Category: Writing

Memoir Research

I’ve been reading memoirs.

First, I re-read an old favourite: James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, which is not, strictly speaking, a memoir, but a fictionalized account of the author’s experiences as a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales before World War Two. I’ve loved Herriot’s books since childhood; they’re funny, poignant, a bit sentimental, and the writing is what I’d call hard-working. It does the job. Sometimes that’s really all that’s required, and anything more would seem out of place.
Next, I read The Way of a Boy, by Ernest Hillen, a memoir about the three years he spent as a child in a Japanese work camp in Dutch Indonesia, during World War Two. This is an entirely and remarkably unsentimental memoir; it seems like the author re-entered his boy self in order to tell this very pure and moving story. Inherent in his telling is complete trust in the reader. I liked this book a great deal. There were many loose threads, as the boy and his brother and mother were moved from camp to camp, losing contact along the way with many of the characters, and there was no attempt to tie up these threads; true to life. The portrayal of the author’s mother was humbling: she was unselfish, stoical, expressed and seemed to feel no pity for herself and their situation. She was also strong, brave, loving, and most impressively, eschewed martyrdom–rather than giving her share of food to her children, as other mothers did, she unapologetically ate it in order to stay strong for her family; she stayed up late reading, if books and light were available; and on occasion, she swore like a sailor. Ernest Hillen came to Canada after his family was released from the camps (he was then about ten or eleven), and grew up to work as an editor. According to the foreword, by Charlotte Gray, he never spoke of his experiences in the camps or even thought much about them until he began work on the memoir, some forty years later. Remarkable is the detail he was able to bring to the surface.
Finally, I’m thoroughly enjoying another memoir recommended to me by a friend: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, written by Alexandra Fuller, who grew up in Africa as the daughter of white African farmers. This story is skillfully told within a non-linear frame, and is so far extremely entertaining. The character of the mother is (again) drawn with particular brilliance (what is it about us mothers??), though in this case much less flatteringly.
All of this is “research.” Pleasant, easy research, I must add. Next week marks the return to some regular writing hours. My sense is that I’m going to dive into my own attempt at memoir; with a couple of caveats. Should the work seem like a slog, should it not come naturally, I’m not going to push it. And I really only have to write a chapter or two and an outline before running it by my agent, who will take it further, if that seems the right direction.
Those stories, on the same subject, still feel very present and vital. There may even be more of them yet to write.
An acquaintance who reads this blog emailed to remind me of the value of fiction (that wasn’t necessarily what she was trying to do, but that’s where I went with her thoughts): that as human beings we need–we long for–the purpose and order created by the artistic act of reimagining the human experience. Fiction isn’t made-up life, it’s life re-made.
What’s memoir? I’m not sure I know. But at this point, it feels possible to frame this story I’d like to tell in two vastly different ways. I’m going to try, anyway.
:::
For those of you interested in reading a couple of the aforementioned stories, I will let you know when they become available in the fall edition of The New Quarterly.

What Is That, Mommy? That’s Art.

Here’s an article I stumbled across online that offers a tiny window into the wastelands of CanLit obscurity. It rang rather horribly true. I’ve spent this summer deliberately not writing. Not writing poetry, not writing stories, not writing anything except the occasional blurb-like blog entry. Instead, I’ve been going, doing, cooking, eating, drinking, biking, talking, dozing, rising, reading. At first, I thought I’d go crazy without an outlet for my imagination; oddly, it’s been the opposite, which is frightening me ever so slightly as I prepare to return to a more regular writing life, afforded by children returning to school, and regular babysitting hours funded by dwindling grant monies.

My heart is querying: why? And I’m querying: heart, can you bear to return to that sheaf of rejected poems? Can you bear to begin again another new project? Can you bear to travel to those dark and lonely places?

It’s occurred to me that were I to remove the ambition of being a writer from my psyche, mine would be a full and fulfilling life. With that hole of doubt and hope plastered over, life looks simple–not simplistic. A clean wall on which to hang new photographs, less mirrors.

This post isn’t a question. It’s the hum of an observation.

But here’s a question: what if the gifts I’ve interpreted as belonging to “writer,” actually belong to some other vocation?
I know I’m good at: expressing emotions, witnessing moments, sitting quietly, focussing deeply, finding humour, sharing beauty in imagery and language, listening, reflection, taking responsibility, organizing, planning, assessing situations and staying flexible.

I know sometimes I’m: too introspective, overly analytical, reticent, impatient. Sometimes my expectations (for myself and for others) are way too high. I eat cheese almost every night before bed. My favourite dream hasn’t change since childhood, and it involves riding a wild horse.

Enough with the sequitors and non-. I will leave this post as … to be continued. Ain’t life interesting?

It’s Been a Year

Up early to prepare for another round of daily swim lessons, our last of the summer. This time, CJ and I will be in the water, too, which complicates matters. My planning brain has been working overtime to calculate what combination of changerooms, snacks, and locks will precipitate maximum smoothness of transitions, but the success of the venture really comes down to patience and flexibility–mine. Today’s weather is calling for morning thundershowers. And we have no vehicle at our disposal. This is your mission, should you choose to accept.

(I do).
Everyone’s still sleeping. Our schedule has gotten later and later on both ends of the day. I find myself looking forward to more routine, less lazing about. It’s a fine line.
I like getting up early when it’s quiet. Maybe I should rethink my office set-up (currently in CJ’s bedroom), so I could use my work computer in the early morning.
Thinking outloud.
Here’s what I wanted to get down on paper (virtually): CJ walked down the back porch steps yesterday. I nearly screamed, discovering him mid-stride. No holding onto the railing or anything. If I want to go there, I can make myself feel downright woozy imagining him doing this without me present and able to catch him should he stumble. Because even though he can, it doesn’t mean he can with consistency. Yikes. The risks these babies take as they grow and develop, and us with them.
It’s been a year since I started this blog, and it’s with gratitude that I note this. How thankful I am to have this scrapbook of our daily lives. But here are two unexpected gifts it’s given me: better photo-taking skills, and more bravery in talking about my writing life, warts and all.
Thanks to everyone who’s read along.

A Week in the (Writing) Life

This has been a peculiar week for Obscure CanLit Mama. I refer to myself in the third person because the literary facet of my life usually feels exactly that compartmentalized, like it belongs to another person. I wonder whether this is healthy; perhaps it is even self-defeating. Would I pursue my chosen career more aggressively if “writer” were more integrated into my identity? As I type that previous sentence, a broad smile breaks across my face; the words chosen and career look affected, and pursue and aggressively are downright fraudulent, not within my character, not in that way. If a writer is someone who writes, then I am she. It’s the extra elements, the bruising elements of being a working writer that I cannot seem to cope with, that I’m downright allergic to. (Sentences ending with prepositions, gah; there’s subtext in that there grammar, ladies and gents.)

Here’s what I like about writing and publishing: the relationships that are formed, the shelter of finding mentors who appreciate and care deeply about the words set on the page, who shine a light between the cracks. Here’s what I dislike about writing and publishing: seeking out those relationships. The fear of rejection is ever-present. There is such sadness when a relationship fails or is lost. I wish my carapace were tougher or my confidence overwhelming; or, perhaps, I don’t wish that at all, because how could I write with passion and vulnerability if either of those things were true?

I’ve been thinking about the word “gift.” It seems true that we are born with–are given–unique gifts; what we do with these is our choice. Translating experience into words on the page comes naturally to me; I’m introspective, and an observer; I love language and a story well-told. But there’s another element to the gift: it’s given to us, not chosen by us. Ever received a gift that you didn’t quite know how to appreciate? Ever received a gift, smiled with strain, and wondered, now what the heck am I supposed to do with this? At the end of all my days–and at the end of every day–I want to know that I’ve done all that I could possibly do, that I’ve acted in this world for good, that my life has intersected with the lives of others in positive ways. And I remain unconvinced that writing is the way to do this. (She says, while writing). Because writing requires solititude and interior concentration, because it takes one out of the world rather than into it, and because the end-point of creativity is an artistic product that has no absolute value, and that may indeed remain largely unappreciated, it can seem, as a way to live a life, well, self-indulgent.

Not unlike this post.

Which is, promise, coming around to that window into an Obscure CanLit life.

This week, I had the lovely and surreal experience of having my photograph taken by an artist who will be painting my portrait. He was commissioned for the project by The New Quarterly, which will publish the portrait, along with a reflection on what it means to be a subject, as part of a series that includes other Canadian writers like Russell Smith, Diane Schoemperlen, and Sharon English. I dressed up in a swingy summery dress and posed in our backyard, feeling possessed of an unexpected confidence, and not-unexpected humour; if you can believe it, several large trees were being chopped down on our property and thrown into a viciously loud chipper while this was going on. What a funny life. Children racing about, Kevin home to help, men with spiked boots wielding chainsaws, the aroma of freshly baked banana bread, a shouted conversation in our living-room … and myself, posing for a portrait as a writer. Come to think of it, it didn’t feel that far-fetched, as if I were dressing up in someone else’s identity, it felt just exactly like my life.

So perhaps all of this anxiety and doubt is emerging from the other, and disappointing, literary occurrence of the week: a rejection letter on a manuscript of poetry. How heartbreaking to discover the fat package in the mailbox, and to read the kind and thoughtful letter from the editor, saying that this might have been an acceptance letter in a different year, that she believed several of the poems were “truly brilliant,” and that the collection was strong. But.

It’s such a familiar heartbreak: the hope for a new relationship, not to be. And the hope for those words, too, to find a home.

I stuck the manuscript into the kids’ scrap paper pile. It made me feel somewhat better this morning when they noticed the new paper, and wondered if it came from one of my books (yes, I frequently recycle drafts in this way; sorry, imaginary future archivists). The kids didn’t see it as failure. They read some of the words with interest, then turned the pages over to colour on the blank backs. I look forward to coming across these scraps in the weeks to come–the transformation of what might have been into something that no longer belongs to me, the odd word or phrase jumping out and grabbing me, a sweet reminder.

Finally, I should add that I still believe in this manuscript of poems, and still have hope of finding it an Obscure CanLit home. Someday. (Maybe writer is more integrated into my identity than I recognize. This post is making me think so–see, I had to write it out in order to discover it.)

Scraping Time

This little fellow is sick. No wonder he was so grumpy around suppertime last night (though he was THIS happy earlier in the day, when he insisted I clip this into his hair). We spent large portions of last night nursing, and just holding him in bed. It’s a reminder of those early infant days, when night-time does not equal sleep-time. He’s napping right now and I’m watching the monitor for rustlings. There he is.
Albus is playing with a transformer, pretending to blow things up. The girls are reading quietly (Apple-Apple is trying out Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, one of my all-time favourites).
I want to thank everyone who expressed support and interest in the Nicaragua writing project. I’ve had encouraging comments, public and private, from a variety of friends, family, and even my former editor.
Uh oh, there he is again (baby, that is). Better run.
Back again. Thinking about time management … that could be my biggest stumbling-block in writing anything (she says, typing one-handed, feverish babe on hip).

All in a Day’s Work

Weekends are chore times, and four busy summery weekends had passed without us being here to do the picking up. The kids’ rooms were particularly disastrous. I made several mid-week attempts, with children helping, to tidy their rooms, without getting much of anywhere. Finally, yesterday, we awoke with the gleeful knowledge that we had nowhere to go and nothing much to do. Can one clean gleefully? If you’re Obscure Canlit Mama, yes, yes, you can. There’s something so satisfying about cleaning when it’s really beyond dirty: moving furniture, organizing, purging (don’t tell the kids). Under the couch in the girls’ room I found: fuzz, fabric, dead bugs, a spider’s web with large unhatched egg, crayons, pencils, hair bands, toy cars, Little People figures, several bouncy balls, a nightgown (!), a bath toy, and that’s just what I can recall. Didn’t take any before pictures, but see above … the rooms: floors cleared, shelves tidied, everything in its place and a place for everything. It took hours. And the kids didn’t help (which was helpful in and of itself; thanks, Kevin).
After supper, we hitched up the new bike stroller–yes, we did! After contacting the manufacturer directly, Kevin discovered that the necessary parts were living in our basement (we’d had them all along). So we went for a family ride, all the way to TCBY for frozen yogurt, and then a bit further, too. After jogging with the stroller these many weeks, biking with the stroller didn’t even feel like real exercise. Which was pretty nice.
:: :: ::
Obscure Canlit Mama has news. It’s kind of good news/bad news, except I can’t separate the two. My agent called on Friday afternoon. To set the stage, we’d just gotten home from Nina’s buying club, CJ was pounding on a wok with a barbeque tong he’d dragged out of a bottom drawer, and I was preparing a baked mac-and-cheese for the kids’ supper so that Kevin and I could go out to celebrate our anniversary, so my hands were kept busy during the conversation. My agent hates to give bad news (who doesn’t?). Listen, there’s bad news and then there’s bad news. Along that spectrum, this was disappointing but not unexpected. She doesn’t think the stories will sell (to a publisher). She’s read the earlier novel version, and feels the stories leave too much out, all sorts of research and context; besides, she says, it’s grim out there and publishers aren’t buying novels these days let alone a difficult-to-sell, almost-certainly money-losing dreaded short story collection. But. She said, Let me just toss an idea out there … have you considered writing this material as a memoir?
Um. No.
She said she’d give me a few weeks to mull it over, and call back.
So, let me ask you: if you could choose, would you rather read a short story collection or, hmmm, let’s call it “creative non-fiction,” set in Nicaragua in the early 1980s, during the contra war, told from the perspective of an American child living in Managua, whose parents are peaceworkers? In other words, would you rather read what could have happened, or what really did? Be honest.
Here is the other thing my agent said (to paraphrase): You are meant to be writing, this is what you’re supposed to do.
It’s a tough thing for me to believe, sometimes. I know the work that will be involved, maybe. But I also know I could write what she’s suggesting. I could do it. And it wouldn’t have to mean giving up on the collection of stories, because the two would be quite different beasts.
The real problem is that contemplating taking on this project would be like moving that couch. What awaits beneath? Do I really want to know? And the things I’d choose to purge or to arrange on the shelf: are they even mine, or do they belong to too many other people, too?
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