Thursday, December 16, 2010

When ignorance is bliss...

For the last six months I've been participating in a book club. I have great respect for the background knowledge and analytical powers of several of the members. I feel kindly disposed to all of them; I like people who read.

On a couple of occasions only a few people have shown up and we have veered away from the book of the day towards a more general discussion. One participant, K (not her real initial) likes to complain about the sad state of literacy among young people today. Although I suspect that there is truth in her rants, I get contrary and start thinking of exceptions to her generalization, such as the twenty-year old from a working class family whose emails to me are well-composed, grammatically correct, and show a way with words.

Recently, the group discussed a biography of a famous deceased Canadian author, written by a well-known novelist of today. As the discussion went on, it became apparent that K and others had skimmed the book and had come to conclusions that were not substantiated by the text on the page. She and others also skipped the bibliography which listed the biographer's sources. K complained that the biographer's take on the late great author had destroyed her (K's) illusions and spoiled her enjoyment of the famous author's classic works. I and others pointed out that the biographer had consulted source materials; she hadn't fabricated the life story out of thin air.

The young are not the only ones with poor reading habits. One need not have a degree in English or a knowledge of research methods to read carefully what is printed on the page and to examine all parts of the book in one's hand, including the bibliography, the introduction, the author's bio note and so on.

Now, not all members of the group are of the "head in the sand" school of literary criticism. No one has actually said, "I don't know anything about art [in this case, literary art] but I know what I like," or "I know what I think, don't confuse me with facts." So I think I'll continue with the group, for now, and make nice. I'm learning from being there, though not learning what I anticipated.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The colour red

This Christmas, Santa is giving me the colour red.

Ever since childhood I've enjoyed wearing this bright colour, but recently I've become aware of its connotations. Of course, red always had connotations. When I was a young child, words and phrases like "Red menace" and "Red China", and "Reds under the beds", were commonly used, but I was oblivious to what was meant, and certainly wasn't making a political statement when I wore my red T-shirt.

Currently, red is associated with the political right in the United States. I believe this association began during election coverage some years ago, when a TV network assigned the colour red to designate the states where the Republicans won, and blue for states where the Democrats won.

This assignment of colours was jarring to me at first, because here in Canada, blue has been the Conservative Party's colour for many years, and red, the colour of the Liberal. I realized that this association has become deeply ingrained one Friday night when my husband and I were invited by some senior friends to have dinner with them at their retirement residence. On entering the main door, I was startled to see that most of the older adults in the main foyer were wearing red. What was the occasion? A Liberal Party fundraiser? Somehow I doubted it, since the M.P. and M.P.P. who serve that part of the city are both Conservatives.

It wasn't Valentine's Day or Canada Day either. Nor had Christmas taken me by surprise. The seniors in the residence made it a practice to wear red on Fridays to "support our troops." And there I was in my frequently-worn black T-shirt and black slacks. I murmured to my husband that I looked out of place in my Johnny Cash outfit.

Later, thinking about the evening, I recalled some of the words to Johnny Cash's song "The Man in Black". One line is, "I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been," and although I wore black just by chance that evening, I fit right in, for, like all Canadians, I support our troops and grieve for those who have died or have been injured, and hope that the time will come when our costly mission in Afghanistan will end.

The festive season brings with it much symbolism. Santa Claus, for instance, comes from the story of St. Nicholas, who is legendary for his generosity to the poor, and who is usually depicted in the robes of a bishop - red. So during this season I can feel good about wearing red - in honour of Santa.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembering Friends

Like many Canadians, what I know about World War II is from history books,film, and first hand information from those older than myself. Today I wear a poppy in honour of my uncles, George and Joe, who served in the Canadian army in World War II. Both went overseas. Joe was a prisoner of war. Both survived the war,came home to their wives and raised families.

More recently, in teaching writing courses, I've met many people who have shared their memories of World War II with me. Today I think of the women who contributed memoir excerpts to my 1992 book, The Memory of All That: Canadian Women Remember World War II (Renfew, General Store Publishing House) Some of these women were in the armed forces; others were civilians; all of them were profoundly affected by the Second World War.

Among my writer friends were Lorne, who served as a mechanic in the R.C.A.F. and wrote of test-flying large aircraft on airfields in England, Glenn, a navigator in the R.C.A.F, and Ray, who was in the wartime Canadian Navy. They have passed on now.

Still alive and currently revising his memoirs, is Ernest, who was in the Canadian army in Europe.

Valerie, who was with the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force and served in the Middle East, has written of her wartime experiences for the Memory Project, and today is reading "For the Fallen" as part of the Remembrance Day observances at the retirement residence where she lives.

I have learned so much from all of them!

To quote John Lennon's In my Life: "Some are dead and some are living. In my life, I've loved them all,"

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Excerpt from "Keeping Faith."

My new book, Winter Moon, (Ottawa, Baico, 2010, $18.95 ISBN 1-926596-92-1), a collection of my short stories, has just been published.

Some ideas are big enough for novels. Others can be developed in 2,000 to 3500 words. I take time out from working on a novel to write a short story when I get a suitable idea.

I'm always pleased when a story gets published, or wins a prize, but the thrill is temporary, as all too soon the magazine publishes the next issue, or the organization invites submissions to the next year's contest. Stories and poems are like autumn leaves, noticed in all their glory for a moment, but quickly turning into compost. Collecting the best into book form is one way of making them available to prospective readers for as long as the book is kept in the National Library.

Here is the first paragraph of one of the stories: "Keeping Faith."

"He kept a picture of his first wife, Faith, in a silver frame on a chest of drawers. For a long time I refused to admit even to myself that it bothered me. After all, Faith was dead. She wasn't an ex, always on the telephone nagging about child support payments and repairs to the house. As Wife Number Two, I should have considered myself lucky, judging from my colleagues' stories at work. Faith was out of the picture - at least, in one sense."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Forgive, yes. Forget? Maybe

The other day at the library I picked up a free seniors' magazine, not the one I write for. I read it for a specific column by a writer I know. I sought that column first, skipping the many ads for retirement residences and avoiding the illness-related articles. But as I leafed through, I happened to glance at the editorial. The editor, who looks young in her photo, gave readers seven tips on how to have a good life as an oldster. Much of the advice was sound, but one item jarred: "Judge others less harshly."

In my experience (fifteen to twenty years) working with people older than myself, I have found that seniors don't judge others harshly. They are usually willing to make allowances and to look for extenuating circumstances. They remember the the rough edges they had when they were younger, and are generally tolerant, kind, and appreciative when treated kindly.

But life experience has also taught older people to recognize what's worthwhile and what's not. As a Reiki master once said to me, "We're too old to put up with things that aren't right."

Another article urged older adults to "let go of grudges, jealousy, guilt and regret" and not to be "stuck in negativity." On the surface, this advice seems sound. Reacting negatively sucks up energy that would be better spent on something enjoyable. Mulling over this advice, though, I concluded that it is glib. It glosses over the reality and the complexity of life. Few of us can say, "Je regrette rien," like Edith Piaf in her famous song. Moi? Je regrette beaucoup.

And, can you will a feeling away? Feelings in a particular situation may fade as one moves forward in life. Feelings change when we observe something or learn something that makes us feel differently.

I believe in forgiveness, sure, but should an older adult forgive someone who ripped him or her off in a serious way (or tried to) and then accept that person into his/her life as a bosom friend? Sometimes a little wariness is a healthy thing. Sheould a senior put himself or herself in close proximity to someone who deals in put-downs and passes them off as banter? ("Oh, you're just tooooo sensitive!")

The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Sure, some people grow and become better people. Some undergo transformative experiences that change the way they act toward others. And sometimes the change doesn't last.

All of us, including older adults, must look after our own well-being, and if that means keeping at arm's length certain people who have wronged you in the past (even by eroding your self-esteem) then so be it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Poor Relation

An old friend of mine once remarked that creative writing class is the poor relation of any program, whether it be at a community centre, continuing education facility or library. This remark arose when she, as a participant in one of my classes, and I, the instructor, were informed of a room change at the last minute. We had to tote all our books and papers to another location and were expected to set up heavy tables before other members of the group arose.

Generally I enjoy teaching writing classes, but it's because of the people I meet and the stories I hear, not because of the venues in which I have to teach. True, I remember one location which seemed ideal, a pleasant board room containing a large oblong table with plenty of space for everyone. It was the ideal democratic arrangement, once I got the door open. It was always a hassle to get the key, as the program administrator was never around when I arrived to teach.

I remember one centre where I never knew from one week to another where we would be meeting. At some point I complained that a space we had been assigned had no table, just chairs scattered randomly. "You mean you need a TABLE???" demanded the person in charge. When I said, "Yes, we need one to write on," she rolled her eyes. Imagine, people actually wanted to write - in a class called "Creative Writing!

My elderly friend who made the "poor relation" remark eventually moved from her condo to a retirement residence. As a volunteer, I led a class at this residence for a number of years and met many wonderful senior citizens there. Creative Writing was held either in the Activities Room or the Craft Room, whichever happened to be free, and usually the activities director had a "round table" arrangement set up for us.

Oddly, enough, though, it was at this well-run retirement residence that my students and I had a uncomfortable experience. On the designated day, the Activities Room was occupied by bridge players, so we were assigned to the Craft Room. The activities director told us that an all-women "barbershop" singing group (perhaps a branch of the "Sweet Adelines" - I can't remember for sure) was coming to entertain in the great room of the residence. They would need to leave their coats in the Craft Room closet before our class started, but that otherwise they wouldn't bother us. "Fine," I said.

My class included about ten women and three men, polite gentlemen in their eighties. They had been educated in the etiquette of bygone days - to rise when a woman entered the room, to hold a lady's chair when being seated at the dinner table, etc. No singers were around at 2:00 when our class began, so we settled at the table and I introduced the writing topic/challenge of the day.

At 2:30, when my writers were applying pens to paper, the door opened and in trooped a group of attractive middle aged women. They looked a bit startled to see us. They took off their coats - to start with. Some were carrying gorgeous green satin blouses on hangers. The singers had a costume for performances - dark skirts or slacks and identical blouses. Some came wearing the outfits; others intended to change into them on site.

In the Craft Room there was a one-person-at-a-time washroom. A few dove in there. Others, after some hesitation, stripped off their sweaters and T shirts and changed into their satin blouses. Meanwhile, the men in my group blushed and kept their heads down, their eyes firmly fixed on their pens and paper.

The activities director had mistaken the singers' time of arrival and hadn't realized they would need to change clothes.

Nothing quite so awkward has happened since in any of my classes. I still have to set up tables, though, or bring my husband along to help me. Also, it seems that just when a class gets underway, someone has to come into the room for a stack of chairs, a cardboard box, or the like. They can never wait until my class is over.

Why is creative writing the poor relation, the class that is imposed upon or shoved into a corner? Don't think I'm not assertive. I've ordered "movers" to come back later. I've complained about locations and demanded that a more suitable place be found. On one occasion, I took it upon myself to postpone a class for a week, informing the admnistrator by email that we would be back when there was a proper place for us to meet.

I think the problem lies with a general disrespect for writers and writing. Since most people learn the rudiments of writing in school, they think it's something anyone can do well - nothing special. They read articles in newspapers and magazines which flow simply and clearly and imagine that this simplicity and clarity is easily achieved. They don't realize that it is the product of talents honed over a lifetime, and of painstaking revision.

Program administrators don't like creative writing because it isn't flashy. Fifty people singing along and clapping in time to a musical entertainment is the sort of thing administrators like, because everyone seems engaged and happy. It makes for good photographs or videos. (Never mind that it's a passive type of activity and that people may be present for want of better alternatives.) Creative writing isn't flashy. People sit around a table writing, quietly discussing, reading to each other, occasionally laughing, and working home alone. It's too solitary and introspective to appeal widely in a world where it's more popular to exercise your body than your mind.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to assert myself on behalf of our "craft and sullen art."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More from "Winter Moon"

Here is another excerpt from a story in my new collection, "Winter Moon", ISBN 978-1-926-596-92-1 (Ottawa, Baico, 2010), soon to be published. This is from the story, "Snake in the House":

The snake had come Special Delivery in a cardboard box. The courier had thrust a clipboard into Grandpa's face and ordered him to "Sign here." Grandpa, who had been roused from a nap and hadn't had his glasses on, scrawled his signature on the dotted line. The delivery man then shoved the box into his hands and departed. Grandpa had assumed that it was a parcel from a publisher containing books for Mum to review. Only after closing the door did he realized that there were air holes. He wrested the box open and out shot a snake, which slithered to the floor and vanished down the hall. He'd pu the box out with the garbage which subsquently had been collected.
"Was it a garter snake or something bigger?" asked Clea, who was fourteen.
"Bigger, and drak," said Grandpa. "Like a fan belt. Not circular, of course."
Mum blanched.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Winter Moon

Soon I will have a new collection of short stories in print. "Winter Moon" will be published by Baico Publishing in Ottawa The ISBN is 978-1-926-596-92-1

The stories in "Winter Moon" include quite a few that have been among the winners in local contests or have been published in literary magazines.

Here is an excerpt from "Big Whitey":

(c) Ruth Latta, 2010

"When Earl's head nods over the newspaper, his shock of white hair falls forward. Sometimes he mumbles, "Get out-a there!" or "What the hell are you doing?" His grandchildren smile indulgently and when he wakes up, they say, "You were having quite a nightmare!" He just smiles. He was time-travelling, back to the farm and Big Whitey. All the animals on his grandparents' farm interested Earl, but the one that impressed him most was Big Whitey, the bull. ..."

Below is an excerpt from "Clive and Cuddles"

(c) Ruth Latta, 2010

" Cuddles was part miniature poodle and part something else, perhaps Pekinese. Though his fur was matted and he needed a bath, his soulful eyes reminded Clive a litlte of Karen's. A hairball of a dog would be perfect for a maternal person like Mom. He had some misgivings when he bundled the little animal too roughly into a carrier, and Cuddles nipped him, but, all in all, his impulse had proved right.

Cuddles and Mom McBride have settled into the Meadowview. When Cuddles isn't humping the ottoman he is on her lap, casting territorial glances at anyone who comes tooclose to her. He has grown plump on his favourite treat, chocolate covered cherries. Mom's comings and goings are governed by Cuddles' likes and dislikes. He enjoys malls but hates high rises, so Mom and Cuddles don't visit the condo too often, much to Clive's relief. ..."

"Winter Moon", containing these stories and others, will be available from me and from Baico in a couple of weeks.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A poem for fall

Since summer is turning into fall, I decided to resurrect this 2006 poem of mine for this post.


by Ruth Latta

If you would like to join me
in my back yard, together
we'd gaze at pine and maple,
enjoying autumn weather.
I'd listen if you told me
of southern sand and sun,
and long-ago adventures
when you were well and young.

A red vine and a gold one
trail from the neighbours' yard.
Toward me, on the brickwork
some runners, trying hard,
reach out in friendly fashion.
They're subtle in approach.
Their progress is so gradual,
reluctant to encroach.

The bees buzz round, and asters
wave gently in the breeze.
So transient the moment!
Tonight it all may freeze!
Does your room have a terrace?
I know there is a lawn.
I wish that you could join me
before the summer's gone.

(c)Ruth Latta, 2006, 2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Recently a friend told me that I was "too negative." I had been trying to make her aware of the difficulties of getting a book published. At the time, the illnesses of several old friends and the death of a family member were taking a toll on me.

I brooded about her comment. I hadn't intended to be a wet blanket. One of my mother's favourite sayings sprang to mind: "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone." On the other hand, my mother also quoted, "Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted."

While musing about my friend's remark, a recent book by Barbara Ehrenreich came into my hands. "Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America", is published by Picador, a branch of Henry Holt and Company, New York. I have been impressed by Ehrenreich's articles in "Harper's Magazine" and found "Bright-Sided" fascinating.

In "Bright-Sided", Ehrenreich tackes the pervasive positive thinking movement. She is all in favour of happiness, noting studies that show that the most routine obstacle to happiness is poverty. Rich countries and rich people are happier than poor ones.

She concedes that people who project an air of optimism have a better chance of attracting friends and thereby avoiding depression. But positive thinking has become a practice or a discipline. The idea that we must work on ourthoughts and moods, blocking out unpleasant possibilities and negative thoughts, is prevalent in the United States and here in Canada as well. The social requirement to put on a happy face means that we must often suppress our genuine feelings.

"Positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueller aspects of the market economy," she writes. To paraphrase, it promotes a blame-the-victim mentality, the idea that workers who are laid off and people whose businesses fail are to blame for what has happened to them because they didn't have the right attitude of optimism and weren't motivated to try hard enough.

Chapter Seven of her book is entitled "How positive thinking destroyed the economy." She writes: "The near unanimous optimism of the experts certainly contributed to the reckless build-up of bad debt and dodgy loans, but so did the wildly upbeat outlook of many ordinary Americans."

Realism and "anxious vigilance" are vital to our survival as a species, Ehrenreich contends. In her view, the route to happiness lies not in looking inward and monitoring our moods in order to be more upbeat, but to work with others on practical actions in the world to "get food to the hungry" and the like.
This brief review hasn't done justice to "Bright-Sided". Do read it for yourself.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Excerpt from Spelling Bee

Recently I received some positive feedback on my novel, Spelling Bee (Ottawa, Baico, 2009). A B.C. woman who grew up in Ontario wrote:

"...Once I'd read the opening pages of Spelling Bee, I was hooked. I have spent whatever spare minutes I could... with my nose in your book in something very akin to a journey back in time. My thanks. Everything, from the experiences of early teaching in those little communities...came alive again for me. I even have a "Bibi" I met in that first school, an exotic friend, with whom I have maintained a long and deep friendship, and we have at least one good yearly chat of several hours duration from Hong Kong, where she has finally found a place to her liking after many years of teaching all over the globe."

It occurred to me that I should post an excerpt from Spelling Bee, so here it is. Please click on the link below


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Capturing younger characters in fiction.

I'm always alert for a new book of special interest to the senior readers of my Book Report column, and when I learned that American author Susan Isaacs had a new book out, I was delighted. Around 1970 I read her first novel, Compromising Positions, and since then have waited with anticipation for each new novel. Her witty, indomitable heroines (usually housewives, secretaries turned spies, teachers, historians, journalists) solve crimes and come across as real people while they do so. Isaacs' novels are more than mere mysteries, because of the roundness of the characters, (in the E.M. Forster sense) and the presence of subplots which either reinforce or contrast with the main plot.

As Isaacs grows older, her heroines have grown younger. As a writer aging faster than I like, I've observed this trend in her fiction with interest. Any writer, no matter where she is on the ladder of success, wants to write stories that appeal to the audience most likely to buy books. (Actually, stats show that middle aged and older women are the major book buyers, with women of all ages buying more books and reading more than men do.)

In my future novels, should I make my heroines young? Social mores and science and technology have changed drastically since I was young, and to write about my own youth is to write a historical novel.

My novel, An Amethyst Remembrance, was set in the 1970s, and my latest, Spelling Bee, shifts between the '60s and '70s and the recent past. In Memories Stick, my fourth mystery novel, I deliberately included a younger woman as well as a middle aged/older one so as to appeal to more than one age group.

Can a woman of a certain age successfully depict a younger woman of today? In As Husbands Go (NY, Scribner, 2010, $29.95 hc Canada), Isaacs seems to have tried too hard to portray a woman in her thirties who might appeal to other thirty-somethings. I have a couple of women friends in their thirties, and they aren't much like Isaacs' central character.

Her protagonist and detective figure, Susie, lives in luxury, seems obsessed with material things and scorns her mother's generation for social activism and lack of interest in possessions. Bridget Jones, the original chick-lit heroine, was much less privileged than Susie, and had more depth of character. Susie seems like an upscale version of the women on the decorating shows on the Women's Television Network. She is a floral designer, mother of four year old triplets, and wife of a plastic surgeon, Jonah. In the midst of a crisis over Jonah's disappearance, she pauses to focus on aspects of her home's interior decoration.

While As Husbands Go isn't Isaac's greatest novel, it has some appealing features. One is Susie's belief in her husband's fidelity and in the happiness of their marriage. When Jonah is found dead in an escort's Upper East Side apartment, she is convinced that he wasn't there for sex but was there on other business. She endures the raised eyebrows and derision of her friends and contacts, and their anger when she suggests that the police have arrested the wrong suspect.

The strongest character in this novael is Susie's grandmother, who is not a stereotypical cookie-baking grandma. Twice divorced, retired as a TV talk show hostess, a testament to hair dye and plastic surgery, Ethel flies to New York with her lawyer/companion Sparky to help and support Susie. At one point, when Susie asks Ethel for advice, the older woman says, "What should you do, ethically? Frankly, when people think of ethics, the name Ethel O'Shea doesn't usually leap to mind. I'll tell you one thing. Don't be put off by authority." In the end, Susie and Ethel both grow in self-confidence and self-respect.

Susan Isaacs has set such a high standard for herself in her blends of humour, romance and mystery and must be allowed a few flaws once in a while. While As Husbands Go isn't quite what I need for my books column, and although the central character seems a bit shallow, it is still entertaining.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I still remember some advice I was given the year I graduated from teachers' college. Early in the spring, before the school boards started to advertise teaching positions, I was getting nervous about my future employment. A couple of locations in Ontario appealed to me and I wondered if I should send in a resume and letter of application.

It happened that the school inspector from my elementary school days had risen in his profession and was now based in the city where I was in teachers' college. I made an appointment with him and asked his advice. Should I get ahead of the pack and send in a resume? He frowned. It wasn't ethical to jump the gun. By doing so, I was asking to be hired for a position that was currently held by another teacher. In other words, I was trying to take her job away from her. Best to wait until the ads were published.

I did, and taught for three years in a school system that sounded good in its ads, but that's another story.

Nowadays, in this very competitive and aggressive time in which we live, I doubt if anyone would hesistate to jump the gun and submit an application. Anything to get ahead! But it still doesn't feel good when someone, in effect, asks to take over your job.

I haven't taught in the regular school system for ages. Rather, I have been teaching creative writing with continuing ed. departments, libraries, community centres, etc. The rest of the time I write. For pay.

On three occasions, other writers have contacted me for information about a magazine in which I am published frequently. "Does it pay?" they want to know. "Whom should I contact with an idea for a column?"

Perhaps these writers don't realize that the number of pages in a magazine is governed by the amount of advertising revenue it earns, and that if a new article or column appears, an existing one may get chopped.

Or maybe these writers think that I've had a good run and that it's their turn now, as if we were all sisters in a family where it should be share and share alike. Perhaps they think I admire their work so much that I'll take them under my wing and sacrifice my own opportunities for them.

It's hard to approach an editor cold, with only your good name, your resume and your clips of published work. I know, because that's how I made contact with the publications in which my work appears.

If a writer wants to approach a publication, all s/he has to do is look at the masthead, which lists the names of editors and contact information. Reading this information is called "doing your homework." But I suspect that the writers who contacted me want me to shepherd them through this process, contact an editor on their behalf - to recommend them either directly or by implication.

When I next get this kind of inquiry, I'll either pass on the information which anyone can read from the masthead, or I'll say, as I did to the rudest one, "You have one hell of a nerve! I'm going to hang up now."

A post script: In the days when retirement was mandatory, a teacher I knew, who was nearing 65, was pestered regularly to retire by two younger aspirants who wanted her job. She was indignant enough to write to the school board and secure special permission to work an additional year past retirement.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Writing a book does have its uses

Some people think that wriring is a frivolous pursuit, not serious work, and of little value other than entertainment. Last November, however, I had an experience that showed me how useful it is to be the author of a book.

Where I live, in a townhouse in Ottawa, we are frequently pestered by door to door solicitors. It may be someone demanding to see our electrical bill so that they can try to switch us to another provider, or someone trying to get us to subscribe to digital TV, or someone selling chocolate bars. We also get pairs of crusaders from a persistent religious group.

One Friday morning when my husband was at his art workshop, I was at the dining room table, at the window which looks out onto the sidewalk. I was stacking copies of my most recent novel, Spelling Bee, to put them away. Then I spied two women in business attire coming up the walk, and I knew they were from the persistent religious denomination with copies of their two magazines. I couldn't very well pretend to be out, because they'd seen me through the sheer curtain.

Then I was seized with inspiration. I grabbed a copy of Spelling Bee and went to the door, and when they started their pitch, I said I'd be glad to buy copies of their magazines if they would purchase my novel, which costs $22.95. They stepped back, startled. One of them managed to say she didn't want it.

"Then I don't want your material either," I said, and closed the door.

When Roger called me at break time I told him this incident. He went back to the group and shared it with his fellow painters. They too had been bothered by these persistent callers. They laughed and said they were going to write and publish books, too, for self-defence.

So you see, writing a book does have its uses. Incidentally, since November 2009 we have had no more callers from that religious group.

Monday, August 16, 2010

An educative encounter

With August halfway through, thoughts turn to the start of school in September. My mind goes back to an incident recounted to me by someone I know well. Jan is a writer in her mid 60s who teaches general interest courses in writing. Last year she taught at a multi-service centre for seniors. Parking is limited so she often takes the bus and has a coffee before class.

One day the dining room was crowded so she went to a table where a dignified-looking elderly man was sitting, someone she'd never met before, and she asked if she could sit there.

"Of course," he said. "I'm Barkus." (not his real name. I've given him a name out of Dickens' David Copperfield) "I haven't seen you at the centre."

Jan explained that she taught a course there.

"I'm here for a medical appointment," he said. "I don't have a family doctor so I see the one who comes here. This spring I had a heart attack. I fell in the street and was taken to Emergency."

"That's awful!"

"I'm feeling better now but one of the results is that I'm impotent."

Jan willed herself not to react, and just sat there as he continued.

"I was telling this to some people who were sitting here a few minutes ago and one of the women was offended. She said it wasn't appropriate to talk of such things but in this day and age, why not? It was the topic on Dr. Oz just the other day. The people here are very conservative. But the heart attack caused a lot of changes in my life. My lady friend dropped me like a hot potato. Of course, I was paying her. But I get lonely. Maybe at 82 I'm wrong to want some warmth and affection."

Jan decided not to be shocked, but to handle this over-abundance of information the way she did in classes when would-be writers divulged personal matters. She clasped her hands on the table in front of her so that her wedding ring and diamond were visible to the weakest eyes.

"In your age group, women outnumber the men eight to one," she told him, "which means the odds are in your favour. If you're looking for a relationship rather than a hooker, you should shop around. Observe the women here and see if there's one you like."

She told him about her friend Eden's father, who as a widower in his mid-70s used to date two women. Dee liked to get dressed up elegantly and go out to dinner, while Myrt was very domestic and liked to cook dinner for him and watch TV with him. He divided his week between them.

"I have no idea what was involved in these relationships," Jan told her listener, "but the point is that he was more popular in his late 70s and early 80s than he'd been as a young man. So if I were you I would look at what's out there."

Then she excused herself and took her coffee to her classroom. She thought of one student in particular, a vivacious pretty widow in her eighties. Should she tell this lady that "Barkus is willing?" Not in a million years.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My new favourite second hand bookstore

I have found a new second hand bookstore. It's name is Value Village, the one near the corner of Baseline and Merivale (Clyde) Avenue in Ottawa. Admittedly, some of the pulp fiction on the shelves is best used for propping up the wobbly leg of a table, but recently, someone with reading tastes similar to mine must have donated her entire library to the needy.

Over the past month or so I've been finding books that I vaguely remember thinking of reading when they came out, but didn't, for whatever reason. Often I read books uniquely appealing to older adults so that I can review them for my column in Ottawa's Forever Young, when actually I might be more interested in something aimed at a more general audience.

Among my recent VV finds was Jane Urquhart's The Underpainter, which won the Governor General's award about ten years ago. I met Jane years ago when she was writer in residence at the University of Ottawa. She gave me excellent advice about the novel I was working on, which has since been published; it's An Amethyst Remembrance (Ottawa, Baico, 2008) I try to read everything Ms Urquhart writes, but for some reason skipped The Underpainter. Some reviewer wrote, at the time that it came out, that the central character was unlikeable. Back then I was up to my bangs in teaching writing, and doing my own writing, and reading books for my column, so decided that The Underpainter could wait, and never got to it.

Since then, I've come to realize that the likeability/unlikeability of a central character is not a sensible criterion for judging a book. After reading The Underpainter, I thought the central character, the painter, was typical of many artistic personalities that I've encountered over the years. People struggling in the arts need to develop strong egos. It's certainly morally wrong to use people, as the underpainter did, without ensuring that relationships are reciprocal and that the other person is getting something worthwhile in return. But it's not unusual.

Going beyond the level of "what happened" to areas of meaning, it seems to me that the novel is about capitalism. Urquhart also makes readers question whether a distinction should be made between "great art"/"high art" and "practical art/crafts" . One of her characters is a china painter. (She did not mention that Renoir started out as a china painter. though she probably knows that.)

In summary, The Underpainter is a thought provoking novel, especially for anyone involved in the arts. I urge you to read it and to check out your local "Veev" to see what inexpensive literary treasures may be waiting for you on the shelves.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Another poem

Back in the spring I picked up a flyer about the annual William Henry Drummond award while in the Chat Noir bookstore in New Liskeard, ON, and entered. I'd almost forgotten about it when I got a phone call saying that I was a runner-up. The thoughts in the poem are again in my mind as I have just returned from a visit to Northeastern Ontario.

(c) Ruth Latta, 2010

From Liverpool our grandfolks took a ship
and left an old world cul-de-sac behind -
a bold endeavour, but an anxious trip
to start a future in a silver mine.

With shovel, axe, and needle, fingers numb
they built themselves a life so long ago.
With thoughts of generations yet to come
they braved the keening wolves and drifting snow;

And we, the generations, followed dreams
and left the north to be what we could be,
but poplars' whisper as the moonlight gleams
are vivid in our soul and memory;

Bound to the north by silver cobweb ties,
a curl of wood smoke and the blue jays' cries.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A poem

I've been working on a novel and assisting someone with a memoir lately, and these things take priority over my blog. As well, it is an emotional time for me, as a couple of people dear to me are very ill.

So I've decided to post a poem I wrote a few years ago, which I included in an appropriate place in my novel Spelling Bee (Ottawa, Baico, $22.95


(c) Ruth Latta, 2008, 2010

It's heaven on earth to spend time with a friend
whom you haven't seen for a while
You talk and you listen, you cannot offend,
you both share your thoughts with a smile.

But then, out of nowhere, the clock strikes the hour,
the horizon devours the sun.
Though we would continue if we had the power
our brief time together is done.

Other times when I'm with someone special to me
our souls somehow can't seem to meet.
We're tired, distracted; we're fettered, not free
and somehow we both miss a beat.

There must be a heaven, a life after death
where we will have plenty of time,
where sharing our thoughts is as easy as breath
and friendship is always sublime.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Urban planning for seniors

Currently I'm reading The Geography of Aging (McGill/Queen's, 2010) by urban planner Gerald Hodge. Its subtitle is "Preparing Communities for the Surge in Seniors." I intend to review this book at some length for an "off-line"/newsprint publication one of these days. In the meantime, let me recommend it to citizens of all ages, including those of mature years who are concerned about the future.

"Not infrequently, the surging numbers of seniors after 2011 are portrayed as a social problem of catastrophic proportions," Hodge writes (p. 187) This perspective has been branded 'apocalyptic demography' by Canadian and other gerontologists, who point out the fallacies of looking only at the numbers of seniors and drawing conclusions. Many other factors are at work, such as the productivity of the economy, the uses of medical technologies, the increasing good health of seniors themselves, which need to be taken into account in reckoning the consequences of an aging population."

Hodge quotes the National Advisory Council on Aging to the effect that most communities tend NOT to have "enabling environments" which will allow older adults to "age in place" or cope with a minimum of assistance into their old age.

"Many seniors encounter obstacles in the areas of housing, transportation and community services, as well as negative attitudes about the elderly that reinforce the physical barriers," he writes. Very few communities in Canada have initiated plans for their seniors populations, he says.

"The Geography of Aging" is classified under the subject headings of "social studies/geography". This reader-friendly book is not just for experts. It combines sound scholarship with personal essays by seniors and focuses on the (interlinked) issues of housing, transportant and community services. Hodge spells out, for any municipalities that are interested, how to gather data and go through the steps of formulating and implementing an urban plan to keep their senior citizens as independent as possible.

Do read it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Too Many Books"

During this heat wave, while sitting by the air conditioner, or at the screen door in the early morning, I have been reading a lot. The works of fiction include, in no particular order, In the Middle of a Life, by Richard B. Wright, Labour Day by Joyce Maynard, Between Sisters by Adwoa Badoe and As Husbands Go, by Susan Isaacs. These latter two are advance (review) copies. I also reread two favourites: The Truth about Loren Jones, by Alison Lurie, and A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews, because I wanted to refresh my memory about certain narrative decisions the authors made.
I remember a panellist at the Writer's Union AGM who said that "too many" books are being published nowadays.That's like saying there's too much fresh air.

A book which takes a writer a year or more to write can be devoured by an avid reader within days. It gives me pause, as a writer, to think that something which required so much effort from me can be zipped through so easily by those who read it, but that's just the way it is. Some novels are worth reading again and again because there is always something new to be derived from them, but, in addition to delving into books we have enjoyed before, we who are readers are always looking for a new reading experience and new insights.

Last week, interviewing a Canadian actor, I was impressed by his remarks about the value of theatre. Live drama gives people a chance to "relax and be", to "get out of their own way and become themselves," he told me. Reading does the same thing. In his landmark opus, Read for Your Life, psychologist Joseph Gold wrote that reading serves the same function in western cultures that meditation does in eastern cultures.

Reading may have fallen out of fashion among those seduced by electronic media, but many of us still read and in so doing, have our horizons broadened and our capacity for empathy enhanced. So how can there be "too many books"?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Need Your Book Reviewed?

Would you like me to review your book? You could put the review on your website or use it however you like in marketing your book.

These days, with so many books being published, and the number of magazines that print book reviews declining, it's hard to get a book reviewed. Yet it's good publicity to have a review to post or quote.

As the author of thirteen published books (as of 2010) and many articles and reviews, including reviews in Ottawa's Forever Young and the online magazine Canadian Materials, I have a lot of experience thinking about books and their various reasons for appealing to readers.

I'll read your book (or manuscript) and write you a review that expresses my honest, informed and considered opinion. I charge $1 per book or manuscript page; that is, for a 200 page book I would charge $200.

For information about me and my books, please visit my website at as well as this blog.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Editors! Grrr! Yes, I know that writers are always complaining about editors, and vice versa, but my experience below might be enlightening to others.
For many years my book reviews have been published off and on in a western Canadian magazine with progressive leanings. It pays practically nothing ($35 for 700 words) but I wrote for it partly as my way of furthering the cause, as well as for the thrill of seeing my name in print.
I've rewritten reviews a couple of times because the editor wanted a slightly different slant. That won't happen again because I won't be sending them anything more. The editor held onto a review for two months, then rejected it, and now it's out of date. Blithely, he suggested that I try a similar Canadian publication - as if they would want something no longer timely.

As for that similar publication, and the thought of writing for it in the future - a flip through its pages is discouraging. Too many of its articles are lengthy and turgid. Many of the authors, though well-qualified in their fields, lack flair. Male writers predominate, and theorize. To plough through it, a reader has to be really motivated, as I was - and what's the good of preaching to the converted? If the publishers are truly committed to progressive social change, they ought to pitch the magazine to today's busy younger reader.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Recently, looking for writing contests, I found one which actually discouraged some writers from entering. The instructions suggested that writers who have had quite a bit of exposure, say, more than one book published, should choose not to enter, but should do make room for newcomers. Specifically, it was suggested that more experienced authors should mentor a beginning writer.

Most of the younger writers I've met in recent years don't need a mentor so much as they need encouragement and time. They're on the right track; they just need to keep going. Other aspiring writers want things from me that I can't supply, such as an introduction to an agent who will lead them to a major publisher. One beginning writer had the nerve to e-mail me a thinly disguised pitch to take over my books column in Forever Young.

The funny thing about mentors is that you don't always recognize them as mentors right away. The ideal mentor, I suppose, is a well-educated, voracious reader/successful writer who makes insightful comments and has good connections. I've received help from a couple of writers in residence who fit this description, and I currently have a mentor and friend who is well educated and a great reader who has been very kind to me.

I've shied away from other would-be mentors, like the relative who said she'd like to edit my work and the wife of a colleague who quoted cliches about writing at me. Neither of these ladies had ever put pen to paper except for writing required at work. Then there was the good Christian woman writer who told me she admired my telent but didn't like what I wrote. (Hers was not an educated palate.)

One of my very best mentors was a retired carpenter who left school in his early teens back in the 1930s. He was a young retiree who had signed up for one of my writing courses, and when he learned that I had one of those new-fangled devices, a home computer, he wondered if I would type some of his personal essays and poems - for pay, of course. To Victor (his middle name), work was work, whether it was typing a poem or building a house, and workers should be paid.

Victor's attitude was what made him valuable as a mentor. Those who knew him in his last few years, after his wife's death, might be incredulous to read that I admired his attitude, for some found him a cantankerous old geezer. Indeed, he was like the father in Dylan Thomas's well-known villanelle; he "did not go gentle into that good night", but "raged against the dying of the light."

When I met Victor he had already taken many courses in drawing and painting, and had developed his talents in these areas. He had a natural gift for storytelling, a love of words, and a good command of English. As well, he was convinced that anyone could learn to write or produce woodcrafts or paint, if he or she had the urge to do so, and was willing to put in the hours to learn the skill. He was sure that his stories about growing up in Ottawa West and rural Renfew County during the Great Depression were of historical value as well as being entertaining. Towards the end of his life when a local historian included some of his writing in a collection, his belief in himself was affirmed.

Victor did not tolerate rejection. He sought out people who might publish his work and found one in the editor of a rural magazine (now out of print). He entered contests where he had a good chance of winning. Just a few years ago, he invited my husband and myself to an open-mike session at a hotel in a small town outside Ottawa. I had some misgivings, as the participating poets were all young people, but he charmed them. When a local publisher rejected Victor's collection of articles, he published them in small booklets that my husband and I produced as a truly desk-top endeavour.

As well as being a mentor, Victor was a father figure to me. Toward the end of his life, though, it became sadly apparent that I really wasn't family. Victor had had a happy marriage to a wonderful woman who was the glue that held the family together. When she was gone, things no longer ran smoothly for him. It wasn't my place, and I lacked the resources, to help him make arrangements when he couldn't continue on at home. My attempts to come up with solutions fell short of the mark. His greatest need came at a time when I faced other demands from other parts of my life. During his last illness he made it clear that he felt I'd failed him.

Now that Victor has been gone a couple of years, I look back on our twenty year friendship with more happy memories than sad ones. I remember how his friendship enriched my life. Victor never once suggested that I should be doing something with my time other than writing. He read one of my novels in manuscript form, made useful suggestions, and praised the technical logistical details of one key scene which I'd worried about. Best of all, when he dropped in to discuss one of his booklets or to have some typing done, he stayed for coffee and a chat about a wide range of subjects. He left behind wonderful poems celebrating the natural world. The glimpse of a deer in a clearing, or a chickadee feeding in a tree in my yard makes me think of him.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Favourite book by Julia Cameron

Some years ago I read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. It is full of encouragement and suggestions for the beginning creative artist. Just last year I read another of her books, Writing in this World (2002) and found it suited my needs as a more mature, more experienced creative person. Below is what I learned from Writing in this World:

She emphasizes that satisfaction comes from the creative process and from joy and pride in the finished product, not in the reviews. Commitment to one's art leads to diverse opportunities - not necessarily money right away, but opportunities.

With 35 years of experience as a writer/teacher/lyricist/creativity guru, Cameron says that she is the equivalent, in her field, of a senior partner in a law firm - that's the "level of her practice." Those of us, like Cameron, who have been practising our craft for a long time, have a right to choose who we work with, and to expect a fair return on our energy, both personally and professionally.

Creative people must be open-minded and open-hearted, receptive to new perspectives, but this desirable trait can also be an occupational hazard; it leaves us open to exploitation. People interrupt us because our work doesn't seem to them to be actual work. Far worse are "piggybackers", who pretend to want to help the artist but really want his/her energy, name and money for their projects. "As a culture," writes Cameron, "we treat writers badly." ( a sentiment I heard more than once at the TWUC AGM)

As we mature in our art we may have to distance ourselves from those who like to see us small and won't let us grow. At the same time, we often have friends who believe in us and would like to help us. "We sometimes have to tell friends how to help us," she says.

In writing this I haven't managed to convey how uplifting, encouraging and vindicating Cameron's book is. I urge you to read it for yourself.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I've been thinking about the WUC workshops last Friday. Two panelists (each in a different panel discussion) deplored the increasing numbers of books being published each year. One noted that in 2008, self-published books outnumbered traditionally published ones, and expressed the view that most of the former group were not worthwhile.Then in another session, another speaker talked about the "profusion of debut novels" by writers who lacked "established literary reputations."

Both panelists evidently believe that the economic principle that "Bad money(debased coinage) drives out good" applies to book publishing. The trouble is, "goodness" is subjective. Perhaps these panelists are unaware that some writers, now considered "great", self-published their work. Henry David Thoreau and Virginia Woolf spring to mind.

Glancing around the room full of writers, I noticed two people, each of whom had self-published a book which I'd read. One had gone the route of co-op publishing. The other had chosen print-on-demand. Both these books are lucid, reader-friendly and adhere to generally accepted principles of good writing. In my view, these books have as much right to exist as anything published by established traditional firms.

Julia Cameron, author and creativity guru, asserts that everyone has a creative spark within. She has been told that, in helping people fan this spark into a flame, she has unleashed a lot of bad artistic works. Cameron replies that there is already a great deal of mediocre art around, and that a little more won't hurt. She also insists that newcomers to creative expression often produce works of great beauty. (see Writing in this World, Tarcher, 2002) I'm on Cameron's side, not the panelists', in this debate.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


This past Friday I attended the workshop session of The Writers' Union of Canada annual general meeting in Ottawa. There, I was convinced of the importance of having a blog. So, thanks to my husband, Roger Latta, who is more technically savvy than I, I now have one.
Writing, especially fiction, will be the main focus of this blog. For the past thirty years I have been writing for publication. Currently my reviews appear in the Ottawa monthly, Forever Young, and online in Canadian Materials. My most recent book, published in 2009 by Baico Publishing of Ottawa ( is Spelling Bee (ISBN 978-1-926596-19-8, $22.95, available from myself or from the publisher. For information on my other books and published writing, visit my website at
The Writers' Union of Canada AGM workshops were interesting and a welcome break from the computer. It was exciting to see Margaret Atwood up close and personal, and a pleasure to have conversations with historian Valerie Knowles and memoirist Joan Levy Earl. In another post I'll probably have more to say about what I learned in the workshops.