Monthly Archives: November 2012

All in the Name

Almost always, the titles of our favourite books and movies somehow capture the whole work in a very few words. A title serves as a doorway that we step through into the work, and by the end, we have a clear vision of how the title functions. Maybe most readers don’t think about titles having a function, other than getting a reader to pick the book off the shelf. A title has to have meaning. Think about naming kids. We choose carefully, something with meaning, something symbolic, some kind of statement, a signpost. Pet people do it, too. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the other name wouldn’t work the same way in a poem.

My first book is called Shattered Fanatics, and the cover image is a rather crushed looking carved figure. I chose the image because it looked to me like a shattered fanatic might look. The phrase comes from a student essay, some terrible kind of typing error, and I immediately could see what such a person might be. A shattered fanatic is someone who has believed absolutely and then realized, standing at the stake, waiting for the fire, that nobody was going to show up for the rescue. The faith is shattered. The poems inside the book are spoken by such people. When I chose the title for Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I wanted to honour the family name and to acknowledge the importance of the individual family members. I wanted to situate their story clearly in their place, and I did not want a pedestrian title. I wanted something that set them apart from any other family biography in the way that I felt they were demonstrably apart in their lived story. I wanted something with their strength without being prosaic about it.

My current poetry manuscript has a working title drawn from myth, “The Hungry Grass,” an image apt for the story being told. Naming takes thought. I’ve always told my students that essays are like babies: if you can’t name it, you shouldn’t be having it. Or writing it. A title doesn’t have to be  labyrinthine, or elaborate, or grand. Think of On the RoadHamletPride and PrejudiceJane Eyre. A title just has to fit. Like a glove. Perfectly tailored.

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Accountability

Writing is a solitary undertaking, almost never done communally, and that’s the way writers like it. The problem is that this solitariness means no one knows when we aren’t writing. And even worse, no one cares. So, it’s difficult to find the discipline to produce on any kind of regular basis. But what Burroughs said of Kerouac is true: a writer writes. If we aren’t writing, and we walk around calling ourselves writers, we’re lying. Plato would say, “I told you so,” but I digress.

We all have to find our way to be accountable to our work by being accountable to some outside force, although force is not a good word when it comes to writing. Force doesn’t result in good writing. Discipline does. There are a few things that have worked for me over the years. At one time, I rather fully believed in the muse, Erato, and now my faith is tempered by reason and experience. There’s still some magic and madness involved, no doubt, but crafting and work are requisite ingredients. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, my supervisor required that I send her a report once a month. I dreaded it. But, I discovered that it was thoroughly affirming because as I started to prepare my report, I realized that I really did have plenty of activity to list. Research accomplished, proposals sent, publication submissions, pages written, and so on. At least once a month, I could feel good about myself.

Another thing that has worked for me is to get together with another writer (some people join writing groups) on a regular, committed basis, and talk about what’s getting written, getting submitted, getting thought. We’d set each other writing tasks for the next session, as prompts. It kept us thinking of our work and doing our work more regularly. Deadlines only work if someone’s going to mention them. Right now, I have my client expecting a draft by a certain date and the Canada Council expecting a report by a certain date. Two major projects for which I am accountable, but even given that, I have to feel the muse start to push from within, and then the writing happens. The writer is just as accountable to the muse as to the client, the publisher, the granting agency. The writer has to listen to them all.

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Currently Writing

My current bio project has required me to change my method, and I’ve had to adapt to someone else’s timetable. When I was writing Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I was working on a personal project, not being paid for it, and working largely on my own timetable. The research took years, and I could pursue any line of investigation I wanted. In the end, the voice was all my own, interpreting all the research as I saw it. Everything meant what I decided it meant.

Writing for hire is a completely different beast. For one thing, it pays, making it a very nice beast. But that also makes it a more demanding beast, in terms of finishing the manuscript and in terms of the subject’s image. There is a fixed (supposedly) timeline, set out in the terms. The client has last say, and therefore controls the research entirely, what to share, what to withhold. The writer writes, and having writ, waits for the client to approve.

For the last week or so, as I try to sort all the research, I’ve been thinking about an article I recently read. The subject was the biographer’s voice. If the biographer’s voice doesn’t emerge, then it’s nothing more than transcription. That’s a sobering observation. If I’d wanted to be a stenographer, I would have gotten a different kind of training. My hand, my critical eye, will be present in the shape of the finished project, but I have to create a place for myself in the story of someone else’s life. I hope to be there in the transitions, those spots where meaning and connections are made. And, I have to accomplish that in such a way that the whole reads as though there is one voice only. It will take deft handling.

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Biographers’ Ethics

A friend happily informed me over dinner that I was a professional writer. Until I heard him say it, right out loud, I didn’t realize it, feel it, fully. We’re all secretly frauds, after all. And, my head had been down for years, as I scrabbled to make a living. I’d been teaching a lot, but for the first time, I was working on a project big enough to support me. A biography. Lifewriting is my doctoral specialization, but, when I prepared my requisite ethics approval and protocol for the degree, no one asked me if I’d be having sex with my subjects. Later, my publisher didn’t ask about that, either.

I was asked if I’d be experimenting with live subjects, but I thought that was covered by an explanation of my research and interview strategies.  I didn’t read the question as a euphemism. And, I did state that I agreed with Plath’s biographer, Anne Stevenson, not to include anything that would harm the living without serving any good purpose for the story. I meant it. There were some alcoholics in my subject group, but I didn’t out them individually. I made my point by discussing the overarching effects on the group. A biography isn’t exactly a tell all.

I wasn’t writing a written-overnight, unauthorized biography of Michael Jackson or a who’s-zooming-whom scandal sheet. Two of the most important considerations in lifewriting are the match of biographer and subject, and of the writer’s voice functioning in what otherwise could be a copy-and-paste exercise. Leslie Kaufman wrote about “The Quandry for Biographers,” in her 13 November article for The New York Times, and it’s an interesting piece to read because it opens this discussion, using the recent biography All In as a touchstone. The quandary is all about the ethics.

So, does it matter, as we watch the Paula Broadwell / David Petraeus story, All In, titillate news consumers, that the reason the biographer had such extraordinary access to the subject was because they were lovers? It may not be as clearly an ethical issue, from a biography point-of-view, as the James Frey A Million Little Pieces debacle. In that case, the guy called it a memoir, and he lied. If he had called it an autobiographical novel, no one would have cared. There would have been a fascination about what was autobiography and what was invention, and he wouldn’t have had to contend with the wrath of Oprah.

Someone might protest that Ms. Broadwell couldn’t be objective if she was sexually involved with Gen. Petraeus. No, probably not. Do we really believe in objectivity anymore? Don’t we instead accept that we cannot be objective, and then try to minimize our subjectivity? I have to say that if I were to write a biography of John Lennon, readers should question my objectivity, and no, it would not be because we’d been lovers. Alas. However, Broadwell and Petraeus’ relationship may affect the quality of the book, and it’s the quality of the book that we should care about, as writers. American national security isn’t our purview. The affair may be a factor there, but moralizing, on the basis of his marriage, should be irrelevant in that context.

If there is an ethical question here, for a writer, what is it? The only potential ethical foul that I can see is if the writer has a sexual relationship in order to achieve exceptional access to the subject’s life. Otherwise, who cares? We all have our own codes, presumably, things we would or would not do. But, as a profession, it’s difficult, or impossible, for us to articulate a list we’d all sign, maybe not even a single item list. We aren’t physicians, who very clearly are compromised by sexual intimacy with their subjects.

I am not a fan of the public humiliation of Holly Petraeus, but that public humiliation is the result of extra-marital sex being privileged as the Big Sin and therefore a thing to be trumpeted about the town. Sex between consenting adults ruining careers: there are worse things people could do. Is Mrs. Petraeus’ humiliation an ethical consideration for the writers who released and repeated the big news? If it should be, it certainly wasn’t. Who’s done harm to whom? Scandal mongering should be on the ethics hit list. If the general had an affair with a spy, then it should affect his career. But he isn’t John Profumo. In my opinion, if any writer has done something unethical in this instance, it isn’t Paula Broadwell. But there’s always an “unless,” an exception, a variable—because writing isn’t math.

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A Reader Reads

I think I was born knowing how to read. I don’t remember learning. Our house was full of books–mysteries, encyclopedias, anthologies, novels. We were farm kids, and there was plenty of reading time. Where were we going to go? In books, we could go anywhere. I got Maud Montgomery’s Rainbow Valley from a friend for my tenth birthday, and I still have it. I read Gone with the Wind when I was young enough to play it in my imagination and old enough to fall in love with Ashley Wilkes. I have about three hundred hardcover detective novels that belonged to my mother. Reading is one of the great pleasures of life. Having to part with books, when the shelves get too crowded, is hard on my heart. The occasional cull is necessary because I can’t stop acquiring books.

What I’ve learned, over the departure of thousands of books to libraries and charity sales, is what matters most to me. Aside from the delicious compendium Critical Theory Since Plato, all of the academic discussions of literature and film are gone. Those critical ideas in Plato are beautifully fresh, creative things. Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, and the Bronte sisters are safe and secure, everything they wrote. I have a complete Chaucer and a complete Shakespeare. I have poems by Pasternak, Ginsberg, Neruda, Sexton, Akhmatova, Nowlan, Cohen, Szymborska. Sometimes, I think about my top ten list, and I hesitate to fill all the spots. The thought makes me nervous because I don’t want to confine myself. Books aren’t like that. I can say that A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Star Called HenryChatterton,  A Long, Long Way and Rainbow Valley would be on the list. That’s half way. I’ve read and re-read them. They can take it. That’s the secret. Keep books that can stand up to the scrutiny, that offer new things with each reading, that surprise all over with a beautiful phrase.

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A Writer Writes

I’ve been writing all my life–as a child, on walls and on sheet music. When I was twelve, I decided to write a novel about war but was devastated when I got to the end of page one and realized I knew nothing about war. A high school English teacher encouraged the class to enter a writing contest in the local newspaper, and I wrote a poem for the purpose. It won. I still have the cheque. Poetry is my first love, and it was my first book: Shattered Fanatics. The second and third books are both biographies: The Business of Marriage and Medals and Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. Now, I’m working on a third biography and a second poetry manuscript. My work is far more polished now than it was when I wrote that my sister “is a pig girl” on the bathroom door jamb, although that was as sincere as it gets.

But, even though I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of pages, and even though I’ve been writing most of my life, I still find it difficult to be disciplined about it. I’ve never been a write-every-day writer. Sometimes, when I have a writing assignment, I find myself paralyzed, unable to start. But, I have learned enough about my writing process to know when I’m stalling and when I have to wait. It’s important to be honest. Tomorrow, I’ll be at my desk, sorting a mass of research for the bio. Somewhere in all that material, there’s a shape all its own.

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