Emily Carr’s Forest

A snowy afternoon and moments ago I wrote the last sentence in the first draft of book three. I will need to start revising soon, and I want to do so with Emily Carr’s words before me.

A friend recently loaned me her complete works. It seems she is famous, especially in Canada, for not only her writing, but also her painting. She lived in the early 1900s and the thing is, she lived and wrote about places close by. Victoria BC, the forests, the Haida people. How did I miss out on her works? I’m surprised I didn’t learn about her in school.

She talks about ‘peeling’ a sentence back to its bare essence. That image sticks with me as I begin revising. Looking deep into story structure, at each individual word.

Emily Carr went into remote, abandoned Haida villages and sketched and painted the totem poles she found still standing. She also then wrote about those experiences. Those poles were old back then, and it’s doubtful any still stand now. But she captured them and gave us their history, so that they will never be forgotten. When I read her words I wish I could see them as they were then.

The book I’m reading is called ‘The Complete Writings of Emily Carr’ and of course comes with introductions and forewords before each piece. These are worth reading as they were written by those who knew her intimately and give the reader honest views of Emily. When you read those, and think about the period she lived in, you realize she was an extremely unique woman for her time. What courage it must have taken, and really, what self-confidence, to stand against the norm, the traditions, and to live life the way she wanted.

Her writing is well worth delving into, especially this book with the background that’s offered.

When I look at her paintings I can feel the forest alive and breathing. I can sense movement of wind, feel the cool mist. I don’t know how she does that, bringing the woods alive through word and paint.

Here is a sample, taken from her complete works, in which she talks about the totem, the Wild Woman of the Woods, D’Sonoqua. Alone in a village, she went exploring, beat through a nettle field and fell at this totem’s feet. After reading this I longed for that same moment of stumbling onto old magic in the forest.

“Her head and trunk were carved out of, or rather into, the bole of a great red cedar. She seemed to be part of the tree itself, as if she had grown there at its heart, and the carver had only chipped away the outer wood so that you could see her. Her arms were spliced and socketed to the trunk, and were flung wide in a circling, compelling movement. Her breasts were two eagle-heads, fiercely carved. That much, and the column of her great neck, and her strong chin, I had seen when I slithered to the ground beneath her. Now I saw her face.

‘The eyes were two rounds of black, set in wider rounds of white, and placed in deep sockets under wide, black eyebrows. Their fixed stare bored into me as if the very life of the old cedar looked out, and it seemed that the voice of the tree itself might have burst from that great round cavity, with projecting lips, that was her mouth…’


And I’m only a quarter of the way into the book. Find it if you can, and read the words of this extraordinary woman. I also strongly encourage you to do an internet search on images of Emily Carr’s artwork. Look especially at the pieces where the colors are dark greens, the style almost simplistic until you look closely.

Then let me know if her words reach across the years to you, too.

Art or Device?

I just finished The Round House, by Louise Erdritch. The writing soared, the characters tugged me into their world, and the ending left me hanging and wanting so much more. This is the first time I’ve read anything by Ms. Erdritch, and it’s safe to say it won’t be the last book by her that I devour. Depending on dialog, that is.

The author’s lack of quotation marks around dialog stymied me. My eyes are so trained to catch those tiny mouse-turd cues, that I stumbled over their absence. I use ‘mouse-turds’ on purpose because once there were some in a book I read, and I thought they were quotation marks in a weird spot.

I found myself reading along, captured by beautiful writing, only to suddenly realize I was reading dialog. Then I’d have to back up to pick up where people started talking, and work my way back to where I was interrupted and pulled out of the story.

If the story had been less powerful, I would have stopped reading simply because I dislike being taken out of the story world. The book was very bumpy to read because of that.

I wondered why the author chose to not use quotation marks. A dislike of the shift key? Some sort of artistic point I’m too dense to pick up? A signal that I was reading literature rather than just a very good story? Those questions also pulled me away as a reader. Which made me then wonder, when is something artistic, and when is it simply a device to make someone stand out, or to prove you can break a rule and get away with it?

A while back I talked about reading books by Elly Griffiths, who writes in present tense, and how skilfully she handles that. So well, in fact, that her ‘device’ never once pulled me out of the stories. Present tense isn’t a style of writing one sees often, and it could easily have failed. I’m glad it didn’t because I really do love her series.

It’s the same with this book. Whatever the author’s reason for not using quotation marks, The Round House was still a very good story. Unlike with Elly Griffiths though, I’m not sure I’d read another book without quotation marks around dialog. It was simply too disjointed, having to continuously back up and re-read. Interestingly, when I read reviews of the book on Amazon, I didn’t see any mention of this. Well, I also didn’t read all of the thousand comments, so who knows. Someone else might have missed the mouse-turds, too.

What do you think makes a writing device succeed or fail? Why do you think authors choose to create a story that breaks the expected rules? And do you like to read books that step outside the traditional format?


Wild Book Review

I live near a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs from the border with Mexico to the border with Canada. One of my sisters wants me to hike it with her. I admit it’s tempting. But I’d have to spend too much money in gear. And find a pack big enough for my bed.

One thing that whetted my fascination with the trail was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which is about his trek along the Appalachian Trail. While he can be a bit hard on the forest service, the book made me laugh.

So when my sister gave me Cheryl Strayed’s new book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I was excited to read it. Unfortunately the excitement didn’t carry through many pages.

The author hiked the trail to deal with a life that spiraled out of control after the death of her mother. The book took loss, and put it in a unique setting. The writing is polished, the pace moves right along, and the people she meets on the trail are interesting. And in one case scary.

What seemed to be missing, for me, was balance. Meaning by about two-thirds through, I decided I’d had enough navel gazing (and I have to admit, what felt like whining) and not enough of the trail. When the author finally had her breakthrough in dealing with her mother I felt relieved, as if I could now get on with the business of hiking. Unfortunately the book remained on the same path. I wanted more details than just how heavy the pack was or how many toenails remained at the end of the day.

There are a lot of uncomfortable passages and one scene with a horse that is terrible. None made me think or question or grow. They just made me squirm. And I think the analogy Strayed tried to draw with the memory of the horse didn’t work.

In the places where the author did talk about the trail, she did okay with descriptions. I could see the views and feel the weather. But it felt like a tiny snippet of trail, which then segued into a large hunk of grieving. The problem for me, then, was a lack of balance between outer and inner worlds. Plus the fact that, to be honest, the inner world got a bit tiresome.

If you want a book on moving forward after loss, on a life that was self-destructing and slowly pieced back together, then this might be worth reading, though I found it more self-centered than similar memoirs. If you want a book on hiking in the wilderness, read the Barefoot Sister’s books, or Bryson’s.  His may not be about the PCT but when he realizes his friend just chucked all the toilet paper over the cliff because it was too heavy, you’ll find yourself standing right next to him.

In Wild, I never found myself on the trail.