Monday, June 27, 2011

Robert Kroetsch

I made many mistakes in Blue Duets, but the one I rue most is not mentioning Robert Kroetsch  in my acknowledgements.  (I forgot to include Lisa Moore too--another regret.)  In my defense, I should say that the final draft of Blue Duets came years after I attended Robert's novel colloquium at Sage Hill.  Maybe it's always this way, but the last draft of the novel felt like a long uphill push made entirely alone.  So I seemed to forget the people who weren't right in front of me at the time.

Robert allowed me into the colloquium in spite of the fact that I had only half a dozen chapters written.  Perhaps he cut me a little slack because I'd written about What the Crow Said (on a dare), and the essay--which he said was like having his mind read--was published in Canadian Literature.  Or perhaps he let me in because the two of us danced the twist on one of the Winnipeg River boats at a graduate student party.  Really, each of these snippets of memory comes to the same central fact about Bob:  his generosity.  (I mean, really, the twist, in 1976?) 

We all know about the creative writing teachers who want you to write like them--to become little clones that are one more sign of their success.  I suppose in some ways, no one but Bob could have been Bob, so there wasn't much chance that anyone could successfully imitate his unique vision or his ability to play with language and ideas.  But it seemed to me more than this:  Bob had the gift for getting inside a manuscript and inside the author's vision, and helping the author to suss that out.  It was Bob who realized that Rob, my miscreant professor, deserved to have his say in Blue Duets; giving Rob voice allowed me to create the novel I wanted, one without a privileged perspective.  It was also a bloody good writing exercise.  Try it:  give your story to an unsympathetic character and see what you learn about language, rhythm, perspective.

We also know about creative writing teachers who say "no."  No, don't do it that way.  No, I'd never do that.  No it's not going to work.  Robert said "yes."  Yes to the universe and yes to the word used with creativity, care, and compassion.  I'll admit that, because I have to give my creative students grades, I think those grades should mean something, and that sometimes I have to say "no, that's really, seriously not working."  But Bob believed in larger forces of language and literature, forces that didn't need him to say no.  Forces that said "celebrate with a yes."

The world is smaller; it's contracted in a very Kroetsch-like way that hurts somewhere beneath your ribs, where you breathe.  But I'm sure that those of us who have been touched by his generosity will continue to respond to the work of others in that open and eager way Robert had.  Probably the best way for us to recognize him as a community is to be less worried about boundaries, less inclined to say no, more generous and open about the wonderful and various ways literature and creativity are practiced.

See also Gerry Hill's moving tribute at

1 comment:

  1. thanks for sharing your memories of Bob Kathleen. He was indeed a generous spirit & mentor. Your comments about teaching creative writing are also dead-on. It's not nearly as easy a some people would believe. How to say no an idea isn't working, without crushing the spirit, without letting the artist just be? Our job is to help, to encourage, but it is not easy, never --