How do you respond when someone asks you what you do?

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When our Story Intensive teacher Mary Nicholson wrapped her class a few years ago, she told me that I might want to talk to one of her students about getting involved in the program in a bigger way. “I really liked how Tara gave feedback,” Mary said. “She was kind, insightful, and consistent.”

I don’t accept submissions for our school faculty — instead, I wait until I meet someone who comes to the school with the qualities we need. I trust my instincts, and I trust my teachers when they tell me they’ve met someone who might be a teacher, too.

As you might expect, kindness, insight, and consistency can be a rare find in a writing workshop. So I got in touch with Tara, and asked her to teach for us.

I am so glad that I did! Today, it is a pleasure to introduce you to Tara’s writing.

In her Mysterious Middle Draft excerpt, Tara has chosen an interesting narrative angle. The story starts out in a conventional POV, and then it shifts subtly (but directly). This develops the story and the drama in a major way, but without feeling overdone.

I also invite you to read her piece on writing practice. She writes about the sensation that arises in her body when she is writing (I can relate — no matter what draft I’m working on), and how keeping “a bit of awe and wonder in our practice” makes the writing life so much better.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts for Tara in the comments today, and share your observations with her.

Enjoy!

Love,

Sarah Selecky



How do you respond when someone asks you what you do?

Do you confidently tell them that you are a writer? I hope that you do. It took me quite some time before I owned this role. I felt like I needed some kind of permission slip to really become a “writer.” But eventually, I realized that there is one single, solitary requirement to being a writer, and that is…. that you write.

I remember reading an interview with Junot Diaz in which he was asked how winning the Pulitzer had affected him and he answered, “…as a writer? Not so much. In the end it’s still just me and the blank page, me sitting down trying to figure out how to write this damn thing, you know?” I found this to be extremely comforting, this commonality, this kindred experience. All of the writers that I love reading, writers that inspired me to begin (and continue) writing, they are doing it the same way that I am. Pen in hand, open notebook before them, trusting the words that come out on the page.

I am heartened, at times, by the simplicity of it all — as writers, our job is really just to show up. And listen. And keep showing up. It is important to develop a healthy writing practice that works for you. Everyone’s looks a little different, but whether you write at a desk or in a park, count words or minutes (or neither), type everything onto your laptop or write with a quill and ink, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is sustainable and, hopefully, enjoyable for you. (P.S. If you are struggling to develop a consistent and enjoyable practice, The Story Intensive includes a Master Class with Frances Phillips about Finding Flow and Creating Habits for Writers that is absolutely brilliant.)

There is this sensation that arises when creating — a quickening, a little hum of energy, a sensation of joy. It often drives me right out of my chair and makes me pace around my house for a few minutes before I can continue. It’s this, this energy, this joy that motivates me to continue. I’m not suggesting that we aren’t working hard as writers — we most definitely are, and that should be celebrated, too. It’s just that, if we can maintain a bit of awe and wonder in our practice, the going seems a bit easier. So, focus on the joy and maybe, next time you are feeling a little too alone, imagine your favourite writer somewhere, smoothing out a fresh new page in his or her notebook and putting pen to paper. Just like you.


Meet Tara

Tara Born and raised in Southwestern Ontario, Tara now lives and writes in Toronto, Ontario. When she is not revelling in the joy of first drafts, or trying to avoid second ones, she works as a Paediatric Speech Language Pathologist and spends time with her family of two small people, one big one, and one medium-sized dog.  

Handwriting or computer?

First drafts and full re-writes always by hand.  

Page count or time count?

Sometimes time count, never page count!  

First drafts or revision?

I’m in love with first drafts — the blank page is my favourite prompt. I am a “reluctant reviser.”  

Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

I’ve always written in solitude, but I recently heard Kelly Link speak about her practice of writing in a room with others and I found it intriguing…  

Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Quiet, but no earplugs — I am too easily distracted by the sound of my own heartbeat.


Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today.

This excerpt comes from a story about a character that has been rattling around in my head for some time. Dani is a teenager growing up in a small-town, in perhaps less than ideal circumstances. She maintains an element of innocence and optimism even though the circumstances of her life should have left her with none. Her vision of what is “good” in the world may be slightly skewed, but she does continue to see beauty.

 

Excerpt from "I Would Have Called You Lexi"
by Tara Bragg

When I lived with Pauline, our apartment always smelled like fruit that had gone bad, which was funny since there was never any fruit inside of it. Mostly just cases and cases of empty bottles of Labatt’s Blue. Actually, there was never a whole lot of any kind of food at Pauline’s — I learned how to cook rice when I was pretty young, though. Every once in a while, she would come home with a loaf of Wonder Bread and we would eat it spread with peanut butter and folded in half, crust first, saving the soft pillow in the middle for last. Usually, I just ate spoonfuls of peanut butter, alone. I wasn’t her first baby, or her last. Just the only one that stuck.

Before she got sick, Nana Bea used to come by on Sundays and tidy up. I remember for a long time I thought she was called Nana B, like there was a Nana A somewhere and Nana B was the second-string grandma. Nana Bea always smelled like Polish sausage when she hugged me — spicy and thick. It was nice. Nana’s house was small and clean with a carpet the colour that oceans are in storybooks. The couch was white with orange flowers and felt scratchy, like sitting on a beach towel with sand on it. It always smelled like something good — strawberries that she was making into jam, or vinegar for bread and butter pickles, or sometimes something she was baking, like windmill cookies. I tried to bake cookies once at Dwayne’s apartment, but I didn’t know any recipes so they turned out like a thin burnt sheet and melted the handle of the pan I cooked them in.

My favourite was when Nana would wash my hair in the sink in the old hairdressing salon she had in her basement. The water was always warm and my eyes wanted to close when she rubbed the shampoo behind my ears. It still smelled like permanent solution down there, even though she had stopped doing ladies’ hair when I was two.

If I knew you were coming, I wouldn’t have taken that money from under Nana’s mattress.

The year I turned nine, Nana Bea started to call me “Pauline” all the time, and kept looking for a cat that I never knew she had. Pretty soon after that, she had to move into an apartment building beside the hospital. Pauline only took me there once, but Nana didn’t know who we were so we left pretty quickly. There was no funeral for Nana Bea.

I still don’t know how to whistle, tie a shoelace, or braid hair. If I knew you were coming, I would have learned to do all that stuff, but I never had anyone to teach me. No-one told me that picking my zits would leave all these little holes in my face. Or how far to go up when you shave your legs. For a long time, my knees had bangs where I stopped shaving. I didn’t wear a bra until I was 15 and my gym teacher handed me one inside a plastic bag in the changeroom after a volleyball lesson.

I would have made sure that you knew all about those things.


Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.

Discussion:

  • What remains with you after reading Tara’s work?
  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt — and more importantly, why it’s working?
  • How is your own writing practice like Tara’s? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Tara!


What do you write when the world feels insane?
How do you make time to write?

17 comments

rea tarvydas

i'm responding to the repetition "if i knew you were coming" and it strikes a chord in me. i enjoy being addressed in writing. but it's more than that. there's something deep in the phrasing and it brings up different questions for me. is this written after an encounter that goes sideways? in the panic before that encounter? now i want to hear Dani in dialogue.
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Karen Levine Egee

What a lovely, tender excerpt. The wistful tone of the narrator's voice remembering the child who savored even the tiniest of 'wonder'ful experiences stayed with me. "Every once in a while, she would come home with a loaf of Wonder Bread and we would eat it spread with peanut butter and folded in half, crust first, saving the soft pillow in the middle for last." Also the profound sadness for the child of the loss of even the small crumbs of pleasure or goodness in the child's life, like the loss of Nanna Bea's mind and then her life, and she after all only came by on Sundays. The detailed and sensory rich descriptions of the child's pleasure in small anticipated regular experiences like having her hair washed reminds me in the best of ways of the child's perspective in Emma Donohughe's Room.
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This is just beautiful. I love the mixture of the lack of awareness Dani had as a child and how direct she is in describing complex things "...Nana Bea started to call me Pauline all the time..." This contrasts so well with her awareness as an adult -or at least later in her life- looking back on her childhood and saying "if I knew you were coming" to someone, presumably her own child? I love that we have to deduce this ourselves. I also am dying to know about the money under the mattress! Thank you for letting us read this. I really enjoyed it.
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Diana Radovan

What a beautiful and warm spotlight, Tara! Thank you for sharing. I really liked the repetition "If I knew you were coming(...)". A bit like "I would like to do better, but this is who I am and look, I can try, but there are still all these things I cannot do, but they make me me." One image that stays with me is "For a long time, my knees had bangs where I stopped shaving." But there are many other details, including the way you engage smell, and create a certain softness through the use of language. I also feel like this is a character who has experienced loss and hasn't had a motherly figure around growing up, in her early years, yet nonetheless has developed and preserved a certain warmth and tenderness. I feel like she is a multilayered character who has just started unpeeling in front of us. And I love the contrast between all the things she cannot do right or had to teach herself and the bragging about the ability to cook rice in the beginning. I feel like she is a real character, someone I would like to get closer to, maybe even have as a friend one day. Your writing feels pure and beautiful.
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I agree with all that is said above. You've done the hardest bit: created a sympathetic character that we can relate to and care about, and you've got me curious. Impressive! Did she get in trouble over the cookies or was Pauline passed out? I absolutely love 'I wasn't her first or last baby, just the one that stuck." This is pretty profound and here I admire your restraint and how you let it dangle: There but for the grace of God go I. She's the one that lived. Or that didn't get taken away by Social Services. Lucky her. And aren't we all buffeted by the winds of chance, sometimes stripped and whipped. I really want to know her story and if she'll be okay, just with that one sentence. Brava.
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Rea, Thank you so much for reading and sharing your response to this excerpt. It's lovely to hear that this piece has led to so many questions for you - I'm hoping that will mean that you'd like to read on to have the questions answered. Interesting that I shared an excerpt absent of any dialogue - I hadn't even realized that until now. Thank you for your thoughts.
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Oh Karen, what a tremendous compliment to have my work compared with Emma Donohughe"s - thank you! Thank you also, for noting those sensory details that resonated for you. It's interesting, several readers of this story have noticed themes relating to food throughout - I'm always amazed what shows up in a story without us even realizing that it was growing there. Thank you for reading.
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Thank you for reading, Caroline. Ah, the mattress - Dani dropped so many threads as I wrote her! This story originated from one of the exercises from The Story Course (100 sentences), and I found so many little pieces of Dani and her backstory as I wrote. Thank you so much for sharing your response.
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Hi Diana! Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on this piece. It is so wonderful to hear what elements resonated for other writers. I workshopped this story over the summer, and am anxious to get back to it after having feedback from my group and now, all of the writers commenting here. Thanks so much for your thoughts.
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Stephen D. Forman

It's identified as an excerpt, but I'm perfectly content to read this as a self-contained vignette. I don't feel the need for a before, or an after. It's just so sweet and wistful as is. Perhaps I'm just nervous that the edges will get scuffed by something dirtier and less pristine. Well done use of smell, as Diana noted above. I'm always self-conscious to employ a sense-of-smell-metaphor, but yours were particularly evocative and apt. Thanks for sharing, Tara. Good stuff!
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Shannon Alberta

This excerpt squeezed my heart, so hard. Especially with that repetition. I could feel her shame each time she said it, even though none of it was her fault! I'm hooked. I want more!
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Cathy Rouse

You convey so much of her back story without making it feel like an info dump. That is something I haven't achieved yet in my writing. This is filled with so much emotion. I love how the narrator lets us know what a crappy life she has had, but doesn't place blame or feel sorry for herself. She's just stating the truth. "If I knew you were coming" made me feel that she could possibly be pregnant and feels like she's not equipped to teach a child all the things she was never taught. I would love to read this!
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Tracy, thank you so much for your thoughts. I love the sentiment around "And aren’t we all buffeted by the winds of chance, sometimes stripped and whipped. " I feel like this is so suited to Dani. She has lived in the familiarity of neglect and disorder, but remains rather pragmatic about it and does not feel self-pity (though, hasn't she earned at least that?!) Thanks for reading!
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Hi Stephen, Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I'm glad that this excerpt was able to stand alone for you and give you a sense of the greater story - it can be so difficult to select something that holds meaning without the surrounding story. It is wonderful to hear you use the word "sweet", despite all of the elements that are, really, less-than-sweet - that is my hope for Dani! Thanks for reading.
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Thanks Shannon! So glad the repetition is working for you - I'm still kicking it around in the full story trying to make sure I haven't gone over-board on it. Thanks so much for reading and commenting - I'm excited to get back at this one.
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Cathy, thank you so much for your comments. It is lovely to hear that you are seeing Dani the same way as I am - sort of matter-of-fact about the chaos that has permeated her young life. I did recently workshop this story, so revisions are underway and hopefully the full story will be ready to read soon! Thank you for reading.
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Diana Radovan

I've been meeting quite a few writers these days who call themselves "aspiring writers", which I think is a form of self-censorship (a label that may sometimes be coming from the kind of person who should be a mentor but isn't, at least not in a larger, true sense). I meet writers who are eagerly rushing towards publishing, but not towards sitting down with themselves and doing the deep work first. I get it: the first one is sometimes easier to achieve than the latter. Now, I can direct them to your essay to make my point stronger. We are all beginning again and again before the blank page.
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