Archive for September, 2008

L.M. Montgomery – a failed heart

Friday, September 26th, 2008

I was very moved to read the revelation in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail that L.M. Montgomery’s death was suicide. All these years, it has been called ‘heart failure’ – and indeed, her heart did fail at last, but not in the polite way we were told.

I have read her Selected Journals over the years, volume by volume as they came out, discovering that she was much more complex than her sunny novels-for-girls. I also discovered that my life came curiously closer to hers than I’d ever realized. I had always thought of her as living off in Prince Edward Island, not in the brick house I often drove past on Highway 7, on my way through the small town of Norval. In 1991, I realized another crossing point…

A strange sluggish day – partly the result of sleeping for almost 10 hours and then sitting around in my bathrobe reading the second volume of L.M. Montgomery’s “Selected Journals.”

I hadn’t realized, when I went to the Writers Union meeting last month and stayed at John Abbot College in St. Anne de Bellevue, that Montgomery had stayed there herself when she was called to the deathbed of her beloved cousin and friend, Frederica Campbell. David had told me that John Abbott had been MacDonald College, the old agricultural school, but it didn’t mean anything in particular at the time.

I wish I had known. I would have tried to find out some of the history: where Montgomery had actually stayed, which building would have housed the infirmary. History makes such strange layerings- a group of writers clustered on a terrace on a mild, sweet evening where an anguished woman wept and paced seventy years earlier.

The journals oppress me – first with that sense of incessant work, work, work. Missionary Band and Sunday School concerts, pickling hams and putting up pears, and putting up with visits to parishioners. The idea of a life where you might get half an hour to yourself at the end of the day makes me wince with a combination of guilt and pity.

(Especially as I sit here at noon in my dressing gown. The pace she maintained would drive me literally insane in a month. I can keep that kind of life going for a week or two at most before turning poisonous.)

The other oppressant is the emotional stress. That horrible year of losing Frede to the Spanish flu epidemic; finding out that her husband had developed ‘religious melancholia’; wrestling over ongoing copyright issues related to Anne of Green Gables – and all of it with no apparent emotional outlet, no capacity to discharge the stress safely.

It seems curious, to a woman today, that the prospect of Ewan losing his parish would strike such horror into her. The idea of having to put him in a sanitorium, break up the Leaskdale manse and find another home was unthinkable, and she exerted all her formidable energy to conceal and make up for Ewan’s illness. But why? She was a well-known writer who could make a substantial sum from her pen. Leaving the duties and constraints of a minister’s wife’s life should have seemed like a back door into freedom. But she didn’t seem to put her hand on that door-knob, even in thought.

Perhaps the financial constraints of raising two boys on a writer’s royalties would have been too much. However, I think the real barrier to freedom was a psychological one – her sense of Protestant duty, combined with a deep-down sense that a woman derives her status and place from her husband.

No matter how successful she might be in her own right, L.M. Montgomery could not really exist outside the confines of a book jacket. Her real social identity was that of Mrs. Ewan MacDonald. In that identity, she was mother of her sons; in that identity she decorated her home and, in fact, had a home to decorate. That identity was both structure and trap.

She never let herself off the hook, never let herself open the door because, in a very real sense, she could not. Upbringing, the expectations drilled into her as a girl and reinforced by a young womanhood spent in cramped attendance on her grandmother paralyzed her. The expectations about what kind of man was eligible to link with her, about what kind of life she was allowed to live were so ingrained that (even if she ever did question them) she couldn’t break their hold.

Had she been a happier woman, she might have been a better writer. Her natural inclinations to take risk, to experiment, to express all the wide range of emotions she was torn by had been throttled back. To compensate, she developed a writing creed that ruled happy endings and kept her from truly exploring the full range of human behaviour in her fiction.

But she did manage to write a book a year! And we still read her – including the happy endings.

I admire her. I’m glad she wasn’t my mother. I would have liked to know her as a friend.

Journal entry, 1991

Feminine energy and the baby blanket

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Feminism in the ’90s

Embracing feminine energy … It sounded like a good idea.

My friend Gail was one of the organizers. About 25 women would sit around a large carpeted room and explore the force of story in their lives; we’d bask in the solstice magic of symbol; the leader would be wonderfully insightful.

We started out the morning warm and fuzzy as a baby blanket. But as the day wore on, I found myself wishing for a little more intellectual rigour – and a little less of Doris.

I’m not sure what trauma she suffered in her childhood. I felt obscurely sorry for someone who was obviously in such long-term psychic pain. At the same time, as she rocked herself and recounted nightmares, I could hear my mother’s voice saying tartly, “Come on, now. Get a hold of yourself.”

I suppose one of the reasons I didn’t respond too well to Doris was this sense that she didn’t like me either. I had been sitting beside her for a while, but when a latecomer arrived, Doris interposed her between my seat and hers saying, “Here. I need you beside me.”

Unfortunately, I was stuck in a little sub-group with her and two of her friends for much of the afternoon. If there was any feminine energy circulating, it was passing me by. Anything I said was bundled off in the baby blanket and suffocated on the spot.

The idea of ‘the feminine’ – a cluster of powers, characteristics, and ways of relating to the universe that has often been undervalued in western civilization – is an attractive and often fruitful one. But it poses the same dangers that any system of thought can pose: it’s too easy to be so enchanted with the pattern that you want to impose it on everything that moves. Whether you’re Brian Mulroney trying to impose a labour-negotiation model on the Meech Lake talks, or an environmentalist trying to impose purity on a messy world, you’re at risk for developing tunnel vision.

The other related danger about the whole idea of the feminine is that it is essentially part of a duality. It is what is not ‘masculine’ and it leads us to divvy up the world into two piles. If ‘logic’ is masculine, ‘’intuition’ is feminine. Changing the adjectives used to describe intuition from ‘sloppy and emotional’ to ‘powerful and creative’ may help celebrate it and change attitudes, but it still implies we exist as polarities, not as a whole.

It is as inconsequential to label certain qualities as ‘feminine’ and others as ‘masculine’ as it is to use ‘le’ and ‘la’ in French. We create an arbitrary grammar, an allocation of words that in themselves do not have gender, then end up matching the arbitrary grammar to real gender and acting as though this hybrid construct governed real men and real women.

That men and women differ is true in many biological ways; as a result there are many ways in which men and women differ psychologically. This biological-psychological link is a provocative and interesting field of study and contemplation.

But you can’t get too carried away by it. The differences between men and women are dwarfed on the one hand by our common humanity and, on the other, by the enormous differences among individuals.

I’m all for baby blankets. But I am a lot more like David than I am like Doris.

(I hope.)

From a journal entry, June 30, 1990

Upcoming reading – November 19

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

What a delicious way to fill a lunch hour! The Canadian Literature Centre/Centre de littérature canadienne brings you six, delectable Canadian authors (including Alice Major) in Fall 2008.  Join us at 12 noon in the Arts Building Student Lounge at the University of Alberta on the dates listed below. An author-selected and signed copy of the presenting author’s work will be offered as a door prize at each event.

Authors’ biographies soon to be posted here.

Jacqueline Baker September 24

France Levasseur-Ouimet October 8

Marty Chan October 22

rob mclennan November 5

Alice Major November 19

Eileen Lohka December 3

 

 

Edmonton Poetry Festival approaches

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

The Edmonton Poetry Festival hits town September 11-13.

Events to enjoy:

Revenge of the Killer Blinks – A slew of poets (including Alice Major) are signed up to read  30-second poems. It’s an Edmonton invention, and it’s amazing how good we all get when we have to pare down to the essentials.

Friday night is Insomnicidal Kleptomania – an evening of sound poetry that will wind up with the legendary-in-his-time Christian Bok.

Saturday is a day for cafe readings in the afternoon, a poetry sweatshop and a finale with Canadian poetry slam champion Brendan McLeod.

You’ll find the details of these events and more on the festival website

Heroes and the SF con

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

My first book, The Chinese Mirror, was a fantasy novel for young adults – which took me for a while onto the fringes of the SF writing community. In July 1989, I took part in my first ‘con’.

This conference on speculative fiction has started. When I was asked to take part I said yes, of course, happy to – and then thought ‘Ohmigawd, I’ve hardly read any new science fiction or fantasy for years!”

I re-read old favourites and I love to find new authors that I enjoy. But it’s so hard to find the good stuff. Everything has the same lurid cover, not to mention the same blurb on the back … “Will [XYZ] be able to slay [ZYX] and prevent [YXZ] from destroying [O]?”

(It is slightly dispiriting to realize you could put the same blurb on the back of my book)

Anyway, I went to the library and hauled away a pile of books, and have been studying as if they were going to set me an exam. Discuss Sprague de Camp’s use of the hero myth and compare with early Rice Burroughs. Name the evil dictator in Brunner’s novel, “Squares of the City. How is he similar to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”?

What if I flunk?

This seems like a distinct possibility. After all, I was assured that this would be a ‘writer’s con’ – that it would be very different from the usual SF cons focused on fandom. It would be serious, not Star Trek.

I walked in the door of Lister Hall behind a young woman dressed in a vaguely medieval costume, who looked like a cross between Maid Marian and Queen Arwen Evenstar, and went up in the elevator with her and someone in a large furry suit. This is serious? 

There also seem to be a large number of young men who look as though they need more fresh air and exercise. Though they are certainly ‘serious’ about writing. I overheard one of them buttonholing William Gibson.

“Has it occurred to you that Neuromancer is the dark side of Sons and Lovers?” he asked intensely.

Gibson gave a snort and said, “Well, now it all falls into place.”

My co-panelists included Phyllis Gottlieb and Judith Merrill. Phyllis’s voice is a Bronx honk and Judith’s voice is a husky snarl. They are both women of strong views. I sat meekly between them during the panel discussion while they disagreed with each other, and I disagreed (silently but just as intensely) with both of them. No one seemed inclined to ask me about the hero myth in L. Sprague de Camp.

Judith in particular seems like a writer of another vintage. “Candas, you don’t seriously propose to discuss writing in a room with no coffee and no alcohol,” she roared during this afternoon’s for-writers-only session.

Writers I know today seem like watered-down versions of the old booze-and-body-abuse stereotypes. We’ve all become sober and interested in fitness, and half of us seem to be women waking up to their creative potential rather late in life. Hemmingway and Dylan Thomas seem like old-fashioned models for the writer’s life.

Every hero myth gets modulated through the years…

From journal entries, July 1989

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