Stacey D’Erasmo: Well, it’s like a coming-of-middle-age novel. I think the idea of finding one’s voice is something that’s very much on your mind when you’re in your twenties and your early thirties, but that struggle lasts throughout your life. How do you figure out how to be forty? How do you figure out how to be fifty? Later, how do you figure out how to be seventy? The good news and the bad news is these transitional moments keep happening.
I have been meaning to write something here for a long time, but as always seems to be the case, never have enough consecutive moments to gather my scattered wits to actually string the right words together. But I want to try. Because this summer is proving to be very different from the last, which led me into some sad and scary times. And because, well, because attention must be paid! Bills must be paid too; but attention – to art, to nature, to friendships, and to the way life keeps rolling and sliding and catapulting onwards – paying attention satisfies a different kind of debt.
It has occurred to me lately that so much of feeling well and empowered has to do with finding voice. And this seems silly, because – of course! But having a voice and finding an authentic voice in which to speak and sing and write are very different things. And that we can lose our own voice, or lose access to it, for periods of time, however short or long, seems counterintuitive and unfair. But, sister, it happens.
Maybe this is why when we hear an authentic voice, when we dare to be authentic – we get that shiver of recognition, that zing of potential and truth and strength. So here, in no particular order are some people and things and experiences that have helped me to celebrate voice lately:
1. I’m taking singing lessons. I love singing. I went to a Baptist church camp, because my parents, apparently slipshod atheists, liked the fact that it was cheap and situated on beautiful Beausoleil Island. My dad loved singing too, mostly Scottish folk songs and rousing labour anthems. So I know a lot of songs about Jesus and the blood of the lamb and a few songs about picket lines and some songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie. I am also a pretty good whistler. But I have never taken myself very seriously as a singer. I am trying to change that.
2. Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Ooh boy, this is a book that made me want to puke with sadness and recognition – and that is an endorsement. The novel is about sisters – one trying to convince the other to live, despite the fact that her mental illness is causing her unbearable anguish. It hit pretty close to home for me. But it is also lovely and funny and fierce and true. I wrote the writer a note to say as much – because we should thank the truth tellers in the world whenever we can! One thing I loved about the novel was that the characters – who are experiencing such horrible heartache – do not shy away from the words, ‘I love you’ and the author is not afraid of what some might deem sentimentality, but I deem emotional courage. Here is a great interview with Toews where she gives advice for writing: ‘Ignore all advice about writing! Leave your blood on every page! Every page!’ AMPS is a gut-wrenching, beautiful read because Toews is such a gutsy writer. And by that I mean that it feels like she has torn out some of her most vital organs and smacked them down for the world to see. Sounds grim and gory, right? But her voice is also hilarious – wry and self-deprecating and witty and warm and wise (What? What? You think I overdo the alliteration?). Read the book, y’all.
3. My husband has taught himself to play the ukulele. And he’s really good.
4. I got to teach a group of adults about creative writing this summer. They were all such smart, accomplished people, and I wondered, at the outset, what I might have to show them. What I forgot was that giving yourself license to create is really hard (perhaps especially if you have spent many years becoming an expert or authority in another field) and having someone give you that permission is pretty powerful. It was such a rush to see my students discover that sitting down to write is not the province of garret dwellers or lone madwomen or lauded salt ‘n’ peppah haired (mostly male) Authors – that everyone has a story, or maybe everyone has pretty much the same stories, but we all have different ways of telling them. And that is what makes the telling/writing a worthwhile enterprise.
5. Neko Case. Because she’s another truth teller and because she wins the prize for long-ass, ballsy album title: The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight The Harder I Fight The More I Love You. And the lines below from ‘Where Did I Leave That Fire?’ (so plaintive and powerful when she sings) which pretty much sum up how it felt for me to find myself lost in my own brain’s chemical swampland.
I saw my shadow looking lost/Checking its pockets for some lost receipt/Where did I leave that fire?/Where did I leave that fire?
6. Pippi Longstocking. In June I did an event at Parentbooks in celebration of The M Word, where I got to talk about mothers in children’s books. I chose Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren because we learn in the first couple of pages that her mother is dead and looking down from the clouds at her wayward, fantastically strange and weirdly competent daughter. Who is more interesting, more prone to accident and awesome antics? Pippi, or her clean, law-abiding, next door neighbours, Tommy and Annika?
Tommy would never think of biting his nails, and he always did exactly what his mother told him to do. Annika never fussed when she didn’t get her own way, and she always looked so pretty in her little well-ironed cotton dresses; she took the greatest care not to get them dirty.
(I wonder: Who is ironing those dresses?) Pippi, on the other hand, sails with her father on the high seas, makes her own clothes, straps scrub brushes on her feet to mop the floor, has a pet monkey, puts bullies in their place, and is so strong she can lift her horse down — one-handed — from the porch. Proof that sometimes a writer needs to get the mother out of the way for her protagonist to thrive. And, for a parent, proof that sometimes the mother needs to get herself out of the way for the child to forge her own way.
7. The Old School Concert series at South in Milford. I have some friends who up and sold their house in the city to buy and live in an abandoned school in the country. A school. Not a school house, all one-room and quaint, a one-storey, 1960s sprawler of a school. They are renting part of it out to tourists, and the rest they are using as a backdrop for some of their long held fantasies. Last week, they held the first in a series of concerts in their gym. It was like a cross between a grade eight dance and a town hall meeting and a basement bar show. Jenny Whitely and her husband Joey Wright played many of their wonderful originals – and a gorgeous cover of this song by Jesse Winchester, which is all about how our vulnerability is our strength. Right on.
8. My youngest daughter says No all the time. When I ask her if No is her favourite word, she says No. This is intensely annoying but I admire her endurance and consistency.
Oh, summer time. When a person who usually spends a lot of time in a (real) school has time to think about such things.
October has been a whirlwind of bookishness. I had a wonderful time reading and discussing on two panels at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest and then the good fortune to participate as a delegate at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors as part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council. But more (much more — I have some scribblings I am trying to make sense of, and lots of ideas competing for brainspace) about those events soon. For now, an excerpt of a continuing discussion I have been having on goodreads as part of a virtual book club meeting dedicated to Mad Hope. Thanks to Lori at The Next Best Book Club for making it possible, and Coach House Books for allowing Mad Hope license to travel — eight copies given away internationally! It’s been great talking to people about the stories.
Lori: Heather, at what point did you realize you were a writer? What did you see yourself becoming when you were a kid?
Joe: To add to Lori’s question: Once you knew you were a writer, how did you pursue it? Did you go to college? Do you have an MFA? Or did you just write?
Heather: You know, children really don’t see professions or careers or jobs in the same way we do as adults… By this I mean I don’t think they have the same notion of what is required to “have a job”. For example my friend’s daughter always wanted to be either a lamb or a “stirrer” when she grew up because, well, she liked lambs and she liked stirring the cookie or cake mix. And my daughter is fascinated by the “workers” she sees doing the renovations on the house across the street because she sees worth and excitement in lifting and hauling and building things. As a child, I think there were many things I could see myself doing, and they changed by the day… I’m not sure I ever saw writing as a job. It was just something you did; telling stories, or writing about how you felt, that is. I did win a writing contest run by OWL Magazine (a children’s publication) when I was about 10, and I’ve saved the note and book I received from the editor, so obviously it was important for me to have some recognition for my writing early on….
I had a hard time once I’d graduated from university with a Liberal Arts BA. I couldn’t think of ANYTHING I really wanted to do. I worked for a year as an educational assistant in a grade 4/5 classroom, because I had always worked with children. It seemed like something you should do as a matter of course. But then I felt like I needed something more. Maybe I was missing that sense of play and possibility that hovers around you while you are still a student. In any case, I decided to apply to grad school in Montreal at Concordia University — an MA program with a dual focus in Literature and Creative Writing. I took an evening course in Creative Writing and worked on a portfolio. I was writing mostly poetry at the time. I didn’t get in to the creative writing program initially, but had checked a box on the form re: being considered for the straight up English degree. So I began my grad studies in English Lit and eventually made it into the combined program. At that point in my life, the structure and legitimacy of writing ‘school’ was important. I come from a working class background — my dad quit school when he was 16 to work in a mine in Scotland — so while my family saw post-secondary education as prestigious, they also wanted me to find a job and security and a better life for myself. I felt the expectations of my family pretty keenly, and going to school for something I loved (instead of scribbling away in a garret) was a way of compromising and buying some time I think… Plus it provided me a community, some much needed deadlines, and an excuse to live in Montreal!
So that was my path (or at least part of it). But there are so many paths to becoming a writer! And I have two pieces of advice for aspiring writers: Quit your day job AND Don’t quit your day job. There are times when having a full-time job absolutely stifles creativity. And then there are times when the uncertainty (and poverty) of NOT having a regular job absolutely kills the creative impulse. And: although non-writing work can be time and energy consuming it is also LIFE, and writers should make it a point to be engaged in it… I have learned so much about myself and other people through my work as a mother and a teacher. I don’t think of it as sacrifice; it is its own reward.
Psst! I will be teaching Short Fiction: Introduction at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto, beginning April 10. Short stories for spring! Pass it on!