I've called this volume Raw forming because it and the
London volume are the long bridge from Mennonite farmer's daughter to experimental
filmmaker. It begins September 1963 when I arrive at Queen's University
on scholarship. The London volume ends December 1974, eleven years later,
when I leave England with the uncut footage of Trapline and a four
year old son.
First year at university [vol 1]
An eighteen year old who had grown up in a narrow religion on a northern
frontier where no building was more than fifty years old and no tree taller
than thirty feet, no white family more than fifty years established and
most of them recently immigrated, is given a ticket - wins a ticket - to
a good eastern university in a limestone city founded in 1673. Her school
community to the age of seventeen had been a stable group of fifteen or
twenty farmers' children. Now she is meeting new people every day and they
are Africans, West Indians, Brits, Americans, big city sons and daughters
of doctors, diplomats, media producers. Her best friend is Welsh and a corporate
lawyer's daughter from Toronto. Her best male pal is son of a national bank
There is a wealth of things she doesn't know. What's a sailboat like,
what's hawthorn like, what's sherry like. In her first year she throws herself
into investigating these possibilities. It's an energetic scan, not sensitive.
She babysits for faculty and scrutinizes their fridges and record collections.
She tries art galleries and classical music concerts. She dances at International
House parties. She drinks wine and she writes her parents about it. She
goes to church but her family is not encouraged by her reports, because
she visits the Catholics, the Episcopalians, the Quakers.
She's exploring mainly the middle class and she's figuring out how to
succeed there, but a boy she meets in the front row of Philosophy 1 comes
across as something else. She likes him but she knows she won't interest
him. It turns out he's from Boston money, but what it is about him is more
than money, it is placement. He already knows everything she will have to
spend years learning. Where she is eager he is cynical. Where she is striving
he is dropping out. He sells her a Ban the Bomb pin and she joins CUCND.
She records nearly everything about her first semester in letters to
her family, typed in tiny elite font on pages her mother files in a binder.
These pages detail weather, personalities, classes, residence life, food,
clothes, college rituals, music, books, and the campus on Lake Ontario.
She flirts with a lot of men and she wants a few of them, but she keeps
The writing in the first volume of Forming is quite feverish.
Although I thought of them as a journal, the letters have an overdone animation
as if I'm impersonating a vivacious co-ed for my family's entertainment.
I've edited little of the gush, but have deleted most of the personal comments
directed at family members, both because they are extraneous to the record
and because they sound false. I was writing to a partially invented family,
trying to carry them with me but actually zooming away. Reading the letters
now I also notice how hard I was working to hold down my mother's disapproval
of the directions I was taking - how closed I had to be to her, because
her anxiety could have undermined my courage.
The fact that I was mostly writing letters rather than actual journal
made me blind to the degree of hardship I was experiencing behind my real
and false excitement. My leg spoiled me socially to some unknown degree,
and I laboured to charm new people without knowing I was working against
that tension. I was underfunded by my scholarship, worried about money while
my friends were not. Grades were down, and I was frightened competing with
people who'd had one year more in better high schools. There hadn't been
touch since Frank and I didn't realize how much I missed it, but I gained
twenty pounds in residence, was binging and starving.
What it is about the writing is that it isn't silent. It doesn't touch
into the other side. I was learning the paraphernalia of the world - Gruyère,
timpani, chitterlings, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Welsh cupboards,
Rachmaninoff, Latin graces. I'm now sad to have written badly but at the
same time I honour this raw eighteen year old for doing what had to be done
and doing it headlong.
The Europe year [vol 5]
A girl getting by on energy and charm. She hitchhikes alone through Greece,
Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, France. Her rides
feed her and she listens to their stories. There are close shaves. She enjoys
escaping by her wits. One time, in Istanbul, she lets herself get boxed
in and doesn't escape.
She sleeps next to the lion gates at Mycene, in a cave above Les Baux,
in a house under construction on the Adriatic coast. She doesn't meet other
women traveling the way she does, but it's 1966 and there are a lot of young
men on the road. She roams the capitals of Europe the way they do, in old
clothes without money. They accept her as one of them. She sleeps with them
if she wants to.
She's all there; she takes people in and they like her for it. In Strasbourg
she befriends a mathematics student from Cote d'Ivoire, a rootless German
who was in the Luftwaffe at 17, an Alsacian widow anxious to hold her rank
among chamber maids in a four-star hotel, a middle-aged American petrochemical
engineer consulting at a French refinery, thinky Jewish boys from Toronto
and Brooklyn, a sixteen year old busboy who spends Christmas Eve with her
in an ancient hotel room. In Rome a Sicilian army recruit, a 14 year old
Rumanian refugee, an art student from LA. In Athens young sisters with whom
she tramps through the springtime city wearing crowns of flowers, French
boys on their way to India overland. In Brussels a titled bachelor with
a flat above the Grande Place.
Greek villagers invite her to a country wedding. An Orthodox priest in
a black robe brings out coffee when she wakes next to the tiny chapel at
Sounion on a Sunday morning. Servants celebrating Easter in a doctor's kitchen
in Agrinion take her along on their Good Friday evening procession through
the town. A Turkish family shelters her on a stormy night in a mountain
village in Yugoslavia. Teenagers in the same village take her to their high
school for the morning. A young French businessman in a silver Aston Martin
takes her to lunch and then plans a route through the Bois de Vincennes
to give her the most beautiful first sight of Paris.
How is the writing. I have a good ear in four languages, there's that.
I take away strong visual impressions and can describe them. But I'm awkward
when I try to play, there's still the painful goofiness of family address.
I think there's also something firmer, though. I had been sure of myself
before, but now I have physical confidence. I have been living day after
day in my body's moment rather than in good-student duties. There has been
constant new experience. I've coped without security, habit, and image.
I'm standing in my own bones more than I have. It shows: I'm better looking.
And some of this physical confidence is there in the writing, I think. Isn't
it that? Something more centred in the tone.
The last years in Kingston [vols 6-8]
I land at Kennedy Airport too early in the morning to go anywhere. Lay
my sleeping bag behind a bank of seats in a waiting room and am woken in
daylight by two black sweepers who confuse me by speaking English.
Get back from the year in Europe full of places, voices, faces that I
know I can never share. Olivia has found us an apartment at the corner of
Division and Princess. By now she and Don have been together a year and
a half and are a solid item. Don is living on Clergy Street with a roommate
he knows from politics classes. I meet Greg Morrison the day I have to fetch
my blue suitcase - the same blue suitcase bought with my first paycheck
at 16 - from the shipping office where it has at last arrived from Athens.
I won't let him carry it, instead hoist it onto my shoulder and walk it
home. He likes that.
Don and Greg have more money than Olivia and I, and we come to an arrangement
that gives us a sweetly familial year. They pay for groceries, we shop and
every night cook dinner in our basement kitchen. Afterwards the men wash
dishes. There is a cat. These hours together every night are home to all
of us. We have a good year, steady, none of the frenzies of second year.
Work hard. My sister Judy is now at York University in Toronto, and my aunt
Anne is in Toronto too with her family. There are visits back and forth,
and stays with Greg's parents in Ottawa.
Don and Olivia get engaged at Christmas. In early summer, after final
exams, they are married in Toronto. Afterward my plan is to stay with my
family in Alberta for the summer, working on two reading courses. I last
until the middle of July, flee back to Kingston and live with Greg until
school begins again.
Don has a scholarship to do a PhD at Oxford and I see him and Olivia
off at the dock in Montreal. Greg's roommate at 40 Clergy Street is now
Michel de Salabery, a French Canadian politics student with Gallic courtoisie.
I have a room at 15 Sydenham but am almost never there, eat and sleep with
Greg. Am now in my last year: learning psychology, existentialism with Martyn
Estall, nineteenth century philosophy with Michael Fox, Victorian literature
with Kerry McSweeney, European cinema with Peter Harcourt. In this semester,
from one moment to the next I decide to be a film maker not a child psychologist.
There's a heavy exam period at the end of this year, because I have general
exams in three subjects as well as the usual five. When it's done Greg and
I move to a summer sublet beside the yacht club, and then drive south in
his mom's Triumph to camp on the beach at Hunting Island in South Carolina.
Come back to a job with Hugh Lawford's international treaty project.
In September I move into a little apartment on the second floor of 30
William St overlooking the Wolfe Island ferry dock. Most of my friends have
taken their next steps and are no longer in Kingston; 9 to 5 work does not
suit me; Greg is finishing his MA on alienation and soon to leave for a
PhD at the London School of Economics. I go into a baffled eddy. Sexual
investigation, or call it sexual craziness: affair with my married film
professor, other affairs, miscellaneous. Three months in Kingston General
Hospital in a body cast recovering from hip reconstruction. The best thing
in this year is that my salary at the treaty project buys me a Nikon Ftn.
In July of 1969 I go to London with Peter Harcourt and don't return when
I graduated with a General Honours triple major in philosophy, pyschology
and English and electives in French, German, art history, music history,
Philosophy 1 was required in first year and I liked it but didn't begin
philosophy as a major until third year, after the year away. I had native
philosophical talent, which was my ability to focus down, to ask, What's
this really about? I could get to the essence of a question. I couldn't
do it in class, I never spoke in class, but I could do it when I was writing.
I also had a talent for coming sideways, often through something I found
in a book on some other topic. I'd say, This is relevant, and then I'd find
out how to use it. What I liked best in philosophy at Queens was existentialism
and Hegel. I took on the existentialist notion of bad faith and authenticity,
which supported my own intuition about ethics - that clarity and truth-telling
are what matter most to human well-being, both personal and general. De
Beauvoir was my first feminist. I loved Sartre and de Beauvoir personally,
as essential helpers in life. What I liked in Hegel was his huge dark being,
so intuitive, so tactile and full. I loved that I could understand him.
I liked his sense of spirit coming into its powers through the eons. I loved
who he was. I loved thinking about consciousness.
I wasn't as good in English because I didn't have literary grace in my
writing. Philosophical clarity was my strength in English too. I'd get A's
but I wasn't the best. It startled me to see that someone like Dorris Heffron
was better than me.
In psychology I liked the parts that were philosophical and observational,
stories about lives and beings, but I loathed statistics and the experimental
method. I knew graduate work in psychology would be more of that, and so
that road was closed.
The year before I went to London I discovered Doris Lessing, The golden
notebook first. What it was about Lessing was that she was current,
describing the life we were living and showing us how to think about it.
She brought us her Communist training in consciousness raising: how to think
further about power relations. She demonstrated intimate personal combat.
She was an example of energetic high intelligence alive in an unacademic
mode. Other books that mattered were the Alexandria Quartet, Wilson's
The outsider, Agee's Let us now praise famous men, Mary Renault's
Greek novels, Updike's Pigeon feathers, Hebb's The organization
of behaviour, and Unterrecker on Yeats.
Film at Queen's was Peter Harcourt, who arrived to set up the first film
department in Canada as I was going into third year. At first I was more
interested in Peter than in film because he showed me it was possible to
speak directly, intimately, personally in public. I wanted to learn to do
that. He thought I had talent as a film critic, and he set me up to write
movie reviews for the Queen's Journal. I wrote about feature films
- Pierrot le fou, Poor cow, Isabel - but documentaries
were more my thing. The NFB's Skating rink, Don Levy's Time is.
Films that were just seeing, a way of showing seeing as such.
When I graduated Martyn Estall got me the medal in philosophy and a Woodrow
Wilson nomination to do philosophy in the US, but the philosophy of the
time, British and North American analytic philosophy of the late 1960s,
seemed bloodless to me. I went to London to do film instead.