Friday, 5 December 2014

No bookshelf is an island

An uncomfortable number of years ago, during my 8th grade Industrial Arts class, obsessed with books and temporarily unable to appreciate the utilitarian beauty of wooden bowls (and maybe a little bit afraid of the lathe), I set out to make my own bookshelf. My dad picked up the wood for me from Home Depot and dropped it off at my classroom. I may have had design ambitions when I started out, but what I eventually built was the most basic bookshelf you've ever seen: three shelves, more or less evenly spaced, no frills. I got an A, and when it was done I brought it home, painted it a sort of eggshell ivory colour, and filled it with books.

I've since dragged it around with me a fair bit, although most of my apartments have been too small to accommodate it, or too far away to deliver it. I painted it brown. It sat in my parents' basement waiting for me, collecting dust. Last year, when I moved back to Toronto as a permanent resident, my bookshelf came with me. In my initial burst of homemaking enthusiasm, I repainted it a lovely, almost French shade of blue and loaded it up with as many books as would fit.

I have always been proud of my bookshelf and have always humble-bragged that I built it when I was thirteen. But that is not entirely true.

I didn't build it entirely by myself. I constructed the outer frame and was preparing to take on the shelves. I was intimidated by the next step. What if I nailed the shelves in crookedly? What if I couldn't line them up exactly evenly to make all three shelves the same height? What if--gasp--I didn't get an A?? I left class one day fretting about these issues, silently wishing for some helpful magic elves to sort things out.

When I arrived for my next class, the shelves were nailed in and perfectly straight.

I was a little relieved. I had dreaded the difficulty of putting in those shelves and suddenly all the stress and worry was gone. It was just done for me. I had my bookcase, I had my A.

But much as I love it, every time I look at the bookshelf I think about the fact that I didn't build it by myself. I still wonder why my teacher intervened. Did he see I was nervous about it? Did he get bored one day or, alternatively, a little too excited about my project (real furniture, rather than another silly bowl)? Or did he simply think I couldn't do it myself?

It's true I'm no great woodworker--although I did once intern for Fine Woodworking magazine--but the memory of making my bookshelf always makes me feel a little deflated. The first of many stops and starts in my literary life, the first (but not the last) ambitious project I dreamed up and never fully executed.

And yet, I have a bookshelf, a sturdy one that has lasted me nearly twenty years with no signs of wear.

Could I have built it myself? Would I have learned something through the effort that would have stayed with me?

Maybe. My bookshelf has always been a little haunted by the wondering.

But maybe it's time for an exorcism. Maybe it's time to think about the bookshelf not as a symbol of my shabby follow-through, but as a reminder that you don't always need to do everything by yourself, and you can build something stronger with a little help from someone who knows what they're doing.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

(Less) guilty pleasure

I inherited a love of fashion from my grandma, who is a talented seamstress.  Before she married my grandpa, she worked at a couture wedding dress shop in Manhattan and throughout her life she has made gorgeous outfits for her sister, her mother-in-law, herself, and for my mom and aunt when they were young. She also made many of the best Halloween costumes my siblings and cousins and I wore as kids-- we still have miniature, museum-worthy replicas of nearly every Disney princess gown, Tinkerbell, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Batman.

But I can't make clothes (as you might remember from my disastrous costume-making efforts).  I only love them.

Judith Thurman
It's a love I've always felt kind of ashamed of. I generally resist reading fashion magazines, blogs, even books, because I fear that my interest is shallow or less intellectual. And yet I am captivated by the costume design on many of the movies or TV shows I watch (I even watch some shows almost exclusively for the costuming). I read articles about museum exhibits on Victorian funeral dress and the only museum I have been to in Toronto so far is the Bata Shoe Museum.

Over the years, I have come to semi-comfortably, if reluctantly, inhabit this tension-- loving clothes, hating myself for it.

That is, until recently, when I listened to a wonderful interview with author and New Yorker staff writer Judith Thurman in an episode of the (amazing) New Yorker: Out Loud podcast about fashion as a subject worthy of intellectual inquiry.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Lee Maracle and writing with roots

Many years ago I read The Grass Dancer by Susan Power, a Lakota writer who earned her MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. I don't remember much of the story (time to re-read!) but what I do remember vividly is the main character's mother, Lydia Wind Soldier, and her vow of silence. Her last words are harsh ones, spoken to her husband, who is killed in a car accident soon after. She believes she cursed him with the power of her words and refuses to speak again, refuses to unleash her "killing voice" on anyone else. And yet her silence wounds her son, who doesn't understand it and, instead of recognizing it as a gesture of protection, feels implicated by it.

Lydia's silence invites all sorts of conversations about grief and forgiveness, the interconnectedness of power and speech/voice, but it also makes me think about the individual's responsibility to her community and how belonging to people brings with it a responsibility that is not always easy to navigate.

I was reminded of this recently when reading an interview in Quill & Quire with Lee Maracle, a writer from the Stölo* Nation in B.C. The article was my first exposure to Maracle; in it, she talks about telling the elders about the work she's doing with the traditional stories: "In my community, the elders actually don't have the authority over how you work with the stories. That's why I've never asked them. I can still plow on if they don't say anything. But I wouldn't. I wouldn't step outside my family."

Lee Maracle
Maracle's perspective is a good reminder that the stories we tell rarely belong to--or bear consequences for--only us.

And it was refreshing to think about writing from within a community, when so often we imagine the writer as necessarily separate, watching from the wings.  For Maracle, it seems as if the responsibility of writing within the parameters of her community feels less like a shackle imposed upon her by the elders than a root she herself has set down into the earth and nurtured, so that she may continue to draw from and add to her heritage.

How different is the literature that emerges from this perspective--how different are its intentions?--from that which emerges from isolated minds working on the fringes?

*I can't figure out how to make the appropriate symbol on my computer, but the second "o" should have a line over it.  Like a tilde without the wiggle.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Ryan Adams, Curiosity and a Kazoo Solo

Last night G and I went to our first concert at Massey Hall to hear Ryan Adams.  Massey Hall feels to me strangely like a hybrid between an opera house and a high school auditorium.  In the stairwells, the concrete walls were painted white and red like a school team's colours (it occurs to me now that they are also Canada's colours).  In the highest level of the gallery, where we sat, the seats are wooden and narrow, and the seat folds up when you stand.  There's barely enough leg room for me (at a slightly smudged 5'2").  And yet there is also a sort of opulence in the way the galleries are arranged like opera boxes around the stage.  In between the opening set and the main performance, the lights came on and it felt very much like an intermission at a Victorian theatre, everyone looking around at each other, seeing and being seen.

I'm not very familiar with Ryan Adams or his music, although I really enjoyed the concert and recognized some of the songs he played.  At one point, Adams was riffing with the audience between songs and sarcastically said he was going to do whatever he wanted on his next album--a 10-minute kazoo solo, for example, because "I don't care."

This remark got me thinking about how artists (musicians, writers, painters, etc.) evolve over time, over decades-long careers, and what keeps them going.  In some cases, for example Kathryn Davis (an author and mentor of mine at Skidmore College), the impulse to experiment seems boundless.  From novel to novel, Davis' work feels less like she is reinventing herself than that she is tapping into yet another dimension of her prism-like imagination.  She somehow maintains a sense of wonder and scientific curiosity--effortlessly!  She never seems weary or cynical. In an interview about her book The Thin Place, Davis once said, "The world is a beautiful thing.  I mean, it's also horrible, but it will be sad to lose it." This is both unique to her lens (and great empathy) as an artist, and a common thread, I think, among those writers I most admire, whose work always feels energetic and exciting. It is the exact opposite of Adams' "I don't care" sentiment-- a joke, yes, but a joke I couldn't ever imagine Davis making.

I suppose there are artists for whom art becomes a cynical undertaking. Though an example escapes me at the moment, I know I have come across books that I'm pretty confident were published (if not necessarily written) cynically-- written by a famous author with name recognition and a following, they are bound to sell lots of copies even if the book is kind of crappy (the same book, without the name recognition, would never see the light of day).  Is writing still a labour of love, a mode of exploring the world, in these cases?  Or has it become an obligation, a routine, one the reader can feel?  Are readers as astute as I think they are, in knowing when a writer is phoning it in?

I am a very long way from having an evolving, decades-long career in anything, let alone art-making.  And I appreciate how difficult it can be to stay curious and empathetic as any kind of artist, considering how difficult it is to make a living, and how nepotistic and insular some of these worlds can be. But why make music, why write, why make art of any kind, if all you feel is the burden of it?

I can't help hoping that, if Adams ever does make a 10-minute track of a kazoo solo, it will be the most haunting kazoo solo the world has ever seen, full of passion none of us had ever realized a kazoo could express.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"What do we know? What do we love?"

A friend of mine from college gave me a book by Tom Robbins called Still Life with Woodpecker as a graduation gift, purchased second-hand and a bit yellowing (the way she said his books are meant to be read and shared) and with a note handwritten on the title page.  I began reading the book more or less immediately.  The language was ecstatic and clever, sometimes crass and always dense; reading 10 pages was a dizzying experience.  I picked it up and put it down again, working my way slowly toward an ending that I couldn't begin to predict.  It took me three years to finish, three difficult years that left me drained and disillusioned. I finished the book at a sort of crossroads in my young adult life.

The answer to life is to be found on a pack of Camel cigarettes, Robbins writes. And only in the end does he reveal that answer: CHOICE. At 25, feeling stuck and angry, this was a revelation I was ready to act on.  Had I read that word a year or two years or three years earlier, it would have meant much less-- maybe nothing.  But I read it at precisely the right time, when it was enough to make me imagine a fresh start.

I know what it is to find the right book at the right time.

This is one of many reasons Dani Shapiro's post "On the Right Book at the Right Time", on her blog Still Writing, resonates with me. I love Shapiro's prose.  It's warm and honest and self-reflective--perhaps unsurprisingly, since she is a memoirist as well as a novelist. Shapiro begins the post with a story of how she stumbles across a book in a Seattle bookstore that transports her (and us) into a memory of meeting the author, Anne Truitt, years before at an artists' residency in Saratoga Springs (the town where I went to college, where I received Robbins' book and studied with one of my own great mentors, Steven Millhauser). She brings Truitt to life, though she is dead, and shares her experience of reading Truitt's book so many years after meeting her. The quotes she chooses to share from the book support her memories of the author, while posing compelling questions about art and life.

I love the post's movement from the micro to the macro: What began as a personal (but resonant) anecdote became a meditation on art and life.  I also feel rewarded emotionally and intellectually after reading it.  I feel closer to Shapiro, whose writing is frank and unguarded and who generously shares a photo of herself at work, giving the reader a glimpse into her writing life.  I am also intrigued about the two women writers/artists she references/links to and their work. And I am left asking myself questions asked first by Truitt and then Shapiro: "What do we know? What do we love?"

I would like to achieve a similar movement (between the personal and universal, the emotional and intellectual) and honesty in my own blog writing. It seems a good approach for writing and thinking about things (books, the creative struggle, etc.) that I lack the experience or credibility to talk about with any authority. Shapiro has authority-- she is published, known in the literary world-- but she still speaks of writing and reading through the lens of her own experience in a way that seems to invite the reader in and make her think. Likewise, the subjects of her posts seem to arise organically from her experience.

Reading her blog feels like a conversation with a good friend that you'll stay up late into the night to continue and leaves you lost in thought well into the next day.  Those are the conversations I've always loved to have, and have missed since grad school ended.  I hope my blog can be a place to have those conversations (even if I'll only be having them with myself).

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Shouldn't this be more fun?

This is not us.  
This past weekend my boyfriend Galen and I went to a Halloween party out in Oakville.  We went as teenage mutant ninja turtles (I was Donatello, he was Michelangelo). Our costumes were very much homemade, requiring a little suspension of disbelief from other partygoers.  We took our inspiration from this photo, but we are not the type to spend $60 on two ninja turtles t-shirts and two pairs of plastic glasses that we'll wear for only a few hours. The less money we spend on dressing up for Halloween, the happier we are.

Galen loves building things and making things and he's good at it, so he was excited to make his costume. Not just assemble it from pieces in his wardrobe, but actually MAKE it, with scissors and pieces of fabric and safety pins. He enjoys the process of making things, and doesn't really stress too much about the results.  If we vaguely resemble something that can be understood as a mutant ninja turtle at the end of this, he's done his job and he's content. If not, meh.

This is not how I went into the process (or really go into anything).  Making a costume is not my inclination-- not because I want to spend money on costumes I'll never wear again, but because I'm terrible at making things. I can't draw or paint. I can replace a button here or there but it's a bit of an ordeal and other than that I can't really sew (or knit, or crochet, for that matter). As a kid playing with Legos, all I could ever put together were buildings: square towers built out of square blocks.

I desperately fantasize about being more tactile and creative, and every so often I work up just enough courage to try again, even after the last time, when I sucked at it and gave up.  So I went along with making our costumes.  How hard could it be?  The hipster ninja turtle looked like a relatively achievable goal.

We bought our supplies from Value Village on our way to the Go train: two dark green shirts, one taupe coloured shirt that would be the turtle's underbelly, and two kid's tees, one purple, one orange, for our wristbands and headbands.  And some safety pins.  On the train, we whipped out the scissor I'd packed and got to work.  Galen cut the turtle bellies and we began pinning them to our shirts.

It went wrong almost immediately.  At least for me.  The turtle bellies weren't perfectly oval-shaped, but I sucked this up and devised what I considered a clever strategy for pinning the fabric to my shirt that would not tickle me with pins, nor display the pins sloppily for all to see.  I put about a dozen pins in and proudly put on my shirt--only to discover that my "belly" was aligned to the left, not the centre.  Good for a photo maybe, or text, not so much a belly.  I unpinned the whole damn thing and started over.  It was too high.  I started over again.  By the time I'd finished it was still not perfect and I was using the bare minimum number of pins, too aggravated to be bothered.  When I looked over my shoulder I noticed the woman sitting behind us on the train was gazing at me with amused pity, sort of like the face you might make when you see a baby butt-crawl.

Galen's belly was also pinned on a bit crooked, but he didn't care and swatted me away when I tried to obsess about and re-pin it.  In the time it took me just to pin my belly on to my barest level of satisfaction, Galen had finished his costume and was already helping me with rest of mine (he stepped in just in time to keep me from totally effing up my eye/headband--yes, I'm also unskilled with a scissor).  Whether we looked recognizable to anyone at the party, who knows?

Part of me would prefer the pretty t-shirt that is neat and familiar and easy, but the part of me that won this weekend (the part of me that wins every time I venture out of my shell (pun intended) again to try my hand at making something) prefers the adventure of trying something new, even if it's messy and all I end up making are memories.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

6 Books I Love

When I was a kid, I loved the Scholastic book fairs that came to our school once a year.  I'd take home the flyer days before and read it through cover to cover, circling every book that was a contender for purchase.  Gradually, I'd narrow it down to the ones I had to have and bargain and plead with my mom for just one more than she was inclined to let me buy.  At the book fair, I'd wander from table to table reading the backs of books that caught my eye.  My book allowance spent, I'd binge my last few cents on a bookmark.

I still get that same giddy feeling every time I enter a bookstore; I often lose myself for hours.

I recently came across Girl Canon, a tumblr site that invites women to share their own "canon"--books that influenced and changed them, haunted and educated them.  Narrowing down my list has not been unlike my approach to refining my Scholastic book fair shopping list: a little obsessive, full of urgency and gravitas. So why 6?  It could as easily be 100 but you've got to stop somewhere.  And why not 5? Because now, as then, I needed one more.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I read Little Women at least a dozen times throughout my childhood and adolescence, at least in part because I recognized myself in Jo: compulsive scribblers, both of us.  To this day I consider Amy's burning of Jo's early manuscripts an unforgivable offence.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
My first exposure to magical realism.  It blew my mind.  To this day I have yet to read a novel that encapsulates more fully and eloquently the layers of human experience, from the tangible to the surreal to the impossible. If I had to choose one absolute favourite book of all time, this would be it.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje 
So many things to love about this book and its gorgeous, poetic language.  But what stays with me is the very end, the way Ondaatje manages to somehow create a flicker in time and space, to connect his characters separated by years and continents and a lifetime of choices, in a single gesture.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Salinger's stream of consciousness style felt like a revelation to me when I first read this book in high school. It felt urgent, more like a conversation than a novel.  I think it was the first time I realized that form was a construct that could be manipulated to evoke different responses from a reader.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
Does anyone know his characters as intimately as Salinger?  He can (and does) devote an entire page to the contents of Mrs. Glass's housecoat pocket and makes it feel both vital and enthralling.

Stories by Katherine Mansfield
The two things I love about Mansfield's stories: the brilliant use of exclamation points (at times ecstatic, at times almost desperate) and the unraveling sentences that mirror the unraveling of her characters.  Not many writers could make ending a story with an ellipsis feel inevitable.