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For Writers and Editors
Since 2011 I have posted (somewhat inconsistently) articles related to writing, editing, and publishing. Since my web-provider no longer provides a stand-alone blog service I have selected a few pieces and posted them here. I continue to add items to this selection. They are in random sequence. Browse away:
The Ten Commandments for Writing a Memoir
Blake Morrison is an acclaimed editor, writer, teacher, novelist, librettist, and novelist in the U.K. (Times Literary Supplement , The Observer and the Independent on Sunday. Goldsmiths College, London etc.) His non-fiction work includes As If , about two boys who killed a child. His first memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, was followed by a second, about his mother, Things My Mother Never Told Me. His novel, The Justification of Johann Gutenberg, about the inventor of movable type, was published in 2000.
Here's his advice on how to write a memoir:
1 Grab the reader’s attention from the off
2 Put us there
3 Dramatise yourself as the narrator
4 Be strict about point of view
5 Choose your tense carefully
6 Remember God is in the detail
7 Use the same storytelling devices that novelists use – plot, character, voice, motif and structure
8 Give signposts
9 Be surprising
10 Pace the story
He expands and explains these in a longer article about recent trends and current forms of memoir in The Guardian, December 14, 2019. Here's a link to his full article:
Only in Canada...
Here's the list, from BookNet Canada, of the ten best-selling Canadian books in Canada in 2019:
- The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood *
- A Better Man by Louise Penny
- Someone We Know by Shari Lapena
- The Gown by Jennifer Robson
- The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood
- The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
- Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
- Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood * (*listed twice because there are 2 different editions of this work)
- Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
- Yum and Yummer by Greta Podleski
- Fraiche Food, Full Hearts by Jillian Harris and Tori Wesszer
- 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson
- By Chance Alone by Max Eisen
- Scotty by Ken Dryden
- The 5AM Club by Robin Sharma
- Unlearn by Humble the Poet
- Cat and Nat’s Mom Truths by Catherine Belknap and Natalie Telfer
- Let That Sh*t Go by Kate Petriw and Nina Purewal
Canadians Aren't Reading Canadian Books
The More Canada Report is the work of a group of major cultural figures who wanted to find ways to address a big problem. In their words: "the decline in awareness and reading of Canadian-authored books in English Canada over the past 15 years." Here is a link to their findings and their proposals to address this critical challenge for writers, editors, and publishers. The "More Canada Report" is available as a free PDF. Here's a link: The More Canada Report.
Dreyer's English - An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
One of my favourite books about editing that I read this year is by Benjamin Dreyer, the "copy chief" at Random House. It's funny, provocative, and very VERY helpful. This is from his introduction where he captures an ambiguity in editing. Sometimes you edit things to save writers from being "got at" even though you know you could let their original version pass. Smart editors, he says, still impose certain rule-bound interventions, even though they know the piece still works in its rule-breaking original. Why? This is his explanation:
"An admission: Quite a lot of what I do as a copy editor is to help writers avoid being carped at, fairly or - and this is the part that hurts - unfairly, by People Who Think They Know Better and Write Aggrieved Emails to Publishing Houses. Thus I tend to be a bit conservative about flouting rules that may be a bit dubious in their original but, observed, ain't hurting nobody." (p.8)
Dreyer's English, Random House, 2019.
“Diminishing Returns: Creative Culture at Risk”
Here is the first page from a new report on writer’s incomes from the Writers’ Union of Canada:
“Diminishing Returns: Creative Culture at Risk” Following up on the 1998 and 2014 surveys of writers’ incomes conducted by The Writers’ Union of Canada, along with recent surveys of authors’ earnings in the U.K. and U.S., the Union undertook an income survey of its members and other writers in the spring of 2018. The survey was circulated to Union members and other writers through their organizations and social media. Writers were asked to answer questions based on their income in 2017.
The conclusions are deeply discouraging and worrisome:
Taking inflation into account, writers are making 78% less than they were making in 1998. In fact, writers are making significantly less from their writing than they did just three years ago: $9,380 in 2017 vs. $12,879 in 2014. That’s a 27% drop over a short period — the same period that has seen a massive increase in uncompensated educational copying. At the same time, 30% of writers say they must do more to earn a living than they did three years ago.
The work of writers fuels an almost $2 billion book industry in Canada, and yet more than 85% of writers earn an income from their writing that is below the poverty line.
These results indicate that it is increasingly difficult for writers to earn a living wage. Writers create the content that is foundational to our culture.
Without a professional class of writers, our culture is at risk.
Overreach on educational copying (since 2012’s Copyright Act changes) has cost Canadian writers tens of millions of dollars. This survey shows how individual writers are paying for the explosion of uncompensated copying in the education sector. Legislative and regulatory changes are required immediately to ensure that writers are compensated for the use of their work by the education sector.
The full, 8-page report is available here:
I’m reading a book on the history of the Black Monks, as the members of the Benedictine Order were called. This quotation is from the margin of a manuscript found in a European monastery, and was written (by hand) around the year 1100. It captures something powerful about the act of writing, the importance of reading “usefully” -- though I would substitute that word for "carefully"-- and also the impermanence of the written word itself:
"The work of writing makes one lose their sight, it hunches your back, it breaks ribs and bothers the stomach, it pains the kidneys and causes aches throughout the body. Therefore, you, the reader, turn the pages carefully and keep your fingers from the letters, because just as hail destroys the fields, the useless reader erases the text and destroys the book."
From: The Benedictines in the Middle Ages by James G. Clark, and published by The Boydell Press in 2011, (p. 242).
"this profound respect for good writing..."
Diana Athill is a legendary figure in British publishing. An editor and writer, and now 98 years old, in 1963 at the age of 46 she wrote this about the gift of artists in general and writers in particular:
"It did not surprise me to discover in myself, when I first went into publishing, this profound respect for good writing. I had not thought much about it before because I had not had occasion to use it, but it was always there. How could it not have been? It was not only a matter of being reared in a reading family, it was a matter of having lived, quite literally, a great part of my life entirely in terms of the printed word, or of images on canvas or on the screen.
It is a startling realization. To have lived from 1917 to 1961 and to have known violence only through the printed word or through images; to have known social injustice and revolution only through the printed word or through images; to have seen Jews stumbling down concrete steps into the gas chamber only through the printed word or through images; to have experienced fear, hunger, loss of liberty, or courage, relief from want and the impulse to fight for freedom only through the written word or through images: this is astounding. I remember that when shadows on a screen formed the sticklike limbs of Belsen protruding at awkward angles from piles of bodies, the feet grotesquely big at the end of legs shrunk to bone, I was engulfed in a terrible silence of unreality - my own unreality, not that of the shadows. In the same way books have been my windows on to vast tracts of experience, both destructive and creative, in which I have not lived. To the poet, to the painter, to the writer of serious prose as distinct from the entertainer (much though I owe to the latter), I am so much in debt that if artists did not exist, I cannot imagine that I would."
Diana Athill, Instead of a Letter published in 1963 by Chatto and Windus (p. 158-9)
From a letter to young writers
The author, Colum McCann offers this advice to young aspiring authors:
"The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last."
Encountering great wisdom
An image or a moment that tells you that you are in the hands of a highly accomplished novelist
“Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out - an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies.”
That’s the American novelist, Marilynne Robinson from her Fall 2008 interview with Sarah Fay of The Paris Review. The focus of the interview was the interconnection of two of Robinson’s novels: Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), both published by HarperCollins.
You know you are in the hands of a great writer when you encounter such lines as:
“I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am … memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that tis abiding is a most gracious reprieve.” (Gilead, p. 162)
And how about these as examples from Home to demonstrate Robinson’s skills as a novelist:
“Every family has a story that would have ended differently if only there had been penicillin.”
“I think hope is the worst thing in the world I really do. It makes a fool of you while it lasts. And when it’s gone, it’s like there’s nothing left of you at all.” (p. 275)
“I hope I haven’t been too much trouble. There’s a lot I regret.” (p. 314)
These are deeply religious novels and in the Paris Review interview Robinson offers this insight into this aspect of her work: “Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.”
Her engrossing novels Gilead, Home, and Lila form a trilogy about different generations of the Boughton and Ames families, both of which include a Protestant pastor patriarch character.
Lost for Words?
In his 2014 novel, Lost for Words, Edward St. Aubyn casts a playful glance at the world of commercial publishing in the U.K. The novel presents a “backstage” drama of greed, betrayal, and incompetence as writers, editors, corporate funders, and jurors determine the winner of the (fictional) Elysian Prize. Think Man Booker. It’s a clever parody in the mode of Evelyn Waugh.
Here, Alan, a powerful and successful fiction editor, has difficulty knowing when to stop:
“He had only just made the Elysian deadline, hanging on to the typescript until the last moment in case there was something still to be done; two sentences turned into one, one sentence broken into two, the substitution of a slightly resistant adjective to engender a moment’s reflection, in short, the joys of editing, all carried out without forgetting the art that disguises art, giving the appearance of ease to the greatest difficulty and bringing clarity to tangled and obscure ideas. It had been a terrible wrench when he handed the typescript to his assistant to get it biked over to the Elysian people on that final afternoon…” (p. 54)
Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (2014)
Degrees of Preparation
In a letter written in 1888, the 28-year-old Russian playwright and writer of short stories, Anton Chekhov, sets out 6 writing principles for writers seeking to create a good story:
1: Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political, social-economic nature;
2: total objectivity;
3: truthful descriptions of persons and objects;
4: extreme brevity;
5: audacity and originality: flee the stereotype;
Although Chekhov does not make the connection, these simple principles also apply to writers of non-fiction.
From the Introduction to Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, Trans: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Modern Library/HarperCollins, 2005.
On the role of the editor
This is Sameer Rahim on editing: “It can often help if a writer and her editor have different sensibilities. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison says that in Robert Gottlieb she found not the 'ideal reader' but the 'ideal editor'. Precisely because of his distance from her material about African-American lives, he could tell her when he thought she was preaching rather than dramatising."
Morrison, an accomplished editor herself, did not need a red pen through her sentences. In a Paris Review interview from 1994, Gottlieb said, 'A writer of her powers and discrimination doesn’t need a lot of help with her prose.' Rather, his job was to let her imagination unfold. 'Bob said to me, you can loosen, open up,' said Morrison. An editor must be as much a psychologist as a prose technician – rather as a sports coach gets his athlete in the right frame of mind for a race.”
A writer advises a fellow writer
In an exchange of letters the author of Brideshead Revisited offers some writing advice to the author of The Seven Storey Mountain:
“With regard to style it is much more laborious to write briefly. Americans, I am sure you will agree, tend to be very long-winded in conversation and you method is conversational. I relish the laconic. This is a personal preference… I fiddle away rewriting any sentence six times mostly out of vanity…You have clearly adopted the opposite opinion … banging away at your typewriter on whatever turns up.
Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask ‘Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the while thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?’
That was Evelyn Waugh writing in 1948 in response to a request for writerly advice from Frater Louis OCSO, better known as Thomas Merton. Three years later, Waugh tackled the issue of how a writer considers the audience/readership of a given work: “… [Y]ou do not seem to have decided whom precisely you are addressing. You must, I am sure, in the writing have a specific reader in mind. …You seem to wander from page to page…now taking the ignorant (like myself) out of his depths, now offering rudimentary information which is quite superfluous…
I do think the power of your writing would be greatly increased if you decided on a single level for each book – or write four books instead of one…”
The full and deeply engaging exchange of letters between these two major figures is the subject of a wonderful new book by Mary Frances Coady: Merton & Waugh – A Monk, A Crusty Old Man & The Seven Storey Mountain, published by Paraclete Press (2015). Reading this will give new insights into the works of both authors and will also send you in search of The Reader Over Your Shoulder - A Handbook for Writers of English Prose by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. Waugh recommends this 1943 style guide and Merton thoroughly enjoys it. Some libraries still have a copy.
"I sometimes go to the library at a well-regarded local university to write. Like most universities these days, this one is very diligent about locating itself at the cutting edge of every trend. When you get a cup of coffee, it comes with a sleeve. On this sleeve, the university takes the opportunity to profile student success stories. Recently I got a sleeve with a picture of a student in the continuing studies program. The caption read, "A master's degree allowed her to progress from writer to content expert." Apparently the young woman "progressed" from being a writer to someone who aggregates bits of other people's writing. To me that sounds more like defeat. In countless little ways, any single one of which seems trivial, this liberal arts college is unthinkingly repeating bits of Silicon Valley ideology that would seem to undermine the rationale for studying the liberal arts. The university has become 'the brilliant ally of its own gravediggers,' to borrow a phrase from Milan Kundera." (p. 201-2)
From Matthew B. Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head - On Becoming an Individual in the Age of Distraction, published by Allen Lane/The Penguin Group, 2015.
Ask the beasts
The starting point for Elizabeth A. Johnson’s latest work is the Book of Job.
Ask the beasts and they will teach you;
The birds of the air, and they will teach you;
Ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you;
And the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among these does not know
That the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing,
And the breath of every human being.
(Job 12: 7-10)
Using those three Biblical verses she proposes that for humans to understand their relation to the non-human world, they should consult with it. She has titled her latest book: Ask the Beasts – Darwin and the God of Love. And in its 323 pages she addresses many different ways to “ask” that question, offering a wide and deep range of how scientists and theologians have and continue to answer such questions.
As with all the best books, reading hers will send you in search of a lot of follow-up titles, starting with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Literary analysis has shown how Darwin’s voice as a writer, by turns persuasive, friendly, dazzling, humble, dark, and warmly human, invites readers to sue their own image-making powers to see the grandeur in this view of life that the author himself envisions. His writing has been compared to the novels of Victorian contemporaries Charles Dickens in Great Expectations and George Eliot in Middlemarch, authors who wove stories with complex, interlacing lines into a single overarching narrative. By involving the reader in the narrative experience at once tragic, awesome, and mundane, the book functions as literature. It is as a work of science, though, that Origin has had its most significant impact. (p. 99)
Elizabeth Johnson makes you want to read so much more than the citations and quotations she weaves into her own wonderful exploration of theological perspectives on evolutionary theory. Her 11-page bibliography will send you to your local library for a year or two.
In addition to showing enormous respect for her sources she singles out her editor, Robin Baird-Smith. He is one of the most influential editors in British non-fiction publishing. Working with him “has been a delight,” she writes in her Acknowledgments. “He is a lovely person to work with and I salute him with sincerest thanks.” Their editorial partnership has resulted in a remarkable and intellectually provocative book.
Elizabeth A. Johnson’s Ask the Beasts – Darwin and the God of Love is a Continuum book published by Bloomsbury (2014).
Teach us to sit still
In Teach Us To Sit Still, the novelist Tim Parks details his urological and pain-filled journey from the conventional world of medicine and toward meditation and mindfulness. While not fully cured by the book’s final chapter, he avoids surgery and dives deeper into the creative links between writing, illness, and simply getting on with life. In this section he is attending a silent meditation retreat and is struggling to clear his (writerly) mind:
"Uncalled for, unwanted, the thoughts flew across my mental space, back and forth, hither and thither, like birds in the evening sky, chasing and losing and finding each other, racing, wheeling, dispersing, gathering, gliding a while then flapping in hard flight, always moving, through each other and across each other, at different altitudes, different speeds, as the light fails and the breeze comes up and the rain spatters on rustling leaves. Then one by one, at last, they begin to settle, they drop from view. With a last flutter, a thought settles on its perch and is quiet. On a rooftop perhaps, or on your wrist, in your throat. Another joins the first, and another. Thoughts fluffing their feathers before falling still. Perhaps one last squawk … then silence. Until, huddled together on their wire, between your ears, they lose definition, merge into each other, become a single pool of feathery shadow, deep shadow in the darkness, one layer beneath another, beneath others, as eyes close behind closed eyelids, watched by still deeper eyes, and the mind at last discovers itself transparent; the mind is finally still and clear as clear water, and from top to toe the body brims with transparent wordless mind… " (p. 267)
Teach Us To Sit Still – A Skeptic’s Search for Health and Healing
Rodale Books, 2010
In The Missing Ink – The Lost Art of Handwriting, Philip Hensher may have written this by hand, but keyboards and digital typesetting took over where he left off:
This is a book about the disappearance of handwriting. We don’t quite know what will take its place – the transmission of thought via a keyboard into words; the rendering of voice commands into action; the understanding by a piece of technology of a gesture or, conceivably, a thought. The shaping of thought and written language by a pen, moved by a hand to register marks of ink on paper has for centuries, millennia, been regarded as almost the most powerful sign of our individuality. …Handwriting is what registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us. It has been regarded as the path to riches, merit, honour; it has been seen as the unknowing key to our souls and our innermost nature. It has been regarded as a sign of our health as a society, of our intelligence, and as an object of simplicity, grace, fantasy, and beauty in its own right. (p. 17)
This is a wonderful exploration of handwriting’s history – how it was taught, the tools of the trade (quill, dip pen, fountain pen, “biro”, and rollerball) the pseudo-science that grew up around, and its imminent demise.
To read this book makes you want to seek out that Christmas present from log ago, the green Waterman fountain pen in its silk-lined box, and the dust-covered bottle of Parker “Quink” ink.
A great read, filled with rich historical anecdotes. Hensher intersperses this historical survey with chapters marked “Witness” which are edited transcripts of his interviews with a wide range people about their handwriting.
When I was younger, I used to admire my mother’s handwriting. But now it’s more like my father’s. I can’t read my own handwriting, and my father can’t read his handwriting, either. (p. 230)
What does my handwriting say about me? It says – I’m feeling self-conscious about this now. This is so difficult. (p. 143)
The Missing Ink – The Lost Art of Handwriting by Philip Hensher is published by Faber and Faber Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)
The Possible in the Fictional
Every few years, long-dead authors are resurrected by other writers who identify their work not as something frozen in historical time but as an essential contribution to understanding the present moment. A few years ago it was Proust (How Proust Can Change Your Life, and Proust and the Squid.), and then it was Chekhov (Reading Chekhov – A Critical Journey, and Scenes from a Life ). Now it seems to be George Eliot’s turn. (Nancy Henry’s 2012 biography and the just-published: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead).
But why George Eliot in 2014?
Writing 20 years ago, Rosemary Ashton, the editor of the Penguin edition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch was surely on to something: "George Eliot places her novel forty years back from the time of writing (1871). She adopts the role of imaginative historian, even scientific investigator, one who is intent on ‘watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots’, as she describes her task (Chapter 11), and who seeks to analyse recent political and social changes by means of the particular human stories she tells. Her method is to weave together several strands in such a way that an individual’s lot is seen to be affected by those historical changes as they happen." (p. viii)
Then Ashton adds, “Middemarch is above all about change and the way individuals and groups adapt to, or resist, change.”
What does the novelist herself say?
Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years? For the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-waited opportunity; a past error may urge a grand retrieval.
Middlemarch, George Eliot (p. 832 Penguin edition)
And then, a few lines from the end of the work she adds, “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.”
A commitment to the fragile possibility of things, perhaps that’s why.
Balancing Judgment and Imagination - the powerful role of the biographer
As her biographer, I can choose the time, the place, when and where to begin a narrative. With these choices historians decide which aspects of an individual’s life and personality to expose, which part of her contemporary reputation to highlight. This is especially true for Mme Du Châtelet. What remains to document the marquise’s life gives a wide range of often contradictory images and disparate accounts of her activities, sometimes making it hard to believe they all describe the same woman. Even in the best of circumstances, when practically every minute of an individual’s life is known, biographers rely on judgment and imagination. They piece bits of knowledge, the ‘facts,’ together to fill in the interstices of an individual’s recorded past, to make an apparently seamless narrative of a life. Like medieval mapmakers, they extrapolate from what they know and adapt from what they have experienced in their world to describe worlds they want their readers to envision.
This is how Judith P. Zinsser describes her role as the biographer of Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the Marquise Du Châtelet (1706 – 1749). Among her many roles, her biographical subject was for fourteen years the mistress/muse/benefactor to Voltaire, a mathematician in her own right, the translator into definitive French of Isaac Newton’s Principia, the creator of a private scholarly academy for France’s leading mathematicians and scientists, and the loving mother to the three children she bore her husband the Marquis. But six days after giving birth to her fourth child, this one fathered by her lover, the soldier/poet Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, the Marquise died of a pulmonary embolism. She was 42 years old. Just days before she died, in what was to be her final letter to her lover, who at the time was away with his regiment, she assured him that “no person existed as happy as me.”
A rich and complex and fascinating biographical work by a thoughtful and meticulous biographer who provides no less than 68 pages of detailed endnotes.
La Dame d’Esprit: A Biography of the Marquise Du Châtelet – From the Life of Frivolity to a Life of the Mind
Judith P. Zinsser
Writing advice from Hillary Mantel
"Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can."
Giving up the Ghost – Hillary Mantel
John Macrae/ Henry Holt,
The gyration and discord
Phillip Lopate’s new book To Show and to Tell – The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2013) is a must-read for any aspiring writer.
One third of the way through the book he includes this brief excerpt about the contrariness of a writer from an essay by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592):
“All contradictions maybe found in me by some twist and in some fashion, Bashful, insolent, chaste, lascivious, talkative, taciturn, tough, delicate, clever, stupid, surly, affable, lying, truthful, learned, ignorant, liberal, miserly, and prodigal: all this I see in myself to some extent depending on how I turn; and whoever studies himself really attentively, finds in himself, yes, even in his judgment, this gyration and this discord. I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply, and solidly, without confusion and without mixture, or in one word.”
A laugh, a sob and a cough all at once
That’s how the New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley describes the essence of Chekhov. “[I]t’s a muddle of joy and sorrow and stumbling self-awareness shadowed by the premonition of the death that is always waiting.” (New York Times, December 2, 2012) He says that this is the “music of Chekhov” – neither “cheering nor mellifluous in its depiction of shrinking aspirations and missed connections” among his favourite characters: Russian provincials.
Brantley suggests that Chekhov’s incisive writing makes a direct connection to today. “There’s something about the clarity in Chekhov’s ambiguity – his quiet insistence that life is comic and tragic at once in a world without heroes and villains.”
Perhaps it’s their Russian setting but I always think of Chekhov at this time of year, despite the number of his characters who seem to wilt in the oppressive heat of a languorous summer. Perhaps that’s it: always layer upon layer of contradiction.
In 1897, while recuperating in the south of France from the tuberculosis that would eventually claim his life, Chekhov wrote to his friend, the theatre critic Aleksey Suvorin:
NICE, October 6, 1897.
... You complain that my heroes are gloomy--alas! that's not my fault. This happens apart from my will, and when I write it does not seem to me that I am writing gloomily; in any case, as I work I am always in excellent spirits. It has been observed that gloomy, melancholy people always write cheerfully, while those who enjoy life put their depression into their writings. And I am a man who enjoys life; the first thirty years of my life I have lived as they say in pleasure and contentment ....
Chekhov would not experience a “second” thirty years of life. This medical doctor, writer of fiction and of extraordinary plays, died at the age of 44. He continues to influence the craft of restrained but powerful writing - in all forms.
So, with a Chekovian laugh, a sob and a cough all at once: Happy Holidays and all the best for the New Year ahead.
Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? (King James Version)
How truth-filled should an autobiography or a memoir be? Truthfulness is an ethical challenge to every writer with a conscience or with hopes of maintaining peace within the family and the extended circles of friends who may or may not be disguised in a work.
“Some names, circumstances and time sequences have been changed to preserve privacy and give the narrative dramatic shape. This is a memoir, not an autobiography, a snapshot of one period of my life as I remember it. There is no authorized version of the past.” That’s James Clarke explaining his approach to his book about his difficult childhood in the 1940s and his clearly dysfunctional family. (The Kid from Simcoe Street, Exile Editions, 2012)
It’s equally a challenge for writers of fiction who choose to include real characters in their work. As the novelist Sebastian Faulks says on his website, when asked if one of his characters was based on a real person: “I don’t do ‘based on’. I am a novelist. I make things.” That didn’t stop him from building a sequence in another novel involving the real French neurologist Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) in Human Traces(Hutchinson, 2005).
David Lodge went further in creating a hybrid work: a full biography in the form of a novel. In the preliminary pages of A Man of Parts(Harvill Secker 2011), he writes: “Nearly everything in this narrative is based on factual sources – ‘based on’ in the elastic sense that includes ‘inferable from’ and ‘consistent with.’ All the characters are portrayals of real people, and the relationships between them were as described in these pages.” His subject was the complicated personal life and professional career of the British writer H.G. Wells and Lodge details the extra-marital affairs and offspring from various unions. Lodge includes an extensive set of sources at the back of the book to explain where he found lines of dialogue or details for certain events in the book.
Penelope Fitzgerald is somewhat more oblique about what she did in her novel, The Blue Flower, (Flamingo, 1995) in which she explores the life of the real-life German poet Friedrich von Hardenberg.
“This novel is based on the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801) before he became famous under the name Novalis. All of his surviving work, letter from and to him, the diaries and official and private documents were published … between 1960 and 1988. The original editors were Richard Samuel and Paul Kluckhohn, and I should like to acknowledge the debt I owe to them.” Novel or biography? Julian Barnes doesn’t tackle that in his 2008 tribute to Fitzgerald in The Guardian. He celebrates her “[m]astery of sources and a taste for concision.”
Hilary Mantel explains her strategy as a novelist who deals with “real” people and events in a note at the conclusion of her Digging up the Bones (HarperCollins, 2012), her second novel about Thomas Cromwell. This work focuses on the demise of Anne Bolyn. “I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.”
It may be true that the further back in history an author ventures, the ethical difficulties seem to become more diluted. However, the closer writers are to the present moment the more difficult these decisions become. In 2010 Sharon Dogar wrote a fictionalised version of the life of Anne Frank (Annexed, Andersen Press) intended for teen readers. Needless to say the Anne Frank Foundation was not pleased at the appearance of an unauthorized portrait. In the back and forth in the literary press that followed the book’s release, Meg Rosoff who blogs regularly on the Guardian’s online books page, offered this helpful perspective:
The question of whether authors have the "right" to write about living or real people is not one that should be answered by the caretakers of historical reputation. Fiction is a free-for-all, and as long as an author can find someone who'll publish what they write (or these days, publish it themselves), there are no actual rules about who or what can be tackled, give or take a few libel laws.
What is literary or autobiographical truth, then?
What art requires and the law permits.
Attention ought to be paid?
Three fragments about writing and remembering from this week’s reading: “May no one blame me that I write so much about insignificant people, sisters, brothers, relatives, neighbours, burghers, peasants, youths, bout domestic, simple, and childish things, and about myself. For who will do it if we don’t? In the Bible, in the Roman histories and chronicles, in the Holy Scriptures, in the seven liberal arts, and in other arts and philosophers and poets one cannot really find us. Therefore, if my book and records are preserved and continued, our descendants will also know something to say about us; otherwise, it will be as if we had never been.”
Herman Weinsberg’s “Gedenkbuch” written in 1582, Köln and the subject of Paper Memory: A Sixteenth-Century Townsman Writes His World, Matthew Lundin, Harvard University Press, 2012.
“Merciful God! The years will pass, and we shall all be gone for good and quite forgotten … Our faces and our voices will be forgotten and people won’t even know that there were once three of us here … But our sufferings may mean happiness for the people who come after us … There’ll be a time when peace and happiness reign in the world, and then we shall be remembered kindly and blessed. No my dear sisters, life isn’t finished for us yet! We’re going to live! We’re going to live! The band is playing so cheerfully and joyfully – maybe, if we wait a little longer, we shall find out why we live, why we suffer … Oh, if only we knew, if only we knew!” - Anton Chekhov’s character Olga in The Three Sisters (first performed in 1901), Trans: Elisaveta Fen, Penguin Classics, 1951.
“André Malraux remarks in his Anti-Memory that one day we will realize that we are distinguished as much from each other by the forms our memories takes as by our characters. I am wondering what form my memory is taking. It seems that this depends a great deal on myself. I have little to say about events, good or bad, creative or destructive, but much about the way I remember them – that is, the way I start giving them form in the story of my life. I am starting to see how important this is in my day-to-day living. I often say to myself: ‘How will I remember this day, this disappointment, this conflict, this misunderstanding, this sense of accomplishment, joy, and satisfaction? How will they function in my ongoing task of self-interpretation?’”
Henri Nouwen: The Genesee Diary, Image/Doubleday, 1976.
Dr. Jane's indelible mark on all whose lives she touched
Dr. Phil Gold remembers Dr. Jane Poulson in his Canadian Medical Association Journal tribute. He describes her as “athlete and author, musician and researcher, student, teacher and role model, doctor and patient, colleague and friend.” And adds, she “died a hero Aug. 28, 2001, aged 49.”
For twelve years now, every August, I remember Jane Paulson in a particular way. In the final months of her life I had the privilege of working briefly with her on the completion of her memoir: The Doctor Will Not See You Now: The Autobiography of a Blind Physician. Our final working sessions on that book were in in the summer of 2001, the last one at her bedside in Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. Outside people were wilting in a summer heat wave and in the slight chill of her air-conditioned hospital room we spent most of the afternoon working to sequence the final order of the chapters. That was no more than three weeks before she died in the palliative care centre at Toronto’s Grace Hospital.
Earlier in the year a friend of Jane’s had sent me a chaotic bundle of autobiographical pieces that he thought could form a book. It took hardly any time for me to see that this collection of rough-and-ready pieces indeed could well become a deeply moving book. She had written a bunch of autobiographical and reflective pieces with no overall plan at the recommendation of the late Most Reverend Edward Scott at the time he was primate of the Anglican Church in Canada. Jane was also greatly influenced by a Catholic hospital chaplain in Montreal, Father Paul Geraghty and also the Very Reverend Douglas Stoute of Toronto. This trio of mentors encouraged her to share her remarkable story beyond Canada’s medical establishment, to go beyond the privacy of a personal journal, and to address something of the profound spirituality that was so clearly integrated into her remarkable work as a doctor. In response to their suggestion Jane had evidently taken on the writing challenge in much the same way as she approached everything else in her life: with great conviction, unrelenting determination, a wild sense of humour, great energy, occasionally wonderfully raw language, and great precision. And all of that with an amazing sense of warmth and a superb recall of detail.
In brief: Jane Poulson was born in Toronto in 1952, attended St Clement’s School and Havergal College in Toronto, and then Queen’s University in Kingston before moving to Montreal to study medicine at McGill. While still in grade school she had been diagnosed with a severe case of insulin-dependent diabetes and just before completing her medical studies she lost what remained on her vision. Now at that time, higher education and (especially) professional gatekeeping organizations offered relatively little accommodation for anyone with a serious disability. Fortunately, Jane Poulson did not regard blindness that way. “It was time for me to start learning how to be blind,” she wrote in her book, “and at the same time to find my place in the profession I so loved and was determined to pursue, my handicap notwithstanding. This is a never-ending journey for me and, like any important venture, it started with practical and immediate little steps.”
The Doctor Will Not See You Now is filled with the frustration and the elation of being floored by and then eventually succeeding with those messy “immediate little steps” and the many “smashing crack-ups” in between. Along the way, she challenged Canada’s medical establishment to come up with a way of examining blind, accomplished, and determined medical students like her. And they did. Once qualified, Dr. Poulson then had to instill confidence in her initially somewhat tentative patients. And she did. She refused to settle for anything like an easier, limited form of accommodated medical practice. So she didn’t. As a doctor, a researcher, and a gifted teacher she knew the depths of what she had to offer. She insisted on setting out on a pioneering path of serious medical research and innovative practice in internal medicine which eventually led her toward palliative care. And that’s what she did, successfully, and on all fronts, first in Montreal and later in Toronto, where she was eventually named a Fellow of Massey College. Oh yes, and in 1987 at the tender age of 35 she was also awarded the Order of Canada. This is the citation:
Martha Jane Poulson, C.M., M.D.C.M., F.R.C.P.
Member of the Order of Canada
Awarded on June 29, 1987; Invested on October 28, 1987
Having fought a losing battle with blindness, she convinced authorities at McGill University to let her finish her medical degree and pursue her residency training in Internal Medicine. The first blind Canadian physician to qualify as a specialist in internal medicine and become a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, she is now a staff member of the Montreal General Hospital and an Associate Professor at McGill University. She also addresses audiences in Canada and the U.S.A. inspiring other blind people to pursue their chosen professions.
Diabetes and blindness were not the only serious health challenges she faced. Eventually cancer took up residence in her already ravaged body. Her own health issues, she made it abundantly clear, helped to make her an even better doctor. In the Introduction to Jane’s book, her dear friend Elizabeth MacCallum writes:
A few years into her battle with cancer, she began writing what Dr. Neil Macdonald refers to as seminal articles on patient care and cancer. She wrote to Macdonald, "I am no longer a private person" once she had written professionally about how it felt to be a patient. After giving a lecture on patient care using her now double-sided experience, the first talk she’d given in over a year of her illness, she was subdued. "There wasn’t much audience reaction," Jane reported. After considerable silence she went on: "I was surprised how many women who have breast cancer came to speak to me afterwards." After more discussion she said, "The guy who invited me to talk came to me later and asked if everybody always cried during my lectures."
If you’re blind, others’ tears are secret.
Elizabeth’s husband, John Fraser, and Master of Massey College, co-authored the Introduction with her and he captures Jane’s magnetising impact on everyone she met.
Whenever she felt she had a triumph – beating back cancer, getting a new job, greeting the return of spring, et cetera – she would dial up the College catering office and book the Common Room or the small dining room or the Upper Library and throw a party. Usually with a band, always with an open bar and the very best food. These parties, I am convinced, were an extension of her duties as the Chapel Mistress. She not only ennobled all the people who came into her life, she wined and dined them so well that they actually came to believe her when she said her friends meant everything to her. How could it have been otherwise, as she showered on us all her talent of loving and healing?
John and Elizabeth experienced these things first hand. I learned about them from a set of messy manuscript pages. I once complained to Jane that reading her manuscript was like looking at an old telephone directory from a distance. The margins were extra wide and the font was tiny – somehow she had set her computer to what looked to be 6- or 8-point type on many of the pages. She dead-panned, “Then try reading type when you are blind!”
In those few treasured months, through a series of long telephone calls and unforgettable working sessions together in Toronto, we found a way to organize all the printouts and files on her computer. Her life story in print would unfold chronologically in the ordered pages of a big blue ring binder which still sits on my bookshelf. Those printouts eventually became the 252 pages of the final published book.
And so it was that summer of 2001, before I left her hospital room for what we both knew would be the last time, knowing that she would never get to open the published book, I said, “Jane, hold out both your hands.” And she did. I carefully placed the heavy binder in them and said, “Jane, this is your book. Careful! It’s a quite a heavy piece of work!” and she laughed.
I am honoured to have met Jane and to have learned about her life in that strangely intimate way that an editor can when working with a trusting and fearless author. Even the publication of her book, several months after her death, was another Poulson accomplishment. Given the role of vision health in the book, I had put the publisher, Novalis, in touch with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. In 2002, The Doctor Will Not See You Now was released in multiple formats on the same day: print, audio, DAISY, and Braille – this was just before e-books arrived on the scene – making it the first book in Canadian commercial publishing history to be released in key accessible formats simultaneously.
Working, even if briefly, with Jane Paulson remains one of the treasured experiences of my professional life. But of course, Jane must have the last insight-filled word: "I see all that I do now through a different lens….When you presume to have infinity before you the value of each person, each relationship, all knowledge you possess is diluted. My life now is concentrating before me. This is the most painful yet enriching experience of my life. I have found my Holy Grail: it is surrounding myself with my dear friends and family and enjoying sharing my fragile and precious time with them as I have never done before. I wonder wistfully why it took a disaster of such proportions before I could see so clearly what was truly important and uniquely mine."
In addition to her memoir the book also contains two moving pieces that Jane Poulson initially wrote for the Canadian Medical Association Journal to explain how her own medical challenges informed her work as a doctor, “Dead Tired” and “The Days That Will Still Be Mine.” Both articles can be read at the CMAJ website. For "Dead Tired" click:
For "The Days That Will Still Be Mine" click:
The Doctor Will Not See You Now – The Autobiography of a Blind Physician, Jane Poulson, Novalis, 2002
All in all it is a story of loss
What do you do the day after your discover your children have been taken to the other side of the world, the first day of that new and violently changed life in which you are likely never to see them again? What’s the procedure, who do you call? One is the citizen of an advanced liberal democracy and has paid one’s taxes – now that catastrophe has struck it goes without saying that a well-oiled and effective and highly professional procedure will swing into action. After all, people don’t just disappear without any questions being asked. At the very least, someone will insist on digging over the garden, just to be on the safe side.
That’s not the plotline for a novel but a paragraph in a moving work of non-fiction by the Scottish novelist, Douglas Galbraith. The year is 2003, and Galbraith has returned home in Scotland after a short business trip to London. His wife and children are not at the station to meet him, as planned. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding about the time, or even the day. He makes his own way to their isolated home and two buses and one taxi-ride later, he discovers the car is still on the drive and the house is locked, apparently empty. He has to break into the house through a rear window because he has forgotten his key. He slowly discovers an eerie crime scene. There are no signs of violence, furniture is not unturned, no blood, and bodies. The house is more or less as he left it, except that his Japanese wife, Tomoko, and their two sons Makoto – 6 years old at the time – and Satomi – then 4 years old – are not there. He eventually learns that she has returned to Japan with the two boys. She has taken away all their documents and has left no note, explanation, or forwarding address.
My Son, My Son is Galbraith’s reflection on his search for an explanation for this decision and his determined efforts to regain contact with his sons. He describes the challenges of working with and through the various layers of a complicated situation that begins with a seemingly benign encounter with a hapless police officer. This is a marital dispute with implications for domestic and international law as well as parental and children’s rights. His efforts are frustrated at almost every level. “I have been shut into a parallel, soundproofed world from which it is impossible to send a message back to the one I have just left.” The outcome? No spoilers here.
As with every well-written book, My Son, My Son identifies its principle turf: gender politics, the way different cultures view children, the challenges of inter-cultural relationships, the complexity of international legal cases, and the way good intentions can become so easily diverted and diluted at practically every turn. And as with every well-written book, My Son, My Son also contains peripheral material – those almost-parenthetical bits of content that point towards territory that the writer chooses not to enter but still identifies in passing. In Galbraith’s case: the differences in the ways novelists and historians use facts.
At the time his children were taken to Japan, Galbraith was working on a novel set in China in the 1930s: A Winter in China. He describes the time he spent in the British newspaper archives, digging through the microfilmed pages of the China Press for 1937, “I begin to pick out the novelist’s raw material; all the most highly coloured and poignant and pregnant ephemera the historians so reliably leave out.” (He maybe hasn’t read the reliably “left in” works of such historians as Keith Wrightson, Amanda Vickery, Michael Grant, Lucy Moore, Franny Moyle, Glyn Williams, Simon Schama, Charlotte Gray et al. – but I’ll move on.) Then he offers this helpful insight for writers if fiction about the manner in which factual research-in-the-raw can become vibrant writing in the hands of an accomplished writer:
The trick of the novelist is not be learned about his material, but to cultivate in himself the illusion that what he knows is truly a memory; that he did not read it, but recalls if from having been there, just there where I can recognize myself in the crowd – that man in the trilby and the white shirt with the wide collar. I was a better dresser in the thirties. I became the one who looks up and then runs for the shelter as he hears an air-raid siren, the one who bought a Shanghai corporation lottery ticket from the kiosk that morning and sat through the matinee at the Grand, staying for the Paramount newsreel and even for the Popeye cartoon at the end, though he never found it funny. (p.8)
What Galbraith the may have “reliably left out” of his own story in My Son, My Son will no doubt be a point of debate for some readers. But this is the work of a gifted though deeply hurt writer who in his 2001 novel, The Rising Sun, set in 1698 in the failed Scottish colony of Darien in South America, opens a chapter toward the end of that book with: “How strange is Fortune. The impossible becomes the everyday, the inevitable never happens.”
My Son, My Son, Douglas Galbraith, Harvill Secker – Random House 2012
Ears, eyes, solo, trio, box, and a 35th anniversary
In 1990, I was in Toronto to interview a novelist and as I was driving back to my hotel I heard an announcement on the radio that Keith Jarrett was giving a concert that night, playing the Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord. I raced to the concert hall and managed to get one of the last tickets.
A few years later, when I lived in Toronto and working for CBC Radio, one blisteringly hot Canada Day he was in town with his trio giving a concert at Roy Thomson Hall. I got a ticket and managed to meet with him backstage after the concert because the CBC was planning to record a radio porgramme about him.
Then, on September 26, 2005, I was in New York on another radio project and he was playing a rare solo concert at Carnegie Hall, the one that became The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM 1989/90) and was released to uniformly rapturous reviews in 2006.
This week I opened the big box of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano Sun Bear Concerts, recorded in Japan an astonishing thirty five years ago this month. I hadn’t played it for a long time. The original LP version contained 10 vinyl albums (later transferred to 6 CDs in 1989) of 5 different concerts and encores, recorded in Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, and Sapporo between November 5 - 18, 1976. It's fresh, ageless, inexplicable, inspiring music.
More than any other musician I have ever heard, or indeed met, Keith Jarrett is an enigmatic and awe-inspiring artist who has caused me to rethink what I am hearing, what the music is doing, and what the performer’s role is in that mysterious process of music making.
In a 1997 profile The New York Times writer Andrew Solomon characterised Jarrett as a jazz martyr: "Despite all of its affectation, Jarrett's music is always heartfelt. ‘You know, nobody else does this,’ he says. ‘This format ganged up on me in my early years. It's like I'm asking for trouble. People say that it must be easier to do the solo concerts than it used to be, because I've done so many, but it's exactly the opposite. You know -- why would I ask for this trouble again? The music's in the way and I have to get rid of it. And the audience hears me doing that. Let's say you know something and you're sitting in your room knowing it, and you feel that your friends would benefit by knowing this if you explained it to them. But you're going to lose all the calm you have if you try to express it. But you express it anyhow.’
Nine years later in an interview with The Guardian, Jarrett said this about the vulnerability of improvisation: “One thing you learn: if you want to reveal yourself, you also have to know where to stop.”
The accompanying CD booklet in the Sun Bear Concerts box contains only one quintessential Jarrett-authored koan-like sentence: “Think of your ears as eyes.”