Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Book explores creativity with Joni Mitchell as illustrious poster child

  • Print

ONE might wonder — why another biography of Joni Mitchell? What could we possibly learn that we don’t already know?

Over four decades, countless books, articles and documentaries have chronicled the great singer-songwriter’s humble Prairie beginnings, an bl he her groundbreaking musical catalogue, her star-studded romantic history, and the daughter she gave up and with whom she was later reunited.

Mitchell, 68, has for years refused to grant interviews to biographers on the grounds that her life has been media fodder for far too long.

Fortunately, this did not dissuade Vancouverbased film writer Katherine Monk. Joni is no dry historical biography. Whereas American Sheila Weller’s 2008 bestseller, Girls Like Us, used Mitchell’s story to illustrate burgeoning ’60s feminism, Monk’s book explores the human creative process with Mitchell as its illustrious poster child.

Examining key formative moments in this singular artist’s life, Monk sees Mitchell as a wholly original and self-determined creative force.

The thrust of Monk’s argument is that almost from the start Mitchell was a fully realized, though constantly evolving creative being.

Her early mastery over her own sense of identity allowed her to avoid the usual traps of insecurity, self-loathing and commercial conformity that befall many artists.

Monk examines the vast and varied work on the subject of the artistic self, from such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus, psychologist Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell, all of whom Mitchell herself has read throughout her life and who have informed so much of her art.

In fact, it was an elementary-school teacher reminding Mitchell of Nietzsche’s directive to "write in one’s own blood" that helped set her on her distinctive road.

Ultimately, this is less a biography than an inspiring meditation on personhood and the creative process designed, in part and by the author’s call to ignite the reader’s own creative fire.

Such an undertaking requires a skilled and ambitious writer, and Monk, whose first book was the 2001 Canadian film history Weird Sex & Snowshoes, is both. She deftly alternates between dense though accessible cultural theory and colourful anecdotes of Mitchell’s life and times. In that, she produces a significant cultural reading of Mitchell that is also cleverly entertaining.

Monk’s colloquial first-person treatment of Mitchell’s life is refreshing and often hilarious. She describes Mitchell and David Geffen’s business dealings as a union that "could have opened a boutique for forged brass testes."

As with any bold approach, there are sure to be missteps, a few obvious jokes and a connection of dots that feels like a stretch.

At times Monk too aggressively assumes the meaning behind not only Mitchell’s artistic and commercial choices but other artists in her genre. Without confirmation of such intention from the artists themselves, these conclusions can only ever be educated guesses.

Monk’s last chapter feels slightly rushed, and it’s a shame given the book’s otherwise excellent pacing. Still, these stumbles are minor and few and far between in an otherwise fascinating read.


Nicky Mehta is a Winnipeg singer-songwriter and a member of the folk trio the Wailin’ Jennys.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets players discuss outcome of Game 3 and hopes for Game 4

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Hay bales sit under a rainbow just west of Winnipeg Saturday, September 3, 2011.(John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press)
  • A gosling stares near water at Omands Creek Park-See Bryksa 30 day goose challenge- Day 25– June 21, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google