Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A wonderful day to buy a book

Have I raved enough on this blog about The Humber School for Writers and its vast excellence? Well, if not, rest assured its correspondence course, in which you can have almost all of a novel critiqued chapter by chapter by a very fine writer, and its week-long summer workshop are two of the smartest investments you can make in your writing.

I was fortunate enough to be placed in Wayson Choy's group for the 2008 workshop and one day, Wayson brought in the page proofs from his soon-to-be-completed second memoir. You know, so we could find out what sorts of things editors pencil into the margins when they're readying a book for release. I wasn't the only one who found this an incredibly generous act, nor was I the only one to read through a few pages and start counting the days to the actual release.

Which is today! If I wasn't stoic enough to hold out for the signing next week, I could walk into any bookstore and buy a copy of Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying. I looked last night and found two reviews already, both glowing, of course. Take a look at Quill and Quire's and at this one on Indigo if you're looking for beautiful writing to read.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A blockbuster obstacle course

There is a reason I don't watch movies much any more, and not long ones, and definitely not if they're going to run past about 10pm: I get too wrapped up and then I can't sleep. Last night I got caught by a couple of scenes of Saving Private Ryan, which is why I am thinking to mention it.

I didn't stick around for the presumably gruesome and tragic ending but after a few hours of tossing and turning and returning to the story in my mind I stood back and broke it down by story arc. Guess what I found! our old friend, Hero + Objective + Obstacles to Same. And what obstacles: there wasn't one scene where Tom Hanks wasn't presented some new problem in his search or left to process the aftermath of his last few decisions.

That might be the thing that hit home the hardest. I keep finding obstacles in my path, every time I sit down to write fiction. This is partly the result of having ignored all obstacles for over a year while I worked on the first draft of my novel - they're bigger now and harder to miss - and partly of being much more easily distracted by shiny new projects just now. But when I didn't write yesterday, I knocked a lot of obstacles out of the way entirely, and today I have more on the agenda, and I'm hoping - really and for true this time - to reach a grassy clearing by the end of the week. Just don't quote me.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


A friend tells me that it's important to have balance. You know, work and play, healthy body and healthy mind, good food and, presumably, goooooood fooooood (by which I mean my mother's chocolate chip meringues). I love this concept and do try to live by it. However, here is what I must balance today:

sitting with a sick friend
cleaning the kitchen
editing an executive summary
writing up a knitting pattern
preparing a meal or two
working out the details on a new non-hat pattern that came to me as I woke up AND

and this is the one that everything but the executive summary and the sick friend will go to the wall for

write as much as possible of the short story that came to me like a gift right after the non-hat pattern.

Those last two things? That's the kind of balance I can really appreciate.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The cloud blocking the silver lining

So... I posted a pattern for a chemo cap the other day, and it's been popular. Which is silver. I worked very hard on the design to make it suitable for women with hair as well as without, with a lot of coverage and a sense of its own style, and I've had a lot of e-mail from women who are excited to make it for those reasons. More silver.

The cloud? All the extra traffic for downloading the pattern meant my website exceeded its bandwidth and crashed. And to make matters worse, my web hosting service is not speaking to me. Its notification that I was into the danger zone went not to my account e-mail address but to one I haven't had in about ten years. Its phone number is not toll-free and has no person on the other end of it, no matter how long you sit on hold, and its LiveChat crashes the minute you open it no matter how many cookies you accept or what browser you use. You can upgrade online but that won't put your website back into play. And that promise to reply to e-mail within 24 hours? Worthless, apparently.

Makes me very, very glad my blogs are hosted here and not on my website! ooooh, and that's a little more silver to light my way to a new hosting service. No writing today and no knitting; I'm afraid it's all about the battle for good technology.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Almost writing

I finished the social history book yesterday, which buys me time to write down some knitting patterns I've been brewing. This counts as writing, I'm told, not least because one must be clear and accurate and easy to read, while persuading already-overextended knitters that the project will be even more fun to make than the picture of it is cute.

I'll tell you something though - it's nowhere near as fun as writing fiction. Or nonfiction. Or a blog entry, which technically is nonfiction but involves less fact-checking. In fact I'd give up chocolate for a very long time if I could get somebody else to write down the patterns for me, that's how not fun it is.

But I will do it because when I have finished, I will be FREEEEEEEE! and I can go back to work on my novel if I want, or revise a short story I wrote last fall. Both are beginning to call to me and if I can get the patterns down before those calls get too strident, I will be able to have my cake and eat it. And you know how much I love cake, right?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Off Kilter

I was amazed yesterday to have to renew the book I'm reading. Have I really had it three weeks? It never takes me that long to read a book! And it's a fascinating look at U.S. social history, too. You know, before things were mass-produced, people depended on home spinning and hand knitting. Even when you could buy whatever you wanted there was still money to consider, and much-needed stress relief - as when crossing the country in a covered wagon, under constant threat of attack and disease and death.

It's no surprise the biggest surges in mass knitting have occurred in wartime. From the Civil War to WWII soldiers begged for hand knit socks. They were easier on marching feet, and lasted longer, and men, women, and children at home were happy to oblige and knit constantly because it gave them something constructive to do when the safety of their loved ones was out of their control. People got very, very tired of navy blue and khaki.

Yesterday I had a note from the friend who gave me the idea for a chemo cap challenge, saying how tired she and her knitting group are of pink: they've made 100 pink chemo caps in the last three weeks. And it occurs to me that cancer is war, and chemo caps the new must-knit project. They're a necessity, and knitting them gives us something to do while we wait for a cure.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Laundry list

Rebecca's comment on yesterday's post confirmed my my gut instinct about it being Giuliani who spearheaded the tidy-up campaign in New York - thank you Rebecca! - and got me thinking about laundry.


How much I wish I didn't have chronic hayfever, so I could hang mine on a clothesline outside;

How nice cool wet cotton feels on a hot day after hours of playing in the dirt;

How bad I feel about cooling my arms and face between the folds of my mother's freshly washed and hung-on-the-clothesline sheets after said playing in the dirt;

How nice it is that I outgrew that habit and don't roam around to the neighbours' clothelines on gardening days;

How nice it is too that modern washing machines don't require the kind of family effort called for by the wringer washer, as described in Little Heathens;

How a cold snap is not such a good time to run out of wool socks, and I need to do some laundry of my own; and

How weird it is still to walk into my newly tidied laundry room and not see the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Again with the cold snaps!

I'm old enough to know that March throws curve balls, but after the balmy days we had last week I wasn't ready for extreme cold again today. And neither was the super warm hat I stopped working on because the warmer temperatures made it a lot less urgent than the other stuff I was doing.

On the bright side, I'd be able to find the hat if I didn't already know where it was, because the house is all organized again. It's so interesting to me, the way mess breeds mess and cleanup breeds more cleanup because humans tend to follow the flow of whatever is happening. I wish I could remember who wrote the article I read in The New Yorker a while back about that... or who it was about... but I do remember that somebody decided to crack down on graffiti with enough consistency that eventually there was less need to paint over graffiti, something that is not really a problem in my house unless you substitute clutter for graffiti.

So. Now that I can find stuff in the house, and I have only one more obstacle project between me and my novel, I'm in good shape to get moving again properly with my one hour a day initiative, which I'm tweaking a little to plant chocolate at the 61 minute mark. I always do well with a carrot, actual or figurative.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Browsing complete

Okay, what I said about not being ready to commit to organizational aids? Forget that. I've just finished a total reorg of the basement to accommodate a new cabinet with zippy fabric drawers in it, all set to keep yarn organized and visible yet dust-free.

It's amazing, really. Early this morning I published a pattern that's been gnawing at me for two weeks or so, and this afternoon I breezed by the chaos in the kitchen and the basement and focused on shifting furniture (with a slight break for sanding the floor after the filing cabinet won an argument with a threshold) and now - even though the house is twice as chaotic as before - I feel so free!

And if the new arrangement works out for more than a week, I'll have all my sewing and knitting and filing gear in one place, under excellent overhead lighting, for the first time in years. H'mmm. That might mean I'll be more inclined to sew, which probably doesn't bode well for writing. Curses! Foiled again.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The shopping is upon me

I don't know how the economy can be in trouble as long as I live in it, I really don't. Every time I try to stop buying things for a few weeks, I buy even more as soon as those weeks have passed. It's sort of like yo-yo dieting for the bank account.

Of course right now the obsession is yarn, and organizational aids for said yarn - though mercifully I'm still in the browsing stages for that. My supplies are not yet so vast as the mystery novels of my mystery-fan friends, one of whom was known to store what didn't fit on her shelves or floors in her oven (she never cooked in it anyway.) They buy far more than they can read in a year, knowing that if they don't get everything that comes out in the new series they love, they won't be able to find them when they're finally able to sit down and enjoy them. Yes, publishers are that fickle with the welcoming and then dropping of writers.

I'm getting the point of this shopping philosophy with the specialty yarns Karen put me onto. There are only going to be so many in any given colour or blend or weight: if you miss the boat, you've missed it. And I'm not so much of a swimmer!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A matter of life and death

I had lunch with a friend yesterday who suggested that if I have an hour to write now, and three hours to write later, I should choose the now and write as though it's the only time I have - as though in 61 minutes, I will die.

This advice is sticking with me because throughout my knitting adventures I've been missing my novel, and because yesterday the news was all about a 45-year-old woman who died after falling down at the bottom of a ski hill. I'm always stopped in my tracks by stories like this--death, like a practical joker, seems to thrive on surprises.

You can't really choose how you're going to go but you can avoid some possibilities, like falling from a great height encased in a metal tube. Somebody whose hand I crushed during takeoff before I gave up on planes told me, while trying to get his circulation going again, that I shouldn't fear death because I've had a great life. And this is true. But more than death, I fear losing my chance to tell my stories. So I'm going to take my friend's advice and get back to the book again, 60 minutes at a time.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More about brains and the training of them

Today Binnie sent me a link to a blog about literary journals and the tragedy of their financial struggle. It boiled down to this very good point:

Literary journals may not entertain the masses (not least because they are missing from most places the masses go to buy books) but they train for and reward good writing, so we need them.

Also today, the Alzheimer's Society invited me to invite others to joint a petition in favour of developing a national strategy for dementia. Dementia is something that definitely does not entertain the masses of people who have it or are related to somebody who does.

You can join the petition here if you are Canadian. If you are American, click here. If you're from another country, look up your local Alzheimer's Society. Every voice helps!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Brains... brains...

I just got my hands on a copy of Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks - my dream vacation is a weekend house party at which Oliver Sacks talks shop - and if I didn't feel the need to get enough sleep to stave off diabetes*, I'd be done by now and sharing all sorts of interesting bits and pieces from it. Maybe tomorrow.

Meanwhile, check this out! Brains and hard drives, separated at birth...

* wasn't it just last week I read that too much sleep is a risk factor for diabetes? Criminy, I might have to start getting exactly as much sleep as feels right for me, out of sheer confusion.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The care and feeding of buttons

Well, it's been quite an adventure, managing the smoky buttons!

I started with 3.5 pounds - enough to fill a cookie sheet mounded up in the middle so I wouldn't lose any off the sides, and separated out the ones with metal shanks. Those are being defumigated in a closed tin with a bowl of baking soda inside after an afternoon on the porch taking in fresh air.

The rest went into a vinegar bath, where I lost a single-layer cookie sheet full of mother of pearl buttons. They were incredibly beautiful, and now they are not.

After I separated out the disintegrating mother-of-pearl buttons and scraped the pearly bits off the other buttons, I put the survivors back into another vinegar bath.

And then I read this very interesting article about button collecting, the last page of which describes a chemical reaction that turns early plastic buttons to rubber when they hit liquid.

Afterward I spent another two hours separating out and tossing the highly stinky, newly rubbery buttons - another single-layer cookie sheet's worth. The survivors spent a day in a gentle-soap bath and some time on a towel to dry:

And then I spent three hours separating them by colour and putting them into bags:

And now I am done and I will never, ever need to buy another button. Of course, I might yet want to...

Friday, March 13, 2009

me, a WWII history buff?

Well, you can't beat times of war for rich social history, can you? I'm not much of a military-minded person but I am fascinated by the survival instinct and ingenuity of people who watched enemy soldiers marching into their communities and lived to tell of it. Or didn't live, but got their stories out somehow anyway.

I put a book down last night to watch the end of a WWII-era Hitchcock (Secret Agent). After its thrilling conclusion I flipped over to the local public broadcasting station just so I wouldn't have to turn the TV on to some shrill hawking for toilet bowl cleaner next time I'm inclined to sit on the sofa, and, oops, stuck around for another hour or so to learn more than I already knew about how art was stolen and stored, or damaged and restored, or lost or returned, all over Europe during and after WWII. It was astonishing and made me think I need to spend some time studying that period more deeply.

It also made me think of my late friend Bob Legleitner, of the late-night ghost story: Bob's thing was the mysteries swirling around WWII art thefts. I love when memories of old friends float back that way, don't you?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fool me twice...

Yesterday's mail included the result of another eBay encounter, and the moment I picked up the box I thought Oh.

Oh. No.

Did I not look for 'from a smoke-free home'

I opened the box hoping it wasn't, but knowing full well it was, the lot of mother-of-pearl buckles I was planning to use immediately. Really, really gorgeous mother-of-pearl buckles. And as we all learned on the weekend, cigarette smoke is much harder to clean from mother-of-pearl than from everyday plastic.

This never happened to me when I was buying vintage tablecloths. Sigh.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Naptime of dooooooom

This morning I did something innovative: I turned on the computer to check the weather, turned it off again, and went back to bed for a nap. I used to love naps but I hardly ever have time for them now, and when I do have time plus inclination, I drink a cup of tea instead. If I nap I don't sleep at night and I've become sensible about that sort of thing.

In spite of all that it was a great nap! until, waking up, I remembered a snippet of something negative I read recently about the daytime snooze experience. I've now tracked down this news item, in which naps are linked to a greater chance of diabetes.

Worse, I only had time for the nap because I'm still too sick with my cold to go to the gym, and lack of exercise is linked to the napping that is linked to the diabetes. I need something to cheer up with. Think chocolate is a bad idea?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Still fishing...

I am pretty sure I would have been done working by now if I hadn't spent so much time slaving over a bubbling vinegar vat of buttons this weekend - very, very cute buttons that are totally worth the effort required to erase the memory of 60+ years of cigarette smoke - but

I am not. So I will put my new cow on my shoulder and get to it. Why the cow? Because he's warm and serves as a reminder to stay off eBay and Etsy and other distractionary sites when I am supposed to be working and

He is even cuter than the buttons:

Monday, March 9, 2009

A tale of two (hundred+) buttons

What not to do:

1/ Entertain thoughts of a personal stash of vintage buttons.

2/ Stalk button listings on eBay without looking closely for the words "from a smoke-free home."

3/ Bid on buttons, however attractive, posted without these important words - unless they are very very cheap and you know you have loads of free time to address any problems.

4/ Decide to address rather significant problems within six hours of your hoped-for bedtime.

5/ Use a plastic bowl even for an initial washing; it will require the same addressing afterward because plastic is porous.

6/ Run out of vinegar, a surefire deodorizer.

7/ Pour vinegar over the buttons without first removing any mother-of-pearl buttons from the mix.

8/ Leave the buttons soaking in vinegar overnight before discovering through a simple online search that vinegar and mother-of-pearl do not play nicely together.

9/ Forget that the stripping effect of vinegar on mother-of-pearl can produce a nicely weathered, if chalklike, appearance that is still useful as embellishment if not for any functional purpose, since the buttons are now too thin not to break under pressure.

10/ Cry over the very cute brown mother of pearl buttons that, once rinsed of their vinegar and dried, are neither brown or glossy. You can buy more in the next auction.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Gone fishing

... for dangling participles* and split infinitives, which is to say I am Very Very Busy with work at the moment and may not be posting here this weekend. Check in with messages of support if you like, though! I love those, especially when chocolate is involved, even if it's only the virtual variety.

*Is there such thing as a dangling participle? It's still so early I'm not quite sure. Perhaps I need a cup of tea without the caffeine leached out this morning.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The trouble with buckles

I've had a thing lately for buttons and buckles and stuff, and unfortunately there's this website? called eBay? where you can buy stuff like that?

In good news, I now have about 3.5 pounds of buttons and 25 mother of pearl buckles and in theory, this is enough to finish off a few year's worth of craft projects, which means I can get back to knitting or - no, really, writing - and stop hunting for buckles. But they're soooo cute, and I've thought of soooo many things to sew them onto, and I'm kinda hooked now, so it will be hard to resist. At least until some turn up in the mailbox and I have to find space for them. Then the honeymoon will be over in a hurry.

Great trip to the museum yesterday, by the way! Not so many of the snacks of great deliciousness as it turned out, but on the way home I happened past my favourite French bakery and picked up a little bag of the amazing Florentine cookies they make. It wasn't cake, but I hope Dufflets will forgive me ;^)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Vacation Day!

I have a big editing job coming up later this week so it's a happy accident that I have a museum expedition lined up for part of today complete with

delicious cakes from Dufflets as instructed by the Dufflets truck
textile exhibits
sunny corners in which to knit
many, many books to peruse
bats and perhaps
a glass of fresh squeezed strawberry lemonade (there's a terrific restaurant at the museum... not that this is more attractive than learning, or anything.)

See ya!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Storytelling 101

Version told me by Young Person:

There's a farm where the pond has a steep slope and a muddy bottom and one day, a cow wandered in there and got stuck. It moooo'd and moooo'd for help and the farmer came running and saw that he couldn't get the cow out without drowning, himself, so he called frantically for a truck to help pull the cow out but the whole time, the cow was struggling and slipping and before the truck could come, it went under the water and drowned. The farmer cried, he was so upset. He couldn't get the cow out until its body floated to the surface, and ever since, at night, you can hear the ghost cow mooooing and mooooing.

Original version, told to said Young Person:

A farmer I know came out to his pond one day and saw one of his cows floating in it - it must have got stuck in the mud on the bottom and drowned. Now people around there say there's a ghost cow you can hear mooooing on a clear night.

Isn't it amazing how a few extra details and adjectives turn something flat into something with pathos and drama? I'm still feeling terrible for the cow and the farmer too, though I know he wasn't bothered about it at all.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Obstacle course

Many moons ago an agent friend said Mary, what you have to do with your main character is give her a goal, and then give her some obstacles to overcome before she can reach it. Logical though it is to see the concept of story that way - especially if you're talking about mass-market storytelling - this simple approach had never occurred to me. I still feel it's good advice, even if you don't take it, because it makes you think about problem solving.

Another way to handle problems is to work backward. For example, say you have a writer shivering in her icy house, wearing two pairs of socks and two sweaters and kicking herself for never before seeing the point of fingerless gloves. How did she get into that situation? Power outage? Red-tagged gas furnace? Thermostat accidentally shut down the day before? Sudden visit home after a period spent away? Faulty window seals? Unpaid bills? Or some other reason?*

The possibilities are rich for exploitation, aren't they? And the solutions are richly varied too. In fact I can think of many more attractive ones than making the house seem warm by going out into the -16 C day for a walk. But that's what I'm going to do anyway because I am so noble, or something like it.

*It's some other reason much less interesting than any of these.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

One more ghost story...

I have one other ghost story from my small e-mail-based writing group. One member, Bob Legleitner, was older than the rest of us and one sad morning we had a message from his neighbour to say that he had passed away.

That night, I grieved for Bob until I fell asleep - and then I woke up to a bright light shining in my face from the foot of the bed. It was near-blinding, but I could just make out that it was mounted to a white miner's helmet worn by a tall slim figure dressed in a white shirt and jeans. Why I thought knowing the time might calm my terror I couldn't say, but I turned to my digital clock and read '6:66'. That was it for me: I was sure it was the devil himself. I fought to get up out of the bed and woke up in the process, but I was still so upset the the next day I told my mystery-writing group about it.

Mary, they said, amused. The devil wouldn't wear white. And don't you remember the story Bob wrote with '666' in the title? It was part of a street address. I didn't remember the story - that was one I'd never read - but everything made sense then. Bob was tall and slim and had a macabre sense of humour. Scaring me out of my socks just to let me know it was all right, that he was okay, was just what I should have expected from him. Over the next few days several more members of our group had some form of contact with Bob, awake or asleep, and while we still miss him very much, it was a comfort to know he cared enough to say goodbye.