Monday, May 16th, 2011
The thoughtful and insightful Julija Sukys interviews me today on her blog. Thanks, Julija, for the opportunity to chat with you.
Monday, May 16th, 2011
The thoughtful and insightful Julija Sukys interviews me today on her blog. Thanks, Julija, for the opportunity to chat with you.
Tuesday, January 19th, 2010
Lorna Crozier and I shared a stage at the Kingston WritersFest last fall, and I can’t imagine a more generous or engaging co-presenter. Her warmth, wit, and humour were the talk of the festival. Recently, I invited her to answer a few questions about her book for the blog, and once again, she surpassed all expectations. Along with her thoughtful answers, she has forwarded new work. Enjoy.
Q: You’ve been a poet for many years. What sparked the leap (or the fall?) into prose.
A: I’ll never lose my fascination with poetry, even though I’ve now written 15 books and have another manuscript almost ready to go. There’s just so much a poem can do in its very limited space. Some of the material that has appreared in my poems (that is, autobiographical anecdotes about my family) is in the memoir. Having said that, I started falling in love with the way the mind moves when you’re writing an essay. At first it almost feels like writing a poem—there’s a strong first-person voice that begins to speak but doesn’t know where it’s going. But an essay allows more room for arguments with the self and for a longer story to be told with its necessary information, the kind of explication and digression that a poem would just as soon spit out. I’m going to contradict myself here and say that essays often want to spit that out, too, but even though I pared down early drafts of prose, the pieces were still more accepting of longer descriptions and more direct statements of feeling than a poem might have been. Poems love to say as much as they can through metaphor and succinct, cut-to-the-chase imagery. Although metaphors and imagery are part of good prose, in essays they become a means to ground the writer’s thinking, which, on the page, has more room to show its many convolutions. I don’t know if this is making any sense. I haven’t quite worked out what the two forms do differently from one another, but I do know that, as a poet, I feel an affinity for nonfiction that I’ve never felt for fiction.
So, I about a decade ago, I started writing essays. And Rob Sanders, the editor of Greystone Press, who read them in various anthologies, asked me for a book. I initially resisted, but he kept on phoning me, and I finally discovered that I had enough published, commissioned essays to pull together a manuscript. I sent it off and immediately received a contract. After I’d signed it and he revised it to meet my few demands, including a request for Barbara Pulling as the editor, I found out that it wasn’t the book he wanted. He and Barbara persuaded me that a better book would focus on the pieces about my life in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, a small part of the original manuscript. Agreeing with them meant that my “book,” the manuscript I’d submitted, disappeared. Although I could use some of it, I had to start from scratch and try to shape my past into a coherent and interesting work of nonfiction.
Q: What was your greatest challenge?
A: I was terrified when I dared to look at what was ahead of me. A poet, remember, is used to saying everything that needs to be said in one or two pages, sometimes in only a few lines. The fact that I had to write a whole book, not just one poem after another, overwhelmed me. I was also worried about the tone. I told Barbara in our initial meeting that I didn’t want the book to be another “Little House on the Prairies.” I feared lapsing into nostalgia or sentimentality. She comforted me by saying that my family did not fit into the little-house genre and that sentimentality had not been a problem for me in poetry. Why did I fear it now? she asked.
For weeks I lived inside Alice Munro’s question: who do you think you are? Can any memoirist not worry about that? What was it about my life, I kept wondering, that deserved telling? Why would anyone be interested? It was only after the book was written and I was driving to an interview that I thought, “Of course, “memoir” has two “me’s” in it, the English followed by the French! No wonder I was worried about being self-centered.
As well, I was torn, as surely every memoirist must be, by the great ethical question: how much of the truth could I tell? I worried about hurting my mother, who was still alive when I began the book. In fact, I was in therapy, discussing the issue with a counselor. I knew anything less than the truth would make the writing vague and weak, and even I would lose interest in it. Part of the joy of writing a memoir is finding our what you really want/need to say. The content makes demands about the form and memories unfold as you write. Things you’d long ago forgotten recreate themselves on the page. Sometimes, they’re painful but there’s a glory in their discovery when you get the words right.
I had to be true to myself, to language, and to the goings-on in my family, seen through my perspective, of course. Otherwise, why write? As a poet, I’ve never allowed myself to hide in words, even if I end up looking bad. I knew I’d have to write the story as close to the bone as I could, and then after the work was done, decide what I wanted to do about publishing it. Was this a way of tricking myself? Probably, but if I’d let a censor sit on my shoulder, the pages would have remained blank or worse, been gutted of anything necessary and true. My mother died before the book was finished. Though I mourned her death, I was freed from my worries about wounding her.
Q: The book includes short narratives of life in Swift Current interspersed with prose-poem like sections that you call “First Causes.” Why structure the book this way?
A: Maybe because I’m so used to working in a short form, I saw the book, right from the start, as a compilation of pieces, a mosaic of sorts, rather than a coherent text with a linear, narrative movement. There are other reasons, too, for the form I chose. Memory, at least mine, doesn’t arrive as a big, well-wrapped package with sections bearing labels such as “The first ten years,” “Adolescence,” etc. Memories startle the brain with lightning flashes that reveal brief crucial scenes, one building on the other. Even their significance isn’t obvious and the link that draws them together, I think, is subterranean at the start, there only at a subconscious level.
This way of working—of perfecting small passages that I felt were self-contained before moving on to the next—pleased me greatly. I saw each chapter as something that could stand alone yet carry with it, like memory, tones or images or feelings from the previous chapter and, at the same time, endow what followed with a deeper meaning. I wanted the chapters to function as single pieces that contained little hooks that attached to what was said before and what would follow. I hoped the chapters would throw off the kind of prickly grass seeds that catch in your socks as you move forward down the path. Sometimes the hooks are images and sometimes pieces of narrative that connect to the previous and next chapters. The challenge for me was to write a narrative that would pull the reader through the book, but also to achieve another of my purposes—to build in a stillness to each section so that there’s a tension between what-will-happen-next and let’s-just-sit-here-for-a-moment-and-feel-this. I’d like a reader to be drawn forward but content to sit in this one place for a while.
The First Causes were my way of dropping into the family stories, pieces that are densely lyrical and poetic but still written in prose. While the other chapters have, I hope, a sense of movement through time, though not strictly linear, I wanted these to be plotless. They are still points, like lacuna but strange ones because the gaps are filled with words. I imagined their structure to be like glass bells, the ones that hold taxidermy and samples of plants. The function of the First Causes, like those transparent bells, is to focus the reader’s attention and to hold the reader’s mind in a state of deep engagement and wonder. I wanted them to be timeless, to have the quality of myth. I’m not saying I was successful in achieving any of this, but that’s what I was after. Whatever else they achieve, they represent the landscape—the origins and holiness of its essential elements—which shape the characters who live there. That of course includes me and my parents.
The idea of the First Causes also comforted me because I knew I had the tools to write them—they are, after all as close to poems as they can be while still being written in prose—but I wasn’t sure about the rest of the book and its demands. I’d take a break from the other writing and go into that deep place where poetry takes you and meditate on the sky or insects or gravel. Then I’d go back to the stories where the challenge was different.
Q: What was your greatest reward, with this book?
A: Whatever the book ends up meaning to others, this is really a life work for me. I don’t mean it will be the last thing I ever write, I hope not, but it’s about questions and concerns I’ve been living with since I became conscious of my thoughts. I’m pleased that between the pages of a book I’ve explored the place that is in my blood and bones. Saskatchewan, particularly the small city of Swift Current, is one of the memoir’s central characters. I’ve always been intrigued by Northrop Frye’s revision of the question, “Who am I?” into “Where is here?” That question has been central to me. I never tire of thinking about it. And I probably won’t tire of writing about it because in writing about place, I am writing about myself and my ancestors.
Also, it’s rare to find poor working people like my mother and father between the pages of a book. Being able to recreate my mother as a character, to give her a literary significance, pleases me. The book, in some ways, feels like my gift to her although she wouldn’t have wanted me to reveal so many secrets about my father. His alcoholism and our poverty was never talked about outside the family, for instance.
And finally, I feel good that I’ve written a book of prose, a whole book with real covers, a title page, chapter headings, etc. It sits there on my shelf beside my books of poetry, and I think it feels at home there.
Q: Can you name some memoirists you admire?
A: I wouldn’t have written this book if I’d not read Wallace Stegner’s Wolfwillow. I came to it years ago but I’ve reread it countless times. It’s set in Eastend, Saskatchewan, though he gives the town another name. I don’t think any other nonfiction book set on the prairies comes close to its profundity, exactness, and elegance of style. When I was a young writer, it gave me permission to write about my own lost place and to believe that such writing could matter to people who wouldn’t even know where Swift Current was.
John Berger’s Here Is Where We Meet, which came out in 2005, led me to write the final chapter in my book. After reading him, I wrote about speaking to my mother after her death. A passage from his book remains close by me when I write, as a kind of ars poetica. It’s part of a conversation between the narrator of Here Is Where We Meet and the stubborn, lively ghost of his mother. The narrator, whom we assume is Berger, is speaking first:
I risk to write nonsense these days.
Just write down what you find.
I’ll never know what I’ve found.
No, you’ll never know. All you’ll have to know is whether you’re lying,
or whether you’re trying to tell the truth, you can’t afford to make a mistake
about that distinction any longer.
That passage is hard to beat. It’s so important to the book and the central character that it appears twice. I believe in what it says and it gives me courage to try to tell the truth.
Finally, I am overwhelmed with the linguistic beauty of Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It’s a wonderfully strange book that is both a memoir and a novel but transgresses the conventions of both. It’s fragmented, dense, poetic, and challenges any ideas of fixed forms. Another of my favourite writers is Dermot Healy who’s written stunningly in every form: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. Every nonfiction writer should read the first page of his autobiography.
Q: What are you reading now? And what might you tell aspiring writers to read?
A: Perhaps because I’ve just come out of writing prose and because the idea and form of the First Causes continue to tantalize me, I’m now working on a series based on objects (I’ve included one on doorknobs, below). For inspiration I’ve returned to Francis Ponge, a brilliant writer of prose poems about things. His book that I have on my desk right now is Selected Poems, edited by Margaret Guiton. I also just bought the Best Science Essays of 2009, but haven’t had a chance to open the book yet. I’d encourage aspiring writers to pick up some essay anthologies, like that one, find the essayists who engage, enrage and tantalize them and then go out and find their books. And read everything that John Berger has written. I adore his And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos because it can’t be categorized and has sublime passages of beauty in its prose.
Here’s an example of the writing I’ve been working on since this summer. Is it poetry or creative nonfiction? Let me know.
Two things that need each other: the mouth and the ear, the left foot and the right, the wind and the hawk, the doorknob and the hand. Yet the doorknob dreads the human touch. It has a phobia for germs, especially the knobs made of glass common in the 1940s after the war, a touch of class in small stuccoed houses with big radios and ottomans of fake leather. To respect the fears of doorknobs, you should always wear a glove or rub away the invisible bacilli with a chamois. Who has time for that? Anyway you’d be pushed aside by others in a rush. You’d be mocked and laughed at. Best not to think about it. There are whales, after all, and disappearing salmon. Disappearing doorknobs? That’s a laugh. Like rats, they’ve adapted. In fact their population’s gone berserk. Think of every new skyscraper, every condo development eating up the fields and marshes at the edges of the cities. Think of the multitude of doors. Think of all the dread each building holds.
All doorknobs are twins, joined at the centre by a bolt narrow as a pencil, inflexible, un-vertebraed. Though they move as one, they never get to see each other. They are like brothers separated at birth by war, a wall of stone and broken glass. Neither speaks of this. One turns; the other turns. One is outside the room; the other, in. If the door is the entrance to the house, one shimmers with the rain; the other is dull and dry. One is often cold or hot; the other basks in the temperate climate of the thermostat. Does anything pass between them? Does a rumour, a memory, a snatch of song run through the metal spine like an electric shock when the door is opened? Perhaps they desire different things and loathe each other. Each knob wanting, above all else, not to turn in the same direction as its double on the opposite side of the door.
Lorna Crozier, poet and essayist, is a Distinguished Professor and the former Chair of the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria. Inventing the Hawk received the Governor General’s Award in 1992. She has been awarded two Pat Lowther Awards for the best book by a Canadian woman, the National Magazine Gold Medal, the Canadian Authors’ Association Award and first place in the CBC literary competition. In 2004 she received an Honourary Doctorate from the University of Regina for her contribution to Canadian literature and in 2007, one from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The Blue Hour of the Day, Selected Poems came out in 2007. She is also the co-editor of two books of essays, most recently Addicted: Notes from the Belly of the Beast, and two anthologies of young Canadian poets. Her essays have been published in a number of anthologies, including Dropped Threads 1 and 3,, Nobody’s Mother, and My Wedding Dress.
Her poems have been translated into several languages and she has read her work across Canada and in such countries as South Africa, Scotland, Australia, Malaysia, France, Italy, England and Chile. Margaret Laurence called her “a poet to be grateful for.” Books in Canada claimed “she is one of the most original poets writing in English today.” The Ottawa Citizen wrote, “One of Canada’s most read and most honoured poets….[Crozier’s poems] become part of the reader’s permanent memory.” Perspectiva del Gato, a collection of her poems translated into Spanish, was published in Mexico City this June. And a memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, was published by Greystone this fall.
Sunday, January 11th, 2009
Happy New Year! I spent much of the autumn on tour to promote my book, so I’ve been slow to begin what I hope will be a much more regular blog in the coming months. Today I’d like to pick up where I left off with a blog about some of the ethical issues confronted by writers of essay and memoir.
Early in December, I was invited to speak at Toronto bookseller Ben McNally’s wonderful “Books and Brunch,” which takes place at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. I shared the stage with Mary-Lou Finlay, Niall Ferguson, and Meryl Gordon. My guest was Robert Paul Weston, a good friend and author of the fabulous children’s book Zorgamazoo.
In such illustrious and experienced company, I was extremely nervous. In fact, I managed to knock over a chair and drop my books all over the floor before things even got underway! But Ben and his family were so warm and welcoming and the audience was so terrific that after I got over my attack of nerves I had a great time.
Here is a partial text of the talk that I gave. Thanks again to Ben McNally for providing me with this opportunity.
I grew up in a medical family, and a particular kind of medical family at that, because my dad was a pathologist. So, like many doctor’s children I enjoyed playing with tongue depressors and syringes, but in addition, I got used to seeing things like pacemakers lying around the house. We used them for paperweights.
I didn’t go into medicine as a career, although as you can imagine, after a start like that, the subject always interested me. But my main interest was language. I was the kind of kid who would read the dictionary for pleasure, and I continue to enjoy poking around in it as an adult. I work at Queen’s University in the Writing Centre, and we had one of those old multi-volume Oxford sets there in one of the offices. One day while waiting for my next appointment, I was leafing through the dictionary and this leapt out at me:
1). the science or study of disease; that department of medical science or of physiology which treats of the causes and nature of diseases, or abnormal bodily affections or conditions.
2). The study of morbid or abnormal mental or moral conditions.
3). The study of the passions or emotions.
That definition gave birth to this book.
The subtitle is “A Life in Essays” and from the title and the definition you can probably gather that the aspects of my life I’ve chosen to highlight are the messier ones. So there are essays written from the perspective of a child in a more or less normally dysfunctional family, and essays about parenting – in my case, as an adoptive parent – and these are written from an adult’s perspective. There are essays about being a teenager, and essays about working with teens as an adult. There are essays about illness, and essays about emotional turmoil – mine and others.’ The effect is a bit like a book of linked stories, except the stories I’m telling come from my own life. So it’s a memoir, but a fragmented memoir rather than a continuous, chronological narrative.
Some people, when they hear the word “essay,” think immediately about a horrible constraining five-paragraph school assignment. Essays aren’t often written as literature in Canada, (or if they are, they aren’t published, and certainly not in book form, and certainly not by new writers), but of course the genre has a long and venerable history, and it continues to be very popular in the US, as evidenced by the annual Best American Essays put out by Houghton Mifflin. (Adam Gopnick the editor of the current version.) As a writer, I love the essay because it demands great economy yet permits almost free rein in terms of subject matter and treatment. It’s an amazingly adaptable and capacious genre, and perhaps more than any other, it invites and even demands a high degree of self-reflexivity from the writer.
This book was about twelve years in the making. When I started out, I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing, but quite early on I realized that it wasn’t fiction. The plot was not about “what happened.” The plot was about coming to understand what happened in a different way. Memoir and the personal essay are not so much about “the facts” – whatever those are – but about making sense of the past. They are about finding connections between the seemingly inconsequential moments that stubbornly stick in our minds and surface when we least expect it. And they are also, always, about identity. They are attempts to answer the Socratic dictum: Know Thyself.
But of course, here’s where it gets tricky. Because we can’t know ourselves in isolation from others, and so in trying to figure out the patterns in my own life, I inevitably got tangled up in the lives of others. And in this book I have written very openly about some of the people in my life. This is the kind of writing that critics characterize as “brave” or “confessional” or “way out there” depending on their point of view; my own sense is that my family members are the brave ones, not me. It’s one thing to expose yourself. You get to determine how much you’re going to reveal and when. But it’s another thing to expose someone else, to pull the curtain back during the middle of their annual physical. (This actually happened once to me – I’ll have to remember to write about it some day!)
When I finished the first essay in the book, I showed it to two friends. One is a psychiatrist, and the other is a writer. Both of them read it. The psychiatrist friend said, “Wow, that’s terrific. But of course you can’t publish it.” The writer friend said, “Wow, that’s terrific. Of course you must publish it!”
So this was my dilemma. And the thing is, I’m a writer, not a psychiatrist. So of course I published.
I did take precautions. First of all, for years I published only in literary journals, which hardly anyone reads. But in some of the essays, I also changed names and changed or left out identifying details. Sometimes I asked family members to read a piece before I published it. In one case, I asked permission. My family has been accepting and even supportive, which says a great deal for them, because I’ve explicitly emphasized the less than rosy moments. I could, some day, write another book called, maybe, Felicities. It would have a entirely different narrative arc – and it would paint an equally true but differently true picture of my experience.
In the process of working on this book, I thought a lot about the ethics of writing about others. Many people talk about the author’s motivation in these situations. Is the motivation revenge, or something more honourable? I think that’s important, but I also think it is only part of the issue. In writing about others, I believe we have an obligation to consider not just the feelings that motivate us, but also, the degree to which our subjects might be vulnerable. And sometimes their level of vulnerablilty isn’t self-evident. For example –some might claim – in fact, some did claim – that it was wrong for me to write about my young daughter. But people who actually know her were a lot less quick to jump to that conclusion. For one thing, she happens to be an extremely articulate, verbally precocious child who looks as if she will write rings around most people, including me – and if she decides one day to tell her version, I have no doubt that she will be able to do that.
In the end, I don’t think there are any easy or universally applicable answers, and in writing about others, we are always taking risks. So many of the essays in this book address those risks, either implicitly or directly. One of the ways I address them is through braided narratives, stories that offer a sort of ironic counterpoint to the main narrative. Another way is through quotations from extra-literary sources, like a medical textbook or the dictionary. I also make use of juxtaposition and white space, which I hope invite the reader to pause and call up her own memories and thoughts. The point of all these devices, for me, is to move the story beyond anger or self-pity, towards compassion and understanding, and beyond a single voice or a single story (my own) towards a sort of polyphonic effect. I want to embody the idea that other perspectives might be brought to bear on this same material. Not everyone would see it or say it the same way.
If memoirists have an obligation to the people we write about, I think we also have an obligation to the material, to our stories. Because after all, even though our stories might involve other people, they are, primarily, ours. Many memoirs are coming-of-age stories, or trauma stories of one kind or another; mine is no exception. These are the oldest themes in literature, but they never go stale, because well-told, they offer witness and testimony to the traumas, large and small, that shape each life. And even in this age of self-exposure, I think we still need literary memoirs and personal essays, because more than any other genre they model a way of making sense of our messy existence. Literary memoir and essays mine the past for its patterns, and, as Sven Birkerts puts it, “To read the life of another person put before us in this way is inevitably to repossess something of ourselves.” It doesn’t matter that the circumstances of your life may be very different from the author’s. For it is the structural elements of the work, its careful balancing of narrative perspectives, that stimulates your recognition of the patterns in your own life and awakens you to their deeper meaning. The American writer David Shields says that one of the best things anybody ever said about his work was, “It’s all about you…but somehow, it’s not about you. How can that be?” That’s the effect I’m after in my work, too. I hope that my self-revelations will lead to readers’ self-discoveries.
So there’s a sort of therapeutic benefit to be derived from reading a good memoir or personal essay. There is also a special aesthetic value. The memoir and essay are often criticised as self-indulgent. Adam Gopnick argues that, on the contrary, they are the least self-indulgent of genres. You don’t get Brownie points for a lyrical descriptive passage that goes nowhere (as we find in some novels), or language apparently used for its own sake (as in certain poetry). If your reader can’t connect to the emotions in a memoir or an essay, if there’s no humour or pathos, if the ideas are banal or poorly expressed, or if the language is stale and flat, she will quickly put it down. Samuel Johnson (an essayist himself) said that the only legitimate reasons to write were to “help us enjoy life more, or endure it better.” The reader of an essay or a memoir needs to feel that one or both of those experiences await her in the book or she won’t continue reading. So the charge of self-indulgence really doesn’t hold a lot of weight. I think it is usually levelled by people who haven’t read very many literary essays or memoirs (as opposed to to the celebrity ghost-written kind), or by people who are afraid or perhaps too lazy to do the work of self-reflection that a personal essay or a memoir demands. In other words, when I hear someone dismiss memoirists as navel-gazers, I wonder about the lint in his belly button.