Contemplating the great writer’s death the previous week, Iain Lawrence and I both wrote about W.O. Mitchell in the March 1, 1998, edition of This Week. Iain and I were surprised to learn it, but school visits by Bill Mitchell had been pivotal moments in the writing life for us both. To this day, when I visit schools or talk to young people about writing, I do so at least partly from the desire to repay an old debt.
The old man who took time to talk
First published in This Week, March 8, 1998.
I attended that W.O. Mitchell lecture, the one that Iain wrote about in his column this week. Actually, I attended it twice. The first time was in the afternoon, when Mitchell came to our big new school. The second was that evening, when he spoke at the official opening of Minnedosa’s new public library.
Poor Mr. Mitchell didn’t have much of a break between the two lectures. Some annoying kid hijacked him, assailed him with platoons of stupid questions. I wish I’d had the chance to thank him for that. In two hours, Bill Mitchell made it possible for me to write for a living and a lifestyle.
He gave his talk at the school, the one about the outhouse exploding, as part of a tour promoting How I Spent My Summer Holidays. As he left the school gymnasium I chased him down. Caught him dead in his tracks. I think I said something like, “Mr.-Mitchell-I-really-like-Jake-and-the-Kid.” Only I think I said it faster.
I talked to him for almost two hours. I remember that it was two hours, because I caught hell for it from my mother. See, in order to explain why I was so late coming home from school, I had to tell her about him. I showed her where he signed my schoolbook, so it wouldn’t seem to be some trumped-up excuse.
Then the fact that I had waylaid (“pestered”) a famous writer at all—let alone for two long, miserable hours—became a crime second only to murder. I protested that every time I said that I should stop bothering him and go home, he said that I was not bothering him; but I had no physical proof that this was not one of the above trumped-up excuses.
I asked Mitchell all of the usual questions. The same ones that people who “always thought they could be” writers ask. “Where do you get your ideas?” “How do you build characters that people will believe?” The kind of questions that make writers (like me) sometime want to avoid being seen in public.
But Mitchell either had the patience of Job, or I must have asked something that sparked his interest. Because the old fellow (yes, in Iain’s words, “disappointingly old”) took time to answer every question. No matter how silly, he took the time.
And then he explained the simple line that all writers, myself included, use to silence the questions: “If you want to be a writer, then write.” He explained that the difference between writers and those who wanted to be writers was that the one had the desire strongly enough that they would do it for hours every day, and that the other, seemingly, could talk about it for hours every day. He explained that learning to write took long, hard, dedicated years; and he somehow made me believe that and want that at the same time.
I tape recorded Mitchell’s talk that night, and listened to the tape until it wore out. His voice, on the tape, reminded me of his words. And that inspired me to write, which is a self-sustaining thing. There is truth in what was my mother’s favourite quotation: that an artist does not work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired by working.
I love his books. But I will remember W.O. Mitchell because in the beginning, before I even knew how to string together a sentence, he spared a couple of hours to really talk to some kid who accosted him out of the sky-blue pink.