Friday, 28 June 2013

Where Stories Come From

No podcast this week. Instead some ponderings about where stories originate.


When I read about other writer’s childhoods, and about how many took refuge in books, the written word, I have such mixed emotions. Jealousy, shame, hunger, loneliness, envy, sadness. Hard, pointy, sharp feelings.

There weren’t many books in my house when I was a child. There were some; two shelves, to be precise, on a small black bookcase at the end of the hallway, between my parents bedroom and the one my sisters and I shared. Most of the bottom shelf was taken up by a set of thin, illustrated encyclopedias that I could never bring myself to read, but I spent many hours studying the pictures of ancient civilizations.

The sentences in most books seemed to be in a language that my anxious mind could not decode. I could read words, but I couldn’t settle into sentences, couldn’t rest in or even access the thoughts and ideas behind stories. Things inside me were churning, but I didn’t know that then. The churning was my normal, so I never named it churning—it just was what I was.

And so when I retreated, found refuge, which I often did, it was not to books; it was to my imagination. I’d fashion tent houses from a thin bedspread flung across the porch and front steps, clipping the blanket to the black wrought-iron railings with clothespins. One particular old cotton bedspread, the kind with little upraised tufts that I’ve since learned is called chenille, was the best. When the sun shone through it, the world underneath blushed warm, glowing peach.

In winter, stuck indoors, I’d wrap big bath towels around my head. Sometimes the towel was long, blonde hair, like Rapunzel (I did have one book of fairy tales, retold in a friendly way “for modern children”); other times the loopy terrycloth was a high steeple Medieval headdress, which I’d seen in a picture and was captivated by. I’d dance in the living room, carefully balancing the heavy towel so it wouldn’t unravel as I waltzed with an imaginary Disney-style prince in front of the TV where figure skaters leapt and spun and sent blue and white flashes onto the walls of my royal ballroom. Outside the big picture window, snowflakes gathered on the blue spruce and dusk fell.

I did not read for pleasure until a few Nancy Drews, Dorothy Parkers and finally Anne of Green Gables came my way. The latter captivated me. Changed me. But the reading habit did not stick. Occasionally, I’d wander the aisles of the local library, which was a long drive from my house, but the French-speaking librarians were unhelpful, even unfriendly (those were the Rene Levesque days in Quebec) and I was overwhelmed by the choices. I had no clue what to touch and what not to touch. It was scary.

There were no bookstores anywhere that I knew of and no money for books if there had been.
So I came very late to books and that is okay, I think, though it has made for a particularly long and difficult journey to this place I am now, where words are finally a refuge of sorts. All along, I have slowly gathered the tools to understand and to express—or strive to, it’s always striving to understand and express—the complexity of human existence, human emotion. Words are my tools to mine that long childhood and beyond it, too.

Beyond it, I say, because what has surprised me in all of this is that when I write, story threads to which I do not remember being exposed emerge from within—the darker myths and fairy tales, the ancient feminine, the magic, the archetypes. They arrive unbidden, which encourages and truly fascinates me. It leads me to trust the unseen, believe that the stories are there, shared among us all, in a Jungian way, in a collective unconscious that is not contained in any one story or book or body. Stories that connect us, frizzing sparks of electrons speeding along a wire suspended. Words that are more than language, but an ancient rumbling of stars in darkness, light from a long way off that’s also within. 

Perhaps you feel it, too? A feeling that starts a little lower than your anatomical heart, rising from that place, rolling through your chest and catching in your throat, then bubbling up in words that you didn’t know you knew.

Imagine that. I do.

Monday, 17 June 2013


Co-suffering, that’s what compassion means. Was that what I felt when, this weekend, I held in my hands a mourning dove and tried, with husband and son, to save it?

The bird had become entangled in our badminton net, which we’d taken down but not put away. The black net stood limp, almost invisible, hanging from a pole at the rear of the garden where birds flutter back and forth among the trees.

My son came running in to say a bird was caught in the net. My heart jumped. I cursed aloud. I so easily jump to anger, at myself, at the boys. Looking for someone to blame.

My husband reached the little bird first. I hesitated. I stood in the kitchen and deliberated. Could I care for this bird? Could I take this on? Would it hurt me too much? What if he died in front of me? Like my dog, who was hit by a car running to greet me when I was in grade two? I thought all this and then ran outside.

Scissors - I think it was my husband’s idea. I yelled to my son to get them. The sound of his heavy steps as he hurried down the deck stairs with the scissors frightened the bird. It panicked and tried to fly away but fell quickly to the ground.

Then my hands were on the bird quickly; no more thinking, just acting. The dove was soft and warm, and at my touch it grew still.

The net had twined itself around wings and legs so quickly and intricately that we could not loosen it. I started cutting away carefully, trying to loosen its strings. My husband was working too, delicately pulling at the net. I snipped and snipped, holding my breath, holding the bird.

And it held onto me. One tiny claw wrapped itself around my thumb. “He's holding me,” I said. My son watched. I looked into the bird’s eye and it looked at me. The moment lasted. And there we were. In it together. Compassion. Co-suffering.

My husband took the scissors since I could not cut strings and hold the bird and have it hold onto me all at the same time. He cut, but no matter how much we cut, the strings around its body did not loosen.

I gently lifted a wing, hoping we could see where the twine was hidden. Nothing. It disappeared amid soft grey feathers.

The bird was fully cupped in my hand now. It defecated on me. Poor frightened thing. But it was so brave, all the time holding onto my finger, like a newborn, looking at me as though for reassurance. “You are so brave, little bird,” I said.

Snip. Snip. We kept working. The bird was separated from the net, but parts of the string stubbornly twined around parts unseen.

I tried to lift its leg again; my husband said that had seemed to help.

I loosened my hand, the one the bird held onto, to try to manouvre its foot. That movement, my breaking the bond, changed everything. It flapped its wings frantically and I could not restrain it, fearing it would hurt itself in the struggle to escape. I let go. For better or worse. What would happen? Any control I might have had over the entire situation and the bird itself was, quite literally, out of my hands.

The dove flew up. It could fly. It flew to the chokecherry tree at the far end of the yard, alighted there for a moment, gathered its wits, and took off into the canopy of trees. It was gone.

We were shaken. We promised to put the net away as soon as we finished playing badminton. Every time. It wasn’t enough to put it aside. The thing was a death trap, especially when it was loose and limp near the wilder part of the garden at the back trees.

I sent love to the little creature right away, in the way that I do, which could be called prayer. I am hoping that because it could fly, and because there were no strings near its head or neck, that the rest of the net will fall away, that we had cut enough of the net that it will drop off as the bird flies and flies.

I hear a mourning dove right now, outside my office window, its distinctive coo-coo-coo coming to me from the maple or the lilac. I noticed it as soon as I started typing. I hope it is our little friend, and that it knows we never meant to harm it. I hope it is happy, healthy and free.

I will never forget its eye on me, and its claw grasping my thumb. I know better now my responsibility to my fellow creatures and my power to harm or help. I know now I must rush out and be couragous, hold compassion in my heart, and love. It does hurt. But it is right.

 Photos are the rear garden on a foggy, rainy day.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Podcast Thursday: Ursula Le Guin

Photo copyright 2012 by Laura Anglin
Have you ever drawn up one of those ideal dinner party guest lists, where you pick six people from today or the past (or even fictional guests) and invite them for an imaginary dinner party?

I’m always revising my list, and today I added a very real, very alive writer: Ursula Le Guin.

This BBC podcast of an interview with Le Guin at her home in Portland also includes interviews about Le Guin with Margaret Atwood and Iain Banks. Wow – the heavyweights.

Le Guin’s got a giant intellect, a good heart, an eloquence that’s easy on the ear and an honesty that’s as trustworthy as an old friend.

I really love her Earthsea Trilogy. I aspire in an ever-so-humble way to her brevity, her economy of words, her ability to write plainly about profound matters.

I loved JK Rowlings’ Potter books and after reading the Earthsea books, wondered why I’d never heard about Ged/Sparrowhawk and his education at the wizarding school on the island of Roke. Le Guin wrote her books 30 years before Potter arrived. I’m not suggesting Rowling borrowed—they are very different books in many ways — but it is frustrating that the book reviews of Rowlings’ work didn’t reference or acknowledge Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Did they simply not notice the connection? Le Guin wonders about this but isn’t bitter. At the very least, it would be helpful to Potter fans if they knew about these classics, and could broaden their literary horizons.

In this podcast, Le Guin also discusses the snobbery of critics regarding science fiction and fantasy, and I love that Atwood agrees, saying: “I’m a reader of science fiction and fantasy…I’m not one of those people who think only realistic novels are good literature.” Atwood also says that she considers Le Guin among the best writers of the 20th century.

If that’s not enough of a recommendation, what is?

I haven’t read much else of Le Guin’s work other than the Earthsea books, but two of her big standalone novels, The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, which are considered groundbreakers, are on my list. But I would recommend her adorable Catwings series, which are for very young readers. I am currently haunting the second-hand shops trying to complete my collection of the slim booklets. 

I hope you enjoy the podcast, and if you haven’t already discovered her books, you are in for a treat. Ursula Le Guin is a writer who cares about our world and its people. And she cares about her readers, too. “The letters I get from readers are almost unbearably touching…they say things like, ‘You know, you turned my head around with that story’…so writing does have an effect, it does matter,” she says.

And, I will add, by correlation, so does reading. I’d like to discuss that over dinner. “Hello? Ursula?”

For a complete list of her work and more info about this great author, see Ursula's own website. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Podcast Thursday on Monday: Guy Gavriel Kay

So much of life is about seizing the moment. That’s true when it comes to creating, as well. Like this condensation on an empty glass water jug, straight from the refrigerator on a hot day—it changed as I watched. Had I hesitated in taking these photos, I would have missed recording this evanescent beauty.
But it got me thinking about how everything is always in the process of becoming something new. We are certainly always changing, as are our creations.
In this (not quite Thursday) podcast of Guy Gavriel Kay, the fantasy author discusses how reading fiction changes us. He sites a study that links those who read fiction with higher levels of empathy and he says this:
“The act of reading fiction is essentially an act of immersing yourself in other lives than your own. If a writer is skillful, they are causing you to care about the invented figures in the novel and that act of caring for what happens to invented figures is one that—the suggestion is—develops empathy.”  Guy Gavriel Kay

He goes on to say that a little part of him questions that: Are those who are more naturally inclined to empathy drawn to reading fiction or does fiction actually develop empathy in people? Good question. That’s why I like him – no simple answers.

Regardless, I think most would agree that the acts of both experiencing empathy and reading fiction change a person. A story read, if it’s been successful, gives you a slightly shifted perspective…or maybe not so slightly.

Also on the topic of change, Kay points out that we tend to think we are better than our predecessors, that we are more evolved and knowledgeable, but is that true? In his latest book, with the compelling title River of Stars, Kay creates a society where people feel “less than” previous generations, not “greater than.” That’s interesting. I’m curious, too, about what such a society would look like. 
 He also talks about how unintended themes emerged in the writing of River of Stars. The theme of family and how parent and child relationships shape us hadn’t occurred to him in his research stage, but it emerged as soon as he began writing and ended up driving the engine of the plot.

 It’s always fascinating to hear about how the creative process surprises the creator. Perhaps that says something true about all creators/Creator? Our creations have a life of their own—they, too, change and evolve into something different than what we originally intended, and because of that they change us—the creators!

The podcast ends with Shelagh saying: “I felt that generosity, empathy, mercy and kindness can actually change things.” Kay is so grateful for the insight and expresses concern about what he says is a tendency toward pure bitterness and cynicism in today’s literature. “Those are only a part of life,” he says. “There are those of us who are acting, thinking, writing and behaving in ways that try to provide an alternative to that way of being and thinking.”

 Agreed. Creating art that brings beauty and healing and a little more light and love and beauty to the world, that’s a thing worth pursuing. Change for good—that's a pitcher half-full philosophy. Heck, even an empty pitcher can be a good thing.

BONUS: My friend, Laurie Grassi, Chatelaine's book editor, interviews Guy Gavriel Kay HERE (the bottom left of the HOME page on Guy's website). Check it out. I missed the event, and I would have discussed it here, but I only found the link late last night. Visit Laurie's website, too, for more author interviews.