Inane annoyances in my little world

coffeestains

Three inane things.

1. I’m concerned about the way the brown coffee stains sticky the inside edge of my favourite mug – the one with the crows on it, made by hand on an island by that woman I wrote that story on – and how I’m then forced to scrape away at those grain stains the morning after my handmade vessel has been left sitting, unwashed, on the counter for an entire 24 hours. When I wash it clean, right before dirtying it again, I can’t help but wonder how big the coffee stain is inside of me, in my tummy, no way to scrape that inner stain away.

2. I hate the way group projects at college and university are always bullshit except the first time around when you had a fleeting thought that maybe they weren’t, maybe it was you, and now, 30 years on, there’s no doubt about it that in a group of four, only two of you won’t be doing you know what to the dog while everyone, in person, face to face, is pretending not to notice how lame those slackers are.

3. I despise the cretin who uses that old, steel bee-hive ashtray attached to the outside of my apartment building, near the intercom, as a garbage can. He or she tosses their used Kleenex, candy wrappers, hard, brain-like sculpture of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, and red kissed cigarette butts across its tinny top until I imagine some contaminated 21st century hen just laid that mess there after a Saturday shopping trip to Value Village.

Most of all I can’t figure out why waking up really early on Sunday morning when everyone else is still in bed makes me feel like writing the kind of writing (albeit a bad imitation) that I often despise in Geist magazine.

Okay. Make that four.

They say it’s the little things that drive people crazy. Anything inane bugging you right now in particular?

Not a poet poem 1

words

Where shall we put those never chosen stories?

One by one by one.

Break up the pieces

start again.

Literary Lego.

words

Shall we dress like Mary Magdalene?

Shout words

from a non-existent town square.

Starbucks as fountain.

 

Dig a grave

throw them in

wait for their resurrection.

 

Light a fire.

Fake cagey arsonist persona,

walk nonchalantly impossible

down that back lane.

 

Stories like sandcastles

gulped back the day after.

Salty sea tongue licking its gritty arms.
.

words

Maybe we’ll just dole them out

like medicine

500 words at a time

on our own blogs

to anyone who cares to read them.

 

Take two aspirins, orate three paragraphs

Call ourselves each morning.

Zen Habits to the rescue

I know what it’s like to feel on top of the world. To feel like I’m standing on a surfboard and I’ve caught a rogue wave at its peak and with no effort at all, as if every fairy godmother in the universe is cheering me on, I’m gliding like Jesus walking on water.

As I continue on the wave, I’m peering into the horizon and no matter what I do, I can do no wrong, as if pink unicorns and purple fairy dust is sprinkling down on me and isn’t that a rainbow? No. Oh god. Look. It’s a DOUBLE rainbow rising up out of the ocean directly in front of me like a magnificent Orca beckoning me towards it, straight towards Nirvana on this earth in my lifetime. Amen. Been there. Occasionally. Okay at least once that I can think of, vividly, but not for quite some time.

I also know what it’s like to be on the other side of that coin. It’s not depression. Well, maybe a little. It’s more like being dropped into some bunker in the middle of nowhere and everyone has forgotten that you’re there and you might as well be in the trenches at Vimy Ridge or at least having a flashback to that time. Well, okay, that’s overly dramatic. So?

Now being a writer helps contribute to the second reality because there are many periods of uncertainty, and periods of down time, or periods of just trying to think of something new when you’re in between the actual writing of something. It’s that period of time that requires brainstorming and researching related to coming up with a good idea, or even a really stupid idea, or let’s get real, a downright bad idea for queries or something, anything, give me a sign. One that doesn’t show how lame I can be at times at handling uncertainty, but never as lame, alas, as those who have long-term, full-time jobs are about to be unemployed. Not as lame as them.

The downtime can be a tricky period because for someone like me, it can feel like I’m not working even though I’m always working and I have to figure out why someone who seems to be spending more and more of my life these past few years not working at a formal job can still get anxious about not working at a formal job.  I will chalk that up to my childhood which is the root cause of everything that is wrong with me. There’s research to back up that fact so, no, I’m not being overly dramatic.

Not all periods of work are productive. Are you at work? Look around. I mean, honestly! You’re reading this stupid blog post. Get back to work!

Somehow, alone, just me and my computer, in that period of time that requires mining for new ideas, sitting or going for a walk in the middle of the work day or getting outside for a coffee at Starbucks and just free associating to come up with something of value as a starting point can make me feel like more of a fraud than I normally feel in the troughs of neuroticism as Holy Grail.  I blame it on being raised by Presbyterians on my late father’s side.

So yesterday when I was feeling this way, right at the zenith of that feeling, I got an e-mail from my subscription to this blog called zenhabits and it was so perfect. Leo’s solution related to countering that feeling of being overwhelmed with just doing the dishes.

dishesforweb

I love that. Here’s someone who gets that sometimes just doing one simple thing that’s actually achievable can make all the difference.

Here’s his post. Subscribe to his blog. But first, do the dishes!

Dreaming Psychotherapy into Fiction

DSC_0519Sometimes I wake up and I can’t get here, present, out of some forest I’ve never been to before and into the space where my body is. It’s as if my dreams, the ones I can never remember, even though I’m told that “we all dream” “keep a pen and paper by your bed” “write them down” have wrapped their gauzy claws around me and demanded I stay in character, just as I’m supposed to be –  there – wherever, a million miles away, another galaxy, as if I’ve been snatched to perform in someone else’s dream. That’s how I feel today.

I’ve just finished reading this fantastic book that I couldn’t put down called Love’s Executioner, Other Tales of Psychotherapy. It’s a book that had its moment of recognition quite some time ago even though, honestly, the stories of people’s lives and their problems revealed within it are timeless and amazing.

Written in 1989 by a somewhat famous Existentialist, an M.D. psychotherapist, Professor Emeritus from Stanford and writer Irvin D. Yalom.  

There’s nothing like being a voyeur into other people’s problems and other people’s therapy to learn that life truly is the stuff of fiction and truth can be at least equal to those carefully woven fictional plots.

I’ve been discovering that for myself in my own student counselling and I can see how peeling away the layers of another person, their story, their unique take on the world, their true life dramas can become quite addictive to learn about – trophy hunting revelations – maybe especially if you’re also a writer.

I find myself not just listening and trying to respond, with empathy, while trying to utter something that will lead them deeper into themselves, into insight and clarity and mostly failing, but suddenly, there’s an even more compelling layer where I’m imagining what I might do with that nugget they’ve just shared, how it could be changed and woven into some story into the future. Stop that!   

A Gum Ball Machine that Spits Out Poetry

poetrycapsuleI went to WORD Vancouver on Sunday, another gorgeous fall day and when I came away, I realized that it’s true that when you go through The Writer’s Studio (TWS) at SFU, you do indeed become part of a community, even if that community is more likely to be woven across the landscape of the many writing events that dot the city than up close and personal in your living room.

As I walked around, I met up with Barb, a poet who was at TWS the same year I was. I hope she won’t mind me saying that she’s re-energized about getting back to writing poetry, hunkering down for the winter as the mood more easily shifts into a reflective mode but right now she’s working on a piece of non fiction.

Before then, I chatted with Andrew Chesham, publisher, writer and program assistant at The Writer’s Studio. He was asking me about a tweet I’d posted the day before in reference to some writing event I’d been to and my less than enthusiastic response to the famous author. Andrew was worried it may be something related to TWS which it wasn’t.

Barb and I put our Toonies into the Poetry Machine that was designed by Anne Stone, a novelist, editor and teacher, and Wayde Compton’s partner. I put in my Toonie and out popped a poem written by Anne Hopkinson. I was wracking my brain all night wondering why that name sounded so familiar only to realize that she’s in the book club of my friend, Anne Watters, who lives in Sechelt. How strange that I should get her poem, of all the poet’s words stuffed into the plastic containers inside the revamped gumball machine.

Barb had a bit more difficulty with the technology but eventually ended up winning a poetry book as a prize in the capsule that finally got spit out.

Wayde, poet, essayist and director of The Writer’s Studio was there with his six year old daughter. He was reading from his newly released debut work of short fiction, The Outer Harbour.  I missed Wayde’s reading intentionally because I’m aiming to attend the official release at the Vancouver Public Library on Sunday, October 19th at 2 pm. You should come too if you’re into that sort of thing.

I passed Elee Kraljee, Thursdays Writing Collective and as I was arriving I noticed Rene Sarojini Saklikar, children of air india, going outside.

I think I saw Karen Jean Lee, whose non fiction piece, Happy Hour, was published in Prism International’s Love and Sex, Fall 2014 issue.

Brian Payton, former non-fiction mentor from 2012, was there reading from his book, The Wind is Not a River.  I believe Lorraine Kiidumae was in the audience. Afterwards, Barb and I ran into Brian in the library foyer and chatted, briefly discussing his impressions of the new cover on the paperback version of his novel which was released earlier in the month.

Cynthia Flood, Red Girl, Rat Boy was seated behind the Joy Kogawa House information table. I didn’t know you could actually rent out that space for readings for 15-20 people.  Cynthia will be reading as part of an event to support the People’s Co-op Bookstore on October 10th at 7:30 pm at the store on Commercial Drive.

Coming up the stairs from the Alice McKay Room, Kagan Goh was leading the dragon procession going down into that area for reasons that weren’t clear, and then we had a nice chat afterwards about his recent engagement in a hot air balloon in New Mexico and thoughts about him and his fiance, Julia,  possibly moving to Mexico. As I write that it strikes me someone needs to write a gossip column focused solely on writers in Vancouver. There’s only one problem, I don’t know any really juicy gossip and even if I did, I’m not sure it would be the wisest move to put it out there.

Finally, just about to leave, Brian O’Neill who is in Wayde’s Master Class with me came up to say hello. It was his birthday and he was recovering from a party the night before. I wasn’t masochistic enough to ask how young he might be. How many candles on the cake? Just a baby.

I’m sure there were many others there from TWS throughout the day that I didn’t happen to run into or notice, but it was a really nice way to spend a sparkly Sunday afternoon. How could you not have a good time?

There should be a whole bunch of other familiar and new faces this Thursday, 8pm at The Cottage Bistro on Main Street when the feature reader will be Doretta Lau from her latest book, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?

Looking forward to however the evening unfolds.

Fundraiser for a Revolutionary Daughter: Carmen Aguirre

AguirreBefore I went to the Salmon Arm Writer’s Festival, I knew next to nothing about playwright, actor and author Carmen Aguirre. I’d heard her name. That was it.

I vaguely recall hearing about her book: Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter. It was published in 2011. Aguirre spent 8 years writing it plagued by fear of what telling her story might mean for her safety and for what it might mean for the future of her young son.

I did not know that she was out $60,000 in royalties because the Bank of Montreal called a loan on Douglas & McIntyre which put them into bankruptcy according to Howard White who through his Harbour Publishing purchased the bankrupt company.

Aguirre’s book, although it came out to critical acclaim, sold barely 1,500 copies when it was first released.  Typically, a publisher won’t take on a book in Canada if it thinks it can’t sell a minimum of 3,000 copies. Then, Canada Reads happened in 2012 and the singer Shad backed Aguirre’s book. It won the Canada Reads competition that year and suddenly it began to sell and she became an in-demand guest speaker on talk shows, thrust into the spotlight, meeting with First Nations leaders and even an unlikely guest speaker at Vancouver’s exclusive Terminal City Club.

In Salmon Arm in May, I took Aguirre’s workshop because it was about memoir and monologue but mostly because it sounded interesting. Some of her advice: “Put your theme in capital letters and keep it in front of you when you write.  Find one word that describes your theme. Then, find the opposite of that word. What is the conflict? When there is no longer conflict, when there is no longer a struggle, the story is over. The character(s) have to have a super objective; they have to feel that they will die unless they achieve it.  Do this in every chapter. Every chapter has to have an objective that will move the story forward.”

During the workshop, the best workshop I attended there of many good ones, when Aguirre spoke, what I noticed most was her personal strength communicated through the precision of her words. Think of a sword slicing a blank page in one fell swoop. That is what comes across in the way she speaks with such intensity. She knows where she’s going in front of an audience. She wants you to find your own committed path to where you’re going as well, at least on the page.

In 1997, on vacation during a Christmas vacation, I was standing in the lobby of a hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas when our GAP tour leader explained that there had been a massacre, 22 kilometres away at a place called Acteal. Fear rose inside me but only momentarily. Then, like a suitcase ready and packed, that horror, distant, unreal, nothing to do with me, easily slipped back inside, remote. A remoteness born from a Canadian upbringing and ignorance about the realities that occur in the lives of people who aren’t as lucky in the random geography of their births.

Outside the workshops when I passed her on the wharf she seemed remote. Maybe a little bored. Professional. Polite. Given her past, perhaps that remoteness is a way of being that can’t ever be fully released. Her face is riveting. Her jawline as sharp as the edge of the tool that plastered the walls Diego Rivera painted his murals on.

This morning I finished Carmen Aguirre’s memoir and it is the kind of book that will accompany you forever once you’re done.  I can’t begin to imagine how it would be possible to experience what she describes on the pages and then to return to Vancouver in all its safe and pleasant banality and not feel that you weren’t in a constant state of disassociation. Moving forward and embracing a future might be surreal in a very different, yet just as unsettling way. I don’t know. I’m just surmising.

On June 9th, there will be a fundraiser for Carmen Aguirre put together by those who worked on the book at D&M and bringing together communities her life intersects with in publishing, the theatre, literary.

It’s taking place at Heritage Hall on Main Street, 7:30 – 11pm. You can contribute virtually without even attending.

Get tickets and/or contribute through the Eventbrite website.  Online sales end June 8th.

A Road Trip on the Rocky Route to Publishville

Salmon Arm Wharf

The Word on the Lake Festival. Salmon Arm, B.C. May 2014 long weekend.

I peruse the list of presenters. Diana Gabaldon. Gary Geddes. Carmen Aguirre. Anne Eriksson. Gail Anderson-Dargatz. David Essig. C.C. Humphreys and others.

My gaze then passes over two more names: Howard White. Owner of Harbour Publishing. Carolyn Swayze of Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency.

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAT? Are you kidding me? The two people I most want to talk to in BC publishing? In Salmon Arm! Together.

Where else would I have an opportunity to talk to these two and why, God, must it be there, in that place named after a West Coast fish and a rather useful but wholly mundane human appendage: Salmon Arm.

Now. Let me be clear. Salmon Arm is really pretty. A cute little town. For some people, I’m sure it’s a great place to live. Never mind that Trudeau gave it the finger. You have to have lived there, hated it, and survived to relate to the gesture.

Someone has written, ‘Smile, God Loves you,’ on a building. And that’s the first hint. There’s something creepy underneath all that tidy organized. That subtle crack in the Leave it to Beaver brings a sense of relief to me, reaffirms just one of the reasons I grew to hate the place and here are a few more.

In 1979, I played on a championship high school basketball team ranked No. 1 in the province and we lost to the Salmon Arm Jewels in the final game of the BC Girls Basketball Championships. Years later, when my eldest sister was terminally ill at only 43 years of age; when she lay dying from breast cancer that had metastasized, she went into a coma while spending her last days at Eagle Bay, a nearby area. My first love/hate relationship with journalism began at the Salmon Arm Observer, a sentence that lasted 18 months.  It was also the first place where I lost it enough (the first time) to need to go to counselling and god knows that did not end well–not for me, and definitely not for the counsellor.

I haven’t set foot back in Salmon Arm–on purpose–for more than 14 years and I had no intention of ever going there again in this lifetime.

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…” It’s as if the Salmon Arm city limits are my very own fiery gates of hell; a test I must keep passing. Way too many important life exchanges, proportionately, have happened for me in the confines of its geography. Surely, I must have lived a couple of past lives there as the only plausible explanation.

An internal pull of intuition persisted. I knew from experience it was futile to resist.  Just shut up, get in the car and drive.

So I did.

Before I left, however, I made sure I had my query, the first 10 pages of my manuscript, my bio, and just in case there was any opportunity to hand it to either Swayze or White, a manila envelope to put it in.

Five hours later, I arrive. The next day, I miss an appointment with Howard White that some fabulous volunteer had to work really hard to get me. They call it a blue pencil. Might have even involved a sexual favour for all I know. Only one problem. They forgot to tell me. At the end of the afternoon, I hear the sad news. Appointment? What appointment? I missed it? With Howard? Are you kidding me? Damn!

Oh well. Not meant to be. I walk towards the elevator to go back to my room. When I look up he’s standing beside me. I suddenly forget his name. We move into the elevator. I don’t miss a beat. His name comes back to my adled brain.  I introduce myself. I ramble off the premise of my manuscript as quickly as an auctioneer trying to sell antique jewelry. He looks back a little dazed and wholly uninterested.

The festival continues. Mingling and learning abound. Fast forward to Sunday.  Carolyn Swayze’s workshop ends. It’s now or never. I ask her if she’d be willing to look at my query and my first 10 pages. “As long as your contact info’s on it,” she says. She takes the envelope.

It’s not much, but it’s something. I’m happy. I try to imagine the pile it will get chucked onto back at her office on Tuesday.

I proceed to the last workshop of the day. Howard White begins at the front of Room 136, Okanagan College. Next thing I know, Carolyn Swayze enters the room and takes the seat directly in front of me. I overhear a conversation that indicates she’s only there to wait for her ride. She begins to fidget. Of course she’s bored. She’s heard all this before.

She reaches down and takes something out of her bag. Oh my god. Is that mine? Is that my manuscript? She lifts the manila envelope and removes the white pages. She puts it down on the table in front of her, her head bends and she begins to read.

I inch forward in my seat.  I hold my breath. I’m almost close enough to lick the back of her neck. I’m bobbing left and right, past her head, over her left shoulder, straining to see what page she’s on.  I feel like a stalker but, hey, just a minute, I was seated first.

I’m horrified and ecstatic as I watch her turn the pages.  It’s like witnessing a bad car accident and being proposed to in the very same second.  I’m watching Carolyn Swayze reading the first 10 pages of my manuscript to pass the time while Howard White drones on, directly in my line of vision, at the front of the room.

Is she still reading? What page is she on? Why’s she looking up? Is that part boring her? I can fix that. We can fix it together, Carolyn. You can get me an editor. Focus on the potential. I will my thoughts to penetrate her cranium with laser beam precision.

It’s as if my dead sister looking down upon me has intervened. She’s saying, ‘oh, for heaven’s sake, can we just get on with this. Can you just get on with the next chapter of your real life and start living again, not writing? You’re boring me and I’m already dead.’

Howard White’s voice continues to dub over this surreal scene.

It’s too funny.

It’s enough to bring a big fat smile to my face and keep it there – Cheshire cat-like – all the way back down the Coquihalla Highway.

Mission accomplished.