Writing with my Mom

IMG_4661

One of my current projects is a book of short stories. I have a dozen of my own offerings, from micro-short flash fiction to slightly longer pieces, plus four stories I have recently co-authored with my mom. If you knew my mom, you’ll raise an eyebrow at how this project is possible. You see, she died in 1997.

My mom wrote a lot. I’m still in the process of recovering so much of her work. But, to my knowledge, only one of her short stories was every published – Ten Days Out appeared in the Story Teller Magazine in the fall of 1996. Most of her work was in a constant stage of rewriting, revising and preparing for resubmission to one magazine or another.

The four stories I have been working on for inclusion with my work appeared in an anthology that she and her writing group, The Coastal Tail Spinners, put together for family and friends.

So – why the need to co-author these works? Why indeed …

I had thought to simply transcribe and include these works under her name. The moment I started to type, I realized it wasn’t possible. I began to make changes and what I was doing was much more than editing. An internal dialogue with my mom ran steadily through my head. It goes something like this:

slides0011 (2)I don’t think she’d say it like that, Mom. What about this instead? No – well then, I’ll rewrite it like this. Do you like that better? I’m reading between the lines here, but shouldn’t we tease this part of the story out? Good grief, this section is far too long – let’s shorten it up. I know what you’re trying for with the vernacular dialogue but it’s sure to irritate the reader – you see that, right? The story just can’t end here. I’m going to take it in this direction. What do you think of that?

And on and on it goes. The process is emotionally draining. By the end of a few hours working with my mom, I feel the need of a long walk, a hot bath, and a big glass of wine. And she isn’t even here to argue!

And that’s the hardest part. I would give anything to have my mom beside me in this process. We’d be pulling our hair out by the end of the day but it would be invigorating and enraging and oh so wonderful. This one way conversation makes me feel the loss of her in ways I’ve not plumbed the depths of in the sixteen years since her death.

The writing process has brought me into a new relationship with my mom – a relationship I have to build without her, through words left on scattered pages. It’s lonely and some days it makes me cry but I wouldn’t miss this opportunity – not for anything.

I will put the book out in both our names and claim co-authorship for my mom’s stories – though her name will appear first. No matter the work I’ve done, the one who came up with the ideas and the characters deserves first billing.

What would you think of taking on a project like this? Share your thoughts; I’d be interested in participating in such a dialogue.

IMG_9227-3

Flowers are blooming somewhere – right? I’m longing for spring In love

A Special Christmas

Kristen's subdivision @ Christmas 2013

This is a re-worked story that appeared on my blog last year. Because that’s what writers do – re-work things. It was inspired by an email I had received that reminded me that Christmas is not an easy time for some people. I sat down to write and this story found its way into being. It isn’t filled with holiday cheer – it doesn’t sparkle and make you smile like a freshly decorated gingerbread house might. But if you’re lucky it could make you grateful for what you have. So – here goes.

A Special Christmas

She never let herself believe in anything as foolish as the magic of Christmas, but this year she couldn’t shake the feeling that something special was happening. It was as if time were standing still – her whole world poised on the precipice – watching and waiting.

She definitely had not anticipated magic. She had watched as early December slipped by like sodden leaves falling battered to the dark earth. Each day she dutifully ripped off a page of the tablet on the desktop calendar, feeling as though a part of her soul was being crumpled right along with the ball of paper that landed with a thud in the trash bin. Death was everywhere, now. It dogged her footsteps each day when she took the dog for a walk through the garden. Plants dragged down to the earth by the weight of the rain and the early frost. Everything was dark and decaying. Just the way they would all end up one day.

The doctor said they could bring Tabby home for Christmas. In the New Year there would be time enough for arranging hospice care. So she had followed his advice and somehow, against all odds, the magic of Christmas had sunk into her the way brandy would soak the cloth-wrapped fruitcake her mother used to make. There was a quality to the coloured lights and decorations, on the streets and in the stores, which brought tears to her eyes. They had taken three days to decorate the tree. The story of each ornament was told with breathless anticipation, all of them lingering over the details. Then someone would hang the ornament with the greatest care so that Tabby would be able to see each one from the hospital bed that now dominated the living room.

She had never before shopped for gifts when the only priority was the present moment. She bought a CD she knew Tabby would love to hear, a bottle of a light and fresh perfume to mask the ever-present smell of life slipping away, the prettiest flannel nightie to wrap around a body now diminished to skin and bones, a stuffed pink bunny – just like the one Tabby had as a toddler – this one brand new and so soft all she wanted to do was stroke it over and over. She couldn’t believe the absolute joy she felt as she wrapped each gift and laid it under the tree.

She piled up precious drops of time spent together – baking and icing sugar cookies, pouring over Christmas cards, playing Christmas music, laughing together as they placed a Santa hat on the dog’s furry head. She knew she was already storing these memories like a miser with every penny that came her way.

The living room was dark now as she sat curled up in the recliner. The rest of the family had gone to bed to deal in their dreams with their own versions of magic and pain. Tabby was asleep at last, the high sides of the hospital bed pulled up, the glint of the morphine drip catching the light from the Christmas tree. Her eyes traced the line of the IV tubing to the point where it snaked under the blanket. Her gaze shifted to the window and she saw the snow falling in huge, fat flakes to the ground. The trees, branches thickly covered, were already bowed under the weight like so many white garbed priests in supplicating prayer. The quiet was deep and total.

Her world was reduced to last moments. Tears washed down her cheeks unaware. The special moments of magic she felt wouldn’t change the fact that Tabby was going to die. Very soon now she was going to lose her seventeen year-old daughter – bury her before her grown-up life had even begun.

She rose silently and grabbed her coat and boots from the hall closet. She tugged on her gloves and wrapped a scarf around her neck. Out on the snow-covered lawn, among the tall trees, she turned slowly, her head thrown back. The snowflakes fell on her face. She watched the stars sparkle far away above her. All that was, all that had ever been, was now, this moment. It was all she had, all she could hang onto, all she could bear.

CSC_0516

Mall-Santaphobia

Stanley Park Christmas Train, Vancouver BC

If the expression Mall-Santaphobia hasn’t already been coined it should be. I’ll take the credit for it if no else wants to. Mall-Santaphobia is best defined as a toddler’s extreme displeasure (soon turning to outright fear) of being dressed up in Christmas best, forced to wait in line forever and then plopped onto Santa’s knee in the centre of the local mall only to see mom backing away, saying, “Smile,” with an odd manic look on her face.

I confess to having never witnessed Mall-Santaphobia when my own kids were little and the explanation is a fairly simply one. There was no mall. And even if there had been one, I’m sure we would have raised our eyebrows in disbelief if anyone had suggested we wait in line and pay a significant portion of money to have the kids get a picture taken on Santa’s knee. Now, lest you think I raised my kids in the dark ages – not so. The times they have been a changing and that change has occurred quickly. Parenting today is a whole new ball game.

As soon as my granddaughter Emma was old enough to walk and scream the word NO, she developed a severe case of Mall-Santaphobia. Even the most distant tinkle of a sleigh bell or a jolly but faint HO-HO-HO, would cause her eyes to narrow and her little feet to dig into the ground as she began a steadily rising litany of no, no, NO.

In Emma’s case this condition generalized to include all life-size dressed-up characters, mascots and even clowns. I won’t describe the scene that occurred one Canada Day when a clown walked up to her and offered her a balloon. Suffice to say the clown moved on pretty darn fast.

But, back to the issue of Santa and the annual trek to the Mall for the all-important Christmas photo. Many parents place a high value on this event. My daughter happens to be one of those parents. Having a child with Mall-Santaphobia definitely throws a wrench into her well-laid plans.

DSC03340One year, I agreed to be part of a campaign that can only be described as serious desensitization training in order to facilitate that photo op. Emma and I took multiple trips to the mall, wandering all around Santa’s Workshop when Santa wasn’t there, getting closer and closer when he was. And I don’t want to confess the number of times we watched the Dora Christmas DVD with me emphasizing what a great guy Santa seemed to be and saying, “Look how much Dora likes Santa, Emma.” I was pretty sure that if she ever got close to Santa she was sure to say, “Ola, Santa. Feliz Navidad!” The outcome was somewhat of a success. That year, Emma agreed to stand by Santa and have her picture taken.

Emma & Brit with Santa 2011

 

Time went by and time makes a big difference in a young child’s life. Emma assured all of us that she had no problem with getting on Santa’s knee. Her younger sister Brit was only four months old and, being too young to raise an objection, she joined in for the fun. It was to be the beginning of a beautiful tradition of Christmas Santa photos. The sisters would wear  matching holiday outfits and be oh-so-cute.

 

 

Of course no one anticipated that Brit would come down with a case of Mall-Santaphobia. If Emma was going to be doing something we all thought it was a sure bet that Brit would be close behind her. Most days it seems she would follow her big sister into a lion’s den without a second thought. But along came Christmas 2012 and we discovered that  she clearly drew the line at Mall Santa’s cosy workshop.

P1060029

Waiting in the line-up was all well and good.

DSC_0417

Emma handled the whole thing with style. But Brit had to be dragged like a lamb to the slaughter. As you can tell – not a happy camper. Is that a hand held out in a begging plea for mercy?

DSC05131

If you look carefully inside the fake plant you will see Grandpa Bruce with his camera.P1060034As we approached Santa’s workshop with the kids he was told he had to put his camera away. Well – saying something like that to a photographer is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. He was having none of it.

Fast-forward another year – December 2013. The dresses were even cuter this year. This photo was taken right before they left for the mall.

Emma and Brit dressed for Santa

Emma managed the whole event, yet again, with style.

Emma and Santa 2013

Unfortunately the trip ended worse than the year before for Brit – fancy red dress shoes skidding backwards across the shining tiles, her blond curls waving wildly as she shook her head and declared, “No Santa, no Santa, no Santa.” Suffice to say, she is too big now to be forced onto Santa’s knee against her will.

When I heard the sad news – no picture of Brit with Santa this year at all – I took a sympathetic tone and commiserated about the loss of what would most certainly have been the cutest photo yet. But inside me there was a part that rejoiced at this independent granddaughter who followed in her older sister’s footsteps and refused to be handed off to jolly old St. Nick. I know that next year they will appear, beautifully dressed, on Santa’s knee with big smiles on their faces. Mall-Santaphobia is a passing phase. But for now, I say – let’s hear it for the independent thinkers. All you little Mall-Santaphobics rock.

Anti-Bullying Week Plea

IMG_0853

In my debut novel, Disappearing in Plain Sight, sixteen-year-old Lisa-Marie has been bullied. As her character wove its way into my writing, I discovered that I was exploring two predominant themes – how a small incident could grow exponentially to become a degrading, daily reality and how the experience of ongoing bullying could lead a young person to desperate measures.

Lisa-Marie’s first day in a new high school became the setting event for years of bullying.

The first day of classes she was hopelessly lost in every way that a kid could possibly be lost. She was in the crowded, second-floor hallway trying to juggle books, binders, a time table and map. The bell rang and the hallway emptied rapidly with her no closer to finding her way.

She was standing in a small alcove by the water fountain when she heard voices just across the hall. It quickly became obvious to her that a girl, who looked about her age, was in the process of being dumped by an older guy and she was taking it hard – crying and clutching onto his sleeve. Lisa-Marie saw the guy jerk his arm away. As he walked down the hall she heard him tell the girl in a cold tone to grow up.

Lisa-Marie stood staring like she was watching a train wreck; she couldn’t drag her eyes away from the carnage.

She goes on to explain that this girl turned out to be one of the popular girls and that from that day forward her and her friends made Lisa-Marie’s life miserable.

The idea that ongoing bullying could be the result of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time came from a conversation I had with my daughter, years after she had graduated from high school. I asked her if she could explain to me why a certain girl had always been so unpopular. From my own memories of being in and out of my daughter’s classrooms, there didn’t seem to have been all that much to distinguish this girl from any of the others kids in the class. My daughter told me that all she could recall was that the girl had been a new kid from another province. When the teacher had told everyone where she was from, someone whispered a sly, little, sniggering joke that associated that city name with a sexual body part. And that was it. This girl struggled to fit in from that day forward and the joke followed her right through her school years.

IMG_0852 (3)

In this Week of Anti-Bullying, I have been thinking back to that girl in my daughter’s class and what it would have taken for the other kids to just let her move beyond such a chance event.

I think we need to help young people develop the tools whereby they can step-out of group think, give their peers second and third chances, and move beyond personal comfort zones and small cliques to include others. Young people would need high levels of self confidence to do any of the above and that’s a tall order.

In Disappearing in Plain Sight, Lisa-Marie explains that she tried to get help but no one saw her, no one wanted to listen – no one wanted to be the one who tried to help the kid everyone hated.

For Anti-Bullying Week and beyond, let us strive to be the kind of parents who build confidence in our children, let us be adults who model inclusion, the type of people who take responsibility for the power of our words, let us be the teachers who don’t turn a blind eye to a student’s suffering.

IMG_6990 (2)

(The photos in this post were taken at Taliesin West – architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, outside of Scottsdale, Arizona.)

School Days, School Days

P1080810

I have no idea where the time goes but, somehow, my first granddaughter has started kindergarten. Or grade kindergarten, as she calls it. It seems only a moment ago that she was born and now she tells her mom she is ready to go to school because she knows everything. After her first day she said, “I want to go back tomorrow and the next day and the next day.” Obviously, knowing everything, she has caught onto an essential aspect of school – it is day after day.

I have watched the pictures appear on Facebook of children who are about to begin preschool, kindergarten, and grade one. Every one of them decked out in brightly coloured back packs with big smiles on their little faces. What will their experience of school be? Will the smiles remain as the years go by?

I started a draft of this post early in September. I’ve come back to it today and realize that the message is more apt now. School has been in session for almost six weeks, routines have become somewhat established and everyone’s had a chance to realize this school thing is for real.

I worked in an elementary school setting for years and that time taught me more than a few things. Based on that learning, I want to send out a message to all parents who are seeing little ones off into that great big system we call education. School is exhausting. Learning the routines and getting a handle on the social skills necessary to make it through the day is work enough. When you add to that, the actual reading, writing and arithmetic component, you have a fairly intense day. Make allowances for the fact that your child needs time and space to process the events of such a day.

Some afternoons, I listen to Emma up in her room, all by herself, talking her dolls and stuffed animals through the daily Kindergarten routines. They sit in circle time and she instructs them on how to do calendar and appoints someone to take the attendance to the office. She consoles a doll who is upset because she wasn’t chosen. As she plays, she solidifies her learning.

The world of children in 2013 is fast-paced. Activities pile on top of activities – strong start, preschool, school, hockey, swimming, and gymnastics, to say nothing of before and after school daycare. In every case kids are stimulated by other kids, teachers, caregivers, instructions, routines, and rules. Their resources are taxed to the limit as they work to conform.

I am a big advocate of down time. Give your child the opportunity to go off by themselves and play on their own for even a short period of time every day. This down time represents an important component of consolidating things learned.

And one more tip, especially if your child is going into Kindergarten. As a parent, you are going to be suddenly faced with the reality of walking back into a ‘school’ – maybe for the first time in years. Figure out how you feel about that. Own your stuff and don’t burden your child with the hang-ups you have left over from your school years. Allow your child the freedom to have his or her unique experience.

I’ll end this post with my all-time favourite parenting quote.

On Children by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday

child[1]

Happy Birthday to Me

balloons-HD-Wallpapers[1]

Happy 56th today for me! What a month – prizes, party-time the whole month long for my blog anniversary, and now my own birthday.

If you have thought of checking out Disappearing in Plain Sight – today would be a good day to do it. A great gift for all of us. I’m off now for a day jam-packed with birthday fun.

Bye

My Writer’s Manifesto

DSC_0435

Gore Vidal wrote that writers are born with a repertory company in their heads. As a writer grows older, he or she become more skilful at casting this company.

He went on to say Shakespeare started off with twenty characters, whereas Vidal himself only started with ten.

I question the assertion that we came into this world with access to characters written into our DNA, or the belief that we are born to be one thing or another – writers included.

Storytelling, of which writing is just one example, is a skill that people learn early in life. I remember the absolute delight we had when granddaughter Emma told her first story. We had been out for a walk before Halloween (she was not quite two), and we stopped to look at some spooky decorations on one of the houses. When we got back to her house, her dad had just driven up. She looked at him with eyes as wide as saucers and said, “Spooky house.”

A storyteller is born when the understanding of how to string words together in order to share an experience occurs. Being able to represent those stories with a set of arbitrary characters that represent a written language will come later.

There are stories in us that beg to be told. A shared story is a gift – for the teller and the listener. What else were parents trying to do over and over but elicit a story, when they asked, “What did you do at school today?” How many breathless teen conversations begin with the words, “You’ll never guess what happened.” Here comes a story. We sit across from our spouse and say, “How was your day?” What we’re truly saying is tell me a story, invite me into your world.

Like any skill worth acquiring, honing the art of representing stories in written form is hard work. A talent one will spend a lifetime working at and even then it won’t have been enough time. I don’t imagine many writers come to the end and think, “Well, at least I’m leaving this world having perfected the craft of writing.”

This is my third post in a row on the writing life – give the reader the best that is in you; if you know a writer – give them the support they need; and today’s message – don’t give up. What you are trying to master, as a writer, is no less than the vital work of informing civilization. Like all art, writers tell the stories that allow others to make sense of the world.

Have you ever heard the saying – the first book a writer writes is the story they need to tell. I assume the point here is that once the writer is free of that burden, he or she can go on to greatness. I disagree with that premise. The story you need to write is the story someone needs to read. Just as the message of this post is what I need to tell and simultaneously it is a message someone else needs to hear.

My writer’s manifesto – do your best, get support, and don’t give up. Never doubt that what you do matters.

DSC_0411

(This picture was taken in the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Oregon)

Getting inside a Writer’s Head–Part 2

DSC_0107-2

Here is part 2 of my interview from Pamela Cook’s,  Flying Pony Blog

Can you describe for us your writing process, from getting the original idea to completed manuscript?

Disappearing in Plain Sight came out of me in a rush. It was like having some kind of virus. I couldn’t stop until it had run its course. The first draft was a bare bones thing. I shelved fiction writing for a time – too long, but life does intervene. When I came back to my tattered draft, I found parts that didn’t make as much sense as they could have and themes that screamed to be tweaked and expanded. The second draft added one hundred pages. With a trembling hand, I sent my baby to a few beta readers, and the response was positive. That’s when the idea, that this book could be more than a mere indulgence, began to take root. Serious rewriting followed.

Then came that magic moment when I thought the book was finished. Like many such moments, it was fleeting. Lucky me (and I mean that, hands down), I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed an editor. The story was good, the characters were gripping, but the mechanical aspects of my writing needed work and the ordering of events throughout the book was clunky.

I was able to work with a fantastic copy editor as well as a proof reader all rolled into one sensitive package. (Check out the difference between these two types of editing on Change it Up Editing – a great site.)

I put the manuscript through a major revamp. Like many novice writers, I had crammed the first few chapters with far too much backstory. Correcting this was painful. I felt as though I had torn the book to pieces and was on the floor, crawling around, desperate to glue it back together. Like so many difficult processes in life, the hard work paid off.

Then there were point of view issues to address. Parts of the book contained messy head-jumping from character to character. For every scene, I had to ask myself, who has the most at stake here?

Endless rounds of chapter by chapter, line by line editing followed to correct the messy mechanical errors. The process wrapped up with final proof reading.

My current novel, The Light Never Lies, (the sequel to Disappearing in Plain Sight) is clearly benefiting from what I learned the first time around. I’ve worked from a detailed outline with a clear sense of beginning, middle and end. I’ve addressed some of my more obvious grammatical errors, though that is a constant and painful learning process. I won’t be adding material in subsequent drafts; more likely I’ll find myself in a slashing process. What is it Stephen King says? First draft – 10% = Second Draft

Describe your path to publication.

I decided to pursue self-publishing without first going through, what many report to be, a painful and time-consuming process of finding an agent or submitting one’s manuscript to traditional publishers. The gatekeeping function of many publishing houses struck me as a significant stumbling block for a new author. I researched what other self-published authors were saying about their experiences and decided it was the right path for me.

I went the route of assisted self-publishing. (See my previous post on Reassessment Time )

Which aspects do you least love (or detest!) about the process to date?

I have now had a taste of the promotion and marketing aspects of self-publishing. It is exciting and chalk full of unique experiences. And it is terrifying and time-consuming and draining.

P1060784

I am an introvert and I’ve never been a fan of blowing my own horn.

When the dust settles, I imagine that my promotion and marketing will end up being what most of my life has been – a collaborative process. I’ve already enlisted the help of a flaming extroverted friend or two to help me navigate the social aspects of book promotion.

What advice would you give to writers who are working towards publication?

DSC_0837Don’t give up. From initial idea to publication, Disappearing in Plain Sight took four years of my life. I went through periods of despair along the way. The journey was long and difficult. When I held my book in my hands and saw it up on Amazon, all the effort was worthwhile.

Give yourself permission to accept that what you’re doing is serious. When I supervised graduate student researchers, I would advise those who struggled with doubts about their writing, that the only critic they needed to satisfy was the one in their own mind. I think this speaks to an important truth; we worry a lot about how others will judge our ideas and work. When it came to being a writer, the only person I had to convince was me.

P1000925When Disappearing in Plain Sight was published, my son told me, “Mom, many people say they have a book in them, but how many of them do the work to make it happen? You actually did it.”

Naturally we had to celebrate – tower of onion rings and a beer Open-mouthed smile

Yay me, and yay you for not giving up!

IMG_6425 (2)