Wednesday 30 May 2012

Singing and Writing

A few years ago, I started taking singing lessons from a very talented and gentle teacher named Tracy Fehr. I'm not one of those people who are told, "Oh you have such a beautiful voice, you should really take up singing..." Quite the opposite. Well, maybe not quite the opposite. No one ever told me my voice was bad, but I assumed it was. Although I knew I had a good ear for music, I grew up in a household where the family refrain was "The Greenslades can't sing." I'm not sure where this came from. Both my grandfather and my father loved music. Both could carry a tune and were partial to opera. My father had an enormous collection of CDs and albums; it was an obsession for him, almost as all-consuming as his obsession with collecting books. Sunday mornings our house reverberated with the sounds of Mozart's Horn Concertos or Beethoven or Schubert, his favourites. My mother would sometimes turn it down a bit, saying, "I can't hear myself think." At the time, his music habit was on par in my mind with his cigar-smoking habit, one of the annoying things my father did that I couldn't wait to escape.

When my grandfather died, I inherited many of his record albums. Alone in my own apartment, my favourites became Mozart's piano concertos, music I listen to now to help drop me almost automatically into the world of my writing. I think my father would have made a fine tenor or baritone in a church choir, something he would have loved. And I've discovered, with Tracy's help, that I have a serviceable alto voice. My favourite singing is when I have the harmony part with my soprano friend, Heather. We both like old, sad songs, full of round "o" words like home, road and gone and "ah" sounds like night, wild and mine. These are good, open words to sing.

Singing has led me to pay attention to the beauty of plain, serviceable nouns and verbs in writing. When I'm editing, I go through my writing and strike out extraneous adjectives, articles and prepositions. Plain words are evocative. Moon, ripple, rise, pool. I don't want to fancy them up. I like the rhythm of them in my sentences. 

Thursday 24 May 2012

Der Duft des Regens

I received the advance copy of the German edition of Shelter in the mail today. The cover is quite different from the other editions. And the title translates as Scent of Rain. Interesting, because the original, working title of the novel was Hard Rain. Yeah, it came from the Bob Dylan song and yeah it's a bad title; that's why I came up with another one. Titles are hard. I like multi-word titles, like  the title of my friend Sean Johnston's book of poetry, The Ditch was Lit Like This. That is a fantastic title, in my opinion. I also like By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

But Shelter started to seem to me the only title for this novel as I wrote it. In fact, I hadn't quite realized what an obsession the theme of shelter is to me. It's true I have recurring dreams about dwellings, which should have been the clue. Usually I'm in a dilapidated dwelling, a house, an apartment or a makeshift camp in some abandoned building. I'm often trying to fix a leaky roof. Sometimes I'm hiding in an attic. It took me most of my adult life to recognize how important security is to me.

The headings in Shelter, which some reviewers have complained are obvious or unnecessary, (and I can't say they're wrong exactly) worked for me as guideposts as I wrote. Food, Water, Fire: the other three survival necessities, after shelter. But it was interesting to me as a writer that, without even thinking about it, the Food section was full of references to meals and eating. The water section, too, had rain and rivers and the most primal experience of water, the womb.

It's a strange experience to let go of your book and let someone else give it a title. And to not be able to read the translation. I did work with the translator, Claudia Feldmann, and the questions she asked me were so nuanced and meticulous that I felt confident in her work. (She asked me, for instance, about the expression "horseshoes up the whazoo" and what the "bodily function" reference was in "Ginger #2").

Friday 18 May 2012

New York, New York

The Bronx is up and the Battery's down. I always liked this line when I was a kid, though it made no sense to me. Maybe because it made no sense to me. I just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York. That song was in my head throughout the trip, although I probably haven't heard it for over thirty years. Here's a link to it, so it can bug the hell out of you, too:

Now I know what the line means. There's uptown, downtown and midtown. It's a geographical orientation. We stayed in midtown. Between Park and Madison Avenues. We did most of the things the sailors in this video do, except no dates. The Battery is Battery Park where we caught the Staten Island ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. Everything here seems iconic. The cold wind blowing across the New York harbour. The guy selling iphone cases who used to be a teacher and dispensed all kinds of life advice. Central Park, the breakfast room at our hotel, the view from the Empire State Building. The Fulton Street subway station. Isn't there a song about that? There should be.

Now I know what the line means. But is that better than not knowing? Yes and no. It's always better to know something you didn't know before, isn't it?  I don't know. I once made the mistake of teaching one of my favourite poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I should have been a pair of ragged claws. What does that mean? I don't know. But I feel it. And I don't want to talk about it.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Driving and writing

I've been taking a lot of road trips lately. Driving is a creative time for me: something about the warm cocoon of the car, the hum of the wheels, a wide open road past the windshield. New perspective, maybe that's part of it. It's good to get out of my routine every now and then. But sleeping in hotels, or other people's beds (their guestbeds, I should say) is not that conducive to the unbroken time I need to gather my thoughts and transpose my ideas onto the page. And if I don't write the ideas down, it's not that they're gone exactly, but I tend to get stuck. One idea inspires another, so unless I can write it out and move along to the next scene, my mind stays with the first idea, maybe afraid to lose it.
Keremeos orchard
So it's the road itself where I'd like to be able to write. I'm pretty sure there's a law against it. But on my last road trip, to Vancouver on the Hope-Princeton, a route I know very well, I came up with an idea. I tried speaking the story. I used the recorder on my iphone. This isn't a new idea, obviously, but I'd resisted it before, because I've always found the physical act of writing important; it opens up ideas for me in a way that just thinking about them doesn't. Even taking notes doesn't do it. It's the sitting down, putting one word after another, building something that does it. I don't paint, but I'm thinking that that might be a good analogy. You can't really see what you're building until you do it. What you've done engenders more. You can build on it.
But the other day, I noticed that something different happens when I'm speaking a story. Besides the fact that there's lots of dead air as I search for words and re-think ideas, I also became even more aware of the tug of the story. I always pay attention to that when writing. I try different spots, casting and re-casting and waiting for that tug. It's the tug that takes me deeper into the story. And it seemed to me as I was talking out a scene, it became very obvious when the tug was missing. For instance, I was writing about the day that my narrator's friend and her brother-in-law come out to the farm to help make apple cider. The brother-in-law, William, develops a crush on the friend, Cheryl. But Cheryl's boyfriend shows up and demands that Cheryl come home with him. William is depressed by that and goes off like a dog to lick his wounds. The scene was unraveling well in my mind and then I spoke this: "William went on a bender for three days." Suddenly, nothing. I'd snipped the string of the narrative in my imagination.
I thought about it for a while. These kind of manipulative plot-moving sentences kick me right out of the story. It's no longer even the narrator's voice. It's the author's voice coming in and saying here's what happened, let's move along. But I've lost the immediacy of the story. I'm no longer on the farm, sitting out at the picnic table in the yard; they're arguing, trying to get Cheryl to stay; it's a sunny day, the smell of apples is in the air; William is sulking. There's a place for those kind of sentences, for sure. They can be a reprieve for both the reader and the writer. Like you see in the old comic books: Several days later... You don't always want to blow-by-blow everything.
But they can also be the things that really cause a writer to stall in her storytelling. You've just tossed yourself out of the world of the story. For me, how much better to stay down there (I think of it that way, up in the authorial ether or down on the ground where the story's taking place), where William has made his third trip to the outhouse in half an hour and Bridget can smell the alcohol on his breath.