A Long, Scary Story

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved stories. When she was very, very small, her parents would read her Maclean’s and Newsweek because there weren’t enough stories to tell. As this girl got older, she learned to make up stories herself: stories about bears who lived under the bed and little baby tigers and a dog who lived in the glove box of the car. There were some other stories, too, which have now been returned to the Sea of Stories (apparently they weren’t very good).

The little girl was encouraged in her story-telling… except, of course, when she tried to blame mis-doings on the bears.

Story telling ran in this girl’s family. The girl’s god-mother was renowned (and still is) for “reading” stories about Puny the Porpoise from a blank dinner napkin. To this day, the girl’s most precious possession is a rectangular piece of cardboard – the kind from a package of stockings – on which the girl’s grandmother wrote a story about the Gleep (a fuzzy little monster with long toenails and bad manners) that rode on the bus from Windsor to Ottawa with the grandmother.

When the girl was about 12 years old, books became better friends than people. Except, of course, for the friend who shared her passion for books and whose visits would involve two bodies remaining horizontal throughout the visit, except when it came time to sit up and grab another book from the stack. The girl remembers the pull of the stories, and still marvels at how those same stories can suck her in so far. It was from these books that she learned. She learned that two men could be in love, and that two women could also be in love; she learned that adults know no more than children do, and that they just fake it better; she learned that people have been killing each other for a long time and that there’s still no cure for it; she learned that people have been unhappy for a very, very long time. There’s no cure for that, either, but you can write a story that makes you feel a lot better about being unhappy.

When the girl was thirteen years old, she taught herself to type because she discovered that even typing on her mother’s monstrous, antique “portable” (portable only by Titans) typewriter was faster than writing by hand. Though the manuscript was destroyed in a moment of ego vs. id, the girl spent her 14th year writing an entire novel which was of entirely no literary merit and which would have invoked the wrath of all four members of Queen, this author is sure. It is the first instance of true inner calm the girl knew, though: realizing four hours of the day no longer had to be endured because they had been spent writing the novel.

The girl was often praised for her story-telling: in Grade 6, her teacher would grab the girl’s story from her desk, saying “This one first”, which he said every time they had to write a story and read it out loud. She also won the right to have her rather terrible Dickensian Christmas play performed by the Grade 7 students at one of those horrifically long evenings where the parents sigh onerously and the babies cry and the crowd thins out as each grade finishes performing their Christmas pageant.

It was in high school that this girl discovered the finer aspects of story telling. She discovered good poetry and bad poetry. She discovered Real Authors who knew how to improve their own writing – which one could see if one read their first novel and then their latest novel. She discovered teachers who showed her how to do the same with her own writing. She discovered teachers who had the unmitigated gall to slap down the announcement for the National Arts Centre Young Playwright’s competition and say, “You’re gonna send something to Ottawa, and the art teacher will help you”. (The girl, of course, always did what her teachers told her to do.)

Eventually, the time came when this girl had to get her head out of the books and make a decision about the rest of her life. There were no more prescribed paths to follow; she was free to be who she wanted to be. The freedom left her flabbergasted, gob-smacked. Obviously, post-secondary education was the only option because a) she had been looking forward to it since she was two years old and watched her father head off to that Wonderful Place called University, and b) if she didn’t go to university she’d have to go into the real world. No, this girl was quite happy to sign herself up for another four years of sticking her nose in books and reading more stories.

It was at a “university night” at the high school that she discovered that Alistair MacLeod was teaching at the University of Windsor. The heavens opened and the choruses rang out through the universe. Alistair MacLeod, the literary god who wrote jaw-dropping short stories of boats and the sea and men who wrestled with demons larger than the girl had ever conceived of. Oh, and the University of Victoria and the University of Windsor both had the country’s first creative writing programmes. In a fit of non-confidence, this girl applied to several other universities, but dreamed about one of these two. The application to Victoria was dull and unappealing; the application to Windsor was the same, but there was also a scholarship available which would require no more than writing a story (a story which, when now read, makes the girl understand that she was likely the only applicant for that scholarship. Jesus, Mary, Mohammed and Vishnu….)

Well, she got the scholarship to Windsor. Alistair Macleod at a significant discount: what could be better? The girl packed her trunk with a few clothes and a lot of books and the new typewriter her parents had given her as a present for surviving Reality for so long, and off she went to Windsor. It was going to be four years of stories, learning and becoming a good writer. The girl found Alistair MacLeod’s courses in the course book, and marked them with stars and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one. Unfortunately, Dr. MacLeod was so good that she had to wait until second year to be admitted into his presence. So the girl withstood a year of one Homer F. Plante (the professor who shoveled snow – in Windsor – in September; he must have agreed to teach for the university for free). The girl learned nothing that year.

In the first semester of second year, the girl began to learn again. She found a really good professor who was interested in teaching rather than… whatever those other guys were doing with their tenures and their silk scarves and their lectures which hadn’t changed in 20 years because there was no need to change a perfectly good lecture. He showed her short stories that weren’t on the syllabus because he noticed that she liked short stories. The professor didn’t write stories himself, but the girl still cherishes his analysis of Gloria Sawai’s The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and A Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts, which she found stapled to her own when it was returned to her.

The girl finally, finally, finally got her class with Dr. MacLeod. It was Victorian Lit., which the girl loved already, and she thought that being taught by Dr. MacLeod was going to be the best thing ever. A man who could manipulate words like that would be able to show her The Wonders of the World. Of course, she knew he wasn’t perfect. She’d seen a PBS special on him, and knew that a) he smoked (but she was willing to forgive the smell if he got too close to her) and b) he had a voice that sounded like a cheese grater being dragged over a bed of nails. However, he couldn’t be held responsible genetics, so she wasn’t going to hold his voice against him. He was a literary god, after all.

What she discovered was that Dr. MacLeod wasn’t interested in teaching. He’d been lecturing on the same material for 20 years, and he’d go on lecturing for another 20 or more. The voice grated the most beautiful words into boring, toneless shreds. Regardless of the capabilities of the mind and hands, the mouth and voice were able to destroy the ancient essence of words in a matter of seconds. He didn’t think. He didn’t explore. He didn’t learn. He didn’t teach. He lectured.

Eventually, the girl discovered that universities are not intended for learning. She left one semester short of an Honours degree because the ratio of professors-that-taught to professors-that-didn’t-teach was too low. She doesn’t regret leaving.

The girl packed away her prized copies of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (though even the title was still so astoundingly awesome as to send chills down her spine) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun. She couldn’t read them anymore without hearing The Voice. The Voice stopped her from learning.

The girl didn’t stop learning, though. She replaced her literary god with other literary gods, and she found more books to teach her the things she wanted to know, and even some things she didn’t know she wanted to know. When she became a woman and had children, she read books to them and taught them to write, because that’s really the only purpose to life. Really. And she knew that if they encountered any insane professors or Voices in their lives, and they would still be able to learn.

When her children got older, the woman fell into teaching. People paid her to make their kids like reading and writing, and to explain to the kids what the other teachers were trying to teach them. The woman quite enjoyed this activity. It was fun to watch listen to the kids gripe and grouse about reading but then peer into her book bag to see if there were any good stories for them in there. She liked being knocked out of her chair because two brothers discovered she’d brought a copy of the first Percy Jackson book and they each wanted to get their hands on it first. The expression of a 10-year-old boy who wrote a story about farts was indelibly fix in her mind as one of the Best Things in the World.

One day, the woman met up with a long-time student (now aged 17) who had finally been convinced that reading wasn’t so bad when she threw him a Fables graphic novel and pointed out that this was “literature”. The student eventually went on to discover Robert J. Sawyer and other such geeky writers who like to use science in their stories, and the student was quite happy to read (though it will never be his favourite activity because, for this student, numbers have the power). Of course, the English teachers at this student’s school never think about students who like numbers, so the first day of his Grade 12 English course, this student came to the woman and said, “We had to read something about a boat. I don’t know who wrote it. I didn’t get it.” After much discussion about the possible boat stories, it was discovered that the story was Alistair MacLeod’s The Boat. The woman felt her heart sink to the bottom of her fuzzy black winter boots.

That night, the woman re-read The Boat because she wanted to be able to teach it to her student properly. She took The Lost Salt Gift of Blood out of its box. The book smelled like dust and ink and all the other things a good book smells like. When she opened the book, she turned to the second-last story and was sucked into it by the end of the first paragraph.

The Voice was gone. In her head were only the rich shapes of the most beautifully-honed words she had ever heard. The story is about a man – a professor at a university – who had grown up in a fishing family. His father has spent his whole life torn between fishing and words, and the father wants his only son to stay away from the fishing and to be sucked in by the words. In the end, the father is killed by the sea while his stacks of books wait for him in his room at home.

The woman angrily swiped tears from her eyes.

Late that night, in the darkness where True Understanding occurs, she realized that for her teaching and writing both resulted in learning, and she was very happy to do both, but that for other people teaching and writing could be as divorced as, say, reading and fishing. She realised how lucky she was to have been able to teach and write, and she realised how unhappy other people could be if they had to teach instead of write.

The next morning, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood lay beside her bed, and the woman moved around it as though it were some possessed article from a religious ritual.

It is. It is possessed of words, which makes it even more powerful than the darkest, deepest, oldest magic in the world.

5 responses to “A Long, Scary Story

  1. I’ve managed to miss Alistair MacLeod’s writing somehow, perhaps because I met him at a friend’s, another U of W professor, where we often spent Sundays for brunch in the late 70’s – 80’s. He had a large family of well behaved boys. one small, spoiled girl and a downtrodden wife who seemed to exist only to serve him and the children. I was so not impressed as he seemed to me to be a pompous ass. I heard something about the daughter in terms of a career not long ago but I’ve forgotten what.


  2. I remember the Queen story!

    Maybe you went to the wrong university. Mine had a good ratio of professors-who-teacher to those-who-didn’t and so I managed to avoid the real world for 7 years, instead of the standard 4.

    I feel like the whole children/job/laundry thing has sucked out my ability to read anything more complex than popular historical fiction. Sigh.


  3. This is a very interesting and touching narrative. There is one slight problem with it that I hope can be corrected. The title of the Gloria Sawai story, Sundeck, links to a copy of the entire story that is online illegally. The story is actually available from a number of places as an ebook for a low, low price. But this Czechoslovakian University has no right whatsoever to steal this content from us by posting it online. I’d like to request that you do the right thing and please remove the link from the story that takes readers to this illegal content. Nik Burton, Managing Editor, Coteau Books, publisher of A Song for Nettie Johnson, by Gloria Sawai.


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