It is my great pleasure and honour to be returning as a judge of the Toronto Star and Toronto Public Library Short Story Contest. Deadline for submissions is February 27, 2015.
Short stories consume you faster. They’re connected to brevity. With the short story, you are up against mortality. I know how tough they are as a form, but they’re also a total joy.
– Ali Smith
When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.
– George Saunders
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.
Stacey D’Erasmo: Well, it’s like a coming-of-middle-age novel. I think the idea of finding one’s voice is something that’s very much on your mind when you’re in your twenties and your early thirties, but that struggle lasts throughout your life. How do you figure out how to be forty? How do you figure out how to be fifty? Later, how do you figure out how to be seventy? The good news and the bad news is these transitional moments keep happening.
I have been meaning to write something here for a long time, but as always seems to be the case, never have enough consecutive moments to gather my scattered wits to actually string the right words together. But I want to try. Because this summer is proving to be very different from the last, which led me into some sad and scary times. And because, well, because attention must be paid! Bills must be paid too; but attention – to art, to nature, to friendships, and to the way life keeps rolling and sliding and catapulting onwards – paying attention satisfies a different kind of debt.
It has occurred to me lately that so much of feeling well and empowered has to do with finding voice. And this seems silly, because – of course! But having a voice and finding an authentic voice in which to speak and sing and write are very different things. And that we can lose our own voice, or lose access to it, for periods of time, however short or long, seems counterintuitive and unfair. But, sister, it happens.
Maybe this is why when we hear an authentic voice, when we dare to be authentic – we get that shiver of recognition, that zing of potential and truth and strength. So here, in no particular order are some people and things and experiences that have helped me to celebrate voice lately:
1. I’m taking singing lessons. I love singing. I went to a Baptist church camp, because my parents, apparently slipshod atheists, liked the fact that it was cheap and situated on beautiful Beausoleil Island. My dad loved singing too, mostly Scottish folk songs and rousing labour anthems. So I know a lot of songs about Jesus and the blood of the lamb and a few songs about picket lines and some songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie. I am also a pretty good whistler. But I have never taken myself very seriously as a singer. I am trying to change that.
2. Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Ooh boy, this is a book that made me want to puke with sadness and recognition – and that is an endorsement. The novel is about sisters – one trying to convince the other to live, despite the fact that her mental illness is causing her unbearable anguish. It hit pretty close to home for me. But it is also lovely and funny and fierce and true. I wrote the writer a note to say as much – because we should thank the truth tellers in the world whenever we can! One thing I loved about the novel was that the characters – who are experiencing such horrible heartache – do not shy away from the words, ‘I love you’ and the author is not afraid of what some might deem sentimentality, but I deem emotional courage. Here is a great interview with Toews where she gives advice for writing: ’Ignore all advice about writing! Leave your blood on every page! Every page!’ AMPS is a gut-wrenching, beautiful read because Toews is such a gutsy writer. And by that I mean that it feels like she has torn out some of her most vital organs and smacked them down for the world to see. Sounds grim and gory, right? But her voice is also hilarious – wry and self-deprecating and witty and warm and wise (What? What? You think I overdo the alliteration?). Read the book, y’all.
3. My husband has taught himself to play the ukulele. And he’s really good.
4. I got to teach a group of adults about creative writing this summer. They were all such smart, accomplished people, and I wondered, at the outset, what I might have to show them. What I forgot was that giving yourself license to create is really hard (perhaps especially if you have spent many years becoming an expert or authority in another field) and having someone give you that permission is pretty powerful. It was such a rush to see my students discover that sitting down to write is not the province of garret dwellers or lone madwomen or lauded salt ‘n’ peppah haired (mostly male) Authors – that everyone has a story, or maybe everyone has pretty much the same stories, but we all have different ways of telling them. And that is what makes the telling/writing a worthwhile enterprise.
5. Neko Case. Because she’s another truth teller and because she wins the prize for long-ass, ballsy album title: The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight The Harder I Fight The More I Love You. And the lines below from ‘Where Did I Leave That Fire?’ (so plaintive and powerful when she sings) which pretty much sum up how it felt for me to find myself lost in my own brain’s chemical swampland.
I saw my shadow looking lost/Checking its pockets for some lost receipt/Where did I leave that fire?/Where did I leave that fire?
6. Pippi Longstocking. In June I did an event at Parentbooks in celebration of The M Word, where I got to talk about mothers in children’s books. I chose Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren because we learn in the first couple of pages that her mother is dead and looking down from the clouds at her wayward, fantastically strange and weirdly competent daughter. Who is more interesting, more prone to accident and awesome antics? Pippi, or her clean, law-abiding, next door neighbours, Tommy and Annika?
Tommy would never think of biting his nails, and he always did exactly what his mother told him to do. Annika never fussed when she didn’t get her own way, and she always looked so pretty in her little well-ironed cotton dresses; she took the greatest care not to get them dirty.
(I wonder: Who is ironing those dresses?) Pippi, on the other hand, sails with her father on the high seas, makes her own clothes, straps scrub brushes on her feet to mop the floor, has a pet monkey, puts bullies in their place, and is so strong she can lift her horse down — one-handed — from the porch. Proof that sometimes a writer needs to get the mother out of the way for her protagonist to thrive. And, for a parent, proof that sometimes the mother needs to get herself out of the way for the child to forge her own way.
7. The Old School Concert series at South in Milford. I have some friends who up and sold their house in the city to buy and live in an abandoned school in the country. A school. Not a school house, all one-room and quaint, a one-storey, 1960s sprawler of a school. They are renting part of it out to tourists, and the rest they are using as a backdrop for some of their long held fantasies. Last week, they held the first in a series of concerts in their gym. It was like a cross between a grade eight dance and a town hall meeting and a basement bar show. Jenny Whitely and her husband Joey Wright played many of their wonderful originals – and a gorgeous cover of this song by Jesse Winchester, which is all about how our vulnerability is our strength. Right on.
8. My youngest daughter says No all the time. When I ask her if No is her favourite word, she says No. This is intensely annoying but I admire her endurance and consistency.
Oh, summer time. When a person who usually spends a lot of time in a (real) school has time to think about such things.
I am psyched to be part of an upcoming event at Parentbooks where I get to talk about mothers in children’s books with a bunch of other very fine M Word contributors. Please come if you can — and make sure to register beforehand as space is limited and they need to know who is coming! Here are the details:
I am honoured to be one of the jurors of the 2014 Toronto Star short story contest. Joining me on the jury are Toronto’s city librarian Jane Pyper, the Star’s books editor and writer Dianne Rinehart, as well as author and Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian. Deadline February 28! For more details, go here. Have at it, budding short story writers! I look forward to reading you!
And didn’t it always go like that – body parts not quite lining up the way you wanted them to, all of it a little bit off, as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.
– Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
I have had a difficult fall, wherein I did feel, most of the time, that I was falling, or off balance, or already fallen. I spent some time in the hospital, learning the great value of psychiatric nurses. Post-partum depression, anxiety, OCD, you name it – and it is important to name it isn’t it, considering the stigma that still exists around mental illness… The world cracked me open. I was too broken to find my way back to all the good and bad and in-between people in it. Until I wasn’t – a blessed combination of medication, insight and love (wise words of Andrew Solomon from his wonderful book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) and oh, humour, humour is BIG (I love, love, love Maria Bamford!) – until I was remarkably, thankfully, returned to a ragged kind of wholeness. And what seems so miraculous now, so noteworthy, is my interest in life, in all its stupid, shining, circuitous goings-on. I am grateful (and still somewhat amazed) that it is ‘so interesting’ once again.
One of the things that is interesting to me these days is how many people were so incredibly compassionate towards me while I was sick – and that sometimes this compassion came from the most unlikely quarters. I’m thinking of you, grouchy pharmacist lady I had written off as hostile, who looked me square in the eye and said, ‘It’s such a struggle, isn’t it?’ beaming goodwill and true fellow-feeling.
And so much of that compassion involved people willing to hear my story and to share their own. Which is why I am so excited that The M Word, edited by Kerry Clare, is closer and closer to becoming a book. This collection of conversations about motherhood tackles some hard truths, from many different angles. When I was in the thick of my crisis, I felt embarrassed by my contribution to the anthology – although it outlines some of my struggles with new motherhood, it was written from a place of strength. It has a happy ending. I was ashamed that my relationship to motherhood had once again become so challenging, so darkly complex. I felt like a fake. But that of course is the point, I think, of my essay, and of the collection as a whole. When it comes to mothering the answers are myriad, and the right answer today is seldom the right answer tomorrow. You can pre-order a copy of The M Word now.
Also interesting, and incredibly sad to me, is the recent death of Nelson Mandela. I was lucky enough to be in the same room with him in 1990, at a Toronto high school, with 1500 other students. It was four months after he had been released from prison and he had asked to speak to the young people of the city. People rose to their feet, chanting and singing, when he entered. The atmosphere in the room was electrifying. It is one of the most pivotal and galvanizing memories of my life. The idea of revolution fascinates me – and I am always so inspired to encounter individuals who manage to combine love and understanding of their fellow humans with a strong conviction that change MUST occur. I am still working on how to integrate these ideals into my own life, and I am wrestling with the concept of revolution and the effect of large social movements on individuals and families in the novel I am working on. Yet another arena of my life and thinking where I have very few answers – but I keep working on it… Goodbye Nelson Mandela. I feel so fortunate to be part of your legacy.
Finally, I am so pleased that my dear friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s newest novel is set to make its way into the world soon. The book is called All the Broken Things, and it is absolutely lovely, full of yearning and intimate history – and bear wrestling! It tells the story of Bo, one of the Vietnamese boat people, and his complicated relationship to his family and his new home. Kathryn’s mechanic’s daughter, a 15-year-old hugely talented artist/filmmaker named Carol Nguyen, made a book trailer that captures the mood of the story perfectly. You can watch the trailer here. Please do! And seek out the book!
Okay, that’s me blogged out likely for the next few months. All best for the holidays, friends. And here’s to a brighter and shinier 2014 (although I will try to enjoy the dull bits too…)!
I am so pleased to announce that Mad Hope is now available as an audiobook through audiobooks.com and other online booksellers. Just in time for long summer road trips or dockside lounging!
More exciting news! ’No One Else Really Wants To Listen’, from Mad Hope, will be reprinted in the anthology Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, edited by Shawn Syms, and featuring short fiction that explores the ways in which we use technology to connect (or not). Very much looking forward to reading this — work by established and new writers alike, and an intriguing premise. Available this fall — more later!
Spring that is! And with it, crazy blossom-seeking folk, a month of short stories (!), and the Luminato Festival… Chad Pelley, over at Salty Ink, is featuring an excerpt from a short story a day, and Steven Beattie also continues his take on a story per May day at That Shakespearean Rag. Up with the short story! ’Dominoes’ from Mad Hope, will be featured today on Salty Ink. Thrilling fact: ‘Dominoes’ is also featured in Spanish translation on the Chilean website 60watts. The Hart House Review also recently reprinted the story in their beautiful journal — the review is available for sale at fine book stores near you.
May is good, but June will be all… Luminatoed! I am very excited about this year’s festival. Am hoping to check out Ronnie Burkett’s new work, The Daisy Theatre. I am a recent, but fervent fan! And I will be reading and having conversations with readerly folk as part of the Literary Picnic on June 22nd in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Hope to see you there!
Google searches are a strange form of crystal ball. I have used them to ‘research’ ex-boyfriends, old friends, new acquaintances, artists and writers I admire… I use them to seek out surprising facts, find out ‘whatever happened to’, stumble upon unexpected connections, affirmations, confirmations.
And, as a writer, I am prone to the self-Google. What am I hoping to learn when I type my own name in that little window and press return? A surprising fact, a ‘whatever happened to’, an unexpected connection, an affirmation, confirmation? Yes, I am hoping for all of these, which is odd, considering most of what appears in this type of search is curated to a certain degree — reviews of my books, texts of interviews I have done, reader response on goodreads, feedback from students on Rate My Teacher. None of it is terribly surprising in the grand scheme of things.
Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s death and last week it occurred to me, for the first time, to Google his name. I thought there might be something archived in a news site — he was a local union leader when his factory shut down; there was coverage — or through an organization related to his employer or the community in Scotland where he grew up. But there was nothing save a reference to his obituary. Not the text of the obit itself, just a mention that the text existed. That he had existed and someone had taken brief note of that. And it bothered me a little, it did. Why is this, when I know my dad would not have cared a whit? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have had time for facebook, might have used email grudgingly, would have insisted on flipping through an encyclopedia rather than ask the internet.
Or maybe not…
In the picture above I am about the same age my oldest daughter is now. I feel sad my two girls have never known their grandfather. But I cannot imagine what he would be like if he were still living. Life has layered over itself so many times now since he died. We are all different people; we have not moved on so much as accumulated around our younger selves. Imagining my father alive, now, is an exercise in sci fi, not my genre, and even if it was…
I have written before about the recursive nature of grief and loss — how it doubles back and devastates without warning. How it surprises you, how it surprises me — still — fifteen years on. Every year, around the anniversary, I wake up wondering why my entire body aches, why there is a mournful, stolid creature squatting on the bridge of my nose, why everything feels foggy and futile. Part of that sorrow is simply a rearing up of the trauma associated with the sudden death of a loved one, but part of it, I’m sure, is the sadness, the resignation of knowing that I cannot find my father in any crystal ball — I don’t know who he is anymore.
It doesn’t matter that my dad doesn’t exist on the internet. I know that. (There is a plaque in his honour next to the elevator in the Steelworkers Hall in Toronto; people can read about him in those empty moments that precede their important journeys up or down. He would have liked that, I think.) Still, I want there to be google entries for him beyond a dry reference to his death. So I’ve made one here. Here is the full text of his obituary:
BIRRELL, David Dryburgh
September 27, 1942 to March 30, 1998
‘Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion for goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.’ — Robert Burns
Through his active involvement in the United Rubber Workers and United Steel Workers of America, Dave helped bring justice and comfort to the lives of his co-workers. Dave died suddenly at work. He was much loved and will be terribly missed by his wife Jenny, daughters Heather and Julie, sister Rena, mother-in-law Joan, sister-in-law Pat, brothers-in-law Rob, Brian and Andy, nieces and nephews Betty, Margaret, Katherine, Rory and Caeili. He lives on in the hearts of his family and many special friends. Friends may call at the Turner and Porter Yorke Chapel, 2357 Bloor Street West, at Windermere, near the Jane subway from 5-9 p.m. Friday. Funeral Service will be held in the Chapel on Saturday April 4 at 3 o’clock. Cremation. Donations to the Steelworkers Humanity Fund in memory of David Birrell, 234 Eglinton Ave. East, Suite 700, Toronto M4P 1K7.
I want to tell you, also, that at his funeral, a group of working men stood and sang ‘Solidarity Forever’ and that my sister and I recited a bit from The Water Babies, in French. That he and I used to sing Pretty Peggy-O together at parties: ‘The captain’s name was Ned and he died just for a maid…’ That I’d never seen him more furious than the time I insisted on wearing jeans for a performance of Cats — a super special family occasion! That he could never remember that I was studying ‘creative writing’ but that he once told me he was so proud to have a poet in the family. That he quit school when he was 16 to work in a coal mine in Fife, Scotland. Also: he drove my sister to swim practice and he smoked and you know, maybe he would have used the internet… He loved my mother. I can’t fit him on here. People aren’t really meant to fit on here. And a google search will only ever give you fitful, broken answers. Still, here I am typing away, tossing this out into the web, hoping somewhere it will stick.
Mad Hope has been nominated for an ‘Overlookie Bookie’ as part of the CBC Bookie Awards. If you are a person who is okay with survivor-style book-boosting, then please go vote in this and other categories for books you deem deserving. If voting for stories feels weird to you, then put your lit-loving energies into buying or borrowing books that turn your readerly crank.
Scroll down to end of list to find Mad Hope (I kind of like the idea of Mad Hope at the bottom of the list — like, we need it, but we sometimes don’t remember until the last minute to scrawl it down, y’know?).
I just finished reading Irma Voth by Miriam Toews. I absolutely adored this book. It is lovely and funny/sorrowful and it’s about sisters and the shifting boundaries of the self and the ways in which art imitates and improves life and is sometimes absolutely inadequate and often the solution to everything — at least for an important moment. And, oh, it asks so many good questions. Here’s an excerpt:
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I was rejoicing silently in my heart. I had asked a good question, I had asked a good question of someone I was trying to be friends with as opposed to myself. A question that had breath attached to it, that had left my own body. Jorge told me not to ask questions, he hated them, he could always tell when I was about to ask one and he’d put his hand up and say no, please. Please. Was I betraying Jorge by asking a good question of Wilson?