Shaena Lambert

The Magic of the Other Hand (and Other Magical Properties of Creating Fiction)

 From the introduction to a reading at the Hollyhock Retreat Centre, on behalf of the the Dana Bass Solomon Scholarship Fund.

Writing fiction is a craft, an exacting one, taking years of constant study. But it’s also a mystery, requiring occasional blasts of light from the ceiling.  All week in Going Under the Words we have been discussing the craft of writing in the Bluff House, intensely devoting ourselves to flow, free-writing, point of view, summary and scene, dialogue, action, conflict. Tonight, I want to talk about the flip side – delving into five very specific ways in which magic lands on the page.  These are:

  1. The Magic of the Other Hand
  2. The Magic of Jumping Universes
  3. The Magic of Strict Rules and Regulations to Completely Made up Things
  4. The Magic of Hamburger and Dust
  5. The Magic of Meeting your Double on the Page

The Magic of The Other Hand.

Let’s say you are writing a short story. You are wondering: why is that dog in the first paragraph? What is that stuff about the sock? And then suddenly near the end you realize that they come together. In fact, these random choices  – dog and sock – convey the hidden meaning of the story! Yet, you didn’t lay down that fox terrier or that woolen sock with a plan in mind. They came out of thin air.

Almost all writers have felt this creative thrill of disparate elements creating the meaning of  a story. It can’t be faked. When elements are consciously added to create Symbolic Meaning, they almost always read as clunky and overly organized. The magic comes organically, from the movement of the Other Hand.

The Magic of Jumping Universes

Again, you are writing a story, or the beginning of a novel, and suddenly it lurches, or bucks – perhaps both – and you are in a completely different story, with different characters, doing different things.  Sally has become Sarah who has shifted to Anne. A story about a family with tennis rackets cluttering their hallway, circa 1932, has morphed into a novel about salmon fishers in the 1900s. This, I learned recently, is precisely what happened to Tolstoy while writing War and Peace: he started it with the revolutionaries of Prince Andrei’s son’s generation – then found himself writing further and further back in time, dropping, ultimately into the Napoleonic Wars! Thank god he stopped with Pierre and Natasha.

This aspect of writing fiction is like Jacob wrestling with the Angel. The only thing a writer can do when this shape-shifting occurs is say to the story or novel : I will not let  you go, unless you bless me—and then hold on as it thrashes and changes and sheds its skins.


The Magic of Strict Rules and Regulations to Completely Made up Things.

Fiction – by its nature — is about concocting made up worlds.  And yet there are dozens of internal rules governing everything we conjure. Rules you don’t expect, or know about, until you try to make changes. Then look out.

For instance, you can change a character’s name – but you can’t change it too much, or the person will have to be changed as well. A tall and statuesque Barbara may be able to become Angela, or possibly, in a pinch, Stephanie. But  just try to change her name to Laura or Amelie.  Or Penny. She will shrink five inches, get plumper or thinner, develop a limp. Her eye shade may change from brown to the colour of a prairie sky.  Her clothes are no good anymore.

As fiction writers we soon learn that there are hard boundaries and strict rules to every invisible world.

 The Magic of Hamburger and Dust

As writers we all know the value of sensory detail — “‘show don’t tell — but we talk about this as if it were merely a craft issue. Showing makes our worlds more believable. But this is a secular way of understanding what feels like a magical question. In fiction, anytime you press into the five senses you yield something deeper, something — precisely because of its singularity, its earthiness — which begins the strange work of becoming a symbol. It is as though words want to be doors into something greater– but they only open when we are specific, tangible, sensory. Large Concepts and Symbolic Utterances will not open the Door. But the smell of hamburger meat will take you into a new room, unlocking meaning.

Hamburger meat that is uncooked– for instance – could mean redness and tenderness. It could mean sunburn, but it could also mean corpulence. Lying in its package, the dots of fat could mean sorrow, and placed on a granite counter top, that sorrow could be laced through a marriage.

Symbol – as Flannery O’Connor has fiercely attested in her book Mystery and Manners — exists only as it touches the real world, and is evoked solely through the senses.  And that is a brilliant truth about real life. And a highly usable piece of magic.

The Magic of  Meeting Your Double on the Page

There are so many other magical properties of writing, which I don’t have time to touch on tonight. For instance, the magic of discovering the muscle of rhythm in poetry and prose  –that magic so well known to the Druids. Or the magic of reading,  where we are teleported into someone else’s mind and heart.

But the final magic I want to touch on tonight is meeting  yourself on the page.

This is the mystery of taking out your journal, snuggling into a chair, and then feeling the sudden letting down of self that occurs. Hello, you find yourself thinking. It’s you again. A feeling of warmth and connection rises as you fall into your own skin. Maybe you felt this first as a child of eight (as I did) lying on your bed writing poetry by an open window. Or maybe you feel it sitting in a coffee shop, or after a frenzied morning of getting kids off to school.  However it comes, it always feels both wholly natural and at the same time mysterious. This is one reason why writers keep going, past writers block, and publishing difficulties, past rejections and the gnarl of plots that knot and confuse.  There is a magic in putting pen to paper. The self is waiting to come to you from the other side of the page.



Scrapbooks and Revision

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I once took a writing workshop with Margaret Atwood. I was fairly new to writing stories, and over the moon to have been selected for her class. This was at the Humber School for Writers. On about day three of the workshop I put up my hand and said, sheepishly but rather proudly too, that I sometimes didn’t want to get my fingers in and change what I’d written in a first draft, because it seemed to have come with a particular kind of force, in a particular set of words. These words had energy, I said, and subsequent rewrites wrecked that force.

“Any advice?”

She observed me for a long time, before replying: “That is an idea you should get rid of.”

It was, she said, an essentially Romantic (capital R) idea, one that pictured creativity as a single, great spasm. “In general,” she finished by saying: “an idea should become more interesting – not less interesting — the more you work on it.”

This stuck with me. The appraising look. The good but scathing advice. And of course I do agree: a story needs to ‘thicken’ – developing layers, posing new questions as you go deeper. It needs to morph and shake off skins.

Still, I stubbornly continue to believe that early drafts, if they are good, can have an energetic force to them – a force that can be caught, and then passed from draft to draft, becoming, no matter how the words change, an energy container for the piece. Every word might change, but the aliveness at the story’s core will stay.

But how do you deepen a piece while keeping the aliveness at the core? How do you keep a draft from getting more stiff and tight with each rewrite, or keep it from peering and itself in the mirror, getting excited by how it looks?

Every writer has a different answer to these questions.

For me, for the last decade or so,  the answer has been to use scrapbooks.

After I have a first draft, I leave it for weeks or even months in order to ‘let it dry,’ as a visual artist would do with watercolours. You can’t work them when they’re wet.

Then, when I’m ready to go to work, I print out the pages and tape them into a large scrapbook, single sided, leaving room to write in longhand all around the piece. A large pad of construction paper will also work. It just needs to be something with big pages – much larger than the 8 ½ by 11 of the story or chapter.

I then write all around the edges, asking myself questions, trying new ideas, colouring in scenes that are faint. Renaming characters, etc. By having the original draft in front of me, tactile and available, I never have to fear ‘losing it’ or ‘wrecking it’ – emotions that that can make me stall out. At the same time I can drift, consider, and work around the edges, asking myself questions, making no distinction between writing the piece and writing about the piece.

This allows me to explore every aspect of it, without trying to ‘sound good,’ which can be the death of fiction. Interestingly, by freeing myself from ‘sounding good,’ I often find that what I’ve jotted in the margin, a note meant only for myself, is exactly the wording I want.

Then I take these notes, type them up into a new draft, let it dry, and re-enter it again.

This physical process – writing all over pieces of scrap paper – frees me to open up the first draft and play with it, while keeping the shape of the initial draft in front of me, with its twists, turns and – yes — that DNA-like surge of energy that comes when you first commit words to a blank sheet, creating a story out of nowhere.

2014-07-24 20.35.02 Hard to take your writing too seriously when your book says ‘fun time’ on the cover.

Doors and Windows

Years ago, when I hadn’t yet written a full, satisfying story and was struggling and confused, I read Flannery O’Connor’s famous essay on symbols and surface, in her book Mystery and Manners. This essay had a huge impact on me. Her theory is that symbols (and I think we could add in theme here as well) can only be created when the writer pays close attention to the surface details of life: how things smell, taste, look, feel.

This is fascinating and true. If you want to talk about death, life, youth, eternity, redemption, you can only do it through dirty socks, rancid butter, mustard stains, a flock of geese. But if you find the right images, and poke at them, and play with them, they can become doors or windows, revealing hidden layers.

To me, these doors and windows are like ‘the gate cards’ in Tarot — seemingly minor cards, usually in the practical pentacles suit, which, because of their very earthiness, their mundanity, magically reveal deeper meanings with close study.

To render the physical world in such a way that it gives off meaning – a kind of world under the world of the story – is close, I think, to what E.M. Forster talks about when he mentions “prophesy” as one aspect of fiction, in his book Aspects of Fiction. Some work has it, and some doesn’t. Some writers always remain secular. They don’t cross over. But others do.

My favorite story writers all are able to do this. With Henry James, for instance, you can feel the huge weight of a secondary meaning beneath the surface of his stories. And the aliveness! Talk about closure. In his brilliant story, “The Beast in the Jungle,” you can actually feel the jaws (of the story and of the beast) snapping shut at the end, like fate. William Trevor, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro (think of what she does with faces!), John Cheever, Barry Lopez, Kafka, Flannery O’Connor – they all have this quality.

As for Nabokov, he actually makes this idea—the remarkable way that everyday objects are freighted with an inner (and sometimes terrifying) symbolism – the subject of his brilliant story, “Signs and Symbols,” about a boy who is incurably mentally ill and his struggling Russian immigrant parents. (The boy’s illness is, in essence, that he attributes wild spirit and meaning, voice and personality to the inanimate world.)  Nabokov shows how the story’s opening image, ‘a basket of fruit jellies in ten little jars,’ which the parents choose to take to their son in the institution, can be a symbol of paralyzing futility, of a cruel and wasteful universe. Yet these jars, ‘yellow, green, red,’ while continuing to hold waste and suffering (and many other things), manage to morph luminously by story’s end to hold, as well, the parents’ unstoppable love.


My Crow Self

Margaret Atwood says in Negotiating with the Dead that writers are like jackdaws (a European crow): “We steal the shiny bits and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests.” 

             Collecting these shiny bits is an integral part of the fiction writer’s craft, but most writers, including me, are somewhat shamefaced and ambivalent about the process. What if these bits are woven out of other people’s secrets? Or pieces of skeleton from the family closet?  There’s an almost physical urge to use the material that speaks to you, especially once it starts to grow on its own, putting out twitching root hairs, but you don’t want to expose or hurt other people.   

             Nadine Gordimer’s famous solution was ‘to write as though everyone you know is dead.’ But few writers have the chutzpah to do this, or the moral certainty. For most writers, collecting material has a more secretive, illicit quality. It is gathered in the dark, kept under wraps, then released, with a mixture of pride and guilt, in what one hopes is a sufficiently transmogrified form.

             We are crows. But we aren’t always particularly proud of it. It’s just how we operate.

  This was my process writing Oh, My Darling. Story ideas came from a variety of sources – neighbourhood worries about teenage drug use, a conversation on the beach, a book on children of the Werhmacht – and each produced its customary thrill and its customary angst.

             Then in February, 2012, as I worked to complete the book, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I was thrust into a world of MRIs, visits to the cancer clinic, operations, radiation.  I was afraid. Yet, to my surprise, I found myself writing in a more focused way than ever before, with more efficiency and less drama.

             This went along with other surprises. I found I had a huge inner resolve to heal myself. I focused on what was good for me. Friendships grew in intensity. I felt surrounded by love.

             And even on bad days, I headed to my desk. By disappearing into writing, I had a refuge, and to my surprise the stories I had been having trouble finishing finished themselves. The book grew from seven stories to eight to nine.

             I had told myself I wanted ten in the collection, and, after a dream about an amorous spider, I decided to write one about cancer. I was near the end of my treatment and felt an urge to explore my tangled emotions. I composed a draft, using that love-struck spider as a motif, but the story was flat.  

             Then in August, a few weeks after my final session of radiation, I headed to a coffee shop in Kitsilano to write in my journal.  I opened my diary on the marble table top.

             Dear Shaena, I wrote (as I sometimes do in my journal) and then listed the efforts I’d made to heal. Radiation. Tamoxifen. Exercise. Healthy Diet. It felt good to draw up a list. 

             I took a sip of my tea, then picked up my pen again and wrote,

             But wouldn’t it be just too awful if you turned out to be like little Beth – destined not to make it to the end of the book.

             I stared down at the words.

             Where had they come from? They were just so mean. And effete. And oh, so intimate, with their reference to Little Women, my favorite book as a child. In a flash I knew where that voice came from. It was the cancer, which, until recently, had been lodged in my body. Teasing, desirous, sadistic – it was paying me the deepest of attention.

             As a woman fighting breast cancer, I suppose I must have been shocked by how the cancer had been personified in the dark of my unconscious mind, then wriggled into my hand and written itself into my journal. But as a writer I was electrified. I’d found the voice of my story. I got on my bike and rode along Spanish Banks, then threw myself onto a bench. In one sitting I wrote down the bones of the story.

             The next week my husband and I travelled to Hollyhock retreat centre on Cortes Island.  While wide-hipped gardeners moved around me, picking aphids off cucumber plants, I sat under an apple tree and wrote page after page in the cancer’s voice: part  Humbert Humbert – part Jack the Ripper.

             This story became the title story of my collection, and when I look back on writing it I feel proud. And what I’m proudest of, ironically, is my Crow Self — that dark, collecting part of me that I’ve so often been ambivalent about.

             I wouldn’t say that my Crow Self came to my rescue; that would be too grand and too purposeful (and besides, with cancer one never knows – living with uncertainty is part of what I have to learn to do). But my love of picking up shiny bits helped me seize the raw materials of my own life when the time was right. The cancer may have nailed me, but I really felt, as I sat writing under that apple tree, that I was nailing it back.

             And I will never forget that moment in the cafe, as I felt that voice breathing out of the page. Not so much because of the voice’s power, but because, quick as quick, I felt a rush of cold pleasure down the skin of my arms. A ripple of life.

             That’s a really strange thing to write, I thought.  And then:  I’m going to use it.


This essay originally appeared in Quill and Quire, December, 2013, The Last Word, and was reprinted in The Huffington Post.


Is the Short Story Short?

Recently, Kelli Deeth, the short story writer whose new book, The Other Side of Youth, just came out with Arsenal Press, asked Lynn Coady, Rebecca Rosenblum and me a question about the short story: Is it short? Here is my answer, below. To read the full article in The National Post — with Rebecca and Lynn’s thoughts — you can click here. Thanks to Kelli for her guest editing of the National Post books section, and for asking the question.

 “Yes – a short story is short, but that doesn’t mean it is featherweight, or even particularly small: it can pack a lot of power. I’ve been more knocked out by great short stories (Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro), than by whole novels.

            As for length: short stories usually run a maximum of 40 to 50 pages. Longer and the story may be a novella waiting to be unpacked. But on the other end of the spectrum, some stories (twitter stories, at 142 characters for instance) are too short. They read like jokes, marching toward the punch line, hitting the cymbals. They have no mood. A good story, even when it’s very short, should own you for the period you are inside it. And when you pop out at the other end, you should feel you’ve undergone something — lived something.   

            The best short stories are like pieces of DNA, small but containing a spark of actual life in their coils. This is so different from the novel, which usually reveals life more slowly, and over a longer period of time.  A good story sends a shock of light into the system.

            This is why it irritates me when reviewers say that Alice Munro’s stories are ‘so good they could be novels.’ Actually, many are better than novels. And they are doing something quite different. They shine a light on hidden aspects of life, which only great short stories –with their piercing brevity — can reveal.”  

click here for the full article.

A Book that Changed my Life

The Georgia Straight, in its lead up to the WORD festival in Vancouver (formerly Word on the Street) is running a series on books that changed the lives of writers. I think it’s a wondeful question and makes  you weed through all the books that sort of could have, but actually didn’t, change much — to find the ones that really got into your soul. I look forward to reading other writers’ answers in the Straight. Here’s my answer, below:

“For me it was Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. My mother gave me her copy, an old hardcover with thick soft pages, and illustrations covered in tissue paper. I must have read it eight or nine times. It is about four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – growing up in Victorian-era New England. Louisa May Alcott was an early feminist, something I didn’t realize at the time, but I loved the humane values in the book, instilled by the girls’ mother, the beloved ‘Marmee.’

 But the best part was reading about Jo March, the second-oldest girl:  Jo the Tom Boy, with fly away hair and pinafores stained with ink, a passion for justice, and a hot temper. Best of all, Jo was a writer. She spent hours sprawled on a tattered couch in the garret, writing stories that she would then try to sell to newspapers and magazines. This thrilled me.

 Jo seemed more real than many of the people I knew (and she still does, thinking about her now). This was a revelation: that a character in a book could be realer than a real human being – and that you could love them just as much, or even more.” 


Throwing out Material

One of my favorite quotes on writing, about the importance of throwing out material, comes from Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life. Here is what Dillard says about arriving at an unexpected place when writing fiction:  

            The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. Then she adds: I hope birds ate the crumbs. I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

            What does she mean? Can she be serious? Are we really supposed to throw out what we’ve written, because ‘the new place interests us’? 

            The answer, all too often, is yes.

            Arriving suddenly at a new place when writing a story — a place that is deeper, stronger, or odder than anything you could have planned – can feel incredibly exciting. It’s as though you are on a train, and the tracks have suddenly hit a railway turntable, and you’ve been spun around and shunted off in a new, thrilling direction. However, excitement may be quickly followed by exasperation — even despair. So much of what brought you to this place — notes, drafts, writing –may have to be chucked. They just don’t work anymore, or look flimsy, compared to what’s now in front of you.     

            I didn’t know any of this when I started writing short stories. I thought the words were the whole point. I polished, and agonized (and I still do). But slowly I have come to realize, after countless stabs of horror as work has had to be jettisoned, that throwing stuff out is a key part of the fiction writer’s profession.   

            I remember going to the Toronto Reference Library fifteen years ago, struggling over a story that wouldn’t work. I knew it was set in 1968, and included a beautiful mother whose hands changed colour according to what she was batiking that day – crimson, Prussian blue, mordant green.  But I couldn’t figure out what happened, and I was writing myself into tighter and tighter circles, obsessing over lines, sharpening and clipping.   

            In despair, I went to the library sound room and looked up an interview with Alice Munro, and played it through earphones. She talked about how her fiction would ‘harden’ and become ‘too smooth on the surface ’ and she would need to go back in, loosen it up. She said, ‘But this is nothing special about me – all writers do this.’ And I thought, Do they? Is this what writers do? I certainly didn’t. The story I was working on was hard as rock. Yet the key, she seemed to be suggesting, in her deceptively simple way, was somehow to get under the words.

            Now, after two story collections and a novel, I think I’m getting better at recognizing when to throw stuff out — though I still groan when I feel a piece shake as it begins to shunt. I just think my recovery is quicker. I’ve learned to recognize the rocking motion, the dizzying sensation that precedes a story’s shift. I’ve also learned, post collapse, to move on more quickly.

            Tidying up my study one afternoon last winter, after completing Oh, My Darling, I found about a dozen notebooks in different drawers, filing cabinets, book shelves. I sat on my striped chair in the winter sunshine and leafed through them. By now I’m familiar with my snaking process, but still I was shocked to see the long evolution of some of my stories. Now that they were actually done, I had begun to envision them as having grown without too much complication, yet here they were – paragraphs, stabs of lines, then big gaps where I polished and revised on computer. Then new versions of the story, new stabs at getting underneath.

            This process went on and on, in notebooks collected over a six year period. Though I knew that one of the stories in the book, “The War between the Men and the Women,” had been looping and shaking and dropping its skin for much longer. In fact, it was that old batiking story that I had despaired over on my visit to the Toronto Library all those years ago!

            If I had known when I set out to write these stories that this would be my process, and that so much of what I wrote would be thrown away, I might have said, That’s too exhausting. But I didn’t think about it that way. Like most story writers, I was following the glimmer at the end of the path, allowing my earlier words to fall away as new ways of seeing gripped me.

            However – and this is the Catch 22 fiction writers learn to be familiar with – as you move from draft to draft, you still have to believe, almost slavishly, in the precise words you are choosing. You can’t see them as expendable. You have to work with them carefully, laying them down as though for all eternity. Only then will they become the implements you can use to dig yourself to a new place.


Ordinary Comforts — the Genius of Carol Shields

On the tenth anniversary of Carol Shield’s death, CBC recently asked a group of Canadian writers to say a few words about how she had inspired them. Please check out this link to see tributes from Charlotte Gray, Andrew Pyper, Jen Sookfong Lee, Stacey May Fowles and me.

My tribute is also below. It focuses on Unless, my favorite of her novels, and the last novel Carol Shields wrote, finishing it when she was struggling with cancer. It is a beautiful novel. Subtle, brilliantly structured, heart-breaking, angry. Yet full of love.


“Carol Shields was capable of taking profound ideas and holding them so lightly. I will never forget the moment in Unless where Reta Winters polishes her banisters, taking the time to clean her house, talking about how much she loves to do this. How often do you see a scene like this in literature? Never. You want to scream, “This is dangerous. This is middle class. Don’t you know a hundred young men in grad school are going to say, ‘I’m reading about dusting!’”  But in fact, Carol Shields takes dusting to another level. The gleam of the banister is about the ordinary comforts one can take from the surface of life. Unless is a beautiful, stirring novel, full of grief. And, as the Zen mindfulness people say, this moment of dusting – where one temporarily produces order out of chaos – may be all we have.  Carol Shields knew that.”

Go Where the Heat is…

I read those words a long time ago, in an interview with the American writer Dorothy Allison, and I think about them a lot. They are especially useful when I’m working on something that has started to feel difficult, even boring, but seems essential to the plot. Writing as drudgework. I used to think I should just keep going, that the writing was probably fine. And that, yes, sometimes fiction writing was like ditch digging, or doing dishes. You just had to put your nose down and do it.

            But – and this is where Dorothy Allison comes in —   this attitude may seem professional, and reasonable, but it could be all wrong for fiction writing. There may be a direct relationship between the thrill one feels as one writes, and the thrill the reader gets when they read. Conversely, the boredom a writer feels in a hard spot may be being communicated, page after lugubrious page.

            Anne Collins, who was my editor for my first two books, once told me that she can feel when something is alive on the page. It is almost, she said, like a sort of energetic reiki. The life pulses from the manuscript. And sometimes there is absolutely no life at all on the page. When this happened Anne would go back to the writer and ask about it, and they would inevitably say, “Yeah, that’s the part where I was bored, but I thought I should just keep going.”

            So, when I get bogged, I try to follow Dorothy Allison’s advice. Go where the heat is. Maybe this means putting down the short story that’s dead-ended and starting working on something closer to home. Maybe it means stopping after Chapter Four of a novel, doing more research until a piece of information lights me up again. Maybe it means turning the whole thing inside out – a terrifying discovery, but one that happens frequently.

            The key is to feel a kind of fire when you work. Because chances are that fire is being transmitted to the page.

Beginnings — and their opposites

 Clark Blaise in his essay “To Begin, To Begin” (to be found in the book How Stories Mean, edited by John Metcalf ) puts forward a fascinating hypothesis. He says that the opening of a short story always imply its opposite.  A sunny day with daffodils, for instance, hides death in its folds.  Just as a squalid whorehouse scene probably promises a shaft of redemption.

 “If I describe a sunny morning in May (the buds, the wet-winged flies, the warm sun and cool breeze), I am also implying the perishing quality of a morning in May, and a good description of May sets up the possibility of a May disaster.” – Clark Blaise.

 What makes this idea so useful is that you can check your own story to see if the beginning has the quality of suggesting (oh, so softly) its ending – in reverse form, a bit like an Escher painting. If it doesn’t, maybe you aren’t starting in the right place.  

 Almost any great story can be analyzed this way. If you listen, you can hear the end of the story in its opening lines, and feel the hidden pulse of the change that is to come. 

 Here is one example:

 The grandmother did not want to go to Florida…

 This is the famous opening of Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”   Taking it piece by piece one sees that   

A)    The grandmother – (wise old woman figure)

B)     Doesn’t want (denies something – and her denial is intrinsic to the story’s meaning.)

C)    To go to Florida (sand, sun, heat –tropical earthly heaven)

So what are the bones of the opening? Old woman  + denies + Earthly Paradise. The grandmother, we are told (subtly) by this opening, doesn’t want the sublime. She doesn’t want Paradise and all that is suggested by the possibility of Paradise (death, redemption). Yet by the end of this story the grandmother will have to face both death and redemption – in the most frightening way possible (I won’t give it away – if you haven’t yet read it. It’s an amazing story!)

Here is another example, this one from an Alice Munro story.

Royal beating. That was Flo’s promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.

            The word Royal lolled on Flo’s tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than the need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal? She came up with a tree-lined avenue, a crowd of formal spectators, some white horses and black slaves. Someone knelt, and the blood came leaping out in banners…

So what is the opposition that is held, secretly, in the creases of this opening? Let’s take a look.

This opening is about violence. But the violence we are given in this opening is spectacular, almost formal, and it seems devoid of pain. It is imagined violence. So what is the opposite of imagined violence? Real violence of course. By the end of the story we will see how violence really happens. And it will take place – unforgettably—in a squalid kitchen, off a dusty street, and will begin because the girl, Rose, refuses to stop balancing a dishrag on her toe.   

Here is one final example, from Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

 As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

 Using Clark Blaise’s formula, this one is easy.

This story is going to show us what it means to be human.

Write what you don’t Know

I came across this phrase in a list of Rose Tremain’s Rules for Writers, published in The Guardian, and I loved it, because of course it’s the opposite of that well-worn fiction adage, ‘Write what you know.’ 

            While writing what you know is a useful idea in some ways, especially when it reminds us, as writers, to get down and into a piece of fiction, grounding it in the senses, it can also carry some subtle prohibitions: Don’t extend yourself too far. Don’t try to imagine things you have no right to imagine. Stay back!

            The idea that we should stick to our own life turf  had its hey-dey in the late Eighties and early Nineties when writers were told by others not to dare take on the point of view of a woman (if you were a man), or a black person (if you were white), or an immigrant (if you weren’t one). I remember this was fought actively in The Writers’ Union (I wasn’t a member, having not yet published a book, but I watched nervously from the sidelines, wondering which rules I had transgressed).

            At the base were very important issues to do with race, and the ability to be heard. There are invisible rules in place that stymy voices of people who aren’t white, or male, or middle class, or straight. Writers need to be conscious of the systems that have stopped First Nations voices, to give one huge example, from being heard, published, given a key place in Canadian literature. Still, as the debate of fifteen years ago expanded, it became clear that addressing these systemic inequities by trying to set rules for where fiction writers could go with our brains wasn’t just Draconian, it was counter to the impulse that makes fiction in the first place.

            Fiction is about being in someone else’s skin.

            All of this was a long time ago, but I think it’s worth mentioning. It’s come to the fore again. And once more there’s a shadow that lies across certain kinds of dances we do with our imaginations.

            I had a lot of angst about my right to do what I was doing when I was writing Radiance. It is about a Japanese Hiroshima survivor – Keiko —  who, at eighteen, travels to New York to undergo plastic surgery.   For ages I felt held back, unable really to imagine what was in Keiko’s head.  The ‘you have no right’ voices had me, even when I tried to shake them, and the weight of what I didn’t know overwhelmed me at times. I wasn’t Japanese. I’d never had plastic surgery. And I certainly hadn’t lived through an atomic blast. The enormity of trying to imagine that last one would, occasionally, leave me limp and ready to give up.

            At one point I decided that the only way to deal with such a complex of unknowns was to stay out of Keiko’s head entirely, and let others tell their stories about her. Surely that was a more appropriate, even respectful, treatment. I tried this, but I hit more dead ends.

            It was only when I finally let loose, and jumped into Keiko’s head as a little girl, and began living the memories she had of her mother, their garden, her fears and childhood lies, her love of the old fox tales her grandfather told her, that I finally found Keiko’s voice, and passed over into understanding her.

            I think this taught me something, which is that holding back because something is theoretically ‘impossible to imagine’ often ends up making it impossible.  This goes for something terrible and large, like the bombing of Hiroshima (or – in our modern context, the mindset behind a terrorist bombing). But it is also true for something more intimately terrible, like child molestation. Where would we be if Nabokov had said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t begin to imagine that.” Obviously, there would be no Lolita. Nor would there be any Iago, or Edmund, or Richard III, if Shakespeare had sighed and said that try as he might, he just couldn’t imagine what went on in a killer’s head.

            Lately, when I hear a person say, “I just can’t imagine that,” about some disaster or misfortune somebody else has gone through, I want to say, “Yes, you can.” This has become a kind of moral belief, I guess, as well as a creative one. If we lean into what we don’t know, and give ourselves permission to cross over, we can usually make the leap.           

            And that’s a good relationship to have — to other things, and to other people.


William Trevor versus Alice Munro

I have been thinking lately that the beauty of William Trevor’s stories has to do with their transparency. After you are done reading, you don’t feel you need to peer into the story to try to understand its depths. It reveals all of itself. The surprise – because there is always surprise in his stories – is in the thing illuminated.           

            I am thinking particularly of the stories in After Rain (such a brilliant book):  “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” “A Day,” and “After Rain” come to mind. But I’ve also been reading The Hill Bachelors recently, and those stories have the same quality.

            It is interesting to finish a story and feel you pretty much immediately understand it, and yet know that what you’ve seen is beautiful, deeply revealing, and wise.  This is a very different aesthetic from Alice Munro, who in turn is much more like Henry James.  With Munro and Henry James patterns are more complicated. You are asked to think about what’s underneath – and it’s only after some thinking that the full extent of what you’ve read comes together.

            With Alice Munro it’s not just a single ‘aha,’ either: it’s more like multiple ‘aha’s’.  Her stories can be like three-dimensional puzzles, and they may need to be read twice or even three times before they reveal themselves completely. With “Vandals,” for instance, in her book Open Secrets (I think of “Vandals” as Alice Munro’s King Lear), you can’t actually understand this story of multi-generational struggle and abuse and forgiveness unless you read it more than once. There is a longish dream told in letter form at the beginning which is laden, like a water balloon, with the story’s meaning. But it’s impossible to ‘get’ unless you finish the story, and then begin again at the start.

            This happened to me in Book City on Bloor Street a few years ago. I was browsing, and flipped to the beginning of “Vandals” and started to read. I’d read the story once before and thought – okay, sure. This time, I thought my head was going to explode. The brilliance! The hidden fabric! The delicate wisdom woven through!

            If Alice Munro writes in the vein of Henry James, then you could say that William Trevor writes in the vein of Tolstoy. With Tolstoy nothing is withheld. Think of Prince Andrei’s death scene, with Natasha and Princess Marya at his side. His quiet disengagement from life at the end, his focus on something else, something beyond, is described as being like a single leaf disengaging itself, falling to the ground. The surprise here isn’t in what’s hidden – it’s in how right Tolstoy is. And the cumulative force of a book like War and Peace is that he is right about life — again and again and again.

            William Trevor is like this too. He and Alice Munro are equally wise, but with Munro one must always look deeper, because things are not as they appear. With Trevor things are as they appear, and somehow this is equally fascinating.

Great Sentences

In my last posting I looked at some types of bad sentences.  They were pretty easy to define. It’s harder to think about what makes a good sentence, and why. Sentences that work are so varied: some long, some short, some ornate, some incredibly simple. In the end, I’ve decided to take a look at two opening sentences, and to pry them apart a bit, to try to show what makes them so wonderful. The first is by Jane Austen, the second by Alice Munro.

            Almost everyone knows this opening sentence to Pride and Prejudice:

            “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

            Let’s look at it part by part. 

1.      It is a truth – Simple words. We could be at the opening of a far grander book. A Bible perhaps? That’s not too far-fetched an idea – we are being promised nothing less than truth.

2.      Universally acknowledged — Even better in the grandness department: whatever comes next, the author promises, will be known by all. The words are multisyllabic, but then the concept of universal acknowledgement seems to deserve a multisyllabic treatment.

3.      That a single man – ah – here he comes. That all-important Austen type, the single man. He is introduced simply, without name — because he is less and more than a specific character: he is also a Platonic Form, an Ideal of Singleness.

4.      In possession of a good fortune – the crucial modifying phrase. Again this is a mouthful – but wealth is, in this book.

5.      Must be in want of a wife. – The sentence finds its perfect, rhythmic close, in iambic pentameter no less – as though to bring home the harmonious necessity of wives. But it does more than that. This last bit, with its irony, also manages to undercut the entire sentence’s promise of universal truths. We are – when we reach the end of this sentence –in highly specific and humorous territory: the realm of women on the watch for single men.

            This sentence, in other words, deflates the expectations it creates, deflates its own grandness – just as, later in the book, Elizabeth will deflate Darcy.

            This leads to another aspect of this sentence – and great opening sentences in general. They often act like DNA, in which so much of the entire book can be read in coiled form. In this case, look at how the words ‘possession’ and ‘want’ are juxtaposed: this will be a book, we are told, where what one has and doesn’t have, in the wealth department, will be hugely important. And look at how Austen punches that last word, ‘wife.’  This will be the theme of the book. And – if all goes well – ‘wifedom’ will be its natural close.

 Here is another sentence, this one by Alice Munro, from the opening of her short story, Miles City, Montana.

 “My father came across the field carrying the body of the boy who had been drowned.”

 Again, there is so much rhythm here — the sentence breaking naturally into three sections, each becoming more dire as the picture forms. Yet the words are plain, like the landscape.  We have ‘field’ ‘body’ ‘boy’ ‘drowned’. There is absolutely nothing long or Latinate here. Notice how even the verb, ‘came’ is the simplest possible description. A lesser writer would have tried to make the writing more specific here, saying ‘he bent under the weight’ or ‘he trudged,’ but that would break the spell. In its simplicity, this opening feels mythic.

            What we are promised is a story that will take a journey into the land of death, by an author who is prepared to grapple with its mystery. She earns our trust because she knows that the terribleness of mortality doesn’t require a single fancy word.

Bad Sentences

There’s a story in Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like  A Writer, about a writer who met with his agent and was asked what he was working on next. He said, “I want to write beautiful sentences.” The agent leaned forward, took his arm, and said, “Don’t ever tell anybody in publishing that.”

Sentences are our tools. They are also our passion – but that’s the part we’re supposed to keep quiet about. We are supposed to be focusing on the creation of plots, which lead to chapters, which lead to whole books. Yet writing beautiful/elegant/thoughtful/well-constructed sentences is what a lot of the craft boils down to. Just as, when we are in the throes of writing, it also boils down to choosing the right word, stringing them together into the right paragraph. In other words, being in the moment and attempting to do the task in front of us as well as we can.

I have a few things to say about good sentences, but for this post I’d like to offer up a few kinds of bad sentences. Most writers are familiar with them. I certainly know these guys well.

  1.  The self-admiring sentence. This is the sentence that makes a big entrance, air-kissing the host as she swans onto the page. Even as she speaks, she’s checking how she looks in the mirror. These are the sentences that Samuel Johnson said we should strike out.
  2. The sentence with mustard stains on its shirt. This sentence just can’t be bothered, because he thinks dressing up is for sissies.He prides himself on authenticity.  This kind of sentence shows up a lot in prose where the writer feels that being ‘real’ and ‘telling it like it is,’ is more important than being clear.
  3. The sentence with no rhythm. It just sits there on the page. Or if it tries to dance, it is like the guy at the Christmas party who can only wriggle his arms. The only cure for writing sentences like this is to immerse oneself in reading.
  4. The loner sentence. It exists by itself, has no relation to its neighbours –a fatal mistake, because all sentences are only as good as the interaction they have with the life around them.
  5. And perhaps most familiar and most damaging: the surgically-enhanced sentence. This is when you take a perfectly good thought and tweeze it, dye it, exfoliate it, and botox it until it becomes a monster. After this kind of self-editing it bears no resemblance to the thing you were trying to say in the first place. Cut it out and start again. It can’t be saved.

There are other kinds of bad sentences, too. The rancorous adolescent who corners you and talks about how horrible his mother is. The deceitful sentence. The sentence that giggles and wants to be liked. Many of these problems crop up when we try to craft something meaningful, but get caught up in our own language. When it comes to sentences, we can take too little care, or we can take too much care. The best sentences seem to be an insouciant blend of chutzpah and effortlessness.  We have to try to make them really good – but we can’t seem to be trying at all.

Next Time: Good Sentences.


Breathing the Page – Reading the Act of Writing

For several years I taught with Betsy Warland through the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive – a cottage industry of mentors working with emerging writers in coffee shops, in our houses, over coffee and wine, keeping the connection simple and non-classroom-like. Betsy is a thought-provoking and unconventional teacher – I loved teaching alongside her – and so I was particularly eager to read her new book about writing.

Breathing the Page, Reading the Act of Writing invites us to experience the dangers, joys and metaphysics of marking the blank page. In Betsy’s hands the act of writing regains its luminous aspect (she quotes several times from Virginia Woolf, and you can feel the influence).

The book includes sections on the physical things we use or surround ourselves with: body, pencil, page, table, room, and computer. There are sections on form and process: line, ‘scaffolding,’ (what we put up in the first or second draft, only to take down later), and a section on ‘heartwood’ – this last being a bit like Annie Dillard’s ‘line of blood’ (puncture a good vein and you can write indefinitely). Heartwood is Betsy Warland’s term for the meat at the centre of a piece of writing – the alive, bucking part you often encounter when you start a project, but which is all too easy to lose track of. She gives pointers for finding your way back to heartwood.

Among my favourite sections is the one on ‘scored space’, which is mainly an exploration of the role empty space plays in a manuscript. “White space,” says Betsy, “is the writers’ medium as much as the black lines of language.” This made me think of how brilliantly Alice Munro uses white space – and in such a non-showing off way – in order to set off vital moments in her stories, particularly her later ones. I found my copy of Open Secrets and turned to “Vandals,” the last story in the book. “Vandals” is about a mother-like woman, Bea, who sees and doesn’t see the sexual abuse occurring under her nose to fifteen-year-old Liza, and who refuses to play the mother role Liza desperately needs. Munro sets the climactic words up this way:

What Bea has been sent to do, she doesn’t see.
Only Liza sees.

The white space around ‘only Liza sees’ could break your heart. And the implications – of utter, desolate aloneness — would be quite lost if the two lines were stuck together.

Often I found myself inspired to get writing – and quickly – as I read Betsy’s book. Particularly, this examination of ‘scored space’ got me excited about using (that is, not using!) the empty parts of the page.

This book also offers wonderful advice on living a writing life, sustaining yourself as a writer, taking possession of stories that others have told you are off limits, and the value of building community. Written with devotion and a Buddhist-like attention (Betsy is, among other things, a practicing Buddhist), Breathing the Page, Reading the Act of Writing is an inspiring and thought-provoking exploration of writing.


Excerpts from Breathing the Page, by Betsy Warland:

On the alphabet:” The origins of our phonetic alphabetic letters trace back to the Phoenicians and Semites of Syria and Palestine around 1000 BC. A, alph, ‘ox’B, beth, ‘house’C and G, gimel ‘camel’D, daleth, ‘door’I and J, yod, ‘hand’… Our act of inscribing letters of alphabet embodies our own particular presence outside or beyond our physical body. Our textual bodies then circulate in a random, sensuous, unlimited manner as a note in a bottle at sea, astral travel, or seeds on feet of migrating birds”.

On ‘the page’: “As the writer’s subject takes shape, the smooth skin of the page soaks up some words, repels others…when we rub the page the wrong way, it stops responding, as do our readers. These pages are skimmed, turned, ignored. The page longs to be fully sensed – as a lover’s body. Imaginatively occupied.”

On creativity: “When in the act of writing, I fully entrust myself to it: place myself willingly in the very midst of the beautiful chaos of meaning unfolding. The terror and joy of this are like none other. Writing is a way of perceiving where everything converges. Which is possibly eternity.”

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