Tag Archives: the writing life

Names on a Map

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I spent some time last week with friends out in the Gulf Islands of Canada, and I was reminded again -as I usually am when I travel – how intriguing local place names are. I’m sure my fascination with place names was heightened recently by reading (for the first time, sad to admit) the opening novel of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust is a master of details, including the naming of imaginary towns, churches, houses, and roads in one direction (by way of Swann and the village of Combray) and the other (the Guermantes way.)  I think it’s in the naming of people and places that our imaginations first begin to engage with stories.

The lighthouse at Georgina Point...

The lighthouse at Georgina Point…

Out on Mayne Island, I studied a map and found the following place names, by category:

Bays:

Village, Miner’s, Bennett, Piggott, Gallagher, Campbell, Oyster, Horton, Dinner, Kadonaga, Naylor, Reef, Maude

Points:

Edith, Helen, Laura, St. John’s, Crane, Georgina

Highground:

Heck’s Hill, Mt. Parke

Road Names:

Minty, Latour, Felix Jack, Tinkley, Tinker, Cotton, Skana Gate, Isabella

I wonder about the women: Maude, Helen, Edith, Laura, Georgina, Isabella. Were they mothers? Sweethearts? Daughters? I wonder if Miner’s Bay was named for miners on the island or for a family named Miner. I’m delighted by the existence of Cotton, Minty, Tinker and Tinkley Roads, which sound like the names of mice in a Beatrix Potter adventure (Tinkley is the naughty one, right?) If you go from Heck’s Hill to St. John’s Point, will you have been walking in a heavenly direction (or if headed round trip the opposite direction while picking blackberries could you say you went to Heck and back for those berries?) The story behind a road called Felix Jack needs to be told, though the strangeness of “Kadonaga” Bay might be explained by the Japanese Memorial Garden,  planted in honor of the Japanese-Canadian families whose land was taken from them during World War II. I imagine the Kadonaga family, suitcases packed, waiting on the dock at Miner’s Bay for the steamship which would take them from their homes.

Members of the Japanese-American Community days before their forced evacuation from the island....

Members of the Japanese-Canadian community days before their forced evacuation from the island….

Next time you travel, make a list of the place names around you. They might surprise you – or make you wonder…and don’t stories begin with wonder?

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Right now, I’m wondering about Maude. Who might she have been? Though the timeframe is wrong, and the origin of the place names is off,  I begin to imagine someone like Maude walking up Heck’s Hill with her friends, one who might be named Georgina Campbell and another who might be named Hamako Kadonaga, looking for berries. It’s late summer, 1941…by the following April, Hamako and her sister, mother and grandmother will be sent inland to an internment camp; her father – I imagine someone who might have run the fish saltery near Emery’s Store – will be sent farther inland, as Japanese-Canadian men between 18-45 were – and forced into hard labor until the war was over.

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Maybe the story is told through letters from one girl to the other. Maybe Hamako addresses her letters to Maude Miner, Cotton Road, Mayne Island, British Columbia….who knows? I’m playing a game – let’s call it an experiment –  “Names on a Map.”

Berry Picking circa 1910

Berry Picking circa 1910

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by | April 28, 2014 · 2:11 am

Mosquitoes, Whining in My Ear

In one of the essays in The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes:

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

The mind is an irrational thing. It operates in its own conditioned, instinctive manner, so we can fight and flee our way through life.

I am a slow, ponderous writer. I often find myself caught without a mosquito net, with those whiny voices in my ear, drowning out any possible coherent thoughts. I stop. I listen. The work freezes. I set it aside. Sometimes I can go back and wrest some momentum out of some of those pieces. But sometime, sometimes, they just stay where they are. Inert. Dead.

But fiction is not life. Life plays out in far messier ways. Life demands that I wake up and pay attention.

When terrible things happen in the world I  find myself questioning what I do for a living. Writers are not “essential personnel,” are they? Here we are now, in the wake of the Boston bombings, and I’m dismayed at my own self-indulgence. We live in a world where a 19-year-old ends up bloodied in a boat in someone’s back yard, after having dropped off a bomb intended to kill and maim crowds of people. Obsessing over process seems irrelevant. I’m jolted out of any residual state of feeling sorry for myself.

Still, the thing we call process will take its toll again, I know. Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about this in 1920, in her essay, How Flint and Fire Started and Grew.

…on taking up the legible typed copy and beginning to glance rapidly over it, I felt fall over me the black shadow of that intolerable reaction which is enough to make any author abjure his calling for ever. By the time I had reached the end, the full misery was there, the heart-sick, helpless consciousness of failure. What! I had had the presumption to try to translate into words, and make others feel a thrill of sacred living human feeling, that should not be touched save by worthy hands. And what had I produced? A trivial, paltry, complicated tale, with certain cheaply ingenious devices in it….

From the subconscious depths of long experience came up the cynical, slightly contemptuous consolation, “You know this never lasts. You always throw this same fit, and get over it.”

So, suffering from really acute humiliation and unhappiness, I went out hastily to weed a flower-bed.

And sure enough, the next morning, after a long night’s sleep, I felt quite rested, calm, and blessedly matter-of-fact. “Flint and Fire” seemed already very far away and vague, and the question of whether it was good or bad, not very important or interesting, like the chart of your temperature in a fever now gone by.

So there. Momentum is everything. The only way is to keep on keeping on. I’m swatting at those whiny mosquito voices and paying attention to the only work I know how to do.

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