Specificity-ish

A few years ago I was reading this book and I discovered somewhere in it that specificity is the key to writing. Getting closer and closer to the detail gets you closer and closer to the truth.

I try to use the principle of specificity as a guideline for my editing. I ask myself naggy questions, like”What is Gil doing as Jillian says that?” and make disparaging comments like “Not true.” I circle things like “that plant” and replace it with “cactus.”

Even better than those great fixes, I have come up with a system. This system must be good because sometimes I find inspiration in it and other times I loathe it.

The system is simply that I circle things in green, insert a piece of lined paper behind the typed page, rewrite a note on the lined page in the green pen begging specificity, type the green note out into a file called “Green Add-ons,” visit this file whenever I feel or especially don’t feel like it, and do a form of freewrite on that note. Then I print out the pages, old-school cut and paste them on to the original typed pages, then type everything out into something I call a new draft, or Draft_Four.

Simple and specific.

I have in this way been able to find details the only way I can find them: from the magic that comes with typing really quickly. Writing is the only way I can find ideas – well really, the only way I can write – so it’s useless for me to sit over a page or close my eyes and try to insert details. I can’t insert details, I need to write them.

With this system, I have changed the useless “the kitchen was crowded” to the more useless but longer “the kitchen was stuffy with everyone taking breaths in to say things,” and “the curly-haired one” to “the boring face, the bland voice, the diet powder.”

Hopefully there’s more meaning to Green Add-ons than I seem to explain. I think specificity is the key to getting to the nature of my characters, to their motivations and their anxieties and their likability. Why else did Mea wear a full length silk purple jumpsuit to her party? Why does Gil spin a basketball in his hands when he’s nervous? No reason really, but it’s better than Mea wore something and Gil was sitting there.

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3 Things I am Reading

I like to read books in threes. This allows me the chance to avoid one while not making another feel bad. It also makes for piles.

Jonathan Safran Foer has a short story I love called “Here We Aren’t So Quickly” composed entirely of sentences of the style: “I was not…,” “You were…,” “I always…,” “You never…,” “We went…”. One sentence reads “You were not able to cope with a stack of more than three books on my bedside table.”

The three are usually of different categories: in this case, modern literature, memoir, and a German translation. Normal.

All have sticky notes on sentences I like, and all have post-it notes on the back flap with words I don’t know. Current words: syncopation,puerile, proselytizing. Please help me, because if you don’t I will never look them up.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

“When will it sink into my skull that there is no such thing as an obscure Bible verse?”

This book follows A.J. Jacobs as he decides to follow the Bible literally for a year. He doesn’t just try to stone adulterers with pebbles as he passes them on the street, he tries his best to devote himself to God. Though he confesses he started the year as an agnostic, one of my favourite things about this book is that it proves that changing behaviour changes the way you think.

I find Jacobs’ books so exciting (The Know-It-All follows him as he reads the Encylopedia Britannica from A-Z) because they follow absurd creative processes. As readers, we get a lot of the benefit of what Jacobs has done: we learn the Bible, and the Encyclopedia, and we see how they relate to modern life. We laugh, too because Jacobs is a truly funny person.

Listen to this TED talk by A.J. Jacobs about The Year of Living Biblically. Hearing AJ’s voice made me go, “Oh. I get it now.”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

“There is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event … is that ‘something happened’.”

I just started this book, so don’t really ask me about it. I found out about Julian Barnes, a very well-respected contemporary British writer, in an excellent interview with CBC Radio’s Writers and Company. I bought Flaubert’s Parrot at Companion Books on Hastings St. in Burnaby because Eleanor Wachtel read out the opening sentence to what I thought was Flaubert’s Parrot but isn’t, because I opened it and that isn’t the opening sentence.

This book reminds me of what I like about Ian McEwan and John Updike: wistful detail, and a strong, scared man’s point of view. Things I like so far include that the main character’s girlfriend’s name is Veronica and is nicknamed ‘Vron,’ something I’ve never considered, and also that he is friends with two other boys and this really cool one named Adrian. Nobody really likes each other but all are obsessed with Adrian.

Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann

Anything written about Today should be destroyed immediately, just like all real letters are crumpled or torn up, unfinished and unmailed, all because they were written, but cannot arrive, Today.

I am reading Malina because of a blog post by Bookslut. I get convinced, whenever anyone talks passionately about a book, that there’s something worth feeling from reading that book, so I do.

from Bookslut: “I can’t leave this Ingeborg Bachmann novel alone, this Malina. I keep picking at it, like you pick at a skin problem. It might be the reason that someday I learn German. All I can think about this novel is, She nailed it. She nailed it, I wonder how you say that in German, it was like there was a thing, a problem, a creature flopping around in the middle of the room and it had to be killed and she just stabbed a fork into it and it stopped moving…”

I don’t know and don’t care what Malina is about. It is covered in sticky notes for good sentences. I think the character Malina might be a product of the imagination of the main character, a woman named Ich (‘I’ in German), or she a product of his. So far she’s in a horrible relationship with this bossy man named Ivan. She is more desperate than any of us would care to admit we have been. She sits by the phone and cuts off her sentences and bows down to him, but somehow it’s cute, lovable. Now that I write it, I realize that I probably shouldn’t be feeling this way. Maybe I’ll become a bit more feminist by the end of the book. I did just finish Part 1, “Happy with Ivan.”

Now to you. What is the book you feel most passionately about?

I promise to read the first book suggested to me in the Comments section below, and to post about it in my next “3 Things I Am Reading.”

To Sit, Then Stand

I don’t find it hard to come to my chair. I walk here breathlessly. I spill coffee. I ignore other things, and people. I find it easy to come here because I have something to do. I have a book to finish that needs a lot of work before it can get itself finished.

Annie Dillard, in her inspiring book The Writing Life, says “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.”

(photo credit Susan Stevens)

She also says the following:

“Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. … Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps your and your desk in midair.”

I remember imagining, when studying for tests at high school and university, that I wasn’t just memorizing information or understanding concepts, but “hanging out” with the material. I never told anyone this, of course, but I understood that if I were to just spend time getting to know the material, falling into it and burying my face and my body in it, connections would begin to form. These connections would allow me to understand that material well enough to manipulate it in any form needed for the test. The same, I believe, applies to writing a book. I lounge here, smiling at it.

I am now beginning to see that my drive and success in school was preparation for my writing career. I learned, over the years, to self-motivate myself, to be alone and connect with words, to work with an efficient perfectionism. I also learned to show up and sit here.

I keep hearing interviews and reading articles with Jonah Lehrer, who just wrote the book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Though I have yet to read it, I have read and heard around it enough to know that in it Lehrer discusses  things like Bob Dylan’s writer’s block and creative streaks, Steve Jobs’ ability to make Pixar and Apple creative workspaces, and Q, not the radio show but the quotient of how well you should know the people you work with.

(photo credit jonahlehrer.com)

Jonah Lehrer’s most interesting point, to me, is that creativity is at once produced by showing up and making dumb mistakes (Ann Lamott‘s idea I’ve adopted of “shitty first drafts”), but also by standing up. When you are faced with a problem that is causing you to mentally block or give up, do give up. Stand up and do something else. Creativity comes from the moments after you get deep into the material, from the moments when you step away. This is when the connections fall together into a moment of insight.

Recap: sit down, stay there, then at some point stand up. This, I’m learning, is the key.

Postcolonial Aesthetics?

If I had read the name of this event put on by SFU World Literature prior to attending it, I would have asked myself: what the heck are Postcolonial Aesthetics? I hadn’t, so I asked the group of students behind me. “It’s a book talk,” they answered. “About post colonialism.”

It was clear the speaker, preeminent post-colonial scholar Bill Ashcroft, was here to tell us he wasn’t sure himself: the title, he revealed, was originally supposed to end in a question mark, as in Postcolonial Aesthetics?, anyone? Later in the evening,  in response to the final audience question, it was specified that “by postcolonial I mean post invasion, not post independence.” So there is my context for the evening.

I try to go to SFU World Literature events when I can, as I have been to some great ones in the past. One event last year was a discussion between several Japanese and Vancouver authors, including Steven Galloway and Timothy Taylor.

Though I didn’t learn as much about post colonial aesthetics as I might have had I read the 702 page textbook being launched, or Googled the term prior to attending, I did learn and get to think about several things I selfishly made relevant to my interests. It would have been best had I written this blog post immediately after the event, because now I am stuck decoding notes such as the word “hermeneutics” – circled, as though it was very important to me at the time.

1 Thing. Books aren’t intrinsically of a genre. I am not writing a book in order to write a Vancouver book about my generation’s search for its place in a changing world. However, if I ever finish my book, and anyone ever reads it, maybe that’s how it will be read. Books get placed in context, but they aren’t created in context. They come from a place that can’t help being that place, at that time.

Thing 2. Kant, in his discussion of the term “genius,” suggests that art comes from nature and not the individual. This releases the artist from any rules or constraints. The Warlpiri people of Australia also view art not as an individual creation, but as created by a community. However, in Warlpiri tradition, the artist paints within a certain pre-established design, passed down through the family. He cannot actually create anything original, but can only create within his tradition. Postcolonialism aesthetics look at how Western ideas have been imposed on non-Western peoples, and how we have misunderstood a lot of their traditions because of this.

Thing 3.Translations are beautiful because they carry the cadence of other languages into English. I have always loved French books translated to the English, and have been looking for the reason why I find this combination more beautiful than either language in its original form. The hybridity caused by the rhythm of French with the words of English might have created something with which I personally connect, being at once a French and Anglo Canadian.

Though the evening was basically a misunderstanding, I took a lot of notes to make up for it. I came in carrying a yoga mat and left with a business card of a fellow writer who asked an intelligent question with two parts to it.

I recommend attending talks likes these, far above my intelligence level, just to remember how nice it is now that I’m out of school to no longer be paying to sit in front of someone talk about something I don’t understand. This event was free, so I yawned contently during what happened to be the closing line of the talk, and coincidentally made eye contact with the speaker for the first, and last time.

Tree Houses

I get so excited about work spaces. Studies, offices, desks, A Room of One’s Own.

Maybe I equate a productive-looking room to productivity, inspiring to inspiration. But there is something to say for entering a specific mind frame to create, and what better mind frame than a physical frame in which to contain your mind?

I just read this article about a man who built a secret tree house in Whistler. It’s an absolutely beautiful structure, dreamy in its design. It would be the perfect work space even if it were on the ground. But it’s in the trees, in the middle of nowhere.

Courtesy Heidi Hermanski and Joel Allen
http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/04/25/whistler-tree-house-joel-allen/

What I find most inspiring about this tree house, and about this article, are the reactions it’s getting. People are so excited to learn that it’s possible to live in a tree. Someone did this. We could go for a walk in the woods and find proof that someone did this. We could even go into it, live in a tree for a moment, or a day.

Tree houses are things of our childhood that reside still in our imaginations. Meghan Currie, a favourite yoga teacher, speaks of her dream of living in a self-sustaining tree house community. The whole class sighs when she says this, imagining.

It all seems to fit, somehow, with our idea of finding a work place where we can be free of the ground that’s holding us down. Where we can work at whatever inner pursuit it is that needs a strong frame to be harnessed, not just a mind frame but a physical one.

It seems we don’t just need rooms of our own, anymore, in this overpopulated world. We need tree houses.


Hello, Jillian

Jillian would just hate yoga.

My main character floats in and out of my thoughts throughout the day, asking me why I’m not paying attention to her. Of course, Jillian would never say that. She’d pretend she didn’t care. She’s probably forgotten my name.

As I “sat” in chair pose in yoga class today, I considered Jillian doing yoga. It was absurd – I don’t know, picture your oldest grandparent doing yoga. Though Jillian isn’t my oldest grandparent, she’s someone I know well enough that I could buy her a suitable gift, or run her life.

According to rules, I’m supposed to have done a pages-long analysis of Jillian (and her mother, and her cab driver), and though I have attempted one (I am a diligent student), Jillian lived before I needed to decide her favourite cereal (Jillian doesn’t eat cereal!!)

So I use this opportunity to challenge anybody to ask me a question about Jillian by leaving a comment below.

Hint: she is a female.

I already received two excellent, thoughtful questions. Keep them coming!

What is Jillian’s biggest obstruction from her childhood? Did she overcome it? How does it effect her presently?

Jillian grew up in the British Properties of West Vancouver, with parents who were more interested in finding someone to look after her than they were in looking at her. Jillian grew up knowing her mother was sleeping around, that her father was an alcoholic, that the wealth they had wasn’t making anyone happy. Things became easier when her parents adopted her sister, Mea, when Jillian was six and Mea was five. Jillian made it out okay because of Mea, but she still has a hard pit in her stomach where love might have gone. She fills it with Scotch.

What is Jillian’s worst nightmare? Does this generate fears in her every day life?

Jillian’s worst nightmare is being trapped in a life she doesn’t want. She stayed in university for ten years, until she got her PhD, so that she wouldn’t have to start life. Now everything’s caving in on her and she sees that life is coming and all she wants to do is curl up in a ball so she doesn’t get hit in the head by a rock.

What motivates Jillian and what is she passionate about?

Jillian is passionate about great literature, but she is little motivated to do anything more about it than sit at a desk with a pen in her hand and a book on her lap. She did just study it for ten years. Jillian sees a deep black hole in her future, now that she’s graduated, so for now is content to avoid it by sitting in her study every day, doing something akin to writing. Can writing be writing if you don’t write a word?

What is she insecure about?

Jillian has social anxiety. Unlike Gil, who finds people so easy, Jillian stands in corners, in closet doorways at parties, avoiding.

Is she right- or left-handed? What about when she plays hockey or baseball?

Jillian is right-handed but tried being left-handed during a year of high school. She’s jealous of the creativity people guess at, or hope for, when they see left-handed people scrawling in smudged, illegible handwriting. Jillian wouldn’t know what hand she uses for hockey or baseball. She was on a softball team a few years ago, but she refused to go up to bat. She smoked at least three cigarettes per game, with her right hand.