RIP, Alistair MacLeod

One of my major pet peeves with social media is the insincerity of it. I’m specifically addressing the shallow mourning that takes place on Facebook whenever a public figure passes. It is especially rampant in, but not limited to, the passing of musicians and movie stars. This is not especially the point of this post, and so I’m really reining myself in here so that I don’t rant.

Monday of this week, I was drinking coffee & scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw that Alistair MacLeod had passed away. I was shocked, I was surprised, I was upset. Quickly, I confirmed that it was true with a trusted news source. Then I was a hypocritical douche and posted the CBC article on my Facebook page, obliging when Facebook asked me to ‘Say something about this …’ by writing some deep and profound blather.

I sound like I don’t stand behind this decision. But I really, truly do. But looking at it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know me well (let’s be honest about who our Facebook friends are), this post made me a hypocritical douche.

The difference is that I really, truly meant what I wrote. The difference is that I am really, truly saddened by the passing of Mr MacLeod.

The difference is that once upon a time, I met him.

In 2002, I was taking a creative writing course at Trent University. Our professor, Orm Mitchell, arranged for a couple of writers to come and speak to us during the year. Mr MacLeod was the first. It was early in the year and in accordance with the course’s structure, we did not have anything fit for him to read. It was more of a chance to hob-nob with someone who did what we wished we could: publish.

Class that night took place at our professor’s house. He and his wife put together a wine-and-cheese type spread. In preparation, we read The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. The session consisted of Mr MacLeod addressing us with some sort of prepared speech. I wish I could remember what he told us specifically, but the gist was “Write what you know; write every day; be prepared for rejection.” Afterward, he answered patiently answered questions: questions about writing the text in question (which incidentally, was published before 75 per cent of us were born — kudos to him for humouring us), the writing process, the publishing process. The publishing process, especially. We all knew how the writing process went, knew too well the coffee growing cold by your right arm whilst you poured your heart into a blinking cursor or clacking typewriter, only to delete the pages, tear them up, dump them into a pile or file which could only be called Horrific Shit. But once in a while, we’d individually hit gold. We wanted to know how to get that gold to the masses.

Calmly, kindly, with a grandfatherly humour, he answered all of our questions. Because we were only twelve students, we luckily didn’t run into too many double-asked questions (you know, the ones that always happen in large groups because someone wasn’t listening), but those that did crop up, he’d carefully reiterate his previously made point.

Looking back, the evening is now a bit of a blur — in my defense, it was twelve years ago. I remember that he was immensely patient, not condescending in the least. I remember that I loved that book of short stories, loved those tales of people in crumbling East Coast towns. I remember wondering where he found those stories, what his story was, who he was in those stories.

I remember during the designated mingling period, over the spread that the Mitchells had put out (a far cry from the student fare I was used to), I was the ultimate dork and asked Mr MacLeod to sign my copy of his book.

As soon as the words escaped my mouth, shame flooded my face. Had I really just been so uncool? Holding a cracker in one hand and the slim volume in another, I risked a glance up at his face, which thankfully did not hold the derision I expected. “You really want me to sign it?” he asked slowly.

I nodded. “If you don’t mind.”

He set down his glass of wine and took the proffered book, pen clipped to the cover. Asked my name. Signed the title page. “Have you read it?”

Again a nod. “Oh, yeah,” I said, aiming toward casual. Looking down at the book, I realized that it looked unread: new for the class, spine uncracked, pages unmolested, a half of a Post-It stuck in at my favourite story. Shame rushed back in; I suddenly felt like a fame whore with an autograph book. Trying to regain credibility, I told him which was my favourite story in the collection. I told him what I liked about it. I beat a hasty retreat with a hasty excuse.

I have never been more excited and embarrassed in my life.

Twelve years later, I can’t tell you what he wrote on that title page since the book is in storage in Ontario, awaiting shipment to BC. I can’t remember the name of my favourite story. I can’t even really remember what it was about. But I can tell you about reading it — lying on a double futon in my attic bedroom that was painted ‘Sunny’ yellow. I read by the light of an ugly peach bedside lamp and a halogen floor lamp that my parents had loaned me for the school year. It was snowy outside, night-time in Peterborough, so though I lived facing a major road, traffic was quiet. The story took place in a seaside town. There was a hill in the town and the sky was blue, huge. The main character, or perhaps narrator, walks around the town at some point, maybe looking for someone or something.

Like the talk Mr MacLeod gave us that night, and really, like any small memory lingering in the ol’ dusty recesses, the specifics of the story have faded to impressions and a moment frozen in time.

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be published and have people read my stories. I wanted to write stories that would intrigue the reader. Draw them in. Abduct them.

But I also wanted to write in a way that made people feel. I wanted to leave room for the reader to insert themselves into the story, to come away knowing how it feels to walk up a hill in a seaside town, to look up at the sky, blue and huge. I wanted to write a story that was so well done that, like life, when the memory of events grow hazy some twelve years hence, the reader is still left with a feeling, an impression, a glimmer of that thing that happened all that time ago.

Mr MacLeod did that. And for that I thank him, and wish him a sincere Rest In Peace.

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