Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sailor Girl

Share |
Sailor Girl

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: WHY DID IT TAKE SHEREE-LEE OLSON MORE THAN TWO DECADES TO WRITE HER FIRST NOVEL?

In a piece for Zoomer magazine last fall, she examines the process of aging with the characters in her head, and how a very different book emerged at the end.

Like all binary thinkers, Aesop was only partly right. Slow, steady, single-minded tortoise wins the race. Sometimes. Overconfident bunny peaks too soon, falls into twenty-year nap. Or maybe the bunny just had to lose a few races. To grow up a little. To figure out where the finish line really is.

The first time I talked to the woman who was going to edit my book, I was holding the phone so hard my hand ached. It was the fall of 2005 and Doris Cowan was the angel who had plucked Sailor Girl from a pile of manuscripts sent to The Porcupine’s Quill. The small but venerable literary press was my last hope; I had spent two years trying to find a berth for Sailor Girl, circumnavigating the Canadian publishing world like a tramp steamer.

But Sailor Girl had been making the circuit of my brain for much longer. I’d started it 25 years earlier, when I was working on a Great Lakes cargo boat to earn money for school. “This book,” I told Doris in a rush, embarrassed. “This is the book I was supposed to write in my twenties. I’m almost fifty.”

I could hear her shrug. Women writing their first book at midlife made perfect sense to Doris. They had other stuff to get out of the way. Kids, for example. Work. Maybe men. And then there was this other thing to get over. Fear. “It takes them that long to gather their courage,” Doris said.

That’s when I knew Doris and I would be fine.

I did not think Doris was speaking of courage in the fundamental sense. We are all required to gather courage many times in our lives – from the forging of our adult selves to the blind faith required to raise children. But the courage to presume an audience, to lift the covers and write about the squalor and splendour of the needs that drive us – to not only do this but to believe that it is necessary to do this -- that is courage of a different order.

And it was that courage -- ego, hubris, whatever you want to call it -- that I did not gather in sufficient quantities until my forties. And am gathering still.

In fact, I’ve thought of myself as a writer since I was fourteen. That was when, on my father’s urging, I sent an angry poem about Biafra to Chatelaine magazine, which actually paid me fifteen dollars to publish it. I thought I was launched. I wrote poems and short stories, trying on the voices of the authors I was reading, randomly and promiscuously -- Richard Brautigan and Violette Leduc, Lawrence Durrell, Edna Millay. I would lie in bed at night and pipe dream a life in letters, the parties, the love it would surely bring me.

Books were my safe place in a dangerous time. I lived on a military base in Germany, in the corner tucked between France and Switzerland. You could order beer in the gasthofs at fourteen. We were teenagers crossing borders in the night, drinking in the ruins of castles. Maybe that’s why my father encouraged my creativity, as a kind of vaccination against too much experience. He was unconventional in that. When I entered York University’s fine arts program in 1975, it was far more common for parents to object to the creative life as a passport to obscurity.

I had no idea you could actually take classes in fiction writing till I arrived at York. The sessions could be harrowing, group critiques where everyone weighed in on your work, which, being mostly autobiographical, was really you being judged. My profs were kinder, big-souled Dad stand-ins who urged me to send my work to the literary mags. The literary mags are brutal. They almost always reject, and they take months to do it. I would get a dismissive note back with my poem or story and I would not think, yes, maybe I could have written this better or no, that person just didn’t get it.

Instead I would be filled with shame, thinking: Why am I doing this? Who do I think I am?

There is a psychological term for those feelings, and it is applied mostly to women: imposter syndrome. It may be a phenomenon of a particular cultural transition, less relevant now, but in my twenties success was fraught. When I finally got an acceptance letter from The Antigonish Review I burst into tears. Somehow I can’t imagine the guys in my class crying because they were finally going to get a story published.

That was 1980, the third summer I went off to work on a Great Lakes freighter, a lucrative job I had fallen into through a friend. This time I went with a new resolve, to lay the groundwork for a book, my coming-of-age novel, my bildungsroman. And I kept laying that foundation, filling notebook after notebook, through the four more summers I worked on the boats, through two bad relationships, a philosophy degree and a journalism degree, always with that book in my head, the girl on the boat, like Brecht’s Pirate Jenny, the girl who would someday show them all.

And then, almost despite myself, I was launched in a career -- a newspaper editing job, a good man, a house, children. I moved ahead into my new life and packed my notebooks into a suitcase, where they stayed for nearly twenty years.

Some of the writing in those notebooks shocks me to this day. It is sharper, sadder, wilder than anything I could write now, and once I had the courage to look at it again, I spent a while grieving that lost voice. By then I was in my early forties, fully consumed by the needs of the two astonishing beings who were my sons. Motherhood had come late for me, and the feelings I had for these small, intense creatures was like first love, only I knew this delirium was forever. I was leaking emotion everywhere and needed to express it, but I had no time for sustained writing. That’s when I found poetry again.

I wrote poems about milk and blood and love, the visceral fear of losing a child, the furious need to protect. I did not write to be published but to have a record, for my sons as well as for me. But when I sent some poems out to magazines I was surprised to find most of them accepted.

Twenty years of editing the work of others had made a better writer of me, certainly, but had also created in me a deep hunger to use my own words. Writing was now my safe place in a new dangerous time, a time when I felt swamped by everyone else’s needs, work and bills and spouse and children -- always and most importantly the children. The poetry had sharpened my vision; now I could see the book again.

And then, as I immersed myself in my old narrative, something unexpected happened. The story I had carried in my head for so many years, the story of a young woman against the world, became the story of a group of women. The old lady cooks with their hobbies, the middle-aged sexpots looking for love, all the unruly females who were carving out territory in a man’s world, were now my Greek chorus, insisting that I see things I never saw in those years of exile.

I think now that Sailor Girl took twenty-five years to write because it had to take twenty-five years. And I would like to propose a different ending for Aesop’s fable. The tortoise made it to a finish line, sure, but there is more than one finish line in life. I imagine the hare waking up, long after the crowds have gone, and bounding off in an entirely different direction. Here is the thing: You can never know where your own finish line is until it trips you up. You just have to keep running, breathing in the green air of spring, the wind roaring in your ears.

Photo: Sheree-Lee Olson in front of the Sir James Dunn

For more information on Sailor Girl, please click here.

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.

Related item from our archives