Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

The lost art of letter-writing. Sigh.

Nowadays, the term “snail mail” implies some ancient form of communication left for those too inept or unfortunate to use much-faster email. Sure, I appreciate the number of trees that emails save, but bemoan the loss of hand-written letters. What impact will today’s digital fixation (and I don’t mean finger fetishes) have on future archivists, not to mention modern lovers?

How can a staid email remotely compete with a  billet-doux that comes in a scented envelope, complete with rose petals or pressed flowers? Staring at on-screen type is far more dull than viewing someone’s unique handwriting with loopy vowels and long, slanted consonants. I treasure my cards, letters, and notes from loved ones far more than any email I’ve received from them. 

Finding a stack of emails in the bottom of someone’s cupboard or attic trunk doesn’t bear the same cachet or  mystery as discovering a pile of faded letters postmarked from countless places, squeezed together by an elastic. Clicking on one’s inbox loses allure compared to having letters squeezed through your front door or running outside to a rural mailbox to see what’s inside.

Over decades, I’ve received letters from a number of writers or artists I admire, including Benjamin Hoff, author of The Tao of Pooh, Canadian children’s writer Dennis Lee, sci fi maven Ursula LeGuin, and Mort Drucker, a long-time Mad magazine cartoonist. Each one of these felt like a special gift, almost a warm chat across a coffee table, not patchy, stilted dialogue that took place on delayed time via the computer.

Many years ago, I was horrifed to discover that my parents and I actually liked the same movie, one that reveals the power and delight of letters and romance. It’s 84 Charing Cross Road, which stars Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Bancroft plays a writer and passionate reader in 1949 New York who answers an ad from a rare-books shop in London, Eng. at 84 Charing Cross Road. The resulting heartfelt letters between Bancroft and Hopkins, the book store rep, prompt a two-decade romance.

(I won’t tell you how the movie ends. I love its assessment by Vincent Canby of The New York Times, even though I don’t fully agree: “The result of this high-powered collaboration is a movie of such unrelieved genteelness that it makes one long to head for Schrafft’s for a double-gin martini, straight up, and a stack of cinnamon toast from which the crusts have been removed.”)

In the future, how many lives of celebrated authors will remain only partially documented because they never saved their emails? What will their public archives contain? As an author, historian, and keen researcher, I love coming across original, turn-of-the-century letters or handwritten documents from another era. They certainly more richly reveal the essence of a period than rows of email type. I fear that today, while we’re so busy Skyping and tweeting and emailing, we will lose to the maw of email the basic charm  and sentimental weight of letters as touchstones. From our family histories to cultural records, our romantic hearts need letters as more personalized markers of a time and place.

November 28, 2010 at 4:54 pm Comments (0)

Gracie will soon dive into public life

I’m delighted to announce that this winter, MW Book Publishing of Garden Bay, BC will be releasing my first children’s book, Gracie’s Got a Secret.

In this picture book, an impatient and feisty little goldfish named Gracie escapes her fishbowl and leaves her family, determined to share a secret with the outside world. Along the way, she befriends a weepy alligator who’s stuck in the sewer and a circus elephant with dreams of freedom. By helping her new pals, Gracie learns to slow down and go with the flow, gaining remarkable results and a clear way back to a loving home.

I never do reveal what the secret is, but leave it to the reader’s imagination. This uplifting story, which comes with engaging questions to prompt discussion, invites children to believe in themselves, dream big, support others, and find their inner stillness.

Unbelievably, this book was twenty years in the making. I first got the idea for it while travelling in India. The book started out all in rhyme, but after a number of drafts, I dropped that. The first woman who ever gave me feedback produced a scathing, 10-page , single-spaced critique and ended with”I wouldn’t read it again to my nine-year-old.” Ouch.

Still, I didn’t give up. I researched markets and perused picture books and sent the manuscript to publishers. Besides the usual generic, impersonal rejection slips, I got comments like “We don’t do talking animals.” (So much for Dr. Seuss, Dr. Doolittle, and every Disney movie ever made.) One twenty-something reader told me that using alliteration was the sign of an amateur. Double ouch.

Tired of rejections, I put the manuscript away. Over the years, I would pull it out, do another few drafts, and send it out again. More rejections. I got feedback from friends. Some read it to kids. I got their views. Overall, most people seemed to really like it. Various friends, who are published authors, thought it was ready for publication years ago. But no publisher seemed to want to take a chance with it.

Once, when I was in a pet store,  a goldfish ended up on the floor at my feet, having somehow escaped from its aquarium. I took that as a sign.

I found out that children’s picture books are a more competitive market than even adult publishing, especially since they require costly, four-colour printing. I did more drafts. Got more rejections. Time to put it away again. I figured that it was probably going to be one of those learning projects that would sit in my drawer. I was too cheap to publish it myself.

I grew more encouraged after sending the manuscript to Dennis Lee, author of popular Canadian children’s books like Alligator Pie.  He said that my book was better than most that crossed his desk and added that he would be delighted to see Gracie “swimming into print.”

That was years ago. I did more drafts. Got more rejections. Then recently, I attended a literary function in Gibsons, and happened to share a table with MW Book publisher William Gelbart. When I heard that he published a variety of genres, including children’s books, I thought: Hmmm, maybe it’s time to revive Gracie. I hauled her out, did some more fine-tuning, and sent off my story. He liked it,  calling it “cute.”

Gee, that last part of this long process seemed so effortless. Success at last. I look forward to having Gracie out in the world and sharing her with audiences, young and old.

November 22, 2010 at 10:33 pm Comments (2)

Portraits beyond life and limb


                — photo by Russ Tkachuk

How would you react to seeing a painting of yourself in a public show?

This week, I had the opportunity to see how a half-dozen local artists portrayed the same person and each other in different acrylic portraits. It was bizarre to watch real-life people stand next to diverse images of themselves, large and small. Almost all of the finished paintings emerged after only five 20-minute sessions of posing, with some embellished by later touches.

The exhibition Ourselves and Others  opened this week at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre, featuring the work of  Coast artists called the Life and Limb Painting Group. Their name evokes folks who favour dismemberment at great risk, but they’re truly harmless.

This group, which paints together at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt, BC, has met regularly for at least three years, using nude models. When they grew tired of that, they decided to paint each other —  while posing  clothed, of course. The results are intriguing: angles, soft edges, and creative interpretations in close-ups and full-body renderings that reveal each artist’s characteristic style.

(I suggest they hold onto those paintings of nude models. I heard on CBC Radio this week that some eightyish artist in Great Britain has dug up a nude painting or drawing he did of Sean Connery when the actor was  a young student and posing for art classes for pay. Imagine what it’s worth now.)

Mudito Drope did the above portrait of me, which was featured in the show. You can see the portrait in its early stages below on my April 2010 post. I’m pleased with the final result.

Great show, everybody, with a remarkable turnout.

November 6, 2010 at 10:18 am Comments (0)