Marjorie Simmins’ coastal life

Former West Coast freelance journalist Marjorie Simmins now lives on the East Coast of Canada, in Halifax, and has become a teacher and writer of memoir. Coastal Spectator Editor Lynne Van Luven recently emailed Simmins some questions about her latest book, Coastal Lives: A Memoir.  The book is now available in bookstores, and to order directly from the publisher:

Marjorie, this is such a down-to-earth and heart-warming memoir; it talks about mature people living real lives.  Can you talk about the process of creating Coastal Lives?

Sometimes it seems as though we live in a world where the tough realities people live, with great courage and dignity, are not a part of the larger conversation. Mature or otherwise, most of us don’t have Hallmark Card lives. There are hard times and good times – and extraordinary, funny and delightful times, too. I like to think I cover a wide emotional spectrum in the book – with an undercurrent of optimism, because that is who I am. If you show up for your life with verve and energy, sooner or later, good things happen.

The process of creating Coastal Lives was a surprisingly natural one, which came from a lifetime of daily writing. I can actually pinpoint the day I started on the path of becoming a writer. It was — here’s a surprise! — a dark and rainy day in Vancouver. I was around eight years old, and my mother suggested I write a letter to my grandmother, who we called “Minnie.” I was bored and cranky – and not quite willing to give that up. “What do I write about?” I petulantly asked my mother. “Oh,” she mused, looking around the room for inspiration, and, seeing the family cat asleep on a cushion, suggested, “why don’t you write about George? Your grandmother likes cats.” And down went the pen to paper, starting a lifetime of letters between myself and all my family members. I continue to write a letter almost every day of my life.

Part II of the equation is journals. When I was 15, my father bought me my first hard-bound journal, from a lovely arts store on Robson Street. That gift initiated 20 years of journal keeping.

Part III of the equation is my journalism career. By age 30, I had started writing as a freelance journalist. One of the first articles I had published was what I have always called a “personal essay.” I graduated from UBC in 1984, and my first job after that was slinging beer at Jerry’s Cove Pub, on Alma and 4th Avenue. I wasn’t thrilled with the job, but I was doing all right until my manager told me that part of my “side duties” included cleaning the women’s and men’s bathrooms. “Don’t forget to pick out the cigarette butts from the urinals,” she announced brightly, handing me a mop, bucket and rubber gloves. I walked in the men’s bathroom, dressed in a pretty summer dress, my hair pulled up into a jaunty pony tail, looked at the urine-soaked butts in the urinals – and cried my eyes out for half an hour. “Post BA Blues” was published in the then-UBC Alumni Magazine, now called TREK. My career publishing life essays had begun.

As you know, there are 22 previously published essays in Coastal Lives. I use them almost as photographs along the storyline. And so, the writer in the book is a letter writer, a journal writer, a journalist and an essayist. That’s where the voice – voices, really – come from.

The first iteration of the book was in my Master’s thesis, which was a research degree, focusing on memoir studies, from Mount Saint Vincent University, here in Halifax. I called the thesis “Memoir: An Examination of a Renegade Memoir From the Inside Out.” Essentially, I studied memoirs past and present, and then wrote my own, as part of the thesis. The book is substantially different from the thesis, primarily because of the brilliant editor at Pottersfield Press, Julia Swan, who asked for more of the previously published essays to be included, and more detail to the memoir storyline, because she sensed I’d left some large bits out . . . . I hasten to say that I also use humour to describe this process! (I keep waiting for a reviewer to say that he/she laughed when they read some of the essays – they were sold as a humour pieces, first time round, in newspapers!)

Not many Canadians can truly claim “bi-coastal lives.” Is that how you think of yourself now?

Mostly, yes. I know darn well I don’t have the full understanding of the West Coast that I once had – and that distresses me to think about at times. I go to my hometown as a visitor now – and that also distresses me. I couldn’t even afford to live in Vancouver any more – and that distresses me beyond measure . . . When I go to Vancouver, I may well be a visitor, but I am blessed to stay with various great family members on both sides of our families, and in their homes I am welcomed and feted. They ask me, What would you like to eat? And I answer, Salmon, every kind and every meal. They spoil me with this, and with other treats like spot prawns and halibut. (On the East Coast, it’s all about lobster, scallops and haddock.) I also do all sorts of funny rituals that make me feel re-connected to the West Coast world. For example, I can’t get to the banks of the Fraser River fast enough. The Pacific Ocean, too, but it is the Fraser I was raised closest to, and that I love with all my heart. Near the Fraser is Southlands, where I rode for over 20 years. When I go to Vancouver now, I have the huge pleasure of taking my great-niece Leila for pony rides, as I used to take her mother, Jocelyn, my niece. And best of all, this is at the same barn, and with the same barn owner! I am comfortable and happy on both coasts – and grateful for this.

Many of my former journalistic colleagues still seem to have an inborn resistance to the memoir; a few of them, I am certain, even think of it as an inferior form of nonfiction – not as muscular perhaps as first-person reportage that strips out the self. What would you say to such a colleague?

I find this stance — by journalists, academics or even the general reading public — quaint and outdated. I would also suggest people with that view simply haven’t kept up to date with memoir. Some of the finest writers in the world are memoirists – always have been, always will be. Joan Didion, Vladamir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, George Orwell and Mary Karr. Canadian memoirists are equally dazzling: Farley Mowat, Evelyn Lau, David Adams Richards and Wayson Choy. Other recent and stunning Canadian memoirs include Bog Tender by George Santos, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter by Alison Wearing, How Linda Died by Frank Davy, The Danger Tree by David MacFarlane and Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia . . .

Of course there are badly written memoirs. There are badly written novels, and books of poetry and non-fiction . . .  Somehow memoir is held to a higher standard – and so must, on occasion, fall the farthest and most cripplingly . . . There are literary memoirs and trash memoirs. There are beautiful, hybrid memoirs, which include maps, photos, recipes — whatever best illustrates a life. . .  Anyone bored or lofty about memoir needs to go back to the bookstore and look a little longer.

You have a master’s degree in arts research specializing in Memoir Studies and you now teach memoir-writing courses around the Maritimes. Do you find a hunger for telling personal stories among your students?

The hunger is huge. Young, middle-aged and older — the lives people lead are astonishing. I adore learning about other people’s lives, especially when I am taken to worlds I’d never gain access to ordinarily. Fascinating details aside, the job is to craft a story, and the prettiest, most dynamic one you can. I have no problem whatsoever teaching memoirists who simply want a self-published life story to hand down to children or grandchildren. I believe this is laudable. That said, I get as excited as any other writer and teacher when I read a memoir-in-progress that is of high literary quality and may well find a traditional publisher once it’s done. The most uneventful lives can still be led by those who can write like angels. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. I just do my best to give the people who come to my seminars whatever it is they want and need, to start and finish a memoir — and perhaps, to understand better the scope of their choice regarding content and structure. After that, they’re on their own.

You and author Silver Donald Cameron (whom you call simply Don) now have two dogs.  Muriel Spark once said that owning a cat is conducive to a writer’s concentration. What do canines bring to the writing world, besides the chance to go walkies when your work is not going well?

Don and I walk the dogs every day, whether our work goes well or not. We spend endless hours at our desks – seven days a week, mostly – and the chance to get outside and breathe fresh air and see what the rest of the world is up to, is so necessary to our well-being. Seeing the world through a dog’s eyes is also a revitalizing experience. Let’s get excited about wind! Birds overhead! Sailboats on the North West Arm! A rotten fish on the shore! Eliminating like mad! Other dogs!! Dogs spread happiness and excitement all around them, even on the end of a leash. The pleasure we take in our dogs’ company is immense. For me, the presence of animals in my life — dogs and horses particularly — is non-negotiable: I simply must have them around me to live my best and happiest life.