Friday, April 30, 2010

Sustained Silent Writing

It happens every four months. The class is over. A group of people who sat together four days a week for nearly four months has scattered. Some will return next term, and some will not.

For the entire term, we had a morning ritual: sustained, silent writing. I felt a little hesitant about starting it, as a previous class had a lukewarm reaction, and we ended up quitting halfway through the term.

I needn't have worried. This class loved it.

The rules for SSW are simple:
  • Write about whatever you want.
  • Keep writing until the ten minutes is over.
  • Do not go back to reread or correct spelling or grammar.
  • Don't show anyone else what you've written unless you want to.
Every day at the end of the ten minutes, I asked the students to count the words they had written. Then I came round with my chart and recorded the numbers.

That in itself was impressive. Some people who started out under a hundred words could consistently generate three hundred by term end.

Even more interesting, several students told me that SSW had helped their grammar and expression. It also built their confidence, making them play and have fun with writing while they built skills.

Plain Words Used to Obfuscate

Here's what the ad said, but what did it mean exactly?

"The original great taste. No added preservatives or artificial flavours, since 1886."

Come again? Oh, I get it. Preservatives are the main ingredient, right?

Since 1886. Now that's a poser. It seems to say that in 1886 they did add some artificial flavours and preservatives. Maybe those preservatives were so potent that no others were ever needed.

That's impressive, but it still leaves one little problem. This soft drink has never been a food, so why would it need preservatives anyway?

In advertising, the Big Lie Technique has become the Big Obfuscation Technique.

Propaganda has come a long way, baby.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spring Skies, Sap Rising

Clouds do wonderful things in spring. Today the whole valley was ringed with evening clouds of white and dark blue. Against the indigo mountains, the cumulus puffs stood up thick and rich like clumps of clotted cream from a puddle of homemade blueberry jam.

Spring clouds are pure magic to the eye. But the sense of smell is even more magical. The quintessential harbinger of spring for me comes from sticky willow buds bursting into leaf.

This short-lived fragrance, apprehended always in brief and unexpected whiffs, takes me back through a long series of scenes from the many previous springs of my life.

Haunting with ghosts of springs past, this unique smell of sap rising never fails to evoke a potent brew of nostalgia, energy and hope.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Huge Hydroelectric Projects Slated for BC and Amazon Forests

This morning's paper reports that Brazil has finally given the green light for a massive dam on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon. As many as 40,000 people are expected to be displaced with the flooding of 500 square kilometres of land.

The Vancouver Sun has reprinted Louise Gray's article from The Telegraph. She reports that after 35 years of struggle against environmental campaigns and indigenous rainforest peoples, the Belo Monte Dam has been given the go-ahead.

Norte Energia
, a consortium of nine companies, has been awarded the project for what will be the third largest dam in the world, requiring about the same amount of concrete as the Panama Canal.

Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

The same issue of The Sun reports that a huge power transmission line project planned for northern BC is currently being reviewed by the government. The proposed line is slated to travel through Memorial Lava Bed Park, land owned by the Nisga'a First Nation.

A few months ago, indigenous peoples' and environmentalists' opposition to planned development in the Sacred Headwaters of several major BC Rivers was a topic of one of the 2009 Massey Lectures given by Wade Davis on CBC radio.

In spite of all we know, and even while Iceland's volcano remains active, it seems that the lobbies for economic activity still trump those for environmental concerns.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Term End Again

Today the sight of an electric kettle plugged in and boiling away on the floor of an inner hallway catapulted me several years back in time. When first I came to work here, my new department head and mentor boiled the kettle on the floor and made us a cup of tea.

Some things don't change. There are still too few electrical outlets.

Other things do change, slowly and imperceptibly. Then something raises the awareness of the one-way arrow of time passing.

After that first cup of tea, I worked with my mentor for several years. Then she died in an accident. Now she's been gone for an indeterminate time. Over fifteen years, I think.

As I gazed at the kettle and cogitated, a colleague came along to unplug it and make tea. I smiled as I watched her, now a middle-aged matron with two -- or is it three sons?

She was just a girl when we met. She started here as a part-time tutor, and took her teacher training a few years later. Now it's been a few years since she took the coordinator's job.

Term end again. How many terms has it been? I don't want to count them. But I'm still happy here -- still feel a sense of belonging, just as I did when I had that first cup of tea so many years ago from the kettle that boiled on the floor.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hawaiian Healer and Andean Winds

On Sunday evening I was invited to participate in a healing circle with a visiting Hawaiian Kukui Lani master called Maxima. She had the most beautiful energy and she shared that lavishly with us, an impromptu group of sixteen people hosted by Randi Winter.

After the healing was over, Maxima told me, "You're vibrating higher now. You'll notice a difference. Things will change." I certainly felt her energy; the peace and love that emanated from her were palpable.

Has something changed? Perhaps. Yesterday I was downtown, and when I left the library and walked to Waterfront Station, I chanced on the gift of music. I was about to enter the station when I was arrested by the haunting sound of Andean pipes. I stopped and turned around.

The musician was alone, and just setting up. A couple of years ago on White Rock beach I bought his first CD, and yesterday he had a second one with him. When I bought it, he was delighted. "I just this minute went and got them," he said. "Just in time for you." Spontaneously hugging me, he said, "Enjoy it." I'm certain I shall.

The group is Antu, and this CD, called Jade, is volume two of five.

Magic, I thought. Beautiful things can happen, any time. We just need to be open to them.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ian McEwan is Most Unlike his Narrators

Image from Ian McEwan

On Thursday, when British Booker prize winning novelist Ian McEwan read in Vancouver from his new novel, Solar, we witnessed a dramatic demonstration of a literary truism: the author is not the narrator.

McEwan's first reading in Vancouver was a special event of the Vancouver International Writers Festival and took place at St. Andrews Wesley United Church on Burrard. He was introduced and interviewed by Hal Wake, the Artistic Director of that festival.

Before the event, I met with friends for a bite to eat. Discussing his works, we speculated about McEwan, propounding contradictory theories about his height and posture, manner and mien.

None of us expected a comedian. But as he answered Wake's questions, I heard tittering from the friend on my right. Although we had arrived early for rush seating in the wooden pews, we were far off to the side, and Joan was watching avidly through her opera glasses, oblivious to the possibility of turned heads. She led the way, but the laughter soon became general.

McEwan responded to several of Wake's interview questions. Then, saying "I feel a reading coming on," he treated the audience to a humorous portrayal of a character from Solar, the Nobel laureate twenty years later, now seedy and greedy, gorging on rich food.

Humor was by no means all. When questioned about the theme of his latest novel, the author said that global warming was one of the most dramatic facts of our time. 911 had generated "a whole literature," but nobody was writing fiction about climate change, "so I had to."

I was struck by McEwan's perception of flying in to Vancouver. The huge numbers of horizontal trees floating in the Fraser estuary shocked him. Having lived on "the wet coast" for the past 50 years, I'd become used to aerial views of log booms.

"The sense of impending loss as the climate changes must be so much greater for you here in Canada," he said, "with all this beautiful forest at your doorsteps."

McEwan also responded to questions about his development as a writer. Like many North Americans, we three had been introduced to his work by the brilliant novel Atonement, and the almost equally brilliant film by the same name. When asked how he felt about having his work filmed, the author said he enjoyed it, adding the caveat that the medium of film is limited. A film can never be as good as the book, since it is impossible to show the thoughts of the characters.

My young friend had remarked over dinner that compared to the raw edginess of this author's early short stories, his more recent work seemed tame. His comments explained this. Early on, he deliberately set out to challenge himself, to move beyond the "formulaic" voices of seventies novelists, which he found rather "boring."

Ian McEwan's speech was both intelligent and humorous, but it was an anecdote that gave me the best glimpse of the person behind his many and varied works. He was downsizing the bookshelves of his home in London, and went out with his son to offer free books to office workers who were eating their lunches in the adjacent square.

Many more women than men were the enthusiastic recipients of the gift of books. "Women," said McEwan, "have kept the novel alive." This humble appreciation of readers was impressive, coming from a brilliant writer who has personally done so much to help the novel continue to thrive.

Mathematician Has Something to Prove

We were in the car together when my daughter, who is studying logic, began telling me how illogical mathematicians can be. Her story involved something strange the great mathematician David Hilbert once did to a colleague, Brouwer.

Because of their dramatic difference of opinion about infinity, Hilbert concluded that his fellow mathematician was a danger to the field.

"So Hilbert had him thrown..." said Yasemin. Then, distracted by the exigencies of driving, she paused briefly. In that moment, my mind went into overdrive thinking of the possibilities, and the following riddle was born:

Where did Hilbert have Brouwer thrown?

a) under a moving train
b) down an abandoned mine shaft
c) off the international council of mathematicians
d) into a pond

Do you really want to know? The answer is posted in the comment below.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taking Moral Solace from Fiction

Image from villageroadshow

Why does a reader read? Last year at a writing conference in Toronto, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer spoke about the reader's need to find moral solace in a work of fiction. Recently reading Annie Dillard's inimitable description of the writer's life, I came upon the reciprocal notion: the writer writes to express the same thing.

Currently I am both reading the novels of Elizabeth George and watching the Inspector Lynley DVD series. Observing how such TV shows seem to grow ever more graphic and violent, I wondered what the lure was. And what was I getting out of these gruesome films?

The primary satisfaction, I decided, was to watch and applaud character development. Watching Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers get stretched wide open by their experiences, I hoped that I too was being forced to grow beyond my fears and prejudices.

Every fiction writer knows the basic rule. Show your protagonists no mercy. Keep turning up the heat if your want the reader to keep turning the pages. After all, these aren't real people.

Still, after watching two episodes of Inspector Lynley on each of two consecutive evenings, I had to ask myself again what I get out of these crime stories. The answer? When the story works out satisfactorily, and the characters learn and grow, what I feel is a sense of moral solace.

The ancient Greeks had it right had it right with their idea of catharsis. Mysteriously, the vicarious experience of theatrical characters' suffering does cleanse us, refresh us, give us hope.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Conservation: A Certain Irony

This morning I read in the paper that Canadians are wasting ever more resources. Petroleum and water are the usual two.

We used to pay for water as part of our taxes. Now in an effort to encourage conservation, the city is installing water meters, preparing to charge each household for the water used. Well and good.

But this afternoon, as I sat by the rainy window, I heard a strange noise and looked out to see the street washer. It turned in to the cul-de-sac and roared noisily around in the heavy spring rain, washing the street.

I wonder who, if anyone, thinks this is a good use either of fresh water or non-renewable petroleum resources. Can this possibly be defended? And if it can't, why does it go on? I'd love some answers.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Mystical Linguistic Power of Meter and Rhyme

Since the beginning of the movie and TV era, and since consumerism became the dominant paradigm, society has become far more visual.

At the same time, the sonorous power and elegance of the word has declined. I find that sad. These days, "poetry that rhymes ain't worth a dime," as a recent poetry contestant quipped. I disagree.

I was raised on poetic rhyme and meter. Expressing profound ideas within formal constraints is memorable and impressive; it requires greater linguistic discipline and skill than the more current poetics of throwing words or images on a page to form visual patterns.

Certain lines of poetry from Shakespeare and my high school text books live, still able to reawaken within that ineffable something the sonorous lines first evoked. I respond powerfully to iambic pentameter; it echoes in my head, tramping out primordial rhythms that hark back to the days before writing was invented.

I still recall the inner harmonic resonance a line from Tennyson's Ulysses awoke in me, moving me to write it out in my best calligraphy to put on my teenage wall:

"There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail." An invitation to a larger life.

"In the beginning was the word." Sonorous liturgy from the powerful poetry of the King James Bible. The word is with us still, powerfully present, expressing the long history of human culture and the equally longstanding impulse to entertain the world's mystery.