On Carol Shields, Once Again

I just saw Julie & Julia today, and it is a brilliant little movie — an ultra-chick flick with a lot of heart and a lot of smarts, and a lot of acting chops from none other than perhaps the best actress whose ever lived, who needs no introdcution or no mentioned name.  Julie Powell, whose story was turned into this movie, had a hero and emulated and strived to be like her hero, and it got me thinking about my hero and how I feel about her, and how that feeling manifests itself in the work that I do (or rather, should be doing).

My hero has, since I read The Republic of Love, Ms. Carol Sheilds, who despite no longer being with us (God rest her most beautiful soul), has left a mark on me, her beloved fans, and anyone who has ever dabbled in Can-lit for school, or interest.  Or anyone who is a regular reader of Pulitzer-winning novels.  Or anyone who loves books.  I don’t know… I could go on, but I won’t.  The point is, Carol Shields is the person I emulate and want to be more than anyone else on earth (that includes truly hot women actresses and songstresses, of whom I have no hope of ever being).  Because when I watch someone like say, Angelina Jolie on a movie screen, yes, I am in awe of her, but I’m not that gorgeous woman, and I have no acting talent.  I’m not jealous that she’s where she is and I’m a lowly filmgoer, sitting with my lowly friends in a darkened theatre.  I simply admire that she is who she is, and that she managed to live her life the way she does, with both glamour and a profoundly admirable sense of social justice.  But when I read one of Shields’ novels, I’m not just in awe of her talents, I want them — nothing else makes me feel this way.  It’s like some kind of drive I have when I read one of her books (specifically one of her books, not just books in general), to do and be a better person and a better writer with better insights into the human condition so that someday, I too can be a leading voice in Canadian literature and I too can be someone that some lowly filmgoer with lowly friends in a darkened theatre can look at and read the works of and say, “I want to be like her!” 

Carol Shields is everything that I aspire to be; she was fearless – she began writing novels quite late in life, and did so with the kind of vigour one might not expect from a very devoted mother.  She was also, though a naturally gifted person, a very hard worker — she got an MA, she was a university professor, a university chancellor, a poet, playwrite, novelist, and a writer of short fiction (which is, I think, the area of some of her best work).  She was also genuine – her characters were plain and simple people – real people – who I believe in every story or book of hers I’ve read – who often lived oddly extraordinary things.  And this causes me to evaluate my own ordinary life as perhaps a catalogue of mildly extraordinary events that could be worth writing about.  She was a funny writer (sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, in fact) with a dirty, cheeky, sarcastic, satirical witty sense of humour.  She was also a sad writer – there are moments of sadness and hopelessness in her books that mimic actual life sadnesses or tragedies.  She above all though, was a wise writer – her dispensing of wisdom could only come from someone as mobile as her (travelling often, living in the U.S. and Canada and being touched and moved by Europe), as motherly as her, and as well-worn and lived as her.  I cannot speak for her, but I’m certain that in her last years of life she must have felt like such an accomplished human being, bringing incredibly strong female-centric works of literature into the forefront of people’s imaginations.  Especially mine.  Her books touch me in a way even some music can’t.  Almost no author can make me feel the way she does.  Her brilliance is unsurpassed.

I am actually about to begin her only novel that I haven’t read, entitled Swann, which, I gather, is a satirical crime novel with the purpose of demonstrating academic writing about writers.  Once I read this novel, I will have read all of Shields’ novels, from her early works like The Box Garden, to her final work, Unless, an AMAZING novel about a woman’s search for the meaning of goodness.  I wonder, once I finish Swann, what I will wonder about Shields.  What will I have gleaned from reading all of her works about Carol Shields as a person, and will I lose anything by not anticipating reading what would surely be one of my favourite novels? 

Whenever I love something or someone, I always wonder if I will ever find someone in the same milieux that I love just as much as that person.  But I don’t think any author will ever have the same effect on me as Carol has.  Whenever I write a story, or work on my novel, I have it in my mind that I really want to make her proud.  I want to think that I am writing something that if she read it, she would be proud of me.  I hope if I ever get published, she will be looking down on me, proud at all the advice from her that I have put to good use about love, life and writing.


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