How Margaret Laurence welcomed Guy Vanderhaeghe into "the tribe"
Every year, the Writers' Trust of Canada asks a Canadian author to give the Margaret Laurence Lecture on the writing life. The 2014 lecturer, Guy Vanderhaeghe, began his address with a wonderful tale of an unexpected letter from Margaret Laurence that transformed his self-regard as a writer.
Courtesy of the Writers' Trust of Canada, here's Guy Vanderhaeghe describing the letter that changed his life.
I never met Margaret Laurence. But she did touch me in a way I have never forgotten, a steadying touch that came at a moment when I was desperately in need of it. My first book, a collection of short stories called Man Descending, had just received the 1982 Governor-General's Award for English language fiction. It happened that that year another collection of short stories had been short-listed for the award, Alice Munro's The Moons of Jupiter, and her book had been inexplicably passed over by the jury in favour of mine. My chagrin at this oversight was even more acute than that of those who were strenuously expressing their outrage over this travesty of justice. What made my discomfort even worse was that Alice Munro had very generously given my book a blurb. So, sweating clean through my pants with trepidation, I wrote her a letter that reiterated what everybody else was saying: that a book of short stories by a clumsy neophyte writer had no business getting the nod over the work of perhaps the finest practitioner of short fiction anywhere. Alice made a typically kind attempt to solace my distress with a gentle reply. But I was not easily solaced.
I would be lying if I didn't admit that some part of me was happy that I had received this recognition. I knew it would make some difference to a writer who was just starting his career. At that time, the G.G. was pretty much the only prize in town and it carried an undeniable cachet. On the other hand, the well of my pleasure was poisoned because I knew that I hadn't deserved what I had gotten, and I couldn't stop feeling like a fraud and a cheat. Self-doubt and embarrassment were making it impossible for me to get on with the next book, or even to believe I had any business even attempting to writing another book.
A blessing from the old professional, Margaret Laurence, couched in language that had a quasi-Biblical ring to it, the elder's laying on of hands, my initiation into what she always referred to as the "tribe."
Then, out of the blue, I received a letter from a stranger. The stranger was Margaret Laurence. Before beginning to write this lecture, I requested that the University of Calgary Special Collections send me a copy of her note so that I could check the accuracy of my recollection of what she had said. More or less, my memory hadn't failed me. I won't quote any of the complimentary things she had to say about my work—even though I know that there is nothing that writers like better than to hear one of their colleagues lavishly and unjustifiably praised. I'll merely mention some of her advice to a young writer. Such as: "You are just beginning now, and some... people will give you a whole bunch of bullshit about how marvellous you are," coupled with a warning not to let anyone "cannibalize you" because "in all the ways that matter, you do not need them." She concluded her letter with this. "I hope you will not think this is presumptuous of me. You do have the gift, and so I am concerned about you and wish to give you—from an old professional—my deepest blessing."
A blessing from the old professional, Margaret Laurence, couched in language that had a quasi-Biblical ring to it, the elder's laying on of hands, my initiation into what she always referred to as the "tribe." Her gesture moved me deeply and still does, the thought that someone of her stature, someone whose path had never crossed mine, could be large-hearted and generous enough to take the trouble to express concern over a young man's future as a writer. It wasn't that Margaret Laurence waved some magic wand that dispelled all of my discomfiture, self-doubt, and anxiety. But what she did do was to remind me that nothing mattered besides getting on with the work and doing it as well as I could manage. Everything else, whether praise or criticism, was in the long run nothing but mere noise, clamour, distraction. Remember, she was whispering into my ear, you have only made a start, beware of the pitfalls into which it is so easy for a writer to blindly topple."
Guy Vanderhaeghe has authored five novels, three short story collections, two plays, and has won among other honours the Governor General’s Literary Award (twice), CBC’s Canada Reads, the Writers' Trust Timothy Findley Award, the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Prize for Fiction Book of the Year, and the Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Member of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He lives in Saskatoon.