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Beth analyzes her one and only flaw

A grey drizzly sky this morning but lush green below, lilac tightly closed but getting ready, daffs and tulips nodding, birds rushing about with grass in their beaks – sat in my office yesterday watching sparrows nesting in my downspout. Anna has volunteered to be a soccer coach; today is “Meet the Coach” so I’m going across town to keep Ben busy while she meets her charges. We FaceTimed this morning, Eli telling me about Monopoly with his dad, Ben shouting Glamma glamma glamma! until he got his turn, to exclaim that his dad’s cup fell down this morning and made a mess. Everything is exciting to Ben. We are spending the day together, and then all of them and I are going to Sam’s restaurant for an early Mother’s Day dinner. My celebration today, so Anna can enjoy her celebration tomorrow.

Yesterday, went to see my dear bank manager, who has just become a father at the age of 52, about how I’ll pay for the renovation and my next year’s salary-less sabbatical. He showed me how we’ll manage and then showed me many pictures of his 3-month old daughter. He is very in love. I know how he feels.

So – I mentioned a few days ago that I’d tell you what the CNFC conference taught me about my own work. The irony is that as a writing teacher, I’ve been saying “Show don’t tell” to my students for decades, yet not doing it well myself, at least, in this latest memoir. I already knew that:
– I’m an analytical person, most comfortable standing at a distance, commenting, teaching, expounding, pointing out, rather than plunging into vivid scenes.
– Scenes are hard to write, said Dinty Moore, no wonder we avoid them. And it’s true. Scenes usually require dialogue, at which I am extremely bad. I try to listen hard and remember what people say, their rhythms and vocabulary, and forget. My attempts at dialogue, to me, feel clunky and inauthentic. So I avoid it.
– Sensory detail, said Dinty, pulls people into the scene. Something I say all the time to my students, and yet, again, am not good at writing in my own books.

But at the conference I realized – I myself have a poor sense of smell, and I don’t have a particularly acute sense of taste either, at least, unless I force myself to concentrate on what’s in my mouth. So I thought – no wonder my books don’t have much sensory detail, when I don’t have much myself.

But here’s the key – I realized that my impatience, which has always been a flaw, gets in my way in both life and work. As a writer, I rush into the story and then don’t take the time to slow down and unpack – that is, to go deeper, to ponder and explore, to bring the scenes, bit by bit, to life. And I don’t do that much in life either. I’ve always wondered why I don’t know the names of trees, why I often don’t know the words of pop songs I love, don’t even know which wines I really like and why – and I think it’s because I’m in a hurry, not stopping to – yes – smell the roses, learn the names, focus on tastes, really listen.

I’m not beating myself up over this, it’s just the way I’ve always been. People exclaim about how much I do, and it’s because I’m always doing two or three things at once. I eat reading the newspaper, and taste is the last thing on my mind. I listen to music doing something else. I have a great deal to do running a complicated, busy life, and many things get done in an efficient manner. But there’s a depth of experience missing.

Not bad for a writing conference, eh?

So somehow, at the age of 67, I need to learn to slow down, not just for my life but for my work. Slow down and go deep. To really taste and feel and see, to touch and listen and smell for the first time. I don’t know how to do this, how to change a lifetime’s speedy way of being. But at least I know what I need to change.

Thank you, Dinty Moore, for your wise and powerful words, and to the conference itself, for so much stimulation.

If one day soon you see a grey-haired writer looking like Ferdinand the peaceful bull, sitting in a field gazing at the flowers and sky, I hope that’ll be me. If I’m trying to read a newspaper at the same time, please, take it away.

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4 Responses to “Beth analyzes her one and only flaw”

  1. theresa says:

    I think of you as someone who is full immersed in your life, Beth. So much observation and such detailed accounts. Don't forget your eye for the telling detail, the funny revelation. It's what makes your memoir (the one I've read, about Paul…) so, well, memorable.

  2. beth says:

    Theresa, thank you for your kind words. I'm not saying I think I'm a bad writer, just that I could be better. I admire your phenomenal knowledge of plant lore and names, for example. But having just come in from the utter madness of downtown Toronto on a Saturday night when the Blue Jays were playing, I know why I'm a little distracted by my surroundings in a way you are not.

  3. theresa says:

    Spent Monday evening walking to dinner and a concert in Vancouver and feeling kind of outclassed. By shoes! By hair! By the casual way people walk around large dogs shitting mid-sidewalk with owners hovering, blue bags at the ready. Sirens. People tucked into sleeping bags in doorways. This morning John called from the bathroom at 5 a.m. (woken by the cat at the window) to say there was a coyote ambling by the house. And last week we heard wolves…So the same but different.

  4. beth says:

    There are days I'd gladly take coyotes over the city's street people, some of whom seem to be growing increasingly voluble and mad… It's no coincidence i was able to get so much work done on Gabriola (even if it has to be redone now.) So – I know I need to get away from the craziness here on a regular basis. And one of the great things about a city is that nobody really notices other people's hair and shoes, they're too busy worrying about their own.

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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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