The Windsor years and what they really taught me


Last time on My history as a so-called writer: I found awesomeness at Laurentian University 🙂

I should have just kept writing.   

Unfortunately, I was still insecure about my craft and all of my friends were either heading to teachers’ college, or graduate school, or had already left.  So I thought it was the thing to do, something that had to be done to show that I had “the chops.”

Still living at the mercy of events, I applied to UVic, UNB, and Windsor.  Victoria rejected me outright, New Brunswick said that they would accept me to their academic program, but not to the creative one, but Windsor said they’d take me, so that’s where I went.

Phil was still completing his degree in computer science at Laurentian, so I was on my own.  We took a trip down in August apartment hunting and I signed a lease for a year for a room in a house that was within a five-minute walk of the campus.

I started off filled with hope, but struggled.  My courses in research and methodology, the Pre-Raphealites, and the new Canadian writers were great, but early Canadian women writers was a bomb and because my primary interest was in writing genre, the creative writing part of things did not go very well either.

I even tried to resurrect pieces of the novel idea I conceived of at Guelph, but a very dim view was taken of my fantasy.

I was nearly shamed away from my novel.  It wasn’t worthy.  I wasn’t worthy.  I kept on being asked questions like, “You have this character smoking.  You know that tobacco wasn’t discovered until Europeans reached the New World, right?”  It was all about historical detail.  But my fantasy world isn’t this world, and its history has little to nothing in common with the real world.  “But you just can’t go picking and choosing what you want from history …”  Why not?  Seriously.  What’s to say that I have to write my fantasy like a historical novel?  If I wanted to write historical fiction, then I would.  But I don’t.  (At least not right now.  I have this idea though …)

Therein lay the difficulty.  Submitting two to five pages of my novel at a time wasn’t allowing anyone to really get into the story.  Things would just get to a point where they were developing into something interesting, and then everyone would have to wait until the next week.  Momentum was lost and most of my classmates felt nothing but contempt for my chosen genre.

A lot of comments focused on the impossibility of what I was writing.  “She couldn’t survive what happened to her.”  “That defied the laws of physics.”  My characters are heroes in the epic sense, though.  Their survival hinged on the fantastic nature of their gifts and talents.  They have to be “bigger than life” in order to merit their place in the overall plot.  And magic does defy physics.  Actually, my magick has its own physics (more on that in a future world-building post).

Fantasy, especially the high, epic fantasy that I like to write, is all about the impossible.  I wasn’t trying to straddle the improbable but plausible line that defines most science fiction.  (Although I have an idea or two in that direction as well …)

I tried other stories and genres:  A YA fantasy about a girl whose figments turn out to be real; a post apocalyptic tale featuring a male protagonist; poetry; more traditionally literary short stories.  With the exception of my poetry, my work was largely panned.

My classmate, Laurie Smith, got me involved in the Wayzgoose reading series and some of my poetry was published in the Wayzgoose anthology.  I became editor of Generations, the student-published poetry anthology, and tried my hand at presenting a paper at the ACCCSAL conference (speculative fiction).  So it wasn’t a complete bust.

I have to admit though, with respect to the idea that would become Initiate of Stone, that my characters had no character.  They were merely vehicles to move the plot, which was also evolving at the time.  Theme was also a work in progress.  Still, by the time I was finished at Windsor, or rather by the time Windsor was finished with me, I was well and truly wounded.

My advisor at the time, Alistair MacLeod, did not hide his dismay regarding my choices, and to his credit, I’m sure he was doing his best to guide and support me.  He praised my poetry, and I’m certain that if I’d chosen to move in that direction, we would have gotten along swimmingly.  As it was, the presentation of the work I chose to do, confused him at best, and disappointed him, in the most tragic of senses, at worst.

He was a mentor, a writerly father figure, and his dismay was hard to take.  I was still tender then, and I retreated in defeat.

I’ve talked a lot about teachers, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  You may get the idea that I dislike them, but I don’t.  I’ve had as many positive and supportive teachers as I’ve had teachers that just didn’t understand me, and it’s a matter of timing and circumstances as anything else.

What I took away from my experience at Windsor, though it took me years to discover, is that a teacher’s job is to teach.  The teacher may not agree with the way in which the student wants to apply their knowledge and experience, but that should not be the issue.  Even if the teacher believes that the student is only setting themselves up for failure, it is not the teacher’s responsibility, or even right, to deny the experience of that failure to the student.

Instead, what the teacher should do is his or her best to impart the skills that will enable the student to meet that failure and learn from it, rather than being crippled by it.  If the teacher has such strong reservations that he or she feels that they can honestly not discharge their duty to the student, then she or he should refer the student to someone who can.

It’s not too much to ask.

Mind you, the student should stand up for herself and demand the help she needs.  I still wasn’t very good at confrontation and fled at every turn.  What happened at Windsor was my fault more than anyone else’s.  I have to take responsibility for my poor choices.

I took a year off and once again tried to sort things out, but I was badly damaged.  I worked at both the Huntington and Cambrian College libraries and subsequently became unemployed.  I was entering contests again though and won several, in short fiction and in poetry.  I participated in more readings, and more writers’ groups.

With Kim Fahner, I embarked on what might have been a foolish enterprise: a poetry journal.  The aptly named … like lemmings … only lasted 2 years.  The name was more about the editors than about the poetry, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Kim and I moved on to bigger and better things after that.  It was brilliant while it lasted though.

Then Dani Harris, a former student of mine (I was a Graduate Assistant at Windsor—doesn’t every grad student teach?) let me know that there was a new professor in the English department, Di Brandt.  With Dani’s encouragement, herself and excellent poet, I registered for another year and determined that this time, I would succeed.

I found a new mentor, but I still couldn’t bring myself to trust her fully.  My experiences in writing to that point had only taught me that editors, friends, and teachers couldn’t be trusted with my work.  They’d also taught me that the stories I wanted to tell weren’t the stories that should be shared with anyone.

So I compromised and chose stories that I thought I could tell, that I thought would be accepted.  That was my problem though and not something that I would overcome for some time.  My stories were all of young women finding their way by means of dream, and spiritual quest, and damn good friends.

The one risk was a story that did cross the line and tread into the dreadful world of fantasy.  Initially presenting with obsessive-compulsive disorder and insomnia, my protagonist developed precognitive dreams and telekinesis.  It was the one risk I couldn’t refuse to take.

I wrapped the collection up in shamanism and called it Whispers in the Dark.

Di Brandt was the teacher I needed .  She encouraged me and saw me through to the successful completion of my master’s degree.  For that, I will be forever grateful.

As you might be able to guess, my next great teacher in life was Di Brandt.  With her assistance, I conquered my fears, defended my thesis, and completed that chapter of my life.  I also met Miriam Toews, a friend of Di’s and author of the Governor General’s Award-winning A Complicated Kindness.

Was there a time when you cut and ran?  Did you rally and fight back?  What did you learn from the experience?

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