A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 8

How did what was supposed to be a mere two-part guest post get to be this huge?  I think it’s what project managers call “scope creep.” 🙂  Essentially, the story demanded something more, and as with many of the things I write, it told me the shape it wanted to be in.

Thanks to everyone who’s stuck with me through this very personal tale.  If it touches you in any way, I encourage you to like, share, comment, or subscribe as your conscience dictates.

I’ll take the opportunity here to remind everyone that while this story is based on my life, that it is filtered through my frame, and is, no more and no less than anything else I write, a story.

Last week: I discussed some of the things that I do to keep the wolf of my depression from the door, or perhaps invite it in, let it curl up by the hearth, and make itself at home.

This week I’m going to pick up the original thread of the tale where I left it.

Those sixteen years

The years during which I was “growing up,” getting a job, and learning how to deal with my depression were largely fallow ones for me creatively.  I got off to a good start in my undergrad years, both at Guelph and at Laurentian, but faltered during my struggle to achieve my master’s degree.

Though my primary poetic publications, NeoVerse and Battle Chant, emerged around the time that I finally received my graduate degree, I found it difficult to continue writing.  A handful of scattered publications in poetry and a short-lived foray into publishing weren’t enough to validate my still-fragile writer’s ego.

I’ve never had a thick skin.

As I slowly worked through my issues, however, I started to realize that writing wasn’t something I did or didn’t do.  It’s something I am.  My inability to commit to the writing life on a regular basis made me question my calling.  If I couldn’t write, how could I call myself a writer?  Maybe it was time to throw in the towel and commit to a life without magic.

The sheer impossibility of that thought told me that writing was what I was meant to do.  I just had to find my way to it without a map or any orienteering skill whatsoever.

Upon my triumphant return from Windsor and contract jobs interspersed with unemployment, Phil and I decided to get a puppy.  We already had two cats, one a three-legged refugee from my days at the Veterinary Emergency Clinic in Mississauga, the other a sweet-natured black cat that Phil got me for my birthday one year.

Our dependent quadrupeds helped me immensely.  I believe that pets have a lot to teach us about unconditional love and being good people.  My pets are some of the best people I’ve known 😉

I got my full time job with my current employer.  Phil and I got a house and a car.  I made use of my new benefits to get some serious work done on both my body and my mind.  I figured out that medication was not the way to address my feral disease.

My mother was still working, part-time at the local hospital, at home, taking care of my father, who had graduated to a disability pension and therapy, and at the seniors’ residence where my grandfather now lived.

I went out with her to see my grandfather about once a week, and helped her to transport him to his various appointments.  My father began to have issues with his heart, eventually diagnosed as arrhythmia and congestive heart failure.  He got a pace-maker, and a new suite of medications.

Shortly after retiring from the hospital, my mom developed diabetes.  Dad started to fall.  If it happened at home, either Phil or I, or both of us would have to help Mom, because Dad couldn’t get up under his own power and she couldn’t lift him.  If it happened outside home, it generally involved a hospital stay.  Dad was on Cumadin by this time and as a result, even the smallest injury could become serious due to the complications of the medication.

Then my dog died

ZoeIt wasn’t something sudden.  Zoe developed hemangiosarcoma and though we caught it early, the vet wasn’t able to catch it all with surgery and internal lavage.

The issue with this particular type of canine cancer is that it likes vascular areas, that is, places in the body where blood vessels tend to gather, like the spleen and the liver.  Once it takes hold, it disseminates quickly and almost always results in death.

The biopsy taken in the surgery came back malignant.  It would only be a matter of time.  As it turned out, we only bought Zoe a couple of weeks.

At first, it seemed like she was recovering.  Phil and I had taken to sleeping on the futon in the living room so we could be close to her if problems arose.

The morning she woke me at 5 am looking for comfort was her last.

I won’t describe that morning other than to say that I called in sick.  I was devastated.  For the first time, I cried legitimately over the loss of a loved one.

Papa

My maternal grandfather was the only one of my grandparents left alive.  He’d been a hard-core smoker, and alcoholic for most of his life.  When my grandmother passed away, he reacted poorly and within a few months, a fall resulting from TIA, landed him in the hospital.

From there, arrangements were made to move him into a seniors’ residence and for many more years, he lived happily, adjusting to the fact that he couldn’t drive anymore, that he had to go outside the residence to smoke, and that he had to depend on my mother to ration him a few beer on special occasions.

Some irregularities regarding his heart landed him in the hospital and when I got the call at work that I should come to the hospital, I had a bad feeling.  In the time it would take me to get the car, drive to the hospital, find parking, and get to his room, I could walk, so I sped along as quickly as I could, hoping that he would hold on long enough for me to get there.

Turns out he’d already passed away when I got the call.

Papa’s passing wasn’t all that traumatic for me.  He’d lived 94 years despite his addictions and was, so far as I know, happy.  I also felt confident that I had been there for him as much as I could.

I helped Mom settle his estate.  Being able to help her out in that way made another big difference for me.

I received a small inheritance, just enough to invest in my first laptop computer.  That year, I started to get back to my writing and the novel I’d conceived of all those years ago in university.

In another year, Phil and I felt that we could bear the love of another pup.  That was when we got the Nuala-beast.

The butt-in-chair breakthrough

Though I was writing more, I wasn’t writing daily yet.  It wasn’t until Nino Ricci came to town to do a workshop with the Sudbury Writers’ Guild that my head got turned around the right way on that.

It was his sharing of his own guardian tale that helped so much.  Every writer has at least one, that big name, well-established Author who tells you that your work is crap.

The breakthrough was that I could choose not to let the well-meant, but unfortunate words of my guardian keep me from entering the inner sanctum and gaining my prize.

Productive or not, I’ve been writing every day since, and that, as the poet said, has made all the difference.

The diabetic cat

Our little black cat, Thufir (named after the Mentat Thufir Hawat due to his fondness for Thufir Hawat the Mentat Catflashing lights) developed feline diabetes.  Phil and I were surprised because he wasn’t obese or showing any of the other signs, but his blood glucose level didn’t lie.

He was on Metformin for a year and graduated to insulin after that.  I became very adept at taking his blood sugar levels and injecting him daily.  He came to tolerate, if not anticipate his injections, like he knew that they made him feel better.

Once again, however, it was a matter of time.  Eventually, organ failure took out little guy.

I wasn’t sad this loss either.  I’d been the best kitteh-mama I could have been and I knew that I’d done well by him.  I’d kind of made my peace with death by this time.

I’m going to leave things here for now.  The next big event for me was the death of my father, and that’s going to need a post unto itself.

After that, I’m going to delve into my insights into happiness as a result of all I’ve learned and that will be the culmination of the series.

Tomorrow I’m going to be writing the Wordsmith Studio Anniversary post 🙂  What’s that, you ask?  Read and find out, my friends.

Coming soon: I have a few wonderful authors who have agreed to do interviews for little ole me.  Look out in the next few weeks for six questions with fantasy author J. L. Madore, poet Barbara Morrison, and D. J. McIntosh, author of The Witch of Babylon, and the soon-to-be-released The Book of Stolen Tales.

I’m finding all sorts of writerly goodness to share 🙂

CanWrite! The Canadian Authors Association 2011 Conference

May 2-6, 2011.

Yes, I finally did it.  I managed to do something entirely nourishing to my writer’s soul.

I’d determined that I wanted to go to at least one conference week-long workshop last year and when the announcement went out in November 2010, I signed up right away.  Barbara Kyle, one of the workshop presenters, was also offering 20-page critiques for a nominal fee.  Again, I was in.

My next challenge was how to pay for the venture.  I applied for a Northern Arts Grant for professional development from the Ontario Arts Council, but was not accepted.  So, credit it was.  As far as conferences go, the CAA conference wasn’t expensive.  Even with my day job, I don’t make enough money to drop a thou and not feel it.  Still, it was time and long past that I made a substantial investment in my creative self.

Throughout February, March, and April the CAA conference organizers held little writing contests to get participants in the creative frame of mind.  I submitted to two of the three and though I didn’t even manage an honourable mention, they were interesting exercises and did serve to build a lovely feeling of anticipation.

I made my leave request at work as soon as I could, but operational requirements made it seems unlikely that it would be approved.  As the date of the conference approached, I began to worry that I’d have to withdraw.

Then my father passed away, April 9, 2011 and thoughts of the conference vanished.  For the week previous, Mom, a family friend, and I took turns watching vigil.  Dad had originally gone into the hospital March 18, 2010, and though he never recovered sufficiently to come home, his final illness and his ensuing struggle were completely unexpected.  Needless to say, Mom and I were devastated.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump: that’s all I have to say about that.

In the dizzying days following, my leave was miraculously approved.  Now the conference had a second purpose: I needed to get away and do something that did not involve Dad, his funeral arrangements, or my mom’s uncertain financial situation, all of which were consuming my life in large, ragged mouthfuls.

The drive to Grand Bend from Sudbury, though long, was relaxing.  There’s some beautiful country in Bruce and Gray counties, and now, there are lovely windmills and solar panels dotting the landscape.  I don’t understand the public resistance to wind and solar.  They’re some of the cleanest, greenest sources of energy around, and I didn’t find them ugly at all.  I rather thought them graceful, alien guardians, standing sentinel over the people and the land.  In any case, I arrived at the Pinedale Motor Inn in time for the evening meet and greet, and welcome barbeque.

I discovered that that year’s conference was a departure from previous years.  It was set up as a writers’ retreat with workshops and events, but with the afternoons off to enjoy the town and to write.  No maddened dash to attend competing workshops, this.  Never having attended any conference before, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but it seemed like exactly what I needed.

I won a bottle of wine in a raffle.  We were off to a good start

The first workshop presenter was Sandy Plewis.  Her session was highly interactive with lots of writing exercises, but she depended heavily on secondary sources in her lectures.  She seemed pleasantly surprised at the willingness of the conference attendees to dig deep and write.  There was not a still pen in the house when it came time to complete an exercise.

Then came time for my critique with Barbara Kyle.

Globally, she was complementary.  My characters were interesting, their conflicts dynamic and immediate, but then, as the critique commenced, the shortcomings emerged: the pacing was too fast, my scenes lacked a sense of place, and I didn’t go deep enough into my characters’ hearts and minds.  And I was too subtle.  While I got a lot of good advice from Barbara, by the end of it, I was dizzy, hardly able to breathe.  I think it was a panic attack.  I wasn’t able to think about things clearly until much later in the day.

Barbara’s workshops, one based on The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and the other on her own experiences as a first draft survivor, were illuminating.  Though not heavy on the writing, they were professional, and informative.  I had a revelation.

I’d read Vogler’s book, and its inspiration, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.  The guardian at the gates has been a repeated part of my development as a writer, and my past experiences with those guardians informed my inner critic, the biggest, baddest guardian of them all.  That’s what happened in the critique session.  Though intellectually, I knew that Barbara was giving me exactly what I needed to head into the next revision of my novel, to make it stronger, and better, emotionally, every negative that emerged seemed a confirmation of my worthlessness.

So … I confessed.  Spastically and awkwardly–which is the only way I can confess the deeply embarrassing–I told everyone about my struggle.

That afternoon, Lightning Strikes, a series of mini-workshops, took place, and in the evening, at the Mock Awards Ceremony, I received the “Best Attempt to Make Us Cry” award.

Even the annual general meeting was interesting.  As a professional member, I had a vote.

Overall, the CAA conference was a very rewarding experience, and one I hope to repeat.

Conferences can be fertile experiences.  Have you made a breakthrough at one?  New friends?  Networked connections?

Babes in Toyland

As a kid in grade school, I filled Hilroy exercise books with stories.  I had a fascination with new notebooks.  My parents couldn’t keep up with my penchant for paper, so eventually I started pilfering them from school.

The contents of these stolen treasures consisted mostly of horror stories: “The Spooky Hallowe’en Scream Party.”  Yeah, I wasn’t much for the titles back then.

I had one story I called “The Phantom Menace.”  Still have the exercise book and I swear the title was original Mellie.  The story was about a creepy thing that followed a young girl to school, but she escaped before it could catch her.  Wasn’t much for the plotting then either 🙂

When my fourth grade class was looking for something to do for the annual Christmas pageant, I decided that I wanted to write a play.  Based on Disney’s “Babes in Toyland,” it wasn’t original, but it was mine.

The whole situation was a bit fraught.  First, I didn’t take well to my first experience of being edited.  It was never explained to me that anything would have to be changed, or why.  The altered product was simply presented to the class and that was my first look at what my teacher had done to my play.  Understandably, I was upset.  It didn’t matter if the play was improved, I was nine years old.

I’d still like to know why I wasn’t consulted.  A courteous “heads up” might have been nice.  Perhaps the idea of dealing with a nine-year-old writing diva-in-development wasn’t my teacher’s idea of a good time.

It was also decided that I would not be allowed to participate in the play, being the author and all.  It wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.  Still, I was proud of what I’d created, and I believe the play was a success.  After introducing the play, I stood around in the darkened gymnasium with nothing to do.  That kinda sucked.

Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

I’m a fan of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, and its antecedent, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s with a Thousand Faces.  As creative people, we experience the hero’s journey in our lives.  Interpreting it through Campbell’s lens has allowed me to come to terms with some of my negative experiences.

That grade four play was my first experience with the guardian at the gate.  I learned that editors are not to be trusted, and that if given the chance, they will take your work away from you in all the ways that matter.

I know that this is not true, but to this day I cringe at the thought of giving my work into the hands of others, and when I do, I resist seeing the sense in the recommendations of well-meaning colleagues and mentors.  But I deal, and I return to my work fuelled by the need to improve.

Have you had any formative writing experiences where a “guardian” figure put obstacles in your way?  Have you read Campbell or Vogler, or both?  Is there value in their work for you?