BY MADONNA HAMEL
A couple of weeks ago I drove to Muenster to be part of a writing retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey. I spent a brief four days with a group of talented writers from all parts of the province. The prairies are home to an impressive number of people who write in a place where The Land is the dominant character and indisputably shapes all the supporting characters of their stories. In a world that is predominantly urban, Saskatchewan’s heart continues to reside away from the din and rumble, the distractions and diversion of city life. If you are going to write about this place, you have to be a good listener. You have to live on faith that truth with come in on the wind and the dust, approaching from somewhere out there, on the horizon. Patience, for a prairie writer is not only a virtue, but an indispensable asset, because only through a patient silence will The Land render up its goods. So, an abbey is an ideal place to start.
Given, patience is necessary to perfect any craft. I’m thinking in particular about learning a musical instrument. I play just enough guitar to scribble down my chords and hand them over to a real musician who can make the song sing. I know that for every hour a talented guitarist is onstage, surrounded by fans and band mates, dozens more are spent developing deftness, reaching fingers crazy distances to bend notes, perfecting riffs and improvising solos. And then, as if that weren’t tortuous enough, most of those artists sing melodies that require an entirely different skill set than what the fingers are up to. The time spent creating new songs is called wood-shedding. The term brings to mind a cozy cabin in the forest away from the conflicting energies and interruptions of urban life. The “woodshed” is the abbey for the guitarist. The abbey is the “wood shed’ for the writer, who works alone and makes less noise.
Fr. Demetrius is the monk assigned to give monastery tours to each new group of writers. Besides taking us to the top of the new elevator ( not a winding staircase with stone steps?) to give us a view of the grounds, with its greenhouses and cemetery and plowed fields, we are taken fourteen feet underground into the cellar dug by hand in 1920, seventeen years after the monastery was built by Benedictines who came from Germany via Wisconsin. The walls are lined with shelves upon shelves of jars of tomatoes and peaches and pickles. On the floor sit sacks of potatoes, “ two metric tons of potatoes”, to be precise. “I do the peeling and slicing to make all your french fries” says Fr. Demetrius. “So you could say I’m the chip monk”. He’s got a million of them.
Back upstairs where it’s considerably warmer, we get a peek at the evening’s meal: rosemary chicken kabobs, steamed vegetables and some of those chips. In the dining area, to reiterate the rule of silence, the foot of every chair is enveloped in a tennis ball. Back in our rooms I note our chairs also wear tennis ball silencers. (I counted over a hundred and forty tennis balls.)
Once settled in we begin our sojourn. The wind howls outside, but otherwise the building, with monks at one end and eight earnest authors at the other end, returns to the rule of silence between the hours of 9am and 5pm. I set up my computer and adjust the lighting – there’s an awful lot of fluorescent lighting in the Abbey, which goes counter to my romanticized vision of cloistered abbas working under the dim glow of a candle or a humble study lamp. I begin.
To my delight the words flow and my heart soars and the voices of all my characters sing out with the stories they’ve been straining to relate all the long ride up. “Hang on, hang on” I promised. “I can’t get all this down, I’m driving. I promise as soon as I get to the Abbey I’m all yours.” Hearing voices, it turns out, is a good sign when you’re writing a novel. And while certain loved ones might worry about what exactly those voices are telling me to do, Beth, our retreat leader is encouraging. “ Every character has to want something, desperately. They might not even get it, but it is at the centre of their life”, she says. And if I’m lucky, they will make it the centre of my life, too. For four days my jilted mail order bride wanders the pages of her life – clutching her dictionary, naming and renaming the new world in which she finds herself – The Last Great West, her First Big Leap into life on life’s terms. Joining her in a boarding house in an, as of yet, undisclosed neighbourhood, is a camp cook, a taxidermist, and a colonel with the survey team stretching out the new border along the 49th parallel. Others, like a Metis mid-wife and a Benedictine monk, live on The Land. They say little, yet ground the story. This will be my challenge: the heroes, the lodestones and north stars are present. But their lessons come without words. How appropriate, I think, that I should be writing this in quiet time.
After hours of diligent writing I wander the halls peeking into empty rooms with bookshelves. On one shelf is a pamphlet with a picture of St. Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica. On the back is written a brief description of their calling. I find myself editing the pamphlet down to these words: “Monastics work the destitute places to remind us that strangers can live together, can welcome the traveler, the outcast, the neighbour. Can learn from the poorest. Can dignify human labour. Can make sacred leisure. Can be a presence in the world. A constant witness. Can be friend to all.” If I can aim for three out of eleven I’m thinking I’m doing pretty good.