Friday, April 16, 2021

On Writing: Falling is Just Flying with Bad PR.

I wrote this as a final "summing" up of my time at Sheridan. I was thinking about how writing can write the impossible. How writing can write things that are not otherwise possible to say, or can discover ways to ask questions of the possible despite how impossible that is. 

Monday, March 29, 2021


Dear Blog,

It's been a while since I wrote. You know, Covid. It's getting us all down. Also my new novel was released and I've been busy doing events for that. But I've also been avoiding my novel and instead writing poems and making videos.  But—and maybe this is a useful thing to talk about here—I also recycled and adapted a blog post that I wrote here for a really great newsletter/website by the writer/educator Kathryn Mockler called SEND MY LOVE TO ANYONE  

Why is it useful to talk about? Well, it uses the principle of recycling for new purposes. I wrote a blog post here and then expanded it, added visuals and altered the focus a bit to make it a more fully fledged essay. I find I've often taken less formal things and then edited and expanded them so that they be used for something else. I've made Facebook posts into the basis of speeches, turned speeches into essays, notes for class presentations into essay, and quick notes into stories or poems. Sometimes having begun thinking about something, having another chance to develop the ideas after a while is the best thing. It is like writing an essay in slow motion, or--what's that French phrase about thinking of the perfect retort when halfway up the stairs: esprit de l'escalier

literally wit of (the) staircase, denotes a retort or remark that occurs to a person after the opportunity to make it has passed. It originally referred to a witty remark coming to mind on the stairs leading away from a social gathering.

So you get another chance. And you know that thing when you've created something and then you notice lots of content related to it afterwards, as if it became especially relevant, I guess because you feel a kind of "ownership" or personal stake in the subject--well, that happens to me after writing something. So the adaption lets me take that new content and context and fold it in. 

So here's my revised post, now more fully about imposter syndrome, self love and hate and the writer. I'd definitely recommend subscribing to the newsletter - Kathryn is a brilliant writer and teacher and it is really worth following what she's doing. I find it both really helpful and inspiring. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Writer as Jack-, Jill- or Jx- of-all-trades and Master, Mistress, Mx of none.

(Multimedia version of a poem that I made today.)

 The Writer as Jack-, Jill- or Jx- of-all-trades and Master, Mistress, Mx of none.

There’s always a great interest in what a writer’s life looks like. Apparently it begins when the writer is a small child and then the writer gets older. Some writing is done along the way. It’s a marvel. They might have a day job —identifying butterflies or working the information desk at an art gallery, or teaching, which is a combination of both. Is it? Dunno. But seems funny to say.

One thing, though, that seems like a constant across people’s notions of what a writer’s life is like is the idea of specialization. It’s often assumed that the writer finds their métier—their style or genre—and explores that vein like gold in rock. And sure, that works for many but as a student, I just assumed that writers did many things. All of my mentors in writing did many writing-related things. Many arts-related things. Not only writing but publishing, editing, organizing events, festivals, teaching. And writing in a range of styles and genres—but in many modes of making. Visual (including on the page as well as 3D and film and digital), auditory—live performance, recordings, and sometimes a combination of all of the above, both digital and non-digital. I studied with bpNichol in undergrad and his model as a writer has been a continuing influence. His range of creative activities was very broad. I was struck by his curiosity, invention, creativity, and willingness to try, well, anything and everything.

This approach isn’t for everyone, and perhaps it is easy to be a Jack- or Jill- or Jx- of-all-trades and Master/Mistress/Mx of none. Or else it is possible to be multidimensionally inspired. And one area of inquiry nurtures and inspires the others. 

Over the last few days, I composed and recorded some music tracks (using computers and instruments that I play), made visual poetry/visual art, created several short films (incorporating my music, visuals, text and performance), worked on my novel, wrote a poem or two (some “experimental” work, a haiku, and a prose poem), and met with my colleagues on a public art sculpture that we’re creating. I also taught, did some editing, and did my part on the LitLive Literary Reading series committee. This works for me—this exploration of a variety of ways of making things. I mean, why not—why wouldn’t I want to continue to explore many things rather than just focussing on one means of creation. And that also means collaborating with others and/or connecting and forming a community of interests with others who do one or more of these kinds of work. 

Yesterday, a composer from Switzerland with whom I’ve been taking computer music programming lessons during the pandemic, suggested that we collaborate on something incorporating our interest in invented languages and scripts—intended for both humans and “others” – such as aliens or angels. I started exploring this after encountering the 16th c. writer Heinrich Agrippa’s writing system of the angels and scientist’s explorations of using frequency to represent language in order to communicate with possible extra-terrestrial cultures. So cool to get the opportunity to work on this with him.

And I’m aware that I’m not as adept or “professional” in some of the areas that I explore, but what is constant, and does (for the most part) transfer across the arts is the aesthetic sensibility gained from the time I’ve spent thinking about making, about art, about communication. So I might not be the world’s most brilliant animator, but I bring some of the experience I have as a poet to it. Some of the training I have as a musician. And so my simple animations have a “sophistimacated” sensibility that, as far as it goes, derives from the experience I’ve had in other forms. 

I feel that each of these artistic exploits informs the other and makes me a better writer, musician, and multimedia creator. It expands the range of my knowledge and understanding. It nourishes my thinking and my awareness of creative and aesthetic possibilities in all of the work that I do. I’m a more interesting novelist because I make videos. I’m a better poet because I play saxophone. (We could here speak about improvisation and how that practice of exploring the unknown and the unplanned helps writing.) I believe that I’ve learned about new paths through my old and moldy brain because instead of going only along one writerly direction, I’ve gone along the many that the different arts and approaches have encouraged. Experimentation leads to experimentation. Exploration to exploration. Problem solving to problem solving. Openness to openness. Old boots to old boots.

I should also say, that in addition to creating in a range of work, I’m a true believer in exploring everything as a reader, listener, viewer, audience member and so on. I think you should read everything, sure, but also pursue an interest in other arts. Other areas of knowledge, understanding and ways of thinking about the world.  

Ok. That’s my little sermon for today. I think I’m now going to explore my sophicated aesthetic notions by brewing myself a cup of pandimensional multiaesthetic polymedia coffee.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

“There is no try. There is only doggy doo”: The care and feeding of yourself and your writing.

what does this dog think of my writing?

It was one of those days as a writer. I woke to find out that though I’d made the longlist, I didn’t make the shortlist. An editor still hadn’t responded to my emails about the manuscript that I’d submitted, though he’d expressed enthusiasm about it before I sent it. And then, my lawyer wife who had was urgently expected in Zoom court, called out to me that she’d stepped in the poo of our living-with-us-during-Covid adult son’s untrained puppy. She’d stepped in it running for the phone, and she’d stepped in it running back. She’d switched shoes and now ran downstairs to court. I hauled myself out of bed to begin the Herculean task (remember him mucking out the king’s vast cow-mucky stables?) of cleaning shit from three floors of our house (my wife hadn’t realized she’d left a puppy trail down two flights of stairs, across several rooms and into her office. 

What would Hemmingway do? What would Samuel Beckett say? And my novel was still stalled. It’d been six weeks. I couldn’t figure out how the novel should develop. I’d began with a good premise but the plot had just frozen. And the tone? It was a bad pastiche of Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams, and cloying in only the way a novel about death, suicide and a failed stand-up comedian could be. 

So what to do. First of all, take stock. Sure I was grateful that I had been on the longlist. I have often recited, “It means something to win, but it doesn’t mean anything not to win.” And it is true. Literary prize cultural is a strange and distorting thing. It means what it means, but no more. There are obviously so many books that are not on the radar of prizes. Prizes always have an implicit agenda and bias. That’s inherent in the structure of any contest. A running race privileges those who run the fastest for that distance. A 100m sprinter couldn’t win a marathon and vice versa. And the world’s greatest skeet shooter wouldn’t have a chance. It’s just important to remember that, in terms of prizes and contests, the particular value being sought isn’t explicitly stated and is in fact often explicitly obscured (“the greatest book published this year” only means the greatest of a certain kind of book as determined by this particular group of people after some negotiation). And it changes depending on whose is judging. I love looking at sites like Goodreads where some of the most acclaimed works of the human literary endeavour get only 2 ½ stars and pages of complaints. That James Joyce, if only he could write like John Grisham. 

So, of course, I know all of this, but still, when one in nominated for a prize it is always a bummer not to win. I don’t gamble or buy lottery tickets. Though I truly expect to lose, it always feels like a bummer not to win. Why put myself through that. I’d rather write a poem that I can hate afterwards. But at least I have agency. Truly, I have been lucky with recognition of my writing and of course, I’m grateful for the opportunity and readers that shortlists and prizes have given me. Of course. Prizes are only stupid when I’m not nominated or don’t win. But I also have to remind myself that I am exactly as good a writer as I was before the recognition as before, though the world didn’t appear to have thought so. 

What was I doing? Oh, right. I was taking stock. While I was scrubbing the puppy’s glorious leavings from the carpet on the landing, I looked back on the last couple of months. Because my novel was stalled, I’d used the energy built from frustration and that had been diverted from the novel into writing something else. It turned out that I’d written a book of poems in the form of fables. It’d been a great experience. Writing each tiny fable had been a great way to start the day. And their emotional tone—consoling, bitter, ironic, loving, poetic—was really apt for the strange times we were in—from COVID-19 to US politics. And, like many, I was feeling too fragmented to really write a long continuous text. These tiny pieces were something that I could do. I could accumulate even if I couldn’t synthesize. That seemed like exactly where we were all at in these times. At some point, you can only write what you can write, at least when it’s not a matter of avoiding the difficult or not making it a priority.

What else? I had a new novel coming out. All of the preparations were going well. I loved the book design. I was really grateful to have some lovely blurbs by people I greatly respected. I was happy with the novel.

Also, in a kind of desperation to make things happen, to dig me (and in a ridiculous way, all of us) out of this mess, I was churning out visual poems and other texts. I couldn’t change the world, but I could make things. That helped, at least in the short term. I also sent out a bunch of short manuscripts to chapbook publishers. Some of which were accepted. What to do with the energy and disquiet of the times? Make things. Make things happen. 

Of course, these are all things to do with my writing life. There were many more things I reflected on as a person. My family. My safety, health, privilege as someone who is housed, fed, clothed and has access to supports, economic, emotional, physical and so forth. And I have work. For example, here I am writing as writer-in-residence at Sheridan. I really am grateful for that opportunity—to teach and write, but to also have an income. That really is a privilege & I’m not just saying that so the dean can read it.

But now I’m on the main floor with a J-cloth trying to clean the Persian rug I inherited from my grandparents.  It continued to be a lousy day. But that evening as I was walking our dog—not the famed befouler of this narrative—I heard myself saying out loud to myself, “I am going to beat that ##$%$#%#% novel into submission.” I’d never actually physically beat anything, but I appreciate the verve with which I heard myself speak. I realized that I had somehow gathered myself together, had found some resolve to confront what was difficult about this major project which was making me despondent. For me, writing the novel was a way of giving structure. I wake up. What am I supposed to be doing? What is there to do in this world? Oh yeah. Write my novel. It gave shape to my days and focus to my self and emotions. 

I spent the next day or two reading what I had written (about 20,000 words)—painful and irritating as I found it—and revising, trying to make the tone less cute and clever, less trying too hard. There were quite a few lines and passages that I quite liked. I even laughed a bit at some of my own jokes. (It’s was ok. I wrote them months before and had forgotten them. Really!) Also, I got on my writing treadmill. I wrote my first novel on a treadmill and had been avoiding it. I knew it meant business and that when I was on it, I would write. The energy of avoiding it helped me write my second novel. But it was time. I climbed aboard and began slowly walking and revising. Then it all stalled again. Damn. What to do?

I made a plot chart. I wrote what I’d done on stickies and placed them in a timeline. Then I gathered some speculations from my notes about what might happen. I put them on stickies so I could change and reorder them or throw them across the room, where they would slam to the floor like butterflies. This helped me think through how I might move forward with the novel. While plotting plot ideas, a few thematic ideas occurred to me, too. The whole process helped me imagine a way forward, and even more, let me know there in fact there COULD BE a way forward. I guess it is like taking stock like I was doing on that famed morning of the doggy doo. There is no try. There is only doggy do. 

And so, I’ve begun writing the novel again. My first act, post-plot chart, was to write a scene that changed what I’d planned. Still, it couldn’t have happened without the chart—it was based on what I’d planned but as soon as I was writing it, I realized that, in the thick of things, I had a better and more nuanced idea. Until you’re in the shower, you don't know exactly what needs to be washed.

I wrote another email to the editor and he responded. The message was hopeful and he asked me to wait a couple more week for a final decision. Also, that little puppy, untrained as he is, is kind of cute. And like everything, apparently, I just have to give it time. 

So as a writer, they are frequently times of frustration and despondency. But I figure that we have to be in it for the long haul and being a writer is about learning how to keep going despite it all. Despite being able to write something you like, or that anyone else writes. Being able to weather the gloom of self doubt, worry, lack of focus, and lack of energy. What works for you? Waiting? Trying something different? Switching projects? Employing a different technique (Sheila Heti asks herself questions and rolls dice to find out the answer to what she should do)? Sketching, writing the end, character sketches, running the whole thing through Google translate into Armenia, Zulu, Maltese and then back to English? Trying it backwards. Going for a walk, a bike ride, a mani-pedi, a Wikipedia? New music? Handwriting? Typewriter? Choosing a minor character? Beginning with someone else's poems and writing lines in between? Editing, rereading? Beginning again? Time. Putting it away and writing something else. Or not writing. 

I think the way to be a writer is to figure out how to be a writer in the way that works for you. Not for Hemmingway or Toni Morrison, or bell hooks, Rumi or Rupi Kaur. How do you work best? How do you manage your own particular psychology and imagination, your emotions and goals? Self care involves self writer care too. Care for yourself as a writer and care for your writing. What do you both need?

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Dot Dot Dot update!

I'm delighted that I've received a bunch of excellent work to consider for Dot Dot Dot, the online journal that I'm doing for students' work. Already I've posted three excellent writers. Just this morning, I've published a tanka (tanka tanka very much...) and a touching, funny, and surprising creative nonfiction piece called A Funeral, A Burglary, and a Proposal by Camilia Darwish, a first year student. You can check out all of the work here: Dot Dot Dot Journal 

And please do send me work to consider. Likely, I'll offer suggestions and revisions (I am the writer in residence after all—that's my job!) but that's what an editor would do anyway, as well my praise, encouragement and enthusiasm. (Editors should—but don't always—do that!) Send the work to Gary[dot]Barwin[at]SheridanCollege[dot]com

Thursday, November 26, 2020

I’m a goddamn genius! Love me!: The quantum state, the Schrödinger's Cat of Writers' Self Regard


The front cover and front flap from my forthcoming novel.

For most of this I talk about me, but I'm hoping that it'll be clear that what I'm talking about applies to most writers, perhaps in different ways, but we all have to manage feelings around both "success" and "failure" as writers and as people.

I’m a goddamn genius! Love me! I just got the cover design and blurby words for my new novel. It’s a really beautiful cover and the words are really fantastic. They make the book sound amazing. And they said some tremendously complementary things about me and my work. 

This should be good, right? Of course it is. I mean, it’s good for the book and attracting readers. And I’m flattered and all. However, it makes me think about that oh so difficult of issues. What to do about positive feedback? It can make you uncomfortable. (Negative feedback is another thing—thanks, Mom—but maybe what I say here about its opposite also applies.)

There is of course imposter syndrome. That couldn’t really be me! What if everyone finds out that I’m a fake? I can’t live up to those words. 

And for me, the book is done, so it’s going to have to go out into the world without me. Nothing I can do will change the novel at this point. Unless, you know, I try to arm wrestle Trudeau, accidently discover a new planet or become a Kardashian. The novel is typeset and ready to go. But now that I’m working on a new novel, am I going to be haunted by the last ones? Can I make them as good? (They’re disappointments, of course, to me—I wanted them to be so much better—but also, can I make this novel as good as the last ones? It should be just like the last ones, except of course, totally different.) This is the quantum state, the Schrödinger's Cat of Self Regard that writers often live with. We're great while at the same time we're awful. Naturally, sometimes we're Mx In-between.

But can I make this new book live up to that hyperbolic praise on my last book? It actually says “a novel of sheer genius.” Holy cow! And I didn’t even write that. But of course it’s just advertising bumpf. Sure, the editor thinks the book is good, but what does saying this kind of stuff really mean? Really, it is just the relationship between a reader and a book which determines how the book works. And that can be neither quantified, predicted, or assumed. That’s one of the things that’s great about writing. It is always its own thing. And the reader makes it their own thing. Or not. 

But really, it isn’t about the hoopla around the reception of the book, or how “great” I am, or how terrible. I hope just to write. To just make the book I’m writing be the best it can be. For the book. Sure, for my own satisfaction as a writer, also. I mean, I do take pride in my craft. If I were a wall builder, I’d want to make a good wall. But there’s something about writing that is different than walls. Or shoes. Or bread. (Mmm. Bread.) But there’s the matter of “wisdom” or “greatness” or “super whizbang artiness that transcends mere artisan/craftspersonness,” isn’t there? What does that mean though, for a writer? I mean, I do try to go for it. To try to put everything into what I’m writing. Not to be pretentious and gloop up the work with trying to be deep, but to really “bring it” when I sit down to write. Whatever that looks like at the time. Whatever that looks like for me. So, I do try to go “deep,” but not to be “deep” for the sake of it, or performatively so. I try to hear right inside me, to think and feel deeply about whatever it is I’m working on. And when I’m making a terrible joke, to really make it terrible to the best of my ability. And when I’m writing a character, to really make the portrayal “sing” whatever that looks like for the particular work. 

I remember when my last novel received a lot of acclaim, and particularly after the fancy-shmancy Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist, I was quite depressed. Why? I guess I let it get to me. It was strange. Part of me always wanted that kind of approval and affirmation. It was all very glamorous and glitzy. But when I got it, I didn’t like it. It seemed like it was saying that my worth as a person had to do with this success. And of course, it doesn’t. Sure, this was a tremendously lovely recognition of something about I'd worked hard on, and for my writing career in general, but it didn’t—it shouldn’t—mean anything about me as a person. As a son, husband, father, sibling, friend, etc. As a human. But to be honest, it took me aback. If I acknowledged this award, it felt like I was saying that actually it did matter whether I achieved some of this recognition as a writer, it mattered as to whether I had worth as a person. 

It took a while to sort this out. Why did I feel badly? I didn’t want the recognition if it meant that I’d really wanted it. Needed it. It took a bit for me to undersand that in fact, while I was pleased that my writing was recognized, something I’d worked hard on, it ultimately had nothing to do—or at least, not much, to do—with my sense of self, my worth, my confidence. At least, not at my core. 

Did the fact that I wrote strange books for 30 years before this that  didn’t get this mainstream recognition mean anything about me as a person? Nope. Did this mainstream recognition? Nope. It was good for my career—book sales, some money, opportunities to write and participate in things, and it got me some work. But other than that, my life is about me as a person. And I like writing and hope to keep getting better. And to have the opportunity to keep writing and to keep being able to share that writing in whatever form that takes. 

Sometimes I worry when people speak to me about becoming “a published writer,” or speak about how a book will change their lives. Sure it will AS A WRITER—maybe—but not as a human. We will still have the gaping holes of need inside us we always had, even if we have a #1 International Best Seller. Or we’ll still be filled with gladness and light if we don’t. The only difference is, we’ll have a publication, or a book. And really that’s a great thing. We get to write. And we get to be profoundly ourselves and work through all of what that means. But neither is dependent on the other. It gives us freedom and possibility always. And we get to decide what matters to us, not what is important to the market, or the prizes or anything else.

But y'know, while you're here, feel free to tell me I'm genius in the comments. Also, that my hair looks good today. Because, damn. It does!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Friction, a Bichon Frise, a Cowboy and the Nouns of my Irish Childhood: On Creative Non-Fiction


A cowboy walks into the room. 

    “If you write creative non-fiction you can write about anything. It’s not fiction it’s friction. Frisson. Between one thing and the other,” the cowboy says right after spitting a wad of tobacco into the distant horizon of memory. 

    “Oh yeah,” I say and grasp my raygun in the seventh of my eight tentacles. “It makes creative non-fiction (CSNY) energizing, this technique of juxtaposition.” 

    ZAPP! I destroy all the nouns but me and my desk.

    The world ends and then my desk begins to communicate with me telepathically: Did you know Bichon Frise is French for “curly lapdog” or this really happened to me when I was seven? You can put anything into creative non-fiction and connect it with anything else.
    “Really, Desk,” I say. “Is that true?”

    “Sure,” the desk says out loud, opening and shutting its drawers to approximate speech. “There are stories of ghosts which are falsely accused of stealing a treasured plate, and so eventually killed and thrown into a well.”
    Now I’m talking to you, the reader, directly because what I’m saying is literally true and I’m not really having a convo with a cowboy or my desk. Last year, when I went back to Northern Ireland, where I grew up, I remembered when I used to pretend to be a cowboy. I’d stride down the sidewalk pretending to have guns at my hips. Once I fell from a wall and cut my head. I still have the scar. I pulled myself home over the pavement as if I were a gunslinger who’d been heroically shot. I did believe in ghosts and would make deals with them when I walked into dark places. “Don’t hurt me or throw me down a well and I’ll promise to do something for you.” It was a raygun of hope which I hoped would make me feel less like fear tentacles had taken hold of me.
    “So, pardner,” I say, now talking to the cowboy that I began this piece with, just to create some narrative action and surprise and whom I’ve brought up because I want to emphasize how when I was a kid, my world was infused with these story archetypes. “We didn’t think about Indigenous people when we were in Ireland, we just thought about killing other cowboys." 
    My dad looked at me. “Maybe it was like the ‘Troubles,’ the civil war which was all around us when we lived in Northern Ireland—two sides of similar people fighting it out.”
    “Yeah,” I said. “I remember a British soldier at the end of our street taking out the magazine from his machine gun and letting me hold it.” Ack-a-ack-a-act-a, I though as I pretended to shoot things.
    As I said, for much of my childhood I imagined real life as if it were a story. Cowboys, pirates. The movie She: I was eight years old a naked slave to the Headmaster’s daughter who lived in the top floor of our school. I remember telling Mark Gormley, a friend at the time about this. I wonder what happened to him? I’m going to look him up on Facebook right now and see if I can find him. Be right back.
    On November 1, 2020 he went on a Morning Hike. Distance 6.2km, elevation 578m which took him 2:02:56. He went up Slieve Meelmore in the Mourne Mountains. Slieve is the Irish for mountain. This is near where my childhood cottage was and close to where I returned last year to stay in the town of Annalong and where I wrote this. No, now I’m just messing with you. I was there to hike and to work on a novel, which, as it turns out, involves cowboys. Seems we move one step forward in time and two back. How our world is infused with our past, with the paradigms established in our childhood. How we speak to our past even as we move forward.
    “That’s a bit obvious, isn’t it?” says the cowboy rather obviously walking down Main Street with his guns drawn.
    “Sure, but I hope you appreciate how all the images: tentacles, cowboys, rayguns were tied in. The only thing missing is the lapdog,” the hitherto forgotten stolen plate says.
    Oh no! and here I am looking right out of the page to talk directly to you the reader: A Bichon Frise is missing! Kind of like my past. It’s just gone but I think about it all the time. Come back, Bison Frise, you make us feel warm and safe even though you sometimes bite us. If there were no nouns left, there’d still be the feeling of childhood. Its smells, colours, movements, its connections. But oh those nouns. Here at my desk in Hamilton, Ontario, so far away from Ireland yet so close, I think I’m going to open up a new word file and write a creative non-fiction piece about it them. Now. Command-O

Monday, November 2, 2020

Brambalicious Real Time Writing: Watch The Translation, Generation and Editing of a Poem.

I've always wanted to do this. I made a screen recording of me writing a poem from beginning to end. It took about ten minutes.

What I did was cheat. Well, I began with a poem by the great Swedish poet Aase Berg. I copied it into Google Translate and then I translated back and forth through several languages. I tried to choose unrelated languages in order to get a "translation" that was very different from the original. 

Then I copied the raw translated poemstuff into Word and began editing, cutting out what didn't seem interesting and sculpting a poem out of the material that I had to work with.

At one point, I didn't think I had enough poemstuff so I tried doing some of the process again, except with the new edited poem as far as I'd got with it. I put it into the N+7 generator (which finds nouns in the dictionary which come from 1 to 15 entries later than the nouns in the seed text), then I stuck that lot into Google Translate again and did some "translation broken telephone."

Then I again pasted the result into Word and considered how to add to my emerging poem. I ended up not using any of it except one line. 

A bit of fiddling—reordering words and moving lines around—and then the poem was done. Except for the title. I stuck the poem into the N+7 generator to find some new words. I found "Bramble" which I liked as a title and so the title it became.

I'd love to narrate my thought process—the decisions I made as I went—but perhaps just watching the editing in action is enough by itself. By the way, I said this was in real time. I actually sped it up just a smidgen so that it moved just a bit quicker in order to keep it interesting. 

A note on the music: I made the music by a related process. I took a bit of Vivaldi—a recording of a vocal solo accompanied by strings and translated it into MIDI notes using a sequencing software. Like translating languages, the process is inexact, especially if you deliberately mess with it which I did. I made separate "melody," "harmony" and "drum" translations and then played around with the result to make the final music. (I chose the instruments, added in a bit of the original recording much processed and so on.) So it is a perfect analogue to the process I used with the poem.

Oh and why did I use this process on the poem? It's an interest way to generate raw material to work with. Of course, depending on what you start with, you get different results. Some very abstracted remnant of the form and tone is maintained. If I had chosen another poem, or another poem, I would have got very different material to work with. Also, something of the original poet's style was vaguely in my mind, though my result isn't at all like hers. I'm not saying this is the best example of poeming known to lifeforms around the universe, but I think the result is interesting and the process even more so.  


So Sheridan writing students (Sheridanigans, Sheridanonians, Sheridanish):

I'm opening this blog up to your work. I'm creating DOT DOT DOT: AN ONLINE JOURNAL. I will post work written by students here. The blog is available to the public (the world!) to read and so it will function as an online journal.

I'd love to be able to feature your great writing. Heck, I'd love to be able to read it.

Here's all that you need to do:

SEND IT TO ME. (I'll read it, offer feedback & suggestions if necessary, and then if we both are happy, I'll publish it here. There is no deadline, just send it whenever you'd like. You can send it for an opinion only, if you'd like. No committment on your part!)





A make-up artist finds her own voice (AKA Johnny Depp) 

Writers are always being told that they have to find their voice. Did I ever have a voice? Wait one moment while I ask Disney’s Ariel.  Is my voice a lost continent that I have to discover through great personal risk, fortitude, special skills, and deprivation? I’m so awesome.

Maybe I left it in the changeroom at the Forever 21 at the mall, or on the seat of that Uber I took coming home from my cousin’s all ukelele metal band. Did my voice float away like that party balloon I let go of when I was five and all I could do was watch it as it rose into the sky. All I could do, except cry and cry. Finally it was tiny as the period at the end of this sentence. And my tears, they were like little punctuation marks, too, rolling down my boycheeks. ; ; ; Oh, I become bitter and cynical for the rest of my life.

I think it is both a lot of pressure and inaccurate to think that we each have one essential “voice,” the one perfect authentic way to express ourselves, our innermost and deepest selves, our unique and necessary perspective on the world. 

Of course, we develop ideas about style, theme, manner, and so on, as we learn to write. We discover things we like to do, things we’re good at. We learn ways of writing that seem to connect with us and with our audience. (And in fact, may help us imagine who that audience might be.) 

But I don’t believe we necessarily have to write in one style or in one mode, or even in one genre. Sure, some writers create a clearly identifiable body of work. Kafka. Samuel Beckett. Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami. Emily Dickinson.

Samuel Beckett spent his long writing life honing his vision as if he were zeroing in on the very most essentials. Man. Muck. Dark. Silence. Life. We can say “Kafkaesque” because ol’ Franz’s world is clearly identifiable. You wouldn’t, for instance, find Lizzo in it. Alice Munro found her subject matter and stayed with it (though she was always inventive with form.) We can tell a novel by Jane Austen or the Brontes several cow-lengths away and without spilling our tea. Reader, I just made a joke. 

But for many writers, writing is a mode of thoughtful engagement with the world or with language that doesn’t result in an identifiable style or “voice.” Many write in entirely different ways at various points in their careers, or throughout it. Each of the novels of English Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro is different. From the Arthurian fantasy of the Buried Giant to the restrained mid-20th century manor house manner of The Remains of the Day. You wouldn’t know it was the same guy who wrote them. Except for how good they are. 

And what about writing in different genres or forms: poetry, fiction, plays etc. Or also creating visuals, music, art, film, dance and so on. There’s often a sense that this is a betrayal, or at the least, a turning away from the “essential” work that one has been put on earth to do. To “find one’s voice.” As if it is one thing. As if you job when you write isn’t to write what you find most interesting but instead be in pursuit of this rare butterfly that is your voice. And then pin it down so it doesn’t get away. Or change.

My voice? Where it it? Personally, I think my dog swallowed it. And, though I’ve been combing the backyard and his very pungent literary leavings, I’ve never found it. But I do know that whatever I do, I implicitly bring something of myself to it. Of course. What else could I do? I have certain concerns. It’s me who makes the choices of even what not to do. I have a certain perspective, certain aesthetic likes and dislikes. There’s a certain shape to my brain so that—great labyrinth, colander, snail shell, neuron-wet mop that it is—everything that is processed by it is affected by it. The way making the same sound in different places sounds different because of the nature of the space. The writer is the space in which the music occurs. 

The experimental composer John Cage used many procedures to try to get out of the way when creating his work. He used elaborate chance systems to make decisions for him. But the thing was, it was always Cage making the choices about what choices he wasn’t going to make and so his work,  was always very characteristically Cage despite its remarkably diverse means and styles and even artform (he wrote music for every conceivable thing that made sound, did visual work, performances, lectures, essays, poetry, and much  else. (He never did design a line of chance-determined underwear for Forever-21, though.)  But Cage wasn’t searching for his “voice.” He just engaged deeply with the things that interested, inspired, moved and intrigued him. 

Which is what I think we should all do. Feel free not to try to define a characteristic voice, but instead be alert to what intrigues us, what moves us. What we find beautiful, or funny, or maddening or compelling. The “voice” will find itself. I want to say, “voice will be voice,” but of course, I won’t because I’m far too subtle to make a quip like that. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

ON INSPIRATION and why you can't take a taxi out of the underworld

One of my kids found inspiration in this dictionary, years ago, too.

I sit at my desk. The sky cracks open. It's my ceiling. What? It's leaking again. No, it's angels. It's my muse. Their beautiful satin-wearing non-binary wingy-ness hovers above. I'm annointed. A wand might be involved. "You, precious, special person, have been granted INSPIRATION. You must act now, because evanescent fleeting thing that it is, it will not return again. Care for this idea as if it were a small and fragile bird fallen from a nest, Hold it close to your heart, and START writing. It is as the gossamer filaments connecting the very molecules of the universe. It is quantum so don't look it too hard or else it will disappear, like love, or happiness, or a Snapchat. Or your savings."

Is this how inspiration works? Sometimes. But really, I think it is bogus. Certainly it doesn't happen that way for me. Unless of course, I'm standing with leonine hair in a cape on a wind-swept hill and my special suffering attracts Great Art, just like it did in the old days.

Sure, I get an occasional good idea as if from nowhere but mostly it comes from mulling over things, and then a surprise connection happens, sometimes when my head is stuck in the fridge rooting for some lettuce that still looks edible. Or wondering if I can risk that yogurt. Or while flossing. (Yes, dear dental hygienist, I do follow your vaguely passive aggressive advice.)

There is this belief that inspiration is magic, but getting in the habit of writing and not trying too hard for inspiration seems to work for me. I can get in "the zone" more readily the more I do it. Not all my ideas are good, but if I generate enough of them, some will be decent. And some are good places to start. To keep going until they are good or to revise them until they seem like they "just came to me," like an Amazon package you'd forgotten you'd order and then one day, there it is! Battery-operated heated socks! Besides, it's better not to get frustrated and throw in the towel (what? laundry? I don't think so!) but rather keep working and figuring things will work out. Best to trust the process and your own very human ability to make something of interest. Best to try to be a decent writer rather than a "genius," whatever that is. Oh yeah, that's that guy standing on the hill with his Great European Big Mangod Hair waggling in the broody wind.

I want to tell you two recent "inspirations" that came to me over the last couple of days. The sky cracked open...a lithe luminous figure, no. That was my dog licking my nose while I slept. What really happened was this:

I couldn't figure out what to write next in the novel that I'm working on. I really didn't have any specific ideas, so I was messing about Facebook. I mean, why address a problem directly when you can futz around social media? An artist friend of mine (Donna Szoke -- check out her work, she's marvellous!) had posted a drawing she did of an old fashioned telephone (you know, the kind that has a rotary dial and was carved from granite by primitive Neanderthal telecommunications specialists). The phone was missing the number seven. Why? She didn't know. I'd collaborated with her in the past and so I thought I'd write a spiffy and clever prose poem response that would amaze and delight all our social media friends. But I couldn't. Instead, I found myself writing a passage for my novel—it's set in the underworld—where Death tells my protagonist that all he had to do was to dial 666-6667 and he can get a taxi out of there. Of course, when my protagonist goes into the phone booth (remember them? I think Attila the Hun used to change into his Hun outfit in one of them) and dials the numbers.  When he gets to the last digit, he discovers that there's no seven. This passage that I wrote worked quite well -- it shows the grim humour of Death and the impossibility of getting out of the underworld. It also was good that it was a bit funny which undercut, you know, all that rumination about mortality that writing a novel set in the underworld always entails.

The second inspiration was this morning. I was again searching around for something to write for my novel. I knew (because I'd woken up in the middle of the night thinking about it!) that I would write a story ostensibly written by my protagonist (a failed comedian). What was he going to write? I had no idea. I hauled out a book I'd bought when I was in undergrad (when universities roamed the earth with tiny little arms and roared at the ferns)-- a dictionary of Folklore and Mythology. I read a few entries ("Underworld," "Afterlife," etc.) and then came across a bizarrely-named Brothers Grimm story, "Jew in the Thorns." (What? There was anti-semiticism in Germany? Who knew?) where the main character was granted three wishes as a result of his kindness to a beggar. I won't reccount the story here (among other things, it involved a fiddle which made a Jewish guy dance until he got hurt in thicket of thorns.) But, I had the idea that my protagonist could write a story about a failed comedian where a similar thing happened. Then the story flowed quite readily. It was a kind of random inspiration, but really came as a result of thinking a lot about my novel, the characters, and being open to the possible connections ("gossamer filaments'?) between things, to seeing how things might apply to what I'm working on. It's as if I was rooting around in my fridge and found a misplaced spice and thought, oh wow, that'd work really well in this reheated Mac and Cheese that I'm making. Inspiration! Really inspiration is making the field ready for the sprouts. Fertilizing, ploughing, sowing--all those farmery things that farmers do. And then when the sun shines, the little words begin to send their hopeful buds up into the bright air and soon enough, you're ready to harvest a beautiful crop of writing. And then your editor comes and mashes the whole thing down and just when you're beginning to despair entirely and after having waiting so long you've given up, you realize you've got wine!

Here's that little passage that I wrote "inspired" by "Jew in the Thorns" (That does sound awfully Boraty, doesn't it?):

Idea for a script.

A down-on-his-luck comedian worked the night shift in a grocery for too many years. He finally decides to move on and the manager gives him his pay. It’s two dollars and forty-three cents. As he is trudging despondently down the street, he sees a homeless guy on the sidewalk holding out an empty coffee cup. The comedian roots around his mostly empty pocket and finds some lint and his years’ pay. There it is, arrayed on his open palm. Two dollars and forty-three cents and a piece of lint. It’s all he has. 

He pours it all into the homeless guy’s cup. 

“Spend it in one place,” he says.

The homeless guy nods. “God bless.” 

Later, while the comedian is in the park looking at the pigeons and their apparent lack of sadness, an old woman approaches him

“I saw what you did?”

“What? Eat the grapes while I was stocking them? Sneak some cookies at breaktime?”

“No,” she said. “You gave all your money to that homeless guy. And lint.”

“Yeah,” the comedian said. “It wasn’t exactly enough to pay rent.” 

“He could by himself a sandwich.”


“I’m actually a witch and because of your kindness, I’m going to give you three boons.” 



“Shouldn’t you give them to the homeless guy? He’s the one who needs it most.”

“That’s not how systemic privilege works.”

“And saviourism. Though this is all probably a bit too political for a script.”

“True, but as long as no-one is reading it, here goes, your three gifts: the ability to tell jokes that make people laugh, the ability to make people do as you want, and the ability to make the world’s best sandwiches.”

A few years later, the comedian, not really able to adapt to his new reality, and in fact, not believing in the reality of the “boons” at all, is arrested after stealing some beef jerky from the very grocery store he used to work at. Social change is hard, man.

He is in the prisoner’s dock and about to be sentenced when he  tells a joke. The judge, the Crown Attorney, the court clerk, the police, his own lawyer, the members of the public and the court transcriptionist all began laughing uncontrollably. They bend and contort, writhe and shake. Tears stream. The judge’s sash is soggy. The transcriptionist’s dictaphone is ruined. Two cops embrace each other, quaking with mirth. 

“Take off my handcuffs,” the comedian says but the police are laughing too hard to hold the key steady. Instead, the comedian climbs out of the prisoner’s box and leaves the courtroom with the handcuffs on. He never is able to remove the handcuffs but he is able to make sandwiches. He opens a sandwich shop. His shacklewiches become very popular and he becomes a wealthy man. One day the homeless man walks into the shop and asks for a sandwich. The comedian makes him a sandwich and the homeless guy pays him two dollars and forty-three cents and a piece of lint. 

“You never spent it?”

“Social change is hard, man. And besides, who wants a piece of lint?”


Friday, October 16, 2020

Kaie Kellough & Jason Sharpe: UBGNLSWRE


Kaie Kellough, poet, novelist, performer is coming to speak and perform at Sheridan this term. I'm really thrilled—he's really astounding. All his work is fresh, energizing, and insightful, exploring language and story from his perspective as a Montrealer of Guyanese-background. He often works with musician Jason Sharpe (and besides who doesn't swoon for bass saxophone!) Here is a really fantastic performance that Kaie and Jason did recently for the fabulous Aga Khan museum in Toronto. There's discussion before the performance, but I'd recommend jumping to the performance right away (it's so good!) and then going back to hear what they have to say.