Archive for August, 2008

August 29, 2008

Want to Write Convincing Characters? Get to Know Their Jobs

If you’re an inexperienced writer who endeavors to create a novel or short story and are unsure of how to get started, I would advise putting your characters to work. Give them jobs. The reason why is because jobs allow you, as the author, to address the two most important elements of successful storytelling: character and plot.

How many people do you know who allow themselves to be defined by their jobs? How many have work personalities distinct from who they are away from the office? The truth is what people do and how they approach the act of doing it allows great insight into their morals, values and motivations. As a storyteller who aims to build deep, three-dimensional characters, you should know how crucial occupations are to your work. Researching various disciplines also trains you in a core pillar of craftwork: specificity.

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August 11, 2008

Philippe Petit Walks

[Published in Proteus in Winter, 2002]

Philippe Petit still walks,
You can see him there, I swear,
But don’t look down!
(You always look down)
Look up! Look up!
Can’t you see him there?

Dancing,
Balancing on the World,
Sitting on a wire,
He’s a free bird, a loose canary,
With human compunction
(The good kind).

Philippe Petit still walks,
I’m telling you, it’s true,
Look hard enough,
He’s there:
In ’74,
With the towers under his knee.

August 11, 2008

September 11th Remembered

[Retrospective essay by Adrian Brijbassi published in the Sept. 10, 2002 issue of “The Record”]

I had to get to Manhattan, for my own good. On the second Saturday with the sky heavy with haze and smelling acrid, I found the nerve to do it, despite the rumors and warnings and the paranoia that had attached itself to me like a straitjacket. To get there I had to take a train. No unnecessary cars were being allowed over the bridges or through the tunnels. The Long Island Rail Road it was then, and I boarded unable to shake the thought that a commuter train was an obvious target and that this particular line was already notorious because a gunman had opened fire on one of its cars seven years earlier.

Nervousness was a carry-on for everyone. People with tired eyes came aboard clutching hands of companions. Young men sauntered through the doors as if it was nothing, but before long their eyes would skitter, betraying their cool facades. Conductors with swivelling heads walked the aisles, punching tickets and peering at faces. The anxiety was understandable and expected. This was Sept. 22 and this train ride to Penn Station, which had been routine 12 days earlier, was no easy trek.

For me, it took some willpower and some convincing from my wife. We had to see it, she said. We had to get out of the house and away from the TV. Before I knew it, I had found myself holding my breath as the train passed under the East River tunnel and pulled into midtown Manhattan. Yes, I was scared of another attack, but the trepidation I had about entering the heart of New York City for the first time since Sept. 11 was also due to my feelings of trespass and misconduct that were twofold. First, I’m not from New York and I felt I didn’t belong there then, mourning the loss of life and stepping into the poignant moments of a community not my own. Second, and most importantly, I thought it was too soon for this journey. People who are traumatized, I understand now, have a need to stay in the moment that caused their trauma. It’s the mind’s way of buying time to cope with the severe, to reason out an explanation for it. In the first few days after the attacks, I could hardly eat. Sleep was also a problem, because of the need to stay informed and because of the patrolling fighter jets overhead. And I couldn’t write. I was too numb.

Riding into New York, when I clearly needed to get my mind off of it, wasn’t the best course of action, I said in frustration, and I reiterated that once we departed the train to the sight of rifle-bearing military officers and little else. Penn Station, where walking a straight line is usually impossible because of the obstacles of travellers and their belongings, was as desolate as could be.

Outside, the surrounding streets were also quiet. Our intended destination wasn’t the site of the destroyed World Trade Center, but that’s where we ended up after unexpectedly running into a friend who convinced us to join him on the long walk down. Grey soot sat on the face of buildings blocks away, deep, haphazard crevices slashed into the streets as if a runaway train had made them, firefighters sloughed, looking troubled by the task and bothered by all the onlookers. I wanted to leave, but I stayed to watch, for no other reason than I felt it was good to see this. I’m not sure if it was or not. Someday, I might understand it better.

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August 11, 2008

How 9/11 Changed New Yorkers

[Retrospective essay by Adrian Brijbassi published in the Sept. 11, 2002 edition of “The Record”]

Everybody was okay. Me, my wife, our friends and neighbours, the few family members we have here. Friends and relatives had been calling since morning. No one was hurt, I told those who were able to get through on the phone lines; all of us were safe. Later in the day, professional acquaintances began to make contact. They were mostly reporters looking for first-person accounts from Canadians living in or near New York. I couldn’t give them a harrowing story on Sept. 11th, and I am as grateful for that now as I was back then, when I awoke to learn that the twin towers of the World Trade Center had each taken a bullet in the form of a passenger plane and had crumpled on a pristine Tuesday morning that would have been routine if not for the unfathomable machinations of 19 disturbed men.

As we tend to do when huge events halt life, I sat frozen in front of the television. I was barely able to watch and at the same time could not help but. Seeing the carnage happening 35 miles away from my home, then getting glimpses of the catastrophe at the Pentagon and the crash site in Pennsylvania, all I could do was worry fretfully about what might be next.

Since then, life in America has been about repair; individually and collectively, physically and psychologically. For me, it has been easier than for others. Having lived in New York for six years now, I suppose I am fortunate to have no roots here. Then whom might I know? Who might I now say I had known? As such, my life has returned to that “normalcy” politicians and psychologists felt was so important to attain after the attacks. My circumstances, I realize as I reflect on the past year, are not all that unusual. The fact is, Sept. 11 marked the most significant event in my lifetime and that of my generation, but it is not the most significant thing to have happened to us as individuals. For me, it would be my immigration from Guyana to Canada when I was five. For others, it might be a marriage, or parenthood, or the passing of a loved one, an accident or brutal event of another sort. As such, I don’t think I live in an America now that is very different from the one I was living in on Sept. 10. There is less optimism, certainly, more wariness and a broader global perspective. But many of us have not changed, and there is good in that as well as bad.

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August 11, 2008

Baltimore

[Published in Proteus, Spring 2003]

We ordered Maryland Blue Crabs in the Inner Harbor,
And tried to eat them as the water taxis sped by,
A man next to us said we didn’t have a clue,
He picked up a crab and opened it as if it were a knot
We said, Now we see, and continued to stare
The man showed us again and said, Welcome, come again
We ruminated on the sky with our Blue Crabs,
And the new trick to open them in our minds
Later, you said it was the best vacation you ever had

We went to Fells Point and strolled down Shakespeare Street
We bought a newspaper and studied the real estate ads
We visited Edgar Allan Poe place and you said
What a great place for a writer to be
I said, Yeah, or to be your husband in
Years later, when we were richer and more well fed,
We ate Maryland Blue Crabs again,
You said you didn’t have the patience for it,
You preferred picked-apart King Crab instead.

August 11, 2008

Wishing for a World Without Models

You can air kiss with the best of them,
Throwing your chin in the sky,
Smacking your own breath as if you adored it,
Lollygagging by without so much as Hi.

And me, with my antideluvian wardrobe,
My gauche derriere, my skin beyond repair,
And me, I wonder how you got it,
My heart, and your instinct for deceit?

August 11, 2008

50 Mission Cap

[Published in 2001 – read reviews]

Chapter One

The saviour was supposed to come in the form of a skinny kid from a town with a long French name. That’s what I had been told. After three seasons so miserable 2-1 defeats became bearable and shootout losses downright success stories, it was also what I needed to hear. Not only had the Kildare Kougars obtained a supreme talent, but we were going to win because of it. Make the playoffs, get on a roll, maybe even, you know, catch a break here or there, and, who knows after that, right?

Okay, so I was getting ahead of myself, but who wouldn’t have?

“Scott, things are going to be different now,” said the team’s new owners. “We can finally get this town a winner and you that scholarship.”

And there was more. No more month-long losing streaks, they had sold me. No more getting used to teammates only to see them traded away. No more disrespect. And I bought into it, all of it, no matter if it was true; it was the hope I was after. That’s what I told Grandpa Joe, and he understood. I knew he would. For both of us, the truth could wait. In tiny Kildare, Ontario, life, as my teammates and I knew it, was about to change.

The previous year we had won just ten of fifty-six games. Think of that: ten of fifty-six. So many players came and went, and the losing streaks dragged on so long that by the end of it I felt I had endured a career. Still, after three humiliating seasons as a Kougar, I returned for more; in uniform again, preparing for a new season. Lured back, with hope and promise as the bait, to that parochial little town in the heart of the Ottawa Valley.

But I felt conned when Dion Marcelle, the keeper of much of that promise, arrived at training camp. Swiftly, like a slap, the phenom managed to sully expectations before even one practice. He had no confidence, much less an aura of greatness. Tall and gangly, he kept his head hung low, hiding his pimply face, acting more like a nerd than a talent. On the ice, he would stumble when he tried to turn a corner and was so slow he barely stayed ahead of the fully equipped goaltenders, limited because they strained to contain their laughter. It wasn’t long before he began to pant, taking deep, heaving breaths and blowing out frosty air as if allergic to it. A supposedly speedy centre with a wicked shot, Marcelle had moved to Kildare with his family from rural Quebec because “of undisclosed personal reasons,” as the paper reported. The Kougars, believing the scouting reports that oozed with praise for him, immediately brought him in to foster change on our Junior A team that needed lots of it. Unfortunately, Marcelle displayed no traces of being a star, let alone a salve. After finishing my laps, I brushed my black hair out of my eyes, wiped sweat from my face and leaned against the boards, shaking my head at the sight of him lagging behind the other players, only a handful of whom showed signs of skill themselves. It wasn’t long before I had company.

In my daze, I didn’t notice Brendan Kowalczek, my best friend and our best player, gliding toward me. He was bent over with his stick resting across his knees until he whacked me on the shin with it: a hockey player’s hello.

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