blue cups

Shall I now continue this soliloquy, or shall I imagine an audience, which will make me describe…We had tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of the giant hollyhock. We were all a little drugged with the country; a little bucolic I thought. It was lovely enough—made me envious of the country peace; the trees all standing securely—why did my eye catch the trees? The look of things has a great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively “What’s the phrase for that?”…
–from A Writer’s Diary, Saturday, August 12th, 1928

It’s always that, isn’t it? The phrase. And the dailiness of life. Today John is putting new glass into an old window, a blue-framed window from a derelict summerhouse in the yard of the house where we lived in North Vancouver before we came to live here. The summerhouse and big house were demolished after we left and we were given permission to take windows and other bits and pieces. The windows are at least a hundred years old and every few years some of them require work. Not usually new glass but new putty, areas of dry-rot scraped out, the frames repainted with the blue I chose 37 years ago at a paint store on Lonsdale Avenue (a sort of Wedgwood blue; I’ve never seen any reason to change it). The windows have old hardware that creaks a little as you wind the windows open and some of the panes are old warbly glass that make you woozy when you look through them.

As for me, I will making pies to freeze for the winter, using Merton Beauty apples and either blackberries or blueberries. I’ll freeze them unbaked but maybe I’ll make a small one for us. Maybe we’ll have a slice with cups of tea from those bright blue cups.

And I’ll continue to work at my desk, finishing up some small edits of an essay coming out in Brick later in the fall, finding my way into The Occasions, and changing into my bathing suit once it warms up enough for a swim. The light has changed. It has the faint golden promise of fall in it. This morning I looked out at the dog rose surrounding my bedroom window and noticed that the hips are red. What’s the phrase for this little hinge in the year, not yet autumn but creaking a little on summer’s axis, asking us to prepare, to replace old glass, to fill the freezer with the season’s abundance, to take the time to look at the trees.

reading Virginia Woolf on a grey Saturday morning in August

a writer's diary

Last night I had to force myself to stay in bed when I woke after midnight, wondering about the work I have in progress. The night is often such a wide and generous space for thinking and writing but I forced myself to stay in bed because I have a bit of a cold, a rough throat, and two weeks from today I will be in Kyiv and want to be healthy for that. Instead of getting up and coming down to my desk, I thought about the way the story I am writing is unfolding. It’s not as I imagined it. I thought it would be more of a piece somehow. Instead, there are sections told in the first person, there are sections that are simply calls and responses, there are overheard conversations, and there are lists. This may change of course. Right now I’m trying not to second-guess myself but simply to write. Later I can figure out if there’s a better way to arrange the sections, to tell the story and all its backstories. Its understories. At the chamber music festival last weekend, I was particularly intrigued by Timothy Corlis’s “Raven and the First Men”, a tone poem based on the Bill Reid sculpture of the same name. It’s a series of brief movements. The composer writes that, “The shortest movements titled “Bird Sanctuary I-III” are like the post-and-beam structure of the piece.” And yes, they served as structural shelters almost, where we could sit and hear rain, the waves, the sound of birds. In my work-in-progress, I think the equivalent structural element is the table. If it is to work as I hope it does, then linear time won’t be as important as what happens around it. Yes, the story will move forward but it will also linger around the table, hover over place-settings, ask a person to lean to their companion and ask for something to be passed. Meanwhile, the sun sets, the moon rises, and (this is becoming an ominous note in the story), the owls begin to call.

Speaking of companions, it is lovely to have A Writer’s Diary at hand. When I opened it this morning, to August 20th, 1930, I find this:

The Waves is I think resolving itself (I am at page 100) into a series of dramatic soliloquies. The thing is to keep them running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves. Can they be read consecutively? I know nothing about that. I think this is the greatest opportunity I have yet been able to give myself; therefore I suppose the most complete failure. Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.

It gives me solace to read Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on her work. Lately I’ve heard young writers talk about their frustration with the “industry” they find themselves in and I’m glad to remember that it doesn’t need to be that. It can be that, of course, if people choose that. Lord knows there’s little enough money in the way I’ve chosen to do things! But for a little while yet, there’s room for other books and writers in the cultural conversation. We don’t need to write for markets, we don’t need to be guided by trends and fashions. Of course we probably won’t find ourselves popular fixtures on the reading circuits, on the bestseller lists, or in demand in a host of other ways. There’s still a place, a quiet place, for the books that don’t aspire to Big.

“The walks in the field are corridors…”

your table is ready

When I was about 21 and figuring out how to be a writer, I sometimes helped at an antiquarian bookstore on Fort Street in Victoria. I liked being there. There were old Persian carpets on the floor and shelves filled with treasures. The owner, who was a friend, gave me books instead of money and that was perfect. Once he presented me (there is no other word) with a copy of a first UK edition (though possibly not a first printing) of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, with a cover design by Vanessa Bell. He made a little speech about her being a good model for me as a young writer and that he knew I would love the book. He’d enclosed a sweet card that I used as a bookmark, and yes, I did love the book. A year or two later I was teaching a writing course at the Y, the one across from Christ Church Cathedral, and I loaned books to the students in that way you do when you are very trusting. I think every book came back except A Writer’s Diary. I’ve borrowed it from the library many times but for some reason I’ve never replaced it. Well, let’s be honest. That particular volume, given in those circumstances, couldn’t be replaced.

A week or two ago, I needed the book. I’m writing a novella (I think it will be a novella, though there’s a chance it might be longer…) that takes as its template Mrs. Dalloway. An anticipated party, the preparations, and of course the flowers. The party in my book will be site-specific and the site is here, though the characters are not us and the house is a bit bigger (to accommodate all the guests who are arriving by ferry, car, plane) and there is even a little guest house, a tiny house on wheels, and that is something I’d love to have here but I don’t think we will take on the work at this point in our lives. My book will be called The Occasions. Even during the busy whirl of the past month, with visiting children and their children, with visiting musicians for the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, I was awake many nights working at my desk. I didn’t want to lose momentum. I wanted the guidance of someone who knew how a book can take over both the waking life and the dreaming one.

I ordered a copy of A Writer’s Diary, the very elegant Persephone edition, and it arrived in today’s mail. I’m so happy to see that the end papers are based on the original Vanessa Bell cover! I opened to August, 1924, when I knew Virginia Woolf was working on Mrs. Dalloway.

For I see that Mrs. Dalloway is going to stretch beyond October. In my forecasts I always forget some most important intervening scenes: I think I can go straight at the grand party and so end; forgetting Septimus, which is a very intense and ticklish business, and jumping Peter Walsh eating his dinner, which may be some obstacle too. But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; and the walks in the fields are corridors; and now today I’m lying thinking.

Mine is a tale in which I know the place and thought I knew how the events would unfold but something dark is happening and I think I wanted to know that it didn’t need to take over my life. Someone isn’t invited to the party for a whole lot of complicated reasons and she has begun to haunt the proceedings. I’m not quite sure what to do about it. About her. In the meantime, the narrator is surrounded by loved ones, the flowers arranged in big jugs for the long table that is being set with French cloths on the grass by the vegetable garden, and someone is tuning her oud. Yes, her oud. I know nothing about these beautiful pear-shaped instruments but a woman has brought it out to the big rock to the south of the house and I can see the rosettes on its soundboard from where I sit. Or at least I’d be able to see them if she really existed and if an oud was truly being tuned for the party. The walks in the fields are corridors, Virginia wrote, and I am walking them, walking them, listening to music.

redux: The Years

Note: every year, I revisit the books of Virginia Woolf. This year is no exception. The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse…Reading these books, I am taken with the beauty of sentences that unravel backwards, backwards, through the years, to my younger self, alone in a room, wanting to write my own sentences. Reading this post, from June, 2012, 7 years ago, I am reminded again of those urgencies.


It might seem that I don’t read much. These entries focus on my garden, or mushroom gathering, or encounters with lizards, snakes, and bees. Or recount a meal with friends, or a brief (or extended) trip to destinations near and far. But in fact I read all the time. I don’t have what I think of as a television metabolism. Ditto for dvds, unless I know ahead of time that I’m going to love the film and not resent the two hours taken from books. Each evening I go up to my bed, settle all four pillows behind me, and take up a book from the stack beside my bed. This week the stack is composed of Ian McEwan’s Solar, William Boyd’s new novel (which I’ve just begun and which takes place in Vienna), a travel book by Frances Mayes which is beautifully written but almost unbearably self-congratulatory.

Lately I’ve been thinking a fair bit about my early twenties, when I was finding myself as a writer. Or beginning to: this is perhaps more accurate. I felt so vulnerable, almost porous: the world seemed to enter my body in every breath of wind, each unfolding hill ahead of me on the walks I took regularly with my family’s dog. I knew I had to find a way to express and contain my experience of the world and poetry was that gift to me. For me.

And books too, particularly biographies and collections of what is now called creative non-fiction. (What was it called then, I’m wondering? I think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for example, which I read shortly after it was published in 1974, when I was 19.) When I first began to read Virginia Woolf, it was such a revelation. Her work was so precise, yet lyrical too, closer to poetry sometimes than other prose I was reading. I devoured her novels and then discovered her essays. The Common Reader was so engaging and encouraging, somehow, to a young woman on the west coast of Canada; I felt emboldened to take myself a little more seriously. I loved A Writer’s Diary, too, which led me to the complete diaries, edited so intelligently by Anne Olivier Bell; and then Quentin Bell’s wonderful biography. Over the years I read many other Woolf biographies and their focus shifted as the times changed. Lyndall Gordon’s, for example, and Hermione Lee’s – they explored Woolf’s sexual abuse and looked at the arc of her life from a feminist perpective; useful and important scholarship.

I thought of Virginia Woolf a lot during the week we spent in Bloomsbury in early March. On Marchmont Street, for instance, where we drank coffee on stools looking out at the sunlight and ate pastries from a wonderful bakery, I recalled her diary entry: “Can I collect any first impressions? How Marchmont Street was like Paris… Oh the convenience of the place and the loveliness too… Why do I love it so much?”  When I came home, I reread The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway, I reread The Years, and the diaries, wanting her voice in my head as I went about my days. I need her courage these days, feeling a little as though my writing is a little too old-fashioned for these hyped-up times.

Yesterday we were in Vancouver to see a play and I thought I’d check out the Woolf shelf at Macleod’s Books. And there was Quentin Bell’s biography, in two volumes, in a slipcase with that gorgeous photograph of Virginia as a girl, soft and dreamy, on one side and a later photograph, still dreamy but also older, haunted, on the other, a fourth printing of the Hogarth Press Edition. I looked to see how much it cost and was delighted to see that Volume 1 was inscribed by Quentin Bell to one Elisabeth Jenson. And the price? About what a lunch would cost, with a glass of wine. So I bought them and they’re on my bedside table.