I am delighted to see a Writers Festival taking root in my hometown of Stratford, Ontario. The lineup looks terrific, with readings, workshops and panel discussions with some of Canada's finest writers, an opportunity for new writers to pitch their work to an editor or agent, a brunch/reading with Kim Echlin and jazz pianist Paul Shilton--and much more. For my own part, I'll be reading with novelist Farzana Doctor at the Prune Restaurant on Saturday, October 22, and performing the Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter solo play as the festival's final event (Sunday, October 23 @ 8:30pm). For tickets and details, please click on the photo below or visit digiwriting.com/stratfordwritersfestival.
Writing can be bliss.
But wait. It can also be lonely, agonizing, essentially non-remunerative, and excruciating -- much of the time. So after a day spent alone at my desk, writing things down and crossing things out, writing other things down and crossing other things out (it really is that boring), knowing that every sentence I create might very well end up being tossed onto a cyber-pyre of my own making, I will often put my hands together and thank all the writers who have trodden this path before me.
I thank those people even when I am not writing. Just yesterday, in fact, my car broke down in the middle of nowhere, and after I'd called CAA and tiptoed into the woods to relieve myself (only to stand up and realise I was actually in someone's back yard), I spent the rest of the afternoon with Annie Dillard, re-reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the I'm-not-sure-how-many-th time. Every time I looked up from the page, I noticed more: the way long autumn light was inking my skin, the way that same light lifted from the trees as the sun was setting, the language of wind. By the time the tow truck found me a full two hours after I'd galumphed off the road, I had practically found nirvana. All thanks to Annie Dillard.
So I recommend keeping some of her (anything: For the Time Being, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, The Writing Life...) in your glove compartment. That and a candle.
Last week, I was terribly thankful for Ariel Levy, whose brilliant Thanksgiving in Mongolia gave me the answer to that nagging question, what it's like to give birth at 18 weeks on the bathroom floor of a hotel room in Mongolia, anyway?, in addition to being the finest essay I've read in a while.
And I'll never stop being grateful to David James Duncan, whose collection of essays, My Story as Told by Water, is so exquisite it sometimes had me gasping for air. Caveat #1: The author's central love is fly-fishing (about which, normally, I could not give a fish finger), so the book's not for everyone. Caveat #2: About halfway through the book, I put it down and might not pick it up again--there are only so many fish I can read about, apparently--but I still adore it for the rare and edifying experience of tasting writing that swims, shape-shifts, hurls itself in the air on its way upstream and gives birth to something so infinite and holy you have to pull the book away and just breathe for a while. Even if you only read half of the essays, you'll be the better for it. (By the way, I'm not alone in loving this book. It was a National Book Award Finalist.)
On a less aquatic note, I am often asked if I can recommend any books on memoir writing. To which I normally respond, just go home and write your damn memoir. Which isn't very nice. So I sniffed around for a few months and eventually found these books, all of which are wonderful and none of which describes the process as if it were a task akin to bricklaying (as a surprising number of these sorts of books do). All of these books can be ordered through your library or non-Amazon local bookstore.
Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg
Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas (whose recent memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, I can also recommend)
The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith
If you'd like more guidance than a book can offer (ie. direct feedback on your work, accountability, inspiration, help with structure and voice, and a gentle weekly nudge), I will be offering another online memoir writing workshop this fall. I can only accommodate 4 people per workshop (and one spot's already taken), so if you are interested, please click here for details. These workshops fill up quickly.
Now for a few announcements.
The first concerns an actual JOB. And it's been so long since I've had one of those, I almost looked the word up in my dictionary to be sure I still knew how to spell it. It's only for 3 months, but it's still a job, thank you very much, and a beautiful one at that: Writer-in-Residence at the University of Guelph for the fall term. Essentially, that means acting as a resource for students with creative writing projects, giving the odd lecture and performance, and devoting 70% of my time to sitting in my office writing things down and crossing things out. I am as honoured as I am delighted.
I won't be returning to the fabulous Under the Volcano program this January, only because I'll be performing and reading at the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka. I'm not sure how to convey the immensity of my excitement about this journey without resorting to a long series of exclamation marks and happy-face symbols, so it's probably best to leave it at that. I'll be staying on for a month to wander around with a backpack, stick my elbow out the window of 3rd-class trains, and pretend I'm 25 again. Already, I find myself day-dreaming of elephants, tea plantations, reclining Buddhas, and scenes like the this one (Galle).
In the more immediate future, I'll be doing a couple of local shows this fall: at the University of Guelph as part of my residency, and in my hometown of Stratford as part of the new Stratford Literary Festival (!), where I'll also be doing a reading with Farzana Doctor. Seating is quite limited for both events. (Details and ticket links on the Calendar page.) Beyond that, there are a few things brewing for the spring, including a show in the Northwest Territories, if you can believe it. (I still can't.)
And I'm writing whenever I can.
Which reminds me. I've been living with a debilitating repetitive strain injury in my right hand (all that crossing out of words) and have had to cut typing down to a minimum. My email return rate is dismal of late, so if you've written to me this summer and haven't received a response, my apologies. I just can't manage it at the moment. If it's something that does require a response, please write again, as my Answer This One file is now so large my right arm goes into spasm the moment I glance at it.
So, yes, I'm typing this entire note with my left hand and need to wrap it up.
May long light lift your mornings and settle your afternoons. And may your days be filled with 'moments of glad grace' ~
Greetings from the edge of the world.
Actually, I'm back in the middle of Canada now, but this time last week I was fortunate enough to find myself on Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) in northern British Columbia, where I had been invited to perform the Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter one-woman show.
There is much to say about Haida Gwaii, ancestral home of the Haida people and current home to every imaginable beauty and paradox, but I've decided to do some deeper writing about the trip, and I'll look forward to sharing that with you in the future. In the meantime, I'm gearing up to wind down, if that makes any sense. I have only two scheduled performances this summer, both close to home, so I can look forward to a rare treat: a season at home. (That doesn't sound nearly as romantic as it feels.)
In lieu of touring, I will be bowing to the miracle of technology and conducting my first ever ONLINE memoir writing workshops. Details will be announced shortly, but essentially, these workshops will follow the same format as my regular ones: weekly meetings of 6-8 people who will read, discuss, and give helpful feedback on each other's work. The only difference is that we will meet via teleconference (using either your computer or telephone).
Sorry, there is another difference: I won't be supplying any fresh coffee or baking (unless there's a technological innovation I am unaware of), but you are welcome to do the whole workshop in your pyjamas, in the bathtub (not recommended, but be my guest), or in whatever state you choose. So there are some advantages.
If you are interested in participating in a 6-week online memoir writing workshop this spring or summer, please send me a note and I'll keep you abreast of the dates and details: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to the online workshops, I will also be offering some private mentoring sessions. (The term 'mentoring' makes me wince a bit, but I haven't been able to find an alternative that isn't worse.) This one-to-one work is intended for people seeking guidance, clarity, inspiration, encouragement and/or gentle accountability for a memoir writing project currently underway, and who would rather work privately than in a group workshop. The sessions can range from a single consultation to a weekly arrangement. Again, this can happen via Skype, telephone, or in person, depending on where you live. (I am based in this lovely town.)
If you have any interest in these private consultations, please email me as quickly as possible, as I am only able to work with a small number of people at one time: email@example.com .
Next week I'm off to Ireland with my dad. He's asked me to assist him with some genealogical research and I've assured him that while I am delighted to help (and to spend two weeks with him in Dublin!), I practically fall asleep just reading the word 'genealogy' and often confuse it with 'gynecology' when saying it aloud. Should be a fun trip.
with springy and floral wishes ~
It was a tremendous honour to be one of the judges of the 2015 Governor General's Literary Awards and an absolute delight to be able to congratulate Mark Winston, winner in the Non-Fiction category, at the awards ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa last night.
As the three of us on the jury collectively wrote, "In Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, Mark Winston distills a life's devotion to the study of bees into a powerful and lyrical meditation on humanity. This compelling book inspires us to reevaluate our relationships with each other and the natural world. Vital reading for our time."
Please ask about it at your local bookstore and consider giving this book as a gift--along with a jar of local non-pasteurised honey! (I never thought I'd be offering holiday gift suggestions, but I'll stop at nothing to help great writers sell great books.)
Now that I've admitted that, I'll also enthusiastically recommend the rest of the books on the non-fiction shortlist, as well as a couple of others from among the 198 books under consideration. (Yes, we had to read/assess 198 books. In about five months. No, my eyes haven't fully uncrossed yet.)
The Social Life of Ink by Ted Bishop
This is a fabulous romp through the history of ink, how it has shaped culture, history, our minds and hearts. I rushed out and bought a Lamy fountain pen as soon as I finished this book and I've been writing with it, blissfully, ever since. [Look at that, another gift suggestion: this book + a nice fountain pen. Here's one good site: www.stylo.ca]
Norval Morrisseau by Armand Garnet Ruffo
A mesmerising, dreamlike biography of the important and complex Aboriginal artist. The language of this work is so finely and richly textured, I would almost call it a literary painting. It is at once the story of a man and a people, a personal biography and a vast history. I will never look at a Morrisseau painting, or any painting, the same way again. [Leave your holiday shopping to me! This book + a Morrisseau print or set of Morrisseau cards or set of paints or a sketch pad.]
Dispatches from the Front by David Halton
I must admit that I did not pick this book up expecting great literature (because I had only known and admired David Halton as a television journalist), but it impressed and astonished me from the earliest pages and continued to enchant me to the end. Like his father's extraordinary dispatches, David Halton's writing soars. This book is captivating, engrossing and surprisingly moving. Even if it's not your kind of book, you won't be disappointed. And the history buffs in your lives would all like you to get them a copy.
Party of One by Michael Harris
Fortunately, this book is no longer relevant in any pressing or immediate way. Historians may turn to it to try to understand how Canada was nearly strangled within an inch of its essential values, but I am delighted to say that it is now a historical work. Buy it for your diehard Tory friends who still believe Stephen Harper had the country's best interests at heart.
Stalin's Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan
Shortly after our shortlist appeared (without this book on it), Stalin's Daughter was awarded the prestigious Hilary Weston Prize for Nonfiction. I cannot tell you how loudly I whooped when I saw that news, as I was still losing sleep over this magnificent book's puzzling omission from our list. Extremely well-written, impeccably researched, this is a tender and enthralling account of Stalin's only daughter and her incredible--at times almost unbelievable--life. [Gift suggestion: this book + some contraption that will turn it into a hand weight; it's over 600 pages]
The House with the Parapet Wall by John Terpstra
My final words to my partner and son before heading to Ottawa for the jury meeting that would decide the shortlist and winner of the Governor General's Award were these: "I won't be back until House with the Parapet Wall is on the shortlist at the very least!"
Well, I was. Or rather, it wasn't. Or rather, while I made several impassioned (and convincing, I thought) pleas for the book, the decisions of the jury must be made by consensus, and while there is always a modicum of compromise and concession, there is no out-and-out bargaining allowed, no I'll scratch your book if you scratch mine. Ultimately, as we all know, these lists and prizes come down to the personal tastes and preferences of the judges and a slight change to a jury might result in a radically different list of finalists. (Witness how varied the shortlists of the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and the Giller Prize were this year, for example.)
Though I was unable to sway the other two jurors and the book is, admittedly, not for everyone, I found The House with the Parapet Wall to be a work of exceptional artistry, crystalline beauty and transcendence. The architecture of language alone makes the book worth savouring, but its resonant themes of love and loss and place and home are also explored with a masterful grace. One of the many notes I had stuck to frontispiece was, "this book calls to us from the greater possibilities of literature." And the last note I wrote to myself was this: "Be prepared to go on a hunger strike for this book."
After the shortlist was announced and some time had passed, I wrote to the author to tell him how much I had adored his book and what it had meant to me. He was grateful, humble, and said he was glad I didn't have to miss a meal.
Gift suggestion: buy this book for someone you love, someone who adores great poetic writing and who views books as works of quietly majestic art. Even better, buy it for two people. The author is also a carpenter, so you could always get in touch with him and order a cabinet to go with it. [www.johnterpstra.com]
I hope this was helpful. I realise that buying books means adding to the craze of holiday consumerism, but it also means giving a few writers a much-deserved lift.
Cheers & Merry Reading ~
p.s. Some of you might have read the account of my NYC show and aftermath on Facebook, but for those who haven't...The show went fantastically well. It was sold out with a waiting list and the audience was wonderfully responsive and raucous--my favourite kind. The puzzling bit came later, upstairs, where a large group of friends had gathered for a celebratory feast in the venue's restaurant.
As I left the performance space, I was handed an envelope of cash (from ticket sales), which I tucked it into my backpack before zipping it shut. The backpack sat, along with all my props, costumes, a heap of coats and other bags, beside our table (along the restaurant's back wall: no through traffic) all evening, and we ate, drank, made merry and laughed our heads off for hours. After dinner, a friend drove me and all my gear to the apartment of a very dear friend, Harvey Sachs, who was gracious and generous enough to host my whole family for the weekend. The following morning, I unzipped my bag to count my earnings and everything was there--my wallet, my computer--except the envelope of cash.
There is still something so bizarre about the whole thing that I cannot quite believe it happened. I was in touch with the owner, the manager, the friend who drove me home, I turned Harvey's apartment upside down several times, etc., but the money never turned up. No doubt the riches will be returned in other ways. And in the meantime, I feel immensely fortunate to have come home with all the important things: health, love, friendship, family, and so many generous souls and hearts around me.
It was my great honour to be one of the jurors for this year's Governor General's Literary Awards, and I'd like to begin this note by offering a toast to all the finalists!
There were almost 200 books under consideration in the Non-Fiction category, so I spent a good part of the summer curled up on my porch reading biographies, histories, memoirs, essay collections, scientific enquiries, explorations of technological innovations, political treatises, travel literature, and books that didn't fit into any category at all. Assessing books for the non-fiction prize is not so much about comparing apples to oranges as it is pears to bicycles.
The process of selection was by turns fascinating and excruciating, and while I am thrilled for the finalists, I am also a bit heartbroken for the very excellent books that would have been celebrated on a longlist were this prize to include one.
Unlike most of the other literary awards, the names of the jurors for this prize are kept confidential until the day the shortlists are announced, so when people asked what I was up to this summer, I was required to be vague. "Oh, just doing a bit of reading," I'd say, the stack of books beside me bursting with sticky notes that I would occasionally shield with my hand.
"I wish I were a writer," a neighbour commented one afternoon as she eyed my stack of books and cup of tea. "It looks so relaxing."
That's the thing about writers. We just never stop relaxing. So please allow me to yawn and stretch for a moment before I tell you about my upcoming show in New York City.
The Cornelia Street Cafe is a legendary performance venue in Greenwich Village. Eve Ensler premiered The Vagina Monologues there, Suzanne Vega got her start there, Oliver Sachs would come and do readings, members of Monty Python would occasionally perform, etc. I am both delighted and daunted to be performing there in November (delighted to perform, daunted by the task of ensuring the place is full), so while I am always thankful for help spreading the word about shows, I would be IMMENSELY GRATEFUL for help with this one. Thank you!
I'll send a separate announcement that can be forwarded easily, but in the meantime, all the details can be found on the CSC website.
Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter
Friday, November 13 @ 6 pm
Applications for the Under the Volcano master classes are open and I am thrilled to be on the faculty again this year. If you are interested and able to spend ten days writing in central Mexico this January, I cannot recommend this program highly enough. In addition to memoir, there are workshops in fiction, poetry and journalism. All in a breathtaking (and warm!) setting.
Well, of course, I am going to recommend the entire shortlist of the
2015 Governor General's Awards for Non-Fiction!
I'll also add a few other great books which, despite my threatening to go on a hunger strike for one of them, did not make the final list.
The Social Life of Ink by Ted Bishop
Norval Morrisseau by Armand Garnet Ruffo
Dispatches from the Front by David Halton
Party of One by Michael Harris
Bee Time by Mark L. Winston
This is Happy by Camilla Gibb
Stalin's Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan
The House with the Parapet Wall by John Terpstra
And lastly, for the love of home and country, please vote on Monday! If you are not Canadian or cannot vote for some reason, you can still help by taking a few moments to visualize the back of Stephen Harper's head on his way out of office. I've been doing this for months (in addition to singing merry change-of-government songs on Parliament Hill) and gosh, it seems to be working...
with humour in desperate times ~
I've been doing a fair bit of reading this summer.
It's been delicious (and necessary) to disappear for a while, but I am now stretching up out of hibernation and preparing for several shows and events.
Before I get into all of that, however, it gives me tremendous delight to announce that after years of being a 'one-woman show' in far too many respects, Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter will now be represented by the Fox Entertainment Agency. Essentially, this means that I am no longer solely responsible for finding, organising and arranging every performance I do, and the show now has Tammy Fox's sterling reputation behind it. I also get a kick out of being on the same roster as some of my heroes (Tom Allen, Evalyn Parry, Mary Walsh). I still remember seeing Mary Walsh perform as part of the Newfoundland comedy troupe CODCO in the early 1980s and hoping that someday I would be as ballsy and feisty as she was. (Still working on it.)
I'll be offering a couple of writing workshops this fall in and around Stratford, Ontario, and I'll send out those details once everything is confirmed. In the meantime, I do have information about some upcoming shows, as well as the Under the Volcano master classes in Tepoztlán, Mexico, where I will be teaching again this coming January. If you have considered this program and are interested in working with me on a memoir project, please jump on it this year. The faculty is constantly changing and rejuvenating, and there are other writers clamouring for this post, so I have no idea how much longer I will have the opportunity to teach as part of this fabulous workshop.
For more information about Under the Volcano, here is a link to the website with a 5-minute video that gives a bit of a taste of the place and the program. Please don't be scared off by the notion that you must be an experienced writer already deeply at work on a project in order to apply. People's abilities and projects (and ages and backgrounds) range tremendously and the program is worth exploring even if you do not consider yourself an 'experienced' writer. Under the Volcano runs from 14-24 January 2016.
In the meantime, here's what I've got cooking closer to home:
The Gabriola Island Theatre Festival, off the coast of Vancouver Island, is a terrific festival with a first-rate lineup. If I weren't busy performing, I'd make a weekend of it and see everything! If you're in the area, please consider. I'll be doing only one show: Saturday, August 15 @ 9pm.
For the two weeks surrounding that festival, I'll be performing at the Harbour City Theatre
(25 Victoria Road) in Nanaimo, BC. Info & tickets for those performances here.
I am so happy to be returning to Fifth Wind Farm to do another fundraiser for SONG: Sounds of the Next Generation. If you are in the Peterborough/Cobourg area, please consider joining me at this gorgeous and inspiring place. The gardens alone make for a spectacular autumn outing. And the show's not too bad either.
Fifth Wind Farm; Cold Springs, Ontario
Friday, September 18 @ 8pm
Aaaaand that's it for now. I'm in the middle of a top secret project, which I will be able to talk about in the fall, but until then I'll leave you with a few reading recommendations:
Us Conductors by Sean Michael
This novel won the Giller Prize last year, so many of you may have already read it. If you haven't, do. There are dozens of reasons why this books shines and soars, but the main one is its exquisite and lyrical writing. My mind danced and spun on almost every page.
The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant
This book knocked my huaraches off. It's a brilliant, if brutal, portrait of contemporary Mexico and an absolutely gripping novel. The writing glistens like a wet fist and the story is pure dynamite. Fabulous, though not for the faint of heart.
I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers
I had the pleasure of teaching alongside Owen at last year's Under the Volcano writing program, where we all heard him read from this novel. It is a stirring GEM. In fact, I can recommend taking a look at anything this ridiculously talented man has ever written: Resistance (another novel--brilliant), Pink Mist (verse drama--brilliant), Skirrid Hill (poetry--brilliant), blah blah blah. It's obscene how much fantastic literature this man has already created. He'll be at the Vancouver Writers Fest and the IFOA in Toronto in the fall, so watch for that. And if you'd like to take advantage of the opportunity to work with him directly, he'll be at Under the Volcano again this coming January teaching the poetry workshop. (That's called a chance of a lifetime.)
I've already posted this on Facebook, but for those who don't attend that virtual cocktail party, here's a great anecdote from the other night: My son (who turns 16 this week!) turned to his father over dinner and said, "Maybe you should take one for the team and fall for a man. Then Mama would have a sequel."
with uproarious cheers from a sunny porch in Stratford, Ontario ~