How I Managed to Do A New Book in the Midst of a Pandemic

Okay, so 2020 hasn’t been the most creatively productive year. I’m not being hard on myself, or lamenting, just stating a fact. Very few of us have uttered statements like “Yay! The world outside is germy and dangerous! I’m gonna scratch everything off my to do list and produce magnum opus after magnum opus.” People who say things like that tend to have voodoo dolls made in their likeness.

Nope, for me, and for many, many others, it’s been a year of staring at a blank screen, doing the mechanical, easy stuff that needs to be done, and eating our feelings. It’s not a permanent state, I’m sure, but still frustrating.

I am, however, finishing off this rashy armpit of a year with something cool.

In days of yore (at least before COVID), I had an idea for a book about a kid who decides the world requires and upgrade, and proceeds to 3D print a new one. It would be witty, charming, and would have all kinds of ties to tech and STEM learning. Go cross-curricular! I wrote a rough manuscript, and the main character, a perceptive little girl with a get-r-done state of mind, told me her name was Mildred. And for a while, that was as far as it went.

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This spring/summer, the world really was in a bit of a state. Between being chased by a microscopic bully, worrying about the well being of our ecosystems, watching centuries-old racial tensions bubble, and generally slapping our foreheads over world politics, things got real. Fast.

Mildred tapped on my brain. She’d been sitting patiently and politely for a while, but she wasn’t having any more of that. She was a “just fix it” kind of kid, and in my memory, there had never been more that needed fixing. She told me it was time, and that she didn’t need anything gimmicky like a 3D printer to get things done. I partnered up with an illustrator I’d worked with before (Maria Jose Hurtado), a new photographer (Rod Heinz), and a bunch of very creative kids. This past week, we launched Mildred into the world in book form, and in the next month, she’ll be going digital.

In the book, Mildred rebuilds the world with a critical eye to what’s important, not just to her, but to everyone. She doesn’t balk at the task, but gathers her glitter glue and pipe cleaners and gets to it. I’ll admit that some (maybe all) of the kids’ characters I write represent a bit of wishful thinking. Mildred is certainly no exception.

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One indie kids’ book doesn’t fix the world. It might not fix anything, really, but Mildred does stand as a reminder to me that even in the middle of a mess, our responsibilities to and our connection with others don’t just disappear, nor does our power.

As always, I am so grateful to the team that helped make this germ of an idea into an actual thing. I’m also grateful to Mildred for replenishing the spot in my mind that had gone a little gummy over the past 8 months. I’m getting out my proverbial stickers and construction paper, and revving up to fix what I can in 2021. I hope she does the same for others.

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My First Online Story Time Reading

In trying times like this, we need to take stock of the skills and knowledge we have and see how we might use them to help. I’m a writer and an educator, and what I have to offer is a story or two. So I set up a makeshift studio in my office, and I recorded one of my stories.

I hope it makes a few people smile, think, and talk to each other, but more than that, I hope it keeps wee kiddos busy while they hunker down in their houses and wait for schools (and the rest of the world) to reopen.

Please enjoy.

An Ode To Those Who Live By Their Pen (Poor Souls)

Poet Stuck In a Rut

 

My verse is like a greeting card,

With meter regulated,

Each verse a carefully-measured length,

All meaning strangulated.

 

I swear my fierce, undying love,

For better or for worse,

I pulverize my passion sweet

Into uninspired verse.

 

And to my rage, I grant no flair

For free-verse there’s no room.

Oh, only couplets can convey

My all-consuming doom.

 

The angst, the hate, the fits of joy

That burst forth from my mind

With help from lifeless, starchy odes

Conveniently left behind.

 

 

©️Amy Leask, 2020

I Made Friends With A Yeti.

My apologies for not blogging much these past few months, but I’ve been making new friends and creating new stuff. As it has a tendency to do, spring whizzed by me, and I’m scratching my head trying to figure out where time went. Okay, a bunch of time went into my newest book, and I’m completely smitten with it.

Some time ago, I uttered the words “If you met a yeti” in conversation (no idea how it came up), and the lovely lilt of that phrase got stuck in my head. The same way I wonder what animals think of humans, I wondered what a yeti might make of us, if they stumbled out of the woods and happened upon a person or two. I made a list, which turned into verse, and the very talented artist Toni Cater agreed to give our yeti friend a face and a form.

Yeti is cuddly, and sweet, and curious, and I can’t wait for people to meet him/her. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished in the past few months. The print book was just released, and the interactive eBook is nearing completion too.

Please give it a whirl, and enjoy the marvelous conversation that ensues. Children, like yetis, have some pretty deep thoughts about human beings.

You’ll find it on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

Cheers!

Growing a Voice

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A few months ago, I watched my kid get up in front of about 800 people, many of whom were strangers, and sing. By herself. A capella. She auditioned without telling us, and beamed when she was selected to perform. There were no sleepless nights, no mysterious stomach aches, no nails bitten down to the quick. She was suitably nervous beforehand and during, relieved when it was done, and unsure what her peers would think of her performance. She is, after all, a kid. At no point, however, did she doubt that she deserved to be there, to be heard. What’s more, there was never a moment when I thought she couldn’t do it. It was just another instance when I was left to wonder from whence this kid got her courage, because it certainly wasn’t inherited from me.

I was the runty kid who cried if anyone looked at her the wrong way. The very last thing I wanted to do when I was little was speak up or ask for an audience. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot to say…when I was by myself. I had monkey brain from a very early age, and there was no shortage of ideas and opinions, but I was out-and-out terrified of other people listening. There were guarded monologues, performed in front of my toys and secret thoughts, stories and poems scribbled in journals.

I didn’t find my voice until I was an adolescent, when a part in my favourite musical came up at school, and I knew I’d spend eternity giving myself face-palms if I didn’t at least try out for it. In addition to my persistent childhood timidness, I was at the tail end of a freakish growth spurt, and I was all bad perm, gangly limbs, and a unibrow. It took everything I had (and a fair bit of coaxing from my friends) to sing an audition piece in front of my teachers. When opening night came, I managed to catch a horrible chest cold, and I sounded like Harvey Fierstein after a month of chain smoking. But I still went on, and it was good. I was in front of hundreds of people, and they were listening. Being heard didn’t cause me to implode. In fact, it triggered a lot of growth. I probably had a fat head for a while after that, but the seal was broken, and I started making up for more than a decade of keeping to myself.

The quiet, shy kid is still part of me. I still get sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat before I have to give a talk or appear on camera. If I know there’s a meeting coming, I rehearse what I’m going to say the day before, in the car, in the shower, in front of my dogs. I worry a lot about screwing up, about being misunderstood. Despite my best efforts, I still have a wobbly, little-kid squeak in my voice, which I’m convinced is my shy inner child speaking her mind through my grown-up body. But what used to terrify me is now a rush, and I relish the opportunity to speak the contents of my jittery little mind. I now make my living screaming into the void.

There’s still room for improvement, mind you. I have not, as of yet, done a solo in front of 800 people in a school talent show.

 

Living On Spec: Why Don’t We Like To Pay Artists?

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There isn’t a creative type on the planet who hasn’t heard at least one of the following:

  • “It’s a hobby, right? So, what’s your real job?”
  • “If you’re so passionate about it, then why does it matter if you get paid?”
  • “Why don’t you do a sample for free, and if I like it, I’ll pay you for the next one.”
  • “Aren’t artists supposed to be starving? Isn’t the romantic part of it?”
  •  “How do you put an hourly rate on creativity?”
  • “We’ll pay you in sample copies.”
  • “Isn’t exposure enough of a reward?”

Yup, this is going to be another whiny blog post from an artist who would like to be financially compensated for her work. If you’d really rather look at pictures of kittens, or read about the latest antics of a reality TV family, feel free to click off (that sounded ruder than I expected). But I’ve got a few decent points I’d like to make, if you can spare a few minutes. This one’s on the house.

Here are a few reasons why we don’t like to think about paying artists:

1. We don’t see artists as having skills. Being able to put someone’s guts back together in surgery involves skills. Doing someone’s taxes  involves skills. Building a basement rec room involves skills. However, when it comes to creative stuff, not so much. Let me tell you first-hand that creative work does not get produced by chance. Artists go to school. They train. They learn from mentors. They practice (oh, do they practice), and they produce a lot of crap in the process of perfecting their craft. Are there crummy artists? Well, yeah, but there are also crummy surgeons, crummy accountants, and crummy contractors. Whether you wield a pen, a paintbrush or an instrument, it takes skill to produce anything good.

2. Along similar lines, we think anyone can produce art. Okay, this one involves a lengthy philosophical discussion about what art actually is, but seriously, have you ever watched the audition rounds of a talent show on television? It’s pretty clear that some are better at it than others, and wanting to “be a star” is not sufficient. We wouldn’t expect that just anyone could be a scuba instructor, sushi chef, mathematician, or zookeeper. Whether it’s because of a lack of natural talent, inclination or training, I don’t think I have any of these careers in me, and I praise those who do. I hope that those who aren’t adept with language will show similar respect to my writing.

3. We think all artists want to be rich and famous, and maybe the ones who are don’t always set the right example. I like not being recognized at the grocery store. I’m cool with not being asked to headline at festivals. Don’t get me wrong, I love knowing that people read my work once in a while. It’s thrilling to share ideas, and I don’t care if my work gets me a villa in Tuscany or a bronze statue somewhere. “Steady” is a word I would like to associate with my paycheque, not “gargantuan.” If, by some stroke of cosmic luck, I someday make a lot of money from my art, I promise I’ll behave myself and do something useful with it.

4. We’re really not sure what we get when we pay for art. You go to a baker, and you get bread. You go to a salon and you get your nails done. You go to a mechanic, and your car run stops making noise. Art is a little more slippery, a little less tangible. What do I take home after a concert (besides a souvenir t-shirt)? When I’m finished with a book, is it really just a wad of paper that lingers? What do I point to after I’ve left an exhibit? Art is a business of producing ideas and experiences, of calling forth emotion and memory. It’s much more difficult to box up and sell, and we can’t return it if it bugs us. From a product standpoint, it is admittedly ethereal, but we have to keep in mind that everything we love that’s artistic, from the music on our devices to the pretty shoes on our feet, had to come from somewhere, with a creative, talented person putting themselves out there.

5. We think artists have chosen a lifestyle that involves poverty. We think they secretly enjoy it. Nope. This wordy, idea-ish stuff happens to be what I’m good at (most days). I’m also good at eating, and would like to be able to pay for that. I’m good not living in the rain, and would like to have a roof over my head. I’m good at leaving my house and going out into the world, and I’d like to be able to afford a little of that too. Okay, you could say art is my calling, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make a living from it, and let me tell you, between time and supplies, it ain’t free.

6. We see art as a luxury, something we don’t need or deserve. If there was ever a time when art wasn’t a luxury, it’s now. We’re in a little bit of pickle these days (thanks a lot, 2016), and while booze, weapons, and other distractions may provide some sort of outlet for our angst, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that whether you’re an artist or an art appreciator, there isn’t anything else that helps a human being deal more effectively and productively than art. It’s our collective soul. It’s universal. It’s primal. My human friends, we all deserve art. It’s not amusing or adorable. It’s freakin’ important.

Okay, now’s the part where I’m supposed to come up with a plan for how we should pay artists, who should pony up the dough, and I’m so sorry, but I’m still working on this. Could it be considered a civil service job, with the government footing the bill? Should we take a tip from Shakespeare and get wealthy patrons on our side? Do we just go on strike, and leave the world a little uglier and more dull until we get our point across?

My guess is that art needs to undergo a massive re-branding. We need to put our assumptions about art and the people who make it through the ringer. Before making one of the comments mentioned above, perhaps ask yourself “Would I say that to a lawyer, or a school custodian, or a daycare provider?” If the answer is no, and you feel guilty (or if the answer is yes, and you don’t feel guilty), consider paying some creative type for their hard work, even if it’s just giving a busker the price of your morning latte, going to see an indie film, or buying something locally-made to hang over your sofa. Don’t ask your musician friend to perform at your wedding as a favour, don’t ask a graphic designer to give you a freebie, and don’t balk at shelling out a few bucks for an eBook when you’re reading it on a $200 device. The more an artist is able to actually live off their art, the more time they’ll have to devote to it, and the better it’ll get.

An Editor’s Guide to Intolerance

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Leave it to sarcastic, satirical Broadway puppet productions to make complex issues seem less murky. Case in point: Avenue Q, specifically, the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (see below). This number says a lot. We’re human beings. We’re (often) colossal jerks to one another. We say incredibly inappropriate things to one another, but as far as discrimination is concerned, maybe it’s preferable that we just fess up, get it all out on the table, and deal with it. Better out than in, as the saying goes.

I have to agree that we’re all a little bit racist (and sexist, classist, ableist, ageist…oh brother) and I’m also on board with the notion that holding it in and pretending it doesn’t exist serves no one. I do, however, think there’s another step to be taken in our efforts to be better human beings, and it can be described with an analogy (sorry, I’m a writer. It’s how we function).

Aspiring to be less of a racist jerk (or a prejudiced jerk, in general) is kind of like being a good editor. Editors, like everyone else, make grammar errors, spelling mistakes, and typos. Even after years of practice, digging into the inner workings of language, they still screw up from time to time, and things get missed. The difference is that they’ve developed a kind of instinct for recognizing screw-ups, a type of muscle memory, if you will. They not only spot their own mistakes, but they know how to fix them. They know why this verb doesn’t agree with this subject, why they need to use an adverb instead of an adjective, why it’s inappropriate to use slang in some situations. They know why it’s an error. It’s this constant diving into the why of it all that helps them to develop their editorial Spidey Sense in the first place.

I’m a human being, and every so often, stupid thoughts about other human beings ping-pong around in my head. Honestly, I don’t even believe these things are actually true. These thoughts are basically echoes of historical and cultural “bad grammar”, bits of misinformation or ignorance that I’ve heard often enough to have them lodge themselves into the dark corners of my brain. For some reason, they’ve been allowed to stay on the page when they should have been run through with a line of angry red pen. Every so often, probably more often than I’d like to admit, these nasty little “grammar errors” pop up again, messing up the nice, neat, enlightened narratives I’m trying to construct about life. They’re misplaced modifiers, verbs that don’t agree with their subjects, adjectives that should be adverbs. I get that they’re not logical, not supposed to be there. I know why they don’t fit. Moreover, I want what I put out into the universe to be right. I really do, from the bottom of my heart, want to do better.

In a sense, we’re all writing narratives like this, and the trick isn’t to hope we’ll never make mistakes, but rather to develop a sense that something about them just isn’t right, that they’re the result of sloppy thinking, fatigue, or frustration. If we hope to be less discriminatory, we need to start thinking like editors. No editor has ever written something of their own that was spotless and perfect, but they do force themselves go back and figure out why they’re making mistakes in the first place, why it needs to be this way instead of that way.

When it comes to catching discrimination, there is no “spell check” option. We can’t rely on mechanical, one-size-fits-all solutions. Every form of discrimination has its own ethos, it’s own aesthetic, it’s own history and evolution, as does every individual who willfully perpetuates it.  Every story has to be edited as a living thing, by another living thing. Even the most enlightened, tolerant, free-thinking soul will spend his or her entire existence going over their worldview with a fine-tooth comb, looking for slip-ups. The style guide with which they edit will change over time.

You’ve had the sensation of looking at a word or a phrase you’ve written and thinking “What am I missing? Why doesn’t that seem as it should?” The fact that you’ve had alarms go off is good, right? What do you do next? You take another look, show it to someone else, look it up, try writing it another way. You do this enough times, and it becomes instinct, at least the drive to look at it again, to revise, becomes instinct. Most importantly, you know you want to do it properly, to fix what’s askew. When you want to be less racist, sexist, any-ist, you do the same thing. You accept that the mistakes will be there, and the only crime is in not wanting to catch them.

You heard it from your grade 9 English teacher, and now you’re hearing it again: In writing, and in the pursuit of being a better human being, you need to proofread. We all do.

 

 

Do All of Humankind a Favour and Read!

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Many moons ago, I took a class on existential philosophy. Like most philosophers, our professor was a great watcher (notice I didn’t say admirer) of human behaviour. It’s kind of what we do. Being an existentialist, he was also a great lover of fiction. Philosophers of this persuasion tend to at least dabble in it, for better or for worse. It was the opinion of this instructor that it was pretty darn hard to be a sociopath and a fiction lover at the same time. To read stories, he explained, was to get a glimpse into other minds and other lives, to gain some understanding of what it was like to be another being. That’s not to say that sociopaths are illiterate, or that a trip to the library is a guaranteed cure for this kind of disconnect. However, if a person had any inclination at all towards being empathetic, a good book would at least give him or her the opportunity to try.

The idea stuck with me and I find myself talking about it often. I admit, being a writer and a literary geek, I’m a little biased. Yes, I want people to read as much as possible, both because I think it’s cool and because I’d like people to support my industry. However, personal interests aside, I still think there’s merit to the notion that reading and cultivating a love of stories makes us better people in some way.

Before you call me a snob or an elitist, I need to tell you that I get that reading is a luxury of time that others can’t always afford. A lot of my adventures into novels happen in five to ten minute bursts, often scrounged together before I fall asleep. I drop books on my face all the time as I doze off. I also get that reading is difficult and frustrating for some. To this, I say that reading anything counts, whether it be a comic book, a graphic novel, a tabloid at the supermarket, or quick few pages in a magazine. Fiction happens in a lot of different forms, especially now that we’re nostril-deep in the digital age. If you hate Shakespeare, don’t read Shakespeare (but please don’t dis him with me in earshot or you’ll break my heart a little).

The wise words of my prof come to mind a lot these days, as there’s constant chatter about this public figure or that celebrity being disconnected from the rest of humanity. We hear things like “How could they possibly think that was okay?” Maybe we’re feeling generally adrift from one another, and a little scared at what that might encourage. Perhaps we’re no longer afraid to call it as we see it, to tell someone they’re a little bit of a psycho when they act like one. I’m not going to name names here, but there are times (a lot of times) when I want to leave a bag of paperbacks on someone’s doorstep and test the theory.  I need to know if big meanies didn’t get enough bedtime stories as children. I want to see if getting into the right novel can actually be life-changing. I’d like to hear if other people finish a book and then suddenly see the characters mirrored in people they see on the street. What gaping personal and cultural caverns can we bridge by reading each other’s stories?

If we could demonstrate that all of these things actually happen, that there is some sort of documented cause and effect relationship between reading fiction and reading fellow human beings, what would we do with this information? Would we stop seeing stories as a luxury and start seeing them as a necessity? Would we see storytelling in all its form as a career, instead of a hobby? Would we take advantage of the new media and new technology available to us to start telling stories in new and amazing ways, so that we could reach as many readers as possible? Could metaphor be officially recognized as medicine, the way it was thousands of years ago?

Food for thought.

 

The Fear of Being Froggy

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Last week, I lost my voice. The cold that was in my sinuses took a sudden trip south, and I went from Tom Waits, to Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”, to Marcel Marceau. My family listened to me honk and squeak my way through rudimentary sentences with a mixture of amusement and discomfort. I couldn’t sing in the car and I couldn’t answer the phone. I became a human whisper.

When I could manage a little more sound, I went back out into the world, and immediately had three different people smile knowingly and ask what I was afraid to say, or what I’d been prevented from saying. Never one to ignore a serendipitous mind-body connection, I started thinking about the whole idea of losing one’s voice, literally and metaphorically. If you haven’t already gathered from my choice of career, I have a hard time with silence, especially my own. Being mute sucked, but it wasn’t just about the failure of my pipes, but rather a larger fear of going unheard.

Someone in the medical profession once told me that they saw an inordinate number of people with throat-related ailments who are employed in writing or communications. They also told me that these malfunctions seem to happen during times of professional stress, like when a manuscript gets rejected, or writer’s block strikes. In eighth grade, when I landed a major part in our school musical, I spent opening night squeezing my lines through a gravel-lined throat. In truth, I’ve always been a bit on the squeaky side, even when in good health. I’ve also always been a writer.

Writing through social media probably adds sandpaper to an already-sensitive condition. It’s the most horrible, fickle source of validation, but I admit I’m tickled when something I’ve posted gets retweeted, liked or shared. Those little alerts on my phone are like candy to me. Even an irrational, screwball comment means someone out there is listening, right (look at me, trying to pretend that I don’t get irritated by these)? I also confess to feeling a little horse just thinking about the millions of other little voices in the great mix, and of the very slim chance that anything I send out into the interweb will fall upon the right pair of willing ears.

The source of my swollen larynx and subsequent hush was most likely microbial (pesky rational explanation). It does, however, seem strange that it happened when I’m right on the verge of hitting “publish” on one of the biggest projects I’ve ever worked on (stay tuned). More than ever before, I need my voice to be heard, and it scares me that it might be perceived as a whimper, as opposed to the grand aria that I planned. Fear or not, I’m taking deep breaths and having hot tea with lemon, because the only thing worse than not being heard is not saying anything in the first place.

Wish me luck….or just volume.