Monthly Archives: July 2009

Near-mint cat and the CBC Literary Awards

I had the pleasure of dropping by a different drummer books in downtown Burlington last week; ostensibly to purchase the new Giles Blunt but really to play with Abigail, the bookstore’s new kitten. (RIP Manda, the sweetest little cat ever to drool on my knee.)

I mentioned to Richard Bachmann, bookseller extraordinaire and my previous boss, that I had recently joined a writing group. He shared with me some hints about the fall guest line-up and passed on a brochure about the CBC Literary Awards. The awards, sponsored by CBC Radio-Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts and EnRoute Air Canada, are for English and French-language unpublished works in three categories: short story, creative nonfiction and poetry.

The deadline? November 1, 2009. The prizes? $6,000 for first prize, and $4,000 for second prize (in each category). The competition? Surely, impossibly stiff. But who are we if not the next generation of Canadian literary superstars?

Check out more details here:


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Saying good-bye

Today’s Toronto Star featured an article about a woman who wrote an obituary for a failed relationship, which led to her starting an “online mausoleum” called

This reminded me of another woman I know who has a writing group at McMaster University, who wrote a good-bye letter to her journal when she started a blog. (What a great idea, Malissa!)

This got me thinking—what do I need to say good-bye to?

Here’s my little list of things deserving a good-bye letter:

  • The book on my “to-read” shelf that I started two years ago but never finished. Yes, I’m talking about you, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke. It’s been so long that I’d have to start reading you all over again, and that just makes me depressed.
  • The article or short story that I’m submitting to a journal. I want to wish each one of you good luck and godspeed. Please do better than those who went before you.
  • Those jeans from university. Let’s face it, I’ll never fit in to you again, so why should I torture myself by keeping you in my closet?
  • And that box of letters from an old boyfriend that I keep tucked away in a safe place in my closet. You meant a lot to me once, but you’re exactly the kind of rubbish I wouldn’t want anyone finding after I die.

A letter is a wonderful way for a writer to explore sincere feelings about the people, places and things that have influenced us.

What would you say good-bye to in a letter?


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So here I am, figuring out what I’m going to blog about for my first time (and feeling like the proverbial 40-year-old virgin of the blogosphere), when I receive an e-mail from one of our fledgling members informing us that we aren’t a good fit for her, and that she won’t be participating in our group.  The group that has yet to meet and actually discuss our, you know, writing.

It was all communicated very politely and graciously, but let’s face it – we’ve been dumped.  I think I went through Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief in about 30 seconds:  denial (This can’t be!); anger (How dare she!); bargaining (What if we only met on early Saturday mornings, like she wanted?); depression (Writing groups suck); and finally, acceptance (We’ll be fine – at least now we can drink during our meetings.)

This whole episode has actually galvanized me to send my writing to the other group members, not to mention providing me with a topic for my first official blog entry, so for that I sincerely thank our newly departed member (do you see that?  Acceptance, my friends…just don’t let anyone else bail or I may have to settle back into anger for awhile…).


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How to become a famous writer before you’re dead

Well, I do believe we have Maria to thank—for her courage to blog to us Restless Writers and for giving us a safe place and a yet-to-be discovered voice. I hear an echo, Restless or Dead? Where is everyone? On the advice of Aerial Gore (How to Become a Famous Writer before You’re Dead, Three Rivers Press, 2007): GET TO BLOGGING! So, I am blogging. This is me blogging. Now what? Actually, this is me procrastinating. It is the eve of our first writing group deadline and our works are not yet floating freely to one another. Could it be that we’re all just preoccupied with ‘life’—or is it that we are frantically finishing work to make a great first impression on our peers? My dilemma is selecting what to bloody well send?! I write YA and Middle Grade fiction, Children’s Picture Books, Screenplays, and Non-Fiction (Environment/Nature). I have Query letters for about six different projects right now, all of which boast spotty (and special) characters with motivations demanding of my indulgence in their life! What’s an (almost famous) girl to do? I imagine it will be the character with the strongest pull on my gut, the one that currently tugs on my will to bring them into this world. Begging. Pleading. Pick Me! Perhaps this process is kind of like falling off a log. There is no simple, perfect, or splendid way to fall off a log—you just fall, damn-it. I came across something earlier today that might inspire some Restless Writer courage on the eve of our destruction (I mean, deadline). It goes something like this: “there is no such thing as bad writing, just bad reading.” In other words, keep putting words down no matter what. Blogging counts. What are you waiting for? Let nothing stand in the way of your inspiration, no matter how disjointed, tedious or uninspired it is. Structure and coherence are for suckers (The Roeder Report, Aug, 2008). On that note, it’s time to submit your work ladies, fall off that log, and get the hell back to writing!

P.S. If you’d like more Gore, check out

B Jas

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I bet he thinks these poems are about him

I thought I’d share two poems I wrote several years ago. Both poems were published in the Queen’s Feminist Review, Vol. 3, 1995, under my maiden name. I don’t think they exist anywhere electronically.

Short Mulch

your love lies like
woodchips  sandalwood
fragrant and breathing
against my roots


The Salamander that you drew on my hipbone
has grown attached to me.
Its brief black outline has
crept silently along the taut wires
of my abdomen, snuck into my
bellybutton and attached itself to
my womb, though what it hopes to
achieve there is anyone’s guess.
Yesterday, I felt the beast’s periphery
expanding and wrapping its way up to
my ribs, where its breathing
stays in cadence with my heart beat.
Every now and again I can hear
the salamander’s tongue hissing a
soft lullaby against my sternum,
trying to tickle my bones.
There it lies,
curled up like a tiny, red and gold
panting dog but breathing fire
instead of air.
I wonder how many other salamanders
created by your fiery hand lie
beating at breastbones and
turning blood into billows
of steam and love and anger.

These poems mark the fresh beginning and the disastrous, humiliating end to a relationship I was in at the time. It’s funny to see them published in the same volume.

Maria McDonald

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The Writer’s Shelf: New uses for old books

I just inherited the full Encyclopaedia Britannica for 2002, and, I must say, the books look quite impressive, lined up neat and tidy across one shelf. The black binding looks official, an impression strengthened by the logo, an engraved gold thistle. The spines still bear orange “For Library Use Only” stickers, which I can’t remove without damaging the covers.

The books were an unexpected gift. An Oakville woman found my name on the Indexing Society of Canada’s website. She had bought the whole set for $15 from a book sale held by the Friends of the Oakville Public Library, thinking it would be helpful as she started an indexing career. At 80, perhaps she was being a bit optimistic. Her husband’s failing health led her to cast aside her indexing ambitions and to box up all 29 volumes (not counting the index and propaedia).

I’m happy to take books if they’re offered. I do have a frugal side, and the 2002 Encyclopaedia Britannica set was probably worth a few thousand when acquired by the library. At the same time, I was gifted with two newspaper style guides, Whitaker’s Almanac 2000, and The Unofficial Guide to Hockey’s Most Unusual Records.

Over the years, I’ve accepted carton after carton of old books. Friends and family know their old sci-fi novels and beach-read doorstops will find a good home with me. Why not? I’ll read anything.

I have also accepted slightly dated non-fiction books in the past. Just yesterday, I came across a third edition of Written Communication in Business, a 1971 college textbook. I can picture this book being carted from class to class by pony-tailed young women—women destined for careers as secretaries, women well positioned to find and wed promising businessmen. There is an entire chapter on dictation, and, of course, no mention of e-mail.

While I likely won’t use this textbook to improve my writing, I can get a better picture of the mechanics and context of business communication in the ‘70s. What would a student of business need to know before sitting down to write a report? How has resume writing changed in the past 35 years? (Would you believe readers were counseled to include their height and weight in a job application?) Was the semi-colon as detested as it is today?

While some second-hand pieces of my library find their way up to the cottage—Nora Roberts and Debbie Macomber being the most likely to be banished—books like the communication textbook will probably stay right where they are. The same goes for other found dated gems, like my second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage; a decade-old Canadian atlas; and a book on the best home-based businesses of the ‘90s.

As a writer living in and observing the world, I know the books I purchase will fade away, lose their immediacy, become old-fashioned, quaint, archaic. Yet those same resources are the ones that remind me that all I can do is record my own brief moment in time. The instant I write one word, the world has already changed. I am a new person by the time I finish a sentence. Yet that moment of change is what gives each piece its own luminous, eternal significance.

I’m sure I’ll cherish my new/old set of encyclopaedias. The Internet can take me only so far, and I don’t completely trust the communal and changeable nature of Wikipedia. While the encyclopaedias won’t help me if I want to read up on current events, I still value their physical heft and their thoughtful essays. I am left gaping in wonder that all those volumes still only manage to capture just one brief, bright perspective of a vast and varied humanity.

So, a question for my fellow Restless Writers: what resource in your library gives you a nostalgic thrill?

Maria McDonald

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The Meet-and-Greet: Interview or First date?

Our writing group had its first “meet-and-greet” meeting this week. I can’t decide if it felt more like a job interview or a first date.

Actually, I left feeling pretty good about the other members—we’re a diverse little group, representing the short story, the screenplay, and the novel. Whether we would make a good writing group was up for debate.

A range of styles can present a challenge to a new group. How can a short story writer critique a screenplay? Can a screenwriter provide thoughtful feedback to a romance novelist? Will each of us get the guidance we need to achieve our goals? These questions and more were raised as we shared where we were in our writing.

But we also agreed that diversity can enrich our group. The screenwriter will no doubt gain some practical insight from our published novelist. The resident chick-lit writer can help me inject some realism and humour into my short stories. And I hope that I can call on my varied reading interests to help my fellow Restless Writers make the most of their talents.

I have already made use of some new-found motivation, thanks to the lively conversation and expression of common frustrations. But I need to keep the momentum going. As one of the members said, “I think we’re all in a slump right now.” It’s nice to know I’m not alone in some days finding the laundry more pressing than my latest story. Perhaps together we will be able to overcome whatever is keeping us from finishing—or from getting started again.

My feeling is that a writing group needs a mix of personalities, writing styles and work ethics to succeed.  What do you think? How do you measure success in a writing group? And what elements contribute to that success? I hope other writers will chime in.

Maria McDonald

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