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Archive for June, 2016

I’ve noticed, since I’ve been on leave from teaching this semester, how I can pass days in a blissful space of silence. I fill my little house with music and I burn tiny tea light candles or essential oils to ‘nest myself’ into a writing frame of mind. It works. I haven’t been watching television, and I’ve been reading more. I’m meditating more, and walking by the lake. (The only time I talk, really, is to chat with the dogs, so it’s not a loud house. 🙂 It’s all led me to a calmer place inside. Sometimes, in the rush of the world that we get caught up in, we forget that we can learn the most from just taking time to centre ourselves. (I’m not talking in an Oprah/Chopra/Tolle hyped up kind of way, here, but rather in a way that is simply about being aware, mindful and present.) I’ve also learned that, if you create the space for yourself to be calm and quiet inside, you can give others a more generous space to openly share their stories. This happens to me more and more these days, and I’m very grateful to be aware enough to take notice of it all. It’s helped me as a writer, but also as a human.

Today, I had encounters with two amazing women who work at the Rexall pharmacies here in town. The first is a woman at the Barrydowne Rexall who’s known me for about fifteen years. It’s the kind of relationship where you go into a pharmacy, pick up your medications, and other stuff, make small talk, and then leave. You do this for fifteen years, though, and a person can get to know a bit about you. She’s seen me at my worst, flattened by anti-depressants when Mum was sick, driving Dad to get his meds and checking out the monthly famous Seniors’ Day sales with him after Mum died, and then–afterwards–when I was a grieving mess for a long time after they’d died. Today, buying travel sized stuff for my upcoming trip to Scotland, she leaned conspiratorially across the counter and said: “You’ve come a long way, you know, sweetie.” Then she asked where I was going and I told her that I am going to work on completing my next book of poems at a writing retreat in Scotland, so she leaned across again, a huge line of people behind me waiting, smiled, and said: “Good for you, sweetie. Your dad would be so proud. Good for you. Have a safe trip.” She made me smile, even through a bit of sadness when she mentioned Dad.

Then, I drove down to the Rexall on Bancroft, to mail an envelope to a friend in Southwestern Ontario. There’s a woman there with a tag that says, “Margaret.” She has a huge heart and an even bigger accent from the east coast. She shook my envelope and asked: “Is there somethin’ loose in there, darlin’?” I smiled and said, “Yeah, but it’s no big deal.” “Do you need insurance for it?” (That made me laugh…a little gift magnet is hardly worth much!) “You know, you ought to have taped it to the inside of the card, so it wouldn’t run around like that in there.” Then, she weighed the envelope and said I’d put too much postage on it, launching into an explanation of stamp costs. “So you see, my love, you actually put $2.55 worth of stamps on the thing when you only needed $1.80. You went and lost money, darlin’, and you ought to have taped that thing down in there.” The next thing you know, she looks at the envelope, shakes it, and then shakes her head. “You know, my love, let’s just put a little bit of tape ’round this here envelope so it doesn’t pop out on you before it gets down south, all right?” Then, well, she proceeded to wrap the thing rather intensively in clear packing tape. (My poor friend will be using scissors to open a simple envelope and card. Sigh. It made me laugh, though, because she was so intent on how the envelope would get there.)

Once she was on to the packing tape, I asked her whether she was from Newfoundland. She smiled and nodded. “I am! St. John’s!” I told her how much I love Newfoundland, for the landscapes, the sky, the ocean, the puffins (!), the whales, the people, and the Irish music. Then we stood talking for ten minutes together. I asked her why she had left and she told me about how her parents couldn’t find jobs. “My life was lived mostly in Toronto and Montreal, before I came here for my husband.” Amazing, I thought, how love shifts people geographically. (It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve just written a wedding poem for friends who have been driving back and forth to spend time with each other since they started dating in 2009.)  I asked her if she’d been back often and she shook her head. “My dear, it’s too painful to go back there. Sometimes, a place is your home for a while, and then you move somewhere else, and that new place becomes home.” She went on: “We still have fun. Put us together and the fun finds us. It’s home. Where you are, with the people you love, there’s your home.”

It’s funny, how our understanding of what home is can change throughout our lives. It’s funny, too, how I’ve been thinking about this a lot over these last five months. Walking down on the boardwalk every morning, just after sunrise, I look out over Ramsey and think how this place has so formed who I am, but how it sometimes makes me ache with sadness and longing for the family I’ve lost. (I had a big Irish Catholic family, so I’m not just talking about my parents here.) I’m talking about that family network that makes you feel rooted and safe. When that’s no longer there, in one single place or city, you can feel adrift. Right now, I’m finding myself more drawn and rooted to landscape wherever I go, whether it’s British Columbia, or Alberta, or Pelee Island, or Bell Park and the boardwalk, or maybe even Scotland in two weeks’ time. Touching trees, gathering pebbles and shells from various sea and lake shores, picking up flowers and pressing them, or just sitting on the ground and running my fingers through the grass or moss…feeling the textures…these are the things that make me feel connected and safe right now. So, I guess, right now, the earth is my home. I have good friends, and I’m blessed, but I’m learning that I’m always at home if you put me near a tree, or a shoreline, or a mountain, or on a gravel road that carves itself through the northern bush. (If there’s a swing nearby, I’m even happier!) My understanding of home is shifting, from one place to many places, and that sort of intrigues me. I wonder how it will affect my life, and my writing. Not sure yet, but it’s something to notice.

Sudbury people…if you get a chance, go and visit Margaret at the Bancroft Rexall, in the post office. She’ll make you feel lovely and call you “my love” and “my darlin'” all day long, so that you leave with a smile on your face and in your heart.

peace,
k.

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I read something on Facebook today about a family in Calgary who put up an old fashioned rope and board swing in their front tree. Normally, this would delight me, and I would probably like to have the parents as friends of mine. That way, I could hang out at their house and have a swing myself. Anyone who has a swing in their yard is my kind of kindred spirit. Seriously. Anyone who actually uses their swing, well, I have a special place in my heart for them, let me tell you, because I see it so rarely in friends’ yards these days!

It seems that the City of Calgary wants to have the swing removed, as it may harm the tree. I get it. I love trees, more than most people I know. (It may be a problem, actually, but I’ll deal with that in therapy and not here! 😉 Still, I have been thinking about my own swing all week–of how much I love to be out there, sailing back and forth through the air, and feeling all light and airy, as if I could fly. It’s what is truly magical about the act of swinging from a tree branch. Don’t get me wrong…I’ve been known to go out looking for playground swings, especially before I had a house with its own swing, but it’s harder to truly be with yourself, and not be self-conscious, if you see other people around. For me, a swing at sunrise, or twilight, or even closer to midnight, in my own yard, by myself, is what this life is all about. You need to experience it on your own, or maybe with someone who also loves to swing under night sky as much as you do. (These people are, I’ve found, few and far between, sadly.)

I have a house with a rope and board swing hanging from one of my back trees. It came with the house when I bought it three years ago from a friend. For me, it almost kind of sealed the deal. From spring, until late fall, and sometimes even into winter, when the snow is still low enough for me to kick off the ground and push off into the air, I swing from that great tree branch every night. Now, it’s in dragonfly pyjamas and a purple kimono, because it’s a hot summer and no one sees me in the dark, so what the hell. I was thinking, this week, about what it is that I like about being in that swing.

My parents never had a swing set in our backyard. They were pretty strict people, my parents. There was a sand box, but, really, how long do you use a sand box in your life time? (Not as long as you would a back yard swing, I’ll tell you that much.) They gave us bikes when we were eleven and nine or something, but they made us stay inside the too small space of the tarred driveway. It was sad, now that I think about it. We weren’t really allowed to do much of anything, except play in the yard or in our rooms. It was a bleak sort of experience, at times, my childhood. The fun times I do remember, though, are times when I went out swinging with my cousins when I was at my grandmother’s house on Wembley Drive. Then, as we were all together in a bunch, my parents were less overprotective, so the playground that lived just over the green wood bridge that spanned Junction Creek at the end of Kingsmount was pretty exciting for me. It still is alive in my memory.

This week, I’m watering my neighbours’ plants. They have the loveliest house, and the calmest back yard I have ever known. The thing I love most about them, though, is how lovely they are with one another. Parenting has changed since I was a girl. There were bouts of fun in my family, but it was never really very consistent. There were too many rules. There was too much of the ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ and it screwed me up for years. What I love about my neighbours is that I will often hear them laughing, or joking, or singing, with their ten year old daughter. She is lovely and last summer made me a ‘faery cafe’ for my front step. There are little chairs and a little table, so that faeries can have tea together if they want. It even has a little house door, with the number 83A carved on it, so that other faeries know they should ring the smaller doorbell and not the tall one near my front door. 🙂 When I go out of town, I find her little faeries and bring them back for her. At times, the love that they share as a family ripples across to my house and through the side window. Last fall, when they were making sushi together, I started crying. I can’t recall hearing such an amazingly loving conversation in a family before. (It wasn’t really part of my experience.) Can you long for a family? Yes, you can. Can you mourn for one you never had? Yes, you can. When you live next to a happy, healthy and good family, you find yourself pulled towards it, especially when yours maybe wasn’t so great after all.

So tonight, after I watered the plants, I went over to their swing set and had a fine swing. Theirs is professionally built, so it’s not as uncertain. I kind of like my old board and rope one, but I could really push off on theirs tonight. They have big silver links, but mine is all yellow rope and a board rigged up from a high branch. Mine wobbles from side to side when you are swinging backwards, but I kind of like the metaphor for that…nothing is ever perfect…not even a good back yard swing. It’s like life: you make the best of it, you find your own swing even if you didn’t have one as a kid, and you push off hard, with both your feet, so you can fly through the air and imagine you are up amongst the stars.

Try to find a swing tonight, friends. Try to find a swing.

peace,
k.

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These Hallmark days, festooned with family brunches, cards, new ties and suppers out, break my heart more than anything else. If I could escape from days, the two in May and June dedicated to parents would be the ones I would run fastest from (and I’m not a runner…but a fast walker). Today, I’m thinking of my dad. He was my best friend. I called him “buddy” and he called me “Kimber.” He went to every poetry reading I ever gave, from my twenties until my late thirties, only stopping when he became paralyzed and couldn’t do road trips anymore. That’s when the pain started, so that I could feel him slipping from me, even before he began to get weaker and fade. His going took a long time, which was good for me and for him. We said what we needed to say to each other. I was able to thank him for so many things. He apologized for things he probably didn’t even need to apologize for. I walked him to the door of heaven, and then he walked through it.

Four and a half years. It seems like yesterday, and still a lifetime away now. This day, though, breaks my heart in a million little pieces. It’s cliché, but it’s true. My heart aches when these days happen, which they always will, and I always think ‘This year, this year, I will do better. I will rise up and be positive. I will not miss him as much. He will not pull at my heart as he so often does, even though he’s gone.’ But, each year, well, I fail at being lighter. My heart hurts. It actually hurts to breathe. Brutal.

So, today I tried to think outside myself, to busy myself with ‘things’ on a list. I finished writing a wedding poem for a friend who will walk down the aisle on Saturday, July 23. I won’t be here for the wedding, but I hope the poem is loved. I’ll be on my way from Edinburgh to Newcastle, to see my poet friend, Pippa Little. Besides writing poems, I also watered my mum’s plants, hugged the dogs, hung laundry in the bright, hot sun that I tend to avoid as a pale-skinned hobbit girl, and tried desperately to read a book. My head, though, is too full of memories to be of any use in helping me to logically distract myself.

I think of Dad and I think of so many things…how he (tried) to teach me how to drive by letting me practice on his Dodge Caravan (big mistake!); how he used to say “By the powers of Baldy Jim” when he was angry with us as kids; how he made the best liver and onions I’ve ever eaten; how he loved to spend hours in the huge garden behind our house, digging, planting, weeding, and harvesting; how he loved his wife and two girls; how he was the best example of how to live a life when faced with tragedy–showing me that, even after losing his wife, he could continue on and even face the challenge of becoming a complex quadriplegic at 76 years of age; how he was the most consistent person and my biggest fan when it came to my poetry readings, and how he sat there and smiled proudly at me even when I was so very nervous. There are so many memories of him, today and always. Too many to count, really.

I would give anything to see him one more time, to give him one more hug. We two had said all we needed to say, and for that I’m thankful, but it doesn’t stop my heart from breaking…on too warm pre-solstice days that seem heavily weighted with the ghost of love, metaphor and memory. Sometimes, sleep is all that soothes the ache of this too soft heart. Today is one of those days…

Hug those you love. That’s the lesson.
peace, k.

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One of my dearest friends, Brenda, lost her mum early last Thursday morning. My heart broke when I read the text she sent to let me know. Brenda is the one who, on the morning after my father died, let me sit with her in her living room in New Sudbury. I say “let me” because I was feeling absolutely alone. I knew she understood loss, because she had lost her father when she was a teenager. She understood my struggle with caring for my parents, as well as my own constant tug of war with depression as I took care of them. I wasn’t an easy person to be friends with then. I don’t know why some of my friends are still around, to be honest. (There are fewer…I lost a few. It couldn’t be helped; sometimes survival means that you save yourself first and hope people don’t abandon you.) That day, the day after my dad died, she let me sit in her living room. She made me endless cups of tea. I wept so heavily that my contacts popped out of my eyes. I felt so lost. That is what a good friend will do…just let you sit in her living room, for hours, while you weep and make no sense, while you grieve so deeply that your heart feels like it will break with each breath. And then she gave me a hug, and I wept all over again. She didn’t try to fix it. She wasn’t uncomfortable with the depth of my emotion. (I’m a poet, and Irish, so it pretty much comes with the package…) She just let me be me.

Today, sitting in Holy Redeemer, the church I’ve grown up in, listening to the beautiful music and Father Jackson’s perfect homily, and seeing my Grade 12 Marymount girls forming an honour guard for Brenda’s mum and her family, I wept. There was such loss there, but so much beauty at the same time. More than any other I can think of, hers is a family that is made of deep love and faith. When I’m on my own at holidays, Brenda is the one who pulls me in and makes sure I’m going somewhere, to be around other people. She knows Christmas (well, let’s be honest, most of December) is hard for me. She has the heart that her mother gave her, and I’m blessed that she’s put up with me through my dark times. So, today, after the service, when I came to hug her and tell her I was sorry, she said, quietly, in my ear: “Hello, my friend.” That did it. I started weeping all over again.

Here’s the thing: For me, friendship is so important. I have such a tiny family now, and most of my relatives are in different cities and we have drifted apart. Since Dad died, I’ve created a family of friends. They know who they are, and I know they don’t need to be named, because they know they’re imprinted on my heart. It isn’t odd for me to sit with a friend for three or four hours, talking with them in my little house over a cup of tea, if they need someone to listen. It also isn’t odd for me to say, whenever I leave one of them, “I love you.” I know it must freak out some people, but I really don’t care anymore. I’ll tell you why. When you’ve lost the most important ‘people’ in your life, you quickly recognize soul friends (those people you feel a deep connection with, something that can’t be explained logically) and you know they need to know they are valued. This world is so temporary, so fleeting, and so cruel (especially in recent days), that I feel we need to let each other know we’re aware of connections, of the value of friendships. If there’s a choice between love and fear, as I believe there often is in life, then choosing love is much more profitable for everyone involved.

Sitting on my back deck this afternoon, I started the first stanza of a wedding poem for Jenni and Brian. I don’t often write wedding poems. This will likely be my last one, and there’s only been one other before it. Jenni is one of my favourite students, someone I taught back when I was a new teacher (and likely very ‘clunky’ in the way I approached things in the classroom, I must admit) at St. Charles College. She was (and is!) one of the brightest soul lights I know. She became a teacher and is now a colleague and friend. So, yesterday, she and Brian came for tea and I ‘interviewed’ them. Today, I wrote the first stanza of their wedding poem. Giving someone the gift of a poem is a big deal for me. I don’t take the task lightly and I think about what emotions the poem needs to convey, to say what it needs to say. It has a lot of hard work to do, a wedding poem, or a poem in honour of someone. Most importantly, it needs to convey love and light.

So, all of this today…the life of my friend’s mother is celebrated and honoured, and I sit out under the trees amidst a flurry of birdsong, bright sun, and a brisk wind, to write the beginning of a friend’s wedding poem. All of this today….when the world mourns for the loss of those forty-nine souls in Orlando. There is no logic in such destruction. There is no reason for such hate. I stayed away from television (I’ve been watching much less of it since April and I don’t miss it), so heard about the slaughter on CBC radio. The reports since yesterday have been heartbreaking. These people were just out dancing with friends, having fun in a club, and they were targeted. Why? For living their lives. For being themselves. For being bright soul lights. It makes no sense to me. Violence is without purpose–even though people in the media will say there is some hidden ‘reason’ or purpose–whether it be tagged as terrorism, or mental illness, or homophobia. Sometimes hatred and intolerance just grows more hatred and intolerance. It’s horrid. It makes everything feel tainted. It makes you wonder about what’s happening with humans.

Where do we go from here, I wonder? (I remember writing on this blog about the Newtown tragedy a while back, and my views are still the same in terms of gun control. I think it’s a good thing.) I’m sitting here, with music on the stereo, dogs at my feet, a candle flame flickering, and the sound of wind in the trees in the night outside my window, and I’m thinking of all those people who were killed. Each one of them was someone’s ‘person.’ They were daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, nieces and nephews, friends, teachers, neighbours, artists, students, all filled-with-promise-souls. There are people with huge empty spaces in their lives now, weeping into spaces that won’t be filled. That breaks my heart. The darkness seems darker, somehow, on days when things like this happen. It takes time to process the pain, the damage it does to the heart of the world. Here in Sudbury tonight, there was a vigil at Tom Davies Square. Gathering together, to be peaceful, to honour those who died, to mourn, to pray, and to offer hope to the world…these are all good things to do in the face of darkness. They generate more light and love.

What to do, now, the day after the day that broke our hearts, that made us question humanity? I think, in a small idealistic way, we need to shine our individual and collective light out even more brightly into the world. We need to gather those we love, our anam cara (soul friend) folks, our own relatives and communities, and we need to try and beam light and kindness out into the darkness. We need to not ignore one another. We need to stop living on a superficial level of connection; it doesn’t work anymore. We need to gather one another in, and say hello, and smile at someone who seems to be struggling. We can do these seemingly small things without too much effort. They are simple tasks, to be undertaken with intention and love. If you can just be who you are, and be centred in that space, and beam that light out, well, isn’t that the best tribute we can offer? There will be talk of why and how, as there always is after shooting sprees in the States, but I think we need to send love out, to one another, to our communities, to our world. Let’s start there.

So…do something beautiful: write a poem, call someone you care about, touch a soul, walk a dog, sing a song, light a candle, say a prayer. And also, when you next see someone who strikes your soul in a true and deep way–even if you don’t know why–tell them you love them, or you miss them, or just give them a hug and say, quietly, in their ear, “Hello, my friend.” Their hearts will thank you for it, even if they aren’t sure why…or what to make of you. Trust me. It’s worth it.

peace, friends.
k.

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I haven’t written Young Adult fiction, but I teach teenage girls at an all-girls’ Catholic school here in Sudbury, a place called Marymount Academy. While I’m off on leave this semester, working on my poems, plays, and novel, I’ve listened to teenage girls for more than a decade on a daily basis. They amaze me with their bright minds, spirit, and their youthful and optimistic sense of compassion for the world they’re growing up into–and they never cease to teach me more than I could ever teach them. So, it made sense to me that I would sign up for Mariko Tamaki’s master class on “Voice & Dialogue” at the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Festival last week. Teachers of teenagers hear everything, even if the students think we don’t! We have ears that hear things said under a breath, from the front of the classroom all the way to the back left hand corner. (I think it’s a magical gift that educators are given…that and “The Look,” which can come in handy on an almost daily basis!)

From the perspective of a writer, well, I know that I can always use help with my dialogue. I’m an introvert, so I often hover on the edges of things, listening and observing, but not taking part until I feel really comfortable with the people around me. Writing plays in the last two years has helped me with the dialogue I’m using in my novel. Watching plays, spending more and more time sitting in a darkened theatre by myself, entering into the beauty of a play at the Sudbury Theatre Centre, has also helped me to pay attention to people’s voices, even if they were summoned up by a solitary playwright in a midnight room. I know I need to do so much more work on my characters’ dialogue, so I’ll keep eavesdropping. (If you see me and I look like I’m hanging out in a corner, or that I’m being anti-social, it’s more likely that my head’s too busy thinking, or that I’m listening to people’s conversations and watching how they move and interact with other people. I know….it sounds creepy…but ask any writer if they do this and they would likely admit to it, too. It’s a tool of the trade, I guess you could say.)

Mariko Tamaki is brilliant. She’s fun, witty, and super intelligent. These are three things I like most in people, and probably why I like writers so much. 🙂 She spoke to us about considering “the meaning of talk,” including the subtlety of word choice, pronunciation, context, tone, speed, volume, intensity, and accent. Each person’s “talk” is a unique fingerprint of voice and personality. This totally makes sense. Absolutely. How do you, though, manage to translate the vocal ways in which a person speaks into dialogue on a page? This is the tricky part. (I don’t think I’d feel comfortable writing YA fiction, to be honest, because–even though I work with teenagers each day–I know that they have their own unique vernacular. I don’t think they’d be thrilled to have a 40-something year old woman take on the voice of a 17-year old protagonist. I don’t feel that I’d be able to do it proper justice. I want to honour them, and their voices, and I think I just wouldn’t be able to do it….but, who knows? Nothing is impossible, I’ve learned this year!)

Tamaki said, wisely, “Your voice is your character.” She also talked about how “talk is a productive thing” in life, and that “linguistics is how we communicate with others.” It is, and I found myself thinking it was funny that I rarely think very much, or in very much depth, about what I say, or what other people say. (So much of what we say is left unsaid, too, which is something I’ve been thinking about today and will write about later in my next blog post.) We have subtle layers of speech, from what is clearly and explicitly said, to what is all subtext or suggested, or inferred but never clearly stated. We’re cool that way, as humans who communicate.

One thing that struck me was the notion that “nuances in the way we talk can create conflict in a story.” What?! I had never thought of this in such depth before, and my head hurt a bit when I left the master class. From that point on, I found myself listening even more closely to conversations, and the way in which individual people in my life speak, from cadence to volume, to warmth, to colour in their voices. Suddenly, the world of words got a heck of a lot brighter that day, as if I’d stepped into some kind of weird technicolour world or alternate dimension. Tamaki suggested that, as writers, we need “to be consistent with voice in our dialogue.” She told us that we are “responsible for every character” we create. She also told us that we are part of “complex communities,” a dizzying variety of human experiences, cultures, genders, religions, identities, and histories. Whew! Yes. My mind was/is blown. All of these things must be considered when we write our dialogue and create our characters’ voices and souls.  🙂

If you get a chance to read her work, you should pick up one of Mariko’s YA and graphic novels. They are vibrant and spirited, and she has a gift for listening to people carefully–and with curiosity — something a lot of people have lost in recent years, what with the rush of uber-technology and cell phone insanity. Tamaki artfully gives voices to characters who are real and vibrant, who come up off the page, right into your head and heart.

Go ahead and spend some time eavesdropping, writer peeps.
peace,
k.

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I’ve just finished writing the first draft of a historical novel. It’s mostly set in the mining town of Creighton Mine, which is now a ghost town, only populated by the infamous, internationally-recognized Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) lab, which is buried deep underground. Part of the novel, though, moves across the ocean to a mining town in Finland that was called Petsamo. That part of the novel is set around the time of the Winter War in Finland, in late 1940. The whole story is rooted in a family rumour, that my maternal grandfather (a mining superintendent and later a prospector with a head full of dreams) courted my great-aunt before moving on to court her sister, my grandmother. That is the core of the story, its fictional inspiration, but everything else has been fictionalized. My grandfather died in the late 70s, when I was just a little girl. My grandmother died in 1998 and she never once spoke to me of this odd romantic triangle. My great-aunt is a figure who looms large in my heart and head’s imagination. She remained single, living with two other single sisters, twins, in the house that their father built after leaving Creighton to live in a rather wealthy part of Sudbury. So, the story required a great deal of research about mining, as well as Finland and the Winter War. I’ve also drawn heavily on family photographs, old snippets of letters, and family history. So much of it is imagined, though.

Last Saturday, at the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story, I was lucky enough to take part in Merilyn Simond’s master class on “Writing the Past.” As writers, so much of what we are drawn to is rooted in the past, I often think. (It is, perhaps, why I love history so much.  Give me a book on the Royal Family, or a history of Ireland, or a collection of photos of abandoned places in Newfoundland, and I’m unbelievably happy inside myself.) I grew up hearing stories told around my great-aunts’ kitchen table, at the house on Kingsmount, drinking Nescafe instant coffee at half past eleven on a Friday night. They were spirited women, atypical to/of the stereotype of ‘spinster.’ They taught me to love my own family history, poetry, Irish music, and legends.  More importantly, they taught me how to be a strong, independent woman.

Merilyn’s master class was nothing short of brilliant, to be honest. She spoke of the larger story as a ‘framework,’ but of the smaller, more personal story within the novel as the most intriguing part of the structure. She also encouraged us to “not be locked into the natural chronology of history,” in terms of structuring a piece of writing. As she so aptly put it: “In the end, your loyalty is to the characters and your story…not to the big story of the past.” To begin the process of researching a historical period, she suggested that writers delving into the genre of historical fiction should read widely in the literature of their chosen time period. You need to research enough about the ‘big story’ of history to be able to imagine the intricacies of your own ‘small story.’ All details, she said, “must serve the story, moving forward either the plot or the character.” Too many historical details, or trivia really, will bog down your reader. “You need to leave your reader enough room in the book to walk around.” Good advice from an amazing writer, I thought.

Simonds suggested that there are three kinds of details: 1) useless ones (“windowdressing” and clichés); 2) essential details (but sometimes maybe a wee bit boring!); and, finally, 3) golden “telling” details (the ones that encapsulate something really important about the character or plot; the details that “make the reader see the world in a different way”). She said that writers need to take a step back from their work and “kick at the details to see if they stand up to inspection, to see if they ‘work.'”

A few things that struck me as Merilyn spoke about her experiences included her suggestion to use primary sources when building a character, including photographs, paintings, and letters. Certain suggestions were ones I hadn’t thought of, including using horoscopes to build character traits, using online historical naming databases to find names for your characters that are era-specific, and using the Oxford English Dictionary to search out the etymology of a word you’re using. (You can’t, for instance, use a word that only sprung into the popular lexicon in 1965 if you’re writing about a person’s life in 1870. It’s sloppy research and writing.) You can use “a small bit of language to indicate or reflect a specific time period in history.” That can be enough of a hint to help create a setting or atmosphere in a work of prose. You also, though, need to be aware of the importance of cadence in terms of how a person (character) speaks. You do not, for example, ever want to take your reader out of your story. (This makes me think, as always, of the Wizard of Oz. I think the writer is like the Wizard, standing behind a closed curtain and trying to create a world. The reader really shouldn’t see you behind the curtain, as a writer. Your work should be strong enough to create an illusion, so that you can weave the world you’re creating and not distract the reader. You need to suspend disbelief. I’m hoping this analogy makes sense to someone other than me!)

I’m juggling a few books right now, but the next on my list to read is Merilyn Simonds’ “The Holding,” which draws on Scottish history, as well as the history of Canadian settlement in Ontario in the 1850s. I want to see how she does it all in her novel. I also think, as writers, that reading is the most important thing we can do. How else will we learn what works, and what doesn’t work? If we can recognize our weaknesses and transform them into strengths–as I teach my own students when they write–then we will be better thinkers and writers, as well as readers, moving forward.

So, if you’re writing historical fiction, and let’s face it, even yesterday is a bit of historical fiction in some respect (!), then knowing the strength of your ‘little story’ (as it sits inside the ‘larger story’ of history) is what it’s all about at the core of things. Create characters who step off the page and into your heart and mind, that stir a reader’s imagination, and then the historical part will always weave itself in with careful work, research, crafting, and attention to detail. We all know, as writers, that the first draft is just that, a first draft. There are many more to come after that…

peace,
k.

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I’ve been thinking a great deal about mentorship this week. Mostly, this is because I was asked to write a poem in honour of Helen Ghent, a notable Sudburian. I’ve known Helen for 25 years. (When I was in my late teens, I was very, very overweight and she owned the Diet Centre with Jeanne Warwick Conroy, so they helped me whittle myself down to a reasonable and healthy size.) During my time with her, as I was focusing on my physical self, and on bettering my physical health, Helen and I spent time chatting. I remember long conversations about her love of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry (something we had in common, definitely), and her stories of growing up in Newfoundland. I remember, especially, being entranced by her stories of St. John’s. When I finally visited there in the summer of 2006, I remember thinking, specifically, about her stories of that place. They had lodged firmly in my heart and imagination. The place itself lived up to her stories. It’s still somewhere that I think of often, reminding myself that I really ought to return–next time, maybe, to attend the literary festival in Woody Point, and perhaps spend some time in the midst of the beauty of Gros Mourne National Park. (I have a ‘thing’ for whales….they are so ancient and wise….so anywhere that offers me whales and puffins has got my heart on a string, for life.) 🙂

I had Helen over for tea a couple of weeks ago and we spent the afternoon catching up, so that I could ‘mine’ her memory a bit for imagery to use in the poem I wrote to honour her. The Sudbury Theatre Centre has done a fine job in recognizing the work she’s done over the years, from fundraising back when the physical building didn’t exist in 1970, to her commitment to hosting visiting actors in her home. She has the biggest heart. If you’re lucky enough to know her, and even more lucky to call her a friend, you’re truly blessed. Just being in her presence is like feeling light. She’s a unicorn, as my friend Laura often calls people who are super special and bright souls.

What I think of most, these days, is that there are women who mentored me in my 20s. They weren’t all involved in the arts. Some were involved in advocacy of women’s issues, through LEAF Canada, and some were involved in health care, advocating for better cancer care for northerners. Their names are etched on my heart. My first two mentors were Jeanne Warwick Conroy and Helen Ghent, in my late teens and early twenties. I had the worst sense of self then, and they were bright lights, encouraging me to keep on with my writing and nudging me along. I didn’t feel worthy of very much, as an overweight and bullied teen, but they got at my soul and nurtured it back to life as my body shrunk through good diet and exercise practices. They were also both so involved in volunteerism in the community, and I remember thinking that that was so honourable–to give back to your own community in strong, passionate, and committed ways. The next ‘clutch’ of important female mentors in my life included Mary Lue Hinds, Corinne Matte, and Trish Hennessy. All three recruited me to be on the LEAF Person’s Day Breakfast committee, and I learned a great deal about humanity, and feminism, from them. Beyond that, though, I learned not to be afraid to ask for something, in terms of fundraising and supporting a good cause. If you were true in your intention, they taught me, then there was no harm in requesting a sponsorship, or selling tickets to an event. All of that volunteer work got me ready for a short-lived ‘career’ in fundraising for the Northeastern Ontario Cancer Centre back in the late 90s. There, I had the pleasure of meeting Maureen Lacroix, who was the chair of the then Northern Cancer Research Foundation. She had fought for the Cancer Centre to be built in Sudbury, to serve northerners who had been diagnosed with cancer, rather than have them travel to Toronto for treatment. (Someone from Timmins or the Sault, for instance, would have such a long way to go. Now, they come to Sudbury and are, at least, surrounded by the beauty and comfort of the Canadian Shield, right next to the jewel that is Lake Ramsey.) Maureen taught me that ‘hard work is the rent we pay in life.’ I still remember that she had that little quotation tucked into her wallet, on a little piece of paper.

I hope I’m as much of a mentor to the girls I teach at Marymount Academy. I think I am, but you never know, as teachers teach and kids grow up and leave. I hope, especially, that I’m a mentor to the girls who love to write, whether obviously or secretly, with their bedroom doors closed, or quietly tucked into the far desk in the back row of a classroom. I know I’ve cheered on a couple of my students, offering feedback and edits on works-in-progress, both before and after graduation. I hope, some day, to see their poems or stories in print. I have encountered some brave young women who speak their minds through well chosen words, and I am so honoured to be part of watching them grow and blossom.

So….here is my poem for Helen. It’ll be in the next book of poems, so don’t worry fellow writers….I know I miss out on a publication credit if I publish a poem of mine online, either here or on Facebook. This, though, was a poet laureate commission piece, so I feel it’s a bit different. (Still, you can slap me on the hand later if you think I’ve buggered it up. 🙂

From there to here
(For Helen)

You remember that place,
where you came from,
which never leaves your heart:
taxis out to Topsail Beach,
picnics near shoreline rocks,
swimming into blue of ocean,
and the words to the Ode to Newfoundland
woven into the hand knit scarf of your spirit.

You remember your parents,
how stories and music and theatre
lifted you up, lit the world with passion.
How your mother read you poems by Blake,
and how you can still recall bits of Troilus and Cressida
over endless cups of tea, the words
still there, steeping in your mind.

And coming here, westwards,
away from sea’s edge,
to curved ridge of basin,
finding that rock linked the two,
from the red iron ore earth of Bell Island
to the coppered cliffs of this space.

Here, you found new friends,
gathered them up and held them close.

On that other island, in MacGregor Bay,
you found beauty in the blue of water,
in the camp that was built like a sailboat—
found freedom from the clocks that
hung on the walls, found peace
in the small birds that darted between trees.

From there to here,
you were drawn to the similarities,
to water, to rock, and to people
who soon became friends.

Here now,
the two come together,
so that northern lakes
and your Atlantic ocean
swirl artfully in your one grand heart,
leading you in a shared dance—
one very fine jig.

I love Helen to bits, and I’m so glad that the Artistic Executive Director of the STC, Caleb Marshall, and “STC Honours” recognized her good work in the Sudbury arts community last night. She really is someone to look up to, and someone to aspire to become. I hope I grow up to be just like her one day. (As I’m writing this, Helen rings to thank me for her poem and to say it’s on her plaque, so she can read it whenever she wants….That, my friends, is why I like being a poet. Giving gifts of poems to people you love…it’s the best feeling in the whole, wide and wonderful world. 🙂

peace,
k.

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