This spring a number of local writers are participating at writing retreats at the Haig-Brown House, that givem them writing time in the study, and they are paired with a past writer in residence for some mentoring. Kurtis Scriba was paired with writer Wayne Grady.
When I was growing up I had a hockey coach tell me that sport is a vehicle, and for some reason this has stuck with me. Her argument was that sport can take a person many places in their lives—education, relationships, personal growth. And not just sport; a person can engage with many engines in their lifetime, and many of these engines have a great deal more power over their time than the individual does. I am reminded, here in the study of Roderick Haig-Brown and with a bookmark in Measure of a Year, of the vehicles I am passenger to.
Growing up in Campbell River as someone who knew they wanted to write, the Haig-Brown House was present in a few peripheral ways. I did not understand the purpose of his work or the reason for its longevity but was aware of its presence on the shelves at the bookstore, of the landmark by the river, and felt vaguely sure that to write and be from Campbell River meant to someday participate in his legacy.
Today when I write I think of it as a sculpting process. There is an idea that I want to express and in tapping at the keyboard I am trimming away until the reader is funnelled into the area where that idea exists. The sculptor did not create the clay or put the sculpture in there, they are working to reveal, by the guidance of their various instincts and influences.
Among other things, working in the Haig-Brown study has been rich and pleasant. It is pleasant to sit in a chair that does not squeak and have a robust view of the river; rich to be interrupted by a hummingbird at the window, to be surrounded by hundreds of years of ideas trimmed into book form. It would be special to any writer and it is special to me, to fulfil this connection to my home town and feel the warmth of its hosts. I feel very fortunate to have made these connections—with Ken and Wayne and Marjorie—and also with Mr. Haig-Brown.
Language is a vehicle to education, relationships, personal growth, and is in many ways not so different from a sport like fishing or hockey. A writer, or reader, only has whatever is in their backpack of experience, and with this comparably small set of tools they expose themselves to the oceanic adventure of reading and writing—an engine, vehicle, that can take them to many places and perspectives. Yet the writer and reader, working in tandem are also active, sculptors pruning various ideas to build eclectic statuettes, or somewhat dysfunctional highways, depending how you see them. A rock climber and a wall; the rock holds the climber up, but so does the finger. Like climbing, reading it is an act of trust.
Two other writers I have bookmarks with have something to say:
- Briony Penn who writes about a German sculptor who was commissioned to build a civic piece in front of the town hall, and on the day of reveal dropped off 7,000 pieces of basalt at the Hall and called the piece 7,000 Oaks, for with each piece of basalt removed from the steps an oak was to be planted in the community, which turned out to be a successful campaign. (Check out her book A Year on the Wild Side if you need more seasonal nature writing like Measure of a Year, based mostly around Vancouver Island!)
- George Saunders, a dear favourite of mine, who in his new book (A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, highly recommend) discusses his many attempts at writing like Hemmingway and on each attempt to climb that mountain failing miserably. And how after years of trying he decided instead to start his own mountain, Saunders Mountain, no more than a shit-hill but at least it has his name on it. A place that was his own to build and hopefully one day have resemble a less a shit-hill and more a mountain.
This is all to sort out a thought I’ve been fiddling with on the backburner as I work on my novel at the desk of Roderick Haig-Brown. My first attempt to funnel it together used spirit as the analogy, but what I have here feels more fitting, if less romantic. Something about sculptures and vehicles building in tandem (autocatalytic is a word I’ve used a lot recently), thrusting like a tree toward the sun if for no other reason than to reach.
Each of these some four thousand books around me are written by people who have participated in this disorganized and artfully incomplete car rally. I am working, flailing around a bit, and today, Haig-Brown is a key contributor to my work. And next time I write about a river, he will be in there somewhere; if I find myself writing a hunter or a fisherman, he might be their uncle or have had a run-in worth telling. I feel nothing less than wonderfully, wonderfully fortunate to have this. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but in some way, Mr. Haig-Brown is now in my adventure bag, like a magnifying glass I call upon when I need to see the world a certain way, a close to home kind of way. I hope to honour these tools appropriately when I get the opportunity.
Kurtis Scriba is an emerging writer based on Vancouver Island and a recent graduate of the University of Victoria writing program. His writing is self-described as “chaotic,” and uses a deep love of nature to stage the beauty of a small life. In the summers, he works as a youth swim coach, and besides swimming is an active squash player. He can often be found wandering the forest, working on his novel.