Category Archives: Narrative Non-Fiction

Fill Your Lungs With Language

 

Colum McCann’s Letter to a Young Writer

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Colum McCann, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House), shares some advice.

Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.

Serve the Work

 

Victor EspinozaAt a recent luncheon with fellow writers, the conversation turned to the nature of artistic temperament. We have all read articles about the connection between Genius and mental illness. We have also read and heard accounts of profoundly nasty moves made by some who are regarded as innovative, brilliant, immortal and gifted. What is the connection?

The nature of mania can be what is often called a brainstorm. With all circuits firing at breakneck speed, some have harnessed this heightened awareness and let their paint brush or their typewriters or quill pens, take record some of these rapid fire thoughts.

Any state or mood of increased consciousness would never yield great work in and of itself. The initial flow may be prolific and intense, but it could also be a great mess, yielding nothing of use to anyone. The ride on the back of a bucking bronco may be thrilling, but it is altogether too short. So a second talent is needed; one that allows for the discipline of picking oneself up once the inevitable crash seems to follow. Through those days, slow, painstaking effort and focus is needed to add layers and subtract all that is superfluous to produce a beautifully crafted work of art.

What is the artistic temperament? Lord Byron wrote: “We of the craft are all crazy…. all are more or less touched.” Is it a medical condition, a fine madness, or is it something brought on by the nature of the creative process? While most would feel the former is the most likely, I am tending more towards the latter. The forces of the world around us, seem to conspire in every shape and form to pull us away from the solitary work and into what Virginia Woolf described as the “tramp and trudge of life.”
Who lives on a street where the neighbors would discourage attendance at a potluck party in favor solitary confinement in a studio? Is the excessive sensitivity and irritability, as one definition stated, a by-product of what is required to keep the galloping herd at bay? This is what I wonder.

The romantic myth of the suffering artist and its link to creativity as a kind of requirement for genius is to some extent, a bit overblown. Plenty of successful working artists and writers live a steady and rather quiet life, where family duties are wedded to productivity and acclaim. It is not necessary to have a train wreck of personal relationships, followed by an early death in a sad hotel room, to be declared a genius. It is often the perception.

Part of the conflict and tension one reads about and is attributed to the artistic temperament, could also be tied to the anxiety inherent in wanting recognition, acclaim and financial security. If it constantly eludes a person who is truly original, sticks their neck out in dramatic fashion, takes huge risks and displays a lack of restraint to do so, and goes completely unrecognized in their lifetime, would not that fear and uncertainty contribute to a less compliant nature? Possibly.

I saw true artistry this weekend. A horse and a figure skater put me right over the moon. American Pharoah winning his last race in the The Breeder’s Cup, and Patrick Chan’s flawless performance in SCI showed us what devotion, hard work, and focus can accomplish.

Enduring Love

 

Canoe Country

Just in time to take the boats out of the water, Roy MacGregor’s Canoe Country: The Making of Canada, arrived on my doorstep. The glorious fall we have enjoyed on Windy Bay is more lovely than ever. Rain, sweet, heavenly rain, has made our parched woods practically sing with joy. Sitting on our deck with the last rays of summer keeping me warm, I was deliriously happy reading one of my favorite authors. Since there is so much to do this time of year in the garden, I had to ration my reading time, but the book got the better of me, and I took to picking it up at every break. Thanks to Roy MacGregor, my Christmas shopping is going to be a snap. Every canoe lover on my list will unwrap this treasure. Books written about canoes are few and far between, but we tend to see the same ones in homes of our friends.

The book, infused with passion, also carries a wealth of historical information.
From the back cover:

“The canoe made Canada. No canoe, no exploration of this second-largest country on earth. No canoe, no fur trade to open up the colony-then-country to commerce and settlement. No dugout, no birchbark canoe, no kayak, no umiak, then perhaps no survival for the for the various Aboriginal peoples who first inhabited this largely inhospitable and often frozen territory.”

Since I was lucky enough to spend my summers canoeing, and traveling on long canoe trips, I can attest to how utterly bonded the traveler becomes with his craft. When you think of the simplicity of the vessel, the adaptability of the voyageur, the mastery of the skills required to endure the journey, it is a wonder. The canoe is much more than a means to an end; it is a thing of inestimable beauty.

 

MacGregor writes of the transition from birchbark to cedar strip with chilling accuracy. It was gratifying to me to read that his research was thorough, and all credit due was given to David Thompson. As in all inventions, necessity brought us this development. As Thompson traveled west, he found birchbark to be scarce. Hence the cedar strip which while disputed seems to have been created out here in the northwest.

From Page 194:

“Thompson’s assignment from his superiors at the North West Trading Company, fourteen years later, was to cross the Continental Divide and establish trade with native tribes west of the Rockies. He and his party passed the winter of 1807 to 1808 at “Kootenae House,” the trading post they had built by a creek that ran into the Columbia.”

From Thompson’s journals, edited by Sean T. Peake and featured on page 204:

“We had to turn out thoughts to some other material, and Cedar wood being the lightest and most pliable for a canoe, we split out thin boards of Cedar wood of about six inches in breadth and builded a Canoe of twenty-five feet in length by fifty inches in breadth, of the same form of a common Canoe, which proved to be equally light and much stronger than Birch Rind.”

Beyond the practical and natural, there is also something mystical about a journey by canoe. I am not making preposterous claims alone here; I have heard this voiced so many times and have read enough accounts to consider it a common experience. It begins as a child when you set off in high spirits and boundless enthusiasm only to hit a wall in about say, twenty minutes, where you suddenly feel that old, are we there yet, impatience. There is a bit of a breakdown that occurs. You can’t get out, you can’t get comfortable, your knees hurt, you are hungry, and you are thirsty, and we have to do this for the next eight hours? One has to learn patience, and one has to learn to be calm, and one has to pass the time in silly conversations or find a song where everyone knows the words, or surely you think you will run mad. After time, the canoe becomes quiet. Words are not needed now, and only the next bend, the next portage or thoughts of a warm fire and a good meal are all that seem to be on your mind. What happened to all the cares, the concerns, the endless thought patterns? They start to slip away, and the contemplation of whirlpools around the dip of your paddle take center stage.

From Page 93 where the journals of Susanna Moodie are quoted:

“She claims to have felt  a magic spell upon our spirits. Every object was new to us. We felt as if we were the first discoverers of every beautiful flower and stately tree that attracted our attention, and we gave names to fantastic rocks and fairy isles.”

What used to transport me into the stratosphere of my highly excitable teen years was the knowledge that I had everything I needed. By the second week of canoeing, I did not want to return to civilization. I reveled in the simplicity of our world, and I could not get enough of exploration. I have been a happy wanderer, and I hope Canadians and Americans who love the outdoors will cherish this book.

Pictured below is the author on a canoe trip in Ontario, Canada.

me by harry

Just Below the Surface

Dead Wake

With Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania under my belt, I am tempted to read all of his other books. I know The Devil in the White City is in this house somewhere. It certainly did not escape my notice, but for one reason or another, I did not get around to reading it. Now I have that comforting feeling one gets when they find an author they enjoy; rather than having to wait for the next book to come out, I can backtrack with more interesting reading ahead.

In Dead Wake I found I could not get enough of the details that Larson seems to heap upon the page. Back in my salad days, while some in my midst could not stand James Michener, I was in the opposite camp and loved all of his books. It begs the question of why am I such an obsessed fan of literature in the first place? Do I read to learn about other people and places? Do I read to be swept away from mundane chores of everyday life? Do I read because I often wake up in the middle of the night? Do I read to broaden my horizons? Do I read to add to the bank of knowledge I have spent my life building? Perhaps I could answer yes to all of the above. I do love to learn about the inner workings of things. I also love to learn about what would possess a U-boat captain to fire on a passenger ship. Dead Wake furnished me with enough details to satisfy my never-ending curiosity. I simply could not get enough of learning what was on board that ship. I liked reading about the pounds and pounds of candy, of the many cases of whiskey and the refrigerated bunches of fresh roses. I also got involved with the characters.

There was much about the sinking of the Lusitania that I did not know. It was almost as if it was one of those incidents about which we choose not to think. Considering the proximity in years to the Titanic and the fascination with that story, I found myself wondering why I had not read more about it to date. How does an author manage to hold the reader’s interest when we know the outcome of the story? We know the ship will sink. We know that the event will bring the United States into The Great War. Yet the reader is captivated as if they were in the predicament themselves. U-boats were a new and terrifying reality creeping across England’s moat and striking terror on the high seas. I did not know that Germany gave advance warning to passenger ships informing them that they were crossing a war zone and could very well end up a casualty. I had no idea that the passengers had been informed of this before they boarded. The Lusitania was stuffed with munitions. That I did not know either.

Bayview

One afternoon up at Bayview, in Idaho, when sitting on a friend’s deck, I spotted a massive submarine cruising along in the depths of Lake Pend O’Reille. What a sight! As the daughter of a naval officer, I heard many stories of the fear one feels while scanning the horizon, constantly on the lookout for the enemy. Previously impenetrable defenses could be breached and almost silently and from the dark and mysterious depths. Yet people had business to conduct, families to visit, and since the only way to cross the pond at that time was by ship, they ignored the risk or did not somehow believe it was possible and climbed aboard the ill-fated Lusitania.

pend oreille sub

Another figure in the story, President Woodrow Wilson, had a part to play as well. It is interesting to note how reluctant the United States was to engage in the war, how badly the Allies needed their support and what it would take to get them to engage. I always thought the sinking of the Lusitania did it, and as with Pearl Harbor, it was almost immediate. Not so. The President was out playing golf every morning and driving around the city in his Pierce Arrow. He was grief stricken and courting a new wife. He seemed very distracted and somewhat removed from the horrors of trench warfare.

Woodrow golf

Dead Wake served to put me in another place in time. I find that there is much to puzzle over. There is more I want to know and to imagine as well. Larson has the gift of depicting an historical event with enough sizzle to make it read as a novel. That is no easy feat. He has been called a master of narrative non-fiction.  I could not agree more.