October 07, 2005

at the edge of the earth

Writer, painter, birdwatcher, and bog walker, Brenda Schmidt has written a thought provoking article for Book Ninja called:
Causing a Scene.

Poet Schmidt, a veteran of the frosty north country of Saskatchewan and long-time Bookninja discussant, looks deep into her motivations for living so far out of a literary "scene" and wonders just why some people choose to live in relative isolation, as she does, while others would wilt like hothouse flowers if they were away from the bustle and schmooze of a major literary centre.


The questions Schmidt puts forth in the article (to herself and to other authors) are ones that I have asked myself...they are things I often discuss with my partner during evening walks down a long, quiet stretch of road that follows the Fundy shore.
It's been six years since we moved from Chicago to Nova Scotia. From a rushing, vibrant cityscape of 6 million people to a meditative, (vibrant in it's own way) end of the road village of 250 residents. As Canada's Thanksgiving weekend approaches, I'm taking some time to reflect on what those six years have brought. I thought I'd share some of my answers to Schmidt's questions.

What Does it Mean to live in Isolation?

Not long after we moved to our little house by the sea, a friend who had come to visit exclaimed, You're not rural, you're remote! She's right I suppose, in the sense that other than a small essential goods store in local family's basement, there aren't other places where one can go and 'consume'. It takes us a good half hour to get to the nearest town (gas station, small grocer, post office, two cafes and a diner). While working on my novel last winter, there were a couple of stretches when I didn't go down to 'town' for two weeks at a time. I was happy to make the 'commute' out to my studio in the barn...to be alone with my thoughts, my pen, my work. (where I couldn't check my email 20 times a day.)

But I suppose this could be achieved anywhere. Couldn't it? Outside of what my natural surroundings (location, location, location) give to me (which is a lot, especially for my first novel), I'm guessing a person could, if persistant in their desire for isolation, sequester themselves from the rest of the world while they created their art.

What Are the Pros, What Are the Cons?

For me the question is more of, is isolation a healthy thing?

Pros: I think isolation can be a good thing (whether you live on the top of a mountain or in the downtown core of a major city.) It quiets the mind and allows true meditative focus to happen. Isolating myself by moving to a far-flung place just made it a lot easier for me to find that space. Writing full time had only been a dream for me when I lived in the city. Between having to find a way to pay an outrageous rent for an apartment in an OK part of town and simple time-consuming things, like walking several blocks so my three-year-old could 'play', I could never find my way to making it happen. God knows others have done it, but I just couldn't settle the 'noise' of my life long enough to make anything substatntial.

Cons: I agree with the comments of some of the authors interviewed by Schmidt. There are readings and lectures I'd love to attend, but they're too far away. I've moaned more than a couple of times to my partner that I wish I were going to be in Toronto for the opening night gala for the IFOA (A PEN Canada event with Alice Munro, Dionne Brand, Adrienne Clarkson, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Deepa Mehta and others). That said, I do make the effort to get to Halifax (an hour and a half away) for some wonderful events. Acadia University in Wolfville is only 45 minutes away...Alberto Manguel will be reading there this month!

No high speed internet. It was 1944 before electric lines were run out here...
thank heavens for our reliable, but slooooooow dial-up.


What do you perceive the 'scene' to be?
Hmm... as far as the city-centric literary scenes go, I suppose I think of it as a mix of readings, lectures, launch parties, meetings and schmooze lunches with agents, publishers and editors. I don't know how valid the idea of 'writer's communities' only being found in large cities is anymore and I don't know if rubbing elbows with other authors can give you a leg up. I have occasionally felt at a loss when it comes to networking, mostly because I'm so new to the Can-Lit scene, but I don't feel that being unknown diminished my chances for publication. I haven't attended any retreats or conferences and I don't know many authors, but through dedication to my writing, living a writerly life, and the equal footing the internet can give when submitting work, I managed to get an agent - who then sold my novel to Knopf Canada/Random House. (and has since sold it to publishers in Holland, Germany, the UK and the US)

What would the perfect balance between the scene and isolation look like?
My goal is to move as gracefully as possible between isolation and 'the scene'. This past May I went on a family/business trip to Toronto. I met my agent for the first time face to face. It was lovely. I met my publisher and my editor and sent a few days working with them and getting to know them. I wanted to get a taste of what their lives and their work was about. I wanted them to get to know me. It was a great time, a grand adventure and at the end of the week I took my manuscript back to my little nook by the sea for more polishing.
I save my pennies for trips like that.

One thing writing and producing pieces for CBC radio taught me is that there are stories everywhere, in all corners of the world. In this age of cell phones, internet access, podcasting, etc. there are plenty of new and innovative ways to tell them. It's an exciting time.

And community? Amazingly enough, I've found that as far as I am off the beaten path, I'm more connected than ever to people who share the same interests and passions. A group of artist/moms who like to hike in the moonlight, homeschooling families from the local area, and friends old and new who share their lives through email and my online forum.

Isolation's been very good to me.
That said, I'm really looking forward to jumping wholeheartly into my book tour and 'the scene' this coming February.


In an interesting aside, popular NYC blogger/literary agent Miss Snark, addresses the 'location' concerns of a Canadian author living in Japan.
Let's do the Time Zone Again!

3 comments:

Robert said...

Interesting reading about your experiences "at the edge of the earth." I live north of San Francisco and we've often thought of moving somewhere more remote. We're drawn to Oregon, maybe not as remote as where you are, but we're exploring the idea of moving to a smaller town or more in the country.

I enjoy your site. Congratulations on publishing your first novel. I'm trying NaNoWriMo this year and keeping a journal at Mystics of the Ordinary.

Ami said...

Thanks Robert.

I have a friend who did NaNoWriMo last year and she's doing it again this year as well. She said it really helped her to push through and get in the habit of writing every day.

Best of Luck with it and I'll be sure to check out your blog and see how it's going!

(For those who may not know what NaNoWriMo is...it's short for National Novel Writing Month. Each November, writers take up the challenge and attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Check out: www.nanowrimo.org

Charr said...

I have a degree of isolation...not a college course! I would love more.

I am still anxious to see your book published in the states...it will be worth the wait I think.