George Saunders_Atlantic

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of listening to George Saunders talk about the craft of writing or his own creative process. As a recovering screenwriter, I’ve spent years on projects where it seemed like everyone involved wanted to impose rules onto a story, to make it into something that checks all boxes and functions like a perfect little machine.

It took me the better part of a decade to discover that this approach to writing corrodes a story’s authenticity. It turns original storytelling into a system of telegraphed clichés that chip away at the potential for surprise, both for the writer and the audience.

Saunders is pretty good at articulating what a more creatively free writing process looks like: “A bad story is when you know what the story is, and you’re sure of it,” he says in this video from The Atlantic. This flies in the face of most advice screenwriters get to conform to precise structure and hew away the odd bits of ugliness.

I love hearing someone at his level speak in a positive light about the impossibility of storytelling. It’s the kind of advice that encourages me to continually open up the same damn Word files and work towards some uncertain result.

Dostoyevky’s Lumbering Karamazovs

by Sean on May 10, 2016

in Reading

KaramazovMy recurring suggestion that novels should have a bit of ‘flabbiness’ in them in order to highlight the author’s vision or personality—to convey what their open world looks like, to borrow a gaming term—has been successfully countered by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

While I lamented the absence of this quality in otherwise solid books like Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, both of which could have benefited from a less exacting grip on story beats, The Brothers Karamazov goes so far in the other direction that I was thirsting for a shred of plot to buoy my interest. Of course, the book has to be seen in its socio-historical context and within the author’s overall oeuvre—etc, etc—but looking at this through purely a reader’s lens, I thought that spreading a thin (albeit compelling) plot across ~800 pages demands too much.

I’m glad I made it through the whole thing, though, and this hasn’t soured me on Dostoyevsky; Crime and Punishment is one of the most gripping reads I can recall. And my impressions of The Idiot or novellas like The Gambler and The Double from my undergrad years are pretty positive.

In The Brothers Karamazov, it’s not the bombastic, overwrought monologues that bother me so much as the painful lack of a strong edit. You can see the author losing the thread, then spotting a glimpse of it and chasing off in another direction only to find there’s nothing there either. It’s like watching someone walk through a sparsely furnished house and flicking the lights in each room on and off; they’re looking for something, but you don’t know what and they don’t know how to tell you … because maybe they don’t really know what “it” is.

That motive to pursue some meaning greater than the plot at hand is what I love about the novel as a form. It doesn’t matter to me whether the author clearly articulates what it is they’re trying to reveal, only that they’ve made the effort to look for something bigger in the first place. I think you can feel some earnestness of ‘the search’ in most great art.

However, The Brothers Karamazov does this so much that it falters under its own weighty ambition. (Cormac McCarthy suffers from this at times too, as demonstrated in Blood Meridian.) It’s a book written at the height of the author’s fame, published just one year before his death, but it unfortunately doesn’t age well and is better left to academics or readers who want a challenge.

You Will Remember MeDuring a recent performance of You Will Remember Me by François Archambault at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, I realized that I’d make a terrible theatre critic.

The production is solid and I have few disagreements with this review from Glenn Sumi, my colleague at NOW Magazine, and yet I couldn’t help thinking about how the play could have been better, despite all its praiseworthy aspects. I was rewriting it in my head throughout the performance, selfishly thinking of the missing scenes or the characters that should be cut.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the show—just that my mind was engaged with the many places I wished the story had gone but didn’t. (This is how a theatre critic would shoot him/herself in the foot.)

Mostly, I was distracted by the reductive portrayal of dementia as just memory loss. It’s far more humiliating, tragic and darkly comedic than simply forgetting names and facts. While I don’t think Archambault intends to represent dementia in a strictly realistic way—he instead focuses on creating a thematic connection with Quebec’s political scene—in narrowing this complicated disorder to a one-note character tic, You Will Remember Me misses a chance at something more powerful.

Too much time is spent setting up the captivating central relationship between the main character, Eduoard, and a young woman, Berenice. I’ll be vague here on purpose to avoid spoilers. It’s this connection that allows the play to escape its repetitive reminders of Eduoard’s faulty memory and situational confusion. Berenice gives us access to him in a deeper way because she’s the one character who doesn’t try to correct his constant misremembering—she indulges in it, though for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

Because Eduoard’s dementia has no rough edges, the stakes overall feel artificially imposed, particularly with regard to his failing marriage. His wife is supposed to be at her wit’s end, but we’ve only seen her husband as a charming inconvenience. At worst, Eduoard is an inoffensive reminder of the inevitability of aging and, ultimately, of death. There is no rearing head of cognitive decline or meaningful demonstrations of how this can wear on family members who feel compelled to help but unable to make a difference.

You Will Remember Me proves that stories about dementia don’t need to be total downers, but I’m not convinced that the complicated ugliness of a mental disorder needs to be streamlined in order to tell a satisfying story. My hunch is that there’s more satisfaction to be found in confronting it with a holistic approach.

My Winter 2016 Reads

by Sean on March 23, 2016

in Reading

This past winter—it feels good to say it’s in the past—I dedicated a lot of time to reading magazines and newspapers, but I still kept reading books when possible. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed over the last few months.

Undermajordomo Minor
by Patrick deWitt

deWittI really enjoyed deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, a book that took a playful approach to the Western genre but didn’t overdo the irony. The author has skillfully avoided having his brand overwhelmed by the plague of Canadian media coverage, the recurring theme of which focuses intently on claiming him as “ours.”

Undermajordomo Minor is an incredibly efficient book. By that I mean there’s no wasted space in the text—the action jogs along at a nice clip and the end of one chapter always leads you jumping into the next. However, the quick pacing also means that there are few wandering passages of the kind that reveal a bit of the author’s personality. I’m pretty sure general readers hate this stuff, but I enjoy a bit of flabbiness in a book. I’ll definitely keep reading deWitt, but I hope his next book loosens up the grip on executing a smooth plot line.

The Reason You Walk
by Wab Kinew

KinewI first started paying attention to Wab Kinew back when I heard him interviewed on the now-defunct Escape Velocity Radio podcast (featuring Chris Hannah of Propagandhi). I’ve since discovered he’s the same age as me and grew up not too far away from where I did. The similarities end there, though. Kinew’s world was different from the one I knew as a teenager in northern Ontario. There are many passages in The Reason You Walk that encouraged me to revisit the experiences I had while attending my high school, where a little under half of the students came from an indigenous background.

Kinew’s book is as much a confessional for the mistakes he identifies in his personal life as it is a revealing and accessible journey into the lives and practices of indigenous people in Canada. While reading about the author’s participation in sun dance ceremonies, I was literally gripping the book with both hands. I’m betting his name is one we’ll hear a lot of in the Canadian political arena in the future—particularly around the discussion of reconciliation. Reading The Reason You Walk is a good first step to learning what he’s all about.

My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante

FerranteFriendElena Ferrante, if you haven’t heard, is a name that carries considerable intrigue in the book publishing world because of the author’s severe reticence for media appearances. The presumably Italian writer has penned a tetralogy of novels (dubbed “the Neapolitan novels”) that revolve around the friendship of two girls. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the series. After reading Ferrante’s powerful Days of Abandonment, I was initially a bit underwhelmed with this book. The pacing and intensity are totally different from what I enjoyed in the earlier work.

Where the protagonist of Abandonment is inescapably doomed by her own dark thoughts, the main character of Brilliant Friend—”Elena”—has tunnel vision in her childlike admiration/competition with her best friend, “Lila.” The problem for me was that “Lila” isn’t really that interesting for most of the novel and doesn’t appear to deserve so much of our attention. But, through a series of events I’ll avoid describing here, she becomes a fierce character in the tough Naples neighbourhood where most of the action takes place. I think I’d bail on this series if it weren’t for the book’s final sequence, which somewhat makes up for the many lulls along the way.

“A Man in Love” (My Struggle – Part 2)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

ManInLoveIn another European writer’s book series, Karl Ove Knausgaard takes a head-on approach to describing the small details of various aspects of his life. The first book really hooked me, but in a way that I can’t quite explain—or at least, not in a convincing fashion that would make others take up the series of six autobiographical novels that comprise My Struggle. Knausgaard’s writing is relaxing to me. I’m not flipping the pages to see what happens to a cast of characters; My Struggle is interesting because of the intimacy with the author, the unrestricted access to the mind of someone who clearly overthinks the minutiae of life as much as I do.

Part two of the series, “A Man in Love,” focuses on Knausgaard’s adult relationships with women. He doesn’t exactly come off as a knight in shining armour, or even a particularly repentant man who acknowledges his many missteps—including a section describing a bizarre but strangely underplayed moment of self-mutilation. Reading these books, it’s obvious that Knausgaard isn’t the most interesting person in the world. He is, however, one of the few modern writers to successfully sit down at a computer screen and write compellingly about his inner life for an extended page count. I’m down for book three.

2015 Year in Review

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Each year, I post a round-up of the major changes, projects, and milestones in my writing career. As with previous years, 2015 was chock-full of creative development and surprises. Here are a few of them. New Writing I completed a six-month creative writing mentorship through the University of British Columbia, during which I was able to create a “proof-of-concept” […]

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New Essay on Obedience in THIS Magazine

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THIS Magazine has published my newest essay online and in their November/December 2015 issue, which is centred on ideas of how to build a better world through our kids. My piece was inspired by a dinner I had at my girlfriend’s family home, during which there was a moment that got me thinking a lot about my approach to obedience […]

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New Essay on Writers + Social Media

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Back when the weather was warmer and I could bike around Toronto without my hands turning to ice, I pitched and submitted another essay to Full Stop. (Check out my earlier essay on grieving through writing here.) This time, I wanted to focus on how writers engage with the public today and why some—such as Jonathan Franzen—have […]

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My Summer 2015 Reads

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It’s been an incredibly busy summer so far. I’ve been working with some great new clients and will be sharing more of my creative work in the future. As always, I still carve out time to read as much as I can and try to stay on top of what’s new in the publishing world. Here […]

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My New Essay on Grief-Themed Books

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Full Stop recently published my essay on grief-themed books from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Paul Auster, and Joan Didion. “Why did you want to write about such a heavy subject?” you may ask. Well, I’m not altogether sure what compelled me to write this piece. The idea hit me the moment I looked over at a stack of […]

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NY Times Review Policy Loosens Distributor Grip

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Just before spring arrived this year, The New York Times quietly changed its movie review policy. Instead of reviewing everything that got a proper release in a theatre (in Manhattan) for a certain amount of days (at least a week), they decided to branch out and include films that are finding new ways to reach viewers through […]

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