Death and the Writer

It was my grandfather’s death that made me commit to being a writer.

I always wanted to be a writer. That didn’t mean I was all that regular about it.

Let’s see. There was Batman adventures on the blackboard when I was young. I had my two stories published in the local paper when I was thirteen.

I wrote a couple of short stories in high school. One about aliens coming into the Solar System, discovering that it was already occupied, and not having enough resources to leave. So they were basically parked out in the asteroid belt with no place to go, waiting for us to eventually find them, and not looking forward to it. There was another story about a society of sentient elephants who had banded together to try and escape a failing environment, only to discover that they were living in a giant experiment.

There were a lot of stories in my head, planned, sometimes outlined, sometimes started. Sometimes just rolling around in my head. I spent a lot of time in my head. I’d make up stories, when I was picking up garbage at the drive in theatre prior to showtime, or pumping gas or sweeping floors at the garage.

I loved Dungeons and Dragons. Actually, I loved the idea of it. I wasn’t terribly popular in school, in either one of my incarnations. I would have loved to have played it, but I wasn’t one of the cool popular kids in school. I did try and create my own version from scratch, and played it a couple of times, but it’s just not the same when you’re doing it alone. I did get into building this extremely elaborate fantasy world, maps and everything.

My handwriting was absolutely terrible. It still is. I loved to draw, but somewhere along the line I lost that knack. So I took typing classes. It was a good move actually, being able to type.

University, I wrote a few more stories, he most memorable one was about a kind of ‘do it yourself afterlife.’ Another was a funky film noir thing – I still have that one around somewhere. I think that was the first time I sent anything out actually. I got rejected. I wrote an abortive superhero novel – this was before superheroes were cool. Basically, the idea was that all the supervillains got together and wiped out the competition. I think it was a little ahead of its time in some of the things I did. My sister liked it. I think that was one of those few occasions where anyone showed actual interest, or really enjoyed my writing. So thanks, Kyla.

I was active in campus journalism. I was a regional humour columnist, even won an award for it. That might have gone somewhere, but I didn’t really have the connections or the networking to make anything of it. And yes, connections and networking counts for a lot, perhaps almost everything.

There’s a lot of talent out there that just blossoms and dies on stony ground.

I suppose that there’s something to be said there. Let me be clear. My parents were good working class people, and they did their best. My home town was good working class place. It’s not like I was raised by wolves at the ass end of the universe.

But there’s things like writers workshops, creative writing courses, even serious creative writing programs where you can get a University Degree, even Masters and Doctorates, which are springboards to literary careers. There’s conferences, networking, connections. There are a hundred subtle ways that an aptitude can be cultivated. When I was younger, I didn’t know any of this, I hadn’t even imagined that these things existed. I hadn’t even dreamed of that kind of stuff. Neither did my parents. Neither did my teachers. I was, at best, a wild talent, growing uncultivated among stone and weeds.

And this leads me to make an observation about class. In other classes, middle classes and upper middle classes, there is so much more investment by parents and families in children, in cultivating aptitudes. These children, as gifted as they are, are cultured pearls, their gifts nurtured, fed, supported and sustained, sometimes at extraordinary cost. These kids have a head start, a pathway to success, as actors, musicians, writers, engineers, lawyers or whatever. I don’t begrudge that much, it’s not as if there wasn’t an aptitude or talent at the start. But I also don’t think that their success is entirely their own doing. They are the beneficiaries of privilege, the term of fashion these days, I suppose.

There’s downsides: Consider sports families. It seems to me that athletics are almost certainly the most unforgiving forums and the least likely to benefit from cultivation. I’ve read that hockey families can spend upwards of half a million dollars on their child’s junior league hockey career. Hundreds of thousands of dollars per family, cultivating tens of thousands of children where only a few dozen will go on to mostly mediocre professional careers. Of course, there’s alternate tracks, sports accomplishments are pathways to grants and scholarships. So maybe it works out.

But I do have to reflect, as I’ve said, that there’s a lot of talent that goes unrecognized and uncultivated, that falls by the wayside, that withers on stony ground and never gets to blossom, or is choked by weeds, or forgotten or never was. This isn’t just a philosophical observation – the system, the world, genuine selects against and places barriers against the working class, the poor, the marginalised.

All those angry people railing about privilege and wailing about representation? They have a point. They’re angry about doors that are shut on them, or worse, doors or opportunities that were never open at all.

That’s not just writing, but across a range of fields. Acting, for instance. Christopher Ecclestone is one of the few working class actors, and I think that there’s been some discussion around Ecclestone, or perhaps generally of the field of Acting in England, that it’s an art form that seems largely reserved to the middle and upper classes. The inherent barriers and costs, the expenses and networking, all shut out these other voices.

I think that’s a mistake. The world should be more equal to opportunity, to diversity of origins and viewpoints and perspectives.

Or maybe it’s just the lifeboat theory at work: There’s only so many spots available, so fuck you.

I am not sympathetic.

I dreamed of being a fiction writer, short stories and novels, or a columnist. But in the hardscrabble, practical town I grew up in, I don’t think that seemed terribly realistic to anyone, even me. Even my Dad couldn’t see much past journalism, but even there, no real path forward.

And we were all right. Want to be a writer? Better have a day job.

I might have ended up a carpenter, like my grandfather, or a mechanic like my dad, or a papermaker like everyone else in town. That’s how me and my brother were raised, and he did go down that road. He was a papermaker, the fourth and final generation at the mill. Now, he’s a successful mechanic, owns his own shop, has employees, and is an institution back home. I think he’s one of the few who stayed home and became a success.

But I went to University, started collecting degrees. Arts, Education, then Law. I did my Articles, passed the bar, and then my Grandfather had cancer. So I went home to be with him.

I wasn’t supposed to – I was on Employment Insurance, and according to them, you can’t leave home, you have to sit beside the landline every day, sending out resumes and being available for a job, just in case someone called. The hell with that.

So I went, and spent a couple of months sitting on the front porch with him, watching hummingbirds at the feeders, and watching cars go by.

Then he was dead.

The thing about life, is that it pulls us along. One minute turns into the next, one day turns into aother, the succession of events pulls as along at its own pace. Everything just keeps on flowing along.

Sometimes its insistent and disruptive, that phrase “life is what happens when you’re making plans.”

But mostly, it’s more subtle than that. It’s an undertow, it draws you in and draws you down, and you just find yourself going with it. All the things you want to do, all the things you might do, that you might have been, just kind of eroded away. We all get caught up in the day to day, and we eventually notice, and call it a rut. We walk the same path so often, that it’s worn into the grass of our lawn, the same rituals, the same moments. Insidious and comforting.

Every now and then, we wake up and go “What the hell?” “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “What do I really want?”

That’s the famous ‘mid-life crisis’ where middle aged men (and some women) buy sports cars and have affairs with younger partners. Or it’s the ‘seven year itch.’

But you know what? It comes along at any age, at any time or place. It’s that point where we are jarred from the flow of existence, where for a short time, or a long time, we struggle against the undertow, and insist on defining or redefining who we are.

My Grandfather died. I listened to the sermon. The Priest hadn’t really known him, but he found something to say anyway. Then we put him in the ground, and it was time to go away. In the end, that’s how it always is. Someone dies, you go on, and you grieve. And you look at life. Your own life, others. Death is a clarifier. It makes us think. It brings a moment of reflection, of compassion. It jolts us with an awareness that the river of live has beginnings and ends.

Before he died, long before, many years before, back when I was in high school, back when I’d gone wild and feral, and was staying at his place, he came home drunk and talkative one night. He said “I want to live long enough to see how you turn out, to see what you make of yourself.”

But that stuck with me. I hoped he’d been satisfied. He never said it, but I was pretty sure he was pleased, or at least okay.

So I put my grandfather in the ground, and my world was a little bit smaller now. Everything came to a stop. The river of life flowed around me, and I thought, “Who am I? What do I want to do with my life?”

The answer had been there my whole life really. I’d spent a lifetime telling stories inside my head, building worlds, making notes, and occasionally writing things down but not doing anything much with them. It was always a part of me, but one that never went anywhere and never amounted to anything.

I wanted to write. I wanted to be a writer. If I was anything at all, that was who and what I was. That was what I wanted to do with my life.

So, I decided, I better get serious about it.