I first got to know the Calgary poet and fiction writer Cecelia Frey twenty-five years ago in the cramped basement office of Dandelion magazine. Cecelia was the newly hired business manager, and I was the volunteer president of the board. On several occasions I wondered what right I had in my mid-twenties being the boss of a woman my mother’s age.
“I hate to bother you about this,” Cecelia would say when I picked up the phone. She knew I had other things on my mind. The year we worked together, I left my editing job at the university, had my first baby and was wrestling with my ill-defined literary ambitions. I might have asked Cecelia how she’d managed it all: raising children, writing fiction and poetry, getting published. Instead, our conversations turned around grant applications, printer delays and editors’ egos.
Even if we had found our way to talking about the writing life, I wonder if I would have absorbed what she said. Back then, I was determined to figure the family-work-art triangle out for myself.
After my first child was born, it took me more than a decade to decide that I wanted to write. I signed up for Cecelia’s one-day workshop on writing personal essays. When I walked into the classroom at the Old Y, Cecelia welcomed me with a warm, wide smile.
“I knew you’d be back.”
Lately, I’ve been reading Cecelia’s fifth and latest novel, her thirteenth book, The Long White Sickness. The poet-narrator, Constance is a few years older than me. Her children, like mine, are grown up and living far away. Constance is in a reflective mood, and like me, she’s compelled to “sort out what happened” in her life by writing a memoir. It turns out to be a convoluted endeavour. Hijinks ensue.
Constance is an unreliable narrator. Still, I find myself dog-earing resonant passages where she sounds downright wise. Several times, she articulates ideas that have been floating around in my own head.
For instance this, on choosing motherhood over art:
It was an heroic act, taking up the challenge of the normal.
And this, one of the connections between writing and having children:
Just as I had always believed that when a piece of my writing was published, it was no longer mine but belonged to the world – I had also believed that I had a duty to release my children into the world.
And this, on the urgency that drives some of us to “sort out what happened” on page, in public:
A woman in my building… lived alone and seldom came out. We forgot that she was there. No ear heard the sounds that she made, in life or death. To counter that sort of thing, by writing I have a voice. By writing, I give myself permission to have a voice. The attempt is made.
Inspiring words that go some way to still the tremours of doubt that this writing life can set in motion.
When I was a young woman full of bravado and fear, I didn’t talk to Cecelia about the singular question that roiled beneath the surface: how would I manage to be both a mother and a writer? Now, these lines from her novel shore me up, strengthen my resolve, continue a conversation that started a lifetime ago.
p.s. Here's a good profile of Cecelia in a recent edition of The Calgary Herald.