Life-Long Learning

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Life-Long Learning
KIRA & Kingsbrae Gardens

It’s hard to believe I could be back with my friends at KIRA & Kingsbrae by the end of next month. What an honor and a pleasure to be invited to help facilitate the first KIRA Boutique Retreat on Creative Writing. Geoff, Jeremy, and me … we will make a truly creative dream team. We are working out the details as I type this.

My task will be to work with poets and short-story writers. I have just successfully completed two online courses from the School of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, my  Canadian Alma Mater (MA, PhD). Kerry-Lee Powell offered the first course: Writing Short Fiction II, while the second course, Poetry II, found me studying with Sachiko Murakami.

Life-long learning is so important. Over my life, I am not that old at seventy-four, I have learned that it is the ability to change, to adapt, to learn new things, that marks us out as creative people. Since my escape from imprisonment in the Ivory Tower of Academia (aka retirement), I have ventured into several new worlds, including that of online learning. My two most recent online courses from U of T now stand alongside an online course from Humber College on novel writing. Alas, this course did more to confirm that I wasn’t really a novelist at heart. As we live, we learn. I have now laid aside my three embryo novels to concentrate on my stronger areas: poetry and short stories.

Along with these online courses, I have been through the give (offering) and take (participating) of multiple creative writing workshops. So much knowledge gained. I have also enjoyed several positions as academic editor, associate editor, editorial board member, of multiple national and international publications, in English, French, and Spanish. In each of these new adventures, there was so much to learn.

Now I have the chance to return some of that acquired and accumulated knowledge to others who, like me wish to practice their life-long-learning skills. The unique KIRA combination of conversations, selected workshops, one-on-one talks, round-the-table discussions, evening talks, and readings will open many horizons to writers old and new, and not least to myself. As I live, I learn.

Round-the-table discussions: The Spanish have a wonderful term for this, de sobremesa. This refers to the discussions that take place, around the dining table, when the meal is done and everyone is comfortable in each other’s company and multiple conversations flow.

As for KIRA itself, I look forward to returning to my conversations with the land, the sea, the flowers, the birds, the statues, the alpacas … I love talking to them in Spanish … and the rowdy, old peacock who squawks his joy at evening, when the sun goes down. And don’t forget those Indian Runner Ducks: Beatrix Potter talked to them … and so did I … in fact, in Beatrix Potter’s case, one of her own Runner Ducks, possibly a distant cousin to those at Kingsbrae Gardens, became better known as Jemima Puddleduck. Who knows? Between poetry and painting, you too may find your own version of Jemima PuddleduckPaco the Alpaca, perhaps?

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KIRA: The three standing stones, though I think of them as talking statues. I stood in the middle between them, closed my eyes, opened my mind, and listened to the magic as the breeze blew through them and sang secret songs to the music of their stone flutes. They filled me  with the sound of their ancient voices, their poems and stories, the magical mysteries of their myths. Come and visit and I’ll show you how to stand still and listen to what the stones have to say. When you allow that poetry to flow through you, you’ll never suffer from writer’s block again!

My Favorite Book

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My Favorite Book

Last night, my writing group threw the table open for discussion on ‘my favorite book’. I listened as each member of the group came up with a title or two and then chose a book that was ‘the favorite’. When my turn came, I was last, they all turned to me, but I remained silent for a long time and then: “I can’t do it,” I said. “I bet it’s got windmills in,” one person remarked, thinking of my propensity of frequently quoting Cervantes’s Don Quixote as a model when literary discussions arise. Indeed, Don Quixote might be my favorite book, but is it?

Let us begin with the concept of book. Is a book something contained between two covers or could it be a series of books? For example, does one choose between The Chronicles of Narnia or must one select The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe over The Silver Chair? Is one free to choose The Lord of the Rings, or must one prefer The Two Towers, say, to The Return of the King? By extension, where exactly does The Hobbit stand, as a book, in book form, in relationship to the later and longer series? Or The Silmarion? Again, can we roll them all together, a series of books under the cover of one book, a favorite book?

The idea of favorite author versus favorite book then surfaced and we discussed Georgette Heyer, John LeCarré, equally loved and loathed, Jane Austen, the Bronte’s, J. K. Rowling, and William Shakespeare. The mention of Shakespeare led us into plays as reading material and plays as performance, and performance as on stage or on film. One of our members loved Shakespeare on film and TV, but didn’t like reading Shakespeare, because it was ‘difficult to read and needed the interpretation of the actor for the meaning to come across’. This same person did not like LeCarré’s books, but was very appreciative of his work on film. Where does George Smiley begin and Alec Guinness end, one asks? How can we separate the character from the actor? Applied to James Bond, who is James Bond? Is he Sean Connery (totally unique and my personal favorite), Roger Moore (better for me in the role of Simon Templar, The Saint), or one of the later and newer actors who have taken over the role? By extension, should James Bond be played by a black actor (why ever not I ask?), and could (oh horror of horrors!), a female actor take over that role (I’d love to see it … “I’m Bond. Jane Bond!”)?

This led us into the art of the narrative and the relationship between book as narrative and film as narrative. Clearly they are two different forms of media, but how do they influence each other? The book obviously comes first. We can talk of the seventeenth century novel, but it is difficult to talk of the seventeenth century film. So, the linear narrative of the book comes first and then that book is turned into a film. However, a film contains its own narratives structures and these include multiple points of view, split screens, flashbacks and time distortions, and a multiplicity of other devices among which the actual scenic impact is of the utmost importance. For most of us, the nineteenth century novel (no radio and no television for entertainment in those days) is long drawn out and very slow moving. We miss the instantaneous impact of screen and TV with the breaks for advertisements and the time to recharge our coffee cups and snacks. This leads us to our own attention spells as readers and our own demands for the instant gratification of a thrill a minute. “Hook them on page one and addict them by page three,” one person commented to many nods from around the table.

But the mention of Don Quixote also takes us into other areas. In this age of bi- and multi-lingualism, do we prefer to read our books in one language rather than in an another? Don Quixote in Spanish or French or English? And which translation? There are some twenty translations of Don Quixote into English. Is one preferable to another? Which is more accurate in the terms of a translation? Which reads more easily in terms of a re-creation in artistic form of the original? Should we prefer an English-English translation to an American-English translation? And where oh where is the Australian, Indian, Pakistani, South African, Canadian, Irish, or Welsh translator who will justify that famous text in his own country’s rendition of what used to be called the King or the Queen’s English?

Don Quixote, according to the great Spanish literary critics, is a book for the three ages of life. Readers should read it when they are young, when they are middle aged, and when they are approaching old age. Why? Because one’s reading and understanding of the book changes as one grows older. If this is true, then can we not expect to have books that we preferred at an earlier age in life, The House at Pooh Corner, for example, or The Wind in the Willows? And what about our early teens (adolescence), our early twenties (university years)? The idea of our being able to choose a ‘favorite book’ becomes less and less clear as we open up our minds to the broader horizon of tastes that change as we age and mature.

You will have noted that, with the exception of Shakespeare, we concentrated on the twin ideas of fiction and narrative, be it in word or on the screen. What about poetry? Five major critics met at the Modern Language Association of America’s meeting held one year in the University of Toronto and held a panel discussion in which they discussed why and how they had been attracted to the foreign language that they had studied. In four of the five cases, it was the poetry of the language, not the theatre or the narrative, that had pulled them in. Last night, we did not discuss poetry.

When we bring poetry to the table, we open a different discussion. We rarely read and appreciate ‘books of poetry’. With a few notable exceptions, it is individual poems and poets that attract our attention, rather than entire books or collections. And what is it about poetry that attracts us? Surely, it is the power, not of situation nor of action, but of language. It is the sheer power of language and the thrill of words that draws us to poetry. Perhaps that is why, in an age of impatience, we have less time for immersion in the magic spell of words and their undercurrents of subtle meanings. As a friend of mine said to me, the day before yesterday, “I started your poetry book, Obisdian’s Edge, but it was too deep for me, too difficult. I gave up on it. I needed something simpler to read.”

Comment: This article should be read in association with an earlier piece in this blog (15 July 2016) on My Top Ten Books.

Writing Groups: Thursday Thoughts

 

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Writing Groups
Thursday Thoughts
11 May 2017

We write in solitude.

We cannot group-write with a second person suggesting the second word and a third person, the third word. This leads only to the Third Word War or the Third Word Whore, as some would express it.

To write is to be alone. It is to sit alone before a blank page and watch it slowly fill with the black ants that we form into thoughts. With pen or pencil we trace the Morse Code SOS of our Mayday signals. We gather them into groups, press them between cardboard covers, and we send them out to sea in little bottles. Then we sit back and wait, hoping to contact intelligent and compatible life that will approve our efforts and perhaps offer to publish our writing.

We must not confuse the act of writing with the act of sharing.

In many cases, to share is to seek approval. But this is not always true. We sometimes share in the hopes that a listener will suggest improvements to our writing. I think of this as ‘sharing from weakness’. We are unsure of our sharing self and we seek confirmation and reinforcement. We also seek the reassurance that the second person or the third actually has a better vision than the writer and can improve that writer’s offering. How confident are we in our own writing when we constantly look for approval?

Sometimes, our sharing is in an act of defiance. We organize our black ant army. We form it into battalions. We launch them at the enemy and “Take that you bastards,!” we think as we read out our thoughts. Occasionally, our sharing is an act of self-praise. We know it’s good and we want others to realize just how good this piece is and how good we are. Auto-homenaje (Spanish): an act done in praise of oneself.

The act of sharing can be private and confidential. This is when we gather with a group of friends to share our thoughts and creations. This is most useful, in my opinion, at the beginning of a writer’s career. Writers have to become independent. They have to learn to shake off the shackles of doubts, second and third opinions, and the rewriting that comes from the mind of an outside reader. Writers have to learn to stand alone and to write alone. This is where the public reading comes in.

To read in public, as in an open reading given before an audience of unknown faces, is a different proposition. We are relatively confident when we share with our friends. We are not so confident when we read in public. We must be confident in ourselves and our words if we are to stand before strangers and expose ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, to those who may not love us and some who may actually hate us, looking for any defect, any chink in our written armor.

Beyond writing, yet enclosed within it, is the writer’s desire to be recognized and published. If we are writers, we want our works to be known and read. We want to be published. Even when we know we are not ready to be published or worthy to be seen in print, we like to imagine ourselves preparing that great tome or slender volume of verses that one day will project us into the realms of glory when it finally sees the light of day.

Yet we cannot publish alone. Or can we? Desk-top publishing on our own computer is easy to do. Format the work, print it out, take it to the photocopy machine, copy it multiple times, staple the resulting pages together and we have … a book. But are we satisfied with those morsels of paper that we hand out to our friends? Some people are, many are not.

Let us look at an alternate route: we hand the book over to a press that edits the writing, does all the copying work for us, chooses a cover, binds the book, gives us twenty free copies, and hands us an enormous bill … some are happy with that; again, others are not.

Let us examine another route: we find an online company that will do all (or most) of that for free. All we have to do is market our work … again, some are happy with that; others are not.

Mal de todos, consuelo de tontos. This is a delightful Spanish phrase. It means that when everyone is travelling in the same ship of sorrows, only fools are consoled by the fact that we all share the same fate. Perhaps that’s why writers gather together in groups and perch, like autumn swallows preparing to migrate, on chairs in a drawing room at somebody’s house or gather together in a disreputable, but cheap, coffee house to read, discuss, share, and endlessly talk about the works that never get published.

“You just got rejected? What a pity. I just did too. Let’s compare rejection letters. Paper your walls with them, my friend.”

The carrot that we all seek is the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end that contains the winning lottery ticket: a letter from a publisher offering to publish the book we have written. An Old Welsh Recipe for rabbit pie begins with these wise words: “First catch your rabbit.” The same wisdom must be applied to writers: “First, write your book.”

When the book is written, to the satisfaction of the writer, then, only then, let the networking begin. Then we can reach out to the community. Then we can read in public. Then we can seek out that elusive publisher and follow our own thirty-nine steps to success.

Bu, in the meantime, remember, never forget, we write in solitude.