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Born in Ottawa, I was raised in foster care until adopted at ten months old. There’s a lot packed into that first sentence, some I’ve always known, and of which I’ve only just learned. I’ve been me for most of my life, to the day I was adopted—January 21, 1971—and became Robert Alan McLennan. Who was I before?
My birth mother. Three years of emails I keep to myself, for her sake. At her request.
I was raised on a dairy farm, five miles beyond the village of Maxville, Ontario, on a dirt road populated by generations of McLennans back to our original land grant in 1845. My father took over his father’s farm when he was still in his twenties, and was married by twenty-six. My mother, born and raised in Ottawa, was given three months to two years to live the same year, falling into an illness that prevented children. Married in 1967, they collected me in 1971, and my two-month-old sister in 1976. Despite the original diagnosis, our mother managed to live another forty-three years, but not without complications: twenty-two years of kidney dialysis, multiple hernias, and two failed kidney transplants before her third and final in 2000. Hers were decades’ worth of extended hospital stays: too many to count. And most of when she was home didn’t mean she was much better. Her final decade: quarterly bouts of pneumonia until she finally wore down, just as dementia was kicking in.
My parents were bookish, but not literary. My father had his Ralph Connor novels, his local histories, National Geographic and Popular Mechanics, and my mother, her thrillers, romance novels and mysteries. From very early on, my reading was encouraged by the array of women that surrounded me: mother, elder cousins, widowed grandmothers. I knew more French prior to kindergarten than I’ve ever known since From my mother, I learned patience, stubbornness and will. The benefits of family. From her mother, the same. How to hold a grudge, and keep secrets. From my father, I learned the value of community, and a work ethic. From them both, I learned solitude, silence.
Through writers such as Ralph Connor, writing was geographically close, but not temporally so. Elements of his novels my father could point at a mile or so from the homestead.
From the time I was six, thirteen years of piano lessons. Boy scouts. Farm chores, ever a battle. By preference, I remained in the house. Television, reading, baking, drawing. Self-taught guitar. By pre-adolescence, my reading had moved almost entirely into comics, focusing on Spider-Man, Avengers, Captain America, X-Men. There were occasional other forays: the Narnia series, Tales from the Green Forest. My mother’s hospital stays could last weeks or months, so the house was mine to occupy. I prepared meals, laundry, mending.
Given Maxville hasn’t a high school, grade nine meant a new school in a new town, and an entirely new social group. I was prompted by one of these new friends to read literature for the sake of my poor attempts at writing, introducing me to Michael Ondaatje, Timothy Findlay, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, John Newlove, Robertson Davies, Richard Brautigan, Margaret Lawrence. She would eventually be the mother of my eldest daughter, attached at the hip for a decade. High school also included a social group involved in writing, from Louis Patrick Leroux to Clare Latremouille to Chris Page. Gary Geddes lived nearby, and came through to give workshops. I met Henry Beissel through my sister, father of one of her friends. We started a publication, produced by our English teacher, Bob MacLeod. We all published anonymously, or under pseudonyms. We wrote.
I left home as soon as I could. I attempted Montreal at nineteen, having been accepted into Concordia’s Creative Writing Program. Unfortunately, I had but five of the six required OAC (Grade 13) credits; despite Beissel’s best efforts, he could not get me into the university itself. I left roommates and Montreal for Ottawa, where I landed at Carleton University, as my girlfriend attended classes at Algonquin. We both left school when the college strike hit; once she hadn’t classes, I no longer had a reason to leave her apartment. I wanted to write, caring nothing for degrees. Of course, within six months we were pregnant with Kate, born mid-year through my own attempt at the same college program. The second year hadn’t a creative writing class, so I never bothered continuing. Instead, amid a crappy busboy job in the Byward Market, I signed up for a creative writing (poetry) workshop the following fall at the University of Ottawa, where I met Mark Frutkin, and fellow classmates Rhonda Douglas and Joseph Dandurand. I wrote and wrote and wrote.
I sat hours in the Canadian literature stacks at the University of Ottawa, discovering chapbook publications by bpNichol and issues of bill bissett’s blewointment, and realized I could easily do something of my own. Why wait for someone else? I self-published, which quickly morphed into above/ground, launched in July, 1993. It grew. I made chapbooks by others, and then began hosting readings. And book fairs. And reviewing, for the sake of study and free books. I kept going. I began a home daycare so I could remain home with Kate, bringing in two other children full-time. Ten hours a day, five days a week. I wrote three nights a week in a coffeeshop, from seven pm to midnight. I wrote. I wrote. I spend days with children: colouring, dancing, reading stories. After three years or so of this, my partner and I broke late in 1994. I wrote. I lived poorly, cheaply, and singularly. I wrote. I produced poems and stories and chapbooks, selling copies as best I could in coffeeshops and bars. I wrote. I met others who did the same, reviewing books as they came through for the local weekly. I began to tour. I wrote. I toured. I published. I wrote. I kept going. Belligerently so, one might say. The rest is simply detail.
I met writers who allowed me to meet other writers. Michael Dennis. Dennis Tourbin. Diana Brebner. George Elliott Clarke. Maggie Helwig. Colin Morton. I corresponded with writers, who offered support and suggestions. Joe Blades. Ken Norris. Judith Fitzgerald. Stan Rogal. Gil McElroy. Michael Holmes. I found contemporaries. Rob Manery. Tamara Fairchild. Stephanie Bolster. b stephen harding. Susan Elmslie. I wrote to my heroes, who wrote back. George Bowering. John Newlove. David W. McFadden.
At the birth of my first child, my writing required a focus. I couldn’t simply occasionally paint, draw, compose stories and poems. I chose poetry, and treated it like a study. I read everything I could, and wrote as much as possible. Now, after publishing some twenty-plus poetry books, I wonder if fiction is where I should be focusing my real attention. Prose, at least. Perhaps I explain this poorly. Something sparkles there that I haven’t seen before. I moved from the breath-break to the sentence, and something inside me shifted. I have enjoyed the shift; I think the possibilities there are, somehow, greater. There is a way in which the sentence shimmers.
Writing as a way to continually discover; to continually be learning, and attempting. Once you learn how to do something, Diane Woodward once told me, move on. I do not wish to remain still.
I write to clarify; to understand from a different angle, a slightly altered perspective. To better understand my space, and my surroundings. Language. The world in which I write. I wish to understand. I write.
Now I am married, and we live in a house three blocks from where my mother grew, and across from where my parents married. This was not our intention, but it is where we landed. Ending twenty-plus years in Centretown, I now live on the periphery, in a mid-1950s neighbourhood. I write between and amid the children, home full-time. The children force me out of my bubble, into baking, wading pools, parks. Repeated outings. Writerly visits are more common, and involve tea, banana bread and children. Christine works, and writes. We juggle chaos and not-chaos. We write, yes. We take turns. We read stories. We breathe.