For a few months now, I’ve been busy with some essays and also with work associated with the micro-press I run with my friend Anik See. (The second novella on our list is at the printer! For more information, visit www.fishgottaswimeditions.com) Hovering in the back of my consciousness has been my own novella-in-progress, though that progress has been stalled. Why is that, I’ve been wondering. Every time I open the file to work on it again, I am transported to its time (the 1970s), its locus (Lytton, the Thompson Plateau, and the area west of Clinton), and its explorations into the women who wrote those landscapes and whom we seldom hear referenced in the literary conversations. I mean of course Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. The protagonist of the novella is a young woman writing a thesis on their work, using their novels to map a very specific terrain. Or at least this is part of what she is doing. She is also coming to terms with the death by drowning of her brother and in this respect there are other texts that travel under the surface of the narrative: mostly these are ancient Egyptian funerary texts—the Books of Breathing and the Book of the Dead.
I want to talk a little about the use of secondary material in a creative work. It’s problematic. It seems to me that it wasn’t always quite so difficult to think about including other texts in one’s own work as long as the writing was properly acknowledged and cited. OF COURSE I don’t mean pretending that the material is your own. Of course not. But I’ve always thought of writing, or at least most of the writing I do, as a kind of conversation, an extension of thinking, and also an act of homage to the work that I’ve loved and that has shaped who I am and what I do. Am I wrong in remembering that it used to be common to include passages (again, properly cited) and epigraphs (ditto), without there being the difficult dance we call Permissions? Here’s a letter I received from Seamus Heaney in 1977 after I’d written to him to ask for permission to use some lines from a poem in North as an epigraph for my book, Ikons of the Hunt.
I sent him the book when it came out and he in turn sent me a card congratulating me. “There is no need to go Fabers.” (In my query, I’d wondered.)
One reason I am thinking about this in relation to this novella is because so much of what I want to write depends on being able to include passages of several novels in my own. Sometimes the author is directly referred to in my text and sometimes, like the passage I’ll show here, I quote the passage in the context of how it’s being used, in this case to annotate a map the narrator is using as background for her thesis as she travels in search of the places mentioned in the books she is writing about. I’ve always planned to include a bibliography and have kept careful notes.
…He could not fault my writing, he admitted, but said he remained unconvinced by the material I’d quoted. I wouldn’t waste my time, he said, on this sort of thing. It’s barely coherent.
I thought of him as I made my marks on my map. His bristly moustache, there. I pressed a pencil hard by the Deadman River. His sneer, there, as I sketched some trees—“…such trees as these marched in thin armies up the runnels of the hills which were strangely coloured in places by outcroppings of rose red rock.”—on the west side of the Thompson just before Ashcroft.
But yesterday, after writing a short section, I suddenly knew what was holding me back from this book. And the fact I’ve called it a “book” is part of what I understand to be the problem. Although I don’t usually write with the thought of publishing what I am currently working on, I guess I know that’s the final step in my working process. I write. I revise. I revise some more. And then I find a publisher. I don’t have an agent. I had one briefly in the early 2000s but she was reluctant to actually place the book I’d finished—A Man In A Distant Field—so we parted company. I tried other agents, in part because there’d been little flutters of interest for film rights for two of my books, but no agent in this country (or any other) would take me on. And that’s fine. I know that I am mostly a literary writer and that there’s a limited market for what I do. I wanted to make sure my books had their best chance and I can say I’ve done that. So yes, a book. That’s what I expect what I’m writing to be when I’m finished. But knowing how difficult it is now to actually include secondary material without paying large sums to do so has me wondering why on earth I should complete this and who on earth would publish it.
When I wrote my memoir-in-essays, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, I spent years reading and researching and remembering. There’s masses of source material cited and acknowledged After the manuscript was accepted, we spent some time deciding exactly how to shape it. Abandon some of the material? Footnote it? Endnote it? Use it as indirect quote? Paraphrase? I wanted every text I’d read and consulted to be obvious because I felt so many of the writers I’d read were guides, mentors, friends. I spent ages figuring out how to prepare the framework and the bibliography (it’s 6 1/2 pages) because it turns out that citation styles have changed from the last century when I was a student and in any case my publisher’s house-style is Chicago rather than MLA. But then I was told I had to start securing permissions. And that became something I’ll never forget because oh, how things had changed from the days when Seamus Heaney said, “There is no need to go to Faber.” I wrote to authors and in most cases they were so gracious. Translator of Dante, and an extraordinary poet in his own right? “Absolutely.” Translator of Odysseus Elytis? Yup, by all means. But then I was told (by my publisher), no, you must also secure permission from the publisher and that’s when it got expensive. There are seven pages of endnotes and I paid about half of my advance in order to be allowed to use quite a lot of the material cited. Sometimes it was 100 pounds for ten words. (In that case, I paraphrased.) The big publishers were the most aggressive and I understand, I guess, why my own (smaller) publisher insisted we track down every one of them. Though seriously? Someone is going to go after an author for quoting and citing a sentence from a book in her own book which, let’s face it, is never going to be a best seller and make her millions? Or even thousands? What times we live in. There were a lot of sleepless nights and I watched my modest advance trickle away, 50 bucks here, 75 there. If I knew the authors would see that money, I’d feel a little less grim about it. (When people write to me to ask if they can use something I’ve written, I always say Yes! Just remember to cite the source.)
None of this should be in my mind and heart as I follow a young woman in search of two women authors in the last century, wanting to insist on a feminine cartography in a landscape claimed and settled by men. Men I read and love, I hasten to add, but I don’t want the women forgotten. I don’t want their books forgotten. None of it should be in my mind but it is. That we can no longer have a conversation in our books with authors who’ve taught us, shaped us, guided us, without paying, is something I have a hard time reckoning with.
2 thoughts on ““I pressed a pencil hard by the Deadman River””
This is an excellent and thoughtful discussion of how we use/absorb/reflect secondary material in our writing. I admire Ethel Wilson’s and Sheila Watson’s work and your engaging idea of writing a feminine cartography. Oh yeah! (You are giving me ideas for a project set in the Gaspé; and of course I will acknowledge you if I go there.) But: yes. How daunting to have to secure permission from aggressive publishers. Enough to make one hesitate to pursue the project. I understand, yet hope you continue.
I think some publishers are unnecessarily cautious, Alice. But my worry is that it might make us (me) cautious too at a time when we need to be bold! To write what’s important to us without worrying about cost and so forth. And if we self-censor ourselves, then the range of literature becomes less richly textured. It’s partly why my friend and I decided to take on the publishing of novellas. If no one will publish them, then people might stop writing them. And we’re less, as a reading culture, for that. I look forward to your project!