NORTH. My new book of poetry has just landed on my desk. What to make of it?
That it appears in spring might be a good omen. On the other hand, of the nasturtium seeds I planted three weeks ago only about half came up. Is it the seeds, the soil, or me?
In view of the title, a few words that address geography and the writer might be appropriate for this month’s blog. I think we can agree that place of birth and childhood does influence the writer, it seems obvious, but the how of it might be up for debate. Content, of course. From Wallace Stegner to James Baldwin to Thomas Hardy to Sharon Butala (you can substitute any name you wish), so many writers mine the mother lode of their roots for material. But how about voice, style, language, the essence of what any person is, writer or not.
Two things. 1) a writer depends on words, basic tool of the trade, and 2) the north is a silent place. The child watches, saying nothing, from the floor where she is playing with the dog. For a long time, I thought I was the dog. Lady was her name.
The first task of the writer coming out of the north is to free yourself of silence, in so doing to free yourself of feelings of isolation and aloneness. It’s not easy because, like bre’er rabbit in the brier patch, that’s where you feel at home. To speak is to betray yourself, a painful process. My sisters and I had to unlearn not to speak. When we went to school they asked questions. The answers were in logically placed words, which were strange to us.
Our words did not come easily or glibly. They did not dance so much as plod. They were nonlyrical, simple, straightforward, unadorned, prosaic. Our language was not fancy or clever. The romantic or melodramatic voice was not acceptable. People made fun of it, made fun of city relatives who visited from time to time with, it seemed to us, pretentious or supercilious speech.
And so it goes. In my writing I avoid adornments of adjectives, and certainly adverbs. When I first started writing I got into metaphor and symbolism because I didn’t know better. I was copying other writers I admired. Those other writers were not of the north. They were of places like England or New York, where the clever use of words and word tricks was admired.
No longer do I try to be clever verbally. It’s hopeless anyway because I’m not. Or tricky. What you see is what you get. That’s the north in me.
Living in your mind rather than the real world becomes a habit. You feel a disjunction between your thoughts and what comes out of your mouth. Speaking is a betrayal of yourself. All in all, you are in an uncomfortable position. You get through by learning to live with your discomfort. You also become obsessed with writing. What you write is closer than speech to your thoughts.
There is mental attitude to consider. To this day, I think of starting a writing project as ‘going in’. Going in to the bush, going in to isolation, solitude, darkness. And yet it is what I seek, the place where I am my own centre, where I am all I have. The trick, then, is to find my way out.
Think Eli Mandel’s Houdini who chained himself time and time again so he could escape. It is dangerous. You can lose direction, become confused, turn in circles, get lost. You may wander into the wilderness and be gone forever. Control your panic. Drive that stake in, stay close to it. Dream of freedom, plan escape.
Robert Kroetsch escaped through magic realism, a form he thought particularly suitable for western Canadian writers.
The north may be a mental construct, a myth, to paraphrase Eli Mandel, but it doesn’t matter. What matters and what is a writer’s strength is how absolutely he/she can incorporate the myth. I may have constructed a north of my own making, but the north forms the base for the construction.