The Press Gallery

K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

Gender Representation in Student Screenplays

In my intro screenwriting class, we do table reads of the students’ short scripts before workshopping them. This year I started to notice that men seemed to be cast more than women.

There’s lot of research out there about unequal representation of gender in a variety of media. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a good starting place–it specializes in research on gender representation in family films. It also has a good list of links to other research, including info on the dearth of female writers and directors.

The Playwrights Guild of Canada’s Equity in Theatre project exists to “remedy existing gender and related inequities in the theatre industry.” In the literary world, Canadian CWILA and U.S. VIDA keep track of whose books are being reviewed and by whom. And here’s an article about research on gender representation in children’s literature.

Many of these groups and research projects either take or are working towards an approach which tracks many varieties of inequity — by gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, and more.

So, I decided to see if the funny feeling I was getting in class played out by the numbers. I’d like to emphasize these are quite preliminary, rough numbers, using only the cast lists provided by the authors. “Lead” roles are determined only by the cast list and my gut feeling. I’d like to re-do this someday actually counting lines and perhaps taking other notes on the nature of the roles.

Narrators reading the scene directions were not counted. I counted speaking parts only, with the exception of silent films, where I counted all the parts. My sample size is relatively small, though bigger than many creative writing courses. Fifty-seven scripts were analyzed. I’ve analyzed only for gender.

overallparts

One part was written for a trans man, about 48% parts for women, and 51% parts for men. So far, so good. Men and women both tended to write slightly more parts for their own gender, an effect slightly more pronounced with male authors, but which worked out into roughly equal numbers of parts since the class makeup is over 60% women.

That’s for overall parts. Things look at bit different when we look at leading roles, a difference which is probably the source of the funny feeling I was getting in class:

overallleads

That would be about twice as many male leads as female leads. Here it is broken down by gender of author:

Male authors wrote male leads about three-quarters of the time — which I don’t find surprising. The most interesting number in all of this for me: women authors wrote leading roles for women only 39% of the time.

As an instructor, what can I do about this? Some ideas:

  • keep tracking numbers
  • include issue in curriculum before embarking on script writing  (e.g. readings from the links I posted at the top)
  • source and use more examples in class that feature women in leading roles (I admit I haven’t done this at all, and usually use commonly referenced or easily available examples)

Any other ideas?

 

 

 

 

Sometimes A Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Happy New Year! It must be time for me to post on my blog.

What I Did with My Winter Holidays

First, why do I hardly ever post? It’s not just “time,” because, let’s face it, we make the time for the things that we want to make the time for. I was telling folks in class today, I had “Watch Netflix” on my to-do list over the break, and as a result, I didn’t even, because putting it on a to-do list made it into work. (Hey Matt, the one thing I did watch was In Bruges, though! Thanks for the tip.)

Instead, I played video games and read books. I mostly only play one game. Final Fantasy VII. I played it when it came out in 1997, and I am too old to learn anything new, and I don’t really play games enough to justify buying anything else anyway. Plus, though I do have the original game and console somewhere in my basement, there’s an iPad port, and I always have the ol’ iPad with me.

There was absolutely no good reason for me to spend my precious leisure time playing Final Fantasy. This was just absolutely classic procrastination, with a strong hint of dopamine. I mean, sometimes it seems you are just SO CLOSE to earning a W-Summon in the Battle Arena, but then it takes another five hours for some reason. But to compensate for this phenomenal waste of time while pretending to be a little cartoon dude wielding a sword bigger than he is, I also spent some time reading a Very Serious Book which has itself been influential on storytelling in, among other things, games: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Hero’s Journey

Oh, yes. I have been trying to read this book on and off for years, as I find it a bit of a slog. I’ve made better progress this time around, but I’m still only maybe a third of the way through, and man, I sort of want to punch him, except that he is dead and also may have been a nice man.

You can’t study screenwriting (or novel writing or game writing or comic writing or whatever) without hearing about The Hero’s Journey, ever since Christopher Vogler’s influential book on the subject in 1998. Vogler, who was a story editor at Disney, based his book on Campbell’s theory, applying it to story structure for screenwriting.

Campbell basically says that stories from around the world follow the same patterns, and then elaborates on those patterns. Which I’m willing to go with him on, because saying that you should recognize pattern in storytelling is kind of another way of saying that you should read a lot and learn from what’s successful in what you read (or consume in other media, too, but no matter what medium you want to write for, if you want to write, you need to read).

Vogler acknowledges the problem of the inherent maleness of the “hero” in the narrative journey, and the model he presents is flexible enough that the gendered nature of the journey didn’t seem like a big stumbling block to me when I read him. Not ideal, but it was something you could take and mess about with.

But now I’m reading Campbell, the legendary man himself. I’m paraphrasing here, but he says stuff like the hero needs to get past competing with the father in order to become “master of the world,” but that, if the character in the story is a woman, she has to similarly get past competing with the mother to become “the world that is mastered.” If I’m reading that right, he’s saying that the woman is the prize. People who defend this kind of thing will go all “you’re not meant to take it literally,” but if you’ve been paying attention you should know by now that language and symbols and stories matter and change the way that we see ourselves. (See Rebecca Solnit’s as-usual-excellent recent essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me.” )

The best part of the Campbell book for me, so far, is all the examples of stories from around the world, which he cites at length– the comparative mythology part. But he pulls the whole comparison through the filter of psychoanalysis (the book is from 1949), relying heavily on the traditional family as the be-all and end-all of human existence and leaving no room for anything other than a straight, male, cisgender hero.

Much more can, and has been, said about this, not by me. In Vogler’s nod to the topic alone, he cites a number of feminist takes on the hero’s journey. But my frustration with Campbell so far has just been one of those moments for me, you know, when you go WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE, IF THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN CONSCIOUSLY BASING HOLLYWOOD MOVIES ON THEN NO WONDER!!!!!!!!!!!!! DIDN’T YOU NOTICE?????? DON’T YOU CARE????

Sometimes a Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Which naturally brings me to Star Wars. George Lucas famously used Campbell in crafting the original series. A good article in the New Statesman the other day cited Campbell in a less than flattering way while discussing the seeming rise in female heroes lately (Rey, Furiosa, Jessica Jones). Let’s hope this rise is not a blip, because we’ve been here before. Thelma and Louise (1991) was supposed to usher in a whole new era. Did it? And that’s just at the edge of my adult memory – I’m suspecting there were moments like it before.

I’m a Buffy gal from way back. Reading Campbell has given me a new tingle of appreciation for a certain last-season episode in which Buffy gets transported back in time, to a mythic time, to meet the men who created the first Slayer, so they can basically give her a power boost for the final battle against evil. Thing is, it turns out that what they did to create the Slayer, and what they want to do to her again, is kidnap her, chain her to a rock, and force a demon on her to imbue her with demonic essence. Buffy says, no way, old dudes, I’ll find some other way to fight evil, and kicks their asses.

At the end of the series, of course, Buffy figures out how to fight evil by sharing her superpowers with others—she rejects the whole lone hero thing. My point? This mythic structure stuff can totally be messed with in a satisfying way. Buffy’s heroism still follows the pattern – descent to the underworld, fighting both inner and outer demons, encountering shape shifters, guidance from a wise mentor, death and resurrection, using her powers to change the “regular” world, check, check, check, check! Even her sharing of her superpowers fits the “return with the elixir” stage of the journey – the elixir being, in this case, heroism itself, which is the real twist on the structure.

Anyhoo. Enough Buffy talk. A casual glance at current Star Wars fan chatter does reveal some people commenting on how the essence of the Kylo/Rey conflict is potentially very gendered – not just, hey, a female hero! But, hey, a different manner of heroism! I’m not totally getting that yet, since there’s an awful lot of emphasis on daddies and light sabres. There was some interesting sexual subtext in the mind reading scene, though. (I’ll be murdered for likely misquoting, but is the line something like, “You know I can take from you anything I want?”)

It’s Late and I’m Tired Now

I also wanted to talk about Outlander and Game of Thrones. See, now I have something for next time. All part of the plan.

Back full circle: why I don’t much like blogging, and don’t do it often. Clearly, one reason is that I haven’t mastered the form. I’ve now been noodling about this topic for three hours (nearly four hours after a couple quick read-overs) and am at about 1400 words.

Also: I really put off making known my circuitous thoughts, because I feel like there’s no point in saying anything unless I’ve done a cartload of academic research to back up what I am talking about. Or at least, you know, finish the darn book before I shoot my mouth off about it. I’ve just committed all sorts of sins, not only in potentially misquoting Star Wars, but in, say, making sweeping generalizations about psychoanalysis without ever having studied it.

I’m basically reluctant to commit my informal noodlings to publication. I think I just have to get over this, because, heck, at least I’ve written something, and maybe someday with time and motivation aplenty, and after having finally achieved that W-Summon in the Battle Arena, I’ll take up Buffy scholarship and feminist comparative mythology and write an awesome paper.

But not today, and not on a blog.

Storyland

Well, I didn’t get as much writing done this summer as I would have liked, though I did finish a shitty first draft of a novel, which is something. I’m just about finished re-reading it, and boy, does it have holes (though I knew this as I was writing!). Now I just need to find the time to transcribe my notes into a legible form before I forget what I was talking about.

I did, however, get some reading done this summer, which is energizing. After, eventually, finishing Book 3 of the Knausgaard oeuvre, I decided to wait on Book 4 and move on to some other reading projects in the meantime. Among other things, I read two Canadian fantasy trilogies I’d long meant to read – Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry and Thomas Wharton’s The Perilous Realm. I didn’t know much about the storylines of either of these series, but knew that Kay’s work was a classic, the thing that made him famous. One of Wharton’s novels for adults, Salamander, is a personal favourite, so I was interested in his YA fantasy trilogy–YA fantasy being a subject of interest to me right now—and a recommendation this spring reminded me to pick it up.

I enjoyed both series tremendously, though I was blown away by Kay’s masterwork. Its classic status is deserved, not to mention that, intended for adults, it spoke to me more directly than Wharton’s book for young readers. (This isn’t always a true distinction, though – I’ve also been re-reading Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy with my daughter, and although those books are ostensibly for young readers, their ambition, scope, complexity and artistry put much of writing, for adults or children, to shame.)

The weird thing about reading these two trilogies in succession: both feature a world where stories come from. Or, as my daughter has said: “Storyland… the place where all the characters in my books are real.” Fionavar is the place myths originate, and The Perilous Realm has much more of a fairy-tale flavour, but both lands are basically that: Storyland.

So, did Wharton use Kay as a source here? Well, who knows and who cares, really—dude’s an incredible writer and has a Ph.D., so I’d be surprised if he hadn’t read everything remotely related to the story he was working on. My daughter and I have been telling tales of our own Storyland to each other for years, ever since I needed something to keep her attention focused while walking to daycare. The idea is public domain (not to mention the myths and fairy tales—not so much my daughter’s fan fiction material), and even a quick glance in Coles revealed another book with the same premise.

There are only so many stories. The question is: why is your version the version only you can tell?

Monsters Drawing Near

I’ve been a doodler for a long time, and this past winter gained a bit of doodling confidence when I took a grad course in making comics with the wonderful Sarah Leavitt. Here’s a link to some of the comics that we created in that class and in some of Sarah’s other classes.

There’s a poem sequence in my new book, Exquisite Monsters, that called out to me to draw. The sequences is made of head, body, and legs poems that make up a variety of “monsters.” You read the poems straight through, or mix them up into different complete monsters.

Now, my doodles are not in the book, but this is how it works. Only, with poems.

head3

+

torso3

+

legs3

=

monster3

(You’ll have to buy the book to read the poem.)

The book is designed with blank pages, so you can draw in your own book. I don’t hold books as sacred objects, and really hope that readers will take me up on this invitation. Even if they can’t draw. Especially if they can’t draw! The great Lynda Barry points out that we all start out as artists and as writers, but we end up developing only what we are told we are good at. Obviously, if you don’t continue to study and practice an art, your skills won’t develop. But that doesn’t mean you should stop.

If you come to my book launch on Thursday night at McNally Robinson, not only will I make you draw, but you’ll get to watch an actual real artist draw: CreComm grad and amazing artist, writer, and human being Jason Booth will be live-drawing to my poetry reading.

In the meantime, here’s a “legs” poem from the book. If you go out and draw it, I’d love to see what you come up with.

A single papier mâché flipper, wrinkled like clay, dried
like a mud flat, like a new desert,
white and powdery like a hard new surface
made by hard new powers
and phenomena.
No water.
Just endless dive.

Notes on AWP 2015 from a Canadian first-timer

In no particular order…

1. America: the service really is better, notwithstanding the grumpy man at the New York Times booth (Picture not available).

2. But all the medical ads are unsettling. Also, did you know the art gallery doesn’t allow guns on the premises? Now you do.

 

At the Walker Art Center, where there are no guns.

 

3. Okay: AWP. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the biggest writers’ conference in North America, with more than 500 sessions, 700 trade show exhibitors, and about 12,000 delegates; this year’s event was in Minneapolis, which is why I decided to go (it’s possible to drive down from Winnipeg). First thing that became obvious: the book fair (trade show) really is where it’s at. I mean, there were good sessions, and I wish I’d seen more of them, but there were really more opportunities to meet people and gather information in the book fair.

Random book fair picture

 

4. Do I need to declare free swag at the border?

 

Mostly free


5. At Canadian writing gatherings, I find people struggle to talk about poetry. It’s often not presented well; people make jokes about it; poets are a bit sheepish and self-deprecating and apologetic. Basically, poetry gets relegated to second-class. Not so here. There were featured poetry readings, poetry presses by the score, poets collaborating with museums and art galleries and film makers, and just a general attitude of respect for poetry that I don’t normally feel when writers get together. Or maybe I’m just totally insecure and imagining that.

 

Poetry.

 

6. And about collaboration: I saw so much of it! Maybe it’s just that the sheer size of the community offers so many more opportunities, but it was really inspiring. It makes me want to write proposals.

Edit

The Walker commissioned a collaborative novella about this Hopper painting, and published it on its website.

 

7. Memorable panel moment: to paraphrase panelist Roxane Gay, nothing “substantial” can be accomplished in a 600-700 word article whether on-line or elsewhere, and if you can’t read long articles, you should go “have a conversation with your God.”

 

Most of these contain more than 700 words.

 

8. Things I’d do differently if I came again: plan ahead and get a hotel near the conference centre so I can attend more events, and go to some of the social events to meet more people.

 

I did a relatively small amount of socializing.

 

9. I’ll be interested to hear how much business the Canadian presses did at the book fair. There were so few there! Is it always thus? Is it just not enough business to be worth the expense?

 

I may be biased because I’m a UBC student, but — Best. Canadian. Booth.

 

10. Last, there were a lot of regionally themed sessions at the event, but hardly anyone from Manitoba came down. It seemed a shame–there were sessions about North Dakota literature, so why not something about Canadian Prairie writers? Ah, well, that moment has passed, and the next conference is in L.A.

 

Ariel womanning the Brick Books table. Note the books by Winnipeg authors.

 

So, those are my ten disjointed thoughts about AWP. I’d like to go again some day–but probably not next year.

 

“I’m from the ’90s, and I’m a sucker for Puccini”: Q & A With Myself

Myself and I realized that we hadn’t posted anything for a while, so we sat down at our disorganized desk today to ask and answer a few questions. The theme: personal taste, naming the books, movies, TV, and music we’ve actually been into lately, because the actual titles can tell no lies.

Q: What happened to the other blog post you were working on about that play you went to see last term?

A: It’s gotten out of hand. I feel like I need to do scholarly research for it. Maybe some day I’ll release it.

Q: So this was the only lame thing you could come up with?

A: Apparently.

Q: What is the purpose of this Q and A?

A: You tell me.

Q: Um… okay. I’m trying to give readers an idea of my… your… our taste in movies, music, TV and books by listing stuff I/you/we having been consuming. Because people like reading about that stuff.

A: Awesome. You know, you could adopt the double “I” pronoun like the angels in Angels in America.

Q: Um, or not. Have you been reading that lately?

A: How astute. Yes, I just did.

Q: What are you listening to right now?

A: You mean, right this minute? Hang on, let me check… it’s something from La Boheme.

Q: Tell me about when you went to see that opera last year.

A: One of the singers fell off a piece of set furniture and twisted his ankle or something. They improvised by having one of the other dudes sing two parts. Luckily, it was close to the end.

Q: What books are on your desk right now?

A: Writing Short Films by Linda J. Cowgill, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

Q: What’s the last thing you bought on iTunes?

A: The HBO miniseries of Angels in America.

Q: What have you been watching in Netflix?

A: The Killing, the U.S. one, just started Season 2.

Q: Last feature film you saw?

A: The F Word. Canadian! No, wait. I watched Frozen (again!) with my daughter since then.

Q: Last time you went to a movie in the theatre?

(Tumbleweeds blow by for a second.)

A: Um… I think it was one of those Hobbit movies. The one last year, the second one. I think.

Q: Last album you listened to in its entirety?

A: The new one by The Decemberists.

Q: Last novel you actually finished reading?

A: I finished book two of the Karl Ove Knausgaard thing. But that’s only sort of a novel. Before that, I read David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. I thought it was delightfully weird.

Q: New releases you are looking forward to?

A: My friend Peter Darbyshire’s new book The Dead Hamlets, under his Peter Roman pen-name. I’m always a season behind on Game of Thrones because I don’t have HBO and prefer to get it legally. I’m number 24 at the library for pre-ordered Season 4! Waiting impatiently for whenever there are going to be new seasons of Orphan Black and the French zombie show Les Revenants (I think there was one of the latter, but I haven’t got my hands on it yet).

Q: What are the songs in the “Top 25 Most Played” list in your iTunes?

A: Ooh, that’s an evil question. There is no hiding there. Here it is:

  1. Shot in the Arm – Wilco
  2. Zombie – Cranberries
  3. Loser – Beck
  4. Boy in the Bubble – Paul Simon
  5. La Boheme: O Mimi, tu plu non torni – Puccini
  6. (I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World – Nick Cave
  7. Manic Monday – Bangles
  8. Polyester Bride – Liz Phair
  9. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
  10. It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine) – R.E.M.
  11. Girls Just Want to Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
  12. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
  13. Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads
  14. Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve
  15. All I Really Want – Alanis Morissette
  16. La Boheme: Si. Mi Chiamano Mimi – Puccini
  17. Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor
  18. 9 to 5 – Dolly Parton
  19. La Rondine: Chi Il Bel Sogno Di Doretta – Puccini
  20. Tubthumping – Chumbawamba
  21. Buffy Theme – Nerf Herder
  22. What’s the Frequency Kenneth? – R.E.M.
  23. Gianni Schicchi: O Mio Babbino Caro –– Puccini
  24. Islands in the Stream – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
  25. Carmen, Act 1: Près des Ramparts de Séville – Bizet

Q: What can we learn from this list?

A: I’m from the ’90s, and I’m a sucker for Puccini.

Q: Last thought?

A: Two of those songs were written by Prince. Who out there can name which two without the help of Google?

Writing Process Blog Tour

I recently got tagged in the Canadian Writers’ Writing Process Blog Tour, which has been going around for months. I was tagged by Ottawa writer Cameron Anstee. So, I’ve got four questions to answer:

1. What am I working on?

Well, this is awkward, because that was what my last post was about. But I’d say that of the things on my plate, the one I’m most interested in, and am the farthest along with, is the draft of the YA fantasy book about Shakespeare Land. I’ve got a massive backstory for Sycorax, who is so not dead. And, oh, Hamlet is the captain of a pirate ship (he took over the ship instead of returning to Denmark). A pirate airship.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. I’m going to take this question to be referring to my work in progress, which is totally unlike anything I’ve written before (I’ve mainly published poetry). I don’t know for sure yet, but here’s what I hope. I did go on a YA reading binge for the project, and found that books in the small sub-genre of Shakespeare-related YA books tend to be romances. I found one that had both fantasy and romance elements, though I may have missed others. I wondered, why can’t I do a Shakespeare book for fantasy readers? There’s so much supernatural in Shakespeare. I’m still looking at a romantic sub-plot, but I’m pretty committed to avoiding a sunset-ending romance. My heroine is questioning her sexual orientation, for one thing, and I don’t intend for the outcome of that to be clear even to her by the end of the story

3.  Why do I write what I do?

“Try everything” is my current writing motto. When I was a teenager, I wrote whatever I wanted: humour, plays, choose-your-own-adventure, audio plays, whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. Then somehow, I can’t even remember how, I ended up being a poet. Not that there isn’t a huge field to work in there – poetry is so vast – but I kind of felt hemmed in by my own work. Maybe I’m entering premature second childhood, but I’m trying to come back to a place of “anything goes” in choosing what I work on. Though I have a new book of poetry coming out soon, the writing of it goes back years. I am sort of trying to give poetry a rest for a while. Maybe it’s not just age: I think I can also blame this on teaching, which has made me think about many different genres and styles of writing in ways I wouldn’t have considered before.

4. How does my writing process work?

Oh, that depends. It has changed so much. My forthcoming poetry came about through the accumulation and filtering of fragments, but some of my earlier works were very “project” oriented, in which I’d set myself a number of poems to write about x, y, and z, and though I’d still filter some of it out later, it was through setting myself a structure that I was able to write those projects fairly quickly—at least, far quicker than the new book, which was a nightmare. I’m writing the first draft of this novel via an extensive outline (and using Scrivener), though I’m still expecting the revision process to be its own nightmare.

That’s all, folks. I’m tagging my friend and colleague, Winnipeg’s Sally Ito.

In Which I Do Actually Write Stuff

When you define yourself as a writer—or, I suspect, any kind of artist—no matter how awesome your day job is (mine sure is!), it can really bring you down not to have the time or energy to create. I went through a really low productivity period for a few years, partly because I spent some time on projects that were bogging me down, but also just because life caught up with me. I went and had a baby and got this fine new full-time teaching job at pretty much the same time. Both those activities are extremely time-consuming, not to say life-sucking, for the first 2 or 3 years.

So now that I’m experienced enough to not be so stressed out all the time about teaching, and my child is in school, I’m feeling much, much better, not only because it’s awesome to be able to sleep more than 4 hours at a time, but because of a great knock-on effect: I get to be a writer again. And I’m pretty sure I teach better, too.

I’m working on my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, on-line and in summers, from the University of British Columbia. Not only will this be a fine professional credential when I’m done, but it creates a double-whammy of productivity.

First, I have constant creative-writing deadlines to meet (the reason I always took creative writing whenever I could during my English degrees). Second, because it is a multi-genre program, I get to try out all sorts of writing forms that I have written in much or at all up until now. I see some of my colleagues in the program all nervous about having to take those required “second and third genres,” but not me! I’ll be happy if I can get through this degree never having taken a traditional literary fiction or poetry course. Not that I don’t have plenty, and I mean plenty, to learn in those areas, but that’s the jazz I studied back in the day. I’m all for trying out new things that I might not have done on my own. Also, I think it’s my age showing: I no longer have fear of trying stuff that I might not turn out to be any good at.

One of the outcomes of all this: lots of half-finished projects, which may just be a new kind of lack of productivity. But, eventually, I will have to finish at least one of them for my thesis. And I hope I’ll finish more, just because.

One thing I have finished is a short film script. (Since you asked, it’s about breastfeeding and the ghost of Pierre Trudeau.) It went through a massive rewrite because the early drafts were basically impossible to produce. It’s now a full third shorter, has half as many characters and locations, and is set in Canada instead of Cuba. Lesson learned, and I’ve now got someone interested in producing it, which is something I would never have predicted a few years ago. The script calls for plenty of nudity, so I will be too embarrassed to show it to people if it ever does get made.

I’m forty thousand words—all written this summer–into the first draft of a young adult fantasy novel. It’s about some students in a school play who go through a magic trap door into a land where Shakespearean characters run amok. I only found out after I started this that the trap door in Shakespeare’s Globe was known as the Hell Mouth. I am now totally channeling my inner Buffy. The draft contains a lot of teenaged girls in swordfights. I can no longer write it nearly at the pace I was during the summer, but this baby is, thanks to the guidance of the wonderful Annabel Lyon, very thoroughly outlined, and I don’t think I’ll lose the plot, literally or figuratively, even if I only write one scene a week. I have an earlier failed novel (first draft, for adults) in a drawer that will probably stay there, an unworkable blob. I am thoroughly converted to massive outlining. And I’m using Scrivener and loving it.

I’ve also got an outline and about half a draft of a graphic novel script for children (it’s about the WWII home front and the British Commonwealth Air Training Program), and I’ve got ideas and sketches for several other young adult and children’s projects that I’m tucking away for future use—all those thanks to a great course I took with the also wonderful Maggie de Vries last year.

This year, I’m supposed to write a play (just started—my workshop has several experienced actors in it, and they’ll tell it like it is!), and in January I’m planning on taking a comics course – in which I will actually be required to draw. After that, I’m hoping to do a non-fiction course and a full-length screenplay course, depending on availability.

One other project I’ve actually finished, completely independent from my MFA courses: the poetry book, my fourth (fifth if you count the first one that stayed in a drawer), that I’ve been working on v e r y s l o w l y for the last something like eight years. I’m calling it Exquisite Monsters, and it is due out in 2015 from Turnstone Press. Looking forward to working with the great Dennis Cooley, who’ll be the editor for the press. I worked with Dennis a long time ago at the highly recommended Sage Hill, before my first book was accepted for publication, and while I was working on new poems that would become my second book, Spine.

So if you haven’t noticed, I’m really positive and cheerful about writing right now. I don’t know how many of those projects I’ll ever finish, but having them all there puts me in a place I really like to be: a place crowded with ideas.

The Final Frontier

What I’m talking about is SPACE.

Somewhere along the way, someone took my space from me. Okay, everyone took my space from me. I didn’t have it for very long, and I miss it so.

I remember as a child, how I longed for my own room. Do kids even share bedrooms these days? It seems like you aren’t middle-class enough if you don’t have more bedrooms than people in your family.

I shared a bedroom with my little sister. The room was one of the many additions my dad had built on to the house. It didn’t have a door. There was a curtain, a home-made one, of course, on a home-made curtain rod, which it seems may have been a broom handle at one time.

It was a big room, but as a girl approaches adolescence, a girl wants her own space. Finally, my parents let me move upstairs, to the cold, cold upstairs, with an electric blanket. The two rooms up there had been vacated by my older sisters some years before, and were just full of storage. We piled all the junk into one room, and I got the other.

It was heaven. Even with the shivering, the mice, and, in summer, the 3:00 a.m. birds singing in the tree right outside the window. I stayed up late doing awesome school projects with popsicle sticks, taping songs off the weekend hit countdown on the radio, and worrying about adolescent stuff in private. Sometimes I stayed up as late as ELEVEN O’CLOCK!!! I’d have stayed up later, but my mom came upstairs and made me go to bed.

This arrangement lasted for two years, until my mom got a job in the next town over, and we decided to get an apartment there for during the week instead of commuting. We liked the idea of going to a bigger school—plus there was no way we were living all week with just dad, who cooked, among other disgusting things, spaghetti chopped up in little pieces because he thought it was easier to eat that way.

And then my older sister and her new baby (who now has a math degree—hi, Suz!) moved back home and decided to join in the fun. So, it was now dad, with his poor cooking skills, alone in the big country house, and us five gals in the two-bedroom apartment laughing it up. It was the kind of apartment building where you tried to ignore the blood smeared on the hallway walls on Sunday mornings.

Here’s a capsule life story told in terms of when I did and didn’t have to share a room. There were ups and downs. My parents went back to school and we moved into family student housing (my sister and I were both teenagers by then, so this was definitely a down); they bought a house and renovated the basement, where I got to live alone in university (up!) briefly, until said older sister (now with two kids) needed to join me. I still had my own room at this point, but someone had measured wrong when renovating, because there wasn’t room for a wall in-between the closet to one room and the closet to the next room, which resulted in a toddler and a preschooler emerging from my closet at any time with no prior warning. AND ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS MAKE OUT WITH MY BOYFRIEND.

Grad school brought with it the best “up” years in terms of personal space, as I made enough in scholarships to live alone most of the time. Early working life in Toronto, not bad, own room and only a small war with mice and with cockroaches along the way. Even once I moved in with someone (whom I eventually married), I had a little office of my own to work in. And at work? I had my own office at almost every one of my significant jobs until… 2008.

That’s when I started teaching. And got pregnant. And now I have a cubicle, a house full of stuff and rooms and not a stitch of private space anywhere.

Woolf said you needed money and a room of your own in order to write. I think we can translate money as “time,” which anyone who’s every applied for a project grant knows.

This is all to say that one of my many, many, unreasonably large number of goals for the nine weeks of relative calm I have this summer, is to set up better what personal space I have in my own home. I might try the old “make a wall out of bookshelves” trick – goodness knows I have enough books. Or maybe I could use a sheet and an old broom to make a curtain between two pieces of furniture and hang up a “Stay Out – Mommy’s Space!” sign. I don’t know.

But I’m adding it to my to-do list.

 

 

Reads, Goodreads, Badreads, Noreads

So, yeah, I’m on Goodreads, have been for a few years. I’m not entirely sure why—I’m not a big participator there. If I’m going to write a book review, I’d rather do it here on my blog, or in some forum with an actual editor. But I like to see what my tribe is reading, and I figured I better at least have some idea how this thing works before my next book happens (which I sent off to the publisher, BTW; now it’s a waiting game).

Though I’m engaged with peeking into the shelves of others, I know very well that book recommendations almost never work out. I’m not sure why this is, or if it’s because I’m just weird. It may be impossible to understand another reader’s taste in such a way that, among the millions of books in the world, another one can be recommended and subsequently appreciated. Neither people nor algorithms can do it. People are too focused on their own enthusiasms and their desire to make other people like what they like, to the omission of considering the actual taste of others; algorithms, say on Amazon, don’t do too badly on subject area in my experience (here are another five bestselling books on the topic you appear to be reading up on), but fail miserably at literature.

carson-shamrock-teaOne of my favourite books is Ciaran Carson’s novel Shamrock Tea, which I re-read every few years. My friend Shawna recommended it to me while we were browsing in Chapters one day a long time ago. I purchased it, read it, loved it, and later told her about my conversion to this book. She told me that she hadn’t actually read it – I must have misheard her recommendation, which was more of a suggestion or a pointing-out. She just liked the chapter titles—each named after a pigment colour.  (The story is about a lot of things – among them Wittgenstein, Irish nationalism, hallucinogenic drugs, time travel, Catholic saints, and the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.) (And Shawna, if you read this, you should let me know if you remember this differently, or at all!)

Book jacket blurbs (testimonials, to those of you not in the book biz) don’t tell me anything about a book’s quality, but they do tell me about what kind of book the publisher is trying to make me think it is – how they are positioning it. I recently tried to read Joseph Boyden’s newest work, The Orenda, and noted that the blurbers—and there were  a lot of them—were all male. And all of the blurbs were Very Serious.

The book-recommendation social network Goodreads (recently purchased by Amazon) allows you to categorize your books as to-read, reading, and read. These three high-level categories are woefully insufficient. I have many, too many, books on my currently reading shelf. This is because I’m a notorious book abandoner. There just isn’t enough time in the week to keep plodding through something if I’m neither motivated nor compelled to do so. Some of these books that I abandon I know that I’ve really, really abandoned – I will never finish them. There needs to be a reading category for that. On the other hand, some books I haven’t picked up in years, and yet I consider myself to be “still reading” them: I remember the story, I think about them kind of nostalgically, and remember enjoying them – but maybe they just weren’t the thing for that particular time of my life. Maybe I’ll still go back there. There should be a category for that, too.