Bios & the Quest Writer’s Conference

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You know the deal. There’s one on this site. “Anne Fleming is the author of…” or “Anne Fleming grew up in…” or “Anne Fleming’s latest book…”

This is my problem: I’ve been asked to participate in this really fantastic-looking event, the Quest Writer’s Conference, June 21-28. I was supposed to send a bio, like, three weeks ago. I could have hauled out my most recent boilerplate from a file I keep and add to like a pile of old soap ends called Bio.doc. It includes a lot of variations on the same thing. I am tired, now, of claiming that GG nomination back in 1999, and a little embarrassed — still hauling out that old chestnut? have you nothing newer to go on? am I till the end of my life going to claim one old, minor and unlooked-for honour? Need this question always be a needle under my skin?

The truly famous can say things like, “Anne Carson lives in Canada.” (Does she? Really? Where?) “Margaret Atwood’s most recent collection of non-fiction, Moving Targets, was released in September.” But if I say, “Anne Fleming’s most recent book is Gay Dwarves of America,” well, I am not saying much and I am not selling the book or the conference and it seems churlish, I think, to the organizers of the event. It’s fine for a magazine contributor’s page (which, to be fair, is where I lifted the Atwood and Carson bios). But it’s not enough for an event that hopes to inform its paying customers what they will be getting.

My favourite of my own bios is the one on which there were restraints put. Jake Kennedy and Kevin McPherson Eckhoff have long organized a beautiful, cacophonous, anti-reverent event called Word Ruckus. One year, they required the lot of us to include particular words in our bios. In the end, it is so much better than Anne Fleming is the author of.

Anne Fleming tans blotchily, like Alice B. Toklas, and worships homemade cassettes. Her poetic sensibilities are founded on “The Large Dark Aardvark song.”

But jokey bios, too, pall after a while. (Not that one. For me. Not yet.)

I keep opening the document and restarting (“Okay, not ‘Anne Fleming blah blah blah,’ but ‘Blah, blah, blah, Anne Fleming’!), leaving out the GG nomination, the Ethel Wilson Shortlist, the National Magazine Awards, or summarizing them wryly (“whose writing has been nominated for many nice awards and has even won one or two”), putting them back in, asking myself what matters to me and how do I phrase accurately anything at all.

But it must be sent in the end, and will be sent, and will not be much different from the last one though I hem and haw and waste time and this is sad because so terribly representative of the hideous hesitation and doubt of the kind of writing that really wants to be done. I need some sort of jolt of oblivion, I need to not care, and pump things out, and it’ll all be better than I thought it was, and more than that it will be DONE and so the next thing can be done and the next, and so here is my mail-off:

Anne Fleming is the author of Gay Dwarves of America, a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the novel, Anomaly, and Pool-Hopping and Other Stories, shortlisted for a BC Book Prize and the Governor-General’s award. Her writing has been described as stellar, harrowing, savagely funny, inventive, heartbreaking, deceptively beautiful, audacious and real. She teaches creative writing at UBC’s Okanagan Campus, which hosts for the first time this summer the Woodhaven Summer Writing Intensive.

Again I lag, no steady chapter-a-day, alas. But herewith, a long chapter: The Ship.

Chapter XVI: The Ship

Queequeg, for unexplained reasons, wants Ishmael to pick a ship for the both of them. Ishmael settles on the Pequod. This is one of those rare long chapters. Here we are introduced to the two ship owners, Peleg and Bildad, good cop and bad cop, who offer a very low portion of the proceeds of the trip as payment or a ridiculous tiny portion of the proceeds of the trip as payment. Ishmael asks after the ship’s captain, Ahab, and learns that he is sick, or rather, not sick, but disturbed of mind, closeted away from the world, agitated…and that he has lost a leg. “Young man, come nearer to me: it was devoured, chewed up, crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!” There’s talk of how Ahab is named for a Biblical king, and a nasty one at that. A native woman has said that his name is prophetic. Peleg calls him “a good man—not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man,” only he’s been moody since he lost his leg.

Chapter XV: Chowder

Ishmael sees portents of doom en route to the inn in Nantucket where he and Queequeg will stay. There they are served excellent chowder, cod or clam, night and day.

Chapter XIV: Nantucket

“Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it.” It’s a sliver of a sand in the middle of the sea. It is all about the sea. All people who have ever lived in Nantucket are bound up in the sea.

Chapter XIII: The Wheelbarrow

Ishmael and Queequeg wheel their gear down to the boat that’ll take them to Nantucket in a wheelbarrow. Queequeg tells a story about how the first time he saw a wheelbarrow, he strapped it to his chest and carried both wheelbarrow and trunk. Then he tells a story about a white naval captain barging into a wedding feast in Queequeg’s village and using the central, honoured drinking bowl as a finger bowl.

On board the ship, “bumpkins” stare and make comments about Ishmael and Queequeg being so companionable. One of them imitates Queequeg behind his back, so Queequeg grabs him, throws him up in the air so as to perform a complete somersault. The man is affronted and complains to the captain. The captain threatens Queequeg. The sails go crazy. The boom crashes back and forth across the deck and knocks the somersaulted bumpkin overboard. Queequeg lassos and secures the boom, dives overboard (it’s cold, December) and rescues the bumpkin, treating it all as if it were no big deal. Ishmael is happy to have such a man as his friend and companion. “From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yeah, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive.”

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