About

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This is taken from an assignment in ENGL 496 with Aritha van Herk at the University of Calgary:

I am a writer because.

When I was little, I wanted to be a writer. I nurtured this fantasy until I was about seven, at which point someone must have told me to stop being cute and start considering a more serious occupation. I don't know who would tell a seven year old to be more serious, but someone did for me and so I put the writing dream away for awhile and focused on the long nights and hard struggles of being in Grade Two.

My first attempt at formal creative writing instruction arose in high school. Having waited two years to take this class, I gleefully signed up for EWC3A: Grade 11 Writer's Craft. Like most opportunities for which one waits years, it was awful. Purely, magnificently, irrevocably awful. Our teacher was bitter, pedantic, and extraordinarily condescending. She was from, as we were reminded daily, Rhodesia. In a class of students all born in 1980 or later, she might as well have told us she was from Tzfjdslf. A group of us tried looking Rhodesia up in an atlas - I eventually found it on a 1950s globe in my grandmother's house[1]. Her life appeared to have been on a downward slope for a long time, which is what happens if one is born in pure luxury on one of the largest commercial farms in Rhodesia, in a house full of maids and butlers and servants, but then, at forty-five, finds oneself babysitting bored teenagers in a mediocre suburban high school. We did get to listen to her increasingly racist edicts - how well her family treated the sharecroppers on her farm, how she didn't join protests against apartheid while a student in South Africa, how majority rule was ruining southern Africa.

Now, an adult, I wonder why we put up with her, but then, why do high school students put up with any of their teachers? The only answer I can think of is that we didn't know better. She was the teacher. We were the students. Without complaint, I spent most of the year writing articles for the yearbook and being forced to join the debating club. My work was regularly called dull, uninteresting, and poorly constructed. At the time I was crushed, but as I have no copies of that year's work[2], perhaps she was right. Or perhaps she was just a mean little woman with nothing better to do than pass judgement on those of us who still had the potential to be. She had been. We were being.

I took the class with a friend, S, who became our resident shit disturber. Her influence was subtle. She never openly suggested rebellion; she only ever questioned the usefulness of a few of the assignments, such as helping to write glowing reports about the corporations who bought new computers for my school. But that was enough. In April, when we picked courses for the upcoming year, my teacher announced that EWCOA: OAC[3]. Writer's Craft would be cancelled until S and I had graduated. She had no interest in ever teaching us again, a ridiculous pronouncement as she was the only Grade 12 English teacher and we would be in her class the following year[4]. Indeed, no further Writer's Craft courses were held until after we graduated. So ended my first attempt in instruction in creative writing.

I didn't write anything for over two years.

In those two years, I reached the age where one is expected to pick a career. How one is supposed to pick a career after fourteen years experience of sitting quietly and copying notes off the blackboard, I still don't understand. But I was told that I had to choose. I went back over eighteen years of what I wanted to be when I grew up. A writer, obviously, but that was cast aside. You don't go to university to be a writer. You go to university to be a lawyer[5], an opera singer[6], an engineer[7], a physicist[8]. In the end, I went for Mathematics because the programs without Mathematics made me feel lonely. That and I was in love with a boy who loved Mathematics[9]. And yes, he was a boy. He will always be a boy, even though he's now over thirty and has a job and an apartment and lives by St Clair West station in Toronto. For the boy who loved Mathematics. As if to cement my decision, the Sunday before frosh week, Sneakers was on the television[10]. Who wouldn't want to be a mathematician after that?

So I was in Math[11]. I traipsed off to Canada's Mathematics Mecca, the University of Waterloo, where I spent a miserable four and a half years getting a degree, Pure Mathematics, in a specialty, Functional Analysis, that I didn't understand. Then, I bummed about for a year, volunteered in Costa Rica, and went on to Dalhousie for graduate work, thankfully, in Combinatorics.

I had started writing again in undergrad. I wrote a story about a mathematician that didn't want to be a mathematician. He wanted to be a pianist[12], and I, of course, was not self-aware enough to see the parallels. In Costa Rica too, I wrote. I wrote a story about a girl whose mother abandons her in the parking lot of the Cambridge roller-derby rink[13]. In graduate school, I wrote a half a novel about people damaging each other in subtle ways[14]. I wrote travelogues of the places I visited[15]. I fictionalized working in Ethiopia, a thinly veiled criticism of my ferenj superiors. I "wrote" scenes in my head while taking the bus, wandering around, staring vapidly at my unsleeping child. Then I applied, on a whim, to ENG 366 at the University of Calgary, with no real belief I would be accepted[16]. I was a mathematician. A reluctant one, but a mathematician nonetheless. But I had spent five years writing readable Mathematics[17], and writing Mathematics is similar to writing Fiction as writing Fiction is similar to writing Mathematics. Requirements: concise language, narrative flow, exposition, results, imagination, engagement, intrigue, surprise, denouement, conclusion, the end. Convincing the reader of a truth she doesn't yet know in a finite, linear, typed space. All applied to either and both simultaneously. Inadvertently, I had returned to writing.

Now I am eyed warily by both sides. Am I a mathematician who writes? A writer who mathematicizes? Deviant-like, I imagine them imagining me skulking back and forth between the two. Binary 0 or 1 and I'm back in the high school guidance office being told that I need to pick one, and only one, career. Nature may abhor a vacuum[18] but humans abhor someone who lies unnaturally between science and art. Perhaps my psyche is broken. I am ambidextrous[19] so maybe the Left/Right brain rules don't apply to me, not that I'd want them to. I'm happy living in a quantum semi-state. The best of both worlds.

Upon rereading of this ``manifesto", I see that I've touched on my earlier attempts at writing, my decision to enter mathematics, the similarities between the two, yet have skirted the question of why I am a writer. Strangely, the reason can easily be stated in a few lines.: I am a writer because all other labels feel wrong. I am a writer because[20].

1. Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe for those whose grandmothers don't feel the need to keep everything they've ever owned in their basements.

2. I might have destroyed it in a fit of teenage angst, or it might be in a banker's box in my parents' basement. A mystery.

3. In Ontario between 1984 and 2003, Grade 13 was called OAC: Ontario Academic Credit.

4. Actually, we both managed to get out of it due to a loophole I discovered in the ministry requirements. At the time, you needed five English credits to graduate high school in Ontario, but only four of these had to have an ENG prefix. So EWC3A counted as an English credit, and we only needed four ENG's, meaning that if we took Grade 11 English, we could skip Grade 12 English completely.

5. I watched a lot of Street Legal as a child.

6. A short, middle-school infatuation with The Phantom of the Opera.

7. I come from a family of engineers.

8. No idea where this one came from. I didn't even like Physics, although I used to do my high school boyfriend's Physics homework for him, which meant I was decent at it even if the high school boyfriend convinced me that he was smarter than I was, although the fact I was doing his homework for him should have clued me in otherwise. I also looked at Geology, Chemistry, Business, Botany, French, Latin, and Economics.

9. Not the high school boyfriend I should point out.

10. This movie stars both Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford, yet, at an Oscar's ceremony a few years ago, when both actors were honoured with awards, neither of their respective montages showed a clip from this movie. We mathematicians were outraged.

11. Please bear in mind that whatever it is that non-mathematicians think we do, we don't. For example, we don't add up long columns of numbers. We don't take derivatives of polynomials all day. The majority of us don't work with prime numbers. What we do is build theoretical constructions and see how far they can be pushed.

12. In the list of potential careers above, I should have also added pianist, but I was dissuaded from being a pianist by the fact that I had no RCM qualifications and a very small span - barely an octave.

13. This one sentence description is far better than the actual story, which suffers from being both repetitive and vague.

14. Since abandoned, although the piece I read at the ENG 366 reading last year, where a couple drives down the Nova Scotia coast and tricks a minister into signing the wedding license, was from that story. It has scenes that read aloud well, even if the story, as a whole, is far too introspective to interest anyone but myself. It also got a laugh which is crazy since I never write anything funny. You guys weren't laughing at me, were you?

15. UK, Ireland, Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Japan, Slovenia, France, South Africa, Italy, etc.

16. My blog records the following entry for August 28, 2009: Today is the day that they accept people into the creative writing class. I anticipate I will not be accepted.

17. More than that, I spent five years refereeing unreadable Mathematics, which may have been far better preparation for writing readable work.

18. Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Prop. 15: note. Look at that: using a footnote for its actual purpose.

19. An academic party trick - I can start writing with my left hand, then switch to my right as the sentence unspools across the chalkboard. No one has been suitably impressed as of yet.

20. I apologise if you're now annoyed that you read through a whole screen of ramblings when I could have just written these two sentences. Brevity has never been my strength.