Category Archives: Reading

About Libraries

Activity Being Avoided: None. It’s a writing day. I’m allowed to be doing this.
Music In My Head: Kaa Khem — Yat-Kha
Tea Being Drunk: None. It’s water. I celebrated the civic holiday with chocolate cake, and I now have the same stomach ache I recall from childhood.
Books Being Read: Rebecca–Daphne du Maurier, My Happy Days in Hell–George Faludy

The Globe and Mail published this on Friday: Amid growing demand, GTA libraries are helping to fill a social-services gap

That’s my library they’re talking about at the beginning of the article.

Much as I appreciate this article, I’d like to correct the author: libraries have always filled a social-services gap.

 The small town I grew up in didn’t have a lot for kids like me: there were church groups and Brownies, and sport things. As a child, I had some friends but was more interested in books. (The inside covers of my childhood books all have death threats for the sister who had the audacity to thieve from my shelves.) I was eleven years old when I started volunteering at the local library. Very likely, I wasn’t what the average librarian might call helpful, but I was very happy to be there, touching all the books, getting quite side-tracked by reading the books I was supposed to be sorting, and maybe being a little bit useful or something. I felt mature.

I felt like I was being educated in a way that school could never offer.

The building was dusty, high-ceilinged, hushed except for the creaking of old wooden chairs and titanic reading tables. I can’t find any pictures of the interior, but here’s the exterior of heaven:

Image from Canada’s Historic Places

In 1980, someone made a prediction about the town: because of all the sinners and implicit sinning in the area, God was going to lose His patience and deal with the whole sinful mess. Sadly, God (or someone with a flourishing complex) chose fire to express His displeasure. Along with a good handful of other places, the library went down in 1980.

My heart broke. I think there might still be a small fissure beneath the thick scar.

Not to be thwarted, I volunteered at the school library. It was limited in both size and scope, filled with a lot of books that were, frankly, boring. The library contained books that were “appropriate” for W.A.S.P. children up to Grade 8.

I needed better than that. I needed adult books. I needed my big library.

We moved to a larger town just before my 13th birthday. The library there was much the same: old, creaky, educational and safe.

I had even fewer friends as a teenager. Didn’t need them. I had Timothy Findley and Jane Rule.

Can’t think what I’d be, or where I’d be, without public libraries. Certainly, I would be a demand on social services. Where else, pre-internet, would I have learned to be who I am? Where else would someone like me find sufficient sources of words for their sanity?

It’s always good to see public acknowledgement of our need for libraries.

If you need further proof that a good chunk of society’s money needs to go to libraries, you can also check out WMTC’s Things I Heard at the Library. (She’s a librarian, not just someone who would be a drain on society if she weren’t given enough to read.)

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Plus Ca Change…

Next Saturday is Canada’s big “150 year” celebration: 150 years since signing a certain piece of paper. Can’t say much more than that about the number, which is otherwise irrelevant.

It has, however, spurred me on to some reading. I just don’t think I know enough about my own (massive) country. There’s no particular direction to my reading: anything that comes across my path is fair game for consumption, with the exception of hate speech, because I hear more than enough of that in the news.

Though Quill and Quire panned it as “elegant bathroom reading”, I recommend Charlotte Gray’s Canada: A Portrait in Letters as elegant bathroom reading–or public transit reading (though it’s a little hefty; one could do arm curls, I suppose, and kill two birds with one stone). It’s lovely to see that Canada has been the same for the last 200 years: money and resources are unevenly distributed, people of one origin despise people of every other origin, eloquent women are considered lesser than men, Indigenous leaders are still asking for the same things, white leaders dictate how things are and will be, and the uneducated are still arguing about how science works.

I wonder when our country will get it together and start acting like one country.

Draw yourself a nice bath, make a cup of tea–no, scratch that: pour yourself a beer, and start flipping through this collection of proof of our humanity.

 

World Poetry Day Contributions

…in which I demonstrate my linguistic limitations and narrow perspective of the world but–nevertheless, sharing good poetry.

From Canada, Ken Sparling.

From England, L.A. Salami.

From Ireland, James Stephens.

From Brazil, Hilda Hilst.

From America, Richard Brautigan.

From China, Chiu Chin.

Naked Heart: Sneak Peek

NAKED HEART is back!

This year, I’ll be reading at Sneak Peek: Published Authors Share What They Are Working on Now (Saturday, November 12, 2016, 2:00-3:15 p.m. at the new Glad Day Book Shop at 499 Church Street, Toronto). I’ll be sharing the stage with Christopher DiRaddo, Jessica L. Webb and Liz Bugg.

I know what I’ll be reading from–it’s Greek mythology–but I have no idea as to which section I’ll be reading. You’ll have to attend the event to find out.

The selection of Naked Heart authors is nicely varied; as well as listening to me, attend some of the other readings, workshops and panels held Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Write What You Know: Using Minority Characters in Fiction

Activity Being Avoided: grocery shopping (am totally out of milk, which inhibits tea and cereal consumption–which means I might die)
Music In My Head: 10 000 Words–The Avett Brothers
Tea Being Drunk: triple-strength peppermint
Book Being Read: Mercy on the Children–David Adams Richards

The book launch went well… for a first-time, self-published book in the centre of the cultural badlands that is suburbia.  I had a good time, in any case.

Here’s the talk I gave yesterday morning.  Pour yourself another cup of tea.

Write What You Know: Using Minority Characters in Fiction

What is a writer?
The question is, quite frankly, a waste of time because there is no correct answer to it. The only thing that can be said with any certainty, in every case, is that a writer is nothing without a reader.
This reader may not be one of the thousands-upon-millions thronging to Chapters for the latest best-seller; this reader might be the writer themselves, waking in the middle of the night and needing comfort from a familiar story in a familiar voice.
As Alberto Manguel says in Notes towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader, “The ideal reader is the writer just before the words come together on the page.”
Ideally, the writer writes for themselves. Let’s be good writers and uphold the noble practise of thievery: we’ll be stealing Manguel’s concept of The Ideal Reader.
So, why is the ideal reader reading? Another reader, the literary critic Northrop Fry, had a theory that the ideal reader is looking for the ideal life. He said, “Literature does not reflect life; …it swallows it.”
When a reader is searching for the answers to life, they turn to books, looking to be swallowed into a world that offers some sort of clarity. As readers, we know this well: the adolescent hours whiled away in the library, devouring the book that gave us an answer, a solution, a moment of relief. We found characters who were just like us, philosophers who thought the way we thought, poets who liked the same words we like. This created a learned behaviour, if you will. We still seek rescue through books.
So now, as writers, we’re trying to put stories on the paper, but our writing is hemmed in by the things we’ve learned in adult life: namely, how to behave in society. We toe the line between conformity and ostracism—at least, on a good day.
But then comes this need to write, and a need to do something productive with this writing. The ideal writer needs to find, hopefully, more than one ideal reader, and publishing is the simplest way to do this. So the writer searches for a means of getting published and runs into the problem of mathematics, where more readers make it easier to get published. How to go about appealing to more readers? Not by appealing to the minority, surely? “You’ll never get published if you don’t appeal to the masses!” (Now, it should be noted that non-fiction seems to be exempt from this rule: the “don’t frighten the horses” rule is for emerging fiction writers.) Agents and publishers echo this idea of conformity and playing nicely with other children.
Writers have all these words bursting from our souls, but society is also telling us not to rock the boat.
Do the readers agree with the agents and publishers?
The ideal reader certainly does not.
The ideal reader is desperately thirsty for knowledge, for the swallowed life.
The ideal reader reveres the work of the Brontë sisters, who provided the insane and insatiable lovers who frequent our dreams.
The ideal reader clasps James Baldwin’s books as if they were life savers: black and homosexual lifesavers.
The ideal reader searches for everything Stephen Fry has ever written: he’s got tall, homosexual, Jewish and bipolar covered.
Sunday schools and preschools, in particular, seem to encourage the concept of everyone being special. The specific interpretation of the word is up to the individual, but the general idea is there: each person has something that makes them unique. This singular trait—or, perhaps like Stephen Fry, a bucket of traits—is the connecting force between the writer and their ideal reader.
Writers of fiction are not known for being normal. To write fiction, one must be able to delve into the abnormal, paring reality down to its strangest parts. Readers don’t want to read about ordinary things: ordinary life is what we have to suffer every day. If the writer takes something ordinary—eating, walking to work—and writes about the extraordinary aspects of it, then the reader slurps it up.
So writers, when doing their best writing, write what they know. Sure, the writer is doing ordinary things like schlepping the kids to school and paying bills, but the writer is able to write about being educated by said schlepped kids and finding Total Enlightenment in the number of zeros on the credit card statement.
The same applies to characters. Just as the ideal writer would not be able to write well about something they’ve never experienced, they cannot write well about a character with whom they are not intimately familiar. The ideal writer, being abnormal in their own creative way, will take a minor trait of their own and add it to the blood infusion given to the character. This is how the ideal character is created. What could have been two-dimensional and commonplace suddenly becomes fleshed-out and animated because of this minor trait which the writer knows like the back of their hand.
The writer knows these things—not “knows” as in has studied or researched, but knows them intrinsically. The short person has no concept of what it’s like to be tall, and the tall person, though they were once shorter, has little-to-no recollection of living in a world where things are out-of-reach and obstacles obscure vision. The short author can write an authentic account of being short; the tall author can write an authentic account of being tall.
We know “write what you know” is a good rule because that’s what brings out our best writing. But to a certain extent, we’re also obligated to write what we know, to give those little moments of relief to the readers who are floundering through a difficult period, searching for something to keep them afloat. Gustave Flaubert said, “Read in order to live.” Writers do that; writers should help others do that.
For the benefit of the ideal reader, write about the less-than-ideal body, skin colour, sexual orientation, belief or persuasion; write about the raw-meat eaters and the blood drinkers; write about the ones who dance on the sky and the ones who sleep in trees. Write about the lack of mental health, the lack of physical health, the lack of emotional health, the lack of spiritual health.
When the ideal writer feels they’ve satisfied the ideal reader, there’s a second reason for rocking the boat with minority characters: tradition. The written word has always been subversive. Political and religious pamphlets are the signs of a society changing. Books are censored and banned (which, thank you, only serves to make them more popular). Writers have been the ones who, if they haven’t been the instigators of the discussion, have done their best to keep the discussion going. The discussion doesn’t have to be negative or violent or obscene. Perhaps it’s about spirituality or philosophy: the perfect blend of, say, spiritualism and Eastern mysticism at time when Christianity is not offering much comfort. (Herman Hesse totally nailed this for a lot of readers). Or perhaps it’s one of the early dystopian novels, The Time Machine or Brave New World, cautioning the reader not to get too limited in their thinking. Or perhaps it’s the book that makes the ideal reader laugh very loudly, in public, at Edward Gorey’s murdered children because it’s the right time for said reader to discover their love of black humour.
The ideal writer has all these new ideas, these new perspectives in their head. By writing these new perspectives, the writer can, in a small but radical way, change the world.
But what about fame and fortune? Well, if it’s fortune you’re looking for, fiction is the wrong way to go about it.
As for fame, society doesn’t remember the majority of its members. It’s the minority that become and remain famous—or infamous; it’s the oddballs, the rabble-rousers, the free-thinkers; it’s the six-year-old Jacob Two-twos who are repressed by their family but can still conquer the monsters, the Heathcliffs who are wholly unsuitable lovers yet capture the heart, and the Hannibal Lecters who challenge the leading culinary experts. These are the heroes who remain in our minds.
Does the writer have an obligation to write what they know at all costs? Logically, no: it’s more important to put food on the table, as a dead writer is useless. But, as the average writer does not depend on writing for their living, we can talk about the moral obligation to provide for the reader—the ideal reader, not some random, faceless reader that has no connection to the writer. This moral obligation is dependant on the individual, but the writer should think back over their literary lives to the times when books provided the wherewithal for life.
As writers, we need to find that transparent filament that lies between “yes, we’ll publish your book” and “what do my readers need?” It will be in a different place for each writer, but one can be a writer without a publisher; one cannot be a writer without a reader.
Both reading and writing provide for two needs: the need to be an individual, and the need to belong to a group. We can find and create the characters that cater to our individual tastes and specific needs of the moment, and with those characters we can be in the group we belong in. Think of it not so much as a rocked boat or a frightened horse, but an exceptional perspective of reality that society will remember whenever the topic comes up.
By giving the ideal reader a world in which they belong, a world in which they can safely learn how to be the human they’re meant to be, a world where they can think the things which need to be thought, the writer becomes the ideal writer.

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On Kobo

I made a decision. (Break out the champagne!) The e-books are now available on Kobo.

You can order my books here. (I’m not sure why Holland and Jaime doesn’t have its cover: it does on my author’s dashboard.)

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Holland and Jaime: List of Secrets (an excerpt)

On Saturday, October 1st, 2016, To Be Human Again will be published.  Its first public appearance will be at Culture Days at Mississauga Central Library.

Human may be suffering from a serious case of nerves that day, so it will be sitting quietly on a table… shivering, right out in the middle of the Atrium where everyone can see it….

Despite it being Human’s first day, the public reading that day will be from Holland and Jaime.  Holland and Jaime is comfortable being exposed to the world (and the very broad audience at the library will likely be more comfortable with Holland and Jaime than with Human).

You can keep track of events for both Human and Holland and Jaime here.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the Holland and Jaime stories, List of Secrets:

LIST OF SECRETS
ERIK MASTERSON

ERIK KEPT A LIST of everyone who knew about him. On the filthy, worn piece of paper was the name of each of his doctors at the psychiatric hospital. Under each of their names were those of the people they talked to about Erik. Several times a day, he would take this list from his pocket and review it, rubbing his hand nervously through his short, grey hair.

He’d kept the list through twenty of his forty-six years. Every few years, he’d get a new set of doctors and nurses, and he’d have to start the whole list over again: he despised that part. He would carefully put the old list in his locked, fire-proof box, then hand a pen and paper over to the new doctors. Sometimes, the new people wouldn’t understand: they’d write other doctors and staff nurses and consultants. If it was a good day, Erik was able to explain that he needed first and last names, as well as their relationship to the doctor. If it was a bad day, Erik would just walk out and return to his room. He would turn out the lights, draw the curtain around his bed and just wait until someone trustworthy came to get him. In the beginning, they tried to get him to back to the untrustworthy doctors; now, more often than not, they just find him a new doctor.

Only one doctor ever refused to fill out the paper. He’d promised, instead, to never breathe a word to anyone about Erik. As it turned out, he’d lied. When Erik found out, he’d put his list into his fireproof box and had refused to come out of his room for over a month.

Erik wasn’t a danger to anyone, so he was given a green passcard which allowed him to leave the building and walk around the grounds. It was an intern who had actually handed him the pass, and the intern had beamed so widely, so brightly, that Erik had screamed in fear. The intern had been shocked; he explained that he was just proud of Erik and the progress they’d made. He hoped Erik would enjoy the freedom.

Progress. Freedom. Erik had taken almost two years to painstakingly map out every window, every see-through door and every security camera in the building. The new intern didn’t seem to understand the enormity of trying to keep track of those same things out of doors. It was easy to see someone outside, peering in, but it was difficult to see someone looking out the window at you unless the light was right.

Erik didn’t use the passcard for many months.

IT WAS A VERY PLEASANT young nurse who had brought him a map of the new covered courtyard when the construction was finally finished. An overhead trellis had been installed, she said, and covered with artificial grapevines so no one could see down from the windows above. The windows that looked onto the courtyard were in the nursing station and the physiotherapy office. On the map, she had also marked the two cameras, and even where the tables and chairs were. Erik studied the map for days, inscribing the layout into his brain.

They said there was usually no one else in the courtyard between 10:45 and 11:45 because everyone was busy with programmes then. The charge nurse unlocked the courtyard door and held it open for him. He peeked out, comparing the layout to the map the young nurse had given him. He was relieved to see it was identical. Adjusting his ball cap and sunglasses, he gingerly stepped out onto the patio stones, leaning his back against the cool brick wall. Sun trickled through the plastic grape leaves, leaving patterns on the white resin tables and chairs.

“Other than the cameras,” the charge nurse said, pointing them out, “only I can see you through the window. No one is using the physio room right now.” She propped the door open with a chair and left Erik alone.

Outside. He was outside. He wasn’t sure if he was comfortable with it, but he stayed standing against the wall until the nurse called him in for lunch.
Every day, Erik waited for the nurse to unlock the door so he could venture into the courtyard and spend an hour standing with his back to the bricks. On rainy days, he wore his new hooded camouflage rain poncho and Wellingtons. He very quickly became addicted to his one hour of quiet, relative privacy and fresh air. It was an hour of thinking about different things than he thought about when he was inside – nicer things, personal things. Being alone was rather pleasant.

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