LIKE ANY REAL MEMOIR, there's no satisfying arc, no neat
storyline in the piece. Life isn't usually so accomodating. Still, every
moment, every little half-remembered and cherished memory of this quietly
unhappy childhood is so well-observed that you marvel at how this poor
little girl -- poor in more ways than just money -- managed to live a life
so of its time, yet as solipsistic and dependant as any other child.
This is my favorite kind of writing. Personal, but not
so inward-looking that the world at large, even beyond the pantry door,
doesn't intrude. Bereft of self-pity, or that overeager desire to cater
to the reader's percieved prejudices, so peculiar to journalists, for instance,
or politicians. I could read it every day.
MY OWN LITTLE MEMOIR -- a half a memoir, in any case,
woven into a piece about a Toronto neighbourhood -- has been out for a
week now. K. said she loved it, along with my old friend Dave, who grew
up in the same neighbourhood, and my buddy Dennis, a novelist with a new
book coming out on Knopf this fall. I should be happy.
I am, I guess. Still, it isn't quite the piece I wrote,
the one almost twice its published length, before the re-writes. It's still
recognizably the same piece, built of the same blocks of detail and observation,
and probably more structurally coherent thanks to Gary, my editor. Still,
the excision of one small section still bothers me, and I still think it
would have been a better piece before that last edit, where I gave in and
let the paragraph go.
For the benefit of whatever interested readers might be
out there, here's the missing bit. It should be placed just near the end,
when I'm visiting my old grade school. It's not a neat fit, but just squint
a bit, and imagine it in there, after I've talked with the principal, before
I teach the class in the library.
| Maria comes into the
office. She’s a pretty young teacher with a tough, forthright demeanor,
dressed more like her students in a rustling nylon tracksuit. She agrees
with Lillian. "They don't know where to go. They don't even go to each
other's homes. They don't even know where to get a piece of wood for a
science project. The parents are just drained all the time." Some kids
develop harsh, insular behaviour, a hard self-reliance. "Kids get tough
here," she tells me. "If they don't, they get bullied."
I remember the bullying.
It was constant, a misery that could afflict all but the meanest kids;
more discouraging than the teasing recalled by friends from "better" schools
and neighbourhoods; the girls often crueller than the boys. Maria describes
its effects simply: "You become more aggressive than assertive."
I can actually understand why Gary wanted to cut it. It's
tangential. It's very personal; it hints at something peculiar and resonant
in the writer's life, something that there simply couldn't be space for
in a lifestyle magazine feature about a Toronto neighbourhood. It hints
at issues of class, real downers, insoluble issues that are still considered
impolitic in mixed company.
It might have made it. In the midst of the editing process,
I was standing in Gary's office arguing for its inclusion, after a few
other overtly "biographical" sections had been cut. Sure, it might stand
out, I said, but I think it should, so that the point -- an important one,
to me -- could be made more clearly. Gary shook his head, hinting that
I'd lose this one.
"Maybe if you were famous," he says. "If you were someone
like Mordecai Richler, it would probably stay." He didn't give any indication
that he thought this was a good thing, but rather the way things were.
I said I thought that was sad.
I remembered what K. once told me, something her cousin,
a very famous Canadian writer, a winner of literary prizes, known all over
the world, once said. "Before I became famous, I had a hard time selling
anything to the magazines." Her novels are made into movies, reviewed on
the front page of the New York Times book supplement, subjects of
national debate here in Canada. In other parts of the world, people assume
she's American, or British. "These days," she said, things are different.
"They'd publish my laundry list if they could."