It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.* It was the perfect time to start my novel. Between jobs and men, I had a few days at my disposal. I had taken an evening course in creative writing and was chomping at the bit. Life had been interfering in my creative process but finally I had an uncluttered weekend ahead, a long weekend as fate would have it. I unplugged the phone. (This was before the days of iPads and internets.) I would set the sail, steer the course and lock the wheel. The novel would practically compose itself!
Write about what you know, so said the creative writing instructor. Prairie, then. It had to be Prairie. That was where I was born and raised. But I would turn the traditional tale of yet another lonely misunderstood prairie wife scratching it out on a scrabble farm into… What? Prairie Gothic! I would rewrite the classic gothic tale, wrest it from England’s grasp, and bring it on home to the Prairies. I would call it westering the muse.
I knew my Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by heart. I knew the basic Gothic form and plot like Bre’er Rabbit knew his Briar Patch. All I had to do was plug in the particulars. In place of Transylvanian castles or English moors my setting would be the isolated family farm. God knows it was just as scary – dark and forboding. Travel any prairie road in winter, you were a hundred miles from anywhere or nowhere. At long intervals a farm house and buildings huddled like prehistoric beasts. Not knowing what hostile creatures might attack if you needed to stop, you looked at your gas gauge and prayed.
And we certainly had Heathcliffes, those silent virile brooding men of few words, which perfectly described my uncles. I would have to get real creative here because my uncles were, in fact, gentle creatures. I would have to turn them into monsters made fierce by fate and circumstance. My novel would demand it. As for crazy women in the attic, every farm had one, driven mad by isolation and husbands.
Pencil between teeth I paused. How about romance? The Gothic is a heavily erotic form. I tried to think. Dracula. Love beyond death. Sucking blood becomes an erotic act. Pure innocent heroine, predatory experienced hero. Sexual tension between hero and heroine. Power. Control. How would I deal with all that? I could not imagine attempting a sex scene, conventional or otherwise. Then, I remembered, erotic love in the gothic is never consummated, another similarity between it and Prairie literature.
To work, to work. Enough theory. I must turn my ideas into words. I had already wasted one of my precious days.
The clock ticked on. The minute hand became hours, the sun came up, the sun went down, the pots of coffee disappeared, and I was still staring at a blank page. In my despair, moaning and groaning, I wandered the rooms of my house. Idly picking up and laying down, as though in a delirium, on automatic pilot I picked up a pile of old papers and headed for the recycling. As I moved to toss the pile into the bin I looked down. Companion to elderly invalid lady on farm. A Gothic prompt if ever there was one. I knew what I had to do. I answered the ad and to my surprise got the job, likely because no one else wanted it.
That was how I found myself on a Greyhound bus travelling north, writing pad and pen in hand. As I gazed out the window the words flowed. Dawn arrived, casting an ocean of blood on the land… Cage Farm crouched like the hump of a woolly mammoth on the bleak hillside, its fangs of snow biting into the descending cliff, down to the river winding like a giant anaconda… I wasn’t sure about woolly mammoths having fangs but no matter. I would look that up later.
Only one other person was on the bus, a man with threadbare coat and valise who made no noise. When he disembarked, I was left with only the driver. I dared not look at him for fear he would have large pointy teeth and funny eyebrows.
As I travelled further and further north, the sun went down and darkness crept over the land like a dark prowling beast. After my burst of creative energy I felt depleted. Fatigue took hold. Self-doubt crept in. I read over my words. They no longer seemed world-shattering. My referencing of beasts was inconsistent. What was I doing alone on an empty bus going further and further into unfamiliar territory? WHAT WAS I DOING? Who did I think I was that I could create a landscape and populate it with people and make them come alive. Only God could do that.
As the bus continued along the highway through the ominous night, I wanted to jump up, scream at the driver, ‘turn around, take me back to what I know’. But I was afraid I would be talking to empty space. I determined that in the morning I would take the first bus going back the way I had come.
We turned onto a secondary gravel road. There is nothing so dark as the country at night before the stars come up. And silent. Have I mentioned silence? Strangely, the tires made no sound. I was too afraid to sleep. I hadn’t even blinked for the last two hours. My eyes were burning in their sockets.
Finally, the bus stopped, not at a town or even a village, but at a gas station, an unlighted uninhabited rundown gas station in the middle of nowhere. It was starting to snow. I was afraid to get off, afraid to stay on, but I would have if a voice had not come out of the driver’s cubicle. There’s your ride, lady.
The man who met me was tall, dark, brooding and fierce looking, in short, my perfect hero. What else could I do? I stepped off the bus into my novel and never looked back.
P.S. Forty years later, I’m still trying to write the great Canadian novel.
*I’m sure everyone knows that this is from Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most famous novel starters in the English language.