Monday, May 30, 2016

There is no "I" in "Memo"

When you can write reasonably well, you often find yourself in some demand at work, at least if you work in an office-type environment. It would seem (editorial comment warning) that our educational system's focus in recent years on science and engineering at the expense of the arts has resulted in a world where the ability to string words together intelligently, logically, clearly and with some panache is becoming more and more rare.

So I am constantly being asked to review this memo, revise that letter, write an article for the newsletter or "take a look at" whatever document might be passing through the hands of my colleagues and supervisors. As a result, I've been faced with some interesting writing challenges, the most common of which being the task of finding a way to completely rewrite a boss' unintelligible gibberish without upsetting him or her or making him or her feel stupid.

My worst experience came when a very petulant supervisor brought me an extended document, told me it had been written by some other person and asked me to rewrite it on an emergency basis. I went right to work on it and, let me tell you, it was indeed a disaster: unclear, poorly argued, poorly structured and with numerous grammatical and spelling errors. When my supervisor came back 30 minutes later and saw the document bleeding the red of "Track Changes" on my screen, he freaked out. It turned out he had written the document himself and had given it to me thinking it just needed a minor refresh. My relationship with that supervisor was never the same and I eventually had to leave that job to escape his vindictive behaviour.

My most interesting and, honestly, most fun experience came just last week. Friday afternoon, 15 minutes before the end of the work day, my supervisor came to me with a memo he had written on behalf of his boss' new boss. The memo was quite well written -- it was intended to introduce the boss' new boss to her colleagues and did a nice job of it -- but the boss' new boss had apparently objected to the use of the word "I" in the memo. Apparently, this particular senior administrator does not like to use the first person singular pronoun in memos of any kind.

My task: in the remaining 15 minutes of the work week, could I revise the four-paragraph memo so that the word "I" no longer appeared in it and yet it still did its job and made sense?

Do you know how hard it is to write a memo introducing oneself without using the first person singular pronoun? It's hard, let me tell you.

I ended up using a number of "it"s, a couple of "me"s and a bunch of alternative sentence structures that permitted me to make anything but the boss' new boss the subject of a sentence. And I got it done. In ten minutes. I was pretty proud of myself. The memo read well and only a very attentive reader would notice the lengths I went to avoid using the word "I".

My supervisor and his boss agreed that, as a result of the great job I had done on this memo, I deserved the rest of the day off. Nice guys, my bosses!

Friday, May 27, 2016

The little white envelope of rejection

Grant denied.

I'm not surprised, really, that my application for an arts grant has been denied -- I was applying for money to help convert my Christmas novella into a stage play and both my proposal, and my writing career, seemed just a little too multi-disciplinary for the arts board and its jury.

I knew that going in. I knew that the rules of the grant program were such that it would be much easier to establish oneself as a professional writer, and to obtain funding for a future project, by focusing one's work in a single genre of writing. That approach to life, however, just doesn't suit me and my career.

I am a writer of literary works (as opposed to poetic or theatrical works) primarily but I am also published poet, a news and magazine writer, an author of text books and a script writer.

And my proposal attempted to bridge two genres -- literature to theatre.

No go, they said. No cash for you.

I saw the envelope in the mail and I thought, "There it is, my first arts grant rejection letter."

And yet I still felt a little pang of disappointment when I opened the envelope and found those sad sad words: "We regret to inform you..."

Arts grants are important to writers in a number of ways. First, there's the money. Non-writers don't seem to understand the fact that writing costs money. Many people think writing just happens but writers know that there's a lot of money invested when you really want to focus on your writing: you need the materials and equipment, you need to make the effort necessary to do the required research (which often involves travel), you need to take time away from your life (work and home life). All of these involve money, either money spent or money not earned.

But money isn't the only thing of value an arts grant provides a writer. An arts grant, awarded as it is by a recognized body through a juried process, is also a sign of acceptance, of legitimacy, or recognition that you have established yourself as a professional writer.

It's not quite the same as getting your work accepted by a publication or publisher, sure, but it is an important badge of legitimacy, one that can lead to further arts grants potentially to the publication of your work.

I will apply again. I've learned from this experience and I will apply what I've learned to my next grant application. And I think I will stand a better chance of winning a grant because of it.

But that little pang of disappointment still lingers.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book sale Abigail and the great literary circle of life

Sideways view of Book Sale Abigail
I am addicted to used book stores, sales, and stalls. I haunt the stores, frequent the sales, and scour the stalls. I don't often buy much but I love nothing better than to make my way, slowly and quietly, through a collection of used books.

Sure, I come up with the odd find from time to time -- a first edition Ian Fleming, for example, or an autographed Robertson Davies -- but the fun, for me, is simply in the looking, in the feeling that, as a writer of middling success, I might just be permitted to consider myself part of that great, multi-generational community of writers with books out there in the great wide world.

From time to time, I've even permitted myself to wonder what it would be like to find one of my own books amid the stacks and rows. I've known other authors who have found that particular experience to be upsetting and disappointing -- thinking bitterly, "someone didn't like my book well enough to want to keep it".

I always hoped that, upon my own discovery of one of my books in a used book sale, I would be much more positive about the experience.

Well, now I know -- and I'm glad to say, I was and continue to be much more positive.

As is my wont, I visited the local public library's standing book sale in its front lobby on my lunch hour today. I started scanning the collection on offer and felt a quick inhale of breath. That's my first Abigail Massey at McAdam Station book, isn't it? I thought to myself.

Indeed it was. A pristine copy of the first volume of stories, with my own autograph on the title page, dated December 2012. No inscription, just the signature. The date suggests that this copy comes from the original print run of 500 copies (or perhaps the second print run of 250 that was ordered within days of the book's release and rapid sell out).

My honest reaction was excitement -- excitement at seeing my own book out there in the world, among all the other books on sale, fitting in so nicely, yet prettier in its presentation (in my humble opinion).

My second thought was: should I buy it and give it as a gift (or even re-sell it to raise more funds for the Station)? or should I leave it so that (hopefully) someone else will come along and decide to buy it for themselves (or their child) at such a reduced price?

I think the picture at the top of this blog entry probably answers the question for you. I bought it. I put down my dollar and took it with me, feeling quite delighted to have found such a deal!

And now I know. It's a great feeling (at least for me) to think of myself as an author whose work has made its way from the sales table, to the living room table, to the book shelf, then to the used sale shelf at my local library. I am part of the great literary circle of life!