Well now, I’ve had a grand day at the Wild Writers Literary Festival in Waterloo. I went to two Writer's Craft Classes and a Fiction Panel. In Alison Pick's workshop "On Character," we wrote down lots of details about one of our characters. I wrote down things that I didn't know I knew about my character, for example, that she never finishes a cup of tea or coffee. Then we were interviewed by someone else in the class as if we were that character. I realized that I don't know things about my character that I should know such as whether or not she has siblings. The workshop with Kathleen Winter was called "Childhood and Intuition as Literary Inspiration." She told us to go for a walk every day ("the longer, the better") and carry a notebook ("the tinier, the better") to write down ideas, to really notice our surroundings and the emotional feelings they invoke. She told us she uses a slightly bigger notebook to write once a day with her non-dominant hand. We did a writing exercise: a childhood memory you'd never written about before and if we wanted we could write it using our non-dominant hand. I tried it, and it was remarkable. Because you have to write slowly, your mind has time to concentrate on what you're writing and think about it in ways you wouldn't have if you were writing at your normal speed and using the side of your brain you usually use. I found I had an entirely different emotional reaction to an incident from my childhood that I've thought about many times. I will be using these techniques and others she told us about during the workshop. Because of today at the Wild Writers Literary Festival, I feel more positive and hopeful about my writing than I have in a long time.
I read a story on May 3rd on the first night of the Readings from the Writing Studio series. I wanted to be a reader on the first night because I wanted to get it over with. My fellow writers said I didn't look nervous which is remarkable because I was shaking and felt like I couldn't breathe. I kept wondering if I was actually going to be able to read the whole story before I started gulping for breath.
(A slightly different version of this piece was published in the Waterloo Region Record in September 2006.)
OK. I admit it. I did it for the “I survived!” sticker. And the right to wear the t-shirt that reads “I survived the International 3-Day Novel Contest.”
Over the Labour Day Weekend, I participated in a contest in which you attempt to write a novel in three days. The rules are simple: start at midnight on Friday and finish at midnight on Monday.
I felt prepared. I’d done the notebook shopping and the pencil shopping and picked out a comfortable outfit to wear while writing. I had a sketchy outline and names for some of the characters. I knew how I wanted it to begin and I had an ending in mind.
How hard could this be?
Friday night I did some late-night grocery shopping, picking up snacks to fuel my creativity - chips, instant soup and fig newtons. I went to Tim Hortons and got a big thermos of coffee.
I was ready to go.
I drank coffee and wrote. The words were flowing. In fact, they were spilling out of my pencil almost faster than I could commit them to the page.
I had nailed the setting. I had introduced some of the characters. The contest didn’t have a page limit, which was turning out to be a good thing. This is great stuff I thought, as I feverishly scrawled away. I was on a roll.
Too bad the judges for the Three-Day Novel contest can’t hand out the Giller Award. Or the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Or the Orange Prize. Or choose the books for Canada Reads.
On Saturday morning, I hit some glitches. I realized I’d introduced the town but hadn’t placed it geographically. I could see it perfectly in my head but it wasn’t coming to life on the page. There were lots of characters, lots and lots of characters, but they weren’t distinguishable in any way from each other and they were, for the most part, silent. I don’t like writing dialogue, so I’d been avoiding it.
But I didn’t panic; I would fix these little problems in my editing phase. The key was just to keep on going, right? So I did. But any flow I might have imagined was receding. By dinner the story lurched from scene to scene like a person learning to drive a standard.
Sunday morning was even worse. I figured it must be just a low caffeine level. I sent my husband to Tim Hortons for coffee. Later, I went to Tim Hortons. Too bad neither of our kids could drive.
If I tried to take a break somebody would inquire, “Shouldn’t you be working on your novel?”
I was starting to get cranky.
I re-read my masterpiece. There were pages and pages and pages about the orange cat named Earl and a big-breasted woman named Jane. Freudians would have a field day with this stuff. “Do you think it is possible?” they would ask, “to cure this woman of her fixations about cats and large bosoms?”
Sunday afternoon around 2 o’clock, I waved my husband and daughter off to their annual back-to-school tea. A few minutes later I asked my son, “Would you think any less of me if I didn’t finish?”
He said. “No, of course not, Mom,” but was he telling me the truth?
By this time, I didn’t care. I wrote my ending and shut the notebook. I changed out of my special writing clothes.
When my husband and daughter got home, I told them I had given up. They, too, assured me it would be impossible for them to think any less of me.
I typed up my story. It wasn’t as massive as I thought it was mid flow. It was more of a novella than War and Peace. Good thing the contest had no minimum page requirement.
I submitted it anyway. I made a list of some of the things I'd learned during the contest:
1. I need to work from a very detailed outline.
2. Drinking copious amounts of coffee doesn’t help.
3. Family members asking, “Shouldn’t you be working on your novel?” doesn’t help.
4. Wearing a specifically chosen writing outfit, no matter how comfortable, doesn’t help.
But despite all of that, can you guess what I’m doing next Labour Day Weekend? It will be something completely different. I’ve already got a character in mind – a large-breasted black and white cat. I think I’ll name her Pearl.
Reading out loud to a group always makes me very nervous. And this time was no exception. The Department of English Awards Ceremony at the University of Waterloo was held on March 31st. I received the English Society Creative Writing Award for Prose. I read a small excerpt from my story "Queen of the Road" and I was aware of my voice (and my knees) shaking the entire time. My husband and son went along for moral support. I was too nervous to eat anything beforehand; my husband said the food was good and the potato salad was particularly delicious.
for the first time in almost seven months. Why do I let so much time go by between runs? I wish I knew the answer. I know I need the exercise. I'm uncomfortable in my clothes. I want to wear the clothes in my closet that I love but don't fit anymore. I want to be more comfortable when I drive the car. I still read every running magazine I can get my hands on. I cut out pictures of women running seemingly effortlessly in running clothes I covet and put them on the fridge. I put a newspaper clipping showing Ed Whitlock smiling after a run on the fridge, too, because he's pretty bloody inspiring. I often think about going running, especially when I go to bed. That's when I think I'll just get up, put on my running gear and go for a run as soon as I wake up tomorrow. But it never happens. Or I guess I should say <em>almost</em> never happens because it happened today. I really enjoyed the run this morning. It may have been the weather, a crisp, sunshiny, fall day. Or it may have been the music. I listened to a podcast by Laura Benack called Boogie Shoes Couch to 5k. The music seemed to magically match my stride. It may have been Laura's encouraging words during the run or the theme of the podcast which was all the music was by woman artists. Probably it was a happy accident of all of these things combining, but It was perhaps the easiest run I've ever done. It felt good to be out running again.
I noticed a black squirrel with something in its mouth run onto a lawn and then stop and sit perfectly still. Why do squirrels do that? Do they think by stopping they somehow become invisible? Do they think if they're stopped, they're not worth chasing? Has it worked in the past for this particular squirrel? Are dogs in this neighbourhood easily out-smarted by this behaviour?
My father gives me the rock he’s found. “I was walking back to the car,” he says. “After we stopped for lunch. And there it was, right by the front wheel. So I picked it up and brought it to you. I know you like to collect them.” He holds out his hand with the rock sitting in his palm and he smiles at me. I smile back and pick up the rock. It’s sort of shaped like an L, like someone’s cut a chunk out of a cube of rock. It’s pale pink with sharp, jagged edges.
I do collect rocks. It doesn’t matter to me what size the rocks are, but the smoother and rounder they are, the better I like them. Two rocks the size and shape of bowling balls sit beside the planter on the front porch. I found one of them in the Agawa Canyon; it almost went right through the bottom of the canoe when my husband pulled it out of the water.
A jar of rocks sits on the corner of my desk. There’s a bowl of rocks in the centre of the coffee table and a basketful on the back porch.
“Thanks Dad,” I say and put the rock in the bowl. All of the other rocks in the bowl are smooth and round and pale gray. The one he's given me makes it look like someone’s about to play a game of one of these things doesn’t belong, one of these things is not like the others.
This is how my father’s mind works now. He latches onto one word and he remembers that one thing but not its relationship to anything else. He’s remembered that I collect rocks but he has no idea what kind. I wonder if he remembers the hours we’ve spent on beaches or along trails or at the side of the road picking out the one best rock – the smoothest, roundest rock we can find. Sometimes we found rocks that were perfect except they were too big. He’d offer to go home and come back with the truck and shovels and maybe a winch but I’d say, “I worry about the weight in the trunk of my car.” Then I’d pick another rock and say, “This one’s good, this one I can carry. I'll take this one instead.”
Often when I went home to visit there’d be little groups of fist-sized rocks by the front door or the door of the garage or on the steps leading to the screened-in porch. I’d hold them in my hand one by one, finally choosing one and holding it up. “Is it okay if I take this one home?”
He’d say, “Oh, I knew you’d pick that one. Didn’t I tell you,” he’d say to my mother, “that she’d pick that one, that she wouldn’t be able to resist?”
My story, "Dad Now and Then" won the Short Grain Fiction Contest! My story will appear in the fall issue of Grain, the journal of eclectic writing. It's bittersweet because my Dad died in January. I started the story in 2013. The inspiration for the story was how my Dad's dementia made him different than when I was younger.
About a month ago, I saw an animal jumping through a field of tall grass. I could only see glimpses of the animal; I couldn't tell what it was. My first thought was I'll ask Dad. In that moment I felt happy that I could ask him and he would probably be able to figure out what the animal was. But as soon as I had that thought, it hit me again that Dad is gone, I can't ask him anything anymore. From happy to sad in seconds. I watched an episode recently of Amazing Race Canada in which the contestants went for a short flight in a floatplane. Dad would have loved to have seen that. He would have known what kind of plane it was and would probably have had a story about the time he was in a plane much like it or he might have known someone who had a similar plane. Maybe he would say but their plane was always on wheels, they never did put floats on it. I miss him.
Here's the link to Grain magazine:
which was the first time I've gone running since September of 2015. I don't know why I don't go running more often. I know all about the benefits of regular exercise -- I read about them all the time in books and running magazines. I enjoy reading about what runners should eat, how they train, how they've overcome some obstacle to be a runner. My favourite bits in the magazines are the ads for the brightly-coloured running gear and the stories of getting fit and losing weight, how running has changed people's lives.
I want running to change my life. So today I re-started the NHS version of the Couch to 5k program and listened to Laura tell me when to run and when to walk. The music has the right tempo for running and the singer sounded sort of like David Bowie. I ran for eight minutes in total which doesn't sound like much but it seems like a lot when you haven't run in over seven months. At one point I felt as if I must be almost finished but Laura said I had three more running segments to do.
I started my first learn to run class in the spring of 2004. I got hooked and ran my first 5k in June that year. I've run in 40 races, the last one in April 2014. Time I got hooked again. I must start looking for my next race.
I started my first learn to run class in the spring of 2004. I got hooked and ran my first 5k in June that year. I've run in 40 races, the last one in April 2014. Time I got hooked again. I must start looking for my next race.
This is Felix. He came to live here in mid-November and he has made himself at home. After the holiday bustle we're discovering a new routine. He is a true gentleman of a cat. He usually comes when he's called and follows me around the house unless it's time for a nap. When I let him know I've come back home he comes to greet me, usually yawning and stretching having just awakened. He's sometimes chatty. He's the only cat I've ever met who purrs as you put food in his dish.
We had a cat named Henry who lived to be a grand old man of twenty and Felix reminds me of him, both are gentlemen with a hint of royalty about them, a slight aura of entitlement. Lesser cats would be resented for their airs but because of Felix and Henry's exquisite personalities they are not.
My story "A Life in Lists" was published in this year's issue of the White Wall Review. I'm so excited! After seeing my words in print, I can't stop smiling. I've been working on this story for a long time but finally felt it was finished after I workshopped it in the summer of 2014 at the Sage Hill Writing Experience in Saskatchewan. If you're looking for a worth-the-money writing workshop, this is a great place to go.
Yes, I did. And I'm ridiculously proud of myself. I downloaded some podcasts of that Couch to 5k program. I chose the one from the NHS because I liked the sound of Laura's voice saying, "Go for it," in her English accent. Yes, I listened to a couple while sitting on my couch. I also had to buy earphones for my iPhone because I don't use earphones unless I'm on an airplane. The ones I bought were yurbuds. They were pricey but the package said they wouldn't fall out and they didn't.
I was pleased with my run. It was hard but not too hard. I was very thrilled when Laura said I only had one more run to go because I don't think I could have done many more. So I ended up running eight minutes in total with lots of walking. It doesn't sound like much but it sure beats no running at all.
On my run I saw four dogs (a low count for my neighbourhood I think), one cat (also a low count), one toddler "helping" his Dad saw a board on their front porch, a front porch in the midst of a new paint job (so maybe it's not too late for ours yet) and a toddler having a bit of a meltdown on another porch. I also saw a little family all dressed up. The little girl looked like a bride and she was being very careful with her dress.
I used to run regularly. Now I don't. I've only gone running a dozen times this year. Last time I ran was July 31st.
There are lots of reasons why I want to start running again -- I want to have more energy and more stamina, feel a sense of accomplishment, and feel stronger and more positive. I want to be able to fit into some of my favourite clothes again. I want to feel more confident and better able to focus. But the main reason I want to get out running again is to boost my writing. When I run, I write. So because I want to be writing, I have to get out running.
I thought if I started sharing my getting back into running experience, warts and all, I'd be more likely to actually get out and run.
We were trying to find the spot where Gail Johnson was when she painted the painting we bought. Not sure if this is it but it's our best guess.
As requested, this is a photo of the painting titled "Range Road Canola" by Gail Johnson.
Last Tuesday night, I read a story at Ben McNally Books in Toronto during the launch party for Sterling #5. A story I wrote titled "What Mitzie Didn't Know" was published in the journal. Here's a photo of me in action (wearing my new pink shoes):
So I haven't run for over five months. Apparently starting a blog about running wasn't enough to actually get me out running. Since I love lists, I thought maybe making a list of my reasons to run might help. Here it is in no particular order:
1. I want to be better able to focus, particularly on creative things like writing.
2. I just want to feel better physically & emotionally -- stronger, healthier, have more energy, stamina, confidence & self-esteem, better posture, & sleep better (here I am writing on my blog at 2 a.m.) & be less moody & have a better, more positive outlook.
3. I want to fit into my old jeans again -- the all-cotton, non-stretch ones. I want to try on clothes and feel good about how they look. I want to be able to just grab something out of my closet & get dressed & go rather than worrying about what's going to fit or how it looks or wish I could wear something else. I'd like to start wearing dresses & skirts again when I feel like the size of my belly more appropriately matches the size of my legs.
4. I want to be able to run around & play with my grandson when he gets moving. (I've been a grandmother for almost two months now.)
5. I want to lessen my risk of heart attacks, strokes, & diabetes.
6. I want to lower my weight, my BMI, my waist-to-height ratio, my cholesterol level, & anything else that needs lowering that I haven't thought of yet.
7. I want to run in 5k, 8k, & 10k races again. I used to enter races regularly & really enjoy them. I even won a medal once because there were so few of us in my age group. (It wasn't because I was speedy as I was the second-last person to cross the finish line.) I've just signed up for Harry's Spring Run-off in the 5k fun run/walk category & I want to have the feeling of accomplishment of actually doing it.
This is the desk I got from my parents on the weekend as they no longer have room for it. I've had my eye on it for years. In my house it looks exactly like I often pictured it would. I think maybe it's happier, too, because instead of just sitting in the basement with stuff piled on top of it, its drawers have been dusted and filled and it's going to be useful. It's made of oak with a layer of brown leather on the top, has six drawers (three different sizes!), two trays that pull out, and lots of compartments in the main drawer. It's a solid desk, a you-can't-help-but-feel-organized kind of desk, a dream desk. Now that I have it, I have absolutely no excuses for putting off writing, which is kind of scary. But I'm all set up with my notebook and one of my favourite pencils (freshly sharpened) ready to go.
On Monday night, I read a story at Ben McNally Books in Toronto during the launch party for Sterling #4. Two of my stories are published in the journal! Here's a photo of me in action:
Some years ago I attended the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop. We got lots of great no-nonsense advice and practical tips from writers such as Isabel Huggan, Wayson Choy, John Metcalf, Antanas Sileika, Nino Ricci and Miriam Toews. Alistair MacLeod read to us and at lunch the last day we celebrated his birthday with cake. But for me the best thing to come out of the week was that I read something I’d written to a big group of people. From behind a podium. Using a microphone. For me, this was a big deal because all my life I’ve avoided speaking in front of a crowd. And to me, a crowd is more than three.
From the start of the workshop daily announcements were made about the optional student reading to take place on Wednesday night. Somebody said, “You’ll be glad you did it. You’ll never get a more supportive audience.” Someone else said, “As a writer in Canada, you’ll never get a bigger audience.”
At coffee breaks the instructors would mingle and ask, “Have you signed up yet? You don’t have to read for the entire three minutes, you can just get up and read a paragraph if you want. It’s just to get the monkey off your back.” The third day of the workshop I signed up. It would be good for me. By this time the monkey felt like an overweight gorilla.
On the morning of the reading, I woke up with a big knot in my stomach. At breakfast, when I mentioned that I felt ill, someone said, “Maybe it was something you ate.” But I recognized it for what it was – just plain fear. At dinner, all I could eat was fruit. My stomach was no longer knotted; it was doing back-flips. A woman who teaches drama had a couple of pieces of advice. Bite your tongue, it gets the adrenaline flowing” and “If you don’t breathe, your audience won’t, so you should pause and take a breath so that your audience will too.”
One of the instructors came and sat with us. “It is a big fear,” he said, “apparently it ranks higher than the fear of death for most people.” I guess he could tell from the looks on our faces that this wasn’t helpful because then he said, “Well they always say it helps to picture your audience naked.”
Another member of the class said she had some good advice too, “Don’t drool and keep your pants on.” This didn’t seem very age-appropriate somehow.
The last bit of wisdom came from my friend’s roommate, “Curl your toes. It forces you to stand up straight.”
All the way over to the Assembly Hall, I was concentrating on remembering all the advice I’d heard. Curl your toes so you won’t breathe. Picture yourself naked and drooling. There was some trick to help you stand up straight, but what was it? Make sure the audience keeps their pants on. No, no, that wasn’t it. I couldn’t recall whether I wanted the audience to breathe or not. The good thing was I was so busy trying to sort out all the advice that I almost forgot to be nervous.