How writing a memoir helped celebrated poet Lorna Crozier cope with the loss of a beloved partner
'I came from the opposite kind of family that would produce a writer'
Lorna Crozier is one of Canada's most beloved and accomplished poets, as was her long-time partner, Patrick Lane. They met in 1976 and built a life together, publishing more than 40 books between them along the way.
But in 2017, Lane became ill and their life changed forever, and eventually Lane died in 2019. Crozier writes about their relationship, their personal and creative partnership, and comes to terms with her grief, in the memoir Through the Garden.
Crozier, who grew up in Saskatchewan and now lives in B.C., is among the five writers shortlisted for the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction for Through the Garden.
"What I loved doing was going back to our past and describing how we met each other. The early tempestuous years of our relationship were fun to write.
"It was fun to go there, in a way. It took me out of the present, where every day was watching him diminish because of an illness that never got diagnosed. I was watching him try to be so brave in the face of it. By going back and writing the origins of our story — the beginning of our 40 years together — it was a relief from that and from the constant worry and fear that he wasn't going to make it.
"I'd read those parts out loud to him. It was also a great delight for me to revisit our five cats who were with us during the time we had together — and to turn them into characters and make them important figures in this book. I read those parts about the cats out loud to him and he loved it.
The early tempestuous years of our relationship were fun to write.
"What I didn't read to him were the sections I wrote about my constant fear about how he was doing during the day — and how I was going to cope with this new role in my life, which was to suddenly be a caregiver. My concern was that I wasn't going to be able to live up to it and do the right things and say the right things. Also, my absolute terror that I was going to be left alone.
"I knew that he was holding on with such a thin grip that I couldn't read him in those parts. I wrote to preserve my own sanity. I don't know if it was a consolation or merely an anodyne or a way for me to pull myself through those last three years without falling apart myself."
What is the role of self-censorship when writing a personal memoir?
"I don't censor myself during the act of writing. But during the act of editing, I go back and I think about the questions I think every memoirist has to ask herself. Things like, 'Will this hurt anybody? Is it important for me to say this or should I take it out because it will have repercussions to people I might be close to?'
"I ask those kinds of questions. Sometimes I think this is going to hurt someone, but I'm going to leave it in anyway. I did that with my first memoir, about growing up in Saskatchewan. My decision to leave and the piece I knew would hurt my mother had all kinds of repercussions and I feel quite guilty about it now.
I don't censor myself during the act of writing.
"I might have been a little more careful about the odd passage or two in this book, particularly when they had to do with Patrick's adult children."
The stereotyped image of the Prairies is all about flat horizons and grassland. How did you grow into your deep love of nature growing up in Saskatchewan?
"Hey, the Prairies are full of nature! I tell people you need a discerning eye to see it and you have to be someone who looks with great care and great attention. I can remember as a kid — I grew up in the small city of Swift Current — going outside and there'd be a patch of dirt in the yard. And I go with a broken stick and watch the ants crawl over it.
"I've always just thought that species outside of humans were equally as fascinating, if not more fascinating then than we are. Of course, we're part of nature. We as humans have separated ourselves from it.
I tell people you need a discerning eye to see it and you have to be someone who looks with great care and great attention.
"But I've always been a lover of any kind of animal, any kind of bird, any kind of bug, even spiders. I don't like to catch a mouse in a mouse trap. I like to catch it live and let it go. I feel that when we can erase the borders between the species and connect with another form of life that we are expanded and made better than who we are as humans alone."
What is your approach to writing different genres, be it poetry or prose?
"This probably shows what a naive nonfiction writer I am. I write nonfiction the way I write a poem. I write a sentence, and then I go back to it and I look at it and I read it out loud to see if the rhythm is right.
"Did I use the absolute best adjective I could find? Can I take out five words from this sentence?
"The new book was written one word after another, one sentence after another. When I finished a number of pages, I would go back to the beginning and read it out loud again and try to get the music of the sentences right. I try to make it go into you subliminally because of the sounds it made, as well as what it says, which is what poems do of course.
"I don't know how it's going to proceed. I follow my intuition and hope that it's going to take me where it needs for me to go."
As a teacher and educator, do you believe that writing can be taught?
"I actually think it can. There has to be some inner talent in the first place. There has to be a spark there. A teacher's job is to fan that spark until it becomes a flame. A lot of students come into university thinking poetry is simply writing emotions down on a page and chopping up sentences so they don't reach the right-hand margin.
"I delight in teaching them that there are various reasons you should end the line here instead of here. I delight in teaching them that although we don't write poems that rhyme at the end of the line very often anymore, that rhyming sounds are still important to thread throughout the poem.
I write nonfiction the way I write a poem. I write a sentence, and then I go back to it and I look at it and I read it out loud to see if the rhythm is right.
"I enjoy teaching them about iambic pentameter — and then why you would want to drop it and not use it — but how you still have to keep our rhythm for each part of the language. All those things can be taught. Teaching students how to be a better editor of one another and then of their own work is one of the best things that writing workshops can do."
What does a good writing day look like for you?
"Being a poet, going by word count certainly doesn't count! It could be 15 words and still be a good poem. I do have a bedroom that's converted to a study and office space in the house that Patrick and I lived in. It was next door to another bedroom that was converted into an office space for him. In my room, I had sliding glass doors put in when we moved to this house.
"They lead to a deck that overlooks a pond that has two turtles and dozens and dozens of fish and gorgeous mosses around the edges. It's a gorgeous writing view. I made sure I had a small computer screen so that it didn't block my view.
If I'm not on deadline, I write when the spirit moves me.
"I can look over it and I can see the yard. I can see the swallows dip in the water and the dragonflies skim down to get their wings. It's hard to turn away and look at the screen sometimes. But it serves me well because my words are made richer by where I am and where I am living in terms of so many hours in a day.
"If I have a deadline, I make myself go in and work for five hours. If I'm not on deadline, I write when the spirit moves me. I don't force myself to write if I don't feel like it, because usually nothing good comes out of it. But deadlines sometimes push me in directions that are good for me to be pushed."
How do you keep growing as a writer?
"Well, I certainly don't want to be the kind of poet who keeps repeating herself and writes the same poem over and over again. It's trusting that if you keep your eyes, ears and heart open, you will notice something you didn't notice, at least in the same way before. It will lead you down a different path.
It's trusting that if you keep your eyes, ears and heart open, you will notice something you didn't notice, at least in the same way before.
"You just have to go there. You have to follow it and see where it takes you. It's worked for me so far, and I hope that there's a future in it as well."
Lorna Crozier's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Read more interviews from our In Conversation series here.