good, strong words

Can we talk about words for a minute?

A long minute.

This week, I spent time up north doing chores, a bit of swimming and SUPing, but mostly reading and writing.

I read Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage, not in one sitting but pretty darn close. Hage is originally from Beirut, and his novel is about death, plain and simple. It’s also about war and how people exist (often by separating themselves from reality in one way or another) in the midst of conflict. I was drawn to the book when I heard Hage interviewed by Shelagh Rogers. They discussed how the story looks at commemorative practices for the dead. I was hooked as this is a direct connection to my work at McMaster.

One of the most interesting techniques that Hage employs is he uses these incredibly long, detailed sentences. All the rules about keeping sentences to a digestible length that I’ve been taught – out the window. (Truth be told, I’ve also been taught to learn the conventions and rules, so I know when, as a writer, to throw them out the window effectively.)

The long sentences make the pacing very chaotic. At other times, he slows things right down, for instance, describing an encounter with a group of men that was meant to humiliate the main character. The descriptions instead make you get inside the head of the targeted character and you feel his emotional reactions and clearly see how he took control back from his tormentors.

This book is violent and full of death, literally FULL. Yet there is such beauty in his writing that I wanted to keep reading.

I am also reading A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott. Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River and living local to the Brantford area. I had heard a lot of buzz about her work and I now know why: there are not enough platitudes to say about this book. It is a collection of essays that cover a range of topics including her experience of having both Indigenous and white parents. The essays are forthright and clear in their purpose: to show her experience and that of her family and ancestors in relation to colonialism, racism, sexism, poverty, and trauma.

By contrasting, for example, gentrification in Toronto with colonialism, she draws stark comparisons that simply cannot be ignored.

As I began reading the book, I was reminded of The White Supremacy Workbook by Layla Saad. She created the workbook out of an Instagram challenge.  It provides non-BIPOC a framework for taking a deep look at racism, if we are willing, and how we participate and uphold white privilege and supremacy. The framework was created even though it is not Saad’s (or any other BIPOC) responsibility to create a way for white people to learn about racism. And yet she did just that.

Similarly, Elliott wrote her essays and through them, there are lessons that can begin to help people more fully understand the experience of Indigenous people in Canada.

If we are willing. Read Elliott’s book. Be willing.

I also have been reading a lot of Alice Munro short stories. I think that short stories are my biggest interest as a writer, and I have found no better mentor than Munro. Through the use of often simplistic language, Munro reels you in to the depths and complexity of life. Her characters, people who appear from the outside to have simple lives, are like all of us: nowhere near simple. There are nuances at every turn to surprise and delight you, to keep you reading. One of the pieces she is most known for, Gravel, has been in the curriculum for two of my three writing courses to date. It is beautifully written, but not one of my favourites. I get frustrated with Munro sometimes because I don’t want heroic endings, or cliché endings, but sometimes she leaves me hanging. Or surprisingly disappointed.

Case in point: a story I read Friday has the main character leave her young children. Like permanently. Not a mistake, leaving them behind at the grocery story, or in the back seat of a car. She leaves them.

I don’t relate to every character of Munro’s, but I usually identify on some level with a mother. But this one, I could not fathom walking away from my children. I’m not talking an abused woman fighting for her life in hopes of fighting for her children from a position of strength.

Nope. Just chose a different life. No goodbyes, just gone.

So, I put down the book and walked away for a day. Not the first time.

I always come back, because her words are spectacular and her narratives so wonderful.

***

I may have to revise my belief that Margaret Laurence is my favourite writer. She is my favourite writer of a novel, The Diviners. And Munro is my favourite short story writer.

Pretty lofty idols I’ve got going there.

Finally, I have been reading Startle and Illuminate which is a collection of thoughts of Carol Shields about writing. I’m confident my highlighting pen will be dry by the time I’m done underlining all the points which intersect with my understandings of what being a writer is, can be, should be, and hopefully will be.

biographical statement

This weekend, I submitted a short story to a “small magazine with an international reputation” and part of the submission process was to submit a short biographical statement.

I was stumped.

Honestly, writing a piece, having it critiqued (repeatedly) by my peers and instructors, and editing it (repeatedly) was easier than coming up with a biographical statement.

In the end, I wrote something that on reflection seems flip because it’s not necessarily how I identify myself. Or maybe it is.

I’ve been struggling with the concept of identity for some time – writing a post back in 2017 about how I no longer had a neat label for society to put me in a valued/not valued category.

I wonder if this is the true fall out from the empty nest syndrome – for more than 20 years, I was first and foremost mom. I wanted that role, I loved it (puke and all), and I still miss having little humans around me.

Case in point: I went to a party in April and found the people I spent the most time with to be under the age of 2!

I am still a mom and I get to be a part of my children’s lives in meaningful ways. I am a wife. I do archaeological research. I garden (begrudgingly). I do a lot of laundry.

But who am I?

Part of my biographical statement was: I hate to train but I love finish lines. I hate to fly but I love to travel.

Those are true – I do not love training to walk in races, and I’m not even sure that I love the whole race itself. I do love a finish line though. Hubby is there after riding to various checkpoints to inspire me, a nice heating blanket is offered (I don’t seem to race in the good weather!), and we always find a celebratory food item I can consume.

I do love to travel, though with celiac, it’s proven more difficult. I like my own house and my own bed, but I love a good beach and once I’m out there, I love to see the world. Flying is not my favourite thing, but at the end of each flight, there’s always something good.

But, can I define myself, create my biographical statement, based on what I hate contrasted with what I love?

Feedback – it’s not always easy to hear the truth

(photo of work by Mario Pfeifer – artist – exhibition at Power Plant, Toronto)

I am happy to report I have survived peer reviews.

Barely.

Although we were given some guidelines about how to give feedback by our writing instructors, a fellow student did not exactly follow those guidelines. Her feedback on my first submission was longer than the piece I wrote.

It was BRUTAL.

It also was completely accurate.

I expected no less as this particular person spent significant time on the discussion board, always speaking with something bordering on uncomfortable superiority. She also spoke from a place of authority having spent her career as a teacher, specializing in reading.

I hate when that happens. You can’t really hate on somebody who knows what they’re talking about.

More than anyone in either of my courses (excluding the instructors), this particular classmate’s suggestions were the most helpful. You might think I should be a little more grateful. I am. Really.

It was her delivery. A little condescending (maybe a lot condescending) and dismissive.

If the feedback was printed, the watermark on the paper’s background would definitely have said DUH.

But, again, totally accurate and incredibly helpful.

I was reminded of a couple incidents in university (which I blogged about in 2017) when two professors I really respect gave me strong feedback. One was done with a very blunt delivery, and the other with more of a guiding hand.

Both were bang on accurate. My reaction to each was diametrically opposed.

As I begin the next steps of this writing adventure – the submission of the two pieces deemed by my instructors to be “publishable” – I feel better prepared.

But I’m going to be honest: I’m not fully prepared. All the words I put on the page are my ‘little darlings’. They mean something to me. They mean a lot of something to me.

I’m not sure you can ever be prepared the multitude of ways rejection is delivered. That is the unknown.

I know I’ll get rejected. Probably more often than not the rejection will come in the form of radio silence. I’ll enter a contest and hear nothing until the formal announcement of the winners is published and my name is not on it (been there, done that). But when I do receive feedback, it will be the delivery that I will need to prepare for, not the ‘no’. Because the ‘no’ is part of the process.

Feedback – it’s a catch-22. My writing is better because of feedback – incredible growth has occurred this term. Multiple eyes and minds mulled over my work and it came out at the end sharper and more fulsome – better. Much, much better.

And yet, interestingly enough, the piece that classmate shred to pieces – it never had the chance to pass the bar for ‘publishable’ – I lost my footing and I never found it again. That piece is sitting in a file, waiting to be loved once again.

By the end of the class, my ability to hear feedback also strengthened. But I know, I have a long way to go before I can take it all in without flinching.

start/finish

Life is a cycle, right? Sometimes it’s like laundry – you find you are doing the same thing again and again.

There are also life events that start and finish over and over, yet the in between is different.

Take school. Over the past 17 years, I’ve had many beginnings and endings regarding schooling and educational settings.

In 2002, I went to college and took a one year intensive course to become an Educational Assistant/Teaching Assistant.

Start. Finish.

I started and finished working at two different schools for my practicums.

I began working in the school system and started and finished eleven school years. In that time, I started and finished at seven different schools (one school – my favourite – two different times, and one school for only a month).

That’s a lot of working relationships to start and finish. And, harder yet, bonds with students that start and finish, often abruptly due to higher needs trumping that relationship.

In 2014, I started to finish (?) my undergrad degree. I had started it 34 years prior, and thought it was time to wrap it all up. I started and finished three years of courses.

And I thought I was done with McMaster, but then I started and finished working on an archeology project. And somehow, I’ve started on it again.

Last January, I started something else. I started taking creative writing courses. I don’t know when I started writing, but I have never been consistent about it. Until now – and every day, I write.

I was pondering the reasons why I didn’t do this before, or do writing as my degree. I always said I wanted to finish my degree and I always said I wanted to write.

Why didn’t I do them in tandem?

The answer came to me and I felt it deep in my bones. Until I told ‘my story’, I wasn’t going to be able to write anything else. The #metoo movement gave me the impetus to write it down and I can now recognize that once that boulder (mountain?) was moved aside, the ability to write other things has been allowed to flow.

So, I am not sure that I am finished with that particular story – I did submit it to a non-fiction contest last winter and I also submitted it for an assignment. But it is no longer the thing that stands between me and other ideas.

My courses for the spring session are done and summer is here. I am perusing the fall calendar and writing down all the ideas that pour out of my head – bits and pieces of paper with points of view, characters, settings.

And I’m writing. Every chance I get.

the cottage

the squishy moss on the rock

God’s carpet he asked

a sweet memory made

the sound of the rain

tapping its messages

on the steel roof

the fog rolling, cotton

over the still water

enveloping my board

the loon calls out

I am nearby

this is home

the lily pads return

blanketing the bay

white dots on green

family gathers again

long sticks, white sugar

orange fire flickers

dad

I have a complicated set of emotions around the word ‘dad’.

I did not grow up with my own father in my life and when I did get to know him, the mysteries of who he was, the fantasy of who I thought he was – nothing got resolved in the few years we had together before he died in 2004.

I often said my dad was an uncomplicated man, that he had simple tastes and a simple life. I knew when I said those things that was untrue but it helped me to be okay with the fact that he never revealed much of himself to me.

After he tried to take his life, there was no denying that he was not only complicated but haunted. Depressed. A man without hope. He had lost his eyesight, his livelihood and his business.

It was not the first time he had lost his way. I hoped he could find a new purpose for living.

Cancer found him instead.

One of the last conversations I had with my dad was when he was heavily sedated, due to the cancer ravaging his body. He yelled at me to go to my room and do my homework.

This was a hallucination, not a memory. Later that day, one of my cousins came by and dad said “find me a goddamn scotch”. I had a glimpse of the angry, bitter man my mother left back in the 1960s.

Dad stopped drinking in his 30s, when he was diagnosed with diabetes, but the man he was then was resurfacing in his final days, under the wrong conditions.

A day or so later, dad had them dial back the sedation. We took him out of palliative care to sit in his chair at home, watching sports on his big screen tv, with family surrounding him as we ate Thanksgiving dinner.

We had to carry him out of the house to the car.

After we took him back to care, we said goodbye. Not so long. But goodbye.

He again went under heavy medication and he never came back.

My chance to know him is gone; what I hold on to is the fleeting feeling I had that we mattered to each other.

The best of the best

My hubby is a kid at heart. It’s not that he’s never grown up – he takes responsibility seriously.

But, he also takes his fun pretty seriously. Like cycling up mountains in Taiwan. Like he thinks it’s fun to get up at the crack of ridiculous and go out on his bike before work.

He loves to be on the water, in a kayak, a sailboat – jumping off the Tarzan swing at the cottage.

He likes to hike and sit in a park.

He likes to see the world from a hundred different angles.

And his greatest enjoyment comes from sharing it and passing on that love to his kids.

From day one, the question he asked, when he got home from work, was what did the kids get up to today? He wanted to be part of their adventures, he wanted to encourage them to love the outdoors, he wanted them to know that everything they did and everything they are mattered to him.

We grew adventurous children – and that is all him.

You are the best of the best, my love – and you learned so much of that from your own dad.

Love you to forever – thanks for being you.