Common thread

An amazing weekend retreat, at excellent Herman’s Island, with (most of) the amazing writers who make up The Common. The weather was uncommonly terrific…sunny and bright every day, and warm enough to sit out in a short-sleeved dress, with barefeet and read for an hour or two Saturday afternoon. Everyone made amazing food to share, we ate our weight in potato chips (and conducted a few fine taste-tests featuring some of the more absurdly flavoured chips out there: late night cheeseburger anyone?) (may I say it didn’t taste any different than a mid-day cheeseburger might?), we stayed up late every night, saw at least two shooting stars, and sang songs all night like a transistor radio.

And, on top of all that, I got some really good work done. A few thousand words, nothing to write home about necessarily, except that it was such a useful exercise for me. A relief to discover that my big talk is not just big talk, and indeed, my project is still very much alive in my mind. And that I am capable of keeping the pilot light lit from day to day, picking it up, fanning the flames and beginning again. A relief to get some connective tissue done, to get Evan and Lansing well and truly on their way, and to start to lay some of the serious groundwork of their relationship. Ahead, Dacey Brown awaits her chance to escape Grand Falls, New Brunswick. And her chance she shall receive.

I am on fire, I feel, and it’s good.

Also, huge news out of the Atlantic writing pool in general… Gillers and IMPACs for all!


What’s in my head, out

Oh dear, not much writing happening lately, I have to say. The fall has been a blur of work-related outreach events (that is, lots of hosting of fundraising dinners for various organizations, the CBC open house, The Howe Symposium and Scrabble with the Stars), helping Kev get his fall tour organized and underway, a bit of travel (mainly flying to Toronto to surprise Kev in the midst of his fall tour) and…what else? I’m taking Italian lessons again, which is mostly an exercise in humility as my classmates all seem to be able to speak in paragraphs and I can barely say Io mi chiamo Stefania without stumbling, but what are you gonna do? You know? October also brought a successful Blowhard Presents, on the theme of Flying Solo, and early November brought a less-well-attended, but no less successful (for hugely different reasons) Porkpie. I also spent most of my free time cooking huge amounts of food and putting it in the freezer. The local produce has been extraordinary this year, so there’s that. But also, I figured if I cooked a bunch of stews and soups and chillis and the like, and popped them in the freezer, it would serve the dual purpose of preserving the goodness of the harvest, plus ensuring that we don’t starve to death when we’re living off a three thousand dollar grant for two months…and that neither of us will have to take time out of our creative projects (Kev’s likely to be writing a new album by January) to make supper. So the kitchen has been a storm of activity this fall as well.
So, not a lot of writing going on. But, a lot of thinking about writing. And for me, that’s a huge part of the heavy lifting anyhow. Next weekend, The Common is going to a lovely and well-appointed retreat on Herman’s Island…and I expect to get some good work done there. It’s time to start thinking about structure, I think. I want to lay out the pages and scenes I have so far and write the parts I need to write in between so that I have a real sense of what’s there and where we’re all going. I have some scenes with Dacey on the bus–I read them the other night at the tiny Porkpie, and received really lovely feedback from the little group there. I am keen to get them all into central Canada, into the same vehicle, so that things can really start to happen.
I’m worried, a little, about the winter. I worry about my tendency to procrastinate. I worry that I won’t really have enough time to get it all done. But maybe if I can get a good start on things next weekend, I won’t feel so nervous about January. Even if I only write two thousand words a day, which is more than do-able for me, I’ll end up with fifty thousand words by the end of the first month. Then I’ll spend two weeks in the car on tour with Kev, which should be the perfect time for a road-trip-reset, and then I’ll have ten days or so to finish up that first draft. In ten days I can knock out another twenty thousand words.
So crazy to think of it in those terms. But watching friends take on NaNoWriMo, and remembering the pace at which I wrote Homing that miserable Winnipeglian November in 2003–it all seems possible, frankly. I’ve done this before, and I can do it again. The first draft is just the first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be finished. Then I can rewrite in spring and see how we go.
Right? Right.
Two thousand words a day. Anything more than that is gravy. I’ll have to figure out how many pages that is for me in long hand. I get so obsessed with stats and numbers. Anything, I guess, to distract me from the actual writing. Absurd, but true.
What is that, anyhow? So long as I can manage not to just clean the vegetable crispers instead of actually writing, it’ll be fine.
Of course, there’s a simple solution to all of this. Just write it. Just put the words on the paper and it’ll get done. I have huge affection for my characters, lots of engagement with my themes, and a clear sense of where it’s all heading. There’s nothing to be afraid of, here. In fact, my head is so full of the characters now all the time, it’s a wonder I can do anything else with my time at all.
What do you do when you’re staring down the barrel of your first draft, spending more time worrying than writing? How do you solve it? I’ll take any and all encouragement you care to offer.
I’ll definitely be calling in a gift Sue Goyette left tucked under a plate at my birthday party/Toasted Tomato Sandwich festival this year. It was a certificate entitling me to a session of encouragement/ass-kicking. I’ll save that for early January. It’ll be the perfect way to launch, I think. An ass-kicking from Sue Goyette. What better gift, I ask you?

I got the music in me, I got the music in me

I got it in my hotel, at the very least. I’m in Sydney, Cape Breton for the East Coast Music Awards. My (other) radio show, Atlantic Airwaves, went live from Sydney to Atlantic Canada earlier today, with a smokin’ show featuring Coco Love Alcorn and The Joel Plaskett Emergency with Rose Cousins and Dale Murray. It was pretty intense. Five hundred people or so and two amazing bands.

And yesterday, Airwaves picked up the ECMA for Broadcast of the Year, which was pretty wild also. Totally was not expecting to win, and am utterly tickled pink. Me and my ECMA, just hanging out in Sydney on a Saturday night. No big deal.

So it’s been a great weekend so far. Kev, who’s gearing up to leave town on Monday (ulp) for seven weeks (big ulp), has had a million gigs as a sideguy, and also picked up a couple solo gigs when our friend Steven Bowers had an unfortunate bout of car trouble. Steven had to get towed back to Halifax from the highway, and he was totally disappointed not to get here to play his shows. Go buy his record, and tell him I sent you. On the positive side, Kev totally nailed the gigs.

I have to confess that the writing is going nowhere these days. I go a million miles an hour all day it seems and there’s nothing left for Lansing Meadows, Dacey Brown and Evan Cornfield somehow. I miss writing them and I wonder all the time about what they’ll do next. Next weekend, The Common is going on retreat and I have high hopes for getting a few pages done then, and sparking myself back into writerly action. And with Kev out on the road, I hope to make more time for the story.

So… same old, really.

The Common abroad

We’re going on a roadtrip! Well, as far as the airport, and then a quick jaunt by plane and we’ll all be in St John’s Newfoundland. Just like that. The first delegation leaves today, the second wave tomorrow afternoon, and the final two tomorrow night. Ryan Turner‘s (amazing) new book, What We’re Made Of, launches Monday in St John’s and we figured we might as well tag along for moral support and beers. I wonder if he will have incorporated the kids-sitting-on-lap thing by Monday night. This particular launch is in a bar, so maybe not kids. But probably still with some lap-sitting.

Among our many plans (catching up with Newfoundland members Camille Fouillard and Wanda Nolan, going for a big big hike, drinking in the bars, cheering raucously at the reading), I have plans to steal some time for Fallsy Downsies. Our retreats are not usually so … urban … so I’ll have to be pretty clever about this, but I think the way I’m writing this particular book (scraps of paper, late at night, in public) lends itself well to what I expect this weekend will bring.

And as for Ryan’s book, I read it (again, for the first time between covers) whilst in the grips of not-Swine-Flu on the weekend. It was the perfect accompaniment for hours in bed alone, coming and going in delirium. During my lucid moments, it had me more breathless than the not-flu. Seriously. If you haven’t gone to get yourself a copy yet, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for. It’s called What We’re Made Of, and it’s required reading.

Feeling bookish

There are so many bookish events coming up in the next few weeks. What a great way to usher in the season of curling up under blankets to read and write.

On Tuesday night I’ll be giving a talk at Mount Saint Vincent University. They’re celebrating writing next week, with many fine events. Here’s a link to some highlights. My colleagues Carsten Knox and Ryan Turner are taking part in one of the panels… and I wish I could go, but my damn day job generally keeps me desk-bound (and it only becomes my damn day job when it gets in the way of something I want to do.)

Then on Thursday next, it’s Porkpie Four at the Company House, featuring a pile of good writers as previously mentioned.

On November 3, Anna Quon is launching her beautiful book Migration Songs. I’ve been asked to read and speak at that event and I just cannot wait. That’s happening at the Company House as well. Busy spot!

Later that week, Zach Wells is launching his new book. I think his launch is on November 5 if I’m not mistaken… and possibly also at the CoHo. All I can tell you is that I’m glad that place is stumbling distance from my house, as it looks like I’ll be spending a lot of time there over the next two weeks.

Then Ryan Turner‘s book launch (can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait) is happening at the CoHo on Friday, November 13.

And then I collapse under a stack of delicious new books.

Senses and sensibilities

One of the things I love most about my husband is his ability to be in the moment. To live neither in the past nor the future, just to inhabit the present. I suck at that. Early in our relationship, when we still both thought we had to go everywhere together, at the same time, and leave everywhere together, at the same time, we had a tearful argument (tearful on my part, only, I should point out) during which I uttered the immortal line: One thing you should know about me — I will ALWAYS be thinking about what we have to do tomorrow morning.

It’s not just the future I’m adept at projecting into. I also spend a fair amount of time trafficking in the past. I love to paw through my memories, trying to make sense of them. I can think of something I did years ago, YEARS ago, that was mildly embarrassing at the time, and still feel the twinge of humiliation. It is a skill I’d try to be less good at except that it comes in handy for a novelist. I have a complete catalogue of emotions and their attendant actions and reactions easily accessible at all times. Sure, it takes an emotional toll, but hey, I do it for you.

Earlier this week, Ryan sent a bit of a questionnaire to The Common. It went like this:

If you were a deprived of one of your senses for years and then given the chance to choose one thing to perceive for one minute with that sense, what would it be?To smell:

To hear:

To taste:

To touch:

To see:

This is just the kind of stuff Ryan loves to think about. But Christ, what a minefield for such a sentimental fool as I. So, no surprise I was first to respond. And it happened to arrive on what would have been my brother Chris’s 41st birthday. Here’s my fresh-off-the-top-of-my-head response:

Well, first thing that comes to mind:

To smell: my husband’s neck
To hear: my brother’s laugh, which I barely remember
To taste: The sandwiches my grandmother used to make
To touch: Kev’s hand
To see: toughest one. First thing that comes to mind is my little garden, but that seems absurd, except that I love it so much.

I’ve been thinking about this list since I sent it. None of these are the most intense expressions of their respective senses. When Sarah answered, she was all about intensity… fresh brewed dark roast, fresh pasta with tomato sauce. Purity of sense. For me. the first thing that came to mind was experiences that are lost to me even without the artificial construct Ryan devised.

My brother had the most amazing laugh, but I can barely capture it with even the edges of my mind and memory. I remember only that it was amazing and it always made me laugh too. Maybe it was a little high pitched somehow? A little incongruous to his tall, dark person. I think I remember that it overtook him completely. I wish I could remember it. I would give anything to hear it again.

Alright, and then those sandwiches. It doesn’t even matter what was in them, nor that it’s been more than thirty years since I’ve had one. Noni died back in 1977, when I was seven years old, but oh god those sandwiches. On chewy Italian rolls, spread with butter. Then fresh tomatoes, most likely, and some kind of cold cut perhaps? Like I said, I don’t remember what was in them exactly, just that my grandmother made them and they tasted so fucking good.

Touch is the sense I would miss the least. Not that I don’t love to hold Kev’s hand, I surely do. But the other senses, the memories they bring immediately to mind, are so much more immediate, so much more evocative. When god forbid the day comes that I am on my own, I will long for the smell of Kevan’s neck. I know this from where I stand now, so I breathe deeply in its presence as often as I can in the hopes of filing it somewhere accessible.

And as for my little garden, I tried so hard for that to not be my answer. It seems so trivial. And yet, I have such a lively catalogue in my head, and I live so far from my family and the dailiness of their lives, and I have lost so many of the lovely sights of my life (my father’s hands working, my brother’s face laughing, all my grandparents looking proud). And I can see those sights again when I am quiet and still. And in my little garden, gazing at the flowers and the unfolding green, and the work Kev did to make it so very peaceful, when I am there and only there… not regretting yesterday and not anticipating tomorrow … then I can see those lovely sights again.

The Common touch

There was a moment during our retreat to Morden. We were gathered outside, near the picnic table. It was Friday night… or Saturday maybe? God, it’s blurred together already. In any event, the Nova Scotian members of The Common were all there—Sean, Sue, Ryan, Sarah and Carsten. Sarah had something to say, she insisted we all get our drinks. We did. She proposed a toast, holding out her Carlsberg (of all things). She said, “it’s so awesome that this writing group has turned in to five such awesome friendships.” We clinked our drinks, and then she said, “damn it, I practised that in my head, and it did NOT have two awesomes in it.”

It was appropriate though. The retreat had way more than two awesomes in it. First of all, she’s right… it is awesome, the awesome friendships that have grown out of that writing group. We have such interesting discussions, and take the piss out of each other so naturally. We are so well balanced, the right blend of hilarity and sincerity in all we do and say to each other. We can all live in a two-bedroom cottage for two and a half days and still like each other at the end of it.

So that’s a lot of the awesome. Then there’s the beauty of Morden. This was my first stay by the Bay of Fundy, and it was incredible. The way the sunlight slanted across from New Brunswick, the rocky rocky shore… how many millions of years till it’s a sandy beach, I wondered as I picked my way along it, wishing I could take every single rock home. The incredible verdant freshness, the rolling hills. The lightning show to which we were treated on Saturday night; the way it rained with wild abandon.

And then the writing. I’m not sure most of The Common got actual work done, but I sure did. Pages and pages and pages about Dacey Brown, the female singer songwriter in Fallsy Downsies, the lone wolf who’s lost her voice, but thinks she might find it if she hops a ride with Evan Cornfield and Lansing Meadows. Plus, a section that’d been missing, a section that connects the night that Lansing and Evan meet, and the roadtrip that takes them to Antigonish together.

Plus, with a little help from my friends, I figured out the ribald game at the heart of the novel. All in all, an awesome, awesome weekend.

Still here…

Good god, the busy-ness lately. And not with anything particularly riveting. In fact, I’m not sure that I could tell you what, exactly has been occupying my time lately. But I have that hunted dog feeling, that feeling of the world and all its demands nipping at my heels, relentless. Which is hilarious, because compared to a lot of people I know, I have few duties. Work, meals, groceries, the odd workout, the occasional conversation with my husband. So what has me on the run? Who knows? Monkey mind, maybe.

I mean, sure, I’m editing a book, and jurying a competition, and it’s the inaugural Atlantic Ink Festival…but beyond that, not much on the go.

I did just register for this. The Google Book Settlement thingy. It was surprising to discover they’d scanned not just Homing, but also Oral Fixation, an anthology I was published in more than ten years ago. Wow, they’ve been busy. Well, now they can get busy sending me a little cheque, and oh, I do love those.

What else? The Atlantic Ink Festival, that’s what. Tonight I went to Outside the Lines, which is a lovely little bookstore on Quinpool, for a reading and reception with Sara Tilley, whose book I am loving, Ian Colford, who cannot stop racking up nominations for prestigious awards, and Stephen Kimber, whose storytelling always at once soothes me and makes me envious. So, it was a great night.

Tomorrow, the Common heads to Morden, to Sarah Mian’s family cottage, for a weekend writers’ retreat. I am planning to get rather a lot done on Fallsy Downsies, and also to drink rather a lot of wine, and maybe stay up all night or most of it, singing Meatloaf songs. Because THAT’s how we roll.