Writing Lessons from Dr. Seuss

A question that all writers get asked–by interviewers, by readers, by family members who don’t really understand the inclination to write–is when did you know you wanted to be a writer.  My answer to when I decided to begin writing seriously vs when I decided writing was a wonderful thing is necessarily different.  As an only child, books were my friends, my entertainment, my solace.  I loved nursery rhymes, and strange German fairy tales where children were always having their ears boxed (I still don’t know what this means, but it sounds unpleasant), and stories of witches and ghosts and mad scientists. My first true love, however, was Dr. Seuss. There were the stories themselves, which never pandered orZax condescended; the drawings, which were strange and delightful; and the rhymes, oh, how I loved the rhymes. I loved his books so much I memorized them, and can still recite good portions of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Too Many Daves, and The Zax, which I even acted out in my bedroom with my mother, our relationship not dissimilar to that of the obstinate North-Going and South-Going creatures.

Unlike many first loves, mine for Dr. Seuss has remained strong, unconditional, and full of admiration and delight after all these years.  (Johnny Cash is the only other artist that has retained my absolute devotion for over four decades.)  So when I heard that a long lost book was discovered, I was curious, excited, and filled with anticipation.  The only thing I knew was the title, What Pet Should I Get, and as a small celebratory gesture, I wrote my own version to tide me over until his arrived.  Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and I hope that Theodore would be flattered by my attempt to walk his path, or at least to tiptoe behind him.

I have yet to read his new tale, which I believe is being released today, and will hopefully fill me with glee, but here is my version, with love and respect.

What Pet Should You Get?

So you want a new pet
A bosom delight
Who will  bounce
on your coat tails
but never take flight

questionThere are questions to ask
There are things to review
As you try to finagle
The best pet for you

What do you fancy?
What are your wishes?
It’s not as easy as
bobbing for fishes

Don’t get a dog
If you live by a bog
A dog on a log
is not like a frog
Why, that dog is sure
to fall into the bogfish
And a dog in a bog
is a very sad thing
As sad as a walleye
with a fin in a sling


A frog may be fond
of life in a pond
But a frog will be down
if he lives in a town
His hopping is slow

bluefrogso he’ll miss the bus
And can’t pay the fare
so will make a big fuss
A foot in the door
will not convince Gus
To let your blue frog
onto his bus

A birdie will cheep
when you’re trying to sleep
A cat will not stay
when you want it play
turtleA turtle will hide
when you bring it outside
A goldfish will mock
then retreat to his rock
A ferret will try
to eat all of your pie

A bear will sneer
when he sees you come near
A monkey will snipe
when you’re lighting his pipe
A parrot will chatter
until all your friends scatter
A mouse will chew
through your sock and your shoe

gnu2So perhaps a gnu
is the best pet for you
Do you know all the things
a gnu can do?


A gnu can make your bed
And sort your socks
And knead your bread
And change your locks
And eat your peas
And grill your cheese
And a gnu never needs you
to say please

electric-eel-cartoon-i15

 

A gnu can pitch a tent,
And start a fire,
And catch an eel,
And play the lyre

 

He’ll come to school
and do your math,
He’ll chase the bus
and take your bath

Play catch in the park
until after dark
Blow tunes through his horn
at the crack of morn
momWhen your mother comes in
and yells “what’s all this din?”
He’ll crawl under your bed
and always play dead
Then he’ll giggle with you
till you both turn blue

There’s no topping a gnu
He’s the best pet for you!

Brought to you by the Gnu Breeders of East Gnu

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Blog Hop: Una McDonnell–The Whole Yummy-Messy Smash

Thanks to the lovely Tess Fragoulis for including in me in the Blog Hop, and letting me hop right onto her blog to do it!

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Una McDonnell

What am I working on?

I’m working on a book of short stories I started during an MFA in Creative Writing with the amazing Zsuszi Gartner, who taught me how to unleash my own voice as a short fiction writer. I don’t know whose style I was trying to write before, but it was some safe, bland compilation of a “literary” voice. For the first class, I’d written this truly horrible last line in a story, involving one tenacious leaf hanging from a winter branch. Zsuszi and the gang—we later named ourselves “The Tenacious Leaves”— facilitated that breakthrough moment in which I could finally see how I was getting in my own way as a writer. Once I kicked the nasty self-imposed critic, with all her “shoulds,” off my shoulder, the writing and my enjoyment of it opened up. That’s the book I’m working on now, The Hard Problem of Consciousness.

In the title story, I was interested in that particular problem of consciousness in which there is no logical reason why we should have experience, or a rich inner life, as part of the meat-machine processes of mind. How then do we share our experience? Or as Betty Goodwin asks in one her preliminary sketches, “How long does it take one voice to reach another?” I like playing with that in story—how little of what we mean gets across once its been through the filter of our personality and the listener’s own psychological makeup. The extraordinary capacity of language and its failures. I find I’m always drawn to books and movies with interweaving story lines and characters. I have a triptych in the book that takes place on one night in a small village (very like the one I live in) with three characters in the middle of various crises that draw direct and indirect connections between them.

I also have a mostly-completed book of poems and half a novel and a small business. Starting a business is like pushing a huge boulder off a mountain peak, then getting in front and running. The boulder is slowing down and my legs are way stronger than when I started. So, right now, the stories. I’m learning to focus.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is the sort of question I wouldn’t have the first clue how to answer. It’s hard to see my own work objectively. One thing I’ve decided about other people’s art—to dispel that feeling that I’d have to take survey courses covering the whole of human history in every discipline to properly “understand” it—is that if a work engages me on numerous levels, then it’s working for me. A Betty Goodwin mixed media piece challenges me intellectually and visually, cracks me open and gives me goosebumps. That method of engagement with art has a corollary for my own work: that the best I can do is develop my craft and strive to be authentic. The writing I most admire has spiritual grit, and by that I mean, it’s earnest in the best sense of the word, but has its feet on the ground too. It feels elemental, like a brilliant new idea, yet one that resonates in my most hidden self, and I wish I’d written it. I try to write the work that in a parallel universe, I would wish I’d written.

Why do I write what I do?

It’s nice to be asked to talk about writing, and I enjoy reading factual articles and memoirs, but so far, the only kind of writing I love to do is fictional. In fact, I wither under the mental organization of other kinds of writing and of life tasks in general. The regular world, with its exigencies and details makes me tired. I can feel a nap coming on right now…

I write fiction and poetry because those forms engender more epiphanic moments than anything else I could do. So, yup, I chase that feeling. Everyone has had those seconds in the morning mirror, when, for some reason, time slows, and you can see yourself, really see yourself, briefly, from a slightly different angle, as though a veil has dropped, and you think, “My God, that’s me, I am Me.” You are both more familiar and more a stranger to yourself in those moments. Or as one of my characters, an adolescent girl named Tanya, says, (cause, lets face it, my characters know much more than I do), you get pulled “into the big old world and every living thing we share it with, all the animals and trees, rivers and caves, stars in the sky, and everyone, the whole implausible, irreconcilable, yummy-messy smash.”

The specifics come based on whatever gets lodged in my mind or body and haunts me until I let it out.

How does my writing process work?

Before a first draft, I spend a lot of time working when I’m not working. I need to fill my life with the right things in order to write well—time in the world of nature, time to read, and some good old-fashioned loafing about on the couch and staring at the ceiling with a song like Springsteen’s The River on a repeat loop, à la my sixteen-year-old self. Caffeine helps. Sometimes wine. Long drives are good. So is sleeping on it. Once I can feel the story, feel the emotion of the idea, character, or question that’s asking to be written, then I can face the blank screen.

When it gets down to writing the story, I have to say, I have a pretty unstructured mind, so sometimes laying down a structure frees me up to delve into character and ideas. I want the content and the form of the story to work together and I really enjoy playing with that. Revision is my favourite part of writing, where I really develop the characters, the line by line craft, etc. The best I can hope for in a first draft is that I get the voice on the page. Most of it gets cut later, and everything else is re-writing. If my writing process were a poem, it would be Steven Heighton’s Ballad of the Slow Road.

I’m most productive at writer’s residencies, where I can be locked away in my room with a view, but know that there are great people working near-by, stimulating conversation and a cuppa tea or a pint waiting when I’m ready to leave my bubble. So right now I’m renting a studio with the writer Lesley Buxton in the Farrellton Artist Space in an old, country school housing 20 other artists. It hasn’t produced as much beer-drinking as I’d like, but I’m getting work done.

I’m passing the rabbit’s foot over to playwright, poet, short-story writer, and fibre artist, S.Lesley Buxton, who is currently writing a Memoir through Dalhousie’s King’s College based on her beautiful and heart-breaking blog Fall On Me, Dear. And to poet, Dilys Leman, (who will also post on Lesley’s blog) great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Augustus Jukes, senior surgeon of the North-West Mounted Police during the 1885 Rebellion. Dilys’ new book, The Winter Court (McGill-Queens University Press), challenges the official story about the roll of First Nations in that rebellion through a mix of original poems and reconstituted archival texts.

*

Una McDonnell has performed at literary readings and music festivals, on top of café tables (to get a gig), and on one occasion in a boxing ring (she won her round). She attended the 2002 Banff Wired Writing Studio and the 2003 Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium and has a Masters of Fine Arts from UBC. She has published work in Arc, Prairie Fire, Written in the Skin: A Poetic Response to Aids, and Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature.

Blog Hop: I Almost Never Write and Tell

A few weeks ago, I was tagged in a blog hop by writer and friend Sally Cooper, asked to talk about my work, my process, my current projects.  advice mod verbsApart from the fact that I feel there is way too much talk about writing these days–who does what, how often, how–which I almost never relate to, though may find interesting–I am, at base, against the concept of the writer as public figure, asked to pronounce truisms about the writing life, give advice to the aspiring, or lay down wisdom derived from his/her own struggle with the written word.  I am not saying that I’ve never engaged in these activities: as an instructor of creative writing, that is half of my job, and even this blog has such pondering, such pronouncements.  So here I am, after several attempts, some contempt, and a good deal of procrastination, with my answers to the questions posed, by whom initially, I am not sure. Make of them what you will.

What are you working on?

PR-SecretsI am, by nature, a secretive person.  This may not be evident given how social and garrulous I can be on occasion, but no matter how much of a story I tell, there is always something I leave out.  This is true in all aspects of my life–in my relationships with family and friends, in my intimate relationships, and even in my relationship (when I had one) with my therapist.  Part of this might have to do with a fear of being judged and found wanting, but the greater part has to do with keeping a tantalizing something for and to myself.  This also holds true in my writing life.  I will generally only speak of my work in any sort of detail once it is complete.  I don’t consider it a superstition that a work can be damaged or talked out by speaking of it too soon, before it and the writer have grown a skin thick enough to resist both skeptics and detractors, not to mention the well-meaning critics who are only too willing to offer what more they desire from it.  But mostly I am just happy to selfishly guard it, like a fabulous secret life, full of passion and conflict, created to suit myself, since I write first and foremost for myself.  So I’m not going to talk about what I am working on.  That is, as they say, for me to know and for you to find out.

I can, however, talk about what I have almost finished: a collection of magical and wistful stories called In Love with the Dead, which are mostly about people in relationships that may or may not be real. They are fairy tales for adults and, as such, will come with illustrations by South African friend and artist Lynne Lomofsky. Why should only children’s books be illustrated? Do we not all desire and require a little more art and colour in our lives? I do.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I have no idea.  This seems like a question for academics and agents, not for writers.  Answering that kind of question would likely stop me in my tracks. Are fairy tales a genre? Then there is not always a happily ever after to my stories, at least not the expected kind. Is literary fiction a genre? Then that’s what I’m doing, at least I hope I am. Is magic realism hallucination-selfhelp-012413a genre? Well, the stories are somewhat magical, and somewhat realistic, and do exactly what they are supposed to do: they explore and reveal human desires, wounds, psyches, conflicts, and consequences without being tied to the literal and mundane aspects of physical reality. On the other hand, a reader might be tempted to conclude that many of my characters are suffering from mental breakdowns; this might be the one difference. But those types of conclusions or interpretations are also not my responsibility.  I have been known to entertain magical thinking in my life, so who am I to judge?  I just tell my character’s stories as they come, without much of an agenda–at least that is true of this book.

Why do I write what I do?

Sometimes I have a question that I want answered. In my last novel, The Goodtime Girl, I wanted to know what it would have been like to be a female singer in the 1920s tavernas and hash dens of post-war Greece.  In Love with the Dead was a reaction to such research-based writing, which often made me feel shackled to reality, to history. I wanted freedom and less tragedy. I wanted imagination to be the driving force in the lives of the characters. I wanted anything that happened, no matter how unlikely, to be acceptable.

I also tend to write the types of stories that I want to read. I try to fulfill my own wants and needs for emotion, for amusement, for certain types of narrative the best I can. Curiosity, hunger, and self-satisfaction sum it up best.  If I could simply find other books that perfectly satisfied those three needs, perhaps I would stop writing. Or maybe not.

How does my writing process work?

I have a very long gestation period for any idea.  I collect tidbits for it while I’m waiting for the moment, for the motivation, for courage to begin.  Sometimes I am plagued by a first line that I know I must write down, which repeats in my brain like a disembodied, obsessive voice, and more often than not pushes me towards a notebook, just to shut it up.  That line often has momentum, at least for a paragraph, if not more.  I can also, on a disciplined day, have an intention to write and begin putting something down on paper scriptcrumb(yes, I still write on paper) just for the sake of doing it, so I can say that I tried.  If I can hang in beyond the awkward stiltedness of the first lines, I can sometimes get into a rhythm, begin to feel the flow of language, let the writing take me beyond my mechanical intentions.  I used to work 3 or 4 hours every day, no matter how I felt: inspired, uninspired, tired, resentful, hopeful.  That really is the way things like a novel get written.  Now, I have less time to dedicate to my writing, but when I am ready to dive into my new project, currently waiting patiently in the ether, gathering strength, momentum, urgency, I will clear my schedule again. Writing is not a thing I can do part-time, or in stolen moments.  It completely takes over, and I need full days, with no other distractions, to surrender to the new relationship.

So that’s my two bits, and now I pass the baton over to poet Una McDonnell, whose contribution will appear on this blog in a few weeks, and poet, publisher, and dandy rob mclennan.

Thanks for hopping by!

No Cure for Ignorance (or Writing)

Most of the major projects I have undertaken in my writing life have been preceded, if not encouraged, by a sort of blissful ignorance. When I wrote my first book, Stories to Hide from Your Mother, for instance, I had no idea how difficult it would be to create and perfect 14 self-contained worlds, let alone how difficult it would be to sell a collection of stories to a publisher. With Ariadne’s Dream, my second book, I was happily unaware of the gargantuan task of keeping all of a novel’s details, characters and subplots straight, let alone the sheer laboriousness of reviewing 400 pages at every stage of the publishing process.

Having written and survived one novel, I felt primed to take on another one. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that twaddle… But instead of sticking even a little bit closely to what I had just taught myself to do, I chose to burden myself with an extra layer of difficulty without truly understanding what was I was doing. No, I didn’t write and entire novel without using the letter “e”– I mean, isn’t it challenging enough to tell a great story in beautiful language without excluding five of the last ten words, Monsieur Perec?

Due to that pesky thing called inspiration, which we all know is only 1/10 of the work involved in writing, so it can afford to be charming and frivolous, I decided to take on a historical novel, set in a time I knew almost nothing about, and about which there wasn’t much written in English. My third book, The Goodtime Girl, which is set in Greece and Asia Minor during the 1920s, took about ten years to complete. It’s safe to assume that had I known I would spend a decade working on one book, I would have chosen to do something, almost anything, else, like go to med school. In fact, I used to make fun of my novelist friends and their ten year prison sentences, as I called them. But I’d heard a song from the period that intrigued me, and the next thing you know I was researching music, fashion, drug culture and war, then writing character sketches and preliminary chapters, and by the time I realized what I’d gotten myself into, it was too late to bail (I tried, I’ll admit, but the story wouldn’t let me. It warned it would haunt me FOREVER!).

Don’t get me wrong, I love all my books like parents love their children, even after the teenaged years. I have no regrets. But I have to wonder, had I known how tough the process after inspiration and before publication would be, would I have persisted?

Possibly.
Probably.
Yes.

There really isn’t a choice when you have a story in your head that must be told, that takes over both your waking and dream worlds, that suggests lines to you when you are about to fall asleep and makes you turn on a light and pick up a notebook, all the while cursing, but also feeling a little exhilarated when the words appear, as if channeled, on the page.

No one ever said literature was easy–it’s just worked on until it looks that way. But there’s no use thinking about writing as a never-ending and unavoidable chore–like dusting. In the end, a bit of ignorance, willful or pure, is indeed bliss, and perhaps vital to my creative development. It allowed me to write three books, each one different and more ambitious than its predecessor, and a fourth (yes, difficult-to-sell short stories) is almost finished. As for the fifth, though I have sworn up and down over the last decade that I will NEVER EVER write another historical novel, the other day a reader asked me whether I was going to write a sequel to The Goodtime Girl, set in another place, another time. I have to admit I’m considering it.

It has to be easier the second time around, right?

Cross-posted at 49th Shelf

Other People’s Secrets: The Stories I Won’t Tell

Once a week I volunteer at an active listening center, where I lend an ear to people in distress. In my eight months there I have spoken to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, with schizophrenia, with bipolar disorder, with borderline personality disorder, with depression, anxiety and paranoia. There also have been closet cross-dressers, frustrated poets, and at least one female masturbator, who kept me on the phone for 45 minutes–until she was done, I guess. Far from being depressing, I find it fascinating to talk to and listen to these people. I am a person addicted to stories, and their stories are more surprising, have more depth, pathos, strangeness and humor than most of the things I read. In other words, these people are the perfect characters, who willingly reveal themselves to me. But I am sworn to secrecy (one regular caller ends every conversation by asking me if our talk is confidential).

It is said that Dostoevsky stole the epitaph from his mother’s grave for a story. I have used incidents from my life, along with versions of the characters that have populated it for my stories and novels, and I have been called on it more than once. I have even abandoned a story more than once because it would probably get me into trouble. Dostoevsky’s mother was already dead, so he had nothing to answer for. As for the characters in my stories who recognize themselves, they are there because I am–my story couldn’t be told without them. But these anonymous callers are just passersby in my life, though I speak to a few of them at least once a week, know their first names in some cases, have heard the details of their life-altering story–the one that sent them to the hospital, that keeps them up at night, that no one else believes–more than once.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that every character has a secret that motivates or hinders him/her, and whether the writer reveals the secret in the story or not, he/she must always be aware of it. It is the secret that makes the character interesting, and the way it manifests that makes the story unique. My callers are dying to get their secret off their chests, to have it understood, untangled, justified, and most importantly, to not be judged for it. At the end of a good call, they will thank me profusely, bless me, tell me they love me or even adore me for the simple reason that I listened, responded, took interest, and possibly even helped them–at least in the moment. A bad phone call will end pretty much in the absolutely opposite manner, but luckily I don’t have too many of those. Unless someone is being pushy and disrespectful, I respect them enough to believe their distress, even if its cause is transparent to me. Carl Jung taught me long ago that psychological reality is that person’s reality. We all count on our brains to tell us what is real and how to react to it, and this is as true for person whose brain is not absolutely reliable.

When I teach literature, I give my students a list of hints that a character is unreliable, including explicit contradictions and other discrepancies in the narrative, contradictions between the narrator’s account of events and his/her explanations and interpretations of the same, and a high level of emotional involvement, including exclamations and repetitions. Many of my callers meet the criteria for unreliability, but that makes their stories no less fascinating. They are not stories, however, that I will be stealing for my own writerly purposes, not whole hog anyway. It would feel like I was stealing their souls. Perhaps a detail will eventually work itself into something I write, divorced from the person and his/her whole narrative. I do think the masturbator is fair game since she already used me for her own selfish purposes. But everyone else is too vulnerable, too beaten down and used by their families, their mental illness, the health system, by the world at large. Though some of their stories are heartbreaking, poignant, hilarious, I cannot become one more person who betrays them for my own benefit.

So they remain ephemeral, like the charming songs children make up while they are playing, to be felt, enjoyed in the moment, then forgotten. I do enjoy them immensely as they unfold over the line, and though I won’t forget them, I won’t repeat them either. They have nothing to do with me. They are not my stories to tell.