Sunday, May 23, 2010

I'm not obliged but…

For the past week I’ve been revisiting my work.

In order to claim my share of royalties, I have to add up the word counts for all of my magazine and newspaper articles for each year from 1989 to 2008 and submit them to Access Copyright, the Canadian copyright licensing agency.

I combed through my files – hard copy and computer – and tabulated, year by year, the word count for each article in every publication for which I’ve ever freelanced.

There are stories on public art, reinforcing steel, and high-performance concrete. I wrote about mistletoe, growing Garry oaks from seed, and how to plant a Victoria-style hanging basket. I found essays on being a stepmom, eating Cheezies at the end of a long bike ride, and what makes a place beautiful enough.

Clearly, I’ve always covered a broad range of subjects. I haven’t written much about bridge construction or pipelines lately, but I profiled writer Yasuko Thanh in Torch and her Journey Prize-winning story “Floating Like the Dead” in Canada’s History. I reviewed Deepwater Vee, Melanie Siebert’s debut poetry book, for Canadian Geographic’s June issue. How Kevin Smith and Maureen Gordon have successfully taken their personal values to work at Maple Leaf Adventures gets airtime in the next issue of Harbour Air’s inflight magazine.

What my new stories have in common with the old is that I learn something from all of them. I can question interesting people about their expertise and passions and then I get to sit in a cozy room with a nice cup of tea and drive myself crazy trying to do them justice on paper.

It’s an impossible job. Who, except an occasional genius, can get it exactly right? Who can perfectly capture the essence, humour, generosity, and spirit of another person and, using only abstract symbols, convey it to strangers?

Not me.

I’ve had moments when I’ve come close, I think, and knowing that I’ve shone a little light onto a subject or made a reader laugh or acknowledged someone’s contribution to the greater good – those moments keep me going. I’m not curing cancer, but I can tell you about people who are.

And when once again my reach exceeds my grasp and I consider giving up, I have only to look at the quotation on my computer screen.

The Talmud, via a little yellow sticky note, tells me, “It is not your obligation to complete your work, but you are not at liberty to quit.”

So I make another cup of tea.


  1. How true it is, when we look back at past works (published or otherwise) and see how far we have come, what we have learned, and what we have yet to learn. Loved this......Lisa McManus Lange

  2. Thanks, Lisa.

    The learning curve is kind of like the curvature of the earth, I think. Every so often I believe I'm getting close to the end, I've actually reached the horizon, and then the fog clears and I see that it continues…