Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Teaching creative writing this winter term, I came to understand how many writers (me included) construct their first drafts of a work of fiction.  Once the "concept" has been worked out, the characters given flesh and a little bit of clothing, and some elements of the story's arc have been carved out of stone so that the structure will stand, they start a kind of virtual movie in their heads and record what they see. Under these conditions, many of us write like swoopers.  Given the distance between "story" or "plot" or "tale" and "work of art," this approach to drafting requires a fair amount of revision.  For one of our final classes this April, we read Jack Hodgins's helpful chapter on revision in A Passion for Narrative and talked about why revising is so hard.  Hodgins quotes William C. Knott on the importance of revision:  "Anyone can write--and almost everyone you meet these days is writing. However, only the writers know how to rewrite.  It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a pro."  I'm inclined to agree, though I go at this issue from a more hopeful perspective.  A draft is a wonderful thing because now you have something that you can transform into something better; unless you have deadlines, there are no limits to the improvements you can make. In theory anyway.

It would be easy to see the wired twenty-first century as revision-averse.  I have long suspected that the focus in our schools on self-esteem works against an ethic of revision.  If I'm okay just as I am, isn't the work that just pours out of me going to be okay too?  Certainly, this attitude accounts for some of the weak and thoughtless writing that I see.  Who revises tweets or Facebook status updates? Yet people who study our relationship with the computer keyboard note that strong writers bring their inner basher into play; the key they hit most frequently is the backspace key, constantly erasing a word choice, an ineffective sentence structure, an ungrammatical sentence.

If "the school of self-esteem" says our effort itself counts, revising requires us constantly and painfully to second-guess ourselves, to consider whether our initial understanding of character was shallow (and to admit we might not know where the depths are) or that a plot line had some unintended consequences.  We may have an interesting story line, but until we ourselves understand what this story is about, we don't know which of its elements need the emphasis of a scene, which elements are mere background--and thus should be presented as summary.  We also don't understand the relationship between character and event, or between event and character, until we learn how the story's microcosm works, what rules its meaning imposes or suggests.  Setting is just a place until we have thought about the connection between place and character, place and event.  (Hodgins's book is particularly good on this issue of the role of setting.)

The cognitive psychologists can give us some insight.  Swoopers draft using what Daniel Kahneman calls system 1, which is intuitive and subconscious, which makes snap decisions and goes like stink. System 1 works with stereotypes (not great for creating complex characters).  We feel confident when we're in the "flow" of system 1 thinking.   When we shift to system 2 thinking, for the conclusion to a paper or the rounding out of character or the querying of all the choices we've made in a piece of writing, we are not comfortable. System 2 thinking is deliberate and painstaking as we second-guess ourselves at every turn.  We can get to the point where we question everything, which can paralyse us.

Fiction exists on four interlocking levels.  Words and sentences establish voice and tone.  In turn, both voice and tone have some impact on how we construct paragraphs and scenes; at the very least, these need to be in harmony or need to conflict in a meaningful or significant way.  Scenes, in turn, need to contribute purposefully to the overall narrative shape.  So far, so good.  Here we have what Roger Fry, the art critic who was one of Virginia Woolf's mentors, calls "design." Craftsmanship can take us this far.

Fry, along with Virginia Woolf's brother-in-law, Clive Bell, was one of the founders of formalism, a view of the work of art which paid more attention to the work's form than artists and critics had previously.  Before those two began to think about what Bell termed "significant form," literature was regarded mainly for its content, visual art for its style of representation and the technique through which the artist captured the world as you yourself might see it.  In the early 1920s, Fry gathered together his formalist essays in a book he called Vision and Design, two words he was at pains to define.  These words seem almost parallel to "content" and "form," words that also challenge aesthetic philosophers, largely because the form the content takes has an enormous impact on the content itself.  We could also translate Fry's dyad into "philosophy," "worldview" or "insight," and "craftsmanship." "Vision" refers to the artist's ability to communicate something significant about the human condition, the artist's ability to see or to illuminate something significant that hasn't been expressed before in quite this way.  Vision takes us by surprise, yet confirms something we almost knew.  Vision gives us a sense that there is a view of the world--a compelling, engaging, important view of the world--that is different from the one we use every day.  Design could be taken to mean the artist's control of craftsmanship.  Except that we need to see that vision and design are not two separate things, but two speakers in a single conversation.

In To the Lighthouse, we see Lily Briscoe ecstatically struggling with the same problem of vision and design, form and content: "Heaven be praised for it, the problem of space remained, she thought, taking  up her brush again. It glared at her.  The whole mass of the picture was poised upon that weight.  Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron.  It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses" (141).  While I always feel sure, for a lot of good reasons, that Woolf is mapping Lily's aesthetics onto Fry's, every time I read this passage, I see it a bit differently. The artwork has something solid about it, something concrete; given her metaphors, this is something structural, related to design.  At the same time, there's something ineffable to the work of art that can't be said any other way.  You probably know this best as readers:  you can paraphrase a poem or tell your best friend the "premise" of a novel, but that isn't the same as the novel or the poem itself, which always gestures towards a mystery that makes you smile but that you can't quite articulate.

Fry's conversational pair suggests the real reason that revision is so hard.  At some point in your improvement of your craftsmanship--your evocation of character or place, the voice you have decided on to tell this story, your elegant or edgy sentences--it may occur to you that you actually have nothing to say. You've sculpted a wonderful vase, but you have nothing to put in it.  You've caught exactly the tone of twentysomethings talking to one another, but what's the significance of this conversation?  Why try to capture it?

A draft can exist as pure potential.  There's nothing threatening about the fact that a draft is full of holes and blanks and grand effects that have nothing behind them. It's a draft; it's likely to be a bit drafty.  But once we've gone to work on it, we have fewer excuses.  (I sometimes think that one of the motives behind student procrastination is to create an excuse:  "It could have been a great paper if I'd only had enough time."  Maybe not.  But having taught my last class, that's not a blog post I'll ever have to write.)  Once our craftsmanship comes into play, we too have to create the conversation between design and vision.  They are only meaningful when they create a harmony or a dissonance together. I'm not sure that craftsmanship actually exists without some vision the writer wants to convey.  And a great insight, without the design of craftsmanship, may not even exist.

Here's the wonderful thing about craftsmanship:  it can lead to vision.  While you mull over the fact that you haven't drawn that character successfully onto the page, you are also forced to think more fully about that mass of words that is supposed to represent a human being.  And as you think about the words, as you pause, and stare, and hit the backspace key when you start the next sentence wrongly for the fifth time, you are also likely to be thinking about the human itself, about how wonderfully contradictory and puzzling it is.  And presto!  There's a bit of vision.  As you realize that your narrative arc starts too far back to pull your reader in immediately, you think about the shapes of the stories we tell, and about why you want to tell your story with this shape, not that.  The fictional world requires it.  More vision.  Revising is hard because it's hard, because you are handling a text with so many layers or strands.  And the risks are so high.  But the rewards are even greater.

Here's the link to an earlier blog post that talked about Kurt Vonnegut's ideas about swoopers and bashers.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Doing, being, and speaking truth to power

Last Monday, Katherine and I were talking about how insane March had been for both of us.  My two new classes provided enough challenge, but once the Faculty of Arts Performance Review Committee started its work, the Mondays and Fridays that gave me time to prepare and mark disappeared into reading files and going to meetings.  In one of those shifts in topic you only notice later, Katherine and I took the conversation from our own busyness to the series we'd both been reading in The Globe and Mail on the role of technology in our lives. In "Overwhelmed:  Why We Need to Take Back Leisure Time," Zosia Bielski talked to Brigid Schulte, who has written Overwhelmed:  Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.  Schulte ironically notes that our cell phones and our email accounts were supposed to make our lives easier, but that instead our constant connection to the demands of work has perhaps made our work lives busier and more invasive, not simpler. Bielsky notes that "Still, for all the kvetching about having no time, Schulte contends the sickness is partly our own fault:  North Americans would rather achieve than relax.  In a culture that worships work, busyness has become a badge of honour.  'To be idle is to be irrelevant,' she writes, pointing out that many people mistake leisure for laziness and frivolity.  So just what is true leisure? Having studied everything from the relatively nascent field of time research to the ancient Greek philosophers, Schulte offers this answer:  'It involves being in the moment, cultivating yourself and connecting with people.  The idea is to do something for its own sake, without obligation.  It is meaningful human experience--refreshing the soul, if you will.'"  Later in the article, Schulte notes that when our Facebook status update gets a "like," or we answer our cell phone from the grocery store, our brains get a squirt of dopamine. 

I suspect I frequently got the same kind of squirt when I would start my day with a long to-do list, get through it, and then feel two contradictory things. There was a small high:  I was doing it; I was afloat.  I could actually manage something that felt inhuman.  (Now I wonder whether that sense of accomplishment was sane.)  At the same time, unless this to-do list involved students or ideas, I could feel, in almost the same breath, empty and indifferent, as if all I had managed to do was to navigate some intriguing obstacle course that someone else had created just to see whether I still had the stuff.

In yet another conversational turn, Katherine and I observed in almost the same instant that whether our busyness was caused by an impossible work load or by our love affair with technology, the result was the same.  We had little time to reflect on our lives, to consider whether the values behind our busyness were meaningful.  We had little time to be disruptive or rebellious. We don't really have time to consider whether we're being played by our culture or our employers. It's brilliant, really.

Realizing the way our busyness and our satisfaction with our busyness ensures that we don't get out of line makes me want to ask a couple more questions.  First, I wonder if the people who have observed the dopamine hit we get as we use our technology have done any studies of the cortisol levels of people whose work loads are unreasonable or of people who are addicted to technology?  Because I suspect both the need to be told we are relevant by some Facebook friend who is nearly a stranger, and our willingness to let work invade our lives 24/7 is a product of fear.  It may the existential fear of people living in urban environments without the support of an extended family or rich friendships.  (Think about it:  Katherine and I meet for coffee at 7:30 a.m.on Monday mornings.  I have similar early morning dates with Jeanne Shami. What does this say about friendship in the 21st century?)  Or it may be the existential fear of a highly individualized culture that makes it difficult for many of us to find "kindred spirits."  Or it may be fear that our jobs are not secure unless we not only give 120%, but are seen to be giving 120%.  I remember being on a hiring committee for a job that the supervisor admitted had a crushing workload.  I told him "This is crazy!  Redefine the job!"  He looked at me as if I were speaking Russian. 

My second question is how, under these circumstances, do we "speak truth to power"?  If we have no time to reflect, if we are anxious about our existential value or our job security, how do we effect change in the world?  When I realized that our workloads and our dependencies affected our energy or ability to rebel and question, that wonderful phrase I remember from the early days of feminism came back to me. Looking for its origin, I found that it comes from a Society of Friends' pamphlet entitled "Speak Truth to Power:  A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence." 

Virginia Woolf, one who certainly sought to "speak truth to power" and who had a Quaker aunt, saw some of these problems in 1930s England and wrote about them in Three Guineas.  Studying the tendency of men in her society to work more hours than is human, but to resist asking others (a.k.a. women) for help, she took a hard look at the results of such single-mindedness.  Reading memoirs of successful, hard-working men who talk about the price they have paid for their success, Woolf notes "And those opinions cause us to doubt and criticize and question the value of professional life--not its cash value; that is great; but its spiritual, its moral, its intellectual value.  They make us of the opinion that if people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes.  They have no time to look at pictures.  Sound goes.  They have no time to listen to music.  Speech goes.  They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion--the relations between one thing and another.  Humanity goes....What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, and sound, and sense of proportion?  Only a cripple in a cave."  Her thoughts are just as relevant today under vastly different circumstances; it is as likely to be a woman as a man who has become the cripple in the cave who has lost her or his sense of proportion. 

I want to go back to Schulte's observation that "to be idle is to be irrelevant." Irrelevant to whom?  (I want to put about three question marks after that question, but that is too reminiscent of FB-speak.)  One of my most relevant accomplishments this month was to manage Sheba's reactions to a food allergy and to the medication we gave her for that, medication that made the rash feel better and her tummy to feel awful.  She became a household ghost, spending as much time in closets as possible. Sheba, you see, is a little obsessive; if sleeping in a closet feels good, more sleep in a closet will feel better.  Her obsessions, like everyone's, have to be challenged.  So every day, I would get her out of the closet a little earlier, encourage her to spend a little bit of quality time with me. I've almost managed to return her behaviour to normal, and she's rediscovered that hanging out with Twig is comforting; they're both at the end of the bed where I'm hunkered down, out of the rain of marking and teaching to do a little important reflecting here. We need to decide that we are always relevant, that only we have the power to make ourselves relevant, and that our relevance probably has much more to do with the way we treat the people and the creatures in our immediate world than it has to do with the number FB friends or our salaries. And then we will be able to speak the truth, knowing how powerless power can sometimes be.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


I've been thinking about texture in all kinds of ways for the past couple of weeks.  Even during that brutally cold weekend last week, I could see that the texture of the ends of tree branches had changed:  while we were huddled against the cold, the trees were reaching out hopefully in tentative buds.  I've also had to watch the texture of Sheba's skin to see whether the new food we're feeding her is helping to deal with her itchiness.  She probably wonders why I keep rubbing the inside of her back thigh--the place where the bumpiness showed up most recently--but she doesn't mind if she can just go on rubbing my face with hers. 

I'm also working on a mainly blue quilt for our bedroom.  When you're working in a single colour, the textures of the prints are one of the main ways you can add visual interest.  Thirteen blocks in, I'm not sure yet whether it's working, but I've got principles to go on.  In a single-colour quilt, interpret the word "blue" widely.  If a shade of blue looks out of place, add more of it.  (Though in my case, it's a shade of background:  I'm not sure the blue and tan blocks are working well.  I'll need to add some shades of off-white that stretch between the white and the tan before I know.)  Intriguingly, this works on quilts.  I'm not sure this is a rule I would apply to life:  if something isn't working well or isn't working right, add more of it?

But my thoughts about texture have mainly been about prose.  They started over reading week, when I began to read Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child.  I couldn't fathom how Hollinghurst could tell us so much about a character's reactions or consciousness without stopping the flow of the narrative.  Further in, I could see that the novel did indeed stop for those moments and that Hollinghurst was counting on his reader's patience;  he was also counting on his reader understanding that characters' consciousness was the point of the novel.  It's where things happened in the particular word world he had made for us:

"Hubert woke early, with a sharp ache above his left eye, where a number of oppressive thoughts seemed to have gathered and knotted.  His pyjamas were twisted and damp with sweat.  Social life, though it had its importance, often left him confused and even physically out of sorts.  The rain on the roof had got him off to sleep, and then woken him again to his own heat.  He had a muddled apprehension of people moving about:  his mother had restless nights, and now, as he dozed and woke again, his worries about her wove their way through his uneasy recall of moments at dinner and afterwards.  Then the sun rose with merciless brilliance....He decided he must go to early Communion, and leave the rest of the party to go to Matins without him.  Twenty minutes later he closed the front gate and set off down the hill with an air of sulky rectitude.  It had turned into a fresh, still morning; the great vale of northern Middlesex lay before him, with the answering heights of Muswell Hill rising mistily beyond, but he searched in vain for his usual sober pleasure in belonging here."

There's a certain fussiness about Hubert's thoughts about his own experience, a way in which everything--from the rain to the landscape to the decision to go to early Communion--refers back to his rather unreflective consciousness.  (Keep in mind that I've chosen one of the simpler passages, since many of these moments deal with characters' thoughts about other characters, and so would be confusing out of context.)  But inside this description of Hubert's reaction to the small party the night before, there's a lot of other, incidental information:  about his mother's difficulty sleeping, about the weather and the landscape, even about the services the small church offers on a summer Sunday morning.  Contrast Hubert's thoughts to this passage from Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses

"Early November.  It's nine o'clock.  The titmice are banging against the window.  Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again.  I don't know what they want that I have.  I look out the window at the forest.  There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake.  It is starting to blow.  I can see the shape of the wind on the water.  I live here now, in a small house in the far east of Norway.  A river flows into the lake.  It is not much of a river, and it gets shallow in the summer, but in the spring and autumn it runs briskly, and there are trout in it.  I have caught some myself.  The mouth of the river is only a hundred metres from here.  I can just see it from my kitchen window once the birch leaves have fallen.  As now in November.  There is a cottage down by the river that I can see when its lights are on if I go out onto my doorstep.  A man lives there.  He is older than I am, I think.  Or he seems to be.  But perhaps that's because I do not realise what I look like myself, or life has been tougher for  him than it has been for me.  I cannot rule that out."

Of course, the first thing one notices is the style.  The simplicity of Petterson's prose is partly the creation of simple sentences, partly the fact that each sentence tries to do a single thing, to nail down one idea or observation.  Some of these observations, like that about the man living down by the river or the narrator's isolation, will resonate throughout the rest of the novel; but at this point, these are simple observations.  In contrast, Hollingshurst is attempting to do two things at once, so that we're not just looking at style, but at texture or layering.  There's exposition in this passage, information about the family, the landscape, the weather; but we are also tuned into Hubert's frame of mind, his anxiety about 'the social life," his decision to mount that anxiety by going alone to an early church service that will establish his early rising Protestant ethic and his independence from the young aristocrat who is staying with his family.  Petterson's passage seems simple, though there are threads that reach far into Out Stealing Horses.  Hollingshurst creates a complex fabric, a weft of straightforward observations about the day that is complicated by a nubby, almost tweedy warp of Hubert's anxieties and observations.

Here is another pair.  The first is from Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," the second from David Foster Wallace's "Good People," which I'm sure casts its eyes back at Hemingway's simplicity and attempts to challenge it.  Both deal with an unexpected pregnancy and raise the issue of an abortion.

     "It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig" the man said.  "It's not really an operation at all."
     The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
     "I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig.  It's really not anything.  It's just to let the air in."
     The girl did not say anything.
     "I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time.  They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural."
     "Then what will we do afterward?"
     "We'll be fine afterward.  Just like we were before."
     "What makes you think so?"
     "That's the only thing that bothers us.  It's the only thing that's made us unhappy."
     The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out, and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
     "And you think then we'll be all right and be happy."
     "I know we will.  You don't have to be afraid.  I've known lots of people that have done it."
     "So have I," said the girl.  "And afterward they were all so happy."

"In this moment or time at the lake now just to come, Lane Dean first felt he could take this all in whole:  everything seemed distinctly lit, for the circle of the pin oak's shade had rotated off all the way, and they sat now in the sun with their shadow a two-headed thing in the grass before them.  He was looking or gazing again at where the downed tree's branches seemed to all bend so sharply just under the shallows' surface when he was given to know that through all this frozen silence he'd despised he had, in truth, been praying, or some little part of his heart he could not hear had, for he was answered now with a type of vision, what he would later call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace.  He was not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men.  Later on, he believed that what happened was he'd had a moment of almost seeing them both as Jesus saw them--as blind and groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature.  For in that same given moment he saw, quick as light, into Sheri's heart, and was made to know what would occur here as she finished turning to him and the man in the hat watching the fishing and the downed elm shed cells into the water.  This down-to-earth girl that smelled good and wanted to be a nurse would take and hold one of his hands in both of hers to unfreeze him and make him look at her, and she would say that she cannot do it.  That she is sorry she did not know this sooner, that she hadn't meant to lie--she agreed because she'd wanted to believe that she could, but she cannot.  That she will carry this and have it; she has to.  With her gaze clear and steady."

When we read Wallace's story in my creative writing class, students whined "Walls of text! Walls of text!"  Indeed, if we imagine Wallace having Hemingway in his mind as he wrote this story of a very religious couple, we might even imagine Wallace making walls of text in contrast to Hemingway's pared down style.  Yet I think these two distinct textures reflect the distinct assumptions of the men who are hoping their lovers will have an abortion.  The male character in "Hills Like White Elephants" believes that an abortion is natural and that it will return the two of them to their carefree life.  Lane Dean, in contrast, has all kinds of compunctions about the abortion.  He realizes that he and Sheri are in a situation where it is impossible to do the right thing.  If she keeps the baby, she will risk ostracization from her community; if she has an abortion, her conscience will object.  The kind of thinking anyone does when faced with no decent alternatives produces obsessive walls of words. 

Which practice is right:  simplicity or complexity?  That, in part, is up to the aesthetics of the reader.  But it's also a matter of what the writer wants to accomplish.  Art, I believe, offers us an experience that we wouldn't otherwise have without its prompting. When I stand in front of a Mark Rothko, my first experience is of a kind of unified wholeness:  only because I stand there for a while, drinking in the colour and the texture of the paint, do I begin to see the complex interweaving of moments where the colour shifts and changes.  When I stand in front of a Jackson Pollock, I experience the almost obsessive complexity, the weaving of layers upon layers of paint.  Hemingway doubtless wants us to be aware of what is not being said between this couple, of the way Jig in particular is not articulating her feelings about her pregnancy and the abortion her lover suggests she have.  While her partner thinks it is "awfully simple" and "perfectly natural," she doesn't see it that way.  In Wallace's story, there is no dialogue, only Lane Dean's thoughts; here Wallace wants us to be inside the complexity of making such a decision, even for a young man who will not expect or be expected to cope with the consequences. Walls of text echo walls of thought. 

Form and content often seem to represent separate strategies available to the artist.  But they're not really separate.  Denis Donoghue helpfully describes form as "achieved content," as if content only makes its way fully and successfully into a work of art through the forms the artist applies.  Together, they make a whole.  Donoghue goes on to observe that this integral function of form in the  work of art explains "why [literature] cannot be reduced to the journalism of themes or the commonplaces of social practice.  Works of literature are forms of composition rather than forms of designation." Paintings or stories are not simply information about society; the artist concerns herself or himself with texture to recreate an experience for the reader or viewer.  By sharing the very texture of a character's thoughts or experiences, we approach more closely to the wonderful experience of living inside someone else's skin. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Being and Doing

“To be is to do - Socrates

To do is to be - Sartre

Do Be Do Be Do - Sinatra”

I thought that this was an old undergraduate joke, but "Quote Investigator" tells me that this little trio has a long history.  It was first seen in Texas in 1968, on the warehouse wall of Bud's Tool Cribs, the first line put there by Bud himself, the second added by a salesman travelling through. No one quite knows who added the Sinatra reference. There, the first two lines were initially attributed to Lao Tzu and Dale Carnegie. Then a syndicated series called "Weekend Chuckles" gave the trio of quotations wide distribution. That's when things began to morph. The words would be written on a wall somewhere, slightly changed, or included in the Boston Globe or London Times, who reported seeing the words on a lavatory wall in Cambridge.  All kinds of philosophers were given credit for the thoughts--Kant, Hegel, Camus, Aristotle--credit which rarely accorded with their thought, until Socrates was added as the source of the first and then Sartre of the second, in Kurt Vonnegut's 1982 story, "Deadeye Dick."  Sinatra's lines, from "Strangers in the Night" has been a constant, added by someone unknown moving through Bud's warehouse in Richardson, Texas. Clearly we're fascinated by the relationship between being and doing.

An early meme?  Certainly, like Dawson's 1976 concept of the meme, it mutates and spreads.  What sent these words wandering through my mind as I sat on the stairs with Sheba purring in my lap(stairs are the only places she finds comfortable these days--something I'm very worried about), is that for me being and doing seem not to be connected--being leading to doing, or doing to being--but profoundly at odds with one another.  Still contemplating being and doing, still sitting on the stairs, some second-wave feminists showed up, particularly Sixties British thinker Juliet Mitchell,  one of the first feminists who identified doing and making and agency with masculinity, being and passivity with femininity.  For feminists, this binary way of thinking about gender is highly problematic, and following the spread of these ideas, women began moving into the "doing" parts of culture.

In 2014, we're a very "doing" culture.  This shows up most grotesquely in the fact that our cultural heroes are businessmen who put in long, long hours--even though doing so is ineffective when it isn't positively damaging.  It's our Protestant Work Ethic write large and prompting us to admire something that's basically dysfunctional.  It shows up on a smaller scale in our relationship with our smart phones.  Studies of young people whose lives are drenched and inundated with technology have shown that they lack empathy, something we learn and wire in our brains mostly when we are reading or day-dreaming--not when we're reading status updates. A "like" doesn't really require empathy.  On the other hand, empathy requires the time to daydream and reflect.

I've found myself trying to discover the difference between being and doing.  I don't think they're two separate boxes; I suspect they are a continuum. Trying to sort this out, I found only questions.  Why can preparing a class be "being" if you have enough time and find the work you're thinking about engaging, but the same task without enough time is distinctly a matter of "doing"?  Why is writing my blog a matter of "being," while writing comments at the end of a marked essay certainly a matter of "doing"?  Why is marking papers almost always "doing," whereas making dinner or a sock or a quilt is definitely "being"?  I began to get glimmers of answers. There is always a deadline for marking papers.  As well, if I'm going to judge someone else's thoughts, I'd better do this very carefully--something that works against the deadline. When you make a quilt or a meal, though, there are pleasant, rich, sensuous way-stations along the way:  the colours and geometry of cloth, the smell of fresh ingredients or of spices you've just added to your Moroccan chicken.  And there is pleasure and friendliness at the end, in the meal, in the beautiful drape of a quilt.  There's something distinctly utilitarian about "doing" and something inherently sensual and pleasurable about "being." Doing" involves getting something done (often to a deadline), whereas "being" emphasizes the pleasure of each step of the process.  

Oddly enough, Sheba's ill health has been a boon for the "being" part of my life, though I've had to do most of my thinking sitting on stairs with both arms around a little cat whose paws have stretched up on either side of my neck. I'm stiff but loved.  While I'm worried that we can't quite diagnose what's wrong and sick about the way she lurks on stair or won't curl up in my lap when I sit on the sofa, her behaviour has challenged my sense of what's really important. This is going to be another very "doing" weekend:  I have two batches of papers to mark and a novel to read.  But I'll know enough to take "being" breaks on the stairs with Sheba. 


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mindfulness and Doing More with Less

I know I am in trouble when Time Magazine offers me an antidote to my mood.  Standing in line in the grocery store on Saturday, I picked up an issue of Time whose lead article was about the mindfulness movement.  According to the writer, who opens her essay with a description of her careful, mindful exploration of a raisin getting stickier with each mindful, meditative moment, we do too many things at once and our attention to the world suffers.

We know that universities across the continent are struggling financially; we also know that one of their biggest expenses is salaries. Hence it's not difficult to conclude that one of the way universities are dealing with their financial difficulties is by not hiring replacements when people retire.  The obvious result of those decisions (or non-decisions in some cases--all too often the administration is simply letting this happen, which means that older faculties like Science and Arts take more of a hit than the younger "professional" faculties) is that there will be less variety of classes offered and that those classes will probably be larger. A perhaps unintended consequence is that all of the things the academy does to run and regulate itself are done by fewer and fewer people.  

I'm senior faculty; I have seven more weeks (and a bit for marking and a single exam) left of the term, so it's my job to do what I can.  When I told my department head to put me where he needed me (we have four people on well-deserved sabbaticals), he took me seriously.  Hence I am teaching two new classes this term. When  no one from the humanities volunteered for the Faculty of Arts Performance Review Committee, I stepped up.  I'm on the English Department's Advisory Committee, so I also read all the files that will ultimately go forward to the Faculty's Review.  As well, I'm Graduate Chair, and spent nearly a week of "spare time" reading eleven applications to our M.A. program from Nigeria and China, as well as from Ontario and Saskatchewan. 

Reading files:  it's not as awful as it sounds.  In both the English Department and the Faculty of Arts, reading files is often inspiring.   I need perhaps to say that again:  it's inspiring to see your colleagues being reflective about their teaching, to see them considering ways of framing their discipline that will catch students' imaginations, to see the fruits of their scholarship, to know that they have fresh new insights into the world we struggle every day to make and remake.  Reading student files, particularly from abroad, is certainly challenging.  We sometimes don't know what to make of student transcripts; just as often we are surprised by the classes students in Nigeria and China take--on cultural traditions and peaceful social transformation. Ultimately, we need to create a past narrative that might predict the future.  I can imagine the life of a student studying in Ontario; I have no idea about the life of a student studying in Saudi Arabia.  It takes time and a certain kind of mindfulness. 

As usual, it's not the work I need to do that is the problem; it is the time I have to do it in. The two new classes alone are more than a full time job. Let it also be said: I'm not an automaton.  If I don't have some down time to simply be, to have conversations with friends, cuddle with a cat, knit some complicated lace, start a new quilt, I lose my sense of self. I'm not sure I teach particularly well when I walk into a classroom with no reserves, with a dwindled sense of self.  I am not my job.  I don't think that any professor who is just their job can do the important work of reaching beyond the text or the discipline that is in front of us to make those crucial connections between the academy and the world beyond.  These aren't something we plan:  they come out of our mindful, imaginative engagement with the faces in front of us, our sense of who our students are and how they view their world.  We know a "teachable moment" when we see one, but only if we're not on automatic pilot.

When people asked me what I wanted to do with "Reading Week," I said "Walk, play lots,and think deeply."  We might laugh at Kate Pickert's exploration of the raisin in the palm of her hand, but that's what I mean to do. I am starting a new quilt; the wonderful thing about any craft is that it requires a mindfulness that is half zen and half intensely engaged. You can't do things by rote, though their familiarity creates a kind of zone in which you move comfortably.  I need to finish my conference paper on Woolf's early use of experimental form for the "1914:  A Turning Point in History and Culture" lecture series at the University. I'm reading Pierre Bourdieu's The Rules of Art, which hasn't netted any profound moments yet, but I'm willing to hang in with his critique of nineteenth-century French art and all the wondrous and venial institutions that supported it so that I have a context for what he says about the making of art.  I'm nearly done with Molly Peacock's splendid The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life's Work at 72--an irresistible title for someone on the eve of retirement.   Next comes Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, a real door-stopper that clocks in at nearly 800 pages.

Even this soon, I can see something that I'd lost sight of among the piles of files and paperwork and meetings:  it's the University's job to teach mindfulness. What we really try to do, particularly in the Faculty of Arts, is to offer students myriad ways of being mindful, being attentive to their world. We teach them to see things that have been invisible, like ideology. We teach them to reframe and reconsider what is all too visible:  inequality, unkindness, lack of empathy and compassion.  We teach the mindfulness required to read a poem or watch a film or to unravel the threads of cause and effect that lead to homelessness or despair We teach them ways first to observe carefully and then to create the world they want that isn't here yet.

Monday, February 10, 2014


In my creative writing class, we are using Jack Hodgins' lucid and helpful book on fiction.  We began, appropriately, with words and sentences, moved on to setting (after all, fiction first needs a world) and then last week looked at what he had to say about character.  At the very least he says good, interesting characters need to be coherent or consistent, they need to have motivation, and they need to be plausible.

Yes, but.

In my CanLit class, we have just finished reading Dennis Bock's first novel, The Ash Garden.  One of the main characters, Anton Boll, is a man who left Germany to work on the atomic bomb in the United States. Bock's fictional character seems to play a small but crucial role in getting the whole thing working and deliverable.  He's not the big brains, but he's important.  Boll goes to Japan with the Manhattan District (the military section of the Manhattan Project) about four weeks after the bomb is dropped and sees the very personal and horrific scars radiation leaves on survivors.  (Bock implicitly makes us realize that the experiments in the middle of the desert never involved human subjects, so we didn't know what the bomb would do to the survivors in Hiroshima.) This traumatic experience leaves Boll with a galloping case of cognitive dissonance.  Part of him believes, as did many Americans, that dropping the bomb was the best course against a country dedicated to "total war," and that it probably saved lives in the long run.  (I'm not sure about this argument, and I will always wonder if we would have dropped an experimental weapon on Europeans rather than the Japanese.  The notion of the Japanese as "other" may well have contributed to our mis-understanding of the way "total war" might have played out.) But Boll also has a personal investment in the bomb.  He knows that his work with the Manhattan Project will cement his legacy as a physicist.  Add to this the guilt he feels about the wounds he sees, and you have a characters whose motivation is powerfully inconsistent.   It seems to me, pace dear Jack Hodgins that sometimes we are moved by a character's inconsistencies--inconsistencies so like our own beliefs that we're about to be a hero or a heroine in someone's narrative, hopefully our own, and that we're really worthless, stupid, lazy, completely lacking in wisdom or perspective.

My students did a much better job of querying Hodgins' notion that characters should be plausible, since they read much more genre fiction than I do and thus know that the character's plausibility depends on the world the character lives in.  I was thinking of magic realism and the plausibility of Isabel Allende's or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's characters:  I don't think plausibility is their greatest strength.  Rather, the magic of these writers' works is to pull us into worlds where the contract is entirely different.  We have to figure out the new rules--a great exercise for people who move unthinkingly in and around the rules of their own cultures.

Motivated I can run with.  In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter argues that characters who are victims aren't very interesting.  Hodgins himself notes that characters have to want something and to be frustrated in their efforts to get it.  Characters need to want to change something, to make a difference, to grow and change themselves.  They have to want.  That, after all, is one of literature's--one of art's wild cards:  what does unpredictable and incomprehensible human desire look like?  Baxter also suggests that we can get interesting characters when we witness them making an inadvertent mistake that they then need to take responsibility for.  Baxter wonders "What's an unwitting action? It's what we do when we have to act so quickly or under so much pressure that we can't stop to take thought.  It's not the same as an urge, which may well have a brooding and inscrutable quality.  For some reason, such moments of unwitting action in life and in fiction feel enormously charged with energy and meaning.  It's difficult for fictional characters to acknowledge their mistakes, because they then become definitive.  They are the person who did that thing.  The only people who like to see characters performing such actions are readers.  They love to see characters getting themselves into interesting trouble and defining themselves" (Burning Down the House, 14).

Running alongside my thoughts about character was an inexplicable desire to find myself an old deck of cards and play a few games of solitaire.  I needed to do something completely useless, to rebelliously waste time.  I never did dig up that old deck of cards (a new deck is too hard to shuffle), but that goofy desire did help me think about character. In the best post-structuralist tradition, I have long realized that subjectivity was always "in crisis and in process."  We're not people; we're people in the making and we're often pulled in two directions. These are easiest to see using feminist theory. Perhaps while we consciously buy ourselves a pair of red Converse sneakers (something I plan to do when I retire) and wear boyfriend jeans, we're also unconsciously thinking about whether we live up to the model of femininity that culture is advocating in the media, femininity with an up-do and diamonds and stiletto heals.  As if there's only one.  That would be too easy. We'd be able to follow the pattern and get on with life.  But there are always so many that we have to choose and experience cognitive dissonance.  So I've long thought of personality or subjectivity as a gem with many facets.  These connect but they're not identical.  My yearning for solitaire inspired yet another model.  Perhaps we're dealt a metaphoric hand--or dealt part of a hand and accrue the other part. The hand is a whole, but its parts may take us off in unpredictable directions.

This term my reading schedule has been relentless:  finish one Canadian novel and start the next one.  But the upcoming break has already created a bit of a hiatus in my reading.  So I've begun Molly Peacock's wonderful work of creative nonfiction, The Paper Garden:  Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72.  Mrs. Delany, friend of Handel and Swift, began making floral collages in her seventies.  Her damask rose, Peacock tells us, consists of 71 pieces carefully layered on to create the depth of the rose.  And while the rose has an inner coherence, there are--as in most flowers--stamens and pistils, male and female organs.  The creative part of Peacock's nonfiction is to pair a collage with a phase of Mrs. Delany's life and to consider how the details of the collage's construction might illuminate an earlier period of her life.  It's that odd and interrogative reading of the flowers that suggested Mrs. Delaney's mosaiks were another wonderful metaphor for character:  layered, contradictory yet complementary, whole but with easily identifiable parts. And contrasts--a sliver of deep red demarcating the creamy pink petals at the centre.  I can imagine at the very same moment the notioin that consistency might be profoundly comforting and restful--and boring.  Would it mean that I couldn't walk into my CanLit class tomorrow as both a teacher and a student? I'm not giving that up for a little consistency.

Friday, January 31, 2014


I'll bet you have one.  A memory so secret that even you have forgotten that it belongs to you.  Forgotten, that is, until something startles you and prompts it out into the open air.  Last Friday, Bill and I were in the parking lot off Albert between Melrose Place and the liquor store when I saw a young woman walking across the parking lot, alone, jaunty, as if being alone were just fine and if there were a party around the corner and as if she knew, indisputably, who she was.  I wanted that.  I felt a moment of uncharacteristic self-pity:  I wanted to have had that while I was young.  Mind you:  I'm lucky to have it now, parts of it, the jauntiness some days, the sense of who I am on the days when administrivia doesn't threaten to drown me.  I have it when I teach and write and puzzle out the cats and have lunch with my daughter and cook dinner for Bill.  But that aching desire to have been someone other than the person I was in my twenties followed me around for a couple of days.  'Youth is wasted on the young,' I groaned with just about every senior I know. 

And then this memory fell out of its little synapse into my eyes and onto my skin.  I had just finished my master's degree at the University of Michigan.  I'd moved a stripped-down household and three cats to Ann Arbor for two whole summers, but it was only going to take me a couple of months to finish the degree, so this time I packed up only my summer clothes and stayed with friends.  It was a summer of working very, very hard because I not only had to finish my last two classes, I had to pummel my Russian back into shape so I could take and pass my language exam--the final barrier to my degree.  Kind Professor Shishkov was coming into his office a couple of times a week to meet me and to set me passages to translate and then going over flaws in the the translation.  He looked like a small, bald hussar and had a remarkably deep seductive voice that didn't fit with his waistline or his bald head.  In spite of the heavy workload, I found times to drive the wooded hills around Ann Arbor with one of my roommates and to occasionally go to the pub to hear blues bands.

After the final exams, after taking and passing my Russian exam and taking a bottle of wine to Professor Shishkov, while waiting for the weekend when my mother would come get me and my single suitcase, I went over to the new periodical reading room of the Graduate Library and read newspapers.  I read The Detroit Free Press and The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune.  I read the job pages mostly.  For reasons I could not quite explain, for reasons that I could give you now but that would be composed of hindsight, I did not want to go back to the life I was living.  I wanted a job.  I wanted to be that young woman walking off jauntily to get herself a bottle of scotch and then going home to read or write.  I wanted the independence to read and write and think.  I wanted to strip down to youthful, adventurous essentials; I wanted not to care where I lived or what I ate, but to have a vision of a future that glowed like a hot August prairie moon, huge at the horizon.

Here's the funny thing about that memory:  I'm seeing the future in it.  There must be a visual metaphor for this experience, perhaps the mise en abyme, as in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage where Van Eyck paints what he really can't see:  the wedding guests admiring the new couple.  Or at the Boston Institute of Arts there was a glass case full of pale blue and green glass bottles that were multiplied row on row by mirrors.  Is there a way to hold a mirror to the past and so see the future? 

Oddly enough, at sixty-three, I think I'm about to launch into my younger self's adventure.  That sense explains my crazy desire to get rid of stuff, my hunger to hunker down and think.  I have two wonderful classes this term, so if I simply organize my Mondays, they are thinking days, lessons in the contemporary Canadian novel for me as they are for my students.  When I'm lucky, I can get a bit of writing in on Friday.  These days, though, reading the files of students applying to our graduate program, or reading files of my colleagues (who inspire me) for the department's and the faculty's performance review make me feel as if there is no I to go on an adventure.

But my vision of that young woman in the parking lot and her relationship to the young woman I once was in the Graduate Library Reading Room with her secret are keeping my walk a bit jauntier than it usually is when I scramble from meeting to meeting or read ill-written graduate application file after ill-written file.  They remind me that I will dive deep into language and story in 10 weeks, coming up for air only when I choose.  And occasionally, when my spirits need colour and predictable patterns, I will make cheerful quilts for women in shelters, relishing the silence of working with my hands. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


One of the challenges of teaching my "Britain in the Sixties" class is to find a clear connection between some of the new forces making themselves felt in the country and lasting social change.  We can say without much hedging that when the post-war economy was up and running there was an element of celebration and joy--though not everyone shared in that boom.  We can also say that young people, for the first time in their lives, had enough disposable income--to buy records and fan magazines and miniskirts--to become a force to be reckoned with and to create a youth(ful) culture that continues to this day.  We can say that the pill influenced not only women's reproductive decisions but cut an inextricable tie between a woman and the destiny implied by her body.  Yet today when I talk to some of my younger students or listen to young women while they shop, I'm not sure we can register the effects of the pill as a lasting social change.  Feminist principles are taken for granted in some contexts; in others, I see gender stereotypes nervously yet cursorily reinforced rather than challenged.

Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, published in 2000 and thus the first novel in my CanLit class, challenges any individual's ability to turn aside the juggernauts of governments and revolutions in Sri Lanka.  Anil has found a single skeleton of a man clearly tortured in a burial site controlled by government forces.  She thinks that with the help of a local archeologist and an artisan she can identify the man, find out when he disappeared, blame the guilty, and establish that there are human rights violations occurring in Sri Lanka.  Her persistence and ingenuity end up paying off:  she gives him a name and can tell the authorities when he disappeared.  All through this process she has been reminding herself of one of the principles of a favourite teacher:  "One victim can speak for many victims.  One village can speak for many villages." 

Anil's principles are hopeful and laudable.  Through the silence of one of the minor characters, a young woman named Lakma who saw her parents murdered, we understand the importance of the individual and collective voice.  From all my years of teaching young people to write, I have observed that while the first and primal human desire is to be loved, the second is often to have a voice.  Our voices are our most basic way of being agents in our social worlds and of creating and articulating our connections with other people.  It is the manifestation of ourselves in the world, beyond our bodies.  But Lakma's voice has been stolen by the trauma attendant on her parents' murder.  We would hope, then, that someone would or could speak for her.  

While it is true that to prove human rights abuses, one must find the first victim and to give that victim a voice, it is also true that a single victim will not take one's case very far.  This is particularly true in Sri Lanka during their civil war: by the time Anil has gotten out of the country, lucky to still be alive, most of her carefully collected evidence has been confiscated.  Anil's danger-filled, earnest time there, despite her cleverness and expertise, will change nothing about the conduct of this war, for, as two characters observe in slightly different wording "the reason for war was war." 

I have been watching change on a micro level in my household:  Sheba has been sick.  About a week and a half ago, she began hiding out under things and was even more easily spooked than usual.  She was also scratching herself furiously and had taken out a chunk of fur and skin near her right ear.  Taking her to the vet is no joke, even when she's not unusually tense; in order to look at her closely and get blood tests, the vet had to anaesthetize her.  It turns out that she has a urinary tract infection and perhaps a skin infection too.  Much to my surprise, she's an easy cat to pill.  I fold the pill into one of her favourite treats and put it with five others in my hand.  If one tastes suspicious, the others are fine--which of course keeps her guessing.  Mostly she just scarfs it all down. 

The interesting change is that she has reverted to some of her kitten habits, and I think she's about 7 years old now.  She sleeps on my pillow as she did her first month with us, stretching her paws onto my shoulder and putting her face next to my cheek.  Or she comes under the covers, something she also hasn't done in years.  She continues to hide a lot, but when she comes out of whatever secret place she has, she wants LOVE and lots of it.  In fact, she's been in my lap while I've been writing this, often stretching up to touch my face.

She and Twig and pretty good friends, yet Twig, always an undemanding cat (unless food is involved) has been reacting to her times in her secret hiding places by in effect saying "Me. Want.  Attention."  So Sheba's body is prompting her to behave strangely and affecting the subtle feline power politics in the household.  Meanwhile, I'm covered in cat fur.

The segue from Ondaatje's remarkable novel to my sick cat was not entirely a swift passage from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Rather, watching Sheba has made me attentive to how often change happens for seemingly arbitrary reasons like an infection.  I've been watching this process as a writer, I guess, thinking about the subtle ways in which we change the behaviour of the people around us.  It's a truism of the counselling trade that while, to paraphrase Heidegger, mood is our primary interface with the world, our partner's moods are a similarly powerful filter.  That mood or change might have nothing to do with intentions and everything to do with something arbitrary like an infection or six cloudy days in a row.

At the same time I've been considering how difficult it can be to effect change in ourselves or others.  Change is always happening; we consider it one of life's constants.  Yet changing your diet or your smoking habits can be extremely difficult.  Some people embrace change; others are terrified by it.  Both groups would probably be challenged to explain their attitudes convincingly. 

I'm often told that one effective way of constructing a narrative is to consider the power balance between characters to be in continual flux as they jockey for control and establish their dominance.  I'm sorry, but that model of the universe is entirely foreign to me and I think it creates characters who are one-dimensional power-hungry little shits.  But change
--how to create it or avoid it or bring it to one's own life or bring some of its sweetness into the world--that I think I could get behind.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ritual and Repetition

I still remember the rather startling experience, probably twenty years ago, of deciding to put the newly-published novel, The English Patient, on the course outline for my Canadian Literature honours/graduate class, beginning to re-read the novel, and stopping suddenly to say out loud to one of my black cats "I have no idea what Ondaatje is doing here,"and turning back to the beginning.  I had read the novel when it came out and, like everyone else had been stunned by the powerful, evocative story, the gorgeously-imagined characters, and by the writing. My history with Ondaatje went back more years than that, when I gave a well-received conference paper on Coming Through Slaughter--which is "high postmodernism" if it ever existed.  Surely I'd be able to figure out how to teach The English Patient.  After re-reading about forty pages, I wasn't so sure.

Fortunately, when I came to the U of R English Department a couple of years earlier, I was recruited by the department's theory guru, Ray Mise, to meet once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, with the other theory-heads.  The supervisor for my thesis, Evelyn Hinz, was a hard-core Jungian and a devotee of myth criticism, which suited the Callisto project I had in mind.  (You also have to understand that I told Veronica stories from the Greek and Roman myths to entertain her while I washed her very long hair, so Evelyn's approach fit well with my enthusiasms.)  But I learned little about other kinds of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, or narratology in my time at the University of Manitoba.  I had bought a book I'd serendipitously seen in the U of M bookstore--Stanzel's Theory of Narrative, but I didn't know about Prince or Chatwin or James Phelan or Mieke Bal.  Ray introduced me to these writers.  Now you can rightly complain that narratologists go in for arcane vocabulary of the kind that splits hairs (or at least narration), but sometimes their in their enthusiasm to see and then define the most subtle strategies of narrators, they coined a term that helped readers to see what writers were doing.  Trying to get ready to teach The English Patient in several weeks' time, I was rescued by one of these terms:  "the iterative."

Narratologists use words like "prolepsis" for flash-forwards; "analepsis" for flash-backs, and "the iterative" for things that the characters do over and over.  These might be characteristic gestures or habits or obsession; things they do over and over to comfort or orient themselves; things that they do as professionals; things they do as lovers or parents:  stroke a face, fiddle with keys, analyze a skeleton or a passage of literature.  The iterative might be used to describe a typical day at work for one of the characters, or a tried-and-true way of coping with a lover's anxiety or a way of putting a child to sleep night after night.  The iterative allows the writer to describe once, and fully, something the character does over and over again.

When I began to re-read The English Patient, I could see what Ondaatje was doing:  describing the things that Hana, Almasy, Kip, and Carravaggio did over and over to comfort and orient themselves in a Europe that has come to a tense and sudden halt, having ripped lives and countries apart.  So I was not surprised, exactly, to find so much of the iterative in Anil's Ghost, which is one of the six Canadian novels written between 2000 and 2011 that I'm teaching this term.  I was surprised to notice it in February, and in The Winter Vault, and this has forced me to see how often this style of narration comes out of narratives that deal with trauma--heading straight into it or skirting around it.  

At a wonderful writers' workshop I attended this fall, the leader suggested that stories should start as close to the conflict or crisis as possible.  This "rule" panicked me for several weeks, until I simply decided to put the advice in my pocket, write a draft of Soul Weather, put it away while I finished another project, and then tried to see what form this narrative that I was finding should take.  But I've come to realize that even fairly tense novels like Anil's Ghost and February don't follow this advice.  Many of you commented last week that you and other readers in your lives had loved February, so let me use that as my primary example.  Helen loses her husband in the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in 1982, yet the novel starts in 2008 as she watches a workman sharpen her grandson's skates.  Cal's death is certainly the event that shapes Helen's and John's lives profoundly, yet we've begun emotionally about as far away from it as possible.  Moore's section headings always orient us, but they also allow her to swing from the eighties to 2008 and back again with rapidity and ease.  Why?  If we are following a widow's path as she attempts to come to terms with an unnecessary and brutal loss, why don't we get a tidy narrative through-line from Helen's certainty that Cal is dead to the moment when Helen achieves "closure."

How I hate that word.  It's a journalist's strategy for moving on to the rest of the day's news or for dropping the story suddenly in order to make room for more contemporary disasters and dramas that will grab a viewer's attention by the throat. But the iterative is something else.  It's the seasons of a garden, each stitch in a cowl, the making of quilts or meals, a day's work or labour. It's what we live inside most of the time.  I've been aware of it because as I've been trying to get ready for the new term, I've also been working on Veronica's quilt, cutting tiny pieces and putting them back together again--surely a metaphor for daily life if there ever was one.  The iterative, with its familiar repetitiveness, allows us to nestle or shrug or cocoon or struggle familiarly with our daily lives, giving our minds space between the rows of knitting or the chopping of vegetables and their time on the stove, to consider.  Just for a moment.  Not the painful meditation, but a brief meeting of now and then.  The truth is that we don't grieve for a while, have an epiphany, and then get over whatever loss we are grieving.  Rather, we keep putting one foot in front of another, feeding children and pets, showing up at work, mowing the lawn, while life goes on around us, as if we are stones in a stream (an image that I've stolen from W.B. Yeats's "Easter 1916").  It's a wonderfully honest way of writing a novel, even if it doesn't heighten the tension for the reader.  Writers who use the iterative trust their voices and their characters to pull us into a world where grief and loss and trauma don't get closure, but simply become impearled in our daily lives, part of who we are and will always be.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cold Weather and Simplicity

One of the things I actually like about the cold Saskatchewan weather is the excuse to stay home.  Knowing that the temperature wasn't going to get above minus 30 today permitted me to scale down my list to a few important things:  continuing to read Lisa Moore's wonderful novel, February, working on Nikka's quilt, and writing this blog post. Unfortunately, I almost got side-tracked by a sudden impulse to clean drawers and closets--I have no idea whether this is a nesting thing or a new year's thing or a cold weather thing. Two small drawers in my workroom now glow with order, and the linen closet is a little more functional.  

My first stop was Veronica's quilt, which I think I've been working on for over a year. I have promised myself that it will be ready for the outer borders by Friday, so this weekend I've made the last couple of blocks. You need to be short a few blocks as you finish a quilt like this, because until you've put them all out and figured out how they go together, you don't know what colours or values you need for balance.  The last two rows have been sewn together and now need to be "married" onto the rows that are already there. 

It was while I was waiting for lunch and cleaning out drawers that I nearly got sidetracked, until a startling discovery brought me back to my senses.

I have eight

yes, eight quilt tops that need to be hand quilted.  The one above also needs an appliqued border.  The discovery brought me back from that zoneless place where you tidy to the reality of things that need to be done.

After lunch, I turned to February, which is not one of the novels I've come to call "unsmiling."  There's lots of joy and whimsy and error in Lisa Moore's novel.  Sitting down to read for an uninterrupted couple of hours prompted me to pay more attention to the way Moore structures the novel.  There are two main narratives:  that which follows Helen's grief after her husband dies in the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig i 1982, and a second narrative taking place in 2008 involving Helen's relationships with her grandchildren and her son John's discovery that he is going to be a father.  What I could see, however, through an afternoon's reading, was that these narratives touched one another so gently, echoed one another so quietly and so hopefully.  They are tied together by a query about risk--whether Helen and Cal risked too much in their love, leaving Helen vulnerable when he died in his risky job; how much risk companies are willing to take for profit; whether Cal feels like risking fatherhood. And what the hopefulness of babies does to our sense of risk. 

These are still random thoughts:  I will be much more attuned to what Lisa Moore is doing here when I teach the novel this spring.  But the other thing I noticed is how the simplicity of cold weather keeping you indoors makes you open to complexity.  Which, in an odd way, brought me back to the quilts.  Complexity takes time to cultivate, to order, to understand, to intuit and then articulate.  You need to make order out of it, but not too much order, because then it's not complexity any more. It's a system. Too much order takes away the casual beauty that being human has.