All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know, Nancy.
Somehow the reality of Richard's death only just hit. He taught "Writer's Craft" at my high school. It was the first time I started to see writing as craft, like pottery, shaped with your hands and your heart.
He had a soft-spoken manner. Mozart played on a tiny black radio in his home room. He ran the literary rag, Voices, and two friends and I edited it that year I graduated. I remember when stapling together an edition, Richard pricked his thumb. He laughed and said, "You see, I give my blood to this!"
He did. He gave his blood to this. He gave his blood to teaching. He gave his blood to books. To this - this meaning life itself - he gave his blood. He demonstrated his care in small but unforgettable ways. He taught us to be real with words, and through that real with each other. He taught us to be humble with words, and through that humble with each other. To say it with less. Something I'm still learning.
When I was 17, I didn't say much, but I often wrote too many words. He said, "You love words, Nancy, you should be a poet!" Back then, I liked writing stories. "I'm your editor," he said. How lucky I was.
The last time I spoke to Richard was the year after I graduated from high school. It was June. I had spent my first year at McGill in Montréal. I wasn't eating enough and wore a loose pair of corduroy trousers. I toted a hard copy of The Age of Longing for him to sign. In it, the narrator searches for his sense of self through memory. The "Age of Longing" is the era of Richard's parents, of my grandparents, of the 1930s.
I remember that novel satiating my love of early Jazz. "Begin the Beguine" is still one of my favourite songs. Maybe I first heard it in Richard's writing. I remember a character who goes running in the mornings, drinks orange juice and reads Ludwig Wittgenstein. When I talked to Richard about The Age of Longing, I said that character reminds me of my brother. My brother had runner's blood, drank a lot of orange juice, majored in philosophy and read Ludwig Wittgenstein.
He spoke about his students that year. He said, "They're too caught up in their careers. It's hurting their writing. Their plots are all too straight." I said, "Yeah, non-linear narratives are where it's at." He lit up. A lot of Richard's books shift back and forth through time.
I remember at high school graduation, everyone had a lot to drink. Near the end of the night, Richard came up to me and uncommonly emotive for his character, said, "Nancy, you're talented and beautiful! I hope you find someone who appreciates you. Above all, I wish you luck in love." He never threw around words, let alone threw them away. When I was a teenager, I neither felt all that talented nor beautiful. So those words meant something to me.
I once saw Richard years later in Toronto. On a grey January afternoon on College Street, I saw him dipping down the stairs to the subway. Maybe he'd been seeing a movie at The Carleton. He loved old movies. His Thursday afternoon cinema club introduced me to Bonnie and Clyde. He once said, "You know this school, it asks you to do too many things for other people. Sometimes you just gotta go do something for yourself. You have to go watch a movie by yourself sometimes." Maybe that day he'd been watching a movie by himself.
His novel Clara Callan had won the Giller and The Governor General's prize the year before. I should have caught him before he went underground to catch his train to congratulate him. Then I remember thinking, "But he might ask about my writing, and what will I say?" I hadn't published a book yet. I thought I'd failed him. So I watched him slip underground. "The next time I see Richard," I said, "I'll have a book out."
I wanted to write him a letter after that. Maybe it'd be easier, I thought. But I thought I'd wait. Publish a book, I said to myself. Then maybe we'll go out for a beer an talk about non-linear narratives, life and old movies.
Speaking of non-linear narratives, the last one I read by Richard was October. I didn't want to say it to anyone at the time, but it was eerily familiar. The daughter of the narrator is a Canadian woman who goes to teach literature in England and gets breast cancer. She falls in love with a doctor who doesn't marry her and has a close relationship with her father, a university professor. Her mother died young. And I didn't say it to anyone because it sounded solipsistic to see myself in that book, but then my father said, "It's like he's describing me." We both agreed we wanted to hear more about about the daughter, what she was feeling. But those characters, they don't talk so much about what they're feeling. That's their way.
I'm rambling on again, Richard. I've used too many words. Keep the verb close to the subject. I hear your voice, Richard, every time I write. Every time I put a sentence together, I hear your raspy voice. Keep the sentences short, but vary the length for rhythm. Always start short. Use fewer adjectives, Nancy.
Once, in a short story, I called a rutabaga a "prodigious vegetable." I wanted to convey a sense of mystery. You said, "Just call it a turnip!"
Don't be afraid to use your humour, Nancy.
All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know., Nancy.
Maybe it was Ernest Hemingway who gave that last piece of advice, but, Sir, I read Hemingway because you said he was your favourite.
And maybe that's the way you lived your life, Richard. One true sentence after another. Carefully chosen words. All bound in honesty, which is another word for love.
I'm sorry I didn't come up to you that grey January day before you dipped down those stairs leading underground. I didn't want to disappoint you. When I was a teenager, you were my hero. Don't you get choked up in front of people you admire?
You woke up every morning at 4:30 to write before a full day teaching. Every night you went to bed at 10, so you could do that. It's getting late here. If I am going to honour you, and what you gave my life, I ought to sleep now. Because I've got some writing to do at 5 am, dear teacher.
Thank you. If you hear me now, thank you so much. We're so sad to see you go.
Meditate on someone's influence on your life, anyone from a parent to a teacher to a random acquaintance.
Imagine that person has died if they haven't already - what would you want to thank them for? What are the creative ways you might thank them for their influence on your life?