The longer I teach, the more I learn.
If I were to write a dissertation, now, my subject would be the short story. I would take a scalpel to the form, carve three-dimensional paper sculptures to show how beautifully various the short story can be. My focus, as a reader and a writer, has long been on Canadian literature, but the more widely I read, the more I wonder what Canadian literature stands for. Where are we right now? What are we lacking? Are we constrained by our Canadian-ness, because our patron is the state? Our violence is secretive and shameful. We don’t dare feast or riot. We would never burn the house down, and if we did, we’d make sure no one knew it was us. Also, outwardly, we appear reasonably satisfied with this state of affairs.
I could be wrong. I could be entirely very very wrong. Generalizations are almost certainly wrong, at least to some degree.
But here’s what I’ve learned, from teaching. For the past five years, I’ve assigned Canadian short stories for my students to read and discuss, and my students’ complaint has been consistent: why are these stories so similar? At first, I was baffled: the differences between the stories were so clear to me; subtle, perhaps, but clear. But as I’ve started to read and assign stories from international writers, some in translation, I’ve come to understand that my students were more perceptive than I. This is not to dismiss my beloved Canadian stories. But I see, now, that there is a world of stories out there that are different and not just in subtle ways, but in juicy, technically audacious ways: stories that are ugly, ungainly, colourful, lawless, unconventional, impolite, rowdy, hungry. Imperfect. Stories that dare to be disfigured, furiously cryptic, ridiculous, structurally untidy, fascinating, open, broken, big. Stories that can take the criticism, because they’re out there doing the dirty work, and they’ve got more important things to worry about.
The world is waiting to be read.
I can’t pretend to know what Canadian literature stands for, nor what it lacks, nor what it needs. I think we are in troubled waters, troubled times, but I’ve been devoted to CanLit for my whole life, steeped in the stuff, and this is my trouble, too. Times of transition are always troubled times. I believe this. Transition is what gets us somewhere new. Truth and reconciliation: painful. It’s painful to be wrong, but how much more painful is it to be a child of 12 for whom suicide is the answer to their pain, how much more painful to be this child’s family, community. This is our country, right now. This is Canada. And somehow, I think it’s our literature, too. Now is not the time to turn more inward, to hide away, to ignore, not listen, not try. It feels imperative — to try. To pay attention.
I want to write stories like the ones I’ve been reading from around the world, and I can try. I may not be able to, but others will. If I’m a very fortunate teacher, maybe my students will. Meanwhile, I can keep learning, listening and reading.
Hey, happy summer, everyone!
School ended a week ago, and I would like to report on our free-range plan for the summer of 2017, but I keep being interrupted by the free-range children. Kevin has been working from home in his new “office,” on the upper deck of the front porch, but this morning he had to go to his office-office, so it’s just me and the kids and dogs, with no buffer in between. Since sitting down, I’ve fielded the following questions/observations: a) how do you turn the hose off in the back yard? b) where is my swim suit? c) do we have the third book of Amulet? I already looked on the upstairs shelf. d) hey, the NDP is having a leadership race [from the child reading the newspaper at the dining-room table behind me].
Could be worse. And I’m just blogging. If I were trying to write, my response would be ARGHH!!!
In fact, Kevin has been home because I have been trying to write this week, trying to shape my months of handwritten, circling narrative into novel-form, and I’m at the point in the project where, frankly, it all falls apart. My current philosophy (and by current, I mean, as of yesterday afternoon), can be summed up thusly: just finish it, including all of your bad (wild, implausible) ideas, and see what happens. As I counselled a student yesterday in my office: the perfect story you’re holding in your head has to get out of your head in order for others to read and experience it—and in order for that to happen, you have to accept that your perfect story will be wrecked in the process, at least to some degree. You can’t take that perfect story out of your head and place it on the page intact. No one can. But there isn’t another way to be a writer. Let your perfect imaginary story become an imperfect real story.
I’m trying to take my own advice.
Here. I present to you something that brings me joy every time I see it. [insert little arrow pointing up] You could call it a chore board, but that’s a rather pedestrian title given the magic it has created in our house this past week. Every morning, I write down chores that need doing, and the children sign up for them; the later you sleep, the less appealing your chore. Today, the last one out of bed got: “clean upstairs bathroom.” We’ve also banned video games or shows between the hours of 9am – 4pm. (Exception: older kids use their cellphones; I’m not great at monitoring this.) It’s still early days, but the chores are getting done with minimal fuss, perhaps because the assignment comes from the board, not from a nagging parent.
Other summer observations: I’m not waking up very early. This is the natural consequence of staying up too late! In addition to the kids running riot over regular bedtime hours, and soccer practices lasting (unofficially) till sundown, I’ve also been staying up late to watch feminist movies. Must explain. I’ve gotten myself, somewhat unofficially (?), onto the board of a locally run feminist film festival and my inbox is now full of films to view and consider. (Anyone out there with ideas for must-see recent feminist films, give me a shout!) But the only time I have to spare for movie-watching is rather late at night, post-soccer practice. Ergo, not waking up early. Ergo, early morning exercise-rate, somewhat reduced.
Oh, I want to mention one more lovely addition to the routine: a shared journal with my eldest daughter. We write back and forth to each other, or draw back and forth, or quote poetry back and forth. I’ve devised a quick summarizing list that is easy to complete, if we’re writing late at night, when we’re too tired for originality. Filling out the list has become something I look forward to, every day. My answers are sometimes long and rambling, sometimes brief. (Want to try answering the list in the comments, below? I would love that.)
- Something that surprised you today.
- Something you’re proud of today.
- Something silly.
- Something happy.
- Something sad.
- Something you’re thankful for today.
I will return with deeper thoughts (or not) as the free-range summer permits.
1. I am eleven years old and the stadium is enormous. The track is long and hard and black and very hot. I am wearing beat-up runners, the laces dirty, and I am sure that I am amazing. The sky opens around me. I could throw up. The white lines are chalked in. After the gun goes off, we stay in our lanes until we reach a certain mark, and then we funnel in together. The stands hum with kids, teachers, some parents (not mine), and underneath the stands the light filters in stripes and the ground is wet with spilled drinks. When I run I am not afraid, only that I won’t win; I must win. Afterward, under the stands, a teacher congratulates me in a teasing way, and I am offended by his tone. Why should he act surprised? Did he not see my brilliance? The way I ran down the tall girl in grade seven, the way I opened up a lead with 300 metres to go? The way I could not, thereafter, be caught.
2. It is going to rain. I park my bike and lock it. The underside of the stands is a sticky zone of concrete splashed with soda and dripping popsicles, spilled popcorn, children in pinnies darting, and I am too late. Rushing up from underneath and out into the seats, I see her bright yellow shirt at the finish line. The race just over. I did not see her run! I can’t stop telling people, even though it disappoints them unnecessarily, how I missed the moment. The moment was there and is gone.
3. She is sturdy and wonderful and fleet and strong. She runs so hard she will throw up, crawling off to the edge of the track, afterward. She has run faster than the girls a year old, faster than every girl on the track, and with an ease and power that I am certain I could never match, nor never did match. When she stops running, two years from now, what will I do? She waits in full sunlight beside the stands while I take her picture, her eyes squinting. “Wait,” I say. “Let me take another!” But she is impatient. She doesn’t care about pictures. She is unpinned in time.
4. Last year, in grade six, I was the fastest girl in the school. I won two red ribbons racing the 800 metres (harder for me) and the 1500 metres (I could have run forever, it felt like). What has changed? The stadium is the same, the same spilled drinks under the stands, the same open sky as I step out from under the stands and into the heart of this place–grass field and oval track, little black stones, white chalk lines. I will lose the pace in the 800 metres; I won’t even attempt the 1500 metres; and in my new speciality, the hurdles, I will hit several. I won’t fall, but I won’t win. Everything is the same except for me. I shouldn’t have cut my long, long hair. I shouldn’t have gotten older. I don’t know myself at all. My capacity for suffering is diminished and I will never again win a red ribbon at a track meet.
5. There is no last track meet. There will always be more. The light will always slant through the stadium seating, the canteen will always serve popcorn and icy sugar drinks, the teachers will always tell you where to stand and remain surprised at who you are and what you can do; or surprisingly disinterested, just as irritating. There will always be safety pins to attach the coloured ribbons to your shirt, fluttering, proof of your achievements. You will always feel sick before your race. You will fight the feeling that you can’t bear to lose. You will have to live with it, live with the possibility of losing. You will sublimate your competitiveness, you will try to bury it. You will become a nice person. You will miss the uncomplicated, greedy, gritty child whose cells you have shed, entirely.
I’m trying to write the draft of a new novel, but I’ll be honest with you—I feel no urgency to finish it. What I feel instead is a desire to keep it hidden away, like a secret treehouse where I can go to play and think, and where I feel safe. If I do finish it, it feels like that secret treehouse will vanish. Writing a novel requires time and solitude and there aren’t many moments available to sit and write, due to other things going on in my life; there aren’t many moments when my mind can rest, when I can trust that there won’t be an interruption. So I’m mostly writing at my office on campus, on days when I teach. I write by hand. I don’t seem to care whether the pieces match up, from day to day. I keep finding bits of the story written in random notebooks, forgotten. Who knows what these add up to? The story is a cocoon.
Just because I’ve published books, doesn’t mean publishing more is in my future.*
I’m strangely at peace with this. It is easy not to publish, after all. What would be impossible would be never to write again. I think that I will always write; whether that makes me a writer isn’t my business to decide. Right now, I am someone who tries to teach others how to write. It seems like a way to respond to the insularity and parochialism of Canadian literature—to nurture new voices, to make room for new stories.
The words from an Ann Patchett essay jump into my mind: “People like to ask me whether writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say.”
This seems to get at the essence of something that matters to me. I don’t want to publish unless I have something to say. Maybe it takes years to gather up something worth saying. Maybe it just does. Life has to be lived, experiences accrue, layer upon layer, and with time these turn into compost. A richness is turned over to feed new growth. I’m at a point in my writing life when I’ve got the skills I need. I know how to write a sentence, how to write dialogue, even how to construct a plot. Now I wait to see whether I have something to say; something worth sharing.
I am trying to memorize a poem, but it’s slow going. My mind can’t seem to hold the sequence of these words and images, maybe because my post-concussion brain is not the powerful instrument it once was (this is something I worry about, even though I tell myself not to worry). I would like to embed this poem into my being. Once you’ve memorized a poem, it becomes a part of you, it enters your cells. Lines of poetry flow from me at odd moments of the day, like mantras.
Part One, Sonnet IV
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your forehead
as it divides and rejoins behind you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
For heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.
-Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy (with one small word change by me, because I didn’t like the original)
Whoa—I didn’t think I’d memorized it, but without referring to the text, I typed it out here, from beginning to end. I will check it over now to make sure everything is accurate, especially the line breaks and punctuation.
Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul, / and sings the tune without the words, / and never stops at all. -Emily Dickinson (I haven’t memorized all of this poem … but these are the words that popped into my head as I realized that I’d memorized Rilke, above.)
Hope is the thing with feathers. Hope is the thing with feathers.
This is not a bad time, or a sad time, I want to be clear—being at peace, escaping to my cocoon of fiction. I trust that if and when the season changes, I will recognize it. For now, I give myself to the air, to what I cannot hold.
*My kids’ picture book, Jammie Day, comes out this fall; but publishing a children’s book is not the same as publishing an adult book, for many reasons, which I won’t detail here; a discussion for another time.
Poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
On the weekend, I walked to the library with my elder daughter. While she browsed in the non-fiction stacks — the theoretical physics section — I played a little game that has served me well over the years: I wandered a little further (no theoretical physics for me) and plucked titles at random from the shelves, my choices based only on title or subject. In quick succession, I skimmed and rejected two books on Scottish folk and fairy tales, but my third choice had me sitting cross-legged on the floor, entranced.
It was a biography of Rachel Carson, the American scientist who became famous for her books about the sea and the beauty of the natural world, and who is remembered now as the author of Silent Spring, a book that warned the public about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Silent Spring was published in 1962; Rachel Carson died in 1964 of cancer. If you google Rachel Carson, you will find that to this day she is reviled in some circles as a “feminizi ecoterrorist.” The biography, Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear, and published in 1997, is a little more nuanced. It evokes a portrait of a self-effacing, deeply intelligent, patient, hard-working woman who was led by her love of nature and science to become outspoken on conservation issues. Rachel Carson began her career as a government biologist, writing educational pamphlets on a variety of subjects. But she’d always wanted to be a writer. Science became her subject. And with enormous effort and obsessive care, Rachel Carson fashioned a successful literary career; eventually, she became successful enough that she could afford to resign from her government post, in her mid-40s, to devote her life to writing about science in poetical narratives that appealed to a broad audience.
It goes without saying that Rachel Carson was an unusual woman for her era. What strikes me most, however, is how fresh and relevant her message remains today.
Even though the book was an enormous tome, I decided to check it out and carry it home, and I spent the weekend reading it with pleasure. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy biographies, especially of writers. I look for clues, I nod in recognition, or admit to envy for those who have a knack for self-promotion. Rachel Carson’s attention to detail, her push for publicity, her irritation with her first publisher, who failed to promote her first book — all of this impressed me. She had a vision for the entire publishing process and she saw it through, little deterred by criticism, yet open to critique, actively seeking it out, so as to better her own work. She also frequently turned down promotional opportunities, speeches, honorary degrees, etc., to preserve time and space for her research and writing. She knew how to say no. (Is it too late for me to learn?)
Rachel Carson lived with her mother, who kept house for her; she was the main breadwinner for her family, which included at times her older sister and brother, mother and father, and later, her orphaned nieces. She did not marry, had no children. Our lives, in their domestic details, do not much meet and overlap.
But reading about her life has got me thinking about the importance of devotion to a subject; no, the critical imperative of devoting attention to a subject, if one is to hope to learn, to understand, to teach, to share knowledge, to find solutions to human problems large and small. Our lives on earth depend upon it. We cannot be lead by those who would ignore deep, complex knowledge in favour of simplistic superficial fixes. We cannot give power to ignorance. (Too late? Well, then let’s stand true against powerful ignorance.)
Here is Rachel Carson on her belief in the universal accessibility of science:
“We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”
Here is Rachel Carson on the human tendency to focus on egocentric problems, and to fail to see our place in the vast sweep of time:
“Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.”
And here is Rachel Carson on the danger of seeing humankind as separate from nature:
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
Her solution? Wonder and humility.
“Focus attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us everyday.”
Recognize your place in the grand sweep of time. Know yourself to be part of the natural world. Wonder at your participation in the cyclical turnings. In this way, by becoming very small, by being a piece of something much larger than yourself, you will be of the world around you, not against it. I am fascinated by her repetition of the word “destruction” — her insistence that the human belief that we are above nature, not of nature, springs from a dangerously destructive impulse, that it invents and experiments with destruction.
I love when a book finds me.