Saturday, March 26, 2011

Moving day

This blog is staying put, but I certainly am not. If you've found things quiet on FRR lately, it's because I'm in the midst of packing up my life to move at the end of next week to new digs with RR. It's been a MASSIVE chore. Writers always find moving especially taxing - all those books, all those papers that make up the "archive." (Myself, I have whole novels I wrote dating back to my mid teens that I just don't have the heart to throw out. I also have a personal library of about 1,100 books.)

But fear not - I will be back. There's some news brewing on the publication front that I'll get into later. I'm also a little behind on my reviewing. I recently finished Michael Lista's poetry book Bloom and liked it a great deal, but I may not get to review it until well after the move, if at all.

Anyway, wish me luck. If you have any encouraging words as to how to deal with the relentless daily stress of packing up one's belongings, please pass them along.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Back at McMaster

Had a great time last night at McMaster University, where I was once again invited down to do a reading/lecture to a creative writing class. I had done a similar event about a year ago and last night was equally fun. Thanks again to my host Bob Spree and his intrepid class of young scribes. It was a blast.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mr. Professor Man: Considering Francine Prose’s Blue Angel and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys

Novels set in a university creative writing department are a dime a dozen. It seems to be a rite of passage for a certain type of mid-list and/or mid-career author to tackle the hallowed (if somewhat Kafkaesque) halls of academia, seeing how so many of these writers gain steady employment there. The books inevitably deal with a garden variety of topics: sexual tension between teachers and students, the back-stabbing cattiness of colleagues, the pall of thwarted ambition that hangs over everything. Two novels that I read recently stand out from the pack, not because they deviate from these stock subjects but because their authors work harder at the underlying themes that serve as subtext on the writerly life: the internal and external projections of self.

Both Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel Wonder Boys and Francine Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel are wildly entertaining reads, though for very different reasons. Prose’s work is a meticulous, vacuum-sealed examination of one man’s rapid fall from grace, a professor’s romantic entanglements with a talented student. Chabon’s novel is more expansive, idiosyncratic, imbued with a larger sense of in medias res: his protagonist is unmistakably near rock bottom, with his various proclivities coming to a head during one fateful weekend’s literary festival. Both books deal with the notion of “writer-as-teacher”, and how this notion can refract what a writer’s life actually is and turn it into something close to myth.

Ted Swenson, the hero of Prose’s Blue Angel, has no allusions about what his writerly life has amounted to. Stranded at a small liberal arts college in Vermont, Swenson hasn’t published a book in 10 years and makes his living teaching creative writing once a week to a class of mostly subliterate undergrads. His new novel-in-progress is languishing on his desk, he’s recently become estranged from his college-aged daughter, and his marriage to wife Sherrie, though reliable and loving, has started taking on a stale quality that makes him uneasy. Prose goes to great lengths to show the obvious disconnect between what Swenson once thought a writer’s life should be and what his own life has inevitably become:

Dinner’s a celebration. Of sorts. Sherrie’s car’s been fixed. Swenson’s attention drifts while she explains what the problem was. The garage only charged them – he can focus on that – half as much as they’d feared. So that’s what they’re celebrating: painless car repair. Tonight, all over America, writers are toasting works of genius, six-figure advances, successes and romances, new friendships and BMWs. While Swenson, on his desert island, clinks glasses with his wife because the Civic only needed a two-hundred-dollar alternator.

It’s no wonder, then, that Swenson is jostled from this pouting lethargy when he meets Angela Argo – a tattooed, multi-pierced 19-year-old and the only person among his current crop of creative writing students who shows any real talent. Half the term has gone by and Angela has not shared a single story of her own during workshop, but she comes to Swenson privately to show him the opening chapter of a novel she has been working on. Not surprising, it’s a precocious work of semi-genius that blows Swenson’s socks off. In fact, Angela’s talent reawakens in Swenson not so much his passion for writing as his passion for what a writer is – or supposed to be. His obsession with Angela’s work (and it is an obsession: he treats her writing almost like a stash of pornography he hides from his wife as Angela delivers chapter after chapter to him) soon becomes an obsession with Angela the person. And since there can be a sexual overtone to any intimate professor-student relationship, he allows his encounters with Angela to drift into the realm of the inappropriate.

Of course, Prose would have us consider that this was the young girl’s intention all along: Angela steers Swenson into a sexual relationship, or so the book alleges, strictly to gain access to his New York editor and a potential book deal for her novel. I don’t want to linger on the various gaps in motivation and plausibility that these circumstances raise; nor do I want to harp on the somewhat amateurish use of symbolism that Prose employs during a crucial moment in the story. (Swenson develops a problem with a tooth filling around the same time that his relationship with Angela begins; the tooth finally breaks just as he’s about to have sex with her. Get it?) I think what’s important here is how Swenson falls into whatever trap that Angela has put down for him because of his enduring faith in what he thinks a writer is, and what a professor should be. His communion with that faith ends disastrously: his dalliances with Angela ruin his marriage, destroy his position at the college, alienate him from his few friends, and set him up to be skewered at a public inquiry by colleagues that loath him.

Yet, Blue Angel does end on a positive note. As Swenson leaves the inquiry, he takes a moment to marvel at how these dramatic occurrences may very well lead him to re-connect with a life of writing, rather than a life of attempting to be a writer and all that that entails. His faith in professorship is shattered, but his faith in himself is strangely invigorated. “He’s glad to be out of that future,” he thinks, “and headed into his own.”

Anyone familiar with the popular film version of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys knows that it ends on a similar note. Grady Tripp shares a number of qualities with Ted Swenson, and a similar fate: he ruins his academic career but finds redemption in his writing. There is no arguing that Chabon’s novel is far more sprawling than its film version (which stars Michael Douglas, Katie Holmes and Toby Maguire); and, in many ways, it’s a more generous work of fiction than Blue Angel. Chabon’s overarching theme is one of proclivity’s dominion over the artistic sensibility: most of the characters in this novel are, in some way, undone by their vices in the name of art. For Tripp, his predilections are actually indivisible from his writerly temperament, and this is a value he tries to instill in his star creative student, the moody and mysterious James Leer. It’s curious to see how Tripp’s mentorship of James is almost entirely behavioural: while he is very protective of him, he’s also more concerned with getting the boy to grab life fully by the testicles than he is at getting him to improve his sentences or narrative structures.

There is almost a picaresque quality to Wonder Boys as a result of Tripp allowing James into his world, though this does degenerate into slapstick at certain points. There is a shooting of a dog, a running over of a snake, lots of drug use, a stolen tuba, scorned women, and all manner of vehicular tomfoolery. You get the sense reading Wonder Boys that these fantastical adventures, concentrated into one weekend, will become the foundation that young James eventually builds his writing career on. They are the best gift that Tripp can give his student, and yet they also conspire to destroy the life that Tripp has enjoyed for more than a decade.

Then there is also the matter of Tripp’s colossal 2000+ page novel in progress. If his identity as a professor is threatened by the precarious grip he has on his life, then his new book is even more so. Unlike Swenson in Blue Angel, who can barely stand to look at his unfinished manuscript, Tripp has buried himself headlong into the various folds and undulations of his magnum opus. But just as he has lost sight of what makes for a respectable professor, he has also lost sight of what makes for good writing. His manuscript dances off in an array of directions and themes, with countless characters and endless digressions. It takes the cold-eyed judgment of another star student – the gorgeous Hannah, who begins reading the manuscript behind Tripp’s back – to tell him what he has probably known for some time: his book is a disaster.

Chabon frames it all around the idea of writers being, in one sense, their own doppelgangers. There is the image, the life, that writers project to the outside world, an image that they need to invest themselves in even if it’s not entirely truthful. And then there’s that other image, the purer, more idealistic image of Writer with a capital W. These two personae are, at least for Tripp, forever at odds. As he puts it: “While I worked I told myself lies. Writers, unlike most people, tell their best lies when they are alone.” Even James, no stranger to lying himself, picks up on this and shares a moment of undiluted honesty with Tripp:

“Grady, you how that was talking last night about, you know, having a double? Who goes around wrecking his life for him? So that he’ll have plenty to write about?” He was looking at the impression of a pair of buttocks stamped into the hood of my car. “Do you think that was all bullshit?”

“No,” I said. “I’m afraid I didn’t.”

“I didn’t either,” he said.

And therein lies the biggest connection I want to make between these two novels. Both of their protagonist-writers are held captive by their proclivities, their weaknesses of character. And yet from the residual symptoms of all this dishonest thinking, they both expect that some meaningful work of art will emerge from the wreckage. Swenson spends his novel trying to keep several plates of self identity spinning at once: that of a loving husband, a good father, a dedicated teacher, and, above all, a writer who still has a career ahead of him. In the end, he is left with nothing – nothing except the nebulous idealism that every author feels at some point: that he or she can do better next time. Tripp’s tale ends a bit more optimistically. He marries his pregnant mistress to raise their son together, abandons his catastrophe of a novel (he literally buries it in the backyard) and tries to write something else, something better. At the end of both Wonder Boys and Blue Angel, it is the professors, and not the students, who have learned the most valuable lessons.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Event: Reading in Perth, ON

Got word last week that I'm confirmed to read at the launch of the new First Edition Reading Series at the Factory Grind Cafe in Perth, Ontario on April 8th.

I'm especially excited about this event because it will mark the first time that RR and I have ever shared a stage together. Naturally, we've been in the audience at many of each other's events since we started dating, but this is the first time we've been on the same bill. I'm so incredibly proud of her and excited about the forthcoming launch of her new book, so this is a really huge treat from me.

We'll also be reading with Tish Cohen, whom I haven't met yet but have heard wonderful things about. Anyway, it should be a fantastic evening of literature, so if you're anywhere near the area, you should pop by on April 8th.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Grief that Shook the Earth on its Axis

Thinking about Japan's earthquate today, and other earthquakes. Which takes me back to pages 10-11 of last fall's issue of The Quint. Just because.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Correction: FreeFall magazine

I received a correction from FreeFall magazine last night: my poem has won second prize in their poetry contest, not third as previously reported. A great way to start the day!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Acceptance: FreeFall magazine (Calgary)

I was very pleased to come home last night to learn that my poem "On Choosing a Mattress" has placed third in FreeFall magazine's annual poetry contest, judged by Douglas Glover. The poem will appear in the forthcoming Volume XXI Number 1 of the magazine, based out of Calgary. Congrats to the other winners and to those on the shortlist.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande

I’ve always felt it important to pick up creative writing manuals every now and then as a refresher on certain skills or tenets that I feel should be instinctual by this point in my life. A lot of these manuals are little more than reference books, which is why I don’t typically put them down in my reading log. But Dorothea Brande’s book, Becoming a Writer, has been on my radar for a while now because I so often see it praised as a engaging classic of the form. It’s not a reference book by any means: it purports to give aspiring authors something more important, more foundational, than most technical manuals offer. It professes to tell you how to be a writer, rather than how to write. It also has the additional novelty of being first published in 1934.

What I didn’t know going in was how much this book is simply a primer for the would-be writer at the very start of his or her career; it’s very “beginner band”, as Lisa Simpson would put it. I’m not knocking it because of this: had an enterprising high school English teacher given me this book in the early `90s when I was first setting out, I would have been eternally grateful.

What I am knocking it for, I suppose, is that it’s extremely prescriptive and rigid in explaining how the creative process for an author should work. Brande makes a number of ghastly generalizations about how to begin writing, concepts that don’t take into account the fact that being creative means different things to different people. She talks about starting your process by writing very early in the mornings (advice I have no trouble with myself; my writing day begins at 4:30 a.m.) and then moving on by choosing a specific time of day to be a writer and writing at that time no matter what. While wholly unrealistic for most workaday people, there’s nothing wrong with putting forth this advice per se; it’s important to instill discipline in the beginner. But the specifics of her advice get a bit loopy by the end: she talks about how much coffee one should drink while writing, and even has a section on switching it up with maté, a South American form of tea.

There are other tidbits of guidance, presented as cold hard fact, that I do have a serious problem with. She advises, for example, that when deciding what to read for pleasure while you’re in the throes of a writing project, you should absolutely avoid books that are of a similar genre or topic as your own. Again, this may be true for some writers, but others (including me) would see it as silly at best and thoroughly unhelpful at worst. I don’t know how I would go about writing novels, short stories and poems of my own if I wasn’t constantly devouring books like that by other people. But that’s just me. The point is, each writer needs to find his or her own groove for writing effectively. It’s the instructor’s job to provide help in finding that groove, rather than telling every writer what that groove should be.

Anyway, I don’t necessarily want to dissuade people from reading this book. If you’re 15 years old and you found this post through a Google search, let me say that you may find something useful in Brande’s text. But allow me to recommend some other writing manuals that might be infinitely more helpful. These are books I turn back to again and again when I need to be reminded of my core tenets of process. (This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you have recommendations of your own, feel free to mention them below in the comment box.)

  • A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction, by Jack Hodgins
  • On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
  • Living by Fiction, by Annie Dillard
  • How Fiction Works, by James Wood.
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write them, by Francine Prose
  • A Magical Clockwork: The Art of Writing the Poem, by Susan Ioannou