Tracy's blog

I’m Tracy Au and I have graduated from the Professional Writing program from university. I am an aspiring screenwriter, so this blog is used to promote my writing and attract people who will hire me to write for your TV show or movie. I write a lot about writing, TV, movies, jokes, and my daily life and opinions. I have another blog promoting my TV project at www.thevertexfighter.blogspot.com.

Monday, August 29, 2016

"Don't let your babies grow up to be writers"/ "Departures and flashbacks"

May 23, 2016 "Don't let your babies grow up to be writers": I cut out this article by Philip Marchand in the National Post on Oct. 8, 2011:

Men and women are often warned against marrying writers, if they don’t want to see themselves, one fine day, candidly portrayed in a novel. Parents have no choice in the matter. One of their offspring may just decide to turn literary and convert memories of home into eye-opening narratives, and how could the parents have known? How could Hartley and Rita Fawcett have foreseen that Brian, the youngest of their four children, would grow up to become a prominent Canadian writer and eventually dissect their lives in a memoir entitled Human Happiness?

If the souls of the departed care about this sort of thing, Hartley and Rita, from their vantage point in the other world, are probably not aggrieved. The title of his book is irony free, for one thing. Fawcett maintains that the lives of his parents were genuinely happy, albeit with bouts of misery — Rita had to put up with Hartley and as Fawcett amply demonstrates, this was no small challenge.

The latter was a businessman, dealing in soft drinks and ice cream, who settled with his family in Prince George, B.C., near the end of the war. Hartley Fawcett had a Dickensian flavour, given to hortatory outbursts in the Think and Grow Rich vein of Napoleon Hill — “The power of your vision and determination to make it happen is the reality of tomorrow” — tinkering with oddball inventions in his basement, and devoted to the universal curative properties of a health drink called Barley Max. He also liked to lord it over people. But he certainly was a shrewd businessman, careful with his money, and staying just this side of sanity by engaging in constant, useful activity. “You know,” he once told his son Brian, “you can always work on something.”

He almost didn’t seem to mind when other family members accused him of being self-centred, and of regarding other people as fools, and of being plain all around insensitive. When Rita came down with breast cancer Hartley could barely stand to show up at her hospital room. That was almost as bad as his cruising for new female companionship at Rita’s wake, when she died years later at the age of 90.

The father’s relationship with Brian and with his first-born son, Ron, Fawcett writes, was little short of perpetual warfare. Needless to say, Hartley was not impressed by Brian’s tendency to become a budding intellectual. He did grudgingly give Brian money for university, while trying at the same time to attach strings to the financial support. “But now I see that he ignored it when I snipped the strings, and he didn’t really demand that I be directly grateful for his help,” writes Fawcett, who recognizes that his father made his subsequent literary career possible. “I owe him for all of it, and it’s my shame that this half-assed posthumous acknowledgment is the only one he ever got.”

Fawcett acquired emotional ballast from his mother, whose favourite child he was. Rita was hardly as colourful as Hartley, but had a mind of her own. She also knew what it was like to be poor and shared her husband’s appreciation for money. Most importantly she had the maternal knack of lavishing un-judgmental love on her children.

Nothing seems to have been withheld from the son’s scrutiny of his parents’ lives. In the mid-1990s Fawcett actually prepared a questionnaire for his parents with such questions as, “How important is sexual happiness?” We learn from this that Hartley was not much of a lover. “Sex was all for him,” Rita tells her son. “And if you tried to do anything, you were a slut.” Hartley had the last word, however. After Rita’s death, Hartley went on a seven-year prowl that lasted virtually until his death at the age of 100, in January 2008. Fawcett is indulgent. “It was impossible not to admire his courage and resourcefulness,” he writes, “and his growing sweetness made it possible to forget what an overbearing s–thead he’d been for so many years.”

My opinion: That is a double standard and we should get rid of it.

Fawcett is not shy about scrutinizing himself. From his father, he observes, he inherited “more than my share of alpha-male testosterone” — a confession I can think of no other Canadian writer making. Certainly he inherited his father’s fearless willingness to express a vast array of opinions — Fawcett’s prolific career has included such works as 1992’s The Compact Garden, in which he held strong views, if I recall, about marigolds.

His views, it should be noted, are almost certainly more entertainingly expressed than those of his father. Most importantly, Fawcett is always generous about admitting his own limitations. The adjectives “stupid” and “silly” occur frequently in the memoir, and more often than not they are applied to the author. Fawcett does not pretend to have preternatural powers of recall either, which is refreshing in the author of a memoir. He possesses the kind of memory, he writes, “that stores by mental snapshots” rather than “the high-resolution sequential stuff that some people are blessed with.” Given Fawcett’s tendency towards fragmented narratives and perspectives, memory in the form of “mental snapshots” probably serves his literary purpose better in any case.

Human Happiness is a characteristic modern memoir in that sex and politics are given some prominence — Hartley’s views are right-wing bordering on Social Darwinism — while other aspects of human existence are passed over. The Fawcett family in Prince George seems to have derived minimal support from two traditional sources of consolation in this hard world. One is cultural. Music, literature, even movies exercised a meagre influence on this by no means Philistine family. The situation is a reminder that human culture is not necessarily progressive — one can imagine the Scottish and English forbears of the Fawcett family, dirt poor in almost every respect, steeping their sense of language and meaning in the household King James Version of the Bible and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The other support, of great pertinence to the memoir’s title, is religion. St. Augustine’s plea to God, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” rhymes with William Blake’s assertion, “More, more is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than all cannot satisfy man,” and both remind us of an outlook that once shaped our civilization. But Augustine was a mystic and Blake a visionary and there is not a hint of the mystic or the visionary in Fawcett’s outlook. This is not a fault. There may be genes for this sort of thing, and their absence does not negate the great human virtues celebrated by Fawcett, the courage and resourcefulness, for example, of both his parents. Perhaps more than art or mysticism, warmth and generosity redeem everything. It is the tone of warmth that redresses the book’s outbursts of opinion, its occasional extremes of indelicacy, as our Victorian predecessors might have put it. It is a series of undramatic incidents in this memoir that pierce the heart, such as the occasion when Fawcett and his father worked together on repairing the son’s Volkswagen. “I was too stupid to acknowledge that we’d had fun working together,” Fawcett writes, “that I’d learned several useful skills or that when I returned to Vancouver I was more or less undamaged by his bullying.”

To remember such an incident and recall it in such plain and serviceable language is a light shining in the darkness.


"Departures and flashbacks": I cut out this article by Shawn Syms by in the National Post on Oct. 8, 2011:


This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other StoriesBy Johanna Skibsrud
Hamish Hamilton Canada
176 pp; $28
Reviewed by Shawn Syms

What are the repercussions of being transplanted from one’s home — by choice or circumstance? For the characters who populate Johanna Skibsrud’s This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories, the impact can be life-changing, a realization at once empowering and deeply disorienting. Migrating across significant cultural divides — from the Prairies to Paris, or from Maine to Japan — they struggle to comprehend one another and themselves.

Preoccupied with the tension between factual veracity and emotional meaning, the nine stories in this new short fiction collection pursue many of the same thematic considerations as Skibsrud’s previous work, which includes the Giller Prize–winning novel The Sentimentalists and two books of poetry released by the defiantly artisanal Nova Scotia micro-publisher Gaspereau Press.

The unexpected success story of The Sentimentalists — and the resultant distribution challenges that faced its small-town small press — is by now well-known. A handsome hardcover backed with the promotional and distribution muscle of a major publishing house, This Will Be Difficult to Explain is unlikely to face a similar conundrum. The Giller jury nod helped secure a two-book deal between Skibsrud and Penguin’s literary fiction imprint Hamish Hamilton Canada. This is the first fruit borne of that new relationship, to be followed next by a novel.

Where The Sentimentalists has been critiqued for a diffuse, meandering narrative style, Skibsrud’s latest book is tightly structured and traditional in form. In conventional short-story fashion, each of her protagonists experiences a revelation about a moment of significant change in his or her life.

These instants are captured in skilful prose that effectively synthesizes the interplay between her characters’ intellectual, emotional and physical experiences of the world, as Skibsrud describes it, a “full-to-bursting feeling” of sensory overload. But many of the stories lack tonal and structural variety, to the extent that the reader comes to expect and predict these perfectly articulated moments, which robs them of some of their power.

Canada is only a faint presence (one story is partially set in Red Deer, Alta., one character originates from Manitoba) but the book shares with classical Canlit a focus on sense of place and its impact. In “French Lessons,” young Martha moves to Paris determined to learn French, and takes a job housekeeping for the blind, elderly Madame Bernard. But her culture shock is such that she’s never able to concentrate on the verb charts and vocabulary lists that cover her bedroom walls, drifting off instead into fitful sleeps.

Martha’s immersion in the unfamiliar environment of the Left Bank — combined with the age difference and language barrier between her and her employer — is a recipe for communication disaster. When the old woman tells a tragic story about her son, Martha laughs at the wrong place, and it signals a turning point in their relationship.

Sometimes Skibsrud’s stories consider what it means to stay in a place rather than leave, such as “The Limit,” in which Daniel reflects on his ongoing residence in rural, expansive South Dakota on the occasion of a visit from his teen daughter. Employing a flashback device common to many of the collection’s stories, Daniel thinks back to an incident from his own teenage years that he believes cemented in him a fateful indecisiveness.

By the end of the story he changes his perspective on this, in a revelation that is overtly explained to the reader. Still, the prose is confident and engaging, and full of intriguing images — from a herd of escaped buffalo to a gender-non-conforming female factory worker — that combine to create a satisfying existential portrait of parenting choices and personal self-determination.

“Cleats” varies notably from the highly controlled overall tone of the collection. It’s one of a number of linked stories (in it, the middle-aged Fay moves to Paris to stay with her girlhood friend Martha, whose younger self was featured in “French Lessons”), and like several others it involves a key realization articulated through a flashback sequence. But the story is refreshing because of Fay’s distinctive voice. With a spunky, world-weary sense of humour and humanity, she recounts the things that can make family life go awry: “Inattentive fathers. Catholicism. A generation of mothers who thought that pain medication and jelly donuts were good antidotes to an adolescent in the house.”

In the concise “Angus’s Bull,” a farm wife describes how her husband loses another man’s bull, a mistake that would have a dramatic economic affect on their own livelihood if not for a plot twist at the end of the story. But the course of events is not what draws the reader’s attention — in fact, it’s not the first tale in the book to feature the disappearance of animals as an occurrence of symbolic and narrative significance.

Rather, it’s the compelling character of the farm wife, and Skibsrud’s depiction of how her assertive personality manifests itself, despite the social niceties and gender constraints that colour her own sense of self and of the world. A scene in which she drunkenly convinces her sleeping husband to have sex is both subtle and masterful.

Such colourful variety enlivens the book, enhancing the power of the recurring motifs that drive This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories. Despite some dry moments, ultimately the collection is an effective meditation on how to exist in a world full of other people who may never truly be knowable.


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