A RANT (of sorts):
What is your process? Someone always asks this question of authors says the host, Antanas Sileika, informing the audience that the question someone has just asked is also on his list. If he had had time to get to it before turning the floor over to questions, he undoubtedly would have. As it was, there was a varied array of responses from the panelists. This led me to ponder about my own process that has varied so much at different times in my life.
Why did I bake an apple pie in the middle of the night recently? Maybe because in doing so I would realize the children’s story I had felt compelled to write of late would hinge on such a pie. Somehow any story I conjure up about a mining town with a gold mine in it has a cookery where the underground miners eat stews and pies and whatever else Sam cooks for them. Yes, the real Sam all those years ago when I was a child in a northern mining community baked pies that melt in my mouth at the thought of them even now, decades later.
My process? At the moment, I am writing on the back of an envelope on the subway going from Union Station north on the University line. I will type from this onto my computer when I arrive home, after I have eaten something and looked at an odd email from a woman I scarcely know. I rode first on a street car that took me from IFOA (International Festival of Authors) at Harbourfront and the session hosted by Antanas Sileika in the Studio Theatre to Union Station.
I could have answered the questions. I went to hear others, but also wonder why I don’t get invited to forums to answer some of what was posed to these authors. What is the tipping point that recognizes I, too, belong in such a context? Of course, I did get to answer some of them at the recent launch of my third book, but at IFOA I am still invisible. One of the writers talks about being influenced by an author who had her first book published at 62. The implication is that this is amazing. I didn’t really expect anyone to jump up and down when my first book, a collection of short stories, was published when I was 70. And no one did. It could have been regarded by some as a ‘flash in the pan.’ It did receive a good review in the ‘Globe and Mail’ and on this basis was purchased by the Toronto library system. Some good things did happen. Now here I am at book #3, published in the year I turned 77. I am not sure what I expect, but it almost seems the ‘tipping point’ is still just out there beyond my grasp. One man said, “So you’re a serial writer now.” Yes, I am. I no longer feel like a fraud, but it seems in the wider world of writers, I am still invisible. All the same, if I manage to live longer in reasonable health, there will be more books and that is what I set out to accomplish!
In the session I attended today at IFOA, one question posed to the writers asked for a comment on what they would say now to a young writer, to their younger selves, someone beginning at whatever age, to help them. Karen Connelly, Nino Ricci, Wayson Choy, Kevin Barry and Valerie Martin. What a variety of responses.
What would I say? Why did I make an apple pie in the middle of the night? Two of the five spoke of starting their writing day without waking up entirely to the outside world in an attempt to stay close to the dream state “where the best writing happens.”
What is there to say about someone as old as I am who may even miss the dream state when I wake up so often at two or three in the morning and grasp at a story floating by, trying in the attempt to quell the anxiety of the night. A time when there are no answers to the pressing questions of mortality, to how quickly the remaining time, however long that is, is shrinking.
So, I make an apple pie. The first one isn’t perfect, not like the ones Sam baked in the cookery at the mine. It seems important to get it right because Sam has turned up in a children’s story I have been writing recently about a family who live in a mining town in contemporary time. And among them are some of the characteristics of the family of my childhood. In this story, called “Big and Little,” where the miners go underground, there are two sisters so named by their father. In this tale, Little can hear the men in the tunnels under the earth talking every night as she drifts off to sleep. It is the only time she hears them and it is possible she thinks she is already asleep and dreaming.
I like these thoughts. It clears my mind of everything else, including all thoughts of mortality.
Since the first pie is not perfect, I decide a few days later to bake another. After riffling through a looseleaf binder of collected recipes, I find my grandmother’s for pastry. She was the food editor for the Toronto Telegram for twenty years and her pies were as good as Sam’s. No one else I knew could claim that, except Mina who worked for the manager at the mine. Yes, both my grandmother’s and Mina’s apple pies were excellent.
The second pie is better. The pastry is flaky. The filling is spiced perfectly with ground cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It is a lot easier to outline the process for making pie than that of writing, although I do know what mine is. It is erratic and requires me to write only an hour a day (often it turns into a much longer period of time) at any time during that day. It may turn out to be a lot longer, but it does not have to be. I have followed this regime ever since I retired over ten years ago from working at the Assaulted Women’s Helpline. I may not be asked to talk about writing fiction, but I was recently asked to speak along with two colleagues about violence against women. I can still do that, though by now I know a lot more about writing fiction than I do about responding to crisis calls. Maybe that is not true, maybe that kind of ability one never loses. But aside from isolated presentations, my days as a counsellor are over. I write fiction and in this hour every day, done consistently day after day, sentences and passages begin to cumulate and stories and books actually emerge. But I can’t tell anyone how to write, only offer some comments here and there and wish them all the best. And tell them most of all to follow their hearts. Encourage them to get going after they have their fill of IFOA. That’s what it takes in the end, to face the screen or page on my own and overcome the isolation and create my own world of stories. As it turns out, I can’t tell anyone much about how to write, but if you want the recipe for apple pie, just ask me!