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At a recent Meaningful Discussions meetup on gender equality, one of the warm-up questions was “Why do you like being a man or a woman?” I thought it an odd question.

I never thought to have an opinion about being a man, any more than I thought to have much of one about being left-handed or on the short side of medium height. It was just another fact, and one that I would need to feel far more strongly about than I do before taking steps to change it.

When others at my table had answered the question, all I managed to contribute was to draw an analogy to Bill Hicks’ answer to the question, “Are You Proud to be an American?”: “I didn’t have a lot to do with it. My parents fucked there, that’s about all.”

I am aware, though, that for many people – probably the majority – being a man or a woman is a major part of how they define themselves. Or, to be exact, in the case of most men, how they define themselves is as not being women. So why am I different? Why is being a man such a minor part of my identity? Outside of my love life, which is as straight as it could be, I don’t spend much time thinking of myself as a man.

After all, I never made a conscious decision to reject male values. For the most part, I simply ignore them.

Part of the answer is probably that I never felt any need to prove my masculinity. Although I reached my full height at fifteen, I entered adolescence tall for my age, which tends to command respect among young males. Also, I won cross-country championships and broke several long distance records on the track – neither of which represented main stream athleticism in the football and basketball culture of high school, but which together were enough of an accomplishment that no one bothered me.

Despite doing well in academics, I was never called a geek or a nerd, and in the couple of attempts to bully me, I more than managed to hold my own through my smart mouth. I felt more annoyed than challenged. I never had a need to establish my position in the hierarchy of boys, or to reject a standard that I couldn’t meet. Looking back, I realize I was lucky.

Just as important was my father’s example. He told me once how, when he was in the British Army in World War 2, he made the mistake of telling a visiting officer that he didn’t see much point in the training his unit was receiving in preparation for the Normandy Invasion. Next day, he was transferred to a unit that would be among the first to land – an experience that had taught him to shut his mouth and go his own way.

Later, when I worked several summers in the plant where my father was a foreman, I noticed that was the way he lived outside the house. He could swear and joke with the best of his fellow workers (although, unlike many men of his generation, never around women or children), but I never heard him doing so in a bragging or aggressive way. Seeing him going his own way, I unconsciously did the same, withdrawing more and more from teen society in the last two years of high school. By the time I graduated, peer pressure barely existed for me.

These unconscious influences were emphasized by my conscious decision when I was fourteen that I was a feminist. By that point, my mother had been back at work for several years, and I had seen how my parents’ division of labor had shifted as a result. Around the same time, I also fell under the influence of a cool student teacher in large glasses and a granny dress who introduced feminism into her lessons. The times, as they said at the time, were a-changin’, and why should I waste my effort living up to updated standards? Declaring myself a feminist was part of my rebellious adolescence, and soon settled down to a part of my identity that I did care about.

Accordingly, I graduated, went to university, and eventually married another feminist. Both of us simultaneously made it a condition of marriage that she not change her name, and in the thirty-two years before she died, we both took considerable enjoyment from breaking sexual stereotypes in little ways, like having her pay at the restaurant. The cash came from the same bank account, so who cared who handed it out? Anyway, the confusion on the server’s face was frequently priceless.

Under all these circumstances, no wonder the question of what I liked about being a man seems meaningless to me. I am still too busy trying to be a human, which seems far more important.

Of course, not worrying about my gender identity is a form of male privilege. A woman, I suspect, would have to be superhuman in her self-will not to be continuously aware of the expectations placed on her due to her gender. No one would allow her to forget. All the same, if I had to choose something I like about being a man, I would have to say it is the fact that in many aspects of life, I don’t have to think about being a man. In fact, the question is so remote from the way I live my life that it took me four days after the meetup about gender equality to come up with any kind of answer.

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Most of the first pieces of writing I sold were poems. Most were under forty lines. In these short poems, I might use an organizing metaphor, but I never had to develop the metaphor beyond that. For years, I wrote fiction the same way, introducing details for color and ignoring them after I moved on from the passage where they appears. However, now that I am trying to write fiction on a daily basis, I realize that approach is inadequate. Instead, I have started practicing parsimony, hoarding details to return to them later on.

What I call parsimony is a restatement of Anton Chekhov’s old adage that, if a gun is hanging on a wall in the first scene of a play, it needs to be fired later on. It is a way of trimming the unnecessary from my writing, and of providing a structural unity.

Recently, though, I have started to appreciate how much parsimony can help with the struggle to plot. So far as I had ever thought of the matter, I imagined that writers carefully conceived of the details that they would need later on, and planted them early in a work. As they edited, perhaps they might go back and add details that a new plot twist required.

I’ve done my share of that, especially after receiving criticism in the writing circle I joined a few months ago. Yet far more often, that’s not how I work at all. More often, I still add details as they occur to me, just as I do in poetry. Then, when I take out the sketchy outline I made as I started writing, I find myself solving plot problems by referring back to the details I mentioned earlier.

For example, in one chapter of my attempt at a fantasy novel, I threw in the bit of color that the culture identifies streets not by signs, but by statues appropriate to the name of the street. In the next chapter, I needed to give two characters a place where they could watch events from the back of a crowd. Remembering those statues, I knew at once where they could stand. The statues, I realized, were a much convincing vantage point than a convenient window ledge or roof top, because the characters would not want to trap themselves if found by their pursuers.

Similarly, I needed someone with whom the protagonists could take refuge. I could have invented a new character, and inserted a few mentions of the character earlier in the narrative. Instead, I dusted off a character who had played a minor point, and the protagonists took shelter with her. I didn’t even have to go back and add anything, because she shared a grievance with the protagonists that would make her willing to help her.

In each of these instances, I avoided the complication of another character and increased the structural unity as well. Moreover, by looking back at what I had already written, I solved plot problems that I otherwise would have agonized over.

I still add bits of color as they occur to me, of course. Now, however, I make a note of them as I do, so that I can recall them later. The parsimony is not just in the structure, but in the economy of effort as well.

Talking about fiction writing and how it is done is difficult. English simply lacks the vocabulary. Instead of choosing the correct word and moving on to a more detailed analysis, discussion is stranded in attempts to explain what I am talking about. Increasingly, I find myself resorting to similes and metaphors.

For example, in recent months I have found myself making comments like these ones:

  • Writing non-fiction is like juggling with three pins. Writing fiction is like adding another couple of pins. In fiction I have to worry about things like characterization that simply don’t exist in non-fiction. Also, I frequently suspect that fiction does not add additional pins so much as chain-saws.
  • Planning a novel is like having a compass, but not a road map. I only know the general direction I am heading, not the details of the route to get there.
  • My process of revision is like painting a canvas with increasing layers of paint. I begin with rough sketch, and begin filling in colors. With each pass, I add another color or layer of paint, adding texture and more of a mixture of colors. Every now and then, I pause to scrape off paint, or to touch up some corner of the canvas.
  • Writing a scene begins with choreography. Before I can write it, I have to know how each character will move during the scene. In the early stages of composition, I chalk in the marks each writer has to hit. Sometimes, I have to scuff out a chalk mark or two because the one I originally try just doesn’t work.
  • Part of the secret of developing characters is to find the rhythm of how each one talks. Until I find each characters’ rhythm – what they can say and can’t say, the tones they use, and their favorite ways of talking – I can’t begin to write the musical score. Once I know these things, my role is largely to conduct, choosing which character takes the lead and which is backup at any given moment. This role as conductor is relatively simple for a duet, where only two characters are talking, and becomes more complicated as the number of characters in a scene increase. In particular, as I write the score, I have to be careful that who says what or who replies to whom is always as clear as possible.
  • Writing is like playing the bagpipes. I can’t actually tune my words; I can only keep adjusting them until the resonances are close to the note I hear in my head.
  • Revision is like the last stages of wood carving. Knots have to be carefully planed away, and I have to keep sanding until I bring out the beauty of the grain.

Whether such metaphors make sense to anyone other than me is questionable. All the same, I keep developing the metaphors and similes, partly because I want to talk about what I am discovering, and partly because talking about the process seems safer than talking about what I am writing, which I suspect would keep me, like so many wannabes, from actually getting the words down.

Discovering Red Molly

I have been listening to Richard Thompson for decades, so I am probably pre-disposed to like a group called Red Molly – it’s the name of the woman in “Vincent Black Lightning, 1952,” the song that Thompson describes as “a love story complicated by a motorcycle.” However, although the name was what first drew my attention, I quickly learned to appreciate the group for its harmonies and musicianship, as well as its versatile selection of materials.

Red Molly consists of three women: Abbie Gardner, Laurie McAllister, and, more recently Mollie Venter, who joined the group in 2010 when Carolann Solebello moved on. In both incarnations, the group characterizes itself as playing Americana – meaning everything from traditional folk songs to blues and country, along with its members’ own compositions. The band takes full advantage of its versatility, its members harmonizing on everything from poignant ballads to rock, and alternating on vocals and guitar. Gardner often adds a unique sound by playing the dobro, often in genres other than the bluegrass with which most people associate it, and the other members have also been known to pick up other instruments such as the bass and banjo.

Perhaps half the band’s material is covers, many of which rival the original, including a version of “Vincent Black Lightning 1952.” Their other covers include an arrangement of “Homeward Bound” that captures the yearning homesickness of the original, and a rocking version of Lucinda William’s “Can’t Let Go.” Their version of Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” is especially chilling, more than enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

However, I am equally fond of their original songs. Venter’s “I am Listening” is a sweet, understated description of the early stages of love,” while in her “Willow Tree,” the tree becomes the symbol of a long-term relationship’s joys and sorrows. McAllister’s original songs, such as “This Farm Needs a Man” are equally memorable, although to my taste she does not write nearly enough of them. However, the most prolific in the current lineup is Abbie Gardner, whose solo albums not only show a fondness for old reinterpreting blues standards like “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “Comes Love,” but also the ability to write songs like “Break It Slow” and “Bang Bang” that mix so indistinguishably with such standards that they might have been written in the same era. Gardner also writes in a more introspective style in “The Mind of a Soldier” and the wistful “Copper Ponies.”

I didn’t plan for Red Molly to become one of current listening favorites, but the more I heard, the more I liked, until I now own eleven of their group and solo albums, and am intending to buy more. In particular, I still have more of Venter’s solo albums to enjoy. No doubt the fact that many of their songs are available in .flac format helps, because I can hear them to best advantage. Yet even without that audio advantage, the way their voices blend and the variety in their songs would easily keep me listening.


“I don’t remember the author or the title, and what it’s about is hard to explain, but it has a green cover.”

With difficulty, I refrain from directing her to the store’s Green Book section. “Can you tell me anything else about it?”

“It was on a talk show this morning.”

The information is little help, since I have been at work since eight this morning. Desperately, I scan the best sellers’ display at the front of the store, but none of the covers include the slightest tinge of green.

“Sorry,” I say, feeling more apoplectic than apologetic. “But without more information, I can’t help you.”

“Fine! Be like that!” She says, and sails off on an air of self-righteousness.

I turn away and continue unpacking an order of books from a local publisher. It’s four and a half hours before quitting time on Christmas Eve, and the nearest I can come to a carol is The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” – which may not be seasonal, but is a truer expression of my feelings than the two Christmas albums that the mall has been playing on rotation for the last six weeks. I might have stopped consciously hearing them after the first week, except that one is a Smurf Christmas Special. The best that can be said about the other one is that it isn’t.

I get maybe thirty seconds of work done before I am interrupted again. This time, it’s a man who’s aggrieved by the fact that he has been in the store for five minutes and none of the clerks have approached him. The fact that they are all busy is irrelevant.

Fortunately, a toddler tearing up books in the Children’s section gives me an excuse to rush away. I place the books out of reach, but no parent is to be seen, even when the toddler starts wailing. After twenty minutes of wailing, the mother shows up. Apparently, she left her offspring with the book store while she popped into The Bay.

And so it goes through the afternoon, my only break the five minutes needed to take boxes out to the compactor. The service corridor is probably the only place in the mall not crowded with increasingly frantic people, which makes the stench of the garbage the nearest thing all day to an uplifting experience. I manage to receive less than half the book order I have been working on since my lunch break.

Yet somehow I survive without suffering a stroke or a lingering death by diplomacy. Just get me to the airport, Put me on a plane, Hurry hurry hurry, before I go insane. At this point, the Ramone’s old hit has become my life’s theme song.

Fifteen minutes before closing, the staff starts walking up to customers and explaining that the store is about to close. Even so, the front door only closes twenty minutes after closing.

The women clerks are just sliding off their high heels when a man starts pounding on the door. His hat is askew, and he is so frantic that his cheeks are an unhealthy red.

“Please, I need to buy a present for my wife!” he pleads.

At this rate, I think, next year he won’t have that problem. I think of the spiced cider I can have tonight, and how I have nothing to do except show up on time at my parents’ tomorrow and maybe set the table and do the dishes. I think of how much I want to be alone, if only for a few hours, and the moxy of the man outside.

“Please?” he says. I think of smirking at him and walking away as he swears at me. I have the right, and if he complains, the rest of the staff is sure to back me up.

“Pleassseeee!”

Sighing, I unlock the door and let him in.

At a time when most people my age are planning for retirement, I am spending increasingly longer amounts of time beginning a new career as a novelist. This new career is one that I have always wanted, but until recently I could never seriously consider it. I remember once I was so desperate to learn why I was having problems that I asked a professional writer how to begin (he told me, truthfully but rather unhelpfully, just to write). However, each career I’ve undertaken has brought me closer to the goal, as I’ve moved from academic to technical and marketing writing to journalist, and now I am finally taking the final step.

I don’t suppose that I qualify as more than a promising beginner, and there are times I doubt I rate so high. However, I am learning more and more about the craft of novel writing, at least as applies to me. For example:

  1.  Joining a writer’s group helps with morale. If nothing else, having mostly finished work being taken seriously by ten or so people is an incentive, even if the criticism is not always to the point or you suspect that some of the others in the group may not be the audience you were assuming. Writing implies an audience, and having one encourages me far more than working in isolation.
  2. When a scene stalls, adding another character to the mix can usually get it started again.  That is a less dramatic version of Raymond Chandler’s suggestion that at such moments, you should have two men break down the door and enter waving guns.
  3. As a plotter, I am a combination of a careful and impulsive planner. Knowing the general outline of what I want to happen in each chapter gives me confidence, and allows me to move back and forth in the novel, and to know where certain deals are needed or can be placed. The closer I get to actually writing a chapter, the more detail I need, but if I work out every single detail before writing, the impulse to write tends to die. Just as importantly, I miss the pleasure of discovering new twists and  background details that come to me as I work.
  4. Adding details or characters is more than just a matter of immediate color, the way it would be in poetry. Instead, both details and characters can change the course of the plot later on. For example, during one critique, someone mentioned that they would like to hear more about the mysterious builders of an old fortification. I hadn’t intended to follow up on that bit of color, but her comment made me realize that I should explain just who those builders were later on. Similarly, having mentioned a character in passing, I realized that I could use her later on, which lead to the idea of her living in a building that once housed a Roman-style bath but has since been divided into apartments. Having the protagonists visit this character, I realized, would also help tie up a loose end in the plot.

  5.  All the talk I’ve heard from published writers about characters taking over is true. Once I have found how the characters talk and act, writing them is extremely easy. For instance, if I were writing a scene for the Marx Brothers, I would hardly need to think to have it start with Groucho trying to get everyone to do something, then a series of exchanges with Chico who would not understand very well, giving Groucho a chance to make some smart remarks, then ending with an appeal to Harpo, who would end the scene by honking his horn or pulling some unlikely object out. Once I know the dynamics of character interaction, writing almost any scene becomes easy. It’s very gratifying.

    However, the gratification doesn’t mean that I should allow characters to take over. At times, I have to prune back the exchange, no matter how I enjoy it. At other times, I need to edit carefully so that the plot doesn’t get totally derailed. Possibly, the character’s revolt will suggest interesting changes of direction in the plot, but, at other times, giving the characters full control will be self-indulgent and require some restraint.

  6.  It is appalling easy to write in clichés. There are countless actions, motivations and phrases that hundreds of writers use all the time, especially in genres. For instance, in science fiction and fantasy, characters are always “shaking their head to clear it.” Yet I have never seen anyone do that, except in parody. These clichés are fine as placeholders in rough drafts, when I want to avoid getting bogged down, but if I want to have any originality, I have to go back and consider what I actually mean where they occur.
  7. Writer’s block in fiction is a signal from the unconscious that I am doing something wrong. If I consider an alternative, I can usually continue writing. I work best when I consider writing as a series of problems to solve. Announcing that I am blocked focuses on the problem, not the solution.
  8.  The best time to work out difficulties or figure how to describe something is when I wake in the middle of the night. The usually barriers between the conscious and the unconscious are thin then, and I can trust my unconscious to provide a solution — sometimes, admittedly, after several tries.
  9. Choreography matters to me as a writer as much as it does to readers. Until I know where characters are standing and where they move to, I am unable to write a scene.
  10. Revision is like painting a canvas, adding one layer after the other until a satisfying level of complexity is achieved. Occasionally, I may discover a corner of the canvas where a detail can be added.
  11. My final draft can lose 10-15% of the length of a section and will only improve as a result.

Almost certainly, these discoveries apply only to me. Other would-be novelists probably discover different truths that hold true for them as strongly as the ones mentioned here do for me. However, each of these discoveries teaches me more about myself, and, being in late middle age, I’m tickled by the fact that I can still surprise myself.

Kelly Robinson is one of my favorite First Nations artists. I live with two of his paintings and three of his masks, all of which are strikingly different. Partly, his versatility is explained by the fact he works in both the Nuxalk and Nuu-chah-nulth traditions, but, whatever the reason, he is always trying something new. “Shamed Spirit” is no exception, although I have put off writing about it for several months, waiting for him to tell me more.

Until the other week, the mask didn’t even have a name. Robinson himself seems reluctant to talk about it, suggesting it is highly personal.

I recognized, of course, that it is a ridicule mask. Ridicule masks are a tradition on the Northwest Coast, a public display reproof of someone’s behavior through the destruction of artwork. This gesture is, perhaps, comparable to the breaking of a copper, as Beau Dick did a few years ago on the grounds of the British Columbia legislature and later at the Canadian Parliament Buildings – a gesture of contempt emphasized by the destruction of something personal and beautiful.

Modern ridicule masks generally feature the marring of half a mask. Often, they make a similar statement to Dick’s breaking of a copper; I remember Mike Dangeli, for example, contributing a ridicule mask that was an overt comment about the treatment of the First Nations to the opening show at the Bill Reid Gallery.

However, I still don’t know whether Robinson intends a similar comment. From a couple of hints, it might be a comment about sexual abuse, although how personal or how political it might be, I am no means sure.

Still, no matter what the target of the mask might be, it remains a powerful symbol. From the right side of the mask, you can see that the design is a mature display of skill, simple yet striking and well-finished. The left side, which Robinson tells me actually spent some time in a fire (and still smells like it did) is both a tragedy for lovers of art, and an expression of strong emotion. After all, who destroys such a piece of art without a strong motivation?

The whole idea of a ridicule mask seems the ultimate example of passive-aggressiveness, a gesture whose sincerity is undeniable, yet comes at a tremendous cost, both personally and aesthetically. I can only hope that one day I get to hear the story behind “Shamed Spirit,” because as a statement, it seems important – even to my limited understanding. But, then, who says that art is supposed to be easy?