Oh those first drafts!

"I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down. At the same time my memory is so faithful to me that I am sure not to forget a theme which I have once conceived even after years have passed. I make many changes, reject and reattempt until I am satisfied. Then the working out in breadth, length, height and depth begins in my head, and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It rises, grows upward, and I hear and see the picture as a whole take shape and stand forth before me as though cast in a single piece, so that all is left is the work of writing it down. This goes quickly, according as I have the time, for sometimes I have several compositions in labour at once, though I am sure never to confuse one with the other. You will ask me whence I take my ideas? That I cannot say with any degree of certainty; they come to me uninvited, directly or indirectly. I could almost grasp them in my hands, out in Nature's open, in the woods, during my promenades, in the silence of the night, at earliest dawn. They are roused by moods, which in the poet's case are transformed into words and mine into tones, that sound, roar and storm until at last they take shape for me as notes." (From Diagnosing Genius, The Life and Death of Beethoven, F.M. Mai)

Blame it on Beethoven?

According to our music professor, it was about the time of Beethoven that society came to perceive composers, and by extension artists in all genres, differently, more special than had been the case when works of art might not even have been signed, since they ultimately belonged to the church, king or nobleman who commissioned them. Artists who had formerly been considered tradespeople of sorts, producing music, paintings, operas and theatre pieces upon the request and patronage of one of these higher ups, became individuals, specially blessed individuals, given the gift to create music, art, and literature by a generous God who had singled them out. Gifted them. Perhaps artists even had a direct link to the Divine, however you might define it. In the so-called Modern period, after 1800, "The high value placed on the individual, which emerged in ancient Greece and Rome and then again in the Renaissance, became the primary value of Western culture." https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/cultures-religions-ap-arthistory/a/a-brief-history-of-western-culture

I don't know how long it took before this turned out to be a two-edged sword, with which some artists came close to killing themselves in modern times. Because how can anyone stand up to such adulation, really, what would it do to a person to think herself or himself an actual sort of divinity?

I've wondered if Beethoven might to be blame in a controversy that unfolded where I live. It involved a perceived wrong foisted on a popular writer and head of an important university writing program. Allegations of sexual harassment were part of it, though not just those, and after a lengthy investigation, the university fired the fellow. Here's where Beethoven comes in, sort of, because I never think of him as a real collegial guy, but more a brooding loner. Not like the prominent and not so writers who waded in to the rescue of the allegedly wronged professor. A group of about one hundred, including a deck of the best known Canadian writers, joined forces to defend the guy and call for an investigation into the investigation the university had already conducted. The controversy continued to bubble over social media, in Canadian print journals, even the New York Times and The Guardian, as well as some outlets I probably have not seen, and led to a second controversy, concerning the identity of the fellow who had initiated the letter his fellow prominent writers signed in support of the fired writing professor/novelist.

Watching this play of egos made me squirm. Most artists will admit that they're not sure where their work comes from. The mysteriousness of inspiration, the stops and starts unrelated to routine; days when, like today, I started a work session clueless and half an hour or so after sitting there fooling around, a new scene came to mind and out my fingers. It's moments like that when you think, maybe it is something else, maybe I'm just loaning out the fingers, the keyboard, the notebook. That's why I felt so uncomfortable about the group stepping forward with demands, even hinting that because the accused professor was a successful writer, he couldn't have perpetrated such wrongs, and if he did they were minor, excusable. Celebrity culture at its worst.

Beethoven was rebelling against  the yolk of those who had been paying the piper, though he needed them to survive while he composed pieces that had more to do with pleasing his musical vision than the high and mighty ones. He was expressing individualism as an artistic as well as a political reaction to the top down organization of society the French revolted against in 1789. Perhaps the kindest interpretation of the matters here would be that the literary protestors were also challenging authority, misguided though their efforts may have been.

Cheer up!

Oh boy. On the heels of an especially dreary fall, I had to watch "Manchester by the Sea," and that while I was in the middle of reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Thank God I'm a naturally optimistic person, one of the lucky ones who is not easily depressed. Even so, I was sad for hours after seeing "Manchester..." At a time of year when people talk about renewal and hope, the main character seems about as far from those possibilities as fire is from water, two elements that dominate the picture.

As for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by the wonderful writer Richard Flanagan, while I knew in general about the horrors the Japanese Imperial Army wrought in forcing through the Siam-Burma railway late in WW2, Flanagan's descriptions of the privations suffered by a group of Australians are so good that empathetic readers can't help but feel the pain. Not the writer, though. In a Guernica interview Flanagan said:

"An interviewer told me once that I was very empathetic, and I said I hope not. I think empathy’s a terrible danger for a writer. A writer has to stand outside the page. It’s not for the writer to shed tears onto the pages for these characters. It’s not for him to suffer or to laugh or to experience ecstasy or agony in the manner of the characters on the pages. It’s to find the words to convey ecstasy or agony in a way that’s true."

If it is true that art is uplifting, in the case of these two works, it is the artfulness that uplifts more than the subjects. The movie impressed me with its structure and characterization. The novel for both those reasons, and also because of the sheer power of Flanagan's prose. Despite what else may be looming, art has once again delivered on its promise to lift me up, given me a reason to greet the coming year with cheer.



The Magic of a Travelling Book Café

My most recent Travelling Book Café featured The Reason for Time as the travelling book, and an unlikely pair, Anglican rector Clarence Li, and magician Gerardo Avila, who joined me to talk about something "we have no language for.." as Rector Li put it, magic and belief.

Early into the discussion that followed my reading, and Gerardo's performance, an audience member offered her experience of the strange, the unexplainable, as in how, as a child in England, she sang the verse: Land of the silver birch home of the beaver... long before she knew she would be living in Canada.

The magical, mysterious. What makes one person a skeptic, another a believer? My character, Maeve Curragh, works at the Chicago Magic Company, in Chicago, 1919, and comes from a superstitious rural Irish culture. She is enchanted by the vaudeville illusionists she sees on Chicago stages, but more so by the mind readers and the spiritualists, such as Anna Eva Fay, who were so popular then. A simpler time maybe? When people were more disposed to believe? Or was it just her? Because, as Clarence Li pointed out, there are personality types who are more likely to "believe." One audience member described herself as exceptionally sensitive to the supernatural. She talked about having gone on a vacation at a time when she really needed one, except, her body remained at home, in bed.  The experience was so vivid she can still remember the smell of the trees at the mountain resort. It scared her.

Gerardo, our magician, dressed in a dark suit and a floppy bow tie, pressed the button on his boom box and music trickled forth at just the right volume to establish a different ambiance in the library's community room. He worked with strings, balls, and cards, deftly making them disappear and re-appear. He even had a trick that was designed to convince the most unrelenting of skeptics. It's about bringing people into the present, he explained, with music, with comedy... with a sense of possibility. He performs tricks that sometimes surprise himself. Magic happens when something unexpected elevates a trick to something, well...unfathomable.

The eloquent Clarence Li doesn't think belief is anything that ultimately exists or doesn't, but that it comes and goes. It's a journey, he said, and while, as a minister, he is in the God business, he regrets the post-Enlightenment rejection of myth as fanciful. It's why we struggle to explain, why we chalk some experiences up to being just plain inexplicable; everything is quantified, must be proven. "People say seeing is believing, but for me believing is seeing." Don't worry about believing, just be, he said, echoing, if in different words, what Gerardo had said about being present.

Audience members used words like serendipity and coincidence. We talked about the power of suggestion; we talked about how people believe what they want to believe, for various reasons. We talked about trust and its cultural roots. If you come from a suspicious society, can you ever believe anything but what you can see, touch, hear, or verify by some branch of science? Do aboriginal cultures have a natural advantage over us in that department?

As we were wrapping up, the woman who forgot that, less than two hours earlier, she had opened the discussion, supplied an identical coda: "When I was a child in England, I used to sing, Land of the Silver Birch, home of the beaver, and so forth, and I never imagined I'd end up living in Canada." The repetition of the song in her flutey voice brought us full circle, as if to emphasize the mysterious ways our human minds work, sometimes according to an enigmatic logic all their own.


Creepy and yet...

It had been a beautiful retour to a city j'adore, la ville de Québec, golden in the magic hour lightthe Plains of Abraham. On the train ride south I had planned to reminisce, possibly make some notes about my short stay, indulge in nostalgia for the place where I have spent so much time over the last six years. But my seat partner had a persistent cough. And it is flu season, and I have been travelling...

I lowered my computer screen, turned my head to the window and was trying to nod off when he tapped me on the arm. Pardon me, but I am a curious person, and I saw your name and I checked out your profile. Do you mind if I ask you a question? What? He'd been spying on me? Could he have found my name so easily? Mon Dieu! What had I opened, what tab exposing me to some kind of violation?

Of course my website is public and I encourage people to visit it, and it turned out that his motive was to gather material for a talk he is giving to his MBA group on the definition of success. Noticing via my site that I have been a longtime writer he couldn't resist asking my opinion, he said. And while I still think it is creepy that someone should assume he has access to my screen, his question nourished some thoughts I've been having about my recent surrender to stats.

Success? Can't measure in terms of best sellers, because none of my seven books have sold enough to qualify for those lists. Prizes? A couple. Publication? I've succeeded there and reviews, while not often widespread, have always been good, sometimes very good, and for my newest, The Reason for Time better than that. But now there are other measures. As my friend Allan Ludwig says, it's a numbers game. In his case, a Flickr account, through which he has amassed more than five million views under a nom de plume, Elisha Cook, jr. Despite my scepticism regarding social media, yet also knowing it's join or be beaten, I can now check how many hits/likes/plays/followers I have on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Blogger, Soundcloud and ITunes. I try to discipline myself about checking these sites, and maybe I will get better about that when they are less of a novelty.

Is it that Descartes still dogs us with his insistence that everything can be reduced to numbers? (Okay, okay... oversimplifying.) There are other views, including a well articulated summary of the Aztec view of happiness, for example, in a recent Aeon article. But would such philosophies persuade the cougher's MBA colleagues? From what I know, it's all about the bottom line with them, not as in the bottom line of a drawing or an I Ching hexagram, but the line that reveals how much money is left after expenses have been subtracted from profits. Yet I have heard of companies that encourage work-life balance and provide opportunities for employees to improve their health and education, I admitted, and then our conversation drifted towards cliché territory. He put on his headphones and I re-opened my laptop, being careful this time to angle it away from him.

I used to tell my students that spontaneous insights, the gift of a fictional voice that just seems to come, that making what you imagine real for readers, those are the things you get instead of money. Then there is what one of my favourite writers, Walker Percy, wrote in The Moviegoer: 

"It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes God himself is here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God's own importunate bonus?

It is impossible to say."

Th Passion of the Writer

From an interview with Elena Ferrante in The Paris Review, 228:

On sincerity:

"As far as I’m concerned, it’s the torment and, at the same time, the engine of every literary project. The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to ­impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects ­everything to its needs.


How does one obtain this truth?


It definitely comes from a certain skill that can always be improved. But to a great extent, that energy simply appears, it happens. It feels as if parts of the brain and of your entire body, parts that have been dormant, are enlarging your consciousness, making you more sensitive. You can’t say how long it will last, you tremble at the idea that it might suddenly stop and leave you midstream. To be honest, you never know if you’ve developed the right style of writing, or if you’ve made the most out of it. Anyone who puts writing at the center of his life ends up in the situation of Dencombe, in Henry James’s “The Middle Years,” who, about to die, at the peak of success, hopes to have one more opportunity to test himself and discover if he can do better than what he’s already done. Alternatively, he lives with the desperate feeling ­expressed in the exclamation of Proust’s Bergotte when he sees Vermeer’s little patch of yellow wall—“That is how I ought to have written.”

Then boom, it was over

They would never have heard the classic labor song, "We just come to work here..." if they had not attended the annual, late April worker's memorial day, and they would not have been there had it not been for him. Twenty-three years ago he was in his early 40's, working in a road construction plant, saving money to start his own business. Long hours, dirty work. Then boom, it was over. Hit by a Caterpillar front-end loader, crushed so that his thoracic organs were found extruded from his body. His heart lay on the gravel floor of his workplace.



Another death on the job, the ensuing dance between worker's compensation agencies, health and safety regulators, machine manufacturers, plant ownership, fellow workers, the union. Everyone felt bad, of course. He was a good guy. No complaints.

A state investigation into the causes concluded by placing some blame directly on him, for not having worn a hard hat, for example; but most blame on the machine operator who was driving with his bucket raised too high off the ground to see anybody, much less the man he struck. And, by association, with the Caterpillar machine he operated, which could be, and had been, driven in third gear, leaving the operator completely blind. The general lack of supervision at the plant was another factor.  A single fine was laid on the company, $20,100. The company appealed and won and ended up paying only $7000 in fines. That was it.

Except for his family, including his daughter, who was seven at the time, and would continue to pay the emotional cost.

In the U.S. in 2013, 4405 workers went to work and never came home. Comprising a big part of the total number were transportation incidents, i.e people killed by machines.

In Canada in 2012, 977 workers were killed at their workplaces and nearly 700 injured each day, most in construction and mining incidents.

The majority of these statistics come from workers compensation agencies, which base their fatality reports on the number of files they have opened for fatal injury compensation. The figures are incomplete and have never included deaths due to the cumulative effect of toxins, for example.

"The history of compensation for bodily injury begins shortly after the advent of written history itself1. The Nippur Tablet No. 3191 from ancient Sumeria in the fertile crescent outlines the law of Ur-Nammu, king of the city-state of Ur. It dates to approximately 2050 B.C. 2. The law of Ur provided monetary compensation for specific injury to workers' body parts, including fractures. The code of Hammurabi from 1750 B.C. provided a similar set of rewards for specific injuries and their implied permanent impairments. Ancient Greek, Roman, Arab, and Chinese law provided sets of compensation schedules, with precise payments for the loss of a body part. For example, under ancient Arab law, loss of a joint of the thumb was worth one-half the value of a finger. The loss of a penis was compensated by the amount of length lost, and the value an ear was based on its surface area3. All the early compensation schemes consisted of "schedules" such as this; specific injuries determined specific rewards. The concept of an "impairment" (the loss of function of a body part) separate from a "disability" (the loss of the ability to perform specific tasks or jobs) had not yet arisen." (A Brief History of Worker's Compensation)

As it now stands, the fact that there is a state-sponsored worker's compensation system means that companies found culpable in workplace deaths cannot be penalized. This is referred to as "exclusive remedy".  Of course large and small corporations can be fined, but they can and do appeal those fines. The relevant agencies promise to more closely monitor companies found to be have been negligent -- as in the case described above - IF the workload is not too heavy for the limited number of inspectors. So much to do, so little time.

The principle of "exclusive remedy" was introduced in Prussia in 1871 and has been applied ever since with virtually no changes. Seems long past time to take another look at it. The worker may be responsible for his own safety, as all the public service announcements remind, advising people to work safe, but the outfits that employ them may make working safe next to impossible.