Acts of Salvage explores what the contemporary city compels us to cling to or discard.

Acts of Salvage is curated by Amy Lavender Harris, Geographer, Torontonian, dumpster diver and author of Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism and won the 2011 Heritage Toronto Award of Merit.

alharris [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Story Behind the Story

Some readers may recall that the primary purpose of the Acts of Salvage website is to support a literary work in progress, not just to share my salvaged, sidewalk and second-hand scores.

I’ve been focusing on the latter lately because, well, I haven’t been writing.

It’s not as if I haven’t been writing at all, of course. This fall I’ve managed to fulfill ongoing writing commitments, including two short articles for Spacing Magazine, and a longer essay (on infertility and motherhood) for a forthcoming anthology a friend is editing. I’ve continued my peripatetic schedule of talks and workshops pertaining to the Imagining Toronto project and even a couple of events associated with this Acts of Salvage project. And, as always, the private journal-style writings I attend to nearly every day, and which often feed (eventually) into my more formal work.

But I haven’t been writing in the big sense of working on a major project. This is very unusual for me. Although I am by nature a slow and meditative writer, once a project seizes me, I never let it go. It took three years to write the Imagining Toronto book, a period that included the birth of my daughter and the death of my father, not to mention a heavy teaching load and a massive and complex research undertaking on a subject that had never previously received sustained scholarly attention.

Earlier this year I wrote about 20,000 words of the Acts of Salvage story, including a good initial draft of the first chapter, the conclusion and a good chunk of the body. I was very happy with the writing, and the parts of it I’d shared with early readers had received favourable feedback.

Since then, I’ve felt as if I was fumbling, and so I set the story down. I didn’t mind doing so: in some ways I’ve learned to be a patient person. And I know how to listen, and when to do so.

And so I’ve waited, and watched, and listened to currents in the air and soil.

I have been listening listening for something still out of range, a sound too distant to quite discern.

And then a few days ago it came. Early one morning it called out in a high, clear voice, and I knew immediately how to answer.


I was going to say that, for me, writing is almost always connected to reading. But in all truth it isn’t.

For me writing is almost always connected to listening.


A few days ago, as the ground froze and the dawn rose all gunmetal grey, I could sense something, like tracks at the edge of a pathway gone hard into ruts. Something like a single footfall, or the memory of it.

The perpetual twilight of November cast long shadows against the houses as I walked, and in this eerie light I could sense the curve of the lost landscape beneath them.

It was in this way that I remembered where to find the story behind the story. I’ve been writing about the city, of course — but suddenly I remembered that I had never meant to write about the city as such.

In the Imagining Toronto book, I quoted two writers, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Robert Charles Wilson, who in their beautiful and idiosyncratic ways both wrote about the city within the city, the city at the centre of the map.

And I knew, once again, how to find my way there.

And this year I can hardly regret the winter, because the long shadows have made me a map to the story behind the story.

And also, because for me writing is connected to reading, when I know what to listen for, I give thanks to Anne Lamott (for a single line in Bird By Bird, a book I hope she will forgive me for keeping in the bathroom), Rebecca Solnit, Edward Casey, Erazim Kohak, and Monique Proulx, whose beautiful Wildlives (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008/2009) was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for fiction, and also to Alice Mah, whose Industrial Ruination, Community and Place: Landscapes and Legacies of Urban Decline (UofT Press, 2012) is proving such a fascinating and illuminating read.

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