Saskatoon writer Geoffrey Ursell was once writer-in-residence at the Winnipeg Public Library, and I dropped off a story for him to read. I was just starting to write—it was, in fact, my first story. So I have a pleasing sense of having completed a circle this year with the chance to work in this wonderful program.
I don’t remember a lot of Ursell’s comments the day I sat in his office, but I do recall him talking to me like I was a writing colleague. That was a thrill for me, because what I was really asking was, “Am I a writer?” We ask that question for a long time. A lot of people settle it by quoting Billy Crystal’s character in Throw Mama From the Train: “Writers write.” But I think most of us are looking for an outside opinion to the question, “Do I have talent?”
When I first started writing, it struck me that I wasn’t jonesing to be a concert pianist (although I’d taken piano lessons), and I wasn’t walking around mentally framing objects with an eye to painting or photographing them. But I was always shaping experience into sentences, always savouring words. I read like crazy, and it was the writer’s mind I wanted to penetrate. So if you turn to me with the question, “Am I a writer?” I’ll probably say what I used to say to myself, “Why else would you want to do it so badly?”
I do call myself a writer these days—I can say it without flinching—but that was a long time coming. I just went to the library website and looked up the year Geoffrey Ursell worked at the Winnipeg Public Library. 1989. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My first novel, Reading by Lightning was published in 2008. Twenty years!
It wasn’t having a book published that answered the question for me. It was, rather, times at my computer where I found myself writing something that seemed both deeply me, and also to have come from outside myself. It’s addictive, that sort of creative surprise, and it’s what gives us faith that we can do it, and keeps us working through a long apprenticeship. An endless apprenticeship, because eventually the question morphs into, “Am I the sort of writer I want to be?” and the answer to that, of course, is, “Never.”