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.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Elwyn Brooks White

"We are having splendid weather and I am building a stone wall. I understand that all literary people, at one time or another, build a stone wall. It's because it's easier than writing."
- E.B. White

Elwyn Brooks White, aka E.B. White, is my latest literary hero. Here's why:

Not only is he famous for editing "The Strunk," but he was one of the first and most lasting of the New Yorker magazine's roster of writers, contributing his essays and unsigned "Notes and Comment" pieces for sixty years.

Not only that, but he was a great wit (see quotation above). I love a great wit. Right now I'm chuckling my way through the 600-plus page volume, Letters of E.B. White, driving The Business Guy a little crazy with my outbursts of "Listen to this!" followed by impromptu readings regardless of what he's in the middle of doing.

(Think of it: 600-plus pages of letters, and they're all E.B's! How many of us can say we've written five thank-you letters in as many years? And think of all the interruptions the Business Guy has to look forward to!)

All of the above I had been vaguely aware of for some time. But when I put it together that Elwyn Brooks White is the same E.B. White who authored three of my all-time favourite children's books, the earth shifted on its axis with a small bump. Did you feel it? If not, the biggest not-only of them all will surely bring it on. Brace yourselves.

Not only all of the above, but...

E.B. White is the author of Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan.


I'm still reeling.

In a letter to children's editor Anne Carroll Moore, who in 1939 was most eager to get her mitts on the Stuart Little manuscript, E.B. writes:

"My fears about writing for children are great - one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness. I don't trust myself in this treacherous field unless I am running a degree of fever."
I'm a bit of a children's writer myself, and I love it that E.B. has such high regard for his young readers that he would resist dashing something off for them. Another of his letters to do with Stuart Little is worth reproducing in its entirety:

"I will do my best to make some progress with Stuart Little. I can't make any promises, as the effect on me of forced labour is sometimes rather dreadful. My wife is nagging me about Stuart, too; in fact today I told her she would have to stop - that she was driving me too hard. I think it made quite an impression on her.

"All I can truthfully say about Stuart is that I will keep fall publication in mind as a goal, but that everything depends on whether the finished product turns out pleasing to mine eye. I would rather wait a year than publish a bad children's book, as I have too much respect for children.
"One of the problems, of course, would be to find a satisfactory illustrator... It would have to be somebody who likes mice and men, and who knows a little of their hopes, joys, disappointments, etc.

"I will keep you informed as to the progress, if any, of the book. Right this minute I am wet nurse to 250 small red chicks, and God help my publisher and my readers - all ten of them... Yrs."

Spoken like a true hero.

Link: E.B. White

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


"Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else."
- Gloria Steinem

Sock the Second is done. There is no need for re-knitting Sock the First, as the two are similar enough to keep my feet happy and warm. No revisions required.

My short story, Butterfly, was another matter. Herewith, revised:

Binnie Brennan

Clifford slams the door, and checks that it’s locked before swinging first one leg and then the other down to the pavement. With his inflamed hip this is achieved with some awkwardness and a grunt; it doesn’t help that his beer gut gets in the way and slows him down. He blows some warmth into his cupped hands before filling the rig’s tank. This morning’s hard frost will do in the last of Marion’s tomatoes, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Next week he will return from the Florida route to the blackened fruit and an empty home. Christ knows, snow, maybe.

A quick cup of coffee to take off the chill, and he will be on his way, with Dolly Parton for company. That woman can break a man’s heart – Here You Come Again, Heartbreak Express, I Will Always Love You. Easy on the eyes, too; a double-F feast for a man like Clifford, who’s gone without far too long. He feels a boner creeping into place and with a twinge of guilt, hitches his trousers as he saunters into the truckstop and takes the booth nearest the door.

“Cuppa coffee, hon?”

Delores, the badge pinned to her mint-green blouse reads. Delores has a voice that could grate cheese and a mouth like a postage slot. Her hair is cut short and is the colour of faded straw. She may not be any Dolly Parton, but at least she’s friendly.

“Yes, please. Got a long drive ahead.”

“Whereabouts you off to?”


“Anywheres warmer than here is okay by me,” Delores rasps. “Here’s a menu. Be right back.” She twitches off to another table and takes the guy’s order.

The door opens, letting in a cold whoosh of air. Couple of hippie kids, all braids and scarves. Jesus sandals with woolen socks, holes in the toes. What are they trying to prove, anyways, Clifford wonders. At least when he was a hippie, a real hippie, back in the late ’60s, they were trying to do good in the world. These kids are just trying to draw attention to themselves, with their tattoos and piercings Christ-knows-where. He squints at the menu, thinks about the route to Gainesville. Always in his mind he is planning a route, driving ahead of himself to avoid surprises. Once he’s driven someplace, he’s got it lodged in his memory. It’s a gift, like a musician’s memory for a tune.

The hippies are talking quietly, looking around the room. Clifford prepares himself; any minute they’ll be sidling up to try and mooch a ride. But he has a firm policy: no free rides to strangers, not after what happened to old Frank and his wife when they picked up some nutcase hiding a stash of coke and a four-foot length of piano wire in his backpack.

“What’ll it be, hon?”

Delores is back, her voice grinding like rusty gears, swishing her cloth on the formica and whisking a paper placemat and cutlery before him with the breathtaking speed of a career waitress.

“Trucker’s special, please. Over-easy on whole wheat.”

“Be right up.”

The hippie girl is shaking her head. Looks embarrassed. The hippie boy kisses her on the cheek, and then – Christ, what’s he doing, standing on a chair and clapping his hands?

“Excuse me, hello? Everyone, could I please have your attention – hello? Excuse me? ”

At which point the girl puts two fingers between her lips and shrieks a whistle that’d stop a bull. The diner is suddenly silent. Truckers in dirty ball caps turn with dubious expressions, some of them shaking their heads at the nerve of these kids.

“Uh, yeah. Um, thanks… Listen, my girlfriend and I were just wondering? You know, if any of you truck drivers who are heading south would consider taking this along with you?” The hippie holds up a shoebox for all to see. “You’d be doing us all a huge favour, you know? And…”

A voice emerges from the crowd. “You want one of us to take a box of Christ-knows-what south? Are you kiddin’ me, bud?”

The air rumbles with the laughter of thirty experienced drivers as they all turn back to their breakfasts.

“Wait, no, it’s nothing like that! It’s a butterfly. Really.”

But no-one is listening. The drivers are far more interested in their hash browns and sausage links than what the young people have in their shoebox. The girl pulls on the hippie’s sleeve, which he yanks away from her grip as he climbs down off his chair. The two of them sit miserably on stools, with the box on the counter between them. Delores raises her eyebrows and waves her coffee pot at them, but they shake their heads. Then she chats with them, and the girl lifts the shoebox lid an inch for her to peer in. Delores nods her head in wonder, and pours them coffee anyway.

Clifford thinks ahead to the Florida drive. He will not drive down to East Florida, as he and Marion had planned last spring, will not be making the side trip to pay the deposit on an RV home. Their dream home. Twenty-nine-thousand saved, mostly put away from Marion’s pension and disability, enough to get them and their furniture down there in time for Christmas. Marion had driven with him the last time and chosen the place, Magnolia Village. Nice folk, people like them who live quietly and don’t expect too much of life, just a little sunshine in winter and evening card games. A few beers and a bowl of pretzels, maybe the Tonight Show if they’re up to it.

Clifford smiles, thinking of Marion’s eyes, her rattling, wheezing cackle every time she wins a game of euchre.

Every time she won, that is. His smile vanishes.

“Here ya go, hon. Over-easy on whole wheat. Just what the doctor ordered.” Delores rips his bill off the pad and flicks it on the table, then in a lowered voice, asks him, “You said you’re driving south?”

“What?” Clifford wonders if Delores is propositioning him, until she nods her head in the direction of the sulking hippies.

“It’s a monarch they got in that box. You know, a butterfly.”

“A butterfly?” Clifford blinks in disbelief.

“One of them orange and black ones you don’t see so much any more. They say they rescued it, but it’s getting too cold out for it to survive. Go figure, eh? Here, lemme give you a refill.”

Clifford stares at the couple, then looks away, but it’s too late; the girl has seen him looking, and is climbing off her stool and hurrying over to his booth, clutching the box to her thin chest.

Clifford makes busy with his breakfast, and pretends not to see the hippies as they stand beside him.

“Sir? Sir, may I ask you something?” Her voice is oddly child-like. He wasn’t expecting a ‘sir’ from her, and he is surprised by her overbite, which he hadn’t noticed earlier.

“Hmm? What’s that?” Couldn’t her parents have sprung for braces, he wonders.

“Mind if we sit a minute, sir? We won’t stay long, I promise, and then you can eat in peace. You know, peace?” She points at the peace symbol at her boyfriend’s neck, carved wood held in place with a leather thong, above which his adam’s apple bobs with nervous swallows.

“Sir, my name is Maya, and this here’s my boyfriend, Robert. We have a huge favour to ask, if you don’t mind.”

Maya slides into the seat opposite him, and pulls her boyfriend with her. She has made two syllables of ‘huge.’ While she draws breath, Robert jumps in. His face looks too young for the growth of beard he’s attempting on his chin.

“Yeah, it’s really cool. Couple weeks ago Maya brings home this butterfly? You know, a monarch? Anyways, she found it on a fence, and it was, um, injured. He had a little tear in his wing, and Maya was so cool, she just emptied out her water bottle and put him inside with a few leaves, you know?”

“Yeah, and then I rushed home and showed it to Robert,” Maya interrupts breathlessly. “I thought, surely to God there’s gotta be a way to rescue this butterfly, and so I checked out the Internet.”

“And she totally found it, Friends of the Monarch? A website about the migration of the monarch butterfly. Can you believe it?”

Robert looks at Clifford eagerly, then at Maya, who is gazing at him expectantly with enormous blue eyes untarnished by makeup. Clifford nods his head as though to say yes, he can believe it.

Looks away from the girl’s unblinking gaze.

“There’s a whole page about wing repair, so we followed the instructions and made a splint,” Maya says, resting a small hand against the side of the box.

“You made a splint for a butterfly?” Clifford wonders if he’s hearing right.

“Yeah, and then we fed him, you know, rotting pears and honey? Fattened him right up. It’s been an amazing journey, you know?”

“And now we need you to finish the butterfly’s journey,” says Maya in a pleading voice.
The mention of rotting pears brings to mind Marion’s frostbitten tomatoes, which will be black on the vine this time next week. Clifford brings the coffee cup to his mouth and takes a long swallow. Winces at the bitterness.

“He’s been flapping around the house, and we’re afraid the cat’s going to eat him. There’s no way he can migrate on his own without freezing, now.” Robert swallows, causing his adam’s apple to dance.

“Sir, we really need your help. This butterfly won’t stand a chance without you. Please, sir, do you think you could take him with you?”

She clasps her pale hands and brings them to her chin.

Maya is really very pretty, with her braided hair and her enormous blue eyes. The overbite lends her an appealingly vulnerable look. Christ, he thinks, looking away. She’s young enough to be his grand-daughter. And there’s Marion, only four months in the grave. Christ, he thinks again.

Robert slides the shoebox across the table. There are holes poked in the lid in the shape of a heart.

“Wanna see Ludwig? That’s what we named him. For Beethoven, right?”

“Yeah, our cat’s name is Leopold, as in Mozart. We just love classical,” Maya pipes up.
Robert eases the lid open a few inches to reveal some yellowed leaves and a twig, upon which clings the monarch, its wings opening and closing slowly to its own rhythm. The fragrance of rotting fruit makes its way from the box to Clifford, who gazes at the butterfly wondering what in hell he’s getting himself in for.

“Sure, I’ll take it,” he says. Across from him, Robert beams, and Maya bounces in her seat, laughing and clapping her hands.

“Aw, man, this is awesome! Thank you so much!” Robert manages. Maya leans across the table and kisses Clifford on the cheek, then turns to Robert and plants one on his mouth.

“See, I told you we’d find someone. Sir, you’re the best. Just the best.”

Clifford’s cheek tingles where Maya kissed him. He tries not to think of it while they are exchanging cell phone numbers.

“There oughta be enough pear in there to feed him for a few days. Please, please don’t let him get cold, and remember to call us the minute you release him.”

Clifford and Robert shake hands, and Maya flings her arms around him. At the next booth a few sets of bristly eyebrows rise beneath baseball-cap bills, but Clifford does not care.

“Thank you so much, sir. You are a kind and generous man. Take care of Ludwig for us – you’re saving his life.”

Ludwig, sheesh! he thinks as he zips his coat and tucks the shoebox under his arm. The girl’s eyes are bright with tears as the pair leave the truck stop and climb into a rusted Gremlin, which wheezes onto the highway.

“Here, hon, take this along.”

Clifford is surprised when Delores hands him a paper bag.

“You’ll want a little lunch sometime,” she says softly. “That’s a good thing you’re doing, there. Drive safe.”

“Thanks,” he says, holding the bag in one hand and the shoebox in the other. He must hurry to the rig before the cold air gets to the butterfly. With surprising ease he swings up into the cab, gently placing the shoebox on the floor between the seats.

As the rig gathers speed, Dolly sings Nine to Five. Clifford will make good time, get the job done. And then he will drive on to East Florida, where he will release Ludwig to the temperate skies of Magnolia Village.


Binnie Brennan
Words: 2100
23 November, 2008
All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 16, 2009

Word Doodles

"Often when I write I am trying to make words do the work of line and colour. I have the painter's sensitivity to light. Much (and perhaps the best) of my work is verbal painting."
- Elizabeth Brown

The late, great John Updike once said he'd write about anything, even the pencils lying on his desk. Makes me think of an artist's doodling, sketching the world around her for the satisfaction of committing the image to paper in a certain way. Doing so fulfills a creative need to sort out a thing, tell a story.

Why not sketch the pencils with words?

How is the light falling on them, indicating time of day? What was the last thing written using them, and why that and not something else? Are the ends of them pocked with teeth marks? Were they tossed aside and left to roll off the desk, or laid down side by side with care? Whose pencils are they, and why are they lying there?

It's not unlike some of the writing exercises I've done over the years to kick-start a story. Matter of fact I think I'll go and doodle about pencils right now.

But first I'll shove the knitting needles out of the way.

And then I'll re-read Elizabeth Bishop's hilarious and insightful essay, The USA School of Writing. The first time through, I laughed so hard I jumped over words.

And then I'll get doodling.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Birdsong, Submissions, and a Sock.

"Get five rejections in a day... Making rejection a goal also takes some of the sting out of it."
- Carolyn Cutler

Someone needs to tell the songbirds it's still winter, but it won't be me. I'm enjoying their arias too much. They accompanied me on my way to the gym today, pealing and burbling through the crisp, -8 Celcius air. I walked on and off the sidewalk, nipping around the four-foot-high frozen-solid snowbanks lining the roads, in my efforts to avoid the one icy patch I'm destined to fall upon. I'm pleased to report I haven't yet found it. Maybe I won't this year.

I finished knitting Sock the First, and am inordinately pleased with myself. It's a fine sock, red and brown stripes not of my doing, but of the clever yarn manufacturer's. The ribbing is a bit loose and there are a few mystery holes, but it seems to fit. Sock the Second is well under way, and is turning out to be rather more svelte, which means I must be finding my groove with the business of knitting with four needles. And it may well mean Sock One becomes also Sock Three, if I can stand to rip it out and knit it all over again, following the philosophy of Writing is Rewriting, ie Knitting is Reknitting.

Or not.

This week's submissions have been most interesting, including a couple of stories sent to an anthology looking for stories written about the sea. Given that the working title of my short story collection is - ahem - Harbour View, this one grabbed my attention. Another story went off to the UK to a print publication that supplies London Underground commuters with reading material - a considerable readership, I should think, looking for a literary diversion to brighten up the ride to work. What a great idea.

It feels good to get my hands on my stories and push them out the door to the ring of birdsong in the cold. They're quite good, I think. The stories, that is. As is the sock.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, EB!

"When I am reading a book, whether wise or silly, it seems to be alive and talking to me."
- Anton Chekhov

Follow-up to last week's library treasures. Rather than burble on about what a great haul it was, I'll get straight to the point:

1. The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys, is an enchanting collection of forty vignettes, one written for each time the River Thames has frozen since 1142. I'm a big fan of the vignette, and quite enjoy writing really short fiction. Just because it's small, doesn't mean it's easy; in fact, the reverse is true. It's a terrific challenge, conveying a lot of meaning in few words, and Helen Humphreys' virtuosity lies in not only her doing so, but in painting vivid characters and scenes with a poet's touch. It's a great book, and beautifully illustrated. A cautionary tale about the importance of ice in the world.

2. Elizabeth Zimmermann is my new best friend. Her Knitting Without Tears is at once pithy, wise, and informative; in fact, it's downright inspiring. Her premise that human beings are built to accommodate a series of tubes, therefore eliminating the need for purl stitch and sewing seams (to do with knitting on circular needles, hooray!), has stolen my heart. EZ has me convinced that, not only can I knit a sweater that will actually fit the person it's intended for, but that I can also knit a pair of socks. And believe me, that takes some doing! Too often I have gazed longingly at a pattern and, long before the halfway mark, been utterly defeated by it. Thanks to my new best friend, there's hope for the chilly feet around here.

3. I am in awe of Elizabeth Bishop's writing, since reading her Collected Prose. Her short story, In the Village, is as moving and perfect a work as any I have ever read, played, listened to, or looked at, and it had the same effect as any masterpiece of any genre. There are images and emotions that simply will not leave me, nor do I particularly want them to.

At the Elizabeth Bishop Birthday Bash on Sunday I closed my eyes and listened, enraptured, as people took turns reading her poetry. I shall certainly seek it out, especially her poem, Sandpiper. If the Elizabeth Bishop Society newsletter is anything to go by (and it is), the publication of EB's 2008 Library of America volume Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008) is something for readers to celebrate. In addition to being a first-rate poet and prose writer, EB is touted as one of the greatest letter-writers of the twentieth century. This alone makes me put the new volume at the top of my birthday wish list. The wait-time on the library reserve list is far too long for my impatient heart.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Library Treasures

All my life I have lived and behaved very much like the sandpiper - just running down the edges of different countries and continents, 'looking for something'."
- Elizabeth Bishop

Today's trip to the library turned up three lovely books:

1. The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys: follow-up to three novels of hers* I devoured last month in quick succession. This is a small book, a hardcover chopped in half, which is kind of enticing. Even more enticing is the jacket blurb:

"...forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the river froze between 1142 and 1895. Humphrey's achingly beautiful prose acts like a photograph, capturing a moment and etching it forever on our imaginations."

It's true of Humphreys' prose. She has the poet's way with words, an ability to combine them in such a way that will rip your heart out or feed an image you never thought could be adequately described. Can't wait to get started.

2. Knitting Without Tears, by Elizabeth Zimmerman. How appealing a title is that? I've been hearing about EZ for years, and have only recently taken it in that her approach to knitting is rather organic; in other words, her patterns are more like recipes that require you to use your wits and trust your own good sense as you go - kind of like writing fiction.

The jacket blurb refers to EZ's wit and good humour, which is abundant in her introduction, The Opinionated Knitter:

"Really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence. Of course superior intelligence, such as yours and mine, is an advantage." Have already started reading and chuckling.

3. Elizabeth Bishop: The Collected Prose. A poet friend, who is a leading Bishop scholar, has recently infected me with her enthusiasm for EB. She has recited for me a few lines of EB's poetry, which caught my ear and my imagination. My friend has invited me to this weekend's Elizabeth Bishop Birthday Bash at our local Writers' Federation office. There will be readings, cake, and prizes for best costumes based on EB's writings. Last year's winner was costumed as a thunder and lightning storm, which I think is just great.

Where I've never read any of Bishop's work, I figure I ought to do a little homework. The book was on reserve for a few weeks, so it comes in the nick of time. I'm especially looking forward to reading her short story, "In the Village," which the jacket blurb tells me is " extraordinary account of a Nova Scotia childhood." It appeared in the New Yorker, as did three of her eight published stories. I can't wait to get started.

A Helen and two Elizabeths, all of them fascinating and fine writers.

Did I mention... I can't wait to get started.

*Coventry, Afterimage, and Leaving Earth