Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Naysayers, deniers and PITAs

Whether you're writing a blog, a column or your autobiography, you're likely basing at least some of what you write on your opinion. Which opens you up to criticism by those who already know you along with those who wouldn't know you from Adam (or Eve for that matter). Perhaps they're jealous that you're a writer and they suck at it. They could simply be the type who has to crap on everyone's parade. Or they're the one who never quite remembers things the way everyone else does. I call them them the naysayers, deniers and pains in the ass (I did notice that my plural in the headline seems off - shouldn't it be PsITA?)

For instance, a friend of mine said I made her sound like a bitch in a piece I wrote. It was not meant to be published (and still hasn't been, though maybe I'll throw it on the blog one day for shits and giggles), rather it was something I wrote for personal reasons. Actually, I thought it was humorous. But she was clearly not happy with my portrayal of her, even though it was my truth. I love her to bits, but I'd say she's a bit of a denier.

And now that I think of it, my grandma was a bit of a denier too with a similar style of piece I wrote. That one wasn't for publication either. It was one of a few stories I put together for my grandma. My mom actually told me not to include it in the collection. I did some edits which better explained grandma's frame of mind at the time in question, but I kept the story in there. Hey, they're my memories, after all.

However, the goal of the story was to make grandma laugh, not cry, so with some minor changes, it was suitable for reading by family members. Grandma still claimed to not remember the incident in question (the crux of it was she told my sister, "Make your own goddamned lunch" when we were kids - I'll post the story here some day so you can read it for yourself) but she was entertained nonetheless.

The question of what to do when challenged by family or friends on what you write came up a few years ago when I was teaching a night class. The course was called "Turning Personal Anecdotes into Publishable Stories" (yeah, kinda wordy, I know). Anyway, I told my students the same thing I'll tell you: if the story is important enough to you, write what you need to write. If it's going to feel good to write it and you know it's a good story, tell it. Once you start editing out of fear of what other people may think, it's no longer your story. And it loses everything that makes it special.

End of story.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Writing about death

So on this bright and sunny day, I'm thinking about writing about death. Perhaps it's because we've just come out of about a week of rain. It could be all the death that's been happening in the last little while: in Haiti, the mom run over and killed in Toronto, journalist Michelle Lang in Afghanistan.

It got me thinking about how tough it is to write about death, particularly when the deceased was young and healthy. One of my early assignments as a reporter at The Hill Times was writing an obituary for a senator - it certainly wasn't a joyful occasion, but he had lead a full life and been around to see and be a part of a lot of cool things in his career. I spoke with his friends and colleagues who were sad, but expected his death.

I didn't get off so easily the next time I wrote an obit. A young man who had gone to the same university as me died after wiping out going full-speed on his rollerblades. I remembered his name as he'd been heavily involved with the student government. When he died, he was working for a high-profile cabinet minister. His death was stupid and senseless. He hadn't been wearing a helmet and had no I.D. on him, so it wasn't until the day after the accident when his coworkers started making calls that anyone found out what had happened to him. He was in a hospital on life support until his family was able to come from out of province to say their final goodbyes. I went to his service, but didn't speak with anyone there. I was terrified, quite honestly and still very green as a reporter. But there were other reporters there, so I felt comfortable taking notes and wrote about it accordingly.

A couple years later, it got harder. Liberal MP Shaughnessy Cohen collapsed in the House of Commons and later died in the hospital of a cerebral hemorrhage. The next day, I was outside of the House with my news editor. Did I mention I was also the paper's photographer? I got to take photos of her mourning friends. I felt pretty shitty about it. Yeah, it was my job, but it still felt wrong. This assignment was particularly tough as Ms. Cohen had been close with some of the reporters. I was still new enough that I didn't really know her, but for some reason, seeing the people I considered mentors break down was particularly difficult. Thankfully, my editor came with me to an interview I had with a couple of her friends, reporter Susan Delacourt and I believe Mary Clancy who if memory serves me correctly, was no longer an MP at that point.

My final stint as a reporter dealing with death came after I had written a piece for Canadian Living about young breast cancer survivors. One of the women I had interviewed, Gabi Helms, passed away months after the story ran. When I'd last spoken with her, she was frustrated that the cancer treatment had possibly left her infertile. Well, she did get pregnant but the cancer came back. She gave birth to a girl and died days after her birth. One of the other women I'd interviewed contacted me to let me know. She later warned me that another member of their circle had come under fire for contacting a local daily about it. She said I was welcome to come to the service, but not as a reporter. I respected her request.

So what's my point other than depressing everyone who's reading this? Well, I'm not too sure to be honest with you. Perhaps my issues with reporting about death made me a bad reporter. Maybe they made me a more sensitive, respectful reporter. And it's not like I've escaped writing about death - last summer, Dave Still, a faculty member at Douglas College passed away unexpectedly. As editor of the employee blog, I had to cover it. But I had the luxury of time. I waited until his colleagues were ready. I simply ran the Q & A and let those who knew him best speak for themselves. It felt right doing it that way.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Complaining with authority

Over the holidays, the topic of writing letters of complaint came up a couple of times. In fact, I told a friend who had to write such a letter that we should start a business writing effective complaints.

Another friend noted that in many cases, the act of letter-writing can be cathartic, so offering a service such as the one I half-jokingly suggested may remove the therapeutic impact writing an angry letter can have. Which is a good point. However, catharsis often comes with writing a letter in anger - in other words, it's a way to let off steam. While it can be good for the spirit of the writer, the result is usually a letter that needs to be destroyed. If sent, it could do unintended harm to the writer him or herself.

So, is there a way to write a complaint so that it unleashes the anger in a witty, effective manner? Absolutely. I was faced with such a task last year during an ongoing pissing match with a neighbour. After months of hearing her pound on the floors and walls, she thoughtfully left the passive-aggressive letter you'll see above at our door. Though addressed to my husband, it was really a rant against my entire family. I've posted it here to give you an example of what not to do. And for your amusement.

When I read her diatribe and noted the many factual errors she made, Bugs Bunny's oft-used phrase, "This means war," sprung to mind. And in addition to making mistakes in her note, she gave me the ammunition needed to write the letter of all letters to my building manager.

As I put together my own letter (I'll simply include excerpts here for the sake of brevity), I kept a few points in mind.

Don't rant
I had already done my fair share of ranting with my friends after receiving the note. As fun as ranting can be, I knew that in order to get anywhere with my complaint to my building manager and see results, I had to keep my rage in check. The last thing I needed was for my landlord to see me as the aggressor and worse, a threat to other tenants. So instead of saying, "This bitch is crazy!" I simply stated, "We are being harassed continuously to the point that we feel we are unable to enjoy our space without anxiety."

Get your facts straight
Like I said, the battle with our neighbour had been going on for quite some time. I had previously written to our building manager, so I cited those letters. Also, the night she left her note at our doorstep, we happened to have friends over, including a lawyer and editor, both who were very familiar with landlord/tenant laws in our area. They suggested I look up the laws and cite them accordingly. In turn, the building manager cited the facts I included in my complaint in her own letter to our neighbour as follows: 28(b) states that tenants are to have “freedom from unreasonable disturbance”
47(1)(i) states that if a tenant has “significantly interfered with or unreasonably disturbed another occupant” that they may have his or her tenancy terminated.

I took the opportunity to also correct the incorrect statement that children aren't allowed in our building and remind our manager of our history in the building: X made several inaccurate points in her letter, the most offensive being that it is illegal for us to live here with our son. Nowhere in our lease does it state that children are not allowed in the building. In fact, it is illegal to bar someone from living in a building based on their having children unless it is a building for seniors only. When I was pregnant, we advised you of our situation. Clearly, if you had concerns with our having a child here, you would have told us.

Anticipate the rebuttal
I knew the rebuttal from my neighbour would be that the noise we made in our home was excessive. So before writing my letter, I confirmed with friends that if needed, they would write their own letters supporting my version of events. Know what the likely argument against your own will be and include points to refute it in advance.

Doing the above, I got what I wanted. The neighbour was sent a notice to cease harassing my family as she was in violation of her lease. In other words, quit it or you'll be looking for a new home. She's been sweet as pie since then. I still can't stand her, but hey, the stomping and nasty notes have stopped.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Here goes

Just starting with a brief intro here. I have to begin somewhere now that I actually have a follower! (Thanks, Bret.)

I write to make a living - I'm currently working in communications at a large community college. I've worked in a newsroom and done the freelance (read 'starving artist') thing.

But writing is also my passion and I'd like to think it's my forte. I love playing with words. I'm one of those annoying people who proofreads signs, my morning newspaper and holiday cards sent by my friends. Don't worry friends, I won't critique you privately or on the blog. That's just plain bitchy. But daily papers owned by monopolies that underpay and overwork their staff? Big businesses that spend millions of dollars on lame messaging that is supposed to appeal to the masses? They're fair game as far as I'm concerned.

Not that this blog will be all about dumping on bad writing. As fun as that can be, it's not terribly constructive. So with that in mind, I'll give you tips, vent when I'm having a mental block and talk a bit about what I'm working on. And I'll likely give the odd shout-out to someone who has crafted something clever.

If you find my posts particularly pithy, you may also want to follow me on twitter.