The Place Where You Are From

Everyone thinks they are not from a place that counts. People think they have to be from New York or Paris to do something. People think they have to go to New York or Paris to do something.

I mean, it’s true, to a certain extent. When I went to Paris, I realized that it’s true. In Paris you feel like you are somewhere where things are happening. You look around and realize that this is a place people make movies and write books about. You think you can’t really be an artist until you move to Paris. You think all artists live in Paris.

Then you read something someone wrote about the place where they are from. And at first you wish you were from that place. Then you realize that everyone is from a place. You are from a place too.

Or maybe you’re from a bunch of places. Even better.

When I first started writing my novel, I based it in Vancouver because that is what I know. I stopped myself at one point and realized that this didn’t feel like a book that could ever be published. I tried to change the setting to San Francisco, or at least somewhere in California.

But maybe I got lazy – I didn’t want to research a place I wasn’t from – and I kept my book in Vancouver. And by doing so I decided I am going to write a Vancouver book. What do I know about Vancouver?

Well, what I know about Vancouver is that I don’t really feel I’m from Vancouver. So I wrote about that. And I realized that the feeling of not being from Vancouver would lead my main character to find where it was she was really from: Cape Breton. This created the main problem of my story: she hadn’t been there yet.

And I knew that she had been on a road trip across Canada. So I told the stories of the places where she stayed a while. I told the story of Lake Louise and the Rockies. I told the story of Moose Jaw, of Saskatchewan. I told the story of the Great Lakes. I told the story of Prince Edward Island. And I told the story of Cape Breton.

I’m still in the process of telling these stories. I’m searching for them, from the land where they take place.

I work with high school students writing their university application essays. They keep wondering what to write about, like they might find the answer in the question, like they might find the answer if they ask it out loud, or if they write down things that are true, aphorisms they’ve heard before. They seem offended, like it’s too simple, when I suggest they write about themselves.

We all think we’re so boring until we try to describe ourselves. We grew out of the land where we were raised; our minds and our hearts did too. It’s only in trying to write the stories that come out of us that we realize we’re any different.

If we all moved to Paris, we’d be great artists, of course, but we’d all be writing something fake, trying to please the others who themselves aren’t from Paris. The stories we love from Paris are from those who have somehow grown up there, who have discovered the place for what it is and have grown it out of themselves. Until I move to Paris and live in it, I won’t be writing my Paris story. I’ll be writing my Vancouver story, my Vancouver story where I dream of the places I might be from.

First Excerpt from Novel

I dreamt of the lake, like the lake was stuck in my chest, like the lake had moved into that percent of water that my body is already composed of and was making me cold from the inside. I asked Mea, haven’t you dreamt of the lake? and her face tore up into pieces. So that was still a part of the dream.

You can’t go outside of the hotel at night here, because there are bears and glaciers, and both can kill you. Tourists, too, can kill you. It was Mea’s idea to work at a fancy hotel. We started yesterday.

People visit Lake Louise just to take that picture, that one where you pose on the dock and the crevice of the two glaciers is right over your head, and the green of the lake is around you, and you’re wearing a tee-shirt and sunglasses, and you’re smiling and thinking those things are so far behind me in the background that they couldn’t really envelop me, even though doesn’t it look like it?

I’m working at a place where rich people come to get away. They don’t realize this place is run by teenagers. They don’t see the things we put in our bodies to put up with them. They don’t notice this place is run by people trying to escape becoming them. When it becomes evident our end is inevitable, we end up jumping in the lake, hiding in the trunks of cars, climbing into avalanches. At least, that’s what I imagine.

I had my first lake dream. I know it was a dream because I don’t sleep walk. I know it was a dream because Mea wakes up if I sniff my nose to get the cold out of it. I couldn’t have gone down to the lake last night. But I remember standing there on a rock, looking into the lake, and seeing not my face but my sister’s. I looked up and the mountains were gone. The lake had become people, millions of people, standing so close together that light couldn’t get through, it could only reflect. All my other dreams are still the dreams I had when I was at home. I dream in the past. Anything that happens now, then, couldn’t really be a dream.

(photo from

Too Much to Play Risk

I cry when I play the game Risk. At first I do well and get overconfident. Then people who understand the way the world works take all my pawns and I take it personally. It’s the same every time. I cry when I play the game Risk.

What I don’t do is I don’t cry when I have people look at my writing. I’ve only had it happen three times and once I cried and twice I didn’t. I don’t cry when I have people look at my writing.

There was one time I showed someone my writing that I didn’t count above. I gave my elementary school librarian a novella I had written called “The Magic Cupboard.” I might have been in grade three, maybe grade four. She gave it back to me with red pen grammar edits. I was confused: I hadn’t wanted editing; I think I wanted her to get it published. I wanted someone to tell me it was incredible I had written something. I’m sure she did, but all I could look at were the red pen edits. Oh. I have to work at this?

I kept a journal in Kindergarten. I’d like to go back to that person who I was then – I’m sure I cried at more than just the game Risk – and tell her that she was pretty neat. The Kindergarten curriculum does not say write a journal on your own time. Most Kindergarten students can’t write a journal on their own time.

I used to cry when I played Scrabble with my mom. She’d always win and I’d always cry. I was a child. She was a native French speaker. We both were underdogs.

I’ve recently realized I’m too much for games like Risk and Scrabble. I can’t watch commercials with animals in them and I can’t drive in rush hour. I find it hard to come home from a long day’s work. I get overwhelmed in many situations. I mean, I cry when I play the game Risk.

I have had too many emotions for too long that I’ve been forced into being a writer since Kindergarten. I learned to read early so I could get it all out. I don’t always cry when I show people my writing. Three out of four times I show my writing to people I usually don’t cry. I think it’s because for once something hasn’t overwhelmed me: I got rid of it, that feeling. Here’s the product. Here’s what happened.

I Like Homework!

We are discussing motivation as a central issue to teaching: how can we motivate our students? But the question was more like, how can we stop un-motivating our students? I am doing my practicum in a primary classroom, where kids just want to do everything all the time really well. It’s when they get older that they lose it, that it gets taught out of them. Younger children are inherently intrinsically motivated; older children have learned to depend on something else to motivate them.

I guess I never grew up because I still like homework. Last year was the first year I wasn’t in school. Instead of basking in free time, I decided to create a project for myself. I decided to create the biggest project possible. I decided to write a novel, which I’ve read on average takes most authors 2-10 years to write, any less or any more so incredibly rare that it is statistically irrelevant. So that’s what I did in my year off. I assigned myself a 2-10 year project.

Now I’m back at school learning how to never leave school and how to convince students to never leave school either. If we really did our job as teacher, students shouldn’t want to leave school, or at least shouldn’t ever want to stop learning. They should fall in love with the act of learning.

I don’t know that I ever fell in love with the act of learning, but I did fall in love with the act of producing. I love making projects, I love writing essays, I love doing homework, I love writing anything. I love drawing things. I love finishing things and handing them in. I love finished products, but I also love drafts. I’ve kept everything I’ve ever done at school. Only a few years ago I threw some things out. I miss them, my PoliSci and History 12 notes, as though if I had them I would read them all the time.

Why am I like this? I like to think that it’s because I’m a writer. School was practice, it was preparing me to write a novel. My fingers have typed enough papers now to write a full-length book. My English Literature brain has pieced together enough book themes to make one of my own. Enough evenings have been spent working at some project that I know what it’s like to plug away.

(image from

And my motivation was never purely intrinsic, of course. Yes, I was working hard at school because I wanted to improve on skills, so that I could eventually, though I didn’t know it, write a novel. But I was also working hard at school because I wanted to see my name on the final product. Because I wanted to see the A next to it. So I knew that what I had done really was an exceptional effort.

And my motivation now is not in itself to write a novel, though a lot of it is. Yes, I want to improve on my skills. Yes, I would be happy if I wrote this thing in a cabin in the woods and no one ever saw it. I would still feel something; I would still have done it. But there’s something else too: I want to see my name in print. I want to see a positive review next to it. I want to be published so that I know I really did do something exceptional.

So right now it’s still weird that I like homework. Right now it’s weird because we’re trained out of liking homework. I hope to bring this love of learning and producing to my students, so we can all be in on it together, this weird thing called motivation.

Journals of a Novel

I might have already written a post with the same name! That’s an exciting thing that happens when you’ve written 100 POSTS! I took a picture of my computer screen yesterday when WordPress announced this milestone. No I didn’t take a screenshot, I don’t know how to do that. I used an actual digital camera to take a picture of my computer screen. Like when we used to pause the television to take pictures of Tommy from Power Rangers.

(image from

I called my blog A Novel Journal because I wanted to call it Journal of a Novel. That is what I call pages in my journal where I take notes about my novel. I took this idea from a book on writing called Write Away by Elizabeth George. She quite clearly took this concept from John Steinbeck, who actually has a book called Journal of a Novel.

(image from Wikipedia)

So every once in a while I open up one of my two notebooks (one stays at home, one travels with me if my bag is big enough) and I open to a blank page. At the top I write Journal of a Novel (like this is the first journal, but like I have many novels on the go). Then I write down the reason why I opened up the notebook in the first place. For e.g., “Medicine Wheel”. Then I close the notebook and not once ever again do I look at the pages called Journal of a Novel.

This is my next step. This is what I should be doing. I need to take my Journals and apply them to my Novel. I need to find the place where the idea of the Medicine Wheel can be applied and then I need to just apply it. I need to stop thinking of my novel like Point A to Point Z and remember that actually Points D to Z need to be rewritten so I should just get in there. I should stop rewriting Points A, B and C and congratulating myself and trying to show them to people. Points A to C are not a novel! They are like an awful short story with no ending!

I really like that I write these pages called Journal of a Novel. The notes actually give me a lot of clarity. When my ideas aren’t tied up together in prose, I am better able to see how they are connected. The ideas in my novel are closely woven themes, and it’s only by writing little notes and discoveries about these themes that I realize they live on without me. It’s these themes that are ruminating and building upon one another as I let my novel sit. I keep rediscovering these themes in other pieces of literature – in life even – and feeling like I’ve caught on to something real.

My Journals of a Novel let me realize my novel is good. It’s a complex story with important characters and human discoveries. It’s almost a piece of art. Though the prose isn’t yet the prose I want to be reading, there are moments where paragraphs and lines could stand their ground. My novel has a few characters who are fully-formed and others who are getting there. There are moments where I reread bits of my novel and I feel pride. I feel myself thinking, I wrote this?

My journals of a novel help me remember this. They help me realize I’m making something real. At least I can open up to a blank piece of paper in my notebook, write Journal of a Novel at the top, and feel like my thoughts are productive. They are a part of something bigger, something that though not yet done, will someday be great.

Judging Kids

I’m supposed to complete an assignment where I assess a child in my practicum class’s reading, writing, speaking and listening levels – their “literacy skills.” I watched the child for 2 hours and kept running notes, as advised. This felt a little like spying. Then I held an interview with the child. I asked the student about reading, about writing, about what they love and hate. The student was overwhelmingly kind and eager to give information to me. They respected the format of the interview and gave detailed oral answers. And the student was overwhelmingly excited about reading.

I am now at the point where I must evaluate the student and write a paper about their literacy levels. This means the student has to either be not meeting, satisfying minimally, satisfying entirely or exceeding expectations. But of course the student is exceeding expectations. If they love reading, isn’t that better than most adults?

I’m learning that teachers have to be open-minded and accepting and helpful to all children. I’m also learning that teachers have to put their judging caps on and evaluate kids. Kids need to be put into boxes to succeed, demonstrates the tiresome use of checklists, class records, and  percentage grades.

The other thing that makes me believe that children need to be judged is the use of letters to show designations. If students have learning differences, they are labelled with a letter. I don’t know if students know their letters, but teachers do. The letters stick with the students and become a method by which teachers judge them. They can’t help it: they’re being given information. They are open, accepting teachers, so they take those letters and try and accommodate them. What they are forgetting to do when they take those letters is spying on the kids.

When I was spying on the student I was assessing for my assignment, I truly did feel like a teacher. I hadn’t done the requisite reading to prepare me for the assignment – what are the performance standards in literacy for a child at this grade level – so I watched the student with the untrained eye of a monkey observing a human; a human observing a monkey. I was an adult observing a child.

This child did small, incredible things that amazed me. In our interview, the student responded with answers that amazed me. Afterward, the student took me around the library and showed me books they loved. That amazed me. This student, I realized, was exceeding all my expectations.

Of course this isn’t a practical measure of how to evaluate students. But do we need to be doing it that much? Can we just be learning more in class and getting judged on less of it? I learned so much in my two and a half hours watching and speaking with this child. Can we just learn more from our students, to make our classroom a place that fits them better, so we can stop saying that they’re not meeting our expectations? Let’s let them set our expectations. What can these students do?

We are always judging people because we’re humans watching humans; monkeys watching monkeys. We need to take a moment and realize every other person we are watching is a monkey. Because of this we can’t judge others on our scales of not meeting to exceeding expectations. We need to take the time to observe, to spy, then to interview. This is the process we need to take with each student; with each adult. We need to do this to begin to judge, or to begin to judge ourselves.

Back At It

Sometimes I complain about how I’m writing a novel and sometimes I just write it. Today I realized something really important: the simpler I make my novel, the easier it is for me to come back to. So I started cutting.

I so dearly, so naively keep the writing I cut in documents called “ThingsRemoved_Draft5,” “Extra_Things_Novel,” or even more tender, “Bits for Later.” Cutting does something incredible: it zeroes in on the core. And if the core is really the core, it’s usually pretty good.

So today I cut big things. Chapter One is now three pages, which I understand means nothing to you, but which you can tell is short. I’m back at it. Chapter One now sounds good. I read it out loud a few times, boastfully.

Coming back to my novel requires a necessary perusal through the folder I call “Jillian.” I worked on my novel straight for one year and this is the first time I’ve let it sit (and is it ever sitting). Looking back at it now is like finding a cute card I made when I was little. I’m impressed because it feels like someone else did it.

These are some finds:

A strange file called “Character Introductions” where I’ve made a cast list like you might find on imdb. I actually specify “in order of introductions,” which I should change to “in order of appearance.” Then I find things like this, which I’m happy I made on rainy days where I felt like writing peripheral things:

Peter’s hands were those of a musician. He used them to explain things, then hid them down next to his body, so they would stay, so they wouldn’t run away with the circus. Peter’s hands seemed to be the only adventurous part of his body; the rest seemed ready to give up: his receding hairline, his tall, slouched frame, the various fatiguing gestures he made in response to words or moments that exhausted him: hands on head, eyes closed, body sighs.”

One folder is called “extra material,” which ends up being three truly superfluous documents. One is called “bits I haven’t yet used” and contains one paragraph from my very first draft. It’s a horrible paragraph. Another document is called CHAPTER 0, which I can’t wait to open. It’s a phone call, as though I would start my whole novel with a phone call. The third line is “Okay Danny Tanner.” What? The third document is called “themes/philosophies.” I don’t find a gem, but I find this (formatted this exact way):

“-you have to find yourself in order to be creative             you have to lose everything first             you have to have some kind of discovery            then everything comes together and you can be truly creative”

I delete the three documents, losing everything first in order to be truly creative.

I like the images I saved in the Jillian folder. This one is how I imagine (and hopefully get you to imagine) Jillian’s house:

And the poplar tree outside of Jillian’s study:

And then Cape Breton, where Part 2 of my book takes place:

I like this folder of stuff I’ve made up. I like that there is a document titled “GIANTToDoListforJillian” which contains a list that is only two pages long. I like that I attempted to call a document “Leitmotivs.” I like that I did this weird thing called “Green Add Ons” where I highlighted things in green on my third draft and then went back and wrote little descriptions to insert in those spots. For example,

Mea’s closet was like a bag of jellybeans.

Mea adopted things like children do: she read about something, or had some gossip told to her, and suddenly it might as well have happened to her for the level of factual detail and intimacy you’re going to get from the story. This caused problems when the story was yours, and Mea seemed to have usurped it.

Li and Gro moved like a windstorm.

This type of man wears his emotions on his manicured stubble, his gelled hair, his ironed dress shirts: I am available, his items say, and I am not very complicated.

I tried to prepare an answer for people asking me what I did: I do, I thought I’d tell them, a lot. I do so much. I do things on weekdays and weekends. I do them a lot. I just do it.

I like looking into these weird little folders I made and realizing that they’re a part of my novel writing process but they’re not necessarily apart of my novel. I like knowing that I can cut my novel down to a new novel and still these folders and documents exist to prove I’ve been working at a process. Now these documents might not exist forever – I do have a 2007 MacBook – but I will soon buy an external hard drive and I will soon finish my novel. Then I’ll get to look back at these, shamelessly, thinking that it was super cute when I was scribbling nonsense but I’m so glad that I worked at it and really learned how to write.

(No) Creativity

I come to these blog posts with zero inspiration but a nagging need to write one. What did I do before I had a blog? There was a moment in my life where I kept a journal. It always started with the first thing I did that day (invariably, waking up). Then there was a moment in my life where I wrote a novel. I guess there was a moment in my life where I told people about how I was feeling, but now I just write a blog post.

I often hear from people who sit down with an intention of what they wish write but simply can’t get it on paper. I nod, I sympathise, but I can’t imagine what that would be like. If I have something to say, I write it. If I don’t have something to say, I still write it. Imagine if I actually had something important to say and I couldn’t get it down. That, to me, is an unthinkable nightmare.

I often have something to say but can’t speak it. That is a common situation I find myself in. I blame it on my writing talent, like I’m such a genius in one that I must have a handicap in the other. I also blame it on French Immersion.

In French Immersion, emphasis was placed on expressing yourself to the best of your ability. You were speaking a language you didn’t know, after all. You were making the best of a bad situation. And you were like, five years old. Some five year olds were saying nonsense and you were saying nonsense in a different language. Teachers and parents must have been proud. They didn’t care that my saying nonsense in a new language didn’t mean I was de facto making sense in my own.

I have lately gotten better at expressing myself. I think it started happening something like a year ago. I got out of school and began real life, where communication is necessary and you don’t raise your hand to speak. I worked at a job where I helped students preparing for university. Like in any job, there were moments where I had to make things up on the spot. There were moments where I had to deliver tough information. There were moments where I had to waste time with my speech and moments where I had to speed it up. I worked at connecting with people through my words; I worked at sharing my brain.

I’ve only recently started to realize that creativity isn’t just a writing thing. Creativity is key for every time I open my mouth. Like my ill-formed blog posts, I’m someone who opens my mouth without knowing what I’m going to say. How much time, I ask you other people who say you think before you speak, do you allott to thinking? Couldn’t I be speaking in that time?

I am reading “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass, which isn’t really letting me be here now but instead encouraging me to keep reading a book, which is often my reason for not being here now. (Actually, it’s really helping me). Ram Dass says the following:

“Stop talking, stop thinking and there is nothing you will not understand.”

So I propose that to myself and to all others who feel they are not creative in their art (writing, speaking, maybe you don’t have ideas for dancing). I propose that you stop planning and you be in the moment, though it was obviously Ram Dass who said that, not me. I am the opposite of the person who lives in the moment. I live in five minutes ago and I live in days ahead but I spend little time right here now. I think that’s what helps with my blog post, or at least the generation of my blog posts. I wonder how my last blog post went over and I wonder about something unrelated that’s going to happen two days from now and somewhere in there I just start writing a title to a blog post and then it gets written. It gets written because writing is my thing.

Writing is my opportunity to live in the moment. Speaking takes work. What I think I’ve realized is that I’ve found my thing, and now I have to try to make my other things work. I have to do it by thinking about how I do my thing. The answer is creativity.

Le Mot “Chose”

I am doing my practicum in an elementary school classroom where the word “chose” is banned. This would be an easy feat if we were speaking English. Unfortunately, we are speaking French (some of us struggling more than others) and the word in that language is ubiquitous. It means “thing.”

Now, I’m all for language. I like it. In fact, I am writing a novel where I use it with great care. However, right now I’m pretty occupied with trying to learn how to teach. And I’m doing it with the added barrier of also learning how to speak French. But I get interrupted every two minutes or every two sentences (depends which sentences) with a shouting crowd of students interrupting me like I swore at them. I am always taken aback for a moment, retracing my linguistic steps, thinking of what I said before realizing I said the forbidden word.

Today I became a little frustrated. I explained to a small group of students that the word “chose” is actually a real word. I repeated it several times in my sentences to be sure. I asked the students to stop yelling out and instead place their fingers on their noses to alert me of my mistep. This has now become instinct to them and has simply been added to the yelling.

It has become so that if a fully-formed adult walked into the room and saw children jumping angrily out of their seats with accusatory fingers on their noses when I seemed not to have done anything to provoke them must think I did something else, something really bad.

I think I might do a small sidebar lesson on language. Of course their rule must stick: it was established between them and their teacher, both parties whom I respect greatly. I even think it’s a good rule. The word thing can always be replaced by the actual thing. I might go as far as to say I like the rule were it not to so personally affect me. But I want to teach them something.

Language is a convention. You cannot invent a new language in your classroom and expect others to come in and speak it immediately. You can teach it to them. You can help them. You can give them lessons and tools and small nudges, but you cannot expect everyone to conform. We all meet each other with baggage, language not the most visible but the most important of the baggage as it is our means of communication. Just because a language was invented in a collaborative space between a specific set of people and that those people agreed to its conventions, it does not mean the world has also changed to work that way.

If each person in that classroom truly believes in the word “chose‘ being the worst word ever, then they can go teach that, slowly, to the rest of the population. That’s how things get changed. Things don’t get changed by fingers on noses and really loud yelling. I’m just trying to teach you math! Ça n’a pas rapport!