Monday, 28 July 2008

barukh ata adonai

So what else is writing like? It's like a prayer. Not in its every day incremental aspect (I suppose it's no bad thing to pray regularly, but I never heard of anyone training for the afterlife by increasing the number of reps or degree of difficulty. All right, team, we'll warm up with a light Kaddish, then move on to some serious Salve Reginas, and finish with the complete Prayer To Mother Earth. And by the end I want your throats to bleed!) but in the fact that writing is a communion with a greater -- wait for the technical word here -- thing. Whatever you pray to is going to be spiritually larger than you are. When you write you are entering through the doors of the metaphysical department store, and talking to the folks who work there.
It's about listening. Prayer is listening, and writing too. When you talk to God (or whichever of the staff you run into. I generally get someone with God on their name tag) it's no good simply clasping your hands together and wailing loudly that you want a bike, or a pony, or a happier love life. Ask by all means, and then -- just for a moment -- shut up and listen. Stay still, quiet, open. Maybe you will get some direction. Maybe your staff member will point you to the Get A Job aisle of the store. Or the Pay Attention aisle. (Or the pharmacy -- it's usually in the basement.)
I spend a fair amount of time staring at the wall of my office, not because (or not only because) I am stupid or drug-addled, but because if I empty my mind, ideas can come in. And sometimes they are good ideas. (Sometimes they are not so good. Sometimes they are actually criminal. This is not metaphysical direction -- this is you hearing voices and going crazy. At this point switch off your creative brain and invoke the internal editor. Liberate France from the English? you say. Seriously, St Genevieve? I don't think so.)
Prayer is listening to silence. So is writing.
And now (you don't know this but I just spent a minute staring at three pens lying on my desk calendar, waiting for an idea on how to finish this blog entry) it's time for me to get back to my zombies. I expect to finish the draft today, if I pray hard enough.

Friday, 25 July 2008

jackass, c'est moi

I was going to talk about writing some more -- other things that writing is like, apart from exercise. Because writing is like a lot of things. But I'm going to take a moment here and talk about the movie Jackass instead. (I mean the movie entitled Jackass, not a Jackass in a movie, like Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream.) I saw some of Jackass the other night on television with my young son (who knew the movie well, and was able to keep up a running commentary on stunts to come ...). What was interesting to me was not that the movie storyline was compelling -- it wasn't. Or that the acting, camerawork, set design, costumes, or overall production concept were first rate -- they were not. In fact they were kind of last rate. Nothing about the movie was worth watching on the surface ... and yet I watched it. That was the fascinating thing -- the watchability of the movie. I was interested in it, and in myself for being interested. That, I guess, is the storyline -- human beings in trouble, and aren't you glad you aren't them. That's why I was able to spend precious precious time watching a man attach a leech to his eyeball (yes, that's the picture), or wrestle with anacondas in a ball playland, or inhale someone else's flatulence.
There is a prurient side to me I had not suspected -- seems I enjoy someone else's strife. My life may be mixed up, but I do not (Oh, this is a good bit, dad. You'll like this! See Johnny race for the door!) get beehives dumped on me while I am in a limousine. I tell you I watched the movie with the same horrified half-averted stare I would wear near a bus accident, or a train wreck, or a fire.
One of the jackasses in the film drinks a cup of horse semen (don't ask) and says, That's semen all right, which is a pretty good line, and then confesses that he is ashamed of himself.
Him and me both.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

on writing

Writing is like a lot of things. One of the things it is like is exercise. Do it regularly. I have got slack-bellied about my blogging (not real writing, I know, but the principle is the same) so I plan to work out more often. Hit the keyboard, do a few reps, work up a sweat, go home feeling better about myself. Then do it again tomorrow.
The classic exercise pattern was developed long ago by Milo of Crotona (see picture labelled: MILO OF CROTONA) -- who carried a calf around every day. His strength increased with regular repetition of the exercise, so that as the calf got bigger he got stronger, and by the time the calf was a teenager Milo was getting all kinds of stares from the neighbours. It is not recorded if he ever got married, or even had a boyfriend or girlfriend, but I would doubt it. No way I am letting my kid go out with the guy. What about Achilles? I'd say. You know he's crazy about you and he's practically a god. Why can't you go out with him? Or Croesus? Yeah, he's a bit old, but, honey he can't live forever and he's as rich as -- well, as rich as a real rich guy.
Sorry, got lost there at the idea of my kids going out with rich people. Every parent has a dream about the future, and mine involves being supported by my daughter or son-in-law.
Back to Milo and the calf. The key word in that story from the point of view of exercise is every day. (Yes it's two words -- shut up.) The key word from the point of view of memorability is calf.
I think I've made my point.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

morning after

Back from a week of teaching at the Humber Summer Workshop. I write mostly for kids, so I am not used to hanging out with adult authors. Man, can they ever teach. They'd start at lunch time -- way before the sun was over the yardarm. I couldn't keep up. By dinner time I'd be reeling, but they'd keep going, teaching away all through the night and then on into the early morning. They just couldn't get enough. I would wake up the next day, like this guy in the picture, with my head about to split open from all the knowledge that was still in my system.
Mordecai Richler used to say that you can't teach creative writing. Go out into the world and do somethings, he'd say. Then write about that. I may be putting words in his mouth, but that was the idea. And of course he's right -- up to a point. There's only one way to turn bricks and boards into a bookshelf, and you can teach that one way. But you can take basic story materials -- soft-voiced hero, dark-eyed villain, gemstone of infinite value, crazy neighbour, angry mob, sport jacket of invisibility -- and turn them into an infinite number of riveting tales. The blank page is a terrifying and mystifying starting point.
So you can't make someone a good writer. But I believe it is possible to take pretty good writers and teach them to be better writers. That's what I was doing with my particular group of hopefuls. And they all improved a lot over the course of the week. I felt really proud of them. By Friday they were way more fluid, more creative, more confident than they had been the week before. I look forward to buying their books in the future. But I must say I am glad to be done with teaching for now. I need rest.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

yearning cod

My topic today has to do with goodness. I guess it's always about goodness, isn't it. Anyway, I'm talking food and I'm wondering how long good is good. Nothing to do with freshness here -- I'm talking about fine dining. How long before the skies darken, and the fine dining turns downright ugly? See, two nights ago my brother and I celebrated my parents' birthdays (only three months late - pretty good for us) at a five-star restaurant. Fine dining, indeed. Many courses of rich and surprising food, the worst of them good, and the best of them astonishingly good (would you ever think to combine foie gras and creme brulee? Me neither, but it can be astounding. That's it in the picture, if you are wondering). We rose several hours after we sat down, and I have to say it was a wonderful time.
Last night I did the fine dining thing again. Another long and luscious dinner with colleagues at a different well-known restaurant. Great food again, but as I got up I felt a little less ... happy than I had been the night before. It's not a question of quantity -- I didn't overeat -- but there is enough richness inside me to make me feel like the suitcase I am packing right now to go to Humber College to teach for a week -- stuffed is what I am getting at. (Must ask any foodies out there: what's with the black cod? Forget about whether it's really cod -- why black? Cause it doesn't look black on my plate. Is it a simple selling feature, like calling the beer Black Ice? I suppose if you called it Off-white Cod, or Pale Cod, or Mottled Cod you might have trouble selling it. But what's wrong with Spring Cod or Yearning Cod or Organic Cod or ... anyway, just curious.)
There's another fine dinner scheduled for tonight, and I am not ready for it. I expect I shall want a cup of tea and a rusk. Maybe a bowl of clear soup. My body simply can't take it.
So for me good is not always good. Or maybe superlative is not as long-lasting as good. There are several places to take this discussion. One is the plane of emotion -- what one of my favorite mystery novelists calls the difference between bread and butter love and cake love. I can subscribe to that -- but only up to a point. No, I can't eat cake every meal. But what about the other emotions: is long-lasting everyday anger -- bread and butter anger -- better than the explosive cake anger? I don't know. Is the droopy daily drippy sorrow better than the downpour that clears up?
I'll leave you with this. I could eat spaghetti, say, or peanut butter, or my mom's chicken stew with onions, more regularly than fois gras creme brulee, but I could drink good wine forever. I would not need a periodic dose of plonk to calm down my insides. With wine, good remains good, and better is better, forever. I'm not used to fine drinking -- but I want to be.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

bondage, no discipline

Before I get to bonding time with the kids, I want to keep my promise to you. THIS --->
is the other possible cover for my new book, out next spring. My publisher can't decide which concept to go with. They both look like the same concept to me; but this is less obviously pixelated. (Remember the one a few posts ago, with the Pac Man type graphics?)
So which of the two images do you like? Can you think of another picture idea you would use as the cover of a book set partly in the west end of Toronto and partly in a hotel in the sky, featuring many dead characters who look like pirates, nightmares, or old ladies with black kerchiefs? Oh, yeah, and there's a pool game in the middle, which is of course what these cover images are capturing. As before, you can email me or post a response here.
And for any kids reading this blog, I am trying to put together a contest about the cover. I'll tell you more about it in a week or so when I have a chat with Peter the web guy.

Enough business for now. Let me address my issue for today -- bonding time with kids. Remember the family dinner? Big table, with stew or roast in the middle, and Mom and Dad at each end? I do. What a great way for parents to catch up with each other and the kids, a re-uniting if you will, a diurnal reweaving of threads into that intimate and colourful that was the family. Well, for a variety of reasons including but not limited to kid scheduling, jobs with long hours, laziness, bent-family dynamics, dietary restrictions and of course more laziness, my kids do not have a serious family dinner very often at my place.
So where do we bond? We take our moments where we find them. Sometimes we bond in the car, on the way to soccer. (I know about Ed's pet peeves, for instance. Fascinating topic of discussion for next time.) We bond in the doctor's waiting room. (Imo's spots have brought us seriously close together. We both hate the radio station playing in the background.) And we bond over homework. (I know way more about the war of the Austrian Succession than I used to. Thank you, Thea.) If you think about it, there are tons more chances to bond nowadays. No, we don't have dinnertime. But there are many more opportunities for kid-parent contact than there used to be, since kids don't seem to go anywhere on their own. In my childhood I only saw my parents at dinner and bedtime. Every other part of the day I got to under my own steam. (All right, they drove me to the hospital. But it's hard to bond when you are in shock from blood loss.) Frederico, Ed's busy friend, has four sports and culture activities every week, and he needs a lift to and from each of these. He has allergies, meaning hospital and drug store visits, a part-time job on the far side of town, and no driver's license. Far as I can figure out, no more than a couple of hours ever goes by without parental input.
I wonder if he eats dinner alone? He might enjoy the solitude.

Friday, 4 July 2008

perfect job

Ed has found the perfect summer job. He isn't working there yet - but he wants to. He was quite excited when he told me about it after dinner last night.
What is this perfect job? I wondered. (Ed, remember, is 15.) Do they pay you to sleep? I asked. Or to play video games and look at naked girls?
No, apparently. But it seems I have the wrong idea about work.
That wouldn't be a job, Dad, he said. In order for it to be a job, it must be something you don't want to do.
(Sounds like Ed has fallen among Presbyterians, eh? If it's fun it can't be any good. Though his assessment is probably correct, at least in terms of what's available for teens in the workplace.)
So tell me about it, I said.
Turns out that the perfect summer job is (wait for it) working at the pool supply store in the mall. (I know -- I didn't guess either). Ed's friend Frederico is there now, and figures to get Ed in by next week. The best part of the job is sweeping the patio. They leave you alone, and you can wander off the patio for hours at a time. Frederico hung around the mall with me for an hour yesterday, he said, and got paid. Isn't that sweet?
I agreed. But you want to be careful, don't you. If they find you wandering around the mall, you'd get fired.
Ed stared at me. What are you saying, Dad?
I'm saying that if you get the job you should maybe stay close to the patio. Maybe even sweep it.
He shook his head. You just don't get it Dad. The job is perfect because you can wander away. If you don't wander away, it's not a perfect job.
I had to admit his point. Bit of a Catch 22.
Let me see if I understand your philosophy, I said. If you get paid to do nothing, and do nothing, it's not really work. But if you get paid to do something, and do nothing, then it's a good job.
Bingo! He patted me on the arm. He'd been eating a fudgesicle, messily, so it wasn't a perfect moment. But I had to smile.
Sounds like this summer job should be good training for your future career, I told him, rinsing my arm under the tap.
In pool supply?
Oh, no, I said. In politics.

Next time -- my publisher's new cover design.