Michelle Barker's books on Goodreads
Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii
ratings: 1 (avg rating 5.00)

The Beggar King The Beggar King
reviews: 8
ratings: 21 (avg rating 4.00)

Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories
reviews: 4
ratings: 15 (avg rating 4.07)

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales
reviews: 4
ratings: 14 (avg rating 3.79)

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The Seduction of the Unwritten Word

This idea comes thanks to my wonderful writer friend, Nikki Vogel (whose awesome short story, The Past, Of Course, has just been nominated for the Journey Prize).

See this?

You’ve all heard about the horrors of the blank page, but that is not what I want to talk about today. Because the blank page can start to look pretty good when you’re in the middle of a much more terrible horror: the mess that is your present novel.

 

Compared to that, the blank page is so, well, clean. No mistakes yet, or characters that don’t belong. No plot ideas that dead-end by page 20. It’s tempting, isn’t it? Especially while you struggle through the soggy marshland that is the middle of your novel. You’re wearing boots, but they’re leaking. It doesn’t smell good. You’re lost, no map or compass, and you’re hungry for a big bowl of Alphagetti (because writing a novel makes you crave weird things). I know. I’ve been there.

 

So, what do you do? Do you slog it out, repair your plot holes, redo your outline – in other words, finish your shit? Well, if you’re anything like me the answer is probably no. Chances are you succumb, and start thinking about that next idea. The one that’s still perfect because you haven’t really thought it out yet. The unwritten word is seductive. It’s a Siren and it sings to you. So much easier than cutting characters and rethinking your subplot, right?

 

Yes. But no. Get some headphones, plug your ears and ignore it. That way lies folly, friends. Because if you succumb regularly enough, you will be one of those writers who starts novels and doesn’t finish them. Unfinished novels are like warts you can’t get rid of. They’re ugly, and even if no one else can see them, you know they’re there.

 

The trouble with thinking about new work is that you can trick yourself into believing it’s not really procrastination. You’re working on a new project. That counts, doesn’t it? Probably your floor is already washed, the laundry done, and you’ve eaten your way through half the fridge and feel too guilty to actually finish the bag of Oreos.

 

Writing a novel is hard work. There are clear stages, and when you get to the computer-smashing Hulk stage (#11), you want to do pretty much anything except finish the job. Do yourself a favour and step away from that blank notebook. Get back to the hard work of making a story sing. As Henry Miller put it in his Writing Commandments, “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.”

Now, what are you doing here? Get back to work!

Roald Dahl, Revision…and Peaches

So this guy moves in across the street. Says his name is James.

 

Yes, Roald Dahl has been on my mind lately. Recently I came across an old (1988) interview with him by Todd McCormack about his writing process. Mr. McCormack asked him what it was like to write a book.

 

Mr. Dahl: “…rather like going on a very long walk, across valleys and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down.” (Check this out to hear Mr. Dahl’s complete answer, spoken by the man himself.)

 

But that, according to Dahl, was only the beginning. You keep taking that long walk, day after day, “getting different views of the same landscape really.” He calls it a “very very long slow process.” Which about sums up the revision work I’m doing on my novel these days. Very long. Very slow.

 

There are a few things I love about Dahl’s answer. First, he speaks to the word ‘revision’ in a specific (and poetic) way. Revising a piece of writing is not just a matter of adding in a few commas and correcting your spelling mistakes. It is a re-visioning of the landscape of your story, seeing it with new eyes. Coming at it from a different angle, perhaps.

 

Second, his answer is honest. Revision is not a slapdash job. It’s not a question of being satisfied with ‘good enough’. You want to get it right. And that takes time, patience, and focus.

 

I know when I’m not focussed. I’ll look back at the page I thought I’d just read and realize I hadn’t been paying attention. Not good. So I do it again. Revision involves inserting oneself into the real time of the story and replaying it, in detail, with every sense alert. A strategy that works surprisingly well is to read one’s work out loud. If there are faults in diction, rhythm or logic, they become immediately apparent. So do pet phrases and outright mistakes.

 

In his excellent book, A Passion for Narrative, Jack Hodgins includes a chapter on revision that is worth looking at. The bottom line: don’t be lazy. And don’t be afraid to get blood on the floor. Darlings will die. It hurts, but chances are you won’t miss them once they’re gone. I know I never do.

 

Now, back to that giant peach to figure out who this new neighbour really is.

Happy New Year!

Okay, so it’s January 10th, I’m a little late, or maybe dyslexic, but I’m here at last after a long time away from this blog with no excuse except a thesis to write (okay, that’s a pretty good excuse, you have to admit). I come armed with Writers’ Resolutions, which I share in the hope that a public admission will encourage (humiliate?) me enough to actually keep them.

Here goes:

  •  Be here – I mean, HERE at this blog – once a week.
  • Read outside of my comfort zone. Why? Because it’s easy to stick with what you know, and it’s safe – but it’s not the best way for writers to read. Yeah, I’ve started the year with a Stephen King novel which means both feet are firmly planted in said comfort zone, but whatever, I’ll get there.
  •  Send stuff out. By far the most boring part of a writer’s life – but kind of essential, if you want to have readers. As I’m fond of saying to others (and then not doing myself): better on an editor’s desk than on mine.
  •  Write a poem every day. Ouch. This is going to be a tough one to keep but I have done it before. I’ve taken a long hiatus from poetry and I approach it cautiously, like a dog I’m not sure will remember me. I don’t know how we’ll get along this time around, but I plan to bring treats.

There. I am officially accountable, and you all have permission to hound me mercilessly if I disappear or pretend to have forgotten.

But I’m curious: have other writers made resolutions specific to writing? If so, what are they? Please weigh in. (Ha, yes it’s a trick: I’m making you say it out loud, and then you’ll be obliged to follow through).

 

Review of milk tooth bane bone, poems by Daniela Elza

 

I have always responded to Daniela Elza’s poetry in a visceral and immediate way: she makes me want to sit down and write. She makes me look at the world differently. Which is to say, her words are a force of inspiration in my life.

 

The guiding image in this beautiful volume of poetry is the crow. Crows fly in and out of these poems and become interchangeable with words themselves, as well as with the process of creation. The book begins with an image of the poet dropping words the way a crow drops mussels – to see them crack.

 

Elza takes the reader through many winter landscapes where the crows create a stark contrast of black on white that is anything but clear-cut. These are the birds that know death but do nothing to prevent it. They are the ones that eat words in a book and then the words become crows, and the crows become ink, and the ink belongs to a beloved grandfather’s printing press.

 

Crows took the narrator’s first milk tooth in a bargain her six-year-old self did not understand. She threw it on the roof for them, chanting, here crow is my bone tooth!/ give me one as strong as iron! And the crows have pursued her ever since.

 

Elza explores the challenge of getting to the truth of things with words, getting to the essence of something as simple as rain, which the crows speak of effortlessly. She weaves personal history into her narrative, difficult stories that live inside all of us and which we tell over and over as if it will help them to make sense.

 

Why crows?

 

“I notice  crows –/ the pin-point of light/ in the eye/ that watches/ me/ watching.

 

Ultimately I think Elza’s answer involves the process of creation itself. The crows settle so easily on the trees, “…ink in white birches…” as the poet watches from her window, pen in hand. The crows are both words and the silence between words. The poet wants to know how close she can get to meaning before it startles and escapes her.

 

One of the things I love about the way Elza structures her poetry is her ample and intentional use of space. These poems have room to breathe. There is silence built around them that allows each word to resonate.

 

Whatever readers might think of the lowly crow, whether “…lofty messenger or noisy trash bird,” these birds live in the poems as little black mysteries we have not yet solved – like words themselves.

 

milk tooth bane bone is published by Leaf Press.

For more about Daniela, please visit her website, or go to my interview with her.

The Interview: Daniela Elza

Daniela Elza, author of milk tooth bane bone, answered some of my questions in a recent interview.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you:

Perhaps most people do not know that I have little tolerance for gossip, or that I am allergic to small talk. Those give me a nasty spiritual rash that sometimes only poetry can cure. Most people do not know that I think poets are magicians of sorts, alchemists even. It does not mean we all will succeed, or that any of us would.

Most people might think I come from somewhere when I come from many somewheres.

Barbara Hurd in her book of essays, Stirring the Mud, says: “We are shape-shifters, all of us, liquid mosaics of mutable and transient urges, and we give ourselves headaches when we pretend otherwise, when we stiffen ourselves into permanent and separate identities unsullied by the drifting slop, the very real ambiguities of ourselves and the world.” What is affixed to one is instantaneous and brief, an illusions of sorts. But we tend to want definitions, and fixities. We crave such comfort.

Sometimes even my closest people make me feel like they are most people. In a poem somewhere I say:

 I know it is an illusion who I appear to be

 to be who I am.

 

How did you become a writer?

I realized that writing was my default mode. It is what I did when I was not doing anything else. Perhaps I was a writer and I did not know it. Perhaps the work was in the discovery of what I was, and the permission to be that. Eventually, I gave it more direction, more discipline and training and applied the appropriate labels.  I have written poems and played with language for as far back as I can remember, in whatever language was available or meaningful at the time. Eventually English won.

 

Tell us about your most recent project:

This year I was glad to see the completion of an undertaking that probably took a decade and culminated in my latest book milk tooth bane bone. I can best describe this book as a haunting. The crows made me write it. They did not leave me alone. I did not know it was going to be a book. Now that it is a book, it still haunts me. I was intrigued with the voice that came through. I wanted to get to know that voice better.

 

What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Perhaps the realization that I should write what I do not know, what I am wondering about, what I am curious about. It was not advice given to me directly by one person, but one that precipitated through what many writers said. Most recently I saw another quote to that effect, this one by Doris Lessing: “I see every book as a problem that you have to solve.”

 

Give us your Desert Island Reading List (the 3 books you’d choose to be stranded with):

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (including his Duino Elegies), the collected works of Wislawa Szymborska, The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram? This question makes me uncomfortable because it suggests a world with very few or no books. I cannot imagine living in a world like that unless we all have three books and have an elaborate way to exchange them.

 

The thing you like most about writing:

The space it provides me to think, to discover what my mind is mulling over when I do not instruct it or purposefully focus it on something.  It is like finding out what you are truly preoccupied with despite what you tell yourself otherwise.

 

The thing you like least:

When writing is made subservient to the ego.  When it is co-opted for purposes other than in the service of the mystery, alchemy and discovery that it is.

 

What’s next on the writing agenda:

This summer over the course of 2 months I wrote over 90 pages. I have never done that before. When time permits I might be working on putting the next manuscript together, amidst more readings, workshops, amidst all the things we do to keep the business of writing going.

 

About Daniela

Daniela Elza’s work appears nationally and internationally in over 80 publications. Her poetry books are milk tooth bane bone (Leaf Press, 2013), the weight of dew (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2012) and the book of It (2011). In 2011 Daniela earned her doctorate in Philosophy of Education from Simon Fraser University. She will be the 2014 Writer-In-Residence at the University of the Fraser Valley.

 

 

The Interview: Kim McCullough

 

In which Kim McCullough, the author of Clearwater, lets us in on a few secrets.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you:

Not many people know I used to sing in the Sweet Adelines barbershop chorus. I was a member of Prairie Gold, the Regina chapter. However, my enthusiasm for singing far outstrips my talent.

How did you become a writer?

I’ve been writing since I was very young – I have a basement shelf full of half-completed, handwritten novels. They are all very angsty and sentimental and factually incorrect, especially when it comes to romantic endeavours. I didn’t share my writing with anyone, really, until 2007 when I attended the inaugural Fernie Writers’ Conference, where I worked with Angie Abdou. She read my short story out loud, while I had to sit and listen, then listen to the other students critique my work. It was mortifying, and it was empowering. From there – more courses and workshops, and then the MFA at UBC.

Tell us about your most recent project:

This year has been crazy – I’m not sure what to pick as my “most recent.” My novel Clearwater (Coteau Books) was out October 2. I am also working on my Masters’ thesis for UBC. It’s another novel, one that is loosely linked to Clearwater. So this past year has been a combination of editing Clearwater, while trying to create a new world in the thesis novel.

What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

This one has taken me the longest to answer, probably because it’s both the easiest and most difficult question. The simple answer is: write. Write every day. But the truth is, the best writing advice came by way of writing lesson given by author Peter Oliva, one of my Fernie instructors. I’m sworn to secrecy, so I won’t go into detail, but it left our little workshop group devastated, some of us in tears, all of us cursing his name. Peter taught me that there is always a deeper, darker, truer place to go. And he taught me that if I think I’m at that scary place, look again. Dig a little deeper.

Give us your Desert Island Reading List (the 3 books you’d choose to be stranded with):

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden

Old Friend From Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg – the writing prompts could help me while away the time.

The thing you like most about writing:

I like how the characters come alive. When things are really clicking, they move through a fabricated world all on their own. Because they seem so real to me, I know just how they would react in a given situation. Setting up those situations is pretty fun.

The thing you like least:

The time it takes away from my kids.

Unusual work habits/routines/superstitions?

For Clearwater, I had a certain playlist of music I would listen to when I was stuck – from classical piano from Debussy and Mozart (one of my characters is a pianist) to ‘70’s and ‘80’s top 40. (Seventies because, though the novel starts a decade later, the radio station in the town where it is set was ALWAYS ten years behind.) I’d wrap up with a few nice, dark blasts of Jeff Buckley and the tone was set.

What’s next for you on the writing agenda?

Promotion of my novel. Teaching more Creative Writing classes. Finishing my thesis.

About Kim

Kim McCullough has published reviews and commentary on a number of literary websites. Clearwater is her first published book. She is currently working towards her MFA in creative writing at UBC. Originally from Regina, Kim now teaches in Calgary where she leads various writing workshops for students of all ages, including a writing class for women in recovery.

To find out more about Kim, please visit her website: www.kimmccullough.ca 

The Review: Clearwater, by Kim McCullough

Clearwater

Warning: if you pick up this book, clear your schedule and find a comfortable chair. You won’t budge until you’ve finished it. Kim McCullough has written a gripping tale of love and loss, family and friendship, with memorable characters and a tension-filled plot.

When Claire Sullivan’s mother takes a job at a remote Northern Manitoba settlement, Claire and her older twin siblings have no choice but to accompany her. Little do they suspect the enduring influence that their time in Clearwater will have on their lives. Claire’s mother is single and busy (read: irresponsible) and the twins are often forced to watch over Claire themselves. But the twins share a special bond that excludes Claire and leaves her longing for a closeness she cannot find in her family.

Instead, she finds it in the boy next next-door. Jeff is a talented artist and a year older than Claire. But with an abusive and alcoholic father, he has troubles of his own. Jeff has also discovered that having a native heritage means no one much cares what he does at school, though they are quick to suspect him of any crime. Claire and Jeff become fast friends, and share a love of the landscape that McCullough renders in stunning detail. Soon their friendship deepens into romance.

Claire’s brother, Daniel, is a gifted pianist but her sister Leah has a hard time finding her way and drifts towards drugs and alcohol. One night she finds more trouble at a party than she bargained for, and her world changes forever.

McCullough doesn’t shy away from real and gritty teenaged problems, and the remote setting adds to the persistent feeling of dislocation.  The setting in this novel has the potency of character, from the colours and moods of the lake to the abandoned residential school. The author creates an admirable combination of depth in characterization with a plot that doesn’t quit. Both Jeff and Claire’s families are well-drawn in all their complexities. As Claire puts it, “It’s surprising what a heart can take.” Indeed. Jeff’s father is particularly terrifying. I found my stomach clenching every time he came onto the scene.

Clearwater takes an interesting risk with point of view, splitting it between third and first. But McCullough achieves a nice balance between the two and it becomes a quick way for readers to orient themselves. I also liked that the novel followed these characters into adulthood.

The symbolism of flight is used effectively and is never heavy-handed. The proximity of the airport, the loons that have trouble lifting off, the owl that Leah hits with the car at the beginning of the novel – all remind us of how weighted with baggage these people are. It is fitting that the novel ends with flight.

“There’s no sense loving someone halfway,” Claire says to her brother Daniel. McCullough shows us what it means to invest ourselves fully in a relationship – both the cost and the fulfillment.

Clearwater is a compelling read that both teens and adults will enjoy. It is published by Coteau Books (2013).

Practice Makes…a First Draft


The Daily Practice of Writing

My son went to his first swim meet this weekend. Many of the swimmers were wearing team shirts with motivational quotes on them, and two stuck in my mind. One was a quote from Robert Collier that read: “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” The other was an anonymous quote: “There is no glory in practice, but without practice, there is no glory.”
The quotes referred to swimming, but they could just as easily have been talking about writing; that daily, sometimes dull practice of applying butt to chair and working it through.

There is something to be said for a daily writing practice, especially if you’re tracking that mammoth creature, the novel. In his book, On Writing,Stephen King admits he doesn’t take days off – not Sundays, not even Christmas. I’m beginning to understand why. Spending at least a half hour every day working on your novel is almost like raising its metabolism. Even when you do other things for the rest of your day, it’s still there – however you want to think of it: simmering on the backburner, burning calories, producing new ideas.

Take a week off in the middle of a draft and you imagine you’d come back fresh. No, more like confused. What was I planning to do with that plotline again? Is George an only child, or does he have siblings? And where did this character come from? I don’t remember him.
In fact, a daily practice is valuable not only for the novel, but for any kind of creative writing. I once embarked on a project in which I decided to write a poem a day for a year. I gave myself permission to write crap – and, as it turns out, many of the poems were pretty crappy. But there had to be one in my notebook, somehow, by the end of every day. I didn’t quite make it to 365 – I think it was more like 340. But I learned a few things from that project, one of which is that when you prime the creative pump, the words will eventually flow.
So how does one find the time to work every day? There are several approaches. Get up earlier every morning. Consecrate half of your lunch hour to writing. Turn off the TV. According to Eckhart Tolle, the average American will have spent 15 years in front of the television by the time he/she is 60 years old. That is a frightening thought. Imagine what you could do with that extra time.
Try to make one definite move every day towards writing – a commitment of half an hour, 350 words, whatever you can handle. That small step repeated daily will eventually win you a completed first draft.

 

God is in the Details


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about details.  

Breaking Bad is over, and if ever there was a show that paid attention to detail it was that one, from those ominous skull-tipped boots to the pink teddy bear with the missing eye that lands in Walt’s swimming pool.
After the finale I listened to Anna Gunn on Talking Bad compliment Vince Gilliganfor the care he took in incorporating minute detail into every scene he directed. It occurred to me that detail can make the difference in how we as readers or viewers believe in a scene.
In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose has an excellent chapter on detail. “Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth,” she writes. It’s that one perfect detail that will nail a scene – the equivalent to Flaubert’s mot juste

But if God is in the details, remember there’s a flipside to that saying:  the devil is in them, too. 

 

The wrong details in a scene will leave your reader scratching his or her head in confusion. And perish the thought of the anachronistic detail – your reader might throw the book across the room.  A lack of detail creates vagueness and might send the message to your reader that you have not fully imagined your scene.  
In terms of characterization, the well-chosen detail – or, as New Zealand novelist Maurice Shadbolt calls it, the “precious particle” – can serve as a brilliant shorthand to nail a character even more effectively than long description would. If you want to go back to Breaking Bad (and I know you do), think of Bogdan’s eyebrows, Marie’s penchant for purple, Todd’s ringtone, Hector Salamanca’s bell. Notice that these are not particularly extreme (okay, maybe Bogdan’s eyebrows are extreme). But they’re memorable.
If the right detail makes a scene, too much detail can kill it. It’s a little like interior design. Tastefully done, it works. But too many paintings combined with too many frilled lampshades and embroidered cushions – and you cross the line into kitsch.
So how do you find that perfect detail, the one that makes your scene live for the reader? That’s the million-dollar question.  I find the simple exercise of closing my eyes and engaging all of my senses, being fully in the scene, can help.  I also find that my worst enemy is abstraction. Don’t say the room was a mess, or the attic stunk, or the shirt was ugly. The more specific you can be, the more your scene will come to life.
Probably the most helpful advice I’ve received?
Pay attention. To everything. And write it down. You’ll be surprised at the tiny details that come creeping into your scenes from real life.
Happy writing!

The Interview: Holley Rubinsky

Interview With Holley Rubinsky

Following on last week’s review of Holley Rubinsky‘s newest collection of short stories, South of Elfrida, I offer you Holley in her own words….

Tell us something most people don’t know about you:
I’ve had fibromyalgia for thirty years or more, now entangled with age-related osteoarthritis. I lost years in the wilderness of symptoms — muscle pain, exhaustion and other consequences of what is, essentially, a sleep disorder. Diagnosis was helpful, because I found resources that enabled me to deal with a chronic affliction. Rest and management of symptoms is key. I’ve had to be lazier, and have had the luxury to be lazier, than most people can get away with.
How did you become a writer?
Writing was the only way I could stay alive; I had (and still have) “issues” (as we say today) that vanish from my heart when handed over to a fictional character.
What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
In Banff, Alistair MacLeod said: If Harry and Ray show up at the door, it’s important for the reader to know that Ray is a dog.
Being deliberately mysterious and “keeping the reader guessing” is what new writers sometimes do, mistaking unclear prose for narrative intrigue and tension.
Give us your Desert Island Reading List (the 3 books you’d choose to be stranded with):
A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night, by HH the Dalai Lama, an interpretation of Shantideva’s 8th century guide, The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
(The premise of A Flash of Lightning…is to be aware of and control the negative emotions, especially those hurtful to others. Being alone on a desert island would not provide much practice… but, dealing with one’s own ego, physical body, personality and ramifications of personal history might be quite enough.
The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard relates the tale of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole from a man who was there. Nearly 600 pages of an adventure that would make a tropical island seem like paradise.
The Bird Watcher’s Anthology, compiled by Roger Tory Peterson. A friend gave me the first edition, published in 1957. Eighty-five birders share first-hand observations of birds. Included is a piece by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
The thing you like most about writing:
After the idea takes hold and I grasp the reason behind why I should put myself through such a lot of hard work, I love rewriting, editing, hacking extra phrases, honing in on the most precise way to say what I mean and make the writing seem simple.
The thing you like least:
Getting started. I go out of my way to avoid getting started.
Any unusual work habits/routines/superstitions?
I blame village life and verandahland for my lack of writing rigour and routine. When I’m “in”, however, when I am oddly, deeply involved, the Taurus in me takes hold, and I am tenacious to the end.
What’s next for you on the writing agenda:
My plan is every literary writer’s plan— to write a bestselling mystery.

About Holley

Holley Rubinsky, Canadian fiction writer living in British Columbia, Canada, is the author of South of Elfrida (Brindle & Glass, 2013), At First I Hope forRescue (Knopf C­anada, 1997; Picador, 1998), Rapid Transits and Other Stories (Pol­estar, 1991) and Beyond This Point, (McClelland & Stewart, 2006).

Winner of the first $10,000 Journey Prize, a National Magazine Award Gold Medal for fiction, and nominated for B.C.’s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, Rubinsky hosted The Writers’ Show, produced by CJLY, Nelson. Her stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, including The PenguinAnthology of Stories by Canadian Women.

She holds an M.Ed from U.C.L.A, earned her single-engine land private pilot’s license early on, works for Writing Retreats Kaslo, applies the Usui system of Reiki healing when needed and practices Buddhism as taught to the West by HH the Dalai Lama.

The late Yuri Rubinsky, software architect, was Holley’s husband. Robin Ballard, Rubinsky’s daughter, is an artist and writer living in Switzerland.