Serpent’s teeth and the brilliance of Shakespeare

30 08 2015

db-0100I hated reading Shakespeare as I grew up. The language seemed difficult, the concepts dry and old. I was, of course, ignorant. And a philistine. Now I know better, and am continually gobsmacked by what Shakespeare was able to contain in his works.

I wonder who I was when I was younger – so sure of myself, so sure I knew things, terrified of being caught out yet pushing my way through, singing “Whistle a Happy Tune” and “You’ll never walk alone” to keep my chin up – but as an old friend said, it WAS up. Though I knew nothing, and inside I knew I knew nothing. I knew enough to fake it til I made it, just about. So I did.

I blame my mother. She told us we were special, and though we never really believed it, we carried it around. My adopted aunt once gave me a book which had a marvelous poem in it about “Mary-Alice”, who had great potential, and because she was so afraid of losing that potential, she kept it hidden under her bed in a very secure box and got it out now and again to look at it but never showed it to anyone.

That poem has haunted my entire life. Thanks, Aunt Shirlianne. (Love her so much, and there’s no reason she should have expected that that poem would have such an effect on me). Between my mother assuring me I was meant to do great things and my aunt inflicting overly wise poetry on me, I was and probably still am, a mess. I figure I still have to contribute – have to have an effect on the world, have to use my potential before it vanishes like Mary-Alice’s.

potential

It’s encouraging in one way, terrifying in another. Here I am, gently losing my mind with the cognitive effects of MS, and I am flogging myself to write, to agitate, to exercise, to model healthy behaviour, blah blah blah. Add in a generous dose of Roman Catholic guilt and it’s almost unbearable in here. Wine helps. And chocolate.

Sad thing is, I seem to have visited it upon my kids, this same sense of “you have great gifts and you’d better use them to better the world or else”. It’s a lot of pressure, and I didn’t mean to make their lives the same living ratrace mentally that I spin upon, but I did.

So now they have secret lives, and are afraid to tell me their plans and are snarky at me so they don’t have to feel that I am judging them.

Which, of course, I am NOT. Funny thing about parenting. That unconditional love thing is the code.You get it through the umbilical cord, I think. So I don’t care what they do, though of course I would be sad if they got arrested or hurt somebody or sat about being unhappy and unfulfilled. But then I think they wouldn’t like that, either, so I assume we are on the same page, sort of. Maybe.

I have to guess, though, because, like those ungrateful children in Shakespeare, two out of my three wonderful offspring speak rarely to me. It hurts me, yes it does. I’m sure they have reasons to avoid me, and it’s pretty much due me as I recall I kind avoided my mother for a spell, and still argue with her though she is 24 years gone. I guess I also passed on the serpent’s tooth.

In a way, it’s good – I raised my kids to be independent, questioning individuals, and so they are. Just wish a bit that they’d be a little less questioning of me, sometimes.

Ah well, at least when we DO talk, they are interesting, witty, intelligent, and worth the wait. Perhaps you can’t have that without the tooth…

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Grumpy grumpy grumpy ghosts, or muses in disguise?

30 04 2014

As the start date for my Humber course creeps closer, I can feel my old ghosts moving in, settling down, taking up their knitting, kicking off their shoes. Making themselves comfortable.
Which ghosts?
The ones who say:
“You never finish anything.”
“You’re a jack of all trades, a master of none.”
“There’s nothing worse than a dilettante.”
“Why do you want to push yourself? You’re sick. Take it easy.”

Argh, I say, waving my arms about, disturbing their spectres until they get annoyed in turn, hide my pens, make my computer go cranky, get the cat to leave hair balls in the hallway.
Eventually they wander off for a bit, but they come back, whisper in my ear, “you know, you don’t REALLY have what it takes, right?”

We all have those voices. For some reason they are always louder and more persistent than the voices telling us how wonderful we are. Or maybe that’s just me?

I’m sure I exhaust my friends, who aim to reassure me, but these ghosts have lived with me since grade one, when substitute teacher Mrs. Morabito put tape over my mouth for daring to say I had already read the assigned book, and I was in an advanced reading group. She told me off for thinking I was better than anyone else. Since then, any time I feel I am good at anything, I put tape over my mouth and send myself into the hallway as punishment for getting too full of myself. Or I screw myself up, so I can never feel successful.

For this reason, I remember none of the words of fondness (were there any?) of my first boyfriend, but I remember him telling me not to interrupt his important discussion. I recall my English teacher telling me the story I wrote for my parents was derivative and awful (though they liked it, and that was the important thing). I remember my failures as a manager, forget the good things I did. I forget, unless I deliberately dig them out, the positive words on my various submissions to contests, the publications I racked up, the good things I’ve done, the creative mind I have that comes out to play.

So, I’m stressing out. Part of me feels I should already know all this course is going to teach me, because I’ve taken a lot of courses by this point and know a lot of the how, though I don’t always apply it.

Part of me wants to give up on this challenge, do something else instead, chicken out, back away from the hard work it will involve.

Part of me mutters, but you are no good at editing, you can’t ever finish things off properly, you are so slapdash and careless….you never TRY HARD ENOUGH.

Ah, there’s the big one. I knew she’d speak up soon. The old “you’re lazy” ghost.

Gawd, I hate her. She’s made me work to the point of breakdown, pushed me to exhaustion, forced me to do all sorts of insane things. She makes me DO stuff. Gawd, I love her.

One more time, I call to her, sitting as she is, arms crossed, face knotted in disdain. Push me one more time. You can stay.

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Sometimes you feel like a star, sometimes you don’t…

14 02 2014

ImageSo, very cleverly, I thought, I announced to the world on FaceBook that I’d been accepted to the Humber School and would be studying under the luminescent Donna Morrissey. Clever, I thought, because of accountability. See, if everyone knows I’m writing, I’ll have to bloody do it, won’t I?

Not so cleverly because I’d recently decided NOT to let people know I was writing until I actually had more publications to show them, it having been a long dry spell since the last ones. This being partially because of my initiation focus – I am SO good at starting things, much less effective at seeing them to fruition. How I wish I had the persistence of Judy Penz Sheluk, my writing colleague, who wins my personal award for the least procrastination and most persistence of any writer I know. And she writes wonderfully, too, which must help, but the thing is she also EDITS wonderfully, and that is something I aspire to but rarely reach.

One has only to see my employment history to see that. I get bored easily.

But lately, it’s been bored into my skull (ha ha) that I am going to have to grow up and do some completion tasks. I can do it, I have done it, it is possible, though never ever my preference. No, for me I prefer the climb up to the top of the roller coaster, the anticipation, rather than the end rolling into the stop part.

The Writer’s Union class I went to reminded me it takes years to hone a book. Years and years. And the talk by Donna Morrissey yesterday talked about three years per book. Which on the one hand takes the pressure off a bit, on the other reminds me of all the editing I’m going to have to do, the endless drafts, the living with my characters until they seem like family and the type of family you can only bear to see once a year at that.

But it’s time to take things seriously. So there I went, confessing my admission, not confessing my silly hopes for such a venture which shall remain my own, and I end up getting what I asked for – the class I wanted, the author I wanted to work with (It was either Donna or Helen Humphreys or Trevor Cole – I adore them all, different as they are). And for the story I’m writing, Donna is the most perfect.

And now I feel like the sardine being et here in this photo. Captured by a star, feeling a bit panicked as I go forward. Wondering if I’ll make it out alive.

All I can say is that I am counting on Donna’s sense of humour, dark and funny and wicked, to see her through my struggles…

photo credit: Elton Lin





Helping or pushing, the fine line

9 02 2014

Sometimes it’s terrible being an ex-nurse. It’s so tempting to come up with solutions for people, drawing on my tremendous reserve of advice and knowledge to make their lives so much better than they are right now.
Because of course, I would know. (Note sarcastic tone). After all, no one could deny my life is totally organized and successful, what with my multimillion in book sales and such…

Kidding, kidding.

The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know. And as I get older I am — gradually — learning to keep my mouth shut rather than advise, at least most of the time.

It helps that I teach a “self-help” group where we are expressly forbidden from offering advice, encouraging the much more knowledgeable class to share their ideas. It’s a good reminder that the group knows more than I do.

And heaven knows I hate being told what to do. Sometimes people may have great ideas for me, for my writing, for things I could do or should do to make things better. Sometimes I listen. Often I pretend to listen, then go off and process the suggestion. Ignore it. Adapt it. Maybe even use it.

But sometimes, people force their suggestions down my throat. Sometimes I get too enthusiastic with my offerings. It’s an easy slip from helpfulness to bullying. Mostly done in the spirit of trying to help, but there’s that fine line there…

As I grow older and presumably wiser, I truly hope I will learn to take suggestions with equanimity, and give them rarely.

And gradually, I’ll get quieter and quieter, and maybe one day be thought wise. Like that owl from the brownie poem:

“The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Oh why can’t we be like that wise old bird?”

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Mining memories

16 08 2013

messy-deskWas listening to CBC this morning and there was some program on it (I forget which one) about memory, about the pathways of memory, about how if we rehash memories they create rivers in our neurons, meaning they’ll be easier to recall later.

So, between them, and writing exercises starting “I remember”, I’ve been digging a bit.

On the radio program they said “We always remember our first kiss”. I had to go mining deep for that one. I remember a lot of memorable kisses – the fly by one at college, the first one from an unreasonably handsome man who I never thought would notice me, wet kisses, dry kisses, passionate kisses, loving kisses, pecks on the cheek. But my first? I scrounged around a bit in my files.

Ah, yes, there it was, in the group of most embarrassing moments. My first boyfriend had tried to french kiss me. I reacted badly. Had never even thought of French kissing, had no idea about tongues and such. He politely backed off, always a considerate fellow, and we never French kissed again for our entire relationship.

Of course, next boyfriend was specifically recruited to teach me French kissing. I am grateful for them both.

That file, the most embarrassing moments, is annoyingly large. I remember asking a friend to come with me to the prom, RIGHT after I had the most hideous haircut of my life – he, unsurprisingly, said no. I remember bursting into tears at a management meeting just before I left work, snivelling and weeping like some half-baked depressive. I was sick sick then, my MS just kicking me about, but I didn’t know that. I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown, and probably looked like it, too.

I remember stupid things I said, foolish things I did. They’re all there, ready to be retrieved and placed on some invented person so I can feel them again (eek) or make them feel real for my characters.

I remember happy things, too – the joy of feeling my babies moving inside me, the first sight of them, the time I ran for politics and made a good speech.

Sad times, too – losses and absences and heartbreak.

Excitement. Thrills. Laughter.

It’s good we can retrieve these things, imagine what our characters must feel when they go through them. It’s a great place to go mining for inspiration.

But I can’t help wondering if revisiting these feelings changes me, too.





How do you know when it’s ready?

4 08 2013

41vZycAOEfL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_I’m delighted to report my wonderful, smart, and confident niece has written and self-published her first book and is now marketing it to bookstores in her area, as well as on Amazon. It’s called “Crescent” and I’ll link to it here.

When I first heard about this, though, I was startled to find in my heart a bit of anger. I was frustrated – I don’t have a book yet myself, and yet I’ve been “working” at writing for some time (though procrastination seems to be my main output). The things I do write, people tell me, are good. Why don’t I send them in for publication?

Where does that niece of mine get her confidence? I’ve never ever been that confident in my entire life. Was it my mother’s fault? My English teacher’s fault? (She told me a story I sweated over to write for my parents as a Christmas present was trivial and derivative) (It probably was but I cried buckets writing it and my parents cried even more reading it, so there!) My ex? There must be someone I can blame, surely.

Facebook doesn’t help. Everyone is writing books and books and more books and I am smothering in the weight of all those books published when mine are not.

It’s not like I haven’t been published before  – for a while there I was making a pretty good income from writing. I’ve been on CBC’s Sunday Edition, I’ve got publications in humour, non-fiction, poetry, fiction, even the Oxford Companion to Medicine.

And yet I hesitate. I have turned myself into one of those things I promised myself I would never be, the dilettante writer. The wanna be. The liar.

And so I heap more scorn on myself and freeze myself into even greater immobility. It’s ridiculous, but I can’t seem to stop myself.

Nor can I stop myself from writing.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
― Dorothy ParkerThe Collected Dorothy Parker

Ah, so true. But there is joy to be had in writing – the joy of seeing things more clearly, of being more present in this world, of delighting in all those other really good books out there (we really don’t need another one, I tell myself in my dark heart…) because we’ve struggled to get things just right ourselves.

I’ve restarted The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron in an attempt to jumpstart my mind, and am working on a few things that have deadlines so that is a good thing. I love deadlines. I’m waiting to hear about a couple of submissions, hoping things go well. I’m doing the 3daynovel thing again this year, working on a mystery plot.

I’m wishing my niece well with her book, which is really quite good and you should all buy it. But that initial anger I felt – I’m hanging on to that, too, because it might just push me over the hump to get my stuff done, too.





Overwhelmed with reading others’ writing

16 04 2013

In Desiderata, the author tells us to avoid comparing ourselves with others as it will leave us either vain or bitter – there will always be those greater and lesser than ourselves.

How right, how true. Especially when it comes to writing.

Sometimes I wander through a bookstore or see what books are being launched every week and am humbled, defeated by all those wonderful stories out there that others are telling much better than I ever could. My writing seems unnecessary except to me, unimportant, wasteful of time and resources. My friends, when they see me in despair, say “why are you doing this, anyway?”, and then there’s always Dorothy Parker and her advice to tell budding writers to give it up while they are still happy.
I become bitter by turns, think hateful thoughts about successful authors, grumble to myself.

And then I read some stories and can feel glee and schadenfreude creeping over me.
“Oh, this is perfectly horrid,” I think. ” I KNOW I write better than THIS!”
Suddenly I feel inspired, right to write, even feel I must write if only to help repair the damage done to literature by these sloppy attempts.

I sway between these points, always awash in despair or joy. Madness.

But can I share a pet peeve?
I am so so tired of people thinking that merely putting things down on paper is writing. That it requires no practice or training or editing or research or even (gasp) reading.
Sheesh.
Sure, there’s such thing as inspiration. I have that a lot. It’s easy to come up with little ditties.
Putting together a coherent story?
Well, that takes practice and damn hard work.

I am agog with admiration at those who succeed at this. And frustrated beyond belief by people who throw a few words down on a plate like a pile of spaghetti and think they are on the same level.

Not that I haven’t done some of that myself, mind you. I apologize to all of you out there who have had to read my messes. You have my sympathy.

But hey, for a moment, didn’t you think, even to yourself, how happy you were about your writing, in contrast to mine?








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