Sunday, December 31, 2006


I have labeled 135 of my 168 posts, an interesting exercise. When I finish, I will go back and combine some of the categories. The exercise gives me a better idea of the structure of my blog, how I have kept to the theme, tracing, how I have deviated. Can I figure out which categories readers are interested in, because of course the idea is to communicate. Otherwise, I would write in a private journal, although most people who write in a journal have the idea that some day someone will read it. A friend was telling me the sad story of her mother’s journals, that her mother had obviously wanted them kept and read, but her brother and his wife had burned them, saying that they didn’t want people to know the family business. My friend harbors the hope that they didn’t burn the journals, just hid them. I treasure my grandmother’s two diaries and letters. They let me into a life I knew nothing about before.

Sharp Sand decided to start all over with his blog, giving it a new form, a new voice. I can see the temptation of that. Wipe the blackboard clean.

Tales from a Reading Room takes stock of her blogging year. She gives us a piece of etiquette that I didn’t know before, that it is customary to respond to the comments on your blog. That makes sense, to keep a dialogue going.

A New Year means something to students and teachers, starting a new semester. When I went to college, the old semester continued after New Years Day so I have never had that feeling. A New Year means something for my finances, my taxes. I begin a new calendar. I have never made New Year’s resolutions, so that aspect of the New Year is lost. Somehow the change seems arbitrary, unreal, even unimportant.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Fiddling with the Blog

Yesterday I sat down to the computer to continue revising the old novel. I had been up since 5:15 AM, so that after a while my brain became too weary even for revising. I began to fiddle with this blog, decided it would be fun to put on labels, learned how to do it (not hard, as I thought it would be), and did some of the 167. What use are labels, I wondered.

I found a blogspot page I didn’t know existed, telling how comments are to be received. It said that the only registered bloggers can comment. That must be the default. I didn’t know that. This must be why my friend Ted can’t comment. What function does this default serve – to prevent bad people from commenting? Do people surf the net looking for unprotected sites upon which they may type the f word? Or worse, I suppose. What would happen if I checked the box that allowed anyone to comment?

I found that I could have a comment window pop up, which I checked, that I could moderate comments, which I didn’t check, that I could have “type the funny letters you see here” section (I can’t remember if I checked that or not.)

I probably should have been following Another Country’s lead and re-organized my kitchen drawers instead of fiddling with the blog. The trouble with such re-organization is that for the next two years I would be looking in the wrong drawer for the peeler.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Idea of the Holy

Ten years ago I wrote an article about the arts every week for the New Brunswick Reader. One week I wrote about the art in Wilmot Church, citing the William Morris/Burne-Jones window, the Alex Colville decoration, the carved hand on the steeple, the magnificent vaulted ceiling, some other art treasures. I used my research for that article to write a tour guide of the church and that found its way into the church website. I wrote to SpiritConnection, the United Church TV program, suggesting the art of Wilmot as a program, and they came to film it. (I have been on the church communication committee for as long as it’s been in business.) SpiritConnection gave me my first (and only) TV credit as associate producer.

In the article I used a much loved passage from one of my favorite books, The Idea of the Holy. I have put it up above, in the blog description. For the past ten years, I have particularly savoured the ambience of the church every Sunday. I never tire of looking at the window (I always sit near it) and the vaulted ceiling. Occasionally, on the late Christmas Eve service, for example, the church lights are dimmed, the candles shine; the “mysterious play of half-lights” does indeed induce the numinous. On the Christmas Eve of 1988 that numinous worked its enchantment on my whole family.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Attending Wilmot Church allowed me to understand Fredericton better. We gradually came to know the people in the university and those in our neighborhood, but they weren’t usually from Fredericton. The Wilmot men were silent but pleasant and perfect gentlemen. The women were old-fashioned, unblemished by the woman’s movement. Most of them didn’t drive, so I would give them a ride home from the women’s group, Miss Chappelle’s unit of the UCW. Their presentation of food was perfect. When they made “small cakes”, the pieces were flawlessly square, with no ragged edges. I have never mastered that, and now I resign myself that I probably never will. The women wore hats to church.

They quilted. I had never known anyone who quilted although my grandmother embroidered, and one of my six aunts crocheted. Quilting requires a steady hand and absolute patience. The mother of a Japanese professor came to Fredericton, discovered quilting, and went back to Tokyo to begin the craft. She did the designs, but she hired women to do the actual quilting. She didn’t use the traditional designs of log cabin and the like, nor did she do Oriental designs, but she was influenced by Escher. The quilts were so wonderful that the Beaverbrook Art Gallery had an exhibition of them. I heard two women discussing them. The stitching was very poor, they agreed. I felt superior. The stitching might be poor, but the designs were so original and creative, I thought.

But all these long years later, I understand that wasn’t the point. The point was to do something flawlessly from beginning to end, with tiny perfect stitches, and using the traditional designs in a creative, original way. I can imagine Marilynne Robinson writing Gilead (which took many years – twenty?), every sentence perfect, using the traditional structure of the novel.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

More Tracing

Wilmot United Church is at the crossroad of King and Carleton, right in the centre of the city. There is no lawn, very little parking, and no room to expand. A while ago, there was talk of selling the church and moving to the suburbs. Our membership was dwindling and there were very few young people, but a series of excellent ministers, the decision to make them into a team ministry, one radical minister, and two women attracted young ardent people. It helped too that the competing United Church hired a fundamental, right-wing minister who drove many of his congregation into our arms.

One Sunday a few weeks ago, there was no room for me downstairs, and I had to go into the balcony. I sat in the second row on the side, and a mother with two active boys, perhaps 6 and 4, sat in front of me. The mother let her 6 year old climb under the railing and into the middle section, and then back, risking a fall of perhaps 30 feet. The 4 year old jumped up and down as if to vault over the railing. A terrifying worship service. I had a momentary desire for the good old days when there was plenty of room downstairs and no children.

When I started attending Wilmot, the minister at that time had a nasal voice, as if he needed to blow his nose. His sermons were uninspired. The music was insipid. After a year I decided I didn’t believe in the trinity and left to attend the Unitarians. A year ago someone told me that often the minister was weeping in the pulpit because his wife was having an affair. This accounted for the need to blow his nose. I felt very bad that I had not been understanding. I am too judgmental, a terrible trait and a bad habit. Resolutions to be better are not enough to conquer this addiction.

I yearn to be perfect. I know I could kiss a leper, like the saints of old did, but I can’t curb my grumpiness. However, I don’t attend church because it will help me become perfect, for I know it won’t, anymore than it will cure my arthritis. I don’t even know why I attend. Attending does punctuate the week and give it order. And there is always the tempting possibility that God will indeed honour us with his presence one day.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Back to Tracing

A month or so after we arrived in Fredericton, Bill was scanning the horizon with his binoculars. He came rushing into the apartment. “You’ve got to see this.” Our apartment was perhaps two miles from downtown, partway up the hill. What appeared in the binoculars was a steeple topped by a carved wood hand, the index finger pointing skywards.

We learned that the head of Bill’s department attended this church, and he suggested it was the church for me because it had been Methodist before the Methodists, Congregational, and Presbyterians had joined forces to become the United Church of Canada. Churches famously split apart rather than join together; uniting seemed to me to be a good thing for them to have done.

I did join that church, Wilmot United, and except for a few years when I flirted with the Unitarians, I have been a member ever since. Strange to say, although I still feel a little like an outsider, I am now one of the longest-attending members.

I had never been a part of such an impressive church, large enough to hold 1200 people, with a balcony, and handsome wood interior. The blue and maroon decoration had been suggested by Alex Colville before he became a famous artist. It was discovered just a few years ago that a particularly beautiful stained glass window came from the William Morris/Burne-Jones studio.

The congregations of the Methodist churches I attended always sang lustily, joyfully. For the first 30 years I was a member of Wilmot, the singing was insipid, and I missed the familiar hymns of the Methodists. I have a lousy nasal voice, sing in a male register always off-key, and so I am not a candidate for the choir. But I do love to sing. When I was a child in our little church there was a man who had a loud voice, sang slightly off-key but with great gusto. He was eccentric in other ways as well. Sometimes when I am singing, I remind myself of this man, George “Bozo” Reid.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ideas for the New Year

I have started to read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, a combination memoir and ode to the city. Structuring a memoir around a city is such a good idea, that I am tempted to use it to get back to the “tracing my life from birth” theme of this blog. Moving to Fredericton, where I have lived for 41 years, is a central fact of my life.

All the different branches of the Pamuk family live in the Pamuk apartment building. My imagination has been stimulated by such a concept several times – my novel The Opening Eye is about a group of friends who decide to get individual apartments in a new building. The massive, unpublishable novel I just finished (except that I am still working on it) is about an apartment building where the inhabitants become friends.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


We’ve been having a lot of fun the last few days because our daughter is in a terrific commercial which just began airing. Advertising a Canadian lottery, it has her swinging on a chandelier. Her brother said he demonstrated his brotherly affection because he had to watch a lot of lousy television in order to see it. He has managed to videotape it. There seems to be two versions – a longer one and a shorter. It is a strange sensation to merely be tolerating the main show in order to catch a glimpse of the commercial and then to wish the ad would go on longer.

Friday, December 22, 2006


I remember the moment I learned there was no Santa Claus. I was nine and a half. We had just moved into a new house where my brother and I found many treasures left by the previous owners in closets, built-in drawers, and in the barn. The kitchen had the high ceilings of the Victorian house, with cabinets that went up to the top. I thought there might be treasures up there, so I climbed on the sideboard to look. I saw toys. I knew enough not to mention this to my parents, and Christmas morning when those toys came from Santa, I knew for sure. I wasn’t disappointed; instead I had the feeling of discovery, of having figured something out on my own. Quite satisfying.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I sent a letter to the Globe and Mail. It didn’t appear in our edition, so of course I thought it hadn’t been accepted. In a Christmas card, a friend wrote, “Liked your letter to Globe, Nancy. Last thing we need is charismatic leaders – Charlie Van Horne, Bill Van der Zam, PET etc. Leaves a bad taste in the mouth!”

I searched the Globe and Mail on the internet and came up with the following. In my letter I mentioned Doyle and not LeBlanc, so apparently there were three people who used the term geeky on Dec. 4.

The Dion verdict
Print Edition 05/12/06 Page A22
Jeffrey Simpson (Will Dion Or Critics Have The Last Laugh? -- Dec. 4) and Daniel Leblanc (The Master Of Proving People Wrong -- Dec. 4) describe Stephane Dion as ''geeky.'' I learned 50 years ago that, when choosing a man, geeky is better and a funny-looking haircut beats a good one every time.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Coming and Going

It is hard to believe that soon the day will start to get longer, although as my friend explained to me, because of the proportions, it will not seem to be any longer until well into January. I should get him to explain the situation to me again. The sun is out now, yet so low on the horizon that it seems to be rising rather than having risen two hours ago. I am once again bombarded by people – clerks and radio announcers -- bemoaning the lack of snow. “We won’t have a white Christmas.” Was this ridiculous yearning started by Bing Crosby: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”? At a time of year when everyone is on the road, making an heroic attempt to get home for Christmas, who wants snow? Who wants a loved one to be driving on the awful stretch of road between Riviere-du-Loup and the New Brunswick border in a blizzard? Someone waiting to collect the insurance money? Someone I love is going to be in a bus on that stretch of road today. Tomorrow two people I love are going to be in a car on that road going the other way. I’m dreaming of a brown Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Co-ed or Not

The Saturday Globe and Mail had an article about the controversy at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia. The board of directors has voted to change it into a co-ed college. The students and alumnae are up in arms, but the board argues that they won’t be able to attract students unless they become co-ed. When the same question came up at my college, Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, I wrote defending the status quo, and I was happy that the board decided to remain all-women. For me, it was wonderful to have four years to work unstintingly, in deep concentration, without the distraction of men. I know I would have been quite susceptible to that distraction and to their opinion of me. I could go to class in pajamas, hair uncombed. The G&M article says that the Women’s College Coalition once had 300 affiliated institutions but now has only 57. Only four all-male colleges remain in the USA.

Now I am not so sure that I would object to MHC becoming co-ed. Times have changed (maybe you hadn’t realized that.) Where once we could have the weekend excitement of a blind date at a men’s college, now those colleges are co-ed and the men would not be motivated to go far a field. Where would I have met a future partner? It used to be said that women were reluctant to speak up in a class with men, that men would dominate the discussion. Once a group of Amherst students came to an MHC play and during the discussion afterward, it was true – the men did dominate the discussion. But would that be true now? Probably not.

As I have been tracing my way from birth, I realized (or rather, realized once again), how important my MHC education was to me, how rigorous it was, how liberating, how grateful I am for it. Later I came to realize that other people at my college and at my husband attended in large part for the social cache. I didn’t choose it – it chose me, but today, when a larger percentage of teens go to college, would it choose me again? I doubt it. Or would I even choose it? It now costs $180,000 to go to MHC for four years. It is hard for me to comprehend that figure, but it seems too much and I think that now public universities and colleges have an equal quality of education. Still, the Red Sox just paid a hundred million dollars for a pitcher for 6 years, so yes, the times they are a-changing.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


This morning, after I had finished my writing stint, it came to me how magical it is to create a whole new character. The character I was creating had been mentioned earlier in the novel, but this was the first time she had appeared. The character I set down (or that any writer sets down, for that matter) doesn’t have the complexity of a real person. That would take an unimaginable number of words. I had delight creating her, picturing her sitting on the living room floor, a little jump of my heart. The contentment of writing; nothing like it. I thought back over the characters I had created in the last ten years, not one of whom will be known by anyone but me.

Someone said, I can’t remember who, that a novel is only half-done when the writer finishes it; it needs a reader to complete it. Is that true? Reading it aloud to my two writing groups is probably not as good as it would be to have someone with manuscript in hand, seated in a comfortable chair, with a good reading lamp, deeply immersed in it: the union of teller and told, as the quotation in my blog description has it. I should make more of an effort to publish, I know that, but it is such an awful process, whereas the process of creating a world and the people in it is so satisfying that it makes me serene the rest of the day.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas is Coming

Our granddaughter is coming for Christmas, a delightful surprise. One of my neighbours was almost as excited as I was. I wouldn’t have put up a tree or made much of Christmas at all, if she hadn’t decided to come, but yesterday we bought a small tree, and today I will put it up and get out the crèche. She is a vegetarian, so I will also get out my recipe notebook. Vegetarian cooking is labour intensive, I have discovered. You must dice things small and make sauces. I suppose that is in keeping with the celebration of someone who lived in the middle east two centuries ago.

I do send about 60 cards. I have talked to people who don’t send cards, telling me that it is a waste of time and money, but I couldn’t bear not to send them and lose complete touch with people who in the past meant so much to me.

Maybe my granddaughter will like to go to the midnight Christmas Eve service, and Santa Claus will come in the night, even though the roofers boarded over the chimney last summer. I will be thinking of my aunt and uncle, whose 58 year old son died December 22 two years ago while he was home for Christmas. She went in to the guest room to wake him up and he was gone. Christmas will never again be a joyful time of year for them. A young friend of ours is giving his girlfriend a diamond this year. Emotions of any kind are heightened at Christmas. I don’t know why. Something to contemplate.

Friday, December 15, 2006

This and That

My first arts column will be a discussion of whether it is better to have many centres of art, art-making going on in every little corner, or whether it is better to have one dominant centre, such as New York City or Toronto. New Brunswick has at least three centres and no one dominant centre. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland each have one dominant centre, Halifax and St. John’s. Maine has several centres, no dominant one. In fact Maine is more fractured than we are, and yet it is a hotbed of artistic endeavor.

Microsoft Word seems to feel that centre is a correct spelling, but not centres. In The Opening Eye, one of the group activities is “centring.” I spelled it “centering”, the American way, but the publisher wanted it “centring.” Microsoft Word doesn’t like “centring” either. The man who edits our church newsletter wants us to use British punctuation, but the publisher of The Opening Eye used American punctuation. In Canada, things are all mixed up.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Going Public

Shameless Words comments that he doesn’t write about the people in his life, that he prefers to write more anonymously. I don’t write about certain members of my family because they have requested that I not. There is a great fear of the internet, and I can see why. I have heard several stories about marriages breaking up because one of the partners has met someone on the internet. These are not urban legends but about actual people I know. Parents in particular are nervous that their children will encounter an evil person on the internet.

I have had to get over the fear of going public because I have published so much. When my first novel was coming out, I was afraid that two of my relatives in particular would be offended, and so I told my father not to tell anyone. He was like me, big-mouthed, and had a hard time holding in this news. When the two relatives did eventually find out, they were pleased! Wondered why I hadn’t told them before! Said that because at the time they were going through a bad patch, this news would have been a bright spot! Only these two people provided models for the novel, and they were heroes. My stepmother read the novel first and told my father that he was in it because there was a character who had been the youngest child and the only son of a large family. This character was the opposite of my father. How my stepmother could think the character was like my father, I don’t know. When my father read the novel, he was obviously disappointed that he wasn’t in it. Very few of the characters in my novels have a model; in fact I can’t think of any others. I employ the smile of one person I know, or an incident, or a detail of a room. Yet, my son said reading my novels was “like putting my finger in my belly button and twirling it.”

I still tremble when something of mine gets published, but I keep doing it. I am not being guilty of false modesty when I say that I am not a great writer, that the world has plenty of novels and blogs and reviews and columns. Why then publish? I am not sure. Perhaps the words in my blog description provide some of the explanation.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I am in the process of writing for my new arts column. At first I hesitated to take on the job, thinking that I could never come up with something every week. When the editor suggested every other week, I agreed, yet still with fear and trepidation. But now, to paraphrase the old punch line, “Everything reminds me of an arts column.” The magazine won’t be launched until January and already I have written five columns with many more ideas for others. My new schedule of getting up at 5:30 is working great – I am writing more than I have for several years. To think that I wept when I contemplated giving up my office -- strange. In the past I sometimes had the feeling that I was being led, but I honestly didn’t know how, or why, or to where, or by whom. I have had that feeling for the last month.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Writing a Christmas Newsletter

I’ve just finished writing my annual Christmas newsletter. I’ve read brutal satires of these newsletters, but what are the alternatives? Write a personal note to all 60 people on my list as I used to do and wind up sending out cards in February; write nothing but our name as some people do, leaving us wondering what is happening to them; or give up sending cards all together and lose touch with people who meant a lot to us in the past? I myself like family newsletters, but then I always have had an intense curiosity about other people’s lives: why I like to read blogs; why I love local gossip; why I was utterly absorbed in my grandmother’s diary even though nothing exciting happened and there was no soul-searching.

Monday, December 11, 2006


Several of the people on my blogroll have changed templates: “Sharp Sand”, “pages turned”, and “my space” most recently. This creates a curious feeling, as if an acquaintance of mine should show up having had cosmetic surgery and dyed her hair.

For quite a long time I thought that Shameless Words was a woman, but then he wrote something that told me otherwise. He travels alone quite a bit, and I thought that was unusual, until he revealed himself to be a man and then it didn’t seem unusual at all. I began to think, Men do travel alone more than women do. The friends of mine who are my age travel a lot, all over the world in fact. That seems to be the thing to do with one’s retirement, but the widows travel in groups, never alone, and even the couples travel in tours or with another couple.

Bill and I are like the geese being fattened for foie gras: we are tied to a rope that allows us to travel in a certain small circumference of the northeast section of the continent.

A long while ago, the writer John Metcalf wrote an essay about how to punctuate a thought. Do you put it in italics? In quotation marks? After much discussion, he determined that it was best to use a comma and then a capital letter. He convinced me, and I have done that ever since. I did it in paragraph two.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Change Made Palpable

The new people in back of us have bedecked their deck with Christmas lights which they left on all night so that they were twinkling when I came up to the study at 5:30 AM. The people next door to them have lights in back too but they put theirs out when they go to bed. Except for a wreath, we don’t even decorate the front of our house. Decorating with Christmas lights seems to be the creation of the men in the family. I wonder if they do it for the creative pleasure of it or just because the neighbours do. We live right at the curve of our short street, and not one of the five houses on the curve has lights, so that our section does seem to be lacking in Christmas spirit. At Halloween, three of these houses were in darkness, signifying “Don’t come here for treats.” We used to have over a hundred kids come but for the last few years, we have had only 20. In the beginning, forty years ago, our short street had 53 children. Now we are down to eight.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Hoping For a Sudden Floater

When I first started to write in earnest, about 1967, I came under the sway of Viktor Shklovsky, of his novel A Sentimental Journey, and of his formalist writings. Instead of starting off as a sensible person would have, with a traditional novel, I devised complicated forms and schemes. I was not interested in publishing, in fact the possibility terrified me, so I was not constrained by having to write a publishable, a popular novel. My husband was the bread-winner, so I didn’t need a financial reward. What interested me was whether writing could help me make sense of my world, help me make order out of chaos. In A Palpable God, Reynolds Price articulated the reason I wanted to write novels back then and why I continue to write: “the chance that in the very attempt at narrative transaction something new will surface or be revealed, some sudden floater from the dark unconscious, some message from a god which can only arrive or be told as a tale.”

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Eureka #2

The second lost book I found is The Story Book of Houses, written and illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham, published in 1933. I have another one in the series, Food, and Bill has one about transportation. I googled the Petershams, and discovered that their lithographs had illustrated some 60 books and they had even won the Caldecott award. On the inside cover my youngest son has put his stamp, and I on the title page I have written my name in what looks like my grade two handwriting.

I can remember closely examining each detail of each pictureof the book and imaging what it would be like to live in such a house: a cave, a Chinese junk, a tree house. When I am writing, I have to make a deliberate effort to describe nature, but I describe the interior of a house and food too effortlessly. One editor said that she was hungry after working on my novel. In my first nine years we lived in nine different houses, and then, oh happy day, we bought the house that my parents lived in until they died. The purchase and refurbishing of this house was the major project of their lives.

Poor Mad Peter over in The Pilgrim is re-reading Elizabeth Goudge’s Scent of Water. That inspired me to re-read it too. It is about a woman who in middle age goes to live in a country house she has inherited. The story is about the house and its chattels, its gardens, and its neighbors. I think that Goudge invented a new plot, the story of the creation of a home, or at least she advanced it. My favorite of her novels is the Damerosehay trilogy, with the same plot. She comes so close to sentimentality that she sometimes veers across the line, and if she were alive, she would probably agree to have her editor expunge one of her favorite words, “ejaculated”, as a synonym for “said.” She does use the more conventional plot lines: courtship and the resurrection of a benighted character.

For many people, the making of a home is their major creation. Nothing tears at my heart like the words “homeless” and “refugee.”

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


I have uncovered two of my favorite books, both missing for at least a year. One is a book I mentioned when I first started this blog in March, and another is one I was looking for when I did the writers workshop in February. The first is Houses, and it was among the books I brought home from my office. It is thin and easily hides itself. The second is A Palpable God by Reynolds Price. I was so sure that I had loaned that book and that it was gone forever, that I looked on the internet to see if I could buy another copy. Going through the bookcases, culling out so that I could find room to put the books I brought home, Eureka!, I found it. I had been looking for a blue book, and it is white.

Price, at a crucial time in his life, decided to translate some of the Bible, knowing no Hebrew or Greek, working from an interlinear Bible. I have read over and over his beginning essay, “The Origins and Life of Narrative.” I have underlined and made notes and whited out one of those notes so that I could photocopy a portion for my class. Bill has a note or two in it, and I see that my friend Ted, he of the uncooperative Mac, has made several of his characteristic marks in it. I will put one of my favorite quotations from the book in the blog description. More anon.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Having organized the papers I brought home from my office and found places for the books by culling out other books, yesterday afternoon I tackled the so-called archives room down cellar. Everyone in my family has given me the archives they have collected, letters, photos, clippings, birth and death certificates. Yesterday I was dealing with a banker box full of papers my stepmother gave me after my dad died. I was going through these papers one by one, weighing whether each should be saved or not. I would think, I can’t throw this out. And then I would think, But who would want it after I go? Would anyone want the tender love letters my mother wrote to my father before they were married?

I have a box full of my mother’s letters to me. I know how happy I was to get the letters sent to my great grandmother, so I am pretty sure that some great grandchild would be pleased to get these. But where will they go in the meantime, where will they rest for the next hundred years? And for that matter, where will my great grandmother’s trunk go, the one filled with a hundred letters, two diaries, a fur cape and lace she made, jokes and valentines and calling cards? She died in 1913, so the trunk and its contents have survived for nearly a hundred years already.

And where will the horse chestnut go, the one that Bill’s great great grandfather carried in the Civil War for luck? It was lucky, too, because in the Petersburg campaign he was shot through the mouth and survived, the story being that he talked so much that his mouth was fortunately open.

Would anyone want the cartoons of my father that the artists in the Boston Globe art room drew? Often they would use these cartoons in ads, so there are not only the originals but the actual ad. My father was the director of the art room. Sometime ago the Globe asked for memorabilia for their archives, and I joyfully offered them all of these, but they must have changed their mind, perhaps after the paper was sold to the NY Times, because I never heard from them.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Macs vs PCs; links

My friend Ted has discovered that because he has an older Mac he can’t have a blog himself and can’t comment on my blog. I have noticed that Mac users are utterly faithful and invariably love their computers, whereas Microsoft PC users invariably complain and curse theirs.

I have dropped three blogs from my link list. One hadn't posted since the beginning of August, one was too scattered and confusing to be followed and one just wasn't interesting enough to me. I notice that other blogs have very long lists of links, but I use my list to read every day and having a long one would mean I would never get anything else done. Still, I have room for a few others.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


You have heard that old saw, genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration, something like that. Once I was talking to Molly Lamb Bobak, a wonderful painter based in Fredericton. She asked me if I had many talented people in my creative writing classes. I said I did, and I was surprised that they never went on to write more. She expressed the same surprise with the people who took her painting classes.

It is my experience that some people with little talent can learn to write if they spend a lot of time writing and studying. Their work is often pedestrian, but they get published. Some people have talent but they don’t develop it; the rewards are not great enough. One man said to me after he had had something published, “Why would anyone do this?” He had received something like $25 for his effort. He could make more money picking up beer bottles, he said.

Blockbuster talents, however, start off great, and I for one couldn’t teach them anything. They don’t take creative writing classes or do degrees in CW unless they use them for an excuse to get time for writing. I remember the initial time one young kid, David Adams Richards, read to our writers’ group. We were bowled over. Here was an authentic talent. He went on to write to great critical acclaim and to win many awards. Into my husband’s MA creative writing class came Wayne Johnston, a natural born comic writer. He too has gone on to critical acclaim, won prizes, and had his novel on the front page of the NYT Book Review. Bill said that the only thing he could do with such a writer was to let him write. “What could I teach him?” Nothing. Such people do need an excellent, sympathetic editor, need to read widely, but they do not need much teaching.

At the writers’ group, I would amuse myself with predicting the next word in a poem being read. Then one night came a young kid who read a poem whose words I couldn’t predict. He hadn’t read much, hadn’t seen the big world, knew only that he was a poet. Joe Sherman went on to publish, also to critical acclaim, and to be made an Officer of Canada. Alas, he died of pancreatic cancer a year ago. After his diagnosis, he wrote for the nine months he had left, and two terrific books came out of it. Over the years he would send every manuscript to me and to Robert Gibbs. I would comment, make suggestions, fully realizing that I was only providing a sympathetic, dedicated ear.

Friday, December 01, 2006


My friend Ted has been trying to figure out how to leave comments. He even has got himself a Google account and password in order to do so. Still he can't do it. So he e-mailed his comment to my blog on creative writing, and I put his comment on under my own name. Others have told me they can't record comments. I would like to make the blog comment-friendly, but I can't figure out how.

Teaching Creative Writing, Part Two

I have often thought of the hubris that was required of me when I began teaching creative writing when I had not published much of anything and did not know the cw drill. I hope that I made up in enthusiasm for my lack of experience. A faithful student who took my classes regularly, an older woman, invited me for tea. She had found out that Bill and I loved lubney cheese, and as she was of Lebanese origin, she had made us some. She shyly but proudly showed me her writing space, a closet under the stairs. Over a makeshift desk there was a bookshelf, and I was surprised, because the books were the ones I was always referring to in class. She explained that every time I mentioned one, she would purchase it. Looking at the shelf, I realized what an eccentric collection it was. After she died, her husband had a Lebanese friend make us lubney cheese, and he delivered it to express his appreciation for what I had meant to Madeline. She had published a few things in small magazines; that had made her happy, he said.

Two of these books were Malcolm Lowery’s Under the Volcano, and a study by Sherrill Grace about him. Grace had examined his manuscripts and determined that instead of cutting out, he had added details. His sentences became more and more dense as he revised. That had been a revelation to me when I read it, because I had up until then thought of revision as cutting out superfluous words. I realized that beginning writers didn’t put in enough specific details, and when they tried to, they would make the detail a complete sentence rather than a phrase or clause in the midst of a sentence. It was true too of beginning poets (unless they had the innate poetic ability); there was too much generality, not enough specifics.

In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Brian Fawcett is quoted as saying that he stopped publishing his poetry in the early 1980’s because no one reads poetry so it is pointless to publish. Yet he continues to write poems. “It’s not about making aesthetic objects; it’s like a pitcher practicing a curve ball.” I think the impulse to write is more than practicing a curve ball; it is an urge to make order out of a messy world and then to show it to someone else to see if the order holds. I read yesterday somewhere in the blogosphere, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” I would add, who didn’t quit because the impulse was so strong that he didn’t need the reward of publishing. Whoever invented the blog had hit upon a deep human yearning; you only have to read the statistics about the number of new blogs that are created every day.