Friday, January 30, 2009

a really big shew

It's 9 p.m. Friday night, and I'm just back from Nathan Phillips Square, where I saw an amazing spectacle - a show done by a Dutch street theatre troupe called Close-Act. The entire square was transformed into an underwater arena; the performers, in their magical conveyances high above the crowd - the mermaids floating and swimming in giant rings, the fisherman rowing his boat, the bikers on stilts riding their monster machines, and then the really big mermaid and the giant boats and huge fish - all of these were pushed back and forth through the crowd, illuminated with flares. 

We were a freezing crowd of brave Canadians, stamping our feet and marvelling at the show, never knowing when another character would materialise nearby and we'd have to shuffle quickly out of the way. The music was beautiful, the machines - made from industrial pipes, it looked like - and costumes and the little shred of a story - all imaginative and gripping, even  in the pitch black and desperate cold of a mid-winter night. 

I felt very sorry for those nice performers, wearing skin-tight outfits and flimsy little gloves, outside for an hour in the bitter, bitter wind. Welcome to Canada!  For those of you in Toronto, the show runs tomorrow, Saturday Jan. 31, and next Friday and Saturday night, at 7. Dress warmly, especially your feet; I had so many layers on top that the rest of me was fine, but my feet were icy. I just pranced and hopped to the music to keep the blood flowing.  And a tip - my friend and I made our way afterwards to Dundas and Bay, where on the north-west corner there's an Italian wine bar - with a fireplace.  We took off seven layers of clothing and boots and sat there with steaming feet to the fire. Heaven. 

I hope there was somewhere warm for those performers to go immediately, especially the big mermaid. There's a terrible price to be paid for wearing a diaphanous gown and sexy fins outside, in Toronto, in January.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

one (wo)man band

I told Wayson that I had written here about the fear and pain every writer, except him, confronts. 

He replied, "I trust your fans/readers/students will understand that you are being ironic if not distruthful about my insecurities and ten thousand doubts:  oh, let me count the ways.  

"Tell them that I always say to my writing students, 'When facing a blank screen or blank page,  believe me, every writer is equal.  Every writer must confront their share of fears, doubts, and hopes.'   Of course, it's true that when I confront YOUR fears and doubts, AND ESPECIALLY YOUR HOPES, I'm absolutely courageous and bold and daring.  Onwards!"

This is what he wrote to me once in an email: "Keep writing.  Do what you love. Risk more, tell more, explore more, and let your fingertips tap away. You are worth reading. The ideal reader is waiting for you."

How lucky is the writer who has a one-man band, a Theo van Gogh of love and support behind her. Every time I stop in confusion, Wayson's cymbals, drums and trumpets sound in my ear. And I hope that when my students find themselves frightened and stuck, they can hear my cymbals banging joyously behind them. 

Onwards! the man says. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The New York Times on self-publishing, and a website on routine

Just after finishing that last blog on Updike, I went back to reading the Times and found a long article on the rise in self-publishing. Fascinating, not only the article itself, but the raft of comments afterwards. Recommended. Today's Times.

I'd also like to mention a website - It lists the routines of artists - painters, writers, composers - and is fun and informative. I used to think that doing the same thing at the same time every day would be the end of creativity; now I believe the opposite, that an automatic routine frees you to get on with your work. Freelance writers, writers in general, need the rigidity of routine because otherwise - who cares? Who is waiting for what we produce? No one. We can convince ourselves that what we do matters if we regularly do it a certain way, at a certain time, just like normal people who have to produce in order to earn a paycheque.

I confess, incidentally, that I'm still working out my own routine. It's - Go to the office after a bowl of porridge and first cup of coffee and get to work. But "work" can be interpreted a number of ways, and often email, editing, arranging the day and the week take precedence over new creative work. Which they shouldn't.  But they do, because new work is SO MUCH HARDER. As a student said this week, "I like having written. Writing is difficult."

"Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out." Robert Collier

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." Aristotle.

What is your daily routine?  

John Updike on books

“From earliest childhood I was charmed by the materials of my craft, by pencils and paper and, later, by the typewriter and the entire apparatus of printing. To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me, after nearly 30 years concerned with the making of books, a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.”
John Updike

I haven't read a single of Updike's famous Rabbit novels, and yet when I heard of his death yesterday, I felt I had lost a friend. He wrote tirelessly for the New Yorker - short stories, essays, long, erudite yet quirky and personal reviews of other writers.  While his pieces filled that magazine and others, he was still writing novels - one a year, more or less. The New York Times article speaks of his "ebullient creativity" - a love of words and of writing, those "dark marks on paper," that carried him through life and carried us with him.

I had noticed that his work was darker, more concerned with mortality, but put it down to the natural thoughtfulness of an ageing writer. He didn't tell us that he was suffering from lung cancer and kept writing until he died.

An interview with John Updike will be replayed on Eleanor Wachtel's "Writers and Company" this coming Sunday afternoon at 3, on CBC-1.  Don't miss it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Out of my way - I'm sorting! Periodically I get these fits and attempt to tackle the Mount Everests of paper and books that keep me company around the house. This time my hands are grey and covered with dust. I am sorting my great-grandfather Jacob Gordin's books, because I'm going to give them away. 

I inherited fifty or so from his youngest daughter, my great-aunt Helen, who told me that her father had thousands of books in his library when he died - and I believe her. Those of you who've read my biography of his life and times know that he was an immensely well-read, serious-minded, literature-loving guy. At least, non-fiction literature, as well as poetry and drama - not a speck of fiction. 

The hard-cover tomes that have stood on my bookshelves for more than two decades are weighty and daunting: biographies of Dante, Honore de Balzac, Thomas Jefferson, George Eliot, Victor Hugo. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edgar Allen Poe, Percy B. Shelley, Lermontov (in Russian), Browning, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  The Anatomy of Melancholy, in two volumes. Socialism and Modern Science, with, written on the inside front cover, "J. Gordin - with compliments from the publishers. May 1, 1901." Seven lectures by William Morris. A book on "Insectivorous Plants" and one on domestic animals by Charles Darwin, 1898. The History of the Commune of 1871 by Eleanor Marx Aveling, Karl's daughter. 

There's one I'd never noticed before - a tiny leather copy of As You Like it with, written inside, the name "Lillie Benedict." So this book belonged to the daughter of Gordin's best friend the beloved labour poet Morris Winchevsky, known to the Gordin family by his pseudonym Leopold Benedict. If Lillie's grandchildren or great-grandchildren are out there somewhere and would like her book back, just ask.

And I found Education and the Good Life by Bertrand Russell.  I thought there must be some mistake -  I have a letter Bertrand Russell wrote to my father in 1960 about their mutual work in the Ban the Bomb movement. Jacob Gordin died almost 50 years before, in 1909 - how could he have read Russell? But a quick Wikipedia scan showed that Bertrand Russell was born in 1872 and died in 1970. He wrote to my father the lefty peacenik scientist, but he could have known, and I think would have liked, my great-grandfather the socialist playwright too. 

All these books and many more, every one stamped at the front "From Jacob Gordin's Library." But I need shelf space for newer books - books I might actually read, or have read and can't let go. And these old books should be kept in a climate-controlled room and treated with proper care. So I wrote to my friend Aaron Lansky, who founded and runs the extraordinary National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, and he said that though the books aren't in Yiddish, they'd be happy to receive them and put them on display. 

The Center gave me the name of their local zamler - the man who'll pick up donated books in Toronto and send them to Amherst.  We arranged for him to come tomorrow, but I just called to postpone - that's too soon. I'm not ready. I want to see what William Morris had to say, check out Eleanor Marx's prose style and Russell's, read about George Eliot's life. Mostly, I want to sit with these volumes, hold them once more, and say goodbye. 

It's embarrassing, but I'm tearing up as I write. I devoted countless hours to unearthing the life of this ancestor. These dusty disintegrating books, which he chose and read and cherished, are a bond through the generations, the only part of him that I will ever touch - these, and his gold-leaf nib pen and one of his canes. The time will come when I'll give those away, too.

Recently in New York, I saw two of the Gutenberg bibles, printed in 1455. 1455! I urge my impatient students to think about self-publishing - to find a way to get their work into book form, because books last for a very long time.  A book is just the most beautiful, perfect package - easy to hold, use, and carry, the right size and shape, the right heft. 

And imagine, what's packed inside are words and ideas. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

still blissful

It was not a dream. There actually is a President Obama, and he is closing Guantanamo and doing other wonderful things. I am feeling almost religious about this; if I were a believer, I would thank someone, Someone, for sending this man to try to pull us out of the deepest, darkest hole. 

I know, we're not out of it yet by a long shot. I know, people are bitching already from the right and from the left - Jon Stewart showed a clip of Fox News already screeching, chest-thumping and moaning, and said, "It's the FIRST DAY, people!" And then Paul Krugman, Mr. Nobel Prize, wrote about being disappointed that the speech was not specific enough ... 

I'm determined just to bask. A smart man is there, surrounded by smart people. Things will get better. 

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Dick Cavett wrote about being so moved by the Inauguration that he cried. A reader replied that what she found most meaningful was the obviously deep love "of the man for the woman, and the woman for the man." It has been a long time, she said, since we've had that kind of profound bond in the White House, if ever. I agree. Even the fact that husband and wife are such a formidable team, with what looks like an ideal balance between them, is inspiring. 

Yet, in all this Obamamania, some work is being done. The Ryerson class is well underway, my home class started Thursday, and at U of T, Autobiography II starts next Monday. I've been going through the many books I have on writing and memoir, and from now on, I will regularly share excerpts from these books with you. For example, Francine Prose's excellent Reading Like a Writer, a beautifully-written book about reading and writing, contains the following passage about how hard it is to write. I've heard all of the fears before, from students who fall silent, who vanish. Perhaps just knowing that most other writers (except for Wayson Choy) feel the same kind of insecurity and doubt will help.

When we think about how many terrifying things people are called on to do every day as they fight fires, defend their rights, perform brain surgery, give birth, drive on the freeway, and wash skyscraper windows, it seems frivolous, self-indulgent, and self-important to talk about writing as an act that requires courage. What could be safer than sitting at your desk, lightly tapping a few keys, pushing your chair back, and pausing to see what marvellous tidbit of art your brain has brought forth to amuse you?

And yet most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself that you would just as soon not know – those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hail to the chief, President Barack Hussein Obama

Dear planet, at last! I can't believe that from now on when we are talking about the United States and we say "the president," we are referring to the superb, the sublime Barack Obama.  

It's 9 p.m. and I am finally tearing myself away from the television. What a great day. I started cooking sausages, bacon, eggs and quiche, laying out muffins, croissants, bagels, lox and cream cheese and sticking Prosecco in snowbanks at nine. Wayson and his dear friend Angela arrived at ten - Angela is an American potter, especially grateful for the day - and others a bit later. We sat in front of the T.V. and ate and drank champagne for hours. 

We loved the lively little girls, loved Michelle's sparkly dress and coat (though I thought her false eyelashes were driving her crazy and were a mistake for such a gorgeous woman); we loved Aretha and the poet - what pressure, for someone who usually sits alone in a room! - and the crowds. The overwhelming joy of the day. 

But mostly, we loved Barack's speech and his smile, his dignified aura, awareness and presence. The fact that he closed his eyes and listened to the music, to the prayers and the poem. That in his speech after lunch, he specifically thanked the waitstaff, aware, he said, of how difficult it must be to serve a room full of politicians. My daughter who has been waitstaff, and my son who still is, appreciated this thoughtfulness. The fact that when Ted Kennedy went down, Obama immediately went to see what was wrong. That in his speech he managed to slam Bush and his cronies directly and yet subtly, and make sure it was clear that everything will be different from now on. 

And that Bush and Laura and John McCain were treated with such dignity and care. My group here were not so nice; the moment Bush's helicopter lifted off was the moment of our greatest celebration. The words "son of a bitch" and "never see your face again" were heard, yes they were. We are not great-spirited people. And what we said about poor old Cheney the crook in his wheelchair will go unmentioned. And the Republican interviewed after lunch, the one who blocked Hillary Clinton's nomination today just because he could. A guy from the old days.

We mostly watched CNN, but when we switched to CBC Newsworld or CTV, the coverage suddenly changed - we were watching people from around the world give their commentary on the day. Whereas CNN, all day long as far as I could see, had only Americans yammering on. 

It's hard to believe today really happened not only because Barack is half-black, but because he's intelligent and open, literate and generous, good-hearted, youthful, fine. How is it possible that we have gone from eight years of depraved darkness to this brand new hope and air and light, practically overnight? From the worst of human nature to the best?

Well, we have. Tomorrow the dreadful load crashes onto the man's shoulders.  I who do not pray ... well, I've said that before. Keep him safe and strong, O lord. Let him not lose that optimistic spirit on the long road ahead. 

And may the calm clarity of his peacemaking nature spread to leaders everywhere.  To his neighbour politicians to the north, even.

Bravo to you, Barack, and thank you. We are grateful beyond measure that you are willing to take this, take us on. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

of cold cats and hot dudes

Please forget that second Ryerson class ... it's not going to work out. But for anyone who has taken a class with me before at any point, please consider the upcoming advanced level "Autobiography II" at U of T - Mondays from 1 to 3.30 starting in 2 weeks, with a very fine group registered so far.

We are really in the deep freeze now - minus 27 predicted for tonight. These are the days when I listen anxiously to the furnace, hoping it's happy.  My old furnace used to conk out on especially cold, windy days; suddenly the house would be freezing and I'd have to go down to the basement, lie on my stomach with matches and try to light the pilot without blowing us all up. I'm grateful that the new high efficiency heat machine just seem to chug happily along. TOUCH WOOD.

The very crabby cat I live with - my daughter, who's her real owner, says she's "nasty-ass" - has mellowed slightly into a new ritual. When I come downstairs at 11 to watch Jon Stewart, she appears suddenly and climbs onto my lap. This is unheard of - she was adopted at 9 months in New York, having had what we can only assume was a terrible childhood on the streets of Harlem, and she's been getting her revenge ever since, clawing the hand that feeds her and vomiting hairballs onto rugs and armchairs.  Something as genteely cat-like as sitting on a lap was unheard of, but now, there she is. If she could purr she'd be purring, but that's too much to ask. Though I have to be careful not to stroke her for too long or she'll hiss and slash, still, it's lovely on these cold nights to watch my favourite fake newsman with a warm lump keeping me company.

Do you think this next while will be tough for Jon Stewart? It's almost impossible to laugh at Obama, and even the silliest Republicans are in disarray.  So far the show is still making fun of the despicable, hapless Bush, who is making a spectacle of himself even as he leaves office. In fact, I think he's speaking to the nation right now - I'll find out all about it on the Daily Show. But I don't have the appetite for cynical political comedy that I recently did, and I bet many others feel the same. Maybe Jon will have to take a hiatus until another bunch of idiots comes along. 

Or maybe he could come to Canada and make fun of Stephen Harper. Though I'm pretty sure that Harper and his gang will have to improve too, now that the tone of the world's politics has been raised to relatively astronomical heights by Obama and HIS gang. Bush and his boys brought the process just about as low as it could go. What a miracle that things can change so completely, so suddenly.

Yes, I know, I should TOUCH WOOD again. Obama has inherited the worst mess imaginable, and maybe he just won't be able to overcome.  We're having a brunch party here next Tuesday Jan. 20th, blessed day, to watch the inauguration and drink champagne to the new president's continued success. If I believed in prayer, I would pray for him. Maybe I will anyway. Can't hurt.

I saw a picture of Senator Obama on election night with his mother-in-law, watching the returns and holding her hand.  And I thought, once again, where did this man come from? Where can we get more?


Monday, January 12, 2009

Good news for students

I have just come from my first Ryerson class of the term - and a wonderful group it is too. But it's a very big group, and I have asked the powers that be if we can subdivide this class into two groups, one meeting Mondays and one Tuesdays. Then there will be two evening "True to Life" classes, and any of you who have not been able to register can now do so - there is room in both. Please contact either me or Ryerson (in a few days) for further information.

Yesterday I said goodbye to palm trees, lacy purple scallop shells nestled in the sand and herons fishing in the mist. Back to Toronto in January - slush and snow, freezing air, Canadians bundled up in black and rushing back to shelter. We are hardy folk. If this wonderful country had a better climate, it would be inundated - overflowing with population. Only those strong enough to get through this gruelling climate can stick it here. Because it is hard, it's hard, the cold, the lack of light and sun, the endless snowstorms, the danger and difficulty of walking on ice, the difficulty of everything. We're tough and we should be proud of it. Today I missed the birds and the warmth on my skin and much else - Tangelos, anyone? - but I am very glad to be home in this inhospitable and marvellous place. 

Friday, January 9, 2009

information for students

News from Ryerson: my class "True to Life" that starts Monday is now full - no one else will be accepted, unfortunately, or there will be too many to deal with effectively. 

To those of you who were planning to enroll: I am teaching the same kind of course, memoir, personal essay and creative non-fiction, at U of T starting the third week of January, on Monday afternoons from 1 to 3.3o. This is a second level course, ostensibly reserved for those who have taken my class before, but I would be willing to speak with those of you who are interested to see if I think you'd fit even if you haven't worked with me. I have often taught combined classes of beginners and second level writers.

Please check this website under "Teaching" for the U of T website address and other info on my classes. 

Otherwise, I am available to work one on one, figuring out where you are now as a writer, where you would like to go, and how to get there.

Please get in touch.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

report from Florida

I do not want you to hate me. Yes, I am in Florida, and yes, I am sitting outside in shorts and t-shirt at an internet cafe; the sun is shining and I can hear the water of the Gulf of Mexico swooshing in a few hundred yards from here. It's 10.30 a.m., and I've already had a strenuous day, starting with my usual ten-minute jogette on the beach opposite my mother's condo, stopping periodically to look at sea birds and pick up shells.  Then I rinsed myself off in the pool, which overlooks a bay on which sailboats sail and pelicans glide and which is overhung by palm trees. 

But it is supposed to RAIN later today, and even if it doesn't, it is uncustomarily WINDY. Everyone is complaining about the wind. The pool at the condo will be empty all day, because of the wind. I have just checked the weather at home - the day after I get back, it will be minus ten celsius, feeling like minus 17, with snow. These Florida folk are insane; they do not know from wind.

I'm here to get Mum's condo ready for her and her sister Do, who arrive on Thursday; I'll get them groceries and necessities and make sure they're settled before I leave. But I did manage to schedule three days of complete solitude for myself here before they come in. This is the third day. I've had an occasional conversation with a neighbour, a few phone chats with the folks back home and that's it - otherwise, reading, walking, staring at the bay. I go to the beach opposite every night at 5.15 to watch the sunset, which happens amazingly fast, the red-gold ball just dropping into the gulf. I have watched a stunning documentary on India and another, last night, on the printing font Helvetica, imagining my children observing this - their mother, as usual, absorbing the most obscure things, this time the history of a font. It was fascinating. 

Best of all, I have discovered a cache of Uncle Edgar's compilation tapes. Mum took all her C.D.'s back with her last time she was here, and I didn't bring any. In the city, I'm often too busy to listen to music; here was my chance, and I thought there was none until I discovered the tapes. Uncle Edgar travelled often to bridge tournaments and needed to take his extensive collection of baroque music with him, so he made himself scores of tapes. These ones are stuffed with Bach, of course, his favourite, but also Mozart, Schubert, Vivaldi. Each evening I sit in the darkness listening to another, feeling blessed not only by the brilliance of the music but for the many gifts of my Uncle Edgar.  His legacy made possible this condo that my mother was able to buy. She and Do for years used to spent January to the end of March here; now they can only come for a few weeks, but it's worth it; walking on the beach, sitting in the shade have kept them alive.

And me too.