On Writing Memoir, Part 4, Reading

This is the fourth in my series on memoir. We are three weeks in to the COVID19 pandemic, so I, like many people, am finding more time to read and think, in spite of the term still grinding on like a virtual glacier. I haven’t found working from home any hardship either—until yesterday, the last day of March, when winter decided to return to Edmonton. So it’s back to more layers while spring decides to hurry up and arrive.

For this fourth in my series, I’m turning to my blog. After I lost my sight in 1974, I started reading in a different way. I began listening to recorded books, and my internal landscape changed radically.
I’m including several links here, all of which grew out of my early reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Reading this book was truly formative for me—it introduced story into my life in a different way, and it gave me a new way of seeing the world.
I first posted “A Life-Long Adventure” in June of 2014. It describes my early experiences of reading Tolkien. The second, “In the Company of Hobbits,” first posted in October of 2019, continues the story and describes the influence of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis on my teaching life.
“A Visit to Oxford” describes my first visit to Oxford in 2016 with my youngest daughter. This trip was a way for me to explore those places where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked, which felt for me more like a pilgrimage than anything else. And finally, “A Hobbit Odyssey,” first posted in September of 2019, describes a trip with my eldest daughter, driving down New Zealand’s north island and checking out all the locations dedicated to Peter Jackson’s filmic versions of Lord of the Rings. I’m very lucky to have such indulgent daughters, both of whom have listened to my stories over the years, and both of whom have helped me to explore this part of my life in interesting ways.

On Writing Memoir, Part 3, “Fractured”

This is the third in my series on memoir. Adjusting to my blindness after my accident meant many things. My life took a new direction, and not just because I was now an eleven-year-old kid who was totally blind and not able to do many of those things he did before. I began reading books, and the world opened up for me in a new way, just as it seemed to be shutting down in others. I will have more to say about reading in a later post.
When I was in my thirties and had two children of my own, I was at a family dinner, helping my cousin to wash the dishes. She was telling me about suffering something she called seasonal affective disorder, a kind of depression I’d never heard of. It affected her during the winter months, and she was doing a variety of things to manage it. This was one of those moments for me—some people call them epiphanies. it occurred to me that I had been experiencing something similar for years—but during the summer and not the winter.
It took some time, but I began to realize that every year, right around the middle of May, I experienced a strange flattening out, a kind of compression of my emotional life that didn’t ease up until nearly the beginning of the school year in September. It was depression. The accident that took my sight happened in the middle of August, and feeling some form of depression during the summer months had become so normal for me that I’d stopped questioning the pattern.
I began writing about this strange depression, and one of the results is “Fractured,” a piece that appeared last Christmas in Green Briar Review.
This piece describes an early awareness of depression, but I had no ability at the time to understand it. Years later, I still have to work at understanding my depression—when it manifests and why. As a child and a teen, I had few means of sorting the complex, confusing, and often destructive emotions I felt. As an adult, I now have the language to describe it, to explore it, and to better understand it. I’m thankful for that, and thankful for all the hours in therapy that helped me sort through this difficult period of my life.

On Writing Memoir, Part 2, “Running Blind”

This is the second in my series on writing memoir. Things have changed radically in the last week because of COVID-19. . I considered suspending any work on this blog for the duration of this crisis, but I decided to carry on—not because I don’t think people already have enough to occupy their lives, but because I think it’s important to proceed as normally as possible as events unfold. For me, maintaining my normal means continuing my teaching by distance for the two universities I work for. Students need to continue their studies, and they need as much support as possible as they do so. It means reading and writing, walking and taking care of my home, all while I support my own family through this crisis.
The piece I’m sharing today is as much about family as anything else. Last week, I posted a piece about my father. This week, my mother has a part. I could not have made it through the very difficult time of adjusting to my blindness without the support of my parents. My mom did everything she could. I was often confused and angry after the accident, but I was also just a kid, trying to figure out my new reality.
“Running Blind” first appeared in The Real Story in 2018. In some ways, it’s a piece about me being angry and trying to understand the changes in my life. It’s also about my mother trying to help, or at least trying to give me a way to burn off some of that anger.
I ran for years and years. I still love to run, especially early morning in spring and fall. My knees don’t like it as much anymore, so I’m more content these days to simply walk and walk, reading my books and enjoying the outdoors.

On Writing Memoir, A Series

The impulse behind writing memoir is sometimes hard to understand. Memoir makes public that which is often painfully private. Sometimes the impulse is to create a narrative that tells a particular story or part of a story; sometimes it’s the desire to gain control of one’s own narrative while making that story available to the world.
In 2019, I taught a class in Literary Nonfiction that examined a range of texts, many of which were memoir. We read excerpts from The Diaries of Susanna Moodie and the first two chapters of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. This is the C. S. Lewis of Narnia fame. His memoir is subtitled “A Spiritual Biography,” which gives the book a very particular direction. However, some of Lewis’s friends and colleagues were so mystified by the book they called it “Surprised by Jack.” The book that most interested students was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed is a fine writer and speaker, and she writes openly and directly about her experiences, which creates a particular kind of vulnerability many of my students found arresting.
I’ve been writing memoir for a few years now, and I think the desire to write my own story began with a degree of vanity. Perhaps vanity is too strong, but it certainly began with the desire to talk about myself. At some point in my thirties I wrote a piece on losing my sight in a car accident at the age of eleven. I wrote that piece because I wanted to be published. I wrote it because I wanted to share the story—in a self-centred sort of way—but I hadn’t yet fully realized how much this incident had altered my life. I submitted the piece for a segment on CBC Radio—they didn’t pick it up. I honestly think it was too soon, anyway. But I kept returning to that accident over the years, each time recasting it so I could try and understand it in a different way.
For me, writing memoir forces me into a position of an observer in relation to myself as a character. It isn’t always about facts, but it is about confronting the events of my life with enough honesty and vulnerability to do justice to the narrative. In that way, I’m writing about myself, while that self becomes a character with whose life I happen to be intimately familiar. It can be an exhausting exercise.
I want to share several pieces over the next few weeks, some of which have already appeared on this blog. However, I think they are worth returning to, if for no other reason than to show them as part of a series.
The first piece is called “On Smoking,” originally published by Hippocampus Magazine in 2017. This piece had several iterations over a number of ears. It’s about my dad more than it’s about the accident that took my sight. But you can find it there—the accident—forming a divide in my experience. My dad died in 2005, but his birthday was March 13, a fact he always reminded us of when feeling particularly unlucky and sorry for himself. But this seems like a good place to begin—with my dad, because of his birthday, and because even fifteen years on from his death I can still hear his voice in my head, offering criticism and giving advice.

Lest WE Forget, Remembrance Day, 2019

This day, November 11, 2019, we honour those who have lost their lives in military conflicts around the world. Nations fight wars. Women, children, and men die as a result; families are displaced, and survivers are left to find their lives amidst the wreckage.

From, L. M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside: Walter’s Last Letter (Chapter XXIII)
“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here—freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again—not of death—nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face—for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember—things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it’s life or death, I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing—but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future—for the workers of the future—ay, and the dreamers, too—for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil—the future, not of Canada only but of the world—when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest—not in a year or two, as some foolishly think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow. Yes, I’m glad I came, Rilla. It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance—nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we’re fighting for. And we shall win—never for a moment doubt that, Rilla. For it isn’t only the living who are fighting—the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.”
“Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. I don’t want to preach—this isn’t any time for it. But I just want to say something that may help you over the worst when you hear that I’ve gone ‘west.’ I’ve a premonition about you, Rilla, as well as about myself. I think Ken will go back to you—and that there are long years of happiness for you by-and-by. And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for—teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if you—all you girls back in the homeland—do it, then we who don’t come back will know that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us.”
“I meant to write to Una tonight, too, but I won’t have time now. Read this letter to her and tell her it’s really meant for you both—you two dear, fine loyal girls. Tomorrow, when we go over the top—I’ll think of you both—of your laughter, Rilla-my-Rilla, and the steadfastness in Una’s blue eyes—somehow I see those eyes very plainly tonight, too. Yes, you’ll both keep faith—I’m sure of that—you and Una. And so—goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.”

Star Trek: Celebrating Difference

I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s, but I don’t remember anyone in my house watching Star Trek. I saw the show a few times at a friend’s house—the sight of Spock and his ears comes back to me vividly—and we even re-enacted a couple of episodes. But the summer before I turned eleven, I lost my sight in a car accident, and I didn’t fully rediscover the show until my twenties.
Getting through those teenage years was hard. After my accident, I spent four months in the hospital. It wasn’t until the following September that I went back to my old school for grade seven. The initial welcome and sympathy I received from classmates quickly dried up, and I discovered that being the only blind kid in the school set me apart and made me different in a way that caused most kids to either tease or ignore me. The bullying went on until I retaliated, then even the bullies left me alone, which in some ways was worse.
I spent those teenage years reading. I discovered fantasy, and authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien opened me to worlds I had never imagined. I also began reading science fiction—Asimov, Le Guin, Clarke, and Heinlein. And at the end of my teens, I started watching reruns of Star Trek.

At this point, I was maybe developing something of an obsession. At twenty-one, I remember climbing through my parents kitchen window one evening in June while they were out. They hadn’t left a spare key, and I wanted to watch Star trek on their TV. My wife and I were living across the alley, and we didn’t have cable.
Seeing The Wrath of Kahn in theatres, then watching Next Generation on television got me thinking differently about the show. I always thought of it as a series that pushed boundaries—it was, after all, “the final frontier.” But for some reason, I remember feeling initially disconcerted by the character of Geordi la Forge, the blind chief engineer. At the time, I never asked myself why the character of Geordi bothered me—perhaps if I had, I would have learned something more about myself as a blind person.
There were things about Geordi that drove me crazy. Early in Season 2, for example, Dr. Pulaski offers to give Geordi back his normal range of vision with ocular implants. And he refuses. Geordi’s blindness and his visor both define his character—I get it. But I remember thinking a number of times as I rewatched the episode, just take the fucking implants!
I’ve always found the scene poignant for another reason. Diana Muldaur (Dr. Kate Pulaski) had two roles in the original series. In Season 3, Muldaur plays Dr. Maranda Jones in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?,” a young blind woman who is assistant to a Medusan ambassador. No one, of course, knows Dr. Jones is blind until near the end, and the outcome of the episode suggests she has to come to terms with the limits of her disability. Interestingly, in this episode, Spock must wear a visor whenever he interacts with Kollos, the Medusan ambassador, the sight of whom causes humanoids to go insane. Spock’s visor here seems a rough precursor to Geordi’s visor in Next Generation.
Introducing characters with disabilities is only one thing that has characterized the franchise. Difference of all kinds was central to the show from the beginning: Spock, with his Vulcan control of emotion, is the alien who comments endlessly on human behavior. The show was also interested in providing a range of both racial and ethnic perspectives through characters such as Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov. More than this, the show has dealt with the foreign, the alien, and the marginalized in every incarnation since the original series.
It’s the relentless attention to difference I’ve always appreciated about the show. Apart from Geordi, differently abled characters appear variously throughout the franchise: Riva, the deaf-mute diplomat who speaks through his chorus; and Melora, the gravity challenged ensign on Deep Space Nine. Even Worf is temporarily disabled after an accident in engineering crushes his spine. The franchise also raises same-sex issues, most poignantly in the Next Generation episode that introduces the Trill, and the episode in which the Enterprise crew work with a genderless race to recover one of their shuttlecrafts.
As campy as the Original series was, it spoke to Jean Roddenberry’s vision of a future in which humanity confronts itself by encountering difference. That same vision persists through Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. It’s one of the things science fiction does best. It gives us a mirror for all that is good and noble, ugly and evil; it stares straight back and shows us what we don’t want to see. Like Armus from “The Skin of Evil,” science fiction is a genre that shows us ourselves—what we fear, what we hate, and what we don’t want to confront.

(First published on OfOtherWorlds as, “Star Trek: A Celebration of Difference,” Nov. 30, 2016.)