Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

WRITERS AND BEARDS

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When I was four I decided I was a writer. Not that I would be a writer, but that I already was one in some atavistic way. I assumed, naturally, that I would also one day acquire all the characteristics of a successful writer. It didn’t matter that at that point in my training I could not wield a pencil in any useful way. (Crayons were another matter, and I was good at that.) Nor could I spell, not yet having learned the alphabet. These were mere logistical problems, however, and I felt the solutions would come in time.

Most importantly, to be a writer you needed imagination, and I had plenty of that. My mother frequently mentioned that fact, as in, “My son has a lot of imagination,” or even, “My son has far too much imagination,” in a tone remarkably similar to the one she used to say, “Don’t make me tell you one more time.”

Almost as important, I had “issues” to write about. My dog Tammy, for instance, had been my best friend and constant companion till the day my parents gave her away so she could “go live on a farm and be happy with other dogs.” (A euphemism for something much direr, I’ve always suspected.) In any case, I never saw Tammy again, but I felt I now had what it took to become an early protest writer.

Years passed and suddenly I was ten. Not only was I able to read and write, but I had also achieved early success. My first poem, Raggedy Anne, received honourable mention in my Grade Six year-end composition contest. That was when I began to look seriously at other writers and see what it meant to be one.

By this time, I had acquired some favourites. A great Canadian author named Farley Mowat was one of these. Mr. Mowat wrote about animals and braving things out under extreme conditions. I lived in Sudbury—practically the arctic, or so I believed—and I knew what extreme was all about. As well, I noted, Mr. Mowat had a beard.

My father had a favourite writer, too, a man named Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Hemingway also wrote about animals and braving things out under extreme conditions, but he wrote about hunting and fishing and killing animals. (He was also fond of killing his characters off at the end of his books, something that would later come back to haunt him.) I already knew by then that I was against such things. Nevertheless, I reasoned, Mr. Hemingway must be a real writer because he too had a beard.

In truth, my favourite writer at the time was a man named Franklin W. Dixon, author of the Hardy Boys. While I had never seen a picture of Mr. Dixon, and Frank and Joe were too young to grow facial hair, I knew Mr. Dixon would have a beard. It just made sense. (I had another semi-favourite at this time, a woman named Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew mystery series. While I suspected Miss or Mrs. Keene did not have a beard, I had seen pictures of the Bearded Lady at the circus, and knew it was just possible that she might. In any case, I lived in hope.)

More time passed. At sixteen, I began my first novel. I felt strongly that I had Important Things To Say. I just didn’t know if I was going to get to say them. While many writers have had creative blocks, my tragedy was of an entirely different nature. As I approached maturity, it became clear that I was doomed to stay a smooth-faced individual. How, I wondered, would I ever be taken seriously as a writer if I couldn’t grow a beard? I had acquired other favourite authors by this time. All were men who had written important works: John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and William Faulkner, among them. Each one had, if not a full-blown beard, then Significant Facial Hair.

Youthful ambition being what it is, I began to accept that I had overshot my mark. I would never be a bearded author. At seventeen, I entered university and the wide world opened for me. I began to discover writers who, like me, were beardless, but still had things to say. Hope blossomed anew. I fell in love with the poetry of John Keats, a young man so bitter about his fate at the hands of publishers and critics that he forbade having his name put on his tombstone. (I could relate.)

I picked up books by another beardless writer, Oscar Wilde. Among these was a short story, The Happy Prince. His tale of the swallow that helps a prince moved me to tears. And even though the bird (spoiler alert!) dies at the end, it doesn’t die meaninglessly or through human intervention.

Encouraged by this, I began to write with renewed vigour. That same year, I published my first short story, a whimsically poetic piece not so coincidentally entitled Truth and Beauty, A Fairy Story in the Tradition of Oscar Wilde. From that day on, I formed a new resolve for myself: to be an occasionally serious, frequently whimsical writer, one with a poetic temperament and no beard.

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.

Jeffrey Round

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning writer and director. His most recent novel is The Honey Locust.

Go to Jeffrey Round’s Author Page