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Sunday, April 14, 2013

The roots and routes writers follow

The University of Michigan, where I took my B.A. and M.A., had an excellent journalism school.  I took a couple classes during both degrees, thinking vaguely that this might be a route to becoming a writer.  Yet even that sentence is too decided:  I'm not sure I thought about becoming anything.  My best evidence for that is my reaction to Robert Finnigan, the graduate chair at the University of Manitoba, telling me (with his army boots firmly planted on the corner of his desk) there would be no jobs for me when I finished my Ph.D. He was doing his due diligence, and I appreciated that.  At the same time, I airily responded that it didn't matter:  studying literature was what I loved doing.  As someone who struggled with depression, simply figuring out what gave me meaningful, enduring pleasure was perhaps more important than finding a job.  My first husband was playing trumpet in the Winnipeg Symphony, and we managed to live frugally yet well off his small salary.

This may be one of those ramifying essays that follows one branch to its tip, finds itself stymied, and goes back to the trunk, travels up it for a ways before discovering yet another interesting detour.  Let me start this again:  I took journalism classes  at Michigan.  In my second year as an M.A. student, I took a small seminar class that was probably called something like "Writing Nonfiction."  It was 1975, and the anthology, The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe, that is probably the seed (let's do stay with plant metaphors) that grew into Creative Nonfiction, had only been out two years.  It attempted to understand what writers like Wolfe himself, Barry Lopez, John McPhee, and Joan Didion were doing with the essay that was different.  In complete contrast to their more literary approach to the essay, my prof told us that the best work he'd ever gotten in this class explained how to hang a door.  I can't even begin to parse the sexism and lack of imagination in such a prototype.  I wanted to write about Solzhenitsyn, who had just immigrated to the United States, and who, in so doing I thought, had brought his writing career to an abrupt end.   (It turns out I was right.)  I had been reading Russian literature in Russian for four years, and knew this body of work quite well; I had also taken multiple courses in Russian history.  I wanted to play, I would now say to my prof, the public intellectual.  He immediately challenged any expertise that I would have for such a project and suggested--rather forcefully if I remember--that I write about the Influenza Epidemic in 1918.  I dutifully went off and did lots of research, learning that in cities like New York, employers were creative enough to stagger their employees' start times so that the subways and buses wouldn't be too crowded.  Spitting in public was a crime.  Thousands died anyway.  I'm sure I wrote a dutiful report on the epidemic.  I also tried writing about quilts, but the prof was unenthusiastic.  My struggles in this class to find the intersection of my own terrain--the things that fascinated me--and the approved terrain of my prof, ended my engagement with nonfiction.  Perhaps I was simply too young to have a body of thought and knowledge and experience to write respectable nonfiction.  Perhaps my prof's approach was ultimately discouraging.  We'll never know, which is probably a good thing.

In spite of the fact that I used The New Journalism in creative writing classes I taught at Winnipeg Education Centre (an off-campus program at the University of Manitoba whose students wanted to become inner city teachers and social workers), in spite of the fact that I read Joan Didion's White Album with delight or that I was willing to read through a very long essay in Harper's that described the labour involved in wood-firing pottery and the contingencies that made their marks on the pots themselves, creative nonfiction was off my radar for quite a number of years.  Then the collision of several forces brought me back.

One was practical:  I was asked to edit a Canadian edition of a wonderful American textbook:  Barbara Fine Clouse's Patterns for a Purpose.  I read Ignatieff, Thomas King, June Callwood, Gabor Mate, Wayne Grady, Mark Kingwell:  in short, I discovered the remarkable range of Canadian creative nonfiction.

The second colliding force was the research I needed to do to begin writing Soul Weather.  Never mind that I had to be on top of what was happening with climate change and contemporary ceramics.  I also needed a better fix on the young people I would be writing about, something that went beyond what I saw in the classroom.  I read The Ego Boom, I read Days of Destruction; Days of Revolt, I read lots on the Occupy movement, I read autobiographies about anorexia.  I read Jack Layton's Homelessness and Bill McKibben's Eaarth.  I wanted to understand the present moment, and I realized that fiction wasn't telling me a lot about this.  I'm not quite sure what that says.  Do novels tell us about life at middle age because the novelists we typically read--those who have made it far enough in their career to make it onto our radar--are mostly over 35?  Certainly a lot of Canadian fiction at the present moment is historical.  I don't know how to understand that either.

The third force was my work on Virginia Woolf.  Normally, one reads her essays two or three at a time, but in order to understand what she was thinking about literature's form and force, I started with volume 1 and read straight through to volume 6.  Never mind being gobsmacked by the role she played as one of the important public intellectuals of her time or the endless inventiveness of her essays and the gorgeousness--always trimmed to appropriate dimensions--of her prose.  One gets a profound lesson in what the essay can do.

The fourth was publishing Blue Duets and being told by my publisher that I needed to keep a blog; in this climate, one needs to have an online presence to market books.  I had no idea what a blog might be, even after visiting some that were recommended.  But the publicist simply said that readers would want to know about my life.  Okay, I knew about public diaries.  I've read Nin's and Woolf's and Max Frisch's.  I could do this.  Yet after the initial readings and the brief tour was over, there wasn't much to say about bad roads or enthusiastic (and in one case nonexistent) crowds.  So I think my public autobiography turned into an autobiography of my mind.  I began to write about all those things I would have loved to wax eloquent about  in my classes, but knew I shouldn't--beauty, craftsmanship, art, the power of reading, the historical moment, our relationship to nature and the delight we take from it, climate change.

Two members of my community played roles that might surprise them.  One day Medrie Purdham generously said that she thought I was a wonderful essayist.  Essays?  Was that was I was doing--writing essays?  How had these little squibs of thought become essays?  Then Brenda Schmidt in her blog recommended Philip Lopate's remarkable  The Art of the Personal Essay and later Lopate's To Show and to Tell.  Lopate's advice made sense to me; some of it reflected what I was already doing.  His anthology gave me new models and ways of thinking about this elastic form.

And then there are my readers.  Many of you kindly and helpfully comment on what you have read, showing me two things.  One was simply those moments when I seemed to touch you.  The other was how the essay is part of the cultural conversation we are longing to have and that doesn't quite happen on Facebook.  I'll begin this spring by spending two weeks with Don McKay and 8 other fine poets at Sage Hill working on my ekphrastic poems.  Then I'll travel to Paris with Veronica, where she'll take more photographs.  Once home, I will settle down to the book on Woolf's aesthetics, hoping to get a draft finished by late August, just in time to plan a new class.  (This will be my last year of teaching, and I'm creating two new classes!)  But I thought I'd work slowly on an essay on minimalism, a topic I've returned to here several times.  I'd like to weave the aesthetic and architectural interest in minimalism into a personal narrative, to conclude that at this moment of my life and at this historical moment, minimalism beckons.  As I get older, I want to jettison things.  And as we look at the unsustainability of our economy and environment, I suspect we need to revisit minimalist values.  Certainly, I can see this in the academy where two trends--the expansive nineties and the corporatization of the academy--are not meeting the need for fiscal restraint in a context which is generating a lot of anger and angst.  What I love about writing nonfiction is the way craftsmanship is perhaps more important than inspiration or wild creativity.  Have you noticed how overblown plots are these days?  Nonfiction beautifully sidesteps that.  And simply creating clear sentences that echo the shape of my thought is profoundly satisfying in troubling times.  This academic year, simply sitting down to write a blog post has helped me keep my sanity.  One clear, fitting word after another is good discipline.

But here's the thing I'd like to close with in a way that is perhaps more "closed" than I normally like to be.  This moment in my writing life is the result of a series of accidents and of some generous (and ungenerous) moments.  It's easy enough to tell writers, or anyone who invites creativity into their life, to be deaf to criticism.  First, creative people tend to be rather vulnerable.  Second, sometimes criticism is just what we need.  Perhaps it's more useful to tell them to be open to accident and to the delight it brings them.

5 comments:

  1. I think you could work up a very interesting nonfiction collection based on your blogposts!

    And yay for Sage Hill!

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    1. That's so kind, Bernadette. What I'm going to try doing is to develop some of the ideas that keep coming back here: ideas about minimalism, beauty, and craftsmanship.

      Do you find something about St. Michael's that encourages one to work? There's some grounded serenity there that I find really helpful.

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  2. Wonderful piece. I love essays -- writing them, reading them. They allow us a more leisurely voice somehow -- the one we use in conversation with people who are willing to follow us along unexpected paths where we encounter plants, interesting companions, music, quirks of geography and geology and history, and yes, even quilts.

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    Replies
    1. In "To Show and to Tell," Lopate talks about a friend of his who tries really hard to write fiction, and then writes essays for a "break." He thinks her essays better because they are so much more personal and the voice is so relaxed. Perhaps it's their very name--essay--to try--that already relieves us of some of the pressure. I also find that making myself write once a week means that often disparate things get thrown together and I have to be playful in order to make a whole. I hope I don't lose this sense of serendipity when I try to write more formal examples.

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