Friday 4 September 2015


I am teaching a creative nonfiction writing course at Metro Continuing Education in Edmonton. For details, see the Fall Calendar.


McLuhan on Creativity

I made a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Marshall McLuhan. The house he lived in as a toddler is six blocks from my house, so the journey wasn't long. His bio is in the plaque I took a picture of.

I have read quite a bit of McLuhan; I also read the monograph by Harold Innis that inspired him. What did McLuhan have to say about creativity, I ask myself?

A great deal. He viewed artists as seers or clearsighted analysts of society. In The Medium Is the Massage (1968), McLuhan writes that "the poet, the artist, the sleuth--whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial." That is, they are not "well-adjusted": only they can "see environments as they really are." The well adjusted are the people who cannot see that the emperor wears no clothes (88).  Furthermore, he argues in Understanding Media that "Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it” (22).

He may have understood artists to be people who are able to represent that which is normally not considered representable. To illustrate the idea that a medium itself can be a kind of message, he says "An abstract painting represents direct manifestation of creative thought processes as they might appear in computer designs" (13).  I am not exactly sure what he means, but I think he means that certain kinds of art are not "content-laden" but rather "medium-laden" or "form-laden." An abstract artist, therefore, can articulate something that McLuhan aimed to teach others to see--that the media of communication are themselves worthy of study.  An abstract artist thus is a theorist of communication insofar as she takes seriously the medium (electronic impulses, if you will) that permit the artist to conceive of art in the first place. Certainly self-awareness is important to some extent for creative people, even if their aims are practical (creating art, rather than studying the act of creation).

Tuesday 5 May 2015

A coracle at sea

Launch is a nautical term. To launch a book is to put it into a sea of readers. Between the Shelves is launching May 6 at 7 pm at Stanley Milner Library. I have a short story in the collection, "Melvil Dui Conquers All." We are planning a creative launch, with a prize puzzle as well as the traditional readings of excerpts by some participating writers. 

USS Iowa Displays Its Firepower (from Wikimedia Commons)
Nowadays people use the word "launch" in business circles to describe the start of a marketing campaign. "Campaign" is a military term, which makes the idea of a campaign launch invoke images of flotillas of highmasted sailing ships or bristling battleships. Publishing is as businesslike as any of the other industries that launch or campaign. In the case of Between the Shelves, however, all money goes to the Edmonton Public Library as a donation.

Nevertheless, writing as part of a business (that is, to make a profit) may conflict with the goal of being creative. Not that businesses don't need creativity. When it comes to the arts, however, a fear emerges that the goals of creativity might be subverted for the sake of increased profit. Rather than allow oneself to achieve a creative vision, an artist may turn that creative energy towards marketing the product rather than in making the product, or indeed, may make the process of creativity seem an unproductive sideshow for the big-tent attraction of maximizing profit. In a monetary economy, people need money to buy what they need, so that artists must come up with ways to acquire money. The artist's dream of having a sponsor support one's work is a reality for some artists (those people who inherit money from their wealthy families or have a money-generating spouse). Certainly, working artists often have that background, so the artist often is associated either with membership in an upper-class social stratum or with bohemian penury.
From Wikimedia Commons

There's much space between these two poles, though, and most artists probably inhabit that in-between. Still, for many, a launch may involve a ship humble in dimension. The man of war may attract a crowd at the dock, but a tiny coracle out at sea, viewed from an unpopulated shore through binoculars, is more beautiful, and braver.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Interviews with Edmonton-area Writers

Now with the launch set for the Between the Shelves launch--May 6, Stanley Milner Library,  7 pm--it's time to get to know a few  of the contributors better.

Friday 10 April 2015

Brad OH Inc

Brad OH Inc. is a person/corporation who has contributed to Between the Shelves. Below is Hal J. Friesen's interview with him.

Brad OH Inc. is a thought conglomerate consisting primarily of Brad OH, who is based out of Edmonton, Alberta. Brad OH has a background in psychology, with a philosophy minor. Brad OH Inc. writes with the intention of entertaining, while drawing attention to a variety of social and interpersonal quandaries. The Brad OH Inc. blog can be found at, and includes both posts and short stories, as well as information about his upcoming novel, Edgar’s Worst Sunday.

1. First things first: do you believe that people should be Corporations as well as vice versa?

BRAD OH INC: That’s a great line of inquiry, and we here at Brad OH Inc. are thrilled to see your appreciation for such crucial issues. Really though, we think this may be two questions, and therefore we would be remiss to provide any less than two answers.

I’ll answer the second first, as it’s the easier answer. Let it be abundantly clear that the question of whether or not Corporations are people is no question at all: just ask Mitt Romney! If you ignore the blathering after his key statement, we believe the point is made abundantly clear. But if you need it better articulated, you’ll find it here.

Yes, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Corporations are not only people, but they are the very best of people. They are the creators and providers, they are the ones who inspire and build where others only talk and dream. This of course leads us to your other, more relevant question. Namely: Should people be Corporations?

This too is an easy answer—although again it requires some clarification…perhaps even a moderate touch of filibustering. Specifically, we need to discuss the word ‘should’. If we’re to take it in its proper sense, then we can say at the least that all people should endeavour to be Corporations, even if they will not all be able to achieve it. Obviously, people should strive to be their very best. Corporations are the best possible expression of humanity, and therefore we would encourage every person to strive to grow into a Corporate person. The benefits alone are outstanding: tax breaks, immortality, and utterly no risk from bankruptcy just to name a few.

Now, you may expect me to quote Ayn Rand here, but I’ll do you one better. In ‘The Republic’, Plato encourages a group of enlightened elites to lead the demos. What better expression of an enlightened elite than the Corporation? Our goals, clearly, are more evident and better pursued than the fickle worries of ordinary humans. That alone should suffice to illuminate the pressing need for Corporate leadership. Therefore, it behooves us here at Brad OH Inc. to encourage all basic people to aspire to greater accomplishments—namely, becoming Corporate. After all, an increase in Corporate presence is the highest hope for humanity…at least until we can achieve the end-goal of Corporate Suffrage.

2. Have you or any members of Brad OH Inc ever had any embarrassing moments in a library? Any responses will be strictly off the record.

BRAD OH INC: Here at Brad OH Inc., we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards of behaviour. Furthermore, we have a team of legal professionals on call at all times, ready to denounce responsibility for any perceived transgressions; so that clearly precludes the possibility of any officially acknowledged embarrassment.

With that out of the way, there is one incident we recall that may fit your need to publically deride the creative origins of our Corporate-Personhood. When we were just a young Corporate Human, we were reading aloud at a public library to a table of peers. Our chosen book was something about ‘Gnus’—those abominable animals that can’t quite decide what they are. The entire point of the book was that the word ‘Gnu’ sounds just like ‘new’ and ‘knew’, however this point was missed on our still developing phonetic-mandates. Therefore, we pronounced the word ‘Gnu’ as ‘Ga-noo’—entirely destroying the already limited humour of the book, and causing us significant lasting shame.

3. Is Neve inspired by a member of Brad OH Inc?

BRAD OH INC: Yes in fact, very astute of you to see this. There was a young girl we kept down in the copy room, from whom the name and likeness of the titular character are entirely derived. Have no fear however, the process was entirely by the books.

You see, Neve owned a small rat named Clarice, who one day managed to saw through one of the printer cables with its savage little teeth. Neve’s salary was insufficient to pay for the damages, and so, mercifully, we here at Brad OH Inc. appropriated her legal name and likeness, knowing well that we’d sooner or later find some way for it to pay off her debt. The story in this anthology is the fulfillment of that debt.
Neve has since been terminated.

4. At what point in your own reading development did you move like Neve away from purely “happy” stories?

BRAD OH INC: Looking back, we’d have to say that happened pretty early. Certainly, there were a number of happy-go-lucky stories read to us before we were officially granted our Corporate-Sovereignty, but even then, some of our earliest official recollections involve having ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ read aloud to us—and those are bitter-sweet at best.

If you’re at all familiar with our efforts—which you certainly should be—you’ll know that creation and meaning are imperative to the purposes of Brad OH Inc. To that end, we’ve found that simple, happy stories do little to address the questions so essential to the human/ Corporate experience. It’s through struggle that we grow…and heedless expansion is one of the key goals of Brad OH Inc.

5. Which Corporation has had the greatest inspiration on Brad OH Inc.’s mission statement?

BRAD OH INC: That’s an interesting question. As far as our Corporate structure is concerned, we’ve worked hard to emulate all the greats: Enron, Lehman Brothers, JPMorgan Chase…all the essentials.
As far as our personal, creative goals, you probably already know that our Corporate Summary Statement is:  ‘A thought conglomerate founded on the fundamental imperative of expounding erratically extreme philosophic tenets firmly grounded in hubristic narcissism.’ …it doesn’t get much more clear than that!
As for companies that inspire us on these grounds, the best example is probably Psychopathic Records. The self-founded label of the Insane Clown Posse, this label has succeeded not just in developing them from a tiny local rap act in metro-Detroit, but into an international force to be reckoned with. Their dedication to the absurd has helped launch countless acts throughout their existence, and their passion for ethical-provocation and philosophical exploration is admirable. At Brad OH Inc., we hope to be as successful in providing such varied, yet philosophically consistent material.

-Brad OH Inc.

Check out Brad OH Inc’s story “Neve Uncovers the Ultimate Truth of All Things” in Between the Shelves, available now on Amazon and Createspace!

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Creepy (to self-conscious me) vanity post of an interview with me

Between the Shelves' series of interviews by Hal J. Friesen with contributors continues with an interview with me.

Vivian Zenari lives, works and writes in Edmonton.

1. What is your educational background, and how has that influenced your writing?

VZ: I have a PhD in English literature with a specialization in 19th century American literature. I am sure my training has influenced my writing, though I am not sure how. Many of the writers I admire are from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; perhaps it’s more like I have tried to work in fields that reflect my interest in reading and writing.

2. Who has inspired you as a writer? Why are avant-garde authors so important to you?

VZ: These days I like Henry James (always), Flannery O’Connor, Rawi Hage, George Eliot, and the usual modernist suspects (Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton). I just finished reading Sean Michaels’s Us Conductors and loved/admired that. I like the absurdists like Franz Kafka and Nikolai Gogol and postmodernists like Don DeLillo and Paul Auster. I admire writers who take chances, I suppose. I like the idea of transcending tradition in form as well as content.  As well, as a reader and writer I am a bit jaded, perhaps, so it takes a lot to stimulate me.

3. Did you have a personal interest in Dewey before you began this short story? Why did you decide to feature him in your story?

VZ: I have training as a librarian as well, and so I have been familiar with him as a figure in library studies history. I have always found him to be a hilariously awful person. Once I read more about him, my appreciation/contempt for him grew. He also typifies the mentality of the late 19th-century American (an area of history I know something about). His ambitions and upbringing put him in the right place at the right time. That aspect of American society interests me too–he is a self-made man, but he demonstrates the dark side of the self-made man syndrome: monomaniacal, overly rational, greedy.

4. What, in your opinion, are the key distinctions between literary fiction and genre fiction? In which category would you classify yourself?

VZ: I tend to think of genre fiction as formula-dependent and literary fiction as aspiring to be outside formula. I suppose I aspire to be outside formula, though I realize all writers model themselves on something, and formulas are a kind of model. Literary versus genre seems to be a useful distinction for publishers, but the term is likewise important to writers and readers, who have to work with what publishers want to give them, for better or worse (okay, for worse). It’s true, though, that some people only read detective fiction and romance fiction, some people never read anything by women writers or written before 2000. I don’t think this is good, but considering all the people writing, reading, and publishing (past and present), I see why categorization is practical.

5. What is your next writing project? Can you tell us a little about it?

VZ: I’m sending a short-story manuscript around to publishers, and I’m slowly working on a novel. I’m starting to rev myself up for writing nonfiction too: we’ll see how that goes.

Check out Vivian’s story “Melvi Dui Conquers All” in Between the Shelves, available now on Amazon and Createspace!

Thursday 19 March 2015

Another Interview

Another writer in Between the Shelves, Linda Webber, talks about writing. Interview by Hal J. Friesen, courtesy of  Hal J. Friesen.


After the short story ‘I Will Not Let You Fall’, creating this bio has been the greatest challenge to Linda’s creative writing skills. This is her first publication, even though she has written a great deal of fiction (five short stories). Although one story did receive praise from her writing group (not ‘I Will Not Let You Fall’), another story did not receive as much. Linda’s writing career spans nine months; therefore, she is hoping to publish something else any day now.

You joke that you've written a great deal of five short stories in your bio. Was this story any different or more challenging than your previous works?

LW: I had always wanted to write a story from the perspective of a biological mother whose child has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. I wanted to write the story in first person to communicate what the experience is of these mothers. I wanted the story to be sympathetic to her and explain her thoughts and experiences, her personal pasts and her present struggles to raise her child to the best of her abilities given limited resources and lack of empathy from just about everyone including society in general. It was difficult to capture all these various aspects, particularly the struggles of the child and that it was her doing but also make the reader empathetic to her. This is the first story I have written in first person. I chose this perspective because I wanted the reader to understand the mother and her life. However, it was difficult to show and not tell. It was much more challenging than limited omniscient, which I prefer. I will never write in first person again.

Where did you draw the inspiration for this story?

LW: I work on a clinic that diagnoses children who have FASD. Many people ask me how I can work with the mothers. They are blamed and demonized. I have found them to be amazingly strong and caring people who have horrendous pasts and are trying their best, with little help, to raise their children.

This piece is one of many in the anthology where the library's role is not what you'd expect. Was that intentional on your part when you were creating the story?

LW: I had always wanted to tell this story. I was also trying to think of a library-related story for the anthology. They clicked. This story also reminded me of the times I took my son to the library.

Who has inspired you as a writer?

LW: I love writers who are descriptive with setting and character such as John Steinbeck and Annie Proulx. I love vivid writing that makes the reader feel the story. I am concerned that my writing may be melodramatic. In this story I tried to communicate the emotional ordeal that these poor mothers go through. They seem to suspect something is not quite right, hence the search for information, but they are also in denial. Through the diagnostic process they come to a realization that, yes, indeed, their suspicions are true. The emotional burden they carry is tremendous.

What is your next writing project? Can you tell us a little about it?

LW: Currently, I am writing a short coming-of-age story about a girl who accidentally discovers a mystery about her mother’s past. Her mother has had two other daughters with the same name as the girl. The girl gradually discovers a series of unsettling things that lead of a final horrific tell-all. Yes, the story is also alcohol-related. Many of my stories are based on my work as an occupational therapist. Over the years, I have seen strange and amazing and horrendous things. Some of the themes in my writing are the difficulty that people have with change and the damage that alcohol does to people and their relationships.

Linda Webber’s story "I Will Not Let You Fall" is featured in Between the Shelves, available
from Amazon on March 14!

Saturday 14 March 2015

Promotion writing group has self-published a collection of short pieces, Between the Shelves, as a fundraiser for Edmonton Public Library. The book is available for sale on One of the editors, Hal Friesen, has conducted interviews with the contributors, and since I am very much dried up these days in terms of posts about creativity, these interviews serve well as substitutes.

I will link to these interviews one at a time. First up is an interview with Brian Clark.

PS: My own piece in the anthology is a short story called "Melvil Dui Conquers All."

PPS: I won an award for my story "Royal Visit," published in Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature. It won the silver award for fiction for the 2015 Alberta Magazine Publishers Association Showcase Awards.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Creativity and Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a tenet adopted from Buddhism. It is used not just in that philosophical program but also in treatment of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

In terms of creativity, mindfulness is a good state of mind to engage in. Mindfulness is the belief that people should pay attention to the moment in order to prevent thoughts of the past and fears about the future from crowding in and inhibiting peace and orderly decision-making.

In a state of mindfulness, one can pay attention to one's thoughts seriously enough to capture creative ideas that arise. In the rush of daily routine or in the obsessiveness over past suffering and future pain, a creative thought can sometimes be washed out by the intense emotions of fear and sadness.  So says Richard W. Sears in his book Mindfulness.

I would argue as well that creativity depends on being aware of the moment as a space of meaningful consciousness. To be creative, one must be able to put the present in the context of the past and the future. The reverse--making the past and the future more important than the present--is non-creative. One creates in the present, though not by ignoring the past and future, either. Instead, mindfulness argues that the present has meaning because of its different status from the past and the future. People who ignore the present are also denying the truth of the past and not preparing fully for the onset of the future. In the end, the present is where newness arises, and creativity is a manifestation of newness.