The shade of blue (pencils)

July 31st, 2008

In September, 1989, I was invited to a writers conference up in Grande Prairie. It was the first time I’d been the ‘expert’ at a Blue Pencil Café, where beginning writers bring a sample of their work for critiquing. It keeps you humble…

… I feel so for these people bringing their work for review. With women writers in particular, there is that narrowing and reddening of the eyes that presages tears. You are putting so much of your ego, yourself, on the line.

One lady, a Mennonite woman in a round cap, in her mid-sixties, wrote a lot of greeting-card verse. It had the merit of being reasonably scanned and well-rhymed, but it was platitude after platitude. I pointed out how, in some poems, she might have escaped the general and got down to the particular. And she too, a woman older than my mother, had that verge-of-tears intensity in her eyes as she would say, “Yes, I see what you’re getting at.” In fact, I think she did see – but whether she can translate that into her writing, I don’t know.

Then she showed me a little book of stories that she had written, which had been printed and illustrated by some Mennonite organization. The illustrations were quite charming. She told me that the printer had recently called her to say they’d run out of copies and could they reprint?

Over 10,000 copies of these little books are floating around! I thought wryly that’s she’s probably been read by far more people than will ever read me, the ‘expert.’ So who am I to say that platitudes don’t give people pleasure?

It reminds me of something that Granny used to send us from time to time – a yearly collection of sentimental verses and anecdotes called The Friendship Book of Francis Gay.  The rhymes were gentle generalities and yet people seemed to find them a source of satisfaction and inspiration. Not unlike a contemporary version of the same genre I found in the book store recently. It was a collection of sayings, one for each day of the year – a banal best seller.

If I’m feeling smug, I think that these versifiers have a blind spot for language – that they’re like colour-blind people trying to paint a picture. But maybe I’m the one who is colour-blind, unable to see why a particular shade of blue that seems ordinary to me is so ravishing to others.

Journal entry, October 1, 1989

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