Tuesday, January 27, 2015

On Writing #51 : Ian Roy

On Writing, Slowly
Ian Roy

Here’s the thing about me and writing: I work very slowly, painfully slowly. Have you seen a turtle trying to cross a rural road? That’s me writing a sentence. Have you also seen those turtles that didn’t quite make it across that rural road, tire tracks across their cracked and flattened shells, their sad little prehistoric legs splayed and bloody? Those are half of my sentences. How about a sloth climbing lazily out of a tree to poop? That is also me, trying to write a sentence. I once drove to Montreal because I learned that it was the closest place I could go to see an actual sloth. That day, the sloth was hidden in the canopy of branches and leaves high above the fake forest floor of the Biodome—sleeping, presumably. I’ve since gone back three more times; I have yet to see that goddamn sloth. Sort of like the book I’ve been working on for the past several years.

I used to blame my kids for my small literary output. Trying to write with babies or toddlers in the house is like trying to clean a cat’s litter box—while the cat is in it, peeing. So it was fine to blame them for a while. But they’re older now; they sleep in until noon in the summer; they’re in school the rest of the year. And besides, I meet writers all the time who have babies and manage to finish a novel or whatever. I don’t know how they do it. Who cares? I also meet writers who work full-time jobs and still manage to publish pretty regularly. They’re probably bad people. Again, who cares? During the school year, while I’m teaching, I might not write a single sentence of fiction for months. Like, months. Slow and steady.

In an interview I read with the late—I can’t believe I’m writing ‘late’—Alistair MacLeod, he said that he wrote one sentence at a time. Meaning: he wrote, rewrote, edited and perfected each sentence as he went along, never jumping ahead—working his way methodically, meticulously, from beginning to end. I think this is true; that is to say, I don’t think I’m making this up. I tell everyone I know about his technique. I tell them because I find it fascinating and admirable—and I hope it will give some perspective to my own sluggish pace. Writing takes time.

Some of us, when we’re young, are in a big rush to get to the end of the story, to publish—often to the detriment of the story itself. By the time I was 35, I had published 3 books. Sometimes I say two, because I don’t really count the first one. I was a young man, in a hurry to publish. I worked hard, but I also rushed. I didn’t sit on things long enough; I didn’t read enough. Oh, I read plenty—just not enough. Junot Diaz says that he reads one book for each page he writes. When I first heard that, I thought the number was kind of inflated. But I’ve since discovered that it’s pretty accurate. The reason I bring this up is that I consider reading a part of my job as a writer—and, well, it takes time to read all those books.

I think I just placed a little blame for my slow pace on reading. I’m a work in progress. I’m also a slow reader.

Alistair MacLeod, arguably one of the greatest short story writers anywhere—was not in a rush to get to the end of the story. He published two remarkable collections of stories. Two. With a seven year gap between the first, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, and the second, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun. And a fifteen year gap between the second and his heartbreaking novel, No Great Mischief.

So there’s something to be said for taking one’s time.

Of course, there is also something to be said for finishing what one has started.

Here’s my average day—when I’m not teaching or doing whatever else it is I do when I’m not writing—I wake up, make coffee and go straight to my desk. I start working on whichever story I have on the go. I fuss a lot. I pace around the house. I anxiously run my fingers through my hair until it falls out—I find strands of it in my keyboard. (This is partly why I shaved my head at the beginning of the summer.) I rewrite and I rewrite. I procrastinate. I put stories in drawers—I have labeled a dozen or so thin drawers for the stories from the collection I’m currently working on—and I leave them there for weeks, months. (I pulled out a couple stories this summer that I hadn’t looked at since last summer.) I fiddle with these stories. I change things around. In some cases, I completely rework a story.

I have spent entire mornings working on one sentence. It’s not pretty to watch.

Eventually, a story will feel finished and I’ll put it aside and move on to the next one.

This particular and idiosyncratic (idiotic?) process of writing a book takes me years from beginning to end. Hence the turtle, hence the sloth. The trick is to keep going, however slowly, and to not get flattened along the way, to not fall out of the tree, to not turn back.

Ian Roy is the author of the books The Longest WinterPeople Leaving and Red Bird, a collection of poems. He lives in Ottawa.    

Friday, January 16, 2015

On Writing #50 : Rob Budde

On Writing
Rob Budde

I will politely refuse to.

Living language accepts nothing less.

“Creativity” is not what it’s made out to be.

A chunk of outside gets in.

I sit and listen and a relationship with the creature becomes.

When hope fades, then some real work gets done.

In the early 90s Fred Wah showed me the sentence and other forms.

Words misspeak.

A name will sometimes create power over.

Something like the Dakelh word for word.

When I write “Hoolhghulh spoke to me,” I do not mean in words or an established discourse. The plant did not say “do not touch me or I will impale you with spines” or some such message (although at that moment that would have been helpful, from my perspective). And I do not mean that the plant “spoke to me” in some vague new age sense of “it moved me” spiritually. Indeed in previous communications about this personal/ philosophical event, listeners or readers (administrators and colleagues) just assumed the later—that I was emotionally or psychologically affected, that it had nothing to do with the plant’s agency. This is a misinterpretation of the event, to my thinking, and reduces its potential revolutionary implications. It involved agency that was not mine and the plant moved me. It called in a way I do not know how to explain.

This meeting of two species took place on the eastern slope that ran down to a small lake about six kilometers long. This lake is in the Fraser River watershed and is affected by clearcuts and logging roads in the vicinity.  In a stretch of spruce-balsam forest in between clearcuts, the stand of individual plants (even though all connected) ran along a small intermittent streambed and a gap created in the forest canopy by some blow-down. Along with Hoolhghulh there was growing a variety of healthy fungi, ferns, and mosses. There was a well-worn black bear trail nearby that seemed to run from a den to the water. The individual I speak of was grandfather.
Hoolhghulh spoke to me. A new grammar. A reasserted relation.

Writing really has nothing to do with writing.

The conservatism that dominates Canadian letters makes it difficult to say.

How to arrange the sound-image so the world is affected.

I nearly died when I was 22. I was going to stop living and writing gave me a way out. A way of being.

My writing these days is closely connected to activism and a deep dissatisfaction with culture as is. I am working on a (loosely defined) eco –poetic and –critical piece called “Panax” that is a documentation of my growing relationship with a plant-creature called Devil’s Club / Oplopanax Horridus / Hoolhghulh. Conventional forms have gone out the window so I am calling the writing “a relationship.” Writers informing the work are Ken Belford, Sonnet L’Abbé, Laurie Ricou, and Adam Dickinson.

Here’s the thing: when I despaired, writing reorganized what was. In the face of ecocide, writing can reorganize what is.

I live on Lheidli T’enneh territory and the work I do is partly to repay that debt.

how to write—row to height—try to tow—hot to trite—who ought why—trout wow!
Electrically connected to the needs of the place.

the myth of community

so I stepped off the stoop into
culture, expecting something
there to give and receive and
weave with the weft
and left to my own origins,
concepts where I reside, 
the soil I inhaled, hush, but
such was not the case
and skin and gender and
class met me at the end of the street, 
threatened my life, sent
complaints to my third employer,
whispered in jubilant webby groups,
then erased the traces, and eased
to my side to console me.

from “Panax”


no like knowledge—oh
              against th—
                with an op—

        (caught up—

        (the abrasion of—



an old
context a fine spray of light               

the register of the thing
ness, and then some
thing else

leaves, leaving / outside
conscious of—

oh, this is where
the the

begins                                (ow

cultural contact zone       an opening
opened up thigh

aporia oplopo panax panics pan para

(ow what the

Rob Budde teaches creative writing at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. He has published eight books (poetry, novels, interviews, and short fiction) and appeared in numerous literary magazines including Canadian Literature, The Capilano Review, West Coast Line, Dusie, ditch, filling Station, Prairie Fire, Matrix, and dandelion. He is also a regular columnist for Northword Magazine. His most recent books are declining america and Dreamland Theatre from Caitlin Press.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Tracie Morris in Ottawa premiere!

Tracie Morris
In Performance with a multi-media presentation!
Ottawa Premiere

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ottawa Art Gallery
(Firestone Gallery)
Arts Court
2 Daly Avenue
Ottawa, Ont.

More information: abseries.org

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

On Writing #49 : Monica Kidd

On writing and saving lives
Monica Kidd

I stare out of the window and reflect on the similarity between writing and saving a life…”
          — Miriam Toews (All My Puny Sorrows; Knopf 2014, p. 107)
Such is the observation of Miriam Toews’ latest delicious heroine, Yoli, as she sits vigil at the bedside of her brilliant and suicidal sister, Elf. This comment stopped me in my tracks. I am a family doctor by day, but I’ve been a writer for much longer. I went to medical school in part because I thought I would find myself doing all that saving lives business: setting broken bones, resuscitating car crash victims. Instead, what I find myself doing is a lot listening. People tell me their stories of fear, pain, mistakes, joys, ambitions. How surprised I was to learn that listening — which is also an entry into a tacit co-authorship. as every story is constructed through its recording and retelling — is a form of saving lives. How surprised I was to learn that others knew my secret
“… it turns out that writing, like any form of art, is an intervention.”
          — Sean Johnston (Listen All You Bullets; Gaspereau Press 2013, p.12)
Patients — even those who know I’m a writer — share deeply private information with me because they trust I will use it to help them. In more cases than I would like to admit, I can do very little in a concrete medical sense: I can’t take away the pancreatic tumour, or stop the multiple sclerosis, or provide certainty about a baby in intensive care, or predict how long a dying loved one has to live. But I’ve also come to know that most people need community as much as they need oxygen. Letting someone speak, bearing witness, and representing them accurately and with dignity, provides a kind of community. Stories people tell me during a medical encounter cannot leave the clinic or bedside or living room couch in any identifiable way, but a patient and I are co-writing as he works to shape his illness experience into a narrative, while I prompt him to fill in the holes, or to back up, to find the words.
No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night. They will not brighten it or make it less strange. And the day too has its own deep indifference to anything that is said.”
          — Colm Toíbín (The Testament of Mary; McClelland & Stewart 2012; p. 87)
I would lose my medical license if all I ever did was listen, without being doctorly by prescribing medications and following clinical guidelines. I don’t believe that just listening — the pun is intended; please don’t steal it, I may work on that — is sufficient in the face of illness, otherwise I would have remained a reporter and not bothered going to medical school. But I have also seen palpable relief in a person when her symptoms are simply named, or when I remember a small detail of her life. Other people’s writing has saved my life on any number of occasions: reading Robert Kroetsch and Virginia Woolf while lying in bed recovering from the pain and shock of a broken back, or reading Joanne Page and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Michael Ondaatje (and Miriam Toews) in the darkest of times when a voice in a book seemed the only way forward. And there have been times when I needed to write more than I needed food or water. Committing to a narrative requires an enlivening clarity; finding the right word can call possibility back to a drab and dreary day. Or year. 

I’ll leave you to read Toews’ book to find out whether writing helps Yoli save her sister’s life.  But I’ll tell you this much: we humans are storytellers, and illness is the story we tell about disease. When, as a doctor, I receive someone’s story, which is one stop along the way to writing, I meet her in her place of illness. Which, I have to believe, is one stop along the way to saving a life.

Monica Kidd is writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. The Year of Our Beautiful Exile, her sixth book, is scheduled for release from Gaspereau Press in 2015. She is also a family doctor, a mother of three, and bakes a mean loaf of sourdough, if she does say so herself. You can find her pawing through a box of parts for her new-to-her Challenge Proof Press, or on her website of poetry and found sound, curiaudio.com.