What MAKES a Writer Write ?
January 23, 2013
Ever since I can remember, I have had a writing box. Most writers do.
This box is a compost heap of peripatetic ideas and sideswiped observations. Something will catch a writer’s fancy and it will get jotted down, then, later, tossed into the box. Stubby pencil bit scratches on found paper or full-length manuscripts of fluttering folios, half composed computer compositions or verdant wet pen epistles: all go into the box. There, the ideas will sit for a time to germinate. Two days or two decades per item is not an uncommon gestation period for these ‘seeds’. Ideas vary.
When I return later to view my young shoots, I frequently find that some have not taken root (pithy but pointless), or that others must be zealously weeded out (verbose ravings). Often I see the formation of a healthy new bud (a single word reverberates). There may well be new growth struggling on an old growth idea (polite licking aka poli-ticking.) Then I will feverishly prune-edit, cultivate-rewrite and otherwise happily tend to my quixotic word garden.
The stories and poems that follow are all items from the box. They cover a period of over thirty years and reflect the interests and critical obsessions of a maturing young woman who now stands as a mid-career artist in Southern Ontario, Canada, at the start of the twenty-first century.
Some tales began long ago (and far away) and have only recently come to final fruition. Some have grafted onto others creating startling new hybreds. And some, I know, to a seasoned and urban urbane editor, may still need some heavy pruning. However, I have included a few of these scraggly ‘wild ones’ because they radiate an exploratory and experimental ‘colour‘. I find they have their own rare merit and honest beauty.
They are, I hope, as much a delight to your senses in their singularity as they are to me. You will see certain features repeated in pattern. You will hear certain words repeated in different contexts. You may wonder why-on-earth I choose a particular tale to share with you. I can only say to you that my writing box is a living ‘words-in-progress': one thought or idea shapes and pollinates another.
The stories you read today will be gone tomorrow. They will certainly have grown into something else overnight. Soon, I know, you will artfully re-arrange them amongst your own personal perceptions and muddy memories.
My final hope is that you may pluck a tale or two that has some pressing and passionate zing for you. Perhaps you will then cross-pollinate, re-cultivate and find again the sweet joy of a few of these wonderfully warbling words.
So, let’s start at the beginning. In my late teens, circa 1970, when thrust from the gentle rural countryside of South-western Ontario into the heady cosmopolitan environment of the University of Toronto, I was instantly beguiled by the rhetorical possibilities of language. I had always known there was emotive logic and persuasive argument, but to learn that ‘rhetoric’ was a studied and applied linguistic ‘science’ was both eye-opening and liberating. I desired to truly understand what differentiates the written words of lawyers, say, from those of journalists, or writers of fiction, or playwrights and poets. It seemed that politics and commerce constantly erupted in all these arenas and subsequently shaped the tone of language. I discovered that words often have a different shade of meaning according to their different roots of usage. Playing with language became an obsessive preoccupation.
Integral to these musings was an emerging sexual persona of multiple dimensions. I increasingly understood that men and women do see the world very differently, and that they use different ‘language’ to express these views. I wanted to explore these ‘voices’ too.
After graduating with a four year Lit & Philosophy degree in the mid-70’s, and dusty too from several continental sojourns, I settled down to the onerous task of ‘working for a living from dawn to dusk’. I naturally gravitated towards entry level jobs that dealt with words. Most positions allowed me to perceive, enter and evaluate what I increasingly considered to be a loosely federated Advertising Empire that dominated North America, physically and psychically. Within this web, we think and become what we watch and consume. The connecting link is ‘sales’ generated by advertising writing. Punchy slogans and riveting sound bites seduce even the most wary, wry and witty.
During the frantic decade of the 80’s, my mind was ever racing forward to find that which endures beyond the hype. I hit many walls, bounced back, bruised but brighter.
Suddenly the 90’s were upon us and all seemed intensely focused on the emerging cyber mania and its electric and electrifying McLuhan offspring: the internet. Writing, and even reading, took on new dimensions as the lines increasingly blurred between the Real and the Un-Real. Television and Photography increasingly replaced the Word. Vision dominated. Language, especially the written word, became the cheap side-kick. Spit as needed. Speed and the surreal (surly real?) became gods. We, in North America, still wanted everything – our body urges and our emotional needs – instantaneously gratified with no thought to consequence, personally or globally.
In the middle of the 90’s, the explosive Bre-X gold fraud scandal was one of many that had severe economic repercussions around the world. Canada fell from grace in the global business community. Ordinary investors lost faith and trust. Dot and telecom technology stocks soon followed, collapsing overnight. Insider trading scandals and continued corporate accounting fraud rattled the cages of commerce. Enron became a household word.
And then Dolly, the sheep, was cloned.
Yet, it seemed to me, that even then, underlining this hurly-burly consumption and destruction were certain immutable Truths.
The Earth revolves around the Sun. This fact is unlikely to change anytime soon.
I found towards the end of the 90’s I was exploring and writing like a psychic geologist – looking for noteworthy nuggets to pass along.
Something marvelous seemed to occur when we tipped into the twenty-first century. All the dilapidated debris of the previous millenium momentarily disappeared and there was this unexpected gush of fresh expectation, a sincere feeling of hope for our global future. We seemed to be on the right path, moving in the right direction.
And yet, today, only at the beginning of the eighth year of this bold and now very bloody decade, we seem to have lost not only our footing but our moral centre. World war, and the unpredictable and continuous threat of ‘terrorism’, hang over us like a noxious threatening nuclear cloud. Outrageous atrocities – man’s inhumanity to man – unimagined a year ago – are now routinely reported in the mass media. We watch global events unfold on television. Men fight territorial squabbles over precious natural resources. All are shoving, pushing and grabbing. Camps of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ are everywhere. And yet – are these the real stories? The enduring stories?
As a woman on the planet, I don’t think so. We don’t need to self-destruct.
Words of real power are needed now. We must rediscover the precious preciseness of words, and then use these ‘word tools’ wisely, honestly, carefully.
To that end, to ‘sharpen my pen and strengthen my voice’, I entered the Humber School of Writers Graduate Program in the spring of 2004, and, for the next six months, was most fortunate to understudy with the two-time Giller Prize winner, M.G.Vassanji: a seasoned, worldly writer. We worked slowly back and forth through many of these evolving stories. Some he liked, some he didn’t. His periodic question marks – ‘???’ - in the columns of my manuscript made me re-think my structures, my use of styles and my expostulatory intentions. His attentive and thoughtful reading has helped me to refine my essential reason for writing. He has also helped me further define my future responsibility as a writing artist.
This can probably best be summed up in this way: I am a Caretaker.
In many ways, it is the oldest story in the book.
Today, it seems this story must be told again and again, in every language, in every medium and with every voice. We are all Caretakers.
As a writing artist, I have bent down and planted my thoughts in a variety of different ‘voices’ to reflect these times. I pass them on to you – wherever you may be – on this, our gorgeous ancient planet.
Cross-pollinate, re-cultivate, find again the sweet joy of words.
And then, please, care take …
First published, here, in 2008.