tour de blogs

I love a tour. And so I was especially pleased to be invited to join this mad literary romp, blog-style, where we answer a set of questions in our own merry way. Many thanks to the always madly wonderful Alice Zorn over at Rapunzel’s Hair for asking. Alice is the author of Arrhythmia, the short story collection, Ruins and Relics, and often translator of Grimms fairy tales.  Among other things, she blogs about her travels and her beloved Montreal neighbourhood, Pointe St. Charles. Her contribution to the game is here.

So… bon voyage, and here goes…


—What am I working on?

I tend to go through phases of working at more than one thing at a time. Currently I’m revising a few stories to send out, preparing a collection of essays and occasionally checking on the brine in which my novel manuscript is marinating… It often needs more salt.
—How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It occurred to me recently that I’m not a good rule follower. Not because I’m a renegade or anything as quaint as that, but simply because I’m often not aware of the rules. And even when I manage to figure out what they are, I can hardly believe it: those are the rules??  I have a hard time talking with people who want to discuss trends. I have no idea *what* is popular. Nor do I want to belabour any knowing. I recently wrote a story from the perspective of a chair.
Chairs 004
—Why do I write what I do?

One of my interests is relationships, especially those within the constraints of family. I realize I’ve been watching various families all my life—my own of course and those that lived on my street as a kid; aunts and uncles that weren’t, or were; the families connected to friends as I grew up; the manufactured ones through marriage and children, or no marriage and no children, or some other configuration therein or thereof. I’m fascinated with the way roles are assumed and played out to various ends and for what reasons and how we judge it all… and how we pretend it doesn’t matter and how it matters so very much. I’m interested in what’s remembered and how in a family there’s nothing even close to a consensus of truth. My writing often pokes about in this tender territory, trying to make head or tail of things. Why??  Who the hell knows.
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—How does your writing process work?

A large part is thinking out loud. Also known as talking to myself. I run through scenes, interview myself, ask myself what is the point of such and such… what is the point???… until I either come up with a point or scrap the whole damn such and such. I write in a journal most mornings, about dreams and grocery lists initially, but eventually making my way to the day’s work and what I want to accomplish, which inevitably leads me back to the such and such and the point, and pretty soon I’m no longer writing but talking to myself…

Best places to work through a problem: in the car, on a walk, weeding the garden.


The tour continues with Barbara Lambert, author of The Allegra Series,   A Message for Mr. Lazarus  and The Whirling Girl. And Maria Meindl, author of Outside the Box; Maria’s essay ‘Junior’ appears in the anthology The M Word. Thanks to both for bravely accepting this mission. Am looking forward to visiting their blogs in the coming weeks and will post links here.

Stops on the tour include:

Theodora Armstrong
Ali Bryan
Marilyn Bowering
Janie Chang
Jaime Forsythe
Susan Gillis
Jason Heroux
Cornelia Hoogland
Ellen S. Jaffe
Eve Joseph
Susan Juby
Anita Lahey
Barbara Lambert
Steve McOrmond
Maria Meindl
Sarah Mian
Elise Moser
Kathy Page
Julie Paul
Pearl Pirie
Shelagh Plunkett
Ryan Pratt
Jael Richardson
Devyani Salzman
Cassie Stocks
Ayelet Tsabari
Patricia Young
Julia Zarankin
Alice Zorn

welcome to my dream(s)

One of my favourite new discoveries—The Sketchbook Project.

Such a clever idea by the people at the Art House to share and promote various forms of art—and have fun doing it. Imagine.

Anyone can join for the price of a blank book, which is then ‘arted up’, sent to New York, digitalized, and then sent on a tour across North America with some very nice stops in the process, including both the MOCA and the LACMA in Los Angeles, Toronto’s Distillery District, Vancouver, Portland, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, and others, before returning to its permanent home on the shelves of the Brooklyn Art Library, where anyone can visit at any time.

Here’s a great little write up by Ashville BookWorks, in North Carolina, where the exhibit rolled through (in a custom built bookmobile) in March.

My contribution — I am Somewhere  — a collection of dreams (yes, mine) with illustrations in collage. (What else does one do with dreams?? And am I the only one who, when explaining a dream to a friend, begins with that vague sense of being “somewhere…” and if I am [the only such one], what do other people begin their dream-telling with? And if you don’t tell dreams, why not? And if you don’t dream… um, Freud has something to say about that; can’t remember what.)

Anyway, it was a great lark and I thoroughly enjoyed the two winter afternoons devoted to it. Nice to exercise a different muscle. And thank you, dear local library for your abundance of cast off magazines.

Here’s a sample of the madness:

I’m somewhere,
reading about owls
and how their wings
make no sound
(there is down involved in this magic)
and then I fall asleep and in my dream I dream about
owls flying in a line across
the sky… but my double dream state
doesn’t believe that they are really owls
even though their chubby cigar shape
is unmistakable.
They fly to the west (my left)
and then disappear bit by bit
in puffs of smoke
or clouds
or swirled air.
More somewheres here.

journal notes, solstice in muskoka, 2011

Silver morning. No, scratch that. Too cliché. Go with first instinct: grey and dull and lacking yesterday’s slow copper cherry sunrise followed by blue blue sky.

No. Scratch that too. Here’s the thing: this winter morning lacks nothing.

Frost on new wood of deck at water’s edge. In the lake, a plastic bottle, loose on the ice. I wonder how it got there; did somebody throw it to see if the lake was frozen? What is wrong with the somebodies of us?

The fire pit from last night where we burned marshmallows. No one believed me when I said roasting is an art. They said charcoal was their favourite flavour.
IMG_5182 - Copy

A writing exercise in a book I find tells me to write in third person.

Not me.

She sits cross-legged on a lime green duvet cover that is identical to the one she used to have until it ripped and she gave it to the Humane Society instead of repairing it. Plus it had become too lime green for her taste. Animals, being colour blind [or so the rumour goes], may indeed like it, she figured.

People she knows will have done a series of sun salutations at the yoga studio in the town a few hundred kilometers south where she lives. Once the sun sets they’ll meet again for chanting and meditation. She is at a cottage with husband and stepson. There will be no chanting. Maybe a movie later.

Last night at the bonfire she wanted to talk about all of it, the air, the frozen lake and the extraordinary ways of fish that they remain unfrozen; the lichen and inukshuks on their walk and the puddle in the shape of a rabbit; the smarts of nature and the distance humans have travelled from their original DNA. She wanted to hear about the books her husband and the boy were reading and talk about the day and the places they’d walked and what they’d seen and what thoughts, ideas and questions all of those places and sights had inspired.

But there were marshmallows to cook.

The exercise goes on to suggest that I write about what I see and what makes me comfortable. Excuse me, what makes her comfortable.

She is at a cottage. I think we’ve established that. And what she sees is the vague outline of a lake beyond cedars and through a window whose night-time glass is warming and what makes her comfortable is this rather odd and empty room off the main bedroom, where no one else goes because there is a proper living room elsewhere. This extra room is a private nook, a sanctuary, an addition to the cottage, an afterthought. But it’s heated and there are big windows on three sides and a door to the patio and steps. I like escape routes—she likes them.

She writes in this silent, private space, looking up only occasionally (although even a momentary pause in the writing is frowned upon by the rules of the exercise) to assure herself the lake is still there and when the snow turns to slushy rain she hears it on the roof of this thin-walled room and writes about it. And although it’s irrelevant she writes about how the friends who own the cottage lived here for six months after their dishwasher set fire to their house. The exercise recommends just going with whatever comes to mind so she writes about how she can’t imagine the noise and disruption of kids and a beautiful giant black dog in this space, and how remarkable that none of those frenetic vibes remain. And then she writes about vibes, about lingering energy, the kind you can feel and how some rooms you’ve never been in before can immediately feel good or bad.

She digresses here and writes about how she likes places—buildings, cabins, tents, trailers, everything habitable. She likes paintings and photographs of houses and the ones about to be demolished… she likes imagining their stories, the people who stood on those doorsteps on a thousand snowy Christmas Eves, bearing gifts and casseroles.
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Coincidentally, the next step of the exercise is to write about diversions so I skip that.

After breakfast the husband and stepson go out and I’m alone with the radio and the rain in this lovely space and I read and write some more…

And before I know it I’m dancing to the hallelujah chorus on this silver day at noon.

why write, i ask myself

Well, I answer… here’s one reason:

I write because there’s so bloody much to understand and how would I ever begin to understand any of it except to note the questions and play with the answers in the form of possibilities and see the shape of it all on the page until I can see myself within it somewhere… and then maybe, just maybe, through the alchemy of time and distance I might be able to do at least this much— to look backward or forward and say yes, I see how I’m different now, and how I’m the same.

What I do with that understanding is, of course, another thing entirely.
On the other hand I might just be fond of moving commas about…

…or want to change the world or have an excess of words in my head that don’t neatly fit into any of my cupboards. It could be that Nancy Drew had more of an effect on me than I realize and I’m still trying to write that perfect Hidden Staircase. My fondness for sitting near open windows shouldn’t be discounted, nor should my ability to sit in rooms by myself for hours with little company other than open windows. I attribute that last quality to the number of time-outs I received as a child, only then they were called “Go to your room and stay there!”
If only my dear parents knew how that was but music to my ears…

And what about the girl who delivers newspapers with a smile and a wooden cart and appears to have no idea how special she is — who will write about her if I don’t?

Perhaps I write because I can. Or I am. Therefore I do. Maybe it’s complicated like that. Maybe I haven’t a clue.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I should stop asking stupid questions and get back to work.


treasure among my stacks

Stumbled over during a recent bout of perusing…

“He says, slowly, that there is an island in Grand Lake called Glover Island. And Glover is the largest island on the island of Newfoundland. And on Glover there is a pond. And on that pond there is a smaller island. I want, he says, to paddle up Grand Lake and portage over Glover Island. Get to that pond and cross to the island and spend a night. He says there’s only one other island in the world with a lake holding an island, and a pond on that island with an island in that pond, and that place is Sumatra. And if you took a globe and put a finger on Newfoundland and another finger on Sumatra you’d see they’re pretty much on opposite sides of the earth.”   —Excerpt from a story by Michael Winter, as found in the essay: The Ends of the Earth, by Lisa Moore (The Walrus, July/August, 2006).

But what Michael Winter story is it from??

“Oh, Mrs. Turner is a sight cutting the grass on a hot afternoon in June! She climbs into an ancient pair of shorts and ties on her halter top and wedges her feet into crepe-soled sandals and covers her red-gray frizz with Gord’s old golf cap—Gord is dead now, ten years ago, a seizure on a Saturday night while winding the mantel clock.” —Opening paragraph, ‘Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass’ by Carol Shields

“God, this is what literature is supposed to sound like—one man simply telling another man the simple humiliations and agonies and always-too-late epiphanies that add up to his and everybody else’s life—and not a sack of tricky tropes to be toted out and professionally employed in order to expertly con the reader into imagining a pretty little Book Club-approved daydream.”from What Happened Later, by Ray Robertson

“I grew up cynical, married an optimist. A field biologist who held the legs of songbirds pinched between thumb and fingers and described their plumage to me. We hiked through boreal forest, scrambled above alpine meadows, strolled the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. We walked beneath the ten thousand rustling wings of crows bedding down for the night on the electrical wires beside a remnant stand of trees. As we walked, beneath our feet we found the torn feathers of a grouse, the long shadow of a hawk. Death, I saw, is part of the beauty of this world, as painful as it is. And so, I learned to balance here. Walking with my optimist, I found I could stay standing even if the world would not stay still.”from the essay ‘A Container of Light’ by Lisa Martin-Demor, The New Quarterly #120.

“Everyone wants in on it. Everyone! Not just the cat, the pig and the dog. The horse too, the cow, the rhinoceros, the orang-outang, the horn-toad, the wombat, the duck-billed platypus, you name it. There’s no peace any more and all because of that goddamn loaf of bread… It’s not easy being a hen.” —from ‘The Little Red Hen Tells All’, in the collection Good Bones, by Margaret Atwood

“I remember a story my father once told me. A boy is playing in the sandbox in the schoolyard, and darkness falls. He hears the voice of his mother calling him in for supper. On his way home, he loses his way in the shadows and walks until his feet are sore. He curls up against the side of a stranger’s house and falls asleep. In the morning, the sun pries open his eyelids. He is back in the schoolyard. He realizes he is not the boy at all, but the sandbox, and so he is already home.” — from ‘Bouncing’, in the collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, by Stuart Ross



a dreadful fascination

A few [not entirely precise] quotes from today’s International Festival of Authors event in Uxbridge, hosted by Blue Heron Books, where authors Jane Johnson and Laura Lippman were in lively conversation with Siri Agrell, and where the vibe was very living room, casual and writerly. The only thing missing was wine.

But, given that it was a brunch, this can be forgiven.
In no particular order, a few gems…

On writing the opposite gender and why women are better at it than men:

—The prey knows the predator better than the predator knows the prey. –Laura Lippman

—It’s less urgent for men to understand women. Historically, few men have had a female boss, for instance. —Jane Johnson

—Women have been learning to read faces since they lived in caves and stayed in groups, tending the fire, while men were out hitting things over the head. — Jane Johnson

On the secrets to success:

—Luck is what makes a book work. – Jane Johnson (meaning that’s the one thing the writer can’t control so if it doesn’t always hit the mark, don’t take it personally)

—We only make mistakes when we’re so sure we know something and don’t bother checking. – Laura Lippman

—Write a good sentence and move on. – Laura Lippman quoting Rebecca Lee

On characters:

—I once had a character change gender in the middle of a first draft. – Laura Lippman [her point, to keep writing, it’s a detail, deal with it later; first drafts are meant to allow the ‘barefoot wild child’ to just write without thinking…]

—A writer inhabits all her characters, the good and the bad ones. This is our empathy with humanity. – Jane Johnson

On process:

—When I start writing, I may know the beginning, middle and end of a book, but it’s how I get from one to the other that makes it live. – Jane Johnson

—What starts a book? A dreadful fascination. – Jane Johnson

—The danger is you can edit the life out of anything. – Jane Johnson

On publishing:

—The industry likes people who know what it is to work in an office. [versus the kookie eccentric ‘artiste’ type] – Laura Lippman

the art of familiar letter writing

Was recently in a lovely hotel. One I’ve been in before, lucky me. On that previous occasion there was a folder that contained stationery, i.e. a few sheets of hotel letterhead, a couple of envelopes, a comment card, a pen, a Things to Do in the Area brochure. I like that welcomey sort of touch. Immediately after unpacking I like nothing better than plonking myself down in an armchair, feet on the coffee table and reading a letter from hotel management that says things along the lines of we’re so glad you’re here, and give us a dingle if you need anything, anything at all and please take your feet off the coffee table.

Makes me feel at home.

Plus, I love free pens.

And I adore hotel stationery.

I have a small collection of pages that goes back years and years, a decade or more some of it. Every now and then I’ll send a letter to someone on one of those precious sheets, sometimes recalling a moment from way back then, or making no reference at all to the place but merely using it as my personal stationery.

I think it’s damn funky.

However, it seems, at this hotel anyway, stationery has been done away with for reasons of “everyone uses email now”. And the ‘welcome’ letter is now a video, because no one watches enough TV already or is in any way tired of looking at screens. That is, after all, why we go on holiday, is it not? To look at different screens or, at the very least, our own screens in a different light, against mountain backdrops, to text in sultry salted air…

Well then, I thought, what to do in that hour before dinner, about three days into the holiday, when the sun is just thinking of lowering itself behind the lake and the patio is still all warm with it and I have a glass of cool sauvignon blanc and a bag of chips in front of me… Seems like the perfect time to write a letter and comment on morning rambles collecting walnuts and stones and finding an owl with its leg stuck in the net of a volleyball court and contacting the local and very wonderful SPCA who contacted one of their staff in the area who was at home and who was only too happy to trade slippers for shoes and come right over to help said owl.

Stationery would have been nice, but we’ve gone over that. Instead, I tore pages from a notebook and that worked well enough, even better because of the lines—saves the recipient having to turn the paper at an angle to read. And when I asked the front desk for an envelope, they had one, a hotel one even. The young woman apologized for the logo and I said, no, that was great, that was perfect! I don’t think she quite understood my euphoria given how she was not yet born when the art of familiar letter writing was in its heyday. It occurred to me only much later that they probably also had sheets of paper with the hotel logo, although not offered because no one knew what they were for.


So I’m writing this lovely hotel, where I spent a lovely few days. I’m writing them on my own stationery. With a pen. A stamp will be involved. Feet will take me to a nearby mailbox. I will breathe en route. I will ask if they foresee a time when the art of letter writing, if only from hotel stationery, might be revived. I will mention a very exquisite spot in Newfoundland where I had the privilege of staying a few years ago and where I was mightily impressed with many things, not the least of which was a postcard (or two), pre-stamped and featuring a nice shot of the inn and environs. Smart marketing, that. And they’ll mail it for you too.

I’ll update this post with said hotel’s response. Which, with a bit of luck, will come on hotel stationery.

More handwritten thoughts:

the postman brought all that

pocalogging to my own tune

dear mr. postman

the reason i like mail

i have met my muse and she is green

Did I say green?

I meant she’s outside.

Which rather surprised me and it shouldn’t have. I’ve met her before, always outside—at the beach or the ravine or in the sunrise or sunset on Goose Hill (yes, it gets both, this magical place at the end of my street). She’s often on the streets and sidewalks that run through my neighbourhood and once I found her in a little patch of milkweed that’s easy to overlook.

But mostly she’s in the garden right outside the back door, among the weeds.

It’s with a hoe that I find her every time.

She speaks through fistfuls of creeping charlie and chickweed and pretty soon—no matter how daunting, no matter how much needs to be dealt with before it’s done and no matter that I won’t get it done today—just doing whatever I can, an hour’s worth, a half hour—makes an enormous difference to the whole thing, allows me to move around inside it a bit better, see it all that much more clearly.

Less chickweed, more clarity.

It never fails.

And she is never not there.

Yet, fool that I am, I forget… and wait for her at my desk.

Where do you find yours?

this is not a review: join the revolution, comrade, by charles foran

Charles Foran’s ‘Can’t Think for the Racket’ is a stunningly lovely essay on the moment a writer finds the courage to use their own voice. The moment when you realize that the truth of what you want to say comes not from your head or how clever-clever you are or what you’ve learned, but from an ability to notice the precise colour of juniper berries after a rain, or tap into some deep awareness of every experience you’ve ever had and translate that into what a bar of dark chocolate tastes like on a warm day in September.

Or whatever.

The berries and chocolate are mine. Food is my portal. Foran’s was music.

He wanted to play guitar but it didn’t go well; a musician friend tried to help by saying that to really get music “…no thinking was allowed. Whatever you do, don’t think. Whatever you decide to play, don’t ponder why you did it. For sure, whatever you are feeling—ah, feelings, again—don’t fuss or fret or worry about figuring it out. Don’t figure anything out. Just play.”

Despite himself, words were more this thing and eventually he found himself wandering about listening to the rhythm of language, trying to force what he heard onto the page.

While the friend’s advice stayed with him he didn’t really understand the message until he was living in Ireland, working as bartender, trying to capture the lingo, the music of the Dublin dialect, repeating descriptions he’d heard of wankers and omadoons and writing about their devotion to U2 and Thin Lizzy in a manuscript where the narrator is a Canadian working in a Dublin bar among characters— “wankers and omadoons who thrashed to U2 and Thin Lizzy…”

One day while he’s busily writing this dross, a piece of music, for whatever reason, offers up a moment long enough to replace the square peg in a round hole effort of trying to get all that ‘external’ stuff, all that thinking, down.

“One afternoon I put down my pen at the opening notes of a reel played on solo flute. The musician had the breathy style I associated with prog-rocker Jethro Tull. From the start, the music was fluid. I turned up the volume and watched through the window as a weather formation, stately as a regatta, floated out into the Atlantic ocean to the melody, wisps of angels’ breath scurrying along the margin between earth and sky. A second reel merged from the first. Now the flutist was adding ornamentation–triplets and trills and grace notes. Certain notes were stretched and held. Others were blunted or bitten. All manner of non-thoughts flashed through my mind while I listened and watched. everything seemed in motion, in flight; everything seemed at once exact and permanent, fleeting and evanescent. Like the weather. Like a young Canadian in a school house in Galway.”

And there it is. The moment beyond which a writer can never again not ‘know’ when their work is hitting a false note. We may try to fool ourselves into thinking it’s okay, that no one will notice, that the darlings are so effing cute they’ll make up for any weak areas—but no matter what tricks we try to play on ourselves—after The Moment there’s no going back. We will know when our work sucks and when it sings. (We may not know how to fix it, of course, but that’s another thing entirely.)

The piece ends with a quote from Northrope Frye that Foran had clipped and kept since his university days, proving his connection to rhythm and language from the start, but words that only now, decades later, sink in: “If the music of  a sentence is right, the sense will take care of itself.” 

Seems it’s all about listening. Not thinking.
But then, so much is. When you think about it.

excerpts from the essay ‘Can’t Think for the Racket’,  from the collection Join the Revolution, Comrade, Biblioasis, 2008


From the Re-Run Series: orginally posted in February, 2011.

i’ve got mail…

An especially nice delivery today included the gorgeous piece of always-art that is The New Quarterly, issue 121—reason enough to stop everything, boil some leaves and find a comfy chair—but this issue also features a [new] novel excerpt from the smart and funny Michelle Berry

[Note to self: brew extra big pot of tea.]

Also got three lovely chapbooks, ordered through Alberta Books after hearing about their literary salons. Events are intimate gatherings of twenty or so in private living rooms throughout Calgary—not designed to sell wagon-loads of books, but rather to appreciate words in the best way: with others who appreciate words. Each chapbook, simple but beautifully presented, is signed by all contributing authors, who vary from established to emerging and include, among others, Aritha van Herk, Jeramy Dodds and Betty Jane Hegerat.

What I love best is the nod these salons give to perhaps a more elegant past when life was possibly a bit slower and the world definitely a bit smaller and the pleasure of one’s company was what it was all about.

And the word ‘salon’.
I just love that word.

 “Mohammed told me that Palestinians are born knowing how to sling a stone. He joked that West Bank boys emerge from their mother’s womb swinging their umbilical cords over their heads. I stood behind the shabaab, afraid of being hit by an errant rock, and watched as they co-opted King David’s weapon against his own heirs. Some wrapped keffiyehs around their head to hide their faces, but most didn’t bother. The rain slickened cheeks too young for beards, and soaked through their blue jeans. Slings dangled from pockets like something cool.”  ~from In the Shadow of the Wall: Travels Along the Barricades, by Marcello Di Cintio (to be released by Goose Lane Editions in Fall, 2012)

More Mail:

art lesson

pocalogging to my own tune

dear mr. postman

the reason i like mail