February 3rd, 2016

Name games

I have very strong feelings about names, but they are hard to quickly and easily define to people. It’s not that I don’t have rules, it’s just that those rules are not often comprehensible to others. Also, what does it matter? It matters that I am writing a novel with a lot of names in it, so how much sense the names make could potentially drive a reader nuts.

You get a name at birth and that is always your name–unless you change your name, but that strikes me as incredibly mind-boggling. I mean do it if that’s your jam, I don’t think it’s wrong or bad to change your name, I just don’t understand how anyone copes with, for a certain number of years being one name, and then later another.

This bafflement on my part is in turn baffling to others who know me well, because for the first 27 years of my life I went by “Becky” and then switched over to “Rebecca” after that. To me it makes sense because my name was actually always Rebecca, Becky just being a nickname for Rebecca. It was just that no one called me that–parents, other family, high-school, university friends, teachers, everyone called me Becky but I knew myself to be Becky or Rebecca interchangably and I did not find it a major switch to start introducing myself formally as Rebecca. I felt I was old enough to carry the three syllables, and I wanted less dissonance between my written and spoken worlds (I have almost always written under Rebecca). Many people could. not. deal with this change, and that also makes sense to me–see below–so I stopped asking family and friends who had known me prior to age 27 to call me Rebecca. So now all those folks know me as Becky, and everyone I’ve met since–grad-school friends, work friends, people in the writing community, and notably my husband and everyone he’s introduced me to–call me Rebecca. This makes perfect sense to me, no confusion at all, the way you wouldn’t be confused if someone pointed at a piece of furniture you call the couch and said, “Want to sit on the sofa?” Rebecca and Becky are synonyms, synonyms for me.

I am extremely respectful about given names and nicknames, and I am always careful to call someone exactly what they introduce themselves as. I would never presume the privilege of using a nickname, even though I love nicknames, unless I were invited to do so. This also causes some confusion, as the various Jennifers I work with are all occasionally referred to as Jen. I never did that, because I wasn’t invited to–I wouldn’t be happy if someone went rogue and called me, say, Bek–and they all thought it was weird. The Jennifers actually got together and asked me to start using Jen, which is also weird but I feel more comfortable doing so now. Basically, I guess I think, one’s name is one’s own–nicknames are at the owner’s discretion.

Although if you ask me to call you by a nickname, or ask me to GIVE you a nickname, I will be very happy to oblige. Something that makes me happy is that way back in the 90s, my friend Karen complained that she didn’t like any of the nicknames available to Karens, and I thought for a while and suggested “(W)ren”–the second half of her name, and also she is small and birdlike. She still uses it! I got the same complaint from an old workmate named Taylor and suggested Lori, which she liked but I don’t know if she still uses.

So, I’m down with nicknames. HOWEVER, it blows my mind when someone changes their name to a completely other thing that has no relationship to the original name. How I see these two categories of change as so different I have no idea, but there you have it! Seriously, when people change their names at marriage (the reason most of those I know who have changed it did so) it takes me YEARS to get it straight. There are people who have been married over a decade that I refer to occasionally by their maiden names (is sexist terminology? I feel like yes.) I mean no disrespect, I’m onboard with the idea of the name-change, it’s just that I can’t process it properly.

One of the great things about being a writer of fiction is that I have access to and control over tonnes of names–which is good, because my husband would never let me have enough cats to use all the names I like. I don’t have a science to how I name characters, though if you read a bunch of my work you can notice certain preference areas. I once got a baby name book with the idea that I would read through it and find new kinds of names for my characters but that did not pan out at all. Usually I just think about a character until a good name pops into my head and that’s that. I almost never change a character’s name once I’ve decided on it, which is why in my last book there’s a not-so-great fellow with the same name as my husband. Sorry, Mark-the-husband, Mark-the-character showed up first and I just couldn’t unname him.

And while I’m listing my naming oddities, I should mention that I can’t use generic terms of endearment–my husband and I call each other by the names on our birth certificates. I can’t explain this anymore than I can the rest of it–maybe it has something to do with how if anyone can be “baby” or “sweetie” than perhaps no one is? And this rule does not extend to the cats, to whom I regularly refer as “sugar plums.”

I also do weird things with nicknames in fiction–many’s the editor who has come back to me with a “correction” that a character is flipflopping between or among names. In truth, it’s that someone could be referred to by different nicknames by different people, but that’s a pretty hollow truth if no one understands and just thinks the story is sloppy. So I wind up changing it–in my forthcoming book, Julianna is almost exclusively called that, and I took out most of the use of Juli and Jules. This is sad to me, but it is important not to baffle the reader with my personal quirks.

Similarly, my editor pointed out that two characters have very similar names and readers might get confused–could one change? My instinct was “absolutely not.” It’s one thing to use a nickname or not and it’s another to give someone a name he never had before!!! Despite the fact that it’s an easy change to a minor character, I am a fragile point with the manuscript and I honestly didn’t think I could look at it with the wrong name in there.

I was being, as you’ve no doubt been thinking, an asshole, so instead of stating the above, I said I was going to leave the old (right!) name in place until the last minute before I hand off the manuscript–then I’ll do a global search-and-replace with a new, yet-to-be-determined name, and send off the ms without looking at it again. Which is clearly a batshit thing to do, but shouldn’t inconvenience anyone but possibly me, which is fine.

Next time you think an artistic type person is being eccentric just for the sake of it, please rest assure, I’m annoyed by me as anyone else. But I’ve had this quirk all my life and at the end of an exhausting edit is just not the time to rehabilitate it. So on we go–

Rebecca (Becky)

January 26th, 2016

Thursday reading (NEW TIME), other nice things

I know, being a writer is supposed to be about writing, and mainly it is–there really isn’t another way, because you just can’t count on the outside world to provide you with ways to feel all writerly without actually doing anything. I know I can count on myself to show up at my desk, and that’s about all I know.

BUT sometimes the random outside world comes through, and then I get to read the fantastic stories Best Canadian Stories, mentioned in the previous post and think, as I read one great piece after another, “Hey, me too, I’m in here too.” And that’s delightful.

Also, this week I finished an incredibly slow read of one my stories in French. A literary translation student chose my story for a project and was kind enough to send it to me when she finished. I’ve been aware of a few other such projects–one student in Mexico was translating a story into Spanish–but for whatever reason they weren’t comfortable sharing the final products. Which is totally fine, but what a gift to see the translation, and in a language I can actually read (very slowly)! I have been so privileged to see my work interpreted by other creative folks in so many interesting ways–a play, a short film, a feature film project that in the end did not work out but was really cool to discuss with the producers. A translation is another way of seeing a creative stranger dance with some of my ideas, and it was a lovely experience.

And finally, I’ll be doing that little reading Thursday night. The time has been MOVED UP–PLEASE TAKE NOTE if you’re coming–it’s doors 6pm, readings 6:30 on Thursday, at the Supermarket at 268 Augusta Street. I’m looking forward to reading to anyone who cares to attend, because that’s fun and maybe they’ll even say something encouraging or challenging to me afterwards, but I know that in the end, all this fun flurry will come to an end and I will have to go back to my desk and right some more. Which is–and has to be–fine too.

January 18th, 2016

Best Canadian Stories 15

Oberon Press sent me a couple copies of the lovely Best Canadian Stories 15, which includes, among other wonderful things, my story “Marriage.” Actually, Oberon sent it a couple weeks ago, but CanPar bafflingly just held on to it, never gave me any delivery notices, and eventually returned the package to whence it came. Grr, CanPar, but yay the kind folks (hi, Nick!) at Oberon who sent it out a second time.

If you get a chance to pick up a copy, you totally should–there’s stories by Alice Petersen, Kathy Page, Adrian Kelly, Kevin Hardcastle and tonnes more awesome people that aren’t so web present. I can’t wait to read it all!!

To temp you, here is a photo of the book, being nuzzled by me for some reason (I took a few versions of this photo–this was the best one, sadly).

Hello, gorgeous!

Hello, gorgeous!

January 15th, 2016

A complete list of everything that went wrong for me on Thursday

  1. Did not discover hot water wasn’t working until after gym workout.
  2. Had to take awkward sponge bath; cats watched, looking horrified.
  3. Developed migraine.
  4. Dispiriting work meeting.
  5. Found all colleagues dispirited by work meeting, all in different ways. Upside: we can’t all be doomed. Downside: no one available for cheering-up role.
  6. Migraine worsened.
  7. Myriad other small work problems.
  8. Decided to go home early to cope with migraine; when boarding bus, driver closed door on me. Like, I wasn’t trying to squeak in in a hurry; I was standing in line and he saw me, but his hand just jumped or something and the door whacked me in the face. He nodded wryly but did not actually apologize.
  9. Upon arrival home found that not only had hot water not been reactivated but heat now not working either. But it’s all scheduled to be back by 7:30, per mysterious voice over PA system.
  10. Yes, my building as a PA system. It is like living in a high school.
  11. Spend part of evening sitting on kitchen chair in front of stove, despite migraine and wanting to lie down, because bedroom is too cold.
  12. Eventually feel better and make dinner, but are unable to wash dinner dishes because hot water did not return as scheduled.
  13. By about 8pm, sitting on couch under duvet trying to edit novel.
  14. Voice returns to PA but is garbled, and we can’t understand what it is saying.
  15. My hope the PA is that it is saying the heat/hotwater is back, but as I go to check, power blacks out.
  16. Mark runs down then up 10 flights of stairs to investigate electricity issue. Mark has a chest cold and this was not, in retrospect, a good idea.
  17. RR finds a trickle of warm water and does dishes by flashlight.
  18. Heat is still not on, apartment is freezing, it is too dark to do anything but go to bed and hope Friday will be better than Thursday. So we go to bed at 9pm.

January 7th, 2016

A reading!

I know, right–I haven’t done a reading since November 2014–over a year!–and it was starting to seem like I might never do one again. But friend and correspondent Jeff Bursey is coming to town to read from his new novel Mirrors on Which Dust Has Fallen and he kindly invited me, Mark Sampson, and S. D. Chrostowska to join in the fun. We’re all reading together at Supermarket on January 28, doors 7pm, readings 7:15 (I think there’s a band after, is why). Here’s the BlogTO notice for it and here’s the Facebook invite in case you want to respond or see our bios or whatever. If you are free that night, I hope you consider coming out!

Honestly, this event is mainly to celebrate Mirrors but I can’t help but be a little excited to read for an audience again. And the good thing about my long hiatus is that I have a wealth of new material to choose from…whatever shall I read…

January 5th, 2016

The best condiments

10. Maple syrup

9. Chili sauce (the sort of the thing rural people make from their garden tomatoes and peppers and bottle; not actual chili)

8. Chutney

7. Balsamic vinegar

6. Pickled ginger

5. Applesauce

4. Raspberry jam

3. Marmalade

2. Salsa

  1. BBQ sauce

December 27th, 2015

For 2016

I hope everyone had a very merry everything this holiday season, and continues to do so. Mine has been and hopefully will continue being wonderful, but I’m not sure a recap of the nice things I’ve been doing, seeing, and eating would be that interesting. Instead, I’m in the mood to look forward to 2016. 2015 was a pleasant year in many ways, and certainly nothing really bad happened to me personally, but I found it to be a challenging 365 days in large and small ways. So I’m anxious to get on to the new one, which, like an unwritten book, has not had anything go wrong in it yet. Here are some things I resolve to do to keep making 2016 a good year even once it has gotten started.

  1. Finish novel–really finish, not like the other times I’ve resolved this when it was “finish a draft” or “finish submission draft.” This time it is “finish and submit to copyedit” finish–world without end finish. Not included in 2016 goals only because it’ll be happening in January 2017 is “publish novel.”
  2. Clean out spice cupboard. Find a way to store spices that is not a giant mess for first time in life. Cannot be that hard.
  3. Wear every piece of jewellery I own at least once, out in public. This is an adapted version of KonMari, I guess. I got a new jewellery box for Christmas and in transferring everything over from the old one, found I had a tonne of stuff I never wear and indeed have forgotten about. I’m inclined to keep it all because most of it was gifts, but if I find I can’t even get through a single public appearance with the item due to physical discomfort or embarrassment at the item’s inappropriateness for my look, I think I’ll have an easier time parting with it.
  4. No eating after dinner is over.
  5. Stop being so fussed about what people I might never see again think of me. Focus on being a better friend to people who are genuine friends.
  6. Start new novel. Have clearer structure and better plan than first novel from the get-go, so this one does not turn into another six-year ordeal.
  7. Experiment with only one social outing per week for month of January. See if it makes me more productive and happier, or insane.
  8. Use migraine tracker properly, or else find better migraine tracker.
  9. Complete marathon critical essay and edit into something publishable. Essay is currently less than a third finished, 10 000 words long, and largely about my personal issues.
  10. Train cat to ring bell on command.

December 14th, 2015

Holiday cards

Holiday cards–I love’em. I love all greeting cards, actually, but rarely do I get to send, or receive, so many all at once. I tend to buy most of mine at Boxing Day sales so I can afford the really glitzy ones with glitter and high-quality card stock, though sometimes the cheaper ones are too cute to pass up and sometimes I get caught out and have to buy cards at full price in December. But most years I am eagerly waiting all fall for it to be November–card-writing time. When I lived alone, I would start at the beginning of November and work on them on and off for a few weeks. Now, my husband asks me to wait until November 12 out of deference to veterans and just the natural order of things. So I do, but I am VERY excited to get out my cards and stamps and address book on November 12. I try to get everything into the mail for December 1, because I feel like that is the first acceptable day (a card in November would be weird) and I want to give people maximum time to have them up. I always used to feel sad if I got a card on December 24, knowing it would be up for only a few days before getting recycled. Then one year I realized I didn’t want to take down all the cards taped to my kitchen cupboards–who wants to look at blank cupboards–so I only slowly replace them as I receive birthday and other holiday cards throughout the year–but I realize most people don’t follow that procedure. I also use an otherwise empty curtain rod above my living room window to display some of the cards we got for our wedding three years ago.

So yeah, I like cards–writing, stamping, mailing, and yes, receiving them. But I am not concerned if people I send cards to do not send one to me. Most people don’t send holiday cards these days, which has three main advantageous effects that I can see:

  1. Even the cards with glitter on them are cheaper now. The popup ones remain expensive, but that’s pretty much it.
  2. If I forget someone from my card-sending list, that person isn’t sad because they weren’t expecting to hear from me in the first place, and
  3. Those people who do get a card from me are more delighted than they would have been 20 or 30 years ago, when many people got dozens of cards. Some people have told me that mine are the only cards they get in a season, and that they love them.

So I’m not surprised that I get back a fraction of the cards I send, though I do love those that I get. Some people, not card senders by nature, email or Facebook or text in response to the cards, which is lovely. Or they make sure to hit me up for coffee or a drink early in the new year. Or something else–anything else–to respond to my card in kind. Because what the cards say is, mainly, “Hey, I like you. I hope you’re doing good.” And there’s a million ways to say that.

It kind of alarms me when people freak out about not sending cards–that it’s such a beautiful tradition, such a shame that I just can’t do them anymore. This is of course usually untrue–anyone could buy a box of cards at the drugstore, order stamps online, and do up the whole box by staying up an hour late. If you don’t want to, I get that–lots of things are higher priority. Cards are one of my priorities, but they don’t have to be everyone’s. It’s silly to say can’t though.

Let’s face it–grown-ups don’t stay in touch too well. My friends have scattered over the world, but even locally, it’s hard to get people in the same room very often. We have to work at our jobs and, in the creative community, at our other jobs; commute; raise children; care for ill or elderly relatives, and/or be ill ourselves; clean our homes and cook food; spend time with our partners, pets, and families; sleep. And no one wants to talk on the phone anymore, for reasons I still don’t fully understand.

I grew up with the idea that you could care about people from afar, even if you don’t talk to them that often. My folks came to Canada in the 1970s, and often had only one or two long newsy calls or letters a year from people back in the States, often around the holidays. It makes sense to me that there will always be people I care about that I’m not in regular touch with–cards are one of a number of ways I maintain that bond.

Pretty much the only reason I would ever drop someone from my card list is if there were zero contact for several years in a row. I send you a card, you don’t send me one back–you’re busy, you’re out of town, you don’t like cards. And maybe we don’t get around to hanging out at all that year, and I send another card, and another year goes by, a few Facebook messages go unanswered, an email bounces…I might conclude that it’s best to stop bothering you.

Even if a friendship were getting weird or tense, I’d probably still send a card, and hope that could be either a step to improving things or a stopgap until I thought of something that could–it’s such an easy way to convey positive feelings, and you don’t really need to write a lot more detail. Happy holidays and all the best in the new year really does, in fact, suffice.

December 4th, 2015

Way back: Grade Nine Flight

I don’t usually go on about my old published work–I figure if anyone wanted to buy my books they could figure out how, and if they wanted to read a particular story they could google it or check my “publications” link above and try to find it. But there’s a few stories that didn’t get into a book and aren’t available, or aren’t easily, on the web.

Grade Nine Flight was my third acceptance ever, and my second publication (because of how speedy online publishing is. It came out in the December 2006 edition of the old version of The Danforth Review, that wonderful online mag but out by Michael Bryson (the new version of The Danforth Review remains wonderful, but does not include the archives of the old one. Rather, those archives are housed at Libraries and Archives Canada, which is a wonderful service but doesn’t appear to be google-search-able. So if you were looking for this story that way you wouldn’t find it, but why would you even be, because who has heard of this story I published nearly 10 years ago?

So here it is–the link above should work, if you’d like to read the story. I read it over lunch, and even though it’s so different than the stuff I’m writing nowadays, I still really like it. Is it bad to admit that? I feel so distant from the person I was when I wrote like that, saying I like it doesn’t even feel like vanity–that writer is another person entirely, I feel.

Yet, I know I wrote it, and I remember why: my brother was travelling abroad for a year, and I missed him. Even though none of the characters are based on anyone I know, the vibe of kids living in a house together is definitely something I am personally familiar with, and some of the games they play and conversations they have and tv shows they watch are things I remember fondly from my childhood.

It’s weird that I’m nostalgic for the person I was when I wrote “Grade Nine Flight,” but that person was nostalgic for a yet earlier period. We never get done longing for things, it seems (though I am very glad my brother lives nearby now).

If you read the story, please let me know what you think!

November 27th, 2015

The ethnic issue (rant)

This is the definition of “ethnic” per the nigh-on-infalliable Canadian Oxford dictionary:
“(of a population group) sharing a distinctive cultural and historical tradition, often associated with race, nationality, or religion. 2. relating to race or culture (ethnic group; ethnic origins). 3. (of clothes, music, etc.) characteristic of or influenced by the traditions of a particular people or culture, esp. a minority within another culture or one regarded as exotic.”

These definitions aren’t as clear-cut as perhaps I would like them to be, but I do think they prove my point, often ranted about but perhaps never in this space, that EVERYONE HAS AN ETHNICITY! White Canadians, in my experience, tend to dwell on the “exotic” aspect mentioned in the third definition, and assume that “ethnic people” are the ones who aren’t white, or speak some language other than English, or perhaps wear something that isn’t sold at the Gap.

I get that many people’s families have been in Canada so long they no longer identify with the cultural tradition they came from, and that they are not religious–but that doesn’t mean that they are the water and only non-white people and recent immigrants are the fish. Other than First Nations and Inuit, we are all descendants of immigrants and Canadian culture is itself an actual thing too. Saying one has no cultural affiliation as a Canadian doesn’t really make sense in a global context–like saying one has no accent. As soon as you leave the place where you are part of the dominant culture, it becomes clear that you have both.

It strikes me as offensive when a white person looks at an advertisement featuring only other white people and says, “It’s too bad they didn’t include any ethnic people.” !!!!! Obviously, that sort of comment comes from a political correct place–the speaker is trying to be inclusive, but it also comes from a place of privilege, where the speaker considers his or her place in society so dominant and assured that it has no point of origin–it just is.

We all get to decide who we are and what culture we want to identify with, but it is very very weird to say some people have a culture and some people do not. And even if people get where you are coming from and aren’t offended from a cultural perspective, I guarantee that if an editor hears you, s/he will be a seething over the improper use of language.

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