Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing There, from Here

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The view from Miranda Hill's window

Today, I am sitting in a new writing space, at a table I bought in a second-hand shop, on an old kitchen chair painted blue, looking out to a deep, saltwater bay, over a collection of crisply painted wooden houses. It’s sunny, but the clouds are resting low on the mountains and any minute it may turn to rain because that’s what it does in summer, here on Bonne Bay, in Western Newfoundland. I think it’s about as perfect a spot to write as I can imagine.

But in front of me and around on the wooden floorboards behind me, are pictures of a very different summer experience: Muskoka, Ontario, then and now. Fresh water lakes; millionaire’s mansions; granite; loons; and highly polished power boats. Instead of crows and wind in the trees and the occasional passing ATV, I am listening to hear the laughter from swimming lessons and the clinking of drinks on the club porch at happy hour; working to observe the well-heeled in their summer whites, heading for the golf course or the tennis court. It is that summer place that figures prominently in the novel I am writing.

This spring, when my husband and I decided to buy this old Newfoundland house as a place to get away and write, I had few doubts about the soundness of the idea. Yes, it was an extra expense — but think of the creative dividends! Yes, it was far away from our Ontario home — but wasn’t that part of the value, to step away from the noise of our other existence, to truly get away? But one question remained: how to look out on such an arresting place, and imagine another, equally fully?

Many writers have spoken about the benefits or even necessity of geographic distance when trying to turn an actual space into a setting for fiction. But often these writers are speaking about places that are personally familiar, places that they believe that they can render sharper in fiction by having some space and years in between their actual experience and their stories. But Muskoka is not a place I know from my personal history. And because I have no memories, I have nothing that I need to forget. For me, Muskoka is a place I must step into, not away from. It’s an experience I need to mine on behalf of my characters — some of whom will call Muskoka home, and many of whom will claim some part of it as theirs, at least in the summer months.

But here I am, trying to write Muskoka in Newfoundland.

To me, Newfoundland in general, and this part of the island in particular, is a place where stories feel vibrant and ever-present, humming like an electrical line after rain. It’s a place that fires my writing urge without, to date, providing much direct content. It’s also a place where history and identity seem closely linked. This place has seduced me, though I have no family ties to the area and don’t, truly, belong.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I find Western Newfoundland not just a good place to escape to write, but a good place to write this particular novel, a story that concerns other seasonal people; people who travel to Muskoka for years, then generations, until it begins to feel that it is their own. That’s one of the things I think as I look across the table to the scenery beyond.

The other thing I think is how easy it might be to be distracted.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard talks about depriving herself of the sensation of the outside, in order to narrow her focus to her interior world. “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided,” she writes, recalling how one summer she rented a study carol in a college library and shut out the activity she might see through the window — cows on the hillside, cars parking, people going out to play baseball — instead taping up her own drawing of the view on the closed blind. Dillard writes, “If I had possessed the skill, I would have painted, directly on the slats of the lowered blind, in meticulous colors, a trompe l’oeil mural view of all that the blinds hid. Instead, I wrote it.”

For now, I am eschewing Dillard’s asceticism, but taking her caution: what’s in the writer’s mind must be more alive and active than what is out her window. And it will be a tough job for the imagination to compete with this. The clouds have blown off, the wind is on the water. Later today there may be whales in the bay. But despite the new address, the boxes that have been emptied, the shelves that have been filled, I can’t allow myself to live here, just as I shouldn’t live in Muskoka or in my Hamilton home. It’s the novel itself that I must inhabit.

So, goodbye for a while. It’s time for me to go in.

Miranda Hill’s stories have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Reader’s Digest, The New Quarterly and The Dalhousie Review, and in 2011 she won The Writers’ Trust / McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize for her short story, “Petitions to Saint Chronic.” This story and eight others were published in her debut collection, Sleeping Funny (Doubleday Canada, 2012).

Hill is also the founder and executive director of the Canadian literary charity Project Bookmark Canada. She lives, writes and works in Hamilton, Ontario.

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