A couple weeks ago I was leaning over my car engine when a man walked over. “What’s happening here?” he said, eyeing my attempt to loosen a rusty bolt with the pliers on my camp kitchen Leatherman. He looked concerned, ready to be helpful. Something about the way he carried a cold can of Canadian on a Sunday afternoon, and the way his t-shirt was stuffed into his belt like a rag, his beer belly on full display, reminded me of home, of the south, of the kind of well-meaning but slightly patronizing older man who tends to appear the moment you (if you are a young woman) open the hood of your car.
“Battery’s dead,” I said. “You don’t have a wrench I could borrow, do you?”
“Hang on.” He returned with a shiny metal toolbox.
“I just need to get the battery out,” I told him. I tried to explain the power drain in my car’s electric system that has left me with dead batteries for years now, and how I knew exactly what to do, I just needed the proper tools. “The first thing is,” he interrupted, “fire your mechanic.” He opened the box and dug around for the right sized socket. “I think we can jump this thing.”
I gave up, admitting that this guy obviously knew more about car batteries, and watched as he first removed the bolt and then meticulously sanded every last battery contact. My friend and I chatted with his daughter about the bugs she’d collected in the yard. Then Paul—I finally asked his name—got the engine started with no problem.
As far as neighborly interactions go, this one was pretty standard. But it struck me as kind of exceptional for Vancouver. And it left me wondering about the relationship between friendliness and traditional/patriarchal community values. (In other words: are more liberal, more inclusive communities inherently less friendly?)
After a trip home last month, I came back to Vancouver, looked around, and for the first time in years thought, “What am I doing here?” Of course this is an easy question to answer—the things that recommend Vancouver, the reasons anyone might want to live here, are obvious:
I’ve put years into finding a way to work and live in a country where I’m not a citizen, all because I wanted to make a life in Vancouver. I love my job and it gives me time to write. I have a dog-friendly apartment in a good neighborhood. I just bought a couch. And I live across the hall from a caterer who frequently appears at the door bearing a plate of fish tacos or sticky toffee pudding. (I’d never had sticky toffee pudding before Steve, but I now endorse it with my entire being: see here.) I’ve already mentioned how enamored I am of my friends, so I won’t go on about how they are all fun, funny geniuses. I’ll just say that my life here is, by almost every objective measure, very good.
But after two weeks in the south dodging thunderstorms and sharing meals with family and old friends, I arrived back in Vancouver and felt displaced. Vancouver was all style and no substance, I decided. I was surrounded by people who look good in jorts and happily welcome alternative lifestyles, but avoid eye contact. I wanted to live somewhere where strangers said hi, I thought grimly. Where buildings aren’t constantly being torn down and replaced with condos. Where the cost of living isn’t pushing people out into the suburbs.
This feeling was compounded by a literary event I attended back home: Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Patchett discussing literary friendships. Vancouver is full of talented writers producing good work, but as I listened to Kingsolver and Patchett talk, all I could think about was the absence of a community of nonfiction writers in my life. I thought of a colleague who once suggested that a chapter I’d shown him might be better if I rewrote it in the third person. I wasn’t close with this writer but we’d been acquainted for a couple years, so I knew his comments were intended to be helpful and, in fact, some of the more specific feedback was. But I wondered: was it that he didn’t know or didn’t care that I was writing memoir—and that it wouldn’t be memoir at all if I changed it to the third person? I longed for Kingsolver’s and Patchett’s intimate brand of literary friendship, and felt certain I wouldn’t find it in Vancouver.
Then my battery died and I met Paul, who (if patronizing) was friendly and generous in a way that caught me off guard. A couple days later I ran into Michel, a customer from the café where I worked when I first moved here. We were both biking up Main Street when he shouted, “I know you.” We pulled onto the sidewalk and chatted for a few minutes. He was going to play snooker at the Legion, he said, and he was just about to break through a plateau in his performance; he could feel it.
Over the next week several neighbors stopped to meet Roscoe as we walked. Though I’ve been going regularly for years and he’d never before said hi, the guy who works the desk at the gym smiled and said, “I haven’t seen you in a while!” The man at the butcher shop asked how my bike ride was. My roommate’s friends invited me to Margarita Mondays—and bought me drinks! It was like, instead of cicadas, friendly people were emerging in Vancouver after years of subterranean gestation.
My complaints were starting to seem hollow, except for one. I know there are essayists and memoirists dispersed throughout city, but there’s little sense of collegiality. Perhaps this is because writers can be a reserved group. After all, one has to enjoy a certain amount of solitude. In a recent interview Marilynne Robinson describes her ideal day:
It’s generally when I have no demands being made of me—of any kind. And then I can sit on my couch and worry over a paragraph until lunch. And then sit back down on the couch and worry about the paragraph until supper. Sometimes I like to work in my very neglected garden. In any case, that’s basically it. I usually have a book or two that I’m reading. I have a book or two that I’m writing. I like to be at home and have on my slovenly clothes.
First of all, I like that she writes on the couch, as I often do. And I like that she can spend an entire day on a single paragraph. What I love most about writing is what my science and engineering students seem to love the least—fine-tuning sentences, putting the exact right words in the exact right order. But my ideal writing day would probably end at the pub, brainstorming the next day’s work over beer with other writers.
Rethinking the decision to live in Vancouver feels uncomfortable—disloyal, even. It’s like looking at someone I thought I loved and saying, “You? Really? I’m just not sure anymore.” And while I think I can pinpoint some of its origins, rationally-speaking, this feeling doesn’t make sense. But it is acute. And persistent. It has left me watery eyed in a cafe when I started thinking about the children my sister will one day have and how far I might be from them. I want this to be a phase, because it raises all kinds of additional, difficult questions: Will I want to start a family here? If not here, where? Do I want to live without powder days at Whistler? Would I give up my health care? My Canadian residency? My fun-slash-genius friends, who are, no doubt, unimpressed by this line of questioning?
Maybe, because the other parts of my life are pretty stable, I have the luxury of really thinking about my writing career. For the most part, the purpose of this post is to get these thoughts out of my head, but also, I’d like to hear from other writers or creative people: What is the value of a creative community? Could I find it online? Or by going to retreats and conferences a couple times a year? Should I take a page from Robinson and be a literary hermit? Or should I try to create the community I’m looking for here? Or am I over-thinking everything because the creative community is in fact a romantic, archaic ideal?
I know this is a small part of your post, but over the weekend I heard a writer say that she used to hear at writers conferences that first person is somehow less sophisticated than third person. Ridiculous! (She wanted to dispel that myth, but none of us had ever heard it.) Also, I love Ann Patchett. Speaking of literary friendships, have you read Truth and Beauty?
I’ve also heard somewhere that beginning novelists tend to rely on the first person pov because it’s so much easier than the third. I think it’s the same kind of elitism that values the sprawling, multi-generation “big American novel.” Definitely ridiculous. I have not read Truth and Beauty but it’s on my list. I just started Bel Canto today! Also, she has an essay collection out soon, which I’m very excited about. I heard a recording of her reading the title piece “This is the story of a happy marriage” (or something similar…) and thought it was fantastic.
So, I spent a year living in a very rural part of Florida, and there I was unable to find the kind of writing community I felt I needed. So, I’ve actually been really happy to be back in Seattle, where I do feel like writing community is easy to find. I’ve had some success with online classes, but I still like to be able to meet with other writers in person to discuss books and writing in a way that only feels possible in person. So, I can only speak from my own experiences, but I felt too isolated away from the kind of writing community I have here in Seattle. If you want to chat more about it, just let me know.
Hi Lisa: Thanks for the reply. It’s great to hear that community is so easy to find in Seattle. I felt an instant kinship with writers at Wild Mountain that I just can’t seem to find here, though I really can’t pinpoint why that is. Maybe just the secluded away-from-home environment, or maybe the fact that we were sharing meals, but it was lovely. I miss it!
As long as writing community doesn’t become community writing…
Hi George: I’m not quite sure what you mean, but I do think community can, at times, be more distracting than productive. I’m not sure how to find a good balance.
Mandy, these are such necessary questions. I’ve been living inside of questions like these, too. Sometimes I think the hermetic thing is necessary; other times, I can’t help thinking there must be ways to create nourishing creative community in the places we live, that the work doesn’t have to be so solitary. But, like you, I’ve found good writing community difficult to find/sustain, outside of my university years. Places like Banff are a special case, it seems–a concentration of ordinary getitng-to-know one another. Perhaps, as you say, sharing meals is part of it. As good a first premise for building intentional community as any.
Also, do you know about the Creative Nonfiction Collective (http://www.creativenonfictioncollective.com/)? They have an annual conference, which I haven’t been to yet, but that I’ve heard good things about.
I hope you’ll write more about all this, as your thinking develops.
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