Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Verbs These Days

Am I “between,” or am I “in transition”?*

 

“Between” feels stuck. “In transition” implies movement, but that movement feels passive.

 




What I need is a good verb. “Transit,” per the dictionary, is both a noun and a verb but it feels very noun-ish.

 

What are more-active options?

 

Walk (trudge, shuffle, stride, dance).

 

Work
                (revise, edit, summarize, write)
                (ask, pitch, request, send)
                (stew, saute, braise, bake)
                (wipe, wash, sanitize, restore).

 

Wait
                (recognize, acknowledge, celebrate, enjoy)
                (breathe, rest, regroup, nourish).

 

Turn (look, orient, lean, commit).

 

Walk. Work. Wait. Turn. Repeat.


And, throughout: Hope (dream, yearn, hanker, aspire).


________


* by “I,” I mean “we,” as in "you and me," as in “the world.” We’re sharing a pandemic, political uncertainty, and a climate crisis. We could all use some good verbs. 

 

 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Citizenship and Action

Last week, I wrote about pre-ordering books as an act of literary citizenship. I'm not nuts about that term, citizenship, because it situates some people "in," with experiences and voices that are somehow more "worthy" or "legitimate," and others "out," and thus "unimportant" or "irrelevant."  


So I think more about literary community. And most of the time, I'm not in the big middle of the community. I'm the one hanging back by the snack table, trying to figure out how people on the dance floor get over themselves to have fun in public. Pre-pandemic, of course.


The other thing about citizenship is that it brings a set of activities--approved and expected, or less so. Which is neither a pro or con of the concept of citizenship, just a fact.  


So. I've just finished a couple of projects, and while working on them, I told myself about other problems, "I'll think about that after the deadlines." 


Now those deadlines have passed, and nothing much has happened on these other things. Some of what's happened has actually been counter-productive. And I have felt stuck. But taking action is on my mind today. 


I don't have my absentee ballot. But I'm now ready to fax a backup vote, I know the last date I can fax it, and now I don't have to worry about that.





In spite of multiple requests, I haven't heard what I'm supposed to do to fulfill a legal obligation. But I recognized today that I can still act in ways that both fulfill that obligation and benefit me. So I'm doing that. When those things are done, I can re-visit that obligation and my expectations.


There's other stuff--stupid political gamesmanship in North America; deadly stupidity in various judicial systems in North America; people not listening to others' lived experiences. It's infuriating. I'm looking for ways to act there, too. 


So that's what I'm doing. Not exciting. Not especially inspiring. But at least I'm still acting to support citizenship, and even community. That, at least, is empowering.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Citizenship and Pre-Ordering

In this Year of the Weird, I'm coming to understand that pre-ordering can be a significant act of literary citizenship. 


Side note: Here's a link to others' thoughts about the definition and meaning of the term "literary citizenship." To me, being a good literary citizen is to contribute, in a positive way, to a community to which I also belong--in this case, the community that writes and reads books. And attempting to contribute as much as I benefit. An effort which, I gotta say, in this community, is difficult. Because books!


I like books, and I read a lot of books. I have thoughts about them, and sometimes I write about books and those thoughts here. I rarely, if ever, review books--review meaning either "five stars" recommendations or engaged, contextualized criticism worthy of the academy. 


Part of the reason I'm circumspect is that I often like books that others don't, for reasons others don't. I also don't like books that others rave about. I can talk about those situations only so long before a. I get bored and b. the conversation hamstrings my writing. 


I also like some people who write books, and I applaud them and their work, without necessarily liking/respecting/admiring their work or wanting to articulate, in exquisite and painfully nuanced detail, what I did and did not like/respect/admire. Can we just raise a glass to the process of creation without being more specific? 


Another side note: My father's father was a country doctor in the first half of the twentieth century, and he delivered a lot of babies. When asked by doting mothers and others, "isn't this the most beautiful baby ever?" his comment was apparently a hearty, "now THAT's a baby!" Can't argue with that assessment, and mothers hear what they hear. And books *are* a sort of baby, as I now know. 


This year being what it is, I've become a slightly more active literary citizen: I've pre-ordered three books in the past two months. I think I've pre-ordered one or two other books, ever, in all my decades of reading.



I also bought new notebooks recently,
which is neither here nor there,
except that they're awfully pretty. 



I pre-ordered books because marketing and publicity (even, or perhaps especially, for books) is a world that likes reassurance. Booksellers like to know that a book will sell well before it's even officially a book. I don't always understand markets, or people, or sales, but pre-ordering is in any case an accepted way to support writers. Which I enjoy doing. 


And no, for the reasons above, I will not necessarily share what books I have pre-ordered. But I will share why, beyond reassuring booksellers. 


I pre-ordered the first book because I have been enjoying this person's "content," as we say in this world, for free for some time. I have learned from her thoughts, too, and I'd like to continue to do so. The book provides a convenient form for that ongoing learning. (Yay books!) For pre-orders, she also offered more content, for which she usually charges, for free, which I appreciated. My puny one copy didn't have any influence whatsoever on the success of this book. Which is fine. It was delivered at a good time for me.


I've pre-ordered two other books. Neither of them has been released yet, so I don't know how much influence my one (possibly two? I think I re-pre-ordered one of them, as schedules changed and slipped in this Year of the Weird) copies will have on the market. 


One of these I pre-ordered for many of the same reasons as the first one--as an act of community, of support and gratitude for a writer who gives generously of her time and energy. I pre-ordered the other because it's entirely possible that my one copy *might* add to the confidence the market has about the book. This is another writer I "know" primarily online, whose work I admire and enjoy a lot, and whose career I really want to support.


I look forward to reading both the books yet to come, and I'm happy to have participated in supporting others in the literary community. I have the resources to do this, in a limited way, and I'm grateful for that, too. 


Another important form of literary citizenship is regular, garden-variety citizenship. So yes, I'm voting. Because we all deserve to have the chance to speak and be heard.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Recommended: Podcasts to Learn By

Last week I wrote about some of the Mattie Rigsbees I have known, and how Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad, has helped give me tools to see them with clearer eyes. You can read that here. 


This is a Manitoba Maple I saw while walking and listening to an
episode of It Was Said. I goofed around with editing tools on my iPhone.


I have so much to learn about anti-racism. Besides reading, I'm listening.  


Here are some podcasts I recommend, if you're interested in learning but feel as if you can't read all the things. Links are to web pages or Apple Podcasts. Note that although much of the content focuses on the US, Canada shares a great deal of its history and attitudes.


1619, by The New York Times. Also, this article in Politico about fact-checking the podcast is interesting. Here's a quote from the article: 

Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.

 

It Was Said, a podcast by The History Channel and hosted by historian Jon Meacham. It analyzes famous speeches--the ones you know, or think you do. I especially recommend the first three episodes for information from the Civil Rights Era. And I can't wait for my walking schedule to let me hear Barbara Jordan's speech.


Seeing White, from Scene on Radio, is from 2017 and traces the history of whiteness. I've heard only the first eight episodes so far, but that's already given me a lot to chew on. The host, John Biewen, periodically checks in with Chenjerai Kumanyika, a Black historian, to evaluate Biewen's growing understanding. Be sure to listen to the episode (previously played on This American Life) about a specific incident of massacre of Indigenous people in what is now Minnesota. 


Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Self-help may not usually be your jam, but this distinguished researcher knows a lot of interesting people. The episodes with Tarana Burke, Alicia Keys, Ibram X. Kendi, and Austin Channing Brown are illuminating. I haven't heard the episodes with Sonya Renee Taylor or Bishop Michael Curry yet.


That's enough to start with, probably. 


These podcasts aren't perfect--none of them. But each of them (like the books your read!) offers you an opportunity to think about your behaviour and beliefs. 


When you feel yourself getting defensive, when you have an urge to argue with what you're hearing, why not take that as an invitation? Set aside your defensiveness and ask yourself, "What if what they're saying is true?" How would that change what you think or feel?


It's a lesson in empathy--which writers claim to have but all of us can likely develop further.  

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Mixed Pleasures of Rereading with New(er) Eyes

Sometimes a book—or a series of books, or a cultural shift—comes along that causes lasting change. 

 




In the past five years, I’ve been part of many conversations about cultural appropriation, creativity, and Indigenous visibility. In the past four or five months, conversations around Blackness in North America have increased in frequency and intensity.

 

It’s come to a head, recently. I’ve spent the past month reading and working through Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad. It’s been intense. I may be able to speak about the experience coherently in the future.

 

For now, I want to talk about a recent re-reading experience, of a different book.

 

+++++

 

One of my favourite Book Groups (as they’re known in the US; Canadians don’t seem to mind saying “book club”) meets electronically. It’s small, just two of us. We used to be in groups together in Colorado, before we both moved.

 

One of our books back in the day was Walking Across Egypt, by Clyde Edgerton. Set in North Carolina, it’s the story of Mattie Rigsbee, a 78-year-old widow who might be slowing down. The aging of a fairly ordinary woman doesn’t sound like the setup for a funny novel, but wackiness ensues, all right. And plenty of baking. Even the stray dog on the porch on page 1 gets leftover biscuits.

 

As you might have guessed, I recently re-read this book. Amazingly, it’s survived several rounds of bookshelf culling and an international move. I kept seeing it and thinking, “Oh, that’s funny. I can’t let go of that. I should re-read that sometime.” And so during this (insert non-clichéd words that encompass the craptastic nature of politics and pandemic) time, when travel is of course impossible, I took advantage of the opportunity to travel by reading this book.

 

I can see why I kept it. I can see why I found it funny—it is still, sort of. Beguilingly, charmingly, deceptively funny. Mattie is the type of woman who forgets she’s sent chair seats to be recovered, so when she sits down in her favourite rocking chair, she falls through the frame and gets trapped for several hours. At last the dogcatcher shows up and frees her, but only after he’s washed her dishes. Because wacky.

 

Mattie is also the type of woman who hears of a sixteen-year-old orphan in a reform school and feels compelled to take him a piece of her pound cake and a piece of her apple pie, all because Jesus talks about doing good “unto the least of these my brethren.” And, predictably, the stuffy leaders in her church take a dim view of her consorting with folks who aren’t perfect, when isn’t that the role of the church in the world, to do good?

 

So, yes. Charming. But. As I continued to read, I could feel myself pulling back from fully engaging with the characters. Because of Me and White Supremacy.

 

For one thing, the folks around Mattie are casually racist. I don’t care that it’s authentic to the characters in that place and that time (the 1980s). They, and the author, know better. The one character who seems to understand that racism is wrong, who is also learning about misogyny and equality, is shown to be humorless and unpleasant. (Obviously, she was my favourite character—been there.)

 

What I found most disturbing about the book is that I know Mattie Rigsbees. I know the male versions of them, too. They are devout and sweet and the salt of the earth. They wouldn’t knowingly hurt a fly. They will press coffee and pie upon you if you happen by their house at any time of day or night and invite you to tomorrow’s dinner (the noon meal, BTW) before you get out of their kitchen. They will pick up bedding plants for you if they remember you like pansies, visit you any time they hear you’re not feeling up to par, and make sure you have holiday plans. Their pickup truck is at your disposal. And they casually discuss the racial makeup, using slurs, of a regional baseball team.

 

But wait. There’s more.

 

At one point, Mattie goes upstairs to the church sanctuary from the Sunday School rooms in the basement. She knowingly bumps into young people so they’ll say hello, the way they should.

 

She knew that courteousness had started on the way out with television and integration and a man on the moon. She wished somebody would put their finger exactly on the connections so something could be done about it. And she knew the weather had been affected by those people landing on the moon. No question about it. It was all mixed in with reasons for the great decline of courtesy. In some ways she was glad it was now that she was slowing down and not forty years from now, having had to live through the decline of everything good.

 

Wait wait wait. Integration is part of the decline of society? And something must be done about it? Ah. Yes. The Mattie Rigsbees I know—well, I know who they voted for in the last US presidential election.* They do not understand how wrong they were. They do not bear guilt or embarrassment for the craptastic consequences—lives lost, not their own; livelihoods ruined, not theirs, or if theirs, not their fault—of their wilfully ignorant cowardice.

 

+++++ 

 

Back to Me and White Supremacy. As I said, intense. Because of Saad I’ve connected dots in my past. I’ve seen how I have excused the Mattie Rigsbees I know, and how those excuses have hurt innocent people, and continue to hurt them.

 

Reading Me and White Supremacy has made it impossible to re-read Walking Across Egypt and feel amused and satisfied with the characters or the story. It’s not the same kind of nausea as reading about theslave trade in The Cooking Gene, but it’s related.  

 

I’m glad the book isn’t satisfying anymore. Maybe I’m beginning to learn things. What a gift it is to have educators like Saad and others. With what generosity they have asked questions, and explained ideas and concepts, and asked readers to reflect on their lives and attitudes and comfort zones. I’ve learned and will continue to learn. And in the coming months ahead, I need to communicate clearly with the Mattie Rigsbees in my life.

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve found issues in an old favourite. Almost two years ago, in November of 2018, I wrote about re-reading Little Women. A week or so later, I linked to an excellent resource, American Indians inChildren’s Literature, a website written and managed by Dr. Debbie Reese

 

I’m keeping my copies of Little Women. I have too long a history with that book to let go of it completely—yet. But I think it’s time to pass along some of the books I’ve been hanging onto. New books come out all the time. I’m okay saying goodbye to Mattie Rigsbee. She’s taught me some perhaps unintended but valuable lessons.


Edited to add: I am not saying this to show how fabulous I am--I am in no way fabulous. I'm saying all this to show you how reading Layla Saad's incredible gift of a book can help you see your life--past, present, and future (we all hope)--with different eyes.

____

* I also know how the Mattie Rigsbees of the world feel about white ranchers killing Indigenous youths—because Mattie Rigsbees do not only live in the US, they live in Canada, and I know their voting habits, too. Fortunately Canada avoided having an election this autumn.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Thinking and Re-Thinking

I don't really like the colour orange. As an athlete and fan, I wore orange t-shirts and accessories, mostly without thinking. They were accepted and expected parts of my life.


I don't mind coral, especially as Spring takes its own sweet time showing up and I'm tired of winter's browns, blues, and silvers. Peach, too. Back in the pre-pandemic days, coral toenail polish or a peachy scarf brightened April right up.


But I can look sallow in orange. And I have such mixed feelings about many sports (athletes and head injuries, mostly) that I've ditched all but one of my orange t-shirts. 


And then this time of year happens. Look!











Turns out, I like orange. I really do. I surprised myself!


I don't like it in all its versions. I'd still be careful about choosing to wear it. (Orange Shirt Day is September 30 this year; I'll wear mine then!)


It got me thinking: what else about myself (or the world--but let's start small) could I wonder about? I've said I don't like poetry--perhaps I could learn more about poetry so I can enjoy it more, and maybe even try writing some. 


A small example, indeed. But it's something I have control over. So much in the world now I can't affect, except through my own actions. So I wash my hands, stay physically distanced, and try to do the work in front of me to be done. And--gently--question my assumptions.


As I walk today, enjoying the oranges in the world, I'll look for other ways to challenge long-held beliefs about myself and others. Starting small. Enjoying orange.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Surprisingly Helpful: Prompts

What is it about writers, that they can be sooooo ooooooover the things that are good for them? 


Just me? Oh. 


Back in early August, I wrote about #1000wordsofsummer, which I found surprisingly helpful in getting words down for a couple of projects and thinking through problems therein. 


Today, let's talk prompts in a more general way.


Last June, at the conference for the Creative Nonfiction Collective (insert standard "back when conferences/travel/gatherings were things" poignant aside here), I took a workshop with S. Lesley Buxton.* She gave the room full of writers a couple of writing exercises to do, and I found them extremely helpful, even with the performance anxiety of "freewriting in a room with other people." I thought, "Yes, people should do these things." Then I thought, "Hey. I'm a person. I should do stuff like this more often."


Here's another example. In February, I wrote a Writer's Block column at All Lit Up, an organization supporting small Canadian publishers. In it, I described how I get out of a funk, and one of the other Surprisingly Helpful things I do: I make something art-adjacent, using prompts. 


Art-adjacent is key. I draw on an index card. I take no more than ten minutes (to guard against my superpower, over-complicating things). I use pretty markers to draw or pretty colours of paper to make a collage. 




Often, I use a prompt to help further reduce decisions. For several months, I've been using prompts supplied by Julie Paul, a Canadian writer, through her Instagram account, @dailywordprompts (read about them here). She posts on West Coast time, so I use a previous month's prompts, which work just as well.


No, this brief project isn't technically writing (except the prompt itself). And the word isn't necessarily (or often, even) connected to what I draw. It's just a word, and I think about it while I draw a pattern from a book of patterns, or I cut up bits of paper and put them together, or do something else. And then I put it into a box and celebrate FINISHING SOMETHING! And then go about the work of the day, whether that's revising a novel or scraping lichens off our siding or cleaning the schtuff off the fridge.


That sense of accomplishment follows me throughout the day, which is important when so much of regular life is temporary. Like laundry. Dishes. Meals themselves--in another few hours, people will want to eat all over again! Also, writing-wise, long projects (like novels) mean that I don't often have the chance to enjoy a sense of completion. 


These small moments--of finishing something, of using pretty-coloured markers, of thinking about a word, of using my hands to make marks on an index card--have felt even more satisfying and vital during the pandemic. It's hard to focus, and things are weird. Sitting down with markers and an index card has grounded me many days.


Bonus! I've used many of the pens that have hung around my creative space for many years. I'm finding great satisfaction in using the things I have. 



Soon, I'll take them to be recycled. Another small satisfaction, a project completed. Here's to completed projects, art-adjacency, and coloured pens.

__________

* Lesley also interviewed me recently for the CNFC blog. It was fun. You can read it here

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

On Reverberations, Messes, and Running away to Join the Circus




An interview with me is live over at the blog for the Creative Nonfiction Collective, a Canadian organization supporting those writing creative nonfiction. 


In it, I talk about many things. For example,  


the whole enterprise of writing about Mom’s dementia felt like kind of a mess. I took manuscripts to a couple of workshops. Nobody knew what to say about the work, except that it wasn’t fun to read. It wasn’t much fun to live through, either.  


Writing. Living. Waiting. Coffee shops. The inexpressibly high value of mentors. The differences, for me, between writing fiction and nonfiction.


Many thanks to S. Lesley Buxton, an excellent writer and teacher, for her thoughtful and fun questions. And to the CNFC for supporting my growth as a writer. 


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Worth Doing, Worth Reading

Recently, during the probably-too-much time I spend on Instagram, I've been looking at the kinds of things people read. It's interesting. Sort of like lurking in the bookstore watching what people pick up off the shelf. 


Sometimes people post covers of books they just bought. Sometimes they're books they're just starting. Occasionally, they're books they've just read, and they Have Thoughts. Or they don't--they don't know what to make of the book.


One phrase I've seen often, not only on Instgram but on blogs and even Goodreads: "an easy read." Sometimes "a quick read." This is apparently a Good Thing. 


So I am of course going to talk about something else: the "read" that's "worth doing." 


For example, the two books below.




SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE, by Ijeoma Oluo, and THE OVERSTORY, by Richard Powers. Nonfiction and fiction.


SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE is more immediately useful, in that it helps me, an ahem-middle-aged White woman, walk through answers to specific questions about race. I strongly recommend it--and taking the time to sit with each chapter. I found her discussion strategies quite valuable. She excels at answering the objections she imagines her readers to be having. For example--however difficult and "unfair" it may feel to refrain from using language that is offensive, it's far more unfair that people, today, are labeled with those racist terms. People of colour hear those words daily. They shouldn't have to hear them. I can't control everyone, but it's easy (plus common courtesy and basic politeness) for me and everyone I know to not use them. 


THE OVERSTORY is different. It's fiction and thus has a narrative arc that spans time (and plays with a multiverse or two). Also, it's a rich and complicated book about a universe (multiverse) that we all live in and recognize. The "message," although the book isn't really a "message" book, is still a call to action--trees are important, and we have no idea what we're doing when we destroy old-growth forest--but in a different way than Oluo's book.


Of course these books weren't "quick reads," and they weren't "easy reads," either. Which is not to say that they're poorly written--both are lovely, in different ways. 


Oluo has written her book as a frank discussion. It as if someone who cares about you has said, "we need to talk," and is now telling you hard things. Richard Powers (a long-time favourite writer) captures so much about characters so quickly that I grew attached to his characters quickly. I followed their lives, however difficult, with interest, and with the compassion for them that he also obviously feels.


My point is that both books are solid and substantive. They require attention and care. I'm grateful that the writers shared their extensive knowledge with me. 


And oh, the rewards. Sometimes "hard" reads are really worth the effort. I understand that not everyone has the luxury of time and attention for books like these. I do NOT denigrate at ALL the value or allure of books that ARE easy or quick to read. I have read several of those myself since the pandemic started, once I was again able to read at all. 


But some books ARE worth the effort. Reading like this--challenging, illuminating, humbling, inspiring--is worth doing. These books are worth reading. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Celebrations: Middles, Beginnings, Ends

Thirteen years ago today, Roy and I had a wedding and ate Nanaimo bars. It was a great wedding. The Nanaimo bars, too. We're happy. I enjoy celebrating our anniversary. 



Birthdays are an obvious time for celebration. Book birthdays, for example. It's fun to celebrate beginnings--the beginning of a life or a life together. 


Endings are harder to celebrate, exactly. If the thing ending was lovely and positive, it's hard to be happy to have had something when you're still mourning its loss. If the thing ending was not so lovely or positive, the temptation is to pause for a momentary "whew" and keep moving. 


At least in my experience. 


So how can we celebrate more things in the middle? Which is sort of what an anniversary is. Thirteen years, with thirteen-hundred more. Also a birthday celebration--you were born, see how far you've come!  


Another middle: it's the eleventy-millionth day of asking myself about this character in my novel, "What is Martin doing? Is his name even Martin?" So, yay?


August 26th is (according to some) National Dog Day. Also, since 1971, Women's Equality Day to celebrate the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting (White, sigh) women the right to vote. Women's equality is for sure a work in progress (equal pay, bodily autonomy, argh). 


Daily celebrations. Everyday (quotidian) celebrations. Things on gratitude lists. Celebrations of the middle, in the middle. 


Happy day-in-the-middle-of-the-thing, everyone. Have a Nanaimo bar. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Pushing and Relaxing

I'm working on a novel. Like, really, for reals. 


Know how I know? I'm throwing things away and enjoying that process.  


Also: when I sit with fingers on the keyboard, I'm excited and a little nervous. I know what will happen, what actually HAS to happen, but I don't know how it happens until my fingers start moving. 


I've been working on this novel for a long time, through many drafts. I've also carried it with me at times when I couldn't work on it because logistics, because energy, because anxiety, because perfectionism, because reasons.


It's all very Ecclesiastes: times for this, times for that; fallow and fecund; lean and large. Metaphor-for-less and metaphor-for-more. I'm trying to remember that the fallow times have helped make the fecund times possible, and be grateful for them.


Through the years, through the times and family and country and culture I grew up in, I've learned (perhaps too well) to keep pushing myself, to keep trying. To persist, if you will, regardless of opposition. Tired? Push harder. 


As I age, my body is teaching me that rest is also important. Relaxing is also the body's "work." Rest is necessary. Only with rest can I push again. (Maybe if I'd delivered a child I'd have already learned that, but I did not. I am at least learning on a book.)


Without sounding too woo-woo (after Ecclesiastes!), things happen in their own time.


On a different project--also a novel, though not my own--I had a conversation this morning. We have had this conversation in the past. I have presented my perspective several times. This morning, another opening came up to present my perspective, and the conversation took a different direction. 


The final product will be better because it has been delayed--by pandemic, by perfectionism, by energy, by reasons.


Things happen in their own time. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Recommended: Nonfiction (and Agates)

I don't have any personal pictures of agates. I'm not sure I've ever found one, though I live on north shore of Lake Superior, where they are legion. So here's a link, if you want to see what they look like: lake superior agate .


I do have lots of pictures of driftglass, however. A recent collection:



I bring up agates because the article I'm recommending, Karen Babine's "A Taxonomy of Nonfiction; Or the Pleasures of Precision," from LitHub, begins with agate-hunting on the Lake Superior shoreline.


And here is what she writes about: 


I’m fascinated by the idea of a taxonomy in nonfiction, of order, an ever-expanding vocabulary to articulate what the page is doing. I’m not in pursuit of definition so much as I am seeking articulation.


In the article, Babine discusses various ways to differentiate works of nonfiction, in a hierarchy. Not that she posits that she's created "an answer," just simply a way of thinking about nonfiction. (Another fun concept: the difference between precision and accuracy.) 


She also describes how she uses this taxonomy with classes, mostly to create a shared vocabulary to use while workshopping, instead of definitively classifying student work. 


I find it useful to think about writing in this way, especially when I'm revising essays. Am I attempting to convey something in a form, shape, or mode that doesn't suit the subject? Having these words helps me examine my own work to see where it doesn't match my intent. 


It's easy to spend a lot of time reading articles at LitHub, an activity with downsides. But mostly, time spent there--as with this article--is well worth it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Surprisingly Helpful: #1000wordsofsummer

I like linear, predictable processes. 

I'm not generally the kind of person who proclaims, "I'm the kind of person who" (because honestly, beware), but if I were, I'd say, "I'm the kind of person who likes linear, predictable processes, with a side of outlines and spreadsheets."

And yet. I have come to see that my writing process doesn't necessarily work that way. I once scoffed at those who said, "you don't know what you think about something until you write it," but now I enjoy scoffing at my own preconceived notions. Because I often don't know what I mean until I write it, and sometimes not until I've revised that writing several times. 

Not edited. Revised. Like re-envisioning. 

I really don't have enough experience to comment knowledgeably about The Writing Process (although I still try), but here's a couple of things I've learned: a. mine usually isn't as linear as I'd like and b. I'm never sure what will be helpful until I try it. 

So. I've been looking for hacks to help me with writing goals. Perhaps especially in pandemic time. Perhaps just in this time of my own writing life, where I'm finishing and starting projects, and supporting last year's book. Perhaps just in summer. Perhaps always. Perhaps for you. Or not.

Here's one: #1000wordsofsummer

Led by American writer Jami Attenburg, this effort is basically what it sounds like: you write #1000 words a day (or maybe you can revise or something), for some portion of the summer. Give her your email address, and she'll send a letter with some inspiring words of wisdom from other writers. And yep, that's all she does with your address--no spam. There's also a hashtag on Twitter. 

Earlier this summer, I signed up on a whim (I enjoy her Instagram feed, mostly New Orleans houses). I participated in a two-week session in June and came away with more than I bargained for: 7000 words on two projects for 14,000 total words. Not all of them will be "usable" but they are all extremely helpful. 

I bring this up because she's doing another week of it (which is linked above), from August 10 to 16. So there's time to sign up. More explanation at the link.

The thing about my desire for linear processes is that life often prevents them from happening. And then it's all too easy to give up. 

But 1000 words is do-able, especially for 14 days. Doing them helped me (tortured metaphor alert) keep my bucket in the creative well for two weeks, while other Stuff of Summer Needed Doing. 

Going back to those words now: well, priceless. So useful. Surprisingly so. For me. Maybe for you, too?
Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Two More for You, and One Forthcoming

As part of an event sponsored by my publisher, Signature Editions, in June, I appeared on a panel. It was fun! (Links for all things REVERBERATIONS-related are here and here.) We talked about the rewards and pitfalls about writing intensely personal stories related to health and illness.

Books. Lots.


In preparation for the panel, I had occasion to read the titles by the other panelists:

* Micro-Miracle: A True Story, by Amy Boyes, about her experience when daughter Madeline comes sixteen weeks early. It's a harrowing and ultimately satisfying story about a world entirely new to me, that of a micro-preemie baby. Well, babies are pretty foreign to me in general, and I think that (lack of) experience intensified my concern when things start to go wrong for Amy and her baby.

* Rain on a Distant Roof, by Vanessa Farnsworth, about her experience with Lyme disease in Canada and making sense of her body when her body no longer makes sense to her. Sections that provide a window into her hallucinatory experiences alternate with descriptions of the ways in which the Canadian healthcare system stresses and ultimately fails those with Lyme-related conditions. 

I recommend both books. Both successfully tackle complicated subjects--they provide information and immersive suspense. 

And Vanessa Farnsworth has a new book coming with Signature next month! It's fiction, called The Haweaters, and it's set in Manitoulin Island about 150 years ago, loosely based on events in Vanessa's family. I look forward to finding that one, too!
Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mixing Metaphors

I'm trying to make progress on more than one front at a time, and I don't feel especially successful.

Perhaps it's typical for summer. Perhaps life is always like this, and I become aware periodically. 

Regardless. 

Recently, I wrote on a scrap piece of paper: How is a leaking roof like a manuscript in progress?


Well, maybe a better question is how are they NOT alike, amirite?

Neither works well, as is. But it's easy enough to ignore how poorly they're working until it rains and you're forced to notice. 

Both are tricky to fix. You think you know where the problems are, but when you finally get a roofer to stop by, he says it's the siding and the chimneys. Siding people say they don't do chimneys (though chimney supporting structures have siding and flashing). Chimney people say that they fix only chimneys they have put in. 

When you venture up in the attic to slather the underneath of the roof with caulking, which is a patch job at best, you discover other stuff. Back to books for a moment--I recently read a couple that I'm pretty sure were the manuscript version of caulked when they could have used a new roof. I can understand why people don't take their manuscripts apart; it's daunting. But that's the best fix. And it's frustrating to read something that is patched when the actual fix would have been more satisfying and less difficult than it appeared ahead of time.  

So basically, we enjoy rainy days in summer--beyond cooling off the world and nurturing growth, they help with our well. (Gosh, that's a metaphor too.) But they also make us uncomfortably aware of elements of our shelter that we need to fix. 

The only conclusion I have come to is something I read on Instagram that has a long lifespan in social media: The magic you're looking for is in the work you're avoiding.

I'm not looking for magic--just a puzzle that fits together in a satisfying, untidy, glorious way. Back to work, eh.
Wednesday, July 15, 2020

And Now I Don't Have To

Years ago (1996: geez, almost 25 years), Jon Krakauer published Into Thin Air, a book about an expedition up Mount Everest in which a lot of people died. I happened to catch the first article in Outside magazine, which was a teaser for the book. I found the reading and reporting to be interesting.

An IMAX movie (remember those?) called Everest was released in 1998. I lived in Colorado at the time and went with a group of people to see it in a theatre. 

As the lights came up at the end, I said, "What an absorbing experience. And now I know I don't want ever to climb Mount Everest." (In contrast, the people I was with were all gung-ho for an Everest climb. I don't live in the same community of people or even in the same country. Those two facts are not unrelated.)

My point is that sometimes I read a book and think, "Whoa, I'm glad to have read that, and I have zero desire to go and do likewise." Basically: they did this thing, and now I don't have to because I got to read their book. 

Here are two fairly recent reads that inspired that same thought: Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood, by Carissa Halton; and A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry.


(NOTE: This is NOT the U.S. book called The Yellow House. This is a different book.)

On the surface, these two books pictured above are quite different. Little Yellow House is Halton's first book (though she's an experienced writer), and it's creative nonfiction; Wendell Berry has a long list of highly visible and acclaimed books of fiction, essays, and poetry. A Place on Earth is one of his early works, but it's been recently revised--and it's fiction.

Carissa Halton is, ahem, significantly younger than Berry. She's Canadian. He's not. He's explicitly religious; she is not. Halton's book is set in recent times; Berry's isn't.

Yet the books are similar. Both are about places, and communities within them. Each book shows and examines the roles of individuals within communities, and how individuals (and individual families) make space for themselves and each other in communities. 

Neither paints an idyllic portrait of community life. In these communities, people die. People take advantage of others. People do decent things for misguided reasons. People judge. The community adjusts, survives, and even thrives.

Neither book makes me want to go do what these authors write about. I have zero desire to trade rural northwestern Ontario for an urban neighbourhood in Edmonton, in spite of the evident love with which Halton regards her little yellow house and its environs. I also have little desire to visit Kentucky, much less live there and farm tobacco, even if I could live in the mid-1940s world Berry presents. 

Both have inspired me to think differently about the meaning of various terms: investment, nostalgia, economic systems (and the costs thereof), neighbours, art, and love. 

Both are well worth reading. You can order Little Yellow House from many independent booksellers but also here, at the University of Alberta Press

They weren't "escapist," exactly. But they were horizon-broadening, in the best possible way. 
Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Something Clever about Raining and Pouring

It's summer, so everything and nothing is different. The main thing that's different is what "thing" in the previous sentence refers to.



I'm juggling different things than I was a while back. New things like roofs and paint and sanders, and do we need a battery charger.

That said, some of the context from the past four months is the same: if we do need said battery charger (or paint/stain, or sandpaper), how physically do we get it when we're not going into stores. Also: is it time for another grocery pickup.

That said, many lovely people are saying nice things about my book, Reverberations: A Daughter's Meditations on Alzheimer's. And they all seem to have been talking about it in the past two or three weeks.  



This week, an extended interview with Suzannah Windsor appears at Write it Sideways. I read there, too. 

It was so much fun to connect with Suzannah, whom I first met online and later in a diner for coffee (and sometimes bacon!) to talk about writing. I found her questions really thoughtful.

This interview ranges from my pre-Canada background to the number of years it took to collect essays for my book, and my writing process. Here's a snapshot: 

Essay by essay, idea by idea, I groped my way toward a form that meshed my skills and the larger story. Luckily, many writers had stretched and experimented with creative nonfiction during this time, so once I found the labels “creative nonfiction” and “personal essay,” I could learn from reading their work.

While I'm sanding and painting (and making phone calls to siding and roofing companies and ordering things for pickup), I think too about this "new normal": the one we're in now. Where the seasons still change and give us different tasks, but elements of the contexts don't change as much. 

What parts of this "new normal" do we want to keep? What do we want to do differently, when we start doing different things again? "We" meaning me and my household, and "we" meaning the world.
Wednesday, July 1, 2020

REVERBERATIONS is at AlzAuthors today!

Today, REVERBERATIONS: A DAUGHTER'S MEDITATIONS ON ALZHEIMER'S is the featured post at AlzAuthors, a website that has assembled a huge array of resources for people with dementia and those who love them.



At this site, I share the process of writing about Mom's dementia and the role stigma played in my family's reluctance to confront and address her illness. 


I hope readers see that people with dementia and their care partners remain people—unique individuals, with lives that include joys both big and small. I hope readers understand that while a family’s emotions can include guilt, anger, and embarrassment, they can also include love.

I hope that somewhere, a reader gives my book to a friend, and they start a conversation. Because talking about Alzheimer’s and dementia is how we create a more understanding community for all of us. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Upcoming Online Event! "Medical Mysteries, Personal Crises"

I'm pleased to participate in "Medical Mysteries, Personal Crises"--a livestream this Wednesday, June 24, hosted by my publisher, Signature Editions, at 7 PM Eastern. 

And yes, you can watch even if you don't have Facebook, though you can't comment. Click here to join the livestream. 

The description: "Three authors talk about how and why they've written about very personal medial issues--Marion Agnew on Alzheimer's disease, Amy Boyes on premature birth, and Vanessa Farnsworth on Lyme Disease."

Our three books have many similarities but also many differences, as do our lives and approaches to writing. Come, bring your friends, and ask questions! 

Also: Signature will make available FREE COPIES of our ebooks for 24 hours after the stream!



If you can't make the live event, the video will also be available afterwords. I'll post a link when it is. 


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Race, COVID-19, and Dementia: June is Alzheimer's and Dementia Awareness Month

At least, June is officially Alzheimer's and Dementia Awareness Month in the U.S. Results for Canada seem to be mixed, with Canada's public health infrastructure celebrating World Alzheimer's Awareness in October.

Forget-me-nots, a near-universal symbol of dementia awareness, bloom in July. 


At least they do here, near the lake, in shady wooded areas. The ones above are from last summer.

In that spirit, let's not forget a few things, as we 
* continue to endure the COVID-19 pandemic, 
* are reminded, painfully, of our personal internal biases and the racism in our institutions, 
* are grateful in June for longer days, bright sunshine, and growing gardens
        - yet remember how long a day can be for someone with dementia 
        - and for the people who love and care for them 

Here's some information to read and remember. 

Canada's national dementia strategy, Together We Aspire, released about a year ago. (It mentions race in the context of Indigenous nations. Which is something. Is it enough?)

According to this study published in 2016, in the U.S. between 2000 and 2012, dementia incidence was highest among African-Americans (26.6/1000 person-years) and America Indian/Alaska Native (22.2/1000 person-years). Of intermediate incidence: Latinos (19.6/1000 person-years), Pacific Islanders (19.6/1000 person-years), and Whites (19.3/1000 person-years). Of lowest incidence: Asian-Americans (15.2/1000 person-years). 

Racial disparities in the rates of dementia in different races are linked to social determinants of health. Which is to say: education levels. Comprehensive, sustained treatment of hypertension, general cardiac and vascular disease, and diabetes. Access to wellness programs. Ergo: healthcare systems are racist. I'm linking to just one article but there are many. 

Nursing homes, long-term care homes, retirement homes--where many people with dementia are cared for in the later stages of illness--have been the site of most COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and Canada. Here are links: An article about the U.S. rate from May. An article about Canadian rates from May. 

A website, AlzAuthors.com, compiles resources of all kinds (books, blogs, articles, caregiver guides, and writing by those WITH dementia) about Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. (And yes, Reverberations: A Daughter's Meditations on Alzheimer's will be featured on their blog on July 1.)  The site doesn't include a way to search by race to find Black- or other BIPOC-specific resources. However, a friendly librarian or a bookseller at an independent bookstore might be able to direct you toward resources for those interested in the Black experience of dementia. 

The National Institute on Aging at the U.S. National Institutes of Health links to this PDF from Kentucky, The Book of Alzheimer's for African-American Churches. The chapter beginning on page 57, "Dementia and the African-American Community," shares more sobering statistics and cultural concerns. It refers to Nebraska activist Lela Knox Shanks, author in the late 1990s of Your Name is Hughes Hannibal Shanks: A Caregiver's Guide to Alzheimer's. The resource suggests ways churches can reduce stigma around dementia and questions of faith that may arise in people with dementia and those who love them. It includes ten concrete actions that faith communities--or any community, really--could undertake. 


Similarly, I'd "known" that COVID-19 is more prevalent in nursing homes, but I was shocked all over again at the ease with which I found references describing and discussing that fact. And conversely, I was surprised by the relative lack of data around race and dementia, and the relative lack of race- or culture-specific resources. 

Neither search was exhaustive--and both were exhausting. Illuminating. Good experiences for me, in this month of long days.

I keep coming back to this: stories are important. 

So: Whose stories are we hearing? Whose stories are we ignoring? 

Who's not sitting at the table--who isn't even in the room? 

How can we open doors, vacate seats, pass the microphone? 

How can we keep listening, no matter how exhausted or uncomfortable we are? Because we must. We must. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

More About The Cooking Gene

Last December--what feels like roughly eleventy-billion years ago now--I wrote about two books in connection with my father's birthday. One of those books was The Cooking Gene, by Michael W. Twitty.


This past couple of weeks, we as a society have looked (again) (and, I hope, in a sustained way) at murders of black men and women and focused a renewed, deserved attention on Black Lives Matter. 

As I've considered the ways in which I've benefited from being White, I keep thinking about this book. In the post six months ago, I shared how this book changed my perspective on the value of DNA tests as a way to trace family history. (Again, not the use of any DNA aggregation as "proof" that "I can't be racist because genes" or "I'm indigenous because genes." Again, check out the work of Dr. Kim TallBear.)  

Here's another subject Twitty discusses: slavery was an industry, in the modern sense of industry. When White people enslaved Africans and brought them to the Americas, they chose different peoples from different areas--they "matched" those they enslaved with the areas in which those people would be sold to work. Someone who cooked shellfish on the Atlantic Coast was stolen and brought to another place to cook shellfish on the Atlantic Coast. 

Of course slavery was like this. Of course it was. This is hard to type: people were property--owned, like things, like an antique chest of drawers or a pocket watch. White people assigned value to those "things," as  they judged the relative worth of antique furniture or jewelry. 

I mean, I knew this. I just hadn't looked at it closely enough. I didn't unpack what "enslaving people" meant--the serious of callous and inhumane actions it would take to be a broker or someone otherwise involved in that trade. 

These were the people who set up systems from whom I still benefit, 400 years later.

This morning, my husband and I were discussing our roof, which leaks (again) (still). We're talking about the work we might like to have done on it, and the various pros and cons of the companies we know of in the area who do this kind of work. 

Eventually, we'll choose someone at some roofing company to attempt to stop the leaks. We will match their skills to our needs. And, because we live in a capitalistic economy, we'll pay the company for it. 

Because we can. Because we've benefited from systems of education and employment that make it possible for us to live in a beautiful place, and care for it as best we can.

Another recent insight: it's possible to be grateful and nauseated at the same time. 

And I'll say it again and again: Books are passports to others' experiences. They are conversations with important people, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to listen.
Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Book Resource: The FOLD and Others

Many people more knowledgeable and connected than I am are posting many resources to educate White people about Black history in North America. 

Pay attention to those--but look at this organization, too. Here's a link to The Fold, an organization that does so much for voices traditionally underrepresented in the literary world. 

They hold a Festival of Literary Diversity each spring, and this year, they held it online. It was exciting to be able to "go" (from our upstairs guest room) and hear great writers talking about process, community, revising, and many other struggles of art and craft.

They also host a reading challenge each year. And they hold (ACCESSIBLE!) webinars and other activities all year, including an event for young readers. They recommend books all over their site.


The next resources are not specifically Black-owned or -led but they support diverse Canadian literature.

If you're looking to expand your reading horizons, you can also look at 49thShelf.com for Canadian authors and titles. Here's a link to their lists labeled "diversity." 

To purchase books, consider All Lit Up, a consortium of small publishers, or buy a title directly from the publisher. 

Read. Learn. Have hard conversations. 
Wednesday, May 27, 2020

REVERBERATIONS Shortlisted!



The Ontario Library Service - North announced yesterday that REVERBERATIONS: A DAUGHTER'S MEDITATIONS ON ALZHEIMER'S is shortlisted for their Louise de Kiriline Lawrence Award for Nonfiction.

Ontario libraries have not received much support (neither rah rah NOR financial) in the past eighteen months, and are again scrambling to meet community needs during this pandemic. I'm so grateful that OLS-N is giving out this award this year, and that they've chosen to recognize REVERBERATIONS in this way.

As always, I'm grateful to the team at Signature Editions for their support. 

Read books, y'all. If you can, leave reviews or comments in public places. And check out books from your library, whether that means investigating online options or scheduling a curbside pickup. Your future self will be grateful to you!
Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Small Starts

Good morning! Look at this: 


Pretty, huh.

Yesterday, I participated (online) in a workshop from the North American Association for Environmental Education, entitled "Nature as Inspiration and Transformation: An Intro to Nature Poetry."

I got to spend an hour with Aimee Nezhukamatathil, author of World of Wonders, to be published by Milkweed (one of my favourite publishers) in August.

Here's more:



Interesting, though possibly less "traditionally pretty."

The workshop, though: it was wonderful! Especially because I'm generally intimidated by poetry, both reading it and writing it. And I have an appreciation of others' scientific expertise, which I emphatically do NOT have.

And yesterday, I was reminded that all writing starts somewhere, and a sense of wonder--both in the sense of "awe" and in the sense of "curiosity"--is a great starting point.



Also: the power of starting small. Of keeping journals where you record (in writing and sketching!) observations of the world and sky. Of leaning into the things that make you mad or you don't like.


Maybe those observations grow into something more and maybe they don't.

It was lovely to participate as Aimee encouraged all of us to relax the pressure we might feel--from others, from ourselves--to "be productive" or "create."

Those who follow me on Instagram (where I'm marionagnew) know that fairly often I go over to the beach in front of our small camp on Lake Superior.

I pick up what our family calls "driftglass" and others call "seaglass." And I take pictures of it before I put it into a glass jar, where I enjoy looking at it.

I also write about these bits of glass, which you might have read if you've read my book, Reverberations: A Daughter's Meditations on Alzheimer's. Spoiler alert: they made me think of my mother! And also sheets.

In any case, that's what's on my mind these days: small starts, wonder (awe and curiosity), and, as always, this beautiful place in which we live (and parents and sheets).
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Rewind

So. Remember when I fell on the ice? And my wrists weren't hurt badly and were getting better?

Those were the days.

During the ensuring eight or so weeks, my wrists have actually improved. I have gradually returned to reading, then editing and revising, a bit. Even some writing.

I have also attended a LOT (a lot) of Zoom meetings.

And here's what I saw during those meetings.


The photo above shows the view through the upstairs window where we set up the laptop with the functioning camera. 


Above: a closer shot to better show that thing out there. Yep. It's hanging at the end of rope, twisting in the breeze coming off Lake Superior (from left to right), and knocking gently against the exterior chimney (to the right). 

And yep, a gust from the right/wrong direction could send it right into the window glass! Which probably would have been neither a hassle nor at all expensive to replace! 

Throughout those past eight/nine/ten months years? weeks, I have lived with a sense of impending doom, as illustrated by this view. 

Last week I had another wakeful night in which I decided that although I cannot control all the stressful things in life, surely I could do something about a couple of them.

So I signed up for a grocery pickup service. And I phoned my family doctor because the healing in my wrists had plateaued and I was tired of thinking about them.


So this is the thing that was hanging from the rope on the roof. (I can't explain what it is, because I don't know. It's metal. What role did it play in weighting a string along the roofline, in a Roy-engineered contraption to keep gulls and ravens from sitting on the roof? Couldn't really say, but there's a broken partial hockey stick on another slope of the roof. And to finish the story, said contraption did emphatically NOT keep birds off the roof, but it did make for interesting whining during winter winds.)

The rope finally failed and this metal thing came crashing down onto the ground a couple of weeks ago. Whew. The window is relatively safe.

And so am I. Because I have ventured into our healthcare system and have an appointment Friday to determine whatever we shall do about these fractured wrists (!!!) of mine.

I anticipate casts and a general rewind of my ability to use my hands. I can only accept it in the service of healing. 

I'd been thinking of the metal thing as the Sword of Damocles, except that when I finally looked up that analogy the point of the story seems to be that power brings peril, which doesn't really fit either the literal situation with the window or my own, with the wrists.

For one thing, I would hardly call myself powerful, and for another, my peril came from my own carelessness, not the Winds of Fate. Well, I suppose falling was loosely related to the Power of Considering Oneself Younger And More Balanced Than One Is While Walking On Snow Over A Freaking Ice Rink That Is The Driveway, Not That I'm Bitter.

King James translated it better: Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18).

I would say, "At least I'll be able to go outdoors and enjoy the spring sunshine," except that we had snow last week, and it's still May, so snow isn't out of the question.

But there exist such things as coats and mugs of coffee, and I can still read, so, to quote the woman we know as Julian of Norwich, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.