The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Three Years Later

by Tricia Dower

Three years ago, a few days from now, Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, only eight months after walls of water two stories high swept entire villages to sea and killed a quarter of a million people in a dozen other countries. The Indian Ocean earthquake that raised those walls is said to have released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

Katrina had nowhere near that force, yet after nearly every levee in metro New Orleans was breached, 80% of the city and many areas of neighboring parishes were flooded for weeks. Seventy-one percent of New Orleans’ occupied housing was damaged, making it the largest residential disaster in U.S. history.

The title story of my collection, Silent Girl, is book-ended by these catastrophes of biblical proportions. I researched them for that story and like to check in from time to time to find out how recovery is proceeding. Whether we’re talking about New Orleans or Asia, the ones who suffered the most were the most disadvantaged to begin with.

For example, over 100,000 undocumented Burmese migrants were working in the rubber, construction, and tourism industries on Thailand's western coast when the tsunami hit. Those who survived were deliberately excluded from all official assistance, denied shelter in camps, and left on their own to survive.

Remember the pictures of the mostly poor, mostly black people in New Orleans abandoned to primitive conditions at the Superdome? As Ruth Gidley reports in this Reuters blog, “Katrina not only changed the way the rest of the world views one of the richest countries on the planet, it changed the way storm survivors think about their government.”

A recent Kaiser Foundation survey revealed that most New Orleans residents still feel forgotten by their government and their fellow citizens. Contributing to that feeling is the fact that less than half the federal money set aside for rebuilding has actually been spent on it. Similarly in Asia, $1.6 billion was earmarked for rebuilding after the tsunami but war and politics have slowed down the work. A UN-led effort has begun to install tsunami-warning systems in the Indian Ocean, but work on strengthening the levees in New Orleans won't be done until 2011.

This is on my mind right now because I’ve been following coverage of the Democratic Convention in Denver and trying not to get swept away by the rhetoric on change. It’s tough, though. I shed a few tears during Ted Kennedy’s speech. Not from affection —I haven’t forgotten Mary Jo Kopechne—but because of his call for “a better world” with “justice for the many.” It brought me back to the days of JFK when I, like the many young Obama disciples today, was eager to stand on the edge of the “new frontier” Kennedy spoke of. I wept during Michelle Obama’s speech, too, when she recalled Barak saying we too easily accept the distance between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.”

I’d like to believe Obama would lead the effort to bridge that distance but my hope is tempered by history. Time and again we demonstrate how little we care for the poor and others we marginalize. We send money when disaster first strikes but we quickly lose interest, junkies for the next sensational story, unwilling to share long-term with others. It’s difficult for us to sustain the effort required to effect lasting change. In New Orleans, that would involve dealing with the deep-seated racism and class divides that are barriers to a good education for all, decent housing for all, and livable wages for all.

In Canada, I’m guessing it would be the same, eh?

Photo: Whites find/Blacks loot. The different slants given these two photos when they appeared three years ago caused a stir. The caption for the one top left read: "A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005." (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

The caption for the photo on the right read: "Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." (AFP/Getty Images/Chris Graythen)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Time in the Short Story

I have experimented with a short story that assembled flash-length moments from across three or four decades (“Thirteen Glimpses of My Mother Unaware of Being Watched”—in the Fiddlehead #226) and another that covered a year in the life of two families (“The Zyches”—unpublished), but I really believe that the short story’s power is best tapped into within a condensed time frame.

Recently I’ve discovered the short stories of Robert Stone and two by him have struck me as masterpieces: “Miserere” and “Helping”. There are flashback moments but the main action takes place well within a day. And that time-line compression adds to the emotional punch.

That ability to show so much about the world within a tight focus marks some of the greatest short stories. “Counterparts” by James Joyce is a man’s work day and then his evening at home. In a nutshell, he has a hard day and comes home and hits his kids. Along the way, he manages to tell us some terrible truths about human experience. It’s my favourite short story. Although I did only read it the once. I can’t bear to read it again.

I’ve been trying myself to write a few stories that explore a single chunk of time. But I’m not having any luck. I think part of the problem is my day-job. I’m a therapist. I’m used to looking for patterns across time. It’s so habitual that my brain is instantaneously non-linear.

So, I’m trying to find a different organizing principle. If time flows freely, what is it that will provide the skeleton?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Progress of a story: The curiosity stage

By Tamara Lee

On Saturday, I made my annual trek to the PNE, an urban fair held the last two weeks of the summer. Over the years, I’ve honed my reasons for going to a few musts: observe spectacle; eat badly; pet animals. With such broad categories to work with, I’m never disappointed by the experience.

Simply walking through the gates addresses the first category: Spectacle. There are characters worth writing about at every turn, like the 70-year-old lady sporting a black wig set too far forward on her head, screeching out her enthusiasm at a handbag demonstration; or, the hefty, short-tempered families of 6, dressed in spandex and nylon leisurewear, lugging strollers and handfuls of food and stuffed animals.

Satisfying the eating priority is straightforward, too: Jimmy’s Lunch Fish & Chips or a Kiwanis burger and fries; mini-donuts or whale’s tales: once-a-year decisions I always look forward to following up on.

But it’s the animals every year that leave me feeling like a 7-year-old urban child.

2008 was the year of the horse, with a Clydesdale foal definitively winning my heart. At one month old, this ‘baby’ was as tall as I am (which actually isn’t very tall by human standards). He came up to me standing outside the corral, and parked himself while I scratched behind his ears, stroked his neck and forehead—upsetting a number of real 7-year-olds with his complete disinterest in them—and pretty much guaranteeing the 7-year-old in me to be alive and well with child-like awe. The mare—all 2500 pounds of her—concerned enough by our behavior, ambled over to nuzzle her foal away. But even that didn’t deter us.

Many years ago, I wrote a story using an equine metaphor and I’ve only recently begun to understand its core meaning. The epiphany’s been on my mind lately, and thus, so have horses.

This morning, as I performed several hours’ worth of research on horse history, revisiting some stuff I learned as a 10-year-old at horse-camp, but with no real purpose other than a curiosity hangover, it occurred to me that a writer’s research is not unlike that foal’s: the almost unwavering fascination that may or may not lead to anything in particular.

I’ve no idea if this marks the beginning of some project, but something seems to be whirring around up there. This is my favorite part of writing, scratching the itches, stretching the neck towards this-and-that.

Over the next little while, as the story tumbles and splats onto the page, I hope to offer some observations en route to the final piece. Of course, the story may stall completely, in which case this will be a very short series. Time, research, and sustaining curiosity will determine this story’s fate.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Blog About a Blog About Blogs

by Tricia Dower

A recent Huffington Post blog by Lissa Warren has gotten a rise out of some literary bloggers.

“Will Blogs Save Books?” asks whether book reviews by bloggers will ever replace reviews in established newspapers. It’s a fair question, with newspapers and magazines devoting less and less space to book reviews these days. The Victoria Times-Colonist, for example, used to have a weekend book insert but now prints only the occasional syndicated review. Rumour has it the book editor has been reassigned. (All I know is she’s not answering my e-mails.)

Warren suggests that if bloggers did a better job of it, "we as readers would give book reviews on blogs as much respect as book review in major market paper.” She goes on to say that “ book reviews on blogs…tend to be self-indulgent. Book reviewing bloggers need to move away from opinion in favor of judgment. How does the book compare to—and fit in with—the author's previous work? What's the book's place in the genre? The canon? Does the writer succeed in doing what he or she set out to do—meaning, is it the book they meant it to be?"

Responding to Warren’s article, Lisa from the blog Minds Alive on the Shelves writes: "My main interest is not in the author's place in ‘the genre’—in fact, I am automatically suspicious of anyone who uses phrases like that…I'm not necessarily interested in a discussion of their previous books…I'm interested in the current book, the one I'm thinking about buying. I want to know if it's a good book. I want to know if it had big plot holes, if it held the reviewer's interest, if it was true to the jacket description, if it was funny or exciting or moving or informative. I want an opinion from someone who has read this particular book and thought about it."

Literary Feline says, "I want to know what people like me think and have to say."

Chris says, "Bloggers speak for the masses who aren't sitting in leather chairs smoking pipes discussing metaphor. Ordinary people read too."

I troll the ‘net regularly, checking out various literary blogs. It seems to me that bloggers establish a level of trust among some readers that newspaper reviewers may not. The woman behind The Incurable Logophilia, for example, recently wrote: "I do not usually read science fiction. It just isn’t my thing. But when Ann from Table Talk, whose impeccable judgment I trust completely, recommended Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow, I went and got myself a copy right away."

I suspect this trust comes from the fact that bloggers often write about how a book affected them. Since they also write about their families, pets, travel, and even their health, regular readers are brought into their lives to such an extent they want to share the same reading experiences.

I came upon a wonderful literary blog recently as a result of an online review of Silent Girl by Becca Rowan in Bookstack. A blogger in the UK who calls herself Litlove responded to that review. I followed the link to her blog and found "Culture Shock" about an Algerian writer, an entry that was so articulate and persuasive I wanted to read that writer right then. And so did many of Litlove’s other readers. Check out this other entry about "Truth and Memoir" and the intelligent conversation it has generated among readers from different parts of the world.

So, I don’t know whether blogs will save books, but I do know that people are reading and writing about a much wider range of books than you might guess if the “major markets” are your primary guide. Lively public discourse is happening about books you won't necessarily find in the New York Times or the Globe and Mail. It’s really quite encouraging.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How Much to Give? How Much to Hold Back?

by Andrew Tibbetts

There’s a technical issue I’ve been struggling with in my writing—balancing these two occasionally opposing virtues: clarity and subtlety. Is it enough to write “Hughes tapped a little rhythm on the windowpane” knowing that many readers won’t remember the flashback from much earlier in the story that mentions Hughes’ father’s habit of tapping? The point is the character is thinking about her father. It’s enough for me, but I know these characters so much better than any reader and my job as a writer is to provide an experience for the reader.

When I get feedback from multiple members of my writing group there’s often wide disagreement. “I’m not sure why the woman cries in that scene. Could you give us a little more?” “Are you sure you need her to cry? It’s already obvious she’s upset about the betrayal because of what she says to her daughter?”

This issue comes up once a paragraph. I usually resolve it for myself by what feels right to me. And every writer has their own style. And every reader their own preference. If you like subtlety you won’t be reaching for Dan Brown. So I just live with the fact that I please myself and some people won’t get my work and some people will find it too coarse.

But then occasionally I can’t tell. “Thinking of her father, Hughes fingers tapped the taxi windowpane.” Ugh. “The taxi passed a billboard advertising a father’s day sale. Hughes fingers beat a little rhythm on the pane.” A bit better, but I’m already feeling this is the sentence in the story that’s going to take months to write.

As usual, writing turns out to be much harder work, he thinks, tapping a little rhythm on the side of his head, with a baseball bat, as a gorilla naps in the corner, its copy of Proust fallen open to page 99.

Monday, August 18, 2008

My Father, My Guide

I’ve started writing so-called stories where I use my memories of my father as guide. By the time they find their way onto the page, they’re distorted somewhat, of course, but still, there’s a bit of the man I knew at every turn, in every word choice I hope will impart some meaning. I’m using my father here. Just as what I remember, reminisce about, tells me where to look for story, I’m hoping this combination of father and son will lead to eye opening moments for the reader, some good, even if the story tells of something bad.

Stop. Yet once again, as I mention my father in connection with my writing, I find myself being distracted by a need to state my love for the man, how fortunate I think I was having him, and not someone else, as father. There’s enormous guilt here for me as a writer, especially considering my writing almost always turns dark somewhere down the first paragraph. As I find it easier and easier to use my father in my works, I have to learn to live with the fact that I’ll always be walking a fine line between what I’ve been raised to believe is like blasphemy, shitting on your father’s memory, and doing what I feel I have to do as a writer – lead by example. Just know: when I’m writing about a man whose flaws make life difficult for others, I’m not just writing about my father, but myself as well. I’m hoping my writing will seem courageous, gutsy and honest to the reader. I am my father’s son, and I need to pay homage to him by being the best writer I can be. Am I making sense?

For years, I used women as central characters in my stories, and though the stories were mine, they were written as by an observer. I wasn’t yet ready to tackle the male figure in any meaningful way. In that sense, I used my female characters as victims of men so I could get closer to what I really needed to understand and write about. Not at all the same thing as when you rip some part of the story from deep within your chest. It sounds painful, but not because what you know is so horrible there has to be blood and guts involved, but because the story has roots in the person you are, the person you have become. Maybe not all writers feel this deep need to understand themselves. Maybe I’m whacko, and this writing thing will simply evaporate into nothing once I’ve finally discovered how I was made into the man I’ve become. But I can’t see any other way to being a writer and writing with some kind of authority. Besides, I sense my chains loosening as I travel down this long and winding road, my father as guide. Like any good parent, he’s constantly two steps ahead of me, and he doesn’t differentiate between the writer and the man. He sees me as I want to be, even more steady and even than he was.

And hey, if this turns out to be a simple case of me actually trying to go back and fix things… what’s wrong with that? I think he’d be pleased.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sounds Unite!

I think community means you have the same songs. When I was in Mexico City I went to a nightclub with all the ambiance of a small hockey arena. There was a drag show at 2am and the dancing stopped. Whenever one of the divas lip-synced to one of those Spanish heartbreak numbers, everyone sang along. That’s when I finally felt I was in Mexico and not some “Mexico” constructed for tourists.

This aural bonding explains the importance of music for teenagers. Your sub-group is mostly defined by the bands you like. My teenage son gets ferocious when I tease him that he has a Hilary Duff CD! It’s like stabbing him in the heart. I imagine that when he and his ska-punk friends get together and a song comes on that they love, they probably rush the dancefloor to mosh along, just like my friends rushed the dancefloor when Siouxsie Sioux started wailing. Body follows sound.

This reminds me of birdsong. Don’t all animals make sounds that call out to each other across the jungle? When you hear it, you rush towards it. It’s sexual, or maybe even more primal that that! It’s about whom you belong with. Your gang. Your pack. Your gaggle. Your pride.

The most fun words in English are those that designate a collection of a certain species: a pride of lions and a gaggle of geese and a murder of crows. Here are some new ones I just googled up: a shrewdness of apes, an exaltation of larks, a shiver of sharks.

It’s quite fun to make up some yourself: a slime of lawyers, a detention of hockey players, a sour of writers…

And now, we have to write the songs that will call these folks to each other: for lawyers, the sound of dropping change; for hockey players, that foghorn buzzer; for writers, the sound of someone else picking up the check?

What’s the collective for a bunch of Canadians? A toque, a toboggan, a trudeau?

I think this is also why it gets harder to like the current pop songs as you age. Your identity forms in adolescence and you'll never respond to music like you did then. If you were going to dances in the 40's, nothing will ever stir you like the blast of brass at the beginning of "In the Mood"; discos in the 70's, that frisson of high-hat that announces "The Hustle"; raves from a couple of years ago, the electronic bleats and blips from a Roland sequencer! These birdsongs get hardwired into us.

I’m not sure who I need to thank that my soundcard was filled up before “umbrella, ella, ella” came along, but I’ve got a candygram with your name on it. Or perhaps I should send a sing-a-long strip-a-gram, some firefighter taking off his gear to “The Night Chicago Died”! Brother, what a night that really was….

Friday, August 08, 2008

A Munrovian Moment

by Tricia Dower

It’s an evening out of an Alice Munro story – one from her West Coast Period. We’ve driven to Campbell River and taken the ferry to Quadra Island to meet up with friends Caspar and Lorena who’ve been sailing for six weeks. Lorena has had enough. I will drive her back to Victoria the next day. Colin and Caspar will sail the boat back home over the next week or so.

The plan that night is for us to get together at a vegetarian restaurant with a man I’ll call M. There will be a sixth person, as well, Caspar says. A woman who’s staying with M for the summer. Let's call her H.

Who would want to live where you have to share every part of outdoor space with hostile and marauding animals? (From “Chance,” in Runaway)

M’s house is at the end of a very long driveway clogged with shrubs that fill with berries in the spring. Lorena thinks bears eat them. The deer are a bigger problem we find out later, managing to thieve their way under the chicken wire and into the vegetable garden.

The house is a cabin, really, small and rough with a beaten-up wooden boat as big as a tug in the front yard and a long stretch of land reaching down to the water in the back. M and H greet Caspar and Lorena with wide-armed hugs. M is what my father used to call a ‘long drink of water,’ very tall and lean with wavy white hair as long as mine. H’s gray hair is pulled back from her tanned face. She has a ballerina’s body and heavily tattooed arms. Munro would have let us in right away on how she happens to be there but we can only speculate.

“Should we have a drink first and maybe some watermelon or is everyone ready to go off and eat?” M asks.

“I’m ready,” I say. “I’m very hungry.” But H is already slicing the watermelon. Colin gives me a sympathetic smile. If I go too long without a proper meal I get what he calls “owly.”

We leave eventually and drive a few minutes to the vegetarian restaurant. It’s closed. Lorena votes for the pub and we go there. It’s got patio dining and the menu has enough veggie options for those so inclined. But a singer/guitarist is performing and Caspar thinks it will be too noisy for us to converse. We try the Inn, next, where we’re told the wait for food will be at least an hour.

“You’ll be okay if you can get a snack, right?” Colin asks me.

“Right,” I say, and sense a dangerous shift. The evening has become about feeding me and Caspar feels terrible about not staying at the pub. It’s okay, I say, and really it is. M suggests we head back to his place where he’ll cook up some pasta and we all gratefully accept. A quick stop at the grocery store for bread, dessert and snacks (I get to choose those) and the liquor store for wine.

…the room is haphazardly furnished…Mostly with cushions, lying about on the floor, a couple of hassocks covered in leather, which has split…A couch covered by an authentic but ragged patchwork quilt, an ancient television set, and brick and plank bookshelves…Dishes and glasses and pots are piled everywhere. (“From “Chance”)

Back at M’s, we go into action, washing dishes that had been left in the sink, clearing the table and chairs of assorted litter. I set out the snacks. M boils water for fettuccine and chops onions to mix with jars of sauce he just happens to have. Caspar heads out to the garden to clip salad fixings and H makes garlic bread. Before long we’re seated at the table, joking about loaves and fishes. M has us join hands for some aging hippie bonding. It's like the old days when, as young people with other partners, we made do and dreamed of the day we'd have what we have now.

Over the next hour or two we eat and talk about art, politics, gender differences, M’s travels to distant lands, H’s former life as a performer, my book, of course. A gentle dance intended to tease out the bits and pieces of our histories we feel safe enough to share. Earnest and sometimes spirited conversation that given a few more hours and another bottle of wine might have waded into the secret waters Munro readers would be allowed to navigate. For those of us stuck being the characters, the best we can do is stumble out into the black night and stare at a sky so clotted with stars it feels like only the beginning of a million stories with infinite possibilities.

Above: Colin, aboard the good ship Kittiwake.

Right: On the short ferry ride from Buckley Bay to Denman Island, Juliet got out of her car and stood at the front of the boat, in the summer breeze. (From “Silence” in Runaway)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The World Talks Aids: Mexico City, 2008

by Andrew Tibbetts

Well, this is my second day at the International Aids Conference 2008, in Mexico City and I'm just managing to move out from the under the feeling of being overwhelmed. The conference is the size of a small city. A busy one.

Right now I'm plugged into the free internet cafe surrounded by people from all over the world with their laptops connecting to the folks back home. I've seen the facebook and hotmail interfaces in a dozen languages.

(Oversimplifying everything:) I've attended a workshop on using music and theatre to combat homophobia in Africa, a seminar on the neurological effects of HIV, a panel on the queer black diaspora, and a documentary film festival on the plight of prostitutes in Asia. Pretty soon I'm going to a skill building workshop on how to publish research!

Each morning begins with a massive plenary. This morning Elena Reynaga a sex worker and sex work advocate from Argentina gave a rousing speech that had half the (huge) crowd on it's feet cheering and half sitting still not even clapping. She's my new favourite person on the planet. SEX WORK IS REAL WORK!

It's too exciting to waste time writing about- so I'll keep this short for now and drop in again sometime soon!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Writer's Hiatus Redux

Yet again I’m typing at ten o’clock the night before my blog is due. Ugh. I’m even resorting to blogospeak now? WTF? OMG! My brain atrophies from neglect and once again Writer’s Hiatus has me in its clutches. All my long battled bad habits have regrouped and besieged my productivity.

What is Writer’s Hiatus? Ahh, now I have an excuse to pull from way back. An oldie from 2006 updated for 2008.

The symptoms of Writer’s Hiatus (WH) are innocent at first: bad sentences, stupid grammar mistakes, and that general headache that strikes anytime you try to think your way out of the latest dead end you’ve written yourself into. Left unchecked WH can become completely debilitating. It will leave you convinced you’re a writer who needs a break, a short time to gather your thoughts. That’s all. Nothing to worry about. Writing is still banging around your frontal lobe. You’ve started 3 short stories. You’ve received some great rejection letters, including one that says “writer holds much potential.” See, you’re a writer, once a writer always a writer. This is WH Stage 1.

Stage 2 is more advanced. It starts with regression from your writerly connections. Writing output drops considerably. You withdraw from Zoetrope, appearing only sporadically to see what’s going on in the CWC office and add some of your friend’s stories to your review queue. Of course you never actually get around to reviewing them. But it’s okay; you’re a fish that’s broke away from the zoe pond. You’re taking your first short breaths of air and learning to walk on your flippers. You have to go back once in awhile to catch your breath, but you don’t need to be immersed in Zoe anymore, you’ve evolved. So you stop emailing and keeping in touch with the writers who helped you when you were a little guppy (sorry, Judd), and those who stood on the edge of the water urging you out (my apologies, Renate). You stop emailing stories out to your trusted first readers (stuff it, redpen). And you start flogging the shit out of metaphors in a vain attempt to extend them into pataphors.

Near the end of Stage 2 you stop sending stuff out for publication, but only because you need more time to hone it, it’s missing something. Really.

If you’re in Stage 2 it’s not too late. You can still recover. But you need help fast. Alcohol has worked for all the greats. I advise against this, however, because it also led a lot of them into trying to see what comes out the end of a shotgun. You could try forced writing schedules. This works for some, but it can be stifling for others. You need support and gentle nudges. Write anything you can. It’s okay to misstep, you used to do it all the time. Recovery from WH is a convalescent process not a bursting forth. Reread your grammar books, your old stories, your good reviews on Zoetrope. Slowly work your way back to the concrete from the purposely vague.

Stage 3 is where it gets dicey. Here you begin to think that life is only going to get busier. That maybe you should hang this whole writing thing up till you retire. Maybe the goals you set for yourself are a bit lofty. It’s okay to settle for a little less, you gave it a good shot. You start questioning your ideas. At this point you need a Seinfeld type intervention because questioning your ideas is a sure sign you’ll stop merely thinking about Stage 3 symptoms and start believing them.

And this is Stage 4. The point of no return. Stage 4 leaves the writer a heaving mass of cliché and unoriginal imagery. We won’t go fully into Stage 4 here, it’s too scary, especially since I’m up to my knees in Stage 3 right now and sinking. I need something to kick me in the ass, someone to hold out a stick (or beat me with it).

Well that's WH and I'm in it (again). Contrary to the above, I’m happy as hell. Maybe too happy. Maybe good writing comes from unhappiness - certainly not an old theory. And maybe I have an idea for my next blog! Oh joy! Wait a minute…the irony is tragic here. Maybe that will work? Sigh.