January 18th, 2014

2014 Resolving

It’s been over a month–sorry, guys. I missed the holiday season completely on this blog–I hope you had an excellent one. Here at the Rose-coloured Ranch, the ice-storm left our power intact but stranded a householder in Moncton for a few days, so things were a bit scrambly. 2014 has actually been going fine for me, but my job has gone bananas, as it does a couple unpredictably timed months a year. It’s a good job and people have been kind to me there, so I try to role with the punches and put in the hours, but I really think I’m simply not cut out to work overtime. A few 10-hour-days, which is nothing to people in many other positions, and I am absolutely bonkers with nervous energy and fret. It’s not very nice to find out I have so little fortitude, but at least I’m certain I don’t now. I just want the month of January to be over, and with it this project.

I had been thinking about not doing resolutions this year–I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by simply getting through the days of late–but a few things conspired to inspire, so I figure, why not? I’m not going to get too bent out of shape if I don’t do these things, but…why not try?

1) Mini-M&Ms charity. I’ve always told people new to Toronto that you’ll make your life easier if you make a blanket decision about panhandlers. Maybe you give whatever’s in your pocket to whomever asks, maybe you never give on the street but donate to a charity that helps the homeless, maybe you stop and chat, maybe you pretend not to see. Whatever you are going to do, reason it out and stand by it–it’s the dithering that makes you crazy and sad. My usual policy is to give to charities like the United Way and local food banks, not to individuals, but to meet everyone’s gaze and apologize that I won’t give to them. This policy was born of being disorganized and not wanting to fumble in my bag and take out my huge wallet in front of strangers that may or may not be benign. Usually people who hit me up on the street for cash nod or shrug at my murmured apology; some even say something nice in return. Lately I’ve noticed a new phenomenon where I get some snark–one girl said archly, “Wow, that sounded really sincere.” I have no idea why she bothered–it’s a weird kind of pay-it-forward, because I’m not going to running back to shower cash on someone who said something mean to me, but it does make me think a bit harder about my own sincerity, and what I’m going to do the next time I’m asked.

Years ago, when my brother was living in Toronto and I wasn’t, he told me he used mini-M&Ms containers–small plastic tubes–to carry quarters in. They are just the right width for them, and you are able to fish them out without rummaging through all your belongings. You also know at a shake whether you actually have something to give or not, so you don’t waste everyone’s time. Of course, mini M&Ms disappeared from Canada years ago, a sad loss for many reasons. But beloved friend AMT brought me some from America recently and, delicious as they were, I couldn’t help but fixate on the container. It showed up at such fortuitous time, right when I was rethinking my street charity policy. As I type, it’s beside me, half full of quarters.

I don’t kid myself that 50 cents or a dollar from me is going to make a great difference to anyone at all. It’s the stopping and engaging that might matter, if not to the recipient, than at least to me. I’m worried that after nearly 12 years in Toronto, I’ve stopped seeing people on the street, despite my “sincere” little apologies. I’d like to start seeing again, and seeing where that leads me. Giving a little bit might help me do that–and I’m sure a few quarters wouldn’t hurt those who ask.

2) Learn to play guitar. I will count success as being able to play a recognizable tune on-key. I have had two lessons so far and have learnt two octaves of the B-flat major scale–progress. I enjoy the practicing well enough and am starting to develop some calluses. I’m also find that, as was true in my many years of piano lessons, and also with opening pickle jars, juggling, and holding hands with large-fingered men, my tiny little mouse hands are a handicap. One I plan to overcome, but the fourth fret poses some challenges for me.

3) Possibly file the papers I’ve had stacked on the floor of my office for over a year. Maybe.

4) Clicker train my elder cat, Evan, to give him something to focus his energies on so he isn’t such a pain all the time.

5) Knit a thing that has an actual purpose. I have been working on a pointless blue rectangle for more than two years.

In the number 6 slot, I could say something about my manuscript-in-progress here, but I sort of feel like at this point in the process that’s a bit like resolving to get a boyfriend. I’m going to do my best and not worry (as much as possible) about the rest. Actually, maybe that will be true on all fronts this year. That lack of worry in itself is a worthy resolution, I think.

7) Cook lots of new recipes, even ones not from the milk calendar.

8) Blog more frequently than once a month!

August 22nd, 2013

Dance like no one’s watching, write like you’re 14

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing lately and it’s pretty good–folksy and a bit “well, it worked for me!” simplistic, but also funny and well-referenced and common-sense. It was clearly written with Stephen King fans in mind (some of the examples do not make sense unless you have read one or another of his novels) but another target audience is nervous novice writers. There’s a lot of gentle handholding about not caring if it’s brilliant, not torturing yourself over the exact wording of the first sentence when you could be writing the second one, not caring when people say you ought to get a real job (Note: King’s central delusion is that novice writers can and will write as a large share of their every day.)

It’s mainly good advice and certainly supportive, but geez, it made me feel bad for people who start writing as adults. So much pressure!

Not that I think you shouldn’t, mind you–anyone who wants to write ought to, immediately. It’s just that it’s so much easier to start in high school. Because I wrote my first creative pieces in grade 9, I always find the “why did you decide to start writing?” question that gets asked in so many interviews a bit baffling. Eh? Why *anything* I did when I was 14? Why the floral leggings, the swamp food, eating lunch on the shotput court, that crush on Bill S.? The short answer for almost everything that happened in high school is boredom. From bullying to band practice, teenagers choose their high-school activities basically just to fill time. The kids in band don’t expect an orchestra career anymore than the football team expects to eventually make it to the CFL. I played intramural *badminton* in high school, and believe me it was not a springboard to going pro (hands up if you’ve ever taken a birdie in the eye?)

I was a chubby smart kid, so sports and dance were largely out for me. I played in band, but drama club was a disorganized mess and honestly, even if it hadn’t been, I really wasn’t much of an actress. I needed another *thing*…and then there as the poster in the library about a literary conest–with prizes! I was bored, I spent a lot of time in the library, I got good grades in English, and my friends said I was funny–why *wouldn’t* I write a humourous essay about my school bus?

My point is slightly undermined by the fact that I did win the “junior humour” category of that literary contest, but I think out of a fairly narrow field. And it wouldn’t have mattered to me if I didn’t, just like it didn’t matter to me that I was a lousy pianist–I still played from ages 5 through 19. What else was I gonna do after school?

Grownups give themselves a much harder time, generally, especially if they have multiple other demands like work, spouse, kids, commute, etc. They feel some kind of pressure to have a “reason” to write, like people loving their work or making lots of money. But writing is hard, slow, and often unrewarding by the conventions of the “real” world. And even if you could write the best novel in the world, if you started tomorrow you wouldn’t be finished for at least a year, more likely a few–and a couple beyond that to see it in print.

Aspiring writers who haven’t yet started the actual process find me a bit baffling sometimes–I have some markers of success, like published books and some positive reviews, the occasional award nomination. But I am neither rich nor famous, and I am still work at something other than writing most days. Am I a big deal? A big failure? What’s going on here?

Grownups, used to doing things for a reason and seeing the results, find the lack of concrete “made it” moments in writing frustrating. Teenagers, who can’t even necessarily drive the car or buy the shirts they want, find random impotent work totally normal. If it’s fun, why not do it? It’s better than homework, and if your brother’s watching something stupid on tv…

This was actually a really wonderful attitude, and one I try to recapture when I feel like writing is pointless. Why does it need a point if I enjoy it? It’s cheaper than golf, and better for me than Facebook–and I like my stories. Game, set, match.

I’ve gotten in trouble for saying this before, but sometimes I can sell working on my book to myself more easily if I think of it as an occasionally lucrative hobby rather than a career. I get that writers need to take ourselves seriously in order to get the work done and done well, and if for you that means saying the word “career” than please do so. But I think I’ll probably write for the rest of my life no matter what I call it, and when I call it a hobby I feel less pressed, more like I’m supposed to have fun.

But mainly I don’t call it anything–I just keep writing, or try to. Because that really is the best part…

April 23rd, 2013

Freedom!

So that stressful project at work is complete, I believe, so I’m finally on vacation this week and next! And for once, I’m not going anywhere or doing anything big on vacation. When I was younger, I mocked the concept of the “staycation,” but that was probably because I never realized how much I could like my own life. I have an amazing apartment, partner, friends, family, and city, not to mention gift certificates–why would I want to use my limited free time to leave all that.

So I’m here, enjoying my life (and accepting lunch dates, if you’re interested!) So far I’ve
–eaten Korean food and gone to a board games cafe
–gone to a farmers’ market
–built a nightstand
–watch a movie in a movie-theatre
–made soup
–walked all the way across downtown
–eaten Thai food
–bought a vacuum cleaner

Some of this is prosaic, I admit, but the chores need to be done and at least I have time to do them at my own pace. And most of it’s just been lovely–especially that long walk yesterday. I had an over an hour before a lunch date and nothing in particular to do, so I decided to walk it. The weather was stunning, I had nice music on my ipod, and the thing I was walking towards was such a pleasant prospect. I love walking in Toronto–it’s really how the city looks its best.

For my next trick, I will be experiencing my first spa, thanks to a gift certificate I got for Christmas. The treatment itself is very expensive, but there’s all kinds of extra stuff there you can do for free there, like work out in the gym and swim in the pool. So obviously I’m going to go 2 hours early and try everything, because why not, right?

I am also, of course, writing a bit on my break. I am so tired from work that I am not setting any huge goals, but it’s nice to be able to give writing some of the good part of the day, instead of getting to it when I’m already sort of miserable. I always write, but often in tiny bursts–my output has been pretty pitiful lately. I hope some leisure time will help expand it a bit.

Speaking of pitiful, I contribute a little bit to “Failure Week” on Hazlitt, in the form a comment in Jowita Bydlowska’s article “Where Do All the Dead Stories and Characters Go?” A fun and somehow inspiring article–so many brilliant writers have to kill so much of their work, and yet it turns out amazing anyway. Encouraging!

Anyway, so that’s the news with me right now–rather pleasant, and no griping for once. Hope it’s the same where you are!

March 17th, 2013

Why I Didn’t Have a Cell Phone Until Yesterday–and What Changed My Mind

The first thing to recall is that I pre-exist cellphones. There’s a generation of whippersnaps now who have never known a world where it was fine to be out of touch for a few hours, and it troubles them to be. I get that, to a certain extent, though I don’t feel it myself. When I was teaching high school kids and tried to outlaw phones in class, their first reaction was, “What if there’s an emergency?” My first reaction, which I didn’t voice, was, “You’re 15–how much help are you in an emergency?” And the second, which I sometimes did, was, “Whoever needed you would call the school and get the secretary to come get you, like they did in my day. The whole argument was basically stupid, but I did understand the *idea* of feeling insecure without a thing you are simply used to having. If they turned off the landlines in my apartment right now, it wouldn’t fundamentally change my safety level, but I would *feel* unspecifically unsafe.

But I grew up in a world where you didn’t need a cell phone to feel safe. First because they didn’t exist, then because only bajillionaires had them so they might as well’ve not existed, for my purposes. Then doctors and international businesspeople and the occasional drug-dealer had them. Then long-distance commuters and people who had small kids in day-care or otherwise away from them for long periods. Then anyone who drove any distance regularly or had any kids or was just very social and hard to get ahold of. Then pretty much everybody.

Through all these developments, I’ve driven almost never, and even less alone. I have no kids and, while I’m moderately social, I am also amazingly easy to get ahold of. Except for two years of grad school, I’ve had deskjobs for a decade–that’s nearly 40 hours a week you know where I am, plus I write in the evenings and am all-too-eager to pick up the phone or answer an email while I’m writing.  I would be very surprised if there were many people out there annoyed that didn’t hear back from me faster.

But honestly, lots of people with cells have lives like mine–I can’t honestly claim that it’s because I’m *so* practical that I’ve stood up against a tide of commericalism. Being broke for a few years–the grad school years–helped me convince myself I didn’t need lots of things, and then when I had money again I remained sorta convinced. I’m also naturally pretty cheap and lazy–I didn’t want to spend money or learn a new technology I didn’t have to. And in the background of all of this is probably some sort of mini-inferiority complex, e.g., no one really wants to talk to me that badly.

So, in short–who knows why I didn’t have a cellphone until yesterday? But I guess getting one’s first phone in 2013–especially if you’re not 60+–is kinda a big deal. Why did I get one? Well, the ostensible reason is there was a confusion with a friend about a meeting place, and I wound up having to use a credit card on a pay phone to call someone to ask him to call her to ask her to come get me. Argh–annoying, expensive, embarrassing, and all my fault, no matter who made the actual locational mistake, because with a cellphone it would’ve been a ten-minute probably, without all those extra people and credit card charges. Confusion and human error happens all the time, to anyone, but it was starting to be only with me that human error would ruin an evening.

So, there–a perfectly good reason for getting a cellphone and I’m sure many of my potential dinner dates are already grateful. But it was actually a conversation I had with a friend a couple days after the above incident that probably tipped the scales. I ran into her at a bus stop while she was texting on her phone, but when she was done she seemed happy to chat. I asked her if she loved her phone, and she said she did. I said I would probably get one soon, and was interested in what social doors texting might open, since I’d never done it. She said it was great, because it was like an ongoing casual conversation–no committment, no need of an immediate reply, but a low-key way to be in touch. She said she spoke to her best friend every day, and that was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.

During the years of rising cellphone ubiquity I mentioned above, I’ve noticed the near-demise of the “hey how are you?” phone call, followed by the diminishment of the long newsy email. Folks simply don’t catch up in these long gluts anymore, because they don’t need to. Anyone who actually matters to you is following your twitter feed, friends with you on facebook, and readily available to text about minutiae in real time–everyone already *knows* how you’re doing. The first two have been great for me–I’m up-to-date on people I care about but who aren’t “close” friends. And I know some people do like the occasional multi-paragraph email or phone chat, or at least, they do for my sake. But I’m really excited about this whole texting thing–I think it might be a good format for me, because I’m so chatty with so little to actually say (she says, at nearly 900 words and counting).

So I’m now cellphonic and hoping to finally stop being useless to folks who leave the directions to the restaurant at home or are just running a bit late. But I also hope to hear from anyone who cares to be in touch, about anything at all.

March 5th, 2013

How to Enjoy a Concert…in Your Thirties…

I came across these tips on how to have an awesome time at a concert on Alan Cross’s blog. It’s good, but extremely sparse to me, and probably to most people who don’t regularly attend concerts. Tips like “bring a friend or go alone” and “when to drink and where” might make some uncool people like myself think that this is a code keep the uncool out.

It’s not true! Just like how on the internet no one knows you’re a dog, in the dark no one knows you’re a dork: if you feel like going to hear live music, you should go. I went to a show last week with a kleenex in the sleeve of my cardigan, so if I can do it, anyone can.

If you’re like me, you probably used to go see bands semi-regularly in high school and university, whenever someone told you about a cool show and you could afford it. But then, after graduation, you (I) knew fewer people who went to stuff, and moved to a city where I didn’t know the venues, and gradually got really intimidated and started picturing every show I considered attending as a cross between a mosh pit and a grade 8 dance.

About 4 years ago, my brother and I realized that while we both finally had money to spend on each other, we could never think of anything we wanted for holiday or birthday gifts. We also realized we have similar taste in music and both regretted not taking part in Toronto’s vibrant musical offerings. So we buy each other show tickets for every gift now, and we attend together. It’s really fun, and not nearly as intimidating as I thought. So, after a few dozen shows, here’s some tips if you’re old-ish and looking get back to concert scene:

1) Listen to music. A friend said to me once, “It’s so sad how terrible music is these days. All I ever listen to is my old albums.” I barely stopped myself from screeching, “That is how you die!!” Music is not depreciating, it’s changing! It’s harder to find things you like when you don’t have whole evenings to spend listening to music and none of your friends suggest things to listen to. But try. Listen to the radio and google anything you hear that you like. Try one of those internet radio stations that takes a performer you like and suggests more. Ask your friends what they’re listening to. Most people in their thirties didn’t stop listening to music, they just stopped forming their identies around it. And it’s totally fine to stick to some bands you used to like in the 90s–they were great–but for goodness’s sakes, listen to their current albums. Bands evolve, and you don’t want to be disappointed at the show because it turns out you don’t like anything they’ve written in the past 15 years.

2) Pay the money. One thing I don’t do in my rock-and-roll renaissance is see random bands. I don’t just go sit in a bar and see who comes on, or go to free community shows, or anything where I don’t have at least a hopeful suspicion that I will like the band. If I’m that hopeful, I am also willing to pay whatever a ticket costs. Not usually that much–I don’t have Rolling Stones tastes–but I pay whatever it takes. I wish I could be out discovering the stuff that no one knows about yet, but really, to stay out late on a weeknight, I have to sorta know I’ll be happy.

3) Plot the logistics. In case you’re a real newbie at concerts, or have only been to those outdoor summer festivals, here’s the biggest logistical issue with concert attendance as a grown-up: you don’t get to sit down. There are no chairs in most venues, and in the few that some stools or whatnot, like Lee’s Palace, people hunch on them grimly as soon as the doors open. It’s not worth it–wear comfortable shoes and a bag you can hang on your shoulder, and come well-rested–you’ll still be tired at the end of the night, but it’s manageable.

Other logistical issues: There are coatchecks in most concert venues, but then you’re stuck in a giant line at the end of the night when you want to go home. I favour the “roll your coat into a ball and stick it between your feet” approach, but it’s up to you. Also, figure out how you’re getting to and fro, especially if it’s Sound Academy, which annoying to walk, transit, AND drive to. Basically, unless you have a jetpack or are willing to live there, only go to Sound Academy shows you *really* want to see. Lee’s Palace and the Phoenix are on the subway line and are awesome; the Opera House and the Mod Club aren’t, but at least have some reasonable transit options. I have no idea how to park anywhere, but if you’re going to try driving, best to look into it–might be challenging.

4) Embrace the experience. I sometimes skip the openers in favour of eating and sitting down for a little longer, but I’ve discovered some good music when I see the full show. Go to the merch table, buy a drink, crowd watch. Music is growing increasingly atomized–we listen alone, on our computers and ipods, and have little idea who our fellow fans are. It’s an amazing experience to assume this tiny bit of solidarity–I like a thing you like–with strangers. In the absence of knowledge, I assume everyone who likes a band I like is just like me. Imagine my surprise to discover teenagers in arm-warmers and eyelines at the Bright Eyes show and drunk university students at Hey Rosetta. My favourite crowd ever was at a The Wooden Sky. I think of them as a gentle roots-rock band, but the early twentysomethings at the show seemed ready for a kegger for some reason. Many were drunk upon arrival, including two beautiful young women who were so surprised to meet up in the lobby, they embraced so hard they fell down. A girl standing in front of me in the bathroom lineup asked me to tell her “honestly” if she had puke on the back of her shirt, and I sadly had to tell her that she did. Later in that same lineup, the girl behind me was having so much trouble waiting that I peeked around a corner and told her we were only a few people away from the door–she hugged me. It was a really really fun night.

5) The music is worth it. Not every time, of course–some bands suck live, and sometimes you just aren’t feeling it. But in general, I feel that the *being there* aspect improves the music by about 20% on average and if you liked it already, that’s amazing. It’s neat to see what people look like and how bandmates interact with each other. Hell, it’s cool to see how they hold their instruments. I’ve never tried to meet anyone or get an autograph or whatever, but just being in the same room is pretty cool.

February 20th, 2013

Deathmatch

Every year I see a posting for a Broken Pencil short-story contest, click on it with interest and then recoil in horror. I am not Deathmatch Material. I like to think all us short story writers are our own special flowers, and though every reader might not like to sniff every flower, there’s room for all of us in the garden.

Broken Pencil’s Short Story Deathmatch posits a winner-take-all, hateful-comments-weed-out-the-week mentality, at least on the surface. In reality the comments from Canadian readers and writers aren’t *that* harsh–more, the commenters often seem to really engage with the stories. So though I quail from entering myself, I annually find myself drawn into a public-opinion-based literary contest that is actually about the literature.

Because, let’s face it, most public-opinion book contest *aren’t* about the books. At least, not as a “contest” is normally interpreted. Every few months, I’ll get an email or see on FB that an author I know/like/admire is in contention for one of these readers’ choice things, and could I please vote? Usually, I do it if I’ve read the book and liked it–I draw the line at voting for books I’ve haven’t read, no matter how much I like the author’s previous works or personality. But still, even if I know the book well and love it, my vote isn’t really fair, because normally I’ve read few or none of the competitors, so I don’t actually *know* the book I’m voting for is better.

In the interests of fairness, I should really go out and read every book in contention, at least a few chapters and skim to the end, before I make a bold claim that I know which the best one is. But let’s be honest, who is willing to do that without being paid? And who is paid–judges. That’s why I contend that the best people to judge contests are always the judges. It’s not because I’m elitist snob who privileges certain opinions above others; it’s because the only people who are going to read dozens of books in a year that they didn’t select for themselves, some hard to find, obscure, very long, or about topics that don’t interest them–are the folks on the payroll. The “popular” way isn’t even close to fair.

Amazingly, near as I can tell, the Deathmatch *is* fair. Of course, you can’t stop people voting without reading and the writers with friends working office jobs, who can set their phone alarms and go online to revote every hour, are going to do better than folks whose friends are teachers and construction workers. But it works really well. Each quarter final pits only two short stories against each other–it’ll take you maybe half an hour to read both, and then you can make a totally informed decision. You can choose to vote in any number of quarter finals–1, 2, 3, or 4 rounds. The semi-finals pit the winners against each other in 2 more rounds after–get this–everybody’s rewritten their stories to incorporate the feedback they got the first time around. How cool is that?

I voted in a couple quarter finals, but didn’t think to share the love. Now we’re in the semis, but it’s not too late–you can vote until Sunday midnight in the first semifinal, and all next week in the second. Start here and enjoy some weird fiction.

February 10th, 2013

Lately

Lately, I have been completely failing to like things my friends adore, which makes me sad. If you know me personally, you know I’m rarely happier than when falling in line with my peers. Which is why I’m so sad not to be enjoying *Mad Men* and completely baffled by *The Silver Linings Playbook*. I really have to accept that tastes aren’t universal, but I so *want* them to be.

Here’s something I DO like–a video of Alice the kitten with her head stuck in a kitchen chair. It would not be funny if she hadn’t freed herself 20 minutes later, but she did so it is, so enjoy!

The reason I don’t like MM and SLP is not because they don’t have kittens in them–really.

February 3rd, 2013

The Sky Has Always Been Falling

I came to Toronto to work in publishing at the beginning of 2002, just before Stoddart and General Publishing imploded. At the time, I was acquainted with only a very few bookfolk, but all were startled and scared about their jobs and the industry at large–they predicted that things were going to change a lot, for the worse, right away.

The sky was falling, and it’s been falling ever since.

Eventually, in my 10 years in the world of books–mainly publishing with brief forays into libraries, book stores, and the classroom–I’ve met more people, lots more people, in this world. And I discovered that publishing folks are uncomfortable without a catastrophe. It’s a hard job, making books for people who have so many shinier, easier forms of entertainment available for their leisure hours, and we–yeah, “we,” I’m in it–like it better when there is at least a focus for our frustrations, a suitable scapegoat for everything that makes delivering literature to readers so hard. Over the years it’s been everything from Dan Brown to Amazon to American dollars at par to ass-grabbing executives to Heather Reisman. I suppose this could be true of any industry–I’ve never worked in another one, come to think of it.

I started writing this post during the Douglas and McIntyre bankruptcy, lost interest as the news cycle wound down, and now I’m back because of the Globe and Mail books editor reshuffle. It’s always something! But every time is like the first time for most of us: I keep feeling like most of the conversation is all, “now we’re *really* doomed” with occasional breaks for nostalgizing how much better it was before this new bad thing happened. Which is fine, I guess, in small doses–cathartic, anyway. Bad things really have happened, we’ve got to get it out of our systems, and kvetching is sorta fun.

BUT–I feel like every literary article in the mainstream press that isn’t a straightup review lately is an end-of-days whinefest. We’re actually losing column inches across the board, but why are we squandering what we have saying over and over how it all is sucktastic?

And who knows, maybe it *is* that bad and my perspective is just clouded–see the name of this blog. But how is it going to get any better when our focus is so backwards facing, so sad about everything that has gone before that we’re unable to think of the future.

I’m hardly cutting edge, but I think some of my tiny bit of optimism comes from my unique position, which is actually multiple positions. I’ve published two old-fashioned, old-school paper books with a press that is actually still independent, still active, still innovative–somehow Biblioasis manages to keep their authors out in the world, relevant and engaged, while dealing primarily with printed pages.

But I’m also on the other side some of the time–5 days a week, in fact. I work in a publishing environment that is struggling pretty hard to do the new things–books that have no print dimension, or only a small one, but do things print could never do. Have I seen the future? No, I haven’t, but I have seen a lot of possibilities. It’s inspiring what people are coming up with. It’s also really really hard–this sort of work calls on a lot of skills that aren’t really active in most bookfolk. It’s another part of the brain–several other parts–and sometimes it makes me really sad how not-innate this stuff is to me. But I keep trying, because what choice do I have? Publishing *will* keep moving forward, and I would like to go with it as far as I can.

I do find it hard to be terribly pessimistic about the future of literature when I have seen all these great ideas–variations on the old and brand-new alike–that are coming forward. And if you’re more pessimistic than me, fine–there’s room to disagree. But surely the “we’re doomed, we’re doomed” folks must realize that they’re not the best friends a book ever had.

Literature is a vibrant part of culture–it reflects and questions and celebrates and protests what IS in our world, and therefore it has to be part of that world. If it’s hard to innovate right now, individuals and companies and the whole industry do suffer, but that’s the nature of growth. We’re just going to have to work harder. In tough times, well…you know what they say…

If you’re worried about who is going to be the next great books editor, apply for the job. If you think all the publishing houses suck, found a better one. If you don’t think there’s a book that really capitalizes on the new technologies, write one. Or write a book that transcends technology, that’s so good it would be relevant in any age. It’s something to shoot for, anyway.

Or hell, just read a book. Read anything, and engage with the content, and talk about what it is and could be. Even if the sky were truly falling, it would still be worth reading books, and I think it always will be.

January 30th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth is the 11th book of my overlong 2012 Reading Challenge. Closer every day!

I know, I know–what’s wrong with me? This book came out in 1992 and 20 years later, I’m just getting around to it? In fact, my mom even read it right when it came out, and mentioned that my newly teenaged self might benefit from reading about where the enforced self-consciousness of females in our culture actually comes from. But I wasn’t interested. I did for some reason read Misconceptions when it came out in 2003. It was a fascinating but to me entirely irrelevant accounting of the medicalization–some would say patholisation–of childbirth in our society. It was also astoundingly gory–childbirth is, I guess. At that time, I didn’t know what an episiotomy was, and was much dismayed to find out. It was an eye-opening read.

At this point in history and in my life, *The Beauty Myth* was much less eye-opening. The link above on Naomi Wolf’s website says this book changed how we think about beauty and it’s true–Naomi Wolf’s dense and well-researched, imaginative and forceful treatise has wormed its way into the public consciousness. No one reads advertising or, indeed, models the same way anymore, and I’ve seen countless less-incisive writers spouting her ideas if they were original. They feel original; they feel as if we never didn’t know.

It was very interesting to go back to the source and read about how she investigated this stuff at a time when it just was what it was. But it was also…so earnest! One thing Wolf lacks is irony–her Biblical exegesis is soooo grad school (uglyness as sin), which doesn’t make it less brilliant. But sometimes, her inability to see pneumatic breasts and $100 skin cream as a humourous gets a little tiresome. I guess, too, I have the luxury of vantage point–Wolf didn’t know the near future would turn out the way it did. She assumed a woman’s ideal breast size would just keep getting bigger until we couldn’t walk upright, when in fact the ideal is now smaller but firmer, a la Megan Fox. Who knew?

So the reasons I don’t entirely relate to the book are various–20 years of distance and irony, the fact that I’m not exposed to a tonne of media–but intriguingly, the chapter that really resonated with me was the last one, “Violence.” I don’t know what I was expecting–domestic violence, I guess, which doesn’t really suit the context at all. It turns out that that chapter is about plastic surgery, and as in Misconceptions Wolf spares no sensibility in her gory evocation of how it really goes down.

Some of her panic is justified–in the late 80s and early 90s, women were dying from complications from liposuctions, breast implants were having to removed because they’d “gone rigid”–early plastic surgery was not a good scene. But it’s also improved greatly since the book was written, as all medical technologies do–she must have known that would happen. And also, though there’s always going to be a market for this sort of thing, most people actually don’t get their faces and bodies reconstructed. They don’t even think about it.

I was thinking this and then I realized…I did! I don’t think of it that way, because I was told by doctors that my jaw misalignment would eventually destroy the joint and therefore I needed the operation…but the fact remains that it was the same surgery many women have to look better. I’m always way too eager to explain I didn’t do it for cosmetic reasons, but the fuller story is a bit more complex. When I first began preparing for the operation, nearly 2 years out, they didn’t tell me I’d look different, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that moving my jaw around would change my appearance. I found out when I was already well into the process and the surgeon, who was proud of his aesthetic successes, was disgusted that I didn’t want to be “improved.”

“Well, you don’t look normal now, you know,” he snapped. Now I think about what a weird statement that is–the ideal is not the median, and people with perfect faces are definitely not “normal.” Then I was just horrified. Anyway, he was extremely aggressive about persuading me that there was no non-stupid way to correct my medical problem without correcting my cosmetic “problem” to. I cried, but my jaw really hurt and I’d been preparing for the operation for a year. I didn’t research what I was told or try to dissect how much of the surgeon’s medical reasons were actually just a patholization of imperfection. I agreed to the operation, whatever it took.

I think that’s what Wolf was afraid of. Not that women walking down the street feeling good about ourselves will see a Botox poster and feel our self-esteem shatter, but that how self-perpetuating the beauty industry is, how proselytizing. It was strange for me, reading the book, not to get it and then to get it exactly.

*The Beauty Myth* is not a fun read, although unlike many academics Wolf writes with clarity, concision, and occasionally real beauty. It took me nearly 3 months to read it, and I stopped in the middle to read Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bossypants among other things, because it was just too sad for Christmastime. But it was instructive reading nonetheless and I feel good to have read it. Because far as we’ve all come in reading media for the commercial, coercive enterprise that it is, apparently we (or at least I) can still be stunned by an attack in the name of beauty. And it’s worth thinking about why.

For the record, I don’t look that different now, unless you’re one of the people who think I look very different. It depends on how you look at faces, I guess. I think I look fine and my new face is now entirely my face–I relate to it. However, although I know have a “perfect” ratio of space between my nose and upper lip, and lower lip and chin (seriously–I was told there’s a number), I still miss my old face, which was longer and seemed narrower. I believe Kathrine Mansfield would’ve called it “horsey” but it was mine and I always rather liked it.

 

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November 9th, 2012

The Next Big Thing–want to play?

The Next Big Thing is an internet meme that’s been floating around over the past few weeks. It’s about writers’ works in progress–what they’re up to, how it’s going, why they’re doing it, etc. At the end, you’re supposed to tag more writers so they can have a crack at it. Shari Lapena kindly tagged me so I’ll be filling it out over the next few days, and will post my answers here when they’re ready.

As for whom I’ll tag…um! I’m really hesitant to approach people about their works in progress because for some, talking about undone work is tantamount to bringing on a curse, or guaranteeing it’ll never happen. Or they just find it really depressing. I’ve definitely felt like that at times and though I’m over the principle horror for now, no telling when it’ll come back–I definitely empathize with those in the throes of it now.

So, I thought I’d just throw the doors wide open instead: are any of you guys a) currently attempting in some fashion to write a book and b) willing to discuss it, even in a vague and elliptical fashion? If so, drop me a note in the contact (above) or comments (below) and I’ll sign you up.

Until the next wave of horror!

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