Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Two memories, and choosing the one that matters

Two memories popped up on my FB feed today – one from my teaching life, and one from my writing life.

The first is from my last (very tough) year of teaching at Conestoga College. I remember it so well - the student walking up to me, grinning, holding out this large tea, and the rest of the class laughing and breaking into applause. Just a little moment of kindness and fun.

 It was a tough time back then – unexpected financial pressures, unhappy people in the family, gruelling work schedule at a job I didn’t really love anymore, and a lot of difficult juggling. I was a drudge. Depressed. Struggling. Trying to be everything to everyone when all I really wanted to be was a published author. And that dream was slipping further and further away.

The other memory that popped up was my first book signing, two years ago, after presenting at the CANSCAIP Packaging Your Imagination conference. I was living my dream: having a published book, and presenting at a conference which I had attended for years as an unpublished nobody.

Two memories. 

Okay, despite literary awards being awarded, and books being named to lists, and writers/creators turning up on Zoom at the speed of light, let's face it: for most of us, this pandemic is wreaking havoc on the writing life. My own writing life is a shambles: a book that disappeared into the abyss last winter, another project relegated to numerous slush piles, and a work-in-progress that I fear will never get into print. It was all looking so hopeful, but now, who knows?

But when I saw these two memories on my Facebook feed this morning, I felt a little nudge (or perhaps something stronger) and a voice inside telling me to get over myself. Get on with it. Look at the big picture and be grateful.

Because, as I sit here in this crazy year that is 2020, it's that moment of kindness in the classroom nine years ago that resonates with me the most.


Thursday, October 22, 2020

A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She said this in lectures at Cambridge University in the 1920s, talking not only about writing, but about feminism, and the ongoing struggle for women in the arts to be acknowledged, respected and allowed to succeed.

All important, all good. But it was always the “room of one’s own” part that resonated with me. Because I never really had one.

Okay, I’ve had rooms of my own a few times since growing up and leaving home. Usually the spare bedroom with a table or desk. Almost always a shared space. For years, when my children were young and growing and I was a college professor, the kitchen table was mine, all mine. Centre of the house. The hub, where Mom could be found prepping lessons and marking assignments in between making meals, folding laundry, arguing with the teenager about sketchy weekend plans, or offering advice on schoolyard politics. More recently, I spent almost 10 years at the dining room table, a.k.a. the home media bench, while working in sports communications. Me and the china and silverware.

And I still managed to write a couple of books that got published. But, but… 

A room of my own. A studio. An office. It was always a dream. And now, with kids moved out and a quieter pace of life, I have finally claimed a space just for me. For my writing, my books, my music, my rug hooking, my yarn stash. My stuff. My creativity. My solitude. 

Of course, you’ll still find me at the kitchen table with my computer, or in the living room by the fire with my yarn and needles, or in the family room watching the Leafs (one day soon, I hope) and playing my dulcimer. 

But to have my room of one’s own to retreat to…?  Yes, Virginia. There are things worth waiting for.

Here's a little tour...

A tiny glimpse of my embarrassingly large yarn stash. Please don't judge me.

Yes, I am a hooker.

The instrument is a mountain dulcimer, purchased over 30 years at the Halifax Folklore Centre, and well travelled. The books are part of a collection of traditional folksong that I've been amassing since I was 12 years old and my Grade 6 teacher gave me the school's copy of Edith Fowke's Folksongs of Canada. He knew I was onto something. (Thank you, Mr. Logan!)

Norton Anthology, Beowulf and Snorra Edda (that's Old Icelandic for, very roughly, Snorri's Stories - Snorra Sturluson's 13th century collection of stories and verse.) Also my mother's collection of Rosamunde Pilcher. Favourite re-reads, such as A Town Like Alice, Pride and Prejudice and Vera Brittain's A Testament of Youth. Current fiction and non-fiction from people I know (Terry Fallis, Brad Smith, Sara Jewell). And tons of music.

A workspace must include tea.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The writing life – when it all comes tumbling down

On a walk on the shore this week, I came across this pile of sandstone rocks, piled on a driftwood stump by some anonymous beachcomber. A lighthouse, a carefully stacked pile of rocks. It made me smile.

Because it reminded me of my writing life right now.

You know when things have been bad, but they’re starting to look better? When you start to have a bit of hope that the gate’s going to open and let you through? 

Yeah, that.

I just found out that the gate, which had opened briefly, has clanged shut. 

It’s been tough for Canadian kidlit authors during the pandemic, but we’ve carried on. Writing, drawing, creating. Online book launches and readings, webinars and professional association meetings, reaching out to kids, parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers and more. 

But also, so many opportunities lost. (My YA novel, LARKIN ON THE SHORE, launched in January. Maybe it’s now on a shelf somewhere …?)

When I finished my latest work-in-progress early in the shutdown, I sent it off and expected nothing. To my delight, it was enthusiastically received – with the caveat that the process would be slow because of, you know, the pandemic.

Slow became full-stop. Full stop became Feel free to send it elsewhere. End of project. Not likely to happen. 

Basically, it all came tumbling down, like a pile of rocks. 

But here’s the thing about being a writer: I have a job, and the bottom line is that I have a job I love.  

So, I will keep working to build it all up again. Send the queries. Cautiously nurture hope. Expect and deal with rejection. 

That scene on the beach reminded me just how much I love my often frustrating, recently disappointing, creatively fulfilling writing life. It reminded me that I have to build those stories as if I’m building a simple pile of rocks. I have to pursue my writing and publishing dreams by staying on course, guided by my inner lighthouse. 

Get on with it. Pick up some rocks. Write. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

You Are Here

I saw a poster years ago: an image of space, the huge expanse of the Milky Way, with an arrow and the tiny words, YOU ARE HERE.

It stayed with me because I have always felt awe, respect and a fair amount of fear when thinking about my place in the universe. Thinking about where I fit into the great unknown (or frontier, if you’re a Star Trek fan) makes me uncomfortable.


Am I making a difference? Do I count?


There are so many unknowns in our pandemic universe right now, and it’s making me feel even more lost and anxious – you know, masks, distancing, isolation, impending Second Wave, the end of March Break, when will I feel brave enough to get my pandemic hair trimmed. Yeah, all that.


You are here. That’s our universe right now.




It turns out, I’m still here. Still cuddling my new grandson, and hugging my kids – once they finally made it out of Ontario to spend a cozy 14-day quarantine with us at our summer home in Nova Scotia.


Still playing my dulcimer on the deck at sunset. Still reading books. Watching the Jays. Lamenting the end of my beloved Maple Leafs’ season.


Still watching the herons gather on the sandbars at dusk, and a shy eagle grace us with an occasional fly-over. A mother deer and three fawns on the front yard. Still here.


Still writing, even though the big universe isn’t noticing my words or stories right now. Even though my book fell into the pandemic abyss. That’s okay. I know it’s still here, on a shelf in a bookshop, in a library (and in my heart, because every published book feels a bit like a beloved child, doesn't it?).

I'm fortunate, and I know it.


Earlier this summer the NEOWISE comet appeared and I watched with awe as it hung in the night sky over the Northumberland Strait. It reminded me of that poster from years ago. It reminded me that the universe is big and I am small. 


But I’m still here. I hope you are too.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A Writer's Life look back: Why is YA fiction so dark?

I posted this piece seven years ago, five years before my YA novel Skating Over Thin Ice was published. I was working on that novel then - the story of a young musical prodigy looking for direction when her career path starts to falter. It's a quiet story, a gentle story of searching for happiness. No violence (okay, one hockey fight). No sex (yes, some hugging and hand-holding). No aliens (well, there are these three girls nicknamed The Sirens...)

The novel wasn't written as a response to the viewpoint expressed in this 2013 blog post - I was already writing it at the time - but it did worry me that THIS was the publishing landscape I was headed for. Rejection seemed inevitable. Who'd want to read a gentle story about a girl who figures things out, slowly, aided by a kind best friend (Fredrik, the gay son of the Swedish ambassador), a unexpected ally (Nathan, a famous junior hockey star) and her grandfather (a world-famous violinist, and her musical partner in Trio St. Pierre)?

Nope. No violence, no sex, no aliens. What chance did such a story have? 

As a YA novelist, I'm always interested to see what's being published and reviewed and sold. 

I'm not sure much has changed since 2013. 


Posted July 29, 2013:

The world is a troubled place right now, and YA fiction appears to be enjoying the darkness. No, not just enjoying it - relishing it. Gorging on it. Drowning in it. (I could go on...)

But - is all this dark, violent, dystopic exploration of unhappiness really what the kids are reading? Or is it just what YA writers and publishers think the kids want?  (I don't know the answer - I'm just asking the question...)

I guess I should be happy that the Era of Vampires appears to be waning. Okay, I read the Twilight series to stay current, and although it didn't thrill me the way it did my teenage daughter, I could see the appeal.  Ditto the Hunger Games and its sequels. Engaging fantasy, strong female character, a bit of romance. Before those two entries, kids worked their way through the increasingly dark Harry Potter. And of course there has been a fair share of lightweight Young Chick Lit as well. Trends come and go - we all know that.

But this past weekend I read about the following four YA books, each reviewed briefly on the Books page of the Globe. Here are snippets of the reviews by Globe reviewer Lauren Bride:

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea: "...a grouchy, pollution-sick, slightly frightening Polish mermaid whose broken English is elsewhere peppered with profanity..."

Letting Ana Go by Anonymous: "Following a nameless high-school student for over a year from lighthearted athlete through anorectic compulsion...the diary-entry format could potentially read as a how-to guide for the impressionable without quite giving an antidote or example of how to recover."

When We Were Good by Suzanne Sutherland: "...pitched into double grief...struggling to find her place at punk shows with tough, impressive kids...also finds trouble..."

Rush (Book One of The Game) by Eve Silver: "...electric high-action scenes, a world in peril (this time, by the threat of aliens), and amorphous morality in a broken society..."


Confession: I haven't read any of these books; just the reviews. A little research shows that critics (at least the critics who have blurbed for the books) love them. For instance,  "A radiant hybrid of piercing realism, creeping horror, and heartbreaking fantasy - but fantasy with dirt in its hair and scabs on its knees," says author Daniel Kraus (his own book is called Rotters) about Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.

So am I the only writer (and reader) who thinks the current crop of YA characters and their stories sound (as my teenage son calls it) "messed up"?

Is this really what kids are reading - or is it just what publishers are publishing?

The teenagers I know are intelligent, curious, confused, funny and often under tremendous pressure to perform at school, at home and at all the other activities that fill their lives. Are they really reaching for the darkside? Are they really connecting with and finding pleasure and meaning in reading a book featuring a "slightly frightening Polish mermaid"? Is there anything else out there to choose from? Maybe even something with humour, lightness, hope?

Of course, I may be wrong.

Why is YA fiction so dark? I'm open to enlightenment.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

“Fresh paint” and Testament of Youth

Is this ever going to end? This pandemic life? The news goes from bad, to bad, to a bit better, to bad again.


Honestly, it feels as if we’re living through a war.


I’m reminded of a scene in the movie adaptation of a favourite book of mine, set just after the Second World War – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.


“Fresh paint!” exclaims Juliet, looking out the window of a London bus in 1946. “One might almost believe the war is really over.”


Yeah, well, I’m dreaming of fresh paint.


This wartime-like existence is taking a toll, and one of the casualties is my ability to engage with new books. It’s all about re-reading old favourites right now. Comfort reading, you might call it.


A recent selection from my bookshelf was Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir of her experiences before, during and after the First World War.


I first read this book in my twenties – my youth, you might say – and I imagined Vera Brittain’s life experiences super-imposed on mine: the rigid social expectations that young women faced, the strong resistance to her pursuing an academic career, the looming conflict and destruction of all her hopes and dreams as The Great War consumed her life and the people she loved. Her years supporting the war effort at home and in France as a nurse.


And there I was, an educated young woman with freedom, always supported and encouraged by my family to pursue my dreams, part of a social group with no danger that any of us would be expected to donate our lives to the trenches.


I haven’t read this book for decades, but I brought it with me to the shore this summer and it was exactly what I needed in this time (for me) of high anxiety, isolation and a constant underlying fear about the future.


I want to be hopeful. I want to believe that together we, guided by our leaders and scientists, will win this battle against COVID-19.


Re-reading Testament of Youth helped. For young Vera Brittan, there is so much loss, so much tragedy, so much despair. She loses practically everything and everyone she loves – and yet, she still comes through it, looking ahead.


In the Preface, Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams - herself a change-making Liberal Democrat MP in the UK - says that her mother was so shaped by her war experiences that “it was hard for her to laugh unconstrainedly; at the back of her mind, the row upon row of wooden crosses were planted too deeply.”


And yet Vera Brittan went on to campaign vigorously for pacifism, the League of Nations, nuclear disarmament, cooperation among enemies.


“I still remember her in her seventies,” writes Williams, “determinedly sitting in a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demonstration and being gently removed by the police.”


We’re living through historically tough times right now. I wonder what the lasting effects will be on us, our kids, our idea of “normal.” But re-reading this brilliant memoir from someone who endured and survived her own historic tough time has helped.


And yes, we may have to wait a while, but I believe there will once again be fresh paint.


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

“Neither Far Out Nor In Deep” – Robert Frost nails it



During these pandemic days of summer, I'm living a safely isolated life on a shore, near water.

Safe. Isolated. Away from my safely isolated kids, my newborn grandson, my close family and friends. Being careful and responsible. Sigh.


Living an isolated life means you have a lot of time to think about things, especially during a period packed with so much fear, so many unknowns. When listening to or reading the news is like submitting to a daily bludgeoning. When it feels like there’s no end in sight.


Yes, it makes you think. Sometimes too much.


Right now, the best place for me to think is near water. What is it about staring out at unknown depths that helps me find comfort? Maybe it’s the feeling of permanence along with change – waves, tides, horizon, sky. Day in, day out, but every time I look, the scene transforms.


“The people along the sand,” wrote Robert Frost, “All turn and look one way. They turn their back on the land. They look at the sea all day.”


That’s me. Staring out at the sea and wondering when this fraught pandemic time will ease back into something approaching normal – or, as I like to call it, The Beforetime.


“They cannot look out far. They cannot look in deep,” Frost wrote. “But when was that ever a bar to any watch they keep?”


Lots of questions, and few answers, but people just turn away from “the land” – a stark, unchanging reality – and keep looking, hoping, believing that the answers are out there.


Or in the context of pandemic times, that we’ll learn to live safely with the virus, find a vaccine, kick its butt, get on with “normal” life and leave this “land” behind us.


Until then, like Frost’s “people along the sand”, I’ll turn my back on the land, do my part, and keep watch for something better.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Grit and the writing life

You know when you read something that just makes you laugh out loud?


In an interview between The Globe & Mail’s Simon Houpt and Sarah MacLachlan, the departing president of House of Anansi Press and Groundwood Books, MacLachlan (not to be confused with the musician who shares her name) was asked:


Do you have a novel in you? Maybe a roman a clef about a scrappy independent publisher?


Her reply:


God no! Being a writer is a really, really tough job, and I am deeply admiring of people who write, because it’s you and the computer and that’s it, you know? And I don’t have that kind of grit.


I laughed out loud because, people, it’s the truth, and it’s wonderful to hear someone – someone who isn’t a writer – acknowledge it.

Oh sure, everyone knows it’s hard to sit down every day, open the computer (or notebook) and just get at it, when so many other distractions are pulling you away. (You do know that, right?)


But it’s the recognition of required “grit” part I like. That’s the part so many people outside of the writing life don’t understand.


You know what takes grit?


Tolerating rejection. Rejection over and over. Years of rejection. And still sitting down with your manuscript and working to make it better, not giving up, believing in yourself, seeking help. And submitting again, knowing that you’re probably going to be rejected. Again.


Flying under the radar. For every publicity-engorged, widely reviewed, list-promoted, award-nominated, “You have to read this!” next-best-seller thrust in front of the reading public, there are many, many more quiet, small-press, deserving books languishing in the shadows with no fireworks to launch them into the world. And still these writers write.


So thank you, Sarah MacLachlan. It’s refreshing to hear someone recognize, publicly, with respect and complete self-awareness, that, yes, writing is a tough job and – cue the “grit” – not everyone can do it. You made me laugh, because it’s so true.

Monday, July 6, 2020

The ripple effect, for worse or for better…

These are strange and difficult times. Pandemic. Protest. Fear. Violence. Death. Stupid people… wait, sorry.

I should be kinder.

In fact, everyone should be kinder.

The ripple effect of fear and – let’s face it – stupidity means people act in ways that make life worse for the people around them.

Harassing people for wearing/not wearing a mask. Keying cars with out-of-province license plates. Buying all the toilet paper (surely we’re done with that one, right?)

Ignoring the images of heartbreaking violence and racism seen in the media and seen with our own eyes because “I’m not racist.”

Closer to home, the woman walking on our beach who refused to acknowledge my greeting. The anonymous “tip” that brought an RCMP officer to our house to confirm we were self-isolating. (We are.)

Were these people afraid? Stupid? Or just unkind?

All I know is that I feel beleaguered – by these strange and difficult times, and by people who are making it worse. I haven’t hugged my kids for four months. I can’t cuddle my first grandchild, can’t kiss his face, rock him to sleep. I had a book published just before the pandemic shut down our country, and it’s going nowhere.

Not big or important losses in a shifting, frightened, transforming world, but huge in MY world.

We all have our own little worlds. What’s happening in the larger, global world is important and needs our attention (we’ll just sidestep the risks of indulging too deeply in the sometimes festering bog known as social media here, if you don’t mind…).

But we need to pay attention to the little worlds around us, too. We are the tiny atoms that work together to make up our universe.

We need to support each other with kindness and understanding.

Kindness. It’s worth repeating, and repeating, and repeating.

These are strange and difficult times, but the ripple effect is in our hands. For worse, or for better.