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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, May 15, 2008

making your own mistakes

The writing life, I suppose, is what you make it. While there may be certain characteristics found in the lives of many writers, there is not a single "writing lifestyle"; the discipline--if I can call it that--is too wayward and elusive to be pinned down in a definite approach.

In reading James Carroll's House of War yesterday, I came across his mention of how he had given up the Catholic priesthood--his initial vocation--in the wake of angst and disillusionment over the Vietnam War and the peace movement, and decided to take up writing. He had broken off contact with his father, who had been in charge of intelligence at the Pentagon, to live in a small apartment north of Boston, devoting himself to the crafting of words.

I felt a sense of admiration for and kinship with Carroll in his making of that decision. In my own way I made a similar decision, at a younger age, turning my back on other occupations and possibilities to take up writing as my...what, profession? vocation? path? In my case I can pinpoint the time: it was a day in early December 1979, in the Sedgewick Library at UBC, where I was doing last-minute studying for the final exam of Math 100. An unhappy and alienated student, I did not in any way feel part of the university, or part of anything. I had no specific career or goal in mind. I was trailing along, going through the motions. The only thing I felt any passion for was writing, but I was not enrolled in and was not interested in taking any "creative writing" courses at the university, which I felt sure would be a painful waste of time.

Sitting at a table, with pale winter sunlight coming in the windows, I felt a sense of crisis grow as the clock swept closer to the time of the exam. It was a short walk away in the Math building, but I would still need to allow some time to get there. The minute-hand clicked, closer to the hour--and clicked again, then again. I still hadn't got up. With a feeling of alarm I wondered whether I was going to just sit there and not go to the exam, which would mean, in effect, dropping out of math, and therefore, in effect, out of university. No point in going if you're not going to write the exams...

Butterflies entered my stomach. What am I doing? I wasn't sure, but I was aware that I was on the brink of allowing a whole life--a life of normality, achievement, and social acceptance--to crash down behind me while I faced something else: another kind of life, an unknown kind.

Exam-time arrived, and I was still in the library. I had made my choice. Exhilarated, I packed up my books and walked into the cool sunny air, away from the library, away from the Math building, up to the gravel expanse of "C" Lot to the yellow Volkswagen to drive home. I stopped at Safeway on 4th Avenue to pick up a Christmas turkey for the household. I was a different person. For better or for worse, I had taken a step toward my own life, a decision that had come from within me. I knew it would bring difficulty, would be hard to explain. But it was genuine and authentic to myself, so I felt good--very good.

Since then I've had some successes, and quite a few failures, and I still feel some of the awkwardness and misfit-ness that I felt in university. I live in society, but I'm not really of it. It's a solitary path and it often bothers me, in the sense that it doesn't count as a normal "career".

But deep down I have no regrets. Indeed, I wish everyone the same thing: to feel able to do what they really want to do, and not simply flow with the swift-running current of society.

So I've cobbled together a life in a suburb that seems to work for me. There are dissatisfactions and difficulties--but who doesn't have those? I'd rather have my own set of dissatisfactions, and not someone else's hand-me-downs. Even if you're making mistakes, big ones, they should be your own, and not merely someone else's idea.

Now if I could just cast off my nagging bourgeois preoccupation with productivity and revenue...

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  • It's an interesting post. Especially the part with the personal memories.
    "to feel able to do what they really want to do, and not simply flow with the swift-running current of society." That's a very important point. To be able to do what you really want to.
    And the other one with it: that of making your own choice, not someone else's.

    By Blogger Liza, at May 18, 2008 5:50 AM  

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