Saturday, October 31, 2009

John Irving On Writing and the Start of NaNoWriMo Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the first day of effort on my NaNoWriMo Project. For those you who haven’t read my previous blogs on NaNoWriMo and want the details go here.

This week has been a week of contemplation… I really did not (yet) progress any further my novel plan, and I admit I am not as prepared for writing the novel as I would prefer. However,  I am much better prepared mentally and this blog is in part to explain my epiphany as it is to tell you about some neat things which have been happening in the City.

Toronto's 2009 International Festival of Authors

This week has been the week of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and our city has been host to a great number of renowned authors who are front and centre in the media as much as involved in the IFOA events such as readings and author panels. The Globe and Mail has done a great job of covering these author events and I would suggest checking out the dozen or so pod casts recorded at the events to see if your favourite author is included.  The Pod casts can be found here.

The highlight of the Festival is tonight’s event where the Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalists, authors shortlisted for the richest literary fiction prize in Canada, close the IFOA reading from their books. Kim Echlin, Annabel Lyon, Linden MacIntyre, Colin McAdam, Anne Michaels are the 2009 Giller Prize Finalists.

As a consequence of all these literary events we have had lots of author stuff going on and in the news.  Last Sunday I listened to one such event,  a radio interview with John Irving on Michael Enright’s Sunday Edition on CBC Radio 1.

CBC's Michael Enright's Interview with John Irving

I listened with great interest to the program, eager for any secrets on novel writing that he might reveal and there was more than one ah ha on my part. Aside from that, which I will deal with in a moment, John Irving came across as warm and calm in demeanor as well as articulate and insightful. He spoke as one who has reflected a great deal about how he approaches his craft and in general as a man whose opinions were carefully thought through before being expressed.  I guess this is to be expected as spent many years as a University Professor.  I liked the man.

The most pressing topic for discussion during the interview, was the nature of his latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. It’s protagonist features a man who's a lot like Irving himself – it is set in New Hampshire (not unique for a John Irving novel, admittedly), the main character is a writer who has a cottage on Georgian Bay and studying with Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. These are all things one would discover reading John Irving’s bio – but was the novel really meant to be about John Irving? Apparently not.

Entwined in the ensuing discussion was the concept that what is revealed about this novelist in his novels is as much about what they don’t say about him as it is about what they do say about him - if you are interested in more you will need to listen to the podcast - it is an interesting line of thought.   Of course we all know that novelist use bits and pieces of their life circumstances and the people around them – but that does not make it autobiographical. To put it in the way we often see rolling across the screen when seeing a movie, “any similarities with people living or dead is just a coincidence” particularly true if the work is published as a fictional novel.

As mentioned, I was eager to hear John Irving tell us about how he crafts a novel. I was very surprised to hear that it normally takes him 4-6 years from planning to completion.  Wow, I guess my novel is going to be a longer project than I had previously thought.

Most interesting was that he does not start the first draft until he is able to write the last sentence of the novel. When he starts writing the draft he is re-telling a tale that he has entirely thought through. He says that after he writes that last sentence he is able to write and complete the entire novel without changing more than a semi colon in that originally written last sentence! He absolutely sticks to the rule that if he cannot believe he has really written the last sentence of the novel he will not start the first draft. I was very impressed – he must have his novels extremely well planned out!

That got me to thinking I am not even close to being ready to start my novel by his standards… I still haven’t even gotten as far as the ending. I have managed to put those thoughts aside – after all nothing ventured nothing gained. As one of my friends pointed out when I discussed this with him – I can always just kill everyone off as the ending LOL…

In truth though, for me I think there is a greater danger to never start the novel because putting off starting with the excuse that more pre-work is necessary.  I am not John Irving – so I won’t let my lack of an ending stop me from throwing my hat into the ring with the 150,000 world wide who have registered for NaNoWriMo this year and who will write the first sentence of their next Novel tomorrow morning. Incidentally, last year there were 1,700 NaNo participants in the City of Toronto alone! But I digress…

A second interesting bit of information is that he writes his novels using pen and paper and types them on one of several IBM Selectric Typewriters he owns.  He believes that the keyboard allows one to write too fast and (my words) the writing gets ahead of the thinking.  Hmm, have to think about that one.

The last nugget of information which I found very interesting and insightful had to do with the role of re-writing in getting a novel finished. John talked about the years he spent involved in college level wrestling and how it taught him the discipline of practicing some small detail until it was precisely correct in its execution. He said this helped give him the stamina for a lot of rewriting – successful authors have to accept the fact that much of their time is spent rewriting their novel. He said that after he finishes a first draft he will rewrite it completely 3 or 4 times!

This certainly helps put into perspective what I can accomplish in writing my first draft of my novel in November. If I will need to plan to re-write it entirely several times, I should just spend the whole month getting it done, getting the creative ideas to flow through my fingers into the written page (ok, displayed screen)  and turn off “my inner editor”. If I don’t focus on how I am saying something, but just telling the story however it might come out, it will be easier. Not to mention removing one distraction – the desire to rewrite a paragraph until it says exactly what I want it to say, which will surely eat up lots of hours, if I can use my blog writing experience as any measure.

After listening to the Irving interview I felt less pressured to produce a "good" product and more interested in just going through the process and seeing how creative I can be with my ideas and letting my story tell itself - whether I cross the finish line with completely written novel of 50,000 words ready to share with friends is not the point. I will worry later about turning it into a "good" novel and proclaim now that I will not share the first draft with anyone.

If you want to listen to the CBC interview of John Irving, it is available on Podcast here. To see what wiki has to say about him go here.

Cuban in London's Blog and the Zadie Smith Essay

Before I end this blog, I really have to spend a paragraph or three telling you about another blog which has been helpful to my state of mental preparedness. A Cuban In London is a blogger I follow on a regular basis. A side from his regular contributions in the music, literary and opinion category, he has a regular Tuesday feature I have been following.  CiL has been sharing with us, by installment, an essay by Zadie Smith, called What Makes A Good Writer?

I can't include any quotes from her essay in this blog due to copyright restrictions but she did express a thought which particularly resonated with me.  She said, and l paraphrase here, novels are all unique but they share the ability to command our attention and take us out of our ordinary lives. (please see CIL's blog and the 8th installment which deals with style and quality for the quote I am referring to.)

One thing I have taken away from this thought  is that there is a great breadth of room for novels of all types and as different as night and day – I might add this is true for all creative mediums and means that no one approach or style or genre is any more or less than the other.  I smile as I recall one friend who was surprised that I would want to write sci fi  or another when I said I wanted to try a romance - both implied by tone that it was a lesser form of novel than I should attempt.

Each week when the next installment of Zadie's essay arrived, it has given me reason to stop and think about the art and craft of writing and the effort I am planning to undertake starting tomorrow.  I appreciate the genius of CiL as recognizing the essay as something which needed to be shared with a wider audience and his efforts to do so and I look forward to the remaining installments.

I won’t review more of Zadie Smith’s essay here, suffice to say that I recommend a read of the blogs (which started early Sept and runs for about another month or so each Tuesday). Go here to start at the first installment.Part 1 of Zadie Smith's Essay "What Makes a Good Writer"  Also, don't skip the reader's comments they are always interesting and often better illuminate and add to thoughts expressed in the essay itself.

And So For November!

For the month of November I will resist the urge to give you more than a progress report on my NaNoWriMo effort, but I promise a full accounting of the month’s madness in a few retrosopective posts in December!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Days Fly By - is it nearly November?

I have to apologize to all those folks who popped by in recent weeks, wondering why this blog seemed frozen in time... actually frozen in Nuit Blanche - Sleepless Night, to be precise.

It seems time has gotten away from me. Trips up north to my Collingwood hideaway, long days at work, NaNoWriMO planning (yes - the madness starts next week), wonderful nights out listening to some fabulous live music at my local Liberty Bistro and what can I say? The weeks have slipped by.

The picture above is my favourite spot when I go up to my place in Collingwood - the Gazebo at the end of the sea wall.  I took this picture as the sun came up last weekend.  Sure is nice 

I am preparing for my NaNoWriMo month.  I will sum up to say it is an International writing motivational event - aimed at challenging anyone who wants to write a novel to get their finger out and spend one focused month doing that.  For those who are not familiar with this you can go here to find out more.  I have been busy for some time trying to plan this effort and weave together some ideas I have for a futuristic (almost) sci fi novel I have in mind.  I am not nearly as prepared as I feel I should be at this point.  Therefore this post will not be as long as it might otherwise.  But I did feel the need to pop into the blogsphere and provide a bit of an update about my whereabouts.

But before I pop back out into novel planning land I will spend a few minutes absolutely raving about the wonderful music I have been enjoying at the  Liberty Bistro.   I have written about Liberty Bistro and the music I have enjoyed there a few times.  The other blogs were all about the Tuesday open mic nights there where Rude Jake rules.  More recently I have been going on a Wednesday night when Noah Zacharin reins supreme.

These nights have been wonderful with not only great music by Noah Zacharin himself, but also an assortment of other musicians who seem to pop by and just amaze with the talent at this small village bistro setting.  It is a little like sitting in your living room with a bunch of friends who all coincidentally are musicians.   The music is always great and the mood cozy,  and the musicians and patrons warm and friendly.  Usually there are more musicians in the audience than "ordinary folk" like me.  It is a special treat when Noah decides to accompany whoever might be on stage at the moment. His guitar skill always adds a lot to the performance.  This week I was particularly pleased when Noah decided to do a Leonard Cohen tune - it was great. 

Just a few of the musicians at recent Wednesday evenings which deserve special mention are  Onofrio Virdo -who is incredible with his wonderful classical/Spanish guitar and   who also plays at the local second cup on a Wednesday night;  Rehan Dalal who graced us this week with his fabulous blues guitar and vocals ths week and just blew everyone away.

In any event, I must stop blogging and get back to novel planning - NaNoWriMo is only a week away!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

One Sleepless Night or Silly Night -- Nuit Blanche 2009

Nuit Blanche is Toronto's annual night of art in the street and I set out last night to enjoy and experience all it had to offer.  If you did not read my last blog which gave an introduction to Nuit Blanche, you might like to do that first before reading this blog.  

"Nuit Blanche" is translated as "Sleepless Night" not "White Night" as one might think, as Nuit Blanche is a term of French idiom.  Having spent 8 hours last night out partaking in the event, I suggest that this night is not only sleepless but also pretty silly, even stupid, due to two factors.  Firstly there has been an overwhelming success in attracting participants - evidence that we Torontonians are starved for events which promise a good time. Secondly, there is just not enough good art in the event - even thought there were reportedly over 130 installations involving 550 local and international artists.

As my blog of last week mentioned, I was quite looking forward to the event as I had enjoyed it last year.  I set out at about 8:00 p.m. and did Zone C, which is in Liberty Village.  All of the inner streets in the neighbourhood were closed to cars and it was packed with people - all having a great time.  The rain had stopped and there was a full moon and it wasn't very cold.   I very much enjoyed the art, but there seemed fewer works of art in the immediate area and most were imo "on the fringe" of artisic effort.

For instance, in the Metro Grocery Store parking lot there was a work titled "Take Shelter".  It consisted of a great many cases of tined food which was  being arranged by the participants supposedly to be the basis of a shelter.  Seemed like a bunch of junk thrown around in the parking lot and a waste of good food.  I hope it was donated to a food bank, but I am not sure that the needy would understand why the tinned goods they were receiving were so covered in dirt.  Of course, idiots roamed the streets as well, so there were a good number of tins thrown around in the part across from my condo, even though that was a good 2 blocks from the installation.

There were a couple of interesting things which I most enjoyed, notably:

In the Metro Food store the sound of an approaching aircraft and the lifesized shadow of an airplane projected on the ceiling made a statement in the work titled Invade - acknowledging that we now have a different reaction, post 9-11, to an airplane in close proimity overhead. As one shops, one can imaging how improbable it would be to hear a plane at close range and it does create an uneasy feeling.

Through the passageway in the Liberty Village Market Building Attrium there were dozens of paper bag covered people who, as you tried to pass through, provided a heartfelt apology for being in the way.  Kind of made you feel good to hear so many people saying "I am sorry" to you.  This was The Apology Project.

Fire and Sausage - if art has to be silly, I like this version.  There were well over 10 stations set up throughout Liberty Village where there a couple of barrels set up with fire as cooking areas, complete with seating around the "campfire".

Titled "Small Mercies", it was a social sculpture simulating the aftermath of an apocalypse by ecouraging people to sit and talk and by dispensing tin cups of hot chocolate, sausages cooked on a whittled tree branch and (to the lucky few) a small blanket.  The statement that was made that in the aftermath there are small mercies as we share what is left.  The idea was thought  provoking, the execution was very practical (it was a cold night) and it did generate a sense of community and and fit into the  overall theme of the event.

 Across the street from my condo, a pair of contruction cranes were moving in unison to the sound of music.  It was called Dancing Cranes.  Interesting for a moment or two only.  Construction cranes have a very limited range of movement and speed - it would be stretching it a few miles to say they "dance".  Not high on my list of favourites, although the thought was good, just not a lot to work with.  You can see the full moon in the sky above the crane in this snap.

After seeing everything there was to see in Zone C, I set out for Zone B and the south end of Zone A at about 11:00 p.m.  At that point my opinion of the event changed from somewhat arty and mildly silly to definitely just silly and a bit annoying.

As I walked from Liberty Village to the downtown core, the streets were very busy, but this is to be expected as the Club District is between these two points and of course 11:00 is peak line up time outside all of the clubs.  So the sidewalk was filled with pretty, young things with short skirts and young men, with optimistic faces looking expectantly at the eye candy, waiting patiently to be granted access to the join the fun.  I don't expect this was any different tonight than any other Saturday night, except in the heat of the summer, it would be even more crowded in this section of town. 

After a 20 minute stroll through the club goers I got to downtown streets, normally not so crowded as in the Club District, the streets were either closed or gridlocked and there were wall to wall people. I wandered the area in a big circle to catch the most events, I was very disappointed.  There were so many people that it made it impossible to see any of the art without a very long wait and there were just (as the evening wore on) too many drunken teenagers out and about. 

I quote from one observer who had posted a comment on the web:
"Ratio of people having fun to drunk sobbing teenage girls with things spilled on their dresses = 1:1 at this point in the night." FROM: ASHLEY CARTER
TIME: 3:10 A.M. (ADDED AT 3:15 AM)

Even discounting the drunken teens, who were not lining up to see art, I might add, there were too many people.  The event had attracted far more participants per work of art than it could handle... long line ups to see any of the art and far more party/circus/fall fair or just plain silly events were being held than there were real identifiable "works of art" to view... The downtown area seemed the central spot for things silly.  An example below was in the Toronto Bus Terminal Station where men in cages were wrestling.

Bay Street, in Zone B was closed between Front and Gerrard (about 2 KM) and it was crammed with people - but the main attractions were the food vendors and two carnival rides which had been set up and were operating (for free!).  Not art in my book, but I guess because it was free it was deemed "participation art".

At our City Hall there was a crowd gathered which I suspect might have surpassed in number the folks that gather there traditionaly every year to count in the New Year.

  The attraction?

A large suspended set of lights which were programmed to flash 4 letter words or letter combinations.  Every time it changed the crowd called out the work in unison.  Art?  You tell me!

One thing was sure everyone was having fun.  I guess us Torontonians are easily amused.

I did like the Monopoly Game that was going on in a storefront of the Toronto (Stock) Exchange Tower.  They were playing for real money and folks had dressed up for the part and there were a few notables playing.

You can see set of participant photos and comments here to give you a full sense of the event 

 I must also in this report give the Nuit Blanche organizers kudo's for a great iPhone application and website which not only allowed one to set up a route in advance and pull it up on your iPhone, but also allowed us to find the nearest art installation to our current location, fetch related information for that particular piece and also to vote for favourites.  It was quite good.

On the not so well done category was garbage collection - bins were overflowing everywhere, and I heard someone say that Bay Street was a corn field this morning as there were so many corn husks discarded up and  down the street where the corn cob vendors were plying their wares.

So next year, I don't think I will make it a sleepless night (it was well after 4:00 a.m. when I got home last night!), and just do my own Liberty Village area and retire at a sensible hour and leave the late night drunks and silly things to every one else, in favour of a good night's sleep!
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