I live in a village at the juncture of the Grand and Conestogo Rivers, situated on the historic indigenous lands of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg, and Haudenosaunee peoples. Outside my window the Grand River winds through what is now Mennonite farmland. I’m aware of my place as a settler, though that wasn’t always the case. This is land once promised to the Six Nations; I’ve vowed to be mindful that I reside here as a guest.
I named my writing room, The Perch because it’s situated at treetop level. From my second-floor vantage point I can watch the cold winds of early April swirl through what’s left of the detritus in my garden while making a mockery of the seductive spring weather we’d enjoyed only days ago. My view is ever changing, between the budding of the trees and later fall of the leaves, or the freeze and thaw of the river there is no other place I’d rather write.
Best of all – there are birds: flocks of songbirds flit tree to tree in spring and summer: Blue Jays and Cardinals, Robins and Chickadees, Grackles and Goldfinches, and just last year an Indigo Bunting that perched high in the Chanticleer pear tree for the better part of an hour. Canadian Geese chevron the sky in autumn, red tailed hawks and the occasional bald eagle hunt the river and cropped fields for mice or rabbit in early winter. There’s something to be said for a bird’s eye view.
I typically spend my afternoon hours editing a work in progress, or transcribing the rough draft of a story I’d hastily scrawled into a journal in the still dark hours of a morning. For me, writing is a practice and having a dedicated space has helped immensely. I’m disciplined in my work practices, but not with my imagination. In the early stages of writing fiction, it’s best not to hold on too tightly to the rules. Still, even flights of fancy need a home.
On one wall I have three low books shelves and on the other two wooden file cabinets of research, magazine photos, story ideas, a novel in draft, and final edits of my short story collection. I find it comforting to be surrounded by so many words.
I’m known to be a neatnik, a joyful cupboard labeller, and drawer organizer. I find clutter stressful and in every other room in the house I keep it to a minimum, yet here in the perch it’s another world – here my imagination is free to run wild.
Above the file cabinets is my vision board; a two decades long art installation filled with story and character ideas, quotes, post cards, and entry tickets to writing retreats and some of the worlds most sacred sites. I’ve festooned it with a Buddhist prayer flag, found feathers, rejection letters, and a few emails of praise for my work; there’s a note that says, ‘I miss you” and another with a six word tattoo I’ll likely never get. This board reminds me that the best cache for story is memory.
There’s also a photo I shamelessly ripped from a magazine in my dentist’s office many years ago. It’s a picture of Margaret Atwood wearing a floral turquoise jacket and her neck is adorned with heavy red beads; she looks thoughtful – a hint of a smile plays on her lips. I thought she’d make a great muse, so I carefully rolled it into my bag and snuck it home. I’m not normally a thief.
I tacked the page to my vision board. On days when I feel like abandoning a tough edit I turn to that stolen photo and ask my paper Margaret, ‘Should I call it quits?’ I know the answer, but I ask anyway. She hasn’t failed me yet.
Directly opposite the river view there’s a wall filled with over a hundred travel photos. It’s true that very picture is a story, and they’re there for the taking. Beneath the photos is an altar of sorts, a place of totemic offerings and tactile memories. I’ve holy water from the Chalice Well near Avalon, a brass vessel that once held offerings from the Ganges, lava from Iceland, a branch from the haunted forest of the Spirit Bear, wooden boxes, pottery bowls, stone and iron figures representing ancient goddesses, shells and rocks collected from seashores around the world, Buddhist chimes, brass bells, and a black and gold beaded leopard from South Africa – it all has its own magic. This altar grounds me in the real world, in observation and sensory details which are necessities for good writing. In the middle of it all there is one small framed fortune from a Chinese food dinner more than a decade ago, and it reads:
You are a lover of words
someday you will write a book.
How’s that for inspiration? Every day when I climb the stairs I’m as thrilled as the day before. It’s a gift to spend your life in love with your work. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do believe it’s the role of writers to imagine one.
If I was to offer a last writing tip it would be this: we’re living in an extraordinary moment in history ~ write it down, or as Emily Dickinson said, ‘Tell all the truth but make it slant.’
Pamela Dillon is a writer, poet, and graduate of creative writing from the University of Toronto. Pamela’s publications can be found on literary websites and print journals including the CBC Books – Canada Writes, and The Globe and Mail. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Photos courtesy of Pamela Dillon.