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.


April 10th, 2010

April is Poetry Month

But you knew that, I’m sure, and are probably well into a much-more-organized-than-mine celebration. But nevertheless, I am enjoying the poetic focus right now, reading the John Smith tribute issue of CNQ and Paul Vermeersch’s Between the Walls (ok, so I read that at the end of March, but I’m still going to count it). Right now I’m in the middle of Skim by Mariko Tamaki, which is not poetry but a graphic novel, and also absolutely captivating (and funny!) so far (I knew it would be–not sure what took me so long to get to actually reading it!) But after that, it’s back to poetry with The Laundromat Essay by Kyle Buckley, another book everyone but me has already read and loved.

Also this week, I’m thinking I’ll do a poetry class with the teens. The teacher recommended it, and if I weren’t such a chicken it should have already been on the slate. But I’m actually really worried about this, because I am not a poet. I’ve studied loads poetry, mind, but I very much doubt what the kids want is help with scansion. They would like to know how to write the stuff–or really, since they are teens, they are probably already writing it and just want to get better. But I don’t know that I know about that.

I think the easiest way into poetry is the Imagists. It was for me anyway–I think The Red Wheelbarrow was the first poem I really really *felt*–it didn’t feel like an inept teen half-guessing at an erudite writer’s goals, but like the poem was there to paint a picture in my head and it did that. Anyway, it’s a happy memory for me, so I’m gonna try out some of that stuff on them, and use it as an opportunity to talk about finding the single *right* word, not 17 close-enough, out-of-the-thesaurus words (a problem my students are having. Let me know if you have any recommendations, even if they’re not from that particular movement–my students aren’t too fussy that way, and neither am I.

And one more bit of poetic news is that I received an absolutely lovely illustrated copy of Hillaire Belloc’s *Cautionary Tales* as a gift this week, from someone who likely has no idea that it’s Poetry Month, but it does nicely suit. I haven’t read the whole of it yet, but as soon as I saw the title in the table of contents, of course I read this one (the poet’s been dead more than 50 years, so I’m not violating copyright by sharing this, am I?) It’s best read *aloud*!

Who slammed Doors for Fun
and Perished Miserably

A trick that everyone abhors
In Little Girls is slamming Doors.
A Wealthy Banker’s Little Daughter
Who lived in Palace Green, Bayswater
(By name Rebecca Offendort),
Was given to this Furious Sport.

She would deliberately go
And Slam the door like Billy-Ho!
To make her Uncle Jacob start.
She was not really bad at heart,
But only rather rude and wild:
She was an aggravating child…

It happened that a Marble Bust
Of Abraham was standing just
Above the Door this little Lamb
Had carefully prepared to Slam,
And Down it cam! It knocked her flat!
It laid her out! She looked like that.
Her funeral Sermon (which was long
And followed by a Sacred Song)
Mentioned her Virtues, it is true,
But dwelt upon her Vices too,
And showed the Dreadful End of One
Who goes and slams the door for Fun.
The children who were brought to hear
The awful Tale from far and near
Were much impressed, and inly swore
They never more would slam the Door.
–As often they had done before.


April 8th, 2010

Workshop #6–Dialogue

When I taught creative writing for the first time, last year, I didn’t teach dialogue. I claimed to have run out of time, and more or less had, but in truth I didn’t shift the schedule to accomdate dialogue because I had no idea how to teach it.

I think it’s inappropriate to relay compliments about myself, but a number of people have told me I write dialogue well, and most of the time I believe them. It seems logical that I would be good at it, since I love it! Definitely I’ve found that the things I find fun are also the things I can do well, but I’ve also find that people who are good at things can’t teach them. Did you ever have your math-brained friend try to tutor you in algebra? It’s horrible, right? Because they keeps saying like, “ok, and obviously the vector would go this way,” and they actually have no way of explaining it if its not obvious to you. Mathy people’s brains make too many math leaps and they can’t retrace their steps for someone whose own brain doesn’t leap.

What you want is a teacher who struggled and struggled and struggled with something, and eventually achieved some (possibly low) level of mastery. That person remembers every step of the process and is able to explain it clearly to the novice–a teacher that remembers what it is like to learn. Which is why I think my most useful lessons are on plot structure or self-editing or things of that nature–I struggle with those still, and my memories of my learning process are as recent as last night, so I can bring the kids some very well-rehearsed tips.

I am not saying I’ve “got” dialogue or am not constantly trying to improve–certainly I am, and there’s plenty of room to do so. But dialogue is the fun part for me and I do bounce along more easily with that stuff than anything. And it’s really hard to say why or how!

But for my students, I’ll try. Start with the thing that every creative writing teacher–and anyone who has even heard of the process of creative writing–would advise is that if you want to write dialogue, listen to people talking. Absolutely! And not just your friends–listen to as wide a range as possible. Eavesdrop in restaurants and on transit. Make note of how people use certain words and how they vary–dresser or bureau? Snow machine or skidoo? “Bay-gal” or “bag-el”?

Of course, the flip side of this is that really good, really readable fictional speech is highly stylized, and if you use real speech to convey character you would need the length 0f an evening (a whole first date!) to catch an even slightly accurate portrait. I don’t take notes and don’t record–indeed, I never quote directly from strangers. When I listen, I just want to get the rhythms of their speech, turns of phrase, that sort of thing.

What to leave out? Sneezes, burps, apologies for dropping things on the floor, long descriptions of what a mutual friend is up to, repititions, speakers losing their place in the story for no reason, giving of directions, self-absorbed monologuing (unless it both a. reveals a lot of character and b. is funny), conversations about the weather that are actually about the weather, way-too-plot-heavy-garbage (some people probably actually say, “I don’t think you love me anymore, Bruno. I think you have played me false” but they do not need to be immortalized in fiction).

In short: dialogue in realist fiction is *like* real speech, but *better*. So I brought hyper hyper stylist stuff–Pirandello, Beckett, Abbott and Costello. Oh, and it was funny stuff, too, at least in my opinion. I’m finding that the students feel the weight of “writing a story” really a lot–I wanted to remind them there’s supposed to be some entertainment value here.

And then I taught them how to punctuation dialogue and then…well, it was a short day so then we were out of time, but that was pretty much all I had anyway. How *do* you teach dialogue?


March 31st, 2010

Workshop #5: Writing about the senses

Something weird has been happening to me–my senses are getting sharper! Not vision, unfortunately; a few days ago, I took my contacts out and then mistook an empty toilet-paper roll lying on the floor for a mouse (and what was it doing on the floor, we wonder). But hearing and smelling, yeah, it’s getting intense! Does this happen regularly to women in their thirties? It’s sort of an unlooked-for, and in someways unhelpful, bonus. I had a near meltdown at a meeting because someone was twisting her pen barrel against the nib, and the rubbing made a very high-pitched squeaking noise. Apparently no one but me could hear it, but I eventually had to halt the meeting and request that the pen be quarentined, lest my brain explode. I’m sure all neighbouring dogs were very grateful. And I swear I can smell supper cooking in every house I pass at a certain hour, and you wouldn’t believe the number of people in this city who get on the bus smelling of pot. I also uttered the words, “You bought a new brand of deoderant!” in an accusing voice, which is really something that, if you told me ten years ago I would be doing, I would have been profoundly shocked (and still sort of am).

Wow, everything I post has to have this big long personal preamble–sorry! What I’m getting at is, now is a good time to be doing the workshop I’m doing tomorrow, which is writing about sensory perceptions. I marked the first batch of assignments this week, and I can see that, as per usual, it’s the visual that reigns supreme. Not unusual, even with mature writers, but I really do want them to broaden out. I’m going to be doing the same exercises as last year, which involve giving them a specific sensory stimuli, and one that lacks obvious references (unlike say, the scent of roses or the taste of honey, there are few obvious cliches about the flavour of Bubblemint gum or the sound of Leonard Cohen’s voice) and inviting them to write about.

I think those exercises are useful for any writer to do at any age (and prettymuch always listening to Leonard Cohen is helpful) but the lesson I’m going to do beforehand is probably of less use to adults–a bit too elementary. But it’s going to be on to the difference between subjective and objective adjectives.

It’s so hard to remember being a kid and having a really narrow frame of reference and experience, mainly within the family and a group friends that might all have a similar narrow frame. It’s so hard to remember when I thought a word like “beautiful” or “fascinating” or “boring” had a universal, unassailable interpretation. I’m not looking forward to breaking it to the whippersnappers that they can’t say, “ugly wallpaper” and leave it at that, because every reader will have a different interpretation of the word “ugly.” Better to describe the brown and gold flocked velvet wallpaper objectively, and leave it to the readers to conclude for themselves that it is ugly…some might not do so (!) but that’s their perogative–perception is complicated.

I am so sure they are going so say, “But you say ‘awesome’ and ‘amazing’ and ‘super’ all the time. Those are totally subjective words.” Fine–so they are. But me talking (or blogging) is supposed to be subjective, or that’s how I justify it. And I’m also available to fill in the reasoning behind my judgements in person (or on the blog–really, just comment) whereas a narrator is not available to the reader beyond the last page of the story–it’s got to be all in the writing. Anyway, that’s what I’m going to tell them, and I hope they buy it, because then I’m going to ban all subjective adjectives.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

March 24th, 2010

Workshop #4: Plot

Today’s workshop is on plot! Boo, I say, but I’ve found kids really do need this kind of structure–you need to learn the dimensions of the box before you can think outside of it. And it is kind of interesting for me to review the standard plot graph–it’s good to remember that that’s at least a possibility when I’m writing, and if I choose not to use it I should at least acknowledge that I’m choosing.

But I actually wouldn’t really suggest grown-up writers try writing an entire story by the graph–it’s not a terrible idea, but it’s a lot of work if you are in the middle of a project–to make it worthwhile you’d have to really invest some time in the story, so that the graph didn’t just dominate it. But, heck, if you are more disciplined than I, it probably would be illuminating, what you can do with that inverted tick mark.

Instead, here are a couple less ambitious exercises I often do with stories I’m working on, which I found help immensely plotwise. Maybe they’ll help you too:

1) Graph your plot *after* you get to the second draft. If you are finding that there’s something wonky about the pacing, graph the amount of event/dialogue/description per page and see if you are finding bits that are overloaded versus bits that are slack. In my classes today, we’ll definitely be talking about non-standard plot graphs–flat lines, loop-de-loops, parallel arcs, connect-the-dots…all work if you work them, natch, but I find I often don’t even know I’m doing these things until I write/draw it out. And it’s easier to improve the structure once you know what it is.

If the sketch seems to gimmicky, simply write yourself an outline–Jenny walks to the garden supply centre (two pages), Jenny remembers Derek ski accident (1/2 page), Jenny runs into Derek in the parking lot (4 1/2 pages)–to see if you can spot pacing errors. I never ouline at the beginning, but I find at this point it is really helpful to see where I’m spending my pages. This is especially helpful if it’s a double (or more) narration, or a story with a lot of flashbacks, or anything that’s important to keep balanced.

2) I’m going to have the kids base their first round of plot graphs not on their own stories but on back-jacket copy from novels–they’ll have the basic plots from those, and fill in the rest from their own brains (at least, this is the hope). For an adult, I would suggest doing this in reverse–writing a book-cover blurb for you own story at the midway point in the process. I find that summarizing a story in the manner of back-jacket copy is…well, just as horrible and painful as summarizing in any other context. When asked to summarize, my instinct is always, “I can’t, the story doesn’t work that way, if you want to know what it’s about read it, bah I don’t wanna I hate you.” And it devolves from there. But at least thinking about the book cover reminds me that this is a necessary process–someday, I hope to have the story *in* a book, and that book will need to have some sort of description written on the cover. Sometimes, the push helps.

If I’m *really* struggling with the summary, that’s probably a sign that there’s something wrong with the story–there should be a few elements that can be easily described, at least. You’re going to judge me for being self-indulgent, but sometimes I also try writing these summaries as reviews–glowing ones. And that of course *is* self-indulgent, but it is also true that if I write down the nice things I want people to say about the work, it reminds me of what my goals for the piece actually are–which is not always so apparent on the page. And, also, on a tough day, it’s nice to imagine someone saying nice things about my work.

So…that’s a few suggestions on working with plot. Feel free to add more if you have your own better/different plotting exercises, or to let me know if these work or don’t work for you. I hope the kids like’em.


March 12th, 2010

Workshop #3: Setting and real estate

I am once again a day late (a buck short?) in posting my workshop for the week, but most of what we were working on was actually not stuff I would recommend writers over 18 do. It’s not because it’s “too elementary”–I’ve found it very useful to do things that are so basic I usually skip, like write character sketches, graph plots (if only to see that they graph as pentagrams or loop-de-loops), read dialogue aloud, etc.
But this week we were working on settings and, knowing that I mainly draw on experience for setting, and know that teenagers often have not been to a lot of different places, I brought in real-estate mags so they could look at the pictures and try to imagine where their characters would live.
This worked only sorta–kids got way too enthralled trying to find their own dream homes. Not that I blame them–that’s what I was doing the night before instead of class prep. Besides, this stuff is really too research-y to be much good–what can you really tell from a couple artfully staged photos and a floorplan? I draw almost all my settings from places I’ve been, reconfigured in my imagination to suit the characters’ lives and budgets.
But teenagers haven’t been many places, at least relatively. Although my students are a wildly international lot, I’m pretty sure that certain childhood limitations hold true–you are mainly in your family’s home, and even if you move, you’ll often move to a similar sort of dwelling. And the family and friends you visit, their homes will be in the same ballpark. What I’m basically talking about here is class–though I’m sure many people are exceptions, the way neighbourhood schools work, you see a lot of people in the same tax bracket as your own family, and so small distinctions get blown out of proportion–you think the family with a carport instead of a garage is “poor” and the ones with a swimming pool are “rich.”
Then your circle gets a little wider in your late teens, you meet people who more properly qualify as “rich” and “poor” and the scales fall, little by little, from your eyes (this takes longer with some people than others). And until that process is fairly far along, it’s really really hard to imagine even basic aspects of how people with different amounts of money live. Yesterday, when one of the students suggested that the “Homes and Land” booklet she was looking at was too ritzy for her characters, I suggested she might want to look at the booklet for the rental market instead. She was horrified and her friends all teased her–“Oh, snap!” So apparently, in that neighbourhood, “poor” people rent.
I really want them to get a sense of the diversity of what goes on in a city, but I’m not sure they did. I keep emphasizing that it’s great if they want to write about their own experiences and/or their own context, but they still need to realize that’s only one of many many many.
I think one of the wonders of being a grown-up is starting to know about those many, and being (a little) less constrained by where I started. There are aspects of this teaching gig that make me nostalgic for my youth, but I really don’t want to be 16 again.

March 5th, 2010

Workshop #2–Character

Well, I’m completely not making good on my plan to post lesson plans ahead of the actual lessons to get your feedback on’em, but considering that on Wednesday I briefly stopped walking in the middle of the sidewalk because I’d jammed two fingers into one glove-slot and wondered how I was going to cope (I worked it out) we’re lucky I managed to get the lesson together for the actual students.

And, when it came time to deliver said lessons, I also count myself lucky that my energy miraculously returned. There’s something about those eager, curious faces, their great willingness to learn and/or to laugh if I fall down…

So the character workshop was similar to last year’s except the kids took it in a different direction. When I asked where they have seen character descriptions before, they said the usual “in books” stuff, but also, on the backs of movies, on the backs of video games, on plaques at a museum, in biographies (one long character sketch), and then, even more interesting, on your passport or your driver’s license!

I love that, because sometimes I do get lost in the “big” “emotional” issues of character development and not bother about “little” details like how old someone is–not “early twenties” but birth year and date. Not, “from southern Ontario” but pick an actual town on a map. These things make a difference to character icebergs, I think–although it sure would be odd if my students think they have to actually use all this stuff in their stories and start describing every character with height and weight!

So, yes, upcoming, a very dates/places/numbers intensive character sketch from me–I’m not sure what style, but maybe a la fight stats in a video game–which actually, come to think of it, probably won’t be entertaining at all to you guys, but might be useful to me.

And maybe then I’ll get some sleep. Have a good weekend, all!

March 1st, 2010


I’m off to Waterloo tomorrow to do a reading for and have discussion with a group of high-school students who have been studying one of my stories, “Fruit Factory.” Doing such a talk is a rare honour and a treat for various reasons, many obvious, I’m sure (what human doesn’t like it when people pay close attention to something that that human has worked very hard on?) One that might be less obvious is that, since the teacher can guarantee that (at least most of) the students have read the entire story, I can read and discuss the ending.

Endings are very very difficult to write–Sam Shephard said in the New Yorker that, “I hate endings… Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing, and endings are a disaster.” And he’s been writing for 30 or so years and is thought to be one of the foremost playwrights of… Oh, despair. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Obviously, the rest of us struggle on, and when we hit on an ending that we think is good and resonant and true to the rest of the story while also surprising and maybe even illuminating in some way, we are damn proud of ourselves–it doesn’t happen very often. It’d be nice to get to share it your own self occasionally.

Of course, I’m not kidding myself that my stories are rife with suspense, nor am I of the opinion that knowing the ending of something “ruins” the pleasure of reading the rest. But structuring a story, arranging what happens when, is hard too–almost as hard as writing an ending. In separate places, I’ve seen story experts as impressive as Alice Munro and John Metcalf say they don’t necessarily read stories from beginning to end in sequence, but rather jump around, like moving from room to room in a house (that’s Munro being paraphrased there–I’m sorry but I’m not going to be able to find these citations).

That makes me sad, although it makes some sense, too. Certainly I can gauge the emotional tension and intensity, the sense of humour, the clarity and poetry of language if I start in the middle, but I don’t get the events as the writer lived them with the characters, and how he or she wanted to place them in my imagination. You can take someone’s temperature in lots of places on their bodies, but if you want to know how that person is actually feeling, it’s best to just let them tell you (hmmm, is that metaphor working?)

I put a lot of deliberation into making the order of the story make sense to the characters and their worlds–so that’s how I want it to make sense to the reader too. There’s no reason why a story won’t be enjoyable or interesting or perfectly understandable out of order–but that’s not how I meant to do it. You might not love it, like it, or even get it the way I did, but I want to give you every chance.

So I don’t read endings aloud at events where I assume no one’s read it. They might not be going to read it, actually–this might be our one and only encounter–but I’d generally like people to enter the story at the point I worked out as the beginning. So I read beginnings, for the most part, or whole stories if they’re short enough, when I do public readings.

But! I like my endings, too! Some of them took a dozen drafts and years of work–if I feel like I finally got it, I take a lot of pleasure in the words as they fell into place and I enjoy sharing them aloud. And even if I do feel like I nailed it, I am very much open to feedback to the contrary–there’s always next time–and there’s nothing like reading aloud to elicit an honest answer from some people.

So whenever I know the audience has read the work, I choose the ending as my selection to read aloud. This has only happened a few times and I’ve never done “Fruit Factory”‘s ending before. So this evening will find me at home standing on a chair, praticing and tomorrow–who knows what they’ll think!


February 25th, 2010

Workshop #1: Ideas

So I’m back to teaching with the very wonderful SWAT program this week, and those who were around for last year’s term will know that I am a bundle of nerves and excitement, and massive lesson-planning.

I thought I would put my lesson notes on Rose-coloured this year, in the hope that we could live that bloggy interdependent dream–maybe you guys would find some of my ideas interesting, and at the same, you might have more/different ones that could help me. Or maybe you will find this boring–either way, let me know!*

I should note here that I massively over-prepare, just in case the class is incredibly surely and won’t talk and I have to resort to lecturing. This has never happened, and I vastly prefer to run a class by discussion, with a few longer bits of explanation from me. In a typical class, I use about a quarter of what I prepared, sprinkled throughtout the hour. It’s a little random, but it works out. Anyway, onwards, any of this material below will come after introductions, a discussion about what they might like to write about, and how to figure that out.

Writers constantly get asked in interviews “where do you get your ideas?” It’s not a very original question, but I am always interested in the answer–it’s rarely straightforward. Sometimes it is–an event in one’s own life or in history that seems like it could be molded into a story, a bad book or movie that the author read that made them think “I could do the same thing but better!”

Sometimes it’s a character you’ve created, and think about, and imagine out his or her life, and then you find an incident in the imaginary life you’ve created that might work as a story. Sometimes you want to capture a feeling you’ve had, a person you knew, a neighbourhood you’ve lived in. Sometimes you want to write a story as a caricature or spoof, as revenge (that often works very poorly), as a love note. Sometimes your idea for a story is to try to write the thing a given audience wants to read: your teacher (this also doesn’t work well, mainly), a publication, someone you want to date.

Sometimes you have no idea where the idea comes from, you just start writing because you’re bored, or lonely, or your teacher told you to, and something comes from nothing and you realize you are writing a story. Sometimes by the time you have a story, you have no idea where the idea came from. The piece I’m currently working on is structured around a set of reworked advertising slogans, but it’s certainly not about them. It’s set where it is because I had wanted to return to a place I’d created in another story, and make better use of it, but the story’s not really about the setting. Now that I’m in the thick of it, I have no idea what led me to these people doing this stuff…though I’m (mainly) glad I got here. It was a long slog to figure out what the story was even about–I didn’t really know before I started writing where I was going to end up.

My point? Is that ideas are what you make of them. I think the only thing an idea needs to be to make it a good one is that it’s something a writer likes enough to start writing and keep writing. The rest will work itself out on the page (well, *the writer* will work it out, but it’ll feel natural).

There are so many good things about being a writer that I don’t like to dwell on the negative, but it does drive me crazy when I meet someone at a party and they say, “It’s great that we ran into each other because I have the best idea for a story/novel/series of 14 interconnected novels.” They have inevitably never written anything before, but after explaining the book to me at length (it’s always at length) they say, “It’s practically written! I have it all worked out inside my head; I just have to get it down.”

“Just” indeed! I would love if the daydreaming out an interesting story to entertain myself on the bus were the hard part, but it isn’t. I have never had an idea work out on paper they way it was in my brain. I’m not every writer, there must be some who can do that, but from what I hear, it’s pretty rare.
My editor, John Metcalf, says, “Form is content.” How you write something isn’t just the petty details of getting it onto paper, it’s the whole craft.
SO! When you have an idea, if I were you, I wouldn’t spend much time worrying about whether it’s a “good” idea–the only way to know if it is would be to try it out. Write a little bit, read it over, see if you like it. See if you want to write any more–that’s the key to knowing it’s a keeper! And if it isn’t, don’t worry–ideas are one thing the human mind is very good at producing. People find them everywhere.

*Um, this post took so long to write that my first class is now 12 hours away, so if you send me good ideas I will work them in next week. Next week I will also plan better.

February 2nd, 2010

In case you were wondering…

Sometimes I start off on things, and never let you know how they worked out. Probably, you don’t care, but for the sake of completeness–

1) I now mouse exclusively with my left hand on desktop computers (ie., all day). On laptops (ie., at night and on weekends) I occasionally succumb to the lure of the central touchpad with my right hand, but the (fuzzy heartshaped) mouse is placed to the left of the computer. I consider Alzheimer’s officially postphoned…for now.

2) I consider January’s “writing in the morning”s a failure, but not a dismal one. I *did* sometimes write in the mornings, not every day and never for very long, but as it would otherwise have been time spent asleep, I’m counting this one as a win. But I’m also pushing it forward as a February resolution.

3) My *new* resolution for February will be to limit my cereal consumption to two bowls per day. This will be difficult–I really like cereal.

4) Remember when I was teaching last year and obsessed with my teenaged students? We about to start all that again, as through the graces of the SWAT/Now Hear This program, I have been named writer-in-residence at Jean Vanier high school in Scarborough. If you went to Vanier, know someone who did, taught there, attended an OFSA badminton championship there, anything at all–I want to hear about it. For though I am very excited about this new adventure, I am also very nervous.

5) So the ground hog says, six more weeks of winter (warning: disturbing groundhog-nuzzling picture at that link). I should be sad, but I seem to have pulled out of my seasonal-affective funk from early January. Now I’m just really grateful that it’s been so dry and nothing is slippery underfoot. If that keeps up…well, I guess it can stay cold. If, you know, the rodent says it has to.

6) Remember when I wrote short stories? Well, I actually still do that, I just haven’t mentioned it in a while. Forthcoming RR publications included “How to Keep Your Day Job” in the summer issue of Room Magazine, “Sweet” in the summer issue of Canadian Notes and Queries and “Far from Downtown” in The New Quarterly. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that I’m just thrilled to be working with such amazing mags, and very looking forward to seeing my work inside them.

There, now I think you’re just about up to date…

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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