Author Archives: Jane Cawthorne

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.

Political Writing, George Orwell and the Republicans

An American writer recently advised me not to write politically. I thought, “Surely, I have misheard.” (Truth be told, I actually thought “WTF,” but I’m granting myself a better vocabulary in the retelling). The context was a conversation about the upcoming American election. I had asked what role he thought writers had in the mess. None, he said. Political writing makes for bad art, he said. I countered with Orwell. He said “British,” and thus dismissed my point. I visualized George Orwell rolling over in his grave but I think Orwell would dislike the image. He would probably call it overused, which it is. It is also unclear. It is meant to imply anger and restlessness but could just as easily imply resignation. Roll over, pull the shroud up over your shoulder and ignore it. So instead, I’ll visualize Orwell pushing against the lid of his coffin, desperate to get a word in on this argument. I countered again with Steinbeck. The American writer said, “A different time.” He warned me I could have no commercial success writing politically. As I was about to list a host of contemporary American fiction writers whose work is both political and successful, the real issue came out. He had written something political on social media and lost friends. Sometimes, we are simply afraid.

Writing I love is always political. It has a high likelihood of offending someone. If George Orwell were alive today, I suspect that he would have something to say about the current nominees, both Republican and Democrat. He might write an essay. He might write a work of fiction which touches on the problems of the present. I doubt he would have held back.

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Orwell would have braved the haters and the internet trolls and the columnists from Nowheresville who resort to ad hominem attacks and straw man arguments. It would have been a thing to behold. We need Orwell now. But Orwell is dead. The best we can do is strive to be like him.

In Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” he writes, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues” and I couldn’t agree more. Most people know this particular essay as the source of excellent writerly advice like using clear language and avoiding spent metaphors. He laments that “our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Lazy and inaccurate language begets lazy and inaccurate thinking and in turn, lazy and inaccurate thinking begets lazy and inaccurate language. We must break this cycle, and Orwell suggests paying attention to language is a good place to start.

Orwell would demand a specific example. Here is one. Mr. Kasich, a Republican, is described as “moderate.” Moderate is a political label that has become meaningless, just as Orwell notes the word “democracy” has become meaningless. Its use here is inaccurate and lazy. Moderate compared to what? Please, define your terms. The word moderate is being used to imply Kasich is “good” or that, less optimistically, he is the “best of a bad lot” or, perhaps, “not quite as crazy as the others.” But recall the reciprocal nature of the relationship between language and ideas. If, as a result of numerous namings of Kasich as a moderate, Americans visualize him when the word is used, we will have succeeded in further confusing the meaning of moderate. To reverse the process, he must be called what he really is.

But why single out Mr. Kasich? Many have argued that, in fact, the Republican candidates are all saying much the same thing. They each espouse racist and xenophobic ideas. Mr. Trump is not an outlier, not within the candidates, the Republican party, or possibly even the American people. Sure, some of the candidates, like Mr. Trump, appeal more to the KKK than others. But that doesn’t mean that the others do not appeal to the KKK. Ironically, in between the bluster and incomprehensible phrases of jingoistic nonsense he has pushed together to create his campaign, he has done something that Orwell would advise. On select ideas, he has removed the mask of codified language, pretentious diction, and economic and legalistic jargon that has long obfuscated the hobbesian brutality of Republican goals. (Orwell would hate that sentence. How about this: Regarding race and immigration, he has been explicit and revealed the brutal end game of Republican policy.) As a result, his audience has found him and responded accordingly and he is winning. Unfortunately, the language he uses still comes from failed thinking. 

It was 1946 when Orwell wrote “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language,” and this statement is equally true in 2016, seventy years later. His essay teaches all writers how to avoid spouting the meaningless drivel that inundates us in every news cycle. And it is well past time that we as writers use his suggestions. We must explain how these candidates defy the American Constitution and demean the American dream. Or rather, YOU must, American writers. It’s your country. Do so clearly, explicitly, using clear language and specific examples. Orwell promises that if you write in this style your thoughts will become clearer and “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

I revisit Orwell’s writing often, particularly The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. I happen to have Volume 2, conveniently subtitled My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943. It is old and held together with an elastic. My copy originally belonged to my older brother. It was one of his high school texts, and somehow, I have come to have it. The passages that he checked off in the index include “Review of Mein Kampf by Adolf HItler,” “Review of The Totalitarian Enemy by Franz Borkenau,” “Prophecies of Fascism,” “Literature and Totalitarianism,” and “Who are the War Criminals?” among others. I expect these were the ones he was assigned to study. My brother went to a Catholic school and was taught by Jesuits. It delights me to know that this work was part of their curriculum. I mention it because there is a whole other essay here on the importance of good teaching and public education, but I’ll save that for another time.

I find something arresting every time I go back into this book. Today, in “Prophesies of Fascism,” I stopped short on these lines in which Orwell, referring to writer Jack London, makes the point that London did not fall into the trap of fascists, that he “knew that economic laws do not operate in the same way as the law of gravity,” but that they can be “held up for long periods by people who, like Hitler, believe in their own destiny.” And people like Trump.

It’s time to be clear, precise and unafraid. We need to call a spade a spade. But because Orwell would hate the phrase, I will revise again. We need to call out candidates as fascist when they are fascists, as facile when they are facile and fraudulent when they are fraudulent. Language is called Orwellian when it is propagandist and obstructionist. But as writers, let us rethink the meaning of Orwellian. Let’s write as Orwell would have. Let us be Orwellian.

 

 

The Effective Expletive

If James Lipton, famed interviewer of Inside the Actors Studio, were to ask me my favourite expletive, I would blurt out the word “fuck” without hesitation. It is what I say when I stub my toe. It is versatile and works as almost any part of speech. So it was with joy that I read two pieces this week that offer excellent examples of using expletives effectively. Both are blog posts about the Jian Ghomeshi trial, a man and a situation that call for the strongest possible language.

The first blog post is called “Fuck You, Jian,” from Bone Broth and BreastmilkThis is an incredible blog post. Personal, brave, revealing, raw, honest and real. I admire her fragmented sentence style. It conveys the difficulty of bringing words together about the case. It conveys the anger. She speaks of being “deeply disturbed,” the “subterranean sludge,” the trial brings up and a situation that has “absolutely gutted so many of us.” She writes, “But the big secret that Jian Ghomeshi blew wide open last year, is that there is a sickness in our culture. A sickness that allows nice guys, educated guys, guys with culture and thoughtful analysis – gentle guys – to feel entitled to treat women as less than human.” A guy you might have thought was feminist even. A guy with famous feminist friends, feminist friends who even stood up for him, at least in the beginning. The writer never says Fuck You, Jian in the post. She keeps it up front and puts it right in the title. And I have to say, I respect that. I wish I knew her name. She’s a solid writer. Kudos to you. Fucking great blog post.

Jane Eaton Hamilton is another solid writer, more than solid, an award winning writer who I have read and admired for years. She too has written about Ghomeshi this week. Her blog post is even more personal. She relates an encounter she had with the accused called The Preludes to Assaults.  Again, I can use the words brave, revealing, raw, honest and real. Hamilton’s point is that those who prey on women have a pattern, a method, and that she (and dare I say #yesallwomen) have been part of what can only be described as a prelude to an assault, an assault interrupted. Her post starts starts like this: “Jian Ghomeshi, you [redacted].” She repeats this phrase every time she uses his name in the post, which she does often. I prefer to think that the redacted word is “fuck” but it could be anything. That’s the beauty of the redaction. It lets us put our own favourite expletive into the mix.

Now, even though I would generally rather use the word fuck than not, the redaction is brilliant. It makes the expletive stand out even more. And since it is destined to be used so many times in this difficult piece, it is probably a relief to those less inclined to use expletives as liberally as I tend to that it is left off the page. It’s a good reminder that with expletives, less is often more. Overused, an expletive loses its effectiveness. And lastly, something else happens with this technique. I find myself reading new inflection into my favourite expletive every time the word [redacted] shows up.

Sometimes you have to say fuck. But it’s not just Jian Ghomeshi I want to say fuck about. It’s every man who ever raped or beat a woman, every man who ever manipulated a woman, tried to gaslight her, told her she didn’t look right or catcalled her or told her to smile while she was minding her own business just walking down the street. It is every man who made a woman believe she had to be something he wanted her to be, to serve his purposes instead of her own. It’s a system that teaches women to be nice, to be subservient, to ignore their instincts, to say “thank you” for something they never even wanted, to be grateful it wasn’t even worse, to be “pragmatic” even when they know it is wrong. This is not a time to be nice. This is a time to let a few expletives fly.

 

Ill Nature by Joy Williams

Joy Williams is a writer I feel I should learn more about. This is an odd impulse for me. I never know much about the personal lives of the writers I love unless they happen to write memoir. I would rather focus on their writing than on them and let the writing stand on its own. I was listening to wonderful interview with John Irving recently on CBC in which he says “I have lived almost entirely in my imagination and have been free to do so because my own life has been staggeringly boring, much as I hoped it would be.” Writers should be allowed to be as dull as anyone else. Nevertheless, many of my writer friends study the lives and habits of writers they admire and even know about their agents and publishers. Last night a colleague told me that a casual email exchange I was in the midst of was with the agent of a group of particularly famous writers. I had no idea. Would knowing have altered what I said? I like to think not. I like to think I write and speak to everyone with the same measure of respect, but I admit I went back and reread the exchange with a new eye and winced over a typo. Oh dear. But I always wince over typos.

Anyway, back to Joy Williams. All of this is to make clear that I know very little about Joy Williams except that I joy williams ill naturefell in love with her essays in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. Kirkus calls it “savage, serious, hilarious, passionate, loving, and lyrical.” The book jacket says the writing has guts and passion, two things I admire in any writing. Her wit is sharp and scathing. As with A.K. Hellum’s Listening to Trees which I considered in my last post, the essays demand that we become more connected to the natural world. Perhaps I cannot help loving writing that dedicates itself to this theme.

But it is more than that. Look at three opening sentences (and also take a minute to revel in the titles of these essays). From “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp”: “I don’t want to talk about me, of course, but it seems as though far too much attention has been lavished on you lately–that your greed and vanities and quest for self-fulfillment have been catered to far too much.” Of course, she is talking about herself. Saying she isn’t simply reminds us that she is. The shift to second person is brilliant, enabling a kind of dissociated state from which we can see and judge ourselves, and do so harshly. Such capacity for harsh judgement, having been built, stays with us far beyond the first essay when the second person is no longer in use. Williams is no enabler. There is no mollycoddling, no “We’re all doing what we can,” because we’re not. We’re doing nothing like what we can.

Look at this opening sentence from “Neverglades”: “That the Everglades still exists is a collective illusion shared by both those who care those who don’t.” I read this essay and other works by Williams about Florida before my own visit there. It altered my vision. I knew what I was seeing was a sad shadow of what used to be, a pathetic remnant of a once glorious world “so depleted of its original abundance and ecological function that it was no longer the Everglades at all. The gentle, natural, rain-driven sheet flow that once sustained it had been replaced by erratic pulses of water, which came in gorged polluted flushes, too much or too little, and always in the wrong season.” So much is conveyed in so few words–specific detail, the concrete comparison between past and the present, loss, even grief.

And from “Sharks and Suicide”: “There’s something out there waiting for us, and that’s the truth.” The essay captures our paranoia, our fear. “Wasps or abandoned refrigerators. Dehydration, myxedema, and the three-hundred-year-old elm on the curve. Explosions, and wrecks and electrocutions. Funny-tasting meat treats.” Zeroing in on sharks, she notes that sharks are “known to create concerns out of all proportion to the amount of injury or loss of life incurred statistically.” Sound familiar? Isn’t this sort of like what’s got us all taking our shoes off at the airport and having our hand lotion seized? But wait. This was published in 2001. Williams is not only scathing, savage, hilarious and all the other adjectives; she is prescient.

Is this about Williams or is it about the writing? Is my distinction artificial? Probably, especially when it comes to personal essays. It’s impossible not to learn about a writer who writes personal essays. I will move on to her novels now. I’m particularly interested in a work called The Changeling, a novel published in 1978 that went out of print and was finally reprinted thirty years later. The internet says that it got scuttled by a particularly bad review in the NYT but that it was ahead of its time. I’ll get back to you. I have an idea that it probably was.

Joy Williams. Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. New York: The Lyons Press. 2001.

Listening to Trees by A.K. Hellum

It feels right to start a series of blog posts about writing I love with a book about trees. Without trees, we would have no books. And Listening to Trees is a heartfelt homage. It is aware of itself as the product of its very subject and is printed on recycled, ancient forest-friendly paper. The book feels good to hold. It is a little slimmer than most and can be held with one hand as you adjust your light or pull a soft blanket over your lap. The design is gorgeous–a line drawing of the rings of a tree trunk that become the title and the author’s name in a quirky cursive.

listening to trees

A.K. Hellum is a fellow who loves trees even more than I do. I have been known to hug a tree, to put my ear against a tree and try to hear the sap run, to lean against a giant cedar or redwood and think about the centuries it has stood, to lie on the ground and look up at leaves swaying in the wind. According to the back cover, “Listening to Trees tells the story of a man’s lifelong journey to salvage the world’s declining forests. In this enlightening account of Hellum’s’ half-century career as a forester, we become privy to our environment’s fragile state-of-being through stories of forests that have been stripped of their resources and improperly regenerated over the span of lifetimes.” This is a memoir. It is a love story. It is a plea to listen to trees.

In the preface, I knew I had found a kindred spirit when I read, “I feel that I am among friends when I walk in any forest anywhere. That is more than many of us can say walking in cities. The disappearance of our primeval and ‘messy’ forests is to be mourned for they connect us with a sense of reality and help people to be grounded in their lives. To write about forests has been a journey of self-discovery.” He argues that we are losing our relationship with forests.

Years ago, I reconnected with an old friend from high school who had earned several graduate degrees and worked in a lab that genetically engineered trees. I asked, “So they will be uniform and straight for the mills?” He scoffed. There is more to it than that, he said. I’m not so sure. Forests aren’t supposed to be convenient. They are not for us. They are of us and we are of them. But who cares about such distinctions anymore? Hellum does. A forestry instructor I knew years ago used to teach a course called “Forest Management.” She told me she started her class by telling her students that trees don’t need to be managed. They manage themselves quite well. Then she asked what they would like to talk about instead for the rest of the semester. Another kindred spirit. And yes, she was nearing the end of her career and getting a bit snarky, but she made the point, the point that had to be made. Trees know what they are doing. Like her, I like my forests unmanaged, but these kinds of forests are increasingly hard to find. A few years ago, a made my way through the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy in the southern interior of British Columbia, a glorious five-day slog through some of the last remaining pristine wilderness. Now that was a forest.

Open any page at random in this book and you will see a writer with a keen eye and a tremendous ability to get his observations onto the page. Birch and larch “represent light and youth and are, therefore, forever graceful. Aspens are like chameleons, changing from season to season. Using feminine gestures they strut their colours in spring and fall with a hint of vanity and exude perfume in springtime when their buds break open. In the east breeze their leaves tremble nervously, but they can also be opportunists, moving quickly into disturbed habitats when the chance arises.” Lovely. He goes on to write, “Then there are the poplars that remind me of the newly rich–unkempt, large, and fast growing, flaunting their power through pure size, even though their life spans are normally short.” His description of butterflies will leave you breathless.

At the end of the book, Hellum writes “I feel eternally thankful for the gifts that forests have afforded me directly and indirectly. I feel privileged to have been awarded the opportunity to relate to forests. My advice to future foresters is to rekindle that intimate feeling–it can be called love–that is needed for us to care for forests in our trust. We desperately need to be professionals rather than just employees.” Amen.

A.K. Hellum, Listening to Trees, Edmonton: NeWest Press. 2008.

On earning an MFA

To MFA or not to MFA. That is the question. Plenty of people have answered it, some with vitriol usually reserved for the mommy wars or politics. It’s a question that has a different answer for every writer. We all find our own path.

My path to an MFA wasn’t typical. I’m in my fifties, for one thing. But a few years ago I learned I was leaving my exceptionally talented and supportive writing community in Calgary, Alberta to live in Boston for two years. (The move was about my husband’s work, and an adventure I was quite willing to take with him.) But I needed to do something to keep my writerly momentum going, and immersing myself in a writing community was the right thing to do. Had I not moved, I never would have considered an MFA. And I would have missed out on a really difficult and wonderful experience.

You absolutely can learn what is available in an MFA outside of a program. Read craft books, lots of them, and apply the ideas in your own writing. Audit courses. Go to every writing event you can find. Watch craft lectures online. Study good writing. Really study it. Write down how it works, what the writer is doing, the techniques they are using, and again, apply it to your own work.

If you choose to go the MFA path, it’s not easy to find the right program. I stumbled upon Solstice at Pine Manor College. It’s small, supportive and low-residency. Low-residency was important to me because I knew another move loomed in our future and it was the only way I would be able to finish. Further, low-residency means students come from everywhere and bring with them lots of different ideas about writing and life that make conversations rich and deep. But no matter what program you take, or how you decide to become a better writer, the onus is always on you to put the work in, to study, to reach for something more.

Truth be told, before I moved, I was having trouble finishing my novel. I was writing myself in circles. I would abandon it for months at a time in favour of smaller, easier projects. At Solstice, the novel was just as difficult, but when the going got tough, I’d have a little talk with myself. I’d say, “You don’t know how to do this. They have a plan. You have no plan. Why don’t you follow their plan and see what happens?” So I did. Trust. It’s all about trust. I trusted them and now I have pages, really solid pages, of a novel that I will be proud of, no matter what happens to it after I’m done. And I know how to finish, something I didn’t know before.

But here’s what really sold me: Meg Kearney, the Director. Writing about the nature of the program, she says, “In an environment of creativity and imagination, the number-one poison is envy; it is by nurturing the work of others that our own work begins, through some mysterious process, to grow and flourish.” I thought if the folks at Solstice can accomplish that, I’d like a piece of it. And I have it now. This has been the greatest gift of this program. And so I embark on my new series of blog posts to keep this gift alive – a celebration of books and stories I like and admire. I offer no other reason for highlighting a book except it moves me in some way. I hope these posts inspire you pick up the work or try something brave in your own writing.

And keep writing. Keep striving to be better. It’s worth the struggle.

 

Writing from Scratch

Just as someone who loves good food might yearn to cook, my deep love of books has burgeoned into a need to make them. At first, I thought that meant I had to create books from scratch. I like this analogy. Writing starts with scratches, a few tentative pencil marks, a word or six and it grows from there. That’s how my notion to write a novel started. I’m not finished it yet, but while I’ve been at it, I’ve created a couple of other books not quite from scratch and I’m finding this work equally satisfying. I don’t have to can the tomatoes (or grow them) to make a good sauce. If what I love is creating books, editing is as satisfying a way to get there as writing. It’s not starting from scratch but maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much.

I’ve always joked that I’m a re-writer more than I am a writer. Scratching those first words onto the page never comes easily to me, but crafting them afterwards is a joy. I recently had the wonderful experience of editing the work of over fifty other writers for an anthology I created with my friend and colleague E.D. Morin. It’s called Writing Menopause and it’s been picked up by Inanna Publications who plan to bring it out in Spring, 2017. The book is a literary anthology and the variety and high quality of work that writers submitted was inspirational. As we worked to shape the anthology, I was able to do the parts of “writing” that I like the best–revising, editing, crafting–in collaboration with the contributors and my co-editor. (And I also contributed my own piece, a short story I’ve been working on for six years. Like I said, writing is slow work for me.) One day it occurred to me that the things I find most difficult about writing like starting with the blank page and the need to work alone for long stretches of time disappear when I’m editing the work of others.

Another editing project is at the printer. I’m on my way today to check the first proof and the excitement I feel is no different than when something of “my own” gets published. The book was written by my friend Tanya Coovadia. It’s called Pelee Island Stories. These are linked short stories all set in Tanya’s childhood home, an island in the middle of Lake Erie. Tanya trusted me and my fellow members of the Crabapple Mews Collective with her work, and again, I’ve had the incredible pleasure of working collaboratively with her and with the other wonderful editors in the collective to create a magnificent book.

Books are beautiful physical objects that last far longer than we do. They speak to us while we’re here and for us after we’re gone. They reach toward immortality. Being part of making them is a labour of love for me, even when the book has someone else’s name on it, or lots of other names on it. Whether I make it from scratch or not, this is work I love. Next up after my MFA, I think I’ll take a course in book binding. I’ll probably love that too.

Writing Imperfection

I once took a course called “Bibliographical Research and Documentation” which sounds about as boring as any course could possibly be. But it included one of the most profound lessons I’ve ever learned about writing and perfectionism.

Our professor, Father Leland, (both Priest and scholar) was trying to impress upon us the near impossibility of accuracy in the transmission of text. To do so, he sent us to the basement of one of the oldest buildings on campus which housed an even older printing press. It was a behemoth, massive and intimidating, a mechanical beast that looked to me like it might cause some unfortunate mangling of limbs. There were large wooden trays divided into sections that were in turn full of sorts“sorts,” single iron letters. For the most part, they were organized alphabetically but it was clear a few letters had been thrown into the wrong boxes. Father Leland demonstrated how to insert the sorts into forms. Text for a printing press is assembled in mirror image, making the process even more prone to error. We saw precisely how the page was assembled, piece by piece, letter by letter. And incidentally, we learned the origin of the phrase, “mind your p’s and q’s,” which look identical when inserted backwards and are easily mixed up in the trays. Once printed, the mistake is noticeable, especially if the font has a serif.

It had been hard enough to achieve accuracy, said Father Leland, when monks were copying text for hours by candlelight in the Monastery and trying to decipher each other’s cursive writing. These scribes could misread a handwritten word, skip something by accident, or write something twice. The printing press was a revolution for all the obvious reasons, but also created new possibilities for error. It was easy to change the word “from” to “form,” “or” to “on,” or even “god” to “dog.” And how might those simple errors change meaning and interpretation? God to dog could be a particularly juicy slip.

To prove the point, we were told to reproduce a paragraph of text, any paragraph. The assignment would be finished when we had printed one correct copy.

I chose the last paragraph from one of my favourite novels at the time, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It took hours for me to set it properly. When it was finally correct, I felt so proud that I inked the press with gold and printed the paragraph on a bright yellow card stock. It was glorious to get it right, but what a process.

I wish I could find this yellow sheet of card stock now, the text vivid and practically glowing. If I could, I would frame it and send a thanks to Father Leland. But this story is the best I can do; Father Leland died in 2005 and, after thirty years, I have lost track of the physical object that resulted from his lesson.

We writers attempt this near impossible task of accurately transmitting our thoughts. We hope that mistakes have not been made, knowing they have. We hope that our meaning is clear, knowing that every reader will bring nuance we had not imagined to the text and the meaning will change. We write knowing so much is beyond our control. Try as we might, the p’s and q’s get mixed up. Now I have a computer, a spell checker, the internet. But mistakes are still made, just like they always have been.

It seems no coincidence that I chose the last paragraph of Gatsby for this assignment. In the immortal words of Fitzgerald, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”