I often get asked this question: how long have you been writing? It’s a good question to ask any artist, because the answer often honours the truth about the creative process: it doesn’t happen overnight. My fallback answer is twelve, because that’s when I won the Royal Canadian Legion’s Remembrance Day poetry contest. But it’s not because of the win that I say it; no, rather, it’s the first time I felt the potential in words on a page—because as I read the poem aloud, someone in the audience began to cry.
I had never been to war, but somehow I was able to transpose losses that I’d felt into that poem about a mother losing her son in battle. So, twelve. Of course that was followed by a lot of bad poetry written and shared at the back of the bus on my way home from high school, but I hold onto that experience in the Lanark Legion as the beginning of what it would mean to write, and be a writer: the beauty of the imagination, and of using words to carry my feelings and ideas out into the world.
Recently I had the honour of reading as a guest speaker in Jay Ruzesky’s writing class at Vancouver Island University in Duncan, and when a student asked this question, how long have I been writing, I gave them this answer. Another student put up her hand to comment. “Two of us in this class began to write because of the Legion!” she said. “Isn’t that amazing,” I replied. And it is, this encouragement the Legion has given to what must be many more writers than just this handful on the west coast of Canada. If anyone reading this has had the same experience, I’d love to know.
I’m writing this on the eve of Remembrance Day, a day that some people feel uncomfortable recognizing, since to them it might seem to glorify war and death. Or there’s the other extreme: last year, I heard one person wish another a Happy Remembrance Day. Is it a day to be happy? I have wondered at the day’s meaning over the years, uncertain exactly what I’m saying with that poppy, unclear about the tears running down my cheeks when seven year olds sing about wanting peace, uncomfortable with the fact that we’re still sending troops to war and having them come back damaged—if they come back at all.
It helps me if I bring it back to the word itself: remembrance. As in, we will not forget what has happened before us, the young men and women whose lives were taken—not always given—in the name of freedom. And if I go to that word, freedom, then Remembrance Day becomes a day of thanks, not only for those who have suffered and died in war, but a general thanks (and wonder, and maybe even some guilt) that I was born in a country where I can live out many freedoms, including speech and religion, where I have blessings in multitudes.
And so, selfishly, I thank the Royal Canadian Legion for getting me started on this writing business, and for all of those who’ve served Canada, and for those who strive to increase peace wherever they may be. “In Flanders Fields” is one hundred years old this year. Thank you, John McCrae, for writing this poem (a rondeau, for those who care to know). We will not forget.