Julija Sukys Talks to CKUT Radio About Creative Nonfiction and Canada Writes

Canada Writes

I was honoured to be chosen as a reader for the Canada Writes creative nonfiction competition for 2013. Over the winter months, I sifted through hundreds of submissions that arrived at my door every few days in fat yellow envelopes. Now, at long last, the shortlist and winner have been announced.

Last week, I talked to Anne Malcolm, host of The Monday Morning After at CKUT Radio in Montreal, about creative nonfiction in general and about being a Canada Writes reader in particular. Even though I have a bit of a phobia of hearing to audio of myself, I took the plunge and sat down to take a listen to the interview and decided it wasn’t so bad.

You can listen to the CKUT interview with Anne Malcolm here.

You can read my Q & A (the one I refer to in the radio interview) about being a Canada Writes judge here. 

[Photo: .sarahwynne.]

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Post-Publication Projects: On Returning to Small Forms

Different sizes by Funchye

I’m leading a writer’s workshop on the personal essay in the fall. I’m happy about it, because the essay is a form I love.

I tend to write essays at the beginning of a bigger project, and use them as a way to test out ideas and to work through central questions of longer projects. But since I’ve been, on the one hand, shepherding out my new book, and on the other, slogging through the final third of a new book manuscript, I haven’t actually written an essay for a while. Bigness has consumed my writing life. Yet, seeing as I’m going to be trying to offer some insights into the form, I decided it was time I sat down to another one.

When we first arrived in Gozo (Malta’s sister island), where my husband, son, and I are spending an 8-month sabbatical (only 7 weeks until we head home), I had all kinds of ideas for a book I would write about this place. “Botany!” I thought, “There’s got to be a story in all this plant life and especially that weirdly named Fungus Rock.” Then, later, “Saints and healers!” Then,” Knights of Malta!” And finally, “A travel memoir about our time here…” None of these books have come to fruition.

Instead, as is my habit, I’m starting with an essay. Perhaps a book will follow.

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been corresponding with an editor at a reasonably mainstream magazine. I originally sent a pitch for a long piece — 5,000 words — about Gozo, the naming of places, and the idea of home. It’s a length I like because you can say a lot in 5,000 words, but it’s still short enough to be read in one sitting. The editor came back to me with good news. She liked the idea, but asked that I revise the pitch and shrink the envisioned essay down to no more than 1,000 words.

Now, for someone who’s been writing books, 1,000 words is very short indeed. (Just to give an idea: this blog post is over 700 words long!)

No problem, I said. I’m up for the challenge.

This is where the process got complicated (that is to say, I learned something about myself).

For 5,000 words, I can lay out a structure and map out ideas in advance. I have enough room to look ahead and plot which move will come after which. Not so for 1,000 words. Perhaps it’s a personal failing, but I feel like the only way for me to plan out an essay that short is not to. I have to feel my way through while writing a first draft, then cut, cut, cut, until I’ve smoothed the text down to its kernel.

Unsurprisingly, my reworked pitch didn’t impress the magazine editor. It was too vague and too general. I’m sure others know how to pitch a mere 1,000 words, but I, big-heavy-text-writer that I am, evidently failed miserably. Like a large-animal vet trying to write a care manual for rabbits and gerbils.

But to her credit, the editor hasn’t given up on me. She still likes the original concept, is willing to see how I can make it work as a tiny text, and is waiting for a draft.

Tiny-essay writing is a process that is so different from book writing. With the latter, there’s breathing room. You can use your whole self, your whole past, and explore connections big and small. You can make mistakes and edit them out without throwing the whole thing off. But in a tiny essay, you have to choose your moves carefully. Any misstep, and it’s over.

The Rumpus‘s fantastic advice columnist Sugar recently came out. That is, she revealed her true identity — that of a writer named Cheryl Strayed. Strayed will soon release a collection of her Dear Sugar columns as a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It’s a formulation I love.

That’s what I think 1,000-word essay has to strive to be: a tiny beautiful thing. Tight, strong, economic, and without a word out of place.

A bit like the island of Gozo itself.

So here’s to moving back from the big to the small.

Wish me luck.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

[Photo: Funchye]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part I)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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In this revelatory biography, Beth Kaplan sets out to explore the true character and creative achievements of her great-grandfather Jacob Gordin, playwright extraordinaire and icon of the Yiddish stage.

Born of an Anglican mother and a Jewish father who disdained religion, Kaplan knew little of her Judaic roots and less about her famed great-grandfather until beginning her research, more than twenty years ago. Shedding new light on Gordin and his world, Kaplan describes the commune he founded and led in Russia, his meteoric rise among Jewish New York’s literati, the birth of such masterworks as Mirele Efros and The Jewish King Lear, and his seething feud with Abraham Cahan, powerful editor of the Daily Forward. Writing in a graceful and engaging style, she recaptures the Golden Age and colourful actors of Yiddish Theater from 1891 to 1910. Most significantly she discovers the emotional truth about the man himself, a tireless reformer who left a vital legacy to the theater and Jewish life worldwide.

Beth Kaplan is a writer and actress in Canada. She has taught memoir writing at Ryerson University for sixteen years and at the University of Toronto for five. Her essays have appeared in the Globe and Mail and other newspapers and magazines. Visit Beth Kaplan’s website at www.BethKaplan.ca.

Julija Šukys: In your bio in the opening pages of the book, we read that you spent twenty years raising children and writing this book – “they both left home together.” My writing became entangled with and inextricable from my private life once my son was born four years ago. In light of the connection you draw between your kids and the process of writing, I’m interested to know more about the relation between them.

Beth Kaplan: I had my first child in Vancouver when I was nearly 31. I’d been working as an actress in Vancouver for eight years; when I got pregnant, I left the stage and registered to take an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. So it was as if pregnancy gave me permission to finally sit down and write.

And then the birth of my daughter took that permission away – or at least, made the process difficult. I adored being a mother and didn’t know how to focus on anything else. I’d take the baby to a YMCA daycare for a few hours every few days, so that I could write – but often instead I’d grocery shop or sleep or read the newspaper, things I couldn’t do when she was around. And I felt alone. Almost none of my friends in the theatre or at UBC had kids, and I didn’t know, or even know of, any mother writers.

Someone said once that of the 3 things of vital importance to a married woman – husband, children, work – she could only successfully have two of the three. I thought about Virginia Woolf with husband and work, Margaret Laurence with children and work, L. M. Montgomery with all 3 and a wretched life. There were very few examples of a writer with all 3 successfully. Later I discovered Carol Shields as one very good example, and there are now lots. But around me in the eighties, there were few.

I wrestled with that constantly. I managed to finish the degree long-distance – we moved to Ottawa for my husband’s work in 1983 where I had my son, and then to Toronto in 1985, where I finished my thesis on my great-grandfather and decided to keep going with research and to write a book. When my kids were 6 and 9, my husband and I separated, he moved shortly after that to the States, and so I was a single mother with financial support from him but 100% custody of two difficult children and an old, disintegrating house, in a city where I had no work connections and no family.

The result – the book wasn’t published until 2007. I don’t blame that solely on being a single mother. I also completely lost confidence in myself, was isolated with no support group, had no idea what I was doing – in academic research, there are methods, I just didn’t know what they were. I compared the book to an octopus with its tentacles around my neck – the minute I pried one away, another had me in its grip. And that’s just the writing, let alone getting the thing published. It’s a miracle it ever appeared, in fact.

So this is a very long answer to your question, which is – that I came too late to understand something I call beneficial selfishness. I think writers, artists, have to be selfish sometimes, even with their children. That is, not selfish to the point that their needs are neglected. But selfish in asking them to recognize that their mother has important work that requires something of them. Writing is so invisible. If I were playing the cello or painting, they could hear or see that. But they could see nothing of my work. That was hard for me too, as most of the time, I didn’t believe either, with very little published, that I was a writer.

What helped was writing essays for the CBC and newspapers and for “Facts and Arguments” in the Globe and Mail – I published a lot of short term things that got me out there, got my name in print and showed the world, and me, that I was a writer. Incidentally, many of my essays were about my kids. They grew up being chronicled on the back page of the Globe – always with veto power, of course. But they liked it.

25 years later, I’m still in the same house; the kids live on the other side of town and their rooms here are rented out to help pay the mortgage. I teach but have lots of time, lots of quiet for writing, which is heaven. Except that my daughter has just told me she’s pregnant. Omigod, I’m going to be a grandmother. I can’t wait. But this time, I’ll be able to cuddle and hug and read stories, and then give the baby back and get on with my work.

The fact is that unless you have a spouse who can take over, which I did not, young kids do and must come first, especially when they’re very young (and again when they’re teens but that’s another story.) But that doesn’t mean shelving the work. It means being creative with finding time, and it means taking it and yourself seriously enough to be selfish, sometimes. Otherwise, the work is constantly last, and the book takes 25 years to emerge.

Finding the Jewish Shakespeare constitutes a kind of textual archaeology. It tells the story of your great-grandfather, Jacob Gordin, a Yiddish playwright once compared to Shakespeare and Ibsen, now largely relegated to oblivion. Tell me about the impetus to embark on such a journey, and the research path down which it took you.

I needed to choose a thesis subject for my MFA, and it was my husband who said, You have a great man in your family, write about him. Once he’d said it, of course, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. Because there was the mystery I’d grown up with – why did my father and other relatives have such disdain for a man who’d been in his time so revered? So I blithely began, without realizing that almost all my research materials were in New York City– this was 1982, the Dark Ages before Google, so research meant writing letters, making phone calls, and getting on airplanes. The first time I flew from Vancouver to New York for research in 1983, the thrill of arriving at the YIVO Center for Jewish Research on 5th Avenue, asking for their materials about Gordin, and watching the cart rumble up to my desk with all those file boxes. Then opening them eagerly, and finding that nearly everything was in Yiddish or in archaic Russian – the next tiny hurdle, as I spoke and read neither.

I was lucky enough to find a woman who translated from the Yiddish for me for 25 years. So it’s really our book, Sarah Torchinsky’s and mine.

I wrote lots of letters of enquiry, discovered family members to interview – several of them just in time, as they were extremely old already when I found them – and read everything I could find on or around the subject. I didn’t start using a computer for writing until 1987 or so. And Google, of course, much after that. It seems unbelievable now, how much time research took. And several people have pointed out that in the Internet age, we lose the thrill of hunting and holding the actual artifacts and books.

As I read your book, I found myself continually pondering questions of language. Interestingly, Jacob Gordin’s strongest language, and the language he appears to have loved best, was Russian. Yet, he wrote his plays in Yiddish, a language that always represented a bit of a struggle to him. It’s not the language he used in private: with his wife he spoke Russian, and to his children, English (a language it appears he never mastered). Why, once he had gained some success, do you believe that Gordin never made the switch to Russian? Why did he continue to write in Yiddish, despite the limited audiences, the community politics that you describe, and despite the fact that it was not the language in which he planned his plays?

Gordin didn’t switch to Russian because nobody on the Lower East Side ever wanted to hear Russian again; he would have had no audience at all. Yiddish was the language of mothers, of home, hence not only of the theatres but of the burgeoning Yiddish newspapers. Russian was the tongue of the oppressor, the Cossack enemy, there was no place for it amongst the Jews in America. But Gordin always dreamed of going back to Russia one day. Before he died, he knew that his plays were touring Russia – one of his sisters, who still lived there, wrote to him from her town in Ukraine of her pride in going to the theatre to see two of her brother’s plays. But she saw them in Yiddish, not in Russian. There were Yiddish theatres and troupes performing Gordin’s plays in South America and in Eastern Europe – in fact, all over the world.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Images: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part II)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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This is Part II of a two-part interview with Beth Kaplan about her book, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: My second question about language is about your relationship to the various tongues at work in this book. What is your relationship to Yiddish and Russian, the languages of your ancestor? Given the decline of Yiddish since World War II, there’s a real sense of loss that surrounds that language these days. Does this sense of loss come into play in your relationship to Gordin’s texts and history at all?

Beth Kaplan: Well, this is a very profound question because it also goes to the heart of my hybrid status – as a half-Jew delving into this very Jewish story. Several people, hearing of my work, told me I should learn Yiddish first. A Yiddish academic, who continued to be extraordinarily unhelpful, told me when I called to introduce myself at the beginning that writing a book about Gordin without speaking Yiddish was like writing about Moliere without learning French. As if my family connection were meaningless.

I had no interest in learning Yiddish, though I did take a term of Yiddish classes through the Toronto school board, where my suspicions were confirmed – the class was filled with people wanting to reconnect with memories of their childhoods, especially of their grandparents. I had no such desire. In fact, my grandmother, Gordin’s daughter, spoke no Yiddish and had no interest in it. That’s the irony at the core of all this, as you noted – Gordin, revered as a Yiddish playwright, spoke Russian or English at home and hadn’t much respect for the language of his great success. I did take Russian lessons, incidentally, which interested me much more because it’s the language of a country I could actually go and visit.

So it was thanks to my dear Sarah Torchinsky that the Yiddish documents revealed their secrets to me. My father, whose relationship with his own Jewishness was conflicted, as I point out in the book, loved Yiddish phrases and expressions and used them often, but he would have been horrified at the thought of actually learning to speak the language. Intellectuals like him thought of Yiddish, not as a vibrant language in its own right, but as a kind of hybrid, debased German.

I respect and admire those trying to keep Yiddish alive, especially the amazing Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Centre in Amherst. Right now, I am corresponding with a woman living in rural Texas, who speaks Yiddish in complete isolation and is translating one of Gordin’s plays. But the future of the Yiddish language is simply not my cause.

Although your portrait of Gordin is nuanced (you don’t hold him up as the best playwright who ever lived, nor do you sugarcoat difficult aspects of his personality like his ego), the book nevertheless reads as a project of rehabilitation. Gordin’s legacy has suffered terribly from a vicious campaign waged by the New York Yiddish literary critic, Abraham Cahan. Talk a little bit about the conflict between Gordin and Cahan. How much did you know about it when you began researching? What, in your opinion, lay at the heart of Cahan’s fervour in destroying his rival so thoroughly?

Abraham Cahan was a critic at the Jewish Daily Forward. The more I learned about his vindictive personality and especially his campaign against my ancestor, the more I felt that if nothing else, this book would defend Gordin and expose what he endured. I learned that Cahan pursued several other vicious vendettas, one against the writer Sholem Asch even more single-mindedly destructive than the one against Gordin.

I posit in my book that there was something about Gordin’s largesse, huge family (eleven children) and enormous popularity that goaded Cahan, who was the opposite in nature, an anti-social man with very few friends, no children and an unhappy marriage, who lived not in a home but in a hotel. So the surface of their battle may have been political – they disagreed vehemently on how Jews should be helped to adapt to their new land – but I think with a burning personal base.

When I found some of Cahan’s articles against Gordin and had them translated by Sarah, they broke my heart – they were so petty and cruel. Not without an occasional point, certainly – but far, far beyond the boundaries of criticism. They attacked everything about Gordin with a kind of nasty glee with made me, literally, feel ill.

You describe finding a number of Cahan’s assessments of Gordin’s work almost verbatim in current descriptions of his work, namely that his plays have little literary merit. To me (and I think to you), it is this question of tainted legacy (that of Gordin as a hack, and even, as you describe, of a plagiarist) that is the greatest tragedy of this story. What does Gordin’s story tell us about the capricious nature of literary legacy, or of how writers are made and destroyed?

I made a lot of the tragedy of Gordin’s humiliation by Cahan, because I did come to feel that Cahan had left an accusatory legacy of plagiarism that my father absorbed. But in the end, I have to point out that many people did remember and respect Gordin – that Cahan’s campaign wasn’t completely successful. After all, a quarter of a million people, apparently, packed the streets the day of his funeral. I think that Gordin was more a newspaperman or a teacher than a playwright, in that he was so didactic, always preaching his message. But an elderly Yiddish actor I spoke with from Britain told me his plays were spectacular vehicles for actors. I had to keep in mind how much the theatre itself has changed; that many of the most successful playwrights of a particular time vanish pretty quickly. Our list of great playwrights of other times is much smaller than the list simply of great writers; it’s hard to write a play that is relevant to its time but will also endure. Gordin was a marvel for his time and place, bringing theatre with dignity and finesse to a people who’d had no theatre at all only decades before and who only knew a kind of vaudeville of melodramas and operettas. He accomplished a great deal, but he was no Ibsen.

Most of my own contact with the Yiddish literary scene has been through my research on Vilna. I was amazed to learn of the vibrant Yiddish scene that Gordin was a part of New York at the turn of the century. Do you see echoes of that theatrical and, in some ways, revolutionary world? Or is it really gone for good?

I describe in the book the scene in the 1800s in New York, when factions supporting rival actors playing Macbeth began to fight each other in the streets, resulting in a number of deaths. If only audiences cared so much today about the theatre! But today when people are sitting at home in front of a thousand different screens, we can’t reproduce that time, when sitting in a theatre meant so much, gave people a taste of home, let them hear their past, their homeland… It was an incredibly vibrant time, when New York was flooded with immigrants, desperate to learn and prosper. In a startlingly short time, many of them did.

This is a book not only about your great-grandfather, but also about your extended family, and about you. It’s about your hybrid identity (half-gentile, half-Jewish). It’s about the family silence surrounding the one great, but somehow shameful family member. It’s about the discovery of roots, and the drawing of a line back to the other writer in the clan. How important to this story is the fact that you are Gordin’s great-granddaughter? Talk a little about the decision to write a book that was a work of creative nonfiction, infused with the writerly gaze and experience, rather than a “straight” biography.

I had a big technical problem writing the book, which was never really resolved – that it was, in fact, two books. The first was the scholarly Gordin biography that was needed because there wasn’t one – detailing the history of the man and his plays. The other book, the one that really interested me, was the family story and my connection to him and to his life. I got trapped in the biography, loaded down with facts and names and dates, and then did my best to bring life to all that with the personal stories.

The problem was that the resulting manuscript was too weighty and scholarly for the mainstream publishers, where my New York agent first sent the book, and too personal and informal for the university presses, which wanted a dry biography with footnotes and no personal material. Footnotes! I’d been doing research for over 20 years, most of them as a single mother in chaos, I had paper stuffed into boxes all over my house with no idea where I’d found this quote or that bit of play, and no desire to spend years digging it all back up. I said no footnotes, which meant most university presses were not interested.

Luckily, Syracuse was happy to take the manuscript and turned out a beautiful book, though I had to cut some of the personal stuff. If I had to do it again, I might try to actually do two books – one for the university Yiddish departments, with just cold facts, and another with far fewer facts but more heart and soul about the family.

A wealthy friend of mine, after reading the book, said, “Too much detail. Why didn’t you turn it into fiction? That would have been more fun and would have sold much better.” That may be true. But I have not the remotest interest in taking a fabulously interesting true story and fictionalizing it, inventing characters and situations when I’d hunted for decades to uncover the real ones. My friend Wayson Choy has written two novels and two memoirs; I admire that kind of ambidextrousness, switching between fiction and faction. I have no interest in even trying. Give me a true story, any day.

[Image: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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Writers’ Trust Hilary Weston Prize, $60,000

The notoriously unrewarding business of writing non-fiction
books in Canada gained a double dose of glamour and money
yesterday with the announcement of the $60,000 Writers’
Trust Hilary Weston Prize. Billed as the richest award for
factual writing in Canada, the prize and the autumn gala at
which it will be announced are intended to do for the craft
what the Giller Prize does for Canadian fiction in the busy
fall season, according to its founding sponsor, the former
Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.

Citing the work of Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, Jane
Jacobs and Margaret MacMillan while making the announcement
in Toronto at Holt Renfrew, the Weston family’s store,
Hilary Weston said she hoped the prize would help revitalize
a form of writing that is becoming increasingly difficult to
undertake in Canada. “As I get older I really feel
passionate about non-fiction because of its broad reach,”
she said, adding that the prize is intended in part to
underwrite the enormous research the best non-fiction books
require.

Weston’s commitment transforms the unsponsored orphan of
the Writers’ Trust awards program into a sparkling
Cinderella with an appropriately glamorous coming-out next
fall, in the same few weeks when winners of the group’s
own fiction prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the
Governor-General’s Literary Awards are announced. Unlike
the remainder of the Writers’ Trust prizes, which are
typically presented as a group at a low-key ceremony, the
Hilary Weston Prize will get its own gala, potentially to be
televised by CBC.

[Photo: Stephen A. Wolfe]

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The Literary Pyramid Scheme: On Book #2

Those of you who follow this blog know about what I call the Literary Pyramid Scheme. Nonetheless, in case there are some newbie readers, here’s a quick recap:

Some time ago, I posted a call for volunteers to step forward to help me with a literary experiment. I described a letter I received that invited me to become a member of an informal book club. It went on to outline a kind of literary pyramid scheme, whereby I would send out one book and six letters. In return, I could expect to receive a maximum of 36 previously read books selected by strangers from their very own shelves.

The idea behind this project is to write an essay about the books I get in the mail from strangers. The first book to land in my mailbox was Gods and Generals, and it prompted some musings on the traces of former lives and journeys that we find in second-hand texts.

Book #2 arrived last week: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. And even though it arrived quite a few days ago now, I haven’t written about it yet for the simple reason that I’ve been too busy reading it.

I’m a die-hard New Yorker reader, so Gladwell (a regular contributor) is very much on my reading map. Still, I’m not sure why, but I’ve never read any of his books. Recently, though, I have been especially tempted by Outliers, where he argues that geniuses become who they are and accomplish what they do in no small part because of the sheer number of hours they spend doing whatever they do: hockey, cello, writing, painting, you name it. I think the magic number of hours was 10,000. Now, for someone who spends every day in front of some manuscript or other, logging hour after hour, this is oddly comforting news.

Blink, by contrast, is about the genius of intuition. It’s about micro-cognition, and how we all carry split-second wisdom deep inside our most unconscious thought processes. I’m not done reading yet, but so far, the most fascinating and terrifying chapter for me (married eight years, and counting) has been his account of how the outcome of marriages can be predicted with shocking accuracy by analyzing very short snippets of conversations between couples. I’m sure you know this study (the key emotion is contempt). If you don’t, it’s worth reading about.

This book made its way to my home near Montreal from a stranger in West Virginia. What a lovely gift. It’s furthered my thinking on creative nonfiction (Gladwell’s version of it, though quite different from mine, is very good indeed). It’s satisfied a curiosity about a writer I’d wanted to get to know better, and made me want to read more. Outliers will be next on my list of his books for sure.

Here’s hoping for more packages from strangers!

[Photo: angelferd]

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Call for Submissions: Prose Writers

18th Annual Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers
$2,500 PRIZE

The Writers’ Union of Canada is pleased to announce that submissions are being accepted until November 10, 2010 for the 18TH ANNUAL SHORT PROSE COMPETITION FOR DEVELOPING WRITERS. The winning entry will be the best Canadian work of 2,500 words in the English language, fiction or nonfiction, written by an unpublished author.

PRIZE
$2,500 for the winning entry and the entries of the winner and finalists will be submitted to three Canadian magazines.

JURY
Writers Tarek Fatah, K.V. Johansen, and Sharon Pollock will serve as the jury.

ELIGIBILITY
This competition is open to all Canadian citizens and landed immigrants who have not had a book published by a commercial or university press in any genre and who do not currently have a contract with a book publisher. Original and unpublished (English language) fiction or nonfiction.

HOW TO SUBMIT ENTRIES:
•    Entries should be typed, double-spaced, in a clear twelve point font, and the pages numbered on 8.5 x 11 paper, not stapled.
•    Submissions will be accepted by hardcopy only.
•    Include a separate cover letter with title of story, full name, address, phone number, e-mail address, word count, and number of pages of entry.
•    Please type the name of entrant and the title of entry on each numbered page. This is not a blind competition.
•    Make cheque or money order payable to The Writers’ Union of Canada. Multiple entries can be submitted together and fees can be added and paid with one cheque or money order, $25 per submission.
•    Entries must be postmarked by November 10, 2010 to be eligible. Results will be announced in February 2011.

• Mail entries to:
WFC Competition,
The Writers’ Union of Canada
90 Richmond Street East, Suite 200
Toronto, ON
M5C 1P1

Results will be posted at www.writersunion.ca. Manuscripts will not be returned.

[Photo: Visentico / Sento]

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How I stopped resisting and returned to the first-person

I keep going back to that month I spent at the Banff Centre for the Arts almost four years ago. Never before had I been treated with such generosity and respect (one of the Literary Journalism program’s mentors jokingly warned us not to get used to it, since never again would we be treated this well). The resources were humbling: everything to foster creativity and work was provided. So when I couldn’t deliver the quality of text I’d set out to write during my tenure there, I felt deep humiliation.

But my failure at Banff ended up teaching me about what kind of writer I am. What’s more, that failed text has finally (finally!) transformed itself into something good.

I travelled to Alberta in the summer of 2006 to write a 10,000 word essay on a librarian who hid Jews in a Lithuanian university library during the Shoah. I had my story, my archival documents to cite, and my ideas about what form it should take: above all, I wanted to keep myself out of the essay and avoid using the first-person voice.

Since I had written my first book in a quirky first-person, I was determined to try something new. I wanted to write something “straight”: to tell a story that deserved to be told without mucking it up with theatrics or by inserting myself into the narrative. It seemed like a good plan, and I stuck to it. At the end of four weeks of painful essay extraction, I submitted my final product.

The essay was a disaster. Clunky and lifeless. Even I had to admit it, so once I came home, I kept working on it, wrestling with it and trying to diagnose the problem.

Only after hundreds of drafts over many months, and a grudging return to the first-person voice, did the text begin to work. The story found its traction and my central character (the librarian) gained colour.

Why? What is it about the first-person voice that is so powerful? And why are we so suspicious of it?

Years ago, I was thinking about pitching something to the Chicago Public Radio show This American Life, and looked at their website for guidelines. One line from their description of what makes a good story has stayed with me. It’s now gone from the site, but it went something like: “We look for stories that appear to be about one thing, but that are actually about another.”

This is what the first-person voice is best at.

It’s easy to sneer at the glut of memoirs of the past decade, and to discredit the genre as somehow dishonest or narcissistic, but autobiographical texts and personal essays that really work are always about something bigger than the person writing them.

The best first-person texts flirt with navel-gazing, but are redeemed by insight, artistry, self-criticism, and honesty. By telling a story about their own singular lives, skilled autobiographers and personal essayists inspire revelations. In other words, these texts not only reveal something about the person writing them, but also about the one reading them.

My Banff essay didn’t work when it was just about my librarian, and began to gel only when I found the something else it was really about. Ultimately, the essay came to tell a love story between a researcher and her subject, and the ways in which a pregnancy disrupts this imagined relationship. This story that appeared to be about a Holocaust rescuer was actually about writing and motherhood.

After more rejections than I care to admit to, the essay (now called “Pregnant Pause: On Ona Šimaitė, Research, Writing and Motherhood”) has found its home in a journal called Feminist Formations, formerly the National Women’s Studies Journal. It will appear very soon, in a matter of weeks. I’ll let you know when it happens.

If you’re interested in thinking more deeply about the first-person voice, or simply in reading some top-notch texts, take a look at Phillip Lopate’s edited volume, The Art of the Personal Essay. It’s a massive, brick-sized tome, and will keep you inspired and interested for years to come.

[Photo: DelosJ]

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Familiar yet strange: “Alphabet fusion” in Lithuanian translation

This morning my Globe and Mail piece “Alphabet fusion” appeared in Lithuanian translation in the national daily Lietuvos rytas (Lithuanian morning). It was a very surreal (not to say postmodern) experience to read it.

The article talks about how our family lives in three languages (Lithuanian, English and French), about what Lithuanian can do that English and French can’t, and about the linguistic choices that our son Sebastian makes himself.

So, to read about all this in Lithuanian, a language I live in but don’t write in, and the central language the piece was about, was, to say the least, odd and interesting.

Familiar yet strange, mine yet not.

Perhaps there’s another essay in that.

You can access the article through this link.

[Photo: Leo Reynolds]

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On Joan Didion, domesticity and writing

Almost four years ago, I got a phone call telling me that I’d been accepted into the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism Program. Thrilled by the news,  I immediately went to the library (as I do at most major crossroads in my life) to do some research. I took out whatever I could find of Joan Didion’s work, since it was her legacy of smart, reflective and literary journalism that the Banff Centre aimed to foster. Since I didn’t even remotely consider myself a journalist, I figured I’d better see what I was getting myself into.

Didion is an author whom I’d somehow missed: she is famous for inserting herself into a story and telling about big events in a first-person voice, and master of balancing the big and the small.

She and her essays have often returned to my thoughts in the past couple of years, because she helped me dump some of my guilt about how I organize my days. Somewhere — I can’t remember where, and it’s been driving me crazy — Didion describes how domestic tasks have been an integral part of her writing process. She works in the morning, eats lunch early, and then turns to cooking or gardening in the afternoon, perhaps returning to work once again later in the day. At least, this is how she described her life before the deaths of her husband and daughter.

It’s exactly how I live now.

For a long time, my husband suspected that my mid-day meal prep, dishwasher loading or laundry undertaking were nothing more than time-wasting techniques. But now (two books later) even he admits that a balance between the creative and the mundane is necessary for my work.

These are my rhythms. When I let my brain rest, things have a way of working themselves out.

If it’s good enough for Joan Didion, then why not for me?

[Photo: ckintner]

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