Thursday, September 22, 2011

Goodbye to Banff

Wednesday night as I was thinking, after I wrote my last post, about what I wanted to do as a novelist, about the resources I have at hand for accomplishing this--a narrator's voice, the choice to creates scenes or summaries, the ideas about the world that shape these choices, every word in our rich language, the rhythms of a sentence or a snippet of dialogue, the ways I can capture the complexity and even inexplicability of human character--I was listening to the choral music of Arvo Part.  He's an Estonian composer of choral music that's minimalist and that has harmonies that call forth all that's beautiful in the human voice.  The Valentine Studio only has a little Sony CD player, but the lofty ceiling in my cabin makes it sound sublime.  While I listened to Part, the sound of a train added a dissonance that is also a kind of harmony in the mountains.  And beneath that there was the sound of wind in the lodge pole pines around my cabin, threaded through with the rustling that only aspens and birch can make.  I've done a poor job of describing this:  it can't be described, really, only experienced.

But I suppose what I'm trying to do with that awkward description is to talk about the creative act itself.  How it's made of plans and chance and accident.  Of course you need a vision of what you want to make.  But how often do you solve a problem by daydreaming in a coffee shop and hearing an exchange that in turn suggests possibilities that might get you out of the corner you've painted yourself into?  Or that might reveal that ill-lit corner of a character you want your reader to understand.  That you wanted to understand.

On some days, reaching out and touching the mind of someone else simply with your words is unimaginable, but must be done anyway.

And then on other days, your creative spirit is simply spent.  You want ordinary comforts like your husband and the purring of your crazy little cat.  And then you realize that they're not ordinary at all.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Five deer and the edge of disaster

On Tuesday evening I went for a walk and was rewarded with the company of five deer:  two does a and three fawns.  There are two sides of the road here.  One side is "safe," that is, there are woods and mountain.  The other side, where the Banff Centre is, is more settled.  The fawns were a little skittish when they were on the settled side and at one point raced and bounded back to the safe side, bleating away like little goats when their mothers wouldn't come.  Finally they ambled across the road again to join their mothers.  Countless people stopped their cars, got out and snapped a couple of pictures, got back in their cars, and raced away.  I stayed about half an hour watching them; so I got to hear the bleating and got to watch the fawns' awkward grace as they pronked and scallopped over the road.  The lady at the top of the page wasn't more than two metres from me when I took the photograph.

One of the things I love about Virginia Woolf's work is that she can take an "ordinary" day--any day Lily Briscoe spends with the Ramsays in Cornwall, or any afternoon Elinor does her benevolent single-lady errands in early twentieth-century London--and infuse it with the significance we should all be attentive to in every one of our days.  If one of the things literature should do is to prompt us to think about our own answers to the "overwhelming question," "How should one live?" then Woolf's answer is "Attentively."

I brought only one book with me to Banff, Per Petterson's latest novel, I Curse the River of Time, which I suspect I didn't get.  (In any event, I didn't particularly like it.  I may write about this at another time, or I may let it drop.)  I decided I'd let serendipity and the library here decide my reading.  I've been finding myself trying to accumulate less stuff, and taking books out of libraries rather than buying them seemed like a good idea.  So I took out Elizabeth Hay's Alone in the Classroom.  I loved Late Nights on Air, reading it twice, for pure pleasure, not because I didn't get it.  Hay is incredibly skilled at evoking a world:  I love her attentiveness to nature and weather and the places people live because it takes me right where the characters are.  I love the complexity, even the contradictoriness of her characters.

But we are so aware that all of the characters of Alone in the Classroom are on the edge of disaster. We know that two pretty young girls are going to die.  We know the young mother of two is going to fall disastrously in love with a much older man who is the former (and younger) lover of her favourite aunt.  We know that something is seriously wrong with Parley's mental health, but we don't know what. 

The part of me that's a defensive writer--which is to say someone who has spent about ten hours a day for the last week and a half writing a novel--both admires Hay's descriptive and narrative skill and wants to argue with her.  "Why don't we write novels any more about the way people go about their everyday lives, struggling to make sense of them and--every day--to realize their own desires while being caring members of communities and families?  Why do ethical dilemmas only involve extremes in novels these days?  Is there something about the early twenty-first century that dictates that drama lies only on the edge of disaster?  That it is only in the extremes that we are tested?  You can be kind or patient or heroic or committed or deeply thoughtful once a week.  Try doing it every day.  Try even trying to do it every day."

Am I hopelessly old-fashioned?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nature and creativity

We had snow overnight in the mountains--at least higher up than where we are.  The effect is to outline the striations on the rock.  Driving to and from Canmore (where I go to a comforting little Communitea Cafe to get a people-watching fix and to check out Knit and Caboodle to see if I can't tempt myself with something), you get a more fluid sense of the mountains than you do from a townsite or a place like the Banff Centre where buildings keep getting in the way.  I find I simply can't imagine the force that led to the Rocky Mountains uplift millions of years ago.  But snow on the mountains makes something of their structure clearer to me.

Today I had to go into Banff for groceries.  It's Saturday, and people are out and about in spite of the relative cold and rain that fell from time to time.  You don't come into the mountains for the comfort, I thought to myself.  You come to be awed, to experience the sublime, and maybe you can do that even better a little cold.  While I've worked this afternoon, rain has fallen on y wooden roof, even while the sun was shining.

For some reason, as I walked through the rain this morning to my cabin, I thought of the childhood game, "rock, paper, scissors."  The clouds have veiled the mountains.  We don't think about these towering erruptions of earth that are millions of years old being erased by anything, but the clouds can do it very softly.  The woods beyond the window where I work are very still, but their colours are heightened and deepened by the rain.

I've been thinking about why we come to nature for "retreats."  Who goes to NYC for a writer's retreat?  You might well go there for inspiration and for ideas, but you go to Yaddo or Emma Lake or Banff to get the work done, to go beyond the draft you scribbled on the back of your boarding pass.

The slightest thing delights me here.  My pine marten, whose dark glossy fur moves like water over the fallen logs.  A small flock of juncos yesterday.  Sometimes the wind is even higher than the mountains, and a birch outside my window winks its yellow-tinged leaves. My friend Katherine Arbuthnott says that nature provides "soft fascination" that tickles our attention but doesn't grab it by the throat.   Woolgathering, my daughter would say.

So I'm going to hunker down with one of her very urban photographs and write another poem.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Research at Banff

Doing research as a scholar and as a creative writer are very different processes.  When I work on my book about Virginia Woolf's aesthetics, I'm absolutely fastidious:  I read everything I can get my hands on and document every half-idea that interests me.  Creative Writers, however, need to allow their impressions more sway.  I've heard at least one writer remark that you have to immerse yourself in a topic and then forget most of what you've learned when you bring research into your creative work.  This is because you don't want you characters to sound like lecturers--something I'd find particularly easy, I'm afraid.  It's one of the discourses I live inside

In the next chapter of Soul Weather, I'm introducing a young character who is in the last year of her undergraduate degree and is beginning to work on a history honours paper on Simone Weil.  Samantha is borderline anorexic (so I've been learning about anorexia too, mostly by reading people who've been anorexic:  experts are no help here at all!) and is drawn, consciously or unconsciously, to Weil because of her anorexia.  I've read a couple of biographies, but today it was time to begin to read Weil's own work.

There are many interesting facets of Weil's thought that might attract a young person, though one element of her character informs all of them.  Even as a child, she felt a remarkable sympathy for those less fortunate than herself, whether for soldiers at the front during World War I, for her lycee students, for French industrial workers--and workers everywhere, for those fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and later for a humanity in the midst of anti-Semitism and of Nazi Germany's overrunning of Europe as its individuals struggled to define their relationship to God and to what was ethical.  For a while I wondered which of Weil's personae Samantha would find most powerful.  I think this would be Weil the mystic, but since that's all but impossible to write about in a brief honours paper, Samantha will look at Weil's political thought from an earlier part of her career.

Because I didn't want to bring a ridiculous number of books with me, I ensured that Weil's Oppression and Liberty was available as an eBook.  Wanting a different view from that in my forest cabin and thinking that a larger screen would be better for reading (I was wrong, it turns out), I took myself off to the Paul D. Fleck library here at the Banff Centre that they make available to anyone with an artist's card.  As you can see, the scenery is stunning, though because it dwarfs you it may encourage you to pay more attention to your work rather than less.

Weil's Oppression and Liberty is remarkable, not least because she insightfully critiques her own historical moment in 1934.  Unlike most of the French Left, she can see even then that the communist experiment in Russia is more oppressive than the Czar and is horrified that the German working class--the best-educated in Europe--has embraced Hitler.  Her analysis of Marx's errors will only be fully revealed in a couple of years when she begins working in French factories and realizes that the working conditions of the proletariat--the noise, the long hours with few breaks, the physical demands and danger of the work, the quotas set by management that she felt forced you to put aside your very soul and every feeling or individual thought you had in order to survive a day as an automaton--so exhausted the workers that they had no energy left for rebellion.

Interestingly (and I have no idea what this says about my current frame of mind or my own working conditions), I found startlingly incisive her critique of bureaucracy.  She described government in the Soviet Union this way:  "there is a professional bureaucracy, freed from responsibility, recruited by cooption and possessing, through the concentration in its hands of all economic and political power, a strength hitherto unknown in the annals of history."  They were entering, she felt "the age of the technicians of management," and felt that they produced nothing but their own hegemony and control.

More philosophically, she equated human individuality with our own determination to insist that our actions echo our beliefs.

And perhaps, to beleaguered environmentalists who can't convince North American governments to take some leadership on environmental issues, she had this to say:  "There is no difficulty whatever, once one has decided to act, in maintaining intact, on the level of action, those very hopes which a critical examination has shown to be wellnigh unfounded; in that lies the very essence of courage."  Facing the fact that her own historical moment was on the edge of war and that workers would soon be sent to die at the front, facing governments indifferent to high levels of unemployment (which stood at 20% in the early Thirties) and to the working conditions the remainder had to endure, she wrote these remarkable words:  "Nothing in the world can prevent us from thinking clearly."

As you see, I've done exactly what a Virginia Woolf scholar would have done:  I've copied out the great quotations.  How am I ever going to translate this into a young woman's passion and thought?  Keep reading!  Maybe stop taking notes!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Soul Weather: July

I've had the sense that I was focussing too much on my computer screen to see any wildlife besides my little acrobatic marten, but this morning my eye was caught by a doe and fawn eating around my cabin.  They look so peaceful, perhaps because they're vegetarians and seem to find food everywhere:  their coats blend in with the bark of the tree trunks, and light up in the same dappled way when the sunlight hits them.  The fawn was peacefully oblivious and hungry, but the doe would take a bite, sniff the air, and take another bite.  They ambled, it's true, but only after the doe's sense of smell told them it was safe.  Of course I didn't have my camera!

Here's the beginning of the second chapter I've been working on here: 

In July, even the weather slowed down to watch the paint dry. After the weather gods had flooded Maple Creek, Yorkton, the Kawakatoose First Nations reserve, Saskatoon and most recently North Battleford, they’d decided to blow in one of those characteristic Saskatchewan summer days – the kind we make nostalgia from: dry, breezy, the sky so infused with dense blue that it's almost hot. It was the long weekend, and everyone seemed to have left town for Regina Beach or Echo Lake.
Lee is working on the second bedroom, giving Dirk a chance to finish downstairs. He’d allowed her to choose the colours, and she’d decided to find paint that reminded her of celadon glazes. She's used her favourite, an ambiguous blue-grey-green, in her garret and will use it again in the immense downstairs room that stretches from kitchen to living room when it was ready. Perhaps only a potter would have known how smashing it will look with the dark, reddish-brown cabinets. She calls her celadon “green,” but it isn't the colour of leaves – not the grade-school green of elm trees or the yellow green of the trailing sweet potato vines people put in pots with their annuals that has such punch. Celadon is more like water, and just as ambiguous: celadon could be the reflection of that hot blue sky in the green-grey wrinkled elephant skin of Wascana Lake on a windy day. Or the colour of water from melted glaciers, cloudy grey-green where the water is ruffled; cooler, clearer green in peaceful backwaters where the silt has a chance to settle. Celadon has layers. She’s chosen a brown that looks like an iron oxide rich celadon for the larger second storey bedrooms. It's deep and chocolatey with what she liked to call “aubergine notes,” as if it were a wine. She has a pale taupe-y green for the “master” bedroom that looks very Japanese, and a soft teal green for the smaller room, which she is now working on. Like all the colours she's chosen, you couldn't name this one with a single word, and it changes with every breathe of warm July air. You wouldn’t think watching paint dry would be so busy, but it is.

Painting her eyrie, she worked out a system she suspects was like reinventing the wheel. Somehow Dirk assumed that if she could glaze her pots she could also paint walls, but these are the first rooms she's done by herself. It's tempting to do all the work on the ladder across the top of a wall and then to push the ladder away and do the bottom half , but when she tried that on the first wall of her room, she found the nearly-dry paint where the roller strokes met was coming away from the plaster. So now she goes up the ladder with her yogurt carton of paint and her brush, strikes in as far as she can reach, comes down, goes up again with the tray and roller, stretching both up and down, comes down and strikes in the baseboard, finishes the section that demarcates her furthest reach, moves the ladder in again, goes up to strike in along the ceiling. It's not only the room that makes a big circle. By the last wall of a second coat, her thighs are like soft lead, malleable and heavy. Her arms, which should be strong from her work on the wheel, are used to containing and balancing force, not to stretching beyond her balance point.

But in spite of the ache in her thighs and arms, she's learning what painting does to your eyes, how it turns you into an animal made for seeing. Going for a walk or even running errands after several hours of painting is like being high. The world was suddenly irradiated with colour. Aaron Nelson, a potter who now runs the Shaw International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics in Medicine Hat, talked once about travelling in a canoe – or was it a kayak? – all the way down the west coast from Alaska to Vancouver. If you want to know everything there is to know about vessels, he said, spend seven weeks in one. Perhaps the same could be said of colour. If you want to know about colour, paint a whole house. In a world saturated with logos and branding, her colours don't have a meaning; they don't signal your destination: the red and white PetroCan or the green and yellow Superstore or the gold letters that would read, when you got closer, “ Bay.” They aren't the colour of your loyalty. Colour simply is, and you realize how endlessly variable it is as it dries: how it goes on slightly darker but with a damp sheen, and then becomes dappled, grows light and matte. Colour on walls is simply where you are, a pleasure you can live inside.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

First day in Banff

Arriving at the Banff Centre of the Arts, at least if you're in the Leighton Artist's Colony, involves forays all over the campus to check in, to move into your room in residence, to get your "artist's card" (which is also your meal card), your Banff National Park sticker for your car, and then wandering off into the woods to see if you can find your cabin.  I'm in a small cabin designed by architect Fred Valentine with a composer in mind.  So it has a piano and wonderful acoustics for my guitar.  I didn't bring any piano music with me, but I'm hoping I can borrow some from the library.  From my little hut, I don't see the mountains; what I've been watching out my huge windows today are wind, light, a single marten who, like an acrobat, trotted along one deadfall log after another.

What I love about writer's retreats is that it somehow reminds you of how many hours there are in the day.  I was working  by 8, and then nipped out to the Banff townsite around 10:30 for food to make myself breakfasts and lunches.  Even with that errand and a brief nap I completed and revised a chapter I hadn't quite finished at St. Peter's and got good work done on a poem.  So what happens to time during our ordinary days?  Can I bottle this discipline and take it home with me?

Today it's cloudy, and the mountains seem to have quietly closed in on themselves.  The forest is quiet, expecting rain perhaps.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Creativity on Saskatchewan's Country Roads--revisited

Today, Bill and I drove up to North Star Pottery, Mel Bolen's and Karen Holden's studio and home, because I needed to do some research on ceramics before I head to Banff Centre for the Arts next weekend to work on Soul Weather for two weeks.  They live and work in a church south of Carmel (and east of Humboldt) that they've rebuilt to be a studio, home, and shop.  When they bought the land in the 1970s, there were no trees surrounding the building:  just a church on a hill.  They have since planted 10,000 trees which threaten to cut off the view from some of the dormers they've added to the second storey barrel-vaulted space.  A renovated farmhouse is an artist's retreat and the second storey of a rebuilt barn holds Karen's painting studio.

Artists are often generous people.  Mel was certainly being generous with his time today, giving me his Labour Day afternoon to talk about the art and science of ceramics.  He told wonderful stories--of taking a fine arts ceramics class at U of R as an elective and finding Jack Sures working his magic at the wheel.  Jack, he said, didn't baby anybody.  He didn't guide you around the pottery studio and tell you what everything was for.  He simply sat down at a wheel and started to throw.  Mel was instantly attracted to the physicality of it, to its embodiment of the laws of physics. He still gets quite lyrical when he talks about this plastic medium that hardens in the most remarkable way and of his desire to leave in each piece an echo of its plastic, earthy origin.  He was also attracted to the science of it:  inventive potters know the secrets of earth, glazes, and the ways of fire.  Mel talked of working with Jack Sures in a kind of intense apprenticeship that involved everything from moving house several times to preparing clay and building kilns.

But he also talked about the generosity of making art:  that when you invite people to a show or into your booth at Bazaart, it has to be with generosity.  Your work is a gift, and people will sometimes take it and sometimes leave it, but the generosity--and the risk-taking that comes with it--has to be there.  If you are lucky, you will find yourself with the stories, doubtless fragmentary, of the people who buy your work; in turn, your work will become part of their stories.  This is what he loves about ceramics, that people take it into their hands, put it to their lips, cook in it, always trusting the craftmanship.  "Intimate stuff goes on," he says.

But Bolen likes to work the line--one he describes as crooked, sometimes brightly coloured, sometimes grey and fuzzy--between art and craft.  When he hasn't thrown for a while he always starts by warming up his craft by making mugs, moving on to bowls and plates, until something demands that he begin to explore the borders of ceramics and take some risks.  At this point in his career, this seems to involve his use of "terra sigilatta," a slip made from clay that he burnishes by hand into the surface of a leather-hard piece; then he fires it at 2400 degrees in his kiln and then, just to add another variable, throws damp salt into the kiln once the temperature has been reached to release caustic sulphur.  The result is quite wonderfully unpredictable:  the sulfur doesn't reach every part of each piece evenly, so the effects vary; in some places the silica from the clay he uses for this process breaks through the slip; at other places the slip bubbles and crackles. The time and place these pieces occupy in the kiln are written on their surfaces:  the side of a piece that's turned away from the blast of salt looks entirely different than the side that takes its full force.  Some pieces are fired on their sides, propped up on clam shells, so that their undersides are completely different and may have vacancies in the glaze that show where the shells were.  He varies these effects even more by making some of the slips out of "wild clay" just to see what kind of a surface they'll make.   Tradition meets experiment and innovation in these pieces.  That double sidedness of this work can also be seen in the shapes of the vessels he throws for this work--often very classic vases.  But then he might flatten the sides and score them with a nail.  Or he might use an old broken fishing pole to make folds in their sides, sometimes rhythmically and regularly, sometimes randomly and playfully.

This is an inventive and inspiring body of work.

The drive north to Humboldt and back was also quite beautiful.  I don't think I've seen this gently hilly landscape so soon after combining, with the swathes of straw still on the fields.  There was something intimate about the curves and arcs and dips made by the swathes, as if the farmers knew each fold and curve and cranny of their fields.  Toward the end of the day, the setting sun came through a haze made by combining, making the whole landscape ethereal.