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New Blog Post | Upon a Peak in DariénPosted on March 21, 2017
We landed in Panama on February 10, twelve of us, for a birding trip that would take us into the Darién Gap, the only stretch of the 30,000-kilometre-long PanAmerican Highway to remain unconstructed. The Gap, which lies between Panama and Colombia, is an all but impenetrable tangle of rainforest, and one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. There may be no true wilderness left in North or Central America, no piece of geography that is still untrammeled or untrashed, but the Darién Gap is about as close as it gets. No television, poor Internet, and only sporadic cell-phone coverage. We thought if there was anywhere on Earth we could get away from thinking about Donald Trump for a few days, the Darién Gap was the place.
We were wrong.
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Recently, the United Church Observer asked six writers, including me, to compose letters to their grandchildren. The letters have now appeared in the April issue of the magazine, under the title “Dear Grandkids.” Here is mine: please read it, and then go to ucobserver.ca to read those of the other five writers: Sally Armstrong, David Suzuki, Rudy Wiebe, Frances Itani, and Margaret Atwood.
To My Grandgirls,
When I started this letter, I thought I would be passing along some things I’ve learned in my life. But I realized that that would be a mistake. You already know much more, and more important things, than I do. So instead, I am writing to tell you what I have learned from you.
You understand the power of protest. I have, from time to time, convinced myself that the world is essentially fair. You know it is not, that life is weighted against fairness. You know you don’t always have an equal say in decisions that affect your life, that the biggest people in the room almost always get to tell you what to do. But you don’t accept that. You know that by raising your voice, by jumping up and down and waving your fists and annoying the bigger people in the room, you stand a better chance of getting what you want than if you sit quietly in a corner reading a book, as the rest of us tend to do. Don’t lose that. I have protested, in my own way, but I have allowed my protestations to be channelled along socially acceptable pathways that have led, for the most part, nowhere.
You understand the importance of asking questions and the inadequacy of most of the answers. I once asked a biologist why a certain animal behaved the way it did, and his answer was: “‘Why’ is a religious question,” as if to say, it doesn’t have an answer. You, on the other hand, know that “why” is the most important question you can ask, and you ask it all the time. And you don’t accept any answer that doesn’t make sense to you. Keep asking the religious questions.
And I like the way you make art, incessantly, out of whatever is to hand — crayons, lipstick, blocks of wood, letters. You make art because you know that art is a way of understanding the world, of making or finding threads of meaning in what appears, to most of us, to be chaos and insanity. You put the sun firmly in the sky, the earth solidly beneath your feet, and your houses, though they might lean a bit, remain standing forever. You know that.
Bill McKibbon, a writer I admire, wrote a book called The Age of Missing Information, in which he compared two kinds of knowing. For the first half of the book, he videotaped every television program he could watch on any channel in one day. He then spent a month watching the tapes, and wrote about what he learned from them. He learned interesting and even useful things, like helpful hints for bass fishing, or or that Type As have a five-times greater chance of having a second heart attack.
For the second half of the book, he spent a month alone, at the top of a mountain in New York State, and wrote about all the things he learned there. From nature, he learned the important things — things vital not only to his survival, but also to his sense of who he was and his place in the world.
I think the kinds of things McKibbon learned from television are the kinds of things you can learn from me. What he learned on the mountain, the important things, are the kinds of things I can learn from you.
And I’ll bet if McKibbon had had his grandchildren with him on that mountain, he would have learned a lot more.
Previous Events | Writers Emerging Intensive Workshops
Banff Centre for Art and Creativity
November 18-28, 2016
Please click here to go to writing that came out of this event.
In winter 2015, Merilyn Simonds and I offered weeklong, face-to-face intensive editorial coaching for writers with a manuscript close to completion. That dreaded second-to-last draft in Mexico! Includes one-on-one daily sessions and a private casita. For photos, fees, and more, visit Merilyn’s Book Coach site.
My essay, “Tragedy Postponed”, about the detective novel as a work of classic comedy, appeared in the May 2014 issue of Numéro Cinq, the online magazine edited by Canadian novelist Douglas Glover. The May issue is a remarkable gathering of goods, which also includes essays and stories by and about Lydia Davis, W.G. Sebald, a rescuscitation of the unjustly neglected but wonderful poet, Adrien Stoutenburg, and a lot of other enticing writing. Definitely worth a double click.
Writers Blog Tour
My ticket for this virtual train came from Merilyn Simonds; like her, I don’t know where this journey started or where it will end, but I am happy to have been invited aboard. The idea is to get a whole lot of writers to write blogs, three of us per week, in response to four questions about writing, post them on our websites on four consecutive days, announce that we have done so on our Facebook or Twitter pages, should we have them, and provide links to the other writers’ blogs that have appeared on the train. The result will be a virtual anthology of what a wide variety of writers are writing at the moment, why they are writing it, how they go about writing it, and how they think their work differs from that of other writers.
It’s an exciting opportunity. As writers, we are constantly asking ourselves these four seemingly simple questions, but we don’t often sit down and articulate our responses, let alone publish them. And it is also interesting to realize once again that there are no simple questions. “What am I working on?” looks like a straightforward question, but it is, as they say, complicated. Very few of us, I suspect, work on only one thing at a time. There is a thing that I am working on at this very minute, there is another thing on my desktop that I am working on when I need a break from working on the main thing, there is a thing tickling the back of my head that I am impatient to get to, there is a thing that I started working on a few months ago and stopped but now have a few fresh ideas for, and there are things (like this blog) that I have been asked to write and have put everything else aside, for the moment, to write because I thought it would be quick and easy, forgetting that, when writing, nothing is ever quick and very little is easy.
So each day for four days, starting today, I will post my answers to each of the four questions. I have chosen, for this first question, to write about only the work I am writing at his very moment, and not about the myriad other works that are milling around on my desktop and in my brain. It is a truism that writing about what one is writing about is harder than writing the actual thing. And also that if one could adequately write about what one is writing, there would be no point in writing the actual thing. Be that as it may, I hope that in the course of responding to the four questions, I give some idea of what it is like to be a writer at this point in the process, at this point in my career, and at this point in history.
Blog Tour Posts:
Blog Tour Post #1: What I am working on, July 4, 2014.
Blog Tour Post #2: Why is my work different? July 5, 2014.
Blog Tour Post #3: What is my writing Process? July 6, 2014.
Blog Tour Post #4: Why do I write what I write? July 7, 2014.
Delighted to say that Emancipation Day has won the 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award! Please go to THE NEWS page for more information about the award.
Emancipation Day has been shortlisted for the Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year. Please see THE NEWS page for more details.
Emancipation Day has been named in two round-ups of the best books of 2013. The first in the National Post, in Phil Marchand’s list of his favourite books of the year, and the second in the CBC list of the best 10 books of 2013. To read the citations for Emancipation Day and the year’s other big books, please go to: National Post – Philip Marchand’s column with his favourites of 2013 CBC Best Books of 2013
October 1970 in the News:
October 1970 has been voted by Canadians to be one of the top 10 novels that can change Canada. Find out more about the CBC Canada Reads contest by clicking here.
October 1970 has also been declared one of the top 100 books of 2013 by Amazon.ca editors.
More Emancipation Day News:
Both Emancipation Day and my translation of Louis Hamelin’s novel October 1970 made the Scotiabank Giller longlist!
Emancipation Day made the Globe 100 Best Books 2013!
Amazon.ca picked Emancipation Day as a “Best Book of July”!
Indigo Books named Emancipation Day a “Heather’s Pick.”
Chatelaine magazine named Emancipation Day its Book of the Month in the September issue!
Open Book Ontario asked a number of writers, including me, to write about the role of “place” in their work. My essay about “place” in Emancipation Day can be read by clicking here.
Check out Hazlitt, Random House’s online literary magazine, for my response to their questionnaire, the first question of which was: “What three words do you associate with your first relationship?” Yikes.Wayne Grady