Life as a Can-Lit novel

12 10 2012

There’s a running joke about Canadian literature. It has to involve abuse, the church, poverty, alcoholism, women working hard to survive, landscape, and preferably at least one big storm. My excellent Atlantic Literature prof, Alexander Macleod, wailed during one class that he was still waiting for the Canadian novel that didn’t involve a storm. Meanwhile he is teaching us about how literature changes landscape changes literature. It’s a mind-blowing class and I recommend him as a prof. My brain hurts after every hour.

And, well, as for me, I’m waiting for the blizzard to complete my collection…

I find it interesting, living in the midst of my own novel. Sometimes I even have a narrator, though I understand many people don’t. Mine is dictating to me now – “She smiles as she thinks of a clever metaphor..”

How I wish my narrator was a typist. Life would be so much simpler!

Still the novel. I suppose this feeling of being in a novel of some interest and tragedy and storminess and place is behind the urge so many of us feel to write memoirs or (sigh) blogs. It can’t be, we think, that all this stuff we go through really isn’t of interest to anyone else. Surely it must be good for something, some teaching, some long-lasting value.

 

It’s hard to predict what will make a good story many years hence. Pepys’ diary – well it might be interesting, and yet I can’t get into it. I am too far removed from the people. My cousin Grace’s diary, with her indigo pyjamas and repeated stops back and forth with the man who turned her mattress? Fascinating to me, with her notes about the everyday life of an independent woman in Quincy, Mass. in the 50’s. I’d love to read her earlier diaries, when she travelled the world on her own.

Right now for the course I’m taking, we’re reading excerpts from diaries written by the original explorers. to them, they may have seemed humdrum. To us, they are an invaluable window on life at the times.

 

 

I’m sad my mother never filled out the memory book I gave her. Her family is gone now, and the history is lost to me. Not just their history, but the history of them living in that time. I wonder about how they viewed the tremendous changes that occurred in their too short life-span. World wars, pandemics, childbirth, women’s rights, crises in Canada and abroad, changes in the church, technological change so vast it is hardly comprehensible.

My mother-in-law was raised on an isolated farm in New Zealand. I adored her tales of growing up – it was as foreign to me as life without the internet feels now.

Publishers frown on the memoir. At the recent pitch the publisher session I attended, you could see them visibly cringing every time one was mentioned. They repeatedly mentioned the need to have something in the story that made it unusual, different, stand-out.

I can’t help but wonder if they know what they are talking about. Perhaps, in terms of saleability, one needs the can-lit version of a life. Who knows, though, if that’s enough for the following generations to understand our lives? So much of history is the history of wars and conflict, because that was deemed important to write down at the time. And yet…

How did our grandmothers manage their houses? How did the church gain so much power in Quebec? How did women give away their rights? How did they fight for them back? How did we deal with life, death, illness, work? I wish we knew.

So, memoir-writers, write on. Write about the normal things of life. Write about the mad things, the niggly things, the fun things. Share the stories. Our history is oral as well as written, but learn from those who only have the oral tradition – things change. If we want to truth of our existence to survive, write it down.

Even if it ends up as a can-lit novel.

 

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