When I finished writing my novel, Annabel, in 2010, I nearly lost the use of my legs. Between books I make things by hand: hats, collages, kegs of kimchi. So I went to the friperie looking for magpie materials – and found I couldn’t walk up the stairs.
“They feel,” I told my doctor, “like planks of rotten wood instead of legs.” I’d been sitting with them wound around each other in a Celtic leg-knot for a couple of years while I wrote the book. I knew you were supposed to get up and move around and I thought I’d done so once in awhile, but apparently not enough.
“There’s nothing,” said my doctor, “that can be done.” She gave me a look I was beginning to recognize as that of a youngish person pitying someone over the hill. Damn that, I thought: I’m never going to sit still again. I thought of the sixteen years I’d sat still through school and university, and the decades of sitting I’d done as a writer, and regretted it.
I walked home, cleaned off my desk, and went outdoors again. I walked to Jean-Talon Market and down Boulevard St-Laurent and through the trees on Mont-Royal. I moved down to Verdun and started getting to know the river: herons and sumacs, willows and wind. Beavers gnawing and ducks upside down in the water and red-winged blackbirds screeching holes in the living daylight. Messages from the wild flying everywhere and into my body, ideas at every turn.
I knew about ideas coming when you get up from your desk. Annabel would still be a dead manuscript under the bed if I hadn’t budged to make soup or take a shower or walk to the café. The most important metaphors and plot developments and the novel’s deepest psychological structures came to me “out of the blue” when I escaped from my desk. I’d made those escapes as last resorts, when sitting and thinking had brought me to the end of my tether. But now, trying to keep moving to heal my ruined legs, I realized movement might be my new first line of action as a writer: I could write with the body.
I’ve always known writers walked. One of my favourite books is Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, in which Dorothy and her brother cover hundreds of miles of heath before collapsing to devour boiled eggs or meat pie against boulders. So I started using every hour of daylight as my personal body-writing time. When November hit and I took out my Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp as I always do in order not to become marrow-deep dismal, I realized I didn’t need it anymore: striding around the riverbank and the city streets in the daylight hours means I have so many ideas gifted to me by the light and the environs that all I have to do is spend an hour or so standing up at home in the night, scribbling it all down. My legs, after months of this, have come back to life. If ideas or images come too fast when I’m moving about, I write or sketch them in my tiny notebook, standing up, in all weather.
“If ideas or images come too fast when I’m moving about, I write or sketch them in my tiny notebook, standing up, in all weather.”
Drawings by Kathleen Winter
I’ve always felt the brain organizes and computes while writing, but the body is the place where story lives. I guess I just didn’t know until I nearly lost the use of my legs that I have to forget about sitting down in a chair altogether if I want to thrive, both as a writer and as a human. I used to have posted on my wall a quote from Eugenia Zukerman: “Apply your ass to the seat.” I guess maybe that works if you’re a virtuoso flautist. I ripped that quote down – and my ass is smaller now.
Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel was a #1 bestseller in Canada and has been translated worldwide. Her story collection boYs, edited by John Metcalf, won numerous awards. Her Arctic memoir Boundless (2014) was shortlisted for Canada’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust and RBC Taylor non-fiction prizes and has been sold internationally. The Freedom in American Songs (stories, Biblioasis) also came out in 2014. Born in the UK, Winter lives in Montreal after many years in Newfoundland. http://tinyurl.com/Kathleen-Winter
Even as I write, another humongous snowstorm is descending onto the Northeast, making this the snowiest (and coldest) winter on record. With that in mind, here are some quotes to make the season more bearable:
- "How many lessons of faith and beauty we should lose, if there were no winter in our year!"
--Thomas Wentworth Higginson
- "I love the scents of winter! For me, it's all about the feeling you get when you smell pumpkin spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, gingerbread and spruce."
- "I pray this winter be gentle and kind--a season of rest from the wheel of the mind. "
- "I prefer winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape--the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show. "
- "I write probably 80 percent of my stuff over the winter."
- "If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome."
- "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
--Percy Bysshe Shelley
- "If winter helps you curl up and more that makes it one of the best of the seasons."
- "In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy."
- "It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. "
- "Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face."
- "Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius."
- "Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it."
- "No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn."
- "Nothing is as easy to make as a promise this winter to do something next summer; this is how commencement speakers are caught."
--Sydney J. Harris
- "One kind word can warm three winter months. "
- "People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy."
- "Thank goodness for the first snow, it was a reminder--no matter how old you became and how much you'd seen, things could still be new if you were willing to believe they still mattered."
- "The hard soil and four months of snow make the inhabitants of the northern temperate zone wiser and abler than his fellow who enjoys the fixed smile of the tropics. "
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
- "The problem with winter sports is that--follow me closely here--they generally take place in winter."
- "To shorten winter, borrow some money due in spring. "
- "Welcome, winter. Your late dawns and chilled breath make me lazy, but I love you nonetheless. "
- "Blow ye winds, like the trumpet blows, but without that noise. "
-- Jack Handey
- "What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness. "
- "When I was young, I loved summer and hated winter. When I got older I loved winter and hated summer. Now that I'm even older, and wiser, I hate both summer and winter."
- "Winter blues are cured every time with a potato gratin paired with a roast chicken."
- "Winter forms our character and brings out our best."
- "Winter is a season of recovery and preparation."
- "Winter is not a season, it's a celebration."
- "Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.""