Scary Writing

In grade six I did my first act of plagiarism. I entered a poetry contest with a Halloween poem that my sister had written seven years ago, when she was in elementary school. It was a terrifying poem that took place in what I imagined was the backyard of my house. It scared me so much I thought it was excellent. It was excellent. But it wasn’t mine.

I don’t know why I did it. I loved writing. My sister was the artist; I was the writer. She wrote too; I drew too. But that poem had affected me in such an important way the first time I read it years ago that I wanted other people to feel the same way I did. And I couldn’t write something that good. So I submitted it to my teacher and she submitted it (maybe) to a poetry contest we never heard back from.

I remember that English teacher so well, just like every other English teacher I’ve had. I was so receptive in those classes, so hungry to learn. I remember she once wrote “plausible” on the board and we insisted that she had gotten the word “possible” wrong. I remember she had us write journals and I told her everything. I remember the thing about how she never sent in our Halloween poems.

I had my students write Halloween poems this month. I thought I would let them freestyle it until I found this, a poem by Neil Gaiman called “Instructions.” So the students each wrote their own instructions. Everyone’s poem was incredible. Everyone’s poem was frightening. It’s amazing what foolproof, creative productions can be made from copying a poetic form. I believe now in haiku, in sonnet, in a way I hadn’t before. I understand the merit in mimicking.

But why did I just take the poem as it was? Why didn’t I play around with it and make it my own? What I remember clearest is the feeling of getting away with something, which I soon after realized was not something anyone cared about. It was the opportunity I missed. I never wrote a scary poem.

I just read The Mist by Stephen King after being haunted by the movie version for two years. The book version is less awful because of a different ending. But it’s also more terrifying because it’s written in words and words are what move me. It struck me in both that novella and the poems of my students that what is scary lies in the detail. It is the image that frightens, not the idea.


Maybe I was scared to write the poem. I’ve always been afraid of lights off in the bathroom – being in the presence of a mirror when I can’t see myself in it. I’ve always been afraid of ghosts and witches, things behind me in the dark and in front of me when I open my eyes from sleep. I’ve always been afraid of the moment where I set my feet on the ground off the side of my bed, always been afraid of stairwells and the backseat and empty houses. But those are all just ideas until you place them in a poem, until you give them life through the power of a verb, the tint of an adjective, the smile of properly placed punctuation. And that’s when the chills run up the spine. That’s when poems come to life. That’s when you become so manipulated by the magic of words at the age of 12 that you do something you know in your gut is the wrong thing, all for the sake of literature.

Straight Through

I’m going to aim through the novel, not at it, to a future place where I want it to land. It’s easy to get stuck in the notion that my novel has no real audience, no real deadline. It’s easy to sit in it, to imagine it exists when really, does it? If you put a gun to my head right now and asked to read it, I’d be flattered, but it would be in pieces.

Struggling through a novel is the narrative most accepted in literary circles. I’m working at this. I’m rewriting. What if I actually pictured success?

What would it look like, really, to have this novel published? I’m told it’s far less fine than I think. Published writers are always complaining about having to promote their book, ensuring young hopefuls that having a novel published doesn’t guarantee, or in any way lead to, financial success. But what an amazing thing it would be, sitting on stage, blushing, talking about your characters like they’re real. Yes, asking people to read your book would be a bit demoralizing, but how much better it would be than if you didn’t have a book at all, frequenting book clubs and bookstores promoting other books, always books that aren’t yours.

And what if you were really successful – like really successful? Then what? You go on tour with the book. You are like a rockstar but your bandmates are your books in boxes. Maybe you have a friend with you who is literary-minded. You probably travel around on a bus, where you get to read a lot. You get to be a grump and speak esoterically about everything. No one bothers you except for the craziest of people.

And then your job is over and you are under pressure to write more. So what? You love writing. This time someone else cares about you writing too. Maybe you get book topics suggested to you. What a great way of coming up with ideas. Maybe you have a deadline, unlike something you’ve ever had before in writing. Maybe you make money.

And then the second book comes out. And it doesn’t have as good of reviews. That’s great! You can then wow them with the next one. You have made a career because people are comparing something you’ve done before to something you’ve done now, which means time has passed. And you are still at it. You are writing every day. You’ve lost your other job! You’re just writing. You wake up and instead of thinking about other people, you are thinking about a world that you made up. And it can be anything.

I would live in my dreams, if it were socially acceptable. What a joy it is to lay down every night and know that I will be entertained. I feel more overnight, or am given the ability to feel everything every night in a way that then benefits me in my day life. Writing is the same. I feel things, and maybe I’m making them up, but it’s better than not feeling them at all.

So living a life of writing, then, would be a life of dreaming. And getting paid, and getting acknowledgements, and getting to not do other things but it. I can’t imagine being that life being all that bad. Just this novel, that’s the bad part. And then the one after.

I did something called Outlining

It’s what I always thought you did when you were sober. I write only when I’m drunk. I write on waves of emotion and euphoria that are akin to, or aided by, the feelings that alcohol also give me. But outlining, that’s a systematic task. That’s logic and math and cups of coffee. I thought I couldn’t do it, then last night I sat down and did it.

I outlined 24 scenes: my whole novel. It’s a novel I’ve written several drafts of (it’s the novel on which this blog is named), but all of a sudden it was like I met it again at a party. I forgot that once it had charmed me enough to fall in love with it. I forgot I loved the thing.

The outlining became a drinking process. I had a beer and I lay down on my front on my bed for one point five hours and I wrote those 24 scene outlines. They say some things that are less outliney than others: “Jillian in Paris recap” doesn’t solve much, but a whole page webbed around the centre “Jillian wants” did help me find a plot structure that was before not as clear. I know now the concrete things she goes up against, while before I was riding on a feeling. She is trapped! I yelled. She needs to break free! I had the feeling of my book. I notice now I didn’t have the outline.

You may think that this outlining business came out of nowhere. No, it came out of two and a half years of avoidance and then a weekend at the Whistler Writers Festival where I heard enough people talk smack about not outlining that I thought I would give it a go. Never did I think that one and half hours later I would have something that (albeit having not yet reread it) feels like a book.

People keep asking me (sometimes people ask me) really cluelessly about what part of my novel I am at. I always explain that it is a fifth draft, meaning that I’ve rewritten the book five times, then I explain I am at Chapter Two of this revision. That I have not changed this exact explanation for a long time might be a better way of explaining where I am at in my novel. I am at a stagnation, caused undeniably by the fact that I am now working full-time in a job that has the ability to take over a life, but also by a slight laziness.

I define my laziness this way: the more I am efficient and disciplined in everyday tasks, the less I see the need to discipline myself, thereby creating an overconfidence that outweighs any nagging feeling that I am not doing my all.

So here we are with an outline, which is nothing if it does not serve as a Platonic image for something real. So I created a word processing document titled “Draft Six Scene 24” and checked Facebook. I closed it and created a word processing document titled “Draft Six Scene 1” and closed it. A cat sat on my lap and I checked the news (that’s a lie!) then I started writing.

I am now two pages in to what is going to be a complete rewrite. I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it straight through, like I dropped my novel in the fire. Like I dropped my novel in the fire and I was so drunk (think Hemingway! think whisky!) that instead of sobering up and writing an outline, I just wrote my novel straight through again. And I will depend on this feeling I had when I first wrote it, that love-at-first-sight feeling, to carry me and it through and keep us together. When I get to the bumps, I’ll have a road map to help me trace back my steps and find where I got lost. But I’ll take the same philosophy to my outline as I do to a road map: what’s the fun in knowing all the right turns when I can make all the wrong ones and still get there okay, too overconfident to ever admit I didn’t know my way all along.


Sitting, Spinning

Teaching is my jumping off point for everything these days. It’s where my consciousness sits, the place from which I have crazy dreams. But two days into a three day weekend I can’t help thinking  I’m also a human being. I also have a life. I also have this blog.

I have a theme for this year, whether the kids or anyone knows it or not, and that theme is connections. I suppose it’s something I should have shared with them, the theme of the year, but there’s only so much I can do in a day. I use the theme of connections to teach reading, writing, geography, science, and to create a positive social climate in the classroom. It seems rational, that you can learn something better by tying it to what you know already, that you can understand something better by seeing what surrounds it.

I’m somewhere in the middle of my life right now, the spider at the middle of the web, and though all my things – teaching, and writing, and reading, – come from me and through me, I feel like I’ve lost my connection to them. I’m being pulled too far one way, remembering – after a month and a half of forgetting – that I really, really like to read. I’m  looking at my things through new eyes, recognizing faults in the plot structure of my second chapter and phoniness in the language used in yoga classes. I’m placing more intention in reading and writing because I’m doing them less but with more of a focused mind. I see their place in my life more clearly, as I’ve spun another part of my web, and I’m taking care not to cut their line, recognizing now their fragile nature.

I’m scared of losing my writing voice, my reading passion and the blind confidence I had for why I write. I’m scared I sound fake when talking about it, that it has become obvious it was never my first path. I define myself as a writer, a reader, but what can I tell you if you ask? I’m teaching, I’m teaching every day. I’m thinking about teaching all the time. Am I writing enough to be a writer? Reading enough to be a reader?

Is it okay to connect yourself to something you are not at the moment, but for which you feel a deep connection? Do people who live with God live always with him, whether they’re living piously at the moment? Do you live constantly with yourself, even if you fall asleep at night, even if you’ve lost control of your body or your mind?

I think the answers are resoundingly yes, are shouting at me from the screen: yes! Yes you are a writer and a reader because you are that, that is you. Because you believe so fundamentally in the importance of those things (don’t forget it), but you’re just negotiating the importance of something else, too. Something else new. And it doesn’t make other things lose their spot. Yes, time exists, but so do spider webs, and those can get considerably bigger, longer, more spacious. And though they get more fragile as they grow, they stay the same shape, always meeting at the middle where you sit, spinning your web.


Whiniest Prose

Personal writing is just whiny writing. It’s what you make when you can’t fold things beautifully, when you figure that a handmade card is okay because at least people can be sure it’s from you. Personal essays are never trashy because they’re honest. But are they ever any good?

Lena Dunham’s character in Girls is writing a book of essays. It’s what I love most about her character. It seems to be the show’s joke: she has a self-inflated sense of importance in what she has to say, at twenty-four, without a job. Then again, Lena Dunham is in her twenties and is writing and starring in the award-winning, huge show Girls.

I’m teaching my grade 5 and 6 students how to write personal writing. We write in journals every morning, and my next goal with them is to turn some of those journal entries into personal essays. The difference? Make it legible. Give it a shape. Add interesting details. Make it something. Give it value.

Is it possible to make a good personal essay, or is what we write always going to belong to an insiders’ club, the insiders being those who enjoy personal writing and yourself, whose head it belongs in? What’s the point, really, when changing “I” to “she” could make a compelling story about which a readers asks, hopefully, “I wonder if this is at all a true story?”