This summer, I had the good fortune to visit some fascinating places. I’m prairie born and bread—used to open spaces, long summer evenings, and cold winters. But I love the ocean and had the chance to visit more than one.
In May, I travelled with a friend to Newfoundland, where we drove from the ferry landing at Port Aux Basque to Cape Spear, the eastern-most point of North America.
I returned to the east coast in June, visiting Prince Edward Island for a conference, where I took the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours historical Charlottetown, then drives straight out into the Charlottetown Harbour.
Finally, in July, I met one of my daughters in New Zealand, where we spend a week touring the North Island before flying to Melbourne. We had the chance one day to drive part of the Great Ocean Road, built by Australian war vets after the first World War. We also visited the Moonlit Sanctuary, where we had the chance to meet some local wildlife. All in all, a summer I will remember.
For me, writing memoir is both reflection and exploration. I usually have some event in mind when I begin a piece, but writing about my own experiences can take me in awkward and often painful directions. The question I avoid when writing memoir is why I do it in the first place.
Writing memoir explores personal experiences, which you intend to put on display for other people. If you didn’t intend other people to read it, then you’d be writing a journal. Setting aside this element of public display, the question remains: what in your experience has in it something valuable for other people? This is where I often bog down.
As I struggle through a piece of memoir, I sometimes hear myself ask, why would anyone care? Such a question only results in paralysis. So I avoid it—for the most part. I do think, however, that the sharing of experience is not only a fundamental human quality, it’s a psychological necessity.
Have you ever heard the story of the man who never shared? He collected experiences, one after another, gobbling them down like cake and never sharing them with anyone. Well, he grew so full of his own experiences that one day he simply burst—popped like a balloon. His neighbours found tatty bits of his experiences lying all over, but they were so shredded and jumbled that no one could ever make any sense of them. So they swept up the bits and just forgot about him and went on with their lives.
That’s not really a story, but it does illustrate my point. To be human is to share one’s life. The risk lies in the sharing and how the sharing will be received.
Earlier this year, I had a piece accepted by Ponder Review, which appeared in Volume 2, Issue 1 of the magazine. The piece is called “My Father Walking,” a short memoir I wrote about my dad, who died in 2005. I’ve written several pieces on my dad, the first of which, “On Smoking,” appeared in Hippocampus Magazine in August, 2017. Here’s an excerpt from “My Father Walking.” I hope you find in it something that resonates with your own life.
“My Father Walking”
William Thompson, 2018
My father is the only moving thing on the street. It’s a day in early fall—the grass a faded green, the maples a golden yellow and already dropping leaves on this October afternoon. My father walks with a determined stride, as though he is unconsciously wanting to get away from something, or needing to get somewhere. I want to hold him there in that push-me-pull-me present, the world rolling beneath his feet as he walks.
It’s the jacket—the forest-green jacket he wears that fixes him in both my child’s eye and mind’s eye. I’m standing in front of the house and watching him walk. He is carrying a case of beer in his left hand. The weight of the case throws off his gait, just enough to emphasize that determined stride. He seems painfully visible to the world, but I’m the only one who watches.
It’s either an early Friday evening or late Saturday afternoon. Remembering it, I can’t be sure either way. But my father only went to the liquor store on those days—usually on Fridays, the end of his workweek, the beginning of the two days of the week he was free of his job, with just his wife and kids to populate and trouble his landscape with arguments, chores, and noise—always noise.
Girl heroes are a prominent part of children’s and young adult literature—they have been for over a century. Katniss from The Hunger Games, Bella from Twilight, and Elsa from Frozen are only three such girl heroes to find their way into popular culture in the last decade. The popularity of such characters, however, raises questions.
Consider, for a moment. Katniss is thrown into an arena where she has to kill other young people, and she becomes a post-traumatic wreck by the third book in the series. Bella is largely a passive character, who chooses to become a vampire by … which book I can’t remember. As for Elsa, she is a Disney princess who chooses isolation, builds a giant ice castle, and inadvertently creates an endless winter. Such girl heroes get caught up in violence, questionable relationships, or, just … causing endless winters.
I find The Hunger Games compelling, and I love Frozen. I couldn’t bring myself to finish even the second book in the Twilight series—largely because of the turgid prose and ridiculous characters. That’s just me. I always love discovering new girl heroes, but I have my favourites, too. L. M. Montgomery’s Anne is one of those favourites.
Last June, I attended the Lucy Maud Montgomery and Reading conference in Charlottetown, PEI. I love visiting Prince Edward Island—the people there are more open and friendlier than anywhere I’ve visited. But I also enjoy this conference more than most. I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised at how much people love Lucy Maud Montgomery—the Anne books, in particular. This conference happens every two years, and it was good to catch up with people I met at earlier conferences and talk about Montgomery. I also tried to have fun—going for an historical ride on the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours downtown Charlottetown before heading into the harbor.
I presented on how Anne’s language comes from the books she’s read, and how her use of that language informs and defines her place in Avonlea. Oddly enough, Anne doesn’t refer directly to that many texts: she’s caught reading Ben-Hur by her teacher, and she and her friends enact the story of Elaine from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Anne reads novels, but don’t forget, this is a bad thing in turn-of-the-century Canada—or anywhere else, for that matter.
Anne is a girl hero. She has the beginnings of a love interest by the end of the first book, but she doesn’t fully understand her feelings for Gilbert until the end of the third book in the series—a far cry from characters like Katniss or Bella. At the same time, Anne is more like Hermione from Harry Potter: interested in books and scholastically ambitious.
I’m sure my love of girl heroes comes from having raised two daughters. And perhaps because I’m a father, the girl heroes that most appeal to me are those who face difficult, if not necessarily life-threatening issues, and grapple with difficult, if not problematic relationships. This is probably why I love characters such as Anne, Meg from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Tenar from LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle. Girl heroes of the twenty-first century often fall into a type—the teenage misfit, who suddenly finds herself the object of at least one young man’s attention—and often two. Katniss and Bella are both good examples of such a type. Types aside, I will always enjoy meeting new girl heroes, but I will always have my favourites.