I had coffee a couple of weeks back with a young woman who asked me several times when I knew that I truly was a writer. She seemed to think there is some kind of corner you turn, and voila, your future is revealed. I couldn’t answer her very well.
Her question made me think of all the New Year’s resolutions I had made – ‘This year, I will focus more on writing. I’ll get that manuscript finished by March … May … September…”
It also reminded me of going to a summer session at the Humber College School for Writers, when I was faced with that very question.
This is from my journal, August 11, 1992:
“Finally, writing is an act of generosity.”
Richard Ford said that this evening, during an address that was informed by generosity – generous in his acknowledgement of his wife’s contribution to his work, his grandfather’s contribution to his life; generous to his readers, his audience, his world. A gaggle of female voices in the hall outside my dorm cubicle testifies to Ford’s charm.
“Wasn’t he just wonderful?” I agree. He made Margaret Atwood and Ann Beattie seem cocky and self-absorbed by comparison.
But in the middle of his talk, I found tears rolling down my cheeks. They came when he talked about the impetus that kept him writing – the deliberate sense of closing off his other options, of saying, in effect, “I must succeed at this because there is nothing else for me to do.”
The tears were an echo of tears I shed earlier today, after my one-on-one interview with Dionne Brand. Not that she was unkind, though I had a slight sense of being condescended to. She made a number of constructive comments and seemed to approve moderately of Words selected and imposed on time. But our session was cut short by the arrival of the next interviewee, so I felt truncated as though there were things I wanted to say as well as to hear.
I cried then too as a release of emotional tension, an anticlimactic sense muddled up with a curious dread: I have committed myself to this writing fate; I must succeed in it, and there is every likelihood I’ll fail – or at least not succeed enough to count.
But during Richard Ford’s lecture, the tears came from knowing I have not yet truly committed myself, that I leave other options open. I have not said – so that my soul believes it – “I must succeed at this because there is nothing else for me to do.”
I feel caught in limbo, half a writer. There is no fact that any of the speakers here have given me that I didn’t know already (other than, of course, their personal biographical details). But, one after the other, they have hammered home that to be a writer is to take on a life, to write, write, write. I squirm and sidestep, but essentially this is the pin I have to decide to stick through my own gut.
I had hoped this session would provide me with a rush of energy, an impetus of self-confidence. Instead, I’m lonely, can’t even phone David because he’s out of town on a project. I’m hungry – the cafeteria food is grim and all I could stomach for dinner was a carton of yoghurt. I’m frightened. The universe is out there and it doesn’t give a hoot about me.
But perhaps, somehow, this is the lesson I really need.
* * *
Every novelist or poet or dramatist has a different path to vocation. Lucky ones know early that this is their destination. But, to answer my young friend, there never came an afternoon when I suddenly knew that I was (drumroll) “A Writer.” Even now, eight books later, being a poet seems to be a decision that I have to make and make again.
The world always keeps other doors ajar, and says, “Maybe you should have done that instead. It would be more useful, more valuable, more recognized.” And every new year has to resolve itself.