Is autobiography the only form in all the arts?

I recall reading a review by Elaine Blair of Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline in the New Yorker a few years ago. Blair says, Cusk has written admiringly about Karl One 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. Continue reading “Is autobiography the only form in all the arts?”

Transiting the Real

sofa-749629_1920Recently, my reading group selected Rachel Cusk’s novel Transit as our next book, and I recalled reading a review by Elaine Blair of Cusk’s novel Outline in the January 2015 New Yorker. Blair claims “Cusk has written admiringly about Karl Ove 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.

Continue reading “Transiting the Real”

Writing back to life


It’s wonderful to be writing again after my daily commitment was severely interrupted by launching and marketing Fling! I felt hollow during that time, as if something vital were missing from my daily diet. What is it about writing that is so necessary for me and I’m sure for other writers?

When I sit down at my computer, or in front of a sheet of paper, another world opens up to me. It’s not unlike what I experience at night before I fall asleep. The word “fall” seems key here: during those hours, we descend into the unconscious, into another level from our surface life. While the brain may be cranking out a conglomeration of images we’ve collected throughout the day, I don’t believe that’s all we’re doing when we sleep. I think dreams are more mysterious than that explanation implies.

How do you explain the imagination and all it encompasses? How do you constrain it by rationally trying to identify its source, its ability to help us soar on the back of words and create new configurations that end up being stories or poems? You don’t. If you’re a writer, you wed memory, words, and imagination in a marriage that always surprises. And that’s what I missed during those dry days when I didn’t have access to that realm. I’m happy to be back.

Where Inner and Outer Worlds Meet

I didn’t fall asleep till 1 AM this morning. I got involved in a fascinating article about Joseph Cornell, the American artist and sculptor who made such mysterious and gorgeous assemblages in various found and constructed boxes. It makes me want to haunt junk shops for interesting memorabilia that I can make things with, to start a collection I can draw from.

Before going to sleep, I had an image of turning an old radio into a Joseph Cornell box. I even thought of taking over our room in the garage for artwork so I could spread out more, cataloguing items I find.

That way of working is still very appealing to me. Poet Charles Simic, who wrote the article I read, described Cornell’s boxes as stages where inner and outer worlds met. I would like such a place to give concrete expression to my dialogue with the unconscious. Of course, I already do some of that in my watercolors and collages. And my writing does it to a certain degree. But I believe the visual arts draw on another facet. It’s just so difficult finding enough time to do everything!

I also felt inspired by what Cornell did with 16 mm film, cutting up old ones and taking from them what he wanted in order to make a new statement. It’s what I’ve been doing with appropriating certain things from books in some of my poems. I’d like to do more—and be more conscious of the act. It also seems time to get back to poetry, to let go of the prose for a while. Let poetry feed me.


A Writer’s Sanctuary

From inside my study, one wall book-lined, the other holding a large mirror that makes the room appear bigger, I sit on the loveseat, listening to Strauss and the waterfall powered by a tiny electric pump. When I’m home, I turn it on, the sound of water like a heart beat in this house, a tangible reminder of what usually is invisible, at least to waking life—water for me representing the unconscious and all that lives there.

I come to this sanctuary at the center of the house, separated from the master bedroom by French doors, to be alone, as much as one can be alone in a shared space. Images that trigger happy memories or just please me fill the walls and shelves: a canal in Venice, that watery city I love; a blackened white porcelain female figure holding a dove aloft that my sister had given me (it survived my house fire of many years ago); a print of an Emily Carr painting, the night and forest appearing eerie and alive; twisted pieces of driftwood; a small rock from the Acropolis; and a picture of my sister and me taken a few years back outside the remains of our barn on the Langdon farm.

My husband jokingly accuses me of conducting secret rites in my study after he goes to sleep, lighting candles, doing “witchy” things. To him, a Freudian analyst and an English professor, I’m sure that much of what I do with dreams and in Jungian analysis appears esoteric. Strange. Mystifying.

For me this room acts as a conduit to my deeper self. My laptop is in here where I record my dreams, store my journals, and write. I also have a table set up with watercolors and other art materials, ready to collect colors and shapes from the unconscious that choose to surface in this way.

Do others have this kind of sanctuary in their homes? It seems essential in order to tolerate the craziness of the external world.


The Dream Thieves

For many years I’ve been recording my dreams each morning and trying to listen to the messages they bring me from the depths. I subscribe to Jung’s view that dreams are messengers from the unconscious, both personal and collective. To ignore them is like refusing to open and read letters from beloved friends that come in the mail. Not spam. Not advertisements. But serious, heartfelt missives.

What kind of messages do dreams bring? It depends. Sometimes they comment imagistically on our daily routines, pointing out, perhaps, areas in our relationships with others that might be lacking. Other times they bring news from afar, tossing onto the shore of our conscious minds images and narratives from a more primal level in our psyches. These dreams resemble ancient myths in the way they evoke universal themes that still play out in the modern mind. To ignore them is similar to turning away a wise uncle or grandparent, someone who has lived through it all and has a valuable perspective on things.

In simpler times, dreams held the place of honor in our morning conversations with each other (and still do in some more “primitive” societies), giving dreamers guidance and a starting point for interaction with each other. They’ve been replaced by our preoccupation with a variety of digital gadgets. We are so involved with iPhones, iPads, iPods, computers, video games, and all the variations, we have little time not only for face-to-face relationships with others but also with in-depth conversations with ourselves. These toys collude to distract us from anything but the more superficial, mechanical elements in our daily lives: the hours some people spend on social networks like Facebook that gives the illusion of “friending” when it really does the opposite. It provides a soapbox for one-way monologues, the kind of behavior that can kill an actual relationship. It reminds me of sitting through a meal with someone whose only interest is in him/herself and the words coming out of his/her mouth. There are no eyes to look into—mirrors of the soul. There are no souls!

Of course, just by keeping a blog I’m engaging in the kind of action I’m criticizing, climbing up on my soapbox to vent into the stratosphere. But anything that subverts the imagination and impoverishes it concerns me. Perhaps by reflecting on this situation here I can be more careful in the future, limiting the times I spend digitizing rather than dreaming.


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.