Category Archives: About Writing

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.”