One life, one story?

It may come as no surprise that writers tend to fixate on one subject for long stretches of time. In fact, some people claim that they spend their whole writing life telling the same story, over and over, in slightly differing forms or shapes. But what if this is true: that we actually all write the same story, but in our own voices?

This came to light recently when chatting with my two of my smart writing group friends. I said, with a big sigh of relief, that I’d discovered, finally, what most of my poetry manuscript was about: the idea of home, on a few different levels. Oh, yes, home, Laurie said. Isn’t that what we all write about? We laughed, agreed, and did some scribbling in our notebooks, but a part of my brain was scrambling, trying to find another oh-so-brilliant, original theme.

When I teach creative writing classes, I offer my students the idea that there might only be 3 story plots that we follow:

  • 1. At the door, knocks a stranger.
  • 2. Slavery, desiring Freedom.
  • 3. The Journey.

This is taken from a class I took long ago with Zsuzsi Gartner, and although I’ve done more research on where it might come from originally, I cannot find anything other than the Foster-Harris idea of 3 basic plots here, along with a whole lot of other interesting lists. (I know, I was talking theme, and now I’ve skipped over to plot, but humour me. They’re so inextricably linked…)

I come from a very small village in Eastern Ontario, Lanark Village, pop. 800 (more or less). I left home when I was 19, high-tailed it for the west coast, where I now make my home. But it wasn’t a simple transferal of there to here for me. No, even while I was all set on rejecting everything about my place of birth in search of bigger, better, worldlier places, I kept being called back to the land on the edge of the Canadian Shield.


When I wasn’t listening to that call, I was heeding another–to get out of the country altogether. I moved to Mexico, to a small fishing village. Then, a couple of years later, I spent four months on my own, cycling through Ireland, France and Spain, exploring villages. A few years ago, I actually moved back, with my family, to Lanark itself for six months, and last year, I went to Mexico again and stayed for a month in a village in the mountains outside of Mexico City, where I wrote a lot of poetry.

Huh. Villages. And those three basic plots…. Wow. They pretty much sum up what I’ve been up to my whole adult life. And if boiled down further, don’t they basically have everything to do with the idea of home?

Wait a second. This is my life, not my writing.

I’ve written about my family ever since I started writing; after all, what does a teenage poet have to write about if not what’s all around her, other than poems of longing for Heathcliff-like lovers? And I’ve always been intrigued by the stories I’ve heard about my ancestors, who came long ago from Scotland and Ireland to the rocky, hilly land of Lanark County in order to begin a new life. (The Journey) But I turned away from all of this. I moved away, in search of another home, far away, and left all of that behind. (Slavery desiring Freedom). I began writing short stories instead–and still do–about babies who can be reconstituted like orange juice and good men trying to save children and little stories about sushi and love (and a novel in the rewrite stage, but that’s a whole other story). When I turned back to poetry, I wrote about seasons, and love, my young daughter and death… Then, finally, only a couple of years ago, I began to write about the place I come from. Lanark Village. It was time to reclaim what was mine.

(poem below in the current Grain magazine)


I thought I would write a few village poems–about its history, its people, its tragedies and its glory–and then move on to other subjects. But once I started in on the research, I realized that I had a whole book to write. So, now, here I am. I’m working on the subject of fire at the moment, since the village’s heart was burned away in 1959. More of that to come, but here’s a glimpse of the aftermath.

lanark fire

(Photo originally from The Lanark Era, via The Ottawa Citizen)

It seems I have two poetry manuscripts on the go. One’s about the Village. The other is about everything else, which is, to say, it’s about homes of other sorts: family, love, nature, the body, the brain and even writing itself. All the places we search, hoping that we’ll find a place where we feel we belong.

Until the plot takes another twist, perhaps, when I hear a stranger knocking at the door…



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