June 29, 2009

Winnipeg and a 2004 flashback

I returned home today from a week-long visit to Winnipeg. It was a whirlwind visit with barely enough time to see everyone I wanted to see/do everything I wanted to do (and let's be frank with my priorities here: eat what I wanted to eat -- I never made it my-favourite-of-days-gone-by Thai restaurant around the corner from my former apartment, and by the time I made it to the King's Head, the kitchen had closed as far as fish and chips were concerned). But one thing that happened that I was thrilled about was a gathering at my friend G's place.

When I lived in Winnipeg, G's place on Gertrude was the most frequent and regular haunt for our Wednesday night writing group. Like lots of other writing groups, this one originated from a university writing course and gradually grew to include other friends who liked to write. We exchanged work, gave feedback, drank tea, snacked, and chatted (these last few being the three constants). Even though many of us had different aesthetics and divergent types of projects, it was wonderful to get feedback from other perspectives and feel support for one's endeavours. Plus having a weekly writing date was a terrific incentive to produce new work.

By a very happy coincidence, another Gertrude St. alumni was in town the same weekend and G was kind enough to invite us both over for dinner. Not only did I get to see (and chat with) G's beautiful wife, see (and hold!) his delightful offspring, I got the pleasure of revisiting those fun times in 2004. We ate yummy takeout Thai food and talked shop about writing, comics, reading and learning. G is a teacher now, bringing his inimitable enthusiasm and creativity to Winnipeg high school students. I hope they realize how lucky they are!

June 23, 2009

Time for Lives of the Saints?

Last week I finished reading Nino Ricci's The Origin of Species, and I loved it. I saw him on a panel at Blue Metropolis this year, and something he said (maybe that the book was anti-religion? but don't quote me on that) coupled with my basic knowledge of the plot (set in Montreal in the 1980s, centred on a Ph.D. student in English trying to write his dissertation) made me seize it when I saw it available at the Grande Bibliothèque. It was the same day I finally got a membership there, and I could scarcely believe my good luck at walking out with a brand-new, Governor-General Award-winning novel without having been on a waiting list for weeks.

And it didn't disappoint. It's deliciously long, with a strange adventure section set in the Galapagos that I found impossible to put down. Ricci's prose style is excellent, and he tackles all the big questions in this one novel: death, God, living authentically and ethically. It's the kind of novel that for another writer is simultaneously inspiring and deflating --- a capital N Novel with all the hallmarks of time, research, genius, effort. Read it!

June 18, 2009

WESTFEST in Ottawa, June 13

Last Saturday I participated in Ottawa's WESTFEST, a free arts festival in Westboro. It went pretty well! I think I'm getting a little better at these things.

It was a beautiful day, sunny but not too hot -- very key since the festival took place outdoors. I was happy the weather cooperated with my plan to wear a new sundress. And I was excited to be on the lineup with the other excellent writers (Priscilla Uppal, Nichole McGill, who also curates WESTFEST Lit, Mark Frutkin, and Mike Blouin, who was shortlisted just this week for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award), and I really enjoyed all of the readings. The never-ending stack of books I want to read is always getting longer!

WESTFEST itself was a really fun weekend event. Since everything is free, it makes for a really great atmosphere and a really diverse mix of people. We caught part of the Spoken Word sets, and saw Prairie Oyster later that night. Also, I pretty much just love a street festival. Any street festival. If there is a street blocked off for pedestrians and food vendors, I'm there.

One thing: it was a family-friendly event, and I'd chosen my selection accordingly, but I did have one line with the word "crotch." I saw it coming on the page, but I couldn't think of a way around it on the fly. In context, I think it was more or less innocuous, but maybe my own self-consciousness came through and made the word feel more loaded. Two women with a few small children between them got up from the front row and left shortly thereafter. But maybe it was a coincidence, yes? There were other supportive audience members smiling and making eye contact. Love supportive audience members. Maybe even more than a street festival.

Here's the whole WESTFEST literature crew, photo courtesy of Nichole McGill:

(L to R): me, Priscila Uppal, Mark Frutkin, host Lucy van Oldenbarneveld, Mike Blouin and Nichole McGill

June 17, 2009

classroom visit to Concordia

So at the last Pilot Reading Series at Blizzarts a few weeks ago, I met someone who, upon introducing herself, told me we'd just missed meeting the night before at the roller derby (we were sitting close to one another in the stands, with a mutual friend between us) AND that she, K, was teaching a story of mine in her Canadian Literature summer class at Concordia.

Teaching my story in a university class. My story. University class. (!!!)

It was so shocking that I didn’t even ask a single follow-up question, not even to ask which story. I think I changed the subject back to roller derby. I was thrilled and too bashful to bring it up again. Then a few days later K emailed me to ask if I'd be willing to visit the class on the day they were scheduled to talk about the story. I could come at the end, after the lecture, and do a brief reading and answer questions. So I did!

Really, the headiness of the whole thing is enough to dine on for months, if not a lifetime. But I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to give it its due here, so let me do so now.

I’m a Can Lit student myself, and the other story on the syllabus that night was Lynn Coady's wonderful "Play the Monster Blind" (from the collection of the same name), which was a story I'd studied in one of my graduate seminars. The idea that 70-odd students also had a story by me in their coursepacks is still almost more than I can really take in at the moment. (In case you're wondering which story, it's "Bloodlines" -- incidentally, the story I'm currently developing into a novel. A fact which was also brought up during the question period by one of the students, who had done some Googling!)

It was a diverse and very bright group of students and they were very nice to me and asked lots of questions and made me feel welcome. I could tell, too, that a number of them were writers themselves. One of them put me on the spot with a question about whether or not I consider myself a Quebecker (I'm still puzzling this one out. I said, Montrealer, absolutely. But the implications of this are a bit tricky.)

One of the first things I told the class was that I no longer commit the intentional fallacy --- that is , I don't think that what the author says about his or her story is the final word. I was nervous about inadvertently contradicting or undermining something K. had said in her lecture. (I needn't have worried, of course. She had already warned them that I might have a different take on things.)

One of the questions from the students did give me a clue as to a bit of what was discussed in the lecture: “If hair is such an important theme in the story, why didn’t you bring that out more?” Good question!

(My answer, minus a bit of extraneous babbling: it's difficult as a writer to know what's coming across as blatantly heavy-handed or overly subtle. Walking that fine line is a what a lot of the work of writing is about, and editing even more so.)

So all in all, it was an amazing experience. I left the loneliness of my apartment where I'd been shut up working on the novel all day long to go an evening class full of smart and enthusiastic students who were asking me questions about the very same characters. To say "renewed sense of purpose" would be an understatement! I'm so grateful to K. for having read and liked the story enough to include it in her course, and for inviting me to do the visit.

June 16, 2009

the intentional fallacy

Have you ever heard of the "intentional fallacy"? It's one of the key notions of New Criticism, a movement of literary criticism that rejects the idea that the meaning of a work of literature depends on authorial intent. In other words, it doesn't matter what the author thinks the story is about or what they intended for it to mean. A text can only be judged by a close reading.

When I first encountered New Criticism in an undergraduate literature course, I felt, as an aspiring writer, that the theorists had it all wrong. Of course the author knew what the work meant. They wrote the thing. It meant what they said it did!

But now --- after having shared my work with a number of other writers, mentors, and editors, after having heard and read the reactions of plenty of reviewers and other readers, and after stumbling through my responses to more than one question to do with "what is this story about?" --- I've completely revised my take on the New Critics. They may not have had it all right (what theoretical approach does?), but certainly a text is more (can be more, should be more, please let it be more) than whatever the writer hoped it might be.

I don't think I'm completely blundering blind through the writing, but I have a feeling that with all my focus on individual words and phrases and the rhythms of each and every sentence (although how else does a novel get written except word by word?), I tend to try and let some of the bigger things (themes, symbols) take care of themselves, sometimes without me knowing... explicitly, anyway.

June 10, 2009

How do writers stay in shape?

For the first time tonight, after four or so years of (occasionally dedicated, mostly sporadic, never impressive attempts at) running, I think I finally experienced that endorphin rush that exercise enthusiasts never stop insisting exists. So I'm forced to conclude it hasn't been a sustained worldwide conspiracy from the beginning of time until now on the part of people who have nothing better to do with their time besides stay healthy and happy. Great!

Now I need to figure out how to make it happen again. I switched up my normal routine in a couple of ways -- including going at night, when I'm actually awake, instead of during the afternoon, when all sensible writers and other unemployed folk are enjoying a nice siesta. There was also an novel interlude with a stairclimbing machine that might have played a role.

No doubt it's all those endorphins making me overshare all this, but it actually does touch on a topic I wanted to cover: how do writers stay in shape? Lots of office workers spend their days sitting at a desk, but at least going to an office entails a more considerable geographic displacement than from bed to (in my case) couch. When the writing is going well, a trip to the gym seems like pure indulgence. I know that exercise is supposed to keep the brain working well, but it's so hard to always keep that in mind. (Especially, I suppose, when one hasn't been exercising. The ole memory starts getting rusty.)

I've been combing this great blog for ideas (sadly, it hasn't been updated in ages), but the top few entries mostly indicate the consumption of Benzedrine and whiskey. If you have any tried and true tips, please share.

I was almost going to include a faceless photo of a famous writer with a big belly in order to provoke a cruel and body-image-anguish-inducing guessing game, but that seems slightly mean, and also a bit time-consuming. Instead you get this picture of a StairMaster.