Monday, July 28, 2014

True to Life - Step 7

                                                                                   7

                                                                     Choose your tools
_



A
re you a pen person or a computer person? Seriously consider trying both. The rhythm of scratching a pen nib across a piece of paper has been with humanity for many hundreds of years, the speedy bounce of a cursor along a lighted screen for only a few decades. Some believe the ease of word processing has improved speed but not writing content and style. Perhaps you are so used to the responsive hare-like dash of the computer that the old-fashioned technology of the pen makes you feel like a lumbering tortoise. But remember who won the race.
Many writers—J.K. Rowling is one—still write long-hand and transcribe their words onto a computer as their second draft. I strongly recommend that computer junkies try writing first drafts with paper and pen. It’s a sane, connected rhythm. And typing that material into the computer affords a whole new view of the work.
After several PCs, my first Mac, stylish white MacZine, became my best friend. I loved her and her silvery replacements MacTruck and FleetwoodMac. But for most first drafts, I still write longhand. I choose my pens carefully —a thick nib, a slender carriage, easy ink flow, and black ink. There are three pots stuffed with pens beside me rightnow, and pencils, too, newly sharpened. Hemingway did all his first drafts in pencil. Neil Gaiman uses classy Water-man fountain pens. Mmmm.
What about paper? Thick, thin, recycled, lined, unlined? Big yellow pads or pretty French notebooks? If you use a computer, can you write a whole piece without printing, or do you need to print regularly so you can see words on paper? Don’t forget all those nifty little devices beloved of paper nuts: erasers, Wite-Out, rulers, paper clips, file folders, Post-it notes, Sharpie markers. Perhaps, at the beginning of the writing process, you could use large sheets of unlined paper and crayons or felt pens, drawing pictures to access another part of the brain. Later, you could make sense of a chaotic manuscript by sticking file cards to the wall or spreading them across the floor or stringing them on a clothesline.
What else might you need? Scanner, hole-punch, bulle-tin board, backscratcher? Rock collection? Pictures of your family or guru for inspiration—or would that be too distracting? Music? Noise-cancelling earphones?
And then there’s one of the most important tools of all: a wastepaper basket or recycling bin. Use yours fearlessly. I have in my office an inspiring picture of the great New Yorker essayist E.B. White writing in his country cabin. There is nothing in the room where he works except a plain plank desk and bench, a manual typewriter, pencils—and a very large barrel for his rejected pages.
Make the effort to choose the right tools. This is the fun part—strapping on your tool belt and getting ready to work. Aldous Huxley, asked how to become a novelist, replied, “The first thing is to buy quite a lot of paper, a bottle of ink, and a pen. After that you merely have to write.”

                                                  

After you learn to write, your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil, you get three different sights at it … First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it … It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier.
Ernest Hemingway



Sunday, July 27, 2014

report on our "So true" event

Another hit, a palpable hit. I love how people say after these reading events, "It was so moving and interesting!" as if they're surprised. As if they think that a bunch of writers telling the most important true events from their lives, sculpted for a reading, would be dull.

Emphatically not dull.

Our topic today was Disaster, and we had a range of disasters: Andrew writing about bombing as a stand up comic and having to figure out if this difficult dream was worth pursuing; Phoebe, about her family's beloved uncle, her godfather, who turned out to be a creepy predator and pederast; Sam, about teaching a young girl who loves music but who is forbidden by her Muslim father to participate in music classes or go to concerts with the other kids, reminding Sam of her own childhood; and then, just before the break, our wonderful MC Jason reading a breathtaking piece for Nahum from the Honduras, about being a 14-year old, homeless and penniless, just like the kids we hear about in the paper these days, trying to make his way to the States.

That was the first half. After the break, we heard a haunting piece from Elizabeth about her older brother Jimmy, who's obviously mentally and physically challenged but in their rural community is just considered lazy and badly behaved and is punished accordingly. And then, most dramatic of all - all of us silent, clutching our chests, with tears - Mary, reading about living in New Jersey with 4 small children on September 11 2001, getting a phone call from New York that her husband Ron, who worked on the 84th floor of one of the towers, was in bad shape in hospital and that she should come. Heartbreaking. Especially as Ron was in the audience, listening.

And then yours truly, telling rather than reading the story of the big fire that transformed her home. I think it went well - I'm not sure. It's harder to talk than to read, that's for sure. I lost it a few times, but I think it mostly worked. I hope so. And then it was over until Sunday October 26th, when our new topic is "Working." More great great stories. Check our website sotrue.ca.

I'm proud of these writers who are willing to step up and take their work to the next level, the public forum. And happy that the audience is 100% with us. Exciting. But I'm always glad when it's over and I can have a glass of wine and say, "Phew."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Boyhood

For once, the hype of a film turned out to be true. I went this afternoon to see "Boyhood," the extraordinary Richard Linklater film which he started filming 12 year ago and continued once a year with the same cast, filming the next chapter as everyone aged. As you watch, you wonder why no one has done this before. What patience it must have taken, to put that much effort into a creative project and leave it simmering, year after year after year.

And now here it is, and it's amazing - moment after moment reading true. Small lives played out on the big screen, reminding us of ourselves. Miraculous to watch the child who's the centre of the film, Mason, go from six to nearly grown up. He reminded me so much of my own son. Mason's parents are divorced and doing their best, in their crazy way, and the kids are too, in theirs. Mostly the film, it seems to me, is about the resilience of the human spirit, how there is love and kindness even in the most unlikely places, helping kids get through. A scene where the kids go with their dad to visit their new stepmother's parents - and there is love and celebration, even in a place where they are almost strangers. It's beautiful, and so well realized. Very moving, particularly for those of us who've been divorced and tried, as single parents, to raise whole and happy human beings.

Of course it reminded me of the 21 Up series, one of my favourite film series, watching real people grow up. But here it's scripted drama, and yet we watch these people transform, year to year, in a way that feels completely truthful, particularly the children, who change shape and hair and voices. The music changes, the society around them. But nothing dramatic happens, no huge tragedy, no major violence. Just life.

I felt for Mason's mother, who struggles to raise her children and make a home for them and herself, and then is left behind. Lucky, lucky us, I thought - we got to stay in our home after the divorce, their dad was a responsible man, not like the flaky if loving Ethan Hawke character, and I never subjected my kids to a string of losers, as their mother did. I'm sure every divorced parent watching was doing a similar comparison check list.

It's perhaps a bit long, and my one criticism is that the girls who become Mason's friends and eventually girlfriends are stunningly beautiful - Linklater could not allow them to be fairly ordinary, as the boy and his sister are, like us. Which is too bad, because to me it's the only false note in a film that is otherwise shining with truth. Highly recommended. But pee first, because it's long and the line-ups in the women's bathroom are endless. The theatre was packed.

And then I cycled home at dusk - it was supposed to thunderstorm but didn't - and Number One son was still here, still watching Boardwalk Empire. He had cooked us dinner. He'd rummaged in the fridge and found all the stuff I bought at the market this morning, grilled the pork chops, made a chutney from cherries, apple and other fruit, and grilled peppers and eggplant. I threw my arms around him, so glad to see my own solid boy who emerged, hearty and whole, from his own crazy boyhood. And then we sat down to this:

So True tomorrow!

Tomorrow at 4 p.m., on the second floor of the Black Swan on the Danforth, the second SO TRUE: life stories well written well told. Six wonderful rich true stories about DISASTER, and then yours truly will not read but tell a story - about the fire that nearly destroyed her home.

Details on our website sotrue.ca.

Please join us.

True to Life, Step 5

                                                                                  5

                                                                Carve out a creative space
_


I
f you’ve begun to keep a journal and jot down notes, writing on a regular basis, you are getting used to registering the ideas, emotions, and memories in your head and heart, your brain and your gut. You are learning how to transfer them down your arm, through your hand(s), and out onto the page.
It’s time to think of the next step. You want to write not just thoughts but stories. Maybe you want to write a memoir or publish some personal essays or put down the family saga so it’ll be preserved for the coming generations or get that trip to Bali on paper before you forget …
You want to become not only a diarist with private thoughts but also a writer with public thoughts. A writer uses special tools. You wouldn’t begin to make a bookshelf without a hammer, a measuring tape, a drill. You shouldn’t begin to write seriously without thinking about tools to make the job physically possible. The questions you need to answer first are where, when, and how. The place, the time, and the implements.
I’ve heard that long before Alice Munro dared admit to herself that she was a writer, she sat for hours at the breakfast table and scribbled stories on the backs of bills that had just arrived in the mail. Colette wrote many of her books in bed. You need to make a place, however humble or odd, for your writing self. It doesn’t matter where, as long as it affords you physical and psychic space: the local coffee shop, the commuter train on the way to work, or, ideally, at least sometimes, a desk in a room with a door that closes. You will feel freer creatively in a comfortable, encouraging place.
One day in class, a shy, self-deprecating student informed us that she had gone to IKEA, bought the smallest desk they had, and assembled it in a corner of the bedroom. This, she told her husband and kids, was where she would be a writer. It was as big a step toward artistry and independence as she had ever taken. One small desk for writing-kind.
If your job involves writing, you might need to use a spot other than your workspace for creative endeavours. Some, as Sartre and de Beauvoir did, enjoy filling pages in the anonymity and bustle of cafés. In this age of laptops, we’re free to set up a kind of office anywhere. Try different spaces and see what works.
I used to think I couldn’t be a proper writer because, as a single mother, I was at the centre of constant domestic activity in my household. When a windfall came my way, I rented a tiny office space and discovered I couldn’t work there either; it was too isolated, too quiet. Then I read Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in Yiddish. “I think that being disturbed is part of human life,” he said. “I have never really written in peace.”
I ditched my excuses and just got on with it, sitting at the desk in my home office when I could—which for years was not often—grabbing time as the commotion swirled around me. Maybe my work has suffered. Maybe it has profited.
Carve out your space, and make it work for you.

                                                  

I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.
Saul Bellow



the raccoon highway

Sitting with my coffee at 8 a.m. this morning - watching as one after another, SIX young raccoons emerged from the shrubbery and climbed up the ivy wall to the left, on their way home. They sleep at the top somewhere. Six. The city is doomed.

10.30. Since you guys like raccoons so much, I'm adding a not-great pic I took of the one who wanted to come and have breakfast with me.

Friday, July 25, 2014

on the freeway

And more joy - a visit from Booboo and his mama. He did some skilful driving.

And then a visit to my friend and lawyer Mary to drink a glass of wine on her deck and sign my will and the powers of attorney for health and property. So should I turn into a drooling idiot or drop dead tomorrow, my children can take over and, as Anna says, put me in the good home. Or not.

And now a visit from # One Son. Who has no internet at his house, so comes here to get caught up on his programs. Season 4 of Boardwalk Empire, right now.

I was invited to join friends at the Beaches Jazz Festival tonight and said no. As it is, it's not even 9.30 and I'm ready to fall over. Is this aging?

today's joys

Summer breakfast

 opening boxes
stacking 'em up
a brand new gardenia - can you smell it from there?
clematis (and roses, very high, on the left)
Finally, spindly black-eyed Susans opening up.

Freud said that human beings need work and love to be happy. Here's my work and a few of my loves.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

phooey!

When will I learn? It's dangerous to write about bliss and tranquillity because ... well, you never know. I was assured by Purolator yesterday that seven boxes of books would be delivered between 8.30 and 5 today. I had to go out briefly, arranged for Wayson to come over and wait, then waited myself all day - several times standing by the front door, unwilling to go even into the basement to do laundry in case I missed them.

It's nearly 6. Deliveries are over for the day. I've called twice. Yes ma'am, the boxes are on the truck. But they have not arrived here.

And yet it was a glorious day, sunny with a breeze. Had a chat with my shrink and with my ex, who's coming to stay in a few weeks, had lunch with Wayson, did some gardening. And yet I spent this beautiful day in an agony of impatient anticipation - where the @#$# is my book?

6.09. It's here!! The delivery guy said his truck broke down twice. All is forgiven. He delivered seven large boxes of a gorgeous yellow book. Stunning. I had to teach immediately - the brave writers who are reading at the story series on Sunday arrived for a rehearsal - so I haven't had a chance to read it yet.

But it looks perfect.

blessings on a July morning

9.10 a.m., Thursday July 24 2014: reporting in. Sitting in the kitchen looking at the garden, where I've just staked up a few toppling plants and cleaned up and filled the bird feeder. It's a fresh sunny morning, amazingly fresh considering this is Toronto in July.

And I am thinking, This is the best moment of my entire life. Right here, right now - appreciate it, girl, because life moves on. The garden is blooming, my belly is full, I am healthy, my loved ones are healthy. The bills are paid. No, there's a big one I need to pay and will do so today. My new book will probably be delivered today. The memoir, I hear via email and FB, is giving people pleasure.

Yes, on every level the world is burning, and it makes me profoundly sad. But here, in this tiny corner of the planet, there is a blessed moment of peace.

Right now.

Because I know, nothing stays the same. For now, grateful for the sun, the wind, the soil. The white butterfly settling on the lavender at this moment, the crows cawing - and, yes, the whine of Power Tool Man's saw. There he is, alive and well and as busy as ever. He's not a fly in the ointment - he IS the ointment. My 'hood.

Could I ask for more? Beside world peace and an end to hunger, cruelty and disease? Well, okay - a good review of the memoir in some very public place, that is my selfish wish. But otherwise, no, I could not ask for more. Well, okay - lifelong fulfilment and health for my children. But otherwise ...

2.30. Didn't get that posted so am finishing it now. In the mail today came a copy of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald with that great article about the memoir. So - "a good review in some very public place" - done. And as for my kids - they're grownups, and their fulfillment and health are up to them. So I can just sit here in tranquillity and watch the butterflies.

And wait impatiently for Purolator.

P.S. Just read in the Star that one of my favourite places in all Toronto, La Maison de la Presse Internationale on Yorkville, has just closed. It was heaven - a huge store full of books and magazines, especially francophone ones - where I got Paris Elle when I was dying for a fix, and literary mags too. Everyone reads online now, it says. But some of us old fogies like to hold an actual object and savour its pages. Too bad.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Beautiful dream of Israel has become a nightmare." Gabor Maté

Tremendous sadness at the state of the world right now - lawless rebels shooting innocent people out of the sky, and, more than ever, the insoluble and tragic dilemma that is the Middle East. I've been reading everything I can, but an article by Gabor Maté in the Star today speaks with great eloquence and truth about it. Highly recommended.

Commentary


Watched a documentary the other day, a series of short films about people's take on Vermeer. Falling in love with him was one of the great moments of my life and that of many others. The doc spoke of his privacy and reticence: "Vermeer never gave anything away," someone said, speaking of the mystery at the heart of his work. And another: "Vermeer is about meditation, a small observed moment that has been stilled." Yes yes yes - the milkmaid, the musicians, the women reading letters - a moment that has been stilled. 

And a final expert, looking at the "View of Delft" which is the painting I saw in Amsterdam that set off my love affair, said, "Vermeer didn't paint just bricks; he painted the situation of bricks." And the camera moved in to closeup and yes, it was true, these were the most vibrant and quivering of bricks. 

And another doc that I tried to stop watching but couldn't, about the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Queen's reign, with fascinating glimpses of her at rest and play, joking and funny. So often she's stomping about grim-faced, clutching her purse, but she's a canny old bird. An anachronism, like her relatives the royals of the world, whom she entertained royally at the time, but quite magnificent too. Fascinating. 

This afternoon, finalized my will with my dear friend Mary, who's also my lawyer. It's surreal but necessary. "If you die and your daughter dies ..." she says, speaking of what would happen, what would be in trust for Eli administered by his uncle Sam. Has to be addressed, even if we hope the document lies in the file drawer for many years to come. But who knows? 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dinner NOW.

Today a trek across town in John's van to deliver to Anna a kid's picnic table I bought at Doubletake. It took an unbelievable amount of time. How can a city's citizens function when they spend most of their time sitting in cars on roads? Insane.

However, once we finally got there, it was so good to hold my boy. Anna told me he was furious this morning because he wanted cake for breakfast. She told him he could have it after dinner. He looked at her and said, "Dinner NOW." Another weak-minded pushover, like his momma.

Then my new class at the Y, Tuesdays at noon - Arriba, the most fun dance class. And then, more fun - a mammogram. Squish those breasts, sister!

More feedback on the garden workshop. Please forgive me while I indulge. It's good to hear all this.

I am so glad to have met Beth because she is leading me to the next place I need to go with my writing, wherever that may be. The topics help plant the seeds for stories and help my mind work its way back through my memory. Was anyone else exhausted?! I got home and every square inch of me, inside and out, was tired — but in a wonderful way. I guess opening up my mind so wide was a stretch, and tiring. 
Maggie

Beth, as others have pointed out...our day was perfect. Maybe it was the combination of writers together, summer air, delicious food, and a gorgeous setting all contributing to our perfect day. For me, the feeling of safety you created for us brought our stories to the paper.

Special people, special place, special teacher, special day.
Jane

It's really muggy, my face bathed in sweat. We've been lucky till now. It's nearly 8,30 and the birds are shutting down. But I have a few more hours to go. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

True to Life: Step Two

                                                                           2

                                                          Allow yourself to begin

W
hat makes a writer? Simply, the need to process thought and experience by putting words on a page, and the discipline to sit until the work is down, reworked, and finished. And something more: not just the courage, but the craft and technical skill to make the words meaningful to others, whether they find an audience right away or not.
In Amsterdam, in 1942, just before the Nazis drove her family into hiding, a thirteen-year-old girl was given a plaid notebook for her birthday. Anne Frank made sense of the insanity of global conflict and the hardships of her daily life by scribbling in that notebook. She wrote with the passion, clarity, and insight of a born writer; she edited her work, too, with an eye to publication.
Anne Frank changed the world. When the diary was discovered and published after her death in Bergen-Belsen, her words forever altered the way the world looked at the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War. Six million Jewish men, women, and children died in the Holocaust, but one of them was a child with a name, a face, and a wise, unforgettable voice. In 1999, Time magazine published its selection of the “Hundred Most Influential People of the Twentieth Century.” Along with great world leaders, scientists, warriors, movie stars, and artists, the list included a girl shut in an attic with a notebook.
A writer is someone who needs to write, who finds a way to get the words onto paper, and who works to make those words tell a living story. And sometimes a writer is a person who changes the world with words.
Do you feel that this definition leaves you out? What would it take for you to consider yourself a writer? Untamed Margaret Atwoodesque hair? A garret in Paris? A literature prize? If you set the bar too high, you’ll never start. How about seeing your name in print somewhere, above or below a piece of your writing? Would that be enough? We’ll work on that.
In the meantime, how about a notebook full of your words? They’re written, aren’t they? So didn’t a writer write them? Don’t cut yourself off and count yourself out. Every writer has to start somewhere.
CBC Radio host Eleanor Wachtel interviews writers from around the world for her superb program Writers and Company, a must for anyone interested in literature (broadcast on Sunday afternoons on CBC Radio One; available as a podcast at cbc.ca). She was once asked what, if anything, the hundreds of writers she has talked to have in common. She replied, “They all define themselves as outsiders.”
Haven’t you always been something of an outsider? So you fit the bill. And if you don’t define yourself as an outsider, you fit another bill.
Enough with the self-doubt. You’re going to write. Let’s get to work.

                                                  

The writer must be universal in sympathy and an outcast by nature; only then can he see clearly.
Julian Barnes

Why shouldn’t you have the right to become who you are?
Wayson Choy