Monday, 8 July 2019

Is only trouble interesting?

Chilcotin mountain meadow
My students complaint that I never teach any happy books. Last semester, totally by accident (are there any accidents?), I had a cannibalism theme going (The Odyssey, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and a documentary film called Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains). I tell them that only trouble is interesting, or so says John Gardner, maybe, or David Mamet, or some grim American writer with a dim view of human nature. And for the most part, I've found this to be true. Only trouble is interesting. When everything is going smoothly in a book, I ask myself, when's the story going to begin?

But I recently read Heidi, and I thought, maybe this is the kind of book my students mean when they ask why I don't teach happy books. It's a delightful book; that's the word for it. And yet it starts with trouble and more trouble. Heidi is an orphan who is being deserted by her aunt -- left with her grandfather who lives alone on a mountain and has a reputation for being an ogre. Everyone in the village thinks it's cruel to leave her there and that the grandfather will have no idea how to care for a little motherless girl. The reader expects big trouble. But Heidi is so sunny and positive and curious and warm that she opens her grandfather's cold, closed heart and the two turn out to be kindred spirits who love nature and solitude. The book is heart-warming from the start and it's a gentle reminder that most people are essentially good, or at least mean well, and that the natural order of things is probably not to (The Road spoiler alert!) roast your newborn child on a spit over a fire. Most relationships have at the core some spark of tenderness and goodness, however clumsily expressed and a book like Heidi captures that. I think that's what I love about good children's books. Not saccharine, they admit hardship, but they don't stop there.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Slow writing

My 1975 notebook
When I was twelve years old, I wrote a novel called The Mystery of the Secret Passage. Much of it I wrote in our wartime house on a leafy Winnipeg street, where we had a crawlspace that was sun-warm in summer and furnace-duct warm in winter, smelled of old insulation and dust and had a small slatted vent where I could look out into our front yard and the sidewalk that ran past our house. I set up a makeshift desk with some boards, and in my memory, I sat on the floorboards and wrote. Having the desk made me feel like a real writer; it lent a certain commitment to what I was doing. I wrote the novel, suspiciously like a Nancy Drew novel, which I loved, in Hilroy exercise books. Word by word, sentence by sentence, I sank into the private world I was creating, not caring where the story was going or who might read it.

A page from Red Fox Road.
For my most recent novel,  Red Fox Road, I decided to allow myself this same luxury. I wanted to return to the simplicity and joy I found in writing when I was twelve. I wanted to close my ears to my own inner critic, and write something slowly, happily, word by word, just for the sheer fun of it. I had an idea that had captured my imagination: a girl on a family vacation becomes stranded alone in the wilderness when the family's GPS leads them astray. The idea was based very loosely on stories I'd read in the paper about mishaps with car's navigation systems. Also, my own little family had had a close call one day when we headed off on an off-road driving adventure, got lost, and couldn't retrace our steps because we didn't have enough gas.

I took out one of the notebooks I usually use for a journal, and began with the first sentence. It came easily and I didn't worry too much about whether it was the right sentence. It took me somewhere. And in writing this novel, I learned to pay attention to that feeling. Does this sentence take me somewhere? Is it where I want to go?

"In each act is the seed of the next." I'm not sure who to credit for that sentence; it's not my own, but it became my guiding principle. If the sentence I wrote took me somewhere I didn't want to go, I backed up, crossed it out, and wrote a different sentence. The wrong paths were usually ideas that I had imposed on the story, rising from some sense of obligation to include something. Apparently Warren Buffet has a tray on his desk labelled "too hard" and he puts ideas that he doesn't understand or has to work too hard at into that tray. My principle was similar. I wanted the story to roll along, to unravel like a road I was travelling down. I didn't want to impose too much of my vision on it in advance. I wanted to watch, almost listen for it. For me, the fun is in following the story, not having the story follow me. If I've set it up well enough, the story takes on a life of its own. It has its own intelligence, which is smarter than me.

In Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck writes, "I sometimes feel that when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness." I would say that about the way I wrote as a child, and I'd say that it's when writing is at its best for me now. I feel a physical change in my body when I find that, a sense of inhabiting the world I've created. I dream about it, it's the first place I find myself if I wake in the night. I can hear my narrator's voice, I watch what she does, what she feels and thinks.

Writing by hand seems to help me find that. Slowed down, I'm both more careful, and less constrained. Maybe the slower, physical act of handwriting, the pen drawing letters on a thick new loaf of paper, helps me pay more attention. And in writing this novel in notebooks, I remember the twelve-year-old girl that I was, on an adventure without a certain outcome, just for the joy of it.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Coyote jubilation

Photo by Gerald Romanchuk
Last night I was out in my yard digging in the garden around dusk when suddenly from the east, sounding very close, a band of coyotes sent up a wild howling, yipping, barking, crescendoing and decrescendoing. It went on for several minutes. My neighbour came out on her step to listen. "Crazy," she said. "They sound so close."
It was thrilling, a bit scary, carrying some primal, irrational sense of threat. When I heard the coyotes' frenzied voices, something rang in me, as it always does when I hear them, or see them loping down the road. The cry of jubilation, victory. Then I wondered if that was right. Maybe it was mourning. Wild grief, not jubilation at all. I have no way of knowing which it was. Probably neither.

How many times in my life have I misinterpreted what I've heard? One recent instance brought home to me how wrong I can be in my perceptions. I was camping at a lake I love, a place I'm comfortable going alone. It was a weekday morning; the campground was quiet. I was drinking my tea, listening to the wind that sometimes moves through the tops of the trees but doesn't touch the lower branches. A trailer pulled into the campsite next to me. We're separated by trees and a pretty good distance, but I'm not the most gregarious camper. I'm not quite on the level on Sartre with his "hell is other people," but I'm close. The way that my mind becomes hijacked by others' impressions, the stress of that processing, is the reason that I go camping alone in the first place. So I always have mixed feelings when others arrive.

After a while I heard a woman's voice come through the trees from their campsite. She carried on an unbroken stream of chatter. Once in a while I heard another voice interrupt. But then she went on. I tried to ignore it. Most people are more sociable than me, I realize. Clearly, she had something to get off her chest. But it started to irritate me. I went down to the lake. When I came back a couple of hours later, I was surprised to hear her still droning on and on. I wondered what she could have so much to talk about. I wondered why she didn't shut up for awhile and let me and the people around her enjoy the peace and quiet.

This went on all day long -- after I went kayaking and stood at the picnic table making my supper; as I built my campfire for the evening. Then the wind changed. I began to hear her voice much more clearly, and another voice, a young girl. I heard the woman say, "Maybe that's enough for today. I can read more tomorrow. We'll be able to start on the other book. Did you bring it?" And I realized that what I'd been irritated by all day long was the sound of a woman reading to her granddaughter.

I doubt I'm the only one who has spent years, literally years, rehashing things that have incredible power over me, the power to make me blush, or the power to make my vision blur, my heart thunder in shame. Shame seems to be one of my most stubborn emotions. But I'm beginning to realize, at the age of fifty-six, that it's just possible that these things I've perceived in certain ways are wrong, that I got them wrong at the time and that I've continued to feed the flames of my wrong perceptions every time I call up the memories. My perceptions are not reality. That's what I'm learning.

The Urban Coyote Project says that coyotes have more than eleven vocalizations whose meanings are complex. One coyote can sound like many more, because of the way they change the pitch. Normally, I don't spend a lot of time wondering what the sound means. I appreciate the mystery. I would like to be able to bring that spirit to my more mundane experiences, too.

This is a beautiful short recording of coyote voices by Rocky Raybell on the Colville Indian Reservation, in Washington State. He calls it Coyote Symphony.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Road Past Libau part II

Mary, my grandma, Neil and me
with pump and bunkhouse in background, early 70s.
When we were near the turn that my sister, Mary, and I thought was the road to our old farm, I phoned my brother Neil on my cell phone and asked him to guide us. His memory for the navigational details was better than mine or Mary's. That sounds like it, he said. Turn left. So I'm almost sure we'd found the right place. The road seemed exactly true to my memory; I remembered how when we walked in, there was a sense of mystery about what lay beyond the bend.

But when we drove onto the property where our house and barn and outbuildings had been, everything seemed out of place. Some things were familiar: the thick woods, the soft powdery soil, even the sky, a scrubbed clean blue. But it was as if the rest of it had been bulldozed away. How many years had it been? Forty, we realized with shock. How much could change in forty years? How much could we have remembered wrong?

The road at the curve.
Mary and I remember painting the bunkhouse one weekend. We leaned the ladder up on one side of the bunkhouse and climbed onto the roof to paint the trim. It was morning, coolish. By noon the sun was high, and the side of the roof with the ladder was too hot to walk on. The other side was too far down to jump. We were stranded up there.

We looked for that bunkhouse. There were buildings like it, but none had the attic trapdoor in exactly the same place, the door we'd unhooked so that we could swing down off the roof and lower ourselves to the ground.

You begin to wonder if it's the actual place that's wrong, or the memory of it. How many times have I told an old familiar family story, only to have one of my sisters, or my brother, say, "That wasn't you, that was me." The place now, the farm, the outbuildings and the way it felt at night when the quiet was so deep my own heart beating was the loudest thing in my ears, have taken on new shapes in my memory, as they've become the setting for my new novel, The Burned House (originally Sing a Worried Song).

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Coffee Italian style

Coffee machine in a gas station on the way to Marco Polo airport
Although I'm not normally a coffee drinker, I've been longing for the caffe macchiato I had in Italy. I recently read an article about why we should start drinking coffee like Italians do. Instead of filling 16 or 20 ounce paper cups, carting them out to our cars or bus stops or shopping malls or desks and sucking on them mindlessly for half an hour, the article suggests North Americans try drinking coffee Italian-style: from a small white ceramic cup, standing up at a counter and downed in a few quick sips. While at first glance, it might seem like the ritual of this quick hit of coffee is a bit like swallowing a couple of aspirin, I've come to believe that it actually results in much more of a break than the North American style Starbucks march (or the Canadian Tim Hortons drive-through routine.)

When I was drinking coffee in Italy, I stood at a usually crowded counter with my tiny, perfectly brewed caffe macchiato (which I learned means "stained coffee," which is why in Italy I was told to make sure I said caffe first, not just "macchiato") and I drank coffee. I didn't check my email or negotiate traffic, walk down the street or teach a class, or anything else, really, except maybe to exchange a few words with the person I was standing with. Drinking the creamy, smooth, laced with slight bitterness coffee gave me this precious inward moment. Then I moved on. The day went on. But during my brief time in Italy, I looked forward to having that moment each afternoon.

When we were leaving Italy, our hosts stopped at a gas station on the way to the airport to get a coffee. Used to gas station coffee in North America, a watery brown and tasteless liquid warmed in a plastic carafe and dispensed into a styrofoam cup, then stirred with a plastic stick, I was surprised to see the gleaming espresso machine behind the counter, kept running by beleaguered baristas in uniforms who shoved the little ceramic cups across the counter to people in a hurry, like in gas stations everywhere. They did have disposal cups in this gas station. Because we were on the way to the airport, I took my caffe macchiato to go.

I realized my mistake immediately. First of all, I was embarrassed by how pointless and wasteful it was to take a paper cup to drink a coffee that would be gone in about three sips. But also, the moment I'd had standing and savouring my little coffee was missing.

Somehow the waste of the paper cup and the waste of the experience are linked in my mind. Why are we North Americans so good at taking a good thing and "improving" it to the point of ruining it? Why do we take a three or four ounce cup and turn it into twenty? And why do we always seem to lead the way in wastefulness? In Italy, I never saw the overflowing garbage bins outside of cafes that are such a common daily sight in communities across Canada and the US. An event like the Festivaletteratura that I was part of in Mantua didn't result, as it would in Canada, in streams of barely used, discarded paper and plastic food containers trailing down the sidewalks.

You might think that borrowing this Italian idea of coffee drinking, and at the same time eliminating mountains of waste, would be a no-brainer. Sadly, instead, there's a new ban on bans in Michigan, prohibiting local governments from banning or regulating the use of plastic containers.

Thursday, 22 December 2016


Skagit River Trail, Manning Park, BC
Yesterday, I drove up the Green Lake Road to go cross-country skiing. I was also looking for cedar boughs, which smell like nothing else, and which have a special meaning for my husband, David, and me. When we lived in the Fraser Valley, we were surrounded by a lush forest of cedars. Their fronds look like feathers, and when it rained, we'd step outside and be enshrouded with their rich, tangy fragrance. We also took part in sweat lodge ceremonies where cedar was used. So the scent alone is healing to me.

The cedar I see growing in a damp area near the creek here is probably Western redcedar, which grows in the interior. As I drove along Green Lake Road, I noticed spruce and fir and the beautiful orangey-barked Ponderosa pine that scents the woods in this part of the Okanagan.

What's so important about naming these trees? When Shelter came out, a few people commented on Maggie's obsession with naming plants. I obviously share that obsession. I want to be able to tell the difference between a spruce and a fir.

Okanagan pines

Just like I learn the names of people, I learn the names of trees so that they're familiar to me. I recognize their faces: the deep-fissured bark of the Douglas fir and the stringy bark of the cedar.

I like the word understory. I know it means the layers of growth in a forest, but I like the idea of it being a story in the sense of a narrative. If I know the names of the trees and other plants, I understand something about the story of the forest I'm in. The ability to read a little of that story seems important to me.

In the pine forests around here I can find oregon grape, wild roses, saskatoon berries, kinnikinnick, and yellow balsam root in the spring. In the coastal cedar forests, I'll find huckleberries, salmonberries, ferns, devil's club.  I can eat the berries and avoid the devil's club, though if I knew devil's club better, I'd appreciate its many uses, too.


Saturday, 29 October 2016

West Coast trail: one step in front of the other

When I wake up in the middle of night and can't get back to sleep, I lie listening to the owls calling from the tall pines down the street from our house. I read that the call of the great-horned owl has been "translated" in our language to "Are you still up? Me too." That middle of the night, nameless anxiety that I feel is both echoed and soothed by their voices, resonating into the darkness.

I think it's not uncommon for regrets to come thundering in on us in the dead of the night, when no one is there to distract from the memories. This is partly the subject of the novel I'm working on, called The Burned House. My regrets, I believe, are relatively minor in the scheme of things, but they loom large at the witching hour of 4 a.m. Lately I have distracted myself with a kind of meditation that I discovered out on the West Coast trail, on the westernmost edge of Canada, where the Pacific Ocean crashes into shore on the wrecks of ships long abandoned to the sand and wind.

I carried a thirty pound pack, nearly a third of my weight but as light as I could make it without going hungry or cold. I had practiced hiking with this pack, but only loaded to twenty pounds, and I worried, when we stepped onto the trail, and within fifty feet encountered two sets of ladders with moss-covered rungs leading pretty much vertically up a rock face. I worried about whether I'd be able to make it, or if I'd have to suffer the ignominy of being rescued by helicopter and air-lifted off the trail. Or worse, of course.

We had been warned, frequently, by websites, handbooks, park guides, and bus drivers, that mishaps on the trail were frequent, up 300% this year for some reason. I was hiking with my husband and my sister and we were all fit hikers, but we had mostly done canoe camping. We were not used to carrying so much weight on our backs.

The West Coast trail is incredibly beautiful. traversing old growth forests with huge ferns, firs, cedars, and waterfalls. Just breathing the air feels healing. Sunlight streamed through the trees, and landed on our faces and for a time, the other world, the one where we have jobs and buy dish soap and get our oil changed, was gone. It was one careful step in front of the other. Then we were hungry and shrugged off our packs and ate the things we'd carefully packed -- almonds and licorice and rice cakes. Then coffee. Can anything be as healing as drinking a cup of hot coffee sitting on smooth grey driftwood three feet in diameter at the edge of the Pacific Ocean with forests older than human memory at our backs?

At night when I can't sleep, I come back to that place, the certainty of its constant change, the thunder of surf on sand, the rich odour of soil and trees, decay and renewal. I feel the weight of the pack, but nothing else, as I put one foot in front of the other, covering the miles.