Summer, part 5: A pause.

Vancouver & around

For a few days towards the beginning of the summer I truly thought I would get a lot of writing done, that I would somehow cobble together a rough-rough-rough draft of the novel I’m working on. But summer’s over and, oops, I am nowhere near that; I didn’t even come close. It’s okay, though.

I’ve had a kind of psychological shift in how I approach/think about my writing recently. When I decided to get “serious” about fiction, I was in my mid-twenties and I wrote almost maniacally to meet internal deadlines I’d set in my head. I wrote and wrote and wrote and I sent out stories before they were ready and I took workshops and classes and sometimes I was lucky to get published, and then, a few years later, I was so incredibly lucky to find an amazing publisher that believed in my stories and helped me form them into something more solid for the public. After it came out I continued to write and write and write and after a few years (ugh, years? really?), I completed a novel that I still dearly love: my first long work, something I’d never put so much thought and time and effort into. Since its completion, it’s been in limbo – my agent is doing behind the scenes work and I’ve gotten some nice rejections, but as any writer knows, a nice rejection is still a rejection. Books are hard to get published. At this point I’m not sure what else to do about it other than wait, patiently, and keep writing and writing and writing like I did before.

Which sounds like a good plan, except for a while I just stopped writing. It was weird. I went from being someone who was annoyingly productive to… not at all. I wondered if I really cared so much about writing? I’d always thought that the thing I wanted to be most in the world was writer and then I realized that maybe it wasn’t what I wanted, and what was it instead? And what if whatever else I wanted to be was also some kind of unattainable goal?  Everyone faces this at some point and I suppose my turn was up. So I stopped writing, but I was busy figuring out other things in my life: I was moving cities, I was changing roles at work, I was seeing doctors, I was spending time with friends, I was being lazy, I was going through things that ate into the psychological space writing used to take up in my life.

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Postcard from Gibraltar

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For the past week I’ve been on the Toronto Islands at Artscape Gibraltar Point. I had a bedroom and, just around the corner from it, a little studio with a desk, a lamp and a large window looking out into the yard behind the building. I brought with me a backpack of groceries, my laptop and a stack of books, and promptly got to work.

It’s been awhile since I’ve spent a large chunk of time dedicated to writing and I’ve actually never done a retreat like this. It was slightly daunting; I was worried I would waste my time, that a week would pass and I would have nothing to show for it. One of the reasons why I chose Artscape was because of its proximity to Toronto – I didn’t have to travel very far to feel removed from my every day life, but I also wasn’t in such a foreign place that I felt like it was a waste to spend my days locked up in a room when I could be exploring.

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But the Toronto Islands are beautiful, and I couldn’t help explore them. Gibraltar Point backs onto the beach, and it was so comforting to walk onto the sand, dip my feet into the cold water and look at Lake Ontario stretch out into the distance. And, after years of letting an irrational bike phobia get the best of me (i.e. I didn’t bike once in Montreal! What!), I got over it and biked all over the place. About twice a day I would take a break and circle around, sometimes down to the pier to buy a Coke and then read on a picnic bench, once to eat an entire Funnel Cake by myself in Centreville (je ne regrette rien), sometimes over to Wards Island to look at the houses or have an iced coffee at the Island Café. Andrew visited once on the weekend and we had a barbecue by the water, lamb and asparagus and potatoes and rose. It was nice.

My time here was low key and peaceful. I perpetually had sand in my shoes. I saw flocks of cormorants flying low above the lake and I got hissed at by Canadian geese guarding their goslings. But I spent most of my time at my desk, typing or thinking about typing. I kept to myself and got into that headspace where talking to others made me feel a little tongue tied. We’re responsible for our own meals here, so I would sometimes bump into people in the kitchen and it was good to have little conversations then, to remove myself from my bubble and hear about what others were working on.

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I won’t lie, there were many, many Internet breaks. I tried not to feel guilty about them because I do think I need idle time to think things through. I trust in my subconscious mind to work problems out while my active mind does other more inane things. I guess I could’ve taken more walks on the beach, but one of the biggest challenges in writing is just keeping your butt down on a chair. I knew that if I sat there long enough, eventually I would write something. And I did. In the end, I got 20,000 new words down, and while I have no idea if they’ll make it into the second draft, I almost doubled what I started off with.  Plus, it’s more than anything I’ve written in the past 6 months, so that has to count for something. There’s also something about crossing the 45,000 word mark in a book that makes you feel like you’re in it for the long haul.

I came into this week uncertain of the trajectory of the book. I had vague ideas of where I wanted it to go, but making the leaps from point A to point B alluded me. And they still do, but I’ve started building little bridges between them. There’s also pleasure in writing something completely new. I came prepared with some ideas and thoughts I wanted to flesh out, and while I worked on those, I wrote other parts that I hadn’t even considered. One particularly long section was a pleasant surprise, how naturally it flowed out.

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But mostly: writing, ugh, what a slog.  Because I was more concerned about getting words down on paper, I was highly aware of just how not-so-pretty they were as I was typing them out. My goal was to capture feelings and tones, to create a skeleton that I could return to later and fill in. Sometimes foundations aren’t the prettiest of objects. You’re working on a shitty first draft, I told myself, it’s okay. Promise.

While longer than a week here would have been great, at this point I think it was just the right amount of time – any more and I would’ve started to flounder. There’s a lot of percolating involved with long pieces, and while I’d hoped to work on other things in the meantime – I could write a story, I figured– I soon realized that I was too into this particular groove to break out of it.

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I wrote this essay, though, on my food blog. I wrote it the day I arrived, slept on it, then posted it in the morning. Maybe it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to write about publicly, but it was. I’m still figuring out ways to write about this.

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Anyway, my biggest regret was not bringing enough fiction for pleasure books. My new novel is about a photographer, so I had a bunch of photography books for reference and ideas, and while they were enjoyable, they weren’t always what I felt like reading. I had Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings on my iPhone, and while I’ve read many books on my phone, there was something about it that didn’t quite feel right when I was sitting by the water or under a tree. I wanted a real book, with actual pages.

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But, if my only regret was not lugging an additional hardcover book with me, I think I can conclude that this week was a success.  Thanks, Artscape.

(Pictures taken from my Instagram account: 1) Various lakeside scenes. Sigh, dreamy. 2) Toronto in the distance. 3) My bike in its rusted glory. 4) One of the houses on Ward’s Island, shrouded in foliage. 5) A lovely painting by a painter I met working here this week. 6) The glorious trees! 7) Hallway still life.)

 

Next Big Thing

Happy New Year, everyone! I love these first few days of the year when everything seems fresh and manageable and bright. I had the nicest New Year’s Eve I’ve had in awhile: dim sum and rollerskating. It was a fun, lighthearted way to kick off 2013; I hope it bodes well for the rest of the year.

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And 2013 already seems promising. A new story of mine was published over at Little Fiction. “The Most Serene Republic” is about wanting to get engaged, and money, and it’s set in Paris. Little Fiction is one of my favourite lit sites out there and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. (Thanks, Troy!)

Speaking of writing, Saleema tagged me in this fun “Next Big Thing” meme. I don’t think I’ve done a pass-it-on quiz like this since my Livejournal days! I’m working on something new, but it’s still too early in the writing/first draft-y process to answer the questions below, so I’ll answer it for my more completed project.

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Finished it.

Since I wrote about my novel last June: I’ve substantially reworked its structure; A writer/copyeditor edited the manuscript (thank you, Vicky!); I’ve renamed the book (what was once tentatively The Grey is now tentatively Escape Plans. While I was fond of my original title, no one else seemed to be, and associated my title with horses or football or that Liam Neeson movie that came out over the winter about Alaska, none of which have anything to do with my story); I went through a depressing phase of hating my novel; I entered into another phase of hating it less and sometimes liking it; I went through weeks where I didn’t open the Word file, despite guilty notes I would write for myself saying “Finish it!”. Those notes eventually paid off because, as of last night, I did. Finish it. By “finished” I mean that I’ve gotten another step closer to actually finishing it because books have trajectories of their own and will morph and expand and shrink over time. But I’m done with it for now, will take it off my to do lists for awhile, and I would like to record this personal milestone here.

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I finished typing in the final changes at the kitchen table, which as you can see is a bit of mess these days. The book about home renovation is Andrew’s, not mine, as he bears the brunt of that stuff more than I do. We’re not renovating so much as getting our place ready for sale because, after 6 years here in Montreal, we’re moving back to Toronto, probably in June. Predictably, I have feelings about this, a mix of excitement about going back to a city I love that has changed so much while I’ve been away and sadness for leaving another city I love, where I’ve changed while living here.

I’ll keep you posted on both fronts.

What's next

Working

Soooo, let’s see. Before going to Greece last year, I had a vague idea of a novel I wanted to write, and I had a rough draft of the first section. While I was in Greece, I sat down (almost) every day and worked on it, and figured out where I wanted it to go and who the characters were and what format it would take. There was a lot of trial and error and trashed pages, but when I flew back to Canada in September, I felt okay about the whole thing. Still, I didn’t want to show it to anyone. The thought of even my most trusted first readers reading it embarrassed me and I kept it to myself. Anyway, back at home Bats or Swallows came out, and I started working full time again, and there was just general life getting in the way of things. I also knew the book needed some breathing room, so I let it go for awhile. Then, I started the QWF mentorship, and it gave me a push to pick over the draft again. Between January and May, I worked on the entire thing slowly and steadily, lots of weekend afternoons at my kitchen table, some lunch hours at the food court with print outs of chapters,evenings in bed with the laptop. I would meet up with my mentor every two weeks or so and hand over clumps of pages and the first time I did this I had to sheepishly have a drink before I could stand talking or hearing anything about it. And basically he told me: keep going. So I did. Last week I did a reading as part of the program, stood up on a stage in a dark room and read the very first chapter to a group of people. It felt nice. (The fact that my mentor quotes Greil Marcus in that linked post shows that I was paired up with someone on the same wavelength too.) I’ve also slowly started sending sections to my writer friends. After this weekend when I type up my final adjustments to the third part, I can’t think of anything else to do except let it sit again so that I can get some distance, gain some perspective.

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Fried eggs + things to do in Montreal

Bacon and eggs

I’m in Cape Breton right now doing things like looking at the ocean and driving along country roads and playing with a sweet, but overly excitable doggy, but here are a few quick things:

- I’m over at Bookmadam reading M.F.K. Fisher’s recipe for Aunt Gwen’s Fried Egg Sandwiches. Julie Wilson has been collecting mp3s of writers reading their favourite recipes. Last week kicked off with folks such as Darcie Friesen Hossack and Iain Reid. Ms. Fisher is one of my favourite writers in the world, and her particular blend of memoir food writing has been an inspiration for years, so it was a no brainer picking something of hers. If you’re not familiar with her, Ms. Mary Francis wrote elegantly about everything from oysters to fried egg sandwiches, translated Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste and is basically the definition of someone who lived and wrote like a motherfucker. This recipe is from An Alphabet for Gourmets (which contains one of my most favourite essays, A is for Dining Alone), but I would also highly recommend The Gastronomical Me, which was the first book I read of hers and the one I still love the most.

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- If you’re in Montreal on Monday May 30th, come hear me and 6 others read writing we’ve been working on over the past few months with our lovely QWF mentors. You can get an idea of the novel I’ve been alluding to on this site. I’ve been carrying the thick stack of paper around with me because I’m just kind of pleased with the heft of it, proof that it exists and that I’ve really been working on something tangible. It’s a nice feeling.

- Also, for Montrealers, if you’re in town this weekend don’t miss A St-Henri le 26 aout, a documentary that follows various people in St. Henri as they go about their day on August 26, 2010. It’s a charming movie, the kind that really captures the neighbourhoody vibe that exists in Montreal. A good friend, Danielle, is one of the people featured in the movie and she brings the filmmakers to the top of a silo and then through a drain underground. It’s playing at Cinema Parallele all weekend.

Scrapbook #9: Repetition

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My birthday is coming up, and the week around it is all flooded with music. I’ve already spent one evening watching Marie Chouinard’s bizarre and amazing modern dance interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice – all half naked, gyrating bodies and music composed more of singular sounds than songs – wails and bells and distorted lyre strums (thank you, Caro, for the ticket!). I’ll spend another night watching Anton Kuerti play songs on the piano (thank you, Andrew!) , and then another with the Pixies making their way through Surfer Rosa (thank you um, me!).

So I’m thinking about music and about getting older.

The other day I went searching for some songs I thought I’d lost on an old hard drive, but found other mp3s instead, these little, teeny tiny songs I wrote at the height of a time where I felt most serious about making music, not just listening to it, around 2001/2002. Listening to these songs was a like meeting an old friend I used to know well, but lost touch with for awhile.

The One That Got Away.mp3
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These songs are so strange to me! And embarrassing! I apologize for the painful hissiness of them, like they were recorded in a room with a tin roof on the rainiest day of the year. This was before the ease of digital recording, recorded on two-track cassette player and then painstakingly wired to a computer. Lo-fi still felt kind of charming back then.

All Those Years.mp3
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I wanted to write songs like Lee Hazlewood, full of heartbreak and regret and swagger, but these songs are nothing like Lee Hazlewood. I never really had the stamina or music vocabulary for songwriting, either – these barely scratch the 2 minute mark.

I Only Stay.mp3
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But I’m grateful to that younger version of myself who had the arrogance and the ego to commit these half-formed songs to tape. It’s a nice reminder from my 22 year old self to my (almost, practically) 32 year old self to do these kinds of things, even if they’re a little raw and out of tune. Also useful: my 30-something self plagiarized the lyrics from one of the songs in the novel I’m working on.

I remember learning how to play the guitar when I was 16, before I took any lessons or knew how to form chords, just sitting with a nylon stringed classical guitar and plucking out songs I knew note by note. The same songs, the same notes, repeated. And then I learned chords and soon my parents got a dial up connection and I would print out pages and pages of guitar tablature, punch holes in them and keep them in a fat green binder. All these songs I could play, a new kind of freedom.

There is something about playing music that feels, for me, like the most tangible expression of learning, like I can feel my brain processing, chugging along while I do it. I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve never been a brilliant musician – it’s too clunkily attached to my physical self; I can’t really noodle around or god forbid, jam. (Unless you need someone to play G and C chords over and over? Then I’m your girl.) Writing, on the other hand, is more mysterious. It comes from somewhere I don’t understand. For me music is comforting because it’s nice to know that dogged repetition is how I go from not being able to do something to being able to do it.

Junk shop in Vermont

I try to apply that principle to writing: repetition works. (I try to think this when I psych myself up about jogging too, but I’m still not there yet, probably because I can sit at home in my PJ’s to play the guitar, but have to get dressed, wear running shoes, go out into the world, etc. if I want to run. Laziness sometimes trumps other pleasures, and the older I get the more I’m okay with that.) But still, the act of doing the same thing over and over makes that thing, whatever it is, easier, and I also know that the more I remind myself of that, the more I’m likely to believe it.

Scrapbook #8: Auspicious

Towards the end of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, the word “auspicious” starts popping up a lot.* The main character, who spends the first half of the book living a much too fabulous life at the Biennale in Venice, starts disappearing into himself while he’s in Varanasi. He invents his own kangaroo god; he baptizes himself in the Ganges. He notices auspicious signs. I like the word auspicious. I like auspicious things; I collect them. Early spring is an especially good time for looking for them, something about the light and the way the air smells. More looking up, less huddling inwards.

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One day you’re in a bookstore in Athens and you buy the collected poetry of a famous Greek poet. You pick poems at random to read, which is usually how you tackle big collections, by introducing this element of chance. It’s admittedly not the most intellectually rigorous approach. You find a poem you like a lot, dog ear the page, forget about it. A few years later you pick up the book again and reread that poem, and it makes reference to mythological characters you’ve never heard of before. You look them up and think, huh, they kind of fit with the writing thing you’re working on. Actually, they give you a lot of clarity on the writing thing you’re working on. You keep writing. You think about the poem more, and start looking for analyses of it to understand it better. You find some; they’re interesting enough. But then you find something lovelier: an essay written by the poet himself, explaining that exact poem. It’s written as a letter to a friend, and it’s chatty and informative and circuitous and when you read it, it’s kind of like you got the chance to meet this dead, Greek poet for coffee.** You keep working on your writing thing.


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Villa de Souvlaki is on Sherbrooke just before the Decarie, on a dreary stretch that also includes a store specializing in Swedish fur hats. It looks particularly dingy from the outside – good Greek places are generally holes in the wall, anyway. It had been recommended a few times, but we only recently got around to trying it out. We ordered food and it looked promising, but what really sealed the deal was the faded poster on the wall featuring the obscure beach we went to last year with our friend Tassos, the beach where we saw dolphins, where we went swimming in cold, clear water, where we watched kids jumping off the big rock into the sea. I took a photo of the poster, emailed Tassos to let him know, and he replied right away with a Will you ever believe I was just talking about you… And if there’s someone who would believe that? Me.

* And with that book I’m official out-Dyered for the moment.

** He also says, bluntly, “It seems to me that any explanation of a poem is absurd.”

Clarity

Acropolis

The sky is brightest around the edge of antique columns. And no line is sharper than the one dividing a column from the sky that frames it. There is a simple, entirely irrational explanation for this: what separates the column from the sky has been worn down – has become thin and therefore sharp – over time. The sky is as close as can be while still remaining distinct. This absolute separation between the timeless man-made and eternal is never as pure as it is in the ruins of Greek or Roman antiquity. That is one way of looking at it. The other – a different way of looking at the same thing – is that the distant past is brought into sharp adjacency with the present.

The ruins were bathed in a perpetual present – a version of eternity – of which the golden light and stalled moon were the perfect expression. I moved from place to place, arranging the intersections of columns, sea, and sky in new ways, new angles. Perhaps the simplest lesson of antiquity is that, after a time, anything vertical – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, whatever – commands admiration. Ultimately, though, the lure of the horizontal will always prove irresistible.

(From Geoff Dyer’s essay “Leptis Magna” in Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It)

A good feeling is when you’re reading something you’ve been looking forward to reading for awhile and then realize that so much of it coincides with things you’ve been thinking about or trying to write about.

The long haul

Working(Scene from a desk. This was last summer in Athens.)

2011 felt kind of formless at the beginning of the year, but with January coming to a close it’s starting to take shape. There are travel plans on the horizon, some within Canada (mostly of the East Coast variety) and some much more far flung. I even have birthday plans in April – tickets to the Pixies, who are coincidentally playing in Montreal on my actual birthday. Writing-wise I’ve been steadily working on the novel, but was starting to feel like I was maybe too deep into the project to see it clearly. There’s something so daunting about large amounts of words. Often when I’m feeling stuck on a story, I’ll send it to a friend for an outside opinion, but with a book I feel like it’s too much of an imposition. Also, I’m just shy about it, how unpolished it is, and clunky and unclever. So, I’ve been working in my own little bubble and crossing my fingers. I was pleased, then, when I found out that I’d been selected to participate in a mentorship program I applied for back in the fall. For the next few months I’ll be working with a writer who will help me whip my work-in-progress into shape and I won’t feel guilty bugging him with my drafty draft sentences and plot lines because that’s the whole point of the program. Some people, when I’ve told them about the mentorship, think that I’m taking the mentor role, which is funny to me. I know I just published a book, and while I feel relatively comfortable with short stories, a novel is still nebulous, uncharted land. I’m grateful for a guide.

When Andrew and I went to Greece last year, we rented our apartment in Montreal to the sweetest couple. We trusted them with all of our possessions, just emptied out the closets and drawers so they would have somewhere to store their clothes. In a moment of self-consciousness I also packed up my collection of journals and notebooks and stored them at my parents’ house. There’s nothing especially damning or even interesting in these books, mostly to do lists, cryptic paragraphs and miscellaneous notes. Maybe that’s why they’re embarrassing – if someone opened them up expecting to find something juicy, they’d be disappointed. Anyway, when I returned to Canada I didn’t bother lugging the notebooks back to Montreal, but this past weekend when I visited Toronto, I flipped through a few out of curiosity. I found one from early 2009 that was mostly wedding planning details and musings, but also had a fairly lengthy series of notes about the novel I’m still working on. I don’t remember thinking about it so seriously back then, and at first I was disappointed to realize how long I’ve been working on it. Eventually the sting dissipated – 2 years is nothing in the novel-writing world, right? I’ve had other distractions along the way too, and anyway, I’ve simply needed all that time to get to the point I’m at now. Maybe one day I’ll figure out some novel writing shortcuts, but for now I just need time and patience to write and rewrite and make missteps or the occasional breakthrough. Maybe it’s apt that my first novel notes were in the same journal as my wedding details: I guess I’m in it for the long haul.