Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing The World Sane

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Our second inspirational quote on writing comes from James Fitzjames Stephen who was known to say, “It’s not my fault. My mother named me that.”

OK, maybe he didn’t say that, but who would have blamed him?

What he did say was this, “Originality does not consist of saying what no one has ever said before but in saying exactly what you think yourself.” Darn, I wish I’d thought of that first.

The important thing to know about James Fitzjames Stephen is that he is also a writer who never won any awards (please see blog #1). And yet, here we are some hundred and fifty years after his death quoting him. Unlike, say Virginia Wolfe for example, who no one could say was fated to toil in obscurity and yet how often do you hear anyone quote her? You’d end up with something like, “She knew and yet she didn’t know what the light behind the flowers falling softly, so softly, mournfully almost, like spring rain but just really, really sad spring rain, might mean if she could only recall how it was she had come to…” I mean, can you fit this on a coaster or coffee mug? I think not.

The other important thing to know about what James-with-the-repeating-name said was that he was right. Which, when you think about it, is rather annoying.

As writers, we all want to say something that will amaze the world. We’ve read those things. They’re written by our favorite authors. By Jane Austen (who I do have quoted on my coffee mug, btw, and who also never won any awards. Is there a pattern here? You decide.), or Tolstoy, by Margaret Lawrence or William Blake. We want to write just like that; that insightfully, that beautifully, to say what the world has never heard before and so, so desires to hear.

The thing is, James-there’s-ten-million-names-in-the-world-so-why-the-heck-does-he-have-the-same-one-twice is right. Everything worth saying has said before at least once. And everything not worth saying has been said even more often than that. All that is important about love or god or how to live well or which bottle to drink from if you really want to mess up your life, it’s all been thought out, written down, edited and sent to printing.

So, here we have to ask two questions. First, “If all the wisdom we’re ever going to have access to is already out there floating around the world, why are we all still so messed up? And then, “If all the wisdom we’re ever going to have access to is already out there floating around the world, why do we need any more writers?”
Excellent questions. To which I happen to have answers. Which is why they pay me the big writer-in-residence bucks. Well, at least I have a theory.

The reason humankind continues to be mostly insane in spite of having billions of very wise literary tombs at our disposal is this; we don’t want to listen. Most of us don’t even want to read but those of us who do often don’t want to listen. We’re not ready to stop being insane. Not quite yet. Not while it’s still fun. Or at least not while we can get away with it and still get a decent table in restaurants.

The task that still exists for writers is that every now and then one of us is ready to become a little more sane, a little wiser, a little kinder to ourselves and others, a little more open to what our place in the world might actually be or what this god notion is all about. And when that happens, we need words that speak to us. So, for one person that might be Jane Austen, for another Beth Goobie. You get the idea.

This wisdom is largely comprised of this. Love matters. Perhaps more than anything. And it’s hard to do well. All of us are broken inside. Those who hide it best cause the most suffering to those around them. The god notion is tricky. That kind of thing.

As writers, each of us finds the same truths, but we express it through the unique medium of our individual perception. We each of us speak in our own language. No two people exactly alike. So each time someone writes it brings into the world one more chance for someone who is ready to be sane to find the wisdom they need spoken in words they can hear.

Some wise Buddhist (is there any other kind?) said, “All human beings want the same thing, we are just going about it in different ways.” I would say that every writer is seeking to explain the same thing, but we all go about it in different ways. And the world needs all of those ways. It needs us to write, not like someone we admire, but exactly like ourselves and not some new astounding big truth that has never been revealed, but the simple basic eternal truths that we all hold inside, and that only you can put down on paper in just the words that someone ready to be a little more sane in the world needs to hear.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Anne Hines

Anne Hines is the author of three novels, Fishing Up the Moon (Pedlar Press, 1998), The Spiral Garden (McArthur & Co, 2005) and Come Away: song of songs (McArthur & Co., 2007) and one collection of nonfiction humour, A Year In HineSight (McArthur & Co, 2002). A series of essays, Parting Gifts: notes on loss, love and life is due for publication by McArthur & Co, fall 2008.

Go to Anne Hines’s Author Page