Pages

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reflections on colour and light


Bill took last Monday off as part of a four-day weekend, and we drove to Moose Jaw for a little early Christmas shopping and for a stop at The Quilt Patch.  I wrote last month about a change in seasons prompting me to look at nature with different eyes.  Monday required another shift.  On Monday, the world was muted, tangled; it was made of texture rather than colour, teaching me again that each kind of tree--not to mention each tree--has its own shape.  You could see the human footprint in the fields, the scoring in the stubble like words on a page that told you exactly how that field had been harvested. You could also see the low-lying places in the field that remained wild, outside of human efforts.  Dugouts were mostly iced over; the water birds had gone.  What remained was a neutral world of hyphenated colours:  ruddy-brown, grey-brown, grey-gold,  greeny-grey.  

It is a thought-provoking landscape.  On the way to Moose Jaw, I thought about Katherine Lawrence's wonderful interview of Lawrence Hill at the Sage Hill Fundraiser.  Katherine seemed to have read everything Hill has written, and asked moving and intelligent questions about his writing practice.  There were three things he said that I have been reminding myself of since that evening because I think they're important to anyone's creative practice.  One is that when you are creating, you have to realize that whatever it is you are making--whether of words or notes or colours--has to be and is a beautiful thing in your life, whether it's published or heard or bought--or not. Katherine Arbuthnott would chime in here and tell us that our motives have to be intrinsic, part of who we are, not extrinsic--a desire for the world to tell us who we are and how important we are.  Creative people make things for their own sake, to glory initially in the making. And then Virginia Woolf would like to have her two words, and would remind us that at some point, if we want "self-expression" to become "art," we have to find a way to bridge the gap between our vision and our craft and the people we'd like to share our work with.  We have to create a conversation.  But if we haven't been deeply joyful while we've been conceiving and drafting, we've missed the point.  To go back to Lawrence Hill's wisdom:  our work has to be a beautiful thing in our life first.

Katherine asked him what it was like to suddenly be famous with The Book of Negroes, and Hill quipped back that he thought his career was going just fine:  every book he wrote was better than the last one.  The Book of Negroes has sold 600,000 copies in Canada and is being made into a mini-series for TV.  We could say Hill has arrived.  Yet he has humbly and wisely stuck with his own principles:  just keep writing better.  That's do-able.

Katherine's good questions about character produced this wisdom that I was thinking about in particular as Bill and I drove to Moose Jaw.  He exhorted us to remember that the character who has the most to loose is the most interesting character.  We'll let Henry James in on this discussion with his observation (I paraphrase, but I'm pretty close):  "What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"  One of the weaknesses of Blue Duets, I think, is that none of the characters had more to lose than we all risk losing every day.  I'm trying to think beyond that for Soul Weather.

Two days later the hyphenated colours of the landscape were swathed in white.  They reminded me that my mother used to call December and Christmas-time "a season of light."  Given that I have difficulty with the shorter days, I pondered that awhile, until yesterday I was out shoveling snow after dark.  Mother was right, but not in the way I expected. The season's light is the light you make--fires and candle light and comforting food, and the light you search out.  As I threw the snow under the trees, there was quite a lot of light and I wanted to shine it on the writing I was getting ready to do when my two current projects go out to publishers.

There are (at least) two questions all writers need to ask themselves.  The first concerns their world view.  Roger Fry felt that art was a complex of vision and design.  You can translate that roughly into content and form, yet his word "vision" insists on something else:  a world view that is provocative and intriguing, an understanding of the world and of human nature that is in some way visionary:  seeing the world with a particular kind of accuracy, from a revealing perspective and with the breadth that is generous to everything that is human, natural, and cultural. Though of course, my definition of what is visionary is part and parcel of my world view.  A satirist would describe "visionary" much differently.  We are all, to some degree, limited by our world views, seeking out other people--friends and artists--with whom we can have a conversation about that view and how it influences our lives.  But we have to know what that view is.

The second thing writers have to understand is the people they believe they can have the most fruitful conversation with.  I caught an odd glimpse of this in October, when I was taking manuscripts for Grain Magazine to the SWG office.  I was traveling north on Broad Street, waiting at the light at Saskatchewan Drive.  Just ahead was the overpass used by trains and pedestrians traveling between Casino Regina and their parking garage.  There was a single woman in black walking across it.  Behind her was a tall fence that separates the pedestrian path from the railway tracks.  The fence curves away from the tracks to make it impossible to climb--a design element that I found disquieting.  Because it says that someone might want to make that climb.  The fence itself suggests that someone may lose their balance--a simple thing with appalling consequences.  Somehow the scene captured what people do every day:  walk alone through a landscape of vague threat, trying to pretend it's ordinary, that we're just going through our days. I want to shine some light on that element in our lives, some light that means something to the person walking alone.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Blog hop


Apparently there is a blog hop going around:  writers answer questions about their writing and then tag two more people to do the same thing, on pain of writer's block for seven years.  One of my former students, Cassidy McFadzean, tagged my current student, Courtney Bates, who in turn tagged me.  How can I resist playing with the young'uns?

What am I working on?  
Too much.  I'm working on a collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by Veronica Geminder's photographs, and need to write about ten more poems to have a good-sized manuscript.  I'm also working on a study of Virginia Woolf's aesthetics whose working title is Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement. This is a project I've been chipping away at for a long time.  In the wings are a novel, Soul Weather and some essays I'd like to write.  But working on two manuscripts--which works well most of the time--is enough, so I'm only taking occasional notes for the novel and essays.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This isn't just a "blog hop" question:  it's something every writer should be asking herself or himself once the manuscript begins to take clear shape.  I don't know that many books that are entirely ekphrastic, or that match each poem with a work of art.  The one I know best is Elmet by Ted Hughes, with photographs by Fay Godwin.  Godwin's remarkable black and white photographs of Yorkshire came first, and Hughes's poems about the place where he grew up followed.  Sometimes the relationship between the photograph and the poem is clear; sometimes the photograph seems like the occasion for a meditation that runs parallel to the photographs, rather than being ekphrastic.  It's a remarkable book.  But I'm no Ted Hughes, and I'm not trying to be.  Moreover, these poems are clearly autobiographical and nostalgic (if one can accuse Hughes of nostalgia).  

Veronica and I are working in a similar way:  the photographs have come first.  But unlike Godwin's photographs, Veronica's are ceaselessly urban, and often they are of cityspaces that I've only visited, so there's no nostalgia involved.  Rather, what I'm trying to do is not only to write a collection of ekphrastic poems, but to explore the role cities play in our lives, how they shape our days, how they give us places to play and sometimes make us feel imprisoned by the way they're structured and regulated.  I'm hoping, then, that the book as a whole will be a kind of "essay" on cities, that it will prompt people to think about the urban spaces where most Canadians live--spaces that can make our lives easier and spaces that can be frustrating and limiting. We tend to take the built environment as "always already" there, rather than to be critical of the way it shapes us.  I'm trying to make people more aware of its role in their lives.


Why do I write what I do?
Because I'm curious.  It's my curiosity about how Woolf structured her essays and novels that has led me to write about her aesthetics.  I suppose the poems about Veronica's photographs have a different impetus:  she's my daughter, as well as a photographer who doesn't really know how to get attention, so I thought initially that I'd just write a handful of poems I'd place in journals.  But I found that writing about her photographs was a wonderful challenge that took me beyond the kind of poetry I have written in the past.  So this project is allowing me (when it's not forcing me) to grow. 

Soul Weather has yet another motive behind it.  You could say that it's motivated by a lot of questions:  what does it mean to be at home in our houses, our bodies, our lives, our futures, our weather and planet?  What are the different ways of being at home?  But at the same time, I want to write a kind of Condition of Canada novel that will tell readers something about what it's like to be young and not very at home.  

I find that the most interesting work, whether it's poetry, essays, or fiction, comes out of questions.  Any writer who says she or he also has answers is bullshitting you or only considering simple questions.


What's my creative process?
For me, it's important to balance discipline with the writer's need to live, play, reflect, and read; to balance going inward with looking outward.  

Retirement is allowing me to experiment with keeping a very rigid work day:  I read under Twig, coffee in hand, until shortly after nine.  By ten, I'm at the computer, and most of the time I don't check my email or Facebook.  I try to take an hour for lunch, and then get back to writing from one until three.  When I can actually do this, I'm blissed, and I feel oddly liberated, given that my job as an English professor involved meetings and administrivia that took away more and more time to reflect, teach, and do research.  

But there are important breaks from this pattern.  This week, instead of being at the computer for those hours, I'm reading Woolf criticism, and I'm keeping much longer hours.  I also tend to know when I'm not getting anywhere with a poem and need to turn to something else.  I know when I'm trapped in my own head and need to do some reading or walking or gardening to shake things up.

Perhaps the most important part of my creative process is allowing drafts to go anywhere, not to censure myself or worry about whether something is good.  If I'm making discoveries, then good things are happening.  This free part of the process is balanced by an almost savage editor who queries every choice of content or language. Why do I think that?  Does this really reflect the human experience?  Is that the best word?  Does that image work?  How does this piece work with the others?  Am I making a whole?  Am I obsessing about unity?  Will anyone care?

This last is the one that trips me up.  I seem to care about a lot of things that don't even register with other people. 
And sometimes I seem to be entirely out of sync with most people's reactions to an event or a facet of our zeitgeist.  Given that I think it's the writer's or artist's job to be a compassionate, insightful, but critical reflector of the human experience, "Will anyone care?" is a question that often keeps me up at night.

The photographs here are all taken by Veronica in Paris.  The first is taken on Rue Descartes, the second in an arcade called Le Grand Cerf--shades of Walter Benjamin, and the third on an a street that had modern reflective buildings on one side and old buildings across the way.  I'm using it to think about cities and history.  These are the prompts for the poems I'm been writing over the last month.