Alistair Macleod RIP


Many of us in the writing game have a story to tell about Alistair Macleod. This is mine. It happened at the annual meeting of The Writers’ Union of Canada in Ottawa in 2003. Alistair was the writer picked to deliver the annual Margaret Laurence lecture, talking about his life as a writer. He gave his presentation at the National Library of Canada.

He didn’t have a prepared text. He had a stack of yellow foolscap pages filled with handwritten notes, and he leafed back and forth through them as he spoke.

I didn’t take notes. But I remember two things he said that have stuck with me ever since. One was that a writer should have a plan of attack. Random words,  sentences,  paragraphs and scenes would never end up as a story, he said. It would be the same as a woodworker aimlessly sawing, nailing and hammering, and expecting to have a birdhouse or a patio deck at the end of the process.

The other thing he said was that a certain point in the composition of every story, one should write the last sentence on a Post-it note and stick it on the computer screen as a  reminder of  where the story should end. I haven’t used this technique with Post-it notes, but I often remind myself that what I write must carry as strong an ending as its beginning. As for having a plan of attack, that’s certainly a must when one does journalism and other kinds of narrative nonfiction. I could also see it applying to fiction.

When he finished his speech, which was greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation, Alistair joined a few of us for drinks at the Library bar. There was a piano in the room, a vintage nine-foot Steinway once owned by Glenn Gould. I couldn’t resist. I pulled off the quilted vinyl cover and started to play “Farewell to Nova Scotia.” During the chorus I looked across the room and there, singing and dancing a reel with fellow Maritimer Deborah Windsor, was Alistair Macleod. He looked as happy as a bird in spring. ‘Tis a memory I will always cherish.

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