Sunday, September 25, 2016

notes on writing

A few work related bits:

This is from a student who's a reader of this blog:
Beth I want to thank you so much for your sharing the other day about the frustration of your friend backing out of being your agent. I can’t convey how helpful and inspiring it has been to read of all your ups and downs in the process of bringing your memoir to birth. I have read—and heard, even from you—descriptions of that slow, forward two steps, back one (or two or five) process, but there has been nothing like reading about your particular experience as it has unfolded to make that all real. So many times I have been surprised, even dismayed, by your experience, but then am always heartened and inspired by your continuing to just push forward. In addition, your insistence on taking the time to make it a great book and not just rush to an OK book has by osmosis helped me to subdue my own impatience and occasional desire to take a short-cut at the cost of mediocrity. Words deserve the best we can give them, and I thank you for being a model of that. 

I don't know about being a model of anything - except perhaps efficiency, dear friend, but thank you for this lovely note

Here's the winner of this year's CBC Non-fiction competition. It's a beautiful story, visceral and strong, written, she says in an interview, in an evening:

And - for those of you dreaming of the wonderful writing life - here's a harsh dose of reality. Okay, so it ain't easy. Well, it's a good thing we don't do it for the money and the fame. Ha ha.

A View from the Bridge, WOTS

I've been thinking more about what my friend Mary said - about my "efficiency" and how do I get such a lot done and get around so much? And there are two very big reasons which might not be self-evident: as opposed to someone with a husband who lives in the Beach, like Mary, I am single, and I live very close to many venues. If I want to do something, I don't have to consult, check calendars, persuade, wait - I just buy a ticket and go. And usually, I set off at the very last minute, because on my bike it's a hop and skip to see a play, film, art show or concert.

This Saturday, I left on my bike at noon for a film at 12.30, and I left that early only because it was sold out. And rightly so - Arthur Miller's "A view from the bridge" in a brilliant National Theatre production, directed by Ivo von Hove, at National Theatre Live. Once again, how grateful I am for this initiative - fantastic theatre at the cinema. This is one I would have liked, like my friends Jean-Marc and Richard, to have seen live, because even on the screen, this Greek tragedy set in Brooklyn  packed an enormous punch. Superb, extremely moving, beautifully acted and directed, just the best. I could have done without the "theatre of mess" shower of blood at the end. Sorry, spoiler alert. But otherwise, great.

And then, hop on the bike and home in ten minutes. That's how I get so much done. Well, and also because I am a multi-tasker by birth. I never leave a room without carrying something from A to B, never go on an excursion or an errand without figuring out if I can kill two birds etc. Friends make fun of me because I am always plotting the most efficient route and time of day to get around. Cannot help myself. I've always blamed that peccadillo on my New York genes. New Yorkers are insane like that.

And anyway - who says I've accomplished a lot in my 66 years? Some people my age have written 20 or more books by now! I'm a sloth, a total slug in comparison.

Speaking of which - Word on the Street today. I was there first with Eli who had a sleepover here last night - lots of fun. But he was not feeling well at the book event so we took it easy - watched TVO Kids events and went to some kids' book readings, where he lay down in my lap and fell asleep. I hope he's okay - his mama came to meet us and take him home. I stayed to go to the grown-up side where, I confess - though I always set out full of joy for this grand event celebrating writers and books - I got extremely depressed. So many books! So many writers! And yet not one of my books there, anywhere. And around this corner, a publisher who said no, and over there a former student I don't want to talk to, and over there ANOTHER publisher who said no. I bought "Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day" and "Horton Hears a Who" and went home.

At breakfast, Eli asked me, "Glamma, can you make your arm fart?" How come no one has ever asked this efficient woman that vital question before?

From my editor friend Chris: Beautiful Yiddish saying I just found: To the unlearned, old age is winter; to the learned, it’s harvest time.

Especially cucumbers.

Friday, September 23, 2016

autumn begins

Yesterday, the autumn equinox, was still summer - hot and beautiful. But today it's fall, dank and cool. The authorities say this summer was the hottest on record for Toronto; my tomatoes are proof. Now there's a final flourish - everything is back to blooming, roses, camellias, the bank of late-blooming clematis covering everything, the rose of Sharon never lovelier - just heaven.

However. Life goes on, and the nightmares of the planet persist - Syria, Trump, Putin, the brutal deaths of unarmed black Americans, the hottest summer on record. Hard not to be sad and afraid, even while the smell of the camellias wafts in. But I refuse to take on the world's problems right now, I'm too busy.

At 66, I've never been busier; I need more time per day. There's teaching and assembling the readers for the next So True event on Oct.30 - four gorgeous essays almost ready so far. I spent time yesterday morning with my daughter and her squirmy younger boy -
and on Tuesday night, my own fine boy came to cook me dinner - trout and asparagus poached in white wine with a confit of smoked bacon and apricots accompanied by grilled mushrooms, leeks and baked potato - am I lucky or what?
But most of all - there's my own work. The transformation of my bedroom into my office and vice versa has been an unqualified success; I now see that a lot of my problems getting down to work were because I did not have the right office. I know, excuses, right? But in fact, now I'm happy to go up after breakfast and get down to it, in a bright space that's organized and comfortable. And the memoir is getting there, it's nearly there, and I love love love it, my little creation, my life in words. I've sent a query to two agents, have heard back from neither - obviously so inflamed with passion for my project, they're speechless for the moment.


Never mind, I still have lots to do. Last night at my home class, dear friend and student Mary exclaimed that she reads my blog and does not know how I fit everything into my day. "You're so efficient and organized!" she said. And though I do not usually accept compliments, I will with pleasure accept that one.

P.S. An hour later, I realize I just wrote something silly. Of course I'm not busier now than I have ever been - remembering when I was a young actress rehearsing by day, performing at night, and managing my frantic love life, or, even more exhausting, when I was the single mother of two young children living in a house that was disintegrating around us (and with a garden that was a jungle of weeds.) I was much busier then. But still I feel, these days, as if I can't keep up with it all.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Finding the Jewish Shakespeare hooray

Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin

Drawing of man with long beard (Jacob Gordin)Thursday November 17

$4 Drop-In
Writer/actress Beth Kaplan shares an inside look at the life and creative achievements of her great-grandfather, Jacob Gordin, the influential playwright and icon of the Yiddish stage. Includes a dramatic performance by Jack Newman.

I am going to be speaking about my great-grandfather, his life, my search for him and the subsequent book, at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor on November 17. Doors open at 1, and the short dramatic program will run from 1.30 to 3.00; the fine actor Jack Newman will perform short excepts from Gordin's plays in both English and Yiddish, there will be power point photographs, and, of course, moi. I think it'll be fun. You're invited.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ellen Seligman

Just back from Ellen Seligman's memorial at Koerner Hall - a huge concert hall full of book people, there to honour the life of Canada's most famous fiction editor, whose authors won innumerable prizes, including the Nobel. Speaker after speaker spoke of her dedication and love of her work, her writers, their words. They spoke too of how exhausting it was to be under her meticulous scrutiny - how she inspected every thought, every motivation of the characters, to be sure it was true and the best it could be. Exhausting. Elizabeth Hay, who spoke eloquently, said that when Ellen called about her new novel, she broke out into a sweat, knowing that at least 3 hours of hard work on the phone lay ahead of her, page by page, word by word - and for others, the sessions lasted much longer. A gift to a writer to have that kind of focus and faith. She offered "affection and correction," said one. "The words have been orphaned," said another. Andrew O'Hagan wrote, in a letter that someone read, "She gave us the miracle of pure literary attention."

"The most important people in a publishing house," said Michael Ondaatje, "are the editors."

"If a bomb fell on this room," said Wayson, at the reception afterwards, "Canadian literature would be destroyed." Not quite - that's a Toronto-centric view. But a huge chunk of it would be gone - writers, editors, publishers, publicists, agents ... book people. My people, who don't often gather en masse. One of Ellen's last gifts was to bring them together in this dignified place, to remember her. And not just her work, but her humour and style, her friendship and elegance.

Elizabeth Hay quoted Isaac Babel as saying, "All work consists in overcoming snags." I was thrilled to hear that, as "snags" is a word I use often in my own editing work, urging students and writing clients to make sure there are no snags in their work, no careless moments that jerk the reader from the page. A former student who was there sought me out to say, "When she quoted Babel, I could hear you." Nice to know that in my own minuscule way, I'm doing my best to polish Canlit, as Ellen did.

In fact, I've been in the trenches these last days with my own projects. My friend the agent who was going to take me on decided against it, to preserve our friendship, and I'm sure wisely so. But that meant I was looking for an agent again, or agents, one for the children's book and one for the memoir, which isn't finished but which has a chapter or two ready for showing. So that took a couple of days. It's a full time job to try to sell yourself as a writer - to find an agent and/or get the work out there, publicize it when it's out - let alone try to write the @#$# thing. Brutal. And for almost no money. But there we all were today, all of us in the book trade, because that's who we are and what we do.

Anyway, yesterday I sent the children's manuscript out to one agent, who forwarded it to a colleague, and I sent a query to another. I was depressed for a while before that. Sunday I went to see the Abbey Theatre's "The Plough and the Stars," a brilliant production from Dublin but ye gods, a devastating play, about the destructive power of poverty, alcoholism, colonialism and, especially, a young man's pointless need to fight. I came home sad to find the goodbye email from my friend and faced starting over again. Again.

But outside was a sound - my woodpecker, hammering away at the ivy, taktaktaktaktak. That little bird is my great inspiration. She - he? - just keeps working, day in, day out, digging, exploring. And that's what I, in honour of Ellen Seligman, another kind of woodpecker, will do too.