March is Women’s History Month (in the US)
This is a series of posts about women I’ve found inspiring.
I suppose I’ve always been a writer. First, a reader, of course, and then a storyteller, and then a writer. I have a head full of characters and voices, and words. Oh Glob, the words. Tumbling and breathing heavily and darting around and hiding under things. There is magic in the way a word can turn your head, can stop you in your tracks, can scare the shit out of you, or can soothe and comfort you even from across the world. Words are powerful, my friend; some would say words are dangerous.
Although they were always supportive of all of my endeavours, my parents encouraged me to consider getting a degree in Education *as well as* English and Linguistics. They wanted me to have something to ‘fall back on’, because even though I can weave a fairly fine yarn, there’s not always money in it. Sadly, it’s a lot tougher today to trade a story for a warm pot of stew down at the local tavern, so I think their suggestion was a good one. But I am a stubborn thing and I politely declined.
Writing – any art – is a delicate balance of raw creativity and crippling self-loathing. When it goes well, there is very little you cannot do, say, feel, sing, conquer. But when it is not going well, when no one is buying the verses you peddle…well. There’s little that can’t conquer you. Every artist has a sensitive soul, a delicate ego. Each of us needs to be nurtured just a little – however that takes shape is different. For me, a professor of mine saw some of my poetry in the University newspaper and passed out copies to every student in the class. I was both proud and mortified. I was mortiroud. Prortified?
That professor encouraged me to apply for an instructional writing retreat called the Sage Hill Writing Experience. I did, and they accepted me, and my mum paid my tuition (thanks, Mom) and it was exhilerating. In a monastery in the Qu’Appelle Valley, I lodged with 50 other writers for ten days, listening to them read, learning from their counsel, and reading their books. But a strange thing happened to me during that time.
Every single one of those writers was brilliant. Far more clever than I was. Far more capable (I’m not being generous here. They are *incredibly* telented people) than I was. They had wonderful, unique voices that shone through their narratives, in their verse, and stood up from the page. Their brain power alone intimidated the crap out of me, and as I read a dog-eared library copy of Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Man Descending I realised that anything I could ever write, any story I could come up with, had already been told. Had already been written by someone far better at it than I was. I lay the book down on the arm of my chair and stared out the window as the light from the setting sun lit the hills with a golden corona.
A voice from the armchair beside mine said: “it sounds like you have the weight of the world upon your shoulders. It is the sound a writer makes when she is having Heavy Thoughts.”
“More like Second Thoughts,” I said to the voice. I peered around the somewhat high back of my chair to see who was speaking to me. I’d seen most of the writers, but had only really met the ones in my own class.
It was an older woman in the chair next to mine. She had large tinted spectacles and her white hair was done up in a bun. “Second Thoughts?” She asked.
“It’s just that…there isn’t anything left to write about. I mean, nobody wants to hear stories from me that other people have already written so well.”
She hit me with her stick.
I’m not even kidding. Anne Szumigalski, in her later years, had health issues, and she walked with a cane. And, apparently, she hit disparaging young writers with it as well. At the time, I knew Anne’s work, but I didn’t know her. I didn’t recognise her. I just figured she was a kindly elderly lady who was concerned because I sounded sad.
Then she hit me with her stick.
“Don’t ever think that because there are more books in the world than you can ever read in a lifetime that *your* voice is less important than anyone else’s,” she said. She hit me with her stick again. “The reason we must hear your voice is, quite simply, that we haven’t heard it yet. And it is important because it is new, and even if you say the same things that others have said, you will never say it in the same way, and the words will never come to you the same way they have come to others. You are here because you must be, and write you must.”
She said a lot of other things that night. We had a long, long talk by the windows. It was the singularly most important discussion about writing I have ever had. It was one of those talks where every other person kind of disappeared and it was just Anne Szumigalski and me, talking about poetry and telling stories, in a monastery nestled in the hills of the Qu’Appelle Valley in July.
Anne was a powerhouse. Her influence on the Canadian literary sector has been immense. Her influence on Canadian writers is unfathomable. I’m not sure I’d still *be* a writer if not for that “inspiration stick”. She knew more about the literary arts than I will ever learn; she knew more about the process of and business of writing than I can imagine. Just …thinking about the way her mind worked makes me dizzy. I will never forget her voice.