Marnie Woodrow

Ends & Starts

The completion of a long-term project is bittersweet. Moving toward publication means saying goodbye to imaginary friends with whom you’ve kept counsel for years. They are reluctant to go, these companions, but go they must. Where something ends, something new starts: it is a sort of law. There are rituals and rites that assist in the eviction: moving research books around, filing papers, shredding long-gone drafts and trying to justify keeping the various handwritten notes that turned into, or will soon turn into, a printed “product.” Long walks with new ideas help, and letting your heart turn toward a new notebook and pen with that inflated sense of hope that beginnings allow for.

There were songs that were like talismans during the writing process. For my most recent novel it was Antje Duvekot’s song “Coney Island” and lately, “Lady” by Stevie Nicks. These are songs I may not be able to hear again for a long time simply because they trigger the urge to work on that story, with those imagined characters. The new characters nudging in at the periphery will want other songs, other invitations.

Images have always had a powerful role in sparking story for me, and new images will slowly replace those currently residing on the bulletin board in my writing nook. I cut out words from magazines, and pictures and bands of colour to stoke the flames of new projects. Without knowing it, I have been building “vision boards” for books the whole time I have been writing them. And then there are the images from the book, dreamed up and lodged forever in the back of the brain. Where did they come from? Does it matter? Would we be any better off knowing where these urgent images push forth from? I doubt it. There is a certain mystery to the writing process that no one ought to mess with. Yes, yes, there are parts of the brain responsible for different aspects of writing/creating, but I’d rather not know their names.

You can feel a bit lost when a thing is handed over to the publisher. There are of course revisions and final revisions, a copy edit and a final proofread, all conspiring to help you let go a little more each day/week/month. But ultimately there comes that time when you are jonesing to move on to a new project. There’s an open secret about becoming bored with the drafting and re-drafting, and at some stage you want to be free of it, to let go and say, “This is what I made with what I had to work with.”

This is not to say that working on one thing at a time with extreme fidelity is always the right path. While finishing a draft of my novel I wrote two rough drafts of full length plays and am keen to have at them again. But until the novel found a home, continued work on the plays seemed like a betrayal of sorts. Now that I am free, the long walks and pondering sessions can take over the routine again. The brand new project can be allowed to percolate more ardently on a front burner.

It won’t be until I hold the novel in my hands as a book that the farewell is complete, but for now I am too busy letting the new “friends” in to become angsty about the necessary good-bye. Thirteen years is a long time to hang out with a bunch of invented people but it was worth it to be able to type the words The End on the private draft.

The Art of Play

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Did Confucius really say this? Does it matter? It’s an amazing quote, and true. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of play in work as the new year unfolds. I feel truly lucky to do what makes me happy, and to not spend time on things that make me miserable. OK, so we all have to do taxes and housework, but the core of my days is all about play because I have a low tolerance for boredom. I’ve never actually BEEN bored but I sense that certain pathways would indeed bore me.

I’ve been building two new companies, one on my own and one in collaboration with the super-talented and very generous actor and writer Joanne Vannicola. We are close to launching our new initiative, so I can’t say too much about it today. Suffice it to say it is built on a shared passion for play—and for the theatre. My own company is simply a home for something I’ve been doing for years, which is to offer and lead workshops driven by creativity. Nothing thrills me more than a room filled with heads bowed over a piece of new writing, or the sharing that goes on when writers (and those who walked in the room uncertain about writing as a valid use of time) muster the courage to read a few lines or pages out loud.

Out loud. That changes the game a lot, when we share. When we hear our own voices in rooms, on stages, it can be hugely transformative. It can make “work” impossible and play completely addictive and necessary to the soul. Because although we may age physically, we are essentially just children or at the very latest, teenagers, in our creative hearts. When the spark is lit, it’s playtime for the body too.

At a recent workshop on short story writing, one of the participants remarked on how physical I make writing seem. I guess I am invested and interested in the physical aspect of writing because so much of it is deceptively sedentary. But when you think of your brain as a muscle, your arm and hand as the connector and instigator of the messages pouring through you, writing IS physical. The stiffness and tightness we may experience as writers is usually extreme focus. We zero our minds in so tightly on the page that bodily tension is the result, and sometimes it is quite severe. Which is where the spirit of play comes in, and sharing those works out loud breaks the tension even as it seems scary at first. It’s like breaking through the surface of a lake after a long underwater swim. POOSH! You’re breathing again!

The other great thing about a spirit of play is that it is infectious. When Joanne and I have been planning our new company events, we’ve laughed ourselves silly and get twice as much accomplished in the process. Sure it helps that we speak the same creative language and share political and philosophical beliefs about art and the need for women to seize their creative mojo and run with it. But mainly what has been driving all our meetings and brainstorms has been a mutual belief, head to toe, in play. Inspiring others to play and be joyful in their “work” is a real privilege and we are so excited about the next few months.

I will add links to the two new ventures I am part of as soon as the websites are live. It’s been a playful and powerful start to 2015, and I hope you are finding work that feels more and more like play, too.

Speaking of which, my next workshop is on playwriting. Walking the talk, I am diving into revisions of my first full length play, percolating for a year now. With my novel finally complete, there are many many other projects in the hopper. And while revisions are intense, I love them, because they make the words roar forward. That’s a good feeling after a long period of creative frustration. I don’t believe in Writer’s Block but I do believe that sometimes, we can lose the art of play.

 

 

RESOLVE TO WRITE MORE IN 2015

There’s nothing quite as gratifying as the sight of a stack of pages building beside you on the desk. Making good on goals is a singular feeling. We all deserve to feel it, and the only person who can give you that feeling is you. Sometimes the flow is temporarily blocked, but with the right coaching and feedback, most writers will overcome the nagging self-doubts and external messages that are most often the cause of what many call “Writer’s Block.” I do not believe in Writer’s Block one bit. I do believe there can be problems with the mind, such as an addiction or anxiety disorder standing in the way of true creative progress. And self-doubt, when shaped as a mantra, can indeed be debilitating. But the good news is, writer’s block is really just the mind preparing for a time of greater output. See it that way and you’re good to go for that next writing project.

In my 12 plus years of coaching writers online, I have worked with every skill level. I have coached playwrights, poets, short story writers, screenwriters and novelists. The common urge among them all is to tell a great story and not go crazy doing so. That’s where I step in, with honest and clearly-delivered feedback that is meant to inspire and encourage, not erode confidence and stump progress.

This February 1, 2015 I am launching a new session of RESOLVE TO: WRITE THAT NOVEL. The session is ten weeks in duration and each writer will create 10 pages minimum per week toward the realization of a draft of his or her novel. If you write more in a given week, bravo for you! The cost per session is $950 taxes included and includes 10 weekly deadlines (strict: you miss the deadline, you miss the feedback that week) and 10 rounds of detailed feedback within 3 days of sending in the pages. The best thing about this sessional online work is that you can do it at any hour that suits you, from anywhere in the world. Just meet your deadline at midnight on Sundays and you’re on track to meet your goal.

Please contact me directly to register for this session:  storycoach [AT] g mail dot com.

The price quoted above is a special rate valid until January 15, 2015  after which it is $1000. Due to the customized nature of the work, spaces are limited.

See you on the page!

Working with Writers

Working with someone on their novel, play, movie or short story collection is a powerful experience. It’s thrilling work, requiring a mix of delicacy and truthfulness that will bring forward the best results. In the fifteen years I have been editing and coaching writers, I have had the pleasure of holding published books in my hands at various intervals. Sometimes the journey to publication is swift and other times, more arduous. It depends on so many factors, and most of all, on the patience and perseverance of the writer. There may be champions along the way even as publication eludes us. There may be problems with a given book that take several drafts to iron out. Always the heavy lifting is done by the writer himself/herself, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, prose or scripted works.

When I have the thrill of holding the published work of an author I have coached or edited in my hands, I am mindful of all the solitary hours it took to get their full name printed on that cover. I hope for the writer that the finished work is as close to what he or she had in mind as possible, without regret or the kind of gutting compromise that can haunt an artist for years. That the sound of them is intact, that the kingdoms he desired to explore have the look and feel he dreamt of. As close as possible, in any case, for the final outcome is really up to the readers. How they experience the sound and vision of the writer and what they take away from all those hours of loving labour.

It’s an up and down process, reviewing one’s own work after publication. Most writers I know do not sit down and read their published books, except for the purposes of giving public readings. This may be because by the time a book is printed, the artist has moved on to some new project, and the characters pinned between covers must fend for themselves in the larger world. But before the publication process, which for so many is the be-all and end-all of the writing experience, there is the editorial journey.

Tough truths come out, but they can be delivered kindly. The most poisonous energy you can throw at a manuscript is sarcasm, and it has never, not in all my years as a writer, proved helpful. It is not about the writer being tough enough to take it. I wish I had a thousand dollars for every keen student who begged me to be “brutal” with them. They did not mean it, because no writer really wants to be savaged. Good practical advice delivered with grace and appreciation for the effort and vulnerability involved in writing stories down. To achieve best results (not to be confused with the corporate best practices mantra) there needs to be trust between editor and writer, between coach and creator. The final work is up to the author, and so at no stage of the game is the writing of a book really a “we” process. But it can be a less lonesome experience with the right person urging you on. Calling you on your crutches, giggling with you over repetitions that slipped through unnoticed. There can be laughter in the daunting process of editing a book, especially when the trust levels are high. It is a leap to choose and trust an editor or writing coach, to walk into a classroom and allow that individual at the front of the room to coax you to do more, push harder, test your resolve. Boost you with the compliments you DO deserve along the way.

This morning, sipping coffee, I am delighted to have on my desk a copy of Shawn Syms’ short story collection, “Nothing Looks Familiar.” In years past I worked with Shawn in classrooms at U of T and online as part of my weekly deadline coaching structure. A dream student, Shawn always knew what to do with a solid critique, how to preserve his own unique vision and voice while re-drafting. He did not comply with everything I suggested and I deeply respected his artistry as he shared his work with me. The happy occasion of his first published work of fiction reminds me of the delicate balance between writer and teacher, writer and editor, those precious relationships formed as a book is being created. Toughness and delicacy are required from all parties, but the real “balls” belong to the writer who keeps going, keeps drafting and crafting and making his or her paper dreams come true.

WORKSHOPS IN HAMILTON & TORONTO IN 2014-2015:

FOOD WRITING WORKSHOP: Hamilton, November 16, 2014, SOLD OUT

CRASH COURSE CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOPS IN HAMILTON

To be held at the James Street Bookseller Gallery Space, 134 James Street South, Hamilton ON, these delicious and dynamic 3-hour workshops give writers a taste of different forms of writing in a supportive environment. $45 per session. Email goodcompanyworkshops AT gmail dot com to register or find out more.

Memoir Writing: Saturday November 8 from 1-4 p.m and Wednesday November 12 from 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Food Writing: Wednesday December 10 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. and Saturday December 13 from 1:00-4:00 p.m.

Short Story: Wednesday January 7 and Saturday January 10, 2015.

Playwriting: Saturday February 7 and Wednesday February 11, 2015.

 

Why Hamilton?

When we announced that we were moving to Hamilton, and then that we had moved here, a few people asked. “Why Hamilton?” Pure curiosity, and justified to some extent, since we came south from a small Francophone community in the north. The insinuation being, “Why not Toronto?” After all, I lived there for close to 20 years. Many of my friends are in Toronto, and work in arts and culture is possible there. But perhaps because of the Ford years and also because of the cost of living and the more hectic nature of that city, it no longer felt like the right place to call Home. And what we were looking for was home. In Hamilton, we have found that beautiful mix of big-city amenities and small-town friendliness that we craved.

Elle Canada recently referred to Hamilton as “Canada’s Brooklyn” and in a lot of ways, it’s apt. But then Hamilton is also its very own unlike-anyplace-else city, and comparing it would do no good. Might as well call it Ontario’s Winnipeg. The longer we live here, the more answers we have to the question, “Why Hamilton?”

Because newcomers are welcome provided you don’t mistake the city as an outpost of Toronto, which it definitely isn’t. Hamiltonians are friendly, conversant and usually delighted to hear that you have chosen their hometown as your own. There is tremendous civic pride and I expect the upcoming election to be as passionate as the Ti-Cat fans.

Because we can hear the roar of those Ti-Cat fans at Tim Horton’s Field very near our house on game days and it gives me a thrill every time I am out on the front lawn. I will have to see my second-ever CFL game very soon. It sounds like too much fun to miss.

The Hamilton Store, with its fantastic selection of locally-made goods and hometown photography. It’s also a great place to go and introduce yourself as a newbie for a warm welcome from the owner.

The coffee shops: those I have discovered, like Cafe Orange, Mulberry Street and Homegrown, and those I have still to visit. I like living in a city where coffee is a serious business, without the pretense that coffee is a Serious Business. Just a mug of black joe and a great atmosphere is all I ask, and there are many amazing cafes here.

Initiatives like Art Forms, a youth-focused arts organization that I am keen to work with this year.

The fries at Locke Street Bar. Quite possibly in the top five french fries I have ever tasted. They were yummy at the Locke Street Festival, another reason to live in Hamilton.

Because whenever I go for a walk, I feel a peace and inspiration I was looking for in a hometown. The architecture moves from grand to gritty within blocks and I love the grandeur and the honest struggle. Yes, there are a lot of vacant storefronts in our neighbourhood, but for how long?

Because we live on the same street as the once-notorious murderess Evelyn Dick and I have yet to see a single tour bus. Curious people with books in hand, maybe, but no plaques and no buses.

Because of The Green Smoothie Bar, Ben Thanh and La Luna, my three favourite places to eat. Still exploring on that front. The other thing is, the grocery shopping is so awesome (Nations, Farmer’s Market, Starsky’s) I tend to cook and eat at home a lot. The range of cuisines is a relief after life up north, with all due respect to the chip stands of Sturgeon Falls.

James Street Art Crawls. Supercrawl. The amazing festivals in Gage Park.

Gage Park! Quite honestly the most serene park I have ever experienced next to the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome.

Food trucks like Karma Chameleon that serve delicious and audaciously vegan cuisine. (Yes, still obsessed with food.)

Ottawa Street, with its fabric and antique stores and Saturday market.

I could go on. I’m going to give Hamilton full credit for the happy completion of my novel. For stirring me with just the right blend of inspiration and calm that gets the job done when it comes to revisions. There were quite a few of those, and yet when we settled here in The Hammer, as some folks call it, I felt ready to type the words The End, marking the completion of a very long journey. I’m really excited about the Hamilton Arts Council’s panel discussion for writers and checking out Improv Night at The Staircase Theatre. There is so much art and culture here that we want for nothing.

It’s an exciting time to live in this city and we are only just beginning to get to know it…before you judge it from the Burlington Skyway, where the steel mills cast their grim beauty over the harbour, come take a closer look. Why Hamilton? Why NOT?

Labelitis

I am never asked if I would mind being identified as a blue-eyed writer, or asked if it is okay if the periodical in question refers to me as a female writer. Why not call us all ovarian writers, then? But we are more modern than that, aren’t we? Definitely never been asked if I mind being called a white writer, since the idea of it in 2014 would be preposterous and offensive, wouldn’t it? And to be honest, I have only been asked twice in my career if I minded being referred to as a lesbian writer. The first time, when it involved a caption under a photo of me holding a tray of stuffed peppers, I said that in fact I did mind being referred to as a lesbian writer. I was, in that context, the maker of some stuffed peppers whose photo was being included in the newspaper because of my writing and cooking passions. Looking back, I wish I had insisted on being called a lesbian writer. Why? For the same reason I recently agreed to being identified as a lesbian writer: it helps other people. How? In unseeable ways that I trust with all my heart. Nothing superheroic about it, just…it’s important.

I personally despise the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and all the fun reclaim-the-night labels that go with. I don’t like to include them in my “Hello my name is” self-introductions. But it all comes down to the news of a youth committing suicide, or someone I have never met living a life that harms their soul. Being out in this way does help, even as well-meaning people will warn you it “damages” your so-called “career.” Being yourself never damaged anything. The opposite choice has killed thousands, directly and indirectly. Being yourself sends a positive message to everyone around you. Everyone can relax: no one here is lying.

It is nothing new to say “I am out so that other people can/will come out.” But strangely, it is still a fork in many personal roads: to come out or not. So if I am asked if it is okay to label me just one more time, I am agreeable. Because there might be a 14 year old girl like I was, convinced in her small town world that she is the only lesbian alive, or worse, that she must not live because of it. Even in this age of social media and open talk, so different from my teens, there exists that girl, or boy. Times a thousand. If that girl or boy also dreams of being a writer, it is all the more important that gay and lesbian and bisexual writers be findable.  Slap a label on me if you like: it has never “scared off” the people who were meant to find my creative work.

My writing life has not been any more difficult because I am a lesbian. Long hours at the keyboard and bouts of serious self-doubt have been much more painful and testing. Revisions and the cutting of hundreds of pages after 7 years of trying to make them work: that is what makes writing life difficult, not who I fall in love with. My success on the page is up to me, not some unseen hand that, according to many, is secretly homophobic and will oppress. That is definitely garbage thinking. I used to be more adamant about not being placed in a category, but as with many other things in life, I am letting go of all the fixed ideas I had at 25.  Place me where you will: I will only ever just be me, over here at my desk, far away from the label machine…but willing to step up to it as needed.

I try to think of how I would feel if a friend introduced me at a party, as “This is my friend Marnie, she’s a lesbian writer.” I would probably laugh. It would be weird. No one would ever introduce another friend as “This is Patty, she’s a heterosexual cellist.”  Maybe we should start doing so?  I think it would be hilarious, and socially healing, to label ourselves and everyone we love with the most obvious statements possible until the ridiculousness of it caused a kind of revolution. “My name’s Doug, heterosexual, OCD, survivor.” It has happened to some extent, but then the pendulum swings scary-retro and more young people die at their own hands. Women and men force themselves into lives that smother the spark of their sexuality, because of religion, isolation or sheer confusion. NOT funny. Or perhaps we could move backward in time and sticker everything: “Only lesbians can read this book.” “Only black males between 25 and 30 can read this book.” “Do not love this person, you don’t want a label, do you?” Cordon everything off so that it all looks more appealing. Interesting from a marketing standpoint but a little too close to historical realities. Hell, I’m just grateful that Canadian novelists no longer share shelf space with books on eccentric outhouses and maple syrup and the Queen. But if I was to be placed in a shelf-bound ghetto of Canadian gay and lesbian writers, I’d be in incredible company, with some of the most gifted plotters, stylists and observers of life in the country. I’d list them, but not all of them have chosen to embrace a label. But where you put me on the eventual shelf doesn’t matter at all when I am working on something new, putting in those hours and years. I write my books for you.

What to Read and Where to Write

I have a bookshelf that once belonged to the writer Elizabeth Smart. It sits in my writing nook beside my stand-up desk, made for me by my Prince Edward County friend, Bruce. The bookshelf has been through many moves, and needs a little help standing erect, as we all do from time to time. It is where I house my beloveds, the books I want close to me as I work, or as I gaze out the back window. There’s a vintage tin toy typewriter on top of it, and a selection of chapbooks I have collected over time. You get the drift, it is a special little corner of my world. This morning, I have renamed the bookshelf The Supernatural Shelf. I was checking out the rain, standing beside this shelf, when something made me turn to the toppermost shelf. To the Timothy Findley section of paperbacks from his days at Penguin. This in itself is not unusual, because his books are so positioned for easy visiting. But I have not read The Telling of Lies in years. Today it called out for re-reading. It’s a mystery novel of sorts, and like so much of his work, completely different from the other books he wrote. I have no idea why this of all novels spoke to me this morning, but I will heed the summoning and curl up and read a good chunk of it. When asked why I have so many books, this is the main reason I cite: re-reading them is a curious pleasure that is vastly different from starting a new reading journey. Old friends. Old loves returned to with new eyes.

Ironically, this writing nook is not where I actually write of late. As I close in on the final draft of my novel, the one that will soon go out into the world in search of a home, I find I want to work in the kitchen. Or facing it, at our big wooden dining table. The table is solid, the window lets in a gorgeous breeze now and then, and I can see the stove and fridge and the coffee pot when I look up from my labours. The trick is to forego the urge to make soup instead of writing…so much easier and with the promise of immediate gratification…

I am fascinated with where writers choose to write. At a recent workshop I offered, we discussed the where of writing at fair length. It struck me that it depends on personality where we write. And where we are in a project that determines which location works best. When working longhand, I want nothing more than to be at my beautiful stand-up desk, but when engaged in the tedium of re-drafting and fixing all that is meh about a longer work, I want the dining table. I want a big flat clear space where I can spread out my manuscript and see the flow of it. Very soon I will go back to my nook and begin something new, while also running downstairs to revise a play. I am lucky to have two places to work. And projects to be excited about.

Now to find out why The Telling of Lies was saying hello so urgently this morning. I think it might have something to do with going out on literary limbs. The timing would be right for such a “message.” I have no other way of knowing except to dive in and re-read. And then to assume my position at the dining table tomorrow morning at 5.

I wonder where you like to read and where you love to write?

South North

Jane welcomes us in a brimmed hat and leads us into the garden we will eat from all evening. Those delicious Niagara ions are in the air, softening any edges one might have. The repeated (accidental) cruises through Niagara on the Lake aside, we loved our drive along the Parkway en route.

The dog is particularly enamoured with the squash labyrinth, which promises all manner of late summer delights. Tomatoes plump on vines and eggplants shimmer darkly under thick leaves. The popcorn patch stands regal as it waits for the perfect harvest time. To think that this is where we will be for hours and hours. We are in a little corner of heaven.

We all help to prepare the giant meal of vegetables and laugh as we do so. It’s a perfect afternoon and evening, so there is no dramatic arc to this story, no hairpin in the narrative where an unwelcome guest arrives and drops a bomb, emotional or otherwise.

The kitchen has been a factory of sorts, pumping out peach chutney and salsa just the day before. There is some chopping and some blanching and some purging. Slices of things are plunged into salt water and wherever possible, peels are left on. Fried green tomatoes are prepared vegan-style and greens are sautéed. We discuss the possibilities for an eggplant. Whether to grill or bake, whether the baba ganoush will dollop onto a seared round or not. We decide to keep the eggplant virginal. Jane makes the most insanely delicious “fried rice” out of cauliflower and fresh peas and chopped fresh beet and shaved corn. It would feed anyone on any diet happily. By the time we pile our plates with the bounty of the harvest the sun has set and we sit in candlelight on their amazing back porch. There are 5 of us plus Hank and there is so much laughter. By midnight, Hank is asleep on the floor and only the drive back home prompts us to say good-bye.

The week-end before I was at a beautiful writers’ retreat in Northern Ontario, mindful of crisp blue sky and a decadent tastiness to the air. Heavy rocks hunched down over the highway as we traveled to our destination and the forests were thick with pine and cedar and it was a whole other world. I had the distinct pleasure of leading a small but hugely talented group of writers through 3 and a half days of creative exploration. Meals eaten in the screened-porch dining room were delicious and it is a property dear to our hearts, this land on the Spanish River, owned and operated by Beth Mairs of BAM Spanish Riviera. By sheer happenstance, the writers were all women and there was an amazing feeling of adventure and security. I was reminded that one of my favourite sounds in the world is pens scratching with abandon on paper. While I may occasionally trigger that sound with a prompt or an idea, the freedom of the scribble is all about the writer’s willingness to voyage out into unknown terrain.

We are definitely having a summer wherein we get to explore our new home in southern Ontario and return to our former home in Sturgeon Falls. There are weddings and babies en route and there is something magical about moving between peach orchards and escarpment trails to the incomparable rock faces of the northern highways. Keeping us mindful of where we came from and where we have come to, we never stop feeling intrepid. Everything is new, from first world problems like finding a new hairdresser to navigating new friendships, a fine art after the age of 40.

And now, back to work on the project I have promised myself will be done, and handed over to another party, by the auspicious date of Thanksgiving.

Essay: Hi, Helen

(c) Marnie Woodrow 2014

We both hated eggplant. Both loved Leonard Cohen. We were both born under the astrological sign of Aries. All this I learned in the basement laundry room of the apartment building where we both lived—imagine—on the fourth floor. She was camped out at the little café-style table: cookies, cigarettes, crossword puzzles, cane. She found it easier to just stay down there, do her laundry in one go and haul it back upstairs. I didn’t offer to help. Something about her demeanor said I am just fine thank you very much. I said I hoped we’d bump into each other again.

Outside the apartment building, on a balmy spring day two weeks later, she emerges from a taxi. Hi, Helen, I say brightly, how’ve you been? She tells me she’s been better: her husband died this morning. A woman alone in the world stands facing me on the sidewalk. I know nothing about her except that she detests eggplant as much as I do. I want to say more but there is really not much you can say to a woman alone in the world. I’m in 412 if you need anything at all, I tell her. I hear her cane tapping in the hallway, coming and going with the business of her husband’s death. Finally I write my telephone number on a Post-It note and put it on her door. I sense she is too tough a cookie to call.

The real change in our relationship came because of laundry. I offered to carry hers up one day. Her leg was bothering her. I suggested that I could save her a lot of trouble by just doing her laundry and dropping it off. I was already doing mine, after all. We then decided to go grocery shopping together, share a cab. There came a Wednesday when she wasn’t feeling up to the trek: I offered to do her shopping. All of this was infuriating for her in a quiet way. For me, skipping along the pavestones of my life on two sturdy legs, no health problems, it was no trouble at all. I felt foolish counting out exactly 22 green beans at the grocery store, but it was her way of testing to see if I would comply with her rituals. 1, 2, 3, 4…

I began calling her every morning for a little chat before I commenced work on my novel. If it was my gym day, I called her just before 9. So it was on a sunny September morning. My work out had been particularly strong and I felt wonderful as I sat down with my coffee and dialed her number. “Hi, Helen!” I said cheerfully. “TURN ON YOUR TELEVISION!” she screamed. When I tried to ask what was wrong she shouted again for me to turn on my TV and get off the phone. The second Twin Tower of the World Trade Center fell as I wept into my hands. We spent the rest of the day glued to CNN, making coffee, trying to determine, along with the rest of the world, what the hell had just happened.

Helen decided to quit smoking at the age of 74. Two major heart surgeries and severe circulatory issues were not the inspiration but rather, that she’d been ripped off by a con artist at the mall and she was disgusted with herself for having been duped. He’d offered her a carton for ten bucks cheaper than the going rate and she agreed to wait for him to return with the cigarettes. Her money disappeared with her trust in herself. I continued to smoke, amazed by her willpower. Smoking is for idiots, she reminded me, showing me the deep scar on her leg. I know, I said, I simply can’t write without smoking and I have a deadline. Hmph, she said, although she was very excited about knowing a published author. Right there in the dumpy little building where she had lived for more than thirty years.

By the time I was shopping and doing her laundry and cleaning her apartment, we were bosom buddies. Helen’s leg bothered her a lot; going out had become a painful chore. We now had Christmas dinners together as a custom, after which she contentedly slept through the original version of A Christmas Carol. We celebrated our birthdays together over Swiss Chalet or Chinese take-out, insisting we shouldn’t have bothered when it came to presents and quietly delighted that we had.

On the advice of her doctor, a nurse came to her apartment to provide foot care. The pain was severe and she had fallen using a walker, scaring her cat who then bit her. It was a rough time, during which she alternated between refusing to call for help and demanding it.

At around this time, the assumption that I was her daughter arose at appointments. I was about to correct one such query when Helen interrupted. “Honorary daughter,” she said firmly. Helen had had no children. I was it. Who knew how much a few laughs in a laundry room could change two lives?

When the necrotic gangrene was discovered we were in the Emergency ward of Toronto East General Hospital. In a whirl of examinations and grim looks from nurses Helen’s life as she knew it collapsed. She would lose her leg, the hospital diabetes specialist informed us. Arrangements for a move to a care facility would need to be made immediately.

As they wheeled her toward anesthesiology, I promised her vanilla ice cream—ONE scoop. Her fondness for chocolate and candies and ice cream and cakes would become a legendary battleground between us once she was in residential care, where hoarded sugar packets and chocolate bars posed further diabetic risks. But while they performed the removal of her leg from just above the knee, I sat in the waiting room and cried, and vowed to use my healthy legs for walks and runs, to cherish them always. I had quit smoking a few months before, cheered on by Helen, who wanted me to learn a thing or two from her mistakes. Don’t be such a tit, she told me when I started drinking again after an 18-month stint of sobriety. The gospel according to a former drunk, she added.

Now her advocate, I toured what we used to call nursing homes to see which one would be “home” for the most independent woman I knew. These places were dark, or smelly, and I knew collective dining room meals would be anathema to someone who liked eating her three squares in front of the blaring TV in her apartment. But one had to be selected and pursued, for her life depended on it. The one care facility she most wanted to consider had been the very women’s residence where she lived from age 16 until her first marriage, a house on Sherbourne Street where she had skipped out on curfews several times a week, rising fresh as a flower for work at the travel agency at Simpson’s department store each morning. She was mighty pissed off when I gently informed her that Fudger House was full, so we opted for her second choice, True Davidson. A woman she used to know had lived there and they had a resident cat on every floor, she remembered. Although no cats still resided therein, Helen was happy-ish and very well-liked at True Davidson. They were quick to spot her minor stroke in time. Tolerant of her impatient streak and amazed by her fondness for computer games. But rushed hospital visits became more frequent. I was the person to call, and though I had moved away by then, we would celebrate her 79th birthday over Swiss Chalet in the residents’ dining room, at a table set for just us two. That was the plan.

The words you should come right away never mean anything good. I drove the three snowy hours to East General hospital in silence. It was the day before Helen’s birthday; her True Davidson nurse, who knew we’d planned to have dinner, had told me I would be saying goodbye. I bought a thriller in the hospital gift shop—Helen loved trashy novels—and sat down at her bedside. “Hi, Helen,” I said, stroking her silky hand. “There’s no eggplant where you’re going,” I assured her. I began to read the thriller aloud and she immediately moved into Cheyne-Stokes respiration, a signal that death is approaching. “Oh come on, you, the writing’s not that bad,” I joked, and then her heart rate dropped, then dropped methodically to zero on the monitor. I watched in awe as she slipped away from the world. “You can sit with your mother for as long as you like,” the Emerg nurse told me through the
gently parted curtain. “Thank you,” I said.

I kissed Helen’s forehead. “Only geniuses die on their birthday,” I whispered. “Close enough, lady.”

 

RETREAT!

I am delighted to be returning to the idyllic shores of the Spanish River (near Sudbury) where I will soon lead a Fiction Writing Intensive from July 24-27, 2014. It is an ideal workshop-retreat situation, in that writers participating will have time to work, time to discuss writing life and story mechanics, as well as enjoying the incomparable natural setting. I myself have written in a BAM cabin by the river and the Muse is definitely present. The cabin I had featured a photo of Wyle and Loring, two female sculptors I had read about, so I was doubly inspired.

Leading workshops and retreats is something I absolutely love to do. It’s where I am honoured to witness the creative bonding that happens when people can focus, at last, on what their soul yearns to do, which is write and share that writing. Instead of the formality of a classroom, we’ll have the screened in dining room and the magical barn to work in, as well as the aforementioned cabins.

The retreat begins on the evening of Thursday, July 24 with a delicious dinner we won’t have to cook ourselves. After settling in and breaking bread together, we’ll dive right into writing after dinner and participants will also have the chance to experience the invigorating but somehow tranquilizing swim-and-sauna before bedtime. And if some of the writers sit up writing into the wee hours in their cabin, so much the better–provided they can rise for a hearty breakfast, also prepared by someone else—because we have a full day ahead of discussion, writing time and of course, time for outdoor pleasures like canoeing, swimming and kayaking. The property is also very conducive to thoughtful walks of the sort that stir the creative juices.

Writers will meet with me one on one to discuss the writing they sent me ahead of the workshop. It could be a short story, an excerpt from a novel or script, or something that defies categorization but is nevertheless fictional in nature. (Prose poetry anyone?) Saturday is another great day that affords time for writing, sharing ideas with fellow writers and more conversation over tasty meals. On Saturday night, we gather for a salon and writers will share and discuss their work with like minds. Overhead, a fantastic  spray of stars such as you never see in a city, and out on the water, the calls of birds heading for bed as we laugh and talk into the night. Sunday morning, writers can opt for a last swim or paddle before brunch, after which they will drive away knowing they treated themselves to the best gift a writer can ask for: time to write and the chance to discuss what gets in the way of that in the “regular” world.

If you are interested in registering for this retreat and workshop (there are only 2 spots left) please contact Beth Mairs at BETH@bamnorth.ca

The Facebook event page is also a resource for information.