. I don’t even remember where I heard about it or why I wanted to sign up, because I don’t understand the site at all. I remember being interested because oooh, surveys, but after I’d answered hundreds of questions I thought it might never end, and no one seemed to be sending me any prizes, so I gave up. It wanted me to log in via various social media, so I linked it to my Facebook account, but the site kept importuning me to let it post on my behalf, which I kept having to deny (obvs.) I tried to link Twitter, but it was IMPOSSIBLE without agreeing that Influenster could tweet on my behalf. I honestly think no one reads my tweets, but still–that seemed a bit much.
So I gave up on Influenster, but I guess I filled out enough surveys that they felt they understood my interests, because they asked me to fill out another survey to get a Vox Box. I didn’t know what that was but after I got a few more emails all saying the same thing, I went to the site and figured out that a Vox Box is a box full of products to review and voice (vox is Latin for voice) your opinion on via social media, blogs, surveys, etc.
Now we’re talking. So I did the survey and yesterday a big glossy specially designed box came in the mail filled with three full size Loreal Hair Expertise products, plus a brochure proclaiming their benefits. I was very pleased with all of it, though I gave the box to my cats to play in.
Anyway, they are big bottles and the testing period, according to the website last 48 days, though the website strongly implied that I might like to start tweeting about the experience immediately. I did post an “ooh, free shampoo” hashtag post, and then checked out the others using the same tag. Apparently I’m 15-20 years older than most of the other Influensters. I also hadn’t understood that there was so much push for me to post photos of the shampoo bottle and me with the shampoo bottle–who wants to see that? Well, some of the Influensters are very attractive with fab hair , even before the new product, so I guess that is why. I will not be doing that.
Anyway, here’s the day one report. I’ll check in over the 48 days whenever anything interesting happens, hairwise.
My products are the Arginine Resist line: shampoo, conditioner, and spray. It’s for hair that is weak and fragile and falls out easily, which is certainly true of mine, which is all over my apartment and which my roommate (the last one before I started living alone) once found in the fridge. It’s supposed to make your hair stronger by both strengthening the hair shaft and increasing circulation at the root. I didn’t fully understand–it’s interesting how beauty treatments get more and more medicinal sounding the older you get. I wonder how old I’ll have to be before they are palliative, just keeping my hair comfortable until the inevitable end.
Anyway, I normally wash my hair every other day because it’s healthier for the hair according to some, but I hate that, and feel like the swamp thing by the end of the second day, so I’m taking this opportunity to go back to every day washes for a while. I figure if the shampoo/conditioner itself is supposed to be making my hair healthier, I should use it as often as possible. Both looked like generic hair products, white creamy guck with a mild sweet scent, totally unproblematic. My hair felt really great afterwards, but that is often the case for me with new products, any new products. My hair enjoys novelty, apparently, but it wears off in a few days.
The spray, which isn’t hairspray in the usual styling sense, was harder to figure out. I didn’t know if I was supposed to put it on before or after combing, or styling, or what. The instructions on the back are pretty odd and minimal. I put it on first, and it combed through nicely. I debated other styling products, but decided against, to give the Arginine its full chance to shine. After a few minutes there was no smell, and my hair seemed a bit less frizzy than usual. All day long it felt extra soft, though after a few hours it didn’t really look different than on a normal day.
So that was the first day! I suspect this post was really boring, but as I wrote it on a break from various much harder things throughout the day, I thought it was delightful–sorry! I’ll strive to make the other ones at least shorter.