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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reading like a writer 3


Sunday afternoon, I attended a RSO chamber concert at Government house which began with a wonderful piece for flute, cello, and piano called "Cothurnus" by Canadian composer Alice Ho.  Simon Fryer, who frequently offers insight into the music, told us that "cothurnus" refers to the shoes worn by Greek Tragedians, and compared the emotional points of a drama to the structure of Ho's music.  "It doesn't so much develop as unfold," he told us, and indeed, I experienced the music as a kind of an emotional/psychological soundscape, a series of moods or reactions that unfolded.

But Fryer's words rattled around in my brain at around 4 a.m. Monday morning when, unable to sleep, I finished reading Colm Toibin's Nora Webster, which I began as soon as I finished Murakami's Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  The novels have much in common:  both begin, at least chronologically, with a trauma.  Tsukuru is shunned by his close adolescent friends while Nora has to see her husband through an incredibly painful death and then take over raising her four children alone.  (The book takes place in Ireland in the Sixties, when pain medication was withheld, even from a terminal patient, so that he or she wouldn't get addicted.  Fortunately, we know better now.)  Yet I can't help feeling that Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki develops while Nora Webster unfolds.  I may be splitting hairs, and if you have any insight, please help me out here.  Because I'm trying to figure out something about "plotting":  how sometimes a writer's creative vision requires a very purposeful structure, while other creative projects have more space in which to unfold. 

Maybe it would help to consider "development" vs. "unfolding" in musical terms first.  All art, Aristotle tells us, strives for unity.  In the 21st century, this is perhaps arguable, but let's go with it.  A narrative draws unity quite naturally out of a sequence of events that might be shaped by a beginning, middle, and end; or that might simply be related chronologically or causally.  Music, being abstract, has no meaning as narrative, so composers often draw unity out of repetition, or repetition plus variation, or repetition plus contrast.  I remember seeing a film of Leonard Bernstein when I was in high school where Bernstein explains the sonata-allegro form, a basic structure for European and North America symphonies, piano concertos, and chamber music.  Sitting at a grand piano, he sings--well, he kind of sings--a Beatles song.  Eight bars of tune.  Repeat those eight bars of tune.  Insert a contrasting tune and then wind it all up with the initial eight bars, repetition optional.  I think the song was "And I love her," and as I read the lyrics just now and hummed to myself, I thought "yup, that would do it."

Liszt, that bad boy of nineteenth-century music, introduced another way of structuring music that would come to be called "through composed."  Start a tune, take it as far as you can until you get bored or it peters out, and then start something new.  I'm not a Liszt fan, so I'd say that this was like a lot of his other innovations:  more effective in someone else's hands.  Liszt simply unfolds, and  you have to be interested enough to simply wander on with it.

Here's where my possible hair-splitting begins.  It seems to me that the plot of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki develops.  Murakami achieves this a couple of ways.  Sixteen years after his shunning, Tsukuru's current girlfriend wants him to visit the friends who shunned him and to learn what happened.  Tsukuru has constructed a purposeful life for himself as someone who sensitively designs railway and subway stations in Tokyo, attempting to make the traveler's experience as simple and pleasant as possible, even in stations that see thousands of passengers a day.  He's created kluges around his wound, though he still feels that there is clearly something profoundly wrong with him that he himself can't see--a belief that has led him to have a series of rather non-committal relationships so that he's not deeply wounded when they end.  His new girlfriend, Sara, won't settle for this and thinks he needs to meet his past head on.  

This element of the novel is so human:  I doubt there are many of us without such a wound that only hurts sometimes, but that reminds us that we're really deeply flawed and only lucky sometimes that people don't see this.  Also human is the "reflection" that Tsukuru sees in his friends' eyes:  they tell him what he was like for them, how they loved him, how their mothers were his biggest fans because he was always polite and carefully dressed, how he gave them all a kind of ballast.  With each visit to a friend, the reader's knowledge of Tsukuru becomes deeper, along with Tsukuru's vision of himself.  And each visit is a kind of repetition, a kind of revisiting of the past.  

Murakami underlines this impression of return/repetition through motifs and tropes that come back again and again, sometimes developing.  Several times, Tsukuru describes his friends' rejection of him (which was not his fault, as we learn, but I'm not going to spoil the plot); he likens it to being thrown overboard into a dark, cold ocean.  A piece of music played by one of his friends--Liszt's "Le mal du pays" from his "Years of Pilgrimage Suite"--comes back again and again, and each time Tsukuru hears it, he is both taken back to his past but also reminded of his present "groundless sadness."  Besides thinking of himself as a "colorless" member of this group, he also thinks of himself as an empty vessel, telling the first friend he visits "I've always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity.  Maybe that was my role in the group.  To be empty" (179).  But Murakami skillfully shifts our reading of the "empty vessel," so that toward the end of the novel, in the hands, as it were, of a young friend who had loved him deeply and who has become a potter, the concept of "empty vessel" changes significantly.  Repetition plus variation and contrast:  this novel develops.

Whereas Nora Webster, an equally compelling read, seems to unfold.  Nora's task is to find her way beyond her grief and to face a series of practical difficulties, such as the fact that she hadn't held a job in years.  Although memories of her husband's death come back constantly, her basic narrative task is to move beyond them.  Whereas Murakami's novel feels so carefully built (I only hinted at the many tropes and motifs that come back again and again)--appropriate for a novel about a character whose name means "maker,"--Toibin's skill is to depict Nora's growth through the absolutely everyday, often accidental events or through the pressing decisions she must make about her children..  The time she tells the office manager to get off her back.  The evening when she visits friends she's made in a musical club to listen to records.  Redecorating the back room and the front room, and painting a ceiling.  Figuring out how to help her oldest boy adjust to public school, to keep his long-term good in mind while finding a way to make the immediate disorientation bearable.  She's making it up as she goes along.  Here, perhaps, that powerful human project is grieving.  Toibin and Nora suggest it isn't really a series of purposeful, nameable stages, but that it's putting one foot in front of another until you look back and find that much has changed, though not your love or longing for the person who is gone.  And just as this project simply unfolds--you could take any number of routes through a life swamped by grief--so does the novel.  Each chapter feels absolutely casual, as if it's simply a "slice" of Nora's life; yet each chapter is a purposeful record of the everyday process of grieving and living.

"Ah," you are thinking about now, "she's still reading aesthetics."  Well, not at this moment, though I'm hoping that tomorrow I finish my chapter on Mrs Dalloway.  But what I admire about these two novels is that they are so quiet, like most of our lives.  The don't have that classic opening that I might describe as "Something Terrible Has Happened:  Whaddaya Gonna Do?"  At the same time, their structures are perfect for the human projects each novel envisions for the eponymous character.

And here is where I come round to Mrs Dalloway.  What good is the use of such beautiful structures?  Does the ordinary reader--the reader who simply reads out of a love of reading, not the reader who also loves reading but who is trying to learn how to write--notice these structures on a conscious level?  On a subliminal level?  Does this reader simply sense the rightness of the shape, of the language, of the rhythm of each sentence?  Does the author earn her or his sense of authority in the reader's eyes by creating something that's shapely, integral, appropriate to the task?


I have the sense that when we respond to the shaping, the making of a novel, we are simply aware of its rightness, its beauty.  "Wow!  That chapter was all about redecorating and painting ceilings.  But painting a ceiling put Nora in a lot of pain, and her doctor kind of went overboard with the pain medication, so Nora's sisters and aunt came in to help, and she overheard them talking about her and told them so--which healed a lot of rifts.  Beautiful!"  And I suspect that our sense of the novel's beauty--a beauty that goes beyond the people and events the novel describes and the wisdom and compassion the author brings to their treatment--stays with us like a beautiful moment in our own lives.

Monday, February 16, 2015

All that art can do: images of home and of the other

I've been reading aesthetics again.  I know, I know, it's a bad habit.  But I'm working on the Woolf book, on what I call an "interlude" that looks at how the poetics of the novel were thought about between the writing of Jacob's Room and Mrs Dalloway.  As Virginia Woolf and Percy Lubbock were locked in a battle about how the novel worked, they found themselves faced with two difficulties.  First, until Henry James wrote "The Art of Fiction" in 1884, not much thought had been given to the very notion that the novel had various ways of working.  A novel was...a novel.  Second, when you are suddenly made self-conscious about something (your own identity, for example), it is challenging to find language for something you've never seen or thought of before as having qualities that aren't obvious.  I wanted to give my readers--all of whom will be even more self-conscious about the novel than Woolf was, having lived through the postmodern crisis of literature--a sense of what this lack of words was like.  

So I turned to Roger Fry, the painter and art historian who was also a mentor to Woolf.  Fortunately, J.B. Bullen has put together a selection of materials written by Fry and other artists and critics during the period between the first and second Post-Impressionist exhibitions Fry organized at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 and 1912.  These two exhibitions were a watershed for British art and shocked Britons because the art Fry hung with such enthusiasm and glee didn't try to replicate the world as exactly as the painter's craft would allow it to do.  In England, until this exhibition, the quality of a painting was determined by the artist's skill at representation.  What, then, were they to make of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky?  In about eight essays written for magazines over these three years, Roger Fry struggled to find the words that will describe what he loves and admires about the work of the continental Modernist painters.

Thinking about Woolf's struggle to understand "the art of the novel," and Fry's enthusiasm for Post-Impressionism and abstraction lead me to think about all the things art can do, and all the things we hope and expect that art will do.  On the back of one of those cards you find in Walrus urging you to subscribe (which I already do), I made a partial list, at the top of which was "moves us to joy or tears."  If art does nothing else, its capacity to draw a connection between the human experience and powerful feeling, so that our own emotions get little dress rehearsals or wake-up calls from time to time, is justification enough for its existence.  Next on my list was "it surprises us."  It keeps hopeful playfulness alive in the world; its inventiveness is a corollary for every kind of innovation and creation--the very habits of mind we need for solving practical and social problems   Then "world/critique."  Art offers us a critique of the world as it is, or offers us a perspective on our world seen from elsewhere.  It offers us utopias and dystopias.  It offers us choice; it makes promises; it foresees disasters.

But then, because I had recently been to the Wilf Perreault exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, I'd thought about how art reflects on home, how it bring home into focus, how it might give us a surprising, unexpected view of home, helping us to see again what we take for granted.  Such art is sometimes simply a prompt to engage with the visual world that surrounds us daily and that we take for granted.  As it happens, I went to this exhibition three times, each time with someone different.  This was not simply because Perreault's work is realistic and comforting, which it is, though I'm equally at home in Mark Rothko's abstraction.  I think my motive was almost anthropological:  what did Bill, Katherine, and Veronica think of the work?  Would the conversations around me change, or would they be much the same as they were the last time?

During my three visits, however, I took part in variations on the same two-part conversation--one which I took part in with  my companion and also overheard taking place all over the rooms.  First, there's the response to Perreault's painstaking technique, his affection for everything he finds in his beloved back lanes, from an empty potato chip package to a dandelion, from trees just changing colour to the complex reflections in the puddles.  His love of the community and city where he lives is translated into a technique that expresses his sense of wonder and evokes it in us.  The second part of the conversation involved people's attempts to figure out where the paintings are "taken" from, to identify the neighbourhood, the lane, the upstairs window that provides the perspective.  (In many of these, the Cathedral helps to orient you.)  Veronica, rather in love with her iPhone and with Google Maps and Google Earth, managed to help us to locate the vantage point of a couple of paintings that I had thought that were compilations.  But she was not the only one who tried to guess the street or the lane.  It's clear that we take delight in seeing ourselves, our communities, our very own land- or city-scapes on gallery walls.  Besides urging us to look more closely, the painter's attention to the details of our very own worlds--and seeing them on gallery walls--gives our lives a kind of dignity.

Not every artist or work of art does everything we need art to do.  That's part of the mystery and the wonder of art--that we can recognize that vastly different things  nevertheless share something integral.  So my sense that art (as a practice, not as individual works) fails us if it only functions as a kind of appreciative, focusing mirror should not be taken as a criticism of Perreault.  Rather, it comes out of reading the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who argues so convincingly that one of our human tasks--our ethical tasks, though he will not use that word--is to understand "the other."  Levinas's definition of the other does not emphasize the viewer's unfamiliarity with another individual's ethnicity or history.  As a phenomenologist, he begins with his own experience being in a concentration camp during World War II, and concludes that there were two ways of being, two choices people could make:  for totality or transcendence.  The war taught him too well what totality was like:  during times of war each individual is part of the State's war effort, and little more:  a cog in a wheel, a means to an end.  I think we can see some element of totality in our commitment of consumerism or even our electronic devices:  we are part of someone else's plan for our life.  We also create totality in those moments when we see other people in our world primarily as means to an end, not as individuals whom we need to understand on their own terms.

For Levinas, the other is not someone of a different gender or ethnicity, but simply someone whose gesture or facial expression or words of greeting attempt to open a conversation about what we value and how we live.  Our curiosity about the other, our attempts to keep the conversation going, to hear the other's words move us toward transcendence.  Quite simply, the experience makes our world larger, richer, more complex.  

Some art effects this for us, or provides a dress rehearsal for moments when we have the chance to partake in such a conversation.  On Friday, I was in Saskatoon for the Saskatchewan Book Awards Shortlist Announcement, and had a wonderful chance to talk with writers and publishers about their experiences writing and publishing.  But before I left town, I stopped in at McNally Robinson and bought Haruki Murakami's new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  I finished it this afternoon and promise that I will write about it more fully once I have re-read it.  In some ways, Murakami provides the conventional experience of the other.  Tsukuru is Japanese, male, an engineer who designs train stations.  Yet in some ways, he is very much like each one of us, insofar as he comes to recognize that his life is a pilgrimage, a process of wandering, being lost, discovering, finding once again what is important.  What is different is how he negotiates the challenges of his own particular life, and what his challenges tell me about my own.  I suppose that I'm saying that as I read this novel I was having a Levinasian conversation with Tsukuru and Murakami, and that my world is made, in some oddly ethical way, more transcendent for the experience.

We ask art to do a lot for us:  prompt us to feel, keep inventiveness and play alive, provide a space of critique, reflect our homes and our lives while giving us access to lives and experiences that are entirely different.  Virginia Woolf believed that readers, viewers, and audiences kept art alive and lively by making demands that somehow became part of the air the alert artist breathed,  making art better.  So it's important for us not to stop expecting art to play a crucial role in our private lives and in the wider culture:  those expectations make a difference.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fiction and Perspective



Walter Besant (1836-1901), British teacher, man of letters, and historian, started it with a little piece called "The Art of the Novel" that he first delivered as a lecture to the Royal Society and then had published by Chatto and Windus in the spring of 1884.  By September,  Henry James, disagreeing with Besant, whose works were as earthy and critical of society as James's were etherial, returned the serve with his own "Art of the Novel." The argument they began would go on for at least another forty years as both writers and readers wondered to what extent the novel needed to be, in James's words, "a representation of life" and to what extent artfulness, or form, compromised the energy and the truthfulness of novels.  The argument basically goes back to Socrates and Aristotle; Socrates argues that works of art were merely representations of shadows while Aristotle “goes to considerable lengths to differentiate the art object from the reality it imitates, and this almost entirely on account of aesthetic design....[I]t is design itself that distinguishes art from life" (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry 1043).  James thought the point of the novel was representation but also felt that a writer who hadn't bothered to find the right form for the story he was going to tell wasn't really a novelist.

In his Prefaces for his novels, James said more that was astute about the novel than I can quote here, but it is easy to say that one of his major contributions to the very idea that the novel was an art and not a kind of creative, glorified journalism and social criticism, is his thoughts about point of view.  Michael Schmidt, in his voluminous (nearly 1200 pages) and chatty The Novel:  A Biography observes that "other novelists have 'intermittently' been aware of [point of view];  but James formulates it by asking 'Who saw this thing I am going to tell about?  By whom do I mean that it shall be reported?  It seems as though such a question must precede any study of the subject chosen, since the subject is conditioned by the answer [to those questions]'" (497).

In the late 1920s, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf take up this conversation about the novel and its art partly in their reviews of one another's work.  But their most sustained argument about the art of the novel can be seen in Forster's well-known Aspects of the Novel and Woolf's less-well-known Phases of Fiction.  You will remember that someone in the recesses of your past taught you about flat and round characters.  Or perhaps they reminded you (particularly if you are a creative writer) that "the queen died and then the king died" is simply a chronology:  if you want a plot, you need to make clear that "the queen died and then the king died of grief."  This all comes from Forster's popular set of Clark Lectures delivered in 1927 at Trinity College Cambridge that would become Aspects of the Novel.  I've always found this a curious and inconsistent book , partly because like other writers in the twenties, Forster is trying to articulate a self-conscious poetics of the novel, even though very little ground work has been laid in the forty years since the quarrel between Besant and James.  What interests me here is that Forster assumes, without questioning his assumption, that the kind of realistic, socially-engaged novels that he wrote and read are the gold standard, and that anything that deviates from that either incorporates too much art or fails to understand the novel's role in its culture and society.

In Phases of Fiction, Woolf comes at the novel from an entirely different direction.  Woolf was more widely read than Forster: in the collection of Forster's letters at Trinity, there's a note in Forster's hand asking  Woolf for help with a list of books to read for Aspects of the Novel.  Curiously, this letter never made its way into the volume of Forster's selected letters.  I can imagine Woolf standing in front of her bookshelves, with a pencil and paper and making the list of novels for Morgan. But I suspect that while she stood there, something else occurred to her:  that she could classify the kinds of novels she found there  and that this might tell us more about the poetics of the novel than the assumption that all novels are, at bottom, the same.  

She makes two important opening claims that few would argue with before she flies off in unpredictable directions.  First, that one of the things that writers and readers share is a desire to create. Second, that we have appetites for fiction that vary from time to time.  I once had an aunt who would take me off my mother's hands for a couple of weeks at a time and who had what I thought was a novel approach to an afternoon snack:  did I want something sweet or salty?  I had no idea that someone understood those funny urges and desires that came on about 3 in the afternoon.  Virginia Woolf is that aunt, except she understands that as our appetites for one kind of fiction become sated, we seek out something quite different for our next book.  Woolf assumes realist fiction is a beginning:  "Of these appetites, perhaps, the simplest is the desire to believe wholly and entirely in something which is fictitious" (Essays V, 41-42).  But once we've had our fill of Trollope or Jane Urquhart, we might have a hankering for a Bronte or Mrs. Radcliffe.  After feasting on emotions for a fortnight, we might want a little comedy--say some over-the-top Dickens.  After Dickens, we might want a little Tolkien or Guy Gavriel Key.  After some satirical Ian McEwan, we long for some poetic Anne Michaels.  I guess the metaphor is of library as eternal buffet:  do you want something sweet, salty, tangy, hot?


The other contribution Woolf makes to our understanding of fiction is that many personal and generic differences are caused by writers' different perspectives:  the bitterness of the satirists, the melancholia of the Brontes, the otherworldliness of Tolkien that is poised on the point of romance and disaster. Perhaps our current taste for so much genre fiction is a result of a more impatient search for the perspective that will speak to our experience and condition.  Woolf was an avid photographer, and so knew firsthand what a difference in framing and perspective could make to a photograph.

As a reader, I've had just such a Woolfian experience in the last couple of weeks.  I finally finished Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle:  A Death in the Family, a work that has been aptly described as an "autobiographical novel," given that it's clearly an autobiography but that Knausgaard remembers details like the time he was seven and closed the car door before having a fight with his father.   As I read Knausgaard, I contemplated the thoughts of a commentator in The Globe and Mail who said he'd learned so much about psychology by reading My Struggle.  Well, yes, I certainly did learn about the psychology of the young Scandinavian male.  Knaussgaard's M.O. is to describe scenes and events in rich detail, and then perhaps to spend as many pages considering what he felt and thought at the time.  One effect of this practice is to query the banality of so much that makes up our lives:  to realize that if we are paying attention, little is really banal or everyday.  

Another effect of the encyclopedically-described scenes and the almost obsessive reflection on them is to give the reader access to another consciousness, a vulnerable, barely-formed consciousness, completely unlike the reader's own.  If I will ever understand what it is like to be an adolescent male in the thick of the inevitable identity crisis, it will be because Knausgaard helped me to do so. Knausgaard is willing to let us be witnesses as a teenager carefully, self-consciously dresses up for a New Year's party he hopes to crash.  He allows us to see the lengths to which this young man will go to save his plastic bags of illegal liquor.  He brings us right to the New Year's fireworks in the town square and lets us stand beside him while one of the most popular girls in school tells him he can't crash her party--in spite of his white shirt, his great haircut, his membership in a rock band, and his clanking bottles of beer.  Reading My Struggle was nearly voyeuristic, and just as compelling as I imagine voyeurism can be.  I read it down in great draughts, like the young Knausgaard's illegal beer.

But Knausgaard's perspective is extraordinarily limited:  it is relentlessly turned inward, and as a result, he is worryingly incurious about the people around him. When he's in his late teens, his dad announces that he and his mother are separating.  'Where will I live?' is his only response.  Not 'why?'  Not even 'how could you fuck up my life like this?'  Just 'where do I put my toothbrush.'  When his father drinks himself to death, locking himself in his mother's house with a broken leg that he won't get medical help for, Knausgaard never wonders why, never tries to understand his father's motives or experience.  It's a pain in the ass to clean the house up after him, but he's immensely relieved when he sees his father's body for the second time.  His father had often been critical almost to the point of abuse. (Almost?  I think he was abusive, but my definition might be different from others', perhaps because my expectations of civility in relationships are quite high.) So when Knausgaard arrives at the recognition that his father is now a thing, like the table he's lying on, the 700-plus page volume can end.    

While I found the My Struggle compelling, I also found it made me claustrophobic, perhaps because I was in a single mind for the whole experience.  This isn't necessary for first-person narrators; they can be curious about others and spend as much time reflecting, say, on relationships as they spend reflecting on their own sense of inadequacy.  They could attempt to read the desires of others with as much care as they give to their own desires.

Still in the Scandinavian woods, I turned to Isak Dinesen's collection Anecdotes of Destiny, immediately reading her incomparable "Babette's Feast" twice.  I finished the story late one night, grinned at the artistry, and then started again at the beginning.  The premise is simple:  a French woman who had been a communard and whose husband and son had been shot on the barricades, needs to get out of the country and is sent by a friend to the home of two women who are the beautiful daughters of a man who began a very ascetic religious sect in Norway.  They take her on as a cook, though since she was the chef of the Cafe Anglaise--the most famous restaurant in Paris--the kind of basic fare that these two women want her to cook is depressing; but they have given her safety, so cook she does.  She manages their lives wonderfully, budgeting so that they have even more food to give to the poor.  But twelve years after she arrives, she wins a lottery of 10,000 francs.  They expect her to leave, but what she really wants to do is to cook the dinner marking the 100th birthday of their father for Martine and Philippa and the other members of the Dean's little community, who have become querulous of late.  

The asceticism of the sect leads them to promise one another that they will taste nothing--not the turtle soup, not the Veuve Cliquot 1860, not the quail.  Yet something mysterious happens:  they become kind to one another, they forget past slights and resentments, they even kindle a few dying embers.  Even the simple plot of the story brings a smile to one's face, as if Babette is a precursor of Clarissa Dalloway, who realizes that it's a gift to bring people together and give them some pleasure.

But two things make this reading ultimately unsatisfying.  First, Dinesen has an entirely different perspective on her characters and knows the inward desires of even the bit players, like a now famous French general who once loved Martine or the opera singer who longed for the love of Philippa.  But she tells us nothing of Babette, except what she does.  Babette is the mystery at the core of the story; we only partially understand her when she tells the sisters at the end that she made the meal as evidence that she is a great artist, and great artists need to make their art.  The second thing is that it is hard to decide on the story's values.  We know those of the sect.  We know the opera singer desires fame and seals his fate when he tells the simple Philippa that she too will be famous when he takes her to France.  (She refuses to leave Norway with him, of course.  Earthly fame is not what she seeks.)  We know that the general as a young man desires the goodness and simplicity of Martine, but when he cannot have it, marries a woman who is a member of the French Court, has great success as a soldier, but is finally unhappy.  Dinesen sets up binaries:  earthly/heavenly, now/later; military and social/spiritual.  But we need to be astute readers to discern how well these values have worked for the individuals.  Moreover, we need to realize that the art of Babette's cooking finally erases the distinction between the bodily and the spiritual. We are given numerous perspectives and are encouraged to see how they work within the world of the story.

I can't say whether My Struggle or "Babette's Feast" is better:  their engagements with the world and with the reader are profoundly, incomparably different.  But Woolf's concern for perspective gives me a way of thinking about what I value and what makes me a little crazy.  And who knows, after another hundred pages of Dinesen's almost oracular voice, I may need something very down to earth, like Michael Crummey's Sweetland

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The truth in life writing


I can't honestly contribute to the world-wide conversation we are having about the murder of the journalists, artists, and editors at Charlie Hebdo or say anything that hasn't already been said by the millions who marched in defense of free speech.  Except to say that the societies that are culturally rich, societies that create policies that seek inclusion and that strive to recognize the rights and gifts of everyone are societies where meaningful conversations are encouraged and allowed.  Only when we can say everything to one another, only when we can question everything, only when we feel that the wildest idea might have some merit, only where critique of the status quo is not silenced, can such societies grow and thrive.  Such conversations exempt only hate speech, because hate speech is not part of a conversation but an edict, an absolute position that the holder has no intention of examining or changing.

Beyond those words which might come from anyone defending free speech, I can only add something to one of the quieter corners of our human right to say what we need to say:  that when life writers make it their task to be as honest as they can be about the way their lives intersect with the world and ideas they are exploring, the reader becomes more human. This fall, I read three books of partly autobiographical essays with student and friend, Sonia Stanger:  Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl, Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams, and Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby.  In the new year, I downloaded Karl Ove Knausgaard's idiosyncratic and popular My Struggle:  A Death in the Family to my iPad, finding myself as completely engaged as the other million readers seem to have been.  Knausgaard gives me a place to begin my thoughts about the effects of honesty in life writing.  In his early pages, he talks about deciding not to drink because when he does, he gives away too much of himself.  "I do not want anyone to get close to me, I do not want anyone to see me, and this is the way things have developed:  no one gets close and no one sees me.  This is what must have engraved itself in my face, this is what must have made it so stiff and mask-like and almost impossible to associate with myself whenever I happen to catch a glimpse of it in a shop window." 

Without any explanation, Knausgaard suddenly shifts to a description of a late Rembrandt self-portrait:  "All the facial detail is visible; all the traces life has left there are to be seen.  The face is furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time.  But the eyes are bright and, if not young, they somehow transcend the time that otherwise marks the face.  It is as though someone else is looking at us, from somewhere inside the face, where everything is different.  One can hardly be closer to another human soul."  Several things make this self-portrait different for Knausgaard:  one is that it was painted the year Rembrandt died.  But the other is that Rembrandt creates what I will call "another economy" in the Western philosophical penchant for privileging sight among all our senses, and for making the ability to see a source of power.  Knausgaard writes  "The difference between this painting and the others the late Rembrandt painted is the difference between seeing and being seen.  That is, in this picture he sees himself while also being seen."  Rembrandt occupies two positions in this painting.  As the painter, he has the power to see himself and the craftsmanship to represent what he sees.  But he is also making himself vulnerable, an object of the viewer's gaze, complete with a face that is "furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time."

The suddenness with which Knausgaard introduces this image tells me that Rembrandt's self-portrait is, in a way, the model for his autobiographical undertaking.  Unlike the social Knausgaard who has stopped drinking to keep people from knowing him more fully, the autobiographer Knausgaard, the writer who is driven to undertake a project that will produce 6 sizable volumes, is driven to be seen.  And see him we do.  He tells us about discovering that when his "dick" is erect, it is crooked and ugly:  he will never achieve the adolescent boy's goal in life:  to have sex as soon and as often as possible.  We learn about his dream to be a rock musician, which is the icon for the way he actually sees himself, which would represent his true self to the world; but at the same time, we are privy to his relentless practicing that produces nothing but mechanical sounds.  Clearly, his brain does not "speak music."  We follow his ambivalent desire to hang out with popular cliques, even while he mocks their popularity and refuses to conform in ways that could make him equally popular.  The effect of Knausgaard's willingness to be so honest and so vulnerable is twofold.  The honesty and vividness with which he writes tends, I suspect, to provoke the reader's memories of similar fears, attitudes, and embarrassments.  And once we have done that, almost sharing them with the Knausgaard that inhabits the page, we are more human.  We are a witness to his struggle, not a judging witness, but one that finds our own failures and weaknesses mirrored within the world he creates.

I know that Lena Dunham's Not that Kind of Girl (we're going from the sublime to the ridiculous here) has been ridiculed for being full of TMI.  The scare quotes around the word "learned" in the subtitle certainly bode ill.  And I seriously wanted to sit down and have a conversation with her about her pride in her inability to cope or function without melting down. I also wanted to suggest that if she was going to give the reader too much information, she could at least give us some analysis of that information, which she is clearly capable of.  (This is how Knausgaard's equally honest description of his teenage years differs from Dunham's:  it comes with implicit, if not explicit examination and analysis.)  I don't really need her diet plans.  But I imagine that her examination of a drugged night that ended in unprotected sex that was "terribly aggressive" resonates (with variations) with many women:  "I feel like there are fifty ways it's my fault.  I fantasized.  I took the big pill and the small pill, stuffed myself with substances to make being out in the world with people my own age a bit easier.  To lessen the space between me and everyone else.  I was hungry to be seen.  But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way.  I never gave him permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us.  I never gave him permission.  In my deepest self I know this, and the knowledge has kept me from sinking."  Weirdly like Knausgaard, Dunham shares her vulnerability, her discomfort with social occasions she also craves, and her sane ability to draw a line--"I never gave him permission"--where there is no sand to mark it.

Leslie Jamison's award-winning and best-selling The Empathy Exams is a series of essays, some of them originally published elsewhere, that circle around the topic of empathy and some of empathy's cousins, like sympathy and understanding, or the distinction between true feeling and sentiment.  In the opening essay, she earns her street cred for writing about this topic:  as a poor creative writing student, she worked as a medical actor, someone who memorized the symptoms given them in a case study, but who wasn't particularly forthcoming with the young doctors-in-training.  After meeting with the student doctor, the actors graded them on their detective skills and on their empathy.  After playing these roles and having conversations with other actors, Jamison seems to have a clear line on empathy:  "Empathy isn't just remembering to say that must really be hard--it's figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.  Empathy isn't just listening, it's asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to.  Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.  Empathy requires knowing you know nothing....Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia--em (into) and pathos (feeling)--a penetration, a kind of travel.  It suggests you enter another person's pain as you'd enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query:  What grows where you are?  What are the laws?  What animals graze there?"

One of the principles of creative nonfiction is that the writer has two powerful tools:  his or her voice,  which creates and embodies the idiosyncratic and hopefully eye-catching persona, and her or his experience, which lends a note of authenticity.  Jamison makes full use of these, juxtaposing her work as a medical actor with her own "case studies" of her abortion and heart surgery that failed to fix her irregular heartbeat.  But it was her more subtle use of her presence in the world she was writing about that I found most skillful.  In a brief piece called "Indigenous to the Hood," she takes part in a "gang tour," which essentially involves a busload of tourists being driven around by former gang members (one hopes) to the neighbourhood that holds their stories.  As Jamison astutely puts it, "They've turned their experiences into stories for travelers.  They are curators and exhibits at once" (84).  While she knows that the people who take such tours "want the tour to give you back another version of yourself, you and everyone:  a more enlightened human" (89), she is rightly skeptical of such a project.  Does she really need to get on this bus to wax philosophical about what Susan Sontag and scholar Graham Huggen have to say about our search to make "exotic" experiences part of our world view, or could she simply have written this straight?  How many of us have similarly gone on a vacation, seeking an "authentic Italian/Hawaiian/Chinese experience," perhaps knowing we can't have it yet bamboozling ourselves into believing that we captured a small slice of it?  By representing her experience as a tourist, her inner tourist meets ours; her flawed but hopeful humanity bumps up right against ours in the inevitable line that always begins and ends our tourist experiences. Briefly, we make eye contact with the writer, admitting that yes, the line is very slow today.

My last example is Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby, a phrase she borrows from the letters of Georgia O'Keefe.  Of these three books of essays, hers is the most elegant, polished, thoughtful, thought-provoking:  just read it.  I could wax lyrical about the way she's structured essays that are independent into a book that has an integral shape and project; I could admire her poetic use of language or the wide reading that informs her thought.  But let me simply use a brief moment where her task as a daughter is our task as a reader.  Her relationship with her mother had been very difficult; we're given enough evidence to fully believe that.  But when it was clear her mother had Alzheimer's, she thinks of all the ways her mother undoubtedly gave care--giving baths, doing laundry, making meals--if not love.  She writes "It was in honor of that unremembered past that I took care of her, that and principle and compassion and solidarity with my brothers.  How could I not?"  If this sounds a bit clinical, a bit as if she's preparing for a polar expedition, it is, thought Solnit examines her own behaviour:  "I was distant.  I studied her, I pondered her.  My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it.  We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another's story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them" (29).

Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism:  Ethics in a World of Strangers, that if we want to connect ethically with people whose experience and attitudes are profoundly different from ours, we need to share stories.  But as all these writers illustrate, one way or another--literally or by indirection--we also need to see and be seen.  We need, as Solnit suggests, the stories of others as a reminder of many things:  of the fact that we are not always the centre of the universe, and of the fact that complex circumstances place people in universes quite different from ours, universes that we need to be so attentive to that we can at least attempt to map them.  But in the face of others' honesty, we need to be seen, to put ourselves in the position of the object of the gaze--even if it's only our own gaze.  These writers' vulnerability demands that we also be vulnerable, even if only to our stronger, better, wiser selves.  That's how we become more human.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Toward the Solstice: A Season of Light


One evening in late November, I found myself outside in the still air, shoveling snow, and thinking of how my mother used to say that December was "a season of light." 

Christmas was important to my mother, and she worked very hard--and usually cheerfully--to make the season beautiful.  Preparations began in late November, when (without a calculator) she did the tax roll for Moorland Township, which involved sharpening countless pencils to do numerous calculations, all of which were written in an enormous columned book about two feet square.  Then the calculations were checked and written in fountain pen.  She did this in the evening at the kitchen table, while Karen and I washed dishes, and she made the astronomical sum of $50.  This was when gas was usually less than 25 cents a gallon, so $50 to spend on Christmas presents did seem like untold riches. 

Then the baking began.  Spritz cookies forced through the cookie press, silver shot pressed into the flowery shapes before baking.  Swedish Christmas cookies, which contained egg yolks that had been cooked in simmering water and forced through a sieve.  Divinity.  Fudge. Penuche.  Home-made mincemeat.  Christmas cake that lived in the cold of the old coal chute.  A couple of times a week, Mother would get up on a chair in the basement to take it down and give it another spoonful of brandy. The Swedish Christmas cookies were frosted, sprinkled with coloured sugar or decorated with silver shot.  Some years the airy clouds of divinity were coloured pink or green; other years she added peppermint oil grown on her brother's farm to the pure sweetness.  Divinity is essentially beaten egg whites to which you add a sugar syrup that has reached the soft ball stage.  It's just sweetness; frankly, I've never seen the point, but my mother made divine, creamy divinity.  Fudge seemed trickier:  you had to catch it at just the right temperature and beat the hell out of it so that it wasn't grainy.  Penuche--essentially fudge made with brown sugar and without chocolate--she made only for herself.  She deserved it.

But light?  Michigan in winter easily gets an hour more daylight than Saskatchewan, but winter there was often cloudy, the streets full of grey slush. I haven't thought of this saying of hers for years, but as I threw the airy snow from the walkways, I thought it made some sense to try to understand what she meant.  In the silent evening air,  casting the glittering snow around me, I wondered if "light" might be metaphorical.  The snow, after all, was light:  insubstantial and glittering, it flew into the air catching every scintilla of light around it.  

I found myself instead thinking of the ways I try to create light as we move toward the solstice.  On foggy days, I admire the way the headlights of cars driving through Wascana Park flare through the fog into the darkness.  Like everyone else, I take pictures of hoarfrost or snow that has fallen so gently it catches on the bark of trees and renders mere twigs both more and less substantial.  I light fires.  An introvert by nature, I wish a hearty Merry Christmas to people I barely know, sometimes wondering whether such words mean to them the same thing they mean to me.  (Probably not, if only because one's confused spiritual life is entirely idiosyncratic--as are other people's.)

Coming in after the shoveling to listen to the evening news, I thought there's darkness enough in the world, much of which I talked about in my last post, so I won't weight down this quest for light with  despair, murder, war, terrorism, fundamentalism of many kinds--which I tend to see as the source of most of the world's evil, because people who are sure they have the right line on things can justify doing just about anything to impose their "truth" on everyone else.

Closer to the solstice and to Christmas, we're driven by two contradictory impulses.  We're frantic and frenetic, trying to get everything bought, wrapped, planned, baked, prepared to begin feasting on Christmas Eve.  Yet what we really want is a brief hibernation:  we want to get out of the traffic and the grocery store, where we've gone for the parsley and lemon we've forgotten, seen and avoided several neighbours because we don't feel cheerful just now; we want to hibernate, sit down in front of a fire and pretend to be a child for about 48 hours.  We'd also like, please, to get out of the kitchen for a bit, though the house smells divine.

Somehow the balancing between that centrifugal busy-ness and the centirpetal hibernation begins to generate light.  We take baking to the woman next door whose husband has been in a nursing home for years now, and we struggle to make conversation.  We are patient with the person in front of us in the line at the grocery store because she realizes there's something important she's forgotten:  the tin of pineapple for the ham, perhaps, without which it won't be quite the same.  The cloves will look so lonely.  We look with wonder at the people assembled at our table, and are silently grateful.  Kindness kindles something:  a season of light.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Trust

When Tory MP Peter Goldring confessed that he wore a body camera when he visited his lady friends for a game of Scrabble long about 2 a.m.--a camera that would prove he hadn't behaved inappropriately--I knew that our culture  had hit a crisis.  Mind you, I'd had a couple of lessons over my last year in the academy, examples of an administration that didn't trust its faculty and of faculty that didn't trust administration.  Lack of trust is corrosive.  Because how things come out depends altogether too much on who blinks first or who has the most power, not who's considered opinion is the right one.

There are some very good reasons why we trust people less.  Most of these involve our relationships to people in power, as Peter Goldring inadvertently reveals:  “MPs must learn, as I have from encounters with authority figures in the past, that all do not tell the truth." Here in Canada, beset by government by ideology rather than by evidence,  we are right not to trust the advertisements vaunting the Conservatives' environmental record or believe their reasons for building more prisons and being tougher on crime. Until we're given any evidence, why should we give our trust?  In the past year, we've been given reason not to trust our Senators to turn in accurate expense claims or not to trust Members of Parliament to behave appropriately toward their female colleagues.  (This case is messy, I admit, given that there has been no formal complaint--which only increases our distrust.)   We don't trust Bill Cosby, who used to be known as America's dad, nor do we trust CBC celebrity hosts to have charming off-air personalities like those carried by the airwaves.

People in Ferguson Missouri and New York City don't trust cops to use force in a way that is measured and reasonable.  In the United States,  "the Justice Policy Institute has estimated that police officers in the U.S. killed 587 people in 2012 alone. Over the course of a decade, they’ve tallied more than 5,000 people in the U.S. during that period" observes Dave Lindorff on AlterNet.  Quite likely, the majority of those people are black.  It makes absolute sense, given the failure of the justice system to even indict cops who kill unarmed people, that African Americans do not trust the police.  Police killing suspects, many of them racially profiled, in the interests of police safety, trumps citizen safety; this is a sure recipe for distrust.

But there's something else going on here:  a rotten game of in-group vs. out-group.  As Jonathan Haidt reveals, when times are difficult, one of the first things humans do is to take stock of who belongs in their group and who doesn't.  Think of Neanderthal man around the campfire during a famine year:  the way you decide who is going to get fed is to make that basic distinction between who really belongs and who doesn't.  My guess is that inside those courtrooms where juries decide to indict or not, in proceedings (at least in Ferguson) they can never talk about, the in-group card is played, subtly or overtly.  "We have to hold together, those of us who know ourselves to be law-abiding citizens, or chaos will be loosed.  The cop is one of us; the young black boy on his knees or the black man the cops are trying to arrest for selling illegal cigarettes are not one of us. So who are you going to choose to believe?"  
 
But something else is at play here.  Certainly there are legitimate reasons for some of the distrust we feel.  At the same time, however, distrust is often being used to keep us passive and uncritical.  Such distrust erodes our sense of community, our sense that we can change aspects of our society that we find troubling.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman would point to what he calls "the availability heuristic."  When we're told something again and again, we come to believe it.  I don't know how many times it can be said to either parents or city governments or police departments:  crime has dropped and continues to drop.  Plans to get tough on crime and to give more munitions and powers to police are out of touch with this reality. But when every newscast leads with the most recent disturbing/colourful/weird crime, we are all--police and citizens alike--being primed to believe that our world is less safe.  Similarly, newscasts that focus on war sometimes make us feel that we are living in very violent times, whereas there is less conflict than ever--in spite of politicians' attempts to threaten us with that crime, committed perhaps by ISIL, is coming to Canadian shores near you.  Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's attack was framed as a terrorist act, and as grounds for giving more powers to security institutions, whereas perhaps the radicalization of young men might be seen as a one of the routes mental illness takes in the twenty-first century.  If you are living in North America and feel like an outsider, how can you understand your feelings of marginalization? Perhaps exploring the beliefs and actions of other groups that have been marginalized will give meaning to your feelings.

So the other side of the trust issue is that we believe that mistrust makes us safe.  And in many cases, it's that appeal to our safety that governments use to convince us to give up our civil liberties or to reassure us that they know how to be tough on crime, though it costs money that is syphoned away from health and education--areas of spending that might improve people's lives, money that might have helped Michael Zehaf-Bibeau deal with his sense or marginalization in a different way.  Similarly, news organizations, whose very survival is threatened in a variety of ways by the openness of the internet, need to grab our attention, and there's nothing like a manhunt or the word "terrorist" to do that.

But as Daniel Kahneman points out, the "availability heuristic" come an "availability cascade."  Here's what he has to say in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

"An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action.  On some occasions, a media story catches the attention of the public, which becomes aroused and worried.  This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement.  The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by 'availability entrepreneurs,' individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news.  The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines" (142).

Availability cascades create unintended consequences.  One of these is the various costs of distrust.  Dean Richard Kleer told me today that economists actually talk about the "extrinsic costs" of distrust, which across the economy are enormous.  How many (unnecessary) forms did you fill out this year to prove you weren't doing something reprehensible?  How many reports did you write to prove you were doing your job, and what actually happened to those reports and the time that went into writing them?  How many children walk to school or go with a group of friends to the nearest schoolyard or park just simply to hang out and perhaps climb a tree or two?  What effect will this have on our effort to address climate change--if nature becomes nothing more than annoying or violent weather? 

But there are two other, larger unintended consequences.  Distrust tends to lead to a focus on standard operating procedures that will catch the "free riders," and from there to a managerial style of "leadership" that focuses on SOPs, to the exclusion of the real problems that face us.  Real leadership deals with complex problems, often in messy ways, by gathering together creative teams of people who work collectively to understand the complexity and find creative, perhaps unanticipated solutions.  Distrust has no place here.

Distrust may also, at the ballot box, prompt us to vote for the people who scare us the most and promise to keep fear at bay.  Are you worried about higher taxes, terrorism, drugs on city streets?  These worries, whether reasonable or not, might prompt you to vote in ways that are actually against society's best long-term interest--for the tough-on-crime bunch rather than the tough-on-climate change advocates, since crime is feared here and now, whereas climate change is feared elsewhere and later--though the United Nations declares it is the biggest challenge facing the human race.

Distrust also leads to a kind of individualistic bunker mentality that actually works against the sense of community that might lead to solutions. If you are standing on the street waiting for a bus that is late again, but are distrustful, are you likely to talk to the other people who are waiting about how this bus works for them, to see if you can work together to convince the city to make some changes?  Or are you likely to remain silent?  Even if you talk to them but distrust the city to be responsive to your concerns, are you convinced you can do something?

Several social movements have been working lately to counteract our sense of distrust, to connect a variety of people together to effect social change:  Idle No More, the Occupy Movement, and Saskatchewan's own Prairie Pastures Public Interest group.  Such change works very slowly, partly because it eschews the kinds of top-down "leadership" that has gotten us in trouble, because power and wealth all too often turn people who once wanted to serve into people who want more power and wealth.  (And yes, there's some shocking psychological research on this.)  Rather, these grass roots movements often begin by educating people who are sympathetic to their goals and beliefs, and education takes a while to trickle down into the ballot box.  Occupy has recently influenced the Bank of England's position on wealth, and the Los Angeles City Council has passed a resolution indicating its informal support.  Prairie Pastures Public Interest brought together Chiefs, ranchers, farmers, academics, and poets (there were two of us!) to consider how we can respond to the province's decision to sell off the public pastures that protected vulnerable species of plants, birds, and animals, while providing grazing land for ranchers and small farmers.  We're working behind the scenes and are gaining some traction.  Idle No More goes from strength to strength.

Organizations which want to gain people's trust need to turn to transparency and fairness.  And when we're faced with the lack of transparency and fairness, we need to be noisy, like the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, who demonstrated against police treatment of African Americans yesterday in Washington.  In contrast, those who seek to effect meaningful change must foster dialogue and the trust that comes from honest speaking and listening.  We must all resist the availability heuristic that distorts our sense of reality because lacking trust, we vote for the status quo, become more frightened, less visionary, less open to change that is desperately needed in Canada and the United States.

I could not have written this post without the help of Katherine Arbunott, who helped me think about things like leadership and community.  Here's to breakfast at 7:30 a.m. with a smart woman!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Libraries: from the bookmobile to the iPad


I doubt that there are many impassioned readers who do not have an equally impassioned relationship with libraries and book stores:  the places where they met books, where books on shelves seemed like limitless possibilities for ideas and lives, places where they could find the time and the atmosphere that encouraged reflection.  In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the bookmobile came to our neighbourhood, parking a mere block and a half away from the house.  There was both plenitude and minimalism inherent in a visit to the bookmobile.  Compared to the downtown library, where my mother often took me, the selection was quite limited.  Yet being there on my own meant that the choice was all mine, and it was not an overwhelming choice.  The limited number of books meant that I sometimes took home things that didn't, at first blush, seem entirely interesting, only to find that this book, of all books, was precisely the one I needed to find.  I think the first time I remember this happening was when I took out the Illustrated Classics Edition of Jane Eyre.  I'd read through all the longer kids' books like Mr Popper's PenguinsI'd cracked East of the Sun and West of the Moon many times, but never managed to climb on board.  Jane Eyre completely startled me.  I had never known the passionate expression of such feelings; this was the fifties and we didn't express anything passionately, certainly not seemingly antisocial things like rebellion and righteous indignation.  We didn't cry out for justice:  parents said over and over things like "Do as I say, not as I do"--which as far as I am concerned is still the antithesis of just.

Not long afterwards, a small shop in our neighbourhood three blocks away became a branch library.  It was soul-less:  imagine moving out a small drug store or insurance broker and bringing in shelves and shelves of books.  I simply don't have the kinds of memories of the branch library that I had of the bookmobile.  Yet I know I went there frequently.  The librarians knew my name.  I discovered Bartok and Faulkner there--reading As I Lay Dying for weeks on end, always being struck by the force of each passage, yet never figuring out how the book as a whole worked.  I lost my bicycle there.  I had ridden my bike over to fill up the basket with books, but was perhaps so enthralled with my finds that I forgot to take the bike home.  So the next time I went out to the garage to look for my bike, I could only conclude that someone had stolen it.  A week or so later, I returned the books to the library and found my bicycle still parked out in front.  It was an appalling bicycle.  The plate around the chain had been kicked and bent so that each time the right pedal passed by it, there was a long, metallic "Whoosh."  The stand had come lose so that the pedal on the left side clicked loudly each time it came around.  The large seat was cracked:  it was not advisable to ride it wearing short shorts. So it was in no danger sitting in front of the library for several weeks without a lock.  Sheepish, I put my new cache of books in the basket and rode it home.

That same bicycle later allowed me to ride to the downtown library, where I eventually inveigled my way into the Reading Room.  It was a dark room with shelves of reference books, large comfortable leather chairs, green-shaded lights, and the current newspapers.  It was largely inhabited by old men who came there to get their day's news and perhaps to give some purpose and ritual to their lives.  My excuse was probably one of those junior high school projects on the geography of Bolivia or the exports of Germany that required, in those days, exactly the kinds of reference books you found there.  Working in the Reading Room required a certain amount of stealth and a lot of quietness;  there was a librarian at a dark wooden desk who seemed to do nothing and so who seemed a kind of beadle, there to enforce appropriate behaviour.  Perhaps she was simply an early incarnation of the "reference librarian," who for me has always been embodied by U of R's inimitable Larry MacDonald, who could help you find anything.  I always tell my students that reference librarians are their best co-conspirators, turning my first impression on its head.

There have been other reading rooms that have given me the same pleasure.  Most undergraduates at the University of Michigan studied at the aptly-named UGLI, or "Undergraduate Library" (yes, it was ugly and has since been replaced) but it was known more as a place to socialize and get picked up.  Not for me.  So I worked in the reading room of the Graduate Library, loving the old, enveloping captain's chairs, the three-storey windows, the darkness that descended on the quiet cork-floored room, where long long tables had inverted troughs of light so that the only things that were illuminated at night were the materials you were reading and writing.  It effectively closed out the whole world.  

The Reading Room at the Boston Public Library was one of the few cool refuges during the hot Boston summer of 1973, though it contained no books.  On the other hand, you could find anything you wanted in the secluded reading rooms of the British Library in London, though I don't remember the chairs being as comfortable.  But like all great libraries, they managed, through the architecture and decor, through the rituals and through lighting to suggest that you have walked into an alternate universe.  

I had a particular fondness for the Current Periodicals Room on the sixth floor of the Archer Library, until the students discovered it was a good place to sleep between classes.  They would commandeer two chairs right in front of the windows that gave views of Wascana Park.  I've had some fairly anti-social fantasies in that room--imagining myself pulling a chair right out from under a sleeper and telling them they obviously weren't looking up from their reading to consider their thoughts under the influence of a landscape that encouraged long views, so the atmosphere was wasted on them.  But somehow antisocial thoughts are quickly curtailed in a library.

Given this long and sentimental history, I don't know what to make of the fact that I've fallen in love with an iPad mini that Bill gave me.  Oh, yes, it's great for keeping my life in order and for making lists.  But what I most love is the easy, easy access to the Gutenberg Project and the library I am accruing.  It has done away with the laziness and disorganization of my frequent thoughts that run something like this:  "Woolf absolutely loved Thomas Browne's Urn Burial, and I really must read it some day."  That thought never comes to me when I'm at Archer collecting books.  But now I simply walk to my iPad, link to the Gutenberg Project, and presto, it's in my own library, along with Maupassant's essays (which I should read if I'm going to pretend that 3 or 4 times a month I'm going to try to write one myself, and which Woolf also loved), and Meredith's Diana of the Crossways, along with War and Peace and James's The Ambassadors.  I find I can indulge in almost any reading whim--though I must confess that I still buy new hardcover books as they are reviewed.  

My enthusiasm for my iPad library has prompted me to think about what it is we love about libraries.  Google "beautiful libraries" and see what you come up with.  There are whole websites and books about beautiful libraries, both of which often celebrate historic buildings and massive collections housed on carved wooden shelves held up by soaring arches, inundated by light.  Perhaps what we are really celebrating is how long libraries have been valued, and how "library" and "beautiful" so often go together, and how these words have been companions over time.  The combination of those two words needn't refer to an enormous collection in an eighteenth-century building, but to a certain spirit.  When I have unpacked my books at a writers' retreat along the window sill or the back edge of my desk, I have a different, minimalist sense of the library's beauty. Perhaps part of what we imagine when we think of exploring one of the world's beautiful libraries, is time to reflect in companionship with the best minds of our culture in a setting that echoes the beauty of that act.

Virginia Woolf wrote an essay entitled "Hours in a Library," a title she borrowed from her father.  It's a strange, meandering work that explores the many ways 'hours in libraries' come about and the many moments when we seek time there. Her archetypal reader is sitting in front of a window, the way I wanted to do in the Periodicals Room in Archer Library, when she looks up and the words and pages of the book she is reading look like they are fusing, surreally, with the landscape beyond the library and the windows.  Really, I think that this is what libraries and books should do:  not simply to exist massed in protected collections, but to unwind ideas and perspectives--sometimes helpfully contradictory ideas and perspectives--through the landscapes of our daily lives. If my iPad gives me better access to the books I've always thought I should read, why not see it as the new library?  

The "beautiful libraries" somehow combine the "best that has been thought and said," in the words of Matthew Arnold--all those various minds coming at life from different time frames and different perspectives and identities--with beauty and comfort. Really, libraries shouldn't be places of comfort:  they are there to challenge us all.  But perhaps we need the illusion of comfort in order to settle into, give credence to, converse with, all those voices who have been willing to work very hard to speak to us, to continue speaking to us.  So what if it isn't Wren's library at Trinity College, but my bedroom with my iPad?  At least there I can have tea and a cat--necessary and comforting companions for the wild adventure I am about to undertake.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reflections on colour and light


Bill took last Monday off as part of a four-day weekend, and we drove to Moose Jaw for a little early Christmas shopping and for a stop at The Quilt Patch.  I wrote last month about a change in seasons prompting me to look at nature with different eyes.  Monday required another shift.  On Monday, the world was muted, tangled; it was made of texture rather than colour, teaching me again that each kind of tree--not to mention each tree--has its own shape.  You could see the human footprint in the fields, the scoring in the stubble like words on a page that told you exactly how that field had been harvested. You could also see the low-lying places in the field that remained wild, outside of human efforts.  Dugouts were mostly iced over; the water birds had gone.  What remained was a neutral world of hyphenated colours:  ruddy-brown, grey-brown, grey-gold,  greeny-grey.  

It is a thought-provoking landscape.  On the way to Moose Jaw, I thought about Katherine Lawrence's wonderful interview of Lawrence Hill at the Sage Hill Fundraiser.  Katherine seemed to have read everything Hill has written, and asked moving and intelligent questions about his writing practice.  There were three things he said that I have been reminding myself of since that evening because I think they're important to anyone's creative practice.  One is that when you are creating, you have to realize that whatever it is you are making--whether of words or notes or colours--has to be and is a beautiful thing in your life, whether it's published or heard or bought--or not. Katherine Arbuthnott would chime in here and tell us that our motives have to be intrinsic, part of who we are, not extrinsic--a desire for the world to tell us who we are and how important we are.  Creative people make things for their own sake, to glory initially in the making. And then Virginia Woolf would like to have her two words, and would remind us that at some point, if we want "self-expression" to become "art," we have to find a way to bridge the gap between our vision and our craft and the people we'd like to share our work with.  We have to create a conversation.  But if we haven't been deeply joyful while we've been conceiving and drafting, we've missed the point.  To go back to Lawrence Hill's wisdom:  our work has to be a beautiful thing in our life first.

Katherine asked him what it was like to suddenly be famous with The Book of Negroes, and Hill quipped back that he thought his career was going just fine:  every book he wrote was better than the last one.  The Book of Negroes has sold 600,000 copies in Canada and is being made into a mini-series for TV.  We could say Hill has arrived.  Yet he has humbly and wisely stuck with his own principles:  just keep writing better.  That's do-able.

Katherine's good questions about character produced this wisdom that I was thinking about in particular as Bill and I drove to Moose Jaw.  He exhorted us to remember that the character who has the most to loose is the most interesting character.  We'll let Henry James in on this discussion with his observation (I paraphrase, but I'm pretty close):  "What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"  One of the weaknesses of Blue Duets, I think, is that none of the characters had more to lose than we all risk losing every day.  I'm trying to think beyond that for Soul Weather.

Two days later the hyphenated colours of the landscape were swathed in white.  They reminded me that my mother used to call December and Christmas-time "a season of light."  Given that I have difficulty with the shorter days, I pondered that awhile, until yesterday I was out shoveling snow after dark.  Mother was right, but not in the way I expected. The season's light is the light you make--fires and candle light and comforting food, and the light you search out.  As I threw the snow under the trees, there was quite a lot of light and I wanted to shine it on the writing I was getting ready to do when my two current projects go out to publishers.

There are (at least) two questions all writers need to ask themselves.  The first concerns their world view.  Roger Fry felt that art was a complex of vision and design.  You can translate that roughly into content and form, yet his word "vision" insists on something else:  a world view that is provocative and intriguing, an understanding of the world and of human nature that is in some way visionary:  seeing the world with a particular kind of accuracy, from a revealing perspective and with the breadth that is generous to everything that is human, natural, and cultural. Though of course, my definition of what is visionary is part and parcel of my world view.  A satirist would describe "visionary" much differently.  We are all, to some degree, limited by our world views, seeking out other people--friends and artists--with whom we can have a conversation about that view and how it influences our lives.  But we have to know what that view is.

The second thing writers have to understand is the people they believe they can have the most fruitful conversation with.  I caught an odd glimpse of this in October, when I was taking manuscripts for Grain Magazine to the SWG office.  I was traveling north on Broad Street, waiting at the light at Saskatchewan Drive.  Just ahead was the overpass used by trains and pedestrians traveling between Casino Regina and their parking garage.  There was a single woman in black walking across it.  Behind her was a tall fence that separates the pedestrian path from the railway tracks.  The fence curves away from the tracks to make it impossible to climb--a design element that I found disquieting.  Because it says that someone might want to make that climb.  The fence itself suggests that someone may lose their balance--a simple thing with appalling consequences.  Somehow the scene captured what people do every day:  walk alone through a landscape of vague threat, trying to pretend it's ordinary, that we're just going through our days. I want to shine some light on that element in our lives, some light that means something to the person walking alone.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Blog hop


Apparently there is a blog hop going around:  writers answer questions about their writing and then tag two more people to do the same thing, on pain of writer's block for seven years.  One of my former students, Cassidy McFadzean, tagged my current student, Courtney Bates, who in turn tagged me.  How can I resist playing with the young'uns?

What am I working on?  
Too much.  I'm working on a collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by Veronica Geminder's photographs, and need to write about ten more poems to have a good-sized manuscript.  I'm also working on a study of Virginia Woolf's aesthetics whose working title is Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement. This is a project I've been chipping away at for a long time.  In the wings are a novel, Soul Weather and some essays I'd like to write.  But working on two manuscripts--which works well most of the time--is enough, so I'm only taking occasional notes for the novel and essays.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This isn't just a "blog hop" question:  it's something every writer should be asking herself or himself once the manuscript begins to take clear shape.  I don't know that many books that are entirely ekphrastic, or that match each poem with a work of art.  The one I know best is Elmet by Ted Hughes, with photographs by Fay Godwin.  Godwin's remarkable black and white photographs of Yorkshire came first, and Hughes's poems about the place where he grew up followed.  Sometimes the relationship between the photograph and the poem is clear; sometimes the photograph seems like the occasion for a meditation that runs parallel to the photographs, rather than being ekphrastic.  It's a remarkable book.  But I'm no Ted Hughes, and I'm not trying to be.  Moreover, these poems are clearly autobiographical and nostalgic (if one can accuse Hughes of nostalgia).  

Veronica and I are working in a similar way:  the photographs have come first.  But unlike Godwin's photographs, Veronica's are ceaselessly urban, and often they are of cityspaces that I've only visited, so there's no nostalgia involved.  Rather, what I'm trying to do is not only to write a collection of ekphrastic poems, but to explore the role cities play in our lives, how they shape our days, how they give us places to play and sometimes make us feel imprisoned by the way they're structured and regulated.  I'm hoping, then, that the book as a whole will be a kind of "essay" on cities, that it will prompt people to think about the urban spaces where most Canadians live--spaces that can make our lives easier and spaces that can be frustrating and limiting. We tend to take the built environment as "always already" there, rather than to be critical of the way it shapes us.  I'm trying to make people more aware of its role in their lives.


Why do I write what I do?
Because I'm curious.  It's my curiosity about how Woolf structured her essays and novels that has led me to write about her aesthetics.  I suppose the poems about Veronica's photographs have a different impetus:  she's my daughter, as well as a photographer who doesn't really know how to get attention, so I thought initially that I'd just write a handful of poems I'd place in journals.  But I found that writing about her photographs was a wonderful challenge that took me beyond the kind of poetry I have written in the past.  So this project is allowing me (when it's not forcing me) to grow. 

Soul Weather has yet another motive behind it.  You could say that it's motivated by a lot of questions:  what does it mean to be at home in our houses, our bodies, our lives, our futures, our weather and planet?  What are the different ways of being at home?  But at the same time, I want to write a kind of Condition of Canada novel that will tell readers something about what it's like to be young and not very at home.  

I find that the most interesting work, whether it's poetry, essays, or fiction, comes out of questions.  Any writer who says she or he also has answers is bullshitting you or only considering simple questions.


What's my creative process?
For me, it's important to balance discipline with the writer's need to live, play, reflect, and read; to balance going inward with looking outward.  

Retirement is allowing me to experiment with keeping a very rigid work day:  I read under Twig, coffee in hand, until shortly after nine.  By ten, I'm at the computer, and most of the time I don't check my email or Facebook.  I try to take an hour for lunch, and then get back to writing from one until three.  When I can actually do this, I'm blissed, and I feel oddly liberated, given that my job as an English professor involved meetings and administrivia that took away more and more time to reflect, teach, and do research.  

But there are important breaks from this pattern.  This week, instead of being at the computer for those hours, I'm reading Woolf criticism, and I'm keeping much longer hours.  I also tend to know when I'm not getting anywhere with a poem and need to turn to something else.  I know when I'm trapped in my own head and need to do some reading or walking or gardening to shake things up.

Perhaps the most important part of my creative process is allowing drafts to go anywhere, not to censure myself or worry about whether something is good.  If I'm making discoveries, then good things are happening.  This free part of the process is balanced by an almost savage editor who queries every choice of content or language. Why do I think that?  Does this really reflect the human experience?  Is that the best word?  Does that image work?  How does this piece work with the others?  Am I making a whole?  Am I obsessing about unity?  Will anyone care?

This last is the one that trips me up.  I seem to care about a lot of things that don't even register with other people. 
And sometimes I seem to be entirely out of sync with most people's reactions to an event or a facet of our zeitgeist.  Given that I think it's the writer's or artist's job to be a compassionate, insightful, but critical reflector of the human experience, "Will anyone care?" is a question that often keeps me up at night.

The photographs here are all taken by Veronica in Paris.  The first is taken on Rue Descartes, the second in an arcade called Le Grand Cerf--shades of Walter Benjamin, and the third on an a street that had modern reflective buildings on one side and old buildings across the way.  I'm using it to think about cities and history.  These are the prompts for the poems I'm been writing over the last month.