Posted tagged ‘writing’

The realm of the unexpected

April 19, 2014

 

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park, where the European and North American plates are separating at a rate of 1cm per year.

When I was small enough to be stuffed in the back of the car with my brother and toured across the continent, my dad would sing a repertoire of traveling songs. Our favourite was about a man’s first night of marital bliss. The couple are alone in the bedroom, and the woman takes off her eyelashes, which were fake. She takes off her hair, which was a wig. She takes off her false nails, the blush on her cheeks, and her leg, a prosthetic. She removes unexpected parts of her body, everything besides the clothes the man had hoped to see in a puddle on the floor.

I was thinking about this song on the Icelandair flight back to North America from Europe. How appropriate it was that my dad only sung this one during road trips. In Iceland, I went to a geothermal pool in Reykjavik and had to shed my very North American notions of shameful nudity, to strip down in the change room and shower in front of other girls and women – how liberating! (see #4 here) Also in Reykjavik, I shrugged off my tendency toward nothing but mellow music, and, after seeing Sin Fang perform at an art gallery, I went to a heavy metal show at Gamli Gaukurinn – how ear piercing! I loved every minute of it (after shoving tissue in my ears to block the high notes). I learned that heavy metal has a basis in classical music (thanks, Gemma!), and that, as a lake-lover, there are public pools I can handle – the kind with no skin-drying chlorine.

This is what travel is all about: a stripping away of the expected, to step into the realm of the unexpected.

Travel is also about making new connections in a world of endless possibility, beyond the borders of daily life. In a Reykjavik café called Kaffibarinn, Gemma and I met a couple from Bergen, Norway. The man was fascinated when I told him I live in Newfoundland, because he is a journalist and friend of Todd Saunders, the world-renowned architect who designed the five star inn for the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island, NL. I was struck by the way the couple talked about art – his painting, her adoration of music, the people they know and the communities they adore. I said goodbye, determined to incorporate more art into my own life back home.

I booked this trip to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat. I wanted to do something special and memorable, and selfishly indulgent for my 40th birthday. The week knocked “special” way out of the park. The workshops were fabulous, with take-away inspiration about immediacy in literary beginnings, story arc, character and voice, and the emotional beat to end on. Every time I turned around there was another writer with a fascinating story to tell. Each and every one of us like a turtle poking our heads out of the shell of self-consciousness we wear, downplaying every small thing we’ve ever accomplished, and giddy to be in the presence of published authors.

home of Halldór Laxness

In the home of Nobel Prize winning author Halldór Laxness.

We met the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who told us with a smile that in his country there are no statues of presidents, but you can find many statues of writers.

The day of my birthday we went on a tour of the Golden Circle (even the weather cooperated with mostly clear skies), and that evening, we enjoyed two author readings by Gerður Kristný and Ragna Sigurðardóttir, and a performance by Lay Low. As we left KEX to head to another bar, the northern lights appeared. Only in non-fiction do things work out this perfectly.

My husband was worried I’d be sad and lonely to be away from my family for my birthday. I admit I did choke up once: during the final Q&A with the authors, when Susan Orlean said, Give yourself a break if you are writing into the void (without deadlines or promise of publication). I decided, if there’s nothing else interesting about me, this is it. The fact that I am committed to my writing, without any concrete goal besides maybe being published, someday. So committed, I take time away from my family and other pleasures to pursue it, to work at it, so committed that I’ve invested in it, in the best ways possible.

When asked her opinion on pursuing an MFA, the very wonderful and inspiring Geraldine Brooks suggested a writer could take the thirty thousand per year she’d spend on an MFA, and travel instead.

I couldn’t agree more.

Inspiration Unlimited

January 26, 2013

Take the staircase to the fourth floor, turn the key and slowly unlock the door….

Just listening to a little U2 and thinking about how inspiration truly can come from anywhere and everywhere.

But my question to Ray Bradbury about writing one story a week would have been this: what about revision? This part seems to take much longer than any first draft I’ve ever written.

I won’t ponder it too long. The important thing, as always, is to keep going…..

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!

http://www.cbc.ca/thenextchapter/episode/2013/01/07/eden-robinson-lisa-moore/

The Clarity of Moments

December 31, 2012

IMG_4268Does it seem that the lessons get tougher even as the years, the accumulation of them as individual stretches of twelve-month periods, feel shorter?

I started this conversation then got horrendously distracted. Pre-menstrual and parent-weary. A bit anxious about getting any writing done while trying to get the house ready for a party tonight. But that’s not what I meant to say.

I meant to say how pleased I am with the piles of books we as a family collected this Christmas. I meant to discuss what I’m reading, Aritha van Herk, an author I identify with because of her daring female protagonists and especially their time spent in northern landscapes, their search for that place called Home.

I’m also reading Ted Solotaroff’s book of essays. He offers advice to writers just starting out that will give me a pep talk whenever I need it in the coming year. To keep going. Keep writing my way toward the goal of being a weaver of words into thought-provoking stories. My goal of clarity (also the goal of each individual moment), a burning desire that shines between the lines of well-chosen words. In fiction I can be a product of all that I am and all that I’ve come from and seen and done and felt. In fiction, I can take control of these things.

TS, in one of his essays, discusses how the novel can come across as self-conscious compared with the immediacy and honesty of the oral tradition. I worry about this in my own writing, of a self-consciousness rather than an authorial confidence. There was a writer I “met” online when I did my first NaNoWriMo. I adored the subject of her first novel, her characters and her story. But “self-conscious” was exactly how the writing felt to me. Like it had been over-edited, cut down to too few words because publishers will only print a limited number of pages for a first-time author. This writer, Sarah Dooley is her name, her blog has such an intimate and draw-you-in kind of a tone that seemed lacking in her first book. I’ve bought (for my daughter, but I might get to it first) Sarah’s next book, a YA novel titled Body of Water. I believe in her capacity to grow as a writer. To shed some of that self-consciousness, and let the more relaxed voice of her blog seep into her fiction. I can only hope to trip over my own feet a number of times, learn these tough lessons, and to keep trying until a piece of writing feels “right.” To Fail Better as Zadie Smith wrote.

I’m often anxious, like many of us, about where technology is taking us. But as I’ve seen with Sarah’s writing, perhaps blogging is the true continuation of an age-old tradition of oral storytelling that has otherwise been mostly lost in the world. I am terrified of the things we all know are heading for “lost” in the world, but maybe this is one instance where lost can actually be found.

Gifts for our children. This was what I really wanted to write about on this last day of 2012. I’ve thought a lot lately about the truest and best gifts I could possibly pass along to my children. Besides love, nutrition, discipline and shelter. As important as all of these, I think, is the gift of words. I’ve got three small heads in my household (and two larger ones) that bow to books several times a day. As well, all five of us have been getting our heads (and hearts, I hope) to church some Sundays this year, a place where this love of words is continued in the form of the oldest method of storytelling, that is, words passed along orally.

This gift of words is one I can see the affects of hour by hour, season by season. My children are capable of sitting quietly between outbursts of rowdy play. Sitting with a book is when they recharge their batteries. They can recite certain lines from books we’ve read together and stories we’ve heard at church, talk about them, laugh about them. From who sitting my chair? our two-year-old growls at Goldilocks, and the historical facts our five-year-old is learning about in a children’s chapter book about Christopher Columbus, to What is synchronicity? our eight-year-old daughter is exploring in the chapter books she devours at a pace of one every other day. The fact that words can lead to discussions we share together, this is the tie that binds all the other important gifts, from love to shelter. Words. Most important, every day of the year.

One of the things I am most proud of at the end of 2012, and what I will take into the new year as my central focus? The fact I can’t count the number of times each day I hear, “Read this, mummy! Read this!”

Pity Parties and Perfect Paragraphs

December 16, 2012

I have a new favourite paragraph. I’ve read it over and over and over again today, check it out (from Zadie Smith’s latest novel, NW, this is the opening of Chapter 14):

A great hill straddles NW, rising in Hampstead, West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden, Brondesbury, Cricklewood. It is no stranger to the world of letters. The Woman in White walks up one side to meet the highwayman Jack Sheppard on the other. Sometimes Dickens himself comes this far west and north for a pint or to bury someone. Look, there, on the library carpet between Science Fiction and Local History: a knotted condom filled with sperm. Once this was all farm and field, with country villas nodding at each other along the ridge of this hill. Train stations have replaced them, at half-mile intervals.

This paragraph has everything, at least, everything I seem to be looking for at the moment. The camera casts a wide glance over an area of London, England. It zooms in for a look at a particular place in a library. It has a dreamlike quality with the mention of infamous characters from literature and history (Wilkie Collins! I’d forgotten about Wilkie Collins, I’ve only read The Moonstone back in lit class, but I remember it well…..now here’s Collins’ Woman in White meeting up with a criminal, I love it), and its scope is both historical and current with those last two sentences, which I absolutely adore.

Sigh. I’m not jealous of this perfect paragraph, I think that’s the silliest thing in the world, to be jealous of another writer’s words. I know I have a sense of language. Of the rhythm and music created by words when they are put together in a certain way. I know that there are as many different ways to do this as there are writers, both past and present. No two writers will ever put the same words or ideas together in the same ways. Like snowflakes, we writers are. Like each individual human, past and present, and oh, alright, future as well. I’m only anxious to get around to creating my own ideal sentences. Perfect, ideal, these are not the right words. Striking, maybe? Memorable. Lasting.

I just need more time to work on this glorious, heartbreaking, obsessive craft of writing. And it’ll come. The few scattered hours a day of writing I get in now isn’t enough, but it’s worth it to push on through, keep going. On through snowstorms (it’s about time the snow arrived, and I hope it lasts through Christmas), through illness, through all of the life that can’t be separated from work and writing…..

Oh illness. Our youngest had croup recently. Croup is one of those things I’d heard of, but which taught me, again, how you never really, truly know a thing until you experience it yourself. In this case: how it will keep you up all night (your child coughing, gasping for air). How the cough will linger throughout the day, make the whole family miserable. How you will end up in and out of the doctor’s office and the hospital for a week straight.

The first night he was sick, when we didn’t realize it was croup (which is really just a cold virus, but in small children, their trachea swells making it difficult for them to breath, and they will make a sound like a seal when they cough, and it is agony to listen to), I’d get up when I heard him cry, put his head back on the pillow, cover him with the blanket. Then I’d lay down in my own bed, sure that he was drowning.

He wasn’t. He didn’t.

But then I got so sad over the fact that we are all alone out here on the Rock, without our families, the grandparents who would, if they lived close by, come over for even an hour or two during the day to be with the other two kids while I took the youngest to the doctor. I felt sorry for myself over the fact that I’d been in and out of the house all week, arms loaded with sick child, diaper bag of snacks and water and toys to keep the kids occupied in waiting rooms. All the while looking longingly over my shoulder at my neglected writing.

My own cough made me weak. Sent me into a two-day pity-party. Catching the baby’s cold was inevitable, being covered in his coughs and sneezes around the clock. By the end of the worst day I was exhausted, and had to make the clear, conscious decision that the next day would be different.

My husband filled in the role the grandparents would have taken on had they been here, leaving work to pick up the kids from school. We pulled together as a team, and made it through the croup and our own bad colds. I put aside my writing for those few terrible days, and turned to reading which, for a writer, is sometimes equally as productive. With cold, without the bad attitude. Pity party over. Simple as that, really. I mean, none of this was tragic. But during those few days I felt th pull that sometimes happens when you think only dark, sad thoughts. The sideways lean that sometimes has me reaching for the liquor cabinet….hand slap. Deep breath. Don’t make a bad situation worse.

And then the skies open up (and snow like crazy) and this amazing paragraph appears and brightens everything. So I’ll read it one more time, then get outside to play in the snow with my family.

Inspiration…

October 7, 2012

I discovered the basement of the MUN library the other day and sat amongst stacks of literary magazines. Felt overwhelmed by the volume of words out there. Wondered how I will ever add to them. Should I keep writing, or just set down my pen and read what’s already out there? Then I read this quote in The New Quarterly, in an intro to an excerpt from Jeffery Donaldson’s ten year labour of love called Missing Link: The Evolution of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Evolution…. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes,” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.

So what does anything have to do with anything?

A lot. A whole lot.

 

What’s on the page

May 23, 2012

So I’m taking this fiction writing course.

It happened sooner than I’d hoped. I was planning on trying to get into the one offered at MUN in the fall, but when this spring session came up, I submitted a story right away. And got in!

I’ve been to two classes so far, and it’s completely blown me away. But not in the ways I expected it would.

When I described it to my husband — how we move the desks into a circle so we can talk easier, and how we each have to critique each others’ work — he said I made it sound like an AA meeting. Believe me, it feels like what I imagine an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting would feel. Writer’s Anonymous, for people with this obsessive, ambiguous, addictive, hopeful or hopeless (either could apply) habit of writing all the time.

I sit there each week, palms sweating, my face on fire (I hope it doesn’t show), writhing in my own skin whenever it’s my turn to speak. I don’t know any of these people. And they don’t know me. Not yet. None of them look even half as uncomfortable as I feel.

But it’s good. Really. I mean, it’s a personal challenge, one of those, get yourself out of your own comfort zone things. As if I haven’t had enough of that in the last couple years with all the moving. But still. I think it’ll be really good for me to go through this.

I’m learning to have an even greater respect for all the published authors out there. This is not an easy stage. It’s one thing to sit at home, or in a coffee shop, or the library (or at the Y, which has become an extension of my living room, where I sometimes go and use the childcare in the mornings to sit in the lobby and write) and use all your spare time to write stories. Then re-write them, again and again and again. But it’s quite another to get over yourself enough to share your creative work with others. Others whose opinions really matter. But wow, if I can’t get over this, then how will I ever expect to try to sell any of my fiction to the world? It would seem I have a long way to go.

Another writer I know put it so perfectly when she said, in a Writer’s Confessions interview (check it out on YouTube, look up Claudia Dey), you have to believe that what you are doing is essential. Some days I hit myself on the forehead with that very worthy thought. That, and these two very essential words: KEEP GOING. I’ve heard some writers describe their process as being similar to pushing a rock across the floor with their nose. I imagine the rock is easier to move along sometimes. (When I say things like this, my husband shakes his head, asks me, couldn’t you have chosen a simpler career goal? I have to remind both of us that it’s not so much that I chose this, but that writing is just….what I do.)

Another thing I’ve figured out over the last couple of weeks, is that the great writers have mastered the skill of not just puking out their emotions all over the page. It takes exactly that, a fine tuned skill, to have full control over what you are saying, and how you are saying it. It’s a skill I think I could use more of in my life, as well as my writing.

So I’m taking this course. I need to be taking this course. Why? Because although I have a very supportive family, I’ve had very few people in my life who understand what it takes to become a published writer of fiction. My parents, for example (bless them for the unconditional support they’ve always offered me) would gush over a….grocery list I wrote, if I got them to read one. But that won’t help with my creative writing.

What will help, is the honest, unabashed critical feedback from classmates in a structured, supportive setting, led by a writer (Lisa Moore!) who I admire. Who cares about the cold sweats and hot cheeks. Because as a writer I know that what’s on the page, is what matters.