Tuesday, December 23, 2008


"Don't ask who's influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he's digested, and I've been reading all my life."
- Giorgos Seferis

Not much writing happening these days, but there never is at this time of year - there are too many happy distractions.

For example, as I type, the Non-Resident-Non-Teenager (NRNT) is flopped on my bed (my Writer's Garret stuff having been relegated to the bedroom as the NRNT needs to sleep somewhere), carrying on the following one-sided conversation:

"I love how Al drives over the snowbanks," she observes, looking out the window at the spoils of last night's snow storm.

"Mm-hmm..." I reply, typing.

"He just drives over it again and again. Never mind shovelling."


"Can you hear this pop?" She pops her knee.

"No." Still typing.

"Oh. Well, can you hear this pop?"


"Oh. Well, can you hear this pop?"


"Oh. Well, can you hear this pop? Never mind."

NRNT hops from the bed and bangs on the Resident Teenager's (RT) door. I need them to dig the car out from the frozen mountain of slush ploughed into the mouth of the driveway through the night. More happy chatter, at least from the NRNT; grunts from the sleepy one as they pull on their coats and boots.

And so it will go for a few precious weeks: Squawks, giggles, non-sequiturs, and the odd blowup as our routines are joyfully disrupted. And then we'll all get back to work, the NRNT at her new co-op placement in a far city, the RT starting rehearsals for two new theatre productions (oh yeah, and school), the Business Guy doing business, and me back to the Writer's Garret, pondering the eternal literary question of What's Next?

Until then, I wish all readers peace and much fiction (give Canadian a try!) for the holidays. Time now for a sugar plum - I'll be back in the New Year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy Anniversary

"Music can sound like the wind and the rain, and like thunder! It can make you happy or sad, or remind you of things, like bumblebees, or birds, or... or... yellow!"
- Trixie Spider

This week being the anniversary of the eight-show run of A Spider's Tale, I invite you, Dear Reader, to inspect the Spider page on my website. But before you spend too much time there, I would like you to consider some of the positive things that came of A Spider's Tale:

1. Children had a great time learning about symphony orchestras through Trixie Spider's adventures, without realising they were learning something.

2. The parents who sat in the audience with their children learned about symphony orchestras (see above).

3. The orchestra enjoyed a fresh, new approach to children's programming (see above).

4. The actors, designers, and crew enjoyed a fresh, new approach to children's programming (see above).

5. The author/violist recovered nicely from the bruises incurred while she was busy pinching herself that this was actually happening.

But most of all:
6. Children had a great time learning about symphony orchestras through the adventures of Trixie Spider and her friends.

(And here's a nifty bonus: Next time they hear the theme from the last movement of Beethoven's 6th Symphony, it won't only be the kids who'll think of Trixie falling from her web and dancing on a viola.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Four Hats, Four Pages

"I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done."
- Steven Wright

Winter has firmly asserted itself with a thick blanket of snow that recently had Halifax socked in for half a day. While the Business Guy toiled with the neighbour's snow blower ("No, honey, really. You just stay warm while I dig us out. Really."), I knitted my fourth hat in four days, reasoning with myself that a) last winter while the Business Guy was away on business trips, I did the bulk of the shovelling, b)I have stitched, with love, four Christmas presents for friends and family, and c) I have written four fresh pages in as many days. Seems about equal. Truth be told, the hats have garnered most of my attention as I plotted colour combinations and stripe patterns appropriate to the recipient. Maybe that's why I've been feeling slightly uneasy.

But why should I feel uneasy? Since September I've been writing hard and fast, cranking out nearly 100 pages of fiction. I've got Novel/Part I tucked safely away in three separate files, including web storage for safety (thanks to all for your great suggestions), and I'm well into Part II. Of course I see the need to come up for air and think about what's next, but the working mother in me can't help but worry about Time Wasted. After all, ten short months are all that remain of my writing sabbatical.

If a friend were in the same situation I'd be lecturing her on the virtues of Time Spent, not Wasted; about how sometimes a writer needs to stare out the window, or walk the dog, or knit a hat. And I would expect my friend to lap up my wisdom and make the best of staring out the window for a while. I needed that very lecture, so I turned to Mary, who assured me that once the hats dry up I'll discover "deep wells of words waiting to be poured out by the pailful."

With her wisdom ringing in my ears I settled on a colour for the final stripe of my brother's Christmas present. And then I surprised myself by writing, almost in one breath, an entire, brand-new short story.

Who needs a hat?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Yarn-Whisper

"I don't believe in writing every day though I'm at my desk every day. So much of writing is thinking before you write, reading, or simply brooding."
- Stanley Kunitz

There's snow drifting down. Earlier it was rain, then as the mercury headed towards zero, it turned into thick rain, and now it's that wet, sloppy variety of snow - snowdrops, really.
It all points to knitting.

After spending most of last week compiling and editing Part I, Draft I of my novel, I found myself curiously inert. I needed to do something, but Part II was not forthcoming. So I fussed around the house, cleaning dog-hair-bunnies (created by this fine creature) and baking cookies. I tried all manner of procrastination techniques, but drew the line at scrubbing the toilet for the third time in as many days, and got to work preparing story submissions to journals and contests. Then, drawn by the deepening cold, I pulled out the knitting needles and some scraps of yarn, and started what I thought was going to be a cowl. But when I listened to what the knitting was telling me, I realised it was actually not a cowl, but a hat. In no time I was finished. The thrill!

After admiring my newly-knitted hat for a day, and deciding on the spot that everyone's getting hats for Christmas, I climbed back up to the writer's garret and listened to what Part II was trying to tell me. And then I got back to work.

And no, the metaphor of knitting words together is not lost on me.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

High Anxiety

Though an angel should write, still 'tis devils must print."
- Thomas Moore

You would not believe the dreams flying around inside my sleeping head lately.

When I'm hot on the trail of a story, my subconscious flits about in a lively manner, bringing the strangest things to the surface. Of late there have been a couple of dreams involving tragic little girls in ordinary situations made unbearably painful simply by dint of their being tragic little girls. Then there was the dream about a fork. Nothing more to it than that: a fork.

I try not to think about the meaning of my dreams; for one thing I feel they ought to be respected for what they are and left alone, and for another, let's face it: I'm not too deep.

However, during one particularly busy night this week I was visited by two rather classic anxiety dreams, one after another, reflecting two large elements of my life, music and writing.
In Dream #1, I arrived backstage to play a concert ten minutes before the downbeat only to discover that, while I was suitably attired from the waist down in a long black skirt and heels, from the waist up I wore a bright green blouse and - here's the kicker - no lipstick! I raced around backstage like a headless chicken while MJ, our eminently sensible, prepared-for-anything stage manager, found me a black T-shirt. However, neither of us was prepared for the discovery that the black T-shirt had somehow been tie-dyed in brilliant colours reminiscent of the Land of Oz, and would be no more suitable in a sea of orchestra blacks than my bright green blouse. Downbeat was now seconds away, and still no lipstick. Crisis.

In Dream #2, I found myself approaching Page 100 of my novel manuscript, typing like a fury, story flowing from my fingers in the white heat of a creative moment. When I went to save the file, no matter how I approached it, it would not save, would not print. Crisis, mayhem, disaster! I awoke in a cold sweat, gnashing and flailing.

Regarding Dream #1, there are no words (apart from M.A.C. "Captive").

As for Dream #2, I welcome any suggestions on how to manage my growing manuscript before I have a nervous breakdown and lose the whole thing. Immediately would be perfect. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance Day 2008

I come from a family of storytellers, and I regard their stories as gifts to be cherished. The following, told to me by my father, is one of those I cherish most. I think of it every year on

Remembrance Day:

by Geoffrey Payzant

In summer and autumn of 1944 I was wearing the uniform of a humble sailor and was stationed at H.M.S. Daedalus, a Royal Navy Station at Lee-on-Solent in the south of England.

From there I was sent in September to Bristol for a few days of writing examinations, doing tests, and being interviewed by a Selection Board, all for the purpose of determining what kind of service I might be suitable for in the Royal Navy. I slung my hammock in an old naval training ship, H.M.S. Flying Fox, which was to be my temporary home. From there I went to my various appointments at the Naval Centre, and in between appointments explored the City of Bristol, which had been heavily bombed by the Germans in 1940.

Not far from the ship was a former residential area, mainly working-class housing, which had been bombed almost flat, perhaps because it was so close to the docks. The rubble had not been cleared from the streets, except for a few unofficial footpaths which were being used as shortcuts. On one of them, as I picked my way along, there approached a rattling and squeaking old wagon with one boy pulling it, by means of a rope, and another boy sitting in it. They were aged perhaps six or seven years, but in a war zone it is never easy to guess the ages of children. As they drew near I could see that the pulling boy had no eyes and the sitting boy had no legs. It turned out that they had been orphaned and terribly injured in the bombing.

They greeted me and asked politely if I could spare them a few pence. I pulled open my naval moneybelt and gave them all the change I had, those large British coins. I had two chocolate bars ("nutty" in Royal Navy slang) in my gas mask case, so I gave them those. In Britain at that time, civilians rarely set eyes upon chocolate bars. Instead of bolting them down, as I had thought they might do, the boys thanked me solemnly and put the bars in a safe corner of the wagon for later consumption, or perhaps to sell or trade.

We chatted, but they were cautious in what they said, because one of their main preoccupations was keeping clear of "The Welfare," people who would take charge of them and separate them so that one could be taken care of in an institution for blinded children, the other in one for crippled children. The boys were having none of that. They took pride in their mutual self-sufficiency and learned not to trust anybody who asked them questions about themselves. Of the bombing, of their rescue, of their hospitals and foster homes, the boys would say nothing.

Bit by bit I learned that there were shelters to which they could go for a meal, a bath, some castoff clothing, and a place to sleep. One such shelter was a church basement (all that survived of the church) which the sitting boy pointed out to me; the rector, they said, was a very kind man who would never betray them to The Welfare.

The main thing in their lives, and a source of obvious pride to them both, was their little Business. They went about the footpaths with their wagon, and when the sitting boy saw something in the ruins that might be brass, copper or aluminum, they stopped and examined it, and if it proved to be so, they loaded it into their wagon along with other bits and pieces. The sitting boy did not take up a lot of space in the wagon. In wartime, nonferrous scrap metals were valuable. The boys had a secret place where they hoarded their findings; every few days a middleman with a barrow came along and paid him his estimate of the worth of their scraps, of which he then took possession. In this way they enjoyed a degree of financial independence, or so it seemed to them.

It became time to go: The boys had to get back to Work. They politely took their leave and went rattling and squeaking along the footpath. I was incapable of speaking, so I saluted them, then turned away so they could not know that the big, brave boy of eighteen in a sailor suit was crying.

22 October, 2000
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 6, 2008


"Every artist was first an amateur."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

My current favourite Internet story about the late, great Paul Newman has me thinking about being star-struck. Frankly, I've never minded being star-struck, and under similar circumstances I probably would have put the ice cream in my purse, too.

The OED gives the following definition for the affliction I quite enjoy and have only experienced a handful of times in my life:

"Star-struck: adj. fascinated or greatly impressed by stars in entertainment or stardom."
But for me there is a lot more to it than simply being impressed or fascinated. There is the unexpected rush of adrenaline, a sudden awareness of being in the presence of greatness that fills me from top to bottom.

In my other life as a musician, I have experienced this sensation on a few occasions, most recently last spring when David Foster blew into town and needed a backup orchestra for his Crescendo fundraiser. The lineup of stars flown in from around the globe was incredible, and during the rehearsal we enjoyed working with numerous big-name musicians, ranging from pop to opera to hip-hop. But when Natalie Cole graced the stage, wearing spray-on jeans tucked into stratospheric boots, a fluffy white sweater and enormous sunglasses, she exuded a rare fabulousness that reached all the way to where I sat in the back. I have long been an admirer of Natalie, and a devoted fan of her father, Nat "King" Cole, and so I was completely overcome. My mouth opened itself and the words flew out of their own accord:

"Okay, now I am COMPLETELY star-struck," I declared in a voice amplified by adrenaline, to the amusement of my colleagues, many of whom, I suspect, were also on the verge. I can't remember a note I played for Natalie, only that I basked in the glow of her star power.

Just don't get me started about Lionel Ritchie's performance that night, other than to say that when he surged onstage in a cloud of charisma, a friend and I turned our suddenly flushed faces to each other and gasped for breath. We were completely, utterly star-struck.

And really, really don't get me started about the time I shared a flight to Toronto with the Canadian author Alistair MacLeod, and quivered with the above affliction for two solid hours. More about that later, but I can assure you, Dear Reader, that had an ice cream cone been anywhere near within reach, it would have wound up in my purse.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Culture Vulture

"Art is life seen through a temperament."
- Emile Zola

For years I've been telling the Business Guy I need to quit my job and start getting some culture. My usual schedule of playing the viola full-time in a symphony orchestra, raising a family, and squeezing in time to write fiction just doesn't lend itself to making time for sitting in the audience at someone else's performance.

I haven't exactly quit my job, but my sabbatical from this year's Symphony Season is certainly giving me ample opportunity to soak up the culture around here. In my own living room I've been devouring great works of fiction, to the tune of a novel or two per week, supplemented by nightly readings of the great Alistair MacLeod's short stories (for the fourth time, if you want to know). There was the Symphonic Art Auction gala fundraiser I attended last week, where I ogled some fantastic artwork. And a couple of weeks ago I attended the Season Opener of the very orchestra from which I am taking my sabbatical.

Most recently I attended a recital where two fine young musicians, a cellist and a pianist, gave an elegant and powerful performance of mostly French music. As it happens, I am acquainted with the cellist, a strapping young guy with fire in his eyes and an intensity to his playing that I saw coming when he was a wee thing in diapers, playing Mississippi Hot Dog on my viola while I babysat him (for three hours at a time; it was the easiest babysitting gig of my life). He knew as a toddler that he wanted to play the cello, and with its C-string and much smaller size, my viola made a good substitute. And now he and his colleague are on the Eastern Canada touring circuit, wowing lucky audiences. It was inspiring to see these young men, the next generation of Canadian musicians, well on their way.

I'm delighted to tell the Business Guy that I'm finally getting some culture. Next week it'll be a pops concert tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes. And who knows, for the first time in 33 years I might actually see the front end of the Messiah soloists! It's all grist for the writing mill, and I didn't have to quit my job to find it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Violin Lesson

"Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards." - Robert Heinlein

In an earlier chapter of my life I was a violin teacher. I had forty young students, each of whom was positively edible. I adored them all. One of them was a cherubic five-year-old named Stephanie, whose name suited her perfectly, with her cornflower eyes, honey-coloured curls, pink cheeks, and rosebud lips which arranged themselves in a dreamy smile whenever she played her violin. She had a Zen-like approach that was unusual in a five-year-old. I loved that little girl, and would gladly have made her my own if her parents had only seen reason, but I guess they liked her well enough, so I let them keep her. I looked forward to her lesson every week.

One day Stephanie arrived looking sweet enough to eat with a spoon. She unpacked her violin and stood before me, pleased in her Zen manner that she'd mastered Go Tell Aunt Rhody. Her mother sat nearby, bursting with pride over her little Paganini's achievement.

Just before putting her violin on her shoulder, Stephanie stuck a chubby finger up her nose, blessed me with that smile of hers, and proceeded to wipe the contents on her shirt. Then she got on with the business of Go Tell Aunt Rhody.

Resting on her tummy not twelve inches from my face was a peanut-sized booger.
Paralyzed except for my gag reflex, which worked overtime for the next half-hour, I somehow got through the rest of the lesson. Her mother, unaware of the situation, brimmed with aforementioned pride.

My association with Go Tell Aunt Rhody was forever changed by Stephanie's booger. But still I would have made that little girl my own, if her parents hadn't been so unreasonable.

(Somehow placing "booger" and "edible" within picking distance of each other only adds to the grossout factor, doesn't it? Writing tip for the day.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ordinary People/Extraordinary Giving

"With ordinary talents and extraordinary perseverance all things are attainable."
- Thomas Baxton

I recently attended a gala arts event. It was a fundraiser for a symphony orchestra; or to be more precise, the orchestra's Education and Outreach program, which strives to enrich the lives of our city's children through exposure to music.

At least two hundred people dolled themselves up; there were suits and ties, dresses and heels, blue jeans and silk shirts; there were frosty glasses of wine and canapes nearly too pretty to eat. In a corner, dressed in tuxedo blacks, a quintet performed music ranging from serenades to tangos. There were name tags for the artists who had donated their talents and time by transforming old instruments into works of art, and then readily given these art pieces to the orchestra to auction at the fundraiser.

It was a show of one sector of our arts community giving support to another, without an agenda, without question, and with great enthusiasm. The artists stretched their own boundaries and artistic vision by trying new things with new media, and they surprised themselves with their artistic growth.

We all admired the flattened, bowl-shaped french horn, wishing more than one of us might take it home and load it up with crisp, red apples. Who among us didn't covet the framed art photo of the insides of a hundred-year-old piano, with its lines and curves reminiscent of an Inuit painting? There were seascapes and cherries painted on old violins and cellos, and a brace of crows perched on the panel of an old piano, surrounded by floral collage. A single hand, fashioned from clay, danced across a section of a keyboard, while nearby daylilies grew alongside torn manuscript, the canvas representing the fleetingness of music in time. It was inspiring to see how far the imaginations of the artists reached, given the opportunity to step outside the norm.
And it was inspiring to see how generous these artists were in their gifts; also the guests who didn't think twice about reaching into their wallets for the orchestra's Education and Outreach program. The artists were happy to be there, pulled from the solitude of their studios and their work. The musicians were glad of the night out and to thank the artists for their kindness. And the guests were happy to be part of this opportunity to help enrich the lives of children through exposure to music.

Gala? Yes. Stuffy? Hardly.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Paper Clips

"Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." - Gene Fowler

I've just finished dusting the paper clips. Not individual clips, of course - that would be an exercise in procrastination, wouldn't it?

It started with a blank page; to be precise, the blank page where I left off writing yesterday. While I was staring at it, waiting for the words to come, I noticed some suspicious looking dried-up drip marks freckling the page. Kind of gross, and the source didn't warrant vigorous thought, but I wondered how anyone could be expected to write the Great Canadian Novel in the face of such diversion? So I grabbed a damp cloth and started to clean.

Perhaps a clean page would be more forthcoming with new words, I rationalized; however, the absence of grunge on the screen only served to enhance the layer of dust which remained elsewhere on my desk. Idly I carved with my finger on the dusty monitor the message B hearts BG before attacking it with the cloth.

I would not call this procrastination. One needs a clean workspace from which to produce one's best work, so I dusted happily, and before long the speakers, the monitor, the printer, the keyboard, and the dictionary (OED, if you want to know) were sparkling. The page on the screen was pristine, an inviting, snowy white. With fingers poised over the keyboard, I took a deep breath.

Then I noticed the paper clips, at least the plastic container with the magnetic hole that keeps the paper clips from falling out. It was very, very dusty. So I picked up the cloth and gave it a good doing over.

The blank page waited.

My fingers dangled over the keyboard.

I peered inside the paper clip holder, where I saw a mote of dust.
Shaking my head, I put down the paper clips and got to work writing. Dusting individual paper clips would definitely be an exercise in procrastination. And anyway, my dust cloth won't fit in the magnetic hole.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Big, Quiet Moment

"Writers should be read but neither seen nor heard."
- Daphne Du Maurier

Well, I did it. I was going crosseyed from editing my short stories, and the submission deadline on a manuscript competition loomed, so I printed all twelve stories (after checking five times that the page numbers lined up properly, having recently sent a four-chapter children's submission whose pages were off by one after Chapter Two - ARGH!!). Found one of those lethal-looking clippie things in a size XXL, and eased it in place. Wrapped a flimsy rubber band around the manuscript's middle, in case of some postal disaster involving hundred-kilometer winds, and stuffed it into an envelope, padded. Just in case.

Seeing the title page with my name on it, and a hundred and forty pages stacked beneath - the culmination (for now) of four years' work - gave me pause. It was a Big Quiet Moment.

In my other life as an orchestral musician, the big moments are noisy and thrilling, with cymbals crashing and trumpets trumpeting, string players sawing like mad to be heard over the din. I've spent much of my career managing a system of earplugs to help me cope with and enjoy playing through the Big Noisy Moments. So it seemed appropriate that, during the official beginning of my writing sabbatical, while my Symphony colleagues were busy managing earplugs during their first rehearsal back following the summer hiatus (Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, which is pretty much a continuous Big Noisy Moment) I was celebrating a quiet one. I poured my guts into an envelope and licked a stamp.

And then I got back to work writing

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Multiple Players

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."
-Tom Clancy

Ours is a single-TV household. I keep the tube in the basement to make the effort of looking at it as unappealing as possible. Within a tangle of wires next to the TV, the X-Box sits surrounded by dust bunnies and the usual teenager-generated detritus: abandoned pop cans, gum wrappers, bits of popcorn the dog missed, and the like. By any standard it is truly grotty down there.

Regardless of the lack of appeal, when a clump of teenagers arrives at the house to visit, the basement is their inevitable destination. En masse they take up the mystifying wireless controllers, and with thumb muscles strengthened beyond what is natural from years of operating these things, they get to work. (I sometimes wonder about those thumb muscles, and what evolution will make of them.) Instead of speaking among themselves, occasionally they grunt in unison. I can only assume that some act of screen violence hasn't gone as planned.
A recent Sunday afternoon found the household lazy with unexpected late-summer heat. The Resident Teenager disappeared with his friends out the front door, his parting words a cheerful "'Bye forever!" My husband, worn out from a strenuous week of Business Guy stuff, sighed with relief and descended to the basement couch for a rare Sunday afternoon baseball nap.

Within minutes of his descent, the teenagers returned, "forever" apparently having been foreshortened by the lure of the X-Box. When I informed them that the TV was occupied for the duration of the baseball nap, they groaned and cast about for something to do. I watched, fascinated, as they stood around in the kitchen staring at one another.

"Do you have any other multiple-player games?" one of them finally asked. She wasn't asking me, but I answered anyway, grabbing a multiple-player game from my youth and saying, "Cheat!"

To their credit, they all sat at the table and played cards for an hour. They chatted and giggled and poked fun at each other, and to their further credit, they stayed on playing well past the end of the baseball nap.

Come to think of it, maybe it was to my credit.

Friday, September 26, 2008

More on Margaret

"Either the bloody thing will get published or it won't."
- Margaret Laurence (re. The Diviners)

I've had a number of responses to last Thursday's blog, deeply felt emails about Margaret Laurence's work. One was from a writer who felt Laurence's presence during the writing of her own novel, with the reminder to be true to her own voice throughout. Another came from an artist who recalled reading The Diviners years ago, and reacting so powerfully to a dialogue section that she could actually hear the voices speaking. Another reader wrote simply that The Stone Angel and The Diviners are her two favourite books. Period.

I was moved to pull my worn copy of The Diviners off the shelf for the first time in many years. It's seen better days; the pages are yellowing and the inscription bears the confident and slightly curlicue signature "Binnie Brennan, 13J", written when I was Morag Gunn's daughter Pique's age. With a nod to the nearby stack of newer Canadian novels awaiting my gaze, I sat in my reading chair and began.

The opening lines drew me in (see my Writing page), and I haven't stopped reading since. Where I was Pique's age when I read The Diviners in high school, for this reading I am exactly Morag's. Through adult eyes it's a whole new story, and yet it is as familiar as an old friend. What thrills me is that I CANNOT PUT IT DOWN - The Diviners remains one of the finest and most absorbing novels I have ever read. There is no doubt in my mind that it laid the foundation for subsequent Canadian novels, a number of which sit piled by my reading chair, and who knows, perhaps one or two I haven't yet had the chance to write.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Field Trip

"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."
- Samuel Johnson

I've been tackling the story whose guts I recently decided I hate. It took some time and a lot of nerve, but last week I completely pulled it apart and started over, adding more new elements than keeping old ones. It was a bloodbath, a ruthless pruning session that left me panting and sweating bullets, but with an entirely new version of a story I need to keep in my collection.
It needed an extra pair of eyes, so I called upon my great friend S., who is both a discriminating reader and a nurse. Where the setting of my collection is a nursing home, I've been throwing stories at her left and right, begging for her expertise. Indeed, S. has been invaluable in keeping me from falling flat on my face out of ignorance on nursing-related matters.

Yesterday S. arrived at the door with her copy of the rewrite, and announced we were going on a field trip to look at the diaper room. The diaper room - how fantastic! Accuracy in writing is so important, and clearly S. felt I needed to get it right about the diapers. I grabbed my notebook, and we were off to the hospital. Within minutes of S.'s poking around the supply room, we had the matter sorted out.

While S. had a few words with her colleagues in the nurses' lounge, I stood in the empty hallway and noted the waiting gurneys, the towel cart, the nose-pinching scent of antiseptic that hung in the air along with a brittle, momentary sense of calm. I thought about the people resting behind drawn curtains, the nurses whose cheerful chatter was making its way to me from the lounge, and I hoped I would be able to do them all justice.

Back at my desk I made the necessary changes about diapers, and realised that I had finally divined the story I wanted to tell. I think.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


"I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter."
- James Michener

This week I'm preparing a submission for a manuscript competition. It's a first for me, and it's a big deal.

For some time now I've been submitting stories one at a time to literary journals, steadily collecting rejection letters, and a few acceptances. Over the past four years I've been writing my story collection in the same manner: one at a time, and revising as such, each story falling under careful scrutiny as I pick it apart and put it back together in a slightly, or sometimes vastly, different way.

Toward the end of my recent mentorship at the Humber School for Writers, I suspected I had a solid first draft of the story collection. My mentor confirmed my suspicion, and he gave me advice and encouragement about the revising job I had ahead of me. Soon after, I printed all twelve stories and put them in a blue binder. It was a big moment for me to see them as a whole; I went about the rest of the morning with a daft grin on my face, hugging the blue binder. Then I came to my senses and got to work editing. I've been at it ever since.

Rewriting is an exercise fraught with choices. As I prepare the collection for submission, I am making decisions left and right about what to keep, what to omit, and what to develop. For example, late last week I decided I hated one of the stories' guts, and would have been happy to run it through the shredder and line the kitty box with it. Alas, the story is crucial to the collection, so I'll have to find another way of telling it, and use something else to line the kitty box, necessity being the mother of invention in both cases.

Deciding on the order is a whole other matter, as one story links to the next and causes a ripple effect on how the larger picture unfolds. It's a big responsibility, and an even bigger thrill. This submission is the culmination of four years of writing and rewriting, and further rewriting on top of more rewriting. You get the idea. It's a big deal.

(Incidentally, The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions of "Submission". Here are two of my favourites:

1. humility, meekness, obedience, submissiveness.

2. (in wrestling) the surrender of the participant yielding to the pain of a hold.


“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”- Jack London

The launch of my website coincides with the beginning of a long-held dream of mine, which is to take a year and write full-time. It’s not that I have any complaints about my day-job, or should I say night-job, as a musician in a symphony orchestra. For thirty-five years I have played the viola, twenty of which have found me luxuriating in the viola section of Canada’s finest chamber orchestra, working full-time as a professional musician. I’d be hard-pressed to improve on the job of playing with outstanding musicians under the direction of the late Maestro Georg Tintner, and currently, Bernhardt Gueller, bringing musical masterpieces to enthusiastic Maritime audiences on a weekly basis.

And yet… and yet. For as long as I’ve been obsessed with playing the viola, there has been a compulsion in me to write. Just as I love the physical act of having rich and beautiful sounds pour out of my viola, of feeling the vibrations of the music right down to my toes, so do I love the physical act of writing, whether the words are flying from pen to paper, or from under the keys at my fingertips. I love the triumph over the blank page, of filling notebooks and sheets of paper with prose. Making stuff up brings me joy.

The hard part, where the art lies, is in the rewriting. It takes time, and I have happily put in what spare time a working musician and mother-of-two can find. To my delight, three of my short stories have been recognized by literary journals*, and one of my children’s stories has been blessed with a stage production. “Blow in my ear,” as my mother would say. Give a writer a little encouragement, and watch out. This is where my sabbatical year comes in.

I plan to keep a blog account of my writing efforts over the coming months. My hope is to update it twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you hear from me less often, it could mean good news, I’m on a roll with my fiction writing. Or maybe I’m off playing my viola, which I can’t imagine completely abandoning. Then again, there could be an onslaught of blog posts, which might be symptomatic of writer’s block.

Writing isn’t easy. Inspiration isn’t handed to anyone on a plate, and rewriting is hard, hard work. It all needs time, and right now, for the first time in my adult life, I have time to write. Wish me luck.

*Links: The Adirondack Review, Glossolalia (Iss 1:1), Existere (Fall 2007)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Reluctant Blogger

"I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”- Peter De Vries

“You need a website.”
“No, I don’t."
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t."
“Yes, you do. You need a website and you need a blog.”

Thus began the supper conversation between me and my husband, the Business Guy. We’d had this chat before. I’d resisted. He’d persisted. I’d resisted again. Now he was persisting, yet again. I paused to chew my broccoli. Swallowed. Picked up the conversation where it left off.

“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”

The Business Guy has the persistence of a drill, which accounts for his success in business. I chewed on a piece of carrot, slowly, so as to arm myself with just the right words to strengthen my argument. This wasn’t going to be easy.

My husband jumped in, which was hardly fair, as I was still chewing.

“You’re a writer. You need to promote yourself and your work if you want your writing to be read.”

The Business Guy is right. I know this, but still I cringe at the thought of putting my words Out There.

Most writers I know are shy and private people. These personality traits are enormously helpful in fostering the rich inner life that nurtures small thoughts and inspirations into something interesting for the world to read. Therein lies the paradox: Writers need readers. Readers means people. And there you are, Dear Reader, out there in the public space known as the Internet (or “Interweb,” as a behind-the-times character in the excellent Eugene Levy/Christopher Guest film “For Your Consideration” calls it). And here I am, hiding behind my computer, about to press “Post” on my first-ever blog, which will appear on my first-ever website, http://www.binniebrennan.com/.


I am the reluctant blogger.

Truly, I am paralysed by the thought that a solitary web-surfer might stumble across this and actually read it. But as a writer I do want my words to be read. And the Interweb – pardon, Internet – seems a good way of helping things along.

Thus it is with considerable trepidation that I breathe deeply and say, “Yes, I do.”

Welcome to my blog.