On my lunch break, after a long crutched walk, I sat on a bench beneath a blossoming tree. The blossoms were falling down — pelting, pelting. I shook off blossoms as I stood up. I felt rereshed, blessed. Then I nearly stepped on the dessicated corpse of a rat, likely poisoned (I was near a residential area) and now a feast for flying insects and subject to the heat of the sun.
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Tags: Alistair MacLeod, Bonnie Lendrum, cancer, empathy, Humber School for Writers, palliative care, writing fiction
In the summer of 2003, I got the chance to attend a week-long writing workshop at the Humber School for Writers. I took a scarce five days of vacation time from my day job — scarce because I’d been ill and kept burning through vacation time for sick time — and to boot, I got a lot of mockery for it: ‘You’re using vacation time to go sit in a classroom, to work? You’re crazy, Michelle.’
I heard ‘You’re crazy’ a lot. You’re crazy, Michelle. Who do you think you are, anyway, you some girl from Newfoundland who can write a radio commercial, oh, yay you, so that means you can write fiction?
I didn’t mock anyone else’s choice of how they spent their vacation time. I just smiled, and drank my coffee.
One person who did not mock me was my husband. He agreed to stay on his own with our children, then 2 and 5, while I flew off to Toronto to focus on my oh-so-precious work. He agreed with great encouragement, as though it were a given I should want to, and be able to, do this: no fuss, no complaint, not a flicker of ‘How could you leave me and your babies like this?’
A few days later, I did feel like I’d abandoned my babies, but that’s another story.
The writing students got assigned to a mentor, who would evaluate manuscripts and lead morning workshops. When applying, we could indicate our first choice of mentor. I can’t recall who I asked for. I hoped a faint hope to get to meet Alistair MacLeod and say I admired his work. My father was paying for the workshop, which included residence and some food; I jumped into a debt hole to pay my airfare, while my husband was unemployed: super-responsible, no? Things worked out okay. I got in, got a scholarship, and got assigned to a mentor whose work I knew and respected. On Sunday, we all got lanyards with our names and animal stickers on them, animals indicating which group we were in. I still have mine — a ladybug. I also got a fright when MacLeod, meeting us all for the first time, addressing us all by surname, fixed his eyes on me and rumbled: “Butler Hallett. Hmm, yes. I know who YOU are.”
What? Why? What the fuck did I do?
A mite anxious, I slept badly that night. Monday morning, we got at it. First up: Lendrum.
Bonnie Lendrum. She’d been a nurse, watching people suffer fear, heal, and die, and she was working on a manuscript about a family man who develops aggressive cancer. The novel itself needed structure and character work, but her prose, clear and clean, invited a reader in. Considering my own tangled manuscript, mired in poor narrative strategy, I thought: What the fuck am I doing here?
I had no idea Bonnie was suffering paroxysms of anxiety, fearing she, too, had deluded herself, fearing she should just go back to her science background and not bother with fiction.
That decision would have resulted in loss. Bonnie’s sense of empathy is keen, as one might hope for in a nurse. A sense of empathy is needed for writing fiction, too — for writing good fiction, anyway. Bonnie clued in to something about fiction that many established fiction writers seem to miss: a need for connection beyond the surface appeal of plot. Who are these characters, and how does their highly specific story shoot light back into the universal concerns of being human? Her manuscript that week at Humber? It’s become the novel Autumn’s Grace. It’s about painful shortcomings in palliative care for one specific family; it’s about how we face death.
So a bunch of us were crazy that week, hauling around manuscripts. We were a diverse group. It taught me that there is likely no such thing as Being a Writer, and thank fuck for that, because such thinking immediately sets up boxes and boundaries and prisons: I can’t Be a Writer because I’m not from an arts background / not living in a cabin in the woods / not male enough / not female enough / not not not … And this leads to defenses and walls going up, brittle walls built out of fear and a need for power and standing, defenses which then becomes tools of attack to belittle and step over one’s peers … to a lot of time wasted proving I Am A Writer.
I see it. I see it all the time, a writer so busy Being a Writer that the work, and the best things about that person, wither and fall to the dust.
Fuck Being a Writer.
You want to write? Hey? You got something to say? Then fucking write it. Write your arse off. Kill your sleep. Hear ‘you’re crazy.’ Never mind fearing your background isn’t writerly enough; it will help you, if you let it, not hinder you. Develop your empathy — because this has got to hurt. It has got to hurt. If it’s coming easily to you, and for you, something might be wrong.
I got to see Bonnie again this weekend, as she was in town for The Writers’ Union of Canada annual general meeting . I am not a TWUC member, so we sneaked off for a somewhat illicit lunch, joined by her lovely husband, who took the photo of us I’ve posted here.
I try to practice and cultivate gratitude; sometimes I find blessings, like stars in a dark sky. Today, I am grateful for Bonnie Lendrum.
I am considering ego this morning, my own included, ego in the arts: an emotional minefield. The dangers become clear in social interaction as one artist might belittle another, not via a thoughtful criticism of their work but by a dismissal of the other artist as a person. If gender is part of that conversation, then a female artist might get dismissed on a rhetoric of her worth as only an object, a rhetoric of whether she is deemed first, and foremost, worth fucking. A conversation about ideas might devolve into a slimy puddle of a personal attack, the idea neglected to fray in the wind. A mutual paranoia might infest a group: –Whom does she know; is he a threat; is she useful to my social climbing; how many useful contacts can collect here tonight, contacts who can help me later?
Then there might be backstabbing, especially deplorable for its dishonesty, its hypocrisy.
The will to power is a common human failing.
How much of our art comes down to a why? That is, why does one do it? Beyond the shoves and restless sighs in the middle of the night, I mean, beyond the sense many artists have of lacking a choice in the matter. Why bother with the agonies of creation, revision, performance, exposure, and rejection? Because one has something to say? Ideally, yes. But why say it: to bludgeon others with one’s brilliance; to mark one’s territory; to create a sense of fulfilment and joy; to serve something greater that oneself?
If ego is a prison, how much do those pocked bars and stone walls, those mirrors, gaol one’s art?
I want to serve something greater than my little self. Yet how much of that sentiment is still my own ego, my urge to scream –Look at me! Look what I can do!
Nothing here is a new observation or a new idea. Nor is what gnaws me a new fire, or a fire lit just for me. I’m seeking clarity here. I keep stumbling, falling, and my knees are so stiff.
Elizabeth Cran reviews short story anthology Running the Whale’s Back, edited by Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris, for Charlottetown’s Guardian. I have a short story in this anthology called ‘The shadow side of grace’.
Tags: Alistair MacLeod, Charlotte Bronte, DJ Taylor, Emily Bronte, fiction, George Orwell, Herman Melville, literary fiction.
So Herman Melville’s reputation, during his life, died on the sword of Moby-Dick, and Melville, former bestseller, finished out his days in obscure poverty. What’s the first title we think of when the name Herman Melville comes up? More than likely, it’s Moby-Dick.
Who the hell is Angus Wilson?
In 2003, I overheard a student writer ask Alistair MacLeod about literary agents. MacLeod’s scowl made his eyes smaller. —Where were they when I needed them?
Charlotte Bronte yearned to write freed of the shackles of gender expectation, and to write something that would last — yet she also presumed to act as an embarrassed apologist for her sister, Emily, when writing a preface for Wuthering Heights. (That the Brontes got into print at all is a whole other story.)
I am not convinced that sitting down to write something High-Minded and Literary, that marketing a book as High-Minded and Literary, means much in the present moment.
George Orwell shows some honesty in his essay ‘Why I Write’ when he admits, with some cheeky joy, I think, that he wants to be remembered after he’s dead.
Then again, I think Laurence Olivier is a terrible actor, an insecure little boy too afraid to take emotional risks, to connect, content to hide behind his tiresome back of tricks: accent, false nose, makeup, costume.
When does it last? When is it real?
DJ Taylor at The Guardian does a better job with this question than I can.