Ever wonder why Canadians are, generally, excellent writers?
Could it be something about Canada's long winters? Lots of Canadians spend those cold winter days doing anything but writing. They are outdoors enjoying the frigid weather or skating on an ice rink shooting hockey pucks into frozen nets. They aren't curled up in an armchair or sitting at a desk writing the next great novel. So we can't entirely blame the winter weather.
Could it be Canada's excellent school system? Canada is well known to have a good balance between the arts and sciences. It ranked 2nd amongst OECD countries, for example. Based on PISA results, Canada ranked 5th. But I have seen lots of really crappy essays over the years, and some of them just happened to be mine. We can't entirely blame the Canadian school system either.
So how is it that Canadians excel in writing? Practice and repetition is important. Repeatedly drilling good grammar into our brains is important. This repetition is behind the famous 10,000 hour rule by the well-known Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. But excelling in writing goes beyond mechanically repeating grammar. We can't blame practice either.
Passion and observation
We could cite many examples of writers who have a passion for words and the sounds of words. But words themselves are useless unless they say something meaningful. They need to convey ideas, concepts, images, and emotion. And for that, wordsmithing is not enough. The Beatles would have still been a mediocre band after returning from Hamburg after playing for 10,000 hours if their music didn't convey anything worthwhile. They would have just been great guitar players but not artists.
Here is another example. Lots of kids (and adults, myself included) are passionate about sports. In Germany the passion is for Football (Soccer). In Canada it is the "good ole hockey game". Passion in sports is taking more than a casual interest in the game. It is knowing all there is to know about the players, the standings, recent trade deals and so on. (Incidentally, Canadians are, most definitely sports crazy - after all, Ice Hockey, Basketball and even North American Football have, in part, their origins in Canada. Ice Hockey developed first in Nova Scotia, Basketball is based on a children's game from Ontario and Canadian Football rules were developed in part at McGill and Toronto universities at the same time American Football rules were developed.) Back to our Hockey example, this passion for Hockey led to innovative ways of playing the game, of improving it, and making it more exciting. With passion comes innovation.
And this is true for writing.
Excellent writing conveys something akin to the art of the Beatles or the innovation of modern Ice Hockey. It is mechanics plus passion. For Canadians and writing, this passion includes observing human behaviour and expressing those insights in the best possible way.
Geography and place
A book that demonstrates this relationship between writing and Canada most clearly is The Life of Pi written by the French-Canadian writer Yann Martel. This novel is full of exploding colours, interweaving textures, fearful dynamics, and extraordinary wonder. It is the kind of book that draws you into its world and releases you only on the last page.
The Life of Pi is a book about geography, about place. The writing of Yann Martel is typically Canadian. The vastness of Canada gives a person space to explore ideas to their fullest extent. The story has three characters. A young man named Pi is set adrift on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat, which he shares with a frightened and trapped Bengal Tiger. The third character is the vast open ocean itself on which both are drifting endlessly to an unknown and uncertain destination. This book typifies all that there is to know about Canada. What is Canada but wide open geography. It is space writ large and has a profound effect on the people of Canada. Canadians are a small group of people sharing this vast nature that is at times frightening, dangerous and unpredictable. The Life of Pi can be seen as a metaphor about the geography of Canada and the peoples and dangers that are intrinsic to being a Canadian.
Nature as both inspiration and fear
Northrop Frye, one of the most famous Canadian literary giants, had this to say about the Canadian Literary Identity:
Based on his observations of Canadian literature, Frye concluded that, by extension, Canadian identity was defined by a fear of nature, by the history of settlement and by unquestioned adherence to the community. However, Frye perceived the ability and advisability of Canadian (literary) identity to move beyond these characteristics. Frye proposed the possibility of movement beyond the literary constraints of the garrison mentality: growing urbanization, interpreted as greater control over the environment, would produce a society with sufficient confidence for its writers to compose more formally advanced detached literature.
Canadians, not surprisingly, have a profound fear of nature. It is a constant in the life of a Canadian. It is something that is conquered at one's peril. It is part of the founding myth of the country. It was something that could not be easily conquered as the Europeans explorers found out rather quickly when they arrived on these forbidding shores. Yet, it was also something to be respected. The early settlers learned how to survive in the harsh Canadian geography by adopting some of the habits and skills of the First Nations people. Those who could not adopt either returned to Europe or left for the warmer climate of American colonies. Those who stayed gained much more than they could have imagined.
A nation of communities as the foundation of Canadian literature
This survival had its benefits. It created bonded communities and a sense of helping one another, when needed. Neighbours were not just the people next door, all fenced up and locked up in their little boxes they called home. They saw themselves as part of the fabric of community - they were surviving and thriving in this country together. And this mindset formed the basis of Canadian habits, including that of writing.
Frye suggested that Canadians should move beyond the "garrison mentality" of the country's early years. And indeed they have. Pi, who at first had a justifiable fear of his environment - the Tiger and the ocean, achieved a greater control over his environment and ultimately conquered it - but just barely. He survived in spite of these challenges, and lived to tell the tale.
A piece of paper, a pen and a topic
And what does this have to do with excellent writing?
Canadians have a passion for learning, specifically about human behaviour. This is a generalization, to be sure, but the facts speak for themselves. Pi thrived on the open ocean with the Bengal Tiger by first observing and understanding the behaviour of the Tiger. He learned to master the open ocean by observing and understanding its unpredictability, its dangers and its wonders.
Like the open ocean, the geography of Canada leaves a permanent impression on the minds of Canadians, especially its writers. Like Canada, knowledge is vast, but with observation and understanding, it becomes manageable. It is possible to create order and structure out of what appears to be disorder.
In fact, the challenge of writing is not the mechanics of writing. Good grammar and spelling is mere repetition (and today that is taken care of by software anyway). Excellent writing is like drifting across a vast open ocean with a Bengal Tiger, both of which are menacing, and surmounting these challenges by observation. Canada's gift to its writers is its vastness and its natural dangers which are only surmounted with a manageable fear.
A piece of paper, a pen and a topic. The Life of Pi is 210x297 mm or 8.5x11 inches, a keyboard, and a subject matter vast in scope but manageable and ultimately conquerable.
For more about the Life of Pi, see here.