The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, December 31, 2007

Naysayer of the Year

I didn’t want to have to be the one to denounce everyone’s favourite movie of the year. I’d much rather end 2007 in harmony with all mankind, film critics included. But I can’t keep quiet any longer, not with Away From Her making it onto so many Top Ten lists (the Guardian, Salon, CBC).

I remember the day I brought it home from the video store. I was excited. After all, I’d only heard good things about it. The New Yorker’s David Denby called it a triumph. Not bad for a Canadian movie! And first-time director Sarah Polley was barely in her twenties when she decided to bring Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” to the big screen. Like many others, she’d read the story about an elderly couple’s experience of Alzheimer’s in the New Yorker. Unlike everyone else, though, she bought the rights, and cast Julie Christie in the lead role.

Confession: I read that story when it first appeared eight years ago, but I didn’t begin to realize how amazing it was until late 2004, when Jonathan Franzen reviewed another bunch of Munro stories for the New York Times. He explained that Runaway was too good to even talk about and focused instead on another collection from three years earlier, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, which closes with “The Bear.” He goes through this story, detailing just how complicated and tricky it is.

I wanted the movie version to be as good as the Franzen précis, but that may have been asking too much. I don’t know the reasons behind it, but moviemaking seems to require simpler, more straightforward stories. Although it makes sense that Polley’s spin on marriage would be less conflicted than Munro’s, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Her Fiona and Grant seem “lyrical, tremblingly earnest, faux literary”—everything, Franzen so eloquently argues, Munro is not. At Polley’s old age home, the nurses read Alistair Mcleod aloud to the patients. In Munro’s, there are only supermarket paperbacks. In the movie, the residents are losing their minds, but not their political awareness. The addled Fiona, at one point watching the news, likens an American invasion (on Iraq?) to Vietnam. At the end, the viewer has a positive image of marriage: There are ups and downs, but it is worth it! Does that sound like Munro to you? (When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on the philosophy of feminism. One day, the professor devoted an entire lecture to the disadvantages for women of marriage and motherhood. At the end of the class, she rushed off, joking wryly that she had to meet her husband and child. That moment was more Munrovian than this entire movie.)

There are other problems as well. Denby writes that Polley shows “an impressive feeling for the spiritual meaning of landscape, as when Fiona, on skis, finds herself isolated in the snow and, looking around at the open fields, experiences the terror of a life without signposts,” from which I have to conclude that there are some clichés that are uniquely Canadian. Hand any Ontario girl a Camcorder and she will go out into the snow to film some trees. When I watched this movie, I wasn’t thinking so much about my future as an old person but as my past as a student in high school photography class. (In those days, Clayoquot Sound posters, with their bottom-up view of imposing trees, were just starting to plaster bedroom walls across the country.)

The landscape is strangely girlish, the swearing, a little young (fuck, fuck, fuck, rather than Christ almighty or son of a bitch), but the one teenaged character, an unhappy visitor to the old age home, sounds like a grandmother. “I should be so lucky,” she says to Grant after he tells her about the strange circumstances of his marriage to Fiona. Should be so lucky? Please!

But don’t let this discourage you from watching the movie. By all means, see it. Then go back to the story and of course the Franzen review, and come back here to debate it with me. I await your comments! May you make many in 2008 ;)

p.s. My Gazette review of Louis Rastelli’s A Fine Ending here.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Mele Kalikimaka

I wish you all happiness and health. In the New Year, I urge all of you to look upon the things that make you happy rather than the things that make you sad.

Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say
On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day
That's the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway
Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright
The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii's way
To say "Merry Christmas to you."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Wrapping things up

By Tamara Lee

A couple days ago, five days before Christmas, I received a rejection form letter. I’d been uncharacteristically confident the publication would accept one of my stories; I’d even spent some extra bucks to send the stories by courier post.

So tonight as I wrapped presents and watched The Grinch, nursing some guilt over the embossed red Christmas paper I’d splurged on, I wondered whether that editor had considered the timing of her rejection when she was sealing her letter.

One of the final acts of the year—the ceremony of sealing, adorning, and proffering a token of affection—is essentially about wrapping presents and affecting someone else’s future in some small way.

When I worked retail, I resisted the complimentary gift-wrapping part of the job. I was always a bit suspicious of folks who don't wrap their loved ones' gifts, and my awkward tucks and tape-jobs weren’t a hit with the customers anyway. But wrapping has since become one of my favourite rituals of the season.

An editor who sends out rejection letters at Christmastime is most likely just settling up affairs before the New Year. There’s no deliberate Grinchiness, I'm sure. There's never a right time to get one, anyway.

Besides, I’m by no means in a funk about the rejection; in fact, I’m even a bit relieved. After waiting six months to hear back, I was beginning to feel as though my stories were being held ransom. Of course, six months isn’t an exceptionally long time for editors to hold a story; writers everywhere have endured much longer away-times, but this felt different.

As much as I figured that the stories were ready to go when they did—I’d carefully re-worked and prepared the five pieces for four different publication categories, researched the editor and the book project thoroughly—I’ve been anxious to revisit them, to touch them up a bit, to send them elsewhere.

This year’s been so full of change for me it feels like a different person subbed those stories all those months ago.

Now, at the risk of sounding like a namby-pamby new-ager, I’m thinking of the rejection as a gift, a second chance. And I’m looking forward to seeking the right home for those puppies.

So, with the letter nearly out of my mind, the presents all bought and wrapped, the bags nearly packed for my long weekend away, and the to-do list sporting more crossed-off than starred, it’s beginning to look and feel a lot more like Christmas.

Best of the season to you all.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

It's Seasonal...

By Antonios Maltezos

This close to Christmas, I’m feeling the pressure to come up with something jolly, wishful, nostalgic, to talk about the kids and what we’ve got planned for them this year. I should maybe talk about the snow – we’ve had tons of it so far – and that extra special white Christmas feeling. And I should be sounding happy. When I was a quasi-rocker bum teenager tripping on Black Sabbath, I’d sing Little Drummer Boy if I was walking alone at night and it was snowing. So I do love Christmas. It is a time for wishful thinking, for looking back, maybe with a tinge of sadness, on all the Christmas past. But you know what? Frosty the Snowman was playing the other night, again, and I couldn’t get any of the kids to sit and watch it with me. I must have seen it twenty or more times in my life, but according to them, once is enough. I tried… I tried telling them Frosty doesn’t die in the end, he just goes away until we need him again the following Christmas. That’s the way it was for me. He was my annual heartbreak, a cherished heartbreak because it got me thinking about something I hadn’t experienced yet in real life. It was a good kind of painful. My Zoe gave me those big eyes and shook her head when I insisted she watch the cartoon. “N-uh huh, no way -- not me. You got me to watch it a few years ago, remember?” That’s right. That’s right. It’s worth repeating though. No? I tried getting my little Effy to sit on Santa’s lap the other day, so she could have her first picture taken with the old bugger, but the kid was mortified. Didn’t happen. And it didn’t help the guy was returning from a break and standing at the time, towering over me, daddy, by at least a head and a half, and completely silent the whole time, too. Creep! No ho, ho, nothing. The woman operating the Loto Quebec booth nearby was practically hanging over her glass partition trying to get a good look at my baby and have a good laugh. She’d obviously seen other children equally mortified by this Santa. What are we to do now? I was informed there was a really good Santa at another mall, but I’d already told Effy this giant one was the real thing. It’s pressure, a Christmasy pressure, and I don’t want to get all bah-humbug in the end, but man, do I ever feel it coming on. Oh, well, at least I know they’ll be thrilled with what’s waiting for them under the tree – exactly what they asked for. Me, all I want is another Charley Brown Christmas, and I’m good ‘til next year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Finally Old Enough for the Good Stuff

by Melissa Bell

I've known ten-year-old Sammy her entire life. There aren't too many people I can say that about. She's a truly great kid. And smart. And – joy of joys – she loves to read. And this Christmas I get to indulge her with some of the books I loved – or would have loved - when I was ten.

The books I ordered arrived at my house yesterday, and it took just about everything I had not to curl up on the couch and start reading them myself.

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller – hard to believe this was written when Ms. Keller was only twenty-two – but then again, once you read the book, it's not really that hard to believe at all.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – a gorgeous classic – was Mary Shelley really nineteen when she wrote this?

The Valley of Adventure by Enid Blyton. I haven't actually read this one myself, but I'm pretty sure it will involve the usual group of young Blyton-esque adventurers packing up some sandwiches in wax paper and taking off to discover and solve a mystery. No parents allowed.

There are still a few days to add some more to her gift bag (I don't see Sammy until New Year's). All of the above were just over $6.00 each. If you've got any recommendations of your own – books that you loved as a precocious pre-teen - please let me know in the comments section.

Thanks everyone, and have a wonderful safe holiday!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Few Hours Back Home

by Tricia Dower

“Are you a tenor?” a woman asks me in not the friendliest tone as I slip into a vantage spot — fourth row, dead centre, in the Alix Goolden Hall, the former sanctuary of a former church, now the Royal Conservatory of Music.

I tell her I’m not and she informs me I’ve infiltrated the Tenor section. I look around and see signs on the pews: Tenor, Bass, Alto. The Sopranos are stuck on the right side, behind a post, facing the trombones. I grudgingly shuffle over and sit next to a woman who says, “The centre section will be empty.”

I look around for my friends C and J. We had planned to sit together. I finally spot C who looks like he’s looking for me. We connect and he tells me he was sitting with J and the Altos on the left side of the hall until discovered and sent packing to the Tenors.

It’s clear we’re not going to sing along with the chorus in the Civic Orchestra of Victoria’s Sing-Along Messiah. We ARE the chorus.

They’re handing out vocal scores over in one corner. I’m a little nervous now. I haven’t sung the Messiah in over thirty years. Haven’t debated the merits of various performances of it, either, since my father died. It was one of his favourite works. We saw it together at Carnegie Hall in New York City once. Conductor Leonard Bernstein was taken to task by critics afterward for messing with the structure and substituting a calliope for the organ but I found the entire performance magical.

This afternoon we are conducted by George Corwin, a former professor of music at the University of Victoria. He peers at us over bifocals and has us stand for a brief rehearsal. I’m right back in Choirdom, my eyes moving from the score to his hands, my awareness of those around me — my fellow sopranos, my collaborators for the afternoon — heightened. The centre section has indeed filled up and I estimate the chorus at 600. The sound is wonderful. A whole lot of these people can sing. I’m no longer a soprano I realize when I’m able to hit only every other high note. I try not to screech.

The performance includes nearly all 53 solos and choruses. The music still moves me, still lifts me up. I want to sing the solos, too. I once thought Handel composed Messiah in a divinely inspired trance. But according to the program he wasn’t enthusiastic when he received the libretto from Charles Jennens. It was only when pressed to produce a new oratorio as a benefit to charities in Dublin that he turned to it. He composed Messiah in about three weeks. It is the most frequently performed of his oratoria. I wonder if he felt it his best. Imagine tossing off a story to meet a contest deadline and being forever known by it, the ones you laboured over longer ignored.

By performance end, the bit of voice I started out with is gone. C reports that the basses started a measure too soon in one of the choruses but I didn’t notice. J shakes her head in awe at how so many people knew when to come in. Maybe they, too, were raised on this music. Maybe the Messiah has taken them back home for a few hours.

Images: G. F. Handel whose Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742. The LP cover of the Messiah I saw performed in New York many moons ago

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reading "The Wire: Season Four"

I don't watch broadcast TV- I wait for the DVD's so I can dive into a show as if into a big novel. Recently I caught up with "The Wire"- a show that has profoundly moved me over three previous seasons. I've been waiting a long time for this fourth season and felt electricity crackle through my fingers when I plucked the disc out of its plastic container, dropped it into the player tray and pushed the button marked ">".

I never learn. Each season I start thinking ‘hmm, this is kind of boring’ and consider stopping after an episode or two. Perhaps, you’ve been there. Perhaps you even gave in to the desire to give up. Perhaps you never got to the next stage: the moment. And the last stage: bliss.

Each season is constructed in a similar way, (although the series is becoming more and more like itself, finding its unique way and ditching the hallmarks of ordinary television, ordinary film.) We follow a score of characters about their business: the business of getting up and walking your little brother to school before you take your place with the drug runners; the business of arresting drug runners and then trying to grapple with the ridiculous court system; the business of running a court system with a ridiculous amount of crime to deal with and not nearly enough money or resources; the business of administering government money in a way that ensures you don’t lose any votes in the next election; the business of trying to get city hall to listen to what’s going on in your neighbourhood. As we cut back and forth- between senators and mayors, little kids and older kids, teachers and principals, police officers and police administrators, drug users and drug sellers, prisoners and guards, mothers and fathers and husbands and wives (of prisoners and drug sellers and little kids and lawyers and politicians), ministers and social workers, bureaucrats and lobbyists, prostitutes and johns, developers, and etc…, and etc…, and etc….- we are overwhelmed at first. It’s too much; and it’s not enough. Too much is happening- it’s hard to keep track of all the characters; and not enough is happening- at least not in the Hollywood way of simple scenes of good guys and bad guys acting out one of the standard ‘narrative arcs’. It’s just folks on ordinary days doing their thing. This is the first stage-where you might give up.

Then there’s the moment. I imagine it’s different for everybody, depending on which character you ‘click with’ the most, or on how well you’ve been paying attention. But it suddenly hits you. You remember a little thing from one scene that completely colours a little thing that’s happening in another scene- and that spike into the intersubjective nature of reality lets the entire city burst through into your consciousness. You’ve seen the interconnectedness of things and there’s no going back. Suddenly all the ordinary things that are happening and all the ordinary things that have already happened are plugged in, electrified by the living force of social nature. The tattered textbook the school kid is holding in his hand is connected to the budget meeting the politicians are holding is connected to the phone call the lobbyist made is connected to the money that came from a developer is connected to an eviction notice that is connected to the school kid’s not having had breakfast that morning. It’s a whoosh. It’s a jet engine. It’s a vision of the here and now in urban North America that is so complex and complete that it expands your mind and heart. The way you feel about everything is an overcrowded tenement is a city hall committee meeting’s overfull agenda is a police station’s white board of homicides overflowing onto taped-on Bristol board. Everything is connected and the things are piling up and the connections are piling up. It’s exponential, but it’s one thing.

Post-moment you are in the final stage, where every second of the ordinary lives of people matters in a thrilling way. A kiss changes the world. A sigh. A gunshot kills everything. A punch. A kind word becomes a Molotov cocktail becomes the look in someone’s eye when they realize their dream just died. “The Wire” doesn’t have happy endings. Or sad ones. Or any kind of endings. Life is ongoing. People going about their business. The world cooking along. And it’s bliss to experience. There is pain and suffering, enlightenment hasn’t blinded you to the realities of urban dysfunction- but is has become part of a singular sensation that is so big it stretches the mind- the bliss is ‘wow’ taken to the extreme.

“The Wire” is the “War and Peace” of our time, our equivalent of those big novels from earlier centuries that tried to take in everything the author knew about the world. Only, really, honestly, there’s something better about it. Because nothing beats TV for realism. A sentence of prose can’t take in the world in quite the same way as a camera shot can. It’s the look of a freshly scrubbed kid on the first day of school, the sound of a gun scraping between the bars on a grate and plopping into a sewer, the feel of a police car ride through a night boulevard. The way the light hits everything. Everything. Those sentences picked those things out of the fabric. The accepting nature of the camera keeps them in context. I know there are filters and angles and all kinds of things a director and a cinematographer can do to slant reality. But I think they have a harder time. More of reality creeps in than their artistic efforts attempt to limit. There are other kinds of art where the limiting is the beauty: the simple line drawings of Picasso; haiku; Stravinsky’s fracturing of the orchestra into restricted ad hoc ensembles. But in the kind of art that tries to maximize, art that’s greedy to include everything, a picture proves to be worth a thousand words and add the soundtrack and you’ve topped your game.

The creators of this TV show- the writers and directors and actors and technical people have built something very special and we owe them a debt of gratitude. It takes a giant mirror to show us ourselves. What a show like this doesn’t have, which is what makes it different from “War and Peace” and, in some way, less artistic, is a unified vision. But that’s the point. Time will tell whether the collaborations of our interconnected world achieve the same artistic recognition as the singular efforts of creative individuals. Our idea of what art is will have to shift a bit.

The Wire isn’t so much ‘set’ in Baltimore as ‘is’ Baltimore. The particular strand focussed on in season four is education. The season doesn’t let go of the show’s connections to drugs, policing and politics but it steps back to look at how the younger folks are socialized into those ongoing worlds. The chances they have and the chances they don’t have. And because of this focus, there’s a new aspect to the Wire, in this season. I found myself crying in a couple of spots. The whole sad futility of generations following each other into misery hit me. The nodes of interacting social forces are individual people. The tug of war between crime and punishment, black and white, rich and poor is played out in real lives. By the time season four ends some of the boys we saw playing in an alley at the start, hitting cans with rocks, some of those boys are dead, some are on their way to being hardened criminals, some are on their way to being teachers or policemen, some are on their way to being politicians (maybe even good ones) and some haven’t budged an inch.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hapworth 16, 1924

By Anne Chudobiak

I recently found myself in the strange position of having nothing to do. My desk was clear. Everything was in its rightful place. I didn’t have to sift through piles of paper looking for my set of New Yorker DVDs. It was finally time to see what kind of world it was that I’d been born into. I inserted Disc 3 (1974-1983) into my computer.

I had some stipulations, though. No fiction, unless I knew it was going to be good, with the exception even then of Mavis Gallant. I’d overdosed on her on the beach this summer.

The first article I stumbled upon looked interesting. It was about Montreal, a woman remembering. Oh, wait, that had to be Mavis. Of course, it was: a Linnet Muir story. Imagine having such a distinctive voice that it gave you away within the space of a paragraph? No byline necessary, not even some thirty years later.

All the same, I was in no mood. I didn’t read it. Instead, I ejected Disc 3 and went to my bookshelf. I’d been meaning to re-read "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Every now and then, I have to justify to myself why it was okay for me to name my son after the suicidal Seymour Glass. Do parents of modern-day Juliets do the same? If so, they are welcome to borrow my argument (although they might have to tweak it a little), which is that suicide does not seem to be the defining fact of Seymour’s life. The scene that sticks with us is of him on the beach, kissing little Sybil Carpenter’s feet. This was a man with enormous goodwill, who couldn’t express it in a way that others could understand. Or that’s what I used to think. I mean, why exactly did he have to shoot himself in front of his napping wife?

The truth is that I haven’t read all of the Seymour stories. There is at least one, from 1965, that never made it into book form. It apparently used to be extremely difficult for fans to get their hands on Salinger’s many uncollected works. But not in the age of the Internet. “Young Folks,” “The Heart of a Broken Story,” “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise”: some brave soul has posted them all online (Salinger is famously savage about privacy and copyright). And the final Seymour story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” is archived on New Yorker Disc 4 (1965-1973). I printed it out last night, all eighty pages. It’s as complicated as it’s long. I’m slowly making my way though it, trying to determine if the first-person narrator, seven-year-old Seymour Glass, exiled at summer camp, is indeed a good person. I’m still leaning towards yes. To quote him: “As you damned well know, we never change much in our hearts.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Winter Tangos

by Tamara Lee

There aren’t 100 Inuit words for snow.

I’m a little disappointed to learn this, if only because I rather like the poetic possibilities of that truth. While the bulk of the country is immersed in aput (Inuit for 'a blanket of snow'), we here on the wet coast have been experiencing if not hundreds, at least dozens of versions of rain, the subtleties of which can only be determined by a longstanding local.

Those of you socked-in by your latest slugfest with Winter probably can’t agree, but I feel a wee longing for your snow sometimes, when I look at our long term forecast and see this:

Wet flurries
Periods of rain
Chance of showers
Rain mixed with snow
Snow mixed with rain

Perhaps there’s a poet on staff at Environment Canada; even the last two lines suggest an inverted couplet.

And something about the tone of this concrete poem sent me in search of a short film I happened on recently, by Hannu Neiminen, who’s crafted a beautiful melancholic blend of Finnish winter, dank pubs and tango in “Kammos Tango”.

Sometimes all there's left to do is watch winter dance.

(Images: top, polar tango; bottom, kammos tango still)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ripping Good Yarn

by Melissa Bell

Actually ripping out your yarn, good or otherwise, is known as "frogging" - a vile necessity when one has dropped a stitch or miscounted something when working in a pattern. Nobody likes to frog.

Ah, such are the things one can learn from this book. And an awesome book it is - probably the best selling book for knitters out there, beginners and advanced. What makes it so great? The fact that it pretty much covers everything one needs to know about knitting, from knit and purl to intarsia to fair isle. The truly diligent could get through most of this book in a day or two, and start right in on knitting a sweater if they were so inclined. Truth be told, I've never knitted a sweater. I haven't the patience...yet. I prefer quick projects like scarves and hats - and this book has plenty of them.

And there's no guesswork with the instructions. Everything contained within the patterns is detailed and specific right down to including which techniques in the book you'll need to learn (or master) before tackling the project. And while some projects are more complicated than others, none of them involves rocket science. You won't be knitting up versions of your great-aunts' doilies either. Stitch 'n Bitch introduces the reader to trends such as "illusion" knitting (the easiest and most amazing thing ever), a hand-knit bikini, and the "Ribbed For Her Pleasure" scarf (yes, it does have a touch of naughtiness - let it be known than knitting isn't just for old ladies and nerds).

If there's a knitter in your life, this is a must-have book. In fact, it's such a must-have, best check with your knitting friends to see whether or not they already have it. Chances are good they might (Stitch 'n Bitch is a huge best-seller which has already spawned several sequels). And keep in mind there are plenty of men out there who knit as well!

It's snowing like crazy here in Toronto, so that's what I'm going to be doing today - knitting! And baking. Here's the recipe I'm going to be using this afternoon for some gingerbread cookies. Stay warm, everybody.

Gingerbread Snowflakes
Gourmet | December 2002

Active time: 1 1/2 hr
Start to finish: 2 1/4 hr
Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

2/3 cup molasses (not robust)
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 3/4 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

Decorating icing
Special equipment: assorted 2- to 3-inch cookie cutters (preferably snowflake-shaped); a metal offset spatula; a pastry bag fitted with 1/8- to 1/4-inch plain tip (optional)

Bring molasses, brown sugar, and spices to a boil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, and remove from heat. Stir in baking soda (mixture will foam up), then stir in butter 3 pieces at a time, letting each addition melt before adding next, until all butter is melted. Add egg and stir until combined, then stir in 3 3/4 cups flour and salt.
Preheat oven to 325°F.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead, dusting with as much of remaining 1/4 cup flour as needed to prevent sticking, until soft and easy to handle, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Halve dough, then wrap 1 half in plastic wrap and keep at room temperature.
Roll out remaining dough into a 14-inch round (1/8 inch thick) on a lightly floured surface. Cut out as many cookies as possible with cutters and carefully transfer with offset spatula to 2 buttered large baking sheets, arranging them about 1 inch apart.
Bake cookies in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until edges are slightly darker, 10 to 12 minutes total (watch carefully toward end of baking; cookies can burn easily). Transfer cookies to racks to cool completely. Make more cookies with remaining dough and scraps (reroll once).
Put icing in pastry bag (if using) and pipe or spread decoratively onto cookies.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Honestly, it's the truth!

by Antonios Maltezos

We talk about honesty in writing as if honesty and truthfulness are things we writers understand naturally because our characters need to have some depth as they face their issues. They need conflict, we find it, create a scenario, present challenges so it seems they're always on the verge of failure. Just like in real life. When we succeed, our stories and situations have an air of believability about them, an intensity to mirror real life. There's honesty in that writing.

(this is fiction)
Hard Praying

The first time I prayed hard, I was still in my youth. It was just after my dog disappeared. I can’t say more than that concerning how he was lost to me. I wasn’t offered an explanation when I came home from school and noticed he was missing. I can’t say my dog escaped from the backyard by chewing through a rotted fence board. I can’t say my dog chased a car and was run over. I can’t even say for sure it was my father who brought him to the pound. All I got was a simple Ringo’s gone, and then a quick wash-up for supper.

I remember praying at Sunday Mass, squeezing my hands together, asking why, why. Not in anger. I just wanted to know why it was taking forever. I prayed as hard as my mother, both of us leaning into the man between us, hoping he’d catch some of it, loosen his necktie because he was having trouble breathing.

(here's the truth)

I didn't come off that school bus looking for my dog, but after it was all said and done, it was my dog I wanted, my dog I cried for, my father I wanted to kill. And I do get to kill him in the story Hard Praying. I think it's a story whose characters are believable in the context of the situation I've created. The father is a cold-hearted sumbitch who thinks nothing of treating those closest to him like objects to be tossed aside if they're in the way. He's the last man a good and emotional person would want to have as a father. It's a terrible truth. The writer has to be brave to write a story like this, to peer into the needy heart of a boy starving for some love. Yuck! What a crock! It was my mother who forced my poor father to give up the dog! But did he tell me that? No. He took his lumps, never once saying it was her fault, that woman looking down at her hands through all of this.

There's no honesty in the story I wrote. I took the truth and played with it, changed my memories of my father to suit the fiction I wanted to write. Ugh! Shame on me. I'm tired of doing this. Truth is my mom had to clean up after that dog I loved so much. Our backyard was in a state of ruin and my father was working too much. Mom had had enough. And she was right to have had enough. The dog had taken over her life. She put her foot down and dad complied, knowing full well he couldn't work less hours to help take care of that big dog. That's the truth. Sorry dad.

I'm going to rewrite Hard Praying, search for a more honest story.

Friday, December 14, 2007

House for Wayward Mothers: Toronto Chapter

By Anne Chudobiak

When I was in Toronto this fall, I stayed with old friends, a couple taking a time-out from fertility treatments, in what was jokingly called the House for Wayward Mothers. The room I occupied for several days actually belonged to G., another Quebec mother of two, who spent half of the week with her family in Gatineau, and the rest in Toronto, where she was studying midwifery at Ryerson. There was a miscommunication between housemates about arrivals and departures, and late one night G. walked into to her room to find me already nicely tucked in. She didn’t know me, but I recognized her from the snapshots on the wall. We laughed about this encounter the next morning over coffee. Our hosts had roasted the beans themselves. It was the only way, they assured us. How luxurious, we told them. It was hard for us not to envy them their lifestyle: it was so adult, so sophisticated.

“Are you sure you want kids?” asked G. Her own hubby was slated for a vasectomy the following week, and it was clear that as grueling as her commute was, there were benefits as well, like hanging with the adults in T.O. and drinking their freshly roasted coffee, with nary a whine to be heard, no rivalries to quell. There was some teasing, but mostly between our hosts, and even that was strangely romantic. It would always end with them cracking up and making arrangements to go out for dinner and a movie. After ten years of marriage, how had they managed to stay so connected? Was it the coffee?

Their secret never did reveal itself to me, but I left Toronto inspired nonetheless. My encounter with G. had given me an idea for an article. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband about it. Our best conversations were about stuff like that. We even had a joke: “Wait, I know what you could write about! No one’s ever written about speed dating, have they?” In our house, “speed dating” was code for “hackneyed.” We’d once had a journalist friend tell us that she was considering writing on the topic for a Valentine’s piece. That was I don't know how many years ago now, but it was still too late. We’d already watched the topic trickle down from the New York Times to the local papers to the CBC. I was never able to look at our friend the same way again. In fact, her whole profession seemed tainted by the speed-dating phenomenon. My idea would be different, surely.

I wanted to write about parents like G., who had to leave their kids for work or school. I could even draw on my own experience as the at-home partner in a long-distance situation.

Earlier this week, in anticipation of that very situation finally coming to an end (today!), I did some preliminary research into potential markets. There was a magazine that I thought might be a good fit for the story. I searched through their online archives to make sure that they hadn’t published something similar before. The results were freaky.

Not only had someone written on the topic, they’d relied almost exclusively on commentary from my Toronto hosts’ extended family. I couldn’t believe it. There was Mr. Toronto’s mother, speaking in her capacity both as an early-childhood educator and one-time military wife. There was Mr. Toronto’s brother, looking back from age 30 at their father’s many absences. The Torontos had scooped me, and by a decade! Can you say “speed dating”?

I'm now considering other options. A new angle or another topic. An exposé might be in order: Roast Your Own Coffee and Revive Your Love Life. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Santa Conspiracy

by Tricia Dower

I can tell you where I was when I heard JFK had been shot.

I can tell you where I was when the twin towers came down.

I can tell you where I was when I found out Santa Claus was a big fat lie: in line at Grover Cleveland elementary school waiting for the morning bell one December day.

As a first grader I was at the back of the line. In front of me were the big girls, including my sister, Lili, and her friend Helen. Throwing my voice to the front of the line, I called out, “Helen, what’s Santa gonna bring you for Christmas?”

Her scoffing laugh travelled all the way back down to me. “There’s no Santa,” she said.

“Shut up, Helen,” my sister said, but it was too late.

After school, I ran into the house and up to my mother. I can see her, still, in what we called the back room, wearing a housedress and ironing.

“Santa Claus is in your heart,” she said in response to my question.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that, with Santa living in my heart and not the North Pole, presents must be hidden somewhere in the house. My parents’ favorite hiding place was their long, deep, bedroom closet. One year, I played with a puppet theatre a full month before I received it.

I wasn’t the only one whose little psyche was damaged. ‘When did you first find out?’ was as popular a conversational topic among my friends when we were young as loss of virginity tales were when we grew up, both told with the same level of horror.

I think what bothered me most was the elaborateness of the lie. The hanging of the stockings on Christmas Eve, the sound of sleigh bells after I was in bed (my father in the backyard), the writing of those pleading letters to — as it turns out — the dead letter office. The evasive answers to the big questions: How can Santa make it around the world in one night? Why doesn’t he leave gifts for poor children?

Some believe 9/11 was a conspiracy by the U.S. government to manufacture a reason to take the country to war. Others say too many people would have had to be involved and they’d never have been able to keep it secret. Oh, I don’t know. What if those people were parents?

This Santa rocks. Front and side views of a rock I painted when I was a stressed out working stiff in need of therapeutic hobbies. Underneath the paint is a piece of coral and sand thrown up by the ocean in Hawaii. (Photos by my friend Wayne McNulty)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Why This Post is so Short

by Andrew Tibbetts

The writing, that which matters to me most, is the first to go. All of life’s other components clamour. The rent must be paid. The bills. The responsibilities. The laundry. The writing makes no such demands-- which I suspect is the source of its joy giving. There’s an icing metaphor I don’t have to time to craft-- something about the thinnest slice being the first to melt-- but icing isn’t a slice and melting isn’t right either. It’s all too Macarthur Park. And besides I need to bring my laundry in before it rains. Or should I be honest and bypass the allusion to say ‘before one of my fellow tenants throws it on the dirty laundry floor to get at the dryer’?-- and now I have a short story idea that I don't have time for either. Sigh.

Photo: a Laundromat in Palatine that won the 2005 Coin-Op Magazine’s 'Most Beautiful Laundry.' It is most definitely NOT a photo of my laundry room.

Monday, December 10, 2007


By Tamara Lee

Computers could be ruining me.

Over the past two years, my computer usage has tripled. There are some days I’m at it for 16 hours, then right back at it 8 hours later. I freelance edit, then I work on my writing projects, then I research, then I surf the Internet and answer emails or post to writer-related boards or blogs.

The last six months or so have been most alarming: my hands’ ability to grasp even simple items is wholly unpredictable. I had let myself assume it was tendonitis. But it’s actually more like a very acute strain, with the strong possibility that permanent damage has been done.

And crammed into my purse are two pages full of intense instructions from my physiotherapist (an exacting woman who runs one of the premier hand physio-clinics in Western Canada) covering all the ergonomic changes I must make to my workstations (yes, I have two), and the exercises I must perform at 30-minute intervals throughout my writing day.

“For how long?” I asked.

“How long do you intend on being a writer?”

She was then even more blunt, as I sat stunned into disbelief. “If you don’t take care of your hands you will need to be put into splints.”

Suddenly, the pain surging from my shoulders, through my forearms and wrists, the pain that has all but numbed my fingers from knuckles to tips, has been put into perspective.

All those films and tales of musicians and artists of all sorts fighting through pain for the love of their craft no longer seem romantic. The truth of it is rather troubling.

Take care of your hands, people. Like a singer babies her vocal chords, do not take your most precious tools for granted. Pamper them, and your back (for that is where much hand pain begins). I urge you to research hand exercises and proper ergonomics. Make an appointment with a physiotherapist who specializes in hand therapy, to make sure you're maintaining good hand health. Seriously, a few more months of my current behaviour, and I likely wouldn't be typing this at all.

So from now on, my computer usage must be limited to the absolute minimum. Laptops perched on my knee in bed, set on the coffee table, or at the kitchen table…no more. These and all the other ways I have become accustomed to working must be changed. (Many of you know how difficult it is to change one’s writing routine.) A huge investment in ergonomic upgrades also will be necessary.

Essentially, my whole existence as a writer/editor must be given a re-work.

And oh, how editing ourselves can be the damnedest thing.

(Image: Auguste Rodin's "Les Mains")

Saturday, December 08, 2007

That time of year...

My youngest had this thing going for a couple months where she kept on the lookout for the Canadian flag. "There's a Canada," she'd say. Sometimes, it would take a couple seconds of focusing on my part to see what she was seeing, but always, yup, there it would be -- the simple red and white, the maple leaf on the back cover of a picture book, easily overlooked. Funny how she stopped noticing our flag the day I presented a real maple leaf to her, and very stupidly of me I said, "Look, a Canada!" I believe she's still keeping a lookout for the flag, but never when I'm around. Daddy just doesn't get it, right.

We were at Loblaws the other day. I had her sitting in the carriage, enjoying her company as I slowly made my way up and down the aisles, when suddenly she made a move like she did when she was still obsessed with spotting a Canada. I followed her direction, her little finger pointing straight at a cardboard display with those familiar colors in it. No, not the white and red, but the green, the gold, the red, and the white – the colours of Christmas. "Look," she said. "Christmas!"

What a joy! And what a wonderful responsibility this is for us parents, planning their Christmas, making sure they know this time of year is just for them. Wrapping their presents is cool, but the opening takes no time at all, and their newness never lasts more than ten days or so, really. It's the other stuff that makes this holiday such a special time of the year for the children, and for us. Watching their faces lighting up at the sight of a cardboard display (my youngest isn't quite four years old yet) you just know they believe it was set up and placed there just for them.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Doing the right thing

by Tricia Dower

As a descendant of colonizers, I’m glad the First Nations in BC is finally getting a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It eases my guilt.

I attended a celebration two weeks ago of a ruling from BC Supreme Court Justice David Vickers that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation collectively holds aboriginal title to some 200,000 of the 440,000 hectares that make up their traditional territory in BC’s central interior. As one of the chiefs said, “We’ve been upgraded from occupant to owner. “

It took them 18 years of legal action, including a 339-day trial, to get that ruling and it doesn’t mean they’ll get the land. They still have to negotiate. Chief Roger William, plaintiff in the court case, told us he met with BC Premier Gordon Campbell and suggested that both sides declare a four month truce on further legal action to give the government time to “do the right thing.”

On the same day, chiefs from the Maa-nulth First Nations on Vancouver Island’s west coast signed a treaty giving them about $100 million in cash and just under 25,000 hectares of settlement land. Not wanting to spend 18 years in court, the Maa-nulth went the treaty route. As far as self-governance is concerned, they receive the same status as a municipality, not a separate nation, something the Tsilhqot’in don’t want to settle for.

Moving to BC has raised my awareness of native land issues. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why so many public gatherings in Victoria open with “Let us thank the Songhees People on whose land we stand.” I had lived only in Ontario where almost all the land is covered by treaty agreements. Land claims there usually concern the meaning of the original agreements, the extent to which treaty commitments have been honoured and how to provide redress in cases where commitments were breached. In BC, on the other hand, 97% of BC land reportedly is unceded and untreatied. You probably already know that.

What I really want to say is what’s happening in BC gives me a smidgen of optimism for the future of some of the natural world. Pushed into the role of defenders of the land — most Tsilhqot’in, for example, make their living by hunting, trapping and fishing — First Nations people are seen as more sensitive to the environment. If they hadn’t been colonized, would they have been just as rapacious as we are? We’ll never know. What we do know is this: the Vickers ruling imposes upon the government a greater obligation, from a public opinion point of view, to deal fairly with First Nations.

The ruling says land use decisions about such areas as forestry and mining cannot proceed without consultation and agreement from First Nations communities. And that aboriginal rights include maintaining the habitat for the wildlife they depend on. If we clear-cut, there are no animals left to trap. Speaking at the celebration, Tsilhqot’in legal advisor Jack Woodward said the decision has implications for First Nations people all across Canada and could protect the entire boreal forest of Canada — one of the three largest ‘frontier forests’ remaining on the planet. (The other two are in Russia and Brazil.)

It would be wonderful if the country that voted against aboriginal rights in the U.N. declared a moratorium on exploiting aboriginal land. Do you believe in Tinker Bell?

Left to right, Chief Roger William, Chief Ervin Charleyboy and Chief Ivor Myers of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation at the celebration of a landmark ruling in their favour. Chief Charleyboy’s comment on First Nations having to get justice from Canadian lawyers and judges: “It’s like asking a thief to make a judgment on his own theft.” (Photo by Tim Linday)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Article removed for revision and publication. Wish the author luck!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Treatise on Thwarted Ambition

By Anne Chudobiak

None of the buses I waited for this morning ever came. My travelling companion was the sort to express his frustration verbally: “Poo poo ca ca!” (This trait may well have been inherited from his mother, who saw fit en route to curse at a stranger, “This is a pedestrian crosswalk, a—hole!”) All of this extra anger somehow added an hour and half to our morning routine, cutting into my prime writing time, which I’m not even supposed to use for blogging, but there you go. If you want an explanation for this Mickey Mouse post, all you have to do is look outside my window at all of that white stuff obscuring the pavement.

I wanted of course to write something much more beautiful. Call it a treatise on thwarted ambition. But it got too long, too quickly. I was going to interweave a reflection on curling (why did my last team come to a broom-throwing demise? Why do I always throw take-out weight?) with an account of
everyone-my-age-who-I-know-however-slightly-who-has-ever-published-in-book-length-form. It was going to be funny, and just petty enough that I wouldn’t come across as unlikeably bitter. I didn’t succeed. Maybe in the spring.

Monday, December 03, 2007

An un-Finnish-ed song

By Tamara Lee

Time to confess: I have a bit of a crush on Finland.

Nothing I can’t handle, really. Nothing too embarrassingly obsessive. Except for those occasional late-night googlings when I can’t sleep and suddenly need to remember the dates of the Greater Wrath and the Lesser Wrath Russian occupations. Or wonder what Finns do for fun on the days when the night doesn’t stop. Holy Hannah, I have to increase my vitamin D dosage just to get over the winter humps here on the 49th parallel; I can’t imagine what the Finns need to do to get over theirs.

So I googled some more. And discovered Finland has several times been voted among the happiest countries in the world. The big little country that could, I say. Maybe having endured battle after occupation after battle, near extinction of their language, and all manner of yearly weather obstacles, they are settling into themselves. Well-earned self-acknowledgement can do that.

Truth be told, I can’t say if I know many, or any, Finns, but over the years the king of Finn-droll, filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, has given me a sense of what I might expect. Kaurismäki films—from the wacky Leningrad Cowboys series; to his darkly hopeful variation of La Vie de Bohème; to the much-loved The Man Without a Past—have all left an indelible impression on me. Yes, my Kaurismäki-crush is long-standing but I’m now extending my arms to the whole blessed country.

Why all this potentially creepy enthusiasm over this faraway land? A couple of weeks ago, I joined a chorus, and one of the first songs I’m learning is a Finnish carol, “On lapsi syntynyt meille”. After boldly, even somewhat proudly, blurting out a line of the song to a bemused Finn stranger the other day, I know my Finnish is wholly unrecognisable. But no matter. I’m learning, or relearning I suppose, after a 30-year absence, to sing again. My throat, once occupied by a heavy smoking habit, has been cold long enough and...forgive me...held hostage by shower walls. I’ve treated mia voce poorly, mocked it, let it be ridiculed just to get a laugh, and otherwise kept it tethered.

Today, while I was supposed to be working to deadline, I snuck in a search of “Finland” again, and learned that on December 6 the country will celebrate 90 years of independence. After, as one official website notes: "Proclaiming independence in the throes of the Russian revolution of 1917...a courageous step in an uncertain situation, with no guarantee of success." No wonder they’re so damned happy. They know what it means to shake off years of impediments.

And I think I get that. So even when the chorus performs later this month for a small group of friends and family, I’ll know no one understands what we’re saying, Finn or not. But I'll also know that that is hardly the point of the exercise anyway.

On lapsi syntynyt meille ja poika annettu on.
Hänessä elämän löysin, Jumalan suosion.
Hän on sen ylhäisen koitto, mi maailmaa valaisevi,
vaan ehkä hänen soittons' maan ympär' kajahtavi.

Maan päällä, metelin alla se kansa, kansa soitti,
vaan piltin hartioilla se Herruus lepäilevi.
Hän on sen ylhäisen koitto, mi maailmaa valaisevi,
vaan ehkä hänen soittons' maan ympär' kajahtavi.


(Images: Top, from La Vie de Bohème; Bottom, The Salvation Army Band from The Man Without a Past. Lyrics from "On lapsi syntynyt meille")

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bad, Bad Barbie

by Melissa Bell

A Google search for the author Marianne Duest turns up just one book – Barbie in Television. I'm not really too surprised. I pulled this book off my shelf the other day and started reading it. It's pretty bad. Actually, it's really bad. Ridiculously contrived and draggy – at 181 pages, it takes until page 51 for Barbie to actually get to the television station. There's a lot of time wasted explaining how Barbie got into the work program offered by her high school, and how she travels to Florida (not quite sure why this story takes place in Florida at all – but I guess I'll learn about that as the adventure continues) and a whole bunch of other stuff that just comes right out of left field.

It's fun because it's so awful. Some of the chapter titles include:

Barbie's New Career, page 3
Midge's Disappointment, page 21
Meet Danny Folger!, page 63
The Two Faces of Danny Folger, page 85
Friendly Spooks, page 99
The Mystery of Mangrove Key, page 153

I'm not quite there yet in my reading, but I'm guessing that Danny Folger plays a rather critical role in the story. The book's blurb mentions a "whirlwind romance" – but so far nothing about this book says "whirlwind" in any way, shape, or form.

So I wonder about Marianne Duest, the book's author. Was it her real name? How old was she when she wrote this? What inspired her to write a Barbie book? Did she slave away on the manuscript for months and then fire it off to the publisher? Did she have an agent? Was she over the moon with excitement when it got accepted?

Among other Barbie adventures listed on the back of this book, Ms. Duest is mentioned only once. The "regular" writers of Barbie's fabulous life appear to be Cynthia Lawrence and Bette Lou Maybee – sometimes they write as a team, sometimes not. But the Google search does reveal that Barbie in Television lived at least one other life in The Netherlands (Barbie En Haar Televisiebaan). I wonder if the Dutch enjoyed the badness of this book as much as I am.

Here's a delightful excerpt:

Midge hopped impatiently on one foot and tugged her coat collar up to her ears like a curly-headed turtle.

"Oh, Barbie!" she wailed through chattering teeth. "It's freezing. Let's stop at The Pop Shoppe for a hot chocolate."

"Umm! That's for me. I can hardly t-talk!"

Barbie's teeth had set up a clatter of their own and the two friends hurried down the street with their heads bent low against the swirling snow. It was too cold even to talk, but they burst into quick giggles when the rapid clicking of their teeth struck them as silly.

Lousy stuff, huh?

But I must admit I'm enjoying this bad read anyway. Sometimes things are just so deliciously awful. And Barbie in Television is definitely one of those things.