The Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) held an info session in Victoria at the end of January. The two program officers at the session encouraged attendees to apply for grants and handed out cards for the program officers in each discipline. They suggested we call our individual program officers to discuss applications.
I had applied for a B.C. Arts Council (BCAC) grant last fall and had just learned that my application had not been successful. The timing seemed propitious. Two voice mail messages to the BCAC program officer, seeking feedback on my application, had not been returned. I was hoping that the CCA officer might be more forthcoming. And, to his credit, he was that.
Almost immediately, he told me that I was not a strong candidate for a grant because I take too long to write a book. It seems the expectation is that a writer can produce a novel in one year. When I explained to him that I work full-time and can only take so much time off each year, he said I could explain that in my application, but unless the writing sample was exceptional, the peer review group would probably not want to take a chance on me. They grant money to people who they think will finish their project in a timely fashion. Since it took me eight years to finish Plastic, I do not fall into the "timely" category.
I hope to complete my next book in five years. But that still isn't fast enough. I was left with the impression that I would only be taken seriously if I gave up my job or at least took a one-year leave to work full-time on the book. I would love to do this, but the reality is that I cannot. My employer would not agree to a one-year leave of absence and my mortgage would not get paid.
This is very disappointing news for most writers in Canada. Very few of us earn enough to live on from our writing. In cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria, where housing costs eat up more than half our salaries, taking even three months unpaid leave is a financial impossibility.
So in spite of the very positive encouragement from the program officers at the info session, the honest answer is much more grim. I will have to wait until I retire before I can meet the criteria the peer review group seeks. I am disappointed by this answer, but at least now I know the truth. I am grateful for that.
A year ago, I welcomed Cory into my home and my heart. She was a life-changer from the first day. I had no idea going into this that raising a puppy for the BCAGD would impact every facet of my life. Boy, did it ever.
The very best moments with Cory happened frequently: having her fall asleep with her head in my lap, watching her romp and play with her toys, seeing her understand and apply the training and having her look up at me with such loving eyes when we went for a car ride. My heart swelled for the puppy and each cuddle strengthened the bond between us. I had imagined this. In fact, I had mainly considered this when I signed up for the volunteer position. I hadn't considered the amount of sacrifice it would take to do the job properly. And I hadn't fully understood how these sacrifices would impact other people in my life. I have to thank my supervisor for being so unfailingly understanding. I could not have done this without her support. And I need to thank all the friends and fellow puppy raisers who helped me with Cory. Their assistance was invaluable.
The worst moments with Cory happened on a regular basis in the beginning and now occur on only rare occasions. She had separation anxiety and could not control her outbursts of energy (excitement and frustration led to her jumping, snarling, biting and zooming around the house at full speed). The list of things she destroyed is fairly long: shoes, clothes, baseboards, Christmas lights, phone and TV cords, greeting cards, blankets.... Pretty much anything she could get her teeth on suffered. Now, it is only her toys that are ripped apart (under supervision).
The hardest part of being a volunteer puppy raiser (and one I never considered) was the toll it took on my health. From lack of sleep to a repetitive strain injury, I seemed to go from one hiccup to the next. I had no idea how physically demanding this role would be. I have learned that a person needs a great deal of strength to train a puppy in this program.
The easiest part of the job was crushing on the puppy, when she was very good and when she was just plain goofy. Cory loves people and is always overjoyed to see me after I have been away or she has been with another volunteer. She wakes up happy, is always eager to play and have fun, is excited every time I take her to the gym, a coffee shop, on a walk or to the park. She puts me in a good mood, even when my shoulder is aching.
So it is with a mix of pride and sadness that I prepare Cory for the next phase in her journey. She moves on to advanced training to be an autism support dog on November 27. I think she will make a young boy or girl very happy. She loves training and will be eager to learn how to help her new master. I look forward to receiving updates on her progress and to seeing her with the lucky child whose life she will change forever.
I will miss Cory and the house will feel very empty without her. The year of the dog ends a bit early for me. But oh, what a year it has been!
This morning Christine Cowley from the Bay 88.7 FM interviewed me for her monthly talk show, Storylines. Christine is a warm and thoughtful interviewer who likes to showcase new Canadian authors and local writers from Muskoka, Ontario. It was such a pleasure to speak with her about the book.
Christine asked me in-depth questions about Plastic: what is the significance of the stories from minor characters in the book, what is the connection between social media and self-perception and who I was hoping to reach with the book? We also talked about the vulnerability of women in our society.
You can hear my answers on Saturday, July 14 about 8 am EST or Wednesday, July 18 around 11 pm EST. Shortly thereafter, the station will upload a podcast, which I will also post on my site.
The Bay 88.7 FM is a community radio station serving cottage country in Ontario (their broadcast area covers all of Muskoka). Over 60 volunteers, including Christine, create the programming content, which includes a full selection of talk shows on Saturday and Sunday mornings, called Muskoka Magazine. They have an international audience, who tune in directly through the site or through an app. Their eclectic mix of content offers something for everyone.
After the interview, Christine and I discussed the writing life. It is a tough slog sometimes, and we writers can wonder just why we devote so many hours to our work. We reminded each other that it isn't the outcome that is important. It is the fact we are doing something we love and expressing our creativity that brings us joy and a sense of fulfillment. In fact, we both agreed that we couldn't imagine not writing. Christine is working on her first novel, after a career of writing non-fiction and interviewing fellow writers. I wish her the best of luck.
A huge thank you to Christine for her insightful questions and for having me on her show.
Saturday, May 12, was the launch of the Emerging Local Authors Collection at the main branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library. This is the fourth year of the program, which highlights the work of local authors. The library has now displayed over 600 books written by Victoria writers, young and old alike. There are children's books, poetry books, fiction and non-fiction books, either published by small presses or self-published in paper or e-book format.
This year, my book Plastic joined the roster. The launch was a great opportunity to connect with fellow writers and check out the selection of books on display this year.
One of my writer friends, Rachel Goldsworthy, also has a book in the collection this year. So we were able to share in the celebration together. A huge thank you to the Greater Victoria Public Library for showcasing the work of local authors.
Research provides the backbone to a story. Sometimes, we can base the story on our lives, and we have years of "research" to draw on. But far more often, writers create a world, a character or a situation that is new to them. And then we have to discover all we can about it to make the story come alive.
I love researching places. It was a pleasure to return over and over again to the San Diego area when I was writing Plastic. My trips allowed me to soak in the atmosphere, pick up on differences in dialect or vocabulary and heighten my descriptions of the natural surroundings.
Researching characters is practically a daily occurrence. I'm always storing away tidbits of information heard or seen: the way someone reaches for a pen, compassionate glances, angry words, etc. Once I start writing a book, I build the character partly by gathering up some of these tidbits and partly by putting the character into scenes and seeing how he or she reacts.
Where the real work of researching comes in for me is the unknown situation. This takes time. The main character in Plastic was a former beauty queen. A world I knew nothing about. I read books about former beauty queens and spent far too much time on the Internet reading about pageants, watching videos of contestants and looking at photos from the time period when Debbie would have been competing. I discovered a few uncomfortable things but they made me cringe more than cry. Not so with my next book.
My next book has a much darker subject matter, and the research can be tough. It's important to me that the story be told, and I want it to ring true. So I am delving into the research when I have little pockets of time. And then I need to take a breather. How lucky I am to be able to pull back from the darkness. For some people, this is their truth. In telling this story, I have to honour the people who actually live through such difficult circumstances. The women who have so little choice in their own lives.
A writer's journey