The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, November 30, 2006

QWF Awards Gala [insert year here]

By Anne Chudobiak

We were told to get to the Gala early: “For the champagne,” said one advisor; “And the tickets,” said another.

The Lion d’Or. Art deco, 1930’s restored. Empty, when we arrived. Black tables with red cloths. L’embarras du choix.

I wanted to be able to see (the audience and the stage). My friend the poetess wanted to be able to hide. We took a table beside the pillar, out of the light. The champagne did not materialize, but there were canapés: asperge en filo, little vol-aux-vents.

“There’s Melissa,” said my friend. “And Jon. You’ll know people.”

I did see one guy I recognized. From yoga. And the café. And the cinema. I hoped that nobody would ask me what I did for a living. If I was smarter, I would lie. “I’m with McDermid,” “I’m here from New York.”

My friend said hello to the table behind us: Jeff, poetry, and Harold, prose. I spinal twisted towards them, maintaining our claim on our table with my sequined clutch. There were latecomers, lots of them, circling. “Is that taken?” they would ask in a not entirely friendly manner.

I picked Angela’s purse off the floor and put it beside mine. Reinforcement. For a while, it worked, but when Angela got up to mingle, a white-haired woman and her companion, a man with wobbly legs, moved right in.

What could I do? I helped them.

I didn’t see them for what they were: strategists of the highest order, clearing the path for younger, more able-bodied Greek soldiers who would soon force their way past me in my new seat at Jeff and Harold’s lesser table.

When the ceremony finally began, I was in the aisle. My only consolation was that the waiter was always close. First dibs on the chicken with gravy. I didn’t have to wave my arms. I didn’t even have to stretch.

At one point, Jeff cleared the canapé tray so that there would be nothing left for the Greeks. Being petty alone is sad, but being petty together is uplifting, all the more so when you are at an event sponsored by a brewery, which, in any case, is a lot like going back in time to whatever year you were last in high school. Flattering, no, but not altogether unpleasant.

When one of the Greeks--the one I thought of as the brains behind the brawn--turned out to be a guest of honour, I had to laugh. Who cared about the pillar, the light, the audience, the stage? A silent feud with oblivious strangers was definitely worth ten dollars and a metro ticket--if done right.

At the end of the evening, Angela approached our honoured friend with shy and sincere congratulations. The Greek responded by pulling out a cell phone, and dialing.

“So you see,” said Harold in a confessional mood, “how someone my age might still essentially be a child.”

“Don’t worry,” I thought. “You’re not alone. Far from it.”

Angela suggested that we walk home through the park. I said yes, because I was feeling young and foolish and saw no reason to change. We said goodnight to Jeff and Harold. It was the next day before I realized that I had both of them at home--in anthology. Funny how sometimes you know more than you let on, even to yourself.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


by Steve Gajadhar

March. Volcanoes National Park. We park at the petroglyphs near the end of Chain of Craters road. We start down the path, over ancient pahoehoe like thick corded hair. My wife skips ahead like she always does and I scramble to keep up, laughing, trying to read the pamphlet.

She sees them first and calls out and I can see her face empty of expression. I come up beside her and I think I feel the same. The figures and the holes for umbilical cords and the swirls that are infinity or near enough, and the carvers that came hundreds of years ago to pound out their existence. And now us with only our camera and our memories to pit against eternity, which is kind of tragic and kind of beautiful.

The pamphlet tells how the holes were pounded out and the umbilical cords placed in so the children would receive the blessing of Pele, the goddess of fire. But I think the holes might be meant for so much more, and that one, at my feet, could be a beacon for the ghost of the last Hawaiian. Blinking in the dark. The ghosts of his ohana will already be there and they will whisper to him when he nears it, so that the last Hawaiian can crawl into this ancient hole and go to sleep leaving no one alive or dead to watch that last light blink out.

Ah, but my mind is too romantic and has not seen the end of the future. I watch my wife instead. How she is quiet and intent. She will bear the children and balance them with a job and the monotony of the day to day to day. I want to tell her this but cannot, so I let these crude figures speak and hope they speak to her like they do to me.

The sun beats down and drives us back to our car. I kneel down to do up my sandal and there’s a puddle under the car, condensation from our air conditioning compressor. I dip my finger into it and draw out my own tiny swirl in the pavement knowing that it will be gone shortly after we drive away.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Blogger Blogs, Wordfest 2006

by J.A. McDougall

I give up.

All day I’ve been trying to bring some insight to the page about the revolution blogging has stimulated in publishing, or at least conclude something intelligent about where our own CWC blog fits. I hoped to achieve this based on my attendance at a terrific Word Fest event last month. The Blogger Blogs: Where is the internet publishing revolution taking us? was moderated by self described non-blogger Shelley Youngblut, Editor-in-Chief of Swerve at the Art Gallery of Calgary on Stephen Avenue Mall, October 14.

The session was not very well attended, but for that I was glad. I took a keener seat in the front row and jotted down as much as I could, asking as many questions the moderator would allow.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but halfway through the program, I realized that titling a session with the word blog is akin to inviting people to a meeting about computers. The range of topics that were discussed reminded me of how little I really know about that world. I could have sat there all day. When I gathered my notes together today and began poking around some of these links, I became increasingly intimidated. This medium has exploded. Promotion, public forum, debate, news, directory. The uses and content areas are unlimited.

The three panelists brought vastly different histories and approaches to blogging. Monique Trottier, Internet marketing manager for Raincoast Books writes a personal blog devoted to “books, writing, tap dancing, technology, and other amusements”. Her answer to the session’s focus, is “towards an online environment that is more participatory, has a higher level of engagement than present, and is more viral.”

Trottier commented that she created her personal blog simply because she wanted to discuss books and other things she enjoys with like-minded people. This discussion base broadened easily and Trottier credits online access with being not only more convenient for fans but also less intimidating which further fuels participation levels. Trottier is obviously an expert in navigating and utilizing the internet for building conversation groups and promoting ideas and products. Here are a few of her favorite sites:
Tiny Little Librarian
For Illustrators and Cartoonists

Karen Neudorf of Calgary edits the beautiful Beyond Magazine, a non-profit publication with a number of holistic and virtuous principles including the dedication to “help our readers reflect on their lives while inspiring them to be instruments of justice, compassion, beauty, and meaning.” The accompanying website and blog extends the experience of the magazine itself. Neudorf recommends getting on a blog reader like this one to help sift through and locate articles most useful and interesting to you. A few of her favorites:

Cool Tools
Apartment Therapy
A Directory of Wonderful Things

Charles Campbell’s site is set up like a blog in that it is updated daily and the focus is on two or three main stories, but The Tyee is really an independent alternate media vehicle that has the freedom and motivation to dig deeper into issues of regional interest. This is one of the great opportunities of online writing. Campbell talked about the long tail in Canada being regional books. With 90% of visitors to The Tyee from BC, his "blog" is certainly feeding this trend.

The conversation eventually made its way to the struggle of balancing healthy discussion in a public forum with the self-centered and uninformed nastiness that can develop. All the panelists recommended diligent moderating to keep the comments within a decent a standard. But, as one mentioned, defining this standard can be tricky. At what point are moderators keeping out dissenting thought? It seems that everything in publishing always comes back to the same over-debated issue of censorship.

At this point, I glanced around the room and smiled sheepishly at some of the other audience members. One thing about sitting so close is that it becomes possible to imagine you are there alone, to forget your manners, and dominate the Q & A.

Trottier had a shining example of one blog that has maintained a particularly high standard of respectful behavior. Young fans of Harry Potter continue to bring their shared love of the books without having discussions descend into flame wars. Trottier created ten rules for her own behavior when using the internet and applies these to conversations in her blog. They include not embarrassing any company or organization, not publishing anonymous remarks, and not engaging in any flame wars.

After a day spent chasing these links around the net, I’m possibly further away from forming an opinion of any consequence so I will leave you to your own journey through with the above sites. Please send me a postcard en route.

Monday, November 27, 2006

No, This Post Does Not Want ‘Encore©’ with That

By Andrew Tibbetts

Of Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, the second one, “Rags to Riches” is the most alien to me. I’m so totally and utterly middle-class. I was born that way and will most likely die that way. Either extreme of the wealth spectrum is foreign terrain.

I don’t know about “rags”- I’ve never missed a meal (except when (crash) dieting or when I’ve stupidly run out of money between pay cheques and have had to blow the dust off the flavour of instant oatmeal I’ve been avoiding eventually deciding to do without rather than endure ‘raisin and spice.’) I’ve never really coveted from the bottom of my heart. I’ve had it easy.

Conversely, I don’t know about “riches”- I don’t own my own home. I don’t go on holidays. Most of my clothes are ripped or stained, not ‘rags’ certainly, but on their way. Like most folks I go from pay cheque to pay cheque. So, I’ve never really basked in opulence.

Even the arc of ‘rags to riches’ is alien to me. I’m in the first Canadian generation whose lifetime earnings will be less that its parents’ and I am a shining example of that phenomenon. My life is less ‘set’ than my dad’s. Not so much that it hurts. Not so much that it screeches in my psyche demanding to be written about.

I don’t think I’ve ever conceived of a story where a character undergoes a financial change. However, if I think back to the earliest stories that resonated with me, it made sense that good characters ended up rich. In fairy tales, Jack goes out to ‘make his fortune’ and ends up with the giant’s gold or the king’s daughter plus half the kingdom, after a suitable show of bravery or cunning of course! It’s not enough for Hansel and Gretel to avoid being eaten by the witch, or even reunited with their papa, or double-even being rid of their nasty step-mother, no, they also must get the witch’s treasure. That’s how you know when the story’s over- when the good guy gets the goods. It’s moral punctuation.

But it’s hard to equate virtue and wealth these days. And it’s become just as corny to equate virtue and poverty. So the point of writing about a character’s bank balance is… what, exactly? I had to think if there was any author I liked whose writing tends to follow a character through a positive financial gain. And then it hit me.

In Can-Lit, the master of this arc is Mordecai Richler. There’s something of a Jack in Duddy Kravitz, for example, a boy who flings himself at the world to prove himself and ‘make his fortune’. There’s a beanstalk that leads to a magical world, and there’s death. And reward. But Richler is a satirical tale-spinner and despite how wealthy his characters end up, the bonanza isn’t undiluted. It’s polluted. His heroes are as likely to demonstrate vice as virtue, and the ‘killing’ is not just of monsters but innocent bystanders too. Think of Virgil, or the victim of the prank phone call. As well, there’s the sad sense that the characters were happier ‘on the hustle’ than ‘in the money’. When an even richer Duddy Kravitz shows up in one of Richler’s later novels, there’s barely a glimmer of the eager, dreamy young man. He still talks non-stop, but he’s fat and tired, and doesn’t really pass for happy.

Usually, the modern ‘rags to riches’ story doesn’t have a happy ending. I think of Lana Turner in “Ziegfield’s Girls”, long shed of her rags, drowning in riches, but lonely, drunk and abandoned by everyone who meant anything to her. In a frenzy, she pulls her furs and jewels into the center of the room, trashing her sumptuous apartment. The help asks her what she’s doing. She says, melodramatically, accompanied by a swoop of violins, “I’m counting my blessings!” Great movie!

Scientists have proven that money can’t buy happiness, but that doesn’t seem to stop us chasing it. Perhaps it’s the chasing that’s the good part anyway. That’s why those old stories always stop with the reallocation of the vanquished one’s treasure. Who wants to see a fat, beery Jack retelling the glory days of his beanstalk climb to a bored, jewel-encrusted mistress? Only a wicked spoil-sport like Richler. Bless his scotch-soaked cigar-smoked heart.

He’s one of the ones I count, when I count my blessings.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Personal request to bloggers


Patricia Parkinson

I hate to do this to you, but well, I'm still sick, not as sick, but God, why won't this fucker leave me alone? This virus, this pneumonia.... this cancer!

I always think its cancer. A sore throat turns into strep throat that turns into throat cancer and I picture myself with a hole in my larynx holding one of those machines to it that will make me sound like a serial murderer, and I have a nice voice! I do! It's one of my favourite things about myself. Aching bones become arthritis and osteoporosis and finally, Lou Gehrig’s. God forbid if I get back an irregular pap smear. My current illness has turned into lung cancer.

I am a smoker - a heavy smoker if the truth be known. I perceive I don't smoke a lot because I never smoke the entire cigarette. I get bored after the first few puffs and flick the rest away. I only smoke cigarettes with white filters and have a theory that if all filters were brown, fewer women would smoke. The white ones seem clean, less bad for me and look better in an ashtray.

Anyway, the thing is, this illness is hitting too close to my mortality home and I've decided to quit smoking!! I suppose this is the thing reformed smokers who can be such a pain in the ass, I hope I don't become like that, but, yes, I will, I can see it now… anyway, this sickness has caused the thing that all non-smokers told me would happen, the thing I didn't believe could ever happen and the thing I didn't want to ever happen. I like smoking.

They’ve all told me, "You'll know when the time is right for you to quit." This saying, resisted for 28 years of my life, I've smoked for 28 years! God, I should have written this number down sooner, reminds me of the times I asked, probably the same people, "How will I know when I'm in love?" "You'll just know," they said. "You'll just know.” They were right about that, so, I figure, they must be right about this too. So this Monday, all the books I've read about quitting smoking say to pick a day, and this Monday, November 27, 2006 will be my first official day of not smoking.

My plan is to get those new nicorette fake cigarettes that look like a cigarette but are plastic and have a nicotine cylinder thingie you put in them and you suck it, or, well, I haven't tried it yet. My main concern is that I'll gain a pound and ditch the idea altogether and never try to quit again. I refuse to be one of those people that walk around with this supposedly healthy smile, clearer skin and increased energy spouting,"Oh gee, I may be a fat porker but at least I don't smoke anymore."

My plan to control weight gain is to go off my antidepressants that I take for anxiety, I’m not depressed, I’m not, really. Anxiety is a good weight loss program, that, and laxatives, I'm kidding of course about the last two points, however, I could take less of them as they slow down my metabolisim and I figure, hey, it's all about less!!! And then I think if I take less and already have increased anxiety because I'm trying to quit smoking, maybe I should take more meds and be semi-comatose and sit around all daying eating bags of things that say, “No Trans Fats! You now have insight into the inner workings of my mind, not that you didn't before, but well, I’m freaking about doing this.

I'm telling you all this here, it's making me manic just thinking about posting it... which seems like overkill now, but I wanted to do this, sitting here late to post, because there are a few things I like to think I know about myself. I am habitually late, not too late, but late none the less, my favourite clothes are outerwear. I love coats and robes and shawls and scarfs and ponchos and fishermen’s knit sweaters. I am a whore for the smell of my husband’s after shave and if I tell people I'm going to do something, especially in a public forum such as this, I will be one hundred percent more likely to follow through. I have to quit smokling. I love my kids and it’s not man hater week so Phil is in the good books and besides, I haven’t finished my novel and Barbara Walters isn’t going to live forever, so with that in mind, this is my request to you. Please ask my about this, do not read this and then forget that I'm trying to quit smoking, ride my ass. Okay? Because well, I have to be accountable you see, so wish me luck and pray that my chest x-ray comes back clear.


At the time of posting, my first official day has moved to Tuesday.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Getting Ready to Leave NaNo Island for Another Year

by Melissa Bell

Hello everyone, and a very Happy Day After Thanksgiving to our South-of-the-Border friends! Hope your holiday was (and continues to be) a very fine one indeed. If you've managed to NaNo throughout this busy time of year – hats, toques, berets and sombreros off to you. That's one thing we as Canadians don't have staring us in the face as we begin this writing marathon every November 1.

And so, yes, I'm still at it. And I'm tired. I expect I'll break into the 40,000s over the weekend – maybe even today, if I'm lucky - and, while I'm still enjoying how things are rolling along (a miracle some days, I assure you), I am anxious now for it to be over. When you next hear from me, it will be over, and hopefully I will have found something else to talk about by then. Like becoming a non-smoker again. And reacquainting myself with regular exercise. December 1 is the date, my friends. It'll be my Christmas gift to myself.

However, until that time, I'll just say that this NaNoWriMo year has, for some reason, been the best year ever. I can't say why – goodness knows it's not because I started out with a strong outline and a clearly mapped out plan of attack. Almost every day I just tried to sit down and let myself be surprised by what might happen, and, thankfully, most days have been a pleasure. Really. But it's not over until it's over though, and while the end is in sight, the ending is not. I've still got a few hurdles ahead of me. But I will make it this year. That I know.

Have a wonderful weekend, everybody!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Fed Up With All The Misery

We’re always looking for conflict in our stories. Always conflict. How I got into Cezanne’s Carrot, a journal running on the solstice schedule, which prides itself on all things hopeful, spiritual, I’ll never know. As a writer, I’m a miserable person, always with the misery. Oy. In real life, I’m a happy-go-lucky (whatever that means) kind of guy, a pleasant drunk, eager to help out whenever I can. I’m a great listener when I want. But as a writer—holey crap, I’m miserable. The people closest to me have come to accept that this is the way I write. They don’t look for alternate endings. They read and comment accordingly. They expect that brick wall to show up eventually. Do they enjoy the read? Who knows? My wife does, I think, but then, she’s my best reader, my closest reader -- the one person I know will get the gist. She’s had a lot of practice, though, poor thing. But you know what I’m starting to think? Cezanne’s Carrot is onto something good. The best stories have open endings, they grab the readers by the back of the neck, and pull them in, force them to think about the way they’d like to see the story end. You can guide the reader right through to the finish, if you want, or you can give up some of the power. You can say, “I think this is a remarkable story to tell, that unfolded in such and such a way – don’t you think?” It’s what we do. We put down on paper those experiences and events we think are worth sharing, but then we have to give it up to the reader's interpretations. If I’ve done my job right, I’ve got you by the balls from the first paragraph, and by the end, we’re telling the story together.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Choosing Your Bliss

by Tamara Lee

So, I’ve stalled in my NaNo-quest because I can't figure out where to take the characters next, and now all I want is to curl up and eat ice cream. It’s been that sort of week. Woe is me, I'll get over it. But it's got me thinking.

When I was a kid, I was a figure-skater-in-training and even had a personal trainer for a brief time, up until I was about 9. Then I quit when I declared skating was too hard, and eventually made my way towards fulfilling my dream of being a badass kid.

This lifestyle change crossed my mind yesterday as I took my new used skates out for a spin up at the local ice rink. Three-quarters of the way through my first overly-confident pass around the rink, I fell so hard the wind was knocked out of me, the safety on my watch popped and my knee swelled up into a mound not unlike silly putty.

For me, it’s either one or the other. And whatever is the one; I always seem to think I should have had the other.

Then when I was a teenager, out for my monthly lunch at the White Spot with my dad, ordering was a test of stamina for us both. No matter how long I took, my father always took longer. And no matter what he chose, he always, at some point during the meal, would twist around towards a neighbouring table to see what they were eating. Then he’d return to his meal with that sour look of disappointment, certain he should have had something else.

And so it is, I’ve found myself in my so-called dream job—a so-so paying gig that allows me flexibility and time to write—and now I worry I may have screwed up. That perhaps I should have ordered something else, should have taken that bland office job that would have meant I’d be mortgaging my life up the wazzu. But at least I wouldn’t die an old bitty, sitting alone, eating cat food in a dank SRO.

Like I said, for me, it’s always one or the other.

Choosing this life, this self-employed follow-one's-passion life, at my age, makes no sense to those who grew up thinking that getting the proper job and sticking with it is how one ought to run her life. Or his life, because usually those who think that way also think her proper life, even in this day and age, means she marries a fella who can take care of the family, while she works part-time to help pay off the monstrous mortgage and raises the kids and keeps the house pretty and goes to the PTA meetings or what have you. A good life for many, I know it is, but that life always terrified me. I never dreamed of having kids or getting married or any of that.

So I chose the other life, and ended up with not one of those aforementioned good things. I chose the life that meant following my heart and impulses. I chose the life that meant eternal freedom, taking the degrees I wanted at school, taking the trips I wanted to take, trying different professions to see how they fit. And now… Now, I can’t afford to buy a home in my own hometown. But I’m free to wonder the Earth, free of any debts, and free to write.

When I meet other women my age who are in the same position as I am, terrified of making the wrong decision, or that they’ve already made the wrong ones, yet even more terrified of making the safe decisions, I know, before she even tells me, that she is an artist-type raised by practical parents. This group seems especially vulnerable to this indecision phenomenon, especially those who are heading towards 40 and haven’t a mortgage or kid to direct their decision-making process.

Yesterday, as I nursed my bruises, eating the best papusas in Vancouver, and sipping a good cabernet sauvignon, not really having to be anywhere at 5 pm on a Sunday afternoon (except, maybe working on the NaNoNovel), I considered my current lifestyle.

I was with two other unmarried, childless women my age (honestly, there seem so few of us, but I know so many): one is in the so-called safe job, insisting no one really ever truly loves their job; one was worrying she’d made the wrong decision by letting go of her art-y, fun but low-paying job for the safe one; and the last woman, me, still couldn’t make up her mind.

Doubt is not the domain of the single 30-ish woman, to be sure. But I can’t help but hear somebody’s mother—not mine, for she knows better by now—saying, “Make up your mind. We haven’t got all day.” The shivering 9-year-old budding figure skater stands toe-to-toe with the 39-year-old overeducated and underpaid artist-type, and sticks out her tongue. Is she spoilt or has she spoiled everything?

What flavour do you choose when the options seem infinite? Is it really only a choice between vanilla, chocolate and, maybe, strawberry? Is Bliss a legitimate flavour?

I wonder how high I can pile my cone...

Monday, November 20, 2006

Groovy Bright Eyed Darkness

by Tricia Dower

Bright eyes, burning like fire. You’re in the zone. Riding the wave of heightened creativity. Invulnerable to blank page tyranny. Mixing metaphors with aplomb. Using words like aplomb. No plot predicament is impervious to your genius. Stoned/drunk/ smashed on… under the influence of Atwood-Munro-Ondaatje power. Possessed and obsessed. Magnanimous enough to hug the world. How could you do anything but write?

Hello darkness, my old friend. You’re the lone occupant of an impenetrable castle. A Rapunzel who doesn’t want to be rescued. The drawbridge is up, dragons prowling the moat. You don’t have time, you’re not in the mood, you have a headache. Everyone should just LEAVE YOU ALONE! Something dense and poisonous clogs your brain, you need a doctor, a plumber, a bottle of wine. If you could just push, drive, ram it through, you’d be back in the zone.

Then the gift of a dream arrives. Or the poignant, high voice of a violin. Did someone say something deep? It could as easily have been Tinkerbell sprinkling you with pixie dust. For, inexplicably, you’re back. Life I love you, all is groovy.

Which Simon and Garfunkel Album are you?

According to the quiz, I’m Bridge Over Troubled Water: “You’re melancholy, but probably not dark. A dreamer; a lover, not a fighter. Keep your distance due to shyness more than anything else. Still, you try to enjoy life; do pretty well at it.” Sail on silver girl, sail on by.

Photo: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel once upon a time. Snippets of their lyrics from Bright Eyes, The Sound of Silence, 59th Street Bridge Song and Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Northern Lights

By Ania Vesenny

My husband comes home at 11PM after his night course and we are all still awake. Don’t ask me why. “Get dressed! Northern lights!” he says. He helps our daughter into her snowsuit and I pull a huge parka over myself and the baby. We step out, but the lights are almost gone. “If we could drive away from the town,” I say. My husband opens the door of his office car, the one which is not for private trips, and winks. We jump in. We drive up The Road to Nowhere. The snow is not cleared. We realize we might not be able to make a turn, but we decide not to worry about it for a couple of minutes.

With the headlights off -- complete darkness. The stars are everywhere. The sky stretches low, I don’t even need to look up. I’ve never seen so many stars. The northern lights are pale, wispy, shimmering green. “They say if you whistle at them they come closer,” I say. We look at each other and whistle. Nope.

I stay out with the baby to direct the three point turn. On one side there is a ditch, on the other there is a ravine. My son gets hysterical--his father and sister are seemingly driving away. He screams out his first complete sentence, which is roughly, “The car, the car, let’s get in the car!” followed by a prolonged wail of despair and something that sounds like a few swear words.

As we drive home I close my eyes and imagine this very same sky and the snow covered tundra, existing hundreds of years ago, millions, maybe. Before Iqaluit, before everything.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Rare Books Library After Hours

By Anne Chudobiak

We ambush a cabbie outside the Ultramar. He is standing in the rain with a squeegee.

“It smells toxic,” I say as I buckle myself in. “Gas.”

“And upholstery,” says Colleen.

We both sniff.

When we get to Rare Books, all the lights are off. The librarians are at their desks, their hands folded. Everyone is whispering, so we do, too.

“We’re waiting for the cameraman,” someone tells me. “Well, cameraman! Hugh.”

Cameraman? Hugh? I thought this was a reading.

A four-year-old in a party dress quietly reproaches me: “Where are Esme and Seymour?”

“Geez, Una,” I say. “I got a babysitter. It’s almost bedtime.”

We are divided into groups and told to creep through the stacks--“Slowly!” I position myself behind a young boy, but he wimps out, running to the back of the line at the sight of Alisha. She is wearing a dress, all white, and a mask, with ears.

I remember her at book club last spring--turquoise pants and rabbit-fur gloves--fresh from class--“We moved like bugs in the throes of death!”--butoh, the dance of darkness.

We follow her to a table, eerily lit, where she opens a leather-bound book of her own creation, red as a rose or is that a cabbage?

Leonora Carrington
, “The Debutante:” A reluctant society girl sends a hyena to the ball in her stead.

Alisha reads in character--a hyena-girl hybrid--glaring at the boy beside me when he dares to cough. I'd smile at him, if I had the courage. No drinks in Rare Books. Not for the faint of heart, the book-binding vernissage.

After the applause, Una rewards her mom with a sober hug and demands to be taken home--by cab. Someone hands her a cabbage leaf--the real thing--to tide her over and she digs in, staining her face purplish black.

Picture: Permission and acknowledgement forthcoming. An Alisha Piercy original (Mr. Rabinovitch, please take note) from Antechamber (bindings, book objects and the stories of Leonora Carrington).

"The Debutante"

Lande Reading Room, McGill Rare Books, November 9th
Picture courtesy of Kathy.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


(Whatever you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you)

by Steve Gajadhar

We all know the song, an oldie and a goodie. Give it a sing. See how the words roll off the tongue? I’ve often found that the idea behind the lyrics, the frame of mind formed by the words, rolls through my head just as easily. And I know I’m not alone. Fess up!

I caught myself at it the other day while I was looking at a collection of paintings by local artists. For the sake of argument, let’s say they were crap. And they kind of were. But I try to give everything (and everyone) a second chance, so I went the “art and beauty are in the eye of the beholder” route and moved on to the next batch. Also crap, but with potential. Same for the next group and the next. But the last artist was just bad, with no way to justify it, no lame ass out clause from my opinion. The combined poorness of the collection, some of which were priced in excess of $2,000, got me thinking. I could do this, I can paint, draw, etc. With a little work I could do better.

There it is. The evil twin of WYCDICDB, ICDABTY (whew!), contempt for others work. That’s the true motivation behind WYC…you know what I mean. Most of us (if we are honest with ourselves) think that our work is better than our coworkers; our kids are smarter; our dog is cuter; that our “everything” is in some immeasurable way better. It’s human nature, another nasty line of code in the protectionist-regionalist-racist-NIMBY-selfish part of our evolutionary programming, because for the most part mankind is a horrid lot of only children running around and taking our balls back from everyone else. But there’s hope.

I prescribe writing as a way to move beyond this, to get some perspective on the difficulty of things. Let’s borrow Aristotle’s philosopher-king idea and say that all people should be writers. Besides how much better off the world would be (okay, other than the sheer scale of deforestation - but no war, and with all that money left over from defense spending we could try and mitigate world hunger), people would see that it’s really hard to do things that you think are easy. Be it a writing, knitting, sewing, trading stocks, or fixing brains (okay that’s just hard). It takes time and hard work, or talent and luck to get good at something. We all have some of each, but in varying amounts. That’s what I think.

But I could still paint better, I mean, honestly…

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On the Last Day of Autumn

By J.A. McDougall

In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, while the kids are safe at school, we are driving. I check the clock. “It’ll be quiet in there now. We won’t have to wait.”

My husband doesn’t answer or even turn his head. I follow his stare to the narrow road. Dry leaves blow from near naked poplars to clot in the place where sidewalks meet asphalt. Above, branches lean toward one another spotting the sky with curling greens ready at any moment for their release from the russet and golden canopy.

I catch sight of her fall coat in the rear view mirror. Its mosaic of ambers, blacks, and ginger is the first thing one would see, the soft white fur of her underside often hidden from view as it is now. My husband had placed her carefully there on the back seat hoping she’d stay safe, but suddenly I wish I had her in my lap, just as she was for her first car ride ten years ago. Driving from the farm, she cuddled up against my newly pregnant belly for three hours. She’s so heavy now, I can’t lift her.

We couldn’t have predicted how Lucy would change our life. The stubborn nature of a basset hound only strengthens as they age, keeping us on duty every last hour. Her acute sense of smell coupled with admirable persistence yielded her a turkey carcass from the kitchen counter one Thanksgiving. With that signature snout her craving for and ability to source anything remotely food related was confirmed the afternoon she wrestled open a Diaper Genie. Continual middle of the night interruptions made us wish we had installed a doggy door in the first place. Our frustration grew with the costs of basic needs plus the inevitable house and yard repairs resulting whenever an animal joins a family to make a home.

We park close to the door and bring Lucy inside the veterinarian’s office. An intuitive receptionist guides us straight into an exam room and spreads out a brown blanket worn soft. My husband carries Lucy to the centre of the room - her hind legs and back end dangling from his arms - and sets her on the blanket. The woman moves to help him and then she leaves. One of us slumps onto a bench, one stands at the dog’s side, both of us cry.

The next woman to appear calls Lucy by name. Her somber expression comforts me whether her cheeks are flushed with sorrow for the patient or empathy toward us, no matter. But I do worry for her. How often must she face this scene?

The woman positions a stethoscope in her ears, runs one palm along our baby’s side, then buries the silver dollar in a spot of white fur.

“She’s gone.”

I move to touch my good friend, to memorize the texture of her back thick with sleek hair and the weight of her magnificent front paws. I try to recall the clip of her nails across the kitchen floor and her scent fresh from the salon.

With patience and a mild manner, she had greeted each new baby with gentle licks to their feet and allowed them a tug on her ears once they were able to sit up. Mostly she was disinterested in us, preferring sleep over play, but the children’s movements were always tracked as she rested a safe distance away. Luggage dragged from storage caused Lucy to sulk and mount hunger strikes until a loving relative arrived to mind her. She was firmly committed to self imposed routines no one could affect until my husband became ill. It was then she had lain at the foot of his bed for days.

“Peace be with you.” My husband is whispering into her ear.

As we pass through the empty waiting room, panic begins at my core, washing over me with a shiver and stealing my breath. I grab my husband’s hand and weave our fingers together. Could we have given her more?

In the parking lot, we float slowly towards our car, free of baggage but for the support group pamphlet and a blue strap purchased a decade ago. Light flakes have begun decorating branches, veiling our path ahead, bringing with them the next season in our life and the pleasures that will surely follow.

Monday, November 13, 2006

His Name was Mu'nis

By Andrew Tibbetts

I went to a reading last night- my first Toronto Event since moving here. I felt socially rusty. I don’t know what to say, where to look, what to think, how to feel. Everyone seemed nice, and things were funny and charming. Surely that can’t be right? I was going to blog about it, but I sat with the authors and organizers afterwards and everyone kept joking about who was going to blog about this, and nobody was. I’m unsure of the etiquette of these things. And besides I’m worried that there might have been several metaconversations going on that I was oblivious too. Being a rube. Fresh off the bus. From the provinces. An innocent. Adrift. In the complicated urban sociojungle.

So: I won’t tell you that Pasha Malla, Melissa Bell, John MacFarlane and Michelle Orange were funny and smart. I won’t encourage you to search out their writings. Instead I’ll make something up. Just as the event was about to begin the cure for cancer occurred to me so I rushed out to purchase a professional-looking notebook and fancy pen. I found a quiet café where I could jot it down. I procured a cab. “The New England Journal of Medicine on the double, Cabbie!” I said, offending my taxi driver who "had a name." He muttered, sulked and drove so slowly that we were easily intercepted by agents from BigPharm who stole my cure and wiped my memory. All this happened in a much more amusing way than I have conveyed here. Please imagine that and respond accordingly.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Remembrance Day

Patricia Parkinson

This is a day to remember and contemplate, to think about the world that was, the world that is, and to honor the brave men and women that have fought and continue to fight for the freedoms we have, and most importantly, to never forget.

I will honor this day with a poem, one of my favorite poems, one that I think everyone knows, written by a fellow Canadian, an army physician named John McRae in 1915. The above picture is a copy of the poem in Leiuntant Colonel McRae's handwriting.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Please take a moment of time today, have a moment of silence with your family, with your children, let them know how important today is, not a holiday, not a day of missing school, today is a day to remember.

Thank you.

Happiness is a Warm Keyboard

by Melissa Bell

Hi friends! Jeepers, was I just here two weeks ago? Seems like yesterday. Ah, such is the bittersweet season of National Novel Writing Month where time is measured not in days, but in wordcount. (Now is that two words or one?) I reached the 16,000-word mark late Wednesday night, so I'm a wee bit ahead of schedule. Good for me. But I'm anxious as hell though. I've got a bizzy-bizzy weekend coming up and the fun-to-be-had could blow me off course.

But so far, so great. Yeah, great. Hee! I'm enjoying myself. The storylines are progressing nicely, and I like the characters that have shown up to play with me for the month (well, one's a bit of a dink, but I've got plans for him - shh! don't tell!)

Shout outs to my fellow CWCers here who are also doing the NaNo thing – Andrew, Anna, Patricia, Ania, and Tamara…is that everyone? And for anyone else out there who might be reading this, my user name at the NaNo site is "mellyb". Please feel free to drop me a line over there ( or here, and let me know how it's going for you. For the first time ever, I quickly chewed and swallowed my pride and actually posted an excerpt at the site, and yeah, it probably does blow dead beavers, but hey, I wrote it in under half an hour. Thank goodness for Mr. P.'s grade 9 typing class. It's at times like these I raise a glass in his honour and forgive his chronic halitosis. (Gosh, how old would Mr. P. be now? He was a young man when he was my teacher. Criminy, he could be…oh man, let's not even go there, Mel.)

Okay, let's go here, instead:

Hey, if you're in the Toronto neighbourhood Sunday night (Nov. 12 for those who need a calendar), please come on down to the Gladstone Hotel! Toronto native and writer fabulous, Michelle Orange, will be introducing her new book The Sicily Papers, freshly published by the creators of that delicious literary journal Hobart. Its editors (and incredibly talented writers in their own rite), the arrestingly lovely Elizabeth Ellen and dashing young scribe, Aaron Burch, will be there, as will the super terrific and always entertaining Pasha Malla! John MacFarlane is also on the agenda along with Yours Truly, and your hosts will be the highly amusing Kathleen Phillips and Michael Balazo. 8 p.m., folks, at 1214 Queen St. West. A measly $5 gives you access to all the action and a raffle ticket to some great prizes (I've been to a Hobart event before – and trust me, they give away some mighty tasty swag!) Don't sit at home and watch The Simpsons! VCRs were invented for nights like this!

Other stuff I feel like sharing with you:

Watch for an upcoming interview with Canadian ex-pat, Justine Musk – author of BloodAngel. "Talented" doesn't begin to describe Justine. If you want a taste of what she's up to, visit her website at, but don't hate her because she's beautiful (which she really is – I've had the privilege of meeting this extraordinary young lady in person and no wonder she lives in L.A. now – that level of gorgeousness practically needs a permit in Canada). She's also truly brilliant, articulate, and funny as hell, so stay tuned!

My certificate from Humber College arrived in the mail today. For what it's worth, I'm now a graduate of the Creative Writing – Comic Screenwriting program. There's gold printing on the paper and everything. And my name. And signatures of people I never met and cannot make out. Whatever. Some people who decide things have decided I actually did something and gave me some authorized documentation to prove that I did it. Yay me!

I actually finished knitting one of those scarves I blogged about last time, and found the cajones to wear the completed item to work (not all that difficult when my place of employment, while probably one of the loveliest of all offices in the City, is also one of the coldest due to its higher-than-high ceilings). One of my beloved bosses, our CFO, told me it was "beautiful". Yeah. He said that. He's a kind man, our Sean, CFO. And so I'm repeating his word here. Damn, I've had a fine week! Life is good.

And so with all that positivity, I'm going to sign off and get on with the task of NaNo-ing for the day, my dear friends. 2,000 words. If I can think 'em, I can type 'em (thanks, again, Mr. P – wherever you are!).
Have a great weekend, y'all!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

It takes all kinds of people to make a Canadian Writer's Collective

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Wholeness Meter

by Tricia Dower

Victoria’s first poet laureate, young wife and mum Carla Funk, teaches at UVic when she isn’t penning lines for Victoria’s finest moments. (Ode to More Condo Development?) She doesn’t look like Wordsworth or Tennyson. For one thing, she has hair like pressed sunlight falling to her waist. She read a week ago Saturday at The Malahat Review’s somewhat misleadingly labelled “Gala” —coffee and cookies, nobody dressed up. Carla’s official bio says she grew up “in a world of logging trucks, Mennonites, storytellers and rural realism.” She envisions the “space of the page as a clean landscape where we can draw our own borders.” The poems she read were down to earth and powerful. I could have listened longer.

An aural art form, poetry is better for readings than prose, I think, especially if the poems are short. No struggle to follow the plot. You can let the rhythm of the words transport you; let their beauty infiltrate your subconscious (and perhaps the grocery list you’re drafting: ‘milk - empty of colour; coffee - dark and flowing.')

Pauline Holdstock, a heavy hitter in the literary world, with numerous books and a Giller prize nomination to her credit, says she tries to “reconcile the beauty and cruelty of the world” in her work. She read from The World of Light Where We Live. It won the 2006 Malahat Novella Prize. At the beginning and at points along the way, she wisely explained what we were hearing: scenes in a story about native people the government moved from long-held hunting lands to the shores of frozen waters where they were expected to survive on fish. I got a little lost trying to keep track of Wife, Husband and Brother, not to mention who had taken the sled where. None of that mattered, however, when she got to the ending — as heartbreaking as one could imagine. I cried.

Cut to a week later, Victoria’s McPherson Playhouse. Sitting in the upper balcony with everyone else who bought tickets late for the Bruce Cockburn concert, I scanned for cracks in the ceiling and pondered why Carla’s and Pauline’s readings had gotten to me while some others do not. The first notes out of Bruce’s throat —and fresh tears in my eyes — gave me the answer. It is the wholeness of their voices, the sense in my gut that their words are true to their natures as well as their art. A merging of intellect and spirit. An acceptance and celebration of who they are.

I got hooked on Bruce years ago when I heard If I Had a Rocket Launcher, the defiant, idealistic song he wrote after a trip to Guatemala. Now he sings about 9/11 and a trip he made to Baghdad; Tell the Universe (what you’ve done) is directed to Bush and company. His musical poems come straight from a convicted heart. If you’re interested, this interview in The Progressive offers more insight into what inspires the man.

Carla and Pauline seem to write from clear inner visions, as well; their words belong to them and no one else. It made me wonder how true or counterfeit my own words are. If there were such a thing as a Wholeness Meter, it might be fun to throw my words in and see how I score. Then, again, it might not be.

Photos: Poet Carla Funk; Author Pauline Holdstock; Singer/Songwriter Bruce Cockburn

Monday, November 06, 2006

My Bio-Fantasy

By Tamara Lee

It's the end of NaNo week one. And things are getting silly.

And I need to write a bio. For a different project.

Wander over there to the left, and you’ll see my bio’s rather paltry. These past few weeks I’ve become quite aware how little I have to reveal. Guess that handful of rejections and list of publications I’m terrified to submit to aren’t worth mentioning. But the more I sub, the more I recognise I need to drum up a bio for query letters and the occasional publication. Then my mind glazes over with a Wayne’s World-style flash and I go south.

Thinking about trying to describe myself, I fall into a cheesy fantasy about being interviewed for that novel I’ve not written. The one I’m working on. And as I spiral deeper and deeper, I see the interviewer is Jon Stewart (‘cause it’s my fantasy, dammit) and he has maybe even read my book and I am trying not to giggle, or stare at the bald spot he attempts to hide because I’m in bald-Jon-Stewart denial (and judging by his recent almost-combover, so is Jon Stewart).

Okay, so maybe I’ll bring this fantasy north, and think of someone up here who’ll maybe read my book (and my bio, neither of which I’ve written yet). Someone like Daniel Richler. Yes, maybe he’ll read my novel. And I’d try not to look at his bald spot either, but I’d certainly swoon at his big words and dry humour. And I’d not giggle at all, because it’s Daniel Richler and with him it’d be chuckles. Yes, I’d chuckle with Daniel; snicker with Jon. And then there’s the pretty Trudeau boy, not the teacher-turn-mini-icon one, the other one, the one who makes those earnest documentaries. Yes, maybe he’d read my bio, I mean book. If ever I’d finish either.

So my fantasy has now turned into a round-table event, with Jon and Daniel and pretty-Trudeau-boy. And me. And I’ve written my bio and I’ve written my book and I’m not giggling. (I will not giggle). And it’s all very informative and jocular. Except for the big bottle of gel on the table, which the boys are using, not on me, alas, but on their thinning hair-dos. Daniel, a most virile adopted-Richler, uses the least (although perhaps his brother Jacob is virile, too, but he wrote an article that pissed me off once, thus sullying my childhood Jacob Two-Two crush forever.)

So anyway, the fellas, as I’ll be calling them, are all arguing over which passage of the book is most inspiring or something. Jon’s at a loss for words first, which is sort of surprising for him; and the Trudeau fella, he just becomes brooding or pensive. It’s Daniel who perseveres and says things more poignant than the novel could ever say, but I forgive him because he has all his hair and his brother is Jacob bloody Two-Two. And, and…

And I realise I still have over 40,000 NaNo words to go.

And I still haven’t written my bio.

So, wha'? Do you think this one is too long?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Thoughts from the arctic

By Ania Vesenny

Twilight at 3:30PM. Night-like darkness at 4:25. I’ve been in Iqaluit for only four months, so I still find this exotic. Two kids were letting bicycle wheels roll down a snowy hill by North Mart. They would chase them down, climb up the hill, and start again. We stopped and watched. A surreal scene.

Yesterday a huge raven, its feathers glistening, spent five minutes on the rail of our back deck. “Kloo-kluk, kloo-kluk.” Like pebbles dropped into a well. Melodious and rhythmic. Did you know that ravens mate for life? Did you know that polar bears can smell a human 30 kilometers away? If you meet one, and it charges at you, don’t run away. Fight for your life. This is what the instructional video says.

Friday, November 03, 2006

You're a Pisa Work, Lady Godiva

By Anne Chudobiak

My beloved hairdresser Mathilde makes the appointment. Nails. Three o’clock.

We take her car. A Mercedes. I don’t know how old.

The shop is small. I squeeze in beside a guy--“What’s he doing here?”--and a lady who is drying her toes.

A woman takes my hand, asks me what I want (something that I had once years ago?). This must be the boss. Tami. “Rose et blanc,” she asks, incredulous. “En poudre?

Mathilde is a teeny bit jealous. “Can I get that next time, too?” she asks.

A phone rings.

“Honey,” says a woman, her hands laid out, freshly lacquered, temporarily disabled.

The guy beside me unzips a purse. “Hello?”

I am guided to a place by the window. I smile at the woman at the next table. She blushes. I know her. She co-owns a health food store, where she mans the cosmetics, non-toxic, of course. I feel as though I’ve caught her out, which only makes me feel more warmly towards her.

“Come by the store, tomorrow,” she tells me when she leaves. “I want to see how your nails turn out.”

An exaggerated woman bursts in, already tall, gigantic in heels, a shock of make-up, electric blond extensions. The braces on her teeth don’t help.

I gasp and Mathilde gives me a look.

C’est pour un party d’Hallowe’en,” the woman insists. She says hello to everyone in the room. She’d kiss us if she could. I grin fiendishly by way of apology.

“How long?” a woman with clippers asks me. I call her Silent Bob.

“Not too long that I can’t type,” I say, tapping my fingers on the table, wishing that I could get my pen from my bag. If that guy with the purse was my boyfriend, would he take dictation?

Encore?” asks Silent Bob.

Encore,” I say.

“Ok,” she says. “Lavez les mains.

I make my way past a nail-polish display (You’re a Pisa Work: pink; Lady Godiva: red), to the back of the shop, where an elderly Vietnamese lady, a friend of Tami’s, shoves me into a bathroom, saying, “Si vous voulez!” By this, I understand that I too will soon lose the use of my hands. I am already somewhat compromised. I struggle with the paper towel.

“It eez better if you pay now,” says Silent Bob when I emerge, my hands held out like a five-year-old’s, awaiting inspection (“Did you use soap? Let me smell.”)

Beside me, a customer prepares to leave. One of Tami’s minions helps her with her coat, doing up the buttons, wrapping the scarf around, once, twice, tenderly. “Is that how you like it?” she asks, before holding the door open and easing the woman onto the sidewalk. A rainy afternoon on the Plateau Mont-Royal. Pas mal gorgeous.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Canadian Travel Stories Contest: The Winners!

Last week the judges emerged from where I’d locked them up (Alice Munro’s basement) sweating, starving, crying but clutching their final votes in their hands. It’s taken me a bit of time to decipher their handwriting and to crunch the numbers. But- it’s all over; I’m proud to let you know that the Canadian Travel Stories Contest has its winners!

3rd Place goes to Len Joy for Riding a Greyhound Bus into the New World. A wonderful work of Canadian literature will find its way to him as a prize.

2nd Place goes to Janisse Ray for Pangea Split. A wonderful work of Canadian literature will find its way to her as a prize.

1st Place goes to Kuzhali Manickavel for Hoodoos. $50 will find its way to her as our grand prize.

We’ll present these writers’ three super stories throughout December on our blog. Please come and check them out.

Thanks to the other finalists and to all the other entrants. We can’t wait to have another contest we enjoyed this one so much. Even the most wounded of the judges has signed up for another round. I’ll hose Alice Munro’s basement down and we’ll see you again next time.