One Week In November

As a child, I experienced unexpected surges of joy. My mother called them love thrills. Overcome by happiness, I would ball up my fists, scrunch my eyes, and tremble in the throes of surfeiting euphoria. Decades on, love thrills are a rare delight, but they still happen. I had one last September when an email arrived from the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity.

Your submission has been accepted for the Emerging Writers Intensive program. For an aspiring writer in Canada this was a maple-syrup sweet opportunity, and in a spare bedroom-cum-office I danced around my stationary troupe of printer, computer, and framed graduation photos of my daughters. In springtime I had sent my application, paid a small fee, and then promptly filed the attempt under probably won’t happen. Getting into the program was so entirely unanticipated, I had to whip to the Banff Centre website and review the facilitators to find out whose writerly guidance would benefit us, we who had been selected, thirty-two writers across four disciplines: poetry, creative non-fiction, short story, and my group of eight aspiring first-chapter novelists.

Madeleine Thien. The first-chapter novelists would be mentored by Madeleine descriptive participle Thien. She hadn’t been on my famous-Canadian-author radar prior to applying to the Banff Centre program, but I’d heard of her since. Her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was in the running for the Man Booker, Giller, and Governor General’s prizes for fiction. I snatched up my Kindle, downloaded Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and read it. Twice. The first time through, my mind couldn’t encompass it all, compelling and appalling Chinese history, twisting and turning of a family through time and trials to Tiananmen Square, and music, oh the music!

Who was Madeleine Thien, and how did she come to write so gorgeously, heartbreakingly, and meaningfully about music? I’m a music teacher and performer, and I had never read anything like it. The words were singing on the page, arranging and rearranging themselves like, well, like variations on an aria. Which, it turns out, was what the author intended. And I was going to learn from her, listen to her, ask her about her process. It was a dream come true. Then Do Not Say We Have Nothing won both the Giller and the GG. She won’t come, I thought, pricking my own balloon with a pin before anyone else could. She’ll be inundated with invitations, swamped with interviews. I convinced myself the Banff Centre would be forced to find a last-minute replacement to run the first-chapter-novel portion of the program.

After my second exhilarating time through Thien’s novel, I read works by all the other facilitators, Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day, Saleema Nawaz’s Mother Superior, and Elizabeth Phillips’ The Afterlife of Birds, and I can recommend them all as great reads. We were in good hands, poised to be exposed to the thoughts and experiences of deft writers. Here, I acknowledge a debt to Devyani Saltzman, director of Literary Arts at the Banff Centre, for her leadership and vision in providing this program. In mid-November I packed a bag and flew to Calgary, then bussed to Banff.

The first thing about the Banff Centre is that whatever you have landed there to accomplish, whatever creative pursuit or project, you are plopped in the midst of some of the most jaw-dropping, heart-thudding, eye-popping, soul-expanding scenery on this planet. So that’s your starting point. The second thing is your baseline physical needs, those quotidian detractors from and irritants to art-making, like sleeping and eating, are managed for you, handily, with grace and style. And the third thing about the Banff Centre is the people. Musicians and mathematicians and costumers and sculptors and writers et cetera et cetera all dashing about with firework-crackling-synapses, creative hearts and minds aflame. This is palpable, like strolling through the heart of a university campus and sensing all the elevated thought. Meanwhile, the staff are stoked. I challenge you to find another workforce as genuinely thrilled to be doing their jobs as the employees of the Banff Centre.

All of the above is in place before your program even begins. And then. Madeleine Thien honoured her commitment to the Emerging Writers Intensive program. You came – I didn’t think you would come, was the first thing I said to her, already literary starstruck, (it got worse as the week went on), when she arrived at the opening night reception. She laughed, a music so pure and genuine I was instantly hooked on hearing it.

The next morning, a picture of calm in the eye of her success hurricane, Madeleine Thien launched our week – from space. She started us out in orbit, considering the eight planets of our potential books from far outside, above, and around them. What is an imagined world made of? Forests of words arranged in chapters, growing on a continent of story. A novelist must hold in their mind a grand trajectory, while at the same time remaining mindful of minutiae: word, clause, sentence, paragraph. Madeleine Thien began by taking us somewhere astonishing in our imaginations, to the structure of story itself, somewhere I had never travelled…

But then, I remembered, I had. As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, I took a course called The Mythological Framework of Western Culture, taught by Northrop Frye, the year before he died. It was his signature course on the Bible as literature, centred around his masterpiece on the subject, The Great Code. In one of the first lectures, Professor Frye drew a gigantic sea snake on the whiteboard. This was a schematic, he said, of the narrative structure of the Bible, the triumphant rises and cataclysmic plummets of the Israelites. But such grand imaginings as the architecture of story couldn’t possibly apply to anything I wrote, could they? I had another recollection, this one from high school, of an inverted swoosh: action, climbing to a crisis, then a sharp denouement to The End, the basic, predictable shape of a story. There were endless ways to approach this shape. One could intersect its timeline, run backwards from the end, write along two or three or more parallel swooshes… Like the twelve semitones of the chromatic scale, the melodic and harmonic permutations were endless.

Back at the Banff Centre on that first day, Madeleine Thien encouraged our octet to be courageous, have confidence, and dare to see the big picture right from the beginning. I went to bed that night with the back of my skull blown off, and didn’t sleep particularly well, woken up as I was every hour or so by rushes of intellectual adrenaline. Over the course of the week, we telescoped in and out of each other’s work, now peering in close at point-of-view, now pulling back to appreciate panoramas of historical context, cultural implications, and broad themes. My co-participants were impressive writers, and several of them were already accomplished writers. I learned a great deal from them, from their boldness, from the mighty imaginings erupting from their minds onto their pages. More directly, I learned from their incisive comments and constructive criticism of my pages.

Thanks to the above-and-beyond efforts of Saskatchewan poet Elizabeth Phillips, (especially the night the wine was late and a Banff Centre staff member caught the mighty edge of Liz’s tongue-pen-sword and blood or was it wine spattered the walls and windows and we all ducked so our clothes wouldn’t get stained), I heard everyone’s work at evening readings in the Writer’s Lounge. Gobsmacked, every night, by the talent crammed into that room. Sitting on my hands to keep from punching in the air and calling out yeah, go man go, word, truth, preach, like some latter-day Ginsberg acolyte.

From Madeleine Thien, I received a treasure trove of wisdom and insight with respect to the art and craft of writing. She is a true and passionate pedagogue. Her desire to inform, inspire, and build confidence in her students comes directly from her heart, by way of her impressive intellect. Never have I met a person so concurrently fierce and gentle. As testament to her teaching, three months have passed since I sailed home wing-on-wing from the Banff Centre, the canvas of my determination puffed out and thrumming. I’ve been riffling through pages of handwritten notes, tripping to the library and then home to pile stacks of books on every flat surface. And I’ve been writing, ever-present percussion of my fingers tapping out uneven rhythms on this laptop. Soaking my keyboard-sore hands in hot soapy dishwater at the end of the afternoon to limber them for evening piano practice.

Love thrills don’t come as often these days, but this one is lasting a long time.

Links to works by a few other writers who participated in the Emerging Writers Intensive program in November 2016:

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