Christy Ann Conlin
“I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.”
– Mary Oliver
On WritingThere is a story behind everything, from an old tea cup to the old lady on the street dressed in velvet, to the abandoned brick building on the side of the street. I’ve always loved stories, and listening to conversations, observing people as they tell their stories. My family were all obsessed with curios and always wanted to know the story behind objects and buildings. I became a writer after I did a degree in theatre. I was drawn to all aspects of theatre, from performance to theatre history, playwriting, dramaturgy, set and costume design, and stage management. But it was my love of reading stage plays where I found my ear for dialogue and voice, where I felt the beating heart of characters. My life was also bursting with storytellers, growing up in Nova Scotia on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, and with the stories of hardship, magic and humour which came with my father’s family, later Irish immigrants. My love of reading, of character and story is what lead me eventually to writing, when I realized that the characters and voices in my head wanted to lay down paths upon the page, insisted on living in words and sentences. One day when I was living in Germany, I began to write a story, and then poetry and I’ve never stopped.
Sarah Selecky, a Canadian writer and writing teacher, talks about stories in conversation which each other, with authors in conversation cutting through time and space through stories and writing. I love this image, and when I sit with a notebook, I know that for thousands of years people have been drawn to telling stories in different ways. In those moments, I feel a part of something very large and transcendent. Sometimes writing feels like an affliction and sometimes it feels like a primal calling from behind a curtain of mystery. And sometimes it just feels very hard, ha ha, and I wonder if I’ll ever finish the story, and if I’m actually really writing, and if it will lead anywhere. I think often of Mary Oliver’s words. To me, she is a figurehead at the front of a ship, her words flowing out over the heaving seas, toward that gleaming horizon, reminding us: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” And of course, what Chekov outlined in a letter to his brother in 1888, to embrace audacity and originality, to flee the stereotype, and to always work with compassion.
I became a writer because I love reading, the intoxicating combination of solitude and discovery, falling into that space where story and art meet. Whether it’s a book, essay, poem, ingredient list, recipe, letter, or postcard, I love to read. It would be fine to write of a romantic childhood where I ran wild in a meadow of lupines, daisies an buttercups at the edge of the sea and then came home to read books curled up by the fire, my head was full of dreams and ideas. I suppose there are many elements of truth in this, there were dances at the edges of cliffs, but my childhood was not so simple. In the early years we moved house frequently, and my parents were overwhelmed by their own complex health problems. My years in country schools were marred by learning disabilities in a time when you got punished instead of diagnosed. I taught myself to read and escaped a lot of heartache through the magic portal of a book. This is very common, the book as refuge. And not just novels and fairy tales but history books and magazines.