March is Women’s History Month (in the US).
This is a series of posts about women who’ve been important in my life.
Near the end of my University career, I applied to take a Creative Writing course. This was one of those ‘you have to send in samples of your writing and if our instructors think you’re good enough, you’ll be invited to attend’ jobbies. It was nerve-wracking as all get-up because…well, because my writing was *juried*. I had to pick out the best of what I was working on and let *someone else* judge my word-babies. I was actually quite surprised when I was accepted.
The first day of class was a Tuesday, and I had been working with the students’ union at one of the massive all-nighter booze-up parties that the students’ union used to arrange (I don’t know if they still do that, but this one was called “Blue Monday” and it was held on the first Monday of the fall term. Attendance was low the next day). I walked into class fifteen minutes late, reeking of booze (I’d made the mistake of wearing my leather jacket on the way home – these all-nighters were famous for people putting more booze on each other than in each other), with my shaved head and my big boots with chains and my Charles Manson tee shirt…
…Maria Cambell hated me. I mean. I SAW the look on her face as I came into the class. In her defence, I was disrespecting her and every student in that class. She *glared* at me. I thought I’d pretty much just sealed my fate and that she would hate everything I ever did after that point. This feeling was reinforced in the *second* class when she told us to ‘go and find a quiet place by yourself in the classroom to write a paragraph about what your hands have done’, and I chose a little cubby under a desk and she was all, “get out from under there. You can’t write under there”, and I was all, “whatEVER. Yes I CAN”, and she was all, “just get out from under there. You’re being silly.”
For two-thirds of that term, I thought my instructor hated my guts and was destined to just be negative about everything I handed in. Every criticism she offered, every edit, every piece of advice was tainted by this assumption. It was horrible. I had read Maria’s most famous book, Half Breed, when I was in high school. I knew she was a powerful storyteller and a gifted writer. I so much wanted her to *validate* me, and the art that had permeated my life since I was eight.
One of the things I’d learned at the Sage Hill Writing Experience was how to take criticism. Well. Okay, no, that’s a total lie. I had not learned how to do that. I’d learned how to start doing that. I’d begun to learn that just because someone says “this isn’t working well” it doesn’t mean “you should just throw yourself off the nearest precipice at your earliest convenience. The fourth level of a parkade will suffice if you haven’t a handy precipice. What makes you think you can do that?” Not *always*.
Through the course, she offered solid writing advice. She talked about how the most important part of being a writer is to write, and that you cannot listen to all of the voices in your head giving you reasons not to write, or to stop writing, or that tell you what you’re writing is bad or wrong. We did exercises like taking a news story and writing an editorial about it from a point of view that was diametrically opposed to our own – this was challenging for many of the students. I handed in a piece that insisted that the Aboriginal peoples of Saskatchewan should give up all of their land claims and treaty arguments and just assimilate into “regular” culture already because if it hadn’t been for the colonists, they would still be living in tents and teepees and dying of things like scurvy. It was an easy article to write. I’d heard those things all my life.
I remember standing at the corner of her desk, and she held out her hand to receive my piece, and I said, “I don’t want to give this to you.”
She said, “why not? Is it incomplete?”
“Is it not your best work?”
“I think I did well,” I said.
“Then what is it?”
“It’s ugly,” I said. “You told us to write a piece based on an opposing viewpoint, and this piece is really ugly. I don’t want you to see it.”
She said, “if you can write something ugly enough that it makes me hate it, you’ve done a good job.”
When I got that piece back the next week, the only thing she’d written on it was “you’ve done a good job.” I mean, I felt like crap. But what she’d demonstrated was the power words can have. The way they can make you feel – more intensely than you expect. The work I did for Maria was visceral, hard-edged, and I reached pretty far inside to pull some of it out. She caught me by the hand one day and said, “don’t you ever write anything happy?”
I thought about that for a long time. I didn’t. Write anything happy. But I also realized that most of the literature I was studying was not “happy”. Certainly not Canadian literature. What was considered good and literary and ‘worthy’ in the Canadian lit scene was bleak, scoured, and much of the time, hopeless. I thought that’s what literature WAS. I mean, I thought that’s what the word “literary” meant. If something was *good*, it had to make you feel *bad*. So I started trying that out. It was like learning to ride a bicycle – very wobbly and off-balance. But it turns out I did have some nice things to say. Awkwardly.
Near the end of the term, she invited all of the students to join her at the pub for a drink. Very few of us went, but I was one of them. After a time, the other students drifted away, but I stayed there because she was talking about writing, and when she talked, I couldn’t help but listen. She talked about her grandmother. She said one of the most important things she ever learned was that before you could offer your own authentic voice, you had to find yourself.
I asked her if she hated me. She laughed and asked why I thought that. I said, “the first day of class, when I disrespected you and all the other students, the writing assignment where I tried to sit under a desk, the stuff I’d written…”
She said, “Your voice is strong, like your will. It does not need to be broken or tamed, but directed. I haven’t said much to you because you already know what I’m going to say, because you’ve said it yourself. You have to listen to yourself, now. That’s what I’m here to teach you. Sometimes what you see in others is a reflection of what you see in yourself.”
Then she bought me another beer.
Maria Campbell started me on a journey of self-discovery that I hope never ends. She challenged me to write in ways I wouldn’t have thought I could. She made me think about the *process* of writing – the *purpose* of the written word as an art form. She made me a better writer. In fact, I think she made me a better person.