Autotranslation – Translating my own writing into my first language

I never thought I’d do this, but I have, I took a story written in English, translated it into Norwegian and entered it into a contest. It was a wild ride.

That story made it from the quarter-finals into to semi-finals of the contest, and cup, where readers’ votes determine the outcome (until November 5th).

I promised I would post the English original for whoever wanted to read (and possibly vote for it) so here it goes:

The link to the contest version in Norwegian is  here.

 

(To vote, you must put a check mark on the “not a robot” captcha first)

 

1        Pet Therapy

 

They got the first cat, a rescue, after her second miscarriage. It was her husband’s idea. He had done all the paperwork while she recovered. It was his way of showing that he cared. When she fed it, it would brush itself against her legs. The rest of the time, it’d be in hiding, waiting for the right moment to attack her feet or the book she was reading or the brush she was about to run through her hair. It never responded to the name they’d given it, so they soon started calling it the Red Devil. As pet therapy, that didn’t have much value. It did help her coworkers, though, who now could converse about what new misdeeds the cat had done and stop looking sad when they met her while carefully avoiding her now empty womb.

They Red Devil was to be an indoor cat, They hadn’t talked about this either, but the way it slipped close to the window as soon as there was movement in the tree outside, it became clear that this was the only way to save the birds from its claws. When it sat in the windowsill, you could see its hunting spirit come alive. Even after it should have learned that windows were real, it kept trying to claw its way through them, whenever a wing fluttered by.

The expensive cat tree they’d bought was left unused. It preferred climbing the curtains and furniture. Her husband said it would calm down once it got used to being with them, but instead it was the two of them who adapted to the cat’s personally and learned how to avoid getting treated to its claws. And still there were occasional underclaw attacks. She almost cried when it ruined a good pair of nylons just as she was getting ready to leave for work. Her husband laughed, saying it was good to get used to the wear and tear. Their children would likely do worse to the house once they arrived. She changed into pants that day and stuffed the ruined tights into her underwear drawer. They stayed there as a reminder she should have asked him what the Hell he meant when he said that.

 

***

The second cat walked in their front door one day, a few months after the first cat escaped through a window. It had been just a moment’s distraction,. Maybe the cat had been in hiding for a few hours so she forgot about it. The bedroom window was wide open to air out their bedsheets after a night of tossing and turning. They kept waiting for it to come back or someone to call to respond to the poster with a blurry photo of a red cat that her husband had put up on every lamp post around the neighbourhood. When a month had passed, she went out to buy new curtains to replace the ones the cat had pulled threadbare with its claws. She didn’t need a reminder of what she had done every time they sat down to watch TV in the living-room. She put them up while he was out exercising, to surprise him, but he didn’t even notice. He never said anything to suggest he blamed her for losing the cat, but some evenings he said so little, she had to go to the bedroom to get a break from it all, in the middle of watching a movie.

The second cat walked through the house as if it had always lived there; its black and white tail weaving in and out between the furniture without ever trying its claws. It didn’t have any tag, so she imagined it had been abandoned, or that the owner had died. She called it Cocó, and after a few days it came straight to her as soon as she called its name. When they watched TV at night, it would curl up in her lap and distract her with its loud purring. He told her she looked much better because she did—and he no longer needed to say things just to cheer her up.

“Maybe we could adopt,” he said one night they were spooning in bed, and while she didn’t respond, her body remained soft and warm, nested inside his.

They had just taken up their evening walks again when they found Cocó’s face on a torn Missing Cat poster a few streets down. She stayed in the bedroom while he made the call. She could hear Cocó scratch outside until the front door was opened, and a woman yelled the name Twinky through the house. He pulled out a good bottle of wine that night to take the edge off. It was a bottle they’d saved for when they had something to celebrate, but he must have forgotten. She drank it anyway, and when the tears finally came she blamed it on the alcohol.

 

***

 

She said no to the third cat straight away. That’s something they agreed on, enough was enough. A woman slightly older than herself knocked on their and several other people’s doors one evening. Their next-door neighbour had fallen in the bathroom and broken her hip. They’d guessed assisted living would be next when they saw the ambulance. The daughter pleaded with them; she was too allergic to keep animals in her home.

They hid behind sympathetic smiles. They were just really busy people, they explained. He’d started training for a triathlon, so he wouldn’t be home much, and she… He stopped himself. There was a lot you should avoid saying about someone who had lost three pregnancies and two cats. “I’ll be starting night classes at local college,” she said, as if that’s something she’d planned to do forever. When the door closed, he just looked past her. You could say a lot without saying anything.

Over the next few days, they watched unfamiliar cars and trucks stop by the old lady’s house and soon return with one or more pieces of 60s furniture. It was easy to get buyers for that kind of stuff on Craigslist. When a white van with a cleaning company logo showed up, she realized the house must now be empty of furniture. But for the cat, there were no takers.

When the daughter showed up the second time, she was the only one at home. She studied the other woman, with her inhaler in hand, as she explained the cat would have to be put to sleep if she couldn’t find anyone to take it in. She had tried, but the asthma was too much.

The cat moved in the next day. It lurked restlessly around the house the first week scouring the place for something familiar and tried to escape every time a door opened. Finally, it peed by the door of the mudroom to show how distraught it was. Every time she got the stench of depressed cat under control, the cat managed to sneak back and pee in the same spot.

Her husband was in a period of intense training. Yet, when he returned home late and opened the door, he had to stop for a moment and spring himself past the scented area.

He didn’t mention the cat or ask about it, and though he could smell it too, through the Lysol, he just walked right past her and straight into the shower without a word.

She understood grief better than most, but the odour was too much, so the second week she let the cat out in the backyard when it wouldn’t stop meowed to go out. Her husband was out on one of his long runs. It was easier to do a thing like that when his gaze bend away from her every time they were close.

She watched the cat leap onto the fence to its old house and escape from her field of vision. She had never seen it move like that before, she had always thought of it as an old cat—wobbly hips that looked like they could give out anytime when it walked, much like the old woman it used to live with. Now it seemed possessed by a teenage spirit.

You’ve lost another one, she told herself; of course, you’d lose another one, careless and stupid as usual. She kneeled down to wash the floor once more with bleach, scouring until her hands turned red. When she got up again, there was the well-known pain in her lower abdomen. They were no longer trying, but it still felt like a monthly failure and an excuse to spend the rest of the afternoon in bed.

Instead, she opened the door to let in the cool autumn air. There was no sign of the cat, but a great commotion of birds from somewhere behind the fence. She ventured out in her slippers to discover what that was all about. The half rotten bird-feeder left by the old woman still held a seed or two, and a half dozen chickadees were carefully cleaning the tray.

In the uncut, frozen grass, the cat’s black tail brushing back and forth, whipping up in its old body the urge to attack. A chronicle of a death foretold. The primordial scream came from somewhere inside she had forgot about. “Not this time” she yelled as her left slipper flew in the direction of the disappearing cat. She took of the right one too, held it in her hand, ready, just in case. Then she just stood. The world smelled of rot and frost and her feet were cold. The chickadees were tweeting something they probably thought was a song.

 

Winning

Once in a while, I get a newsletter in my inbox with the title, “Winning Writers.” Signing up for newsletters, hoping to find inspiration or at least solidarity, has been one of my coping mechanisms during the pandemic. But I have to admit that when “Winning writers” came my way, it almost felt like a taunt. Most of the time since March 2020 has felt like a long, bleak fallow season.

I have written less, submitted less and had fewer publications than the previous year. I haven’t finished editing my novel. I didn’t get past the $2000 threshold in writing income. (Good thing I didn’t quit my day job). So I haven’t felt like a “winning writer”  some days I’ve struggled to feel like a writer.

But as the dense cloud of the pandemic is getting thinner, I’m starting to measure my wins with a different meter. Getting up, managing to work, keeping in touch with friends and family and then writing a little bit every day, isn’t losing. Exercising, overcoming rejection, participating in workshops isn’t losing.

I didn’t win a Pushcart or get a book proposal accepted, but I did win a flash fiction prize ( The Frances Thomas Memorial Flash Fiction Award) and I did put together a short fiction manuscript that I’ve started sending out. I didn’t get my poems picked up by The New Yorker, but I did win second prize in a haiku contest (https://haikucrush.com). And amidst a stream of rejections, I also received acceptance letters from a few magazines I’d been dreaming of appearing in for years.

Winning is about not giving up and dealing with change the best you can. Winning is about not losing yourself when rejection and hardship comes. Winning is being there for the zoom meeting, even without makeup and on your 100th bad hair day. Winning is cutting yourself some slack so that you can recharge.

I’m writing this as I’m starting to get settled in Oslo. I’ve just started a new company here (http://finneordene.no/) where I’m adding workshops for blocked writes to the services I’ll be offering. It may seem odd to move during a pandemic, and it certainly wasn’t easy to sell a house and buy an apartment. But the pandemic taught us that family is precious, and having an ocean and layers upon layers of travel restrictions between us and close family, no longer felt sustainable. And managing to make the necessary changes when something feels wrong, feels like a kind of win.

 

#writing #pandemic #winning #losing

 

Virtual fatigue

Almost ten weeks into lockdown, I’ve officially reached the point where I’d rather darn socks than participate in another zoom happy hour.


This has been a surprise to me. My love for the Internet was instant and deep. I’ve been working from a home office for close to twenty years. I have virtual friends I met through online forums in the late 90s, that I still count on for support and to exchange opinions with. I was an early adopter and grabbed every opportunity for distance learning and connection.

Now that the world is bubbling with virtual opportunities, I cringe at the idea of connecting to a platform. I do a few meetings online a week, but they don’t give the joy they used to.

Instead I find joy in things I can touch: my sourdough that has leavened my bread through three months; fresh literary magazines that give me paper cuts and smells and real feelings; the soil stuck under my fingernails after working in my minuscule garden.

My magazine subscriptions have never been put to better use than during these times. The same goes for old skills like baking, knitting, darning and planting.

It seems that touch and smell are more crucial to my well-being than I thought.


#pandemicfatigue #pandemic

If Shakespeare and Boccaccio did it, then why can’t I?

Among my writer friends, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought on new anxieties, but also a lot more time than we used have–time we could dedicate to writing.

The first few week, many of my anglophone connections were posting encouraging accounts about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear, one of his finest works, while sitting in hiding away from the city to avoid the plague.
Boccaccio, two centuries earlier, took it even further, he escaped the plague, and managed to write about it as well.
We’re at the and of our third week of self-isolation and, alas, no new King Lear or second Decamerone has started flowing out of my keyboard. A few poems, an essay about something unrelated to the coronavirus, some editing of older pieces.

Instead, I’ve been spending more time than usual baking, experimenting with sourdough, and checking up with friends I haven’t talked to for years. It’s almost as if I’m finding new excuses not to write.
I’m not alone. My Twitter feed tells me many writers feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Living through a unique historic period may give you more to write about, but there is no guarantee you’re able to actually do it.

Some of us are even at the best of times “meanderers.” We don’t see the connections right away, and the line between two events or emotions is rarely straight for us.

When asked about the process behind the essay, Holding my Tongue, I described it in the following way:
I don’t see connections or an arc for a long time. In the meantime, I gather scraps of memories, bits of dialogue and half-baked ideas in notebooks —and in files with random names. But at times, this meandering way into a narrative structure also gives room for unexpected epiphanies while I write. Metaphorically, my writing process looks like this: I’m hiding under a table with my eyes closed, trying to capture the emotion and intensity of what’s going in the room.

I don’t know if Shakespeare or Boccaccio ever hid under the table with their eyes closed or if they spent a long time frozen up before they could write anything. But I do know, that whatever it is I am feeling, it will come out in writing sooner or later. Maybe between one batch of bread and the next.

Ebbs and flows

The end of a year is a time when most of us take time to measure where we are in our lives. Some pull out their resolutions from the beginning of the year to see how they fared. Some make lists of things they still wish to achieve.

I started out 2019 claiming it should be the year I would dedicate to finishing that darned second draft of my novel. I would allow myself to write some short stories and creative nonfiction pieces, for sure, but my main focus would be on the novel.

When measured against that goal, last year was a failure. I’m still less than half way through my revisions, and I’ve spent too many hours to admit just staring at the screen–or commenting on twitter instead of actually editing and rewriting.

In the last few months of the year, I tried to remedy this by using a system of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound), which had the opposite effect of what I anticipated. I achieved less and felt worse about myself, and by the time December came around, I could no longer take the monthly humiliation of not having achieved the goals I had set for myself.

But while I’ve been procrastinating the work on my novel (or at least not making headway the way I expected), I have achieved other unexpected things, things I could never have imagined or planned for before this year. My return to poetry has brought a fresh wind of creative energy. My poetry practice is constantly in the back of my head, and I keep gathering words and fragments to put into my poems.

I have also written and reedited quite a few short stories, flash fiction and a few essays. I’ve spent time finding the right markets for my stories, and as a result the tally for 2019 was twenty acceptances. Two of my pieces received Pushcart nods. One essay was shortlisted for a prize.

So as I entered the new year, I swore off the SMART goals, and went for a simple list of pieces I’m working on and tallying up how much time I manage to claim for my writing. Despite lots of translation work in the first week of 2020, I have already counted up 7 hours of writing. I have finished three poems (in addition to lots of mediocre haiku) and drafted an essay.

My novel will have to wait until I have larger chunks of time to work with. But I don’t need to feel like a failure because of that. If I had kept to my goal for 2019, I may have ended up finishing my second draft, but I would not have let poetry writing back in my life.

In 2020 I want to accept the ebbs and flows of my writing life; allow myself to follow new ideas. Going with the flow already makes me feel lighter in my writing. I’m hoping that feeling will last.

To be or not to be (a poet)

I started writing poetry before I entered first grade. I come from a long line of compulsive rhymesmiths and was first in line to carry the torch to the next generation.

I chronicled every birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s day in occasional verses full of painfully repetitive rhyme words. Once in a while, a poem born of my own imagination would come along too. Poetry was currency in my cash-strapped childhood and I kept writing several poems a week until I reached the age of self-consciousness, and a Saturday job in a bargain basement gave me enough money to buy “real” gifts.

I returned to poetry in my early twenties, during a personal crisis, and wrote what I thought was a collection over a few months–about 60 poems that made me feel gutted after writing them.

I had read a lot of poetry between my childhood attempts and this collection, but I only had a vague notion of what made a good poem good.

I was completely unprepared for the three rejections I received, one after the other. The kind notes the editors added, recommending I keep working and editing these poems, felt like a death sentence. I abandoned any hope of becoming a poet and put down my pen for more than twenty years.

When I returned to writing, more than twenty years later, I knew I could never be a poet. I was writing in a different language at this point, and poetry had to be written in your heart language, your mother tongue, I thought. Even as the fiction and nonfiction I wrote got more lyrical, I held on to this idea: I am not a poet, though I love poetry.


About a year ago, I felt an attraction to the haiku practice. The first attempts were so-so, but gradually my eye for what I could do with the form, with balance and twists, got better. A daily practice allows you to grow and to go back and improve something you wrote last month. Soon, I started venturing into other poetry as well.

At the end of October of this year, I had my 6th poem published, and for the first time it reached out to a much wider audience than my previous publications. It was shared again and again on social media and I received messages about how it made people feel. It was dizzying.

I still don’t consider myself a capital P Poet. To me that’s a title that feels almost sacred. But I practice poetry. By practising and returning to my poems to make them better, I’m learning to be patient with my writing. Maybe in time, I’ll feel I’ve become a poet.

I’ll be reading my poetry in November, as part of a reading series at Glad Day Bookstore in Toronto. It’s part of my practice to become a poet.

Reading as an integral part of writing

For many years, while my daughters were young, and even when in their early teens, we’d dedicate some time almost every day to reading out loud. It was a habit we had developed as part of their bedtime ritual, and that we kept up as a way to bond over something that had nothing to do with homework or chores or fights with their friends. It grounded my daughters in the three languages we spoke at home, and in stories, and I missed it when they started preferring to read on their own.

This summer, my youngest was home from university, and we rediscovered the joy of reading to each other. Though she didn’t finish the reading of War and Peace to us, the hours we sat around and listened and laughed about Tolstoy’s descriptions were some of the best we had all summer.

Over the past few years, I’ve rediscovered how reading my own work helps me relate to the rhythm and pace of my writing, and how feeling the words in my body helps me edit and polish a piece. I have also started going to public literary readings, which sometimes feels like the adult substitute of reading to each other at bedtime. This fall I too am becoming part of the “reading” literary scene in Toronto.

I started out during Toronto International Film Festival, with a reading of my environmental haiku and tanka at a demonstration organized by Extinction Rebellion.

Next, in a little more than a week, an anthology with writing from members of the Lit Mag Love collective will launch. I’m so proud of my community of writers from the Lit Mag Love Course! We’re launching our first anthology, featuring 25 writers with work they published in journals—and the tales of how they published.

You can sign up for your FREE copy and find tickets to our (online) launch readings here: http://bit.ly/LitMagLovePub , and there will be public online readings so people can listen to our pieces, wherever they happen to be.

I’m both excited and terrified about this.

Later in the fall, I’ll be part of the Emerging Writers Reading series at Glad Day Bookshop, but that is something I’ll talk more about in a later blog post.


In order to shape your writing to your experience, sometimes you need to break out of the mould

Most writing courses centre on learning the structures of writing: What is a narrative arc? What does it mean to show instead of tell? What is effective use of metaphor? For years, my writing practice was all about getting those rules to work for and in my writing.

I still use a traditional narrative arc in most of my work, and I generally stay within a single genre. Lately, though, as conventions are breaking down around me (some of it for good, some of it not), I’ve found that experimental, genre-defying writing sometimes manages to capture the sense of this time better.

From my haiku practice, I’ve ventured into the haibun, a classical Japanese style mixing nonfiction prose and poetry (haiku). My short stories are no longer only in the realist tradition; I’ve ventured into magic realism and science fiction and I’ve even worked on circular narrative structures. In my nonfiction work, I’ve started testing out visual and patchwork essays.

Two such experimental pieces are out this month–the short story ‘Fabric’ is up in Gone Lawn–and my “flow chart essay” is in Journal of Compressed Creative Arts

Writing the end the world

The past few months much of my writing has been dedicated to writing that is different ways touches upon climate change, climate emergencies and being at a tipping point. Even when i start out with other themes, at some point my climate worries start seeping in.

Though this may seem monotonous, the writing has taken so many new and unexpected forms, that I don’t feel like I’ve reached the end of this path. I’ve written dozens of haiku, a couple of poems, two essays and a couple of short stories with climate as a main or at least prominent theme.

The work I have that is due to appear in print or online these days doesn’t reflect this yet. My other obsessions, relationships, women’s lives and language, are at the centre of the two short stories and three essays that will be published over the next 6 weeks. For three of the pieces, the road to publication has been long and tortuous. It gives me a sense of closure to know they will finally be out in the world, even when I worry constantly about the future of the same world.

This is one of my climate haiku:

Well past ‘climate scare’
she peddles words and water
to climate mourners

National Poetry Month

It’s been a month of lots of translation work and not enough of my own writing. I’ve been neglecting my novel, my short stories in different stages of completion–and my mind has been too scattered to comb the kinks out of my essays.

The only practice I’ve managed to stay loyal to, is poetry, especially haiku. No matter what kind of day I’ve had, I’ve set aside 15-20 minutes for that. Much of what I’ve written doesn’t have value beyond helping me practice my craft, but once in a while an image or a series of syllables will come out with that extra zing that may actually turn out to be “something.”

April is National Poetry Month. My twitter feed reminds me of that daily. As a couple of big translation projects come to and end, I look forward to reading more poetry. I also have two poems and one lyrical essay that will be published this month–a good month for that to happen.

I’ll especially try to read more poetry translation – starting with Wislawa Szymborska: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1996/szymborska/poetry/