From Movement and from Stillness

In an essay as much about disability, weather, and inheritance as it is about writing, Lucy Schiller explores learning to write while being still:

“There is a type of essay I love called a ‘walking essay’ in which the writer moves through space, allowing those things she sees and encounters to ‘jog,’ so to speak, her brain. To encounter a pear tree in an alley might mean open a digressive exploration on the taming of things. To watch a couple arguing on a street corner might prompt a few musings backwards into the emotional space of her own life. …

“In general, to be able to move physically through space prompts and justifies otherwise aerobatic leaps of the mind, and it can be a mode of resistance, to be able to amble. But it strikes me … that sometimes the mental movement that accompanies walking essays can feel a little too convenient: the way happening upon a spotted dog, then a shouting man, then an old, broken fountain might allow for a lengthy meditation.

“On days like today, and in seasons like this one, when movement is limited, of course I can’t write a walking essay. The task of ‘journeying,’ of connecting ideas, feels particularly difficult: I’ve been staring at the same things for minutes, days, years. The similes that come to mind are all movement-oriented: wading, struggling, thwacking. And yet here I am, stagnant, in my chair.”

I have nothing like the author’s health issues, and our winter weather has not been quite as severe as she describes, but I have been dealing with an injury for the last few weeks, with no clear end in sight, and walks of any length are painful. A walk amongst and between our heaps of snow is appealing, especially as the days get longer and the sky is often clear with the cold, and I wonder what I’m missing by staying indoors.

Movement, sunset

A winter sunset, featuring the reflection of ceiling lights.

The lack of walking has probably not impacted my writing, although a few more weeks without exercise might do its own damage. But I like the idea that what you write might be something that moves as you move or remains still when you do. And the idea of an essay (or any piece of writing) not as something that must always be moving forward, but as something that might stay in one place, fixed and constant, and still be good.

The essay ends with an encouraging thought: “There are ways of sitting static, of finding meaning and even a sense of possibility without going on a walk and searching for a pear tree, an argument, a plot.” I will need those ways as spring approaches, unless I’m ready by then to take long walks again.

Making Yourself Disappear: Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys

In the first half of Helen Humphreys’ novel Machine Without Horses, the narrator (who very much resembles Humphreys herself) is preparing to write a novel. She is inspired by Megan Boyd’s obituary, which also caught the eye of Maira Kalman (a devotee of obituaries) in The Principles of Uncertainty.

Megan Boyd's obituary, a page from Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman

The first part of the novel has a lot to say about writing: about doing research, about approaching the story, about deciding what and who to write about and how. I found it so absorbing that when the second part began — the story which the narrator was working to tell all this time — I wasn’t ready for the first part to end.

“The trouble with writing a novel is that there are so many ways to make mistakes that you just have to give up on the idea of getting it right. Instead, you have to choose a few aspects to remain faithful to and do your best to make everything else as believable as possible for the reader.”

The narrator is in mourning for a series of deaths in her life. She reflects on how being a novelist has affected her life and has given her a way to deal with her losses:

“I have been writing for so long now that I can no longer separate myself from the act of writing. I don’t know where one begins and another ends. There was a time when it bothered me that I had become what I did, that I tended to look at everything in terms of story or image, that while I was experiencing my life, I was also apart from it. But I have made peace with that now because what I know about writing is that it will take everything I can throw at it, and that is a comfort. I can fall into it and it will absorb my sorrow, my ideas, my restlessness. It has become a process for making me whole again whenever the world breaks me down.”

As she learns how to make salmon flies herself, as she lives her quiet life in the wake of loss, she works carefully through what it means to write a novel:

“There are three main questions to consider when beginning a novel: What is the story, whose story is it, and how are you going to tell that story? Of these questions, the third one is the most interesting and deserves the greatest amount of thought.

Most stories have, quite frankly, been told before. Most themes have been touched upon. So, it matters how you choose to tell a story. And it pays to spend a long time trying to figure out what the optimum way to do this is going to be. Often, the first thing that occurs to a writer is just the most overused trope. Turning approaches over, spending days, weeks, months, considering all the elements of your story and how they will best be served, will yield up more interesting options for the narrative.”

Considering these questions brings up a new question, a more serious one:

“There is another question to ask yourself when you set about writing a novel, perhaps the most important question of all: Why? Why do it? The world does not really care that you tell this particular story. There are always plenty of other stories that can be told, ones that are more interesting, more politically or socially relevant. Stories that address the moment of time that we stand on and therefore have greater imperative.

It is hard to write a novel, to make something out of nothing. And it gets increasingly harder, not easier, the longer I do it. I find more challenges with writing now than I faced when I was younger.”

But the challenges are overcome. The first part of the novel ends with her declaration that she is ready to write the story:

“Whatever is preoccupying me at the moment needs to be synthesized into fuel for the narrative, but it has no place in the actual narrative. This is the sleight of hand that comes with writing a novel. It is all about making yourself disappear.”

And then she does disappear. The novel begins (though in fact it’s barely a novella), and every trace of the narrator is gone, except what seeps through in the character she has created of Megan Boyd. But the novel is not stronger for the narrator’s absence.

You Go Toward That Tone: John Berger and Michael Ondaatje in Conversation

During a recent weekend trip to a small town on the north coast of Lake Erie, in a used bookstore that also sold antiques, I stumbled upon Writing Life, a collection of essays about writing by a variety of authors. One of my favourite kinds of books.

Writing Life, edited by Constance Rooke

I’ve been working through it slowly and this afternoon read the conversation between John Berger (of Ways of Seeing fame) and Michael Ondaatje, in which Berger tries to describe what his books are like before the writing begins:

“Well, I can only describe what happens, which doesn’t make much sense, but before I really start writing a story, like you there is something there. There is Venice or a date or a character, but that’s only a starting point. The story in my mind is absolutely not verbal. There are no words for it at all. Nor is it visual, it’s not a series of shots or a painting. It has something in common with music in the sense that it is complex and can be held in the head like a whole musical composition, although it can never all be there at any one given moment. I haven’t any words for it. It is perhaps in a way geometric, but it’s not, because I think that implies an incredible precision. Perhaps it is algebraic in a way, but it’s much more chaotic than that; and the strange thing is that, for a long, long time when writing, I check it against the inarticulate, totally amorphous thing, and it can say with certainty, ‘no, what you’ve just written is false” or, occasionally, occasionally, ‘yes, perhaps that’s not too far away.’”

Ondaatje replies by describing it as an “an unfinished ideal … not at all verbal, it’s sort of like a tone of music. … You go toward that tone.”

There’s also a great exchange about characters unexpectedly breaking into a story. And I loved Ondaatje’s description of how in the process of writing a scene you’re kind of waiting for things to happen:

“When I’m writing a scene, I will not know the eventual arc of that scene at all. I am waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to say the wrong thing, change his or her mind, do something odd, pour some milk over somebody’s hand. Odd things like that are outside the normal behaviour of a scene.”

I’m getting close to the end of my latest first draft (yes, still on a first draft, again), but it still feels like every scene I write has this possibility inherent in it. Possibilities both in the scene itself and in each character. I’m close to the end but I still don’t know what’s going to happen. Enough of the time, something halfway good has emerged when I stay open to whatever might happen next, whether it seems to fit or not. So all I can do is keep trying for that, again and again.

You can watch or listen to this conversation between John Berger and Michael Ondaatje in its entirety on Vimeo.

My Favourite Books of 2018

Continuing my tradition of insatiable reading, I read 112 books in 2018. My reading goal was originally 66 books. I started the year planning to slow down, to make more room for writing, but that’s not how it worked out.

It’s not always easy to pick favourite books, because it’s not as simple as listing out the books I gave five stars. The best books are not quite what this is about, exactly. It’s more about what engaged me significantly or affected me strongly while reading, what stuck with me after finishing, what I want to keep thinking about long after closing the book.

Writing a short summary of the month’s reading in the newsletter has been a useful exercise in giving a little extra thought to what I read. Some books I forget very quickly, but forcing myself to write a sentence or two about each one helps to put them in perspective and makes them seem less disposable than I am sometimes inclined to treat them.

Since I’ve been working on a novel or three all year, my perspective as a writer very much informs my reading experience, of fiction in particular. I respond differently to books which include some element — story, style, structure, tense, voice, narration, whatever — that resonates with what I’m aiming at or dealing with in my own writing. Which is not to say that I only read fiction of the kind I want to write (I try to read diversely but definitely skew more literary than genre), but that I often enjoy novels more when they teach me something about my own writing, even if I can’t articulate exactly what that is.

So let’s go: my favourite books of the year, in no particular order:

How Fiction Works, James Wood. This book deserves its own post, which I plan to give it at some point.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis. Such a romp. Historians travel to the past to track down an object needed for the recreation of a church. Of all the purposes time travel might serve, in this universe it’s reserved for the needs of academic historians in Great Britain. Things get pretty confusing as the end approaches, but it’s fun and funny enough not to matter.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik. A follow-up (not sequel) to Uprooted, another favourite, which did not disappoint. Totally engrossing and engaging. Beautiful storytelling and world-building.

All This Reading: The Literary World of Barbara Pym, Frauke Elisabeth Lenckos and Ellen J. Miller. I love Pym’s novels (of which I re-read three this year), and these essays were such a pleasure to read. They provided new insights into some of my favourite books and made me think a lot about my own writing.

The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe. A classic novel about women and careers and relationships and friendships. Totally engaging.

The Friend, Sigrid Nunez. A book about grief and writing and friendship and dogs. A case where the prose is lovely and the story, such as it is, is good, but then the structure and the bits about writing elevate it to something special.

Early Work, Andrew Martin. When I try to describe what this book is about, I start to think it must have been worse than I remember it being, but I really loved the experience of reading it. It was funny and horrible and sublime.

Motherhood, Sheila Heti. I had a long conversation about the decision to have kids with a friend early one Saturday morning in a McDonald’s while killing time before an ultimate frisbee beach tournament. I told her about this book and meant to lend it to her, but I had dog-eared so many pages and kept meaning to write down the passages that struck me, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m not sure this novel helps with the decision-making process at all, but it’s a fascinating engagement with the question.

Boddhisatva Mind and Taking the Leap, Pema Chodron. I list these together because a lot of the content is very similar, although one is an audio lecture and the other is a short book. Full of ideas I return to again and again.

An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler. Immensely pleasurable to read and encapsulates a philosophy of cooking which I’d like to follow more than I do. In 2018 I cooked more than I have in a long time and began enjoying it in a new way. Both watching Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix and reading this book have inspired me to keep experimenting and enjoying the practice of cooking food.

Aside from these favourites, there were several books I really enjoyed which definitely warrant a reread: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, Kudos by Rachel Cusk, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (more here), Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Rachel Stielstra, The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto, Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, and My Private Property by Mary Ruefle.

I could continue listing more books I liked, but I’d quickly end up listing pretty much every book I read, with the exception of maybe ten. So I’m ending it here and wishing you, dear reader, happy reading in 2019.

Writers and Words: Creating a Universe with Words

Writers in conversation and interviews with writers are among my favourite things to read on the internet, whether I’ve read their work or not. I’ve been sharing them in my monthly newsletter for the last several months, but there just isn’t enough room for all of them, so I’m sharing some of them here on the the blog.

Nicole Chung guest-edited Two Bossy Dames with Elena Yip and wrote about her memoir All You Can Ever Know:

“As harsh as I can be about my own stuff, I know writing can be worked on. I know it can be improved. I see it every day, as it’s my job to try to help other writers with it — to believe in the potential of a story and believe the necessary words do exist. So when I was most anxious about or frustrated with this book, I would try to remind myself to trust that process.”

Meg Wolitzer and Andre Dubus III exchange emails about the writing process (all the quotes are ADIII’s but the whole thing is worth a read):

“I am constantly in awe that if we just show up to the desk in an open and receptive state, with faith that something will come, something always does. How do I start a book? Slowly, even with that ‘wired excitement and fear’. I’ve noticed that it tends to go better for me, creatively/artistically speaking, if I know very little before I begin.”

“I write like this until I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, trying to find the causality that makes story itself. This can take me three to five years, working five to six days a week. After all that, is when I begin to fully commit myself to the final structure of the book, which means I start cutting sometimes hundreds of pages, and rearranging the sequence of scenes (plotting, as you know), until I finally end up with what feels like the leanest and truest shape of the story. If I do this structuring too early in the composition process, though, I find that I’m prematurely anticipating someone reading all of this, which keeps me from fully surrendering to the story itself, which I know will lead me down paths and whole passages and characters I will ultimately end up cutting.”

“Because this entire act of creating a universe with words, it seems to me, is not about the writer at all, or even — in the first stages of the novel’s creation anyway — the reader; it’s about unearthing and setting into flight these nearly sacred beings called characters, no matter how flawed or reprehensible many of them may be. Blaise Pascal writes: ‘Anything written to please the author is worthless.’ Such a harsh line, but true, I believe. This is not to say that we writers cannot take pleasure in the daily act of writing; I certainly do, and I know you do, too. But it truly does seem to me that if a life of writing creatively is nothing else, it is a sustained act of practiced empathy, where we keep stepping into the question: ‘What’s it like to be you?’”

Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Powers in conversation at a farmhouse in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia where BK lives:

BK: “As novelists we’re looking for the universal that makes a reader understand that a human person is a human person regardless of where and when and how.”

RP: “Very few people writing now are as absolutely, viscerally persuasive at the level of the scene and the character and the transactional vignettes while still in the service of grand architecture and a thematic preoccupation that manifests itself in all kinds of ingenious ways across the journey.”

BK: “That’s one of the many things I love about revision: Any weak parts, if their motivations aren’t clear you can back up all the way to the beginning, and you can begin building up motivation right from the start. And you get to connect things across time, across place. I would so much rather revise. I wish I could just pay someone to write my first draft, and then I would just revise.”

Alice Adams asks, Why does anyone write?

“Writing a novel is a painful and bloody process that takes up all your free time, haunts you in the darkest hours of night and generally culminates in a lot of weeping over an ever-growing pile of rejection letters.”

Ursula Le Guin on labels:

“Where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

See also: Labels be damned.

The novel and short story in dialogue.

Authors on the stories behind their novels. 

A bonus for anyone needing more books for their to-read list: One month reading feminist classics, and a thread of the best overlooked books of the last ten years.