Archives for 1 December 2013

Why I write

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

—George Orwell, ‘Why I Write

I was not as precocious as Orwell; I did not definitely conceive the idea of becoming a writer until I was twelve, though it was among the many occupations I had played at in earlier childhood. I should have liked to be an urban planner, but I discovered, before I had any opportunity to set out on such a path, that the profession had already become what it has since remained: not a branch of engineering in which one does the interesting creative work of coming up with feasible ways of giving people the kind of towns they want to live in, but a branch of politics in which one plans the kind of towns demanded by the ideology of one’s superiors, and then crams them down the people’s throats. I thought of being a cartographer – the maps in National Geographic, of all things, were nearly my first purely aesthetic experience – but I could not discover any path that would lead me appreciably in the direction of such a career. In any case my formal education was forcibly terminated before I could make any meaningful progress towards those ends.

But writing was something that I could (and can) do, and that nobody could stop me from doing so long as I lived in a relatively free country. In an age of galloping credentialism, when even security guards are examined and licensed by the State, there is to this day no formal credential for becoming a writer – no storyteller’s certificate, not even a blogger’s licence. It is true that the creative writing programs in the universities turn out more graduates than formerly, but so far the only people that have been thereby prevented from becoming creative writers are those very same graduates. Perhaps some of the reasons for this will eventually occur to them, or even to their professors. But I digress—

In Calgary, when I was still a fairly small boy, there was a sort of minor mania for local history that lasted several years. Southern Alberta was one of the last places in North America to be definitely settled. It was only in 1875 that the first permanent building was erected on the future site of the city. That was Fort Calgary, the North-West Mounted Police post, one of several built to shut down the illicit whisky trade out of the United States. The last survivors of the pioneer period, or rather the youngest of their children, were busily dying in the 1970s, and their stories being written up by local historians like Jack Peach and Grant MacEwan, themselves old men. I myself had a second or third cousin who was so old that he had come west by covered wagon, and lived to the age of 105; and my own grandfather took up a homestead on virgin land in the Peace River country about the time my father was born, not long before the arable land ran out and the homestead system was abolished.

It should come as no surprise that my first large creative endeavour sprang out of that environment and those vicarious experiences. Where the young C. S. Lewis (and his brother) had an imaginary country, Boxen, whose history and legends came to be written up in considerable detail, I had an imaginary frontier town. I drew many maps of the place at different periods, but also wrote portions of a connected history of the place and its leading citizens, leading down from the first settlers to the imaginary characters that I and one or two of my friends played at being in the present day. All that stuff was lost long ago, thank God; some of it I destroyed myself, but most was thrown away by my mother, who never saw a piece of paper that she did not detest on sight. The fact that my father was an avid reader and liked to fill up the house with books was, I believe, a constant anguish to her.

I had left that phase behind and was writing ‘future history’ and pastiches of bad science fiction when, at the age of twelve, I abruptly discovered that writing was something one could do as a profession. I have had no measurable success at it since then, but I still persist in trying: partly because one can earn money by it, even (nowadays, through the medium of ebooks) with very small sales, and it is one of the few kinds of work that I can do in my present state of health without expensive academic credentials; but chiefly for another reason. Since that reason has not, in my experience, been much talked about, I propose to say something about it here. [Read more…]