Month: February 2017

Good-bye Stuart McLean

An iconic voice for Canada fell silent last week.  Stuart McLean, storyteller and host of CBC’s Vinyl Café lost his battle with cancer on Wednesday, Feb. 15.  He was 68.

I’ve never met Stuart McLean in person, but he has been a welcome guest in my home most Saturday’s for the past many years. His stories of Dave and Morley, their family and friends made me laugh, brought a tear to my eye, and connected me to hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, all tuned to the same radio show.

Mr. McLean told not only tales of his own creation, but those of others.  His “Vinyl Café Story Exchange” invited listeners to share their own stories.  “They had to be short, they had to be true, after that they could be anything at all.”  And share we did.  Stories of practical jokes, stories of reunions, days at the lake, small town happenings, poignant good-byes and a meeting with Queen Elizabeth when she was still Princess Elizabeth, and in uniform.

The stories were read on air, Stuart’s voice infusing the short paragraphs with a warmth and sincerity that gave significant to the commonplace. We heard stories from fellow citizens living thousands of miles away and they became our neighbour, just down the road.  Part of Stuart’s enduring legacy is that drawing together of Canadians from all parts of this vast country and connecting them with each other.  While provinces quarrel over tariffs and health funding and pipelines, Phil in Ontario and Kurt in Vancouver are having a chat about lost love and being a father.  Clare in Vancouver and Glen in Atikokan wrote of canoe trips.  Marlene in Sechelt and William in Brandon wrote of small miracles during a Christmas snowstorm,  quintessential Canadiana, as told by our friends and neighbours.  Listening to the Vinyl Café was like sitting around the kitchen table at home —  with thousands of your best buddies.

Stuart had a raspy voice that wrapped about his listeners like a comfy old sweater, a little tatty, a little worn, but still the favourite garment in your closet, and a rambling style that happily drifted off on tangents. A style that would drive an editor to distraction, Stick to the plot, Stuart, but which appealed to his listeners so much that they wrote their own stories in the same way.

In an age when entertainers want to be edgy, Stuart was kind. He made us laugh until our sides ached, but it was humane laughter, laughter that recognized the failings and foibles of human existence, that held up a mirror to ourselves, but the laughter was never cruel. His Arthur awards, named after a fictional dog, celebrated small acts of kindness or generosity or citizenship.  On “Arthur Day” he would telephone the recipients, on air, and explain to them about their prize.  One time he got a wrong number.  Instead of hanging up and getting back onto the on-air schedule, he started a conversation!  Turns out the recipient of that wrong number was having a hard time of it.  His father had been laid off, home life was bleak and the lad was sitting alone on Saturday morning.  He’d never heard of the Vinyl Café.  “Don’t worry,” said Stuart, “you’re in the majority.”  By the end of the call, our lonely teenager had perked up  and was looking forward to attending one of Stuart’s shows, with complimentary tickets, of course.  All this was on radio, we couldn’t see facial expressions, but that young lad’s voice went from bleak and dreary to excited and enthusiastic, full of anticipation.  That’s the kind of thing Stuart did.  I thought he should have received an Arthur award himself, for that phone call.

Now, Stuart is gone and with him the cast of characters, Dave, Morley, Mary Tarlington, Polly Anderson, Eugene and a host of others who peopled our imaginations and enriched our lives. We’ll miss them all.  When he announced his illness, Stuart said he didn’t want us to worry about him, he’d be back.  He also told a story where Sam, Dave’s son, was assured by a Tarot reader that if things didn’t work out in the end, then, it wasn’t the end yet.  So Stuart, cancer won and you lost, so this can’t be the end yet.

So long for now.  Thanks for everything.

The Archives

It’s time to clear out my writing office. For someone with a scant “published” list, I have an enormous number of words committed to paper.  I have several drafts of all my traditionally published books, plus the proofs, both marked and corrected versions.  I’ve filled the file cabinet, the closet, an old trunk and now have piles on the floor of new and old writing.  My personal archive.  Why am I keeping all these miles of words?

Perhaps it’s because putting words on paper is hard work. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid I’ll never find those words again.  My friend, when home computers were new, hit a button somewhere and turned her term paper into an alphabetical list of words.  Imagine her panic.  The paper represented weeks of work, it was due in a matter of hours and now all her work was a mere list of words.  Perhaps it is that distrust of technology that makes me print out draft versions of my work and keep them. Perhaps it’s just the packrat in me.

Along with the piles of manuscripts, I have boxes and boxes of old birthday cards.  Every time I pull them out, determined to glean only the special ones and recycle the rest, I get stuck in reminiscence and put nearly all of the cards back in the box.  Such is the power of words on paper.

My brother has been researching our family history but has been miserly with sharing his findings with the rest of us. The reason, he says, is because most of his work is guesses but once a guess is put down in writing, it isn’t long until that guess becomes a “fact.”  Imagine having a brother so wise!

Given that the written word is so powerful, it behoves all of us, especially writers, to chose those words carefully, to consider their impact not only in the moment, but in days or years to come. Are our words kind, do they inspire, are they true, are they of benefit to the reader?  In troubled times it is easy to dismiss fiction, especially romantic fiction, as fluff, a waste of time and money, an escape from reality.  In part, those pejoratives may be true, but romantic fiction at its best reminds the world that love is powerful, that relationships give meaning to life, that justice will out.  And there is really nothing wrong with a little escapism.  Why else did Bob Hope visit war zones?  People in conflict and danger, stress and fear, need relief.  They need laughter.  They need a world where the good guys win, where the guy gets and girl and they all live happily ever after.

Words on paper can free or they can imprison.  Today I will reduce the amount of paper in my office, but I’ll continue to hoard beautiful words.

Lesson from a Master

Dancer Fred Astaire was one of Hollywood’s best box office draws during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Some say he was the most popular music dancer of all time.  Although his style appeared effortless, those one take sequences on film were the result of hours and hours of rehearsal.  Previous to Astaire’s success, Hollywood musicals concentrated on large chorus lines, filmed from different angles, resulting in a kaleidoscope effect.  Astaire changed all that, presenting a solo dancer or couple in full-figure with minimum edits and camera angles.  When you watch Fred Astaire, you see the real thing, no cameral magic to cover a misstep.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were before my time but I’ve always enjoyed watching them in old movies. I never thought of him as much of a romantic hero – too thin, too small, slightly balding – but I admired his dancing.  Recently I saw an old movie clip of Astaire that segued into a modern dancer performing the same routine.  I was astonished.  The difference was so stark even a layman like me could see the difference.  The modern dancer was competent, never missed a step.  But Astaire was grace and elegance and fluidity and style with a capital S.  Despite having watched his movies, I never really appreciated his talent until I saw a poor comparison.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfyXPONE7Ws

As writers we’re encouraged to study our heros. Find an author we admire and enjoy.  Study her methods.  Read and re-read her work.  Dig out what makes her words special and then incorporate what we’ve learned into our own writing.  I admit that lesson doesn’t produce good results for me.  I’m so overwhelmed with admiration for the authors who write with energy, and style and grace and elegance and verve and . . . that I forget I’m supposed to be pulling the story apart and doing a critique.  I also find it hard to put my finger on just what it is that makes a particular author’s work so compelling for me.

Now, using my experience of watching Fred Astaire and an also-ran, I’m studying a “bad” book. This is an assigned reading for my book club.  Otherwise, I’d have tossed the novel after the first five, boring pages.  There are no “rules” for writing but there are certain conventions and expectations.  For readers of fiction, I believe the first expectation is to be entertained, from the very start.  One of the blogs I follow, Writers Unboxed, has a regular feature called “Flog a Pro.”  Here the writer community is asked to comment on the first page of a best-selling novel and determine if they, as an editor, would turn the page.  I’m sure the first page of this book would receive a “fail” in his test.  It does not engage this reader, nothing happens, there is no story question, there is no pithy dialogue, there is no appealing character.  In short, the beginning is boring.

Note to self: Reread first page of manuscript and be sure there is action, a question or a character who is so engaging the reader can’t help wanting to know more.

Most teachers of creative writing suggest limiting the story to one or two point-of-view characters. This book has four at least plus a couple of secondary POV segments.  Not only does the story bounce around from one POV character to another, it bounces around in time from pre-war, to present day, to London Blitz, to post-war England and other points in between.  When the author finally caught my attention, she jumped to a different character in a different time.  When I got involved there, she jerked me to yet another time and character.  By this time, I’d forgotten the initial question and I no longer cared.

Note to self: Teasing the reader with tidbits of information to draw her along in the story is a useful technique.  Driving the reader nuts with endless, unresolved cliff-hangers will see your book make a splat on the wall.

The “heroine” of this book, is an unlikeable character. She is deceitful, conniving and self-absorbed.  Tragedy in her personal history does not excuse her outrageous and damaging behaviour.

Note to self: Make your heroine likable.  Flaws make a character more believable, but if the character is your hero/heroine, there must be some redeeming features. (S)he must grow, change and present the reader with an admirable personality by the end of the book.

Thank you Mr. Astaire, and the also-ran dancer who showed me the true genius of the master. I still wish I hadn’t had to read the last book, but you’ve shown me how to learn from a bad example.

Fiction and History

With the success of dramas such as Downton Abbey, movie makers have turned to history for inspiration. Yay!  I’m all for teaching the modern generation about our past, our triumphs and our tragedies, our successes and our mistakes.  What concerns me is the willingness of film-makers and screen writers to present fiction as historical fact.  Even with the disclaimer at the end or the beginning of the film that the work comes from the writer’s imagination, the viewing public will believe that Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth I or Henry VIII really said and thought what the film portrayed.  Historical researchers will spend months or years, poring over personal correspondence, diaries, contemporary writings, newspaper articles and pictures of the day to ensure the accuracy of what they publish to the world about historical characters.  Modern film-makers seem  cavalier about truth.  If the real life of an historical character is dull, they just make up stuff to give it more sex-appeal, attributing thoughts and words to an historical figure that may even contradict what is known about that person’s beliefs.  As a writer and a lover of history, I find this approach disturbing.

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill.  I believe this is true.  How often throughout history have we seen the same forces at work – greed, intolerance, hatred, fear, racism, — leading mankind into war and famine and suffering.  Yet, how can we learn from the past if the past is distorted?  I’m all in favour of a good story, in an historical setting, with real-life characters playing a role, but I think the made-up stuff should only apply to the made-up people.

To that end, I present this brief biography of one of the first women of the Klondike.  It’s as accurate as I can make it.  The tale needs no embellishment to touch the heart.

Kate Carmack

Sometime around 1886, Shaaw Tlaa, the daughter of a Tagish woman and a Tlingit man married, “in the custom of the country”, George Carmack, an American prospector and had a daughter with him.  Upon her marriage, Shaaw Tlaa became known as Kate Carmack.      Kate was skilled in the art of survival in the harsh climate of the Yukon.  She kept house for her husband, raised their daughter, Graphie Grace, sewed moccasins and warm winter clothing to sell to other miners, picked berries and snared game for food and even took in laundry to keep the family going until the mining claims began to pay.  Then on Aug, 16, 1896, George, along with Kate’s brothers, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, discovered gold on Rabbit Creek.  The three men hurried to Forty Mile on the Yukon River to register their claim and the Klondike Gold Rush was underway.  By default, Kate became the first woman on the Klondike.     For the first year after their strike, Kate’s life didn’t change much, but in 1898 George decided to take a trip “outside” to enjoy his new wealth.  Taking Kate and Graphie Grace with him, George headed south to visit his sister Rose Watson, in California..  In Seattle, George  signed Kate into hotels as Mrs. Carmack and showed off his wealth by draping her with gold-nugget necklaces.   He even told the newspaper reporters that he had a mind to take his family to the Paris Exposition in 1900 and he would be glad to have Jim and Charlie along.     Sadly for Kate, the city proved her undoing.  She was unhappy and bewildered in these strange surroundings.  She and her brothers drank too much.  Once she was arrested and spent a night in jail.  The newspapers of the time delighted in portraying Kate and her brothers as wild savages.  George doesn’t appear to have done anything to ease her way into southern society.     After a few weeks in Seattle, the Carmacks moved on to California to stay with George’s sister, Rose.  Rose was delighted to see her brother, but had scant regard for Kate.  She must have felt enormous relief in the spring of 1899 when George took her home to the Klondike.  The only fly in her ointment was that Graphie Grace stayed behind with her Aunt Rose to be “civilized”.     On a second trip South in the summer of 1899, Kate was again sport for the newspapers and George complained bitterly to his sister about her, saying he’d like to send her home to Dyea right away.  Instead of acting on that reasonable impulse,  George returned to the Yukon alone, leaving Kate with his sister in California.  In the winter of 1899-1900, George met Marguerite Laimee in Dawson and proposed at once.  Marguerite accepted on the spot.     Hurt and confused, Kate charged George with adultery, but although they had lived together as man and wife for thirteen years, she could not produce any legal documentation to support her claims.  George married Marguerite in Seattle.  Kate returned to the Klondike where.  Skookum Jim build her a cabin in Carcross.   She earned a small income from selling her needlework to tourists and occasionally posing for photographs.  George sent not a single dollar to support her or their daughter.     Instead, when Graphie Grace was sixteen, George arranged for her to leave the mission school in Whitehorse and join him in Seattle.  It was the greatest betrayal Kate could have endured.  In the  Tagish traditions children belonged with their mother’s clan.  A year later Graphie married her step-mother’s brother and severed all ties with her mother.   Kate died of influenza on March 29, 1920.

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