On the wall above my desk in Montreal is a photograph taken in February at the Arctic Circle. The print is four feet wide by almost three feet high and foreground takes up most of that space. The horizon line is high on the print and marked by the Richardson mountains: white and treeless. It was -34C that day and my eyelashes froze together while I focussed the camera. In the foreground are the faint stains of a recent caribou kill, one hoof hidden amongst highbush cranberry and yellow grass poking out of the hard snow.
The perspective is deceiving. Trails of Black Spruce bisect the wide flat plain in middle distance and lead toward the base of the distant rounded mountains. Those peaks look close enough to touch, but they are many kilometres away.
It is an image that encapsulates much of what I learned during my three-month residency at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon.
Berton House is owned and operated by the Writers’ Trust of Canada and each year four authors, supported by Canada Council grants, are chosen to spend three-month stints at the house. Residents do not have to teach or lecture, offer manuscript evaluation or coach emerging writers. In fact, they don’t even have to write while staying at the house. CanLit icon Pierre Berton, when gifting his house as a retreat, made that stipulation. He said, “the main purpose is not to let them write, but simply to give them time off from writing if they want it, or time off to think about writing or about the place they’re living in.” In the house are two binders of letters each resident has left for the next. Over the winter I spent a few hours reading what Lawrence Hill, Charlotte Gray, Joan Thomas, and the rest of the residents who’d come before me had to say. Some got a fair bit of work done. Others shut down Dawson’s bars nightly. Everyone left with something new: a stronger sense of their writing, the seed of a manuscript, suitcases of notes and ideas, friendships.
“The main purpose is not to let them write, but simply to give them time off from writing if they want it, or time off to think about writing or about the place they’re living in.”
I landed in Dawson on December 23. When I stepped off the plane at 10:30 a.m. it was still too dark to see the tiny terminal building fifty feet away. My eyelashes froze—yeah, that happened a lot—and I immediately lost sight of my seatmate, a woman in a velour tracksuit who’d come to Dawson to “experience the Yukon winter.” Betty and Dan Davidson, part of the Berton House team, eventually found me in the crush of people inside the terminal. I was taken on a quick tour of town: “Here’s the curling rink. Do you curl?” I don’t. “Here’s the Anglican Church. Here’s the Baptist Church. Here’s the Catholic Church. Here’s the nondenominational worship house. Are you a churchgoer?” I am not.
When they dropped me off at the house it was 12:30 p.m. and still too dark to see across the road. I watched the cloud of vapour left by their car’s tailpipe dissipate and sighed as the house settled around me, pipes banging as the heating system fired up. I was the seventy-fourth Berton House writer-in-residence, and I had the place all to myself. I didn’t know anyone living in that remote town. It would be dark for most of my stay (or so I was led to believe) and bitterly cold (or so it had been in the past). Alone in the cold and the dark, I would write reams.
“I had the place all to myself. I didn’t know anyone living in that remote town.”
The phone rang. I was invited to a Christmas Eve party and then to a Christmas potluck and then to a Boxing Day gathering and a New Year’s dinner. Did I know about the twice-weekly film festival screenings? Would I like to snowshoe up the Dome? Was I coming to the gallery opening and lecture next week?
For a town of about 900 winter residents, Dawson was hard to keep up with.
Initially the invitations arrived with an accompanying “don’t feel obliged, we know you’re here to write.” Initially, I agonized over the daily choices: write or hike, write or read, write or … and ground myself to a standstill over words that weren’t piling up. In my self-inflicted wracking I lost sight of why I write and nearly turned my prized three-month residency into the demise of my writing.
“I agonized over the daily choices: write or hike, write or read, write or …”
But, at some point, I came to my senses and relearned something important. Perhaps it was the night I spent lying on my back on the frozen Yukon River hypnotized by the Northern Lights or while I was listening to Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in storytellers speak on the cultural importance of “story” or maybe when I stepped over the Arctic Circle. At some point I remembered that sometimes that thing which seems so close can’t be reached until one moves away from it.
Sometimes to write good stories we have to stop trying to write.
When I left Dawson the airport terminal was again packed, but this time I knew everyone. I came home with new friendships, more than one thousand photographs, and twenty-two thousand words towards a new book.
Shelagh Plunkett is an award-winning writer and journalist living in Montreal. Her work has been published in various Canadian and American journals including The Walrus, enRoute Magazine, Geist, The Vancouver Sun and The Globe and Mail. In 2007 she won the CBC Literary Award for creative non-fiction and her memoir of growing up in Guyana and on Timor, Indonesia, The Water Here is Never Blue, was short listed for the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction and the Concordia University First Book Prize. She has just returned south after three months in Dawson City, Yukon as the Writers’ Trust Berton House writer-in-residence and is now in the thick of a new manuscript tentatively titled Caught By All That’s Come Before. Follow Shelagh on Twitter and Instagram @shelaghplunkett. shelaghplunkett.wordpress.com
Photos: Shelagh Plunkett