Literature

Literature

On Alistair MacLeod

Considering the book launching this week will likely lead to an influx of traffic around here, I should probably keep the proceedings hip-hop-centric, but I’ll have to go outside my primary demo for a moment here.

Sad literary news today as we learned the award-winning Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod passed away at age 77, likely due to complications from a stroke he’d suffered last January. I find myself surprised at how taken aback I am by the loss.

I had the good fortune of taking one of MacLeod’s classes on the Early Romantics during my undergraduate studies at the University of Windsor. I am not unique in this regard, he must have taught hundreds if not thousands of students during the four decades he was on the Faculty. I found him a charming and engaging teacher, prone to interrupting his lectures to chat with a pigeon who’d flown onto the windowsill of our classroom in Dillon Hall. He also had a disconcerting habit of breaking into coughing fits that would turn his entire head the a shade of red so deep we would glance at each other with brows furrowed, kids who barely knew each other looking for someone to take the lead and call for medical help. But he always shook it off and went right back into his lecture on The Castle of Otranto without missing a beat, leaving us to roll our eyes in relief like, ‘Can you believe this guy?

But more than any of that, what I always appreciated him for was knowing me.

I maintain I was an unexceptional teenager but I’d managed to stake a small reputation as ‘The Writing Kid’, the one who always put on a show of scribbling bad poetry into a journal during study period to make it seem as though I was deliberately keeping other people away from me.  It was a good gimmick, it served me well.

When I got to university, majoring in English because I didn’t really know what else I could do with any degree of success, I became one of hundreds of ‘Writing Kids’ many of whom were far more adept at self promotion than I was, so I set about the business of staying unnoticed. I met few people and made fewer friends during my time there, I walked through campus like a ghost.

One afternoon I had to drop something off at the Department Office (I had a habit of skipping class to finish papers and leaving them for the professor before the end of the business day). I admit I was creeping a bit, wandering the hallways of Chrysler Hall North, reading the bulletin boards and single-panel comics on the office doors (English Major Gangs: “What’s the word on the street, Johnny?” “Hermeneutics.”), fascinated by this world running parallel to mine that I was ostensibly a part of but felt no membership in, when he rounded the corner.

“Ah, hello!” he said. I think I may have actually jerked my head around to make sure he was talking to me.
“Uhm…Good afternoon, Dr. MacLeod.”
“I’m just coming back to grade your fun papers!” He was always calling our assignments “fun papers,” in that east coast baritone of his.
“Heh, ah, I hope you think mine was fun after you read it,” I stammered awkwardly.
“Oh yes, yes, you do well, don’t you? Where’s your friend, the young lady with the..” he pointed at the corner of his eye. He meant my then-girlfriend, who had a habit of taking Crayola stamps and applying them along her lower eyelid. Be nice, it was the 90’s.
“Oh, she’s gone home. I’m just waiting for my ride to finish his class, and had to drop something for Dr. Atkinson.”
“Ah, I see. Well have a fine evening, I should have your fun papers back for you on Monday.”
“Thanks, Dr. MacLeod. I’ll see you next week.”

Such a boring and pedestrian exchange. Nothing he would ever have remembered. One could make the case that I’m trying to take some inconsequential encounter with a recently deceased person of note and inflate it with meaning but trust, that’s not what this is.  I’ve never forgotten that five-minute chat we had in the hallway of the English Department. That’s why I’ve always been so proud to tell people he taught me once, not because he was this titan of Canadian fiction, winner of the most lucrative literary prize in the world (The IMPAC Dubin Award, won in 2001 for No Great Mischief), but because he took the time to see a confused, angry, directionless kid and speak to him as an equal, when I thought it was my mandated role in life to remain invisible. I will always remain grateful to him for that.

Rest in peace.

Uhh…. Now What?

I haven’t shaved since Thursday. I don’t think I’ve eaten a proper vegetable in longer than that. My four-month-old Macbook blew a pixel somewhere during the process. My fluid consumption hasn’t been caffeine-free since last Saturday. But I pulled it off.

Yes, friends, I finished it. I submitted it. It’s fate rests in the good hands of the folks at the publisher.

If you squint at that photo you can suss out what it was for. I won’t openly acknowledge it since I’m superstitious like that. I should know either way within the next couple of months. Me and all the other cranks who took advantage of the open call, ha.

Whether or not it gets accepted or not is kind of irrelevant, though. It was a good idea, and it’ll still be a good idea if they decide it’s not a good fit for them right now. I’ll find somewhere else for it.

What’s more important is the education this whole whirlwind provided me. Chief among the lessons: This is what I love to do. Waking up at 6.00 a.m. some days was still a pain in the ass, but once I got the coffee maker working, sitting down to work on it was a joy. I’m sure this was partially due to the pressure of the oncoming deadline thanks to my brain’s inability to summon an idea until just over a week before the due date, but it was more to do with loving what I was doing. The hardest part now is waking up tomorrow and not have to immediately rush to the cafe or the kitchen table to get some work in before I went to my job.

I hope it will be habit forming. This last week was the only time in recent memory I wrote every day. On something I valued, not cranking out a blog entry to distract myself from short stories or anything else I had on the go. Working on the proposal only served to affirm how much I love to make things, whether that’s podcasts or stories or blogs. These are the things that bring meaning to my life. Some of you probably knew that all along. I’ve always been a bit of a dullard when it comes to these things.

Thankfully, I have two other writing projects to try and finish this week, along with the aforementioned Macbook display issue to try and remedy, so I’ll be able to keep busy. Turns out, I kinda like busy.

Before I collapse in slumber, I would be remiss if I did not thank some people for their love and support this past week. I can be….,, unpleasant to deal with when immersed in a project like this. It lives in my head and consumes my thoughts, which can lead me to expect people around me to read my mind by osmosis, or to understand what I mean with little explanation. This can…strain some relationships occasionally. My thanks to those who gritted their teeth and let me go crazy, or kicked my ass when I was needing it.

To Richelle Gratton, Tera Brasel, Jeff Meloche, Khaiam Dar, Caitlin MacKinnon, Sarah Jacobs and Nicole Bryant: you all get shouts in the acknowledgements. And I hate acknowledgement sections in books.

Now, I think I’ll go pass out.

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Fourteen

Title: Girl in Dryer

Author: Julie McArthur

Appears in: Broken Pencil #54

Premise: A young girl living in a skeevy apartment complex makes her way among aspiring drug dealers, middle school mean girlness and pot-bellied pigs. Currently unavailable to read online, but the issue is still on shelves.

Thoughts: Recently I had the good fortune of having my good friend, the poet and artist Annie Wong, drag me out of my cave for an evening of used bookstore browsery, poutine and pints in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood.

I hold any time spent with Annie in high regard, as she sometimes feels like my one tenuous connection to anything resembling the Toronto literary scene, a phrase I admit leaves me with an upset stomach.  But when I talk to her about art, or what we’ve been reading, or what inspires our work, what we want it to be, I actually feel kind of good as a ‘writer’ *shudder*.

Anyhoo, Annie’s been doing some work with Toronto indie-arts institution Broken Pencil [a publication I’ve taken small issue with before] and sweet talked the clerk at the used bookstore into giving her a free copy, which she promptly gave me. I figured it would make for a good opportunity to check in on the state of underground fiction in the city, see what’s valued and if I could see a place for me there.

In short, no. But, Julie McArthur’s story, while not perfect by any means [and a bit of a comedown after the steady diet of Nelson, Moore and Hempel I’d been on up to this point] kept me from falling completely into despair.

The story has a compelling lead character in Alice, the girl who hides from the world in a defunct dryer in her building’s laundry room.  She has a mom who loves her but isn’t around much due to work, and a friend named Paul, an older guy in the neighbourhood who buys a potbellied pig for a pet and lets Alice hang out with it. She doesn’t expect a whole lot out of life and doesn’t seem to have mind.  She’s content to hang out with Wilbur the pig and snuggle up in her pink blanket reading her book in the dryer.

While I found the language kind of plain throughout [probably design, you can’t take these things for granted] McArthur actually managed to surprise me by subtly revealing a sinister underbelly to the narrative.  It’s in the way she deftly turns the character of Paul into something more dangerous.  When Alice informs him she witnessed some boys in her building stash a bag of drugs in an abandoned washroom, Paul suddenly becomes adamant about having her steal it and buying it from her. His motives are never revealed, nor are the repercussions when Alice finds the drugs are already gone, but he grows irritated in that way dangerous people do when a deal doesn’t go the way they’d hoped.  The way that danger slowly leaks into the story is admirable, and a welcome change from the other works in the issue, which go so desperately out of their way to be avant-garde. McArthur doesn’t want to play in that pool, and her story is all the better for it.

Lesson: You don’t need to throw zip! pow! cliffhangers at your reader. Sometimes it’s far more effective to let it seep into the story in drips.

Favourite line:  Didn’t have one. Like I said, the language is pretty workaday. Can’t have everything.

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Thirteen

Title: Charades

Author: Lorrie Moore

Appears in: Birds of America [1998]

Premise: The cracks in sibling relationships become evident during a holiday game of charades. Read it here.

Thoughts: Earlier in these proceedings I made mention that a lot of your favourite writers want to be Amy Hempel. True Story: whoever doesn’t want to be Amy Hempel wants to be Lorrie Moore.

Moore exploded on the literary stage [and into my heart] with her first short story collection Self-Help, which used the second-person voice so well amateurs have been ripping it off ever since [How to Become a Writer,  with its opening suggestion of “First, try to be something, anything, else” is probably one of the most passed around short stories in recent memory].  She hasn’t been terribly prolific since then, three short story collections and a pair of novels, but every word she’s put to page is incredible.

The two things I took from this story, which uses a sort of third person free-indirect narration told through the point of view of Therese, the oldest sibling in the family, had to do with word choice, shitty first drafts and surprising your reader.

There’s a moment where Therese, a circuit court judge, is thinking about her younger sister’s decision to go to law school: “…she had assumed Ann’s decision to be a lawyer is a kind of sororal affirmation…”  Look at that word: sororal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used before, anywhere.  I doubt Moore used it in an early draft of the work [pure conjecture].  She probably had ‘sisterly,’ and in the act of rewriting, decided that ‘sororal’ sounded better, set the tone of the sentence on a different level, suggested something about Therese and her level of education, how she views the world. Because who uses sororal?!  Every word is a choice, and when you’re blasting your idea down onto the paper, maybe the wording isn’t as flowery as you might like.  That’s fine, you can go back to the draft with a fine toothed comb in a week or so.  That’s how you change ‘sisterly’ to ‘sororal.’

I was talking yesterday about letting your characters surprise you, and how I wasn’t sure I knew how to do that.  Lo and behold, I read this story later that afternoon and Moore’s Therese manages to surprise me from out of nowhere with an offhanded comment about a public defender she’s been having a perfunctory affair with, despite loving her husband dearly.  It’s mentioned so nonchalantly in the narration, yet makes perfect sense for the character [I’ll include it as my favourite line from this story].

This all feeds into the idea of the value of rewriting, which is also something I’m either too good at or not good enough; when I’m not ignoring a half-finished story I can’t bear to look at again, I’m performing what Evan Connell called, ‘going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting the commas back in the same places.’  But you never get to ‘sororal,’ you never get to be surprised by your characters, if you can’t focus on what you’re doing when you go back to the draft.

Lesson: Write shitty first drafts. Don’t be scared of them. For more on this, read Anne Lamont’s brilliant essay of the same name.

Favourite Line: “He is ardent and capable and claims almost every night in his husbandly way to find Therese the sexiest woman he’s ever known. Therese likes that. She is also having an affair with a young assistant DA in the prosecutor’s office, but it is a limited thing — like taking her gloves off, clapping her hands and putting the gloves back on again. It is quiet and undiscoverable. It is nothing, except that is sex with a man who is not dyslexic, and once in a while, Jesus Christ, she needs that.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Twelve

Title: We and They

Author: Antonya Nelson

Appears in: Nothing Right [2009]

Premise: A progressive family in the early 90’s struggles to understand their adopted mix-race daughter.

Thoughts:  While my paperback copy of this collection is missing them, I’m fairly certain the hardcover enticed me with a murderer’s row of cover blurbs by everyone from Raymond Carver to Michael Chabon to David Foster Wallace.  Quite the endorsements.  The depressing thing is, Nelson deserves every one of them.

There’s a lot more going on in this story than that one line synopsis I provided would suggest, primarily the relationship between the adoptive family [The Landerses] and their relationship with the Catholic family across the street [The Pierces], the clash of values between them, and the reasoning for the Landerses adoption of the mixed-race toddlers Otis and Angel.

What I found the most striking about this story [and most stories in this collection, I’ve picked it apart pretty thoroughly as the margin scribbles throughout will attest; We and They was one of two stories I had yet to read in it] is how natural Nelson’s prose is.  Compare it to something like the Grace Paley story we looked at last time, where the writing is fantastic but moves at a slower pace, demands more concentration, Nelson’s writing just zips along, reading it is like cruising in a vintage roadster with the top down.  That isn’t to say the writing isn’t good, far from it. It just means, even at its most descriptive,  at its funniest, the prose is so relaxed and natural it never feels like any work went into it at all, which is of course the first sign that something is genius-level good.

I suspect, purely conjecture, that Nelson reads her work aloud a lot. In my experience it’s the only way to get prose that sounds that natural.  One of the few things I can admit that I do well is write dialogue, and a lot of that comes from reading out what I’ve written after a day of writing.  If it don’t sound right in your ear, it won’t sound right in a reader’s head.  Of course, you do run the danger there of tying your characters too tightly to the vision you have of them in your head, robbing them of the chance to live and breathe on their own [I admit, this is something I still have never had happened to me, they’ve never surprised me because they’re never alive to me, they’re just end up me in costume].  But if you’re going to find your ‘voice’, something I’m still not sure I have, then that’s the way to do it.

Lesson: Read out loud. Relinquish control of your characters. Really think of them as people, and not players you’re directing.

Favourite Line: “Our large family was not the result of Catholic faith and we didn’t attend Blessed Sacrament church or school, despite the fact that it was a stone’s throw away from our house. We threw stones, so we knew.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Eleven

Title: A Conversation With My Father

Author: Grace Paley

Appears in: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute [1974]; The Collected Stories [1994]

Premise: An unnamed author and her dying father argue about styles of storytelling. You can read it here, or even better, listen to the British author Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast page.

Thoughts: I don’t recall where or why, but I know I came to Grace Paley because Charles Baxter was always going on about her and how great she was [he even scores the cover blurb on her Collected Stories]. And, as I’ve previously discussed in these posts, I’m a sucker for ‘Collected Works’ editions that present the whole of an author’s career in one volume.  I think it makes me feel better about my limited output, like ‘Hey, Grace Paley lived into her 80’s and this one 360-page paperback is the sum of her fictional career!  I can totally pull that off!” But I also find comfort and solace in dipping in and out of an author’s work, different points in their lives, by flipping the pages and stopping at random, or scanning the table of contents for a title that pings an echo in my mind.

Paley’s ‘A Conversation With My Father,’ is one of my favourite short stories [I should really spend a minute to compile them one day].  It’s a story about storytelling, about stories within stories, and about how we use stories.  The narrator’s father chides her for her inability to write a simple story like Chekhov or Maupassant, “Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.”

This idea makes the narrator uncomfortable but she tries for his sake [and why do most readers assume the narrator is a woman? There’s nothing in the text to confirm that]. She tells him a story about a woman he becomes a junky to stay close to her son, only for the son to clean up and abandon her. When her father complains she left too much out, she tries again, making the story longer and flowering the language but no more detailed. In the story’s final movement the father and narrator argue over whether the mother in the story’s life is over: the father sees her as a tragedy, the narrator chooses to believe the mother will change her life at age 40 and get a job as a medical receptionist.  The father responds in what are the story’s strongest moments, nearly begging his daughter to accept the tragedies of life, and how they cannot be negotiated with, asking, ‘When will you look it in the face?’

The story’s conclusion are when all the elements, after circling around each other, coalesce and tie together a theme and moral with a stunning subtlety: the father wants the narrator to accept that he’s dying, to relinquish the jokes and face the reality of their situation, but she cannot do it, she needs to temper the situation with jokes and cynicism and stubborn optimism; that’s why she argues that the mother will change her life, she wants to give her the happy ending she knows her father is already past, something her father views as an act of cowardice.  All this emotion and power in six pages, it’s incredible.

Paley’s word choices and metaphors throughout the story are impeccable, and will startle you with their beauty out of nowhere.  Paley started her career as a poet and ‘A Conversation,’ as with most of Paley’s work, bears a poet’s fingerprints. It’s a good thing to remember, that for as much as I’m reading these stories to learn things about structure and plotting and character development, adding a side of poetry into the mix can do wonders for my language and metaphorical thought.

Lesson: Read more poetry.

Favourite line:  “My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs any more. It still floods his head with brainy light. But it won’t let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Ten

Title: Newlywed

Author: Banana Yoshimoto

Appears in: Lizard [1995]

Premise: A newlywed man who can’t bring himself to go home after a night of boozing encounters a strange being on the commuter train out of Tokyo.

Thoughts: And here we are, the story that threw the whole enterprise off the rails with a severity I never would have expected.  It didn’t occur to me when I started this that any of the stories I read might be…useless to the experiment.  This should not have been surprising to me, but it was. I read three stories in this collection, and while all of them were….fiiiine…..none of them inspired anything in me like the other nine stories I’d read so far.

And that, coupled with people’s unexpected re-discovery of something I wrote years ago that started getting unexpected praise, knocked me back down into the vortex of the “internal decathlon” pictured below.

(Artwork by Grant Snyder)

There is no reason for this.  I’m working on it, that’s all I can say right now. Serious this time. It’s a process.

So what was the problem with Lady Banana?  The first problem isn’t necessarily even her fault, and it’s a reality of reading Japanese authors in translation that I caution customers about all the time.  Japanese translations into English can read very plainspoken-bordering-on-boring; there’s a lot of telling, not showing [that cardinal sin of every creative writing class].  Newlywed definitely suffered from that problem. The narrator is always telling you how he’s feeling, it’s all blabby blab blab: for a story with a supernatural being in it, it felt really frigging plain. 

To be fair, the book takes care to note that Newlywed originally appeared as a series of serialized posters on Japanese commuter trains, like those ads you sometimes see on buses with poetry on them, something to bring some culture to the lowly public transit rider.  I’d like to think that fact contributed to the issues I had with the story, but I found Helix, another story from the collection, to have the same sort of dispassionate prose.  Maybe it’s just something in the Japanese character I’m unaccustomed to, and is actually something Yoshimoto captures brilliantly.  Still doesn’t make for a captivating read.

Lesson: Plain is boring, and deceptively hard to do.  Just because you write plain sentences doesn’t make you Hemingway.

Favourite line [or what passes for one]: “I’ve been watching this city long enough to know that it’s full of people like you, who left their hometowns and came here from other places. When I meet people who are transplants from other places, I know I have to use the language of people who never feel quite at home in this big city.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Nine

Collected stories amy hempel1

Title: And Lead Us Not into Penn Station

Author: Amy Hempel

Appears in: At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom [1990]; The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel [2006]

Premise: An unnamed narrator comments on the things she sees around New York.

Thoughts: The initial promise of this series was that I wouldn’t revisit stories I’d already read, which makes talking about Amy Hempel rather difficult, considering my copy of her Collected Stories is one of my more thumbed and marked up editions. Because, little secret?

I want to be Amy Hempel.

Another secret?

Your favourite author probably wants to be Amy Hempel, too.

Hempel, who I’ve just learned was studied under Raymond Carver’s old editor Gordon Lish [aka ‘Captain Fiction’], has a gift for constructing sentences with surgical precision that most of us amateurs can only read and exhale long, slow breaths at. She’s really that good, and seems to be criminally under-read, likely due to her relatively limited output and apparent refusal to write novels, focusing on shorter works and her career as an instructor at Harvard [Harvard!].

Point being, if you haven’t at least read ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,’ I can’t fucks with you literarily.

‘…Penn Station,’ while at first read feeling structurally similar to a lame poem I, and likely a million other people wrote in high school, leaves all of us in the dust for the delicate construction of her images and the plainspoken pessimism of her conclusion.  It’s a brief story, three pages at its total, sitting with you like a daydream and then blowing away into dust.

The great things about stories like this, or the work of Lydia Davis, is that they can encourage the amateurs among us to not be completely beholden to traditional ideas of form and plot and structure. Not that I would ever argue against those things, I feel like amateurs are far too eager to toss them aside in fits of laziness.

No, what I mean is that frequently in fiction writing you find you write a passage or a line that might exceed the art of the rest of the story, but has to be cut because it doesn’t fit the overall work. What a story like this does is encourage passages like that to live on their own, to make a place for them. Just really give them a hard look beforehand.

Lesson: Effective narratives can flaunt the traditional rules of plot and story structure, but you better make damn sure you’ve got the goods before you try it. Don’t kid yourself, you know the goods when you see it.

Favourite line: Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT.