June 18, 2012

Writing Mentors and Meanies

How to Tell a Mentor from a Meanie
Mentors . . .
- are genuine
- discuss craft over drinks
- inspire and motivate
- laugh at themselves
- laud work of their peers
- teach more than what's in a curriculum
- encourage feedback on their teaching style
- share personal struggles and achievements
- teach without personal bias
- make themselves available outside the classroom
- never make you feel dumb, no matter how inane your question is

Meanies . . .
- read your work and say with a straight face, "To be honest, I thought you might be crazy."
- hand out lists of writers and then pass judgement on students who haven't read them
- ask students what kind of stories they write and then respond, "You won't be writing those in here."
- talk incessantly about their achievements that have nothing to do with writing
- say they are leaving a program to avoid class feedback forms, and then return the next semester
- expect you to know what you came to learn
- bring in their mentor who is really another meanie (this is when you have that Aha! moment)
- have no interest in your goals
- push their own style and interests on students

I have been lucky to find two mentors since I began studying writing and editing. Along the way I have also met meanies, whose wrath I have escaped or been forced to suck up. What can you add to these definitions?

June 8, 2012

First Reading Experience

I did my first reading at the Dragnet Magazine 5 launch party. It was a journey getting there, not just the week leading up, but the years of dreaded public speaking.

I was extremely shy as a kid. In high school, I'd take a zero for papers rather than do class readings. When I did presentations in college, I turned beet-red, shook, and had trouble breathing.

In the first creative writing class I signed up for, the instructor told us we would be reading a page of our written dialogue in the second class. I dropped out immediately. Five years passed before I signed up for another.

After Dragnet accepted my story, an editor told me there would be a launch and asked if I would be interested in reading. I said I would definitely attend the launch but wasn't sure about the latter (my polite way of saying no).

When they sent me the details, the event listing printed my name as one of the readers. What? I hadn't agreed. How could they do that? I sat and stewed for a couple of days.

My friend Rob said, "When you have a book, you'll have to do readings." I knew he was right unless I wanted to piss off publishers. And my mum said, "You're not going to pull that anxiety crap, are you?" which really got me mad because I've never seen it as something I had control over.

I knew no matter how long I prolonged it, there was always going to be a first reading. If it was a horrible experience, I would never have to do it again. If I fainted, puked, or peed on stage then at least I would be memorable.

I had another motivation: Annabelle, my cat of eighteen years, recently passed. I could see her look of disapproval if I didn't do this. I would read for her.

I told Dragnet I'd give it a go. Now, it was on to the mental and physical training. I didn't drink for a week to clear my mind. I didn't talk about the anxiety - it had no voice. I went to the gym ("Eye of the Tiger" played in my mental tape player). And I practised reading my story twice a day.

The day of the launch, I had a few moments of nausea, but carried on, almost pretending it wasn't going to happen. I did stop at the liquor store following an afternoon stint at the gym. My motto has always been "It's better to have booze you don't want, than to want booze you don't have."

Nadia Ragbar, who has two short fictions in the issue, cabbed with me to the launch. I met Jeremy Hanson-Finger (publisher), Andrew Battershill  and Jena Karmali (editors) - all lovely.

I wasn't chugging beer or chain smoking. Friendly faces showed up, and there wasn't a stage with bright lights. No bigs, right? Dragnet played their intense Theme Song Video. Then I was called to the microphone. I had worn my blue hoodie security blanket but took it off.

Apart from massive shakes, I thought it went well. My voice felt strong and clear, and I read at a good pace. Before I knew it, the story was over. I said "That was for Bubs (Annabelle)," but no one heard because they were clapping.

Will I read again, given the chance. Yes.

June 1, 2012

Personal Obsessions

"It came as something of a shock . . . to discover that for over thirty years of writing my attention has turned again and again to the same unvarying gamut of sounds and images. I wish I hadn't noticed this. In fact, it became an embarrassment and I began to wonder if I should file A CATALOGUE OF PERSONAL OBSESSIONS. And my agent was once heard to moan aloud . . . "Oh God, Findley - not more rabbits!"
-introduction, Dinner Along The Amazon, Timothy Findley.

I could relate to the discovery of recurring themes, images, character traits, and worse - repeated phrasing I was finding in my stories (had I written this previous, or perhaps it was in a draft somewhere that never came to fruition.) I don't have thirty something years experience which makes it all the more worrisome. It got me thinking of other things that creep into my fiction over and over again.

Felines have a habit of wandering onto my pages, and yes, many of my human characters are named after cats that have passed.

Recently, I wrote the dialogue tag 'whispered loudly' and a bell sounded. I scoured previous stories to find it  and exclaimed,  "My characters shall whisper loudly no more!"

I thought 'the rolling waves of nausea' was rather clever when I first wrote it, but it resurfacing for a third time made me feel sick to my stomach.

Other recurring bits include bars and their regulars, basements and their stairs, meatloaf, and hockey.

". . . writers are never through with the world they see and hear . . . because it is a world inside their heads, which is the 'real' world they write about."

I suppose the familiar becomes a handle of sorts. There lies the honesty in fiction that is required to make it believable. Too many layers covering up truth kills a story.