September 29th, 2017

WordFeast Fredericton

Today is PechaKucha Night at Markham Village Library so I’m already on to other things, but I want to flash back to the glorious 3 days I spent in New Brunswick last weekend for WordFeast Fredericton.

It was so great! I had never been a headliner before, so it was a bit terrifying to have three events scheduled in two days, but it was also amazing and exciting to be meeting readers in such a range of ways–a lecture on unlikeable characters Friday night, a workshop on characters and dialogue on Saturday afternoon, and a reading from So Much Love on Saturday night.

There’s a nice account of the Friday night lecture in The Aquinian, which is the student newspaper at St. Thomas University in Fredericton–there were a few other nice articles but unfortunately most of the newspapers in New Brunswick are behind a paywall so I can’t share them. There’s a great photo of me and Riel Nason enjoying a Q&A with Colleen Kitts-Goguen, and another of festival organizer and Fredericton Cultural Laureate and general mastermind Ian LeTourneau.

Everyone I encountered at the fest–reader, volunteer, director, organizer, writer, or just enjoyer of things literary–was so terribly kind and friendly. And Fredericton itself is the sweetest, prettiest little city–and I had the best weather for wandering around trying to get my bearings, going to the farmer’s market, walking on the walking bridge, being toured around by my cousins-in-law, and just generally enjoying every minute.

Sunday night I took the bus down to Moncton to spend the day with my dear friend Art (he is actually one of my husband’s oldest friends, and officiated at our wedding–Art is one of the bonuses I picked up in the marriage!) and his high-school scholars. In Art’s unique classroom, teenagers are meeting their considerable life challenges with literary theory and granola bars, and it was a truly edifying day for me–and hopefully for them. I did my best to make the world of writing and stories and publishing sound possible and interesting to their ears, and sometimes I think I succeeded. Certainly everyone made me feel welcomed and heard, and I tried to return the favour. It was an amazing experience.

And then a very tired me flew home! I’ve talked with other lit folks about what it takes to feel like a “real writer” and it’s different things on different days for different people, but having others take an interest in my work, getting to talk about it and explore it with other engaged readers, is a huge one for me, and this weekend was a great gift.

April 20th, 2016

A library memory

Mark got me a new jewellery box for Christmas and so I cleared out the old one. I trashed the stuff that is legitimately useless (broken necklaces, single earrings) and gave anything I knew I would never wear again to my local 6-year-old (who was thrilled! 6 year olds are the best!) I found a bunch of badly tarnished silver stuff I hadn’t worn in years, went on a quest for silver polish (oddly hard to find–surely silver jewellery hasn’t gone out of fashion) and polished it all up. This process took months, but finally my setup is all worked out and I have access to a lot of pretty things I’d forgotten I owned.

Today I’m wearing a silver necklace that took me forever to polish because it has square links–it’s hard to get around the corners–but that’s also what makes it an interesting-looking piece. When I put it on, I realized I’ve had it for almost thirty years! Like most stories from my childhood, this one is weirder and sweeter than I knew at the time…

I went to a strange country school where there were only a few kids in each grade–usually between 7 and 9 in mine. Me and two girls named Jenny were the central girl population, with other girls coming for a year or two before moving away (why was the population of my little town so transient, I wonder now). With such a small group and my nerdish nature, it was easy to find myself without friends for a time, which is where I was in grade 4. Like I say, it was a tiny country school so no one was particularly mean to me most of the time, and I still got to play in any game that required quorum. Those games were often pretty rough, though–things like British Bulldog and Red Rover–and with my tendency to fall down even when nothing roughhouse-y was going on, I tended to want to stay away, even though I would have liked to play with other kids (note: I had friends and did fun outdoor stuff other years; grade 4 was just a rough one).

So I got really into being a “library helper” in my school library. I had done it for at least a year prior to grade 4–you just put books other kids had returned away during recess. I wish I could say I did it due to my intense love of reading, and I certainly liked all the books, many of which I would read or skim as I put them away, but mainly I was just looking to avoid recess.

That was the year the teacher-librarian, Mrs. Palubski, fell down a flight of stairs (at home; our school didn’t have stairs) and broke her ankle. Now that I think about it, something else must have been wrong with Mrs. P beyond a broken ankle, because she fell in the fall and took of the entire rest of the school year, but I didn’t know at the time that that was odd.

For a while we had a string of temporary subs come into the library for just a day or two at a time. Because any teacher could sub in for a teacher-librarian, often they knew nothing about libraries, so when I came in I would tell them about the Dewey Decimal system, which had become my favourite thing about the library, better even than the books or lack of other kids. It was just so orderly, and order was something I felt was sorely lacking at school, especially at yelling, pushing, red-rovering recess. I can still find things via the Decimal system, even though the libraries I’ve gone to in the past 20 years have almost all been Library of Congress style. 636 is my favourite, domestic animals (ok, I just looked it up–animal husbandry, but close enough!)

I’m sure I was an officious little dweeb, but I think the subs humoured me, partly because they realized this was the main thing going on in my life at school and partly because I actually did a fair amount of work that they, in turn, did not have to do. It was a good system.

I just remembered that maybe Mrs. Palubski was pregnant, which could be why a fall down a flight of stairs was such a problem. Or maybe it was just that by the time her ankle healed, it was time for mat leave. This wasn’t really on my priority list at the time–sorry, Mrs. P. I hope everything worked out ok for you!

Anyway, when it became clear that Mrs. P was not coming back, we got a long-term substitute for the rest of the year: Mrs. MacDonald. Mrs. MacD was young but not very young–perhaps thirty–with shoulder-length blond hair she often wore pulled back in a hair band. She had a vaguely western aesthetic, though thinking back now she might also have been a bit of a hippy. I thought she was gorgeous, but more importantly, she was really interested in the library and thus, really interested in what I had to say.

I’m not sure if she’d never worked in a library before or actually knew all about Dewey and just wanted to give me the floor, but I was thrilled that she let me give her the outline of our tiny library. I still did a lot of the shelving, but Mrs. MacD would shelve too, and we’d chat while we worked. Mainly about books–we both liked them–but also about other stuff, most lost to the mists of time. I know she had a husband, which seemed like a good idea to me, and many silver rings, which I also admired. At the time, I thought of us as two colleagues working together and passing the time of day, but now I know what I gift it is for a child to be treated as an equal to grownups, even in a tiny way. She never prodded me about going outside with my peers, and I don’t recall ever bringing it up. The problem would more or less resolve itself in grade 5, and then I would shift schools for grade 6 and finally make some real friends, so I think we both had it right in leaving well-enough alone at the time.

I was very sad when the year was wrapping up and Mrs. MacD was leaving, seemingly for good. I brought her a gift, as I did all my teachers–probably some jam my mother had made, as June is prime berry time and my mom was (and is) good at jam. And she gave me a silver necklace with small rectangular links. She loved silver jewellery and said she hoped this piece would be the start of my own collection of silver. It wasn’t, as I never buy jewellery and only have what I’ve received as gifts, but I treasured the necklace and wore it often for years, through high school and university.

Probably you’re thinking that a silver necklace is a bit of a strange gift to give a young student, and I guess you’re right. But unlike a classroom teacher, Mrs. MacD didn’t have to worry about playing favourites–she had no class of her own and I was really the main volunteer in the library (other kids would show up once in a while, then go play soccer). And it seemed like the sort of gift an adult would give a good friend, which is really what I wanted to be to Mrs. MacD–a peer she liked to hang out with, not a kid she was responsible for. She made me feel smart and cool and useful, which was a huge lift that tough year.

The necklace is still lovely, but somehow I forgot about it for a few years and let it get terribly tarnished, too much to wear, and then couldn’t be bothered to get silver polish. When I finally did, I was surprised to find how much I still like the necklace, and that it still really suits my aesthetic. I’m wearing it right now.

Mrs. MacD did indeed never return to my school, which is actually weird–the place was so far out of town that anyone willing to drive there to sub tended to get used over and over, as there weren’t that many. Maybe she got pregnant too, or decided she didn’t want to teach, or went to get her masters of library science. Maybe she wasn’t even a good teacher–I don’t know, since I saw her mainly one-on-one. I don’t know her first name or I’d google her–she’ll have to remain a mystery. But she was my cool friend when I needed one, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

March 16th, 2015

On Pedagogy

My article on children learning to read, “How to Learn to Read (if You Don’t Already Know)” is out in Canadian Notes and Queries. It’s a great issue, with reviews by some of my favourite people, like Mark Sampson and Kerry Clare. Even the pieces by non-close-friends are awesome, like an article by Stephen Henighan (he seems like a good guy, but we don’t often hang) on Mavis Gallant’s mother–who knew that was exactly what I wanted to read, but it was.

My own article was a big challenge for me, because it’s as near as I dare tread to journalism. I mean, it isn’t–it has way too much about my experiences in kindergarten to be legit journalism, but I did actually interview people and track down lots of interesting information. Teaching and learning are some of my favourite topics of late. It’s no surprise, probably, since I work in textbooks but don’t actually have a background in education. I see a lot of pedagogical talk going on, and I’m slowly piecing together how things work–at least a little.

The best thing, though, is talking to actual students. I got the chance to do so a couple weeks ago, when I went to visit the Writers’ Craft class at Watertown High. It was a fun group engaged, chatty teens and I enjoyed myself though I was a bit exhausted by the end of the hour. Standing at the front of a group 25 eager faces, trying to entertaining and engaging and actually share something useful is very very hard. The coolest thing was that the teacher of that class was MY Writers’ Craft teacher, someone who taught me a lot way back in 1997. I mentioned this fact to the class when I arrived and a murmur quickly went through the room–I heard someone whisper “birthday!” It turns out that is the YEAR THEY WERE ALL BORN. I am twice as old as the grade 12s of today. Alarming. But brilliant that they still have such a great class at their disposal in the age of disappearing electives, and such a great teacher there to teach it to them. Thanks, Waterdown High–and thanks, Ms. North!!

December 8th, 2013

These things I know

Last week I did a “how to write short stories” talk in a grade 12 Writers’ Craft class at a high school uptown. Yesterday I went and talked literary analysis with a bunch of University College students who had read my second book. Both experiences were really fascinating and invigorating–the students were engaged and intense, and not afraid to ask the tough questions.

I love to do class visits (feel free to hit me up!) because students see different things in the writing process and my own work than I ever could, and it’s one of the few opportunities I have to hear that sort of stuff from the younger generation–or from anybody, really. In asking very basic questions, they can really challenge my ingrained assumptions about how literature should or has to work.

BUT I find myself getting very hedgey in these situations, too. Youth wants answers, I have found, and many questions simply don’t have them, or not definitive ones. I remember at that age, if I was certain something worked one way, that was the ONLY way. I just wanted to lock down an answer so I could move on to the next question; the idea that some things I’d still be pondering 20 years later would have been horrible to me at that point in my life.

So I’m very reluctant to give definitive answers in these classes. Most of what I say comes larded in, “Well, in my opinion, what works for me, some people say, I’m not at all certain but…” That probably gets annoying but better than locking impressionable young minds into the rose-coloured way of doing things when there are so many others.

There are a few things I find myself saying declaratively in these classes with totally comfort, so I guess those are the things I feel are totally true without reservation. Interesting to find this out about myself. From the two classes I spoke at recently, I have found I’m pretty sure that

1) It’s ok to be influenced by other writers. This one comes up a lot. I think it’s natural to feel other writers in your own work. The best part, though, is that the more books you read, the more you context you are able to give them so that you never quite have that overwhelming, suffused-by-genius feeling you have when you start reading you first truly good works of literature. The reason everything I wrote after I first read JD Salinger sounded like JD Salinger is that his style was pretty much alone in my brain at that point; I didn’t have any other first-person chatty, self-conscious narrator to, as it were, dilute Holden Caufield. The answer was not to read less Salinger but to read more Plath, more Colette, more Hemingway. Students who worry that their stories sound too much like their idols wonder if the best thing to do would be to read less, and sound more “like themselves.” Of course, no writer is self generated; we are all a pastiche of the people and experiences and books we’ve encountered. The trick is not to limit influences but to have lots, so that the way you put them together, your blend of influences, is truly your own.

2) There is no ideal writing schedule or setup. I’d say this to adults, too, but that doesn’t stop them–or me!–from loving to ask writers whether they write in the mornings or the evenings, with a pen or on a keyboard, at a cafe or in the kitchen. It’s funny, even while I gobble that stuff up, I have no idea why I care. No one ever asks actors whether they prefer to run their lines before or after lunch, do they? Or songwriters whether they get better melody lines if they sit at the piano or pick at their guitar? It doesn’t matter. The way you get work done is the way that works for you; it has everything to do with your individual schedule and temperament, and absolutely nothing to do there being a “best” way. The only reason to try a new schedule or chair or writing exercise is that you personally might enjoy it and it might make you feel so good you write more. I firmly believe that, if you produce better work with pen and paper than on a computer, you should keep on, but it’s really not because you have some mystical “connection with the page” that the keyboard does not afford. That’s stuff’s bunk. Do what works and, if it stops working, do something else.

3) A real writer can do something else “full-time.” I think most non-writers are a little baffled by the idea that you could be a legit, publishing, even somewhat (well, a little!) respected writer and still have to go work somewhere else. Millenials are actually less susceptible to the idea that everyone has one real occupation. The new way the world works, and the way it has always worked for creative folks, is you take the money you make from doing what you love and subtract it from your expenditures per month. The number that results is the amount of money you will earn per month doing something other than what you love. Possibly, hopefully, you will earn it in a job you like quite well, but most of us are willing to do what it takes. The idea that your real job is 9-5 and everything else is a hobby is going the way of the woolly mammoth, but the youth has still been talking to their parents and need a helpful reminder now and again.

4) I can’t tell you what my works “means.”  And this is not just because I’m refusing to do your homework for you (sad but true–when students email me for help writing essays on my stories, I am so flattered I usually help at least a little, even though I really feel I shouldn’t). Sometimes I know what I meant when I put the story down on the page, and sometimes I don’t–because I was myself confused or feeling ambiguous as I wrote, or because it was a long time ago and I forget. But even if I had a very definite thought behind what I wrote, the story is only the story. If you cannot divine what I was thinking, then for you, that thought is simply not in the story. You’re NOT wrong if you can’t see it (I mean, if you’ve read carefully and thoughtfully, and basically understand written English–otherwise you might be wrong). Stories are limited to the text and what the reader can bring to it; if I got to follow each story around and add my deep thoughts and feelings to what you read, that would be a different story  (and a far more annoying world for us all). So when I’m asked what my “themes” are or my “message,” I really honestly mean it when I say, “you tell me.” I guarantee, I won’t correct you.

5) You can learn how to write better. Many snotballs run around saying “You can’t teach someone how to write well.” (Interestingly, the first time I heard this was from a writing professor.) Of course you can–there are always refinements and reimaginings you can use to make your writing clearer, brighter, easier to feel for a reader. Some you learn from reading good work, some from having smart people read your work and tell you where it falls down. Sometimes you learn from staring at the same sentence for an hour. The thing is that all these things are hard and many dull, some depressing. Many people would like to stop writing fairly early on in this process, thereby not learning anything new. The rest of us slog on, getting better very very slowly, with the help of whoever is willing, forever.

 

 

May 16th, 2011

The Capybara

I’m on hiatus last year, but in the winter of 2010, I taught for the second time with the wonderful SWAT program and had some truly awesome students at Jean Vanier High School. I received my copy of the Capybara, the anthology of the best student work in the program, and just today got a chance to see what it contained.

All the work in it is of course fabulous, but I am especially proud of my own former students. Though I very much doubt they are reading this blog, I can’t resist of shoutout to the wonderfully talented Jamie Guerrero, Gowseca Muthiah, Godfrey Manfiwiza, Vanessa Miraples, and Mary Delfin. You guys are brilliant, and I really appreciate your humouring me and submitting your work to the anthology like I asked/begged/ordered you to. These stories and poems deserve to be read!!

November 5th, 2010

A Matter of Influence

Earlier this week, I did a short talk and Q&A with a short story class that’s studying some pieces from Once. The theme I was asked to discuss was influence–what short stories and short-story writers had I learned from, and what, and how much. Well, I extrapolated those questions from the theme given; I think I got it more or less right.

There are so many writers I tried to learn from…ok, imitate…when I was younger. Ok, and I still do. I have never ever been called out on any of this rampant imitation, and here’s why: my mimicry is not good enough to remind any of the writing that I’m supposed to be mimicking. I’m not that good–it takes talent to make your voice sound like someone else’s, a weird and specific talent that few possess.

This is why the old teenage justification–“I don’t want to read other people, because it’ll influence me and my work will be derivative”–is so hilarious. Yeah, you read too much Sylvia Plath or JD Salinger, and you are in *real* danger of sounding exactly like that genius person. That’s the problem.

I don’t think I’ve ever succeeded in sounding like much of anyone except myself. But the writers that I choose to mimic–and thus to read closely and repeatedly and with care–teach me things in small and subtle ways, and point me in directions I never good have found all on my untutored own. I am a firm believer that imitation is a perfectly excellent way to begin; the places where we first hear are own voices in our work are the places where we’ve utterly failed to sound like someone else.

The influencer I chose to talk about with the students is Leon Rooke, and the stories we took up were Leon’s A Bolt of White Cloth, probably one of my favourite stories ever (it’s a long list of faves), and a story of my own that Leon pushed me (both figurively, by inspiring me with his own work, and literally, by tapping my arm and saying, “Hey, this is what you should write!”), “Linh Lai” (sorry, it’s not online).

What’s funny is that I started the talk with the same basic material on “influence” as above, talked about and read from “Bolt,” then talked about and read from “Linh,” then asked if they could see a connection. Partly, I think the students were nervous to have a stranger teaching them (they loosened up later and the Q&A was really fun) but also, the connection is not obvious.

My writing is not very Rookian, more’s the pity. I don’t have that swing to my prose, usually, and Leon’s background and experiences take him to places I can’t go. But *I* feel the connection, and know how much I learned about quotidan magic and wet-laundry romance from Leon, not to mention how to set a scene with just a glimpse of the sky. Just because my imitation is a 99% failure, doesn’t mean that that 1% isn’t in there, beating for all it’s worth.

This is *not* to say that I take my story as a failed story (I love that one, and all my published stories, actually; modesty ought to have forbid me saying that but oh well!)–just that the imitation didn’t work. But nor should it. We already have one human who can write like Leon Rooke, and he carries the mantel admirably. I am happy to just write like me, which is of course the sum everything I’ve known and seen, and everyone I’ve learned from.

May 20th, 2010

On Obscenity

I got an email the other day with a number of obscenities in it. It was a short note and they really stuck out, plus I was a bit bleary eyed and was having trouble grasping the rest of the content (one of the many awesome things about my life is that people very rarely curse me out early in the morning anymore). It took me a few moments to realize the note was from someone who had read a story of mine and was struck by certain language in it that might cause problems publishing it. The note wasn’t even critical, just factual, and all the obscene stuff was in quotation marks–I wrote it.

People say stuff, do stuff and, especially, think stuff, that I never would–and would never want to–but I do want to write about people who aren’t me. So, I have to learn to think (if not say and do) like someone else. Someone with different beliefs, values, standards than me. Someone who likes gefilite fish and ignores lucky pennies, to name two inane examples. Someone racist or disrespectful to women, to name to less inane ones.

So?

No so–I need to do it, because people like that exist. They are even charming and kind on occasion and witty at parties–and I want to write about them. Part of the thrill of writing and reading fiction is breaking out of our own tragically limited points of view and seeing why and how someone might do something completely else.

So if I write seriously, respectfully, and thoughtfully about someone who is is glibly thoughtlessly hateful–what is that? In my mind, that’s not only fine but necessary, but then again, it makes me nervous.

I finally finished reading *Tribal Justice* by Clark Blaise, probably one of the most nuanced, multi-dimensional and utterly agonizing fictional examinations of race and culture as I have ever read. As much as that book challenged and absorbed my every intellectual synapse, I still somehow had the mental space to wonder how my fellow bus riders were interepting the brightly titled cover, or if anyone had glanced over my shoulder to see the range of racial ephithets on many pages.

Those words needed to be there–they reperesented the language people used in the times and places Blaise was writing about. So did the graphic accounts of violence, the weird sexuality, the inflamatory rhetoric–that’s what these characters said, did, believed. These were the stories Blaise wanted to tell, and they needed telling, in the actual lived language. But oh my goodness, I hope no one got the wrong impression based on the cover, etc. (I would recommend this book, but not to everyone: it’s really hard to deal with parts of it).

So, with such openmindedness, RR, why did you note “too close to hateful language” in the margins of a couple of the student stories you were marking just now? Surely those teens have different viewpoints on race/sex/culture/etc, and have a right to represent the world the way they see it–don’t they?

Oh, man, I’m still not sure I did the right thing (don’t worry, I still have the papers, and some white-out). After reading more than 60 stories, I am pretty convinced that a lot of these kids could not distinguish well between their characters and themselves (witness the number of main characters who have perfect wardrobes, expensive cars, and perfect love, all 17). And I want to run up the flag of sensitivity without necessarily making them salute–I can’t make anyone like other races or religions or sexual orientations, I can only make them aware that they are *not* perfectly unbiased in these regards and see what they do with that new self awareness. (I am making this sound really pervasive so I can generalize, lest my students stumble on this blog–actually, it was only a couple kids).

What if I am wrong, and the students are simply writing about characters who believe these things and they don’t themselves? Well, then they’re really talented because it reads so heartfelt. And I owe them an apology.

I wonder, if I ever manage to publish the story mentioned above, if it’ll be something people read and squirm about, ducking the book into their chests on the bus? Or if I could ever be conflated with my characters, assumed to have their blindspots and uglinesses (my own are plenty).

Hmm, this post has a theme but no thesis–I certainly don’t know the answers.

May 1st, 2010

Workshop #9: Empathy

Workshop #9 was about many things, in truth, and the largest part of the class was given over the peer editing. This actually went better than usual, because I gave them detailed questionnaires to fill out about the stories–no matter how many times I told them “Really great!” was not a constructive comment, they were insisting on using it before. In fact, although none of the questions I asked on the sheet could grammatically be answered with “Really great!” some of them persisted in putting it anyway, in response to things like “What part of the story did you like best?” and “What parts did you find confusing?”

Anyway, it went well (I made them erase all the “Really greats!”s that I saw) and I think a lot of the kids got a lot out of it. But maybe you can tell from the above that I’m having a bit of a tough time this semester, and I don’t at all think the whippersnappers are at fault. I think they don’t want to write stories, most of’em, and heaven help us, that is a defensible position.

So part of Thursday’s class was spent brainstorming how story-writing works as a transferable skill–how learning to write a short story full of characters and problems and settings and emotions–could help them in a job that would (I don’t know why I didn’t guess this would be a high priority in a low-income area) pay them a living wage.

It is the luxury of the middle-class to go to school hoping to expand one’s mind and interests and range of friends and readings. Kids in precarious financial situations want the value-add, the curriculum correlation, the job skill in their lessons, because the need to get that damn job looms large. And they don’t necessarily see the use in learning to write fiction. In fact, one of my students actually announced this in class–a low point for me.

I like to write stories because I like to write stories–full stop. It’s fun for me, and every now and then I get a little bit of attention or praise or money for doing it, and that’s enough for me. But I actually think writing helps me in every other facet of my life, too, and I was eager to tell them that–I thought they might really not know.

It seemed, though, as soon as I asked the question, that everyone *did* know how stories could help them. They brainstormed the following list:

teacher
editor
journalist
police officer (every class mentioned this one)
doctor
lawyer
social worker

They also put secretary, which I didn’t get, but whatever–it’s a really good list.

They were a bit weaker when I asked “Why do these people need to know how to tell a story?” The three are obvious (how is a teacher or an editor going to recognize good work if she/he can’t create good work, and journos do pretty much the same thing as fictos, only with the truth). What else? I asked. “They gotta write reports,” was the answer.

Absolutely, of course–being able to write a coherent narrative of events or issues, not a list or a sketch, is so important in many roles, persuasive or otherwise.

But I think one of the reasons that so many of the jobs listed are so-called “caring” professions–because it if you are going to work with people, you need to be able to make a good solid leap towards understanding other people’s points of view. What use is a doctor who cannot guess how a patient is feeling when in pain and be sensitive, or how someone will react to bad news. How can a social worker help kids or families in trouble if she or he can’t imagine what they are going through?

I think too much emphasis on imaginary people could be a problem, sure, but too little attempt to imagine how it feels to be someone not-me, to get out of my own upbringing and situation and likes and dislikes and education and tolerances, can make it really hard to relate to anyone. Empathy helps life go on, and in many many jobs, a lack of it means you can’t do you work.

Obviously, I could stand to improve this facility even more–to have known earlier in the semester that the kids wouldn’t automatically see the links and extensions from my lessons, that I would have to *tell* them that I wasn’t trying to train them to be writers but rather to train them to be people who could see a story from any angle, and find a story anywhere.

Someone complimented me recently on a story recently, and I said I greatly appreciated the compliment (I did!) because the piece had been very very hard to work on. He said of course, because it was so technically complex.

I was startled for a moment–I had meant that the emotions and events in the story were hard to deal with, and was about to say so, when I realized that we meant the same thing. There is only one way to express emotions, or anything else, in writing, and that is with words on a page, rhetorical devices, pacing and vocabulary, foreshadowing and description, all the skills I’ve been trying to teach the youngins. The story’s emotion doesn’t exist separate from my ability to tell it–just like so much of what doctors and teachers and advertisers tell us exists only in their words. So we’d better make it good.

I am really going to miss my smarty-pants students, though I doubt they’ll miss me. A kid I like, who has been really alienated lately, was staring at the wall when I described how the last class would be organized. I could have sworn he wasn’t listening at all, but when I asked if there were questions, he raised his hand and asked, “Did you say *cookies*?” I said yes, I plan to bake cookies for the last class, and he grinned.

I was pleased, not only because he’d was pleased, but because if he’d caught the word “cookies” buried in all that other stuff, he might have actually *heard* some of the other stuff. But I don’t know–in truth, I have no idea what he was thinking.

RR

April 24th, 2010

On Nostalgia and Homogeniety

AMT wrote a wistful post on nostalgia, which fit in perfectly with the current theme of my days lately, which is trying to remember what it feels like to be a teenager.

I keep thinking I do–all eager and nervous and twitchy and stuff–and then I realize that’s me now. It is so hard to recall how you felt/acted/thought back when you were a different person, particularly if you don’t think that person was all that different than your present day self.

But we are–I am pretty sure, though hazy, on this: people change more than they realize, and the parts of themselves they forget tend to be the ones that differ the most from the present day. This impression comes from having talked to a wide variety of people over the years, none of whom can recall being on top in high school. Everyone was teased, persecuted, trod upon, lonely and alone. I have rarely met anyone who says they were more or less fine in high school, and never to having been the sort of jerk that is more than fine and makes others feel bad about it–or wings French fries at their heads. Apparently, that’s the sort of thing you rinse out of your consciousness when you hit your 20s.

So I’m going to come right and make this bold pronouncement, nearly damning for a writer: I was ok with high school. It was not the best 5 years of my life, but I had some fun, some good friends, some good teachers, learned some stuff. I vaguely recall being teased in grade 9 for wearing a ballet top I bought at the Bay (I still have it) and I certainly never got invited to the coolest parties, but…so? It would’ve been weird if kids I didn’t know invited me to their parties, and anyway, I lived way out in the country and my dad would never have driven me. I hung around with folks I liked, ate lunch with them in the hall by the auto shops, edited the yearbook, and was left largely alone by everyone else.

I seriously worry this makes me a less interesting person to some people, which in itself is such a high school thought.

I am trying to get these memories back because I want to be able to “get” what is going on with my students. One of the hardest things to remember is conformity. It has been a very long time since I worried seriously about the ways I deviate from the status quo. I am not much of a rebel–I think I’m naturally a lot like the status quo–but not entirely, and who cares?

One of the great perks of one’s twenties as that there are so many different things to do and ways to live that it’s very hard to even *find* a standard to try to conform to. I know people who stayed in school for a decade straight after graduating high school, people who found jobs first and went to school when they could afford it, who dropped out immediately and those who never studied formally again after high school grad. I know people who married immediately after high school, after college, after travelling through Europe, after 6 or 10 or 2 years of dating, or barely any time at all. I know people who are politically opposed to marriage, who were fervently delighted when Canada legalized same-sex marriage, and those for whom the whole institution seems irrelevant. Friends my own age have kids in school, kids in diapers, kids in utero, cats, dogs, houseplants and (only one) guinea pig. People are cheerfully devoted to their jobs, wrathfully alienated from their jobs, climbing the corporate ladder, unemployed, underemployed, fascinated by their work or terrified of it. I know homeowners, couchsurfers (ok, we’re getting a little old for that), rooming-housers, apartment dwellers, parental-home dwellers, and perpetual travellers. I know people who think of poverty as only one car, and people who think of wealth as ordering dessert.

How am I supposed to conform to that? I can’t, so I don’t worry about it (and feel happy I have such interesting friends). What makes conformity an issue in high school, I think, is that by nature of the age you have a certain amount of it. Almost everyone lives with their parents, has to be at school at a certain time, takes basically the same classes, and, due to how neighbourhoods tend to work, has basically the same amount of money. They are limited in who they meet beyond their families and classmates, and exposed to a tonne of marketing about music, movies, and fashion, not to mention fastfood, cosmetics, etc.

Even when I was a weird kid, I had basically the same sort of shoes as everyone else–not exactly, and believe me everyone knew it, but I did in fact like a lot of what everyone else liked. There was not much else available to like–not that I knew of, anyway–and those Birkenstocky sandals *were* very nice.

It is actually not that hard to recall that perfectly natural assimilatory instinct–I want clothes I see people wearing on the bus all the time. But it is harder to transer that into the classroom, where kids are reluctant to raise their hands, share their ideas, read their work, or even admit to liking something, if they do not already have pre-approval from their peers. In some ways, me being really impressed with a particular student’s work is no joy for them, because it singles them out. There’s nothing more depressing than realizing that your too-loud compliment is being met with a glare, and you might not be seeing any more of this student’s so-good work. Argh.

This does seem to fade with the older kids–they’re happier to talk about what makes them/their work unique. They’re closer to their twenties, and the point in your life where it is not only acceptable, but desirable (positively ravenously so, at certain university parties) to be a touch odd.

Another weird part of my nostalgia is wondering if the decade without a status quo is coming to an end. I wonder because this nostalgic thinking led me check the Facebook profiles of a bunch of people I knew in high school (oh, what did we do with our creepy stalker tendencies before Facebook?) It’s actually really hard to tell what people are up to with the standard privacy settings, but two things I can tell you are popular are getting married and having babies–almost everyone’s profile picture was a wedding shot/ultrasound/baby pic. Intense.

The difference between grown-upitude and high school, of course, is that people care less what others do–both because they are more tolerant and openminded, and because they don’t have a lot of time to invest in writing a mean little song about some other adult’s lack of real estate savvy or whatever. But I’m trying to experiment with feeling a little bad about the ways I’m weird anyway–I thought it might bring me closer to my students.

This is definitely a very odd thought experiment. Thanks for reading.
RR

April 19th, 2010

Workshop #7: Grammar

Workshop #7 was actually mainly about Images and Imagist poems, as I think I mentioned somewhere earlier, but we actually covered lots of other ground. Although it is really outside of my purview as the creative-writing person, I snuck in a grammar lesson. I really really want them to stop smudging stellar work with dumb grammar mistakes. I also want to put my foot down with the kids who say they are not “good” at grammar.

I think so many of these rules are like learning the multiplication tables or the provincial capitals–either you had a good teacher in grade 3 who made you memorize them, or you didn’t… The teacher I’m working with certainly does give some excellent grammar lessons, but the kids seem to have a deficit of years. You can get by in conversation a lot of the time–maybe always, depending on what career you choose–just by listening to how others talk and emmulating them, without knowing most of the rules of grammar. But it is much much harder to get written grammar in this way, especially for kids who don’t read except one forced. Lovely as it is to get self-righteous and say that reading for pleasure is a gift and parents just have to show kids blah blah blah, it doesn’t always happen. This is also an issue for kids who grow in homes where English is not the first language. They might hear tonnes of very erudite conversation, read books and watch high-end tv (or they might not), but if it’s not in English, it’s not helping them with their grammar.

So schools don’t teach grammar (I guess I can’t generalize, but mine certainly didn’t and I don’t know anyone else who learned English grammar in a systematic manner–do you?), and kids don’t always have the opportunity to pick it up elsewhere, and I end up with bright, engaged, insightful students who write things like, “She weared her prettiest dress,” and were genuinely startled to find out the past tense of “to lie down” is “to lay down.”

I am into good grammar, but I’m not fanatical about it–I roll my eyes when the grocer advertises “fresh” fish, but c’mon, do I know how to fillet a pickerel? He has his knowledge base and I have mine, and as long as we can understand each other, I don’t see myself as being in the position to make further demands. Chefs can’t make me stop putting barbeque sauce on my salad, and personal trainers can’t stop me from over-emphasizing cardio in my workouts, and fashion designers can’t make me stop wearing those turquoise fishnets I bought for $3 and which don’t fit…we can’t all be experts in everything, and sometimes, we don’t even want to be.

I am in favour of good grammar the way I am in favour of good etiquette–not as an end in itself, or as a stick to beat people with, but as a means of facilitating clear communication and conveying respect to the reader/person you are speaking to. Setting the table neatly shows care for your dinner guest’s ease and pleasure of dining. Yes, he could probably have gone and found a fork in the kitchen, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and yes, you do know what I mean when I say “I teared it open”, but it’s just that much more confusing, difficult, and less fun.

In class last week, I told the kids, “No one ever won a Nobel Prize for grammar”: it’s just a tool to get your point across. But they really need to get the tool–it makes their (good) work so inaccessible when I have to puzzle over when it takes place because the tenses are inconsistent, or who did what because the pronouns don’t match. I told them also that grammar is *not* a smart/dumb issue–if you’ve had less exposure to it, you know less, and it’s annoying that you have to make up for that, but all they need to do is sit down and memorize this stuff. Unfortunately, if they don’t bother, they will *look* dumb–I hope it wasn’t inappropriate to use that phrase with my students. Grammatical errors, being mainly simple and easily avoided if you just memorize the rules, look like they are made by dumb people when, in fact, they are mainly made by lazy people.

And then we did a bunch of conjugations and they had to copy things down off the board and everything–it was way old school. I hope it helped. I really think that good grammar will make their lives a lot easier–on resumes and cover letters, on school papers, work emails–people respect good grammar, because reading it is a lot easier than reading garbled stuff, and clean writing conveys respect for the reader.

All that said, in my little heart, I love language rules and am always eager to learn a new one, and to discuss and debate their usefulness and implications. I could talk your ear off about transitive and intransitive verbs, a topic very few people know about and yet very few people get it wrong in everyday writings. I don’t get to be smug, despite my copyediting classes and fervent adherence to the Chicago Manual of Style–I make tonnes of sloppy mistakes on this blog (as you likely well know) and in many other scarier places. The trick is not to just know a lot of stuff about grammar, but to know enough grammar to make clear all the other stuff you know.

RR

Next Page »
So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

Now and Next

Follow Me

Good Reads

What People are saying!

Archives

Search the site


Subscribe to: Rose Coloured