25th Trillium Award

Etiology of a Writer?s Life

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Joan Skelton (photo credit: Kathryn Hunt)

By Joan Skelton

As I finished my private anthology of stories about the Barrick (not Gold) family, entitled The Barn?s on Fire and Kay?s Down the Well, I saw multiple threads woven through it. One was the land. Many of the anecdotes involved farms in England and Ontario, homesteads in Saskatchewan, and cottages on Lakes Simcoe, Huron and Superior. Can a propensity, a behavioral trait, be inherited? The dog world is based on inheritability, not just with conformation, but with retrieving, herding and protecting. In the human world, though, there is antipathy to recognizing behavioral traits for fear of racial stereotyping.

I certainly saw the land-loving trait in me. When I arrived in northern Ontario, I felt as if I had come home. I was a person of the universe, not a city. Having been born, raised and educated in Toronto, I was never comfortable there. Although appreciative of art, music and academia, the developing gridlock of people and vehicles and buildings made me claustrophobic. At university, I escaped to Lake Huron, the Rockies and the Atlantic Ocean via summer employment. On the glacier-scoured rocks of Georgian Bay, my eyes absorbing bonsai trees leaning leeward towards retreating waves skirting away from shore, I was absorbed into the windswept scene. I flung out my first half-decent literary declaration to a would-be suitor sitting uncomfortably close beside me.

The sky blends into eternity
The wind into timeless time
The peace of the world
Is here, you fool.
Not in a glass of wine.

So much for the suitor, a medical student. He did say something nice, though.

My propensity towards words, both my own and those in books, was encouraged. The rhyming couplet has stayed with me all these years.

My aspiration towards expression likely began before overt memory. From infancy, my parents took me to my grandparents? cottage on Lake Simcoe. The brown building, surrounded by bush and splashes of trillium, crouched beneath towering canopies of first-growth maple. The road was gravel. Elm, like enormous green bouquets, lined a railroad track beyond an abutting farmer?s field. There was magic and mystery and joyous family. Paradise found. I overflowed with feeling. Then, paradise lost. All succumbed to the march of civilization, its appliances and lawns and squabbling. How to deal with the wound to my soul?

Then, I realized the passion and emotion of others also overloaded me. I didn?t just see their pain or jubilation, it became mine. I was seared by it. Because of this identification, empathy, surfeit of feeling, I felt privy to extra knowledge. I knew I had something to say. I must communicate. I could not not write.

An ironic episode further encouraged expression. During a literature class in which I was enrolled after transferring to a private school, my essay on Heat was read to the class by the teacher. Great, I thought. Not so! The teacher asked where the essay had come from. Hands shot up. The answers were unanimous. It was taken from a book studied the year previous. I had neither read it, nor attended the class in which it was assigned. Despite unfounded accusation and embarrassment, underneath I was overjoyed. If my writing could be confused with a professional writer?s, maybe I could indeed express myself.

How to do it? I read great writers. I studied Philosophy (English) at University of Toronto. I wrote. And I wrote. At newspaper reporting. At writing for political candidates. At writing terrible novels. The literary criticism I learned at U of T told me so. They were never submitted.

Having met the man of my dreams, Stan Kurisko, who took me to the place of my dreams, the vast north of Ontario, firstly Sault Ste. Marie, a city at the pinwheel center of the great waters of the Great Lakes, and lastly Thunder Bay at its headwaters, both dots in a prehistoric land more than the size of France and still mostly untouched by humans. Ah, I was indeed home.

In between, we were lured by the dream of a perfect civilization, the model town of Elliot Lake built to service eventually 12 uranium mines. When the uranium contracts with the Americans were not renewed, it was Stan who said that if I ever was going to write, this was my story. Utopia was imploding incident by incident. Now with four children, I hired a baby-sitter for the morning. I closeted myself with my typewriter, yet was still available should the children need me.

My first published book, a novel, was Interlude: The Story of Elliot Lake, maybe the first environmental novel ever. What a story. I wish I then had the skills to write that I do now. Nevertheless, Interlude received many positive reviews across Canada.

My double-stranded life of family and writing worked well. A letter from Northrop Frye about my second novel, The Survivor of the Edmund Fitzgerald, helped minimize the dearth of critical attention from reviewers, despite the developing maturity of my pieces.

My writing has continued as a private and cloistered mindset. Over the years, the other strand of skiing and riding and cottaging with kids, entertaining (with wine) and environmental activism has minimized, but the literary trajectory of solitude simply could not deviate to include the many vibrant activities of The Northwestern Writers? Workshop (NOWW) or The Writers? Union of Canada (TWUC), both so stimulating and helpful for all ranges of authors.

Such is the etiology of the writing aspect of my life.

Author Joan Skelton has had two primary focuses in her life: family and writing. Important also are the natural world, photography, well-being and community service, the community service aimed towards the preservation of the environment, both mental and physical, and Lake Superior. She received an Honour B.A. from the University of Toronto in Philosophy (English). Equally educating were life experiences and readings about the psychology of the human being. Her writing has been acclaimed by important literary figures such as Northrop Frye, David Staines, Bruce Meyer and Charles Wilkins. It has been anthologized and analysed in international publications. Her books include Interlude: The Story of Elliot Lake; Rescue from Grampa Woo (Dundurn Press); The Survivor of the Edmund Fitzgerald (Penumbra Press) and The Barn?s on Fire and Kay?s Down the Well (Special Barrick Edition).


Thanks for a great article, Joan! Perfect food for thought as many lucky writers may be preparing to head into the wilderness for the summer.

I am an ardent admirer of Joan Skelton -- the person and the writer. She can argue like a laser and write like lyric poet.

As a resident of Lake Superior who lives not that far away from the Kurisko's cottage/camp on the lake, I can attest to one sure thing about The Survivor of the Edmund Fitzgerald: the sense of place, of the Superior Shore experience, rings true. Anyone who lives here knows that Joan has captured the spirit of Superior itself.

It is not a "comfortable" novel: the subject matter brings us face to face with our own mortality. It may not bring solace to the reader, but if not solace then heightened awareness and acceptance of the human condition that to experience the world in all its majesty and mayhem, we have also to live in the knowledge that we are mortal. The price tag of life is -- death. And it's not too much to pay.

Yes indeed, writing is a gift you were given and an art you have developed to perfection. I am so proud to call you cousin, friend and mentor.

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