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.