What he said:
Guy Vanderhaeghe – Kroetsch Keynote 2014
I’m delighted to have been asked to give this year’s Robert Kroetsch Lecture, a talk that honours the memory of a poet, novelist, teacher, and critic who had, and continues to have, such a powerful impact in shaping Western Canadian literature. His work as an instructor at the old Fort San Writing program – of which the Sage Hill Writing Experience, now celebrating its twenty-fifth year, is a direct descendant – provided many Saskatchewan writers with the chance to come to know, admire, and cherish Kroetsch. Many enthusiastically have given him credit for helping them develop as writers. Although I was never his student, I too feel I owe Robert Kroetsch a debt of gratitude I would like to acknowledge.
This is the moment when I descend into the abyss of personal reminiscence – there will be plenty more occasions to come – to speak of how one of Kroetsch’s novels helped nudge me down the road to being a writer. At the age of nineteen or twenty, I hugged very close to my chest the dirty little secret that I wanted to be a writer, hugged it close because I knew how laughable and impossible an ambition that was. It was obvious to me, and almost everybody I associated with, that writers didn’t come from little towns beyond the pale of civilization, nor were they born into the type of family that the stork perversely had made the mistake of delivering me to. Back then, during my second and third years of university, I had fallen under the sway of a Svengali-like professor and had begun to trot around with books like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins and Sartre’s Nausea ostentatiously tucked under my arm. Unlike me, Jean-Paul had had the good sense to be born in Paris rather than Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, and to insert himself into a distinguished family that would have counted two Nobel Prize winners if Sartre hadn’t refused his offer from the Swedish Academy on the grounds – I don’t know if the translation can be trusted or not – that he didn’t want to be “institutionalized.”
Luckily for me, this was about the time that I stumbled on Kroetsch’s novel The Studhorse Man in a second-hand bookstore, a book that forced me to review my doubt that “any good thing can come out of Nazareth.” For Nazareth substitute Saskatchewan. Now being the sophisticated cosmopolitan that I was, I had never heard of Robert Kroetsch. Many of my professors, American and British exiles pining away for the bright lights of Iowa City and Newcastle, had encouraged in me a dismissive attitude toward anything Canadian. If I had known Kroetsch was tarred with the home-grown brush, I probably wouldn’t have picked his novel off the shelf. I bought it because the jacket copy promised a rousing, ribald yarn about the adventures of a studhorse man. My interest was piqued because my father had once, like Kroetsch’s protagonist, Hazard LePage, made a few dollars travelling the countryside with a stallion that serviced farmers’ broodmares for a fee.
For years I had heard my father’s stories about his former colourful line of work, but it had never crossed my mind that the sort of life he had once lived, bouncing from one Saskatchewan farm to another, studhorse hitched to the back of his buggy, might be the raw stuff of literature, or of fiction of any kind. In my view, people like my father definitely were not material from which mythic novels were fashioned and the world in which I had grown up, rural and drearily ordinary, could never provide the epic setting demanded by full-canvas novels. However, by the time that I had finished The Studhorse Man my assumptions had been shaken. After all, everything in the book took place right next door, in Alberta of all places. It was exposure to Kroetsch’s novel that sent me looking for other Canadian writers in the hope that they could teach me how to write my own country. As Kroetsch once famously said to Margaret Laurence in an interview, “In a sense, we haven’t got an identity until somebody tells our story. The fiction makes us real.”
Kroetsch’s point is an important one. What’s more, I think it can be inverted and still hold true. Maybe the writer’s “identity’ – I put that word emphatically in quotation marks – is also what lends fiction and poetry reality. A nineteen year old prairie existentialist who had learned most of what he thought he knew about that philosophy from William Barrett’s Irrational Man should have been able to recall the first article of that clear-eyed faith: existence precedes essence. But I was too enamoured with the imagined glamour of being a writer to give much thought to what it actually meant to write. I was too young and inexperienced to understand that identity can’t be put on and off like a pair of shoes or a hat; it’s not make-believe even though writing it. Fortunately, or unfortunately, writers have to work in the place and time where fate dropped them, are forced to inhabit their own skins, nobody else’s. When I say this don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating solipsism, or suggesting fiction or poetry is nothing but disguised autobiography. Far from it. I only mean to suggest it’s a good idea for writers to confront who they are before they confront what they think is their material.
On occasions such as this, it is usually expected of the person standing at the front of the room to make a show of offering useful advice to the captive bums in the seats. With the dawn of my writing life well at my back and the sunset of it only a short hike off on the horizon, I realize that although I’m short on good advice I’m increasingly long on opinions. So now that you’ve been caveat emptored, and my conscience eased, I’ll lurch on.
Mostly what I’d like to talk about tonight is the struggle to find your voice as a writer. I freely admit that voice is one of those vague, artsy fartsy terms that we creative writing teachers fall back on when we distrust what we’re reading but realize there isn’t much to criticize in regard to the writer’s craft. However, just because voice is hard to define doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I regard it as the proof of a writer’s commitment and conviction to the work. At its best, a writer’s voice is so distinctive that a paragraph, maybe even a sentence or line, allows you to identify the author. Think Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway. But voice is not simply style; it’s the writer’s identity stamped on the page. It’s what makes the writing real.
There’s a lot of talk that goes on among writers about finding your voice but it’s not often observed that you can only find something when you actually believe it’s there to be found. The work of many inexperienced writers suffers because they operate without that faith. The voice that is yours may not be the one that you wish had been dealt you at the high stakes literary poker table – I confess that even after all these years, I still feel twinges of envy when I envision Jean-Paul thinking high thoughts in the Deux Magots, but the truth is that my head has always been way too small to have ever tried to fake wearing his hat.
What I had to do was to learn to live with my limitations and do my level best to make use of what I had been given. Often the writers we admire most are the ones who are masters at doing what we cannot do. Trying to pattern yourself after them, to borrow or impersonate their voices is the deadest of dead ends.
Of course, it’s never easy to see what’s right in front of your face. Not too long ago I attended a writers’ conference where I fell into a conversation with a woman who began to bemoan the fact that she had been irretrievably stunted as a writer because she had grown up in Burlington, Ontario, a place she characterized as appallingly and boringly middle class. The gist of her complaint was that living there had denied her the kind of raw, earthy experiences that would have permitted her to become the writer she might have been.
The strange thing is that as she recalled her life in the Beige Hole of Burlington, the city grew ever more exotic and weird as she described it. I was fascinated, so much so that I had do a little internet investigation of my own, learning that Burlington has been recently ranked as the number one mid-sized Canadian metropolis by MoneySense – whatever MoneySense is – although its primacy as champion in this weight class is disputed by a real estate website that takes some of the wind out of the Burlington civic sails with the claim that Oakville edges it out in “swanky affluence.” At any rate, Burlington still must have been a pretty swell place when the woman’s parents took possession of their new home because to celebrate her mother gathered all the children around her to announce, “Today we are officially upper middle-class.” My jaw dropped when I heard that; I might even have drooled. What writer wouldn’t give her eye teeth to come up with a line half that good? What striving, what longing, what self-congratulation reverberates in that communiqué to the next generation.
More excellent stuff followed. The daughter derided her mother for obsessively vacuuming the carpets in a way that left pleasingly symmetrical but impermanent patterns in the nap. The image of Mom artistically wielding a vacuum nozzle brought to mind those Tibetan monks who patiently form intricate mandalas by dribbling coloured sand from their fingertips. How, I wondered, could any writer complain about having a front row seat on such heartbreaking aspiration and sheer lace-curtain craziness?
For the longest time, as I have already suggested, I fretted about my own background, viewing it as something that needed to be overcome, rather than embraced. But from the perspective available to me now, I see that many of the things that I wished could be changed were the roots that nourished me as a writer of fiction. Of course, I admit I may be only fashioning another fiction when I say that, doing the same thing I do whenever I sit down to write a novel or short story, attempt to make sense of a muddle of details cluttering my mind, find a path that moves from A to conclude at Z. In taking myself by the hand for a stroll down memory lane I have probably edited out the blind alleys that I blundered into, and the ones I stupidly and wilfully chose, in favour of a neater picture of the journey. That said, I still happen to believe that the picture I’m presenting you is essentially true.
As I have already said, back in my university days I had a tendency to fixate on all the things that I thought would hinder me from becoming a writer. On the face of it, neither the family I was born into nor the place I was raised struck me as stony ground for producing a writer. My parents were not “bookish” people. Somewhere in Wolf Willow Wallace Stegner remarks that for many of the earliest settlers of the West the pioneer experience had a corrosive effect, slowly eroding whatever sophistication or cultural accomplishments might have been part of the baggage they brought with them to the frontier. That appears to have been the case in my mother’s family. In 1891, my great-grandmother, Louise Chappell, was the 88th person to be granted a teaching certificate by the government of the Northwest Territories. She must have been an adventurous woman to have set out on her own from Ontario for a part of the country that only six years before had been convulsed by Louis Riel’s North-West Resistance. There, in the tiny settlement of Spy Hill, Saskatchewan, she met and eventually married Joe Davis, one of the school trustees who had hired her to take charge of a one-room school. Their marriage produced eight children who preserved a memory of a mother of genteel Victorian refinement, an amateur naturalist, photographer, painter, pianist, and proud owner of a considerable library of English classics, which after her death, her family consigned to a granary where they were pulped by rain and trampled to pieces by sheep, all except for her copies of William Pitt’s Orations on the French War and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which somehow survived and came into my possession some forty years ago.
The accomplishments of my great-grandmother’s offspring fell far short of hers. Rural schools and the endless drudgery of life on a hardscrabble farm took their toll, contributed to the steady chipping away of the refinements she had put such store in. And in their turn, her grandchildren, raised in the drought and depression-stricken Saskatchewan of the 1930s, gave up on school even earlier than their parents had. Most of my uncles were working on farms by the time they turned thirteen or fourteen, or were clambering into boxcars to roam Canada in a fruitless hunt for work until the Second World snatched them out of the breadlines.
My father’s side of the family put even less stock in schooling. My grandfather Vanderhaeghe, an immigrant from backward and impoverished West Flanders, thought of his children mostly as a source of cheap labour for the farm he rented. Book-learning and lollygagging about in classrooms were mere distractions from earning a living. Threats from the local School Board and harassment by truant officers over his kids’ spotty attendance record had no effect on him. His kids certainly paid a price for my grandfather’s hostility to education. My father is incapable of writing anything, not even a cheque. He has never read a word I’ve written. This is not a complaint, merely an observation.
Yet despite the circumstances in which my parents had been raised, when I was a small child my mother made a point of reading to me from a store of five or six Thornton W. Burgess animal stories she had got her hands on. Someone must have loaned or given these books to my mother, or perhaps she ordered them from the Eaton’s catalogue because the nearest bookstore was 225 kilometres away in Regina. At any rate, they were the only children’s literature I was ever exposed to; I have no memory of any Dr. Seuss, L. Frank Baum, Beatrix Potter, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carrol, or A.A. Milne, none of the classics. Burgess was it, but he was enough. I had had my first sweet kiss with narrative and I fell in love with it.
My other exposure to the delights of story came by way of my mother’s side of the family, the Allens. They were all great talkers, acidly funny and savage raconteurs with outlandish nicknames like Black Jack, Willis the Waltz King, Gordo, and Bàcsi. Of them all, Uncle Bàcsi was the most flamboyant and voluble. My home town, Esterhazy, as the name suggests, was largely settled by Hungarians and it was the Hungarians who christened my uncle Ralph Bàcsi, which, I have been told, can be translated as either uncle or elder brother and is a traditional title of respect. In my uncle’s case the implication was different. It had been sardonically applied to him back in the days when he was a 13-year-old auctioneer’s assistant strutting about at farm sales, a fedora rakishly tilted down over one eye, a cigar clamped in his mouth as he fast-talked prospective bidders, a pint-sized wheeler-dealer.
Whenever my mother’s family got together it was a no-holds-barred verbal brawl. Her brothers and sisters riffed off one another’s anecdotes, or served up set pieces that had been worked and reworked over the years until they had all the crispness and polish of a good stand-up comedian’s monologue. They had no shortage of material. All my uncles, with the exception of the youngest, Willis the Waltz King, had racketed about Canada during the Depression years and then they had racketed about North Africa, Italy, and the Low Countries during the Second World War. Their war stories were like Vonnegut’s or Heller’s, but with the gruesome bits more or less expunged. They had seen their share of horrors, one of them had been badly wounded in Italy, but they portrayed life in the army as an absurd comedy involving the sabotaging of stupid noncoms and officers; scrapes with the military police; risqué adventures cruising the streets of Cairo, Naples, and Brussels. These stories had carefully crafted beginnings, middles, and ends and were sharply focussed on character: the mild, naïve Anglican chaplain who could always be prevailed upon to provide a sterling character reference at a court martial; the punctilious, pedantic drill sergeant who put Black Jack through his paces with a .22 single shot rifle mounted on an artillery gun carriage because the Canadian Army in Britain had no field guns for training; the fascist crone who lay in wait on her balcony with a chamber pot to empty on their heads when they staggered back to bivouac after a night out on the town; the half-crazed army psychiatrist who saw shell shock cases everywhere.
I see now that, like one of Konrad Lorenz’s goslings, I was imprinted early on by these stories and have been waddling flat-footed after them all my life. I arrived at the tail end of an oral tradition where there were few readers but a lot of talkers, and some of them talked very well. It’s a mug’s game for writers to explain their own work, but in mine I think I can detect what I would call the Bàcsi influence: black humour, the supposition that life is absurd, the rhythms of the spoken word. The source of a good deal of the propellant in the rockets my uncles sent up were explosions of vulgarity, the raw language of men who had knocked about and been knocked about, the vivid slang that the great demotic poet Walt Whitman called the “attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably.” I suspect that what my uncles were doing was disguising and transforming the illimitable horror of war in a wild, reckless language foreign to the polite proprieties of middle-class conversation of the 1950s. I have never lost my affection for the rude, vigorous tongue in which they expressed themselves and I have, often to the dismay of editors, perhaps overindulged in it. Many years ago, when the critic and poet Louis Dudek rather prissily dismissed me in Books in Canada as “a voice from the shithouse,” I puffed up with unseemly pride, feeling as if I had inherited my Uncle Bàcsi’s profane mantle.
If at one time I thought my family was an unsuitable nest for a writer, at nineteen or twenty I was even more fervently convinced of the deficits of my small-town education. When I arrived in the big city of Saskatoon to go to university, I encountered students who seemed to know everything, who had been insistently groomed by their parents for success, some of whom were the shiny products of educationally enriched school programs. These were young people capable of having conversations with professors while I sat looking on, mute and staring. My first years of university were pure and simply catch-up. I ran at high speed just to keep their tail lights in view. I probably packed Sartre under my arm in self-defence.
As a child, I had entered school with no expectations. My mother had given me a little academic coaching, her version of No Child Left Behind, before I went out the door to meet Dick and Jane and be introduced to their lively suburban milieu, but her tutoring was not a success. Her attempt to teach me my alphabet and hammer into my head how to count to ten before turning me over to the professionals failed utterly, so I trundled off to school blithely illiterate and innumerate. Years later, my mother confessed to me that she had believed that I was what was then delicately referred to as “slow,” and that when it came to school she believed I was already dead in the water when I went out the door. When I actually did surprisingly well in grade one, her hopes suddenly bloomed, inordinately so, and she decided that not only was she going to see that I finished high school but that I was going to be the first person from either side of the family to go to university. She grimly hung on to this ambition even in later years when my academic performance went into an alarming and precipitous decline.
The signal event of my first year of elementary school was learning to read. The fly in this ointment was that the summer before I entered grade one, the Esterhazy school had burned to the ground and with it whatever library it had held. Except for texts mandated by the curriculum there were no books. All the town’s resources went into the building of a school. The need for a new school was particularly pressing because a potash mine was being developed near the town, which brought in a flood of newcomers, more and more kids to be stuffed into the overflowing church basements where we were being taught. When the shiny new building opened the next year, there was nothing but empty shelving in the space optimistically referred to as the library. And there would be nothing on those shelves for some time to come.
Over the course of the next few years, I became a persistent scavenger of reading material. The local druggist was my biggest source of supply. In those days, unsold comic books had their covers torn off before being mailed back to the magazine distributor as returns; the comics themselves were supposed to be destroyed but the pharmacist allowed me to carry off any copies I wanted. The least popular comics were the now defunct Classics Illustrated series, which were intended to expose reluctant young readers to “great literature.” Reluctant young readers, however, recognized these comics were meant to be good for you and so they avoided them like Brussels sprouts, which meant I had an inexhaustible supply of unbought copies to choose from. The Classics Illustrated series was my introduction to Kim, Michael Strogoff, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Man in the Iron Mask, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Two Years Before the Mast, even Hamlet.
I’m sure that it sounds priggishly precocious of me, but it was reading these comics that put the notion in my head of becoming a writer. I can recall studying the author biographies that appeared in the back pages, poring over them in search of the key that would reveal to me what had made these women and men writers, hoping that if I found it I could unlock the door to my future.
Under the influence of Classics Illustrated I began writing little stories. My grandmother was the town’s seamstress and her days were spent sewing dresses for the wives of local businessmen, doctors, and lawyers, and performing alterations for a men’s clothing store. On top of that, she had to babysit me after school because my mother had landed a job clerking in the town office. When school finished for the day I would scoot over to my grandmother’s house, position myself on the floor near her Singer sewing machine, open a notebook and begin to bombard her with pleas to spell the words that I needed for my stories. This must have been particularly irritating for her because I had fallen deeply under the influence of the Classic Illustrated version of Julius Caesar’s memoirs, and I was giving my characters names that I imagined sounded authentically Roman, names such as Dufius, Gymnasiumus, and Auditoriumus.
At last, when I was around the age of nine, my desperate hunt for things to read ended when the frugal town fathers finally sprang for a municipal library. It was housed in the town office where my mother worked and at first was largely comprised of donations, the polite word for cast-offs. The library was hardly bigger than a broom closet but it had the great advantage of being unmanned. Books were signed out on the honour system and since there was no librarian supervising or censoring what I checked out, I was able to read anything that struck my fancy. My mother never raised any objections to what I was sticking my nose into because, as she would have put it, reading kept me from “running the streets like a stray dog.”
My memory of my formal elementary schooling is rather foggy but I can recollect with almost autistic accuracy many of the things I read during those years, probably because of my teachers’ strenuous objections to some of the book reports I handed in. There was, for instance, a minor furor over my innocently turning in a review of Eugene O’Neill’s play Desire Under the Elms when I was about ten. I’m sure the teacher had never read or seen this drama herself, but the title alone was enough to give her fits. I was even scolded for doing a report on the Reader’s Digest condensed version of To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel so morally uplifting that high school students all over North America have been chain-ganged into reading it. The only explanation I got for it being out of bounds was that it was “too old for me.” I would have been twelve then, hardly of such a tender age as to have been irreparably damaged by Harper Lee’s depravity.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I was some precious prairie aesthete; I was simply indiscriminately pulling books off the shelves and devouring them. Eugene O’Neill’s retelling of the Greek myth of Phaedra, Hippolytus and Theseus, was interspersed with Zane Grey’s dusters, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, and Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories. My problem was that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out that book reports about dogs were a safer bet than reviewing a drama about infanticide and a son cuckolding his father.
Aside from minor book-reviewing incidents, I was a pliable and malleable student, which only stoked my mother’s ambitions for my further academic achievement. About the age of eleven, I even nerdishly embarked on what I grandly called a novel, which my mother volunteered to type in two-fingered hunt and peck style on the manual typewriter in the town office on her one day a week off. Mercifully, I have almost no dreadful recovered memories of my first stab at novel-writing except for the fancy-pantsy name of my young English hero, Devon Malroy, who was plucky and dauntless and voyaged the high seas in a noble ketch.
All this assiduous striving was followed by my disastrous high school years. I arrived in grade nine as a beanpole-skinny four-eyes burdened with the reputation for being a “brainiac.” This, you can well imagine, put me at a certain disadvantage. Unlike the plucky, dauntless hero of my novel, Devon Malory, I did not stand up to my persecutors, but ingratiated myself with them, becoming mascot to a number of bad companions who furnished a cordon sanitaire against gratuitous assaults from others with a taste for punishing easy targets. Add to this the toxic stew of adolescent hormones and I careered wildly off the scholastic rails. By the time I entered grade ten I found myself in 10E. My school followed a rigid policy of grouping students according to their marks and 10E was the end of the academic line; there was no 10F. The inmates of 10E were saddled with vocational classes such as Agriculture where we tenderly swaddled beans in wet blotting paper and sat around waiting for them to sprout. Aside from the bean experiment, I don’t remember doing much else in 10E besides intimidating teachers, devising rigged hockey pools, and exacting money from the more defenceless members of the student body who were expected to make contributions to help pay the liquor fines that members of 10E collected on their carefree weekends.
As you can imagine, prospects for the alumnae of 10E were not auspicious. Yet, mysteriously, I was saved. Despite my atrocious marks, infractions of discipline, and general bad behaviour, the next year a hand came down from on high, plucked me from level E and deposited me in level B where bean sprout surveillance was replaced by subjects that were prerequisites for university admission. I don’t know how this happened. Perhaps my mother intervened with the school administration. She could be a stubborn and volatile woman, and as I have said, she was determined to get me educated.
I staggered into grade twelve. My days of scribbling stories were far in the past. But a remarkable woman, a composition teacher, got me writing again. She sent one of my stories to the Saskatchewan English Teachers’ Association’s magazine where it was published alongside the work of two young English teachers who were also writers: Gary Hyland, a poet who later founded the Moose Jaw Literary Festival, and Bob Currie, who became a Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan.
Still, my mother’s hopes of me going to university were growing dimmer by the day. The final examinations for high school matriculation were set by the Department of Education; every grade twelve student in the province wrote the same tests that were marked in the capital, and these marks determined admission into the Saskatchewan university system. I had fallen so far behind that my chances of getting the 65% minimum average for acceptance into the University of Saskatchewan were virtually nil and I knew it. When it came time to sit the exams, the writing on the wall became clearer and clearer. Even the very best students were walking away from the tests white-faced with academic shell shock. As soon as I had undergone this trial by fire, I headed for British Columbia. My mother had let me know she was sick of the sight of me and, from the bloody look in her eye, I knew it was time to get out of Dodge.
And then came another inexplicable stroke of good fortune, deus ex machina for Guy. The exams that year had proved so difficult that the results didn’t accord with the way the bell curve was supposed to look. Radical adjustments were required to make the curve shapely again, and those adjustments boosted the marks of borderline students like me. When the results were mailed to my home, my mother discovered that I had effortlessly vaulted the required 65% with a 65.2 or 65.3 average. She immediately filled out an application form for the University of Saskatchewan and phoned to tell me that if I managed to squeak in, I was going, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. I did and I went.
Why have I told you all this? Because I mean to suggest that writers’ histories are their voices. Okay, it would have been better if I had left high school knowing something. It might have been better if someone had guided my reading as a child, but that didn’t happen and in the end I don’t think that was entirely a bad thing. Nobody told me what I was supposed to like; nobody told me what I could or couldn’t read. I began to form opinions about books without supervision. Those opinions might have been ill-informed, perverse, or just plain stupid, but I owned them. Undoubtedly, I absorbed a lot of what many people would consider “bad” writing and very likely it has oozed into my novels and short stories. On the other hand, I once argued in an essay that bad writing often has a surprisingly beneficial influence, pointing out that the blood and guts adventure writer Captain Thomas Mayne Reid, whose novel The Headless Horseman eleven year old Vladimir Nabokov read in English and so loved that he translated it into French alexandrines, appears to have stimulated the gorgeous purple in Nabokov’s later English prose. An academic has also made the case that the favourite mustang of a character in Reid’s The War Trail; or the Hunt for the Wild Horse lent the name Lolita to Nabokov’s nymphet. Stranger and stranger.
Here’s some wild speculation. If Nabokov had not fallen under Reid’s spell would his fiction still have had the same flavour, still deployed the same slightly rococo and antiquated English vocabulary? Would he still have used the word nates rather than the more common and homely buttocks? Would he have been a different kind of writer?
If I can’t answer that question in regard to Nabokov, I think I can answer it about myself. For better or for worse, not only can I hear the cadences of my story-telling uncles’ voices in my work, I can also spot plenty of instances of garish splashes of comic book colour, the desire to hurry a narrative forward. These are things I unconsciously absorbed or consciously learned from the people and writers I was exposed to. The writers we admire can teach us a lot about how to make a short story or novel or poem, and in that way they become as much a part of our histories as where we were born, or what kind of education we enjoyed or endured. But let me emphasize the word part. Attempting to impersonate the voice we admire stops us from hearing our own. I’m a slow learner and it took me a long time to grasp that an impersonation of another’s voice can never be anything but false. Many years ago Robert Fulford, who was then the editor of the now defunct magazine Saturday Night, rejected one of my short stories. He said a number of kind things about the story but then he said something that made me squirm. He mentioned that the story reminded him of the work of one of his favourite Canadian writers, Richard Wright. Guess who I had been obsessively reading. Richard Wright. Fulford didn’t say it but he wasn’t interested in a cheap Wright knock-off. Everybody prefers the real thing.
If admiration can distract you from recognizing your own voice, calculation can be an even bigger danger. Writers are often urged to think of their audience. If that means respecting your audience, I’m all for it, but if it means trying to figure out what you think your audience wants and then trying to give it to them that’s a negotiation which will inevitably compromise your voice. Write the poem, the story, the novel you would want to read and trust others will want to read it too. Besides, calculation is always based on what has been rather than what may be just around the corner. Would any publisher have suggested to Karl Ove Knausgaard that he might enjoy a large international success if he wrote 3500 pages that obsessively detailed the life and thoughts of a Norwegian writer that most of the world had never heard of? Would a publisher have decided that a really snappy, marketable title for this autobiography, which now stands at six volumes, be the vaguely Hitlerian-sounding My Struggle?
My own much more modest experience of attempts to anticipate and read the market have suggested to me that received wisdom isn’t all that wise. I was warned against writing my most commercially and critically successful novel because it was felt that my subject was likely to undermine my meagre reputation as a literary writer. I was solemnly told that nobody would or could take a book about cowboys and Indians seriously. Earlier, when I was looking for a publisher for my first book, everybody in the know told me to forget approaching any of the larger Canadian houses, they would never publish a collection of short stories by an unknown writer. My only chance was interesting a small literary press. After the book was refused by a literary press I decided to submit it to Macmillan, one of the larger trade publishers and home to Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell, and many more notable Canadian writers. It was accepted there.
In the end, what I’m urging you to do is trust yourselves. Trust you have something to say and the means to say it. Even for a writer as accomplished as Kroetsch finding his voice took time. In an article in the Globe and Mail that appeared shortly after his death, it was reported that in 1945 Kroetsch enrolled in a creative writing class that included many veterans of World War II. After a week, he dropped out because he felt he had no stories to tell that could compare with theirs. But in time Kroetsch did find his stories, his poems that displayed a unique hybrid vigour, postmodernism married to the people and landscape of Alberta.
If Blake was right and it’s possible to see a world in a grain of sand, then surely Burlington, or anywhere else you can imagine, must contain vast galaxies waiting to be discovered and rediscovered. I wish you all the best of luck in naming them, in forging them an identity, in plotting them on the map, in singing them with your own individual voices.