Tolkien to the rescue (as usual)

A confession: I am generally not my Best Self during the holidays. Car trips, visiting, shopping, surprises, small talk, knitting on a deadline, car repairs, cooking for crowds, late nights, baking on a deadline, bored children–none of these are forms of torture I particularly enjoy. Others seem to exit the Christmas season rosy-cheeked and glowing with the memories (although who exactly are those people? No one I know). I start the new year snarling with fatigue and ready to hibernate, not launch a new teaching term.

My favourite part of Holidays 2014 was something that happened by accident, between all the scheduled bustle, whenever my family was too pooped to do anything else. Over 6 or 7 evenings we watched all 3 instalments of the Lord of the Rings.

Oh, Legolas.
Oh, Legolas.

Remember how these were the longest movies you ever sat through, three Christmases in a row, as they were released in theatres? Well, the home media versions of these movies were extended by 30, 45 and 51 minutes respectively. Epic in length as well as scope.

There was more LOTR waiting for us whenever all 4 of us were available to watch TV together for an hour or two (=a surprisingly elusive set of circumstances when you’re dealing with one tween boy, one teen boy, one perennial putterer and one asocial, Grinch-like writer).

For me the real pleasure was watching my boys watch these movies. Son #2 cuddled close and revelled in the (many, digressive) comic Hobbit moments. When poor Sam was framed by Gollum for eating all the lembas bread, I caught Son #1 hunching forward on the sofa, hands tucked into his armpits, commenting, “That’s so sketch!” I believe he may have even put down his iPod a couple of times.

I’ve written before about my adoration of Tolkien–the band of adventurers, the joy of return, the digressive narrative, and how these things feed the (pre)adolescent souls of boys. But lately I’m realizing the extent to which this long- form, archetypal adventure feeds my soul, too. Fortifies me against everyday drudgeries (e.g., small talk, cooking) and helps me dream big, write wild.

A resolution, then, for 2015: READ MORE EPIC FANTASY. Any recommendations?

good old-fashioned correspondence




A few years ago I posted a list of ways we can encourage our kids to practice reading and writing at home. One strategy I suggested (I believe it was #7) was having your kid write a letter to an adult relative or friend, and making sure that adult (i.e., coordinating with him/her ahead of time!) immediately sends a letter back–preferably with a treat enclosed.

My boys are older now (14 and 10), and I’m still as determined as ever to have them practice expressing themselves in words, by hand, on paper, on a regular basis.  The incentives have changed, though. The ten-year-old received the stationary pictured above for his birthday, along with the weekly task of writing a one-page letter to his Uncle Steve (who was down with the idea and agreed to write back now and then).

Cutesie stationary wouldn’t have done the trick anymore, here–he needed something a) personalized, so his older brother can’t horn in b) dignified- thus the gold-leaf envelope liners, the gold foil seals, the “from the desk of..” letterhead, and c) gadget-cool- in the form of a self-inking return address stamp (again, personalized with his name). I purchased it all at Staples, and ran a stack of the paper through the printer with the help of the free letterhead template that came with the kit.

It’s quite a process for him, each week, from the choosing of the pen to the folding, sealing, sticker-applying, addressing and stamping, strolling to the mailbox. It’s a ritual. And four months in, he seems to be enjoying the ritual a lot.

[This fancy-pants stationary set would fail to impress a fourteen-year-old, of course. Mine writes a letter each week to his Grandpa. The rule for him is one page of regular foolscap, single spaced, margin to margin. I don’t read either of the kids’ letters, but he has to hold it up so I can see he’s filled the page before I log him onto the computer for Minecraft. Different kid/age, different incentive!]

you can put anything in a book

Last month I went to the marvelous Prince Edward County Authors Festival in Picton, Ontario and got to hear JonArno Lawson read from his newest book, Enjoy it While it Hurts.

I’ll confess I was confused. Lawson read aphorisms and limericks. He read a poem his son had composed. The middle section of the book is, he told us, a picture book with illustrations he drew himself.

Was this a book for kids or adults? Was it fiction or poetry? Who would have published such a (seeming) mishmash?

Wolsak & Wynn published it, that’s who–and they did a beautiful job.The blurb on their website describes the book like this: “Enjoy It While It Hurts is an edifying miscellany of quarrelsome quips, holiday oddities, benevolent advice, curious thoughts and comically apocalyptic melancholia.”

Lawson’s reading was one of the most inspiring and educational moments of the festival for me, because it shook up my notions of how a book has to look if it wants to see print nowadays.

My amie d’ecriture Jill Margo is working on what she’s calling an “open form” novel that incorporates fiction, memoir, cultural commentary and various essay forms. She recommended I read David Shields’ excellent book Reality Hunger, a manifesto about the lively and productive grey area between “reality” genres and fiction, which Shields claims is where all the most exciting work is being produced these days.

Reality_HRforRetinal-246x380  Thank you JonArno, Jill, and David. The way your work breaks the rules feels to me like freedom and fun. And what more could any writer possibly ask for?

P.S: the Jill Margo Mini-Mag is chock-full of inspiring stories, hilarity and excellent advice for writers. Click here to sign up for free weekly inbox delivery!

let’s hear it for the audiobook


Got some family holiday car travel in your future? It’s kind of a quaint choice, nowadays, listening to a book on tape in the Age of Screen. We get our audiobooks from the library, either on CD or as mp3 downloads (fun fact: Toronto has the biggest public library system in the world). We listen in the car on the way north to cottage country when our No Media at the Cottage rule has everybody in wifi withdrawal and Minecraft mourning.


I try to pick stories pleasing to both parents and children–but let’s face it: anything is more pleasing to parents than the punching and fart contests otherwise unfolding in the backseat. Time really does fly when you’re tuned into a good story. We’ve survived many a long-weekend traffic snafu thanks to audiobooks.

There’s something so fundamentally soothing about being read to, so dreamy and reassuring. I’m sure the emotion harks back to childhood bedtimes but it seems to exceed that, even. The golden-voiced actors hired to read (or, occasionally the authors themselves, though they’re never quite as good) seem like benevolent grandparents whose presence in our car says, ‘it’s all right, just relax,” no matter who backwashed whose water bottle or who made a wrong turn or who hogged the M&Ms.

A family listening to an audiobook together gets a common experience for which no particular one member is responsible. It gets a common vocabulary and the occasional in-joke, later on. It becomes better friends.

Here, then, are some of our favorites (in addition to The Hobbit, which I’ve raved about before) from the past vacation season (here “family”=Mom, Dad and two boys aged 13 and 9):

1. Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket): the author reads himself and sometimes mumbles, but these are natural read-aloud books and Count Olaf is delightfully sulky-sounding.

2. War Horse (Michael Morpurgo): drags in places but the war scenes pull it along.

3. Freak the Mighty (Rodman Philbrick): Older son read this for class the year before and loved it so particularly enjoyed sharing it with the rest of us: “Mom, are you CRYING? Geez.”

4. Watership Down (Richard Adams): amazing, this book’s momentum and emotional extremes!

5. The Spiderwick Chronicles (Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black): these are short tales strung together into a longer narrative. Good for rides with lots of pit stops, or multi-leg journeys.

6. Heat (Mike Lupica): this baseball story the kids liked more than we grownups did, but they really liked it…

7. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko): same as above only more well-written.

Imageand two choices in the event you’re lucky enough not to have kids in the car:

8. On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan): read by the author but really, really well. Also a great story to listen to with your partner–awkward/honest in all the right ways.

9. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows): I listened to this on a long trip with my mother-in-law, and it was the perfect choice for that context, at least. It’s read by several different actors (or at least two, male and female) doing the folksy accents with great artistry. Made me want to correspond with someone again the old way, with handwritten letters.

joys of recitation

My new choir director, the incomparable Kelly Galbraith, demands that we memorize all the music and text for each concert. The last time I undertook this degree of memory work was probably my third-year Cognitive Psychology exam, and I found myself having to rediscover which methods worked best for me.

As a kid I had weekly Bible memory-verses to learn for Sunday School. Then came the monologue for Talent Week, a category for which I won a ribbon several years running (“Alexander And the Terrible, Horrible, No-good, Very Bad Day” was my pièce de resistance). In highschool I memorized a passage from The Great Gatsby just so I could recite it at the perfect moment. I imagined myself on a date, I think, browsing together in a used bookstore. He’d pick up a worn paperback, and I’d sigh, “Ah yes, Fitzgerald,”and then the mellifluous phrases would roll off my tongue. I never actually got out all that much, in highschool.

Do children still commit anything to memory? Left to their own devices mine stick to stuff like Eminem or literal-video Assassin’s Creed lyrics, the names and attacks of seventeen thousand Pokemon. I want to assign them something decorously classical, get them to stand before their grandparents and offer up a well-prepared and diverting performance. Perhaps “Jabberwocky”?

I mean, whatever happened to minstrelsy? Apparently minstrels would not actually memorize their thousand-verse ballads entirely but would ad-lib stuff around repeating keywords and refrains. But even amateurs were better memorizers than us, back then. No one would ever dream of coming to dinner without a good story or song to share.

Once I knew the choir music, I had to hand-write the words–phonetically if the Latin was too fancy–on cue cards. I drilled myself on the subway and anytime I had to wait for anything. The most productive practice seemed to occur when I was walking outdoors. Something about oxygen flowing to my brain, I guess, or the rhythm of my steps. What I (re)discovered was the joy of mastery: of finally having it, of knowing it cold, of being able to trot it out on command.

Now that I think about it, my 7-yr-old has worked just as hard, and is crowing just as loud, over the blasphemous Christmas carols he’s been learning from friends at school (“Joy to the world, Barney is dead. We shot him in the head…”).

who dreams what

Husband: “I dreamed my father had slaves on board his ship, we struggled in the water and I killed him.”

7-yr-old son: “I dreamed I got a giant box with every single Kung Zhu battle arena and accessory in it.”

If each dream is the fulfillment of a wish on the part of the dreamer, my family certainly fits Freud’s theory that the wishes get more complicated as we age. Also that Oedipal parricide continues to hold pride of place. . .

on vacation with a literary type

You know the simile “clinging like a limpet”? Or is that one of those expressions I learnt in a novel and no one actually says? The line between conversational savvy and irritating (or worse, amusing) literary obscurantism has been fuzzy for me since age six, when I pronounced the word “lingerie” linger-y.

Anyhow, they have limpets here in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  They’re hat-shaped shells with radiating stripes, and yup, they cling mightily to the rocks.

Another literary-sounding sea creature down here is the Hydromedusa, so named for–I imagine–its snakelike tentacles and its ability to stun hapless swimmers.  The species we’ve seen look like puddles of melted glass on the beach and are called, far too benevolently, Moon Jellies.

It’s killing me not to know the official name for the Sand Ticklers the kids have been digging up at low tide.  These clawless little crabs scrabble themselves back in after each wave and poke their V-shaped antennae into the surf.

You know you’re on vacation when you have nothing better to do than Google echinoderms…

please mum can we play the metaphor game?

Here’s a “who-woulda-thunk?” idea to add to your Minor But Magical Adjustments list for enticing your Reluctant Reader:

My 11-yr-old gets a quarter for every metaphor or simile he finds in the novel we’re reading together. He also has to explain what is being compared to what. If he guesses wrong, he loses a dime.

So far he’s earned $4.55 and he can’t get enough of it (if your kid isn’t as fiscally motivated as mine, you could clock 5 extra minutes of reading for every score). He reads over my shoulder to make sure he misses nothing. Debates over “the fire died down” and “his spirits rose” led us to a discussion of dead metaphors and whether they count. He’s also started observing prose style in general: he pointed out that people’s gazes are too often “deep” and “dark” in The Dark is Rising.

Praise be, the child has no idea yet how fundamentally nerdy a game this is! This is probably something he’ll describe someday to his friends at the pub as an example of his parents’ cruel eccentricities. Or if poetic justice prevails, someday he’ll lampoon me in a novel.

Next up: a simpler version for little brother, who is envious and resents being bragged to.

true names

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, young Will Stanton is warned against revealing his true name, as it can be used to conjure against him by the enemy.

Sound familiar? The Eragon and Earthsea series get a lot of mileage from the discovery and use of true names. In the Harry Potter books they call Voldemort “You-Know-Who” to avoid inadvertently attracting his attention. Without any research we can trace this well-worn fantasy trope back at least as far as Rumpelstiltskin, wherein the gold-spinning troll will relinquish the Queen’s firstborn child only if she can guess his name.

Christenings and other infant naming ceremonies still radiate the aura of our old beliefs in the sacred power of names. Now that I’m realizing how important names are in my sons’ favorite books, I sort of wish we’d bestowed them with secret names, as well as their legal ones. Maybe carved a rune-tablet or medallion to present to each of them at puberty’s onset, some solemn avowal of their special destiny in the world.

I suppose we could always invent such things retrospectively. Solicit their creative input, or–oooh!–have them keep their true name even from their parents, and show only the symbols they choose to represent it.  How romantic is that??

I smell another rainy-Saturday craft session in the works…

thanks, Dad

In honor of Father’s Day, five handy-dandy writerly tools bequeathed me by my Dad:

1. A yen for research. Mine was the only dad I knew with a brochure collection. The bottom drawer of his dresser was dedicated to neatly stacked brochures: travel brochures, car/boat/motorcycle brochures, commodity-profile brochures–you name it. Surrounded by these he would sort and browse away many a weekend afternoon. One birthday we bought him a man purse, for collection purposes. There are related habits–getting lost in libraries, historical plaque-reading, more recently a serious Google addiction–but the brochure collection, to me, captures the instinctual pleasures of a true archivist.

2. The art of listening. Dad can find out everything about a person in less than thirty minutes of conversation. He asks the right questions: gentle, leading. He exhibits authentic fascination with the topic, which encourages disclosure. The corollary of such attentiveness is that he reveals very little of himself and (for this reason?) finds social activities exhausting.  Sounds like every writer you know, right?

3. An appreciation of the ridiculous. The other day on the phone, Dad could barely choke out the topic of the conference my brother was attending. “Peat Restoration!” he finally chortled. “The International Peat Society!”  Sure, he probably browsed the entire program later that evening. But Dad’s academic children (and there are several) have him to thank if, while being absorbed in our projects, we manage not to lose sight of the big picture.

4. Voices. My best friend (who knows I’ll take a parenting compliment wherever I can get it!) recently informed me that my son declined being read to by her because, as he put it, she “can’t do the voices.” Well, I learned to dramatize a reading because my father used to read aloud that way. He could do accents. He had remarkable range and could always remember, from one bedtime to the next, who got a falsetto and who dropped his “h”s. Dialogue comes to life in the delivery; I learned that before I learned to read by myself.

5. Manners. I don’t mean pleases and thank-yous; this is a subtler and more vital kind of politeness. Dad models a suspension of judgment in relation to others that I’m still trying to emulate.  It’s not that he’s uncritical or lacks strong opinions. It’s that he is incredibly slow to level criticism at other people, and, with new knowledge, will readily revise his opinion. This basic openness, it seems to me, is a writer’s most basic requirement, the Beginner’s Mind of any creative practice. Without it how can we properly see?

Thanks, Dad (and apologies, Steve, for the peat-moss giggle)!