The Canadian writers’ blog tour

On her blog Borrowing Bones, novelist Dora Dueck tagged me to carry the next leg of the “Canadian writers’ blog tour,” a chain letter that a.) doesn’t promise death by zombie if you don’t respond within 24 hours, b.) doesn’t spread lies about Bill Gates, c.) doesn’t make anyone angry at you for passing it on.

When Dora asked to tag me, she observed that I was a little behind in blogging. I started this blog to collect strategies for overcoming writer’s block, and it worked: now I’m so busy writing that I don’t have time to blog! Thanks, Dora, for the excuse to blog again. It’s good timing since I have big news.

1. What am I working on?

I have a poetry book coming out with Brick Books in fall 2016! It’s a collection of poems about longing for the experiences of a typical family and giving birth to unusual children instead.

The poems reveal both the ache and whimsy of autism. Through the public judgments, broken dreams and unspoken prayers, they trace our slow, unexpected bonding. From a newborn “glossed and quivering” to the fear of strange toilets, I hope to internalize the earthiness and transcendence of mother love – to startle readers with joy.

We don’t have a firm title yet, but we’ve nicknamed it “Zippered.” This domestic image suggests both the connection of two sides into one and separation of each individual into their own covering, both the comfort of a closed sweatshirt and the jaggedness of teeth. I’m playing with some fun titles about outer space too.

I also have arts grants to draft my second project: poems about my four Mennonite grandparents, my childhood memories, their histories, their deaths. These poems contain more nature images. Like the autism collection, I want joy and connection to be the final word.

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

My work differs from many poetry books in that it’s accessible to non-poets. Even poetry-haters. Language play and musicality are means to placing the reader/hearer within a new experience (such pulling their child off a bridge railing), not the ends in themselves. I love it when readers/hearers say, “I hate poetry, but this is so funny,” or “That was the first time a poem has made me cry.”

And it’s not like some books by parents of autistic children in that it’s celebratory. Books about autism often fall into these categories: my child is a fairy messenger from heaven, my child was cured by peppermint oil and puppets, or I wish my child were dead. The first downplays the difficulties and ODs readers on Sugar Twin, the second places guilt on families who’ve tried everything without improvement, and the third denies the dignity of human life in a way that makes me sick.

My book is honest about the adjustments, the fears, the exhaustion, as well as the goofiness, the surprising successes. If I promise any improvement, it’s in the parent and the relationship through the magic of acceptance.

3. Why do I write what I do? 

I write to turn my life from a series of burnt cookies and lost keys into a work of art. Making a memory into a poem both memorializes the pleasure and redeems the pain. In a poem, I can hold onto my grandma a little longer. In a poem, I can see my mothering from the outside, find the humour, and offer myself grace.

I write for the fun of performing what I’ve written. For the joy of rubbing shoulders with other writers. And (I’ll be honest) I write for the praise. Hearing Brick’s acquisition editor (and one of my favourite poets) Barry Dempster say my manuscript “has guts and heart and takes loads of risks” meant almost as much to me as his request to shortlist it!

It’s been said about newspapers, preachers, and social activists that they “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” “Afflict” is too strong a word for my poetry, but my editor said, “it shakes up some of her complacencies.” I hope that my poems change the way the uninitiated see the screaming child in the checkout line and the mother who’s distracting him with his DS instead of threatening punishment. And in a time when we’re debating assisted suicide, I hope my poems about my grandpa show that meaningful connection and dementia are not mutually exclusive.

The comforting piece is even bigger for me. I want parents and individuals with autism to see themselves in some of my poems and feel like someone else “gets it.” Someone interrupted me once at my reading to say, “I have autism and I want to thank you. Your stories are very encouraging.” That’s why I write what I do.

4. How does my writing process work?

The biggest step in becoming a poet for me was overcoming perfectionism: learned to be okay with writing crap. If anyone read my notebooks, I’d be mortified. Crazy lines about French fries in the snow next to itchy skulls and imprinting goslings. One out of every 100 crazy lines grows into duller than dull prose. Then I pull out the phrases that grab me (something Erin Moure taught me called “finding the heat”) and write material around them. I try the text in long lines and short lines.

Workshopping is a huge part of my process. I take every Manitoba Writers’ Guild poetry class I can. And a new poem is not ready for the public until it’s passed Joanne Epp and whoever else joins our little writers’ group. In the beginning (2012), it was Melanie Dennis Unrau; for the last year, it’s been Sue Wonnek. They see musical sound combinations I didn’t realize I was making and find places where I’ve left key elements in my head instead of on the page.

And speaking of Joanne: I’ve tagged her “Words and Music” blog at joanneepp.com as the next stop on the blog tour. She has a book coming out this spring that I cannot wait to read.

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Next (or in this case, First) Big Thing

Angeline reflected in a microwave

I found “The Next Big Thing” blog meme on Ariel Gordon’s blog (http://janedayreader.blogspot.ca) and although I’m sure it’s meant for award-winning, well-known, or at least already-published writers, I thought it would be fun to play along, if for no other reason than to refocus my own thoughts on my project. So for all my adoring readers, here’s the scoop on my next big work in progress:

What is the working title of your book?


You’re Not Nisselling
.

When my daughter was a toddler, we had to have a girl-English glossary on the fridge, so that babysitters and visitors would know what she was saying. “Dew” was milk, “Beep beep” meant nuke it, and “sssss” was short for “cheddar cheese cubes please.” “You’re Not Nisselling!” was my daughter’s “You’re not listening!” and it came out quite often at the dinner table, often accompanied by tiny pounding fists, because we couldn’t hear her over her brother’s echolalic repetition of all the books, radio announcements, cartoons, conversations, and commercials he’d heard during the day.

I chose it as a title because often we don’t hear other people’s words or feelings, and poetry is a way of rectifying that, a deeper form of attentiveness. Particularly with children on the autism spectrum, since they communicate differently and unexpectedly (often wordlessly), we miss or misunderstand what they’re telling us. And what the Creator is telling us through them. I wanted poetry to give them and their parents a voice by representing a range of experiences and emotions, both devastating and exhilarating, world-shattering and everyday.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

From life. Most poets start with personal lyrics, and I’m too new at the game to have that out of my system yet. When I began seriously writing poetry in spring 2011, I wrote elegies for my four grandparents and my miscarried child. But it wasn’t long before my Aspie children’s idiosyncrasies and injustices started creeping into my poems.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry.

Friends ask me when I’m going to write a real book about my life. This is it, folks. If you want it in prose, call me and I’ll rant all you like. If you want to read it the way I want it to be read – that is, molded and redeemed into something beautiful – then read my poetry.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Thomas Horn would play my son K because a) he was adorable in Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close , b) He’s interested in languages like K is, and chose Mandarin for a K-like logical reason: it’s the most common first language in the world, so you can talk to the most people for the same amount of effort, and c) He’s smart enough to know the capitals of anywhere and win $31,800 on Jeopardy.

Link to pictures of Thomas Horn>

Or perhaps Justin Bieber. He’s almost as cute as K, and I’d be taken off G’s “worst mother ever” list (for making her clean up her laundry in Cinderella-like fashion) if she actually got to meet him.

I have no idea who would play G (who could possibly recreate all her expressions?), but I’ve decided Amy Adams would be me. Someone once told me I looked like her and whether or not she was correct, I’d say it was quite a compliment.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

My book is a poetic exploration of the heart-breaking, exasperating, silly and soaring moments of parenting a child on the autism spectrum from pre-pregnancy genetic testing to (heaven-help-me) puberty.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’ll keep submitting it to publishers, starting local and moving outward, until I find one. If every publisher on earth rejects it, I’ll revise and start over.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I began working on it during my Writers’ Guild mentorship with Meira Cook last January-May. On my MAC grant application, I gave myself until July to finish the first draft, but I already have some 70 poems in the collection, so I’ve begun spending more time on the slow work of revision, as I continue to generate new pieces (just less feverishly). I’ll probably take another year to revise, and then start sending it out, which could take years of waiting and rejection (let’s try not to think about that yet).

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This seems a bit pretentious, since any book I’d compare my work with would be so much better because it’s already been edited, revised, and deemed worthy of publishing. But I do have a model: Julie Cadwallader-Staub’s Face to Face, a collection about her journey through her husband’s cancer from diagnosis, through illness, death, grieving, and moving on by herself. It’s a fitting guide because of the thematic and chronological nature of both our works, and the exemplary way she weaves humour and pain on the framework of honesty, hope, and faith – a tone I strive to emulate.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I am blessed to live in Winnipeg, surrounded by poets who are not only talented, but exceedingly gracious:

My mentor Meira Cook, without whose encouragement and guidance I would likely not have a focus, a grant, publishing credits, or the confidence to keep going.

My writers’ “group” and friend Joanne Epp, willing to take a few hours out of every month to gently critique my poems.

Angeline and Joanne

Joanne and I at her chapbook launch in 2012

My sister-in-law Luann Hiebert, who shares my love of poetry, reading her work with me at events and calming my nerves.

Sarah Klassen, who challenges me to be purposeful and transparent in all my word choices.

Angeline and Sarah

At Sarah Klassen’s launch of Monstrance

Jennifer Still, who treats me like I’m already a “real” poet (even though I fear my nose is growing every time I claim to be one), who smiles thoughtfully and nods appreciatively at my wordplay.

Sally Ito, whose wise, kind words and biblical imagery always give me creative energy.

Roo Borson and Erin Moure, workshop teachers from elsewhere, so experienced and accomplished, and yet affirming of my skills and experimentations.

Don McKay and Mary Oliver, whom I’ve never met, but who, through their vastly different but equally beautiful poems, challenge me to continually grow both more complex and more simple.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

My book is for anyone who has experienced parenthood, felt different, enjoyed words, met an Aspie, lost a dream only to find a new one…. Did I miss anybody? It has purple squirrels and culvert people, sofa rockets and Walmart shoefiti, preschool welding kits and elementary school moonings, Darth divas and a whole lot of childish fun and grownup hair-tearing.

Besides all the other poets I’ve mentioned, I’d love to hear more about the work in progress of Joanne Epp (http://joanneepp.com), novelist Dora Dueck (http://doradueck.wordpress.com), Sally Ito (http://sallyito.com), non-fiction writer Dorothy Siebert (http://dorothysiebert.wordpress.com), and Julie Cadwallader-Staub (http://www.juliecspoetry.com). (I think that’s all the writers for whom I have web addresses!)

* * *

Rules of the Next Big Thing

Use this format for your post
Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is the working title of your book?
Where did the idea for the book come from?
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
* * *

a word about/on/of/for/with/by finding my own voice

My worst fear is not rejection slips. My worst fear is that I will be published in a book that will turn out to be redundant and unnecessary and end its life in the 50 cent bin at an Esso on the #1 Hy-way in Saskatchewan (shudder). With the volume of books already published, how does an inexperienced writer hope to add anything new?

On her blog Borrowing Bones (doradueck.wordpress.com), Dora Dueck recently explored the relationship between reading great writers and writing. In response to my questions about how to remain generative rather than reactionary, Dueck interviewed Shirley Hershey Showalter, who is reading 100 memoirs before writing her own, on the topic of finding one’s own voice while listening to the chorus of writers who’ve gone before us.

As I read their conversation, I recalled two diverse quotes on originality. One is Janet Fitch’s wisdom to “avoid clichés.” And she doesn’t just mean the threadbare ones: “When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché.” Whatever happened to imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? Oh, sorry. You’ve probably heard that before. While I agree that sometimes the “tried and true” is more “tired and thirty,” aiming for originality seems like a ticket to madness. (A naked man juggling dead squirrels on the roof is unique, but without fitting any of our cultural categories, he says nothing.)

And then you have C.S. Lewis’ wisdom: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

If I had to choose one, I’d say Lewis is the more necessary. But as an editor, I’d have to say he takes it too far in the other direction. Many people tell the truth. Badly. I suspect part of the problem is that they were unwilling to tell the whole truth. But the fact is, there are myriad ways to share facts, and many are not worth reading. Or at the least, not worth reading twice.

Returning to Dora Dueck’s blog, I was intrigued (as were others) by her image of the stream (borrowed from Willa Cather): “A woman writer stands in the stream of literary history, but lets it fall away to reveal the purer self that sings naturally in her own body, in her own voice.” At first this analogy left me with only cold, wet feet and more questions. How does one control what will wash away and what will not? If I do not yet recognize my own poetic voice, how do I know it will not erode or dissolve as soon as my toes hit the water? Then I found this:

In an essay on (about/of/for/with) his influences in Rhubarb, Rudy Wiebe”> begins with an etymology lesson. Influence is the preposition “in” plus the Latin “fluence” – to flow.

“Is Rhubarb asking: what, in a lifetime, has flowed in you,
Rudy Wiebe? Or is it “flowed into,” or “flowed through/
within/past/under/over/beside/ out of/against,” all those
powerful, essential prepositions which in English shapeshift
and control our meanings? Or is the question really:
what, with all this flowing somewhere in you, has remained behind to make
you the writer you continue trying to become? Tell us, make it up (down/out?)
as necessary.”

When I think of the literary stream flowing through me, not under or around me, rather than imagining it washing me from the outside, I imagine the stream becoming part of me, like the water I drink; what I love, remember, and cling to from other writers (like Wiebe and Dueck) – those “flowings in” will irrigate me, silt up my banks, colour my own flow with its algae and grasses. Because the stream flows in me, rather than me standing in it, my literary traditions and mentors cannot wash away my experiences and beliefs (trapped inside me) – these will make my voice my own.

Mouse #6: show your ID

I’ve been having a reoccurring conversation with a colleague: at what point can one may safely identify oneself as a “writer”? Is a writer someone who enjoys writing? Who writes a lot? Who writes for their living? Or is there a certain level of proficiency required? To use a bad medical metaphor: someone may enjoy cutting people up, and in a bizarre world may find idiots willing to pay them to do it, but unless they are trained and certified, they should not be calling themselves “surgeons.” So when I hack away at words, am I in danger of malpractice?

Warning: Weird Al is not licensed by the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons.

As you know, my goal is to expand myself beyond news writing into the more creative genres of poetry and fiction. To that end, I’ve decided to hang out where the literary people go. (While walking into a barn hardly makes one an animal, if one spends enough time there, a person does start to smell like one.) I finally went to Speaking Crow poetry open mic at Aqua Books. I took a young poet friend from church, both to encourage her as a writer and so I didn’t have to walk into a new place alone. I expected a circle of chairs where we’d join 10-15 other amateur poets reading and giving each other feedback.

We walked into a long room that had a stage with a podium and row upon row of chairs. It resembled a church, with the exception of the bar at the back and the lighted “applause” sign up front. (I’m sure my pastor would have fun with one of those.) I’d say there were at least 100 people in those seats and 17 readers that night. The conspiracy theorist sitting next to us, who smelled of alcohol and reads his 5-syllable acrostics here regularly, said this was the largest gathering of Crows he’d ever seen. We were a mix of teenage rappers, gray-bearded impersonators, prolific authors, foul-mouthed political satirists, Aboriginal spiritualists, storytellers, award winners, and comedians. The level of writing challenged and impressed me.

My friend and I each read three poems. Like a true chicken – I mean “coach” – I let her go first. She was the only one to receive spontaneous applause (started by the other teenage poet in the room) after a passionate piece about accepting differences. Most of us received applause when our names were announced and when we left the stage, which was plenty gratifying, although they may just have been happy to see some of us go. I began with a little experimental poem using computer terms to describe the isolation of motherhood:

It all starts with a mother-bored
no connection options
left to her own devices
driver
demand for enhanced performance
embedded in her system
error message
processing connections
no communication with the network
components of a lost memory
upgrade initialized
expansion
complete

Then I read one of my favourites, “Now I Lay Me Down,” reflecting on my late night moments of remorse on the floor beside my sleeping toddler’s crib before we knew why he was so difficult to reach and redirect.

Unlike when I preach at my church, I had everyone’s eyes; also unlike at church, I couldn’t begin to guess what they were thinking. When I read the last few lines about sleep and hair, I heard the emcee on stage beside me gasp. I wish I could have asked him why.

I finished my 3 minutes of glory with the “Deep Cleanser” poem I wrote for this blog and published in the MB Herald. That one got even more audible audience reaction than the second, and I wondered: Did they love my use of metaphor? Were they offended or moved by my message about the power of Grace to transform? The next day, I woke up and gasped myself when it hit me that they may have taken the “he” in “where you need him most/ he travels deep/ works while you sleep” as referring to a “member” of something other than the Trinity. The thought that I may have introducing myself to the poetry community as sexually provocative, rather than spiritually and artistically evocative, made me want to drink my cleanser. Which brings me back to the messy issue of identity.

Last weekend at the Manitoba Book Awards (where Dora Dueck’s This Hidden Thing won Book of the Year!), I wanted to meet novelist David Bergen. Remembering my colleague’s cautions, I wondered, should I introduce myself to him as a writer? I don’t want to sound arrogant or presumptuous. (But neither do I want to sound like just another reading fan.) He’s won the Giller Prize and numerous Manitoba book awards; I’ve won 2 Canadian Church Press awards (and they weren’t even first place). His name is on the front of books; mine is buried in the table of contents. He creates life out of nothing; I dumpster dive, transcribe, revise, hit & miss. The only thing we have in common is a hometown I was eager to leave.

Am I “another writer”?

Surgeons shouldn’t be hacking flesh without the paperwork, but there is no ID card for writers. Maybe writing is more like parenting: you pop out the baby, and presto: you’re the parent. You barely know which end to wipe first, but you learn as you go. And perhaps writing is more like faith: you tell Jesus you want to follow him and, even though you’re still a bumbly mess who doesn’t know the poisoned apple from the fruit of the Spirit, he says confess it with your mouth, tell it on a mountain, identify yourself with me. The more you do, the more like Jesus we become.

“Hi David. Congratulations on your award. I’m Angeline, another writer refined in the fires of Niverville.”