Tag Archives: Writing Life

Train Ride through the Rockies

Lake Louise, photo credit Su Ann Quah on Stock ExchangeEverybody has one. That dream — that thing you’re going to do someday. I’m thinking about it this week for a couple of reasons.

The first is sad. My friend’s father died recently, and the funeral was last week. Mr. Moore was a wonderful, warm, caring man who had lost his wife a few years ago. The one regret he had, which was brought up at the funeral service, was that he always said he wished he and his wife had taken “that train ride through the Rockies.” They meant to do it, but the years slipped away, and then she was too ill to go.

My second reason is a happier one. Last Thursday was the five-year anniversary of my last chemotherapy treatment. I always count that date, and the anniversary of my last radiation treatment, as a milestone. Anyone who reads this who knows me already knows that six or so years ago, I won — or lost — the genetic lottery and managed to come down with three different kinds of cancer at once. If you don’t know, well, it’s not exactly a secret. Here’s the summary.

  • One cancer (thyroid) = scared but confident
  • Two cancers (sarcoma) = really scared
  • Three cancers (lymphoma) = c’mon, really? This is getting ridiculous

It wasn’t a great time; my daughter was very young, and I look odd without eyebrows. But I survived. I’m one of the lucky ones who gets a second chance.

The reason I’m talking about this is that during that eyebrow-free period of radiation and chemo and surgery and overall nastiness, it became perfectly clear to me what my train ride through the Rockies was. I didn’t even have to think about it. I desperately needed to raise my daughter. And I wanted to write books. Had things gone a different way five years ago, those would have been my two regrets.

And so as I was getting better and stronger, I made changes to my life. I arranged things so that I could spend more time with Sarah and Aaron. And I got serious about writing.

If I hadn’t gotten sick, I probably would have built a career as a teacher. And there would have been good things and bad things about that. I wouldn’t have had as much time with Sarah, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to writing for many years to come.

One thing Aaron said will always stick with me. He told me that to go through an experience like the one we did and not reevaluate, to emerge unchanged, was to do a disservice to the cancer. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not out to do cancer any favours. We’re not buddies. But it was a force for change, and I have enough perspective now to appreciate that and be grateful for it.

And so I try not to put things off.

Mr. Moore’s funeral last week was a reminder to value what’s important, and to take the chances that present themselves — and when no chances present themselves, to make them. I don’t need to take a train ride through the Rockies. It would be lovely, but it’s not my dream. My dream is the life I have — spending time with my family and writing.

And so, hovering around the five-year anniversary mark of my eyebrow-free period, I am grateful for that.

What’s your train ride through the Rockies? How can you make it happen?

Nosy Writer with a Camera

Saturday night my daughter was at Brownie camp. Well, she was, until about 10:30. Then we got the phone call to come pick her up. (Which, I might add, we were happy to do — I want her to know that she can always call home. It’s good training for when she hits those teen years.) Anyhow, she wanted to go back and join the other girls for breakfast and cleanup, which was how I happened to be in the Port Perry area with some time on my hands, in the quiet of a Sunday morning.

Downtown Port PerryI love downtown Port Perry. Their history is still quite visible, and they work hard to keep it that way. So, while there’s no ignoring phone poles, street lights and parked cars, if you wander around at just the right time, you can get a glimpse of what the town used to be like.

It turns out that a wintery Sunday morning, while stores are still closed and cars are scarce, is one of those times.

I have a couple of historical novels in the works, so I set out to collect some pictures. The ones from the camera don’t match the ones in my head; they never do — I’m just a point-and-shoot photographer. I don’t know how to make the picture capture the scene. But they help me remember, at least. I can take it from there.

Some things I liked: the downtown. Little shops all in a row, with brick-faced living quarters above and false fronts. I could tell, because I looked from the side and saw the wooden beam propping one of them up. Very cool. I remember one of my English professors talking about the “false fronts” in a CanLit novel, and how symbollic they were. Fair enough. For me, they bring back memories of childhood ballet classes in a second-floor studio in Whitby’s downtown. Looking across the road from Miss Inta’s class, I could see how the brick was built up in front of the roofs. I liked the way it looked, like a secret hiding place.

I spent a lot of time looking out those windows. It may explain why I was never any good at ballet.

Port Perry homeI like the old houses. I’ve been looking at old houses a lot online, recently, trying to find ones with lots of pictures and with sketched-out floor plans, to help figure out the details for a book I’m drafting. “Big house” isn’t specific enough when you’re writing about the people who live in it — you have to know where all the doors and stairways are. But looking at a picture on a computer screen isn’t the same as walking through an old part of town, feeling how many steps it takes from one old house to another, figuring out what the spaces would have been.

I took pictures of several of them. If I took a picture of your house, please don’t be worried. I’m not stalking you, and I’m not casing the joint. I just think you have a pretty house.

I like the town hall. It’s a funny, skinny building, beside an equally skinny church. They’re like a pair of bookends, across a street from one another. And the town hall has some schmancy brickwork near the top.

I like the spot where I had breakfast (a hot-crossed bun and some orange juice from a grocery store that miraculously happened to be open). Four benches, at corners around the frozen bit in the middle. It would be nice if it were a pond, but I suspect it’s just some low ground, puddled over. I’ll go back in the spring to check.

War Museum Library - Grenadier storeThis war museum library (currently a shop for war-related books and so on, I think) made me sad. It’s dated 1932. The people who built it thought the Great War was behind them, and had no idea what was around the corner. But I do like the idea of a library as a memorial.

There’s a miniatures store in downtown Port Perry. Tiny little models of victorian houses, and everything you could want to put in them, from furniture to dogs to teeny napkins and cans of baked beans. It’s a bit like what I’m trying to do — build an imaginary town and get all the pieces right.

It was early enough that the streets were nearly deserted when I got there. As time passed, people started flocking to church and the bells rang. I lost that feeling of having the place nearly to myself, but people-watching is fun, too. And then it was time to head back and pick my daughter up from camp.

On the way home, we stopped so I could take some pictures of a crumbling farm. Not so much because it was crumbling, as because I wanted to see where all the buildings were in relation to one another. Then there was a lovely stone farmhouse that I couldn’t resist. I pulled over again.

Sarah asked if this time, I could stay in the car to take the picture.

Thank You, Mrs. Granger

Typewriter, photo credit to Kriss Szkurlatowski on Stock ExchangeMrs. Granger was my grade nine typing (we called it “keyboarding”) teacher. She had perfect grey curls, a voice that could rap like a ruler, and a spine as straight as a steel girder. She was never less than immaculately dressed. And when I saw her at a reunion last spring, she looked exactly the same as she had twenty-five years before.

And she gave me a wonderful gift. She taught me to type.

We had electronic typewriters then, no computers. And the keys were covered over in pink and orange nail polish, so we couldn’t cheat by looking at the letters. For the first couple of weeks, there was a chart at the front of the classroom. Then there wasn’t.

It wasn’t the most exciting class on offer. F-F-F. J-J-J. F-F-F. J-J-J. But boy, did I learn my way around a keyboard. Useful skill for a novelist.

And now I’ve discovered a new way to use it.

I’m taking a writing course online, and the first assignment was to retype an action scene by a writer you admire. I groaned when I read that. Who has time for retyping?

I tried to think of a nice, short scene, but really, I knew all along what scene I would choose. The opening of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn. I hadn’t read it in a while, but I remember thinking at the time that the James Bond movie folks had nothing on Mr. Oppel.

Eager to get the assignment over with, I started typing from the beginning. And I discovered something strange.

Retyping his words forced me to read them differently. To feel them. I noticed things like punctuation, and how many lines were spent on description compared to action. I didn’t think about these things, or stop to analyze. I just… noticed.

And when I got the rhythm of it, when I could hold a sentence in my mind and type it into my Word document without having to glance back again, something even stranger happened. The scene started building itself in my mind, line by line. I saw what was happening with more detail and depth and real-ness than I’ve ever experienced while just reading. The scene was soaking up into my fingers, or coming down through them. It was hard to tell the difference.

Retyping Kenneth Oppel’s words forced me to slow down my reading and experience the text in a way that I don’t usually manage when I’m just reading. I read too quickly, maybe — skimming over the words to get at the story. Typing forced me to give the words a chance to be noticed. And instead of getting in the way of the story, that enriched it.

I’d heard before that typing out passages from your favourite books was a good idea — a way to absorb craft at a physical level. Now, if I were to start writing like Kenneth Oppel that would be lovely, but I’m not going to hold my breath. I don’t really think it works that way, and besides, I need to find and use my own voice. But I do have a new appreciation for his work at a line-by-line level, and that can’t be a bad thing.

I’m not sure I’ll make a habit of this. It took me a good long while to retype that chapter, and I have manuscripts of my own that are crying out for some keyboard time. But every now and then, when I’m reading a book and I love the language, or a scene really grabs me, maybe I’ll try this again. Retyping someone else’s work to experience it differently and, if I’m really lucky, start to notice how the magic is being made.

Sounds weird, I know. But trust me. Give it a try.

Even if you get nothing else out of it, you’ll be making your typing teacher proud.

This Side of Morning

Three weeks ago, I tried something new. So far, it has stuck.

During the day, I’m editing a juvenile novel that I’ve been working on for some time. Okay, years. But I wanted to draft something new as well, so I decided to try morning writing.

I started off with a bang. At 5:00 a.m. each day, I would get up and write. I usually lasted until about 6:30, then I’d run out of steam and collapse back into bed until the alarm went off at 7:00.

That turned out not to be such a great plan. In order to function at that hour, I needed to be in bed by 9:00 or 10:00 at night. But late evening is usually the time that my husband and I have together, to talk or watch television without The Critter running around. Plus, my husband is a night owl. There’s no way on Earth he could shift his hours. So with my 5:00 a.m. start looming, I would traipse off to bed just after Daughter did, and he would be left behind looking forlorn.

I seem to be settling into a more modified routine now. I set the alarm for 5:45. When it goes off, I get up and go straight to my desk and write longhand until 7:00. So far, this seems to be working. I might even try backing it up to 5:30 and see how it goes.

I also came across a book called “The 90-Day Novelist.” Usually I ignore books with titles like that. I’ve worked on enough novels to know that imposing a time frame like that doesn’t pay off in the long run. Not for me, at least. Some stories take more time, some take less time. Most stories, for me, take quite a few drafts before I’m happy with them. Okay, years. So I’m not going to hold myself to the 90 days.

What I do like, however, is that there are writing exercises for each day. I do those each morning. And sometimes I add in something I picked up from Donald Maass or another resource, or sometimes I just take a stab at a scene or write about a character I’m trying to understand better.

I’m still in the pre-writing stage. That’s something new for me, too, and I think it’s going to turn out to be a good thing. I would usually think about a story for a long time, figure out who the characters were, and then start planning out a plot. Once I had that all set out on index cards, I’d start writing. By about halfway through, of course, things would have diverged so much from the original plan that my index cards were useless, but at least they’d gotten me into the story.

So far, though, I’ve spent three weeks not-writing the story. It’s weird. Instead, I’m writing every day about the story. Answering questions from the point of view of characters, developing the world, writing about whatever I want to explore. I’ve never done that ahead of time before. It all just happened alongside or in the messy first draft.

I’m impatient. I admit, I’ve taken a stab at the opening scene. I had to. There are also some little scenes and bits of dialogue that emerged out of the writing exercises, and I’ve tucked those away in case I need them.

I hope that, when I do start writing, I’m going to have a better first draft for having spent the time. For one thing, I realized that my main character isn’t who I thought it was going to be. That’s a good thing for the story, and will save me a rather large rewrite. For another, I have a much better feel for who all my characters are and what they want, and how those wants will bring them into conflict with each other and with themselves.

I’ve also taken some time to do things like drawing a map of my main setting, and studying floor plans from the late Victorian period (my story is set in 1910) to come up with a house layout. Setting details tended to shift around somewhat randomly in the first drafts of my previous novels. Distances varied according to how long I needed my characters to take to get places. Rooms could appear and disappear. I have a fairly nebulous relation to setting (and directions) in real life, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me. But I digress.

With this pre-writing, I’m not expecting a usable first draft. That’s not how I write. But I think that, because of having done this work first, I’ll end up with a first draft that has different problems than the ones I usually encounter. I have an idea of my beginning, and an idea of my end, and I know some things that happen in the middle. I haven’t got everything sorted out yet, but I’ve got different things sorted out from what I usually do. Writing from this starting point should be interesting.

So, as it turns out, this whole pre-writing thing has potential. I’ll know more once I start into the actual draft a week or so from now. I suspect that once I start writing the story, I’ll want to switch to typing rather than writing longhand (but maybe not — that might be an interesting experiment as well), and I’ll want to spend more time at it each day, so my schedule will need adjusting.

But I know now that I like working in the mornings. I like taking some time for writing when no one else is awake, and my brain isn’t full yet of all the things I have to do. And I like knowing that even if my day gets busy and everything goes down the drain, at least I did some writing before breakfast. I can hold onto that.

It’s a new routine, but it’s working.

When do you write?

Happy Halloween!

I have two things to share today. The first is my Halloween/scary book recommendation: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson. I started it yesterday, and had to stay up really late to finish it, because I needed to see some kind of resolution. I couldn’t possibly go to sleep with all those ghosts running around.

It’s a good book with strong characterization. There was a point just shy of the middle where I was really and truly scared, and that hasn’t happened to me (because of a book, anyhow) for a while. The last one before this was Marina Cohen’s Ghost Ride, incidentally, and I highly recommend that one as well.

I don’t tend to seek out scary stuff, but I really love Maureen Johnson’s books.Last night, reading The Name of the Star, I was creeped-out, afraid-of-the-dark, not-wanting-my-husband-to-go-walk-the-dog-because-she’s-too-cowardly-to-protect-him kind of scared. In fairness to the dog, of course, I did manage to set that one aside. And the book got less scary after that point, although still gripping.

So the upshot is, I recommend it for your Halloween read. Or your anytime read.

The second thing I wanted to share is a Halloween-related thought. Today is dress-up day for a lot of kids. It’s the day they get to be someone else. My daughter is dressing as a princess (a mediaeval princess, she likes to specify). Actually, I think princess has been a recurring them in her Halloween costume choices over the years.

I like to dress up. I usually pull together a costume of some sort to hand out candy at the door. I have a really cool witch’s hat, which, unfortunately, I can’t seem to find this year. Last year my husband and I went to a Halloween-themed Jack-and-Jill party as Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler (yup, a middle-aged, brunette Rose Tyler. Just what this world needed). Incidentally, there was someone else at that party dressed as a nerd; Aaron and I were mildly offended. But the point, I guess, is that it’s fun to dress up as something that you’re not.

But writing is even more fun. Because in writing, you don’t just get to “dress up” in someone else’s skin, you get to play pretend as well.

When my brother Mike was a kid, he and his friend Darren played with little plastic G.I.Joe and Star Wars figures. Listening to them, it seemed that every other sentence started with “say I.”

“Say I get to the top of the mountain.”

“Say your guy shoots but he misses.”

“Say I can fly.”

Anything was possible, as long as the other person agreed.

Writing is the best way I can think of to play “say I.” So, having dug out the Halloween decorations and made sure my daughter’s costume is sorted, I’m going to spend this afternoon playing dress-up in the best possible way. At my computer, writing.

Happy Halloween!

Who Inspired You?

Last week, right here in Whitby, I heard one of my favourite writers interview another of my favourite writers. Susanna Kearsley acted as MC for Kelley Armstrong at a Whitby Library event. Both of these women are important writers in my life, and are part of the reason why I am writing today.

The funny thing is, Susanna Kearsley writes for adults, and until recently Kelley Armstrong did as well (I haven’t read her YA books yet, but I hear great things about them from Lena Coakley, and I trust Lena’s taste in books). I don’t have a lot to do with grown-up books these days, and Susanna writes romance books — not my genre at all. The thing is, the impact that Susanna and Kelley had on me had less to do with what they wrote, and more to do with who they are.

It’s a big deal when, as an aspiring writer, you get to feel a connection to a published writer. Any connection. Arthur Slade keeps a letter from Ray Bradbury on his wall. Nail Gaiman has talked about the influence Dianna Wynne Jones had on him, as mentor and friend. And for me, there was Susanna Kearsley.

The thing is, she’s a local girl. Her mom and my mom worked together. And so when she had her breakout success with Marianna in 1993, I heard about it right away. I still have my dog-eared copy of that book. I loved it. I still love it; it’s a great story. It didn’t win the Catherine Cookson award for nothing. But for me, it’s always been as much a talisman as a book.

Susanna Kearsley was the first author who was a real person to me.  I devoured each of her books as they came out, not only for the characters and world building (which were incredible — now that I’ve had the opportunity to hear Susanna speak a few times and get to know her as a writer, I have a better understanding of the effort she puts into her immaculate research), but also because she was like me. And if someone whose mom worked where my mom worked could write books, then maybe, just maybe, someday I could do that too.

This was even before I had ever met her in person. I have now, and she’s every bit as friendly and gracious as I could have hoped. It’s always nice when that happens.

The first time I heard of Kelley Armstrong was when she came as a guest speaker to a writing course I was taking. I bought a copy of Bitten on the way home from the workshop, and devoured it that night. I was hooked.

I bought the book not because I thought I would enjoy a werewolf story (that part came as a surprise), but because I liked Kelley immediately. She was down-to-earth and approachable, and she talked about the life of a writer as much as the craft. She told us about things like training her husband and children to understand that a closed office door meant they should get their own dinner.

Nobody had ever talked about that part of it before, about the struggle to actually get things done and fit it around work and family and everything else. She had worked in IT, I worked in IT. She was a mom, I was a brand-new mom.

Kelley didn’t make it sound easy — that would have been a lie. But she talked about it in a way that was real, and I realized that if this woman, with three children and a job as a programmer, could make room in her life for writing, I could too.

Last week, when Susanna and Kelley came to Whitby, the topic of mentors came up. Susanna asked Kelley who inspired her. Kelley said the answer to that question has changed over the years. There were writers whose books she loved, writers she wanted to write like. Those were the writers who inspired her at first. But as her career has grown and she has gotten to know other writers, her inspiration has come from different places. She’ll admire one writer’s sense of suspense, another writer’s depth of character, and another writer’s work ethic. Some she admires for having overcome so many things in their own lives in order to write.

I understand that — the way it can shift and change, depending on what you’re working on or looking at. There are writers I love: Kenneth Oppel, Arthur Slade, Martine Leavitt, Meg Rosoff, Laurie Halse Anderson, so many others. I’d love to be able to write like them, but I think I’m most inspired by writers when I get a glimpse of their real lives, like Kelley and Susanna.

I don’t write romantic books like Susanna or scary books like Kelley. (And truly, to boil their books down to one adjective does them a disservice — their stories and characters are more complicated than that.) I’m learning, bit by bit, how to write books for kids. But I’m also learning how to build my life around writing, and the people who inspire me are the ones who are doing that in their own ways, every day. I know them through my writing group, or through CANSCAIP or the WCDR. They’re not all published, or published as widely as they deserve to be, but they remind me that writing takes effort, and that it’s worth it.

And when they try harder, I’m encouraged to try harder. I hope it works the other way, too. Because being part of a writing community of real people — that’s inspiring.

So here’s today’s question: Who inspired you? Who was it at first, and who is it now? And why?

Visit to the Pod

On my recent trip to Vancouver (yes, the sticky notes trip), I took the opportunity to visit Orca Publishing in Victoria. It seemed silly to cross most of the country, and not take the extra day to meet the people I’ve been working with over the course of two books now.

Christi Howes, Erin Thomas and Sarah Harvey at Orca Publishing

“The Pod,” as I’m told it’s called, is a gorgeous, cozy, two-storey building near downtown Victoria. It’s yellow. I wish I’d taken a picture of the outside of it. Instead, I offer this picture of me with editors Sarah Harvey and Christi Howes. (Note how carefully we all coordinated our outfits.)

Inside, editors and marketing people and all the other team members who bring books to life have their desks in close, colourful workspaces. There’s even a “Harry Potter space” under the stairs. Books and posters are cheerfully everywhere. In some ways, it reminds me of Mabel’s Fables in Toronto.

I didn’t get to meet Andrew Woolridge, who was out, and the publicist I’ve worked most closely with (Leslie Bootle) was off preparing for her wedding, but I was very happy to meet my editors, Sarah Harvey and  Christi Howes, in person. Christi even took me out to lunch, where she revealed her humanitarian side by performing a catch-and-release rescue on a wasp in the restaurant.

Sometimes it can be strange, meeting someone in person for the first time when you already have a working relationship, but both Sarah and Christi were wonderful. They made me feel welcome, which is no small task given how busy the average editor’s day is. Christi did mention that, once again, they’re looking for more titles for their Sports series. If you’re a writer, and if you have a book idea that feels like a fit for that series, give it a shot. I can vouch for the people at Orca being great to work with.

And if you’re in Victoria, look them up. The Pod is friendly.

Travel Tip: Leave the Sticky Notes at Home

I’m in Vancouver today, jet-lagged and a little foggy-minded. But not so foggy-minded that I can’t learn from my mistakes. Oh, no. And here’s an important one: leave the sticky notes at home.

I don’t do well with airport security. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important — in the wake of 9-11, I’m in favour of any reasonable measure that keeps people safe. I want to cooperate. It’s just that I always manage to make a mess of it.

I get nervous and scattered. I’ve beeped the metal-detection fence for such things as metal barrettes and an underwire bra. I carry too many electronic devices (at last count, four), and I fumble getting them out of my backpack. I forget to take the little ziploc baggie of hand sanitizer and toothpaste out of my purse. I trip while trying to tug off my shoes. I smile too wide and laugh too loud, and get hot-faced and anxious. In short, I act guilty.

But yesterday was something new. Yesterday, I thought I had done everything right. No hair clips. Underwire-free bra. My computer and iPad were on display, and the security lady had assured me that I didn’t need to take the cell phone and Kobo out of my purse. And yes, I forgot the ziploc baggie, but that was easily resolved.

No… the lady rifling through my backpack with the strange white wand was looking for something else. Something that showed up as liquid and large on the x-ray screen. Something that flagged me as suspicious.

I chewed my lip. Had I brought a water bottle and forgotten about it? I know better, but I’ve done stupider things. Or… what if I’d “left my bag unattended” without realizing it? What if there was something in there I didn’t know about?

And maybe they had on record the time I tried to get through Halifax airport security with my crochet project and forgot about the little Swiss-army-knife scissors I had packed with it. Maybe it was recorded as an attempt to sneak a knife onto an inter-Provincial flight. Maybe I was officially a terrorist.

I had another black mark on my record, too. A few years ago, shortly after I completed my cancer treatment, my husband and daughter and I tried to drive to Connecticut. We were stopped at the border. Something in our car had been flagged as radioactive. That something was me, the bald lady in the front seat.

I ended up sitting alone on a metal bench in a room with a large poster of George W. Bush on the wall, waiting for twenty minutes while someone tracked down a more diagnostic radiation detector that was able to prove that I was telling the truth. As opposed to having shaved my head and eyebrows on purpose so I’d look like a cancer patient.

So this was it. I was going to be arrested. My aunt and uncle, traveling on the same flight and having passed through security (flawlessly) ahead of me, were going to be the only witnesses. But then the security woman found the offending item.

It was my stack of sticky notes. Or maybe it was the pack of index cards, but I’m pretty sure she said it was the sticky notes. It seems that dense wads of paper products don’t do well on x-ray cameras. It also seems that normal people don’t carry quite so many paper products on airplanes.

Why, my aunt wanted to know, did I need so many sticky notes? Was I planning to decorate the airplane with them? Did I plan to have two hundred deep thoughts that needed capturing during the five-hour flight to Vancouver? And if I needed sticky notes for that, what were all those electronic gizmos I carried for?

“For editing,” I mumbled. But it goes deeper than that. I was a Girl Guide for fourteen years, and something about that Be Prepared motto seeped into my marrow. I don’t travel light. I bring things just in case, and for maybe, and back-ups because you never know what will happen.

I’m planning to write while here in Vancouver, and I brought enough computer-related gadgetry to set up quite a comfortable workstation, with the addition of a folding desk provided by my lovely B&B hosts. I carried an inch-and-a-half thick binder filled with manuscript and notes. And I need my index cards and sticky notes, because that’s how my brain works.

But, as my aunt pointed out, it’s possible to acquire such things in Vancouver. They have all sorts of wonders here, such as cars and electricity and even stores. Even ones with paper products in them.

So maybe next time, I’ll leave the sticky notes at home.

Lost My Golf Balls

Last February, I blogged about a nice metaphor my friend Susan Blakeney uses when it comes to organizing her life. Life is a jar, and you have a bunch of things that you want to fit in it. Sand and seashells, and maybe a few golf balls.

Yeah, the golf balls still seem weird to me too. Big rocks might work better with the sand and seashells. But Sue said golf balls, and I trust Sue, so I go with it.

The point is that if you put the little things in first, the golf balls won’t fit. So the golf balls, the things that are important in your life, are the things you have to put in first. The other stuff can fit in around them.

I’m having one of those months where time is low and stress is high. It happens, right? Anyhow, I let my writing slide. I had met my deadlines and had no others looming, so the only person I was accountable to on the writing front was… me.

And there was a course to plan, and volunteer work to do, and all the rush of back-to-school with my daughter. Trips to take. Appointments and plans and favours for friends and… well, you know how it goes.

Man, did I get cranky. Hungry rhinoceros kind of cranky.

Writing can be an addiction. When I go too long without it, my skin feels itchy and too small. I snap at people. I’m distracted. There’s this sweaty-palmed anxious feeling that I just can’t shake.

And I think it’ll get better if I clear my to-do list, so I work away at the little stuff — the sand and the shells and all the things that are keeping me from writing. Some of them are even writing related, like blogging and doing critiques for other people. I figure that once I’ve got that stuff out of the way, I’ll be able to write again. I’ll be able to breathe.

But it doesn’t work that way, because the thing about to-do lists is, they don’t go away. Stuff comes off, stuff goes on. It’s a cycle. I don’t know why I keep forgetting that.

I need to write. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a writer, and chances are you need to write too. (Do you get that sweaty-palmed feeling, too, if it’s been too long? Never mind. Don’t answer that.)

So here’s my advice to you, and to me as well. Write. Write anyhow, write no matter what. Do it first. Because even if the only person you’re answerable to is yourself, you still count.

Writing is a golf ball. Don’t let it get away.

Write Like Jose Bautista

Maybe that should be “Write Like Jose Bautista Bats.” I have no idea whether or not he writes. But if he does, I bet he’s good at it. (Spoken like the wife of a true Jays fan.)

So a month or two ago, I found my brother’s Sports Illustrated magazine at the cottage. I noticed a line near the top of the cover: “Slugger Jose Bautista: Do You Believe?” Thinking it might be fun to spout a few sports facts and watch my husband’s eyebrows flip-flop, I read the article.

(For those of you wondering, it’s the June 27, 2011 issue with a giant golf headline on the cover. Joe Posnanski is the writer.)

Jose Bautista plays right field and third base for the Toronto Blue Jays. He has hit about eighty gazillionty home runs this year and is widely regarded as the best player in baseball. Not bad for someone who spent a lot of years being either cut or traded. It’s enough to make people wonder if he’s for real. Steroid rumours… an ugly thing. Or, more poetically as in Posnanski’s article, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Bautista hits the ball like his bat is powered by rocket fuel. He came out of nowhere.

Except he didn’t.

As a teen in the Dominican Republic, he sent videotapes of himself out to major league teams. He played college baseball in Florida and was picked up by the draft (20th round, not spectacular) in 2000. He’s played for a handful of teams, and didn’t land with the Blue Jays until 2008. Even then, he was what Posnanski describes as a “spare part.” There was no indication that he was going to become anyone’s star hitter.

But he worked at it. He had a fast swing, but needed to connect with the ball. The Toronto batting coach told him to start his swing earlier, so he practiced. Vernon Wells told him to start even earlier than that, so early that it felt ridiculous, so he tried it. And that was when the crazy home run streak started.

My point (and forgive me if I’ve gotten some of the baseball jargon wrong) is that Jose Bautista didn’t come out of nowhere. He put in a lifetime of effort. He was drafted eleven years ago, and landed with the Blue Jays three years ago. He had this incredible potential that people caught glimpses of, and he never gave up. He’s been working at this, trying different things, and finally something clicked.

When I was a kid, my piano teacher used to write inspirational sayings in my book. One of them stays with me, never-mind-how-many years later. “You usually find people not very far from where they quit trying.”

That’s the kind of writer I want to be. I love writing. I want to work at it and try new things and get a little bit better with each project. Maybe someday I’ll hit home runs — I don’t know. That would be great. But if I do, I hope no one ever imagines that it came out of nowhere. For me, this is a long-term game.

And I suspect that’s also the case for a lot of so-called overnight successes. Even first books often have a lot of years and a few buried manuscripts holding them up. Not always, but often. There’s that saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” And for anyone, wouldn’t it be terrible to feel that your greatest success was behind you? That you had already written your best book, that you had nothing more to say? I think so.

You have to love the process of writing. If you’re really lucky, if you’re having a good day, the “practice” won’t even feel like work. But sometimes it will, and you’ll do it anyway.

And so if you’re writing, even if you’re just starting, feel good about it. You’re making progress. Not every book needs to be published, just like not every swing of the bat needs to hit home. There’s room for misses, and there’s room for getting better.

And someday, when people say that your success came out of nowhere, you can smile and nod politely and say you owe it all to Jose Bautista.