Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Force -- Lori Hahnel

* This essay was orginally published as part of the "Women Who Love to Read" project at

_The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, 1934-1952_; Thomas, Dylan

Reading a Dylan Thomas poem in a library one afternoon, in 1986, helped me navigate through a time of great turmoil in my life. I was twenty-two years old, working as a receptionist at the Calgary office of Schlumberger, an international oil service company, and hated my job. My job entailed running the switchboard, dealing with couriers and clients at the front desk, typing after a fashion. This work was boring yet stressful – clients would vent their anger at not being able to reach certain employees who never bothered to tell me where they were; the switchboard was always lit up with calls; and, I was trapped at my desk unless I called someone over to relieve me. The job itself wasn’t so bad really, but I wasn’t the right person for it. At the time, there was no interest in the corporate world whatsoever in me. I was fighting my creativity, trying to push it away, trying to be happy in an office job. After all, my parents said, my progress was impressive: all the way up from temporary typist to full-time mail clerk to receptionist – who knew where I might end up? I really wanted to end up in a place no office job could lead me, I knew that. But unfortunately, for the time being, I seemed to be stuck with it.

Right after high school, my next step was to attend the Alberta College of Art since my intention was to become a commercial artist. The grind at ACA was notoriously tough though – eight-to-five classes five days a week, tons of homework, a sixty percent first year drop-out rate – and the competition to get into the Visual Communications program was fierce. My aim had always been to work as an artist, but when it became plain that there was no space for me in VComm, I decided to drop out. In my mind, there wasn't any use in having a diploma in textiles or painting. Unfortunately, this was in early 1982, when a major recession began. For a while, I was unemployed, doing odd jobs, a little drafting work my engineer father found for me, trying to think of what I wanted to do with my life. What I really wanted was to go back to school and earn a degree in English, learn to write fiction, something I’d wanted to pursue since childhood. What I had envisioned was to write on the side and create art for a living – pretty realistic, eh? My parents, however, felt I should think of a more practical career after the ACA experience.

After a year and a half, I finally found full-time work as a foot courier. My employer was a printer and I hauled packages around the downtown core for $4.35 an hour. Six months later, I landed temporary work with Schlumberger and within a year, was Main Receptionist. This pleased my parents, but I hated the routine, the dullness, having to dress like an office lady. The situation was intolerable: engineers would take off and not let me know where they were going and then I’d have to deal with clients wanting to know where they were.

Often I’d take the C-Train to the main library, on my lunch hour, to get away from the noise and stress of the switchboard, to find a book to take with me, forget about my job, just be around books. Libraries had always been a place of refuge for me, place of escape, and then I seemed more drawn to them than ever before. One cold spring day, about a year after starting the receptionist job, I was browsing in the poetry section on the main floor, standing beside one of the huge plate glass windows that provides a view of Seventh Avenue and found something incredibly moving. I took a copy of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas off the shelf and opened it. The sound of a C-Train I remember very clearly rushing past. The sunlight was slanting through the window onto the page as I began reading these lines:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

I closed the book around my finger to keep my place after I finished the poem and took a deep breath. That was it, I realized. There was no going back. Now I knew what I had to do. No matter what my parents thought, no matter that there might not be any money in creative writing, I had to try. If I could ever write anything half as powerful, as heart-breakingly beautiful, it would be very fulfilling indeed. The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas I took with me to the Social Sciences Department on the third floor of the library to find some information about university entrance.

That September, I started work on my English degree. Before long, the Calgary Public Library was my new job site. (The position was part-time.) There I continued to work after graduation. Today, I'm working my way up as a fiction writer, and it’s a longer, harder journey than I ever imagined. During those years of full-time work when I was paying off my student loan after university, I didn’t have the energy to try and do creative work, too. It was only once I had children and spent a lot of time at home that I had the time, and began to learn the patience.

And patience one needs in spades when one is a creative writer. It may be the most important attribute to have – it’s certainly something I need to work on. One receives rejections, waits for responses (some of which will never come, I'm sorry to say), hesitates, procrastinates, but ultimately one has to keep pushing on, because the next acceptance could be on its way. My work has won awards, been published in literary magazines and anthologies, and been broadcast on CBC Radio, but still the time between acceptances can be long, waiting for responses can seem interminable. The money earned by most creative writers is worse than laughable. Be that as it may, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, and the little success I’ve had brings me great satisfaction, more than any job ever could. The same force that drove Dylan Thomas, I like to think, drives me. To me, that’s worth it.

The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, 1934 - 1952
Originally published by New Directions Publishing

Lori Hahnel is the author of a novel, Love Minus Zero (Oberon, 2008), and a short story collection titled Nothing Sacred, forthcoming from Thistledown Press, in 2009. Her credits include CBC Radio, "The Fiddlehead", "Prairie Fire" and "Room Magazine"; more of her work is forthcoming in "The Fiddlehead" and "The Antigonish Review". She is currently at work on a second novel.

1 comment:

ApaulO ARTik Agrinaut said...

don't stop

1111: ~6~ days 2 gogh b4 Calgary's 1111 group art ex on 11Jan09 feat. 1111 artists & 1111+ worx