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 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:
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?
Those people who know me know that Deborah Eisenberg is one of my literary idols and an unofficial writerly mentor. I was first introduced to her work when I was studying at Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal in the mid-nineties, and recently enamored of the short story form. I read one of her stories and had a ‘Oh! The beauty! Now I can die. /No point living (writing) any longer.’ moment. She was so good; she made things spark and spiral in my mind. She plumbed the depths and measured the breadth of her characters in amazing and elastic story shapes. How could I write anything that would even come close? I couldn’t. I was paralyzed by awe. But the problem remained; I still wanted to write. So I went back to her stories with a larger measure of humility and what I hoped was a craftsperson’s openness. I wanted to be transported AND to learn.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to e-interview Eisenberg about her most recent collection Twilight of the Superheroes. The interview (along with a review) was posted on the now (sadly, sadly) defunct, Bookninja. Here is an excerpt wherein she explores notions of causality and character. The story she is referencing is the excellent ‘Window’:
It’s true that I’m very interested in how it is that people come to be living their lives the way they are, and in that story pretty explicitly so. It’s partly what we were talking about earlier – that people, in my part of the world, at least, tend to overestimate the degree of control they have over their lives, and their freedom of choice. Though at the same time, people so rarely imagine and initiate alternatives! A paradox. I think often that “choice” is retrospective – that you find yourself doing something and you believe that’s what you’ve chosen to do, that your actions are the result of a decision, or at least that they’re rational in some way. Also, I believe that usually by the time you think “I need to make a decision about this” the decision has already been made. I believe that people can’t really know with any clarity why they’ve made one decision rather than another, because what really goes into a decision isn’t so much a set of factors that one can consciously sort out, but instead is a compound of all kinds of influences that are deeply buried and far flung, both inside and outside of oneself, over which one’s control is necessarily minimal – both because they’re hidden, and because they themselves have histories; I think of actions as a sort of compromise between factors and impulses one doesn’t know much about.
Later, when she came to Toronto for the International Festival of Authors, I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person (Imagine the state of my overwhelm; imagine the thrill!) and she was as gracious and generous as her work suggests.
I will admit, there are times I have to fight the impulse to hoard Eisenberg’s work; she’s that much of a treasure to me. And I’m that much of a pirate. But a couple of days ago, I discovered two (two) new Eisenberg stories available on line through the New York Review of Books. How could I have missed these? (Okay, the first was posted when I was on the brink of baby #2 and about to move house, and the second only a couple of weeks ago, but still.) I read almost all of ‘Cross Off and Move On’ a couple of nights ago on my i-phone, after a late night breastfeeding session — tiny little tile of light and text aglow in the night. Say what you will about these new reading gadgets (and the jury’s still out drinking bad coffee for me on this one) but one of the pleasures of having alternate means of absorbing fiction — along with convenience — has been the knowledge that I will get to experience the stories I love in a number of different ways. These new stories seem different to me — preoccupied by the ways in which our relations, both distant and near, lurk and glisten, loom and shrivel within us. Oh, and I just finished ‘Recalculating’ — wow — it treats time like silly putty, lets it stretch and snap back into itself. These stories are funny and dreamy and so very wise. If you are not familiar with Eisenberg’s work, please go seek it out. You can start with these incredible stories. I loved them, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?
The very smart and funny Meg Wolitzer has this to say about ‘women’s fiction’ in the New York Times book review. I think she’s right on the money and could quote multiple bits, but here’s a couple of choice excerpts. On book covers:
I took semiotics back at Brown University in the same heyday of deconstruction in which Eugenides’s novel takes place (he and I were in a writing workshop together), but I don’t need to remember anything about signifiers to understand that just like the jumbo, block-lettered masculine typeface, feminine cover illustrations are code. Certain images, whether they summon a kind of Walker Evans poverty nostalgia or offer a glimpse into quilted domesticity, are geared toward women as strongly as an ad for “calcium plus D.” These covers might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words: “Stay away, men! Go read Cormac McCarthy instead!”
And this on short stories:
Over centuries, the broad literary brush strokes and the big-canvas page have belonged mostly to men, whereas “craft” had belonged to women, uncontested. It’s no wonder that the painted-egg precision of short stories allows reviewers to comfortably celebrate female accomplishment, even to celebrate it prominently in the case of Alice Munro. But generally speaking, a story collection is considered a quieter animal than a novel, and is tacitly judged in some quarters as the work of someone who lacks the sprawling confidence of a novelist.
I’m pretty happy creating ‘quieter animals’, but certainly have felt some of the tacit judgment Wolitzer describes re: the relative ‘smallness’ of short stories, and their assumed domestic nature. I feel like the conversation needs to be reframed. What’s wrong with small and quiet anyway?
Shaun Smith at Open Book Ontario has a new post up in his Fiction Craft feature wherein he considers the question What methods do you use to get the story moving forward again when the writing stalls? In his introduction, Shaun says:
I hate the term “writer’s block” because it is something often perceived by people who have never experienced it as a kind of magical and romantic state, like being in a haunted trance. Such people are idiots. This kind of block—one which entirely stops the forward momentum of a novel—is about as magical and romantic as a broken vacuum cleaner. When I am faced with this kind of block, the only solution is to let the book tell me where it wants to go. Writing a book is like taking a dog for a very, very long walk. At first you can guide the dog, lead it where you want it to go, but eventually the dog will stop and pull in a different direction.
And then myself and some illustrious others — A.C.E. Bauer, Julie Cross, Megan Crewe, Ursula Poznanski, Tess Fragoulis, Jill Williamson, Hilary Davidson, R.J. Harlick and C.C. Benison — get to weigh in. You can read the post in its entirety, here.