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Joan Didion (and Company: on writing and encouragement)

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, in 1972. (from New Yorker magazine)

                       [3-minute read]

Here’s a foolish thing, a very 20th-century sort of stinkin’ thinkin’. But worry not, it ends with two great women (and one fine husband, not me) sending out a peculiar but quotable encouragement, and some of us might listen.

I love writing, or having written, or at least the romance of writing. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the dearly beloved Mother Corp of all Canucks leftish, artsy and true, has a long-running radio program called “Writers and Company”. It’s an hour-long conversation between the quietly enthusiastic, impeccably prepared Eleanor Wachtel and a superb range of authors: novelists, playwrights, essayists, poets, from Zadie Smith to George Saunders to Arundhati Roy. These are three of my recent listens, but I wouldn’t likely have heard them if I’d stayed in one particular mental rut.

For me, Writers ‘n’ Co was, for the longest and silliest time, mostly an occasional, accidental listen, often when I happened to be in the car and remembered what time it was: specifically, the Sunday 3 pm slot on CBC’s Radio 1, where Wachtel has been asking her terse but evocative questions since 1990. I’d catch part of a conversation, sometimes the whole thing if there was a writer known to me, and I’d regularly and fervently resolve to never miss another; I found each episode thrilling as a teacher of readin’ ‘n’ writin’, and began to connect it to my own spastic undertakings as a scribbler. (A gutsier, more daring me might have blustered, Wachtel’s gonna interview ME one day. Well. Maybe not. I finally did meet her, briefly, a year or so ago. She was plainer and funnier than she had always sounded to me, that sombre but voluptuous voice teaching me from tinny speakers.)

But I was never much of a planner, and the number of interviews I caught was small compared to the torrent of writer-talk that was available.

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Kris McDivitt Tompkins (on getting out of bed and doing something)

McDivitt Tompkins in southern Chile: a woman and her love and her money. (Pic from The Guardian newspaper and Getty images.)

McDivitt Tompkins in southern Chile: a woman and her love and her money. (Pic from The Guardian newspaper and Getty images.)

I’ve been following this woman’s career for, oh, about 12 minutes now. She was born rich and privileged (even more than, say, me), and also made her own millions as CEO of the outdoor-clothing brand Patagonia. She married, in her mid-40s, another rich dude/outdoorsy entrepreneur-turned-Deep Ecologist named Doug Tompkins, and the two of them decided to pour their money into conservancy and rewilding, into gifts to humanity and the planetary future. (It will take you less than 12 minutes to read this fine Guardian article about her and her recently-deceased partner-in-sublime. The Guardian does some of the best eco-advocacy journalism going.) They bought up huge swathes of land in Chile and Argentina — yup, it’s Patagonia — with no plans other than to preserve them and build local capacity, with The Land as the prime asset and The People as its custodians. It’s beautiful.

I want you to hear from her. The following comes from the above-mentioned article on McDivitt Tompkins, and it seems to me that this wealthy giver, someone who is using her powers of privilege for good, advises us well. Wake up and do good stuff. Yes.

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Hugh Kenner (on taking the best stuff for granted)

Thinking of “Better Read Than Never” – my cleverly named series of reviews on books that are “yesterday’s news” (but not for me) – my tendency to untimely reading isn’t limited to novels. My mind being what it is, I decided to finish off the November 2014 edition of The Atlantic, an interest-packed number of a great old magazine. A James Parker piece on the “rock-star poet” Dylan Thomas, among many other things the inspiration for Robert Zimmerman’s stage name¹, came first, a welcome re-read. What I hadn’t noticed the first time through, or what at least didn’t make much of a dent in my memory bank, was a startlingly great quote from Hugh Kenner.

¹ So far, I have reserved judgement on Bob Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I’m leaning towards The nostalgia and narcissism of the Boomer generation triumph again. Interesting choice. People paid attention, but I’m not sure it does anything for literature, which continues to have a declining coolness index unless I’m wrong (I hope I’m wrong).

Kenner – yup, news to me, too – is described in the Atlantic piece as a student and explainer of Marshall McLuhan, though I’ve come to discover that he was much more than that. Alongside McLuhan and the uber-educated imagination of Northrop Frye², the I hardly knew ye Kenner was in fact one of the great critical minds of 20th-century scholarship, a prodigious writer and one of the great Wise Guy Canadians. (True to form, I’m now bandwagon-jumping on to an e-book platform of his The Elsewhere Community (1998), an account of his travels to learn from and be among the greats of the arts and sciences.³)

² I was lucky enough to have a remarkable English teacher in high school, Pete Hill, who shoved The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye at me. Even then, my rather lightly educated mind knew it was awesome. (Note to self: read more Frye.)
 ³ Also true to form, I will now find an obscure way to connect this literary life to basketball: Kenner was born in Peterborough, Ontario, where one of the older high schools is Kenner Collegiate, named after Hugh’s father, a teacher. (A school named after a teacher?!) At least one of my teams has played at Kenner, so there.

(But enough about me.) The knockout punch of the Dylan Thomas look-back came toward the end of the article, which argues that we should not look at the excesses, lifestyle and literary, of the Welsh poet but rather at the best of what he was and what he did. Author James Parker reminds us of the famed McLuhan aphorism: The medium is the message. Parker advises, therefore: don’t look so much at this or that Thomas poem, which may by now feel dated or immoderate or just plain meaningless; instead, consider what the man himself meant, and attempted. At this point, Parker quotes Kenner’s explanatory paraphrase of The Medium is the Message.

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Chuck Klosterman (on sports and useless certainty)

[3-minute read]
The 'o' is long.

The ‘o’ is long.

If you’ve read one of these things before, you know my schtick. (It’s not so artificial, though, not really.) I’m a confirmed Accidentalist as a reader, about the farthest imaginable distance that a member of the homo sapiens tribe can be from A) a trend-watcher, eyes peeled for the New and the Hot and the Must-Read¹ or B) somebody with a plan. Usually, that means that when I get around to reading something I wish I’d read it long before. So.

 ¹ Cases in point: I’m still smart-phone free. I drive standard. I play vinyl records and CDs.

I’ve made no sudden conversion to Column A or Column B, but am still prone to literary accidents, which is how I ran into Chuck. Klosterman’s 2016 – wait, isn’t that THIS YEAR? – book-length thought experiment But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. It’s my first book-length CK, though I used to read him often on the Grantland sports ‘n ‘popcult website (ah, Grantland, we hardly knew ye). The moral: it pays, in intellectual and vaguely spiritual terms, anyway, to go to the library. [That hyperlink right there was to a Neil Gaiman essay. You should go to it. And to the library.] BWIWW?, with its black text on white, upside-down cover, leaped into my sweaty palms from my local branch’s “Express Reads” shelf. Get it now, it’s hot, but you have only 7 days before library muscle is pounding on your door…²

² I should have bought it. Ended up costing me a $10 library fine.

It’s a smart and entertaining book, which concerns itself with “Big Potato” questions that cluster around the title query: how can we be so sure about nearly anything, when time so often (and often so quickly!) proves us to be out to lunch without a paddle? what can we safely predict about our futures? do we have even half-decent tools for justifying what we think we know for certain? Klosterman is stylish, contrarian and witty on such starchy questions as these³, there are any number of quote-worthy morsels, but I liked the one below. Sportsy readers don’t get nearly enough Cool Quotation time, so this one’s for them. And for you.

³ No small potatoes. Only big ones are his prey. “Starchy” questions. Get it, didja get it?
The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book at the back.

The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book from the back.

As he concludes the book, Klosterman turns his attention to sabermetrics, the growing movement to quantify and generally science-up the approach to appreciating and understanding sports, the teams and the athletes. Why care? you ask. I answer, Because there’s more to sports than just sweat and dunks, grunts and numbers, for one thing, but also because Klosterman makes reading about sports feel fresh and [gulp!] enlightening. He makes sport feel like a genuinely useful lens to understand human beings and their cultures. Bam. Tell the truth: you have to finish this piece now, right? And the quote is just around the bend.

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Marilynne Robinson (on writing, and labour)*

* And on writing on Labour Day. But that’s more about me than by her.

[3-minute read]
This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom more in a moment.

This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom and from whom more in a moment. (Guardian photo)

My bride asks me some hard questions sometimes. Labour Day Monday’s was, What do you want your blog to be? What’s if for, anyway? I mumbled my usual answers, which she cut short with a familiar refrain: I think it needs to be more focused. Who’s your audience? I get your latest posting and I never know what it’s going to be about.

She says that with the unmistakeable This Is Not A Good Thing tone. The Dissatisfied Client tone. I resist, naturally. I like writing about different subjects. Don’t you love it when you go to the movies and you find yourself thinking, Gee crappy, I don’t know WHERE this is going! I do. I find that thrilling, as long as I trust that I’m in good hands. Besides, writing helps me learn, and I have lots of things I like to learn about. Such would be my arguments, if I was feeling, say, defensive.

However, my lady is probably right: it seems most people like to be on familiar ground at Movie Time, and that people return to a Dave Zirin Edge of Sports column, or a Stephen King novel, or the latest reboot of the hottest superhero flick franchise – moving from the countercultural through the cultural to the culture-of-mass-consumption – because they pretty much know what they’re going to get, and they like that. Meanwhile, I expect my readers to enjoy running the gauntlet of my popping-corn enthusiasms, “madly off in all directions”, as Thurber once wrote. Well, sorry about that, readers!

It’s something to ponder, though.

Earlier, my wife had also had this question, given that it’s Labour Day, and our son heads back to high school tomorrow, and I’ve been teaching on that WonderDreadFul Tuesday nearly every year of my adult life. She asked, So are you having your teacher dreams?

This answer was easy, but I didn’t quite believe myself. Because the answer was NO. One sabbatical year years back, my late August was still filled with can’t find the classroom, teaching a subject I’ve never thought about, general performance-anxiety-ridden can I still DO this thing? mid-night theatre. Later on, when for three straight Septembers I was writing within the Canadian government, it was the same out-of-synch story. Weirdly, my subconscious believed I’d be back in the classroom even though I clearly wouldn’t be. But not this year, at least not that I can remember. I’m still surprised.

Not that I’m free of doubt, or my recurring claustrophobic frustration dreams. I am instead worrying about my writing and where it’s headed. (And basketball. The coaching dreams still haunt me, and that season’s coming up, too.) Which, you may be thankful to hear, brings us to Marilynne Robinson.

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Fenton Johnson (on solitude, and reclaiming reverence)

[3-minute read]

SPECIAL BONUS QUOTATION BEFORE WE EVEN GET TO THE “HE SAID” AT HAND!

The main article appealed to my loner tendencies, but there was eco-writing, a call to end high schools, and a basketball feature. A must-have.

The main article appealed to my loner tendencies, but there was eco-writing, a call to end high schools, AND a basketball feature. A must-have, absolutely killer issue.

“All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

 — Blaise Pascal

I have never subscribed to Harper’s Magazine, but it’s a wonderful read. I buy it as a gift and a comfort to myself, approximately whenever a cover story leans out from a random magazine rack and says, Buy me now. My love for this smart American publication isn’t timely or disciplined or even remotely organized; for one pathetic example, I’m just now finishing the August 2013 issue, and returning to its cover piece, a writers forum on the lumpily uncomfortable topic “Are You Sleeping?”. This was a Must-Buy because  my nights have been harder work than they should be for a long time. (I’m trying to try easier.)

A year ago last spring, I was forced to kidnap (and to pay the $7.99 ransom for) the April 2015 issue of Harper’s, whose cover story was the long and deeply thoughtful article “Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude”, by Fenton Johnson. (You can read the whole article here on the magazine’s archives for free.) The piece begins with the quote from Pascal, the 17th-century French polymath/genius, which Johnson follows with a more homely conundrum. He invites us to consider the average bookstore, or daytime TV lineup, or any number of therapists, clergy or Internet advisors, all counseling us on how to figure out our relationships. He compares that to the scarcity of public comment about being by ourselves:

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Gord Downie (on the way, and on the way out)

[2-minute read]
On the (last?) tour, rockin' hats, feathers, glitter, and some gently showboating self-mockery.

On the (last?) tour, rockin’ hats, feathers, glitter, and some gently showboating self-mockery.

“Canada’s unofficial poet laureate” is what many call Gordon Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip. Thirty years in to singing — he had, and still has, one of the best set of pipes among rock’s leading men — and growling and screaming and talking his enigmatic and multi-layered lyrics, at least one music writer insists on placing him in the lyrical pantheon with Bob Dylan and “post-Graceland Paul Simon”. Downie is a poet — yes, there is a published poetry collection — and there are many phrases that hundreds of thousands of Canadians can sing along with him, as they have been on the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, the one that the band has never said is a farewell.

Young and hairy and restless and good.

Young and hairy and restless and good.

But Downie is dying of inoperable brain cancer. He is not the caged stage lion he once was, and there were times in last night’s final show of the tour, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, when we weren’t entirely sure he was going to make it through to the end of the planned setlist. Anyway, here’s the thing: Downie is still a manic stage presence, and he delivered nearly three hours worth of rock ‘n’ roll slamdance poetics, but he’s a quiet dude. Famously private, he had little to say to his adoring fans in Kingston and a national TV audience, even on a night like that. It’s all about the songs, and his band.

But he did tell this little story:

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John Updike: On Race and Being American

(3-minute read)
Grampa Up.

Grampa Up.

Today, we look back at the insights and perspective of one thoughtful White American on his society’s racial culture, and his worried-grandad prospectus for two young Blacks that he loves like family, because they are.

In Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (I reviewed it here), he knits together six themed reflections on the life that he lived. In nearly all of them, the world being what it is and the United States playing the role within it that it does, he refers to the question of race, even if only obliquely. One of his essays, though, addresses it straight on: “A Letter to My Grandsons”, second-last of the six, speaks directly circa 1989 to the two young boys born from the union of Updike’s eldest daughter and her West African-born husband, who “are about as black and white as people can be”. The boys’ names are Anoff and Kwame, and who knows who and where and what they are today? I wonder what they make, as grown men, of the 48-page public rumination that their deceased and famous literary grandfather bequeathed to them, to say nothing of the country left behind by his and subsequent generations.

For my taste, too much of the letter was preoccupied with obscure and distant Updike-side genealogy. It made for dull reading. However, other parts were electric, for me, and these are the places where the writer frankly assesses the American racial culture and bares his fears and hopes for his beloved young grandsons’ place within it. Updike was an honest, perceptive and profoundly eloquent writer, in 1989 and before, and until his death in a subsequent century. Here is a small chunk of what he left behind for his dark wee darlings to read when they came of a suitable age;

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Petrarch (on lost souls and tennis)

In pursuit of a possible piece centring on the too-soon departed David Foster Wallace, that brilliant and neuron-crackling and ultimately doomed writer, that Guy with Curious Hair (and an ever-present headband), that Broom of multiple Systems, that brain of infinite zest, that Pale authorial King, that supposedly fun-tastic writer-thing he’ll never be or do again¹ – and oh, the loss that was to us, though too few know it! – I bought a posthumously issued collection of his essays, Both Flesh and Not. Before I could even finish the first piece, his classic take on the on-court genius of tennis god Roger Federer, the universe delivered a piping-hot review of another posthumous collection of all the tennis-themed Wallace oeuvre. (It’s called String Theory, which title is a tidy bow linking ribbons of jockery and the nerdiest domains of physics. Would Wallace have approved of the title? Sure, it’s a pun, but not the most brainless, after all.) In eager pursuit of writing I didn’t actually have to do – that is, somebody else’s – I was electronically extracted from the old-school pulpy pages of Both Flesh, (surely by Twitter, or perhaps it was Wikipedia?) pricked by precisely God-only-remembers-what in the Federer piece, and then virtually dragged to an on-line review of String Theory, which rubbed my ever-forgetful nose in pungent memories of what little I know of the desperately sad and finally self-destroying DFW, laden meanwhile with my own fumbling, muted, doomed urgency about doing whatever for no particular reason or special benefit to anybody but my imaginings, vain or narcissistic or otherwise.

This is the author photo for "Both Flesh and Not". Very high, this man, on my Wish I'd Met Him list. Reading more will only make this worse, but that's okay.

This is the author photo for “Both Flesh and Not”. Very high, this man, on my Wish I’d Met Him list. Reading more will only make this worse, but that’s okay.

¹ DFW was famous, in his essays and even in his novels, for an exuberant use of superscripts and page-end notes, digressions and elaborations that were just as fascinating as the central march of his subject. Sometimes there were end-notes to his end-notes. This note of mine points back to a set of descriptions each of which nods to one of his most important book-titles. Way too nerdy-clever (clerdy! nerver!), I know, but I had fun.

And somewhere in that review was Petrarch,

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A.L. Kennedy (on rewriting and joy and justice)

Wendy-joon, who doesn’t Tweet – who doesn’t even write much, that I know of – is nonetheless a chronically well-read haunter of libraries. If you see her driving ‘round town, you may see a slightly open-mouthed look of attention on her face, an intense calm, if she’s listening to one of the books-on-CD that is among the 7 or 27 that she’s borrowed from her local branch. (Libraries! What pillars of civilized living they are!) And now that I’m officially an Automobile Owner again, she even has me hooked on the habit of listening to books. Yesterday, a 20-minute stick-shift errand turned into a two-hour drive because of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, but that’s not what this post is about.

I like this person. This photo courtesy of The Guardian, where I think her blog appeared. (Or appears.)

I like this person. This photo courtesy of The Guardian, where I think her blog appeared. (Or appears.)

My Wendyful friend wouldn’t let me leave her home the other month without A.L. Kennedy’s On Writing. Stephen King’s same-titled look at the scribbling life was great, and I was up for another even if I’d never heard of Ms. Kennedy. She’s a wordsmith and often a funny one, but her artistic aim is true. Much of the book is simply a collection of her blogs on the writing life over a few years. They’re short, witty, wise, and not infrequently they draw blood.

So now I’m a Kennedy fan, though I’ve never read any of her six collections of short stories or half-a-dozen novels. She also teaches creative writing, an activity about which she is amusingly and reasonably doubtful. Yet as she went back to start a new term at Warwick University, she focussed on the delights of the job. One of those deep pleasures, in the midst of the general deafening solitude of her writing life, was the mere collegiality of the thing, the fellow-feeling, being among others for whom word-spinning is also bread and hearth and home.

The second great delight, she says, is in re-writing.

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