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.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Starting out

Beginnings are hard to write. I must have written and re-written the opening of Shelter twenty times at least. I write an opening, then I go on and write the rest of the novel, but while I'm working on the rest, I re-visit that opening many times, trying to get closer to something that captures what the novel is really about.

For a high school English class, my son is reading A Tale of Two Cities, with that famous opening about the best of times and the worst of times. No writer could get away with that now. Long and rambling, it starts with that wide, wide view, slowly narrowing. I'm not even sure I like it. But it got me wondering about what I do like.

I like the opening of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451: "It was a pleasure to burn." So simple, startling and incongruous that it immediately makes me curious. But an opening is not just about a good first sentence. Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day starts more subtly, with a distinctive voice that puzzles me and draws me along. I'm currently reading John Steinbeck's notebooks written for his editor about his novel-in-progress, alongside the manuscript of East of Eden. Steinbeck's openings are slow and meandering, winding through the landscape of the Salinas Valley. When I begin on the first page of a Steinbeck novel, I know I'm entering that world and I'll be there for a long time. I like that feeling.

I've re-written the opening of Sing a Worried Song, the novel I'm currently working on, maybe ten times. It's getting closer.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Is it sad?

I feel like I've written about this before. It''s an obsession of mine, the question that many potential readers of Shelter have asked me, before reading: Is it sad? They don't like sad, they say. I try to be honest. I don't think Shelter is a sad novel. Sad things happen, but what life is free of sadness, even a young life? I remember my son's first experience of real, deep sadness, the kind that wouldn't go away in a few minutes. It was when he was about eight and one of his beloved cats, who he had grown up with his whole short life, died, presumably of a heart attack, while curled up in her favourite spot on his bed. I tried to tell him that as sad as it was, it was good to feel so deeply about something he had loved so dearly. I still tell him the same thing now, when he's sixteen. I believe he gets that. That's why he loves some profoundly sad songs that sing of experiences he's too young to really know yet. (He's in the next room right now listening to Mumford and Sons' Broken Crown, loud.)

To me, there is a beauty in sadness. It interests me. When I was writing Shelter, I used to go to my desk and turn up a Mozart Piano concerto, No. 17, something my grandpa and dad both loved. The album I have belonged to my grandfather and was passed down to my father and then to me. Alfred Brendel is on piano. (I can't find a link to the recording I have or I'd post it). I've heard other performances, but this one is special. During the andante movement, the music builds and builds to this tender, trembling beauty and then breaks in what seems to me almost like a sob. But it's a joyful kind of sob, of someone overwhelmed with the beauty of his world. I feel the same thing some early mornings on the shore of a small BC lake I love. The water is so still, the surface a skin of light and shadow. I think, I could have missed this. I will miss this.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A woman in India

Potter in Jaipur
I returned from my second trip to India a couple of weeks ago. On the plane home, a young woman got on at Frankfurt and asked me where I'd been. She told me about her plans for a big trip to India next year. She was full of questions about what it's like for a woman to travel alone in India. She was 21, excited, and scared, too. Probably a sensible way for a 21-year-old woman to feel about travelling anywhere.

It's not easy to travel in India, and it's probably less easy for a woman travelling alone. I'm old enough to have slightly younger Indian men call me "aunty" (which is an affectionate term for an older woman. I answered, "Who are you calling aunty, uncle?") and younger women call me "Amma" (which technically means 'mother' but is a term of respect something like Ma'am). I wonder if it was partly my age that kept me from being harassed, beyond the normal annoying questions about nationality and offers from touts at the tourist sites.

But I'm not naive and I know that my age can't protect me from a certain kind of contempt towards women who presume to take the same privileges as men, a contempt that is not unique to India. So when an autorickshaw driver took me on a long and winding tour through the crush of metal workers and mechanics shops in a dingy part of Varanasi, I looked out and saw only male faces and I felt nervous. Another day, walking in Mumbai, I found myself leaving the busy streets full of women shopping. Suddenly, there were no more women, just men smoking and gossiping in clusters on the sidewalks. I turned around and walked back the way I came.

While I was staying at Nrityagram, a dance community outside of Bangalore, the dancers were preparing for a trip to Egypt. They received instructions from their hosts about how to dress: no bare arms, no shorts, no cleavage. It was going to be hot. They grumbled about what to bring. Why is it a woman's job to protect the sensibilities of oppressive cultures everywhere? This morning I read this article about modesty on The Feminist Wire. The concept disgusts me, too. And I don't believe that modesty protects anyone either. 

Woman selling spices in Jaipur

One night as I was reading the Bangalore newspaper, which was full of stories about rape, like all the Indian newspapers are these days, an Indian woman and I got into a discussion about how relatively safe the streets are in various parts of the world. Is India more dangerous for women than other places?Are the streets in Canada or the US safer? I don't know. And that's the thing. You never do know.