Author Archives: Maria

About Maria

I am a full-time communications advisor, part-time dabbler, sometime student and permanent dreamer. Oh, and I like to write.

On the collective wonderfulness of the women of the Restless Writers

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We Restless Writers have been on our collective writing adventure since spring 2009. Although our composition has changed a bit since we started out—with some writers choosing different paths and new writers joining us for this wild ride—we have always been made up of female members.

I don’t think this was intentional; it was just the way things worked out. I’m sure if we crossed paths with the right male writer—and we probably can’t describe what right means in any satisfactory way—we would welcome him into the fold. Although that would certainly change the tenor of conversation at our meetings.

For now, we are a tight-knit group of women, and we like it that way.

In honour of International Women’s Day, I’d like to highlight seven reasons why the women of the Restless Writers make for a supportive and rewarding writing group.

  • It’s a safe space to talk, create and share. Sharing your writing can be scary, and opening your creative work up to critique can make you feel awfully vulnerable. For me, sharing my work with the women of the Restless Writers makes me feel bold and brave. I trust their unconditional support, no matter what outside-the-box idea I bring to the table.
  • Critique is tactful, caring and insightful. We have perfected the technique of giving positive feedback, followed by constructive criticism, and wrapping up with encouragement to keep going. (It’s our version of “the shit sandwich.”) Our goal is to nurture the writing flame—not stamp out the spark.
  • Our meetings are very well catered. (Plus, oh, the wine!) Food is love. Some of the Restless Writers are wonderful cooks, and they aim to have us leave each meeting with full bellies and warm hearts. (And often in the care of a designated driver.) We invariably attend meetings wearing stretchy pants, and no one minds.
  • We swap clothes and books. One perk of having an all-female group is that we can, from time to time, foist unwanted clothes off on each other. I have cleared out many closets this way. I can also pass on books that have lifted my spirits, granted me insight, made me cry, or opened my eyes. We like to share.
  • Craftiness is encouraged. Every year around Christmas, we gather together to toast the season and make something Martha-Stewarty. Most recently, we made yarn balls. The year before that, it was rustic sign boards. Whatever we get up to, you can be sure it involves glue, glitter and giggles.
  • We get to connect with other women writers. We have a bunch of awesome women writers who follow us here (thanks for visiting, by the way!), and our larger networks are made up of women who tell stories, make art, and otherwise create wonderful things. Whether we meet up virtually or actually, and whether it happens just once or on a regular basis, we love having a squad of creative ladies to call on for encouragement.
  • We don’t compete; we support. Each Restless Writer is working on a different kind of project. From fiction, memoir and personal essay, to poetry, performance and beyond, our endeavours run the gamut of creative expression. And that’s one of the best features of our group. We don’t come to meetings and share our work and offer critiques to write better than each other—we do it so we can write better, period.

The women of the Restless Writers are my friends, allies, cheerleaders and accountability partners. We lift each other up and help our voices soar. We console each other when emotions get the better of us, and we toast each other when we achieve a milestone. We encourage each other to tell the stories we were born to tell, and guide each other gently towards our goals.

On this International Women’s Day, I’d like to recognize the immeasurable awesomeness that the ladies of the Restless Writers have brought into my life. And I hope you take a moment to thank the women in your life who have done the same for you.

With love and gratitude.

Maria

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Submissions now open for 2016 Walrus Poetry Prize

photo-1457298483369-0a95d2b17fcdThe Restless Writers have just learned that submissions are now open for the 2016 Walrus Poetry Prize.

The Walrus Foundation announced today that the fifth annual Walrus Poetry Prize will be judged by The Walrus poetry editor Damian Rogers and celebrated poet Hoa Nguyen. The Hal Jackman Foundation generously supports this $5,000 prize.

Submissions will be received between August 5 and September 12, and Rogers will narrow them down to a short list of five poems. Nguyen will be tasked with selecting the $,4000 winner. (No pressure!)

The five finalists will be revealed online on October 3, where readers can vote on their favourite poem until October 26. The Readers’ Choice winner will receive $1,000.

Both poems will appear in the January/February 2017 issue of The Walrus, at http://thewalrus.ca, and in the Poetry in Voice anthology.

Information at a glance:

Submissions open: August 5 – September 12
Shortlist announced: October 3
Vote for the Readers’ Choice Award: October 3 – October 26
Winners announced: December 6
Entry fee: $25

For more information—including eligibility requirements, rights and how to submit, visit http://thewalrus.ca/poetry-prize.

Even if you don’t submit a poem, please be sure to vote for the Readers’ Choice winner.

Good luck to all!

Maria

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Holiday Craft Night 2015

The Restless Writers have a few pretty cool traditions. Not all of them involve wine, cheese, and a loosey-goosey approach to page-submission deadlines. No, some of our traditions actually involve our creativity and learning new skills.

Our Holiday Craft Night is one such tradition. We held our third (I think?) Holiday Craft Night just before we all got swept up in the crazy busy-ness of Christmas. Our mission: hand-painted rustic signs. The plan was to start with empty boards, sift through a few packs of letter stencils, and wind up with something personal to take home at the end of the night.

Here’s how the evening went down:

Boards fully prepped–and the table fully stocked–we got started right away. There was some friendly competition for desirable letters (“I’ll trade you this glass of prosecco for that little e!”), but it all worked out in the end.

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Making good progress. So pretty!

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Painting and peeling were the messy parts. Some of us wore protective head-gear.

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Sharon taking a short break. Being crafty is hard work!

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Back at it.

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The finished products!

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I love our annual Holiday Craft Nights, and I love how they make me take my creative impulses in new directions, with new media. And I also love how these nights help me connect with these amazing women, and be inspired by them.

How do you cross-pollinate your creative impulses? Beading? Colouring books? Macrame? Let us know in the comments–we need to start thinking about next year’s Holiday Craft Night.

Maria

 

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Tread gently: Some tips for critiquing poetry

photo-1429032021766-c6a53949594f“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
~ Robert Frost

The Restless Writers are a diverse bunch. Our interests range from children’s picture books and YA to memoir to spoken word. Recently, a few of our members have even ventured into poetry. And while we as a group are supportive of all our individual efforts–even if we haven’t had a lot of experience with a particular genre–we are not all confident in our ability to critique poetry.

I have a graduate degree in English literature, so you’d think I would have some skills when it comes to reading a poem and giving feedback to help the poet better express her idea. But my university years are well–well!–past, so I have been trying to find ways that I can offer feedback in a constructive way. Because with our writing group, it’s all about trying to make each other better writers.

Poetry doesn’t appeal to everyone, and you might not get or even appreciate each poem you read. But hopefully my approach to critiquing a poem will help you give positive and constructive feedback to the poet in your group.

Immediate impact: 
The first thing I reflect on when I read a poem is how it makes me feel when I read it for the first time. I try not to get bogged down in the structure or form of the poem at this stage–I let the words and rhythm carry me through. Does my mind delight in the poet’s language? Does she make me think about an object, an experience, a setting in a new way? Do I smile involuntarily because of the way she described a particular moment? Can I relate to the subject? Is it uniquely personal or oddly universal? How did her poem touch me, on an emotional or intellectual level?

Dig a little deeper:
Next, I think about how the poet achieved these impacts. How did she use language and metaphor to evoke a specific mood? How did she structure the poem? Did she employ a specific form, and was she true to the spirit of that form? Was she consistent in her use of meter and rhyme? How did structure and form help to emphasize different elements of her poem? Where could she have used such devices to better effect? How did she use words and sounds to jar, to charm, to tease, or to question? The important thing at this stage is to be honest but respectful, and tread gently.

Move forward:
To wrap up my critique, I provide suggestions regarding word usage, punctuation, and spelling. If I found some phrases to be a little clichéd, I try to help her come up with some fresher or more surprising options. If I really liked a particular stanza or rhyme, I let her know that too. I also like to find out what she wants to do with the poem. Is it a stand-alone piece that she wants to submit to a journal? Or will it be part of a larger work or series of works? Perhaps she wants to read it at an event or gathering, or keep it all to herself. Whatever she wants to achieve, I offer to do a second reading before she considers it done.

I always bring my own emotional state and life context to each poem I read. Different poems with different subjects will have different impacts on me, depending on what is happening in my life at the time of reading. But I think that’s one of the beautiful things about poetry–it can create an intimate connection between the poet and the reader, using language as a bridge. And for the Restless Writers, poetry is just another way we get to explore the ideas, themes, and words that keep us writing.

Happy critiquing!

Maria

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Chasing tales

Scary_roadMy feet tend to take me to dark places when I run. And not just because I run in the very early morning before the sun rises. The dark and quiet play games with my mind, and I have to talk myself out of my creepy thoughts.

I sometimes wonder if I should be running all by my lonesome when it’s so dark out. What happens if I sprain my ankle? What happens if I get hit by a car? What happens if that other runner over there turns out to be a serial killer?

My fellow early-morning runner raises a hand in greeting. Not a serial killer, as far as I can tell. I try to run with better form and less wheezing…at least until he’s out of sight. Soon it’s just me again.

There’s a rustle of leaves off to my right, and a rabbit darts across the street. What is that rabbit so scared of? Should I run a bit faster too?

My pace picks up a bit, until I manage to get my heart-rate back under control.

Good lord, is that a bear? No, it’s a hedge. A bear-shaped hedge.

A vaguely man-shaped figure appears out of the mist in the local park.

Sweet heavens, is that a zombie? No, that’s just an early-riser, taking his dog out to do its business. You say hello to him every morning. And everyone looks like a zombie before they’ve had their coffee.

“Morning!” I say. He says hello back. His dog hunches and watches balefully.

A few blocks further, a dark shape lurches towards me from the gutter. Gah, it’s a C.H.U.D.! Wait, nope, false alarm—it’s just a skunk.

Gah, it’s a skunk!

I pour on some speed and soon I’m at the half-way point of my run.

I glimpse the shadow of something gnarled and limb-like and sinister reaching across the sidewalk. My heart jumps into my throat once again—a gigantic spider!! Um, no. No gigantic spiders here. That’s a tree-branch. A tree-branch that someone really should move off the sidewalk.

Although, that tree-branch kind of looks man-made. Like machinery. Like maybe a drone, but one that short-circuited and then fell from the sky and smashed to pieces. Wait—did one of the drone’s appendages just move? No, it’s still just a branch, caught in a gust of wind.

Okay, maybe it’s not a drone today. But there could be drones here tomorrow, doing drone-y suburban tasks like delivering newspapers or surveying the golf course or baby-sitting small children. Soon they’ll be everywhere. Next thing you know, the drones become self-aware and demand better working conditions. Then there’s an uprising and a counter-revolution and the whole world goes to shit. That’s how Terminator happened.

My running route takes me through a stately suburban neighbourhood, where the biggest threat to public safety is kids riding their bikes too fast. Yet somewhere between minute 7 and minute 26 of my run, I’ve encountered enough beasts and ‘bots to populate a few new creepy short stories.

As I slow to a walk and approach my driveway, I wonder if this is how Russell T Davies gets his ideas.

And then I get writing.

Maria

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Road trip: Coping with the commute to feed my book habit

The walk to my bookstore was almost as nice as this.

The walk to my bookstore was almost as nice as this.

Growing up in downtown Burlington, I lived a 10-minute walk from my local independent bookstore. And I was there a lot. As a child, I enthusiastically browsed picture books on sunny Saturday afternoons. As a sullen and rebellious teen, I retreated with the bookstore cat to the upstairs poetry section on my lunch-break from high school. As an adult blissfully working in the same bookstore after university, I strolled to and from the store under a canopy of old-growth trees, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch of brie sandwiches from the local deli.

There is no chore less chore-like than walking to the bookstore.

Walking back home with the goods was almost as nice—less the thrill of anticipation of unknown pleasures; but with more contented looking-forward to perusing or giving away new purchases.

Where I live now, there is no bookstore within walking distance. If I want to buy a book—say, for Mother’s Day—I have to drive a good 20 minutes to find an independent bookstore or even a chain, and then pay for parking too. Biking there isn’t really an option either. Sometimes the hassle of getting to the bookstore casts a pall of irritability on what should be a pleasurable adventure.*

But, because I am nothing if not able to look on the bright side, I’ve learned to turn my car-aided book-buying trips into more pleasurable excursions. With the help of my trusty automobile, I get to:

  • Buy more books. I used to be limited by what I could carry in two hands. Now I can swipe my VISA with abandon, knowing I have a whole SUV to cart my purchases home.
  • Make it an afternoon. My favourite downtown bookstore is in a neighbourhood with plenty of pubs, coffee shops and other places to read. If I’m going, I might as well go for the long haul.
  • Or make it a quickie at lunch. I can buy a new book and still have time left over to nuke a Lean Cuisine before returning to the grind.
  • Bring a friend. Book-buying is more fun times two. And then you get to ogle each other’s purchases over lunch.
  • Browse in the rain. A stormy day doesn’t stop me from buying books.
  • Explore. If I have to get in a car anyway, why don’t I check out independent or second-hand bookstores in other cities?
  • Pass it on. In the same trip, and hopefully with a friend to help with the heavy lifting, I can bring boxes of books to donate to a charity book sale.

I hope one day to live within a short and pleasant walk of my local bookstore. That would involve a move or some brave soul opening up a new shop in my current neighbourhood. (Don’t look so pessimistic—booksellers have reason to be optimistic, even nowadays.) Time will tell. Until then, I’ll have to make do with getting there on four wheels.

What about you? Do you have a much-loved bookstore in your neighbourhood?

Maria

*True, my local library has a branch that’s a very easy five-minute walk from my house. But some days, I just want a bookstore. I want to browse, fondle, flip through, sniff, choose, discard, revisit and purchase books. I want to own books. I want to hoard them to an unhealthy degree. I want to give the second-best ones to friends and family. I want to dog-ear pages, scuff spines and highlight choice phrases with abandon and without fear of ruining the books for anyone else. I want the freedom to be able to buy a book and immediately chuck it in a puddle. (Not that I ever would—that’s shockingly disrespectful to the written word.) I’d just like to shop quietly and happily for books that I get to keep forever, thank you very much. And please don’t get me started with buying books online.
 

Photo credit: Crystal Palace by Ewan-M. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

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Getting to done: Applying writing advice to my life

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
Seneca

to-doI’m having a problem focusing these days.

This comes as no surprise to my fellow Restless Writers, to whom I have been promising a fresh new blog post since the holidays.

The symptoms of my lack of focus are not limited to delayed blog posts. I’m also finding that I can’t read a whole book. I went from neglecting a new novel, to not being able to finish a short story, to skipping whole paragraphs in Globe & Mail articles. Even my Twitter feed has started to feel like too much pressure.

And it’s not just reading. I have a to-do list as long as a Canadian winter, enough Post-It Note reminders to wallpaper my guest bathroom, and so many evening appointments and meetings that I am thisclose to forgetting what the inside of my fridge looks like. The idea of replacing the light bulb in my kitchen seems overwhelming but I know I have to do it soon because it’s hard to make G&Ts  coffee in the dark. (Hard, but not impossible.)

Many of you know that my life has taken some turns over the past six months. I’m not surprised that all these changes have affected my day-to-day life in some way, but I didn’t expect that I would turn into a slack-jawed scatterbrain. I can’t seem to finish anything I start, and hunkering down to write seems impossible.

So what to do about it?

In my search for ways to tame my monkey-brain, I turned—of course—to other writers. Who better to advise on how to focus, since so many writers struggle with the fidgets and a perverse inability to just sit down and get ‘er done already.

Here are some of the best tips I’ve culled from the Interwebs about focusing on your writing. I’ve re-jigged them so they will help me focus on my to-do list and hopefully help me read (and eventually write) that book.

Block out time, not tasks: Getting to a word count goal can seem daunting, but telling yourself that you’ll write for an hour is manageable. Likewise, if I give myself an hour in which I can tackle, say, roaming around Home Depot, it might be easier than telling myself I have to choose the perfect light fixture today.

Be mindful of distractions: You can’t avoid distractions, whether you’re writing or trying to put together an IKEA shelf. The phone will ring, emails will keep coming in, and Rob Ford will inevitably do something stupid and burn up your feeds. Identify what distracts you the most. Is it Twitter? Indulge for five minutes, but then shut it down. Text messages? Put your phone in another room. Coffee craving? Keep a carafe full of hot tasty brew on your desk so you’re not forced to hit a local Starbucks.

Say “no”: This one’s hard. Writers are very protective of their time, and often have to employ drastic measures to make sure the world doesn’t keep them from their keyboard. These days, I am trying to fill my life with people and events, so saying “no” to an invitation gives me a bit of anxiety. I have to remember that saying “no” when I feel overwhelmed will help me save my energy for when I am ready to enjoy an activity or someone’s company. (Yes, this includes dates.)

Have an accountability partner: Writers share word counts and pages all the time. Maybe I’m doing the same thing by writing about my challenges and efforts to succeed right here. I may have to call on my sisters and friends to check in and make sure I’m chipping away at life.

Track the resistance: What is it about finding the perfect light fixture that’s so goddamned difficult? The parking lot? The bone-deep chill of winter? The crush of people? Whatever it is, I need to pay attention to where the barrier is, so I can figure out a way to get around it. It’s like with writer’s block—I need to figure out what’s keeping me from moving forward.

Treat yourself: Let’s say I do manage to find that perfect light fixture when I go to Home Depot on my lunch break. Just as when I finish a writing task (like finishing this blog post–yay!), checking that off my to-do list deserves a minor celebration, whether it’s a fancy coffee or a mini-iTunes shopping spree.

Do a little every day: I can’t do everything in one day—which pisses me off a bit—so I have to give my controlling self a break. I need to celebrate the little wins, keep checking things off my to-do list, and remember that things will get easier.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard that you can also apply to your life?

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