My review of John Terpstra’s new memoir/essay collection is now up at the Malahat Review. Here’s the introduction:
Do writers make the best readers? Or the most exacting? Reading Terpstra’s book, I wished I could have shut off my left brain to favour my right—to slow my analysis, absorb the work, and not dismantle the design of the book as a whole. But like the title suggests, The House with the Parapet Wall is about architecture and one can’t help notice its structure, how it is crafted of countless parts, parts that are constantly reframed and reprised.
Head on over to The Malahat to read the review in its entirety. I promise you, it’s good, and if you’re a lyric writer, hopefully useful as well!
“When you know what’s been lost: inlet, palace, brick mansion, memory, competence, parent…What strikes you?” Such rhetorical questions drive Terpstra’s inquiry, as he tries to make sense of his mother’s relocation to a nursing home while coming to terms with a move of his own during the shifting landscape of middle age. He answers his question simply: “What strikes me is people’s capacity to move and move on, to be moved.”
I’ve just launched my ‘Cultivated‘ site/brand and feel happily hipper over on Squarespace. The site features my literary gardening columns, published every two weeks in the Black Press Group of newspapers. Hello gorgeous!
It’s 8 o’clock on a Sunday night and I’m shivering beside the 18th green, waiting for my son. He’s in a pack of four boys and everyone’s quiet, save the occasional clapping from spectators as each boy finishes his round. I look at my son to gauge his stance. If he’s too loose, he has given up; too tight and he is angry with himself. After five hours of play he doesn’t look tired, but surprisingly composed. I watch him chip onto the green and drop his putt. He glances up at me, pleased.
He shrugs, “5 over,” and veers off to submit his score, leaving me to mingle with the moms.
It’s the regional Junior Boys Championship, a two-day, two-club tourney, and the day before he had scored well, made par. I take the “5 over” as a sign for how our evening might unfold: he sullen, me issuing platitudes, trying to piece together a narrative from his garbled jargon of the game.
My son hasn’t been golfing for long, but he adores it, in an endearing way – he saves money for clubs and wears his shirts tucked in. He’s 15, and has had a junior club membership for two years. In that time he’s started competing – not too seriously, but consistently, shooting well enough to make his golfing grandfathers proud. I do not golf well myself, but I do appreciate the aesthetics of the game.
The organizer gathers the players, announcing the results. My boy wins a sleeve of balls for closest to the pin, and I think “That’s great. He won something. We can go.” I look over to give him the nod – it’s a school night and dinner’s late, and, and – but he doesn’t look back. He’s got his hands clasped behind his neck, elbows akimbo, waiting for what I don’t know.
I ask the woman standing next to me, “What’s this for again?”
“To see who qualifies for the provincials.”
I ask her for details – the where and the when, only half-listening. We’ll be away then, I know. I have plane tickets to England and a plan. The plan includes quality time with my son. It includes history and culture and family, and the two us travelling together, sitting side by side on planes watching movies from a split headphone jack, our brains smeared with jet-lag, joking, having fun.
“Oh,” I chime. “We’ll be in England then.”
A trophy goes to a boy in a bright orange shirt, the brim of his hat rakishly tipped up, and another to a boy in lime green and crisp white pants. I huddle against a wall noting my son in his worn (lucky) chinos and watch him pat a pal on the back. I see him growing up without me; I see, too, how golf has helped make him the patient young man he’s become. I feel grateful in that second, and then sad – his passion isn’t my passion. Anyhow, he’s grown too good to play with his mom.
“And the winner of the juvenile division, first low gross, is …”
I hear my son’s name. Watch him step forward, and I shake my head: Oh, no.
Oh, yes. He’s carrying a big gold trophy, shaking hands. And I’m holding up my phone to snap a picture thinking: crap.
I mouth the words “What?! You won?!” and he beams back, stunned.
England was my idea, of course. My son didn’t want to go. I wanted to take him away because all he does is golf. After school, on weekends, for hours every day, he’s at a club his parents can’t afford to join. I never see the kid, really. At 15, he has found another home, a very old and pleasant one on the ocean, practically across the street from our house. But I’m lucky to get a wave when I walk past him on the course. It has gotten to the point where I go for sightings. I go because I miss him, and because he looks so healthy and epic framed by mountains, ocean and green grass.
Golf is a good game, I know, and I grew up around it myself, but golf means my son has taken to watching televised play and talking about college in places like Texas and Oklahoma. Golf is glamorous now. And I want to protect my son from such high hopes because becoming a professional golfer is – I have to say it – a very very long shot. It requires coaching I can’t pay for, and it requires me to stop saying that my son is too smart to be an athlete. Golf requires self-mastery. Golf, in my life at least, requires that I grow up.
The announcer lists the names of the boys who will be representing our region at the provincials, my son’s name first. I see his shining smile and recognize that this is the moment from which there can be no retreat, and wonder how, in all my years of mothering, had I not learned about surprises like this, how hopes can be dashed and a heart filled in the same instant.
The announcer says “Revelstoke,” and I instinctively suck in a breath, thinking “No, no, not Revelstoke: Oxford! He’s going to Oxford – we’re visiting a student there, a role model, a friend.”
But I catch myself this time, and that breath comes out in a big blustery laugh, because what the heck can I do? I’m a mother. I’m proud and punchy with love.
Finally, one old silver trophy is left for the winner of the under-18 class – the regional Junior Boys Champion, whose name, the announcer says, will be engraved alongside the names of men now playing on the Canadian tour. Who wins this grand prize? My bristling boy. The boy who had asked, “Mom, why can’t I just golf?”
As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Competition, we’re asking the readers what it’s like to read hundreds of short stories in search of the best.
Christin Geall on the challenges of creative nonfiction and how, as a reader, she responds to diction and syntax before story.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I’m from downtown Toronto, but I’ve spent most of my adult life in Oak Bay, a quaint corner of Victoria where I can grow salad year-round. I worked in journalism before moving to creative nonfiction, so in all I write, I try to stay loyal to the truth.
What’s your day job?
I don’t have a regular day job, so in a way, I work all the time. I teach at The University of Victoria, write, lecture, edit, network, mother, and do political work in my community. I also pick up writing-related contracts when I can. Right now I’m developing creative nonfiction curriculum for the BC Ministry of Education.
My agent is currently shopping my first book, a memoir called The Motherlode. I’m not quite ready to commit to another book project, so I’m having fun with essays for now.
What do you like most about creative nonfiction? I love the challenges of the genre—how you have to lean hard on yourself, tell your truth (or try to find it), and how you have the option, but not the imperative, to use fictional techniques to craft a compelling narrative. I love how creative nonfiction carries both lyricism and reportage, and the way an essay might flex and shape itself to the writer’s mind. I love the genre’s honesty, and self-doubt. Most of all, I love brambly personal essays, particularly ones where the writer breaks the fourth wall.
When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most compelling ones, what are you looking for?
I’m looking for the qualities I’d look for in a friend: intelligence, trustworthiness, humour, passion, and a developed sense of aesthetics, or style. I read for language initially, meaning I respond to diction and syntax before story.
What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
Memoir dominated, and many submissions involved recording the stories of the dead, dying, ill or infirm. I’d pull away from my desk feeling exhausted after reading such pieces, because too often writer wasn’t writing for the reader, but rather recording history. I enjoyed the essays about immigration and travel, particularly when the Canadian landscape exerted itself upon the lives of the characters.Has being a reader changed anything about how you approach your own writing? Would you do anything different if you were to submit to the competition?
I was teaching an advanced nonfiction workshop when the submissions were rolling in, so I took a stack of fifty essays to my students and gave them each a few to read. I told them they had five minutes to decide whether any of their essays would make it to the next round of reading. My goal was to show them how little time we have as writers to hook a reader, and I have to say, the exercise worked; they vowed to never write a boring lede again.
Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
Two stories stand out in my memory, and both of them exposed a thin slice of a life, using scenes instead of summary. The first, “The Last Summer,” haunted me as it left so much up to my imagination. I felt the writer was being as honest as she could be, so I trusted her despite her omissions. The second, “The Women Here Have Never Heard of Curtains,” charmed me with its wonderful characterization of Vancouver and a family navigating through crisis. Whoever wrote it—and I sense they’re young—should keep writing.
Sometimes I wonder if there can really be such a thing as an extroverted writer. Yet, I’m one—a talker, teacher, networker—a person turned on by engagement with others. This spring I’ve been on the campaign trail, spending hours mainstreeting with Andrew Weaver, recently elected as British Columbia’s first Green Member of the Legislative Assembly, and I’ve met more people in the last month than in the past six combined. I’ve helped write speeches, made phone calls, door-knocked, shaken countless hands, smiled for hours, chatted with media, and run around in heels with a walkie talkie in one hand and a cell phone in the other. This is politics. This is what it takes to make real change.
Extroverted environmentalist that I am, I’ve also run for office three times (in my early thirties), and come close to being elected just once, twenty votes shy of a seat on Oak Bay council. I went on to work with party leaders, a mayor, candidates and hopefuls, and I’ve loved every minute of that work. But when the Weaver campaign geared up last fall, I felt as if an old love had come back to town, the kind of love you can’t resist, but know you must.
After years of building life in nonfiction, I felt I couldn’t go back politics. But given the chance this spring, I did.
It’s interesting to me now how the word ‘platform’ applies to the worlds of politics and writing. In writing, it’s the assemblage of things we do to create a career. In politics, a platform is built of ideas—ideas that create one’s position on issues. I know I sound like I’m campaigning when I say that as writers, it’s our obligation to use our skills to make the world a better place. Writers need to engage with the world, not just online, but in our real communities too.
I got out from behind my desk, stood up for what I believed in, and tried to make change this spring. And guess what? It fuelled my work as a writer. My piece about Oak Bay is now a finalist in the CBC’s Hyperlocal contest, (you can see where this is heading, can’t you?), and every vote counts. The winner will be selected by a jury, but the piece with the highest number of ‘likes’ gains the title ‘Canada’s Choice’. Please vote here 🙂
Creative Nonfiction Pedagogy: New Findings from the Field. (Suzanne Cope, Christin Geall, Jan Donley, Stuart Horwitz) This panel features a recent study of approaches to teaching CNF in undergraduate, graduate, and community-based classes. Moderated by Dr. Suzanne Cope, lead researcher in the first participant-based study of CNF instruction for adults, panelists will reflect upon their pedagogy and influences. The conversation will revolve around the findings from the study, including the benefit of mentors and communities of practice, and the adaptation of instruction for various groups.
Canada Writes, sponsored by the CBC, is posting creative writing tips for the month of January to help inspire writers for the national Creative Nonfiction contest. My tip will be posted soon, but it’s worth checking out every few days for inspiration. The contest deadline is February 1, 2013.
What a line-up! Esi Edugyan, Bill Gaston, Robert Bringhurst, Brian Brett….and, um, me?!
Join me on October 13th, at Camosun College, for The Bendy Truth: Readings and panel discussion on creative nonfiction, with Madeline Sonik, Christin Geall,
and Monique Gray Smith, hosted by David Leach.
These three diverse local writers explore the expansive, ever-changing landscape of creative nonfiction. Come hear what they have to say about truth-telling and the urge to share stories that deeply matter. 2:45 p.m.
Reunions: Love them. Love them so much we rented our house, packed up for seven weeks and moved east to be with friends and family for the summer. I flipped sheets, cooked more lobster suppers than I can count, and browned my buns reading on the beach.
Every morning and late afternoon, I sharpened the arc of the book. This requires a kind of largeness of vision, at least two tables, and in my case, noise-cancelling headphones. I need a deep kind of quiet to penetrate the work, to get in there and stay there. It’s origami for the mind: You hold the whole narrative in your head and fold and fold and fold.
I sent the revision back to my agent at the end of July. When I’d signed with her in June, she said we’d do two rounds of revision before the fall. In August, she asked me to ‘re-calibrate’. Less was more and more was needed. A balancing act, which seems apt, as it’s Libra season now and I’m heading east again for my birthday, with revision two behind me, my fingers still crossed.
Here’s a pic of this summer’s Stonecoast Reunion, where I had the great honor of reading to my peers and past mentors in Maine.
Just home from a wonderful conference sponsored by the Canadian Creative Nonfiction Collective Collective. David Leach and I co-hosted a presentation on Time in CNF. A portion of my presentation, adapted from an essay I wrote for Women Writing on Family, appears below. (Feel free to contact me if you’d like the complete paper/exercises).
Using only one voice in a personal essay or memoir is like kneading dough with one hand; it makes the job tougher than it needs to be. To get the emotional tension we want in memoir, our main job is to convince the reader that the narrator is working towards understanding their past. To do that, it helps to have two voices: one voice for now, and one for then.
Think of it this way: you’ve got a protagonist and a narrator—both you. But, there’s a difference between them, if you consider that the protagonist is engaged in the action of your story—she’s making choices and mistakes, bumbling through life—and the narrator, she’s there too, but she’s commenting on the decisions of the protagonist. She can step aside from the story and tell us what she thinks.
Here’s how Elizabeth Gilbert makes the shift in the second section of Eat Pray Love:
I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life—so why did I feel like none of it resembled me? In that question, Gilbert turns the story from backstory (her previous life) to her authorial present, all on the pivot of a self-questioning ‘me’.
Or consider Dickens’ David Copperfield: I look down on the line of boys below me, with a condescending interest in such of them as bring to my mind the boy I was myself, when I first came there. That little fellow seems to be no part of me; I remember him as something left behind upon the road of life—as something I have passed, rather than actually have been—and almost think of him as someone else.
Or Joan Didion in “On Keeping a Notebook”: I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.
Didion’s conundrum—of losing touch with our old selves, hints at the two key questions we face when writing about the past: who was I then? And, who am I now?
A reflective narrator can give you the perspective you need to answer those two questions. On the page, such a narrator might sound savvy, sophisticated or snarky. Or, their voice may be more essayistic—self-questioning, skeptical, smart. In either case, the retrospective narrator looks back in order to reflect: the reader senses they’ve had time to think about the past.
We all know what it’s like to listen to a friend who hasn’t learned from experience, a person who keeps making the same mistakes—boring at best, frustrating at worst. The same applies to nonfiction stories about family: readers want to see you make sense of your life, we want to witness your struggle towards truth.
Still, some memoirists avoid retrospection, preferring to unfurl scene after scene memories with the hope that plot or conflict might float the narrative ship. As David Lazar says, “the memoir frequently performs memory for its audience of voyeurs.”Certainly that is the case with Jeanette Wall’s bestseller The Glass Castle. But remember the opening? When the older, wiser, wealthier Walls looks out on her dumpster-diving mother? If you were an editor, why would you include that? The opening scene (the 3 yr. old Walls cooking a hot dog is compelling enough)…It’s because that one scene sets up a dual perspective for the book. In effect, Wall’s introductory narrator says: here we are now; we survived. It’s a hook for the book, —triumphant! American!—yet the dichotomy is profoundly compelling: there’s tension. It’s provocative. Walls invites the reader into the book with a proposal. She says: Stay with me, and I’ll tell you how we got here.
Here’s another instance of the retrospective voice, in Mary Karr’s latest memoir, Lit. In this scene, she’s sitting on her porch, drinking, and thinking about her family:
Mother fell down and pissed her pants, Daddy got into fistfights and drank himself to death. (Who but a drunk, I wonder looking back, could sit on the porch alone and get in an argument?).
Memoir lacking such a narrator is like a museum without interpretive signs. It’s like being in a vast gallery knowing that if you’d just paid the five dollars for the headset you would have learned so much more. This is how it is for our readers: they need a guide—a trustworthy narrator.
The great essayist, Philip Lopate, described the nonfiction writer’s challenge this way: “In personal essays and memoirs, we must rely on the subjective voice of the first person narrator to guide us, and if that voice can never explain, summarize, interpret or provide a larger sociological or historical context for the material, we are in big trouble. We are reduced to groping in a dark tunnel, able to see only two feet in front of us.’
Vivian Gornick says it this way in her definitive book, The Situation and the Story: Truth in memoir is not achieved not through the recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of a writing imagination is required.
Here’s an example from my own work. Notice how I keep leaning on myself, keep pushing the retrospective narrator to work a little harder for the story :
I harangued Kyle, tossing under the sheets, maliciously intent on grinding him down through disturbance. I might’ve even wanted him to get sick, to run to the toilet instead of up a Rwandan hillside, to pay a penance for my suffering. But thankfully Kyle didn’t move one inch on the topic or the bed that night. He only fell asleep with one arm wrapped over his head, and held himself there in the kind of silence that spelled abandonment somewhere in the folds of my memory.
I have to wonder now—if memory is a hall of mirrors in which we look for glimpses of our past selves—what does such desperation mean? Seeing myself whimpering on that bed, I don’t see Kyle’s leaving me as the reason I wept. Nor does the easy answer—my own mother abandoned me—work either.
So, I must look again at the memory of that New Year’s. I must widen the camera angle, and pan out beyond Kyle to see the thin slices of orange light that spread from a shuttered window across two double beds. Next to me, in a bed of his own, lies a little boy.
And I’m crying three feet away. He can’t hear me: I’m quiet. He is, entirely, asleep.
And in the safety of that sleep, I can’t help but see Lars as a counterweight to my feelings of rootlessness then, a boy clinging to his mother’s merry-go-round life. A boy who, in his innocence, in his need to be anywhere with me, spins me faster towards my fear of never giving him a home.