by Michelle Butler Hallett, June 1, 2014
In the summer of 2003, I got the chance to attend a week-long writing workshop at the Humber School for Writers. I took a scarce five days of vacation time from my day job — scarce because I’d been ill and kept burning through vacation time for sick time — and to boot, I got a lot of mockery for it: ‘You’re using vacation time to go sit in a classroom, to work? You’re crazy, Michelle.’
I heard ‘You’re crazy’ a lot. You’re crazy, Michelle. Who do you think you are, anyway, you some girl from Newfoundland who can write a radio commercial, oh, yay you, so that means you can write fiction?
I didn’t mock anyone else’s choice of how they spent their vacation time. I just smiled, and drank my coffee.
One person who did not mock me was my husband. He agreed to stay on his own with our children, then 2 and 5, while I flew off to Toronto to focus on my oh-so-precious work. He agreed with great encouragement, as though it were a given I should want to, and be able to, do this: no fuss, no complaint, not a flicker of ‘How could you leave me and your babies like this?’
A few days later, I did feel like I’d abandoned my babies, but that’s another story.
The writing students got assigned to a mentor, who would evaluate manuscripts and lead morning workshops. When applying, we could indicate our first choice of mentor. I can’t recall who I asked for. I hoped a faint hope to get to meet Alistair MacLeod and say I admired his work. My father was paying for the workshop, which included residence and some food; I jumped into a debt hole to pay my airfare, while my husband was unemployed: super-responsible, no? Things worked out okay. I got in, got a scholarship, and got assigned to a mentor whose work I knew and respected. On Sunday, we all got lanyards with our names and animal stickers on them, animals indicating which group we were in. I still have mine — a ladybug. I also got a fright when MacLeod, meeting us all for the first time, addressing us all by surname, fixed his eyes on me and rumbled: “Butler Hallett. Hmm, yes. I know who YOU are.”
What? Why? What the fuck did I do?
A mite anxious, I slept badly that night. Monday morning, we got at it. First up: Lendrum.
Bonnie Lendrum. She’d been a nurse, watching people suffer fear, heal, and die, and she was working on a manuscript about a family man who develops aggressive cancer. The novel itself needed structure and character work, but her prose, clear and clean, invited a reader in. Considering my own tangled manuscript, mired in poor narrative strategy, I thought: What the fuck am I doing here?
I had no idea Bonnie was suffering paroxysms of anxiety, fearing she, too, had deluded herself, fearing she should just go back to her science background and not bother with fiction.
That decision would have resulted in loss. Bonnie’s sense of empathy is keen, as one might hope for in a nurse. A sense of empathy is needed for writing fiction, too — for writing good fiction, anyway. Bonnie clued in to something about fiction that many established fiction writers seem to miss: a need for connection beyond the surface appeal of plot. Who are these characters, and how does their highly specific story shoot light back into the universal concerns of being human? Her manuscript that week at Humber? It’s become the novel Autumn’s Grace. It’s about painful shortcomings in palliative care for one specific family; it’s about how we face death.
So a bunch of us were crazy that week, hauling around manuscripts. We were a diverse group. It taught me that there is likely no such thing as Being a Writer, and thank fuck for that, because such thinking immediately sets up boxes and boundaries and prisons: I can’t Be a Writer because I’m not from an arts background / not living in a cabin in the woods / not male enough / not female enough / not not not … And this leads to defenses and walls going up, brittle walls built out of fear and a need for power and standing, defenses which then becomes tools of attack to belittle and step over one’s peers … to a lot of time wasted proving I Am A Writer.
I see it. I see it all the time, a writer so busy Being a Writer that the work, and the best things about that person, wither and fall to the dust.
Fuck Being a Writer.
You want to write? Hey? You got something to say? Then fucking write it. Write your arse off. Kill your sleep. Hear ‘you’re crazy.’ Never mind fearing your background isn’t writerly enough; it will help you, if you let it, not hinder you. Develop your empathy — because this has got to hurt. It has got to hurt. If it’s coming easily to you, and for you, something might be wrong.
I got to see Bonnie again this weekend, as she was in town for The Writers’ Union of Canada annual general meeting . I am not a TWUC member, so we sneaked off for a somewhat illicit lunch, joined by her lovely husband, who took the photo of us I’ve posted here.
I try to practice and cultivate gratitude; sometimes I find blessings, like stars in a dark sky. Today, I am grateful for Bonnie Lendrum.
Michelle Butler Hallett is the author of The shadow side of grace (2006), Double-blind (2007), Sky Waves (2008) and deluded your sailors (2011)