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Ellen Seligman

Just back from Ellen Seligman’s memorial at Koerner Hall – a huge concert hall full of book people, there to honour the life of Canada’s most famous fiction editor, whose authors won innumerable prizes, including the Nobel. Speaker after speaker spoke of her dedication and love of her work, her writers, their words. They spoke too of how exhausting it was to be under her meticulous scrutiny – how she inspected every thought, every motivation of the characters, to be sure it was true and the best it could be. Exhausting. Elizabeth Hay, who spoke eloquently, said that when Ellen called about her new novel, she broke out into a sweat, knowing that at least 3 hours of hard work on the phone lay ahead of her, page by page, word by word – and for others, the sessions lasted much longer. A gift to a writer to have that kind of focus and faith. She offered “affection and correction,” said one. “The words have been orphaned,” said another. Andrew O’Hagan wrote, in a letter that someone read, “She gave us the miracle of pure literary attention.”

“The most important people in a publishing house,” said Michael Ondaatje, “are the editors.”

“If a bomb fell on this room,” said Wayson, at the reception afterwards, “Canadian literature would be destroyed.” Not quite – that’s a Toronto-centric view. But a huge chunk of it would be gone – writers, editors, publishers, publicists, agents … book people. My people, who don’t often gather en masse. One of Ellen’s last gifts was to bring them together in this dignified place, to remember her. And not just her work, but her humour and style, her friendship and elegance.

Elizabeth Hay quoted Isaac Babel as saying, “All work consists in overcoming snags.” I was thrilled to hear that, as “snags” is a word I use often in my own editing work, urging students and writing clients to make sure there are no snags in their work, no careless moments that jerk the reader from the page. A former student who was there sought me out to say, “When she quoted Babel, I could hear you.” Nice to know that in my own minuscule way, I’m doing my best to polish Canlit, as Ellen did.

In fact, I’ve been in the trenches these last days with my own projects. My friend the agent who was going to take me on decided against it, to preserve our friendship, and I’m sure wisely so. But that meant I was looking for an agent again, or agents, one for the children’s book and one for the memoir, which isn’t finished but which has a chapter or two ready for showing. So that took a couple of days. It’s a full time job to try to sell yourself as a writer – to find an agent and/or get the work out there, publicize it when it’s out – let alone try to write the @#$# thing. Brutal. And for almost no money. But there we all were today, all of us in the book trade, because that’s who we are and what we do.

Anyway, yesterday I sent the children’s manuscript out to one agent, who forwarded it to a colleague, and I sent a query to another. I was depressed for a while before that. Sunday I went to see the Abbey Theatre’s “The Plough and the Stars,” a brilliant production from Dublin but ye gods, a devastating play, about the destructive power of poverty, alcoholism, colonialism and, especially, a young man’s pointless need to fight. I came home sad to find the goodbye email from my friend and faced starting over again. Again.

But outside was a sound – my woodpecker, hammering away at the ivy, taktaktaktaktak. That little bird is my great inspiration. She – he? – just keeps working, day in, day out, digging, exploring. And that’s what I, in honour of Ellen Seligman, another kind of woodpecker, will do too.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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