“To scrub toilets”

I’ve got no right to post about Alistair MacLeod, really. I don’t want to ride the coat-tails of others’ grief. I knew him only as a mentor.

Here’s what I learned from Alistair MacLeod, during a five-day workshop at the Humber School for Writers in 2003.

He read student work with great care and might try out some of what you described — physically. Asking gentle questions about space and bodies and plausibility, he shimmied under a table, mimicked a character’s movements, and illustrated that the scene might need a re-think.

His eyes kind, voice soft, he told me straight to my face that my four-year-old character would not, could not, be so smart: —Oh, Michelle, I don’t believe that.

He mentioned how he worked as a miner, and then for years as a teacher, a father, and as a writer. The key word here is “worked.” He bragged about none of it.

He did not try to teach us how to write; he tried to coax us into teaching ourselves, into finding our own voices and recognizing our stories’ needs: a necessary discipline. I see this now as serving the story, perhaps as serving something greater. He also reminded us, several times: —Don’t forget, you’re not the only person who can write, you know.

On the fourth day, I think, someone complained about the difficulties of “finding the time” to write, as though this time should be granted, like air to breathe. He listened to this — I expect he’d listened to it many times before — cleared his throat, and said: —People got up at four o’clock this morning to scrub toilets. What makes us so precious?

Writing fiction might come easily; stories and novels can pile up like dust bunnies. Writing fiction well? That’s hard. I am not precious, and I need to serve my stories. That is what I am still learning from Alistair MacLeod.

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