I’ve been tramping around in L’s grey matter up here, and this morning I tripped over one of her oldest memories. She was in grade one and learning to print, using one of those standard primary-school pencils, fat and red. The pupils were to practise printing one letter a day, lower case, in their exercise books. For each letter, they were to fill an entire page, line after line, left to right and top to bottom. Over the preceding weeks, L had, with some success, filled 24 pages in her exercise book with the letters a through x. The letter y would defeat her. She wanted her printed letters to form neat columns down the page, but she couldn’t get them to line up to her satisfaction as she worked her way along the second blue line in her exercise book; the slant of the ys as they slashed below the line above were pointing her off course, throwing the columns out of whack. The way she remembers it, she erased repeatedly and started over a number of times in the course of printing her second line of ys. Finally she made it to the end of line 2, and although she wasn’t happy with the looks of it, she dropped down to begin with line 3. She dug into the page with her fat red pencil; she erased and tried again, erased and tried again, and as she proceeded she made more and more of a mess. She probably rubbed a hole clear through the page in more than one place. When she realized everyone in class had finished except for her, she was almost in tears, or so her maudlin memory says. She was a third of the way down the page and upset with the results. Did she fear the teacher’s wrath, or did she just fear the mess?
This girl had an obvious obstacle to overcome on the way to becoming a writer. Writing is, literally, a messy business. (Tramping through her brain is a pretty messy business too, I’ll tell you). Here’s the ending I’d love to give to the story of little L in grade one. I’d love to say she experienced a joyous release and scribbled her way through the rest of her book and waved it at the teacher and shouted with pride, Look! Look what I learned! It’s okay to make a mess! And the teacher was not horrified, did not tell her pupil that neatness would get her into heaven; no, the teacher laughed and opened the window and said, Look, class! It’s raining! Let’s go play in the mud! (From this outburst you can see why my friends say I’m prone to letting my imagination run away with me. Clap if you believe there’s a teacher somewhere who would respond in the way I imagine.)
L’s memory of practising the letter y in grade one fades to black without resolution, but it’s a safe bet she didn’t achieve a breakthrough that day. Later on, though, much later, after a series of provocations — an astute comment from a writer-in-residence at the library, a conversation at Sage Hill, a question bravely posed by a writer friend one afternoon in Amigos Cantina (writers learn so much from other writers) — she introduced herself to the joys of disorder. She learned to get messy. She certainly has plunged me into a mess or two, circumstantial and emotional. She’s let me live in those messes for some time now. In fact, until the more recent drafts, the first chapters of my life didn’t even agree with the later chapters. I’m an artist, a painter, and so I should know that a person has to let go of control, let accidents happen. Still, I’m not keen on leaving things unresolved, which is why I insist on dreaming up answers to questions the world won’t answer for me. But I can hardly disagree when L reminds me I have to learn to tolerate the unsettling, the unknown, the untidy, the contradictory. That’s the job, she says. For both of us, apparently.
P.S. I’ve been phoning a few friends. Watch for the first guest post a few weeks from now, courtesy of a character from someone else’s work-in-progress.