Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

How Does it End?

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Years ago, an author (I believe it was Russell Banks) recounted a conversation he had had with another author (it might have been Joyce Carol Oates). When Joyce heard Russell had begun to write a new novel, she asked: “Have you written the ending yet?” Apparently, Ms. Oates knows how a book will end while she’s still crafting the beginning. The gist of the story isn’t about specific authors (I may be wrong on both counts)as it is about a specific truth: many a storyteller weaves a story’s end while the threads of the story lay in a tangled heap at her feet.

Earlier this week, I announced to my wife and daughters that I thought I had found the ending to a play I’m currently writing about wrongful convictions. The play belongs to a school I’ve seen described as ‘documentary theatre’ and ‘verbatim theatre’. None or little of the dialogue performed on stage is spun by a playwright. The voices are culled from interviews, transcripts, documents, the soil of non-scripted text. Conviction tells the stories of those who have been wrongfully convicted, wrongfully charged, wrongfully accused, in the words of those on both sides of the fence: lawyers, medical professionals, witnesses for the Crown and the defence, families whose lives have been torn apart.

I’m still in the process of putting the pieces together for a third draft of the play, unsure how all the voices will be stitched together. Yesterday I had some 130 Post-it notes on a wall, each representing as little as one line of text or as many as five pages. Most will find a home in the next draft, though I can’t promise long-term accommodation.

As I read over transcripts from one set of interviews, one passage struck me as an apt way to end the play. In discussions with Joel Greenberg, artistic director of Studio 180, the company developing Conviction, we spoke of the desire to explore how the consequences of a wrongful conviction extend far and wide. The subject came up in a conversation with a friend over the weekend. We spoke about the long-term effects of war, and how the costs of war do not end when a scarred soldier returns home. They have barely begun, affecting a family for generations. And so it is with individuals who endure the trauma of being convicted of a crime they did not commit.

When Bill Mullins-Johnson was convicted of murdering his 4-year old niece his mother stood by his side.

“He just looked right at me. The tears just rolled down my face, his face when he told me that. “Momma, I never did that.” You could…You…If you have children you know when they’re lying to you. He was not lying. That was just plain.”

Laureena Hill’s decision to support his son throughout his ordeal drove a wedge between her and her family. She endured unspeakable pain, often times feeling as isolated as the son who was confined to a cell for 12 years.

“I don’t even know now how to describe the hurt how…. I mean there was an absolute physical hurt. That’s what I felt…I felt like I was, like I was breaking all up here. I didn’t even know how to…There was nobody there. Just me…Rocking, rocking, rocking. Walking, walking, walking, walking, walking. Crying, crying, crying, crying, crying. It just never stopped.”

And so a wrongful conviction claims more than just the obvious victims. More often than not, words cannot fully describe the experience of those who have been wronged. They offer glimpses, a porthole through which we can peek but never step through. The challenge of finding the right words to describe the indescribable can, in itself, reveal what would otherwise be obscured. And so it is that Laureena Hill told me about her efforts to articulate what she had endured at the (extended) hands of the legal system.

“I tried to put it down on paper one time and I could not get the words, find the words that would describe the hurt that.. that I was going through after he…after he got arrested. The first couple of months, I…I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t even…I didn’t even, couldn’t find the words to describe how hard and hurtful that was and I…that was way back when and now I don’t even know if I even wanna try it anymore cause it’s…”

She stopped in mid-sentence. And then Bill, sitting across from his mother at her kitchen table, chimed in.

“I would, ma. I would if I were you.”

Laureena continued: “Like, you know, words.”

Bill offered the following advice to his mother, and offered me the ending to the play.

“Start with one word.”

I love that simple piece of advice: start with one word and its echoes of how a journey, no matter how long, begins with one step. It implies that once Laureena Hill starts, her words will flow like a river, unstoppable, and they’ll take us with her. Do we want to venture into those waters? Does she? It’s an ending that implies a beginning, a loose end instead of a neat bow. And it begs the question: which word?

I can’t say with certainty that this exchange between a man utterly betrayed by the law and his deeply wounded mother will bring Conviction to a close. There are other drafts to write, workshops with actors which will further shape the script. But it’s an ending that serves its purpose well in the way it suggests the story doesn’t end.

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.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page