Helga’s Post #65 — It’s curious how something so mundane as a jump from one day on the calendar (December 31st) to the next one (January 1st) can call forth so many weird emotions and memories of years past. Memories we might not think much about during the year, but on that particular day, they rise from somewhere deep in our cranium, their images crystal clear.
Take this one, end of year 2013. I reflect and recall previous end of years that were vital, that changed the course of my life. It’s the end of 1983, thirty years ago. That’s when we married – again – this time to each other, thanks for that. A thirty year roller coaster ride, almost entirely on the high points, when you scream out in anticipation of the heart-racing drop, only to rise again to new heights.
I believe few would disagree that marriage and relationships have much in common with a wild roller coaster ride.
But it’s what has been leading up to that very special day, those years before, that keep playing in my mind, like an LP stuck when the needle hits a damaged groove on the vinyl.
A big house in Vancouver. A really big heritage house in the city’s east end near the harbour, inhabited by an intellectual communal family. A house that welcomed me, newly divorced, and two young sons, into their midst. It was like a warm blanket engulfing the three of us after the confines of a too rigid family structure. Under the protective umbrella of this new community, we collaborated raising children, taking turns cooking and cleaning, taking care of pets, bandaging bloody knees, drying tears, and generally just hanging out on those rare occasions when all of us happened to be in Vancouver at the same time. Talking philosophy and politics long into the night, listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival and B.B.King. It might add flesh to the story to mention that this was a progressive Jewish household that welcomed visitors from such diverse backgrounds as First Nations leaders, Rabbis, Christians, Hindus, atheists and anyone in between, as long as they cared for the planet and believed in fairness for all. Some frequent visitors from that time are now very much in the public eye; one of the most respected Canadian human rights lawyers from Toronto; Members of Parliament; Deputy Ministers; and yes, poets and aspiring writers who have since become bestselling authors.
I recall the holiday season in particular. First, Hanukkah in early December. We all participated in the Festival of Lights. It was magical. I still remember the vast amounts of latkes we consumed. Then, Christmas. Just as we all celebrated the Festival of Lights with candles on the menorah, everybody enjoyed candles on my Christmas tree. My old-country baking of stollen, vanilla crescents and lebkuchen proved very popular. I still remember a Christmas Day morning, when my adopted Jewish family put on an LP on the well-worn turntable: Handel’s Messiah. I can still hear the scratching sound from the smear of peanut butter that somehow got lodged on the precious vinyl. It all added to the charm of our multi-cultural laissez-faire household. A memory I still treasure more than 30 years later.
Fast backwards long before that. A young woman in Vienna, longing to see the new world. Leaving her family’s fold. Getting on a slow boat to Canada. Meeting a young man on that very boat who would become the father of her two children, in short succession. A marriage that served one partner, but unfortunately shackled the other. A recipe for failure.
The woman, still young, escaping by taking up writing. Short stories, poems, diary entries, and later, essays required to graduate from Simon Fraser University. Two young sons watching their mother’s graduation. An admirer among the crowd. A simple wedding ceremony to follow not much later. This time without a veil, but in a blue, just below the knee-length chiffon dress, to a man I still to this day think is way too good for me.
Fast forward. A rewarding career, with the emphasis on that word. Career. Good money, new skills and lots of professional training. Climbing the steep career ladder, pushing against the glass ceiling, occasionally breaking it. But no time for nurturing my creative side. My yearning to write. Not even time for exploring if I had it in me.
Back again to that yearning, ever since I was bed-ridden after a foot surgery as a kid in Vienna: Writing. Illustrated detective stories, drawn and written with a stubby pencil on note-book sized paper, pages sewn together with thin cotton string, recovering in bed. A child’s way of coping, of escaping a dire post-war existence.
A kid on a trip without borders. No TV. No cell phones. No Internet. Only dog-eared books from the local library to keep me company next to the coal-fired stove. Stories like Pippi Longstocking, Robinson Crusoe and Karl May’s Winnetou took me on trips that were every bit as good as modern day kids’ holidays to Mexico or Hawaii with their parents.
Later, much later, I learned to speak English. I had the choice of taking Russian or English at secondary school – I chose wisely. I was hungry to read in my new language: Steinbeck, Graham Greene, Daphne duMaurier, A.J.Cronin, William Somerset Maugham. These were names that enticed me to eventually leave my native Austria to explore the new world.
I haven’t looked back. But I love going back, visiting, challenging myself to call forth my roots, laughing at jokes that we would consider ludicrous over here because no one would understand their context. Shedding a few tears when a melody awakens those deep-seated memories of early years.
No experience is ever wasted. Well, at least not the ones that don’t damage you permanently. I feel fortunate to have a well to dip into as a writer. We are supposed to write what we know. I’m not sure how much truth this holds. Research can go a long way. But at some point you really do want to write what you have experienced; be that a setting that involves all the senses – sight, smell, sound and feel – a culture, but more than anything, an emotion. How can you write about love without knowing this strongest of all human emotions? Or perhaps it’s hatred that’s stronger than love for some writers. If so, then a story focused on that emotion will be more powerful if you’ve lived through it, if you are a victim of foul play, or abused childhood, or a betrayal beyond any writer’s imagination. This quote by Kurt Vonnegut sums it up well:
“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”
So I am trying to express some of the feelings I’ve experienced in my own life, those emotions that shaped me who I am today, and reflect that in my writing. If I care enough, perhaps I can create a story that will resonate with my readers.
But I will not write a simple romance. Because there’s no such thing in real life. There will be some happy scenes though, deliriously happy even, maybe happy endings, some sweet, some bitter-sweet, and some open-ended that beg for a sequel.
Like life’s journey, the options for us writers of fiction are endlessly exciting.
But here’s the thing: options are endless, but the writing still has to take place. Those ideas have to make the journey from the brain to the fingers on the keyboard, hard as it may be. As Robert Hass so aptly put it:
“It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.”
And that’s the state I want to be in right now. So I had better get going. Happy New Year, dear friends and loyal followers!