Tag Archives: Alistair MacLeod

The Reunion of Truth

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Today, I have little to report from yet another extraordinary day at the Humber College Summer Writer’s Workshop not because it wasn’t extraordinary (you have no idea how long it took me to type that word correctly).  All the days have been so.  Today, though was notable for at least three reasons – but all for me personally.

  1. Our class, led by Alistair MacLeod, did not shred, eviscerate, mangle, or otherwise destroy my submission as I feared they would.  In fact, they all rather liked it or they said they did and that’s good enough for me.
  2. MacLeod actually used the words “love” with regard to the piece.  No, he didn’t say “I love this story!” but he did say things like, “I love the way you placed the character here,” or “I love the way you illustrated the scene there.”  Stuff like that – just enough to send me over the moon and back.
  3. The venerable MacLeod gave a reading of his short story “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” to the entire assembly.  His rich baritone made the words come alive, prose became poetry and roughly eighty souls were lifted in unison for twenty minutes.

The workshop ends tomorrow.  I am ready and I am not.  My brain is full to bursting; I truly believe I cannot take much more and yet I am loath to see it end.  One of the literary agents and I got to chatting this afternoon; she asked what I was working on.  I described it (badly) and she still said that I should give her a call.

Now, to The Reunion of Truth:  because I was in a state of very high anxiety on the drive to Humber this morning, I devised a little game to distract myself.  The game involves writing a story in my head.  By the time I got from the east end of Toronto to the far western Hinterlands where Humber is located, I had invented a big story about an extended family who are called together for a rather bizarre reunion.  It might not amount to much but we’ll see.  Every spare minute found me scribbling in my notebook.

A good day, all in all.

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Self-Protective Homicidal Tendencies

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Day 2, Humber Summer Workshop and two things occurred to me on the long drive home.  First, I may have to accost Alistair MacLeod and this makes me sad because already I like him very much.  Two, this course is so all-encompassing that I barely know how to drive when class is dismissed.  I hardly recognize my family when I walk through the door.

I guess I should explain about why I might have to not only accost Dr. MacLeod but rob him as well – after only just meeting him.

He is a literary icon here in Canada.  Things occur to him that don’t occur in my mere mortal brain.  Important storytelling things.  In the hour that he spoke to us, his students for the week, I realized (in blinding Technicolor) how inadequate my writing is.  I could give you details but they are just too horrible to divulge.

He spoke softly but devastatingly about theme, scene, and characters.  It was then I began to wonder how to get my story away from him.  As the class ended he placed my papers (along with the six others) in his charmingly scuffed book bag.  I fought back a very strong urge to knock the dear old man down, grab his bag and run for the lake. Knocking down a literary icon seemed, for a split second, a rational act for this fifty year old writer, wife, mother of two teens, and normally law-abiding citizen. Ok, except for those speeding tickets in Alberta.

Knocking the old guy down was the best I could come up with – see how unimaginative I am?

The next 3 days might be agony (we’re going alphabetically – I’m somewhere in the middle of the pack). I cannot bear to look at the fifteen pages I submitted for fear of discovering more inadequacies.  Sweet Jesus, give me strength.

The piece I submitted was not one  in which I’d lost any blood, sweat or tears over. Big fat lie.  I wrote it, therefore I am naturally, organically invested in it.  Like, on a cellular level.  I don’t care if any of my classmates eviscerate me; I worry about Alistair.

I worry that he will take me aside – after class, because he is polite – pat my hand in a paternal way, give his head a slight shake and say gently, “Oh…my dear.  What shall we do about…this?”

On a brighter note, the morning lectures were very interesting for me but perhaps excruciating for twenty others.  Two editors from “big houses” went through twenty anonymous submissions at the speed of light (as editors must), passing a yes or no judgment on each.

I learned something about editors today:  the story – the hint, the shadow, the possibility of a good story sometimes can save sloppy writing.  Editors are like very busy cats. Cats cannot ignore their most primal instinct:  curiosity.  The more you intrigue an editor – genuinely, honestly and not with any clichés or tricks – the more pages you might get him/her to turn.  The more pages they turn, the better chance your manuscript will live another minute out of the slush pile.

In ten years, one of the editor has only pulled ONE manuscript from the slush pile.

Editors, I learned, hate clichés.  They also hate adjectives.  They hate stories that start with the weather.  “The  hot sun beat down on the crowd mercilessly.”  They like simple, direct writing that is fresh, that describes something mundane in a new way.  They don’t mind being shocked but you’d better be able to live up to your own hype.

They’re busy people.  Don’t make them work too hard to figure out what the hell you’re talking about.  Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, spoke in the afternoon about how story truth is sometimes more true than real truth.  Story truth is emotional truth.  He made me cry.  He cried.  It was great.  Real truth can be pretty boring; fiction better not be.

Back to School

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For those of you without calendars, fear not. September has not arrived yet.  It is, however, back to school time for the Wee Banshee. I am preparing for a week-long workshop in Toronto where I get to have my writing er…critiqued and molded (please, God)by none other than Alistair MacLeod.

I am not prepared, mentally or physically for this event.  A certain family crisis has left me with the mental aptitude of a sea-snail (my apologies to all sea snails) and the stability of the Titanic after the iceberg.  I cry if the cat looks at me wrong; I can only imagine what Dr. MacLeod will make of me.

Dear Alistair,  Forgive me in advance.  I might snivel.  I promise to bring Kleenex.  I won’t use your sleeve. Cheers, WeeBanshee.

The seven-day workshop involves five morning sessions with mentors followed by classes featuring publishers ( Knopf Random House, Penguin, and several independents), agents, and authors every afternoon.  We can choose to submit our writing to an editor (Random House) for a “flash assessment.”  Read: flash incineration.  I think he brings one of those mini blow torches.  Given my current state, I have declined this optional activity.  The footnote in the workshop materials said something along the lines of, “An exercise not for the thin-skinned or faint hearted.”  Right now, I am so thin-skinned I am virtually transparent.

While this workshop isn’t exactly a sublime retreat in the cool rolling hills of Vermont (something I’ve always dreamed of), it is an opportunity not to be missed, regardless of my fragile mental state.  An intensive workshop with up close and personal interaction with bona fide authors and editors is a dream come true.

I’ll be the pale little banshee in the back of the classroom, box of Kleenex close at hand.  Now, I must be off to buy myself a brand new notebook and pens!  Hmmm…a back to school outfit?

Place

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I left the literal chill of Calgary three years ago for the hustle and bustle of Toronto.  I traded Stampede for Dundas Square; suburban malls for the Eaton Centre, Queen’s Park, Lake Ontario and a beach less than a mile away.  I’ve never been a Westerner or a Prairie dweller; those skies are too big for me.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has a wealth of history that is more familiar to me, a child of the mid-Atlantic and New England.  We have brick here, lots of it.  We have summers and negligible winters (comparatively speaking).  There is a pace and a pulse to Toronto that Calgary will likely never have but with that pace comes…or goes…or lacks…detracts…irritates…

Big cities can turn on you in an instant, a New York minute.  They promise you shelter, a degree of anonymity and then bang, literally, stray gunfire can cut you down.  It has always been so.  When I was in my early twenties, the very first apartment I had overlooked a green belt in Washington, DC that snaked between two major thoroughfares.  Sounds hopeful, doesn’t it?  A green belt in the midst of all of that asphalt.  I’d sit on my balcony at night and watch muzzle flashes in that green belt as rival gangs fought each other for that patch of grass.  I learned that gunfire isn’t “bang-bang” like we said when we were kids; it was more of a muted popping sound, depending on the wind and how close it was.

I feel insecure in Toronto now.  I feel unsafe.  I’m tired of the rudeness, the traffic, the inability to go to sleep at night without wondering what’s going to happen in the wee hours when the five pubs that surround my house close, spewing forth people in various stages of drunkenness and ill-humour.  I remind myself that this is part of the “pulse” of the place that I wanted when I fled the icy confines of Calgary.

Do I long for the suburbs?  Oh, dear God no!  I was in the hinterlands, that paved Siberia yesterday and fled towards the smoggy skyline of downtown at inordinately high speed.  Acres and acres of treeless subdivisions, row upon row of houses that all look the same interspersed with the small-to-medium shopping plazas – no thank you.  Where I live, I can walk to anything I want or don’t want; in the suburbs there is no escaping the car, the sameness.

Place has been on my mind a great deal lately.  The Novel has re-immersed me in Scotland, land of bitter conflict and soulful joy – and that’s just in my own family.  That place has a gravitational pull on me that cannot be easily explained. When I’m in Scotland everything feels raw; a feeling that scares and attracts simultaneously.  I could never live there; it would tear me apart.  Part of me wants to be torn apart.

I have been homesick lately; odd, for a gypsy.  I long for the ocean, the sable coloured sand of my youth.  I am taking my children for the first time to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where I spent every summer from birth to age fifteen. Those barrier islands change hourly with the wind and tide.  Our cottage is gone but the sand is still sand; the ocean is still my tumultuous swimming pool filled with salt.  We will go out on Avalon Pier, climb Jockeys Ridge.  From that highest sand dune, we can see both the Atlantic to the east and Albemarle Sound and the tidal inlets, ribbons of water that snake inland to the west.  We will watch the sun sink like a fiery red ball beyond Roanoke Island as I tell them about Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony.

My kids might shrug, complain about the black flies. We will trudge back to our motel and scrape sand out of places we didn’t know it could go.  But at least they will hear Atlantic surf, a sound they will never forget.  They will wade into the water and marvel at the warmth as the Gulf Stream passes close to shore there, so unlike the frigid Pacific waters off Vancouver Island – the only other ocean they’ve encountered.

In July, I’m to be mentored in a workshop by a man who has mastered the sense of place:  Alistair MacLeod.  With only a sentence or two, MacLeod can take the reader across the sea to the Highlands of Scotland then back to the pine forests and rocky coast of Cape Breton.  Reading one of his short stories last night I swear had to rub the salt spray off my skin.

I just finished a book called The Sandalwood Tree; set in India in 1947 at the end of the Raj, in a single sentence I was transported.  I could smell the dust, the dung fires and could see the colourful saris and Bougainvillea vines climbing the trees.  I don’t think I could handle the real India; however, it was thrilling to feel its life come off the pages of a book.

Is it easier to write about a place like India – so powerful, so extreme, so in your face than it is about an everyday North American concrete jungle like Toronto?  Can I make the streets of my east-end ‘hood leap off the page? Do I want to, feeling as disenchanted as I do right now?  Maybe I should take my coffee cup,sit outside in the wet-blanket heat and let it wash over me for a bit. Maybe it would help me feel the love of the place once more.

Place. It’s easy to miss even when you’re right there.