In preparation for the book club/writing class launching this fall (guys how many hints for the book club/writing class can I fit into this post? That's my goal here), I've been reading and re-reading a ton of my favourite Canadian novels trying to decide which ones should make it into the club (I like thinking of this as a club, like we're going to get our own picture in the year book- dibs on the center spot and wearing pigtails). Re-reading these works of genius is both delightful and terrible, the former because it's so wonderful rediscovering the worlds and characters I love so much, like the zany Nomi from Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness who is a perfect combination of both my sisters, aka, my dream human, and the latter because it just feels bad to come face to face repeatedly with writerly genius that feels so impossible to ever replicate. It's disheartening.
I think this is why I watch reality television (um I may or may not have watched the pilot episode of Life Of Kylie this week after a feminist blog reviewed it favourably- and I've honestly never watched any of the Kardashian shows, so it's been a strange way to come in late to the game). Because reality television is so bad, so ridiculous, with the worst scripting humanly possible and the strangest most wishy-washy declarations of emotions (Bachelorette contender: I think I'm having feelings of love for you. Bachelor: I think I'm possibly maybe in some far off future universe of feelings having odd pulsations in my nether regions for you), I don't ever feel like I have to measure up to it when I write. It's like an instant ego-boost every time someone utters another cliche ("We're meant to be"), non-sequitur ("I can't stop thinking about him, therefore we must be 'meant to be'" - OF COURSE you can't stop thinking about him! He's the only man you've seen in 7 weeks, for God's sake!), or, better yet, forgoes dialogue altogether in exchange for looking longingly and awkwardly into each other's eyes, I feel like my place as a smart, capable writer is safe in the world. My writing is better than theirs, whoever wrote the script (and you better believe someone is scripting that "reality" shit), and I can sit back smugly, secure in my writing chops, and reach for another handful of Chicago Mix.
Side note: on a recent camping trip to Vermont, I discovered that Chicago Mix is simply called "The Mix" in the States- WHAT? All Americans just instinctively know that if something is "a mix", it obviously refers to the brilliant combination of florescent orange cheese, sweet crunchy caramel, and salty pillowy popcorn?? "Yo dude, I'll bring the beers and you bring... the MIX". From now on, forget Chicago- for all we know, Chicago just hopped on that band wagon like everyone else but had the foresight to brand it first. Chicago's out- THE MIX is in.
Now, as I was saying... (literally just had to read over what I wrote so far to remember what I was saying) this summer I'm reading a handful of the top contemporary Canadian novels (*cough* for zee BOOK CLUB/WRITING CLASS in which we read a book for a month and then have a class on what we can learn about writing from that book *cough*) and feeling intimidated by them because they are so good, the writing is so tight and thoughtful and wrestled over, that I feel exhausted just thinking about how much work they must have taken to get them so- freaking- perfect. Every word of Alice Munro's short stories has been painstakingly chosen- if you read her closely, you can see that not one word can be removed- every one is necessary. Sarah Selecky- the way that woman captures every bit of subtext with a single gesture, and Heather O'Neill- the details she layers unforgettably on top of each other to create this rich tapestry of believability in the most absurd stories (hint- I may or may not be teaching you how to steal these tricks in the book club/writing class). And don't even get me started on Margaret Atwood.
But first, here's my major confession- I haven't read Margaret Atwood. Well I read the obligatory Handmaid's Tale in high school, but I didn't really understand it, and I'm ashamed to say I only do now that Hulu's brilliant adaptation of it came out setting the story in the horrifyingly realistic present day. I've always known Atwood is the queen of Canadian literature, and that I should probably read everything she's ever written if I want to call myself a Canadian writer, but something about that obvious duty caused me to put her off, assuming I could save her work for some time later in life when I got really "serious" about writing. Now, I write professionally in multiple mediums and I still don't feel like I'm serious enough about writing (that's a therapeutic post for another time), but there's another reason for my caution at starting in on Atwood's canon, and it has to do with the b-word.
When I was in university at UVic, I met a women at a bus stop- she was very well dressed, in her 70s I'd guess, and looked me up and down as soon as I assumed I could share the bus bench with her, as if she only barely deigned this acceptable. She declared that I looked like an arts major, which I sheepishly admitted to, and she nodded as if my ill-fitting vintage patterned dress, cardigan, and sensible shoes left no other option (on second thought...). Then she let loose with a story I've never forgotten: "I once went to a seminar that Margaret Atwood was speaking at, and waited until I got up close for her to sign my book, and then I looked her in the face and told her what I'd always wanted to tell her- Margaret Atwood, you bitch!".
To be completely honest, I actually don't remember why this woman wanted to tell Margaret Atwood that she thought she was a bitch. I know, I'm sorry, that's literally the meat of the story, but for some reason I only really clearly remember the look of pure glee on the woman's face- it was clear this was a crowning moment in her life, and I had the feeling she would have told me the story whether I was an arts major or not (and whether it was true or not!). But the comment has always left this feeling in me about Atwood- with her fascinating crown of cloudy grey curls and those narrow piercing eyes- that she was a serious woman whose very presence led strangers to declare their contempt for her. And something about that is so bad-assedly awesome to me that I've always been a bit intimidated to start her novels- fearing, as the mild-mannered woman that I am, that Atwood wouldn't approve of a measly writer like me trying to understand her brilliant work.
And yet that's what I'm doing now, humbly, and with silent prayers to Atwood to excuse my tardiness to her books. I'm working my way through a few of her novels (choosing one for the BOOK CLUB/WRITING CLASS, TBA!), and I'm totally surprised at-
A) the accessibility of them- my memory of Handmaid's Tale was that it was incredibly difficult to read, and now I'm having a blast with every juicy word of Cat's Eye,
B) how much sci-fi (she prefers the term "speculative fiction") she wrote- like, how did I not know this? It's my fav genre (that's not actually a link to the book club!)! Forget being late to the Kardashian game, I'm late to the one-of-the-best-sci-fi-writers-in-the-world-is-female-AND-Canadian game, and
C) how intimidated I still am to read her, yet how much more challenged and inspired I feel to make my own writing as perfect and clear and taut as I possibly can.
Encountering good, especially great writing, can have these two effects: it can make us feel like failures- like we'll never be as good and so why even bother. Or, it can make us feel like failures who might one day be as good or at least will die trying. A fantastic Atwood quote I read this week said: "If I waited for perfection, I would never write". When I read it, I thought- "that's easy for you to say, Margaret Atwood, you bitch, but some of us would really really like to be perfect at writing!". And why not?! Writing is scary! It's terrifying, actually, when you're really truthful, and vulnerable- when you really work up the nerves to experiment with language or, worse, to bleed onto the page- to admit ridiculous things like your recent reality television addictions, or your insecurities about your own writing or relationships or success, or your true emotions and fears about the world as it looks this week from Virginia to Barcelona.
I WISH I knew my writing would be perfect each time I wrote- it would make it so much easier to start writing. The truth is, the more writing projects I complete, the more edits I end up doing on the next one, because I am constantly learning how much I still have to learn about writing, and I'm constantly feeling more and more UNequipped to tell stories in the best way, the brightest and clearest and least-offensive-yet-challenging and most-effective way. Writing is actually getting harder, the longer I write, rather than easier. And I think what Atwood is saying is that it should- it should be hard, and it will be hard, and we have to do it anyway. We can't wait for it to be perfect because it won't ever be. But we do have to start because, as Atwood said, "writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light". We need you- your voice- to help bring something back out to the light when sometimes the world feels really really dark.
Another quintessentially Canadian Atwood quote that I came across this week was advice she had for those who want to write: "I think the main thing is: Just do it. Plunge in! Being Canadian, I go swimming in icy cold lakes, and there is always that dithering moment. 'Am I really going to do this? Won’t it hurt?' And at some point you just have to flop in there and scream".
Firstly, I must say that I can only imagine Atwood in the most serious, plain black one-piece swim suit, her grey curls wet and plastered to her hair in a no-nonsense way before she does all this cold lake swimming, and it makes me want to forego bikinis forever in the name of serious womanhood. But also, I'm trying to take her advice more, and to encourage it in my writing workshops (and *ahem* book club/writing class)- to embrace the humming and hawing that always comes before I need to sit down and write as the necessary thing my body needs to do to prepare- like a cold water swimmer- but as something that must eventually be overcome with a scream and a flop in. Or, as Kylie Jenner so eloquently put it with her bee-stung lips in Life of Kylie, to "just live". See, I CAN count reality television as inspiring writing material!
As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
P.S. The WRITING CLASS + BOOK CLUB is filling up, even though it doesn't launch until October! More than just a book club for wine and gossip (though I will definitely be drinking wine), each month we will read a contemporary Canadian book and then meet together for a lesson on what writing tips we can steal from the author- from how to write fascinating protagonists, to how to use setting as a character, to how to bring your own style to new forms. I am currently keeping the reading list to myself as I finalize books, but if you're curious, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'd be happy to send you the list as it presently stands! Anyone is welcome, so come learn how to read like a writer, and join our fun, inviting, and friendly Whitespace Writers community! Click HERE to register!