that’s a lot to live up to

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Paris recently. I finished Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends and have moved on to the follow-up, Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends through the Great War. (Both are by Mary McAuliffe.)

I give you their full titles to bring home the point that I’m reading about a lot gifted people who worked hard and succeeded in fields about which they were passionate.

Which is partly inspiring, and partly depressing.

I feel as though I should be working harder. But before I can even do that I need to work out where my passion lies. What is it that I have to say? What is it that I want to shout from the rooftops? I’m pretty sure that ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer.

And it folds back into earlier thoughts. When I tried to put together ideas about where I want to be five years from now, I didn’t have any kind of concrete goal for my writing. Other than just… getting better. I feel I should have a passion project. I should want to write a novel, or a travelogue, or something.

But I haven’t worked out what that is yet. And I’m not sure where to start.

setting goals

This morning I had the TED radio hour podcast on while I washed the dishes. It was last week’s episode (I think) about Champions, and in a way it became a meditation on the mentality and habits of successful people. Athletes, in this case.

I’ve been thinking about life goals over the last couple of weeks, and this podcast kind of ran with that theme. Athletes have concrete goals. They know what they want, and they have a training schedule to get them there.

So I stood there with soapy hands thinking, what does my goal look like? Smell like? Taste like? Because if I can’t picture it in glowing technicolour, in all five senses, how am I ever going to know it when I meet it?

And, I realize, the goal can’t be “getting published,” because I have no control over that. The goal can’t be external validation, it has to be internal.

So, what does this mean in a concrete sense? I’m not sure yet. ‘Become a better travel writer’ is valid, but vague. Maybe it needs to be ‘finish these five pieces you’re in the middle of, even if all you ever do with them is post them on this blog.’ Maybe it’s ‘learn from what you didn’t get right last time.’ Maybe it’s ‘travel for two months out of every year.’ Maybe it’s ‘stop going back to the same damn places over and over so you can stretch a little.’ Maybe it’s ‘keep going back to that one place until you’ve said everything you want to say about it.’

I’m beginning to understand that it might be time to sit down and actually think through what the big goal is. What do I want to achieve? What does that end point feel like? And what little goals will lead me down the path to that big one?

I need to do some research, and a lot of thinking.

The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux

I picked up The Great Railway Bazaar in an effort to broaden my travel reading beyond country guides, Michael Palin, and Bill Bryson. The Lonely Planet book recommended Paul Theroux as a ‘contemporary master of travel writing,’ so it seemed like a good place to start.

This book represents the kind of travel writing that I’m most interested in: I’m going on a journey and I’m going to take you with me. Not so different from Michael Palin or Bill Bryson for that matter. There wasn’t a larger point or any kind of manifesto – just the details of an interesting journey.

Paul Theroux’s descriptions were wonderful, more evocative, more visceral, more poetic than other travel writing I have yet encountered, and I’m sure that’s why the Lonely Planet folk recommended him. But, to be quite frank, I’d rather skip the carefully tailored words and spend the time with Messrs. Palin and Bryson instead. The narrator of The Great Railway Bazaar was a condescending, racist dick. And the complete and utter lack of women as people rather than as sexualized objects was truly appalling.

A masochistic part of me, however, is debating reading his follow up, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where he reprises the same journey thirty years later, just to see if he has grown as a person at all.

changing gears

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been learning more about travel writing. I bought the “Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing” – because what better authority would there be, I suppose – as a happy-birthday-to-me present at the end of March. I’m still working my way through it.

I seem to swing back and forth on whether this is a kind of writing I want to delve into. I find the idea of writing endless click-bait pieces on the ‘5 Hottest Party Cities’, or the ’10 Most Undiscovered Gems’, or whatever, incredibly depressing. But I love to travel, and I love to write, and there is an area of longform travel writing that crosses over with creative non-fiction, so I’m nibbling around the edges of that.

Maybe all I really want to do is travel and blog. I loved writing those little posts while I was in Paris. I found it helped in contextualizing and remembering my experiences. I regret that I didn’t keep them up while I travelled around Greece, but I just ran out of hours in the day. And I was struggling with travel burn-out around the time I stayed overnight in Milan, so for a couple of days it all just kind of became about endurance.

I did continue to take photographs, though, so maybe before the memories grow too faint I’ll find some favourites and tell the stories behind them.

I’m going in…

I finished the first draft of a story on new year’s eve and then metaphorically shoved it in a drawer. That draft is a mess, so I had intended to let it sit and percolate in there for several weeks and hope that I could magically work out how to fix it in the meantime.

I realized this past week, though, that the deadline for submitting it to the place I want to submit it is the beginning of February and not the end of February, so I’ve had to shuffle up the timeline a bit. In order to get a readable draft out to my first reader so that I can get notes back and still have time to revise it again, the story has to come out of the drawer today.

I printed it out this morning, and I’m about to wade in. Sharpening the red pen, as it were. Wish me luck.

My story in print!

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The issue of PRISM with my story in it spotted in the wild.

I meant to post this ages ago, of course, back when it came out. But I wanted to include a photo of the magazine actually in a store, and though I visited several branches I couldn’t find it anywhere in the time before I left on my adventure. By the time I got back in late November, it didn’t seem worth posting anymore. Although I did go back to the bookstore to snap my coveted photo.

But this whole year-in-review time seems to be as good as any for remembering that someone paid me for a story I wrote for the very first time this year. It came out in PRISM 53.1, the Fall 2014 issue. I’m delighted with the cover art on the issue, too, which is both classy and whimsical. The little blurb on their page about my piece reads:

“On the non-fiction side, PRISM 53:1 includes K.A. MacKinnon’s “Character Sketch,” a uniquely-structured piece about two women traveling through Europe as circus employees.”

I also wanted to include a link to Ayelet Tsabari’s web page. (If you haven’t read her stuff, you really should. ‘Yemeni Soup and Other Recipes’ is my favourite.) She taught me in the two Continuing Ed. creative non-fiction courses I took last year. Those classes turned out to provide exactly the right information at exactly the right time for me, in terms of the progress of my writing, and the piece PRISM published originally started as an assignment in one of those classes.

Anyway, Ayelet wrote a lovely post recently in which she bragged on behalf of a few of her students who are doing well, and I was one of them.

In other writing-related news, I have two stories out being considered at the moment. For one, I should hear sometime in January, for the other they’re saying ‘the first quarter of 2015’, so sometime before April, I guess.

I’ve been writing with reasonable dedication this month and I have another story that is about 500 words from being finished. I have sworn the first draft will be done this month, so that’s mostly my plan for this evening.

Writers’ Workshop in Paris

I had to talk myself into going to the writers’ workshop at Shakespeare and Company last Sunday at least a dozen times. Which is ironic, since my original plan for my time in Paris was something of a writer’s retreat.

I had done quite a lot of research into the English-language literary scene in Paris. There are a handful of writers’ workshops in the city, and I had intended to attend several of them. But plans change, and the trip became much more activity-based, and other than blogging, I didn’t write anything while in Paris at all.

It was only in writing about Shakespeare and Company for this blog that I remembered the writers’ workshops – the bookstore plays host to at least two of them. And when I dug a little deeper to find the details again, I realized there would be one on the Sunday evening that I was in town.

Saturday evening, I went back and forth on the idea several times. I had a science fiction short story I wanted to workshop, but what if it wasn’t literary enough? What if someone stole my ideas – I didn’t know the people involved, and I was supposed to bring copies for them.What if I didn’t get the copies back? (… yes, I know. I didn’t say this was rational.) What if the people were mean?

I decided I would prepare my piece and decide at the last minute if I wanted to go or not. I saved my story to a memory stick and looked up the address of a local photocopy shop where I could get it printed out.

Sunday was a perfect Parisian day. I slept in a little, then spent the early afternoon wandering around the Ile St-Louis, which is the oldest part of town and an area I hadn’t ever explored before. It’s a beautiful neighbourhood of narrow streets and boutique shops and very, very expensive apartments. There is no metro and very little in the way of street traffic.

The sun came out and the weather was mild, and I whiled away an hour or two sitting on a bench by the banks of the Seine reading my book. This was exactly what I wanted from my Paris vacation.

Later in the afternoon, I met up with a friend for tea. We worked together over the summer in Canada, and she is now directing a play in Paris. It was wonderful to see a friendly face after spending several days on my own. She took me to a cozy cafe in the Marais district and we sipped tea and chatted for two hours.

If we’re still chatting, I won’t cut it off to go and do the workshop, I thought. I’d rather spend time with my friend. But at 5:30 she had to head off anyway, and I had plenty of time to make it to the book shop.

I had already failed at getting my story printed out. I found the printing shop earlier in the day with no problem, but I hadn’t thought about the fact that it was Sunday, and the shop was closed. I spent the hour before the workshop wandering through the university neighbourhood on the Left Bank, trying and failing to find somewhere else to print my story.

If I don’t have copies of my story, there’s no point in going to the workshop, I thought. What if it’s weird that I’m there with no story? What if I’m the only one?

What if the other stories are bad?

What if I have nothing to say?

What if the people are weird and pretentious?

Finally I decided that if I was trying this hard to find a way out of going to the workshop, the workshop was probably something I needed to do. As the saying goes: find what scares you and do it.

Even so, I nearly walked out while I was waiting for it to start. I had to promise myself that if I really didn’t like it, I was allowed to leave after it started.

The workshop was, of course, just fine. There was one person I wanted to jab with a fork and one person who got super-defensive about his work, but that’s about par for the course in terms of workshops. None of the works we read were terrible. And about 2/3 of the other attendees were there with no piece to workshop.

The structure of the workshop was a little different. I was used to reading the piece, and then going around the room twice – the first time everyone says what they think the piece did well, and then everyone offers constructive criticism. It was a classroom environment and designed to keep things positive.

In the Paris workshop, the leader asked us to talk about what we felt while reading the piece, and I found the resulting comments were often on the harsh side. Not unduly so, there were no attacks, nothing aggressive, but no one was pulling any punches either. I did like that there was no one-by-one-going-around-the-room-style commenting, though. It was more of a conversation, which gave me a chance to listen to others before I offered my comments. And I didn’t have to comment at all if I didn’t want to.

The pieces were pretty evenly split between poetry and prose. Workshopping poetry was a new experience for me. I don’t know anything about poetry and was worried I wouldn’t understand or wouldn’t have anything to say. But it was amazing the way that the imagery in these poems kept unfolding as we discussed them. I was pleased to find that I did have opinions on them, even if I didn’t necessarily speak them.

It wasn’t a life-changing event, and I can’t say that I really learned anything, but I’m pleased I went. It was something I wanted to do while I was in Paris, and I didn’t let myself chicken out. And it really wasn’t so scary in the end.

 

 

Does the way you express affection affect your writing?

I came across the concept of ‘love languages’ while reading a book called Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke. The first half of this book runs through a very thorough exercise in character building, hitting all the usual high points. As part of the section on physical and natural attributes, though, Mr. Gerke introduced me to a concept I hadn’t encountered before. He suggested giving some thought to the way that characters give and receive affection.

“The theory is that, like gifts and talents, each of us is born with a tendency to express and receive love in a certain way – in a love language – but that not all of us speak the same language.

“Some of us understand love in terms of what we do for someone else. I’m saying I love you if I clean up your room or have your car fixed for you or make your dinner. I receive love – that is, I understand that you are saying you love me – when you do something similar for me.

“But what if you don’t speak my love language? What if you understand love in terms of gift giving? You say I love you when you bring me a rock you found that made you think of me or when you pick up a can of my favourite soft drink on the drive over, and you expect to receive love in like manner. So now I’m fixing your bathroom but you’re giving me a rock. Both of us are saying I love you but neither of us is “hearing” the other correctly.”

(Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke, Writer’s Digest Books, 2010, pages 48-49.)

Mr. Gerke’s recommendation is based on a theory by a man called Gary Chapman. Mr. Chapman has a website (of course he does) where he applies his theories to real-life relationships and tries to convince you that you can’t live without his book or seminar or whatever it is he’s trying to sell. To be blunt, the website makes the theory look like your average pop-schlock psychology. BUT. Don’t let that put you off the idea entirely.

Since I first encountered this theory, I’ve been noticing more and more the way in which the people around me express affection. My father does it with acts of service, like in the example above. A colleague of mine gives gifts – every occasion is celebrated, even if it’s just something small, with a gift or a card or a cupcake. A friend will send me random texts to tell me that he values me, that he misses me. He expresses affection in words. And me, I express affection through physical touch.

Where the theory falls down a little for me is that I believe we’re all mostly smart enough to see other people’s acts of affection for what they are, even if they express love in a different way than we ourselves do.

The thing that’s fascinating me at the moment, though, is the way this bleeds over into how we write.

I express love by physical touch, and that’s how I receive it. And conversely, if I don’t like you, I don’t want to be touched by you. Touch has meaning. It speaks. So when I write gestures, when I build a romance between characters, when I reach for symbolism, it’s all laced with the meaning that I, personally, encode into physical touch. I use it as a kind of shorthand.

But what if my reader doesn’t care about touch, or doesn’t notice it? What if the reader is my colleague, the gift giver? The only access she has to this character are the words I give her. She doesn’t get to interact with the character except through me. Will she be dissatisfied with the relationship I’m trying to write? Will she understand what I mean? Will she connect with the characters? It’s an interesting question.

I recently read Parasite by Mira Grant. I devoured the book in less than a week, despite a looney schedule at work. The story was compelling, and I liked the characters, and I needed to know ‘what happens next?!’ all the way through to the very end. All signs of a great read.

But the relationship between the lead character and her boyfriend fell completely flat for me. I felt nothing. And I wonder if that could be linked to the author (or maybe just the character?) and I having different love languages. The characters said “I love you” on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean as much to me as gestural language would. Because I’m a toucher.

“Understanding love languages … [is] good for your fiction because if you’re not being conscious about the love languages you select for your characters, you’ll give them all the same one – yours – just by default.”

(Plot Versus Character, page 51)

It’s something to think about as I launch into new short stories. And it might be an interesting exercise to deliberately write a character who expresses affection differently than I do, who responds to people differently than I do. Because it’s not just about affection, it’s the basis of the character’s approach to all human interactions.

As I said, something to think about.

Have you encountered this idea before? Is it something you’ve given any thought to in terms of your writing? Are there exercises out there that incorporate this kind of idea? I’m curious to learn more.

 

I sold my first story!

Over the summer I sold my first story! It’s a creative non-fiction piece called “Character Sketch” about a woman I fell in love with while I worked on tour with the circus. It will appear in the fall issue of PRISM International, a CanLit (Canadian literary) magazine, which should come out in October.

I’ll post again if and when there is a link to the issue on their website and/or a sighting of the hard copy out in the wild.

Needless to say, I am very, very excited about this. There may have been dancing in the kitchen.

This was also my first experience working with a professional editor, and I enjoyed it enormously. I was really nervous when I first opened the file with her comments in it – I was worried the sensitive bits of me might shrivel up and die if it was harsh, and more worried that I might not be a good enough writer yet to fix whatever problems she found.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find comments about what the editor liked in particular, what she thought worked well, in among the handful of grammatical corrections. The changes she requested were minor and mostly involved adding bits of information for clarity. She really helped me to make the piece better, and I am hugely grateful for that.

In moderately related news, I haven’t been keeping up on my blog posts about other submissions I’ve been sending out this summer. So, to update: I sent out three short stories (one of them twice) and they were all rejected. Just so I don’t get too big for my britches.

I’ve done another draft on one of those stories and will hopefully send that out again shortly. There’s another draft in the works on one of the other two as well, and then I need to look for another potential home for it. One day soon I’ll be able to celebrate my first fiction sale, too.

Writing Around a Day Job

In August, writer Tom Pollock contributed a guest post to one of my favourite blogs, Terrible Minds, on the topic of writing around a day job. Given that’s something I’ve been struggling with all summer, I was curious about his recommendations, and it turns out I have a few things to add.

Mr. Pollock’s first piece of advice is: Plan Your Time.

“If you’re effectively trying to do two jobs at once, then time is likely to be your scarcest resource, and like any scarce resource, you’ll need to budget. Plan your week ahead, know when you’re writing.  Have a routine.”

A very good piece of advice indeed, except when it’s impossible. Not every job is structured and stable. Not every job is 9-to-5. Not every job is left behind at the end of the day. Mine isn’t.

Now, fair warning, my situation is unusual. My ‘day’ job is in the theatre. I love what I do, and I have no intention of giving it up, but the hours can be all-consuming and irregular (the drama school application pack called the schedule ‘anti-social’). Which means a routine is something I just can’t create.

I work six days a week, and since March I’ve worked upwards of 55 hours in those six days. But the configuration of those 55 hours within the week is different every time. I can’t say I’ll write for two hours every Wednesday night, because I might never get two Wednesday nights off in a row.

(This is also why taking classes of any kind – dance, yoga, writing, whatever – is challenging to the point of impossible. Hobbies are for the down time between contracts, and you just hope that the start and end dates of the classes line up with your schedule.)

The other issue I have with Mr. Pollock’s advice is that time is not the only resource that’s scarce. Even working nutty hours, I can find the time to write if I need to. I managed it up until July and wrote three short stories in that time in addition to keeping up my do-it-yourself writing course. The resource that is most scarce for me is energy. Mental real estate. Passion.

And it’s not about laziness or lack of commitment, it’s about being wrung out. It doesn’t help that I’m an introvert by nature. Being around other people requires energy, and I burn through everything I have in a 12-hour day. What is left, then, to put down onto the page?

And, going back to the question of routine, I can’t always plan for how much emotional investment a day will require. Let’s say I decide to write for two hours on Wednesday evening. Great. Some days the show goes well, and I bounce out of the theatre with a bundle of energy to sink into my story.

But if during the matinee on that Wednesday we have an understudy go on at the last minute because the principal actor got trapped in traffic on the highway (last month), or there’s an accident backstage (two days ago), or we get nailed by a huge storm and spend the whole show bracing for a possible power outage (last night), or the lead fucks up a line onstage and takes it out on everyone backstage when he or she comes off (oh, so often), or an actor is performing while sick or injured and requires extra care… Any energy, any bounce I had at the beginning of the day is gone. I’ve spent my passion at work, and there is none left for my writing.

And exhaustion is cumulative. I managed to keep writing from March through into July, but by then my reserves were spent and there was nothing I could do but hang on by my fingernails until the schedule eased up again. Which it did, two weeks ago. I’ve been building my reserves back up for those two weeks, and only in the last couple of days have I been able to start writing again.

In short, sometimes all the planning in the world still can’t make it happen.

So what did I want to add to Mr. Pollock’s advice?

Know your limits and work around them. I know my schedule is going to ebb and flow in this way, which is one among several reasons why I’m not writing a novel. I can start and finish short stories and blog posts in smaller bursts of time. I’m less likely to run out of momentum in the way I would on a longer project.

Keep good notes. Even if I’m not writing, I try to jot down ideas as they pop into my head. My brain often kicks up the best stuff while it’s busy with other things. I keep a file for each story I’m working on and collect the notes there so it’s all in one place when I’m ready to come back to it.

Don’t force it. Discipline is one thing, torturing yourself is another. If you’re running on empty, give yourself a break. For me, the very last thing I want is to end up dreading writing the way I dreaded doing homework in school. If writing is your passion, you’ll come back to it when your energy levels rebound.

And I’m curious now about how other people balance writing around jobs that don’t fit the standard 9-to-5 mold, jobs that require a piece of your soul. Paramedics? Parents? Lawyers? Shift-workers? How do you handle it?