In a Word, Art

This may be hard for you to believe, but I swear it is true.  No less an author than Margaret Atwood—a colossus among not only Canadian writers, but writers the world over, who has published at least sixty books over the past sixty years—has won only four more of Canada’s major literary prizes than I have.  Only four!

That’s remarkable, considering that over the past twelve years, I have published a mere eleven books—six novels, four collections of tales, and one anthology of poetry—although there is a seventh novel and fifth book of tales on the way.

While it’s true that not one of mine has been nominated for a Giller Prize, a Governor-General’s Award, or a Booker Prize, Atwood has garnered only one of the first, two of the second, and one of the third.

Not an insurmountable lead, perhaps, if I keep plugging away.

I am jesting, of course.  Whether the reason for this awards-discrepancy is the considered judgment of the Canadian literati, the fact that Atwood has a much larger canon of work than I, the possibility that she is actually a better writer, or all of the above (the likely cause), there is really no competition.

In fact, art is not about competing.

I have never spoken with Atwood, so I cannot say for sure.  But it may be that, deep down, she writes for the same reasons I do—not to win awards, but to entertain readers; not to become famous, but to satisfy the innate urge to create something that never existed before; not because it’s a job or livelihood, but because it’s fulfilling!

The awards may be just icing on the cake, although they are some icing!

I have spoken with other authors over the years, and with artists of all stripes, none of whom has ever reached the level of fame that Atwood has. These artists are painters, sculptors, potters, singers, songwriters, dancers, actors—all of them doing what they do for the love of their art.

Some have won ribbons and prizes along the way, some have had their works juried into prestigious exhibitions, some have even sold many of their creations.  But almost without fail, they tell me the joy they derive from their work is not from those final outcomes; instead, they say, the true pleasure flows from the process of conceiving and playing with a brand-new idea, developing and nurturing it, striving to transform the fledgling concept into reality.

In a word, art.

I do not belong to a writers’ guild, nor do I attend writers’ workshops to share my work with others.  I prefer to lose myself, by myself, in the various, fictional worlds I devise—godlike as I form, destroy, and re-form what is to happen, engrossed in my endeavours to create the perfect story.  Being alone like that can be lonely sometimes.

Happily, however, I have a kindred soul with whom I am very close—an artist who creates beautiful, one-of-a-kind works in dichroic glass, clay, and wood.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We disappear from each other’s environs for hours on end, both of us impelled by the same creative urges that drive artists of every sort.  And when we come back together, we regale each other—usually over a glass of wine—with the trials and triumphs we’ve experienced in our latest efforts.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Neither of us can do what the other does, of course.  Our strivings and struggles, like our talents, are quite different.  But there is a shared understanding between us of the challenges we encounter, of the need to persevere, of the importance of releasing whatever is trying to burst forth from our creative cocoons.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And while we both celebrate the finish of each work, we find we still must deal with a pang of disappointment that the quest is over.  At least until the next is begun.

What emerges is not always perfect—hardly ever, in fact.  But as Atwood herself has said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”

So, it is the process, not the product, that matters most of all.  With my storytelling, I never want to actually finish a novel; there is, no matter how many times I re-read each successive draft, an urge to continue to rework it.  So, to save my sanity, I no longer try to finish.  Instead, I simply stop when it seems best.  And there the books sit for all to read, to judge, to praise or condemn.

1 Precept cover  4 Killed Her cover  6 Lockdown cover  7 Harm cover  9 Missing cover  11 Dying Cover

Would I like to win a literary prize for something I write?  Well, yes, I think that would be quite gratifying.  But is that the motivation to continue writing, the hope that such a prize might be part of my future?  That I might close the gap between me and the redoubtable Margaret Atwood?

No.  I do not write for that purpose, nor do any of the artists I know pursue their passions for such transient glory.  They do have a reason, though, for pursuing the quest.

In a word, art.

Before the Fall

Once upon a time, it seemed summers would never end.  From the day school let out until the first fall-fair fell upon us, our days were blissful, carefree, and limitless.  Eat breakfast and rush outside to play.  Dash home for lunch, then go back outside.  Trudge home for supper, then head outside yet again.

ball3

Such were the halcyon summers of childhood I enjoyed.

But I grew up, in spite of myself, married, found work as a teacher, and became a father.  And those summers suddenly became more finite.

The calendar tells us that summer ends with the autumnal equinox in late September, but the end always came much sooner.  It was marked, not by an arbitrary calendar, but by the requirement to go back to school.  And once I became a school principal, I had to head back to work ahead of the students if I had any hope of being ready for their return after Labour Day.

For many folks, I suppose, the coming of fall is a time of new beginnings, of anticipation.  They think in terms of the flaming fall-colours, the brisk autumn days, evenings spent curled up with a book in front of a cozy hearth.  They look forward to the change of seasons.

autumn

Not I, though!  I’ve always tended to think of it as a gloomy time—the conclusion of summer, and the close of so many pleasurable things that vanish with the coming of September.

Let me cite a few examples.  With the end of the warm, sunny weather, there came the end to my carefree habits of dress.  No more swimsuits or running shorts; no more open sandals or ancient running shoes; no more tank-tops or faded team sweaters.  Instead, it meant a return to the straitjacketing drill of collars and ties, pressed slacks, knee-high socks, and polished dress shoes.

The end of summer put a stop to the treasured luxury of shaving every two or three days, depending upon what activities were planned.  And it called a halt to the wearing of old ball caps as an alternative to brushing my hair.

The onset of fall wrote fini to three or four leisurely cups of coffee with the morning paper, and an end to mid-morning breakfasts on the back porch.  It heralded, in their stead, the beginning of hurried showers and breakfasts-on-the-run.  It marked the re-entry into the exciting world of daily traffic reports, as I attempted to find the shortest, quickest route into and out of the city.

traffic

In short, summer’s end brought to a close the lazy, drifting vagaries of summer living I tried so vainly to hang on to.

Coming back to the real world was a jolt to my entire system.  It was like going from childhood to adulthood all over again!  I mean, once was enough.

I’ve never wanted to be the type of person who wishes his life away, always yearning for something different than what is.  But, in a sense, I guess I used to do just that.  For me, the year was divided into two seasons, summer and not-summer.  When the autumn of the year rolled around, and not-summer was upon us once again, I would start repeating my mantra:  Next is Christmas, then Easter, and then it will be summer again!  Everything in between was just wished away.

I remember so many glorious summers-almost-ended, when I’d have one last camping trip planned for up north.  My cutoffs and hat would be in my bag, my shaving-kit left behind. Together with my wife and daughters, I’d be off for one final fling in the glorious realm of summer.  Hiking, swimming, paddling, exploring, picking berries, roasting marshmallows, singing our hearts out around the campfire, sleeping the sleep of the innocent in timeworn sleeping-bags—I would be like a child again.

roasting-marshmallows-over-campfire-horizontal-banner-susan-schmitz

Even now—retired, when every day is like a Saturday—as September approaches, I’m going to pretend, yet again, that summer will never end, that I’ll never have to grow up and give it up.  There is so much left to do.

Before the fall!

 

Why Write?

What we’ve got hee-uh…is fail-yuh to commun’cate!

That statement appeared in the screenplay of a 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, spoken by the warden of a prison in Florida to a chain-gang worker who insisted on challenging his authority.  In the context of the movie, it was a great line.

martin

That warden, played by Strother Martin, knew communication is a two-way process, involving both an expressive and receptive party.  If either of the two is missing, it can be argued that communication does not occur.  In the movie, it was obvious to the exasperated warden that the convict, played by Paul Newman, was not receiving the intended message.

However, when someone expresses an idea that does strike a response from another, be it in agreement or rebuttal, the two have succeeded in communicating.  And with any luck, both will learn from the exchange.

Friends, acquaintances, and other readers of my work often ask me why I write.  Some seem puzzled by the fact that, day after day, week after week, I continue to pound the keyboard, churning out thoughts about things that matter to me.

On the surface, it’s a simple question, so I generally offer a simple answer.  “Well, I enjoy it,” is all I might say.

But occasionally, when I pause to think about the question myself, I discover it can be quite profound.  And the answer is tied directly to the notion of communicating.

Millions and millions of people worldwide consider themselves readers.  No matter what they read, or how often, or for what purpose, they are consumers of the written word.  But without the writers of those words, there would be nothing to read.

I remember an experience several years ago that helped me come to grips with why I feel compelled to write.  Riding a subway car in the city, I was struck by the fact that so many of my fellow-commuters were reading.  People would enter the train at each station, settle themselves comfortably in an open seat, and begin to read—all with hardly a glance at the folks around them.  Books, magazines, newspapers, cellphones, all capturing the attention of their owners.

reading2

One man in particular caught my eye.  Leafing through a newspaper, appearing not to be reading anything too carefully, he paused on each page only long enough to determine whether to give more than passing attention to any of the articles.  Watching from across the aisle, I smugly assumed he might be one of those who checks only headlines and picture captions—but I was wrong.

After a quick once-over of a page containing a number of articles, he began to read one of them in earnest.  From my vantage, I could see the effect on him of what he was reading.  His very posture changed in his seat.  His facial expressions ranged from quizzical to credulous, from a smile of agreement to a frown of disapproval.  At one point, he stopped, cocked his head back to stare at the ceiling of the subway car, apparently thinking about what he had just read.

And that’s when I knew.  That’s why I write!

I had witnessed the communication of ideas and opinions from the writer of that article to the reader, although neither would ever meet the other.  The writer had reached the reader and elicited a response.  Across the cosmic void, communication had taken place.

In the writing I do—novels, collections of tales, poetry, blog-posts—I have no knowledge of the reactions of my readers to anything I write, save for when people post a comment on my blog, or send me an email, or ‘follow’ me online.  Many of those follows come from faraway nations, from people I will never know.

downloads

But that’s not the point.  It’s my hope, my belief, that whether or not people choose to contact me, they will respond to my writing as I saw the man on the subway respond.  That is what provides the primary motivation to write.

It’s the urge to touch someone, to spark a sense of recognition, to provide a moment of enjoyment.  And most of all, it’s to provoke a response—even if I never know of it firsthand—so that what we’ll have here is a forum to communicate.

It matters to me.

On Being White

Three phrases being bandied about these days, sometimes interchangeably, are causing confusion for a lot of people—and a fair bit of anger.  They are: white privilege, white nationalism, and white supremacy.

The three are discrete in meaning, although they have one common element—they all deal with the assumed advantage or superiority of the white race over all others.

I was born many long years ago, the eldest of five siblings, into a traditional middle-class, Christian, white family.  My parents wanted their children to be the best they could be, as I suppose most parents do for their offspring.  Among the things they taught us in hope that might happen, were these admonitions:

  • keep your elbows off the table,
  • respect your elders,
  • dress neatly and tastefully,
  • choose your friends carefully,
  • speak politely,
  • behave in a way that will make us proud of you.

dinner

They also taught us through their example that the things we do are more important than the things we say—actions speak more loudly than words.  Others will judge us, we were taught, by our behaviours, much more than by our avowals.

Their advice was meant to govern our interactions with people of all backgrounds, socio-economic status, and ages.  Had the issue of gender-identity been current back then, I have no doubt it would have been part of the package.

My parents called my father’s Jewish employer Mr. Halbert, the Italian owner of the neighbourhood fruit market Mrs. Carradona, the Irish milkman Mr. Alcorn, the Greek knife-sharpener with his clanging bell Mr. Kostopoulos—no one was to be treated disdainfully or condescendingly, regardless of their relationship to us.

It certainly never occurred to me back then that all these people were white, that virtually no one with whom we came in contact was a person of colour.

But the world changed as I grew up.  Canada, always a country of immigrants, mostly from white northern-European countries, opened its arms to newcomers from other parts of the world, heretofore largely ignored.  And, as these visible-minority folk and their descendants began to make their way in their adopted homeland, they ran up against the concept of white privilege.  Doors that had always opened for people such as I were barred to them.

Canada Canadian Diverse Unity Togetherness Concept

In 1989, Peggy McIntosh—an American feminist,  anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Scientist of the Wellesley Centers for Women—published an article entitled, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which clearly sets out how being white in North America confers an unearned set of entitlements, benefits, and choices upon people solely because they are white.

White privilege explains power structures inherent in our society that benefit white people disproportionately, while putting people of colour at a disadvantage.  For most of my professional career, the biggest impediment to my advancement was not skin-colour, but that was the case for many others.  Equal-opportunity measures did affect me along the way as my employer sought to redress the imbalance in the leadership ranks, but even I, forced to wait, could see the need for those.

On balance, I have benefited from white privilege.  But I hope to live long enough to see privilege and opportunity available equally to any who may earn it, regardless of their skin-colour.  It is when our society actively seeks to maintain that white privilege that it creeps toward white nationalism.

White nationalists believe white identity should be the organizing principle of Western civilization. They advocate for policies to reverse the changing demographics wrought by immigration, which they believe (probably correctly) will eventually result in the loss of an absolute, white majority.  The tide is already turning here.  Ending non-white immigration, both legal and illegal, is seen as essential to preserve white, racial hegemony.

It seems to me they will be as successful as was King Canute in his effort to hold back the tide.  They are on the wrong side of history.

canute

White supremacists take the whole thing several steps further.  Merriam-Webster defines white supremacy as the belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races, and that white people should have control over people of other races.

That control has, indeed, been the case during several periods in the past—not just in North America, but in Africa, Asia, and Australia, where indigenous peoples have been ruthlessly enslaved and slaughtered.  And it’s true, the white race in all its nationalistic fervour was both politically and militarily superior during those periods.  But morally superior?  I think not.

Has white supremacy any chance of succeeding today, anywhere in the world, given the perverted efforts of its adherents?  It seems unlikely to me, although the terrorist acts they commit do wreak fear and havoc.

No dominant group in all of history, regardless of its skin-colour, has ever gone quietly into decline—not the Mongols, not the Nubians, not the Peloponnesians, not the Persians, not the Romans—though all were supreme in their time.  They all fought stoutly against an inevitable reversal of fortune, only to lose—as did the white colonialist powers, as will the white supremacists.  Theirs is a faulty premise.

As we contemplate the state of our planet today—beset by threats of climate change, nuclear war, trade disputes, wealth-disparity, homelessness, famine—it must be obvious to even the dullest or most perverse among us that we have nowhere else to go.  We are all together, adrift in the universe on this fragile vessel we call Earth, no matter the colour of our skin.

planet-earth-facts

It is past time to set aside the notions of white privilege, white nationalism, and white supremacy, to stop enabling them, to abjure them forever.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.