“I don’t read fiction”

images “I only read non-fiction”, some people say, as if there was only truth in history or political analysis or science. They refuse to waste their time on fiction. More’s the pity, for that’s where truth REALLY hangs out.

I’m reading the wonderful stories of Dorothy Parker and I have to say her understanding shines brighter, sharper, and stronger than any non-fiction book about relationships or human behaviour or the story of societies. Stronger than Alice Munro’s tales but often in the same area of what others tend to put down as woman’s stories (argh!), her message comes at you with like a thunderbolt, leaving you gasping as the realization of what she has done hits. I simply don’t understand why Parker is often described solely as the quick witted riposte queen, when she was obviously a writing powerhouse and always has been.

The story “Mr. Durant” is such a blast. She tells the story of a self-centred man in tones of such casual damning it’s not until you get to the last paragraphs that you realize how horrid he truly is. He is married, with two children, a wife he calls Mummy.

He has an affair. She gets pregnant, he insists upon and pays for an abortion. He is completely blind why she would want never to work with him again. Rather he thinks this is perfect, all tidied up, as it were. He won’t even have to run into her and suffer any embarrassment at work. He heads home, smug in his ability to put things away.

The children find a lost and starving puppy, and at first he is finally persuaded to keep it.

Until he learns it is a girl.

“Into his den, Mr. Durant preceded his wife, and faced her, still frowning. His calm was not shattered, but it was punctured….

“Now, you know perfectly well, Fran, we can’t have that dog around,” he told her. He used the low voice reserved for underwear and bathroom articles and kindred shady objects. There was kindness in his tones that one has for a backward child, but Gibraltar-like firmness was behind it. “You must be crazy to even think for a minute. Why, I wouldn’t give a she-dog houseroom, not for any amount of money. It’s disgusting, that’s what it is.”

…”Disgusting,” he repeated. “You have a female around, and you know what happens. All the males in the neighbourhood will be running after her. First thing you know, she’ll be having puppies – and the way they look after them and all!…I should think you’d think of the children, Fran. No sir, they’ll be nothing like that around here, not while I know it. Disgusting!”

He sends the dog away when the children are sleeping, so he never has to break a promise (he promised they could keep it) – “I’ve never broken a promise yet, have I?” he asks in his banally awful way.

“Again his mind wrapped itself in the knowledge that everything was fixed, all ready for a nice fresh start.”

Don’t you just want to slap this man senseless? This one nine-page story manages to install the kind of hatred for a man that makes you think of violence, everything from the being called “Daddy” by his wife, to his self-explanations for horrid behaviour, to his pride in “keeping promises” while laying waste to all the hearts around him.

And don’t you know people that are like this? Egad. Makes my skin crawl, but yes, I do.

Read all of Dorothy Parker’s stories. You won’t regret it, but you might need a drink afterwards. As for me, I have a new/old mentor. It will be fun trying to emulate her…

Ref: Dorothy Parker: Complete Stories, Colleen Breese, ed. Excellent forward by Regina Barreca. Penguin Books 2003

Missing writing…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been taking a holiday from writing of late. It all started with my knee surgery and recovery – then my life was so focused on pain management (knee replacements are not for the shy of pain, and two at once made it quite an intensive focus for a time) and then the resultant MS flare-up afterwards that I couldn’t think in a straight line. Everything was pointed toward getting my knees better.

I’ve missed writing. I haven’t been able to do it, and it is like a missing tooth, an empty space that my tongue goes to again and again. But trying to pull words out of my head via my increasingly untrustworthy fingers was impossible.

But I long for it. I went to New York City, feasted my eyes on characters who wanted a story, from the sad Italian guard at St. Patrick’s with the too long pants, to the bejewelled lady on the bus who insisted I “must” go to the Frick, to the surly waiter at McSorley’s who shouted “It’s your lucky day!” Everywhere I went, I spoke to people, driving my travel companion mad, no doubt. But everyone had a story, or conjured up stories in my head. Even the sculptures in the Met spoke to me, told me of the lives of the sculptors or the models, murmured tales of strength and suffering.

All inspiring, but my longing for writing hit me when I got back from my trip and ran flat against tragedy. Horrible, gut-wrenching tragedy of a life gone awry, of people damaged beyond belief through the great evil of one man and the world around them. World damaging disasters that crushed many in their wake hit, too, wars, poverty, despair.

You see, in a story writ by me, I can create the characters. I can make them flawed and I can make them suffer. I can wreak revenge. I can offer hope. For better or worse, my characters often misbehave and I have to adjust the story to fit that bit of personality or experience they kept hidden from me. But overall, if I find the situation unbearable, I can “bearable” it. I can add heroism in tales of darkness. Or I can toss the story in a bin, let it go without a backward glance.

In life, though, we have no control over the narrative. We watch other’s stories, feel their pain, are inadequate to the task of changing anything. We can rewrite our own story, yes, but bits of the past are left sticking out like burrs or sticky left-over pieces of chewed gum  clinging to our hair. We toss our heads in the breeze, feeling our thoughts blow away, only to find our hands are enwebbed in our hair, trapped.

George Grey Barnard Je sens deux hommes en moi

George Grey Barnard
Je sens deux hommes en moi

So when I meet tragedy (and oh golly there’s a lot of it these days), I yearn for the comfort and safety of the page, where I can step safely into a pretend world, either by reading it or writing it. That world can be stopped as easily as closing the computer or shutting the cover of the book. Would that we could stop real tragedies so easily.

One Elephant goes out to play….

Time flies. Many of my friends are talking of how they are getting old, how they are losing friends and relatives. It all promotes a thoughtful turn of mind, a wondering if we’ve accomplished enough, if we’ve accomplished anything, what else we can do to make the world (or ourselves) better in the time we have left.

Should we pursue that goal? Should we follow that friend? Should we volunteer more, struggle more, or buy that cottage or tent and go relax and watch the sea? How many books can I read today?

I don’t usually waste my mental time on the fact of getting old. Having MS is a gift that way – we have no control over our day to day functioning so the getting old thing seems like simply another day. And I’m fortunate to be round enough that my wrinkles are pushed outward and thus invisible, mostly, so unless you see me late at night or first thing in the morning, I might pass for younger anyway.

But i do notice that old passing of time. Losing Lois Lillenstein was like a shove to the heart. She was so much a part of my children’s existence – we watched the Elephant Show together, bought their CDs, went to their shows. The kids sang and danced along. I still have their Christmas Album, where Lois does the best version of the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy I’ve ever heard (“Starving for some brownies!”). I loved their music, too – unlike most kids performers, they used jazz and blues and just plain good music to tell their stories.

Seeing Sharon and Bram older, seeing them look so shattered at the loss of their friend, just echoed how I felt and feel. I am getting old. Little parcels of joy I once had are going away, to, I hope, be replaced by others.

But I’m still singing “One Elephant, Deux Elefants” and dancing to “Cool Yule”. I hope that when I eventually shuffle off this coil, I leave even one such smile behind.

Thank you, Lois. And Sharon and Bram. We have a bunch of smiles, thanks to you.


Do you not know me?

sticky-quotes_080912_what-you-do-for-a-living-does-not-interest-me-i-want-to-know-what-you-ache-for-and-if-you-date-to-dream-of-meeting-your-hearts-longingwtmkIt’s a line from Moll Flanders, by Defoe. A book from 1722, yet the question is still valid.

Do you not know me?

Who does know another person? Sometimes I wonder if we all wander about, selves packaged in different boxes, pulling each section out depending own we are with. It’s not that we are dishonest, exactly, more that different parts of us fit better with different people. So who can really know us?

I’m taking an excellent Teaching Company course with the brilliant professor Arnold Weinstein. I’ve taken other courses with him, through Coursera, and he is such an impressive speaker and he understands and interprets literature so well I had to purchase this version from the TC (thanks Marie-Danielle for telling me about these people!) Weinstein dissects treasures of literature: Moll Flanders, Bleak House, To The Lighthouse, Proust, to name a few. He brings in humanity, the what if of the characters and the writers, not in the “analyze the green light at the end of the pier” way of high school, but wrapped in his knowledge of the times. He has a few gaps. He assigns to Moll an avarice, without saying anything about the grim status of women at that time if they did not have money. And of course, he relies rather heavily on male writers, but that is the way of things.

The best thing is that he brings universal themes into the discussion of the books, and makes me think about them. Thus the wondering about being known.

Coincidentally, I’m also reading a graphic novel, “Are You My Mother?” by Alison Bechdel.(The brilliant founder of the Bechdel test!) It, too is all about being known. About how it is only in writing that we end up actually defining ourselves, or others. Whether we write in journals (note to children: should I die, burn before reading), or stories, or lists (as in the very creepy Walt, by Russell Wangersky), we reveal ourselves best, I think, through the written word.

Alas for relationships, we rarely share those words, instead relying on speech and actions, those malleable things, to let others know who we are. True, we are what we do, but our motivations – ahhh, those are a different kettle of fish, often known only to us. And perhaps that’s a good thing.

We can figure them out, but it requires acute attention, a rare thing. I once knew someone who studied me, got to know me so very well, read my mind almost. It was unsettling, though I was grateful someone had finally seen behind my screen.

But I am comfortable, partially shielded, and knowing that is part of knowing me, too.

Do you not know me?


Originally posted on Quillfyre:

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The madness of #PitMad, or how to be rejected many many times in a few hours

There’s this Twitter thing. For twelve hours, four times a year, people madly pitch their books at agents. Agents look on and “favourite” pitches they like. Authors can tweet two times an hour and can retweet their fellow author’s pitches.

I have a young adult book almost ready to go, so I thought, why not try this? Why not try to pitch a book to an agent in 140 characters or less?

So I wrote up my pitches and timed them to run, but then got busy and forgot the essential bit, retweeting other’s pitches. In the spirit of fellow support, those retweeted retweeted back, which meant more appearances of your pitch in the stream.

And I’m not sure how many agents made an appearance. One posted at the end of the day that they were still looking for submissions, so that alone was worth the effort. I’ll be looking into them.

I didn’t retweet too much – had other things going on in my day – but I’ll know for next time. It’s too depressing to look at the end of the day and see you have no likes, no retweets, no indication you ever rippled the ether. 

Sigh. Live and learn. If nothing else, it gave me a chance to try and describe my book in an elevator pitch.  Need more practice at that, too…..


I dated a hammer-thrower once. He amazed me. I’d never met someone who could do that Highland Games thing. He came to pick me up, his hair shorn so short I had to run my hand over it. It felt like a seal pelt. In his trunk he had a full set of throwing hammers. The car sagged backwards with their weight.

He enchanted me. I had never met anyone so strong. When I rested my hands on his shoulders, they felt like steel. I knew he could lift even well-cushioned me without an intake of breath. It paralyzed me with astonishment and a weird kind of lust. We had nothing else in common, and our relationship was remarkably short-lived, but I’ll always remember the feel of his shoulders, that weird girly attraction to someone who could actually rescue me, if I were under a bus or rock or fridge. The type of guy who could carry me, Officer and a Gentleman like, out of my unsatisfying existence. And then catch me a wandering steer and make me some steak, while talking to me about world events or a new book or something he’d learned in the past day. But I digress….

See, I’ve always been the strong one. Knowing someone stronger than I was in one dimension at least was different for me.

I’ve met other strong people. They were mighty in other areas: one girlfriend who endures a horrific family situation with a calmness I could never master; another who copes with health challenges with a cheery “I guess I’ll just deal with whatever comes.” A friend who copes with the constant fatigue of MS and caregiving and still has more to give. A man who was so smart in so many areas I could barely keep up with the conversation.

But I’m strong like them, generally, though my challenges are generally different. Strong and always kind, I’m working on. But that physical strength… That’s something else again.

It’s weird. I am, when all things settle, more of an intellectual sort. But I’ve had to lift a fridge or two in my time, have done strenuous home renovations, dug long gardens, shovelled hundreds of meters of snow. In all that time, I’ve longed for a strong partner to help, never had one. Some part of me calls backward (or forward) to the person who can look after themselves after the Armageddon, maybe pitch in with the water-carrying, dig a secure cave, build a posthistoric fire.

Nah. I’ll just get busy with the weights. After all, it’s always so hard to find someone to lift a fridge off you when you need them. The phone is always across the room.