Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
The weeks, and especially the final days, leading up to last Tuesday felt like the crushing anxiety experienced towards the start of the pandemic – what was happening to the world, and how were we going to get out of it. Opening Twitter and the news in general became downright unpleasant, the same crush of negativity I had identified years earlier and now was willingly succumbing to, like pressing “refresh” on the whole world. A single country was likely deciding the direction of an unwilling world – not a definitive path to the destination, but rather how close that path was veering towards the precipice of darkness.
My first mistake of the night was tuning into our local national channel, the CBC, instead of figuring out how to get access to CNN and all the juicy second-by-second analysis and glorious maps that I would hear later about. Instead, I had to make my own pundit room, which was basically just hitting refresh on the Associated Press results page. The first thing I focused on was Florida, which lit up light red with a relatively small margin, and I reminded myself that things were still early.
I was right, the pink margin shrank, and the state turned light blue. Florida was a good indicator, Florida meant that everything was going to be all right. Not sure how long that listed, seemed like a couple of heartbeats before that margin shrank, Florida descended into pink and then was called in favour of Trump with a comfortable margin.
Then came the other disappointments – the hope for a landslide had quickly fizzled, but then the Rust Belt results came in and there was no longer any breath left in us. Sure, there were the mail-in ballots – we knew there were a lot and we knew they’d heavily skew Blue. But we were also told Hillary was all but assured a win and that evening four years ago ended in crushing defeat and dwindling hope for the future.
Cynics would likely ask what do I care, that’s not my President. Well, who do you think I want running the world’s largest economy? The guy who wants to revive the coal industry or the guy who had the audacity to say, on a campaign trail, that we must prepare to phase out oil and gas? It may not be my president, but he’s still presiding over the future of my kids and my grandchildren.
So seeing Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin all show up red, even though they were not yet called, seemed to give very little permission to breathe. My wife and I, who’re normally so chatty in the evenings that we have to pause our TV every ten minutes or so, probably spoke a handful of sentences during the whole night.
Our CBC pundits, instead of finding rays of hope and providing hard-hitting analysis of mail-in votes and paths to the White House, seemed as hopelessly lost as we were.
And then, the mail-in counting started. It made no splash for our CBC commentators, but I watched the margin of Trump’s lead in Michigan change from 11, to 9.2, to 8.9. I didn’t want to think about what it could mean and reluctantly went to sleep, finding Wisconsin and Michigan switched blue in the morning and the elephant finally lifted off my chest and waddling towards the exit.
This last week seemed to all but solidify the true result, and I hope it stays after the country goes through all the motions it needs to ensure a fair process that arrived at an accurate result.
It was an odd sensation being on this rollercoaster ride with so many millions around the world.
Granted, both short-term and long-term, the journey isn’t over. The power hasn’t been transitioned, coronavirus still runs rampart in both our countries, climate change is still a crisis, and millions of voters who thought Trump was the best man for the job hadn’t miraculously changed their mind over night. The political, social and economic realities that created this mess are still simmering and ready to boil over, and the stewards of this unrest aren’t quietly going away either.
After a couple of days of confusion, it seems the staunch supporters of the darkest night are rallying their forces and positioning their pieces to make the next steps as difficult as possible.
Someone on Twitter had described this feeling perfectly – the monster in the horror movie had been defeated, but there’s still twenty minutes left. What we do with these twenty minutes, both America as a country, and the world as a whole being influenced by the ripples of the behemoth that is the States – need to firm up the direction they’re going to take.
The battle may not be over, but the election did something that had been sorely missing – provided a ray of hope, and as long as we don’t allow ourselves to become complicit, we can build that hope into something concrete.
I’ve been working from home for almost three months now, and though challenges remain, the emotional weight of the virus has gradually shifted. Some places are doing better than others and I’m happy that my country, and even my Province within my country, are doing reasonably well. That is not to say there’s any reason to let up, the fight is far from over, but there’s plenty of reasons for hope – that we can come together (with notable exceptions that need not be elaborated on) and make sacrifices to keep each other safe.
Now the world, or at least, more of the world than ever before, is starting to come together to bring the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront, hopefully to the point that it will enact long-lasting changes.
Exercising my own voice in my writing seems so small in comparison to the global events of this year. The voices that have been silenced and have historically not had a chance to speak are not my own and the stories I’m personally working aren’t the ones that need to be shouted from the rooftop right now.
As part of that, I think it’s also crucially important for white authors to read more works by people of colour and for male authors to read more works written by women. I’ve read some excellent literature last year that I would highly recommend, and will make more of a concerted effort to broaden my own experience in the future. I’ve been very interested in the works of N. K. Jemisin and have put her works on my short-term reading list.
With my own writing, I have been a busy beaver for these last few weeks.
I’ve slogged through the “saggy middle” of my novel, which I still think needs some rewriting, or else serious deleting, and have been going through subsequent chapters at a good pace. Hoping to incorporate some beta reader feedback in the next draft, but otherwise seeing a light at the end of this particular tunnel.
The novel that is currently partway through the first draft has also been gaining steam. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of opening up my original outline for it, which I haven’t referred to in more than a year, and now I’m questioning all the choices that led me to veer off the chosen path. As I’ve alluded to in my recent entry on pantsing versus plotting, I just have to trust the process.
The Bloodlet Sun has enjoyed steady progress as well. I’m currently building up a buffer of chapters, and dealing with some interesting problems when it comes to naming characters, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.
I’m writing a short story that I intend to submit to a publication by June 30. I’ve never been the best at deadline work when it comes to my creative writing, but the first draft is about three quarters finished and I’m optimistic I’ll make it. It’s a local publication themed to writing that was inspired during the COVID-19 pandemic, and draws a little bit on the magic realism themes that sometimes crop in my writing.
Speaking of short stories, there’s one I completed recently that draws on my experiences in Russia that I have the audacity to think I can submit for consideration to the New Yorker. There’s really nothing to the process yet somehow the very notion terrifies me and I haven’t been able to click ‘send’ yet. Hopefully that comes in the next week.
Seeing what I can do with my Russian inspirations, my wife recommended I try my hand at my own story – something about the relationship with my dad and how it influenced my identity and journey as an immigrant. I haven’t even cracked a thousand words with this, but already the level of introspection is a little uncomfortable. Lot’s of heavy shit to unpack.
Evidently, I’ve had a lot to say recently, and that goes hand-in-hand with questioning what I have to say as well, which is an active process that any writer in a position of privilege should not neglect. As you can imagine, the environment that gave rise to my Russian-inspired writing was not the most diverse place, the lack of which actually informs some of that writing. So exclusively “writing what I know”, particularly if focused on the first 13 years of my life, would result in my writing continuing to be part of the problem, which is another reason why I prefer to have multiple projects on the go and to challenge myself at every stage of the writing process.
I do hope that as I continue to pursue my passion for writing, I would be able to positively contribute in some way, and if I take any missteps, I fully intend to learn and be better.
With the current events unfolding in the United States and this week, it seems trite to talk about anything.
As someone from my background I can never understand; I can never appreciate the pain, the suffering, the frustration with a system that refuses to change. I never have to have the fears that face communities on a daily basis and there is no word for that other than “privilege”.
What I can do, what I’ve been trying to do and wish to do better, and what so many in a position of privilege are refusing to do, is to listen.
Refusing to listen, or declaring your own personal job done because you’re not as bad as your racist Uncle Joe whom you only see at Thanksgiving, or thinking you’re not part of the problem based on your own personal lens, amounts to making a conscious decision to continue being part of the problem. Everything that’s happening right now, everything that has led to this boiling over in the last week, the systems and society that has not only allowed but encouraged the problems to persist, confers an advantage to those that benefit from a system.
On a societal scale, the benefit is obvious. On an individual scale it may not be obvious, it may be tangential, it may be smaller for some than for others, but it exists. Denying otherwise is becoming a willing accomplice. Like I’ve tried to explain to my own kids, if you get an advantage from someone else doing something bad, that doesn’t necessarily make you bad, but if you are fully aware of the advantage, and you do nothing about it, then you’re being bad. My kids seem to get it. There’s no reason why an adult shouldn’t.
So it’s imperative to start by using our ears. Listen to the very people who understand the situation better than you ever could. Don’t talk over them with your “yeah but”s – build up your understanding so that you can empower your voice.
And then use that voice that you’ve been given. I don’t mean use it to spew the warmed-over vomit of platitudes such as “all lives matter” or “why don’t we all just get along” – see the part above about being a willing accomplice at this point. And don’t just be content with sharing things on social media or otherwise shouting into the void. The problem runs deep and it runs wide.
Work with those closest to you – your family, your friends, your coworkers. If they’ve shut their ears to the voices that need to be heard then be that voice, try to open that door in their mind that will allow that change to take root. It will be uncomfortable, but if you think that discomfort is not worth your effort, then repeat step one again – listen, and try to understand why your discomfort is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
You will make mistakes. You will get called out on those mistakes. And there’s no shame in being humbled. Don’t stop listening just because no one’s putting you on the pedestal for finally trying to do something. If someone is injured and you’re trying to help and they tell you you’re hurting them in the process, are you going to argue? Are you going to drop helping altogether and walk away in a huff? This is no different.
It’s not about you, or your ego, or your inconvenience. The moment is not about you, but it is long overdue to make the moment part of you. Don’t let the next news cycle wash this away – you may have the ability to walk away when the channel changes, but that is not how it works for those who have to live it.
Make it a part of your life, and maybe everyone else’s will improve, too.
I don’t know how many of my blog posts are spawned from Twitter discussions (arguments? petty slap fights?) but let’s hope it’s less than I think.
This particular one stems from a recent Emma Watson interview where, when talking about turning thirty and being single, she described herself as being “self-partnered”.
Much like the creation of the universe had made people very angry, so it goes whenever a strong female voice expresses any independent thought or opinion and *gasp* dares suggest that she’s doing just fine being single. All manner of vermin are suddenly roused from their damp and murky dens to crawl onto social media in an attempt to remind the world of the superiority of their limp and pale appendages.
One such fellow caught my attention as I was scrolling through my feed. He chose to tweet at both Emma Watson, and at writer and current Chair of the NYC Mayor’s Fund, Chirlane McCray, who expressed support for Watson’s choice of words. And the important message he wanted to communicate to two people who accomplish more before breakfast than he does in a year, is that they don’t know the meaning of the word “partner”. Everyone, stop the presses, this man knows what a word means.
A commitment to misogyny, and a commitment is the only way to describe this person’s Twitter feed, reminiscent of the commitment shown by the rats to sinking Titanic, is difficult to break. But this person wasn’t just committed to a single line of outmoded narrow-minded thinking. This guy was also a prescriptivist. Or more accurately, he used prescriptivism as a platform for his misogyny, because let’s face it, this isn’t going to be someone who complains too much that “covfefe” is not a word.
When called out on his mansplaining, he double, triple, and quadrupled down leaving me with an image of a skinny guy at a hot dog eating competition. I was presented with a Googled dictionary definition of “partner” with the snarky comment about how that’s just English 101. Not sure which English class he’d taken where students are merely beaten with a dictionary for the entirety of the lesson, so maybe some sympathy on my part was in order.
Whatever childhood trauma causes the affliction, prescriptivists see language as a set of rigid rules that must be adhered to. Anything that does not fit into a prescriptivist’s neat definition of what language should be is chocked up to ignorance, or worse yet – innovation. You see, a prescriptivist’s mind is incapable of comprehending speech that isn’t robotically like their own.
They’re the ones who will happily, and incorrectly, remind you that “literally” has never meant “figuratively” and never will – the lowest hanging fruit of grammatical nitpickiness. In fact, it’s not even low hanging – it’s fruit that’s been on the ground so long that it has fermented and anyone who partakes of it because so inebriated that everyone around them is rendered uncomfortable and in want of more pleasant company.
Prescriptivists are the ones who are horrified at the prospect of “alot" becoming a word, even though “alright” and “already” exist. “Ain’t” is an affront to good manners and slang that isn’t so old that even grandpa has starting using it unironically at the Thanksgiving table is evidence of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of youth these dates. Two hundred years ago, they fainted at Canadian colonists using “fix” instead of “mend” and “store” instead of “shop” and probably strongly considered dismantling the Empire just to preserve the Queen’s English. These days, they get flustered by the mere suggestion that they ought to use pronouns based on the preference of the people they’re referring to, and not their own sense of linguistic intractability.
So how did my prescriptivist dictionary-quoting English-101-invoking friend respond to a gentle reminder that English 101 fan-favourite William Shakespeare left his mark making up words or using them in novel ways? Here is where he trudged out the vague specter of philosophy – an internet argument’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife comprised entirely of corkscrews. Philosophy, in this case, required recognizing a difference between “organic” and “contrived”. When pressed again whether not to “coin” a term is a contrivance and its general acceptance is subsequently organic, the point was deftly side-stepped, Bill Shakespeare resoundingly ignored.
If you’re having trouble following the logic here, it’s because there is none. I believe the message was loud and clear – men are innovators, women are wrong. And yes, he did actually include the word “wrong” as an emphatic one-word sentence in our communications. If there was any remaining doubt who the global champion of these abhorrent opinions is, here’s the evidence you need. Who else feels like they need a shower at this point?
And here lies the more insidious aspect of prescriptivism – its shameful use as a tool to denigrate linguistic minorities. If one single WASPish version of English is the correct one, then everyone else is wrong, and by extension, inferior. The destruction of language has been a favourite tool of colonists for hundreds of years and this is little different – cultural vernacular or even gender differences in word usage could be relegated to deviations from an arbitrary norm. Unprincipled application of prescriptivism allows for Shakespeare to be celebrated as a visionary and for Emma Watson, despite her successes and education, to be ridiculed for not knowing what simple words mean.
Prescriptivism has little place in society, except perhaps as a foil to the increasing speed with which language changes in the digital age. There is even less space for it in creative writing. The facetious retort to that could be that I’m advocating an abandonment of all norms to the point where meaning itself would become meaningless, but that is a cowardly attitude. What I’m advocating for is to move quickly through the first stage of “learn the rules first, then break them”. As someone who grew up with a different language, I believe I have a good window into seeing the flexibilities in English – its potential rather than its current state. This leads me to experimenting, which I love to do, and sometimes this results in misses, but other times I can offer an interesting twist on an existing word or phrase. Why limit yourself? Why not strive to be innovators?
Break down the rigid barriers of “proper writing” with your own craft, and help open doors that are being so stubbornly closed by others.
My country is currently abuzz with the news of the firing of a Canadian icon, a long-time hockey commentator by the name of Don Cherry. For my Canadian readers, this man needs no introduction, but for everyone else, I figured I’d start with a summary.
Shortly after spending two decades as a hockey player in the minor leagues, in 1974 Cherry was promoted to the head coach of the Boston Bruins, one of the oldest franchises in the National Hockey League and a very successful team in the 70s. Cherry coached the Bruins for five seasons before entering broadcasting where he soon landed a gig for his own segment during Hockey Night in Canada, the premier hockey broadcast in the country.
Cherry had kept this job for nearly four decades, despite over the years accumulating soundbites that ranged from somewhat questionable to straight-up sexist and xenophobic. His ire was an out-of-control firehouse that sprayed every demographic that didn’t fit into his anglo-white old stock conception of what Canada should be. French Canadian and European hockey players were a favourite target, but all sorts of diatribes accumulated over the years including about women reporters and Canada’s Indigenous people. These might seem tame by the standards of media personalities in other countries, but in Canada, despite his lovable bright suits and tell-it-like-it-is attitude, he stood out as a sore thumb in a country where it’s generally frowned upon to be openly hostile to one another (off the ice, that is).
Don Cherry’s inexplicable longevity came to a grinding halt this weekend. Monday was Remembrance Day in Canada, a solemn occasion to commemorate all those who sacrificed their lives to make sure we can continue to enjoy living ours. One of the associated traditions here is donating to the Royal Canadian Legion and wearing a commemorative red poppy. Cherry had taken issue with the fact that he’s observed fewer and fewer people wearing poppies over the years. But instead of directing his rant at Canadians in general, he chose to single out “you people” – specifically immigrants who come to enjoy the Canadian way of life but allegedly can’t be bothered to honour those who’ve laid down their lives for it. Interestingly, it wasn’t the worst thing Cherry has said, and his overall point was a decent one: trying to drum-up some support for veterans and to help rekindle a waning tradition. But instead, he chose to make it an “us” versus “them” problem, where “us” is an extremely specific definition evidenced by Cherry’s comments over the years.
The proverbial straw had crippled the poor exhausted camel that has been forcibly dragging Cherry’s career towards the third decade of the twenty-first century. Two days after the “you people” monologue aired, Cherry was canned.
I think before I say anything further I should mention that a small part of me is saddened by this. It is an ignoble end to a national icon, a household name, a staple of Saturday night television, and the seventh highest-voted Canadian in the 2004 “The Greatest Canadian” TV show. He’s survived so many self-inflicted verbal wounds that one simply assumed only health issues could keep him away from the broadcaster booth.
But beyond the begrudging respect for somebody who obviously loves our country very much, my sympathy for Don Cherry is in short supply. He should have been fired a long time ago. Instead of being propped up and forgiven in the name of ratings, his employers should have pulled his national platform for sharing his bilious opinions. He had made Canada a less welcoming place.
To understand where my own feelings about Don Cherry stem from, you have to remember that I moved from Russia to Canada when I was thirteen years old, and spent most of my teenage years struggling into my new identity. Many tears had been shed over the question of whether I could ever be able to consider myself “Canadian”. And a recurring casual reminder of my otherness was the man in the silly suits yelling at me from the TV every Saturday.
Cherry had always worn his attitude towards Russians on his sleeve. This clip from the 1996 Hockey World Cup is a particularly fiery example. Coincidentally, I was present at that game, in my Pavel Bure Vancouver Canucks jersey, unequivocally a fan of Team Russia. It was a couple of months before my parents formed the intention to immigrate and three years before Don Cherry assumed a supporting role in my ensuing identity crisis.
You can see from the clip that it wasn’t enough for Cherry to comment on the quality of Canadian hockey versus Russian hockey. Russian hockey accomplishments were completely demolished and the Russians were accused of having no heart. The problem with Cherry’s brand of patriotism is that it’s not only based on building Canada up, but tearing everyone else down.
And that is how it felt – as I built up my confidence in my “Canadianness” Cherry’s routine commentary would tear pieces of it down. Russians are cowards. Russians are sneaks. Russians have no heart. Never sticking to a specific incident, always these sweeping strokes as if Cherry was pointing his accusatory finger right into my soul.
The low point in this journey came for me in Grade 10, during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Probably in part because I stubbornly held onto to some pride for my mother country, I was anointed the class scapegoat for the entirety of the Russian Olympic team. Russian ice hockey team losing? French figure skating judge helping Russians win? Russian skiers caught doping? I was called to answer for every one of these sins.
So while I literally had my back against the wall as several of my classmates jeered about Russian cheating, what did Don have to say about all this?
"I’ve been trying to tell you for so long about the Russians. What kind of people they are and you just love them in Canada with your multiculturalism."
You see, his comments didn’t just stop at hinting at systemic Russian doping, a stance that would be vindicated years later; he had to take it a step further. This was all about what kind of people these Russians really are, and that tolerance of these people is a negative consequence of multiculturalism. Here was a beloved Canadian basically telling me that I was unwelcome here. While I struggled to feel like I belonged, Don shamelessly reminded me that I didn’t and fanned the flames of ridicule that I was subjected to.
Over the years, I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin, and I look back at that period of my life as an unfortunate but essential part of a young immigrant’s struggle. I know what I am and it would take more than the careless words of a TV personality to shake my identity as a Canadian. But the hurt had never fully healed, especially while Cherry was still given the time of day to make others feel the way I did, or worse.
At the end of the day, Don Cherry is not necessarily a bad man, but he is an ignorant man, and the narrowness of his mind does not leave a lot of room for people who are not like him. This to me has always been antithetical to my vision of Canada – a nation that strives to the best of its ability to be inclusive and welcoming.
So thank you, Don, for your service, but it’s time for everyone to move on.
So help me, I’m making my first “political” post. Forgive me, for I know not what I do, but after reading the most recent musings from Maxime Bernier, I can’t restrain myself.
For my non-Canadian readers, Maxime Bernier is a fairly high-profile federal politician. He ran for the leadership of the Conservative party recently, after the previous leader and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper resigned after the election that saw them pushed out of power after almost ten years. Bernier wouldn’t take his defeat lying down and after make some statements that were at odds with the party he was so close to leading, he left and founded his own party – the People’s Party of Canada. His departure from the Conservatives was ostensibly for reasons that they had lost sight of their core conservative values and his intent to continue to fight for its small-government libertarian values.
Since that time, he’s been building up a profile for himself by putting forth allegedly no-nonsense and hard logic justifications for what are essentially right-wing (and I mean that on in the literal political scale, and not in a pejorative sense) ideas.
For instance, he argues that Canada should pull out of the Paris Accord, but not because he’s a climate change denier, but because Canada won’t be able to make its commitments so why act like a huge hypocrite? Makes sense, right? Except it was only a couple of weeks ago that he tried to use his hard logic to say that a carbon tax is not a pollution tax, because carbon dioxide is not a pollutant … because it’s a by-product of our breathing. You catch all that? About the same logic as “we need water to live, so an overabundance of water can’t be a natural disaster”. Max splitting hairs so fine here he’s about to go nuclear.
So now that his environmental agenda is all wrapped up in a digestible package catered for “moderates” that are chomping at the bit to justify their right wing beliefs, he can move onto something else: feminism.
Recently, Bernier declared that he “doesn’t need to be a feminist” because he believes in people. SO there goes another attractive feature for those who wish to see themselves as moderates, who don’t identify with the rabid dog politics of the alt-right and therefore see themselves as the enlightened middle-ground between torch-bearing racists and the identity politic warriors of the left.
Bernier instead believes “in people”. Bernier has rejected both “positive” and “negative” discrimination. Humanity is all about people and why should we treat each other any differently based on gender, race or sexual orientation? This is a fantastic attitude to have, which is what makes it so attractive. And the world would be a utopia if we all espoused this belief at the very core of our being. But we don’t. And this is where this approach becomes dangerous.
It assumes that we are already where everything should be. But even if Bernier is somehow the single human on the planet who has managed to rise above all pre-conceived notions and manages to treat each individual human as the perfect unique snowflake that they are, that’s not how the rest of the world works. You treating someone identically to someone else does not take into account the journey they have taken to reach you. Take an example from immigration. “Everyone has to immigrate to this country according to our laws and through the proper channels, regardless of sex, race, creed or other circumstances.” On the surface, this looks like an attractive moderate approach, but practice it to a tee, and your descendants will end up apologizing for your destructive obstinacy.
But even without having to resort to such drastic examples, one can see how this attitude simply serves to numb any call to action. What Bernier is advocating is a splendid individual-level isolationism. You no longer care about obstacles, advantages or circumstances that may be created for an individual due to their race and gender based on how society treats them, because you supposedly treat them all equally.
What this essentially does is tries to move us to the end result while bypassing all of the difficulty of getting there. It assumes that identity politics is created voluntarily and individually, and not as a reaction to a society that repeatedly forces an individual to confront and question their identity. Bernier is trying to pacify the discomfort experienced by those societal demographics that have rarely had to confront what their race and gender identity really mean. To them (to me) this feels knew, but for others, this is what they’ve been living their whole lives, and so have countless generations before them.
Bernier is very good at putting a digestible spin on old ideas. He’s not a “breath of fresh air” he’s a spritz of cologne on the same miasma that is refusing to let us move forward from centuries of stagnation. Which is why I believe that his message should be challenged at every turn.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.