A few months ago, (which seems like a lifetime ago now) fellow writer Dean Jobb asked me if I’d be willing to give a talk at the University of King’s College in Halifax titled: Why I Write. I happily accepted the invitation and looked forward to spending a Sunday afternoon in June with the students and faculty of the King’s Creative Non-Fiction MFA Residency to discuss the ins and outs of the writing life.
Of course we all know what happened next. But rather than cancel the lecture, we carried on virtually—the students and faculty from their respective homes, and me, from a de-sanctified church on the outskirts of Canning, Nova Scotia. (The Church has a much better connection to the Internet than my little house on the Bay.)
Here are my remarks to that group of intrepid writers. Feel free to share them with anyone who might need them.
Why I write.
To the University of King’s College Creative Non-Fiction MFA Residency
June 14, 2020
OK, so the strange, sad, frustrating and somewhat laughable truth is that for the past several weeks —since the COVID times began — I haven’t been able to write.
Not much anyway.
Nothing sticks, or seems valuable or lasting. Even as late as yesterday afternoon, the pen I picked up to make final notes for today, kept failing. Some words made it on to the page while others didn’t. And I started to wonder if it was a sign that I should I just give up. But I didn’t. And neither did you. And here we are.
So…why do I write?
I was lucky enough to be raised in a home where stories mattered. Even when people disagreed or we were having hard times or weighty discussions, a story, artfully, funnily, honestly told around the kitchen table could get us from one place to a better place, together. It was at that same table I learned that stories have power—to make sense of the world, to give voice to dreams, to nurture hope and banish fear. It’s also where I learned to be a generous listener.
I come from a long line of storytellers, specifically on my mother’s maternal side, where sharing stories clearly, earnestly, convincingly, was sometimes a matter of life or death. That’s because along that same branch of my family tree is something that scientists would eventually label in the 21st century as a genetic disorder that predisposes those who carry it to an incredibly high risk for certain kinds of cancer. But long before science could name it or prove it, my ancestors knew there was something lurking in our blood. They knew the symptoms; the number of relatives who’d succumbed from it; the way it moved through the family like a house on fire. They begged doctors to listen. They told their stories again and again. Until science caught up with us, our stories were all we had.
Legend among those tales was the story of my great-great aunt Pauline. As a twenty-three year old dressmaker in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she predicted her own death by announcing that she knew she was going to die young from uterine cancer. Not only that, but she made this startling confession to a pathologist at the University of Michigan who she happened to do some mending for from time to time. Made on a chilly autumn afternoon in 1895, Pauline’s menacing foretelling would sadly come true, but her story would also persist through time, both in my family and in scientific research circles around the world. It would eventually lead to one of the biggest breakthroughs in the history of medicine and save countless lives, including mine. Long story short, you never know where a story you tell will land or what difference it will make. Stories matter.
Why do I write?
I often say that I write, “to make sense of things.” That’s kind of an easy out, I guess. But when I dig deeper into that statement, I find that what I’m really trying to say is that I write because I want to see in the dark.
When I was six years old, my brothers went away to university and for the first time in my life I got to have a room all to myself. I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the safe womb of the room I’d shared with my older sister with her trendy tween clothes, and her cool record collection, and her Love’s Baby Soft perfume and her Teen Beat magazines. She told me I’d be banned from hanging out with her and her friends if I didn’t go, so I went. Even though it was just a few feet down the hall, I was scared and lonely. I was also determined not to need a nightlight, so I’d lie in the dark every night and push back whatever terrifying things my mind concocted from the shadows by creating stories where sweater monsters were my friends and sock-snakes slithered out from under my bed to bring me chocolate cupcakes.
And now we’re living through a time where so much of what we thought we knew is shadowy and unknown. We’ve seen the world shift in hours, sometimes minutes. What will things look like next week? Who knows. Trying to imagine what our lives will be like a year from now seems impossible. In addition to all the physical damage this particular virus does, it has also shown us the diseased parts of our society, our timid minds, our lazy hearts. Once again I find myself lying in bed at the end of the day, trying to get through the darkness with story. I believe we can imagine and build a better world…and that our stories will connect us, hold us together, help us see in the dark while we get from one place to the next.
Why do I write?
Writing isn’t always about reaching a conclusion or finding the ultimate answer. Some of my best days of writing have ended with a long list questions.
Questions are good. They lead to greater understanding and to taking chances. Everything I’ve published has started with a question—mostly about why some thing or other is the way it is today. Such questions inevitably lead me to look for answers in the past. And I always seem to stumble on the lives of women whose voices I hadn’t heard, whose stories haven’t been told (at least not often enough.)
Last week I picked up some research I’d started years ago, looking for a woman who might help me understand our present—Dr. Rebecca J. Cole. Dr. Cole was the second black woman physician in the United States and she began her career in the late 1860s as the lead Sanitary Visiting Physician for the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. She would’ve also been a mentor and teacher to my great-great grandmother Sarah, who was studying there to become a doctor, like Dr. Cole.
After thirty years of practicing public health, Dr. Cole attended a meeting of the Women’s Missionary Society in Philadelphia. At that meeting a prominent sociologist introduced statistics that showed disproportionately high incarceration and tuberculosis mortality rates of the African American population. These same sorts of statistics were commonly being touted across the US to support racial theories that claimed such mortality rates were the “fate of all exotics.” In other words, they were being used to justify the false notion that vice, disease and crime could be attributed to race.
Dr. Cole boldly and rightly questioned these assumptions.
Of the incarceration rates she said:
“Now who made these figures but men of a class who are so warped by that strange American disorder, colorphobia, that before accepting their verdict we must be excused for saying we are not ready for the question…And who makes up the police records? To what class do most of the men in this department belong but to the Irish democracy? Who can tell how many white offenders go free, either by bribery or by their own aptitude to escape the consequences of their actions?”
And of the climbing mortality rates due to TB in black communities she cited:
“Young, inexperienced white physicians—they have inherited the traditions of their elders, and let a black patient cough, they immediately have visions of tubercules. Let him die, even though in the case there may be good reason for a difference of opinion, he writes “tuberculosis,” and heaves a great sigh of relief that one more source of contagion is removed.”
That was in 1896.
This is 2020.
We need to ask more questions. Become generous listeners. Make room for untold stories. Take chances that lead to change.
Why do I write?
When I moved from Chicago to Nova Scotia in my early 30s, my mother insisted we write letters to each other even though we talked on the phone at least once a week. Later, when I started writing what would become my first novel, I expressed to her my fears about the work not being good enough, not being anything anyone else would want to read. Her advice was this: “Just pretend you’re writing a letter to me.”
She died a few months after the book was published and in the year that followed I experienced a terrible drought of words. Her passing had come as a sudden shock and my grief came in great waves that left me numb and confused. I could barely speak let alone put words on the page. I thought I’d never write again. She was the first storyteller in my life.
But after the first year without her was over, I remembered the advice she’d given me and I tried to write again. I made myself a strong cup of tea, sat down at the kitchen table and started a letter home.
Is writing that easy? No, hardly ever.
Can it be? Sometimes, yes.
Why do I write?
Because stories matter.
They help us to see in the dark, and ask important questions, and hopefully they’ll get us from where we are now to a place of understanding and change.
I wish you all the right words and all the right questions as you write your letters home.
A sweater’s not a monster.
A sock is not a snake.
But if they were, we’d sit on the floor and tell stories and eat chocolate cake.
—six-year-old Ami, circa 1974
People places and things mentioned in this post:
More on the life of Dr. Rebecca J. Cole in this wonderful article by Meg Vigil-Fowler: Dr. Rebecca Cole and racial health disparities in nineteenth-century Philadelphia. (The quotes I mention in the lecture are sourced from this article.)
My great-great aunt Pauline Gross’s entire story can be found in my memoir: Daughter of Family G
Special thanks to the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts and Christopher Peck for the use of the Church and Internet!
Dean Jobb, author of Empire of Deception and other amazing books.