Tag Archives: The Hungry Grass

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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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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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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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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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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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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