我 学 中文 or, How Learning Chinese is Changing My Mind

Our professor renamed each of us in Chinese. This is what he called me.

Our professor renamed each of us in Chinese. This is what he called me. It sounds like “Jenny.”

In three months my second novel, Sistering, will be released. The manuscript has been sent to layout. The cover has been finalized. For now, there’s nothing to do but wait. Authors can go a little mad at this point, second-guessing ourselves, worrying all past successes were just flukes. We could reread our unreleased novels to reassure ourselves they’re good, but if that reading raises any doubts, highlights any passages we wish we could have one more go at, it’s too late. Reassurance could turn to regret. So we leave books caught in Limbo untouched, willing ourselves to trust our editors, our publishers, the promise readers said they saw in us when they reviewed our previous novels.

It’s a funny space to inhabit—too far into the publishing process to look at the book, but too close to publication to look away.

A friend of mine quelled her latest bout of pre-publication nerves with a trip overseas. That’s not possible for me but I couldn’t just sit here and wait. I needed to diminish my obsession with my sophomore book with a new, completely unrelated obsession.

Yes, I get obsessed with things. Most of the time, I like that about myself. Without a propensity for obsession I might not have finished any novels or stayed infatuated with the same man for twenty-one years. Obsessions demand time, attention, and energy. They rob other things, including other incompatible obsessions.

And I’ve found a new one. My current obsession—my respite from fretful excitement over my next novel—is Mandarin Chinese.

What the heck, eh? I’ve been asked that a lot since I enrolled in a Chinese course at the University of Alberta this spring. It began with my interest in getting a Masters of English degree from a school that requires its candidates graduate with intermediate-level knowledge of a language other than English. I don’t believe in fate but I do believe our lives have purpose. At times, we act and at other times we are acted upon. I think I may have been acted upon by the university’s lean spring semester selections and the daily schedules of the schoolboys in my family. Chinese became my only viable course option. If I wanted to sound silly, I’d call it destiny. Whatever it is, I spent my Saturday afternoon sitting in a barber shop while the boys took turns getting their hair cut and showing me flashcards of Chinese characters.

Unlike other east Asian languages, Chinese has no alternate phonetic writing system. Often, casual beginners’ Chinese courses stick to Pinyin (Chinese written in romanized letters familiar to English speakers) and leave characters to native speakers and scholars. That’s not how it is at the U of A. Their course is an intensive, integrated, academic study of Chinese without any room for the mystique that can surround characters. In the words of my professor, “People have to get over it.”

As a storyteller, I’m finding I wouldn’t want to learn the language any other way. Chinese characters are fascinating. They’re also easier to draw and remember than they first appear. My fresh-brained genius days are long past but still, after one week of class, I drove home through Edmonton’s Chinatown reading snips of signage along 97 Street. It’s the road my husband’s office is on, one I’ve traveled countless times. I’d always traveled it illiterate but this time I was cackling with outright glee, alone in my car. “Honorable! That character is honorable! See the cowrie shell radical?”

Traces of the culture and history of the people who developed the language are folded within the characters. The word for “me” has a sword in it. Meaning is lost when characters are ignored. For instance, the words for “he” and “she” are pronounced the same, spelled the same in Pinyin, and can only be distinguished by seeing the characters. It’s an elegant, organic way to express historical social values.

Characters are words made concrete in a way I never experienced writing only in a phonetic language. At breakfast this morning, I read the French written on the side of a jam jar, and thought of how reading in Chinese isn’t much like what I’ve known as reading at all. Reading French or German or even Pinyin is a completely different intellectual and artistic experience than reading characters. Reading characters seems to activate a separate mental faculty—one I’m just discovering in myself. It’s startling, mind blowing in a way that’s almost literal. I am in awe that people—a billion people—can do this. And I’m stunned and a little betrayed that I never knew the world was like this until now.

All of this turns my mind and heart back to my new, unreleased book. And not just that, but everything that lies in the future for me and everyone else. If the world has room for something like Chinese writing—something so huge and pervasive yet hidden by my ignorance—that I didn’t truly notice until halfway through my life, there’s got to be much more in store for us than just the good things we’ve already discovered and enjoyed.

We have a tidy little English word for that sentiment: hope.

What I Didn’t Tell My Fellow Creative Writing Students

Sesame Street’s Don Music with a bust of William Shakespeare

I remembered them from my days as a twentysomething undergrad: certain “mature” post-secondary students heck-bent on sharing their wisdom and experience. They stalled lectures, dominating professors’ attention with “the adults are talking” airs or by questioning everything professors professed—because what do those ivory-tower hacks know anyways?

This winter, I took a class called Advanced Creative Writing at my old university. It was a writing workshop—my first. Though I’m firmly on the path of free-range writing rather than a hot-house writing, it’s okay if my range overlaps a hot-house for a few hours every week.

As I walked up the Humanities Centre stairs, I knew I didn’t want to be “that” mature student. I said so when it was my turn to introduce myself to the class. My professor, a talented author who had kindly waived the portfolio prerequisite because he’d already read my novel, stopped me and told the class I was there “to help” as well as to learn.

This was generous of him. I’m not sure how well I walked the line between helping and infuriating my classmates. I’m pretty sure I used the phrase, “I already graduated, what do I care?” too many times.

Naturally, I gravitated toward class members most like my sons and my youngest sister. Though familiar, this was not my usual writing crowd—far from the scene of a Linda Leith Publishing vin d’honneur—but the honor of being among talented people before they’ve made it (whatever that means) wasn’t lost on me. In the end, I managed to leave the course with a good though moot grade, one hug, and some sweet goodbyes.

Now that it’s over, no more restraint. Here’s the list I’ve suppressed all semester—the things Mama Mature Student would have told the class if she hadn’t been checked by all this dang self-awareness. It’s not that I wasn’t asked questions—one about episiotomies leaps to mind—but the full force of my advice rampage has been held back until now.

If you are or ever plan to be a creative writing student, consider this:

Be nice – This echoes the university’s writer in residence who visited our class. He went so far as to recommend we read How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s not bad advice. Some of the most cringe-worthy things I can’t forget myself saying were said in my early twenties. Remember Franzen made his name before the social media age, back when authors’ rough styles could be easily managed by publicists. Personal scrutiny has never been closer than it is now and in a competitive arts world full of very good work, a skill like not openly rolling our eyes might be a career tipping point. Unfortunately, arts careers are a little like small businesses and our personalities can combine with our art to form an unsightly hybrid product that’s difficult to sell.

Take heart. Canadian literary communities, particularly the Alberta one with which I’m most familiar, tend to be collegial. We cheer one another, writing blurbs and retweeting announcements along the way. It’s easy to be nice here.

Be generous – Our professor held a book launch during the semester and only three of us came. Not cool. Go to local book events. We don’t have to buy all the new books (with writer wages, we probably won’t be able to) but realize that many authors arrive at their events convinced they’ll be facing a room of empty chairs, peppered with a few blood relatives feeling sorry and embarrassed for them. If at all possible, do not let this happen. Anyways, it’ll be fun. It’s moving and fascinating to hear people offering vocal interpretations of their own work—not work they’ve been picking at for classes but work they’ve toiled over for years, work they’ve staked their futures on. Go ahead and laugh at their jokes, gasp at their horror stories. Weep openly, if you feel like it. Events are more fun, more productive, and more satisfying when we invest ourselves in them.

Don’t take the workshop process too seriously – I am an old woman raised in the pre-Elmo golden age of Sesame Street and one of my favourite characters was Don Music. He’s an angsty songwriter we find one word shy of completing perfect nursery songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” When his near-perfect songs get “help” from a visitor, they get mangled into parodies with details that make so much literal sense the artistry of the songs become absurd. Our workshops were like that at times. I saw (and benefitted personally from) great suggestions coming from workshop discussions. However, I also saw classmates balk at truly powerful and original aspects of their stories because of well-meant questions these risks raised during workshops.Critique is a vital tool in writing but so is the discretion to resist pressure when it’s pushing a story in the wrong direction–when we know it’s time to depart from expectations. Remember the lessons of Don Music.

Don’t take your parents too seriously – Everyone’s parents betray them in some way. That’s the rule, not the exception. We all sit down to write reeling from that trauma. But look at where we are. We’re not roughneck-ing in the oil patch, we’re in university. We’re in university not to get a traditionally marketable skill like teaching or engineering. We’re in the Faculty of Arts. And we’re not just in the Faculty of Arts, we’re studying the fine art of creative writing. There are reasons we are here and our parents are probably among them. Maybe they hate this field. Maybe they deserve to become caricatures lampooned or eviscerated in fiction. But they also deserve a nod for the privilege we enjoy as people having a go at an expensive, elite liberal arts education. The idea that this privilege is universal regardless of the circumstances and people we were born among–even in Canadian society, it’s false.

Explore the free range – Make sure life is built upon pillars other than reading and writing. Duck out of the academic hot-house for a while–and not just through travel stunts. The daily grind is an excellent teacher. Some of the most interesting fiction in the class came from people who work part-time in stores and bars, in the real world where they form and sustain relationships with people nothing like themselves.

There was great sensitivity in the class. Sensitivity to our own feelings needs to be augmented by sensitivity to other people’s feelings or it will never be enough to make our writing real and potent. Empathy is everything. As the man says, “You can’t write if you can’t relate…” Love people—everyone. That is how they are known. That is how they will come to know and love you and your art.

Thank you so much, and all the best…

In Canada, Oprah Winfrey is Called Shelagh Rogers

No school for the kids today so I woke up late to a notification for this Tweet:

The US has it’s Oprah Winfrey book world–nods given by a bright, trustworthy, well-read media personality to books of note. In Canada, where everything but geography and weather unfold on a less flamboyant scale, we have a national radio book programme on the CBC called “The Next Chapter” anchored by a bright, trustworthy, well-read media personality named Shelagh Rogers. That’s her smiling face in front of my book cover in the Tweet. The book and I were the subjects of a feature called “How I Wrote It” on her programme this week. It was short and fun but a great moment nonetheless.

Listen here, it begins at 23:45.

A Book Cover for “Sistering”

The cover for my upcoming novel, "Sistering," Aug 2015 from Linda Leith Publishing

The cover for my upcoming novel, “Sistering,” Aug 2015 from Linda Leith Publishing

I’m not usually fussy about design. There is photographic proof of it. When my in-laws-to-be generously organized decorations for my wedding reception while I was consumed with final exams at a university hundreds of kilometers away, they went for the crepe paper aesthetic—streamers and accordion bells. My in-laws are lovely but the crepe paper could only be horrible. I managed not ruin the day or our relationship over it (don’t worry, the person who did the shopping is dead and won’t be reading this). On my wedding day, I stood in crepe paper carnage, held onto the beautiful husband these nice people had made for me, and smiled for the pictures.

Those easygoing design sensibilities of mine become brittle when it comes to my own book covers. Stakes are high with book covers—not as high as at a wedding ceremony but definitely higher than at the crepe-paper reception afterwards. Book covers can tip the scales for readers choosing from a market full of good books. Covers usually convey something about plot—especially in genre fiction—but more importantly, they communicate tone and theme. They hint at the state of mind and heart readers can expect to inhabit. They make vague but real promises. They’re meant to elicit emotional connections. We’re supposed to have feelings about book covers—especially when we’ve authored the stories between them. For a second outing in an author’s career, getting a new cover is a little like getting a new face. And I loved my old face.

Like my first novel, the tone of the second novel is (wait for it) unusual. The structure and storyline are quite different from my first book but I hope my signature oddness (whatever it is, I’m too close to sense much of it) has endured. However, strangeness makes the book hard to characterize with a single illustration. My new book is grave but funny enough that a spooky cover wouldn’t be appropriate. The main characters are women but it’s got nothing like a chick-lit vibe so a cover full of flowers or lipsticks or purses doesn’t make any sense. It’s got elements of a warm, family story but images of sunlit kitchen windowsills would be bad fits too.

I set up my first ever Pinterest board and asked my sisters (blood sister and sisters-in-law, after twenty years with my in-laws, unless I’m looking for a kidney donor, it’s all the same) for cover suggestions and for their opinions on my ideas. But I asked them to do it blindfolded, knowing little more about the book than its title. I’m unreasonable that way.

A few days before the latest Linda Leith Publishing catalogue was finalized, Linda was kind enough to send me two designs being considered for my book cover. Nothing in our official agreement obligates my publisher to ask me anything about design. As is typical in the industry, the publisher buys the rights to produce the book however they see fit. This cover preview was a courtesy and one not every publisher extends. I am grateful for it. And that gratitude made me feel like a terrible person when I admitted I didn’t feel right about either of the designs. The kinds of images we were using—stairways—were the right kind. The concept was good and it was one I hadn’t been able to come up with myself. But I was being fussy about colour schemes and other fiddly details.

IMG_8009

Quit trying to cute it up, Cat

With the deadline for the catalogue looming, we all kept working. In desperation, I even recruited my sister Sara, a photographer, to take photos of the stairwell in her house in case we couldn’t find anything that worked. Her kitten didn’t make it easy, frolicking into the shot over and over again. “Hey, it’s not that kind of book,” I kept telling it. On my way home, I stopped at my sister Amy’s house to take photos of her stairs, as a backup plan for the backup plan.

In further desperation, I reached further into my wealth of sisters. While Sara and I were trying to light her stairwell, my sister-in-law, Stephanie, was picking through the Internet for me. Steph is a writer too—urban fantasy and romance with commercial appeal. She does most of her publishing independently and her best book covers are the ones she designs herself. She has a few favourite resources and on one of those, she unearthed the image of stairs our designer transformed into the book cover.

I love it. The blue-green tones are moody and a bit haunted without being gloomy or melodramatic. The architecture is pretty and visually interesting but not too fanciful or domestic. The title’s font—one of the LLP standbys that give the company’s books their unified look—blends well with the image. And best of all for my poor sophomore nerves, this cover has a comforting sisterly resemblance to my first novel’s cover—the novel that was well-received and not just a fluke, right?

When I posted the finished cover on social media, someone cool and smart said, “I’m picturing the Brady Bunch sisters lined up on those stairs. Except they’re all goth.” I didn’t know until I read it that this was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Arriving at the “Twilight” Party Years Too Late

The words have been said so often by so many millions of lads to so many millions of lasses, that they must be worn to tatters. But when you hear them for the first time, in some magic hour of your teens, they are as new and fresh and wondrous as if they had just drifted over the hedges of Eden. Madam, whoever you are, and however old you are, be honest, and admit that the first time you heard those words on the lips of some shy sweetheart, was the great moment of your life…    L.M. Montgomery, 1924

While my husband was away from home this winter, fighting crime, I fought to keep my happiness from capsizing. Little sorties became important, like roaming alone through Wal-Mart during Valentines week. It was there, in a seasonal hearts-and-flowers display, that I found a three-in-one DVD collection, the trinity of twenty-first century young adult romances, the first three movies of the Twilight series, for $9.99.

I have a secret weakness for young adult romance (secret up until a moment ago, anyways). I spent my teen years reading Greek drama and the Victorians. My idea of escapist reading was L.M. Montgomery. My idea of desperation reading was my mother’s Stephen King collection. The Sweet Valley High novels on my sister’s side of the room neither interested nor tempted me.

My appreciation for YA romance is an adult-onset phenomenon but it’s genuine. When I paid $3.33 per flick to catch up on Twilight five years too late, I expected to be indulging in a guilty pleasure. Ironically or not, I wanted to like the series. I understood a lot of people didn’t like it. But haters’ gonna hate, right? And Stephenie Meyer and I have more in common than just our professions. Rock on, Sister Meyer. Thanks for the good time. That’s what I hoped to be saying.

But instead of cheering, I was groaning my way through Twilight.

“Nooo.”

“Whyyy?”

“Dooon’t.”

Carol and Mike from the Brady Bunch

There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in the movie version of the story. The film was mostly heavily filtered frames of pretty scenery, clunky CGI action shots, quiet staring, and slick soundtrack. When there was talking, the lines were often awkward and incongruous. For instance, big daddy vampire and his bride—the Cullen “parents”—were written and played like Mike and Carol Brady.

Sometimes, when I wondered why a character says something in a certain odd way, I’d find out it was because he was repeating a stand-out line from the original novels. What was more puzzling than these strange lines were the ones that weren’t nearly strange enough—the obvious lines a writer might jot down in a first draft but then refine into something more nuanced and artful as the story matured.

“Never go for the obvious kill,” a Twilight vampire warns a werewolf, “They’ll be expecting that.”

Never a truer word…

Forty minutes into the fourth movie (yes, I keep buying them) Twilight’s appeal started to *ahem* dawn on me. By that point in the movie, nothing has happened except exactly what we knew would happen. In all that time, the couple gets married. That’s it. The plot doesn’t advance a single step. It just delivers in hair-shoes-makeup detail what it’s been promising all along. It’s “fan-service.” Twilight gives its target audience, mostly teenaged girls, precisely what they want—the pretty boys, the comfy wardrobe, the smooching, the cool parents, the social one-up-manship— everything, right down to each word of dialogue. That’s the genius behind the series. The entire endeavor is fan-service.

As a jaded old lady and a writer in my own right of fiction approaching a Gothic love story, my first reaction to Twilight—the groaning—was about weariness with cliché, disappointment with the people behind the story and the audience in front of it for going for “the obvious kill.” As a demographic of writers and readers, we can do better.

Romantic piggy-back: looks like it can be pretty boring

But L.M. Montgomery’s advice (the quote at the beginning of this piece taken from Emily Climbs, her folksy, nineteenth century flavoured, Maritime-y take on the gothic teen romance) is worth considering. So sit down, Madam—or Sir—and remember high school dating. I remember it as a cringe-worthy mess marked by a few perfect moments—iconic moments that are a lot like everyone else’s perfect moments. Epic piggy-back rides, private musical recitals, handmade jewellery, working on a car together, catching someone staring from across the parking lot, secret knocking at the window, dancing in public with everyone gawking because it’s obviously a huge deal (or so we imagined) —those aren’t just personal moments. They’re ones we share with each other and with stories like Twilight.  That’s what makes them clichés: their truth.

Twilight is criticized for the expectations it fosters in young girls about romantic love. I don’t know if there’s much anyone could do to prevent those expectations. The romantic words, the gestures within the story are fairly universal in contemporary Western adolescent relationship scripts—or, at least, in my old diaries. Maybe those expectations are just as inevitably widespread. Twilight didn’t strike a nerve with young women because it unearthed the vampire fad at just the right point in history. It resounded because it told our own stories back to us, without trying to dress up or disguise the worn out “tatters.” It didn’t so much create young women’s culture as it reflected and codified what was already there.

Here is where I could plough into the fact that movies like The Avengers and Transformers perform the same fanciful but clichéd reflective function for young men only they get away with it without the searing social commentary leveled at Twilight for no reason other than sexism. I could, but instead I’ll stick to girl-talk. I’ll continue with L.M. Montgomery and her description of what our sweet, tattered words look like to onlookers:

Everything had suddenly become ridiculous. Could anything be more ridiculous than to be caught here…That’s how other people would look at it. How could a thing be so beautiful one moment and so absurd the next?

This is what impresses me most about Twilight: its refusal to balk at its own ridiculousness, its headlong dive into the absurdity of everybody’s love story. I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know whether it was calculated or not. But I’m going to choose to believe Stephenie Meyer is a brave writer. She wrote what we all know, what so many people apparently wanted to hear repeated. And she did it with that “unflinching” spirit critics usually praise. It’s like a teenaged girl stood up and used her own fingers to flip off the entire literary world. There’s something fierce and kind of admirable in it—but nothing that can keep me from flinching my face off.

We Have a Release Date…

Novel release date, 15 Aug. 2015

We’ve got a release date for Sistering, my upcoming novel.

Yes, “release date” can mean many things, especially in a family like mine where one of us works in the criminal justice system.

What I mean by it is the book will be available in print and ebook formats from Linda Leith Publishing, online bookstores, and on the shelves of fine bookstores beginning August 15, 2015.

That is, as long as I get off the Internet and get the latest revisions resubmitted on time. Fighting!

The Linda Leith Publishing Story in the Montreal Gazette

I’m always grateful for anything that extends the lifespan of my first novel. I wrote it in blood and it’s part of my heart. So fittingly, this Valentines Day morning, I woke up to find the book mentioned in the Montreal Gazette newspaper in a feature on my publisher, Linda Leith.

Read the piece here: Linda Leith in the Montreal Gazette

But wait, there’s more. A portion of the interview was video taped and posted on Youtube. It’s worth a listen just to hear Linda’s lovely, one-of-a-kind accent. In this clip she talks about surprising people, overcoming obstacles, and taking chances. To illustrate, she tells the part of her story that includes my story. Lucky me, to have fallen into the hands of someone with an iron stomach and a golden touch for my first, and soon, my second novels.

Watch the clip here: Linda Leith on Youtube