Oh So Mature Student

artsowl

I’ve been in and out of this door since the 1990s but hadn’t noticed this owl reading a book carved over the door until my husby pointed it out this Fall.

My first semester of graduate school has just ended. It was my first full-time gig outside our house since my kids were born. With school, my kids, and continued work on my career as a novelist, my commitments amounted to more than full-time. This would probably be the case for anyone who’s been alive as long as I have–who’s had this many years to complicate a life. Still, if you’re an old person (by which I mean, over 28) thinking about going back to school, I say take the time and do it. You can do it, especially if you heed these handy tips:

  • On campus, never use the bathrooms on the main floors. They are “oversubscribed.” The clean, peaceful third floor bathrooms are worth the hike and will provide all the privacy we need for using the facilities, or maybe even a quick cry. Which reminds me…
  • Get a good backpack and carry some Kleenex in it. You will be asked for it. In fact…
  • If a newly-minted grownup, a student, is lost on campus, desperately wishing their mom was around, and happens to see you walking along like a personal gift from a benevolent cosmos, they will prefer you over a peer as someone to stop to ask for directions and to help them generally feel less alone and sad. This is not a time to get snarky about “emotional labour.” It’s a time to be kind and patient and cultivate a rough knowledge of the whereabouts of those obscure computing science labs. But remember…
  • As far as educational achievement goes, the young students are our peers. It is completely inappropriate to try to assert dominance over them. If they don’t revert to treating us like they would their mom’s friends, great. Go with it. By and large, they are lovely humans and it is an honor to have any significance in their lives. However…
  • Go ahead and have high expectations of those young classmates. For a student, doing 80% of a perfect job will still earn them a decent final score on their schoolwork. For people who’ve been in the workforce, we know doing 80% of a perfect job could getcha fired. It’ll do the young folks good for you to insist on bringing that esoteric bibliography format up to code before you pass in the group project. And in the same vein…
  • As far as educational achievement goes, our professors, no matter what their ages, are not our peers. We must present ourselves to them every bit as humbly, as open-mindedly as the young students do. No one likes an old student who comes to class to act like she and the prof are out for coffee with a bunch of annoying kids tagging along—not the other students and not the professors either. As we show respect for our professors and the work they did obtaining academic expertise while we were doing other things, they will in turn show respect for us and those “other things” we were doing to contribute the world outside their expertise. Showing off and shutting people down are not how this respect is earned. And anyways…
  • Showing off would only set us up to look even stupider than necessary when the moments come for us to make dumb mistakes as school. Everyone messes up sometimes, especially people re-adapting to an educational system which had just about passed them by. The quicker and more good-humoredly we admit, own, and laugh off our mistakes, the more likely we are for other people to let them go too and maybe even to look out for us next time. Frankly, there is less social and academic peril in letting people think you’re a tiny bit stupider than you are than in letting them think you’re much, much smarter than you are.
  • Go ahead and be cool. As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of cool: selfish cool and selfless cool. When I was young, I admired the heck out of selfless cool people (I’m looking at you, Angie Dahl) and wished I knew how they did it. I think both kinds of cool include elements of not being overly anxious about taking social risks—even little risks like talking to strangers or to a room full of people—and taking those risks with ease and confidence. In cases of selfish coolness, this confidence is maintained by pre-emptively lashing out with cruel humor, abuse, or the shunning of those who would call into question the coolness. In selfless coolness, this confidence is maintained with warmth, sincere praise, and believing people are good and wish us the best until they actually do. The ease with which those kinds of feelings come is the best thing about being an old broad at school. I spend all day in a place where everybody is brilliant, beautiful, and loveable. School has always been this way, and now I am finally old enough to know.

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…

Lessons in Vocabulary and Art from Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly Reviews My Novel

Publishers Weekly Reviews My Novel

This week, my little Canadian novel was reviewed in Publishers Weekly.  (I know, right?  Read it here.)  The review isn’t long but it is perfectly positive.  The reviewer isn’t credited by name in the online version I’ve seen but she or he was thoughtful and insightful enough to have me Googling a few of the terms used to describe my own work.

The first was one of those words that’s still vaguely familiar from my Arts degree days — those spellbinding lectures on Jungian psychology at the base of the Tory Tower.  Somewhere in scrolling through the fanciful vocabulary of archetypes scrawled on the overhead projector film, the meaning of this term slipped out of my consciousness.  It’s “psychopomp.”  It doesn’t sound like a nice thing to be called but, as I now remember, it means a creature who serves as a guide to souls — newly deceased souls in particular but also the newly born or anyone unmoored.  As the PW review points out, my novel’s main characters are psychopomps.  I had never thought of them that way before but it’s certainly true.

The second term I had to look up was completely new to me: mono no aware.  Though it’s tempting, don’t try to use an English or Latin vocabulary to decode it.  It’s a bit of Japanese philosophy and translates into something like “the pathos of things.”  The idea is that instead of the bittersweet knowledge that this world is transient making us morbid and jaded, it moves us to reverence our lives and experience them as poignant rather than mundane.  I’m no scholar of Japanese philosophy but I think it might be the opposite of the Western ennui that makes up so much of literary thought right now.  Whatever it is, I think I need to find my old, water-stained copy of The Tale of Genji and read it again.

There’s a lot to love about being an artist.  That anyone would read my work is great.  That they would look up and from my work and have something to say about it is even better.  And having them teach me something I didn’t know about what I, myself, have written makes me want to fall on my face and cry — especially when it’s something true.  Sometimes, it’s wonderful to admit, “I didn’t know that was in there and I don’t know where it came from.”

I’m usually fairly pragmatic and cringe at the conceits and the headier romance of writer-life.  I don’t have much of a stomach for elitist memes and other silliness bent on making embarrassing overstatements about writing and writers.  But there is something genuinely sublime about art — even the quiet, tappity-tap, within sight of my laundry hamper art form of my own.  At its best, art is a miracle.  And we bow our heads, grateful and baffled that whatever it is that makes miracles would stoop to involve people like us.

Sign Seeker

There I was, walking across the University of Alberta campus in 1992 – stupid, lonely, horrible — and at my feet on the concrete outside the Central Academic Building was a playing card, face down.  I’m a believer is signs and wonders (and I was thinking seriously about dropping out of my statistics class) so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing the card – a wild card, free-range, occurring naturally in the earth.

A Card in the Wild

A Card in the Wild

The back of it was printed with some tiny, uniform pattern, white and blue.  And I wasn’t so bad at statistics that I could fail to know the odds were ten to thirteen – excellent odds — that the side of the card still pressed against the ground would bear a number, pips.  There was a three out of thirteen chance it would be a face card with eyes and hands, a crown and a weapon, footless.  There was only a one in thirteen chance it would be a queen.  As I stooped to flip it over, I decided that if the card was a queen – just lying here, at this precise time — it would mean something.

It was a queen – the queen of clubs.  It’s the lowest suit, the flower queen, dark-robed, white-faced, grim.  No one writes songs about her.  And what is that clover thing of hers supposed to be good for anyways?

I picked the card up, right in front of everyone else walking by, as if it was mine.  No one asked.

I took the card to the library, found some kind of book – I have no idea anymore what it was called or even what term I would have typed into the clunky database to find it.  All I remember of what the book said about the meaning of the queen of clubs is one word: worry.  That was my sign.  Worry — it wasn’t good but it was true.

I kept the queen of clubs, took it home, taped it to the wall beside my bed, right next to a colour print of a detail from a painting of the Virgin Mary that had fallen out of a different library book and landed on the desk, as if it was a sign too.  This Mary was languid, brown-haired like she’s supposed to be.  My hair is yellow.  They always said it would turn brown but it never did.  That’s why it was never me but my sister who they got to play Mary in the pageants at Christmas.  They told me to be the angel – which was embarrassing because, in the book, the Christmas angel is clearly a boy, a white-haired boy.  Little, neuter, dirty-blonde me, the fake Christmas angel standing on a kitchen chair.

The signs stayed posted on my wall until I moved.  The first time I unpacked, I hung them up again.  When I moved for love, they stayed in a box.  They’re still here somewhere – I think.  I could probably find them again if I wanted to but – signs change.

And today, as I walked over the wet ice and traction sand on the road in front of the mailbox, I stepped over a single playing card, face down in the freezing, dirty water.  Its back was printed in a pattern called “bicycle,” white and red.  I’m more of a believer in signs and wonders than ever and I did end up with an improbable A in that statistics class so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing one more wild card.  Signs may change but odds don’t.  The odds were still just one in thirteen that the card would be a queen.  If it was a queen, I would have no idea whether it meant anything.

I stooped in the middle of the road and picked it up.

I’m not stupid, okay.  I know that if this was fiction, I’d have to write this story so that the card was not a queen.  It would have to be something else or we’d all hate this story.  It would be silly.  We’d be right to sneer at it.  But this is a real story – the kind that doesn’t need my permission to be a little bit perfect.

Here I was, on a Tuesday in November, two hours before my kids got home from school, with a new sign,  a real sign — the queen of hearts.

Return of an Edmonton Cleaning-Lady as an Audreys Author

The best thing about being from nowhwere is being from everywhere.

I lived in thirteen different houses by the time I moved away from my happy, nomadic family at age eighteen (only to have them move right along after me a few months later).  That counts as growing up everywhere doesn’t it?

When I made my first solo move, the place I went was Edmonton, Alberta.  Don’t know Edmonton?  It’s a metropolitan area of about a million people at 54 degrees latitude.  If anyone’s thinking, “That must be a pretty great city for people to put up with living that far north,” they’re right.   I went there to get an education at the University of Alberta.  I met my husband on Whyte Avenue, earned my degree, published my first guest column in the Edmonton Journal, and my two eldest children were born in Edmonton.  I was there for eight years — longer than I’ve lived in any city.  My Edmonton days were happy but not glamorous.  Most of the time, I lived in Strathcona walk-up apartments like this:

The Apollo Apartments, just off Whyte Avenue

The Apollo Apartments, just off Whyte Avenue

Even this place was only affordable because I worked as the resident manager and cleaning-lady. I don’t live inside the city limits anymore but if the weather is good, I can get to them in under an hour.  Edmonton is still one of my many hometowns — part of the everywhere I’m from.  In fact, several of the chapters of the book I wrote are set in city — University of Alberta campus, the High Level Bridge, Cloverbar Waster Transfer Station — all Edmonton.

This coming Tuesday night, I’m bringing my book home to Edmonton.

A few weeks ago, my novel was nicely reviewed by Edmonton Journal book columnist (and fellow newly debuted local author) Michael Hingston.  He called it, “A surprising, thoughtful and captivating debut that uses death to illuminate all that’s at stake in life itself.”

The good local review sets the stage for my author reading hosted by Edmonton’s indie bookstore mainstay, Audreys Books. (No, there isn’t supposed to be an apostrophe in the name.  It refers to more than one Audrey and is grammatically above reproach.)  Audreys is a place little girls slogging away at their Arts degrees, and young-mother-cleaning-ladies writing indignant guest columns keep in their minds as the setting for scenes from the futures they want for themselves.  The store is a landing-pad for Edmonton writers in traditional, book-length publishing.  I am beyond happy to be appearing there.

And since my publicist, Sarah, is a total animal, I’m getting right up in Edmonton’s face about my homecoming.  I’m doing a radio interview with talk radio station 630 CHED on Monday, Sept 23, at around 7:20am.  The morning of the reading itself, Tuesday Sept 24, I’ll be interviewed outside the safe, blind box of radio on television with the CTV Edmonton Morning show.  I’ll be on for just a few minutes at around 8:40am.  So crazy!  And if I botch it, remember that we must never speak of this again.