I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude.
These thoughts were prompted by the controversy surrounding David Gilmour, the prominent Canadian writer and professor who stated publicly that he can’t see his way to teaching women writers.
Back to gratitude.
When you’re a writer of modest means and modest successes — as I am — it helps to be grateful for what you have. In fact, gratitude is essential, and cultivating it nourishes the soul and keeps depression at bay. I’m sure that if I didn’t have the capacity to stand in awe before a blue morning sky, to feel wonder at the perfection of a flower, to be grateful for good health, a loving relationship, and the kindness of friends, bitterness would set in and destroy the creativity already under siege in the rather tough slog of literary writing.
I practice a calling that demands honesty, empathy, tact and compassion. It asks me to live my life the way I write, because my conscience is wired in such a way that I can’t divide the quality of my life from the quality of my work. Not an easy task and I don’t always succeed, yet I think of writing as a moral practice which informs my life and gives it meaning. In the end, it’s all a gift; life nourishes me enough both to remove the sting of a so-so review or a rejected manuscript, and to give added joy when the critical news is good. Yet in the end, life counts more than writing. I stand in wonder before the mystery that I’m able to live and write at all.
I’m a bit naïve, though.
A few weeks back, a kind friend invited me to come with her to David Gilmour’s recent book launch. Some time ago, he told her that he’d enjoyed one of my books, so it seemed like a good time for us to meet. It was a warm summer night and a pleasant occasion, except for the fact that in the midst of my being introduced to him, he turned away and started talking to someone else. I assumed he was out of it, swamped by the collision of book-launch time with the first week of class, and since I didn’t need a compliment to convince me of my book’s worth, I shrugged it off and enjoyed good conversation elsewhere.
We may not meet again any time soon.
Canadian readers, please bear with me while I provide a brief update for any visitors outside our solar system: Gilmour, a prize-winning novelist and university prof, gave an interview stating that in his contemporary literature course (Love Sex and Death in Modern Short Fiction), he taught only “serious heterosexual” male writers of a certain vintage because they were the only ones he was passionate about. Women? ” I’m not interested in teaching books by women…. I don’t love women writers enough to teach them.” Canadian giants of the short story? Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant? “I just haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach,” he says. In fact he avoids all Canadian writers altogether — too insecure to socialise with, and envious, too, says the great man.
His comments have provoked an uproar on Facebook and Twitter. His attempts at excusing himself only made things worse. “I’m not a politician; I’m a writer,” he said of his sloppy use of words.
That, my friend, is not what writers do with words.
I can understand a harried prof trying to launch a book and start up a class in the same week. What I don’t understand is Gilmour’s lack of reflection, his absence of empathy, his blanket dismissal of the gifts of others. You’d think that a man who had it all would be grateful, would have the humility to realize that things might have turned out differently. Someone else might have won the prestigious award, the teaching job, the critical acclaim. The gift of writing might not have been his, and in any case, the gift is not forever.
So much in life is a flame at the tip of a match, and its brilliance does not last. Yet some mysterious alchemy allows us to to feel the depth of life in the giving of ourselves, in making the road less difficult for other writers, as was done for us by our teachers and mentors. If we’ve been blessed, surely instinct moves us to bless others, whatever their gender. The gift is too large to hoard.
I don’t know how one makes peace with life without coming to terms with this.
In the Gilmour controversy, the heart of the matter isn’t literature, but the qualities of mind that make it possible: the human capacity for gratitude, empathy and a generous heart. None of which were in evidence this week.