Making Words/finding Stories

Article excerpt

When I was contacted first to come to Vancouver for this talk, I was told that they would like a title. Now, this was many, many months ago, and so I rather desperately picked a title called "Making Words / Finding Stories," thinking that if I was going to talk about "the writing life," these two components would have to be in anything that I talked about. There is the whole business of language, there is the whole business of narrative. These are what we always think of as the two parts of the recipe for writing novels.

Language is probably more important to me than narrative, but tonight I'm going to talk about narrative - where our narratives come from, the fact that we're born with a kind of narrative hunger we never quite fill up. In fact, I was one of the very few children, I think, who loved those Dick and Jane stories. You know, those terrible, white-bread American stories? I felt very warmly toward Jane with her little white socks and Dick who was the perfect brother, of course. The narrative was just as thin as could be, but it nevertheless captured me. The whole mystery of learning to read was the central transcendent moment in my life, when I realised that those little marks on the paper meant something.

I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, which you may know is the home of Ernest Hemingway, but Ernest Hemingway got away as fast as he could from this lost stronghold and never returned.

I started my schooling in Nathaniel Hawthorne Public School and when I got a little older I transferred to Ralph Waldo Emerson Public School. I knew who these gentlemen were, because their portraits adorned the corridors of our school with their frock coats and their tiny little glasses and their beards. They were white, and they were men, and they were dead. So it seemed to me, growing up as a child, that I was locked out of the whole world of being a writer. It also seemed very much like wanting to be a movie star, to go around saying that you wanted to write a book. It was a bit presumptuous in the puritan Midwest that I knew. So of course I didn't. It was a secret - a secret I kept - that I wanted to be a writer, though I had no idea what I would write about, or who my audience would be.

Even after I began to publish novels, I didn't quite know what I was writing about. But I soon found out because I read the reviews. And the reviews said that I wrote about ordinary people. That was something of a shock to me because I never thought of myself or my friends as ordinary people, and it's a word that I still don't understand perfectly, although I'm trying to. There is a sense in which you don't know what you're writing about. It's said writers shouldn't let their right hand know what their left hand is doing, but there are some times when the right hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. One example of this occurs to me - one I've often read, usually in scholarly articles because this isn't the sort of thing that newspaper reviewers tackle - that, in fact, most of the fathers that appear in my novels are rather distant and inarticulate people. That's something that I'll have to think about. You don't know the patterns you're creating. I recently had a letter from a woman in Northern California who is actually a columnist for the National Journal for Dental Hygienists. She wanted to know why there were so many teeth in my novels. She had gone through everything I had ever written, meticulously, and she cited - with page numbers - every reference to teeth. She wanted to know what it was about teeth that I was so drawn to. I simply wrote her that teeth are part of life, and that's about as well as I could do with it.

Another interesting interview was with a French journalist who, again, was a very well prepared interviewer. She said, "There are no animals in your books." And it's true, but it's something that I didn't know. My mother didn't let us have cats or dogs and I married someone who was allergic to cats and dogs, so I suppose I have been out of the world of family pets for a long time. …