The Canadian Writers' Collective
Writing, and writerly tangents
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Power to the People! Yeah!
I attended my first ever town meeting on January 18th. We nearly filled an 800-seat hall in the elegantly outfitted Victoria Conservatory of Music building. An incongruous venue for le sujet de l’heure: homelessness. The Reverend Al Tysick was there, as well as the gospel-style piano playing Louise Rose who conducts the “Open Door Choir at Our Place” — a melding of homeless and volunteers. They opened the evening with three numbers, including Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think. A boisterous start.
The forum turned out to be a presentation of a proposal for prefabricated housing “pods” (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers) that could be built on various school properties currently up for sale. The vacant school buildings would serve as community hubs, offering 24/7 nursing care, social and athletic facilities, health and literacy education and job placement programs. The proposal, by a nine-person team of Victoria-area professionals and activists, won first place in a local magazine contest. In the November issue of Focus, readers were invited to submit proposals for housing 2,000 low income earners. They were given a tight deadline. When I realized that what we were seeing was the result of only three weeks’ work, I wondered why all the hoopla. Why draw a crowd to review the results of what amounted to a brainstorming exercise? Why give the evening the grand title of Forum on Homelessness? I felt misled and disappointed. That was before the ruckus began.
The winning team gave a twenty-minute slide presentation. A moderator then invited those in the audience with questions to line up at two microphones on the main floor. “Confine your comments to two minutes, please,” he said. Two queues of ten or so, each, formed quickly. A man in the balcony shouted out, “How much is this gonna cost?” He was asked to come down and take his place in line with the others. “Why? You can hear me. How much is it gonna cost?” He was ignored as the moderator called on a woman at the microphone on the left.
“I don’t believe that site is suitable,” she said. “It’s in a place full of children.” (For purposes of illustration, a particular school property had been suggested for the prototype.) She received some supportive applause. Her emotions got the best of her, however, and she began to rant about “we the working people.” I got that squirmy feeling I often do when I fear someone is about to spontaneously combust. As she got louder and more incoherent, voices shouted, “Two minutes! Two minutes!” She said, “I’m not done making my point. If I have to go the newspaper with this, I will,” and voices shouted, “So go!” The moderator said, “We have to move on to the next question.” She would not be deterred. Neither would the audience. Even I shouted, “Go! Go!” until she did.
A woman at the other microphone was next. “I got a problem with this,” she said. “My people are dying out there. Why don’t we fill up those empty schools with bodies? I applaud your idealism, but we need action now.”
And so it went. The panel of prize winners did their best to respond, but they were representing only weeks of collaboration on a problem that’s been around for years and continues to worsen. It was open season on them. I was sympathetic but also caught up in the passion of the people at the microphones. They ignored the moderator’s plea to confine their questions to the proposal details. And why not? They had come for a Forum on Homelessness and they were going to have it. They spoke about inadequate treatment for addiction and mental disabilities, the lack of a needle exchange program, the escalating cost of housing, the need to support those on the verge of homelessness as well as those who were already there.
“How about if our federal government didn’t send our money to
Some of the speakers were articulate; others were not. I loved hearing them all. I loved that ‘we the people’ were frustrated enough to take over the meeting. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so open to hearing such diverse views. Ever felt such a hunger to connect with the community soul. To the organizers’ credit, everyone who had lined up got to speak. The audience thinned out as the evening wore on and the last speakers were heard by relatively few. It was left to Louise Rose to wind things up. She got us to crowd together on the main floor while the choir filed back onto the stage.
“This night reminds me of the Fifties and Sixties and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she said. “Back then, there was a song we sang when we didn’t know what else to do. I don’t know what to do right now, so why don’t we sing that song? And then you can go.” We stood and joined hands and swayed as we sang We Shall Overcome. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all — I think Louise was the only black person in the room — but the truth was I was moved. Let’s get fist-in-the-air mad enough to get something done, yeah! Power to the People! Yeah!
Photo by Sandy Henderson: Louise Rose beneath the Heritage Rose Window in the
Monday, January 29, 2007
For some reason, this past fortnight, I embarked on a submission-frenzy.
Stories I had nearly forgotten about have been unboxed and cleaned up, and soon will be sent off, paraded about like old favourite shoes, a bit worn but workable nonetheless. So many, in fact, I’ve had to create a project log for the first time in years, all colour-coded and orderly. Who knew I had so many shoes, erm, stories?
This means, though, I’ve not had time to muse up a decent blog post for you, but I have collected an assortment of recent, potentially inspiring, links.
A hundred years, or 8 months, ago I wrote about being impressed by online projects from Chris Baty and Louise Doughty. Now, seems they have even more to offer us.
Chris Baty, co-founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), has a new venture called Script Frenzy. In June, you can try your hand at writing a screenplay in a month. Watch this link for more information. As someone who’s actually managed this before, I think it'll be easier than the novel-in-a-month, a feat I’ve not yet achieved (but one our very own inspiring MelBel has!)
For those of you writing novels at a more leisurely pace, novelist Louise Doughty has completed her 2006 Novel-in-a-Year online writing course and will spend 2007 chronicling her struggles to complete her fifth novel. Now we can imagine we, too, are completing our novels, whilst taking brooding English countryside walks and having chic dinners with glamorous writing friends. But it’s comforting, even inspiring, to know that a writer’s struggle is similar, whether it’s novel number five or story number five.
Speaking of inspiring, Ian McEwan himself couldn’t have written a more fascinating tale. This kind of stuff can’t be made up, people; it’s so real, it’s sure to be a movie some day.
And so, with that, I will head back to the pit of grubby stories to see if polish will be enough for them.
Until next time...
Thursday, January 25, 2007
This Gun's for Hire
I was going to tell you about Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s currently at the top of my Most Played list, much to my surprise. I’m not a fan of The Boss, not consciously. I’ve never owned an album or gone to a concert of his. I don’t know what motivated me to download one of his songs in the first place. It was a strange choice.
You wouldn’t know it from the video, where Bruce is smiling and dancing away, but the song is about an unhappy relationship with the blank page:
I get up in the evening
and I ain't got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help
Bruce was under pressure from his manager to produce a hit when he wrote it, but you can’t start a fire without a spark. Or can you? “Dancing in the Dark” won him his first Grammy.
I was going to tell you all this and more, but then I found another blog with an old post on the same topic, and suddenly, I didn’t feel as though I should be telling anyone anything anymore.
So you tell me, what should I download next?
Pictured: The young Courteney Cox on the verge of celebrity (“Dancing in the Dark” video).
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
American Idol is back, not that I care. The show has never done it for me. Too long, too boring and too cheesy. But I watched it last week, Wednesday I think, one of the 2 hour premiere specials. I felt like I was watching the fat kid at the buffet, guilty, yet unable to turn away. And when I realized that I was still watching, I felt something else. Shame.
When did it become okay to put people on TV and collectively make fun of them? I’m sure it’s been a gradual descent from William Hung, but when did the show cross over and become 2 hours of ridicule and abuse. That’s what is really going on once we look past the elaborate moral diversion of “looking for true talent.” If the producers (and the viewers) are really looking for talent, why not show more of it? Even the borderline contestants. How about showing the tone deaf contestants that don’t cause Paula’s eyes to widen, or cause Simon to call them names? A rhetorical question. As with everything TV it’s all about ratings and sponsors, which means it’s all about us. People want to watch the freak show and the TV gods know it.
As a kid morality is intangible. Parents (religion for some, although this is a debate for another post) and experience solidify things until, as adults, we are equipped with a decent set of moral tools with which to deconstruct and quantify right and wrong. The nature of the show asks us to set aside these tools because the contestants have voluntarily put themselves into a position that invites ridicule. It’s okay to make fun of these people. They know what’s happening, they’ve signed waivers etc. They are happy to be on TV. Who am I to make a moral judgement? Perhaps each contestant truly loves themselves and is full of confidence and the mere fact that I imply they are being made fun of shows some deeper, nastier, character flaw within myself? Perhaps. Interpretation is a rainbow of grey. But I still call bullshit.
I was taught not to make fun of people. This doesn’t mean that I’ve never done it. At one point or another I’m sure most of us have, whether it’s piling on in a schoolyard gang mentality, or the quips spurred by anger, jealousy, or envy. I’ve done it, and I’m sorry for it. But making fun of people shouldn’t cross over into the mainstream and I feel that American Idol and reality television are in danger of conditioning us that it’s okay to make fun of people. Of course, this is wrong. Everyone is equal. This piece isn’t intended to imply superiority on my part, and I don’t feel superior and therefore entitled to defend people I don’t even know. This piece is intended to remind us that making fun of people is wrong. Regardless of packaging, regardless of initial intent, and regardless of what Idol goes on to become in later shows. The episode I watched was a freak show packaged as comedy and entertainment, meant to draw in viewers and I daresay meant to make most of those viewers feel better about themselves. Scoff if you like, but if you look deep down inside, right where that little ball in your stomach is hiding—you know, the one that forms when you lie or cheat, do something mean, or say something hurtful—that little ball that’s a combination of conscience and moral cement, the one that eats at you, you’ll see that I’m right, or close enough to the truth that you looked in the mirror for a second. That’s enough. Now go watch the next Kelly Clarkson.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Mlle D’s 3 / 4 Split
Talk about our jobs to the class? Not all of us have jobs. Well, it’s not like that…there are tons of jobs here, in Calgary… too many for the number of people, calls to apply appear on every store window, every cash desk, every register receipt. It’s not that I couldn’t get a job if I wanted one. And it’s not that I’m lazy…I even feel badly about all these jobs, like maybe I should rethink things and pitch in and help out the Calgary economy. I used to have a job… a career, really. I could talk about that….no? Too dated, I guess. There are other mothers who have more interesting, more current job experiences to talk about.
No, she hasn’t mentioned anything about this.
Are you sure she said author? I’m not an author, I’m a writer, and it’s really more like a hobby. For children? No, no, no. My writing is for adults…all of it…I think…not that it’s…well, I could read it to them, I just don’t know if they’d…you know.
Monique’s coming? Oh how nice…she’ll be interesting, she’ll have her stretch board with her…maybe she’ll teach them a technique to help their parents relax…yes, hah! Right…of course, Ethan’s grandmother in her black robe…yes, she’s great, really approachable…yeah the kids will love that…and Barb will bring maybe a drill bit…wow them with a demonstration of how to extract petroleum from the oil sands and present her side of the environment argument.
Maybe she did say something about community services.
Hey, I could probably find something that would work. A story to read…yeah…a short one…straightforward. For the next unit? The creative writing unit? After Christmas? Yeah, I guess so. Main ideas and detail…yes…I know what you mean. Strategies for writer’s block…three of them? Ummm…okay. Sure. I’d love to.
Can anyone identify the main idea? Yes, Pierre is going to town, but why is he doing that? That’s right! Good answer! And now what might happen to him there? Yeah, I suppose that could happen, anyone else? Yes! That’s a very creative idea!
Let’s use all of our senses for a moment, and think about details that could be added to this section of the story….what might Pierre be hearing when he arrives at the town? Voices… good. What kind of voices? Yes! Good! Now what about taste…and touch?! Could Pierre feel the wind? Some dust carried on the wind? Afraid? Ummm, I guess he could be feeling afraid…but what is it that his hands are touching? Worried? Yes, he is probably feeling worried, but let’s try to use our five senses right now. Let’s take smell…
Who can guess the time period in which this story takes place? Maybe…1960…maybe a bit earlier…1922, sure…yes? A question? Sure, go ahead. Who do I hire to do my illustrations? Well…uhm… I haven’t needed…I guess that’s something I’ll have to think about for the future, is that ok? Oh…you’d like to be an illustrator… really?! That’s wonderful. Oh I’m sure you’ll do very well…what’s that? You would? Yes please! A drawing of Pierre and his dog in the cart on the path… that would be very nice…you’re very sweet. Thank you. Very much.
Monday, January 22, 2007
Juggling Reads (and Reads that Juggle You)
I have three novels on the go.
One’s beside my bed. I take in a chapter or two before I nod off. I can’t sleep if I don’t read a bit, since the 70’s.
In my backpack I have a novel which I read on the subway, twice a (week)day. I can’t enjoy the subway unless I have something to read- I get anxious and fidgety, and I end up reading the ads over and over, or scouring under the seats for an old newspaper.
Lately, I use a different bag when I’m going by the gym on the way home. Because I don't like to haul my sweaty gym clothes home in my (quite nice) backpack afterwards. There’s a different novel tucked into the side pocket. This takes four of the ten subway slots away from the backpack novel.
Which novel ends up in which context is a matter of luck and timing. When I’m done one, I replace it. For example, I have Colm Toibin’s “The Master” on deck. If I finish 'bedside' first- Kenzo Kitakata’s “The Cage”- my nights will be spent with Henry James for the next little while; if I finish 'backpack'- Shani Mootoo’s “He Drown She in the Sea”- it’ll be my M-W-F commutes; 'gymbag'- Ian McEwan’s “Atonement”- T-Th commutes. The race is on. 'Bedside' gets more reads, but they are shorter in length. 'Gymbag' gets less days, but sometimes I bring it on to the stationary bike with me and give it an extra hour. Okay, an extra half-an-hour. Okay, an extra twenty minutes.
Very occasionally, I get so caught up in a book that- damn the luggage!- I haul it everywhere: from bedside, to backpack to gymbag, and I’ll even go someplace quiet and read on my lunch. I just had that experience with J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace”. I resented everything else that I had to do that took me away from that novel.
That’s the kind of book I want to write. A book that takes over.
Friday, January 19, 2007
Born in Saskatchewan
by Patricia Parkinson
I come from a horizon of flat land forever patched in green and yellow and brown and all sorts of beige and orange and rust in the fall and then nothing but sky and snow - white and blue winter.
When the spring came my mother’s purple crocuses broke through the Saskatchewan ice and I was allowed to walk to grade three.
“Don’t lose your mittens,” Mom said, and walked to the end of our sidewalk that ran up the middle of our lawn to a porch at the front door.
I kept turning around to see if she was there. She stood, her hands in the pockets of her parka that she put on over her nightgown, shifting side to side to keep warm. When I looked, she took her hand out of her pocket and waved and smiled. A straight line ran between us. During the day I pictured here there, standing at the end of our walk, looking down the street, still waving, waiting.
We moved to a horizon of ocean and mountains, to a province of initials and a split-level house inhabited by women. Without a dad, the line branched off.
I walked to school alone past St. Bernadette’s where the students wore plaid skirts and blazers with crests sewn on the pockets. The children walked next to me, past me. They walked a straight line. I turned.
“We can’t afford to send you to that school,” Mom said, adding, “and we’re not Catholic.” She went up or down the stairs. I stayed on the main level. She passed me when she walked by, coming and going at the same time to a different floor that went in another direction.
We were Anglican. I didn’t know what it meant to be either. At Sunday school I prayed for Moses to part the Pacific so we could walk back to Tisdale.
In the summer Mom took me to the beach and I saw the ocean.
“There it is,” Mom said, and pointed out the window of the car. We went down a hill and climbed the other side. “There! There!” she said, and pointed again, tapping her nail against the glass. I stretched up in my seat and craned my neck. There it was – there it went - I played hide and go seek with the horizon until it filled with water.
“Don’t go too far,” Mom said, when I started exploring.
I got lost in my footprints, in the caw of seagulls and the pearl lining of a shell, in colors that weren’t orange or rust and a tide that came and went in inches filling the tidal pools I crawled in on my belly.
“Not too far now!” Mom called. I turned to look. She was standing on the shore, shielding her eyes with her hand, shifting side to side on the rocks to keep her balance. She waved and smiled, and waited.
The Carry-on Carry On
Hi everyone. Posting a little late again today – I’ve been doing a bit of online research this morning for a trip I’m planning for the end of May. Specifically just trying to find out what I can and cannot take onboard with me when I fly. I haven’t been on a plane since the liquid explosive incident in the U.K. last fall, and so I’m unfamiliar with the “new rules”.
It’s going to be a challenge paring down my usual cache of grooming products, which have always pushed the limits of allowable carry-on items. The list of what I have always considered necessary to have with me at all times is an extensive one, my friends, and I won’t bore you with it here. You’d think that years of backpacking in our BCW (Beloved Canadian Wilderness) while carrying a canoe on my head would teach me to travel light. Not so. It just makes me love all my toiletries and make-up and heated hair appliances all the more. Just the oral hygiene items alone must weigh about five pounds (pre-brush whitening Listerine, my Sonicare toothbrush, a proxy brush, dental floss, and a bottle of regular minty Listerine for a final rinse – ALL must be used at least once a day, or I’m an anxious mess; and yes, I do have “issues”).
What I was most curious about, however, since what is permitted onboard has changed significantly since 9/11, was could I take my knitting needles onto the plane with me. My friends had told me “No way!” Well, those friends are wrong. http://www.catsa-acsta.gc.ca/english/travel_voyage/list.shtml indicates that knitting needles and crochet hooks are permitted. Which is a relief. And yet, also a bit of shock. Not that one reads very often about flight crews being overpowered by knitting-needle-wielding terrorists, but if the Rules say I can’t take my digital meat thermometer in my carry-on luggage, then I figured my No. 7 metal needles would be a big no-no as well.
The list of items permitted and not-permitted is an extensive one. And not without its absurdities. I can take a corkscrew onboard with me (a surprise after having seen how effective it can be used to impair people like James Gandolfini in “True Romance”), and my whip is a-okay as well (in case I might need to take down a hijacker Indiana Jones-style); but my gun-shaped belt buckle and my bowling ball must be checked.
I once took a tour of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum in Kingston, and let me tell you, extended periods of time in a confined space can unleash MacGyver-esque tendencies that enable folk to make a weapon out of pretty much anything that’s handy. Of course it’s obvious why a lot of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority Non-Permitted Items are on the list (no catapults, no blowguns), but items such as a fountain pen seem to be fine.
And you’d always thought the pen is mightier than the sword? Not according to the airlines. That shiny new Wilkinson your kids bought you for Christmas is going to have to go in cargo.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Let's Talk About the Rejects
Anyone catch American Idol last night? Is it just me, or are the rejects getting scarier and scarier each year? What the hell was that? There were a couple interesting performances, but mostly it felt like I’d taken a wrong turn on an empty gas tank, a big bowl of chippies in my lap as I headed straight for the abandoned mining town the old crud at the gas station almost warned me about. By the end of the two hour special, the so-called normal people seemed out of place, their potential shine tarnished for having waited for hours among the Bubbas and the Mahailias. What the hell?!? I forget which town, but one of them had thousands of participants. Don’t tell me Simon, Paula, and the Dawg sat through each and every audition. However accomplished I was musically; I’d have come out of there a tone deaf had I been a judge. How bad were they? It was shameful. A few years ago, there was a show for these numbskulls, where they seemed oblivious to the fact that they were the worst of the worst, and the audience was laughing at them and not with them. That wasn’t so bad. It was like a special Olympics for them. People started rooting for them. I started rooting for them. I had my favorites, but last night, I was expecting something else. I wanted to be entertained, but I also wanted to be moved, where you try not to blink so the tear never spills, dries right there on the eyeball. Instead… instead, I busted a gut laughing for two hours straight if you take out the thousand or so commercials in between. And it felt wrong, afterwards, thinking back on the hapless souls that were exploited for their entertainment value. “There’s something seriously cockeyed with a lot of these people,” I said to my wife when they played a recap at the end. I was trying to put things right. Yes, I’d laughed, but it was improper, and I know why. “Oh, you love it,” she said. I loved it? I did. I did. And I never got to finish what I’d wanted to say. That’s why I’m writing about it this morning. I shake my head 'til I hear the cow bells, and still, all I can remember are those rejects staring back at my face full of potato chips.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
The Ignorance of My Youth
Colin was reading a list of upcoming public lectures offered by UVic. “What do you know about Swinburne?” he asked.
“A poet,” I said. “Victorian period. Boring.”
I dug out my old text, Victorian Poetry and Poetics by Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Strange, and looked for Algernon Charles Swinburne. I was surprised to find him described as an “outspoken poetic rebel” whose “cry for freedom seemed to open new vistas of unrestrained delight.”
Rebel? Unrestrained delight? That didn’t match my recollection. I turned to Faustine, a poem Swinburne describes in a footnote as “the reverie of a man gazing on the bitter and vicious loveliness of a face as common and cheap as the morality of reviewers and dreaming of past lives in which this fair face may have held a nobler or fitter station.” Say what? About two-thirds of the way through, I came across a marginal note in the airy script of my younger self: “lesbianism.” I had written it next to: The shameless nameless love that makes Hell’s iron gin/Shut on you like a trap that breaks/The soul, Faustine.
I can’t imagine the starched Dr. Geyer initiating a discussion of lesbianism in our Victorian literature class. I can’t imagine a discussion of it anywhere else, either, when I was twenty. Well, okay, there was that gossip about two girls in my dorm. So, why am I surprised I wrote the word — because it was the Sixties? In Mary McCarthy’s popular 1963 novel The Group, one of her characters is a lesbian. (Anyone see Candice Bergen in that role?) And, what about Wonder Woman? I was a huge fan of those comics when I was a kid, well before Linda Carter channeled her on TV. What did I think transpired on that male-free Amazon isle from whence she came?
I’m guessing I had no framework in which to accept lesbianism back then. Homosexuality was for men — like D. H. Lawrence and that heartbreaker, Montgomery Clift. It was normal for unmarried women to live together in those days; they rarely earned enough to live alone. I didn’t look askance at women holding hands. I never imagined them being up to anything more.
I passed my girlhood in a self-consciously straight world while, in a parallel universe, lesbian pulp fiction was thriving — with some of the stories set in Greenwich Village, a short train ride from my home. Could I have discovered and studied this genre, later, with a little effort? Probably. But I was a lazy scholar, too focused on the goal of graduating to expend effort on anything I didn’t have to. Lesbian-flavoured books and plays such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Gertrude Stein), The Children’s Hour (Lillian Hellman) and The Price of Salt (Patricia Highsmith, writing as Claire Morgan), were not required reading for my English literature degree. In fact, except for passing nods at Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather (whose lesbianism was never mentioned), Katherine Anne Porter, Marianne Moore, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, not much by women was offered in my texts. I was too steeped in patriarchal culture to question it. Can I send my outrage back in time?
It’s me I’m really annoyed with. What other notes did I make in margins, understanding little of their meaning? So much was wasted on me — as is still, alas, the ‘unrestrained delight’ of Swinburne. The UVic lecture is Mythopoetic Deification: Swinburne’s Apollonian Biography. I’ll give it a miss.
Illustration: The cover of the 1957 best-selling paperback, Odd Girl Out, by ‘the queen of lesbian pulp,’ Ann Bannon (real name Ann Thayer), who went on to get her doctorate in linguistics and teach at Sacramento State University, California.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Vancouver is preoccupied with them. The media chock-a-block full of stories about them.
A real estate agent gets fined and her life threatened for trying to improve her view of English Bay, thus her property value, by killing two trees along the Sea Wall. Wealthy folks in Lions Bay barricade themselves, and remain vigilant against widening the Sea-to-Sky Highway and the loss of some of their beloved trails. And Hydro crews blame property owners’ reluctance to trim trees near hydro wires as key to explaining the weeks-long power outages after the storms of late 2006.
It’s sort of embarrassing sometimes, when even those of us who would never call ourselves tree-huggers get obsessed about the loss of trees. Tree-love is very BC, and we protect them like identity.
I grew up in North Vancouver, surrounded by old growth trees and new growth middle class. The ‘70s was a burgeoning time for the suburb of North Van, where we built our first home high up on Mountain Highway on a cul de sac amongst the evergreens and pines. With a secret magic forest at the end of the block, where Steven Cornya and I would catch tree frogs and show each other how we peed, I too became enchanted by trees.
That bit of forest has been replaced by two monster houses, and now you’ll need to drive much further up the mountain, up where the multi-million dollar homes are, to find that musky scent of moss and pine.
Trees, it seems, grow on money.
They line nearly every street here, with the money shots being Pacific Spirit Park and that other, now-infamous, one. Stanley Park is a candidate for one of the most beautiful places in the world, a sort of museum to the old growth forest that’s been plowed down and built over. During the series of windstorms over the past months, the park has taken quite a beating, and everyone here has an opinion on what to do about rebuilding it. Rebuilding a forest, oh the irony.
Camera crews and looky-loos click and tsk, and people rally together to start a save-the-park fund. From high profile locals to people from across Canada and overseas, park-lovers everywhere are sending money by the bucket-full to help restore its natural beauty. The provincial government, finally weighing in, has promised some $4 million and the federal government, looking for a solid Vancouver win in the next election, is offering its help, too. Meanwhile forest companies are hovering over it all, wringing their hands in anticipation of what will prove to be a very profitable natural disaster for them. I’ve stopped reading the latest coverage on it, because the whirl of do-gooders has started to make me anxious, and I just can’t watch anymore.
During that first storm, several transients who make the park their home went missing, and the park wardens were worried about their safety. When one transient came out of the park the next day, clearly shaken up from his ordeal amongst the towering and tumbling evergreens and cedars and 100km winds, the news stories clucked about how amazing it was he’d survived that wild night in the forest, and what a story he’d have to tell his friends.
A week into the cleanup, the crews heard the yelling of another forest-dweller. The city decided to comb the park for others. They had no idea how many they were looking for. More proof that no one really knows the full story of Vancouver’s homeless problem.
But the forest-dwellers who lost their homes in the park might serve as a reminder, were anyone listening, to the real wreckage here: that we can allow a growing number of homeless fall victim to intense poverty, but we can rally together so quickly to save our beloved fallen trees.
See, there’s an Olympics coming. And as long as there’s that, there’s money for the important things except, it seems, figuring out what to do about the increasing poverty seen on our beautiful, yet tree-lined, Vancouver streets.
If a tree falls, indeed.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Writing and/or Life: Orhan Pamuk and Lisa Moore
By Anne Chudobiak
If you, like me, read Orhan Pamuk's Nobel lecture with some despair in your doctor's waiting room, arms tucked to decrease exposure to outside contagion, as though you yourself hadn't spent a good part of the weekend on the floor, clutching your belly and making retching sounds your toddler would later reproduce for your amusement to the tune of "In Excelsis Gloria," then you might want to pick up a copy of Writing Life, the most recent collection of essays from PEN Canada, a human rights association not unfamiliar with the latest literary laureate, who faced criminal charges in 2005 after publicly implicating his native Turkey in the Kurdish and Armenian genocides.
The highest profile piece in Writing Life comes to us courtesy of Alice Munro, who at seventy-five declares herself ready to give up on the craft, because of the interruptions, by which I presume she means both the stomach flu and "In Excelsis Gloria." If you, like me, are at an early stage in your career and family life, you might be wise to pass this one over in favour of Lisa Moore's "Yolk," which reads like an antidote to Pamuk's lecture, where writing is likened to withdrawing from the world: "The starting point of true literature is the man who shuts himself up in his room with his books."
Therefore this song we have in mind:
In Excelsis Gloria.
To quote Moore: "I want life─and here I'm thinking of Mrs. Ramsay's dinner table, Minta Doyle all flushed and trippingly late, her lost brooch, first love, the lid on the French stew, all of the children, the salt shaker, the seashells and open windows[...]I want all that and to be able to write it down at the same time." Or at least, some days I do.
Public Service Announcement: In keeping with one of Canada's least favourite literary traditions, The New Quarterly is closed to submissions until September 2007. Check out their website for more discouraging news.
Pictured: Orhan Pamuk or "Grandpa," as he is known around our house
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
A Stroll Along Main Stream
Past experience has taught me that even when self doubt threatens to keep me from trying something new, my marketing self is always able to dress me up and coax a friendly smile or a confident handshake. So, despite my nerves, I was able to keep the dates on the promotion schedule this fall. I fared pretty well at all the Cup of Comfort events, both the thrilling and the, well, not so thrilling.
My first reading at the Owl’s Nest bookstore had me shaking; my anxiety level leading up to that evening matched only one other event in my life: me sitting tongue tied during a one-on-one with Jean Chrétien in his West Block office many years ago.
As I repeatedly rehearsed my extemporaneous introduction aloud in the car, my daughter piped up. “Mommy, are you feeling nervous?”
“Mommy? If you forget the word you were planning to use, just use another word that means the same thing.”
Good advice from a nine year old. And it worked.
Several lovely afternoon book signings followed, including one smack in the middle of the Christmas shopping hysteria when I shared a table with a 24 year old author of a trilogy. The final signing at a deserted Indigo one Friday evening when the temperature dipped to -28 celsius, had me and a stack of 35 pink paperbacks shivering at a table right inside the front doors.
Shortly afterwards, I discovered that Chicken Soup for the Shoppers Soul would be put out before Christmas, four months ahead of schedule. Since I hadn’t received any response to Cup of Comfort’s press releases, I didn’t anticipate the telephone calls that started the morning Adams Media emailed announcements to every media outlet in Calgary.
The interview invitations all began with the same sort of amazed praise. At first, I accepted the compliments graciously, mirroring the caller’s excitement. This was all brand new to me; the element of surprise ensured my reactions were natural and spontaneous, but soon enough I began feeling abashed at the excessive attention for what I perceived as being just a short, albeit decent, piece of writing. I didn’t know what to do with the congratulations, since the attention was clearly a result of the success and importance of the series rather than that of my own contribution.
How small each of us are, building up or tearing down the world in our little ways, never knowing which of our attempts will succeed, which will matter, which will even be noticed. We toil away at our personal projects and then send them out into the world only to find that they create entirely unpredictable ripples.
One CBC interviewer expressed my ambivalence best: “Is this as big a break as I think it is for a local scribe?” Well, yes and no. Later, he fished for a comment on the genre this series has come to represent: “I’m not sure this is a genre that will garner you a whole lot of respect from the literary crowd who have been rejecting your stuff from the magazines.” What else could I do but agree that it was a great break and adamantly defend the mainstream feel-good series? Truly, I am grateful for the publishing credit, after all, that same interviewer pointed out that more people will read Requisite Shopping than anything else I’ve ever written, but I was hesitant to accept having my ability defined by this one story.
Eventually I let go of my uncertainties best I could and recognized that I was, or rather, the interviews were a vehicle for attracting viewers, listeners, buyers, and readers. I steeled myself to this fact and approached it as a marketing challenge, all the while still trying to figure out exactly what it was that I was promoting.
The media interviews were different than the readings and signings I had initiated as a learning experience. There was slightly more at stake – for the media person, for the publisher, and for me. I sat down and gave some thought to how I could address the objectives of each stakeholder. I felt I had a responsibility (however minor) to represent the publisher well and I wanted to make the most of these opportunities by performing well in the hopes of building relationships (however fleeting) with the media personnel. After all, the next time I’m on the phone with any of them, it will likely be me begging them for an interview.
Sitting in Global’s reception area, waiting for my turn, I watched the news program on a television in the corner of the foyer. I studied the set, the chairs, the way the people lifted their eyes, their hands. That I was calm surprised and confused me. I was concerned about doing the best I could, about being as prepared as possible, but my anxiety didn’t come close to that of the reading in October. This was to be my third of four interviews, the only one on TV, and it was live, yet I was indifferent to the conversation ahead, one that was no longer fresh. The enthusiasm around this whole experience had begun to feel insincere.
On the television screen, Meatloaf was being interviewed from Los Angeles. I wondered if he was nervous. After years of performing and promoting his tours, did interviews still shake him? He seemed relaxed, overly so perhaps, but he was definitely engaged and passionate. His responses were friendly and interesting to even the weakest questions. If he wasn’t anxious about doing well, or concerned with the outcome, how did he remain connected?
While he showed no signs of nervousness, what I noticed was that he didn’t appear to be all that prepared either. None of his answers were perfect, many of them left a bit to be desired. Would the producer be satisfied? Would he himself be disappointed?
Then I got it. He was fresh.
After the interview, I got into my car, wriggled out of pumps I haven’t worn in ten years, and slipped back into my comfy wool lined clogs. I pulled away from the hill-top district of newspaper and television buildings and regarded Calgary’s beautiful skyline. The downtown core lit brightly against a charcoal sky was where I had believed I would return when my children entered school. Now I have other ideas.
I drove back home against the flow of rush hour traffic with the sun coming up on one side of me and the centre of my hometown on the other. I would embrace these few minutes of celebration for nothing more than the simple pleasure of them and get back to building up my personal piece of the world.
Monday, January 08, 2007
‘X’ Marks This Post
The third of Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots is “The Quest”. All you need for a quest story is something worth looking for and someone who does the looking. The story could follow a knight searching for the Holy Grail or, just as easily, two homeless men’s efforts to get a refund on a stolen space heater (Terrence Odette’s “Heater”, a Canadian film the Village Voice’s Amy Taubin calls “a Beckett-like tour de force”- rent it tonight!)
Quests seem to crop up in Canadian comedy movies a lot. Whether it’s Red Green looking for the ultimate duct tape sculpture, the trailer park boys looking for the Big Dirty, or Bob and Doug looking for free beer, if you’ve got some characters and you don’t know what to do with them, give ‘em a quest. It’s the ultimate tack-on narrative.
In contrast, serious Canadian literary short fiction seems questless. In fact that might be a defining feature, and what makes it so dreary. Combing through Canlit periodicals, you’ll come across story after story of people who don’t know what they want. Our recent heroes and heroines are all suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. We are drowning in aftermath stories. All the events are over; the drama is done. And things haven’t turned out so well. A couple have lost a baby; we join them as they watch TV in silence. A man survives a brutal rape; we sit with him as he stares out the window. A brother and sister reunite after their parents die in a freak accident; they have nothing to say to each other.
Some years ago, I noticed this aftermath-mania crawling into my own fiction. I wanted to write about some kids who died in a forest fire in my town when I was an impressionable teen. I set it at the funeral- not mid-blaze. I wanted to write about how much you can love a pet (as much as anything, I say!) I wrote a story about a boy who lies on his dog’s grave at night. I wanted to write about a dramatic incident from my grandmother’s youth. I began with her lying in a nursing home near death. It seemed to be what all the other short story kids were doing.
Don’t get me wrong, this literature of grieving, this mapping of shock, this lull-lust is not wrong. It’s a thoughtful, fully felt reaction to our Canadian experience. Lots of bad shit has gone down, man, think about it!
But: are we scared to tackle the living moment that is driven? Can we write about couples trying like hell to save their marriages, families working hard to love and care for each other, or those who rise from the disaster site seeking revenge? Instead of crafting my sad stories of recollection, could I write about trying to escape the fire, rushing home to be with the dog, or that day my grandmother tried to bring my grandfather his lunch at the mine. I’m not sure.
Is it the endings of quest tales that bother us? Accomplished quests seem too corny; failed ones, too bleak? And if we end a story mid-quest, does that seem gimmicky, like those 60’s mysteries that don’t get solved? Is it an Antonioni movie where the characters just stop looking for the missing heiress?
I think it IS the endings- we distrust them so much we skip right over them. We understand obsession, greed, lust. We’ve lost our faith in their results, though. We need to begin at the end, to prove we can take the fallout, that we aren’t Pollyanna, that we aren’t bumpkins, simpletons, children, that we know full well how badly it turns out. If we write about somebody who’s eagerly pursuing something, we might be mistaken for the naïve. We have to prove that we are too smart to fall for that business again- that caring-about-stuff stuff.
Well: I want you to know something. When I loved that dog, I didn’t know it was going to die. I didn’t know I was going to become middle-aged. There was a time when I was eternal, when taking off into the back forty acres was a shining, shining thing to do that could lead anywhere. The huff of a dog’s nose hoovering scents, the feel of squishy things, the flinging of rocks and sticks into the air and limbs along a path never before taken…
I dare you, and me, to write about characters still trying, unaware of how it will end. Quest on!
Saturday, January 06, 2007
Ask the Canadian Chick
I'll be back with advise in four weeks from now, or, if the response is overwhelming, which I certainly think it should be!!! I'll post in two weeks.
So, go ahead, ask the Canadian Chick. I dare you..xo
Friday, January 05, 2007
The Weather Outside: Frightful or Delightful?
Posting late today as my at-home computer is doing something funny (and not in the laughing way), and so I’m actually composing this at work. But I’m getting it done before 9 a.m., so that’s still ethically okay, right? – I’m still on my own time, if not my own machine.
It’s hard to believe it’s already January 5. And when I look out my window this morning (and walk from the parking lot to the building where I work), it’s hard to believe it’s January 5 at all as Toronto is experiencing record high temperatures for this time of year. We’re going up to 13C today, people (that’s about 55F for our American friends). January! Toronto! I have to admit I’m loving this, but at the same time I think I should probably head back a few days and re-read Ms. Parkinson’s post regarding An Inconvenient Truth. It’s all very nice to see my snow shovel loitering in my garage with the tools of summer, but it can’t be a good sign.
Talking about the weather in Canada is like talking about traffic in Los Angeles. We love to gripe about it, but it makes us what we are and shapes our world. So as much as I really dislike the cold and the snow and scraping the ice off my windshield while the wind feels like it’s slicing the skin off my face and my toes turn black from frostbite and break off when I remove my beaver-lined snowshoes (but the toes, they grow back in the spring), I know that’s the way it’s supposed to be in January in Toronto. Not like this. There are some days in May that don’t get this warm.
So if you’re thinking of visiting my fair city, come this very instant! I promise to buy you lunch.
And we can dine on the patio.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
Thursday, January 04, 2007
I wonder if Saddam let his beard grow on purpose, on advice, so he would look more like a grandpa than a dictator. Gone was the paint-by-numbers face, as expressionless in life as it was in the posters that are mostly destroyed now, or kept hidden by some, I’m sure. I was horrified by his hanging, horrified by the guts he showed. I won’t say he was brave or courageous. The guy who saved a young man from being run over by a subway train was brave and courageous. I choked up on that one. He jumped down onto the tracks even as his young daughters were standing there watching. My eyes didn’t tear up at the sight of a stoic Saddam alone in a room full of executioners. I was too much in shock. It was like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat, for the first time. Where was the elderly man whose only defense was to try and drown out the voices of his judge and prosecutors? In court, gone was that dangerous twinkle in the eyes that said he knew the adulation was always out of fear, the same twinkle that caused us concern when he’d wave a sword over his head for a photo op. I’m sure his executioners were just as horrified, especially when he cracked a faint smile trading taunts with them. No remorse. None at all. As a writer, it’s in my nature to try and figure out what he was thinking as they were placing the noose around his neck. Had I been Saddam at that moment, I’d have thought about my boys, how I’d misguided them their whole lives. I’d have thought of my precious life, how it was about to be taken away from me. How sad it was that I was alone, without my loved ones to comfort me. I should say I’d have thought about all the lives I had a hand in destroying, but that’s nearly impossible, even as a writer. I’m no Saddam, and he was no grandpa. I said he showed guts those final moments, but what I should have said instead, explaining why I was so horrified at the sight of his execution, was that he seemed not to get it even in the end. However botched and improper the execution, however unjust the American presence in Iraq, Saddam should have come undone on the gallows, if at least for his own life’s end. That wouldn’t have been a cowardly display, not in my books. It would have left me with a bit of hope. Know what I mean?