Tag Archives: Kate Braid

It’s All in the Timing

In 1986 I finished the first draft of a fictional story about a woman carpenter.  Actually, there wasn’t a lot of “fiction” to it; it was my own story about fifteen years in construction but I wasn’t about to tell people that.  I was still “on the tools” and didn’t want to be that exposed.  The writing itself went quickly, done in about six months of concentrated effort.

But I knew, when I read it over, it was no good.  The characters were boring, the plot lagged, the language was stilted, so I put it away.  Over the next twenty-five years I continued to rewrite that story – though I tried not to.  Telling this tale was too hard, reminded me of events I’d rather forget.  But it kept coming back, in dreams, ideas, notes.  After about five years it switched to non-fiction.  I started fresh, wrote another draft.  No good.  Another.  I’d made a vow to myself at the beginning, that if I was going to write the story of being a woman in trades it was going to be honest or it wasn’t worth doing.  One draft was too cheery.  The next was too academic.  Then there was the draft that reeked with preachiness.  All of them I threw away, swearing I wasn’t going to – didn’t need to – write this book.  But a few months later, another dream, another idea, maybe just a few pages…..

In 1978, soon after I’d started work as a construction labourer so I could pay for a Masters Degree at university, I’d done a thesis on women in what we then called non-traditional work, that showed the number of women in trades in British Columbia was two to three per cent.  In 2007, I had the opportunity to revisit that research and found out the number of women in trades was still two to three per cent.  It so shocked me that in thirty years, in spite of Human Rights legislation, role models and courses for women, nothing had changed, that I decided this book had to be written.  In order to understand why there aren’t more women in trades, people had to know what it was like on a day-to-day basis.  Suddenly I wasn’t writing this book for myself, I was writing it for every young woman who wasn’t getting an opportunity to do work she might love as passionately as I had.

So did that make the writing any easier?  I wish.  There followed the four hardest writing years of my career but I kept writing. I even went to a therapist.

When the book was finally finished, we couldn’t find a place to launch it until a friend stumbled on the Canadian Memorial Centre for Peace.  On November 9, 2012, that’s where I finally launched Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World. I’d never felt so vulnerable, so revealed, in a book, but response from women as well as men, has been deeply gratifying.  “Finally,” one of the first emails said, from a woman who’d worked in a northern mine and copper smelter.  “Finally someone has told our story.”

In hindsight, a Centre for Peace for bringing this story to rest, was perfect.  So was its long and difficult gestation.  If I’d published that first poor work of fiction, or the lecture notes, or the preachy version, it would never have had the impact this book has already had.  The story needed time.  I needed time.  I wasn’t ready.  I hadn’t processed the experience enough, hadn’t learned to understand, to forgive, to see the bigger picture.  Time has made it a far better, wiser book. I wonder what will come next?

Kate Braid

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Harmony

I just got back from a voice lesson and I feel like purring. What is it about singing?  As a kid I sang in the high school choir, even got to be understudy to the alto lead – then spent the two months before the performance praying for her good health since I was terrified at the thought I might have to actually sing solo. 

But harmony?  I was happy as a little wren back there in the chorus.  Then life happened and I got busy and for the next 30 years, stopped singing.  Until I went through a bad patch and woke up one morning thinking, “I need more joy in my life,” which somehow led to the idea of joining a choir.  I asked friends for the names of local choirs, jotting the names down here and there and promptly forgetting them.  Really, I didn’t have time.  Then we were invited to a dinner where we met a choir director who invited me to join his choir.  When I ran into him again the next day, he repeated the invitation: Universal Gospel Choir.  Which prodded me enough to dig out the names of all those other choirs people had recommended.  Every one of them was, Universal Gospel Choir.

I can take a hint.  The first time I went to choir practice, I enjoyed it.  The second time, I sat in the middle of the alto section thinking, “Something’s going on here.”  It felt like not only were we making harmonies of soprano, alto, tenor and bass – beautiful enough.  But more, it felt as if every cell of my body was vibrating in harmony with the cells of the singers all around me. 

I don’t know if that was actually happening, but I know that the happiness I feel after a choir practice (and in spades after a concert) is profound.  As if every cell of my body really has been harmonizing with the cells of everyone around me, and the silly grins on our faces are proof.  What a gift!

Kate Braid

Doing the Impossible

About a year ago a man called Barry Peterson telephoned to say he was taking photographs of West Coast writers and could he take my picture?  I laughed, then agreed – I admit, a bit condescendingly. Who cares about BC writers, much less what we look like?

This week I went to the launch of Barry’s book, 111 West Coast Literary Portraits.  It’s a beautiful thing: large format, warm, charming black and white photographs on heavy paper, with portraits – 111 of them – on the left hand page and a short excerpt from that person’s writing, on the right.  My first thought was, “It’s beautiful,” and my second was, again, “Who cares?”  Who, except us 111 and maybe the other West Coast Writers who have no money to buy an expensive book, plus the few readers who still support writers enough to buy a gorgeous, hard cover coffee table book.

Then the speeches started.  “This book happened because someone believed in it,” said Alan Twig, editor of BC Book World.  I was still sceptical.  But as the story of how this book came – beautifully – into our hands, I changed my mind.  Barry and his partner of the time, Blaise Enright, got this zany idea to photograph writers and one of the first writers they mentioned the project to was poet Mona Fertig who also happened to be interested in printing – small projects like chapbooks, using handmade papers and an original hundred-year-old linotype press.  “One day these photographs will be a book,” Mona told them.  “I don’t have the facilities to publish it now, but one day I will.”  That was 1997.

Barry and Blaise continued to take photographs but it was slow work.  It didn’t pay for one thing, so it was done in their spare time, on their own travel dime.  When they photographed Alan Twigg – a “doer” in the world of BC writing – he loved the project and asked them to make available the dozen or so photos they’d done so far for a travelling literacy exhibit.  But that meant framing and packing and transporting and Barry and Blaize didn’t have the money.  Alan, a man producing a free literary journal out of his garage, handed them a cheque for $500.  “It’s a start,” he said.  A few days later he called to say he’d found sponsors; BC Hydro and BC Gas would help underwrite the cost.

Still, it wasn’t a lot, and life kept getting in the way.  The writers were far spread.  Barry and Blaize’s relationship broke up.  But Mona had turned her chapbooks into a small publishing house and whenever Barry checked in, discouraged, she’d say, “One day I’m going to publish that book!”

In 2012, she did.  There were money problems – it was an expensive project.  There were printing problems. The film was hand processed using archival fibre based prints and the first copies came back from the printer with white blotches all over the portraits.

But Mona and Barry (and Alan) never let go, and the proof of this impossible, improbable project was here in our hands, a testament to the power of a few people’s belief in it.

In a way, that’s what all writers do.  We have this unreasonable, uneconomical, actually almost ridiculous commitment to putting words on paper (or these days, into the ether).  Nobody wants to pay for them and unless you’re Philip Roth, nobody is waiting for what we write.  But we believe in it.  Sometimes we’re the only one.  If we’re lucky, we find a friend or a small group of friends who are likewise doing this crazy thing, writing.  Sometimes, with enough faith and enough hard work and enough dogged tenacity and living off pasta – we have a blog, or a published article, or a book in our hands.  Impossible, until we believed it – and our colleagues and friends believed it – into being.  No wonder some of us call our publications, “our babies.”  They’re a small miracle.

111 West Coast Literary Portraits is published by Mother Tongue Press.  See http://www.mothertonguepublishing.com/?page_id=428

Kate B.

Grandmothering

I never wanted kids, so it went without saying I was never going to be a grandmother either, and that was fine; I accepted both parts of the deal.  Then I fell in love with a man who had a seven-year old son, which was OK partly because it was the “baby” part of babies I wasn’t keen on, and partly because I liked the little guy, who lived most of his childhood with his dad and me.  One day after he’d grown up and married and moved away, he phoned to say, “We have a daughter.”  And a funny thing happened – every cell in my body re-aligned and without ever having been a (real) mother I became in that moment a real grandmother.

My granddaughter is now five years old.  Her mother is from Ukraine and the child’s name – Zlata Sophia – means Golden Wisdom in Ukrainian and to my surprise, she is indeed a kind of “golden wisdom” to me.  Because they live in Europe, I rarely get to see my granddaughter more than once a year (not counting Skype) but in those precious times we’re together, grandmothering has taught me surprising things.  When Zlata asks why I have white hair, for example, or what happened to the dog in the picture on our wall, I explain that I am growing older, that the dog too grew old and then it died, which led to an intense and fascinating (on both sides) conversation about why death, who dies, and what happens after.

As a grandmother, I feel like I know something.  As I watch those wide eyes take in the world, I remember newness – how everything was once of dazzlingly equal importance – and I’m happy to give a few pointers in terms of yes, that’s important, and this, not so much.  Sometimes we’re silly together, building tents under the dining room table, piling rocks into careful cairns and decorating them with hair ribbons, or pretending we’re sisters.  “You be the baby sister,” she orders, “and I’ll be the big sister!”

I also love to watch her get bold.  OK, I’m shameless.  An ancient feminist, I have already bought her a comic book on the birth of Wonder Woman.  I tell her how proud I am when she’s strong, how clever she is when she builds an entire playground on the beach out of driftwood.  When we swim – blowing bubbles, opening our eyes underwater and counting fingers – I’m thrilled when she wants to show me how far she can swim, “Further!  Further!” as she orders me to move my hand another foot along.

Having a grandchild is so easy.  Her parents mind her manners, and I get to play.  I have discovered my inner five year old and it is so unbelievably, so magically, so blessedly good!

Kate Braid

On Fear of Finishing (the Book)

So I’d been working on this book, a memoir of my fifteen years as a carpenter, for a long, long time – twenty-five years to be exact – and finally it was finished.  I sent it off to the publisher, who liked it, and who passed it on to an editor, who also liked it, and who worked with me on a substantive edit, to polish and cut.  So far, so good.  Then it sat for a while with a copy editor and proofer, and that’s when I panicked.

I mean terrified.  I’d always thought writing memoir would be a snap.  You write what happened, you check with your journals if you have any doubts about timing or need a little more detail, then you write it down.  What could be easier? 

It turns out that everything I’ve ever written – eleven books and chapbooks of poetry and biography – has been easier than this.  It turns out that to write an honest memoir (key word, “honest”) takes more gut-wrenching, heart-searching and even trips to the counsellor, than any poem or book of poems or biography ever did.  Besides, everyone knows that poems are fictional and biography is someone else’s life.  None of it is “you.”

But memoir is all yours.  It’s also all the key people you ever knew and loved (and didn’t).  Suddenly I felt like I’d smeared my life all over the page (quite a few pages, actually) and laid them out on a glaringly bare screen for everyone to judge.   Suddenly all the things I wasn’t proud of, all the mistakes, were blatant.  And what would those people say when they saw themselves on the page with me, so unexpected?  I’d changed a few names, I’d sent out excerpts to ask others if they wanted their real name or a pseudonym, and had been deeply relieved that not a single person wanted any changes except for one or two corrections of fact.  I even consulted a lawyer friend, just in case.  All fine, he reassured me.  Still….  It’s the bareness that’s hard.  I phoned other memoir writers.  Yes, yes, they knew the feeling.  One wise friend said to me, “Send this book out, like all the others, with love and trust.”  So that’s what I’m hanging on to.  Love and trust – in my readers, and in the hard work I did to make this book as honest, as true, as I possibly could.

I’d thought courage for a writer was in the living, and then in the writing.  Now I find that the need for courage doesn’t stop.  And the places we need it, keep surprising me.

Kate B.

(Note:  Journeywoman will be published by Caitlin Press this fall.)

 

 

Trying to Figure Out Grief

Grief confuses me. One year ago my father died and I understood why people say “stricken.” Although others in my life have died, this was the first time I had this overwhelming feeling of being cut down, as if a chasm had opened in my landscape. I wasn’t sure, but I thought this must be what people meant when they said “grief.” But grief is such a small word – surely this was nothing so small, so simple? Besides, my father had been ill and increasingly unhappy; he was 86 and ready to die and it would have been cruel to wish him to live any longer. So was this grief? Just that small word?

For weeks I wandered, drawn – over and over, especially around sunset – to the ocean’s edge, to what I later found the Irish call “a thin place.” I walked for hours, and wept. Surely this was grief. Yet all that time, as I walked, I had the most certain feeling that my father was with me closer – in a way – than he’d ever been in life. I had powerful connections with crows. Could I call this sense of his nearness, “grief,” when it felt so precious?

When his picture pops up on my computer’s screen saver these days, sometimes I cry, sometimes I catch my breath. And sometimes I’m filled with a peculiarly tender joy; I loved him. I love him still. I was so lucky to have him in my life for so long, to be able to reach such peace with him before he died. In the immediate aftermath of his dying, it was as if a button had been pressed and I could sense other layers to the world, a greater depth. My father died, and I became more alive. Is it okay to call that, grief?

As a writer – compulsive about writing about everything – I found it strange that until this moment, I haven’t written a word about his death except a single short poem about a crow. Is there too much grief sitting on my pen or is this a resting time, a time for retreat and thought? And is this not a good thing from time to time? Shall I thank grief?

Today I read an article on happiness by Natalie Goldberg where she told of a friend’s terrible loss of her young husband and the therapist saying, “Enjoy your grief. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.” Oddly, I understood that. So far, that’s really all I seem to understand. Grief is loss, yes, and sadness, yes, but also sweet and a whole new keen awareness. Grief is a contradiction to me and I am still confused. I keep wondering if that’s the only word. Is there a better?

Along the way, crows watch.
Crow has become a shadow companion

“shadow” in the good sense
that he’s always here –

colleague, escort, presence.
Guardian crow.

“Shadow” in the sense of
reminder.

Kate B.

On Writing in New Mexico

I’ve just returned from 2 weeks as writer-in-residence at Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, northern New Mexico. In 1995 in this very area I was so inspired by landscape that I wrote 11 poems in three days, that turned into a book about Georgia O’Keeffe (Inward to the Bones: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Journey with Emily Carr). So the invitation to stay in my own little casita – in the very place O’Keeffe stayed when she first visited New Mexico – was a gift.

But I’d forgotten that another place is “other.” Another culture. So it took a few days to get used to the differences. Here was a place of heat and daily sun, so unlike my familiar Vancouver, BC climate of rain and fog. Here were adobe and corners rounded by women’s hands and people who easily started a conversation, strange birds and red and green chiles in everything (“Christmas” you say when you can’t make up your mind or want both), and people of Spanish and Pueblo ancestry, not the French I’m used to in Canada. Mostly, here was one of the deepest quiets I’d felt in a very, very long time.

There’s something special about New Mexico. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that any spiritual tradition you can name – Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, New Age, even Shirley MacLaine – all have a retreat here. And artists! Taos – a town of fewer than 6000 people – has 10 public museums, uncounted private galleries and hundreds of artists from all over the world.

It was a bit overwhelming at first. I’d find myself standing at the door of my little adobe dwelling, listening. Just listening. For the song of different birds, the rustle of different trees, for that deep silence that seemed to underlie it all. And then I wrote. I’m not sure if – how – the place affected the writing I did there. I’ll know later. But I do know it shook me up, into fresh places, which is a gift to any writer. Christmas in June!

This was my first writer-in-residency. Now I know what they’re for. For taking a deep breath. For getting a different view. For writing.

Kate Braid

Clearing House

When my partner and I down-sized, we moved from a 2400 square foot four-bedroom house with finished basement, two-car garage and big yard, to an apartment in downtown Vancouver. It was a radical shift. I’d never lived in an apartment and it felt particularly strange, when I found myself wandering around the new space at 3 a.m., to see other apartment dwellers doing the same, right across the street. I was living in a bee-hive.

Now, three years later, there isn’t a single thing I miss about the old place. In the new one, I know all my neighbours (including the guy whose office faces mine so we can give a wave of encouragement when we see the other working), I walk everywhere so I never have to worry about getting exercise, and I have a whole new appreciation of trees and parks because I walk through them on a daily basis. But the very best thing is how I learned to shed Stuff.

You know Stuff: the extra sofa in case someone comes to visit and the bureau that goes with it, and all the drawers to fill and then clean out, and the walls to wash and paint at least occasionally, and the extra rugs to clean and plants to water and couches and chairs and pictures for the walls and books…..

My first hour of “getting rid of Stuff” was a disaster – I got rid of nothing. The little black doo-dah my auntie gave me! Finally I asked myself: if I died tomorrow, would anyone care about this? Not! So out it went. Once I got going, it was fun. It felt like a cleansing. It helped to find a good charity, one that provided battered women in particular and poor families in general, with household items. So it was actually a pleasure to give up even the most treasured things, like my button-box. Some woman who’d had to walk out leaving her own button-box behind, would now enjoy mine. Knowing struggling families would get our Stuff made it easy to shed clothes, furniture, bedding, even fourteen boxes of books. Even Christmas decorations. In the new space, we’d have no room for a big tree.

We got rid of 95% of what we owned. But the best was yet to come. Now, whenever I’m tempted to buy something – usually something beautiful, virtually never something actually needed – I ask myself, Where will I put it? And know there’s no room. So I admire the object, and put it back.

It feels a relief.

Kate Braid

What to Write About

Yesterday a writer friend asked in passing, “what to write about?” which got me thinking: how as writers, do we decide? What happens in those moments when – say – we’ve just finished the latest project, and can finally start something new. That dazzling white page, fresh black ink….

Panic?

It’s a precious moment – a time of new beginning, a time when our ears can open to the opportunity of a new voice, a direction we may not even know we wanted – needed – to take. How to hear it?

What’s worked best for me has been to pay attention. Not just when I sit down at the desk, but all the time. The inspiration – or at least, the first poem – for the series I wrote on Glenn Gould came when I was watching a video on Cuban jazz. On Georgia O’Keeffe, when I was staring at a rock in New Mexico. On construction, from my journals and a simmering need to explore the challenges and joys of that time.

Yesterday a friend who was about to spend her first week at a newly rented, long longed-for retreat space, wrote in a moment of panic, “What if I just lie there, alone, moaning?” I think the secret is, (and my fingers are crossed as I say this because, after all, the moment of fact can be very different from the moment of theory), the secret is to be patient with ourselves. If the mind and body, on retreat, need first to lie still, alone, moaning, then that is what we must let the body and mind do. And perhaps, if it doesn’t abate, or evolve after some time, a walk, a conversation with a friendly crow, a pause under a blooming tree, might nudge us gently along. Or not. Then we must wait longer. And listen. And above all, be gentle with ourselves.

Kate B.

Paying Attention

We’d like to introduce you to our newest blogger – Kate Braid. Kate has written poetry and non-fiction about subjects from Georgia O’Keeffe, Emily Carr and Glenn Gould, to mine workers and fishers. In addition to co-editing with Sandy Shreve, In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry, she has published five books of poetry, most recently A Well-Mannered Storm, The Glenn Gould Poems (Caitlin, 2008) and Turning Left to the Ladies (Palimpsest, 2009). Her memoir of fifteen years as a carpenter, Journey Woman, is forthcoming in fall 2012. Her work has won and been short-listed for a number of awards including the Pat Lowther Award for Best Book of Poetry by a Canadian Woman, the British Columbia Book Prize and the Vancity Book Prize, and both her poetry and non-fiction have been widely anthologized.

Please join us in welcoming her to Black Ink, White Paper. We’re delighted to have her.

As a writer, one of the things I love is the permission to pay attention. If I see someone bent over at the bus stop, minutely inspecting the body of a dead mouse, then I know it’s probably a writer, or someone with “writer” in their soul. This is what writers write about – the everyday “made fresh,” as Ezra Pound suggested, so that others can see it newly too.

But for several years, I’ve found myself paying attention not just through my own eyes, but through another’s. I’ve taken on the personae – the voice – of the American painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, and of the Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. I didn’t really notice I was doing it, or that it might be thought a bit, well, odd – like putting your nose up close to a dead mouse – until I submitted a few of the Gould poems for publication in a literary journal that sniffed back, “We don’t want these, but send us more when you’re ready to write in your own voice.”

But Glenn Gould’s had become my own voice! It started with hearing a documentary on him, on CBC radio, which got me curious. What would his life have been like? (He died in 1982 at age 50 of a massive stroke.) I started to read about him and listen to his music. Until then, I didn’t even like classical music, especially Bach who – I now found out – was the guy Gould specialized in. I listened more, read more, and before I knew it, I was writing in the voice of Gould about, “the fortress of fugue and partita where /notes, like hands, heal me.”

With O’Keeffe, it started with learning she’d once met my other favourite painter, Emily Carr. I already loved both women’s paintings, loved that both had defied the attitudes of their day in order to paint. So it was so much fun to slowly “become” a painter, to read about O’Keeffe, to walk through an art supply shop noting colours: raw sienna, madder carmine, and all the ways to say purple: garnet, amethyst, Caput mortum. I felt I knew her, in fact, I got so close, I slipped into her head and wrote from there, exploring what it was like to see the world as colour and form, to be a bit nasty, to write, “Last night I dreamed the blood / ran in my veins like skeins of thread, / each thread a different, shimmering colour.”

There are still some presses (and literary journals) that don’t like such so-called “persona” poems, but through the characters I’ve adopted (or who have adopted me), I’ve learned new perspectives – new appreciations of art and music – I would never otherwise have had. I’ve learned to love Bach. And there are always other journals to publish in, more small miracles of life and death, everywhere.

Kate Braid