Three weeks into my life after Woolf, I have gotten my writing vehicle into third gear. I've been mostly appliquing, reading philosophy and poetics, revising some stories and a handful of poems to send out--pretending that I'm a real writer--but the plan this week is to do research.
The most suggestive reading I have done is Levinas's Totality and Infinity. A Jewish philosopher who spent much of World War II as a prisoner of war and who lost close family to the Holocaust, Levinas focuses not simply on being-in-the-world attentively and purposefully, but on being-in-the-world ethically. Totality occurs during war, when the State claims the individual's allegiance, labour, and life in behalf of the State's survival. In complete contrast, we approach infinity with our desire to understand the "Other," a desire that in practical and metaphorical terms is prompted by the face (as both our experience of curiosity about the stranger walking down the street toward us, and as phenomena or concept). I want to use Levinas' ideas to consider our relationship with nature. Climate change threatens the world as we know it and even threatens our existence here, and I think that one step we must take--all of us who feel we have to change our ways of living--is to understand more of the natural world that is at risk. We need an ethical relationship with nature like Levinas' idea of the ethical relationship with the Other. Nature as Other wasn't a stretch, but the idea of the face brought me up short in a useful way: what is nature's 'face'? Is it the birds at my feeder right now? Storms? Flowers? Oceans? Air? Plants? Animals?
Or trees? I realized that I wanted to do something about the parts of trees we don't notice: about their bark and trunks, about the form of their branches--so different from species to species, but also so different from one tree to another. So one of my major research projects for this week has been to read David Suzuki's and Wayne Grady's marvelous book, Tree: A Life Story. They have chosen as their tree a four-hundred-year-old Douglas-fir, but in the process they have explored the way knowledge about nature has developed and the way a single Douglas-fir is attached to its complex eco-system.
An example will show what they mean. Plants need nitrogen, but finding enough in the soil is difficult. It turns out that there is nitrogen in oceans that is brought back into the forests by spawning salmon who are eaten by bears--600 or 700 hundred salmon a year. Bears like to eat privately, so they bring their "catch" back into the forest, and only eat the parts they really like, brains and bellies, leaving the rest for beetles and slugs. Bears bring the ocean's nitrogen to the soil through the salmon, through their scat, through the carcasses that are eaten and digested by insects that are in turn eaten by birds who also... You get the picture. The rings of a tree record the years when the salmon run was unusually plentiful.
The way trees are interconnected underground to one another, or to the mycorrizal funghi underneath or to the insects and birdlife in its ecosystem, is simply astounding. Trees use their hormones to warn one another about infestations. Their intertwining roots take nourishment from the larger trees to feed the small ones growing up on the forest floor, in part because of the many ways that growing together benefits them. While in the West we spend a lot of our time and ego proving how autonomous we are, nature spontaneously makes the most of its interconnections. Perhaps I have found nature's "face" in these interconnections, but if I have, I have no idea how to express it.
Of course, reading Tree has spawned a long list of other books I need to read, everything from Virgil's Georgics, to John Fowles' The Tree, to Emerson's Nature, to almost anything by Gary Snyder or Don MacKay, to Guy de La Brosse, who created Paris's Jardin des Plantes in the sixteenth century. The point of all this reading is an imaginative immersion, observing other writers' content, form, perspective, thoughts, experience, until I am so suffused with this that I can no longer be self-conscious about it--until it becomes hopeless to be self-conscious any longer. That's when I'll discover what I want to do with nature and Levinas's idea of the face.
Because on Monday, July 4 I'm going to shift into fourth gear and start working on my novel, Soul Weather, I'm also reading the notebook I have kept since 2011. This process is comforting, terrifying, and intimidating in about equal measure. On one hand, I can see how much I've already thought about this book; on the other translating one's thoughts about character, ideas about theme, plot, and motif into a novel anyone wants to read is another task altogether. I also realize how much research I need to do there.
My characters are a group of young university students renting a house together, so I need to understand their disciplines--all of which relate more or less closely to the questions I'm asking about how we are at home in our historic moment, our relationships, our futures, our skins, the planet. My main character, Lee, has just graduated with her MFA in ceramics. When I was in my early exploratory days, I learned as much as I could about pottery, and even took a couple of classes to see what it felt like to try to make something out of mud on a potter's wheel. I'm a terrible potter, but I know what it feels like to have something slippery and wet grow up under my hands--though everything I threw was always higher or wider on one side. I have the seeds of Lee's character growing in my mind-garden, and understand how her work with ceramics interconnects with a couple of the novel's questions. But I have a young man, a Ph.D. student, who is studying animal languages: I've got a lot to learn there, though I've found a special issue of Current Opinion in Neurobiology (2014) devoted to the latest research on animals and language. Another of my major characters it anorexic. I'm not sure I have the right to write about anorexia--just like I don't think I have the right to describe what it is like to be an Indigenous person, but I'll read and talk to people and I'll give it my most sympathetic imaginative attempt. She is doing her honours degree in history, with her paper about Simone Weil. More reading and discovering.
Too often, creative writing teachers tell their students to write about what they know. It is perhaps more useful to take the advice of John Gardiner, who taught at the Iowa Writing Workshop, and write what you like to read. This is true partly because if we write what we like to read, we might at least have some of the generic conventions ready to hand. This is also true for two other reasons: none of us knows enough about the human condition or the world--though some people are more observant and more curious than others. "Write what you know" suggests that creative work simply consists of telling people in one way or another what you know. Interesting work is different in two ways. Having to do research keeps us humble, digging more deeply into what we understand about the world and the human condition; this humility is more likely to help us dig beyond what we know. Second, much of the best work it isn't based on what any of us knows, but on what we are curious about or have questions about.
But even so, recalling what we know--in my case, what I've learned from 66 years of a fairly observant life--is sometimes daunting. Most writers need rituals that mine our memories. Mine is walking. So on Monday I started what will be a long series of walks. I began by walking down back lanes from Athol to Elphinstone, and pondered the secret places in cities, the back routes only the residents and dog walkers and the people on bicycles who recycle our parties for us know about. Turning toward the Seniors' Centre, I saw two women talking who at a distance were dead ringers for two of my aunts, and that started a cascade of memories of childhood, particularly at my uncle's farm where I chewed mint leaves and ate carrots plucked right out of the ground and merely wiped off on my uncle's khakis. In one's lifetime, one has to eat one's peck of dirt, after all. Smells. I picked up newly-mown grass, which is just next door to alfalfa, both resonant, comforting summery smells that sound down the corridors of memory.
On my way back, I took a sandy path closer to the creek, at one point hearing plupplupplupplup, only to see about six ducklings hitting the water with their mother--reminding me that nature is often frightened of humans--with good reason. I saw a pair of dogs that looked like the little foxes Bill and I saw on a countryside ride years ago--and how much delight we took in those drives, how they were closed in while opening out as we made conversation in the car and feasted our eyes on the world beyond. At the edge of the creek, there is a little building housing a pump, I suspect, whose steps reminded me of several cottages and a neighbour's small playhouse I spent time in as a child. She had a wondrous garden. The playhouse and cottage memories going to take me some time to unspool. Then the bridge over the creek reminded me of the bridges I've walked and driven across--the Mackinac as a child, the covered bridges of Michigan I drove over with my first husband, the bridges over the Charles River in Boston, some of which always confused us and spit us out in the wrong place. As I walked, I also realized I was seeing--and not seeing--the interconnections of nature, and remembered a childhood ritual that has probably imprinted me.
My father grew up near Newago's Croton Dam, and every spring we could go up to the dam, and then turn off onto a nondescript dirt road. Dad would simply decide to park where there was a space to get out of other cars' way, and then we would take off through the forest. We'd pick trilliums and cowslips and bloodroot on our way. (Now I am deeply ashamed of all the trillium I killed.) Using markers I could never make out, my father always fetched up on the Croton River near an eagle's nest. We'd sit on some dead logs and have our picnic while the eagles became more agitated and flew in tight circles over their huge nest, making cries that puzzled us in their feebleness. In some twenty-first century way, this seems disrespectful and even harmful, but we were celebrating nature's continuity, syncing nature's renewal with our own. Awe and intimacy combined in one gesture. Perhaps with this memory I have fetched up in the spot on the river where creativity happens: in awe and intimacy.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
In mid-March and early April, I wrote about generosity, arguing that we watched "Downton Abbey" because most of the characters were, at bottom, generous. I also looked at Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, his insightful political critique of racism, tribalism, and dictatorship in two fictional countries off the east coast of Africa, Zantoroland and Freedomland. I promised one more post on generosity, one that I had hoped to write at the beginning of the evacuation of 88,000 people from Fort McMurray. Canadians' generosity in the face of this disaster was remarkable: the last figures I can find on the internet indicate that Canadians donated $67,000,000 to help people cope with their lives during evacuation and to help rebuild the city. Canadians proved my point: that generosity is alive and well in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, I was up to my ears in my book on Virginia Woolf, and the post simply didn't get written.
This week, I seem to have caught a less persuasive news cycle: the worst mass shooting ever to occur in United States. Omar Mateen killed 49 people at Pulse, one of Orlando's most popular gay clubs and a safe haven for gays. We don't seem to be able to decide what kind of crime it is: is it a hate crime, an example of gun violence? Is it another case--one of many that I've seen--where mental illness, in this case homophobia complicated by self-hatred, takes on the cloak of Muslim extremism? If you feel profoundly that you are an outsider, you might be comforted to know that there's a whole group of you that is misunderstood and under threat. The "religious" nature of Muslim extremism gives you that kick of righteousness that excuses what you are about to do.
Forty-nine people. Not the 130 killed in Paris. Not the 2,996 who died on September 11. Yet consider the outpourings, the demonstrations, the solidarity gatherings of gay and straight to affirm everyone's right to be safe while they let their hair down and have some fun. For some people, the attack proves a startling and frightening fact: that homophobia is alive, well, and has access to assault weapons. But the response to the attack also proves something: that in most of North America homosexuality and all the complex choices individuals make to live as they feel is firmly under the human rights umbrella.
So our response to the destruction wrought by "the beast," the fire around Fort McMurray, and to the Orlando shootings has been...generosity.
Here in Canada, Marina Endicott is one of the most stalwart and insightful commentators on generosity. This is particularly true of Good to a Fault, where Clara Purdy learns quite a lot about being generous to an itinerant family facing their mother's cancer diagnosis. Clara "does the right thing," and asks the father, grandmother, and three kids to bunk down in her house while Lorraine undergoes treatment for her cancer, initially out of guilt: her left turn catches an old beater racing through a red light--and the beater was the family's home. What she quickly finds is that her efforts to help are frustrating and meaningful, in about equal measure. She also finds that generosity is not always met with gratitude, that it can also spur resentment. After Lorraine is finally cancer-free, she naturally wants her children back and she resents having to be thankful to Clara, to a woman with more privilege and education than she has ever had and who portrays some sense that she has done a better job than Lorraine ever could. (Side note: when I was part of the all-day Paradise Lost reading, I found it interesting to find that one of Satan's complaints against God was that he had to be grateful all the time. How tiresome!) Good to a Fault has, as its central question, the benefits, the limitations, the frustrations, and the complex ethics of generosity.
I read Close to Hugh last fall, and then when Twig was sick and later when he had a relapse, I would get in bed with it and let it fall open to any page and begin reading. It was profoundly comforting. Why that should be the case might seem something of a mystery. Hugh's mother Mimi spends much of the novel dying, often in pain or in drug-induced confusion. The mother of a young child cannot climb out of her post-partum depression and so pulls into the garage with her son and the groceries, closes the garage door, and leaves the car running. Her husband, Gerald, is the novel's most haunted ghost: how do you get "closure" (those are ironic scare quotes) after such a loss? Hugh's closest friends, Della and Ken, are having marital difficulties, caused largely by Ken's despair over the years he's spent handling a sexual abuse case. Hugh's closest friend is Neville, a very successful gay actor who lives in Peterborough only part of the year. Neville's former mentor, Ansell Burton, has come to Peterborough to run a theatre workshop in the high school, but Neville generously offers his home as a place for Burton to retire. Burton is a man with toxic anger and jealousy; though he formerly gave Neville enormous help by showing that homosexuality was normal, he has become churlish as he ages and has less power and fewer opportunities in Canadian theatre. And this is just the older generation: the novel's teenagers are negotiating their own sexuality, trying to make their own choices and judgments about friendship and the future--largely without much useful guidance from adults. There's enough conflict and baffled desire here to fuel several tense plots.
Comfort? Well, I found it in Hugh and Neville, as well as in Ruth, who played foster parent to Hugh and Della and Neville when they were young and their parents were unable to parent. And in Ivy, an actress who is beginning to forget her lines and who has come to town to help Burton with the intensive drama class. These four are the problem solvers, the people who see others with generosity and curiosity, rather than judgment and rage. Perhaps because Hugh spent much of his childhood rescuing his adored mother, rescuing people has become habitual. Although he bears good-sized debts himself, at the novel's opening he takes at $10,000 cheque, an inheritance from a father he never knew, to the antique dealer next door who is possibly in even greater difficulties than Hugh. When Ruth goes to the neighbourhood thrift shop to buy a jacket she's been admiring for quite some time, Hugh follows her and slips a hundred dollar bill into the jacket's pocket just before Ruth pays for it.
Ruth is generous, but she is also one of Hugh's challenges. Knowing that social insurance is not giving her nearly enough money to live on, Hugh employs her at his art gallery--in spite of the fact that she can't manage to answer a phone with the formality appropriate to an art gallery. Ruth is also racist; yet she has a network of people who will do anything for her, and spends quite a bit of time watching at Mimi's hospice bed as she dies. Finding her there early one morning when Hugh goes to visit his mother, he thinks "Her woes can be fixed with a little cash, now and then. Hugh can do that. What is always holy: patience. The swallowing of selfishness, the gentle tapping of your teeth" (247).
L is the daughter of Della and Ken, a young artist that Hugh helps by taking a couple of pieces out of her basement installation, "The Republic," to an art dealer in Toronto who can give L more help than he can. (More of Hugh's generosity, even when it is at a cost to himself) L has her own difficulties; she is often angry with both of their parents, her father for absenting himself mysteriously and her mother for her blind anxiety. Yet L can think about the world this way: "The terrible part is, the thing about equality, that everybody knows is a lie--it takes away from the true part--that everyone is a human being, a soul, and deserves to be--kinded" (301). I love that: "kinded" as a verb.
If Good to a Fault is a case study of generosity, Close to Hugh looks at generosity in a larger scale as it examines a community's struggle with generosity in the face of death, relative poverty, jealousy, fear, avarice, and anger. I loved both novels, but Close to Hugh, to be frank about my biases, more closely matches my own sense of how our half-empty-half-full world works. Shit happens: it happens to individuals and it happens to communities. And, as Ivy observes after Hugh's mother has died, "no matter what good thing might happen it will never be enough to make up for death" (418). We see clearly that no generosity will alleviate Gerald's pain and loss. Yet when generosity is simply part of one's way of being in the world, as it is for Hugh, Neville, and Ivy, if the generous people simply go about their lives looking always for the moment when their gift is needed, it's possible to effect a great deal of change.
And what are roses doing in this blog? Nature was very generous to Saskatchewan and gave us a mild winter. My roses and the daisies around them are in turn being generous. I've never seen them bloom like this.
at 11:25 AM
Monday, June 6, 2016
My old psychiatrist would describe my mood the last week as the result of the "after the prom effect." So much preparation! (Learning about the autonomy of art and re-reading Woolf's complete and large oeuvre.) So much time choosing a dress! (Developing lines of argument based on an enormous body of evidence.) The make-up and the hair! (Writing, writing, writing.) All you writers
I needed to acknowledge that I was making up my life as I went along, and that for a little while at least all the second guessing that had gone into Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement was no longer necessary. So I turned to the practice that seems to keep my life in balance: quilting.
But I found that I needed something different in my quilting practice, a kind of antidote to the months of deliberation, questioning, writing, revising, staring at the computer screen willing my brain to think harder about what Woolf means when she uses this odd form--, say a series of very long letters, to argue that if societies want to be less warlike and violent, they need to support women's education and women's professional lives, rather than impede them. (And unlikely as this argument seemed to her fellow Bloomsberries, she's recently been proven right by Steven Pinker. He identifies a general feminization of a culture as one of the major causes of decreasing violence.) A letter 214 pages long with with 46 pages of densely packed footnotes? And running through it all a discussion of the role of art in our everyday lives? Why????? That was one of the easier questions I asked myself.
How wonderful to be immersed playfully with colour--delighting one's senses and leaving one's analytical twin at home. And then, instead of the exact cutting that makes every triangle of the Massachusetts Cross and Crown meet the other triangles in exactly the right place, I would cut a 5-inch stripe the width of which reflected how much I wanted of this particular colour in a block. I worked by instinct: second-guessing was not allowed. Then as I sewed them--the easiest sewing I've done in decades--I thought about creativity.
While I worked on Woolf, I did not write anything else, but I read a great deal. One of the things I noticed in work I admired, like Jeanette Lynes' Bedlam Cowslop, was how free she was with grammar and syntax. A mere phrase might stand on its own--an impression, not a subject and a verb. A rhythm or a sound that echoed other rhythms and sounds or evoked a frame of mind on their own--not always a sentence.
Visible Cities has been called a very cerebral collection, and certainly there was a discipline to thinking about cityspace and about how the photographs captured the places more than half the human population now lives in. There was also a discipline in keeping myself entirely out of the collection as a voice or persona. As well, my practice has always been to go for subjects and verbs--clear sentences. Since the work dealt with ideas, I didn't want to lose readers with careless grammar. I wanted them to know what I said so that they could work out what I meant.
But now I need to do something different. A new adventure.
I don't know if I will ever quilt my wild basketweave quilt, though I suspect Bill is about to claim it for his office. As I worked on it, I learned more about colour than all the colour wheels and colour theories have ever taught me: I know what works in theory, but it's apt to be a bit languid and obedient--though maybe on a king size bed, that's what you might want. But it doesn't matter if anyone wants my wild quilt or even if I turn it into a quilt. It was valuable as a draft, teaching me to colour outside the lines.
I fully believe Sherwood Anderson's quip that inspiration comes when you fasten the seat of your pants to the seat of a chair. But I wish someone would come up with a sharp quip for drafts. How they are the lightning of the possible. How sometimes all you need to do is make yourself clear to yourself--at least in the first instance. Once you get that far, you can find ways to invite readers in. How they are experiments, hypotheses, trial runs. How they can go nowhere, but how the writer certainly goes somewhere in struggling with them--gaining some insight, seeing another path through the forest, learning to play and experiment, if nothing else.
Yesterday I began reading Julian Barnes' latest novel, The Noise of Time. He takes a common anecdote about the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovitch--that for a while he spent his nights in the hallway of his apartment with a small suitcase so that Stalin's men came for him, the goons wouldn't wake his wife and daughter--and so far he's turned the situation partly into a meditation on art. Literature in the age of Google sent me looking for a phrase Shostakovich uses: that artists are "the engineers of human souls." Apparently, Yuri Olesha used the phrase when he met Stalin at the home of writer Maxim Gorky, and this idea became part of Stalin's ideological vocabulary. As Shostakovitch stands in his hallway, he thinks that two things are problematic about the grand, Stalinesque phrase. First, most people don't want to be engineered by the art they look at, the music they listen to, the books they read. As I've argued at length (and perhaps ad nauseum) in Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement, people want to maintain their autonomy in the face of a work of art. They'd like to have a conversation with the artist. (Which is why Woolf wrote Three Guineas as a letter: you can always answer a letter, and Woolf received a record number of letters over Three Guineas, all of which she answered). Woolf thought of her readers as "accomplices" who maintained their own freedom by making their individual contributions to the text. But Shostakovitch's other question is also important: who engineers the engineers? What is the source of the ideology the artist/engineer infuses his or her work with?
One way we avoid being engineers is to claim every freedom we have as writers or painters or composers. There are different freedoms for different occasions. Visible Cities gave me the freedom of keeping myself out of the poetry I was writing, to immerse myself in a poetry of ideas. I suspect that the next poems will need me to be free of verbiage and analysis--to let what I am seeing simply be. As well, there are other kinds of freedom that all art needs to claim: freedom from conventions, from banality, from safety, predictability, common received ideas, dogma, ideology. At least that's what I concluded as I made my quilt.
at 2:47 PM