Monday, June 8, 2009


"The key to being centred seems to be for me to do each thing with absolute concentration, to garden as though that were essential, then to write in the same way, to meet my friends, perfectly open to what they bring." - May Sarton

There's a small towel laid out on the floor at the top of the stairs, just outside the door to the Garret. On it sits the cat, gazing at me with expectant green eyes. It's taken the two of us a while to sort out that when I am writing, this is a much better sitting-place than is my lap. At least now the cat is sitting still, and not seething around my desk/lap/printer/lap/desk/lap, blocking my view and generally driving me up the wall while I try to write. The muse has some difficulty getting around a seething feline, so it's a relief and a revelation to find a place for him to sit peacefully.

Since the arrival of my good news, there's been much revising and polishing going on around here. I've spent some time preparing my novella manuscript for copyediting by the good people at Quattro Books (scroll down for the mug-shot), and now that it's been sent in, I'm busy having a proper look at the first 130 pages of the novel I've been pecking away at since my sabbatical began. I finally screwed up the courage to show some of it to my writers' group, and what a relief! Now I wonder why I'd been so shy about showing it to them, but at the time I worried that it wasn't finished; that at this early stage, I might be too easily discouraged by a remark misunderstood (by me); or that it was just too new and much, much more fragile than the polished, twenty-page short stories I've been showing them until now.

I should have known better. My writers' group consists of sensitive and creative writers who are experienced in giving and taking constructive criticism. They are as excited about my novel as I am, and their enthusiasm propels me forward as I consider what's next and reflect upon what I've already written. Now I can begin backing-and-forthing, strengthening certain things and editing others out, all the while aiming for the horizon with a surer sense of direction. And that's exciting.

As long as the cat stays put on his towel and leaves me in peace... as if.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Once Upon an Egg-cup

"When the past is recaptured by the imagination, breath is put back into life."
- Margaret Duras

Occasionally the Business Guy catches me staring at small things. By small, I mean things that don't take up a lot of space in the general landscape: not necessarily small in size, but perceived overall as insignificant, therefore not worthy of much space in one's focus. When the BG asks what I'm looking at, I'm not always able to supply a reasonable answer. Such was the case on a recent Sunday morning:

"Um, an egg-cup. It's got a brown egg in it."

Sounds unimpressive, but if the light is hitting it from a certain angle, and it's the Gmunden ceramic egg-cup I bought last time I visited Vienna, and the egg has lovely speckles at one end and not the other, then I figure it's worth catching the details and drawing out the story behind it.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I lived for a year in that most beautiful of European cities, Vienna. For a serious music student, this was mecca. At least twice a week I attended the opera, an orchestral concert, a recital, or the weekly organ concert at St Stephens Cathedral. I learned to speak German, and although I didn't pay too much attention to the specifics of grammar (those word endings, jeez!), I could get around and make myself understood well enough to attend the Musik Hochschule. It took little effort to take in the art and history, as it kind of absorbed through the skin just by walking along the Ringstrasse. It was a fantastic and in some ways difficult year. But mostly it was fantastic.

We lived in a rented apartment in the district of Meidling, where I learned dialect from the kindly shop owners, and in winter I conversed with chestnut vendors who kept warm by their heated oil drums on street corners. I could never resist the sweet, nutty fragrance emanating from those drums, and always purchased a handful of perfect chestnuts, split down the middle and wrapped hot in a paper cone. The vendors and I chatted in our equally fractured German, joking and laughing, and their uninhibited wide smiles under handlebar moustaches provided a lovely contrast to the grimness of the Viennese winter.

Our furnished apartment included old and well-used ceramic dishes, an Austrian specialty from the town of Gmunden. I loved the hand-painted aqua swirls on stern white glaze, which added a touch of whimsy to the meal.

In recent years I've returned to Vienna to visit old friends and re-learn the city, which, with its sophisticated environmental policies, is cleaner and even more beautiful than it was those years ago. The music and art and history remain as vivid and spectacular as ever, and over time I've come to appreciate the finer details of Austrian culture.

What hasn't much changed is the Flohmarkt, a weekly antiques and collectibles flea market where on a recent visit I came across six Gmunden salad plates. Nothing would do but I had to bring them home, so I purchased them for a song and packed them in my carry-on bag. At a department store I found a new Gmunden egg-cup, and nothing would do but... Well.
Which accounts for my gazing at an egg-cup on a recent Sunday morning.

There's a story behind everything. Sometimes you just have to slow down and wait for it to make itself known.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Memory Bank

"All writing is different levels of failure."

- Mordechai Richler

The Non-Resident-Non-Teenager (NRNT) recently spent a long weekend at home. Together we walked the dog in the woods by the sea, where she breathed deeply of the salt air and commented on the birdsong. The air has been brittle and silent during the cold winter months, and while there was no sign of green, spring was definitely in the air, being rung in by the birds.

The NRNT took the sights and smells of the woods by the sea back to the big city, where she'll pull them out of her memory-bank from time to time, just as I've been doing with snippets of wisdom gleaned from last summer's writing camp.

A few pearls, useful at any time, but especially during a long winter:

"Writing is not an indulgence. The indulgences are what you've given up so you can write."

"Be patient. You will write many more failures than successes. Be willing to fail."

"Show up for work. Write like hell and live up to your predecessor."

"Writer's block is an attitude problem. Just lower your standards and keep on going."

I scribbled like a fury trying to catch every word. I think I caught some good ones.

The birds are still at it, but it's not time to put away the snow shovel just yet...

The Latest Thing

"I think one of the reasons I'm popular again is because I'm wearing a tie. You have to be different."
- Tony Bennett

Many moons ago when I was an idiotic conformist teenager impressionable young woman, I decided I needed the Latest Thing, which, a few weeks after the Frye Boots craze came and went and a few weeks before we all required pukka-shell chokers*, was an Icelandic sweater**. Suddenly the athletic blonde trend-setting girls were wearing these cozy-but-cool pullovers, with the body knitted in pale blue or pink, and the yoke pattern usually involving white and pink or blue, depending on the body colour. I'm not sure who knitted these sweaters, but I was desperate for a blue one with a white and pink yoke.

My birthday was not far off. I pined and hankered and pestered my mother, thinking she might just pull an Icelandic sweater out of her knitting basket at my request. Finally my birthday arrived, and there, on the breakfast table, was a sweater-sized present. I took my time opening it, savouring the moment when the blue sweater with the pink and white yoke - a guarantee of personal happiness and total acceptance by my peers - would be mine. I pulled away the last piece of tissue, and there it was: My very own hand-knit Icelandic sweater.

It was brown.
And scratchy.
And the neck was too tight.
And the yoke was a darker brown.
And it was brown.

I thanked Mum for it and wore it around the house a few times, and then I put it away in the back of my closet.

In the thirty years since, I've felt ashamed enough about the brown sweater that I've kept it, packing and moving it as many times as necessary, but always it's stayed at the back of the closet, forgotten and sitting in a pile of guilt.

Until now.

Sick to death of the sweaters I've been wearing non-stop during this long winter, I recently emptied my closet. When I reached to the very back, there was the brown Icelandic sweater. I pulled it out for a better look. It wasn't simply brown; the lopi yarn had a chestnut sheen to it, and the yoke was a carefully chosen blend of a deeper shade of chestnut and off-white stitching. I pulled it on and it fit perfectly.

It's brown.
And comfy.
And the neck is just right.
And it's the warmest sweater I own.
And unlike any other Icelandic sweater I've ever seen, it's brown.

I've been wearing it ever since - it's my new favourite sweater.

Thanks, Mum. This time I mean it.

*The irony of Frye Boots and pukka shells was lost on us Eastern Canadian city kids, few of whom had been anywhere near a ranch, where such a boot as a Frye might have its uses; or Hawaii, where pukka necklaces originated to ensure safe voyage by sea.

**Given our cold winters, Icelandic sweaters actually did make good sartorial sense. But mostly they were cool.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Wal-Mart Muses

"All good stories are about conversion."
Flannery O'Connor

I've just been to Wal-Mart, one of my least favourite places on earth.

I find it overwhelming at the best of times, with signs and specials blocking my every step, more stuff than I could imagine ever being interested in buying, and ponderous souls pushing carts oh-so-slowly in front of me, keeping me from my destination as their rocking steps become slower and slower.

I had two thoughts:
I'd rather be writing.
I'm here for the kitty litter.

My first sight upon stepping through the sliding doors was the lady in the blue vest doling out with great compassion the shopping carts. I accepted one, and then had to wait while the person in front of me organized herself and her cart into the slow waddle I was destined to follow to the pet supplies aisle at the farthest corner of the store. Eventually I got around her, and made my way past Cheez Whiz displays and such, dodging small seniors intent on stocking up on Whiz.

The pet supplies aisle was blessedly empty; my 18-kilogram box of kitty litter within safe reach on a waist-high shelf. But when I tried to swing it into place, it knocked the cart, sending it on a lazy, squeaking trip down the aisle. I and the thousand-kilo kitty litter chased it as far as the dog biscuits, where it settled to a stop and I wrenched my back with the weight of the kitty box. Soft curses ensued as I waddled my cart slowly to the cashier. It took me ten minutes to get there.

The woman at the cash greeted me with a wide smile. Her front teeth were separated by a formidable gap, and her eyes smeared with disco-era green shadow. There was warmth in those eyes - while I paid for my kitty litter, she called me both "honey" and "sweetheart," and seemed to mean it. I thanked her.

As I wheeled past the shopping cart lady in the blue vest, she wished me the best possible day in a voice rich with sincerity. I thanked her also.

Being called "honey" and "sweetheart" and being wished the best possible day by the ladies at Wal-Mart could only lead to one thing: I've had, in fact, the best possible day.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bad Guys

"The best thing you can do as an artist is disturb."
- Liza Minelli

Recently I was treated to a performance of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma! It was staged by a regional theatre guild, and while it's true I had a vested interest - the Resident Teenager was one of the cast - I was truly, thoroughly impressed. The singing, dancing, and acting were all at a high standard, and the cast members were enjoying themselves to the hilt.

Particularly impressive was the character Jud Fry, who was played with great depth by a highly trained triple-threat actor. I was pleased to see him bring out the humanity in this despicable character; it made it hard for me as an audience member simply to detest Jud when I was sympathetic to his painful life, his frustrations, watching him unravel before my eyes. His actions were no less dispicable, but my response was complicated.

It brought to mind a lecture that was given last summer at writing camp. We were reminded that it is best not to judge the bad guys in the narrative; not to betray them; to see the humanity of both the victim and the corruptor. As writers, we have an obligation to all our characters, even the victimizers.

It's not easy to pull it off, opening one's heart to a murderer, a pedophile, a bully; not any easier than it was for the actor in question to bring out the painful qualities of Jud's lonely, angry life. But his doing so added a certain richness to the production.

I'll not soon forget it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Literary Journals II

"An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many and grows inveterate in their insane hearts."
- Juvenal

The Canadian literary journal is at risk.

In a recent blog, I extolled the virtues of the literary journal as a vital part of our literary culture. Most writers you've ever heard of got their start... well, you can read it here, and refresh your memories on the grant funding that supports our journals, and the shoestring budgets and countless volunteer hours spent to get the journals printed and into bookstores.
During these first six months of my sabbatical, I have been writing, rewriting, polishing, and sending short stories to literary journals across the country, to the US and the UK. I've lost count of how many; it seems in recent weeks I've been tossing them out the door with a pitchfork.

I write these stories to satisfy a creative urge. Once they're written, I'd like to have people read them. At this stage in my writing career, literary journals are my best chance at seeing my stories in print. The same can be said of thousands of other writers in my position.

Now it seems this piece of our cultural landscape is at risk of total erosion. The new Canadian Periodical Fund could well exclude literary journals, whose readership typically falls below the 5,000-readership minimum suggested by Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore. This is serious business.

It's also a departure from my usual blog. But I feel it is important enough to bring it to readers' attention. It will never make front-page news in the national, or even local, papers. But here at the Reluctant Blogger, it is front and centre.