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Help Celebrate, #IDPD2017

Today marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. To learn more about this United Nations initiative, read on.
In 1992, the UN proclaimed December 3 as a day to recognize persons with disabilities. This year’s theme is “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all.”
I can only speak for a small fraction of this population, and only those living in one of the most privileged countries in the world. In Canada, living as a person with a disability doesn’t come with the same challenges as it does for people living in, for example, Brazil.
Accessibility, including access to public buildings and services, continues to be one of the major issues facing many people with disabilities. Accessibility, of course, means different things to different people. For me, as a blind person who uses a white cane, having the pebbled strip along the edges of the LRT platforms in Edmonton gives me warning as I come close to that edge. Believe me—it’s helpful. I’ve fallen off the damned platform twice over the years, once breaking two ribs on a snowy evening in January, 2010.
Accessibility, however, isn’t the only issue. Treating people with dignity is equally important. If, for example, you encounter a person who is deaf accompanied by an interpreter, don’t talk to the interpreter; talk to the person. If you see someone whom you think might need some help, ask before helping, and allow that person the dignity of refusing your help.
When I’m out and about, people ask me all kinds of questions—some of them pointedly personal. I wrote a piece about being asked such questions last year, which you can find in Hippocampus Magazine.
I don’t mind the questions people ask, and I try to answer as best I can. If you are ever in any doubt regarding a question you want to ask a person with a disability, ask yourself the same question first. It’s about being aware, but sometimes it’s just about being sensitive.
Help celebrate this day, but take this United Nations initiative into your life and workplace in meaningful ways. And thank you, in advance.

The Magic of Reading Harry Potter, or Just the Magic of Reading?

If you have been following the recent Internet buzz around Harry Potter, you are probably aware that studies suggest reading the novels will make you a better person. I’m sure it’s true. I’m never one to argue that reading will help you become more empathetic, more compassionate, and result in you becoming more aware of marginalized groups. However, much of the buzz around this study fails to acknowledge the long-standing connection between reading and empathy, quite apart from the Harry Potter books and their effect on young readers.
The study in question is “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice,” which appeared in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2015. You can find the study yourself, if you have access to a university library data base. This group of researchers tested three groups of young people. They set out to test if positive identification with the main character of a particular fantasy series—that being Harry Potter—would result in higher levels of sympathy towards marginalized groups, such as immigrants, refugees, and members of the LGBTQ community. Surprise surprise—the researchers discovered that young people who positively identified with Harry felt more empathy towards stigmatized groups.
The study undeniably makes a point about three select groups of young people who read Harry Potter. And yet, I don’t entirely know what to do with it. Perhaps that’s because I’m not a social scientist. As someone who teaches literature, and someone who teaches Harry Potter on a regular basis, I’m unsurprised by the results, but I am surprised by people’s reaction. A life time of reading has shown me how reading can expand my sense of the world, particularly of people I know nothing about. More important are the interactions that can emerge out of reading-in the classroom or with other readers. Talking to one another about the books we love fosters a dialogue that can become the vehicle for marked and radical change.
Studies on the positive effects of reading are plentiful. Just Google “reading and empathy” and you will see what I mean. Does this take away from the research on Harry Potter? Not necessarily. But it does suggest some perspective is in order.
A piece in Scientific American from 2013, for example, comments on a study examining the benefits of reading literary fiction, while a 2016 article in The Atlantic discusses studies on reading and the theory of mind, which suggest reading, while beneficial, will not give you super powers.
All this to say, reading Harry Potter will help make you a better person, but so will reading C. S. Lewis, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, Elizabeth Smart, rohinton Mistry, as well as a thousand others. While social media has expanded people’s spheres of contact in astonishing ways, nothing takes the place of reading, then telling someone close to you about the book that just blew your mind. As the holidays approach and you stock up on books to get you through to the New Year. Remember to come out of your quiet corner now and then to tell somebody about what you’ve discovered. Happy reading!

A Love Letter to the Rejected Writer

Dear Writer:

You’ve had another story rejected. You’ve lost track of how many times you’ve submitted this particular piece, and you’re wondering if you should bother doing it again. I’ve asked myself the same question a hundred times.
Submitting to literary journals is a disheartening process. You spend time in your room, at your kitchen table, or in coffee shops—writing, writing, writing—then you wind up your courage and fire off your submission to a journal. Days, weeks, then months pass. You try to keep yourself from obsessively checking the status of your submission online. Finally, you get an email. It’s a rejection. Then you rage, cry, or just get depressed. And you do it all over again.
The writing process is difficult enough, but the submission process comes with its own constellation of negative spirals and rabbit-holes. If you are like me, you use Submittable for most submissions to literary journals. I love Submittable. It keeps my submissions in order, and I can download a list of everything I submitted and to where. As of this month, I’ve made more than a hundred submissions since January of 2016. I haven’t submitted a hundred separate stories or essays—that would be crazy. Neither have I published a hundred pieces since I started using Submittable. However, I’ve submitted individual pieces as many as ten times to different journals.
This last September, Penmen Review, which comes out of Southern New Hampshire University, published “My sister Maddie,” a piece I wrote nearly a decade ago. Before Penmen Review picked up the story, it had been rejected by nine other journals. Often, it’s a question of the fit between the story and a particular issue or journal. Editors tell me this repeatedly. It still doesn’t help with processing a stream of rejections, especially when that piece has cost you more time and emotional energy than you give to many of your relationships.
As a rule, the rejections that find me—usually at awkward moments on the bus or in the mall—are form letters that say the same thing.

Dear William Thompson:

Thank you for submitting to our journal. We receive many submissions for each issue, but unfortunately we can’t publish everything…

I understand the point of the form letter. Editors don’t have time to comment on individual submissions. However, now and then I will get a comment from an editor that is thoughtful, encouraging, or offers a snippet of helpful feedback. I’m always grateful for such comments.

“This is quite well written, with strong atmospheric details.”
“The story is very powerful, relating the protagonist’s situation to his mother’s is very impactful. I suggest giving the protagonist a name and more description. It will make the story more visceral.”
“I found parts of this fascinating, but all the pieces didn’t fit together in a way that felt unified to me.”

Feedback is always good. You don’t have to like it; it just needs to make you think about your work from someone else’s point of view. Difficult, I realize. And rejections always carry a particular sting, no matter how many you’ve received.
I remind myself regularly that submitting as part of my work as a writer—in the way that writing this blog is part of that same work. Researching journals that might be a good fit for a particular story or essay takes time. I also try to read something a journal has published before I submit, which isn’t always possible, depending on whether or not the journal has sample pieces available on their website. I set a goal—say, eight or ten submissions a month. I keep a folder of pieces that are in circulation, and I work on pieces I can add to the circulation folder. I happen to be good at compartmentalizing my life—not such a fabulous quality in some ways, but it makes this particular process easier.
Rejection doesn’t mean your work is bad, or that no one likes it, or that you should give up any thoughts of being a writer and take a job somewhere that never reminds you of your love for the written word. Rejection means you are out there—for good or ill. No one can reject something you’ve written if you don’t submit it. And no one can accept it either. Writing is a process, but so is submitting. And both require you to put a little iron in your soul, first for the sake of finishing that story you have to write, then getting it out into the world.

Yours in Fellowship,
Bill

Dreaming of Snow

Winter arrived here in Edmonton on November 1. It does that here—one day it’s fall, cool but lovely, and the next day it’s winter, snowy and cold. Even the geese who stop here on their way south were caught unawares by the sudden change.
This happens every year, and every year many are taken by surprise at the abrupt start to the winter. People scramble to find their winter-clothes; they line up to have winter tires put back on their cars. For this season, which is sometimes fully half the calendar year, it takes longer to get ready to leave the house, and it takes longer to get anywhere. This longest season of the year has an inevitable effect on the way people think and the way they interact with their world. If you live here, you simply can’t ignore what’s happening outside your window.
A few years ago, I wrote a flash fiction piece about snow and about winter. I’ve never tried submitting the story, mostly because I didn’t think it would mean much to anyone living south of the fifty-third parallel. Nonetheless, here’s the story, Dreaming of Snow. Enjoy!

***

He dreamed. All day the snow fell heavily and deliberately, dropping down in great white flakes that gathered themselves into clinging crystalline faces that vanished as they kissed the ground. The air was thick and alive with falling snow.
He sat on the couch and watched the gathering whiteness through the window. The snow fell and fell. It obliterated the green of pines and the brown of branches. It swirled and settled, leveling the ground to an implacable plain of whiteness that steadily rose and rose.
Once, he opened the front-door. It smelled sharp and clean and cold, and the snow hissed and sighed as it jostled its way down, filling the air with its crystalline whisper and clogging coldness. He closed the door.
Back at the window, he watched as the level of whiteness crept up the side of the house. He knew he was drowning, drowning in snow and cold. It would rise to the level of the window, then it would rise even higher, and it would bury the house—and keep falling and falling. Sooner or later, he would be entombed in snow.
Eventually, he would suffocate, or perhaps the inexorable weight of the falling snow would simply crush the house with him inside. Watching the white wall creep up the window, he knew he could do nothing. There was nothing to do save remember the dream of summer that had fled forever. And as he remembered sun and leaves and the song of birds, he could see individual snowflakes pressed against the glass, flakes that formed patterns and frozen faces, faces that peered in and took no account of the heat that for now still ran throbbing through his veins in a rhythmic pulse of denial.

On Tolkien and Faerie

As J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit turns eighty this year, I’m going to be posting a number of pieces in celebration. Here is the second in the series.
I first read Tolkien’s The Hobbit at the age of eleven. Because I was a weird and obsessive kid, I read it over and over. In reading the book, I first learned how to read critically—for a twelve-year-old, at any rate. Here’s a passage I read over and over and never understood.
“Though their [the Wood Elves] magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West.”
(Tolkien, the Hobbit, “Flies and Spiders)
Two questions occurred to me, even then. What did Tolkien mean by Faerie? And why was it a place?
I went on to read Lord of the rings, but the questions only piled up. One thing was clear. Tolkien kept referring to places, people, and even gods that seemed part of a larger mythology—one that only Tolkien knew about. I felt a strange longing for these people and places only hinted at in these stories.
Years passed. I went to university and studied English, and I began to see how the books and authors I had read for years fit within a larger history of English literature. I never forgot Tolkien, but I reread the books less and less as I explored other authors. In part, I was looking to recreate the same overwhelming reading experience I had with Tolkien. I never found it—came close, had many and varied reading experiences, but never the same as reading Tolkien.
It’s important for you to understand my llife as a reader before the Internet came along and publishers began seeing the value in electronic texts. In those days, I read my books on tape—first on a giant reel-to-reel tape-recorder, then special cassette players that had a much higher capacity than regular players. I got my books in the mail, and I had to order them on the phone. I rarely had access to the books people were talking about—new books, anyway. I always had to wait to see if either the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) or RFB (Recordings for the Blind) was going to record the books I desperately wanted to read. This was another reason I read and reread the books I had. My mine of books was rich, but it was small. All the trouble with tapes that wouldn’t play, tape players that broke down, waiting and waiting for books—all this abruptly changed with the advent of digital recordings. Suddenly, I had a chance to explore Tolkien in a new way—one that I didn’t have before. Around this time, I also began teaching The Hobbit on a regular basis, which returned me to the old questions. And finally, I got some answers.
According to The Tolkien Gateway, the term Faerie only appears in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and not in LotR. Faerie is the land in the farthest West, the home of the Valar (the gods of Middle-Earth), and the place to which the elves return. In LotR and The Silmarillion, this place is Valinor. All this raises another question. Why did Tolkien use the term Faerie in The Hobbit?
The Hobbit was published in 1937. In 1938, Tolkien delivered the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. This lecture, later published as “On Faerie Stories,” is the basis for Tolkien’s understanding of Faerie and fantasy. Faerie, according to Tolkien, is the realm that lies on the borders of human consciousness and human understanding. It is the perilous realm, the place that contains and embodies Story, and it is both wonderful and dangerous:
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”
(Tolkien, “On Faerie Stories”)
If you want to understand Tolkien, then read “On Faerie Stories.” It’s a difficult essay but worth reading. In this essay, Tolkien offers his understanding of Faerie and faerie stories, and he provides a foundational approach to fantasy for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
If you find the essay heavy-going, don’t be discouraged. I’ve read this essay a dozen times, and each time I discover something new. If you want to see Tolkien exploring the realm of Faerie in fiction, read Smith of Wootton Major—an odd little story, but full of the power of the otherworld. Always remember, if you venture into that world, you do so at your own risk; the realm of Faerie will leave its mark, and you won’t be the same ever again.

Eighty Years of The Hobbit

Harry Potter may have turned twenty this last June, but The Hobbit turned eighty. September 22nd marked the eightieth anniversary of the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. 2017 also marks one hundred years of Middle-Earth—both reasons to celebrate the author who forever changed the face of literary fantasy.
Tolkien was a philologist and medieval scholar who taught at Oxford from 1925-1959. As a young man, newly married to Edith Bratt, and on his way to establishing a family and academic career, Tolkien began writing his myths of Middle-Earth. He fought in the Great War as one of the Lancashire Fusiliers, lost most of his closest friends, and returned to England an altered man.
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, Professor Tolkien sat marking student papers:
“It all began when I was reading exam papers to earn a bit of extra money. That was agony. One of the tragedies of the underpaid professor is that he has to do menial jobs. He is expected to maintain a certain position and to send his children to good schools. Well, one day I came to a blank page in an exam book and I scribbled on it. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
This is one of those literary moments that has become part of the myth around Tolkien and Middle-Earth. See Tolkien’s 1968 interview in the Telegraph here.
The Hobbit began as a children’s tale—a fairy story to amuse his children. Tolkien had already established Middle-Earth, beginning the tale of Beren and Luthien as early as 1917. But Bilbo and his adventures with Thorin and Company didn’t have a place in that world at first. Not until Tolkien’s publisher, Allen and Unwin, began requesting a Hobbit sequel did Tolkien try continuing the story of hobbits. Another eighteen years would pass before The Lord of the Rings gave the world a closer peek inside Tolkien’s mythology. And by the way, the word hobbit entered the language because of Tolkien.
I first read The Hobbit at the age of eleven. I had recently lost my sight in a car accident, but by some curious chance, this book came my way. I was in the hospital, and it filled a void in my life I didn’t know I had. And the book continues to be part of my life to this day. I teach it every year to my children’s literature students, and my inaugural blog post from 2014 was about this book.
You may not be a Tolkien fan. You may have read and hated both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Even if you never intend to read these books, acknowledge to yourself the achievement they represent—the scribblings of an Oxford professor who loved languages and altered the way people read and wrote fantasy.
It’s impossible to do justice to Tolkien and his achievement in a single blog post, but here’s a point on which to close for now. C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s friend and colleague at Oxford, had this to say about The Hobbit in his 1937 review that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement:
“For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”