Please Don't Ask Me to Write
by Bruce Henry

I'm in a bad position. It goes back to childhood. The act of writing anything other than a letter or report or a speech for another person to give, hurts. I've done these things, even made a living at them, but expressing my Self in a coherent, pleasing way feels like trying to activate muscles and ligaments that have lain dormant for so long they have calcified and become scar tissue. I suspect they were not meant to be used, like the appendix.

My footing in language is insecure. I like the term "avid reader," and it applies. I am grateful to my mother for getting me started reading early and to both parents for modeling life-long reading habits. I know grammar. My grade 6, 7 and 8 teacher, Mr. Blandford, with apparent effortlessness got us to understand clauses and parse sentences and learn terms like "copula verb."

However, the approach to literature in school and college had the effect of convincing me that I am defective: no worthwhile poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or drama, I was conditioned to believe, was directly accessible. You needed an authority to explain it. Oh, you might read a book on your own or get lost in your favourite Classic Comic. You might be mesmerized by reading to yourself the rhyme and rhythm of a poem like Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Swing": (How do you like to go up in a swing,/Up in the air so blue?/Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing/Ever a child can do!) This wasn't how we talked, but it was enticing to get your tongue around it, and it could be understood without an intermediary. It was fun to experience language, on the one hand, and, on the other, the adventurous, slightly dangerous activity of swinging playing with each other. But these were not literature. They were not the real thing. You could only experience that in an educational setting with highly trained intermediaries who made sure that you got it.

The types of writing I have done—public relations, speeches, reports—were termed hack-work by my literature professors. Potted, journalese, hasty. I think most of what I read growing up was in that category. The salient characteristic is that it is designed to be easy to digest by non-initiates, like baby food. So strong was the sense of hierarchy, so arcane the material, requiring keys I did not think I would ever possess, so complex and magnified the access, that I have felt guilty and worthless for doing that sort of writing. Nonetheless, I have felt lucky to be able to function on so low a rung of the Writing ladder.

Verbal communication dilemmas arose long before literature and its study came into my life. The summer after kindergarten, my family went on a summer vacation and a big assault on me-and-language took place. Up to now it had been a question of intuitively absorbing a speech habit from my mother or someone else. Now there was a ravagement. It was a confrontation with a fissure; that is the image that comes into my imagination. I can't say why, but I am trying to understand this and it is as though language-in-me was comparable to an iceberg. The part that's exposed is the language I used, that you would have heard when I spoke, or seen if I wrote you a note, although at that age I would have printed in large letters, with a pencil, for pens were still forbidden, adult territory.

That was because the ball-point had barely come into existence. It was not considered a legal instrument for signing a cheque. You only started using nib, straight pens that were dipped into an ink well around Grade 4 or 5. When you could handle the responsibility, you would receive a beautiful fountain pen as a present. Felt-tipped writing instruments and disposable Bics were a gleam on a distant horizon. It has been many years since I wrote with a pen that used "real" ink, the way I first learned, and sometimes I think it would be better if I got just the right fountain pen and kept it full. I would need to carry blotting paper as well to carefully press over the ink to dry it after I wrote something. I guess I would need to carry a writing kit, too big for a pocket, perhaps requiring a special container with a neck or shoulder strap. That wouldn't be any more trouble that carting a mobile phone around. I think I could find a case with pouches for a pen and perhaps one for an ink bottle or cartridges. (Cartridges were sealed containers of the same ink used in fountain pens and ink wells. They came on the market while I was still in elementary school. They represented progress because they were less messy and the empty cartridge was disposable. My sister's first fountain pen was a cartridge pen, but she was the favourite.)

Receiving a fountain pen was an occasion for the parents to teach how things work and how to look after them, and the necessity of looking after them if you wanted them to keep working. We were taught that they would work indefinitely, no planned obsolescence. We learned how to wash them, and how to protect the very valuable nib. The parents had the authority of knowledge and shared it intimately with the children in this writing situation.

The vacation, about five years pre-fountain pen, drove a new reality into my poor young head. The process of learning language seems to me as rich as life itself, and I know philosophers doubt whether there is any thought without language, so we are in the territory of mind here, its awakening and development. It has to do with names. We were "going on holidays," "going to a summer resort." I was able to read. I had a name, my sister had a name, Judy. Mommy's name was Mommy, Daddy's was Daddy, Gramma's was Gramma, and so forth. Mommy called Daddy "Alex," and he called her "Mildred," but that was okay because it started before I was conscious of anything. We lived in Toronto, although I had been born on Mount Royal in Montreal in the Women's Pavilion of Royal Victoria Hospital, which I think sounds like being born in a poem. There was a tunnel under the mountain to our home in the Town of Mount Royal.

My mother was the youngest of six children, and her parents, already in their forties when she was born, were dead before I came on the scene. Gramma and Papa Jim were my father's parents. My mom and dad had moved to Montreal from Toronto after World War II started because of my father's job in a company that turned into a defence industry with the onset of hostilities. They got me in Montreal—I am adopted—and then begat and bore my sister there. We moved to Toronto when I was four, a couple of years after the war ended. Most of the members of my parents' extended families lived in Toronto, and for us to be there meant much socializing with them, especially with my father's family.

It's a family vacation. It's to a lodge. "Mommy, what does "lodge" mean?" I probably asked. It is in Meaford. Is it "a" Meaford? Meaford is on Georgian Bay. The lodge is owned, I eventually realized, by Uncle George, my father's older brother, and Auntie Rita.

When we arrive, Gramma and Papa Jim are there, as well as Auntie Jean. So is Uncle Bill, Gramma's widowed brother. He lived in Toronto, down the street from Gramma's place, with Aunt Georgie, their sister. As they said in those days, Aunt Georgie kept house for Uncle Bill. Aunt Georgie was at the lodge. She was the matriarch.

I guess it was the stage of my consciousness, or the emotional atmosphere oozing from my mother, who was getting out of the car to face three generations of Henry's. I was excited: light, sun, water, novelty, strangeness. My mother's never-far-from-the-surface cloud hung over it all, giving it emotional undertones that make me think of a fingernail scraping down a blackboard, or the feet of a metal chair being dragged across a cement floor.

As first impressions I remember sun, brown lawn, geraniums, not much greenery, and a few white buildings. The main lodge was across the way from where we parked, and in front of us was a kind of annex, a three-storey white frame building where we are to stay. Someone points this out as they greet us. Probably Auntie Rita, forever sweet-natured.

The building we were to sleep in had a word: "You're staying in Roseneath," the person said. It sounded like part of the same language I was already entrenched in, but I guess I didn't know people could stay or sleep in something with a name, other than "house" or "44 Van Dusen Boulevard." Our mother had made us memorize our address and our phone number, Murray 2-0-7-3. But a "Roseneath"? I was upset, for I did not see how you could "stay in a Roseneath" when what I saw in front of me was a white building. And "Roseneath" wasn't even a word, as far as I knew. This was a foreign term, but I knew what a foreigner was because a lot of people were immigrating to Canada at this time in the aftermath of World War II and moving into our neighbourhood. I didn't have a category for it. Maybe it made me feel stupid. Everyone used it as if it were a normal thing, so "foreign" it was not. I think our mother was putting out danger signals to her two children. Roseneath might have been substandard. I seem to remember her saying "firetrap," which a kid easily understands.

In Firetrap Roseneath Meaford lodge I discovered something else. Cousin Barbara, thirteen years older, had the same grandmother as my sister and I, but for her, Gramma wasn't Gramma, she was Nana. Barbara was named Barbara Ann, after the figure skater Barbara Ann Scott who had brought laurels to Canada in the Winter Olympics around the time Barbara was born. But not only did she called Gramma Nana, for which I feared I would have been chastised, but also when she was serving us breakfast, for she worked at the lodge, she called my dad "Uncle Alex." It was like she owned a piece of him.

As I recall these and other language-and-reality invasions of my tender soul, I droop. I surrender. I fear I'll never get it. Language will forever ooze out between my fingers. I was discovering that language is bigger than I am and not as reliable as I believed, no matter how much you may depend on it. I feel that way to this day. How can I stake a claim to work in something like that? It would be like working in wet cement that never dries and falls out of shape when you sleep.

Bruce Henry works as an archivist and part-time literary editor and translator in Montreal.