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 🙂

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A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 6

Last week: A tumultuous year sets the gears in motion.

This week: Fumbling toward stability

But first …

A recent experience and how it led, in part, to this series

Last year, a co-worker of mine tried to quit smoking by use of a certain, psycho-active cessation medication.  I’d tried it in the past myself and warned him that while my reaction was atypical, that he should be wary.  Initially, he was undeterred, but a few days later, he said he’d had to stop.

He told me that he was in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, and the thought occurred to him how easy it would be to slice his flesh and he had the unsettling desire to find out what that felt like.  That moment frightened him so much he determined to stop taking the medication immediately.

I stood there, listening, and in retrospect my reaction wasn’t what it should have been.  It didn’t even occur to me that other people might not have these thoughts.

Ever since that fateful year when I was seventeen, I’ve never been on a balcony without thinking how easy it would be to climb over it and jump.  I’ve never been on a subway platform without wondering if I could really jump in front of one of the trains.  I think of car accidents (having them or causing them) all the time while I drive.

Often when doing routine tasks like cutting vegetables the unwelcome image of plunging the knife into my stomach—or worse, someone else’s—walks through my head.  I tell these thoughts to keep on walking of course, and to let the door hit their narsty asses on the way out, but the fact is, I have these thoughts so often, I actually thought that they were a normal part of everyone’s mental landscape.

Not so, obviously.

I was never so foolish as to think that my battle with depression was over.  It’s something that will be with me for the rest of my life and these thoughts are a reminder of that.  I’ve learned how to turn them down so they’re just background noise.  I acknowledge them and send them on their various ways.  They have no power over me.  Their work here is done.  Mindfulness restored.

I just got so used to them that I forgot not everyone thinks of self-harm every day.

The fumbling part

It took me until I was 33 or so to really address my depression.  That’s sixteen years.  Some struggle longer, others not so long, and every struggle is different.  This, again, is only my story.

When I left for university, I lucked out and got a room mate who really understood.  She suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), something that she didn’t reveal to me until our second semester together.  She did so by asking me to read a short story.  It was a tactful and creative way of introducing the subject.

After that, we started to communicate through books.  It was a very cool and private way to conduct a friendship, like an exclusive book club.

My roomie saw me through a lot.  She helped me discover my parasomnias (I held conversations, got up, and moved around while asleep), helped me start my first journal to capture these experiences, held me when I broke down recounting my tonsillectomy trauma (there are things that I didn’t and wonn’t share with you), and let me talk until I was hoarse while my second serious relationship disintegrated.

She also helped me to rediscover my passion for writing, something that I will forever be grateful for.

We shared a harrowing ditching of my car on our way up to Elora Mills to visit a friend during a winter snowfall, baked and ate a crust pie (we were crust fans), and opened up our lives to one another.

When I moved away, my roomie told me that she’d started cutting.  On a visit up to Sudbury, I inadvertently broke her OCD with our hectic schedule.  I don’t know if I supported her through either of these transitions.

The Dad detour

In the second summer I was at Guelph, I got myself a job with a video film crew.  The business taped horse shows across Canada and into the US, edited the footage, and sold it to the horsey-set as memento, or training tool.

I was away in Southampton, NY for a couple of weeks and while I was down there, my father had a nervous break-down.  It was set off due to the dismantling of his unit at work and his potential relocation to southern Ontario.

Mom came home from work one day to find him sitting with a knife.

She didn’t tell me any of this when it happened, but only that Dad was fine, in the hospital and that she would fill me in when I visited home in a couple of weeks.

Dad was hospitalized for months and eventually diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder.  From there, he went on long-term disability though his employer’s health plan and eventually applied for Canada Pension Disability.

He never returned to work.

Not quite independence

There was nothing I could do for Mom when I went home.  I was just shocked by the news and returned to Toronto, where I moved in with BF number three and tried to survive.

Though I still saw my old roomie, I was without a constant confidant.  I turned to self-help books in a major way.

I wanted to spank my inner moppet and fast.  I was determined not to end up like Dad.  I feared it might be inevitable though.

Just before Christmas that year, my maternal grandmother passed away.  She’d been on borrowed time since I was a baby when she’d had multiple bypass heart surgery (see: Something I don’t remember).  I was about to start a job, but asked my new employer for a delay in my start date to go home for the funeral and Christmas.

It was surreal.  Once again, I didn’t feel connected to the event.  I couldn’t muster emotion at the appropriate times.  I continued to cry at odd ones, usually when I was alone, which, when you think about it, is the exact wrong time.  It’s like an alcoholic drinking alone, a sign of something wrong.

Really, I was worried about Mom.  She had been primary caregiver for my grandparents for a number of years.  Even though the burden should have been less, it wasn’t really.  She now had Dad to take care of too, and my grandfather was an alcoholic, something kept in check by my grandmother’s presence.

Mom was adamant that I couldn’t do anything to help, though, and so back south I went.

A series of jobs and the crash and burn of my third relationship eventually caused me to re-evaluate my life.  My attempts to find another place to live met with disappointment again and again.  I couldn’t survive alone, working a low-paying job in Toronto, and while I toyed with apprenticeship (masonry was kind of looking interesting for a while), journalism, or radio, or returning to university, my eventual move back to Sudbury decided me on two things:

  1. I was going to complete my degree in English and use that experience to become the best writer I could be, and
  2. I wasn’t going to get into another relationship until I’d sorted my shit out.

Growing up

Of course, I broke my second resolution and was dating Phil (now hubbie) before the summer was out.

Margaret was back in Sudbury too, and with her forever partner by then as well.

I was still not fit partner material, and I don’t know why Phil put up with my neurotic self.  I still became sad and cried often.  I fled from conflict, literally, and on several occasions Phil had to run after me.  If he hadn’t, I’d have retreated completely.

Still, he proposed, I accepted, and we were married the July of my second year at Laurentian.

Things changed again.  Margaret moved to Port Elgin when her husband got a job in the area.  Though I’d made some friends in school, I once more felt bereft.  My roomie from Guelph fell out of touch.  I was still searching.

Academically, I excelled.  Creatively, I was on a roll.  Several prize-winning short stories and poems led to my invitation to write a short story for the first issue of a new magazine.

I graduated cum laude with a concentration in rhetoric, but I still didn’t have any self-confidence.  I decided that I needed a master’s degree before I could be considered a ‘real’ writer.  All of my university friends were moving on to master’s degrees, or teacher’s college.  It just seemed like the thing to do.

Phil was in university now as well, and in order to pursue my degree, we’d have to live apart.  And we did.  For years.

I’ve written about my master’s experience elsewhere.  Here, I will only say that by the end of it, though I achieved my goal, I was beaten down creatively.  Despite having my poetry included in two anthologies and a handful of other journals and publications and despite having completed my thesis, a collection of short stories, I doubted that anything I had to write would have meaning or significance to anyone else.

I returned to Sudbury and a life of contract jobs interspersed with unemployment.  Those were rough years for Phil and I, and I still hadn’t sorted out my issues.  I still lived in fear of becoming like my father, of being as much of a burden to Phil as he was to my mom.

Then, Phil’s sister told me about an opening with her employer, which I applied for and was successful in getting.  Though it is the same employer I continue to work for today, the job was in a much different capacity.  I was working in a call centre.

The work was emotionally draining and I quickly reduced my hours to part-time.  Still, the wage was better than most jobs I could have gotten in Sudbury at the time and the benefits were even better.  Within a year, Phil and I had a house and mortgage, a car and car loan.  We were growing up.

I took advantage of the benefits I had, got a surgery I’d been putting off, braces, and therapy.  The talk therapy was limited by what my plan would pay for.  I hadn’t actually tried to kill myself or anything; I was just trying to figure out how to deal.

I also went on Paxil.

I’ve never been a fan of medication.  I tried all sorts of herbal and vitamin supplements to improve my mood, level of energy, and feeling of well-being.  No combination I’ve tried worked.

The Paxil seemed to work.  It gave me a respite from the anxiety and mood swings, but after a few months, I wanted to get off the drug.  I didn’t want to become dependant.

The withdrawal symptoms were easily the worst I ever experienced and I never want to go through that again.

Though it may not seem like much, it was my decision to get off the Paxil and get in control of my emotional life that was my turning point, not the therapy or the drug itself, nor any of the other, external things I had tried to that point.

I found ways to cope.  I’ll talk about a few of those next week.

A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 5

Last week: A second routine surgery turns complicated and results in my second near-death experience.

The hits don’t stop coming

1987 was a massive year for me, not only because of my appendix problems, but also due to several other events, both related and unrelated to that trauma.

I mentioned some of the related bits last week: the implosion of my first serious relationship, academic struggles, and the revelations of the second surgery.

My first serious relationship yielded to my second in a few short months.  By the time of the second surgery, I was firmly entrenched in coupledom again.  At that point, I really didn’t know how to function socially without a partner.  I was still so awkward on my own, still doubted my own value so much that it seemed the only option.

The man in question was attracted to wounded women.  This is not to disparage him in any way, because he was an excellent person, but I still have trouble seeing my virtues and can’t figure out why else he decided to enter into a relationship with me.  This is just a statement of fact, something he revealed to me later himself.

With regard to my academic difficulties, I missed a lot of school and because I tended to fall asleep toward the end of the day, I was doing poorly even in the courses I was there for.  In an attempt to catch up, I wanted to enrol in a correspondence course in history to offset my poor performance in other classes.  My mom and I met with a counsellor to discuss my options.

I was told, point blank, “You’re not smart enough to complete a correspondence course successfully.”  The counsellor in question was clearly looking at my recent marks, not on the A’s and B’s of previous years’ courses.  When I tried to press the issue, she said that I didn’t have the time and dedication to complete a correspondence course.

“You’re recovering from surgery and still pretty sick.  You’re heading for a second one in a few months.  You have enough to worry about without a correspondence course.”  Essentially, she thought I was too lazy to complete the course.  This was not the case, but I couldn’t convince her otherwise, so I left the session empty-handed.

Other events were converging to form a perfect emotional storm.

English: Tropical Depression One upon being de...

English: Tropical Depression One upon being declared (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the winter, my paternal grandmother had a stroke while driving home from visiting my aunt and uncle down south.  Her car shot through an intersection just after entering Sudbury and ended up on an embankment.  Fortunately, no one else was injured, but the car was totalled.  She was admitted to hospital, but as the days and weeks progressed, she did not wake up.

At first, they thought the stroke had caused more damage than they originally determined.  Further scans revealed that this was not the case.  As time went on and her coma continued, they needed to insert a feeding tube to keep her alive.  She could not continue to survive on intravenous alone.

They couldn’t insert the feeding tube.  Something was in the way.  A quick exploratory revealed that her abdomen was full of cancer.

We couldn’t imagine the kind of pain she must have been in during her long months of silence leading up to the stroke.  My grandmother was an intensely private and fiercely independent woman.

Due to my own health issues, I was not encouraged to visit my grandmother much.  Then, when my state of infection became clear, I was discouraged from seeing her at all.  Finally, I was brought up to say my goodbyes.  Without the intervention of a feeding tube, my grandmother would slowly starve, if the growing cancer didn’t get to her first.

The decision was made to remove all supportive measures and let nature take its course.

Family came up to visit and either stayed or returned for the funeral.  It was about that time that I started to cry for no reason.  I couldn’t cry when it seemed appropriate: when saying my goodbyes and at the funeral, but at odd times, I’d just sob uncontrollably or stare off into nothing.

I had no idea what depression was then and even though my boyfriend tried to tell me, I was closed to the message.

My friendship with Margaret suffered as well.  My first boyfriend was very jealous of my time and rarely let me do anything on my own.  He was everywhere and became sulky when I wanted a “girl’s night” or to do anything with Margaret that didn’t involve him.

My quick turnaround into my second relationship didn’t help matters.  This time I was the needy one and relied on my boyfriend, the picture of the strong, silent archetype, almost exclusively.  Margaret found a relationship of her own to fill the gap.  She needed someone she could rely on too.

Margaret’s mother was getting remarried and would be moving to Mississauga at the beginning of the summer.  Margaret was allowed to stay on with me for the summer, in my grandmother’s house until she joined her mother in Mississauga and I went away to the University of Guelph in the fall.

My parents had settled my grandmother’s estate in the spring and my father had to buy out his brothers of their shares.  My grandmother hadn’t left a proper will and a lawyer was hired to sort through the mess.  They would be moving into my grandmother’s house in September after I relocated to Guelph and renting out their house to pay off the second mortgage they had to take out to make the proper financial arrangements.

My grandmother’s house, though large, only had one bedroom.  My move down south would be a permanent one.  There was no place for me at home anymore.

Throughout this time, I didn’t write, or even think about writing.  There wasn’t any room for it in my life and I was too busy trying to fast-track through highschool and try to maintain some form of a healthy relationship with anyone to spare any time for my creativity.

In a relatively short period of time, I had a serious infection bookended by two surgeries, ended my first major relationship and entered my second, lost my grandmother, my home, and my best friend.  This was the beginning of a situational depression that it would take me years to recognize and sort through.

Next week: Fumbling toward stability.

The Windsor years and what they really taught me

Last time on My history as a so-called writer: I found awesomeness at Laurentian University 🙂

I should have just kept writing.   

Unfortunately, I was still insecure about my craft and all of my friends were either heading to teachers’ college, or graduate school, or had already left.  So I thought it was the thing to do, something that had to be done to show that I had “the chops.”

Still living at the mercy of events, I applied to UVic, UNB, and Windsor.  Victoria rejected me outright, New Brunswick said that they would accept me to their academic program, but not to the creative one, but Windsor said they’d take me, so that’s where I went.

Phil was still completing his degree in computer science at Laurentian, so I was on my own.  We took a trip down in August apartment hunting and I signed a lease for a year for a room in a house that was within a five-minute walk of the campus.

I started off filled with hope, but struggled.  My courses in research and methodology, the Pre-Raphealites, and the new Canadian writers were great, but early Canadian women writers was a bomb and because my primary interest was in writing genre, the creative writing part of things did not go very well either.

I even tried to resurrect pieces of the novel idea I conceived of at Guelph, but a very dim view was taken of my fantasy.

I was nearly shamed away from my novel.  It wasn’t worthy.  I wasn’t worthy.  I kept on being asked questions like, “You have this character smoking.  You know that tobacco wasn’t discovered until Europeans reached the New World, right?”  It was all about historical detail.  But my fantasy world isn’t this world, and its history has little to nothing in common with the real world.  “But you just can’t go picking and choosing what you want from history …”  Why not?  Seriously.  What’s to say that I have to write my fantasy like a historical novel?  If I wanted to write historical fiction, then I would.  But I don’t.  (At least not right now.  I have this idea though …)

Therein lay the difficulty.  Submitting two to five pages of my novel at a time wasn’t allowing anyone to really get into the story.  Things would just get to a point where they were developing into something interesting, and then everyone would have to wait until the next week.  Momentum was lost and most of my classmates felt nothing but contempt for my chosen genre.

A lot of comments focused on the impossibility of what I was writing.  “She couldn’t survive what happened to her.”  “That defied the laws of physics.”  My characters are heroes in the epic sense, though.  Their survival hinged on the fantastic nature of their gifts and talents.  They have to be “bigger than life” in order to merit their place in the overall plot.  And magic does defy physics.  Actually, my magick has its own physics (more on that in a future world-building post).

Fantasy, especially the high, epic fantasy that I like to write, is all about the impossible.  I wasn’t trying to straddle the improbable but plausible line that defines most science fiction.  (Although I have an idea or two in that direction as well …)

I tried other stories and genres:  A YA fantasy about a girl whose figments turn out to be real; a post apocalyptic tale featuring a male protagonist; poetry; more traditionally literary short stories.  With the exception of my poetry, my work was largely panned.

My classmate, Laurie Smith, got me involved in the Wayzgoose reading series and some of my poetry was published in the Wayzgoose anthology.  I became editor of Generations, the student-published poetry anthology, and tried my hand at presenting a paper at the ACCCSAL conference (speculative fiction).  So it wasn’t a complete bust.

I have to admit though, with respect to the idea that would become Initiate of Stone, that my characters had no character.  They were merely vehicles to move the plot, which was also evolving at the time.  Theme was also a work in progress.  Still, by the time I was finished at Windsor, or rather by the time Windsor was finished with me, I was well and truly wounded.

My advisor at the time, Alistair MacLeod, did not hide his dismay regarding my choices, and to his credit, I’m sure he was doing his best to guide and support me.  He praised my poetry, and I’m certain that if I’d chosen to move in that direction, we would have gotten along swimmingly.  As it was, the presentation of the work I chose to do, confused him at best, and disappointed him, in the most tragic of senses, at worst.

He was a mentor, a writerly father figure, and his dismay was hard to take.  I was still tender then, and I retreated in defeat.

I’ve talked a lot about teachers, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  You may get the idea that I dislike them, but I don’t.  I’ve had as many positive and supportive teachers as I’ve had teachers that just didn’t understand me, and it’s a matter of timing and circumstances as anything else.

What I took away from my experience at Windsor, though it took me years to discover, is that a teacher’s job is to teach.  The teacher may not agree with the way in which the student wants to apply their knowledge and experience, but that should not be the issue.  Even if the teacher believes that the student is only setting themselves up for failure, it is not the teacher’s responsibility, or even right, to deny the experience of that failure to the student.

Instead, what the teacher should do is his or her best to impart the skills that will enable the student to meet that failure and learn from it, rather than being crippled by it.  If the teacher has such strong reservations that he or she feels that they can honestly not discharge their duty to the student, then she or he should refer the student to someone who can.

It’s not too much to ask.

Mind you, the student should stand up for herself and demand the help she needs.  I still wasn’t very good at confrontation and fled at every turn.  What happened at Windsor was my fault more than anyone else’s.  I have to take responsibility for my poor choices.

I took a year off and once again tried to sort things out, but I was badly damaged.  I worked at both the Huntington and Cambrian College libraries and subsequently became unemployed.  I was entering contests again though and won several, in short fiction and in poetry.  I participated in more readings, and more writers’ groups.

With Kim Fahner, I embarked on what might have been a foolish enterprise: a poetry journal.  The aptly named … like lemmings … only lasted 2 years.  The name was more about the editors than about the poetry, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Kim and I moved on to bigger and better things after that.  It was brilliant while it lasted though.

Then Dani Harris, a former student of mine (I was a Graduate Assistant at Windsor—doesn’t every grad student teach?) let me know that there was a new professor in the English department, Di Brandt.  With Dani’s encouragement, herself and excellent poet, I registered for another year and determined that this time, I would succeed.

I found a new mentor, but I still couldn’t bring myself to trust her fully.  My experiences in writing to that point had only taught me that editors, friends, and teachers couldn’t be trusted with my work.  They’d also taught me that the stories I wanted to tell weren’t the stories that should be shared with anyone.

So I compromised and chose stories that I thought I could tell, that I thought would be accepted.  That was my problem though and not something that I would overcome for some time.  My stories were all of young women finding their way by means of dream, and spiritual quest, and damn good friends.

The one risk was a story that did cross the line and tread into the dreadful world of fantasy.  Initially presenting with obsessive-compulsive disorder and insomnia, my protagonist developed precognitive dreams and telekinesis.  It was the one risk I couldn’t refuse to take.

I wrapped the collection up in shamanism and called it Whispers in the Dark.

Di Brandt was the teacher I needed .  She encouraged me and saw me through to the successful completion of my master’s degree.  For that, I will be forever grateful.

As you might be able to guess, my next great teacher in life was Di Brandt.  With her assistance, I conquered my fears, defended my thesis, and completed that chapter of my life.  I also met Miriam Toews, a friend of Di’s and author of the Governor General’s Award-winning A Complicated Kindness.

Was there a time when you cut and ran?  Did you rally and fight back?  What did you learn from the experience?

Hiatus

The last summer I went to the University of Guelph, I got a job videotaping horse shows: an opportunity that presented itself.  I traveled to Ottawa, Edmonton, and Southampton, New York.  In between trips, I edited the videos for sale.  I enjoyed the technical nature of the job.  It was something different from anything I’d done before.

While I was down in New York, my father became ill and went into the hospital.  My mom decided not to tell me until after I returned home.

After what seemed a great start at Guelph, I faltered.  My second serious relationship ended as a result of the third.  I know: it was evil, and I’m sorry for all the pain I caused everyone involved, but it just happened.  Lame excuse, but it’s true.

That was the kind of life I led, or followed, in those days.  I let things happen, or not.  There was no thought that I had a role to play in directing events, making choices.  Evil and pain were my legacy because I did nothing to stop them from happening.  If an opportunity presented itself, I would go with it.  I was a passive observer.  I lived like a victim.  I had to sort things out but I didn’t know where to start.

So I turned my attention back to my crisis-in-waiting.  What did I really want to do and could I afford it?  The specter of the starving artist loomed.  So I got a job at Coles, moved to Toronto, and started working through things.

After a few months, I quit Coles.  You’d have thought I’d really love it there.  I thought that too, but it wasn’t to be.  My parting with Coles resulted from irreconcilable differences bred of personality conflict and my own passivity. No surprise there.

A data-entry job at a food importing company was next and a move from Downsview to High Park.  Another few months went by and I moved to Mississauga.  I got a second, part time job at a veterinary clinic, ended up quitting the data entry job, and worked at the clinic full time.  When I was a kid, one of my aspirations was to be a veterinarian and I was sure that I would one day own a farm.  So the clinic seemed perfect.  It was.  I’ve honestly never felt happier working anywhere else.

I broke up with boyfriend number three, but couldn’t afford to move out.  It was awkward, but I worked evenings and he worked days.  We moved around each other, wounded and wounding.

To stay out of the house as much as I could, I started taking swimming lessons, eventually culminating in becoming a certified lifeguard.  I biked and walked everywhere.  In short, I lost a lot of weight.  I was never healthier.  I took a correspondence course in creative writing, tried to learn French, and signed up for high school science courses that I’d managed to skip at Lockerby.  I got my wisdom teeth removed.  Then I started looking at next steps.

I considered returning to Guelph, going to another university to finish my degree, or doing something completely different and becoming a tradesperson (there was a new incentive grant for women in the trades at the time).

I looked at becoming a veterinary technician (hence the high school science courses).  Ultimately though, I didn’t have the financial resources to stay in Mississauga (or anywhere else) on my own and so moved home to Sudbury and back in with my parents.  Laurentian it was.  English degree it was.  My plans were set by circumstances again, but this time, I had a goal: my intention was to complete my degree and to focus on becoming the best writer I could be.

Of course, as soon as I made that determination, I met the man that would become my husband.  So much for plans 🙂

Lost your way? Stanton Peak, Derbyshire

Lost your way? Stanton Peak, Derbyshire (Photo credit: Thomas Tolkien)

Everyone gets lost on the way.  It’s part of the process.

Grades seven through twelve

Art became a kind of salvation for me.  I wasn’t the best, but I was good.  My art teacher said that I was a colourist, and I had no idea what she meant, but I was nonetheless flattered.  If I did know what a colourist was, I might have been even more flattered, because I still liked comic books and graphic novels.

I also started guitar lessons.  I was never quite comfortable with the instrument, but again, I was comfortably mediocre.

I kept on writing and entered a student poetry contest I didn’t place in.

My first attempt at public speaking was lost in a fit of giggles.  My speech was on winter camping, and the best way to keep warm while you slept was to sleep without clothes–oh my!  My classmates enjoyed the effort though, and graded me highly for the entertainment factor alone 🙂

A guest speaker came to my grade seven class.  Unfortunately I don’t remember who he was, though I believe he was a journalist.  I guess you could call it my first workshop.  I wrote a supernatural murder mystery in one sitting and read it out to the class.  I really got into it, dramatizing the voices and everything.  Though empowering, I felt a little like a freak.

Grade eight brought more luke-warm success with a few of my stories read out in class.  My teacher’s final report of the year called me apathetic, however, and I had to fight to get into the advanced level classes in high school, despite having the grades to be so placed.  Just because I’d rather be in a book than in class …

I was bored.  I’d do the work I was supposed to do in class, then pick up whatever book I was reading at the time.  My instructors would approach, I’d show them that I was done, they’d advise me to do my homework, so I’d do that, and pick up my book again.  Then, I’d be advised to work ahead.  I hated school then.  Extra study was the last thing I wanted to do.

None of my writing was ever given into the dubious custody of any of my classmates.  I was even cagey with Margaret and took every well-meant criticism to heart.

I can’t remember exactly when, but I caught the Dungeons & Dragons bug.  Margaret’s Dad got her the Player’s Handbook, and shortly thereafter, we picked up the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual.  We started to attend the weekend meetings of the Sudbury Gaming Club at Cambrian College, and eventually tried out other games.  I was a dedicated gamer well into my 20s.

Suddenly, I had another group of people I could consider friends!  And none of them knew me from school.  Bonus.  We went to concerts: Headpins and Helix, Iron Maiden, Twisted Sister …  I was a burgeoning head banger in those days.

When high school hit, with my part time job, boyfriends, and everything else that came with it, my writing started to take a back seat.  I became interested in the visual arts again.  I still wasn’t the best, but I was better than some, and I did well enough.

I didn’t stop writing.  I kept on dreaming and I kept on writing down my dreams.  I have several ideas-in-waiting from those days.

Emotional drama, serious illness, and the death of my grandmother kept me unstable, and unable to see clearly enough to commit to what I loved.  Heck, I couldn’t even figure out what that was …

Also enter into my life great teacher number two, Ms. Chapman.  Her classes instilled in me a passion for literature that while slow to kindle, saw me through the rest of my academic career, such as it was.

Chronologically, what happened next was my first year of university.  You can get that bit of detail by reading How it all started in my Work in progress category.

I’ll pick up the tale again next week with Laurentian University.

High school did not constitute the best years of my life.  Really, I kind of hated it.  My saving grace was Margaret.  Despite all the relationship crap and growing apart that always happens in the fraught teenage years, Margaret remains one of my best friends.

How did your high school years affect your development as a creative person?

What got me going again

Last time on work-in-progress:

In an environment rich in creativity and ideas, I started to write my first novel.  When I left that environment, I abandoned the project … sort of.

The thing is that those two spiral-bound notebooks full of my scribbling, typewritten pages full of corrector tape, and the few scattered dot matrix print-outs, never really left me. The novel was called Rain then, after the main character.  As the title might tell you, my idea started with my protagonist.  The story was hers, and all about her journey.  All the other characters grew out of her story.

Over the next years, I tried refining my opening paragraphs.  I worked on a prologue, and a couple of pivotal scenes.  I wanted scope, breadth, space.  I felt I had to develop my world and my characters kind of got lost in the shuffle.

I enrolled in a creative writing course by correspondence and received my first computer as a part of that deal.  In between writing assignments, I worked at my novel again.  It was in fits and starts though, no dedicated time.  I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with the story and where I wanted it to go.  The name changed to Rayne.  Could that count as progress?

After some soul searching about what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to complete the bachelor’s degree I started at the University of Guelph.  I chose Laurentian University in Sudbury, and felt that focusing on an English degree would be my best bet.  My ambition was to become the best writer I could be.  I’d turn the academic world to my purpose.

My writing improved substantially during my years at LU and workshops like Susanna Kearsley‘s gave me a boost.  So too, did my slew of writing successes: a contest win; a short story written for the premiere issue of Parsec Magazine; a regular column in Llambda (LU’s student newspaper); an article in Slin Roller Magazine.  It never translated into my opus though.

I made another fateful (and ultimately foolish) decision to pursue my education by completing a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing at the University of Windsor.  Though I trotted out my novel (and other novel ideas) there, because my chosen genre was fantasy, my work was disparaged.  After leaving discouraged, and returning to complete my degree with a thesis composed of vaguely literary short stories framed by the shamanic journey, I felt defeated rather than victorious, and couldn’t look at my novel for a long time.

After Windsor, I had some modest success in other creative endeavors: poetry and short stories.  Every once in a while, though, I’d have to pull out the old notes.  Once I got my lap top computer, things took off a little more.

By the time I’d joined the Sudbury Writers’ Guild in 2004, and attended Rosemary Aubert‘s workshop in 2005, I’d closed in on the fifty-page mark (oft-revised and agonized over).  I still wasn’t writing every day though.  I just couldn’t get my butt wedged firmly enough in the chair.  There was always something else that needed to be done first.

Then came Nino Ricci.  One of the SWG had met him and managed to arrange for him to come to Sudbury.  It was to be a weekend of workshopping our stories/novels/poetry.  In the course of the workshop, Nino talked about his own development as a writer, his years at York University, and his own challenges with his thesis advisor.  From that weekend, I learned that perseverance and passion win out.  I also knew that I had a long way to go on my novel, but the only way I could get there would be to write it.

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: J. Paxon Reyes)

Another thing Nino said that settled in was that his first drafts, at least at that time, were written to get his ideas out.  Sometimes the next draft was completely different.  Sometimes, he didn’t even refer to the first.  I’d heard the message many times over the years that first drafts didn’t have to be perfect, or even particularly well-written.  First drafts have to be written, though.  I finally understood.

I started writing every day and was amazed at how easy it was.  I made a commitment, a decision.  I was finally taking control of my creative life.  The initial goal was simply to write.  Once my practice was consistent and the habit ingrained, I aimed for a page a day, then two.

I emailed Nino after the workshop to thank him for the opportunity and to let him know the influence he’d had on my creative life.  Always gracious, Nino wrote back with some kind words of his own.

Even though I had a full time job by this time, I kept at it, and two years later, I’d finished my first draft.

How did you start writing your novel?  Was it a focused effort, or did you struggle?  Did mentors appear to guide you, or were you confronted by guardians at the gates?

How it all started

Maid’s Hall: University of Guelph

So there I was, away at university for the second year, and still no idea what I wanted to do.

I’d started September of 1987 as a fine arts major, but after being dismissed as “an illustrator,” I flirted briefly with psychology before changing to music in January 1988.  In the fall of 1988, I had a rather disastrous classical guitar audition for the practical music program involving performance anxiety and was seriously considering English as my major.

I wrote music and book reviews for The Ontarian, the University of Guelph student newspaper, and helped them with layout.  This was the old fashioned layout with waxed prints of the columns that had to be precisely trimmed and placed on the board.  It was work that suited my wall-flower personality.

My roommate, Sandra Reynolds, though floundering similarly, always had more direction than I did and was a steadying influence on me.  Her sister is Susan Lynn Reynolds, who published Strandia in 1992.  She had drawn maps for Guy Gavriel Kay’s first novels.  He continues to be one of my favourite authors.  Sue’s ex, Michael Hale, had just published The Other Child.  Sandy was working on her own story ideas and with all of this creativity bouncing off the walls of our little dorm room I caught the bug to do more than record my dreams.

I’d started keeping a journal the year before, not only to capture my dreams, but also to capture insights I had in my classes.  It was a wonderful time for me intellectually.  Everything seemed to interrelate in the most interesting ways: my English literature survey course, Introduction to Psychology, Anthropology, Biology, the History of the Language and Old English courses.  Chinese Philosophy kind of blew my mind.  Sadly, little of it translated to academic success.  I was rather mediocre.

With all of these thoughts ping-ponging off one another in my head though, ideas started to occur to me, including the idea that would eventually become Ascension: Initiate of Stone.  I started writing notes.

Sandy invited me out to Mike’s place.  It was winter, snowy, and I ditched the car on the way.  A tree was mere inches away from the passenger side of the car and Sandy (!)  We were able to get a tow out of the ditch and made it to Mike’s, though late.  We still managed a lovely evening of creative chat, I got a tour of Mike’s graphics studio, and we made pie.  We all decided that since the crust was the best part, we’d make a crust pie.  It was fantastic.  Through Sandy and Mike, I learned some great techniques for character development.

I’ll share one:

Early in the character development stage, while you’re still getting to know them yourself, get together with some friends/fellow writers and have them ask you random questions about your characters.  Rapid fire.  You’re not to think about the answers, just come up with them and make notes as you go.  The idea is to access the inner writer who already has a handle on your characters and let that voice answer the questions.  The questions could be anything: what colour are his eyes?  What’s her middle name?  What happened when he was three?  What was her grandmother like?  Did he ever experiment sexually?  No question is forbidden.  It’s organic and very effective.  Nothing is written in stone, either.

If, in the course of your writing, some of those answers no longer hold true, or other answers that seem more appropriate present themselves, then the character changes.  Even to be thinking of these questions and answers through the writing process is helpful for your character development and therefore for the work.

Try it.  You may be amazed.

Sandy was taking Children’s Literature with the incredible Jean Little and Jean was bringing a friend into class to talk about her work.  That friend was Welwyn Wilton Katz.  Though she waggled a finger at me for my lack of research, I did get a chance to talk to her and was inspired by the lecture.  Subsequently, I started reading her novels, and became a fan.

By this time, I had one spiral notebook full and another started.  I had an old portable typewriter that I typed my essays on and started to type bits and pieces out in between essays.  I had no confidence however, and declined to show my stories to anyone.

My lack of direction in school eventually reached a crisis point and I decided to take some time off.

How did you get started on your magnum opus?  What or who inspired you?