gritLIT 2016: Lawrence Hill at Hamilton Winterfest

Monday, 8 February 2016

Nearly six years ago, in 2010, I attended my first gritLIT event. It was held at the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts, and Lawrence Hill was reading from Book of Negroes. I remember clearly how generous Hill was with his time after the reading was over, chatting with each audience member who approached him with a book to sign. It wasn't superficial chatter. He seemed truly interested in each of us. Hill clearly won me over, and so did the festival. I joined the team shortly after. 

On Saturday night, Hill joined us for the first time since 2010 for an intimate conversation about his own work, and the highly anticipated posthumous release of Café Babanussa, written by his sister Karen Hill. If you're not familiar with Karen Hill's "rich and challenging life," read "Lawrence Hill on his late sister, Karen Louise Hill," which was published by the Toronto Star in 2014. 

Following his sister's death, Hill threw himself into editing (for length, not for content) Café Babanussa as a way to channel his grief. He shared insight into this process with the sold-out crowd of approximately 75.

Bryan Prince Bookseller was on hand to sell copies of both Karen and Lawrence Hill's books.

Believing that Karen Hill's story is not his to tell, Lawrence Hill chose to read an excerpt of his most recent book, The Illegal, a satirical look "on people who have turned their backs on undocumented refugees struggling to survive in a nation that does not want them."

Then he sat down with CHCH News's Annette Hamm to talk about his own writing process, as well as the challenges he faced editing Café Babanussa.

LivingArts: When We Talk About Writing as a Hobby, We Devalue It

This post originally appeared as part of the Hamilton Arts Council's Living Arts blog. 

There’s a sentiment that irks me more than all others. It comes in a variety of forms, but each version is delivered in a condescending tone:

“You’re so lucky that you have time to read.”

“I don’t remember the last time I had time to read a book.”

“I wish I had time to read like you do.”

They’re innocuous sounding conversation starters, the kind one should easily brush off. But they appear constantly, and always evoke a sigh. Each makes assumptions about my free time, and imply that in the absence of things of substance, I read.

I can’t get too upset. I know I’m a minority; a voracious reader who has turned an appetite for books into work, in the form of reviewing. I can’t expect everyone to know the important role literary criticism can play in the arts. I’m forgiving.

I am, however, less forgiving when the word “read” is replaced with “write.”

“You’re so lucky that you have time to write.”

“I don’t remember the last time I had time to write.” *

“I wish I had time to write like you do.”

*This one usually begins with a line akin to: “I used to write, you know, in high school, before I had a job.”

Writing is so often treated in the same way we treat knitting, axe throwing, building extravagant houses out of cards. We categorize it as a hobby, by definition “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.” A hobby is a pursuit done after the things we do of substance.

When we talk about writing as a hobby, we devalue it. We also ignore the countless hours that writers spend not creating -- researching, writing grant proposals, scrapping ideas that once seemed promising but have vanished into thin air.

Few writers have the privilege of writing full time; instead most have no choice but to write in the wee spaces before and after work and/or after caregiving ends. But this doesn’t mean their creative pursuits are simple ways to fill time. Pursuing creative passions is worthy, but so often, they’re dismissed as frivolity.

At the same time I was starting to formulate these annoyances into a blog post, I started a new book (you know, in all my free time) called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, written by Elizabeth Gilbert, who famously unleashed endless conversations about writing and privilege when she published Eat, Pray, Love. Also a memoir, Big Magic explores creativity, “offering potent insight into the mysterious nature of inspiration.”

I’ll resist the urge to write a review of Big Magic here, but I can say it precisely articulates my sentiments, using examples such as Toni Morrison getting up at five o’clock a.m. to tend to her work before heading to a grueling job and J.K. Rowling struggling to get by financially, yet still writing on the side. Neither of these scenarios are remotely glamorous. They’re created out of an undeniable urge to create.

“People don’t do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it,” writes Gilbert. “They do this kind of thing because their creativity matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of sacrifices for it.”

The role of the storyteller is one celebrated throughout history, and in many cultures, it still is. When we undervalue storytelling in the form of writing, we dismiss it as unworthy, and we contribute to a culture in which artists are underpaid, or not paid at all, and where aspiring artists hide their aspirations in fear that they’ll be dismissed as frivolous.

11 Nuggets from Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Tuesday, 26 January 2016
I gave a presentation on Elizabeth Gilbert in a magazine writing class in university. This was just years, more likely months, before she released Eat, Pray, Love, the memoir that launched her into the homes of women (and surely, some men) around the world. My presentation was on literary non-fiction, and it touched on this amazing tidbit: Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the 1997 GQ article "The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon," which inspired the movie that any girl who came to age in the early "aughts" knows well. I also spoke about her book The Last American Man, a book that introduced me to literary non-fiction, the genre I enjoy above all others.

I mention all this to say that I've been a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert for many years, so I couldn't wait to read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, her most recent work of non-fiction. 

Gilbert writes early in the book:
"So this, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?"

Big Magic is full of advice and anecdotes for creators of all disciplines. If you don't have time to read the book, I wholeheartedly suggest you listen to Gilbert on q with Shad

I tend to jot down a lot of quotes when I read, and I found myself adding sticky notes to almost every chapter in Big Magic. I've compiled a few of my favourite nuggets of wisdom below.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Writing Life ... 
"Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamourous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least."

On Schooling ...
"Instead of taking out loans to go to a school for the arts, maybe try to push yourself deeper into the world, to explore more bravely. Or go more deeply and bravely inward. Take an honest inventory of the education you already have — the years you have lived, the trials you have endured, the skills you have learned along the way."

On Education, Not to be Confused with Schooling ...
"Your teachers don't even need to be alive to educate you masterfully. No living writer has ever taught me more about plotting and characterization than Charles Dickens has taught me — and needless to say, I never met him during office hours to discuss it. All I had to do in order to learn from Dickens was to spend years privately studying his novels like they were holy scripture, and then to practice like the devil on my own."

On Children ...
"They never seemed to worry that the flow of ideas would dry up. They never stressed about their creativity, and they never competed against themselves; they merely lived within their inspiration, comfortably and unquestioningly."

On Disappointment ...
"I remember thinking that learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of a creative person. If you want to be an artists of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work — perhaps the single most fundamental aspect of the work. Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process."

On Money ...
"Money helps, to be sure. But if money were the only thing people needed in order to live creative lives, then the mega-rich would be the most imaginative, generative, and original thinkers among us, and they simply are not. The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust — and those elements are universally accessible."

On Perfectionism ...
"Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes — but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don't even bother trying to be creative in the first place."

On Suffering ...
"I want to make something perfectly clear here: I do not deny the reality of suffering — not yours, not mine, not humanity's in general. It is simply that I refuse to fetishize it. I certainly refuse to deliberately seek out suffering in the name of artistic authenticity."

On Why Your Art isn't Your Baby ...
"Your creative work is not your baby; if anything, you are its baby. Everything I have ever written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way. I am who I am today precisely because of what I have made and what it has made me into."

On Curiosity ...
"I believe that curiosity is the secret. Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living. Curiosity is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Furthermore, curiosity is accessible to everyone."

On Failures ...
"Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don't need to conduct autopsies on your disasters. You don't need to know what anything means. Remember: The gods of creativity are not obliged to explain anything to us. Own your disappointment, acknowledge it for what it is, and move on. Chop up that failure and use it for bait to try to catch another project."

Lawrence Hill at gritLIT

Sunday, 17 January 2016
Hamilton Winterfest was one of my favourite events last year (Check out my recap here), and I'm thrilled to see it's back with another stellar line-up for 2016. As most of you know, I'm on the board at gritLIT: Hamilton's Readers and Writers Festival, and this year one of our goals is to increase our year-round programming. This year, we're helping to kick off the festivities by presenting an In Conversation with Lawrence Hill on Winterfest's opening night. Tickets for this event are very limited, so get yours today

Favourite Books of 2015

Wednesday, 30 December 2015
In March 2015, I delightfully ditched my commute. I regained my sanity, but at the same time, I lost a few designated hours of reading time each day. That said, I've done my best to keep up on my reading list, and I uncovered quite a few gems this year. I can't say for certain these are the best books of the year, but they're my favourites, and each was a joy to read.

Surprisingly, there's no fiction on this list of favourites. That's not to say I didn't read amazing fiction this year. The first book I read in 2015 was Us, Conductors, and I was crushed when it ended. (With quotes like "There is cruelty to the way a person, a place, can sometimes feel so close, and then the next day far away" and "I had known many silhouettes," Us, Conductors quickly became one of my all-time favourite reads). I also wept my way through Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese, a gorgeous and heartbreaking novel. These were just two of the stunning works of fiction I read in 2015; however, both were 2014 releases.

The following books are the books that kept me up at night in 2015. They're the books I want to tell everyone to read. They're books I can't recommend enough.

This is Happy by Camilla Gibb (Doubleday Canada); Released August 18, 2015
Each year, there's a book that I recommend to everyone I know. It's usually a memoir. It's been Just Kids, The Boy in the Moon, and The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. Last year, it was Plum Johnson's They Left Us Everything. This year, it was This is Happy, a memoir that I boasted about on the blog and in person to everyone who asked for a recommendation. If you're going to read one book on this list, read This is Happy. (But don't stop there. Read them all.)

Mountain City Girls: The McGarrigle Family Album by Anna and Jane McGarrigle (Random House of Canada); Released November 10, 2015
Because of my dad's influence, I grew up on American folk music, but Canadian folk music is something I've mostly discovered on my own, and the McGarrigles are no exception. Mountain City Girls is unique in the way it's told, as both surviving McGarrigle sisters, Anna and Jane, each take turns sharing their memories. I'm currently working on a review of this one for, so stay tuned for my complete thoughts on it.

M Train by Patti Smith (Knopf Canada); Released October 6, 2015

It surprises people that I have a favourite book, but I do. It's Just Kids by Patti Smith, and it's magical (as evidenced here). So, of course, when Patti Smith's follow-up was released this fall, I snuck out of work to get a copy on release day, and I devoured it in one or two nights. I'm going to be honest and say that M Train didn't hit me in the gut as Just Kids did, but that isn't because it's not a brilliant book. It is a brilliant book, but it's lonelier and laced with solitude. It's a tougher read, but Smith's stunning prose makes it worth the challenge.

A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail by Jenna Butler (Wolsak and Wynn); Released October 6, 2015 

Full disclosure: I read this book yesterday. I read it in one sitting because I couldn't put it down. In 2006, Butler and her partner, Thomas, purchased 160 acres of land in northern Canadian bush. "They knew they weren't purchasing anything more than hard work and hope but still they headed up every weekend to clear a spot in those woods where they could plant their first crops." A Profession of Hope is a short book, but it brims with hope and possibility.

I'm obsessed with the four books in my "Beautiful Books" category. Each is the type of book that shouldn't be destined to collect dust on a bookshelf. Each begs to be displayed and shared with as many people as possible. I'm aware that I'm overusing the word "stunning" in this post, but these are stunning books!

The 52 Lists Project: A Year of Weekly Journaling Inspiration by Moorea Seal (Sasquatch Books); Released September 8, 2015
This one is part book and part New Year's resolution. "This beautiful undated journal of weekly lists will help nurture self-expression and self-development. Each seasonal section includes list prompts, with plenty of space to write your own lists, and challenges to help you take action and make your dreams a reality." I can't wait to begin journalling in 2016. (Look how beautiful it is inside.)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Decoded: The Full Text of Lewis Carroll's Novel with It's Many Hidden Meanings by David Day (Doubleday Canada); Released September 29, 2015
I can't do this book justice. It's huge and colourful, and it's full of endless insight about Lewis Carroll's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It's my perfect book, combining children's literature with history, from the Liddell siblings who inspired the book to the historical context in which the book was published. "Day's commentary, woven around the complete text of the novel for ease of cross-reference on every page, uncovers the many layers of teaching, concealed by manipulation of language, that are carried so lightly in the form of a fairy tale." This isn't only one of the impressive books I read this year, but one of the most impressive books I've ever read.

This is Sadie by Sara O'Leary and Julie Morstad (Tundra Books); Released May 12, 2015
I can't describe This is Sadie any better than the description Tundra Books offers: "Sadie is a little girl with a big imagination. She has been a girl who lived under the sea and a boy raised by wolves. She has had adventures in wonderland and visited the world of fairytales. She whispers to the dresses in her closet and talks to birds in the treetops. She has wings that take her anywhere she wants to go, but that always bring her home again. She likes to make things — boats out of boxes and castles out of cushions. But more than anything Sadie likes stories, because you can make them from nothing at all." Sometimes I wish I had kids only for the picture books.

Plotted: A Literary Atlas by Andrew DeGraff and Daniel Harmon (Zest Books); Released October 20, 2015
The joy of reading is creating a world inside your head that nobody else can see. "This incredibly wide-ranging collection of maps — all inspired by literary classics — offers readers a new way of looking at their favorite fictional worlds. Andrew DeGraff’s stunningly detailed artwork takes readers deep into the landscapes from The Odyssey, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, Invisible Man, A Wrinkle in Time, Watership Down, A Christmas Carol, and more." Plotted brings fictional worlds to life through imaginative illustrations that are frame-worthy. It goes without saying, but I loved this book completely.

There are two books of poetry and no fiction books on this list. What can I say? 2015 was a weird year. 

We Can't Ever Do This Again by Amber McMillan (Wolsak and Wynn); Published April 15, 2015

I read this one on a patio on one of those rare days when you've got nothing better to do than to drink a cold beer on a hot day with a good book as your only companion. We're lucky to have a local publisher here in #HamOnt that excels in poetry, and this one by Amber McMillan is among my favourites Wolsak and Wynn has published. I tend to judge books by their covers, and the cover of We Can't Ever Do This Again drew me in, but McMillan's tender and detailed poetry kept me hooked.

rue: poems by Melissa Bull (Anvil Press); Published April 15, 2015 
Oddly enough, rue by Melissa Bull was published on the same day as We Can't Ever Do This Again, proving April 15 is a good day for poetry! Here's just a snippet of my review of rue, which appeared in the Humber Literary Review: "In rue, Bull writes of experiences that mimic our own — friends gathering on balconies, strangers exchanging grins, and ambiguous conversations — but, of course, most of us lack her finely tuned precision of language. Bull’s ability to capture the most ordinary things and experiences make it no surprise that rue was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award. Bull is a welcomed addition to Canada’s poetry landscape." There's a line that killed me in rue, but it's not a line I'll reveal. As in the case of good poetry, it's a line that hit a little too close to home for comfort.

Honourable Mentions:

I've already mentioned Us, Conductors and Medicine Walk, but there are a few other books I read in 2015 that were released in previous years. Leak by Kate Hargreaves (Book Thug) and One Hour In Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery by Karyn Freedman (Freehand Books) are both equally deserving of a mention.

Not My Typewriter: A Year in Review

Blog posts have a short life span and they die a quick death. They appear, and then quickly they disappear. In order to give a few of my favourites from 2015 a tad more longevity, I've compiled a list of my favourite posts from 2015. Somehow, Not My Typewriter has been around for five years now, and incredibly, 2015 boasted my most posts so far. Hoping to follow this momentum through to 2016! Wishing everyone a happy and healthy year ahead.

Living Arts: (Don't) Quit Your Day Job
Two weeks ago I quit my job. I walked into my boss's office with a letter in hand, and I gave my resignation after eight years. It wasn't an easy decision.

Bookish CanCon (Juno Edition)
It's Juno weekend here in Hamilton, which gave me the perfect opportunity to finally compile the Bookish CanCon playlist I've been thinking about for a while. It won't come as a surprise, but a lot of Canadian artists reference literature in both their songs and band names.

Hamilton Winterfest
Hamilton WinterFest kicked off today at Pier 8. The festival, which is in its 37th year, runs February 7-16 at galleries, museums, and parks across the city. Today's WinterFest Kick-Off event included live music (notably Hamilton's Wax Mannequin), art installations, crafts, and a mini film festival, featuring two of my all-time favourite bits of Canadiana — The Sweater and The Log Driver's Waltz.

Doors Open Hamilton
If you've followed this blog for any more than a year, you'll know all about my enthusiasm for Doors Open Hamilton. It's undoubtedly in my top three events in the city (and I love events!) and every year it marks the beginning of spring for me. This year was no exception.

gritLIT2015: The Good, Great, and Even Better
I've had a lot of incredible opportunities as a committee member of gritLIT: Hamilton's Readers and Writers Festival, but sitting in Richard Wagamese's literary salon (and introducing him) is now firmly planted at the top of that list. The intimate crowd was captivated from the second he started sharing his experiences, among them having money for food but not shelter and devouring the wealth of material at the St. Catherines library.

A few weeks ago, on a road trip, we took the less-travelled route between Toronto and Ottawa (and later Ottawa and Toronto), taking the scenic route along Highway 7, and stopping along the way. The trip also took us to Olympic Stadium in Montreal for a pre-season Jays game.

Judy Blume at the Toronto Reference Library
Book signings are a strange but wonderful experience. For me, an anxious introvert, they mean standing in line playing conversations over and over again in my head: What will I say? What should I say? What will he/she say in response?

Fringe Binge 2015
This year, I received the chance to review Fringe Festival plays for one of my favourite Hamilton sites, Raise the Hammer.

Review: This is Happy by Camilla Gibb
I read the first pages of This Is Happy, Camilla Gibb’s first memoir, on the edge of Guelph Lake with a folk festival buzzing behind me. It was the final weekend of July, and I’d snuck away from the chaos: The sweaty bodies fighting for shade, the dancing women in flowing skirts, the line-up for overpriced beer. I found an hour of solitude as the sun began to set and hipster parents called their little ones back toward shore. This is happy, I thought to myself.

Hamilton Haunts: Quills
On the first Thursday of every month, a bright and open loft space that overlooks Hamilton’s trendy Locke Street becomes alive with the sound of typewriters. For the past few months, Quills, a stationery shop that specializes in far more than paper, has hosted the Locke Street Lettering Society, an evening that encourages people to toss aside their cell phones and write letters instead. Quills supplies not only the vintage typewriters, ink and pens, but even the envelopes and stamps, too.

Supercrawl: Day One and Supercrawl: Day Two and ThreeHamilton is one tough city. During a weekend of cold drizzle, many of us still took to the streets even though the sun refused to shine. Despite it all, we rallied, and we made the best of it, under ponchos and umbrellas.

Hamilton Haunts: The River Trading Company The carefully curated collection that makes up the River Trading Company (at 559 Barton Street East) is the pride of siblings Mary and David McGowan. It's also watched over by two cats, Walter (who Mary says chose bookstore living when he wandered into the Toronto store) and Nickel, and a dog, Thor, who greets book browsers at the door.

#GLB2015: Outline by Rachel Cusk
This year, Giller Light has enlisted the help of bloggers to highlight the five titles that comprise the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. Yesterday, Karen of One More Page reviewed Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill. Karen is a tough act to follow, but I'm happy to be today's #GLB2015 blogger, reviewing Outline by Rachel Cusk. 

Holiday Wishlist: gritLIT Weekend Pass

Wednesday, 23 December 2015
In case you missed it, we released a partial-list of gritLIT 2016 authors, and if I do say so myself, it's impressive! Between April 7-10, we’ll be welcoming to Hamilton Camilla Gibb, Anakana Schofield, Nino Ricci, Helen Humphreys, Terry Fallis, Russell Smith, Plum Johnson, Bernadette Rule, Rachael Preston, Gary Barwin, Pamela Mordecai, Emily Urquhart, Giles Blunt, Kim Echlin, and John Terpstra (among others to be announced)!

Pick up a weekend pass at the following locations:
Bryan Prince Bookseller, 1060 King Street W., Hamilton
Epic Books, 226 Locke St S., Hamilton
J.H. Gordon Books, 314 King St E. (near Wellington), Hamilton

To read more about these bookstores and others local to Hamilton, visit last year's holiday round-up.
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