Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Long Sabbath

And on the fifth day, he rested.

And also on the sixth, with the difference being that he went back to a little fiction writing, and also wrote a fairly provocative email. Or did he actually do the fiction on the fifth day? Writers always write, as somebody said in "Throw Momma From the Train"; the brain keeps grinding through the same old familiar stuff until finally a few new elements show to make it worthwhile to put something on paper. Or, as it is now, computer screen.
I only got to this sort of rig in 2004, thanks to a totally surprising Christmas gift from an old music student. Before that it was a typewriter, starting with a 400 pound Smith Corona back in 53, autumn thereof. That machine was so old it had the carriage return on the other side, and when I was hammering on it, set up on the desk in my room in the back bedroom of a veterans' rental home area called Renfrew Heights, it shook the house. Part of this effect was its sheer weight, and part was my joyful enthusiasm, because I had at last found an assignment in English that I actually was inspired by.
There are writers - I think L.M. Montgomery was one of them - who enjoyed composition assignments in school. But not me. I didn't mind analyzing the syntax of a passage of literature, but I did not enjoy creating passages for my teachers to analyze, rarely with much enthusiasm. I would much rather have solved a page of algebra problems, or made my own notes out of a history text. I certainly liked English class, loving stories or plays, basking in the images of the poetry even if I questioned the manliness of the art from time to time, and as I was bright enough to virtually obliterate ordinary homework by getting everything done by 3 pm, I had my evenings free to read, which was something I did as automatically as other people do not.

I read all over the place, but my most consistent fodder was Westerns, for love of horses, the outdoors, problem solving, and especially in Zane Grey, a little practical theology. It was not until I was twenty, and had fallen in love with Hemingway, and then twenty-one, and equally enamoured of F. Scott Fitzgerald, that I began to lose the dream of the 1870's as the perfect decade in all the history of mankind. Well, post WW1 Arizona too, for that was the setting of Grey's 'Code of the West', probably my single favourite of that voluminous scribbler. I've always wondered why they never made the movie when Kurt Russel and Goldie Hawn were younger. And, I declare under Heaven, it was from Georgiana Stockwell's silent weeks in the homestead cabin that I first experienced the idea of the thirty day retreat designed by Ignatius Loyola. I was only ten, but everyone who understands the theology and psychology of vocations knows about ten year olds. Hell on wheels. George Eliot's Lydgate, realizing he's going to be a doctor, Joseph Raztinger knowing he's going to be a priest.
Sometimes these things can come earlier, of course. Back in the days when the modern Catholic claptrap really started to get out of hand - I'm not talking here about the sexual abuse thing - Marianne and I kept our peace of mind by ignoring the Nelson cathedral goings on and driving thirty miles every Sunday to Castlegar for the masses of a former African missionary, originally from Holland. We got to be excellent friends, during which time Father Herman told us that he had felt the spark at age 6, when a missionary priest used to visit the family home and tell stories of his life in the Dark Continent. It was fine with Father Herman's mother that he become a priest, as long as he didn't bog off to Africa. Why do so many mothers only see half the picture?
And what about me, at ten? Well, I did fall into Zane Grey, and I did have a marvelously powerful experience of hearing someone else tell a story, and then at eleven I ran into the author's Muse bigtime when I was telling a tale of my youthful travels to a new friend. All of this more or less on a lovely little Gulf island, where my Dad was logging with horses after the war.
But somehow, in my schooling, there was no format for making use of these revelations, and I puttered on thinking I was going to be a lawyer until the fateful Saturday morning, not long after I had turned sixteen - my birthday is January 2, the same as the Little Flower's - when in the course of puzzling my way through Hemingway's 'Farewell to Arms' - I ran into a very frightening Something telling me I was a novelist.
Christ, was I scared. As I said, I didn't even like composition. And the bloody book was such a contradiction of all the things I thought I believed in. Jesus. The 'hero' is sacking his nurse and deserting the army. Shit. I'm a boy scout and a cadet, and my grandparents are Baptists. Where in hell is there any reconciliation between these morals and mine?
I had picked up the book in the Hastings East public library. My own school library at Britannia, now coincidentally celebrating the 100th anniversary of its opening, just like UBC and the Archdiocese of Vancouver, had some great stuff on its shelves - I've written a small poem about this- but the Hastings East was bigger. Walls and walls of books. I used to wander around in it like a farmer looking over his fields. I was a great fan of Roderick Haig-Brown and Arthur Heming , but I'd exhausted the local supply and fell into the next chap, Ernest Hemingway.
It is, of course, a great passage, that first page or so about the king of Italy driving by. My heretofore unacknowledged writer's soul responded to the magic and I took home the book, to be discovered in depth the following Saturday morning. My Dad, my next brother, and I had nailed together a room in the basement. Two by two's and gyprock painted yellow. My brother and I had bunks, from the day we moved into the house, September, 1948.
A year-and-a-half passed, while I finished high school and entered UBC, and no plots. But once I was settled into my classes and the Ubyssey, I faced into a wretchedly wet, dark, late October afternoon and started pounding out my first novel. Hunt and peck, as journalists will, but going awfully quick and having a great time. I'd discovered that I could write dialogue! They had never asked for dialogue in composition class. The first day, I wrote four whole pages.
As George Wendt said in the 'Cheers' episode where he gets a job as a beer taster, "Honey, I'm home!"
The setting? Quite quickly our hero joins a company cruising down the coast on a yacht.
The plot? Don't ask. As the French say, one really does have to burn the first million words. But you may inquire as to the inspiration, so as to get a feel for what I was seeing in my tyro author's imagination, and you should know that the plot it has now is stuffed with the music instruction, to say the least.
In 1949, in the summer before I entered Britannia, visiting my maternal grandparents little house at the bottom of Sechelt Inlet, I found a completely unbroken set of the episodes of a serial, in the old Saturday Evening Post, by Victoria writer Arthur Mayse. The story was called Perilous Passage. It was also published by William Morrow in New York, and it was set on one of the American Gulf Islands, given a fictitious name. I simply melted. It was my rite of passage, my vision quest, my confirmation ceremony.
In the next Post, I promise, I'll explain why. Unless some hard news intervenes, of course. This blog thing is not unlike the old news room of the Vancouver Sun, where I was present more than once when a news break blew the make-up of the front page just as it was about to go to press.

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