The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, June 30, 2008

Sporting Days in Canada

By Tamara Lee

Yesterday morning, my sports enthusiast mom and I breakfasted on the deck, discussing NHL trades and team loyalties like dudes in baseball caps and hockey jerseys, before heading into the house to watch the Euro Cup final.

I’m not sure when I turned into a couch jock, but somehow over the past few years I’ve found myself starting to “watch certain sporting events,” like some people “only smoke when drinking.”

When I was a kid, I played a lot of sports. Badly, mind you. In fact, I’m convinced the B-teams were created specifically for me. But I always tried to be at least mediocre: gymnastics, ice-skating, soccer, baseball, volleyball. I never excelled at any of them. Sports Day always sort of terrified me. Then I discovered the cool kids who most definitely didn’t “do” sports. The flailing jock couched herself for angst and art.

It never felt possible to reconcile my two interests, and so one had to go. Sports didn’t captivate me like poetry; it wasn’t a difficult choice. But over the years, I started to gravitate back, towards the underdogs and misfits in sports, appreciating again an athlete or team’s all-consuming commitment, and finally allowing myself to be enthusiastic. What I found I admire as much as the skills involved in a good game of whatever: an athlete’s focus.

I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever wanted anything as badly as athletes seem to want cups or medals or world records. A writer or artist isn’t supposed to have such goals if she’s to be taken seriously. But watching the football match between Spain and Germany, I could appreciate the beauty of the footie part of Spain’s game (what the commentators referred to as “classic” football skills and what I knew at 11 years old I would never achieve), and how entirely focused was Spain’s game. It’s kind of refreshing to be able to root for the underdog, especially in a way we don’t for, say, a great, largely unknown writer.

Somewhat surprisingly to me, Canada has never taken to football in the way nearly every other country has embraced it as their beautiful game. Sure, we have hockey; it seems it will forever be ours (and Sweden’s and pretty much the entire Northern Hemisphere’s game), but soccer’s simplicity requires so little for a game happen: a ball and some jackets to act as fence posts, and a few keeners. I’ve often thought this accessible, relatively non-violent team sport should be something Canada, Canadians, would embrace more.

So it pleases me when I see that many do.

Every Sunday, rain or shine, there are two footie games going on in my arty neighborhood. There are the remarkably fit old guys, all about 60 years old, kicking the ball about, cursing in Italian at one another, dramatically falling to the ground at the subtlest hit, or yelling at the ref, and otherwise taking the weekly match very seriously. The other game is more social, with over 40 local twenty-something hairy-hipsters and nouveau Sporty-Spices, sitting around watching or playing a casual game, many with beer in hand as they run and kick for four, five hours or more. In my 20s, we sat in dark pubs talking about music and film for hours on end. We felt more enlightened than cynical.

As I watched the final minutes of the game, thinking about focus and commitment in sport, my mom remarked, as much to herself and the dog as to me, “It must be something to play and win for your country.” Of course, as with all team sports, some of the players aren’t actually from Spain, and each will get over a million Euro dollars for the win.

Misplaced loyalties and money: Maybe the divergence between sport and art begins and ends there.

For Canada Day, I'm going to imagine a country that celebrates and rewards writers the way it does athletes, with parades for bringing home the Man Booker and the O. Henry Cups ("Folks, that Money-Munro is the one to beat!"), and children collecting literary cards with fascinating BRGs (Book Readings Given) and percentages ("Atwood's BRG is at 65%; think she's she in a slump, Timmy?").

However you choose to celebrate, or take it for the team, hope you have a great Canada Day!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Progress of a Story: Research

I get a lot of ideas for stories that are set in the past. I sure love reading them! For example, I’m reading a superb novel right now, The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin, which is a mystery set during the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The detective is a eunich. It’s full of Istanbul colour and feeling. The author, before switching to fiction, wrote a well-received history of the Ottoman Empire. And there’s the rub: research. I’m the laziest writer in the world. I’m sure I could take Fran Lebowitz in a laze-off! These ideas for stories set in the past never come to fruition for me because I know nothing about the past. I know nothing about anything outside of my own limited experience. It’s not that I’m ego-centric; it’s that I venture so infrequently outside of that centre. I’m centric-centric. And I get frustrated trying to read my way out.

So my new story, inspired by my father, has stalled at the onset of the Korean War. My father fought in Korea and it has become adamantly clear that I need to understand what happened there to understand him.

All his life he suffered from terrible nightmares. Many evenings he would wake the household with his panic-stricken whimpering and eventual screams. My mother, my sister and I, eventually learned to sleep through this regular nightly soundtrack, but our poor dog, Laddie, who had the best hearing and probably the deepest bond with my father, was always quite anxious. I never asked my father about it. Never. And now he’s dead. I could write a story about my guilt over this situation- it would be easy. No research necessary. But I’m feeling like I want to step outside of myself for this one.

Recommend any good books or movies about the Korean War? (And don’t suggest M*A*S*H, which is really the Vietnam War in disguise, isn’t it? Besides, my father was in the British Navy. I don’t think he traded barbs with Hawkeye while chasing after HotLips and laughing at Klinger’s latest get-up.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

New Author Angst

by Tricia Dower

Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.
— Macbeth

A recurring dream is of suddenly remembering I left a baby on a closet shelf, so long ago I’m sure it’s dead. With dread and remorse I hurry to the closet – it’s always the small, dark closet of the attic bedroom I slept in as a child. And the baby is always there, miraculously alive, clutching a bottle of curdled milk. Dream analysts might say the baby represents creativity I’ve allowed to go lie dormant or aspects of my inner child I’ve denied. When I’m in the dream, however, it’s about guilt.

I’m living that dream these days as Silent Girl lies out there where I’m unable to see her, unable to hover and make sure she’s okay. I worry about not having done enough to get her noticed. I stalk online book sellers looking for clues that she’s alive. Google her name for new mentions. Rearrange her at local bookstores so she’ll catch someone’s eye. Write to people who might find her interesting. Shakespeare groupies, for example.

Did you know there are at least 150 Shakespeare Festivals in North America? You can enjoy Shakespeare in a park, by the sea, on the beach and on the sound, in a parking lot, in a vineyard or in a tavern. There’s even an all-female Shakespeare troupe in San Francisco. I found festivals in Alabama, Alaska, British Columbia, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Ontario, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Saskatchewan, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. And most of them provide e-mail addresses for individuals in charge of educational programs, artistic production, donations, volunteers, costumes and gift shops. I’ve written to them all.

In some respects, promoting the book is harder than writing it was. Instead of hiding away to immerse myself in a fictional world, I must become a gregarious huckster. And, I don’t have a bunch of words at the end of the day to show my efforts are paying off. Yesterday was a good day because an article I wrote promoting the book appeared on Backstory. And, an old friend wrote that he came across the book in his local Indigo and loved my “quirky metaphors and off-the-wall constructions.”

That’s me. Quirky and off-the-wall with angst. Perhaps I’ll visit my book again tomorrow at Munro’s or write to more strangers. And, then again, maybe I'll take a day off and watch the Tall Ships sail into Victoria's harbour. The baby on the shelf will keep for one more day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Absence Makes

Well hello, CWC! It sure has been awhile since my last post. Life and work barged in, and while I enjoy my writing, I’m not yet at the do-some-writing-everyday-or-else stage of my life. Writing everyday seems too much like a regime and I don’t deal well with regimes or schedules, unless it’s scheduled downtime. Downtime is a key for me, and I’ve discovered it’s also a key for my writing.

In fact, downtime works so well for my writing that I’ve instituted a rule for myself: all new work sits on the shelf (or the hard drive) for at least two months before I come back to it. It’s been a good system for me. Immediate revision pressures are taken off. I get to delay those nagging refinements and move on for awhile, start something fresh, and recharge with the excitement that those first couple of pages inevitably bring. Letting stories sit also helps me figure out what the story is about. Theme is hard for me. I have a terrible time pinning down what I’m trying to say, let alone subtly weaving theme in with plot and tone and characterization and all the other writerly concerns that paralyze creativity. I like to build the body first, then come back and open it up, drop the heart in, and wait for lightning to strike and make the story breathe.

I’m currently revising a sci-fi short that I first typed up a few months ago. The language and characters were good but something was missing. The story had no point, no pop. So I mothballed it. Moved on. Let my head fill up with mortgage rates, work, and a couple of flashes that went nowhere (for now). My fledgling short percolated and distilled in my head until I finally gave it a reread three weeks ago, and kapow! The theme. There it was. Staring me in the face, smacking me upside the head, shaking…you get the idea. I’d let my ideas of what I wanted the story to be get in the way of what the story was. In my early attempts to jam home a heart, I nearly killed what the story was trying to become.

I’m trying to save it now. Stitching together the disparate elements, putting arms where I had legs, eyes where I had ears (yes, I can carry a simile way too far). I’ve also realized that this particular story needs a love scene. I’ve never written a love scene. So I face it with a little trepidation. I’m against explicit sex in fiction, so I’m fairly certain my love scene will be of the fade-to-morning, PG-13 type. I’ll let you know how it turns out, and feel free to share any advice on love scenes you may have.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

4 Justice and Healing

by Tricia Dower

At noon today, a local activist, Rose Henry, leaves from Mile Zero of the Transcanada Highway, a couple of blocks away from my home, to join a group of First Nations people and their supporters on the Walk 4 Justice. A walk to honour all the missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Rose and others will leave Vancouver on June 21st—National Aboriginal Day—to trek to Ottawa. They expect to arrive in time for the opening of Parliament. There they will petition the government to hold an inquiry into the unsolved cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and to address the underlying reasons why Aboriginal women are five times more likely to die as a result of violence than any other group of women in Canada.

Reporter Joan Delaney summarizes the event and its goals much better than I can in this Epoch Times article.

The organizer, Gladys Radek, originally from the Gitxsan Wet su wit'en territory in northern British Columbia, says the idea for the walk “came to me as a vision in September 2007 while walking down the Highway of Tears [Route 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George where 44 Aboriginal women have gone missing or been found murdered] for the second anniversary of my missing niece, Tamara Lynn Chipman, who disappeared without a trace…After her disappearance I started researching on line and contacting the many family members who have lost their loved ones on this treacherous highway…Our data base has increased to over 3000 women and children murdered or still missing across the country.”

From what I can gather from assorted communiqués, people will be joining the walk along the way. It doesn’t appear that everyone will travel every kilometre without benefit of the occasional car ride. Those who have lost loved ones in cases that are still unsolved are encouraged to join in, bringing forward the names of those loved ones, so the marchers can present as complete a list as possible to Prime Minister Harper. If you live along their route, you might have the opportunity to participate in some of the welcoming events. Here’s the path they plan to take with estimated dates of arrival:

Cheam, June 21
Kamloops, June 24*
Mount Robson, June 28
Edmonton, July 3
Calgary, July 8
Medicine Hat, July 12
Swift Current, July 16
Regina, July 22
Brandon, July 26
Winnipeg, July 30,
Kenora, August 3
Ignace, August 7
Thunder Bay, August 11
Marathon, August 15
Wawa, August 16
Sault Ste Marie, August 19
Sudbury, August 24
Toronto, August 29
Tyendinaga, September 4
Ottawa, September12

*Another group coming from Prince Rupert has already left, following this route, to join the others in Kamloops. According to the Walk 4 Justice Facebook page, the trek to Kitwanga was “awesome.”

Terrace, June 12
Gitrwangak (Kitwanga) and Hazelton, June 13
Moricetown and Smithers, June 14
Burns Lake, June 16
Fraser Lake, June17
Vanderhoof, June 18
Prince George, June 19
Quesnel, June 20
Williams Lake, June 21
100 Mile, June 22
Cache Creek, June 23
Kamloops, June 24

Walk 4 Justice hasn’t gotten much media coverage despite support from Amnesty International and the event’s currency in light of Harper’s recent apology for residential schools. But, as Rose Henry says in the Epoch Times article, the walk is part of her “healing journey,” and I suspect that’s true for many of the participants. May they be successful in their quest for more respect from the government and rejoice in knowing they respected themselves enough to try.

Image from Gladys Radek’s website.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Scuse me while I bite the sky

This week contained that yearly celebration of James Joyce, Bloomsday. Me, I’m gradually chewing my way through Ulysses. It’s a book I’m taking a life time to read. (I plan to live to 90, at least, and so I should be half way through. I kept rereading my favourite parts so I’m not actually sure. And I'm reading it out of order. I actually think I've read it all at some point or other...) It’s not a beach book. For that I recommend Death Wore a Smart Little Outfit by Orland Outland about a drag queen and his socialite best friend who eat bonbons, drink champagne and solve murders.

This year I’m reading one sentence from Ulysses. Here it is:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

That’s enough for a whole year’s reading. It’s a priceless jewel. I turn it and turn it in my mind.

It’s the kind of image constructed from a collision. Joyce is the master of this sort of thing. This magical sentence is made of two almost ordinary sentences that have crashed into each other and fused like sperm and egg.

The tree hung with fruit.


Heaven of stars humid blue.

Well, the second one’s more of a phrase, but this is Joyce, so we don’t always need verbs in our complete thoughts.

A more conventional representation of this simile might go something like this:

Heaven is hung with stars like a tree is hung with fruit.

Isn’t that awful in comparison? Are you sure you wish Joyce were a more ordinary writer, so that Ulysses were more ‘readable’? (I know this (stars=fruit) is not quite the simile Joyce is making. But stay with me.)

The collision comes from allowing the two parts of the simile to make love. They end up with a beautiful baby, who has his mother’s eyes and his father’s nose. The collision is evident from the first (made-up) word, the sentence’s subject, “heaventree”.

Never rigid, Joyce’s other invented compound is very different: “nightblue”. For one thing, instead of being a compound noun, it’s a compound adjective, a class of word he invents. For another, it doesn’t collide together the sky and tree imagery; this one is all sky. If he were more of a systematic writer he might have had the second invented word be another compound noun made of fused sky-tree DNA. For example, this:

The heaventree hung with nightfruit.

It’s interesting; it sounds like an American poet from the 50’s, but Joyce is more generous. He is a maximalistic. He believes in piling things on. Let’s add some sensual details: tactile, “humid”; and visual, “blue”! And now, let’s expand that second collision from a single word into a phrase. The sentence now opens out from the collision, as a baby grows from the fused egg and sperm:

humid night-blue fruit

Plus it’s always good to add something sparkly, “of stars”.

In Joyce’s world, the earth and sky have made love. Let’s read it again:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

Delicious! It becomes so much more than what it ‘means’. The way the simile is constructed makes the sentence about sex and possibility and imagination. It doesn’t just look at the sky, it looks at the reasons we look at the sky; it looks at the lookers. And! The fact that it’s not the stars that are hanging but the sky below the stars, that fact, which hits me cognitively long after it hits me emotionally, makes even the emptiness ripe.

Monday, June 16, 2008

My kind of morning smile

Love, Tamara

Yesterday's breakfast was full of chuckles.

First I read about this newsflash over on The Galloping Beaver: “Bush contemplates writing his memoir”.

Then I stumbled across this Mcleans interview with James Frey (just don’t ask him to discuss his tattoos!), offering us this gem about his new (not that other) 'book,' erm, 'novel':

In the book, the novel, the first sentence says, "Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable." Some of it might be; some of it might not be. But nothing should be considered anything but fiction. And I mean, yeah, it's a very deliberate blurring of the line. I knew I was doing it, and I knew it would be a complicated thing for me to do because of my previous history. But that's even more reason to do it.

Next, on The Galloping Beaver: “Frey to ghost Dubya’s Little Adventure in Washington.”

Sometimes, the jokes just write themselves.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Odds Are Not in My Favour

by Tricia Dower

What are the odds that a respectable number of people will notice, much less purchase, Silent Girl?

Last week it was listed as being in “High Demand” on Book Manager, with a sales ranking of # 3,342. It has since slipped to “Medium Demand” and #6565. (By point of reference, Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, is #377, and she's been dead 21 years.)

Book Manager is software many independent bookstores in Canada use for research, ordering, inventory management, and online sales. According to its site, the database contains over four million new books. Four million! I haven’t got a chance.

The US and Canadian Amazon sites kindly post their sales ranking of your book. On June 7th, I was #749,787 in the U.S. and #199,987 in Canada. On June 10th, I had slipped down to #221,182 in Canada but soared to the #153,373 spot in the U.S. (Due, I’m sure, to the purchase of my book by one friend in the States. The rankings are that volatile, I’m guessing. Buy one book and make me a star!)

Coincidentally, Book Manager is operated by Mosaic books in Kelowna, BC, and because a search on the Mosaic site turned up the Book Manager listing of Silent Girl, Colin and I made a special stop there on the way back from Calgary. Photos on the site showed a cozy café and I wanted to scope it out for a future reading. Plus, I would offer to sign copies of my book. Wouldn’t they be pleased?

We found the store without too much trouble and I sauntered in with my special purple ink signing pen. The woman at the front desk frowned into her computer screen and said, “We don’t have any copies of your book.” It wasn’t because they’d sold them all, either. Book Manager only makes it seem as though every store has your book. The café was gone, too, and in its place, tables of bargain books, tumbling over each other.

The stores in my own town haven’t exactly hailed me as queen, either. (You have to really be looking to find my book on the shelves of Munro’s and Bolen Books, despite the copies being signed.) When we returned from Toronto a couple of weeks ago, I hurried down to my local Chapters, knowing Silent Girl was supposed to be displayed on an end-cap from mid-May to mid-June. Their computer screen showed that two were on order but not expected to be in for another 3 or 4 weeks. “It does say,” a sales associate told me,” that they’re supposed to be end-capped when they come in.”

“How can you end-cap two books?” I asked.

“I guess they’ll go fast,” he said.

My publisher got to work on it and when I checked again last week, three copies were on a shelf. I offered to sign them and a different sales associate seemed truly delighted. He checked his computer screen and said, “They’re supposed to be end-capped. I’ll take care of that right away.”

I went back yesterday and found the three signed books back on the shelf, narrow, dark spine out, doomed for obscurity. The sales associate I talked to this time—Janis, her name tag said—called the store manager who explained headquarters was supposed to send them six copies, not three. Apparently, three are not enough for an end-cap. “I can put them on the shelf face out,” Janis said. I could tell she felt bad for me.

“Great, thank you,” I said. “That will help.” I asked if she could label them as signed copies.

“I can!” she said and dove into a cabinet where she pulled out stickers that read Victoria Author but was unsuccessful in locating the Signed Copy stickers. “I’ll have to look for some downstairs,” she said.

I’ll go back in a few days to check.

Photo: The newly Victoria-Author-labelled Silent Girl on a shelf in my local Chapters.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Progress of a Story: Doubts

I can’t remember why I started writing this story. It seems ill-formed and meaningless. A complete mess about nothing much. Concurrently with writing this pathetic waste of computer disc space, I am working my way through Bill Gaston’s Gargoyles, a collection so varied and consistently excellent it has me thinking that the greatest service I can do for literature is to move into Bill’s house and take care of his lawn, do his laundry, etc… so that he’ll have more time to write.

Bill’s stories are focused and poignant. I can’t believe that even in first draft they were ever as crappy as the story I’m working on.

I cannot remember thinking this negatively about any of the stories I have finished and published. I can, however, remember thinking like this about all of the stories I have aborted mid-construction. Did I just push through with the other ones, the ones that got finished? And after their glorious completion and joyful publishing did I blissfully block out the period when my confidence flagged? They say if you truly remembered labour pains there would be no second children. They say a lot of things.

I don’t want to give up though. This year, several after his death, I have learned to love my father. There’s a wealth of fresh feeling that I want to give artistic expression to. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to write a story more. But today, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just get Bill Gaston to write it for me.

And then it occurs to me, maybe I should try to write a story my father would like, not one that’s about his doubts. Like most men, my father liked action movies- for his generation that meant War Movies. He had been in the navy and seen battle in Korea. If my father were to choose an event from his life to write about, it wouldn’t be the one I’ve picked- where he escapes from one demanding family only to land in another. He would pick a time when he was the hero of his own life. Doubts suck. Send in the heroes.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Can you guess who?

by Antonios Maltezos

Let’s play a game.

I wrote a story after watching a fascinating documentary of a famous American. Can you guess who it was? Btw… not such a good idea writing fiction about real people everyone knows. This was maybe six months ago, and I have no plans to ever try and get this published. Here are the first three paragraphs:

I stabbed the front page of last Saturday’s paper using my sharpened pencil, five times, my eyes closed; not at all worried the lead might go through the extra week-end sections and mar the lovely surface of Joyce’s dining table. Had I hurt the table I’d have blamed one of our five children, Joyce herself for encouraging their silly stick figure drawings, for correcting their spelling mistakes, unforgivable to my eyes, the illegible script barely contained within the little dialogue balloons she carefully outlines for them using the bottom of a pot of school glue.

I hold the newspaper up to the early morning light, my eyes skimming over the newsprint looking for the pockmarks I’d made. I’d picked off five words; six if the tiny pig’s tail of a stab wound was really a comet spiralling out of control joining the words senate and house.

But the children were still in my head, Joyce with her my, won’t your father be proud, her voice a steady giggle encouraging Charles Jr. to forgo the color crayons for a 2b pencil, showing him how to draw a boy’s head using a nickel. “Like this,” I’d heard her say. “I’m pretty darn sure it’s how your father does it.”

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Connection is Everything

by Tricia Dower

Who knew a book tour could be so much fun? Part two of mine took me to Vancouver and Calgary where other writers with whom I’ve been “virtual” friends for years showed up to hear me read. You’d have thought we’d known each other since grade school. Hugs all around. Non-stop chatter. Tamara Lee, Patti Parkinson, and Hannah Holborn in Vancouver. Jen McDougall and Heather Eigler in Calgary.

The surprising, glorious Vancouver sun spilled into the open door of Café Montmartre where three other authors (Julie Paul, Madeline Sonik, Pamela Stewart) and I read from a small stage. Our friends and families filled the room, creating an intimate atmosphere. The talented performance poet Radar was part of my entourage. Colin and I had followed her career in Victoria and we’ve missed her since she moved to Vancouver. Her BF plays acoustic guitar and mandolin in the band Headwater and we—Hannah and her husband Ian, Tamara, Radar, Colin and I—headed over to the Libra Room after the reading to hear them play what they’ve dubbed “tractor jazz.” Colin and I had happened across one of their impromptu performances on a BC ferry in February so we knew that meant ‘a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll.’ Can’t say we gave them our full attention. Too busy talking about books and writing, joy and angst. Losing every other word in the din. Revelling in the affirmation and kinship.

More sun along with kilometres of wow mountains and lakes on the drive to Cow Town. Posters announcing the reading as we entered McNally Robinson’s downtown store, my book in the window—a different kind of wow. The three-story, 20,000-square foot store is impressive and we made our way to the top floor and the restaurant, Prairie Ink, where the reading would take place. More posters along the way. “Hey, there’s Pasha’s book!” I said, pointing it out to Colin. Pasha Malla’s The Withdrawal Method in its bright blue cover.

We were there on that specific date because of the Calgary Freelance Association. They hold their annual meeting/dinner at the bookstore each year and request a “literary event” as a sort of dessert. Madeline and I were it. So I was pleased to see them, about twenty strong, in Prairie Ink when we arrived, tables pushed together for their meeting. We wouldn’t be playing to an empty room. But the store was in a bit of disarray. It’s closing in August and the event coordinator had quit—suddenly, I gathered—leaving the bookkeeper to look after the evening. I last saw him leading the editors on a tour of the store before the reading. We never saw the editors again, either. Another employee was enlisted to introduce Madeline and me.

“I’m the only one who isn’t afraid of public speaking,” she said. “Had I known I’d be doing this I wouldn’t have worn my Pooh shirt.”

She did a fine job and, despite the AWOL editors, the room was full thanks to Colin’s family (two sisters, one brother-in-law, two nieces, four nephews, two with their fiancées); two of his former business associates; Jen’s parents, sisters and book club; Heather and her sister; and the Calgary friends of two members of my Victoria writing group. The best part for me was engaging with people after the reading, answering their questions, talking about the stories. Jen’s book club has chosen to read Silent Girl this month. They’ve never tried a story collection before and I enjoyed exploring with a few of them how they might approach a discussion of it. Hanging out with the family afterward was great fun, too. Jared and I want you to read the whole book to us, Colin's niece Katherine said.

After a wonderful evening the next night with Jen’s incredible family, it was back on the road again for more wow scenery and an appearance at Inanna’s booth during the Congress of the Humanities at UBC. Hawking books with my editor, schmoozing professors of women’s studies and literature, suggesting they consider incorporating my book in their coursework. What a joy to find people eager to talk about Shakespeare and feminism and social justice. I met a woman from the National University of Ireland who’s completing her doctorate in Shakespearean influences in Canadian literature. She was as excited as I was that she’d discovered my book.

All of these experiences confirmed that what I most enjoy about this publishing experience is having my stories “out there” at last. Sharing them with more and more people. And the best part of the readings is connecting with old friends and making new ones. As Angel in my story Cocktails with Charles says, “Connection is everything.”

Top: Reading at Café Montmartre in Vancouver. (In the immediate foreground, Hannah and Tamara.) Right: A poster from McNally Robinson.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Progress of a Story: Mess

He swaddled the children and led them outside. One hot hand in each hand. They went to the edge of the pool and sat, dipping their little legs into the water. The other bathers were giving them funny looks. He wondered if they looked like little Arab children. He supposed not with their pale British faces.

I always thought that I worked on stories in three discrete stages: inspiration (the most mysterious stage, in which a promising but rough first draft bursts forth), perspiration (the least satisfying stage, where you have to think, be a bit of a butcher and a bit of a landscaper- hack that chunk off there, plant something there…) and then the polishing (my favourite stage, where I take commas in and out, play around with finding more and more perfect words, cut a 44 word paragraph down to a 38 word one, and then a 32 word one, and finally a 27 word one, boiling down, fluffing up, shining, adding value… it’s essentially good enough, but you keep teasing it into greater and greater glory! Oh the feelings! The feelings! I love this stage.)

He swaddled the feverish children in the giant fluffy white towels and led them outside, one hot hand in each of his. The three of them went to the edge of the pool and sat. The kids dipped their little legs into the water beside his giant hairy ones. The other bathers gave them funny looks. He wondered if they looked like little Arabs.

In my theory of writing, these stages don’t overlap one iota. But as I’m blogging about writing this particular story, I’m observing my process as much less linear. For example, I can’t help but polish a sentence even though I’m not sure this particular scenic detour will survive the perspiration stage; as well, a scene that felt almost finished with polishing suddenly has a mini-damn burst and a new angle is inserted. It’s all really sloppy and out of control. I don’t know if it’s always been like this or if the action of self-observation is changing the process. But the result: I’m not happy. There’s much more anxiety than I remember.

He swaddled the feverish children in fluffy white towels. He took one hot little hand from each and led them outside to the edge of the pool. The kids dipped their pale spotty legs into the water on either side of his giant hairy ones. The other bathers stopped splashing around to look their way. Simon turned shy and tucked his nose into his father’s armpit. Kate waved excitedly at the little Canadians. The towels fell away from her body, the angry red sores crusty with yellowing pus. Parents came running to scoop their children out of the pool. This was a giant mistake, he thought, but oh, my, sweet, lord, the coolness of the water.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


I am busy today writing an 800-word piece at the aggravating rate of one sentence an hour, so instead of adding to my already (rightly or wrongly, I know, I know) crippling workload, I'm simply, for the purposes of today's blog, referring you to two pieces long ago completed, published and forgotten: here and here. Thank you for your understanding in this and all other matters!

Kings of Convenience, I'd Rather Dance With You

Monday, June 02, 2008

Is it really different for girls?

By Tamara Lee

Forgive me while I bounce around a bit in an attempt to connect some dots from the past week’s musings.

Early in the week, I met up with some writer friends, mostly women, but there were a couple fellas. We all range in age and experience. The discussion eventually turned to writers’ bravado and I noted how it seems to me fellas, regardless of their talent, are a lot more courageous about putting their work out there than women. Women seem to be the ones taking the writing classes, joining groups, buying yet another how-to book, and otherwise looking for validation or acceptance as writers in one form or another, while the fellas just head up onto the stage at open mic readings, send out their work on a regular basis and otherwise risk the sucker-punches more willingly.

Before you get miffed by this gross generalization, you should know that each woman at that table, regardless of her age and successes as a writer, understood what I meant. We’d all experienced the hesitancy, the extreme self-doubt, the yet-another-writer’s-class-just-to-be-sure approach to our craft. Of course, many men go through this and I do not believe this is specifically a gender issue.

But could Joe Jackson be a little bit right: is it somehow different for girls? Hasn’t this sort of doubt revealed its tiresome bulk in some way since the beginning of literate time? Women’s roles and societal expectations, and all that bushwhack; it’s the classic Whitman versus Dickinson argument. One swaggered and sang his body electric; the other experimented with eroticism and punctuation in solitude (as Kamilla Denman writes, "Dickinson's transition from a dominant use of the exclamation mark to a preference for the dash accompanied her shift from ejaculatory poems...").

But there’s another interesting thread I’ve noticed in the argument-that-never-ceases: this certain women writers’ fearfulness, or need to feel justified pursuing a certain creative path, seems especially true within the literary arts. I haven’t put my theory to the test but from what I’ve witnessed amongst my creative friends and acquaintances—painters, actors, filmmakers, photographers—creative-validation is most overbearing among the female writers. Perhaps the other creatives suffer in silence, while women at least have their monthly groups to turn to for support.

One of the gals at the table that night, a talented young slam poet, noted that she finds she has to be somehow tougher in order to be out there with her contemporaries, who are mostly guys. I've heard this sort of thing before, women who feel a kind of pressure to write more 'male'. I know female vocalists who have the same angst. Do women painters feel a similar pressure? Do female dancers feel pressure to dance more 'male' (or, vice-versa)?

I have a number of male writer friends who, before they were thirty, had at least one book out. Most of my female writer friends found their successes much later in life, after having children, going through several career shifts, taking another writing degree. The fellas were doing; the gals were planning.

Obviously, this week's musings resulted in very few satisfying answers. So I now turn it over to you. To what degree is all this purely anecdotal? What’s been your experience?