Writing is a Penance for not being Lucky

Anita Brookner, British novelist and art historian, died exactly a year ago, depending on when I get this blog posted, her dates 16 July 1928-10 March 2016. One of my favourite writers, author of some two dozen novels and several volumes of art history, which she taught at both Reading College and the Courtauld Institute, winner of the 1984 Booker prize for her fourth novel Hotel du Lac, Brookner had definite ideas about the writing life. In her 1983 novel, Look at Me (she polished off one a year during her summer teaching breaks), she states clearly and definitely, “It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me. It is your penance for not being lucky. It is an attempt to reach others and to make them love you.”

Sorry, writing friends, but you are not, according Blog 6 Computerto Brookner, one of the lucky, who has, without effort, been able to attract love. If you had, you would be out in the real world having fun, not stuck in your room having an affair with your computer.

In her long list of novels, the plots juxtapose lucky and unlucky people. The characters who are lucky have happier lives in spite of, or more likely because of, the fact that they are careless, thoughtless, and lack moral integrity and a capacity for self-awareness or self-doubt. The unlucky, whom, one assumes, have opposite characteristics, are not exactly unhappy but must accept their fate. One commentator on Brookner’s novels equates these opposites to the moral tale of the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise, of course, is the artist, and the hare (ordinary lucky people) beats the tortoise every time.

It seems, then, that if you’re lucky you are engaged in life. If you’re unlucky you are exiled to your room, much like a child being sent to her room as a form of punishment, in this case for not being lucky. The question imposes itself, why cannot you simply step out of that room into life? It seems a simple enough action. But no. You are tied to that room because it is the only place you can make sense of life and if you can’t make sense of life the world is a fearful meaningless place. Writing becomes your regular act of comfort.

You do take excursions to the outside world when you must. When real life intervenes you drive the kids to school, cook up some food, attend to your day job, etc. You even go to occasional dinners and parties and events. You may even attempt a more permanent escape but, in a Brookner novel at least, this rarely, if ever, turns out well. So you bravely embrace the constant balancing act between gregariousness and isolation, between involvement and non-involvement. You emerge and stumble about in a state of confusion, wondering which place you are in at any given moment. You live in a constant state of discomfort.

This is what one of Brookner’s characters says on the subject: “I would give my entire output of words, past, present, and to come, in exchange for easier access to the world…” It would be lovely to be part of the world of church and community, of PTA and committee meetings, of coffee and happy hours with friends, of bridge nights, bible study nights, bowling nights, but you can either manage the ordinary world or you can’t.

In spite of what may seem a bleak outlook, Brookner’s novels are a pleasure to read because of her command of the language rendered in astoundingly lucid prose. She is a master of wit and irony, providing the reader with altogether satisfying insights into the machinations of social intercourse.

At times Brookner’s characters view the ordinary life rather wistfully like a train leaving the station without them, but overall they do not protest their fate. They reject all forms of pity, including self-pity. They do not become embittered. They are stoic in their choices. A typical Brookner ending is the main character’s acceptance with quiet resignation her or his allotted place in life. Because the ordinary world is presented as unattractive, it is not an unhappy ending.





To Beef or not to Beef

As we wait out winter like hostages in a snow cave, it’s time to get back to serious stuff about the writing life.

Like the time I got a notion to pickleidea
some beef. Light bulb moment: a steaming platter of succulent corned beef and cabbage from scratch; a pile of tender juicy pastrami on a bun (with dill pickles on the side). I googled a recipe.

In the garden shed I found an old ceramic crock, encrusted with soil, littered with dead insects, garnished with spider webs. I didn’t want to eat anything that had come into contact with that crock, even after a good scrub down, so I invested in a brand new one (pricey), a beef brisket (thank heavens the recipe called sandwichfor a cheaper cut of beef), multi pickling salts and spices, vinegar, bay leaves, peppercorn, garlic, lots of it, and onion. I put it all in the crock and got my husband to carry it down to the cool basement laundry room where it sat, impassive, indifferent, building a personality distinctly its own. Every time I went down to the laundry room we gave each other the eye, mine increasingly apprehensive, its, smug and secretive.

The third week it started to smell. ‘Not exactly unpleasant,’ I said to my husband. ‘No…,’ he sounded sceptical. ‘That’s how pickled meat is supposed to smell,’ I added for good measure. A few days later, ‘What’s that smell,’ older son inquired coming in from school. ‘Phew,’ said second son. I persevered. What could go wrong? I had followed directions religiously.

A few days later, ‘You’re not going to feed that to me,’ said my husband. ‘I’m not gonna eat that,’ said first son. ‘Yuck,’ said second son. ‘I’ll eat it myself,’ I said, in my best little red hen manner. ‘You can’t eat that,’ said my husband, ‘you’ll kill yourself.’

I opened the lid of the crock. I skimmed a foul-smelling curd from the brine’s surface. A  lump of something dull grey with a bluish greenish aura sat still and unmoving. I thought of the  excitement with which I had approached the project. I hated to let that go. I hated letting go of the time and effort and expense invested. I had a crisis of self-confidence. If the pioneers of yore without any formal education could pickle beef why, with a master’s degree, couldn’t I?

To paraphrase the famous words of Tom Hanks… we had a problem.

What to do with rotten pickled beef?

We couldn’t keep it in the house and we couldn’t throw it out. ‘You don’t want to leave something like that hanging around,’ said my husband. ‘There must be a law against throwing  anything that smells like that in the garbage.’ I agreed. The garbage men might think we were throwing out a dead body, they might report us. To complicate things, the garbage had been picked up the day before. I thought about what it would smell like by the end of another week. The neighbours would be complaining. Also, we didn’t want  dogs and cats getting into it and killing themselves. We might even get sued.

We could bury it in a very deep hole at the end of the garden but I didn’t want to have anything more to do with it. Ever.

‘That’s easy,’ one of the sons said. ‘Put it in someone else’s garbage.’

And so it was that we wrapped that sorry looking hunk of putrid flesh first in plastic wrap, then in several sheets of newspaper and tied it neatly with a string. We drove around looking for the two prerequisites – a trash can that could not be traced to us and one that got picked up daily. We found one in front of an out-of-our-neighbourhood Safeway where a group of students were demonstrating against buying California grapes. We pretended to join the protest while my husband nonchalantly sidled close to the garbage container then quickly, without looking to either side or backwards, tossed in the thing. We scuttled back to our car.

That’s where the real story ends. My folly discarded. But on the way home, my imagination took over. Of course, it did. The ‘what if’ tool of the novelist. What if a demonstrator had thrown a bomb into that trash can? What if the bomb exploded? What if a bystander saw us throw in our package and got the license plate of our car as we drove away?

shakespeareThus, my effort at pickled beef wasn’t a total failure after all. I got a story out of it, which appeared in my second collection of short stories. So what’s the moral of this little anecdote? Nothing is ever wasted. You’ll find a place in your writing for even the most mundane, most embarrassing, incidents in your life. Or, deciding to throw something out can open up a whole lot of new possibilities.

Take your pick. Make up your own. There must be a message there some place.


5 Things to do New Year’s Eve


1  Get Married. That way you have a date for New Year’s Eve. And it’s a great tax deal – you can claim your partner for the whole year. If a big bash seems daunting (churches and party rooms booked months in advance), try a civil ceremony. Dress up in ordinary clothes and, along with witnesses, take a bus down to city hall. It may prove to be an uproarious and memorable ride. Then throw a reception for family and friends in your apartment. The downside is, it may be cold – 30 below when we did it, and that was on the old thermometer which didn’t include wind chill. Another negative, you miss all the great parties that your friends toddle off to after leaving yours.

2  Have a Baby. Again it is 30 below with a nonfactored-in wind chill (this is Edmonton before climate change). Also, this is before the days when you scarcely crawled off the delivery room table before being shown the door. You got to stay in a nice warm bed in a nice warm building and get a good nights sleep, the last irresponsible moments of your life before heading home to face a lifetime of sleep deprivation. Another positive: you don’t have time for mid-winter blues or seasonal disorder or whatever. In your sleepless fog you don’t know what season it is.

3  Go to a movie. Join all the other singles who don’t have a date. Some theatres have special activities, whistles and party hats. And there’s the chance that your soul mate will be sitting in the seat next to you. No violence please. This is the night for romance. Something like the recent La La Land will get you in the right frame of mind for a new year.

4  Keep your friends up past midnight. It’s your responsibility. One year we were invited to friends for dinner and they tried to hustle us off home at about ten. We had to dig in our heels. Offer to play board games, whist, crazy 8’s. Scrabble is a good one if you’re up to a mental challenge. Even if you yourself are flagging keep at it. It’s only an hour or so of your life in a good cause. I recall lying flat out on the carpet with my feet up on the couch leading a round robin of story telling. You may get hustled out rather quickly after popping the champagne cork, but next morning, you can give yourself a pat on the back. You saved your friends from a boring New Year’s Eve.

5  Attend a big ticket corporate or nepprivate social club party. You owe it to yourself to go to one of these in your lifetime so you know you never want to do it again. Treat yourself to an evening of lineups – coat check, drink tickets, drinks, food, washrooms. Treat yourself to a mad rush at the buffet table with polite elbowing and malevolent eyeing from the person behind because you’re not moving along fast enough. Some companies try to impose order by calling table numbers. Yours will inevitably be the last. It’s a competition with an inflated entrance fee and entertainment by other guests. Once, toward the end of the evening, a woman at the next table threw her drink into another woman’s face. Ah Calgary, I thought at the time, only a thin veneer between what we like to think of as our high society and our rough and ready frontier roots.

6 (bonus). Get Away from it all, preferably to an exotic destination. In Costa Rica take a New Year’s day-trip ferry to a sandy beach with the scanadded questionable bonus of an indefatigable mariachi band. You may never ever want to hear a mariachi band again in your lifetime, but you are warm and sandy. Then there is always Hawaii. One memorable New Year’s Eve we had a table on an ocean front terrace with the sound of the surf gently lapping against the sea wall while we danced under the stars to, what else? the Hawaiian Wedding Song.

And I can’t resist one more.

7  Wait for the world to end. Or at least for all the computers to crash, which would be the same thing. What were you doing at midnight at the end of the millennium when it was predicted that computers would not know how to turn over their clocks? From our balcony, we watched for the airport lights to go out. When they didn’t, we were only slightly disappointed and opened another bottle of champagne.

Well, folks, wherever you were, whatever you did, I sincerely wish you all the best of health, peace, and success, whichever way you personally translate that word.

we are of the earth but we are also of the stars (working title)

This month I was going to say something about the meaning of life but I lost my notes.

So, instead, here’s an ode to wine. After all, Christmas comes but once a year.


I think of nights we harvested the grapes.

Under a copper moon we go forth with our baskets.

Our feet are planted on the earth

the earth is in the wine

the moon is in the wine

we reach up strip down the vines

the grapes fall heavy into our baskets

we taste the earth we taste the moon


in reaching for the grapes we are reaching for the


why not the moon?

why not the stars?

why not the galaxies?

why not somewhere a hundred million light years


a parallel universe and someone in that parallel


one hundred million light years away

intoxicated as I on the night and the nose of

new grapes

also moon tripping


someone like me or more likely

not like me

someone with a head the size of a pea

a green pea

someone with a brain a speck on a head the size of

a pea

and that brain which may be quite different

from what we think of as a brain

and would almost certainly be

that brain a speck on a head the size of a pea

throbs with condensed energy

throbs faster and faster until it explodes

explodes its energy into space

and a million more planets and suns and moons

and shooting stars

find me

a hundred million light years away

for an instant

not even an instant

a time so minuscule it cannot be measured



small me

hanging by my toes

from this planet earth


thank you wine

for allowing me this trip, this journey to the stars

I was so tired of being trapped in my neural network



Getting a breakaway on Lake Superior

or Why isn’t  writing fun any more?

Didja hear the one about the hockey player who got a breakaway on Lake Superior and hasn’t been heard of since?


The informing image of my first novel and I’m still amused by it, the idea of this crazy  Canuck hockey player, full of his own resolve, his own belief, chasing his dream, oblivious of reality.

Oh, those heady days of optimism, believing we’re in control of the puck. Such fun!

But what happened to the fun? The question comes from a colleague on Facebook and forces my thought on the subject.

At the beginning, our dreams are so far ahead of us they don’t get in our way. We’re following where the writing takes us, into unknown territory, exploring and experiencing every moment. We’re full of energy and ideas. Letting it all hang out, getting it off our chest. At the end of the day we feel cleansed, purged, purified. We have a sense of wonder at the words that surface, the revelations, the epiphanies. We are experiencing the joy of creation, the feeling of freedom that is inherent in the creative process.

It’s like Dylan says, “to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands…”

Then one fatal day we emerge from our euphoric state and find we’ve lost the puck. We’re stranded in the middle of a large frozen lake with no land in sight. We’ve lost direction. We must get ourselves back to civilization and sanity. We decide to do something constructive, like write a story, which isn’t too bad an idea in itself, except that it demands a dose of reality.

We learn that there are rules and regulations. We pay attention to our grammar, dot i’s and cross t’s. In content, we remove impossibilities and allow in only what makes sense. We let our inner censor take over and remove our foolishness. One part of us must impose discipline on the other part. Our wild free self must go undercover. Some writers actually like this part best. Now they have something to get their teeth into, something to direct and control. To shape and structure . It’s hard work but it’s still fun, mostly. At this point, no one else is reading it and that  means no critics.

Then we make the mistake of getting something published. At first, we are ecstatic, but again reality bites. If we’re like most writers in Canada, not only does our book not become an overnight  best seller, it doesn’t get reviewed, it doesn’t make it onto long lists let alone short lists. Our beautiful child on whom we lavished so much time and loving effort, is ignored, even rejected, by the big cold ignorant world out there.

Or our book is successful, which has its own problems. We are required to produce another  success. Only problem is, we can’t remember how we did the last one. Or maybe we want to try something new. But we can’t. We must keep spinning straw into someone else’s definition of gold. In short, we’ve lost our freedom.

Not getting published is equally disturbing. What’s wrong with us? All our writer friends are getting books published (it seems). We do a little self-analysis and bravely face our limitations. We study/work/study/work. We learn what’s in and what is definitely not in. We sign up for workshops and courses. We get a graduate degree. Now we can write like everyone else.

At last we’re happy. No? Well, why not?

How you handle your writing career is your affair. But if it isn’t fun any more, likely it means that someone other than you is in control of your work, which means your voice, which means you. Note, sometimes that other is you (that inner censor, remember?).

What ever you decide, just for fun, treat yourself to the wonderful release of skating wildly, madly, stupidly, blindly on that borderless frozen lake heading into the unknown, thinking you’ve got a breakaway, believing you’re in the game. Be happy in your stupid optimism.


Dragon Smoke

A perspective on magic realism

Dragon smoke, Aunt Maude called it, the haze that hung like a curtain across the prairie landscape. Dragon smoke, something that does and does not exist. Thus, Aunt Maude spun blowing chaff and summer field fires into myth and magic.                                          dragon-1

For Robert Kroetsch and Gabriel Marquez, two major propon-ents of magic realism in our time, magic resided in the landscape of their regions. I can’t find the quote at the moment, but somewhere Marquez has said that in Colombia magic lurks behind every tree. Kroetsch once told me in conversation that prairie landscape was his muse.

Like a floater on our vision, magic is barely glimpsed. Now you see it, now you don’t. To the side of our vision, at the edge of our mind, it is something not quite grasped. We can’t see the magic in a magic trick. We can only experience it.

Some people feel uncomfortable with this experience. They need to make sense of things. We are educated to think rationally. We strive to do so. Magic messes with the brain as it tries to accommodate the two opposing systems of realism and fantasy. For some people it’s a losing battle. As Stephen Slemon points out in “Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse”, since the ground rules of these two worlds are incompatible, neither one can come fully into being and each remains suspended. This creates a disconnection in the brain, leaving gaps, absences and silences.

Other brains feel a surge of amazement and delight at being stimulated to experience life in a different way. Children are incredibly open to stories, omens, portents, to superstition and the supernatural, i.e., magic. My mother used to say, a ring around the moon means a change of weather, which may be based on empirical evidence, but how about… if you dream about the dead, you’ll hear from the living, another one of her dictums. I still think dreams are portents of something, although now I’m less sure of what.

Dragon smoke and magic realism both have problematic forms. What the heck are we seeing? It’s like having an unreliable narrator. What or who, in fact, can we believe? In the prairie landscape sky and earth, earth and sky, often merge as one. You can’t tell one from the other. The entire landscape is thrown into question. All we can be sure of is the eternal movement of dust particles creating an emptiness the human mind cannot tolerate. Magic fills the gap. We create magic because we need it.

dragon-2            Recalling the nesting ground, recalling the stories rising out of it, the most fantastical events could take place. Animals could talk, horses could fly, people could die and come back to life, dwarfs could spin straw into gold. As could Aunt Maude. She was a religious woman who would have been shocked to be told that she was into the heathen practice of magic. And that’s the gospel truth my dears, she would end the story, stand briskly and tuck in the sheets, firmly, so the goblins could not enter.

“Tell us another, tell us another,” we would whine and wheedle. But she wouldn’t.

“Where’s the dragon,” someone would pipe up. It might have been Ellie, the precocious one.

“Where’s the dragon, where’s the dragon? I want to see the dragon,” we would take up the chorus in our child-thin voices.

“Sure, you don’t want to see the dragon,” Aunt Maude would say. “It’s far better to see the place where he’s been. Then you can imagine him any way you want.”

How do you grow a poet?

Thank you, Robert Kroetsch.


Last month I talked about narrative. How listening to stories as a child instills in us not merely an interest but a longing for story, not only for the story itself but for the process of story and for the atmosphere around it. A desire to relive that atmosphere becomes a passion to retell the story and make it ours.

It’s only fair to give the poets equal time.

While other senses and elements play a part, narrative depends on sight and drama  – dramatic arc, rising action, tension, outcome. Poetry’s underpinning, on the other hand, is sound and ambiance. The pulse of poetry is voice, its tone and rhythm.

I most clearly associate the narrative voice with the dinner table and my mother’s family. With the poetic voice, it’s the floor vent and my father’s family – uncles and grandparents, in particular.

killy-willy-house-ballyconnolIn my day, children were sent to bed early, at least we were. We resented it then but it was a great opportunity to make up stories for each other. My sister, though, would fall asleep and  leave me in the dark staring wide-eyed at the blank ceiling. Until I heard sighs and whispers coming up with the yellow light through the floor vent, one of those open vents which no longer exist, a hole in the floor (or ceiling, depending on your angle) fitted with an iron grille. Then I knew that my uncle was home from his evening shift at the post office (downtown Edmonton) and my grandmother was getting up the tea and biscuit, a nightly requirement after the ten o’clock radio news.

I would creep out of bed and across the floor, trying to avoid the creakier floor boards, and kneel as if in prayer over the vent and listen to the talk of the grown-ups. I couldn’t see much, tops of heads, partial faces, a teacup, the corner of the stove, and I could hear only fragments – words, parts of words, spaces between words, snatches of sentences, phrases that didn’t make sense, but it wasn’t the sense of what they were saying that mesmerized me. It was the sound of voices – the cadence, the lilt and tone of those soft murmuring voices rose like wisp spirits to settle in my ears.

Through the air vent I heard poetry.

blog-imageIf you are a poet you don’t require plot, you don’t require action or resolution. You don’t even require coherency or transition. All you desire, all you long for, are the voices. They are like a tune you can’t forget, that goes around and around in your head, driving you crazy.

If you have a passion for narrative it will find you, even if you’re a poet. I could choose just about any Andrew Suknaski poem for an example, but here’s one:

for the third spring in a row now                                                             i return to visit father in his yorkton shack                                         the first time i returned to see him                                                       he was a bit spooked                                                                                   seeing me after eleven years –                                                                 a bindertwine held up his pants then                                                   that year he was still a fairly tough little beggar                               and we shouted to the storm fighting                                                   to see who would carry my flightbag across the cn tracks             me crying: for chrissake father                                                                         lemme carry the damn thing the                                                                       train’s already too close!                                                                                                 (Homestead, 1914 [Sec. 32, TP4, RG2, W3RD, Sask.])

Just as surely, if you were hooked by fragments of disembodied voices, you will have an obsession for words and rhythm and tone and even your novels will be poetry.

Poetry was in everything James Joyce wrote, including his 700-page novel. Here are the final words of his classic short story, The Dead.

…snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.