Friday, 27 July 2012

Letters to the Editor

I like writing letters to the editor.  I must have published dozens, no, hundreds, over the years, and submitted hundreds more over that time.  A sign of madness, I'm told, but there you go.  I like engaging with what I read in the paper.  It's like putting up one's hand and annoying the professor in class.

Today's paper had two letters in it that provoked me a bit.  One was an attack on a defender of religion; this prompted me to respond with a tongue-in-cheek middle ground: since one was defending religion and the other was attacking "organized religion," I suggested that perhaps a good compromise would be to support disorganized religion.

In fact, disorganized anything might be good.  I know, I know, it could lead to chaos, but systems are the death of humanity.  I've been reading Candide, which is all about that.  Not that it's true just because Voltaire says so.

Anyway, I summarize my letter here because I've annoyed the editor to whom I write, and perhaps he won't publish it in the paper.

After I sent it in, I saw another letter which argued from an article on Hemingway's 47 revisions of the ending of A Farewell to Arms to say that this "proved" that great writers need to keep at it; they need "an abundance of persistance [sic]."

I must say, the misspelling of persistence adds a certain piquancy to the argument, but I think the correspondent didn't go far enough.  If it took Hemingway 47 tries to get an ending right, that must prove that every writer must revise every sentence of theirs 47 times, or it just won't be any good.

I am now sitting down to write an additional 46 versions of this blog posting.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Advice to a Teenager

More poetic advice, this time a recent poem for a young man of my acquaintance:

Advice to a Teenage Boy

girls are people too
just like me and you
talk to them the way you would
to anyone, they’ll feel good
ask them what they like to do
maybe they will ask you too
show some interest, take some care,
don’t forget to wash your hair

ask them to a movie show
or for a soda or, you know,
anything you like to do
maybe she will like it too

don’t be shy, but don’t be crass
show restraint, display some class
don’t get overly excited
or the whole thing might get blighted

remember this is not the last
any awkwardness will pass
assume she’s interested to go
until she tells you it’s a no

don’t get down if she rebuffs you
life is tough and sometimes cuffs you
you can ask her out once more
three times even, but not four

move along then, you will find
other girls to feed your mind
and to satisfy your longing
and to make you feel belonging

talk and share and dance and eat
and stay lively on your feet
but don’t lie, and DO NOT CHEAT

take it easy as you go
let things follow with the flow
speak up bravely to begin things
then just be yourself within things

finally you’ll feel okay
and if not, you’re on your way
say hello or say good-bye
never really wonder why
it’s just life that’s passing by

so talk to girls if you like
ask them out, be sharp and bright
it’s the way of all the race
all are looking for a place
but you’re young and should be checking
more than one before selecting

do it then and don’t take fright
everything will be all right

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Poem for an Infant

When a friend of mine became a father many years ago, I thought I would be helpful and offer up some advice to his new son.  The result is below.

I was very proud of managing to write an entire poem in words of no more than two syllables, which I thought was important because after all newborns don't understand much English.

Some Advice
to Alexander Richard Blackwell
[aged 1 month]

don’t cry in the middle of the night
never wander out of sight
smile and giggle at your Mom
keep from sucking at your thumb

learn the world and all its sights
never shrink from its delights
– even if they give you frights –

walk as soon as you are able
keep your dishes on the table
handle mishaps with aplomb
(you can blame them on your Mom)

make some friends and play with toys
but try not to make too much noise
yank the curtains, hit the chairs
don’t let others put on airs

sing aloud with all your might
– but don’t cry in the middle of the night

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tuesdays with Morrie

Here's a review, just a few years late, of Mitch Albom's interesting book on his time with his old sociology professor, Morrie:

By Mitch Albom

I began reading this book alone on an airplane, in the sort of cocoon you can get into if you’re a solitary traveller not seeking to talk to your fellow passengers.  I was heading towards family, but not yet there: looking forward to being with them, romanticizing the idea if you like.  And parting from my new girl-friend for a couple of weeks, and missing her.

All of which provided the perfect situation to become deeply moved by this story of a Detroit sportswriter and his dying professor.  And it is a deeply moving book; it wasn’t just being alone on an airplane that made it so.  It is a book that calls out to us to connect, to remember others, to value love and compassion and good feelings over money and getting ahead.

Mitch, the sportswriter, feels ashamed that he has focused so much on career and accomplishments.  It seems that he has somehow neglected his family too, or has not even created one, despite the hopes of his wife.  But now he encounters Morrie, his old sociology prof, with whom he’d been close at college, who he had promised to keep in touch with, but whom he had long forgotten until he saw a report on him on television.

This report, along with a strike at his paper, which temporarily puts him out of work, prompts Mitch to visit Morrie, a visit that begins with him doing something for which he later feels shame: he finishes a cellphone call to do with work rather than leaping out of the car to see his old professor for the first time in fifteen years.  He upbraids himself for this, fitting it into his narrative of having gone astray, having lost his values.

Years before he had dedicated himself to work and accomplishment, not wanting to drop dead suddenly like a beloved uncle.  Working, succeeding, accumulating achievements would somehow help him control his life, he thought, but in pursuing this path he feels he has forgotten something.  That something, as articulated by Morrie in what turns out to be a series of visits, is love and compassion, connection with others.

As I read the opening pages of this story, tears came to my eyes.  I wanted to contact my own favourite professor and overall just be a better person.  A good thing no doubt, and perhaps if I had finished reading the book on the plane, alone in my cocoon, separated from loved ones, I would simply have found it a feelgood story that left me with a warm glow and a resolution to do better.

All of which would be admirable, of course … and yet …

I didn’t finish the book on the plane.  I didn’t get to the section in which Morrie praises Family until I was back in the bosom of my family.  And a funny thing happened: I found myself becoming impatient with Morrie, finding him or rather Mitch’s book about him to be repetitive and abstract.  Sure, sure, love, family, compassion; it’s all great, but, well, is it?

I read about the importance of Family while suddenly pitched into tensions and battles between sisters, my mother, myself.  It’s not all roses being in a family.  There are thorns too, perhaps necessary thorns, but thorns nonetheless.  The subtitle of Albom’s book promises that it will provide “life’s greatest lesson,” and I suppose that lesson is the importance of going beyond material pursuits, but it all seems a bit too pat.

For one thing, is there really any one “greatest lesson”?  Some of us spend our time looking for life lessons, for the meaning of life; we take philosophy courses or visit synagogues; we look, we hope.  Because after all there must be something more to life than just survival or even success.  For some of us there is always the hope that Aristotle or Confucius or the ancient Jewish sages may have the key to meaningfulness.

One can come to this book the same way, urged on by its subtitle and by some of the things Morrie says in it.  But is there really such a key?  Is it perhaps foolhardy to expect such a thing?  And is it possible that by seizing on something as being the good path to follow we are oversimplifying and unfairly rejecting another path?

Mitch suggests that there was something wrong with his life before he reconnected with Morrie; it was too “egotistical” because it was too much focused on things like “career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator …”  It is odd to see family listed here among egotistical things, since just a few chapters later it becomes the only “foundation … upon which people may stand,” according to Morrie, who praises his own family for being so supportive of him in his dying days.

I wonder about that support.  I am sure it was real.  But weren’t there days when Morrie’s wife became irritated with him, began to feel that taking care of this dying man was just too much?  In fact, we hardly get to see Morrie’s wife or his other family members; they are figures in the background, pictures on the mantelpiece, abstractions, idealized notions of Comforters.

And that is the trouble with this book: it is too much an Idealization, and it may lead us into thinking, Oh, Family (and Love and Compassion) – that is the answer.  Just as other books may tell us that the answer is God or the Proletariat or the Way.  Perhaps there is no answer; perhaps there are only questions.

And perhaps there is something to be said for the supposedly egotistical things: for pursuing a career, for having achievements, and yes, for creating a family.  Does Mitch go home to his wife and start a family?  It’s not entirely clear, but it seems not.  Should he have?  Family seems both good and bad, depending on which part of the book you read – which is perhaps exactly what it is.

And careers and paycheques, are they entirely bad?  Mitch upbraids himself for giving up his dreams in order to have paycheques, but should he have continued to try to be a musician (an early dream of his) and foregone paycheques?  There are some people who never get any paycheques, who somehow never join the culture of work: are they following the right path?  Morrie tells Mitch not to buy into our culture of money and success, and that is a useful bit of advice to keep in mind, but if taken to an extreme, where would we be?  Where would any of us be individually?  And what would happen to our society?

Don’t get me wrong.  I think Love and Compassion and Family are noble ideals.  I think those who have forgotten them in order to pursue riches are on the wrong path.  But to think one can just renounce one’s culture and renounce paycheques seems also to me to be the wrong path.  Surely, what is needed is a little balance.

And maybe that is really all that Mitch Albom is recommending.  He doesn’t seem to have quit being a sportswriter working with famous athletes.  He even commented once on a talk show about the reaction of those athletes to his little non-sports book.  Thinking of that brought tears to my eyes, and I wonder why: is it because it shows the little guy, the mere sportswriter, a virtual nonentity compared to a star athlete, succeeding?  The ugly duckling becoming a swan?  Isn’t that an appealing sort of story?  But how does it fit with renouncing success?

If this book convinces star athletes or anyone else who may be caught up in the pursuit of riches and fame to remember goodness and mercy, then what a wonderful thing it has done.  But it shouldn’t be seen as having the key to life’s greatest lesson.  There is no such key, as far as I can tell, and life is more than just comforting a dying man.  There is living to do, and that includes meeting the mortgage and fixing the radiator.

At one point the book refers to Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian, known for his book (I and Thou) about connecting and relationship, about how the divine resides in relating to others.  Now, the interesting thing about Buber’s book is that it rejects the mystical approach of retreating to a mountaintop to commune with Divinity.  Instead, it emphasizes the need to do one’s relating in the real world.  At times Mitch’s book threatens to forget the reality of the world, depicting it simply as an ugly place where nasty crimes take place and where people are too caught up in the meaninglessness of news about celebrities.

There is certainly plenty of ugliness and meaninglessness in the world, but it’s the world we live in, and we need to learn how to live in it better.  To do so we certainly need to remember Love and Compassion and Family, but we also have to realize that none of those things comes easily, none is without difficulty, and the solution to the problems of life do not reside in simple invocations.

I like Morrie and I can feel for Mitch, but a dying man and a sportswriter wanting to divest himself of all but Noble Emotions are not all there is to life.  Or at least the real issue is to find some way to incorporate the Noble Emotions into the reality of life.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


My horoscope today says I should express my creative talents.  Not that I believe in horoscopes, of course.  I just read them every day and complain if they're missing from the paper.  But I don't *believe* in them.

Except for times when they say really nice things about me, perhaps.  Or when what they say happens to come true.

What did Agatha Christie say?  When we make a guess and it comes true, we call it intuition.  When we make a guess and  it doesn't come true, we seldom speak of it again.

The same with horoscopes, I guess.

I took a course on superstitions last month.  Quite interesting.  It made me realize how many superstitions I follow.  Not the common ones, though I found myself knocking on wood the other day to ward off bad luck, and nowadays if I see a penny I will pick it up for good luck.  But there are so many times I think, No, it will be luckier to wear that shirt today, or it will be bad luck if I do such and such.

Luck, what is it?  Today's horoscope also says I will have some.  We'll see.

On Being Edited

Here's something I at first intended as a letter to the editor, in response to a column called This Writing Life (National Post, July 7), in which a writer sang the praises of editing.  I take a somewhat different slant, and for some reason the editors declined to publish it.  So here it is:


When I published a murder mystery several years ago, I ended up on the local book circuit, where I met a much more published author, who asked me, “How do you like being edited?”

Too astonished to reply (I would have said, “About as much as being tortured on the rack”), I simply listened as this much more successful writer went into raptures about the editing process.  “They take the garbage I write,” he said, “and turn it into readable prose.”

To which my response, but only in my head, was, “Why don’t you learn how to write yourself?”

Some writers like being edited, some don’t.  Some need to be raised up to a level of mere competency; others dislike being dragged down to that level.  I am in the latter category.  After nearly 40 years of publishing books, reviews, and yes, letters to the editor, I know something about what makes a fine sentence, paragraph, chapter.

I see in Iain Reid’s latest column that he values the partnership he’s established with his editor.  Lucky for him.  My experience with editors has been quite different.  I have generally been edited by people I never meet whose aim seems to be to impose usage book rules on free-flowing prose, disrupting transitions, creating awkwardness, and occasionally introducing factual errors.  And all this, especially when writing for newspapers and other periodicals, with no chance to object or correct.

It was a bit different with my novel.  There at least the editors discussed things with me.  The first one told me I had misspelled my protagonist’s name.  I asked for a new editor.

The new editor was very gentle and gave way when I pleaded to keep what I had written.  He noted that I used the phrase “a bit” a lot.  This was an interesting observation about my style.  But of course he wasn’t just observing; he wanted me to change it.  I refused.  I told him I’d pay him a pound (this was a British editor) if any reviewer ever complained about that phrase.

I never had to pay.  The novel appeared 90% as I’d first imagined it, bits and all, and was nominated for an Arthur Ellis award for Canadian crime writing. 

That was nice.  The other good editing I can remember was from the books editor of the Victoria Times Colonist.  She never altered a word I wrote.

Some writers are like that mystery writer I met or Iain Reid.  Others are more like Rider Haggard, who learned after his first novel was polished to death that he much preferred his first drafts: keeping the new wine in its original bottle, he said.  And he dashed off novels like King Solomon’s Mines and She in six weeks and published them as they came to him.

Good writing comes from the gods, the muses, the ceiling – wherever.  Editors (and writers themselves) tamper with it at their peril.

We are rushing headlong into the Internet age, where perhaps everyone will self-publish without being edited.  This may be bad for those who need editing, but for the rest of us, what a liberation.