Luck & Happenstance
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I'm in Saskatchewan for the Sage Hill Writing Experience, a ten-day retreat for writers at various stages in the development of a literary project. Full disclosure: Saskatchewan is the one province I have never travelled to before now. Frankly, it was never high on my bucket list. Whenever I thought of Saskatchewan I always thought of the boring slides we had to sit through in grade nine geography. It was circumstance that drew me here: Steven Heighton's colloquium, Re-Enactive Poetry: Vision and Revision.
I arrived a week ago with my rudimentary impressions: dusty roads, rusty tractors going full tilt, flat checkerboard fields. And I was right. Sort of. Not really. Walking along the dirt road on my first day, I was stunned at the beauty of the open sky - baby blue, immense - over sunny canola, the quiet cotton-ball clouds, barely moving. In that one moment I understood that you had to experience Saskatchewan to really believe it.
The other night, the organizers arranged for us to head down to the Lumsden Hotel and Steak Pit for karaoke. Nino Ricci had just given the Robert Kroetsch keynote address, and after several days of hard work, people were itching to cut loose. For various reasons, I was slow to get organized and missed getting a ride.
Steven announced that he was going ahead on foot, despite a storm advisory. His long stride was already taking the dirt road. I took inventory of the sky, the distant flickering on the horizon. Why not? I thought, jogging to catch up. The rogue storm seemed miles, hours away. Soon Nino joined us, as well as a woman named Maria. We pushed up the hill, chattering about the sky and the harvest moons and the nightly rains we'd been having.
Here, I jumped in with my worst case scenarios: What if it rains before we get there? What if we get struck by lightning? What if a truck barrels up from behind and doesn't see us in the dark? What if we have to jump into the grasses by the side of the road to avoid getting hit? What if they're tick-infested? How do you remove ticks, anyway? Etc.
Steven shot me a polite "zip-it" look. "Really?" he said. "You sound like Woody Allen."
I suppose I did. The official term is catastrophic thinking: ruminating about the worst possible outcomes in a situation.
"I kind of have that, too," admitted Steven, following up with a personal anecdote that proved the point. Then Maria chimed in. It seemed that to varying degrees, we all had a case of it.
Dusk evaporated and darkness filled in. The lightning was moving closer and flashing with more frequency. Deep down I knew our plan wasn't the brightest. We were easy targets, the tallest unprotected objects on the road. I was terrified but tried not to show it.
Nino interjected, grounding the conversation. Don't "what-ifs", he suggested, serve to nourish writers? Without a hypersensitivity to the myriad possibilities out there, how can any writer write? I'm paraphrasing. We all agreed and a wild streak illuminated the sky.
"How much further," I asked.
Steven pointed ahead. At the bottom of the hill I spotted a few houses and their brightly lit windows. It started to feel like we might make it before the downpour. My nerves calmed. I began thinking about Nino's talk, an hour earlier, in the chapel of the retreat, a meditation on the the impact of luck and happenstance on his writing career.
Nino was born in Leamington, Ontario, the son of Italian immigrants with little formal education. Growing up, there'd only been one book in the house, he said, a Bible donated by the Chamber of Commerce. He recalled the time his instructor, W.O. Mitchell, convened him to his office and told him he wasn't cut out to be a writer. Nino persisted, of course, and eventually ended up in the Creative Writing program at Concordia University. Lives of the Saints was his MA thesis. At the time, Gary Geddes was on faculty, whose then wife ran Cormorant Press, a small literary publishing house in Ontario. One thing led to another. The thesis got published. In 1990, the book earned him the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Lots like that has happened to him over the years, he admitted. It was a good talk, a reminder to everyone that you can be a talented writer but if circumstances don't cooperate, you could easily end up toiling away in obscurity for the rest of your life, never publishing a single word.
We charged through the tall grasses and across the railroad tracks, hurrying toward the bar. I pushed the ticks completely out of my mind. Sort of. We flung open the door and joined the rest of our party sitting at a long table made up of many tables. Some scruffy-faced dude in a plaid shirt was singing into the microphone like Johnny Cash. A few minutes later, I heard the rain coming down. In torrents.