Proved on the Pulses: On the Essay and its Literary Cousins

Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour

January 27th, 2015

Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour. For months I’d heard rumours about it. But—guilty confession—I hadn’t followed up on a single one of them until poet Joanne Epp tagged me to participate. I’ve since made up for this shocking lack of curiosity. I don’t how the tour originated, but I do know the result is a kind of collage essay on writing process that should someday prove fascinating to historians of Canadian literature as well as to budding writers. Check some of the links below and you’ll see what I mean. Each writer answers four questions, either all at once or day by day, and then nudges another to continue the conversation.

I met Joanne Epp at the Sage Hill Spring Poetry Colloquium in 2008, shortly before my first book, Pathologies: A Life in Essays, was released. It’s fitting then, that she tags me just as her own first book is about to appear. Joanne is a thoughtful, reflective writer whose depth of perception is married to a sly and subtle sense of humour. She’s worked long and hard on the poems in this book, sifting and refining them year-by-year. As someone who often feels frustrated and impatient with my own snail-like progress, I admire her dedication to craft and her willingness to give her poetry the time it needs to ripen. It was a pleasure to get to know Joanne at Sage Hill, and I look forward to reading more of her work.        

 

Why do I write what I do?  

From the start, I’m in trouble. Just look at that pesky question.   Not “Why do I write?” —which would be bad enough, but also fair enough; after all, why does anyone write, particularly in a culture that undervalues the arts? But why do I write what I do.

How should I know? howls my inner whingeing brat.

It’s a cliché to say our material chooses us. Yet it does choose us. Ditto form, which grows out of the material.

So the simple answer, I guess, is that I write what I write because that’s what’s given to me to write. And how it’s given to me to write it.

And I write in the first place because I have to. Writing is as necessary as light or air. It’s my way of seeing, my path to understanding.

 

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Does it? If so, it’s probably by virtue of being mine.   I certainly don’t set out with any kind of agenda to set my work apart. I see writing as a conversation. Overlaps and echoes aren’t a flaw. They add to the discussion’s texture, its richness, its resonance.   Also, I’m not sure our current ideas of genre are all that meaningful, at least in relation to my own work.

I earned an MFA at UBC, where I took a wonderful course in nonfiction with Andreas Schroeder. As part of that course, Andreas asked us to write in various “sub-genres” of nonfiction: the memoir, the personal essay, the “rant,” the article. I was forever getting in trouble.

I managed (I think) to write a pure “article,” and maybe a rant. (Though I can’t even remember my topic any more—which makes me think that the rant doesn’t come naturally to me, though I suspect my family might disagree.)   But when it came to the memoir, mine was more like a blend between a memoir and an essay. When it came to the essay, mine was more like a profile blended with an essay.

Even my re-writes failed to meet the set requirements.

Finally Andreas threw up his hands. “Never mind. Just keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “Whatever it is.”    

 

What am I working on?

More genre crossing. Currently, I’m writing a book of poetry that includes (among other things) a section that is a lyric essay, and another section in the form of an opera.

I’m also working on my second book of essays. This book, tentatively titled Refractions, has to do with the ways that time, memory, technology, and language can bend, distort, break open, and—if we’re lucky—correct our vision.    

 

How does my writing process work?

Slowly.   First an idea. It’s a pulse of energy, a rhythm that makes me want to move or dance. It’s a spark of connection, an intuition that there might be parallels between two seemingly disparate subjects. Or it might be a character with a problem, a dramatic situation.

That’s the fun part. Followed mostly, by a long, long period of waiting.

Steeping, or sometimes stewing.

I can’t seem to rush things without a paying a price. The book of poems I am writing now began way back in 2005. I worked on it intermittently until 2008, when I got stuck and put it away, only to bring it out again in 2014. It is going to become a very different book than it would have been if I had finished it six years ago. A better book, I hope. But I can’t know.

I published the first essay in Pathologies twelve years before the book came out. And I had started working on that essay six years before I finished it.

Joyce Carol Oates I am not.

My ponderous process sometimes annoys me, but over the years I’ve become more used to it and have developed tricks to get around it. I always have a bunch of different things on the go; if I get stuck on one, I turn to another.

On a day-to-day basis, I like to write in the morning when I can, and I often find my best ideas when I am walking. I work well on retreats, when I can establish my own rhythms and circle around something again and again until I get it right.

For the past several years I’ve had a fulltime job involving writing for an online publication. Having mostly held teaching and editing jobs of various kinds in the past, I was surprised at how much this paid writing interfered with my creative work. (Teaching and editing interferes in different ways, but for me, much less.) That’s the kind of thing you can’t really know about yourself until you test it out, I guess. Having failed the test, I’m back to financial instability.

Oh well. It was worth a try.

 

 

The next chapter

Thanks to Joanne for inviting me to participate.   I’m passing the torch to two fine writers, both of whom I met at UBC.

Jane Silcott ‘s first book, Everything Rustles, was shortlisted for the BC Book Award. Her essays—precise, meditative, often funny, and always deeply felt—have won numerous awards, including the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award, and have been honoured by the Western Magazine and National Magazine Awards Foundations. She lives in Vancouver with her family and teaches for the University of King’s College MFA Program, the UBC Writing Centre and SFU’s Southbank Writing.

 

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If I had to come up with a single phrase to describe Brenda Biem Liefso, it would be “passionately engaged.”  The author of the critically acclaimed Daughters of Men, Brenda has a new book of poetry forthcoming from Pedlar Press in the spring, as well as a budding blog she calls “The Joy Essays.” Check her out.

 

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Take the time to check these other stops on the Writers’ Blog Tour:

Théodora Armstrong

Marilyn Bowering

Janie Chang

Joanne Epp

Jaime Forsythe

Patrick Friesen

Susan Gillis


Jason Heroux

Eve Joseph

Anita Lahey


Barbara Lambert


Matilda Magtree


Steve McOrmond


Maurice Mierau

Maria Meindl


Sarah Mian



Kathy Page

Kathy Para


Julie Paul

Pearl Pirie

Ryan Pratt

Merilyn Simonds

Lorna Suzuki

Joan Thomas

Patricia Young

Alice Zorn

100 Canadian Books to Read in a Lifetime…includes Pathologies

October 2nd, 2014

I’m surprised and delighted to see that Pathologies has won a place on Amazon.ca and 49th Shelf’s list of 100 Canadian books to read in a lifetime.  You can find the whole list here, or here, cast votes for other books you’d like to see, or add your comments.

It’s a quirky list for sure, and offers a starting point for lots of conversation. Lots of my own favourites there, and many more that I missed.

New workshop at the Bloor/ Gladstone Library, September 20th

September 5th, 2014

Saturday Workshop

in Toronto

Saturday, September 20, 2014 11:45 am – 4:30 pm 

 

Location:
Bloor/Gladstone Public Library 1101 Bloor Street West, Toronto (Dufferin subway stop)

Cost:
$40 for members
$50 for non-members 

 

For information and registration go to: The Creative Nonfiction Collective. 

Or email Cathy Ostlere, CNFC President author@cathy-ostlere.com 

 

CNFC Poster - Toronto Workshop

National Magazine Awards

June 11th, 2013

This year, I was twice a finalist in the National Magazine Awards in the same category, and took home a Silver Medal for “In Anna Karenina Furs,” published in Maisonneuve.

Thanks to Drew Nelles, and also to Katherine Ashenburg, Ian Brown, Victor Dwyer, and my co-participants in the Banff Literary Journalism program, 2012.

New Piece in Maisonneuve

December 18th, 2012

In July I spent a productive month in the Banff Literary Journalism program, working on a piece about re-reading Anna Karenina…and adultery. You can find the result in the latest Maisonneuve.