There are nearly 800 discussions about books that could be categorized as CanLit on this site, but only a few focus specifically on the act of writing: this quartet was inspired by the 11th Canadian Book Challenge, currently hosted by The Indextrious Reader. (Previous reading for the challenge has included three titles in Native North and five titles in Page Turners: Thieves, Bombs, Predators, Gunshots, and Oil Spills.)
Monique LaRue’s lecture Between Books: A Writer’s Time is a slim volume in the Antonine Maillet – Northrup Frye series.
In 2010, she had authored six novels and received the 2002 Governor General’s Award for Fiction. (The volume includes a short biography of her and also of both Antonine Maillet and Northrup Frye.)
An introduction, by Paul Curtis places LaRue’s lecture in the context of the series and explains that she is the first writer who has chosen to focus on an aspect of the writing process which is normally not visible to readers.
She is drawing back the curtain. (The translation by Jo-Anne Elder affords readers of both English and French a view.)
Because she believes that half of her job as a writer is to read, there is a lot of commentary on reading. Often her observations about craft are rooted in reading as well:
“The pleasure of reading is the writer’s only guide. I say a writer chooses a literary genre, but I could just as easily say that a writer is chosen by a genre, because you can write only the kind of books you love to read.”
She also reflects upon a writer’s use of notebooks, experience of solitude, desire to connect and the time required to create between projects.
Her tone is matter-of-fact and her prose so spare that it almost seems poetic.
Another slim volume about the writing life is Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra (2015).
The work therein was inspired by and created in the field camp in the Ruby Range Mountains in the Yukon, where the Kluane Alpine Ecosystem Project was located, where Elena Johnson was the writer-in-residence.
For the science-y types in the room, the coordinates are 646874E 6788135N.
For the not-so-science-y types in the room, those are not going to be the only details which mystify.
There is a graph detailing the “Survival of Juvenile Hairy Marmots”, a “Ptarmigan Observation Sheet”, and data from a PhD thesis on variable growth in willow shrubs.
But there is also “So little noise here; sound becomes a feeling” and the “white fox of fog curls around me, muffles the map”.
The not-so-science-y are welcome here, too.
This makes an interesting reading companion with the LaRue lecture, with the emphasis on the writing, the act of it and the contemplation of the craft: here, our writer in the Yukon simply is writing.
Readers do not glimpse her with a notebook, but we see the results of her work. And we see, in a footnote to the chart recording “Vegetation Percentage Coverage”, a note that the researchers’ hands were too cold to continue.
Whether typing on a keyboard or writing in a notebook, we must imagine the poet’s hands were shoved deep into pockets much of the time.
Even though she does acknowledge borrowing lines from a dozen poems (from T.S. Eliot to Margaret Atwood, from Gertrude Stein to Michael Ondaatje), Rachel Rose trusts that readers will identify the Wallace Stevens reference in Thirteen Ways of Looking at CanLit (2015).
But it’s much easier to imagine a blackbird, so that thirteen ways of looking at it, in Wallace Stevens poetry, is something with which readers can engage.
Even if you’ve never seen a real blackbird (and I haven’t), another black bird (a starling or a grackle, in my case) can stand in, with all the related ideas that I associate with birds swirling about as well.
‘Canlit’, however, is a slippery term, and, these days, a politicized term, as polarizing for many Canadian writers as ‘feminist’ is for many women.
But the chapbook is dedicated “for the pack” and published initially in a run of 100 copies, perhaps the target audience is the pack, and the work only resonates with the writers who run with it.
There are moments in which the rhythm catches me up. Like: “I caught this poem like a cold, a virus from a computer, it brewed and festered for a decade, then burst its blister.” It feels almost playful.
But more often it feels like a polemic: “I can do it if I plug my nose and swallow. I can do it if I lie on my back and think of tenure.”
Perhaps we are simply meant to ask ourselves if there is a fourteenth way.
Nick Mount’s Arrival: The Story of CanLit (2017) considers both readers and writers, including readers who are writers and writers who are readers.
“One of the things that makes literature different from writing is that for literature, the most important readers are other writers.”
So, for writing, the most important writers are other readers?
Perhaps not what you were thinking, that a book about CanLit would be funny, but despite the amount of information in this volume, it’s also a good read.
His ability to reduce complex ideas into simplest terms does make you think:
“One [McLuhan] thought about the effects of technology on society, the other [Frye] about the effects of myth on literature.”
But you don’t have to think: you can just absorb the stories. Like this glimpse of Mavis Gallant, pulled from a reprint in a 2012 New Yorker:
“She was so poor in Madrid in the spring of 1952 that she pawned her typewriter for fifteen hundred pesetas, her clock for a breakfast, her watch, her grandmother’s ring, her clothes, and her books. ‘I hang on the edge of hunger,’ she wrote in her journal. ‘We are all as pale as this paper. I can’t wear my blouses because they are dirty and I haven’t soap for them and for me and it has to be me.’”
For those who are already familiar with the landscape of CanLit, there are some curious details (like a comparison between the popular understanding of the differences between Coach House and Anansi and the address of the home Jack McClelland bought when he was president of M&S).
And for those who are new to CanLit, there are text box recommendations of some key texts, some expected and some not-so-much (he and I disagree about Margaret Laurence and I still thoroughly enjoyed reading this).
Any CanLit in your stacks lately?