The Compulsion to Write (pt. 3)

Writing

ALTHOUGH I KNEW at a young age that I should be a writer, little else would be sorted out until many years later, and then often by accident. When I was a child, say, ten to thirteen years old, I had only vague ideas about what a writer even was. I suppose I imagined a cold and dark room and a gaunt person at a desk, producing poems and novels, posting them to publishers who would promptly send back letters which read Thank-you, but no thank-you. In time I would have a more informed picture of a writer’s existence, having learned that publishers in fact do not send these letters, or any other, promptly.

Rejection is of course a universal experience. If what I have presented thus far however, in parts one and two of this essay, is true — that writers are driven by ego — rejection poses a special occupational hazard. That is because a writer often has only her own egoism to keep the business going, and over time the psychological burden of continuous failure will at the very least leave its mark upon one’s inner life, which is the source of one’s creativity. Only the most extraordinary resilience will keep a writer who has known long periods of failure from succumbing to mental disease, for examples in the forms of anti-Semitism, hatred of readers and of the literary establishment, self-loathing, cynicism, depression, and hatred of people as a whole. It is very hard to go on “failing,” in the sense of not making money and gaining a readership, without settling upon some sort of excuse, even one that is highly improbable. Writers are not alone in inventing false explanations of their lot, but they are alone insofar as these explanations involve a corruption of the tools of their trade.

Why do I dwell on this unpleasant fact? Because it seems to me dishonest to discuss the business of writing without addressing this reality. Every writer knows exactly what I am speaking of, and in candid moments fears it also. The writer who does not marshal his intellect and moral energy against the pettiness within him will soon end up to a degree a selfish, ridiculous, self-pitying fool, unless he is spared by economic success and material comfort. All of his proclivities will be toward self-absorption, which is an ordinary enough matter among artists, and from there resentment. But of course on the outside he will seem ordinary enough, and will continue to find ways to get his due in print. In extreme (and, thankfully, rare) cases, a writer will fall into the company of a first-rate bully: racist politicians, neo-fascists, demagogues, and so on. The stock historical example of this failed artist type is of course Joseph Goebbels. At the other, more populous, end are those who quietly ruin themselves with drink, or who get jobs in the Post Office and live out their lives, resolved to their failure.

The compulsion to write however is a lifelong affliction, and therefore it can’t be indefinitely suppressed without taking some sort of toll. Taking myself as an example, some months ago an article I read in the paper (it is always an article in the paper!) aroused my anger. There is nothing unusual about this, except that for once I decided to respond. Looking for the right vehicle in which to do so, I stumbled upon WordPress. I posted my bit, and then went on to writing the next, having other things that I felt needed to be said. Once I had started to write on this site, I found I could not stop. The words, and the ideas, just kept coming. For every topic on which I compose, there are perhaps ten more which considerations of time will not allow me to pursue, but which nonetheless come to mind.

For the past eleven years most of what I have written has not had my name on it. Early on in this three-part essay I stated that I expected never to make money from my writing. In a sense this has been the case, since the work for which I have been paid is not “my” writing, under my name and produced for myself and on my terms alone. In another sense though I have made a decent income from my ability to put words together. Since 1999 I have written quite an amount on the topic of Canada’s Indian Residential School System. This output includes articles in academic and health profession journals, newspaper columns, book prefaces, films, reports, curriculum, and speeches. I played a very small, background role in bringing about awareness of this history, and this gives me great pleasure. There were times also that I was given the task of preparing a speech which would be delivered to a large audience of people who had endured terrible physical, emotional, and sexual abuses as children. If you have never had to address an audience of this sort, you may find it difficult to imagine what that would be like. It makes one feel inadequate. Faced with this prospect, I decided to hold myself as best I could to two rules: 1. speak candidly of the true nature of things and in a manner which edifies, and 2. avoid at all costs sentiment, cliché, and phrases which sound reassuring and hopeful but are baseless. Or, to put it another way, be credible and adult. It seemed to me that a difficult truth expressed with care and precision, and honestly apprehended, had more potential healing power about it than a reassuring series of pleasant words made of nothing but wishing-for.

This sort of writing had another effect: it advanced my ability to put aside my own point-of-view and prejudices and personality. I have always had the novelist’s knack for getting inside another’s interior life and writing as if I were that person. In fact, I have found whenever I write fiction that I very much enjoy doing so, for this reason. The principal message that I was promoting from 1999 onward was quite simple, that residential schools instituted a scheme of forced assimilation and that the historic, intergenerational trauma which resulted from this policy, still pursued in other forms, will require long-term healing. I am told that one particular speech that I wrote, addressed to the leadership of a “mainstream” denominational church, had a positive effect, helping to bring about consensus on practical matters of action. I can hardly take full credit for this, ideas being shared things, but again this is something upon which I look back with pleasure.

How I have come out of this latest period of my life I am unable to say. It is still too soon. Over one decade of meeting with, listening and talking to, reading and thinking about people who have suffered in degrading and gut-tearing ways must certainly have had a long-term effect on me. There were times I did believe I had seen and heard it all — heard the worst of which men were capable. I would then hear something new, something even more depraved than all the rest. I admit also that I harbour deeper down an uneasiness related to the fact that I have made a living in part writing about something which destroyed many lives. This too is doubtless typical of the sort of work I have done, but, again, I am unable to say what it means in relation to my work as a writer. There has been a positive side also. I have met the best and most brave people, who, having lost everything from their family to their identity, nonetheless committed themselves to forgiveness, peace, and healing. I find their ability to forgive remarkable, even when it is admitted that self interest is involved and that one forgives in order to heal. If I am to be honest, I must admit for examples that I have no kind feeling for the Catholic Church and the Government of Canada, who in my opinion remain impediments to the betterment of Onkwehonwe (indigenous people).

Everything I have mentioned so far — egoism, desire to see my name in print, hatred of bullies and injustice, the many hundreds and even thousands of abuse stories I have heard and read, fear of failure, love of literature, political engagement, vanity — jostle together within me. At any moment one, or even all of them together, pushes me forward. In combination these many factors, internally and externally determined, constitute my particular outlook. I do not pretend fully to understand my own motives, and it is probably the case that such questions of human behaviour are in the end unanswerable except by approximation. What I do know is that the best thing a writer can do is to make an honest accounting of his weaknesses and prejudices and shortcomings, and not to let these get the best of him. It is a matter of discipline, of nurturing one’s better self. In this way, the compulsion to write can, with great effort, be wed to the discipline of writing well.

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One response to “The Compulsion to Write (pt. 3)

  1. Kim Whittingham Schutt

    Ok, I had to read this over a few times. I have a lot of simmering anger over forced assimilation and intergenerational trauma of native children and its affect on myself, my children and particularly, my father. I am glad for a writer, like yourself for the courage to bring the acts of governments and religious groups to the forefront. As well as showing their catastrophic affect their misguided actions have brought on the first generation, it has long lingering effects.
    I am neither eloquent or politically correct, in voicing (typing and let me tell you there is steam on my keyboard) the abysmal treatment of native children and their children.
    My father, was the son of a white woman and a native man. He was the middle child of a horrific marriage, that ended violently, and the details swept away and never spoke of to their children. My father and his brother were then (according to stories), placed in foster care, as their mother’s white family refused to house the native children, as they did not belong. My father, unwell, for long periods of time was left at Hospital for Sick Children while his older brother faced the revolving door of foster care.
    At an early age, it was forced on them to be ashamed of their heritage. After the war, and a new husband, the boys were reunited with their mother and 2 red haired half sisters. My father was reunited first, as he did not appear as “Indian” as his brother. James came back to his family life the following year, god knows what kind of anger and resentment he held.
    They had the “good fortune” of being adopted by their white step-father and apparently things were going well until his death in 1959. Now, they were considered white children, by the government and unable to secure any benefits of their native heritage (medical etc.).
    This carried on, until the 1980’s . My sister, afflicted with a rare auto-immune disorder and in frail health, was unable to obtain her status that would have given my broke, desperate parents a break on medical fees (not all were covered by OHIP) and medications. They eventually lost their home.
    (I hope only Wayne is reading this)
    I put myself through school to be an RN. I worked 3 summer jobs and as a nurses aid in a woman’s shelter in the school year. Eventually I worked in the now defunct emergency rooms of Douglas Memorial and Port Colborne hospitals. I had lived in Hamilton, for 17 years and had worked in the Burn Unit. I know a thing or 2 about the atrocities that can be inflicted on human flesh, and spirit. I however, cannot understand the ———– it takes to deny people, good decent human beings, their heritage. There is a huge chunk of my self lost, and why?
    My father, now 65, had a massive stroke 3 years ago. He had no medical coverage, no extra insurance, no rainy day fund. It took me 2 years of pure dogged determination to get him his native status activated. Something he should have had since birth. This was just so he could have his medications and devices he needs. I was also afflicted with an auto-immune disorder and have “retired”. He now lives with my family, and I take care of him.
    We the newly native trekked to Oshweken to get our cards. There is no guide, for “New Natives”. There is no “How to be native for Dummies”. There are no open arms for the lost ones. I am assuming we are seen as white and greedy for the scraps handed out to us. I have gone to the friendship centre and have registered wherever I can find. I don’t know what clan we are, what other genetic diseases can come our way. Are we still lost?
    The native side, also sends the message that you do not belong here, either.

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