Category Archives: Writing

Does the First World War belong to me?

The first question Susan Sanford Blades asked me in an e-mail interview about “Mask” was, Was this story informed at all by any of your personal experience (via family etc.) with the war? (“Mask,” which will appear in The Malahat Review this summer, concerns the repercussions of an English soldier’s facial injury in the First World War.) A perfectly appropriate question, perfectly innocent, about the story’s origin. When I read it, however, I reacted with an inner gasp of panic. Does the First World War actually belong to me? 

It had never occurred to me to me that it didn’t, but in that moment, before I went on to answer Susan, it loomed large. Did it belong enough, that is, for me to use it in a story?   

Postcards from my grandfather Harder's album, including staged Russian army scenes.

Postcards from my grandfather Harder’s album, including staged Russian army scenes.

Well, of course it does, I answered myself, and I proceeded to reply (read interview here) with a briefer version of the following. I said my background was Mennonite, traditionally conscientious objectors, and both my grandfathers served as medics, though in the Russian army, the one on the Austrian front, the other in the Caucasus region, because they lived in Russia at the time. I entered the war years via my maternal grandparents’ lives, because of her diary, their 80 or so love letters while he served on the Red Cross trains, and the postcards he collected during those years. But lose anyone? No. And admittedly a long way from the cliffs of Dover and all that. Plus Russia pulled out early.

Still, the Great War was a significant lead-in to the Russian Revolution and civil war that followed, which in its turn was a major factor in both sets of my grandparents coming to Canada. Which meant that I grew up Canadian, and– in the education I got– became rather British-Canadian. I mean, we knew which side we were on. Growing up even more, I read books about the war. One of the characters in my novel This Hidden Thing, for example, reads Remarque’s compelling All Quiet on the Western Front, which of course I read before I used it, and in a university course I read Paul Fussell’s penetrating The Great War and Modern Memory. And many others.

I replied with some of this not to prove my right to the story–to history–as much as establish a thread of interest. But it leans towards what I see is always a question for me as a writer.  In situations where someone shares some difficulty or grief, one shouldn’t say–so we’re told–I know how you feel. Because chances are one doesn’t exactly, so don’t make assumptions, and it’s not that comforting anyway because the person believes their circumstances are unique.

Advice commonly handed to writers is, Write what you know. Also, fair enough.

But, what does one actually know, and when is it enough to venture it in a story? I remember when I was researching/writing (somewhat on the sly) my first novel, Under the Still Standing Sun, set in a Mennonite colony in Paraguay, where we happened to be living for a term because I’d married someone from there, and I was asking an older man about some of the events I hoped to portray. He graciously answered, then said, his voice a sigh and full of doubt, something along the lines of You couldn’t possibly understand. Which I heard to mean, you as in younger, a woman, not raised here, not going through it, etc.

The man’s comment only emboldened me to stubbornly try. I also know that the best parenting advice I got was from a book by Bruno Bettelheim in which he said that though you can’t enter your child’s experience directly you can always draw on your own experience of …….. (fill in the blank: humiliation, fear, joy, etc.) to find the insights to respond properly. I think that’s what writers attempt in matters they haven’t been through themselves.

I also know that stories come begging, and they rarely concern what I know in a solidly this happened to me kind of way. I lead a mostly dull, contented life. They entice me with things I don’t yet know, or want to figure out, both in terms of the narrative facts, which may need research, and themes that lie beneath. Like the intrepid fools writers are when they start a story, I throw up a bridge and march across. Does that mean it belongs to me? I don’t know. But there I am, insisting it does.

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A baby, a novella

20140411-IMG_5769A second set of sticky notes about books is nearly ready to post, as promised, but I’m going to interrupt that brief series with two recent happenings in my life.

First was the birth of another granddaughter! I visited the family in B.C. for ten days, to help as best I could in a busy household with a new baby and returned with warm memories of the lovely child (who bears the distinguished name Honor) and many memories of the other children as well. Choice sayings by the nearly-three-year-old, for example, moments of closeness initiated by a child who tends to self-containment, and so on. Things a grandparent gathers and chuckles over or ponders upon. Continue reading

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Narratives of place

H. and I took a short road trip through parts of the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana recently, in connection with my participation at the Billings (MT) Bookfest and the High Plains Fiction Awards on Oct. 25-6.

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near Thermopolis, WY

We enjoyed it. We were impressed by how dramatically terrain can shift in a matter of hours (we covered more than 4000 kilometers) and how much of what we passed was interesting or wondrous in some way. Okay, there were a few patches — in  Wyoming — almost too desolate-looking for words, but I was reading Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories – a collection I highly recommend – and for that, the patches were perfectly necessary. For the connection between place and art, I mean, which is what this post is sort of about. Continue reading

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In defence of what you’re trying to do

Before I get completely submerged under the ripe tomatoes, ditto the grapes and the five-gallon pail of apples, plus the story I’m writing, I want to say something about last week.

I spent it at the Banff Centre in an intensive focus on short fiction led by Alexander MacLeod, literature professor and author of the Giller short-listed collection Light Lifting. I’ve never taken a writing retreat or week-long writing course, so I’m still feeling like a girl on her first trip to Disney. It’s a bit of a wonderful bubble one goes into, for sure. But the Disney analogy ends now: there’s nothing Minnie Mouse about carefully, brutally workshopping others’ writing (that is, learning to read), or being workshopped just as carefully and brutally. We all knew, of course, and tried to remember, this was where the benefit (a.k.a love) lay. Continue reading

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Miscellanea: June

Crazy busy month so far, this June, but wonderful too, the green and colors of spring fully arrived to our city at last. I never tire of our simple backyard and especially the way one of the branches from our elm tree stretches over our lot and blesses it with its draping foliage. Continue reading

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Better a lovely teal scarf than a toga

I’m settling back home to a beautifully green city after the FictionKNITstas tour which took me to reading events in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto last week. Fictionistas is an initiative by regional presses that annually celebrates new women’s writing in Canada.  The KNIT was put into Fictionistas this year because each of us were paired with a knitter who read our book and knitted something in response to it. Continue reading

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Short stories, take a bow

May is short story month. I have no idea who decides matters like this, but why not? Short stories, please take a bow, and let me say a few things in your favor. – One often hears that people prefer reading novels, that short story collections don’t sell, that publishers therefore hesitate to take the risk. All this may be true. In a novel, we enter for the long, deep involvement and we feel the reward of hours invested. Each story in a collection, on the other hand, takes new effort to discover what’s going on and who’s in it. Perhaps it feels like a fragment rather than a whole, perhaps it feels unresolved. Still, a good short story can carry weight out of proportion to its size. Continue reading

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The poet astronaut

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who returned to Earth yesterday after five months in the International Space Station, is a great communicator and entertainer who has almost singlehandedly, it is said, stirred up people’s interest in space exploration again. He tweeted and sang from space and made videos about living at the station that have garnered some 22 million views.

But here’s what strikes me as I look at Hadfield’s amazing photographs and their accompanying twitter-length commentary: the man is a poet. Continue reading

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Worscht en Rhubuaba

Worscht en Rhubuaba. I can’t actually say it, not correctly at least, not having grown up with Low German (though I learned to understand it as a adult living in Paraguay for a couple of years), but I spent Saturday and part of Sunday last week at an arts festival by that name. Meaning sausage and rhubarb. It was a Manitoba Mennonite Creative Arts Festival so the reference was perfectly appropriate, if somewhat nostalgic, given that nowadays Mennonite writing (“if there is such a thing” — a question one of the Round Tables asked) is so large, so diverse, so out of the village. But never mind that, it was a great event, put together by the energetic and talented Di Brandt and others from Brandon University (Dale Lakevold, Audrey Thiessen). Continue reading

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Do I have to, really?

Okay, let’s just say the writing – now that I’m back to it, post the diary transcription project – is a bit of a slog at the moment.

sc004c8b41The cover of the latest issue of Write, the magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada, features a map by Patrick Dias, country unnamed but obviously Land of the Writer. If you’re looking for me, I’m wandering around in Frustrating Canyons, probably on my way to Crumpled Detour. Continue reading

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