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The Art of Practice

Lesson 8

While Kate and Sam take down the sail and secure the canoes, I climb up the concrete pile to find some wood. A mudflat stretches all along the top of the bank, and behind it grass-and-shrub-land runs for as far as I can see. Not the best territory for finding wood, so I walk towards the lighthouse.

A road descends the back of the lighthouse hill and continues, presumably, to the base of the peninsula. The rest of the hill faces the water and drops sharply to a rock and gravel base, a couple road-lanes wide. The base is flat and provides a perfect platform for viewing 270 degrees of horizon, from the open water to the distant smoke stacks of Hamilton’s steel mills, and around the lake-shore to Toronto’s skyline.

I walk around the platform, past boulders, piles of fill and a whole bunch of crazy art pieces built from the bricks, rebar and concrete slabs. I walk until I can see the city, its office towers popping up from behind the tree line of the next strip of land. I can see a gap in that strip — our way to the inner harbour. I store that landmark in my memory and walk towards a forest between the road and the city-facing shore to find firewood.

So: I have a head injury, a price to pay for a flight, consequences to suffer for abandoning my parents and kidnapping Claire, no job and nowhere to live, but all in all a good start for a story. Claire’s going to hate that I’m writing about this trip.

In high school I wrote a lot about the two of us, but only because I had to. To accelerate my education in writing, my English teachers gave me lots of extra credit assignments — short stories and essays to write and publish in local newspapers and journals. They’re what got me out a year early (and what were meant to get me into a prestigious writing program a year early) so of course I did them, but every teacher and workshop leader told me I had to dig into my personal history, to find those significant moments in my life and use them in my writing. Personally, I think all that 20th-century-build-your-character-through-Freudian-pschyoanalysis-crap is crap, but I went along with it for the credits. My teachers knew I had a twin-sister, so I based most of the stories on our mutual childhood.

They were made up though, I only acted like they were true in class. Like this family road trip story where Claire and I huddled together while our parents screamed at each other (our parents hardly talked, let alone screamed), or the story of my confrontation with her over an abusive boyfriend (she dated a chain of horrible guys, but, as demonstrated on the beach, she’s good with weapons and can hold her own), or the story about her first period–she smacked me with a frying pan over that one.

My writing took a more unorthodox form out West than in high school. In high school it was about getting into a good writing program, publishing and winning awards. When I broke free from all that expectation I turned writing into a gift I could give.

I scribbled away in notebooks either around a bonfire on a beach in Victoria or in the crew cabins of fishing boats. Whoever was hanging around me at the time would eventually ask “What are you writing?” — “Descriptions, notes from conversations; a lot from ours.” And most people would get uncomfortable, maybe stop talking to me so much, until I’d rip out a page, something that I got down really well — “Hey, you might like this.”

I never write anything personal or over-analytical about someone. The dialogues I handed to people didn’t contain some unnerving representation of themselves, they contained characters that were alive and crazy because the dialogues were written from a whole bunch of crazy, funny or passionate words that came from the receivers. It was just the best parts of their minds in the form of a character.

People always loved those dialogues, and those gifts were important to me too, because people don’t stay in my life very long — bonfire friends come and go, or I change places where I build fires; fishing crews change, and I rarely stay with the same boat for more than a few trips.

I guess I make it difficult more than anyone. I don’t own a phone, except a land line at my apartment, where I almost never am. And I don’t check my mail or use email.

Sitting here and writing about this crazy beach-park and demo-fill-dump, and my rather unsuccessful attempt to hang out with Claire again, I’m sitting with what I considered the most consistent, and really best, company I can count on — a bonfire. I’m looking up from my notebook every so often to watch the fire change in colour and opacity as the sun sets behind it.

I’m up on the flat at the base of the lighthouse hill. Kate and Sam are still down with the canoes — they took down the sail (the air and waves are perfectly still) and they’re gutting the pike — and Claire’s up at the lighthouse, so it’s just me and the fire.

Those gifts, if it weren’t for them, all those people would just be transients in my life, and I’d be a transient in theirs. But I’m sure a lot of people still have those dialogues — some even said they’d frame them.

I like that. It’s a connection. And the writing that I never give to anyone is still a gift, a gift to my best friend. I’ve thrown every notebook I’ve filled into a bonfire. But maybe not this one. We’ll see.

Lesson 1 | Lesson 8

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