Living Arts: Writing is a Lonely Business

Tuesday, 25 November 2014
This post was originally posted as part of the Hamilton Arts Council's Living Arts series.

When Tyler Keevil collected his 2014 Journey Prize from the Writer’s Trust of Canada earlier this month, he’s quoted as saying something that resonates with many writers. “Writing is a lonely business,” he said.“So, it means a lot to connect with the community.”

Every writer has his or her own writing process, but for many, creativity and solitude are connected. As words, ideas, and characters percolate in a writer’s mind, a quiet workspace, isolated from people, ringing phones, and other distractions, can be essential. Personally, I like to be surrounded by the whirr of a coffee shop’s espresso machine or the hum of voices at a local pub while I work, but despite this background buzz, I still work alone. It’s not a bad form of isolation. It’s voluntary and often temporary, but it’s isolation nonetheless.

When I jotted down Tyler Keevil’s quotation, I found myself circling what I thought to be the key word — community. I started to picture Hamilton’s writing community as a collective of individuals, each inhabiting a solitary space that can sometimes get lonely. And I started thinking about my own role in this community and how much it has changed since I moved into my first Hamilton apartment in 2008.

Back then, I thought in order to meet people who shared my interest in the literary arts, I had to put myself out there. I had to network. And for this introvert, face-to-face networking is anything but easy. I associate networking with standing in the dimly lit corner of a book reading or launch party, doing the dance I always do, thinking to myself: I should go talk to that person. I should go introduce myself. Instead, I awkwardly nibble on the free cheese. (Yes, many book launches have free cheese). Needless to say, this form of networking didn’t get me far. However, online networking is what helped me shake the feeling of isolation I felt in the first two years I lived in Hamilton.

You can tell a lot about a person from their social media outlet of choice. For me, my weakness is twitter. On twitter I found a social circle of writers and editors (and booksellers, reviewers, librarians, and readers). I was a skeptic, but in the quiet moments when isolation bred loneliness, tweets about what I was reading and what I was writing were welcomed breaks. Eventually, twitter became something more. It became a space to share ideas, offer encouragement to others, engage in discourse, and meet people feeling the same gnaw of isolation.

A decade and a half ago, parents and teachers warned us that only predators lurked online. But in the past handful of years, the relationships I’ve built through networking online have grown to exist outside the world of 140-character or less tweets. Some of the Hamilton writers and editors I first met on twitter have become my close friends and my support network. And that network continues to grow, all because of a social network I almost chose to dismiss.

Inspire: Toronto International Book Fair

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Imagine a huge room — and I mean a huge room — filled from one end to the other with books, people who love books, things related to books, and organizations that are devoted to advocating for reading and literacy.  Yep. It makes me swoon, too.

This weekend marked the first edition of Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair, which took place at the Toronto Metro Convention Centre. The inaugural event boasted big names from both the Canadian and International publishing worlds, among them Margaret Atwood, Anne Rice, Andrew Pyper, and Amanda Lindhout (to name only a few).

Full disclosure, I was reluctant about this event. Its timing so close to the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) struck me as a conflict with an already established (and well-loved) festival. However, the stellar line-up, inexpensive ticket price ($15 for the entire weekend), and promise of “hundreds of great books and booths” lured me in. The fair also won me over with a First Nations, M├ętis, and Inuit Literary Circle, which brought some of the most beloved Aboriginal storytellers from around Canada to Toronto.

Inspire! had a lot of things to see, a lot to read, and many people to talk to, including some familiar faces from Hamilton, including the Hamilton Public Library, Project Bookmark Canada, and Telling Tales. Unfortunately, unlike Word on the Street and other fairs that showcase books and book culture, there weren’t many deals to be had. However, I did come home with a subscription to the Canadian Children’s Book News, an Owl Magazine t-shirt (with the magazine’s vintage logo), a handful of holiday picture books to give as Christmas gifts (including two copies of The Snowy Day because it’s the best), and a wealth of picture books from Good Minds, including a handful by Michael Kusugak and Christy Jordan-Fenton.

I really enjoyed my time at the fair, but it had a few problems, which I’ll attribute to being the growing pains of a new festival. The signing policy was incredibly restrictive compared to most book festivals I’ve been to, and since I wasn’t given a programme (and signage was lacking), I found it difficult to know which authors were reading and signing when.

All that said, the panels I did stumble upon were fantastic. A particular favourite was the Canadian Author’s Association panel on self-publishing, featuring the always-charming Terry Fallis talking about the different types of editing. (Any recognition that there are different types of editing and different skill sets needed for each makes this editor swoon!)

The biggest problem I think was that Inspire! didn’t encompass all the fun of Canada’s literary culture. It felt very corporate. Very tradeshow. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — I expected it. But I do hope the fair expands its programming in the coming years to better include the book bloggers, reviewers, and critics who play such a crucial role in the book biz. I would have loved to see a panel featuring local book blogging or a panel on the literary landscape through the most-recent CWILA numbers.

All that said, I can’t wait to attend the Toronto International Book Fair next year. The diverse programming and wonderful location have me hooked. My favourite part of the entire fair was the Spontaneous Prose at the CBC booth where after supplying a topic, title, or first line, Kaile H. Glick (seated at a typewriter) wrote personalized prose. And some of the booths were incredible (I’m looking at you, Simon and Schuster and Random House). It took everything in me not to choose a good book and curl up in one of Simon and Schuster’s impeccably designed rooms.

Review: Tomboy by Liz Prince (plus giveaway)

Saturday, 8 November 2014
This post is part of the Zest Books True Stories Fall Blog Tour.

There’s a joke among my friends. If I ever get married, I’ll have the least attractive bridal party. It will be made up of beer-guzzling 30-somethings who sport flannel shirts and beards. It’ll be made up of my best friends, all of which are dudes. Being one of the guys has always been part of my identity, standing in line with being bookish and being shy. I never gave it much thought. These friendships just always seemed natural. Obvious.

Yet while reading Tomboy, a graphic memoir by Boston cartoonist Liz Prince, I thought a lot about gender and friendship. I thought about navigating that in-between space when you don’t feel like a girl, but you don’t feel like a boy either. I thought about how Prince articulated this in-between space so much better than I ever could through her clever dialogue and illustrations.

Growing up, Prince was anything but a girly girl. While girls her age played dress-up, wobbling in their mother’s high heels and painting their faces with make-up, she preferred emulating Luke Skywalker and Dennis the Menace. She played sports. She drew comics. She befriended boys. She was by all definitions a tomboy. But what exactly does that mean?

The definition Prince uses, and dismantles, is “a girl of boyish behaviour.” But “boyish behaviour” is all kinds of subjective. In order to understand that definition, you have to have pre-conceived notions about what it means to behave like a boy. (As I saw in an advertisement for Toys’R’Us the other day, society has no trouble pushing what that means on children from a young age.)

Tomboy begins with Prince as a toddler, screaming bloody murder at the sight of a dress, which turns out to be the least of her problems. In the decade and a half that follows, she’s bullied mentally and physically as she navigates love, friendship, and loneliness as a tomboy. It’s impossible not to relate to Prince and her funny, heartbreaking, and often awkward tale. This is especially true if like Prince you were a child of the 80s and 90s. Tomboy not only has multiple Popples, but both a Frog and Toad and an Are You Afraid of the Dark reference!

But I digress.

I can’t call myself a tomboy. As a kid, I loved pink. I played with Barbies, I loved my plastic Fisher Price food, and I thought Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid was the handsomest of all the Disney princes. But there was also one birthday when I only asked for a soccer ball, and I got three. I loved my Easy-Bake Oven, but I much more preferred baking up Creepy Crawlers. I wore nylons and dresses, but never minded getting them dirty. I caught frogs, minnows, turtles, and snails. I was all kinds of contradictions, and I still am today.

When I was about eight, my parents were chaperones on a class trip to Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair. I was given the high honour of choosing who would be in our “group.” I chose my best friends, who of course, were all boys.

“Do you realize you’ve chosen all boys?” my teacher asked with a raised eyebrow. “Are you sure you don’t want to choose some girls?” He looked at me as if I were mistaken, or worse yet, committing a crime.

“I didn’t understand why the schoolyard decided to function like an awkward school dance, with boys on one side and girls on the other,” writes Prince. I couldn’t understand either.

Tomboy is a coming-of-age memoir, but at the same time it’s something more. It’s cheeky and charming, but it’s also subtly political. It questions what it means to be a girl on society’s terms, and how difficult it can be to live outside that pastel pink box.

Toward the end of the book, Prince’s mentor asks her one of many, but likely the most crucial, questions raised in the book: “Do you hate girls? Or do you hate the expectations put on girls by society?”

It’s a good question, and one that Tomboy unpacks completely.


Interested in reading this amazing book by Liz Prince? I'd love to give you a copy! This giveaway if open to all residents of the United States and Canada.

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On Being Polite

Thursday, 30 October 2014
“I remember manners, that's when people are scared to make other persons mad.” 
― Emma Donoghue, Room

This morning, actress Lucy DeCoutere told Anna Maria Tremonti that more than a decade ago, Jian Ghomeshi slapped her, pushed her against a wall, and strangled her. All without her consent. "He did take me by the throat and press me against the wall and choke me," she said. "And he did slap me across the face a couple of times." She didn’t leave right away because she wanted to be polite.

I’d love nothing more right now than to write an essay about politeness, and the way that telling women to be “good girls” and to be “polite” is just one ways in which women are repressed, but I’m on a train, on my way to work, so I can’t. So this is just a very quick note to write that I get it. I’ve found myself in dozens of situations where I feel uncomfortable, with hands slid around my waist that I didn’t want to be there, or questions and comments so wildly inappropriate that I wanted to leave, but didn’t, all in the name of being polite. I've also been polite in fear that a situation would escalate further. I’ve done what DeCoutere did, too. Blamed myself. “I shouldn’t have come here. This is my fault.” But sexual harassment and assault is never the victim’s fault.

This Ghomeshi thing is a terrible, violent, disgusting mess, but I’m so happy to see some of the discourse it is inspiring.

Living Arts: So, I Have This Idea for a Book

Tuesday, 28 October 2014
I'm lucky enough to be taking part in a new project created by the Hamilton Arts Council called LivingArts Hamilton. In short, "LivingArts Hamilton aims to improve the capacity of professional artists in the Hamilton region to develop and sustain their careers by creating resources that will address knowledge gaps in the creative sector and increase awareness among audiences. Community focus groups in six discipline-specific arts areas – literary arts, music, theatre arts, visual arts, arts education and public art – will play a central role in identifying the challenges and needs of their respective sectors. The following article originally appeared on the Hamilton Arts Council website. 

“So, I have this idea for a book.” If you’re a writer, an editor, or a publisher, you’ve heard this one before. I’ve heard it dozens — maybe one hundred — times. It’s the common follow-up to my answer to the question “What do you do?” It doesn’t matter that I usually reply with “I work in educational publishing” or “I edit kids’ books.” Any mention of the word “publishing” and suddenly somebody is telling me his or her brilliant idea for a post-Apocalyptic zombie novel or the next (but so much better) Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’m not complaining. I like these exchanges. I love hearing about people’s artistic aspirations and learning about the ideas that percolate in their heads. As Neil Gaiman once wrote, “You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.” I love hearing stories about how people transmit these ideas to a page.

It’s the question that inevitably follows that I don’t look forward to. “Do you mind taking a quick look?” As an editor, I’m trained to be critical. I’m trained to dissect words and their meanings, and this is rarely a quick task. But here’s the thing. A lot of times I do the thing I know I shouldn’t do. I say yes.

I’m the first to chime in against unpaid internships. When WestJet solicited local musicians to play free concerts, billing it as a “performance opportunity,” I was livid. Yet, I’ve written blog posts, classified ads, copyedited menus, and taken a “quick look” at proposals, grant applications, and essays all in the name of friendship.

This article is starting to feel like a confessional.

As writers, editors, and publishers, for the most part, we do what we do because we love doing it. But writing and editing aren’t our hobbies. They’re our careers. And in order for them to be valued that way, we (I!) need to say no.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to read a short story she had written, and I found myself apologizing for accepting her cheque. Her response was perfect.

“I truly believe people should be paid for their work.”

And she was right. Words have power, and being paid for writing or editing words is essential.

Speaking of words with power, Tom Kreider perfectly summed up why we need to say no to working for free in his 2013 editorial “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”

“Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.”

Solo Adventure: Scottish Highlands

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The best part about solo travelling is undoubtedly being your own boss — spending hours in bookstores, museums, and gift shops, knowing there's nobody wishing you'd hurry up. That said, sometimes it's nice to have others make the decisions — doing the planning and ushering you from place to place. That's why I booked a highland tour (called Full-Day Trip to Loch Ness and the Scottish Highlands) through Viator. It was a nice treat to not have to worry about train schedules and maps for a day. 

The day was so uncharacteristically clear for the Highlands, that we managed to spot the peak of Ben Nevis, something that is apparently quite rare. The winding roads beneath mountains and hills brought us from Edinburgh to Loch Ness (and back), stopping along the way to explore the moors, glens, and quaint villages along the way. I didn't spot Nessie, but I manged to snap dozens, maybe hundreds, of photos along the way. 

When I think of bus tours, I think of blue-haired ladies en route to Atlantic City, but this was anything but. Our tour guide was young and knowledgeable, musing about local politics and folklore, and playing Scottish indie songs by Camera Obscura and Paolo Nutini along the way. 

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