Looking Back

Empress 048

Looking Back

Looking back on a wonderful weekend, the WFNB WordSpring in Quispamsis, I remember the highlights.

  1. Picking up Kerry-Lee Powell and driving with her to Quispamsis. Never has the road seemed so short, and rarely has time passed so quickly. Whether it’s our shared Welsh roots or the course I took with her online at Toronto, we had so much to talk about.
  2. Arriving to find so many friends and all of them so willing to help with books and luggage and getting me to my room. Special mentions: Jeremy Gilmer‘s hug on arriving, Zev Bagel‘s offer to help with luggage, Chuck Bowie‘s warm presence and guiding hand, Cathy Fynn‘s hug and firm control of registration and checking in, and many others, some of whose names will appear bit by bit.
  3. Settling into the room was easy.  Then it was a case of preparing for the first workshop (The Sense of an Ending) that started at four and was due to run until five. I went early to the room and met the participants as they arrived. My first surprise: Barb Fullerton, another member of our online Toronto course, announced her presence with a warm smile and greeting. We had chatted online for eight weeks and now she was here at my workshop. Wonderful. Starting the spring conference with a workshop on endings seemed very inappropriate, until I remembered my T. S. Eliot: “In my beginning is my end …” The circularity of time and the intricate relationship of the end to the middle to the beginning … it made a great central theme for the workshop.
  4. The group was composed of many excellent writers and I was able to mention many of them by name. In addition to  some of those already highlighted above [Chuck, Jeremy, Kerry-LeeZev, Chuck] , Ana Watts, Jane Tims, Neil Sampson, and Terry Armstrong stood out and I urged people to circulate during the mobile, inter-active session, meet these writers, and talk to them about their undoubted finishing skills.
  5. Time passed too quickly and we found that an hour was not enough. No problem, I checked with Cathy and we kept going for another fifty minutes in a seamless transition of lengthened workouts.
  6. Friday night passed in a flurry of conversation in the hotel restaurant, coffee house, and bar. Chuck (the TWUC Atlantic Representative) introduced me to Marjorie Doyle, the Chair of TWUC and our guest speaker for the banquet, and we held a delightful, wide-ranging conversation on literary values and travels in Catalonia.
  7. Saturday morning saw the advent of my second workshop, this one entitled The Black Ink of Fear. This workshop was by request and I was more than a little afraid of how I would handle it. I circulated my own Fear Document  and invited people to read it. Victor, my Australian friend, found his sheet was upside down and amazed the room by standing on his head, to much applause, as he read it the right way up. This clearly broke the ice and we employed Chaos Theory to good effect by doing absolutely nothing in Chaotic Fashion and getting everywhere.
  8. Lunch was a delightful selection from Chef’s Table (Sussex) and Chuck Bowie played a major role in keeping me a seat (I arrived late) and getting me settled (thank you again, Chuck).
  9. Worn out after lunch, I missed the afternoon’s sessions and took to my bed in traditional Spanish fashion enjoying a well-earned, rather extended siesta from 2-5 pm.
  10. Supper was at 6:00 pm and I was truly honored when Jeremy Gilmer read my poem Inundation that I wrote on May 6, just when the St. John River flooding was at its worst downstream below Fredericton. We dedicated our thoughts and prayers to the people in Saint John and Quispamsis still affected by the now diminishing waters. It was a double honor when I was invited to say a traditional Welsh Grace, in Welsh, followed by an English translation: “Thanks be to God for Good Food and Even Better Friends.”
  11. My weekend’s activities were not yet over and I received an award (3rd place in the David Adams Richards’ Prose Competition for my short story collection Devil’s Kitchen). I read in a thick Welsh accent a short piece of Flash Fiction from this collection, called Teeth. For some strange reason that I could not fathom, the room was highly amused by this true story of domestic bliss.
  12. Saturday night and we retired to the bar where a small group of us Marie, Louise, Angèle, John, Andrea, and I stayed up and sang to John’s marvelous harmonica and guitar music until one thirty am. Contrary to malicious rumors spread by unknown sources, not mentioned by name, we did not sing rugby songs, but a marvelous mix of Irish ballads, Newfoundland songs, Acadian and French chansons, and contemporary songs by internationally acclaimed singers, many of whom might not, midnight being long past, have recognized their own music.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Later that Sunday morning, we made our sad farewells and Kerry-Lee and I headed back down the road to Fredericton where we arrived after what what seemed to be about five minutes driving (at well below the speed limit). I dropped Kerry-Lee off then stopped at the Happy Baker for cakes and croissants. These I presented to my beloved for Mother’s Day. We shared them over hot coffee … and that was that.

 

Wednesday Workshop: The Poem Itself

Books

Wednesday Workshop
02 May 2018
The Poem Itself

One of the joys of downsizing one’s library is rediscovering old books, genuine treasures, that one wishes to read again. On my basement bookshelf I found an old copy of Stanley Burnshaw’s The Poem Itself (New York: Crowell, 1976). I thumbed quickly through it and found my old marginal notes on poems by Miguel de Unamuno and Antonio Machado. Reading the annotations to the poems I came across such literary and philosophical gems as these.

  • “Poetry gave (Unamuno) permanence to the temporary forms of the self” (p. 167).
  • “Unamuno’s God needs men to be sure of his own existence” (p. 171).
  • “The poetic element (for Machado) was not the word for its phonic value, nor color, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep palpitation of the spirit” (p. 172).
  • “In the life of every sensitive person there is much spiritual experience which cannot be given a name or a title” (p. 173).

These brief insights into the nature of poetry sent me back to the book’s first pages and I read with much joy and pleasure the opening essay entitled The Three Revolutions of Modern Poetry (pp. xvii-xliv).

The first revolution is that of Syntax (p. xxiii). Word order is changed substantially and words and thoughts are inverted. Sixteen lines of Mallarmé (p. xxiv) are composed of one sentence with five commas and a colon. There is no logical sequence of beginning, middle, and end as one thing runs into another and thoughts shape-shift and move. The structure becomes that of presences and dreams as Mallarmé writes to his new theory: “to paint, not the thing, but the emotion it produces” (p. xxv). Other analyses of syntactical distortion and fragmentation follow and Emily Dickinson’s Further in summer than the birds— leads into Cummings’ my father moved through dooms of love / through names of am through haves of give. When I link this most modern movement to Francisco de Quevedo’s ‘soy un fue, y un será, y un es cansado’ / I am a “was” and a “will be” and a  tired “is” … I realize yet again that all is not new in this modern world of ours. After all, Quevedo lived from 1580-1645, a modern poet indeed.

The second revolution is that of Prosody (p. xxvii). Rimbaud’s first poem in vers libre / free verse was written (probably in 1873) and published in 1886. Today, we are no longer shocked by the breaking down of the tyranny of verse. In fact, we are probably more shocked by people who use rhyming, metric poetry than by the many innovations in line length and word arrangement with which we are so steadily bombarded. That said, I still find some of Cumming’s innovations, Grasshopper / PPEGORHRASS for example (p.xxi) to be quite stunning and not always readily intelligible.

The third revolution is that of Referents, “the upheaval in poetic communication as a whole and specifically its referents” (p. xxxi). This is basically the writers of poetry turning to their private, interior worlds for inspiration. While poetry has always contained references to the self, modern poetry may be full of meaning for the writer, but that meaning doesn’t always extend to the reader. This is particularly true of automatic writing, surrealism, and the metaphoric poetry that floats, sometimes without factual substance, in the mind of reader and writer alike. Burnshaw isolates three moments in the development of this obscurity.

  • “a deliberate attempt to enrich the communicative content of language by expunging the unessential words” (p. xxxiii).
  • “to compress years of anguish, dreams, and projects into a sentence, a word” (p. xxxvii).
  • “the use of personal symbols and hence the creation of a private cosmology” (p. xxxviii).

These three elements contribute to the privacy and hermetic obscurity prevalent in certain poets. Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle / the game isn’t worth the candle … alas, while some difficult poems and poets are very worthwhile, some poetry is definitely not worth the valuable time wasted in trying to decipher it. That is my conclusion: nobody else’s.

This re-adventure back into modern poetry contributed to a delightful voyage through the verse of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Nerval, Verlaine, Machado, and Unamuno (among others).  It is a voyage that I have started, but not yet finished. It is also a voyage that is generating new thoughts, fresh understanding, and a renewed desire to write. What more can a reader / writer desire than to be among friends, also sharing loneliness and despair and also held at bay by the living words of dead men, their voices and wisdom heard through ageing eyes that can still scan the printed page … vivo en conversación con los difuntos / y escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos // I live in conversation with the deceased / and listen with my eyes to the dead (in my friend Elias River’s translation) of Quevedo’s poem Retirado en la paz de estos desiertos.

Wednesday Workshop: Balancing the Books

 

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Wednesday Workshop
25 April 2018
Balancing the Books

Two days ago, I wrote the following lines to one of the writing groups of which I am a member.
“Today, 23 April 2018, is World Book Day. We not only celebrate the world of books, but also the death date of three great authors. Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, and the Inca Garcilasso de la Vega. Three great writers, two continents, two languages, three if you include the Quechua from which the Inca Garcilasso translated his Comentarios Reales. The Inca Garcilasso didn’t actually translate the Comentarios Reales, for the originals were part of an oral tradition in a culture that lacked handwriting. Hence they were never written down. His mother was an Incan Princess and his father a conquistador. His mother kept the Incan culture and memories alive and it was from the oral traditions of his family (one side of it) that the Comentarios Reales were born. It was recognized in its day as one of the greatest books to come from one of the first outstanding writers with indigenous roots. Hence his place on the pedestal alongside the other two greats. All three died on 23 April 1613, the same date, but not the same day. Two different calendars were present in Europe: the old Julian and the more modern Gregorian … same date, but thirteen days apart.”
I knew long ago that I did not have the strength and stamina to make a living as a professional writer. I knew too that I could not put my beloved and my family through the strain of maybe, or maybe not, surviving financially on a creative writer’s income. I wanted to be an artistic writer, a poet above all, art for art’s sake, not just a commercial writer, writing adverts for a living, or pandering to the lusts of the baying evening newspaper crowd.
In order to support and care for my family I had to make money and balance the books. Rather than writing full time, therefore, I chose a career in academia. My career as an academic led to 90 research articles, mainly in my specialized field of Golden Age Spanish Literature, 70 book reviews, the publication, in book form, of part of my doctoral thesis, and an online bibliography, prepared initially thanks to the loving care of my beloved, and now turned, thanks to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick, into a searchable data base.

In addition to my normal course load, I also committed to twenty-five years of unpaid, voluntary overload teaching. I did this in order to maintain a small, understaffed program in a tiny Maritime university. I also had a long-term coaching career (Rugby) at club, provincial, regional, and national levels, and a commitment, at various times, to various editorial positions in 14 local, regional, national and international journals. My creative writing career has understandably suffered because of this commitment to research, teaching, editing, and coaching. In spite of that, while researching and teaching full-time, I was still able, with the help of family and friends, to publish 10 poetry books, 11 poetry chapbooks, 12 short stories and 130 plus poems in 20 Canadian (and other) journals. There was very little money in any this, other than my salary as a tenured professor, and I know only too well that to have been a full time, creative writer and to have maintained a house and a family without recourse to a second career would have been impossible.
Now that I have retired from university teaching, I can finally engage full time in creative writing. In my part-time creative writing career, maintained while I worked in academia, I kept a journal and made sure I spent at least one hour a day writing creatively, even if I had to get up early to do so. This resulted in a couple of poetry books with small presses and later a series of self-published poetry books that doubled with various festivals and other writing sequences. My poetry books never sold well, and there is very little money in poetry anyway, so when I started self-publishing, I determined to give my books away to friends and well-wishers who were interested in what I was writing. In retirement, I discovered CreateSpace and I now have thirteen books up on Amazon and Kindle. However, I am a writer and an academic, not a salesman and a marketing manager. As a result, I haven’t marketed myself and no, I haven’t sold many books. Self-promotion does not appear to be my strong point.
Last year, as Canada reached it’s 150th birthday, a birthday that ignores the fact that the country has existed for much longer than 150 years and that our indigenous people have lived here for 10,000 years or more, without any spectacular celebrations, questions were asked to selected writers about our Canadian Culture. What do we love most about Canadian Culture, was one such question. I gave the following brief answer: “Canadian Culture allows a person like myself, born in Wales, and speaking English, French and Spanish, to live and write in Canada about Wales, England, France, Mexico, Spain, and my adopted homeland. However, the literary and cultural industry boasts of our international character while almost totally ignoring me and writers like me. Those who guard the gates of the literary world ignore the self-published (often referring to us as adherents to what they term the ‘vanity press’) and they constantly belittle and put down those who have not progressed in the ways that they, as literary gate-keepers, find acceptable.”
Do I care? Of course I care. That is why I am writing this and why I will continue to write. Will anyone read this and take any notice? I doubt it. Will anyone take any action as a result of this tiny pebble cast into a Great Canadian Lake? I really, really doubt it. I can see the shoulder shrugging now as the eye-brows raise themselves slightly and the reject piles beckon. Will literary Canada keep staring at its own belly button and congratulating itself on its wonderful cultural opportunities for self-expression in writing? I guess it will. Will things change for artists on the periphery, for struggling artists, for artists like myself who with great difficulty have fought throughout their lives to continue with their creative writing while balancing the family books? I doubt it very, very much indeed.
But I am here, as others are here. Together, we have a voice. I would like it to become a  very powerful voice. This voice has long been side-lined by the literary establishment and the institutions. But we are many. And I too have a dream: it is that one day, we independent publishers, we self-publishers, will raise up our voices, and one day we will be heard.

Movie rights to a sonnet

Balloon lady

Movie rights to a sonnet

Meg Sorick wrote on my blog yesterday and suggested that poetry had flown out of our world.  Here are her words: “Poets used to be rock stars. And not that I feel like poetry has fallen from popularity, because Lord knows it’s all over the place in social media and the blogging world. But I cannot think of one famous contemporary poet. And I’m not talking about famous people who also write poetry. How did that happen?”

Meg’s is a very acute observation. My reply follows. I have changed it slightly from my reply on yesterday’s blog, expanding and annotating it.

“You raise a series of major questions, Meg, ones I have been thinking about for a long time. What is poetry? Has it vanished from our contemporary world? Is poetry as important as it was? If not, why not?”

I will begin with one of my favorite jokes. I made it as an author and a poet: ‘I cannot wait to be offered the movie rights for one of my sonnets.’ Movie rights to a sonnet: beautiful. I love it.

Baltasar Gracián, writing in Seventeenth Century Spain, penned the following: “Lo bueno, breve, dos veces bueno.” What is good and brief is twice as good.

I quote Baltasar Gracián for several reasons. Above all, what he wrote in the 1600’s is still true today. Perhaps, in this age of tweets, twitter, and sound bytes, it is more relevant than ever. Poetry: keep it short. Keep it brief. I would add one more piece of advice: make it memorable.

The rhetorical tools of poetry have never really changed. Reduced to their minima, they are metaphor, witticisms, snappy word plays, repetition, rhyme, rhythm, brevity, and cutting, memorable discourse.

Today, this is the language of advertisement, sound byte, twitter, tweets, labeling. Poetry hasn’t vanished: it has descended to its lowest common rhetorical denominators and today it serves a different purpose.

Trump, for example, is a magnificent poet. He relabels and reclassifies the world in oh-so-memorable epithets according to his own world-view and self-interpretation. As a destroyer and re-creator of language, he is magnificent. We may not like him. We may not always understand him, but we doubt and mock, to our peril, his poetic abilities and his abilities to create narrative and myth in sharp, memorable language.

Rap and hip-hop have also revitalized and politicized language. Poetry is not dead: it has taken to the street where it blends with twitter and tweet. Poetry is not dead: it is regenerating.

Poetry, in our contemporary world, has lost many things. Above all it has lost what the academic critics call The Grand Myth or the Grand Narrative. In The Great Code, Northrop Frye’s book on literature and the bible, the Canadian critic shows how English literature is dependent on the bible. The bible: a code, a poetic language spoken by all great poets. I would suggest that we have now lost that great code and we are no longer bound, in poetry at least, by biblical conventions.

We can say the same of other great codes, The Elizabethan World Picture, The Great Chain of Being, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Courtly Love … codes come and go. They wander the hillsides like lost sheep. They migrate like people.

Migrate like people: a lucky phrase, plucked from the air, yet oh so true. Migrants, emigrants, immigrants: displaced people, we wander the physical world, each with our own set of cultural baggage. Dissatisfied people: we have left one place to travel to another and are unhappy in both. And remember, there are regional migrants, workplace migrants, weather migrants … wanderers all, they have no time to put down roots, to settle into a code of culture.

Ut populi, poesis / as people, so poetry: fragmented poetry, poetry linked to the intensely personal, poetry that reaches out to friend and family but does not extend to a universal code of language, culture, or being … in our current world, how could it?

We few, we happy few, we band of siblings, we cultured poets … we are the forgotten voices of the ivory tower, of an ivy-league academia. We have become immersed in the past, in our own navel-gazing, in the never-never land of things that probably never were and definitely will never again be.

Sitting at our computers, at our desks, at our kitchen tables, we will never connect with the rhythms of the street, of the soup kitchen, of poverty, of bag-ladies, of old men sitting outside the supermarket, their Tim Hortons cups in their hands, hoping for, begging for money. Migrants we may be, but migrating from where, to where, and why? Is my migration similar to your migration? I very much doubt it. Yet, in one way or another, each of us is a migrant. And all migrants pack their own bags carrying with them their memories, their myths, and all too often their native language.

You want poetry? Get out among the gente perduta, the lost people, the garbage cans, the back alleys, the panhandlers. Mix with the migrants. Stand for an hour at the traffic lights with your hand held out to stopped cars whose drivers roll up the windows, lock all the doors, hold their noses, and look the other way.

The nymphs and shepherds of our inner cities wear garbage bags to keep out the rain. They panhandle. They sleep at night in cardboard castles. They lodge in shop doorways. They sleep, poor shepherds and shepherdesses, on park benches. They shoot themselves full of dope with shared, blunt needles. They smoke dope. Drink alcohol from shared bottles. They fight so as not to share that one remaining bottle that they call their own.

Poetry is the voice of the deprived, of the indigenous, of the migrant, of the once-rich toppled from their jobs and left to drown in the gutter. Poetry is the voice of the left out, the abandoned, the depressed, the oppressed. It is the rust of the rust belt, the grind of locked gears, the language of muddled, mixed-up fears.

Poetry uses the same devices as it always did. As it always will. Like water, it flows. It seeks its own levels. It wears away stone. It rises to drown us. It carries our verbal arks, our cultural arks, our Noah’s arks, and it bears us, each and every one of us, into our dreams, out of our dreams, into our realities, into the worlds it creates for us, into the dreams it allows us to dream, into the realities of our everyday nightmares.

Poetry is the rediscovery of ourselves, our voices, our language. Poetry is what gives meaning to our lives, all of our lives. It is what makes us, even now, sit up, and listen, and learn, and live.

Wednesday Workshop: Vis Brevis

 

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Wednesday Workshop
18 April 2018
Vis Brevis

Rain. Persistent rain. Cornish mizzle that chills and wets. Basque chirrimirri penetrating flesh and bone. Low cloud blankets buildings, wraps itself round the windshield. Clings with the tenacity of Saran wrap. Visibility variable, now clear, now a muffler round the car’s headlights. Darkness gathered, still gathering. Lights moving, cars moving, the road moving, blending first with the lights then with the shadows, shape-shifting.

Down the hill now, out of the city lights, into the countryside. The road changing, patches and potholes, lights flickering in and out, darkness and light. Small animals of light, the potholes, shimmering, bumping by. Another pothole, moving, turning from side to side, a pothole with a ringed tail and two tiny eyes. A baby pothole, misses the front wheels, not the back. One dull, dry thump.

What were you doing there, in the middle of the road? Why alone? Why no mother, no brothers? Why so small? I didn’t mean to … I didn’t want to … Why me? Why now? If only …

Light breaks through the darkness clouding my mind. Memories: the driver on the road to Kincardine, chasing a jackrabbit, trapped in the headlights, a Belgian Hare, dodging down the middle of the country road. Laughing, the driver, with the joy of his hunt. Then: one dry thump. The car stopped, the hare, still twitching, held by its long ears, shown as a trophy at the car window, then thrown in the trunk. Memories: two lads in a half-ton, on a back road by Grand Lake. A sunny Sunday. Spotting the ground hog at the roadside. Driving at it with the truck. Swerving to hit it. The joy and laughter in their faces, looking back. One dry thump. The ground hog, front half viable, spine fractured, back legs paralyzed, dragging itself with its forearms to the roadside, dropping into the ditch.

Legend tells of the man who met Death in Cairo. Death looked surprised to see him. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Fear filled the man. He ran, packed his bags, left Cairo with its vision of Death. Travelled to Bagdad. Met there with Death, who welcomed him. “Why were you surprised to see me in Cairo?” the man asked. “Because we had a meeting here in Bagdad, tonight,” Death replied. “And I didn’t know if you’d show up.”

“Every morning, at day break,
oh Lord, this little prayer I make,
that thou wilt keep thy watchful eye,
on all poor creatures born to die.”

Dylan Thomas wrote those words in his poetry play for radio, Under Milkwood. All poor creatures born to die. That’s us. That’s you and me. We don’t know how, or why, or where, or when. And it doesn’t matter. That’s the whole point: it doesn’t matter. Our death is born with us, walks with us, lives inside us, and one day will take us, each of us, we poor creatures born to die. What matters is that we live while we can, rejoice while we can, thrive while we can, think while we can, write while we can …

Enlightenment came last night, at the darkest, wettest of times. It followed me home and crept with me into my bed. I thought of all the creatures found each spring morning, their lives cut short at night along the sides of our New Brunswick roads: deer, porcupine, squirrels, groundhogs, foxes, domestic and feral cats, dogs, skunks, and yes, one, very special, baby raccoon, a tiny raccoon, so small as to be almost invisible in chirimirri, mizzle, and mist.

His spirit came to me in the under-blanket dark, wrapped itself warm around me, and brought me comfort. “You too,” he whispered. “You too. But not just yet. My work is done. I can go now. But you still have lots of work to do. Remember: Vis brevis, ars longa,”  his raccoon spirit nuzzled me and I reached out and patted him. Then both of us settled down to dream our different dreams of a life and death that is surely nothing but a game of touch and go.

 

 

 

Wednesday Workshop: Reading

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Wednesday Workshop
11 April 2018
Reading for Writers

Miguel de Cervantes once wrote that he was so fond of reading he would pick up even the scraps of paper he found in the street to read them if anything was written on them. This is well-known. What is less known is that Don Quixote, his immortal novel (DQI, 1605, DQII, 1615) is a masterpiece, not only of writing, but also of reading.

From the initial sortie, a prose transcription of an earlier short play, to the Scrutiny of the Library, Cervantes demonstrates right from the start his awareness of current trends in poetry, theatre and prose. In addition, he shows (especially DQI, chapter 47) his acquaintance with contemporary literary theory, as E. C. Riley has so ably established in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel.

Cervantes begins with the traditional Renaissance novel (DQI, 1605) in which he experiments with plays and poetry turned into prose, oral and written histories, pseudo-autobiographical episodes, the picaresque novel, the pastoral novel, the Italianate Novel, the picaresque novel (briefly), his own versions of the realistic Spanish short story, and then, after a ten year gap during which he receives all kinds of reader feedback, he invents (DQII, 1615), the self-referring modern novel. DQII refers back to DQI as if it were true history. Don Quixote on his ravels meets with people who recognize him, for they have read his story and know all about him. The fictitious character establishes himself as an almost flesh-and-blood living person.

What can we, as writers, learn from this? Above all, we must learn to read copiously, not just once in a while, but all the time. Not only must we read, but we must learn how to read. Yes, we can read for knowledge and information; yes, we can read for pleasure and enjoyment; yes, we can read to lose ourselves and wash away the cares of the world. However, as writers we must learn to read in a different fashion. We must read in search of the narrative structures that inspire other good writers. We must read in search of the iterative thematic imagery that binds a text with meaningful, repeated images. We must read in search of the poetry that sates the soul’s constant thirst for beauty. We must read in search of the dialog that cuts to the bone and reveals the hidden character of the protagonists. We must read in search of the layering that allows us to give extra meaning at all levels of the narrative. We must read in search of the secret that allows us to trim all unnecessary material in order that our stories may be spare and sparse with not an extra word or thought.

Reading: I have just finished taking an eight-week online course with the School of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. In the course of those eight weeks, I read the following books.

  1. 3 short stories a week, recommended by the instructor, the wonderful novelist Kerry Lee Powell, to illustrate each week’s lesson. [24 stories]
  2. 14 first drafts, one from each of the magnificent students in the course (I had the honor of being the fifteenth student). [38 stories]
  3. 14 revised stories. [52 stories]
  4. 14 first drafts of a second story. The course asked for two stories to be written by each participant over the duration of the course. [66 stories]
  5. 14 revised drafts of this second story. [80 stories]
  6. My own voluntary reading included Raymond Carver’s What we talk about when we talk about love (17 stories), Cathedral (12 stories), and my own short story collection, Bistro (35 very short stories). Recognizing the errors, weaknesses, and inaccuracies in my own collection reduced me to tears. [144 stories]

I have spent eight wonderful weeks exploring creativity and the art of short story writing.  Am I a better writer for all that work? Undoubtedly. I can see and think much more clearly and I am beginning to gain a better understanding of how short narratives work. I am a better writer, but I am not yet a good one. There is still a long way to go.

I am retired. A long, cold, icy New Brunswick winter has kept me in the house, close to the fire. I have been gifted the time and mental energy to make the most of this course I have taken. I attended the University of Toronto, as a graduate student, back in the sixties. I was amazed at the quantity of work handed out by the professors in the School of Graduate Studies. My first decision, made very early on in my graduate career, was to take a speed reading course. Accelerating my reading speed and capacity for understanding was the only way I would be able to compete. I am still a fast reader, though not as fast as I was. This speed reading has left me time for long thought and slow writing.

Over the last eight weeks, in addition to the reading, as described above, I have written five new short stories, including two for the course. I have also revised and re-written a series of short stories for my next collection. As a good friend keeps telling me, we are not writers, we are re-writers. After eight very intense weeks, the acts of re-writing, re-reading, re-vising, and re-editing have become much, much easier.

Carpe diem, seize the day: pick up a book and start reading. Pick up your pen and start writing. No excuses. Participaction: don’t think about it, do it.

Wednesday Workshop: Attending a Reading

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Wednesday Workhop
Wednesday, 04 April 2018
Attending a Reading

            Number one piece of advice: don’t arrive late. I thought last night’s reading at the Oromocto Public Library began at 7:00 pm. I used Google maps to locate the library and I left plenty of time to get to there early. The Oromocto Public Library is just off the main road, tucked sideways on, so you are driving past it before you see it. I didn’t see it.

            I drove to the first roundabout, went straight through that, looked again: no library where the library ought to be. So I drove to the second roundabout. Still no library, and now I was running out of road space and the highway beckoned. So, I went right around the second roundabout, scanning both sides of  the road for the library as I drove. Still no library. I returned to the first roundabout, went right around it, drove back to the second roundabout … I was becoming fixated on driving in circles … then back to the first again.

            Just past the first roundabout, I spotted a gas station. I pulled over to ask the way to the library and there it was, just in front of me, right beside the gas station, facing the new Japanese restaurant, and sideways on to the road. There was one parking spot left and I took it.

            When I got inside, the library was very silent. I asked directions to the reading room and was directed to the back of the building. The reader stood before the audience, with the podium at his back, and was already talking. It was 6:50 pm. “Wow,” I thought. “He must have started early.”

            I have known Chuck Bowie, the invited reader, for several years and we share the same writer’s group, a group which he organized. He invited me to join it and we meet regularly (there are seven of us), once a week, on Tuesdays. Regularly: this is Canada … regularly, when it isn’t snowing, when there’s no icy rain, when the temperature is above -30C, when the wind doesn’t threaten to blow the car off the road … regularly, you know what I mean. There are usually three or four of us at each meeting.

            “There’s Roger,” Chuck announced my presence as soon as he saw me.  The audience turned round and several people whom I knew gave me a smile and a wave. There were no vacant chairs. A lady at the back gave me hers and went to fetch another one for herself. I found out later that she was the organizer and I thanked her profusely for her generosity.

            Chuck, as I found out later, had started at 6:30 and was well into his stride. He mixed anecdotes from his stories with advice about writing. As I was settling, he was explaining how much research he had done into wine and wine growing for the winery scenes in his four Donovan novels (the series is called Donovan: Thief for Hire). I love wine and I have visited several excellent vineyards in Rueda and La Seca (Spain). Chuck’s deep knowledge of the vines impressed me. “Roots,” he told us, “sometimes going down twenty-one to twenty-four feet.”

            I thought of the Spanish wines with their denominations of Old Vines, Reserva, Gran Reserva as Chuck dragged me from the outside world to the inside world of the winery laboratory where the crime had taken place. Then he read an excerpt from his novel, four or five pages that illustrated the use to which he had put his knowledge of the vines (Book Four of the series, Body on the Underwater Road).

            Chuck then talked about writing from memory (Rumania) and emphasized that memory alone was not enough. Memory gives atmosphere but accurate details come from many places, including the ubiquitous, omnipresent, and virtually omniscient Google search. Thus, as he explained, cum grano salis, the churches in Rumania are circular, constructed that way “so the devil may not corner you.”

            From memory and Rumania, he moved to Manchester Gangs in the 1980’s (Book Three: Steal It All), a simple anecdote about how the neighborhood protection racket protected the local families who in turn protected the criminals, while all crime was committed outside the area. Chuck’s ability to turn a table-top conversation into the idea for a story, or in this case, a full novel, is exemplary. How many creative seeds are scattered on stony ground, never to come to full fruition?

            Violence can play a meaningful role in the crime thriller but it has to be meaningful, and it must be accurate. Chuck spent some time explaining how he had researched guns and armaments so that the right weapons would always be carried by the right people and used in correct fashion at the right time. He talked a little about entry and exit wounds and I had visions of Rumpole, in the Penge Bungalow Murders, stabbing a ketchup filled sponge in the kitchen of his suburban home on The Gloucester Road, to see how the stains spattered, much to the disgust of She-who-must-be-obeyed.

            Chuck’s next book, the fourth in the Donovan series, Donovan: Thief for Hire, is called Body on the Underwater Road. Much of this story takes place in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and Chuck explained how he had scouted out the local area and, in particular, the ‘underwater road’ from the mainland to Minister’s Island. The Fundy Tides, the highest in the world, cause the roadway to disappear at high tide, thus making the island inaccessible for long stretches of time. It also makes the underwater road a natural fishing weir for dead bodies. This research work involved live interviews with the local RCMP and others on the movement of bodies in the Fundy Tides, where would they end up if they were inserted into the water at place A, B, or C. That sort of thing.

            Chuck ended with a request for questions and the audience announced their own engagement by asking questions on how to develop characters, how to name characters, how to thread narrative arcs, and on how much rewriting is necessary if an arc goes wrong. The answer: “Lots. Sometimes you need to abandon the arc completely; other times, you must rewrite it from top to tail. But cave scriptor / writer beware: if you make a change on page 272, make sure that it checks out all he way backwards, page by page, back to the book’s beginning on page 1.”

            The use of humor within a thriller series serves to illustrate the layers of complexity that the characters manifest. The insertion of this element serves notice that genre writers who are serious about their craft write with the intention of elevating words, their sense, and their impact on the discerning reader. It also serves to layer the novel with additional meaning. Such layers of complexity spark joy in the writer.

            An interesting evening, then. With some old friendships renewed and some words of wisdom cast before an appreciative audience by the Atlantic Provinces Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada and local Fredericton author, Chuck Bowie.  I attach his web page. Do some research: check it out.  http://www.chuckbowie.ca

Painting credit: Roger Moore. Fundy Weir Poles (acrylic), St. Andrews, NB.