Okay. It is not couth to open a blog by saying, ‘I am, like, such a bad blogger.’ Just like it is inadvisable to begin a speech or a reading or an argument with a self-conscious disclaimer. Nevertheless. Here I be. I have not written for a donkey’s age – has it been lack of will? Sort of. A dearth of time? Yeah, that too. An overwhelm of… life? Yep. Never mind. I’m here now.
I’m here – on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, where I’m living (temporarily) with my husband and two daughters. We have extended family here, which was part of the impetus for the move. But also, the place is infectious (in the way of laughter, not disease) and previous visits convinced us we needed to spend more time getting to know the Hebridean way.
We arrived in January and toughed it out through the darkness and the gales, and are now reveling in the sweet air and endless skies of spring on the island. There are lambs everywhere. Sometimes the lambs do that thing you read about in books – they gambol!
As part of my stay I have had the pleasure of teaching a group of keen and good-humoured writers at An Lanntair, the fabulous, multi-faceted arts centre in Stornoway. One of my students, and a new pal and half marathon training buddy (gack!) wrote about the class on her wonderful blog Hebrides Writer. I have also had to opportunity to connect with some fine writers at Catch 23, a warm and welcoming drop-in centre for those living with mental illness.
Living in the country has made me very good at shouting at dogs and noticing the way moss pokes its way up through fence posts. I have always been good at spotting birds; now that spring is here it seems they are forever trembling and soaring at the edge of my vision. Winter forced a slow-down; I started knitting and sinking into the warmth at the peat fireside. I am writing, but perhaps more importantly, reading with a less cluttered mind. I love the way my children take to the outdoors. They play on the beach and in the croft with both abandon and childlike care, collecting and building and taking off after movement and colour. I am drinking a lot of tea.
Also trying to be looser and more forgiving of myself and the world. My friend Kerry Clare wrote about this in a recent blog post: ‘In Praise of Messy Blogging‘.(I also have a guest post — an update to my M Word essay – featured there.) One of my hesitations around blogging has always been that I have difficulty teasing different strands of my life away from each other – they are all so gloriously and complicatedly tangled. How to write about one thing and not the other? Maybe stop trying.
She passed me an image through the glory of the internet and I passed her back some text — and so on… We had time and word limits, but were otherwise free to follow our whims and weirdnesses. We were working with a 12 hour time difference; she was in a big American city, I was on a remote Scottish island. We have never met. It was such fun; I miss 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.
Winter keeps on keepin’ on around these parts, despite some deceptively sunny skies. But I’m really looking forward to coming out of hibernation in April with a reading and q & a at the University of Toronto with my pal and writing compadre, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Please come and see us if you have the time and inclination. We would both be so happy to see you. The reading is on Wednesday April 3, at 6:30 pm. It’s in the Jackman Humanities Building, 170 Saint George Street, in Room 100 (Ground Floor). And admission is free!
I am really bad at blogging. Kerry Clare, blogging guru, and general lovely, says you should blog like no one’s reading. And she’s right. But blogging does not come easily to me. I am not and have never been a blurter (not a word synonymous with blogger, and with a more negative connotation than I intend; I mean someone who is willing and able to share their thoughts easily, spontaneously — in conversation with one or many…) and it is boring to repeat, but I am very tired of late. And when I am tired, I hang back and listen. And sometimes I daydream or look pensive (this is a defense and a front and a refuge and seldom means my thoughts have anything approaching depth or breadth). So maybe my poor blogging output is simply a function of exhaustion. Or maybe this is not the ideal platform/medium/springboard for me. Or maybe it’s just February and springtime really will put a new spring in my blogging step…
However. If anything could and should get me in sharing mode, it is the intersection of some of my most time-consuming preoccupations — motherhood, sense-making through sentence-making, and community with other lady writers… Here’s the scoop: Truth Dare Doubledare: Stories of Motherhood will be published in April 2014 by Goose Lane Editions. The book, an anthology of essays conceived and curated by the aforementioned Kerry Clare, examines the choices we make as women around ‘to mother or not to mother’ and the many options that fall somewhere in between. I am thrilled to be a part of it. You can read more about its conception here.
Also: a really kind and astute encounter with Mad Hope, over at Marita Dachsel’s All Things Said and Done. And rob mclennan asks me about my process, routine, and writerly concerns as part of his 12 or 20 Questions Interview series. ( I find I can’t do any kind of kind of interview, or have any kind of conversation these days without mentioning coffee. I really love coffee.)
I am writing this from Montreal, where I am visiting an old friend, the poet Sarah Venart, a writing pal from my Concordia days. Our kids are making believe and mischief and wreaking havoc (Princess Grizzly Bear!) and saying and singing ridiculous things. And we’re doing a lot of sofa sitting. It’s kind of fabulous.
The ‘Edna Award’ is an in-house honour administered by The New Quarterly. You can’t apply for it or enter to win. It originates with a wonderful and whimsical tradition that Edna Staebler herself initiated — a writer/philanthropist, she would send cheques of a thousand dollars to students and individual writers she admired, with the simple note reading “Enjoy! Edna.” attached. TNQ has used a generous gift of $25,000 that Edna Staebler gave the magazine in 2006, the year of her death at age 100, to recognize outstanding essays published in the magazine in the previous year with their version of Edna’s flash-generosity. In 2010 I was a happy recipient of the award; this past year I was thrilled when TNQ editor Kim Jernigan offered me the opportunity to judge the 2011 essays. I chose an essay by Jeffery Donaldson as the winner. My comments on the piece, ‘Ghostly Conversations’, as well as an appreciation of the other shortlisted essays, are below. They appear in black and white in the latest issue of the magazine, available now here, or on a newsstand or fine book shop near you.
The Edna Staebler Award, it seems to me, is the indie superhero of lit awards. It arrives without fanfare, out of the blue, on your doorstep. It rewards an under appreciated, often overlooked form, possibly rescuing it from relative obscurity. It has its roots in one unconventional woman’s sense of solidarity among writers. It derives its power from a series of Mennonite cookbooks. And its name, my friends, is Edna.
When I learned I had won the Edna award, we had just bought our first house, I was newly pregnant with my second child and overwhelmed with the demands of my day job. I was not a writer. The piece judge Susan Olding chose to recognize was deeply personal, and one of my first forays into the non-fiction form. It took me a long time to write, shape and figure out how to place for publication. I was beyond thrilled to learn it was being recognized in such a lovely and unexpected way.
An essay, Olding has written, is often difficult to categorize and market – “like a cat, it wants to go its own way.” As a high school teacher, I am always happy to read an essay that transcends those oft-assigned five paragraph “stumps of thought” (again, so aptly named by Olding). I want to read something asymmetrical that surprises me, bulges out of itself a little, refuses neat reflection or form for something more organic and interesting. I want the essay to challenge and cajole me. I want to learn something without feeling like I’m being taught.
None of the essays on the shortlist were pedantic or clunky, or, for that matter, at all ‘stumpy.’ All manifested a wonderful energy that springs only from a writer’s passion for and knowledge of her/his subject. So there was I, Alfred the butler to Edna’s Batman, charged with the near-impossible task of choosing the recipient of her shining generosity. Both Robert Lapp and Jeffery Donaldson owe something of their impetus to ‘essay,’ as it were, to the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye and Lapp makes a pertinent point regarding the insights of critics as both ‘true’ and ‘partial’. I feel my reading and ranking of these essays to be equally true and partial.
Don McKay and Robyn Sarah, in their tributes to geologist/nose flutist Hank Williams and scientist/philosopher Joseph Bronowski respectively, illuminate the ways in which these unofficial mentors have shaped them as humans and poets. “Leaping Time” by Peter Sanger, offers a poignant and somewhat eerie examination of the ways in which the picture books of his childhood shaped his personal cosmology. Richard Cumyn’s prose in “Paris Notebook” is direct and confident (although he, as a narrator, is not) and his shout-outs to the various novelists who have recorded their impressions of Paris streets before him are gracious and revealing. Alice Major’s “The Ultraviolet Catastrophe” is a gut punch of an essay that employs an exceptional writerly alchemy to mix memories of the author’s father, musings on the nature of tragedy and theoretical physics to come to an understanding of the nature of private catastrophe.
But in the end, it was Jeffery Donaldson’s “Ghostly Conversations” that emerged for me as the winner. Donaldson’s essay is personal without turning purple, scholarly but not stuffy, funny and moving and tricky. Part homage to “absent mentor” Northrop Frye and part journey through the author’s poetic influences, it dares to imagine a wine and cheese with long dead poets in attendance – “Pleased to meet you, Virgil. Why do you suppose they never put out enough brie?” It reveals, with humour and candour, how the author’s Tourette’s and Asperger’s make everyday conversation an often excruciating chore. And finally, it becomes a story of how awkward exchanges with the living are sometimes trumped by revealing exchanges with the distant or dead.
Donaldson believes poems “give us the courage to have a self and lose it too, which is surely the most we can ask of any conversation.” Maybe it’s the most we can ask of a good essay too. What I’m trying to say is: this is a wonderful essay, it is, but don’t believe me! Go back and read them all! Then mutter into your oatmeal (or chai tea or latte) about why I’m dreadfully wrong or gloriously right in my judgment. It’s the kind of ghostly conversation the essay (and Edna!) demands.
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?