.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, September 05, 2005


I've never been a bohemian. My Webster's Collegiate 10th Edition gives the following definition of bohemian (sense 2b):

a person (as a writer or an artist) living an unconventional life usu. in a colony with others

As I was saying to my friend Chris the other day when we were talking at a coffee-bar table on the sidewalk of Lonsdale, the closest I ever came to being a bohemian was when I lived with Brad and Keith in a duplex at 12th and Clark in Vancouver. It was then a fully ethnic neighborhood--our landlord downstairs was Chinese--of East Vancouver, and Commercial Drive, where we walked to do our laundry and have coffee, was a full-on Italian district, not the bohemian-lesbian place it is today. I was working on a book, and my roommate-friends were also artistic-intellectual types.

"But I also worked at a union job at the hospital," I told Chris. My rent was low, but I was earning decent dollars and saving a lot of my pay for a planned trip abroad.

I was attracted by the idea of bohemia, just like the suburban kids who migrate to Commercial Drive now to be artistic and intellectual, but my problem was that I didn't like the idea of belonging to a group, or in any way identifying myself as an "artist" by conforming to a bohemian dress code, as used to be (seemingly) required on Commercial Drive (I don't know if it is now). In the 1990s it was basic black, Doc Martens, maybe some leathers, a bit of post-punk hair color and spiking, and deathly urban pallor.

My writing partner Warren was more attracted to "the drive" and indeed lived on it, but even he had his limits. One day while we walked up the drive we passed a coffee bar behind the front window of which a young man typed at a laptop on a table (it was not so common a sight back then). I don't recall if we could see the screen, but we got the impression that he was writing a play or something. This disgusted Warren.

"The need to be seen doing it," he said. He shuddered.

To him this was taking bohemianism too far: to turn oneself into a mannequin of artistic creativity, turning your "poser" knob right up to 10. It didn't bother me so much. What's the difference? I thought. The whole place is a bohemian theme park anyway.

I remember specific inputs to my ideal of bohemianism in late adolescence. They were, first of all, underground comics, especially Rand Holmes's Harold Hedd ("anus-clenching adventure"), which was set right in Vancouver, and then the play Hosanna by Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay, about a drag queen. The stage-set was of the run-down room where Hosanna lived with his lover, and a purple neon sign flashed in through the window. Stir in some Grateful Dead, The People's Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz, Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins, and an increasing exploration of the Downtown East Side in search of new, cheap eating and drinking venues, especially the Green Door Chinese restaurant in a brick-paved alley off Columbia Street, and you have the makings of some bohemian yearnings in a young suburban artist.

I tried, a little bit, to live bohemianly: late nights editing film at Brad's mother's house, bumping into acquaintances on late-night Vancouver streets to be swept up in their late-hours socializing, attending actors' get-togethers. But it wasn't really me: I was never into making a "scene". To me, art was about talent, passion, commitment, and ideas, and often these things seemed to be in short supply in the bohemian worlds I glimpsed, at least as far as I could tell. I'd rather be a nonbohemian, live comfortably, and commune with the world of ideas in my own way.

Warren and I have had this conversation many times, questioning the definition and value of bohemianism. Once he said, "The true nonconformist is hard to spot." This, I think, is true. True nonconformity--and with it artistic freedom--is a matter of one's deep character, not something one can put on like Doc Martens or a retro dress. It's certainly not achieved by conforming to a "nonconformist" group.

The artist's lifestyle, to me, is the least interesting thing about him.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home