Eleanor Wachtel interviews Caribbean poet Derek Walcott: “That resolution into light”

Every Sunday I listen to Eleanor Wachtel interview writers on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company. Last Sunday, when I heard that the guest was a poet, I was mildly disappointed. I don’t read much poetry. I’ve concluded that I can only consume poetry in small doses, when I’m prepared to read slowly and think deeply about what I read. I especially like ambiguous poetry, where the interpretation remains a puzzle and can vary hugely from reader to reader.

In any case, I was completely wrong to think that last Sunday’s replay of a 2006 interview with poet Derek Walcott would not fully engage me. First of all, Walcott (who died in March, 2017) was from St. Lucia, and I found his Caribbean accent delightful and comforting because my father is from Trinidad. Although my father emigrated to Canada at the age of 20, his voice still retains slight nuances of his Trinidadian accent, and Walcott’s pronunciation reminded me of my father’s.

Secondly, almost the instant I heard Walcott speak, I was also reminded that although writing is the only art I follow avidly, I believe that all artistic expression, be it painting, photography, music, dancing, sculpture, theatre, or something else—is ultimately about the same things: striving to transcend our mere biological existence and the mundane necessities of life. It seems that most human beings, if they can get beyond putting all their energy into survival, thirst for more and want to express more. Artists want to give their interpretation of grappling with the deepest questions we have about human existence: about joy,  about suffering, about beauty, about why and whether an individual life must end.

But back to Derek Walcott. The whole interview was fascinating, but the section between minutes 13:58 and 16:24 was especially meaningful to me. Here, Walcott struggles (with dazzling eloquence) to explain just what it is that poets—writers—indeed, all artists—strive for.

In this section, Walcott is responding to Wachtel’s query about what he means in his book The Prodigal when he talks about “the anguish and emptiness of the poet.”

He answers that all experience has a dual aspect, and that the duality has to do poets’ sense of incompleteness,  “a perpetual condition of being unfulfilled.” They recognize an identity, an “I” (ego) and its incompleteness, and in their poetry they are striving to remedy that. He says that the parts of poetry that move us are the times when we experience a “sense of fusion happening, when ambiguity is resolved.” Walcott calls this “a resolution into light . . . ”

According to him, this resolution is “absolutely, celestially confirmed best of all in Dante, in the last cantos of Divina Commedia [The Divine Comedy], where what you feel is radiance, what you feel is completion, you feel light coming off the page.” He says this also happens in the last speech of Prospero in The Tempest (Shakespeare).

This is what all poets strive for, says Walcott. He is talking about “the dissolution of the identity of the poet in terms of blending with what’s around him.” Thus, the poet’s sense of incompleteness is “resolved into light.”

Moreover, “All art strives at that—that light—it is a completion.”

Walcott expresses all of this much better than I can do in this summary. It’s necessary to listen to every second of the interview in order to fully understand and appreciate his words. But what he’s saying here seems to me to be the same thing Buddhists talk about when they talk about the attaining Nirvana, when the borders of the ego are erased and an individual consciousness merges into the One.

***

DerekWalcottProdigal

You can listen to the podcast of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Derek Walcott here.

This interview reminded me of what I love about Writers & Company. Not only does Wachtel introduce us to outstanding writers and their works, but interviewees in turn reference the great books and other kinds of art that have inspired them. The writing (and reading) life is one of endlessly rich entanglements and connections.

 

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Little pieces: why write vignettes?

What is a vignette?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd. ed.) says:

vignette 1a a brief descriptive account, anecdote, essay, or character sketch.

At times I’ve questioned whether or not I should publish a piece of writing on my blog. I’ve wondered if the stories I have to tell are too trivial, too self-centred, too lacking in meaning for anyone but myself. After all, I’m no longer an elite runner with exciting reports about international competitions.

But as I thought about it, I decided there are many reasons to write vignettes on my blog. I came up with the following:

  1. Blogs are a perfect medium for vignettes. Blog posts are supposed to be brief. (I know, I fail.) Blog posts are immediate and (often) personal, tied to the moment, the circumstances, the season, what’s in the news.
  1. Is there any reason to be ashamed of the “smallness” of what I write about? No—I say it’s good that I can be satisfied with small pleasures and events because they are what I have. I can’t afford to travel. I can’t afford to attend expensive cultural events or concerts regularly. I don’t have a job with earth-shattering consequences and responsibilities. Moreover, in smallness, one can dig deeper. Apparently mundane events, places, and people can grow in complexity in two ways; first, by using a metaphorical microscope to examine them more deeply—there are almost always more layers of significance and detail. Secondly, complexity sometimes reveals itself by accident: someone walks into the running store when I’m working, and a real conversation develops; a potentially perfect photo is revealed to my ready camera; a new song instantly elevates my mood; I learn something new from a movie, a video, or a TED talk that I happen to stumble across. Temporarily, I escape from the smallness of myself and my ego-centred existence in the world. These “accidental” deepenings require only the ability to be receptive, to recognize and welcome them when they come.
  2. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the sense of life’s abundance. Other times I forget. Vignettes try to capture a tiny fraction of those riches, to suggest the abundance that is still untold.
  3. Storytelling can occur in a single paragraph or in a novel of over a thousand pages. It can be simple. Something happens to me or to someone I know, and for some reason I care. Personal stories are powerful if writers reveal themselves in a way that makes others care.
  1. Vignettes are a weapon in the battle against the most common excuse for not writing: “I don’t have enough time!”
  2. And after all—writers are compelled to write.

A good example of a vignette blog (not this one!)

Since I don’t have a new vignette to include here, I wanted to recommend a wonderful example from the blog of a fellow writer who was a classmate of mine in the Print Futures writing program at Douglas College several years ago. Jennifer Markham has mastered the art of writing extremely brief blog posts. Her vignettes are, above all, funny. She exploits her own flaws for comedy, but she also makes me care about her because she is observant, spunky, and unashamed of who she is.  Jenn’s blog, unlike mine, takes almost no time to read. Try her Mother’s Day post for a taste of the vignette world.

VignetteCollage-1

Little pieces of my everyday life from the past month

How do fiction writers enchant readers?

Enchantment happens when you don’t sacrifice your own voice to the god of marketability.

All writers crave an audience, but it’s by writing from your own passion, and expressing yourself skillfully using your voice that you will produce valuable writing: writing that has the power to enchant in its unique way. Worthy readers will find your writing.

Beginning writers may struggle to find their own voice, or doubt that it is “good” enough. What do I mean by the “writer’s voice”?

cover of Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s latest book

I understood this question much better (and got a great answer) when I read a post by author Meg Wolitzer on the website Everyday ebook (October 5, 2014). Wolitzer recently published a novel for young adults called Belzhar (so titled because Wolitzer was greatly influenced by Sylvia Plath’s iconic The Bell Jar). Much of her post was about how Plath’s writing affected her, but the part that helped me was her explanation of where a writer’s voice comes from.

Sometimes when people are writing, they look far, far outside themselves. They look for something that might sound like a writer’s voice on the page and they forget that they have so much inside them that is a voice that they’ve been developing. That’s not to say that books are from the perspective of the writer, but they are from the sensibility of the writer, which is different. You can find a wonderful idea outside of yourself to write a book about, but you need to know the connection between you and that idea. And that connection is often in your sensibility and will come out in your voice.

For me, the key words in the paragraph quoted above are sensibility and connection. The writer’s voice is not simply the writer’s perspective or the language used by the writer. A writer’s sensibility encompasses so many things: personal experiences, emotions, analytical thoughts, ideas from books and other sources—and how the writer processes, or makes connections, between all these disparate influences.

Cover of Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner

Alan Warner’s latest book

Scottish writer Alan Warner, speaking with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers & Company on November 23, 2014 (listen to podcast here), also talked about the writer’s voice. As a young writer, Warner was inspired by literature and longed to express himself creatively, but doubted his ability. Then he read a book that made a huge impression on him. It was The Busconductor Heinz, by James Kelman. The setting of the book is Glasgow, a gritty, working-class city that Warner knew well. From this place Kelman wrote a book that Warner describes as “philosophic, scabrous, ironic, funny, and at times erotic.”

What Warner learned from reading The Busconductor Heinz, he told Wachtel, is that “it’s possible to express profound things from the context of your own culture.” The book made him realize that you didn’t have to be a Waugh or a Hemingway, living in a huge metropolis or a glamorous place, to be able to have significant insights about life and people.

I haven’t read The Busconductor Hines myself, but after listening to Warner on Writers & Company I looked up some reviews of it. There was a wide range of opinion. Some people loved it, others didn’t. Many readers were offended by the many repetitions of the crudest swear words, but others loved the authenticity of the “voice.” Writers can’t please everyone.

Another thought I had about “voice” is that it comes partly from our inner lives—our imagination, our dreams, our subconscious—and those things are boundless. That is why one doesn’t have to have lived in an exotic or sophisticated place in order to write profound things. What Wolitzer calls the “sensibility” that we give to our writing is our inner synthesis of everything we’ve lived, observed, felt, and read—put into a context, a topic, and/or characters that we care about deeply.

The Vancouver Writers Fest

Better Living Through Books? 

One of the events I went to at the Writers Fest this year was a panel discussion called “Better Living Through Books?”  The three panelists (writers Rebecca Mead, Nadia Bozak and Damon Galgut), with moderator (and writer) Angie Abdou, were grappling with questions related to what I’ve written about the writer’s voice. How do writers choose what to write about? What makes their writing good? Do they think about their audiences while they’re writing?

All of these authors reinforced the idea that the best writing comes not when a writer is trying to please a certain audience, or accomplish a specific educational or political goal in a didactic way. The best writing happens when someone writes about what matters to them personally—and is not afraid to bring their own emotions and experiences into the writing. I’ve always called this “writing from the heart,” and recognize it in my own best writing.

The panelists of “Better Living Through Books?” all agreed that they were motivated to write the books they did because of their own passion for the subjects or books that moved them, their need to delve as deeply as possible into their material.

These three panellists had been brought together for this event because all of them had been heavily influenced and inspired by other writers. Rebecca’s Mead’s lifelong “relationship” (some would say obsession) with George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch led her to write My Life in Middlemarch, published in 2014. This book is a gem that combines memoir, literary criticism, and biography. It inspired me not only to reread George Eliot’s classic 19th-century novel, but to write a rave review of Mead’s work on my blog.

I was completely unfamiliar with the work of British writer Nadia Bozak or South African Damon Galgut. Part of the fun and intellectual excitement of the Vancouver Writers Fest comes from being exposed to books and writers that one doesn’t know.

Cover of El Nino by Nadia BozakI wasn’t initially impressed by Bozak as a speaker, but when it came time for her to read from her own book, El Niño, I was captivated. Her voice was spellbinding, and after listening to her narrative for a few minutes, I felt compelled to learn more about her characters and their fates. Bozak has always been haunted by the works of Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Conrad, and J.M. Cootzee, and she has found her own stories and her own voice in extrapolating from their themes.

Cover of Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Arctic Summer is a fictional imagining of writer E.M. Forster’s intense personal struggles.

Damon Galgut read from his book Arctic Summer, a novel in which he imagines E.M. Forster’s intimate life and inner thoughts during the long period he was writing A Passage to India. Galgut has been driven by his admiration for Forster. He explained that there have been numerous books written about E.M. Forster; we know a lot about his books and the facts of his life, but Galgut was curious about the psychology of this man who was a repressed homosexual, tormented by an unrequited love, yet able to channel his passion into enduring works of art. Since there were no facts about Forster’s inner life, Galgut chose to create a plausible Forster in the form of a novel. Like Bozak, Galgut possesses the gift of making us care deeply about his characters.

Writers’ voices on Writers & Company

I continue to feel delight and inspiration by listening to writers’ voices, literally, on CBC’s Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel. On Sunday, November 30, Wachtel was remembering the great British mystery novelist P.D. James, who died recently at the age of 94. She replayed a stage interview and reading she had done on stage with James at the 1999 Humber School for Writers Distinguished Speaker Series.

James spoke during that interview about her intense psychological need to be a writer. She said, “I would not have lived a happy and fulfilled life if I had not written.” She expanded her explanation of what drives writers with a quote from a psychiatrist:

Creativity is the successful resolution of internal conflict.

Cover of Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley, a continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is one of P.D. James’s best known books. It was published in 2011, when she was 91!

What came through in James’s real voice was her sharp intelligence, her wit, her stoicism in the face of hardship, and the discipline she imposed upon herself to write well within a genre that had traditionally been considered below the level of literary novels. Indeed, she succeeded in changing her chosen genre, and her pride and joy in being able to achieve this came through in her voice during the interview.

I remember another Writers & Company interview (from October) that made a big impression on me. Scottish writer Ali Smith’s voice was enchanting, not only because of her accent but because of the childlike, breathless joy that infused everything she said. She was talking about art, and how it is like a bridge between Earth and Heaven and between people. Much of what she said was mystical, obscure; it was a glimpse into an enchanted world.

It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand everything she said. What I caught was her excitement and gratefulness for the life she has had. She was very poor when she started as a writer but she said it didn’t matter. She is happy. She is doing what her talent has led her to do.

Enchantment with books I: Tim Winton’s Eyrie

From late September until early November, I read several good books, attended Vancouver Writers Fest events, and listened to radio interviews of writers (mainly CBC’s wonderful Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel). Every one of these books or interviews overwhelmed me with ideas that I was itching to blog about, but I had no time.

What amazes me now, as I read over the notes that I wrote hastily during that intense period of reading stimulation, is the way many different writers’ ideas coalesced in my mind to form related themes. They all led me to a deeper understanding of why reading and writing are so important to me.

Why do books delight me, stimulate me, comfort me, and make me feel spiritually rich?

A couple of days ago I started trying to write a post that would answer this question properly; that would tie together all these writers and their books and and what they meant to me. My post turned into a multi-headed hydra that was leading me to despair. How do people ever write a novel? I can’t even finish a short story! I can’t even finish a blog post!

So I decide to chop off this hydra’s heads, one by one, and present each head (hopefully still wriggling with life) as a separate blog post that didn’t take two hours to read. At the bottom of this first instalment, I’ll add a list of the books, interviews, and writing-related events that influenced me.

Here is the hydra’s brain (i.e. the thesis).

Books enchant me.

Book Cover of Eyrie by Tim WInton

Story One: It was a dark and stormy night and Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Tim Winton on Writers & Company

About a month ago I was driving home from my Running Room job; it was the first day of Pacific Standard Time, pouring rain, and already dark at 5:30. I could have been depressed, driving on this gloomy, dangerous night, but no—I was listening to Eleanor Wachtel talking to Australian novelist Tim Winton. Encapsulated in my warm car, I was transported to another world.

Winton’s voice was intriguing with its Australian accent, and Wachtel, as always, sounded both soothing and engaged. They were discussing Winton’s latest novel, Eyrie. (You can read The Guardian’s rave review here or listen to the full Writers & Company interview here.)

I can’t do full justice to the book or the interview, but some things branded themselves in my memory. I was gripped when Winton read aloud a part of the book that showed his two protagonists’ vulnerability. The middle-aged Tom Keely is divorced and unemployed. He forms an unusual friendship with a six-year-old boy, Kai, who is a neighbour in their seedy highrise. Kai lives with his depressed grandmother Gemma and has known little but abuse and neglect during his short life. Keely and Kai are drawn together by their mutual fascination with birds, especially birds of prey.

Winton read a section of his book that describes Keely taking Kai and Gemma out on a boat to a place where he’s promised they will see an osprey. There are agonizing moments when Keely fears the bird won’t appear. He knows how many times Kai has been lied to and disappointed. He wants so badly not to wound his friend.

Then comes the moment when they see the osprey rising; the bird was there all the time, camouflaged against its tree background. Instead of disappointment, Keely and Kai have the joy of sharing that experience.

As Winton read, I felt, I shared, his characters’ love of birds, their respect and awe for the beauty and abilities of natural creatures.

I was enchanted. I was lifted to a higher place, a place where one is given the gift of entering into the consciousness of another human being. It doesn’t matter whether that being is the writer, the fictional character, or a real person.

Later in the interview, Wachtel was asking Winton questions about the purpose of his writing; he has become an impassioned environmental activist who has made significant contributions to the preservation of Australia’s natural places. She was asking about whether he intends his novels to educate or persuade people. Winton responded that he doesn’t see the novel as a tool of persuasion, but rather as “a tool of enchantment.”
I remembered hearing very similar words a few months ago, when I listened to another CBC radio interview (it might have been Jian Ghomeshi on Q!) with swordfighter and fantasy writer Sebastien de Castell. I haven’t read hardly any fantasy since I was a teenager, but de Castell’s description of the genre made me curious to turn to it again. De Castell said that escapism is the not “loftiest” purpose of the fastasy novel; rather, at its best, fantasy creates a sense of wonder in readers, enabling them to experience a sense of re-enchantment in their real lives.

That idea sure struck a chord with me. I reflect on all the ways that novels enchant me; there are many aspects of enchantment. It’s being lost in another world, another place or time, another person’s mind. It’s being told a story: being led on, step by step, and wanting to know what happens next. What is the ending? It’s the way you somehow care about this imaginary character that you develop an attachment to, whether it is because that person is like you, or because that person attracts you in some way. It’s being enchanted by the beauty of language; the structure of a sentence or the musical sounds of words or the musical cadences of phrases. It’s the enchantment of intellectual stimulation, the click of “aha!” moments.

As I drove home on that rainy November evening, listening to Eleanor Wachtel and Tim Winton, I had friends on my solitary journey. I knew my truest inner nature was being satisfied and nurtured. Though I was physically sitting in a car, automatically doing all I needed to do to drive safely, my spirit was in another place, a place of intense fascination, emotional arousal, and thankfulness.

***

Literary influences from September to November 2014

Books and poetry

  • The Order of Things, by David Gilmour
  • Between, by Angie Abdou
  • The Juliet Stories by Bill Gaston
  • Love, Again by Doris Lessing
  • The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
  • Tales of a Wayside Inn (1874) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Radio interviews

  • Writers & Company: Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Ali Smith (Oct. 5) about Art, Tim Winton (Nov. 2) about Eyrie
  • CIUT Radio PowerDrive (Toronto): Johnny Fox (aka John Atkinson) interviewing Angie Abdou about Between and the writing life at Toronto’s Word on the Street (Sept. 25)

Vancouver Writers Fest Events
October 24, 2104

“Better Living Through Books?”

  • With panellists/writers Rebecca Mead, Nadia Bozak, and Damon Galgut, guided by   moderator/writer Angie Abdou

“A Tangled Web”

  • With panellists/writers Arjun Basu, Martha Baillie, and Kate Pullinger guided by   moderator/writer Lee Henderson

To be continued…

Dr. Stefan Dollinger raises provocative questions about the “radically changing English-language ecosystem”

On Wednesday October 15, 2014, I was among the editors at our monthly EAC-BC meeting who had the privilege of listening to a fascinating presentation by Dr. Stefan Dollinger. His title, “Forks in the Road: Dictionaries and the Radically-Changing English-language Ecosystem” immediately grabbed our editorial attention.

Dr. Dollinger is Assistant Professor of English at UBC and the editor-in-chief of A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (now available online here). He has written over 40 scholarly papers on topics related to the evolving English language and how what he called the “English Language Complex”, or ELC (meaning all the varieties of English spoken worldwide) affects decisions about how to research and compile dictionaries.

Even though I’m an editor and consider myself highly competent in English, Dollinger made me stop and think about what “correct” English is and what it means to be an “expert” user of English.

Early in his presentation, Dollinger referred to the Circle Model of English (coined by Braj Kachru in 1985). In this model, the inner circle of English-language speakers consists of native speakers from Great Britain, Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The inner circle has roughly 400 million members. The outer circle is made up of English speakers from countries that have historically been colonized by the English: India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Singapore. This circle has a billion members! But the biggest growth area of English by a long shot (Dollinger’s emphasis) comes from the expanding circle: English speakers from countries that have no historical experience of English use. China, of course, is the most significant country in this group because of its enormous population and its growing economic clout. The expanding circle includes another billion English speakers. Therefore, we are now at a point where the ratio of non-native English speakers to native speakers is 5:1!

English is unique: never, in the history of the world, has there been another language that has more non-native speakers than native speakers.

Dollinger used the term “English as a lingua franca” (ELF) to refer to English as spoken by non-native speakers. One provocative idea is that according to numbers, we have to consider ELF the most “real” English. What are some of the implications of this?

Can we still assume that “our” English (the English spoken by educated, articulate native speakers—and guarded passionately by editors!) is the English, the “best” English?

When it comes to teaching and learning English, would it not be more practical to use lingua franca English—a globally accepted English?

How could a globally accepted English be learned, when there is so much variation in English usage around the world?

This is where the creation of a lingua franca English dictionary could be critical. Dollinger admitted that this would be a huge task. He spent some time talking about the most highly-respected dictionary of English—the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and how it was created. Its editors relied heavily on excerption from literary sources. But Dollinger believes another method of research is required in order to create a global English dictionary. That is, empirical research: going out into the field and finding out how English is actually being used currently, depending on speakers’ geographical location, education, and social class.

How do we distinguish between “errors” in English and innovative evolution of English?

Dollinger gave several amusing examples of creative “new” English words that we, as Canadian “expert” English users, had not heard of before: two I remember are “peelhead” (meaning a bald person), and “batchmate” (meaning cohort). Logical, eh?

How do I feel about my “Canadian” being considered just one quaint dialect of English, rather than the English?

It’s strange to think that as a Canadian English native speaker, I might not be understood by the majority of  English speakers.worldwide

Optimistically, though, I believe I can hold on to my “mother” English tongue (Canadian English) and still be competent at ELF. This requires tools like dictionaries as well as an open mind and a willingness to learn.

I celebrate the enormous flexibility English offers, and I don’t think we should feel threatened by the evolution of English. We have to remember that the purpose of language is communication, and there are many types of communication. A global English can be better than “traditional” English by simplifying the parts of English grammar, spelling, and usage that are illogical or unnecessarily difficult. All global English communicators will need to become familiar with Plain English principles. People will learn standard English terms and expressions used in their area of research or business.

Those of us who love the most difficult English, in all its idiomatic, metaphoric, multi-clausal imaginative glory, will still be able to read the great works of English literature. I am also confident that new writers will display creative and technical mastery of English in new works of literature, whether they be novels, stories, poems, or other formats that take advantage of the interactive possibilities of today’s digital world.

You can help Dr. Dollinger in his research about global English usage by completing his survey at http://www.bit.do/engsurvey. It takes about 18 minutes. Do your bit!

Exposed: secrets and stories

cropArmsUpFacingSilhouetteA few days ago someone asked me to remove one of my posts from my running blog because he thought what I wrote would be damaging to his professional reputation.

I had been careful in writing this post to respect his privacy as much as possible—while still retaining a story that expressed at least part of the emotional truth of the situation.

After reviewing the post, I decided to leave it as is. But I didn’t take his request lightly, and it caused me to think again about one of the moral issues writers grapple with: how is it possible to write honestly about ourselves, first of all, and more significantly, about the people who are or have been close to us?

This is not a new question for writers. There are numerous examples of famous writers who’ve published damning books about their ex-husbands, lovers, or other family members, whether as fiction or memoirs. Sometimes writers may have been motivated by anger, hurt, or a desire for vengeance. More often, though, I suspect that these writers are trying to analyze, to interpret, to create a narrative about the significant events of their lives in an effort to explain (to themselves as well as readers) the mysteries of intimate relationships, how love turns to hate and harmony mutates into conflict.

What reasons make it morally justifiable to write about personal topics, even when poeple’s secrets will be exposed?

A few authors have made lots of money by publishing sensational memoirs that became huge bestsellers; two that come to mind are The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Both of these books were about severely dysfunctional families. Both were also well written, and provided constant jolts of shock, amazement, and sometimes, inspiration.

I’ve also read some good books by heroin addicts that have depicted the extreme depths of addiction; the way a life’s focus becomes reduced entirely to where the next fix is coming from, all morality and loyalty to anyone else obliterated. Does understanding addiction better make me a more compassionate person?

Some reviewers criticize the readers of such books for being voyeurs who are encouraging the proliferation of this “drug writing porn.”

Perhaps both the writing and the reading of sensational or highly personal books are justified if the writing is good. Does the creation of what we could call Literature or Art justify exposing or hurting other people?

How can we judge whether a book (or other piece of writing) is a work of art? It has to do not only with technical writing skills but also with the universality of the book’s themes and characters. Does the book inspire readers in some way? Even ugly truths can help readers, by giving them the comfort of knowing that they are not alone in experiencing terrible thoughts or emotions; perhaps a dark book also includes messages about recovery or learning.

That request to remove one of my blog posts seemed like a personal violation. Why should I hide a piece of creative work that had taken me much effort to write and deliberation about the risks involved? Yet I understood that person’s reason for making the request, and it forced me to examine my reasons for writing a blog. Why do I write about personal topics, not just running?

I write to express myself, and there is no doubt that writing is therapeutic for me. Yet I could simply write a diary and keep it all to myself. Why do I need to publish what I write?

It’s normal for writers to crave an audience: writers want feedback about their work. Hasn’t part of the power of books always been to connect the minds of writers and readers? The difference now is that with blogs and social media, the interaction between writer and reader can be almost instantaneous. It can be more mutual and personal than it used to be. The blog writing style is powerful mainly because of its immediacy and its personal nature. Readers often expect a blog to convey not only facts and stories, but to express the writer’s personality and style.

The conflict I have in exposing my writing publicly is that many of the topics I’m most fascinated by are personal ones—the timeless themes about relationships—sex, love, betrayal, denial—and how modern technologies have affected how relationships evolve. Where do I draw the line about what I write, and who I include in my stories? Where is the line between writing something worthy of readers’ attention, and writing as a narcissistic or exhibitionistic act?

These questions can all be seen as part of a wider discussion about how we present ourselves online. What are the repercussions for me personally, and for the people I write about? Will I become unemployable by writing about failed relationships or drug use? Social media gurus advise us to include some personal messages on our sites, to convey something of our individuality in our marketing efforts, but in reality you can’t veer very far to the Dark Side without risking your professional and personal reputation.

I’ve already made the choice to take that risk. I’ve rejected the idea of presenting myself online as always being the upbeat, successful, ever-persistent athlete who followed my passion and talent for running without ambivalence.

According to marketing experts, a blog should be about one clearly defined topic that is geared to a specific audience. I’ve rejected this advice because having a wildly successful blog, perhaps even a money-generating one, is not my primary objective.

Instead, I write my running blog for the reasons I’ve given above—for self-expression, for therapy, and as a way to connect with friends and strangers. My blog is an experiment to help me make a decision about the direction my writing will take in the future. Will I write some kind of memoir about my running career?—and if so, will it include some of the negative aspects of making running the top priority in my life for so many years? Or will I write a fictional book that draws heavily on my own experiences but bends the facts by disguising real people and using my imagination to play with real events?

A (relevant) aside about two books

It’s ironic that at the same time as I’ve been thinking about how to represent myself honestly in my blog, and how much of my real life to expose, I’ve been reading two books whose themes are about the devastating psychological consequences of living an unfulfilled life, of denying one’s true nature and living hypocritically.

First edition photo of As For Me and My House

First Edition, published in 1941.

These two books could hardly be more different from each other in form and in context: the first, As For Me and My House (1941), is a classic Canadian Depression-era novel by Sinclair Ross. The second, Fury (2001), by Salman Rushdie (famed author of The Satanic Verses), is a brilliant, sophisticated novel set in New York City just before the terrorist bombings.

The similarity between the books is that both their protagonists have compromised their artistic natures in exchange for money: both are tormented psychologically, and have ruined their marriages. Philip Bentley in House has repressed his dream of being an artist and become a small-town minister (though he doesn’t even believe in God), and Malik Solanka in Fury has allowed his beloved creation, the subversive and intelligent Little Brain doll, to be hideously transformed by popular media into a creature whose behaviour and values are diametrically opposed to her creator’s original intentions. Though the Little Brain franchise has made him a multi-millionaire, Solanka’s self-disgust has manifested itself as a fury that directs itself even at those whom he most loves, his wife Eleanor and their young son.

Book cover of Fury

Fury was published in 2001.

I mention these two excellent books (each worthy of a full book review) because they reinforced my belief about how important it is to represent oneself with integrity, being true to one’s values rather than being hypocritical. I feel that way about my blog writing: where is the value or purpose in writing if the truth is evaded or watered down to the extent that there is no emotion left?

Yet I’ve also learned that in the real world, the world of real jobs, corporate culture, and getting along with co-workers, I need to be more flexible in my beliefs, less outspoken, and more diplomatic in my communication with others.

My blog remains a place where I can “be myself”—where I can write about the topics that matter to me and take some risks in revealing my personal opinions and experiences.

The blog post that I was asked to remove was, in fact, one that many readers responded to in a positive and supportive way. Their feedback reassured me that I had made the right decision to publish the post. But perhaps the readers who thought it was inappropriate kept their comments to themselves!

What do you think?

Is it ethically wrong for writers to publish material that could hurt others professionally or personally?

What reasons justify the publication of sensitive material about living people?

Is it a mistake to publish sensitive material if one expects to ever work in the business world?

Quote of the Week archive

Over time, I expect to gather a number of quotes that I’ll treasure, so this will be the place they are collected.

March 15, 2013

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

–from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”

March 15, 2013

Susan Cain quotes Marcel Proust in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She says he called moments of unity between a reader and a writer (who have never met in person) “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

January 29, 2013

“Brandling would see the glass half full even when it lay in shards around his feet.”

Henry Brandling, a character in Peter Carey’s novel The Chemistry of Tears, is describing himself—in someone else’s words. Brandling is a childlike adult in the best sense of the word: naïve, open to magic and adventure, hopelessly vulnerable to love—yet adult in his self-awareness and sense of humour.

Read this novel to escape to another time and a fairytale aura—but know that the emotional landscapes are real.

Alan Twigg on B.C. BookWorld, writing and e-books

The winter 2012-2013 issue of B.C. BookWorld

The winter 2012-2013 issue of B.C. BookWorld

“I’ve spent the past two years writing a book for myself and one reader.”

Last Wednesday night I was privileged to attend a Canadian Authors Association meeting featuring guest speaker Alan Twigg.

Twigg is famous in the B.C. publishing world, and rightly so. He has turned his passion for B.C. and its writers into his life’s work. In 1987, he founded the quarterly literary newspaper B.C. BookWorld, which is chock-full of stories and book reviews about B.C. authors and their work. He continues to be the principal writer for this publication, with partner David Lester in charge of editing and production. Twigg has also created the online resource http://www.abcbookworld.com . This site now lists over 10,000 B.C. authors. It is searchable by author or by title and provides a veritable treasure trove of information on these authors and their contributions to B.C.’s historical and cultural landscape.

Twigg mentions that he is a fifth-generation B.C. native, but he acknowledges that most people are immigrants here, and claims that even if you aren’t from here, “B.C. will rub off on you.” He claims that we have “a psychological zone” here that is very different from most other places on the planet. Twigg relates a few anecdotes to illustrate how little of B.C.’s history is taught in schools. It is the authors Twigg promotes unflaggingly through B.C. BookWorld who have shared Twigg’s sense of wonder about B.C. through their research and the books they’ve created.

In a sense Twigg’s pride in B.C.’s writers is ironic because he admits that in the hierarchy of international publishing B.C.’s publishing industry doesn’t even make it to “the bottom rung of the ladder”. Internationally, the top places are New York, London, Frankfurt, and a few other cities, with Toronto positioned somewhere near the bottom of that ladder.

Twigg calls this situation the “outsiderism” of B.C. Yet, he goes on to ask, why should we complain or care if a B.C. writer never makes it onto the cover of Quill & Quire? [a Toronto-based literary magazine]. We don’t care because we have our own B.C. BookWorld.

Twigg is proud of what he calls “the huge appetite for B.C. BookWorld”. He describes B.C. BookWorld as an educational newspaper containing “deeper news”. In his conception, books are a form of “cultural news”. The online site abc.bookworld.com is now getting about a thousand views a day.

In everything he says, Twigg conveys the idea that successful writing is not reflected by the number of readers but by the quality of readers. The whole question of how many readers a writer needs is related to Twigg’s conviction that B.C. writers don’t have to be ashamed that they don’t publish in the “power centres” of publishing. He does concede, however, that if you’re a writer who wants to be rich and famous, you’d better go to New York, London, Frankfurt, and other top publishing cities.

In one of his more outrageous statements of the evening, Twigg expressed his opinion of readings and literary festivals: “Readings are a ridiculous bastardization of literature.”

Why? Because both reading and writing are private activities, according to Twigg, who believes that “writing is underfunded because it’s not a spectacle,” like other arts such as dance and theatre.

(I should add that Twigg muttered some disclaimers, such as “I have nothing against the Vancouver Writers Fest” along with his statements about readings.)

Although I agree with him that the serious business of writing and reading books happens in private, I enjoy attending readings. Most people are curious to meet the authors of books they like. They want to compare the writer’s “voice” with the real person, and perhaps to gain some insights into the creative process and technical aspects of writing. Also, oral storytelling is an ancient art, and a writer who reads his book well can enhance his audience’s appreciation of it. Getting a “taste” of a book through a public reading often leads me to buy it (or at least read it!).

When I suggested that writers could gain international readers for their books through e-publishing, Twigg responded with scorn. He thinks e-books are putting independent bookstores out of business because they are so cheap. I agree with him on this, but I don’t agree with his opinion that people don’t really want e-books and have just been seduced by low prices and the persuasive marketing of e-readers. E-readers are here to stay because many people appreciate their portability and convenience.

However, I agree with Twigg that virtually every writer would prefer to be able to hold his own book in his hand. A physical object isn’t the same thing as words on a computer screen. Twigg is quite supportive of self-publishing, acknowledging that many high-quality books are now produced this way. One advantage of self-publishing is that writers have more control over the design and production of their books. Twigg sees self-published and print-on-demand books making up an ever-larger percentage of books.

Twigg encourages writers not to be overly concerned about how many copies of books they sell. Writers (and the readers they most want to have) are motivated primarily by their desire to create and appreciate art. This must be the reason Twigg, a self-confessed “private person” is willing to work so hard to promote the writers he believes in. After all, as he concludes, “Life is empty without art.”

How much solitude do writers need?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much solitude is ideal for writers. In part, this is an ongoing problem for me because there is this constant conflict between how much time I spend creating (pondering ideas and punching them into the computer), how much time I spend absorbing (reading books, newspapers, online articles) and how much time I spend socializing (sometimes in person but often online, and though this can be educational or stimulating or fun how much is too much?).

Recently, I wrote a snail-mail letter (because it was Christmas) to a friend (I’ll call him James) who interpreted what I had written as a request for writing advice. We ended up having a phone conversation about it. He feels very strongly that writers need to be alone most of the time. For him, socializing is almost always boring, a complete waste of time. (I think his mind is too brilliant to find a match with the vast majority of other people’s minds.)

Though it is true that the actual writing gets done when we’re alone, I don’t agree with James that writers have to be completely withdrawn. We get a lot of our ideas from both interacting with others, and being observers and eavesdroppers.

I’m sure most writers are like me in getting inspiration for fictional characters from real people. Sometimes it’s better when you know a person only slightly—but something about that person utterly seduces you or puzzles you—and you can go on to let your imagination build a whole character from the few tantalizing things you know about the real person. I’ve heard some writers say that they lose control of their characters—the characters “take over” the story and it goes places the author never planned.

How important is it for a writer to have an audience—his readers? Of course we all want to write a bestseller that millions of people buy so we can get rich, but do writers also get a reward simply from the act of creation itself?

I went to a Canadian Authors Association meeting last night in Vancouver, where B.C. BookWorld publisher and writer Alan Twigg gave an inspiring talk (in his inimitable provocative style) about B.C.’s writers and publishing scene. He began by telling us he’d been writing a book for two years that was intended for one reader. [I’ll be writing more about Alan Twigg and B.C. BookWorld in another post.] He segued into other topics, but later I reminded him about his “one reader” comment. I said that most writers, even if they didn’t care about becoming rich and famous, would rather have a hundred readers or a thousand than just one. Most people around me nodded.

After all, don’t we write in large part because we want to share—our experiences, our imagination, our unanswerable questions and partial answers? When James talks about writers’ solitude, does he mean the purest writers don’t care about having an audience at all? Is the purest writing done for oneself alone?

I don’t think so. Writing is an attempt to capture truth and beauty—which we each do in our own way, though Keats wrote a long time ago:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

(These are the last two lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, published 1819.)

We want to capture and share.

Did James mean that in writing one shouldn’t be corrupted by what others want or expect? One should write exactly what one means from the depths of one’s solitude? Then others can make of it what they will. A writer with integrity will want to express himself as precisely (in meaning) and as beautifully (stylistically, in his own voice) as he can. The “masses” may not approve of or understand what comes out. That doesn’t mean the writer doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Surely most writers have peers (as well as people they consider to be superior to themselves in terms of wisdom, knowledge, writing skill, talent, and experience) and the opinions of these people will “count”.

We want not only to share, but to receive feedback. Most of us aren’t egoless, and we like pats on the back. Also, everyone can improve at any skill, including writing, and there must be few writers who can’t benefit in some way from the feedback of others. But I guess James is right that the initial effort has to be the effort of a single mind, not a committee.

I liked the challenge James suggested to me, though—his idea of “what it takes” to be a fiction writer:

I am reluctant to run advice past you that wouldn’t be worth anything unless you know somehow somewhere you have that feel of “ok, I want to put five years into this fiction business. See what I got. Throw the dice, accept the consequences. I refuse to sit around and bark all day.”

Alan Twigg expressed a similar idea of the writer’s compulsion to write: “You will be a writer if you can’t not write.” He went on to explain—“We have needs…hunger, sex, and then there’s art. Life is empty without art.”