After a delectable meal at a Chinese restaurant, most of us welcome the fortune cookies that customarily accompany the bill. Even though the fortunes are usually universally propitious there is always a moment of hesitation before the first cellophane wrapped cookie is selected, and then the rest are claimed and then everyone settles down to crack open their cookie to retrieve the little paper inside that hopefully forecasts a change in one’s fortunes.
Just after completing my first novel, a little over two years ago, I received the following message in my fortune cookie – “Happiness is a direction, not a destination.” I showed it to my partner, Garry and the couple with whom we’d gone out for dinner and they in turn shared their fortunes with me. I didn’t have to ponder for very long over what my fortune referred to as I was already feeling a little blue after all the excitement of finally having one of my literary works published into a book.
The fortune cookie message summoned up a flood of memories of past struggles in my life and then that defining moment of finally having realized my much anticipated and sought after goal. I recalled having felt a bit deflated after celebrating those achievements and so I experienced a sense of relief that at least, according to ancient Chinese tradition, it was perfectly normal after the struggle is over to feel a little sad. I was never one to sit on my laurels but the message about the direction or journey really resonated with me. I wasn’t such a nutcase after all!
Two years later as I look back at that euphoric time following the release of my first novel - the launches, which transported me out of isolation into the limelight, interviews with the press and kudos from family, friends and acquaintances – and then the ensuing postpartum depression, I find that my perspective on the writing life has again shifted. And once again, I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to garner some validation of my feelings about the writer’s life. And indeed, this rumination over why we write, how we got to this point, I’m beginning to appreciate, is grist for the mill. Just like we roll over in our heads the perfect descriptive words to paint a scene, or the exchange of dialogue between characters that we’ve conjured up and how that dialogue will convey to the reader what these fictitious people are really about, so too do we writers engage in a tug of war in our heads over why we do this in the first place.
But I digress, as I’m apt to do. Thanks to a friend who divides his time between Calgary and a cottage in Proctor, in the Slocan valley of British Columbia, I was given the heads up about the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival in Nelson, BC. Checking out the website, I discovered that local authors were invited to sell their books at the opening social event on the Thursday evening. To my delight, I was considered by Lynn, the festival’s executive director, to qualify as a local author on account of Nelson and my hometown of Crowsnest Pass being connected by Highway 3.
I’d decided to move from Calgary to Crowsnest Pass for many reasons, but two of the factors that weighed in favour of a smaller community were the quiet and the isolation that I believed would be conducive to a writer’s life. But it wasn’t until I attended the festival’s Friday evening event, featuring Eleanor Wachtel, hostess of CBC’s,“Writers and Company”, that I realized that the isolation that I believed to be so critical to the honing of my craft was more of a psychological nature than physical. I didn’t need to necessarily detach myself from a big city, teeming with people or from a familiar environment, as writers are prone to do when pursuing a life in another country as an expatriate.
As soon as Eleanor launched into her topic – how writers have a tendency to feel marginal – I felt my heart begin to pound. At the same time, I began to feel the same elation as at my first launch in Calgary, at Pages on Kensington, when I was introduced as the author of my debut novel, Mirrored in the Caves and everyone in attendance broke into applause. I had arrived. As I tuned in to Eleanor’s address, I experienced that rare epiphany – that “aha” moment that the isolation, detachment that I felt and indeed sought out was of a cerebral nature and that I’d always felt isolated, detached. I’d instinctively been drawn to what I felt most comfortable with. The pursuit of a place that was isolating, however, was superfluous. I’d always felt isolated, marginal in my own head.
According to Eleanor, I was in good company. Isabel Allende, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro and more, had all struggled with feelings of marginalization, not belonging, feeling out of place…and time. Just like two years earlier, when I’d broken open that fortune cookie and read my fortune about the direction and not the destination being important, I felt relieved, validated.
I recall in my twenties, which were a very difficult time for me, applying pen to paper and actually thinking that I was engaging in the process of composing a poem because of a desire to be understood. But I didn’t appreciate at the time that I felt marginal and I won’t get into what it is about me, or my upbringing or the milestones that I’ve experienced that have contributed to those feelings because that is what fuels my art. What was seminal for me, after listening to Eleanor Wachtel speak about writers feeling marginal, was the realization that what I always perceived to be my bane, was an incredible blessing - my greatest asset as a writer.
To feel marginal is to assume the perennial role of the observer. I recall riding the trolley bus in Edmonton with my mother, and later with my older sister, and being mesmerized by all the people, all dressed differently, of all different ages, speaking different tongues and often commanding myself not to breathe because of the pungent smells that assaulted my young nostrils – body odour, garlic, liquor, bad breath. Yuck!
It was all an adventure! But again I digress. To feel marginal is always painful and hence the urge that I acknowledged, when I was in my twenties, to write, in the hope that I might be understood. It’s an ego thing , really. Who am I to want to be understood? Ultimately, we writers move on and write about others, endow those without a voice with a voice and even a very loud one, because we writers are privileged, living in a part of the world that permits us to write in peace, although sometimes war, conflict, struggle and our memories of the pain parade as our muse. And feeling marginal, we take notice - at the right time and place.
- Barbara D. Janusz, author of Mirrored in the Caves