Mallory Took Off!

The novel is about a main character who takes off and away. I knew the inciting incident had to be the best friend arriving on the island to goad her on, but I had no idea that it would be the best friend who would take over the novel, who was so waiting to enter the scene that I had almost not even to write her name before she was already on top of me, clawing over me, into the screen. And as Elsie had at first dug her way out, emerged fully-formed into my world, I was now forced into theirs by the beckoning hand of this willful, menacing character. I’d been afraid she’d be too powerful to write properly, but of course, she took care of that. Was she concerned I couldn’t write her well, so decided to do the job herself?

Mans-hand-wrist-pain-palm-fingers-Death_to_Stock_Photography_BodyTruths_2What it means to me now is that as I plot, I must respect that the characters I’ve grown out of inner-eyelid blackness and neurons at rest will decide the fate of this novel. The eery, beguiling tone wasn’t there before, not until I had someone else with me along for the ride. It’s touching that I’ve created a plot and put some words down on paper when what I’ve ended up with is a world, a dreamscape I can try my best now to relay, somehow, to you.

Random Number Generator

Every morning I wake up and randomly choose, using an intricate alphabet-patterning system, one article of clothing around which I must create an outfit. If the outfit allows me to wear leggings, I have been successful. If every day I keep running into that green blouse, I must eventually give it away. Randomizing my wardrobe allows me to lose control, and give up a choice, which have been known to be hard for me to make in the morning.


I’ve also started randomizing my circulation around the classroom as a teacher. I try to get to everybody instead of always to the kids who are falling off their chairs, either because they can’t sit still or because their hands are so high in the air and their chests so stretched outwards that their position no longer fits it. I feel this brings a balance to my practice, and along with removing choice, offers moments of great synchronicity: the next three kids I flip through are the last three that asked me questions, and that kid falls off his chair at the exact moment after I pick his name.

I am also trying it in writing. Once I’m knee-deep in the novel, once it’s living and I’m wanting to sink deeper, I open the random number generator. I pull a page number and attack it, from anywhere I can. It could be one word, one theme, one sentence: I use that as a jumping board into the deeper places of the story, as though they’re already there but just need careful mining. This randomized approach does nothing inherently better than a linear–all that matters is that it convinces me of some magic and relieves me of some choice.

The move away from linear thinking helps me connect elements in a different way. I would never have put the green blouse with the red pants, or that kid with this one, unless told to by my bossy system. I also wouldn’t have created a flashback on page 38 to recall what happened on page 14 if not made to see what was happening in each part side by side. Randomizing comes from a place of privilege, a place where what one does next doesn’t matter to anyone but you, and that’s writing, and that’s the clothes I wear, but it’s also not always that. Randomization allows the speed and depth and care with which I need to touch base with each of my students several times a day. What should be different in a novel? I need to keep all the parts in my head, the balls in the air, the storylines jumping and crossing so that by the end of this I’ll have something that’s a novel, a cohesive, breathing thing, and not a bunch of words I’ve piled up in a line. Randomization is silly, but it’s the heart of what I’m doing, and what we’re all doing when we’re creating, being creative, or creating relationships.

45 Minutes is All

45 minutes is all it takes me to be a writer. 45 minutes a day in my study lets me live those other parts of the day with a calming secret, a persona I can revert to when the job and the stress become too much. I am that, I can say, pointing to the study. That I go to it every day makes it live on in me. Do I live on in it?

All day, does my ghost sit typing at the keyboard, the cat reaching for my fingertips, wanting to gnaw on them to clean me? Does the dog play with the bone behind, do the autumn piano sonatas ring out, even when I am not there? Does the voice whisper quietly, the wine slowly empty, the day get checked off on the index card, over and over again, every 45 minutes, while I am not there? Because it certainly feels that way when I return.

There is meant to be something special about places. Everyone knows but isn’t there probably a moment where you discovered it, too? I am trying to teach through place-based education, allowing children to learn about their world through the place where they are, and all that comes with that: care for nature, for community, wonder and connection and exploration. But do I really write through place? More than I meant to. More than I thought I could.

I keep writing Rossland. I thought when I left Vancouver I could write Vancouver, but is it that a heart dwells somewhere and you move to that place to pick it up and take it with you somewhere new? Because I’ve found a writer here in Rossland, in my study, and she seems to be me.

45 minutes a day, 100 days. A combination of a challenge given and a challenge taken, a house bought and a house lived in, a dream set and a dream set upon. I’m doing it. I’m doing it every day.


Follow Me Down

Follow me down the rabbit hole, in which I write half a sentence of this new novel then emerge for air. Follow me as I ask questions like “Can she speak to seagulls?” and “What’s new on Facebook?” Follow me down the rabbit hole as I get sucked up in a world I am unfurling out of the thinnest recesses of my privacy. Follow me down!

What is exciting about this novel project is that I have a blog called A Novel Journal and my large fan base has been missing me desperately since I moved to the more doable and likeable craft of short story writing. They have been asking themselves where I have gone and my answer is nowhere! I am still dwelling in the doubts and whimsies of the artistic process as a useful avoidance of the creative process itself!

Follow me down as I illuminate for myself the joys and tribulations of sitting on a couch or armchair and pecking mainly at the middle line of my keyboard, expecting greatness. Follow me down.



Is the burner on?

When I ask myself whether the burner is on, whether my hair straightener is still plugged in, or if this time I’ve found a way of burning down my house in some more creative fashion, what am I doing? The thought, once it has appeared, has no way of disappearing unless I confirm the absence of the imminent danger. I must return home to check that I’ve locked the door. I must check my work email to ensure there is no one angry with me. Without addressing the concern, I cannot go on with my normal day. Everything becomes trivialized and pales in the shadow of this looming, certain life-crisis. Once I’ve ensured the danger is not present, for a brief moment I feel like I am floating, like I have been given a second chance and all before me is a clean slate. Then it begins again: another ambiguity, another mole to whack down.

When I create an anxiety for myself, is it really just a way of avoiding being present in the moment? I lose track of life, as I focus in on the distant enigma; all my energy leaves this plane to that one. My heart rate rises, my breathing thins, and I problem-solve all manners of addressing the question. What I don’t do is focus any energy toward addressing the anxiety.

I cannot rest comfortably in ambiguity, and that must be the root of the burner, of the hair straightener, of the work emails and the ever-flowing news feed on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Every time I sense there might be the possibility of something I don’t know about going on, and there is some clear way of me knowing the answer to that question, I take the bait. By attacking the ambiguity, I’ve convinced myself that ambiguity is wrong.

I had a revelation driving yesterday, thinking of the ovens at the school that me and my students had all left on after baking our apple pies. I remember checking each and every one, but did I really check them properly? No, I convinced myself, I checked that the burners weren’t on. But we only used the ovens! The revelation that followed came from some place deep inside of me I don’t yet know but I sense is a God. It told me (in fewer words): what if instead of fighting the unknown, I turned my sword toward the anxiety?


What if I breathed through every moment of unsureness, worked my way out of it, even made sure to be more mindful each time I real-life turned off the burner or the hair straightener? What if I was simply a more thoughtful person to those around me at every moment? Then I could train myself to react less to the feeling of distress by attacking the reliability of that feeling.

Because how often is the burner actually on? Marc Maron, a great podcaster and comic I listen to who talks often of his anxiety, just recently started his show triumphantly with “This time the burner actually was on!” Mine never has been. The burner is not the problem. I know, because the second I check it I convince myself I didn’t check it well enough. That is often even the nature of the burner: when I check my email, a moment later after I checked it a new message might have arrived, so I must check it again. There is no end to the worry. What needs to be addressed is not the worry, but the worrying.

Life, as far as I know it, seems to be full of ambiguities. I need to be comfortable with that. I need to live with not knowing, and be confident that when I do know something, I will be able to deal with it. And I think the more I leave brain space open to address each moment as it comes, the more I will realize that even when you didn’t leave the burner on, someone else might have, and it’s all about how you react to it. Life is sort of like a game of whack-a-mole but in slower motion, wherein the moles are rational people you know and problems you can solve rather than insatiable subterranean mammals with beady eyes, as they seem at first glance. And maybe you shouldn’t have a hammer.

Cooking and Not Cooking Recipes

There was a time when I said: “Why cook a recipe?” I said it for many reasons… I didn’t want to, I didn’t know how to, and I thought that maybe to be a good cook one had to not use recipes. I was trying to be a master chef and I hadn’t even cooked a recipe. Maybe I’d made cookies. But I felt like I should be able to just stir fry something, and that this should be enough to sustain me. And wouldn’t it be better, I thought, to stir fry and really know how, then to busy myself going out and buying a whole list of things just to come back and make them into something that probably wouldn’t even work?

I was wrong, of course. Cooking recipes is what cooking is. Recipes are just the product of someone who cooked something and wrote it down. Did I not know this?


So I started doing it. It is still a pretty big thing for me. I look up a recipe for, say, a stir fry, and I read it over a few times (not carefully) and then I check what we have and I go to the grocery store and buy the things we don’t. I usually have to walk around with my cell phone at the grocery store to convert between grams and pounds and Google questions like “Is bok choy big?” I was doing this grocery store bit so successfully the other day that a man asked me if I sometimes made fried rice and if I do, what do I put in it? I said I did (I’ve never, but it sounds so simple, I must have) and I told him maybe some zucchini? He winced. That would be a bad choice. I asked him what he normally puts in it. You know, the usual, he said. He named a few things. Eggs? I asked. Oh yeah. Then I pointed at the bell peppers. Maybe a red pepper? I suggested. Oh! His eyes widened. Oh yes.

It maybe isn’t in the recipe that one feels the magic. It is in the addition of the bell pepper, the extra dash of spice or the replacement of some ingredient with some other that is where cooking begins. And once a recipe has been repeated so many times, with various successes, maybe one becomes a cook by default, if the noun is just a reflection of the verb. Because with recipes I am cooking, and without them, I find it hard to.

Now I wonder where writing plays into this. Because I know that I don’t want to follow a recipe. I don’t want to write a murder mystery or an acrostic poem. I want to actually be a writer. But writers write. And when I’m playing with a novel for four years wondering about the consequence of a look shared between two people across a bar, and whether it’s a bar or a restaurant, and whether his name is Gil or Hugo, and whether she is 28 or 29, then the novel isn’t getting written. And there are (I believe!) other people who have written novels. Those are the recipes. They’ve written them down. So maybe the step toward writing isn’t writing, really—isn’t diving into the process of putting words in whatever order on paper—but reading. Maybe reading is the recipe to writing. And if you read enough, so that the recipes get engrained in you, and you know how a stir fry works (and tastes, and looks), then you can do it yourself, adding and changing and getting the flavours all right in the way that works for you. Just don’t use a zucchini in your fried rice. We all knew that.

Not Quite Ready to be Forwarded to an Editor

I’m trying a thing where I send out short stories to people at literary magazines and contests and they send me back (in their minds) the message above. And I go, that’s great, thanks, I’m not ready either! And we are all in agreement and then I cry a little bit and think to myself “If only, if only,” THEN I’ll quit my day job, as though getting one short story published is the start to a burgeoning literary career, though it is, in a way, or at least it’s closer than a lot of other things.

I’m writing sad little stories about sad people saying sharp, quick-witted things to each other in different ill-described settings. I began to read the short stories of Lorrie Moore and Mavis Gallant and Miranda July recently and this seems to be what I like, so why not? The saddest story about the saddest, quick-witted lady, who is maybe mid-thirties and undergone a divorce? That is the feel of the story that is on the tip of my burgeoning fingertips. It is the story that is Not Quite Ready to be Forwarded to an Editor.

I have also begun taking baths, unsuccessfully preparing a fire in the wood stove and voraciously reading articles in which I am not interested in The New Yorker, as though the articles are vacuums and I a piece of dust. It sounds idyllic, no? It is idyllic, because in reality those things I do (bath, fire, New Yorker) are in my spare moments, which are fractionally one forty eighth of my day. The rest is volleyball practice, marking, reading about photosynthesis, listening to children slash young adults, shouting about expectations, running up and down stairs and adding paper into the photocopy machine because I seem to be the only person that does that. So the bath thing? That isn’t often. But that is me. The bath thing, the fire thing, the New Yorker vacuum thing: that is me, living my life. The teaching thing, that is a great thing, but that is not me, that is not me living my life.

I kind of have to say that to myself to keep myself alive. Because I am working so many hours in a day that I don’t want to tell it to you because I can remember when I worked at Crema and I counted out an eight hour day and measured how that was one third of my life, how every day I was spending one third of my life serving different people the same thing over and over again and THAT was depressing to me then. So don’t make me count the hours. Because I will and it will be like, fifteen, and then my stories, they will get sadder, and the women older, and the divorces more numerous and the things they say less witty, but not on purpose.

This blog, I reckon, Not Quite Ready to be Forwarded to an Editor. But I am not either. So.