Hello Pals Near and Far, Met and Unmet, In or Out, Ready and Unready, And and/or Or,
I’m going to start with my pen, because everything beyond my pen (in the realm of both the personal and the political) is feeling so strange and sorrowful and sometimes wonderful these days… I am glad for spring, which keeps teasing us with blossoms, and I am glad for my pen.
I love this pen. I love its colour, its shape, and how it writes. And I love that it is called the Stabilo worker. I used this pen to write two weekends ago while staying at the Bon Eco Suites in Tamworth, Ontario. It was a welcome break from teaching and parenting routine, a chance to reconnect to my writing self. Then it ran out of ink and I was so sad.
Here is a great thing that Lynda Barry said in her book What It Is. It is a good thing to remember about life and about writing. Lynda Barry is really good at helping me remember important things:
I finished reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. For a book that is mostly about the woes and worries, the stories and sayings of the post-dead, the prose is full of aliveness, of gorgeous, gleaming word combos, and of a deep, wide understanding of what it means to be human. I loved it and will return to it for inspiration and respite. Here is George Saunders talking about letting a story be itself.
On April 4th, I got to read as part of the Toronto Review of Books spring party with writers Rebecca Rosenblum, Mark Sampson, Jessica Westhead, and Antanas Sileika. It was a really fine way to come out of hibernation, and I got to hear from some of my talented peers and share a new piece I have been working on — a personal essay on what it means (and whether its possible) to transcend the tricky notion of social class.
And yesterday, I got to don my bookseller’s hat as part of Authors for Indies. My favourite and most excellent Indie bookshop is Another Story Books on Roncesvalles Avenue. I love Another Story for its awesome staff, comfy chairs and welcoming nooks, and commitment to showcasing diverse voices. Plus — and this is key to my loyalty to any place of business — they always let my kids use their basement bathroom. And this time around, I got to hob nob with Mylan Allen, a YA author who is himself a YA. He has agreed to possibly cut class (he’s a high school student) to come talk to the high school students I teach. It is a lovely thing when my author and teacher selves get to commune in this way!
Also — I am so looking forward to teaching this year at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. I will be leading their Introduction to Creative Writing Class. If you have always wanted to write but are terrified of the very prospect; if you have been keeping ratty, beautiful notebooks squirrelled away for years, if you once wrote a love letter or a poem that made you a friend or an enemy, if you have already tried pottery and jiujitsu and found them wanting… Sign up! We will write together.
Here is a multi-selfie of me. You will notice I look as though I am at the bottom of a dark pit. Really I am just in a messy kitchen, which is sort of the same thing as a dark pit. If you can smile through either of these things, and reach up into the light, then it could be you’re doing okay.
In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, many of my LGBTQ friends and colleagues have expressed the importance of straight allies speaking up, offering support both private and public.
I (and by this ‘I’ mean me – a white, heterosexual, cisgender, married, middle aged woman with children) have been thinking a lot about this – realizing that because I surround myself with relatively like-minded and like-hearted people, the necessity of proclaiming my allegiances has often seemed unnecessary. Nope, say my queer friends. Now is the time. We need you.
It feels too easy to say that ‘love is love’ and that of course we need to respect – through our behaviour and our laws – same-sex partnerships and gender neutral bathrooms. But to me, that implies that somehow we – the majority, the privileged – are granting the LGBTQ community something that has traditionally, rightfully, always been ours. It implies a magnanimity, a self-serving superiority I am not comfortable with. Because, in fact, it is me who owes the LGBTQ community – for a great many reasons.
In my first couple of years of university, I hung out at the edges of my small college’s theatre posse; I was shy, a closeted actress who would later come to understand that most closeted (read: self-conscious and mediocre) thespians are in fact writers. Inspired by M., an outrageous, joyful gay man, and a fixture of the school’s tiny underground pub who often performed monologues in drag at open mic nights, and S. a fierce feminist who did stand-up that imagined what Barbie would be like if she were a Greek-Canadian immigrant lesbian, I wrote a play about – here it comes! – my menstrual cycle! (I know: cringey Women’s Studies cliché. But please, be gentle in your judgments – it was the early 90s, I was 20 years old.) The play was called The Fur Gnome Phenomenon, and it was a two hander that consisted of me and my mischievous fur gnome (pheromone) – a creature who personified all the ways I felt my body’s rhythms and excretions had betrayed me – sparring on stage for 45 minutes. S. directed it. The fur gnome was played by a straight white man initially, and by a gay black man in subsequent performances. We put the show on in the Green Room in Toronto and then, when we were unlucky in our applications to Toronto’s two fringe festivals (successful entries are determined by lottery), in the Sudbury Fringe festival. For those of you not in the know, Sudbury is a town in Northern Ontario built on the nickel mining industry – not exactly a hotbed of progressive politics or ‘avant-garde’ culture. We performed in storefronts in a mall (the theme was theatre in unexpected places) to tiny audiences. What must those audience members have been thinking? What were we thinking? Never mind: I was buoyed and made brave by my compatriots.
Later, when I moved to Quebec to pursue an MA in creative writing, I had some of my best moments at the flat of my Montreal Mama Bears, two large, large-hearted women (a couple) who were studying social work with my roommate. I had not yet learned how to be domestic on my own (I’m still not sure I’ve learned) and I often felt unmoored. They made big pots of soup and gave hugs that felt like home. Guys, there was a lot of hummous. They had real furniture and cable TV. They were comfortable in their bodies. They were wicked – and often hilarious – singers and dancers.
When my social worker roommate moved away, a fellow student – gay, male, American – moved in. C. was lovely, but by that point I was deeply involved with my previous roommate’s former guitar teacher (again, I was young; it was Montreal), and the bulk of our interactions involved comparing notes re: our romantic liaisons. C. had a steady lover, more daring than he, and after a few months, they began frequenting gay clubs and swapping partners, doing things I fought hard to understand. There was something in the pure physicality of his interactions that I felt threatened by. My nice girl sensibilities were offended. I was challenged by his behaviour, and I worried about him. My mind was being pried open; I resisted. Still, I kept listening, and if C. ever noticed how bothered I was by his confessions, he never let on.
I loved this book. In it, Michael details how he spent many of his growing up years trying to be other than what he was – skinny, beautiful (not handsome), gay, the son of an alcoholic father. ‘I lived a great deal of my early childhood feeling like I was alone at the bottom of a deep well, shouting upwards, with nobody to peer over the lip and help.’ As he got older, he drank to cope, then quit drinking at the age of 27, shamed by behaviour that grew out of a night of bingeing. ‘But stripping my life of drinking didn’t eliminate compulsion, it just mutated into a bigger and better foe.’
He began cruising for sex to find human connection and a sense of community – then persisted due to an increasingly unhealthy dependence. There was a time when all of this would have made me squeamish but I trusted Michael’s voice so utterly, was so invested in his path to healing and happiness, that I took even the most graphic and visceral descriptions in my readerly stride. In fact, Michael’s frank accounts of his sexual encounters, the grace and candour with which he describes his feelings, names his OCD and depression, details his troubled relationship with his dying father – all of these conspired to make me feel it might be possible for me to write about my own struggles with mental illness, to face down the taboo thoughts that had haunted me when I was at my worst.
The book was nominated for a LAMBDA Literary Award (which recognizes the best of LGBTQ writing) and on my Facebook feed, Michael commented that he was ‘gay-famous’. ‘Gaymous’, another friend quipped. But why only gaymous, I wonder. This is a book that resonated with me so deeply – as a human who has lost a father and suffered from depression and OCD. And as a person who has been confronted with her own precepts about what it means to be a sexual being in the world. What the book did – and what all worthwhile books should do – is underline the importance of listening to each other’s stories, of celebrating our commonalities, but also of learning to live with the initial discomfort that may come from encountering difference.
I went to the Toronto launch of My Body Is Yours with my sister, S. and another M. friend. Michael hosted the launch in drag, as Miss Cookie LaWhore; I hadn’t seen him in decades. ‘You look exactly the same!’ he exclaimed when he saw me. Maybe. (It is hard to disagree with a beautiful man wearing fantastic false eyelashes.) But I’m not the same. And that has a large part to do with M. and the other LGBTQ folk who have touched my life through the years.
I am now the mother of two girls, aged 4 and 7. The oldest likes wearing her hair short because it’s a pain to brush, but lately I can tell she feels pressure to look like the other long-haired girls in her class. The youngest has insisted, from the time she could talk, that she’s ‘not a boy or a girl, [she’s] an Eleanor!’ She likes trucks and Spiderman t-shirts and has been known to run around the house yelling, ‘I am the darkness! I will destroy you!’ Both kids have come home at various points with some pretty rigid ideas about what it ‘should’ mean to be a boy or a girl. My experience with feminists, LGBTQ peeps, and non-gender-conformists has given me both the strength and compassion to counter these notions.
I also work as a high school teacher. When I was in high school, in the late 1980s, a man was killed in Toronto’s High Park, beaten to death by a bunch of teenaged boys. My boyfriend at the time had a connection to the crime; he used to go to visit the mother of one of murderers – she was a family friend – while her son was in jail (I told a fictionalized version of this story in my collection Mad Hope). This personal link to a horrific news story has always haunted me, mostly because the incident, when it happened, was shrouded in such secrecy. My friends and I knew, on some level, that the man in the park was gay; it was suggested, although never openly, that there was something sordid in his reasons for being in the park in the first place. The murder was never, ever discussed in the classroom; if we knew anything about the circumstances surrounding it, we were to keep these details to ourselves, swallow them in hushed hallway conversations.
A few years ago, two students in my grade 12 English class were involved in a physical altercation. One had been bullying the other for being openly gay. The gay student (who had been kicked out of his house) had punched the bully in the face. The administrators invited PFLAG (an organization originally started in the US by a mother who insisted on supporting her gay son publicly) into my classroom to talk about what it means to grow up LGBTQ, to face heartbreaking adversity for simply being true to oneself. Talking about things doesn’t make them perfect. It makes them imperfect and difficult; the atmosphere in the room was uncomfortable, the bully unrepentant. But what a relief that the problem had been dragged out of the shadows, that an injustice had been acknowledged! Things are not as bad as they once were; things could be so much better.
When my husband and I became parents, he was suddenly faced with some of his own father’s missteps – his dad left when he was very young, was unreliable, absent. It is never easy when a parent rejects a child; it reverberates down through the years. We were forced to wrestle with notions of not only parental responsibility but also the demands that come with our society’s accepted view of the ‘masculine’. As partners and parents, our notions of gender roles within heterosexual relationships have changed over the years, but there are still expectations that hang around like drunken party guests; they interrupt at the wrong time then awkwardly refuse to leave the house. We enact patterns that are unhelpful, fall into models that should be obsolete. We’re working on it. Many people would like to position queer families as a threat to stability and contentment, but for me, the very presence of families that look and act and function differently is an invitation to envision happier, more equitable alternatives.
LGBTQ people – their art, their actions, their presence, their out-ness, have given me the courage to name and strengthen my convictions about gender and sexuality and activism and expression. I stand with the LGBTQ community because they have been victims, treated unjustly, with terrible ignorance, prejudice, and violence. And they deserve to walk freely in parks, kiss on street corners and dance in night clubs. But I stand with them also because they are role models and leaders. They have suffered so that I may grow and change. And for that, I owe them. Big time.
Okay. It is not couth to open a blog by saying, ‘I am, like, such a bad blogger.’ Just like it is inadvisable to begin a speech or a reading or an argument with a self-conscious disclaimer. Nevertheless. Here I be. I have not written for a donkey’s age – has it been lack of will? Sort of. A dearth of time? Yeah, that too. An overwhelm of… life? Yep. Never mind. I’m here now.
I’m here – on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, where I’m living (temporarily) with my husband and two daughters. We have extended family here, which was part of the impetus for the move. But also, the place is infectious (in the way of laughter, not disease) and previous visits convinced us we needed to spend more time getting to know the Hebridean way.
We arrived in January and toughed it out through the darkness and the gales, and are now reveling in the sweet air and endless skies of spring on the island. There are lambs everywhere. Sometimes the lambs do that thing you read about in books – they gambol!
As part of my stay I have had the pleasure of teaching a group of keen and good-humoured writers at An Lanntair, the fabulous, multi-faceted arts centre in Stornoway. One of my students, and a new pal and half marathon training buddy (gack!) wrote about the class on her wonderful blog Hebrides Writer. I have also had to opportunity to connect with some fine writers at Catch 23, a warm and welcoming drop-in centre for those living with mental illness.
Living in the country has made me very good at shouting at dogs and noticing the way moss pokes its way up through fence posts. I have always been good at spotting birds; now that spring is here it seems they are forever trembling and soaring at the edge of my vision. Winter forced a slow-down; I started knitting and sinking into the warmth at the peat fireside. I am writing, but perhaps more importantly, reading with a less cluttered mind. I love the way my children take to the outdoors. They play on the beach and in the croft with both abandon and childlike care, collecting and building and taking off after movement and colour. I am drinking a lot of tea.
Also trying to be looser and more forgiving of myself and the world. My friend Kerry Clare wrote about this in a recent blog post: ‘In Praise of Messy Blogging‘.(I also have a guest post — an update to my M Word essay – featured there.) One of my hesitations around blogging has always been that I have difficulty teasing different strands of my life away from each other – they are all so gloriously and complicatedly tangled. How to write about one thing and not the other? Maybe stop trying.
She passed me an image through the glory of the internet and I passed her back some text — and so on… We had time and word limits, but were otherwise free to follow our whims and weirdnesses. We were working with a 12 hour time difference; she was in a big American city, I was on a remote Scottish island. We have never met. It was such fun; I miss it!)
It is my great pleasure and honour to be returning as a judge of the Toronto Star and Toronto Public Library Short Story Contest. Deadline for submissions is February 27, 2015.
Short stories consume you faster. They’re connected to brevity. With the short story, you are up against mortality. I know how tough they are as a form, but they’re also a total joy.
– Ali Smith
When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.
– George Saunders
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.
Stacey D’Erasmo: Well, it’s like a coming-of-middle-age novel. I think the idea of finding one’s voice is something that’s very much on your mind when you’re in your twenties and your early thirties, but that struggle lasts throughout your life. How do you figure out how to be forty? How do you figure out how to be fifty? Later, how do you figure out how to be seventy? The good news and the bad news is these transitional moments keep happening.
I have been meaning to write something here for a long time, but as always seems to be the case, never have enough consecutive moments to gather my scattered wits to actually string the right words together. But I want to try. Because this summer is proving to be very different from the last, which led me into some sad and scary times. And because, well, because attention must be paid! Bills must be paid too; but attention – to art, to nature, to friendships, and to the way life keeps rolling and sliding and catapulting onwards – paying attention satisfies a different kind of debt.
It has occurred to me lately that so much of feeling well and empowered has to do with finding voice. And this seems silly, because – of course! But having a voice and finding an authentic voice in which to speak and sing and write are very different things. And that we can lose our own voice, or lose access to it, for periods of time, however short or long, seems counterintuitive and unfair. But, sister, it happens.
Maybe this is why when we hear an authentic voice, when we dare to be authentic – we get that shiver of recognition, that zing of potential and truth and strength. So here, in no particular order are some people and things and experiences that have helped me to celebrate voice lately:
1. I’m taking singing lessons. I love singing. I went to a Baptist church camp, because my parents, apparently slipshod atheists, liked the fact that it was cheap and situated on beautiful Beausoleil Island. My dad loved singing too, mostly Scottish folk songs and rousing labour anthems. So I know a lot of songs about Jesus and the blood of the lamb and a few songs about picket lines and some songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie. I am also a pretty good whistler. But I have never taken myself very seriously as a singer. I am trying to change that.
2. Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Ooh boy, this is a book that made me want to puke with sadness and recognition – and that is an endorsement. The novel is about sisters – one trying to convince the other to live, despite the fact that her mental illness is causing her unbearable anguish. It hit pretty close to home for me. But it is also lovely and funny and fierce and true. I wrote the writer a note to say as much – because we should thank the truth tellers in the world whenever we can! One thing I loved about the novel was that the characters – who are experiencing such horrible heartache – do not shy away from the words, ‘I love you’ and the author is not afraid of what some might deem sentimentality, but I deem emotional courage. Here is a great interview with Toews where she gives advice for writing: ‘Ignore all advice about writing! Leave your blood on every page! Every page!’ AMPS is a gut-wrenching, beautiful read because Toews is such a gutsy writer. And by that I mean that it feels like she has torn out some of her most vital organs and smacked them down for the world to see. Sounds grim and gory, right? But her voice is also hilarious – wry and self-deprecating and witty and warm and wise (What? What? You think I overdo the alliteration?). Read the book, y’all.
3. My husband has taught himself to play the ukulele. And he’s really good.
4. I got to teach a group of adults about creative writing this summer. They were all such smart, accomplished people, and I wondered, at the outset, what I might have to show them. What I forgot was that giving yourself license to create is really hard (perhaps especially if you have spent many years becoming an expert or authority in another field) and having someone give you that permission is pretty powerful. It was such a rush to see my students discover that sitting down to write is not the province of garret dwellers or lone madwomen or lauded salt ‘n’ peppah haired (mostly male) Authors – that everyone has a story, or maybe everyone has pretty much the same stories, but we all have different ways of telling them. And that is what makes the telling/writing a worthwhile enterprise.
5. Neko Case. Because she’s another truth teller and because she wins the prize for long-ass, ballsy album title: The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight The Harder I Fight The More I Love You. And the lines below from ‘Where Did I Leave That Fire?’ (so plaintive and powerful when she sings) which pretty much sum up how it felt for me to find myself lost in my own brain’s chemical swampland.
I saw my shadow looking lost/Checking its pockets for some lost receipt/Where did I leave that fire?/Where did I leave that fire?
6. Pippi Longstocking. In June I did an event at Parentbooks in celebration of The M Word, where I got to talk about mothers in children’s books. I chose Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren because we learn in the first couple of pages that her mother is dead and looking down from the clouds at her wayward, fantastically strange and weirdly competent daughter. Who is more interesting, more prone to accident and awesome antics? Pippi, or her clean, law-abiding, next door neighbours, Tommy and Annika?
Tommy would never think of biting his nails, and he always did exactly what his mother told him to do. Annika never fussed when she didn’t get her own way, and she always looked so pretty in her little well-ironed cotton dresses; she took the greatest care not to get them dirty.
(I wonder: Who is ironing those dresses?) Pippi, on the other hand, sails with her father on the high seas, makes her own clothes, straps scrub brushes on her feet to mop the floor, has a pet monkey, puts bullies in their place, and is so strong she can lift her horse down — one-handed — from the porch. Proof that sometimes a writer needs to get the mother out of the way for her protagonist to thrive. And, for a parent, proof that sometimes the mother needs to get herself out of the way for the child to forge her own way.
7. The Old School Concert series at South in Milford. I have some friends who up and sold their house in the city to buy and live in an abandoned school in the country. A school. Not a school house, all one-room and quaint, a one-storey, 1960s sprawler of a school. They are renting part of it out to tourists, and the rest they are using as a backdrop for some of their long held fantasies. Last week, they held the first in a series of concerts in their gym. It was like a cross between a grade eight dance and a town hall meeting and a basement bar show. Jenny Whitely and her husband Joey Wright played many of their wonderful originals – and a gorgeous cover of this song by Jesse Winchester, which is all about how our vulnerability is our strength. Right on.
8. My youngest daughter says No all the time. When I ask her if No is her favourite word, she says No. This is intensely annoying but I admire her endurance and consistency.
Oh, summer time. When a person who usually spends a lot of time in a (real) school has time to think about such things.
I am psyched to be part of an upcoming event at Parentbooks where I get to talk about mothers in children’s books with a bunch of other very fine M Word contributors. Please come if you can — and make sure to register beforehand as space is limited and they need to know who is coming! Here are the details:
I am honoured to be one of the jurors of the 2014 Toronto Star short story contest. Joining me on the jury are Toronto’s city librarian Jane Pyper, the Star’s books editor and writer Dianne Rinehart, as well as author and Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian. Deadline February 28! For more details, go here. Have at it, budding short story writers! I look forward to reading you!
And didn’t it always go like that – body parts not quite lining up the way you wanted them to, all of it a little bit off, as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.
— Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
I have had a difficult fall, wherein I did feel, most of the time, that I was falling, or off balance, or already fallen. I spent some time in the hospital, learning the great value of psychiatric nurses. Post-partum depression, anxiety, OCD, you name it – and it is important to name it isn’t it, considering the stigma that still exists around mental illness… The world cracked me open. I was too broken to find my way back to all the good and bad and in-between people in it. Until I wasn’t – a blessed combination of medication, insight and love (wise words of Andrew Solomon from his wonderful book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) and oh, humour, humour is BIG (I love, love, love Maria Bamford!) – until I was remarkably, thankfully, returned to a ragged kind of wholeness. And what seems so miraculous now, so noteworthy, is my interest in life, in all its stupid, shining, circuitous goings-on. I am grateful (and still somewhat amazed) that it is ‘so interesting’ once again.
One of the things that is interesting to me these days is how many people were so incredibly compassionate towards me while I was sick – and that sometimes this compassion came from the most unlikely quarters. I’m thinking of you, grouchy pharmacist lady I had written off as hostile, who looked me square in the eye and said, ‘It’s such a struggle, isn’t it?’ beaming goodwill and true fellow-feeling.
And so much of that compassion involved people willing to hear my story and to share their own. Which is why I am so excited that The M Word, edited by Kerry Clare, is closer and closer to becoming a book. This collection of conversations about motherhood tackles some hard truths, from many different angles. When I was in the thick of my crisis, I felt embarrassed by my contribution to the anthology – although it outlines some of my struggles with new motherhood, it was written from a place of strength. It has a happy ending. I was ashamed that my relationship to motherhood had once again become so challenging, so darkly complex. I felt like a fake. But that of course is the point, I think, of my essay, and of the collection as a whole. When it comes to mothering the answers are myriad, and the right answer today is seldom the right answer tomorrow. You can pre-order a copy of The M Word now.
Also interesting, and incredibly sad to me, is the recent death of Nelson Mandela. I was lucky enough to be in the same room with him in 1990, at a Toronto high school, with 1500 other students. It was four months after he had been released from prison and he had asked to speak to the young people of the city. People rose to their feet, chanting and singing, when he entered. The atmosphere in the room was electrifying. It is one of the most pivotal and galvanizing memories of my life. The idea of revolution fascinates me – and I am always so inspired to encounter individuals who manage to combine love and understanding of their fellow humans with a strong conviction that change MUST occur. I am still working on how to integrate these ideals into my own life, and I am wrestling with the concept of revolution and the effect of large social movements on individuals and families in the novel I am working on. Yet another arena of my life and thinking where I have very few answers – but I keep working on it… Goodbye Nelson Mandela. I feel so fortunate to be part of your legacy.
Finally, I am so pleased that my dear friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s newest novel is set to make its way into the world soon. The book is called All the Broken Things, and it is absolutely lovely, full of yearning and intimate history – and bear wrestling! It tells the story of Bo, one of the Vietnamese boat people, and his complicated relationship to his family and his new home. Kathryn’s mechanic’s daughter, a 15-year-old hugely talented artist/filmmaker named Carol Nguyen, made a book trailer that captures the mood of the story perfectly. You can watch the trailer here. Please do! And seek out the book!
Okay, that’s me blogged out likely for the next few months. All best for the holidays, friends. And here’s to a brighter and shinier 2014 (although I will try to enjoy the dull bits too…)!
I am so pleased to announce that Mad Hope is now available as an audiobook through audiobooks.com and other online booksellers. Just in time for long summer road trips or dockside lounging!
More exciting news! ‘No One Else Really Wants To Listen’, from Mad Hope, will be reprinted in the anthology Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, edited by Shawn Syms, and featuring short fiction that explores the ways in which we use technology to connect (or not). Very much looking forward to reading this — work by established and new writers alike, and an intriguing premise. Available this fall — more later!