Top Ten-ish Writing Exercises

1. Start things. Don’t finish them because these are exercises.

2. Make fun of everything. Be serious about everything. Then try and just go in between.

3. Read a dictionary backwards. Try new things for once.

4. Shake a box and in it have all these suggestions. Never pick one.

5. Read so many books about writing that you can write about writing but nothing else.

6. Go live somewhere.

7. Write in a different language. Don’t know one? Make one up. We’re just trying to get you to use letters here.

8. Staple words together. Paperclip like ideas. Don’t do anything with any of it, but admire the organization.

9. Sit and sit for so long that you get the feeling of writer’s block. This way you can talk about it with conviction.

A Post-it note is a piece of stationery with a...


Love to Hemingway Style

I just read (the foreword of) Carlos Baker’s biography of Hemingway (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story). I was afraid a biography of Hemingway might dry up the mysterious longing I have for him, the kind that makes me want to keep returning to his standoffish narrators to find out more about him, knowing I never will.

(photo credit The Toronto Star)

Instead, I found this: “The small boy who shouted “Fraid o’nothing” became the man who discovered that there was plenty to fear, including that vast cosmic nothingness which Goya named Nada -Baker

Hemingway in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Placewrites: “What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.”

I quickly realized something in the foreword to Baker’s Hemingway biography: Baker writes like Hemingway! Or at least he channels the same emotion Hemingway did in his writing. Paula McLain also managed to do this in The Paris Wife, through the character of Hadley. I don’t feel any distaste for these emulations; in fact, I can’t get enough of them. I am obsessed with Hemingway-style writing. Did you hear Corey Stoll inMidnight in Paris? I can’t get enough of the beat.

“The romantic activist, the center and in many ways the originator of his own universe, became the pragmatic moralist whose leading aim was to find out how to live in life, how to last and (having lasted) how to convert a carefully cultivated stoical fortitude into the stuff of which his fictional heroes were made.” –Baker

The Hemingway-like sentence construction “the stuff of,” the “having lasted” in brackets, it all makes me tingle. Did I connect with Hemingway’s writing for the same reasons that everyone else did? Of course. Did I take it and make it my own and try to pretend no one but me had ever read this? Of course I did. That’s what all great art does. I love John Mayer. John Mayer loves me.

“He admired courage and stoical endurance in women as in men, disliked hard backtalk, fishwifely screaming, false accusations, true accusations.”

“He divided all the world into good guys and jerks. With some notable exceptions, he preferred the lower and middle to the upper classes, although his taste in people (again with exceptions) was usually excellent.”

There was the fierce individualist who resisted fad and fashion like the plague, who held that a writer must be an “outlyer” like a gypsy”

Don’t we all wish we could resist the fad and fashion? Why is it so hard to do? Instead we emulate Hemingway. Hemingway is so stylish right now because we want to be stylish too. We want to be the person who started things, who made things simple again, who lived all over the world and did what he pleased and was a jerk but drank it away. We want to be tragic, we want to be the stuff of.

I don’t believe Carlos Baker is one of us, moving to Paris and wearing Hemingway moustaches (I wish I could). He was a contemporary trying his best to channel Hemingway the man. He succeeded at channeling what I know of the man – his writing – or so far his Foreword did, and through him and his prose we get to live a little longer through the words and the life of the man.

(photo from Wikipedia)

Feeling for an Ending

I just read a book called The Sense of an Ending that didn’t have a great conclusion. I tried to determine whether it was on purpose, whether it was an ironic play off its title. Then again, I don’t remember the ending anymore, so who knows?

I forget endings quickly, of books and of reality shows. Are we really supposed to remember endings? They feel good when they happen, but they don’t define the story.

I just had the third Hunger Games ruined for me at an elementary school fifth grade speech contest. I cried out in frustration, though I gave up reading the books after the first one, claiming I wasn’t interested. Obviously I waactually very interested.

The problem wasn’t that I know what happens in The Hunger Games. The problem is that I’ll never get the same feeling of an ending. I feel so sad for whoever knows the ending of Book 6 of Harry Potter.

Today I tried to teach high school students how to write the conclusion of an essay. “You just feel it,” I said, and then I used words like “oomph” and “bang” to try to make them feel it. I asked them if haven’t they read an article and been so excited by the last sentence? They hadn’t, but I have. I get excited about conclusions, then I forget them.

I announced the completion of the first draft of my novel even though I had left it mid sentence. It felt wrong to tag on a horrible conclusion when I was so ready to go back to the beginning and change things. I knew that if the story changed, the ending had to as well, so what’s the point in writing the wrong one?

The ending I have now is short, one paragraph. It tries to wrap up everything and make you say things like “bang!” and but at the same time it’s trying to make you remember the story and tell you that I did it, I finished it. The thing an ending has to be is just the feeling of an ending. So this feels like an ending.

I hate when I turn to the next page and there are acknowledgments, or details of what parts of this book were real and which ones fake. I hate not realizing I’m at the ending, and not getting the beauty of an ending, the sense of power that comes from someone wrapping it all up.

Today I made the poor high school students rewrite their conclusions. I told them to leave the reader thinking, to make the reader feel like they had learned something. Everyone did it better than the book that was called “the sense of an ending.”

(photo credit George Giannakos – he sent me this with the title ‘The End of the World’)

Swedish Translation

“Du Fick Aldrig Veta” by Bruno K. Öijer

you may have never known

that when you left I sat still

by the print in the grass where you lay

I dragged my hand

over that pressed down grass and it was

as if I needed and took care of your absence more

than I needed and took care of you

it was as if nothing might have come back

if you returned

had you trespassed

you would have interrupted grief’s advance

and you may have never known how tender and strong I

spoke to your shadow in the grass

it was as if I already mourned you

as if I tried to accustom myself to

what awaits us all

and the price for a person’s insight

is a feeling of abandonment

which already from the start eliminated and destroyed the belief

of a lasting love

Ways of Finding Your Voice

-Take out all the adjectives. What’s left of you?

-Shout personal secrets from the window. On what words does your voice crack?

-Don’t listen to echoes. Read your words and read on. Other eyes will read in double time. Your voice is your voice on speed.

(Photo from

-Repeat the same phrase ten different ways. Is your voice the one with or without commas, with or without a semi-colon, with or without the grammar mistake?

-Try doing Twitter.

-Recognize your speaking voice isn’t your writing voice.

-Take a break. Sigh. Who comes back to the writing table? It’s certainly not you five minutes ago.

-Find your voice in poetry. Find your voice in high school essays. Find your voice in heated chat room debates.

-Do it all for the sake of changing your voice for nobody. Do it all for writing something that matters.

Cat Lit

Why aren’t there so many books about cats?

I listened to David Sedaris read one of his essays from Me Talk Pretty One Day last night on CBC’s broadcast of This American Life. The question above was his, but I adopt it too. With the impact cats (and of course dogs) have on our lives, why aren’t they a fundamental part of our literature? Could they be?

TS Eliot wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which got turned into Cats the musical. I would think that this, aside from any other children’s books where a cat is the main character (I didn’t have a cat growing up, I wouldn’t have read them), is the most extreme version of cats in literature.

(Photo credit Goodreads)

On most other accounts, I’ve only noticed cats in the sideground of stories. They walk by. Someone pets one. A well-employed characterization strategy in film and literature, used in order to help make a character more likeable, is to have them pet a dog, or insert a ‘pet the dog moment’. But how many pet the dog/cat moments can we have in a book before that dog or cat starts talking, and the story becomes comical?

Hemingway had a cat next to him in a lot of books. The cat minded his own business, as cats do. One cat, F. Puss, was actually Hemingway’s and Hadley’s son Bumby’s guardian, entrusted with looking after the two-year old child as Ernest and Hadley went out for drinks in Paris. (Hemingway was not exactly petting the dog with this moment). This is much like the dog Nana, in Peter Pan, though one is fictional and one is real life.

(photo credit Doggy Tails)

(In the original stage directions Nana was supposed to be a Newfoundland.)

There is a cat in my story. She doesn’t talk, but she is an important part of Jillian’s life. I first asked myself, how big can I make Lou? I love the Lou I know. Can I put her in this story with as much heart as I love her in real life? Well, no. Because Lou isn’t going to change the story, and I’m trying to tell you the story.

(Like, what if Lou wore a hat the whole story?)

But what if she did change the story? Story Lou almost did.

She presented a problem recently, and a pretty big one. I realized that Jillian can’t just up and leave, as my story demands she does. She has Lou at home, and Jillian would never leave Lou. So I’m in the process of editing Lou back in. Story Lou will have to travel, if this story makes any sense. Lou suddenly has the potential of turning things around.

How far can I take this? Can Loubie Lou become a plot twist? Where do we draw the line between cats as living, breathing, story-shifting characters, and pragmatic pet-the-cat moments?

I don’t know if cats can ever be anything more than pets in literature. Whether they can be symbols, whether they can carry themes, whether they can be present in scenes as more than just a function of their human owners.

What I do know is that we write literature to find out more about human character. About human characters. I don’t know that cats can tell us about that. I know that having them as pets is a part of what makes us human. I think because of this they will always serve a function in literature, characterizing us, humanizing us.

Writing Time

What time spent writing is writing time?

Back when I said “I want to be a writer,” I used to try to come up with ways to motivate myself to write more regularly than just every time I felt like it. I knew that to be a writer, I had to sit down whether I wanted to or not. I would make up goals that seemed lofty, unattainable: one hour a day, and I would not make it past the first day.

(photo credit

Then I graduated from university. I decided to set a page goal for myself to start the first draft of my novel, a story that had been coming along in “every time I felt like it” stops and starts. I set a goal of five pages of single-spaced writing per weekday. This worked out to about 15,000 words per week. I got the first draft of my first novel done in just under two months.

Since that time, I’ve tried to set other quotas for myself: 5 of this, 5 of that, 3 of this. I’ve also tried to set a goal each night for the next day, dependent on what my day looked like. Three hours a day became normal. Four hours is an excellent day. One hour is not a great try. Five hours has never happened.

When I read how long writers spend writing each day, I again feel like someone who is only thinking of one day becoming a writer. I remember listening to Esi Edugyan, author of Half Blood Blues, say casually in an interview on the CBC that she writes for eight hours a day, six days a week. Oh, sometimes twelve hours when I’m really into a novel. When you’re really into a novel? What else are you writing?

(photo credit

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says he writes every day of the week, at least 2,000 words a day. But on top of this, he spends all evening reading. He says he gets through 70 to 80 books a year, and considers this a fundamental part of his writing.

Now, I read a lot. Should I be putting this toward my hours? I write a blog. That takes time. Other things I read and write are in some way contributing to my novel, but how do I quantify them?

It seems that when I really think about it, and stop posing questions into the void, or at you, the idea of setting aside writing time is what is important here. If I’m going to read anyway, then I shouldn’t bother scheduling it in. But if I want to read more, to help improve my writing, then that can become a part of my writing time.

Writing time is the time spent writing in which I wouldn’t have otherwise been writing. It’s the time where I sit at the same spot and I take out the same things and I sit there whether I feel inspired or not and I leave only something ridiculous like six hours later. The point is I need more of this. This writing time must become my top priority.

Goodbye, day job.

Goodbye, night life.

Writing, you’ve been pencilled in!

Slow Walks

Natalie Goldberg first told me about slow walks in her book on writing called Thunder and Lightning. Slow walking is just that: walking slower than you think you should. She does it to train herself to pay attention, and she does it to distract herself and fuel herself for writing. I use this:

Today I decided to go for a slow walk. The only other times I can think of when I walked slowly are when I was a bridesmaid two years ago and when I grew up shadow shopping with my mom. Every time I stopped and started walking again today I had to remind myself: no. Walk slow.

I stopped frequently because I took a camera along with me. I walked through the park next to the house where I’m staying. It was late afternoon, a beautiful day.

On my way out:

(Thanks in advance for letting me post this, Margie!)

Cats make me walk slowly, sometimes because they run quickly in front of me when they’re hungry. Other times because I just want to watch them. Cats are fascinating. They move slowly then pounce. I want to do that.

I entered the park and I saw this lady dancing in the sky:

I stood for a while on this bridge, imagining salmon.

I made myself sit on this bench.

And a crow joined me.

When I stood up I tripped. I had balanced too long on one foot. I was walking too slow.

I ran home through this clearing to write.


I work at a job where I get to explain the idea of an omniscient narrator to kids who have to eliminate the choice on multiple choice tests. Most narrators in contemporary fiction don’t know everything that’s going on anymore. They’ve been taken over by first person narrators who don’t even know what’s going on with themselves.

This is my experience with recent fiction. With the advent of the internet, and the blogs and Facebooks it brought with it, we have become overwhelmed and exceedingly comfortable with the personal story. Likewise, novels  are more often reading like diaries, like character studies, rather than broad sweeps of civilization, as great classics like Tolstoy and Dickens did.

Modern books that wish to present something broader than one man’s view of things still do so through the personal narrative. The bestselling series that is all the hype recently, A Song of Ice and Fire, (which became the HBO show Game of Thrones), enters the thoughts of a different character in each chapter, in order to see their story, their emotions, their diary.

Genres of grand, plot-based books like The Lord of the Rings now often read like Harry Potter. Pride and Prejudice would now never not be Elizabeth Bennet’s diary. Even then, Jane Austen felt stuck in the third person narrative, employing the style of free indirect speech to make us feel we were listening to Elizabeth telling us the story.

Though there are obvious exceptions to my sweeping theory, I use it to present the glaring lack of omniscience in my narrator.

Jillian is a first person narrator who knows less about herself than the book’s non-narrators. Jillian isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator, but a self-professed forgetful alcoholic. Jillian doesn’t know much about who she is, so she can tell us little about it. Jillian isn’t sure what she’s doing next, so she can’t tell us that either. We follow Jillian because people around her hint at her, and us, that she can be something more. We’re waiting to find out what.

Also, we forget that by reading we become a character. That’s the beauty of first-person narrators: there is no outer judgment. To critique is to draw judgment on oneself, the reader. It often feels that a lot of the decisions the character is making, at this proximity to us, the reader, are almost fuelled by our own will as much as theirs. We’re embarrassed when a character makes an immoral decision. We cringe at our sex scenes.

My narrator is great to work with because she lets me avoid the old chasm between ‘showing’ the reader and ‘telling’ them. Jillian doesn’t tell things; she just wouldn’t.

By never telling, only showing, Jillian has created a very boring book, for her lack of omniscience means we see such few things. The things we see, though, are pure Jillian.