||Field Notes - Notice of Eviction
by Rhea Tregebov
THESE ARE TIMES of slash and burn at government cultural-funding agencies. One of the programs to get the axe in last year's round of budget reduction at the Canada Council was the writers-in-residence program, which funded half the writer's fee at the library or university applying for the residency. The writers-in-residence grants Put money directly into the hands of writers. The Council's public statements on the cuts emphasized that it was attempting to reduce funding selectively, so as to have the least possible effect on grants to individual artists. Despite this, the writers-inresidence program was not spared.
I caught the boat for this particular grant at the last possible moment. In December 1992, the central branch of the North York [Ontario] Public Library submitted its application for a proposed residency with me that was to run from June to October 1993, In January 1993, the dailies were full of the news that the writers- in- residence program (among others) had been axed. Maybe it was an act of God, more likely it was bureaucratic goodwill: somehow we managed to squeeze in under the wire and the proposal was, to our great surprise, approved under the 1992/93 budget.
Before my stint at the library, all I knew about the residencies was that they had a reputation for overworking their writers. This was, luckily, far from the reality of my experience -- though luck really had nothing to do with it: I was in the hands of experts. The North York Public Library had been running residencies for years, and the staff had it down to an art. From the earliest stage, they gave me clear and detailed direction as to the position's mandate and parameters. They also had down pat the formal structure needed to keep the job manageable: from the size of the office to the length of time for author interviews.
Most of my time was spent evaluating manuscripts. In the five months I was a writer in residence, I read more than 500 stories and poems by nearly 100 authors. Who were these people? The variety is astounding: the youngest was 15, the oldest over 70. They were women and men, lawyers and electricians, ministers, teachers, students. They were poised and self-possessed; they were intense and completely focused; they were almost paralysed with timidity.
The common factor was that obscure object of desire -- writing. And it seemed to me that this desire was more
often than not coupled with the sense that, by meeting with a real, honest-to-goodness author (or reasonable facsimile -- I did have my credentials questioned on occasion, sometimes subtly, sometimes not) -- they would be handed a key to the mysterious and perhaps inaccessible world of writing. And, to My Surprise, I did gradually become aware of how I Could act as a kind of linchpin connecting these individuals with the network of institutions and organizations supporting the professional writing community.
At odd moments I found myself reluctantly cast in the position of high priestess between the laity and the initiates of writing. I don't much favour the "divine" theory of writing, and so felt that a major part of my job was to chip away at the mystifying stereotypes, to make it evident that commitment and labour are just as much part of writing as talent is. (I don't think this is a Popular view of the craft, at least among the general population -- no one who isn't a writer seems to believe that talent only one factor of literary success.)
This sense of writing as romanticism, as religion, is a two-edged sword. Writing really is an odd occupation, falling mostly outside the market system that dominates our cuIture's set of values. Those who are drawn to it, against all pragmatic odds, and most especially those who may feel themselves on the brink of a real commitment, have to have within them the peculiar and poignant conviction that there is a transcendent worth to this intangible longing to create. As someone who long ago committed herself to the profession, I can't help but have a workaday attitude towards writing ... the art of applying the seat of one's pants to the seat of a chair, as Dorothy Parker put it. And yet, underlying this practical approach, I am, of course, essentially a devotee. Why else do it? And so during the interviews I found myself alternating between injecting a note of reality into the aspirations, and celebrating and encouraging the passion.
Celebration was, in fact, the dominant mode of this experience for me. I was increasingly moved in these meetings, inspired by the genuineness and sincerity people brought to our talk, and to their work -- whatever the level of talent. Among many memorable meetings was one with the gentleman in his late fifties or early sixties, still a working carpenter, if I'm recalling correctly, who had sent in a packet of truly beautiful, traditionally crafted poems; mostly love poems to his native Scotland. No one could be less Scottish than me, but these poems made me homesick for the banks and the braes. We talked over the poems, I mentioned my favourites, we quickly ran over some revision possibilities. And then came the crux of the interview. "I send these to my sister overseas," the poet said, 11 and she tells me how much she loves them. She even had one published in the daily newspaper. But people say those things to be polite, don't they? So, what I'm asking you is, is it OK for me to keep writing these?"
He was asking permission. I had no right to give it, but give it I did. Gladly.
ACCORDING to the Canada Council, the official status of the writers- in- residence program is "temporarily suspended." I've been told informally that they'd love to reinstate it. So there is still hope. We've got a new government in Ottawa now. I intend to let them know just how much value the residencies offer. I hope I'm not alone.