During an interview on CBC radio a geologist expressed that the hardest part of prospecting was maintaining the belief that what you were looking for was out there to be found. In the sleet and mud and cold, out on a limb, repeatedly coming up empty. In this way, writing is like prospecting.
My friend Nadine and I were hiking up the North Shore Mountains of Vancouver. I had said yes to the hike, though I usually don’t like to corner myself in any activity for more than an hour, because I knew I had to get out of my rut. Nadine is a great activator. We’d been hiking for about an hour, slowly gaining altitude, when I confessed how sidelined I felt from the economic life of the world and how useless it made me feel, particularly as a feminist and a woman of the second-wave generation, privileged to have a mother with feminist sensibilities, raised with a sense of being able to try for anything. Working in my personal economic backwater for years and years, I felt like I’d let the side down, sacrificed my economic independence and ceded social and political influence. Nadine is a tenured geography professor and I deeply respect the work she does, the struggles and effort that go with her work, and the gift of knowledge she passes on to students, as well as the research she advances through her intelligence and ingenuity.
The novel I had just finished, The Last Murder, has taken me six years of 5-6 days a week, 6 hours a day (albeit with the dicking around time I disguise as revving my mental engines). I have given it my all, I left nothing behind, I could not have produced a better novel, I worked as I imagine a medieval stone mason might, building a church that might take longer than his lifetime to finish, with patience, diligence, humility, undoing the mistakes I could perceive, but without the certain knowledge that at the end there would be a building that people could enter and worship.
What Nadine said next moved me to tears. She said that the world has reduced our sense of what has value to a purely economic model, that our culture is moving away from art and craftsmanship, that the looking glass through which people see themselves in our society is increasingly measured solely in money. She said my decision to dedicate my life to creating something irrespective of economic validity was heroic in her eyes.
When we tried to recreate the moment, Nadine wrote:
We live in an economic paradigm where the measure of worth is always the dollar. But this was not forever true. In the past, humans were dominated by other paradigms. Northrop Frye, one of Canada’s more erudite philosophers and literary critics, tells the story of another age in which the mystical was exalted. In the 13th century, there were 26 classifications of angels and none of geological strata. Today we are gripped by the insistence that all activities not defined as leisure must yield economic gain. An artifact of this is that society no longer supports art or artists. Public funding for culture in Canada/North America is shrivelling. Increasingly Art is mass produced and mass consumed. Cost benefit. Now only a few individuals are privileged to live and work as artists, to feed our souls. You have seized this opportunity. This was a courageous act in a world that values capacity to generate money rather than capture and render beauty and truth.
What she said to me was so kind, so generous in attention and understanding. She buttressed my tenuous, wobbley spirit with a shoulder-to-shoulder passion and intellect not found frequently in the world outside our individual inner worlds of doubt and worry. I cannot quite capture the poignancy and beauty of what she said, nor can she, perhaps because it was such a personal moment between two people who’ve known each other for most of our adult lives.
Nonetheless, I’m sharing my friend’s words for fellow strugglers out there. The hardest thing is believing what you are seeking exists. That day, what was going to be a 4 hour hike revealed itself as 7 hours of straight elevation gain, with extended periods of scrambling over 4 foot high boulders. When we got to what we thought was the top, and I was getting decidedly grumpy, tired, and light-headed and fantasizing about putting out a rescue call to be helicoptered out, we discovered that the path ahead was so steep chains had been installed for hikers to pull themselves up.
After pushing myself physically past what I was reasonably able to do, we finally reached the restaurant at the top and ordered drinks we’d fantasized about feverishly in the past few hours. Sipping a beer that could never taste better, I leaned back and looked at my friends and the blue sky around their heads and savoured the platonic ideal of the lean, mean fighting machine I’d written as it existed in my mind – the trimmed away fat and excised literary flourishes, the pared down voice, direct, intimate, and fierce, the plot fast and spare. All Jack Sprat, none of his wife.
Writing is also not like geology. After six years exploring in the mysterious, dark, muddy, exciting, lonely wilderness of creation, I found my gold, but it’s an element that can only be confirmed by alchemy, not chemistry.
The image that most captures writing for me right now is a robin in spring, head cocked, listening for the vibrations of a worm underground, ready to snatch and pull at the first available revelation.