Mar 4, 2015 - Literary    2 Comments

Trampoline Hall

The Decision Tree

Trampoline Hall is an anti-lecture series that happens the first Monday of every month in Toronto. It’s the brainchild of writer Sheila Heti who thought it would be interesting to hear people talk on subjects that don’t have to do with their jobs, or professions. You speak from 10 to 13 minutes on your subject and then effervescent host Mischa Glauberman opens the lecturer up like a tin of pate. Really, the talk is preamble to the real event—the Q & A, which is lively and honest, like a kind of improvised personal theatre you’ve never seen in your life. On March 2, my subject was The Tree of Bad Decision Making. At the end, I handed out a decision tree template that helps you make a good decision about something you’re trying to figure out, like whether you should get married, take that job, or have a baby. (I’ll include it in my Friday blog.) Here’s the gist of what I said about bad decisions:

1. What I told my York University Students:

When I was teaching Creative Writing, I used to tell my first and second year students there were no bad decisions because in your twenties, life is trial and error.  You have to actually try something out to see if it works for you and if it doesn’t work for you, then you move on and try something else. It doesn’t matter what you chose, a marriage or a job like day trading, the important thing, I told my students, is that they experiment and not judge themselves.

2. What Oprah Says About Bad Decisions

Looking back I think that’s still good advice for your twenties, and recently I heard Oprah Winfrey say more or less the same thing. But she applied the logic of learning from your mistakes to everything you decide in your life. She also said there absolutely were no bad decisions. Because each decision leads you to a certain perspective and from there you can ask: Does this path suit me? Does it lead to my special destiny, the thing that I am meant to do with my life? And if the answer is no, you move on and choose something else.

3. Second Thoughts about No Such Thing as a Bad Decision

Before I decided to give this talk, I believed Oprah’s philosophy was essentially right and I still think there’s a lot of truth to it because it’s a positive counterpoint to the background of our religious teachings that say we are sinners who make a thousand mistakes in the eyes of God. In effect, sin is a kind of bad decision according to Christian theologists. However, now I think that Oprah and I were only right up to a point because there are some very, very, very bad decisions. To sugarcoat the impact of these decisions with a philosophical wisdom is sometimes not helpful. By a bad decision, I mean, decisions that either result in your death, threaten your survival or sense of identity and wellbeing. Essentially, there are three branches of the bad decision-making tree: (1)Bad, bad decisions; (2) bad decisions you regret and (3) bad decisions you don’t regret.

4. The History of War is Full of Bad, Bad Decisions:

Historians are never tired of analyzing Napoléon’s misguided invasion of Russia. It was a bad, bad decision because Napoléon underestimated the forbidding Russian winters, and the Russians’ unorthodox way of waging war. In June 24, 1812, Napoléon and his Grande Armee set off to conquer Russia buoyed up by his early successes. As the summer unfolded and the early fall, the French won a few battles but the Russians retreated and Russian burnt up the land and the villages that the French troops were about to enter. Napoléon couldn’t understand why the Russians would want to harm their own territory or people and he kept following the retreating Russian army, perplexed but determined. Meanwhile, the weather grew colder and colder and colder. Soon there was no food so the French soldiers had to go out at night and forage for game, and quite often they were caught and killed by Cossacks or peasants. By the time they got to Moscow, the French soldiers were starving; the city was in flames and most of the Russians had fled. His army was exhausted and hungry; he had lost 72,000 soldiers, 49 generals and 250,000 of his men were wounded so he ordered a retreat. This was the turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. It was all down hill for Napoleon after that.

5. Over a Hundred Years Later Hitler made the same mistake

You could say Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941 was a bad, bad, bad decision. What happened to him is really fascinating considering that his generals had studied why Napoléon had failed and yet, even with this knowledge, Hitler made the same mistakes. Hitler’s army retreated after a costly three year campaign in which he lost 734,000 men, about 23 percent of his over three million German soldiers. He’d been too confident after his success invading Western Europe, and he hadn’t anticipated the poor Russian road system. So when, in early November, the rain and snow came down, the German tanks and vehicles bogged down in the mud and many of the military machines wouldn’t start in the cold—the German soldiers had to light fires under the tanks to get the motors going—plus the lubricating oil in the German machinery didn’t work in such extreme cold temperatures; and the German soldiers didn’t have the right winter clothing because the Germans couldn’t get the equipment to their men on account of the poor roads. Meanwhile, the Russian soldiers were used to harsh winter conditions and they had warm quilted coats, felt boots, fur hats.

6. Some Other Bad Military Decisions

(A) Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863—lost over 6 thousand men) when General Lee sent out Pickett’s men to fight a vastly superior force. (B)The charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War Oct 25, 1854—when three military officers contradicted each other and sent 278 men and 335 horses out to die.

7. Summing up Bad, Bad Decisions

There wasn’t really anything very positive for these soldiers who were unlucky enough to be in campaigns fought by Napoléon or Hitler. Not even Oprah could come up with something that made the loss of thousands of lives and the dreadful experience worthwhile. So beware: Bad Decisions, they could kill you.

8. The Second Branch of the Tree is Bad Decisions You Regret.

In preparation for this talk I asked my Facebook friends to give me examples or stories of some bad decisions that they regret. I got over sixty answers and I have picked out the best of these bad decision stories. They will be reprinted on this blog in two days.

9. The third branch is Bad Decisions You Don’t Regret

These are decisions that didn’t seem wise at the time and may certainly have threatened your well being but ended up having a plus side, like the cliché about the cloud with the silver lining. My boat story is a bad decision I don’t regret. It happened two years ago, on a late August night. There was no moon, the wind was up and my partner Patrick wanted to go home to the island we had rented in Nares Inlet on Georgian Bay. He didn’t care if there was a chop or if he couldn’t see in the pitch darkness. And he knew that the marina guy said our ancient wooden Geysler outboard was so old it might not last the summer; he also knew we had a dim running light. I told him not to go and he said he was going anyway. So I had to make a decision—should I go or should I stay? I knew if I stayed home I would be safe but he might drown. If I went I might be able to stop that from happening because I grew up on the bay. I decided to go, but I knew it was going to be one of the all time harrowing experiences.

The night was even blacker than I anticipated. We couldn’t see a thing. The pines and rock islands all looked alike. Three miles out from the marina, we were lost and the wind was still coming up. We had no sense of direction so we made the wrong turn. A few minutes later, we hit three shoals, one right after the other. Each time the boat made a terrible crunching sound as if it was going to come apart there and then. I began to wave our flashlight and shout for help. Nobody answered. Without warning, we ran into an island and the waves blew our boat against a cliff of rocks. Patrick jumped out to push the boat away from the cliff and got caught between the rocks and the old wooden boat; he felt his strength ebbing. A human being suddenly appeared on the cliff and shouted at Patrick to go to the front of the boat. She was an islander, somebody who had been coming up to the bay since she was three and she knew what to do. She scrambled down the cliff and helped Patrick push the boat so that it wasn’t washing against the cliff; Patrick jumped back in and she pointed us in the right direction. Whew. Twenty minutes later we landed at our friends’ cottage near her island and we spent the night there. Several days later our rescuer told us that we had been coming in from far out in the open. We were much further out than I realized, so the dangers had been even worse than I thought because if you are far out in the open and your boat’s in trouble and hitting shoals, it’s much more difficult to get help. In fact, there’s a good chance you might drown and no one would know what happened to you.

Later, I decided going with Patrick wasn’t a bad decision I don’t regret. It was a good decision because we lived through the experience although our boat was totalled. In other words, how you think about your decision can change over time. On Friday, the handout on how to make good decisions and my friends’ stories about their bad decisions.

Template for The Decision Tree


  • How do we get tickets …..would love to attend in Toronto.nn1

  • How do we get tickets……would love to attend

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Jan 29, 2015 - Literary

Good Night, Descant–a Literary Gemstone for Four Decades

An old-fashioned newspaper columnist once told me that writing a daily column meant sacrificing his day to thinking up the next column. “It’s a bitch of a mistress,” he said. “She takes up every waking minute.” I don’t know what running a literary magazine entails exactly but I can’t help thinking it, too, is a bitch of a mistress, and that brings me to Karen Mulhallen who celebrated the last issue of Descant Magazine tonight with her staff and a packed house at the Supermarket in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Descant Image

Karen has run Descant for over 40 years; as its editor-in-chief, she thought up the concepts, she found the staff and the funds (often from her own pocket) and she created a Descant community based on writers, artists, and people who walked in off the street and who had never heard of a literary magazine before along with dozens of young interns who often became Descant contributors after they left. Like many literary journals, Descant was not just a magazine; it was a community. But I don’t know any other journal that lets an intern become the production assistant who puts out the issue. Or that was so open to new writers. When I was teaching creative writing at York University, I used to tell my students to be sure to send their work there because the editors were watching for new talent and not just publishing their friends on the board.

Descant was also notable for its design flair and for its appreciation of creativity in general. Tonight Karen said the human brain was a cabinet of curiosities (the theme of its last issue, Number 167) and she told us she’d wanted the magazine to be a picture of the human imagination.

My own connection to Descant goes back to 1978 when Karen published an excerpt from my first novel, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World, about the giantess Anna Swan. It was my first literary publication and Karen ran the excerpt from my then unpublished book under the heading, A legend is born. I’d never met a literary magazine editor before or asked for funding support, which is what writers often ask of literary editors. So at my first meeting with Karen in her glamorous apartment on Washington Avenue near the University of Toronto, I was awestruck. She asked me how much money I wanted and I said, As much as you’ve got! She laughed and scolded me. That wasn’t the way to ask for money, she said, and told me to come back with a carefully worded budget. I did what she said. As many, many writers before or since have done.

Descant, number 167, is on sale at some bookstores and it is the last issue of a literary gemstone. For those who want to say good-bye to the magazine there will be a wrap part March 25 at Revival in downtown Toronto. The photograph here is of Kay Armatage, U of T prof and former TIFF programmer, reading from her essay about women’s film festivals in this issue.

Thank you, Karen, and thank you Descant for helping not only my generation but many generations that followed to find our voices.

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Jan 22, 2015 - Literary

Talking to Orillia Writers on February 22–Come if you’re in the hood

Susanheadshot_bI’m giving a writing workshop in Orillia on February 22. Come if you’re in the area. You can find out more information from The Writers’ Community of Simcoe County Here’s some of the information about my workshop published on their website


It’s a compelling issue in the craft of writing. This February 22nd Toronto novelist Susan Swan will focus on how to make your work live on the page. Swan has been a published author and creative writing teacher for over 30 years and she can show you some of the professional techniques she’s used in her own fiction, which has been published to acclaim in sixteen countries.

BONUS: WCSC Workshop participants are encouraged to send up to 12 pages of their own prose two weeks before the workshop.

More information about writing is available on her website Be sure not to miss her website blogs on Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel.

Bio: Journalist, feminist, novelist, activist, teacher, Susan Swan’s impact on the Canadian literary and political scene has been far-reaching. Her critically acclaimed fiction has been published in sixteen countries. Susan Swan’s new novel, The Western Light, was published in the fall of 2012. It shares a narrator with her international bestseller, The Wives of Bath. The Western Light was nominated as one of the best books of 2012 fiction and non-fiction by the Ontario Library Association. A feature film based on The Wives of Bath was released in the summer of 2001 in the U.S. and Canada under the title Lost and Delirious. The film was written by Judith Thompson and starred Mischa Barton, Piper Parabo and Jessica Pare. It was shown in 32 countries and picked for premiere selection at Sundance and Berlin Film Festival 2001.

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Nov 24, 2014 - Literary

Join Us For Early & Traditional Christmas Dinner from my Novel, The Western Light


OK, I’m cooking Christmas dinner early with Sang Kim for about 40 special guests at the Wind Up Cafe. The meal is based on Big Louie’s traditional Christmas dinner in my novel The Western Light. Big Louie is Mouse’s grandmother and she tops things off by cooling sparkling Burgundy in the snow.

So if you want to get Christmas over with, or if you want to bone up on how to make perfect hard sauce and unlumpy Christmas gravy, be sure to join Sang and I as we cook up our feast. We talk, you see, as we cook, and you watch and eat. The price for the meal is $45 and the time is six thirty on Dec 3. There is only space for 42 guests so sign up right now if you’re interested and let us sock some Christmas cheer your way.

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