An Index of Me

When I recently took the online Indexing course at Ryerson, I had fun with the ice-breaker exercise to “index yourself.” Here’s what I came up with:

  author’s voice
  balance and flow
  music, relevance (see also music)

  cousins, German (see also self-identification: Canadian)
  partner and kids

  devotion to, early
  love/hate for
  silence and soundscape

  cycling, urban (see also self-identification: pinko)

  Canadian, new-stock (see also family: cousins)
  guy, straight cis white (see also family: partner and kids)
  pinko, bike-riding (see also recreation: cycling)

Afterwards, in Will Ferguson’s novel 419, I came across a copy editor musing about the biographies she works on: “Indexes never seemed to get to the heart of the matter. There was never a heading for hope or fear. Or dreams, recalled. Smiles, remembered. Anger. Beauty … And why only one life? Why not the web of other lives that define us?”

So mine, too, is incomplete. But it may merit a quick scan. A moment of reflection. A chuckle, perhaps.

I Hope You Love It

In the most diverse city on earth, publishing isn’t the most diverse industry. And I’m a straight, white guy myself, though I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with some strong Indigenous and racialized voices.

So when the International Festival of Authors, Festival of Literary Diversity, and Writer’s Union of Canada called a panel on The Writer’s Voice at Harbourfront last week, I showed up to listen, listen, listen. Creativity is so often most vibrant at the margins, not the mainstream.

I came away with some new authors to read and some fresh perspectives to digest. But also, with a recommitment to my calling as an editor.

Lee Maracle, the celebrated Sto:lo writer, most recently of Celia’s Song, was joined on the panel by three newer Toronto voices: Farzana Doctor, whose All Inclusive is hot off the press; Carrianne Leung, author of The Wondrous Woo; and Vivek Shraya, a multimedia artist and author of She of the Mountains.

All four recounted struggles with the politics of readability. They felt pressured to spoon-feed a mainstream audience, as though readers couldn’t be expected to do a little work for themselves.

Maracle expressed frustration at having to explain perfectly ordinary concepts like the Circle. Look it up on the Internet, she suggested. What’s wrong with reading a passage you don’t understand, wondered Shraya. There’s a richness to that experience, too. Doctor felt ambivalent about the glossary she’d ending up including in her first book. If you don’t know what a pakora is, she said, my question is, why not?

And then there’s positioning the book for the market. It’s not that she minds being referred to as a Chinese Canadian author, reflected Leung, but she does stop and ask when and by whom. These are Canadian stories, too.

This was an unsettling discussion for a sometimes too comfortable Canadian. And my ears really pricked up when the authors turned to their experiences of being edited.

Doctor had had the smoothest go of it. When she passed her manuscript in to the editor, she felt comforted to know it was in good hands.

Maracle, in contrast, usually spends the editing phase with her heart in her throat. But they’re different roles. Let the editor edit, she suggested, just like you’d let a film director direct. When it’s working well, they’re your ally in getting the reader to fall into the story so deep they can’t climb out till it’s over.

Shraya was less deferential. It takes such a team – informal and formal – to shape a book, that it feels a bit strange to have just his own name on the cover. But sometimes, the writer is right and the editor is wrong. An author shouldn’t hesitate to push back.

It was Leung who left me with the most memorable image. Sending your manuscript to an editor is like dropping off your child on the first day of school. Not everyone’s going to respond to my baby the way I do, she said. But I hope you love it, too.

What an awesome responsibility, every time.

The Year You Turn 13

I have this theory about popular music. Whatever’s in the air the year you turn 13 can penetrate deep. What you let in then stays with you – even defines you – in a way that can’t easily be matched.

Me, I came of age in the mid-70s, deep into the long, slow decline of the American dream. The era of Berlin, Horses, and Desire, New Skin for Old Ceremony, and On the Corner…

Lenny, at the time, was touring Europe’s festival and madhouses, and getting only spotty respect back home. But he straightened his tie and looked right into me through that hotel mirror, speaking ancient truths and tortured yearnings.

Melodies so spare you’d almost think it was the poetry alone. But despite scanty English, my German cousin – who saw him at the Isle of Wight! – says he too listened transfixed.

Remarkably, he also spoke to my kids when they reached their teens. Particularly the darker, more elusive songs. “Picking up the jokers that he left behind you’ll find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter…”

I can still hear Lou, much eulogized of late, growling his invitation to throw your life away. Miles, haunted, taciturn, stooped, dropping glowing jagged shards into the magic swirling about him. Bob leading his jubilant circus of hard rain and rolling thunder.

Into all of that burst Patti, brashly throwing God the gauntlet. “My sins my own,” she crowed, and you have to have been raised religious to feel the full trembling spirit of that outburst.

She’s a wise one now – can you be a rock ’n’ roll elder? I was too young to ever catch her in her CBGB’s days, but she emerged from a long silence at Toronto’s Phoenix theatre just weeks after my younger daughter was born. She opened not with a barn burner but with a tearful lullaby. “Little blue dreamer, go to sleep…”

To tell the truth, though, I scarcely listen to music anymore. The robins and cicadas. A toddler’s babbling. A slow train emerging from the underpass – why compete?

But still, I internalized that marriage of music and the performer’s word. It’s not a stretch to say it informs most everything I do.

How do you spell mnemonic?

My dad was an English prof. He was a pacifist and a feminist. When it came to the grammar wars, an avowed descriptivist.

Back in the ’80s, he was already OK with the singular they. Though he did prefer to pluralize the whole expression whenever you could.

I don’t think he attended a New Year’s party in his life, but he always made an effort to show up for the Chinese New Year celebration his ESL students hosted. The language belongs to all of its users, he’d say. Everyone has a stake; the rules aren’t handed down from on high.

But he did have his things. I guess we all do.

If you handed him the dice, there better be two. When I showed him my grade 3 homework, it somehow became a lesson on copula verbs. And he never tired of intoning: “From here to there – take. From there to here – bring.” Or is it the other way round?

That’s not a memorable formula. There are two esses in dessert because you want to have seconds – that, I can remember. The principal is my “pal” – I suppose.

I have to look up stationary every time, though, because I can never remember if it’s an a like in paper or an e like in letter. Comprised you can pretty much assume is wrong. I sing the alphabet where it gets muddled in the middle. And for some reason, I can still belt out the double letters in Mississippi.

That’s about all my mnemonics. If you have any more, bring them on over. Or take them away!

Origin Story

[How I became an editor]

I’d chased a classical music dream for too long, tried to do good work in community-living support, and put in some years as a stay-at-home dad. It was time to head to work again, but none of those fields beckoned me back.

I sat on the front stoop watching my girls run around the co-op, and flipped open a copy of Editing Canadian English, which I’d grabbed on a whim from the bookshelves that lined my parents’ living room. From page 1 of the spelling charts, I was hooked. Colour vs. color was no surprise, but what layers of intricacy hid beneath! It was like prying up a rock at the beach, and a thousand shiny creatures come prancing out.

Someone pointed me to an EAC proofreading workshop. When the instructor, Rica Night, pulled out galleys and blues, a world fell into place that I knew would be my home.

(Originally written for BoldFace:
The official blog of EAC’s Toronto branch, April 2014)