December 22nd, 2011

Liking: Not Just for Facebook

While I’ve been completely dug under with horrible work, some things I wrote early, before the weight of the world crushed me, have been going up online. Good to remember my more positive days!!

A book I like, on the Advent Book Elf: And Also Sharks by Jessica Westhead

A journal I like, on The Literary Type blog: The New Quarterly

A website I like likes me back: Salty Ink’s Top 10 Canadian Books of Short Fiction

An artist I like: Marc Chagall and the Russian Avant Garde. Ok, that’s not online, but if you have a chance to see the exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, go. So good, so joyful.

Also, hey, it’s Hanukkah, and almost Christmas, and the weather is nice. I still have so much to do but I think I can be the light (candles? twinkle lights?) at the end of the tunnel, and it’s sparkly.

April 25th, 2011

Just wanted to mention

…that my article on advice columns (one of my favourite things) is in the April Issue of Aggregation Magazine.

Also, thanks to all who voted on my author photo–much appreciated! If you haven’t yet but still want to, please view the photos and post your favourite in the comments on that post by noonish tomorrow, at which point I hope to wrap things up. Interestingly: *all* of the photos have a reasonable number of votes.

Ok, that’s it for now!

June 21st, 2010

Two nice things

Let’s start with the good stuff:

1) The New Quarterly’s poll to choose a cover image for their “On the Road” issue is now up. The pics are all splendid, so there is no need for me to stump for my favourite, though I very much have one.

2) Ian le Tourneau, whose work I have to admit I’m not familiar with, has started a neat new thing called The Second Book Project. The first one, linked here, is with the always fascinating Zachariah Wells and there is the promise of more to come. As an author knee-deep in the sophmore slog, I am very interested in following these interviews and trying to learn a little something for myself. FYI, the series is poets only, but I find that when it comes to process-and-publication topics like this, I there is still plenty to learn across the forms.

June 15th, 2010

Various Goodnesses

This is going to drive me crazy–The Literary Type is searching for a cover image for their “On the Road” issue, which is about travel and transit of all kinds, which is a much beloved them of mine (see last book, as well as the story of mine that’s actually in the “On the Road” issue). But I can’t come up with an image for them–why? Maybe you can come up with an image and solve the problem for us all…?

The National Post ran a piece We’ve Read Your Book, Now What? this weekend, about what authors would recommend people read *after* our own books. Lots of good ideas, including one from me!

I am going to see The New Pornographers in five hours. Well, that’s when the openers come on–TNP will I guess be later. I haven’t been to a concert in a couple years and I sort of forget how they work. But I’m still pretty sure I’m going to like it.

I feel less lousy on less caffeine today. The goal here, after all, is not to eradicate a nice thing from my life, but simply not to be dependent on it. And varying the time and amount of caffeine I consume is *like* not being dependent–isn’t it?

May 13th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews “The Cursing Mommy” by Ian Frazier

Now, you know I take The New Yorker as a direct letter from my chosen diety, and I do quite like the work on the magazine of Ian Frazier but I just can’t quite be happy with his recent string of Cursing Mommy columns.

These aren’t about wishing 7 years bad luck on a mother, but rather a mother who curses. These appear sporadically in the New Yorker’s humour column, Shouts and Murmurs. CM narrates an advice show in a similar manner to a cooking show–“Now I’ll just go over here and get the…” and Frazier’s columns are the transcripts. Cursing Mommy hates her “useless” husband, is usually fed up with her (rarely present) offspring, seems to live a nice middle-class life (has a fax machine, lots of liquor, no job and guests for dinner), and can barely see through her blinding rage. She is also frequently drunk.

I think you can see where I am going with this…

The most recent installment, from the April 26 issue, is Rx from the Cursing Mommy: Cursing Mommy discusses the situation of her infirm and widowed father, and how she struggles with all the nonsensical communications sent to her by the retirement home where he lives. She begins to offer some reasonable advice–staple together, label and file all communications–but then is undone by the fact that the stapler isn’t working.

CM has real issues, and she states them articulately (though not particularly humourously): her “betwixt and between generation [is] responsible for the health needs not only of ourselves and our usually oblivious spouses but of our children and our aging parents, too.” She gets no help with her father, though “at some point he became involved with a woman named Marjorie, who is quite a bit younger and larger than he is, and she has taken an apartment not far from the nursing home.”

That’s the scene, surely not unrelate-to-able–the US health-care system really is labyrinthine, and it’s even worse when you are negotiating it on behalf of someone else far away. From the personal RR files: My folks went through this with my grandparents, a continent away, so I do know that CM is right that it’s crazy-making (and yet my folks managed not to go crazy, or even curse that much, and they don’t even have a fax machine).

But CM does go crazy, and I felt fairly bad for her, and not at all amused. You tell me–funny or sad?

“And then [wham wham wham wham wham] the fucking staples STILL aren’t coming out! [Wham wham wham wham.] And now they’re coming out three at a fucking time! Oh, I so despise this shit! [Wham wham wham wham wham.] And the fucking Bush Administration, too—how I loathe them! [Wham wham wham wham wham wham wham.] Did it work? [Wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham.] All right, I think it worked.”

I suppose part of my issue is that Frazier is a middle-aged man, and I feel like he doesn’t get to make fun of women struggling to stay sane. But of course, this would be as offensive as it is–or isn’t, depending on your viewpoint–if I wrote it or indeed if a stay-at-home-mom did (do we like the acronym SAHM? I find it hard to pronounce). But I also totally feel like, simply as humour, this is falling flat because it’s the wrong format–this is physical comedy and probably should be an actual TV show (SNL sketch, anyone?) and not prose. Visuals come at you faster, and if they are hilarious enough keep a girl from going all “is that anti-feminist? Is he saying women are so dumb they can’t even cope with staplers?

I would like to tie together my two theses: 1) this column is vaguely misogynistic and 2) this column is not all that funny, but I can’t seem to. I guess one thought along those lines is that though this particular column would still not do it for me even if it were written by a woman, I’ve read *much* funnier accounts of the SAHM life (I guess I can type it even if I can’t say it) that were written by the women who lived them. That actual on-ground point of view is missing here–it is very much mocking from outside rather than humourously commiserating from inside.

Maybe Shouts and Murmurs should stick to columns based on silly press-release copy–I like those.

December 9th, 2009

Postal excellence

Today’s mail was extra good: 1 magazine, one letter, one holiday card, one return-to-sender misaddressed holiday card (the only down note, to be hand-delivered on Saturday), and 2 copies of the fall issue of The Antigonish Review (the issue is not yet online) containing my flash fiction, “Do.”

I am so delighted to see it there, and it is a story I am quite proud of, but it is somewhat jarring reading as it was written a few years back and is *much* different from what I’m doing these days (how much flash fiction are you seeing from me lately, really?) It’s nice to be reminded that I have a little bit of range, though it’s sequential–I can no more go back to doing what I was doing in 2006 than I can skip ahead to whatever I’ll be up to in 2012 and see how that goes. I can only hope the cycle repeats, one of these days.

Anyway…hope you enjoy the story, and the whole of a very attractive-looking issue (mine was in *3* layers of shrink-wrap–it’s like they *knew* about the slush-storm!)


August 4th, 2009

Submit, all ye who enter

I started thinking about story (and poem) submissions to literary journals when a friend said she was going to start sending some out. I’ve been doing that for a few years now, and our conversation made me realize how much I’ve learned since then. I thought maybe I could help someone out a little with that learning curve, if in fact anyone in need of help is reading this.

1. Where to submit?

Journals you like–if you like what they do, the odds are higher that they’ll like what you do. Don’t know any journals well enough to make that assessment? Go read some. This needn’t be all that expensive or time-consuming; you don’t need to subscribe, but one issue from the newsstand or library, or a serious peruse of the mag’s online archive (if it has one) would really help you decide if it’s worth your time to submit–and worth the editors’ time to read your work.

Ok, ok: If you are extremely talented and extremely patient, you can get published without reading the journals you submit to–you’re just going to wind up sending a lot of inappropriate places and getting a lot of nos first. Some journals only take a certain genre, or style of writing… Also, every journal I can think of wants new, fresh voices (show me the journal that is after “staid and tired” writing) but exactly how edgy they want writing to be, how fractured, how weird or funny or linear is various. Those are style issues that could cause perfectly good writing to get rejected because it doesn’t fit the journal’s aesthetic.

A great list of litmags, as well as contests and calls for submissions, is available from the generous folks at [places for writers] (no, I don’t know what what the brackets are about, but it’s still a great site). The Canadian list there is a little weak on genre magazines; there’s a few science fiction ones, but I don’t see any for mystery or horror. I think those are perhaps more common in the states, but genre and American publications are two areas I know little about. Sorry.

2. Paid or unpaid?

Doesn’t matter in the slightest. Many perfectly good journals don’t pay, or pay in copies, or in beer, or in love. If you would like to do this writing thing long term, it would help to become comfortable with that. Here’s why: If you should ever keep track of all the hours spent writing and rewriting a given piece of creative work, and then divide that into whatever you end up getting paid when it’s published (and I would strongly discourage you from doing this), nothing any journal could ever offer you is likely to approach minimum wage. And since any amount of money isn’t really going to be right, maybe $0 is only just as incorrect as any other amount.

The one thing writer payments guarantee is that the journal has the respect of subscribers, advertisers and/or granters to some substantial degree. Money doesn’t promise that it’s a good journal, but it does indicate someone thinks it is. So it can be harder, if doubt your own judgement, when you find a non-paying journal that you like the look of, to know what anyone else thinks of it. Ask around, maybe read a couple issues (so you know it’s not a fly-by-night)–good work is usually known. Submit to journals you respect, that you’d be proud to appear in, and that oughta be that.

The one exception to the money-doesn’t-matter rule is when you are working towards applying for grants. Both Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council require writers to have a certain number of publications paid in cash (no copies, beer, or love) in order to be eligible for grants. If you plan on seeking grants, this is something to be aware of.

3. What about this simultaneous submission thing?

I’d get more rejections if I could send the same stories to multiple journals at the same time (that’s what a simultaneous submission is, der). But many journals don’t allow that, which is I think a rather author-unfriendly policy, but it’s not my ball; I can’t play by my own rules. Several journals I admire and would love to be published in have that rule, so I suck it up and let them hold my story for 9 months before they reject it and I am free to send it elsewhere.

Not an ideal situation, but better than a) not submitting to journals I admire or b) lying. I have to admit, the tales of simultaneous-submission renegades getting blacklisted/scorned/never published again/shunned at parties are vague and apocryphal, but I still think honesty is the way to go, if only for it’s own sake, and the sake of keeping your submission tracking chart (mine’s in Excel) clean.

If you should screw up and, despite the Excel chart, send something to two places by accident (I’ve done this; Excel is confusing), just write and withdraw one; no need to admit the gaffe and say why, as long as you do it promptly.

4. Are you ready for rejection?

I was terrified to submit to professional publications–and didn’t–for 10 years. There were several reasons for this, but basically it boiled down to the fact that I wasn’t ready to have my work read by strangers, whether by hundreds of subscribers to a journal, or by a single editor flipping idly through her in-box. I didn’t think my work was good enough to stand up to criticism, but also my own little ego wasn’t tough enough to accept rejection and use criticism effectively.

Rejection stings. It makes you doubt your work, your ability to select the correct forum for your work, your ability to judge, and is also just sad and annoying. I used to lose a couple days’ writing time every time I got a “no”, but now it’s down to only a couple hours. The time away from the story actually often gives some distance and insight, and by the time I get the no I might have already figured out what’s wrong with it, and other times I haven’t at all but the kindly feedback in the rejection helps me do so. And yet other times I’ve felt that it was the editor’s loss and I immediately sent the story elsewhere. In all events, the story is exactly what it was before it got rejected, and if it’s not good yet, I generally have faith in myself that I’m capable of making it that way.

Don’t submit until you feel that way. I have been alarmed recently to get several form rejection letters that said, “This rejection does not mean you’re not a good writer,” and in one case (jokingly???) “…a good person.” What kind of rejection responses are those journals getting if they feel they need to include this? Writing is very personal and very important if you do it right, but to keep doing it, one needs at least a little distance. If everyone who ever wrote anything dumb and/or was misunderstood by others let it crush them, there would be no writers left. I get more than 20 rejections a year (not counting grant applications, contest entries or dating)–I can’t afford the time to be blown apart by them.

5. What if I hear nothing?

Most journals have an ETA on responses published in their submissions guidelines, and though it’s hard, it’s pretty much good manners to wait until that time has well and truly passed before emailing to ask what they’ve done with your beautiful story (ie., if they say they’ll get back to you in 6 months, try to get more than a day past that before you email…if possible).

Most editors or assistants or interns will actually go figure it out and tell you if your work has passed to some higher level of editorial deliberation, or if the rejection is in the mail, or what. Occasionally the work is lost, and they have no record of receiving it, which makes that 6-month wait really sting. Even more occasionally, I get no response at all to my query. In that case, I wait a week and then send another note withdrawing the submission, which usually goes unacknowledged, too. Strangely, when this happens, I have twice gotten a rejection letter for the story about two months later. Quel bizarre.

Sidenote: do as I say, not as I do: write down how long you are supposed to wait (three months, six months, whatevs) before querying, and then query after that long. Don’t be like me who carefully logs story submissions, then forgets about them for months and feels like a giant loser writing to a journal to admit I lost track of a story I love for an entire year. Yes, this happens to me.

6. How should I format my work?

I’m not touching this; almost every journal has a very similar set of formating guidelines with one little wonky thing, often to do with headers/footers. Do whatever they say; seriously, it’s respectful and proves you’re not outsmarted by MS Word. If there’s actually nothing given, ok, fine: use the default settings and font on your computer, double-space for prose and single for poetry, your name and the page number on the tope right of every page. Use white paper and envelopes; resist the lure of stickers.

Oh, and be really respectful about maximum word counts. You don’t get far in the editorial community without being able to eyeball a wordcount in 15 seconds, no matter what spacing is used.

I hope that helps…I actually have no idea if it does or not. If I’ve left out something crucial, or am actually doing everything all wrong, please let me know!! It’s fun and exciting and crushing and thrilling to have work in the world and although this post somehow got monsterously long, it’s really not that stressful. Highly recommended, really!

Then begin again

July 17th, 2009

Oh, look!

I don’t usually link to blogs that haven’t been going for a while, in case they don’t continue, but I’m too excited to wait to tell you that The New Quarterly has a blog now, The Literary Type. And really, I have no doubt that TLT will thrive with all the good energy and talent that lives at TNQ behind it, and with their wonderous managing editor Rosalynn Tyo at the helm.


The flower said it wished it was a bee

June 26th, 2009

What the last 10 years have taught me

What I mainly did on that dock, as I said, was read *The New Yorker* fiction issue, which I had been waiting for with avid enthusiasm (because I can’t read magazines out of order, natch). Obviously, I was rabid for the stories, but I had also been forwarned by Facebook friends that there was an article on teaching creative writing that I would want to see.

The piece turned out to be a review by one of my favourite critics, Louis Menand, of a book called The Program Era by Mark McGurl. I haven’t heard more about McGurl than what Menand wrote, and I have little intention of reading the book (beyond the vague miasma of “oh, yeah, I should probably read that” that I feel about most books). So on the one hand, it’s pretty presumptuous and glib for me to respond to the article. On the other hand, Menand’s piece is one of *The New Yorker*’s rambling “Critic at Large” pieces, which encompasses a lot of general thoughts on the issue. So maybe I’m responding to those general comments. Or, on yet another hand, this is a blog, and maybe presumptuousness/glibness is the least of the worries of the blogosphere.


The book, and to some extent the article, deal with the rise of the university creative writing class and degree, and simply the increasing presence of the “certified” writer on the lit scene. It was indeed edifying and maybe mildly shocking to see how many names got listed here (nice to see Bharati Mukherjee’s name in *The New Yorker*, whatever the reason). An interesting thesis of the book, and one that Menand deals scantly with, is how creative writing programs shaped the evolotion of later-20th-century prose–in fact, the subtitle of the book is “Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing.”

Menand has concentrated much more on the ever-scandalous question, also inherent in McGurl’s work, “Can creative writing be taught?” Both offer lots of fascinating “well, maybe” answers, well worth reading at least in the short review form. I’ve written about this here before, and so I’ll add only my usual quotation of the immortal Judith Viorst–help helps–plus: Creative writing classes, and eventually an MA in the subject, helped me so much with my writing. The classes gave me the discipline, focus, friends, inspiration, connections, snack foods, mentors, party tricks, informal workshop groups, cold terror, and cheerful ambition to take the writing I was already doing to the next level. If that’s not learning, I don’t know what is.

But I also know there are other kinds of learning, and this is something Menand leaves to the very last paragraph. This is moving, but I think it elides something else:

“I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The majority of people who take a creative-writing class in undergrad don’t continue to write after graduation, he says. Well, I don’t have the stats, but judging by the folks I know, that sounds about write (ahaha. I actually wrote that accidentally.)

So, maaaybe, if impermanent writers–elective takers, dabblers, interested experimenteers– is who is in the classes, Menand and McGurl are missing the boat. Maybe what creative writing classes in universities do is not (only) shape the national fiction style or create silken prose out of sow’s ears, but *teach 20-year-olds to think creatively and write coherently*. Transferable skills if ever there were.

I think this issue is actually larger than creative writing; it stems from a larger misunderstanding of liberal arts education, although I don’t know that one is mine or society’s. When I was wee, but after I figured out that being intelligent was not a profession, I asked my liberal-arts-professing father what he taught people to do–like, medical school taught people how to cut open bodies and fix them, and police school taught people to shoot guns. My father’s response was that his sort of teaching wasn’t about learning to *do* a thing; he taught people how to *think* about things in a certain way, and then they could apply that way of thinking how they liked.

Revalatory, when you’re ten and trying very hard to learn to do a lay-up and spell “persimmon.” (And the author will allow that she may recollect her childhood as slightly more Socratic than it actually was.)

I have a BA Hon. in English Literature and an MA in English and Creative Writing, and I swear to you, I use what they taught me every day of my life. No, no one has asked me about Grendel, Tess, or semiotics today. And yet, the skills of close and careful reading, of contextualizing what I read with as much related material as possible, of reasoned and elegant essay arguementation, and of clear and relentless questioning of whatever I think I know–well, thank you, liberal-arts education.

Of course, as you can see by my Facebook friends above, conversations about the nun’s priest or Samson Agonistes are likelier to happen to me than perhaps to most. But I really do believe that folks in advertising and marketing, in law and government and even medicine are able to use reading and writing skills they picked up in liberal arts classes. Not to mention the endless insights into the human condition we are given in reading about humans, in fiction or in non-fiction. And the ability to not only answer questions but ask them intelligently. And to empathize with people so foreign to us they actually don’t exist.

Most people know that learning to think in different ways is always to the good. But I worry they don’t prioritize that good. Having TA’d a little, and generally being around academic life, I do worry about the vocationalization of university education. I worried that my Effective Writing students wanted only to work on resume cover letters and mission statements that would translate directly into career skills, rather than work on the whole craft of writing and then make the cognitive connections in the work world for themselves.

I did actually go to vocational school too, so please know I don’t knock that course at all. It was interesting and stimulating and my publishing certificate leads more or less directly to me being able to eat food and sleep indoors in a relatively entertaining fashion. But those skills I learned there are rigid, specific, and date-able. Every time I switch software platforms, style guides or subject matter, I start over…not from square one perhaps, but certainly from a square nearby. Vocational skills are generally like this: welders certified to do stick welding have a fundamentally different skill than those who do pipe welding. The skills may have much in common, but you can’t just extrapolate one to the other; you have to go back and learn again.

Which is, as I said, a fine way to learn, but fundamental different than the fluid (or, admittedly, amorhphous) skills of the liberal arts education.

What a very long way of saying I think that evaluating university creative-writing programs by the famous writers they’ve produced does many students a disservice. I spent this spring trying to teach 90 teenagers how to write a short story, and although I can see perhaps a dozen of them pursuing the craft, I truly truly believe many of those kids were a least a little smarter for having tried it. I think creating strong introductory creative writing classes, as well as Intro Psych, Philosophy and Film, can help a lot of people think a little bit different, and better.

But then, I would think that.

The eventual downfall / is just the bill from the restaurant

June 25th, 2009

Post-cottage miscellany

That orange chair is where I’ve been more or less steadily the past few days, chatting with old friends, petting the dog, reading The New Yorker fiction issue (oh, Jonathan Franzen, you’ve done it again!), eating cookies, and periodically staring up in stunned silence at the beauty around me. So *that’s* what people like about cottage weekends. Now I know.

But I am, as ever, glad to be back in the 416. Happy things that greeted me upon my return are phone calls from friends, emails from same, my beloved indoor toilet, a nice review in Gloss, and the news that Canadian Notes and Queries new website is up, with tonnes of good stuff, including my first ever published review. I’m pretty proud.

My little review is the smallest reason to go get a copy of–or subscribee to!!–CNQ. It’s a great journal and full of things to make you think. As Dan points out, putting your name on a subscriber list to a litmag is, these days, pretty much a political act, tantamont to signing a petition in favour of keeping small creatively and critically engaged communities alive and funded. So if there’s a journal you believe in and you can possibly afford it, put your name down.

I was helpless as a chess piece/lifted up by someone’s hand

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