Several years back, when I got really serious about writing, I began a quest for written words that resonated deep down in my soul. One of the early bell-ringers I encountered was D.R. MacDonald, a thoughtful writer, a doubter and a believer, who wrote many tales originating in Cape Breton, at the far eastern edge of the Canadian Atlantic.
I went right to Amazon and ordered several of his books and collections, including one called “Running the Whale’s Back: Stories of Faith and Doubt from Atlantic Canada.” Only when the book arrived did I realize it was a collection of many writers and there was only one MacDonald tale, one I’d already enjoyed. I was irritated with myself for not reading the description more closely.
It turned out to be one of the great and providential mistakes in my quest for excellence. I found several great writers, including Alistair MacLeod, a Catholic writer who I now remember daily in my prayers for the dearly departed.
On my annual trek to Tulsa, I always stop at Gardner’s Used Books and Comics, armed with a list of writing greats to guide my search. Probably about 6 or 7 years ago, I had MacLeod on this list, even though I had not yet read anything he’d written. I found his novel – No Great Mischief, purchased it, and set it aside.
One of these days I’ll write a review of that work, but here I’ll just note that reading that book was revolutionary for me as a writer. Here was someone who showed me you can write about life and faith and sorrow, intertwining hope and melancholy with honesty that acknowledges the full experience of living.
An aside: as a history teacher and general observer of the world, I sometimes wonder how our historical heritage shapes us (as opposed to just our present circumstances). At least some of my ancestors were Scots (Kilgour) and most of the characters MacLeod (and MacDonald) created had connections with Scotland. I did not seek these writers because of this, but when I found them, something deep down felt like home.
Anyhow, after being bowled over by my pure satisfaction with No Great Mischief, I ordered Island: The Complete Stories, by MacLeod. It is everything he wrote – 16 short stories. I’ve just finished the last of these. While I’ve been grinding through countless works of the great writers over these past several years, I’ve been spreading these 16 gems out to make them last.
I do the same thing with my father’s journals, reading only a bit at a time, saving some future epiphanies, some delightful surprises for the remaining days (hopefully years or even decades) of my life.
Many writers spill their thoughts onto the page as it comes, and then spend countless hours revising. I am one of these.
MacLeod, however, is said to have mulled each sentence for as long as necessary, and when it was finally perfect, move on to the next. He lived in each sentence, and then lived in the next.
MacLeod was not prolific, and for this I am sad. But I wonder if I would enjoy his work as much if he hadn’t shown such care.
I also think this is how I should live, in each small minute of each day, in each phrase or vantage point or verse. It is so hard, and yet, I think we might draw nearer to our own souls if we slow, pay close attention.
I think God is in those hidden places right before our eyes, perhaps with a wry smile.
Alistair MacLeod wrote about particular people in particular places and times. He wrote in a way that recognized the individuality of people groups and their languages and cultures and tribes, but he also showed how we are all the same.
I am not sure who MacLeod wrote for, in his mind.
But I will tell you that MacLeod certainly, without a doubt, wrote for me.
Writing is grueling mental work. I’m not talking about pop writing, though I won’t disparage fun. I am talking about those writers who grind to try and produce something that might hold up another soul for just another step or another night and day, through another disappointment or betrayal, through another bout of despair.
Alistair MacLeod’s writing has done that for me these past several years, and for that, I am deeply grateful.
For those who take the time to read my words, I pray they lift you, add to your hope, put a smile on your face, give you a chance to slow down and wonder.
"Examine all things; hold on to the good."
-Saint Paul the Apostle