December 22, 2008


It is a commonplace that other people find it tiresome to hear about your dreams. I find this odd --- what gives more of an instant insight into the subconscious than dreams? What can more quickly express the mood or hidden longing or compressed anxiety of the dreamer? I agree that quite often dreams are mundane: you dread going back to work, so you have a dream in which your boss is continually finding fault with you. Or you fall asleep hungry and dream about having cake. (I have, rather pathetically, recently had both of these dreams.) But it seems to me to be indisputably true that dreams can tell us more important things...not prophecy, but things that we might know already, on a subconscious or unconscious level, but haven't processed yet. How fortunate we are, that our minds can do the heavy lifting while we slumber away and get some rest!

The downside of always remembering dreams is when
a bad one can linger over you all day.

All this to say that I'm always up for listening to a good dream! Though of course it's more interesting when it's someone you know.

I've kept dream diaries on and off for years, though not in a long while. The definite dream book is not the sadly ubiquitous 10,000 Dreams, which I think puts a lot of people off dream interpretation, with its one-size-fits-all symbolism (e.g. to dream of a fox means you are engaging in a risky love affair), but Ann Faraday's The Dream Game. She offers some great advice on learning how to remember your dreams and decode their symbols.

I've realized over time that whenever I dream of pregnancy, or a baby, it's always at a moment when I'm in the process of realizing a large project. Once when I thought things were going badly with a manuscript, I dreamed I accidentally sent my baby to Brazil. When things are going well (or more specifically, better than I could have believed), I have dreams of driving cars. I don't know how to drive, I've never even sat behind the wheel of a car, but in the dream, none of this matters --- I'm revving and turning corners without a hitch.

In the book Seven Nights, a translation of seven lectures delivered by Borges in Buenos Aires over a few months in 1977, Borges discusses dreams in a lecture on nightmares. As you can imagine, there is no more eloquent or suitable advocate for the importance of dreams as a kind of improvisational fiction. He says, "We don't know exactly what happens in dreams. It is not impossible that, during dreams, we are in heaven, we are in hell. Perhaps we are someone, the someone whom Shakespeare called "the thing I am." In dreaming the dream, in clutching at its fading remnants, in recounting it later, in all of this we are making fiction.

One of my recurring nightmares is about an escalator.

Are there any famous stories inspired by dreams? It seems to me that dreams are mostly the place in which to work out the anxieties created by writing. I recently borrowed and flipped through David Lynch's recent book on creativity, Catching the Big One: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (an easy afternoon read, though be warned: it is *mostly* about meditation), and he has a short section on dreams in which he declares his love of dream logic (no surprise), but says that only once has he gotten an idea from a dream --- the sudden recollection of a dream solved a problem for him with the end of Blue Velvet.

What do you dream about?

December 15, 2008

The Word Bookstore

The Word Bookstore, 469 rue Milton, Montreal

Last Friday was the Word's annual Christmas party, which seems like as good an occasion as any to offer my own little tribute to this amazing Montreal establishment.

I'd visited the Word a few times before I even moved to Montreal. A good friend of mine was doing her Ph.D. in philosophy at McGill, and while I was visiting we popped in a few times on our way to and from campus. I was always wowed by the stock and the conversations that people would be having in there.

After I moved to Montreal and started working at the philosophy department, it was usual to hear from Adrian (co-proprietor of the shop, along with his wife Luci) before the start of each term as he prepared his book orders, as a number of McGill profs put their required texts on order there. It was at last year's Christmas party that my friend Ian introduced me to Adrian, and it was wonderful to meet in person after so many years of business conversations on the phone. Ian has a really lovely essay about the store on the Vehicule Press website here.

Adrian and Luci and the Word were also profiled in the Montreal issue of The New Quarterly, in which I was lucky enough to have a story included. It's a fascinating little interview in which they talk about how they started the business (over 33 years ago!) as an underground bookstore (the only indication was a picture of George Bernard Shaw in the window) in their apartment on Milton before eventually taking over the Chinese laundry next door that remains their current location.

Although primarily a used bookstore (with a notably good selection at good prices), the Word's support of local authors is really tremendous, as evidenced by this display for my book, complete with poster and taped-up clipping of the Gazette review:

Too shy to go in while this display was up, I snapped this photo from outside.

Definitely the best bookstore in Montreal!

December 11, 2008


Bettie Page passed away today at the age of 85
. What a sexy woman she was! I recently learned that much of the lingerie she wore in her photo shoots she designed and sewed herself. Although, of course, in many of her photos she isn't wearing anything at all. Whenever I wear stockings I feel like I'm channeling a little bit of retro Bettie pinup glamour.

December 10, 2008

Following the White Rabbit

I have a story out in the current issue of dANDelion magazine. I'm proud to be in this great magazine, especially this issue which also features the artwork and writing of astounding (and highly prolific) friend GMB Chomichuk.

The story that appears in the journal has an interesting origin in that it the bastard offspring of another story, which I will call Story X. I suppose it's not unusual for one story to emerge out of another abandoned one, although I haven't tended to do much reworking in this way. If something isn't working, I'm usually happy to just leave it aside. But Story X is an unusual case -- a White Rabbit of an idea that I kept chasing with no real idea of where it would lead.

Inspired one day by the strangeness of seeing an Esperanto recruiting table set up in the lobby of the university building I worked in, I started reading more about the language with the idea of writing a story. I've always had a soft spot for Esperanto as my high school Latin teacher had a peculiar contempt for it. Somewhere in all this reading, I stumbled on the fact that Esperanto was declared the official language of an interesting and short-lived micronation named Rose Island. Rose Island had declared its sovereignty through the production of a number of stamps, and I was determined to work some of this material into a story.

I had a couple of isolated sentences related to this idea tucked into a notebook for months, and while I was at the Banff Writing Studio, I decided to finally cash it in and dash out a draft. Story X was a narrative about a love triangle involving a girl named Maude, who meets an Esperanto enthusiast named Jericho (at the above-mentioned info table). Maude, however, is unenthusiastically engaged to a young man named Paul with casually racist parents. Full of trivia about Esperanto, including all my favourite bits about Rose Island, and the story was pretty scattered. I was lucky enough to have two of the mentor writers read it (it was fairly short, after all), and Mentor S had a lot of useful things to say at the sentence level, but she found some plausibility issues with the whole Jericho-Maude storyline. She also didn't find much of interest in the Rose Island details.

Mentor G had an amazingly thorough ("eviscerating" might be the right word here) take on Story X which made me slightly embarrassed to have shown it to him, but gratified at the same time to have a brief taste of his considerable and instructive editing skills. We had a conversation about the story in which he admitted (conceded?) that the Rose Island stuff might be interesting, but dryly suggested that if I wanted to use the material somehow, it might work better as a "short film." (Um, harsh! Ha.)

Rose Island stamps with Esperanto text.

Everything S and G told me was right, however, and the Rose Island material was definitely not properly integrated in Story X. Jericho was too weird, and I had awkwardly squeezed in a description of a couple of stamp albums. Later that summer, though, I hit on the idea of actually writing a story about a stamp store, which would give me the perfect excuse to talk about the micronation and the Rose Island stamps at greater length. (The Esperanto aspect I left by the wayside.) Although only tangentially about the stamp store, it turned into one of the long stories in my collection, and my favourite among all of them, if only because it was such fun to write. (Maybe because it was so long in the making, the story basically wrote itself, very quickly.)

The Maude-Paul storyline of Story X I expanded into its own story, which I think I submitted to a journal that gave it a gentle rejection. And the Jericho-Esperanto part of Story X evolved into "No Word for It," the story in dANDelion.

So, though Story X wasn't a great hit, it was a super little dry-run/seedling for three other stories, two of which are now published in some form. A White Rabbit chase that multiplied ideas like rabbits!

December 5, 2008

books that kicked your ass

Well, I know I promised an alluring story of public humiliation at the Winnipeg Writers Festival, but though I had the story 99.9% written out, I realized it was still a little too near (both in time, and to the febrile cockles of my too-sensitive-heart) to share. I promise to post it sooner or later, though -- maybe the next time I'm lucky enough to participate in a festival.

Instead, I've been thinking about books that kicked my ass, and by that, I mean books that rattled me to the core, that shook me up and down and left the imprint of their teeth all over. Books that changed the way I thought about books and what could be in them.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. We read this in Grade Eleven at an exhilarating pace. Is there anyone who can ever come close to Dickens? The astounded joy I derived from this book has never yet been matched --- to the point that instead of devouring his entire oeuvre, I've been strictly pacing myself.

Fall On Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald. This book was being passed around in high school, and somehow came into my hands through a friend. I have the vividest memories of staying up late at night to finish it, and crying and crying deliciously at 4 a.m.. It was so tragic and wonderful, and the character of Frances, in particular, stayed with me for a long time.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I read this book in third-year university and became promptly convinced it was the greatest novel ever written. And apart from Dickens, I'm still at least half-convinced it might be true. Unlike the other three books listed here, I've never re-read this one, though I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe I'm just not ready for another ass-kicking yet.

Atonement by Ian MacEwan. I think I first read this in 2004, and loved it, especially the first section with Briony as a child. I immediately went and read as much MacEwan as I could get my hands on. Amsterdam is the one that won the Booker, but I think most people agree that this is by far the superior novel.

December 2, 2008

undemocratic? um, no.

I'm going a little nuts overhearing people talking about the coalition. I hope Michaëlle Jean doesn't let us down.

This wasn't the rant it might have been --- I think my mom bore the brunt of my frustration on the phone earlier. But in the works for tomorrow: a post my disastrous attempt at getting political while doing press for the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.

December 1, 2008

creeping up

I'm in one of those states where reading over the last post -- about how to get published -- seems like a funny taunt from a past self. Why, it's as easy as one-two-three! Oh, it is to laugh.

Not that I'm despairing or blocked or any of those things. I'm writing, and it's slow but steady. I'm doing that thing I do where I'm looking at my fantasy self-appointed deadline and my current word count and doing some calculations of just how much I'd have to write at a minimum just to meet it. The current magic number is 410 -- significantly higher than the oft-attempted-not-always-met-goal of a daily 250.

Of course, all this clinging to numbers is just a way to stave off other kinds of panic (is this any good? what's going to happen next?), but there is something satisfying, after all, at seeing a word count slowly, ever so slowly creep upward. Even if every so often your inner editor kicks in (or, say, kicks into higher gear, because is she ever not there, keeping things to a tortoise-pace?) and you have to delete a chunk and you find yourself slowly sliding down again.

November 24, 2008

how to become a (published) writer

When I decided to start a public blog, I spent some time thinking about what its focus should be, and I have to admit it wasn't initially obvious to me that it would end up being (at the very least tangentially) about writing. Generally, I've tended to blog mostly only about cleaning my apartment, and other things that fill me with an unwarrantedly large sense of accomplishment.

But lately I've fielded a couple of questions from friends and family about how to go about getting published, so I thought I would share my recent response to a friend of a friend asking on behalf of her friend's (!) father:

Q: "Do you mind my asking how you went about getting your book published? A friend's father might be interested in publishing something, but they're not sure where to start. I know we could just google it, but I was wondering if you'd be willing to share your story."

A: What kind of thing is your friend's father interested in publishing? All I can really talk about is my experience with Canadian literary fiction (rather than mass-market fiction or non-fiction). Generally, it goes something like this:

1) Send stories to literary journals (places like the Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, the Dalhousie Review).

2) Once you have some sort of publishing record, you can query publishers with a sample of your manuscript. Big publishing houses (Random House, Penguin, etc.) do not usually accept unsolicited submissions (i.e. sans agent), so you would basically be writing to small literary presses (like Goose Lane, Coach House, etc).

3) If they want to see more, they'll tell you..and at that point, you send it!

You could also skip step 1, but it will help with grant applications and building credibility with editors and agents. Also, in step 2, you could also query literary agents to try and represent your manuscript. If you have a novel (rather than a short-story collection or poetry, which most agents will not represent), this might be a good choice. Also, the time in between sending stuff and hearing back from people is usually a minimum of 2 months and anywhere up to 8 months or you need to be patient. But please keep in mind I'm not an expert on any of this! It's all based on hearsay and my own limited experience.

Hope this helps!

November 13, 2008

Art Threat takes on National Portrait Gallery cancellation

The political art blog ArtThreat is sponsoring a contest in protest of the latest arts cut -- the cancellation of the long-planned National Portrait Gallery. They are soliciting portraits of the Prime Minister that best embody his attitude towards the arts, and their favourite will win a prize of $1000.

I'm looking forward to the planned exhibition of the works in Ottawa and Montreal (and hopefully in other cities across Canada, too). For more details, follow the link above. The deadline is January 31, 2009.

November 11, 2008

War (what is it good for?)

Always, on Remembrance Day, I end up thinking about poetry. I grew up in Ottawa, singing in choirs, and for a few years singing "In Flanders Fields" at the cenotaph during the official ceremony (and trying not to freeze! I think I managed to fit three layers under my white turtleneck). Then I went to a high school (Lisgar Collegiate Institute) where a lot was made of the fact that John McCrae was inspired to write his famous poem about the death of his friend and Lisgar alumnus, Alexis Helmer. So for a long time I thought the poem loomed large in my mind mostly because of where I was from.

It took me a little longer to realize just how huge this poem is, though it was somewhere in between graduating from high school and visiting the truly amazing and interactive In Flanders Fields museum (imagine, a war museum that doesn't glorify war) in Ypres, Belgium. (The museum also had a powerful interpretation of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' by Sir Wilfred Owen. Though it certainly seems to be true that people don't buy and read poetry very much anymore, the ability of a poem (or a song) to touch millions of people is pretty unbeatable.

I also remember the Remembrance Day in elementary school when I figured out that the poem was written during the World War I, which was so sad and incomprehensible to me at the time. (Something along the lines of "Why would anyone want to have another war after reading that poem?" Sigh.)

November 10, 2008

when technology is adorable - from BoingBoing

Look, it's a mini Penguin classic:

..digitized and put on a USB tricked out in miniature by artist Richard Shed. It's so wee and precious I'm having a hard time remembering my concern for the paperback.

November 8, 2008

by way of introduction

...I'll start with a book list or two.

Recently read:

Crabwise to the Hounds by Jeramy Dodds
City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
Open Arms by Marina Endicott

Currently reading:

Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon
Between Mountains by Maggie Helwig

Up next:

Not sure. I have a huge pile, full of Amazon orders, books of friends, and a bunch of things I picked up at the recent McGill Book Fair. I think it will probably be Cockroach by Rawi Hage (unfortunately, I don't already have this) because I feel out of the loop for not having read it yet.

November 7, 2008

Hello, internets. My excitement for the change going on in America has inspired me to believe that I might be able to keep a public blog that doesn't devolve into rants about people who don't queue properly at the bus stop or my continually failing quest to find a flattering pair of heart-shaped sunglasses.

(No promises, though.)