UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO LINKS
Elisabeth Harvor. ON BECOMING A WRITER ©2009.
When I was ten years old, I announced to my family at the dinner table that when I grew up I was going to write "I-books". The laughter that greeted this revelation makes me remember it all too well. I, I, I, I, I, the letter that is also a word. A monstrous, arrogant, courageous, passionate, tedious or heartfelt word, depending on the circumstances. Did I mean that I wanted to write a memoir? Or did I mean—to give the enterprise the important plural of a retired Brigadier-General or a politician—my memoirs? But what I think I meant was that even at ten I saw myself and my-own-little-life-so-far as grist for the mill.
That same summer, my parents took my brother and sister and me to visit Quebec City. We walked on the windy boardwalk high above the St. Lawrence River, we paid a visit to the Plains of Abraham, and on the way home we stopped off at the Granby Zoo to visit the animals, but there was so much squabbling in the back seat on our trip back to the east coast that when we got back home at last we were all sent off to our rooms to "create something."
I dropped down to the floor of my bedroom with my notebook and began to write an epic rhyming poem—epic doggerel—about the animals in the Granby Zoo. I even had time to finish it before I was called down to lunch, and when I was (easily) persuaded to read my poem aloud, my father suggested that I mail it off to the zoo. He even helped me to write the letter to the director in French: "Je suis une jeune fille, j'ai onze ans..."
A few months later I was spending the day in bed, pretending to be too sick to go to school, when my father came up the stairs with the mail. I never received mail, but on this cold November morning there was a letter for me, written in French, from the editor of the zoological magazine published by the Granby Zoo, and it began "Chere Mademoiselle...", then went on to say that the zoologists were truly delighted with my poem and would be honoured to publish it in their zoological magazine, Le Carnet.
This was the morning that I began to link literary triumph not only with bad behaviour, but also with my having turned my back (if only on the odd morning now and then) on a formal education. But the pattern continued: after graduating from high school, I didn't go off to university as my brother and sister did, I instead studied nursing at a teaching hospital in Saint John, since I’d convinced myself that above all I wanted to experience "real life." I had spent most of my childhood out in the country reading—the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa (my parents were Danish)—but during my time at the hospital I was so exhausted that for over two years I didn't read anything at all except for textbooks on anatomy and physiology whose pages were illustrated with greyish photos of white rats. Or with photos of skinny men in very large black gym shorts who were suffering from curvature of the spine or ringworm.
Except for the night of extreme euphoria I experienced after seeing, for the first time, a baby being born, I was consumed by a longing to leave nurses’ training. And I did eventually leave, although not until part way into my third and final year, enraging my mother and, according to her, everyone else, but in retrospect, I am intensely grateful for the time I did there, although "the time I did there" makes it sound like prison. Which, in its own way, it was. It was twelve-hour shifts, it was scenes of humiliation, it was boot camp for nurses, it was such a sadistic tough hospital, a legendary place that sat like a squat castle on the top of a hill that had a spectacular view out over all of Saint John. And a view even much grander than that: far out over the sand flats and the dry dock and the Bay of Fundy. Which at that spot on the map is so wide it looks like the ocean.
I went home under a dark cloud. I was seen as a quitter, as someone who had turned her back on the sick. (Which is how Ingrid Hessellund is seen too, in "The Age of Unreason" the novella in If Only We Could Drive Like This Forever.) But after I'd worked for a year in my parents' pottery workshop, I married an architect who had just been awarded a traveling scholarship and who wanted to spend the money on an architectural tour of Europe. In Dusseldorf we bought a motor scooter that had big wheels—like a motorcycle—and we ended our tour of the continent in Denmark where I met my grandfather and grandmother and a crowd of Danish cousins for the first time. My husband worked with a group of Danish architects in Copenhagen over one long dark and snowless Baltic winter, and we took in a boarder, another Canadian, who was also an architect.
As for me, I had nothing to do all day but buy food and cook for my two architects. At least until I got a library card at the American Embassy Library and brought home great armloads of books. And so I spent almost a whole year stretched out on the floor of that sixth-floor walk-up in Copenhagen, reading novel after novel. It was the best possible education for a writer, and being so far away from home was also a big part of it.
One rainy morning during that dark Danish winter, out of guilt for not having a job when everyone else I knew was either working or taking courses at the University of Copenhagen, I wrote an article on the Canadian paintings my husband and I had seen at an art exhibition in southern Europe, then sent it off to Canadian Art, and on yet another rainy morning—this was by now two months later—an envelope arrived from Canada containing an acceptance letter and a cheque for seventy-five dollars. It was the high point of my winter, the high point of my life to that date, really, I was so delirious with happiness.
So that's how it all began: my life as a writer. My childhood in the Pottery, my being sent away from home when I was a little over a year old to live with a doctor and his family in Saint John (the Pottery being too hazardous a place for toddlers to be underfoot), my mother's frightening rages (possibly induced by the toxic minerals she had to use when she mixed the glazes), the years at the hospital and the year in Denmark, growing up with the children my husband and I had after we came back to Canada, the years of therapy with a psychoanalyst who talked to me about books (I would lend him books as well, then we would spend the analytic hour discussing them while we turned my analysis into a book club for two), all these events fed into it. And how do I write? I suppose I write the way most writers write, i.e. I am never not writing. I take notes on little pieces of paper, I eavesdrop, I go for walks, I free associate, I make more little notes.
Kay Oleski, the writer who's the main character in All Times Have Been Modern, goes from one carousel of bright books to another in a bookstore in Montreal in the 1980's, lifting down book after book to read a few pages before she moves on to the older paperbacks to find the writers who’ve saved her life, simply by writing about their rage or their resentment or even what they love. I write ‘even what they love,’ because writing about love can be so dangerous, it can so easily become contaminated by what’s too sweet.
Scenes of humiliation from my own life are also all too easy to recall. I feel a bond with Kay Oleski when she says she would much rather take notes than fight and that if she were in the army she would be in espionage, not the infantry, and a bond, too, with Claire Vornoff (in Excessive Joy Injures the Heart) when she's dreaming of only the usual: love, sex, tenderness, and the day she will prove to everyone who's ever shown disdain for her that she is amazing. I also wanted to catch the way, when she sees a man on a bus whose eyes are welling with tears, she looks quickly away, humbled, having been brought up short by the discovery that it can still come as a surprise to her to see that others also suffer.
As for the scene in a restaurant when she's taking note of the effervescent decay of the wine and the raked pats of cold butter, I meant for her to be the kind of person who would notice things like that: the dark underside of elegance, the dark side of what's buoyant. I meant for her, even in the euphoria of the moment, to be aware of what so many writers are haunted by and want so much to catch: how quickly a life passes, of how soon we die.
Elisabeth Harvor's works copyright © to the author.