Jane Eaton Hamilton

"At the bottom of the box is hope." – Ellis Avery.

Category: On Writing

Once again, spring, with the kanzen cherry blossom

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photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton kanzen cherry 2015

Labyrinth

I go outdoors into the corridors of plum and cherry blossoms, the florid wisterias with their dangling racemes, their whips you must cut back three times a season or they will eat your cat, your car, your house. Here on the street the magnolias lift their cups waiting for spring to pour itself down. I know what’s in there. I know they have crowns, Kinder egg treats, their surprises, their jesters’ hats with dangling gold bells. The air is tinted with scent of hyacinths: Carnegie, City of Harlem, China Pink, Woodstock. They grow ceraceous, stiff along their water-filled stalks, blossoms further apart or closer together depending on light conditions—in my garden with its parsimonious sunshine, they can only try hard, but they give off their kick of perfume, they string it out, they let me have it anyway. Spring is soft as cotton batten, and some moments it goes gaudy as a circus. Watch the chestnut leaf unfurl. Watch the Clematis coil around the stem. Watch the talented beak of the finch as it cracks a sunflower seed. Watch the spotted towhee peck, the variegated thrush as it hurries to hide itself. The sempiternitous sky carves its bowl of the possibilities up beyond the clouds where rockets shoot, where astronauts imagine, where Sally Ride rode her lesbianism into blue space, where Christa McAuliffe exploded when I still lived in the house with the climbing tree.

I kick off my shoes, pull at my socks. The crust of the earth is chilled under my feet, dark, but the wet flock of grass stalks, the brush-cut of green against my toes is a party, takes me into the scrum of childhood when lawns were made for kick-the-can and there was no Round-Up and the measure of a good summer was whether you got enough callouses that you could walk across sharp pebbles and how big a cannonball splash you could make. I spill my hand over a Kanzan cherry trunk, bark rigid and broken. I unwrap the perianth, the floral envelope. A whole bough is Kyoto in April, the Philosopher’s Path, the wandering maiko in their wooden shoes, pink kimonos and white faces, elaborate combs. The individual petals in my hands weigh less than air; weigh less than the eyelashes I brushed last weekend from my lover’s rose-pink cheek. The petals are translucent, pink, silky. I don’t lift my arms, but lifting my arms is what I mean, into the symphonic air.

One year, when I had greatly suffered, when my body was giving itself up, when I had lost all in the world there was to lose, except my life, and was losing that as surely as if I had a hole in my toe through which it drained, I heard a woman playing, on violin, Bach’s Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, and I was drawn by the threads of music like a rat behind the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and I sank to a bench to listen, and was contrapuntally struck. Terror, relief. Pain, pleasure. Hatred, love. Sour, sweet. The labyrinth we all unwittingly walk, where everything horrible is eventually overwritten by beauty. Everything beautiful is eventually overwritten by horror.  And repeat.  I know this as a simple truth. This is ever reliable.

I was for the first time in a year of fear not trembling.

Instead of writing the composition, the way as a writer I was prone to do, or capturing the composition the way as a photographer and painter I was prone to do, somehow I became the composition indivisibly and then, just as mysteriously, I melded with air and breeze. I was still me, old and challenged and broken, and not me, too. I was as much the musician as I was her audience. The violinist drew her bow under an ornamental plum tree, white-blossomed, through which sunlight dappled and sky showed cerulean, and all of these things merged—Bach, the poise of her wrist, how hard she had worked to stand under this blossoming Vancouver tree on this too-cold spring day, the sunshine, my own sorrow and grief and sour-hearted blood mechanics—and I was saved. I had not been able to live, and now, via this merging of talent and music and blossom and chill, I could, again. Happiness filled me as if the hole in my foot had healed and instead had become a hole in my head, and the filling was as complete as the emptying. Where I had been but a shell, I plumped. My corpuscles danced. My mitochondria laughed.

A couple weeks ago, a friend hurt herself badly. Yesterday, there was a terrible home invasion, a harsh injury, on a street where I love people. Yesterday a friend wrote to say that even so people save themselves with minute beauty. I knew she was right. I have done this over and over and over again through my life, redemption (if you like, though I might call it retrieval, or restitution) through the communion wafer of nature, through the holy drink that is nature. People save themselves on buttercups under chins to say if they like butter. People save themselves with raccoon kits, bees’ wings, and bird babies in the eaves. These accidental evolutionary goodnesses. People save themselves with kittens, and lambs pronging in fields, and the slap of a horse’s mane on their hands as they ride barebacked through meadows. People save themselves with good cups of coffee or food.  People save themselves with tickles, with hand holding, just by meeting someone’s eyes. People save themselves with hikes or bicyling or long runs.  These spices of experience.  Fragments of mercy.

I am as dunderheaded as a person could be, but, yet, even so, even despite my flaws and weaknesses and losses, this reliable lift I feel because of the intricacy of a poppy unfolding crumpled petals, is there, is real, is find-able, is replicable, is mine for the looking. You won’t find it where I find it, because we are not the same person, but someday when the intricacy of terror and ruination lift, you will find it all the same–in a child’s giggle, a moon shadow, or in the way birch bark curls.

It is yours.

Flip the script, UBC Accountable. It’s time

graphic from U of Windsor

Today is a year since the anti-feminist, anti-victim, UBCAccountable letter went up. What a year it has been. What an autumn it has been. Now we’re in the middle of the “me too” initiative, awash in thousands of declarations of womxn’s experiences of sexual assault. I’m embarrassed for Canada that this letter exists, ashamed for CanLit, and scared because of the new chill on reporting that it’s caused. This letter had severe repercussions in my own writing life, and I’m old, published, experienced. Imagine how much worse for you if you happen to be young, unpublished and inexperienced. Imagine how much worse still if you are from a marginalized community with other barriers set against your literary success.

I’m more surprised than ever that women signatories haven’t taken their names off and whispered, chastened, “I’m so sorry. Me too.”

Fear and No Fear

I am sixty-one years old. I’ve been telling everyone all week that love has to be twinned with action. And so, I acted at the launch for the anthology “Boobs” on Saturday night.

“I want to talk about the Pulse nightclub massacre. The queer community is reeling from these homophobic and racist attacks. 102 people have been shot, their names publicly listed online even though many of them have been living closeted in fear of coming out.

Which is effectively painting a target on their shirts.

Please join me in mourning this hate. I could spend a long time talking to you about while this slaughter belongs to queers of colour, particularly the Latinx community, it touches all queers, but I have an essay here on my blog that does that and little time tonight. But please stand with Orlando and say so on your social media and reach out to soothe a queer friend. As Holly Near sang in It Could Have Been Me:

You can’t bury youth, my friends, youth grows the whole world round.

To which I might add: You can’t bury queers my friend, queers grow the whole world round.

But I also want to tell you about this piece I’m going to read, which is quite short. It is, regrettably, a true story of the young me trying to come to grips with and fight back against misogyny and, even then, transphobia. For all that fierce summer I refused to wear a shirt because boys didn’t have to.

I never dared fight back again.

The event I wrote about for the anthology “Boobs” from Caitlin Press was a highly traumatic event for me because although I didn’t know any of these dads who stopped by our corn stand, I knew their children—went to school with them, played with them. These men were coming home from work in Hamilton, ON, to the safe homogenized suburb of Ancaster to lead their homogenized Disney happily-ever-after lives, but they felt so aggrieved by a little 7 year old child without a shirt that they felt it was okay to be assholes.

It cowed me back into shirts. I don’t know if anyone else even noticed, but I noticed, and I never stopped noticing.

More than those dads wanted the sex they oozed that afternoon, they wanted to push me back into line—the line being the script written from the womb for girls and women—and they succeeded. That was the exact moment that my defiance and grit drained out of my foot. The grit and defiance I have worked with limited success to get back.

I am here to say that however our bodies are displayed, whatever clothing we do or do not wear, ever, is nobody’s business. It does not invite salaciousness. It does not invite rape. It does not invite anything but respect as another mammal in this teetering world. Our bodies, and indeed our boobs, if we have them or we’ve chosen to have top surgery, if we are breastfeeding in public, if we’ve had breast cancer and lumpectomies or mastectomies or reconstructions without nipples, if we are tatted or scarred, are not yours—are never yours–to ogle and comment on.

Those 54 years ago, I caved. I put my shirt back on. And never took it off in public again, not even at Pride.

Tonight, at 61 years of age, I’m finally, in rage and defiance of the events this week that seek to tell us we can only be small and vulnerable and scared, not brave and huge and celebratory, am stripping it off.”

 

knobs

 

we sold corn from a card table at the end of the driveway

a man snapped out of his car like a measuring tape in a tie wrenched

from his neck top button undone sweat stains under his armpits

i refused to wear a shirt because it was unfair

he said, you sure you want to show off your knobs, girly?

i looked down at my knobs, across at my brother’s identical knobs

working out the difference

he said, you go to church yesterday, honey? did you pray for forgiveness?

he bought five ears, revved away but

another dad squealed in to take his place

long appreciative wolf whistle

exhibiting your titties today?

give you a dime to turn around and pull down your shorts

mister, i said, do you want corn?

he bought seven ears and tooled away in a caddy

a new man slid in, sweat beading his forehead

he said, what you sellin’, sweetheart? sure it’s corn on the cob?

i looked down at tassels ejecting from the ear so soft

said how many you want mister?

he said i want to shuck every last one hard and fast

his tongue came out pink and thick

like he needed a salt lick

i said 5 for 25 cents

green leaves and corn silk

dark yellow niblets

he grinned and leaned over, flicked my nipple

he said, i will give you 50 cents if you sit in my car

voice hollow my brother said, 25 cents mister, take them all

you can have them we don’t want them

he took the corn and he was gone, turquoise fins waving blue plumes laying rubber

you only get 5 cents said my brother cause you’re a girl

i get half i said

nu-uh he said

uh-huh i said i thought of how many wagon wheels i could get for half of seventy-five cents

which didn’t divide: eight

i thought of how many wagon wheels I could get with a nickel: one

he said just put on a shirt

 

Poets and the internet

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I came out this weekend (during a mini talk at VPL) as a writer who uses the internet while writing–maybe 9/10s internet to 1/10 writing. Write a sentence, hang out on FB. I like FB–except when I don’t–and I longed for this behemoth time-waster to work for me. I’m far too old to stand for the castigation of the thousand mini-blocks we go through as writers every day ( I could be a better writer. So and so is a better writer; she writes 5000 words a day, while I barely touch a page. I don’t deserve to even be a writer. I wish I was a better writer. If I just sit here and write, I’ll be better. If I stay off social media. If I get that app that keeps you off social media. If I just follow Natalie Goldberg’s ideas, I’ll be better. If I just work through some writing prompts, the juices will start to flow. Okay, a paragraph. That’s the idea I was going for, but it wasn’t what I wanted to convey. How much fluff is in that sentence anyhow? Why would anybody read this? I shouldn’t have gone for that latte wth Mark. I don’t know what to write next, I really don’t. I’m stumped. Why did my character just jump off that bridge? Oh yeah, because I’m her author. I’d jump, too), so I made social media a part of getting good results. I write the sentence or paragraph then ruminate about it while surfing, and this small jaunt serves me just as it also serves me to leave a few months between ms. drafts. I get a mini-contemplative break, enough to break open a stanza or sentence.

Here’s a HuffPost piece by Maddie Crum who also use social media to their advantage, though for them it’s about publicity:

Less than 3’ing the internet

The Adequate Writer: Your work is crap

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sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014

We’ve all been there on the receiving end of rejections that are ill-conceived and thoughtless.  Your work is crap, these notes say, in whatever arguably neutral language they couch this in.  Your work made me vomit.  Go shovel walkways.  Go work at Goonies.  Just go away and please, please, please, and whatever you do, stop writing.

They aren’t actually that bad, and most of them aren’t bad at all.  But we feel like they are, right?

It may be that, in fact, our work is crap.  It happens to the best of us.  After 35 years at this, I still write reams of garbage, and, sometimes, I send it out.  But regardless of the status of my submissions, good or bad or in between, the stats for rejection/acceptance stay about 20-1.  Which means that I get one acceptance per couple dozen rejections.

Does being queer enter into that?  Of course it does.  Pieces aren’t judged only by merit.  Unless there’s a push for affirmative action at a magazine, an article/story/poem that is even tangentially about being queer is often overlooked.  Oh, we published a lesbian piece last month.  Not quite for our demographic.  A little too avant garde for us.

Do I care?  Yeah, a lot.  I hate homophobia, and at my age, it’s a tired old saw.  Go play with knives, already.  Get over yourselves and ask more of your readers.

But even so, if I send a piece out–no matter what kind of piece it is–for long enough, with enough diligence, it will eventually find its home, and that won’t be the bottom of the barrel, that’ll be at a magazine/journal/online site where I’ll be proud to publish and they’ll be proud to have you.

Most of being a writer is showing up, keeping at it, being persistent when the whole damned enterprise seems keyed to shutting you down.

Here’s what I know, though.  You can do one thing better than any other writer anywhere:  you can be yourself.

Authors might have talents and skills you don’t have, but you have talents and skills they don’t have, as well.  That’s the thing that strikes me over and over in this long-game:  No one can write like I do.  Often I whine and grumble about that–how I can’t stop being me for five minutes in order to write as brilliantly as, say, Eudora Welty–but really, ultimately, my uniqueness is a good thing.  In fact, in an over-crowded marketplace, it’s the sum total of what I’ve got.  My idiosyncracies?  Those are my only commodities in publishing-land.

Do I wish I had other styles, other skills, other talents?  Of course I do.  Absolutely I do.  If I could write like Arundhati Roy, or Karrie Higgins, or poetry like, say, Alice Anderson or Jane Hirschfield or Marilyn Hacker, or essays like Roxanne Gay, or one true sentence the way Ray Carver could, or a Lidia Yuknavich short chapter, I would die a perfectly fulfilled human being.  If I could turn a sentence like Rebecca Brown or Lorrie Moore or Mavis Gallant or Toni Morrison I would be incandescent.  But I can’t.  That’s them.  That’s their kick at the can.  It’s not supposed to be mine.

Mine is the bit I got.

And that’s a lucky thing.  Because if we all wrote like each other, reading would be a grim task indeed.

Your work is crap?  Make more crap.  Do it the Beckett way:  If you’re going to fail–and you are going to fail–fail better.

 

Richard Bausch #28

Cristina and Vania Perez urban shoot

photo by: Jane Eaton Hamilton: orchid

“In an experiment in NY in the mid sixties, they asked elementary school children to draw their parents. They were too young to have any attitudes or opinions; they saw things directly, from experience. They came up with the most amazing symbolic drawings: Dad’s big as a barrel, with beer cans on his stomach; Mom’s tiny, standing next to a Matterhorn of laundry. The symbols were vivid and stunningly revealing. This is what Flannery O’Connor was talking about when she said a good story is literal in the same sense that a child’s drawing is literal. From this idea you take the faith that what you are really after in describing experience is to recover the direct gaze of the child, to be an infant with speech. The symbols and even the meaning will take care of themselves, if you can be simply, straightly clear. Forget everything you think you know and just try to be clear, try to render exactly what your direct gaze gives you to say about the instance you’ve created. It will have so much less to do with what you think than it will with what you ARE. And you may not even be particularly aware of it; in fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t, even though what it amounts to finally is something that others will call your vision. Trust that. It’s the most beautiful thing about this work.”  Richard Bausch

Rewilding our language

JEHplumPhoto: Plum blossom Jane Eaton Hamilton 2015

“For decades the leading nature writer has been collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena – from aquabob to zawn. It’s a lexicon we need to cherish in an age when a junior dictionary finds room for ‘broadband’ but has no place for ‘bluebell’”  The Guardian

The Word Hoard

Ray Carver and Birdman

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Photograph: Jane Eaton Hamilton (plum blossom)

Everyone knows one of our contemporary masters of short fiction was Raymond Carver.  And everyone knows the movie “Birdman” won Best Picture at the Oscars.  The play mounted in the film is editor Gordon Lish’s version of a Ray Carver story called “Beginnings,” a story formerly called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”  Pretty much everyone knows Lish and Carver had a falling out when Carver tired of Lish’s draconian edits; their riff was substantial enough that right before he died, Carver and Tess Gallagher, his partner, republished a volume of his stories in their unedited versions.

I read “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” years before I read Carver’s original, and everything in it seemed perfect to me.  I am quite a big fan of Lish’s edits, all in all.  (Which may mean I am not as big a fan of Carver as I think I am, for surely my opinion reeks of disrespect?)

Here is an article decrying the fact that “Birdman” used Lish’s revised story.

How Birdman Betrays Raymond Carver: An Untold Story by Jonathan Leaf

The wise Richard Bausch

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On Writing by Richard Bausch

“You are not putting life on the page; you’re making fiction, which has more to do with itself than it will ever really have to do with life. You are working with the illusion of life–the same as a painter is working with the illusion of light, and that life he portrays. Life is messy and often terrifyingly random and nuanced beyond our powers of perception–you are creating life shaped, ordered, governed by the demands of story. So you learn your way through it and cut anything that doesn’t contribute to the story and to the concerns of the story. In doing so, if you are faithful enough, and lucky, too, you suggest the fullness of the very life we lead.”

The Adequate Writer: On Editing

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I just finished a travel essay, The Blind Warthog, about a trip I took to Namibia.  The essay grew too big for its britches, fast, and broke off into the possiblity of multiple essays, even a book of essays if I include other countries.  I pushed and pulled and snarled and snarked and moaned and groaned, tried this, tried that, and eventually, over days, a 2000 word piece strung itself together because writing is, at its essence, allusive, and the secret to getting the first draft is just staying put and getting any words on the page.  I didn’t ball those up, all those wrong words, and toss them.  I hung tight with them because one wrong word suggested another wrong word eventually suggested another right word in that freeway pile-up way words have if you let them have their heads.

Eventually, that gave me a schematic from which to go forward, a hint of a piece.  A friend offered an ear so that I could identify the flaws while reading aloud, always, for me, a productive process (because the embarrassment of having my mistakes seen by someone else highlights them for me).  A little too much this.  Not enough that.  Stylistic blunders.  Bits that got dropped in but not expanded.  Bits that need to be moved out.

Back to the hopper it went.  Squash this this way.  Squash that that way.  Tinker this, tinker that.  Absorb central metaphors; working?

Leave some time.

Rinse and repeat.

At that end of all that, I had a first final draft of just over 3000 words.  This is the one that’s good enough to submit.  This is the draft that’s like a small goat proinging through a meadow; all joy and exuberance.

But here is where the best person in my world comes in:  My editor.

I’ve had hundreds of these folks, and working with each is different than was the last, but working with each is also, always, deeply satisfying.  All those things that were suggested in your piece but didn’t make it to fruition because you were busy with nuts and bolts?  She will find them.  She will ask you to enhance them.  The things that kinda sorta worked but really didn’t?  She will ask you to turf them.

DO WHATEVER SHE ASKS is my rather-strongly-held opinion.  If you don’t trust her, keep a copy of your piece as it stood before the changes.  But make the changes she suggests with an open heart.  And here’s why:  Your editor is engaging your work with fresh eyes in a way that you have not and can not, and because of her suggestions, so will you.  It will open your work up.  You will learn things.  Your piece will very likely get much better.

You can see it as criticism.  You can see it as plundering.   You can see it as mean.

But trust me when I say if you participate, your work will come alive (and if it doesn’t, you still have that original to fall back on).  Understand that you and your editor share a goal:  to make the piece the best it can be.

Here’s how I see it:

An expert’s got her fingertips on my work–for free.  If she doesn’t pull her punches–please, editors, give me a hard edit–luckier still, the luckiest author alive.

I can’t wait.

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