Thursday, October 21, 2010

Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, October 9

This morning's most inspiring and helpful paper was given by Susan Reynolds.  Her background is in psychology, but she worked the effect or value of creative writing into enough of her projects that she's quite familiar with the pedagogy and research on creative writing.  She runs a writing program at a maximum security prison that houses fifty-odd women in Ontario.  Inmates come to the workshop to write and perhaps--only if they feel like it--to read aloud what they have written.  The result is that the writers go more deeply into their lives, some of them finally crying for the first time.  When they read their work, their fellow classmates are offered the opportunity to say what was most memorable or vivid about the piece of writing.  This validates the women's expressions and voices, making a considerable difference in their lives.  In keeping with research that shows writing heals bodies as well as psyches, these women experienced renewed optimism and faith in themselves.  Some of them continue to write.

What I loved about this paper was that while I will probably never spend time teaching creative writing to women in a prison, it expressed what is perhaps at the bedrock of what we do in the creative writing classroom, but are unwilling to articulate because it probably sounds lacking in rigor, not to mention being touchy-feely.  We spend time, as fellow-travellers, with students who are becoming more human:  keener, more critical and insightful readers of any kind of text, empathetic with their characters and their classmates, more willing to encounter and express the complexity of the human condition.  Rigour?  Only students who are willing to engage fully with the inventive messiness and joy and despair of being human,  students willing to fully explore the language with which this is expressed, finally thrive in creative writing classes.  But the other students, in my class at least, become better readers and writers, on their own terms, and this is also a significant accomplishment on their part.

Here are Susan Reynolds' websites:


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Daily Sublime

Eggs in Sunlight by veronica_geminder
Last week, my close friend Deborah and I finally had a few moments to have a coffee and catch up on one another's lives, and she talked about the many people--some of them sick, some of them old, some of them both sick and old--who depended on phone calls from her. So she's done what women have been doing since time out of mind: trimmed her life down to its essentials so she has the time and the emotional energy to make the calls so these vulnerable people feel less lonely and more safe. About the only thing besides work that isn't optional is walking the German shepherds, Seamus and London.

She spoke of a walk earlier in the week when she'd been lying in the grass with the dogs, watching a hawk swoop and soar, watching London's head doing a 360 when geese flew over, watching the fog gently rise out of the dusk and damp grass and leaves. It was a moment so rich and palpable that it more than made up for the missed movie nights and coffees with friends.

Stairs at Walden Pond by veronica_geminder

Ah, the sublime, I said. The comforts of the sublime. While few of us feel any longer that these moments illustrate the incomprehensibility of God, which Immanuel Kant thought was their purpose, we do feel something Kant thought characterized them: a powerful harmony between our senses and the world they apprehend. We feel that our sense of sight, hearing, touch are exactly suited to the world they give back to us. We are supposed to be here at this moment.

Fountain in Sunlight by veronica_geminder

 But the sublime is also tinged with powerful feelings of loss, because our senses tell us that the moment is always already fading. The notes we hear are disappearing into the past; the late October light is already falling and dimming. But it's being on the golden edge of a fading moment that makes it so beautiful. Paradoxically, it's because we're about to lose the moment that we value it so fully.

Study in gold-tinted glass by veronica_geminderI had an urban sublime moment yesterday afternoon. It was nearly 5, and downtown had emptied out; in fact you could hear the silent vacuum of sound created by all those people and their cars leaving, as if their absence hung in the air. A lone saxophonist played "All the things you are" at the Cornwall Centre end of the mall, reminding us that we were also in the presence of "the promised kiss of springtime." The slanting October light left the mall itself in dusk, but was hitting the taller buildings above; the dramatic difference between the sun-washed sky and the dusky street speaking of what was about to change.

Veronica's photographs shouldn't be able to catch the sublime, since they represent a single instant. But you can tell by the muzzy bars of light across the eggs that the moment is already passing (not to mention the fragility of the eggs themselves). The water drops on the fountain are on their way to some sea; the water in Walden Pond is still for now, but soon a clever old trout or over-sized tortoise will come to the surface and send ripples echoing out to the pond's edges. A Saturday afternoon beside the pond in Boston Commons will fade into a memory: and who will know that they had been, for an instant, looped back in time to be part of the replay of Seurat's La Grande Jatte

Saturday afternoon on the Boston Common by veronica_geminder 

You can find more of Veronica Geminder's photos at

Friday, October 15, 2010

Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, October 8

We began our second day listening to a vibrant, provocative plenary given by Aritha van Herk. Fortunately, this will be published by Wascana Review ( I can't possibly do justice to her playfulness, her gift with metaphor, her literary allusions, her intriguing digressions.

Like Hollingshead, van Herk noted that "Writing has entered into dalliance with 'the market,'" and suggested that we need to admit our complicity with the creation of this market. But noting that she'd become an author and teacher because she wanted to find a way to read for a living, she has suggested that creative writers should want, first, to be readers. I suspect van Herk is always thinking about her teaching and about her students, but she doesn't grouse about the literacy of the younger generation, saying instead that "the young have to find a way to immerse themselves."

As someone who has published her first novel and is at work on a second, I find I read differently. At sixty, and an academic for many of those years, I can figure out fairly quickly where the core of the text lies, how it prompts me to think about and query the world. But my new questions, ones I feel a need to record in a reading journal, are about how the text works to draw in the reader and create the "continuous dream" that John Gardner so convincingly wrote about. Writerly reading requires a complete immersion in the act of reading, a almost ecstatic engagement with the words on the page in order to allow the created world to rise up before you like a verbal hologram.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, October 7

The first night's keynote was given by Greg Hollingshead, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta who now runs the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre. It was a tri-partite address that began with the ritual of kvetching. Independent booksellers now account for 10% of the market, while a single individual chooses 45% of the fiction offered by Indigo/Chapters. By the end of 2012, e-books will account for 25% of sales, which will influence the royalties of the authors who actually get royalties. Writers of fiction can expect to see four reviews of their work if they are lucky: one in The Globe and Mail (if it gets by the book review editor), one in Quill and Quire, one in Literary Review of Canada, and one in those rare local newspapers who continue to offer the readers in their audience book reviews. (These facts—and I hope I've got them right—come from a “Report on Business” article Hollingshead cited.)

In spite of these facts, many of us are noticing that Creative Writing classes are full—if they aren't over-subscribed. Hollingshead feels that many readers have a strong aesthetic sense, one that is exercised in creative writing classes. The creative writing classroom, he argues, (and he'd have to argue with me about it, because I don't think his impression is entirely accurate, though I see his point) is one place in the academy where students actually study literature as art, satisfying that aesthetic hunger as well as an urge to create something entirely their own.

Creative writing classes, Hollingshead emphasized, provide a place where students meet the models they need to solve the problems they find in their own texts: reading is a creative writing student's “daily nourishment.” As teachers, we need to be careful, though, that the writers we encourage students to read aren't presented as Titans that none of them will finally be able to emulate but rather, (I use my own language here) as fellow-travellers offering one another a hand up, a hammer or a saw—or whatever tool is needed.

Hollingshead closed by wondering if the current model for literary fiction suggested to the reader that “This is good for you,” and if so how effective that strategy is. He pointed out that we go to movies completely unself-consciously; we aren't second guessing ourselves or wondering if we really know enough to be able to understand the artwork before us. He implied—but did not quite say—that the “read me; I'm good for you” voice, persona, or style, is perhaps not a good for creative writing—or any art.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Creativity on Saskatchewan's Country Roads

A couple of weeks ago, just as the leaves in town were beginning to fall, my daughter Veronica and I drove north of Regina, up highway 20 toward Craven, and then north and west on 322.  Because she's a gifted photographer, I wanted her to take some pictures of enormous stone cairns and shoe-clad fence posts I'd seen earlier this summer. 

It's as if a farmer has built a story on the side of the road.  These enormous stones are certainly the debris left by the ice age that created the Qu'Appelle Valley.  An early settler undoubtedly found them in the fields he'd hoped to break and plant, and had to dig them up to get them out of the way.  What prompted someone else, probably another farmer, to gather them up and poise them so carefully and playfully on top of one another?

Perhaps the story here is one of determination to get the best of the stones that littered the fields.  Maybe their maker felt playful:  perhaps some early spring when the frost had heaved the boulders even further out of place, he felt like growing something before his fields were ready to plant.  Or his daughter had come home from university where she had been studying physics, and they decided together to create a beautiful demonstration of balance and gravity.  Or maybe an art student decided he could rival Henry Moore with the stones in his father's fields.  Whatever the reason, we have been given something for our minds to play with as we drive toward Rowan's Ravine or Bulyea.

Further down the same road, another farmer has decorated fence posts with shoes, boots, wellingtons, and sandals.  The footwear has been taking over his power polls and fence posts for quite a number of years, and now they're beginning to appear in groups that look as if people have been dancing in defiance of gravity, so ecstatically that they haven't noticed they've lost their footwear.

Or they've been playing tag or hide and seek.  I am told that this is a fairly common artform on prairie roads, yet certainly each display is different and tell a story of a larger or a smaller family, one with lots of girls, of a farm wife who decides to buy a pair of stilettos for her child's high school graduation, of the runner who practices on country roads and made it to the Olympic games, of the single Wellington the pigs ate.

What is it about the creative spirit that these farmers, who doubtless work very hard, can't resist playing and making; can't resist giving the traveller something to play with, a story to spin, a snapshot of human striving?

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Tuesday night was Regina's first Fictionistas! event.  Being introduced as if we were models about to go down a runway--with information about our shoes, bags and jewels--was disorienting for four introverts there to read their fiction, but it was a lively occasion.  Perhaps because we'd put literature next to fashion, literature was suddenly less intimidating.  Or perhaps the promise of fashion simply attracted a crowd I'm not used to seeing at readings.  In any case, it was an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd ready to quaff wine and listen to our stories about women's lives.  We read about a female RCMP constable, a young girl growing up in Saskatchewan, a young Indian woman who moves to Alberta from Tanzania, and a classical pianist; what this unlikely quartet of characters had in common was joie de vivre, a passionate engagement in their own stories. 

In the end, it doesn't matter whether people came for the fashion or the fiction.  What matters is that the evening celebrated stories.  After the readings, we dismantled the rows of chairs, sitting in groups of four or six, drinking wine and finding out what was going on in our friends' lives.