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Joan Didion (and Company: on writing and encouragement)

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, in 1972. (from New Yorker magazine)

                       [3-minute read]

Here’s a foolish thing, a very 20th-century sort of stinkin’ thinkin’. But worry not, it ends with two great women (and one fine husband, not me) sending out a peculiar but quotable encouragement, and some of us might listen.

I love writing, or having written, or at least the romance of writing. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the dearly beloved Mother Corp of all Canucks leftish, artsy and true, has a long-running radio program called “Writers and Company”. It’s an hour-long conversation between the quietly enthusiastic, impeccably prepared Eleanor Wachtel and a superb range of authors: novelists, playwrights, essayists, poets, from Zadie Smith to George Saunders to Arundhati Roy. These are three of my recent listens, but I wouldn’t likely have heard them if I’d stayed in one particular mental rut.

For me, Writers ‘n’ Co was, for the longest and silliest time, mostly an occasional, accidental listen, often when I happened to be in the car and remembered what time it was: specifically, the Sunday 3 pm slot on CBC’s Radio 1, where Wachtel has been asking her terse but evocative questions since 1990. I’d catch part of a conversation, sometimes the whole thing if there was a writer known to me, and I’d regularly and fervently resolve to never miss another; I found each episode thrilling as a teacher of readin’ ‘n’ writin’, and began to connect it to my own spastic undertakings as a scribbler. (A gutsier, more daring me might have blustered, Wachtel’s gonna interview ME one day. Well. Maybe not. I finally did meet her, briefly, a year or so ago. She was plainer and funnier than she had always sounded to me, that sombre but voluptuous voice teaching me from tinny speakers.)

But I was never much of a planner, and the number of interviews I caught was small compared to the torrent of writer-talk that was available.

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Just One. So Far. (Thank God. Thank the Cops.)

The number of killers? One, it turns out, a wounded child of 25. Loner, rejected, bitter. An Internet need for recklessness, weapons and creepy thoughts to feel a little more like a man who belongs. An Indo-Canadian Eleanor Rigby with rage and a video addiction.

The number of innocent dead (so far)? Mercifully, only one, though it is no consolation to a devastated family whose 18-year-old daughter is gone after a week and a half in her big new downtown school. What can this sacrifice mean? And what petty criminal do we thank for drawing, apparently, two young officers next to the scene? They followed the killer – I will not name him – not long after he strutted into Montreal’s Dawson College with the movie or game script playing in his head. Surely to goodness, these officers must have saved dozens of lives by pinning him down and drawing his fire before he was finally given the mortal send-off that he wanted. (But even the depraved should be careful what they pray for.)

The number of warnings? It depends on what you’re looking for and whom you want to be listening. This makes three school shootings in Montreal in less than 20 years. An American writer on the phenomenon found it anomalous – these things don’t tend to happen in urban areas – but then she specializes in high school shootings. We’re going to hear an awful lot about Mr. Sickly and his on-line musings about hate and violent death and the pictures of him caressing his weapons, and probably about the signals he has long been giving out. Who is it for?…No-one comes near…No-one was saved…All the lonely people / Where do they all come from?   

And there was this on CBC Radio’s The Current this morning, from Francine Pelletier, a Montreal journalist and documentary filmmaker. She connected this event with a disturbing societal picture: “Young men in Quebec have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There is something rotten here…[and] young men between 18 and 35 are particularly vulnerable…” She called Quebec “the most American of Canadian provinces,” an assertion that is disputable in many dimensions, but she was pointing to an “appetite for display” and drama. Pelletier also worries that “40% of Quebeckers feel that suicide is acceptable. If you are more tolerant towards it, you are more likely to have it.” And all too often, angry (and cowardly) men want to take someone with them or, as seems to have been the case here, to have a deadly tantrum and force the police to do his suicidal dirty work. We are in, bitterly enough, international suicide prevention week. It started on September 11.

I used to tell my basketball players – I used to tell my own son – “Get mad, not sad.” In an athletic context, sadness over an error, a defeat or even a lack of improvement is an emotion that can engender helplessness (what’s the use?), while a certain kind of anger builds resolve and a determination to turn it around (I can do better than that! or I’ll show them!). It makes me ill to think of it in this context, and it raises one of the biggest challenges that modern society faces: what do we do with male energy and anger? (There’s no simple answer, but here’s what we don’t do, as too many have: label all male anger as toxic and primitive. Actually, extremist gender attitudes have a way of labelling men as toxic and primitive, and don’t think that young guys can’t hear that.)

The Current also had a novelist on. Lionel Shriver is the American writer of the Orange Prize-winning novel We Have to Talk About Kevin, which follows a mother who tries to understand the murderous spree of her son. Shriver’s immersion in the world of youthful mass killing is ominous the day after Dawson: “I became convinced that it was a fad, an imitative thing” and that, while environment obviously plays a vital role, “people vary in their initial ability to recognize the reality of others, to empathize, to love…It’s not a stretch to say that some were born with less moral capability than others.” It’s not a stretch to notice, however, that they are almost always boys.

Yesterday and today, there was periodic relief expressed that there appeared to be no ethnic or religious or political dimension to this. Certainly, Canadian Muslims must have been praying Oh God, not one of ours, please! We are all grateful that it wasn’t another gender-specific Montreal massacre, not an anti-Semitic or anti-anglo or anti-black or, apparently, anti-anybody-in-particular action. It was just a deadly strike against life. Against most of us. As for the reflexive media relief that It does not appear to be a terrorist act, I can only wonder at our public definition of terrorism. Of COURSE this is terrorism! It just happens to be fairly non-discriminatory and without even a real objective, however delusional. Just because he had to. Just because he could. It’s the terrorism of the excluded, I guess, of someone who felt oppressed by unpopularity and lovelessness and the previous impotence of his rage. It’s a peculiar sort of comfort. It still scares the hell out of me.

Remembrance Day. A Touch of Bruce.

I almost forgot to emerge from my second-floor grotto for 11 a.m., but the Green Lady had the day off and she helped me remember. We don’t watch a lot of television, but the dear ol’ CBC had the national memorial on screen, and we were able to tune it in. Diana held one wire of our 19th-century TV antenna, and I held the other. Neither of us needed to stand on one foot this time; my left hand was raised, her right, and our wee bouts of sobbing as the wreaths were laid did nothing to disturb our tenuous grasp on the signal. Another thing to be thankful for, along with Silver Cross mothers, Parliament’s eternal flame and those faithful old fellows. Thanks to them, thanks for all.

Another small bout of gratitude, too, because Radio One programming, which we’d turned on for better sound, went straight to Sounds Like Canada and did it ever: Shelagh Rogers was interviewing Bruce Cockburn. He has a new album, which I’d like to take credit for. I’ve been thinking for a long time that he should put out an album of his brilliant finger-picking instrumental pieces. Well, not that I ever told anybody, but I guess they picked up on my brainwaves. (Mighty buggers, they are.) Speechless is the new album, a bunch of the best guitar work Bruce Almighty has done along with a few new pieces. He sat for half an hour and played some, talked some, in studio. Superb in both languages.