Announcing: An online CNF course!

In the new year I’m finally going to make my dream of teaching online happen! I’m currently developing a 6 week course on what I call “CNF outliers” — a look at unique forms in the creative non-fiction genre including flash non-fiction, the prose poem, the lyric essay and the hermit crab essay.

I’ve wanted to teach online for almost as long as I’ve been running my business (Sparrow’s five year anniversary is coming up this February). Initially I thought I might design courses about content marketing–more businessy topics–but now that I’m finally ready to jump in, I’ve decided I’d much rather teach creative writing. It’s a perfect way to combine my passion for creative non-fiction with my love for the personal and collective growth that comes with engaging with a writing community, and a nice way to get back into teaching.

If you’d like to dive in to a CNF online course in the new year, please get in touch and I’ll add you to my mailing list! You’ll be the first to know when registration for my online CNF course opens. I’m planning to launch the first CNF outliers e-course in early 2017.

Success and the Long Game

What does success mean to a writer — or any artist?

My mentor, Laisha, very early in our collaboration talked about “playing the long game” — treating writing as a long-term commitment, working at the craft regularly, finishing projects that may take months or even years to reach completion. Most importantly, continuing whether or not the work is recognized or celebrated.

I will tell you that I am not, by nature, a patient person. It is very hard for me to follow through with ideas, to let things unfold in their own time, to stay with things that offer no guarantee of reward. What has made the difference with my writing — unlike flamenco dancing or other true but less gripping loves, like sewing or painting — is passion. I need to write, and that need has kept me going since I first started recording my thoughts, ideas and experiences in journals when I was 12 or 13 years old.

This love affair I have with words experienced a cooling period this year. The passion didn’t disappear, but it seemed my ability to create anything new did.

I got what I wanted for my work. My writing was published, shortlisted for awards, and it even won a few. People read my work — or heard my work, when I was invited to read it — and responded to it. I tried to step back and see my writing as objectively as I could in the context of this little bit of success. I tried to read it fresh, as if I wasn’t the author. When I did this, I began to really wonder how I made it — where on earth this writing came from. I knew it was mine, but it no longer felt like mine. It felt like this work had been given to me as a gift; that anything that received recognition arrived through some kind of channel while I was in a particularly receptive phase.

In June I was invited to read as part of the Southbank Writer’s Series and I accepted with excitement and gratitude. But as I tried to choose what to read I asked myself, “If a piece of my writing hasn’t been recognized in some way, is it bad? Can I, should I, read it?”

That’s where a little bit of success got me. Not to a new, relaxed confidence in my work but a deeper kind of self-doubt.

I stopped believing I could ever write anything like those poems or essays ever again. It wasn’t up to me. It was up to the benefactor, the source of these pieces that I happened to open up to and embrace, in a particularly magical time. It had little to do with me at all. I stopped believing this art was borne of my own hard work, years of labouring at a craft; it came from somewhere else, something I didn’t have control over.

Of course, I won’t ever write what I’ve written before. That’s the thing about art; you’re always a beginner when you start a new project. You begin from the same place, no matter how skilled or experienced you are with your craft. And that is a little bit terrifying.

Here’s what I’ve learned about playing the long game. Extrinsic rewards, like publication or a writing prize, don’t necessarily feed the work — at least not directly. It is wonderful to be read, for my work to be shared, and especially to have met so many brilliant writers this year because I kept writing and kept submitting my writing. I’m so very grateful that my work has led me to so many amazing writers, who have inspired and encouraged me in so many ways.

Back to that godsend, Laisha, who says: writing is a practice. It’s an art, a craft, something she practices every day. I’m back to trying to experience writing as a process, a spiritual practice, too. Reconnecting with what makes me most happy, most fulfilled — going deep, discovering new connections, insight into what my experiences mean. Finding stories where I didn’t realize there were any. Feeling purposeful, doing what I’m supposed to be doing, whether or not the pages I write turn into anything more.

What does your art mean to you? How do you define success? Have long, fallow periods been part of your process? I am very interested in the ebbs and flows in the work of other artists and writers. Please, do tell. Leave me a comment. Drop me a line.

Full Circle: A Collaboration

Rain, a photo by Isabel Antunes inspired by my story, Shame Shame.

Recently one of my personal essays, Shame Shame, was published at Hippocampus, an online literary magazine devoted to memorable creative non-fiction.

I was so excited when I received the acceptance email over Christmas, I leaped out of my chair, screamed and jumped up and down.

Acceptances are rare! But word that my piece would finally be published inspired such joyous dancing because it’s so close to my heart. Since I wrote it a full year ago I’ve been very eager for it to find its proper literary home.

My essay retraces the fall of 1989, when I was bullied by two girls at school over a boy. This piece is about more than bullying, though. It’s about first love and loss, and how vulnerable we are as teens, constantly trying to gauge our worth while, at the same time, unable to really see ourselves.

Writing it dredged up all the fears I experienced the first time around; thinking about publishing it raised new fears. Would one of the girls who bullied me read it and insist it never happened? Would, after everything else, they try to take that away from me, too?

I’ve received amazing support for having written and shared my story — every day, from known and unknown sources, more likes, comments and shares! It feels good to have told the truth about what was for so long a pent up secret, and for people to respond to my story by calling it gutsy and beautiful.

What was also exciting about having this particular piece published in Hippocampus was the opportunity to provide a photo to accompany it. With the support of the publisher, Donna Talarico, I asked the photography teacher at my old high school to invite a few students to an anti-bullying day collaboration. They each read my story and used it as inspiration to take some photos around the school.

It was difficult to decide which piece to submit to the magazine, but after careful consideration I chose Isabel Antunes’ Rain. It so perfectly captures the mood of the piece — the endless rain, the girl in the jean jacket walking away, alone, under the umbrella. I love how Isabel tied the imagery from my story into the piece so beautifully.

Centennial photography students Ian Garcia & Isabel Antunes.

The timing of publication for Shame Shame lined up with anti-bullying day here in Canada — the perfect opportunity to wear my pink shirt, meet the photography students at my old school and get one last tour before it gets torn down in a few months.

I would love for Isabel’s photo and my story to keep making the rounds online. If you have a moment to read the piece and feel inspired to comment, like or share, please do. Hippocampus keeps a tally on social shares for each story and at the end of the month, the one with the most shares receives a “Most Memorable Award” — a special badge added to the archived article, which will also be notated on a most memorable page.

An amazing opportunity for my story to continue to reach new readers over time!

xo

 

 

Everyday Inspiration

2016 Everyday Inspiration collageEvery January I make a collage/vision board to kick off a new year. This is how I want to approach the world in 2016: celebrating the big and small, developing as a writer and connecting with people by living a creative life.

On the theme of everyday inspiration, this gorgeous song is currently turning in my head — both the original by Martin Tielli, one of my favourite singer/songwriters and artists, and the beautiful version by Art of Ensemble with Sarah Slean. They’re both rich and gorgeous.

What’s currently inspiring you to keep doing what you’re here to do?

Shortlisted: Room’s 2015 Poetry Prize

What makes a poem?

I’ve asked songwriters this question. “What inspired this? How did this amazing thing happen? Where do songs come from?”

When I asked my friend, Eryn, she shrugged, raising her hands as if to say “I don’t know” but also laughing a bit as she gestured mysteriously to the heavens.

With songs and poems there is some kind of alchemy at work, it seems, where the mysterious “out there” merges with whatever’s “in here” — deep inside the mind of the poet or songwriter.

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I learned on Monday that a poem I submitted to Room’s annual poetry contest was shortlisted, much to my surprise and delight. Although I can’t explain the alchemy that happens when a poem becomes a poem, I would love to share a bit about the influences and forces that shaped this particular piece, which is about the aftermath of losing someone I loved when I was in high school.

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First things first, this poem begins with acknowledging Laisha Rosnau, whom I’ve been mentoring with over the past year.

Last fall I told Laisha what I wanted to write about. She posed a challenge: write a long poem for the Malahat Review’s annual contest, but first read Sue Goyette’s long poem, “Ocean”.

I ran with the challenge and wrote a lyric series of 10 poems which, like every section of “Ocean”, begins with the collective “we”. Whether my shortlisted poem took on any other traits of Goyette’s beautiful book or simply acted as a prompt for the poems that wanted to be written, I can’t say.

My long poem wasn’t longlisted, but I kept working with the individual poems in the series, one of which became, “Later I’ll Set Aside Sorrow,” the poem that made me a finalist for Room’s contest.

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Although my poem was drafted as part of a longer work, its first stirrings began 25 years earlier deep in my subconscious. The poem is based on a dream I had in the months following my friend’s death. I wrote about this vivid dream — which felt like more than a dream — in a journal. But I didn’t need to revisit my old diaries to recall the details. It’s still very much alive in my memory: my friend’s unexpected appearance — happy, radiating light, laughing when I was startled upon first seeing him in my basement, his body a solid form I could wrap my arms around although I knew, at the same time, he couldn’t be alive.

“I didn’t die,” he told me. “Not really.”

The rest of the dream I spent trying to get some resolution to the nagging questions I was left with when he died. Why did any of this happen? What did it all mean? Did anything even matter when you can die suddenly at 17?

What in the teenage confusion of a close but undefined friendship did we mean to each other, now that it was over?

There is resolution by the end of the poem. And there’s resolution in me, finally, for having written this and other work.

*****

The final major influence that helped me resolve the poem was meeting with my friend’s sister. Talking to her led to some unexpected insights and epiphanies. I thought I understood everything that had taken place all those years ago. When I told my friend’s sister how strongly I felt about her brother, she said, “You were special to him, too.”

“No,” I resisted, “I wasn’t. He didn’t feel that way. He never told me.”

“You didn’t understand him!” she said, “He could never tell you.”

That lack of understanding is what I spend the poem grappling with. But in knowing him a bit better through his sister, I was able to finish the conversation we could never finish in life. I was able to have him say at the end of the poem, “You didn’t understand me. But one day you will.”

*****

What makes a shortlisted poem?

This, too, is mysterious.

In my case, it helped to have a trusted mentor who could provide objective feedback on which poems were the strongest contenders for this particular award. I don’t submit to every literary contest and lately I’ve been focusing my writing efforts on creative non-fiction. But I decided to submit three poems to Room after reading an interview with Jen Currin, the judge for this year’s contest.

It can be difficult to write about less-than-tangible things like spirits, energy, intuition, etcetera; yet, for me, these things are just as “real” as the computer I am typing this on and the coffee cup next to it, said Currin.

I thought: This is a kindred spirit. Those less-than-tangible things are very real to me, too. I want to keep writing about them. And I want to share my strange poems with the world, where spirits visit and help you work out your stuff.

I knew, then, that this was the right contest to submit my recent work to.

*****

What does this honour mean to me?

Being shortlisted for a contest held by an esteemed magazine like Room is something I’m always going to carry with me. It’s a thrill to be recognized for this work that is so close to my heart. It’s encouragement to keep writing, to keep working on the manuscript I’ve started and see it through to the end.

And I already feel like my poem is a winner no matter which poet is awarded first or second prize next week.

*****
A strange “less-than-tangible” thing happened this morning as I was driving my kids to school, still daydreaming about how incredible it is to be a finalist for Room’s poetry prize.

The license plate on the car in front of mine caught my eye: GDN 222.

Ha! I thought. Nice one, Universe. GDN. Gordon. Shorthand for the name of the dear friend I wrote about in my poem. Funny coincidence.

Then I remembered reading somewhere that 222 is considered by some to be of spiritual significance. An angel number.

I don’t understand the mysterious workings of angels or why certain numbers are purported to be meaningful in angel-human communication. But these strange things happen often enough to take note of, and seemingly at meaningful times.

Like making Room’s shortlist, I’ll take it as a good sign.

Kindergarten Art Inspiration

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Some recent artwork by my son.

Such ingenuity, combining his love for playing cards and his favourite stuffie, Shamrock Puppy, who has been a part of his life since the day he was born.

Isn’t this what creativity is all about? Putting together new and usual combinations, exploring all possibilities?

Such a champ winning a robot stuffie at the PNE. All I had to do was toss three nickels on plates without them flying off...

 

 
I also love that a memorable day we spent this summer at the PNE — where I won a new stuffie for my son — also became inspiration for a work of art.

 

 

Who else but the King of Spades?

Roboty, King of Spades

Now off to for a week of creative exploration, for kindergarten artistes and mommies alike…

I’ll be working top speed to meet the writing deadline for this exciting call for submissions

Happy Monday, everyone!

Boston Marriage

Art card by Karen Watson

My forever sweetheart and I were married in Boston five years ago. We joined hands in a ceremony with our children on a full moon Thursday at the Arnold Arboretum — a gem of stunning greenery in what’s known as Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a 4.5 km2 stretch of parks and waterways that includes the city’s Public Garden, Boston Common and Jamaica Pond.

Our friend, Angela, custom made our wedding dresses for us. I arranged $100 worth of white be-ribboned faux hydrangeas, creamy blooms and violet blossoms into bouquets and a boutineer for our six month old son.

A pair of purple and turquoise Converse high tops completed our look — what else to wear when you’re married in a verdant forest in the city that heralded the old Victorian (and yet thoroughly modern) notion of the Boston Marriage?

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Our choice of wedding shoes resulted in a number of inspired works of art. Our beloved on-site wedding photographer, Mitch, captured us wearing them on a park bench in Boston Common. The talented illustrator and our dear friend Karen Watson recreated the photo above in watercolour. Another talented artist and friend, Graeme Partridge-David, did the same for us as a wedding gift.

Heart shaped…

On our five year anniversary, my well-worn and well-loved high tops are bleach-splattered from a leak in the hall closet emergency kit three years ago. The rubber outer lining is cracked on one side; my right shoe lets in water on rainy day walks. The piano-key laces I laced them with are no longer a crisp white.

I’m sad to say, it’s time to retire them for a new pair. But not without memorializing them in one last photo. And this blog post.

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I remember wearing my purple high tops on our honeymoon in Cape Cod. One afternoon we got caught in a spectacular rainstorm as we explored the town of Orleans. It was the first week of October and just a few weeks after Hurricane Earl had swept up the New England coastline, reaching 145 mph winds at its peak. The afternoon we drove down the Mid-Cape highway from our rental house in North Truro the sky was heavy and grey.

By the time my wife and I finished off our lattes at our new favourite haunt, Hot Chocolate Sparrow, the rain was pounding against the roof of the cafe. It sounded like Kate Braid had turned her toolbox upside down and a cascade of nuts, bolts, screws and tools were pinging and clattering against a hardwood floor.

We were drenched by the time we dodged puddles and parked cars, carrying our wide eyed three year old and swaddled babe through the lot to our car. The yellow double lines were barely visible along the length of Route 6 back to headquarters as stretches of the roadway began to flood.

Driving below the speed limit for a long stretch time I had to rely on the brake lights of the car in front of me to guide us home; even the shapes of cars were blurry as rain slid down the windshield in sheets, the glass only momentarily clear in rainbow arcs. Heart racing, I pulled into the garage and we clambered into the warmth of our cozy living room.

That night lightning lit up our bedroom. The wind howled and shook the windows, tossing lawn chairs across the back deck. We couldn’t sleep under the bubbled skylight. By midnight, we’d moved the kids downstairs with us into the twin beds of second floor guestroom for fear a swaying tree would fall on the roof or the windows would shatter in the bluster.

It may seem that I’m sidling up to some kind of metaphor for marriage. Of course the odd storm hits. External pressures — not unlike unforeseen and threatening forces of nature — can batter and blind you as individuals or as a couple, testing the strength of your commitment.

As I write this post I don’t really know how a storm metaphor belongs in a post about wedding shoes. Surely a quirky-cute pair of shoes won’t hold back a Category 4 hurricane.

Can a heart full of love? The deep desire to nurture and protect the children you wanted with an indescribable ache long before the dream unfolded and finally became real?

Maybe. It has so far.

*****

Noam shoes reduced

Mini-Converse

As I bid farewell to my well-worn shoes, I can take comfort that our son’s navy blue baby-size Converse will continue to hang from the rear view mirror of our car, as it has since the day we returned from our honeymoon.

They’re so small and perfect, though they’ve faded several shades from exposure to the sun. They remind me of my sweet son on that day, his perfect chubby baby faced smile. The handsome tuxedo onesie I changed him into in the bathroom of the Omni Hotel where we dined that night on steak and lobster, drank Moet et Chandon and ate Boston Cream Pie in the very place that invented it.

Here’s to five years of Boston Marriage, Honeys. Because the wedding wasn’t just about two people; it was about all four of us.

And soon, for many more years of adventure together, some new pairs of shoes.