Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Looking for Narrative at Book Club in a Box

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Looking for Narrative at Book Club in a Box

By Hilary Fair

Toronto literati in need of creative nourishment take note: the city has a new den.

The doors to Marilyn Herbert’s Literary Community Centre opened this past January and the space is busy doing double duty — as both the headquarters of Herbert’s Book Club in a Box project and a hub for her creative events programming.

Catering to artists, bookworms and inquisitive minds-in-general, Herbert leads book discussions and film nights; she invites working authors to facilitate writing workshops; she runs a children’s day program and hosts a changing roster of drama, art and science classes.

All this activity is an extension of Herbert’s success with Book Club in a Box — a business that blends her identities as book reviewer, teacher and artist. Relying on analytical insight and educational savvy, Herbert creates and vends resource guides appropriate for students, teachers and book club collectives alike.

Tucked into the second storey of a non-descript strip mall on the corner of Bathurst and Eglinton, the Book Club’s façade is blink and miss. And yet, the product, like its proprietor, gleams.

Inside, the walls are warm — an orange-peach accented by gentle fluorescence and the blackening sky. The small room is full of happy people eating cookies and sipping tea as I settle in for the centre’s inaugural author event: an evening with Sue Kenney.

It’s clear from the materials on-hand that Book Club encourages thoughtful analysis; its mandate explicitly speaks of an effort to offer “insightful and thought-provoking” resources for group study.

It is also clear, however, from the moment Herbert speaks that her initiative honours the love of books. For the sake of books. This purity of purpose inflects each of Herbert’s words. Her remarks remind her audience of the validity of finding bliss in texts — something that is, so often, sacrificed in the process of studying them. Or trying to write them.

In this little room at 875 Eglinton, Herbert is carving a literary safe space — one that champions the exploration of “creativity and ideas,” on individual terms. Book Club appears to blend the best of academe and aesthetic indulgence: here it is ok to love beautiful words — to straddle the space between provocative thought and pure pleasure. And furthermore, to stop trying so hard to define that space.

Herbert’s project offers guides, rather than parameters. On paper, she’s crafting resources for gratifying skill development; in person, her words give you a creative hug — and licence to enjoy the process.

It’s particularly fitting, then, that Sue Kenney and her discussion of My Camino opens the centre’s series of Writer Events. Camino translates to mean “the way” and Kenney’s title makes small, apt appropriation of the term. My Camino. My way. Inside a space committed to nurturing individual creative exploration, we listen to Kenney trace her creative journey. Using cultivated story-telling skills, she takes us from Parkdale kid, to telecommunications executive, to world-class rower, to pilgrim and best-selling author. She weaves the history of the Camino de Santiago through the sociology of corporate structures and family relations; she completes her tale with the mythology of sorrow stones and kindred spirits in the form of dogs.

Kenney offers us the story of her creative self-discovery: her talk, like her text, is anecdotal. The story comes in pieces: it builds up over time and, in this respect, the content of her words remains true to the form of her experiences. Through all of this, she tells us about the discovery of creative needs — “a dream” — she didn’t know she had.

Kenney is an unintentional author — one that found her voice only after she found herself crowded out of the corporate world and alone on the Camino.

In the midst of her tale, Kenney tells us that the original pilgrims walked the Camino for a variety of reasons: religious or spiritual, for absolution, for sport, in the name of someone else. Her eyes flicker as she reflects: 1200 years later, modern pilgrims take the long walk for the same reasons. She lists them again and says: “1200 years later, we’re still on the same journey.”

Kenney’s first (gentle) confrontation with her author identity came with the opportunity to change pace — to pause, she says, in the midst of her “120 km/hour life.” She actually walked 780km to learn to slow down. These were long days, spent mostly alone, trudging through Spain’s winter. Kenney cites this solitary movement as her enlightenment moment: the process through which she learned to stop long enough to look people in the eye and see story.

Her second confrontation with her own authorship came with the prompting of others — with comments like, “You have a voice that people will listen to,” and the simply resonant “Go and speak.”

“Writing,” Kenney claims, “is about telling stories and believing in your story.” She doesn’t say it’s easy, but evidently it’s something she’s learned to do. Because that’s what we’re here for. Her story.

And yet, as the evening wears on, it’s apparent that our hunger for this narrative comes from differing motivations.

I want to know more about how Kenney became a writer. The woman across the room wants to know whether Kenney’s pilgrim path influenced her daughters’ corporate choices. Another one ponders the age requirement for spiritual growth — who can truly benefit from the Camino, and when? Yet another wants to know if territorial dogs nipped Kenney’s heels as she walked along alone.

In the end, we all get what we need: philosophical debate on the capacity of a twenty-something to glean as much spiritual capital as an eighty-something; verification that Kenney escaped with her Achilles unscathed. And I get my bit about writing, complete with a copy of Kenney’s “A Writer’s Creed.”

Kenney speaks of the Camino as a space for solitude and reflection — creative self-inquiry of the most intense kind. But she also refers to it as a meeting ground: she claims it is a path credited with the unification of Europe because it literally brought bodies and minds together, facilitating intercultural exchange.

I can’t help but think that a diversity of purpose, similar to that which prompted pilgrims to walk the Camino 1200 years ago, is luring us into this room. We’re on a journey — spiritual, sportish and otherwise — looking for guideposts. And attentiveness to guideposts is something Kenney advocates continuously. Heeding all of these nearly-missable shifts is, she says, crucial. It strikes me that Herbert’s Literary Community Centre is a meeting ground — for both individual exploration and group exchange. We’re all here looking for narrative, eager for different, but perhaps complimentary, story lines.

Hilary Fair is new to the city and is trying to find her footing in its literary community while curbing her nomadic tendencies. She’s a new grad from a Master of English program and thinks that she’s finally at the end of her “long road to Toronto.” The last eight years have taken her to various pockets of this province, through Europe a couple of times and to the west coast of Canada for a short stint as an islander. Hilary is pleased to be part of Open Book: Toronto and to have more opportunities to participate in the city’s literary events. She is working at various internships while she also works on getting brave and sharing her words.

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