The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Summer School, Part 1: Courageous Hearts

by Tricia Dower

A few weeks ago, I attended the 11th annual summer school of the Victoria School of Writing hoping to get tips on writing more from the heart — something gurus keep telling you to do. “Write your heart out,” says Joyce Carol Oates. My writing can be so objective at times as to seem clinical, I’ve been told. I’m not one for gushing.

I found what I was seeking but not from the workshops on craft. From faculty and student readings, instead, many of them so emotional they caught me off guard.

Susan Musgrave who lives in Sidney, a half-hour drive from Victoria, did the first author lecture and reading. Spoke about the words she was reading, how they formed themselves into poems, stories and essays, how they emerged out of her self-admitted absurd life. She’s married to Stephen Reid who’s in the sixth year of an 18-year sentence for bank robbery. He’s allowed home every so often on day pass. He once was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and I figure he's spent half his life in prison already. He’s battled heroin and cocaine addiction for years. Susan met him while he was serving an earlier sentence for bank robbery and she was editing his manuscript that turned into the best-selling Jackrabbit Parole. They married a year before he was paroled and had a daughter together. He became, from all accounts, a loving stepfather to the daughter she already had.

She didn’t give us all those details; I googled her. But she related how his addiction affected her daughters and led to a poem about their fictional drowning. Told us how her younger daughter’s suicide attempts inspired a newspaper column. She has a perverse sense of humour about her life. Has to, I guess. Delivered her presentation at times like a stand-up comic, leaving us weak from laughing, grateful she wasn’t trying to make us cry. She sighs a lot. Audibly. Who can blame her? In the ladies room between sessions, if I heard profound sighs from one of the booths, I’d know it was her.

When she reads, you know it’s her, too, in the sense that she and her work feel like one. It isn’t just her distinctive style. It’s her willingness to put herself into her words, to not hide behind them, to share the truth of her life.

Another faculty member I learned from was Maria Coffey, a non-fiction writer who lives on an island off of Nanaimo. She read from her latest book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow. It describes the addiction of mountain climbing and how that addiction affects those who love climbers, those who wait for them to return, or not. It’s the second book to grow out of her relationship with a climber who disappeared on Everest 22 years ago. The second book to grow out of her pain. She spoke about that pain so openly and intensely that when she read from the book, the depth of her experience came through every word. I was drained after her reading; had to go home early; had to go right to bed.

Many of the students who read had clearly opened a few veins, as well. Their voices trembled not just from nervousness at being at a microphone before a roomful of people but also from the emotional truth of the words they’d written. Their personal emotional truths. I went through a few tissues and came out of the week wondering how much of myself I allow into my writing. Wondering why I would want to let any of it in to begin with. Once it’s in there, after all, it’s also out there for everyone to read and judge, to pick apart, to trespass upon.

Where do Susan Musgrave, Maria Coffey and many of the students I heard find their courage? For it must be courage, I concluded after my week at school, that allows you to lay your heart out on a page for everyone to see. Looking back on my life, I remember lots of times I was brave or, at the very least, plucky. Perhaps I’ve depleted my meagre supply of courage and need to visit the Wizard for a refill. Perhaps I should check first to be sure I even have a heart to write from. Might need to ask the Wiz for one of those, too.

Photo: Susan Musgrave arriving for writing school one morning. On Vancouver Island, her car is as notorious as her husband. It’s covered with glued-on plastic toys that reminded me of fridge magnets. She’s been working on it for 10 years; told me it started out as a mid-life crisis project, as therapy. Now it’s just something to dust and repair, something to maintain, I suppose, like courage.


Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Tricia, this is wonderful, thank you for sharing these powerful experiences here. To courageous writing!

Sat Aug 05, 01:39:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking forward to Part 2.

Anne C.

Sat Aug 05, 08:23:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

This post thrilled me. Exactly what I needed today. I hope you send it to Susan; she'll love it. I saw/heard her read at UofW when a bunch of very good writers got together to read Malcolm Lowrey's "Under the Volcano" in 24hours. I thought she looked the least like a writer of any person I'd ever met, so of course I was intreagued. I've read bits of her here and there whenever I can and I'm always impressed. She's not anything like I think a writer should be: and yet she is! Bless her! And bless you for sharing this.

Sat Aug 05, 09:47:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

Tricia, I'm with Andrew. I needed this too!

And man, I'm so jealous you got to hang out with these people - Susan Musgrave is on my fantasy dinner guest list.

And Stephen Reid's Jackrabbit Parole is a fantastic book. I would highly recommend it.

Sat Aug 05, 11:21:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger craig said...

Thank you for this Tricia - I have heard a lot about Musgrave but never read her work. Your story makes me want to read her and Reid's too.

I was in a course with T.B. Davidson and she talked about "writing close to the bone", similar to what you've talked about. It's a tough thing going into those dark places in our lives. Butit's is not just mining them for material, I find that bringing them out to the light is the first step in transforming them.

Sun Aug 06, 05:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, all. Glad you could relate. Yes, Craig, 'close to the bone' sounds very much like writing from the heart.
Glad you got to hear Susan, Andrew. She's one of a kind and I mean that in the best way.

Sun Aug 06, 07:50:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Tricia, I'm so glad you made it up to those readings, and are able to tell us about them. I remember seeing Susan (and that car!) during my time in Vic. Always great to hear her read, to hear how she stills the seeming chaos of her life. This is a lovely post.

Sun Aug 06, 09:49:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Courage and risk, Tricia. What a nice article and true.

Mon Aug 07, 10:18:00 am GMT-4  

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