A Writers Life: The Margaret Laurence Lectures


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I can recall studying the author biographies that appeared in the back pages, poring over them in search of the secret ingredient that had made these women and men writers, believing that if I discovered it I might find some way to acquiring a little of the necessary alchemical agent. Meanwhile, under the influence of Classics Illustrated I began writing little stories. On top of that, she had to babysit me after school because my mother had landed a job clerking in the town office. Invented monikers that I imagined sounded authentically Roman, names such as Dufius, Gymnasiumus, and Auditoriumus.

At last, when I was around the age of ten, my desperate hunt for things to read ended when the frugal town fathers finally sprang for a municipal library. It was housed in the town office where my mother worked and was largely comprised of donations, the polite word for cast-offs.

The library was hardly bigger than a broom closet but it had the great advantage of being unmanned. Books were signed out on the honour system and since there was no librarian supervising or censoring what I checked out, I was able to read anything that struck my fancy. And I continued to write my dreadful juvenilia.

I even embarked on what I grandly called a novel and which my mother volunteered to type in two-fingered hunt and peck style on the manual typewriter in the town office on Sundays, her only day off. As I have already said, my mother was my luckiest break. Fortunately, I have almost no disturbing recovered memories of my first stab at novel-writing except for the fancy-pantsy name of my young English hero, Devon Malroy, who was plucky and dauntless and voyaged the high seas in a noble ketch.

All this assiduous striving was followed by my disastrous high-school years. Unlike the plucky, dauntless hero of my novel, Devon Malory, I did not stand up to my persecutors, I attempted to ingratiate myself with them and succeeded in becoming a mascot to a number of bad companions who furnished a cordon sanitaire against gratuitous assaults from others with a taste for punishing easy targets. Add to this the toxic stew of adolescent hormones injected by the sudden arrival of puberty and I careered wildly off the scholastic rails. By the time I entered grade ten I found myself in 10E.

My school followed a rigid policy of grouping students according to their marks and 10E was the end of the academic line; there was no 10F. The inmates were enrolled in classes such as Agriculture where we lovingly swathed beans in wet blotting paper and sat around eagerly waiting for them to sprout.

Yet somehow or other, a miracle occurred. Despite my atrocious marks, infractions of discipline, and general bad behaviour, the next year a hand came down from on high, plucked me from category E and deposited me in category B where bean sprout surveillance was replaced by subjects that were prerequisites for admission to university. Perhaps my mother intervened with the school administration. She could be a stubborn and volatile woman, fierce as a mother grizzly in defence of her cub.

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I lurched into grade twelve. The days of scribbling stories were long in the past. But then a remarkable woman, a teacher of composition, allowed me to forego the usual set essays of the How I Spent My Summer Vacation-type and suggested that I try to write fiction instead.

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Louisbourg fell, then Quebec in the famous battle on the Plains of Abraham in which Montcalm and Wolfe were both killed. In retrospect, this seems of no importance. The last of his three voyages was made in , and though on his return to France he wrote a description of them, nearly a century elapsed before another expedition was made to Canada from France. I can recall studying the author biographies that appeared in the back pages, poring over them in search of the secret ingredient that had made these women and men writers, believing that if I discovered it I might find some way to acquiring a little of the necessary alchemical agent. For anyone who loves great literature -- or aspires to write it -- this is an essential collection, full of insight, wisdom, humour, and candour from Canada's most important and beloved literary figures.

At that time, the final examinations for high school matriculation were set by the Department of Education; every grade twelve student in the province wrote the same tests which were marked in the capital, and these marks determined admission into the Saskatchewan university system. With each exam I sat, my prospects grew bleaker. Even the very best students were walking away from the examinations white-faced and wearing shocked expressions.

When the ordeal of the tests was over, I headed for B. From the look in her eye, I knew it was time to get out of Dodge. And then came an inexplicable stroke of good fortune. Radical adjustments were required to make the curve shapely again, and those adjustments boosted the marks of borderline students like me. She immediately filled out an application form for the University of Saskatchewan and phoned to tell me that if I managed to squeak in, I was going, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

As a matter of fact, I did manage to squeak in to university and the world opened up to me. For the first time in years I went to work with a will, determined not to repeat my mistakes in high school. A vague interest in history developed into a passion. A history professor became a mentor, one of those rare academics who could write and who cared about English prose. I studied and read voraciously, not just within my chosen discipline but outside it as well. I began to seek out books by Canadian writers. When I consider it, my university years, the late s and early s were opportune times for someone with hopes of becoming a writer.

Remarkable books were appearing or had recently appeared.

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There were many more, of course, but these were the ones that fell into my hands and who I was reading with real excitement and a sense of discovery. A heady political and cultural nationalism was asserting itself. And there was a regional counterpart to this too. The Saskatchewan Writers Guild was formed in and the literary magazine Grain was founded in I read its first issue when I was a graduate student and promptly sat down and wrote a short story that I submitted to it.

The story appeared in the second issue of the magazine, which also carried the poetry of another fledgling writer who was to become a friend of mine, Lorna Crozier. I had scarcely turned twenty-one, and what on the face of it should have proved to be one of those rash, regrettable decisions young people make turned out to be one of the best things I ever did.

My wife of nearly forty years, who died two years ago, was the perfect partner. A visual artist, she understood, encouraged, and supported my aspiration to write just as I understood and supported her desire to paint. Despite the financial hardships and inevitable disappointments that devoting yourself to the arts entail, our choices were never a source of conflict or misunderstanding between us. Although by I had lost interest in a career as an academic historian, my M.

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I kept writing in my spare time. But after my initial success with Grain , my efforts were largely met with indifference or scarcely veiled scorn by the editors of literary journals.

A Writer’s Life

Yet I doggedly continued to send and resend my fledgling efforts. Eventually, most of these rejected stories made their appearance in my first book Man Descending. Like most writers, I suppose, I retain a vivid memory of the most exquisitely galling snubs. One editor, perhaps noting the unusual medley of vowels and clashing consonants in my last name assumed I was a German speaker and suggested that I should consider writing in my first language.

On the other hand, there were kind and generous responses. Robert Fulford at Saturday Night , while declining a story I had sent the magazine, was encouraging.

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Darlene Madott who worked there passed on my name to Morris Wolfe, a freelance writer and editor who also wrote a column for Saturday Night. He took some of my work for the short-lived annual anthology of Canadian writing, Aurora, published by Doubleday of Canada. A remarkable editor of the old school at that house, Betty Corson, after very frankly informing me that Doubleday would never publish the novel I was working on went on to offer to read it and give editorial comments because she believed I had some talent. Like Blanche DuBois I was dependent on the kindness of strangers.

By then I had made a career change, gone back to university for a year to earn a Bachelor of Education degree, and was teaching high school in a small Saskatchewan town. As a novice teacher, most of my time was spent running in place, trying to keep up with marking and lesson plans, and spending many hours coaching basketball and track.

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Nevertheless, I forced myself to crawl out of bed early each morning to work for a few hours on the novel Betty Corson was reading. That year I sent a collection of short stories to Oberon Press. My wife, who had grown tired of small-town life and watching snow blow past the window, decided that she would like to go back to university and study art, so we packed up and headed back to Saskatoon. There was no chance of landing a fulltime teaching job in a city school so for the next few years I did substitute teaching and marked papers for the history department from which I had not so long ago graduated.

My wife and I were scraping along on our savings and the odd jobs that came our way. Desperate for publication, I did something I now regret. I sent them a handful of stories, which Borealis accepted. It was years before that slender volume came out. It was called The Trouble With Heroes and had a shockingly hideous cover and so many typos that I eventually had to stop obsessively torturing myself by counting them. Meanwhile, the manuscript that had been sent to Oberon was returned.

Expecting the string of rejections to continue, I thought it would be better to be refused by those accustomed to publishing the best. I was looking for excuses when I failed. Months of silence followed. It was only after Man Descending was published that I learned the strange, lucky course my book had taken. A young woman from South Africa who was working at Macmillan and who hoped to become an editor had been told that, when her more mundane office duties had been dispatched, she could then attack the slush pile where Man Descending was gathering dust along with countless other unsolicited manuscripts.

A Writer’s Life | Hazlitt

By chance, she pulled my manuscript out of the stack, read it, liked it, and then began a persistent campaign to get others to read it. After about nine months, I wrote inquiring about the status of my manuscript. After a long wait I received a letter requesting more time to consider my book. I waited some more. I wrote another letter. Received a similar reply. Same response from Macmillan. I was getting very twitchy. I felt that the brass ring I had been chasing for nearly a decade might be within my grasp.

Finally, I phoned and was put through to the publisher, Doug Gibson. Very calmly he explained the difficulty in arriving at a decision: I told Doug that Macmillan had a week to make a decision. Under no circumstances would I ever consider letting Macmillan publish it. At that moment, I meant every word I said.

Of course, as soon as I had hung up, I was appalled by what I had done. Who was I to draw a line in the sand, to set deadlines? The next week was the longest week of my life. I hovered by the phone; I paced. For the past twenty-five years, the Writers' Trust of Canada's annual lecture series, the Margaret Laurence Memorial Lecture, has invited some of Canada's most prominent authors to discuss the theme of "A Writer's Life" in front of their peers. Mitchell, Pierre Berton, P. Page, Dorothy Livesay, Alistair MacLeod, and Margaret Atwood, among others, have shared the personal challenges they faced in forging their own paths as writers, at a time when such a career was still unusual in this country.

Intimate, frank, and revealing in tone, their lectures -- collected for the first time in celebration of the series' twenty-fifth anniversary -- provide a unique account of a period when a national writing community was just being formed, and give us unprecedented access to the heroes and heroines of Canadian literature as they share their insights into their work, the profession of writing, the growing canon of our literature, and the cultural history of our country. Canada's writers receive more financial support from the Writers' Trust than any other non-governmental organization or foundation in the country.