How I look at the world

I dropped my phone in early March, causing its rear camera to lose the ability to focus. I tried to make light of it on social media, but blurry photos are only amusing for so long. Yet still I dragged my feet. I had the cost to think about; the device was just past its warranty, and with almost a year left on my contract I was left with replacing or repairing it.

Then the world got more complicated and I retreated to my bedroom and slept through most of the month of April. I remember sitting on my balcony and watching people go by, wondering how they could walk around so easily when I felt like I was gearing up for battle just to go to the grocery store? Why would I want to pull my phone out of my pocket after I had washed my hands and stepped outside?

An orange kite string which connects a tin can at my apartment to one at my neighbourfriend’s, across and down the street. Blurry. Like April felt.

I think it’s safe to say we’re all still dealing with the mental adjustment to whatever our present hellscape is. Summer has brought an air of normalcy, and for the first time I have to stop myself in my thoughts and remember, “Oh right, that’s not a safe-for-pandemic activity.” As I’ve been getting out and going on more walks, I’ve missed the opportunity to take pictures.

I immediately questioned whether this thought was unhealthy and indicative of an overdependence on social media. Was I missing the pictures, or the likes on instagram? As I looked into the prices and procedures of a repair, a bigger question took over: could I possibly bear to be without a phone for three hours?

Rays of sunlight from beyond fluffy clouds. Imagine how lovely this would look in focus.

At home? No problem! There’s my laptop and wifi, there’s Final Fantasy XIV, and my cats almost always want cuddles and attention. The place I looked into was downtown, and going there and back would be annoying (or exhausting if I bixi’d the whole time). I could bring a couple of books and find somewhere outdoors to chill for a bit, I could hand my phone to a stranger and be without it for 180 entire minutes, I could wear a watch so I know what time it is without consulting the screen in my pocket.

It was a lot less nerve-wracking than I expected. I journaled, I had lunch with a cute conversationalist, and I finished reading a book. (Not the book we’re discussing tomorrow at book club, I hadn’t even started reading that one. Oops.) $150 and three hours later, I walked home to Ville-Émard from downtown, taking pictures all the way.

It felt like a part of me woke up, a part that I hadn’t even realized had gone to sleep. I stopped taking pictures, so I stopped looking at my surroundings the same way. Instead of a treasure trove of vantage points, my world became drab and lifeless. I missed being able to capture moments from a walk, or even seeing somewhere I could stand and wondering what the view would be like from that position.

In addition to having lost a form of creative expression, I also now have an incomplete visual record of the season. I go back in my gallery and look at photos when I am writing a story, to help set the mood or put myself in the right frame of mind. Sometimes I check details like weather: even if I am the only one paying attention to whether it rained on some date in the past, I want to get it right. It’s my kind of geekery.

Now that I’m able to take pictures whose details are actually discernable, I plan to roam the city and find as many interesting views as I can. For now, I leave you with one final study in blue.

I love the way the LEDs in this fountain’s basin light up the leaves above.

Structure pt 2

It’s been two months since I wrote Structure, but am I doing any better with routine?

Well, yes and no.

For the yes: Thanks to a friend, I got a job tutoring local students in English (from home). After an adjustment period and an all-too-predictable crisis of confidence, I’ve found my stride and gotten to correct some pretty interesting essays. My storytelling skills have turned out to be completely applicable, as well as the reminder that young people are simply people who are young. I treat them with the same respect as adults and encourage them to explore their imaginations in their writing assignments.

And now the no. On days I don’t work, I prefer not to set an alarm, and wake up when I wake up. Making my bed and some coffee are my first priorities, then my days usually devolve into some combination of rewatching familiar TV shows and doomscrolling (often at the same time). Sometimes I go to the grocery store and grab fixings for easily made meals, sometimes I wait too long and am obligated to order delivery, and my confidence rises or falls accordingly.

When it slips down too low, I shut down and become a hermit. I return texts late, I miss appointments for naps, I either forget to shower or I spend too long in the bathroom. I become disconnected from time in the worst way; for all my romantic notions about being untethered, I need some firmer grasp of the passing of time in order to get shit done.

Why is it that I can be organized and on top of things when I’m being paid to do it for someone else, but I can’t apply that same skill to my personal life? Am I not the coolest boss I could ever hope to have? How many days off have I already given myself because I didn’t feel up to writing?

Clearly, it’s time to get back to work. My mentorship brought the entire first part of my novel to a much better place, and the gears have been turning in the background with thoughts about part two. My impostor voice is easily silenced by the number of versions of chapters I have gone through already: each one is an attempt in which mistakes were made and lessons were learned. Mistakes are beautiful opportunities.

Work on a novel is slow, and I am motivated by being able to share projects. I have most of a zine ready to go, and time planned out tomorrow to sit at my desk and work. Writing practice, zine work, a reread of part one where I add notes of my own to April’s, and anything else I can accomplish with whatever energy I have. (In an unrelated but relevant note, I’m also going to look into getting my phone fixed; I miss taking pictures.)

I owe this time to myself. The best way I can benefit from my past experience is to take the skills I used working corporate jobs and put them to use for myself. I can make a schedule, a to-do list, and organize tasks by breaking them down into steps. What is a novel if not the result of repeated writing and revision sessions? I’m good at repetitive tasks, especially if I’ve got good music to bob my head to.

Carousel

April Ford carries the reader confidently through the streets of Montreal and the chaos of La Ronde in her debut novel Carousel. She introduces us to fascinating characters who cannot see themselves the way others see them, and takes us on a breathtaking ride through the life of a woman falling apart so that she can put herself back together, stronger and with more purpose.

carousel

No, I still haven’t repaired/replaced my camera.

I have never encountered a character quite like Margot. I loved her voice, her reliance on structure to keep herself on track, and her stiff refusal to properly stop and look at herself. I was charmed by this woman who was so sure of who she was because she never stopped to ask herself the question. I wanted to reach and tell her it would be okay, because I understood just how terrified she was of self reflection.

I have a habit of falling in love with characters who are a little hard-bitten, sarcastic, and make their ways through life in defiance of the bullshit they’ve had to endure. Plucky, you might say. They give me hope that we can soldier on in the face of uncertain futures, and make the kinds of decisions we can live with. Worst case, we go down as nothing less than our unapologetic and authentic selves!

And of course I knew there would be no book if the main character did not step off the cliff of her stable life into the gasping abyss of the unknown. She’s given a little push in the form of couple’s counseling (can’t relate), which her wife initiates, and soon Margot is caught in a dizzying whirl.

The book revolves around the titular carousel (not a merry-go-round, you will be educated), a feature at the amusement park La Ronde. I’ve been once with my mother and sister, who were visiting. Not knowing anything about the park, we rode the Vampire first, and I spent the next two hours wishing the world would stop turning so violently. If I saw le Galopant then, I was in no state to appreciate it, and I’m honestly too concerned about rising covid numbers to feel safe going now. But hoo boy do I really want to go out and have a proper look after finishing Carousel.

Inanna Publications, an independent feminist press in Canada, is holding a summer sale until August 30 (use promo code summer20)! Carousel is also this year’s recipient of the International Book Award for LGBTQ fiction! And with a worldwide pandemic having a pronounced effect on independent press, it is more important than ever to show your support for local authors by purchasing their work. I could not put this book down, and the ending made me cry, which is exactly what I want from a story.

A walk in the park

The QWF mentorship has been split in two for me from the beginning, and I don’t mean in the universal sense of Before Coronavirus and After. When April and I first met, we set a goal of pitching my novel for publication, and that deadline fell neatly in the middle of our time together. A synopsis, a cover letter, and the first three chapters were all I had to convince someone to publish my book.

April and I met in person, and I scribbled notes on my hard copy while we discussed my goal and how to get there. Most of her comments came digitally, often with links to a music video relevant to her suggestions. Music is an important language in my relationships, and a key to specific emotions. When our meetings shifted online, because my feedback had always come via e-mail attachments, nothing about the actual work changed. Our discussions were no longer face-to-face, but I find it’s always easier to transition to video when you’re already familiar with someone.

In April, I sent my pitch. I have yet to receive a note of rejection, and I know this means nothing because the pandemic has thrown the entire publishing game in the air. The gears of industry are turning again, but a second wave is on the minds of most. Doubt is heavy in the air. Who knows how much of a delay this will cause in the publishing world? So, I remain patient.

To cope with the increasing chaos everywhere and the consequences of isolation, April and I began going on socially distant walks in our neighbourhoods. We walked along the Saint Lawrence river in Verdun, and the Lachine Canal in Côte-Saint-Paul, got ice cream in Ville-Émard, and talked about everything under the sun. The second half of our mentorship involved reshaping part one of the novel and preparing for the reading at the end of it. Back when we first discussed the reading at the QWF mentorship pizza party, I had no idea what I would possibly read. Of course, I hadn’t written it yet.

April gave me some familiar feedback on my first draft; I’d workshopped individual chapters in two groups, hired someone through the QWF for a professional assessment (to tell me if I was going in the right direction, basically), and got advice from a friend. Everyone agreed on something I already knew deep-down but had forgotten to heed: you don’t summarize a first date. You go into the scene. You show what it looks like when two people start getting to know each other and having that giddy rush of feelings and awkwardness. (In my defense, the rough draft is a time to get the story out onto the page, and sometimes blatant mistakes are made. It’s okay, it’s word vomit, and it’s why we have the editing process.)

So I wrote a walk in the park between two young men who are each starting to hope that the other likes him. I love the insecurity and tension that almost throw sparks in the air when infatuation is strong, so I sent them to Jarry Park.

Toward the end of the mentorship, when I had nine chapters that felt like a solid opening act for my novel, it was pretty clear which story I wanted to tell. Who doesn’t love channeling crush energy into a performance? I practiced in my own voice, and I was excited even though the event had moved from the Comedy Nest to a Zoom meeting. It meant I got to invite my mother and sister to watch, and family is a big part of the book.

My first thank you goes to Marian Rebeiro for fielding my frantic questions in the week leading up to the event. I was convinced my internet connection would crap out and ruin my reading and my experience of everyone else’s. It turns out having your cell phone too near your computer’s wireless adapter can cause interference; I turned it off and stuck it in a drawer for the duration.

I also want to thank the fantastic Faith Paré, whose poetry was entirely spellbinding. I usually have to say a silent word of apology (and in normal times, a spoken one as we chat during intermission or after the event) because I can’t focus on the performers before me, but her delivery was absolutely unignorable and I forgot how nervous I was. Thank you so much for your beautiful work.

Then April made me blush by saying too many nice things about me, and it was my turn. Within a minute, my fingers and face went numb (lack of oxygen, said some part of my brain, but I ignored it and read on) and I got through just as I’d rehearsed it, with specific inflections and pauses for drama, and even if the applause looked like this 👏 it still felt amazing!

It was a joy listening to my fellow mentees, and hearing their mentors give insight to their unique processes, as no two pairings were alike it seems. I spent the entire time on speaker view to better appreciate the readings, and followed audience comments in the chat, which made for a very strange experience. For my reading, I saw only my text on screen, and I don’t know if that made me more nervous. I knew my mom and sister were there, but I couldn’t see their faces.

But they got to be there, and it still happened, and Marian was a perfect host (and thanks again for the e-mails!). Thank you to Lori Schubert and the Quebec Writers’ Federation for giving me this amazing opportunity! Thank you to April Ford for her advice and friendship and music videos to boost my spirits and get me dancing! Her debut novel Carousel is out now and I’m this close to finishing it, so expect a review soon. (Buy directly from the publisher and get 30% off with the code summer20!)

Structure

I know I’m not the only one struggling to build my own routine right now. I envy disciplined people who can set up calendars and stick to them: a time for meditation, a time for exercise, a time for enjoying nature while constantly being aware of how close the nearest person (vector‽) is.

I can’t do the calendar thing, at least not all in one leap. I have a weekly entry for these blog posts, and whatever zoom meeting is coming next. I have added regular times for exercise in the past, but too often I ignore the recurring events and after a couple of weeks, I delete them.

It feels prudent to examine why I have failed before I attempt the same strategy once more.

My trouble with isolation has been that there is rarely an obligation which requires me to set an alarm. Consequently, my waking time has varied dramatically. I know from experience that I feel best when I sleep around 2:00 or 3:00am and wake about eight hours later, but in April I had great difficulty waking up before three in the afternoon.

May has been better, and I’ve been going to bed at more reasonable hours (it was not uncommon to see dawn last month). I’ve even set a recurring alarm Monday through Friday for 11:00am. I have settled into a morning routine of texting, reading news and checking out social media, then preparing coffee and breakfast.

On good days, breakfast takes place at my desk with my calendar and to-do list open so that I am aware of my goals. Drafting or editing blog posts is easy, and I’ve been very good at keeping my desktop organized so my projects are within reach. My desk has become a space where I come to work, which makes it easy to open a notebook or document and get to it.

Then there are days where I float to the living room with my coffee and get pulled into my phone again. I am trying to train myself to put it facedown more often, so that I can’t see the silent notifications appear on the screen. (But what’s the covid case count, will business opening increase it, is it safe to go outside… there are so many reasons why my brain wants me to check my phone at all times, including “Did that cute boy reply to my text?”)

I am going to put more energy into having my days be good. That might mean adopting a morning stretch routine where I drop out of bed onto a yoga mat and start my day feeling my body, or going from breakfast into the shower. Apparently I crave a physical warm-up, and I know better than to dismiss the link between the mind and the body.

I’ve done things backwards today. I’m going to click “schedule” and have a steamy shower. I’m staying indoors again today, I already had an encounter with heat exhaustion Monday and I am taking care not to repeat the experience. A jog can wait for a drop in temperature. Stay cool, and stay safe.

The importance of being kind

Of course, generally I mean in a large and societal sense, but today I’m focusing on right here in my home office. Which is half of my bedroom.

My free writing has been very angry lately. I don’t feel as if the people around me are behaving appropriately, I feel like the government is rushing things, and I have started thinking about when I get sick instead of if because hey, people need coffee for their selfies, right? The economy must go on.

It is difficult to find value in personal productivity without hearing that word in the voice of corporate culture. I cannot think of being productive without guilt being nearby (not productive enough, not efficient enough, not working hard enough even when it’s for my own benefit). It’s been like a dog chasing its tail in my head for the past week, and everything seems to take so much more energy than before.

I have been able to get some small things done. That list does not include a weekly blog post. I have to literally give myself permission to lower the bar and post this random confession, that’s how deeply ingrained the desire to produce is. (Note to self: waste some time and feel good about it.)

So here I am to say there’s nothing new to show this week. Things are moving behind the scenes and I hope to be able to make “untouched” available next week as a free download. If I cannot complete the zine, I will at least post a bit of it here to give you a taste.

Please be kind with yourselves as well. Listen to your bodies, make time and space to meditate, breathe in some fresh air if you can. I have never appreciated my balcony as much as I do now.

The Bardo, the Bridge, and the Shadow from Kim Krans Wild Unknown Archetypes

Inspiration

Daily writing practice is great, but what happens when you don’t have an idea? Or there are too many ideas competing to get on the page and your brain locks up? A lot of writers turn to prompts: a word, a phrase, sometimes an entire scenario that can help you get started. This makes it easy to jump on that early momentum and keep going.

I like cards. I don’t know where the obsession started, but the ritual of mixing and drawing and turning over cards is powerful for me. I have several tarot decks, a set of moon cards, and round archetype cards; each provides a set of images, stories in their own right, that can be used for inspiration.

One card can be sufficient for a writing prompt, but on days where I have a little more time and energy it can be fun to take several cards and weave their meanings together into a larger story. The images are rich enough that we can leave the guidebooks aside and focus instead on what is happening in each picture. If you can’t see anything coherent, try moving cards around. Be as simple or complex as you like. As soon as you feel any sort of idea moving in your mind, start writing and see where it takes you.

If you are a seasoned card reader, use the meanings you have learned to your advantage. Lean into any personal connections you have with individual cards, let associations carry you away, and get as much of it onto the page as you can. Practice is allowed to be messy! I have to fight my overwhelming urge to scratch neat lines of cursive into my notebook, but my scratches and misspellings tell me where I had the most energy, where my ideas outpaced my pen.

No cards? No problem! There are endless prompts available online, and communities on social media that offer regular writing challenges, so you can practice while fostering connections and friendships. I’ve also found another great bit of advice in Writing Down the Bones: Goldberg suggests taking down any interesting ideas you have for prompts and keeping them in your writing notebook, to give yourself a jumping-off point if you find yourself blanking down the road.

Another good idea is to commit to a specific time limit. It doesn’t have to be much, you can start with a few minutes to put yourself at ease. This encourages you to put a bit of effort into it; without a time limit, we might get out a few sentences, decide it’s too hard, and go make a cup of tea. Better yet, bring the cup of tea to your writing space, set a timer (on your phone, web browser, or get a cheap one to keep on your desk), and don’t stop until it goes off. When it does, you can stop to consider the writing, or you can take a short break and set another timer for yourself. Repeat as long as you have time and energy, find out what time limit you can commit to and how frequently.

The important thing is to write and see what comes out. A lot of my notebook lately has musings on the past (I am working on autobiographical fiction), complaints of boredom, and one interesting daydream about a plum. That might become something later. If you write nothing but FUCKFUCKFUCK or I don’t know what I’m doing, there is still value in it! You have conquered the blank page and transferred words from your mind to the physical world, and there is magic in that.

Distance

Is anyone else feeling very Lady of Shalott these days? Locked in a tower, cursed to see the real world only through a magic mirror? I appreciate that it’s for our collective safety, and I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can stay home. Still, it’s fair to be half sick of shadows.

Luckily, it has never been easier to reach out to people I care about. That is, when I have the energy to spare. A lot of my efforts go into keeping myself clean and fed, quieting the onslaught of information and shifting opinions based on new evidence, and responding to messages I receive. I have had moments of total shutdown, I have experienced the curious phenomenon of March lasting a hundred days and April only three, and I have come to the month of May with a stronger sense of purpose.

Let’s call it a mourning period for the Old Normal.

In the New Normal, at least the one we have created so far, many things are still carrying on. I have been continuing meetings with my mentor, April Ford. Her first novel Carousel is out May 14 and available for preorder where books are found! (Please consider purchasing directly from the publisher or your local bookseller.)

Work on Project Claire continues! For the first half of the mentorship, we focused on getting the first three chapters presentation-ready for a pitch. The book is pitched. I am waiting for good news or my very first rejection letter, and either one is an important milestone in the life of an author. Either way, I’m happy about where the beginning of the novel stands.

It also has a title, but I’m choosing to be superstitious about it.

Revisiting erotic scenes in the novel has me thinking about physical contact, and those thoughts are finding their home in a new zine. I feel very good about the story and essay so far. The goal is to have it available for free here as a PDF, with physical copies available for $5 PWYC (an internet search says coronavirus can live on paper for up to five days, please handle mail with caution). I will also carry them around with me once it’s safe to be out among the people.

Speaking of smut, if you’ve been curious about “pumpkin smut latte,” I’ve posted the story “welcome to parc ex” and it is not safe for work. I read it Monday evening at my mentor’s sex and intimacy workshop, then we had a nice conversation about writing process and inspiration and other sexy stories.

What’s the word for the feeling of reading erotic material in your bedroom for an audience?

I’ve signed up for a distance version of Shut Up & Write taking place Saturday, same day as the Violet Hour Book Club. (I had really better be further along in the book by the time this goes live; at the moment, I’ve read the introduction.)

Having something in my agenda not only gives me events to look forward to, it sort of grounds me in time. I’ve printed out a calendar so I can tick off the days, I’m turning the pages of my day calendar with calming quotes, I am trying to prevent that feeling of drifting though the hours with no real sense of which direction I want to go in. It’s okay if I can’t be productive right now, I’ve given myself that permission.

But if I can be, that’s where I’d like to put my energy. There is work I want to do.

Practice

Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve struggled so much with my identity as a writer is I don’t practice. I write to complete a project, a blog post, or a story. When Inspiration bubbles up, I’ll often do a freewrite, but that’s about it. No consistent practice.

I was talking with my dear friend Kat (who has started a tarot blog, please have a look!), who asked if I had ever read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I am a thousand percent sure someone has quoted her or this book before, but I haven’t read it myself, so I bought a copy and eagerly awaited its arrival.

(We hear a lot about thanking people in healthcare, grocery and pharmacy employees, and cleaners and sanitation workers; let’s please not forget our mail carriers who are working harder than ever during this unprecedented time of staying at home.)

In her introduction, Goldberg invites readers to pick up anywhere, read the book start to finish, whatever works for them. The book is a collection of essays on writing, not only the putting of words on paper but the entire mental process in which we reflect on ideas. I’ve known for a while that a lot of my “writing” takes place in my head, and I need to sleep on major edits; now I’m working my way through this book putting language to concepts I am only beginning to touch.

She also insists on practice, which is a thing I knew writers did, but I never understood how I might do the same. Goldberg provides a variety of ideas for a writer seeking to practice, and though I’m still making my way through her book, I have made time (almost) every day to sit down and put my thoughts down.

In doing so, I quickly ran into a barrier.

I like to write at a desk, because otherwise I’m pretzeled in my bed or on a sofa and cricks begin to develop and I groan and crack and feel like I’m falling apart. However, my desk is the tiny thing I bought for my studio apartment in Parc Ex and can barely fit my laptop, monitor, and a notebook to scribble in. I felt entirely too cramped.

I spent a good three hours assembling and arranging most of what you see here: a larger desk surface, actual organizational space, and the printer out of the way. Right now, I’m enjoying birdsong and natural light (on both sides, I got mirrors!) and a home office space that is really pleasant to be in. My writing practice has never been so smooth, and I have some interesting phrases to look at later.

I will continue to practice, which will help me to work, which will give me something to come here and write about. I say that as if I don’t have news to catch up on, but that has to be another post. I’ll be back Thursday at 5:00pm EDT.

Is it always transitions?

I had such good momentum, but autumn turned to winter and a lot of shifting took place.

First of all, I will remind myself to never underestimate the effect of darkness suddenly coming an hour earlier. I feel more pressure to use the daylight to best effect, I get mopey when I haven’t seen a blue sky in too long, and the cold can be a huge deterrent when it comes to enjoying being outside.

There has not been a lack of news.

I have been asked to curate and host an evening of queer storytelling! Chris DiRaddo, who I know as president of the QWF, producer of the Violet Hour, and host of the Violet Hour Book Club; proposed it to me, and I had no choice but to reply, “I’d love to! How do I do that?” I ended up asking several people this question, and their answers led me to ask people I know if they had stories to tell. Everyone’s got a story, but how many of us want to get up on stage and tell it to a room full of strangers?

Then I told a particularly personal story at Confabulation: Games at the Centaur Theatre, revisiting how it felt to actively lie to the partner I was cheating on. The story felt impossible to write, but a conversation with Nisha Coleman gave me the confidence to confront what I was doing (trying to avoid telling the difficult truth) as well as a page and a half of notes to incorporate into a new draft. I got it out, I practiced, and I felt all of the emotions as I told it onstage.

I always remember, but sometimes forget to feel, that whatever scares me the most in my art is what I must absolutely pursue. Like this horrifying memoir idea, but that’s on the back burner because I have a mentorship to focus on!

As of last Sunday, I am dedicating the vast majority of my creative time to working with April Ford, my QWF fiction mentor, on my novel. We already have such plans! I am making lists and trying out different synopses and we will be meeting biweekly for the next few months. There will be a reading! I will shake off this rust and make some progress with this book!