Category Archives: journal archive

Creative and Academic Writing: Animals of Different Stripes

I’m a writer and have been for decades. Over that time, I’ve written poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, a thesis, a dissertation, academic articles, book reviews, reports, case studies, etc. etc. I can switch gears as required, fulfilling the demands of each style and format, but I’m always aware that different types of writing impact me differently, have different working demands, and different after-tastes.

I started in poetry, and am closing in on finishing a new collection. For me, poetry was and always will be the purest, most visceral form of the drug. This is the writing that starts from pure inspiration; it’s a tickle in the back of my brain and I have to hold my breath and gently pull the thread for it to spill out on the page. This is writing that wakes me at three in the morning, that likes me to carry a notebook (the kind with pages, not electronic).  This is the form that brings me the biggest buzz, that unmasks me utterly, that leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak in the knees. But also fiercely able to stand by my words, and to take on the world. This is my tiger form (my Chinese year, by the way).

amazing-tiger-wallpaperIncreasingly, my fiction has a comic edge; I have one book nearly complete and another about a third written. I get in the flow and giddily write pages and pages, slowing only to research often really obscure facts, like what was the world population during Alexander the Great’s reign? This sort of minutiae fascinates me, but when I come up for air, when my critical brain kicks back in, it can seem somewhat ridiculous to be asking such questions and putting in hours to get answers. This is, it would seem, the way my mind works. I’m the curious sort. I get a huge kick from writing fiction, creating self-contained worlds, but somehow making them real by connecting them to reality. This is my young tapir form (kind of goofy, but cute).


In creative non-fiction, I have one book in process; it’s about my Dad’s death. Whenever I try working on it, I end up weeping full-bodied sobs. I set it aside for years at a time, in the hope that one day I’ll be able to finish it. Because it’s so raw, it’s impossible for me to get any critical distance, to tell whether it’ll be as powerful for a reader as it is for me. At some point, I’ll have to show it to an editor or six who will be able to tell me. Regardless, it is a book I will need to resolve for my own sake. Striped, yes, but more somber and regal, more endangered, like an okapi; or horned, like a bongo or a kudu.okapi






The academic and business writing fall into a similar category in terms of process. This is just work. Purely rational. Although I get very excited about ideas, it’s still somehow seen as inappropriate to express this through academic writing. The odd time when inspiration strikes, when I get into the flow, and become more creative in my word use, some other academic comes along and tells me to knock it off. I am hopeful, that as I gain my professional stripes in the academic world, I’ll be able to get away with more. But this style of writing, using only intellectual process and not creative, is purely black and white. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I don’t get quite the same invigoration from it as I do from the creative work. It takes a lot of time and energy, and doesn’t give as much back. The satisfaction derived is purely intellectual, not emotional.


When I started my PhD, I felt very schizoid, with my creative side effectively amputated, focussing purely on the academic. As I’ve progressed, I’ve begun to see these two halves reunite. I’m learning how the creative and the intellectual can coalesce quite nicely, how I can write academically appeasing work that also fulfills the creative urge, how I can bring a creative spark to my academic writing. I also think that academic rigour brings a greater depth and richness to the creative work, as well as a necessary sense of discipline. Between the creative and academic work, I have a lot of exciting ideas on the go. Now I just have to create the time to write them all!

Catherine Jenkins 2016 all rights reserved

All images public domain

Update from Dr Jenkins

In the last year, I’ve seen nighttime overhead highway signs cautioning drivers not to stop due to high crime risk, and overhead highway signs cautioning drivers to be aware of moose. And I don’t feel like I’ve done much travel either. I did, however, take my first trip to South Africa. I lost a friend, attended a wedding, helped a friend celebrate his first birthday, and gained a cat. I built cat shelters and traps at Toronto Street Cat, attended a series of Graphic Medicine reading workshops, and went to the first Canadian Writers’ Summit and Taste of Little Italy with my long-time friend and fellow writer, Kathy Mac.  I went to Shaw Fest where the 2015 highlight was Peter and the Starcatcher, and this year’s highlight was Engaged. I went to Stratford for the first time in years, where I saw an amazing production of Shakespeare in Love. I attended a lot of concerts, with tickets both bought and shared by friends. I caught up on a lot of quality TV and some movies I’ve missed on DVDs from the Toronto Public Library. I enjoyed some non-academic reading for a change.

I taught a lot (and I mean a lot) of students, did a lot of grading, and had the joy of watching a few of my students gain awards or entry into grad school. I presented papers at conferences in Kingston (Queens) and North Bay (Nippising). I submitted a few things to peer-reviewed journals. I defend my PhD dissertation and convocated, so now it’s official and school truly is out.

This last year I breathed out, I walked, I observed, I took photos, I pondered, I cottaged. This fall, I’ve signed up for a wine course and an Italian course, because I finally can. I’m back to working out and I’m decluttering my apartment. I’m writing inventive academic work and applying to conferences in more exotic locales. And I’ve got six non-academic book projects to pick up again, now that I actually have the time and energy and focus. Stay tuned…

Biopsy: Rhetoric and Intimate Pain

Who ever thought up the word “mammogram”? Every time I hear it, I think I’m supposed to put my breast in an envelope and send it to someone. Jan King

The anomaly in my left breast was located and first imaged in 2008, with a mammogram and then an ultrasound. It was determined to be a benign adenopathy; in other words, nothing to worry about. This finding was confirmed in 2010 with a second mammogram.

This year, I made the mistake of changing imaging clinics, which means changing radiologists. The new clinic is housed in a hospital, so they’re used to seeing the worst, trained to look for the worst. After the mammogram, the technician said, “Oh, there’s something in your left breast. Nothing to worry about, but don’t be surprised if they call you back for an ultrasound.” I respond that I’m already aware of the anomaly in my left breast. I’m not worried.

The call came the next week. I booked the ultrasound. More imaging. More radiological inspection.

The follow-up call came the following week. “We’d like to do a biopsy.” Umm…wait a minute. The anomaly had already been examined and dismissed twice. I respond, “If I can get the images from the other clinic, can we nix the biopsy?” “Oh, that’d be great! Probably, yes.”

The day before I leave for Norway, in the midst of conference prep, travel prep, cat-sitting prep, absent-from-class prep, I’m flying through the city trying to relocate the other clinic, get copies of previous images, and drop them off at the hospital. I tell them I’ll be unavailable, out of the country, for the next several days. They nod and smile understanding.

I return home to a phone message. “We’d still like to do a biopsy.” Okay, now I’m getting a bit anxious. I’m still 96% certain that there’s nothing to worry about, but the medicos, those authorities on my health, are concerned enough to make this request, so it’s only natural that I begin to feel a little less certain that everything’s okay.

I’m really not looking forward to this. There are no opportunities to ask questions until I’m lying supine, half-naked, vulnerable on the examination table. Ultrasound guides the procedure. While the tech is relocating the anomaly, I ask the two questions I’ve been formulating. “What are the chances that this is nothing to worry about?” “Oh, well, the radiologist reported it as ‘undefined,’ so it’s nothing that we look at and say, oh, that’s a cancer.” Okay, so that’s good news. “How big is this thing we’re talking about? The size of a pea? A marble?” “Oh, not even the size of a pea. The size of a really small pea.”

So, umm, what are we doing here?

Somewhere in here it’s explained that the “mass” is close to the chest wall, so they’ll have to be careful not to catch a nerve or the muscle.

The doctor doing the biopsy arrives. Somewhere in here it’s revealed that they’re not doing a needle biopsy, but a core biopsy. And not a single core biopsy, but three samples—from something less than the size of a pea. This ensures an adequate diagnostic sample. Maybe it’s just my interpretation, but I get the feeling that both the tech and the doc are also wondering why we’re doing this.

The doctor explains that she will sterilize and freeze the area, then make a tiny incision through which to insert the core biopsy gun. “This is what it sounds like,” she says, pulling the trigger. I jump. She says, “It sounds like an automatic stapler. I’ll tell you before I take a sample.”

Core Biopsy Gun

Core Biopsy Gun

She proceeds with her plan slowly, gently, carefully. This is the best one can hope for. When everything is correctly positioned, she says, “Okay, 1, 2, 3” and fires. The mechanism reverberates through my ribcage like a nail gun. I jump and tense automatically. Eyes wince shut, waiting for the recoil. My reaction surprises her and she waits for me to relax slightly before removing the gun that cradles a small piece of my flesh. I think that this is what a tree feels when a dendrologist removes a core sample, except my flesh has nerves and blood.

Satisfied with the first sample, she returns for the next, carefully reinserting the gun’s muzzle into the three-millimetre incision. I feel the tool move and tug inside my breast, against the freezing. Once everything’s lined up, she says, “Okay, 1, 2, 3” and fires again. A nail gun goes off inside my chest. Instant stabbing pain in my left pectoral muscle  writhing on the table  mouth open in surprise  and shock  and nausea  and eyes squeezed shut  and it’s not stopping  it’s not stopping  it’s not stopping  it’s not

Carefully, she removes her precious sample. I say, “I have to put my arm down.” Not waiting for permission, I follow this announcement with this action. “Okay, just don’t touch anything.” I’m still writhing  pain  not stopping  not stopping  not

She’s checking, checking with the ultrasound wand. I’m imagining leaving. Getting up and walking out. Then I’m imagining returning if the sample is inadequate. Better stick with it. But it hurts  it hurts

“I’d be really glad about now if you could tell me that you don’t need the third sample,” I say. “That’s what I’m checking for,” she says. With the tech’s help, they take one last picture as evidence that they have a through-and-through of the “mass,” like a lucky bullet wound. She says, “We’ve got everything we need. You can go now,” or words to that effect. My memory is hazed by pain. I apologize. Apologize for not being a compliant patient. For being betrayed by my sensitive body. She turns from the door, says, “I should be apologizing to you,” and leaves.

It is only then that the tech gives me the after-care instruction sheet, and I realize the extent to which I have been intentionally injured. Apply ice to reduce swelling. Take Tylenol (not Advil or Aspirin which might induce further bleeding). Keep site clean and dry for at least 24 hours. Keep dressing in place for at least three days. Be on guard for signs of infection. Expect bruising for up to three weeks. Avoid heavy lifting for at least 24 hours. This is the number for emergency follow-up. Ensure that you have an appointment for regular follow-up in 10 days.

I leave in a mild state of shock. My left pec is screaming. For days, my left arm and hand are weak, with reduced sensation and movement. Bruising is still apparent on my breast during the follow-up appointment.

The follow-up doctor is someone I’ve never met. To her credit, she begins with, “You’re fine. Everything’s okay.” She later acknowledges, “You weren’t worried, were you, but we made you anxious, didn’t we?” That’s right. I say, “I wonder if I had to go through this simply to indulge a radiologist’s curiosity.” She responds, “Probably, yeah.” The ultimate determination? It’s a benign adenopathy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that statistically there are some advantages to mammograms and early cancer detection. But that’s not what this was about. Some people have since suggested to me that this was to improve biopsy numbers, which in turn ensure continued funding. While I can’t attest to that, I do know that this wasn’t optimal patient care.


© Catherine Jenkins 2015 all rights reserved




Of Chance and Choice and Christmas

December 22 at 2:40 a.m. my power went out due to the worst ice storm Southern Ontario has seen in years. Tree limbs that lacked resiliency snapped off under the weight of ice, taking power lines with them and landing on a few cars and roofs. Hydro’s initial estimate was that power would be restored within 72 hours. That’s a long time in a society so addicted to gadgets that require electricity to function, but it’s a really long time when temperatures are below freezing and when fridges are packed with perishable holiday fare. It’s a really long time for people trying to travel home for the holidays. Flights in and out of Pearson International are delayed or cancelled.

The ice storm was beautiful--but inconvenient.

The ice storm was beautiful–but inconvenient.

This Christmas won’t be the Christmas a lot of people had planned. A lot of folks won’t be able to get home. Travel plans will be changed at the last minute. A lot of food will spoil or will have to be consumed before it spoils. Barbeques will be fired up out of season. A winter’s worth of wood will be burned in a few days trying to keep pipes from freezing. Kids will spend the holidays camped out on living room floors in sleeping bags trying to stay warm. Strangers will share feasts of homemade cookies in airport lounges. Some will be disappointed. Some will think it’s the worst Christmas ever. Others will be creative and resilient and find ways to improvise. Arriving safely for Christmas is more important than arriving on time for Christmas. Even without power, tomorrow will come.

A low-light Christmas tree decorated in low light.

A low-light Christmas tree decorated in low light.

I’m lucky that my building has a back-up generator, so there is some heat, running water, and enough power for lights in the common areas and to run the elevators. This is a long way from a UN refugee camp, with multi-generational families crammed into unheated tents without adequate food or water. We are so spoiled to have been born into such privilege that we feel entitled to get angry when we don’t have everything we think we need. Yes, there will be hardships, but even if it takes a full week to get everyone’s electricity restored, we will recover very quickly.

I’m enjoying a warm cup of tea made from water heated on my fondue set. The building seems quiet without the hum of industrial systems and almost no traffic outside. It’s a little like being in the university library after exams, after the students have left, on the last day before campus closes for the two-week winter break. An eerie silence. A bit post-apocalyptic.

Monday morning 8:45 a.m. the power is still out. I’ve moved everything from the fridge into a cooler on the balcony. The building across the street from me, and everything southward, has electricity. I wonder if this is a little of what it feels like to live in places that don’t have our advantages, to look across borders and see the wasted resources. Makes me think even more about what we have and how we use it.

I’m enjoying the adventure of using my fondue set for cooking. I was getting tired of cold food, so managed to cook some noodles, as well as a cup of tea. Tried knitting by candle light this evening; it’s difficult to tell the knits from the purls. I rigged up a four-candle powered heater I saw online a couple of weeks ago (I am the child of an engineer; how could I not give it a go?). The air from the chimney was about 34°C / 94°F but I would need several to heat a space this size. The temperature in the apartment had dropped to about 17°C / 64°F and the outside temperature is going down to -10°C. I hauled out extra blankets and one of the cats cuddled up with me. Without the interference of artificial light, my diurnal clock is even louder; by about 4 p.m. it feels like bedtime and I have to struggle to stay awake until 8. It’s cold and bed is the warmest place to be. I settle in for a long night.

I'm the child of an engineer. How could I not try this out?

I’m the child of an engineer. How could I not try this out?

By Tuesday, Christmas Eve, 6:17 p.m. word is that power may not be restored until the weekend, a full week after the outage. I confess to finding a certain pleasure in the absence of the demands of electronic devices. I was seriously considering giving up my land line, but I’m glad I haven’t; it’s the only way I can contact the outside world. And I broke into the Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry. The cause for celebration? We were informed that we could access more heat! It’s been about 15°C / 60°F all day. That doesn’t sound so bad, but when you’re sitting in it, you start to feel it. With another cold night ahead, someone from the building came in and diddled with the radiator override, so now heat is pouring forth! Much relieved and so is my cat. Water and heat—the only convenience missing is electricity for lights and cooking.

Fortunately, a friend invited me to his place for Christmas Day, where I had good company, a hot meal, and was able to cook some perishable food before it spoiled. When I got home later on Christmas Day, the power had been restored, thanks to the efforts of numerous local and visiting Hydro crews. It was out for a couple more hours on the 27th, but generally things seem to be returning to normal.

I hope that this holiday, without reliable power or transportation, causes people to reflect on their good fortune, testing their resiliency in the face of unpredictability, finding faith in themselves and humanity, to make the holidays bright and moving, even if they are not quite as planned.

A good time for quiet reflection.

A good time for quiet reflection.

© Catherine Jenkins 2013

Tempus fugit (or not)

Humans represent a geological blink, yet in the last couple of centuries, we’ve stressed the planet by raping and pillaging that which geological time took millions of years to create. There seems a strange myopia in our notion of progress; we use growing amounts of energy from diminishing sources. Public discourse on pollution started when I was a child, and we discussed alternative energies in high school. Yet this awareness has led to little positive change in the ensuing decades. Sometimes it seems that human animals only progress when prodded by impending disaster.

And while some move slowly, others move with a sense of urgency, but time has a subjective fluidity about it. People with dementia embody subjective time more boldly than most of us, able to conflate days, and seasons, and decades into the same moment; the ultimate sense of flow, but not necessarily desirable. I prefer to get my flow from engaging with work, creative or otherwise. Amazed, as always, to discover that while I’ve been working, the sun has set, the cats want their dinner, and my body is begging for relief. My recent use of dollar-store kitchen timers is helping me break up the day, reminding me of the need for movement.

At some point, and probably for either religious or economic reasons, humans invented clocks, somewhat nullifying our sense of subjective time. Once beyond sundials and clepsydra, early clocks tended to be in church towers or central squares. Although declaring their mechanical sovereignty over each town, they were notoriously fickle. The San Giacomo di Rialto clock, installed in 1410, has never kept reliable time, but it has survived two fires. And of course, there was no consistency of time from town to town. Even if clocks challenged subjective time, each town still had its own temporal identity. But we’ve moved from clockwork clocks into the digital age. At what point will it no longer be viable to ask those being tested for dementia to draw a clock face? And really, who needs to keep time with digital accuracy on a daily basis?

This clock has been dysfunctional since it was installed in 1410.

San Giacomo di Rialto, Venice. This clock has been dysfunctional since it was installed in 1410.

I’ve been increasingly intrigued by Steampunk (more on that in a future post). I devoured H.G. Wells’ novels when I was younger, so Steampunk gives me a pleasant sense of reacquainting with the familiar. One supposition is that, by marrying contemporary with Victorian technologies, Steampunk opens the question of whether we took a wrong turn during the industrial revolution. While that may be so, as we generally conceive of it, time only runs in one direction.

Author-physicist Alan Lightman presented a series of alternative conceptions of time in Einstein’s Dreams, and I’m sure there’s one episode in which time does run backward. Italo Calvino tackled notions of time and forms of consciousness in his Cosmicomics. Author-historian Caleb Carr projected ever-so-slightly forward to create the future history of Killing Time, in which events are almost recognizable. Some authors, John Keats for example, had very little time to make their mark, and yet they succeeded. The list of authors who’ve played with time goes on almost ad infinitum, especially once the science fiction wormhole is opened.

As I write the dissertation, I occasionally reflect on how different my PhD research would have been if I’d tackled it earlier in life, as I’d intended. Sometimes life corkscrews and plans are put on hold until the right time. I didn’t want to start the PhD with the threat of parental illness and death still hanging over me like a dark cloud. A downside to people having children later in life is that the kids may have to deal with life-changing adjustments and care giving before they have fully inhabited their own lives. Those earlier years were used in other ways, but I’m glad that I’ve circled back to complete this academic episode; I always knew I would. I do, however, have some hope that time expended caring for others’ lives gets tacked onto the end of my own life, although I doubt that time, or biology, work that way.

October—when the world goes to sleep. Halloween—when the veil between worlds is thinnest, when time momentarily evaporates. Dreamtime allows the dead to cross timelines for nocturnal visits. This month, I had a dream of my Dad and Moon, my first and blackest cat, the three of us climbing across rooftops. I try to find significance in such dreams, but they are only visits. The awareness of loss remains on waking, even if it was lifted for a brief time, even if I am grateful for the dreamed remembrance. As my mental state quickens with work on the dissertation, I am waking too early, in the full darkness of night. Although I am truly diurnal, I find myself embracing some odd sense of being a night creature, of being up and active when the world is in full dark and quiet. In the fall, I become aware of the shortness of days and the coldness of nights. Even as I continue working, I am slipping into hibernation.

© Catherine Jenkins 2013