Category Archives: Writing

Some things can be more than just things

At the end of November I attended a fiction writing workshop at Hamilton Public Library that was given by Claire Tacon, author and lovely human being. Claire’s novel In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo was one of my favourite books from this past year and so I was more than excited to attend her workshop and hear her thoughts on writing. At the start of the evening she had the attendees go around the room and introduce ourselves by giving our names and then telling everyone gathered there a little bit about an object that fascinated them as a child. Claire started the introductions by telling us about an ancient apple press that had fascinated her, and then it was our turn.

This is the story I told about the object I remembered. I’m massively expanding on it here because I can.

For as long as I can remember the hat rack had been on the wall at the cottage. My memory blinks on and off as to which exact wall it hung on, and I think my mother moved it occasionally, but I am nearly positive it was on the south wall, just above the wood stove, a skinny Quebec heater that resided in the corner of the living room. The living room also included the dining room and the kitchen, divided up into rooms by the merest suggestion of walls. I suppose if I was a different kind of person from a different kind of family that room might have been known as The Great Room. But to us, it was really just the living room or even the “front of the cottage.” The house had been built in pieces: first the main room, a rough cabin structure designed to keep the rain out on days when my grandparents drove up for the day to picnic and swim. Then later, no longer wanting to rely solely on picnics, a small area to cook meals and wash dishes was added to the main room. Bedrooms were built later, when picnic days wanted to turn into overnight stays, and after that the outhouse, deemed too rustic now that my family were becoming “cottagers” was replaced by indoor facilities. Later still, the front of the house was pushed out toward the lake to accommodate a dining table and chairs and the little patchwork quilt of a cottage was complete. I might have the order incorrect, this was all happening long before I was born, but if you look at old photos of my parents and grandparents enjoying the place, or if you look very closely at the walls of the house itself you can trace its evolution.

The hat rack, as I knew it, was a bit of an oddity, and seemed to me a strange thing to have in a rustic cottage. We didn’t even have a hat rack at home and yet here was this solid wooden structure, hung close to the ceiling and over our woodstove – an odd location indeed. There were six pegs, three on each side, that came out of the back and angled slightly upwards. The top was about 6 inches deep and held a variety of treasures – tchotchkes, knicknacks, whatever you want to call them. Those nursery rhyme character figurines that came in boxes of Red Rose tea; novelty salt and pepper shakers, purchased in touristy places like Niagara Falls, Cape Cod. Probably also some shells and rocks from our beach.

The hats it housed were changeable, much like the people who lived there. There was always at least one Toronto Blue Jays cap (after 1977, of course) as well as cloth sunhats for children, and a wide brimmed straw hat belonging to my mother. At one point my father had been given a traditional Greek fisherman’s hat by a friend and so it lived there for awhile too. Sometimes other things were draped over the pegs; a dog’s leash and collar, a decorative scarf, a skipping rope.  As my brother and I grew taller and were able to better reach it, it became a catch-all for hats and more.

The most fascinating part of this hat rack was the drawer at the bottom. The drawer spanned the entire width of the rack and it had a lock. The key had been lost years before and the drawer, unlockable forever now, held batteries, other keys, sunglasses, some fishing tackle, fuses for the electrical panel and other bits that required housing. It was the equivalent of a kitchen junk drawer, a hall closet, that black hole of detritus and lost and found that resides in many homes.

Did anything change when I learned it was actually a gun rack?

My dad had been a hunter in his youth. Mostly deer, sometimes moose. Our photo albums are filled with pictures of him and his grubby, bearded friends posing with their kills… Did I say filled? Filled with grimy looking men who’d spent a week or so at a hunt camp, yes, but I really only remember one or two with an actual deer present. Dead, but present. And never a moose.

I’d never put the two worlds together in that way, but that legendary gun rack turned hat rack was one of the last remnants of my father’s younger self’s hobbies. That and a tattered hunting jacket and a 1950s-style sleeping bag that smelled permanently of wood smoke and cigarettes.

My father stored his guns on, you guessed it, that very same gun rack. It would have originally resided in my parents’ apartment in west Hamilton, I imagine (there is no one left now to ask, I’m afraid.) The lockable drawer made sense now, you would lock your ammunition away, of course. Safer that way. Space for three guns (on those pegs we tossed our hats on) a drawer for shells. I suppose it should have made me wary of it, but by 1976 it was so far removed from its original use that it was laughable. Imagine, weapons of ungulate destruction removed to make way for left over Lego pieces and packs of playing cards with most of the face cards missing.

When I asked him about the gun rack and the guns that were conspicuous in their absence and had been for as long as I could remember he told me this:

In 1966 we lived in a tiny apartment. I sold the guns before you were born in ’67, that was always my plan. I didn’t want them there once you came along.

I asked him if he missed it. The guns and the hunting.

No. My priorities changed.

But you kept the gun rack.

It makes a good hat rack.

Can’t argue with that.

The gun rack slash hat rack is no more. Eventually, after more than forty years of living through sweltering summers and frigid winters, the glue that held it together dried and cracked, the pegs fell out and the facing of the drawer broke and the whole thing just fell apart. My mother was, I believe, secretly happy about its demise because when I think back to it, this gun/hat rack was, while fascinating to us as children, deeply, deeply ugly. So she bought pegboard and hooks and our hats and other things were moved to the hallway. Now, I don’t think I could write 1000 words about pegboard but you know what? I bet there is someone who could.

I love the object exercise as writing prompt, it’s one of my favourites and I loved that Claire incorporated it into not just the beginning of her writing workshop during our introductions, but that she also brought along several objects for us to write about throughout the evening.

She encouraged us to choose one that spoke to us (not literally, of course, how weird would that be) and to think not only about its intended use but how it can end up out in the world to be used in other unintended ways. Think of its backstory and describe it in great detail using all your senses and then imagine how your character might use it or see it or react to it.

In her handy guide 5 Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark (which you yourself can and SHOULD obtain at no cost from her newsletter via her blog picklemethis.com) favourite blogger and lovely human Kerry Clare encourages us to explore the hidden lives of ordinary objects because so many of them have a story. You might not have a gun rack, but you definitely have objects with stories. What are they?

And even if you aren’t a writer, the object exercise can be a excellent one for mindfulness. Developing your observational skills, using all your senses to describe something thoroughly can help you to be more present in your day-to-day life, and taking the time to notice the world around you in greater detail can help you move through that world at a less hectic pace.

I’m so grateful to Claire and her wonderful workshop and to Kerry and her always on-point newsletter for reminding me to take the time to dive deeply into the world of observation, to mine memory and see where it takes me.

 

 

 

 

Here I Go Again…

Some of you might know that back in November I signed up for and participated in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo.) You might also know that I was VERY DILIGENT about writing my 1667 words – or more! – each day from November 1st to 15th, and at the end of the day on November 15th I had written 25,468 words on a project (I was and still am hesitant to call it a novel, so it continues to be known as a project) and was feeling quite smug about my process and my success thus far. And you also may know that on November 16th, my son had a spontaneous brain hemorrhage, and no writing was done from that point on.

Now that Max is practically 100% better after a few months of recovery, I started thinking about that project again. In fact, he and I had been talking about my writing recently and he brought up  the NaNoWriMo project like this:

Max: Hey, speaking of your writing, what about that thing you were doing where you were trying to get to 50,000 words or whatever?

Me: Yeah, I did that for a couple of weeks in November, but stopped.

Him: Oh, that’s too bad.

Me: Yeah.

Him: Wait. November? Ooooooh. Shit. Sorry.

It was kind of a funny conversation, honestly, and if he hadn’t almost DIED it would be truly hilarious. But things are good now, so I decided it was time for me to get back at it and so I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo for the month of April.

LOOK HOW CASUAL I AM ABOUT WRITING THOUSANDS OF WORDS EVERY DAY FOR A MONTH.

Honestly, though, it will be great, and it will be just what I need to kickstart my project and see it through to (sort of) completion. I’m excited, and while I haven’t even looked at this draft since November 15th, I have missed my characters, and I have been wondering how they are and what they are doing, so it is clearly the right time to find out.

If you’re camping and novel writing in April, please let me know! I am very good at sending along encouraging words, cheering you on, and virtual s’mores. We got this, pals.

Write something.

This morning, after I learned that my place of work was not, in fact, closed for a snow day, I made my usual bus trip to the university and let myself into the library. I am (almost) always the first one to arrive in the morning, and I have to say, as someone who never ever ever thought of herself as a morning person, I am kind of loving it.

My actual workday begins at 7:45am. We open the library at 8am and there are three of us who are “openers.” Of the three of us, I am the only one who uses transit, and because of my bus situation, I tend to arrive extra early – often 20 or 30 minutes early. So yes, this does put me at work at approximately 7:15am every so often which is ungodly I know. And yet I have grown to love and cherish this extra time.

I love the quiet, the absolute silence that greets me. I love the way the library looks before the lights come on. And I especially love heading to my desk, dropping my bag and pulling out my journal to get organized for the day.

My journal is a pretty constant companion and has been for a few years now, and I love being able to spend a few uninterrupted minutes with it before the day begins. Sometimes instead of journaling, I spend time in meditation using Headspace, and once in a while I simply go and get a damn coffee to start the day because did I mention my days start stupidly early?? But however I use that time, I adore it and find it somewhat sacred, if that’s not too dramatic? It probably is. Sorry.

Anyway.

Last summer when I was participating in #1000wordsofsummer, I would bring my laptop to work with me and try to get as many words in as possible before work, and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done for my writing life. I did the same thing during NaNoWriMo and I have honestly never been more productive. Me, the exact opposite of a morning person, being productive at balls a.m.? Go figure. But it worked.

And so, on November 15, exactly halfway through NaNoWriMo, I hit my word count and realized that I had written over 25,000 words – well over 25,000 words – and I was on track to reach the goal of 50,000 and then some. And, considering I already had nearly 20,000 words in this project before November even started I began to think of this “project” as an actual manuscript. That could, you know, maybe, become a book. Like, a novel. It blew my mind, but I was excited and ready to hit the ground running and typing for the last half of November. But on the 16th of the month, as you all probably know by now, our younger son was hospitalized after a brain hemorrhage and life as we knew it ended.

And so I didn’t write.

I wrote daily updates on social media for family and friends and followers, but that was it. Writing projects that I had on the go I abandoned. And even later, weeks later, when things started to settle down and get back to normal, I would think about the stories I’d abandoned and would say to myself you must get back to those, and I would say, also to myself, yes, of course, I will, eventually I will get back to them. And then more time would go by and I wouldn’t. But then today, I did.

Today I unlocked the library door and made my way to my office, turned on the light and dropped my bag on my desk as usual, and when I reached for my journal, even before I could start to create my list for the day there were some words that I needed to write down. And those words became a sentence and the sentence became a paragraph and the next time I looked up my colleagues were coming in to start the day and I had to abandon my story to turn on lights and computers and ready the library for the students. But I had written four pages and scribbled notes about how I want the story to progress and a few other things of note that I want to include. It was glorious.

Nearly every day since the end of December I have written “Write something” in my journal, and it’s a task I’ve not been able to check off. Until today.

I’m back, baby.

You’re Probably Not Doing Anything Else in November Anyway.

A few weeks ago I tweeted out to the world that I was thinking of signing on for NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I asked if I knew anyone who had done it before, if it killed them, made them stronger, etc. Just out of curiosity, really. And no one really responded, which is fine, and I figured that was because I didn’t know anyone who had done it before. Or maybe I did and it actually killed them, I guess. Anyway, then I went and signed up. Because honestly, why not?

Why not indeed.

Back in June or July, I can no longer remember which, I participated in a writing challenge called 1000 Words of Summer, the brainchild of delightful author Jami Attenberg. The premise of this challenge was to write 1000 words (obvi) every day for two weeks. At the end of that, writers would have approximately 14,000 words under their respective writing belts. When all was said and done, and the two weeks were up, I had around 16,000 words. Added to the 4,000 or so I already had…well, that’s a significant amount of words. In sentences and paragraphs too, not just random words! (I feel the need to say that for some reason.)

The thing is, those first 4,000? Took me FOREVER to get down. Weeks of stealing a couple of hours at a time in the library or at home. Hours and hours of character sketches and plot points and reworking things. And all I had to show for it was 4,000 or so words. It’s not terrible of course, I was glad to have those words, but there is something about a goal and a deadline that really lights a fire under me.

The great thing about the 1000 Words of Summer idea was that I felt accountable to someone and that someone was none other than Jami freaking Attenberg. I mean, ok, it wasn’t like she was looking over my shoulder to check my word count, but she was sending out encouraging emails every day for those two weeks and that was super motivating. Often, she would write, that she also was having trouble getting the words in, doing the job, and that also was encouraging to hear. Theoretically and intellectually I know that most writers and authors have days or even weeks where the words just don’t come, and I love the writers that I know and follow who share this with the world so beginners like me can breathe a collective sigh of relief that we are not alone. But there was something about getting those emails directly to me (ok, and lots of other people too) that made my writing spirit soar every single day of that challenge.

Write when you’re tired, write when you don’t want to, write even if you know you’re going to delete it at a later date. These were all such good lessons for me, and at the end of the two weeks, there were only 2 days where I didn’t hit the goal and many days where I went way, way over.

20,000 words, give or take. That is tough to walk away from. And I didn’t. I’m still at it, and I’m going to do my best to turn those 20,000 into closer to 70,000

I know. It’s 30 days vs 14 days. 1000 words each day vs 1667 words each day. But it’s not not doable? Right? Right.

It’s a goal plus a deadline and both of those things are 100% my jam. I work best under pressure, I work to tight deadlines like a BAWSE. I got this. And, maybe, we got this? If you’ve ever considered NaNoWriMo, now is the time, friends. I learned first-hand this summer that the writerly community is one of the most supportive out there. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed, and it is so refreshing. So take the plunge with me! Dive in! It doesn’t even have to be a novel! Start some kind of writing project and commit to 30 days where you’re writing every day. Just start. Like I did. Like everyone who has ever written anything did. You just have to start.

It’s been a rough year and a lot of that roughness shows no signs of fading away. So write with me. Let’s lift each other up and share our struggles and our successes together. And, once it’s all over and the words are on the pages? We’ll drink a shit ton of champagne.

So NOW who’s in?!?

Keep the Story Going

Back in January, I made some resolutions. More like goals, I guess you could say. Things I want to accomplish this year, things I want to do, etc. There is nothing exciting at all about this, this is the kind of thing people do in January, I am not unique in this, of course.

I wrote these goals/ideas down in my journal, because once they are on paper, they are a bit more real. I suppose sharing them here would make them even more real, but I’m not ready for that, sorry. I still want the ability to renege on them if I choose, and if they’re here, well…

My journal has a table of contents page, so I have taken to indexing it by month (nerd alert) so for example pages 37-52 = January 2018. Oh, that’s because I actually started this journal in September, the ACTUAL new year, when you’re a freak who still gets excited at the beginning of the school year.

Now within those months I can make a page reference to something specific should I want to, and so I have noted in my ToC that my new year’s goals are listed on page 37. This has been quite handy for me to refer to, honestly. It’s actually pretty great to be able to flip to a page and find where my head was at on January 1st, and to see how I’m doing. And not in a judgey way, either. Every so often I take a look at what I wrote down, to remind myself of what I want to accomplish, what I don’t want in my life. And that’s important.

One of my goals was to submit at least one piece of writing somewhere. It doesn’t matter where. A magazine, a contest, a blog…nothing hard and fast, just make sure to get my writing out there. Wherever “there” might be. And, I am pleased to say that at the end of February, “there” became the CBC nonfiction contest. I mean go big or go home, right? So yes, I wrote a piece, paid my entry fee, and sent it off into the ether where someone that I don’t even know will read it and judge it and deem it worthy or not. Even typing that breaks me out in a cold sweat, but hey, guess what? I did it. It’s out there.

And the “worthy or not” part is totally true, and totally fine. I do not expect to win, place, or even show in this contest, and that is absolutely fine. It’s all about the process, all about keeping the story going. My story. Pretty happy about that part.

 

The sweetest hangover

And just like that it’s over, we tend to our wounded we count our dead…

Wait, no that’s not gritLIT Festival. That’s Yorktown, from the Hamilton soundtrack.

For those of us on the committee, by Sunday night we sort of felt like walking wounded. It’s a lot of time to spend in the gallery, the hotel, running here and there, organizing, etc. But it was, as the kids say, WORTH IT.

gritLIT happens over four jam packed days in April, and while it goes by in an absolute flash, I’ve always found it takes me a few days of post-festival processing, reflecting, and regrouping, to put my thoughts down in blog post form. In fact, in looking through my drafts, I found my gritLIT wrap-up post from 2016. Partially completed, never posted. Whoops.

This year, thanks to a renewed passion for writing and blogging, I vowed I would rejuvenate this tired old girl (the blog, not me) and inject some life into it. There are multiple reasons for this, one of which involves gritLIT, and, as I said on Twitter, what better time to resurrect something than Easter weekend. This is also, in case you don’t already know, the time to watch Jesus Christ Superstar because of Jesus, obviously, but also because who doesn’t need a little funkiness during their holiday weekend? Also, last year I watched it and LiveTweeted it, and Ted Neely, who was Jesus in the film, retweeted me AND tweeted at me, so GOALS.

But back to gritLIT. This was my second year on the organizing committee and the first time I really felt fully invested and fully a part of the festival. Probably because I knew the ropes more or less, but mostly because I felt I had more of a role this year. The first year on any committee you join is kind of observational – at least for me it is – but this year I was ready to rock. And I did.

As always, the festival opened with an evening of poetry, and this might have been my favourite event of the entire festival. But wait, you say. How can the first event be your favourite, when everything else has yet to come? Well never fear, I would be heard to say after EVERY event “I think that was my favourite” so bear with me. We heard from Robin Richardson, two poets from Hamilton Youth Poets, and then from the incomparable Vivek Shraya. They were all so electric.

Another highlight from Thursday was the chance to hear Iain Reid read from I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which was a book I loved even though it confounded me – or maybe because it confounded me. Rebecca Rosenblum read from So Much Love, (now on my to-read list) and both authors joined us in the hospitality suite after their readings to chat about books and beer and all things Hamilton. It was lovely.

Friday was an action-packed evening, and I was able to join Ann Y.K. Choi, Diane Shoemperlen, Lesley Livingston, and Leslie Shimotakahara for dinner at Rapscallion prior to their readings. And honestly, what a treat to be surrounded by these fabulous authors, so generous with their time, so patient with their answers to questions they’d likely been asked a thousand times before. One of the things I love most about gritLIT and mingling with authors is the mutual respect, admiration, and engagement among them, and that was in full effect at our dinner, and then later on during the readings and the discussions that came after.

Saturday, when I try to recollect it, is a blur. There was an incredible and important conversation with Bev Sellars led by Annette Hamm – everyone needs to read Price Paid, this is not an exaggeration. Then we came to ANOTHER of my favourite sessions, a panel with author Kerry Clare, who read from Mitzi Bytes, and Merilyn Simonds, author of Gutenberg’s Fingerprint. And oh my goodness, the cartoon hearts were shooting from my eyes from the very beginning, and they just didn’t stop. I read and loved both books and adore both authors, but I think the greatest part of their panel was their chemistry, how well-aligned they were, how much they enjoyed the other’s company, how much they enjoyed the other’s writing. Truly lovely, and truly inspirational.

I also was lucky enough to host Kerry’s blogging workshop  later that day which was great, and was also the kick in the ass I needed to find my blogging mojo, so I will be forever grateful to her for that.

This brings us to Saturday night, WHICH WAS MY FAVOURITE.

I have adored Denise Donlon since she first appeared on my television and in my living room hosting The New Music, and I have always been fascinated by her incredible career, so I was over the moon to learn that she would be coming to gritLIT. Her chat with Annette Hamm did NOT disappoint, and she was as charming, funny, and wonderful as I’d always known she’d be. Denise also joined us in the hospitality room Saturday night, so now I can say I’ve had drinks with her – bucket list, check. Denise came back on Sunday for a highly emotional panel that featured Chris Pannell (Love Despite the Ache) and Teva Harrison (In Between Days), and she wowed the audience – and me – yet again. I purchased Denise’s book and she signed it for me, and as she was leaving she hugged me and thanked me for bringing her to gritLIT. And then I pretty much floated down to Mills Hardware for our final gritLIT 2017 event.

There is so much more to say – about the festival, about the incredible authors who joined us, about the wonderful committee who put it all together – but I will stop here. If you were there, thank you for being part of the festival. If you weren’t, I hope we’ll see you next year.

We have our wrap-up meeting next week, then our first planning meeting for the 2018 festival in a month or so. But first? I am just going to nurse this love hangover for as long as it takes.