To my surprise I was sitting in a restaurant this morning, enjoying a cup of Mocha coffee and having a riveting conversation about writing and all its’ possible permutations and combinations with a young waitress I had never met before. Earlier this morning I had been thinking about Barbara Moser’s comment about Neil (Barbara is publisher/editor of Montreal’s Senior Times) she wrote “He’s edgy, he’s provocative and he’s ours.”
This is a comment about Neil who wrote a column called Pitstop every month for the Senior Times newspaper here in Montreal.
Well, wouldn’t you know I was sitting in a dentist’s chair earlier today while my dentist described his patient, Neil, in similar terms “We had the craziest and best arguments about all kinds of subjects. Sometimes Neil would rise half out of the chair, sometimes he was furious with my point of view, but if my argument made sense, had some logic to it, he’d admit it. My sense was that these discussions owed a great deal to his Jesuit training, how to formulate an argument clearly.”
Well, why should I be surprised? There was himself, my husband, never happier than when he found himself in the midst of an argument, even in the dentist’s chair!
Neil also loved to write, starting from the time he entered an oratorical contest aged nine. I found his original hand-written version among his papers in an old black suitcase that had been stored unopened in our cellar for some twenty years. The title was “When Grandad was a Boy” and will be included in the book about Neil being published later this year by Shoreline Press in Montreal with veteran journalist Alan Hustak as editor.
Over the years, Neil tried his hand at all types of writing – at age fifteen he became a stringer for the Peterboro Examiner under Robertson Davies. He went on to write 5 books which you’ll see <here>
I had the fun of working on two of these books with him. From the time I was ten I had scribbled stories and playlets for my cousins and friends. Never in a million years did I expect to write a book. Too much work, I thought, as I watched Neil hour after hour at his typewriter (later his computer of course).
Has anybody else reading this felt the same and left bits of writing hidden away in a cupboard?
I did recently get an iPad but I see myself as more-or-less computer illiterate. And when I did find myself compelled to write a book (launched at my 79th birthday with the best Irish band in the city), believe it or not the whole thing was written by hand. Years ago, in 1970, I had started typing lessons, then landed a job as speechwriter for the Ontario Minister of Education, complete with secretary. End of typing lessons. I was working six days a week, researching, writing and rewriting, to keep up with my boss who was a splendid orator, when I met Neil on the dance floor.
Two weeks after our August honeymoon in 1972 he landed the job as Editorialist for CJAD, known as the best English-language station in Montreal. We moved lock, stock and barrel down the 401 to Montreal. He would be writing editorials in one corner of our tiny apartment on the 21st floor of a building behind the old Montreal Forum, while in another corner I was scribbling a story for the Reader’s Digest. I had landed a job there as researcher, then was lucky enough to be sent to Quebec City to write a piece for their Explore Canada book.
Another piece I wrote, about 2 Quebec children’s writers, never got published, but it landed me a rewarding experience as literary agent for one of the sisters, Suzanne Martel. Then one of her publishers, Heritage, asked me to take all his French-language children’s books to sell to libraries and bookstores in Toronto. I ended up collecting all the new French-language children’s books from his and other publishers at the Christmas Salon du Livre, lugging them on the train, and having a ball going around Toronto to sell them. This gave me enough money to visit my mom in Toronto every 2 months. That experience also stood me in good stead when Michael Price of Price-Patterson published our book on the early days of skiing in the Laurentians and Montreal (Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Club, now available on Amazon as book and ebook). We had more fun tootling around with the trunk of our car loaded up with copies, to all the local bookstores in the Laurentians, Montreal and Toronto. Thanks to Neil’s skill in writing, this book became a best-seller, and won the international Skada award 2002 for the Best Skiing History at Vail, Colorado.
Working on this book with Neil and going to Ireland with him earlier ( a first for both of us) must somehow had an encouraging effect on my own interest in writing.
Neil had been asked to write the biography of a remarkable Benedictine Monk, John Main, who had been invited by Bishop Crowley to found a monastery right in the heart of Montreal, based on an ancient tradition of silent meditation found in early Christianity. This, at a time when many English-speaking Montrealers were leaving the city in the wake of the FLQ crisis.
Going to Ireland sparked Neil’s interest in his own O’Shea ancestors (on his mother’s side) and my determination to find the farm that our Fleming family (on my mother’s side) had left in 1847, in the midst of the famine. Neil’s family were Catholic, O’Sheas from the south and McKentys from the Glens of Antrim in the far north. My family were Northern Irish Protestant, from the Dromore/Omagh area, not all that far from the Glens of Antrim as I realised later.
Those visits to Ireland with Neil strengthened my awareness of the riches of Irish history, far deeper than sectarian differences that in many cases had economic and political causes.
The long-term result was that the book I eventually wrote, Polly of Bridgewater Farm – an unknown Irish story – was reviewed in both Catholic and Protestant newspapers and accepted into Catholic, Protestant, and integrated schools in the North.
A Dublin broadcaster told me he had never realised that Protestants suffered along with Catholics during the Famine,” the Great Hunger” as it has been called. I was asked to read from the book by the mayor of Monaghan at the first ever memorial in their city of the Irish Famine. And an Omagh school principal wrote me that “we need more books like this, that speak of hope in the midst of adversity.”
All the above experiences have shown me the power of each of our stories, to build connection with other people, and to bridge differences of outlook, age and background. Also the importance of making sure these stories don’t get lost.
This raises questions about writing. What kind of writing interests you most? Have you tried your hand at poetry? Writing your family story or a novel? Trying a short story?
Have you done a lot of essay writing? Is anything of this a labour of love or a drudge? Do you re-write?
Have you done an article for a student newspaper or any other publication?
I loved Vin Smith’s story of his 40 books, some published, some not.
Have you tried to get a book published, what was your experience?
When Neil wrote his memoir, The Inside Story, I tried 40 publishers without success. Some would say “maybe in a year’s time” then someone gave me the name of Judy Isherwood, founder of Shoreline Press. I will never forget what happened next. But that is a story for another time.