IntroductionEdmonton, December 1986
I woke up in the middle of the night with a sense of urgency and a song my mother often played ringing in my head. "Don't give me posies, when it's shoesies that I need!"
Knowing sleep would be impossible, I pulled on my parka, stepped into my winter boots, and trudged across the backyard through the deep snow, to my writing shack. The door was iced up, frozen shut, so it took a good strong yank to break it open.
It had been weeks since I'd written anything. With two young sons to raise and a small film company to run, it had been hard to get beyond the practical tasks of each day. I needed these times of silence, of aloneness; I needed the mental space to be creative. Tonight, perhaps, the magic would spill out of me.
I turned on my spanking new Columbia computer and opened up the file for Bye Bye Blues. It seemed like I had been grinding away for years on this epic screenplay inspired by my mother's wartime years. I had already written six or eight drafts. Maybe more, I'd lost count. They were all so mediocre -- just scratching the surface and revealing nothing of substance.
There I was, starting all over again at 2 a. m., shivering in the dim light, staring at the computer screen as it flickered into life.
"Come on baby, I know it's cold in here, but let's give this one last try. "
Suddenly the phone rang. Who on earth could that be?
Thinking it had to be a wrong number, I answered with a curt "Hello," ready to cut the caller off quickly.
There was a slight pause at the other end, then a smoky tone. "Is this Anne Wheeler?"
I could not place the voice -- it could be anyone. My name was in the phone book; my number was no secret. At this hour, it had to be a wrong number or someone weird.
"Yes, it is," I stated flatly, offering no encouragement. "Who is this?"
"I'm sorry, did I wake you up?"
"Not exactly, no. But who are you? It's an odd hour to be calling. "
"It's Margaret Laurence. "
"Oh my God," I blurted. "I didn't think I'd ever hear from you!"
Margaret Laurence was my all-time favourite writer -- and a literary giant! She was a three-time winner of the Governor General's award; anyone who had taken high school English had studied her work.
Two years ago, I'd had the privilege of adapting one of her short stories to film. To Set Our House in Order was semi-autobiographical; it was told in the first person by Vanessa MacLeod, who, like Margaret, grew up in a small prairie town and eventually left to become a writer. I accepted the assignment to write and direct the film with trepidation. How could I live up to Margaret's genius and reputation -- especially when I knew that the book was essentially about her?
And this was a particularly difficult story to adapt. It traces the inner thoughts of Vanessa at the age of ten, when she and her family moved into her paternal grandmother's home. Miserably, she witnessed how Ewen, her father, a doctor, whom she'd always idolized, was repeatedly humiliated by his own mother. With time, she learns that her father as a young man went off to war with his younger brother, but came back alone. His mother blames him for the loss. There was nothing he could do to win her forgiveness.
I didn't want to use a narrative voice-over, which I could have lifted from the book. Instead, I wanted to create some situations that would illuminate the girl's insights. I asked the producers if I could please talk to Ms. Laurence so I could share my ideas with her before I began to write. They reported back that she did not want to talk to me, that I should go ahead and do my job. This was an unsettling response. After struggling through several drafts, fraught with self-doubt, I submitted a script with my innovations.
Again, I asked if I could talk to the author once she had read my screenplay. I had taken considerable licence and wanted to be sure it did not trouble her. I wanted to get it right. I wanted her approval. But again, she was absolutely clear: She had no desire to read the script. She didn't want to see a work in progress; she wanted to see the film once it was finished.
So I had no choice. We shot the film as I had written.
The little movie was finished with great care and a VHS tape was sent to Ms. Laurence immediately.
There was no response.
I thought perhaps she would watch it when it aired on CBC television and send me a message, any message, good or bad. The reviews were complimentary, the audience substantial, and, even though it was a short film, it garnered a few awards.
But I never heard from her.
Here she is on the phone, more than a year since we sent her the package. I am choked up and can hardly think of what to say.
"Well, ah . . . it's good to hear from you. "
"Yes, well, one of the producers gave me this phone number some time ago now. I'm glad it's still yours! What time is it there?"
"Two something, but no problem. I'm up writing, kind of. Trying. My kids and husband are all sleeping. "
"Good for you. How many kids do you have?"
"Two. Boys. Twins. "
"Well, that was expedient of you!" Her chuckle is low and friendly.
"Yes, I got lucky I guess. It's after 4 a. m. your time isn't it?"
"Yes, I don't sleep much. "
"Ah. We have that in common. I'm a night owl for sure. "
There is a pause, and I am ready for anything. If she didn't like it, I will take it like a big girl and absorb the disappointment. Maybe I'll learn something.
"So, I don't watch much TV," she confesses. "Actually, I don't have one, and I don't have a video player either, but a friend brought one over last night and we watched the movie together. "
"Good, good," I manage to squeak out. My throat has gone tight.
"Well. I loved it. I thought it was so good. "
"You did?" Oh wow, I think I'm going to cry.
"Yes! I couldn't imagine how you would reveal the moment, the revelation, you know, that takes place inside her head -- there's not much to see, physically, in the book. But you created the perfect situation. It moved me to tears. "
"Oh my God, I'm so relieved! I veered so far from what you wrote -- in order to say what I believed you were saying!"
"That's it! That's why I loved it. You understood my intention. You said it through the images and the performances. You didn't need a damn voice telling the audience what Vanessa was thinking and feeling. When she goes looking for her father and finds him, alone, weeping like a child, and then she puts her arms around him, like a mother . . . that really undid me. It said it all. "
I don't know what to say. I blurt, "The actors were terrific, weren't they?"
"Yes, yes. Perfect. I felt I knew them all. I did know them all! I was so relieved, I wanted to phone and tell you. "
"Thank you . . . so much. " I sit for a moment and absorb the affirmation. How many times had I beaten myself up, thinking I hadn't upheld the integrity of her work?
I hear a familiar tinkle of sound, a glass perhaps. It nudges me.
"Are you drinking Scotch right now?" I venture.
"Yes, in fact. I have a single malt open, right here. Just about to pour myself another. "
"Would you mind if I run into my house and get mine? I think we should have a drink together. "
She laughs. "That's a damn good idea. Go get it!"
Warmed by the Scotch, we had a long and lingering talk. She explained that she had not participated in the film because she did not want to hinder me with her involvement. She didn't want me second-guessing her preferences while finding my own way to the heart of the story. She had come to know that, in order for an artist to do her best, whether she is a writer, singer, filmmaker, or whatever, she must feel free to explore for herself and then make choices based on her own instincts and wisdom. There are a million "right ways" and she wanted me to choose what was right for me.
"Thank you for giving me the liberty. "
"Thank you for taking such care with my words. "
We came to realize that we had much in common: our pioneering grandparents; our lives having been defined by the loss of our fathers; our travels, motherhood, the loneliness of writing, and the paralysis of self-doubt. She told me stories of her youth, of the people she had met and known who had encouraged her to become a writer.
"What about you?" she asked. "I was told that you made an extraordinary documentary about your doctor father who was a prisoner of the Japanese. "
"Yes. Making it was a very humbling experience; I didn't really know him, you see. He didn't talk about it, ever. I discovered he was 'God-like' to his patients in that camp. "
"He died young?"
"Yes . . . like yours . . . I often wonder what I might be doing if he were still alive. "
"He'd be proud of you, I suspect. "
"Not so sure. I remember once telling him I wanted to be an actor and he was decidedly against it. "
"Typical of his generation. Wanting the best for you, I'm sure. "
"Yes, I understand that now. He knew his life would be cut short because of his war experience; he wanted me to have something to fall back on in case I married badly or was widowed. "
"And still, here you are . . . a writer, an artist, and making a good living. " We both chuckle.
"Yes. He would be surprised. And I took a most circuitous route. "
"Ah yes. Most of us do. It's pretty much necessary. If you hope to have any kind of impact -- you must be capable of understanding the reality of others, to see a situation from a place other than your own. And now you are writing about your mother?"
"Yes, and I'm stymied. "
"Well, writing about those we love is always the most difficult and the most fulfilling. "
"I feel shackled by a need to protect her and the rest of my family. I don't want to hurt or offend anyone. "
"Yes, I understand. My advice is: don't look at their lives from the outside. You need to get inside their very being. If you can do that, you will share their sense of discovery, their most intimate moments; and the revelations that unfold will drive you forward. "
"With my mom's story, I am trying to fill in the private spaces, to reveal what she was experiencing internally. Thing is, I don't know what she thought. She can tell me what she did . . . but not what she felt. She's always kept that to herself. I don't want to interrogate her. "
"What you know -- for sure -- is not enough," she states, matter-of-factly. "It is never enough! You have to take the risk and go far beyond what you know!"
"That's it, exactly! That is the crux of my dilemma! What I know is not enough! I will never know what my mother really believed, or said, or regretted!"
"No . . . but you can use her actions along with your own intuition. Try not to censor yourself. What is revealed on the outside is rarely close to what is happening on the inside. You have to put yourself in her position -- be her. Live her situation, her circumstances. Your curiosity and imagination will take it from there. Do for yourself what you did with my story. Eventually you will understand why she made the decisions she made. "
"What about the truth?"
"The truth! The real truth?"
"You'll never find out the real truth from her -- even if she tells you as much as she can remember. You have to discover your own truth. "
After we hung up, I sat there in the dark, feeling utterly amazed. How providential that she had phoned this number, my office number, at this hour -- and I was here! It was a call I could have easily missed -- it felt like some strange force had been at work. No one else could have mentored better me than Margaret Laurence. No one else could have related so closely to my task; no one else could have stepped in with such wisdom.
Now, thirty-plus years later, I feel it's my time to pass some insights, and it is her voice that guides me. I have written screenplays and the occasional song, but never prose. It is a totally different medium, and I feel she is here with me as I step onto what was her platform. The advice she gave me years ago still rings true as I contemplate what it is I want to share with you.
This collection recounts a series of serendipitous encounters I had on my way to becoming a filmmaker. Such a career was not on the list of what a woman could be in the sixties. There was no film school or #metoo movement to suggest that my talent was worthy of attention; that it could provide a viable living; that I could be a visual artist, a writer, or a performer of any kind and not be a burden and a disappointment to my widowed mother. To follow my fancy would have been seen as a selfish thing to do.
But my passion was repeatedly stirred by unexpected challenges, by people who saw me more clearly than I saw myself. It was when I took risks, or remained open to possibilities, listened to my own rhythm, that my muse would suddenly be there and alter my course. It was not always through a person, though when it was it was never someone I would have expected. There were times when my muse was invisibly at work, provoking me, setting up obstacles, surprising me, triggering some magic, seducing me with the possibility that I could live with purpose, doing something I loved.
So now I aspire to be a conduit for your muse. Like Margaret.
But where do I begin?
Like many of my childhood pals, I followed a well-worn path into my twenties. After completing a bachelor's degree in mathematics, I travelled Europe as a way of finishing my education. But I wasn't "finished. " I was restless and wary of settling down. I confronted my discontent with youthful abandon. After a year of teaching music at a junior high school, I quit and took off to circle the globe.
Without a strong sense of purpose, I became a wanderer. In a way, I was lost. I was at my lowest when destiny intervened and my circuitous journey of self-discovery truly began.
These are stories I have shared with friends, students, colleagues, and other raconteurs. In the telling, they have become richer, more intricate, and decidedly more playful. They all take place in the seventies -- a decade of unprecedented freedom and privilege.
I have written them in the present tense, which means I have used the terms and expressions of the day with no intention to offend. For instance, in the seventies, in my world we still used the word Indian to define a huge population that included First Nations, Mexicans, Métis, and Indians from India -- basically anyone one who was not white was assumed to be Indian. I didn't see a black person or hear the word Muslim until I was in my late teens. All Asians were Chinese. All visible minorities had nicknames that are now inappropriate. In Edmonton, we had French and Ukrainian and the rest were pretty much unidentified. The diversity of language used today to identify people, their cultural inheritance, their sexual preference, is a measure of how the world has changed. In reaching back to know myself as a young woman, I have been mindful of how unaware I was, how ignorant and insensitive. On the other hand, it was in part my naïvety that kept me safe and optimistic about the future.
As Margaret Laurence advised, I have filled the spaces between my recollections with possibilities. While my memories of these real events hold these stories in place, I have allowed them to acquire a will of their own, determined to be more than a report of where I went and what I did. With age and experience, my stories have gathered meaning, and I have come to know myself better. I hope they will stir my readers' curiosity about themselves and the lives they are living.
A few months after her phone call, I heard that Margaret had taken her own life. She left quietly, without any fuss, only sixty-one years old. Having terminal lung cancer, she decided to save her family, friends, and herself the anguish of a slow, painful death.
She must have been sick the night she called, but nonetheless wanted to take care of some unfinished business and pass on to me something of what she had learned. She was so honest and generous. I regret that I never got a chance to meet her in person, to thank her for the gift of that call. She gave me the courage to explore the world within and to find my own way out.