Sunday, January 30, 2011

In Praise of Generous Enthusiasm

You know how sometimes people with expertise aren't particularly generous about sharing it? How someone on the "inside" of a group or profession tries to stay a little removed from those on the "outside," who have less experience or success?

You know it happens. Those of us who despaired of being cool in high school (are writers ever cool in high school?) would like to imagine that the real world is different...but deep down, we know that the attitude is out there. We all see it from time to time.

Recently, I had the opposite experience. I had the good fortune to spend a few hours, over a couple of days, with Michael Van Rooy, a Canadian (Winnipeg, specifically) writer.

As you can see from his website, Michael not only wrote books--he also connected with nearly every writing organization in the region, including Thunder Bay's own Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW) (of which I'm currently secretary).

NOWW recently launched its electronic Writer in Residence (eWIR) program, which is in many respects a typical program in that the writer critiques manuscripts and teaches workshops. However, this eWIR program uses technology to help connect writers over the (beautiful) miles and miles of (breathtakingly gorgeous) miles and miles that northwestern Ontario is famous for.

It's brand new, and it's ambitious.* NOWW has never tried anything like this before. To pull it off, we needed a writer with the right combination of flexibility, experience, teaching ability, charisma, and courage.

Michael Van Rooy agreed to be that writer, and his positive approach and enthusiasm gave us all the sense that this program will work. Last weekend he closed the launch events by saying, "Please let me read your writing."

He passed away Thursday, at the age of 42.

Of course he will be remembered for his books.** In Monty Haaviko, the protagonist of his three novels, Van Rooy created a charming criminal who desperately wants to go straight. Haaviko is a complex, likeable character; it's no wonder Van Rooy's books have won so many awards.

But we in northwestern Ontario will also remember him for his enthusiasm and support. After ten years of actively studying writing and publishing, Michael Van Rooy was excited to share his perspective with us. I regret that we were just getting started.

Excitement. Enthusiasm. Generosity. So much better than cool.

* Funded in part by the Thunder Bay Community Foundation, the eWIR program also relies on a partnership with the Kuhkenah service, a broadband connection colloquially known as K-net.

One workshop in the eWIR program is designated to be held with the students in the Internet High School that reaches into more than 13 First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario. Two other workshops will be open to writers of any age who have phone lines (and an internet connection to look at common documents, if they want to). Groups of writers in a community can congregate and "attend" together, but writers who want to nurture their (in)famous solitary natures can join in from home.

**An Ordinary Decent Criminal, Your Friendly Neighbourhood Criminal, and A Criminal to Remember, all published by Turnstone Press.
Sunday, January 23, 2011

Courtesy of The Week: A Useful Year-End Wrapup

Normally, I don't read year-end retrospective columns. For one thing, they tend to come out during the week between Christmas and the new year, when I'm reading my new Christmas gifts. And for another, writing my own retrospective is more interesting to me, since it's all about me, and no, I don't share that. You're welcome.

But here is a retrospective "done right," in my opinion, courtesy of The Week magazine.* It is available in the December 24 - January 7 print version (it prints 48 issues per year) and is not available online. The feature is called "Books of the year,"** and it lists the five top fiction and nonfiction titles from 2010, as ranked by Many Big Name Media Outlets.

What's great about their two-page spread is this: they devote approximately 3.5 column inches to a thumbnail image of the cover and two positive comments the book generated, and then another 0.75 - 1 inch to a caveat. So you get two extended and thoughtful "here's what's particularly interesting about this book"s (along with a sense of "what the book is about"), and then one "yeah, but."

This format is useful generally, because it compiles a meta-list of the books that have tended to appear on the "top 5" lists. But it's also useful because the "pro pro con" format helps me decide which books are worth at all considering further. (Room, probably; Freedom, probably not. Plus, I knew should have read Henrietta Lacks before giving it to my sister. Phooey.)

The wrapup also makes a particularly useful point for writers.

Among the "top books" in the year, not one generates only positive comments. Someone has always registered, and in print, no less, a dissenting opinion. Therefore, it shouldn't be surprising when you (meaning I) receive conflicting or contradictory feedback from readers--say, from members of a critique group. After all, Big-Name Reviewers from The Atlantic and The New York Times disagree, too. (Specifically, about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.)

And that last thing, about conflicting feedback, is important for me, because I'm still practicing the art of revision and learning the delicate balance between trusting myself vs. trusting feedback from readers. Somewhere in all these drafts of this story is the story I want to tell, and I will find it.

Thanks, The Week. (And thanks for the "Best properties on the market" feature, too, which always leaves me feeling thrifty and a little smug, here in paradise.)

*If you are unfamiliar with The Week, you shouldn't be. It comes out, uh, weekly, and is a cross between an online news aggregator and a regular magazine with original content. It's useful for someone in Canada who's interested in a round-up of news from the U.S. and international news outlets (hi!). (My favorite "huh, that's interesting" features aggregator, as long as I'm sharing: Arts and Letters Daily,

What The Week in print is not so good at is breaking news, especially when you live in a country that doesn't deliver any mail (like magazines) on Saturdays, but that's what online news sites are for (including The Week's own website). The short pieces are also handy for wee windows of time, like commercial breaks.

And, no: (sadly), I don't write for them.

**Their title style, not mine. I happen to like caps-and-lowercase titles.
Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taking My Own Advice

I have written before about the difficulty I have in taking good advice, specifically good advice about writing. As you may suspect, I have that problem in other areas of life, too, sometimes to ridiculous extremes.

As the kind of person who puts the "critical" in "critical thinking," I have a hard time accepting that carrying out an imperfect solution, which most solutions are, will actually be better than pointing out, ad nauseam, all the ways in which said solution will fall short of perfection.

However, I'm learning. During a particularly busy, tiring, and blues-inducing spell in December, I thought, "If I were offering advice to someone else, I'd suggest that that person listen to upbeat songs to feel better." It took me a few days before I thought, "I wonder what would happen if *I* tried that." Not "someone else" -- me. I. This person, here.

Well. It worked. Of course. I cheered up considerably. I've tried it again just recently: still working.

Fortunately, the lag time between giving such excellent advice and TAKING IT, ALREADY, seems to be shortening.

On Friday, the guy who was supposed to come fix the pump didn't come. Water can't get from the well into the cistern in the house.* The cistern is two-thirds empty. Pump repair people in this country apparently don't work on Saturdays. So I was looking at a water-rationed weekend. Showers? Questionable. For the too many-th day in a row.

Obviously an untenable situation.

Fortunately, by the time Mr. Pump Man didn't show, I had an answer at the ready. Earlier, as I sat staring into my morning coffee, hoping for consciousness, I had thought, "Boy, someone in this situation could drag their husband on a date. They could go to a hotel in town, have dinner out, and watch some cable TV. For some people, that would be a really good solution."** And then I went, "Whoa."

In that moment, I became that someone.

So late in the day, we went to town, literally and figuratively. A plate of chicken souvlaki, two showers, three-and-a-half (new to me but rerun) episodes of Criminal Minds, and several hours of sleep later, and I could face the other half of a water-rationed weekend with equanimity.

Obviously, we can't afford to do that if the pump tech doesn't show up on Monday. Plus, I actually like living in our house. I like it a whole lot, in fact. A hotel long-term would not be nearly as much fun. But, imperfect solution though it was, it worked for the weekend.

As the adrenaline from holidays, various family illnesses, and the Tucson shooting slowly works itself out of my system, I'm turning back (again) to the creative stuff. I'm even wondering, explicitly, what advice I can give myself that will help me finish this one recalcitrant story. What would I tell me, if I were someone else?

Progress. Baby steps, imperfect ones, but steps nevertheless along a creative path.

*For those of you who tend to think of water in terms of "water appears when you turn on the tap," let's just say that it's more complicated out here in the country. If you're extremely interested in hearing me whine about the water system in our house, you can read this.

** Do I not dream big on behalf of the "someones" to whom I mentally give advice? I do, indeed.
Sunday, January 9, 2011

As If We Needed a Reminder

Words are important. They are powerful. They should be used responsibly.

For a quick yet thoughtful rumination around recent political rhetoric and its relationship to yesterday's Arizona shooting, see this NY Times article by Michael Bai, entitled "A Turning Point in the Discourse, but in Which Direction?"

Before you go there to read it, though, remember: each of us uses thousands of words every day. We can influence the direction the discourse turns by the way in which we use these words and the way in which we challenge those who throw around words irresponsibly.

And while this is all over the news, I'll be watching for one particular story: a politician who acknowledges that HIS OR HER OWN rhetoric has been over the top, with a promise to change it. Better yet, in a few months, would be a story about a politician who actually has DONE it.

Now THAT's a story that would benefit everyone.