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What Encouraged me to Become a Writer?
- Dan Lukiv

have you wondered about what forces in your past encouraged you to pursue particular interests? Are you a photographer? Did any experiences in school encourage you to take up photography? Are you a scientist? Nurse? Mechanic? Piano teacher? Whale expert? Talk show host? Chemical engineer? Editor? Did any experiences in school encourage you to pursue your line of work? I am a poet and a fiction writer, and I wondered about what, if any, experiences in school encouraged me to take up creative writing as a past-time and as a profession. I have discovered several in my mindscape, several that stand like great trees on a somewhat barren landscape.

I'll begin with an experience from primary school. I clearly remember my grade three teacher asking us students to read a story that showed me how much fun and how interesting my looking at the world from a different perspective could be. In the story, the farmer-husband and the housekeeper-wife each complained about his or her lot in life and work load. Each decided the other had life easy, very easy, and so each traded places. The husband became the housekeeper, and the wife became the farmer. The result was hilarious because each was hopelessly incompetent. That farm and the home became a kind of bedlam filled with burnt food and mooing, unmilked cows. I looked at housekeeping through the eyes of the farmer, and I looked at farming through the eyes of the wife. I became hysterical.

From the day of my reading that story, I have never forgotten how much I enjoy looking at the world from different, unusual perspectives. I believe that story has encouraged me to dream up bizarre people in fantastic circumstances. I refer to some of my characters--Hooper Quirk, Booger Jimm, Professor Hamburger, Dr. Dewknob, and Miss Snapdragon--in the time travel adventure of my Quibils and Quirks.

Now I'll step into grade four: I vividly recall an experience that introduced me to the joy of creative thought. I wrote the experience up as "Chapter Seven: How Big is the Universe?" in The Master Teacher: A Collection. Here is an excerpt from that chapter:

The school year: 1962/63. I was in grade four, attending Sir Wilfred Grenfell Elementary School in East-side Vancouver, BC [Canada]. That formal-sounding name perfectly juxtaposed the formalistic schooling I had already experienced there for over three years. I relate perfectly to Neil Sutherland in his "The Triumph of 'Formalism': Elementary Schooling in Vancouver from the 1920s to the 1960s." On school days, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., I lived in a world of precision, of upper case versus lower case, of names of capitals and provinces, of reading comprehension questions, of phonics reviews, of math drills, of multiplication facts, and of fact-based quizzes, quizzes, quizzes. Sutherland says, "Teachers would lead the class in chanting a 'drill' for the spelling, or the times table, or the number facts, or the capitals of provinces" (1995, p. 107). And what made a good teacher? "If a teacher, so parents believed, 'drills incessantly on the formal parts of grammar and arithmetic or the facts of history and geography, he is...a good teacher'" (p. 101).

I knew no other schooling system, so those hours at school actually seemed normal. "It was a [normal] system based on teachers talking and pupils listening, a system that discouraged independent thought, a system that provided no opportunity to be creative" (Sutherland, 1995, p. 106). But one day in grade four, in 1962/63 still in the clutches of a century of formalism, learning briefly changed for me. Our usually-stern, aloof, precisely-accurate teacher surprisingly said, "We're going to do something different today. We're going to talk about the universe. I'm going to ask you a question, but there is no right or wrong answer. Now then: How big is the universe? Does it go on forever, or does it stop? And if it does stop, how does it stop? Remember, now, there are no wrong answers."

Our teacher worked hard to encourage us to allow our imaginations no limits. I (and my fellow classmates) slowly recovered from the shock of being invited to participate in such an unorthodox assignment. I believe I felt my brain turning on. Perhaps new-found numbers of neurotransmitters had jumped to life. My brain seemed to soar across a chasm filled with 5 x 4 = 20 and other apparently-for-the-moment, unimportant facts to an expanse, a landscape, on which any thinking would do. What a day! Fifteen years later I learned in UBC-teacher training classes that my fellow students and I were brainstorming, creatively dreaming up ideas, and about ten years after that I learned that some people call it lateral thinking. Comments leapt from our grade four-mouths:

"Maybe it never ends" / "How can something never end?" / "Maybe it starts all over again" / "Maybe it ends at a brick wall" / "Could the universe be a circle? So wherever you go, like in a spaceship, you end up back where you started?"

Our teacher, who I remember looked delighted, continued encouraging us to dream up as many possible answers to her "How big is the universe?"-question, until we literally ran out of ideas. How different from lessons I had digested daily at school--lessons for which "teachers conducted individual or group drills of number facts or the times tables" (Sutherland, 1995, p. 106) or conducted arithmetic-races that determined winners and losers. I thought about those possible, and according to our teacher, anything-will-do "universe" answers for hours after that class, in which no one, that I can recall, won or lost. Each time I ran those answers through my mind, I felt exhilarated.

Thereafter, and unfortunately, the daily program of formalistic schooling didn't often offer the luxury of brainstorming--brainstorming within a framework of open-ended discussions (another term I learned about during my UBC-teacher training). Such discussions, for me the food of lateral-thinking ecstasy, or call it sublime creative thought, killed the boredom that Sutherland aptly describes:

Pupils freed themselves from the bonds of [tedious] routine as best they could. Some learned to talk to neighbors in such a way that they were rarely seen or heard, or to throw balls or wads of paper when the teacher was not looking. Some "mastered the skill of copying...without ever needing to comprehend" and were thus able "to dream outdoor matters while rarely missing a word." Others travelled to the pencil sharpener as frequently as they felt they could get away with the practice. This activity was especially popular in classrooms where the sharpener was on the bookcase under a window; then one "could have a look out of the window." (Sutherland, 1995, p. 109)
Through the remainder of my public education, I longed for any creative outlet school had to offer. (Lukiv, 2001a, pp. 16-17)

This opportunity for creative thought, this total acceptance of my ideas by my teacher: The experience made me feel drunk with joy.

So did my playing the guitar for my grade five class. We had been studying about the lives of master composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, and about the musical instruments of their day. I told my teacher I played the guitar, and she asked me to bring it to school the next day to perform for the class. The exhilaration that next day of entertaining those students was almost more than I could stand. "We'll have to call you Elvis," one boy teasingly said afterwards.

To do something creative, to present ideas that are appreciated, to entertain others: A pattern of what I liked was welling up inside of me.

In grade six our teacher took us to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver to hear the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra play fully-orchestrated pieces. I could feel the music vibrate right down to the bones of my skinny body. I said to myself, "The people who compose this kind of music are deep thinkers." To my pattern of what I liked I added to do something that requires lots of concentration.

Although I had no focussed direction of creative pursuit, I continued to discover what made me feel passionate. In grade seven our teacher read aloud A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The first page remains alive in my mind. The atmosphere of death Dickens created by referring to Scrooge's dead friend Marley intrigued me and filled me with wonder:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail. (Dickens, 1843/2000, Stave 1, Marley's ghost, para. 1-2 )

I remember saying to myself, "I don't know who this Dickens guy is, but he sure knows what he's doing." I wanted to know how one goes about using the printed word to make others feel emotion. The wonder of that grew inside me through junior high school. Teachers, and students who were good readers, read aloud The Red Pony and The Pearl by John Steinbeck, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway, and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. We students silently read Animal Farm by George Orwell, Moonfleet by John Meade Faulkner, and Hiroshima by John Hersey. I recall how words in all those books seemed to hang like clouds in the air, clouds coloured by emotions like grief, despair, helplessness, terror, heartache, horror, fear, sadness, confusion, joy, excitement. I wanted to know how one writes words that make people feel, that make people feel so deeply that they cannot forget the stories.

The wonder of how to do that remained passionately alive in my blood, but not until grade twelve, in English 12, did I realize I wanted to write, to be a writer, to be someone who writes creatively, to be someone whose works are appreciated, to be someone who entertains others, to be someone who thinks hard, and to be someone who thinks and sees through other perspectives, other points of view. Our teacher asked us to do something novel, like my grade four teacher who asked us how big the universe might be. He asked us to write a poem about absolutely anything that we wished to write about. A poem of our choice! I wrote all right. And he read it.

He looked at me after he had finished reading the poem and smiled. He smiled! "I don't know what it means," he said, "but it's interesting."

As I looked up at him leaning over my desk, I was spellbound by his interest. I had actually written something that although my teacher found it confusing, he nevertheless found it interesting! I wanted to be a writer from that day forward.

That desire grew even stronger when I, as a student creative writer, received, from a successful writer, regular, personal attention in Fiction 497 at the University of British Columbia:

I'd handed in my first short story for the tutorial course, in which Professor Harlow met privately with me for about an hour each week to discuss my latest efforts.

I sat before his cluttered desk, and he looked over his black-rimmed glasses, somewhat apprehensively, at me:

"Dan," he said, "I read your story…It's awful, Dan. I only marked up the first three pages, because after that I couldn't stand it any longer. I mean, I read it all, but…it was just awful."

I didn't shrink like Alice. I didn't die of humiliation, although my heart sank like a millstone in the sea. But I knew that expression of his. He was trying to help me. He was trying hard. "Awful?"

"Yes. This isn't a story, Dan." He looked at me over the upheld story-pages as if they were a chasm between us that he was trying to eliminate.

Not a story. I was certainly thinking about that. But I had lots of knowledge about the elements of fiction! Plot. Scene. Transition. Theme. Protagonist. Antagonist. Conflict. I could even write clear prose, or so my English 303 composition teacher had told me. But, somehow, according to Professor Harlow, I had not written a story....

"Not a story?"

"No. A story is about somebody with a problem that gets worse and worse, until some sort of resolution takes place. What you have written is not a story." Again, he was looking over his glasses at me. He was looking for a spark of understanding. Then he made sure I understood what he meant. He provided examples of stories we both knew. He spent a lot of time reasoning with me, helping me understand those examples.

That event was like a revelation, silly as that might sound until one reads the often-inept products of neophyte writers who don't understand what Harlow was helping me "construct" as knowledge. That discussion enabled me to leap ahead in my progress as a writer. On my own, I might have taken a looooong time to gain the same understanding. (Lukiv, 2001b, para. 3-9)

That personal attention burned a tattoo in my psyche: I want to be a writer.

These experiences define highlights in my education. Through my use of "free imaginative variation" (van Manen, 1990, p. 107), which has helped me root out incidental themes which I won't bother to relate, I express those highlights in terms of one essential, broad theme: Events in school that promoted my looking at the world through "different" eyes; that promoted the wonder of creativity; that promoted the joy of my thoughts being appreciated; that promoted the excitement of entertaining, or emotionally moving, others; that promoted the excitement of focussed thinking; and that promoted the joy of understanding how to write have encouraged me to become an adult creative writer.

What about you?--the photographer, scientist, nurse, mechanic, piano teacher, whale expert, talk show host, chemical engineer, editor, etc. Are you scanning your own mindscape for experiences that encouraged you to to enter your field of work? This journey of mine back through school has felt good. I've juxtaposed past experiences with what I do now, and the emotional result seems to be that I feel more whole, although I can't really explain why. I hope your journey through your mindscape, if you choose to take it, makes you feel good and more whole too.

References

Dickens, C. (2000). A Christmas carol. Retrieved January 25, 2002, from the Stormfax Web site: http://www.stormfax.com/dickens1.htm (Original work published 1843)

Faulkner, J. M. (1951). Moonfleet. London, England: Little Brown. (Original work published 1896).

Hemmingway, E. (1999). The old man and the sea. New York, New York, USA: Scribner. (Original work published 1952)

Hersey, J. (1989). Hiroshima. New York, New York, USA: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1946)

Lukiv, D. (1997, 1998, 1999). Quibils and Quirks. The Cariboo Observer, serialized over 108 issues from March 1, 1997 to August 31, 1999.

Lukiv, D. (2001a). The master teacher: A collection. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: y press & BCTF Lesson Aids.

Lukiv, D. (2001b, August). Those gyze in the English department. The English Teachers'Online Network of South Africa

Orwell, G. (1996). Animal farm. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall. (Original work published 1945)

Steinbeck, J. (1993). The red pony. New York, New York, USA: Penguin. (Original work published 1945)

Steinbeck, J. (2000). The pearl. New York, New York, USA: Penguin. (Original work published 1947)

Sutherland, N. (1995). The triumph of "formalism": Elementary schooling in Vancouver from the 1920s to the 1960s. In J. Barman, N. Sutherland, & J. D. Wilson (Eds.), Children, teachers, & schools: In the history of British Columbia (pp. 101- 124 ). Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Detselig Enterprises.

van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Albany, New York, USA: State University of New York Press.

Wyndham, J. (2001). The chrysalids. New York, New York, USA: Carroll and Graf (Original work published in 1955)


Dan Lukiv is a writer, educator, and frequent contributor to canadian content.
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