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More thoughts about Agnes: a cost-benefit analysis of womanhood

Some of my friends and acquaintances who've read Seeking the Center have remarked that they "liked Agnes at the end" of the story -- which is interesting to me, because, does that mean they didn't like her at the beginning?

It ties in with a feeling I've had all along about Agnes, and about the way the book ends. I feel sad that, in some ways, at least, she "settles." Sometimes I worry that, maybe, she's not the girl-hero that I initially envisioned, routed for, and loved.

I think I understand what those readers mean, though. Agnes does "grow up." She becomes (visibly) less angry, more "likeable." There are positives there, surely, but there's also a loss, because that anger was not only a driving force in her psyche -- it was righteous.

As a woman -- and this may apply as well to other people who exist outside of society's dominant culture -- your anger doesn't ever get resolved. It doesn't disappear, either. You only "choose" to deal with it in different ways, ways that allow you to "grow up" and "move forward," but that also cause you to bury parts of yourself and your experience.

So, do I "like Agnes at the end" better than I did at the beginning? I don't know. I do think she is more compassionate, more emotionally intelligent. There is an upside to this change, and part of the benefit, I hope, will accrue to her. But what is the cost, not only to her as an individual person with only one life to live, but multiplied out across society? What is the cost of millions of Agneses "growing up" and "moving forward," while leaving their anger unaddressed, unanswered, unresolved?

It makes me think of the famous Langston Hughes poem. What does happen to a dream deferred?

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A game that "really" matters

Writing Seeking the Center was both fun and agonizing. Some of the plot lines seemed to resolve themselves without my intervention, while others were harder to manage. The central question was the most difficult to answer: How can Agnes, excluded from her ideal of "playing for points" in "real" games because of her sex, find a way to play hockey that satisfies her?

In solving this problem I had to work within the constraints of reality. A "Disney-esque" ending, as my editor put it, wouldn't be believable. Seeking was never meant to be one of those sports stories climaxing with the protagonist's victory against all odds in the "big game." Instead, the final game becomes a pitched battle between Agnes and her own fears.

Ultimately, Agnes does find a new way to play the game she loves. And although this new hockey exists outside of the "real" game to which she once aspired, it satisfies her need to play a game of consequence - a game that "really" matters.

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Agnes, Maria Campbell, and the light inside

Who is Agnes, protagonist of Seeking the Center? Where did she come from? The short answer is, I don't know. 

She's not autobiographical. I have never been as tough, as brave, or as smart-assed as she is. (I only wish I was!)

I've mentioned that she began, partly, as a question about being female in the overwhelmingly male world of ice hockey. And that's certainly true.

Ultimately, though, a lot of things entered into the mix that became Agnes's character. And while I will never uncover all of them, I can say that one major inspiration is the life of Maria Campbell, a Métis woman who persevered through extreme difficulties to become a writer, a teacher, a much-respected elder, and an advocate for Métis and women's rights.

 I found Campbell's  Halfbreed  by chance, browsing the stacks at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, and I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to whomever it was that sold their used copy to Powell's! The autobiography is riveting and a must-read for  everyone .

I found Campbell's Halfbreed by chance, browsing the stacks at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, and I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to whomever it was that sold their used copy to Powell's! The autobiography is riveting and a must-read for everyone.

Campbell was born in 1940 in Park Valley, SK, a poor Road Allowance community. (Unlike other Aboriginal groups, the Métis were not granted rights to land under treaties with the Canadian government, so many were forced to squat on "road allowances" - Crown lands set aside for future roadways.) At age 33 she wrote Halfbreed, an autobiography documenting her life up until that time. In Halfbreed, Campbell never shies away from the poverty, alcoholism, violence, addiction, racism, and sexism that she faced, but she nevertheless manages to portray some of the beauty of her Métis culture and the love that existed within her family, troubled though it may have been.

While devastating at times, Halfbreed remains a testament to the dignity and spirit that people can possess, nurture, and share in defiance of even the direst circumstances and the most heartless enemies. Campbell has this light within herself, and she also has the ability to find it, and to inspire it, in others. In spite of people who fail her, and circumstances that drag her down, she retains the ability to love and to trust others, and to parlay that love into something that can sustain and nourish.

Agnes doesn't experience the hardship and desperation that Campbell did, but she has the same light inside her. And in Seeking the Center, she learns to find it and use it, for her own good and for the good of others.

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Some notes on ‘Chief’ as a (hockey) nickname

In Seeking the Center, there’s a scene where Claude is referred to as “Chief” by an opponent:

Good thing you got ol' Chief there to look out for you, eh MacKenzie?

It's not meant as a compliment, either for MacKenzie, who, it is implied, is not man enough to stand up for himself, or for Claude, whom the opponent tries to belittle by referring to him by the racial stereotype “Chief.”

Hockey nicknames are known for their unimaginative-ness, and while researching Seeking, I quickly learned that “Chief” is, or was at one time, the go-to for First Nations/Native American/Métis players of hockey - and other sports as well. According to Don Marks, author of They Call Me Chief: Warriors on Ice, “almost every Indian who played in the NHL or anywhere else has been called ‘Chief' at one time or another.”

Jim Neilson, who played in the NHL in the 1960s and 1970s, told Marks,

I’ve been called Chief all my life, everywhere else I go. In hockey, you know that your teammates were calling you Chief in a friendly, natural sort of way. But then you would play guys from other teams and you knew it wasn’t so friendly. Most of it was just during the heat of the battle and they were trying to throw you off your game and you just ignore it.

Stan Jonathan, Mohawk/Tuscarora NHL forward from 1976-1983, said, also to Don Marks,

They called me Little Chief and I didn’t mind that. It was when they called me ‘wahoo’ or ‘F#$%’n little Indian’ that I didn’t like [it]...

Judging from Neilson’s and Jonathan’s comments, the context of the name-calling could influence players' feelings about it. But also, as Jonathan indicates, the term “Chief,” while intended to isolate, belittle, and ridicule a person on the basis of race, might have been different, in some sense, than other slurs.

Year in Nam is Leroy TeCube's memoir of the year he served as a G.I. in Vietnam. (I also wrote about it in an earlier post.) Like Jim Neilson and Stan Jonathan, TeCube, a Jicarilla Apache man, was given the nickname “Chief” by his "teammates," i.e. the soldiers in his platoon.

When I joined the platoon it consisted mostly of white GIs, followed by blacks and Hispanics. I was the only American Indian. Someone asked, ‘What race are you? You look like an Indian.'

TeCube describes how he discussed his tribal affiliation with the guys, until finally one of them says, “In that case we’ll call you ‘Chief.’” TeCube answers him, “In my traditional way the title of chief is earned and shown respect.” He then recalls: 

Most of the guys would call me Chief from then on, although a handful of individuals called me by my real name. Up until that moment throughout my training no one even suggested calling me Chief. I wondered why that was so. Perhaps because as trainees we were used to being treated as animals and were addressed by our last names. Now here in Vietnam everyone had an identity. 

Regardless of how the name was intended, TeCube chooses how he will take it - he re-appropriates it - and throughout his service in Vietnam he works hard to live up to the name “chief” and what it means to him and his traditional beliefs. He writes:

I also thought of my new responsibility from my Jicarilla Apache way...the short translation of Nahn Tahn is leader. A more indepth translation, however, describes it as someone who is also an orator. He tells his people what happened in battle or what is about to happen to them next...being Nahn Tahn was something to be feared. Only the very strong took on the responsibility. One had to set a good example and ensure that the needs of everyone in his group were met before he thought of himself. He must never be corrupted or gain wealth from his position. The main criteria were that he never retreat in battle and he show a lot of courage. He had to be the first one into a conflict, and if need be, he would fight single-handedly with an enemy leader…

Towards the end of his time in Vietnam, TeCube recalls “meeting a fellow soldier who was Navajo...as we talked I realized he was also a leader within his platoon and was also called Chief. This gave me a good feeling, knowing that another individual lived up to the name.”

Finally, TeCube is awarded sergeant’s stripes. He writes: 

That day I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment. I never expected to be a sergeant when I entered the army. Now I had orders in my hand stating just that. I also knew that I had earned the rank….It took a little time before I got used to being called sergeant or sarge. Some called me Sergeant TeCube. Most of the time I still went by Chief or Sergeant Chief. This had more meaning. According to my traditional beliefs, I had now earned the right to be called Chief.

TeCube - along with all of his platoon-mates - quickly recognizes the futility of the Vietnam War, but, having no choice in the matter, he takes it as an obstacle to overcome, just as he takes the moniker given to him, "Chief," as a personal challenge. And while I didn't know about TeCube and hadn't read his story when I was writing Seeking, I like the way that, without knowing it, the player who calls Claude "Chief" unwittingly points to certain facets of Claude's character and aspirations, facets that don't come to light until later in the story. Claude feels that he has little choice but to play what he thinks of as "this white man's game," and while, like TeCube, he is certainly aware of racism and the obstacles it places in his path, he soldiers on, keeping his identity, self-respect, and dignity intact.

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Guys playing sports: an early passage from Seeking the Center

I wrote this little piece several years ago, when I was just starting to work on Seeking the Center. It's about young guys playing sports.

By the end of the lazy summer I'm glad to get back to town. To the cool of the rink, the smells of moldering, wet wool and sharp sweat, the sling-shot jocks, the jostling of us guys packed together in our stalls, buzzing and slamming like too many molecules, loud with joking and laughing and trash-talking. Where else would we go? What other place is left for us? The big, slick ice, the dark tunnel, the dank, crowded dressing room: they’ve made those places for us.
Outside, they’ve taken down the goals. Like a fish out of water, my form seems unsuited, my strength, outsize. It’s like when I was a kid and my mamma would say, what am I ever going to do with you? I was too fast, too heavy, too hard, too strong, too loud, too coarse, and too excitable to have in the house. It couldn’t hold me. I didn’t stop when she said stop. My words grated on the ears; my shirttail fluttered. Not fit for civilized society. That’s what she’d say. She was only joking, but I think it might be true.
I’ve heard that in the old days, they set the goals a town apart, fields apart, forests apart. That would’ve suited me great. Back then the earth was our playing field. One goal was just over the hill, far side of the schoolhouse; the other, across the stream and through the muskeg. We’d run through the brush, our feet on fire, our battles real.
But somehow it got too small for us out there, and so they’ve put us inside. Kind of funny, eh? Maybe it’s for the best; maybe it’s for our own good. Now we’re a show, a museum piece, and people pay to see us. They don’t have to have us in the house, or in town, or terrorizing the schoolmarms, or trampling the fields or trudging through the muskeg, getting mud on our shoes. Now we’re contained. It’s cleaner this way. 

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How long does it take to write a novel?

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So, how long did it take you to write Seeking the Center? I get that question regularly. I wish I had kept track of the hours, but of course I didn't. For the first two to four years I didn't even know that I was writing it! But, here's my best (although rather long and rambling) answer to the question:

The first glimmers started in 2008-2009. My notes - the ones I can find - date back to 2010. My characters started to come into existence during summer vacation 2010, and the earliest passages that I wrote date to 2010 or 2011. The year 2012 was kind of a lost year, for various reasons, but during the spring and summer of 2013 I did a ton of research, and I wrote the bulk of the story during the academic year 2013-2014. In the fall of 2014 I found an editor who wanted to work with me on it (sheer luck!) and we worked on and off (she had other projects going) from early 2015 until mid 2016 - outlining and re-outlining, adding and deleting sections, revising, editing, proofreading, etc. - until the book was ready for publication in the fall of 2016.

 

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La belle Françoise: the evolution of a traditional song

"La belle Françoise" is a song that appears in Seeking the Center and on my Seeking the Center playlist. I think its background is interesting, and I want to share it with you. 

When I was writing Achille's main scene in Seeking, I looked for a song that could play a certain role in it. (I won't elaborate on that role, because I don't want to spoil the story.) I wanted a traditional voyageur song, because that is a major part of Achille's background and identity. (The voyageurs were the French Canadian paddlers of the birchbark canoes that carried trade goods north and west into the interior of North America, and brought back loads of furs to the companies in Montreal. They used traditional songs to synchronize their paddling. Most of these songs pre-dated France's first settlements in Quebec, so they date back to the 17th century or earlier.)

"La belle Françoise" appears in sources including Grace Lee Nute's The Voyageur and Thomas R. Draughon's Canot d'Écorce: Chansons de Voyageurs. Though it isn't the song most associated with the voyageurs, I chose it because of its minor key, which gives it a melancholy mood, and because of its lyrics, which dramatize the impending separation of two lovers.

In the song, Françoise weeps because her man must go to war, but he assures her that, if she waits for him, he will return and marry her. Their plight echoes the situations of some of my characters. Although it is not actual war that they are going to, they are facing unknown and sometimes hostile situations, away from their homeplaces.

You can listen to different versions of the song on YouTube. I chose Garolou's live version for my Seeking the Center playlist mainly because it makes an exciting finale. But it also represents a further evolution of the song that, although it doesn't pertain to Seeking, is interesting in its own right. 

Garolou was a French-Canadian group active in the 1970s that often took traditional French and French-Canadian chansons (songs) and gave them modern, rock settings. "La belle Françoise" was an early hit for them (mid 1970s). You can hear how they've contemporized it with a Vietnam-era anti-war message by inserting an intense version of "La Marseillaise." The Seeking the Center playlist version is from Garolou's 1997 live Réunion album.

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Romance, girl power and the Women's March

Romance novels sometimes get a bum rap - denigrated for taking on "trivial" subjects such as love and relationships. And, let's be real: the fact that the majority of their audience is female also earns them a fair amount of disrespect.

I've had enough of this. These so-called "women's issues"  - the issues that concern the creation of families, reproduction, and nurturing - are indisputably central to human life. Let's not allow them to be marginalized.

But I digress (slightly).

Not every novel has to be serious. A thriller in which a secret agent saves the world from an evil overlord can be flighty and fun, and that's fine. By the same token, romance per se is not trivial. It can be quite weighty.

Early on in Seeking the Center, Agnes identifies the force against which she will struggle during the course of the novel. She muses: 

Dad didn't want her to move to Wapahaska. He was afraid that she would never come back. From Wapahaska she would be lured to Thompson, or some other big city, a place that had mutated, like the cannibal Windigo of the old stories, into a silent, howling flash-freeze, parched and ravenous. But instead of feasting on her flesh, it would feast on her spirit.
Agnes was well aware of the dangers, though, and they didn't lurk in any particular geographical location. Being young, female, and brown-skinned meant that she was expendable, and set her up for the worst anyone anywhere cared to dish out. Huddling in fear at home in St. Cyp was no guarantee of safety, much less of vanquishing Windigo and feeding her own spirit.

Traditionally, Windigo is the cannibal spirit of the Algonquin tribes of sub-Arctic Canada, a place where, during the long, cold winters, starvation often threatened. In that difficult environment, in what must rank as one of the cruelest reversals imaginable, Windigo could possess a person so that, instead of feeding their family, that person would eat their family. Notice that the primary issue wasn't that Windigo could cause death, but rather that it could unravel our most important relationships and interdependencies. It could undermine the very foundation of society itself, and threaten the survival of humankind. 

During the centuries since Europeans first came to North America, Windigo has come to represent the greed of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism which, in the words of scholar Grace Dillon, "makes sense because imperialism is cannibalism: the consumption of one people by another." (In my mind, at least, this links up with the longstanding, tragic issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women: these women have simply been consumed.) In Agnes's mind - and in her father's - Windigo is a force that threatens to swallow her up, either physically, spiritually or both.

What I didn't know when I first wrote Seeking the Center was the degree to which, in the traditional Windigo stories, the spirit targets women - often young women - by disrupting their potential marriages and their reproductive and nurturing roles. Windigo was no dummy - it struck at the very heart of the family and therefore of society. But what I also didn't know was that, in those same stories, women are the people most able to defeat Windigo, using tools and attributes associated with their traditional roles: i.e., pots, pans, knives, bodily fluids, and that extra-special something they possess when menstruating.

I bring all this up to say that these northern people put young women and their relationships front and center in the battle for the preservation of society. In Seeking, as in romance in general, the characters are looking to create relationships and, the implication often is, become a family unit, thus perpetuating society and humankind. Male as well as female - people of any gender - these romance characters win their personal battles to the extent that they engage their nurturing impulses, their capacity for love.

As Claude the hockey enforcer says in Seeking, "There's fighting on the outside, but the inside battle is what it's about. You know, taking care of each other." 

Which brings us to today, January 21, 2017, the start of a new era. Windigo threatens. Let's get out our pots and pans, and whatever we've got, and march, and fight. Our families and our society are depending on us.

 

 

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Rink air vs. outside air: an early passage from Seeking the Center

I wrote this passage, I think, in 2010. Or maybe 2009. It was some of the first writing I did related to Seeking the Center (although it is not in the published book). At the time, I was thinking about the cyclical nature of a hockey life - a nomadic sort of existence where you move from place to place with the seasons. You earn money playing during the winter, and then return to farm or factory to earn your keep during the summer. I was thinking about these two modes of existence, equal parts of your livelihood - and your personhood. How are they different from one another? 

During practice the sounds pinball: the digging and scraping of steel blades into the ice, the rattling fright of the puck against the boards, the clattering of sticks, the whoops and calls of the boys. But as soon as we turn to go, and our skate blades sink mutely into the rubber-mat path that leads to the dressing room, the sounds cease their ricocheting and hang quiet like bats in a cave. Because the hard rink air is as empty as an icicle. There's nothing in it but itself.
    When the season is over I go home. There the air is full. It holds the scents of grasses and flowers and animals and dirt; it holds bird songs and wind rustlings and ghost rustlings. Yes, ghosts - in the air and even on the ground. Because there, every mark ever made, every footfall, every poop leaves its trace. Not like in the rink, where every hour or two a machine comes to clean up and scrape away. In there - it's like Coach says - let yesterday's game go, play today's game. But outside the rink there's no machine to scrape it all away. Outside, every trace remains.
    It’s slow-going at home. Instead of the slick, easy surface of the ice there are stones and tall tangled weeds and gopher holes. But there is solace in the slowness: there is space to slip away, time to remember. My legs swish through the hayfield and the grasshoppers make way. In the afternoon I retreat to the thick shade that lines the river and I cool off in the murky water, a big, naked muskrat with a trailing, sliver wake. I add my heavy step to the scurried histories of my brethren, impressed on the mudflat. From my fleshy prints they know me, and take me as their own.

 

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Seeking the Center playlist

Some of the songs that were there for me as I was writing Seeking the Center:

  1. Whatta Man - Salt-N-Pepa
  2. Silver River - Shingoose (poetry by Duke Redbird)
  3. You Really Got Me - The Kinks
  4. When a Man Loves a Woman - Percy Sledge
  5. Look How the Stars Shine for You - Randy Wood
  6. Wild Horses - The Rolling Stones
  7. How You Like Me Now - The Heavy
  8. A Case of You - Joni Mitchell
  9. Heart of Stone - The Rolling Stones
  10. Road to Batoche - Jimmie LaRocque, Gerry McIvor, Kim Chartrand
  11. I'll Be There - The Jackson 5
  12. Never Never Blues - John Trudell
  13. La belle Françoise - Garolou

Here's a link to the Spotify playlist.

UPDATE: I can't believe I forgot about "What's Love Got To Do With It?" (Tina Turner) - a song that actually appears in Seeking the Center. Just like "Heart of Stone," it should have made it onto the playlist for sure. Remember? Jamie sings it while dancing into in the dressing room just before he meets Deuce for the first time. Anyhow, I snuck it in between The Jackson 5 and John Trudell on the Spotify playlist. Sorry about that!

 

 

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Who's my favorite character?

Someone just asked me to name my favorite character in Seeking the Center. This is tough. I love all my characters. But, while I reserve the right to change my mind without notice, at this moment I'd have to say that Claude (a.k.a Deuce) is my favorite. Why? Well, what's not to like?

As Achille says, "he's big, he's strong, he's--". And then the poor guy starts coughing and can't finish his sentence. But you can fill in the blank.

As Agnes notes, "Wow."

And as far as Owen is concerned, "even though he liked old Deuce, and respected him, it pained him to remember the Wolves' dressing room, and being up close and personal with the big guy and his goddamn perfect muscles and his huge, fighter's hands and his golden skin and all the rest of it."

But, beyond the admirable physical specimen that he is, what I love most about Claude is his courageous, straight-ahead nature. He doesn't let concerns about consequences stop him from doing what he needs to do. He's not afraid to drop the gloves, but he doesn't hesitate to offer his hand to a person in need, either. He's not too good to yank your chain when the occasion calls for it, but he's not above laughing at himself, either.

Above all, he doesn't blame other people for his problems. And while he's a player in what he thinks of as "this white man's game," he is his own person. In his own quiet but deliberate way, he makes things happen. (Except on the one occasion when he needs a little push. But you'll have to read about that for yourself.)

And that's why I love Claude.

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Tuning in to my characters

I often feel that my characters are already there, even before I begin writing. My job is to tune in to them, as if I'm fiddling with a radio dial to get a clear signal. Like a radio,  I become a conduit through which my characters' voices travel from there to here.

Occasionally a scene seems to be just waiting for me to catch it. It coalesces when I first wake up in the morning, or maybe in the middle of the night, and I scramble to comprehend it and scribble it down before it vanishes. Then, as time goes on, I have to figure out where it belongs in the story. Sometimes that's a puzzle.

When I was writing Seeking the Center, one of the last scenes in the story came to me very early on, and I thought I had the ending all figured out. But as I continued writing, I began to realize that I was wrong, and things ended up very differently than I had initially thought they would.

The scene itself remained, though, as it still does in the final version - the core of it almost exactly as I first wrote it down. What no longer made sense for one character, made perfect sense for another. 

I have wondered what happened in the interim. Did my characters purposefully defy my expectations? Was I - perhaps subconsciously - trying to use them to further some hidden agenda of my own, and they rebelled? Or did I just not know them as well as I thought I did?

Maybe it was just a faulty radio.

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On (bad) language

We were finalizing the manuscript of Seeking when my editor suddenly balked at my use of a certain four-letter word beginning with the letter "c." It had been there for months, if not years, so I was a little taken aback. And yes, it's offensive (although I understand that in Australia it's sometimes used as a term of endearment) but uttered by a 20-some-odd year-old male hockey player as a deliberately ugly way to get under an opponent's skin, it hardly seemed over the top.

In the end, my editor agreed with me, but she did ask me to tone down some of the other language in the story, and I, ever trying to make it my policy not to be defensive, tried to be open to the suggestion.

I had figured that the "f-word" would be the most concerning to her, but she pinpointed the use of "goddamn" as most troublesome. And when I actually counted and discovered that there were no fewer than 65 (!) instances of this word in the novel, I couldn't disagree, at least on the grounds of sheer overuse.

But how to proceed? I started by categorizing them. Some of the "goddamns" were there for emphasis or rhythm. These tended to be hardest to remove or replace, because rhythm is important to me, and once I get a certain rhythm in my head, it's difficult to change. Other "goddamns" were used as adjectives or adverbs. When I looked more closely at these, I felt that some were more justified than others. There were some cases in which, if the offending word was removed or replaced, the writing would be improved. But there were also cases where I felt it wouldn't be.

Sometimes, using "goddamn" as a modifier seemed like an excuse to not think of a more specific word. For example, this phrase:

...number three, for being such a goddamn good hockey player that he'd had to move far, far away;

is actually more lively and more descriptive this way:

...number three, for being such a ridiculously good hockey player that he'd had to move far, far away.

And it's easy to imagine Agnes thinking exactly that. On the other hand, in this case --

Is that really all she wanted? To go to that goddamn party?

-- it's difficult to think of a replacement adjective that would express everything that the "goddamn" expresses. That silly party? That lousy party? That overrated party? That overhyped party? That occasion that is, at the root of it, just a bunch of guys standing around eating and drinking together because they're lonely and single and have nothing better to do? The point is, there are a lot of things on Owen's mind at this moment in the story, and I think it's better to let the reader use the unspecific "goddamn" as an opportunity to conjure those things, than for me to pin it down, reducing it to just one idea. Also, it's hard to imagine Owen's thoughts containing any of those replacement adjectives.

In the end, I removed more than a third of the "goddamns" -- although my editor ended up questioning some of the removals, which led us to reinsert some of them. I also largely rewrote one of the book's scenes using my new criteria. All in all, I think that reconsidering the language improved the storytelling, and I learned some things from doing it. 

What do you think? Are there too many "goddamns" and the like in Seeking the Center? I'd be curious to know!

 

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The hardest part of writing

At a book signing, someone asked me "what was the hardest part of writing this book?" I didn't have a great answer at the time, but I've been thinking about it ever since.

The hardest thing might simply be having faith. Faith that, if you devote a good chunk of time, energy, and thought, every day, for many, many days, you will eventually end up with something.

It's relatively easy to keep the faith when things are going well, when you're in the flow of your work, when you're feeling confident. It's harder when you hit a rough spot. In that regard, writing is no different than anything else.

It's hard to believe in yourself. And it's hard to be selfish enough to keep at it. I always have doubts - especially when I'm sacrificing financially and postponing things that need doing around the house to spend my time writing. That's why I'm so grateful to have family who have been unfailingly supportive, and friends who say, without a hint of skepticism, "wow, you're writing a novel? That's great!"

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A visit with some awesome sixth graders

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with some sixth graders who were, in the words of their teachers, beginning a unit in which they would "look at the past through the lenses of both historical fiction and factual information." They asked me to speak with them briefly about how I used research in writing Seeking the Center.

Seeking the Center takes place in the 1990s, so it's not a deeply historical novel. But because my characters are very much affected by past events, I did quite a bit of research on the history of their region.

The students were bright and engaged and asked great questions. I thoroughly enjoyed being with them and I hope they got a sense of how much fun it is to let your natural interest and curiosity lead you, from one source to another, into a whole new (or old) time and place!

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Do the little things

A week ago tonight I celebrated the release of Seeking the Center with friends and family here in the town where I live. When I was thinking about the evening ahead of time, I wanted to be sure to thank my guests properly for all the support they've given me over the years. 

There's the support that came in the form of encouragement, and questions about my progress as I made my way through the process of researching, writing, editing and publishing. But there's also been support on a deeper level.

In hockey, there's a stock phrase - one of those hockey cliches - that is often applied to players who aren't necessarily flashy, but who are consistent, reliable, and conscientious. They are said to "do the little things." Implied in that is a type of faith - faith that those "little things" will add up to success for the team in the long run.

I'm lucky to live in a community where we're not only privileged to begin with - we are, and we can't forget that - but also, where so many are committed to "doing the little things": volunteering in the community, in the schools, and with our kids' sports teams; taking an interest in each other and looking out for each other. It's worth noting that many of us are also, in this Washington, DC, suburb, career government servants who work hard every day for the people of our country and the world.

We don't expect some savior to come in and score the winning goal off some flashy play. But we have faith that, if we all try to do the little things, it'll mean success for all of us.

In life as in hockey, true awesomeness resides in those who get up every morning, for years and years, and try to make things better, one little thing at a time. Many thanks to everyone who has helped to make this a place where we can enjoy the peace of mind to do what we're inspired to do. And let's keep trying to make things better, both within our little community and beyond.

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Multiple drafts

These are my drafts of Seeking the Center, teetering high atop my bookshelf. The spiral notebooks are where I took notes (when I wasn't using the computer) and worked out ideas. They date back to 2010. The manuscripts pictured here only date back to about 2013. Earlier fragments have ended up in the recycling bin or hidden among endless directories of disorganized computer files.

Now the manuscript has been finalized, published, and released. For better or for worse, it's complete. The characters who have been a part of my life for six or seven years, whose thoughts and feelings became as real as my own, are no longer my daily companions, and I truly miss them. I only hope that you will enjoy them as much as I have!

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Girl literary role models: Before Hermione, there were Harriet and Claudia

Seen at Posman Books in Chelsea Market, Manhattan: a display of New York-related books, including Harriet the Spy (1964) and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967).

These two classics were favorites of mine when I was a girl. Their unapologetically smart, poised, self-assured heroines Harriet M. Welsch and Claudia Kincaid, respectively, were, decades before the appearance of Hermione Granger (1997), among the few girl literary role models in existence--among the few that I deemed worthy, in any case! 

Seeing these books on the shelf was like running into old friends. Never mind the afternoon's unexpected, heavy rain shower--I had a warm glow for the rest of the day.

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