I won the opportunity of a life time. Spend a weekend with the top three contemporary Canadian writers. Get invaluable input on your writing from the pros. Apply now, they said. It will be fun, they said.
I met the three of them in the lobby of the Best Western in Trail, B.C. I still had resting smug face after receiving the news that I’d won the contest. The rest after that was a whirlwind.
There was Maggie Atwood grinning with poison in her eyes. She didn’t look like the old lady she pretends to be in her publicity photos. She was a spider in a blue scarf and power suit.
One appraising look. She said, “What a lost person needs is a map of the territory, with his own position marked on it so he can see where he is in relation to everything else. Literature is not only a mirror; it is also a map, a geography of the mind.”[ii]
“I’m not lost,” I informed the spider.
“We all need such a map desperately, we need to know about here, because here is where we live.”[iii]
And then we were all packed into the back of a Ford pick-up truck and driven off into the wilderness. On the way, I asked her to sign my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale.
“Very well,” she dug in her purse for a pencil. She only writes in pencil. “Tell me what absurd inspirational message you’d like me to write.”
“Write what you think is suitable,” I said.
“I wrote the book,” she snapped. “That’s all you get.”
So I had her simply sign her name.
She handed the book back.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To practice surviving,” she said with an arachnic wave of a bony hand. “Canadian literature is centred around the concept of victims. Rather, the victims' ability to survive. This preoccupation is what sets our writing apart from British or American work. How else can I hope to instill any lesson in your writing if I do not give you this gift?”
And so we drove on into the woods.
An admission. I’m drunk. Ondaatje and I shared a bottle of maple whiskey after building a fire.
“Tomorrow we will mark ourselves as the ultimate Canadians. We will mark ourselves by nature,” he said.
I told him that I didn’t like the sounds of that.
He laughed. His face was brown and his hair was white. His eyes were deep set with pupils that were so black and large it was like he could see everything. Maybe that’s why he was such a talented writer, I’d thought. He’s an owl.
“We will catch a moose,” he stated.
“How?” I asked. By this point, I’d learned to stop asking why.
“I don't have a plan for a story when I sit down to write. I would get quite bored carrying it out. The same is true for life.[iv] You need to avoid all the planning and just get down to the action. And do it privately.”
“Okay,” I said. I took another swig of whiskey.
Michael poked the charred branches further into the flame.
“Why privately?” I couldn’t resist asking.
“Because you’re trying to descend to a level you haven’t gone to before. That’s why it should be private. It should be secret.[v] It’s necessary because it becomes a time of discovery rather than tainting your experience with what you and others already know.”
“I see.” I said. Although by this point, I was not seeing very clearly.
The next day, the signs of moose were very abundant. Even hung over from whiskey, I could still identify them.
Miriam Toews and I had been put into a pair. She had tucked her jeans into her sneakers and was stepping gingerly over piles of acorns and debris.
I was not sure what we were meant to do if we saw a moose, but I was positive that we would think of something.
She was carrying a cup of hot coffee. Maybe it was tea. I realized she didn’t look very intent on finding a moose. She was picking up stones and placing the most interesting ones in her pockets.
“Did you collect rocks as a kid?”
“I still do,” she confessed with a coyote-like grin. “I like to think that they bring me good luck. It’s a tough task finding the perfect good luck rock.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had one,” I said. Maybe this is why I still haven’t been published.
“Here. Take this one.” She placed a black and red brindle stone into my hand. “It’s my favourite.”
“Do you think writing has a lot to do with luck?” I asked.
She tilted her head to one side, considering. “Yes and no. It depends how concerned you are with fame, I think. It doesn’t take a lot of luck to just sit down and write. When I started writing, what I wanted first and foremost was the vibratory quivering, the violin bow over the imagination. Later, much later, I often preferred the succulence of compact words, rich in dentals and fricatives, that the ear could snatch one by one, like a dog catching pieces of raw meat: in a way, like going from word-as-mood to word-as-food, the path that leads prose to…”[vi]
She stopped here.
We’d come across a moose.
Only, it was already dead.
It wasn’t clear what it died from.
It looked as though it has been there for a while.
The moose’s mouth gaped open in what almost looked like a laugh.
“Do you think this counts?” Miriam asked me. “Can we truly call ourselves Canadian writers yet?”
I was horrified to see that she was smiling.
I stood there numb from the sickening image of the laughing dead moose. I told her that I thought we should leave.
She gave me a baleful look. “To be a good writer, you need to be unafraid of the subject matter,” she said , “to get the tone right, right off the top, and get the readers’ trust, so we can come out together in some other, less dark place. This is what makes for good writing.”[vii]
And it hits me that this is what my writing should be doing.
It is the why and the how that I’ve been searching for.
This has been an entry for therealljidol. Made it to the final 15! If you liked what I wrote, please take a moment and vote for me here.
(As well, check out my team mates' entries this week! They are fantastic.) Thanks for reading!
 An experience a colleague of mine had at a Margaret Atwood signing.
[i] Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
[ii] Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
[iii] Ondaatje, Michael. BrainyQuote.com.
[iv] Ondaatje, Michael. “A Conversation”. Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life.