Monday, 28 September 2015

Forest bathing

In Japan, they have a term for the restorative time spent in nature: forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. There is even a field of Japanese science called Forest Medicine, which studies how time spent in the woods benefits our immune systems.

The word "bathing" is apt for the sense of being immersed in what feels like a different medium, being washed clean.

There is a lake in southern British Columbia where I camp a few times every summer, often with my sister. We joke that the lake waters are healing. Maybe they are. After a few days camping among the trees, and swimming and canoeing every day, I feel stronger, clear-headed, and most of all, worry-free. What had I been worrying about at home? I literally can't remember.

But maybe it isn't just the lake. Being surrounded by the forest washes away the niggling worries of daily life. The region is thick with pines and firs, cedars and poplars and an undergrowth of wild roses, saskatoons, Oregon grape and wild strawberries. Mint grows on the lake edges.

When I'm swimming, I can see the trees that have fallen stretching deep below the surface. They'll be there a long time after I'm gone.


Saturday, 14 March 2015

Perhaps I was wrong

As I tackle yet another revision of Sing a Worried Song, I'm comforted by John Steinbeck's letter to his editor in 1952, written as he finished East of Eden. His "armful of damp garbage" is one of my all-time favourite books.
John Steinbeck

New York

Dear Pat:

I have decided for this, my book, East of Eden, to write dedication, prologue, argument, apology, epilogue and perhaps epitaph all in one.

The dedication is to you with all the admiration and affection that have been distilled from our singularly blessed association of many years. This book is inscribed to you because you have been part of its birth and growth.

As you know, a prologue is written last but placed first to explain the book's shortcomings and to ask the reader to be kind. But a prologue is also a note of farewell from the writer to his book. For years the writer and his book have been together—friends or bitter enemies but very close as only love and fighting can accomplish.

Then suddenly the book is done. It is a kind of death. This is the requiem.

Miguel Cervantes invented the modem novel and with his Don Quixote set a mark high and bright. In his prologue, he said best what writers feel—the gladness and the terror.

"Idling reader," Cervantes wrote, "you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like—"

And so it is with me, Pat. Although some times I have felt that I held fire in my hands and spread a page with shining—I have never lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability.

A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.

Well—then the book is done. It has no virtue any more. The writer wants to cry out—"Bring it back! Let me rewrite it or better—Let me burn it. Don't let it out in the unfriendly cold in that condition."

As you know better than most, Pat, the book does not go from writer to reader. It goes first to the lions—editors, publishers, critics, copy readers, sales department. It is kicked and slashed and gouged. And its bloodied father stands attorney.
The book is out of balance. The reader expects one thing and you give him something else. You have written two books and stuck them together. The reader will not understand.
No, sir. It goes together. I have written about one family and used stories about another family as—well, as counterpoint, as rest, as contrast in pace and color.
The reader won't understand. What you call counterpoint only slows the book.
It has to be slowed—else how would you know when it goes fast?
You have stopped the book and gone into discussions of God knows what.
Yes, I have. I don't know why. Just wanted to. Perhaps I was wrong.
The book's too long. Costs are up. We'll have to charge five dollars for it. People won't pay $5. They won't buy it.
My last book was short. You said then that people won't buy a short book.
The chronology is full of holes. The grammar has no relation to English. On page so-and-so you have a man look in the World Almanac for steamship rates. They aren't there. I checked. You've got Chinese New Year wrong. The characters aren't consistent. You describe Liza Hamilton one way and then have her act a different way.
You make Cathy too black. The reader won't believe her. You make Sam Hamilton too white. The reader won't believe him. No Irishman ever talked like that.
My grandfather did.
Who'll believe it?
No children ever talked like that.
(Losing temper as a refuge from despair)
God damn it. This is my book. I'll make the children talk any way I want. My book is about good and evil. Maybe the theme got into the execution. Do you want to publish it or not?
Let's see if we can't fix it up. It won't be much work. You want it to be good, don't you? For instance the ending. The reader won't understand it.
Do you?
Yes, but the reader won't.
My god, how you do dangle a participle. Turn to page so-and-so.

There you are, Pat. You came in with a box of glory and there you stand with an armful of damp garbage. And from this meeting a new character has emerged. He is called the Reader.
He is so stupid you can't trust him with an idea.
He is so clever he will catch you in the least error.
He will not buy short books.
He will not buy long books.
He is part moron, part genius and part ogre.
There is some doubt as to whether he can read.

Well, by God, Pat, he's just like me, no stranger at all. He'll take from my book what he can bring to it. The dull witted will get dullness and the brilliant may find things in my book I didn't know were there.

And just as he is like me, I hope my book is enough like him so that he may find in it interest and recognition and some beauty as one finds in a friend.

Cervantes ends his prologue with a lovely line. I want to use it, Pat, and then I will be done. He says to the reader:

"May God give you health—and may He be not unmindful of me, as well."

John Steinbeck

Friday, 28 November 2014

Song of the Peace River Valley

Two years ago, when Shelter was nominated for a BC Book Prize, I had the good fortune to make a tour of several communities in the Peace River region of BC: Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Hudson's Hope. Near Hudson's Hope, when we stood and looked out over the Peace River, we were told that where we stood would be permanently under water, a drowned valley, if the Site C dam was approved. Site C would add a third dam to the Peace River, at a time when large dams are being reassessed and dismantled on thousands of US rivers.

As we drove through the aptly named Peace River valley, we saw stakes hammered into farmers' fields, meadows and mountainsides, marking the flood levels that would result from a dammed river. I knew what the arguments would be in favour of the dam. It's always the same refrain. To borrow a phrase from Unikitty, in the Lego movie, it's "business, business, business, numbers," or more specifically, "the economy, the economy, jobs." But as David Suzuki argues, "what good are a growing economy and increasing consumption—and their environmental and social consequences—when people are not healthy and happy and when we destroy the things that keep us alive and well?"

After Unikitty's business performance, she whispers: "Is it working?" and she's assured that it is. I can't help but feel the proponents of this dam are whispering the same thing. It's all they have in the face of evidence that this dam is a bad, outdated idea.
Ken and Arlene Boon on their Peace River farm.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Maybe I'm too sensitive

David Eddie, who writes a funny advice column in the Globe and Mail, sometimes uses the word "questionsult," which is an insult thinly disguised as a question. His example: "Oh, you finally got new curtains. Were those your first choice?" Following his lead, I invented my own word: the compliminsult, but I see that he has a version of that too. (He calls it the insultiment.)

Justin Ng photo
I received a compliminsult recently from a fellow writer who said, "Your writing is so action-packed! It's always so plot-driven!" Maybe I'm too sensitive (how many times in my life have I started a sentence that way?), but I couldn't help but detect a note of dismissal in the comment -- that somehow plot is simplistic and elementary, not a complex enough way to tell a story. I disagree.

I think that action and events are a natural by-product of story-telling. People tell stories to help themselves piece together cause and effect. They recall events that led to things. They select certain events as significant and disregard others as irrelevant. They are trying to answer the question: how did this happen? Or, how did I end up here?

I don't think we re-hash the minutiae of our lives without a sense that we're seeking to shape it. It's a bit like star-gazing. On a slightly overcast July night, the patterns of the constellations seem obvious and timeless. It's almost like we can see the lines drawn between stars, the big dipper scooping, the little dipper pouring , and the big W of Cassiopeia. The clouds, or light from the moon, obscures the profusion of stars, and patterns clearly emerge.

But if the night is very clear, and if you're out in the middle of nowhere under a black sky, the riot of stars can be overwhelming. On nights like that, I can be hard-pressed to identify even the dippers. It's disorienting, and it makes me understand why early cultures looked not only for patterns, but stories in the stars.  

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Fighting words

One of my favourite moments when I write is when I have to stop and search for the perfect word. This morning I was sitting at my desk, everything going well, and then a word stopped me. I looked out the window at the rose about to bloom on the arbour, sun splashing the grass, someone out for a morning run. The word that had come to mind wasn't quite the right one. In the scene, my character has the urge to punch someone. But punch isn't right. I sifted through the possibilities: smack, slug, wallop. None of those are right. It's 1968 and my character is a young man, not quite a hippie, but inclined that way.

I reached for my thesaurus, a weighty 1300 plus pages that has that rich well-used book smell when I crack it open.. And that's it. That's the moment I love: the pleasure of weighing the options. I leaf through the pages to find "punch." It leads me past n. alcoholic drink to v. hit. Some of the words I consider: smite (okay, not seriously); coldcock (maybe; first I have to look it up and confirm that it means what I think it does, which is to knock unconscious in a single blow, and it does); clobber (too comic book); pound; hammer; pummel (all possibilities); paste (maybe; it's a term we used in the 70s); crack; belt. I reflect that pound, hammer and pummel all suggest repetitive hitting which isn't what my character has in mind. I go back to coldcock. It seems too calculated. It's more what someone would say after someone else had done it. Eventually, I find the word I need. That's good. But it's the looking for it that I really love.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Just a love story

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

From a recent interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the Guardian: "Don't we all in the end write about love? All literature is about love. When men do it, it's a political comment on human relations. When women do it, it's just a love story. So, although I wanted to do much more than a love story, a part of me wants to push back against the idea that love stories are not important. I wanted to use a love story to talk about other things. But really in the end, it's just a love story." 

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Gertrude Stein gets rejected

Gertrude Stein, 1935
Gertrude Stein must have been delighted to inspire this creative rejection letter.

Writers have to have tough skins. Even to share my new manuscript with my husband, I have to take a deep breath and be ready for pain. He's honest and I need honest. He's not a big lover of fiction, so he's impatient as a reader. That's why I like having him as my first reader. Also, I trust him.

Revision notes for my current novel.

Criticism can sting.  In my experience, when it stings the most, it's because it hits the mark. When I was working on the 54th revision of Shelter (or something like that), my agent, with her trademark candour, said, "The middle 80 pages is boring." I blanched, I denied, I agonized, but the thing is, I knew she was right. But you can't just re-write the middle 80 pages without also re-writing the pages that follow them. There was nothing to do, but get down to it. Ditch the hitchhiking trip to Vancouver, forget that well-read cowboy they met along the way, lose the parade down Hastings Street, all those carefully researched details that sidetracked the real story. But I sort of like re-writing. Usually, at least, I get the sense that I'm getting closer to what I meant to write. This is a photo of my bulletin boards beside my desk, with notes for the revisions I'm doing now for Sing a Worried Song, my current work-in-progress. I did a chapter-by-chapter "chart" so that I can keep track of what happens when. There's also a timeline and a map of Bridget and Joseph's farm.