When I was a teenager, 3 great literary icons were coming into prominence, all of them women writers: Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.
Of these Margaret Laurence was the oldest, and her writing career was a relatively brief flash. Her best known books were written in one decade, her last novel published when she was only in her early 50’s. That book, The Diviners, was a favourite of mine because the main character wanted to be a writer (much as Emily Of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery had been my favourite at the age of 10).
In the 1980’s, I was working as an accountant and the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League was one of my clients. The chair of the board, Norma Scarborough, was a veteran feminist and a close friend of Margaret Laurence’s. I very much wanted to meet her, and thought of asking if I could be introduced, but by the time I was getting close to working up my courage to do so, Laurence had been diagnosed with lung cancer. (The next year she committed suicide.)
Born a few years after Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro also married young, divorced, and achieved acclaim as a writer in her 40’s. But unlike Laurence, Alice Munro’s career has spanned 40 years. Fairly early in her career, she was reading in Montreal, my home town, and still very nervous when appearing in public. At least that was what I was told by a teacher of mine, who was hosting her. It didn’t occur to me then to even ask if I could meet her.
Margaret Atwood lives right here in Toronto, in fact on the same street as a family friend of ours. Eight years younger than Alice Munro, her first book, Edible Woman, came out in 1969, not long after Munro began publishing in 1968. Of the triumverate, Atwood’s writerly life has been the most blessed: she started young and kept going strong, writing in numerous genres, including poetry and essays as well as different types of fiction. I did meet her once, at TWUC (The Writer’s Union of Canada) but couldn’t think of anything noteworthy to say when she turned around to murmur something to me about the meeting.
It’s strange to think that someone else might be thinking along those lines about me. I’ve met a lot of people, readers and would-be writers, online and off-line at readings and similar events. It’s a challenge to say something meaningful to people I don’t know and have only a couple of minutes with. That’s why I’ve seldom asked other writers to sign their books, and have found it hard to overcome my bashfulness in order to meet them.
Yet I still wish that real contact was possible. And so when I’m the writer that people are there to see, I keep trying to make it meangingful, a real moment between people whose hearts have touched each other through the words on a page. Maybe that’s what we all need to remember, that we are connecting, that we know each other already, not on the surface, but underneath, in the places where stories are made and taken in.
Whatever the form, print or digital, this place is of deep importance. That’s why people line up to get their books signed. It matters: keep writing my friends; keep reading.