Friday, March 27, 2009

Bad Guys

"The best thing you can do as an artist is disturb."
- Liza Minelli

Recently I was treated to a performance of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma! It was staged by a regional theatre guild, and while it's true I had a vested interest - the Resident Teenager was one of the cast - I was truly, thoroughly impressed. The singing, dancing, and acting were all at a high standard, and the cast members were enjoying themselves to the hilt.

Particularly impressive was the character Jud Fry, who was played with great depth by a highly trained triple-threat actor. I was pleased to see him bring out the humanity in this despicable character; it made it hard for me as an audience member simply to detest Jud when I was sympathetic to his painful life, his frustrations, watching him unravel before my eyes. His actions were no less dispicable, but my response was complicated.

It brought to mind a lecture that was given last summer at writing camp. We were reminded that it is best not to judge the bad guys in the narrative; not to betray them; to see the humanity of both the victim and the corruptor. As writers, we have an obligation to all our characters, even the victimizers.

It's not easy to pull it off, opening one's heart to a murderer, a pedophile, a bully; not any easier than it was for the actor in question to bring out the painful qualities of Jud's lonely, angry life. But his doing so added a certain richness to the production.

I'll not soon forget it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Literary Journals II

"An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many and grows inveterate in their insane hearts."
- Juvenal

The Canadian literary journal is at risk.

In a recent blog, I extolled the virtues of the literary journal as a vital part of our literary culture. Most writers you've ever heard of got their start... well, you can read it here, and refresh your memories on the grant funding that supports our journals, and the shoestring budgets and countless volunteer hours spent to get the journals printed and into bookstores.
During these first six months of my sabbatical, I have been writing, rewriting, polishing, and sending short stories to literary journals across the country, to the US and the UK. I've lost count of how many; it seems in recent weeks I've been tossing them out the door with a pitchfork.

I write these stories to satisfy a creative urge. Once they're written, I'd like to have people read them. At this stage in my writing career, literary journals are my best chance at seeing my stories in print. The same can be said of thousands of other writers in my position.

Now it seems this piece of our cultural landscape is at risk of total erosion. The new Canadian Periodical Fund could well exclude literary journals, whose readership typically falls below the 5,000-readership minimum suggested by Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore. This is serious business.

It's also a departure from my usual blog. But I feel it is important enough to bring it to readers' attention. It will never make front-page news in the national, or even local, papers. But here at the Reluctant Blogger, it is front and centre.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Elwyn Brooks White

"We are having splendid weather and I am building a stone wall. I understand that all literary people, at one time or another, build a stone wall. It's because it's easier than writing."
- E.B. White

Elwyn Brooks White, aka E.B. White, is my latest literary hero. Here's why:

Not only is he famous for editing "The Strunk," but he was one of the first and most lasting of the New Yorker magazine's roster of writers, contributing his essays and unsigned "Notes and Comment" pieces for sixty years.

Not only that, but he was a great wit (see quotation above). I love a great wit. Right now I'm chuckling my way through the 600-plus page volume, Letters of E.B. White, driving The Business Guy a little crazy with my outbursts of "Listen to this!" followed by impromptu readings regardless of what he's in the middle of doing.

(Think of it: 600-plus pages of letters, and they're all E.B's! How many of us can say we've written five thank-you letters in as many years? And think of all the interruptions the Business Guy has to look forward to!)

All of the above I had been vaguely aware of for some time. But when I put it together that Elwyn Brooks White is the same E.B. White who authored three of my all-time favourite children's books, the earth shifted on its axis with a small bump. Did you feel it? If not, the biggest not-only of them all will surely bring it on. Brace yourselves.

Not only all of the above, but...

E.B. White is the author of Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan.


I'm still reeling.

In a letter to children's editor Anne Carroll Moore, who in 1939 was most eager to get her mitts on the Stuart Little manuscript, E.B. writes:

"My fears about writing for children are great - one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness. I don't trust myself in this treacherous field unless I am running a degree of fever."
I'm a bit of a children's writer myself, and I love it that E.B. has such high regard for his young readers that he would resist dashing something off for them. Another of his letters to do with Stuart Little is worth reproducing in its entirety:

"I will do my best to make some progress with Stuart Little. I can't make any promises, as the effect on me of forced labour is sometimes rather dreadful. My wife is nagging me about Stuart, too; in fact today I told her she would have to stop - that she was driving me too hard. I think it made quite an impression on her.

"All I can truthfully say about Stuart is that I will keep fall publication in mind as a goal, but that everything depends on whether the finished product turns out pleasing to mine eye. I would rather wait a year than publish a bad children's book, as I have too much respect for children.
"One of the problems, of course, would be to find a satisfactory illustrator... It would have to be somebody who likes mice and men, and who knows a little of their hopes, joys, disappointments, etc.

"I will keep you informed as to the progress, if any, of the book. Right this minute I am wet nurse to 250 small red chicks, and God help my publisher and my readers - all ten of them... Yrs."

Spoken like a true hero.

Link: E.B. White

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


"Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else."
- Gloria Steinem

Sock the Second is done. There is no need for re-knitting Sock the First, as the two are similar enough to keep my feet happy and warm. No revisions required.

My short story, Butterfly, was another matter. Herewith, revised:

Binnie Brennan

Clifford slams the door, and checks that it’s locked before swinging first one leg and then the other down to the pavement. With his inflamed hip this is achieved with some awkwardness and a grunt; it doesn’t help that his beer gut gets in the way and slows him down. He blows some warmth into his cupped hands before filling the rig’s tank. This morning’s hard frost will do in the last of Marion’s tomatoes, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Next week he will return from the Florida route to the blackened fruit and an empty home. Christ knows, snow, maybe.

A quick cup of coffee to take off the chill, and he will be on his way, with Dolly Parton for company. That woman can break a man’s heart – Here You Come Again, Heartbreak Express, I Will Always Love You. Easy on the eyes, too; a double-F feast for a man like Clifford, who’s gone without far too long. He feels a boner creeping into place and with a twinge of guilt, hitches his trousers as he saunters into the truckstop and takes the booth nearest the door.

“Cuppa coffee, hon?”

Delores, the badge pinned to her mint-green blouse reads. Delores has a voice that could grate cheese and a mouth like a postage slot. Her hair is cut short and is the colour of faded straw. She may not be any Dolly Parton, but at least she’s friendly.

“Yes, please. Got a long drive ahead.”

“Whereabouts you off to?”


“Anywheres warmer than here is okay by me,” Delores rasps. “Here’s a menu. Be right back.” She twitches off to another table and takes the guy’s order.

The door opens, letting in a cold whoosh of air. Couple of hippie kids, all braids and scarves. Jesus sandals with woolen socks, holes in the toes. What are they trying to prove, anyways, Clifford wonders. At least when he was a hippie, a real hippie, back in the late ’60s, they were trying to do good in the world. These kids are just trying to draw attention to themselves, with their tattoos and piercings Christ-knows-where. He squints at the menu, thinks about the route to Gainesville. Always in his mind he is planning a route, driving ahead of himself to avoid surprises. Once he’s driven someplace, he’s got it lodged in his memory. It’s a gift, like a musician’s memory for a tune.

The hippies are talking quietly, looking around the room. Clifford prepares himself; any minute they’ll be sidling up to try and mooch a ride. But he has a firm policy: no free rides to strangers, not after what happened to old Frank and his wife when they picked up some nutcase hiding a stash of coke and a four-foot length of piano wire in his backpack.

“What’ll it be, hon?”

Delores is back, her voice grinding like rusty gears, swishing her cloth on the formica and whisking a paper placemat and cutlery before him with the breathtaking speed of a career waitress.

“Trucker’s special, please. Over-easy on whole wheat.”

“Be right up.”

The hippie girl is shaking her head. Looks embarrassed. The hippie boy kisses her on the cheek, and then – Christ, what’s he doing, standing on a chair and clapping his hands?

“Excuse me, hello? Everyone, could I please have your attention – hello? Excuse me? ”

At which point the girl puts two fingers between her lips and shrieks a whistle that’d stop a bull. The diner is suddenly silent. Truckers in dirty ball caps turn with dubious expressions, some of them shaking their heads at the nerve of these kids.

“Uh, yeah. Um, thanks… Listen, my girlfriend and I were just wondering? You know, if any of you truck drivers who are heading south would consider taking this along with you?” The hippie holds up a shoebox for all to see. “You’d be doing us all a huge favour, you know? And…”

A voice emerges from the crowd. “You want one of us to take a box of Christ-knows-what south? Are you kiddin’ me, bud?”

The air rumbles with the laughter of thirty experienced drivers as they all turn back to their breakfasts.

“Wait, no, it’s nothing like that! It’s a butterfly. Really.”

But no-one is listening. The drivers are far more interested in their hash browns and sausage links than what the young people have in their shoebox. The girl pulls on the hippie’s sleeve, which he yanks away from her grip as he climbs down off his chair. The two of them sit miserably on stools, with the box on the counter between them. Delores raises her eyebrows and waves her coffee pot at them, but they shake their heads. Then she chats with them, and the girl lifts the shoebox lid an inch for her to peer in. Delores nods her head in wonder, and pours them coffee anyway.

Clifford thinks ahead to the Florida drive. He will not drive down to East Florida, as he and Marion had planned last spring, will not be making the side trip to pay the deposit on an RV home. Their dream home. Twenty-nine-thousand saved, mostly put away from Marion’s pension and disability, enough to get them and their furniture down there in time for Christmas. Marion had driven with him the last time and chosen the place, Magnolia Village. Nice folk, people like them who live quietly and don’t expect too much of life, just a little sunshine in winter and evening card games. A few beers and a bowl of pretzels, maybe the Tonight Show if they’re up to it.

Clifford smiles, thinking of Marion’s eyes, her rattling, wheezing cackle every time she wins a game of euchre.

Every time she won, that is. His smile vanishes.

“Here ya go, hon. Over-easy on whole wheat. Just what the doctor ordered.” Delores rips his bill off the pad and flicks it on the table, then in a lowered voice, asks him, “You said you’re driving south?”

“What?” Clifford wonders if Delores is propositioning him, until she nods her head in the direction of the sulking hippies.

“It’s a monarch they got in that box. You know, a butterfly.”

“A butterfly?” Clifford blinks in disbelief.

“One of them orange and black ones you don’t see so much any more. They say they rescued it, but it’s getting too cold out for it to survive. Go figure, eh? Here, lemme give you a refill.”

Clifford stares at the couple, then looks away, but it’s too late; the girl has seen him looking, and is climbing off her stool and hurrying over to his booth, clutching the box to her thin chest.

Clifford makes busy with his breakfast, and pretends not to see the hippies as they stand beside him.

“Sir? Sir, may I ask you something?” Her voice is oddly child-like. He wasn’t expecting a ‘sir’ from her, and he is surprised by her overbite, which he hadn’t noticed earlier.

“Hmm? What’s that?” Couldn’t her parents have sprung for braces, he wonders.

“Mind if we sit a minute, sir? We won’t stay long, I promise, and then you can eat in peace. You know, peace?” She points at the peace symbol at her boyfriend’s neck, carved wood held in place with a leather thong, above which his adam’s apple bobs with nervous swallows.

“Sir, my name is Maya, and this here’s my boyfriend, Robert. We have a huge favour to ask, if you don’t mind.”

Maya slides into the seat opposite him, and pulls her boyfriend with her. She has made two syllables of ‘huge.’ While she draws breath, Robert jumps in. His face looks too young for the growth of beard he’s attempting on his chin.

“Yeah, it’s really cool. Couple weeks ago Maya brings home this butterfly? You know, a monarch? Anyways, she found it on a fence, and it was, um, injured. He had a little tear in his wing, and Maya was so cool, she just emptied out her water bottle and put him inside with a few leaves, you know?”

“Yeah, and then I rushed home and showed it to Robert,” Maya interrupts breathlessly. “I thought, surely to God there’s gotta be a way to rescue this butterfly, and so I checked out the Internet.”

“And she totally found it, Friends of the Monarch? A website about the migration of the monarch butterfly. Can you believe it?”

Robert looks at Clifford eagerly, then at Maya, who is gazing at him expectantly with enormous blue eyes untarnished by makeup. Clifford nods his head as though to say yes, he can believe it.

Looks away from the girl’s unblinking gaze.

“There’s a whole page about wing repair, so we followed the instructions and made a splint,” Maya says, resting a small hand against the side of the box.

“You made a splint for a butterfly?” Clifford wonders if he’s hearing right.

“Yeah, and then we fed him, you know, rotting pears and honey? Fattened him right up. It’s been an amazing journey, you know?”

“And now we need you to finish the butterfly’s journey,” says Maya in a pleading voice.
The mention of rotting pears brings to mind Marion’s frostbitten tomatoes, which will be black on the vine this time next week. Clifford brings the coffee cup to his mouth and takes a long swallow. Winces at the bitterness.

“He’s been flapping around the house, and we’re afraid the cat’s going to eat him. There’s no way he can migrate on his own without freezing, now.” Robert swallows, causing his adam’s apple to dance.

“Sir, we really need your help. This butterfly won’t stand a chance without you. Please, sir, do you think you could take him with you?”

She clasps her pale hands and brings them to her chin.

Maya is really very pretty, with her braided hair and her enormous blue eyes. The overbite lends her an appealingly vulnerable look. Christ, he thinks, looking away. She’s young enough to be his grand-daughter. And there’s Marion, only four months in the grave. Christ, he thinks again.

Robert slides the shoebox across the table. There are holes poked in the lid in the shape of a heart.

“Wanna see Ludwig? That’s what we named him. For Beethoven, right?”

“Yeah, our cat’s name is Leopold, as in Mozart. We just love classical,” Maya pipes up.
Robert eases the lid open a few inches to reveal some yellowed leaves and a twig, upon which clings the monarch, its wings opening and closing slowly to its own rhythm. The fragrance of rotting fruit makes its way from the box to Clifford, who gazes at the butterfly wondering what in hell he’s getting himself in for.

“Sure, I’ll take it,” he says. Across from him, Robert beams, and Maya bounces in her seat, laughing and clapping her hands.

“Aw, man, this is awesome! Thank you so much!” Robert manages. Maya leans across the table and kisses Clifford on the cheek, then turns to Robert and plants one on his mouth.

“See, I told you we’d find someone. Sir, you’re the best. Just the best.”

Clifford’s cheek tingles where Maya kissed him. He tries not to think of it while they are exchanging cell phone numbers.

“There oughta be enough pear in there to feed him for a few days. Please, please don’t let him get cold, and remember to call us the minute you release him.”

Clifford and Robert shake hands, and Maya flings her arms around him. At the next booth a few sets of bristly eyebrows rise beneath baseball-cap bills, but Clifford does not care.

“Thank you so much, sir. You are a kind and generous man. Take care of Ludwig for us – you’re saving his life.”

Ludwig, sheesh! he thinks as he zips his coat and tucks the shoebox under his arm. The girl’s eyes are bright with tears as the pair leave the truck stop and climb into a rusted Gremlin, which wheezes onto the highway.

“Here, hon, take this along.”

Clifford is surprised when Delores hands him a paper bag.

“You’ll want a little lunch sometime,” she says softly. “That’s a good thing you’re doing, there. Drive safe.”

“Thanks,” he says, holding the bag in one hand and the shoebox in the other. He must hurry to the rig before the cold air gets to the butterfly. With surprising ease he swings up into the cab, gently placing the shoebox on the floor between the seats.

As the rig gathers speed, Dolly sings Nine to Five. Clifford will make good time, get the job done. And then he will drive on to East Florida, where he will release Ludwig to the temperate skies of Magnolia Village.


Binnie Brennan
Words: 2100
23 November, 2008
All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 16, 2009

Word Doodles

"Often when I write I am trying to make words do the work of line and colour. I have the painter's sensitivity to light. Much (and perhaps the best) of my work is verbal painting."
- Elizabeth Brown

The late, great John Updike once said he'd write about anything, even the pencils lying on his desk. Makes me think of an artist's doodling, sketching the world around her for the satisfaction of committing the image to paper in a certain way. Doing so fulfills a creative need to sort out a thing, tell a story.

Why not sketch the pencils with words?

How is the light falling on them, indicating time of day? What was the last thing written using them, and why that and not something else? Are the ends of them pocked with teeth marks? Were they tossed aside and left to roll off the desk, or laid down side by side with care? Whose pencils are they, and why are they lying there?

It's not unlike some of the writing exercises I've done over the years to kick-start a story. Matter of fact I think I'll go and doodle about pencils right now.

But first I'll shove the knitting needles out of the way.

And then I'll re-read Elizabeth Bishop's hilarious and insightful essay, The USA School of Writing. The first time through, I laughed so hard I jumped over words.

And then I'll get doodling.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Birdsong, Submissions, and a Sock.

"Get five rejections in a day... Making rejection a goal also takes some of the sting out of it."
- Carolyn Cutler

Someone needs to tell the songbirds it's still winter, but it won't be me. I'm enjoying their arias too much. They accompanied me on my way to the gym today, pealing and burbling through the crisp, -8 Celcius air. I walked on and off the sidewalk, nipping around the four-foot-high frozen-solid snowbanks lining the roads, in my efforts to avoid the one icy patch I'm destined to fall upon. I'm pleased to report I haven't yet found it. Maybe I won't this year.

I finished knitting Sock the First, and am inordinately pleased with myself. It's a fine sock, red and brown stripes not of my doing, but of the clever yarn manufacturer's. The ribbing is a bit loose and there are a few mystery holes, but it seems to fit. Sock the Second is well under way, and is turning out to be rather more svelte, which means I must be finding my groove with the business of knitting with four needles. And it may well mean Sock One becomes also Sock Three, if I can stand to rip it out and knit it all over again, following the philosophy of Writing is Rewriting, ie Knitting is Reknitting.

Or not.

This week's submissions have been most interesting, including a couple of stories sent to an anthology looking for stories written about the sea. Given that the working title of my short story collection is - ahem - Harbour View, this one grabbed my attention. Another story went off to the UK to a print publication that supplies London Underground commuters with reading material - a considerable readership, I should think, looking for a literary diversion to brighten up the ride to work. What a great idea.

It feels good to get my hands on my stories and push them out the door to the ring of birdsong in the cold. They're quite good, I think. The stories, that is. As is the sock.