Friday, March 28, 2008

On Writing

I look at my hands.
They are no longer my own.
They have become my father’s

What happened last night?
— Robert Kroetsch, The Crow Journals

What does it mean to write? I write because my father rarely spoke to us, and I could feel the silences we shared a growing weight. Is that too easy, or too pessimistic? How does one even begin? But who cares, another writer suggested recently; we write, or we don’t. What does it matter how anyone starts?


Ottawa Valley historian Joan Finnegan used to say that it was easy to get the Irish to talk, just put a bottle of something in front of them, but the Scots… I have probably grotesquely misquoted her. It was why she had so little in the way of Scottish-Canadian Ottawa Valley stories, given such hesitation to speak to each other, let alone outsiders, despite the size, stretch and concentration of our population. What does it mean, then, to write?


My father always carried a small notebook and a series of ball-point pens in his right breast pocket, in green or blue workshirts. I presume he would have scrawled down notes on crops, costs, reminders and balances. How can I speak without evidence? Had he written down anything journalistic or diaristic, it would have contradicted everything else I’ve ever known about him. My mother keeps the same for grocery lists and phone numbers, on the ledge with pen and nail clippers beside her living room chair. Note-taker: the one thing I, I would argue, am not. How I write.

Or what these notebooks by my desk contradict.


My father tells few stories, but I know that he has them. How we the first farm on the dirt road to have electricity, and black-and-white television. As he told me once, watching the moon landing like radio, in black-and-white stills, the day the new furnace in. How his father tried to buy back the property next door, where he and his own father born, a late purchase sealed with a handshake. But then the neighbour got sick, and his wife sold the whole lot to else, not knowing the deal.

This would have been during Canada’s centennial, the year my parents married, and two more before my grandfather died, meaning that he and my grandmother were vacating the house, so my parents could settle themselves in as the main occupants. Where my father has lived since a year. This would have been three before I born, but four before my arrival. A long gestation, perhaps. This is why I have no baby, only toddler, photos.

Why write? they ask. I write because I have no other with which to say.


I am afraid I keep retelling the same stories told before, I feel I have so few.


When I was in high school in Alexandria in the 1980s, there was a joke that the town had just entered the 1950s. It was like a place caught in time, like a fly in alabaster, and somehow still is. I exist in a time-warp just to step into parents car, and allow the ride home, rolling back along years. It’s almost as though none of the intervening time ever happened. It is only my daughter that somehow allows me from being swallowed completely. Just by existing, she intervenes. She somehow, always, saves me.


Why write? It has done little else than to make my life harder. Had I just listened to my parents and taken over the farm, and saved it from the corpse it became; had I just listened to my ex-wife and got myself a proper job and not allowed her to build up the wedge that then pushed us apart. Why write?

Here I sit, nearly forty, and working so hard to record the life that I have and I had and I would have, had only not written at all. By writing, I have created the space in which to mourn what I have, by writing, lost.


In 1989, I arrived in Montreal to take creative writing at Concordia University, but the school wouldn’t take me. I sat what felt hours in the office of Henry Beissel, head of the department, who had already accepted me into the program. On the other end of his phone, an administrator kept telling him no, for my five and not six grade thirteen credits. There was nothing, he said, that any of us could have done. I was not meant for that city of Leonard Cohen and Artie Gold, that city of Nicole Brossard and Dany Laferriere, that city that would have properly taught me to speak French. I instead headed west, to Carleton University, where I spent more time with the mother of our eventual child than going to class; barely lasted a month. I wrote bad poems and pretended I’d never been on a farm.


My ex-wife tells me, she has never met anyone more different than their own family; I am the one at twenty-seven that she wanted at seventeen. It was always too late. I am the Frankenstein Monster she created; she wanted to put me on her taxes as her “idiot son.” I was, in many ways, her creation, saved from what I could have become through our ten years together, from fourteen years old up to twenty-four, with a child, three-and-a-half.


Caught up in his silences and her silences too, from the years my mother was away from home in hospital, starting in the early 1970s, and by mid-decade, starting her twenty-two years of non-working kidneys. It was why they couldn’t have children, and what they already knew from the time they were not yet married, but went ahead, as a cousin once told, for love.

Why write? My mother tells me I told her father stories when I on his knee, made up on the spot. I have no memories of such, he had died when I two. What stories would I have told? Is this something we’re born with, bred in the bone? Did my birth mother and father, still unknown to me, story each other in those months before I?


Why write. I save up my sights and my skills and I scratch them all down, page after now-endless page. Unforgiving. How do penance and crime become same?


My paternal grandmother told some, when I was young, that then drifted away. What was it she was trying to tell me? Just after the Labour Day weekend, as I new in grade nine and she suddenly gone. There was newness there, too. She who taught one-room a school before married and her, and then him.


What he never said, and she, somehow, used to. Read me books and my own before I started my school and could already read. How I could even speak French; far more than I’ve ever known since. There were books and then book and then books. It felt endless and open, taking in.

Always ahead or close second in grade school a contest, distant cousin and I, competing for who would get first into next part of library. A permission to go out, then, further.


Was once the wall I hit stepping through front door, all the silences behind and silences to come, all the way through my twenties and into my thirties. Now that they’re nearly seventy, but thirty ahead, they seem softer now. I write letters home about what I cannot phone, or speak during semi-annual visits. Why write?


Who went from books to comic books and back again, seven thousand Marvel Comics large. Who came from lack of a history and unknown genealogy to being the keeper of family knowledge, genealogist; working to compile what, perhaps, cannot be known.


There is family, and parents, and children. Since Alberta, I have written my daughter dozens of letters that she does not respond to; neither of us good on the phone, and she, neither email nor print. I would rather our weekly conversations in Ottawa, while trolling the Rideau Centre. From here, how I miss it. How I once thrived. How I will once again. What does it mean to write?


And then there is writing itself, that takes its own silence, and develops one, even as the writing develops. The only way to get work done. Be quiet sometimes and just put your head down.

Sometimes there only is but to write, to create what then needs to be solved. And endure.

related notes: falling in love, falling in love with poetry; three novels: on writing fiction; a as in Artie, g as in Gold (1947-2007);

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