Thursday, May 31, 2012

Making It Up

I am a terrible researcher. Everything distracts me. I end up copying out passages because I like the way they sound or because they make me laugh, or because I have forgotten the question.

Today at Robarts, I am supposed to be finding very specific answers, like, if you had 61 cases of unopened whiskey in your basement in Sault Ste. Marie in 1921, could you be arrested under the Ontario Temperance Act, yes or no?

Instead, I am reading Stephen Leacock's responses to Prohibition: "As silly and as futile as if you passed a law to send a man to jail for eating cucumber salad."

Or Stephen Leacock on how to get liquor in Ontario, when alcohol could be legally obtained only with a doctor's prescription: "It is necessary to go to a drugstore...and lean up against the counter and make a gurgling sigh like apoplexy. One often sees these apoplexy cases lined up four deep."

Plus, I have questions for which answers cannot be found at Robarts (or at least, not found by me), such as, if your basement door is padlocked and you have lost the key, could you open the door by removing the bolts from the hinges?

It's terrifying, making things up. There are so many ways things can be wrong.

Re: 61 cases of unopened whiskey during Prohibition in Ontario. After April 1921, you couldn't carry it, transport it, deliver it, receive it, sell it, or import it into Ontario. But if you had a "cellar supply" already? The law had many holes. Legislators kept trying and failing to plug them up. So could you be arrested, yes or no? Probably not, but maybe.

Cucumber salad. Hee hee.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


A 2007 study estimated that children ask about 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. This seems about right. I remember an exchange I once had with my three year old son. His side of the conversation went like this:

Where is apa?
Why he is working?
Who is that man?
Where he is going?
Why you don't know him?
Why you never met him before?
Do grizzly bears have lips?

I wonder how many questions a writer asks and answers in the writing of a novel. My side of the conversation with myself today went like this:

What is Vita wearing?
Should she cut her hair?
Would she cut her hair?
How long will she wait for Paul?
Will she even wait for Paul?
What does waiting do to the weight of the story?
Why am I writing this again?

At least you can Google "do grizzly bears have lips." I did, and they do -- apparently large and dexterous enough to extract seeds from pine cones.

Of course, you can also Google "why am I writing this." Which I did. I got 554,000 results but I don't have time to read any of them. I have to write a novel.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Right novel, wrong novel

How do you know you're on the right track?
If something is easy to write, does this mean you should keep going?
If something is hard to write, if every sentence feels like labour, does this mean you should abandon it?
How should writing feel?
What if you are in love with the idea of the story but not the story that is unfolding?
What if another story keeps trying to get your attention, jumping up and down, waving, sometimes throwing rocks at your head? (Small rocks.)
What if one story is like being in a small dark room and the other story is like driving on an open road?
Does it matter that you don't actually know how to drive?
How do you know you're writing the right novel?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Creek Paths

There was a creek beside our house, and a bit of forest, and a path. We called the whole place the creek path. It wasn’t big – razed and paved, it wouldn’t have fit more than a couple rows of townhouses  – but it could feel endless.

The trick was to find spots where the wrong things (telephone wires, the aluminium siding of Mr. Harris’s garage) did not have to be cropped out of the view. There was already so much to edit out: the looming house that was my home, the angry grandparents inside, parents gone so long they could never come back, even after they came back.

In the right spots, I could believe I was in the wilderness of children’s books, that bountiful wildness in which streams run clear and cold, foxes pass by shelters, and children can fend for themselves.

One year in university, I lived in a thicket of high-rises overlooking a plain of strip malls. In between the high-rises and the campus was a wide leafy gully through which a creek and a path meandered. I roamed around down there, my head full of the Wordsworth and Coleridge. I envied them their vast Lake District, their glades and deep glens where the eye would not have to crop out municipal signposts or hydro poles.

Then I went to Bhutan, where it was easy to step off the road and see nothing but trees and mountaintops, hear only birds and the wind in the grasses. I walked up to peaks and looked down into valleys and there was nothing I wanted to delete from the view. But there were still things to be edited out: from the south came news of uprisings, stories of imprisonment, rumours of deportation.  Ancestral voices prophesying war.

There is always something to be edited out. 

Walking in Toronto’s green ravines now, I want to erase the city from the edges of my view, silence the whine of traffic and leaf-blowers.  I always feel a small sadness when I emerge from a ravine onto a sidewalk: all creek paths end in pavement.

It’s deep-rooted, this desire to be in the woods, but maybe it’s more than nostalgia for the friendly forests of my childhood.

Maybe it’s a 10,000-year-old longing to return to our home in the wild.

More likely, it’s a most recent wish -- for the world not to be as crowded, hot, or small as it is, a wish to believe we have not ruined it, after all. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Writing Schedules

I have four months of no teaching ahead of me, and I'm not good with unstructured time. Random research on writers' schedules has yielded the following:

Stephen King: Writes from 8:15 a.m. until just before noon every day.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Wrote from morning to night and and smoked six packs a day while working on One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Tea Obreht: Wrote The Tiger's Wife at night, getting up at 5:00 in the afternoon, writing until 2:00, then driving around in the dark.

I don't smoke or drive, so I'm gonna go with the Stephen King schedule.


Today in the mail: a royalty cheque, a cheque for editing an educational text, and a cheque for my son from his grandmother. I don't have to wait for my son to open his card to know which cheque is the biggest.

The reasons I write are mysterious to me, but I'm quite sure that none of them is about money.