I’m willing to lie about how we met

A few weeks ago I was having a beer with a guy named Scott. It was a date—a first date—with a photographer I’d met online. I like to think I’ve gotten good at this online dating thing*, or at least proficient, but Scott was a pro.

Shortly after we sat down on a charming–if potentially rat-infested (the folks at the dive bar insisted on calling them mice)–patio, another couple walked out. The guy looked at Scott, paused, looked back and said, “Hey, I know you.”

Scott gave me an awkward smile.

“Aren’t you the guy who ran after me the other day when I dropped a fifty dollar bill on the sidewalk?”

Scott looked embarrassed and shrugged.

“Yes. It’s totally you,” the guy said. He looked at me. “Can you believe this guy? Who does that? Returns a fifty-freaking-dollar bill.”

“Pretty amazing,” I said.

“Hey man, let me buy you a drink,” the guy said. Scott laughed politely and said no thanks and the other guy made his way to his seat.

Scott smiled at me for a moment, then said, “That’s my buddy. I ran into him outside before you got here. I wanted him to do a bit about me saving a kitten but he thought you might not buy that one.”

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We had a long talk that night. When he heard I was writing about love stories, he had a lot of questions. Mostly, he wanted to understand the function of love stories. He agreed that they probably don’t make us better at loving each other, and, while they might transmit certain values, they don’t, as some researchers have suggested, seem to make us better people.

“Well, they probably offer us a lot of vicarious pleasure,” I offered.

“Yeah, but they must do something constructive,” he insisted.

“It’s obvious to me that we really need them—not just other people’s stories, but our own,” I said. I mentioned the common phenomenon of online dating profiles containing some iteration of the phrase “I’m willing to lie about where we met.” Continue reading

Sea otters and other preoccupations of the storytelling animal

A few years ago I spent five weeks at the Banff Centre for the Arts. I was sitting in the small on-campus cafe one day when I noticed a man and woman leaning in close across a table. Their temples were touching for the entire time I sat eating my sandwich. And I was struck by how deeply connected they seemed, so oblivious to sandwich-eating voyeurs.

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The (great) thing about the Banff Center is that most folks go to escape the work of everyday life. Free from cooking or cleaning or even making your own bed, you have to put a bit more effort into finding distractions. Surrounded by other writers and dancers and visual artists, and bears and cougars and imposing, craggy mountains, it’s easy to feel inspired, or, at the very least, to forget about regular life for a while. And it’s rare that artists have romantic partners in tow. I went to Banff to write, but also to spend some time away from my relationship to see if I might get some perspective on it.

When I saw those two leaning over the table that afternoon, I counted the things my own relationship was lacking: teamwork, an ability to tune out the world, a genuine sense of pleasure in each other’s company. That was love, I thought wistfully, and it was so obvious that those two had what I was missing.

But it wasn’t love. As I walked out of the cafe, I saw that they were leaning over a flip phone where a third, tinny voice was cranking out of the tiny speaker. For weeks I’d spent several hours a day reading love stories, writing them, theorizing about why they had such a hold on me–on everyone. And now I’d arrived at a weird place: I was the man with a hammer seeing a world full of nails.

The other day I was talking to a friend about sea otters. “Sea otters are good topic for your blog,” he said, “because they hold hands while they sleep.” He said everyone loves this fact (They do–Google it!), but they don’t know much about the function behind it. And who can blame them? Sea otters are playful and dextrous in this way which is soul-crushingly cute. They have one-million hairs per square inch. Mothers carry their babies on their stomachs. They hold hands!

Sea otters do pretty much everything at sea. They eat and mate and nurse and sleep in the deep blue Pacific, and they hold hands, sometimes in pairs and sometimes in large groups called rafts (!), so they won’t drift apart. Continue reading

Dear Vancouver: what if love is not enough?

A couple weeks ago I was leaning over my car engine when a man walked over. “What’s happening here?” he said, eyeing my attempt to loosen a rusty bolt with the pliers on my camp kitchen Leatherman. He looked concerned, ready to be helpful. Something about the way he carried a cold can of Canadian on a Sunday afternoon, and the way his t-shirt was stuffed into his belt like a rag, his beer belly on full display, reminded me of home, of the south, of the kind of well-meaning but slightly patronizing older man who tends to appear the moment you (if you are a young woman) open the hood of your car.

“Battery’s dead,” I said. “You don’t have a wrench I could borrow, do you?”

“Hang on.” He returned with a shiny metal toolbox.

“I just need to get the battery out,” I told him. I tried to explain the power drain in my car’s electric system that has left me with dead batteries for years now, and how I knew exactly what to do, I just needed the proper tools. “The first thing is,” he interrupted, “fire your mechanic.” He opened the box and dug around for the right sized socket. “I think we can jump this thing.”

I gave up, admitting that this guy obviously knew more about car batteries, and watched as he first removed the bolt and then meticulously sanded every last battery contact. My friend and I chatted with his daughter about the bugs she’d collected in the yard. Then Paul—I finally asked his name—got the engine started with no problem.

As far as neighborly interactions go, this one was pretty standard. But it struck me as kind of exceptional for Vancouver. And it left me wondering about the relationship between friendliness and traditional/patriarchal community values. (In other words: are more liberal, more inclusive communities inherently less friendly?)

After a trip home last month, I came back to Vancouver, looked around, and for the first time in years thought, “What am I doing here?” Of course this is an easy question to answer—the things that recommend Vancouver, the reasons anyone might want to live here, are obvious:

note: beach, snow-capped mountains, giant trees that eagles live in

note: beach, snow-capped mountains, giant trees that eagles live in

Continue reading

how to be kind

The problem with writing about someone you once loved—about someone you simultaneously wish never to be moved by again and to love forever (because you want to honor the part of yourself that used to love him and to remember the thing that fluttered and pounded between you)—the problem with this is that if you really want to be honest, you have to dive back in to that love.

About a month ago I submitted my final grades and set out to write every day—and that’s when I stumbled into this problem. I was trying to write about our best day: zipping around an Aegean island with the man I once loved. “Man, it must suck to be everybody else,” he said as we took the switchbacks up the hill toward our tiny studio. We agreed that we even felt sorry for the people we were before we arrived, with their busy lives that didn’t include riding a scooter past limestone cliffs in the long after-dinner light of late June.

More than once that week I woke up in a sweat, dreaming about house parties where, apparently, invitations were sent to anyone who’d ever broken my heart (and, oddly, one ex-boyfriend’s father…). Writing about the man you once loved means living with this man again. And living with the version of yourself who loved him, someone you know intimately, but might be better off forgetting for a while. It is a profoundly uncomfortable place to be. And I wasn’t sure how to manage it. Continue reading

On CWILA, writing, and raging feminism

Last week I told my friend Erin that, when I grow up, I want to be a raging feminist. Of course I’m already grown up, but I’m starting my part of the CWILA count today and I am increasingly convinced this is important work–that I can’t teach or write without being aware of the larger literary world. This instinct is reinforced when my male students protest that they can’t identify with a female protagonist and I worry that I don’t have the credibility (I’m another woman writer after all) to effectively critique their myopic views. I don’t want to be angry in my feminist rage–that’s the easy part–I want to plow through the assumptions that underlie such comments.

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The Globe and Mail in 2011

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my CWILA assignment

When I was a kid in rural Virginia, it was easy to accept that feminism had swept through a decade before and accomplished its goals. As the daughter of both coach and cheerleader, I played rec-league flag football on Tuesday and stood by the varsity girls with my kid-size pompoms on Friday nights. At eleven, I was deemed old enough to drive the tractor so I could help with yard work, but I was not yet allowed to pierce my ears. My sister and I modeled our ambitions after both parents, playing school (like Dad) and office (like Mom–who earned more and worked longer hours). I could see that most administrative assistants were women and most doctors were men, but I believed this would change by the time I reached adulthood. The plan was working.

But now, twenty years later, I am less sure.

Continue reading

The Next Big Thing: what I’m working on

One whole month ago—honestly, we’re probably closing in on six weeks at this point—my friend (and talented novelist and poet) Lisa Pasold tagged me in the literary-blog-chain-letter called “The Next Big Thing.” The premise is simple: a bunch of writers all answer the same questions about their most recent project. Though I don’t go in for many internet trends, I thought it might be a good exercise to take a big-picture look at this project, so I happily agreed to do it.

But I didn’t do it. I don’t know why exactly, but every time I looked over the questions, I felt myself wither under their expectant gaze. They wanted answers. I wasn’t sure I had any, especially after reading the articulate musings of my colleagues around the web. I wanted to read all of their books. But I’d spent the previous two weeks feeling slightly nauseous every time I opened my own project—how (or better yet why) would I convince someone to read something that was making my own stomach turn? So, in the grand tradition of writers everywhere, I postponed.

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A retreating glacier. Wait for it…it’s relevant.

Then last week something unexpected happened: a bunch of strangers started reading this blog. When I began blogging a year and a half ago, my only goal was to establish a small but public home for the book I’ve been working on. The surprising side-effect of keeping a blog was that my friends and colleagues began asking me about my writing. Their interest and curiosity was motivating, reminding me that the very solitary act of writing also has some community-minded goals. I write to understand something about the world, but also to connect with readers—both friends and strangers.

Until last Monday, most of my readers were friends, and, when I got an e-mail from WordPress saying they were “Fresh-Pressing” my blog post and that I should “get ready to welcome some new readers,” I didn’t take it too seriously. (When it comes to internet-ing, I tend to know only what I need to to get by.) So I was pretty shocked to discover, when I logged on a few hours later, that hundreds of people had visited my blog, and they were reading and commenting and subscribing. (!) It’s a bit strange and a lot exciting to see your audience quadruple over just a few hours. And while I’m with it enough to know that, in the wide world of blogging, these numbers are actually quite modest, I’m f-ing thrilled. I am.

The comments are thoughtful and kind. And the interest seems genuine. Isn’t the internet supposed to be more hostile and embittered than this? Reading the comments, I sometimes find I don’t always know how to respond in a way that seems genuine rather than hollow. I don’t know how to convey warmth I feel toward a stranger who is represented only by a few pixels and a few words. But I’ll say it again here. Thank you, good friends and total strangers, for making my writing world just a little bit bigger. If there was ever a time to buck up and answer a few questions, this is probably it. So here goes: Continue reading

“Your Story is Not New”: On attending a memoir retreat

“The amazing thing about a memoir retreat,” I said to my friend Claire yesterday.

“—is that they exist?” she finished.

“No.” I laughed, then paused. “Well…maybe. I was going to say the amazing thing about a memoir retreat is that, in the course of a few minutes you get to know someone in a way that otherwise takes months or years. You say, ‘What’s your writing project about?’ and they tell you their big story. The thing they haven’t figured out yet. They thing they can’t get over. The most difficult experience they’ve ever had. It’s instant intimacy. And everyone—I guess because they’ve already made the decision to write about themselves—is just incredibly open.”

Many people, I think, will be quick to dismiss the idea of a memoir retreat altogether. And while no one has said this to me yet, I can imagine what they might say: “Why on earth would it seem like a good idea to bring together a bunch of narcissists and say to them, ‘Write more about your own trivial experiences! Publish them!’ Why would we—in the era of blogs, and Facebook, and Twitter—encourage even more oversharing? And why would we dare imply that that oversharing could be literature?”

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the view of Icicle Creek from Sleeping Lady Resort

The amazing thing about this particular memoir retreat–Wild Mountain–was that everyone I met had already asked that essential question: “So what?” And even if some folks didn’t yet have an answer, everyone understood, implicitly, that they needed one. No one seemed interested in what Susan Shapiro termed “upbeat anecdotal slices of life.”

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Lately I’ve been struggling with a minor revelation regarding my own writing: I’ve got to be more honest—to bare more, to be more vulnerable—if I want people to read it. And being more honest requires more me in the book. It means, like it or not, that what I’m writing is a memoir. There’s just no way around it. Continue reading

On sleeping with people

Nathan was the first boy I ever slept with—and I mean that in the most literal sense: for a few hours we slept side by side in a king-sized hotel bed. I was in ninth grade, he was a year older, and we were on a school trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee—a town of airbrushed t-shirts and kettle corn and laser tag, the kind of place where, at fourteen, you could run around safely and the world might seem open to you for the first time.

Some kids were hanging out in his room and Nathan had to be up early the next day, so he knocked on our door and asked if he could stay. I said yes, thrilled. I remember the next few moments like a scene from a movie: He neatly folded down the blanket, leaving the top sheet in place. He told me he would sleep on the sheet and I should sleep under it. Then he pulled off his shoes and climbed into bed, still in his jeans and t-shirt. I shrugged, as if whether he slept in our room or his, above or below the sheet, were minor details to me, as if I already knew what it was like to lie so close to a boy with my eyes closed.

I didn’t have a crush on Nathan, at least not before he knocked on our door. And any lingering attachment I might’ve felt after quickly reverted to friendship. The real thrill of that night was in the domestic intimacy of the moment, the way it was both taboo and comforting to lie there beside him. Even now as a card-carrying adult, I still love that—the warm mass of another body under the covers, a companion in the ordinarily solitary act of coming to consciousness.

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Growing up, friends were only allowed to stay over on school nights if their parents were away. These sleepovers seemed special, better than the Friday night pajama parties, as if it was the most extraordinary thing to go about picking out clothes and eating cereal and catching the bus—all in the company of a friend. The mundane rituals of morning were somehow transformed by the presence of an outsider.

I’ve always wondered why “to sleep with someone” is a euphemism for sex, when so often sex has little to do with sleep and sleeping is very unsexy.

One night when J and I had just met, he called and said, “You should come over.” Continue reading

January roundup: love and memoir

It’s ten degrees celsius in Vancouver and today I saw a woman drive through the alley behind my apartment in a sea-foam green convertible with the top down. Convertibles tend to stand out in a city where most people buy rain tires, but what made the woman particularly remarkable was her chinchilla fur hat and her passenger: a chihuahua in a chihuahua-sized baby blue Snuggie®. His erect posture and casual gaze made the dog look like he was accustomed to being chauffeured and the two of them made a funny picture idling beside the butcher-shop dumpster.

In my Vancouver literature class, my students and I have been talking about Vancouver as a postcard city, and the discrepancy between the real and the ideal. The woman in the convertible struck me as someone who somehow hadn’t noticed she was in the city of gore-tex and yoga pants and Subarus, a character in a story set in a different Vancouver than the one I live in. It was a few hours later that I wondered if anyone who writes about her own life can really criticize someone for making herself a character (even if said character purchases dog Snuggies). If nothing else, the book I’m writing is about my inherent tendency to narrate my life as a way of making some larger meaning out of it.

postcard city

postcard city

With that in mind, here’s your late January early February (I’m behind) round-up of love and memoir:

  • I really love this essay in Modern Love about the postcard kiss and the difficulty of letting a good story be nothing more than a good story:

He walked me to my car, and we kissed in the parking garage, under orblike yellow lights. It was a still kiss, a postcard kiss, a Disney princess kiss, the kind of kiss that makes blue cartoon birds chirp and swirl in the sky, their beaks holding garlands.

And this is exactly where the story should end. It should cut to credits, and the music should be triumphant but soft. Your last image should be of the young girl and the handsome poetry-writing boy frozen in a movie kiss. You should brush the popcorn off your lap and leave the theater smiling because everything worked out the way you knew it would. You can leave remembering that time when you were young and lovely, and things like that could happen.

(From “When the Words Don’t Fit” by Sarah Healy) Continue reading