Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bugs in the Brain

Instead of writing, I've been wandering around online. A Simpsons website led to a clip of The Pathological Liar, Jon Lovitz's SNL character (“Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket”), which led to the investigation of the following ailments, none of which, alas, has any place in the novel I am (not) writing.

Pseudologia Fantastica: Uncontrollable lying. Also known as mythomania.  

The afflicted tell fantastical tales signifying their uniqueness, worth and courage (friendship with celebrities, kinship with royalty, gratitude of maidens rescued from railway tracks). They are not seeking any obvious material gain from the listener, so this is not a case of sociopathic manipulation, and they are not otherwise deluded or psychotic (although some experts consider the stories a form of “wish psychosis”).

Is it a case of damage to the membrane that normally keeps daydreams and fantasies inside their heads? A coding problem? Poorly executed fiction, and in the wrong medium to boot? At some level the afflicted know their stories are not true, unlike people suffering from

Morgellons Disorder: Syndrome in which sufferers experience symptoms of a mysterious skin disorder.

The afflicted experience burning, crawling or itching sensations (formication) and skin lesions, and claim that red, black and blue fibres erupt from their skin. Sufferers have identified a range of potential causes, from genetically modified foods and environmental pollutants to aliens. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control have determined that Morgellons is a form of

Delusional Parasitosis: Mistaken belief that one is suffering from parasites such as lice, scabies or worms.

The afflicted experience formication and often present proof of infestation in the form of skin scrapings, lint or other particles, usually carried in a small container  (the “matchbox sign”), but lab tests show no parasites. My sister and I have both suffered this affliction on our travels (she gets delusional scabies, I get delusional lice); our delusions arose after we contracted and treated the real thing. The difference? With the real thing, you know you have it, and that is the end of it. The delusional one doesn't feel like a cold, incontrovertible fact; it is a kind of brain fever. You are convinced you have it, and that is just the beginning.

Having spent two hours on fictional bugs, I now pledge to spend an equal amount of time on fiction. Cold, incontrovertible fact: writing fiction is hard work. A little brain fever would help.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Twelve of '12 in Twelve or Less

Twelve books I loved in 2012, in the order that I read them, and why I loved them in twelve words or less:
  1. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. The old story-telling Ondaatje returns.  
  2. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Every time I thought I knew where it was going, I didn’t.
  3. Galore by Michael Crummey. One Hundred Years of Solitude in Newfoundland.
  4. Just Kids by Patti Smith. Love, create, lose, create, love. Repeat.
  5. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterson. How literature can save your life.
  6. Open City by Teju Cole. Long walks with unusually perceptive but ultimately unreliable narrator unnerve reader.
  7. Ninety Days by Bill Clegg. Memoir of relapse and recovery, and what makes the difference.
  8. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Waters. You'll need a Do Not Disturb sign: “I’m readin’ here.”
  9. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. This is how you win a MacArthur Genius Grant.
  10. The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg. A different kind of addiction: can a person eat themselves to death?
  11. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Marie Semple. "I'm still readin' here."
  12. Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt. Great antidote to all the nonsense about world's demise on 21/12/2012.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


As a child I was always scheming to leave home. I read constantly (the first escape), and fantasized frequently about living elsewhere. The where didn’t matter, only the else (else, from the Old English elles: other, otherwise, different).

I even begged to be sent to boarding school, imagining a long journey by train, an old stone residence, cold rain falling against narrow windows lit against the coming dark.

In our fantasies of away, even the rainfall is otherwise. Therefore meaningful. Therefore story-worthy.

But my grandparents were not keen ( “I’ll ‘boarding school’ you in a minute”), and so I began to lobby for the next best thing, and at last, at age 11, I was finally allowed to leave home. It was only an hour and a half to Camp McDougall in Thessalon, but it was away, it was elsewhere (other, otherwise, different).

Eventually my idea of away began to assume the shape of a big city. Cities had bookstores, literary festivals, publishers. Cities were where stories got told. You moved to a city and you found your community and it was different (other, elsewhere), and this was how (I thought) you became otherwise (a writer).

I left Northern Ontario almost thirty years ago, and have lived away ever since. But I went back to Thessalon last weekend as part of Stories in the North Literary Festival and when we passed the entrance to the summer camp, I felt a surge of excitement, not at the idea of leaving home, but at the idea of returning. The northern landscape, after so many years in a city, now seems like elsewhere: the long lines of hills, old stones emerging out of cold water, narrow farms, white pines against a dark sky.

Stories in the North was created four or five years ago by serious writers and readers.  A serious writer is someone who writes. These people write. They meet to share what they've written; they reach out to writing groups in other communities; they publish and host open mike nights. Their schedule for National Novel Writing Month is full (go to the cafe, the funeral home, the library, write for three hours, six hours, twelve hours). And of course, they created this literary festival, and found funding (through the Ontario Arts Council), and it runs smoothly and beautifully.

Writers with a connection to the north are invited (and paid) to lead workshops and to read, and the writer who accepts this invitation is rewarded by serious enthusiasm (along with music and home baking). This is a place where stories get told. Disappearing lakewater, pioneer grandparents, a woman on fire, a ghost sheep in the middle of the road. Stories that light up the windows against the coming dark.

Yes, you can leave home and seek out a community of writers elsewhere, or you can make one where you are. Elsewhere, like home, is a state of mind. The physical journey is not necessary. But community? Writers write to be read. Community is essential. Therefore meaningful. Therefore story-worthy.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Moving Out

I am in the hall by the elevator, surrounded by boxes, a hockey bag, one of those pull-up bars that hasn't fit in the doorway of any of the places we've ever lived.

My son is moving out. His friends are waiting downstairs with the truck. The elevator door opens and I hand him the last box. “Thanks,” he says. “I’ll call you. Bye Mom.”

"We didn't even take a picture to document this," I say. My son is moving out! The whole process took less than twenty minutes. And nineteen years. "I should have taken a picture."

"It was too fast," he says. The elevator door closes.

Yes, it was. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Grief Does Strange Things to People

Grief does strange things to people. Death, the idea of death, the approach of death, the finality. Families fall apart when they should pull together. They plot and weep and accuse when they should weep and forgive and breathe. They can’t see the big picture. The big picture is a solar eclipse that can only be viewed through a slit. The eye sees pieces and slivers and thus the smallest matter becomes the whole. Battles are fought over coins and clocks and ugly dishes. Things are broken and go missing. People are cut off and left out.

Death does strange things to the living. They plug their grief into books and houses, slippers and silver, a tobacco tin of money and the pearls Nanna promised, and these objects light up, they blaze in the dimness, they burn with a brightness that seems death-defying. In the dark, the grief-stricken are confused: Look, they cry, there it is! There is my love who is going, who is gone, you can tell by the light! There is my love, it is all I have left, I must not let go.

Love is all they have left. They cannot let go. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012


At least I have pictures of paradise: the chateau, the sycamore tree, and my desk (now someone else's).

Monday, August 20, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Last Post

Morning walk through the vineyards, past the ponies in the meadow, along the winding village street. In the chateau, the sounds of leaving: the zip and thud of suitcases, the car in the courtyard.

Writing is its own place: you have to go inside (yourself) and stay there. As long as it is quiet enough, I think I could write anywhere.  But I will miss the physical joys and material pleasures of Lavigny, its rolling fields and rose gardens, the view to the lake and the Alps, the silk-canopied beds and deeply quiet rooms. I will miss my writing desk in front of a window completely filled with the cool green leaves of a sycamore tree. I will miss getting up from this desk in the late afternoon and going down to Lake Geneva to swim. I will miss the magpies and the starlings and the lavender sky at dusk. 

I will miss having breakfast with poets. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Six

Sunday morning walk through quiet fields and orchards. A crow, a cat, a silent cyclist. We climb a hill and at the top, the Alps soar up. A church steeple stands above the sharply pitched village roofs. Paths invite us off the road, to find other fields and views, but we head back to the chateau to write. It is our last day.

I do not want to leave.

I want to "wander through the woods and meadows singing and playing, and what could be even worse, become a poet, and that, they say, is an incurable and contagious disease." 
-- Don Quixote, the Edith Grossman translation, which I am reading because it is here

Friday, August 17, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Five

Revised from morning until it was time to go for a swim in the very blue waters of Lake Geneva. Revising still feels like making it worse. Swimming in Lake Geneva makes it better. What will I do when I get back to Toronto? I suppose I could take the TTC down to Lake Ontario after a day of revising, but this seems untenable. Also, when I get home, I'll have to bother with bothersome things like getting groceries, and cooking, and cleaning. Here, we drift downstairs at breakfast and fetch freshly baked bread from the hook on the back door. We drift downstairs again at dinner and are served a three-course meal. Someone comes in once a week and cleans our rooms. No phones ring. No sirens shriek. No garbage trucks clatter and grind. When we need to get up for just a minute or two, we can stand at the windows and look at the tip of Mont Blanc.

It's a little like leaving Bhutan. Yes, you take it with you, but what you really want is to stay.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Four

A break from writing in our rooms and wandering through the vineyards to visit CERN, where they are slamming protons together deep under the earth to find the answers to such questions as 

What gives particles mass? (It is all the work of the Higgs-Boson, apparently.)

Why can't quarks be pried apart? (The quark-gluon plasma that existed just after the Big Bang was a soup so hot the quarks wouldn't stick together. It cooled. They stuck. So far they haven't been unstuck.)

Why is there something rather than nothing? (If matter and anti-matter immediately annihilate each other, why is the universe made mostly of matter? Where has all the anti-matter gone?)

The equipment -- tunnels, magnets, pipes, coils -- is ugly. The graphs are incomprehensible. But the names are often poetry.

Quark is from Finnegan's Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark."

Quarks have flavours. The names of their flavours are up, down, strange, charm, truth and beauty.

Truth and beauty quarks are now more commonly known as top and bottom quarks. This was a bad marketing decision.

"Strong interactions conserve all flavours."

Gluon: not beautiful, but at least its function is clear.

Cold Dark Matter: perhaps the most beautiful name of all.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Three

Revising the first draft.

I feel like I'm making it worse. "It's going to get worse before it gets better," my grandparents used to say. About everything. 

I hope they were right.

Outside the sun is pouring down. It's too hot to walk in the vineyards, but I walk anyway. Under a walnut tree I meet a woman from the neighbourhood, Phyllida, walking her two small dogs. She tells me the shade of the walnut is said to be deadly on very hot days. "They say it affects your lungs," she says. "The cool air can give you an awful cold."

Save-This Sirens are going off in my head. Who in my novel can be killed off by the cool shade of the walnut tree? Must discuss with my friend Google.

Google says that walnut trees emit something called juglone, which suppresses respiratory certain plants.

Damn! None of my characters are plants.

Still. I am going to use this. I'm in Switzerland! There are Jungians everywhere! It's synchronicity! (Or else I'm making it worse.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Two

Three of the other writers here at Lavigny are poets. I almost never write poetry, but listening to them read their work I often feel a longing for the economy of their genre, the perfection of their lines.

Novels are full of clutter: closets, curtains, cupboards. Calendars. Clocks. Novelists are always worried about the clock: what day is it? how much time has passed? is it winter yet? Poems don't need clocks.

Novelists are hoarders. They never want to throw anything out in case they need it later. Poets throw most everything out. If the plastic iced tea jug with sunflowers from 1974 requires matching glasses and a backstory, they expect you to bring your own.  

Novelists are liars. They want to tell you things but they don't want to tell you why they are telling you because that would spoil the trick, the scene, the light, so they create elaborate deceptions and then hide behind the curtain. Poets just point. 

Novelists mostly add. Poets mostly subtract.

Novelists can afford to be reckless. Poets can afford to be brief. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day One

This is the start of my last week here at Lavigny. A glimpse of our days:

In the morning we walk alone in the cool air, in the evening, together, through vineyards and orchards, past shorn golden fields, inhaling the damp smell of earth and the light perfume of pesticides. In between, we work in our separate rooms in the deep quiet of the chateau.

At 7:00, we gather on the terrace for a glass of white wine from the very vineyards we have been walking through. (Try not to think of the pesticides.)

After dinner we work or read or talk. The night before our public reading, we spill over several tables, pruning translations, grooming our texts. It is quietly thrilling to be at work with people who will argue the merits of the word "gathering" over the word "collecting," and then change their minds and argue the reverse.  

Later we argue over an epigram by Goethe. Does the fact that it is (apparently, in German) beautifully phrased excuse the fact he says you can "use" a girl as you would a boy? (Our first night here, we discussed whether you could be an asshole and a good writer. There is ample evidence that these are not mutually exclusive occupations.) 

My goal for this last week is to write the last two chapters of my novel. Already I am pulling it apart in my head, preparing for the second draft. This has been a very good place to write and think. When I get stuck, I lift my head and listen: aside from the rhythmic cooing of doves and the wind in the sycamore tree, I can hear the other writers working.  They don't make any noise, but their silence hums. That's how I know they are writing.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Writers' Residence, Chateau de Lavigny

The chateau is deeply quiet. When I am not writing, I feel like I'm in a Jane Austen novel. We are always taking a turn in the garden (and the orchards and vineyards), even after the paths are drenched by rain (had I a petticoat, it would be "six inches deep in mud, I am certain"). We cut stalks of gladiolas and carry them back to the house to arrange in vases. We carry tea in on trays and dress for dinner. After dinner we read in the salon. One night a visitor played Beethoven sonatas on the piano. ("Do you play, Miss Bennett?"). There have been no balls or officers, however. And when we venture onto the narrow winding village streets, we have to be careful that the twenty-first century doesn't run us down.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Thunder ripples over Lake Geneva, but in the gazebo, we don't believe it, even when the mountains are erased by rain, because the sky is all awash in golden light.

Then suddenly it is pouring and wind is tearing flowers off the oleander trees and crushing them on flagstones as thunder cracks and rolls and hail hurls itself into the sodden grass and still we sit, because it is so bright, this liquid citrus summer night.

Finally lightning strikes the house, the burglar alarm goes off, and we rush inside and fight to close the windows against the wild wind and slanting rain. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Locked Out

My novel is a house and it thinks it can lock me out.
I am the architect!

How does it know I have no key?

I bang on the front door.
Demand admittance.
Search for a window left unlatched.

What else to do now but
on the
front steps
and wait, go
to the back and wheedle,

Why have you locked the door?
What did I do to offend you?

Let me in, I was only kidding
about the renovations.

Fine, I say, be that way,
I didn't love you anyway.

You'll be sorry.

I'm going now, good bye.
Maybe I'll drop in on that short story
I started before
I met you.

In the night I get up
to check on the house.

The doors are still closed,
the windows all dark

What are they doing in there without me?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Documenta 13

I am on my way to Documenta, the international art show in Kassel, Germany. Curated by a different person every five years, Documenta is a 100-day show of 200 works of contemporary art. The first Documenta, in 1955, was an attachment to a horticultural exhibit, and showed works deemed by the Nazis to be "degenerate." Today, hundreds of thousands of people come to see pieces hung in museums, performed in galleries, and installed in the open air in the middle of the city.

Kassel does not offer the cobblestone charm you might expect from the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm, but it is also not "the ugliest city west of Siberia," as one American art critic claimed. Not even close. (Clearly the critic has never been to northern Ontario.)

After two months of steady writing, I am weary of that half-and-half place of composition (half-way between images and words for the images, where no picture or sensation can be left on its own for more than half a moment before the phrases swarm in and overpower it and and alter it forever). In short, I am tired of words: I want to look.

Every article on Documenta 13 mentions the installation by Ryan Gander: a steady cold breeze blowing through an empty room. Title: I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (The Invisible Pull). The idea, apparently, is that the breeze gently moves us through the gallery.

I am unmoved.

But I love This Variation by Tino Sahgel, a performance piece that begins when you enter a very dark room. Twenty performers move among the viewers, singing, dancing, creating rhythms and instrumentation with their voices alone. It is disorienting, standing in the dark with strangers, feeling performers brush past, not knowing what to expect or what is expected of you. You feel strangely exposed even though no one can see you (because no one can see you?) Then the music catches you, and the discomfort fades. But not the strangeness.

It is thrilling.

I also love an installation by Ida Applebroog: fragments of journals blown up, hung along with images of the human form, poems, a found letter about the end of a friendship. ("To end this letter I would like to inform you in order to save time, please do not try to answer me any more, if by any chance Y receive a letter from you I will destroy it and I will not reed it.") The texts have been reproduced on posters which viewers can take with them.

I take the letter.

I also love the installation by Michael Rakowitz, What Dust Will Rise: books carved out of stone from the Bamiyan valley, surrounded by remains of the Taliban-destroyed Buddha sculptures. On one display case is a quote by Mullah Mohammad Omar, who ordered the destruction, claiming as his justification the fact that Westerners were more concerned about stone statues than living humans. "We are only breaking stones," he said. A lie and a prophecy: now there are only stones, broken into unrecognizability. Another note reminds us that stone books were carried by illiterate people as talismans: the silent power, not of the written word but of the idea of it. In another display case are charred, unreadable books from the Kassel museum after it was bombed in World War II: a reminder of the flimsiness of the written word, the defenselessness of paper. The law of conservation of mass applies neither to stone nor paper art: there is nothing humans can make that they cannot also destroy.

All the way home, I hold the letter and think about those stone books and try to find words for the music in the dark. We put things into words (and other shapes) even though they will eventually be erased. We cannot help ourselves.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Better than Fiction
Love this story about F. Scott Fitzgerald from Vanity Fair::

In the bar at The Ritz, Fitzgerald sends a young woman a box of orchids. She sends it back. He opens the box and glumly eats one orchid ('petal by petal"). She changes her mind.

How I wish I had made that up.

OK, back to the story I am making up.

To read more about Fitzgerald at The Ritz:

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Honeymoon Is Over?

Yesterday, I was in love with my novel. I woke up as I had for the past eight weeks -- happy to have nothing to do all day but write, delighted to be spending six or seven hours in my 1920s speakeasy (with a break for lunch and What Not to Wear), spilling over with ideas and enthusiasm and general well-being.  

Today, I hate my novel. It took ten hours to squeeze out a thousand words. True, I kept stopping to read about the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, but if Katie hadn't filed those papers on Friday, I would have kept stopping to do something else --something just as unproductive and wholly unconnected to writing a novel.

I want my other job back. The one where I get to leave the house and talk to actual people in the real world instead of sitting around noticing plot holes in a bunch of made-up stuff. (Oh my god!! I wonder if Katie Holmes thought the same thing when she filed the papers??)

On the bright side, I started reading A Sense of Direction, a book about pilgrimages by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. Even though it is non-fiction and has nothing to do with speakeasies, it is so elegantly written (and so funny) that I think it might save my marriage to the novel. Or at least to the written word. At the very least, it is keeping me off TMZ.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Don't Just Stand There Beating Your Gums! Butt Me, Then Let's Get Zozzled!

I've been Googling 1920s slang for my novel about bootleggers, laughing at a lot of it ("You want to ankle over to the gin joint?" "And how!"), but using very little. It’s made me think, though, about how people talk and what really changes when language changes, and about a writer’s responsibility to the past.

In a review of The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty’s new novel set in New York in 1922, the reviewer notes that the author’s sentences are “pert and plucky, shaped by a contemporary sensibility that can leave an anachronistic aftertaste.” She cites two examples: “I only tell you this because I care” and “Get it all out.” 

But how would these sentences have sounded ninety years ago? "I only tell you this because I care awfully"? "You ought to get it all out, doll"?

I’m not sure that Moriarty’s sentences -- or the impulses behind them -- are the exclusive property of our era. “Get it all out so that we can have closure going forward”?  Yes, anachronistic in a novel set in the twenties. (And vomitorious, in any decade). But “get it all out” sounds like it could have been thought and said in 1922.  

Artificiality is a bigger problem for me than anachronism, which is why I’m wary of those lists of slang. They’re the Kool-Aid (that’s Kool-Ade, from 1927 until 1934, thank you Google) of dialogue. Add some spit and you have instant parody: Scram! The coppers are here! Bugsy’s on the lam, see, and I got all the dough.

Needing to hear the language as it was actually spoken, in full sentences, by people to other people, and being unable to travel back in time (still waiting for my flux-capacitor, Amazon), I've started reading 1920s fiction, beginning with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” published in 1920 in the Saturday Evening Post, looking for language in action (i.e. fluency), and finding this instead:

Marjorie, giving her cousin some advice: Well, you've got to learn to be nice to men who are sad birds. You look as if you'd been insulted whenever you're thrown with any except the most popular boys. Why, Bernice, I'm cut in on every few feet--and who does most of it? Why, those very sad birds. 

Bernice: You're a peach to help me.

Is that really how people talked? Maybe. It’s hard to tell with Fitzgerald because his characters are always trying so hard to be arch and clever and wonderful (so that Fitzgerald can show you how brittle they are).

But none of my characters is going to say “sad birds” or “you’re a peach,” no matter how real it makes them sound to a 1920s reader. They have to sound real to me.

Should a writer avoid distracting anachronisms while replicating speech patterns as authentically as possible? Should she notice that people used to start sentences with "say" and "why" and favoured the word "ought"?

Why yes, she should. But she ought also to remember who she is writing for.  Her responsibility is to her readers in the present. And therefore, the dialogue should be shaped by a contemporary sensibility. 

F.Scott Fitzgerald's story: 

Review of The Chaperone 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

So. Much. Work

I wrote Every Time We Say Goodbye over a long period of time. I started the novel, looked for a day job, went to teacher's college, abandoned the novel, found my dream job, worked on the novel, went to Bhutan, came home, taught class, marked exams, developed some courses, worked on the novel. It took so long that the work did not feel

Let me just add: it didn't feel like sitting on the couch watching Mad Men and eating maple bacon toffee, either.

It felt like small periods of writing work spaced out endlessly between profoundly satisfying teaching work and profound, paralyzing self-doubt.

And by endlessly, I mean eight years. Maybe ten. Day One is hard to remember.

It's only now, writing every day, that I realize how much work it actually is. The thinking work, the waiting work, the laying down story lines and tearing them up work. The line by line writing work. The burst of words work, the slow creaking accumulation of words work. The dealing with doubt work. (Just because you wrote A novel doesn't mean you can write THIS novel.)

Even when I'm not writing, I'm writing. I almost fell off my bike at the gym because I thought of something I needed to write down RIGHT AWAY. (This is why I don't ride outside.)

When I'm not really writing, I'm watching Mad Men (and Nurse Jackie and Girls) and eating maple bacon toffee. There has to be some kind of a balance, right?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Note to self: don’t write historical fiction again. Ever. Don’t write anything set before you started kindergarten.

First, there’s all the background research that forms the foundation and beams of the book: Prohibition, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, bootleggers and rum-runners. It’s all very interesting, but the more I read, the more I think I should read. What if I haven’t read enough?

Then there is the quick daily Googling for period details.

In the last few days I have Googled:
  •           1920s + hair styles for women, + hats, + cars, + light fixtures, + flashlights, + locks, + padlocks
  •           1920s + Italian immigrants + Canada, + folklore, + rituals, + benedicaria
  •           WW1 + Canada + rationing, + veterans, + veterans’ pensions
  •           1920s +  Algoma Steel  +  shift work
  •          1920s + Sault Ste. Marie + streetcar
  •           1920s + Temperance posters
  •           Dropsy

Between the compulsion to read more history and the need to know what a 1920s padlock looked like (which produces a desire to follow links deep into the fascinating but irrelevant history of locks), it is hard to lay words down on the page.

Dropsy, by the way, is edema. Cause (according to Temperance materials): alcohol. Cure (according to early 20th century medical dictionaries) : alcohol.

“To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” – Homer J. Simpson

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Making It Up

I am a terrible researcher. Everything distracts me. I end up copying out passages because I like the way they sound or because they make me laugh, or because I have forgotten the question.

Today at Robarts, I am supposed to be finding very specific answers, like, if you had 61 cases of unopened whiskey in your basement in Sault Ste. Marie in 1921, could you be arrested under the Ontario Temperance Act, yes or no?

Instead, I am reading Stephen Leacock's responses to Prohibition: "As silly and as futile as if you passed a law to send a man to jail for eating cucumber salad."

Or Stephen Leacock on how to get liquor in Ontario, when alcohol could be legally obtained only with a doctor's prescription: "It is necessary to go to a drugstore...and lean up against the counter and make a gurgling sigh like apoplexy. One often sees these apoplexy cases lined up four deep."

Plus, I have questions for which answers cannot be found at Robarts (or at least, not found by me), such as, if your basement door is padlocked and you have lost the key, could you open the door by removing the bolts from the hinges?

It's terrifying, making things up. There are so many ways things can be wrong.

Re: 61 cases of unopened whiskey during Prohibition in Ontario. After April 1921, you couldn't carry it, transport it, deliver it, receive it, sell it, or import it into Ontario. But if you had a "cellar supply" already? The law had many holes. Legislators kept trying and failing to plug them up. So could you be arrested, yes or no? Probably not, but maybe.

Cucumber salad. Hee hee.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


A 2007 study estimated that children ask about 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. This seems about right. I remember an exchange I once had with my three year old son. His side of the conversation went like this:

Where is apa?
Why he is working?
Who is that man?
Where he is going?
Why you don't know him?
Why you never met him before?
Do grizzly bears have lips?

I wonder how many questions a writer asks and answers in the writing of a novel. My side of the conversation with myself today went like this:

What is Vita wearing?
Should she cut her hair?
Would she cut her hair?
How long will she wait for Paul?
Will she even wait for Paul?
What does waiting do to the weight of the story?
Why am I writing this again?

At least you can Google "do grizzly bears have lips." I did, and they do -- apparently large and dexterous enough to extract seeds from pine cones.

Of course, you can also Google "why am I writing this." Which I did. I got 554,000 results but I don't have time to read any of them. I have to write a novel.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Right novel, wrong novel

How do you know you're on the right track?
If something is easy to write, does this mean you should keep going?
If something is hard to write, if every sentence feels like labour, does this mean you should abandon it?
How should writing feel?
What if you are in love with the idea of the story but not the story that is unfolding?
What if another story keeps trying to get your attention, jumping up and down, waving, sometimes throwing rocks at your head? (Small rocks.)
What if one story is like being in a small dark room and the other story is like driving on an open road?
Does it matter that you don't actually know how to drive?
How do you know you're writing the right novel?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Creek Paths

There was a creek beside our house, and a bit of forest, and a path. We called the whole place the creek path. It wasn’t big – razed and paved, it wouldn’t have fit more than a couple rows of townhouses  – but it could feel endless.

The trick was to find spots where the wrong things (telephone wires, the aluminium siding of Mr. Harris’s garage) did not have to be cropped out of the view. There was already so much to edit out: the looming house that was my home, the angry grandparents inside, parents gone so long they could never come back, even after they came back.

In the right spots, I could believe I was in the wilderness of children’s books, that bountiful wildness in which streams run clear and cold, foxes pass by shelters, and children can fend for themselves.

One year in university, I lived in a thicket of high-rises overlooking a plain of strip malls. In between the high-rises and the campus was a wide leafy gully through which a creek and a path meandered. I roamed around down there, my head full of the Wordsworth and Coleridge. I envied them their vast Lake District, their glades and deep glens where the eye would not have to crop out municipal signposts or hydro poles.

Then I went to Bhutan, where it was easy to step off the road and see nothing but trees and mountaintops, hear only birds and the wind in the grasses. I walked up to peaks and looked down into valleys and there was nothing I wanted to delete from the view. But there were still things to be edited out: from the south came news of uprisings, stories of imprisonment, rumours of deportation.  Ancestral voices prophesying war.

There is always something to be edited out. 

Walking in Toronto’s green ravines now, I want to erase the city from the edges of my view, silence the whine of traffic and leaf-blowers.  I always feel a small sadness when I emerge from a ravine onto a sidewalk: all creek paths end in pavement.

It’s deep-rooted, this desire to be in the woods, but maybe it’s more than nostalgia for the friendly forests of my childhood.

Maybe it’s a 10,000-year-old longing to return to our home in the wild.

More likely, it’s a most recent wish -- for the world not to be as crowded, hot, or small as it is, a wish to believe we have not ruined it, after all. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Writing Schedules

I have four months of no teaching ahead of me, and I'm not good with unstructured time. Random research on writers' schedules has yielded the following:

Stephen King: Writes from 8:15 a.m. until just before noon every day.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Wrote from morning to night and and smoked six packs a day while working on One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Tea Obreht: Wrote The Tiger's Wife at night, getting up at 5:00 in the afternoon, writing until 2:00, then driving around in the dark.

I don't smoke or drive, so I'm gonna go with the Stephen King schedule.


Today in the mail: a royalty cheque, a cheque for editing an educational text, and a cheque for my son from his grandmother. I don't have to wait for my son to open his card to know which cheque is the biggest.

The reasons I write are mysterious to me, but I'm quite sure that none of them is about money.

Friday, April 20, 2012


The remedy for marking-induced Repetitive Brain Injury is not, as posted on April 18, coffee. The remedy for marking-induced Repetitive Brain Injury is alcohol, taken with television, followed by sleep.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Occupational Hazards

When I am teaching, the main occupational hazard is Cement Neck, resulting from what I can only guess is a tendency to lecture with my shoulders up around my ears. Remedy: ice pack, hot water bottle, massage therapist.

When I am marking at the end of a semester, the main occupational hazards are Repetitive Brain Injury and the desire (to quote my sister) to gouge out my eyes with a grapefruit spoon. Remedy: coffee.

When I am writing, the occupational hazards are numerous and ever-changing. Below are two of the most common.

Occupational Hazard # 1: I Can’t Sit Down and Start

If I could sit down, I could start, but I am paralyzed by a powerful aversion to the chair, the desk, the laptop.  And if I overcome the aversion to the chair, it is replaced by a powerful aversion to what I’ve been writing. I don’t even want to look at it. 

Me to self: Arrgh! My eyes! The goggles do nothing!

Remedy: Pomodoro Technique. Under this method, named by inventor Francesco Cirillo after his tomato-shaped kitchen timer, you work in 25-minute spells, with 5 minute breaks in between.

Self to me: Come on. Just sit down. It’s only 25 minutes. Anyone can sit for 25 minutes.

It’s a trick, but I always fall for it.

Occupational Hazard # 2: The Sudden Sinking Feeling

This hazard is the sudden sinking feeling that _________ -- fill in the blank with whatever. 

  • the sudden sinking feeling that I can’t really write
  • the sudden sinking feeling that I forgot to pay the hydro bill and am about to be cut off
  • the sudden sinking feeling that the twitch in my leg is a blood clot
  • the sudden sinking feeling that I have gained eight pounds in three days and must go to the gym, immediately

Anything will do.

Yesterday, for example, I had the sudden sinking feeling that the novel I’ve been working on, about a woman who runs a speakeasy during Prohibition, is not actually the novel I should be writing.

Me to self: Oh my god. I’m writing the wrong novel.

A better novel occurred to me, about a woman who has to remake her life after her poisonous mother dies. It had all the marks of a superior novel: would not require tedious historical research, felt more uplifting, had clearer, more compelling character arc, etc.

Remedy: Close old novel file. Open blank document. Save as: New Novel.

Ah, the allure of the unwritten novel: it’s all in your head, radiating promise and perfection, ignorance and bliss. You don’t yet know what you don’t know. But the moment you lay down a few sentences, you start to see empty spaces to be mapped, arcs and tangents to be connected, brick walls to be collided with. Repeatedly. It’s going to be just as much work as the old novel, only you aren’t even close to being ready to write this one.

Self to me: Oh my god. Now you're really writing the wrong novel.

Remedy: Get up, go to kitchen. Open fridge, close fridge. Sit back down. Close New Novel file. Open old novel file. Set timer. Start.

To recap: 
Occupational Hazard # 1: I Can’t Sit Down and Start.
Remedy # 1: Sit Down and Start.

Occupational Hazard # 2: That Sudden Sinking Feeling
Remedy # 2: Ignore Sudden Sinking Feeling. Sit Back Down. Start.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012