Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Edit Learnin'

As it turns out, a lot of my characters are sleeping when they could be talking to eachother, causing drama, building tension, you know, actually progressing the story forward. Hmmm... 


Saturday, January 23, 2016


Has anyone else -- while in the throes of a panic over the imminent UPS delivery of one's manuscript from one's out-of-province editor -- ever shelled out $40 for a vitamin B12 injection in the secret hopes that one had been labouring under the great duress of a previously undiagnosed vitamin B12 deficiency which meant one's brain THIS WHOLE TIME had been operating at a deficit and that this vitamin, when injected, would race through one's veins and light up one's nervous system and like open up one's third eye and take one's brain to new and previously unchartered heights, heights that would make one a super good super smart writer -- only to confirm what one already knew which is that one's B12 levels are fine, always have been, and the only thing that will make one a better, smarter writer is to write more, worry less and work with a super smart editor?


Wait, really?

Yeah me neither.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The End of the Tour

Over the holidays, in between stuffing myself with snicker doodles and White Christmas, I was able to knock back a couple books, including Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, The Beautiful Bureaucrat (A+!), and The Door. I also read a few David Foster Wallace essays. It was a DFW-themed holiday, truth be told, because I also watched the wonderfully nuanced film about him called The End of the Tour.

In case you're wondering -- no, you do not have to be a super fan of DFW to enjoy this movie. In fact, it's almost dangerous if you are. Case in point... after The End of the Tour, I stayed up late obsessively watching interview footage of DFW and weeping into my pillow.

Although he was smart, patient and playful in these interviews, DFW was also twitchy, apologetic and defensive, painfully uncomfortable in his own skin. I felt more than just sadness while watching him; I felt guilt. Why did I insist he give so much more of himself to me than he already had in his writing? Why couldn't I back off of his personal life and just let his work speak for itself?

This isn't rational thinking, of course. It couldn't have been the fascination of fans like me or even his canonization by the mainstream that drove him to suicide. Those pressures impacted him, surely, but they must have been mere seedlings in the vast field of his struggle.

But I tend not to think rationally about suicide, not since my friend killed himself a year and a half ago. Actually, I don't think about it as much as feel about it. And what it feels is like my friend's mass has been shifted to me, and his time left on earth too. I feel 180 pounds heavier and 35 years older since he died, so what other explanation is there?

For many people like DFW and my friend, suicide is the end of a trajectory of pain, and they go through with it on one particular day when the conditions are just right. I always wonder, though, what if DFW and my friend just got through that one day? What if they gave themselves the opportunity to wake up tomorrow, to play with the dogs, to eat something extra delicious? Can you cobble a life together like that? A life that consists entirely of the hope that tomorrow will be better?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

My Favourite Reads of 2015

Because I love to jump on a bandwagon (the seats are pre-warmed!) here's my take on the ubiquitous "Top _____" lists that pop up this time of year. (It's a bit early because I wanted to get this Nene GIF up here reeaaal bad.) As per my list in 2013, this right here is a rundown of the books I read and loved in 2015, not necessarily books that were published in 2015. Although many were. Okay, most were. Whatever. And these are in order of preference, by the way, because I am an opinionated B*TCH WHO OWNS IT.

The Society of Experience by Matt Cahill
Time travel, Toronto and ennui. What more could you possibly want in a book? The writing is damn fine, and it reads like a literary action movie at times — in the best way. I couldn’t put it down. Plus, I ran into the author at Giller Light and he was the nicest guy. Speaking of, here’s a cool interview with him about writing and the like: http://www.robmclennan.blogspot.ca/2015/11/12-or-20-second-series-questions-with_6.html

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Another book I couldn’t put down, and another book featuring Toronto… at least until... well... just read it. The cover did not appeal to me and I was feeling apocalypse-weary, so I put off buying this book until a friend with street cred insisted I give in. She was right, of course. I got lost in this arty epidemic dystopia and loved every second. *Cough*

Martin John by Anakana Schofield
Unusual in every way, Martin John feels like a seriously important work in terms of form, style and narrative voice. On the plot side of things, Schofield's insights into the mind of a troubled soul will keep your reading lamp on much longer than you planned, and the relationship between Martin John and his mother is as fascinating as anything Hitchcock could dream up. (Side note - I have typo-related anxiety every time I write "Ana - kan - a Scho - field.")

Not Being on a Boat by Esme Claire Keith
Brilliantly executed, this book is dark and funny as hell. You’ll boo!!! the protagonist and root for him all the same. I don't think I've ever read dialogue as good as Esme writes it -- especially passive-aggressive dialogue, which is an art unto itself. Fans of DFW’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again” will particularly enjoy this.

The First Bad Man: A Novel by Miranda July
I know a lot of people are sick and tired of women writers being called “quirky,” but holy $hit is this book ever QUIRKY. And funny. And sometimes so sexually bizarre I was embarrassed to be seen reading it. But I revelled in every page.

Dirty Rocker Boys by Bobbie Brown
For you gossip fans out there, this book is a treasure trove. It’s not Shakespeare, sure, but even Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare, so whatevs. Leave your PhD at the door and dive into this smutty delight. You shall have nary a regret.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The “C” Word


For some writers, myself included, fessing-up to having it feels sinful. It’s as if “thou shalt not swagger” is etched on a tablet somewhere sandy and, should we defy the commandment, our talent will disappear, our readers will refuse us, locusts will rain down from a blood-red sky, etc.

Thank goodness all that is bullshit, right? Because my series on confidence was super fun!! I delighted in reading Erin, Rebecca, Jackson, RL and Alana’s answers to my question “Where does your confidence come from?” Each writer travelled a different path to get to the answer, some taking more scenic routes than others. And I get it; it’s a tough question. But why? Because it’s damn-near impossible to look at ourselves objectively? Or because the answer is inherently Gaga-esque -- because, baby, we were born this way?

Many scientific studies do, in fact, suggest that self-confidence is genetic and that the environment around us has only a negligible influence. (Like this one and this one and this one.) Despite what my former math teacher Mr. Deussing may think, I have a scientific mind, so this genetic explanation makes perfect sense to me. I also believe this because, growing up, had I not had a natural inclination for self-confidence, the outside world was certainly not going to give it to me. (I struggled in school and had a face full of acne long before the ravages of puberty—with no exceptional charms to make up for it.) 

HOWEVER, because not even science has the confidence to make wholly self-assured claims, most authors of these "pro-nature" studies are careful to point out that “a genetic legacy of self-confidence merely opens up many possible futures.” Which means there’s a little room for nurture after all.

So, with genetics aside, where does my confidence come from?

That's easy. I can point to it. Literally. Like on a map.

As you can see, my teen years were very Agrestic-like.
Also, wtf is up with those six pools in row up there??!! 

Colonel By Secondary School in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Specifically, the gymnasium. My confidence—the malleable element of it—developed from playing volleyball thereI sucked at first. But eventually, with hard work and time and exceptional coaching from Kerry MacLean, I scored points, I made serves, I memorized plays. I became objectively, measurably good at it. 

That's me under the red arrow and in the socks/flip flops.
(Can you say never-been-kissed-until-20-years-old much?)
And omg remember tearaway pants?!

If you’re going for a career as a writer, I think it’s invaluable to have been good at something that can be objectively measured first. Because getting good at something subjective is incredibly painful. Even if I write a novel that I think is good, millions of other people could hate it and tell me so, loudly, in public forums. 

I could never have built up my extra cushion of self-esteem by writing alone. If I put all my energy into novels as a teen and never played sports, I seriously doubt I would have had the confidence to move out of my parents' house or lose my virginity, never mind write a book!

Anyways, it's all very complicated, so here's a graph:

In your face, Mr. Deussing! 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Where does Alana Trumpy's confidence come from? (part 5 of series)

Alana Trumpy is a VIP in my life. Before she left Toronto to do her MFA, we would get together once a week for Write Club, which consisted of homemade food, gossip, commiserating about the pangs of writing, and then, whether we wanted to or not, writing. She's seen me through all the trials documented on this blog, and in my real life as well. She's also one of the most private writers I know. We've been friends for 12 years... And yet I have only read one of her works of fiction. One of my oldest friends is still a mystery to me, and a part of me -- the non-nosey part -- can't help but admire that. So let's enjoy this rare glimpse into the writerly mind of Alana Trumpy by reading her answer to the question that has consumed this blog all month: Where does your confidence come from?


First of all, I think what holds me back the most as a writer is my lack of confidence. Confidence is everything. This summer, I decided to analyze the 44 stories selected by Richard Ford for the 2010 American Short Story collection to see if there was anything quantifiable that they all had in common. I compared how many of the stories were written in first person versus second and third; I even went so far as to scrutinize sentence lengths. I stopped making spreadsheet entries at story number 32 (“A Romantic Weekend” by Mary Gaitskill -- you should read it) because I realized by that point the only thing all these successful stories had in common was first paragraphs that showed authorial confidence evidenced by risk-taking sentences.

We’ve all read overly-confident writing that is not great. Beautiful writing is obviously not all about confidence. But I do think that if you’re going to spend those million-or-so hours wrestling with your subconsciousness to pull out the exact right sentence that you need, first, to believe on a deep, unfakeable level that people want to hear, or even should hear, what you have to say.

This is how I talk myself into writing a story for workshop when I’m starting to think I’m just a bore and my characters are awkward and people are going to groan when they see my story is 24 pages long: I remind myself that people like me in real life and enjoy my company. I’m the kind of person you can spend a day with and not get too tired of (of course, this is in part because I’m quiet, but, wait, I’m trying to be confident...) I remind myself that I’d spend a day with myself. I’d date myself. I’d talk with me at a party. I really would. So then I think: whatever I write, I’m just letting people into my company, but on the deepest level, and maybe that’s where people (let’s say introverted bookish types) might want to stay for a while.

So that’s about as confident as I get. Other times I want to do anything but write because I’m sick and tired of my own thoughts and emotions. I walk around feeling shitty about myself until I start writing, and then oftentimes a miracle happens and I’m interested in myself again and delighted with what I’ve written. The words are perfectly me! Then I read them again, and my confidence plummets. I’m humiliated. I’m a fraud and delusional and I need to start doing something useful with my life, like building relationships that are life-giving and real, instead of gazing inward all day.

I don’t know! I don’t have the answers! But the best writers in my workshops, the Best American voices, those we have access to on bookshelves or who we read in literature courses, have voices that ring true because the authors, even in their introverted, shy ways, like the sound of their own voices and don’t want to sound like anyone else. You can just tell.

(Alana Trumpy ran off to Yellowstone right after submitting this story, so I wrote this bio on her behalf.) Alana Trumpy is currently enrolled in the MFA for Creative Writing (fiction stream) at the University of Montana. In 2013, she won a prestigious grant from the Ontario Arts Council for her work in progress, which, of course, she has never let me read. You can read an interview with Alana in Niche Magazine here. I'll be posting my final thoughts on confidence soon, so stay tuned.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Where does R.L Saunders's confidence come from? (Part 4 of series)

R.L Saunders is one of the coolest people I have never met. We were agency mates back in the day, and I developed my girl crush on her after reading her blog. There's a special magic to R.L that's hard to measure. Because she writes YA, I picture her in elementary school, the kind of kid who was cool but would sit with you at the nerd table anyways. The kind who stuck up for you on the bus. The kind who'd share her lunch if yours sucked. But I can't really do her justice. So here's R.L on R.L and her answer to Where does your confidence come from?


The vast majority of trick-or-treaters are decent, respectful kids who've put careful thought into their costumes, having stupid goofy fun with friends and family. But once in a while there's a group of jerks suffering mob mentality whose parents would be mortified at their evil behavior. They make you want to kick your jack-o-lantern off the porch, turn off your spooky music and special orange landscaping lights, and lock your door forever. Likewise, the vast majority of treat-givers are kind people who love being part of making it a fun night for the neighborhood kids. But once in a while, some psychopath puts glass shards into the caramel popcorn balls and makes all parents everywhere want to cancel Halloween (or worse, make their kids go to some safe party with the church youth group). 

That's a painfully long analogy to writing with confidence. It's a delicate balance, trying to have a good time without swallowing shards of glass. If I lose that balance it can crush me and make me feel like a sell-out and a failure as an artist. I’m fiercely protective of the remnants of gross overconfidence and blind creative whimsy that pushed me through the process of actually completing a first terrible manuscript, then a better one, then a better one. I’m constantly working to prevent the destructive and unhealthy type of self-doubt from creeping in when I open the door to the good stuff, like scary but crucial constructive criticism. I can also only handle small doses of researching what’s going on in writing and publishing, but it helps me evaluate where I am, where I want to be (genuinely, and not just because everybody's trying to get there), and how my work compares with whatever's making it through that tiny, elusive pinhole to publication.

Several years ago, R.L Saunders quit her job teaching English at a university in the Midwest and moved to the island paradise of Key West, Florida. On the island, she spent a couple years teaching, then had a boat load of fun as associate editor, advocacy journalist, and columnist for one of the island’s newspapers. Now she writes YA fiction and unschools a kid full-time. Her work is represented by Linda Epstein at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.

Stay tuned for the fifth "Where does your confidence come from" blog post coming soon!