Posted tagged ‘fiction’

Lost in Winter

February 18, 2013

So this character walks into a library. He has unruly eyebrows, notable because he appears, otherwise, to be quite young. He is under thirty. Well, maybe thirty. Just.

He has never been in a library. Never in his life. Yet he is standing inside the door of this one, stories of thick books rising up eight floors from the open foyer, layers of heavy tomes, thin volumes in a series, wide opuses, extraordinary titles. He senses their grandeur without taking another step, without touching a single cover. He does something else he’s never done before: he strokes an eyebrow.

The eyebrows he attributes to the fact that he shaved them off once (okay, he had one shaved off when he passed out drunk at a party when he was eighteen, and immediately shaved the other so as not to appear lopsided. There is nothing worse, in his view, than lopsidedness. It is perhaps his biggest pet peeve).

He leaves the eyebrows alone because he’s found the more he tries to shave/trim/tend to them, the bushier they grow. Call them caterpillars, cattails, the frayed edges of rugs that have been vacuumed excessively, towels that should have been thrown out decades ago. They and his library moment are all you are ever to know about him.

Perhaps it was a sense of hibernation that drew him out of my imagination. The closeness of winter that stifles other meanderings. But as we all push through the centre of February, there’s a restlessness of spring around the corner that carries an eagerness bordering on madness. This is my sense of the world, post Groundhog Day, pre-thaw. My escape from adult responsibilities and routine is fiction. Mostly writing it. Is it an escape, or a moving into something more real than the mindless routine of seasons?

I got lost in the stacks the other day. My breath of fresh air in the basement of a library. I’d read a short story online by Joyce Carol Oates, In the Region of Ice (you can find it here: She’s got this theme of humanism in the story, so I had this on the brain when I walked toward the literary journals and got sidetracked by a title on the Social Science shelf, called Anthropology and Humanism. Learned about a form of music that I couldn’t really tell you anything about except it’s name (which was spelled with a K in the journal, and a C online, a tidbit that must have its own storied story), Karnatic, and that the article has already seeped into more than one story I’ve been writing, where music, the motion of the human body, culture and sensibility are all at play.

There’s a fiction in randomly coming across something new, and the meaning I place on it, to use in my next (current) story. But that’s also pretty real. Or maybe I just want to think so, as an escape from the endless cycles of earthy existence that carries me from one season to the next.

On discipline and the power of love

January 9, 2013

From across the moonlit distances between the inevitability of life and the finality of death, I hear you, Ray Bradbury (may he rest in peace)… I’m not sure why I didn’t come across this video sooner, and I’m at a loss to describe how destiny works (as Bradbury was, too), but I believe in it. And in the coincidence (for me) of coming across this inspiring speech by Bradbury at the beginning of what will be a challenging year (which will include a home reno after a burst pipe resulted in a tectonic upheaval of our parquet kitchen floor….nothing like a good toe-stubbing first thing in the morning to wake all your senses….and maybe I’ll take that over the nausea of having to reno the whole kitchen, but maybe it’s not entirely up to me, and it’s just got to be done. Maybe that’s a sort of destiny in itself).

Back to writing: I believe in Bradbury’s challenge to write a short story a week, and at the end of the year, to have 52 bad ones. A much better goal than my previous idea of simply polishing up the few measly stories I’ve had on the go for the last few months, and sending them out into the great unknown. Why not write, harder, longer, stronger, and see what comes of it? I’m completely committed now. So why not push forward with even more gusto than I ever thought possible?

So here you go. For anyone out there who would sit and watch this entire thing, and be even half as inspired as I was (as much the second time as the first, since the first time I tried to watch I was interrupted about twenty-five times by two or three munchkins underfoot and in my ears and pulling at my last remaining strands of patience. But I was still completely awed, and I hope you are too).

One more writerly thing that inspired me this week was this – enjoy!

Genie in a Bottle

October 14, 2012

I was pleasantly impressed by my olive oil the other day. More than being great for things other than cooking, like moisturizing my dish pan hands, the new bottle I purchased boasted another feature. I peeled back the protective plastic, unscrewed the cap, and up popped one of those easy pour spouts.

This is an addition to the function, but not the cost of an oh so essential cooking element. The easy pour spout was not advertised on the outside label. I’d compare this surprise to the advertising of something like….think, diamond shreddies. Think, have a happy period.

All I’m saying is, I like surprises. There exists in my being a preference for pleasant surprises rather than being bashed over the brain with redundant information. A turn on, versus a turn off.

PC Splendido, Cold Pressed, Extra…Virgin. Sometimes, the power of words lies in what’s left out.

The bigger web of humanity (or something that has nothing to do with anything)

August 30, 2012

I took the summer off blogging for a couple reasons: first, hey it’s summer, and second, I’ve been feeling resentful of this whole social media society that says you must have a certain web presence, and if, for example, you don’t have a facebook page, then you have something to hide. Do we really live in a world that is so superficial, we call having a social media account “real”? I suppose. It is the age of “reality tv” after all. But then, our world has  always contained both superficiality, and truth. Remember Anne Shirley, LM Montgomery’s most beloved creation? Remember when Anne poured her heart out in a story which her well-meaning friend Diana submitted to the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company behind Anne’s back? I still remember Anne’s reaction, all drama and tears, over the humiliation of having her story commercialized. I loved Anne’s characteristic stubbornness that stuck up for the authentic artist inside of her. We can choose, at any given point, to take part in what’s superficial (and we sometimes have to, I admit; for work, for survival) but we can also choose to spend more of our time in the realm of real, heartfelt living.

For me, as it was for Anne, what’s real is often in my fiction. Meet Dan. He’s one of the characters I’ve been writing about. I call him my video store dad because he works at a video store and he was a teenager when he became a father.

In my story I completely humiliate this character, at the same time as I make him a victim of love for his daughter. The story opens with Dan standing in the middle of the mall, patiently waiting for his ex to show up with their daughter. He’s wearing a homemade superhero outfit.

The story, in it’s first drafts, ended sadly. Dan gets more and more humiliated, from the giggles of teenaged girls who point at him and wonder if he’s being paid to wear that hideous costume, to his four-year-old daughter forgetting all about him when she has the chance to visit the same accessories store as the teenaged girls.

I was struggling with this ending, because I really like Dan. He’s not smart, or ambitious,  but he’s courageous enough to give himself over to this love he never in a million years could have imagined for himself. My original ending for this story painted him as nothing but a looser. But I know it could be different.

After getting some feedback on this story, I was looking up the word vulnerability. That’s what Dan is, he’s vulnerable enough to feel this love that makes him do something as silly as put on a unitard and stand in the middle of the mall, to humiliate himself in hopes of impressing the object of his devotion. I came across a TED talk about this very thing, vulnerability (see Brené Brown on TED).

Listening to the TED talk reinforced, in a coincidental sort of a way, the hunch I had about my character. I think that Dan truly is a superhero, and that I need to re-write my ending, if not some of the story. I feel confident that it will work, because in attempting to impress a child, you have to step down to a child’s level of understanding. Dan is trying to appeal to something in his daughter she just might get. In the adult world, adult to adult, this would only be humiliating, and Dan would remain as he was in my first drafts — a loser.

I’ve been thinking about my own loser versus heroic moments throughout our relocations. This summer was yet another challenge, to go back to the place I call “home” (which is, ironically, not a place I ever have, or ever will, live full time, it just happens to be where our families live), and return to a place I was less than excited about coming back to. But it’s made me draw on my heroic self, while acknowledging my loser self.

There was this song we used to sing at summer camp (Oh Beausoleil, to the tune of Oh Danny Boy), and it always made my bawl my eyes out. When I think back to my summer camp experiences, I remember crying a lot. I’d cry because I was homesick, then I’d cry when it was time to leave camp and go back to my family. I wish, now, that I’d had the advice, then, that someone gave me before my wedding: to not start crying, because once you start, you’ll be a wreck the whole day. My camp memories are full of tears; my wedding day, only joy. I’ve been thinking about this, about how it applies to life and to great writing, which is so much more than just blurted emotions on the page. There’s a lot of restraint involved in great writing, and in living well. A lot of managing, but first acknowledging, the loser inside, to get to the hero.

One of the highlights of my time back in Ontario this summer was taking my five-year-old son into Toronto for a day, just the two of us. We rode the subway and the GO Train. I took him to Port Credit, and stood outside the apartment building my husband and I lived in when we had our daughter. I was hit with a huge wave of nostalgia for a time of life that seems eternities away from where I am now. I must admit, I started to give in to my loser self, feeling the sting of tears (man, I’m a sop!), but then I got an idea. And suddenly I was making notes about a story, the first draft of which I completed this summer, called Periphery, which in part is about childhood nostalgia.

My husband and I had our heroic-versus-loser selves challenged when we returned to St. John’s from Ontario. Our two eldest children stayed in our home province for two more weeks to spend time with both sets of grandparents, and we travelled back with the baby, now 21 months old. We arrived in St. John’s at 1:30 AM after a horrible flight where we were “those people” with the child who screamed the entire time.

Amidst the baby’s cries, my husband and I casually discussed the fact that neither of us could remember where we might have packed our house key. In the whole kerfuffle to get the five of us off to the airport that Saturday in July, I could not remember having put the key anywhere in our belongings.

Here’s how not together I can be: I’d made a couple copies of our house key the week before we left. Two were sitting on a shelf in the kitchen. One, I gave to our very generous neighbour, who had agreed to drive us to the airport in our van. The same neighbour who was going to be away when we were (ie, not home when we got back to St. John’s). So I gave him the extra key I’d gone to the effort to have made, and when he said goodbye to us at the airport, I handed him my van keys (house key still safely attached), and asked him to leave the van keys in our house when he locked the door behind him with the extra key, so that even if he wasn’t home when we returned, we’d be able to drive the vehicle when we got back into town.

At 2 AM after gathering our luggage and catching a cab back to our house, the baby was surprisingly calm. I wrapped him in my jacket and sat him in a deck chair while my husband and I circled the house trying to think of the best plan of attack to get inside. The basement door has never locked properly, and my husband had wedged a board behind it. Knowing it was held closed by the board, but that the lock was broken anyways, we decided that bashing it in was our best option.

An hour went by as we pushed and kicked at the door, and we each commented on how composed we felt. This time last year, I said, I would have been breaking down, sobbing, freaking out. Now look at me! Look at us! We can laugh about this, right?

From his perch on the back deck, the baby exercised his new vocabulary: Door. Lock. Key? Crash!

Finally, with both of us chanting in whispers, One, Two, Three, and kicking the door in unison, we were in. Broken door frame and all.

At least we know it was secure.

The really embarrassing part of this story is that there’s a part two. A couple days ago we took our children out for a walk to a park, dutifully locking all the doors behind us. When we returned from our walk with the kids, the front screen door, which is of course placed outside the door we have a key for, was locked.

This time, our five-year-old son got to be a hero. We lifted him up to climb through an open window, then he ran through the house, unlocking the doors for us.

If there’s a moral here, I’m not sure what it is. But yesterday, as we headed out for a walk, I checked to see that at least one door was unlocked. Loser or heroic moment? I don’t know. But I’m attempting to celebrate all my moments, as both.

Creative Process

June 22, 2012

Most mornings I find an hour before the rush of feeding dressing diaper-changing singing chanting spilling chaos to write. It’s an internal alarm that wakes me. Like my work is calling to me, Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! It’s like the physical reaction to falling in love for the first time. An actualization of deepest fears and passions. There are probably a million and one ways I could dramatize the sensation of needing to write, but I’ll save the elaborate metaphors for my fiction.

I finally finished that book The Golden Thread, and it was truly magical. In the meantime, I’ve also been devouring James Woods’ How Fiction Works and it, too, is marvellous. It’s been fun reading them simultaneously, because there’s some of the same literature mentioned in both. It’s like hanging out with a couple of fellow lovers of literature, without having to leave the house.

So here’s a piece I wrote for an in-class exercise recently. Not exactly filled with elaborate metaphors, and I wish I could share some of the other ones some of my classmates wrote, because they were very well done. But here’s my attempt at a list story (we were discussing how to create a story using a structure other than the traditional Aristotelean arc, such as a list):

Creative Process

In the morning there’s a burbling beneath the sound of the coffee percolator. It fizzes at a low decibel and explodes before nine o’clock. Scattered socks, boots split from mates, lunch bags stinking on the counter.

Late again.

There are drop-offs. Kerfuffles with car seat buckles. There is silence in the house once two kids are at school, and the baby is down for a nap. There is a To Do list.

Two things: groceries, and choreograph the routines for my dance school’s recital. I rummage through that top drawer my husband calls the Junk Collector, and smooth out a crumpled piece of paper. Mostly blank on one side.

Item number one: milk. Dammit, no more milk left for my coffee. Where’s dial-a-cuppa when you need it? Spilt milk. All over the floor and under the fridge this morning. 

I look up from my grocery list to stare out the window. A raven, its feathers silky from the recent rain, waddles across my front lawn and pecks at the ground. When it finds what it’s looking for, it pulls it upwards with one graceful tug, the fleshy worm stretched from its bed of dirt upwards into the bird’s beak. The beak then points towards the sky as the bird swallows the morsel in a quick staccato beat — gulp gulp gulp gulp — before it flies off to perch on my neighbour’s rooftop.

Milk that waddles in the cup, like the raven on my front lawn. A waddle dance, like the one I did, age three, to the tune of I’m A Little Teacup. Perfect for my youngest dancers. I write down, waddle dance on the choreography list.

Item number two: bread. Milk and bread, the most valuable staples in my household, as long as there’s peanut butter. My mother was appalled the last time she came to visit. “Are you going to let those kids live on nothing but peanut butter sandwiches?” When I didn’t answer her, she went on. “Why don’t you have a sitter for the baby? He’s six months old now. You’re running yourself ragged with the dance school, and no childcare.”

“Mom, he still naps twice, and I get work done from home during the day.”

Back to my list. Vegetables. I never did take my mother’s advice, to dress the veggies in butter or syrup, anything just to get my family to eat them. These days I don’t have time for dress-up unless it’s at the dance studio. These days, we have sword fights with carrots, games with slices of red pepper wearing capes of spinach, and frolics with broccoli at our dinner table. A colourful dance. That’s it! The Grade Two ballet class, my little veggies. I can see them dressed in green, orange and red unitards, waving scarves of butter and leaves around their bodies, shaking and shimmying in joyous harmony.

Grade Three’s, Veggie Dance goes on the choreography list.

This morning, Isabelle skated across the floor in her socks. Matthew slithered under her legs and she toppled over on top of him, her arm shooting out from her side. That’s what dropped the milk off the counter. But I was busy feeding the baby, and at first didn’t notice the spill. Isabelle and Matthew, their laughter and movements, smooth and uncalculated. A dance for my Grade One students could be like that. A smooth glide through my kids’ favourite food. I write down: movement through peanut butter.

Great, I’m on a roll. Item number four: ding-dong. Dammit. My neighbour again. She doesn’t understand that when I’m home, I’m working. Maybe if I hold my breath she’ll go away. Ding-dong, Dammit! I’m wasting time. Okay, focus.

I glance back down at my grocery list. I imagine tearing it up, letting the confetti papers float to the floor behind me as I slam through the door past my neighbour and into the rain where I peck at the lawn. I see myself emerging, a mouthful of slithering worms between my lips, shaking the food before the faces of my children.

The doorbell stops ringing.

Item number four: fruit. I so angry over the milk that I denied Isabelle a banana. My daughter, awash in remorse, strutting her self-indignation. I yelled, “Get in the car!” I had just tripped over her bin of doll clothes with Matthew’s Hot Wheels track perched on top of it. Metal cars scattered in every direction across the floor. A formation of girls in banana costumes, aka, my Grade Four jazz/ballet class. To that song they love, lots of semi-circle formations, back-to-back, side-step clap! To the list with you, my glorious fruits.

Next on the list: meat. A barbecue if this weather ever clears. Surely sometime in the next three days….sunshine….barbecue, black leotards and saucy skirts for my pre-teen group. They’ve requested the chance to choreograph some of their own routine. Perfect. That’ll take a lot off my plate.

Ring! Now what?! I answer the phone. My daughter’s school. She’s sick. Dammit! We made it through the whole winter without the flu, and this happens now? Really?

I take an extra half hour before picking her up, waking the baby and rushing to get the groceries. I forget my list on the counter at home.

By the time I pick  up Isabelle, her skin is translucent, clammy. Maybe if I’d given her that banana after all….. But she throws up in the backseat on the way home, so I imagine the banana would have just been more to clean up. 

I have her settled on the couch under blankets, bucket at her side, and I go out to clean the car. The rain has started up again, and the raven is back on the lawn. Still engaged in the never-ending cycle of caring for her family.

Inside, Isabelle is asleep. I pour my coffee, and have a look at my list. The ink is blurred, the paper soggy from the puddle of juice beneath it. The dishes are piled high in the sink, and in the silence, I can hear two of my children blissfully snoring. Somehow, the picture is complete.