Friday, September 26, 2008

More on Margaret

"Either the bloody thing will get published or it won't."
- Margaret Laurence (re. The Diviners)

I've had a number of responses to last Thursday's blog, deeply felt emails about Margaret Laurence's work. One was from a writer who felt Laurence's presence during the writing of her own novel, with the reminder to be true to her own voice throughout. Another came from an artist who recalled reading The Diviners years ago, and reacting so powerfully to a dialogue section that she could actually hear the voices speaking. Another reader wrote simply that The Stone Angel and The Diviners are her two favourite books. Period.

I was moved to pull my worn copy of The Diviners off the shelf for the first time in many years. It's seen better days; the pages are yellowing and the inscription bears the confident and slightly curlicue signature "Binnie Brennan, 13J", written when I was Morag Gunn's daughter Pique's age. With a nod to the nearby stack of newer Canadian novels awaiting my gaze, I sat in my reading chair and began.

The opening lines drew me in (see my Writing page), and I haven't stopped reading since. Where I was Pique's age when I read The Diviners in high school, for this reading I am exactly Morag's. Through adult eyes it's a whole new story, and yet it is as familiar as an old friend. What thrills me is that I CANNOT PUT IT DOWN - The Diviners remains one of the finest and most absorbing novels I have ever read. There is no doubt in my mind that it laid the foundation for subsequent Canadian novels, a number of which sit piled by my reading chair, and who knows, perhaps one or two I haven't yet had the chance to write.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Field Trip

"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."
- Samuel Johnson

I've been tackling the story whose guts I recently decided I hate. It took some time and a lot of nerve, but last week I completely pulled it apart and started over, adding more new elements than keeping old ones. It was a bloodbath, a ruthless pruning session that left me panting and sweating bullets, but with an entirely new version of a story I need to keep in my collection.
It needed an extra pair of eyes, so I called upon my great friend S., who is both a discriminating reader and a nurse. Where the setting of my collection is a nursing home, I've been throwing stories at her left and right, begging for her expertise. Indeed, S. has been invaluable in keeping me from falling flat on my face out of ignorance on nursing-related matters.

Yesterday S. arrived at the door with her copy of the rewrite, and announced we were going on a field trip to look at the diaper room. The diaper room - how fantastic! Accuracy in writing is so important, and clearly S. felt I needed to get it right about the diapers. I grabbed my notebook, and we were off to the hospital. Within minutes of S.'s poking around the supply room, we had the matter sorted out.

While S. had a few words with her colleagues in the nurses' lounge, I stood in the empty hallway and noted the waiting gurneys, the towel cart, the nose-pinching scent of antiseptic that hung in the air along with a brittle, momentary sense of calm. I thought about the people resting behind drawn curtains, the nurses whose cheerful chatter was making its way to me from the lounge, and I hoped I would be able to do them all justice.

Back at my desk I made the necessary changes about diapers, and realised that I had finally divined the story I wanted to tell. I think.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


"I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter."
- James Michener

This week I'm preparing a submission for a manuscript competition. It's a first for me, and it's a big deal.

For some time now I've been submitting stories one at a time to literary journals, steadily collecting rejection letters, and a few acceptances. Over the past four years I've been writing my story collection in the same manner: one at a time, and revising as such, each story falling under careful scrutiny as I pick it apart and put it back together in a slightly, or sometimes vastly, different way.

Toward the end of my recent mentorship at the Humber School for Writers, I suspected I had a solid first draft of the story collection. My mentor confirmed my suspicion, and he gave me advice and encouragement about the revising job I had ahead of me. Soon after, I printed all twelve stories and put them in a blue binder. It was a big moment for me to see them as a whole; I went about the rest of the morning with a daft grin on my face, hugging the blue binder. Then I came to my senses and got to work editing. I've been at it ever since.

Rewriting is an exercise fraught with choices. As I prepare the collection for submission, I am making decisions left and right about what to keep, what to omit, and what to develop. For example, late last week I decided I hated one of the stories' guts, and would have been happy to run it through the shredder and line the kitty box with it. Alas, the story is crucial to the collection, so I'll have to find another way of telling it, and use something else to line the kitty box, necessity being the mother of invention in both cases.

Deciding on the order is a whole other matter, as one story links to the next and causes a ripple effect on how the larger picture unfolds. It's a big responsibility, and an even bigger thrill. This submission is the culmination of four years of writing and rewriting, and further rewriting on top of more rewriting. You get the idea. It's a big deal.

(Incidentally, The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions of "Submission". Here are two of my favourites:

1. humility, meekness, obedience, submissiveness.

2. (in wrestling) the surrender of the participant yielding to the pain of a hold.


“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”- Jack London

The launch of my website coincides with the beginning of a long-held dream of mine, which is to take a year and write full-time. It’s not that I have any complaints about my day-job, or should I say night-job, as a musician in a symphony orchestra. For thirty-five years I have played the viola, twenty of which have found me luxuriating in the viola section of Canada’s finest chamber orchestra, working full-time as a professional musician. I’d be hard-pressed to improve on the job of playing with outstanding musicians under the direction of the late Maestro Georg Tintner, and currently, Bernhardt Gueller, bringing musical masterpieces to enthusiastic Maritime audiences on a weekly basis.

And yet… and yet. For as long as I’ve been obsessed with playing the viola, there has been a compulsion in me to write. Just as I love the physical act of having rich and beautiful sounds pour out of my viola, of feeling the vibrations of the music right down to my toes, so do I love the physical act of writing, whether the words are flying from pen to paper, or from under the keys at my fingertips. I love the triumph over the blank page, of filling notebooks and sheets of paper with prose. Making stuff up brings me joy.

The hard part, where the art lies, is in the rewriting. It takes time, and I have happily put in what spare time a working musician and mother-of-two can find. To my delight, three of my short stories have been recognized by literary journals*, and one of my children’s stories has been blessed with a stage production. “Blow in my ear,” as my mother would say. Give a writer a little encouragement, and watch out. This is where my sabbatical year comes in.

I plan to keep a blog account of my writing efforts over the coming months. My hope is to update it twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you hear from me less often, it could mean good news, I’m on a roll with my fiction writing. Or maybe I’m off playing my viola, which I can’t imagine completely abandoning. Then again, there could be an onslaught of blog posts, which might be symptomatic of writer’s block.

Writing isn’t easy. Inspiration isn’t handed to anyone on a plate, and rewriting is hard, hard work. It all needs time, and right now, for the first time in my adult life, I have time to write. Wish me luck.

*Links: The Adirondack Review, Glossolalia (Iss 1:1), Existere (Fall 2007)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Reluctant Blogger

"I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”- Peter De Vries

“You need a website.”
“No, I don’t."
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t."
“Yes, you do. You need a website and you need a blog.”

Thus began the supper conversation between me and my husband, the Business Guy. We’d had this chat before. I’d resisted. He’d persisted. I’d resisted again. Now he was persisting, yet again. I paused to chew my broccoli. Swallowed. Picked up the conversation where it left off.

“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”

The Business Guy has the persistence of a drill, which accounts for his success in business. I chewed on a piece of carrot, slowly, so as to arm myself with just the right words to strengthen my argument. This wasn’t going to be easy.

My husband jumped in, which was hardly fair, as I was still chewing.

“You’re a writer. You need to promote yourself and your work if you want your writing to be read.”

The Business Guy is right. I know this, but still I cringe at the thought of putting my words Out There.

Most writers I know are shy and private people. These personality traits are enormously helpful in fostering the rich inner life that nurtures small thoughts and inspirations into something interesting for the world to read. Therein lies the paradox: Writers need readers. Readers means people. And there you are, Dear Reader, out there in the public space known as the Internet (or “Interweb,” as a behind-the-times character in the excellent Eugene Levy/Christopher Guest film “For Your Consideration” calls it). And here I am, hiding behind my computer, about to press “Post” on my first-ever blog, which will appear on my first-ever website,


I am the reluctant blogger.

Truly, I am paralysed by the thought that a solitary web-surfer might stumble across this and actually read it. But as a writer I do want my words to be read. And the Interweb – pardon, Internet – seems a good way of helping things along.

Thus it is with considerable trepidation that I breathe deeply and say, “Yes, I do.”

Welcome to my blog.