Tag Archives: book

Keeping Things in Circulation

Along with staying in both new and familiar places, my plan for my recent travels was to listen. It wasn’t easy just to take time to be somewhere and not be working madly on something, and I had to keep reminding myself that my task was listening. Everywhere I went was worthy of that kind of attention, and it was really helpful to grant permission to notice and appreciate and nothing else. I can’t really say nothing else, because I did think about work in terms of new ideas, but that didn’t interfere with the listening. It was all quite restorative.

While I was away, my book-length poem, The Hungry Grass, was accepted for publication, which will happen next year, and the fact that the meeting was held while I was in the very place in which the poem is set came as a sign of validation. It reinforced for me that my writing is a worthwhile undertaking, that I’m right to do it. I know it can be important to write even if no one else will ever read a word, but for me, there are career and professional considerations as well. I won’t go into the personal need to be read. That acceptance letter had more than one effect.

I had been thinking about what to write next, and the acceptance made that decision seem more pressing. Until the manuscript was placed for publication it was still in progress, in a way. So, I thought about the next big project, and I managed to do that with greater calm than I have before. There are two, maybe three projects, that I’ll be working on over the next year or two. One is something that I had allowed to languish, and its back with some enthusiasm. I’m really looking forward to getting back at it. That’s one effect.

Another effect of the news is that I came home with a renewed energy for submitting poems to poetry journals. I used to be exceedingly businesslike about keeping things in circulation, but I’d gotten lazy about it. As I write, all of my remaining unpublished poems are once again out in the world seeking placement. I feel happy about that. It’s so full of possibility.

Of course, it’s full of danger, too–the risk of submitting work is that the work might be rejected. That always makes me sad, but the more I appear in print, the less power those rejection slips have over me. That alone is an excellent reason to keep sending things to editors. My mother used to say that water draws water. Publication draws publication.

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Filed under On Thinking, On Writing

Thomas Hardy’s Life Story

One of the things I love about reading authors’ biographies is making connections between the life and the work. Academic departments traditionally have a lack of respect for biographical criticism, although department members regularly research and write biographies, an irony that frustrates me no end. An historian once informed me that biography isn’t history, and I replied that history isn’t either. What we both meant was that these are not “real” or “true,” necessarily. They’re both all about storytelling and making meaning from events. What’s important is to start from the original data rather than to read backwards from the stories and to assume that everything in them happened exactly that way. Not everything that goes on in a novel is something that happened to the author.

But writers write what they know. They borrow from anywhere to get what they need, but they also use their own lives. Readers need to be discerning. In the case of Thomas Hardy, one of my great loves, and the focus of my Master’s degree, there are a few staples that recur: an architect, older woman/younger man, social class divide. When Hardy was a young man, he trained as an architect, and when he married, he was beneath his wife in terms of class. Characters need to do something, and what they do needs to be convincing. In Hardy’s marriage, social class was a barrier, and he works that out novel after novel. Also recurrent are Hardy’s philosophical convictions. For one thing, he believed that we are in the hands of an unkind Fate. Novel after novel.

But most interesting to me is that he struggles, book after book, with the question of to whom does a person really belong–the one to whom a person is married or the one with whom a person has a bond. Transgressing societal order, in terms of this dilemma, is at the heart of Jude the Obscure. Hardy lays the blame at society’s judgmental feet. When we read a writer’s work, we read what concerns that writer, and it’s couched in aspects of the life.

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Filed under On Reading, On Writing

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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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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