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:

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! 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Where does Jackson Bliss's confidence come from? (Part 3 of series)

I first came across Jackson Bliss in the comments section of another writer’s blog. He seemed smart and ballsy yet warm, which is my favourite kind of troublemaker. Fascinated, I followed the trail back to Jackson's own blog. His posts were emotionally raw and honest, and unabashedly confident. In fact, I'd never come across a writer so self-assured. It was refreshing and inspiring; it made me think differently about writers, about how we're perceived by the world, and how we take ownership of our merit and value. I read some of his short stories and essays, my fingers crossed that he was as good as I hoped he was -- and he did not disappoint. Jackson's style knocked me on my ass. It has a kinetic energy to it that feels almost dangerous, incendiary, even when he's being a poet, even when he's reflecting on his grandmother. Once he gets his big break, Jackson is going to have a devoted readership, fans who will argue over his books until their knuckles bleed. He’s just that type. Passionate. Controversial. The guy is going to blow up.

Here’s Jackson on Jackson and the question Where does your confidence come from?


Much of my swag comes from being discouraged to write fiction.  There was the time the director of the creative writing program at Oberlin (which has an excellent undergrad major in creative writing) asked me what year I was in college after I'd handed in my application to the program.  When I got rejected later that month, one of my friends explained that upperclassmen almost never get accepted into the program.  The absurd thing is, I transferred to Oberlin, so I'd arrived as a Junior.  I never had a chance!  Then, there was the time I was about to enroll in David Shields’s intermediate fiction class at U Dub.  I was dreadfully poor at the time, had just moved to Seattle, and didn't have a printer to my name to give a writing sample, so I brought my clunky laptop to his office and said:  --I'm sorry about this, but I have my story ready for you to read.  Take as long as you want.  His response:  --No way, I'm not doing that!  Write something tonight and bring it back to me.  So I did, and of course it was shit, and of course, he rejected me from his workshop the next day. Even once I'd been accepted to multiple MFA programs, I realized that in my workshops, my manuscripts were almost always destroyed.  That may sound like self-martyrization, but over time many friends and classmates confirmed my own suspicions, which made me realize that my writing affected people, even if it wasn't always the reaction I wanted.  The long of it is, that many people didn't want to help me write at all, or criticized me for the way I did write, but I believed in myself and knew that I had talent, even if it was extremely raw.  If nothing else, I wanted to see how it all played out and I wasn't gonna let people who had no fucking love for me or my writing, decide whether I became a writer.  I guess I'm stubborn like that.

Over the years, I've felt like the world of literary journals has confirmed what was once a secret (and sometimes irrational) belief in my own writing ability.  I've had a good amount of stories accepted in respected journals of national distribution, and I've also received enough great rejections from the best glossies in the world to know that I'm no longer the only dude who thinks my writing has merit.  This confirmation has been helpful for me because it helps me understand that I'm not completely delusional about my own self-diagnostication when it comes to my own writing.  People can hate you all they want, but when an editor publishes your shit, especially when it's something workshop hated, this shows how disconnected workshop can often be from the publishing industry itself, how legit your voice really is, and how unique and exciting your writing can be, if only for a tiny second.

The best sort of confirmation, though, I think, is from readers themselves.  When they write me and tell me how much my writing has moved them, my body gets a contact high.  When I read those emails, my heart melts.  My soul aches.  Eventually, you realize that you're not just writing because you're talented anymore, or even because you have lots of important things to say, but also because you want to create things that affect people, that move them, that connect to them and challenge them in some way.  For me, having an audience is game changer.


Jackson Bliss earned his MFA from the University of Notre Dame where he was the Fiction Fellow and the 2007 Sparks Prize Winner for his debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs.  He also has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from USC where he worked with TC Boyle, Aimee Bender, and Percival Everett as a College Merit Award Fellow in Literature and Creative Writing, FLAS fellow in Japanese, and two time ACE/Nikaido Fellow.  Jackson was the 1st 2012 Runner-Up for the Poets & Writer’s California Exchange Award in fiction.  His short stories and lyrical essays have appeared in Tin House, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Fiction, Santa Monica Review, Boston Review, Quarterly West, ZYZZYVA, Fiction International, Notre Dame Review, African American Review, Kartika Review, Quarter After Eight, Connecticut Review, Stand (UK), 3:am Magazine The Good Men Project, and the Huffington Post UK, among others.  Jackson is a lecturer at University of California Irvine.

Stay tuned for the fourth "where does your confidence come from?" post coming soon!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Where does Rebecca Rosenblum's confidence come from? (Part 2 of series)

I discovered the writing of Rebecca Rosenblum two years back when I read a short story of hers about co-workers who go out for drinks. I was so impressed that I made a point to search out more of her work, all of which I kind of adore. Plus her blog is full of charming meditations on writing; it's one of my favourite things to read when instead I should actually be writing. But enough about me. Here's Rebecca's insightful take on the question Where does your confidence come from?


I think most writers have a basic confidence—we know we are capable of writing something captivating, entertaining, enriching. However, we do not always know WHEN we will be capable of doing this, or how often, or even which of the things we have written were fueled by this ability. Which creates a lot of confusion: I am simultaneously aware that I have talent and that the thing I just finished might be crap. It’s a hard way to live.

I think the thing that saves us is that it seems most of us like our own work, even if it is crap. The applause of our own little audience of one is, and often has to be, enough—I write what I write because if I don’t, no one will. External validation is exciting, and at certain points tremendously important but it remains external. In order to actually work hard, I need to feel, internally, that I’m doing something worthwhile.

My parents were very supportive of my writing when I was a teen, and I got a lot of validation from other sources, too. My teachers, writing contests, even peers said nice things about my work, and that was very motivating. But I got too caught up in it and published in a journal when I was too young (18) to properly deal with the editorial process, and that put me off publishing anything at all for pretty much 10 years. All that encouragement and support kind of backfired, in a way.

Was this a lack of confidence thing? Maybe—I’m getting so old now that sometimes it’s hard to get inside the mind of my younger self. I like to think that I was just smart—that I knew that I wasn’t yet strong enough for harsh criticism, and in order to save my fragile little creative soul from being crushed, I just removed criticism from strangers from the equation. I was actually confident enough to know that this little smidge of confidence was worth sheltering, in order to keep working. Does that make sense?

I kept on writing, at least some of the time—some years I wrote nothing and felt bad about myself. I took writing classes and began to accept a bit of gentle critical feedback from peers and professors, but importantly these were people who were invested in helping me get better. I eventually went back to school for my creative MA and that was also a supportive environment. And I kept improving. I couldn’t always see it, but I felt it. I finally learned something about structure; I learned about voices; I learned about the sort of stories I valued and those I was capable of telling (a Venn diagram with significant but not total overlap, to be sure).

So when I started sending out work, with a trepidation bordering on nausea, I did basically know I would be ok. I knew I could work when no one cared because I had. I didn’t need anyone to like my work but at that point, I did need someone to read it. I was tired of being alone with my stories. I figured even rejection letters would be a ping from the universe, signifying that my words had arrived somewhere.

There are significantly different pressures once your work (my work, anyway) is out in the world. I have to have the confidence to know that I can write something good and the thick skin to take all the addenda to that, most specifically, “…but it’s not there yet.” I’m still in that part of the struggle, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be perfectly comfortable with the editorial process. I actually really do love my work, and it’s hard to be told that parts of it aren’t good, even by someone I really respect. But that balance—confidence and not confidence—are what it takes to not only keep writing, but keeping getting better.

Rebecca Rosenblum's first collection of stories, Once, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award and was one of Quill and Quire’s 15 Books That Mattered in 2008. The Maclean’s blog called Rebecca  “Canlit Rookie of the Year” in 2008. Her second collection, The Big Dream, was published by Biblioasis in 2011 and was long listed for the Frank O'Connor Short Story award. A novel comprised of stories called So Much Love is forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart whenever she can manage to finish it. Her website is

Stay tuned for the third "where does your confidence come from?" post coming soon!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Where does Erin Bedford's confidence come from? (Part 1 of series)

I met Erin Bedford through a random act of Googling. I can't remember what I typed in the search bar, but that magic combination brought up a blog post Erin wrote for the Humber School for Writers. I was so intrigued by her perspective and her writing ability that I bought her novel Fathom Lines and within pages became a fan and, soon after, a friend. But enough about Erin from me. Here is Erin writing about Erin, as she answers the question of questions: Where does your confidence come from?

~ ~ ~ ~

This is such a good question, Emily, and really a window into the writer’s soul. Writing for a living, or even as a hobby, is something we always seem to be justifying and if random people in socially awkward situations aren’t asking what it is about us that makes us think we're so special, then we ask ourselves!

For me, the one word answer is experience, but since I’m supposed to be a writer, let me elaborate!

When I first started writing fiction, I was so amazing. Every word that I typed was genius. Yes, I was also delusional. Because we all have to be a little delusional to start out on this path. We need to believe we have amazing things to say in entirely new and amazing ways, or we might never start writing, but we have not practiced yet, at this craft that needs so much practice to perfect. So, I was really very bad at writing but I had a lot of confidence in my untested abilities.

A few form letters from publishers and literary magazines blew that early confidence away, but I kept writing with the idea that practice makes perfect, and for a while, I kept submitting my writing to the usual journals and contests. There were a lot more form letters and each rejection crushed me. I’d cycle through the Kubler-Ross model with regularity. Eventually I stopped submitting things. And I was devastated when a very promising relationship with an agent didn’t go forward. Left to my own devices, the novel I’d been working on became an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I could not stop rewriting.

There’s a happy ending here though. I did not spiral completely out of control. I am not currently holed up in my mother’s attic with my laptop, my filthy writing sweater, and a commercial-use coffee maker. No, at some point during the seven years of rewrites, I started to see what worked in my writing, and what didn’t. I stopped saving my cuts, I stopped trying to copy and paste them into new places. I just deleted, knowing that I could write it over again, better this time. At some point during those seven years, I became a good writer. Not the best, not even my own personal best, but pretty good, and in another seven years, who knows?

Which is not to say that I don’t love my awesome cheerleaders, or that the awards and great reviews weren’t important to me. But I really do believe that half of this writing battle is sticking with it, and there are no cheerleaders or awards at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning. It’s just us, and our blank pages, and our belief that we can fill them up with good words.

Erin Bedford lives in Toronto. She attended and won a Certificate of Distinction for her completed manuscript from the Humber School for Writers. Fathom Lines is her first novel. Preview it here. You can follow Erin on Twitter here.

Stay tuned for the second "where does your confidence come from?" post coming next week!