Monday, March 31, 2008

Ladies Writing

Moti Sandak, of the website, has posted two Gordin-related items on the site: under "First Curtain," news of my talk in New York, and under "Research," an entire chapter of the book itself.  So readers can catch up with my current news and also get a thorough sense of the book, thanks to Mr. Sandak and the invaluable website. 

I just had lunch with three new friends, Ellen Cassedy, Jim Feldman and Natalie Wexler.  Ellen, herself a writer and playwright, contacted me last year after reading the book; she became a whirlwind of support, sending me information and ideas.  Jim and Natalie, who is also a writer and writing teacher, are involved in various projects in the Jewish community of Washington, and are interested in some kind of future project to do with the book.  I love events like our lunch, in which people who minutes ago were complete strangers sit around having an intimate discussion about the lives of fascinating people, family members and others, who have been dead for decades.  The power of story, once again.

This is my last day in Washington, where it looks like spring but feels, unfortunately, like the end of winter.  Yesterday we went to see the glorious Cherry Blossom Festival, hundreds of beautiful trees dipping their pink branches towards the tidal basin in the centre of the city.  But it was so cold I was wearing seven layers of clothing.  

Afterwards we went to the National Gallery, to see, among other great artists, the exquisite Vermeers.  I fell in love with his "Lady Writing", in which an odd, thoughtful young woman looks enigmatically at us as she writes with a quill pen at a desk.  "Another conflicted writer," I thought.  But at least she cannot complain about the light.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

the joy of cousins

What's so hard about travelling is that your whole schedule is disrupted.  What's so valuable about travelling is that your whole schedule is disrupted.  

I'm in Washington, D.C.  It's spring here - forsythia, magnolia, daffodils, redbud trees which are actually glowing mauve, miles of trees covered in lacy white, like rows of spidery wedding dresses - yes, Toronto, this will happen for us too, one day.  

I am getting to know some of my American family, and as always, what I want and encourage are stories.  Tell me stories.  Today, visiting my first cousin once removed, my father's cousin Caryl, and her son Robert who's my second cousin - no, why isn't he my first cousin twice removed?  Or is that his children? 

Anyway, I met Robert for the first time and he made a matzoh ball soup to die for, and his mother Caryl who is beautiful and hospitable I also had never met - how often is someone from Toronto going to get to Roanoke, Virginia? And while I was there, we called Caryl's first cousin Jerry in California and spoke to his wife Lee - Jerry was at work.  Lee and Jerry, who's another of Jacob Gordin's grandchildren, contacted me through my book.  None of these relatives had met or even talked before.

So after the visits, I was driving back from Roanoke to Washington with Caryl's twin brother George whom I HAD met before but hardly knew.  He is, I discovered, an extremely interesting lawyer and law professor and world traveller who owns a Rodin sculpture and knows an enormous amount about history and also knew my long-dead father as a boy - stories, more stories.  And then the war, he was eighteen when he ended up a machine-gunner on the front line in France in 1944 and was wounded with shrapnel from a Screaming Mimi - talk about stories.  A more than four hour drive vanished.  A new dear friend.

And then back to Bethesda to Cousin Barbara's on my mother's not my father's side, and over supper she told me about her mother's recent death, my mother's beloved oldest sister Margaret, and I told her about my father's death, and we wept and ate and told stories.  

"You suffer," my father's brother my uncle Edgar once said to me, "from a paucity of cousins." My only two cousins, Barbara and her sister Francie, have always lived in another country.  My father, whose mother had ten siblings and whose father had six, was drowning in cousins around the corner in New York.  But at least, at last, I am getting to know those I have, and the firsts once removed and the seconds too.  

Tomorrow we are going to see the famous cherry blossoms.  My schedule is happily disrupted. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

the mystery of the Tuesday storms

This is the most difficult packing job I've ever had - what to put in the suitcase when it's freezing rain in Toronto, fresh snow, howling winds, and in Washington where I'm going it will be 70 degrees by Friday.  I will be just in time for the cherry blossom festival.  Cherry blossoms, whereas here we have piles of garbage on the snowbanks blossoms.  My cousin told me, "Pack your spring clothes," and I wrote back, "What is this spring of which you speak?"

The talk at the Y, by the way, looks assured; the 92nd Street Y posted an entry of mine on their blog, which we hope will attract attention and interest.  My friend Bruce is flying in from Vancouver especially for the talk.  Well, also the Met and several other galleries, theatre and musical events, shopping, sightseeing, and visiting New York friends - but mostly to hear a lecture on the Jewish Shakespeare.  That's what dear friends are for. 

My U of T Personal Narrative class ended tonight.  I knew it was the day for that class because in the afternoon it started to snow fiercely.  The rest of you probably did not notice, but every single snowstorm we have had for the last two months has been on a Tuesday.  And yet almost everyone slogged through - like the U.S. Post, as one of them pointed out tonight - to be there with their stories.  Not only brave Canadians, but brave writers too.  Bravo to all of you, a wonderful bunch.

I've just had an email from Adina, a recent Ryerson student, young and beautiful.  "Hi Beth," she wrote, "I left your class saying, 'Of course I am going to write.  Every night I will sit in bed with my music and write piece after piece.  And send them out and flourish at a freelance writing career.' 

Now, two weeks after the fact, I have yet to sit in bed with my pen poised and the music floating.  I have written nothing, and I feel terrible about it.  Luckily, my father is very encouraging of my skills, and he convinced me to sign up for your home classes.  You are right about what you said in the first class: if you know that people will be there waiting to hear what you have to say, you will be forced to write.  My dad supplements that with his new favourite Stephen King quote: 'Writers write.'  And since he has branded me a writer, I must attend your home classes."

Give that man his fathership badge.  And Adina - come on in.  Soon it will be spring, and you won't even have to climb a snowbank to get here.  But the writing ... still hard.  

Sunday, March 23, 2008

been and gone

My beloved children came home for Easter dinner tonight, each bringing a best friend who is also like family.  I spent the morning chopping, stuffing, peeling, riding my bicycle to the Gerrard Street Chinatown for more provisions, because even with a 13 lb. turkey and a mountain of stuffing, broccoli, potatoes and gravy, there wasn't enough food.  

Then there they were - noise, laughter, teasing, joking, insults, phones ringing, giant shoes and one stylish small pair piling up in the hall.  Sam, who's hungover, is showing me a clip of himself on YouTube sucking on helium balloons and singing rude songs; Anna, whose hair is much darker than it was last time, is taking pictures with her phone when she's not talking or texting on it; Heyward wants feedback on a short story he has written about a bad boy getting revenge on Santa Claus, and Giles is slicing sweet potato and drinking a bottle of his own homemade wine.  

How many turkeys have I cooked for us to eat together, the kids and I and usually a friend or three?  At least fifty, and I still rejoice when the food is laid out, ready to go, for those few moments before it disappears.  Afterwards the boys helped clear up and then watched "The Simpsons," while Anna helped me choose clothes to take on my upcoming trip.  ("Mum, for God's sake, give that jacket back to George Michael and the eighties!") For a few hours, it felt like they had never left.

But they have left, and they did so again.  They packed up their mail, their tubs of leftovers, the microwave I bought Sam at a garage sale, the TV a neighbour is passing on to Anna, and they went home.  And now the house is silent once more, and I can go back to work.  

Since the kids happily moved out, leaving me with two rent-paying tenants and a computer called MacZine, I have plunged into work in a concentrated way I've rarely been able to muster in the last 27 years.  The reason is simple: the house is quiet, and I have no one to worry about except the voices on the page.  

Friday, March 21, 2008

Onward artist soldiers

The other night I watched "A boy called Alex," a documentary about a musical prodigy going to Eton whose dream is to direct his schoolmates in Bach's "Magnificat."  But he has cystic fibrosis, a particularly virulent kind, and part way through rehearsals, he ends up in Intensive Care.  After weeks in hospital, he forces the doctors to let him go back to school.  His passionate engagement in the work, his joy in the music, the relentless determination that has allowed him to learn and play music despite a mortal illness, and his utter lack of self-pity, made this about as inspiring a story as I've ever seen.  

I thought of Wayson's words to writers: "Do not be stopped," he says.  "Do not be defeated."  So many of us are defeated, not by external forces like a deadly ailment, but by our own lack of faith in ourselves.  So on this Good Friday, I urge us all to heed the call to faith - in our own minds, hearts, souls, and words.

Speaking of faith in words, my writer's group came over last night, as they do once a month - well, much reduced yesterday, so we were less a group than a writer's trio; a writer's threesome. Gerry and Jessica are sublime writers.  

Jessica is working on fiction, a series of long short stories, and despite their wonderful flow and skill, was worried about their awkward length: she can't help but write novellas and fears no one will publish them.  Word count is something to be aware of but not stopped by - if the work is good, someone will publish it, no matter how long or short it is.  

Gerry writes stories from her life, and is perpetually amazed at how much we like and praise them.  She's also a visual artist, and seems to feel that she has control of her paints whereas the writing just emerges.  She has no idea how good it is, but we are trying to convince her.

Then I read my piece, a fresh stab at the Sixties material that I had thought really worked.  I read the first page eagerly and then began to sense that the energy was dimming, the flow was halting ... I could feel the air leave the room.  It didn't work.  I looked up and they both smiled warmly, but we all knew.  

"Why don't you start off here," Jessica suggested, "and then move this bit to there, don't be so chronological, just skip around, make it more of a collage, you see, fragments, and have more faith in the diary material you have, it really works. Make it lighter."

And I thought, "That's it!"  What I had struggled over for three weeks, Jessica had sorted out in minutes.  That's what a good writer's group, a good editor, can do for a befuddled writer.  

And on this cold, quiet morning, as I start again, I say, Hallelujah.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

news from New York

Yesterday, good news and bad news.  A student has rescued the baby seal book at Pages.  It opened its big black eyes and blinked at her gratefully, as she tucked it under her arm and took it home.  (As the "New Yorker" would say, "Block that metaphor!")

On the other hand, I had an email from the 92nd Street Y in New York, to tell me that the advance registration for my talk about Jacob Gordin and my book is so low that they will probably cancel.  To be specific: the number of people in the metropolis of New York, who are so interested that they have signed up in advance, is seven. 

Perhaps I don't have to elaborate on what a hard moment that was.  Seven.  I wasn't expecting hordes, you understand, hundreds of eager readers clamouring for the book.  But I did assume that in a city of many millions, including hundreds of thousands of intellectual, book-loving Jews, more than a handful would want to hear about an extraordinary historical figure and my search for him.  

But then good sense returned. Why should they?  This is not so much about my book - though realistically, Gordin is indeed an obscure figure - it's about marketing.  The listing for the talk is tucked into a small corner of the Y's vast programming. There have been no local reviews of the book.  How can people come to hear a talk they haven't heard about, on a book they don't know exists?

The Y kindly agreed to a reprieve.  There will be a talk, but if there aren't enough people, it will not be in the Art Gallery which needs an expensive union crew; it will be in a classroom.  I spent the rest of the day emailing family and anyone else who might be interested.  Marketing is not my strong point, however, and I'm in Canada, far away from the action.

In the end, I realised that it doesn't matter what happens now.  What matters is that the book exists, and I'm proud of it.  I had to write it, though writing it made absolutely no sense financially.  It was a story I had no choice but to tell, and I'm glad that I told it.  Now, yes, I would like people to read my work, to find the story as compelling and heartbreaking as I do. But whether they do or not, I've done my job.

In this harsh business, which offers ample rewards to so few, that has to be why we work. We do it because we have to, because we love it, because we are writers with stories to tell.  And we keep our day jobs.

I hope to treat those seven brave people, sitting in a classroom at the 92nd Street Y, to one of the best stories they have ever heard.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

"The Band's Visit"

I saw a masterpiece last night: "The Band's Visit," an exquisite, haunting movie.  The characters stayed with me through the night - I kept seeing their faces and revisiting scenes from the film, tiny scenes that in retrospect are much deeper.  On the surface a small Israeli film with a small folksy subject - an Egyptian police band arrive in the wrong Israeli town - it is a profound meditation on the moments that bring human beings together or keep them apart, the mutual needs of men and women, the transcendent power of music.  And, not least, on the fundamental similarities between Arabs and Israelis.  It also manages to be wry and funny.  

On my way home in the dark and cold, I arrived at Parliament Street to hear an almost inhuman howling.  Frances is a controversial figure in the neighbourhood; she is both physically and mentally handicapped, and yet she somehow survives by constant begging.  She has a vocal disability that makes her voice piercing and horribly annoying.  Though Cabbagetown businesses have been agitating to get rid of her, this is her street as much as anyone else's.  

Last night, sitting on the ground outside the closed hardware store, she was screaming  at the world.  She filled the air with a primal sound of anger and pain.  And I, my soul uplifted by the movie, filled with elevated thoughts of our common humanity, scurried by as fast as possible on the other side of the street.  

Safely home in my nice warm house, I thought, what is a great movie, a great piece of art for, if not to open us wide to being better human beings and citizens?  What would it have cost me to cross the street, stop, and give the terrifying Frances $10 for a hot bowl of soup? 

Saturday, March 15, 2008

my melancholy baby at Pages

I forgot to mention, in the account of my little shopping trip on Queen Street yesterday, that I browsed in one of my favourite bookstores, Pages.  I always find something I desperately need there, and did: the latest "Event" magazine with details about their Creative Non-fiction competition, and the latest about writing memoir from Natalie Goldberg.  (Why write when you can read about writing?) And some hilarious postcards, including one I have on my desk now, of a young girl from the Sixties looking at us over a history book.  "I'm not cynical," says the caption.  "I've just been taking notes."

As I was paying, I asked, casually, about my own book.  And they had it!  I was floored.  "Yes, it's here," he said, looking at his computer screen.   "In Performance or Biography." I scoured both sections but couldn't see it; the nice man came over and we scoured together, and then a nice young woman was called in.  She finally found it.  It was on the Returns table, about to be sent back to the publisher.  The one copy they'd brought in had languished for a year.  

The nice young lady kept saying, "I'm so sorry."  She held my book tenderly in her hands, like a baby seal, but was about to club it into oblivion.  I begged the store to hold it for a week, and sent out an email to my students, telling them that if they intended at some time to buy my book, now was the time.  

By the way, the book is also available at Theatrebooks, and more than one copy is on the shelves at the beautiful Nicholas Hoare bookstore on Front Street.  I think they might actually have two.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Little Miss Chatterbox

Omigod, what is that feeling, that sort of ... warm feeling?  There was something unusual in the sky today, yellow and hot.  It felt good.  Like moles blinking in the unfamiliar light, the pasty citizens of  Toronto were drawn outside.  

I went down to Queen Street West, drawn by the yellow thing in the sky to do what every woman has to do at this time: look at spring fashion.  Not to buy anything, I the queen of second-hand.  But I love to look, and what a great day for it, people with their coats open, even wearing shoes though the sidewalks were still pools of slush.  Lots of flimsy little girl-type things in the stores, see-through tops, baby doll dresses, just what a 57-year old woman wants to wear.  I'm still waiting for the waistband of pants to move up from the pubic bone to the actual waist.  

I bought a t-shirt with "Little Miss Chatterbox" on the chest, above a drawing from the children's books that used to be favourites around here.   Remember "Mr. Grumpy," the only book our former premier Mike Harris could come up with when asked his favourite reading? Bet he hasn't read a thing since then, either.

Then I bought a MAC lipstick at the Bay - nothing like a new lipstick to perk up a day.  The man at the MAC counter had tattoos on every visible part of his body, green and red tangles up his arms and around his neck; I saw the word 'hate' but assume it was part of a longer quote renouncing same.  He had six earrings in his right ear and one through his septum, his hair was glowing pink, and he was working at a women's makeup counter at the Bay.  Times have changed.  

Happy spring, Toronto.  It will be mild for a few days, then they say more snow.  But we have felt the heat of the yellow thing; there is hope.  They can't take that away from us.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Stuff Happens"

I took my adult children to see an interesting play last night - "Stuff Happens," by David Hare.  It's a dramatic re-creation of the lead-up to the Iraq war, a mixture of transcripts from actual speeches and articles, and a vivid imagining what was going on behind closed doors in the Oval Office and at 10, Downing Street.  I am amazed that even the theatre is heading into Creative Non-fiction.  The best play I saw last year was "Frost/Nixon" in New York - again, a re-creation of David Frost's actual series of interviews with Richard Nixon.  How do you make drama out of actual meetings and interviews?  If you're a brilliant English playwright, you make it look easy. 

Just as is happening in literature, we want true stories in the theatre now.  There's an urgent need to understand.  We want answers.  

Playing George Bush and Tony Blair were Barry Flatman and Andrew Gillies, old friends from my acting days.  I met Barry in 1972 when I moved into a communal house with Larry, Barry and Fred, an insane improvisational comedy troupe. Barry's portrayal of Bush is superb, though my daughter was critical.  "Barry's too intelligent to play Bush," she said, but that's what's so interesting: his Bush is not a buffoon but something more frightening, a shallow but savvy bully.  And Andrew as Blair is spectacular, showing an idealistic and clever man destroyed by his own loyalty, honesty, decency.  

There are many other fine actors in the play, including another old friend, Guy Bannerman as Hans Blix.  Also Yanna McIntosh as the sphinx-like Condoleeza and Nigel Shawn Williams as the most tragic figure of all, Colin Powell, who crumples and gives up his soul.  

"Stuff Happens" is a Greek tragedy that we watched unfold on the front pages of our newspapers and on TV.  Only a few years after the events occurred, they're already great art.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


The most amazing things happen, thanks to the wonders of Google.  Last month, I decided that the time had come to get out the letters of my old British penpal Barbara, and write about her.  I corresponded with Barbara, who had a hole in her heart and was ten inches shorter than I, from 1962 when we were twelve, to 1966.  My friend, so bright and lively, was accepted by the Mayo Clinic for an operation and died there in 1966, at the age of sixteen.   I have carried her letters with me ever since, and when I got them out forty-two years after her death, I suddenly wanted to find her family.  

Using details in her letters, I figured out that her oldest brother had been trained as a designer and artist, and Googled English artists until I found some clues.  I even found a picture, a long face that had a hint of my friend.  So I wrote to him, and three weeks later, I heard back from Barbara's younger sister Penny.  Penny and I are now corresponding; it feels as if we've known each other most of our lives, and in a sense, we have.  I am sending her transcriptions of her sister's letters, and she just scanned a letter I wrote in 1966, enthusiastically giving Babs all the information I could glean from my scientist dad about the Mayo Clinic.  Barbara's mother died the week I contacted the family, at the age of 95.  She had kept some of my letters, all these years. 

So now my story about Barbara will tell not only about the way we were, but about the on-going story, a brand new friendship in letters, thanks to Google.

And another story from the same time: the year my family lived in Paris, 1964-65,  I went for one term to a school called the Lycee de Sevres, which was considered avant garde because girls were in class with boys.  (This was before the revolution of mai '68 changed the archaic French school system.)  I didn't like the kids much but there were two Israeli boys, Zev and Oded, whom I did like.  I've retained their unusual names all this time, though of course have not kept in touch; I didn't even know their last names.  

Yesterday I read about a documentary that will be on television tonight, about a young Israeli boy named Oded, living in Paris in 1965, who discovered that his father was a spy for the Israeli government and lived a double life.  I Googled to check the dates, and I have no doubt that it's my Oded.  I wish now that I'd talked more to him.  I wish now that I'd written much more to Barbara. 

Google gives us not only what we need to know now, but allows us to delve far, sometimes painfully far, into the past.  I think it's one of the greatest gifts of our time.   

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

big bucks in literature

I joke with my starry-eyed students about the lack of remuneration in the writing world.  I draw a symbol, a dollar sign with a red circle around it and a red line through it, that they should keep in mind if they're considering quitting their day jobs to write.  

And yet I have spent time today filling out contracts to receive cheques - one from the wonderful "More" magazine which has just bought another essay of mine at $1.00 a word, and, even more exciting, a tax contract from my publisher so I can receive a royalty payment for the book.  Yes, a royalty payment.  I, who was expecting nothing, am to receive $497.28.  (I almost wrote "American!" but unfortunately that doesn't mean much any more.)  

I know that if you consider that the book took 25 years from start to finish, that's a little under $20 a year for my labours. But the fact is I was doing lots of other things during those 25 years, including having babies, getting a Master's degree and buying a lot of vintage junk and all of my clothing at Goodwill.  So this money is just gravy, really.

Seriously, I could never have devoted that kind of time, not to mention paying for the flights to New York, Russian translation, xeroxes, reference books and so on, if I hadn't been receiving child support.  I had no grant for the book, but I did have an ex-husband who kept the household solvent enough that I could work part-time and do research, write, and raise two children the rest of the time.  

Very few make literature pay - and I'm not talking about the superstars like J.K. Rowling, just the ordinary novelists or memoirists who hit the right chord at the right time and sell some books.  But the millions of others almost always need someone in the background,  a loving spouse, a loving parent, a loving ex, or a loving government granting agency, to keep them at work.  Not to mention finding a real job, like driving cab, or getting paid to teach people that there may not be much money in writing, but there can be an enormous amount of satisfaction.   

Sunday, March 9, 2008

pix and pixels

This is exciting - I have finally figured out how to share pictures as well as words.  (My friend Chris, after trying to teach me something on the computer, said that I have a serious genetic deficit with technology.  How right he is.  But I try.)  Here's another snowy picture taken this morning, of the table on my deck with its cheery Provencal tablecloth on which we dine in summertime.  In the last post, that picture is misplaced - my friend did finally appear and is standing by the result of his labours in the back yard, where I need a long path to get to the bird feeder.  He's a remarkable man who washes windows in summer, riding around the neighbourhood on a bicycle with a long ladder and bucket over his shoulder.  He has long hair and very few teeth.

It was a glorious sunny Sunday as the city dug itself out.  I walked to Riverdale Farm, chatting along the way with neighbours out shovelling.  No one complained; we had survived, the snow was beautiful, the sun was out.  I visited the cows, goats, sheep and pigs at the Farm - many of them pregnant, heralding spring - and then asked at the little shop if they had any fresh eggs for sale.  They did, and, said Kevin who works there, "we also have organic bread freshly baked in the brick oven."  I realised I'd forgotten to bring money.  "Pay me next time," he said, and I went on my way with the freshest bread and eggs in Toronto.  I ate poached eggs on toast listening to J. S. Bach, the sun hot on my face from the blinding snow outside my window.   

Saturday, March 8, 2008

dancing in the eye of the storm

It's still snowing. The more or less homeless man who usually shovels for me has found a cosy nest, I hope, because he hasn't appeared today; I have shovelled twice and it looks as if I haven't touched it.

Even so, I had a wonderful evening - my neighbour Monique and I got take-out Thai food from a great new place nearby, delicate tastes and smells of a place very far from snow.

And then we went to see Peggy Baker dance. She exercises at the Y and has an extraordiinarily limber body, especially for a 56-year old, with very long arms and huge feet and hands; I couldn't wait to see her on stage. Luckily the show was was not far away, and Monique bravely took her car. The streets are nearly impassable, people driving blind through the blizzard, car windows encrusted with ice, dark forms looming as people clamber over snow banks to walk on the streets rather than the sidewalks. We felt like lunatics on this excursion - surely the event would be cancelled.

But there were almost 100 other lunatics there when we arrived. Ah, Canadians - they're not going to let a little thing like an apocalypse of snow stop them from an evening of modern dance. Peggy Baker is a sinuous, expressive marvel; she did one long dance in silence, the only noise her breathing and the slapping and stamping of her feet and hands. The music for the other pieces - Brahms and Shostakovich played by three of Canada's best musicians. A superb evening, valued all the more because of the effort it took to get there.

And then we all piled on our fifteen layers of clothing and stomped out into the pelting storm again. I waded up the front walk to my front door, thankful for high snow boots, for roof and furnace, for the vase of bright red and yellow tulips I bought today, to keep my sanity. And for the taxpayers of this country who help artists like Peggy Baker survive, so that she can give us an event to remember on a night to forget.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I love my job

In teaching how to write memoir, autobiography, personal narrative, family story, personal essay - all more or less the same thing, based on the same skills - one of my jobs is to get people to spill their secrets. That is, to delve into their deepest truths, if they can, and shape them into narrative. And what I have learned, what I see in every class, fills me with profound respect. I am privileged, in my work, to see, over and over, the courage and grace of the human spirit.

Not everyone who comes to a writing class like mine - as opposed to, say, travel writing or science fiction - has had a terrible childhood or has a terrible secret, but some do - ranging from surviving the Holocaust to surviving various kinds of abuse, to battling cancer, abandonment, mental illness. Sometimes they don't even know why they're there - that they have come because a vital story needs to be told. On the first day of class, I see a group of ordinary-looking people - nervous, wondering if they have made a great mistake, a waste of money and time, they'll be embarrassed, bored, humiliated, they'll find out they're without talent. Who wants to hear MY story? What the HELL am I doing here?

By the end of our term together, those who have made it through - because not everyone does - know each other deeply. Some have experienced that moment I call "jumping off a cliff," when they tell the truth, often for the first time. And to their amazement, they land safely. Nothing happens. We listen, we talk about the writing, and, yes, sometimes the circumstances. And then we move on to the next piece.

There are others who simply cannot go deep, cannot get to the truest stories, but they have learned to recognise and acknowledge what they hear when their classmates do. That's as far as they can go, and it's enough. It's a start.

I love stories. Just last night and Monday afternoon at U of T, Monday night at Ryerson, last week in my living room, I heard a series of fine, powerful, true stories. And I, O lucky woman, am paid to listen.

Not only that, but there's another #$%^& blizzard swirling outside, the streets are solid ice, and I get to stay home and write a love letter to my students.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

writing and life and getting involved

I have been thinking a lot, as usual, about writing and life, and writing versus life. Mary Pratt, a famous Newfoundland painter, apparently said that her winter years will be devoted to her painting, though that means she won't have much time for her grandchildren. Whenever I read about that kind of single-minded focus, I understand why I am 57 with only one book to my name. I could never choose writing over my children - or grandchildren, who, incidentally, do not exist yet. Living breathing persons always come first, to my detriment as a writer. To be a successful artist, you have to be able to shut the door and say, "No." It's clear in the wonderful book of letters between Carol Shields and her friend Blanche Howard. Blanche, as well as writing, is involved with local politics and various other activities. Carol Shields is writing.

Today I saw another kind of involvement. I was at the Y, changing near my friend Judy Steed, a well-known journalist and author. Over the top of the lockers came a mother's harsh voice. "You aren't listening, as usual. Why aren't you ready? You are never ready, NEVER. You're doing it again! Do you hear me? Why aren't you listening to me?" My gut ached - what a negative voice, I thought. I wonder if I sounded like that as a mother. I'm sure I did, sometimes. And then Judy turned to me and said exactly that. "What a cold judgemental voice." "So demeaning," I said.

But when the voice continued its relentless soul-destroying harangue, while I just winced, Judy acted. She went over, saw a very big woman with a very small girl, and said, quietly, "Do you know how judgmental you sound? How demeaning and critical? I'm sorry, I had to tell you." The woman blustered that Judy had no idea "what's been going on today!" A few minutes later, she came looking for Judy, and told her again that she had no idea etc. But from then on, she spoke to the child in a soft voice.

Judy Steed, writer and activist, is my hero today.