IS AUTOBIOGRAPHY THE ONLY FORM IN ALL THE ARTS?

I’ve just read a review by Elaine Blair of Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline in the January 2015 New Yorker. Blair says, Cusk has written admiringly about Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. ‘Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,’ she told the Guardian.” Blair goes on to say that some writers are hewing closer to the author’s subjective experiences, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal lives.

But Blair also points out that “Cusk’s shorthand doesn’t begin to account for the variety of literary experiments we’ve been seeing from novelists like Knausgaard, …. and W. G. Sebald” (70). As a writer, I’m all for any kind of improvisation on the novel or any other kind of narrative. I haven’t read Knausgaard, but I have devoured all of W. G. Sebald’s “fictions,” novels that are truly novel in that he has invented a hybrid form. He incorporates travelogue, biography, memoir, speculation, and literary criticism into the narrator’s perspective: often a wandering and thoughtful observer of his surroundings.

Vertigo was the first of Sebald’s books that I read. In order to enter his world, I had to disregard most of my preconceptions about what a novel should be. Initially, I was attracted by his playfulness and the tongue-in-cheek tone, as well as by the sly humor and wit. I also felt there was something else lurking there. Just as the narrator has a paranoid fear of being watched or followed, I felt followed by something in the book that I couldn’t quite identify, some truth or knowledge, as often happens with good poetry where meaning emerges from around the poem’s borders. Sebald’s approach explodes for me the myths I’ve created about novels needing to incorporate dramatic scenes, etc., all of the various workshop admonitions about narrative arc and development.

Though I haven’t read Cusk’s work, and only have this review to go on, I am concerned with the idea that some writers may rely more on their personal experiences to create “fictions” than employ their imaginations. Contemporary life is already too one-dimensional and focused on surfaces. Most people aren’t aware of their dreams and the unconscious. Or they deny that anything other than the day’s residue is being circulated in these nighty dramas. What a loss!

As Carl Jung pointed out in Man and His Symbols, “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding” (82). He goes on to say that it isn’t just poets or other artists who employ these ways of perceiving, but they are also essential to scientists. He emphasizes that the rational intellect isn’t the only way of knowing or understanding ourselves and the world (inner or outer) and claims that “the surface of our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements” (86). This observation is even truer today than when Jung wrote this piece in 1961 near the end of his life.

If our novels are limited to portraying our everyday experiences, the chitchat that goes on in our living rooms and other social settings, then we are missing a whole level of vitality and knowledge. It’s the imagination in conjunction with the unconscious that produces myths, symbols, and alternate views of reality. Not that our personal experiences can’t be imbued with these elements, but if they are the sole basis for our fictions, then we are deprived of something much richer and more worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

Writing like an Architect

Seeing Othello recently confirmed for me that being a first-rate writer requires the same kind of training that an architect receives. A typical program includes courses in architectural history and theory, building design, construction methods, professional practice, math, physical sciences, and liberal arts. Writers may not need to study math or the physical sciences, but they do need to give themselves the best liberal arts education they can find, both formal and informal. And like architects, in order to be successful in their field, writers need vision, a rich imagination. Creative writing programs can help educate us to a certain extent in terms of craft, but much of our learning must happen outside the academy. That means the direction is unsystematic and  mostly comes from within. Yet like an architect, we need to be thoroughly familiar with materials and structures, both ancient and contemporary. We also need to make friends with the unconscious.

I once naïvely assumed that I could devote one summer to writing and suddenly bloom like Athena from Zeus’ head, becoming an author overnight. It didn’t happen. As I’ve discovered since then, it takes a tremendous amount of sheer hard work, of experimenting and exploring and discarding until control over the craft emerges.

Then there are all the inner blocks to overcome, dragons that we continuously have to slay before we can claim our own voice. These include the inner critic who wails that we don’t have any talent and no one will every publish our work. It also involves all the ways we can distract ourselves from the task at hand, pencil sharpening instead of writing.

Though at times I would like to renege on the commitment I’ve made to myself, if I keep plugging along, I see progress.

 

 

Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.


Timing and the Creative Process

I’m thinking today of timing—how important it is to success.  Timing and perseverance:  the two go together.  I’m also noticing the seasonal aspect of creativity, how cyclic it is.  That too is hard to grasp.  I want it all the time.  I’m afraid if it isn’t there, it won’t return.  But I need to remember that if I pursue my creative impulses, and if they’re in accordance with my abilities, then there will be success.  Maybe not financially, though that would be nice.  But I’ll experience the satisfaction of achieving what I’m capable of.

I must keep in mind that the cup will empty, fullness will recede, as happens each night with the waxing and waning energies of the moon.  I can’t help but hear “moo” when I write moon, those old nursery rhymes of the cow jumping over the moon still playing in my imagination.  Of course, cows are very much moon creatures, with their emptying and filling, the various stomachs they have for digesting food that turns into nourishing milk.  They’re a wonderful symbol for the creative person.

Perseverance is the key word.  I need to keep this in mind to combat the bombardment of negative things I’m reading currently about being a writer.  Not only is publishing like finding a needle in a haystack—especially publishing fiction—but also only five percent of writers support themselves on their writing.

 

Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.


An Ode to the Imagination

I tried to get started today on a children’s story of a girl sleeping in an elegant dollhouse, an image I had in a dream awhile back that has stayed with me.  But I felt extremely critical of what I wrote.  I had to stop…for now.  Let it breathe, let the criticalness soften—fall away.

This morning I picked up Anne of Green Gables and began re-reading it.  Hearing the narrator talk about Green Gables itself and Anne’s imaginativeness and pluck made me cry.  Really cry.  I realize how important the imagination is to us all, how we need places like Green Gables to visit; it isn’t just an escape but an extension of everyday reality.  In this context, Green Gables represents an innocent ideal that also exists in this world.  Of course, it means a great deal to me that the author of this story happens to be a fellow Canadian—L. M. Montgomery.

I have a great need to write such stories for others and myself.  I have to keep alive this possibility of going beyond the everyday.  The potholes we get stuck in.  The bumps in the road. Without the imagination, we’re nothing.  I don’t think courage, will, or insight mean much without the imagination, by which I mean the capacity to dream of better worlds, to allow other worlds to enter us.  To create out of our own imaginations something no one has seen before. New vistas.  Unlimited possibilities.

I also was moved by Anne’s feistiness and the way she used her imagination to survive.  This ability allowed her to endure awful circumstances as an orphan.  And it’s what allowed me to transcend my childhood.

 

Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.


The Writer as Magician

Fiction writers have been called many things, but magician seems to me the best description.  They dip into the black hat of their imagination and produce an endless variety of characters, situations, images, genres, events, and styles.  The effect on readers is nothing less than magical, the reader also becoming a magician, assisting in making visible what wasn’t there before.

Writers and magicians depend on their skillful fingers for their art.  Slight of hand has considerable value in a writer’s bag of tricks—the ability to juggle numerous characters, settings, scenes, and themes simultaneously, rivaling the most accomplished conjurer.  The reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is sometimes necessary for the writer’s art to be fully realized.

But trusting in these magician’s skills also requires that the writer suspend her disbelief, and that isn’t easy.  Each time I start a new story, a new chapter, a new novel, I must trust that the seeds of words take root in the soil of the page and continue to grow, watered and fertilized whenever I open my computer and put fingers to keyboard.  I must trust each work I create will grow within my imagination as I write, that I’ll read and experience things that will feed the book, just as a child grows in the womb.  Slowly.  Stage by stage.  If I can trust this, I can have the confidence to proceed.

So much of writing fiction is searching for the right tone, the correct voice.  I probe the prose I’ve written over and over to try and find what the passage needs, what’s hidden between syllables, under words.  It’s an ongoing search for the story, for the meaning, letting the imagination lead.  Something clicks within me, as with an emotionally accurate dream interpretation.  I can sense when I’ve hit the vein, when the path becomes clearer.  It must be similar for a musician who can hear when a pitch is off.  There’s a physical reaction when something doesn’t sound right.  So I constantly reread what I’ve already written until the material shifts and something new comes into view.  But the process itself can be agonizing.  Each day I have to prove to myself again that I can do it—that my imagination will come through.

I fondle, tussle with, twist, and stroke the words, willing them into action, like a magician looking into a crystal ball.  I approach them contritely, humbly, realizing that they have all the power, the authority here.  I’m merely a handmaiden, doing their will.  I’m their instrument.  The story makes me become more visible as I tease out the strands of plot, image, character.  It works on me as much if not more than I work on it.

This is so much like sculpting, reminding me of when I worked on the elephant that emerged from the rock I chiseled for months.  I had to concentrate on the stone and nothing else, letting it become my guide, like language.  The stone was my language.  Writing is like painting too.  First I sketch in foreground.  Then I have to spend a long time filling in background, working the shadows, a touch of color here, one that will stand out like yellow or red.  A deeper tone there so it will recede.  Burnt umber or sienna.  A moody deep blue.  Oh yes and the moods, the way color shapes that part of a scene or passage.

This reminds me of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and it seems to me each time I sit down to work on a novel or story I feel like Jacob.  That’s one reason why it’s harder to write fiction.  It takes extra effort and I resist it more.  Writing essays—travel articles, personal narratives, whatever—comes easy.  No problem.  But the other, the invention, takes much more from me.  It requires a heroic effort.