Veronique Darwin

Archive for 2016|Yearly archive page

Is the burner on?

In Literary Events on October 16, 2016 at 9:52 pm

When I ask myself whether the burner is on, whether my hair straightener is still plugged in, or if this time I’ve found a way of burning down my house in some more creative fashion, what am I doing? The thought, once it has appeared, has no way of disappearing unless I confirm the absence of the imminent danger. I must return home to check that I’ve locked the door. I must check my work email to ensure there is no one angry with me. Without addressing the concern, I cannot go on with my normal day. Everything becomes trivialized and pales in the shadow of this looming, certain life-crisis. Once I’ve ensured the danger is not present, for a brief moment I feel like I am floating, like I have been given a second chance and all before me is a clean slate. Then it begins again: another ambiguity, another mole to whack down.

When I create an anxiety for myself, is it really just a way of avoiding being present in the moment? I lose track of life, as I focus in on the distant enigma; all my energy leaves this plane to that one. My heart rate rises, my breathing thins, and I problem-solve all manners of addressing the question. What I don’t do is focus any energy toward addressing the anxiety.

I cannot rest comfortably in ambiguity, and that must be the root of the burner, of the hair straightener, of the work emails and the ever-flowing news feed on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Every time I sense there might be the possibility of something I don’t know about going on, and there is some clear way of me knowing the answer to that question, I take the bait. By attacking the ambiguity, I’ve convinced myself that ambiguity is wrong.

I had a revelation driving yesterday, thinking of the ovens at the school that me and my students had all left on after baking our apple pies. I remember checking each and every one, but did I really check them properly? No, I convinced myself, I checked that the burners weren’t on. But we only used the ovens! The revelation that followed came from some place deep inside of me I don’t yet know but I sense is a God. It told me (in fewer words): what if instead of fighting the unknown, I turned my sword toward the anxiety?

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What if I breathed through every moment of unsureness, worked my way out of it, even made sure to be more mindful each time I real-life turned off the burner or the hair straightener? What if I was simply a more thoughtful person to those around me at every moment? Then I could train myself to react less to the feeling of distress by attacking the reliability of that feeling.

Because how often is the burner actually on? Marc Maron, a great podcaster and comic I listen to who talks often of his anxiety, just recently started his show triumphantly with “This time the burner actually was on!” Mine never has been. The burner is not the problem. I know, because the second I check it I convince myself I didn’t check it well enough. That is often even the nature of the burner: when I check my email, a moment later after I checked it a new message might have arrived, so I must check it again. There is no end to the worry. What needs to be addressed is not the worry, but the worrying.

Life, as far as I know it, seems to be full of ambiguities. I need to be comfortable with that. I need to live with not knowing, and be confident that when I do know something, I will be able to deal with it. And I think the more I leave brain space open to address each moment as it comes, the more I will realize that even when you didn’t leave the burner on, someone else might have, and it’s all about how you react to it. Life is sort of like a game of whack-a-mole but in slower motion, wherein the moles are rational people you know and problems you can solve rather than insatiable subterranean mammals with beady eyes, as they seem at first glance. And maybe you shouldn’t have a hammer.

Book Review: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

In Literature on September 25, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels read like memoir, so why are they not shelved that way? Shouldn’t four books, emotionally and factually detailing the life of a woman in a first-person voice, with an author whose given name is the narrator’s, be considered memoir? The form of the books directly compare with Karl Ove Knaussgard’s six-tome memoir My Struggle or Simone de Beauvoir’s four chronological autobiographies. But Ferrante says she is writing under a pseudonym and has not revealed her true identity. Should we believe her?

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Ferrante’s novels follow the lives of Elena (Lenù), her best friend Lila and the people with whom they grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. There is (of course) speculation that Ferrante is a man, but I’ve never known a man or writer so passionate about female friendship, the bones and meat and soul of the story. Lila and Lenù are competitive, jealous, resentful, spiteful and obsessed with each other, or in other words, best friends. Lila is a brilliant but troubled woman who Lenù cannot help but love for their formative memories and their intertwined emotional lives. In a way, Ferrante’s novels follow the narrative style whose most common reference is The Great Gatsby, wherein the narrator is more of a neutral observer of the much more interesting, evasive and irresistible main character. Maybe Ferrante doesn’t care to share herself with her readers because then we would want to find Lila too. Or maybe she is Lila. In any case, I find it hard to believe that whoever Ferrante really is, this all did not happen.

Maybe that is the mark of a good novel: the reader continues to suspend their disbelief even once the reading is done. I generally shy from books that preface with family trees. If the narrative is so complex that I need a reference document, I highly doubt I will lose myself to this world. That is not the case for this series; the world is there, all the characters heaped in and held together by this poor neighbourhood in Naples no one can truly escape. The Story of a New Name, the second book in Ferrante’s series, chronicles the teenage and early adult years of Lenù and Lila and all their friends. People follow or veer away from well-planned paths, and though the writer doesn’t develop characters like Ada and Gigliola enough that I could draw them for you or pick their voices out of a crowd, I can tell you the role they play in Elena’s and Lila’s friendship, which is all that matters.

What is maybe most remarkable to me about these books—what differentiates them the most from other books I’ve read—is the careful balance between divulging and holding back. Elena is not afraid to tell us that she is in love with Lila, or close enough to it, or to take each emotion and analyze it right down to its component pieces. But even then, the language never loses its consistent, delicate distance. This is something I’ve found before when reading a translated work. Maybe it is in the translator’s attention and care to each word, or in the flow that is lost or maintained from the original language. Or perhaps it’s in the translation from a culture whose emotional life I cannot so quickly access. We don’t just learn about Italy through this book, we learn the story of Italian women, of poverty in Italy in the 40s and 50s, and we learn maybe even more: the life of one Italian woman, whether living or not, still very real to me. It’s also only now, reading these works, that I realize how lacking my bookshelf is of Italian literature, and, in particular, Italian female writers. If this book has anything to say to this point, it’s that it isn’t because of a lack of brilliance or determination in Italian women.

Do Not Feel Alone

In Inspiration, Thoughts on Writing on August 18, 2016 at 6:40 pm

Do not feel alone when you write: remember that one day someone will read this, and will not see you lonely at your desk, your hair undone, the tissues piling up. Feel transformed by the words you write, as though they are sprouts or moulds living inside and feeding off you. Pretend you are surrounded by people watching you, waiting for the unique vocabulary and visual imagery pouring out of your finger pads. One day someone will read this and if they think it’s good they’ll want to be your friend. Do not feel alone alone when you write.

Do not ask yourself questions when you write: know that there is nothing more important than trusting instinct and believing that the word you chose out of nowhere is the very best word. Let the winds of poetry roll off your back and the craziness that possesses wolves at full moon time possess you too. Move forward, like a blind woman with a purpose that she has since forgotten. Trust that the answers will come to you as you reread the words you littered behind you. Do not ask yourself questions when you write.

Do not check Facebook when you write: guess that there is probably someone you know minimally in an incredible place you will never visit because you live your life inside your head. Miss a whole day of group wedding photos and baby videos; use that energy not wasted to write fictional versions of these things! Don’t answer a friend request because you are making friends in your stories, and you can make these friends do and say anything. Do not check Facebook when you write.

Do not read someone a passage: like when you recount a dream, you can be sure that this person will not think the passage is as great as you do. Spend time instead making the writing better, so that person will one day want to sit down and read what you’ve written as though you are a real writer whose book they were given to read for a school assignment. Write that person to whom you don’t want to read your passage into your passage in a venomous way, to supercharge your writing. Do not read someone a passage.

 

 

Do not do any of these things when you write, but do them all when you edit.

Feel alone! Let it seep into your psyche until you become a better writer for it, more cynical and isolated, the world your very specific oyster of which only you and the words that you strung together are trapped.

Ask yourself questions! Let the questions become answers become changes, big and small.

Check Facebook! Editing’s boring!

Read someone a passage! See where they wince and where they laugh; where their eyes light up and die down. Even ask them for a suggestion.

In my summer of play-acting again as a writer, I’ve noticed that sometimes I’m not a very good writer. In trying to identify what was going so wrong, I realized that I was acting as an editor while also trying to be a writer. To separate the two parts of my job into creating and cutting is a distinction that works for me in theory, but hey, if I want to check Facebook, that’s a good time to place my editor’s hat on, and if I want to write down whatever comes to my head, which I always do, I am free to call myself back to duty as a writer.

The whole thing is unworthy of categorization until I decide for myself that I need to be more productive and proficient at my job, at which point I might block out times for writing and times for editing, or choose to only edit on paper and only write on the computer. But as the laziness remains, I’m free to continue on this path of two-headed destruction, writing a sentence, rereading the sentence, hating and loving the sentence, changing the sentence, deleting the sentence, and somehow, at some point, my life becoming the sentence.

Thoughtless Book Reviews #3

In Book Club, Literature on July 7, 2016 at 9:48 pm

This is my third in a series of book reviews I’ve written into a Moleskine notebook and feel I should share with you because of their concise honesty, scrawled as I was falling asleep or years later after having realized I never wrote a review.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

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One of those books where you don’t really know what it’s about until the very last page. You are just led to believe it’s bad and somehow it turns out to be bad enough to fulfill all the bad ideas you thought up.

The Little Washer of Sorrows by Katherine Fawcett

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Surprisingly good surprising stories about both supernatural and normal things. They never get too deep or tragic or gross or long but are always a good combination of those things and FUNNY!

Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

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I thought about a lot while reading this book, but was rarely moved by the book itself. I wonder if it’s because my mind is different from Margaret Atwood’s?

The Pleasure of Reading by Antonia Fraser

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This is a book of essays I haven’t gotten to yet but love to look at on the shelf.

Dead Girls by Nancy Lee

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So gross! Put down the book and swore to petition against reading it at three separate points. Sexually gross, murdery gross. Okay – this was obviously the intended effect, but I fell for it.

The Riders by Tim Winton

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Ghosty, shadowy soap opera written by a man. No real payoff but lots of lead up. Leaves you asking the question, “Why’s that lady such a jerk?” and also, “Why does that nice man with the hard face like her so much?”

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

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This book follows the style I love from The Flying Troutmans: humour in the face of everything sad and tragic. I love that the book never slows, never lies, never breaks character or style. I love that everyone is witty, and that people speaking in their second language are so loveable. Irma is the ubiquitous Toews character, like Hemingway.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

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The language pulls me in like no other book. I love it not really because of its story but its writing and its moments.

Motorcycles and Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor

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I liked it but didn’t always connect with it. My dad did and this is his favourite book, so that’s how humour works.

Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook

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I had no idea that I could like biographies, especially when I hadn’t read any Anne Sexton but I read it like a novel and that worked. A life is a story.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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This book was SO LONG but I continued reading it because of a feeling it gave me: boredom, but also some form of being haunted, like if I stopped reading it the book would follow me home. Somehow this book surprised me on like, page 800, but maybe it was because I hadn’t been paying attention.

Photos from: theneuroticblonde.wordpress.comwww.npr.orgwww.goodreads.com

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Writing Through The Detail

In Language, Thoughts on Writing on June 22, 2016 at 9:38 pm

Not with the detail, or by the detail, but through the detail, as though the detail is the target and the tree on which it stands the thing you are describing.

Don’t write about her honey hair or the way the sunlight hit it. Write instead the ant who climbed up the yolk, the scarecrow wig. That way they’ll see the woman standing there in the fading summer light.

Don’t write about the boy who held his hands to the waist of his pants, about his pee dance — don’t even describe the shuffling feet! Write instead the sounds of compression you hear reverberating in the back of his larynx, the uneasiness of the couch cushion under his bottom.

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Don’t even let them know what you’re describing! Just do the detail thing and they’ll see and hear the world that, even though you haven’t lived in, you’ve made up with words, which is better. You’re passing on that world to them, so you better do it in juicy words and turns of phrases that will make it worth their money. Why say someone is dancing when you can describe the way they move the air? Why tell the reader that someone is talking if you can move their mouth and make the sounds? It’s through detail that you realize that you are the boss of a world and the detail your servant.

Write as though no one is watching, and then make them watch. Make them live through every little gasp or sigh or release of breath, but don’t use those words. Be like Karl Ove, who can make you do dishes for dozens of pages without realizing you are learning nothing, that you hate doing dishes, because you’re so present in the moment that doing dishes is simply what you have to do, as a part of this new life you’ve found yourself in inside of a book.

I’m trying to revisit my novel but it is so painful to see someone who was trying to tell a story. Just give up on the story and realize that life wouldn’t exist if you didn’t take a shit every morning, and that even though high literary art is not there yet, it’s on its way.

Accidentally Writing Songs

In Inspiration, My Writing, Thoughts on Writing on May 11, 2016 at 10:15 pm

Writing songs is a very easy process if you don’t know what songs should sound like, which is where I feel I am at in my musical journey. I listen to songs, and I like them, but do I really know what a chord is? A key? I wrote a song a few weekends ago for a songwriting workshop I casually took, no big deal, and they asked me what artist I pictured would sing that song. I still don’t know. I can’t figure it out because the song doesn’t actually seem like a real song.

Wondering if a song I wrote is really a song is the same issue I ran into when I started writing short stories: does what I just did count? It wasn’t until a few stories in that I noticed that it did, not because I read a book about the short story structure or because I analyzed anything, but because I knew innately from reading them what a short story feels like. What I’d written felt like a story, and whether it stood up or not in terms of language and structure and characters didn’t matter. Having gone through the process of writing and enjoying writing a story was enough to let me sleep at night. Even if the feeling wasn’t there, I would probably still have slept at night, though.

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Isn’t that the first step, really, to writing a song? Making sure the song is a song? I don’t mean it needs to have a bridge, or rhyme, but just that it is musical in some way that is familiar, just that it has some sort of art to it. And I can’t expect it to be any good, but if it feels creative and expressive and I had fun and surprise doing it, then that is enough for me right now in my writing. I love writing a sentence in a story that I don’t recognize. And when I sing something and play on my ukulele a series of chords that goes with that thing I just sang, that feels insanely creative and out of the limits of what I thought I could do. So that is a song. That is creativity expressed in music.

When the songwriting class asked who it was that I pictured singing the song I’d written, I really wanted to say Taylor Swift. Or I kind of wanted to have written an indie ballad or one of those build-up songs that gets louder as it goes. But I hadn’t written anything like that. I’d written a hokey song about crabs. Then I wanted to tell the group that I pictured myself singing the song, but not in public, because this is the first song I’ve ever written, so no one – not any artist alive, even myself – should be forced to sing this song, not even in the recesses of my mind. Then I sang it to them, in public, and I realized that answer was okay. I couldn’t picture a musical artist singing it because it was very much my song, a song I needed to write and sing. And I wondered how that could possibly be, that I could have just written a song that felt like me. And though I don’t really know the answer, I’m going to keep asking it, and by doing so, I’m going to keep sleeping at night.

My Nightmares

In Dreams, Thoughts on Writing on April 6, 2016 at 9:20 pm

I am in a house and someone is trying to get into the house. I am in a house and someone is also in the house and I must sneak out of the house. I am in a house and someone is outside so I need to hide under window frames.

What is with this house business? My dream dictionary, which I opened, says that the house is me. New nightmares:

I am in me and someone is trying to get into me too. I am in me and someone is also in me and I must sneak out of me. I am in me and someone is outside of me and I need to hide under window frames?

I don’t know. The other day someone gave me an apple in a dream and I just thought: That is a thing. Dreams are a thing and I can’t wait to go to sleep at night because I love their entertainment value. But sometimes I wonder about their intentions.

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(photo https://www.pinterest.com/charisbranson/scary-houses/…does not appear in my dreams because I am always inside my house)

Are dreams meant to get me thinking about unresolved issues? Or (as I would like to think) are they maybe meant to resolve them? Because I’m spending lots of my own time in my own consciously-controlled life thinking through issues, so I’d like a little chance to rest every once in a while, and sleep used to be the way I did that. Now I do nightmares. What is their purpose? Why are they happening now?

Yes, it’s quieter here than where I used to be. Yes, my cat is getting older and meowing for no reason in the middle of the night. Yes, so many things are new and scary but I’m not scared of them, I’m not scared of people getting into my house! So I’m thinking, what if instead, my dreams are inventing? What if my dreams are me playing? And what if I can play back?

I once woke up from a vivid, well-crafted, epic dream and decided to write it down. People said you couldn’t do this. I know you cannot do this. I know that the most unsatisfying ending of a story is “It was all a dream”. But why? What makes that so insanely annoying? What is it about dreams, though, that aren’t? They are completely nonsensical, peopled with metamorphosing hybrid characters, places you’ve never seen and situations that make absolutely no sense, but when you’re in them, you’re sold. Like any good story, dreams suspend disbelief. But when you wake from one, why does that semblance of reality stay? Why do we all think we need to tell our dreams to others, as though they will be impressed? They are never! The dreams are bad! Why don’t we see that?

I don’t have an answer, because dreams fascinate me and I can’t stop thinking about them but I also can’t figure them out. What I know is I am night-maring often and this has definitely caught my attention and whether I’m going to Freud it up or not, I need to deal with this people in my house business.

Next time I’m in my house dream, I vow to confront the demons. Maybe I will set fire to the house. Maybe I will break the windows. Maybe I will open the door to the wind.

Finding Time from Time

In Inspiration, Thoughts on Writing on February 23, 2016 at 10:03 pm

Whenever I have a day to myself I imagine the writing I will get done and the reading I will indulge in. But everyone knows that the busier person is more productive, that the vacuuming will only ever happen minutes before the guests arrive. We find time in the most unlikely of places, squeezing any last drops, draining it out of impossible taps. I’d like to propose an alternative. What if we found time in time itself?

A five minutes in front of the mirror, smiling at the face you once knew but have recently forgotten to take care of. A fire is made for watching, but when did I last sit, as my cat does, in front of it for hours? That moment where you’re leaving and remember you needed to put that thing away for the fifth day in a row but there’s no time now? There’s time in time. What if we made time for time.

I ask you to indulge me in a fantasy: an hour being 60 minutes, each of those minutes 50 seconds or more. What could you make of that, if you lived it?

I’m learning to play the ukulele. It’s been a while I’ve been learning, but not a while were you to tally up all the minutes of playing. I play ukulele the way I live: it’s a thing I’m constantly doing but not always actually doing. I joined an advanced class thinking that might kick me in the butt, in whatever way, and it has so far in several. Being inspired to practice more, I notice the blooming of time when I’m practicing, as though it’s just opened up and offered itself from itself. Where was that hour before? It just appeared, seemingly, out of every day life.

It helps to watch a cat live. There is no time. There is no apparent purpose. There isn’t, like, enormous heaps of joy either, but there is a life there. There is a life there worth considering.

Time with those I love feels precious. Why doesn’t time alone have that same quality? I cherish writing, reading and daydreaming as some of my favourite and most important things I believe I should be doing. So why do I do them so little? I think if we all put a bit more effort into stealing time away from itself, not into slowing it down but into expanding it, we’d notice the special effects of relativity: that the experience of time depends on the speed of the observer, and not the other way around.

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Accidentally Writing Poems

In Inspiration, Language, My Writing, Thoughts on Writing on January 31, 2016 at 8:29 pm

Never did I mean to write a poem. I didn’t like reading them for school and though I once wrote one based on a dream, I never thought I could really evaluate how good it was. It seemed perfect. I sent it off to The New Yorker. What makes a poem good is a question I never asked myself. Then I accidentally started writing them, and now the question hangs there, unanswerable.

Poems seem derived from their structure. A sonnet or a haiku only is one because of how many syllables and lines it has. That makes no sense to me. Isn’t poetry an art? How can it possibly be so different from other things, so boxy, so rigid? I took a whole poetry survey course at UBC where I (unadvisedly) read poems really fast, at my normal reading pace, then showed up to class expecting to participate in discussions. I never could and I never tried reading them differently. I never saw the point.

When I started having to teach poetry to my elementary school students, I asked them to start with free verse, because this was where you could play with words. I executively decided this to be the heart of poetry. We never moved on from that. Any other forms of poetry didn’t make sense enough for me to teach. Why on earth would one write a limerick? Is a child really expressing himself by writing an acrostic poem using adjectives that start with the letters of his name?

I know that stories and novels have structures. They have beginnings, middles and ends, characters and certain other tropes one usually has to adhere to or at least understand, but these seem so much more intuitive to me. I have actually been afraid to write a poem because it seems like an exercise in solving a puzzle, some precise and well-planned thing I would not be good at, like planning an event or buying the right items for a recipe.

The poems I started writing were, as I said, by accident. I was writing the first line of a story, and then I suddenly became looser (drunker?), more willing to follow the flow of my thoughts. I payed closer attention to the pattern in the language and the ideas I was playing with, and from there I built a structure within which I wrote a poem. It was not a structure I knew, but one I made up on the spot, to fit my ideas. A self-serving structure. And then I thought, oh! Oh! Maybe that’s poetry.

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Upon rereading the poem I wrote, though I still can’t judge it for what it is, I can see the ability to make it better. There is a possibility of digging deeper into the idea, because now I can identify it. There is a way of being more faithful to the structure, because it exists. There is the question of specificity, and rhythm, and feeling, and all that can be dealt with now that there is a poem in front of me, a life form waiting to be better moulded and presented to the world, though maybe not The New Yorker.

It occurs to me now that this is the only way I could have ever written poetry, by discovering what poetry is for myself. I find myself wanting to read poetry now (at least the first few lines of one), thinking of a person sitting there and sculpting a thing out of nothing. And I wonder, as I often do, why no one ever told me this. Why did no one ever run up to me and tell me to read Walden, to listen to Destroyer, to watch Noah Baumbach movies? Don’t people actively follow my interests, seeking to give me guidance? Actually, they don’t! So the discovery of Lorrie Moore, of e.e. cummings, of ukulele and trail running become all the greater when done independently. Hey! I like this. Now let me find out why.

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