Friday, October 25, 2013

entitlement

So you know how men (and sometimes women) see a girl walking down the street and, if they’re not smiling, feel they have the right to tell them to smile? Or to make them feel guilty about not smiling? Well this phenomenon happens with dogs too.

Yonder is a very nice looking dog. And when people see him, they automatically think he is approachable and friendly – maybe because his tail is wagging or because he’s panting (which makes him look like he’s smiling). Even if I say, he’s going to bark at you, or, he’s wary of strangers, people will still approach thinking they are the exception. Let me tell you: they never are. And when Yonder doesn’t go up to them, wagging his tail and being all subservient - even more, when he does the opposite (barking or growling or ducking away) - they get offended. Some people even get angry, calling him “bad” or “untrained” or (yes, this happened today) "evil".

Honestly? It’s no different than that guy walking towards me on the street telling me to smile and getting offended or cussing me out when I refuse.

That guy thinks he’s entitled to feel good about watching a girl walk down the street, and if she’s not smiling it negatively affects his mood. Similarly, human beings think they’re entitled to the devotion of dogs. They see a nice-looking dog and think they have a right to that dog’s affection. So when a dog doesn’t go up to them smiling and wagging their tail or (heaven forbid!) it barks at them, they feel personally offended. Dogs are supposed to be subservient and affectionate – this is their function. They are only valuable in so far as they make human beings feel good about themselves.

This, my friends, is entitlement and I have exactly no patience for it. In fact, the next time it happens to Yonder, I’m going to chase the offender down the street myself.

End rant.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

story longings


Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak? - Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

As I raced to the end of my first draft this week, I was thinking a lot about how this particular story is so much different than the last one. The last novel I wrote was a very personal and intimate thing. Writing it felt like walking through the forest at night, barefoot, with only the light of the moon to guide me. (That's actually exactly how the story opens: with my protagonist walking barefoot through the woods in the middle of the night.) In the two years that I've spent writing and rewriting that story, there have been a lot of wrong turns and a lot of lostness and a lot of fear.

This novel (so far) is completely different. Writing the first draft of this novel was like playing a huge game of chess in my head. It’s a much bigger story. It’s political and romantic and the stakes are sky high. It isn’t sensitive and gentle the way the first one was. In fact, I might even call it ruthless. Merciless. And as I think back on the past year or so, that makes a lot of sense. My sensitive/gentle novel began as a way of coping with losing something precious. It was my way of clinging to a person and a place that was disappearing while simultaneously learning to let go.

This novel is much more about what I long for. Because I work at a bookstore, because I review books and interview authors and host their events, I end up reading a lot of books that I must read. This isn’t a bad thing. If anything, it forces me out of my comfort zone and into stories that are very different from the ones I’m used to. But it can get exhausting and reading can start to feel like an obligation. Writing this novel was a way out of that, a way for me not to be burned out on stories. Instead of reading five books and *maybe* falling in love with one, writing this novel has been a way of making sure I'm always in one that I love/want/need/crave. It's my way of fulfilling the story-longings inside me.

Sometimes I forget that writing is a living, breathing thing; that the story (or the poem, etc.) not only transforms you and feeds you, but is transformed and fed because of you. Erin Bow in her interview with the Quill & Quire last month said that she thinks she writes what she will ultimately end up needing. And I wonder if there's truth in that for every writer.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

where i write

I can write anywhere. In bed in the middle of the afternoon. On my mother's kitchen floor. On my grandmother's crumbling steps leading into the woods. In a cafe with the music blaring and the people beside me trying to talk above it. But my absolute favourite place to write is my writing desk.


There's something about designating a particular space to a particular task. It gives that task more weight, more heft. It says: Hey, pay attention, this thing is important. We designate spaces to eating, sleeping, lounging, playing, working. I decided a few years ago that if writing was important to me, I needed to give it its own space. So I did.


Writing isn't the only thing I do here. Sometimes I draw. Often I procrastinate. But mostly, I write. And because it's mostly writing that gets done in this place, my body knows that when I sit down at the desk and open the laptop or pick up the pen, it's time to get down to work.

Friday, October 11, 2013

the strength of not knowing

This is my dog. I like him a lot. I especially like to cuddle him - which he does not like. Not in the least. I'm lucky if he tolerates hugs for more than two seconds.

Already I'm digressing.


A few days ago, I was playing with him in the kitchen. He's a pretty big dog (85lbs) and he was getting excited  - jumping and barking and play-biting - which is bad if I'm not going to take him outside (which I wasn't, we'd just been outside) because then his behaviour escalates and he stays in that overly-excited state and it's not fair to anyone. So in the midst of trying to calm him down and it not working I said playfully/exasperatedly: "Yonder, go lie down!" He immediately stopped, went straight to his blanket by the door, and lay down.

We stared at each other in the silence. This was not a command I had taught him. And if you know anything about dogs, you know that they don't understand English and therefore don't understand spoken commands they've never been trained to obey. Dogs innately understand movement and body language - it's what they pay attention to. They may listen to you when you speak to them, but they don't understand you.

So I thought it was a fluke and forgot about it. But then just yesterday the same thing happened: We were playing, he was getting riled up, and before it escalated I knew I needed to stop it. So again, I said, "Go lie down." And he did. Again, the silence descended and we stared at each other.

It was in the silence that I realized this must have been something his former owner taught him. Because Yonder and I didn't always belong to each other. When I found him he was sitting in a cage at the humane society in my hometown. He'd been there for months, and before that he'd been a stray. When I first saw him, he was mangy and recovering from some kind of fight and his ribs stuck out too far. The time of his life before we met are a mystery to me. I have no idea where he came from or how he ended up where he did.

And there's something beautiful about that - about the not knowing. He has a past that I know nothing about. He has no way of telling me what his previous people were like, if they were kind or cruel, why he left them or if he was abandoned. He carries with him remnants of his past (like the "go lie down" command) but I'll never be able to know him completely. And it's the same for me: I have a whole past that he wasn't a part of and that I'll never be able to tell him about and that I carry with me in my own ways.

In the beginning, when we were first getting used to each other, I thought this was a weakness. Not being completely understood and not being able to understand was frustrating for me. But it turns out that a bond that can't be defined or defended or built up by words doesn't need to be. What's more: it can't be ruined by them. It turns out that there's something appealing about not being completely known by the one you're devoted to. The companionship that exists between Yonder and I is made up of mystery and silence and it's sealed with an unasked for devotion. It needs no basis or logic; it just is.

And thus, what I thought was the greatest weakness in our bond has turned out to be its greatest strength.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Shadows

Fear is something that is far too prevalent in my life. I’m afraid of so many things: The dark. Walking down the street alone at night. Blood clots. Brain aneurisms. Dying in general. Someone I love dying. Maybe those are all related. Actually, I’m pretty sure they are.

But the thing I’m most afraid of, right now, this week? Writing. Specifically writing the part that comes next in this manuscript that I’m almost at the end of. The fact that I’m here writing this blog post instead of the next 2000 words in my story tells me that I’m scared.

So why am I so afraid? Well in some ways this next chapter is my Voldemort. I have a vague idea of what it is or what it needs to be but I can’t see it clearly because I haven’t written it. It has a great deal of power over me because it’s the point at which everything in the story gets turned on its head. It’s the point at which the most awful thing that can happen to my characters happens. I’ve even resorted to calling it The Chapter That Changes Everything - because that’s not terrifying at all.

The thing I always have to remind myself when I’m in this place is that fears are like shadows. Depending on the way the light shines, a shadow can stretch and loom or it can shrink and fade. Shadows are always going to be there, whatever their shape. Just like fear is always going to be there, taking its many forms. It’s me that has to decide what I’m going to do in light of that.

Once, not very long ago, I thought I was supposed to strive for fearlessness. I’m not so sure anymore. These days I wonder if maybe the best I can do is look my fear in the face and say: You’re not going to stop me today. And then try to make that come true.