Saturday, December 31, 2016

some christmas 2016, etc; a series of holiday reports,

Another year, another round of family etcetera around these holidays (see last year's version here). Here are some rough notes on such:

December 17-18, 2016: We did our fourth annual Montebello jaunt with father-in-law and Teri, and brother-in-law Michael and his family. Every year of such we've had another child in the mix, this year being our wee Aoife (I think the grandchildren are holding at four for a while).

The weather en route was minimal (compared to other years), but the storm immediately prior meant that many of the trails had yet to be cleared, reducing any attempt at outdoor activities (whew), although Christine did take Rose out for a bit of a walk on the Sunday morning, as I remained in our room so Aoife could nap (and I managed a few scratchings at poems-in-progress).

Given we'd four children in our group three and younger, I'd say we were rather contained, but wise, I'd say, to have us in the dining room earlier for meals, so we were less likely to bother the crowds (although we did find Montebello much less crowded this year; maybe the weather kept folk away?).

There was mayhem, certainly, but far less than you might think.

And Christine took Rose swimming not long before we left. Rose can now swim solo, if she's a lifejacket on. Terrifying. But the pool was nice and warm and completely empty.

December 24, 2016: We hosted my family again, as we've aimed to do every second year now (this was our second time hosting). Given how many of us there are now (my three children + my sister's three children + them + my father also) every photo in its own way was an action shot.

Kate managed to arrive immediately after she finished work, and just as we were sitting down to dinner. There is something about hosting that feels slightly sad to me, in that the event goes by far quicker than it used to. Back when I would head over to the farm for the same, I would stay at least a day or two, if not up to a week, making the reduction of my family's Christmas down to a few hours rather compact.

It was nice, also, to capture some pictures of all three of my daughters, together. Our two wee ones, of course, in matching pyjamas (apparently Christine has multiple alternate sizes, so they could even wear the same next year if they wished).

December 25, 2016: After the cat woke Rose, who then woke us (really!), we went through stockings and saw what Santa brought each of us. Rose got her bicycle and some jingly bells, Christine got socks, I got a can-opener, among other things (how did I get here?). The young ladies a shared dollhouse I slowly put together, like the 1950s dad I've become.

And, after stockings, we headed over to mother-in-law's house where we spent the day, along with brother-in-law and his family, and even his own mother-in-law. There were more stockings, as well as breakfast. Mimosas! Rose ran and ran and ran with her little cousin Duncan. She loves her cousin Duncan. We stayed the whole day (with a mid-afternoon break during which I delivered a load of presents home and managed to convince Rose to nap). Once we returned, there were toys and treats and crackers and paper hats (Aoife was less impressed with her paper hat).

December 26, 2016: We headed over to Christine's cousin's house in the east end, for Paul and Carla's annual extended McNair gathering. Another day during which Rose ran and ran and ran around with cousins. Food! Drinks! Cousins! I think Rose is in heaven during those days. She only approached me at all during the time we were there because she required a change. She wandered over and announced to me: I need a bum change! And such is my lot.

By the end of the event, leaning towards bedtime, we'd both girls in their pyjamas, as Rose played bongos and Aoife listened.

December 27, 2016: We didn't do anything Christmassy. We were exhausted. I took the young ladies out erranding, to allow Christine a rare solo breath. She did breathe. The ladies provided a valuable assist. Rose wore her new hat.

December 28, 2016: We hosted an extended McLennan/Page gathering far smaller than other years, given circumstance. It meant only my sister and her brood came by, which ended up even being a smaller gathering than what we had on the 24th. It all worked out, giving us a chance to actually hang out a bit more than we had a few days prior. And Rose ran around with her cousins again. She, as I've said before, loves that.

December 29, 2016: With Stephen Brockwell, I hosted our annual Peter F. Yacht Club Christmas party/reading/regatta at the Carleton Tavern, which I posted a report on here.

December 30, 2016: Nothing. We must be quiet now.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Notes on (some) books I haven’t had time to properly discuss:

I’m remarkably behind, in ways you can’t even imagine. Here are some scattered notes of reviews begun but never fully fleshed out. And yet, these are all books I thought were interesting. Must I wait until Aoife begins school in another, what, three or four years? (Answer: probably).

The Essential D.G. Jones, selected by Jim Johnstone: I’ve known that The Essential D.G. Jones (The Porcupine’s Quill, Inc., 2016) was in the works for some time, and was pleased to know of it, although I’d hoped that there might have been another books’ worth of material that Jones was sitting on. I’d been months gently prodding him to allow me to produce another chapbook (after the one we did in 2002); despite the fact that he occasionally sent me unpublished poems in the mail that he would allow me to produce in a variety of venues (including dusie and Touch the Donkey), it was the only part of my letters he wouldn’t respond to. I envy Johnstone’s ability to work on such a project, even if not the fact that this becomes a “last collection” for the late poet [see my obituary for him here]. Jones truly was one of our finest lyric poets and as Johnstone writes in his introduction: “The Essential D.G. Jones is the first volume of selected poetry to span the poet’s entire career.”


a flock, a body, the birds
moving, moving the air, moving
the bank behind the house, the snow
sieved by sun and rain, the
seeds, the fallout from trees, hedge
a feeder

            nervous, a percentage of feathers
lift off, sheer off, a percentage
arrive, others remain, picking their
way, a jittery wave of scavengers, cleaners
over the snow

the body of spring emerges
the body of winter emerges
the body of spring, engages
feathers and debris

Ben Estes, Illustrated Games of Patience: Massachusetts poet Ben Estes’ first full-length poetry collection, Illustrated Games of Patience (The Song Cave, 2015), is a sharp and witty combination of straight lyric and prose poem. There was a subtlety here that I liked, that drew me back into this collection even after I’d put the book down.

A Rainbow Sign

I just don’t think that
this is what it’s supposed to feel like,
shaking my big one to break the stream
and make a pool for moving my tools,
for they weigh only half as much
when moved under water.
I emerged in the morning, covered in blood and fine acid sand
and decided to remain partially submerged a little while longer.
Itching for more exercise,
and cooled not by water but by air,
I spent the afternoon collecting sea shells,
and found each one heavily carved
with the numbers of pretty village girls
offering to take tourists to the ultimate level.
A spring and summer service they offer.
I meant to call one, with a headline ready on my lips,
but a gull would dive down wheeling and screaming
each time I tried to dial.
One can fool the animals,
but must forgive this wild, beautiful country.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jared Young

Jared Young grew up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and currently resides in Ottawa. His short stories, essays, and reviews have been published around the world in places like MaisonneuveThe Millions, the Bangkok Post, Toronto StarOttawa Citizen, and more. His writing has also been anthologized by McSweeney’sYou can read his work at The Jared Young Review. Jared is also a co-founder and contributor at the film writing website Dear Cast and Crew. You can read his film reviews here. His debut novel is Into the current (Goose Lane Editions, 2016).

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book is at the bottom of a closet, in a box. My second, too. This most recent work is different, primarily, because it’s out in the world where people can read it. Which feels weird, despite the fact that, you know, that’s kind of the whole point of writing a book.  

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

My father is a writer. Growing up, he’d send me audio cassettes filled with stories about werewolves and time-travelling cowboys and curious kids who accept homemade cookies from mysterious old ladies and get turned into cats. When we’d drive at night, he’d tell stories about ghostly hitchhikers and killers lurking in backseats and generally scare the shit out of me. Throughout my childhood, a lot of value was placed on storytelling; making things up to provoke a reaction. To this day, if someone asks me what time it is, I’ll tell them it’s a half hour earlier or later than it actually is, just to see their reaction—I feel like that’s somehow symptomatic of some primal storytelling urge. Either that, or I’m just a jerk. 

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Slow. Painfully slow. And not just for the usual logistical reasons (ie. social/professional responsibilities and general human needs like food, sleep, etc). I used to compare my process (favorably, for some absurd reason) to downloading a torrent: it’s not linear, the story isn’t developed in chronological order, rather in random bits and pieces – scenes and phrases and individual words – which you then must assemble into something that resembles a coherent, sequential story. I did work from copious notes, but those notes came after the fact, as I tried to apply some sort of rational narrative logic to all these beautiful little pieces of prose I had created. To be honest, it wasn’t ideal, which is probably why it took me almost a decade to finish Into The Current. I am trying to get into the habit of writing first drafts longhand. I’m hoping it will enforce the big-picture aerial perspective that is essential for big projects like a novel. I’ll let you know how it goes.

4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Into The Current actually began as a collection of short stories. I had published a handful of stories in literary journals and magazines, and, after realizing that all of them shared in common a straight white male protagonist of about my age and socioeconomic background, I thought, hey, these could all be stories about the same dude. To be honest, it was a shortcut to writing a novel; I’d been obsessed since my teenage years with the idea of being a prodigy – the next Bret Easton Ellis or Michael Chabon – and wanted to accelerate my ascent into the annals of literary superstardom. The narrative conceit I came up with (someone re-experiencing their memories) was, at first, a simple framing device that was introduced at the beginning and end of the collection. But it ended up being so much more interesting than the stories around which it was built that it kept expanding and expanding, until eventually it pushed all that old material right out of the manuscript. Sort of like how your body expels a sliver.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I’m not sure I’ve done enough of them to truly know whether I like them or not. I invest a lot of meaning (rightly or wrongly) in the physical structure and appearance of words/sentences/paragraphs – I’ve often changed things I’ve written because I don’t like where lines break in my Word document – so the idea of reading text aloud being relevant to the writing process has always seems very weird to me. But I think I could come around to it. How the rhythms of speech can inform the way you put your words together on the page. Yeah, sure, I could be convinced. I’ll try it.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I’m not overly conscious of it, but, looking back, I suppose much of my work deals with time and memory and nostalgia. The past, generally. Observing the past, trying to change the past. 

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

It has never been easier to publish your writing and share it with the world. The sheer volume of words/stories out there is overwhelming: from Buzzfeed lists to travel blogs to self-published fantasy novels to tweetstorms about Star Wars casting rumours and everything in between. In that sense, everyone is a writer, and everyone has an audience—George Saunders, Tim Ferriss, me, you, your wacky aunt who posts Facebook statuses about the squirrel who has been eating her peonies. Everyone is writing and publishing, constantly. I suppose the trick, then, for Writers, is to apply a superior level of craft and a depth of understanding to the writing they produce so that it convinces and enlightens and affects (and, sure, entertains) in a way that squirrel-hating aunts simply can’t. The question that really interests me is: what is the role of the reader in the larger culture? If we’re all producing content, who is left to consume it? At what point does the literary community become an echo chamber: writers writing for other writers.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential, absolutely. For years I had been acting as my own editor; going through my manuscript, marking it up, redacting, adding—even writing notes to myself in the third-person, like I was a completely separate entity, a sort of editorial split-personality. Besides being psychologically unhealthy, it was also inefficient. You hear stories about Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish and you can’t help but think of the editorial process as this brutal, bloody, antagonistic, hyper-emotional process. But my experience with it was the complete opposite of that: an act of professional sympathy. In the end, the book ended up being a more accurate expression of my worldview because other people had gotten involved—far more accurate than it would have been if I’d been the sole arbiter of it’s size and shape and content. Weird, huh? It’s almost like you can’t truly understand your own aesthetic perspective without a separate perspective to gauge it against it.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I recently met David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green and The Bone Clocks and basically every great epic genre-bending book of the last twenty years, and after I stuttered my way through an introduction about how I had just published my first book, he told me, “now do the next one.” Which happened to be exactly what I needed to heat at that exact moment. I’m also a fan of Steven Pressfield and his approach to making art, just because it’s so damn practical, and practicality really seems like the only meaningful way to talk about the creative process. A quote that I particularly like is: “Stay have to be clueless enough to have no idea how difficult something is, and cocky enough to think you can do it.” Stupidity is very easy advice for me to follow; it’s important to set achievable expectations for yourself. I’m operating at peak stupidity on most days.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I write both, and like both, but sometimes get stuck in this hazy grey zone between them, where, when writing fiction, I find myself relying on real experiences and memories and transcribing them beat for beat, and then, when writing non-fiction, I’m constantly stifling the urge to stretch and twist and fold the facts to suit my narrative aims.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Routine is difficult to maintain, for all sorts of reasons that are unique to my living/working situation, but the little rituals of writing – those basic components of a routine –  are something I depend on. Whether it’s where I write (my desk at home, Black Squirrel Books on Bank Street in Ottawa) or what I consume while writing (espresso, dark chocolate, those little mini-cans of Coke Zero), I do my best to maintain some little bit of consistency. I have this formative memory (which, even with the infinite power of the internet at my disposal, I can’t verify) of a Michael Crichton profile on 60 Minutes in which he’s taking a reporter through his New York apartment. He gets to the kitchen and opens the fridge and the shelves are filled with cans of Coke and ham sandwiches, and he explains that he doesn’t want to disturb his rhythm by having to make choices about what to eat. So he eats the same modest lunch every single day. I was twelve or thirteen when I saw that, and it seemed like a profound (and very practical) insight into how to become a writer: eat the same thing whenever you write.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

For a while, I used to begin my writing routine by transcribing another writer’s work (this is back when I had ample time to practice these kinds of indulgent rituals). I’d spend twenty minutes copying random pages from a Norman Mailer novel or something; it was like stretching before playing sports, or singing registers before going onstage. Think of how people learn to play the guitar; they play other people’s music, figure out chords, progressions, all that. Writing isn’t that different. And when you get stuck, its nice to go back to basics. You have to remind your brain what prose is supposed to sound/feel like, prepare your fingers for the physical act of writing.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Rock. The dusty, mineral smell of rock. Which is a cousin to the smell of dirt, and a second-cousin to the smell of wood, but which is its own unique smell and the singular perfume of Yellowknife, where I grew up.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

There are three forms of art that are perpetually vying for my love and attention: books, movies, and comic books.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My dad (see above re: how he terrified me during long drives). Michael Crichton was the first writer I wanted to become; I aspired to be like him the way other kids aspired to like Mario Lemieux or Kurt Cobain. John Updike was the first writer whose greatness I felt I could understand; like I was able to open up the back of a Swiss watch and see all the miniscule gears and wheels and whatnot.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Write a movie (like, a movie that actually gets made). A real movie with real actors. It doesn’t have to be anyone famous—maybe someone semi-famous, maybe Nicolas Cage. Yeah, I’d love to write a Nicolas Cage movie. Not a weird art film or self-serious drama. A good thriller/suspense flick. With an outrageous plot twist in the final act. And I’d go to theatres where the movie was screening, sit in the back with a big bag of popcorn, and listen to everyone gasp when it’s revealed that Nic Cage is actually a ghost or whatever.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Movie director, comic book artist. I have tried to do both of those things before, and hope to try doing them again in the future. It’s all storytelling, I guess. Writing just happens to be the easiest (for me) to actually execute. All you need is paper and a pen. Maybe, in whatever dystopian future awaits us, when I’m forced to develop some sort of practical skill in order to survive, I’d be a craftsman of some kind; like, a really top-notch door-hanger. Something obscure like that. (Also, I think it says a lot about me that I think door-hanging will be an essential skill in the post-apocalyptic wastelands).

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I love being alone. I love being inside my own head. I love having total control over the world, which is something that can only happen inside your head.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great books I’ve read have been Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and The Break by Katherena Vermette. The latter cast a unique magical spell; that a thirty-something white guy could read a book about indigenous women in the north end of Winnipeg and feel like it represented, both directly and indirectly, his own feelings and anxieties and experiences in the world, speaks volumes about the universality of great art, and is proof of why it’s so important to search out worldviews that are different than your own, because, when it’s done well, as in the case of The Break, they’re actually not that different at all. The last great film? Well, this is going to be a terrible subjective answer, but when I first saw Captain America: Civil War, I was inexplicably disappointed by it—not because it was bad, but because it was so different than I had envisioned it (to be specific: different than the 12 year-old version of me who lives inside my brain and, when it comes to certain contemporary things like superhero movies and, usurps my sophisticated tastes). But I watched it again, recently, and must say that, as far as big-budget, fan-servicing, corporate-controlled, global entertainments was pretty great. I also really liked Carol, which I’ll mention here just to assuage the weird guilt I feel about a superhero movie being that last great film I saw.   

20 - What are you currently working on?

A book about the future.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On beauty

I float through Facebook, skimming the links. An article suggests that writing begins with forgiveness. What is there to forgive? A vague selfishness to even attempt something that, at least on the surface, isn’t useful for anyone. A friend over coffee tells me that this is an impulse women writers are far too familiar with: the guilt associated with writing, when one should instead be caring for partner, for children, for anyone other than themselves. She said that the pressures upon the female writer is far worse: can my attempt to write in fact harm his work? She knows full well that such feelings aren’t reasonable, and yet, there they are. This has the potential to self-fulfil, even as he worries not just about his own work but hers. So much energy is wasted on the wrong things.

Am I doing the work I am supposed to be doing? Time at my desk relegated to distraction, deflection or housekeeping. Is this what I want? Am I seeking a life in which one sacrifices for the sake of the work, to only produce work of so little volume or quality, and even less consequence? As that manuscript lies unfinished, will a dusted bookshelf matter, or might it just be the end of me?

A bumper sticker reads: Jesus is Coming! Look busy.