Tag Archives: literary pretentions

Wet (Or, I Am Acadian)

24 May

Earlier in the week I participated it Write Club Toronto, which is basically like Fight Club, but for writers. Eight writers are pitted against each other in two-person bouts, and whoever wins gets to pick a charity that the proceeds of the evening will be donated to. Each writer is given a topic, and has a little over a week to prepare a seven minute piece based on that topic. My topic was “wet” (my opponent’s, naturally, was “dry”), and I somehow emerged victorious even though I mostly wanted to throw up all over everyone.

I think that my proudest moment was when they asked what my charity was, and I accidentally said the Toronto Ripe Crisis Centre. Go team awkward.

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find a free podcast of it here.

You can also read the full text below:

My great-grandmother, Alma LeBlanc, was born in this dilapidated old wooden house just outside of Arichat, Nova Scotia. If you’ve ever been to the east coast, you know exactly the kind of place that I mean – peeling paint, sagging walls, everything suffused with an air of grim defeat. The house was on the edge of a cliff on Ile Madame, which is an island off the coast of Cape Breton, and the place where it stood feels like the ends of the earth. When you stand on that cliff, all of North America lies behind you while in front of you the cold, dismal, grey Atlantic stretches on forever and ever. The ground drops away at your feet, and far below you the heartless, grinding waves smash against the rocks.

The climate is damp there, always. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable, just a faint clamminess blowing in off the ocean, and other times it takes the form of a suffocating fog so thick that the droplets of water hang suspended in the air, and it seems like a marvel that you can still breathe. But you can, and you do; you force yourself to keep breathing, you put one foot in front of the other, you keep going. And eventually the damp becomes a daily fact, and you barely notice its presence.

We’re a water people, us Acadians; it’s our element, you might say. This wasn’t always true – not so long ago we were farmers in the Annapolis Valley, that warm, rich, fertile strip of land across mainland Nova Scotia. In those days, our only interaction with water was through the dikes that we built. We were famous for those dikes. In fact, the other day, I did a google image search for “Acadian dykes” and not a single lesbian came up. Our dikes were ingenious, apparently, with mechanisms called aboiteaux that allowed fresh water in from the marshes but kept back the salt water from the sea. Our farms thrived. Things were good.

Of course, this idyllic life didn’t last for long. In 1755 The English rounded up the Acadians and put us all onto boats heading who-the-hell-knew where. Our expulsion officially had something to do with the Seven Year War, French and English politics, oaths we were supposed to swear and the religion that prevented us from doing so, but really, it was about the English wanting to have free run of the east coast.

We could have fought the expulsion, I guess, but that seems foolish when you consider the fact that the English had guns while we had pitchforks and shovels. We don’t come from fighting stock, anyway; most of us are short and pretty scrawny. So we went fairly quietly. But when the English turned us off our land, we threw aboiteaux wide open and let the salt water pour in, our own version of a scorched earth policy. Maybe that was the first time we realized that the water was our ally. A dangerous, unreliably ally, but an ally all the same.

We were split up, families torn apart, and sent off to wherever the English thought there might be room. We were dispatched to places like Baltimore, Boston, Williamsburg – they even built special forced labour camps in England. The boats were little more than prison ships, and over half of us died, but still. We kept going. We had to. And on those ships we learned to tentatively embrace our new home, the water, and treat it with equal measures of fear, love and respect. Thus far we’d thrown our lot in with the land gods, who were by and large fairly gentle and generous. The sea gods, on the other hand, are different. They’re cold, grey and pitiless, and view humans with complete contempt. You wouldn’t make a compact with them unless you had no choice.

We had no choice.

So we became fishermen and shipwrights, we learned to weave nets and build lobster traps. We added widow’s walks to our houses and learned to get used to losing our loved ones to the sea. Some of us straggled back home to Acadia, now called New Scotland, and settled the grim, barren coastlands that no one else wanted. We chose to isolate ourselves from the world around us, with the result that our clothing, speech and way of life didn’t much differ from what would have been found in 17th century France. We grew insular, as a way of protecting ourselves. We tried our best, on the whole, to steer clear of the modern world, and as a result we grew a bit peculiar.

Our names, for example, were peculiar.

I mentioned earlier that my great-grandmother’s name was Alma, but that’s not exactly true. Her full name was Marie Alma, and all of her sisters were also Marie, and all of her brothers were Joseph. Their middle names, though, the names they were called by, are what really fascinate me – Artemise, Evangeline, Sabine, Stella, Napoleon, Casimir, Leander. Strange names, old names, nearly all Greek or Latin; names you wouldn’t think to find among a largely uneducated population. I asked my great-grandmother once where they came from, and she said they came out of the “other” book. Because they had two books, the Bible and the “other” book, though exactly what that second book was she didn’t know.

Alma came from a family of twenty three – twenty three! I can’t even imagine. But as my grandmother says, “My God, Annie, what do you think they did on those long, cold winter nights? They didn’t have tv or radio, and they sure as hell didn’t have birth control.”

What they did have was a farm, and all those children came in handy as free labour. It was impossible to scrape a living for so many people out of that thin, rocky soil, so Alma’s father left his wife and children behind and took to the sea, wrestling the bitter Atlantic waters for whatever he could get. He would leave for weeks, sometimes even months at a time, often returning to discover that all that keeping-warm-on-cold-winter-nights had resulted in yet another mouth to feed. Meanwhile, Alma’s mother oversaw the farm, managed the household accounts and raised their children. Or rather, she did all of these things until she died giving birth to poor Joseph Alfred, unlucky baby number thirteen.

Alma’s father remarried almost immediately, because who the hell was going to take care of his thirteen kids? But like an evil stepmother straight out of a fairytale, his new wife hated her new life, and took out her resentment on her husband’s children. While he was off at sea, she beat them. She starved them. She let them freeze during the bitter winters. She forced one of them, Sabine, who had a bleeding disorder, to walk across sharp grass until her feet bled. The blood oozed out of her for nearly a week, and the priest came three times to give her extreme unction. Somehow, though, she managed to survive.

Survival is the reason that my great-grandmother left Cape Breton as soon as she was able to. Survival is the reason she married an Englishman, had ten English kids with ten English names, and gave up her mother tongue entirely. Assimilation can sometimes seem like the only way forward.

I’m pretty much assimilated. Really, I’m barely Acadian. I’m not even really sure what it means to be Acadian. Is it where you live? The food you eat? The language you speak? I mean, I speak French, but only rarely, and with great embarrassment. I grew up in the wilds of suburban southwestern Ontario, far from any ocean or sea. I don’t know the first thing about dikes or irrigation or anything like that. I can’t even swim, not really – the most I can manage is a pathetic dogpaddle.

Still, though, I’m a water person. It’s in my blood – I mean, both literally and figuratively. As removed as I am from the ocean, it’s still my element. I love being wet. I run outside during thunderstorms and let myself get soaked to the skin. If there’s a lake or river or stream, I have to be in it. Even a public fountain will do, if I have no other options.

Water is where I feel the most like myself.

And when I stand in the spot where my great-grandmother’s house was, and I feel the cold sting of the saltwater on my skin, and I look out into the vast grey Atlantic in front of me, I feel like I’m finally home.

Cape Breton

Cape Breton

What It’s Like To Live Here, Part III

20 May

Your stupid, treacherous heart is like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, naked and quivering on your chest. Except that whereas Christ’s heart rests on his fully clothed breast, your bare skin has been cut and neatly pinned back, your torso resembling nothing so much as a biology class dissection. The muscle and sinew of your heart are gone, too. All that remains in the well of your chest is a tangle of glistening arteries and blood vessels, and a bundle of nerves, jangling and raw.

You talk and talk and talk as if you can’t stop. Words keep tumbling from your mouth, hard and fast, and you wince whenever they hit the ground. Everything sounds wrong, but by the time you’ve said it, it’s too late. You can’t ever call it back.

You feel as if you’re living underwater. People try to speak to you, but their words are warped, distorted beyond recognition. They might have meant something once, but it’s impossible to say, now, what their original shape might have been.

There is a grooved track inside your mind, and all of your favourite fears and worries follow it round and round and round. At night they gain momentum, and even though you’re tired, so goddamn tired, you can’t sleep. The racket in your brain never stops.

You try to explain what it feels like. You try to make people understand that this, this gibbering, twitching creature, isn’t really you. Everything you say falls short of what you mean, and you realize that every single word you know is completely insufficient. You wonder if this would be any easier in another language, if the Germans have a word for waking up to the raw, grey dread that’s become your norm.

You start to cry. You hate yourself for crying. Is there anyone that you will ever hate more than yourself?

You sit. You stand. You pace. You chew your nails. You check your email five times, and then once more for good luck. You put on your shoes. You walk across the street. You buy a pack of Belmonts. You strike a match, but your hand is shaking so badly that you can’t light your stupid cigarette. You wonder if people walking by think you’re some kind of junkie, and laugh because nothing could be further from the truth. You finally manage to light the damn thing, inhale deeply, and then immediately stub it out on the sidewalk beside you. You walk home. You take off your shoes. You sit. You feel as if you’ve accomplished something, even though all you’ve done is blow twelve bucks on something you’ll never use. But maybe the action itself was the accomplishment. Maybe it’s enough that you kept yourself busy, gave yourself some sort of direction, even for just five minutes. Maybe that was worth every penny you spent.

You lie in bed under your heavy down blanket, even though it’s still early in the afternoon and hot as hell outside. Your mouth is a cavernous desert; you couldn’t swallow even if you wanted to. A feeling of doom hangs over you, so palpable that you’re sure you could reach up and touch it. You listen to your neighbour downstairs playing twangy, plaintive songs on his guitar. You make a list of all the ways that you’ve wasted your life.

The telephone rings, over and over and over again. You don’t even consider answering it. There isn’t a single person in the world right now whose voice you want to hear.

You ride it out, like a bad bout of malaria. Anxious tremors wrack your body the way that fever chills might. Your bones seem as if they’re made of glass, and you can feel them clinking, gently, achingly, every time you move. Everything hurts. But still, somehow, you know that there’s a life on the other side of this. There is, of course, always the possibility that this time the disease is going to kill you, this time you won’t make it out alive, but still. It hasn’t yet. And that thought cheers you up, because in spite of everything, the odds are on your side. You feel almost optimistic.

The bundle of nerves in your chest, the ones that have replaced your heart, twitch and quiver. You know that it’s not safe to leave them exposed like this, but you don’t know how to protect them. They’ve always been like this, stripped down, bare, too painful to be of any real use. But they’re yours and, somehow, you wouldn’t have them any other way.

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Desert Island Books

5 Apr

The funny thing is that you’re very rarely enough of anything for anyone.

When I write about radical-lady-type-stuff, I’m always too feminist for some people, and not feminist enough for others.

When I get worked about something, I’m always too outspoken for some, and not outspoken enough for others.

When I wrote that post about Easter, I was, according to commenters, either too Christian or else too atheist.

A few commenters even wondered if I was a pantheist, the thought of which sent me scrambling to my bookcase, scanning the shelves until I finally found Ann-Marie McDonald’s Fall On Your Knees.

I flipped to the end of the book, the section that’s an excerpt of Kathleen’s diary, and, after re-reading all of her love scenes with Rose, found the passage I was looking for:

O Diary. My loyal friend. There is love, there is music, there is no limit, there is work, there is the precious sense that this is the hour of grace when all things gather and distil to create the rest of my life. I don’t believe in God, I believe in everything. And I am amazed at how blessed I am.

That’s the kind of paragraph that makes me want to take a long drag on a cigarette, exhale the smoke oh-so-slowly , and mutter, Yes, yes, exactly, yes.

 Fall On Your Knees was my favourite book when I was a teenager. I mean, Jesus, what’s not to love about it? It’s a huge, generation-spanning Canadian epic that takes place in early 20th century Cape Breton (NOVA SCOTIA REPRESENT) and jazz-age New York. The writing is teeth-achingly beautiful, not to mention clever, funny and smart as hell. The characters are brilliant, multi-faceted and all that other good stuff that actual literary-type people say in actual book reviews; in fact, I think that my first ever girl-crush was on Frances Piper.

When I was in university, I had the chance to go see Ann-Marie McDonald give a reading from her latest, The Way The Crow Flies. She was gorgeous and articulate and funny (naturally), and I was totally smitten. Afterwards, I got the chance to meet her and have her sign my copy of Fall On Your Knees. I felt like I was meeting a movie star; my palms were sweaty, my mouth was dry, my chest felt tight. I felt light-headed, and kept having to remind myself to breathe.

When I made it to the head of the line and she asked me my name, I somehow managed to squeak out that her book had really been important to me. I knew that it was going to sound stupid and trite before I even said it, but I didn’t know what else I could say. Here was this person who had strung together the loveliest, smartest, best words possible to create an absolutely perfect story, one that I could disappear into any time that I needed a break from the real world. I wanted to tell her everything that I loved about her book, from why Frances was my favourite character all the way to how her brief mention of Nova Scotia’s Africville had spawned an hour-long conversation with my grandmother about Halifax’s racial landscape.

But how was I supposed to do that with the auditorium lights shining in my face as if I were being questioned for a crime I hadn’t committed? How was I supposed to tell her all this with my clumsy tongue and my woefully inadequate vocabulary?

So I told her that it was important. And she smiled and thanked me and scrawled For Anne, From Ann-Marie McDonald inside the front cover of my book. Afraid that I might embarrass myself, I hurried away, stumbled down the steps, and, while walking home, thought up a million brilliantly witty remarks that I could have made to McDonald if only I’d had the wherewithal.

(Hint: I very rarely have any wherewithal whatsoever)

All of which is to say – oh my dear sweet Jesus I love books so fucking much.

I love reading books, I love buying books, I love writing about books and I love talking about books.

So with that in mind, I asked you guys what your all-time favourite, desert-island books were.

Here’s what you had to say:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

In The Time Of The Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Long Walk by Richard Bachmann/Stephen King

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Oz series by Frank L. Baum

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino

Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Claudine series by Colette

Little, Big by John Crowley

The Alchemist by Paulo Cuelho

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

The Devil’s Teardrop by Jeffery Deaver

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

Wyrm by Mark Fabi

The Refugee Summer by Edward Fenton

Headhunter by Timothy Findley

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Neuromancer by William Gibson

China Court: The Hours Of A Country House by Rumer Godden

Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamilton

The Hottest State by Ethan Hawke

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Dune series by Frank Herbert

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

Winter Of Fire by Sherryl Jordan

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

It by Stephen King

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Operating Instructions: A Journal Of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie McDonald

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Fool by Christopher Moore

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Apathy And Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan

The Good Mayor by Andrew Nicoll

Popular Music From Vittula by Mikael Niemi

1984 by George Orwell

Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

A Catskill Eagle by Robert B. Parker

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman

The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds

Skinny Legs And All by Tom Robbins

Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Harry Potter series, specifically The Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling

The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

Franny And Zooey by J.D. Salinger

The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Seuss

Love Is A Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

There’s A Girl In My Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck

The Log From The Sea Of Cortez by John Steinbeck

The Eagle Of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Queen Elizabeth Story by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers

The Making Of A Psychiatrist by David Viscott

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments, and I will add them to the list!

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Nostalgia Machine: On Re-Watching Girl, Interrupted

1 Apr

Those of you who are fairly new to my blog may not know this, but on days when I’m not busy kicking the patriarchy square in the nuts or deconstructing inaccurate Facebook memes, I like to indulge in a little bit of nostalgia. Well, maybe a lot of nostalgia. Then I tweet extensively about my my indulgences, and sometimes end up writing about them here.

Which is all to say that I re-watched Girl, Interrupted the other night and now I want to talk about it.

I saw Girl, Interrupted in theatres, when it first came out, and it gave me a lot of Feelings. Actually, it gave me one main Feeling, namely that I basically was Winona Ryder’s character, if slightly less gamine and winsome. I mean, I was a depressed teenager who had a) frequently contemplated suicide, b) felt lonely and isolated, and c) wrote obsessively in serious-looking leather-bound journals. Of course I identified with the film version of Susanna Kaysen.

Every single scene, every thought, word, and action in that movie struck me as being perfectly, achingly true. Every time Winona Ryder looked at the camera with her wide, tearful eyes, every time her mouth trembled with emotion, every time she stared sadly off into the middle distance, I thought, yes. Yes, I get this.

Then, a few years ago, I bought Girl, Interrupted on DVD, fuelled by memories of how important it had been to me. But after watching it for less than an hour I had to turn it off. It was awful, unbearable even. The performances were overwrought, the dialogue ridiculously, almost comically, dramatic. I was embarrassed that I’d ever even liked this movie, let alone identified with the main character. I put the DVD back in its case, stuck it on the shelf and didn’t touch it again.

Or rather, I didn’t touch it until earlier this week, when Catherine, my sister and frequent accomplice in nostalgic endeavours, suggested that we watch it. Sure, I said, figuring that I could hate-watch it and then later make fun of it. Maybe we could even invent a drinking game, like, take a shot every time Susanna cries over how hard it is to be a white, middle-class American. Hilarious, right? I mean, right?

Except that on re-watching Girl, Interrupted, I discovered that it had, in the last five years, somehow gone past bad and straight back to good again.

At its core, this film isn’t really about mental health, or suicide, or Susannah Kaysen’s stay at the famed McLean Hospital. I mean, of course it is about all of those things, at least peripherally, but at its heart it’s about friendship. Specifically, it’s about a sort of intense, parasitic friendship that seems to exist only between young women, those deceptively bright, canny girls just on the cusp of entering the adult world.

And maybe this isn’t the type of friendship that every girl experiences. Maybe this is just me, projecting my own pathetic history onto the blank canvas of Winona’s smooth, perfect face. Maybe I’m the only one who sees this when I watch this movie. But I know that this is a type of friendship that I’ve engaged in not just once but over and over, and maybe I still do, to this day. It’s possible that it’s a pattern that will play out for the rest of my life, or at least until I grow up and finally get some sense knocked into me.

Can you believe that I’m thirty and still talking about growing up in the future tense?

The dynamics of this specific type of friendship are as follows: half of the friendship, let’s call her Girl One, is a strong, loud, brash character who doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks, says whatever’s on her mind and gives very little thought to the consequences of her actions. The other half is someone, call her Girl Two, who is almost the photographic negative of the first – quiet, reserved, terrified of how other people see her.

Think Peppermint Patty and Marcie from Peanuts, except amplified, grotesquely exaggerated.

When I say that this friendship is parasitic, maybe what I really mean is that it’s symbiotic. As a lifelong Girl Two, I’ve always thought that I needed Girl One more than she needed me, but I wonder, now, whether that’s true or now. Maybe we’ve needed each other in equal amounts. I’ve needed someone to act out all of the things that I would never, or could never, dare to do, someone whose own loud voice might give me permission to raise mine, someone who would never sugarcoat whatever they wanted to tell me. But perhaps my friends, in turn, needed someone to occasionally hold them back, someone to steady them, someone who would listen to them and not pass judgment.

The truth is that I don’t know why or how much these other girls loved or needed me, but I do know that I loved and needed them with an intensity that sometimes bordered on obsessive. Because these girls, these loud, strident girls, had both a popularity and notoriety (not that my teenage self could differentiate between the two) that I could only dream of. People either fiercely loved or passionately hated these girls; as for me, they didn’t even bother to notice that I existed.

But these girls noticed that I existed.

And the fact is that as much as I like to think that I’m the type to stand up for what I believe in, the type to shout down the misogynists, the racists, the homophobes, the transphobes, I still sometimes need someone to give me a push. I need someone to raise their voice first, show me how it’s done, teach me not to be afraid. Because for whatever reason, these gifts don’t exist inside of me, or if they do, they lie perpetually dormant, and need to be awakened again and again and again.

On my own, I am not good at challenging authority. Not really. I need other people, people like Angelina Jolie’s character Lisa, to egg me on. And, much like Winona Ryder’s Susanna, I’m not always good at figuring out when the Lisas in my life have gone too far. I put too much trust in them, and then end up places, sometimes frightening places, that I never intended to be. I let myself be blinded by love, or at least by longing and envy, and don’t notice that some of these Lisas are downright bad news. Or rather, I don’t notice until it’s too late.

So yeah, maybe at thirty years old I do still get Susanna. Maybe there are more layers to the similarities between us than I’d originally thought.

And all that absurd dialogue and overwrought acting? This time around, they seem to me to be a painfully realistic portrayal of how teenagers actually behave. When you’re in your teens, everything that you feel is so intense, so immediate, so overwhelming that you can speak only in terrible, laughable clichés. My mother has always said that teenagers are like toddlers with better language skills, and now, watching my son struggle to express frighteningly huge emotions with his sadly inadequate vocabulary, I’ve realized how right she is.

I’ve realized that when I watched Girl, Interrupted a few years ago, what embarrassed me the most was the idea that at one time I might have spoken or acted in any way that resembled Susanna. Surely, even as a teenager, I’d been too smart, too articulate to ever behave so pretentiously. But the truth is that I was ridiculously, probably amusingly, pretentious. I just didn’t recognize this trait because all of my peers were just as overwrought and dramatic as I was.

All of this is to say that I’m now back at a place in my life where I can like, maybe even love, this movie, if only because it seems like a neatly preserved time capsule of how I thought and felt half a lifetime ago. I remember what it was like to be where Susanna was. To suddenly find yourself at the end of high school faced with choices, choices, choices, and yet not to see any of them leading anywhere. When I was a teenager, I lived in terror of being “normal,” because I worried that choosing a normal path and ending up with a normal life would make me just as grey and miserable as all of the adults that surrounded me. There would come a time, of course, when having a normal life and a nuclear family and a nine-to-five job would seem wonderfully, almost exotically appealing to me, but that came much later. When I was in high school, I didn’t understand that opting out had its costs, some of which, it turned out, I wasn’t willing to pay.

And sometimes I miss my teenage self, because even if she lacked her own voice, she still somehow managed to be totally steadfast and uncompromising in her beliefs, even if those beliefs made her feel miserable and isolated. But mostly I’m just glad that I’ve learned how to trade off one thing for another, to give a piece of myself away in order to be able to keep a different part that is more necessary, more valuable. I’m grateful to the Lisas in my life who have taught me when to stand up mouth off and, somewhat by extension, when to sit down and shut up. I’m thankful for every time I’ve had to learn the lesson that it’s important not to trust the Lisas out there too implicitly, and that I need to learn how to think for myself. It’s a hard lesson, and one that it feels like I’ve had to learn often, but it’s a good one.

Mostly, though, I’m glad that I’ve found my way to where I am.

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On Writing Fiction

23 Mar

Let’s begin with the assumption that I am a fairly talented wordsmith.

Before I say anything especially important, I have a few small digressions to make:

Digression the first – why wordsmith? Why not wordwright, like playwright or shipwright? Wordsmith makes me think of blacksmiths hammering out cold, dead things like horseshoes and nails and old-fashioned hinges. Shipwrights make boats, the best of which have delicate wooden ribs, can slice through the cold saltwater like knives, and creak and groan like living things.

Maybe bookwright is the word I want. Think we could get that into the OED?

Digression the second – I say “assumption” because, of course, talent is subjective. For instance, reading Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone made me want to claw my own eyes out, but I know a lot of smart, well-read people who sincerely enjoyed it.

No, but seriously, that book is terrible. It was so bad that it went past good and then all the way back to bad again.

Digression the third – I also say “assumption” because even after all the positive attention, all the accolades and kind words, I still don’t really know that it’s fact. And yes, I Am Not Your Wife was reposted to the The Believer‘s tumblr, Thought Catalog, The Frisky, and Huffington Post, and yes, those things are huge, but I still don’t feel especially talented. Maybe the problem is that those things are too huge, and it’s overwhelming.

Like, fuck. The Believer. Are you fucking kidding me right now? Their contributor’s list is basically a list of ALL OF MY FAVOURITE LIVING AUTHORS EVER. Being published in The Believer is a writer’s wet dream. And I somehow managed to get on their tumblr without even trying?

And for sure there’s a part of me that thinks that all this recognition is fantastic, and it’s only going to lead to better things, and blah blah optimism blah, but there’s another part of me, and admittedly much larger part of me, that thinks that this is all a fluke. That I’ll never write anything as smart or interesting or touching as I Am Not Your Wife, and now, at the age of 30, I’ve reached my peak of greatness, and now I’ll begin my slow decline.

In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, etc.

But enough digressing. What I really want to talk about is my love-hate relationship with writing fiction.

So.

Let’s begin with the assumption that I am a fairly talented wordsmith.

I am also someone who likes to write fiction.

And I guess that for a long time I thought that talent was all it took to write a good short story, or poem, or novel. I didn’t really think about writing being something that you would have to study or practice or learn. I thought that you were either talented, or you weren’t, and that determined whether or not you were going to succeed.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I took a creative writing class at the Humber School for Writers with Miriam Toews and she was fucking amazing. She had so many nice things to say about my writing, and even recommended me to the Humber School for Writers’ in-house literary agent, and I left that program feeling like a fucking rockstar.

Anyway, on one of the last days of the program, Miriam and I were having a serious writer-to-writer talk (because I was sure that I was a serious, for-real, grown-up writer) and she told me to forget taking classes and workshops, forget trying to learn the craft of writing, and to just go home and write. And this seemed like excellent advice, because she’d never taken a creative writing class in her life and she’d won the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction. So clearly, she knew what she was talking about.

I took her advice, and I went home, and I wrote. I wrote like a motherfucker (digression the fourth: how does a motherfucker write?) and ended up producing a folder full of short stories and a novel.

And I couldn’t get a damn thing published. I mean, I came pretty close, but still. No cigar.

(Digression the fifth: when I was a kid my mother would always say “close, but no cigar.” This made me think that cigars were fantastic and wonderful and  possibly delicious, which, in turn, made me believe that if I could just get something right for a damn change, she would give me one and my life would be perfect)

After querying and re-querying every damn agent and publisher and literary magazine on the continent, I quit. I was done. I just couldn’t take the heartbreak anymore.

Now, when I say heartbreak, a lot of people think that I mean the pain of rejection – and that’s fair, because that’s part of what breaks my heart.

But the truth is that the bulk of my heartbreak comes from the thought that I’ve somehow failed my stories. Because it’s not the stories themselves that are the problem – in theory, they’re sound enough – it’s the wording, the structure, the believable setting and the fleshed out characters. In the hands of a better writer, these stories would have lived. But mine didn’t.

All my poor, innocent stories were all stillborn. I’d tried my damnedest to get them to live, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how.

I fell in love with each one, and each time I had my stupid heart broken and my foolish hopes dashed.

And I get that it’s about practice. I get that you have to hone your craft, and that suffering for your art doesn’t mean starving somewhere in a cold garrett but instead the grim misery of grinding away at your craft day after day after day. I get that no one is successful right away.

But what happens to all of those stories that I wrote and loved? Are they just collateral damage in the fight to become a good writer? Do I forget about them? Pretend that they never existed? Delete from from my hard drive?

How can I keep giving my heart away, over and over again, to stories that will never see the light of day?

But I want to write fiction. And (perhaps more importantly) I feel happier when I’m writing fiction. So I’ve started that up again, and sometimes it feels amazing, and sometimes it feels terrifying, and mostly it feels like both things at once.

But the thought of trying to get my stuff published again, the thought of going through all that rejection again, scares me shitless.

It doesn’t help that I feel like I’m running out of time. Most of the people my age have Serious Grownup Careers that they’ve been building since their mid-20s, and meanwhile here I am without a single published (fictional) word to my name. How do I ever catch up?

And, I mean, never mind catching up, how on earth do I ever compete with everyone else, all the amazing writers and wannabe writers on the internet? What sets me apart from them? Most of the time, I think that the answer is “nothing” – I’m just another faceless, nameless word-o-phile floating in a sea of fellow literary junkies.

These past few years have been rough. I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances, all people my age, die within the last year or two. There was Artem, of course, who was only 27 when he died of cancer. Then, a few months ago, there was Ryan, who I’d gone to university with; he died in his sleep of unknown causes. Most recently there was a friend-of-a-friend who died of a massive heart attack at the age of 32.

I think I might be running out of time.

So with that in mind, I’m going to try to find a good writing class. I’m going to find someone who can help me iron out the plot and pacing issues that plague all of my writing. I’m going to grind away at this like I should’ve been doing all along. I’m going to do this. Because as much as I love Miriam and think that what she said was right for her, I’m not sure that it was right for me.

In light of that, if anyone has any recommendations for good creative writing programs, preferably in the GTA, but I’m willing to travel, I would love to hear about them.

And to anyone who writes fiction – I would love to hear about your experiences, be they failures, successes, or something in between. I would love your commiseration. I would love to hear how you keep yourself going.

Most of all, though, I want someone to tell me to keep going, that this is worth it, and that I’ll get somewhere eventually. Because right now it feels like I’m driving round and round in circles, and I’m in danger of running out of gas.

Anne Sexton, at her typewriter

Anne Sexton, at her typewriter

Three Memories

17 Mar

1. It’s a grey, dreary Saturday afternoon in early August, 1997. I’m at my friend Liz’s apartment; she’s throwing me a party for my fifteenth birthday. It’s not a big party – more of a get-together, really, with a handful of friends sitting around on Liz’s living room floor. Somebody has brought the obligatory cake, and there are gifts, too, but those are beside the point.

My real birthday present is that Liz has somehow convinced her mother to rent Trainspotting for us. Not only that, but her mother has actually left us alone to watch it.

I have been dying to see this movie ever since it came out the year before. I own the soundtrack (well, I own a taped copy of the soundtrack that my friend made for me). I have postcards showing scenes from the movie stuck on my wall. I’ve cut out every interview with Ewan MacGregor that I can find and pinned them to my bulletin board. My friend Emily somehow saw Trainspotting in theatres (in spite of the fact that she was too young for its R rating), and I’ve made her give me a play-by-play of all of its scenes.

I am so fucking ready for this.

I sit there and watch the fuck out of that movie, my fingers dug deep into the grey pile of the living room carpet. I drink in everything, even, maybe especially, the things that I don’t understand. I don’t flinch away from the achingly awful, sometimes sickening parts that I later won’t be able to watch as an adult. I watch this movie like I’ll be writing a final exam in which 100% of my grade is based on a essay regarding Mark Renton and his life choices.

I am fifteen. I am a virgin. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette, never mind fucking around with heroin. I don’t cut class. I don’t break my curfew. I try so hard to be good.

But in my whole life I have never had something speak to me the way Mark Renton’s opening monologue does:

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons.

Because already I know that I’m not going to choose any of those things. I don’t know what I want in life, but the list of things that I don’t want is long and involved. I’m fifteen, so compromise doesn’t yet exist.

I am going to take the fucking world by storm, and I am not going betray any of my values along the way.

2. It’s a bright spring day in 2003. I have recently sort of, maybe started dating my friend. We have been on one, maybe two dates, but we haven’t kissed yet. He comes over to my house and we watch my favourite movie, The Red Violin. I lean against him and put my head first on his shoulder, then on his lap. I am so tentative, so nervous.

I am so in love with him.

Afterwards, he walks me back to the Dalhousie campus. I have to go work at the school call centre, where we try to convince alumni to donate money to the university. We end up wandering over to the stairs leading up to the Grad House (a misnomer of a pub where undergrad students are totally welcome) and I stand on the second step, so that I’m the same height as him.

Suddenly, he leans in and kisses me, then grabs me and spins me around until we’re both dizzy and giggling.

“Well, that makes things less awkward,” he says.

I bury my face in the front of his coat. I can’t stop smiling. In that moment, everything is sharply, painfully perfect. It doesn’t matter that in a little over two months’ time we will end up lost in a blind alley of shortcoming and fears and hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter that our friendship will end, not even with a bang, but slowly, painfully, spluttering and gasping to its death over the course of the next two years. It doesn’t matter that he will break my heart, not just once, but over and over.

It doesn’t matter, because even if someone had told me all of the awful things that were to come, I still wouldn’t have traded that one wonderful moment for a calmer, happier, but ultimately emptier world.

3. It’s a hot, sunny summer day in 2004. I am wearing a brown tank top and a skirt that my aunt bought me for my birthday. The skirt, which hits just below the knee, is cream with a brick-red pattern of swirls on it; it’s made of jersey cotton, which means that it moves with and clings to my body in the best way possible. The waistband is a thick elastic, in the same brick-red colour, and it dips down into a v in the front. I love the cut of this waistband an unreasonable amount.

I am walking next to Citadel Hill in Halifax. I have my discman in my purse, and I’m listening to my roommate’s copy of Hawksley Workman’s (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves. Specifically, I am listening to Striptease. The sun is hot on my face and shoulders. My hair hangs long, dusty, tangled down my back. I am swaying my hips, wiggling my shoulders.

For the first time in a long time I feel perfectly at home in my body. I feel sexy, in a dirty, earthy way. I feel like someone who might be desirable.

I look down and notice that my skirt has slipped enough to show off the top of my black thong. I barely pause for long enough to hike my skirt back up, and then I keep going.

renton_tracks

Nostalgia Machine: On Re-reading Sandman

11 Mar

Matt and I have recently been re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, something that I’ve been putting off doing for a few years now.

I’m not sure why we decided to dive back into those books now, exactly – I guess part of it might be because I recently started following Mr. Gaiman on twitter and suddenly remembered how amazing he is. It’s also probably due to the fact that we just recently found the last couple of volumes needed to complete our collection for cheap at a discount bookstore. Mostly, though, I think it came out of how much I’ve been thinking about my friend Annie lately.

The thing is, I’ve been missing her like crazy, and I can’t think about the Sandman books without being reminded of her, and vice versa.

Annie moved in with me in the spring of 2004, just at the tail end of my annus horribilis. She was a friend of a friend, someone I barely knew, but I desperately needed a roommate, and she desperately needed a room. Although I’d met her a handful of times, at parties and theatre department events, I’d only ever spoken to her once. At some get-together or other I somehow found myself standing next to her, and I figured that I should try to make conversation. I racked my brains for something to say, and wound up complimenting her on this pin on her bag that said, “Go Fascinate Someone Else.”

She looked at me as if I’d said the most mundane, meaningless thing possible, took a drag from her cigarette, and said in her smoky, vaguely European voice,

“Yeah. I like it too. Obviously. Or I wouldn’t be wearing it.”

What I want to make clear here is that Annie was a super badass who dressed all in black, smoked like a chimney and never refrained from speaking her mind, even when she knew it was going to get her into trouble. She was a brilliant actress with a mysterious Soviet past and a deadpan stare that could wither just about anyone. Half the city admired her, half the city was afraid of her, and half the city wanted to sleep with her. And no, I didn’t accidentally say “half” instead of “a third” – I just mean that there was a lot of overlap between all three categories.

I had no idea why she would ever want to be my roommate.

I would estimate that there are four people who have had an enormous influence on my outlook on music, clothing, art and life in general. The first was Emily, who I met at a performing arts camp when we were twelve and who introduced me to vintage clothing, the Kids in the Hall and, music-wise, everything from Ani DiFranco to Sonic Youth. The second was Kat, who had first hated then later befriended me in while we were at university, and who is responsible for introducing me to pot, Sylvia Plath and the joys of being loud and obnoxious in public. The most recent one was my friend Audra, who has helped shape my take on third-wave feminism, internet activism and dance movies. The fourth, of course, was Annie.

I’m not sure, exactly, how Annie and I became friends. I think that it happened slowly, by degrees, with me making tentative friendly overtures like buying her beer and lending her books. Then she invited me out to her birthday and I went, bravely talked to a few of her friends*, then left early. I’m not sure what time she came home at, but the next morning she was still drunk. When I got up, she was lying sprawled out on our couch, her tank top askew and her already-short skirt hiked up even higher, and she kept giggling over everything I said. I made us both breakfast, and then suddenly, magically, all of my awkwardness melted away and it was like we’d known each other forever.

Mostly it feels like Annie and I have the kind of friendship that twelve year old boys have. I mean, you know that part in Stand By Me when they’re sitting around the campfire talking about pez candies and Wagon Train and whether or not Goofy’s a dog? And then narrator-Gordie says, “We talked into the night. The kind of talk that seemed important until you discover girls.” That’s what our friendship felt like then, and still feels like now. And if you’re an aficionado of Stand By Me in the same way that Annie and I are, I probably don’t have to explain that she’s Chris Chambers, and I’m poor old Gordie Lachance with the leech on his balls.

Anyway, that summer, the summer of 2004, Annie introduced me to the Sandman series. And as I worked my way through them, she re-read them, and together we fed each others’ obsessions. We would sit out on our North End stoop as the late afternoon cooled into evening, drink whatever we had on hand, share Annie’s pack of cigarettes and try to pull apart the Sandman universe. We teased out each layer, or at least the layers that we could find, and laid each thread of plot bare to examine it. We researched everything, trying to figure out which characters were historical figures and which were just plain made up. I think at some point we even made a flowchart or graph to keep track of our discussions. It was perfect.

That summer was like gorging on everything wonderful in life all at once, and if I could bottle it up and sell it, I could be a millionaire, like, tomorrow.

We eventually started casting ourselves and our friends as the Sandman characters. Annie, at the time, was a dead ringer for Death (PUN SO INTENDED):

annie_death

tumblr_m7op1mAbYW1qbgs7po1_1280

And I felt a weird kinship with Delirium:

gunky

I’m not including a picture of myself because I look nothing like Delirium, but when I first read those books, I felt like her. I understood the stuff she said, even when most other people, both fictional and real, seemed to have no clue.

I loved Delirium. Loved her. I think my adoration for her was part of the reason I put off reading the Sandman books again for so long – because, of course, it’s dangerous to revisit anything that you’ve known too well, loved too deeply, or somehow view as having helped shaped who you are. It’s dangerous to expect something to feel the same after years and years of memories and expectations. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, those old books, movies and places are able to stir enough nostalgia to allow you to overlook all of the failings you’re suddenly able to see, but mostly going back to the things that you view as influential and formative is nothing but a disappointment. First of all, they can never live up to the hype that’s built up in your mind for the last ten or fifteen or twenty years, and second of all they’re often just plain terrible and end up making you feel as if a huge chunk of your childhood or young adulthood is somehow tainted.

And, see, Delirium is a character who would be ripe for this kind of adult realization. I was worried that, as a 30 year old, I would find her character to be ridiculous, and my love of her incredibly pretentious. I was worried that re-reading Brief Lives, my favourite Sandman of all time, would leave me rolling my eyes SO HARD at my younger self and her habit of being overdramatic about, well, everything. I was worried that, this time around, I would hate Delirium, or at the very least no longer love her and know her the way I had. And somehow, that would feel like a huge loss.

But you guys? Sandman is still amazing. And Delirium is still amazing.

Maybe it’s because when Annie moved in with me, I was just coming out of a major depressive episode, and I’m in a not-dissimilar place in my life right now. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t changed as much in nine years as I’d thought. Whatever the reason, Delirium still kills me in all the best ways possible. She says things, and I think, ohhhh, I get that. I’ve felt that.

Like this:

“I feel like … I don’t know. Someplace nobody ever goes anymore.”

Or this:

“It all keeps moving and it won’t stop and I just want it to stop and then I think what if it gets worse? You know? What if it gets worse?”

Or this:

“I like airplanes. I like anywhere that isn’t a proper place. I like in-betweens.”

Or this:

“What’s the name of the word for the precise moment when you realize that you’ve actually forgotten how it felt to make love to somebody you really liked a long time ago.”

Or this:

“You’ve never apologized to me. You just act like you know stuff I don’t know that makes everything you do okay.”

Ahhhhhhh (that is a sigh of total satisfaction after having a fictional character explain what’s in my heart)

I’m not really sure how to end this, except to say that I find myself back in the same curious, dreamy state that Sandman put me in the first time. I mean, it’s probably not just the books – it’s probably also the fact that spring is so close that you can taste it, and that my house is clean for once, and I ate some really transcendentally great yogurt today. But whatever it is, I’ll take it. I like this feeling. I’ve missed this feeling. It makes me feel floaty and insubstantial and wondrous in a way that I haven’t felt in years.

I just wish Annie was here to share this all with me, instead of being half a continent away.

I wish we were back on our stoop, eating Rassy’s pizza and drinking Kahlua cocktails and watching the sparrows hopping around eating our crumbs.

I wish I knew what to do with this feeling, now that I finally have it back.

———————

*It was actually only one friend, the nicest guy imaginable who would deliberately seek out shy, awkward people and talk to them at social gatherings. Seriously. The nicest.