Sunday, February 17, 2013


I have decided to try a new blogging platform. It was inspired by a few things which I discuss on my new blogging site:

I hope that you will check it out.

Thanks for all of your support on this blog over the last few years. I hope to see you at my new address.

Monday, July 2, 2012

My Communities

In a week I will be heading off to Vermont for my fourth residency. Hard to imagine that I only have one more semester left of school and that I graduate in January. I still feel like I have so much more to learn and my nervousness and anticipation is much like it was a year and a half ago.  I have had many residency dreams the last few days, as if I'm already laying out the foundation.

Last week I was in Prince Edward Island attending the L.M. Montgomery and Cultural Memory conference at the University of Prince Edward Island. While I was once again part of a madcap crew of tweeters and bloggers, I also gave a well received paper on how Gilbert Blythe continues to be part of our cultural memory. I have to admit, that although I had hoped that I would be entertaining, I didn't leave enough time for the laughter. Apparently, I'm quite entertaining. Lesson to all: If you plan on making jokes, leave room for the possibility of actually being funny because people will laugh with you- hopefully not at you (unless you want them too.) Also lesson to all: Believe in your own talent so that you can anticipate the funny.

This trip I stayed at a B&B with my good friend and Montgomery traveling companion, KS, in Charlottetown. KS loves to walk and so she really encouraged me to get off my *clears throat* behind and walk myself. While I do love walking and walk to work and such, I admit that I will find ways to avoid exercise. I think it is one my self-sabotagers.  So, we walked from downtown to the campus almost every day. One such day, KS had left early and I actually listened to myself, put on my music, and walked myself.  I had actually thought up a blog post that was never written (well I guess this is a form of it) about the different communities in my life.

One of the aspects of Montgomery's lives that we often discussed was her many communities. Later, at the end of the conference, one of the chairs mentioned this very thing and it was like he had read my mind.

While I've spent the last number of months really investing in my writing, I see (again) how much I've also invested in the communities the support writing and the work that I care about. How many of us wait for this to happen in our lives? I'm continually amazed and grateful for the support of the L.M. Montgomery community for how much they've embraced the work that I'm doing, providing support and feedback, while also their friendship. There is a group of us that seemed to travel together this time around and it felt like we were not only building something within the Montgomery community, but also something greater. It was amazing and wonderful. And, hard to come home.

As I mentioned, I did blog with the L.M. Montgomery Research Group about the conference. If you are interested, you can find it here.

I have been also participating in the Beyond Little House's read-a-long of These Happy Golden Years. Which has been so great because I love seeing other people's perspectives of this novel. I think we have one or two chapters left, so do check it out.

This time next week I will be at the Vermont College of Fine Arts about to start the intense ten-day residency schedule with another supportive community of writers and colleagues. We will be blogging again at Through the Tollbooth

I'm also grateful for the community of Canadian writers I'm connecting with online and through the Canadian Children's Book Centre and CANSCAIP.  Next to VCFA, these are some of the most devoted group of people to children's lit and writing that I've ever met. 

Then there is the small writing group that I've been hanging out with. Although it has been a little while since we've met (because of our schedules) I find that we can still poke one another for advice and hopefully when I return from school we can meet up again. 

I suspect that I'm repeating myself here, but I'm all about the creative visualization these days and by continually writing about these amazing facets of my life, I hope that I can continue to be grateful for the interconnected supportive network of colleagues and friends. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jean and Johnny: A Cautionary Tale

It has been so long since I've blogged, that Blogger had changed their interface. Interesting.

I had meant to come back here about a month ago. I had this fascinating diatribe dedicated to Beverly Cleary's Jean and Johnny called, "Jean and Johnny: A Cautionary Tale." It was going to discuss how Cleary brilliantly describes the detriments of an unworthy first crush. It was going to discuss how I had a hard time finishing this novel because I was reminded of all of my embarrassing first crush moments with boys who, in retrospect, were not worthy of my attention of favour. But who knew that then. It is an important part of growing up. 

However, the final touches are being added to the Critical Thesis now and my attention must return to my work in progress - a novel that despite my efforts of procrastination and chasing pretty lights continues to be written. I am pretty pleased with the CT. I really like the essay and feel like I'm in those pages.  My Perfect Man Archetype is coming to the light and hopefully the paper will be helpful (or even entertaining) for those interested in archetypes, YA romance, feminist literary theory and good ol' fashioned brooding boys. It will be hard to to let it out into the world, but it is time. I need to let him out - for real this time. I looking forward to using the archetype in the paper on Gilbert Blythe and L.M. Montgomery and cultural memory that I'm giving in June in Prince Edward Island. It will be interesting to see how people react to this new and improved version of him. 

Back to the novel. I've been working on this novel for almost a year now and it continues to surprise me. Themes are filtering in that I didn't expect. Characters pop in that I didn't know where there. The deeper I get into my protagonist's voice, the more I am discovering.  Not just about the novel, but about myself. I knew that I would write a novel one day from my Jewish culture and experience, I just didn't expect for it to happening while I was doing my MFA.  We are encouraged to dig deep, to write from our most authentic places. As much as we must learn about structure, dialogue, and the mechanics of novel writing, there are the characters that will not let us go. My protagonist took hold of me two years ago and she's been whispering in my ear ever since. She wants her story told and I must oblige. 

But, my attention falters. Particularly when I get to something that picks at the scab that I would rather leave alone. But she won't let me. And neither would the young man who wants to open the story. A young man who I think is how I wished that many of the boys were like in Hebrew School. Don't get me wrong, there were some nice boys, but the ones where I put my ill-fated crushes were not. 

Part of what I read about in the female literary tradition is the idea that women writers craft an ideal of a character. I saw what I wished my character to be, but I couldn't believe - based on my experience - that he could be like that. I had a hard time believing and so did my reader. 

Writing to my advisor last weekend I had an epiphany. A scab flaked off and what remained were memories of Jewish boys who didn't live up to expectations. Their religious background shouldn't matter, but in the context of my pre-teen/teen cultural experience it did. I had done what my parents asked of me and participated in a Jewish youth group to meet nice Jewish boys. In retrospect, it was probably the wrong Jewish youth group for me, too religious and dogmatic. But I didn't know that then and the boys that I met through this group spread false rumours about me, lead me on, and were clearly uncomfortable with my "alternative" views on religion. 

I was heavily questioning my spirituality around this time, too. Pondering the existence (and gender) of god. My first dark night of the soul is wrapped up with these first crushes and so when I think of them, it is clouded by all of the other things that were going on. I am grateful, now, to these boys for showing me the kind of man I would craft in my imagination, and the kind I wish to spend my life with. 

So, when I go deep into the core of my character and it requires me to go deep into my cultural and ancestry and that pit in my stomach tells me that I'm getting somewhere, I pull back. The intensity of it threatens to drown me. 

But this young man persists. He isn't going anywhere and neither is my protagonist. And, clearly, neither am I. This is the novel that needs to be written. So, I take a deep breath and dive.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Purple Gymsuits and the Inner Fat Girl: Returning to Paula Danzinger's The Cat Ate My Gymsuit

As part of my reading for my Critical Thesis (CT), I need to read some YA books from the  1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I was actually looking forward to it, because it is an opportunity to revisit some of my favourite books from when I was in elementary and Junior High School.

Really, because of the complete dearth of YA when I became a teenager, once I finished most of the Sweet Valley High series in Grade Seven, the next logical step was Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel  - true story.
The book that has inspired this particular blog post is: Paula Danzinger's The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. I am sorry to say that I must have given away my copy of this book in one of the many clean outs of my youth, so I got it from my local library - will have to peruse my local used bookstore to find a classic cover copy. 
Originally published in 1974, I think that I had originally read The Cat Ate My Gymsuit in 1982 or 1983. I know that I read it more than once.

Thirteen years old, overweight, and insecure, Marcy Lewis, finds her voice when her new English teacher, Ms. Finney, teaches her to think for herself.  When the School Board suspends Ms. Finney for her unorthodox teaching methods, Marcy and her friends organize a protest to bring her back.

Although some of the dialogue might seem didactic now, the feminist and political overtones of the novel are really interesting. (Lizzie Skurnick  wrote this very interesting piece in 2008 on the novel.)While Ms. Finney is encouraging her students to think for herself and Marcy's mousey mother learns to speak up against her verbally abusive husband, Marcy struggles with socially perceived notions of beauty and weight, and her mother's encouragement to date the school smart boy (who reminded me of a soft version of Gilbert Blythe without the slate-over-the-head incident), Joel Anderson.

All of this new information struck me, because I remembered nothing of the political and feminist overtones of the novel, only how much I connected with Marcy as I  was going through my own version of pubescent hell.  Like Marcy, I took ballet and felt like a large uncoordinated elephant in a tutu. Like Marcy, I had been dieting since I was seven when I couldn't fit into a dress for my cousin's wedding. Like Marcy, I felt like, as she says, "a baby blimp with wire-frame glasses and mousy brown hair," most of my life and was pretty sure that is what I would be. But the moment when I knew that Marcy and I were kindred spirits was this:

"How could she [Ms. Finney] know what it feels like to be so fat and ugly that you're ashamed to get into a gymsuit or talk to skinny people? Who wants to say, 'This is my friend, the Blimp?'"

The cover Skurnick posted in her 2008 article totally hit home for me (see above), because I'm sure that was the edition that I had read in 1983. It was either that one, or this other one:

Interestingly, the newer covers, form the 1990s have this weird- and skinny - cartoonish version of Marcy. 

Marcy gets mixed messages from her mother. On one hand, her mother wishes her to look her best and be happy so she can meet a nice boy, and on the other hand, she dishes Marcy and her younger brother, Stuart, bowls of ice cream when they're upset.  Later, Marcy tries to avoid bowls of ice cream and gets an approving nod from her friend, Nancy, when she declines snacks.  This reminded me of being the plump kid dieting on tuna fish and crackers while other kids are eating the cafeteria pizza, or avoiding the snacks at every party I've attended since...well, ever.

I don't like to think about my life between 9 and 12. It is probably why I mostly skip the whole middle grade reading and go to the teen books. Reading Danzinger's book has inspired me to go back. Who knows if I'm ready to befriend that fat awkward kid who had to start wearing a bra at 10 and got her period at 11.

Connecting to Marcy helped me through that difficult year. I always think of it fondly and I'm glad that years later I can still see why.

This story isn't unusual. I'm not writing this to say, "Oh woe is me, the fat girl who felt shitty about herself." But, what I think is fascinating is how much this book helped me at 10 and how it seemed to help me get back to that girl now. Mostly, because I think she has a story to tell and I haven't been brave enough yet to let her tell it. 

Although I've spent years in therapy, reading feminist theory on the body politic, and reclaiming my rubenesque figure - that really comes from a line of women on my mother's side named Rubenstein - ten-year-old Mel is still there. Quietly pouting. 

Even though I know every woman sees something they don't like about themselves, I still look at some of the pretty little blond women I work with and I hear myself screaming: "Why? Why wasn't I born with a natural graceful thinness - and the desire to exercise daily?" 

I'm hoping that by reading some of the books that I read at ten, maybe I can nurture her into finally feeling good about who she is. Maybe one day, I'll feel good about getting into my own purple gymsuit. 

I guess the first step is putting a picture up for the world to see. 

I wish I could go back and tell her how cute she was... 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Midnight Lasagna

Home again. 

Arrived in Toronto late last night to a warm hug, a barking puppy and homemade Midnight Lasagna. It is nothing that different from regular lasagna, just that you eat it at the stroke of midnight and float in dreams of cheese and tomato sauce. R made so much, that we'll be eating it all weekend. No complaints here. 

It is always hard to explain the intensity of residency life, or how much goes on there. I am taking a couple of days to regroup, watch things - like BBC's Sherlock Holmes- and get caught up with the outside world. 

Vermont residency is so intense that finding a moment to write anything (ironically) is difficult. This is why you only heard from me once and why the following post is going to be REALLY LONG...

My colleagues and I wrote a few blogs and posted it on Through the Tollbooth

Rachel Lieberman interviewed faculty member and Canadian author guru, Tim Wynne-Jones: Montpelier? Venice? Where's Tim Wynne-Jones?  

Peter Patrick Langella gave us a rundown of a day in the life at VCFA residency and highlighted a few lectures: Cynthia Leitich Smith Rules!

My Q&A with Libba Bray - I got to chat with Libba Bray! You all know how much of a fangirl I that was just awesome. 

Tim Martin's Q&A with Marla Frazee finished the series. 

We have such rockstars at the college, that it can take a few days (or residencies) to come up to an author and talk with them (let alone work with them.) I love how I never quite get over the starstruckedness that I get when I meet my favourite authors. Although I have learned to be professional and not jump up and down and become completely incoherent, (at least not around them) I can have the outward appearance of the professional. I guess I can thank my day job for that. And, thankfully, it helps when the author is so approachable and awesome. 

Case in point Libba Bray (see above.) Also, the first residency it took me until the last day to say "hello" to Rita Williams-Garcia. And, she's so friendly and lovely, it was all me! 

The "I am not worthy," feeling strikes again. 

This seems to plague most artists. That feeling that one is not worthy of writing, or being in place with such talented amazing people. Being in residency is one of the most vulnerable situations one can be in. Ten days in dorms with about 100 other people who are naturally introverted on some level being forced to eat, sleep and work together. The conversations never stop. And we are all (faculty and students) being fed with lectures and workshops on craft.

We have readings every night. I didn't even know what I was going to read until that day. I wasn't sure, even after all of the fine work that I did over the semester, what would be worthy to read out loud. 

Nothing ever seems good enough. 

Each residency, we get to put down a list of people we wish to work with and then we leave it up to the magicians of the program to give us one of our choices. This time around I had to pick a minimum of four. I already had a good idea of who I wanted to work with, the question was: "Am I brave enough to get out of my own way and put down those that scare me (even if they are awesome there are those that just scare us because of their brilliance)?" So, I put the four people down, thinking that whomever I got would be exactly who I needed to get. 

When the list went up last Friday night, I had to double check the names. I almost didn't believe it. But there it was under the name Rita Williams-Garcia, Melanie Fishbane. 

Really, it comes down to what I said above, getting out of your own way. This was a theme that came up a lot during residency. Whether you decides to use a pendulum to help get in touch with your intuition (I may or may not have used mine), or find a moment and get quiet so you can hear yourself, getting out of your way - to write from the scary and scarred places and finding those who will help you do this - is probably the bravest thing you can do. 

For me, it came down to ignoring the insecure phrase that told me that I sucked and that everyone hated me. Two days of negative mind chatter slunk its way in and took root in my core. I didn't see it a first, lurking there. Once I did, I went with my friend down to the Co-op, bought some vitamins, gluten free snacks, a Bach Flowers Remedy, and low fat yogurt for breakfast and told myself that I was being ridiculous. Even vocalizing it to dear friends helped me recognize it and let it go.

You wouldn't think that vitamins and gluten free snacks would help my mood. But it did. Not only because it it helped to stabilize my sugar, but it was me taking care of myself. Taking care of yourself, shows you that you are worthy. No one outside of yourself. No friend. No lover. No author. No mentor. None of them can tell you how amazing you are. Only you can do that. Only I could do that. 

Still, having friends who support you and remind you of your awesomeness can go a long way. One of the VCFA traditions is to give your class a name. There is a reveal which requires a little theatre talent and some creativity. I guess it is a way to distinguish yourself. We are calling ourselves the Dystropians (ha! get it!) Hint: We will be graduating in 2013.
One of our clues was a video that went up on Facebook a few weeks before residency:

Then we showed this one the day of the reveal:

We even have a logo designed by one of our amazing artists who is also a writer (I KNOW!) Check it out:

Right now I am writing beside R, the puppy, the kitten and listening to The Beatles. I am covered in a warm blanket with a green tea close by. 

On tonight's dinner menu: Midnight Lasagna. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

School on the Hill

Back at VCFA and it is like I've never left. Today is the first full day of classes, so we will be in full swing now. When I was in first semester, there was basically a full day of orientation before we even started classes, so I enjoy having a little bit of time to get settled and organized.  Plus, it is basically like a family reunion - seeing everyone again.

We received our faculty evaluations yesterday and I don't think, again, I truly comprehended the work that I did. Not trying to sound self important, but it is funny how much I still don't credit myself for the work that I've completed - even with all of my tweets and facebooking telling folks how many words I'd written that day. I've pondered why I do this. I think it is a combination of needing to commit to something and putting it out there means that I have to, and telling people why I'm up in my room writing most weekends.

In my self evaluation, I wrote how many pages I had thought that I had written, and I counted myself short. I also had completely forgotten a piece that I had written in the first packet that could be something quite lovely one day.

It isn't just the amount of pages, it is also what I've learned about craft. How I read differently now.

The evaluation made me a little weepy because she was so lovely, so supportive about the things that I had done - things that I hadn't up until that point really gave myself credit for.

As much as I "patted myself on the back" with a hot bath and a nice dinner, I truly didn't recognize what I had done. Just moved forward.

Perhaps this is a lesson in pausing. In recognizing our efforts and celebrating them. Being okay in celebrating them. Not thinking (as I even said above) that one is being too self important or selfish in some way for "showing off" to ourselves our accomplishments. I wonder if this is what holds us can we succeed if we cannot accept our own success?

Or even our failures. We learn from those, too.

The third semester...third semester! about the critical thesis. Some embrace it, many fear it. I love critical work, and have been playing with the idea for quite some time, so hopefully I can jump in.

I was accepted into a small short story workshop with Alan Cumyn. There are six of us in the group, which should make it a very cozy creative space. I love how I've come full circle with this mentor. The person who I began with in Banff, I get to continue to work here.

My piece is a story that I had been working on for a few years which, after my work this semester,  had been completely revised - new point of view, tone and, hopefully, not so melodramatic. It gets discussed next week, so, for now, I get to embrace the brilliance of the other pieces.

Last winter I had the opportunity to do a Q&A with Grace Lin who was visiting here. The Shining Scroll, an L.M. Montgomery journal, published the interview. You can see it here.  Part One contains a wonderful overview of the conference that I attended last October and Part Two contains the Q&A, plus many other nuggets.

I will not promise a blog every day. Residency is pretty hectic, but I suspect there will be times where I shall need to come here and muck about. I am hopefully going to do a Q&A with one of the visiting authors here...I'll be sure to share that if that happens.

Happy is Tuesday, right?

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Letting Go of 2011

I'm quite glad that the last day of the year falls on a weekend (or a day of the week where I am not at the day job) because it allowed me to take this last day in calmly and give myself time to let the year go. I did have some freelance work to do today, but once I completed that, I was able to sit in quiet reflection and take a long hot shower, washing away the tide of the last year to leave room for the next.

I've spent a lot of time the last few weeks looking over my favourite books from the past year. Given the amount that I've read, I am glad that I was able to keep track through Goodreads this year. It was good foresight on my part. It is hard to imagine how much happens in twelve months, how many things shift in 365 days, but tracking life through how many books one reads seems to remind me of where I was at when I was reading that book. Like when you hear a song or taste something delectable from your childhood - it brings you back.

This seemed to particularly happen to me when I reviewed my favourite teen books of 2011.  As I went to describe each book, it wasn't just the book itself that made me love it, but the memories that I associated with it. I recall the exact moment that I finished Lauren Myracle's Shine and went over to the computer and wrote this review, or how much I wanted to say about Libba Bray's Beauty Queens - which I got to do with my good friend Chandra. But it wasn't just the book itself, but what I was going through at the time I was reading them.

I continue to marvel at the connections that are made on the etheric/internet level and on the physical one. Through my obsessions I've connected with people who love Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery and have given me opportunities to write about them. And the authors that I've met online who are so generous with their time and knowledge.

I'm grateful for my colleagues at work, particularly #teamteen, a group of women who love YA, write, draw and create wondrous things, and who continually inspire me. They appeared without me even trying and that is always the most pleasant of surprises.

I'm amazed at the people that I've met through VCFA. If there ever was a definition of the word "community," I think that this would be it. Cards arriving in the  mail with grade school key chains and bat illustrations. Email checkins right when I needed them. What is the most amazing thing of all is that I didn't know them this time last year. Somehow that doesn't seem even possible.

I'm grateful for those who took a chance on me this year and encouraged me to apply for things, write for things, and believed in me when I continue to second guess myself. I think the one thing that I want for 2012 is for me to believe that I deserve success without feeling guilty for feeling that way.

My old friends who continue to sit by and watch me go through another course - cheering me along the way.

My family, specifically my parents, brother and grandmother, who are always encouraging. I love that my brother and I can talk shop.

My partner for making sure that I eat. For taking over some things in the house that I cannot physically do right now while balancing a full time job, school and freelance work. He continues to amaze me of his generosity and compassion. All this and still I wasn't sure how he felt by this writing life I've mapped out for myself. But this holiday he gifted me with the tools of a writer which told me more about how he felt about what I was doing than I even realized.

If we consider our successes of 2011, let us remember the connections and communities we create. It hasn't always been easy. There have been a few areas this year that I could have handled better. I'm grateful for that time because it taught me about myself and hopefully I'll do better next time.

There is a lot of talk about 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar. I would like to remind people that the end is often the beginning of something exquisite, opening ourselves up to opportunities beyond our wildest imaginings. My wish for you is to remember this when we hear fear based words that instead we  focus on the connections we make with our family and friends and live in the gratitude of where we are now.

Happy New Year!