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.