Category Archives: On Thinking

Experiment with Something New

I’ve always said that I am not a novelist, that I don’t have a novel in me. I’m a poet. But, lately, I’ve been thinking about trying something new. When I was an undergraduate, I wrote stage plays and screenplays. My very first attempt at writing was a novel (I was twelve and wrote a page). Prose isn’t entirely alien to me: I’ve written loads of non-fiction, including three book-length biographies. And, I’ve written a book-length poem. Mash all of that together and I wonder what I’ve got.

Writing prose has always struck me as work for more patient people. I am not a patient person. All that plotting and characterization. I’ve always felt more of a single-speaker, single-moment kind of writer. The short lyric poem. I love economy of words, perfect word choices, tight construction. Sharp and incisive with a punch. When I took on The Hungry Grass and realized it wanted to be a long poem, and not a collection of lyrics, I headed into uncharted territory. I really didn’t know if I could do it, and maybe that’s the whole secret. I didn’t know if I could, but I set out anyway. I’ve done that a lot in my life. The BA. The MA. The PhD. I really didn’t know if I could do any of it.

For no reason that I know of, the idea of writing a novel has surfaced again. It has done this a few times, and I toy with it, and then I shelve it. I think, “The gods didn’t make me a novelist.” Perhaps I need to take the suggestion more seriously. Or, more lightly. Maybe I should stop thinking of it as such serious business and just start playing with ideas. Maybe I should give myself an assignment. When I first wrote a stage play, it was an assignment in my drama intro class. Thank you Dr. Tyson. When I first wrote a screenplay, it was an assignment in my creative writing intro class. Thank you Prof. Oordt. Those projects have never seen the light of day since I left university, but that’s not the point. The point is that those forms were unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me as a writer, and if they hadn’t been assigned, I might never have experimented with them.

Maybe I should experiment with something new. Maybe I should just set out.

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A Word with the “Success” People

It’s nice to think that if we just keep trying, we’ll be successful. There’s a recurrent meme these days, if that’s the right phrase, that points out the number one marker of successful people is that they don’t give up. No kidding. Successful people didn’t give up before they became successful. Obvious. Tautology. What bugs me about this is that it’s waved about as though that’s all it takes. Not giving up. And that’s not true.

For every “successful” person who did not give up, there’s a crowd of strivers who have never given up and will never be “successful” in a corporate or financial or celebrity sense. Like Willy Loman, they try so hard, but they can’t make things work out in the way they dream. Not everyone can, and that’s just a simple fact. The problem is with the way success is measured. I think it can be an important growth moment to realize that a certain strived-for thing will never happen. Let it go. Move on to something else. Don’t surrender at the first sign of trouble, don’t be a quitter, but consider all the facts.

When we read the articles that say most of us give up just before we achieve success, we need to understand that no one can know that. There is no certain way to know if success was just about to come after the next effort. At some point, we have to accept that we are not going to be ballerinas. Our ankles are too thick. No amount of practice is going to change that physical fact. There are realities that we cannot change. Instead of beating the crap out of ourselves for being failures, we can decide not to buy that model of success.

As a writer, I can’t measure success in terms of copies sold and royalties earned. If I do that, I’m a failure. Every writer has to decide where the borderland of success lies, and I admit that for me, it’s in the validation of publication. For Diane di Prima, it was “simply to have lived and done the work.” I’ve always loved that. I believe it. There’s tremendous satisfaction in the writing, in the act of doing. It’s a success all by itself.

We’d all like to have more money, pots of it please and thank you, but that is not the only way to measure success. In fact, for almost everyone, it just can’t happen. Making money isn’t my gift. Corporate success isn’t my dream. An intersection of dream and gift might get us somewhere. And therein, mayhap, is the rub, as Hamlet might say. So few of us identify the gift and learn what it can do. We try to layer someone else’s idea of success over our own lives, and it just doesn’t work. We’d all be better off, individually and collectively, if we knew what we’re good at and what to do with it. If something isn’t working, stop doing it–that isn’t failure: it’s awakening.

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Writers Are So Insecure

Or, maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so. It isn’t often that someone comes along and proclaims, “I am a great writer,” as Sylvia Plath did. Mostly, there’s a miserable struggle going on. We have a conviction that we are writers, but we torture ourselves with the suspicion (sometimes certainty) that we aren’t very good.

People might think it’s false modesty, but I’m not talking about those types, the ones who can set up a conversation so that all kinds of compliments flow, compliments they humbly believe to be deserved. I write things and sometimes, I think they’re really good. I’m all confidence. So, I send them out to a journal for publication, and when they are returned, as most submissions are, I look at them and think, “Of course this got rejected. It’s crap.”

Writers aren’t like contestants on American Idol, those who can’t sing to save their lives but have been told by family and friends that they are great singers and born to do this. No, writers hear the encouragement and praise, and we take pleasure in the sentiment, but we are pretty sure that the people we love are just being nice. We think they have to say those things. It’s their job.

Where we really get trapped is when someone we don’t know says something glowing about our work. We start looking for the excuse for it, thinking they’re just being nice, but then realizing they have no reason to be so. It’s scary territory to stand there with the idea that maybe this person really does approve or endorse or appreciate the work. We’re sure it can’t be true, but we can’t find the reason to suppose that, and so we’re left running a little tape in our heads that keeps coming to the spot where this person is just being nice, but hoping they’re not. It’s exhausting.

This week, I received some really lovely comments about my long poem. The specifics of those comments told me that I had succeeded in some of the things I had set out to do in that poem, and that’s extremely gratifying all by itself. When I try to expand that to allow for the general praise of the work, I get on the little hamster wheel that runs that tape.  I always tell people that the writer is the first and most important audience for the work. I don’t ever tell them that they’ll have a terrible time learning to believe that their satisfaction is justified. Good luck with that.

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About Boredom

Believe it or not, from time to time, I cite Kurt Cobain’s incisive assessment of his generation: “Here we are. Now, entertain us.” It’s an expectation that I see growing ever more pervasive, and many university students think it’s a professor’s job to entertain them. It isn’t. And anyway, the issue isn’t strictly attached to generation. Everybody can be bored. But fewer and fewer children are learning how to respond to boredom. The problem isn’t that we should never be bored. The problem is that many don’t know what to do when bored.

In the last few months, I’ve seen in the news a story about a trio of young men who were bored so they killed a passing jogger. I’ve seen in the news a story about a bored young man building pipe bombs. My mother must have dealt early with any suggestion that there was nothing to do. There was plenty to do, and we had to go outside and do it. Or go upstairs and read. How can a person be fully bored when there are books?

There are parents who hand out chores when the kids say they’re bored. Not a bad idea. It’s a way of showing that there is something to do. Show the way, but don’t do it for them. If we are bored, it isn’t because there’s nothing to do. It’s because we enjoy inertia. It has something to do with physics. Once we start doing something–even daydreaming–we can keep doing something. We can read a treasured book or a brand new one. We can write one. We can do word puzzles. If I’m stuck in a fit of inertia, I often will snap out of it or pass the interminable five minutes doing Free Rice. It makes me ashamed of myself that I’m bored at the same time that it makes me feel good to be using my boredom to make a difference.

I should spend more time thinking about getting off my ass and doing the dishes or dusting. My mother always called to us as we headed up the stairs, “Don’t go empty handed.” There was always something sitting on the bottom stairs, folded laundry maybe, that needed to go up. I think more of us could use lessons in how to deal with boredom on our own. Like most other things in life, nobody’s going to do it for us.

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What Happens To Us When We Don’t Write

The great and noted Irish writer Edna O’Brien said this week that if she found out today that she couldn’t write anymore, she’d die tomorrow. I don’t think she means that she’d take matters into her own hands. I think she just means that it would be the end of her. There’d be nothing so dramatic as a heart that suddenly stops beating. But, it is a heart sickness.

Any of us who has a passion for something will become heartsick if we can’t do it. And if we’re being honest, most of us are probably heartsick most of the time. The day-to-day drudging, the demands of whatever, sucks up all the energy, all the imagination, all the time. It happens slowly enough that we don’t really notice. We just get tireder and tireder. Sicker and sicker. Sadder and sadder.

When I cannot write because I’m so busy making a living, I begin to tell myself that I’m not really a writer after all. I tell myself that if I were really a writer, I would pop off tomorrow from despair. Ergo, it matters not that I am not writing. It’s a sick thing that the mind can do to a person.

But when I manage to shove everything else, with some force and violence, out of my way, and begin to coax and plead with the words to come back, I begin to feel my heart healing. When I can keep at it, I begin to wish I could feel like that all the time. I remember that it is possible to feel productive and happy and solid. It happens when I do the thing I do.

I’m not so arrogant as to say that I was born to write. But I know that writing is my thing that I do. The planets align for me when I do it. We should all do what makes our planets align.

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University English

It would seem bleeding obvious, but apparently it isn’t, that the people who teach university English courses should be people with degrees. More than one. If a course offers university credit, the way for that course to be credible is to have an instructor with credentials. If the only credentials a person has are a couple of well-received novels, then that person should be teaching creative writing, at most.

Today, U of T English faculty members are falling all over themselves to voice their dismay at recent comments uttered out of the mouth of David Gilmour, novelist, who teaches literature courses. They should be falling all over themselves. He announced in an interview that he won’t teach any writers who are not straight white males. That leaves out a lot of writers. I bet you thought we were over that approach to literature. Well, this is what happens when people get jobs doing things they don’t know how to do, are not qualified to do.

Meanwhile, there are people in this country, armed with a PhD in English, scrabbling for a job, just one course, even. English departments have brought this embarrassing PR mess on themselves. What did they think would happen? Those courses have been taught by a person who doesn’t know what the point of an English course might be. English courses are all about critical thinking. U of T’s Victoria College went for some flash and prestige by having an acclaimed author on the job, and that big idea has now reached its logical conclusion.

Really, Mr. Gilmour isn’t the problem. The problem is the people who gave him the gig. They should have known he doesn’t understand. They should have had more respect for their own profession. They should have known that they needed to hire a PhD. There are loads of them looking for work. How are departments looking their grad students in the face?

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Orwell is in a Constant Spin

The other day, I read an Irish Times article titled, “English Language is Literally Spiralling Exponentially out of the Control of Pedants.”  I had a lovely laugh at its cleverness. The long-term misuse of “literally” and the emerging misuse of “exponentially” are among the many, many things that drive me, a proud pedant, into a spin. I can only imagine what poor George Orwell is doing in his grave. Spinning himself into a fine dust, that’s what.

The article’s author, Donald Clarke, observed that “a word now seems to mean what a lot of people think it means.” That is to say, that people think they know what a word means, and they use it to mean that, but it doesn’t. “Exponentially” does not mean “quite a bit” or “pretty fast.” It is a very specific kind of increase, but the word is being rendered meaningless (except in algebra class), by the crowd that got their hands on amazing, awesome, and incredible. I am a pedant, when it comes to words, and pedant does not mean “unimaginative,” as I have seen it defined. It means strict. The thing is that I love a neologism or a fresh use as much as anyone. New use and fresh use are not misuse.

Disrespect and party are not verbs. They’re nouns. Bring and take are not interchangeable, and neither are floor and ground or roof and ceiling. These words have specific meanings, and here’s one reason why it matters. People will say that others know what they mean, so what difference does it make. Well, it’s because they only think they know what it means. If neither side of an exchange knows what a word means, how can either one be sure that they both mean the same thing by it? Words are very dependable things, but people are not, so when they fling out an “exponentially” to make themselves look informed, they embarrass themselves because people who really do know what it means and how to use it see right through the facade. Communication requires as a starting point that all sides agree on using language a certain way.

The other day, I heard a judge on a cooking competition say that there was a “discourse” between the two components of a dish. But she was making a complaint. She meant “discord.” “Discourse,” in that context, would have been a positive thing. It would have suggested a conversation or interaction, but she wanted a word that suggested a disconnection. I was embarrassed for her. Don’t use a word if you don’t know what it means, and be bothered to find out what it means! How hard is that? I once had a college-level student (and I am not making this up) who was astonished when I told her to look a word up in the dictionary. She did not know that a dictionary has definitions in it. I swear. College-level.

This isn’t about the evolution of language. Words are alive, and sometimes, definitions do evolve and new words emerge. But the current vocabulary disempowers the words it flings around. If everything is amazing, then nothing is. In fact, when someone says something was amazing, I know it wasn’t. I have invoked Orwell here because of his cogent essay “Politics and the English Language.” In 1946, he wrote, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” Amen, George.

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Seamus Heaney Died Today

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, and as a young Catholic man, he embraced the rise of the Provisional IRA, but before long, he realized that the two paramilitary sides would never solve anything. He was under pressure to use his gifts to benefit the cause. So, he left and went to live in the Republic. He wrote what was in him to write, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for it.

The Irish president also is a published poet, and he spoke today of Heaney’s scope and of his care for poetry from all over the world, especially the poetry of the oppressed. He had such humility that he was shocked when he won the Nobel Prize. And, he had the simplest philosophy of writing. He said that he “always believed that whatever had to be written would somehow get itself written.”

I love that. For one thing, it takes a lot of pressure off. It puts the importance on the writing more than on the writer. Rilke had the same notion. Before he wrote the Duino Elegies, he could feel them coming, and then he could hear them coming, and he was so moved that they chose him. In a way, all of this points to Erato, the muse of poetry. There’s something to be said for inspiration.

Heaney and Rilke are not similar as poets, but they both knew what mattered. Getting the work written. They knew what poetry can do. And there’s a real comfort for me as a poet to know that the poetry itself plays a part. It will get itself written. I have felt it demanding to be written, if I’m honest. The next time I feel panicky and incompetent about my work, I’m going to try to remember Heaney. It will somehow get itself written. Remember that.

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Nothing but Myself to Recommend Me

In one of my favourite novels, Jane Austen writes about “a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him.” It would be wonderful if people would look for themselves and judge another’s merits. Isn’t it strange that people don’t value their own judgement? They’re so uncertain about it that they need the validation of three referees. Who knows where that magic number three came from, but in my experience, that’s how many we need. Everybody asks for three. I suspect they do it because they’ve seen somebody else asking for three, and so it goes.

We apply for jobs or grants or residencies, and agencies don’t trust their own judgement. In fact, they’d rather avoid personal contact. It’s really odd, this whole keeping a distance thing. I make claims for my own merits, and I understand that some fact checking might be necessary. I don’t want to end up in Catch Me If You Can. But it’s especially easy now to see if I did teach all those courses and publish all those things. Those are the accomplishments, those and the education. Those are the things that qualify me for the job or grant or residency. But, very ironically, those things are not the focus of investigation. Only one of my many applications has ever required proof of a degree.

I have nothing but myself to recommend me. In the end, as Austen’s Persuasion shows, even if we have rank and possessions, we still have only ourselves, for good or bad. Today, yet again, I have sent out requests for people to write reference letters for me. I wish I were past that. In a very real way, reference letters don’t prove anything. Letter writers might be fabrications. I wish I were measured by my merits as I describe them, rather than how someone else describes them.

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Wading Through Grant Processes

When I was working on my PhD, I remember thinking that anyone who could complete an SSHRCC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) scholarship form should automatically get said scholarship. I got one on my second try, thank you very much, and it was worth it, but I often think that application processes are made daunting intentionally, to weed out the uncommitted. It takes mental and physical energy to do these things, especially knowing that–most likely–there’s no reward.

I applied to the Canada Council three times, all for the same project, before I got a grant, and I kept working on the project all that time. When the grant letter finally came, I had to read it a lot of times before I understood it said what it said. My brain assumed it was another formulaic rejection letter. I put it down and then came back and read it again before I told anybody. That project is finally complete, the final report to the Council is sent, the file on that grant is closed. So I can apply for another. Oh Yay!

This summer, I am applying for grants from two agencies. The provincial one defines “project” very differently from the way I do (or any dictionary does), so I was having a terrible time figuring out how to word it. My planned manuscript is about half finished, but the forms warn that the project cannot commence before the grant start date. It turns out that writing the last half of a project is a project. Thank you, Jill, at AFA. I’m kind of a purist when it comes to definitions, and I’m also painstakingly honest, so you can see my predicament. I want the money, but I don’t want to lie. Hurray that I can apply with a clear conscience.

That application is now submitted, all its four copies, with all its pages of information, its detailed balanced budget, its project description, and its accompanying writing sample. It weighed so much it qualified as a package, so I had to pay $10 to send it. Now, I turn my attention to the second application. I’m asking the Canada Council for $20,000, over two years, and I want you to try to imagine the detail required in an application for that much money. To a writer, that’s a boatload of money.

The application requires a two- or three-sentence summary description, plus a lengthier description, which may fill up to two pages. Striking the balance in these two components is very difficult, but very critical. The summary has no room for anything beyond specific points, yet it must have something in it to engage an unknown assessor. The detailed description, at the moment, is a whirling mass of passion and data. My son says I’m to find a way to mention that the last time they gave me money, I finished and the manuscript is about to be published–that’s The Hungry Grass. He has a point. It adds to the balancing act. I’m going to try to wrestle it to the ground over the next few days.

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