Storytelling is defined by Wikipedia (that oft-times questionable but yet still vastly knowledgeable source of all things definitive like) as the conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment….Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and…to instill moral values.”
I like to think of myself as a storyteller, back from the very moment I could grasp a pencil in hand, and perhaps even before then. ( I mean….I can’t really say where an idea for a story comes from, but it has to come from somewhere, before it’s pulled, all raw material just waiting to be molded, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the “real world”). And in this act of storytelling, like all good storytellers I suppose, I hope to entertain, engage, perhaps titillate, and, in this case, through this medium, provide what I’d like to think is an informed opinion or two on those matters, things and events important and of interest to me, and I hope, in return, to you.
During the recent Word On The Street festival in Halifax, a national book and magazine festival celebrating reading and advocating literacy, my partner Shawn and I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Alexander MacLeod, Giller Prize Winning Author of “Light Lifting”. Now truth be told I’d only come across MacLeod fairly recently, when the Giller Prize nominees were first announced…and “Light Lifting” seemed only the latest rave amongst ever-expanding East Coast book offerings that continue to gain a wide audience and a well deserved national spotlight. And if MacLeod’s leading a charge, he has an entire army behind him…a new generation of writers who are paving the way through this Atlantic Canadian Literary landscape, with stories filled with humor and drama and emotion and pathos and beauty that could only come from our rugged country and coastline. This impressive list of new literary heroes (and heroines) includes great new talent like Chad Pelley (Away From Everywhere), Michael Winter (The Death of Donna Whalen), Kathleen Winter (Anabel), Christy Lee Conlin (Heave), Ami MacKay (The Birth House), Sheree Fitch (Kiss The Joy As It Flies), Lisa Moore (Alligator), Jessica Grant (O Come Thou Tortoise) and Chris Benjamin (Drive By Saviours – and I mean, seriously,aren’t those last two just totally awesome titles or what? ). And happily, that list could go on and on. All unique new voices, all exciting and masterful in their command of time and place, mood and language, atmosphere and tone…and, in my own writing, I can only someday hope to equal their talent, enthusiasm, and expertise.
But Alexander, a distinctly talented author in his own right, comes by an auspicious pedigree of his very own, one not shared by the others….He is the son of the legendary Alistair MacLeod, THE literary giant from the hills of Cape Breton, who’s short story collections “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” and “As Birds Bring Forth The Sun and Other Stories” I – along with thousands and thousands of other students – had dissected in loving detail throughout junior high and high school english classes, and then later went on to study in more detail in Contemporary Twentieth Century fiction during my English majoring days at Dalhousie University. So meeting the son of this literary idol of mine was a bit of a surreal moment, and one I was more than a bit star struck by. (But then again, it’s not everyday you get to hang out in front of a wooden boat by the Maritime Museum chatting to one Alexander MacLeod of THE MacLeods, now is it?) But before that moment when I struggled to put two words together (and can we just say THAT never happens?), I had the opportunity to listen to Alexander talk about growing up in this famous family. And as I listened to this bright, funny, insightful, and handsome man tell a tale or two of his upbringing, I was struck by how much this life he described sounded so typical of any Cape Breton family. (I actually told him I thought meeting him would be like talking to royalty, but hey, what do you know? It seems he’s like everybody else.) And when later I was….you know…hanging by a wooden boat, talking to the son of Alistair MacLeod… Shawn asked if he knew who his father was growing up, if he lived some sort of life one might expect of a son of a writer type. And to this he replied….no, not at all. That, in fact, no one who entered his family home would ever have guessed his dad was a writer. That there were rarely books about, that his parents rarely even read to their children, and that he and his siblings shared a love of sports, food , music, laughter and good times with both friends and family, all those good things that most good families share, Cape Breton or otherwise. But how could this be? His dad’s a world renowned master of his craft, who wrote stories that shaped and defined in many ways the hearts and minds of students in classrooms all across our country. But then again, what did I expect? A reading jacket and smoking pipe in some old world library,with rows upon rows of shiny books, all with that new book smell, and perhaps a sign saying “Shhhhh! Genius at work!”… You can see how my imagination might run wild with it.
However, just because it wasn’t a houseful of academics and scribes didn’t mean the ancient traditions of storytelling weren’t alive and well within his family. In fact, Alexander went on to describe how everyone back in his childhood community was a true storyteller within his or her right. You see, growing up in rural Cape Breton, the act of visiting your neighbors was an active and expected and oft encouraged past time. But if you went all the way to visit someone, often miles and miles of road in not so pleasant weather, and they went all the way to prepare a huge meal and pour a drink to welcome you, well, as a trade-off, you had better have a story. And that story had better be a good story, told with punctuations of wild laughter and broad humour or high drama and dark intrigue. And so these tales were woven, tales from the past of fishermen and hunters and farmers, or of things just glimpsed and imagined, of what wonders might lay just around the corner. Gossips of budding romances or dying love affairs. Of children born out-of-wedlock or loved ones taken too soon. Of far exotic places, the bustle of some big city life, or the quiet solitude of small town living. Regardless, these stories were told, and passed on, around campfires and kitchen tables, backyards to playing fields, entire generations of storytellers, weaving all the magic and wonders of everyday life that they so artfully described.
Although much of this encounter, this brush with fame you might say, left me with food for thought, one thing that truly struck home was the moment Alexander described himself , in his youth, as an avid reader, one who would use books as a means to escape the chaos around him, all the noise and confusion that everyday life could bring in such a busy, active household. And that was clearly something to which I could totally relate and identify. As a child, even as a young child, I was rarely without a book in hand, usually a book far beyond my years, but ones I would carry about nonetheless. My version of a security blanket perhaps. I still do it to this very day, a novel or two forever tucked inside the man bag I swore I’d never carry. My parents, especially my father, would actually get CROSS with me for how often I sought out something to read – and I don’t blame him, as it must have seemed an odd thing at the time, as most boys my age then would’ve been into cars or sports, not Shakespeare – and when he’d find me after midnight, huddled under the blankets with a Hardy Boys novel and the flashlight from under the sink, he’d tell me very sternly that if I kept this up, I was going to ruin my eyes. And when I was six and needed glasses for the first time, I thought “oh no, he WAS RIGHT!” But even that bad stroke of luck (or was it fate?) didn’t deter me, and, tired eyes and frequently broken, twisted, and altogether lost glasses be damned, I remained a voracious reader…and then, soon after, an equally rabid writer.
Essays and short stories for school, poetry for gifts to mark special occasions, rewriting and redefining song lyrics just for fun, doodling words and phrases on napkins….if I wasn’t reading, I was writing, a not so secret passion that seemed to absolutely run wild in my youth. But then….I grew up (well, at least in theory), with all the grown up things that come with it, and instead of journalism or perhaps teaching English in a university somewhere while I worked on the next great American novel, I instead found myself working in the health care sector, first with people with autism, and later with children in mental health. Challenging and rewarding work, in all it’s complexities, and more than enough to keep me occupied, in mind and body, for a long, long time. But lately….things have changed. For lack of a better description, I hear that siren song once more, and feel those familiar old stirrings, and so here I am again….writing. For better or for worse. And with this reawakening comes a great deal of change and newness. And a whole lot of happenings. I’m now a blogger, in case that fact escaped you, on a site that I thought my boyfriend and sisters and a couple of close friends might tune into, but that instead has had over three thousands views (and counting!) since it’s launch in May. And I’m now a contributor to an online magazine called PALM (Paris a la Mode), a fashion and lifestyle magazine (I um…cover mostly the humourous lifestlye side of things) which has a growing national and even international fanbase. I’m gearing up for my second attempt (this time for the win!) at NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, in November, where I challenge myself to complete a 50,000 word novel by month’s end (remember, quantity, not quality! At least to start…) As well, I’m toying with taking a creative non-fiction course through NSCAD, a number of writing workshops, and as well I’ve dared to dream the dream and have entered a submission to a mentorship program through the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. So yes, to say it’s been (and will continue to be) a busy year is a understatment, and yet I feel this renewed energy, this newfound dedication and passion to the writing life, and I now feel fully prepared to follow my dream down that road, wherever it might lead. I think it’s long past time I took the path, and that I at least owe it to myself to try.
So yes, I’m a storyteller. Like my father before me. And his father before him. And so on and so on. And so I was reminded that there truly was no “writer type”. That a writer, a storyteller….they could be an 80-year-old woman with an elementary school education, or a 25-year-old PhD student….a lawyer or a brick layer, a farmer or a business executive.
Or even, perhaps, my 6-year-old nephew Kyle, who likes to regale anyone who cares to listen about tales from school or soccer or his favourite TV show. Just be prepared for lots of sentences punctuated with “Well, actually…” and “That’s crazy!” I can’t wait for the day he surpasses me with his storytelling. I expect it might be sooner than I think.
And so…as long as there is a passion for story, then the storyteller shall remain.
So pull up a chair, why don’t you, and let me spin a tale or two….