Friday, February 22, 2008

not a rocking chair

My beloved Paul McCartney was on the British Music Awards last night, getting a Lifetime Achievement Award and then playing a few songs. He was wearing tight black pant, a mod little jacket and Beatle boots, he and his band rocked and screamed and crooned - "Hey Jude" of course, to end - and I thought, "My God, this man is nearly 66 years old!" He's the age when people retire and settle into their LaZBoy chairs with the remote, join the shuffleboard team, buy the skirts and pants with the stretchy waistbands and the comfy shoes and let it all sag out. Not the Paul machine. There's something absurd and fantastic about the fact that so many boomer music heroes - Eric Clapton, the Stones, the Who etc. -just keep on going. Paul's voice was rough last night, but his hair was a lustrous brown and he jumped around looking pretty damn great. I'm proud of the way we are redefining middle and old age. I can see us all in groovy old folks communes, with state of the art sound and movie systems and hookahs built in to our Mag-wheeled, graffiti-splattered wheelchairs.

Rock on, Grandpa Paul.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

the happiness test

I love documentaries, another form of creative non-fiction - true stories, moving, informative, well told. I watched one the other night on happiness, on CBC-TV. The filmmakers took four ordinary people and gave them a happiness or optimism test, which consisted of getting them to put one hand in a dish of ice water, and timing how long they lasted before pulling out.

They then were instructed to complete three tasks: first, to do something highly pleasurable for themselves, like going to a spa or, for one guy, test-driving a luxury motorcycle. They then were asked to do something good for other people - working in a food bank, giving away tons of clothing to a shelter - and they spoke afterwards about how much better and richer they felt after completing the second task than the first.

Then they did one final and very important thing: they made a "gratitude visit." They went to see one person who had made a huge positive difference to their lives - a parent, friend, mentor - and told that person what his or her efforts had meant. These encounters were heartfelt, as you can imagine, with much hugging. And then they were given the ice water test again. For all of them, the time they allowed their hands to stay in the water had doubled or more.

One of the things that we do in writing class is to look back and make sense of important events and people. In that way, part of memoir writing can be seen as the making of gratitude visits. It often seems that people who are exploring the important truths of their own lives in writing - and on film - are finding a new way to happiness, or, at least, to peace and understanding, which is the same thing.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

talk at the 92nd Street Y, April 8th

First of all, Happy Valentine's Day to you all. For those of us currently between relationships - and I have spent much of my adult life currently between relationships - it's a bit of a pain, like being Jewish on December 25th and watching all the merriment with a jaundiced eye. Enough already, one wants to say. Let's move on.

I know that my talk at the 92nd Street Y in New York is almost two months away, but I'm posting the information now for those far-flung friends who would like to join me in the greatest city on earth. I'll be speaking at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 8th, about Jacob Gordin's life and my journey of discovery towards him and my own history. There will be books for buying and signing. I hope to be wearing a new pair of Stuart Weitzman shoes. There will be many Kaplans and a few Gordins, and maybe even two or three people who are not related to me. I will have a story to tell, and I will have great shoes to stand in while I do.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

ice fishing

Well, it's official - we have a record-breaking snow fall this year, more than has ever been recorded in Toronto history, how about that??? We are all just thrilled; nothing Toronto likes more than breaking a record.

Last night I had a class at U of T at 6.30, and as I struggled through the blizzard, the howling winds and whipping snow - like in a Russian novel, all that was missing were the wolves nipping at the troika - oh, and also the troika was missing - and climbed over snowbanks and slid on icy sidewalks, wearing many layers - long johns and undershirt, heavy wool pants, sweaters, down vest, puffy coat, hat, hood, mitts, boots, scarf covering every inch of face except a slit for eyes - as I laboured to get to work, I assumed there would be no one there. What lunatic would come out in this weather if they didn't have to?

Out of a class of twelve, nine were there, including Eileen who had driven for two hours down from the north. Incredible. We had a great class with the wind rattling the windows. My journey with students, our exploration of the wonder of writing is always a marvel for me, but last night was truly an adventure.

"It's a story," I told one student afterwards, as we stood on the desolate moonscape of College Street waiting, with the other silent huddled sheep, for the streetcar. "When you do what we do, write stories from life, everything is a story."

So here's mine.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Wayson Choy: "Love has no rules."

Wayson Choy, my dear friend and mentor, came to the Autobiography II class yesterday, and spoke with his usual passion and insight about the writing process. He suggested that we all imagine for ourselves "the ideal reader" and write for that person. "Start as far into the action as you can, and then don't go back, go forward," he told us.

"Books that are subtle, that pierce the heart and leave the reader thinking" are the hardest to write, he said. He suggested that we "get more outside" - that is, just keep the flow of words pouring onto the page so that they're out there, visible, and then we can work with them. To people who are wary about releasing their secrets, he said, "I've had two heart attacks, so I have no time for secrets. How much time do you have to share what you know? Risk telling the truth," he said.

He quoted a wonderful story of Alice Munro's, of two outcast teenage girls who suffer taunts from their fellow high school students. "How can they be so stupid?" one says to the other. "Don't they know we're going to grow up to be writers?"

And then he said, "There are two important things I've discovered in life: Family is whoever is there for you. And love has no rules."

Writing well is the best revenge. Happy Valentine's Day.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

missive from bed

The great French novelist Colette wrote in bed. So did that great Yankee Edith Wharton. (Why do only women writers write in bed? It's hard to imagine Ernest Hemingway under the covers, tapping away at his Underwood.) Anyway, I too am writing this right now, at 10.20 a.m., in bed. Not just because I am imitating these great, and even better, productive women writers. But because it's bloody freezing out, we are buried under snow drifts with more snow on the way, and it's hard to concentrate on fine prose when your feet are cold.

Any excuse will do, right? Feet cold = can't work. Must drink wine instead.

Sometimes I get a headache from all the words roiling around in my head. How to get them out? And in the right order, and the exactly right words too, telling the right story? That people will actually want to read? These are the simple mysteries of the writing life. It's not a bad idea to make the effort in different places, to see what happens.

So far, half an hour into this little experiment, I can tell you that my feet are warm. My belly is warm too, because the nice little computer perched on it is toasty. But unfortunately, the great stubborn block of wood that is my head has remained the same. The stories are in there, I just have to dig them out, whether here or at my desk or hanging upside down from the chandelier.

But first, another cup of coffee and a little snack.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

readin' and writin'

The dead of winter - mountains of snow, a muffled city in the slushy cold. But there's lots of life at my bird-feeder, and every morning, little raccoon tracks weave through the garden. This is a good time to do some serious reading - to spur me on, I'm plowing through some great books on writing creative non-fiction. Let me know if you'd like a list.

And I've started serious work on a new project. I can't say "a new book" - much too scary. Maybe it's not a book; maybe it's an article that just keeps on growing. It's about the Beatles and the early Sixties, and will come partly from my diaries and scribblings of that time, which are plentiful. We diarists are able to delve so deeply into our own pasts. It's a moving, sometimes funny, sometimes very unfunny journey

Yesterday, for research, I went to the show called "Rain - the Beatles experience" and was embarrassed by how much I enjoyed it. It's so fake - four guys who look and sound kind of like the real thing, singing the songs - but that music is so powerful, touches me so profoundly after all these years (forty-four, to be exact), that it's impossible not to melt. At the end we were all singing "Hey Jude," of course, and swaying, the Hummingbird Centre full to the rafters with all ages, from little kids to the very old. True musical genius, those boys had, from beginning to end.

And even now - Paul McCartney's latest CD is a joy. I am a Paul girl. That's my book, and it'll keep me warm at this cold time.