(June 4, 1998, Gazette)
I am pleased and honored to be receiving an honorary degree on the campus of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. It seems appropriate, even serendipitous, that I should find myself addressing a class graduating in a papermaking town.
I was born in a mill town situated at the mouth of a river - Liverpool, Nova Scotia, where my father worked at the Mersey Pulp and Paper, now Bowater's. I attended a small university. Memorial is not a small university, but Grenfell College is comparable in size to Acadia University, which I attended. The number of graduates in my year roughly equaled the number who are graduating here today. Though my degree was a bachelor of arts with a major in English, I took several courses in what is now called fine arts: painting, drawing, theatre arts, as well as courses in the appreciation and history of art.
The latest census on the gender breakdown in universities, 1996, shows that for the first time there are more women than men graduating from Canadian universities. But in the 1950s and '60s when I attended Acadia and later the University of Alberta, men far outnumbered women on university campuses. Few of those women were undertaking degrees in pre-engineering and science; like me, most of the female students were found in the arts. A liberal arts degree, as it was then called, was viewed as a foundation for the pursuit of a career in teaching, librarianship, sometimes law and social work. For a woman the arts degree was often viewed as a preparation for becoming an educated wife, which, after a brief detour into teaching, was what I became. No one spoke about a liberal arts degree as a preparation for pursuing a writer's life.
Although my instincts and aptitudes had always drawn me to the arts, I fell into a writer's life almost by accident, as one sometimes falls in love. While my infant son napped - fortunately he was a sound sleeper - I sat at the gate-leg kitchen table, painted, I remember, pea green, writing a story in a lined scribbler. I had never written a story before in my life. Poems, yes, essays by the dozen, but no stories. By the time it was finished I had filled three scribblers whose contents I then typed into a manuscript. I didn't even know a manuscript could be written by someone other than a monk. I didn't know how to type. I learned, more or less, on a portable Royal after reading How to Type in Ten Easy Lessons – I went to lesson eight. A writer's natural ally, which is to say a librarian, provided me with the names of Canadian publishers, one of whom subsequently published my story. I was more surprised than anyone that I, who had always been a voracious reader of books, had written one myself. Unwittingly I had discovered what I hope to convey to you this morning - which is that we possess the ability to surprise ourselves. It surprised me that I had pulled something from the inside of my head, something that until I filled those scribblers, I had not known was there. That jolt of recognition, that creative high, has kept me writing ever since. Without knowing it, I had embarked on the voyage of the creative writer, a voyage to undiscovered countries. That is how I think of writing fiction. Each book is a voyage into the unexplored and uncharted territory of the mind.
After I published that first book, I remember thinking, "Why didn't I know that I could write a story? Why didn't someone tell me that I could?" The answer to the second question is easy: Why should anyone have told me, when it is our own responsibility, not someone else's, to discover our strengths. The answer to the first question is more complex and had much to do with being a person of my time. In my generation most everything I read had been written by someone who was either dead or from away. The same applied to painting and plays. To the colonial mind, sources of inspiration were seen as being elsewhere, not close at hand.
The best books, the best art was created by someone far away. Imported meant quality. Homemade meant rough hewn. Whatever, and whomever, was brought from away, was superior.
Fortunately, on many levels, this massive sense of inferiority that has dominated our culture, while not entirely banished, is on the wane. Your generation has been brought up with a greater awareness of its strengths. I am not so naive as to suggest that we are out of the woods in regard to having confidence in ourselves, but we have come a long way in placing value on what we have to offer not only to our own community but to the larger community of the country and the world. We know that it is possible to be born in this place and to live at a time when our view, our take, our interpretation of life has value. Our skills and talents are as valuable as someone's from Toronto, say, or Vancouver. We don't have to look far for proof. We see our actors not only on Newfoundland but on Canadian stages. We see them regularly on television and in movies. We see the work of our visual artists widely represented in galleries and collections. We see books written by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in libraries and bookstores. We see our engineering and science graduates becoming university presidents and research pioneers in medicine, science and technology.
One of the strengths of the creative arts is that they are portable. They transcend boundaries, artificial and otherwise, and can be lived any number of places. Given the precarious nature of earning a living in the arts, except for artists who make it "big" and those who have tenured jobs in arts faculties, jobs in the arts are underpaid and insecure. The people who keep our galleries and theatres and publishing houses going, do so by working for less money than those who work in most other sectors in our society. Artists are constantly looking for ways to buy time in order to finish a sculpture or write a play.
This means generating income by picking up temporary jobs: bartending, house painting, waitressing, jobs which many of you have been doing all along to help pay your way through university.
Those of you who are graduating today with bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees may continue to work at these jobs to finance further study or until you find a job that interests you. Finding this job may mean leaving the province. Chances are that many of you will have to go out into what used to be called the big bad world but is now, with the information highway, referred to as the global village.
Those of you who leave this place that has nurtured and shaped you, do so with the knowledge that along with your laptops and underwear, you take with you a sense of who and what you are. This, perhaps as much as your hard won expertise and knowledge, is your greatest resource. This is what will sustain you wherever you are.
I left home at 18 and after university graduation, lived in various places in Canada. I was always homesick for the Atlantic, as I am sure Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray and elsewhere must be. Those of us born on the North Atlantic have what writer Alistair McLeod has so eloquently described as the lost salt gift of blood. Slowly, year by year, I learned that I was able to make this homesickness work for me both in my writing and in the life I was making in the new terrain. I won't pretend that it was easy. But I came to realize that while I was living far from my roots, I did not need to make myself over into someone else. What has given Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken, lasting power is that it expresses a universal truth, which is that we cannot live our lives in two places at once. Uncloned, we must choose between two roads, which in your case may be to go or to stay. This is a choice that may occur many times in your life. The point is that whether you stay or go, it is of lasting and crucial importance that you remain in touch with and value where you come from and who you are. It is by keeping this firmly within your sights that you will be better able to live a creative life.
What is it that distinguishes a creative life? A creative life is a thinking life. It requires you to question, and never stop questioning, why you have chosen to do the work you do. It is a life that questions what you want from life and more important, what you want to put into it. It is a life that asks what you value and why you do. It is a life that requires you to be observant, to pay attention to what is going on. It is a life of ongoing learning, a life of self-education that does not stop but begins when you graduate today.
When I speak of a creative life I do not only refer to artists. Although the occupation of artists is to seek and use creative ideas, they are by no means the only people living creatively. I have had the good fortune to know many engineers, one of them very well, and scientists who lead creative lives. It often strikes me that arts and science are two solitudes in our society, that too often there is a gulf of misunderstanding and indifference separating the two which, in the interests of us all, should be bridged.
When you were a child, you probably flattened your palm against a sheet of paper and drew the outline of your hand. Like your fingerprints, not two hands are alike. Too easily we forget the fact of our uniqueness, or we take it for granted. In Nova Scotia there are Micmac petrographs of individual hands incised on rocks, an arduous task given the stone tools the carvers used. In the caves of France there are paintings made 30,000 years ago. Think of it! Think of the fact that from earliest, prehistoric days when people lived a precarious and often terrifying hunting existence, they painted what are now regarded as highly sophisticated images on cave walls. They were also telling stories, and making music on bone whistles. Our preoccupation with the present tends to obliterate our history and those who came before. What we are celebrating today is not only your acquisition of a degree, but the creative spirit in each and every one of you, a spirit that has been part of us since the genesis of humankind. Congratulations. May you live a creative and, I hope, surprising life.