A happy morning

That’s what I had yesterday at Central Algoma Secondary School (CASS), talking to Christina Foster’s grade eleven English class. Christina had asked me if I would come and read some Old English to the class, because they were studying Beowulf – in translation, of course. I did it once in Old English and it took a year because we had to translate everything before we could discuss it. In retrospect I don’t understand how my professor ended that year with all his hair!

I prepared a bit, because it had been many years since I’d read Old English aloud. I decided that in addition to part of the prologue to Beowulf, I’d read Caedmon’s Hymn, one of my favourite pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I dug out my copy of “Seven Old English Poems” and my dictionary of Anglo-Saxon English and went at it for a few hours, and then felt confident I wouldn’t come off like a total goof.

And I didn’t, or at least, if I did, nobody told me. I had the most delightful time, being able to talk about the poetry, the manuscript itself (Cotton Vitellius A XV) and how close we came to losing one of the great hero stories in our literature. I got to tell stories around the periphery of Beowulf – why Beowulf, for example, inherited the throne from his uncle Hygelac, instead of one of his cousins getting it. I got to talk about language and how many words in Old English still exist in our modern tongue, very little changed.

Maybe these opportunities come too rarely for all of us, the chances to think and talk about a passion that has been shelved due to circumstances of our lives. As we drove home to sleep (because this class was at 9 a.m., after my night’s work), I burbled and fizzed at David about what an amazing time I’d had. I talked almost nonstop. And David, bless his heart, listened to me.

So I get to go back sometime soon for something similar when Christina and her class do Chaucer. Am I looking forward to it? Not hardly! Excuse me, I have to go find my copy of the Canterbury Tales!


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Tidying up

“You know you have an insane amount of data on that thing, don’t you?” is David’s periodic cry. He’s referring to my laptop, of course, the computer on which I do all my writing. He’s right. I do have a lot of stuff filed – or piled – on it. Multiple drafts of pieces, multiple copies of finished drafts, filed in different places for whatever arcane reason I had at the moment, bits and pieces I’ve cut, and half a dozen files labelled some variation of “ideafile”; the list goes on and on.

So last week I probably ten hours in all plodding through the various levels of storage and file-age, and spillage and ullage (slop in a ship from the water barrels), and tidying up. I deleted things, mostly second, third and fourth copies of stuff. I deleted old letters, and files that I can no longer read because they’re in some obsolete format. No loss there, as most of them have been copied at least into .rtf format.

It was a long, long job, and not a lot of fun, but I’m glad I did it. Except for one folder that I tossed a couple dozen files into because I was completely knackered, everything is in its proper place. I even opened every single iteration and variation of “ideafile” and put all the ideas into one file, of which I have one copy.

That last does make me a tad edgy – one copy. I was a printmaker in my first artistic life, and the wonderful thing about being a printmaker is the multiplicity of what you produce. I got used to it, and I think it somehow became ingrained into my artist brain. If there’s only one of anything, and something happens to it, well…..

I’m working with that, getting used to the idea that I no longer have multiple copies of everything I’ve written. Sort of.

Because, as David also pointed out, I have the desktop, onto which I often copy stuff. There is also a backup gadget which probably contains the entirety of what was on the desktop, and maybe a big chunk of the laptop, too. I never know precisely what David does when he gets into the arcana of computer geekery.

I think he’s probably going to want me to tidy up the desktop, and possibly the backup files as well. Maybe I’ll get around to it later. Tidying up one computer is enough for this decade.

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1 Title PagesmallOne of the little rewards of being a writer is the treat of seeing your name in print, or your work in a book. I’m a great believer in pre-empting the whole publishing process by making books with your own work in them just to celebrate completing that novel, short story or limerick. I learned to make books probably ten or fifteen years ago, and I still deeply enjoy both the process and the finished pieces.

About a month before my great-nephew was born, my niece’s friends-and-relations organized that ritual celebration of impending labour, the baby shower. It was a brilliant event, fuelled with estrogen and fabulous food.

I made Sam a book. I’d mentioned to my sister Carla that I wanted to do a hand-printed book of one of my poems, a little piece called “The Goblin Baker”, illustrated with lino cuts.

“That would be a great gift for the baby,” she said. But my printmaking skills need practice, and I decided instead to do one illustrated with original watercolours.

It was a delightful pursuit from start to finish. I was thrilled to find that – contrary to my expectations – my drawing was consistent enough to illustrate a (very) short book. My goblin baker was recognizable on every page. I enjoyed designing the illustrations, then hauling out the watercolours and painting them.

I enjoyed making the book, choosing the font for the text and the papers for the cover and endpapers, and figuring out how to bind it. My friend Pauline Clark made some invaluable suggestions; she makes albums and altered books, and if there’s something she doesn’t know about paper and adhesives and embellishment, I don’t know what it is.

So I made the book, and it was well-received. I also made a facsimile with photos of the paintings because my niece was concerned about little hands on original watercolours. And, of course, I made a facsimile for myself, as well.

Because, you know, it’s always nice to see your stuff in a book, right?

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250 words a day

That’s what I’m doing now. It’s not the 2000 words per day I did on my Stephen King summer, but it’s realistic, attainable and sustainable. It’s also much lower stress.

My job requires me to deal with angry and upset people while keeping my own cool and being nice to them. That creates stress. We also commute three hours a day, which is its own little chunk of stress, as is leaving the dog and cat on their own for – usually – thirteen hours at a time.

We had some added stresses this year, like a couple of weeks with no running water, and several months during which any use of water required repriming the pump, recharging the pressure tank and then turning the pump off so it wouldn’t suck air, overheat and melt important gaskety bits. I could do the dishes or take a shower, but not both on one prime. You get the idea.

I mentioned Gail Anderson-Dargatz last week, and her lovely no-sugar-coating look at the writer’s life. She said that 250 words a day was a good day’s work, and I felt my jaw drop. It took a minute to sink in. Here was a writer who had published more than ten books, telling me that perhaps I didn’t need to be quite so driven as I’ve usually been.

The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made. Perhaps my recent burnout and reluctance to hit the page had more to do with my frenetic pace than I’d thought.

So my goal now is 250 words a day, when I’m writing something new. When I’m rewriting, as I am (again) with The Swan Harp, I like to get through three or four pages. And it’s working. I feel happy to get back to the page, whether it’s new words or rewriting previous ones. That’s a great feeling.

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In June Stories in the North hosted Gail Anderson-Dargatz for  two workshops and an evening reading (with music by local duo the Crossroads Magdalenes). During the afternoon workshop, Gail announced that she was going to give us the un-sugar-coated truth: most writers do not make a living at writing.

It had an incredible impact, coming from an author whose work had been twice nominated for the Giller award, and has just had a third nomination. She has published more than ten books, and yet, she said, she doesn’t make her living at writing.

“Writing isn’t a way to make a living,” she told us. “It’s a way to make a life.”

I come from close on twenty years of making a living at art, first as a printmaker and graphic designer (when you did it with a pencil, not a mouse), and then as a potter. It’s never been a great living, but it’s been sufficient. When I decided to earn money writing, I thought I’d be able to do the same thing, and when I couldn’t, I believed I was a failure. I had no standard of comparison except for a few friends who seemed to have it nailed, and my own success in my former arts endeavours.

It’s been ten years since I earned my living by my art, and up until about 1:00 p.m. on June 25th, I believed there was something seriously wrong with me because I wasn’t making the money with writing that I’d made with pottery. But Gail’s unvarnished truth made me look at my writing with fresh eyes. I’m actually quite astoundingly successful (and also incredibly modest, may I say!) Here’s why:

I’ve had two books published. I have quite literally hundreds of publication credits on radio, in print and on the internet. I’ve won grants with my work, and awards as well. I write with pleasure, and I finish what I write. I put it out for sale, and I don’t give up when it doesn’t work the first time. Perhaps most importantly, I’m happy with the things I write, and glad I’ve written them. An unsold story is still a story I made up and told, and that’s (almost) enough in itself.

So thank you, Gail. I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.


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Of art and the universe

angels and elementalssmall

Almost everything I have on my walls is an original, either a painting or a print (I mean silkscreen, engraving or woodcut, not a reproduction). I have a long history of buying art directly from artists, mostly because I used to work a lot of craft shows when I was a printmaker and again when I was a potter.

I don’t work craft shows any more, but a couple of months ago David and I were having breakfast at Bobber’s in Bruce Mines, where we stop once or twice a week on the way home from work. The owner paints, and many of her pictures are on the walls. Most of them are landscapes, lighthouses, waterscapes, the kind of thing you would see in our lovely part of Northern Ontario. But a few months ago she hung up an abstract, and it captivated me. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I knew it was one of those pieces that I had to have in my life.

The thing is, Hildegard sells her paintings. Many of them have price stickers on them. Occasionally one disappears. This one didn’t have a sticker, but I didn’t want it to disappear from my life. I asked the price, heart in throat. Maybe it wasn’t for sale. Maybe it wasn’t going to be in my range.

Neither was true. The price was well below the limit I’d set myself – and that limit always has an upward-negotiation range. It was so low, in fact, that I asked if she wouldn’t take more – which she wouldn’t. She didn’t even have a name for it, but I did. I call it “Angels and Elementals”.

Now this painting – the one at the top of the page – is on my living room wall, and it makes me happy every time I look at it. I believe that if you see a piece of art you love, you should buy it if you possibly can. I also believe you don’t haggle with artists – goodness knows most of them are woefully underpaid for their work and materials, let alone their talent.

It occurred to me lately that over the years I’ve had some amazing bargains, all unasked for, when I buy a piece I love. The thing is on sale. The gallery is paying the taxes that day. The artist likes me. Something happens, and work I love comes into my hands, and I don’t have to skip dinner to buy it. I am, incidentally, willing to skip dinner to buy art, and I’ve done it a time or two.

Maybe the universe loves my attitude. Maybe it doesn’t care at all. But, honestly, I’ve been incredibly lucky in being able to own art that calls to me. I just wanted to share that.


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Considering the hyphen…

..which I have had particular cause to do this week. On Wednesday last, at 9:30 p.m., my niece gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, and I became a great-aunt.

When I announced this to friends, sundry of them responded with, “Well, you’ve always been a great aunt!” Immodest as it may be of me to say so, I think I’m doing not too shabbily in the aunting department. I may, in fact, be a great aunt, although it’s not really for me to say.

Add the hyphen, though, and I can definitely claim great-aunthood. Those who know me know I’m not really a kid person, so I find myself rather unexpectedly excited about this little guy. Maybe it’s just the whole generational thing – becoming as close as I’m ever going to get to being a grandma.

Or maybe it’s just that now I have a really simple, clear demonstration of the importance of the hyphen. Without the hyphen, I am a sterling example of all aunthood should be. With it, I am my sister’s grandchild’s aunt – or possibly aunt-once-removed. And if you put them both together, well, then I’m a spectacular great-aunt, a GREAT great-aunt. Something to which to aspire.

However you write it, I’m very happy about the whole thing, and looking forward to meeting my great-nephew. My great great-nephew.




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