How All My Puny Sorrows showed me I’m a puny writer

In: Book review, Books
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I keep referring to writers I met at Banff Centre for the Arts in 2015, because it really was a richly connective experience. One such writer is Karim Alrawi, author of Book of Sands (a post on his novel will come soon). Karim is a great teacher and explainer and he has shared many insights on how to become a stronger writer with me. He’s the one who recommended Miriam ToewsAll My Puny Sorrows, given the themes I’m exploring in my writing these days.

I’m not surprised the book blew me away. I’ve read other great Toews novels including A Complicated Kindness, and I loved it not only because it was edited by Michael Schellenberg (I like anything he does). There’s something naturally witty and sweet and sad about Toews’ work. It’s really endearing, although I have to admit that the quirkiness of her writing does throw me off a bit sometimes. But All My Puny Sorrows is a novel where she lands the balance just masterfully. Throughout the process of reading, I realized that my sorrows aren’t are the only things that are puny. Here are the top three things I learned I need to get better at.

1. Complicating the “feel”.

This story centres on sisters Elf and Yoli and the fact that one wants to live and the other wants to die. It’s definitely not a bucket of laughs. But for a book on depression, it’s not as depressing as you’d expect. In fact, there are many relatable and realistically funny ideas woven throughout, such as these:

Elf has told my mother that the sound of a ringing telephone has, for her, Hitchcockian implications and we both say ah, yeah, right, hmmmm … over the phone.

Our old Sunday school teacher told us that she loved us but that God loved us more. We told her to try harder.

Beyond tone and voice, Toews combines episodes and memories and narration to achieve an overarching “feel” that seems impossible: it’s mournful, rebellious, and humorous all at the same time. I believe only the most experienced writers can handle this wonderful complexity of emotion.

2. Plotting without a lot of change.

This happens, then this happens, then this happens … I find plotting can be a trap because it can take away from other important “novelish” elements like character development. I struggle with this. How do you find that balance between events happening and people being? How do you make sure they complement each other and don’t compete?

The plotting of All My Puny Sorrows is subtle but it’s still a compelling read. To make up for a less-than “plotty” plot, Toews makes sure the book teems with life and people you want to spend time with. This means that when something plotty does happen, it’s truly important to the characters. The book challenged me to think about the implications of writing, say, two or three major plot changes in a novel instead of eight or nine.

3. Playing with format.

Right from the start, All My Puny Sorrows is a book that doesn’t use quotation marks. Yes, I did roll eyes and wonder what that format change would add beyond dialogue confusions. But I came to realize it helped me feel fully grounded in the narrator, who otherwise might’ve seemed like a narrator only pretending to be a character, a problem I find with many first person narratives. Take this little exchange between Yoli and her mother, both in the thick of one of Elf’s unsuccessful suicide attempts, in and out of the hospital and back and forth with Elf’s husband Nic.

At the restaurant, we had a surprisingly upbeat conversation about men and sex and guilt and children. Is there anything else? We drank an entire bottle of red wine. We also talked about Nic. Do you think he’s okay? I asked my mom. Well, that depends on what you mean by okay, she said. He’s holding up.
I guess he is, I said. I just don’t know how.
How? said my mom. How are you holding up?
I guess, I said again. How are you holding up?
We laughed at ourselves, then stopped. Breath, energy, emotion, self-control, all too valuable right now to squander.

With quotations, I might be able to observe the moment from a distance. Without them, I’m brought right into the strange mundanity of eating and conversation in the space between frightening hospital visits. I become aware of how surreal it is, how the reactions of family members can both comfort and concern you along the way.

I actually became glad for the no-quotes and started to wonder where I tend to assume I can’t play with format because it’ll come across as pointless or, worse, pretentious. Somehow, I’m fine messing with language but format really intimidates me. Toews again challenges me to let myself think more broadly about conventions of writing and where they may hinder me.



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