A creative writing course? Parisian croissants sound less flaky.
The Writer’s Studio is a one year continuing education course at SFU. It costs real money – a trip to Hawaii kind of money – and the bulk of time is spent with a small group of students, workshopping material.
Seemed like I was signing up to pay a lot of dough to hang with strangers that potentially knew less about writing than me – difficult, but not impossible. Yet the glossy marketing brochure showed smiling groups of academic people sitting around a boardroom table, and the course reviews, by all accounts, were excellent. Especially on the back of that brochure – positively glowing, life changing remarks.
Like comments on book jackets, the course reviews provide the ending punctuation, should you be intrigued by the title. I held my breath and dove into Saturday lectures and Thursday workshops, the lull and promise of narrative and words more seductive than the sugarcane fields and hibiscus of Maui.
Rarely do words in glossy text live up to their promises, but these ones did.
The first day of class I was nervous. Of course, I learned later, everyone was, filled with similar apprehensions and doubts, but hoping for the best. And by best, I mean visions of Hemingway and the Lost Generation mingling in French cafes, together at last with like-minded creatives. Substitute East Van for the Left Bank.
Nine people comprised our fiction cohort, all from various backgrounds, different sizes and shapes and professions. It took one short session, however, to realize despite these differences, our shared passion for stories, dedication to telling them, and unwavering devotion for literature, would bind us like Crazy Glue.
For our first short story submission, my fellow students set their narratives in India, Singapore, Scotland, Turkey. My story took place in Whole Foods. I panicked, emailed our instructor, fearing I was a fish out of water. This salmon was fledgling on sandy shores instead of the ocean’s depth.
Diplomatically, she assured me we all had our own voices, mine was just more local. Soldier on, she advised.
I did, and I’m grateful. For in my group, I met my tribe.
By critiquing their work each week, I not only watched them become better at their craft, but my own writing improved. In their hands, my stories came to life, my characters became three dimensional. My protagonist rose from the page and I could see her, smell her, understand her better.
Writing is hard, lonely work. Some days, my computer screen may as well be made of mud; murky, brown, senseless. Astonishingly, my group reads my submission, and find the sparkle, however buried, that I was aiming for. Their comments and insights help me to remove the debris and sediment that stand between the story and its heart.
There are words. And then there are the right words.
Besides personal growth, it’s been more inspiring and emotional watching my group evolve. Within a year their prose became more colourful, their stories riskier, characters more vulnerable. Witnessing these tranformations was worth the price of admission.
A short, parallel story.
As a little girl, I dreamed of running a marathon. I ran and ran, won a few ribbons, acquired a few injuries. Every time I increased my mileage, muscles tore, stress fractures occurred, my spirit broke. Man. I wanted to run a marathon, but my body didn’t seem equipped. Finally I joined a running group, and four months later I ran the Vancouver Marathon. In fact, I ran the entire race with a woman who had never ran a step before our first group run.
Well, until mile 20, when she left me, the veteran runner, in her dust.
When a common goal is shared, collectively, we are better. Together, the bar is raised. Winnie the Pooh says it’s so much better with two. With nine, even more so.
Our course is finished, we had our official ceremony this week. (Notably, the keynote speaker was a TWS graduate, Arleen Pare, 2014 winner of the Governor General’s award for poetry, who started writing at age 50.) Our group continues to meet every other Thursday. We’ve traded fluorescent lighting for soft living room lamps, swapped lattes for wine, but kept our format the same.
The three hours we spend discussing story are among my favorite of any week. We are many things, readers and writers first, unlikely friends last.
A good reading list should be as balanced as our diet: filled with nutritious niblets of several genres, with some servings of pure alcohol, caffeine and chocolate in good measure (or mainlined, whatever.) Biographies, sagas, mysteries, and classics are the food groups of literature, with romance at the top of the pyramid to provide those sugar highs we occasionally crave. A little of everything for any diet is on this list. What these books have in common is they are all beautifully written, with characters so real you expect to look up and find them in your bedroom (or car, or kitchen, wherever you happen to be reading). For the most part, they’re not even new books; but books that I happened to love this year.
What is not on this list is Fifty Shades of Grey (or Fifty Shades of Awful, by my estimation.) Don’t get me started on that trilogy of tragedy.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
This book takes you into the mind and struggles of a hermaphrodite, Callie. When was the last time you were there? Ya huh. It’s a family saga that spans three generations, beginning in Smyma in the early 1900’s, and their harrowing emigration to Detroit. It’s filled with colourful characters and poignant moments, and made me ponder the strong relationship between sexuality and identity. It kept me reading into the wee hours; Eugenides deserves his reputation for being a master storyteller.
When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman
Life rarely makes sense. And so it goes for Elly, the heroine of this book. A traumatic event shapes her early years, and as the book unfolds its repercussions are felt, again and again. The book is as quirky as Elly herself. It’s beautifully written, charming and funny in spite of itself.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
She’s best known for her award winning Bel Canto, but my personal favorite of Patchett’s is still The Magician’s Assistant, by the by. A hint of mystery kept me turning the pages of her latest novel, set in the jungle of the Amazon, as the protagonist, Marina, discovers the wonders of the Lakashi people deep in the heart of the rain forest.
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
A story before its time, Wharton depicts societal norm as the joke that it really is. Ellen, the protagonist, challenges standards by leaving her loveless marriage. When she meets Newland Archer, who is newly engaged, Ellen and Newland begin a lifelong game of cat and mouse, and a love for all time. If you read one classic this summer, or ever, choose this.
Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest
This memoir by Forrest reminds us that life is filled with ups and downs, and that no relationships are easy. As she spirals into sadness, Forrest finds a light in her therapist; when he dies from cancer she is left wandering in the dark once again. Her hostile and lonely world make for beautiful passages, and a wonderful memoir leaking with truth and life.
Here are the books that are burning a hole in my bedside table, and I’m excited to devour them this July, come sun or what may:
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt (Back to my tomboy days with some country and western. And the author happens to be too chilled for words, great non-vibe from this guy.)
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Oooh so excited for this one.)
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway (Why have I not read this book?!)
The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman (When my tenth friend told me to read this, I put my hands up in surrender. I surrender!)
I’m hungry just looking at them. Read ’em and weep. Or read ’em and eat. Whatever you do, fold yourself into the pages of a delicious dessert this summer. Happy summer reading.
I heard about it on Twitter, which should have given me pause. But since I had an hour to kill and a handy new e-reader on which to burn money, I thought I would flaunt 2012 technology in my face, and download Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, right away, to see what all the fuss was about.
This novel, which women are gushing about and apparently buying since it’s on the New York Times Best Seller list, is best described as a poorly written Harlequin romance that tousled with sadomasochism in a back alley (or in Christian Grey’s red room, whichever.) It’s Danielle Steele’s alter ego. It’s Twilight gone wrong. It does for literature what porn does for the film industry – which is to say, extremely little.
Taken at that level, if that’s all you’re looking for, it has its fair share of sex scenes. My greatest disappointment was that the characters having the terrific, “mind-blowing” orgasms – as they are often described (does that mean anything to you?) are, how can I put this delicately; dumb. Thus, the dialogue, and the email correspondence that we must endure is more painful than the positions Christian puts Anastasia through.
I love being taken new places in literature, and within the confines of an S&M relationship is definitely new to me. I thought I might learn something. Stop snickering. Not just a few new moves; I was hoping to get a glimpse into why people get off on getting whipped. It’s the inflicting pain thing that I stumble with, the line (or, in my case, the mile between) where agony becomes pleasure. The protagonist (I can’t use the word heroine, I just can’t), Anastasia, is as perplexed as I am about this, but is so desperate to keep Christian that she bends over backwards (and sideways, and stays on her knees, and gets tied up, etc.) in order to keep him.
Here is the very likely, believable scenario: Christian Grey is a young, enigmatic, billionaire, who meets and is bedazzled by Anastasia Steele, despite her being a clumsy, virginal, poor, insecure college student. She has a habit of biting her lip, which drives Christian mad with desire. This either leads to his eyes darkening, or alternatively causes him to look at her with hooded eyes.
A small aside here: have you ever been driven mad with desire by someone chewing on their lip? Have you ever noticed someone’s eyes changing color simply because they are turned on? And by hooded eyes, does the author mean half-closed? If the answer is yes, and you don’t have a problem with eyes being hooded, you might in fact enjoy this book. But beware, it happens repeatedly.
The kicker, the most unforgivable aspect, is that James tries to use Anastasia’s favorite book, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as a metaphor for her twisted relationship with Christian. As though Tess and Anastasia can have anything in common, besides youth and breath. If Anastasia were to be dragged dramatically to the guillotine, she would likely grace us with her usual eloquent answer to everything, “Oh, crap.” Or might it call for her more earnest reaction of “Double crap?”
I can only wonder. I certainly won’t read the other books in the trilogy to find out.