David Bergen: In the beginning
The Giller Prize-winning author of The Time in Between shares his unglamorous—and fragrant—beginnings as a writer.
At the age of twenty, having published nothing, and having had little guidance in my reading, I decided that I wanted to write. I was driving a feed truck that winter, making runs to the Canada Packers in Winnipeg where I picked up meat meal, ground-up bones and meat that would be mixed in with grain, which would then be fed to layers and broilers. The smell permeated my clothes and my nostrils. As I waited in line behind other truckers, I decided to use that time to write.
Looking back, I should have been writing about the characters I met at Canada Packers, about the stories they told, spoken in great vernacular, about their lives, which were so different from mine. These were men who were in their forties and fifties and had worked at the same job for years. I was young, working a temporary job. I had my whole life before me. I was aware of these men, but didn't see them as subjects for a novel or a story. And so I wrote a bucolic piece set on a lake during a camping trip. There was no action. No dialogue. No conflict. Just a description of the rocks and the trees and the birds. I didn't even name the trees. They were simply trees. The sentences were quite lovely, I think, but they didn't mean anything.
This was my first attempt at writing, and it was a failure. Though I did not hesitate to show it to family and friends and even to my girlfriend at the time, who was suitably impressed, or claimed that she was. She would marry me, and to this day she is still the first person to read my work and she remains suitably impressed. (To be a first reader is an unforgiving job.) I continued to write in my feed truck, awful little pieces that were the beginnings of something. I did not know it at the time, but these were my first tiny steps. Faltering, to be sure, but absolutely necessary. All this to say: A writer doesn't come out fully formed...unless you are Keats or Rimbaud, but those are prodigious exceptions. Failure is essential. Trial and error is necessary."