Monday, April 28, 2014

Narrative in the time of YouTube

We go to events like the Saskatchewan Book Awards in part to see which stories are connecting with the jurors; this year we can be grateful for skilful and gifted authors who brought First Nations stories, issues, and experiences home to us.  But there's another reward:  if you listen carefully to people's thank yous, you recognize that there aren't simply stories in the books, but behind the books.  Paul Wilson thanks his daughters for being his cheerleaders as he takes the award for best poetry with Invisible Library.  Lisa Bird Wilson acknowledges a whole network of people for their help and encouragement.  James Daschuk, whose ground-breaking Clearing the Plains won 5 awards, four for the author and one for the publisher, revealed that the book took him ten years. We're all grateful for his dogged commitment to this important book.

In contrast, in the weekend Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente reports that it took less than an hour after an out-of-context video clip of Tom Flanagan hit YouTube for him to be denounced by the PMO, the University of Calgary, the CBC, and the Wildrose Party.  The issue, as I understand it, was that he had attempted to draw a distinction between the people who abuse children in order to make pornography and those who watch it.  (I'm not sure it's a distinction I can make:  were there no market for child pornography, would pornographers be less likely to abuse children?  I can't answer that question.) Based on the clip, people came to the conclusion that he was "okay with child pornography." As Jonathan Haidt tells us in The Righteous Mind, right-wing politics tends to concern itself with the distinction between purity and impurity, and child pornography--and other sexual issues they highlight like premarital sex, homosexuality, or abortion--certainly fall into the impure camp.  But an hour? No one asks him about the context or about what he actually meant?  How silly of me:  what he meant didn't matter.  

By way of temporal contrast, Ian Brown wrote a wonderful, thoughtful essay on the experience of reading Karl Ove Knausgaard's autobiographical My Struggle, a book which has taken Norway by storm. In a country with 5 million people, half a million copies have been sold of a work that will eventually weigh in at 3,500 pages.  Employers declare Knausgaard-free days because everyone is talking about a work that seems to record a life with near-obsessive fidelity to detail, to the texture of everyday life.  Knausgaard, even in translation, seems quotidian and banal, as well as insightful and philosophical as he contemplates the paintings of Constable on a sleepless night, and wonders what he needs to do with his life. Brown writes "Those are the questions of an artist trying to make his art come alive.  But they're the same questions every sensate person asks him or herself in the middle of the night:  what, precisely, makes me feel unapologetically alert and alive?  What will I remember as I die?  Is it this? ....In the days before the world went digital--and I say this not as a complaint, simply as an observation, because I live in the digital world as much as anyone--in pre-digital times, events and people and objects and sensations established their importance slowly.  They earned their place in our memories.  Today on a smart-phone--such an ironic name!--everything claims to be important at once, and so nothing is important.  You remember very little of it.  Then you wonder why your life feels so empty."

Tomorrow morning, I will turn in my final set of marks.  I will still have some responsibilities as Graduate Chair, but for the most part, I can now turn to writing.  What had already changed profoundly for me is my experience of time.  My writing isn't a race with a clock that will give me four months to think and write and not a moment more.  I watch the birds out my kitchen window while I make dinner.  My mind takes detours to other places and other times, bringing memories that I allow to simply unfold.  Between the marking for my CanLit class and the final evaluation of my creative writing students' carefully-chosen portfolios, I gave myself a day to work on a poem that has been knocking around in my brain for a couple of weeks.  It was heavenly to stare at a computer screen for several hours, moving a word, shifting a line, struggling for a metaphor. How little, physically, I actually did, besides petting Sheba, who was feeling cuddly. How far my mind wandered as I tried to write an honest poem about tenderness--a feeling that lends itself to so easily to sentimentality yet seems to me an integral part of the human connection.  I had seen it just that afternoon at the RSO Government House Concert as an older couple arrived a little late and had to sit apart. The gentleman, his hand on his wife's back, guided her tenderly to the closer seat of the two. At the same time, though, my contemplation on tenderness made me realize that it doesn't happen in hurry and noise. It needs to make its own quietness, to keep its own pace.

As I think of returning to Soul Weather, a return that is at least six months away, Thursday's slow work and Sunday's reading and concert create an inner conflict.  What does one want to do with narrative in the age of YouTube or in a time when a Pit Bull mauling a child becomes news? (However horrifying and tragic, is it news, or are we being offered something else altogether?)  What I am trying to do in this novel is to surprise readers, something I think most of us take delight in.  My thoughts immediately turn to the eponymous Philomena's delight in the plot twists of the romance novels she read:  "I didn't see that coming!" The characters must experience enough difficulty and enough conflict to engage the reader's interest in their fate.  At the same time, even Woolf was unsure that traditional plots laden with conflict and crisis, spinning into denouement, reflected our lives.  Hence she wrote three novels, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts, that record the events of single days as a means of being true to reality but finding a moment of enough emotional compression and tension to engage the reader. Last night, while I was sleepless, I thought improbably about the similarity of the pace of Neil Gaiman's brief novel, The Ocean in the End of the Lane, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings:  how each of them offer places of respite and reflection amidst the dangers.  

And there, in that odd juxtaposition of Woolf, Gaiman, and Tolkien, is the answer to my anxiety about what we expect of novels.  One finds the right form that mediates between drama and reflection, speed and stillness.   

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.