25th Trillium Award

Garden City Writing

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Mahtay Cafe in St. Catharines (photo courtesy of Greg Johnson)

By Harry Tournemille

The life of a writer, you've got it made. Ever hear that? I get it every once in awhile, usually from people who don't write. The conversation begins with how rough their work week has been, the revelation of a particular bit of drama, and then the comment. I assume they have a romantic notion of what a writer is, what it means to write. Perhaps they think I parade around in my pyjamas all day, staring out the windows at cats and squirrels. That I am insulated from the woes of the world, from real people and their endless pursuits. That I revel in what does not matter. How can I tell them otherwise? The truth is writing can be a painful grind, but it's a truth known only to writers.

Two years ago I moved to St. Catharines with my family. We were living in B.C., tucked into a reasonably welcome bit of Vancouver's suburbia, and going through the motions of commuter living. I was studying Writing and Philosophy while my wife was working as a 3D senior artist for a video game company. Life was crazy. Days bled one into the next, along with a sense of spinning our wheels. We asked ourselves what we were trying to keep up with and discovered we were chasing nothing. Our hectic lifestyle was our own doing. So we moved.

The change of location was a momentary breath of fresh air. Our move to St. Catharines allowed us to meet new, beautiful and creative people. We set up in Port Dalhousie and discovered the benefits of daily walks through beautiful neighborhoods. We felt inspired to live differently from before. We bought mountain bikes. But from a writer's perspective, once that honeymoon period wore off, the real work of writing was right where I left it. The struggle between discipline and distraction as tangible here as anywhere else.

As writers we are not insulated from the rest of the world — even when the process requires distancing ourselves at times. To the contrary, we become overly-invested in what goes on around us. Writing — as with any creative art form — requires this connection. Our continuous experiences and learning provide the impetus for our writing. These connections borne of a desire to understand, to reiterate, to change. When I write, I desperately want form and prose to be mixed with a relevance that comes only from careful observation, from an uninhibited desire to document.

I know this sounds like glorification. But serious writing needs to be glorified in the same way many glorify ambitious business plans or wealthy aspirations. We have to value ourselves and what we do in order to even begin to sit down and write. In this capacity, I think we require a sense of community far greater than most. The collective of artist and art, want and need. A sentiment lost on those not invested, which is why comments about an easy life can be difficult to accept.

As for pyjamas, I'm wearing them now. They are plaid and comfortable and make me look vaguely like a Seattle grunge wannabe (which I am). However, I do not have an office. I am nomadic with my writing habits. I hit up coffee shops like Mahtay or Starbucks or The Irrististible Bean. I hang out in the St. Catharines Public Library or stay home and pound away on the glass-top desk in our rec room. I enjoy the steady hum of people around me. I like to eavesdrop. Last week, I listened as a born-again Christian tried to educate a random stranger on the moral validity of conservative politics. I wrote bits of the conversation down. I watched an elderly man try to hold onto a coffee cup with palsied hands while smiling at his doting partner. Wrote that down too.

This, for me, is what makes writing (and art) noble. No matter what our location, what our motivations are for being in a particular space at a particular time, writers and artists inhabit the world differently than others. We see occurrences between humans or in nature as metaphor and parallel, half-truths or half-buried truths. Multimodal questions without clear answers — without the necessity of an answer (sometimes the questioning is enough). We find it difficult to let things go and move on. We agonize over details others completely ignore or take for granted. For us, that is where the value is — this pursuit of seeing the world as something more, something other. And the need for it to be so.

Harry Tournemille is a writer living in St. Catharines with his wife and daughter. His publications have done nothing to alleviate his nostalgic affection for 1990s Seattle music. He is currently working on his first novel with the gracious assistance of the Ontario Arts Council. To find out more about Harry visit him at his blog The Threshold and follow him on Twitter at @HTournemille.

Photo of Mahtay Cafe by Greg Johnson. To view more of Greg's work, visit him at his virtual gallery and look for Greg Johnson Photography on Facebook.

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