Vol 39 No 15
June 7, 2007
In the Field
News & Notes
Out and About
June 28, 2007
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Address to convocation by
Dr. Wayne Johnston
Mr. President, chancellor, fellow honorary doctoral candidates and graduates. It’s a privilege to have been invited here today to part of the graduating class of 2007 of Memorial University of Newfoundland. I graduated from Memorial University with a bachelor of arts in English in 1979. When I first enrolled at Memorial, it was my intention to become a doctor so I began taking pre-med courses. In my first year I took chemistry, physics, biology mathematics and English. However, I was so inept at setting up the apparatus for experiments in my various l science labs that I realized that if I was able to do this much harm to inanimate objects that couldn’t complain when they were broken, dropped, scratched, burnt or assembled improperly, it might be best if I never actually laid hands on a patient. So I dropped out of pre-med and took up the study of English literature instead, figuring that any mistakes I made in that discipline were unlikely to cause death or personal injury to others or bring massive lawsuits upon myself. So ended my first chance to be a doctor. In the fall of 1984, after having received a master of arts in English from the University of New Brunswick, and after having had my thesis published, my first novel, The Story of Bobby O’Malley, I enrolled in the university’s PhD program in English, but dropped out at Christmas, having by this time realized that I couldn’t both write novels and go about acquiring a PhD. So ended my second attempt to become a doctor. This seems like a good time to point out that the moral of this story is not that if you are on your way to becoming a doctor of anything you should give up as soon as you can and try something easier for you and safer for everyone else. I came back to Newfoundland in the fall of 1986 and enrolled in the PhD program in English at Memorial, only to discover for the second time that I couldn’t both write novels and go about acquiring a PhD. This rediscovery ended my third chance to become a doctor. Standing here today I realize why I quit so many doctoral programs. I must have sensed even then that there was a much easier way to become a doctor simply write nine books in 25 years and wait for someone to confer a doctorate upon you, which is happening to me today for the second time in my life.
I discovered something else during my first year back in Newfoundland, or rather during the next three years I couldn’t write while living in Newfoundland. From 1986 to 1989, the only thing I was able to write about was not being able to write and that doesn’t make for very good reading. In 1989, I regretfully decided that, for the sake of my writing, I had to leave Newfoundland. Many people have said to me “Well, fine, so you had to leave Newfoundland, but did you HAVE to go to Toronto.” I always reply that there exists a map of the entire world on which only two places are named. There is Newfoundland, and a vast region encompassing the rest of the globe which is known as not-Newfoundland. If other people want to call the part of not-Newfoundland that I live in Toronto, that’s fine with me.
So I moved to not-Newfoundland in 1989 and found immediately and to my great relief that I was once again able to write about Newfoundland, which is what I have been doing since, though I have also acquired something called a “chair” in the United States. Chairs are very hard to come by in Canada. In fact, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no chairs of Canada in creative writing, though are a good many in the U.S. where Canada is regarded as being part of the world known as “not the United States,” and where it is widely believed that Newfoundland is either an independent country or a province of Iceland. A chair is a position with a university that pays far better than other positions and requires you to do little or nothing in return except whatever it was that earned you the position of “chair” in the first place. If you ever feel like you’re not getting your share of resentment from your colleagues and are feeling overlooked and lonely because of it, your best bet is to convince someone to give you a “chair.” It is actually possible to occupy a chair while living thousands of miles away from it.
I’ve discovered many things while living in various parts of not-Newfoundland. I look at Newfoundland differently than I did when I lived here. Things have changed a lot here since then, though what is best about the place has remained the same. Newfoundland has far more good artists of all kinds per capita than any other part of not-Newfoundland than I have ever visited. I don’t know what accounts for the ongoing flourishing of the arts in Newfoundland. I DO know that we are not the flavour-of-the-month. If anything we are the flavour of the century. Newfoundland is no longer a place that non-Newfoundlanders make jokes about. It is a place they visit and a place they move to, and a place that frustrates their attempts to describe its uniqueness to people who have never been here.
In Newfoundland, the time has nearly come when Newfoundlanders will only leave home if they want to, not because they have to.
I realize that not everyone graduating here today is a Newfoundlander and so I would like for a moment to do what I know you were all hoping I wouldn’t do and that is dispense some advice. I suspect that many of you have already made plans for the next few years. You may have already got jobs, you may be going on to law school, medical school, or graduate schools of one kind or another. Some of you may already know that you will, at least for a while, be leaving Newfoundland. It is a good thing to make plans, to have a plan. It is a very bad thing to stick to those plans no matter what. To stick to your ultimate goal and live the kind of life that you believe is most worth living are good things. But I would urge all of you to keep in mind the importance that chance will play in your lives. Chance, co-incidence, luck, serendipity, call it whatever you want, but your odds of being happy will be greater if you are receptive to it. You will be offered the friendship of people you would never have imagined could be your friends. You will be offered help by people for no other reason than that you happened to meet them. Chance encounters will, if you let them, change your lives for the better. You may think your carefully devised plan is leading you to a particular goal, only to find that it was actually leading somewhere else that may turn out to be a better place. The importance of being receptive to randomness is much greater than it ever was because of the speed with which the world is changing. The world in which you formulate what you think of as your unchangeable plan might in ten years be so different that your plan will be obsolete. Most of the good things that have happened to me have at least partly been the result of benign accidents.
But that’s enough stump-speaking for today. This university was largely the creation of one of the greatest stump-speakers of all time, premier Joseph Smallwood, whose life, as some of you may know, I wrote a book about which is called The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and caused no controversy whatsoever in Newfoundland. Two years ago, at Hawthorne Cottage in Brigus, I gave a reading which was attended by premier Smallwood’s grandson, whose name is also Joseph Smallwood. He asked me to sign his copy of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams but also asked me to inscribe the book, not to him but to his grandfather, to inscribe it, that I, as if his grandfather was still alive. I wrote: “To Premier Joseph Smallwood, I think you would have liked this book because it’s mostly about you.” The book is also, however, about an entirely fictional character named Sheilagh Fielding, whose final words in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams will be my final words to you today:
I have often thought of that train hurtling down the Bonavista like the victory express. And all around it the northern night, the barrens, the bogs, the rocks and ponds and hills of Newfoundland. The Straits of Belle Isle from the island side of which I have seen the coast of Labrador.
These things, finally, primarily, are Newfoundland.
From a mind divesting itself of images, those of the land would be the last to go.
We are a people on whose minds these images have been imprinted.
We are a people in whose bodies old sea-seeking rivers roar with blood.