Tending the Garden

This morning I looked at my backyard–naked again now that the blanket of snow has melted, and oh so terribly forlorn– and I saw nothing but piles of dog poo.
I couldn’t call to mind the summer garden that I had tended so carefully. The roses spilling rambunctiously over the fence, the passion flower with its obscene eyelash-fringed, sea anemone-mimicking, saucer-sized blossoms, the apple and pear and cherry in full frothy bloom. My chocolate cosmos and lemon geraniums and wild ginger. The scents! The colors! The hummmingbirds!

But I noticed nothing other than the dull brown of it. Dead grass, dead shrubs, twigs, and leaves blackened by frost. And poo.

Sometimes I look at my work and I see nothing but a big pile of odoriferous manure. And some dead sentences that really need to be pruned, and a few bushy bits that need to be dug out, thrown on the bonfire and burned. Sometimes there is so much that is without life and extraneous that I can’t even see the strong trunk, the good branches that form the work. The solid bones that everything else hangs on.

It’s sunny and warm. Tomorrow it will rain torrentially, I am told. So I make myself go out to the garden. I have tried to avoid it by taking the dogs on two massive hikes along the trails, but my view from the kitchen window while I wash dishes has been ruined by the state of it, so I go out.

I spend an hour or two shoveling shit. Wishing I had a nearby river I could just divert to do the job, though then it would all wash down hill and submerge the nice folk of the Presbyterian church below me.

Things still look terrible. I arm myself with a rake, secateurs, twine. I tie up my clematis and honeysuckle, the trumpet vine and whatever the heck that trailing thing over there is. I remember it has green blossoms like giant pillowy lips tinged with purple. I call it Mick Jagger.
I cut back the lilacs and hydrangeas I swear I cut back in October. (Like starfish they grow their limbs back when no one is looking. And sometimes they migrate from one end of the garden to the other).

I rake piles of Idon’tknowwhat into one big pile. And I straighten the fences. Because without good fences all hell can break loose. And as I look closer, I see things I hadn’t noticed at first. Now that the undergrowth and brush have been cleared away, and the strong frameworks are revealed, I see buds in the Ys of the branches and poking their green hopefulness into the sky. I see new leaves and bulbs popping out from under all the rotting stuff. And I realize that rotting stuff was keeping it all alive through the brutal winter.
spring garden 1

spring garden 2

spring garden 3

I give myself permission to write the rotting stuff. The material that keeps it all moving along. That perhaps serves no purpose other than to get me through the dour winter to the optimistic spring. Because I know that I can clean it all up eventually. I can bag it and put it out the curb and it will vanish as if it never was.

And whatever good stuff is underneath it, will benefit from all that composting.

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A Life in Art

Sometimes I wish I had more talent in drawing or sculpting or even in knitting. I am terrible at following patterns and even after many attempts, I am hopeless at socks. Turning heels? I just don’t get it. And worse than that I am reluctant to take the time to either figure it out or have someone more knowledgeable explain it to me. I dig in my heels.

But writing writing writing all the time…

The act of writing already takes a scary amount of focus. I don’t know about you but I become a little obsessive. All I think about is the book I am working on. And for the most part it is a lovely feeling. Like being naked and fully submerged in warm waters, cradled by the movement of the waves. You don’t even realize you haven’t taken a breath for hours, until someone (usually it’s one of my children or someone at the door or on the phone) pulls you up by your hair. I love living in my books.

But I do think it might be a good idea to do something else as well. Something creative. Find another outlet for when writing is not going well, or feeling a little stale. A way to recharge, look at things in a different creative way, project outward rather than inward.
We certainly need distractions in our lives. It can’t all be mental. If there was no actual life being lived (from the mediocre to the sublime) we’d have nothing to write about. And if we didn’t interact with normal everyday people we’d run out of characters. I only have so many facets of my own personality to draw on.;)

I used to paint. I was never very good but I had ideas. Now I would take it up again but I feel as if I’ve used up all my ideas in my books.

I knit. But there’s a limit to how many mittens, hats, baby clothes, smallish sweaters, and scarves I want to make. Plus I can only knit in the winter (and although it is hanging on like a very scared cat), winter is almost done for the year.

I take photos. And it’s something I enjoy a lot. I’m an observer by nature in any case. I like to look and notice and admire and marvel. I trip over my feet, my nose skyward or grazing the ground. There are striped caterpillars on the trail right now, making their ponderous way along the leftover ice and in imminent danger of being stepped on. I pick each up and move it to someplace safe. Surely another sign of spring?

There is something that feels like cheating with digital cameras though. I am certainly capable of taking a bad picture (many bad pictures) but I can just delete it on the spot. I can focus in a heartbeat. I can enhance and brighten and sharpen and frame it in the blink of an eye and I can toss the ones that cannot be saved with effects into my virtual trashcan. It’s so easy. Not like writing at all. Or using an old Nikon and inhaling toxic fumes in the darkroom.
Or working with oil paints.(I used to suck on the end of my brush which no doubt caused all kinds of interesting changes in my brain).

There is no danger or risk in it. It feels almost temporary. Check out Instagram. There are a lot of people taking some damn good photographs. When you’re inundated with so much that is above average good, it starts to blend together. It loses the punch. You think, well MyopicOwl sure knows her way around the camera, but does it make you want to keep looking or do you think, “well I’m done now” and file the information away with all the other information we collect during the day.

Or maybe I am only capable of taking perfectly good, average photos, that move with the herd but don’t poke their heads up often.

I want to do something that matters as much to me as writing does. That I will work hard at. That will fill my life with something meaningful when I need some breathing space.
But maybe writing fills all but a tiny space, and maybe I need that space, merely to slow down and breathe. And flood my eyes and senses with everything else that is in the world. Perhaps that is living artfully and it is enough.

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When it goes so right…

Currently I am revising a manuscript for the fourth time. I mean, fourth as in major revisions. I’m not counting all the other revisions I do in the course of hammering out a story.
But this time each revision has been a massive overhaul. A rethinking of the plot, structure, voice, motivations, EVERYTHING. The only things that haven’t changed are the main characters and their names. And that’s not to say they won’t.
And this is revision between me and the book and me and my agent. This is revision just to get it to the point where an editor will read it.
Thus have things changed since I started writing full-time as a profession. And let me tell you, I don’t know if my first books would have been published today because it is tough out there.
And I have to ask myself if I am equal to the demands. And if I can be courageous.

I just watched the documentary movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. I love sushi but Jiro would scoff at me because I am a vegetarian and I don’t eat fish. I do eat avocado rolls but I turn my nose up at any roll with cream cheese and whatever the heck pizza sushi is, but still–no fish with my rice.
However if I was ever lucky enough to eat at his restaurant in Tokyo I would eat everything he put before me, except for the octopus because I am convinced of their high intelligence, and perhaps the eel because I’ve had eel and I don’t like it. But the rest of the food he serves looks like sheer perfection and an experience worth giving up on 38 years of vegetarianism for.
The other reason I would eat anything (well almost anything) Jiro served me is the man himself.
He was asked what he think elevates him above other chefs. And he said passion, commitment, hard work, impatience. And he said he NEVER complains about his job.

I complain plenty. But usually just to other writers or my family. I don’t complain to my agent (if I can help it) or in public too much. But even so, I wonder if the work can hear me, and I wonder if I’ve hurt its feelings. And I am sorry because even on those days when nothing goes down on the page but words that don’t fit together well, it’s not the work’s fault. It’s my fault. It’s not even my fault. It’s just one of the days. And if I keep at it, slowly I find the right words again, and so it unfolds.
Jiro (in the movie) is 85 years old and has been making sushi since he was 9 or something. And he loves his work.
I love my work too. I just need to remind myself of it sometimes. But not today, because today the words came and they were the right ones.

And that transforms everything.

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Writing with children

I think these are true memories. But after all I am a writer, and I tend to embellish or rewrite. (Always revisioning!)

However, it is such a strong recollection, visual and visceral, that I am sure it is real. I can see myself at the computer, looking out onto our 3 acres of wood. It was early on in our inhabitation of upstate New York, because I still laughed to myself whenever I thought about ‘owning land’. Anyway, the trees I owned were all white pines, a hundred feet tall, and when the wind blew they fluttered their branches like ballet dancers being swans. And when the wind blew hard, they toppled over, being very shallow-rooted.
And I remember holding my sleeping son on my shoulder with one hand and typing feverishly with the other hand. It was 2003. I was writing my first book.
Or rather I was writing the first book I would ever finish.

Now the following is an embellishment:
I wrote that book with my infant son splayed on my lap or perched on my shoulder the entire time. Mostly with just the five fingers on my right hand- actually four because I don’t use my pinkie at all.

Such is the romance of the past. Four fingers, 95 thousand words and a peaceful baby who slept all the time.

I wrote another book(my second published) when my daughter was wee but she was no Buddha baby. She was born at 60mph and she continues to live at that speed. I learned to write in 5 minute bursts, like a sprinter. I learned to immerse and surface in a split second. I learned to switch my vocabulary from somewhat intellectual to baby talk on a dime. At the end of the day my brain hurt like a strained muscle but it was a good kind of pain.
I could control her somewhat by shutting her in the bedroom with me while I typed into a laptop balanced on my knees but that all ended when she learned how to open doors. Frequently I’d come up for air- having completely lost myself in my story- and discover that she had vanished. It was a very small rented house. Two bedrooms and a bathroom off a large living area but still she was able to disappear. Once I followed a trail of brown footprints on the carpet, only to discover that she had removed her diaper and painted all the walls like a junior Marquis de Sade.

On that day I found out that it is possible to laugh and cry in equal measure at the same time. Also, that when something like that happens, there was no one in the world who loved me enough to come and help me clean it up. Except, perhaps for my sister who sadly lived an ocean away.

My kids are pretty good at amusing themselves these days. But today is the first day of Spring Break and they have fallen out of the habit because their teachers spoil them with attention. I am working in the sitting room because it has a pellet stove and an electric fireplace, and the rest of the house is bloody freezing. My daughter, now almost 7, flops on the couch next to me, sighing gustily and periodically announcing that she is “so bored”. Normally I just say something annoyingly mom-like: “it’s good to be bored”, “I like being bored” or “you’re not really bored, you know”. This hardly helps matters. So mostly I try and ignore her.
So my question is. How do I write with boredom manifesting itself beside me, embodied by a girl who conveys everything she is feeling?

I find myself struggling to think of words. Everyday, useful words that connect other words. Not even the fancy ones that demand some mental exertion. I am finding it hard to move my characters from one place to the next.

I know I used to know how to do this. I used to be able to ignore everything around me, to the degree that babies were misplaced and found later in the dog bed, rooms were plastered in poo, dinner came and went, appointments forgotten, duties neglected. I lived so much in my head that when I had to speak out loud, it was difficult. And the real world? It seemed less real than the one I was writing about.

I want to get back to that place and I fear I have become soft in these days when school gives me a certain amount of free time.

My greatest fear used to be that when I had time to write I wouldn’t push as hard. That if I was ever so lucky as to go on a writer’s retreat, I would spend all my time walking in the woods, staring out the window, or talking on the phone to my children.

She has gone outside to dig in the half-frozen flower beds. The dogs have gone with her.

Instead of working on the book, I wrote this blog.
Writing is writing is writing, I suppose.

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My Italian grandmother, my nonna Giovannina, taught me how to knit when I was eight years old. She cast on with her fingers and held the needles tucked in between her ample bosom and her armpits. I had no bosom so I had to clench the sticks with my fingers, holding onto them with a single-minded ferocity. I remember my hands always cramped, tired from holding the needles at the correct angle for so long. Nonna was a tight knitter maintaining a death grip on her yarn, and so was I, developing first a sore spot, then a callus on my finger from pushing the end of the needle through each tiny looped stitch in my attempt to make something.

Although it was decidedly painful, I loved knitting with my nonna. Loved the sweaters, far too hot for Italy, that she made for me and my sister each year. They were cabled intricately and included tassels and crocheted pompons and unlike her own faded floral shirts and black clothing, they were knitted of bright primary colours, reds and blues and yellows.

I was an adult by the time I properly met my English grandmother, Betty. For the first few years I called her Betty, the endearment of Grandmummy, which my cousins used, sounding forced to me.

I was a punk rocker, out of school and on my own, caught up in the excitement of the music business, though I still knitted. Thick Icelandic-style sweaters by then, ideal for the Canadian climate we grew up in but not so useful in California, our new home.

I was twenty-five, she must have been almost seventy-five at that time. Sturdy and straight-backed, fond of cardigans and tweedy skirts and stockings always, and sensible shoes for gardening and going for brisk walks with the dog (often a Labrador, sometimes a spaniel).

Our conversations were a little stilted though perfectly amiable. I think it was a shock for both of us; a vast unknown distance between my babyhood and my young adulthood, all those missing years, as if I had just appeared already fully formed, like a cabbage in one of her vegetable beds. I was staying at the farmhouse for a week and in between the vegetarian meals she cooked especially for me, drunken philosophical debates with my uncle who lived next door, and some mostly quiet afternoon teas where we both looked at the birds from her sunroom windows, I wandered around the farmhouse examining things, trying to piece together a picture of her. There were coach whips in an urn by the front door. Metal bed-warming pans to fill with embers from the fire and slide between the sheets. Family portraits of stern strangers. Pottery and butter dishes.

The old things reminded me of my nonna’s house, and how she used to give me baths in her huge iron pasta pot filled with hot water heated on the woodstove. Sitting, then, at the kitchen table with her as she rolled out dough for tagliatelle or gnocchi; sitting, now, in the kitchen next to the Aga with my British grandmother as she poured tea and handed the biscuit tin around, while the dog under the table tried to steal the Kleenex out of my jeans’ pocket.

Betty had a spinning wheel, something I had only read about in fairy tales. And one day over tea, she told me how she used to spin her own wool from her own sheep, and how she dyed it with roadside plants like elder and goldenrod and bramble berries. She gave me a giant bag of wool remnants, small and medium sized balls, leftovers from things she had knitted when her hands were spry, hanks of knubbly, tufted wools in soft muted shades of yellow, orange and ochre, and the natural browns and blacks of sheep she no longer kept.
I took all those scraps of yarn and I knitted a shawl, big enough to wrap around my shoulders two and half times. When I bury my nose in it, I can smell the English countryside, the faint sheepy scent of lanolin, the inside of my Grandmummy’s house, dust and lemon oil, Earl Grey tea, wet Labrador, dried lavender, and apple wood on the garden bonfire.

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Love You Like Suicide new review

OK this is so big I had to post it here as well as on the Love You Like Suicide page.

Umm, guys! Charles de Lint reviewed the Cometbus issue (I am trying very hard not to explode into expletives).
Charles de Lint– only one of the most magnificent, dexterous, and moving writers out there, the master of urban fantasy, winner of the World Fantasy Award. I met him last summer and fangirled all over him. I was so nervous to meet the man who informed my writing, and also my teen world, and fired my imagination while I was growing up in Ottawa where many of his Newford books are set. Here’s the review, which by the way appears in the Jan/Feb issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
Now, where’s my fainting couch?

Love You Like Suicide, by Jo Treggiari, CometBus Issue 55 1/2, 2013, $3.
Chapbook (also available as an ebook published by Fierce Ink Press)

Something that’s bugged me for a while with this current fixation the publishing field has with dystopias is how dystopias get glamorized. Sure, the world is pretty much in ruins, but, hey, isn’t it cool? Wouldn’t it be great to live after civilization has collapsed?

I honestly thought the whole dystopian trend was going to go away after a few years but it’s only getting stronger. (The same thing happened with vampires a while back. I thought that would fade away, too, and you can see how right I was. There’s a reason nobody comes to me looking for predictions on future trends in the field.)

But getting back to dystopias—I think this glamorization started with how street and punk culture has been depicted in genre fiction. The trouble is, with many of those books and stories, nothing convinces me that the author really understands what it would be like living on the street, or being a punk, or scrabbling to stay alive in a ruined world.

If they did, they wouldn’t romanticize it the way they do.

All those authors would do well to read this novella from Jo Treggiari (the author of Ashes, Ashes—yes, another dystopian novel, but I haven’t read it yet, so my jury’s out on it). Love You Like Suicide isn’t a piece of genre writing. Turns out it’s not even fiction. But it is one of the most raw, honestly told, harrowing things I’ve read in a long time.

Set in San Francisco’s punk scene in the 1980s, it tells the story of the author’s nihilistic life as an addict, living in squats, making art, all the while living and breathing music.

It’s not pretty. It’s not happy. The author herself isn’t sure why she’s part of that scene. She just knows she doesn’t fit anywhere else.

And that’s why she, and those like her, are there. They don’t fit anywhere. They’re wired differently—and that’s what so many of those other authors I mentioned above don’t get. They have the trappings in their writing, sometimes they even get a bit of the tone, but they don’t understand the raw pain that underlies being so disaffected.

Except it’s not only pain. There’s tenderness there as well. A desire to create…something. Of themselves, or maybe through some form of art. But the poverty, the drugs, the darkness, grinds them down until they walk around like junkie ghosts.

It’s a real-world dystopia and it’s not glamorous.

Love You Like Suicide is easily one of the best things I’ve read all year, and I hope to hell that Ashes, Ashes is even remotely as good.

Highly recommended.

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Happy 2014

Here’s a short graphic novel my son wrote and illustrated when he was six. I think it contains important *’life lessons’ especially poignant at this time of year when we are looking forward and sometimes backwards.

*Not really but if you find some relevant, personal meaning please feel free to be illuminated! 😉 I just think it mixes the tragic with the comic brilliantly.

I’ve been working on a new book (LIES LIES LIES) and ruminating on another which is why I haven’t been blogging much. Also, the kids have been off from school for two weeks with another week yet to go (!), so sledding, snowballs, and celebrating have taken precedence.

Happy 2014.


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I’ve got a few copies of COMETBUS 55.5…..

cometbus lyls

Ride the Wohl Whip Cometbus aka COMETBUS is a long-running zine. I’d call it punk but that seems too restrictive. It is punk. It is so punk but not in the way most people think of punk or assume that it is.

Simply, it contains some beautiful, elemental, complex and evocative writing and I’ve been reading it and loving it for over twenty-five years.

This issue (#55 1/2) is a very limited edition of my short book, LOVE YOU LIKE SUICIDE, which previously was only available as an ebook. It still is. If you prefer digital you can go to www.fierceinkpress.com and download one.

If however you like the smell of toner and the feel of paper, I am giving away 5 copies.

US and Canada only. The contest ends Monday September 30th at midnight.

Just tell me about a defining moment/relationship/sandwich/whatever you had when you were a teenager.

I’m looking for heartfelt, life-changing stuff here, folks, so make it a very special sandwich if that’s the direction you decide to go in.

I’ll pick 5 winners and announce them here in the comments section.



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Cometbus meets me, twenty-eight or so years down the road

I think I must have been nineteen when I met Aaron Elliot aka Aaron Cometbus. He was probably fifteen or so. I remember we were always getting into philosophical discussions outside punk shows, often at the warehouse I lived in, New Method. We’d plonk down on the floor and share a beer or a smoke and talk for hours. And then in later years, we’d walk and talk, threading our way through Oakland, Berkeley and beyond.
You can read about that time in my life in the few posts I wrote under “the punk rock” headings.
For a while our paths crossed often. And then, not at all, but it was OK because this was the way of our friendship. We’ve always been able to take up just where we left off.
I moved to NY and he moved to NY (or maybe that happened vice versa) and one day while driving in Brooklyn, we almost creamed him at a cross walk where he had the right of way and we were distracted by conflicting GPS directions.
He’s a great human being and he is an awesome writer able to get to the heart of the matter in the most beautiful ways.
Here’s the deal with the awesome zine, Cometbus (formerly known as Ride the Wohl Whip Cometbus, and no, I still don’t know what that means).
here’s a fansite
and here’s the wiki link
In the years when we didn’t see each other much, we wrote to each other. I’ve always loved getting and sending letters. Slowly my other pen pals have fallen by the wayside, replaced by emails and phone (although whenever I want to let a friend know I am thinking of them or love them, I always write a letter or a postcard). Now that I live in Nova Scotia I feel even more removed from everyone. But Aaron and I still write a few letters back and forth every year.

So anyway I wrote this short piece, LOVE YOU LIKE SUICIDE. A semi-autobiographical very concise novella about a particular time in my life. Fierce Ink Press published it as an e-book. Here’s a link to them. So I sent a printed out copy to Aaron just so he could see what I’ve been up to, and he decided he would like to release it as a strictly limited edition half-issue of COMETBUS (number 55 and a half to be exact).
This is about as great an honour as I have ever received.

I still remember how excited I would get when I visited my local record store and there’d be a new issue of the zine lying on the counter. A mere 2 bux usually (though sometimes he goes up to $3), always featuring great cover artwork, plump-paged and smelling of toner and fresh ink, an escape into a world which was both familiar and unfamiliar. I have all my old issues, carefully packed away and ready to be perused by my children when they are a little older.

Here’s a link for an online store:Quimby’s

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Giving Up Control

No man is an island.
No one does it all on their own.

I fear I am a freak. A control freak.

I like to have all ten of my fingers in the pie.

For me, this is the hardest part of the writing process.
Actually it is one of the hardest life lessons I have (yet) to learn.

Losing control? That, I have mastered…I am a sensei in that department.
But willfully, willingly, knowingly giving up control. Giving into the huge what iffedness of it?

I’ve been trying. I feel as if I am constantly railing, beating my fists against the posts. Wasting effort trying to change or influence that which I can not.

I can not.(*bangs head on desk* very hard desk)

Old people and wise people seem to grasp this much earlier on.

Alas, I am getting older but no wiser.

I have no control, but still I act as if I do. I have it all scripted out. As if I am my six-year old daughter who knows exactly how it’s all going to go down in the movie which is her life. Bless her.

Along with those older, wiser people are those who have willingly given up control to someone/thing else.
I know many people like that. And I envy their calm, their acceptance, and I wish I could be like that, but I can’t.
See above: I am a freak.

Vagaries of life? check.
Ups and Downs? check.
Turns on a dime? Turns of the screw? check. check. In fact, I like change.

Wearied willingness to accept that there is not much I can do to affect or alter when or how things happen, what opportunities or disappointments will present themselves?

How much easier THAT would be.

Part of the difficulty is that choosing to work outside an office environment, to be self-employed and self-directed, already means that I am of a certain personality type. Is it A? That’s the super bitch one, right?
I like to be the boss. I decide my work hours (approximately 20-24 hours per day), my vacation schedule (not very often), and how much I think I should be compensated for my work (still figuring this bit out). So that gives me this false assumption of control. Within the bubble that is my work life, I must also sometimes wait for inspiration to strike, something else I am not in control of, but fortunately (knock on wood) thus far, new story ideas have not been an issue. Doing the work is hard, but I love it and I do it, and I am beyond GRATEFUL for it.

This I can control. And these five things too. The manner in which I live my life. The way I choose to parent. The care I take of myself and my loved ones. Who it is that I love. The work I do.

Everything else? Pah.Pish. Que sera, sera.Suck it UP, Jo!

I should move out the clutter. All those expectations, thwarted plans, errors of judgement, mistakes, experiments gone wrong.
They are in the past.
The future is, as yet, totally open.

Those feelings which nag and weigh on me are like manuscripts that just didn’t work. I stuck them in a drawer thinking that perhaps some day there might be something salvageable, only to realize two or three years down the line, that I had moved on (in my head, in my craft, in my abilities maybe) and they hadn’t.

But it was OK because it just meant that things were not static. Change might come microscopically but it still comes.
I just can’t force it.

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