March 23, 2007

The Sorcery of the World

I had the pleasure of attending Patrick Friesen's latest book launch for Earth's Crude Gravities, a collection of poems.It was held at our friend's house high on the mountainside in Abbotsford, which proved to be the perfect location. The sound of the rushing creek, the natural setting, the beautiful concrete home with its large windows overlooking the valley, all contributed to the mood in many ways, and perhaps even a theme: the returning to what is natural, the eclipsing of the divine.

While I am primarily a prose reader, I feel a keen connection with Patrick's work, possibly due to our similar upbringings. Both of us come from strict, religious backgrounds, namely Mennonite (although I am not Mennonite by blood) which has cultured a lot of how and what we write today. Patrick's latest collection moves further into his abandonment of such religious ties. The poems are wrathful at times, affectionate at others. The imagery is visceral, the sentiment honest and sincere.
I feel an emotional connection to what he writes, a bonding with the resentment and refusal, but yet an appreciation for the meaning within the moments.
Click on the links to order the book, which is not expensive. Amazon has it, or you can order it through Patrick's website as well. You won't be disappointed. Those of you who do buy it, feel free to respond here. Always nice to learn what others thought.

March 12, 2007

Show and (don't) Tell

I have an almost sick fascination with the editing process, especially when it pertains to my own work. Those drafts that sculpt and fling away the excess, wet clay of adverbs, gerunds, run-ons, push me to find better words, stronger images. The analogies for this process list ad nauseum: peeling away the layers of an onion, chipping away ore to find gold, sifting through your own shit to find your lost loonie... okay, I made that last one up. It all refers to refinement, an artistic butchery that requires thick-skin, objectivity, detachment --all the things that no writer really has, even those that say they do.

Now, I've heard the rumours about Alistair MacLeod (I talk about him too much, I know), how he agonizes over every word of every sentence, builds his story from the ground up with such precision that later drafts are minimal. How many of us can do that? It takes more than ability. It takes... something undefinable that I do not have. But I can learn to filter while I write, encouraging a stronger first draft, even if it is not to the the same degree as the masterful Mr. MacLeod's.

I cringe when I go back and re-read my initial work, then mutter curses under my breath at my lousy habits. Paragraph after paragraph of me telling the reader about a character or scene. It is all crap unless I can show who the character is, reveal her subtleties through a gesture, a physical response to her environment. It is much easier to fire off a quick description than to try and piece together something complicated, and Lord knows I'm prone to taking the easy way out all too often.

Compare the two following sentences:

1) Judith was raw as she listened to Ben putting her down in front of the other girls. She felt embarrassed, humiliated, but oddly enough desperate for Ben's affection.

2) Judith grinds the heel of her left shoe on a piece of brown glass scattered on the sidewalk. Her cheeks feel hot and she knows her nose is flaring, something she cannot control. And yet she still smiles at Ben, absorbing everything he says to her with his cute, crooked grin and harsh eyes, as though she is oblivious to his words and the leers of the girls standing with him.

Not perfect examples, I know. But to me, the second sentence is superior to the first. Judith's actions reveal something human to the reader, something complex about her personality. The first sentence did nothing more than give an account of her emotions.
When you read a great story, what compels you to keep turning the page? Or, what often has you skimming over paragraphs when the story is weak? I'm willing to bet it is the balance of description and action. Too much description and the mind wanders ahead, desperate for movement in the story. Of course, if there is too little description the reader loses interest for other reasons, perhaps a lack of identifiability with the surroundings.

Where am I going with all this? There are mechanical elements in good writing that provide texture to a story. I think as my writing evolves, I'm beginning to implement some of these skills in the early stages, instead of waiting for them to be pointed out later on. I'm learning to identify techniques in someone else's work that compel me and adapt those skills into my own method. Of course I have miles and miles to go.
After all, there are a million great stories out there, but not nearly as many capable hands and minds to tell them.

March 5, 2007

Local Event: The Short Line Reading Series

For those of you living close enough to Vancouver, you may be interested in heading downtown to The Railway Club on March 13th. Patrick Friesen and some other poets will be reading from their work(s) as part of The Short Line Reading Series, hosted by Memewar Magazine.

The event looks interesting, a collection of different styles and generations, as well as live music. From what I gather, this event's origins are inspired by Michael Turner's (Hard Core Logo) The Reading Railroad, which alternated between romantic poetry readings and aggressive punk band sets. It doesn't appear that The Short Line's format will be identical to The Reading Railroad, but I think this event will be a great experience. Everything starts at 6 pm, with readings first and live music to follow around 8. Click here for Maps and Directions.

I've known Patrick for a number of years now, first as a writing professor and now as a mentor/friend of sorts. His work is impressive, both in its variety and quality: poetry, translation, spoken word and music. But to hear him speak live is an experience unto itself. His voice is unique, impossible to duplicate, and he reads as though the poems are so crucial to him, so intrinsic, that it is an almost painful process to share them. I've heard him read on several occasions, all of which have been meaningful.
Those of you who attend, feel free to post your experiences (good or bad) here.