The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


by Tricia Dower

The train left at 7:50 a.m. as we sat in the dining room having breakfast with new acquaintances Barry and Pam. “Cool,” Pam said, as the train rumbled past St. Paul where she grew up.We tracked the Mississippi all the way to Lacrosse, Wisconsin.

It was fascinating to see the hidden sides of all the cities we passed on our way to Bethesda, Maryland, where we’ve been visiting with my daughter and her family. I lived near Chicago many moons ago but never traveled down the river that runs through it. The train was a boat taking us on a riverside tour, as it did the next day in Pittsburgh where the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers meet. From Pittsburgh on, the landscape outside the train was untamed – waterways with huge brown rocks and frothy rapids, bordered by Scotch pine, maple, and birch trees. Little indication of people except for the occasional campground or modest house with peeling paint.

I was struck by the dichotomy of the richness of this natural beauty and the potential bankruptcy of the financial sector that was underway. “I’m angry,” said a woman from Hawaii we met at lunch. So are other U.S. citizens we've spoken with and no doubt a host of others around the world.

During our three-hour layover in Chicago, we joined others in a busy lounge to watch TV coverage of the proposed bailout package. We arrived in Bethesda in time for the first presidential debate and it was clear the two candidates were afraid to say much about the proposal lest they be branded with its failure. This is an extraordinary time in my birth country’s history and it feels right to be here now, a half-hour’s drive from where Congress is slugging it out. We had lunch yesterday at an outdoor café beside the Potomac River as military helicopters flew overhead, making me think how close we could be to martial law if President Bush's inelegant warning -- “This sucker could go down” -- comes to pass.

Last night I saw my college roommate who lives in Virginia. She pointed out that she and I had heard about the Great Depression from our parents and had been raised understanding what it took to be frugal. “But our kids,” she said. “I don’t know if they can do it.”

We get back on the train tomorrow where we’ll be insulated for a few hours from the news reports and will speed through crossings where cars will have to wait behind gates for us to pass. I look forward to the illusory feeling of power.

Photos: Pittsburgh from the train and lunch on the Potomac with my daughter.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Woke up this morning, ...

Funny thing about that – we had many dogs when I was growing up, and not one of them died while in our possession. Still, I think I know what it must feel like waking up in the morning and stumbling over your companion. I was never forewarned that the mutt would be taking his final ride to the SPCA. Nope. Always came as a shock. Had to ride the rollercoaster of the overwhelming and shocking sense of a sudden and terminal loss all by myself. Got angry, and then deeply sad. Sleep just happened after a while. Woke up, and well… stumbled over the carcass of my loyal companion, because he was probably already dead for sure. I’d dreamed it! Chico! Ringo! Mick! And some others I can’t remember their names right this minute.

Anyway, today felt like one of those end of my dog days. Sorry. Sorry for the late post.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Objects: #1—the Shopping Cart

By Andrew Tibbetts
"Most people cannot appreciate the beauty of shopping carts," Bubbles, of Sunnyvale Trailor Park

I love shopping carts. There's nothing like pulling one out of the ass-end of another from the queue at the entrance of the grocery store. When it comes out nice and smooth and the wheels aren't all that wobbly, it's the beginning of a perfect feeling. Wandering the aisles, picking everything off of the shelf that you want, putting it into your cart—heaven! For us greedy, grasping westerners, a cart can contain and protect your bounty. You push it along, parading your good fortune. You might bump into somebody pushing their cart along. There's nothing better in the modern world than a conversation in a grocery store aisle where you are both leaning on the handles of your carts—the western world at its most convivial, mid-consumption socialization.

Some grocery stores make you put a quarter in the queue which you receive when you return your cart. This is because people do actually take them. And they are expensive. More expensive than a quarter.

I think it's a hallmark of suburbia: an overturned shopping cart beside a concrete culvert.

I don't see too many shopping carts in the city. Only on TV shows about cities. Urban grocery shoppers are much more likely to use the handheld baskets to put their groceries in. We shop like Europeans. Daily. In the suburbs people go and get a week or two's worth of stuff. In their homes they have 'deep freezers'. "Put it in the deep freeze" being the thirteenth most common thing to say in suburban Canada, right after "Stop friggin’ hoggin’ the remote, Buttface," and just before "Don't tell anybody about grandpa touching you".

Some people use their shopping carts to take stuff from the store to their car trunks. Other people, once the groceries are in the bags, prefer to carry the bags, many per hand. If your groceries are heavy the plastic handles will cut into your hand and you will rush a bit to get to your car trunk. And the blessed relief when you drop the bags into the truck. Oh, it’s good to be living here and now. Wiggle your hands. Think of dinner coming soon.

Kids love to sit in shopping carts. Shopping carts come with seatbelts now. Even today, long after mothers have gone back to work and kids are in daycare. These seatbelts are the vestiges of days when women were encouraged to be unemployed and in charge of their own children and doing the shopping. These women would take their very own children, just the one!, to the store with them, sometimes during weekday daylight hours! IT’S TRUE! Strapping the child into the cart would be one of the best parts of the day for them, because the child could no longer move or run. The mother is free to walk where she likes. (Sitting in the car with the child buckled into the car seat is the only better thing, because there, they are less likely to scream about what they want you to buy.)

Older children, like teenagers, and professional adolescents in their thirties (reality tv stars such as SteveO and Johnny Knoxville, or rock stars) like to ride inside shopping cars where they are not strapped in. Preferably downhill. Fun! Dangerous! Punch your hands in the air. Feel the whoosh. Think of how you and your friends will laugh about this forever if you aren’t killed.

In other parts of the world people die of starvation. Maybe in other parts of your town. Beside the rusty old shopping carts. On your way out, toss a can or two in the foodbank thingy. Consider changing the world.

Do you have any shopping cart stories?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sleepless After Seattle

by Tricia Dower

I can’t ride more than two hours in the car without falling asleep. I thought it would be like that on the train. That gentle rocking and the hum of the wheels would lull me to sleep. But it was more lurching than rocking, more screeching than humming, punctuated by long, mournful whistles at crossings and the slide, bang, thump of doors as passengers got on and off at various stops during the night.

Luckily, we had gotten a good night’s sleep in Seattle at my nephew’s place before boarding Amtrak’s colonial-sounding Empire Builder train. We had booked a “roomette” for the two nights it would take us to get to Minneapolis: a space that at 6’6” x 3’6” is smaller than a standard burial plot. Nevermind. It’s cleverly designed, with two facing seats that fold down to make one bed, a pull-down bunk for the second person, a retractable table, privacy curtains, and a door you can lock from the inside.

Down the hall from our roomette was an airplane-sized toilet and sink compartment and a surprisingly generous shower room attached. Such fun, soaping and shampooing while trying to maintain my balance. Our roomette had an electrical outlet and I must say I got a charge out of drying my hair while a spectacular Montana lake passed before my eyes.

Two observations:

(1) Despite the smallness of our roomette, we were part of the privileged “sleeping car class,” given tiny bottles of champagne when we boarded, and invited to a wine and cheese party. But lest we got too full of ourselves, to reach the dining car, we had to pass through the First Class Sleeping Car and see the more expensive bedrooms with sofas and sinks.

(2) Affirmative action seems to have skipped the railroad. The waiters and porters on our train were men. When there was a shift change in Shelby, Montana, only men got off and walked across the tracks to their waiting 4x4s. Only men got on to take their place. The only female crew member I saw was the dining car hostess who took meal reservations and seated people. She did get to wear the snappy black and white uniform, though, so maybe that’s progress.

Since Sunday, we’ve been stocking up on sleep at my son and daughter-in-law’s house. Tomorrow morning we will be back on the train, on our way to Maryland. Rookies no longer. We’ll take only essentials into our roomette, checking as much of our baggage as possible. We’ll try to take showers during station stops. We’ll perfect our straddle-legged balancing act as we make our way down narrow corridors while the train is in motion. We’ll meet more great new people in the dining car and we’ll see more great scenery. But I don’t expect to sleep.

Photo: As our train left Seattle, we passed by the Victoria Clipper dock at which we had arrived.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Progress of a Story: The Shock of Life

Today, I'm meant to offer another installment of a series that may or may not result in a completed piece. It's a story that's been, and by the looks of things will continue to be, a long time in the writing.

But in pursuit of story, life and death happens.

Last night, I went looking for a quiet place to have a drink and brainstorm a few ideas for the story, then maybe think about what I'd blog for today.

Half a block away from my destination, I witnessed a gruesome accident: an SUV sped through a yellow light, hitting two people, sending each one flying half a block in opposite directions.

The one I rushed to, asking him to keep talking while the paramedics arrived, kept moving his lips, his body twisted into a position not meant for humans, his head bleeding from his mouth, nose, eyes and ears.

The things we notice when we feel helpless, in shock, make up their own story: That the rock band I could hear was playing in the cafe I'd expected to be quiet, that the name of the cafe is The End.

As a dozen people gathered around this man, helpless and gasping on the sidewalk, like a catch hauled into a trawler, I recognized everyone trying, as I was, to figure out her place in it all. I suggested we all step back and not crowd and gawk at the man, and everyone obeyed, as though I was writing the script for the crime-drama they had now joined, in progress.

The paramedics arrived, and the story took on a new twist. Everyone seemed a bit more relaxed, started telling their versions of the accident to anyone who would listen.

But I couldn't bear any more, so I started to leave, taking one last look at the poor man who, judging by his tatty clothes and dirty fingernails, had had some bad turns in his story already, a man I could not help, except to say to him one last time to hold on. The medics were pulling the traction gurney out of the ambulance, and I knew his story was about to turn even worse.

Walking away, I don't think I felt or thought anything. It was only as I sat in a loud bar up the street, drinking a glass of wine, watching the autumn rain pour, I realized my story, both the one I'm writing and the one I'm living, will be changed by that one man's life.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

See Ya Next Month

by Tricia Dower

By the time you read this post, Colin and I will have begun our Great Train Adventure. This morning, we’re catching the ferry to Seattle, and tomorrow we’ll board Amtrak for a trek across the US making two stops along the way to visit son Mike, daughter Katie and their families.

We’ll end up in my hometown of Rahway, New Jersey, where I’ll be holding the US launch of Silent Girl at the Union County Performing Arts Center: the old movie theater where necking in the balcony was what you did on a Saturday night. It’s gussied up now and a haven for stars you might not have known were still alive. Engelburt Humperdinck appears the day after me, and Connie Francis will be there soon. Actually, I won’t be on the stage like they will. My reading takes place in a room called the Annex, perhaps the old office where they stored the Willow pattern dishes my mother collected.

My October 2nd reading is, serendipitously, part of the kick off of an all-class high school reunion in honour of Rahway’s 150th anniversary of incorporation. It’s also part of the Rahway Arts Council monthly “1st Thursdays,” when artists exhibit their work, musicians perform, and authors read at a variety of venues in town to which Rahway provides a free shuttle.

I expect a good turnout of the old gang, including “Foot” and “Hamhead,” plus a number of grads from other classes. I attended a reunion six years ago, so I’m prepared for the grey and balding heads, the paunches, jowls, and wrinkles. (Are they prepared for me?) I wonder if they’ll enjoy a nostalgic moment when I read from the two stories I imagined taking place in Rahway.

I invited Andrea Hollander Budy, an accomplished poet and fellow grad, to read with me. With the addition of her moving work, and the Rahway Arts Council’s promise of some great refreshments, it should be a wonderful evening. (It’s hard to get my head around my little town having an Arts Council. The artistic highlight of my formative years was the annual Hallowe’en painting of store windows.)

I’ll try to post a blog from time to time during the Great Train Adventure, although Amtrak doesn’t have Wi-Fi so my ability to do so might be limited. Rest assured, I’ll be thinking of stories to share with you whenever I can.

Photo: The Union County Performing Arts Center on Irving Street, Rahway, site of the US launch of Silent Girl on October 2, 2008. Readings from 6:15 – 7:00 p.m. and 7:15 – 8:00 p.m. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop in!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What's at Stake: Election 2008

For today's blog, I'd like to direct you to the Writers' Guild of Canada, and their fact sheet on the 2008 Federal Election: HERE! It turns out there is quite a lot at stake. Check it out!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Relationship Ramblings

by Steve Gajadhar

About a year ago I kicked mainstream fiction to the curb. Short stories, novels, I simply couldn’t bring myself to read another story based on The Relationship. Who cares? People break up, families don’t get along, and coming of age is rough. Yaddah yaddah yaddah. So I started reading more and more SF – still some of The Relationship, but at least there was some different scenery. It’s been a nice break, having no “kitchen sink” moments in my reading life, but I think I’m ready to give literary fiction another chance.

It wasn’t a particular work of fiction that made me reconsider. It was real life and the real lives around me. People break up, families don’t get along and coming of age is rough. Turns out that’s the way it is after all. Storytellers are just passing along the misery, delusions and selfishness that so many people piggyback around. Then I got to thinking. What does relationship mean anyways? According to the dictionary it can be a logical or natural association between two or more things, or a state of connectedness between people. Call me a pessimist, but I’m not noticing much of the latter, at least with positive emotions involved, and that’s a relationship of the former kind: all the troubled relationships in fiction (movies, you name it) reflect all the real life troubled relationships that surround us. Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” The key point in that view is that they imitate each other regardless of the frequency of imitation.

Maybe our writers should all start writing about something else? Maybe our storytellers can decrease the divorce rate, get kids of Ritalin and create a wonderful utopia where we all just get along? Okay, that’s not going to work and I’m not qualified or patient enough to figure out what’s wrong, right, or just okay, and I’m too happy to contribute to the already massive archive illustrating The Relationship and its deterioration. So I’ll just keep reading and rambling and hope for more happy middles instead of just happy endings.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What do I know about penguins?

By Anne Chudobiak

My blogging hiatus was supposed to end last week, but instead I hopped a plane for Vancouver, home to Stanley Park, Science World and beachfront properties shaped like giant hypodermic needles (pictured above). But I like to think that this trip was in the spirit of blogging.

I got to meet up again with co-blogger Tamara Lee. We caught up over veggie Chinese on Robson. I don’t know if it was the pot stickers or the conversation, but I left with a renewed resolved to start posting again, a resolve that was bolstered when I got home to find a message from Quebec Writers’ Federation friend, Matthew Anderson, asking if he could link to our blog. “I can’t let him link to something semi-defunct,” I thought. “Surely Mathew’s spillover audience deserves more regularly updated content!”

To get my blogging bearings, I checked in with my old friend, StatCounter, a handy device which tracks visits to this site. I used to be fanatical about our stats, but this year I had entirely lost interest. I was shocked this time to see that while I was hiking up Grouse in B.C., someone in Arkansas had been searching for me, or more precisely, “anne chudobiak penguin,” a query that returns several pages of hits. Was any of them what my mystery Ozarkian was looking for? All I know is that this was enough to compel me fully back into my weird virtual world. If someone in Arkansas is looking for me, I want to know.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


by Tricia Dower

Sarah Palin’s VP nomination has highlighted social, religious, and legal issues around abortion. Should a woman be allowed to choose whether to continue a pregnancy or not, or does the embryo she carries have the right to live no matter what?

Equally as controversial is this social, religious and legal issue: should people who are terminally ill receive assistance in ending their lives if they so choose or must they wait for their bodies to shut down?

Although your rights differ by province, Canada generally recognizes Living Wills, sometimes called Advance Care Directives or Representational Agreements. They allow you to specify whether or not you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops or go on life support if your brain fizzles. I had a lawyer draw up such a directive in 1995 after seeing my father die without one. But is it enough?

Not for some. Last week, I attended a meeting of Dying with Dignity (DWD) whose new managing director had come out from Toronto to introduce herself. She had a slide presentation designed to carefully step us through the organization’s mission, goals, principles, and services. But the meeting quickly became contentious when several people in the audience interrupted with objections to her assurance that the organization fully counsels people on their options and that DWD was doing all that it could to expand those options. Wisely, the director abandoned the canned speech in favour of addressing their concerns.

One elderly woman said, “I’m here to learn about how to get assistance with ending my life. I know all about putting a bag over my head, but I want something better.”

She was referring to the method of offing yourself with a bag full of helium from a machine you rent to fill party balloons. Although no one’s come back from the dead to verify it, dying that way is said to be quick and painless. But you have to do it yourself, because it’s against the law for anyone to help you, and it does take some skill.

Others in the room wanted to know: When will we get what they have in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Oregon? Namely, physician-assisted suicide. And what is Dying with Dignity doing to get Canadian law changed to allow it? The answer—that DWD is working quietly behind the scenes to influence government— didn’t satisfy everyone.

It’s a delicate situation for Dying with Dignity and other Right to Die organizations. They can’t be seen to be assisting with suicide, either. DWD promotes its work in strengthening hospice and palliative care services and offering counseling to people who are terminally ill. The best it can do while staying within the law is to urge Canadians to ask their MPs to put the issue on the federal agenda. DWD's managing director told us they’re embarking on a government relations and public advertising campaign designed to stimulate discussion about “expanding end of life choices.”

Sitting in that room, I could feel the urgency that those much older than I have about this matter. Someone said, “The Boomers will make it happen,” and someone else responded, “I can’t wait for that.”

Personally, I want to know that I have a choice, whether I exercise it or not. A few months ago I watched a simulation of the helium bag technique and got a lump in my throat projecting myself into that moment of decision. It can’t be one you make glibly. You would have to be in extreme pain or so fearful of the pain that’s to come to fit a bag over your head and turn the valve on a helium tank. It’s more natural for us to want to live than to die, so what’s the risk in allowing a doctor to ease our exit when we’re clearly on our way out?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Writing Up a Storm

By accident I imposed a pretty serious deadline on myself. I submitted an excerpt for a project that I thought was for writers in the beginning stages of a book. It turns out it’s for writers in the polishing stages. So, if I make it through the first round, the next thing they’ll ask me for is the entire manuscript. The request could come any day. So I’ve been spending every second writing. There’s no time to stop to ask if it’s any good. This is a blessed relief from my internal critic, who makes Simon Cowell look like the Dalai Lama. You call that a sentence? It’s like a sentence some drunk dad singing karoke at a white trash wedding on a cruise ship might squeak out between REO Speedwagon covers—and never mind your hair! Did you do it yourself with a lawnmower? Or did you lose a battle with rabid squirrels over nesting rights to your head? Plus, you’re really fat.

Also, I’m in the middle of trying to get over somebody, and writing is a superb break from brooding. Strange how all the characters seem to be mourning lost love opportunities. That wasn’t in the outline!

Anyway, constructing this post has put me behind a chapter, so I’m going to have to make my lead character retrace her steps- that way I can just cut and paste an entire section. Just head the repetition with: "Justine wondered if she'd missed something. I’ll just start at the beginning, she thought, and try to do everything exactly the same. (Insert previous section). No, she hadn’t missed anything after all. Funny that, she thought." You call that plot development? Who are you? The Brian Eno of Canadian literature? More like the Brian Wilson. How can you fit those fat fingers on the keyboard? That might explain some of your prose, spillover typing from your portly digits. And that outfit! You look like a gay gas station attendant whose developmentally challenged younger brother drew all over his overalls and then threw up on his hair. Plus, you’re still really fat.

Back to work!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Progress of a story: Hunting and Gathering

By Tamara Lee

“Oh, no. It’s not a story about horses, is it? It’s not one of those?” My friend C revisited her memories of earnest horse-loving elementary schoolgirls with whinnying voices and My Little Pony pigtails.

I was most definitively not one of those girls. When I was sent to horse camp for my 10th birthday, it was admittedly an elementary experience: from my first experience away from home to taking my first drag off a cigarette. The experience coincided with the beginning of a troubled adolescence.

“No, no. It’s some kind of motif-y thing. I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it.”

I should never have said anything; something I learned long ago was not to share too soon. But I was nosing around, trying to figure out where the roots of the story are, and in the process mentioned the story in passing. Sometimes, writing a story feels like learning to talk all over again. Or learning to shut up, again.

My initial research took me to some interesting discoveries about North American horse culture, little of it likely to make its way into the story, I’m sure. But that’s not why we research: we’re looking for the thing that’s not connected, the thing that’s not obvious. The bland little rock that reminds us of the rocks we used to skim at the lake, or the rock we threw at Ria-ria-diarrhea because everyone else was doing it and we didn’t want to be the next one ostracized.

I found a rock in amongst all fascinating stories about the Nez Perce nation, their horse culture, their battles. From this came some notes and recollections about a time when I was very young; little tidbits I’d nearly forgotten. None of this, though, will I describe. See, I'm learning.

So I collected those bit and went in search of more rocks.

This story, should it ever come to something, looks like it will be one those: the kind of story that takes its stubborn time to grow up. A real problem child.

(Image: Nez Perce Warriors)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Tragic Urgency in (Very) Short Fiction

CWC guest blogger: Randall Brown

Prescriptive tragedy invariably begins with Aristotelian rules of tragedy, proceeds through a flurry of Greek phrases, and ends with a checklist that renders the reader and the writer blind to the tragic vision. So, as expected, most writers ignore the tragic—or include it without any conscious desire to employ its energies in their pieces. But within the tragic exists two powerful competing desires, a Dionysian need to raze the world and uncover its meaninglessness—and the opposing Apollonian wish to reconstruct the world and rediscover its deep meaning and purpose. The short short, pieces one-thousand words or less, arises as the perfect form to contain such a dynamic—its Dionysian need to end almost before it begins and its Apollonian quest to arrive at meaning before, like lightning, the whole piece disappears—infuses the short short form with tremendous tension, something I call “tragic urgency.”

I tried to resist the temptation—or is it a need?—for a definition of tragedy. Simply put, tragedy itself resists such attempts. Most of us, however, have been “brainwashed” by school teachers to think of tragedy as having fixed requirements—and to disabuse readers and writers of such a belief requires an alternative vision to be put forth.

My own definition, gleaned from reading text after text after text, is this: tragedy occurs when some positive character trait, action, desire leads, inevitably and forever, to a negative outcome—to doom, annihilation, meaninglessness. This dynamic, of course, leads to questions: Why are we fated for doom? How can one know when an action will lead to ruin? How can one ever act in such a world of uncertainty? Who has it in for us? The gods? The world? Our own selves?

Through tragedy, we gain the vision to ask such questions and glimpse the impossibility of ever answering them. As Victor Frankl argues in Man’s Search for Meaning, one cannot escape the “tragic triad” of pain, guilt, and death—and one becomes fully human only at that moment when he/she finds the “courage to suffer,” to “creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.” How does one do that? Frankl answers as such: “By (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an attempt to take responsible action” (161-162). Here, Frankl supports the tragic ideal of Hegel, as paraphrased by Louis Ruprecht in his Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision, of “looking the negative in the face, and dwelling with it” (34).

In a tragic world—a world that has it in for us—one must find the will to act, knowing full well that such actions might be doomed from the outset. Here, the world is a trap—and more often than not we are doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t. The tragic hero does act, and in that moment of action, he accepts the world for what it is; he asserts himself against the gods, the fates, the state—all those forces that would render him/her meaningless. Ah, see that trap, that attempt to define the indefinable. Tragedy, like the world, is what each of us makes of it. But at its center, remember, is that sense of something positive leading to something negative, and out of that negative outcome, something equally positive. As Ruprecht argues, “The tragic vision, as opposed to our modern posture, believes in the possibility—not the inevitability—of redemption, come what may” (56). Elizabeth Hardwick, in writing of Robert Lowell as part of Hardwick’s collection of Robert Lowell’s letters, perfectly describes this tragic character: “His fate was like a strange, two-engined machine, one running to doom and the other to salvation” (xvii).

Although in real life most of us obviously would want to avoid the tragic, as both writers and members of humanity we have much to gain by having the courage to face the tragic truths of our world. Tragedy asks us to engage in the search to know both the external and internal worlds of our existence at the same time it reminds us that such knowledge will always be denied us. If we refuse to act—to engage in such a search—our innocence of the world’s workings might lead us unknowingly down a path toward doom; however, if we do set out upon a quest, we are doomed to fail, for the world cannot provide us with the answers and certainties we seek. Tragedy reminds us that we are doomed no matter what and that our humanity depends upon our ability to face that fact, to act in spite of it, to embrace uncertainty at the same time we must refuse to settle for it.

We are much like Sisyphus, doomed to roll that rock up a hill, engaged in an act and a life that surely must end in meaningless. Albert Camus, in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, views the fate of Sisyphus differently:

But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The acceptance of that struggle we must all make frees us from our fated suffering, makes it our own rather than something imposed upon us. The tragic focuses upon such moments, such journeys—and the short short is uniquely designed to capture the urgency of the conflict.

(Randall Brown's Mad to Live won the Flume Press 2007-08 Fiction Chapbook Contest)

(Post-Industrial Sisyphus (1987) by Washington State sculpter, Robert Gigliotti)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Franz Kafka said that a book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us. For me this describes the feeling I’ve had reading what would come to be my favourite short stories for the first time. Those stories’ approach to some blocked part of me was indeed as violent as an axe blow. And afterwards, something is released. It’s a good and necessary violence. That’s my new definition of art: a good and necessary violence.

The first story that I can remember being axed by is Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. I think what was frozen inside me was a capacity for grace. I don’t mean ‘grace’ as in ‘elegance of gesture’ but ‘grace’ as in any mysterious unbound giving of love. For Flannery O’Connor the concept is religious, even Catholic; for me, it’s secular. But I think we agree on one thing—now that she’s had her axe in my gut—: when we start thinking about who ‘deserves’ love, we’ve already missed the point.

Another memorable blow came to me via Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss”. Sometimes, these blows are impossible to put into words. As I came to the ending of this story I felt as if a veil I hadn’t noticed before had suddenly been ripped from my face. The shock of how blind we can be, of how absorbed in the things that don’t really matter, and how suddenly everything can change—these are felt-insights that I’ve had since reading that story. What was frozen in me? Perhaps an acceptance of how ephemeral is the world we construct in our perceptions. And now that can sense can flow free.

There are other stories in my pantheon: “Counterparts” by James Joyce, “The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield, “Peaches” by Dylan Thomas, “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor, “Miserere” by Robert Stone, “Significant Events in the Life of My Mother” by Margaret Atwood, “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel, and recently “Something That Needs Nothing” by Miranda July.

All the stories I hesitate to reread. But I have done it. What surprises me everytime is that the axe still works. I guess because the sea has its seasons and you can’t count on an eternal thaw.

(Ice-Axe lifted from Toronto writer Claire Cameron's blog: Check out her Arthur Ellis award nominated novel, The Line Painter)

Monday, September 01, 2008

Submission Mode

I’ve come to realize something interesting about the stories I’ve written, and the stories I have yet to write. They are not all the same. I know. I know. There’s a word for this kind of observation. Forget about that.

Some are too visceral, designed to hurt, it seems, cause the most damage possible. These are written during times of let’s see if we can turn things upside for the however long this moment will last. Pick a subject. Subjects are always there, still, you’ve got to pick one so you choose the music that’ll feed this monster -- some Mettalica! – it’s just as bad out here as it is in here. Without much further prodding, a couple beers might be nice, you find yourself transformed, fingers like claws. These stories aren’t so easy to publish, especially if you’ve allowed yourself to be carried away by that monster who thinks anger and rage, fear and loathing, vengeance and a sense the time for reckoning is now, now, now, fooled by that monster into believing that lashing out will bring you closer to your humanity, closer to the core, the heart of the story. Thankfully, these disturbed responses to whatever is going on and weighing you down usually get rewritten; the story trapped somewhere inside lovingly extracted. These angry scribbles should never be published as is, filed away, instead, by a therapist who has seen it all before.

Still some other stories are too nice. No gun play. No sex. No bad language – no lone fuck-word carefully centered on the page for literary merit. These stories, too, are difficult to publish. Who would want them anyway? They were written while the writer was feeling soft, spongy, soaking up the pain of the world, feeding off that pain because it’s that pain brings you closer to your humanity, a false-ish sense that there’s a spirituality to be had at the end of all the weeping. No pain, no gain. Blah. No one wants these stories. They aren’t exciting enough. These are the stories like the portraits of forgotten relatives we keep in heirloom frames. There’s definitely a story and some understanding there, but no one cares anymore, or cares to remember since the relative was from another era. We're detached. Something's missing. An immediacy, something fresh like an open wound. But I don’t give up so easily on these pieces, though it’s disheartening having to see them blur by as I’m searching for something else, something with more pull. These are fillers for your eventual short story collection, as are the next category.

When I was building stuff, I’d always work off a drawing. I’d sketch the framing, counting the screws and nails I'd need, figuring out all the angles. If the drawing was good, I’d burn it into my memory and build from the picture in my head, already confident the construction would be sound. Some stories are like that. They begin with a good idea, a simple framework, a general knowledge of how thing'll turn out, even before the first word is written. These are big-time fillers for a story collection. They leave the reader feeling like they’ve just brushed their teeth. Strangely enough, I find these difficult to publish as well.

The last category is the best, a gift, its stories the easiest to publish, but the hardest to write. These stories are the most satisfying, the payoff immense. These stories give back. These stories are like us in our lifetime, covered in scars and wrinkles and blotches by the end, unsightly under a magnifying glass, maybe, but absolutely gorgeous if arranged on a canvas stretched across our old friend, who tends to slip away from us. There’s sadness in these stories, anger, love, joy, despair. We hope the reader will find something of interest, and they should, because we’ve been honest in laying down these bones. The anger, the joy, the love, all of it surprising, especially to the writer. They're the gift that leaves the writer weak-kneed, humbled and grateful.

So what to do with these categories? Couldn't we just skip the first three and just shoot for the last one? I wish, but I actually don't believe we'd ever get there if we didn't experience the whole range of our output. We need those filler stories. They make the journey.

(Can you tell I’ve been trying to clear my deck of unpublished stories?)