Monthly Archives: January 2013

Reading Photographs

When I teach courses in lifewriting, I always start with an exercise on photographs because they are the most common resource, and almost everyone has at least one picture. Photographs reveal a vast variety of information. We can see with our own eyes the measurable physical attributes (height, weight, age, shape) of a person, as well as make note of the posture and positioning of the subject in relation to others and to things. We can see what people have. My sister has a lovely pin that is a family heirloom, although we did not know its exact origins. A few years ago, I was sorting through photographs for my work, and—because my sister had worn the pin just recently—I recognized it at the throat of our great-grandmother. I excitedly showed the portrait to my sister, who paused for a moment and said “well, that explains why it never sits right—I’ve been wearing it wrong.”

Look through albums and boxes full of photographs. People always say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but really, a picture provokes a thousand words. Here are a few tips to help you read and interpret photographs:

  • Notice the captions—dates, places, names, quips, nicknames
  • How do people relate to each other—detached, affectionate
  • How do people relate to the camera—confident, self-conscious
  • Who stands next to whom
  • Is the picture a formal studio portrait or a casual family snapshot
  • What are people wearing—overalls, suits, gowns, aprons
  • What are people doing—posing, working, playing
  • What else is in the picture—pets, cars, furniture, machinery, landscapes

Notice all of those things. And then, think about what they mean. Some of these considerations are very revealing for a researcher. Maybe you’ll see that in group pictures, one person stands a little apart from the rest, or that two people are always standing together in the group. It’s possible that you have the luxury of someone with whom you can sort through the pictures and ask questions—who is this? when was this taken? where was this taken?—or that you’re on your own with all your questions. If you give a photograph a little time, it can tell you things you didn’t know, if you let it, if you ask it.

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What Finishing Means

Finishing tells people something about you. It tells you something about you. That you can see something through, that you can complete. And when I say finish, I mean finish, as in polish, complete, not just slap it together and call it done, which fools no one, not even you. Finishing means a number of things, whether the subject is a long poem or a university degree or a home-improvement project. Finishing opens up possibilities, at the same time that it closes a circle.

This week, I finished writing my long poem–2290 lines with 253 footnotes. From inception to completion took about ten years. I had to do more research than I thought I’d have to do, for one thing, and financial support is always a problem–thank you to the Woodcock Fund and the Canada Council. My Canada Council file is now closed because I filed my final report, a grant requirement, and because I have done that, I can apply for another grant. That doesn’t mean I’ll get one, but I had to finish in order to have the privilege.

I know now some things I did not know before I undertook to write “The Hungry Grass.” I know I can conceive and execute a very ambitious plan, and I know the logistics of doing that. I really know those things, and I couldn’t have learned them any other way. Yes, I completed a Master’s and a PhD, my training ground for this undertaking. They build on each other, in terms of formal structures. During the degrees, I had signposts and milestones along the way, and supervisors (heaven love Christopher Wiseman and Roberta Buchanan) to get me through the minefield of the thesis, the comprehensives, and the dissertation. This time, I was on my own, from start to finish, obstacles as well as accomplishments.

So that’s what finishing means. It’s about focus and commitment and tenacity and desire and growth. We don’t really know that we can until we do. Now, I don’t have to wonder. Now, I can start looking for my next big idea.

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Location, Location, Location

For the past while, I’ve been thinking about writing spaces, about a writer’s optimal writing space. I don’t know that every writer has one, but I’m willing to bet we all do. It behooves us to take the time to sort out what physical space we need in order to produce. We have to sort out what is the poser in us, that might list all sorts of esoteric eclectic elite requirements and situations, all to make us seem like writers, while the real writers around know it’s all a scam, an avoidance technique. They know it because they’ve tried it themselves, many times.

Arthur Rimbaud needed light and a desk. Period. William and Dorothy Wordsworth needed to walk. Jane Austen seemingly needed a pen and paper, since she wrote surrounded by people in the living areas of her house. What solitude? The Bronte sisters (all three: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) needed each other as audience and wrote novels as part of their conversation. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg employed a smorgasbord of barbiturates and alcohol and marijuana. I don’t recommend it.

What I’m wondering is this: when we say we need to go sit on a mountaintop or at the seaside in order to write, are we stalling? Deceiving ourselves? We might all agree that it would be nice to go to the mountains or the seaside, and these surely can be inspirational places. But as I sit here on a mountaintop, I know that I could accomplish at home what I’m accomplishing here. It’s a discipline issue. I know that what I need in order to work in a sustained way is solitude and a block of time, and unless I announce in a loud voice that I am off-line for X number of weeks, the day-to-day keeps coming at me, and I am unable to ignore it. I need the world to co-operate, and it doesn’t. Being here in the studio is a blessed thing, and I know it’s a privilege.

Here, I don’t have to make my bed and clean my bathroom. There are no meetings–sorry, I’m out of town–and no little errands. If I could learn to lie (say I’m out of town, but not go) and live in a mess, I could stay home, sleep in my own bed, have every shred of research in reach. What I need, in terms of optimal writing space, is solitude and separateness. I accept it. I am not going to think that if Austen could write during family hours, I should, too. I can’t. I am not going to think to myself that a little squalor wouldn’t be so bad. It would. So, I take myself away to the mountain or the midlands or the islands. If the prophets needed the desert, the mountains, the wilderness, who am I to argue?

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Chanelling the Energy

I am not one of those people who can multi-task well. Perhaps the whole idea of multi-tasking ends up meaning that a person does a lot of things in a passable way, as opposed to doing them really well. I want to do things really well. As a result, I sometimes don’t get much done. I don’t start because I know (or think) I don’t have the time to finish.

For eight years, I have been working on a project about An Gorta Mór, the Irish Great Hunger. Books take a long time. From the start, I knew that I wanted to write a creative manuscript and not an academic one. That was partly because I had just finished a major academic project in Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. But it was also because I am more poet than scholar and because I knew that my specific focus couldn’t be written any other way. An academic undertaking has to end up with things that can be known, and I was going to write about specific people whose lives could not be known.

It takes just as much research to create what cannot be known. At least, it does if there’s to be any credibility. So, for years, I have read. My shelves have books about Irish plants, tools, history, myth. I’ve read about how to cut and dry turf, how to keep evil out of a cow’s milk, how to prepare for childbirth, when to plant potatoes and how to dig and fertilize the beds. I have visited the National Archives in Dublin, the Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park, the National Famine Museum in Strokestown–several times each. I have peered at microfilm in the National Library in Dublin, perused the 1749 Census of Elphin, the 1825 Tithe Applotment Books, Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837),  Weld’s Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon (1832), Shaw Mason’s Parochial Survey of Ireland ( 1814), The Destitution Survey (1847)  and pored over maps, field books, and aerial photographs. I have compiled lists of birds, fish, and mammals native to Roscommon, and included what they eat, how they sound, what season they’re found, what terrain they like.

Every year since 2004, I have spent weeks in Ireland, and since 2007, a lot of those weeks have been spent in Fuerty Parish. I have stood on the land my people worked, stood on the bog where they cut turf, stood in the church where they worshipped, stood in the graveyard where they’re buried. I have walked and walked the roads. And I have started to write. Almost from the start, I knew what the first line would be, and that is always a vital sign for me. When the first line comes, I feel confidence.

Here I am, after eight years, in sight of the finish. Never one to do things the easy way, and always one to let the work tell me where it wants to go, I am writing a book length poem, of seven syllable lines, lyric and narrative, salted with the Irish language, weaving history, myth, and culture. I know that I will polish once I get all the way from 1834 to 1849, but a full and nearly finished draft will be done by mid-February. I’m committed to that.  I’m channelling my energy, designating January as Hungry Grass month. I’ve set an average daily line quota. I need a talisman against distractions.

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