My children surprised me last week with a ticket for the Miriam Toews luncheon here in Hamilton. Toews was going to be reading from her latest novel, Irma Voth, and taking questions from the audience. Upon entering the hall, I realized that I was among a small minority of men in attendance. I also learned that it was the Na'amat Canada Hamilton group that had sponsored the luncheon (Na'amat is a humanitarian women's movement that provides support to women and children in need). Here is my interpretation of some of the things that Toews shared in her response to her post-reading questions:
Writing requires courage. You have to face life when you write, particularly when you write about people. It may be something about yourself or about what you see, fear, hope for, or get angry about, but if you are afraid and give in to the fear, you lose your ability to say anything that matters.
Writing can bring you into conflict. While we think of writing and reading as solitary and even peaceful, because it is about ideas, expressions, explorations, and possibilities, your voice will clash with the voices of others. It shouldn't surprise us, but it is essential and persistent.
Writing can produce insight. As you try and understand what you've seen and experienced through your writing, certain themes and patterns clearly emerge. You might not know about all this in a complete sense but as you spend time thinking about, structuring, writing and re-writing, certain realities become clear.
Writing can create misunderstanding. You may end up being conflicted with your family or community and they may end up feeling conflicted about you. That isn't the same as being in conflict (though that happens, too). It's about the way that your interpretations and expressions produce reactions and ideas in your readers that are different than your own. Generally we don't write to confuse but we also don't write to remove mystery and reduce life to concrete barrenness. Even when we write about the past, we are creating something new.
Writing reflects who you are. When you write a novel, you assume a voice, a posture, a vantage point. It can't be otherwise. There is a significant part of who you are mirrored in those decisions, whether you take an oppositional stance or are trying to integrate complications. You may look at something you wrote years ago and be ashamed of it, but you shouldn't be—it reflects who you were when you wrote it.
Writing reflects what you are. We are flawed but capable of kindness. We generate heat and light but we also destroy and break things that are beautiful. The people around us may feel our love but we can burden and warp them with impositions, fundamentalisms, confinements, and rejections. If that is true of life, how can it fail to emerge in what we write?
Writing is an action that seeks to understand. At some point in your adult life, you begin to see that your upbringing gave you both gifts and wounds and sometimes the two exist together. The act of sorting, thinking, imagining, and physically writing drives you to take stock of these dynamics. There is a desire in all of us to understand the contradictions and puzzles. Writing can give us hope that understanding is possible even when that same writing adds new layers of complication.
Writing can lead to books and books can sometimes save us. It may be obvious to say it but when we write enough words and they seem interesting to someone who publishes books, the words we create can result in books. These books can be a means of escape, a way to be somewhere else, to hear a new voice, to imagine a new possibility. In that way, books can sometimes save us, make us stronger, fuel our intelligence, and expand the scope of our own artistic possibilities. They may also disturb us and cross the moats of our own intellectual comforts.
For people who don't read much, the work of an author can seem to be an extravagance, something left to people who aren't busy keeping the world running. Voracious readers are implicated as well—book nerds who would rather experience life vicariously than engage with it directly. I'm sure some of that is true on both counts. However, I had little doubt, as I walked away from a lively and engaging hour spent contemplating books, that there is a profound service offered to us by people like Miriam Toews who dare to tangle with the intimidating triumvirate of the good, the true, and the beautiful, armed only with words.