Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Writing Life

This past week the Faculty Women's Club October meeting was held at Cecil Green Park and our speaker was Rhea Tregebov, a member of the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia where she teaches poetry and translation. Before coming to UBC Rhea taught Creative Writing for many years in the Continuing Education program at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Her talk was entitled the Writing Life and with 20 books published, as either author or editor she certainly has experience enough to talk on that subject, along with the many awards she has won for her writing.

She began her talk telling us about how she became a writer, about her upbringing which, although in a working class neighbourhood, was with parents who were the first generation to go to university. So their home was a place with many books and where learning and culture were highly valued. The family cared about reading and made a weekly pilgrimage to the public library. As an asthmatic Rhea spent a lot of time out of school, alone, leading rather an inner and, as she called it, a contemplative life. She always felt like an outsider with her peers, on the sidelines, a rather painful experience but she was lovingly supported by her family.

She had no role model as a writer and didn't even think about writing until she took her first creative writing course at university. As she said she didn't feel that she had the authority to be a writer. But as she tells her students today, "If you want to become a writer, you have to be a reader." And that she was. She also contrasted this feeling of lack of authority on her part with her students today, who consider themselves to be writers. Without a doubt in their minds.

The form she chose for her writing was poetry and in 1982 her first book of poetry was published. Still very hesitant and needing to have her work validated by being published and reviewed, she found the external support that she needed and gained more confidence and more books followed.

Along with her poetry, after the birth of her son and remembering her mother's example as a story teller, she wrote five children's books which were extremely successful and are often used in the school system. She wrote three books about a little boy, named after her son. One, called Sasha and the Wiggly Tooth, is often found in dentists' offices according to Rhea.

Rhea advises her students to always have pen and paper on hand so that when ideas come they are captured immediately. She follows this advice herself. Then she makes a space for her writing, a block of time, gathers her scraps of paper together, re-enters the experience and from these scraps she creates a whole. Then she revises, and revises for revision is continuous with her, even revising work she has published before. She said that her life feeds her writing and many of her poems came from her son's illnesses as an unstable asthmatic, which fortunately he grew out of.

Writing can become a very insular occupation and Rhea advises joining a group or taking a course where one might learn the technical aspects of writing and some professional tips. Writers need support and these are some ways to get that support.

An area that has become a big part of Rhea's life is translation. She started this just for herself, for she is either fluent in or has a good reading knowledge of Hebrew, French and Spanish. However she has published translations of poems from French and Spanish and using a technique called tandem translation she has published translations of poetry, fiction and non-fiction from Finnish, Catalan and Bosnian. This was certainly a new concept for me but she spoke about how she works with a native bilingual translater who produces a literal translation which she transforms into a literary translation. I think this was a new idea for many of us as later I had some interesting discussions with others on this topic., some of whom had done translating work themselves.

One translation project which is very dear to her heart is Arguing with the Storm: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers. Rhea's mother learned to speak Yiddish from her mother and she formed a group of about thirty-five women who spoke Yiddish and who met regularly to read and discuss Yiddish writings. They also gathered together a collection of Yiddish work written by women and from this body of work, some of the women made translations. Rhea took these core translations and turned them into literary pieces and they were published in the Spring of 2007.

Another new arena for Rhea is fiction and her first novel, The Knife Sharpener's Bell has been accepted for publication in 2008.

Rhea also read some of her poetry to the group, giving us a taste of her writing. I liked it enough to buy one of her books which she autographed for me. It is called (Alive) and is a collection of old and new poems.

Anne Michaels, a well known Canadian poet and novelist, among other things says this of Rhea:

The clarity of her voice is deeply moving, a voice at home in its skin, entirely aware, deeply compassionate.

That sounds to me as if she has gained the authority to write somewhere along the way and it was a pleasure for our group to hear Rhea Tregebov talk about her "writing life".

The photo and images in this post have been taken from the UBC Creative Writing Program website.


Ellee Seymour said...

It makes such a huge difference if your parents are interested in reading. Sadly, my parents were not that way inclined. I remember at the age of 14 reading (or rather devouring) two books a day.I would hide myself away while my mother called me to help with different chores, even on the top of the cistern in the loo.

Sadly, my two sons prefer the world of computers than literature.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

I am trying to get started on my novel again- it's been a while since I last wrote anything, but I'm persisting once more.

Anonymous said...

I am still writing a lot - mostly shorts but nothing to put on my story blog for about 3 weeks...

ipanema said...

Oh, this is inspirational jmb. home and family are great influence indeed.

thanks for those tips that you've shared.

Ian Lidster said...

What an interesting speaker, and many words of wisdom. Wish I'd been there.
Otherwise, have a splendid Thanksgiving for you and yours.


My mother is a born story teller and I think it sad that she never committed to paper all her wonderful stories.

Sienna said...

What a fascinating would be great to hear her speak and talk of her writing life...(but we have the next best thing).

Our office is full of books and reading material, I have filled walls and shelves...reading has been such a huge part of my life.

I love how Rhea went from poetry writing to children's translating! and fiction...the complete author, teacher, editor...and reader too, she is just amazing.

Thanks so much for the introduction.


jmb said...

The above comment was spam, sigh, but only the third in 8 months so I'm not going to change the commenting situation.

Lord Higham-Johnson said...

"If you want to become a writer, you have to be a reader."

That's very true. The two are inextricably interwoven. Have you considered publishing, JMB?

Janice Thomson said...

An interesting person Jmb...I would have loved to have heard her speak.
'...always have pen and paper on hand...' - this is so true! Ideas come at the darnedest times and the depth of feeling can be lost if not recorded immediately.

Josie said...

What an interesting afternoon that must have been!

I was brought up in a home where books were valued as well. Last night when I was visiting the Munchkins, one of them was very proud to show me his new library card.

I deleted my blog, and have set up a new one, and you can find me again by clicking on this comment.


Shades said...

JMB, no problem about Welshcakes blogposts at the same time- they are related anyway. I could see you were composing yours as I did a save half way through to go and check some links out.

lady macleod said...

Wow, what an impressive woman, and a great review. I feel like I was there. I read Stephen King's book on writing, and he too said you must READ.

great post.

leslie said...

UBC is my alma mater but I have not been fortunate enough to go to this type of talk. Wish I could have gone to hear this woman speak - she sounds amazing.

Re your post just before this one - I also saw the Bikini Girls Mosaic in Sicily last fall. The entire place is incredible, isn't it? I must check out welshcakes as I have Welsh blood in me (nee Jones) and loved Wales when I was there last year. Imagine moving from beautiful Wales to Sicily!!!

Lee said...

Informative post, would be wonderful to be a writer. It's something I've dreamed of being since I was a child. Another dream unfulfilled!

I loved Christmas and birthdays when I was a child as I'd always receive books as part of my presents...and there's nothing quite like the smell of a new book!

jmb said...

Hi Ellee,
Nor were my parents interested in reading but I somehow acquired love of it somewhere along the way and both my children and husband are readers.

Hi Crushed,
I guess the muse comes and goes and you write some pretty good stuff on your blog in the meantime.

Hi Mutley,
"They" say you should write every day and you do with your blog. Not much spare time after that for other writing.

Hi Ipanema,
Rhea did have a very supportive family and a good upbringing for a writer but I think she had a great deal of talent too.

Hi Ian,
She was an interesting speaker, a really lovely person too. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving too.

Hi Uber,
I hope your mother's stories aren't lost. Maybe someone else will write them down for her.

Hi Pam,
She certainly has a very varied writing life, many talents indeed.

Hi James,
I have the reading down perfectly but the writing not quite worthy of publication.

Hi Janice,
I'm sure you know all about ideas coming at any old time. Do you carry pen and paper on you walk?

Hi Josie,
It was. A library card is a true treasure, I wish they would come back from the strike.
Josie, what have you been up to? I'll be over.

Hi Shades,
I didn't realize you were giving the blog a link till later, but I decided to leave it up for a bit more publicity.

Hi Lady Mac,
I was just talking about that book of Stephen King last night with my son who has read it and was recommending it.

Hi Leslie,
I think you would have liked the talk Leslie. I have another post about the villa coming up this week. Fancy you visiting it too. It's a really fabulous place.

Hi Lee,
You are a very good writer and I think some of your posts in your blog would be very interesting to others. I'm sure you have other stuff tucked away too. Books are one of my favourite things which is why I am drowning in them.

Thanks to everyone for visiting and commenting. Regards

Anonymous said...

I am really interested in this post JMB but have run out of steam for one day. Thanks for all your visits to my blog of late, especially your support of the ladies who lunched yesterday!

Carver said...

Fascinating post as all of yours are. I found it interesting how she said you need to be a reader to be a writer. That makes sense. I have the first part down.

Take care, Carver

Ellee said...

She sounds a very talented woman, and it is a wonderful gift to be able to translate literature into different languages too.

jmb said...

Hi Shirl,
I was glad to read all about the lunch and how successful it was. Thanks for visiting and take care of yourself.

Hi Carver
I'm pretty good at the reading part too. Prize winning in fact, if there was a prize for reading.

Hi Ellee,
she has had a varied career as a writer and editor but I was very interested in the translation part of her work. I wasn't sure what to think about the tandem translation method. Must be the new thing.

regards to you all

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I wish I copuld have been there at that talk, jmb. Interesting about "tandem translation" as translating poetry is very difficult indeed. " A good translation should read as if it hasn't been translated" said a teacher of mine - and that takes hours of cross-referencing to achieve.