Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On Writing #22 : Matthew Firth

How I write
Matthew Firth

I haven’t written anything good for a long time. The last meaningful piece of writing I finished was a eulogy – for my father. I’m not sure if there’s a connection between what poured out of me writing and delivering that eulogy and my subsequent literary silence or not. Maybe; maybe not. Hard to say.

I’ve always been a feast or famine type of writer. I have been at this 20+ years and I have learned that it can’t be forced. Writing is not opening a jar of spaghetti sauce. It requires some muscle and brute force, yes, but more than anything it takes patience. I’m a proponent of waiting for it to happen. And it doesn’t always happen. It rarely happens, at least for me, especially lately.

While I’m a disciplined person on many fronts (I sometimes go through runs where I do insane amounts of push-ups day after day after day), I am not a writer who writes every day. I admire those folks, the ones who feel they have to throw down 500 or 1000 or 2000 words a day to justify their existence. I haven’t written 500 words of decent literary expression in the last year. Yet here I am, subject of this column. Maybe I’m relying on my reputation too much. Like a former NHL 50-goal scorer, I’ve had some good seasons in the past that gives me credibility, but, even in the world of literature, you gotta produce. But I don’t shoot pucks (well, actually I do, every Monday night with some other old farts, some of whom are even writers). To the point: I call myself a writer and I write. I can produce. And here’s how.

I don’t keep notes anywhere but in my head. I write short stories and they always start conceptually by visualizing places, characters, things, smells, sounds, etc. I toss the ideas for stories around in my head when my mind is otherwise turned off. For me, this happens two places: on my bicycle riding to/from work or on the bus riding to/from work, depending on the time of year here in Ottawa (I’m not one of those nutty, twelve-months-a-year cyclists). I sometimes even “write” a sentence or two in my head on my bike. I usually don’t write it down first time around, as I rarely trust my first instincts. Instead, the sentences and the ideas ferment in my brain for a couple of weeks until I convince myself that the brewing literary intoxicant is worth bottling – i.e., putting down on paper. And that’s usually what I do: I handwrite the first paragraph of a story on paper and then input it to the computer later. The act of typing already-written stuff into the computer usually generates momentum. From there, I write straight into the computer; just building on that first hand-written paragraph. I’ll have ideas in my head about where the story is going but it is almost never thought through fully. I don’t plot stories from start to finish. I let the act of writing the story take it where it goes.

The other thing is that I write with urgency. I’ve always worked full-time, for the most part, for the past 25 years or so. I’ve got a family, a wife, a mortgage, groceries to buy, kids to take here and there, and many other interests outside of literature. I have also run a micro press (Black Bile Press) for 20 years. My writing often takes a backseat to this other stuff. But when the engines are firing, I squeeze in time to write and then make the most of it. After thinking through a story for a month, writing a few lines in my head, I can sit down at a computer and hammer out a 2000 word story in an hour and a half, largely because that’s all the time I have. Not always but sometimes I write a complete story from start to finish and then go back and edit and pick it over until I think it’s done. I rarely write more than one story at a time. I’m task oriented. Gotta get one done before working on another.  

I have a publisher (Anvil Press) that asks me what I’m writing. I give vague replies. I don’t think about a new book of short stories until about 90 per cent of the work is done and I’m happy with it. I don’t write huge volumes of stuff. I put a book out about every five years. And I don’t write many stories that don’t end up in books. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m efficient with what I write. I might write 15-20 stories over five years and 12-15 of those will end up in a book.

Ideas and influences for writing come from everywhere: from stuff I hear on the bus, to a song that conjures a memory that leads to fiction, to a conversation with a teammate over a beer after a lacrosse game and on and on. Everything is fodder for fiction. Nothing is sacred. It all goes into the blender of my brain and then sometimes re-emerges and gets heated, bent and twisted into a story. Nobody really makes anything up. That’s bullshit. I didn’t make this up.

This is how it happens, or, how it used to happen before my dad died and I wrote that damned eulogy …   

Matthew Firth was born and grew up in Hamilton but has lived in Ottawa since 2000. He is the author of four collections of short fiction, most recently Shag Carpet Action. Selected stories from all four of these books was collected, translated into French, and then published in 2013 as Made in Canada by Paris’ 13E Note Editions. He is co-editor of the fiction magazine Front&Centre and founder of Black Bile Press.

Monday, February 10, 2014

McNair & Avasilichioaei in A B Series

A B Series Presents 

Christine McNair and Oana Avasilichioaei

Readings + a multimedia presentation!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ottawa Art Gallery
Arts Court
2 Daly Ave.
Ottawa, Ont.

A hat will be passed.

More info: abseries.org

Oana Avasilichioaei
We, Beasts (Wolsak and Wynn, 2012) won the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry in 2012. In We, Beasts, textual architecture, orality and multilingualism are covered. In her book, feria: a poempark (Wolsak and Wynn, 2008), geography and public space are explored. And in Expeditions of a Chimæra (BookThug, 2009) co-authored with Erín Moure, Avasilichioaei engages with translation and collaborative performance. Avasilichioaei has also translated two volumes of poetry: one from Romanian by Nichita Stănescu, Occupational Sickness (BuschekBooks, 2006) and one from French by Louise Cotnoir, The Islands (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011).

Christine McNair's first book Conflict (Book Thug 2012) was shortlisted for the ReLit award, as well as the Archibald Lampman award, and the City of Ottawa Book Award. She has previously been shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She works as a book doctor in Ottawa.

Recent Reads: The State In Which by Hailey Higdon

The State In Which by Hailey Higdon

Published by above/ground press, 2013.

Recent generations have formed the habit of looking back at the industrious past – when people married at eighteen, when the word “career” suggested a life’s work and wouldn’t dream of being pluralized – and expecting that stability to settle in their own lives. Stories about our parents, grandparents and so on have inadvertently staked these signposts of adulthood in our minds. Yet the recognition that childish impulses and mature accomplishments don’t meet and reconcile at a certain age has only recently been acknowledged on a cultural level. Besides enabling a slew of dysfunctional sitcom and reality TV premises, this awareness that everything isn’t always okay has opened the door, a crack, for discussing mental health issues.

Repelling the comedic surface, Hailey Higdon takes on doubts surrounding self-identity and aging by dissecting common fears with idiosyncratic detail. As an open letter to the anxieties that accompany rites of passage we’re expected to cross cleanly, The State In Which wanders through ignominious aftermaths, month by month. From “January”:

That song about what a bad
impression you made
today is stuck
growing older in you
making choices with you singing along.”

What begins as a steadfast rut proceeds to seesaw, plumbing indecision through darker soils. The milder “April” and “May” provide an escape from Higdon’s suffocating doubts but they’re easily bruised in the outdoors. From the former:

I thought I saw Abbi in Nashville today, the lady
scratched her nose with her finger in a way that could only be
my friend Abbi, Abbi, but it wasn’t. Abbi and the gesture had been
taken by somebody else – stolen, and someone that looked like Abbi
too, what gives?
What a rottenly remarkable thing to take – I cried like a baby about it.

Could it be possible that I am growing my feelings in reverse?

Regardless of whether The State In Which is a convincing character study or something more personal, Higdon’s diary-like minutia will instantly divide her readership into camps. (Discarding the merits of mental illness is a privilege for those of healthy mind, so let’s exclude that group of would-be readers right off the bat!) By “camps”, I refer more to those who, in reading the above excerpt, detect a subtle black comedy at work, and then those who don’t. My interest in which poems those two groups might react to, and whether those reactions ever intermix, reflects the understated strength of Higdon’s unstable text: there’s no clearheaded way to get through this. We experience Higdon’s psychological hiccups on a continuous evolution and respond by utilizing empathy or understanding from experiences within our own private headspace.

If the passing months often feel like stand-ins through which our protagonist passively connects with the greater world, her entire calendar paces conditionally on the person watching it, advancing superficially only to round a circle of doubt. The same can be said for the many destinations she researches, grasping at foreign straws that might cure or transform her.

The static realism of the condition Higdon brings to life doesn’t prevent unpredictable jumps along the way. In fact, by the time we reach June and July, the narrative has scattered and overlapped – inaction rendering time virtually undetectable. What initially appears like a fragmented stream-of-conscious reveals a purposeful disorder of pages; there’s logic within Higdon’s rant about decisions to make, places to daydream about and “the mosquito” (constantly threatening to suck life or transmit decay) but we need to spend time with it. There’s a greater message society can take from this process.

With the cooler months comes a decline in Higdon’s need to explain herself. Obstacles remain, as do the occasional pep talks, but as each page submits to increasingly blank passages, there’s a palpable sense of surrender. Dull panic reverts to dependence over “September” and perspective of self gets lost (“what is or is not a response to bad things happening”). Her stanzas, grouped tidily in early months, push away from the left margin and separate into single, isolated phrases by December.

It’s troubling that Higdon’s resolution, acknowledged at the close of The State In Which, goes by without explicit mention. After so much chatter, that one glaring omission cleverly has us deliberating over the previous entries and the nature of depression itself. In a chronicle made all the more haunting through its casual collapse, Higdon touches the nerves of a conversation that includes everyone.

Friday, February 07, 2014

On Writing #21 : Nichole McGill

Daring to write again
Nichole McGill

About a year ago, I decided to stop writing.
    Creative writing, that is. Emails, reports and other officious writing continued. What stopped was the carving out of time at the end of a long day of (enumerated) work, once children were read asleep, to fuel up on caffeine and peck away at the next novel until my frantic mind calculated that four hours of sleep on a weekday was, in the end, not smart.
    Not only would I not write, I would allow myself not to feel guilty for not writing. You writers know what I mean.
    The inner voice that would demand its tithe of focus and time would be condemned to a sound-proof box and I would take the path of “normal ”; the majority of humanity who don’t have to build the world anew every morning but dwell in the structures and the institutions of the world as they exist. Do the 9 to 5. Have hobbies that know their place. Do homework with the kids. Hang out.
    It took me a long time to get there.
    Writing and the creative life had been my bread and butter in my 20s, producing original story ideas for newspapers, magazines and even some television. But that was the 1990s, in that dying era of the paid journalist.
    By 2000, the Web was acknowledged as here to stay and I transitioned to HTML convincing others that the Web was just like other media just with code (and please, don’t leave the actual writing to the webmasters). Interestingly, it was also the beginning of my published literary career and the splitting of my work and creative personas: Web professional by day; story writer by night and “stolen” time.
    I published a book. Had babies. Ran a reading series. Published more and got on the social media wave in that last naive period of the pre-ebook publishing. Then all hell broke loose. Kindles, Kobos, EPUBs, oh my. And what’s an author to give away or keep and what’s a decent ebook royalty, anyway?
    In 2010, my publisher, Key Porter, closed its doors and my experience in the late 2000’s was that other publishers seemed ill-equipped both for the social media revolution, never mind the e-book revolution to shortly come.
    I forged a new path. I self-published my own e-version of novel on Kobo while deciphering open source software, EPUB and BISAC’s. I taught workshops on book marketing and e-publishing. I went to book-tech conferences and sat on panels. I co-developed an EPUB writing software, just. All fascinating projects. All my way of trying to make sense of the current upheaval in book publishing. But no “real” writing. Who has time to write in chaos?
    Now, after living “normally” for a spell, I discover I might just have some extra time in which I can write. More crucially, there have been two creative ideas that keep returning to scratch at my door. Do I dare start to write again?
    Let’s look at state of the writing world.
    Book industry - still pretty much in chaos, although friends are still getting published. In hardcover yet.
    Template for the ebook of the future - still waiting for this.
    Financial reward - not only stagnated but reversed. Decline of the mid-list. Expectation of authors to write for free. Generally, depressing.
    Frustrating writing tools. Remember when the only writing programs were Word and WordPerfect and although both sucked at least they were consistent? For this essay, I had to remember which device it was saved on, whether it was MAC or PC or open source. Do I want a distraction-free interface or a format that my editor can read?
    Yet, if I am to be truly honest, I also stopped writing because it no longer brought me joy. Upon hearing that a complete re-write of my latest manuscript was necessary to make it “sellable”, I thought: “Nuts to this.” I no longer was passionate about the book, indeed, not sure if I ever was. And if I’m going to have to go through all the editing-formatting-marketing-selling-technical effort, there must be something in it for me.
    Yes. That’s a good start. Shut out the rabble and meander to the page. The page is always waiting. And if there is some delight to found there in the act of creating, then continue. Maybe, just maybe, I’m ready.

Nichole McGill is the author of Girl #3. She also oversees the Web presence of the University Ottawa and blogs occasionally about Web, writing and social media at www.nicholemcgill.com.