Thursday, October 27, 2016

On Writing #111 : Sandra Nicholls

Thoughts on writing
Sandra Nicholls

Sarah Tsiang is one of my favourite poets. Her wonderful book of poems, Sweet Devilry, singlehandedly got me back into writing poems after a break of about 15 years, during which I ventured into fiction and lost whatever instinct it is that finds you looking at the world in the language of poetry. Sarah is also behind a Facebook group which I find wonderfully refreshing – Bitter Writers. As Sarah explains on her page:If you’ve just landed a big contract, or received a great review, or been handed the Nobel prize for literature – fuck off. We don’t want to hear about it. Bring us instead your stories of defeat, rejection, and general malaise. No humble brags, no asking for affirmation. Embrace what sucks to be a writer”

Bitter Writers also got me thinking about why I write, and what I hope to achieve by writing. It’s easy to dismiss Bitter Writers as the ramblings of a horde of malcontents, disillusioned and discontented writers who are ticked off  because their manuscript got rejected a kazillion times, because the promised contract fell through, because they couldn’t get an agent/publisher/book deal/any recognition at all, and so on. Yes, a lot of us are bitter. We slave over our novels and our short stories, self doubting and second guessing for years on end. We worry they are destined for the slush pile, that no one will even read them, let alone publish them. We struggle to find the time to work, most of us having to earn a living some other way. And in the midst of all this we go on Facebook only to find that a fresh hell awaits us there – the success of other writers!!!  Humbly described, of course, as in the oh gosh variety, I can’t believe my book was nominated for the (name any) prize. Or goodness gracious, I just got this great review in (name any) magazine. I am so proud to have my book featured right next to so and so’s (insert name of famous author).

Too much of this daily comparison can be soul-destroying. It may negate your ability to write anything at all, as you find yourself caught up in a straitjacket of self-recrimination. I should be doing more self promotion! More submissions! More contests! More schmoozing! There is always something you are not doing. You just have to make sure that one of them is not writing itself.

Like many writers, I find that the process of writing is what I love the best. When I am writing I feel more alive than at any other time in my life. Or at least as if I am doing what I was cut out to do. (Destined to do was what I wanted to say, but that sounds a bit pompous.) Every time you sit down you are faced with the possibility, the hope, the promise that this time, you might get it right. I imagine that’s how a gambler feels, about to throw the dice, that little frisson of excitement. Maybe this time. And so back you go, time and time again, story after story, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence. So why isn’t this enough? Because frankly, we know it isn’t. The reward of a job is a job well done? Not if it sits in a drawer unread. Not by a fucking long shot.

Writing is your art. The art that chose you. You can’t imagine not doing it. But as Facebook and the enormous success of all the social media outlets tell us, what we like to do best, what we need to do as a species, is to communicate. Blogs, tweets, instagrams, posts, podcasts, pins – we are drowning in these shared messages to each other. Bitter Writers, case in point. You feel so much better when you realize other people have experienced what you have – and are able share rejection, anger, frustration. Even humour. Actually, often humour. It helps, because being human is not easy.

So when you, as a writer, carefully craft a poem, a story, a are trying with everything that you have to share the experience of being human, in the most faithful way you can. This getting it right; it isn’t just about language and cadence and style, it’s about being as authentic as you possibly can about whatever or whoever you are writing about. It’s not easy. There are a million ways you can get it wrong. And you want people to get it. It’s exquisite torture, trying to write and be truthful. We’re quite good at lying. I imagine that every writer who struts and flaunts her successes all over social media has experienced the same insecurity and frustration as the bitter writers have. So when you find yourself gritting your teeth and poking pins in a voodoo doll (insert name of famous writer here) bear this in mind – they’re probably lying.

But when you are writing, when you are flat out steaming at your desk or wherever you choose to write and the words are forming themselves on the screen or the page just as you want them to, it may be as close as you’re going to get to the truth. A truth, anyway. And you need to share it. Because maybe if two people share a truth, maybe ten people can, and maybe thousands. This isn’t egotistical grand-standing or assuming false self-importance. You are trying to say something, and you want people to hear it. To comment. Perhaps even to be moved. The truth can’t stay trapped between you and your manuscript. The whole point of writing, of any art form, is to communicate. To grapple with the intangible and get it down. But not just for yourself, surely. So if no one is willing to look at your manuscript, to even consider publishing it, or reviewing it, your chances of communicating get slimmer and slimmer. You get bitter. You are a bitter writer. Of course you are.

When I finished my first novel, I sent it on a dare to one of Canada’s most successful literary agents. To my great surprise (okay, I hear the gosh in there, touch√©, but hear me out) she called me and said she would like to try to get it published. After a year, not a single publisher was willing to take a chance on it, despite very positive comments. So I self-published. Then I tried to get it reviewed in magazines and newspapers, and no one would touch it because it was self published. Slimmer and slimmer. In the end I sold 500 copies myself, by setting up readings and promoting it as much as I could find time and money for. And now I am coming to the end of a complete second draft of a second novel, one I have been working on for over 6 years. I am about to wade once again into the murky waters of trying to get it published, trying to get it read, trying to tell this story. I am trying not to feel bitter before the process even starts. I am trying to remain optimistic, and to keep an open mind.

But, I am a writer. I deal in the truth, at least as far as the story I am telling. A cumbersome and unwieldy section of my brain is primed up for rejection, for not even getting that far – the invisibility of the slush pile that never even gets read. Or noticed. Or discussed. Or slammed. Whatever.

And yet, I have at least two more novels floating about in my head. A book of short stories. A new book of poems, oh glorious day. I read something recently (on Facebook, of course!) that said not trying was the real meaning of failure, and there is some truth to that. Bitter writer or not, I can’t stop. I won’t stop. I’ll continue trying to get it right, because I can’t imagine my life without writing. 

Sandra Nicholls has written two books of poetry, a novel, song lyrics, reviews, and numerous short stories. Her novel, And the seas shall turn to lemonade, was short listed for the K.M.Hunter Artists Award for Literature and was published in the fall of 2011. Her second book of poetry, Woman of Sticks, Woman of Stones, won the Archibald Lampman Award. A poem from her first collection, The Untidy Bride, took third prize in the international Stephen Leacock competition. That collection was also a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. She has just finished her second novel, The Third Road, set in Malaya during the Communist uprising of 1948. Upcoming projects include a book of short stories, The Museum of Swallowed Objects, a third book of poems, Songs for Invisible Ladies, and the libretto for an opera about Emily Carr, with Toronto composer David Occhipinti. Sandra lives in Ottawa, where she works as a speechwriter for Library and Archives Canada.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

fwd: Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Project: Call for Poets?

Toronto poet, editor, fiction writer and critic Priscila Uppal [see her 'on writing' piece here] recently sent out this call:


I am applying to the Canada Council's New Chapter one-time funding opportunity for something I call ANOTHER DYSFUNCTIONAL CANCER POEM PROJECT. (I spoke to the CC officer yesterday who was very encouraging of the application.) The project has several different platforms; all with the goal of bringing poetry to those affected by cancer across the country (either working professionally as doctors, nurses, social oncologists, medical students, naturopaths...; or personally, as patients, survivors, caregivers, supporters...).

I propose to travel to the cities where our medical universities are located across the country and to conduct poetry workshops with both cancer care professionals/ medical students, as well as those personally affected by cancer care. These workshops would culminate in public readings as well as the production of broadsheets/chapbooks to be exhibited/distributed to various venues where cancer care is offered. While I will be participating in the workshops and readings and writing poetry of my own, I am applying for funding to involve other established or emerging writers as well (all writers would be paid according to Canada Council rates for workshop/reading fees, as well as for some travel or accommodation for those inside the particular province to travel to the city of the medical school).

IF YOU ARE A WRITER INTERESTED IN LEADING A WORKSHOP OR PARTICIPATING IN A READING please send me a short letter of support/intent that I can attach to my application  (send to by OCT 27th--it doesn't have to be long, just address it to Canada Council New Chapter and say if you want to be involved in a workshop and/or reading and maybe a few lines about why--importance of project or your relationship to the material)  You don't have to be a medical professional or someone who has experienced cancer. We all know and love someone who has been affected by cancer--you just need to be willing to promote the writing of cancer-experience related poems for others or for yourself. (And as stated above, you will be paid according to CC rates.)

The project also proposes that in addition to the broadsheets and chapbooks that will be produced during the period of workshops and readings, select poems will also be featured on a website devoted to the project and others eventually published as a print book anthology with an established literary Canadian publisher. Of course, copyright rests with each poet, so participation in a workshop or reading does not mean you have already committed to publication--I just want to let you know that book publication will be proposed as the final step in the project's dissemination.

The core belief of this project is that the imagination can be a very powerful tool in the experience of illness. Creative health needs to be nurtured and strengthened alongside physical and mental health. If you join me in this core belief, please let me know! Many thanks,

Priscila Uppal

Friday, October 21, 2016

On Writing #110 : Waubgeshig Rice

On Writing
Waubgeshig Rice

I started writing partly out of boredom. I grew up in the bush on the reserve; our family home was relatively isolated from neighbouring family and friends, compared to the town across the water. There was a lot of alone time in my small room in our small house.

By my teen years, I started writing creatively about some of the things happening around me to pass the time. Fiction was a new plaything I learned about in high school. So I fictionalized my and my friends’ regular activities like fishing, bike riding, and bush parties just for fun.

And that was as far as I thought it would go. I saw writing simply as a creative outlet, like playing guitar or sketching. I never knew it could be a valid artistic path or viable career option because I didn’t know of any Indigenous authors.

We didn’t learn about them in high school, and I never saw them in the books pages of the major national newspapers and magazines. But they were there, laying a strong foundation of Indigenous literature for the rest of us. We just couldn’t count on the mainstream Canadian literary scene to expose us to them.

Fortunately, one of my aunts took note of my newfound hobby, and the good marks I was getting in English class. She was also one of my first teachers in elementary school on the rez. So she started giving me books by authors like Thomas King, Louise Erdrich, and Richard Wagamese. In their books, I read about experiences similar to mine as an Indigenous person on this land now called North America.

That inspired me to write even more, in the spirit of speaking our truths and sharing our unique experiences. That led me on a proverbial journey of self-discovery that has been fun, enlightening, and rewarding. Today, I write to bond with Indigenous readers and to help non-Indigenous people understand how we exist on our lands and in the society created on top of us.

The irony of writing predominantly in the language of that settling society to advocate for Indigenous culture isn’t lost on me. But if the authorities had their way, I wouldn’t know anything at all about being Anishinaabe. Brutal measures like residential schools and the Indian Act were supposed to erase that culture.

Fortunately, that erasure failed, and I see what I do as using the tool of the colonizer to bolster and enhance what’s left. I also see it as a small part of wider healing and celebration of Indigenous identity. It’s a responsibility that I take very seriously, and it’s an honour and a privilege to write in this spirit.

Waubgeshig Rice is an Ottawa-based author and journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation. His short story collection Midnight Sweatlodge (2011) and novel Legacy (2014) were published by Theytus Books. He’s currently working on another novel and more short stories. When he’s not writing fiction, he works as a video and web journalist for CBC Ottawa.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Recent Reads: "from Lamentations" by Robert Hogg

from Lamentations by Robert Hogg
2nd Edition. Published by above/ground press, 2016.

As its title suggests, from Lamentations is a sampler of poems from an as-yet-unreleased body of work about memory. That this is the compilation’s expanded, second edition implies considerable gestation time. But even without knowing that, the sporadic growth of this manuscript can be measured by dates that accompany each poem, marking when their finished drafts occurred. As a result, Robert Hogg explores the past in layers, writing about his childhood and formative years in the 1950s and 1960s via perspectives he held on dates ranging from the early '90s up until January of this year.

Hogg pokes and prods these breadcrumbs of autobiography for gleanings beyond his own experience. “Roy Rogers – a jazz elegy” and “Summer of sixty-three” deal in fractured, stream-of-conscious details that transpose the youthful significance of its subjects to disquieting uncertainty. He slows his boyhood’s galloping adoration for Hollywood cowboy Roy Rogers to examine the simple “good against evil” doctrine of America’s wild west:

the colorful black and white dazzle of your perfect horsemanship riding
full speed the reins wrapped around the horn those mother of pearl six guns
twirling round your index fingers and firing so perfectly the outlaws seemed
to fall and die but not really it was just like the make-believe we also played
Jesus Roy did you know all that when you practiced your squint in the mirror and 
yodelled all those songs on the radio nights we were too young to know any better and
thought it was real romance?

Later, in "Summer of sixty-three", he steadies a romanticized image of his “bohemian goodfornothing but love and lovemaking friends” upon the dulling of years passed:

West Pender
Coal Harbour

place itself
nervous and precarious as this pad
perched on its stilts above a steep ravine

and below near the shoreline the rail yard
abyss we all knew
time was or would be

Tight, conservative stanzas like the above excerpt follow wooly, run-on yarns  sometimes within the same poem  as though the writer is torn between rose-tinted nostalgia and the dislocation of trying to categorize certain memories, decades on. Yet these poems aren’t so much conflicted by age as they are counterbalanced, the wild and restrained Robert Hogg appearing on page in roughly equal measure. The tone’s just right  good natured but deeply felt.

With “Ahead (in memoriam, Bob Creeley” and “Synapse, Mid-Morning, January”, the chapbook takes on true existential colours; the former poem aiding a good friend in traveling the mysteries of afterlife and the latter finding Hogg at present day, kindling a wood stove. There’s no sentiment in this last poem, just small observations on the present moment. And given so much space to interpret, I wonder if "Synapse, Mid-Morning, January" provides such a contrast from the bulk of from Lamentations because it signals the sort of insight one's left with after seventy-odd years on Earth. There's no ego; just a new memory, cut at the root.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

On Writing #109 : Elaine Woo

The Crux
Elaine Woo

In our every thought and act, whether settling an argument or figuring out how to build a planter box, creativity flows.  The creative force gurgles and seeps through the vast living network of connections we call the individual's life.  I foster my writing by actively plumbing the depths at which I am connected to the anticipated, lived through, or remembered.

Elaine Woo navigates the vast reservoir of life with her writing. Another work of poetry as well as a rock opera are underway.

Monday, October 03, 2016

On Writing #108 : David B. Goldstein

On Writing
David B. Goldstein

            We had found the house on one of those vacation rental sites that predated VRBO and Airbnb. A little less slick, a little more like roulette. It was an old medieval home, tucked up in the hills of Sintra, Portugal, the centuries-old summer roost of Portuguese kings escaping the sweltering Lisbon heat.
            Our original notion in renting the house had been to create a DIY artist colony. But one by one, artist friends dropped out over financial or family or job pressures. By the time we arrived, although art was somewhere in the back of my mind, I had a new plan: I was preoccupied with a scholarly essay I had to write about Ovid’s influence on Edmund Spenser. I was excited about the essay—for the first time, another professor had asked me to contribute to a collection of essays she was editing. But the deadline had just passed, and I was frantic to finish it. I was focused. I was committed to figuring out what I wanted to say. I would add some flash of brilliance to a timeworn subject, and modestly too!
            Try as I might, I couldn’t break through my writer’s block. I took long walks on the cobblestone streets and hiked up the paths of the hills above the town. With its towering eucalyptus trees, the forest—which one entered through a giant stone turnstile, to keep out livestock and wild boars—felt medieval, as if I might run across one of Spenser’s knights or perhaps an orc on one of my strolls. A ruined 9th-century Moorish castle sat on its haunches at the top of the hill, thinking lonely thoughts.
            We had been informed that the antiques dealer who owned the home had put away the breakables so that we wouldn’t be nervous about navigating the house’s narrow hallways and small rooms. It turned out that by “breakables” he meant, exclusively, crystal. He left all the porcelain figurines, the glass baubles, the bronze keys, the delicately painted plates, the plush chairs, the squat elegant side tables, the wooden dolls upon dolls upon dolls, scattered over almost every inch of available wall, floor, and table surface area. The house was a wonderland of antiques. You could barely move in it.
            The rooms were so tiny and weird that the first time we went through the house, counting all the beds where our family and friends would sleep, we realized that we must have missed an entire room, because we were one bed short. And indeed there it was, at the top of the tiny narrow staircase to the attic-like third floor, behind a mirror that looked like a wall but was actually a door. Beyond that door was a small double bed facing another mirror, fronted by a lamp fashioned from a wooden doll. When you turned her on, she seemed to be in flames. During the month we stayed there, no one ever felt like sleeping in that room.       
            At night I wandered through the house, stopping at each doll, each porcelain animal, each framed map, hoping for inspiration. Everywhere, instead of hearing Spenser and Ovid conversing about influence, I heard each little object hunching and whispering to itself. The history of the house, the town, the forest was so palpable and ever-present that I couldn’t think my own thoughts. I set myself another deadline. By the end of the week, if I hadn’t broken through on the essay, I would give up. Friday came. We had a lovely dinner at one of the hundred amazing seafood restaurants. There were tiny grilled squid jeweled with lemon juice. A chocolate mousse apparently made of air. At midnight that night I got up and wandered around the house. The dolls were talking. I sat down in front of one of them and started writing what I heard. I did that for the rest of the month, going from doll to doll, map to map, listening and translating. To this day I haven’t finished the Spenser essay.
            We often think of writing as going inside ourselves for inspiration, or as expressing our innermost thoughts and feelings. It’s never been like that for me. At its root, I find my poetry to be an art of listening. An art of returning to what is lost in and by the world, and prying it out from silence. An art of finding out not what I want to say, but what someone or something else in the world must say, and maybe is already saying, in language I can’t yet hear.

David B. Goldstein’s second poetry collection, Lost Originals, is just out from BookThug. It features silent dolls and other antiques from Sintra, Portugal, as well as a host of other speaking objects. Goldstein is also a literary critic, whose book Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge, 2013) won the Shakespeare’s Globe Book Award. He lives with his family in Toronto, where he is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at York University.