Why I Write…and Teach

I was never the best student; I abhorred being told what to do. And what made matters worse was going to a boys school where I was condemned to wearing a blazer and tie. Most teachers said that I had an attitude, and I suppose I did. And so when I finally graduated, it was like being released from prison. I was free at last.

The one thing I really liked about school was writing. I wrote my first story in Grade 4. I liked the idea of telling a story. And I liked getting it right. My writing was problematic, to say the least, when I was a teenager, but I finally began to get a sense of the narrative in university and then when I started to travel and see the world. My first real moment of literary certitude happened about halfway through writing my first novel – in Paris no less – when Chantal, a character I thought I had expunged from the story, insisted on coming back. She insisted on it, not me. That’s when I knew I might be on to something. IMAG2335After that, I wrote all the time and to pay the bills, took on various jobs – closed caption editor and newspaper columnist. This went on for years. I completed five novels and two screenplays and an assortment of short stories and articles, but nothing was getting published. I thought about getting a real job and decided to try to teach. I liked the idea of working with teenagers. They saw life with wide open eyes. They made me laugh. I wasn’t sure of the profession at first. As much as I enjoyed working with students and leading class discussions, I never felt comfortable in the role of task-master. As well, I didn’t have much of a hankering for the marking – never saw the point in it – and always struggled with the politics of the industry. However the students were the thing. No matter how I felt each morning – whether inspired or completely dull-witted – the first student of the day, that first person to walk into the room, would manage to engage me and the day would just go from there. It was always fun. With teenagers, the cachinnation and merriment were never-ending.

I am still writing. My prose is always improving. I expect to have a novel published soon. But I teach now too, and I like it. I’m starting to think that I should write a book about that.

Coping with another Storm: Make a Fire

The miserable weather is back in New York.

Heavy Rain / Wind

Another storm, more rain and wind, and more flood warnings. Good God, enough already! Okay, well, at least we can make a fire, right? Not the crazy pyro-kind, kids, but the sensible lovely kind, the kind that soothes and makes all things right…for a little while anyway. First, you need your paper. IMAG2083Ball it up tight, page by page, and place those into the fireplace as your first layer. IMAG2084Then put in a layer of junk paper packaging things, whatever would be normally mounting toward more landfill. IMAG2085Next it’s the branches, the small and the big. And then a couple of small logs. IMAG2086The trick to a good fire is the oxygen. Make sure there’s gaps between everything. IMAG2088And then set it ablaze! Light as many places as you can without burning your fingers and make sure that the flue is open. IMAG2090Let it burn for a few minutes and then, once it has burned down, pile on another log or two cross-ways. Keep pushing the logs around. IMAG2094Make sure the oxygen gets inside. Once it’s going, it’s time to listen to the winds howl, the cold rain and snow batter against the windows or some favorite music. And, yeah, have a drink…ginger ale, tea, whatever. You deserve it. IMAG2092My goodness, we just made fire! Keep an eye on it. Stoke it. And get ready to do it all again soon. Another storm is forecast for Sunday.

Funk on: The over-write

I’m still in limbo, still waiting to get back at the book, another week to go, maybe more, but I have to admit that I have slipped in and messed around, adding details, taking them out, putting them back in.

One scene I have spent the last few days over-writing is the night of Dee’s Grad Cruise. It’s a background moment, something I hadn’t fleshed out previously, and now in which I’ve added a classmate and dialogue to the counselor. She’s alone on the deck and then joined by a classmate who she doesn’t know. He gives her a cigarette, and the supervising counselor shows up.

“Your cigarette.”

“I thought we were allowed.”

“You thought wrong.” He looked back, almost like he was smiling; he wasn’t.

This last line is what I’m going back and forth with at the moment. I’ve tried each of the following:

He stared back, like he was smiling, but he wasn’t.

He glared back, close to smiling, although he wasn’t.

He waited, almost smiling; he wasn’t.

…and a few variations in between. I keep going back to the first because it’s neutral and still expressive. I don’t know. I know I should  just leave it alone. And I will…very soon.


It’s a weird place to be, awaiting permission from myself to start the next draft. There’s a calm to it, but it’s inert and purgatory-ish; more than anything, it’s a funk.

In the meantime I’ve been mulling over a couple of background characters for the book. First, there’s Derek’s great-grandfather, who farmed in upstate New York and drowned in a marsh when he wandered off from the house in the middle of the night. The family believes that he was undiagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And then there’s Teddy’s sister (Teddy is Dee’s co-worker at the Animal Rescue Agency), a fund manager in New York. She is round-faced and wide-eyed, but she is distant, especially for Teddy, and hasn’t see him in almost a year.I don’t know what they’re doing hanging around the fringes like this; maybe I’ll write a short story about the two of them.

Writing Rule #2: Stick with it.

There are the good daysAnd there are the badIndeed it is often the bad that help the most. They make you question the work. You have to stop and think. Who is she? Is this worth anything? What the hell is the point?And then you think of something. Anything. Her hand is broken. She’s scared. She loves Jabberjaw. You think a little more and work on that. Just her finger is broken. She’s scared of her past. She wasn’t allowed to watch Jabberjaw. Whatever it is, that thing is a piece to the next. And you continue on, one step at a time, and maybe go back, because back can be forward too, whatever comes next.Or you don’t…and start something else.

The Freaking Fog

Writing is a compulsion. My days start like this: I wake up. I remember where I am. I think about how to write that down. It’s a simplified version, I admit, but it conveys the basics.

I’ve been working on My Bad Side for four years now, and I’m close to being done. The third draft is finished. One more read-through, and I’ll move on to another thing – maybe my giant sci-fi film! And that’s good. I did it. Yeah. But there’s a bad side (you’re damn right!!) to it as well. I’m in a freaking fog right now. My fingers hurt. I sleep too much. Nothing makes much sense. I’m a bit grumpy too. Ugh. That’s all I’ve got. I don’t like this. No! I need the constant fix of working through plot details, going back and forth, putting it in and taking it out and putting back in again, writing, writing, writing, deleting, deleting and writing again. Her arms are long. She chews her nails. She has a memory bracelet and small diamond ring. She is elegant but she’s done something she can’t understand. She abandoned her mother.When it’s done, it’s done. I have to leave it alone and be stuck with random images and ideas and wondering, “What if the polar caps really did melt? What then?”

Writing Rule #1: Don’t Get Cocky!

I had a pretty good writing day yesterday. After a dozen or so attempts, I had finally worked my way through a scene that had been a morass.

I felt suddenly clear, not angry, nothing like that. I was in the moment. I only had to fill it. “You remember when we were on the dock?”

I made significant headway after that, another 15 pages, rocketing through it all. Everything was making sense. I had found my way. I knew the next day would be easy, more of the same, clear sailing until the end.  I was on auto-pilot. And then I ran into this:

I accepted his sudden blindness for nothing but his need of this. I knew there was nothing else to it, holding my hair back and kissing his neck, my practiced breath, my shoulders forward, and had a feeling of being held there and then all of me sloping down through me…

There was more of this, a lot more. It was a wall of awful. I stared. That was all I could do. I had gotten cocky. I had screwed up. I had thought I had it, when I had nothing.

I sat and stared. My mind was blank. I was beaten. I started to write and stopped again. I got through maybe a sentence and stopped again, until finally I had insect momentum and went at it again. I clawed through maybe a page, and then did another, went backward, went ahead and then maybe three more.

I used to dream about flying, almost every night. And then I bragged about it. “I fly every night.” It ended there. I’ve flown maybe twice since then, over 15 years ago. What an idiot. I must be patient. I believe that I’ll have it back tomorrow. I’m building back. I just have to think about yesterday and remember that I can fly…if I want it.

A Moment

My apologies for the time lag between entries. I got distracted and lost and weighed down by non-writing things. It happens I guess. I’m new to this. It’s not like anyone is reading this yet, although sometime soon I will have to connect to a bigger server, something like that. Anyway I was thinking about my last entry, what I was aiming at as a kid writer and what the entries I posted might mean. And I’ve come to a small conclusion. The thing is the moment. That’s the core of writing – imagining, identifying, recreating, detailing the moment, making it live not just for the writer, not just that flash in the mind with my fingers hitting the keys, but constructing it so it’s something more, so it has depth and breadth, so it lives for others too.

That was what I liked as a kid writing the entries for my Moosonee and Prince Edward Island journals, that feeling of making what I had just experienced something substantial. True, I did spend a lot of time counting moose and barns blown over, but I also tried to describe what I saw so that it might be pictured later and then maybe made into another thing on its own. Looking back, I remember the feeling of being in that motel with all of that yelling and screaming more than the bottles on the floor. I just didn’t know how to describe it.

I had the same problem a year before (1972) when writing about Game Seven for the Summit Series between Canada and the Soviets. I was in Grade Three and we were allowed to watch this historic game during class as long as we wrote about it. I was very happy about that. But I can’t say that I really seized the moment. Instead it just reads like a summary – with spelling mistakes and incongruous verb tenses – documenting which Canadian scored or, more accurately who made ‘sizzling’ and ‘slamming’ shots. It was an amazing series of moments for me, but I missed the feeling of it. I was too literal.

However one thing I do remember is going home absolutely elated after the last game, Game Eight, when Canada won the series. I ran into my house ready to share the joy with my mother. She was listening to the opera. She looked up and smiled. “What game?” I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. That moment of emptiness is something I have not forgotten. The kitchen was cold and empty, like I’d never been in it before that. The opera sounded like tin and hollow, nothing. My mother was someone else, definitely not my mother. I went out back and took shots on net against the garage. I was the hero for Canada (Paul Henderson) again and again. I never got tired of it. And then my father arrived in his big Buick. I knew I could share my excitement with him. I was wrong about that too. He knew about the game, but he was tired and needed a drink. I took more shots – on the net. I celebrated the historic goal a new way each time. And I was happy about all of that. I just didn’t understand why I was the only one.

I had a moment like this – empty, not what I expected – at the beginning of this week, the reason for the lengthy gap between entries. I went into my doctor for an exam and was told that I had a blood clot in my leg. The clot had been there for three weeks and had been life-threatening. I had just never known it. When the doctor told me, I knew it was one of those moments to capture. My mortality was being held up raw in the little office. It was cold and clean like my mother’s kitchen. The words sounded important but not like I thought they should. I was just watching and listening to what to do. Get the cat scan, take these injections, take these pills. My blood will be thinned. That will be that. Okay. That’s what I’m doing. I’m doing just that. More than anything, I would have liked to go out back and take shots on a net.