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.
I took an entire day off of work to host my book club last week (I work from home on small contracts, so no work means no pay). Since the book was Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, in which the COO of Facebook encourages women to go for gold in their careers, and stop settling for less, this was ironic.
Two things occurred to me while I was stashing shoes under beds and spearing mini bocconcini with toothpicks: There’s no way Sheryl Sandberg could be in a book club, let alone host one. And secondly, the Cyndi Lauper anthem that I grew up with, girls just want to have fun, does not apply all women. So we have our differences.
But I digress. Back to the book.
I was prepared to love Lean In. Feminism just happens to be my thing, don’t let my SAHM status fool you. I’m quick to support anything that advocates more women in power positions and equally represented everywhere (I’m looking at you, government). But before you think I’m just another jaded housewife, jealous of successful women like Sandberg and her ilk, let’s get a few things straight:
1. I am a jaded housewife.
2. I am jealous of successful women like Sandberg and her ilk.
3. I would feel differently about this book if I was twenty-one year-old graduate of Barnard College, and about to start my MBA at Harvard (naturally).
Because unlike Betty Friedan‘s The Feminine Mystique, which was more universal in nature, Sandberg’s book is most applicable to women in privileged positions. Take, for example, her advice for women to take risks with their careers, like she did when she left Google to work for the then little known start up, Facebook. Perhaps that’s easier for someone who counts Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey among her friends.
While it’s not Sheryl’s fault that she had the highest grades in her Harvard business class (and felt she had to hide them). Or that Larry Summers, the white house economic advisor, kept jobs open for her, in the hopes she would move back to Washington. Or that she rubbed elbows with (or was patted on the head by) people like Tip O’Neill. This was her experience, and it’s the only place she can write from. But her advice would have a softer and broader landing if her life wasn’t so charmed.
Yes, the woman is brilliant. Yes, she has worked hard for every inch of progress. But for those of us with resume’s that don’t read like a who’s who of Silicon Valley or People magazine, it seems full of unobtainable goals. If there’s one thing women don’t need, it’s yet another brass ring, dangling out of reach.
I love that she wants to improve the world. I agree it would be better with more input by women. She gives great advice about sitting at the table and encourages women to be more assertive. She advises women to ask for raises and recognition when warranted. And most importantly, she encourages women to continue with their careers after having children, even when the cost of childcare seems to override the decision. Ahem. All valid points. All great advice.
Where were you when I needed you, ten years ago?
Her many good points aside, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Sandberg’s shiny house is more like the diamond variety, consisting of Ivy League schools, complete with Gloria Steinem on speed dial. Comparatively, straw and mud huts require constant attention.
I wish I could tell you what my book club thought about Lean In, but I was outside barbecuing salmon when they had the discussion. So really, my book club is like the advice Sandberg dishes out: good in theory, but at the end of the day, we all need to eat. Sometimes, real life gets in the way.
As a parent, there is nothing better than introducing your children to things that you loved as a child, and watching the amazement on their face as they likewise are enamored by that same thing.
Or not, as may be the case. In fact, as always seems to be the case. That is to say, if I loved something as a child, it is almost a certainty that my children will abhor it.
Now, in both my and their defense, things like technology have come a long way in my thirty or so years (#liar!). With movies, for instance, special effects have evolved to the point where it is almost impossible for my kids to enjoy the same movies I loved. When I staged a screening of Pete’s Dragon for my children, my hopeful enthusiasm that they would cherish Eliot and Pete’s friendship as much as I did quickly went south when they started laughing in all the wrong places. Same thing with Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Shaggy D.A.
But they are vintage, I explained. It was a simpler time, you have to ignore the grainy picture, the poor acting, and the strange voice-overs.
They choose their movies now.
I moved on to books, and enjoyed a small window of success. I introduced my charges to The Paper Bag Princess and Where the Wild Things Are, with huge fanfare. When they asked me to reread these at night, my confidence in my tiny self was restored. Oh yeah, who’s your momma now?
As a fan of books, my kids are used to me shoveling them down their throats. I know, I know, I should back off, let them come to titles on their own terms, but I can’t help myself. YOU. MUST. LOVE. THIS. My enthusiasm gets the best of me. I can’t be tamed.
Yet with certain things I truly
obsessed over loved, I tried to take a more delicate path, in order to ensure success. Since I know from past experience, when I return from the library with an armload of books for my kids, I’m met with three eye rolls, I have purposefully kept my lips sealed about the best book ever written for adolescents. The Outsiders, duh.
I speak for the generation of teenagers who listened to Kool and the Gang when I explain what The Outsiders meant to me. Despite never knowing how to properly pronounce The Socs, this book, about a family of orphaned boys and their peers, the Greasers, stole my heart and my imagination and made me pine for chocolate cake for breakfast. I went on to read every book S.E. Hinton ever wrote and wore out our Betamax machine replaying Francis Ford Coppola’s movie adaptation. Ponyboy, Sodapop, and Dally, ripped from Teen Beat magazine, adorned my walls. I committed half of the screenplay, including Robert Frost’s poem that Johnny reads, to memory, and in times of trouble I quietly utter, ‘stay gold, Ponyboy,’ which has been met with quizzical looks.
This gem of a book I’ve been saving, wanting to offer it to my own flesh and blood at just the right moment. Several times I held it in my trembling hands in the library, only to kiss it and replace it on the shelf. It’s not time, said a voice in my head, similar to Darth Vader’s.
Then, goddammit, the school system stole my thunder, and my daughter brought it home for required reading – required reading being the kiss of death for any novel. (Note that the school telling you to read a novel and your own mother telling you to read a novel are radically different.) It took me years to come around to Charles Dickens after being force fed Great Expectations, so I can relate.
But surely, reading a book with your mother hanging over your shoulder, you know, just in case you had any questions about the context, or a need to expand and discuss on the themes presented, would only help someone enjoy it more. There is nothing worse than ambiguity, after all. I made myself available.
So, I asked her once or twenty times, what do you think? She looked at me with one of those looks. I backed off, but noted her progress, and when she neared the end I
begged suggested we read it together. Savour the moment. Surely, this would be her ‘aha’ moment.
We snuggled in bed with the book between us. I bawled openly. She looked at me with a new strangeness. Through my tears I tried to bestow the magic that the book itself failed to reveal. S.E. Hinton couldn’t make her love it, but surely I could.
Yeah, that didn’t work.
It’s a hard lesson for me to learn, but I’m taking ownership. Thou shalt not expect my children to love what I loved as a child, ever again. I do, however, have my very own copies of Jane Eyre and The Catcher in the Rye, underlined in all the poignant places, should she ever want to take them for a spin. #HopeSpringsEternal
Moving is a pain in the ass. That aside, it holds its share of magical moments.
My angst has a lot to do with the moving method I use. I could simply fire things into boxes, close them up, mark which room they are destined for. But no.
No, this is not the way I move. I hold each item and feel its weight, considering its worth.
My painfully slow (yet methodical) ways have unearthed treasures. Chief among them, a poem my father wrote for me on my eighteenth birthday, four years before he died. I included it in my poetry anthology under the ‘unpublished’ category, compiled for my grade twelve English class. A century ago, give or take a decade.
My father had a habit of jauntily clacking away on his typewriter at 11 pm when the rest of us were trying to sleep, the returning clang of his carriage a lullaby of sorts. Here is one of his creations:
(Note that my birthday coincides with the anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, in which two war-bound ships collided, killing 2000 people.)
Dee and the Blast
What event could possibly compare
With the day Deanna chose to appear?
An explosion – a mighty blast – that rocked the earth,
Shattered homes and reduced a city to crumbling dirt.
Could an explosion mar the day
That Deanna claimed as her birthday?
The two events divided by some five decades of time
Had elements of sameness, simple yet sublime.
Both were historic events by any measure.
One brought death, destruction and desolation,
Deanna dominated with a frailty that invited consolation.
The ships met head on in the bay,
Deanna met the world by the light of day.
Her frailty she subdued as her awareness grew
Of hunks and dunks and volleyball, too.
She’s now eighteen and journalism is her thing,
The 1917 blast has lost its zing;
Deanna, on the other hand, is ready to swing.
In my afterword, I boldly proclaimed that I enjoyed my father’s poems over those of Wordsworth and, yes, Shakespeare, using the supporting argument that a poem about oneself is hard to beat. Amazingly, Mrs. Bowlby didn’t fail me.
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.
Something happens to me in bookstores.
Be them old, new, borrowed or blue, when in a library or other place heavy with book shelves, I feel like I am home amongst friends. Although I may have never graced those floors before, I see the old familiar titles on the shelves and I’m calmed. No matter how I felt before walking into the store, once across the threshold I am alive with possibility, awake with new meaning, open to new destinies.
If exercise or caffeine is not doing it, it’s my equivalent to popping an upper.
I feel like each book I’ve read is an old friend. It may sound strange, but I have never guaranteed sanity. I see lots I recognize, oldies but goodies. Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’ubervilles, The Mill on the Floss, Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye.
Oh yes, these I loved once.
I hear of people who have read Jane Eyre seventeen times – who are you and what do you do for a living? I would like to reread these just once, but the stack of books beside my bed is already impinging on the light from my bedside table. Rereading these classics would mean missing out on many others.
So many books, so little time.
Walking amongst the stacks I see many more that I long to spend time with, but haven’t found the opportunity – yet. War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged, Freedom. Your time will come.
On the bestseller wall live more recent friends: The Thirteenth Tale, Through Black Spruce, Secret Daughter, Half of a Yellow Sun. We were intimate, myself and these words. I fell in love with them, and they with me, and we sailed off into the sunset. It was lovely.
Not entirely impervious to chick-lit, some of these titles holler to me, reminding me of a time when my attention span was thin and my reading time competed with sleep. The desire to sleep usually won, but when it didn’t I turned to The Nanny Diaries and Sophie Kinsella’s books for silliness and comic relief.
Even the children’s section displays buddies from days gone past, other cherished times. Watership Down, Oh the Places You’ll Go, James and the Giant Peach. Less time consuming and appealing to my children, I have been able to relive these classics. Fewer words but still big in spirit and meaning.
I have a dream.
It involves sitting and reading for a long time.