Packing Up My Library: A Love Story

The books that have surrounded me in this room for six years now go into boxes to make space for our tenants. The books – mine and my husband’s – are all mixed together. Our collection includes books of theory from our student days, Lithuanian novels, linguistic studies of Sanskrit, Chinese literary anthologies, memoirs of Soviet politicians, Latin dictionaries, Greek histories, atlases, grammars, English poetry collections, academic journals, and entire shelves of bound photocopies whereby we reproduced the rare and out-of-print books that our respective research required.

The books are heavy. They are dusty. I’ve only managed to get a third of them packed, and already the hallway is full of boxes. And though I pride myself on my habit of discarding and donating things we no longer need – clothes, dishes, toys – I can’t get rid of books. So far I’ve only put five or six aside to discard, donate, or recycle. As I take our books from their shelves, I note with slight shame how many of them I’ve never read. But even stronger is the pleasure of coming across much-loved yet forgotten books, books that have changed me, and volumes that made me want to be a writer.

These books all around my desk provide a kind of record of my life, and of my husband’s, whom I met in a graduate seminar on the language of poetry. We fell in love in the chaotic, sometimes grungy but wonderful Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. Even now I love that place, with its concrete walls and dim stacks, because it’s where our life together began.

Considering how oppressed and harassed (by bureaucratic tasks, thankless editorial work, and this heavy summer heat) I’ve been feeling lately, I’m surprised to find how much packing books lightens my mood. This dusty and tiring work has reminded me of how much beauty and pleasure words, writers, and quiet hours of reading have given me.

It has also reminded me of love.

At our wedding, my husband said to me, “Julija, you are the book I read, and the light I read by.” I think it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever said.

I used to have a fat cat, obsessed by food, to whom I would say: “Food is not love. Only love is love.” Packing my library reminds me that, for us, books too are love.

Happy summer reading. If the heat gets to be too much, invite your bookshelves to tell you a love story.

(NB: For a really good essay on packing and unpacking books, of course, see Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library.”)

[Photo: F.B. (pg 155), No 3061, page 11 Originally uploaded by Digital Sextant]

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Back from Washington DC: A Few Thoughts on the AWP Conference

The AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It’s a professional association, much like the MLA (Modern Language Association) or the APA (American Philological Association). These organizations offer a number of services to their members: they publish journals, coordinate job listings, and organize annual conferences.

Though it was my first time at the AWP Conference, I’ve been to a bunch of similar events, normally held in a series of big overheated and overpriced hotels in a big city.

The vibe tends to be a bit hysteric, suspicious and overly competitive. So, I was pleased to discover that the atmosphere at the AWP was far cooler and much friendlier. And this is probably the case because in Washington there were three kinds of conference participants: writing students, writing teachers, and writers, or combination thereof (writers who teach, writers completing degrees, writers who write).

And while at other academic conferences, there’s a lot of anxiety about prestige and success (overwhelmingly measured by the ivy-leagueness of one’s home institution), the same things seem to be measured differently at the AWP.

Writers are interested in writing. They are interested in other writers. And because they spend so much time working in isolation, writers get pretty excited when there are others around who understand the writing process and have something intelligent to say about it.

I, for one, found the experience exhilarating.

I went to a talk on the Essay in the 21st Century, where the room was packed with people who also loved the form and wondered about its unsexy appellation.

Next, I heard a truly fascinating presentation on setting in nonfiction by Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats. She talked about writing about her home town and childhood spent downstream from a secret factory that built triggers for nuclear bombs, and the environmental devastation that has resulted. Though no visible trace of the factory remains, the land (about to be opened as a park to hikers) is plutonium-riddled.

Finally, the session I went to on Strategies in the New Nonfiction was so packed that I had to sit on the floor. There was talk of technology, imagination and (most interesting to me) narrative tension. Author Stephen Elliot (TheRumpus.net) talked about the economy of narrative, and how backstory “costs” tension. In other words, if you want to veer from your narrative arc, you have to be able to afford it. And to afford it, you have to have earned enough narrative tension. It’s the first time I’ve thought about story-telling in these terms, and I’m not sure I completely understand yet, but I have a feeling that this will prove to be an important lesson.

Writers talking about writing creates a great vibe. There’s a sense of community and of real conversation — surprising at a conference with 6,000 participants. But anxiety creeps in when talk turns to teaching. In some ways, these pedagogical conversations were even more instructive.

There has been a rapid proliferation of writing programs in the US recently, yet the jury is still out on so many aspects of creative writing programs: does the workshop work as a pedagogical form? can writing be taught at all? are such programs doing a disservice to their students in some way by sending them out into the world with dreams but bleak prospects? how should such programs address the crisis in publishing?

The good news is that all of this is on the minds of those who work in the field.

All in all, it was a great experience. If you’re a writer in search of a hit of professionalism or wider context, do check out the AWP.

And now, back to work. Gotta start earning that narrative tension.

[Photo: chavelli]

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On Writing Workshops: What’s the Process? What’s the Point?

I’m a very solitary writer, and don’t generally give my work to anyone to read until I’ve sat with something for a very long time. In part, this is just the craft (we all write alone), but in part, it speaks to a fear (that I suspect we all have) of not living up, of not being as good as I hope I am, and of being rejected.

Nonetheless, some years ago, I decided to be brave and to begin to foster writerly communion in my life. This resolution led me to the world writers’ workshops.

It turned out to be a really interesting journey.

If you’ve never been to a writers’ workshop, you can read a good description of what they’re like at Suite101.com. But here’s what happens, in a nutshell.

1) Participants distribute work to be read by their peers prior to the workshop.

2) The workshop leader sets the ground rules. I went to one recently where only the critic was allowed to speak, while the writer whose work was being critiqued listened silently and took notes. Only requests for clarification were allowed on the writer’s part, and each critic had to wait his or her turn to speak.

3) The workshop leaders usually speaks last, and reflects on whether or not a consensus has been reached among readers, and perhaps offers insight into issues raised.

4) The writer may or may not respond to the critiques, though sometimes it’s best simply to thank your peers, take notes, and give yourself some time to reflect on what’s been said.

Over the past decade, I’ve taken part in workshops offered through writers’ associations, fellowship programs, observed them in an MFA context, and participated in writers’ retreats complete with meditation and dream interpretation.

I’ve observed that the success of a workshop depends both on the talents of its leader and on the quality (in terms of reading skills, ability to analyze narrative structure, and receptiveness to critique) of the participants.

The good news on workshops is that, for a writer, they can be a great way to figure out what’s not working in a text and to get ideas for possible solutions to problems (though often, it’s best to figure out how to fix things on your own).

The bad news about workshops is that they can be stressful for both writers and readers: readers feel pressure to say something intelligent and helpful, and sometimes are left feeling dumb; writers often become defensive and hurt by criticisms or their readers’ confusion. Getting over both these problems takes time, maturity, and humility.

In workshops you sometimes get contradictory advice. Sometimes you get bad advice. Sometimes your readers are mean. Sometimes the leader loses control, and participants are allowed to ramble, taking up valuable time, and boring everyone.

Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there’s anger. These are the risks of workshopping, and sometimes you just have to ignore all that and listen to your instincts as a writer.

So, what is the point of this complex and emotionally charged exercise?

Workshops teach you, as a reader, to think about the mechanics of writing. Rather then responding to a text simply on an emotional level, the task of critiquing a work-in-progress forces you to analyze how narratives are put together and how storytelling works. In this way, reading the work of others can make you a better writer.

One of the workshop leaders I observed recently put it succinctly: workshops give writers what so many of us lack — readers. Specifically, readers who are not your friends, not your family, not your fans, but others who have though seriously about the craft, struggle with it as you do, and who (if they are good workshop citizens) should be able to offer you a fresh perspective. This is the reward of workshopping.

What are your views on and experiences with  writers’ workshops?

[Photo: Merlin1487]

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U of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature saved!

A few months ago, I posted an appeal to write letters in support of keeping the University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature open. The threat to close the Centre was another in a long series of alarming and depressing attacks on the humanities not only here in Canada, but in the US and the UK as well.

Today, I learned that the letters, petitions, media attention, and general outrage at the plan to shut down such an important institution paid off. The Centre will stay open and is now accepting new students for the fall semester.

Thanks to all who lent their voices to the campaign.

You can read more about it in an article published today in the Globe and Mail.

[Photo: char1iej]

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On the pleasure, pain and panic of working with archival materials

I’ve been working with archival materials for more than a decade now.

While writing my dissertation, I sat in archives comparing drafts of novels, tracking authors’ corrections and studying the process of composition and revision. More recently, I’ve been working on diaries and letters, telling the story of a life on the basis of private papers. Archival work can be slow and painful: you have to read some twenty or fifty letters before you find one that grips you, speaks to you, or tells you something new.

Piecing together a narrative from a million seemingly inconsequential details is the hardest literary thing I’ve done yet. You can’t know what will be important, so you have to copy everything, read everything, and take copious notes. The result is a lot of paper, loads of post-its, a stack of storage boxes as tall as me, and a chaotic office. Only after thousands of hours of reading and reflection will a thread start to emerge.

Waiting for the thread takes faith and patience.

Still, there’s little that thrills an archival researcher more than making a connection  or accidentally finding a key piece of evidence: these moments of pleasure that make the pain worthwhile.

So here’s where I’m at: after years of work, of mastering my subject’s writings, and having finally completed my manuscript, it dawns on me that I don’t own this material. While writing my book, I had put the issue out of mind, but now that I’ve finished, it’s time to face facts.

And the fact is that it’s not mine to publish. Not yet.

The issue is copyright.

In order to cite from unpublished archival materials, international copyright law requires permission of the author’s next-of-kin. In the absence of an heir, you must  prove that you have made a good-faith effort to find one.

To be fair, I have a long-standing and good relationship with the nephew of my main biographical subject who controls the copyright of ninety per cent of the material that is important to my book. But permission for the other ten per cent now needs to be secured. I waited to finish the manuscript before starting the permissions process, because only now do I know what’s important to my story

For the past two days, I’ve been writing emails and making cold calls to Eastern Europe in my good-faith effort to locate the heirs of the authors of additional archival documents I cite.

And although it’s going well, the realization that I’d written a book that I might not be able to publish kept me up all last night.

This is the panic of archival work.

May the heirs be kind and generous.

Fingers crossed.

[Photo uploaded by anvosa]

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University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature threatened with closure

Theory Of Literature by eriwst

I arrived home from a week of camp with my three-year-old to learn that the University of Toronto is threatening to close the Centre for Comparative Literature, where I earned my PhD.

If you are engaged in writing and reading, if you value creative thought, innovative teaching and scholarship, and believe in cross-cultural dialogue, please write to the university in support of the Centre. The relevant email and postal addresses appear below.

Here is the text of the email bearing the distressing news:

Dear Alumni of the Centre for Comparative Literature,

As a fellow alumna of the Centre, I am writing to inform you of some very distressing news and to solicit your support.  The University of Toronto has recently and unexpectedly announced the “disestablishment” of the Centre for Comparative Literature as of 2011.  The Centre, founded in 1969 by Northrop Frye and the premier site for the study of Comparative Literature in Canada, will no longer be able to admit students to the PhD or MA degrees.  It will be reduced to a collaborative, non-degree-granting program in a future School for Languages and Literatures, a proposed new unit that will be formed by the fusion of all current language and literature departments except French and English.  For all intents and purposes, the Centre will cease to exist: all core faculty will lose their cross-appointments, no Comparative Literature courses will be offered, we will no longer have our offices, our space, our director and graduate coordinator, or our identity.  The proposed disappearance of the Centre will undoubtedly have an extremely negative impact on the future of the discipline in Canada and it reflects the general depreciation of the humanities and their essential contributions to knowledge and society.  I should add that the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto is presently flourishing, with a cohort of excellent, motivated students, an innovative curriculum, a prestigious annual international conference organized by our students, and a number of exciting initiatives, such as the journal Transverse www.chass.utoronto.ca/complit for details).  The decision to close the Centre thus has absolutely nothing to do with the current state of the unit and everything to do with budgetary concerns and an ignorance of the discipline.

This disastrous course must be averted for the sake of literary and interdisciplinary studies in Canada.  On behalf of all faculty and students in the Centre, I am writing to ask if you would be willing to send a letter to President David Naylor of the University of Toronto, registering your concern at these proposed events.

If you write, we would be grateful if you could discuss the importance and relevance of Comparative Literature in today’s globalized, multicultural world.  In its crossing of cultural, disciplinary, and linguistic borders, in its self-reflexive and critical modes of thinking about literature and culture, the research nurtured by the Centre’s faculty and students is crucial for a full engagement with the complexities of a multipolar, multinational world, and is a model for the practice of the humanities in other disciplines.

If you do send a letter, please send a hard copy as well as an e-mail.  The hard copy should go to:

President David Naylor
University of Toronto
Simcoe Hall, Room 206
27 King’s College Circle
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1A1

The e-mail message should go to:  president@utoronto.ca

Please copy the e-mail to the Provost Cheryl Misak (provost@utoronto.ca), the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, Meric Gertler (officeofthedean@artsci.utoronto.ca), and the Director of the Centre for Comparative Literature, Neil ten Kortenaar (neil.kortenaar@utoronto.ca).

I thank you kindly for your prompt attention to this request and for the time you will spend in composing your letter.  It is our sincere hope that if enough of us express our outrage at this decision, it will be reversed.

Yours sincerely,
Barbara Havercroft
Graduate Coordinator, Centre for Comparative Literature
(PhD 1989 from the Centre)

Below is one thoughtful letter that argues in favour of keeping the Centre open. If it helps you write your own letter, please feel free to mine it for content and ideas.

Dear President Naylor,

I have just received news from friends at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, where I was proud to be a graduate student and from which I received my PhD in 2001, that the University intends to “disestablish” Comparative Literature as a degree-granting program as of 2011. I am not a faculty member at the University of Toronto, so of course I have not seen the official documents, but if it is true that the university intends to take a series of actions that will in effect end the Centre’s existence, then this is a profoundly depressing development, and more than a little embarrassing to the university of which I have until recently been a very proud alumnus. I urge you to consider alternate options. The Centre is an important part of the history of the University of Toronto and of Canadian scholarship in the humanities; it is a rigorous and flourishing program; and its loss will mean a significant demotion of the University of Toronto in the eyes of the international community of humanities scholars.

The University of Toronto has had a long and important role to play in the humanities in Canada and internationally, but perhaps the single most important series of contributions were made by the literary theorist Northrop Frye. His impact across all of the humanities can hardly be underestimated, and the spirit in which he conducted his research – a ravenous curiosity, a powerful command of the central texts of the Western tradition, and a humane and often humorous style of presentation – has influenced nearly every scholar who has made a contribution to literary studies in the last 50 years. He was instrumental in founding the Centre for Comparative literature at the University of Toronto, and in an important way the Centre is synonymous with his legacy. I cannot imagine how doing away with such a central element in the University’s heritage will not be seen as a remarkable rejection of the legacy of one of its most brilliant scholars.

I chose the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto over a number of other very strong programs in the United States because in addition to its history, it hosted scholars of great international stature with whom I was very eager to work, and in the time that I have been active as a scholar this has continued to be true. My own supervisor, Brian Stock, was affiliated with the Centre until his retirement and has been an honorary member of the Collège de France and, now, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Also recently retired, Linda Hutcheon, distinguished University Professor and 2010 winner of the Canada Council for the Arts’ Molson Prize, has published a spectacular series of profound and influential studies, served as the president of the Modern Languages Association, and was also elected a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. These were the faculty members with whom I had the most contact when I was a graduate student there in the late 1990s: they were only part of a complement with wide international influence and a deep and important legacy. That the Centre should be “disestablished” so soon after their retirement sends a message about the value the University puts on their life’s work; a message they will not hesitate to share with their friends and colleagues internationally. The current faculty is no less strong, and I have seen the vibrancy of the Centre myself in recent years. Its students continue to distinguish themselves: in the last year alone, one received a prestigious Vanier Scholarship, and another one a Governor General’s Gold Medal for best dissertation.

None of the work of the scholars I just mentioned could have been done without the context for interdisciplinary exchange and the creative exploration of new ideas that the Centre has traditionally supplied. My own career has been profoundly shaped by the unique combination of intellectual rigor and creativity that the Centre inspired. With the Centre’s loss, this kind of research simply will not happen, and the University will be weaker for it.

It also means that the University of Toronto will lose a significant source of international visibility. Comparative Literature departments and centres continue to be major drivers of innovation in the humanities, and comparatists push the agendas of many humanities scholars, even those who do not hold comparative literature degrees. Indeed, a large proportion of the most influential studies in the last ten years have been produced by scholars affiliated with a department of Comparative Literature. Having such a department, and the path-breaking research that goes with it, is one of the signs that a University is serious: shutting one down tells the world that the University no longer considers itself so.

I write not only as an alumnus of your University and as a scholar who continues to have warm and productive relationships with many colleagues there, but also as a Torontonian with a deep emotional connection to  the UofT. At my current University’s convocation ceremonies, I wear the UofT hood proudly, and I often urge my undergraduates to count the UofT among their top choices for graduate school. The proposed “disestablishment” of the Centre for Comparative Literature, if it happens, will make all of that a little more difficult. Please reconsider.

You can read more about the Centre’s predicament in The Torontoist.

Click here for an UPDATE on the situation at U of T Comp Lit.

[Photo: eriwst]

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Lifeblood: J. Edward Chamberlin

J. Edward Chamberlin, If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?: Reimagining Home and Sacred Space. Pilgrim Press, 2003.

Ted Chamberlin was one of my professors at the University of Toronto, and if you read his book, you’ll understand what a good teacher and storyteller he is. It weaves together tales about cowboy culture, travels through Australia, his childhood fascination with mathematics, and of how chaperoning his daughter and friends at a U2 concert proved to be a turning point in his thinking about poetry and longing.

Among the best stories in the book is one Ted told me over lunch about ten years ago. It’s about going out into the Namibian desert with a tape-recorded greeting in a language thought to be dead. Not so, as it turns out: Ted and his collaborator ultimately found a handful of elders who responded to the greeting, and thus located the last speakers of an African language called N|u. The language is now being taught to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those elders.

If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? is about the connections between storytelling, language, land, identity, and social justice. Most importantly, the book proposes a new and radical way of thinking about and sharing land in places like Canada and Australia, where native peoples have been dispossessed of their homes, and who are in danger of losing languages, collective memories and culture as a result.

For me, this book confirmed that small peoples, marginal languages, forgotten places, and even anonymous lives were worth telling about:

“For ultimately it is all about the nourishment of what we might as well call the human spirit, that part of us which invents and discovers, as well as listens and watches and waits, and hopes and prays. Without it we are desperate.” (193)

[Photo: Fred Dawson]

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Four Things I Learned from my PhD Supervisor

I defended my PhD thesis at the University of Toronto in August of 2001, under the supervision of a renowned literary scholar and theorist. Linda Hutcheon has written about a dozen books, scores of articles, is respected by her peers, adored by students, and is one of the best examples of a successful writer-teacher you can find.

In the fall of 2000, I was in the fifth year of my doctorate, and there was no end in sight. Even though I was applying for jobs and postdocs, deep down I didn’t really believe I would ever finish my dissertation. Then, in January of 2001, I learned I had won a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, and had twelve weeks to submit a finished thesis, or lose the fellowship.

In those twelve weeks, I learned some of my most important lessons about writing. Four of these came from Linda.

1) It’s not supposed to be easy: One day I showed up at Linda’s door, out of breath and exhausted. “This is hard!” I complained, plopping myself down in a chair opposite her desk. “Julija,” she replied. “It’s a PhD. It’s not supposed to be easy.” Neither is writing books. And it’s worth doing, in part, because it is hard.

2) Enough is enough: The key to finishing my dissertation was to set limits. When I told Linda that I thought I would have to write a whole chapter on the concept of the “other,” she shook her head and told me no. This was beyond the scope of my dissertation, and would only throw me off track. Only once I accepted that there were things that had to fall by the wayside could I actually finish my dissertation. And only once I’d allowed the reality of the text I’d written to replace the fantasy of the text I’d dreamed of could I move on to the next thing.

3) It’s not supposed to be torture: During those twelve weeks of intense writing, I had to read a lot. Some of this was the kind of reading I love (manuscripts, novels), but some of it was reading I felt I had to do. One highly theoretical book defeated and frustrated me to the point of tears. In my next meeting with Linda, I confessed this, and promised to keep trying to work through the text until I got it. She looked at me with a grin, and said, “Julija, if a book makes you cry, put it down, and for goodness sake, read something else!” Writing isn’t supposed to be easy, but it should be rewarding and meaningful. I learned to steer myself in directions that fed me.

4) Onward!: Every time I finished a chapter of the dissertation, I would hand it off to Linda to read. After marking it up and offering suggestions throughout, she would write a single word on the bottom of the last page: “Onward!” The lesson I’ve kept from that word: don’t rest on your laurels, don’t get too self-contented, don’t stop for too long, always look forward and think about what comes next.

[Photo by mlahtinen]

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