My grade six teacher, Mrs. Wells, sent us home one day with a simple task. Write a story, she said.
The class was silent. We waited for more details. What about? we asked. Anything, she said. Again, there was silence. How long? we asked. As long as you like, she said. We all looked at each other, confused. Up until then, every school assignment we’d received had been very specific, its goal transparent. Conduct an experiment that demonstrates the effect of light on seeds. Prepare a verbal book report about Harriet the Spy. Write two paragraphs about an animal you know.
We were not prepared for this.
On my way home, I thought about what I might write about. My best friend Wendy, maybe, and how in the winter we would try to walk the whole way home along the tops of the snowbanks, touching the road only at intersections, and how we invented adventurous stories while doing it. We were in the mountains after an avalanche, for example, walking while scanning the sky for a rescue helicopter. Or we were spies, scaling a ring of volcanoes, looking for a colleague who’d fallen in. Every car that passed was the enemy.
But a straight retelling of something I’d already experienced seemed to be missing the point, or at least not taking full advantage of such an open-ended assignment.
I don’t remember the details of the story I wrote, but I know it was about a rocket, and that when I went to my room to write it after dinner, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Ten foolscap pages. I remember the feeling I had of a complete and absolute freedom – no rules! anything goes! as long as you like! – to put on the page wherever it was my mind was going. And I remember knowing with absolute certainty then that this would be what I would want to do most for the rest of my life.
I went to bed that night charged, tingling. I hardly slept.
I don’t have the story anymore so I can’t tell you if it worked or not, or if it even had a beginning, a middle and an end. But that assignment was critical for my life as a writer. If my teacher hadn’t assigned something so loose, it might have taken me much longer to realize that writing was what I wanted – and needed – to do. Or I might have found out at a moment when that feeling I experienced might have been easier to dismiss. Knowing at such an early age helped set my determination to do it, often sacrificing things my friends and family found essential to their own lives. A house, for example, or a steady, well-paying job to pay for that house. To me, a house could never replace that feeling.
I know now that there are rules in writing, but I also know how to bend then, to test them as much as possible, á la Calvino, á la Sebald. Not all of the time, but enough. And when I do, that feeling I had in grade 6 returns. I’d go so far to say that if I’ve written something and the feeling – of freedom, of keeping going, of being sucked into the middle of a magnetic field – hasn’t surfaced, I know what I’m writing isn’t as good as it could be.
I still write longhand. A psychoanalyst might say that I do it because I’m still very attached to that first experience, that it worked for me then and I’m trying to recreate the same conditions for success. And they might be right. But I think my reasons are more practical (but just as psychological). Writing longhand – putting pen to paper, indelible ink, means I’d better be writing something worthwhile. There’s no ‘delete’ key that can cheerfully erase any evidence of words hastily put down. I can still experiment on paper and cross something out if I don’t like it, but it’ll still be there (which comes in handy sometimes) as evidence of struggle, and sometimes triumph. Writing straight to the computer feels like an uncontrollable purge to me, without that feeling attached, or without much thought involved.
I don’t write about rockets anymore, and haven’t since that first time. (Rule: write what you know. Though I prefer to modify it to: begin with what you know. Otherwise, writing about rockets would be the domain of a select few, to the detriment of our collective imagination.) As a writer, I’ve got to at least half-believe that what I’m writing could happen for it to resonate – if it doesn’t resonate with me, it’s unlikely to resonate with the reader.
But these are personal choices. And every writer knows the feeling I’m talking about. I haven’t met a writer yet who hasn’t had it, and who isn’t always in search of it. I can think of worse things to aspire to, and whether one is Alice Munro or a writer most have never heard of, if our literary canon exists in part because of that feeling, who could diminish its importance?
Anik See is a writer based in Amsterdam. Originally from Canada, she moved to The Netherlands in 2005. She is the author of three books: A Fork in the Road (Macmillan, 2000); Saudade: the possibilities of place (Coach House Books, 2008), and postcard and other stories (Freehand Books, 2009). Her fourth book, Cabin Fever, is forthcoming. Her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, has been nominated for several awards, and her articles have appeared in many magazines, including The Walrus, Brick and The National Post. She also spent three years as a staff producer at Radio Netherlands Worldwide, where she produced award-winning, internationally syndicated radio.
I remember my first stories being about vampires and feelings of alienation and isolation. These days I sit back and watch the vampire-mania and I look underneath those stories and darned if the angst and loneliness aren't still there at the heart of those stories too.
That freedom is so scary at first, I know that a lot of people who come along to my writing classes don't like to be given an open ended exervise like that! As you say though, it's an important step for a writer to use that open ended challenge to just write and see what happens!
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