Writing Through The Detail

Not with the detail, or by the detail, but through the detail, as though the detail is the target and the tree on which it stands the thing you are describing.

Don’t write about her honey hair or the way the sunlight hit it. Write instead the ant who climbed up the yolk, the scarecrow wig. That way they’ll see the woman standing there in the fading summer light.

Don’t write about the boy who held his hands to the waist of his pants, about his pee dance — don’t even describe the shuffling feet! Write instead the sounds of compression you hear reverberating in the back of his larynx, the uneasiness of the couch cushion under his bottom.


Don’t even let them know what you’re describing! Just do the detail thing and they’ll see and hear the world that, even though you haven’t lived in, you’ve made up with words, which is better. You’re passing on that world to them, so you better do it in juicy words and turns of phrases that will make it worth their money. Why say someone is dancing when you can describe the way they move the air? Why tell the reader that someone is talking if you can move their mouth and make the sounds? It’s through detail that you realize that you are the boss of a world and the detail your servant.

Write as though no one is watching, and then make them watch. Make them live through every little gasp or sigh or release of breath, but don’t use those words. Be like Karl Ove, who can make you do dishes for dozens of pages without realizing you are learning nothing, that you hate doing dishes, because you’re so present in the moment that doing dishes is simply what you have to do, as a part of this new life you’ve found yourself in inside of a book.

I’m trying to revisit my novel but it is so painful to see someone who was trying to tell a story. Just give up on the story and realize that life wouldn’t exist if you didn’t take a shit every morning, and that even though high literary art is not there yet, it’s on its way.

Accidentally Writing Poems

Never did I mean to write a poem. I didn’t like reading them for school and though I once wrote one based on a dream, I never thought I could really evaluate how good it was. It seemed perfect. I sent it off to The New Yorker. What makes a poem good is a question I never asked myself. Then I accidentally started writing them, and now the question hangs there, unanswerable.

Poems seem derived from their structure. A sonnet or a haiku only is one because of how many syllables and lines it has. That makes no sense to me. Isn’t poetry an art? How can it possibly be so different from other things, so boxy, so rigid? I took a whole poetry survey course at UBC where I (unadvisedly) read poems really fast, at my normal reading pace, then showed up to class expecting to participate in discussions. I never could and I never tried reading them differently. I never saw the point.

When I started having to teach poetry to my elementary school students, I asked them to start with free verse, because this was where you could play with words. I executively decided this to be the heart of poetry. We never moved on from that. Any other forms of poetry didn’t make sense enough for me to teach. Why on earth would one write a limerick? Is a child really expressing himself by writing an acrostic poem using adjectives that start with the letters of his name?

I know that stories and novels have structures. They have beginnings, middles and ends, characters and certain other tropes one usually has to adhere to or at least understand, but these seem so much more intuitive to me. I have actually been afraid to write a poem because it seems like an exercise in solving a puzzle, some precise and well-planned thing I would not be good at, like planning an event or buying the right items for a recipe.

The poems I started writing were, as I said, by accident. I was writing the first line of a story, and then I suddenly became looser (drunker?), more willing to follow the flow of my thoughts. I payed closer attention to the pattern in the language and the ideas I was playing with, and from there I built a structure within which I wrote a poem. It was not a structure I knew, but one I made up on the spot, to fit my ideas. A self-serving structure. And then I thought, oh! Oh! Maybe that’s poetry.


Upon rereading the poem I wrote, though I still can’t judge it for what it is, I can see the ability to make it better. There is a possibility of digging deeper into the idea, because now I can identify it. There is a way of being more faithful to the structure, because it exists. There is the question of specificity, and rhythm, and feeling, and all that can be dealt with now that there is a poem in front of me, a life form waiting to be better moulded and presented to the world, though maybe not The New Yorker.

It occurs to me now that this is the only way I could have ever written poetry, by discovering what poetry is for myself. I find myself wanting to read poetry now (at least the first few lines of one), thinking of a person sitting there and sculpting a thing out of nothing. And I wonder, as I often do, why no one ever told me this. Why did no one ever run up to me and tell me to read Walden, to listen to Destroyer, to watch Noah Baumbach movies? Don’t people actively follow my interests, seeking to give me guidance? Actually, they don’t! So the discovery of Lorrie Moore, of e.e. cummings, of ukulele and trail running become all the greater when done independently. Hey! I like this. Now let me find out why.

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.

I Am Easygoing

I have to tell myself this out loud sometimes, which isn’t something an easygoing person does. They would just think it, but maybe they’d get distracted.

Today for the first time this year I forgot about an assignment. It wasn’t life-threatening. The assignment is due Thursday and I have done half of it. Still.

Last week, I watched a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy (watch it! watch it!) where she explains that through power-posing (literally standing in a powerful position) you become more relaxed and are judged better in an evaluative situation. Because I am someone who smiles at myself when I pass by a mirror, I am always in an evaluative situation. I’ve been taken to standing in odd power poses in bathrooms over the past few days, repeating I Am Easygoing, I Am Easygoing, certain I am not.

Oh but how I want to be. Imagine a sunny day if you were easygoing. Imagine a rainy day. Imagine having  children and being easygoing. Imagine being a teacher and a writer who is easygoing.

I’ve been living with a dog for five days now. I do this periodically, sit in for people who are away. I take over their lives and try out what it would be like to be any notch more easygoing than myself. This dog I am staying with is so easygoing. Sometimes he gets a little whiny, but it’s just because he wants you to tear this mauled toy squirrel out of his mouth like you mean it. He just sits outside the house most of the time, or wanders around the neighbourhood. He is so casual. Even this morning his brother cat joined us on our walk. This family is so easygoing that their cat goes on a walk with their dog.

So this Amy Cuddy says to take every talk you’re asked to do. She says to fake it until you become it. She says that after a while you will forget you were ever faking anything.

So I will keep repeating this mantra to myself as I run, then stroll for a missed bus. I will keep repeating it to myself as I check my oil and I worry I put the wrong key in my shoe on a run. I will keep repeating it to myself as I spend days not writing and forgetting to even think about writing. I will repeat it over and over as I begin to teach, as I begin to learn that 22 kids cannot and will not and should not do what I say. I will repeat it as I learn that teaching is not at all what I just said it was. I will repeat it as my unit plans and lesson plans and maybe a student go flying out the window. I will repeat it as I do this presentation thing I signed up for and am already scared about two months in advance. I will repeat it as I go through life hardgoing, thinking everything is so hard, only to realize that, at some step along the way, I did start strolling and stopped running (I hate running), and there is a cat and a dog by my side and we’re just hanging out.

photo fr
photo from mygcvs.com

Writing a Review

I wrote reviews for a youth magazine in high school. This means I was on an email list where every day (sometimes twice a day) for two years or more I got emails asking if anyone on the email list would like to receive a free CD or go to a free concert in exchange for a review. I was always too nervous. Only once did I accept. I wrote an awful review of Mat Kearney‘s album “Nothing Left to Lose.”

Cover of "Nothing Left to Lose (Reis)"
Cover of Nothing Left to Lose (Reis)

By awful review, I don’t mean a poorly written review – which I also do – but a very mean review. I said that Mat Kearney was your typical male singer (he’s not). I said he sounded like Dave Matthews (he doesn’t). I remember sitting on the edge of my bed with my discman, sketching out notes after only having listened to the second song. I remember cringing, knowing what I was doing was not truthful. I just felt that writing a mean review made me more of a journalist.

Let me say I had never listened to Dave Matthews before. Let me say that I was nervous because I was sure I had nothing substantial to say about music. Let me say that I knew what I was doing was not right. I still did it. It never got published. Everything always got published.

I had some amazing experiences with writing for this magazine in high school. I interviewed Jason Mraz in his hotel room. I sat front row at a fashion show. I twice got a $200 shopping spree for writing short fiction.

I until recently thought I couldn’t write a review. I didn’t have enough knowledge or scope about the arts, whether it be books, music or movies, to make an informed opinion about something. I rarely leave a movie and feel one way about it, let alone be able to defend any way I feel about it. I can’t hear the difference between songs or singers.

I know more about books, so I suppose this was my way in to realizing that I am allowed to have opinions about things. In Literature classes and book clubs and through this blog I have practiced speaking my mind about literature and the writing process. Still, it was only recently that I realized the key to writing a review.

It is the opposite of what I was doing before. One does not need to have sweeping opinions or strong ones to write a review; one simply needs to have noticed things. The more specific of thing you might have noticed, or the more specifically you can say how that thing made you feel, the better. Never say a song is “one-dimensional.” Say that the song made you feel you were in an enclosed room. Don’t try and claim you heard the same beat in a different song. Say that the beat felt like it had come out of somewhere deep within the graveyard of music hell. Don’t say you love the song. Say that the song was yours to begin with. Say whatever you please, as long as it is detailed and you mean it. If you mean it, you’ve written a review.

I didn’t know who Mat Kearney was. I didn’t listen to his whole album. I had decided before I started writing that I would write a bad review because I thought that’s what you did two thirds of your time as a journalist. It wasn’t long after this experience that I decided I didn’t want to be a journalist, whether the two moments were connected or not. I realized that what I really liked was another type of writing, one where you’re creating the art instead of commenting on it. Fortunately for the narrow-mindedness of that future, I’ve come to the realization that all writing is the same: write something true, and write it well.

writing with my mouth open

I whisper as I write. I listen to the words and the relationships between the words and I make sure my sentences sound complete. I end a paragraph when it sounds like I should end a paragraph. I write conclusions that sound like conclusions. The sentences create a rhythm, the words a beat. The writing continues because my mouth is still open. I backspace if something sounds wrong. I punctuate with my lips.

When I write, my ideas fall into order on the page. My voice is useless to me – a backdrop – a reassurance that what I’m saying exists off screen. If someone were to listen to me as I write, what would they hear? A soft hissing. A bad sentence, then a new one. A mouth hanging open, unconscious of anything but the typeface in front of it.

My mouth, it appears, is related to my words, yet so useless to me when I use it alone. I often wish I could write instead of speaking. My words fall on to the page in order, like a piece of music. When I speak I always lose the point. I wish I knew how to write music – instead of mumbling, I would sing as I write.




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!