Tag Archives: writing

Thank You

Thank you to all my fellow writers and friends who commented or emailed after reading my remembrance of Jack Scovil. Most of you are writers who knew him; some of you — writers or not — had no connection.  Wherever you fit, you’ve taught me some important lessons. What a sense of loss for all of us — but  your company was solace as we honoured one of those rare individuals who understood and encouraged our vulnerable calling. What a relief to read your stories, to look into them as mirrors in which I saw reflected the truth of my own experience, multiplied by all of yours. Our time with Jack was a wonderful moment that passed through our lives like a current switching on a string of lights. The lights remain. Thank you.

Curious, I visited your blogs and websites and I saw a fantastic array of talent — mystery writing, TV writing, personal memoir, literary fiction — and it brought home to me what I too often forget: that even as a solitary soul, I’m one of a tribe of hard-working people who nurture and love what they do. It reminded me once again that this work isn’t about being famous (although acclaim is wonderful when it comes) or rich (although an income is always more than welcome). The writer who hits the jackpot is as rare as a supernova, but it’s rarity that makes news, and that news sometimes defeats us. Yet in discovering  your work, I started to realize that writers live by different rules. We’re farmers growing tender shoots, toiling in the vineyard for the day when fine wine’s ready to be poured. Farmers don’t make headlines, but their work hums under the surface of life and makes a whole life possible. So it is with writers.

We’ll never replace Jack, but we honour him in our writing. So thank you all for the seeds you plant and grow.

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Paradise Deleted

A while back, I was writing on a computer that clumped along like ol’ Dobbin the work-horse, its eyes too bleary for more than a frame or two of YouTube, its pace too slow for quick links to websites. The poor thing would freeze at the sight of my email, hitched as it was to a dial-up connection.  I promised myself that when the manuscript got done, I’d retire my faithful old friend and buy myself a brand-new, wireless computer. Engrossed in writing, I ignored the inconvenience. I was safe in that protected space that all writers carry within them, the silence in which imagined voices speak, a space nourished by good reading, long walks and gardening. I’d worked to cultivate this inner life — my house is quiet, my husband’s supportive, my time is my own.  The writing flowed.

Now I’m trying to find my way back into that space again.

With the new computer came wireless email. Some of it arrived with bulky videos, quick to download. My world exploded with new possibilities. I got a spiffy new website and two Facebook pages, one of them for a brand-new podcast. I’ve kept up my reading, my quiet walks, but life has gotten noisier. There’s software to learn, people to “friend” and “like,” a thousand opportunities to promote my work. Only now I’m beginning to wonder if I can still write.  My inner space has gone into hiding. I now live in a world of infinite distraction, clicking on weird stuff I’d always lived without, googling my way through a library’s worth of semi-useless info.  It feels like the bite of a serpent’s fruit, a fall from grace. Paradise deleted.

In the myth of Eden, the serpent tells Eve that the fruit would make her like God. Compare that to the old computer joke in which a room-sized IBM model answers the question “Is there a God?” by saying “There is now.”  The folks in Eden got it wrong, and so have we. In the arts, as in life, it’s all about human limits. Gorging and splurging on infinite choice  is nothing more than gorging and splurging. Every time I interrupt my writing to google the answer to some impulsive question, I’m affirming the nutty belief that I’m capable of knowing everything and anything I want, of having whatever I want whenever I want it, that my desires always come first. Go on, eat the fruit and you’ll never die. Hard-wired with the Eden myth, we still bite. Only the power to create thrives on boundaries and discipline, silence and protected inner space, the effort of staying focused on the work at hand. All of which affirms a more humble set of values: what we know is hard-won; what we can understand is limited, what brings joy is not self-indulgence, but the careful tending of words and truth. For a writer, nothing else matters. What always matters is to find a way back home.

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The Best Revenge

As a reader, I don’t enjoy stories with tidy endings. Real life is raggedy and messy, and the best stories suggest this. As a citizen, I feel the same way. I step back from imagining that battles, even worthy ones, can be won for good. The world may be a safer place without the likes of Osama bin Laden, but I don’t rejoice in his death, in this false ending to a tragedy. Leave that kind of barbarism to the fanatics of al-Quaeda who rejoiced in the deaths of so many innocent Americans on 9/11. I’m not prepared to sink to that level.

I respect the tact and genuine humility of President Obama. He conveyed a sense of conscience, of one who refused to transform a grave but necessary act into a display of triumphalism. It’s a fact that sometimes the best among us end up in wars and are forced to take life. In ancient warrior societies, returning veterans underwent purification rituals because it was understood that killing, however necessary, was a radical break from the norms of civilization. Like Obama, they had the humility to know that.

To commit mass murder in the name of God (as bin Laden did on 9/11) went beyond the psychopathic. It tore a horrific rent in the fabric of our common life, one that a writer or an artist can help to mend by re-imagining the world, so bent out of shape by one man’s cruel imagination. It may not sound like much, but you’ve heard it said that living is the best revenge. It’s also the only thing that matters. Let’s honor our dead with humility — meaning that we know our limits, that we know the gravity of taking life, that we know when enough is enough.

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The Strangest Story of All

Out of the hundreds of books—novels, novellas, short stories, nonfiction— that I’ve read in my lifetime, none has a story as strange as the one which Christians celebrate this weekend. Whenever I read the tale of Easter, I feel perplexed. Most of us don’t. Most of us are either skeptical or unquestioning. In the first instance, what’s with a dead guy coming back to life? Resurrection’s a nice metaphor—it’s spring and the daffodils are rising from the dead, and beyond that, it’s whatever. At the opposite extreme, there are those Christians who have absolute faith in Jesus, the tombstone-roller with a string of miracles already on his resume. Easter’s the ultimate one-off. He’s God, after all.

I’m neither a dismissive skeptic nor a hard-core believer. I’m a writer who loves and appreciates the mystery of life that surrounds us, who knows that in creative moments, it’s possible to step outside the confines of time and to glimpse extraordinary visions. “Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

Mystery counts for me as a writer—awe and wonderment, respect for those things that we cannot understand, even as we struggle to express them in words. Mystery drives us onward. In this spirit, I’m also a student of theology, and with great literary and scholarly interest, I’ve studied the four gospels and their breathless eyewitness accounts of the first Easter morning, none of which quite agree. As a writer, I approach these heartfelt and puzzling declarations, mindful of the “luminous halo” that also enveloped those scribes of long ago, sensing the truth-value of statements that are beyond me. I conclude that there’s no way to prove or disprove the events of Easter.

Yet as a writer, I’m not dismayed by this claim of resurrection.  It’s just too mysterious, too full of wonder to dismiss outright. It’s the strangest story, real and surreal, filled with both reportage and narrative invention. It invites us to peer through the veil of time, and there the story ends. Or maybe it just keeps right on going, as good stories do, alive in the world and in us.

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Farzana Doctor’s Six Metres of Pavement

There’s a certain type of novel that makes you wonder how hard it might have been for the author to say good-bye to her characters once she’s finished writing. In some books, characters stand up and without too many authorial nudges, form an alternate family in which both the writer and her readers find comfort. This is the case with Farzana Doctor’s new novel, Six Metres of Pavement, which tells a story of grief and loss from two points of view. There’s the remorseful voice of Ismail Boxwala, a Toronto city employee who twenty years earlier, made the worst mistake of his life.  On a hot summer day, he left his baby daughter Zubi in a parked car, and his forgetfulness cost him the child’s life, his marriage and his reputation in Toronto’s South Asian community.  The second strong voice is Celia’s, recently widowed and grieving, left almost destitute and living across the street from Ismail with her daughter and son-in-law.

After Ismail’s tragedy, years pass and he plods along at his job, nudged and chided by his well-off brother Nabil, getting drunk at the local pub and sleeping around. Into his distressing life comes friendship and  brief affair with fellow pub-crawler Daphne which ends when they dry out and she comes to realise that she’s gay. At Daphne’s prompting, Ismail ends up in a writing workshop where he meets Fatima, a gay-rights activist whose mortified parents kick her out of the house. When Ismail tries to reason with them on her behalf, the spectre of his past misdeed comes to haunt him. Gradually, Ismail begins to realise that had his daughter lived, she would have been young Fatima’s age, and he sets out to gives her a temporary home while his relationship with widowed Celia begins to show promise.

There’s a lot of action in this book, the pages turn, and it’s to Farzana Doctor’s credit that it’s all believable. These are characters we can root for, who we hope will find happiness as they live on in our minds beyond the novel’s final pages. Yet it has to be said that some strong writing sometimes gets undermined by a tendency to point out the obvious. When Ismail’s ex-wife Rehana brings home a pretty bowl, he mutters, “We have so many bowls, why buy another?” and we get it right away.  A man who overlooks small gifts might also get careless about small children. We don’t need to read that he muttered his dismissal “in his characteristically killjoy way.” At other times language is applied like a label, rather than as a way of shaping a character’s individuality. “Sleep deprivation had made her irritable,” says Ismail of his ex-wife, a phrase that could have been said of anyone.

Yet all in all, Six Metres of Pavement is worth your attention. It’s heartfelt work about characters who come to treat their worst scars with due respect and who learn to abide in chosen families who love them. It speaks with a compassionate voice to a truth that surrounds us.

Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor is published in Toronto by Dundurn Press.

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Writers, Listen Up!

A few weeks back, I was visiting New York City, and while I was stocking up on books, I also dropped in on one of my favorite NYC institutions — Bargemusic, the tiny floating concert hall on the Brooklyn side of the East River. Now I’m no music critic and this is a book blog, so you won’t be reading comments on the refinements of violin and piano technique — not my strong suit. But as a writer, I learned something at this particular concert that was too important to keep to myself. So here goes.

For those of you who don’t know the place, Bargemusic has been operating since 1977 on a converted coffee-barge moored under the Brooklyn Bridge, featuring emerging and established chamber-music groups, jazz musicians and more. Founded by violinist Olga Bloom, it’s now run by the equally dynamic violinist Mark Peskanov. While I’ve never done a head-count, I’d guess the Barge’s wooden folding chairs seat about one hundred. Every seat is a great seat. Gaze beyond the musicians, and you can see the skyline of Lower Manhattan, the passing cruise-ships lit up and gliding along the river, and the ropes of light that mark the Brooklyn Bridge. You’re never allowed to forget the river that underpins the musical rhythms with rhythmic swells of its own.  I imagine a conversation here between the intentions of the composer, the interpretations of the players and the river itself, as if all three had conspired to create the music. It’s a beguiling place, connecting music to the natural world.

This month, Bargemusic began a summer program of afternoon concerts, three days a week at 1pm. One hour long, kids free. What a treat, I thought. Having always come to evening performances, I assumed that the lunchtime audience would be packed. It wasn’t. There were only eight of us, along with two performers — the violinist Mark Peskanov and Steven Beck, pianist. They were two musicians whose work I’d often enjoyed, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for this experience, a “private” hour of chamber music with two of the city’s best in the field. Why would they do it, for such a tiny audience ?

Then the duo plunged into Mozart with passion, serenity and complete attentiveness. They seemed to embody a love for the spirit of the music and the same passion for communication that a writer experiences when the work is going well. The spontaneous generosity of the musicians overrode all that petty stuff about numbers. I remembered all the authors’ readings I’d attended (and given) with audiences of five or six; all the small presses and literary journals in which I (and many others) publish their work for handfuls of readers. Sometimes we’re not sure why we do these things, but in the arts, we just keep doing them. It’s a mystery, that we’re in love with something and we want to share it — and that passion is at the heart of our creative lives. As a writer, it was good for me to experience that passion through another art form altogether, and to remember the intrinsic worth of any such gift that is given to us. It was equally wonderful to chat with my fellow-listeners afterwards, and to share their excitement with this intimate and very special experience. Fabulous music, made for us! We could hardly believe it.

I hope to continue my writing in that same generous spirit.

When you’re in New York City, go visit  Bargemusic! Especially at lunchtime.

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