Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Foul weather friends

The other day I visited a friend who has just completed the first draft of a book length work. It's her first manuscript, and she's excited about it, but also disappointed at a lack of enthusiasm, encouragement and praise from some of her friends.

I said, in effect: "Join the club." I have been writing for publication and pay over the past thirty-odd years (some of them very odd) and can count on the fingers of one hand my women "friends" who have respected my chosen work. (Two elderly father-figures used to, but they're dead now.)

Mulling over the matter, I remembered something Naomi Wolf wrote quite a few years ago in Fight Fire With Fire.

"Sisterhood is problematic," Wolf wrote. Girls bond as intimate friends who share thoughts and feelings, rather than as members of a team. The sisterhood model, she contends, "gives women little practice in accepting the notion that someone has legitimately won a leadership postion through her own merits and that the prize is open to all. Men's organizations, Wolf wrote, are not necessarily "relentless, one-on-one competitions" but can be very "collaborative and supportive", while women's groups can be "rife with veiled aggression and competitiveness."

Now, neither my writing amigo nor I would claim to be in "leadership" positions as writers or anything else. We're just pleased at having created something.

Recently I read the novel, Le Divorce, by Diane Johnson, in which one of the women characters sympathizes with our gender because she understands our "historical circumstances...centuries of oppression." It's hard to be openhearted and generous when you've been brought up in circumstances of scarcity - especially scarcity of opportunity.

Both my writing pal and I are women of a certain age. I'm hoping that younger women are free from envy and rejoice in each other's achievements.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

There is no thrill...

Many years ago, in one of my classes on how to write your memoirs, an elderly man,who wrote for his community paper, explained to other class members why he sought publication. "Next to sex," he said, "there is no thrill like seeing your work in print." His response amused the other participants.

Among my circle of friends back then was an older woman poet. When I told her this incident, she said, "Yes, and in my experience, getting published is sometimes more thrilling."

This week, I had the thrill of seeing two items of mind in print. My usual Book Report column appears in FYI:Forever Young, and this month I review Roseanne Cash's recent memoir, Composed. As well, the online magazine Canadian Materials published my review of a young adult novel, Broken Trail. My reviews appear in CM on an average of once a month.

As for other thrills? No comment.

I found Cash's memoir much more than the typical celebrity autobiography. I frequently review memoirs in my Book Report column if I feel they have a special spark.

I used to teach courses in "Writing Your Memoirs" through Continuing Ed with Ottawa area school boards, but at some point declined to teach this course any more, and offered courses on fiction. Writing fiction was my real area of interest. When I started teaching "Writing your Memoirs" I was far too young to even think of writing about my own short uneventful life. I was interested in the memoir as a genre in relation to historical writing. It seemed to be regarded by historians as a shady poor relation. I found that personal experience accounts were often more vivid than official history, and brought to light ordinary people's feelings and experiences that were important in a full understanding of an event or epoch.

Teaching classes on memoir writing to the general public was fun at first but eventually became less rewarding. Mind, you, I got good results from some participants. While writing this blog I am aware of two old friends who have excellent memoirs on the verge of being published. Many in my classes wrote book length works, not for publication, but for family and friends.

But the classes became a drain. In each one there was someone who thought we were doing "show and tell" as in kindergarten. Too many participants were just there to brag, not write. I attracted a number of retired public servants who had come to Ottawa to do good, had stayed to do well, and wanted to tell the world about it. I also encountered people who didn't care about the skills involved in writing, but merely wanted to slap their story onto the page "any which way they can." Try as I might to persuade aspiring memoirists to hit the highlights; that is, to identify their most important experiences and write about those, rather than bogging the reader in trivia, too many people were sure that every little thing that had ever happened to them would be of interest to posterity.

The real reason I quit memoir-teaching, though, was that I was becoming type-cast. I shivered when as a guest speaker at a writers' group I was introduced as the "Mistress of the Memoir". People tended to assume that all my fiction was autobiographical. Since I was teaching memoir-writing, how could I possibly create anything out of my imagination? I dropped out of a local writers' organization partly because the program convener kept nagging me to appear as a speaker on memoir-writing at a time when I was trying to publicize one of my novels.

Other writers in Ottawa are teaching courses on memoir writing these days, and I wish them joy in it.

I was interested in the article by Neil Genzlinger, "The Problem with Memoirs", which appeared in the New York Times on January 28, 2011.

Reviewing four memoirs published by major companies, Genzlinger begins his article by saying, "There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment."

These says, says Genzlinger, we are in a "age of oversharing", and, in his view, the flood of memoirs has to stop. "We don't have that many trees left."

I maintain that it's good for anyone and everyone to practise the art and skill of writing. Sometimes a beginner turns out to be a brilliant writer. I approve of older adults writing life-based works for friends, family and descendants. Stories that bored me when I heard them in class may very well delight grandchildren. If I did not believe in everyday people expressing themselves, I wouldn't be writing this blog.

Still, Genzlinger provides food for thought.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Two poems

The poem below is an homage (not a parody) to "Pied Beauty", a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which begins, "Glory be to God for dappled things." I have had "Tried Beauty" published somewhere - can't remember which periodical, now - and am posting it here today in honour of all my elderly friends, particularly one who is seriously ill,

by Ruth Latta

Glory be to God for dappled friends,
whose hands show age spots like a Holstein cow.
Praise wrinkled faces, salt and pepper hair,
and shaky voices saying, "It depends",
their words of insight that can show me how
to face life's challenges without despair.

Fragmented memories, half-forgotten dreams -
those bits of information aid me now.
Among the jumbled paste I find a gem.
Like autumn leaves, friends fall so fast, it seems,
Praise them.
(c) Ruth Latta, 2011

The poem below is a parody, written in fun. Many of us know the Emily Dickinson poem that begins, "There is no frigate like a book...." I wrote "There is no Torture" for a friend who tended to be oppressive in recommending books to me. Education is a lifelong process, but one of the pleasures of being out of school is that you can choose your own reading material. It is always fun to imitate a style as distinctive as Dickinson's:

by Ruth Latta

There is no torture like a book
that we're required to read.
I'd rather skip a second look
but credits - I'm in need.

O'er many a turgid work I'd pore
to pass a tough exam.
I studied classics I abhor -
for marks. I gave a damn.

I never cared for Faulkner's work;
his style - my enemy.
In spite of that, I didn't shirk.
I wanted my degree.

Oh, Riverrun in Finnigan,
go run where e'er you please.
No honours must I win again.
These days I take my ease.

I've grappled with the experts' views
and sampled from the best,
and now - pulp fiction if I choose,
for it's my time to rest.

(c) Ruth Latta, 2011