From the same work in progress as this, although that has changed in the meantime. I write very slowly, as you can probably tell (and yeah, I fudged the geography a little). Comments are still down because I haven't had time to fix them, but feel free to send me a message on twitter.

She hadn't anticipated the boat. She'd gotten her fake Canadian ID, some bright plastic money in a bunch of different colours, smartphone registered with a Canadian carrier and a Canadian SIM card, even paid extra to have a chequing account set up in her new name at the Bank of Montréal. She had pictured a night crossing in the back of an ancient Toyota, glare from halogen lamps whipping across her face as they drove through the checkpoint. Lying to the border guards or even trying to stay quiet in the trunk if it came to that, legs cramping and having to pee and hoping she didn't get sick from the fumes. She'd resigned herself to choking back the claustrophobia. But the boat, that was something else, a risk she hadn't planned for. Her arm could conceivably survive if she went overboard, it had been built rugged, but most of her luggage was less robust consumer-grade computer equipment and some purpose-built maintenance gear running software she'd written herself, all the backups in the same bag as the mains. The boat was not ideal.

It was dark, anyway. She'd been right about that. She'd paid a guy to introduce her to another guy, not a lot in the way of names, and that other guy had a sixteen-foot Lund rigged out for silent running, which meant awkwardly fitted oars on a riveted steel hull painted bright red. He'd piled her bags in the back and put a life jacket up front for her to sit on while he rowed her across the border not far from International Falls. After that she was on her own, but she spoke both official languages and had a pocketful of money; she would be able to more or less blend once she got to a bigger city, though the arm would be a problem.

The crossing went well, if slow, the width and high sides of the Lund's hull giving the guy problems with the oars. She asked him if the river was patrolled, and he said sometimes, but it was better not to take chances. He had a little outboard if necessary, designed for trolling. It wasn't any faster than rowing; its chief virtue was that it would stop the current from being a factor in where they landed. It didn't make much noise, but he didn't want to risk it if he didn't have to. When they got to the other side he asked if she had a GPS unit or at least a compass, but she said no, she hadn't expected to need one. Her phone had GPS, but for some unfathomable reason it wouldn't engage without a cellular signal. It would be tough walking, he told her, but if she followed the river east she'd be fine. Right, he said. Go right.

It took her hours to walk to Fort Frances, the town on the Canadian side. The bush had been thicker than she'd thought possible; tamarack and spruce grabbed at her bags, the Canadian Shield's blend of muskeg and bedrock beneath her feet like some spongy, leaking waterbed that, perversely, contained shoals. The guy had landed her only a few miles from Fort Frances, but she'd spent nearly her entire life in the messy, engineered glare of cities, and her walk was made longer by the ancient human fears of the forest and the dark. When she finally saw the wilted, yellowing grass of that first backyard, the town spread out flat and dry ahead of her, it was all she could do not to collapse.

She managed to stay on her feet until she got to the Greyhound station, guided by a phone that was suddenly useful again, reunited with the infrastructure the dev who'd coded its GPS functions had taken for granted, infrastructure that, strictly speaking, shouldn't have been necessary. The floor of the bus terminal was done up in vinyl tiles of marbled green that were split and coming unglued in places. The walls had probably started out white but had been stained with dirt and grease and who knew what else. It was still cleaner than she'd expected, and the little café sold poutine and perogies alongside the usual burgers and nachos with runny, fluorescent cheese. It was populated with the same collection of drug dealers, small-time hustlers, and panic-eyed homeless as an American bus station, maybe just not as many of them, and more sad than scary.

Her arm was hidden under unseasonably long sleeves, but Fort Frances was a place where it would stand out regardless. She was desperate for rest, but didn't plan to linger. She studied the schedule on the filthy flatscreen hanging in the corner. Fort Frances was so small a place that the entire schedule for the day was displayed on the one screen, not just upcoming departures. She would make her new home in Toronto, because she wanted to get lost in a major city and the next bus was headed in that direction. Two hours earlier and it would have been Vancouver.

If the woman at the ticket kiosk noticed the arm she didn't say anything, and neither did the man at the lunch counter. Nobody was looking at her, but she relaxed after realizing nobody was making a point of not looking at her, either. She bought deep fried perogies and a bottle of water and sat down to wait for her bus, studying the unfamiliar change. She understood for the first time that Canada really was another country, even if it was similar enough to feel familiar. The pictures on the coins looked strange to her, but a dime was still the size of a dime, a quarter still the size of a quarter. She could do it: she could make a life here.

She wished she'd brought a book.

From A Work In Progress (II)

Mar 26, 2016 9:19 PM

posted in: Writing

Don't you just hate really earnest poetry? I don't mean the seriousness and melodrama of the Victorians, or the obliqueness of the Modernists, or even the loony bullshit of sound poets (well, okay, maybe I mean the loony bullshit of sound poets): I'm talking about the work of late-comers, the kind of folks whose work doesn't show any sense of self-awareness, of irony, of humour, or wit. I hate that kind of poetry.

So of course when I sit down to write a poem, that's pretty much all that comes out. Even worse: most of the time my poetry winds up being about women I've loved, or almost loved, or who loved me, or might have loved me, whether I want it to be or not. I make a conscious choice to write about, say, a tree, and by the end I'm writing about how ACYL broke my heart. Some of my fiction winds up that way too, but there mostly I know how to excise that nonsense and get on with the job at hand. In verse? Not a chance. It's not that these are inherently bad subjects to write about, it's just that Jesus Christ, man, get a fucking grip already.

I'm also fascinated by structure, so I write a lot of sonnets (well, a lot in terms of a percentage of the poetry I write; I don't write a lot of poetry anymore) and so on. I've even developed my own version based on the Sapphic stanza, because I am in love with Anne Carson's book If Not, Winter. And yet my sonnets don't develop ideas smoothly, if they develop them at all, my haiku don't crystallize, and my imagery doesn't cohere.

It's especially frustrating because years at university taught me how to write, and write well, about poetry, at least in an academic context. (I'm a fiction specialist because I like it more, but I actually wrote more about poetry while a student, mostly because you could say more about fewer words.) So I know, on an intellectual level, what elements tend to go in poems that I really like. I know how ideas are supposed to develop in specific structures. I know about different forms and line, and how spacing and emphasis and feet and so on affect readings. And then I sit down and write juvenile nonsense that is full of clichés.

I also struggle with trying to separate feelings I've had and want to express from the events they are entangled with. That, at least, is a problem I know that better writers than me struggle with, because I've read enough to know that what may resonate for me as a huge betrayal or a huge moment of triumph might just be trite or pointless or dull to you. And that's okay, because we're talking about stuff that's experiential. But as I see it, my job when I write fiction or poetry (as opposed to criticism or blog posts) is not, absolutely not, to validate or legitimize my feelings and experiences to an audience. I mean, on the one hand, fuck those guys, I don't need them to validate anything. And on the other hand, who the hell am I? No audience has any obligation to care about my feelings or experiences. No, my job is to try my best to bridge the gap between what I understand and feel into something they understand and feel. And hopefully there will be some overlap, and we'll understand and feel some of the same things, and that will be awesome. But getting them to understand and feel anything is a victory, really. But because I have a really hard time separating my experiences, feelings, and understanding—because those are different things, even though they have complex relationships with each other—then I can't really untangle them when I try to bridge that gap. So if I'm trying to get across the feeling of betrayal, I really only have the mechanics of a certain kind of experience to rely on, because to me, the feeling and the experience are one and the same.

So here is a terrible poem. I wrote it today, and there are a lot of things I hate about it. It falls into some (but thankfully not all) of the traps I've mentioned above, but because I wrote it, I think there's something in there that needs to get out, and not just onto a page where only I can read it.

Sonnet for a Complicated Friendship

Fortune authorized me to seek you out.
"Go forth," it said, or words to that effect.
I joined OKCupid and set about
Meeting people, being less circumspect.

But of course I didn't find you there. Fate
Has never made us lovers; our doom lies
Elsewhere, in other arms, with other hates
Germinating behind some other eyes.

We met at a company party. Your
Almost-drunk chatter about anal sex
May have been defensive, may have been for
Fun, but all I saw was the reflex,

A vulnerability too long borne.
You saw, too, where I was broken and worn.

I Write Terrible Poems

Apr 14, 2013 12:59 PM

posted in: Literary, Writing

Back in the fall of 2002, when I was an undergraduate going into my final year at the University of Waterloo, I realized that, while I was doing okay for money that term, things were going to be tight once Christmas was over. I'd worked two jobs in high school (at one point working sixty hours a week on top of being a full time student, and maintaining a solid B+ average) and had been so burnt out by the experience that there was no way I would be able to get a job and deal with the workload of being a fourth year university student. I saw an ad for a short story contest, and decided that I would get a little bit of cash by winning that. There's no way I could manage that level of hubris today, but back then I was kind of like that sometimes. (It didn't help that, aside from chronic money troubles, everything I'd been working toward for nearly seven years was falling into place almost exactly as I had planned.)

So I wrote a story. The first draft took me about three hours, and the second draft took me two, maybe three days. It was six pages long, and has been described by most who have read it as "experimental", though I deliberately used no techniques developed more recently than the 1920s. When it comes to my writing, I'm a Modernist at heart. I packed as much stuff into those six pages as I possibly could. A dissolving relationship is front a centre, a common theme in my work even then, despite being nearly five years into a relationship I thought would last the rest of my life, but there are other threads there that still matter to me. Different ways of using language—and dialogue in particular—for different modes of narration. Paranoia about sexual acceptance, the faithful incorporation of real places and things, pop culture references, literary theory references (and theories of mind, etc, incorporated into the structure), and heavy borrowing from and hat-tipping to writers I respect from the last three hundred years. If you know how to look for it, there's even a remix of some Beck lyrics, and a little bit of HTML/CSS. Like I said, I packed a lot into those six pages.

I won the prize. Ridiculously, I submitted the same story to another contest, and won that prize too. Like I said, the world wasn't really helping to keep my hubris in check back in those days (in 2005 the world realized that I'd been obscenely lucky for too many years, and pulled me back down to earth so hard I'm still not back on my feet yet).

I submitted the story to two magazines. First, The New Quarterly, a bunch of folks I know and respect, but for whose publication it was entirely wrong. They rejected it, and rightly so. I next submitted it to Carousel, and they accepted it as written. It was exactly what I had expected to happen, and I've been paying for that particular moment of hubris with a bushel of "we like it, but we're not going to publish it" rejection letters for every single piece of fiction I've written since. The piece, "A Story With No Title Whatever" (because I'm saving "Untitled" for something special) was published in Carousel's fall 2004 issue, number 16. It's a pretty gorgeous magazine, and I'm proud to have been in it.

I've been neglecting this blog for mental health reasons (I really just needed a break from my life, and plus I've been reviewing books for the great folks over at Quill & Quire, who pay me, which means stuff for them comes first), but the publication rights to my one little published story reverted to me pretty much immediately after it saw print, and I thought I'd share it with you folks, you know, for free. It's a PDF, just a quick export from MS Word, because epub (the ebook format I want to support) isn't actually capable of handling my formatting decisions, which I feel are essential to this particular story. When I get a better handle on Adobe InDesign, I'll replace it with something prettier.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Download "A Story With No Title Whatever", by August C. Bourré (PDF).

Some Short Fiction

Dec 03, 2010 6:16 AM

Comments (2)

posted in: Literary, Personal, Writing

Nick had never had an apartment with a view before. Granted, it wasn't much of a view, just a graffiti-bombed bus shelter kitty-corner on Bathurst Street, and the furtive older women and frothy clusters of teens who kept the corner store below his window in business. Still, it was better than the cinderblock wall of the building next door and the rust-scarred paint can the neighbour's kid used to hide his cigarette butts that he saw from the window of his place in Kitchener. He could hear the streetcars trundle by at all hours of the night, wheels scraping up dirt and trash from between the rails, the bow collector clicking and rattling as it passed through the intersection. The noise woke him up sometimes, but he didn't mind; he'd been in Toronto less than two weeks, and he was still having nightmares. Waking up was often better.

He hadn't brought much with him to Toronto. His clothes, his Macbook, a guitar he'd never quite learned how to play, his iPod, a pocket-sized digital camera, some things for the kitchen and a little shelf with a few DVDs and books. There was also a photograph, a murky blue Polaroid of Amy, the only reminder of her he hadn't left in the dumpster of his old building. His apartment came furnished with a single bed, a small kitchen table with two tube-steel chairs, a dresser and a pressboard desk. He kept the Polaroid in one of the desk drawers to avoid temptation, but instead he took it out five, sometimes six times a day, letting the shame burst out from his skin like a flop-sweat. The sight of it would make him squeeze his eyes and fists tight, anger and jealousy and fear and lust and things he couldn't name passing through is body all at once, eating his brain. He hated her for leaving, and hated himself for missing her.

He hadn't found a job yet. His parents had been angry that he'd gone to Toronto without lining up work first, had given up his job at Manulife—not a great job, but with potential, they thought—but he couldn't spend another year, another month, another week in that city knowing she was out there, shopping in the same stores, eating at the same restaurants, breathing the same air, living under Andrew's roof. Andrew and his fucking BMW. Andrew and the security she said he could provide, Andrew who had managed not to gain any weight sitting behind a desk eight hours a day. Andrew who could buy her things and take her places and could still fuck like he was eighteen. Andrew, she said, who was in a better place to help her keep her life on schedule. It wasn't about him, or what they'd had together. It was about owning a house before she was thirty. There wasn't anything to be upset about. It was a matter of goals.

Nick couldn't afford the apartment after Amy moved out, and he didn't have it in him to look at dozens of empty apartments, couldn't face the hardwood floors she would have insisted on, the windowsill he could see her sitting by, the kitchen sink where she would come up behind him and hold him for no reason at all. He just opened the Record, called the number for the cheapest ad he saw, and took the apartment without a viewing. It turned out to be a grubby basement walk-in, bigger than it should have been for that price, with blue-veined industrial tiles on the floor, foam-wrapped hot water pipes snaking through the bedroom, and off-white walls that dripped nicotine when it got humid. He stayed there a year, spending two and a half hours each day busing to and from work, staring blankly at the bakers on Victoria, the insurance brokers, students and Vietnamese hustlers up and down King Street. When he got home at night he would log on to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace. He and Amy were no longer connected on any of these social networks, had unfriended each other. He had no direct access to any of her profiles, nor she to his, so instead he looked at her friends, the corporate websites she managed, read her favourite blogs and webcomics. He made himself a picture of her life by feeling his way across its negative spaces, brushing the edges, never looking directly at it, afraid it would blind him like the mid-day sun. Nick never called her, never took the bus to her and Andrew's neighbourhood, never ate at the bagel place across from her office, never sent her emails. But he felt guilty just the same, was afraid of his own weakness and obsession. Eventually he told himself this was okay, he was doing nothing wrong. He was able to justify it, because one night nearly eight months after he'd moved into his sad little basement, Kate, one of the few friends he and Amy still had in common, shocked him with the news that Amy did the same thing to him. "E-stalked" him, she'd called it. She had moved on, hadn't she? Gotten the life she wanted? She was happy with Andrew, right? Nick didn't know what it meant, but he knew he shouldn't let it lead to hope. He went to the bathroom and stared in the mirror, saw the layer of fat building up on his neck, and told himself in the sternest voice he could manage that this did not mean she regretted her choices. The idea creeped in anyhow, and that night he started having nightmares. Kate never should have told him. He felt like he was starting to rot from the inside out. Nick was afraid that if he stayed in Kitchener much longer, it would kill him. He started to save money, and four months later he found himself in a tiny Toronto apartment, looking down on the streetcars as they passed.

From A Work in Progress

Jun 14, 2010 4:04 AM

Comments (2)

posted in: Writing

This is not a post about the Bechdel test, nor The Frank Miller test (dramatised here), aka the How To Tell If A Male Science Fiction Writer Is Obsessed With Whores Test. This post is not actually about gender representations at all. It does, weirdly, come from my having just read a post that is kind of, sort of, about those things.

You see, a while back I wrote about China Miéville's novel, Iron Council, and I had some trouble explaining exactly what was wrong with it, stylistically speaking. What I wrote was:

Events that would later be referenced with specificity were described with a dream-like vagueness that often made it difficult to figure out just what the hell was going on. It felt like he was in such a hurry to move the plot forward that he ignored the mechanics of his prose. In addition, he once again made use of the pseudo-stream-of-consciousness interludes that are a kind of trademark of his novels. They are always, always, always the worst parts of his work, and they are a chore to read through, because he's frankly not very good at the technique.

Reading thene's post today, in which she referred to those passages as "that wild present-tense 150-page book-within-book that some people hate and I hopelessly adore" got me thinking about the gaps in experience between readers of genre fiction and readers of literary fiction.

I suppose I'm a crossover reader to some extent, but my reading habits are heavily weighted on the literary fiction side, and I only stray into genres like science fiction, fantasy, or crime if I can be assured of the quality of the work (the author has a solid reputation), or something about that specific book has piqued my interest. I find I'm atypical in that respect. Most of my friends who read literary fiction only read literary fiction. I also have a great many friends who are genre enthusiasts, and they will read literary fiction, but pretty much all of them stick to literary works published before the Moderns (ie. before "literary" fiction was established as a marketing category). I hate to generalize, but it seems like a deliberate pact for the two communities to ignore one another. The literary types avoid genre as beneath them (or if you find that too harsh, then "not serious enough"), and the genre types avoid literary fiction as pretentious. Either way, I can just as much count on my friends who are SF fans to have read absolutely nothing by Lisa Moore as I can on my literary friends to not have a goddamn clue who Samuel R. Delany is.

And then it hit me what was really wrong with Iron Council.

James Morrison (the Caustic Cover Critic) recently posted about a gorgeous new series of Margaret Atwood covers designed by Nathan Burton, and had this to say:

[H]er science-fiction (which she goes out of her way to pretend isn't science-fiction) is usually awful: it has the self-satisfied unoriginality of somebody who hasn't read anything in the genre from the last 50 years, and so thinks that their daft cliches are new and exciting.

That's exactly how "that wild present-tense 150-page book-within-book" from Iron Council felt. For those of us who have spent years pouring over Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, hell, even David Foster Wallace and Jeanette Winterson, what China Miéville was doing in those passages was not fresh or wild, it was a fumbling, clumsy-as-fuck attempt to tackle a convention that authors of literary fiction have been refining for something like a century. To a science fiction fan who hasn't read widely in Modern and contemporary literary fiction, the "daft clichés" I saw in Iron Council probably do seem "new and exciting."

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that reading more widely outside our preferred genres would be of benefit to us all, readers and writers alike. A diverse gene pool is a healthy gene pool, after all.

On a more personal note, friends of mine from way back will know that I've always wanted to write some science fiction and high fantasy, and over the last ten or fifteen years I've written reams and reams of plots, character profiles, background information and supporting documents, enough to spawn a dozen novels. And I can assure you that there are more than two female characters, none of them are prostitutes, none of them get raped, they get to talk to each other about things other than men, marriage, or babies, and they even get to have adventures.

What's Wrong With Iron Council

Apr 07, 2010 3:45 AM

posted in: Literary, Personal, Writing

The following is an excerpt from the Encyclopaedia of Crypto-Anthropology, 2nd Canadian Edition, published in 2005 by The Society of Canadian Crypto-Anthropologists, Ottawa Chapter, compiled and edited by S.F. Jameson and E. Forrester-Pratt. Reprinted with permission.

Jarvis, Mark Samuel. born March 12th, 1963 — missing December 2nd, 2003

Mark Jarvis was a Canadian businessman, venture capitalist, and prophet. He was born in the small Northwestern Ontario village of Sioux Lookout to parents Samuel David Jarvis, electrician, and Ethel Marie Jarvis (née Hermann), nurse. Jarvis was born with a teratoma, a kind of tumor, usually benign, characterized by the growth of tissue associated with parts of the body other than where it is found. In males teratomata most often present at birth and tend to manifest as fleshy lumps on or about the coccyx or the neck. The tissues most commonly found in such tumors are from the lungs, brain, and kidneys, though more complex tissues may develop. Teratomata in females tend to present later in life and more regularly in the reproductive system. They are also more likely to develop more complex tissues and organs, and there have been anecdotal reports of the tumors developing as eyes or limbs. As a result, teratomata in women can often be mistaken for malformed fetuses. Jarvis' teratoma was unusual in several respects; first, in that it was located around the anus, second, that it included extremely complex tissues such as teeth and hair, and third, that it could predict the future. His tumor took the form of a row of five teeth circling the outside edge of the anal sphincter, a small flap of skin covering the sphincter itself, and a row of thick hairs near the teeth that resembled eyelashes. His teratoma was diagnosed as benign, but declared inoperable due not only to its proximity to the anal sphincter, but also due to extensive intertwining of the tumor's tissue and the inferior rectal nerves.

"Mark Jarvis, Prophet", An Excerpt

Jan 27, 2010 1:22 AM

Comments (3)

posted in: Literary, Writing

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, changed the way I look at fiction. I read the book first as an undergraduate, and then later as a graduate student. Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation is astonishing, and I don't think I'd have connected to the work so strongly if I'd read a lesser version. There's any number of ways that you can divide up Gogol's stories, but the obvious way is to place them in the same two categories Pevear and Volokhonsky do; rural Ukranian tales, and urban St. Petersburg tales. Seeing them side by side in that way, the careful reader will notice that the rural/urban division mirrors another division in the tales. The rural tales are very clearly oral in nature. They are loose, fluid, comfortable, adaptable. The urban tales, on the other hand are tight, structured, detailed. They are the very embodiment of written stories. I suppose you could read them aloud, but they wouldn't work in quite the same way. When I realized that, I realized what kind of writer I was.

None of my stories really work when you read them out loud, but they do work on the page. This was brought home to me with particular vigor when I read from my story "Tobacco Hand" at the Draft Reading Series on October 4th. "Tobacco Hand" is part of a rather large group of stories and other scraps, orts, and fragments I've written that take place in the fictional Northwestern Ontario town of New Prospect, which is modeled very loosely on my home town of Dryden. The plot of the story is fairly simple; a man named Earl is such a dedicated tobacco user that he has deep stains on the fingers of his right hand. His wife Janine has left him, and she has convinced him that it's because of his stains. Earl gets drunk in his kitchen, has an emotional break, and ultimately mutilates himself with a belt sander in an effort to get rid of them. Earl's story is told in a limited third-person subjective mode, and I think it's fairly clear that the voice is Earl's, more or less. It hasn't yet been published, but those editors that have seen it have all sent it back, to my delight, with considerable praise (the one consistent criticism, which seems to be the thing preventing it from getting picked up, is that it lacks context; this is true, but it's also deliberate, and that decision—and why I haven't changed my mind about it—is a subject for a whole other post), and on the whole they "get" what I'm doing with the language of the piece.

Now with all that in mind, "Tobacco Hand" fell rather flat at the reading. I've done work on the stage, and can be a charismatic reader of other people's work, but when it comes to my own, put me in front of an audience and I become a stuttering, nervous, flat-voiced fool. As I read from "Tobacco Hand" and looked out at the audience, I could feel the disconnect between what I was trying to get across and what they were receiving, and I'm not willing to blame it all on my abysmal performance as a reader. There were a fair number of men in the audience, but I did a couple of head counts and found they were clearly outnumbered by the women. Not an unusual thing at literary events, and of no particularly significance in and of itself. But as ridiculous as a sentence like "Earl's been working all his life and he's a big man with a big temper to match, but he's never hit a woman no matter how angry he got and that's probably one thing he knows he can be proud of" sounds when read all on its own, imagine reading it to a roomful of women writers whose work your respect. It doesn't fall flat, it trumpets out like a nasty wet fart during someone's wedding vows. It declares itself boorish, clichéd, a tad misogynistic, and perhaps even naive. Which of course it's meant to, because that's exactly who Earl is, and exactly how he thinks. Even as I was saying it I knew that wasn't the effect it was having. I felt embarrassed by that sentence. The bigger problem is that while, yes, it is one of the weaker sentences in the piece, it still works on the page, and more importantly, it still feels necessary.

Why? There's violence behind that sentence. The first time I read Alice Munro's "Royal Beatings"—indeed the first time I heard of it—there was this discourse surrounding it, a mostly urban, undeniably middle-class Southern Ontario discourse, about how horrible it must have been to go through a primary school experience like that, how different, how violent was the past, and isn't it great that we have all these zero tolerance policies and have been able to put all the behind us. That's all well and good, of course, except that we've done no such thing, and I'm not entirely sure we should. I'm not going to go into depth about my views on minor violence (and as a recipient of some genuinely severe physical bullying in my youth—among other things, I've been punched, kicked, bitten, stabbed, slashed, whipped with a toy bullwhip, beaten with blunt objects, and once four boys held me on the ground spread-eagle while a fifth jumped on my ribs from a height of four or five feet—I can assure you that most schoolyard fights and bullying are minor), but I will say that rural Ontario is still very much the world depicted in "Royal Beatings," and there are some pretty important lessons in that world for someone like Earl. If that kind of childhood violence doesn't break you—and it won't break most, though it marks them forever—it could leave you with a deep understanding of the consequences of violence. The ethics of violence are surprisingly nuanced for someone like Earl, though he's not equipped to articulate that nuance. He knows in his own flesh what happens when you strike someone, and though he knows there are situations where a man can, and indeed should commit an act of minor violence, there are also times when no justification is sufficient. He simply doesn't have the language to articulate that either, so he falls back on simple clichés like "a man never hits a woman," and takes justifiable pride in living up to the hidden complexities of his ethical system.

Of course none of this is explicit in the text, but I think that once Earl's voice gets inside you, enough of it becomes implicit. But it wouldn't without that damned embarrassing sentence, and a handful of others like it. I can't recall who said or wrote it, but I do recall one author lamenting on how terrible it is when a godawful cliché really is the best way to say something, and that's exactly how I feel about that sentence. This is not to say "woe is me, editors don't 'get' my story, and nobody will publish it." I'm actually quite pleased with the rejections I've gotten so far. They tell me that the piece is being taken seriously by editors I respect, and the feedback I've gotten make the rejection letters some of the best and most useful I've ever gotten. They are encouraging rather than disheartening. The point of this rather red-faced confession and sort-of-case-study, is that not all pieces will work in all ways. I enjoy going to readings, despite my bumbling and my nerves, and I think it's a great opportunity for me to put myself out there, to network, and to meet writers whom I greatly admire, like the wonderful Rebecca Rosenblum, but aside from one unusually successful bawdy house reading I gave in 2003, it's not a very good venue for the kind of work I produce. Too much of what I do depends on the page. After years of hearing advice like "read it out loud to see if it works," I think I'm finally okay with that. After all, if it's good enough for Gogol's St. Petersburg tales, it ought to be good enough for my New Prospect stories, right?

Country Mouse, City Mouse: On Reading My Work Aloud

Dec 03, 2009 5:54 AM

posted in: Literary, Personal, Writing

The Biblioasis folks, who have published many fine books, including Rebecca Rosenblum's fine short story collection, Once, are running a Revenge Lit contest to celebrate the launch of Terry Grigg's new novel, Thought You Were Dead (looks quite interesting, actually). Many of the entries are being posted on the contest blog. "Speak Softly", my own entry, went up today. Check it out! And remember, there's still time to enter.


May 21, 2009 1:50 PM

posted in: Literary, Writing

They had never been lovers, were barely friends, and he could count on one hand the number of times they had touched. He still felt deep in his bones, and lightly across his skin and hair, every one of those moments. If he closed his eyes, he could relive them all. The first time, when he had said or done something, he couldn't exactly remember what, her eyes had lit up the way he imagined newborn stars would, the change from dark indifference to the powerful, blazing expression of life and attentiveness so abrupt and affecting that it was, paradoxically, almost imperceptible. She had reached out to him, impulsively, and given him one of the light embraces with which young girls so often express unexpected pleasure, careless of their potential force and investing in them, or so they think, only transient meaning. That first time was for him still the most powerful. The hairs on the back of his neck had stood at attention, and the whole of his consciousness briefly settled, and then became painfully focused, on those few square inches of his bare skin as it was kissed by her naked forearm. He was not too young to understand the weight of that experience; when she released him his lower lip hung slack, and for a brief moment he was outside of himself. He saw with a kind of double vision, as though his consciousness had taken a quarter-step to the right, was somehow almost, but not quite, in the same space as his body. Very quickly the world, his backpack, the linoleum floor, his locker, all snapped back into focus. He went back to what he was doing, back to his life, which was the same, but which would never be the same again, and the sense of being both inside and outside his body would stay with him for the rest of his life, climbing occasionally from some older, reptilian part of his brain to confront him whenever, by chance, they would meet on the street, in a café, at the grocery store. Was this what love felt like? He decided, then and there, that it had to be.

In the Hope of Saving Me

Mar 12, 2009 1:46 AM

posted in: Literary, Personal, Writing

With several stories out there in the hands of editors waiting for acceptance or rejection (including one I spent six years writing) I find that my biggest problem isn't anxiety, it's figuring out how to write "and then I woke up" (or similar) a third of the way through the story I'm working on now without my readers thinking everything so far was just a dream. I'm horrified that the exact right phrase I need is a goddamn cliché. It's things like this that drive writers to drink. That, and spending six years trying to get a ten page story just right.

Even If It Were A Dog, It Certainly Wouldn't Be Shaggy

Jan 16, 2009 4:12 AM

posted in: Literary, Writing