So… should we?

It’s been only four months since our arrival in Toronto, but it feels like an eternity in some respects. Life isn’t easy here. Not that I thought it would be easy to study full time with two small children in a foreign country. I really don’t know how I’m doing this, but I am. No, it’s more than the general challenge of managing the workload and juggling priorities and responsibilities. I’m being reminded, yet again, that life in Australia is generally easier.

I don’t know how I’ll explain this properly, but I’ll try. From the age of about 11 or 12 I watched a fantastic teenage high school drama called Degrassi. Well, it has many iterations of that name: Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High. There was even a movie. And then came Degrassi: The Next Generation. It’s still running now but I don’t watch it any more, I’m kind of past it and none of the characters I used to watch are in it any more (well, technically a few are, playing parents and teachers, but still, it’s not the same). I watched during the “golden years” (the 80s!) and I attribute much of my sex education and learning about morals and ethics to this awesome show. Degrassi, for anyone who doesn’t know, was set at a community school in Toronto. So anything I knew about life here prior to moving was pretty much based on what I’d watched over the years.

Some of the original characters of Degrassi. Image taken from http://www.urbanexpress.ca/degrassi-high-where-are-they-now/
Aside from all the wonderful storylines and themes and amazing lessons I learnt, I think back now and I realise I did get a vague sense of life in Toronto. Nothing concrete, it wasn’t like they were trying to give an impression of life in this city through the show – it was about teenagers and coming of age and life lessons, not about Toronto. But there were references and because I watched every episode over and over again I absorbed every tiny detail of the characters’ lives. I gained insight into the types of people that lived in Toronto in this time, and I think the way they were portrayed was very realistic. These were everyday kids, some poor, some middle class, some from broken homes, some from stable families; some kids were from true working-class backgrounds, from different ethnicities, and a variety of cultural persuasions. This sense slowly emerged of life in Toronto being a little bit of a struggle. Perhaps not so much for the middle class kids, but most of the characters in the show had real struggles, and their socio-economic backgrounds were very clearly portrayed. Life was hard. I think this is still the case for the majority of Torontonians.

Okay so Degrassi was a dramatisation. And it happened in the 80s, coming up to 30 years ago now. But there’s something… yeah, I knew this would be hard to explain. There’s something hard about life that infiltrates the corners of many an episode, some kind of feeling or impression – walking in the cold, catching an old streetcar, dealing with money problems – something difficult about life that is there in the background. Maybe because it’s got a semi-industrial feel to it, I don’t know. And that feeling is here in Toronto. We don’t even live in Toronto proper, we live about 40km outside it, but I travel in most days to go to uni and I have a sense of the city now. I catch the subway and I see all the people doing it tough. I notice how many people are working their guts out for low wages, hating the cold, doing the same thing day in, day out, for what kind of reward? A badly constructed house? A Honda? A measly couple of weeks’ holiday a year?

This is a very inefficient city. It may just be a Toronto thing, or even an Ontario thing. I don’t think it’s a Canadian thing necessarily. But there are so many systems and processes that are outdated and a certain way because that’s how it’s been done for a long time. I think there’s a bit of this in the US too but I can only speak to what I’ve seen thus far. The point is, it’s getting me down. The frustrating protocols, ways of doing things, that are just so badly organised and out of date are the worst! I could list everything if I had a week. But I don’t want to put this place down because there’s a lot of goodness here. I’m beginning to realise that, for me, the bad outweighs the good though.

So… should we? I don’t even want to write it…

Should we go back? Was this a failed experiment? Will we return to Australia with our tails between our legs? Life was really good before we left. We had savings, nearly enough to put a deposit on a house. We had a fabulous new car, Mr Chewbacca had a great job and we had all that we needed at home. Oh I can’t bear to think of what we gave up to come here! The positive thing, and what I must keep reminding myself, is that I am getting a degree out of this, and hopefully it will forge a new career path that I will actually enjoy and be paid well in the process. I don’t even know what’s going to happen, maybe I should put all these thoughts on the shelf and focus on enjoying where we are and what I’m doing, because it is great. Now if only it would snow…

True or false: the ethics of writing reality as fiction

Just reading an article from the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/books/review/Gates-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss about Janet Frame (NZ author, subject of Jane Campion’s film An Angel At My Table) and her book Towards Another Summer, which has been published posthumasly.  It’s not arbitrary that the book came out after Frame’s death in 2004; she deliberately witheld it, saying it was ‘too personal’ to release during her life.  I think this must have been done to protect the other subjects of the book, who are based closely on real people, as if you’re ever read Frame’s autobiography, you’ll know that she isn’t concerned in the least about being open and honest about her life.

So reading this article (which is brilliant, by the way, check it out), got me thinking about something I very often worry about.  My English teacher in year 11 (second last year of highschool before university, if any non-Aussies are reading this) was instrumental in giving me confidence with my writing and showing me the correct path to follow to improve it.  For some reason, I wrote a short piece about my grandparents and handed it in to Mr P (should I use his real name?  Read on…)  It was about visiting my grandparents, various conversations we had, just giving a snapshot of their life and surroundings, and I remember describing their ‘nicotine-stained hallway’ which I thought was nothing special (they were chain smokers) but which Mr P thought was fantastic.  I said to him that I’d always wanted to write fantasy for young adults, but was always criticised for being to ‘cliche’.  He said I should follow this lead, write from life, as exemplified in the story about my grandparents.  Suddenly I realised, that’s it!  Write about what you know!  Why didn’t I take in that piece of wisdom when I watched that episode of Degrassi Junior High when Michelle has to make a presentation and she’s afraid, so Mr Raditch says, ‘just talk about what you know’.  Genius advice!

I thought I was free and clear and would be a published novelist in no time… but sadly, another more fundamental problem arose.  How do I write about what I know and the people I find fascinating without offending them?  At first I thought the solution might be simply to change people’s names.  But I realised very quickly that the detail with which I wanted to write about people was such that they would be identifiable without their names.  I constantly struggle with this idea of how to make these characters known to others, how to show them for how interesting and entertaining they are, without defaming or exposing the living individuals.  Even dead people are a struggle – I couldn’t write everything about, say, my grandmother, without a member of my family reading it and getting upset; the truth is painful, even if it’s not your own truth.  Most people are more private than me, I’ve discovered, and everyone has their own truth which usually differs from mine – truth, after all, is often heavily influenced by perception.  I toyed with this idea of just using bits and pieces from different characters to create new people, new lives, fictional ones.  But the fact remains, at least in my head, that truth, reality is deeper, more interesting, more relevant and rather more entertaining than fiction.  Why write about a fluffy, cliched fictional creature when the real one is right there in front of you for you to describe in complete detail, whose story you can tell in full, not having to make sloppy assumptions and guesses.

‘Interesting?  Yes, of course, people LOVE interesting writing!’ exclaims Elaine Benes (Seinfeld), upon her sudden realisation that she can write product descriptions without help from her boss.  As funny as it is, it’s so true: so many basic things are realised too late.  So it’s the realisation that makes the impact, provides the impetus to act.  Things are always there, have been there all along, it’s just up to us creators to realise them.  I realised something just as obvious in deciding to write from my own life.  Yet, as I say, I’m still at something of a standstill.

It’s odd though, now I think about it – I’ve been writing from life my entire life.  From the age of 10, I’ve kept a diary.  Not an everyday, ‘Dear Diary, Today I did something incredibly mundane which is of no interest even to me let alone others…’  No, it began as ‘Dear Diary…’ of course, because, at 10, you think this is how it’s supposed to be written, and I had this sort of obsessive idea in my head that made me want to organise my life, record every moment, no matter how seemingly mundane.  I always knew at some level that I’d want to know when I got older, like a sociological experiment.  That’s why I’d make so many different time capsules, write letters to myself in the future, include tiny fragments of my life at that point – a plastic Kinder Surprise toy, an old Yugoslav postage stamp, a silk scarf that used to sit around the neck of one of my small teddies, random keys for long lost locks… In my first year of uni, at art school, we were asked to complete a ‘cultural nexus’ project – something that represented our own personal culture, whatever that was.  I made a life size bust with a long hooped skirt, all thin strands of metal wire welded together, and then the ‘dress’ itself consisted of layers of clear sticky tape running down the contours of the frame with various small objects embedded.  Our old front door key made an appearance there, dwarfing everything else with it’s thick, four inch long body.

So the point is, I want to capture lives, people, how life unfolds through time and circumstance.  I think it’s some sort of desire to prove that nothing is arbitrary, everything is connected and relevant.  But without exposing people’s bare bones, I cannot really do this.  Maybe I’ll write everything and, like Janet Frame, prevent its publication until after my death.