Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Granville Island, Vancouver, BC

This was the first year I fully committed to the Vancouver International Writers Festival. FULLY COMMITTED, I say. To the tune of almost $400 Canadian—nice tune, but hard to whistle—I bought tickets for almost all the evening events and many of the daytime events. Since I’m cheap, this represents COMMITMENT.

So what did I get for my $400 Canadian ($340 U.S., still not chump change)?

I got the two premier ladies of Canadian letters.

Margaret Atwood opened the Festival by giving the Bill Duthie Memorial Lecture. Her title? “Five Visits to the Word Horde.” With great humour, much of it self-deprecating, Ms. Atwood described her writing process for five of her books. Each visit to the “word horde” was different, her process affected by type of project, subject matter, her own experience in the craft, and technology and her mastery thereof... different, all different, but the result of each effort was a book, a Margaret Atwood book. I took from this a simple rule, or perhaps a sneaker ad: JUST DO IT.

So is writing about just getting on with it? What about talent? Likening writing to the art of the magician, Ms. Atwood said, “You either have the hands, or you don’t. If you don’t, you’ll never be more than competent. You may have the hands but not the motivation, and you won’t put in the work.” So what does it take to write? According to Ms. Atwood, writing requires four things: talent, hard work, passion, and luck.

Alice Munro closed the Festival with a reading of her newest project. But, earlier in the week, she was interviewed in front of an audience by Hal Wake, who will replace the redoubtable Alma Lee as Festival Artistic Director. Alice Munro is another kind of writer from Margaret Atwood. She’s someone whom I would like to hug, but carefully, as she is a treasure I would not want to break. Not that she isn’t tough! After noting that her writing offended her relatives from the first, she added, “You have to realize that you might break somebody’s heart. You don’t break it if you can avoid it, but it’s kind of an awful choice because these are real people that hoped you would grow up to be a decent person.” Yes, she’s funny, too. During the reading at the end of the Festival, Ms. Munro read from her work-in-progress, a fictionalized account of her family’s history in Canada. The prose was simple, straight-forward, and powerful. Very Alice Munro.

Between the great ladies? The highlight for me was “All You Can Eat: A Literary Buffet.” What could be better than readings by some of my favourite writers/poets (including Anne Fleming, Ivan E. Coyote, and Sheri-D Wilson) punctuated by wine and go-go dancers?

No go-go dancers, but “Grand Openings” featuring Stan Hollinghurst, Thomas King, Shani Mootoo, Jane Urquehart, and Tim Winton was right up there in value. I can heartily recommend Shani Mootoo’s “He Drown She in the Sea”—see earlier blog entry.

Was it worth it? Yes, commitment in this case was fruitful. After only a mild case of writers’ envy (Why can’t I write like that?) and depression (What's the use if I can’t write like that?), I got back to work.

Let’s see, I’ve gotten a very late start, so, if I want to be like Atwood and Munro, I need to write at least a book a year and live to be… oh, say one hundred and three.