Grapes of Wrath

The other day my creative writing teacher asked us why we write. At times this has been a difficult question for me to answer. It has always been this lingering need to write stories without knowing who they would be written for, or why I should even bother. My answer to her, put on the spot, was that it makes me feel human. “Life affirming?” she asked. I said yes. Well, sort of. In contrast to what I actually do for a living, it makes me feel like I am creating something that has meaning, rather than creating something that makes people buy more stuff.

In the shower, the other morning, I remembered the moment I decided to write seriously. There had always been poems, short stories, and writing festivals in my youth. It is clear from my elementary school report cards that writing and communication were always my strongest subjects. But it’s clear to me now that the turning point was when I was twenty-four, sitting in my mother’s condo in Brampton, reading The Grapes of Wrath. That was ten years ago.

It’s true the actual story was one of non-fiction. It could have been told by a journalist, and it probably was at some point; the Dust Bowl of the thirties, the foreclosures of farms, the travel of thousands to California. But what Steinbeck did was turn it into a story that we, as readers could live long after that headlines were gone. Page after page I was completely absorbed in the plight of the Joads, the food they ate, their relationships, their ignorance and their fears.

And this why stories should be written and read. When you read a book you live inside the characters. You feel what they feel. There is no other way to do this in life. This is why I want to write. Because it feels human to connect, to tell stories that have not yet been told, to have readers know they are not alone, to let language blend and create parallels and metaphors, to make meaning out of life events, big or small.

It does not go unnoticed that the very evil in the Grapes of Wrath, aside from uncontrollable weather and the hungry banks, is advertising. A false promise on a handbill distributed to the farmers that there was plenty of work on the farms in California. The Joads use last of their savings to make the trek, and along the way encounter thousands of families like themselves. When they finally get there they realize that with so many available workers, the big corporate farmers can get labour for free. They pay the starving families with only a meal.

I was surprised that I remembered this moment. These changes in life usually happen gradually. Why do we want to do things we do? When it comes to making art, it seems like an insane pursuit. No money, lots of hard work, and the great potential for complete and utter failure. But I expect, or I have to believe, even Steinbeck must have felt this — at some point.

Look at the Birdie

I’ve been reading outside the lines lately. Trying new authors. Trying not to be so snobby when it comes to literature. For months I’ve had a collection of short stories sitting on my desk (along with about ten other fiction and non-fiction books) by Kurt Vonnegut. But it was only after Ben put a single story in front of me that I couldn’t resist reading the rest of the book. Look at the Birdie is a collection of unpublished short stories, collected over the years. In contrast Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House is a collection of the stuff that actually sold. And I’m not surprised that after reading both, I’m more drawn to former. There are certainly great stories in both, a few not so great stories too. It surprised me after all my years of reading that I had never come across his work before. And this is the rapturous delight of reading – when an author can open you into the world of his or her mind, experience, thoughts that you never had. TV can only rarely do it. Films are a bit better at it. But what is special about reading is that it is so personal. The characters exist in your head as you imagine them, prompted by a word here or there. Your interpretation is different because good authors don’t ever tell the whole story. You walk away with a sense of emptiness, of a new whole in the universe opened, that only another story can fill. And it continues. This was how I felt reading Vonnegut.