Prairie Literature and Mental Illness

I wrote this some years ago… I’m not sure if it’s still true.

I don’t like to refer to what I write as “art”. I prefer to call it a “craft”. Art seems to me to be something aesthetic – something that encompasses philosophy, beauty, contemplation, taste, sensibility. That’s far too highbrow for me.

I used to write short stories and long fiction. Now I write tv and film scripts. All of them have one thing in common: a complete lack of higher meaning.

It’s not that I’m unaware of loftier goals in writing. I have a BA (Honours) in Literature and I completed all of the classes required for an MA before I realized I was going in completely the wrong direction. Degrees in Literature offer a forensic dissection of great writing. What I needed was a degree in Construction. And so, five years after I abandoned the idea of a thesis on Canadian writer Sinclair Ross, I pursued an MFA in Creative Writing. And graduated, much to my own great relief.

When I was doing my BA, my venerable professors had a bit of a problem with me. My creative soul was screaming for attention. And the essays I researched, argued and presented on a regular basis for four years just weren’t satisfying that yearning need. Consequently, I sought out other ways to stifle the frustration.

I recall once presenting a term paper entitled “e.e. cummings: The Enormous Poem”. It was, of course, a critique of the novel, The Enormous Room. I argued that because e.e. cummings was primarily known as a poet, his novel was actually a very long poem and not a piece of fiction at all. My instructor was unimpressed.

In a directed reading class on Joseph Conrad, I presented a paper on Seamanship, since a number of Conrad’s novels took place in whole or in part aboard seagoing vessels. I had three-masted schooners, flying jibbooms, mainsails, topsails, topgallant sails…I even documented the six different motions a ship makes while underway (surge, sway, heave, roll, pitch, yaw) – all of which can happen singly or in combination – which goes a long way to explain seasickness.

My research was acknowledged…. But I lost marks for not spending enough time relating that research back to Lord Jim, The Nigger of the Narcissus and Typhoon.

I do recall once receiving a perfect mark on an essay about the poetry of Leonard Cohen. It was a straightforward piece of writing, not difficult to do at all, and the research was easy. Leonard Cohen was a Bohemian, a songwriter, a mystic, a folksinger. His poetry was romantic and religious and dryly humorous. The instructor of that class was a huge fan of Leonard Cohen and I suppose that might have had something to do with my grade. I knew how to write to please my audience.

All of the graduating Honours Literature students at the University of Regina were required to hand in a “definitive” major essay which would stay permanently on file, a lasting record of scholarship and research. Mine was called “Prairie Literature and Mental Illness”. My advisor tried his best to talk me out of it. But I would not be dissuaded.

My thesis was simple. People who live on the Canadian prairies exhibit a higher than usual instance of mental illness. This is caused mostly by exposure to extreme weather, but also by isolation, culture shock (in the case of immigrants), peculiar neighbours, and sensory deprivation. Since literature mirrors society, prairie writers have, for some time, knowingly or unknowingly, been creating characters who suffer from a wide variety of psychological disorders.

It was, of course, completely tongue-in-cheek. And it was not appreciated – least of all by my advisor, who was himself a fairly well known prairie novelist, and whose characters I had included in my study as examples of flagrant erotomania.

I began this piece with a statement regarding my creative writing. I regard it as a craft rather than an art. My ongoing rebellion against scholarly study at university seems to have influenced my sense of definition.

“Craft”, to me, is closer to what I strive for – a skill, or a proficiency, or perhaps a skilled artistry. When I write, I don’t feel I’m imparting any kind of hidden, deeper meaning to my work. I write to tell a good tale, and that’s all. I craft the story. If I can coax you to keep reading or to keep watching, if I can cause you to cheer my heroes and hiss at my villains – then I have done my job, and I’m happy.

As one of the characters (coincidentally, a Literature major at university) in one of my novels once said…. “There are more important things in life than the mystical lyricism of water and the quest for prelapsarian bliss in a textual account of Huckleberry Finn.”

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