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.