I’ve only ever taken one creative writing course. When my stint as a creative writing instructor began at the University of Toronto, back in 2006, I was pretty sure this made me a fraud. I was terrified one of the students would ask me what I’d learned from creative writing courses—but none of them did. Now, many classes on, I’m breathing easier. (Until someone asks me how I feel about three-act vs five-act structure, at which point I get all tense and sweaty—for here is yet another student who quite reasonably likes things empirical and road-mappy, while I, beneath my scorn, am more than a little bit afraid of numbered acts.)
I can’t remember exactly when my own single creative writing class happened. I must have been in grade 7 or 8. I do remember that the teacher asked us to do a brief but all-senses-engaged point-of-view exercise, and that I chose to write a paragraph from the perspective of Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan, the 9-year-old girl whose body was found in a fridge in Toronto in 1983. Her story had moved and frightened me, and I felt compelled to try and be her, for a paragraph. To be terrified and in pain in ways I’d never been, myself. I remember feeling guilty, as the words flowed from my pencil—because surely I was exploiting her tragedy for my own really banal ends. But the words did flow. And when we were all done (I believe this was a timed free-write), we went around the circle of desks and read our pieces aloud.
I don’t recall anyone’s reaction. I do recall feeling tremulous, at first, then almost deliriously excited—because the act of saying them made my penciled words live in a whole new way. And then I felt guilty all over again: giving a murdered girl a voice that wasn’t hers, then delighting in my own voice, had to be some kind of tasteless, right? Why, even without the subject matter, delighting in my own voice had to be some sort of egotistical no-no. Right?
Thirty-plus years later, my read-aloud words are the voices of people imagined or long, long-dead. And I still love reading. I continue to think this love is unseemly, and I continue to enjoy indulging it, every time. Sometimes it’s intimidating: I remember one reading, right after The Silences of Home came out, when a woman at the very back of the room put her head against the wall and closed her eyes. I soldiered on, despite the sinking, “I’ve lost one” feeling. Afterward this very woman approached me and told me I’d melted her brain, “but in the best way.” Then there was the inaugural Nuit Blanche in Toronto, when I read from A Telling of Stars at 3:30 a.m. (Yes. A.m.) I sat in candle-lit darkness on a stage in the Heliconian Club, surrounded by a shocking number of people: shadowy people lounging on pillows and couches; really, profoundly appreciative people, who probably hadn’t come to see me read, but who gasped at all the right spots, and applauded for a very long time. I didn’t only read from my own work, that early morning. Each of the authors had been asked to come with a book or passage that evoked bedtime, for them, and I brought my battered copy of Goodnight Moon. I encouraged the audience to say the rhyming words, and they did. It was utterly magical. I was in control—and yet I was just one, reacting to and with the many.
I’ll be reading from The Door in the Mountain at the Eden Mills Festival on Sunday, September 13th. My slot is five minutes, at 3:30 p.m. I’ll probably enjoy every one of them.