Hello from Canada

Hello, readers. It’s official: I’ve moved to Canada for a writing teaching position, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in the culture and literary scene here. The timing is downright odd, I know, and I’ll be writing about my experiences here as well as my thoughts on what it means to be leaving the States at this particular time. You can see some of my first posts on my Medium blog here:

My Medium stories

And here’s an excerpt of my first post:

Hello, Canada! I’m new to you! The timing might seem suspect, an American arriving in Canada just now, after a crazy 2016 and a maddening election season. It’s so suspect, in fact, that I’ve gotten used to shrugging and smiling when people joke about my fleeing the country. But I’m here because my fiancé and I got teaching jobs at a university. This was in the works for nearly a year. So while I watched the election results with the same obsessiveness as all my friends, and bit my nails and watched too much MSNBC, there was always this knowledge in the back of my mind…that I’d be leaving soon. Either I’d be looking proudly on from afar as our first female president set up shop, or, well…I’d be high-tailing it out of there.
I knew I wanted to observe everything that was new to me in Canada as soon as I got here. My job as a newcomer, I think, is to look with big eyes and listen with big ears. To notice the differences and the similarities. And as a writer, my job is to observe and form theories about the national character. To see the contradictions and learn the jokes. To put my foot in it a few times and learn how to step gracefully out again. So this post will be the first of many scattered thoughts and observations about what might become my new home.

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Stay tuned for more thoughts on the writing life from North of the Border, and also come back for some exciting new progress on the novel. More soon.

When Does Home Become Home?

For me, the most recent happening of it was when I was scheduling my taxi to the airport.

I was visiting my family in Boston, back for a few weeks in order to get laser eye surgery (it’s been great!). But finally the last check-up was done and I was heading back to Chicago, where I’ve been living for the past year and a half. “Only a few hours until I’m home,” I thought. And I felt it too. And as soon as I had that thought, I felt a pang, the sting of my disloyalty to Boston.

I’ll always be a Boston girl. Boston is my home; every time I return, I feel that warm spark of affection for this dinky little two-skyscraper city, for the unsmiling, taciturn New Englanders on the train and the deep gray-blue sparkle of the Charles River. The suburbs where I grew up will always be my suburbs. But all too fast, my self, my body, has been splitting, bisecting and tripling itself. Because I feel strongly now that Chicago, too, is home. It’s remarkable how quickly that process can happen.

What makes a city feel like home? In a purely materialistic sense, it’s all the stuff you have there. It’s the books and clothes and knickknacks, all the things I’ve been missing while I’ve been away: my mug, my comforter, my skungy old slippers. In a hedonistic sense, it’s the sensory pleasures you have there: my special gourmet tea that I’ve been craving, the mac and cheese place I am too fond of, the doughnut shop (Boston’s doughnut situation is sad. Dunkin’ Donuts has driven every competitor, including Krispy Kreme, out of business). And in a deeper, more emotional sense, it’s the people and things I love: my significant other, even my cats. All of these things add up. You don’t start realizing what is home to you until you leave it and feel homesick.

But home is more than all of those things combined as well: it’s a sense of feeling in command of your place, of moving comfortably as a local down its streets and on its public transit, understanding the arguments in the local paper, knowing where to get lunch and what the best coffee shop is. In my years away from Boston, I’ve never stopped feeling it to be home, but I have gotten out of touch with its transformation. The seaport is a neighborhood that barely existed when I left, and now all the best restaurants are there. The farmers’ markets have moved. The stores, even the roads, have changed. The stops on the T have been altered, and in the years to come they’ll change even more. When I’m in Boston, I defer to old friends, letting them pick the meeting place and the restaurant, because I don’t know where to go anymore.

When people visit me in Chicago, on the other hand, I’m fully in command of my city. I know how to show visitors a good time and what funny quirks the city has. I’ve ridden its buses and trains, and I’ve gotten lost among vacant lots and deserted streets. There is much more to explore, but I’m happy and unafraid in that process of discovery. I know that no matter how lost I get, I can always find my way back.

Chicago is just a temporary waystation, though. Years ago I already started heading down a life path that wasn’t conducive to putting down roots, at least for a while. Rather, my S.O. and I follow career paths that will take us to new cities in the future, and I will have to say goodbye. Will Chicago always carry a bit of home-feeling with it, or will it become alien to me? Can I pick up and fall in love again with a new place, take command of it and wedge my heart somewhere inside, again and again and again? I try to keep my heart soft and elastic, ready to grow and stretch and take in another place. Is there any limit to the number of places in your life that can feel like home? I know immigrants have to struggle with this all the time; they learn to hold more than one place inside them, like a painted triptych in their hearts. I’m working on a similar structure encompassing all the cities I’ve lived in and felt loved: Boston, New York, Chicago, and onward.

The Purge: Why You Have to Clean House

I’m not the best housekeeper. If a dish is sitting on the counter or dustbunnies are galloping down the hall, I’m not too fussed; I’ll let them accumulate before I finally pick up a broom with a sigh. Life’s too short for obsessing about the little details of a tidy house, I feel.

And yet the funny thing is that I’m the exact opposite when it comes to my papers, computer files, and stories. I can’t stand having a file out of place; my desktop is in a state of minimalist splendor; I have an elaborate nesting system for stories depending on their stage of completion, and color-coded tags and neatly organized archives. My “Unfinished Stories” folder is the only one that is allowed to grow and sag, as I create a document and write a page or two of a new story idea. But even there, every now and then I feel a need to do a purge.

Staying organized and doing a file purge can be good for one’s inner state as well, I’ve found. If I have a half-dozen stories in various stages of completion or neglect, then I feel more scattered, stretched between them. I find myself wondering on any given day whether I should be devoting my energies to this one or that one. And it leaves me overwhelmed and paralyzed, unable to finish even one story as long as six other enticing beginnings are out there.

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Find the Hole in Your Story

So you’ve written a short story. Congratulations! You’ve maneuvered the characters into position, shown the heroes and the villains, pulled them into conflict and steered them into a climax.

And yet — something is missing.

Have you had that feeling before when you read back a story draft? That there’s a hole somewhere in the story? Many stories in their first or second versions can feel this way. Because if a story is only the sum of its parts — then that’s all it is. The stories that we love to read, the truly masterful stories, are the ones that make up something more. Their authors have learned to fill up those holes that are in the early outlines of stories, that make drafts like Swiss cheese.

I’m not just talking about plot holes here, the blatant mistakes of story or logical inconsistencies. Those things are essential to fix, but that’s just good housekeeping. I’m talking about identifying the beating heart of your story, and of finding ways to make it mean something larger than it is.

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New Awards and Honors

I’m pleased to report that I’ve had several successes this month with new short stories.

“A Night Odyssey” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open.

“These Things Happen Here” was a finalist in AWP’s scholarship competition, and judge Lori Ostlund had these kind words for the piece:

Because the world of “These Things Happen Here”—an urban community college classroom—is so familiar to me, I was prepared not to be surprised by the story. How wrong I was. In fact, what was most impressive to me about this story is the way that the author constantly takes risks, writing with great honesty about a main character who is vulnerable and wants what is best for his students but is in way over his head. The unspoken secret of the classroom is that sometimes teachers dislike their students, and this author goes there also, as well as into the complicated relationship between art and revenge. The ending is complex and spot on. Like all great stories, this one stayed with me after the first reading and the second, but the meaning kept shifting, changing and evolving.

“The Deconstruction” was shortlisted for The Masters Review Anthology.

I’ve also been selected as a resident at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and as a scholar at Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Editing Challenge Day 30: Have the Courage Not to Be Done

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

You made it, writers! You’ve gotten to the end of the marathon! Here we are, on the very last day of our thirty-day editing challenge. Did you go all the way? Did you try to do a little editing every day, even if it wasn’t exactly the tip I prescribed? I’d love to hear what your editing process has looked like in the past month. Send me a note on Twitter @bhurley to tell me how things went. Are you proud of the story you’ve created? Are you surprised by what form it ultimately took? Are you inspired to create new spin-off stories, using the characters that were jettisoned? Tell me all about it.

I want to conclude this project with just a few thoughts about where to go from here. One teacher of mine, who offered some of the most helpful advice I’ve heard about editing, finished his talk by saying that at the end of all the exhausting work, you must be willing not to be done. So many budding writers get tired and then get frozen. They stop seeing things that could be changed in their work; they give up. They think the work is as good as it can be and that’s that and now it will sink or float the way it is. This period of fatalism is often followed by a flurry of sending the story out and having it get rejected. That’s when most people quit. They can even get bitter at this very delicate stage, and start blaming politics or the environment at literary magazines or whatnot. There are many reasons to be frustrated about the system and the way it works, but I think that’s a separate conversation from whether your work can be made better. And the truth is that the writers who succeed are the ones who have the courage not to be done.

It means being willing to pull that story out of the drawer, maybe right after it has received a disheartening rejection, and think about ways it could be changed. It means being open to radical changes even way down the track, even if you’ve had your heart set on one particular ending for weeks, months, years. It means being open to possibility, and to the wonders of your own talent and ability and hard work.

So today, on our very last day of our editing challenge, I’m asking you to do one more thing: to not be done. To revisit that story and other stories as many times as is necessary. To examine and re-examine and find ways to shake up your thinking so that you don’t fall into old rutted grooves. Print out the story in a different font or color. Make a game of cutting words. Read it aloud. Have a friend or partner read it aloud to you. De-construct it and build it again. Make it work. Keep working even after the joy is gone; push through the sweat and tears; take a break, recover your energies, and do it all over again. Do not be done until you feel deeply and firmly that the story is better than anything you’ve ever written, and that it’s ready to go out the door. And even then, read it once more, and find that one typo that has hidden in a sentence through twenty drafts. Read it one final time, and be proud of what you’ve created.

Editing Challenge Day 29: Read it Aloud

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

For our second-to-last day of editing, writers, we’re going back to one of the most tried-and-true tricks of editing. This is a technique that everyone agrees on: nothing is better for identifying awkwardness or weak phrasings or logical inconsistencies or dull bits or just about any other weakness in writing. This trick is why professional writers about to read from their published books can often be seen with pen in hand, hastily crossing things out in their printed books because they now know it won’t sound right.

So today, your job is easy: just find a quiet place, whether it’s out in the garden or in your bathroom; get somewhere where you won’t feel self-conscious, and no one else is listening.

And read that thing out loud.

Sound mortifying? That’s exactly why it must be done. You must be confident enough in your work to be proud of how it sounds, or for it to be at least tolerable to hear. If even you can’t bear listening, then how do you expect anyone else to want to listen to it?

The great thing about reading aloud is that sentences that are awkwardly phrased or unclear jump immediately to the fore. Now something that you could skim over with your eyes becomes clunky in your mouth. Now you can hear where your prose sings and where it squawks.

Good luck, writers. Have fun; enjoy yourself. The other great thing about reading aloud is that it isn’t only shaming; it’s an occasion to feel proud of the sentences you’ve created as well.

Editing Challenge Day 28: Type it Up, But Not the Way You Think

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s almost done! All those changes you’ve diligently been making, whether as red-pen scribbles on your printout, or as bleary-eyed typings on your computer, will all come to fruition very soon. Remember that victory goes to the editor who does not rest too soon. More on this tomorrow.

Today you’re going to do a very simple task — but it’s not quite what you think. You are going to type up the changes you’ve made. But you are not simply going to key in the little cuts and pastes that you’ve made into the existing document. Oh, no. This is a trick I learned from a teacher of mine, and though it sounds a little obsessive, I found there’s nothing better for making your writing more special, more vivid, and more amazing.

So here’s what you must do: create a brand new, blank document. Name it what you like: this is going to be the real, authoritative version of your story. If you’ve been making edits all month on the hard copy, you will now start to type up the new version of the story by hand. If you have been making changes to the document on your computer, open up that document side by side with the blank one and start to type up the new version of the story by hand. No cutting and pasting is allowed; no easy duplication. You must physically re-create the story. You must type the whole darn thing for yourself as though it were new.

The reason? You’ll discover that if you’re having to create the story from scratch, it sets up one more barrier to prevent bad or mediocre work from slipping through. That passage that was a little redundant but you’d let slide anyway? Now you will not let it make its way into the new document. Every sentence must now pass one more test of acceptability and general awesomeness.

It sounds arduous. But each time I’ve drawn a big sigh and been willing to do this, it has immensely improved my story. If it is that reliable an editing technique, then why not try it?

Editing Challenge Day 27: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The Blairzone - 27

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

WE’RE ALMOST AT THE END OF THE JOURNEY. By this point you’ve re-thought and re-written and re-envisioned; you’ve cut and cut and cut some more; you’ve written back whole scenes that needed replacing. You might start feeling that you’ve lost sight of the whole beautiful creature that is your story. It might be feeling more like the Frankenstein monster at this point: an ungainly stitched together hodgepodge of parts.

So today, it’s time for some healing, as well as for going back over the story and returning to the fundamentals. You’ve cut on a sentence level, for example, and on a scene level, and you’ve probably re-written or added in entirely new scenes to make up for what you’ve lost. But now those new scenes and passages have first-draft-itis all over again. You’re going to have to repeat the process, slimming and trimming and re-focusing.

Say that on an earlier day, you realized you needed more development of a character’s background. You wrote a whole new scene of that character as a child. But now that scene is just as suspect as scenes you have written in the past. Does it further the story? Is it full of wordy phrasings? Does it carry emotional risk? Subject your new edits and additions to the same scrutiny that you subjected the first draft to.

It may sound boring, but we’re almost at the end of the marathon, writers. You want every passage in your story to be held up to the same high standard, and for scenes to feel like they flow from one to the next, not that they’ve been awkwardly stitched together to fix problems and plot holes. So lather, rinse, and repeat today — make sure all the new stuff you’ve added is just as polished as the old stuff that survived the culling.

Editing Challenge Day 26: Shuffle it Up

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Sorry for the delay, readers; this editing post should have appeared yesterday! To stick to our 30-day goal, you’ll receive two editing tips today.

I’m writing from a peaceful writing residency, thinking hard about my own editing and writing challenges. And while I’ve been here, I’ve had an editing revelation of my own. I’ve been trying to move up the drama that unfolds in my own novel, because things really only get going in chapter five. Five chapters in is way too long to expect a reader to be patient and just drift along through the scenery.

So over the past few days, I played around with shuffling things up. Why did I have to be frozen in the order of events as I’d had them? Why couldn’t the events of chapter five happen in chapter two? That’s exactly what I did yesterday; I jimmied a few pieces together and cut or shuffled others, and bam: I had the events of chapter five in chapter two. Now my novel felt immensely and immediately improved. Things were moving and shaking so much earlier than before. The introduction of a crucial character had happened on page 74; now it was happening on page 44. I considered that a big victory.

The good news is that with short stories, it’s even easier to try shuffling things up. Is your absolute favorite bit of the story, the place where the drama really goes down, happening on page ten? Why not have it happen on page five, or page two? Try moving it forward, and fix the chronology problems with flashback or just by skipping unimportant moments. Do you really have to have that conversation unfold in real time, for example?

Play around with your story. Shuffle it around like a deck of cards. One teacher of mine prints out his story so that only one paragraph is on each page; that way he can freely move things around and see how they fit. Try that trick today and see what it gets you.