Last week at the Canadian Writers’ Summit in Toronto many people who work with words walked around blearily, carrying canvas bags, seeing old friends, wilting in the heat. Things are tough for us writers, publishers, and editors. There is great gloom, there is despair! Gentle reader: there is also hope.
The Canadian Writers’ Summit is a superconference intended to bring together people who would usually be at all the separate conferences for poets, publishers and the like. Lots of older white people attend. Many of them are investigating the digital.
People from completely different worlds wandering around Harbourfront—tourists and residents alike—seemed bemused by these tweedy crowds. An Italian biochemist asked, “What are you all doing here, you… writers?”
A digital novelist and scholar asked if it is possible to create a hybrid collaborative online novel. A decade ago her team collaborated with the publishing house Penguin to develop a wiki called A Million Penguins. When someone replaced all the text with “Fuck Penguin,” the team reversed the editorial changes in the middle of the night—so the collaborative online novel wasn’t completely open. Then someone replaced all the nouns with “banana.” So is a collaborative online novel possible?” the digital novelist asked. “No.”
Over in the Lakeside Terrace, the editors seemed unflustered by the possibility of being replaced by millions of penguins. It could have been 1950. They said editing is collaboration. It’s like being a coach, said one. You’re encouraging the writer to find their true voice. You’re protecting a mystery, said another. It’s like being married. The editors said that they are looking for energy, for a voice that grabs them by the lapels on page one, and won’t let go. In the audience, a penguin shrugged.
A panel on “the writer as cultural agent” followed. No one on the panel knew what a cultural agent is. The speakers included a playwright who makes podcasts, a festival director, and a woman who identifies as a mother/blogger. The questions from the audience came thick and fast and the answers had little in common: “I hope I’ve answered your question. I haven’t answered your question. I don’t think I can answer your question,” said one of the panelists.
A whole panel of playwrights read their work and a whole community of people who write plays cheered from the audience. Why were the play readings so good, so full of life? Maybe because of what makes this conference work, that putting writers together with festival directors together with playwrights together with editors together with critics together with publicists together with professors sends up sparks. Also, there was a bar at the back of the room.
Morris Panych read new material, his voice full of octaves. He said that after his mother died he realized he’d lost the person who had known him best in the world, the person who had brought him into the world, that he had lost something irreplaceable. And after a while all he could do was write about it.
He read from work in progress, a new play. A man talking to his mother, who is in hospital, too sick to answer. How did I end up being this, a drug dealer? Did I say drug dealer? I meant pharmacist. As we listened, story shifted into story, grief shifted into nostalgia. This woman at a party, she said she knew me, I didn’t know her, I couldn’t remember her, she said Doris had introduced us, Doris, I said yes, okay, now I remember. Who’s Doris? How did I end up here, so alone? The mother didn’t answer.
It was perfect. And we remembered why we were here, in the midst of the confusion. He reminded us of what we’re all trying to talk about.