Advice for a New Writer

Today, my physiotherapist told me that she wants to write. She has a story. She has written four pages. Her excitement was fantastic. Palpable. Electric. It made me remember how exciting writing used to be before I had this concussion and it became a struggle. Then she asked me a bunch of questions. Like I’m Stephen King or something.

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I answered, but I want a “do-over.” I want to give her a better answer than I could give when I was on the spot and having my neck moved around and sort of feeling like a big fake because I’m hardly writing at all now (because of the concussion). I want to give a better answer than the answers I first got when I started to write. I don’t want her to give up for a dozen years like I did. I don’t want her to have to feel around in the dark too much. A little feeling around is necessary, but there’s no need to be afraid and in the dark for too long.

If she had asked me another day, I might have told her to forget about writing and keep living her happy life. But today, I am an optimist, and if there is one thing writers know it is that if you are called to write, that’s the way it is.

To be clear, this is not actually what my physiotherapist wanted. She was asking for resources, for “the rules,” for information about how to share her work and who to share it with and what happens now that she has four pages. She wants to do this thing properly, whatever this thing is and whatever properly is.

It’s a tricky business, this advice giving. I have shelves full of craft books, an MFA and a history of teaching. What I do not have is an enviable publishing record. I’m not prolific. I just do my thing, something that took me years to be okay with. I toil in obscurity, as so many writers do. But I’m the writer she knows, the one that is on her table, the one that, thankfully, she feels safe enough to ask. That trust means a lot to me. I want to give her enough to keep the spark alight, but not so much to blow it out.

So, what did I tell her? First of all, I said, don’t worry about the rules too much. You’re doing the most important thing you can do right now, which is to get the story down. Just get it down. I don’t think I told her to do it fast, before she loses it, but I’ll say that now. Do it fast, before you lose it. Even if parts are in point form. Or in diagrams. Or emoticons. Or stick figures. There’s no time for grammar and corrections and worrying about your quotation marks right now. She is worried about her quotation marks.

When the story is down, you can start to worry about the quotation marks because they do matter. They really do. I told her what every new writer is told. Read Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. Those are the rules, and when you have a story down, you can revise and follow them. What I didn’t tell her is that after you’ve done that, you can break all of those very same rules. I don’t think she’s ready for that yet. Next, I told her the thing no writer wants to hear and every writer needs to hear. I told her that she will write this story many times before it’s done. What I forgot to tell her is that the first time is the most important time (except for the last) and the one that she needs to have done before she can do anything else.

Because she is sporty, I told her that learning to write is no different than learning a sport; you have to be bad before you are good; you have to practice to improve. I told her about writing groups. In my city, Toronto, there are writing groups that meet regularly at the public library. You can also join a drop-in group with the Toronto Writer’s Collective for free.

Then I suggested Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, with a couple of warnings. I told her it was a little too “inspirational” for me, a person who thinks memes like “Live, Laugh, Love” are the ipecac of social media and prefers to use cute sayings painted on wood for kindling rather than home décor. But, I explained, if you can get past that and the talk of God (or as Cameron carefully explains, whatever it is that works for you if you prefer not to involve God in the whole process), it’s a good self-directed course in learning about your own creative process, what nurtures it, what shuts it down and how to avoid the latter.

And now that I’m at my desk and thinking more about it, I want to offer a couple of other books. Most writers I know list Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones among their favourites. I find something new in them every time I read them and I’ve read them so often now they’re like old friends. And, more importantly, both are good reads, even if you’re not a writer.

Two books with more “instruction” and a solid feminist bent are Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Both speak to all of the important questions my physiotherapist will ask soon but hasn’t asked yet. These are next year’s questions, perhaps, but if she keeps writing, they are coming, and maybe having these two little slim and helpful volumes at the ready will help.

Finally, there is one other book I recommend to anyone who is transitioning from being a serious reader to a writer, and that is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

I figure this is a year’s work, so time to stop.

And I have one last piece of advice. Don’t talk about your story. Protect it a bit. Keep it to yourself. Talking about it let’s the magic out, or at least it does for me.

Was there something essential to your early development as a writer that you’d like to tell my physiotherapist about, something that might encourage her? If so, please leave a comment. We would both welcome it.

Susan Faludi’s Backlash is as Relevant as Ever

I am not surprised that at a time when the United States could elect it’s first woman President, there is a massive backlash against women and that her opponent is the personification of misogyny. Susan Faludi talked about this phenomenon in her ovumnal 1991 book, Backlash. This is a book that’s worth rereading now or reading for the first time. This cover image is from the 2006 re-release of the book with a new forward by Faludi. In it, Faludi says the backlash is over and laments that while there have been gains for women since 1991, “We have used our gains to gild our shackles, but not break them.”(xvi) backlash

But it’s not over. We’re living through it again now.

I’ve tried not to get caught up in the day to day debacles of election news. I’m trying to take the long view. In the long view, there is more at stake than simply who will be President, a Democrat or Republican. Americans have to ask themselves, will it be business as usual or will one more piece of the intersecting puzzle of oppression break? Will a woman, a qualified woman, a woman running against a uniquely unqualified man, a man so appalling he is a cartoon character, become President or will the cartoon character? If the cartoon character wins, so does the Backlash. Women will not have made a step forward, but will have taken innumerable steps back and with them will follow every other group seeking equity.

Faludi’s work tells us that the backlash is real, it can succeed and it does succeed. But it also shows us how desperately those who hold power will cling to their power, the measures they will go to, and how, as their desperation becomes increasingly apparent the more likely they are to lose. The backlash, in other words, is a good thing. It is evidence that we are winning.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world watches to see if the promise of America will hold or if we will be witness to another failure of the American experiment. Wouldn’t it be surprising if it were not unfettered capitalism or the open sore of racism, or even another expensive and failed military misadventure that brought America to its knees but if it were plain old sexism?

To be clear, I don’t want to see the US brought to its knees. I don’t want them to be made an international laughing stock. I’m quite fond of America and Americans and even lived there for a while. I want the American experiment to succeed. I’m cheering for the good guys. I want a US that says, “We’re working on it. Really. Here’s some proof. We elected a woman President. We didn’t let the most obviously misogynist (insert more adjectives here) man in the modern history of our country take charge. We strive to be better tomorrow than we are today.” After all, the American project is about the pursuit, isn’t it? It’s very nature is optimistic, and I want optimism to prevail.

So, rather than waste another second tracking the appalling antics of the man, why not go back to Susan Faludi’s book Backlash instead? It’s easy to apply her analysis to today’s events and gain some insight into why, exactly, the ground is shaking at this particular time in this particular way. I am convinced the revelations about the despicable man will continue so that even his most loyal backers are offered multiple opportunities to see clearly. If his race baiting didn’t open their eyes, then maybe his insults to people with disabilities might. Or veterans. If that doesn’t do it, then maybe his creepy sexual objectification of his own daughter will. If that doesn’t cut it, then maybe his business failures might. Something has to clear the film from their eyes. If that doesn’t flip the switch, maybe hearing him brag about sexual assault will. But rest assured, the opportunities for clarity are a gift and will be offered until they are no longer needed.

Or if you think Faludi is too old or too second wave or too (insert adjective here), spend your time reading more modern feminst analyses, those that are intersectional in nature. Here’s a list of blogs to get you started. It will do you a lot more good than watching another video of that man insulting someone and your intelligence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing the Details: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

summer bookMy book club had a brilliant idea: this year, we would read books in translation. That’s how I came upon The Summer Book by Tove Janssen. It is a master class in writing detailed setting and character revealing mini-scenes.

Janssen is Finnish, and part of a Swedish speaking minority. My translation to English is by Thomas Teal. Originally published in 1972, it is amazingly crisp and detailed writing about family on a Finnish outer island and the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.

This is a book in which nothing happens and everything happens. There is little to no narrative arc, with the exception of following the two characters through a series of scenic vignettes that take place over one summer. The narrative point of view shifts subtly between the grandmother and granddaughter, Sophie, and sometimes seems to shift to an omniscient third. The shifts happen without the reader becoming particularly aware of them, an accomplishment I always admire.

The relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is beautifully revealed through concise scenes. Both grandmother and Sophia care deeply about the smallest things in their world and they understand this about each other. One day when the father is late back from taking the boat into the village, Sophia becomes worried. Her mother has already died and there are clues throughout the narrative that this loss troubles her deeply. “And all you can do is just read,” she shouts at the grandmother and begins to weep. The grandmother goes into a detailed explanation of all the things the father has to do in the village.

“It can take a long time,” she said.

“Go on,” Sophia said.

“Well, then he has to take everything down to the boat,” Grandmother said. “He has to pack it all in and cover it so it won’t get wet. And on the way down he remembers to pick some flowers, and give some bread to the horse. And the bread’s way down at the bottom of a bag somewhere…” (105-106).

In another scene, Sophia convinces the grandmother to explore the island with her. It is a little too much for the grandmother, who has trouble walking and uses a stick. Sophia is both adult and child in the scene.

They crawled on through the pines, and Grandmother threw up in the moss.

“It could happen to anyone,” the child said. “Did you take your Lupatro?”

Her grandmother stretched out on the ground and didn’t answer.

After a while Sophia whispered, “I guess I can spare some time for you today.”

It was nice and cool under the pine trees and they weren’t in any hurry, so they slept for a while. When they woke up they crawled on to the cave, but Grandmother was too big to get in. “You’ll have to tell me what it’s like,” she said.

“It’s all green,” Sophia said. “And it smells like rot and it’s very pretty, and way at the back it’s holy because that’s where God lives, in a little box maybe” (64).

 Often they are cross with each other.

“Can you make kites?” Sophia said, but Grandmother said she could not. As the days went by, they became strangers to each other, with a shyness that was almost hostile. “Is it true you were born in the eighteen-hundreds?” Sophia yelled through the window.

“What of it?” Grandmother answered, very distinctly. “What do you know about the eighteen-hundreds?”

“Nothing, and I’m not interested, either,” Sophia shouted and ran away.

The detail in the writing is most obvious when Janssen describes the setting. An island is already a micro-landscape but Janssen goes to the smallest level of detail possible, enabling the reader to feel exactly what it is like to live in such a space and know it with the same kind of intimacy as the fictional inhabitants. In this passage, the grandmother is resting on the beach.

She turned on her side and put her arm over her head. Between the arm of her sweater, her hat, and the white reeds, she could see a triangle of sky, sea, and sand–quite a small triangle. There was a blade of grass in the sand beside her, and between its sawtoothed leaves it held a piece of seabird down. She carefully observed the construction of this piece of down–the taut white rib in the middle surrounded by the down itself, which was pale, brown and lighter than the air, and then darker and shiny toward the tip, which ended in a tiny but spirited curve. The down moved in a draft of air too slight for her to feel. She noted that the blade of grass and the down were at precisely the right distance for her eyes. She wondered if the down had caught on the grass now, in the spring, maybe during the night, or if it had been there all winter. She saw the conical depression in the sand at the foot of the blade of grass and the wisp of seaweed that had twined around the stem. Right next to it lay a piece of bark. If you looked at it for a long time it grew and became a very ancient mountain. The upper side had craters and excavations that looked like whirlpools (22).

Because Janssen has allowed us to, we, the readers, have looked at the grass and the down and the bark long enough that we have seen the bark transform into a mountain. It has been a long time since I read anything in which I was allowed to luxuriate in this kind of detail.

This is a beautiful little book, perfect for summer reading. The short vignettes make no demands upon the reader except to live in the day, just like it’s characters. There is no journey, there is only the here and now and the pleasures of the sky, the land and the sea.

 

 

 

 

When you know what you’ve got before it’s gone

How can I keep a blog about writing I love without paying homage to The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie?

The Tragically Hip’s last tour, the news that Gord is dying of cancer, the last show—it’s all too much. My tears are real and close to the surface. And I’m not alone. Many of us have a special relationship with the band. It’s not often we know what we’ve got before it’s gone, and this is one of those times.

I went to Queen’s in Kingston (Arts ’85) when the band was hipgetting started. I had the same hair as Gord. I’ve never met any of them, but I’ve been in the same room. I remember an article about them in the Queen’s student paper. In the interview, they were treated like the Beatles. There was speculation about whether one of them was dead. It was smart, funny. I was hooked. I saved it for years but finally lost it in one of my many moves. I was at a show where they played the song “Bedrock,” from the Flintstones. Seriously. They used to do B-sides of Elvis. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen them. I think I remember that Gord used to keep his back to the audience way back then. It was kind of great. I imagined him petrified, but doing it anyway, getting out there.

After I left Queen’s, I saw them in Toronto, an early show, at the Horseshoe maybe, or Lee’s Palace. I can’t remember. For a while, he lived in the apartment above a friend of mine. I’d visit and see “G. Downie” on the call button and wonder if I’d run into him on the stairs one day. I never did. I’ve seen them in stadiums in Calgary and Toronto. I took my daughter to see them in a hockey arena in Kelowna. No one stayed in their seats. Most of the audience jumped the boards and danced on the floor. When I hear the lines, “Watch the band through a bunch of dancers,” I am back there.

The last time I saw the Hip was in Boston. I’d been living there with my husband and the crowd at the House of Blues was full of Canadians. Every Canadian in a hundred mile radius was there, or at least that’s what it felt like. We wore our Canadian gear, our hockey shirts, our old Hip t-shirts. The House of Blues folks knew this was some kind of Mecca for us, although they didn’t quite get it. Their songs tethered me, tethered all of us, to home. They made me feel like myself again.

Some lyrics are more poignant now than ever. “You can’t be fond of living in the past,” or “Lower me slowly, sadly and properly, Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.” I love that song. Every time I drive across the country and I leave the Shield and come over that rise on the TransCanada to the Prairie (you know the one) I stop the car on the side of the road, sit on the hood and blast it. In the old days, I’d have a smoke too. Not anymore. Those things cause cancer.

Other lyrics, even the name of the band, have new meanings since the news broke and these new meanings hit hard last night. Context is everything, right? Lines like “Nothing’s dead down here. It’s just a little tired,” and “Tired as fuck.” Yeah. I bet you are. It showed, of course, but it doesn’t matter. “I’m total pro. That’s what I’m here for,” he sang. And he is. “Every day I’m dumping the body,” was a gut punch for me.

One song that didn’t change in meaning for me was “Scared.” I used to listen to “Scared” over and over again when I had cancer. The “I” in the lyric was sometimes me, sometimes cancer. It became a constantly shifting confrontation. I used to go into chemo humming, “I’m not prepared. But if I have to.” Hearing Gord sing it last night was, for me, the emotional centre of the concert.

Thanks for the last memory Gord, the last concert, the epic effort you put into it. Thanks, to you and the whole band, for the last thirty years. I’m not prepared, but I guess I have to. I’m pretty sure you feel the same way.  So do we all.

On Sticking With It

I’m nearly finished a novel. Admitting this spooks me. I’m superstitious that even talking about it will jinx it. Knock on wood. Salt over the shoulder. Fingers and toes crossed. Because nearly finished isn’t finished. And in the oft quoted (by me) immortal words of the great Gord Downie, “No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.” Who cares about a novel that is almost done but not done? No one. Getting it done is what makes the difference between the poser at a party who says, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” and the novelist.

It’s been a long process. The wonderful writer Joan Clark mentored me at the Banff Centre when I was just starting this book. She gave me the first thing I needed–encouragement. She told me I could write. She also told me that my biggest struggle would be finishing. She was right on the mark there. But she also reassured me that a lot of first novels take ten years. Well, I’m officially at the ten year mark. A decade. I have struggled not to quit, to stick with it. Somewhere in the first year, I promised myself that even if it was bad and I was the only one who ever read it, I would finish it. And I will.

Many things have stymied me as I’ve done this work. Like all writers, I have this LIFE that gets in the way. It’s hard to stay focused on writing when all this important LIFE is going on around me and I’m expected to be in it. There were times, I admit, when I dropped the novel for months at a time. Months. And when I would come back to it, it was not like meeting a friend who lives far away, a friend who you can pick up a conversation with in exactly the same place you left off the last time you spoke. No. It was like meeting an ex unexpectedly in the grocery store when you are wearing pajamas under your coat and have spinach in your teeth. No matter how intimate you may have been in the past, you and your ex stand before each other as awkward strangers. You might be reduced to talking about the weather. You are estranged, that is, strange to each other. My book and I would have nothing to talk about anymore.

Even worse than LIFE getting in the way of writing was my own lack of skill. I simply didn’t know how to write a novel. I dealt with that by studying, reading great writers, and getting an MFA. It was during the MFA that I finally learned how to work through the massive amount of writing I had accumulated on this project. Joan Clark refers to this writing as “circling.” What she means by this is that we spend an awful lot of time writing stuff that never makes it into the book. We circle the real novel, move around it, explore it from all sides and finally zoom in on it. With the help of other mentors like Sandra Scofield, I figured out how to zoom in, what to cut and what to keep and how to move from scene to scene to scene and get from the beginning to the end.

Now I have a new challenge. LIFE intervenes. So close to the end, I have a concussion. I can’t work much. I lack focus. I risk becoming estranged from my work again. One thing I know, however, is that I have to keep talking to my novel and let it keep talking to me. Even if it’s only a few sentences or words a day, we have to keep acquainted. I read a blog post today on The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer in which Sachiko Murakami talks to Vancouver writer Alex Leslie about how to keep focus on a project. Leslie says, “The one thing I’ve learned is to always keep moving. Never let it all drop. Always be doing something for your project, even if it’s printing it out and crossing out words and writing in other words, or writing a plan. Stay in motion. Give it something.”

Exactly. Every day, I’m going to give it something. Keep it in motion. Give it some energy and get some energy back from it. It’s like circling again. Stay with it. If I can’t be in it, I’ll walk around it and look at it and think about it and dip into it, change a word here and there, and then change it back. I’ll do this until I can gather the concentration to get through those last few pages. I promise. I promise myself. After all, ten years is just an average, right?

 

On Not Writing

Warning: I’m crabby. I’m about as crabby as I can be. And I know why. I’m not writing.

A few weeks ago I was in a car accident and I have a concussion. This happened despite the fact I did not actually hit my head. Since then I have been learning all about the world of the concussed. One result is I have limited screen time, like some wayward kid given a time out. Three times now, with the merest glint of improvement, I’ve sprinted out of the gate only to stumble in the first few yards. What is that saying about “fool me once….” Three times is really inexcusable. But I get it now. I’m giving myself a few minutes a day, trying to build up the minutes until I can maybe write a paragraph or a blog post or do a tweet or two. Apparently, this is what I was supposed to do all along instead of jumping into a day’s work and then wondering why I became symptomatic again.

I’ve become a little obsessed with a blog called The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer. I ignored it the first few times I came across it. Oh cry me a river, I thought. Writing is so hard. Boo hoo. Then do something else. Whiners, I thought. Yes, writing is hard. But suddenly this blog speaks to me. Writing is really hard. I don’t give myself enough credit sometimes.

Today’s post is about procrastination. Now, to be clear, what I’m doing isn’t procrastinating. It’s something else. It’s healing I guess, no matter how much it might feel the same as procrastinating. And while healing, I’ve made a little discovery: the hardest thing about writing is not writing. And my twenty minutes are up.

On Downsizing Books

For much of my life, getting rid of a book was blasphemy. Books have always been sacred to me. As a young person, I was deeply affected by an image of books being burned by Nazis. Piles of books up in smoke. In my personal Ten downloadCommandments, One Must Not Destroy Books. We all know where that can lead.

There is a scene in the wonderfully cheesy disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, in which having taken shelter from a world-destroying storm in the New York Public Library, the characters begin to collect books they will burn to stay warm. One of the group objects and clings to a Gutenberg Bible, determined to save civday after tomorrowilization until another quips that there can be no harm in burning the multiple volumes of the tax code. The point is well made. Not all books have equal value.

Three years too late, I have come across this sensible and well-written piece about downsizing books by Summer Brennan called “On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books.” It is based on Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (Aside: I like to imagine Kondo’s books gathering dust on shelves everywhere, but that reveals something perverse in my nature.) What Brennan has done is apply Kondo’s now iconic zeal to her own life in a way that makes sense to her.

Brennan captures what’s wrong with any “one size fits all” approach to book culling. She writes, “It occurred to me that part of the reason why tackling the ‘books’ stage of the Full Kondo seems so daunting is that to many of us our books don’t really belong in the category she has assigned. They are not impersonal units of knowledge, interchangeable and replaceable, but rather receptacles for the moments of our lives, whose pages have sopped up morning hopes and late-night sorrows, carried in honeymoon suitcases or clutched to broken hearts.” Yes, that is it. The piece is well worth reading if you are about to embark on a book cull.  If you need further inspiration (and another book) go to the source material. Marie Kondo’s work has been much praised and mocked (a sure sign she is on to something) but I find there is something deeply consoling in her simple rule that one’s things should bring one joy.

Joy was the last thing on my mind when I moved from Calgary to Boston three years ago and faced the daunting task and considerable cost of moving fifty years of accumulated books. I cut my personal library in half. I never wanted to count how many books went. Too heartbreaking. I did it according to the space they took up. Each shelf was halved. I was methodical. For the most part, the Canadiana and hard to find books were boxed and went with me. Treasured gifts stayed. Books that brought me back to a specific time and place stayed. In short, books that had woven their way into the fabric of my life could not be given away. I worked hard to give my discards the possibility of a second life and keep them out of the landfill. If nothing else, I owed it to the trees.

Many of my Women’s Studies and feminist books went to two local women’s centres. That felt good. Except the ones I had to keep. Again, they were too much a part of me. I don’t even want to admit which books I ditched and which I kept for fear it will say too much about me. If I owned multiple books by one author, I would tell myself to keep only my very favourites. It was relatively easy to keep only two Dickens but then I kept every Carol Shields book. These were far too precious. I gave away Middlemarch, still unread since a Victorian Lit course in the 1980s.

Oh dear. I have revealed too much.

Of all the books I gave away three years (and two moves) ago, I have re-acquired only two. Oddly, one was Anne of Green Gables. Actually, I didn’t even have to buy it. A good friend, also moving, gave me one of her three copies. In the mean time, I have spared myself the cost of moving hundreds of books around (twice) and the cost of keeping a space to store them. Trust me, I still have a lot of books. For some reason, I feel it absolutely necessary to have six dictionaries.

Hard as it is to admit, you can have too much of a good thing. Even books.

History Wrapped in Art and Craft: The Hungry Grass by A. Mary Murphy

A. Mary Murphy’s The Hungry Grass is gorgeous. It sweeps me up with its vivid images. It has altered, forever, my ideas about the Irish potato famine and those who lived through it, died in it, or fled it. Gone are the dry, two sentence descriptions of faceless Irish I was given in school texts. Murphy has given me something so much better. She has given me history wrapped in art and craft. She has brought these people and their world to life. The Hungry Grass

The book length poem is 2295 lines, each with seven syllables. I don’t pretend to understand poets and what would possess a person to submit themselves to such a strict form; I only enjoy the incredible result. Murphy mixes Irish dialect with English and seamlessly embeds meticulously researched details into the work which describes fifteen years in the lives of her ancestors. In the first pages, we see the life of Irish Tenant families before the famine, carried through each season with its particularities, its work, its religious observances, and its customs until a full year passes. Life before the famine is hardscrabble but it is also full of joy. The narrator marries in the spring and by the next spring, gives birth to a child, her little life so precarious and precious. The reader knows what the stakes are here. Love is love, whether it is in 1834 or 2016. And so is hunger.

Although the details place us firmly in the Irish potato famine, the poem’s richness cannot help but tie it thematically to all famines, all mass migrations, all displacements, all droughts, and all victims of soulless and intransigent governments.

The poem starts, “And it is how it happened / before fields of hungry grass / grew up over all the world / pinching us with starvation” and I am hooked. “Pinching” is such an excellent verb to attach to “starvation.” I feel it in my body, in my stomach. I read on and am shown the thousand-year churchyard, the neeps and nettles, the furrows in the soil ready for planting, the Liecester rams, cormorants, perch and corncrakes crying in the meadow and even a trespassing goose. I am fully immersed in this world of the past and given a close up view as it falls apart.

I was fortunate to hear Murphy read from this book last week at an Inanna Publications event at Owl’s Nest Books in Calgary. Hearing her read, hearing the lilt of the Irish, and experiencing the flow of the language coming seven syllables at a time was a delight. Murphy makes use of all the senses to put us in this time and place. I hear the birds and feel the breeze. I am, like Murphy was during her research, in the bog. And I am hungry.

Thank you for this book, A. Mary Murphy. This is art.

Cancer is Not a Journey

Cancer is not a journey. Stop with the meaningless platitudes.

Cancer is a kidnapping. A hijacking. You’re going along, living your life and BAM. A bag gets thrown over your head and you are captured and you don’t know where the hell you are going. Or you are at gunpoint, being forced to drive by someone who won’t tell you the destination or how long it will take and you’re trying not to piss yourself. Or you have been thrown out on the side of a desolate highway with no water, no food and no map. You watch the car disappear in the distance. You might die of thirst. You might die.

A random bunch of rogue cells has taken over your body against your will disrupting everything you thought you knew about how your body works and who you are. Then it forces you to go places you don’t want to be. Like chemo. In the chemo room, you try to pretend it’s normal for fluorescent poisons to drip into your arm. You learn a language that you don’t want to learn and can only really speak among other people similarly kidnapped. It’s not like going to Spain and getting to try out a few phrases from the phrasebook you bought in the airport. There are no tapas. It’s not fun. You don’t get to feel more sophisticated and cosmopolitan because of it. Just tired. And terrified. You sit in a room with other tired and terrified people who have their own fluorescent poisons dripping into them and are desperately trying to learn this language and you smile instead of scream because it’s not their fault you are there, so what’s the point of screaming? Cancer doesn’t hear you scream. It doesn’t give a fuck. It’s a fucking sociopath. Sometimes it cuts off a breast just to make a point.

You’ve been kidnapped. Your sweat has a new smell. The smell of fear. Everything tastes like metal and who cares because you can’t keep it down anyway. You are grateful when you vomit and taste bile because it means your body actually might have absorbed some food before it rejected it. You hardly sleep and when you wake up, you wake up to the realization that you have cancer. Every damn morning. Several times a night. After every nap.

You try to think of a plan to get out. There must be a way. You’ll try anything. The hucksters and charlatans come calling offering you snake oil and herbs and magic pills and you will do anything, pay anything, to be freed from this captivity. You have learned the meaning of desperate. You cry. Often. Sometimes with other people. Sometimes alone.

Cancer hijacks your body and it hijacks your voice. There isn’t a person on earth who would want to go where cancer takes them. So stop trying to make it sound like it has purpose and meaning by giving it an archetype and calling it a journey and saying those in the middle of it are brave. It’s a fucking hijacking. People who have cancer are in the middle of trauma. They are scared. They are by turns angry and in denial and grieving.

Some people don’t make it out alive. The hijacker, all hopped up on their power trip, kills them, and there will never be any justice. That’s what cancer is.

Those who live do not come away unscathed from this calamity. Every single one of them has had to face their own death. It’s not pretty. It’s not a waterfall in Hawaii. No one takes a selfie. People who have cancer have to imagine the lives of their children without them. They have to come to grips with losing everything. Some have gone broke paying the ransom. Some have PTSD.

Calling this kidnapping, this hijacking, a journey is gaslighting. Stop it. Call it what it is. Appreciate the enormity of what people with cancer unwillingly face. Of what I’ve faced. I wasn’t on a fucking journey. I was clawing my way back to life from a cave I got thrown into against my will. I have friends in the cave now. Just do me a favour and stop calling what they are facing a journey.

 

IWD, Feminist Consciousness Raising and Adrienne Rich

Many writers I love taught me my feminism. On International Women’s Day, I celebrate one writer in particular, Adrienne Rich, whose clarity of thought and forceful writing changed the course of my life.  Adrienne Rich

“Motherhood in Bondage” first appeared in the New York Times on the Op-Ed page on November 20, 1976. It is reprinted in many places, including a compilation of Rich’s prose called On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (Norton, 1979). By the time I read “Motherhood in Bondage,” (likely some time in 1993) I was already a mother and had already absorbed some feminist consciousness, despite my upbringing. I believed women must have the same rights as men. I knew that although some of the big issues like suffrage were settled, there were plenty of other important issues like pay equity that still needed to be sorted out. I had no reason to believe that this would not happen. Progress towards a more just society was inevitable, I thought. People marched, there were hearings or inquiries, problems were explained, legislation changed.

What I hadn’t thought about to any great degree were the systemic forces that kept oppression (not just women’s oppression but all oppression) going. I hadn’t thought about how those in power might create systems on purpose to benefit themselves and that changing the rules for women or people of colour or any powerless group might not be their priority. I had not thought about the effort that those in power put toward keeping a system that benefited them in place.

My pregnancy, the birth of my daughter and my new role of mother made me see how women remained oppressed in fundamental ways. My daughter was born in 1992. I had to fight to receive my full maternity benefits, something that the law said I was entitled to but my employer was ready to deny me. The threat of legal intervention was needed to resolve the dispute. Preparing for the birth, I had wanted a midwife but was told that if I had one, I would have no access to my doctor or a hospital in case of emergency. I don’t even know if this was true or simply a threat, but I acquiesced. I had never felt so patronized or controlled. At about twenty two weeks, strong contractions and bleeding sent me to the hospital and I was told it was nothing and sent home. I was made to feel like I had wasted everyone’s time, but if I had stayed home and anything had happened, I would have been blamed for that too. During my daughter’s birth, I was scolded. It was taking too long. The doctors, the same ones that were so essential to this process, did not intervene when they should have, caused me unnecessary suffering and then blamed me for it. After the birth, when my daughter didn’t immediately latch on, I was told that my insistence on breastfeeding was jeopardizing her life. They insisted on formula. I would not let them give her any. Her lethargy was blamed on me because I had, in the long hours of unproductive labour, taken a pain killer and this had made her groggy. It was my fault she would not latch, they said. The nurse left my chart out. I read it. It said I was non-compliant. I left the hospital. At home, I struggled to understand what had happened to my life. My once reasonably equitable marriage had become something else; my husband went to work and I breastfed, looked after our baby, our house, our meals, our errands and did all the unpaid labour. This seemed fair. I was home. Why wouldn’t I do all of these things? The logic seemed unassailable, but somehow, I knew it was flawed.

Meanwhile, my husband had become a father and he was still encouraged to pursue other goals. I was not. Although I knew that my “work,” had value in the broader scheme of things, I had no place in that scheme anymore. I was encouraged to join a mother’s group. I did. It depressed me. I did not go back. For the first time since I was thirteen years old, I did not earn money. I was utterly dependent and I felt ashamed. I looked into returning to work, daycare, pumping breast milk, all of it. Much as I wanted to be back in the bigger world, I wasn’t ready to let go of the baby to do it. I made a choice. (And before you stomp all over me, I recognize many women have no such choice. I recognize my privilege. But this is, after all, a personal essay. This is how it was for me. I’m not claiming that this is how it is for everyone.) Being forced to make the choice felt like cruel but all-too-usual punishment. But punishment for what? For being a mother? My husband was never judged for his choices, but I would be judged for mine. All the while, I felt that the choice I was being asked to make was somehow false. I felt there had to be another way.

I began looking for kindred spirits, teachers, someone who could explain what had happened to me, what was happening to women who became mothers, and I found Rich.

The understanding that male-female relationships have been founded on the status of the female as the property of the male, or of male-dominated institutions, continues to be difficult for both women and men. It is painful to acknowledge that our identity has been dictated and diminished by others, or that we have let our identity depend on the diminishment and exploitation of other humans. This idea still meets with resistance that has always risen when unsanctioned, long-stifled realities begin to stir and assert themselves.

Painful to acknowledge indeed. And not just for me. For my husband too. It was not his intention to oppress me, and I knew that. But by default, he belonged to a political and social context that oppressed me. Rich explained that my sudden dependence and vulnerability did not happen because of a particular failing of mine or a particular meanness within my husband. This was vital to remember. And she also explained that figuring out a better way to relate to one another and the world was essential and was going to be difficult. But no matter what our social and political context, we always have agency. We always have free will. I had to do everything I could do to improve the situation.

“The power politics of the relations between the sexes, long unexplored, is still a charged issue,” wrote Rich. “To raise it is to cut to the core of power relations throughout society, to break down irreparably the screens of mystification between ‘private life’ and ‘public affairs.'” Indeed. Motherhood as an experience, as a political institution, had been defined by men. Women played by their rules. Men created legislation around birth control and abortion. In a fundamental way, women were (and still are) unable to decide for themselves if they wish to become mothers. At the time, men still wholly controlled the guardianship of children in the courts, the educational system and within the family. Men dominated women economically, an inevitability in a capitalist system that valued men’s work more than women’s even when they did the same work. Again, this is still true. And finally Rich explained how the women who challenge this system, who question it, who try to break free of it, were seen as deviant. And we all know what happens to deviants.

Rich wrote, “the pressure on all women to assent to the ‘mothering’ role is intense.” This is what I was feeling; the pressure to be a mother in a way that had been prescribed by someone else, in a way that allowed me to survive but not thrive.

I could have given in. I could have swallowed hard and gone along to get along, put up and shut up. I didn’t. In the conclusion of the essay, Rich had given me my marching orders, although I wouldn’t understand for many years that I had accepted the challenge she offered. She wrote:

Such themes anger and terrify precisely because they touch us at the quick of human existence. But to flee them, or trivialize them, to leave the emotions they arouse in us unexamined, is to flee both ourselves and the dawning hope that women and men may one day experience forms of love and parenthood, identity and community that will not be drenched in lies, secrets, and silence.

I wanted to find this better future for myself, for my baby, and for my husband. I examined my life. I learned more. I studied. I worked in the community. I observed. I listened. I taught Women’s Studies. I tried to help others understand these issues and more. And although it was never easy, it got better. I had a goal in mind, a vision of equity, if not equality, a sense of fairness. On this International Women’s Day, I thank Adrienne Rich for giving me direction. I hope that every woman can break free of her own lies, secrets and silence. I’m still working on it. It’s a life-long quest.