Greta Hamilton photo cropped

Greta Hamilton – Writing is a Social Life

I paraphrase Chilean poet and conceptual artist Cecilia Vicuña, who says, writing is a social life.

Receding into the privacy of a quiet study in a small town to work on a story, is in some ways antithetical to writing practice. For me, writing is about conversation, being in dialogue through reading, phone calls, walks with friends, emails—the process of writing peripheral to the process of being. Still, writing requires some solitude. I think of my friend Libby who has the ability to seal herself hermetically for weeks like a monk, and other times, she takes pages of notes during our meandering conversations. It is that balance of solitude and openness that makes writing possible.

I stared out the window of Roderick Haig-Brown’s study a lot during this residency. I was struck by the movement of the river. In an email to a friend, I wrote, “I’m supposed to be writing a story, but I keep watching the river. My feelings might be impossible to explain, the constellation of memories and myths might fail if put into words—like gathering the corners of a blanket too big to fold.” As I watched the white capped water tumble by, I wondered how old the river was, how many millennia had it flowed without stopping? I felt like a witness to history, the ceaseless flow of water carrying time itself.

It is the ineffable quality of certain feelings that attracts me to writing. Not everything is clearer once put into words, and sometimes language mourns itself. As my friend Fan pointed out to me a number of years ago, the word tree doesn’t do justice to a tree. It’s a tiny word for an ancient root network, expansive red rings etched beneath bark, evergreen limbs like the hair of medusa. The word mourns its inability to express the monumental qualities it seeks to describe. Perhaps the same is true of river. I like that writing doesn’t always make life more understandable. I like that the words we use to make sense of our shared existence will eventually succumb to time.

The river, and its infinite movement, will always be more than whatever I write about it. Although the white capped water and limp blossoms of the yellow willow would make a beautiful poem, I’m comforted by not writing it. There’s relief for me in the in-between, the writing that don’t make it into something. I like the words that exist in emails and conversations with friends. The river will outlast me and everything I write about it. In the meantime, I might as well make it social.

Because writing is a social life, I want to express my gratitude to those who offered guidance during this residency and to those who make it possible for me to write. Thank you to Trevor Herriot who acted as my mentor during this residency and asks the hard questions; Marjorie Greaves for accommodating me at the Haig-Brown House; Ken Blackburn and the folks at the Campbell River Museum for organizing the residency; and my teachers, mentors and friends for encouraging me, providing feedback on drafts, and sending me the writing I need to read. 

Greta Hamilton, May 2021