Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: Finding the Words, edited by Jared Bland

This anthology of essays – spectacularly subtitled “Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile, and Breaking the Rules” – is the latest in a series of books released by McClelland & Stewart as a fundraiser for the very noble organization PEN Canada. Edited by Jared Bland, Finding the Words tackles the topics above and a lot more, sometimes with humour and sometimes with a deadly seriousness. I had the good fortune of attending the launch party a couple of months ago and got to meet a slew of extremely talented people who generously donated their work to this project.

What struck me upon reading the anthology was not just the essays themselves but how Bland, who is an editor at The Walrus by day, chose to arrange them. The book opens with a piece called “A Story Without Words” by Heather O’Neill, a deeply personal reflection on her father’s long-time illiteracy. About three or four paragraphs in, you realize that O’Neill has written the essay in the same sort of faux-precocious, 11-year-old-girl voice that she utilized to such success in her award-winning novel Lullabies for Little Criminals. Its tone is a stark contrast to that of the essay promptly following it – one by Linden MacIntyre called “On Mediocrity, Consensus and Success.” MacIntyre, who is about as “grizzled journalist/novelist in a lonely garret” as they come in this country, ruminates on his Giller win a couple years back for his novel The Bishop’s Man and the random crapshoot that comprises any literary accomplishment. The two essays could not be any more different in style and subject matter; but by placing them back to back at the beginning of this anthology, Bland is making a deliberate statement about how different writers’ minds work, their creative processing of the world around them, and how they go about “finding the words.” There are similarly abrupt pairings peppered throughout this book.

Naturally, I found the essays I enjoyed most were by writers I’ve already read and loved. David Bezmozgis, who could make a tax return sound engrossing, contributes a flawlessly executed piece called “Requiem for My Grandfather, Jakov Milner, Zionist.” The duo of Pasha Malla and Moez Surani lighten the mood by serving up a list of do’s and don’t’s for writers. (My favourite is #27: “Don’t put your face on the cover of your own book.”) Steven Heighton writes a lovely piece about the importance of boredom in inspiration and how our perpetually wired world can interfere with that. And I had to love Gord Downie’s story about sharing a stage with Gordon Lightfoot as they discussed their respective songwriting processes, a piece that is as much about the anxiety of hanging out with a childhood idol as anything.

There are a few duds in Finding the Words, essays that are too navel-gazing or don’t quite gel as a piece of nonfiction. But generally the anthology is very strong, and equal to the great cause it supports. You should go pick up a copy and help PEN Canada if you can.

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