The Press Gallery

K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

Writing Process Blog Tour

I recently got tagged in the Canadian Writers’ Writing Process Blog Tour, which has been going around for months. I was tagged by Ottawa writer Cameron Anstee. So, I’ve got four questions to answer:

1. What am I working on?

Well, this is awkward, because that was what my last post was about. But I’d say that of the things on my plate, the one I’m most interested in, and am the farthest along with, is the draft of the YA fantasy book about Shakespeare Land. I’ve got a massive backstory for Sycorax, who is so not dead. And, oh, Hamlet is the captain of a pirate ship (he took over the ship instead of returning to Denmark). A pirate airship.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. I’m going to take this question to be referring to my work in progress, which is totally unlike anything I’ve written before (I’ve mainly published poetry). I don’t know for sure yet, but here’s what I hope. I did go on a YA reading binge for the project, and found that books in the small sub-genre of Shakespeare-related YA books tend to be romances. I found one that had both fantasy and romance elements, though I may have missed others. I wondered, why can’t I do a Shakespeare book for fantasy readers? There’s so much supernatural in Shakespeare. I’m still looking at a romantic sub-plot, but I’m pretty committed to avoiding a sunset-ending romance. My heroine is questioning her sexual orientation, for one thing, and I don’t intend for the outcome of that to be clear even to her by the end of the story

3.  Why do I write what I do?

“Try everything” is my current writing motto. When I was a teenager, I wrote whatever I wanted: humour, plays, choose-your-own-adventure, audio plays, whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. Then somehow, I can’t even remember how, I ended up being a poet. Not that there isn’t a huge field to work in there – poetry is so vast – but I kind of felt hemmed in by my own work. Maybe I’m entering premature second childhood, but I’m trying to come back to a place of “anything goes” in choosing what I work on. Though I have a new book of poetry coming out soon, the writing of it goes back years. I am sort of trying to give poetry a rest for a while. Maybe it’s not just age: I think I can also blame this on teaching, which has made me think about many different genres and styles of writing in ways I wouldn’t have considered before.

4. How does my writing process work?

Oh, that depends. It has changed so much. My forthcoming poetry came about through the accumulation and filtering of fragments, but some of my earlier works were very “project” oriented, in which I’d set myself a number of poems to write about x, y, and z, and though I’d still filter some of it out later, it was through setting myself a structure that I was able to write those projects fairly quickly—at least, far quicker than the new book, which was a nightmare. I’m writing the first draft of this novel via an extensive outline (and using Scrivener), though I’m still expecting the revision process to be its own nightmare.

That’s all, folks. I’m tagging my friend and colleague, Winnipeg’s Sally Ito.

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In Which I Do Actually Write Stuff

When you define yourself as a writer—or, I suspect, any kind of artist—no matter how awesome your day job is (mine sure is!), it can really bring you down not to have the time or energy to create. I went through a really low productivity period for a few years, partly because I spent some time on projects that were bogging me down, but also just because life caught up with me. I went and had a baby and got this fine new full-time teaching job at pretty much the same time. Both those activities are extremely time-consuming, not to say life-sucking, for the first 2 or 3 years.

So now that I’m experienced enough to not be so stressed out all the time about teaching, and my child is in school, I’m feeling much, much better, not only because it’s awesome to be able to sleep more than 4 hours at a time, but because of a great knock-on effect: I get to be a writer again. And I’m pretty sure I teach better, too.

I’m working on my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, on-line and in summers, from the University of British Columbia. Not only will this be a fine professional credential when I’m done, but it creates a double-whammy of productivity.

First, I have constant creative-writing deadlines to meet (the reason I always took creative writing whenever I could during my English degrees). Second, because it is a multi-genre program, I get to try out all sorts of writing forms that I have written in much or at all up until now. I see some of my colleagues in the program all nervous about having to take those required “second and third genres,” but not me! I’ll be happy if I can get through this degree never having taken a traditional literary fiction or poetry course. Not that I don’t have plenty, and I mean plenty, to learn in those areas, but that’s the jazz I studied back in the day. I’m all for trying out new things that I might not have done on my own. Also, I think it’s my age showing: I no longer have fear of trying stuff that I might not turn out to be any good at.

One of the outcomes of all this: lots of half-finished projects, which may just be a new kind of lack of productivity. But, eventually, I will have to finish at least one of them for my thesis. And I hope I’ll finish more, just because.

One thing I have finished is a short film script. (Since you asked, it’s about breastfeeding and the ghost of Pierre Trudeau.) It went through a massive rewrite because the early drafts were basically impossible to produce. It’s now a full third shorter, has half as many characters and locations, and is set in Canada instead of Cuba. Lesson learned, and I’ve now got someone interested in producing it, which is something I would never have predicted a few years ago. The script calls for plenty of nudity, so I will be too embarrassed to show it to people if it ever does get made.

I’m forty thousand words—all written this summer–into the first draft of a young adult fantasy novel. It’s about some students in a school play who go through a magic trap door into a land where Shakespearean characters run amok. I only found out after I started this that the trap door in Shakespeare’s Globe was known as the Hell Mouth. I am now totally channeling my inner Buffy. The draft contains a lot of teenaged girls in swordfights. I can no longer write it nearly at the pace I was during the summer, but this baby is, thanks to the guidance of the wonderful Annabel Lyon, very thoroughly outlined, and I don’t think I’ll lose the plot, literally or figuratively, even if I only write one scene a week. I have an earlier failed novel (first draft, for adults) in a drawer that will probably stay there, an unworkable blob. I am thoroughly converted to massive outlining. And I’m using Scrivener and loving it.

I’ve also got an outline and about half a draft of a graphic novel script for children (it’s about the WWII home front and the British Commonwealth Air Training Program), and I’ve got ideas and sketches for several other young adult and children’s projects that I’m tucking away for future use—all those thanks to a great course I took with the also wonderful Maggie de Vries last year.

This year, I’m supposed to write a play (just started—my workshop has several experienced actors in it, and they’ll tell it like it is!), and in January I’m planning on taking a comics course – in which I will actually be required to draw. After that, I’m hoping to do a non-fiction course and a full-length screenplay course, depending on availability.

One other project I’ve actually finished, completely independent from my MFA courses: the poetry book, my fourth (fifth if you count the first one that stayed in a drawer), that I’ve been working on v e r y s l o w l y for the last something like eight years. I’m calling it Exquisite Monsters, and it is due out in 2015 from Turnstone Press. Looking forward to working with the great Dennis Cooley, who’ll be the editor for the press. I worked with Dennis a long time ago at the highly recommended Sage Hill, before my first book was accepted for publication, and while I was working on new poems that would become my second book, Spine.

So if you haven’t noticed, I’m really positive and cheerful about writing right now. I don’t know how many of those projects I’ll ever finish, but having them all there puts me in a place I really like to be: a place crowded with ideas.

The Final Frontier

What I’m talking about is SPACE.

Somewhere along the way, someone took my space from me. Okay, everyone took my space from me. I didn’t have it for very long, and I miss it so.

I remember as a child, how I longed for my own room. Do kids even share bedrooms these days? It seems like you aren’t middle-class enough if you don’t have more bedrooms than people in your family.

I shared a bedroom with my little sister. The room was one of the many additions my dad had built on to the house. It didn’t have a door. There was a curtain, a home-made one, of course, on a home-made curtain rod, which it seems may have been a broom handle at one time.

It was a big room, but as a girl approaches adolescence, a girl wants her own space. Finally, my parents let me move upstairs, to the cold, cold upstairs, with an electric blanket. The two rooms up there had been vacated by my older sisters some years before, and were just full of storage. We piled all the junk into one room, and I got the other.

It was heaven. Even with the shivering, the mice, and, in summer, the 3:00 a.m. birds singing in the tree right outside the window. I stayed up late doing awesome school projects with popsicle sticks, taping songs off the weekend hit countdown on the radio, and worrying about adolescent stuff in private. Sometimes I stayed up as late as ELEVEN O’CLOCK!!! I’d have stayed up later, but my mom came upstairs and made me go to bed.

This arrangement lasted for two years, until my mom got a job in the next town over, and we decided to get an apartment there for during the week instead of commuting. We liked the idea of going to a bigger school—plus there was no way we were living all week with just dad, who cooked, among other disgusting things, spaghetti chopped up in little pieces because he thought it was easier to eat that way.

And then my older sister and her new baby (who now has a math degree—hi, Suz!) moved back home and decided to join in the fun. So, it was now dad, with his poor cooking skills, alone in the big country house, and us five gals in the two-bedroom apartment laughing it up. It was the kind of apartment building where you tried to ignore the blood smeared on the hallway walls on Sunday mornings.

Here’s a capsule life story told in terms of when I did and didn’t have to share a room. There were ups and downs. My parents went back to school and we moved into family student housing (my sister and I were both teenagers by then, so this was definitely a down); they bought a house and renovated the basement, where I got to live alone in university (up!) briefly, until said older sister (now with two kids) needed to join me. I still had my own room at this point, but someone had measured wrong when renovating, because there wasn’t room for a wall in-between the closet to one room and the closet to the next room, which resulted in a toddler and a preschooler emerging from my closet at any time with no prior warning. AND ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS MAKE OUT WITH MY BOYFRIEND.

Grad school brought with it the best “up” years in terms of personal space, as I made enough in scholarships to live alone most of the time. Early working life in Toronto, not bad, own room and only a small war with mice and with cockroaches along the way. Even once I moved in with someone (whom I eventually married), I had a little office of my own to work in. And at work? I had my own office at almost every one of my significant jobs until… 2008.

That’s when I started teaching. And got pregnant. And now I have a cubicle, a house full of stuff and rooms and not a stitch of private space anywhere.

Woolf said you needed money and a room of your own in order to write. I think we can translate money as “time,” which anyone who’s every applied for a project grant knows.

This is all to say that one of my many, many, unreasonably large number of goals for the nine weeks of relative calm I have this summer, is to set up better what personal space I have in my own home. I might try the old “make a wall out of bookshelves” trick – goodness knows I have enough books. Or maybe I could use a sheet and an old broom to make a curtain between two pieces of furniture and hang up a “Stay Out – Mommy’s Space!” sign. I don’t know.

But I’m adding it to my to-do list.

 

 

Reads, Goodreads, Badreads, Noreads

So, yeah, I’m on Goodreads, have been for a few years. I’m not entirely sure why—I’m not a big participator there. If I’m going to write a book review, I’d rather do it here on my blog, or in some forum with an actual editor. But I like to see what my tribe is reading, and I figured I better at least have some idea how this thing works before my next book happens (which I sent off to the publisher, BTW; now it’s a waiting game).

Though I’m engaged with peeking into the shelves of others, I know very well that book recommendations almost never work out. I’m not sure why this is, or if it’s because I’m just weird. It may be impossible to understand another reader’s taste in such a way that, among the millions of books in the world, another one can be recommended and subsequently appreciated. Neither people nor algorithms can do it. People are too focused on their own enthusiasms and their desire to make other people like what they like, to the omission of considering the actual taste of others; algorithms, say on Amazon, don’t do too badly on subject area in my experience (here are another five bestselling books on the topic you appear to be reading up on), but fail miserably at literature.

carson-shamrock-teaOne of my favourite books is Ciaran Carson’s novel Shamrock Tea, which I re-read every few years. My friend Shawna recommended it to me while we were browsing in Chapters one day a long time ago. I purchased it, read it, loved it, and later told her about my conversion to this book. She told me that she hadn’t actually read it – I must have misheard her recommendation, which was more of a suggestion or a pointing-out. She just liked the chapter titles—each named after a pigment colour.  (The story is about a lot of things – among them Wittgenstein, Irish nationalism, hallucinogenic drugs, time travel, Catholic saints, and the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.) (And Shawna, if you read this, you should let me know if you remember this differently, or at all!)

Book jacket blurbs (testimonials, to those of you not in the book biz) don’t tell me anything about a book’s quality, but they do tell me about what kind of book the publisher is trying to make me think it is – how they are positioning it. I recently tried to read Joseph Boyden’s newest work, The Orenda, and noted that the blurbers—and there were  a lot of them—were all male. And all of the blurbs were Very Serious.

The book-recommendation social network Goodreads (recently purchased by Amazon) allows you to categorize your books as to-read, reading, and read. These three high-level categories are woefully insufficient. I have many, too many, books on my currently reading shelf. This is because I’m a notorious book abandoner. There just isn’t enough time in the week to keep plodding through something if I’m neither motivated nor compelled to do so. Some of these books that I abandon I know that I’ve really, really abandoned – I will never finish them. There needs to be a reading category for that. On the other hand, some books I haven’t picked up in years, and yet I consider myself to be “still reading” them: I remember the story, I think about them kind of nostalgically, and remember enjoying them – but maybe they just weren’t the thing for that particular time of my life. Maybe I’ll still go back there. There should be a category for that, too.

Windows

It’s been a long time since I had a book out. This saddens me, but is also freeing. For one thing, when you don’t have a new book out, you don’t obsessively auto-Google for new reviews. And then if you hit a bad review, you get briefly depressed and angry and vow to just put your nose down and write and never auto-Google again. And last time I published a book, we didn’t even have Goodreads and Twitter and stuff.

 

I’m on Draft 8 of my “new” poetry manuscript at the moment. Draft 9 by Christmas, I hope. Draft 10 and I think I’ll be ready to approach my publisher. I say “my” publisher in that they published my last two books, but there is nothing to say that they will publish this one. I say “new” manuscript only in that it’s newer than my previous work (mostly; it does contain a few old salvaged parts). I’ve been working on it since roughly 2006, when I holed up for a month in a farmhouse/museum in Eastern Iceland (that was 2006, right?) and wrote a bunch of stuff about the death of my father the previous year.

 

Between 2006 and now, I did a whole lot of things, including write and abandon a novel, learn how to teach, and have a baby (more or less in that order.) The baby is now in school. And I just bought her a book called My First Kafka. At first, instead of sleeping when the baby slept, I scribbled Mommy Poems (few of those have survived). Holing up in farmhouses in Iceland (or Scottish castles, where I worked on the previous book) is no longer an option, though I did manage to carve out two weeks to live in a dorm room in Vancouver last summer, and hope to again next summer. (Note to students of an artistic bent: whatever you do, start seeking out residency opportunities as soon as you can! Don’t wait—the window closes. I have no doubt that it opens again someday, but it closes pretty hard for a while.)

 

It’s been A Difficult Manuscript. I made big, big changes each round from about Drafts 3 through 6. For a while I was obsessed with Objectum Sexuals and worked on getting them in the manuscript. For a while I was compiling found poems off of Twitter. Then I decided that what I needed to fit all this stuff together was cyborgs. Yes, cyborgs. Some of that has stayed, and some of it has gone. I got a lot of inspiration and a 13-page poem out of last summer’s Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination show that ran at the WAG.

 

I took creative writing courses whenever I could in school for a lot of reasons, but the main one was that they gave me windows, windows to do the work that I cared about the most, but that it was hard, even then, to carve out time for. That I’m even blogging about this manuscript shows that I’m feeling good about it (for now), and being close to “finishing” something gives me more motivation to create my own windows. (I put “finishing” in quotation marks, because, even if I start sending this off a couple of drafts from now, there are likely still several drafts to go publisher-side, assuming I even find a publisher.)

 

Windows to create new work are also one of the reasons I’ve enrolled in my MFA. Someday, I will have to come up with a window-carving strategy that does not involve paying tuition. “Get up two hours before everyone else and write before they wake up” is the conventional wisdom trotted out for writers, but since my daughter frequently gets up at 5 a.m., and I frequently go to bed at midnight, this strategy does not work for me. (I do know from experience that my most productive hours for writing are from about 12 midnight to 4 a.m., which are unfortunately the best hours – sometimes the only hours—for sleeping in my world.)

 

A better piece of wisdom than the “sacrifice two more hours of sleep” nugget is to remember that writing is not just writing. It is research, reading, and living, because you need to do those things to “provide content” (to co-opt that heartless word for what creative people do)—to provide ideas, thought, depth–for what you write.  So I’m trying to look back on the past seven (!) years not as a time with few windows, but as time when I created a whole lot of content.

 

 

 

 

 

Spending Time with Writers

It had been a long time since I had really spent time with writers.

Sure, I have my local people whom I see at literary and social events, but I just don’t get out to those things (or anything) much in my state of advanced decrepitude. Mostly, my interaction with writer-folk is on Facebook, where I can keep up with the goings-on of writers across Canada whom I know, or am just acquainted with, or, heck, whom I’ve even just vaguely heard of. Canadian writers seemed to be early, and excellent, Facebook adopters. It’s not just about keeping up; my feed is often a delightful read. Writers: putting real care and effort into status updates since 2006. Well, okay, maybe 2007.

But once in a while, a writer just needs to hang out with others of the same persuasion for an extended period of time. Book launches and Facebook just don’t cut it. In my childless days, this meant going off to a retreat or a residency. Solitary retreats are also great for getting work done, but there’s something so stimulating about being surrounded by writers (or in some programs, writers and other artists). The conversation, support and interchange that goes on gets the cogs turning, and can be a real motivation for keeping the work moving forward. Plus, if you’re feeling a bit discouraged about your artistic vocation (and the less than enthusiastic response it gets from a lot of quarters), spending time with people who believe in what you do can have an uplifting effect–which in turn, I think, encourages you to take more artistic risks, and get better creative thinking done. You don’t have to think about how to defend art in general, and instead can move on to interrogating your specific artistic choices.

This summer, I finally felt like I could abandon my family for ten whole days and take off to hang out with writers. This time, it was a summer course at UBC. I stayed in the dorm, wrote a new short screenplay, and recharged my writerly juices through amazing conversation and quality hanging-out time with a whack of writers, most of whom I’d never before met.

In Manitoba, the best and closest option we have for hanging out with writers for ten days is the Sage Hill Writing Experience, which is held at a monastery in the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley north of Regina. I went in 2000, and worked on my first manuscript there under the tutelage of workshop leader Dennis Cooley. It costs good money to go, but there are scholarships to be had, and you’ll never know if you don’t apply (I went on a full scholarship back then). Someday, I’ll go again. I’ve read in the Manitoba Writers’ Guild newsletter that there’s a committee afoot to create a similar opportunity in Manitoba. Really looking forward to such a plan coming to fruition!

At Sage Hill I first noticed one of my favourite things about hanging out with writers: the tacit acceptance of non-sequiturs. The artistic mind thrives on making long-shot connections, on making connections others wouldn’t expect, on skipping over all the intermediate logical steps that moved from A to B. Making writing both sensical and sparkly is a fine balance between get the reader to discover that connection with you, and spelling out the hidden steps for clarity. I noticed the non-sequiturs again this summer in Vancouver, as one story around the pub table reminded another writer about another story which reminded someone else about something only peripherally connected, and it didn’t take long for the stories to have leapt far away from the original topic. The use of this conversational technique among non-writers tends to get me looked at like I am Ralph Wiggum.

Seriously, though. Hang out with writers. The magic would probably wear off if you saw them 365 days a year–you’d probably need to take a break by spending your vacation with a bunch of MBAs–but for most writers, I think it’s a necessary piece of refreshing professional development.

My cat’s breath smells like cat food.

My Summer of Magazines

Since I’m now actually forgetting what other books I’ve read for “fun” in the past year, I’m going to move on to what I read last summer for not exactly fun, but not exactly work: many, many magazines.

Now, mostly, reading magazines falls into the category of fun. Lately, my magazine of choice has been the iPad edition of Intelligent Life, the arts-and-culture arm of The Economist. This is a magazine with such good writing that it can get away with articles like (I’m paraphrasing here) “Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall: Which is the Best Season?” Seriously. The iPad edition is, currently, free, thanks to the fine sponsorship of its sole advertiser, Credit Suisse, a business I have absolutely no hope of patronizing. (This makes me wonder why they haven’t enabled location-specific licensing on this baby, but I’m not complaining.)

But the thing with reading for fun is that if you multiply it by a gazillion, it becomes work. Ask anyone who has taken a course in the Victorian novel.

This past summer, I was on the jury for Manitoba Magazine Publishers’ Association Maggie Awards. So, I read approximately one gazillion magazines. Some things I learned:

  • Old-fashioned binders full of paper—many binders, and boxes, full of paper–are difficult to use while travelling.  I would have liked some PDFs. Chalk another one up for the iPad.
  • Despite the awesomeness of magazines, I should probably stop volunteering for extra duties that involve filling out evaluation sheets.
  • Columnists rule! There were, of course, some brilliant, informative, and moving feature articles in the competition, but my favourite reading of the summer—and hence, one of the hardest things to judge–was definitely the “Best Column” category.
  • Yes, I really am an industry professional! Sometimes, working in the classroom, I start to doubt whether or not I have some grip on reality—though that’s partly because I carry around a lot of self-doubt in general. So an exercise like this was great if only to experience how my opinions—of magazines, in this case—echoed those of the other members of the jury. Other industry professionals agree: I’m not crazy.

I’m writing this now because the students in my program are working hard on their magazine projects now, and I am, as always, excited to see their prototype magazines. If you’re in Winnipeg, come down to the college (160 Princess Street) between 12 and 4 on Thursday, March 28, to see the results of their creative labour. And many thanks to the Manitoba Magazine Publishers’ Association for again sponsoring the awards at the end of the project–and to the Manitoba magazine professionals who will be judging the students’ efforts.

What I Do For Amusement: Part the Second

A New Year! Time to update the world about my sporadic media consumption via one of my less-than-even-sporadic blog posts.

To sum up what I did for amusement over last spring (which is far as I’ve gotten with this tale): after my Game of Thrones marathon, I felt the need for a little palate-cleansing via contemporary poetry, so I picked up (from my own shelves) a number of books I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. The ones I remember best from this brief spring reading period were books by Canadian poets Paul Vermeersch, Jacob McArthur Mooney, and Ken Babstock. Now these are great poets and great people, some of whom I’ve had a number beers with back in the day, and I’d recommend their poetry unconditionally. Babstock’s book won the Griffin Prize. And yet–when I read them, I did not feel the complete literary palate cleansing I had been looking for. Way, way, different from the mass market stuff I’d been reading earlier. But still.

I needed to read some books by women.

This was way, way back last year – before CWILA came on the scene. If you don’t follow literary news, and Canadian literary news in particular, CWILA is Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, which last spring published statistics on book reviewing in Canada by gender, showing evidence for what was already felt—relatively low representation of women in literary discourse. CWILA’s inaugural “critic-in-residence” is Montreal poet Sue Sinclair.

The two books I went for immediately were Aislinn Hunter’s A Peepshow with Views of the Interior: Paratexts, which I’d been meaning to read for some time, and Kristjana Gunnars’s The Rose Garden: Reading Marcel Proust, one of my favourite books.

I’ve read The Rose Garden many times—it has been an influential book for me, and I’ve written about it before. I’m not really a voracious consumer of new books, or movies, or shows—I have a tendency to re-read and re-watch what I love over and over. In the book, the narrator reads Proust by dipping in—opening to random pages and reading passages—rather than reading it in a linear fashion. This time, reading The Rose Garden, I used the same approach, and, unsurprisingly, it lent itself well to a non-linear reading.

I figuratively facepalmed myself for not having read Aislinn Hunter’s non-fiction Peepshow earlier—it covers a lot of the same ground I’ve been writing about in my languishing poetry manuscript. I’d heard her speak on the subject of “Thing Theory” before, but hadn’t quite grasped the close connection to what I was already working on until I read the book. It’s about thingsobjects, you might say—and our relationships with them. Definitely a book I will be coming back to again.

Next up: my summer of Manitoba magazines.

 

What I do for amusement, Part 1: More thoughts on Game of Thrones

It’s been a while since I posted about my experience reading the first Song of Ice and Fire book. So what stories have I been reading and watching since then? This post is Part 1 of about eight or nine months’ worth of books and “TV,” but maybe that’s a good test of what actually stands out in my brain.

After reading A Game of Thrones, I ranted about how angry it made me, yet how addictive it was—and sure enough, I continued, for about two more months, reading, back to back, all five of the massive George R.R. Martin tomes. Only I read them all in my iPad by borrowing the ebooks from the library, so at least I didn’t have to carry them around. (Helpful hint: if there’s a waiting list for a popular book at the library, chances are the waiting list for the ebook is a lot shorter.)

Why did I keep reading? Clearly, because I’m socially conditioned to enjoy narratives glorifying painfully patriarchal and colonialist worlds, because, you know, we really need more of those (narratives, and worlds). To temper the previous statement: I have nothing against writing characters, worlds, or whatever, which are sexist, racist, or any manner of unpleasant things, because those things exist and we need to think about them rather than ignore them. Yet, even given that belief about art, which I hold dearly, I still have trouble with Martin. I am not convinced he is critiquing anything. I’m a conflicted reader.

I have to admit the Red Wedding is a pretty great plot point—but things more or less levelled off from there, so much so that I can no longer remember whether it was the fourth or fifth book that I really hated. The one with Cersei’s point of view. She may be the most annoying character in the history of books. Though the Maid of Tarth is a close second. And whatshername who is supposed to marry the evil boy king is a close third. Catelyn becomes more interesting after she is dead.

After reading all five books, it was time to watch the first season of the TV series, which I purchased on iTunes. (Still haven’t seen second season; I don’t have HBO and I, er, don’t download stuff—on principle, and because I don’t have the patience.)

Three main thoughts that have stuck with me since watching (and I have read no other commentary on this, so these are likely thoughts that everyone else already had a long time ago):

  1. The TV series ameliorated the whole child-bride thing that made the first book particularly icky. In fact, no doubt due to all the legal issues inherent in, first, using child actors, and, second, showing that stuff on TV (even HBO!), the younger characters are all, I think, two years older than in the books (I believe they even rewrote the history of the realm to make the age differences make sense.) In the commentary on the first episode, it is noted that they rewrote Dany’s wedding-night rape to make it more clearly, you know, rape (the legitimate kind), instead of the “and then she found that she really liked it!” (not a direct quote!) nonsense that’s in the book.
  2. I found the story more coherent and easy to follow when it was not restricted to the limited points of view used in the book. On TV, point of view tends to be a lot more neutral. Not always, but you know what I mean: we’re unlikely to find out something we didn’t know about something that happened in the past because now we’ve switched to the point of view of a character who remembers it differently. This does not exactly make the TV series better—it makes it easier. Which TV is, compared to books. Even books like this. Which brings me to number three:
  3. The TV series cannot beat the books on character depth. Even given how caricatured Martin’s characters can be, they are still more complex than on TV, despite the high quality of this production, and the nuances the actors brought. This could partly be a reflection of how I’d read about 4000 pages on these people and then went back to the beginning to watch the first season of the show.

Next post: how I cleansed my palate.

The Joy of Literacy

I was sitting in my History of Publishing class while a woman gave a presentation on the history of literacy. The class was restless and confused. The presenter's visual aid–likely an overhead transparency–made no sense. The chart clearly depicted literacy steadily, and sometimes dramatically, decreasing over the ages.

Finally, someone asked a question. Was the chart accurate? Was she using some definition of literacy, some particular shade thereof, that we didn't know about?

She turned around and looked at her chart for a moment, then laughed. “Literacy, illiteracy–I always get those two things mixed up!”

Today is International Literacy Day. (Or, it was — I started writing this earlier, and then someone got up from her nap time.) Literacy is considered a human right, and as with all rights, I exhort us all to exercise it, and treat it with respect.

As I'll tell anyone who will listen, my daughter started reading this summer. This has probably been one of the greatest joys of my life, and I don't feel that my life is short on joy. Shortly after she was born, the health unit nurse dropped off the official provincial new-baby care package, which included a board book and a brochure extolling the virtues of reading to my child.

The Manitoba Government hardly needed to tell me that, but it's moments like that when my own privilege, and the privilege that my daughter grows up with every day, smacks me. It makes me sad that instructions must be given about reading to children. I know why, or think I do — inequality, historical and continued, that has affected and still affects access to education, of both formal and informal varieties.

My mother grew up in a remote, post-war farming community. Her father, typical of someone from his place and time, went to school up to grade eight. After grade eight, even if you weren't needed on the farm or in the house, there was no where else to go to school unless you wanted to be a priest. But he loved reading, and when the encyclopedia salesman came by, he bought the set. The neighbours considered this a wasteful extravagance–and it was extravagant. Encyclopedias had to be purchased on installment plans.

But my grandfather knew what he was doing. There weren't so many books available in that time and place. My mother read that set of encyclopedias cover to cover.

Where I grew up, the only bookstore in town was a Christian one, and as a Roman Catholic, it was not somewhere I could frequent (Catholics and Protestants didn't mix in THAT time and place). We'd buy books when we went to the bigger town down the highway, but often I just read what was available. My mother was doing her degree by distance ed, and had a stack of university English textbooks purchased through the mail — that's how I read Margaret Laurence. And the entire Norton Anthology of Poetry. At the town library, I rummaged around and tried something from every genre — I remember The Guns of Navarone. And a schlocky Judith Krantz novel containing some lesbian sex scenes that left me mildly alarmed. (Until then, homosexuality had been invisible to me. Time. Place. Roman Catholic.)

Even I am daunted by the absolute glut of reading material available now. And I'm not even talking about on-line–just regular old books are available to me in quantities that I would never have imagined growing up in a remote rural setting. For a long while, later, I didn't like to use the library because I wanted to own the books (and to write in the margins–yes, I'm a book-defacer). I wanted them to always be there. They made me feel comfortable and safe.

I've gotten over that now. In the past ten years at my house we've had to give away a thousand books, easily, simply because we don't have room for them all. (I'm sure we have at least a thousand more–and that's nothing compared to many book collectors we know.) Watching, and helping, my daughter learn to read makes me feel guilty for becoming complacent about reading. That's perhaps an irrational thought for someone who teaches writing skills every day, but I'm talking more about my own reading, and my own writing, which have dwindled more and more as I've entered those career/motherhood simultaneous crunch years that everyone's been talking about and turn out to be totally real.

Hard work certainly helps, but if you want to learn to write well, almost nothing, I believe, can substitute for a lifetime of reading. And so I feel pangs of something complicated–joy, regret about my own failings, excitement and trepidation about all the wonders that await–as I explain silent letters to a three-year-old (damn you, English!). I don't feel such essential pangs when I teach at college (sorry), probably because the students are not my offspring. But also because I don't have to give my daughter a grade. She is learning to read because it is simply essential to her–she has spent her whole life watching her parents read, and write, and must do the same.