This week, I’ve been reading Amphibian, by Carla Gunn. It is kicking my ass. With its goodness. Her protagonist, Phin, is a kid who’s obsessed with climate change, and all the ways humans seem to be wrecking the world. The voice is so clear and fresh, and the writing is breaking my heart in a dozen ways. Also, there’s a beautiful green frog on the cover.
Which makes Frog Hollow Books an appropriate place to launch it, I guess. Which is just what Carla will do tomorrow night. I’m really excited, because it’s always great to get to hear a new writer read (new to me, and new in that this is her first novel). But also because I’ve been asked to open for her.
It’s been a long time since I read from Homing. So I’m super looking forward to seeing you there tomorrow night. Be sure to come up and say hey after.
Starts at 7 at Frog Hollow Books at Park Lane Mall…free admission, but bring a few bucks if you can, to buy Carla’s book!
Perhaps it appeared I was avoiding this question from Lynn, since I plain old skipped over it yesterday:
How do you fit regular writing into your days, on top of full time work at CBC? Is your writing time carefully scheduled? Do you stick to scheduled writing times? Do you set yourself mini deadlines along the way?
Well, Lynn, first may I say, great question, and I sure did not mean to skip by it. The short answer is that I don’t fit regular writing into my days. My writing time is not at all scheduled, carefully or otherwise. I do not stick to scheduled writing times and I do not set myself mini deadlines along the way.
First, self-imposed deadlines just don’t work for me. I don’t take them seriously at all. I am not a very stern task-master, as it turns out. I am more than happy to let myself read magazines for three hours or stare out the window, because in some way, that too is vital for writing. So, no, no mini-deadlines.
When I was writing Homing, I was quite diligent, mainly because I had an external, hard deadline from my publisher. And so I worked on Homing probably four mornings out of five, and then for a few hours on Sunday. But I really can’t sustain that kind of pace. I’m a fast writer, but I can’t do extended periods of writing. I just don’t have it in me.
I write when I can’t avoid it, basically. When the time comes to write, I don’t have much trouble with it. I think so much about my story and its people that by the time I am in front of a page, it’s mostly there for me and I don’t have to struggle very much. I hardly ever cross things out, even. I just go in a straight line till I can’t see what my people are doing or hear what they’re saying, and then I stop.
And in terms of when I get around to doing that…well…a little bit it’s when I see or hear something that reminds me of my story and makes me want to write it down. The method I’m about to try out, suggested by Sue Goyette (it’s truly remarkable that I get anything done without checking with her first. She is a genius, especially where I’m concerned), is booking off three days every few months and just blitzing through some stuff. The Common has a retreat coming up in May, and I am projecting big things for myself at that time. But probably hardly anything between now and then.
In other news, don’t forget to drop by the Company House tomorrow night at 7pm for the inaugural edition of Porkpie. Five bucks gets you in, for readings from four really great local writers, and me!
So many great questions. I think I mentioned how much I love Q&A sessions. So, you did the heavy lifting with the questions, here come some answers. I’ll take them chronologically.
Cousin Bets asked: Who are you? (Haha!) Ok, I know who you are. What I didn’t know was that you are a singer?
For more on who I am, check the About page… as for the singing thing. Well. I am not a singer. I love to sing, I really love to belt it out, but I am in no way a singer in any formal sense of the word. Though I do, once in a great while, get to sing with Steven Bowers and Acoustic Theft, but only on very special occasions. Steve wrote a beautiful song called Homing, and you can hear it here. When the moon is full and we find ourselves in the same place at the same time with all the necessary equipment (his band, my book) we sometimes perform the song together. At the end, I sing along with the band. It is mind-blowingly fun. I think if I worked at it, I would have a decent alto. But I don’t work at it. Story of my life, really.
Heather H asks: Stephanie, what is the best advice you’ve ever received? Did you use the advice when it was given?
This is a tough one, Heather. Lots of people have given me lots of advice, and some of it was probably really great. I don’t remember most of it. But I can tell you two things that have resonated with me. I was taking a writing class with the amazing Sue Goyette. We were talking about how we write…how we get ready to do it, how we settle into it, all that. She put forward a theory that how you take a bath is how you do most things. Me, I take a bath at the very last minute, after thinking about it all morning. I am super efficient, and barely take time to enjoy it. While the tub is filling, I am washing my hair, and before the water is deep enough to cover my knees, I’m washed, rinsed and ready to get out. It’s the same exactly when I sit down to write. Always at the last minute, always after lots of thought first, and then once I’m there, I am fast, fast, fast, and out and on to something else before I know it. This wasn’t advice so much as it was a bit of a benediction. That it’s okay to just write the way I write. So I’m not an eight hours a day writer. So I don’t necessarily do it every day. I do it when and how works for me, and that’s good enough.
The other moment of revelation came courtesy of Joel Thomas Hynes, an extraordinary writer from Newfoundland. He told me he figured he could tell a book that’d been written by hand as opposed to one that’d been written on a computer for the first draft. He couldn’t say exactly what the difference was, but just that it did something to the sentences, the act of writing by hand. He went on to say that a first draft, when it’s written on a computer, gains an authority it hasn’t earned. Everything so neat and orderly. Too easy to fall in love with it and think it perfect. I am very susceptible to that anyhow, and soon as he said it, I knew I’d write my next book by hand. And so Fallsy Downsies is being crabbed out in hand in notebooks and on scrap paper and it’s really liberating in many ways…and when it comes time to write a second draft, I’ll be very happy at how easy it will be to sit down and do it. I’ll be forced to, that is to say, because I’ll need to get it into a word processing program.
My sweet childhood and beyond friend Kristin has two questions:
Well, the question I most like to ask you is: When are you coming home for a visit?!
But a meatier, more interesting question is: How do you silence the snarky inner critic who tells you that you’re not good enough? What do you do when the self-doubt creeps in? Or does it? Maybe it doesn’t…but if it does, whattaya do?
The answer to the first question is July.
The answer to the second set of questions is that I don’t have a snarky inner critic. I would probably be a better person if occasionally someone told me I’m not good enough, whether the voice came from inside my head or outside of it, but I have never struggled with that critic the way others do. I do freak out a lot about non-writing related things, and when that happens, I try to let myself freak out for some appointed amount of time. Say five or ten minutes. Then I take the freak out, say “thank you very much, but that’s enough for now,” put it in a box and put it away. The things that are not helpful to me, I try not to spend too much time with them. When something crops up, I think, is this helpful to me? If the answer is no, I just work on putting it aside. I don’t always nail it, but most times, I do. Has the inner critic done any noteworthy work? If not, perhaps it should shut its ill-mannered trap and let you get on with yours. And you can tell it I said so.
Ellen passes this question along: My friend who writes wonders, “Why bother? Hasn’t it all be written already?” Your thoughts?
I remember working on a story when I was in high school and feeling really excited about it. The central metaphor was going to be a bird in the house, which equals death (funny how Homing ended up being in some ways about that). I was super charged about it, till I discovered this. I was crushed. I mean, once Margaret Laurence has written about it, what could possibly have been left for a sixteen year old kid from the suburbs? Fortunately, I had an amazing writing teacher in high school. He pointed out that there are really only a handful of stories. You know, man against nature, man against himself, man against man. Someone sets out on a journey, a stranger comes to town. Inevitably, some other writer will always have written about the things you want to write about. Will even maybe have told the same story. But will they have told it in your voice? No, they will not have. And that’s why you should bother. Or at least, that’s why I bother. That and I really have very few other skills besides writing.
Shannon Webb Campbell wonders: What sort of writing rituals, if any, do you have?
Also, what inspires or motivates you to write?
I don’t really have writing rituals. With Homing, it was all about quiet early mornings. Waking up in the dark, trying to get out of bed without jostling my head around too much, getting the laptop powered up quickly and diving in, before anyone was awake and before I was even really awake. With Fallsy Downsies, it’s all different. I write in bars, cars, cafes, line-ups, wherever I happen to be when I get a good line or image. I do really like to read through what I’ve already written. It places me in my story, among my people, which is right where I need to be.
What inspires me or motivates me to write. Honestly? A deadline. That motivates me more than anything else. The thought of getting in trouble for missing a deadline is a really strong motivator. Now, what inspires me, well, everything. I am particularly moved, as a writer, by gesture and phrase. I can get a whole character out of some stranger’s way of moving along the street. A turn of phrase that rings can just about write the novel for me. But those are just the things that make me think of story. As for what gets me to sit down and actually write…either a deadline, or a string of really cranky days…at the end of which I realise (or my husband points out) that perhaps the reason I’m so miserable is that I’m ready to write.
Jane Kansas posed this stumper:
How steep an incline can a commercial airplane taxi up? Does it make a difference if the fuel tanks are full or empty?
Thanks in advance!
Not sure why you need to know, Jane, but fortunately, my Uncle John Longo was the head mechanic for Air Canada for many decades. And he furnished me with this answer: “The answer depends on the type of aircraft… Turbo prop or pure jet; a heavy B747-400 or CRJ size.
Second: Do these jeans make me look fat?
Wow, thanks for all your great questions! I’ll be making up the answers to them this weekend, so there’s still time to get yours in. Just drop a comment at the bottom of this post or the last one, and I’ll get you an answer.
Also, I should mention, tomorrow between noon and two, I’ll be the celebrity bookseller at my favourite bookshop, Frog Hollow. They’re in Park Lane on Spring Garden Road. Drop in to say hello, and I’ll recommend you a book! I’m hoping they’ll let me work the cash register, too! Oh, good times.
Well, my first event of this Atlantic Book Awards Week went off without a hitch. Great, funny, articulate writers, and a really attentive and interested crowd, in a fine venue. What more can you ask for?
It reminded me anew that my favourite part of just about any event is the Q&A session. God, I love those. I could do whole events that are JUST Q&As.
And then it occurred to me. I could just ask you if you have any Qs… and then I could give you the As! And wouldn’t that be fun for both of us? I know for sure it will be fun for me. So, fire away. Fill the comments with questions, and I’ll answer them all in a future post.
I’m sure all three of you are just bursting at the seams with questions for me.
Just a quick note that Atlantic Book Awards Week is underway…lots of events this week. Tonight I’ll be at the Company House on Gottingen Street at 8pm. There’s a book panel featuring the nominees for the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award: Mark Blagrave, Catherine Banks and Ian Colford. We’ll be talking about the journey from manuscript to publication. Oh, what a long strange trip it can be. Plus, there will be readings, and books for sale, and writers willing to sign their name in your brand new copy of their award-winning or -nominated book. Also…it’s free to get in. What are you waiting for? Put your shoes on and go down there, already.
Kev has been on tour the last month with Steve Bowers, Norma MacDonald and Christina Martin. They call it the Whisky Hymnal tour and it’s been amazing. Four great singer songwriters, singing their great songs, telling stories, playing on each other’s tunes and taking pot shots at each other. I made it out to four or five of the dates, and each was amazing in its own way.
Last night’s gig in Amherst was something else all together, though.
It’s Kev’s hometown, and so in a way it’s mine too. The place was packed, with friends and family and Amherstonians of various descriptions. Thom Swift was on the bill for this one, replacing Christina for one night only. Kev was in fine form, so happy to be playing his first theatre show in Amherst. His songs were great, his hosting was great, the crowd was great. Great, great, great.
On a whim, I’d grabbed a few copies of Homing on my way out the door. Steve, who liked the book so much not only did he give me a fantastic blurb for it, he also named his album after it. very graciously invited me to perform the song Homing with him and the others for the night’s finale. I should say that my father in law prompted him too, and after being asked point blank about it, Steve graciously invited me etc.
Anyhow. Nervous! I never get nervous, but I was super nervous about this one.
But it was such a blast. We did this at the CD release party back in August. The song has two parts; the first is the songwriter writing about the pigeon, the second is the pigeon’s response. Between those parts is my part…I read a bit of the book…in which Harold shows up at Henry’s house and just won’t leave, and Henry receives a message that may or may not be meant for him. Meanwhile the band plays on…and then I get to sing on the pigeon’s response part, the part of the song that truly breaks my heart (there is such a part in every song Steve Bowers writes) the part that goes “always homing and never home.”
So amazing to feel those nerves, to feel totally alive and awake and to sing out those beautiful words. There’s actually some video footage of the performance from August. Watch this space for that, soon.
Oh, and one last chance to catch these guys together. The tour wraps up tonight in Antigonish at the Dragonfly Cafe… go if you can, you won’t regret it.
And I should note, next Saturday, I’ll be a celebrity book seller at Frog Hollow Books from noon to 2pm. I can’t wait! It’s been many years since I had the pleasure of selling books, and Frog Hollow has been so, so good to me in so many ways for so many years, so I am delighted to be able to hang out in that fine establishment and maybe recommend to you some of the books I have loved most lately. Drop by and see us Saturday April 18, noon to 2pm. Park Lane Mall. Don’t forget to bring your paperback money!
Sometimes I forget to look up. I get so deep inside what I’m doing…full time job, editing a book, writing Fallsy Downsies in my head, being married, trying to keep the house from falling down…I just lose sight of everything around me.
Or, I make a set of assumptions about what’s likely happening. I decide that I know what the factors are, and what the outcome must then be.
You’d think, after several decades of this, I’d have learned, but that’s part of the not looking up.
Here’s what put me on this particular path. Spring has been taking her sweet time coming to these parts, teasing for weeks, then retreating behind a mantle of snow, then peeking out again. I’ve noted in my usual April way, that things are beginning to grow. There are crocuses in the sunny patch beside the Common, where the first crocuses in the neighbourhood always appear. Yesterday, Kev and I went for a walk and I became very excited at the appearance of big fuzzy buds on the magnolia on Cunard Street.
But I’d never actually examined our own garden for growth. In my mind, it’s too early. And I guess rather than risk disappointment, I have purposely not noticed what’s happening out there.
But today is so gorgeous, so relentlessly beautiful, that I couldn’t not notice any longer. Actually, what really happened is this. A friend stayed over last night, and I wanted to bring to her attention our newly cobblestoned back yard. Opening the door to show her, I showed myself.
A tidy row of crocuses border the main part of the garden. I dashed out in my bathrobe for a closer look. And the joy I felt at their appearance was tempered with sorrow at having missed much of their tiny life span.
I do so love to track the progress of growing things, and that I have missed such an opportunity in my own backyard because I was too busy to look up, and too convinced of what I know to investigate, kind of kills me. It also kind of serves me right.
And so I spent the afternoon pulling stones out of the dirt, raking, pulling handfuls of mulchy leaves out of the garden, liberating the tiny tender green fronds of new tulips from the winter’s detritus. Exclaiming to myself over every new shoot. Memorizing their position, their newness, their very presence. Feeling the sun on my back and the dirt on my hands, and vowing to do better. To look up, to investigate.
I think that’s my work, always. Look up, investigate.
Went to yoga tonight, with the usual monkey mind and ring of pain around my shoulders. Left a little calmer and a little less cramped up. Met a woman there named…well, doesn’t matter what she’s named. Anyhow. There was a chair set up for her, to accommodate her yoga practise. Pretty much the first thing she said to the other student and me was, “I’m old, girls.” She said it like a fact she’d brought into being simply by believing it and repeating it. And man, was she cranky about it.
She huffed and wheezed through class, which is par for the course for me too some days, depending on the day, frankly. There was a lot of laboured getting down on the floor and more laboured getting back up onto the chair. A little bit of muttering, when the other student and I were doing something a little bit advanced, “I want to do that too.” Petulant muttering, at that. But then she’d push too hard and end up in a position she had no business in, a position she could do little to get out of. You could feel the anger and panic coming off her. Well, I could, anyhow.
As class ended, she asked if anyone was going in her direction. I was, so I said I’d walk home with her. As we walked, I was able to get my first good looks at her. She didn’t look particularly old. No older than my mother…and I don’t consider her old even a bit. She’s sixty one or two. I asked how long she’d lived in the neighbourhood. Twenty years, she said, more than. Used to be on West Street, but then the car dealership bought those houses, now she’s around the corner. I was about to say, wow, you’ve seen some changes, but she practically interrupted herself to let me know that she hates the neighbourhood. Is scared of it. Won’t go near the Common after five or six at night, even in the summer. Hates the photo studio at the corner of Agricola and West, but hated the cafe more. The drugs, the bands!
I held my tongue. I walked her to her door, and let her know she could count on me for walks home each Tuesday night. And then I strolled home alone, at her osteoarthritic pace, and thought about the many ways in which this life has cracked me open. The ways in which I could look only on the dark side, see the rot in myself and the world around me when I was younger. And the ways in which now I can barely see that rot even if I search with all the lights on. I felt the way my hip joints, ever desk-job stiff, moved a little more smoothly through time and space. I felt the way I would have scorned myself for feeling fifteen years ago. Serene. Open. Receptive. Ready.
I think about the careful balancing act, between keeping my head clean enough for happy living, but not so clean that I can’t write. The writing happens best when my head’s a little dusty, and little grimy, a little cluttered. But the living happens best when my head is ordered, awake, clear. The trick, I guess, is one of flexibility. The willingness to abandon what I think I know (hate! fear! so angry!) and stretch out into what I don’t know, trusting it won’t hurt me. Much.
The writing is there, a tap waiting for me to stretch out my hand and turn it on.
The fiercely fantastic Sue Goyette hosted a writers’ salon at her house this afternoon. It was awesome, in a word. So great to sit in a beautiful green room, with good snacks, a glass of port and writers and poets for company. We discussed the necessity of writing for happiness and the reality of working for a living. We discussed subjectivity and mentoring (where it goes right and where it goes terribly wrong) and writing lots or only a little, and how it all makes you more awake, and how awakeness is what we’re after.
It was heartening to be among my fellows even if only for a few hours.
And then I came home to discover the world’s best house-husband assiduously cleaning the kitchen floor in preparation for Tuesday’s photo shoot.
Oh, haven’t I mentioned that?
The Coast is preparing a home-fashion issue. And they’re coming to shoot our kitchen and talk to us about it, on Tuesday at 8:30 am. It has occasioned much fuss around our place. Much fuss and mopping.