Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mingus and the Deep Dark Woods

When I was younger I loved the year end shows about music, and the lists. In those days we'd have a cassette ready and tape the top 100 of the year from the local station. I can't remember if I questioned the authority behind the list, but I think I didn't. Then later on in my life I came to some great books by reading such lists.

Though I did go on to get some degrees, I began my reading life with no agenda, and I kind of miss that. I read Love in the Time of Cholera simply because I saw it on a list somewhere. I didn't maybe understand the significance of Marquez until I read Barth's essay on his work or maybe when I read 100 Years of Solitude again for a course in grad school, but the books did affect me. I was naively working in what I thought was isolation, but wasn't, of course. Anyway, in those days we loved lists. I remember when my best of lists included mainly heavy metal music, or when Sling Blade came out, or when Barney's Version was the book to read at our house over Christmas, when someone had received it as a gift.

Now I can't remember things as well, and I think I don't really have as strong opinions as I used to--or maybe I have less energy to remember the things I dislike.

This year started in Saskatoon, where I was working on a new novel in the basement of our rented townhouse. It was a long winter, and I knew our daughter would be born (yesterday was her first birthday, and tomorrow is my 47th, so this day seems important too, somehow, though of course it isn't--the ducks on the creek by our house are still ducks, and the snow is falling, but it's soft, and there is no ice on the creek. Abby the dog watches them float from her place on the bank and she's old too--it used to be she's jump in and chase them, but now she knows she has no hope of beating them while swimming and even her approach to getting the ducks who are not in the water has changed; she fancies herself as a cat, and tries to keep the brush, or a tree trunk, in between her and the sitting ducks until her final sprint. But she's slower, and older, and will never catch another bird, if she has ever.) so I had worked madly at my new novel (The Whole Show) and finished the first draft before she was born, though I did get back at it a couple of months after her birth, too.

But down in the basement I played Blues and Roots, by Charles Mingus, over and over as I wrote. It reminded me of years previous when there were 3 cassettes I listened to over and over during my first year at Carleton -- The Future, by Leonard Cohen; Fully Completely, by the Tragically Hip; and Automatic for the People, by REM. That was the first time I went back to school after a few years of working out in the cold, surveying. It was my own warm world in my little room in Ottawa, reading books, feeling warm and dry. It was magical, though some would see it as a squalid existence.

It was the same last year in my makeshift office, with my old thrift-store cd player with purple speakers, listening to Mingus and typing about a guy who's recently quit his job managing a few thrift stores to recapture his youth. The part I was writing about doesn't really related, but maybe. Anyway, this was also the winter when just before our daughter was born I went to see the Deep Dark Woods play at a club in Saskatoon with my brother and his son. It was one of the best shows I have seen in a long while.

I don't have a top-ten music list, but  two stand out, for sure. One is the Mingus record I mention above, the next is Jubilee, by the Deep Dark Woods, which I listen to now.

I read a lot of books but cannot remember many of them, as the years tend to blend together. There are some CanLit ones in there, for sure -- Bobcat and Other Stories, by Rebecca Lee; Cockroach, by Rawi Hage; Hell-Going, by Lynn Coady; children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections, by Renee Sarojini Saklikar; The Family China, by Ann Shin; Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain; Belinda's Rings by Corinna Chong; Underworld by Don Delillo; Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith; Other People, by Peter Campion.

I've also had a busy fall giving readings from my latest book, Listen All You Bullets, and my ambivalence toward such work has not changed. Maybe it has. Maybe it is tipping toward not wanting to do that kind of work, whereas I used to enjoy it a little more. I wrote a small piece about my difficulty with public readings here. The opposite of what Cohen speaks about is in public performance that does what Maggie Nelson describes in the following passage from her book The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning:

The desire to catch an audience unawares and ambush it is a fundamentally terrorizing, Messianic approach to art-making, on that underestimates the capacities and intelligence of most viewers, and overestimates that of most artists. (116)

I don't know what's worse. No, I do. It is worse to have the speaker try to include the whole small audience in a way that is often presented as a democratizing impulse but is really pure ego. I am tired of that, and you never know when it's going to crop up.

Anyway, it is harder to justify the borders between years every day, so this is just my nostalgic attempt to return to a time when I found the borders easily defined.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Stupid Voices

I have a few things to say today. None of my posts are really organized or planned well, so probably there is no need to say this anyway.

I am judging three books now for an award, and it's become quite apparent which one will win, though I want to finish it, of course, before I am sure. But this leads me to the idea of awards. I want one, of course. No, more than one. I would like the security it might bring. I get tired, as everyone does, I am sure, of shopping my books around to various publishers. I'd like to write a book knowing from the start it has a publisher.

But I am really curious how these awards are decided, the ones with juries, I mean. Are they mostly a compromise? Looking at the Canada Reads finalists this year makes me wonder how far off its process is from other prizes, despite it not being right now as a bad as it was during its social media voting frenzy a few years back.

The trouble is I see the writers out there at conferences and reading series and it is almost always the ones with the least remarkable things to say, and the least remarkable ways to say them, that talk for the longest. There is a precise mathematical equation that describes this, I am sure.

Or sometimes I have been on juries that create shortlists and found that one book we all dismissed has gone on to not just be short-listed, but also to actually win some other award. Why is this? It cannot be a simply a matter of taste. I remember another time creating a short list and including a book that was maybe sub-par but its subject matter appealed, and it made the list diverse. I felt fine including it in the shortlist but never thought it would win.

Probably the one question that's most difficult to answer is what makes something literary, as opposed to commercial. I think the line is blurred in Canada maybe more than in other countries. You attend readings here, for instance, by writers who have won awards, or who have not, and there are dramatic differences in the audiences to which they speak. Too often there is an evangelical redemption story at the beginning, about how writing has saved the life of the writer. That's bad enough, but then some writers feel the need to perform as if the audience is made up of children.

I am not against that, if the audience is children. As a small aside, one of the great pleasures I have right now is reading to my daughter, who is not yet a year old and who smiles and fidgets with anticipation as I read through her 50-word board book on the activities friends might do together. It's beautiful.

But it's disheartening to hear the volume and the velocity and the tone of the reading voice lauded, or see the gestures that resemble some kind of acting out of the action. I may be alone, but I hope not. I don't want to hear an adult read in a funny voice to me. It's embarrassing. If it's John Cleese, I get it. It's funny. If it's not, it's still funny, and the gravity with which the writer comments between reading sections . . . well, I would rather step outside and get a little fresh air.

Can we assume that even if we are reading traditional realism the audience is at least capable of imagining a voice?

Maybe part of this comes from a sad hypothesis I have, that writers themselves rarely read anymore, that they watch movies and television and write with the primary goal of describing the framed scene and action moving in and out of that frame. The over-writing comes in the desire to give direction to the actors in the future movie. On the page it's annoying enough. On stage it's ridiculous.

I recently read a book in which a character was described as hyperactive in the beginning of the sentence, and her movement was described as "ambling" at the end of the sentence. It's as if there is no word that actually matters, but the author for some reason requires an adjective.

It doesn't instill confidence.

And what's worse is the celebration of award-winning authors simply because of their money. It's funny. You look at some of them and know their last book was horrible. It would never have been published if the previous had not done well, but we fall all over ourselves to praise them, hoping they will be on a jury sometime and remember what we said.

On the positive side, I am teaching some great books next year, so I know they are out there. And Lynn Coady won the Giller, which is great, but should have happened already, when The Antagonist was the best book.

Two great things in Canada for the short story -- Lynn Coady and Alice Munro winning their awards. I hope that results in a new faith in the form on the part of publishers in Canada, for purely selfish reasons, of course. My first book was short fiction, and got some good reviews, but it's take me about 7 years to find a publisher for the next book of short fiction.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Readings in Other Towns

I am not sure what I think about readings in other towns, yet. I've been doing a few, and there are things that are heartening and things that are not. Most of the things that are not are simply a matter of perspective. I wonder if they matter. I wonder if it does result in book sales. I think it does, though sometimes it doesn't seem like it.

What is good, though, is meeting the other people, even for me, who finds social situations difficult often, and many new people at once quite tiring. But the beautiful part is seeing the people who organize these things, like Jordan Fry in St. Catharines, Andrew Hood in Guelph, and all the people of Lit Live in Hamilton. Each of these small communities of writers and readers reminds me of my time back in Ottawa, when I went to Carleton and got involved with a group of writers from Chris Levenson's poetry workshop and would go to the Tree Reading series. Those were big nights for me. I loved them, and I loved to argue about poetry and short stories with equally animated people.

I miss that, and I wish I was a bit better at getting into conversations slowly with people, hanging out at the bar with strangers who I could come to know enough that we would share our real feelings about the writing we loved and the writing we hated.

One of the things that brought home last night was talking to Stan Rogal after we read at Homegrown Hamiltion with Ann Shin, Amanda Jernigan, Chris Pannel and Barbara Fradkin for the LitLive reading series. Stan read long ago in Ottawa, and I remember two things about it. I didn't know his work (everything was new to me then--it was the first time I'd met a like-minded group and shared books with them and learned what other people were loving and were writing at the time; prior to that it was simply aimless wandering in the old Westgate Books in Saskatoon or another little bookstore I forget the name of in Kitchener) and I was really upset I missed the reading because of the night shift at Tim Horton's. I remember a girl whose name I forget, a classmate, raving about Rogal's reading the next time we were all together.

Anyway, who knows? I hope some of the people there last night will remember our readings. I came away with a Brautigan-inspired book of haiku by Rogal (Love's Not the Way To) and Ann Shin's new collection, The Family China. Both look great. I need to find time to read, though.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Closer Than You Think

The title of this post is about my next book, which I have seen, though not held. I am quite taken by it. I love it, which is not a surprise, since it's a Gaspereau book. There were a few different covers considered at various stages and though they all had something in them which I loved, this final one is the best. I will post a picture of the jacket next week, after it's up at Gaspereau's site.

I've been thinking a lot about what may happen with this book. I think I am as excited as I was with my first one, and I don't know exactly why. Probably simply a funny thing that happens in the careers of most writers, I think -- the first book got some good reviews and I thought publication would be easier then, though it has not turned out to be. It happened years ago with my first journal publications, too. A couple of short stories in The Malahat Review, and then what? Years before the next stories were published.

Now I have this novel coming out in September and a short story collection coming out next fall, and a novel-in-progress almost complete. It seems like I've done a lot in the last year, but it's much less than it seems. Some of the stories are new, but most of my work has been on the new novel. The short stories were rejected many times prior to finding a publisher, both by agents and by publishers, and that can, obviously, be disheartening, but it's also bracing and invigorating.

I don't want to be one of those people who believes his obscurity is proof of his worth. I don't mean that. I want readers. I would like millions of them, of course. But finding the rewards of the work in the regular effort expended, in the solitude and the empathetic attention to the wounded humans around me (whether in my imagination or at the next table in the doughnut shop) is necessary and whatever readership one happens to find is a byproduct of the pursuit, not its goal. Or should be.

And as high-minded as that sounds (and I do believe it), I have the luxury of having no choice in the matter right now. I must find my rewards in the work itself, because there is no money in it. I am lucky financially in other ways, of course . . . like the job that afforded my a leave to write the next book, like being born where I was born, etc. The accidents of my life have been good to me.

But the best part of it really is the attention that this kind of work requires of me. It doesn't always make it into the books, but the pursuit of rendering some of these human stories overheard into fiction is what fuels everything I write. Last summer, for instance, overhearing an earnest young man having lunch with his mother and grandmother at a Tim Hortons. He reminded me of myself at that age, as they had come into the city from a rural area, and the visits to the city were not frequent. He'd gotten a haircut and liked it, and was trying to figure out how often he could come in to get his hair cut at the same place. His grandmother was large and spoke tersely to him. His mother didn't stay much, and it seemed as if something was troubling her and I wondered if it was the same thing that the grandmother expressed with meanness to the boy.

Even now, as I remember it, I cannot tell how much is made up and how much is not. I took some notes, and I'll get back to it, but how much of the notes are real and how much did I fictionalize as I wrote. I know what made me want to know those characters. The boy reminded me of one of my brothers, the grandmother reminded me of one of my grandmothers, and also of me--I have often reacted with meanness toward undeserving people when I am anxious for other reasons.

But the conversation those characters had at that table made me think also of my own private childhood, when that same brother and I would play The Queen is Dead, by the Smiths, outside in the summer as we threw the Frisbee around. And it was sunny out, and the yard was dusty, and in such a situation why would the lyrics "Another sunny day, and so I meet you at the cemetery gates" resonate? Why would, years later, James Kelman's A Disaffection seem to save me from despair while I inspected the construction of subdivision in a small town in Alberta?

I don't know. But that kind of conversation, overheard, is what keeps me working, I guess. I don't begrudge the writers who need some kind of flash to motivate them, those writers who may decry the use of a coffee shop as a setting for a story, or whatever, but I don't understand them.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Luddites, Permissions, and Reprints

Right now we are preparing to move back to Kelowna. There are the usual anxieties, despite having moved about every year, sometimes every third year--probably every second year, on average--since I left home the first time after high school. I feel like since then I have carted around boxes and boxes of unsorted paper. Stacks of old typewritten poems that thankfully all the editors rejected when they were written, a few dot matrix printouts of my first short stories, also, thankfully, unpublished.

I have no idea why I can't get rid of them. They are a trial to read, but I think I just wonder if there will come a time when I have grown enough that I can see something useful in them, in the same way it's been growth that makes them appalling to read now. I remember the old story of the man who had dementia and would wake up happy each day, eat his breakfast, take his pills, then disappear into his cluttered office to redo the taxes from some distant year. I wouldn't mind being stuck in that kind of loop as long as my aesthetic judgement has deteriorated along with my memory and I am moved by some spark in the work of myself as a child.

The sad part is when I think of that old man working to fix a problem, to prove he didn't owe in some distant tax year decades past.

I think digital copies of things will make this more awful, too. I am compulsive about keeping all my work now that it's digital, too, but if I actually have to work on it I print it out. Imagine trying to make sense, with a failing mind, of 16 copies of one poem or story improperly filed on your computer, encountering the title changes and the same story in different folders from different years and thinking it's new, and then not even being able to sit with it and remember, say, when you had that cheap yellow paper because it was all you could afford and when you sat on the floor with your old typewriter, working on a coffee table in an otherwise empty apartment.

When I was younger the cigarette smoke that was caught in the latest used fantasy or science fiction book I bought from the old Westgate Books, or Donald's Bookstore, made the books seem romantic to me. I romanticized what I didn't know then were marginal figures, those adults who were obsessed with those fantastic worlds I was beginning to discover. I thought the perfect life would be working the most menial job you could find, so your mind might be free and you could afford books and role-playing games and who cared what else?

And just now, while packing, I have found two permission agreements I need to sign and send off, before my next novel comes out. I don't know why four lines of Leonard Cohen cost 30 dollars plus tax, and three lines of Jorie Graham cost 50 dollars, but I guess that's how it goes. I remember that first time I read the Leonard Cohen poem from which I'm quoting. I found the book, a selected poems paperback, in that same Westgate Books. I returned there every chance I got, until it moved to the east side, I guess, when I would find myself back in Saskatoon between years in school, or projects in construction. In those days a book could save my life, it seemed like. I would live in a old and cheap motel in a small town, most of the time, working on a highway job somewhere, and if I picked the right book, the evenings could mean something more than exhausted sleep.

I am also looking at copies of my latest collection of stories, since it's been accepted for publication and will come out in the fall of 2014 (though no contract yet, so anything could happen, but it's 99 per cent sure). I think of an old story I had one paper copy of. It was called "Barn Burning" because I had not read many books in those days. Why can't I find that old story? I think it was quite good.

But in reading books from the catalogues of some of the publishers to which I'd sent the ms., I find odd things, and things that cannot help but hurt your feelings, sort of.  (And here I have to remind myself this is healthy. As the writer Ed Allen once told those of us in his class, probably in response to some criticism of criticism in a workshop class: "It should hurt!")

For instance an old collection of stories recently reprinted and with a foreword by the author. The foreword seems apologetic. It's framed as an attempt to argue for the writer's particular aesthetic, but it comes across as an apology, with nothing but a kind of whiny but I like this kind of writing underpinning the short foreword. There is no need to apologize, but further, any argument for your own writing becomes a kind of apology, because in any explanation is a kind of acknowledgement that what you explain is not normal.

That's stupid. No apologies or explanations necessary. I recently got pretty close to having this next book accepted by a very good publisher, and it hurt when it didn't happen, but the rejection was flattering. One of the comments was that my stories are unCanadian. It was meant as a compliment, and I took it as one. It was in the context of over-explanation, something quite common in CanLit. What's worse, to me, is that the over-explanation often takes the form of tautological constructions that are gauzy and accepted as "poetic" -- a kind of gosh, I don't understand it so it must be deep. They are actually nonsensical and do nothing to further our understanding of the fictive world. They distance us from it.

Far better to leave space for the reader, let the reader inhabit the fictive world, than use obfuscating language to distract the reader from those spaces. Painting flames on a car does not make it fast.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Few Stories

A little news about my short fiction manuscript, We Don't Celebrate That:

1) I just got the new issue of Grain (40.3), which contains my story "You Didn't have to Tell Him." It's a great looking issue, with some unsettling art by Zachari Logan on the cover and throughout the journal, and great work by Sheri Benning, "Gone." I've long admired the way she writes about Saskatchewan, our common home, especially since I've made my own attempts since I was quite young, and have not quite succeeded, where it seems she does so effortlessly. A line from "Gone," for instance -- "The farm, sold, and our blue spruce, their sleek shadows all we knew of water on skin during those years of drought, are dying too."-- captures somehow everything I know about my own background, the endurance of my relatives, the harsh landscape, and my own necessary leaving.

And again, in a poem called "Saskatchewan," in the same issue, by Bruce Rice, the lines:

Then between this blue and this,
the world went on, creating itself over and over,
a rasping sound, then nothing--

Anyway, I grew up reading Grain, and wanting to be in it. This was when it was smaller and literary journals seemed more rare. It was back in the old days, when we had no cable television out on the farm and so we didn't know anything about the NBA except a few names and our heroes were players on the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, or the teams they played, like UVic. I was a point guard and I wanted to be Eli Pasquale, not Magic Johnson.

It was the same with Grain. I'd find the old issues in the old Westgate Books, when it was on the west side of Saskatoon, with its original owner. I'd find my models in there as I was learning to write.So it's always a great feeling to be published in there.

2) My story "Leave Her Alone" has been accepted by The Fiddlehead.

I've always struggled to reconcile the two competing impulses in my fiction, one toward minimalist realism (as the story in Grain is) and more voice-driven fiction, as this story is. The voice ones seem harder to place in journals, so I am really happy to have this one in The Fiddlehead. I reread it prior to sending off the digital version and it seems like a different mode completely, which makes sense. The novel I've been working on all year is 3rd person and realism. Still, it makes me want to get back to something a little more loose.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

I Need a White Board

I would like a white board, but we are about to move, so I won't buy it now. In the meantime, I am sorting through the first draft of my latest novel project and would like a big place to put the scenes and sort them out. I kind of dislike completely linear plots, but I know they have their appeal. The reason I dislike them, I suppose, is you spend so much time making characters get up out of a chair and walk across the room to leave through the door. A lot of stuff seems to happen that doesn't matter, but something has to happen, I know.

Anyway, I just posted a scene, maybe the beginning scene, on my website, here.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Listen All You Bullets

Just working on the proofs for the new book, to be published by Gaspereau in the fall. It's always a welcome relief to return to the work, knowing someone else has read it attentively, and still be happy with it.

I'm not sure how it works for other writers, but I always find odd sentences that may be changed, or should be changed. But the fewer times that happens when you return to a work after some time, the better it is, of course. Right now the big thing for me is getting back in the space of the novel in question. Sometimes I dislike a bit of writing (and actually I should not really be reading it much at this stage; I should be looking for typos and so on) and change it, only to read further and realize it was a bit of parody, and its style meant as an allusion to another author or genre.

It's my last work I'll write, I think, in this mode. That's another reason I worried about disliking it upon my return -- the novel I work on presently, The Whole Show, is realism, with less show, kind of. I like it, too. I suppose I can like both.

And besides, all the writers I admire (without making a list and looking hard for exceptions) have things that recur in all their separate works. I may think I am writing a completely different novel now only to find it's the same exact thing in different colours. Who knows?

Anyway, the next step is figuring out how to read from Listen All You Bullets. It's going to be a bit of a tough fall, but fun. Lots of events planned to promote the book, which will be a lot of fun. But it's not a traditional novel, and if I read from one passage in one style only, perhaps I alienate certain readers . . . . That's okay. I'm not really James Joyce.My voice is in all the pieces somehow, I suppose.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Style Again

Last time I kind of had to leave without finishing my thoughts, but then here they are now. I have always been kind of curious where style ends and bad writing begins. I am all for someone working more in their own voice than in a copy of someone else's voice, but I suppose the main thing for me is when rules are broken it should be purposeful and have something to do with the context. Writers who break the same rules routinely, regardless of context, irritate me, and, as I said previously, I think some of the main offenders have been discussed in that excellent "A Reader's Manifesto."

One of the things that bothers me sometimes, too, though, is when the content of a story or novel is considered part of the writer's style and so ridiculous things are somehow forgiven (I hope they are not believed, but I suppose for some reason readers are just suspending disbelief completely). I know some things are not style, and there is a distinction to be made between, say, someone writing in the magic realist mode and someone attempting to write in the realist mode and failing.

The best example I can think of is this bit I heard at a reading about 10 years ago or maybe a bit more. A Canadian novelist was reading from a recent book written about someone in Toronto researching her lineage in a library. At one point the character pressed her ear to the pages of an open old phone book and hears the voices of the past. Now I cannot remember if it was described as a person "imagining" she heard the voices or whether it was presented as her actually hearing the voices, but it doesn't matter. What does matter is the physical act was presented as real, and here is the problem: Are we meant to believe a character would do this, whether she expects to hear something or not?

I mean, would a person in real life do this? Of course this is often an overused question in workshops, but it's worth answering because it gets to the main problem with writing like this. Are even the actions of the characters meant to be stylistic versions of their emotional truth or are we allowed to take the actual actions as real? So are we supposed to believe a real character would take part in this metaphorical action, or are we supposed to believe that her actions are not real?

I didn't read the book because the reading turned me off, so maybe in the end something is revealed that would make us reread actions such as these, but simply by the reading, the Q and A afterwards, etc. it seemed that no, this was real, honest writing. And the reverence with which it was recieved was really hard to take. There is a sense, when a "literary" writer does something like this, that it must be good because it's unusual.

Okay, here is a clarification. It is unusual in real life, because it is stupid. It is not actually unusual in so-called "poetic" fiction. In fact, it is a cliche. How many well-meaning heroines have we read who have an epiphany by hearing objects speak, or the wind, or whatever?

I think the problem comes from the same thing that happens in a lot of horrible poetry. The poet declares himself a poet and since he is a poet, whatever he writes is poetry. Then we get these people who simply walk around and describe things, and, since their sensibility is more refined than the average person, they are blowing our minds.

So here we get a poet as a heroine in a novel. This wacky character, so in tune with the world around her compared to the great unwashed, actually would do this thing that most of us would reject as incredibly silly, and she would do it with such earnestness that it's would simply be mean to object.

Monday, April 29, 2013


Quite a while ago B. R. Myers published "A Reader's Manifesto" in The Atlantic. It was perfect and said many things I was thinking. I'm reminded of it now after reading two recent books by Don DeLillo: Falling Man and Point Omega.

One of the things Myers pointed out is that the best writers know the syntax, vocabulary, imagery, and metaphor has a relationship to the content of the scene. As he points out, writers that are for some reason praised for their style often neglect this relationship, using their overdone, so-called "poetic," prose at every point of the book, regardless of what's being described.

While reading these two DeLillo books I kept waiting for some reason to care about any of the characters, or even to have some way to differentiate between them. They all speak the same. The dialogue would fit in a Kids in the Hall sketch mocking a black and white artsy film that intimidates its viewers into accepting it as "art" or else revealing themselves as stupid among their friends.

One of the things he does over and over is restate things. It is a common technique in prose that wants to be considered literary: say something, then insert a comma and say it again in different, but still unremarkable, words. For instance, a charcter has not just "accepted his secrets," but also "yielded to his mystery." Everything is said over and over again, and not just in different ways, but sometimes exactly the same sentence, as when the main male character, Keith, is considering telling his wife about an affair. Twelve small paragraphs in a row begin with the sentence "He would tell her about Florence," then describe a different possible outcome. All of this comes to the conclusion that things would be better for him once he revealed the secret because he could stop leading a double life. The double life is a cliche, but is the cliche made fresh by its description: "It was the way to stop being double in himself, trailing the taut shadow of what is unsaid."?

There are so many instances of this affected figurative language in these two books. Does this illuminate in some way? How does taut apply to shadow? How does what is unsaid mean more by being compared to a shadow?

Anyway, there are so many things to dislike in the writing. It's pretty poor. But it gives me hope in some ways, since much of what passes for literary in CanLit is accused of the same thing. At least it's not a national or a regional problem. But can we not stop it?

I meant to write more, but the baby cries.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Kingston Trio and Teaching Poetry

This is an odd time for me. I've finished a draft of my current novel, The Whole Show, and am waiting to begin editing on the novel that comes out in the fall, Listen All You Bullets. It feels like there's nothing to work on right now, though I know there always is.

The shift from long work to short is difficult sometimes, and this seems to be one of those times. My reading is all over the place, too. I just got Peter Campion's first book in the mail, Other People. It's quite good. I became a fan of Campion before I'd read his poetry because of his response to a paper presented by Tony Hoagland at the AWP in Boston, which I wrote of previously.

Anyway, what is interesting so far is how Campion's poetry seems in no way to argue overtly for his stance (probably because it's one of many positions, whereas Hoagland's stance seems to be his one position and in his last book each poem in some way argues for it).

I am thinking, for instance, of a poem in which a middle-class African American family encounters a foreign maid in an upscale hotel. The poem seems to argue that racism is all over, or maybe that it has nothing to do with race, that everything is about class. Whatever it argues, the reason it fails is because the speaker's position is not critiqued in any way. The tone is patronizing because the white speaker constructs this scene to show two marginalized groups (the individuals are meant to stand for their group) acting poorly toward one another. It seems to be a rationalization of discrimination: "See, it's natural! They do it too!"

It is the worst kind of poetry to me, the kind that wants to teach you a lesson, but the lesson has been accepted long ago. It's what I hate about most historical fiction, especially what I know of Canadian historical fiction: it takes a story from history and tells it from the point of view of some marginalized person. There is never any doubt about the marginalization being morally wrong, because now, safely in the 21st century, we know that slavery is wrong, for instance. It is a soporific and causes readers to ignore what is wrong right here and right now. It's also a bit odd sometimes to see the pleasure a writer seems to get in describing indignities and horrors, and alarming to see the pleasure readers get in the depiction of the same.

And all the while, the writer and the reader are at a safe historical distance and in agreement from the start. In Hoagland's poem, the reader and the writer are safely excluded because they are white and the characters are not; they have dealt with their historical racism and are living in a post-race world and they only hope the others will follow their lead.

It's like that old Kingston Trio song with a chorus something like "They don't do things like that anymore, do they?" (In the song it's ironic, of course.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

from Alain Robbe-Grillet

First rough point: I write to destroy, by describing them exactly, the nocturnal monsters that threaten to invade my waking life. But--second point--all reality is indescribable, and I know it instinctively: consciousness is structured like our language [. . .] not so the world or the unconscious [. . .] Literature is, then--third position--the pursuit of an impossible representation. Knowing this, what can I do?

from Ghosts in the Mirror: A Romanesque

Monday, March 25, 2013

A New One

January 3, 2013

I will tell you exactly what I value:
precision, or anything like it, but now

in its expression there are obvious
dangers. In the form of my daughter,

who arrives with destruction and sets to
mending the whole earth daily. I am

sorry I don't know if language is plastic or
organic, refined or raw, and every morning

I learn what I knew as mechanical was
physiological all along. A slice of angelfood

cake spinning on its stick, powered by an ancient
beast and then look: a smile flickers as she dreams,

when what good has she seen yet, what good?
No, he told the others, he was out of the game,

this was it: he believed no more in the angles
of perception or the light darkness achieved, but

he knew he would cross the street again any day.
There has always been a garden, there is always

God and his cucumbers, the devil and his weeds,
and wind which will and will and will.

The Difficulty

Since the birth of my daughter in December, I've struggled with certain aspects of my current project, a novel I'm calling for now The Whole Show. Like any novel, it contains good and bad, light and dark, etc. The struggle is to descend into the darkness accurately, given my new attitude toward the world.

This naturally occurs in what I may want to write about in other side projects (which are, for me, always sustaining when the weight of a longer project must be set aside for a while in order to let the subconscious work out whatever it must work out--or, right now in my current project, when I need some time away in order to approach it again with as much of a fresh eye as is possible). I don't want to be one of those parents who seems to believe that he is the first one to be a parent. I don't want to take the role of the poet who, simply by calling himself a poet, feels he sees every day things in a way that he must share with the average person who lacks his super human capacity for observation and reflection.

I do talk about my daughter a lot, I know. She does bring me joy. She has changed me. But I don't want to write about that, or at least I don't want my writing to be limited to this subject. I understand this is a human subject of course, and so it is a legitimate one, but I don't want to write about it. What kind of conflict can I get into what I'm doing if all I feel is joy and fatigue?

But I don't have to worry, I suppose. The world always enters, and there is a share of sorrow out there for all of us, and more than enough to feed whatever conflict may happen in The Whole Show.

I write in our basement, though, and sometimes I have to return to the world upstairs. I try to keep thinking of the sad work below, but it's impossible when I see her waving her legs and talking to a toy she's trying earnestly to grasp. I guess it's no big deal. I get back there, it just takes more time.

Anyway, despite my ambivalence about her effect on my writing, I do write about her. My next post will be a poem I wrote on her 6th day. This way I don't have to send it out to gather rejections.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

My First Time at AWP

Here are some things I noticed from my first time at AWP:

1)       Many panel proposals get rejected, which is good, I think, in general. There are so many already, and some of them are so packed that despite everyone sticking to their time limit (which happened at almost every panel I went to and if it didn’t it was maybe 25 minutes instead of 15, not 40 instead of 15 like I have seen at other conferences) there is no time for questions. However, there seem to be a large number of tribute panels.

2)     Tribute panels can be quite good if you don’t know the work of the author in question. The more familiar you are with the author’s work, the less interesting the panel may be. I was introduced to the work of Gail Mazur, for instance, and will investigate her work further. But:

a.      It is awkward no matter what when the writer being paid tribute is in the room. This is for a stranger (me), mind you. And:

b.      The cosmopolitan centres in which these conferences are held (Boston, in this case) like to think they are speaking for the whole world when many of their writers are regional in exactly the same sense as a writer from South Dakota may be, or a writer from Saskatchewan, or the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, and this is obvious because:

c.       Many of the panelists on the tribute panels pay more attention in their presentation to the person of the writer than to her work. A past poet laureate speaking anecdotally, for instance, of meetings with James Tate and conferences 40 years ago, etc. (Usually involving alcohol and drugs, which I will discuss later.) But:

d.      The best of these tributes, as the best writing in general does, to my mind, offer something of the speaker, too, and move quickly on from the personal anecdotes, using them only as an opening to speak of the work of the writer in question and in the end come back to what that work has meant to the speaker’s own work and development as an artist.

3)      Nobody really wants to disagree. Or, they do want to disagree but they don’t want to be disagreed with. There was an interesting panel constructed and presented as a response to a Tony Hoagland essay lauding the message in The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, and bemoaning the overly clever poetry Hoagland sees being produced today. Largely, he says, due to MFA programs working within contemporary capitalism. Of course he said he isn’t anti-intellectual although his argument certainly seemed to be. Of course his essay relied upon self-conscious (seemingly self-conscious to me, but who knows? This is part of the problem. As one panelist noted in her response, maybe these poets aren’t trying to “sound smart” as Hoagland argued; maybe they “are smart” and sound as they are) word play and elevated and sometimes specialist vocabulary. When the poet Peter Campion responded and disagree with some of Hoagland’s argument, while accepting much of it, Hoagland was upset. In fact, he grabbed the mic at the end of the panel and attacked Campion, accusing him of using ad hominem attacks and “spreading shame” – a phrase he used about 3 times. Hoagland’s attack took up the rest of the time and Campion was not allowed a response. Very funny here, because I didn’t see Campion’s paper indulging in ad hominem attacks (and Hoagland had accused Campion of these attacks on Lewis Hyde, not himself, probably as he was unwilling to talk about what he felt was a personal attack on himself) and probably what Hoagland was talking about was a bit near the end when Campion explicated a couple of lines from Hoagland’s essay to point out that his language engaged in exactly the same intellectual or academic language and made an effort to “sound smart.” This is what has often bothered me about anti-intellectuals in the academy or writing community. It happens often and is patronizing and insulting (as patronization always is, I suppose). Writers present themselves as less intellectual than they are, they try to dumb their writing down, or mock those who do not dumb their work down, as if, knowing a word, one must never use it, or risk betraying one’s own people. The British poet Tony Harrison has approached this theme eloquently and powerfully. Anyway, accusing someone who disagrees with you of using only personal attacks, then going on to say he is “spreading shame” (which I don’t understand anyway) a few times without ever engaging with any of his points . . . well, this behaviour is its own counter argument, I think. Basically, Hoagland seemed to be calling for a kind of humility of which he himself is incapable in either word or action (at least from his performance that day.)

4)     There is still a segment of the population that will think of themselves as rock stars, showing up at the last minute to read from their work to a room of maybe 25 people (when many of the panels, readings, and discussions attract audiences of hundreds or maybe a couple of thousand), who will begin the reading with an anecdote about how late their night was, with hints about sexual indiscretion and binge-drinking. I guess this is a normal trait of youth, and I’ve noticed also a nostalgia for it in older writers, who refer to such nights in their tributes to colleagues, and the response it elicits from the audience is related to their own youth or age relative to the speaker. It reminds me of a reading I went to in Vernon by Tom Wayman, who was reading from a comic novel set in the 60s that related the misadventures of a group of student radicals. The audience was made up mainly of people from that generation, and in the question and answer period that followed, people now in their 60s went on and on about how drug use back then was not the same as now. Back then, they seemed to say, there was a kind of purity in the souls of the people who used drugs, and this purity translated into the one true purpose for all acts, which is the seeking of transcendence. So I guess every generation thinks this, and it’s funny to me.

5)     There are so many books out there, and so many presses, and we do hear a lot of gloom and doom about the future of publishing, but there is no way to read all the books that deserve attention anyway, so I think we’re still doing well. It was great to see a bunch of Canadian presses down there, and to find some regional U.S. ones that I didn’t know of. I limited my book purchases to what would fill the AWP bag, though, so that’s too bad, but maybe I’ll be able to read them all.

6)     For what in the end is, I hope, a celebration of reading and writing (not a sales convention for writing programs, though there is that element), there is little time or space for reading and reflection. This is what strikes me even at the smallest readings, though—there is something embarrassing about it. It’s a private encounter, between a book and a reader, or should be. And when it’s working well it seems too private, a kind of secular version of prayer, and in this case, why am I packed into a room with all these other people, some of whom are not moved and are not paying attention and are distracting me from my attention to the moment.

7)     The best I saw was a panel on criticism and book reviewing. James Wood was on it, and some others whose work I will look up now. But the most interesting part to me was Stephen Burt—I’ve read his work and admired it, but it was a surprise how energetic and funny he was as moderator. I’ll go read more of him. There was another bit about negative reviewing, and no one dismissed it outright, which is good, but one reviewer, Parul Sehgal, talked about the need for a spiritual and intellectual inventory prior to beginning to review a book for which she had no affection. I am paraphrasing here, and seem to have misplaced my notes, but that’s what I think she said. Regardless, the gist was that it’s important to understand why you dislike a book and make certain it’s sound and not just personal. This makes perfect sense to me. If you dislike a book of poems, for instance, do you dislike them because they are not the work of your favourite poet—i.e. does this book fail for you because the poet is not Elizabeth Bishop?

a.      And here I will admit my own bias. A reviewer of my book of poetry (it really was not a review that said much about the book though, and I am sure anyone unfamiliar with the book would know little about it from reading the review, but this is what its author calls a review) complimented some poems as having “tight” or “taut” lines, or something, and found fault in the lack of these lines in other poems. What bothers me here is that the argument is basically that the author likes short poems with short lines and dislikes longer poems with a more exploratory impulse, and the underlying assumption is that if I were a poet of greater skill I would have worked until the longer and longer-lined poems were short lyrics. The idea seems to be that I wanted all of them to be short but was incapable of pulling it off, as the poems that aren’t short lyrics prove.

8)     The last thing I want to mention is the odd case of the supposedly argumentative panel—or maybe investigative, at least critical—that turns into a tribute panel. There was a panel on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and only one panelist, the poet Lee Ann Roripaugh, moved beyond the book itself, it seemed. The other panelist’s presentations were more in the vein of testimonials in support of personal application of the lessons of the book, personal narratives about gifts they’d been given as writers in their career, or, in one case, personal narratives about gifts the speaker himself gave to young writers. Lee’s was different, although she did begin from Hyde’s discussion of a gift economy (and I have to say here I have not read Hyde’s book and until Lee’s presentation didn’t feel I had to, as each time I’d heard it referred to seemed basically a restatement and reinforcement of its key principles (from Hoagland’s essay to this panel)), she talked extensively and eloquently of its contemporary expression in various forms of social media, things like the Delirious Hem advent calendar, etc. The only problem for me here is that I have misplaced the notebook with my notes. The other potential problem is that I know Lee’s work and know her interest in movement between genres, especially in her forthcoming book from Milkweed Editions—it comes out next year but I’ve been lucky to read a version of it recently and am quite taken with it, though I have to read it again to fully understand how it works, I think. So maybe my appreciation of her work coloured my take on her presentation. It had to, I suppose, but regardless, it was great to hear something more critically engaged.

9)     I don’t know if I want to go back there. But I suppose if I don’t want to it’s because of the sense of all that I missed because of its size and duration and the fact I hate crowds, and if I focus on what I did get to see and hear, and the new books I have coming in the mail or bought there, then I would have to go. And the next one is in Seattle, so why not?

Friday, March 1, 2013

No Outlines

There is an excellent article in my latest New Yorker by Nathan Heller and its title is "Just Saying: The anti-theatrical theatre of Annie Baker." I'm not familiar with this playwright, but will check her work out after finding out a bit about her. What struck me most (as often happens, I guess; you just find things that reinforce your beliefs sometimes) is what she says to her class about outlines. She doesn't do them, and will negotiate that into her contracts. She says "Hollywood hurts itself when everybody outlines screenplays" and says that she can sit around and talk about the ideas and the story for hours, but was but will not outline "[b]ecause by the time I finish the outline, it's dead."

I agree completely and have found the same thing. I've tried to outline projects and if I am sucessful in getting an outline done, the story never gets done. It doesn't matter to me anymore. There is no point writing when I have already discovered everything. Maybe it's just laziness, but I just cannot get motivated to write what I already have figured out.

The problem with admitting this, however, is that the polar opposite approach seems to be the idea that the characters just take over and the writer is an unwitting conduit for the expression of the characters. This embarasses me and at its worst there are links made between ink and blood, etc. That's far too grand, to me. I don't trust someone who says "the character just took over." I understand it a little bit, but come on, does anyone really believe that? Of course it's ludicrous.

But there is a bit of truth to it, I suppose, if you just pull back a little. You encounter these problems. You don't know where the story is going. Then you have someone pick up a phone, and the writing comes easily, the dialogue does get written quickly, and you DO surprise yourself, characters DO say things you don't expect.

You can't relinquish complete control, though. You want this kind of automatic writing, because it's easy. But one of the things that makes it so easy is it doesn't matter. You discard as much of it as you need to. You decide in the end, of course.

That's what makes both poles -- outlining and predetermining outcomes vs. spewing everything onto the page and letting it stand as is -- dangerous (if writing from the position of privilege most of us occupy can ever be dangerous). Too often the opposite of outlining stories is exercises intended to encourage the intuitive writing that comes of temporarily ceding control which actually end up having the same effect as outlining but seem to give the illusion that intuition is at work.

I've read a few of these on blogs by writing students. I remember one which involves the writer interviewing a character to get to know them. What happens then? Many students end up having the character react in a hostile way and refuse to answer questions. This automatically seems sucessful, since the author has relinquished control, supposedly. But not really. They want a character who is powerful so they make the character behave as if he has power. There is nothing to learn in this exercise except what character is supposed to be.

I've come to the conclusion, myself, that character sketches and so on are useless. You can only know a character in retrospect. You can only know them when you are done their story and have a chance to reflect upon it.

I can't prove it, but it works for me.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Sad Story

I remember a sad story about an old classmate. He'd gotten two layoff notices from the university and hadn't appeared in public for a couple of weeks. One afternoon a couple of friends went to his house to check on him. He appeared at the door with a small glass of whiskey, wearing an open housecoat and boxer shorts and quickly motioned his friends into the house. Once they were in, he was happy to see them, and when they asked about his absence he showed them the layoff notices. They asked him what he thought that meant. He said the president of the university wanted him dead.

I have no idea if the president did want him dead, but I don't think so. I recently got two notices two weeks apart, each from a different assistant at a literary agency. They both told me the book was not for them. It does seem a bit much.

Then I did a similar thing today, rejecting a story that had previously been withdrawn from consideration. Wow, the response was swift, and it made me happy I hadn't sent a response to the agency (though my imagined response was a joke, not angry like this one). The response to my small error was quite indignant.

It reminded me, too, of a time a few years ago when I worked with a graduate student, trying to make her thesis, which was about something interesting, into a serviceable piece of non-fiction. It wasn't a project I took on because I believed in it, but because the publisher thought it would work. She had never written a thing in her life aside from academic papers for school. In the end it failed, after I worked for two months with her, reading revisions, responding to questions, suggesting directions, etc. The deadline came and went with nothing publishable to put in the journal.

So what happened? I received a long angry email from her accusing me of being unprofessional and just generally a bad person. It didn't hurt my feelings, but I was angry; often things people say in those emails would not be said in person, of course.

I didn't respond, because it would have been of no use, to me or to her. But I wanted to explain that she had published nothing nowhere and written nothing in her life and what did she know about this "profession?" It would have just been venting, so who cares?

It does make me wish, sometimes, though, that I might send real rejections and not polite ones. And if I was meaning to, I have an idea of the authors to whom I'd send multiple.

But then, I suppose, I don't want to make someone retreat into their house for weeks afraid I wanted them dead. I don't want anybody dead or even sad or angry, I suppose.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


There is a little column on the right side of my site and it's called news. I put news in there, but it's not really news by the time it gets there. But the latest news is that I've been lucky enough to be on the longlist for the CBC awards again this year. (Not false modesty--I like my story a lot, but really, there is a lot of luck involved, too).

But there are two sad things going on that don't get in the news column of my site. One is that the Canada Writes website seems to be full of publicists exclaiming about the importance of authors using social media. The other is that the rejections continue.

There is a lot to be said for social media, I suppose, but I am quite tired of authors being judged by their use of it. It's odd the argument even has to be made. It's always been this way, I suppose; all but the best have to sell themselves. I get it. But do we need a ton of stories about publicists saying authors should tweet?

The second one is related, I suppose. I am used to rejection. Who isn't? Every tiny motivational speech at a conference about writing aimed at those who want to write begins with a testimonial about the "successful" author papering his walls and the walls of his neighbours with rejection slips. It's a contest, it seems, where writers trot out their failures to show how low they were before the one big break. It reminds me too much of religous testimonials that depend upon the speaker hitting rock bottom before finding salvation; there is a competition to make your rock bottom lower than the previous person's.

Anyway, Hemingway said a number of good things about writing and one of them in A Moveable Feast applies now. He called himself something like a goddam phony martyr for whining about the difficulties of making a living.

I hear him. But, as the writer Ed Allen said in a workshop once when I was at USD (as he slammed his open hand on the seminar table), it should hurt.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Next Big Thing

This is called the blog tour that ran itself, and also "The Next Big Thing." You get tagged, then tag other writers. When you are tagged, you answer the following questions about your work in progress and list the writers you've tagged at the end. Thanks to Francie Greenslade for tagging me.
What is your working title of your book?

Listen All You Bullets

 Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was curious about the English class book selection at Asquith high school. There were no Canadian books that I remembered, but I remembered we read Shane in grade seven, and I wondered why. Was it meant as “western” literature, good for Western Canada? I had long ago encountered the argument that schools must teach the “best” literature and understood the implication that Canadian literature was not good enough. As my writing career progressed this idea became more and more offensive to me. I still encounter it with publisher’s representatives when I ask them for anthologies with more Canadian content.

Anyway, I wanted to explore a few things, using a novel like Shane as the starting point. One is these things do matter. What is popular culture becomes accepted as history at some point, and that can be dangerous. Two is the plot of Shane is too easy, of course. The blood is removed, and in the end the boy grows up well because of the example of the hero. I wanted to write a story in which the effects of this violent mythology were more realistically damaging.

The main character, a boy who is like a small man and carries the burden of this legacy of violence and cannot grow beyond it, came to me quickly thereafter. He was easy to picture: a boy in a hat he didn’t fit, weighed down by the guns he wore on his belt, and having adult mannerisms and habits.

 What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a literary western.

 Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

For the character of the boy, I don’t know his name and he’s much too old now. Years ago I saw a production of David Mamet’s The Cryptogram in Calgary, and that little boy was amazing.
I’ve thought of that guy as this character many times while writing the book.  Louis C.K. could play the bookseller who thinks he’s a hero.
The parents could be played by Sarah Polley and Dean Norris. Kirsten Dunst could play herself.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A boy abandoned by his parents in the wake of frontier violence struggles to find a moral centre in an amoral world.

 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither. Gaspereau Press will publish it this September.

 How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first draft took a couple of years. I never write a complete draft first, mind you, so who knows? It took two years to have the structure and all the correct pieces in draft form.

 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I hope it’s a combination of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, In Parenthesis, and Snow White.

 Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The idea and the inspiration seem inseparable to me. I suppose the inspiration is always work that moves and challenges me, and these works will continue to inspire my work. Three are mentioned in the previous question. There are an uncountable number, really. I subscribe to Poetry, for instance, and almost every month there is a poem that makes me keep writing and gives me energy for a week or so; a new George Saunders story in the New Yorker does the same, or a Stephen Henighan story in The Malahat Review.

 What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Despite its historical setting, there is nothing real in it, except the violence. And despite the violence, it's a pretty funny book.
Please visit these writers for their answers, and I will try to add more:

Friday, February 1, 2013

Working on the Next Big Thing

A friend of mine, Frances Greenslade, recently tagged me in an interview series asking writers about what they're working on now. I'll post my answers and tag my own writers in the next week or so, but the effort of finding writers to tag, and who hadn't done the blog interview already, and who blog, has been quite instructive.

It reminds me how energizing speaking with other writers is, but also the difficulty. Maybe it's only that the weather in Saskatoon has been, with windchill, dipping below minus 40 the last few days, but I kind of miss Kelowna. It's partly the weather, but it's also the conversations about writing with my colleagues at the college.

Now and then I attend readings or talks by writers (and ostensibly for writers) but am often a bit put off by the tone of a number of the speakers. There is always something positive I can take from it, and I continue to go, but there is always something a bit depressing in the patronizing attitude toward the audience. Too often there it follows the model of a religious service, with the writer in question giving testimonials about how much writing has meant to her in her life. It baffles me.

Let's assume the worth of our work from the beginning.

So I miss beginning conversations with writers I know with ideas about the actual craft, and Francie is one of those writers (who also, as an aside, seems especially relevant to me and my wife right now as new parents, which her book By the Secret Ladder really prepared me for, and helps me to feel like a normal person instead of an insensitive brute when I'm exhausted) with which I have these conversations and always find them energizing.

Friday, January 18, 2013

My Fantasy Workplace

I recently shared a bit about how I work on my friend Francie Greenslade's blog. I was tempted to make things up, especially seeing many of the beautiful and inspiring places other people write. I decided to tell the truth, which is plain, but maybe not out of any impulse toward honesty. It's possible my fantasy writing place is more bland than my real one.

I want to live in a cheap motel somewhere, a place with a kitchenette and 1970s furniture. I'd stay in each motel for a couple of weeks, writing at the old kitchen table, sitting on the lawn chair outside my door in the evenings, having a beer or two. The motel would be just off a secondary highway with mostly local traffic, and the sun would behave like the sun of my youth, which only means I'd notice it as I would back then, when hard work was new to me and my work days were long.

I've lived in places like this before, while working on various highway construction jobs in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC, and in places like Carrington and Jamestown in North Dakota, or in the town I went to school last, Vermillion, South Dakota, though I didn't live in the motel then, but I would go swim at night sometimes in the pool of one that seemed always vacant.

I remember one time staying in Takysie Lake working on the reconstruction of a logging road, when everyone else went home for a couple of days. I stayed because Vancouver was too far and someone else stayed, too. His name was Tracy and he worked in our field office processing our survey data. He lived in a tiny trailer just by the field office and I lived at a lodge by the gas station/store in town. We met for breakfast that Sunday but the restaurant was closed so we ate at my house.

For him there was no way out of the life. This was his work. He didn't complain, but he did say on a previous job he'd been out on the grade one day way ahead of the machines when someone tracked him down and told him his father was dying, and by the time he got home his father was dead. Now what about my kids? he said. I never see them either.

He was a methodical man. Most people I met in that business were--they held to rituals long after they'd forgotten their purpose.

I feel like if I could be alone in such a place, just watching the highway, I'd write my best novel. I would live with fewer clothes, a percolator for coffee, no Internet, and I'd see the people who came and went in the motel, people who'd been left behind by all their high school friends who were in larger cities and had found better work. And when I needed some help I'd have a few books. The books would save me like James Kelman's A Disaffection did one summer when I worked by myself in Maple Creek.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Title

The title of this blog comes from advice David Mamet gave his daughter Zosia about acting: hit your mark, look the other person in the eye, and tell the truth. (At least this is the paraphrased memory of it I have from seeing Zosia Mamet interviewed on one of the late night talk shows).

            In the last few years I’ve written a lot about art’s function[1], and find it hard to continue in that vein, though it is an important subject to me. But there seems to be no way to write simply and clearly what art should do; any attempt at clarity seems prescriptive and limiting and in fact its success may end the whole conversation. So instead I want to try to write about smaller things, things that are on the periphery of that conversation but are not meant to be definitive.

            Mamet’s advice seemed, as soon as I heard it, perfect for any artist, and applies to writing this way: you get the perspective right, then you look where you are supposed to look, and be honest. Quite simple in theory. Difficult, really.

[1] Only two essays were published, mind you. They were editorials for the first two issues of Ryga: A Journal of Provocations.