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Write Every Day

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It’s over. The big time-sucking gig that kept me so busy (not writing) these past few months has ended. I should be celebrating. I can finally get back to my desk. I can’t remember the last time I spent so long from it, so long not working on my own projects. So why this damp ambivalence. Could it be nervousness?

When I took the big gig (a good gig—brain-fueling) I thought: “Perfect. A fallow period. Time to retune and replenish.” I saw a sparkly clear mind at the end of it.

It wasn’t a bad notion. My mind was feeling a bit cloudy.

But something happened when I was away from my desk. All those writing muscles I take for granted grew flaccid. I could feel the pressure building up but also a waning of confidence. Too many ideas and too little nerve = bad alchemy.

I’ve never thought or spoken of myself as a writer who must be writing all the time. I’ve always bristled at books that exhort writers to Write Every Day. “Macho dogma,” I thought. “Pathological ambition.” What did these exhorters know of life’s interruptions and contingencies? But now I am hearing Ray Bradbury: “You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads…” I am hearing Stephen King: “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words…” And Haruki Murakami: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

I am thinking about the difference between lulls and ruts in a practice. At what point does the former turn into the latter? What is the right amount of fallow time? I am starting to believe you have to write everyday. That spurt writing is not enough. That consistency and discipline are all.

Maybe I’ll become an exhorter. But somehow I doubt it. I’m too interrupted, too interested in many other things.

Bravo Isabelle!

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Congratulations to Isabelle Arsenault on winning the 2012 IBBY Canada Cleaver Picture Book Award for Virginia Wolf!

The jury’s comments on Virginia Wolf:

“An un-precious treatment of depression that never diminishes its poignancy. Isabelle Arsenault’s illustrations illuminate the story. She begins with a touch of red and blue here and there. Then the sadness, embodied in blacks and greys that encroach on the page in a messy cloud, surrounds and engulfs Virginia as she becomes a dark shadow of herself. When Virginia starts painting and as the spirit changes, more colours begin to subtly appear as the darkness recedes. Arsenault reminds Virginia and the readers that the world is full of beauty.”

Books for the Grown-Up Picture Book Lover

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A few of my favorites:

1. On the street, everyone is rushing by, each person with their hidden thoughts and emotions, light or serious. (Marie is terribly jealous…Eric has a little music in his head.) Laurent Moreau’s beautiful book—”A quoi penses-tu?“—makes empathy and psychological insight a simple matter or turning a flap.

2. Antonio Frasconi’s “Kaleidoscope,” originally published in 1968, is a wordless accordion-fold book, which when fully opened is 130″ long. (Caveat Emptor: It is hard to find but not impossible. If it proves to be elusive, Frasconi has other wonderful picture books.)

3. Edward Gorey’s “The Doubtful Guest” is the bizarre and delightful tale of a sneaker-sporting creature that arrives at a family’s home one day. Oddly enough, the flummoxed occupants never ask their uninvited guest to leave, enduring his mischievous and mournful moods for 17 years. My favorite Gorey by far.

4. Ted Hughes’ “The Iron Giant.” This classic story of an unlikely friendship between a metal-consuming colossus and a young English boy named Hogarth has always been a favorite but Laura Carlin takes it to a whole new level of amazingness with her mixed-media artwork.

5. “Duck, Death and The Tulip” by celebrated German writer/illustrator Wolf Erlbruch is a strange and beautiful book about death and (perhaps more palatably) about life. “For a while now, Duck had had a feeling. ‘Who are you? What are you up to, creeping along behind me?’ ‘Good,’ said Death, ‘you finally noticed me. I am Death.’”

6. “Fortunately” by the exuberantly interdisciplinary Remy Charlip (please look him up) is about a boy’s journey to happiness through a series of roller-coaster extremes. (“Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party. Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away. Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane. Unfortunately, the motor exploded.” Good luck, bad luck, Ned just takes everything as it comes. How does he do that?) First published in 1964, “Fortunately” is also a masterwork of sequence, using page turns so very cleverly.

7. “Dillweed’s Revenge: A Deadly Dose of Magic,” by Florence Parry Heide and Carson Ellis is a perfect Goreyesque allegory of creativity, wickedness and joie-de-vivre triumphing over our fuddy-duddy, kill-joy selves. (To quote Bob Shea and Lane Smith: “WHY WE RECOMMEND THIS BOOK: debauchery, black magic, murder and inspired shenanigans throughout.”)

8. “The Tiger Who Came to Tea” by Judith Kerr. How would you react if a tiger wanted to come to tea? What if your ravenously hungry feline guest ate all the food in the house, and drank all the drink right down to the last drop of water in the tap? A reminder that good things can happen when our lives are infiltrated by enigmatic (and cheeky) strangers.

9. “The Conductor” is a wordless book by French illustrator Laëtitia Devernay that models the ambient and rhythmic experience of listening to a musical score. I love the way this unusual book jumps the fence between art forms, while conjuring a harmonious avian and tree-filled world.

10. John Burningham’s “Aldo” is about the everyday life of a little girl whose home life is empty—apart from her parents’ arguments—and whose school life is overshadowed by bullies. It would be a devastating book were it not for the buoyant comfort she finds in the company of her secret friend Aldo. It’s a gentle lesson in the power of the imagination to create a new reality.

11. In “Bob & co”, Delphine Durand opens with a line-drawn character called “Empti­ness.” (“On the blank page there’s a vast EMPTINESSS all alone.”) Our lonely character is soon joined by the characters of Sky, Earth, Water, who jostle and cavort until Emptiness gets pushed off the page. Stunningly simple metaphysics.

12. “Stephen and the Beetle” by Jorge Luján and Chiara Carrer is the deceptively small tale of a boy’s encounter with a beetle. In truth it is a large story of big decisions, turning points and mindfulness, all beautifully amplified by Carrer’s mixed-media art. (“If I drop my shoe…the day will go on just the same, except for one small thing.”)

13. Olaf Hajek and Angelika Taschen’s new yoga primer “Little Gurus.” The playful and beautiful illustrations capture the yoga poses but also the historical and cultural background of the discipline.

14. Artist and author Peter Sis’s illustrated adaptation of a 12th-century Persion poem, “The Conference of the Birds.” The story, “in which all the birds of the world get together for a conference,” assumes a prejudice-free aviary world, in which even flightless penguins can have their say.

15. Belgian iIlustrator/author Kitty Crowther’s “Annie du lac” (2009). Three islands in a lake turn out to be three giants, who help Annie find a way out of loneliness.

(Image by Fadim)

Bend Words

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Bend words. Stretch them, squash them, mash them up, fold them. Turn them over or swing them upside down. Make up new words. Leave a place for the strange and downright impossible ones. Use ancient words. Hold on to the gangly, silly, slippy, truthful, dangerous, out-of-fashion

As many of the great children writers have taught me (Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, George Saunders, Sheree Fitch, Dennis Lee), nonsense is our salvation, our blissery, and our biggering.

Bend words and bend the world.

Written in honour of Dr. Seuss for CBC’s Canada Writes.

“I wanted to suggest, not describe.”

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“I am attracted to deeper work, not to bright, funny or commercial art. I feel I’m much more underground than mainstream…I like bringing the text to another level through its visuals. It’s a way to create images that can be appreciated by the eyes, but also by the brain.”—Isabelle Arsenault, The Walrus Magazine’s Governor General’s Literary Awards interview series.

(Artwork from Virginia Wolf.)

Lost Thing, I Think I Love You

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One of my favorite stories is The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan. It takes place in a weird post-industrial landscape. A boy finds a bizarre and mammoth creature on a beach, and decides to find a home for it. (“Nobody else seemed to notice it was there. Too busy doing beach stuff, I guess.”)

There is a deep melancholy in The Lost Thing about what gets left behind. People who read the story may have different ideas about what it all means. For example, does the lost thing represent the imagination? Is it meant to be a paean to society’s castoffs? An indictment of capitalism? Is it about our tendency to categorize and pigeonhole the foreign and unfamiliar? (Responding to the story’s ambiguity, Shaun Tan has said: “I guess the concept of a ‘lost thing’ is quite philosophical, but not in any specific way.”)

What remains interesting to me about The Lost Thing, and what I missed on my first reading of the story, is the disposition of the main character: i.e. he is a scavenger. When the story begins he is busy collecting bottle-caps on the beach. On the one hand, there is this streamlined world where people are forever self-occupied and, on the other hand, there is this boy who is dawdling along, scouring the wayside of the world for useless bits-and-bobs. In fact, it could be argued that the only reason he alone spots the lost thing and responds to its presence, is that he is already somewhat stopped or slowed by his scavenging.

There is a whole underground of people combing the world for lost and remaindered things: the dumpster divers, the woman with the rattling cart, the freegans, and the archivists of our surplus. (I wrote about some of them here.) I see the hero of The Lost Thing as belonging to this tribe of urban gleaners. Where others proceed myopically, moving through narrow corridors of experience, he sees the world laterally, moving unbriskly, always taking in the periphery.

Last night I spoke at a museum in Brampton that is hosting an exhibition of personal artifacts selected by the local community. “What objects have you kept from your past and why?” There was an old chair, a medallion necklace, a Royal Doulton figurine, an old airline ticket—each object embedded in a story. As I wandered about, taking a glimpse into other people’s lives, I was reminded of the power of museums to sacralize the everyday. What might have been random bric-a-brac in another context suddenly carried the air of “worthiness.”

But what about those things that don’t really come from anywhere, or have an existing relationship to anything or anyone, and are ‘just plain lost’? What about the objects that have been stranded without a story?

In Shaun Tan’s modest allegory, lost things are portals. They are the doors through which we encounter worlds and creatures we might rarely meet in the normal run of things. It is dedicated to “Those Who Have More Important Things to Pay Attention To.” Yet for all its small epiphanies, it ends on a somewhat disheartening note. The boy-narrator concludes:

“I still think about that lost thing from time to time. Especially when I see something out of the corner of my eye that doesn’t quite fit. You know, something with a weird, sad, lost sort of look. I see that sort of thing less and less these days though. Maybe there aren’t many lost things around anymore. Or maybe I’ve just stopped noticing them. Too busy doing other stuff, I guess.”

How do we stay open when the temptation is to close down to others, to feel overwhelmed by the too-muchness of our digital age? The story offers no pat answers but it does show that the world is an infinite and whimsical place for anyone willing to embrace strangeness and mystery.

The Teachers

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Thinking of teachers: the one with the wild scribbled notes that grow wilder with enthusiasm or tiredness, the one with the ears that seem larger for being open and listening, the one with the reclining deckchair that turns every child into a king or queen for a day, the one who can transforms a child’s hindrance into her proud gift, the one who calls on the weekend to see how a child is doing after a bad fall, the one who encourages loud undisciplined reckless music, the one who gives space to a child’s grief without making that space feel like a banishment, the one who openly admits to being outsmarted every single day, the one who teaches the genius of a good mistake, the one who appears unbendable who then bends, the one who grows kindness in his classroom so it spreads like a robust weed…

Thinking of teachers in Ontario and why they deserve our full and unconditional support (despite the short-term frustration of losing extracurricular sports, arts and clubs) as they defend their long-term constitutional rights, their right to strike and to exercise collective action and their right to oppose the frightful legislation known as Bill-115.

If you want a reminder of what a school can be if its teachers are treated with the respect they have earned and deserve, then you might want to visit George Webster Junior School (as I did last week.) The Principal, Nancy Steinhauer, will tell you that the so-called “little things” (whether that be nutrition programs, weekend programs, a pediatric health clinic) require a boosted staff and can make a world of difference.

Final Flourish

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Many years ago, I worked in an arthouse cinema as a popcorn girl and one of the perks of the job were the free movies I was allowed to watch. One film I remember watching again and again was a beautiful biography of James Baldwin called The Price of the Ticket. According to the film, Baldwin was known to write late into the night, and often in the midst of boozy socializing. One evening, Baldwin’s lover sauntered into his study just as Baldwin was typing “THE END” (to Another Country). Just imagine: six letters to cap off HUNDREDS of pages and YEARS of work. Was there fanfare? Did Baldwin run victory laps around the room? Apparently not. Baldwin simply added the final page to his pile and when he was satisfied, he stood up and rejoined the party. When I heard this story, I thought: I’d like to be like that. I’d like my work to unfold without fuss, to exist amid the flow of the world. I would like to be a relaxed but firm finisher.

I was recently reminded of Baldwin when I saw this video.

Just watch how Glenn Gould finishes a performance. Watch his final hand movement, the way he snatches his fingers back from the keyboard as he reaches the end. If you watch other Gould performances, you will see the same shocking confidence and definitive stop. In some cases, his hand gesture is so dramatic and reflexive it is as if he has just experienced an electric shock, or been burned by the accumulated heat of his performance. For a queasy finisher such as myself, Gould’s certainty inspires awe and envy and gives me something to aspire to. One day I will end something firmly, with a bold flourish and maybe even some happy off-key humming! Until then, here’s to joyful and wonky beginnings…

For more thoughts on endings, see here and here.

A Soft Spot

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For years I grew up watching my stoic, practical father—a reporter of steely nerves—lapse into spontaneous moments of sentimentality over felines. How cats came to occupy this special place in my father’s heart only became clear much later, when I learned that as a child of four he was placed in foster care. On his first day, terrified by his situation, he hid in an outhouse, vowing to stay inside “forever”—oh the steely will of young children!—only to be distracted moments later from his oath by a curious meowing and scratching at the door.

When he shared this memory with me—a memory that included a vivid description of the black cat he befriended that day—it flew in the face of the image I held of my father as somehow having bypassed childhood, having entered the world as a fully-formed adult. It also explained the heightened affection I had watched him show towards every cat he ever met.

Many of us have cats (and/or dogs) in our lives. They mince or scamper around our homes. They watch and witness, and soften us if we let them. They bring out the silly and playful when life piles on top of us. They calm our nerves when we are fretful and structure our days when we are at loose ends. Shaggy Muses by Maureen Adams explores the role dogs played in the lives of five famous women authors “whose lives were more difficult than we would ever have imagined.” From Emily Dickinson to Virginia Woolf, Adams goes so far as to suggest that English literature would be considerably bereft without the supporting presence of these furry companions.

Like several of the writers featured in Shaggy Muses, my father has never been a fan of humans, whom he generally considers a source of supreme disillusionment. (Nothing like being a war reporter to put you in touch with the baser and unwise sides of human nature.) Given the choice, my father will always side with animals—his annual donations to animal causes being one expression of his preference, the plethora of cat-themed cards in our family being another. And why not root for them? As far as I know, no cat has ever been guilty of screwing up the world.

My father’s extreme kitty-love, his utter mushiness in the face of random alley cats, may be odd but it reminds me that it’s in our nature to be vulnerable. We all have a soft spot, apparent to us or not. Among Buddhists, the soft spot is seen as both a wound that has never fully healed and a breach in our emotional armour, a natural opening in the barriers we create when we’re fearful or defensive. I think a soft spot is what makes a person love-able, as in “able to love.” I would never underestimate anything that could bring a scared child to open a door, or that could make a grown man be bravely and demonstratively feeling.

(Photos: Jean Paul Sartre with “Nothing” and Edward Gorey with “Harp, Brown and Company.”)