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.