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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Alphabet Soup

Some of my friends are devotees of alphabet soup.  Not the kind they eat, mind you, but the sort that litters the space following their names.

They pattern themselves, perhaps, after Sir Winston Churchill, wartime leader of Great Britain, whose alphabet soup looked something like this:  KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, FRS, Hon. RA.  These stand for, respectively: Knight of the Garter, Order of Merit, Companion of Honour, Territorial Decoration, Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Royal Academician.

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Grand titles all, redolent of Empire, conquest, and victory.  And I have no doubt there were others he could have added.

My friends’ titles, of course, are somewhat more modest.  Not for them the Order of the British Empire (OBE), Order of Canada (OC), Royal Victorian Order (GCVO), or other such high-falutin’ honours.  Theirs are somewhat more pedestrian, though all respectable and praiseworthy.

Unfortunately, I can’t lay claim to any of them.

My brother, for instance, followed his name with UELD, denoting United Empire Loyalist Descendant.  Loyalists were people living in the original Thirteen Colonies when the American Revolution separated them from England.  Many fled to what is now Canada, loyal to the Crown, and my brother believed himself descended from them.

If he’s right, I, too, must be one.  However, a loyalist to the British was a scurrilous traitor to the Americans, so, with a nod to my many years of residence in the U.S. during Canadian winters, I have eschewed using the designation.

A close friend includes CSPWC behind his name—member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour.  Unlike some, this is an appellation that must be earned, not merely tacked on.  Membership is bestowed only upon artists whose submitted works are judged worthy by a distinguished jury of their peers, and many who aspire to it fall short.

That’s because the primary criterion is talent, of which I am in scant supply.  My watercolour experiences began and ended with mixing Kool-Aid.

Several of my friends hold academic honours, the most distinguished of which is a Ph. D, Doctor of Philosophy.  Another holds an Ed. D, Doctor of Education, and I even know one person who can boast an LL. D, Doctor of Laws, although she is not a practicing lawyer.  A number of others merit M.A. after their names, Master of Arts, or M.Sc., Master of Science.  And a whole passel has earned the right to display B.A., Bachelor of Arts, and B.Sc., Bachelor of Science, on their letterheads.

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More than a few of these learned folks graduated either cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, Latin for “with honour”, “with great honour”, and “with highest honour”.  The latter is generally reserved for students who graduate with a perfect academic record.  I can’t imagine such a thing!  On a provincial math exam many years ago, I scored a derisory 11%—probably for spelling my name correctly.

My paltry post-nominals, were I to use them, would be B.Ed. (Bachelor of Education) and B.A. (Hons).  The abbreviation in parentheses would be justified only because I submitted a full thesis prior to graduation.  As for honours, I should probably include summa cum fortuna, “with the greatest of luck”.  When you compare my credentials to those of my friends, you can see why I generally choose not to sprinkle addenda after my signature.

Mind you, once upon a time there were two such acronyms I could rightfully claim.  I held an OTC, Ontario Teacher’s Certificate, during my working career, and was entitled to use OCT, Member of the Ontario College of Teachers, until my retirement.  I never printed these on my letterhead, however, since my ‘clients’ were children in an elementary school classroom.  They already knew I was the teacher!

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I flatter myself in one regard, though, by positioning myself alongside the aforementioned Winston Churchill.  We are, both of us, writers—men of letters, articulate and erudite, authors of several published works.  Our titles reside (perhaps not side-by-side, but equivalently) in the files of the Library of Congress.  I like to think the biggest difference between us is that, while he wrote non-fiction, I stick to making up stories.

That doesn’t make him a truth-teller and me a fantasist, of course; after all, much of his work was the writing of history, a genre known for notorious exercises in revisionism.  Unlike many historians, I don’t alter the facts; I merely invent them.

As for honours, forget for a moment that Churchill won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, whereas I did not.  That was not a fair competition for I was but ten years old at the time, still struggling to master cursive writing.

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I am much older now, but it would appear my own Nobel Prize is still likely some way off in the future.  Way, way off, some would say.

In any event, there is one post-nominal you’ll see me proudly using if you ever receive one of my calling cards.  After my name, boldly printed on the front, is the singular word author.

That will have to do.  I hate alphabet soup!