As a child I was always scheming to leave home. I read constantly (the first escape), and fantasized frequently about living elsewhere. The where didn’t matter, only the else (else, from the Old English elles: other, otherwise, different).
I even begged to be sent to boarding school, imagining a long journey by train, an old stone residence, cold rain falling against narrow windows lit against the coming dark.
In our fantasies of away, even the rainfall is otherwise. Therefore meaningful. Therefore story-worthy.
But my grandparents were not keen ( “I’ll ‘boarding school’ you in a minute”), and so I began to lobby for the next best thing, and at last, at age 11, I was finally allowed to leave home. It was only an hour and a half to Camp McDougall in Thessalon, but it was away, it was elsewhere (other, otherwise, different).
Eventually my idea of away began to assume the shape of a big city. Cities had bookstores, literary festivals, publishers. Cities were where stories got told. You moved to a city and you found your community and it was different (other, elsewhere), and this was how (I thought) you became otherwise (a writer).
I left Northern Ontario almost thirty years ago, and have lived away ever since. But I went back to Thessalon last weekend as part of Stories in the North Literary Festival and when we passed the entrance to the summer camp, I felt a surge of excitement, not at the idea of leaving home, but at the idea of returning. The northern landscape, after so many years in a city, now seems like elsewhere: the long lines of hills, old stones emerging out of cold water, narrow farms, white pines against a dark sky.
Stories in the North was created four or five years ago by serious writers and readers. A serious writer is someone who writes. These people write. They meet to share what they've written; they reach out to writing groups in other communities; they publish and host open mike nights. Their schedule for National Novel Writing Month is full (go to the cafe, the funeral home, the library, write for three hours, six hours, twelve hours). And of course, they created this literary festival, and found funding (through the Ontario Arts Council), and it runs smoothly and beautifully.
Writers with a connection to the north are invited (and paid) to lead workshops and to read, and the writer who accepts this invitation is rewarded by serious enthusiasm (along with music and home baking). This is a place where stories get told. Disappearing lakewater, pioneer grandparents, a woman on fire, a ghost sheep in the middle of the road. Stories that light up the windows against the coming dark.
Yes, you can leave home and seek out a community of writers elsewhere, or you can make one where you are. Elsewhere, like home, is a state of mind. The physical journey is not necessary. But community? Writers write to be read. Community is essential. Therefore meaningful. Therefore story-worthy.