Just under three weeks ago I found myself in Woodstock, New Brunswick as guest reader and panelist for WordsFall, the semi-annual literary festival of the Writers' Federation of New Brunswick.
I should have written about it before now, but, honestly, by the time I got back I was pretty knackered and launched myself into the teaching work that had begun to pile up. Even now it sort of feels like one of the best dreams I've ever had.
It wasn't just the readings, but the readings were great. Joan Clark was the other invited author, and she was eloquent, elegant and entrancing all at once. She read the beginnings of three of her novels, prefacing each one with a brief tale about the origins of each. After she spoke, I didn't have much chance to speak with her, but she approached me and graciously said she wanted to buy one of my books, but, to her chagrin and mine, they were all sold out. I mean, I don't mind selling every book, but I would have liked to have given one to Joan Clark, to sign it "Dear Joan--you are a national literary treasure. From a fellow creative soul, Gerard." That would have been a pretty cool honour, to have signed a book for Joan Clark. I mean, she's won numerous national awards for her writing and has received the prestigious Order of Canada. The very idea that she would even want my book in her home means a lot to me. Then again, the idea that anyone would want one of my books on their bookshelf means a lot to me. But she was so kind and approachable. She doesn't have to be. She just is, and was.
When my turn came (I actually went before Joan), I read two short excerpts from Finton Moon. Funny, if you had asked me a couple of years ago how I would feel about travelling to another province as an invited guest to read in front of a roomful of interested strangers, most of whom seemed to be writers themselves, I would have said I'd be pretty nervous. But after doing this kind of thing a few times, I can say I was totally calm, except for the good kind of nerves, the type that comes from adrenaline and doesn't debilitate, but kicks the brain and body into a whole new gear that you barely know resides within you most of time.
I really needed it that day, too. The day before the event, after not sleeping the night before, I left campus around 1 p.m. and was at the airport less than a couple of hours later. Just before 8 p.m. Lee Thompson of the WFNB picked me up at the airport in Fredericton and whisked me into Woodstock under cover of night. I glanced at his speedometer once and realized that we were travelling just under the speed of light. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if, when we finally stopped in front of the Best Western hotel, if he'd told me we'd gone back to the future. We chatted the whole way with nary a pause in the conversation as if we were old friends, catching up on each other's lives. Lee is a musician, and a very good one at that, with a new CD called "Till Light". He's also a very good writer, with a book called S., A Novel In [XXX]Dreams.
Turns out I was in capable hands and riding into an experience unlike anything I've ever known. I should have known when Janie Gillies dashed from the lounge, towards the registration desk and greeted me like a longlost friend, that I was very welcome in Woodstock that weekend. It took but a few minutes to throw my knapsack (aka The Black Hole of Calcutta) onto my bed, glance into the bathroom mirror at my airplane hair and head back downstairs where a whole crowd was waiting, already talking excitedly among themselves. But I made sure to talk to each one of them, if only briefly because they were all there for the same reason I was: to be among kinfolk: writers and creative types. The reason I felt I was among friends, quite simply, is because I really was. In our own way, I guess we were all a little nervous, although perhaps I shouldn't assume that. I won't mention everyone by name, but there was one chap named Roger Moore who kept us entralled with stories of Wales and poetry from his newest collection. And I've got to say that a beer never tasted so fine as that which I drank that evening and all weekend long.
A bunch of us ended up back in my room playing songs, reading poetry, drinking beer, and telling tales until four in the morning. It was my kind of crowd. See, I don't do it very often, but I live for these kinds of things--I could happily spend the rest of my life with a people who do nothing but write, sing songs, and drink good beer. It was like spending the weekend with Hobbits at The Prancing Pony.
Okay, maybe not. But if it did, that would make Cynthia Good a wizard, for she kept us enthralled the next day with a two-hour presentation on social media. I was amazed at her stamina, as well as how much she knew. Cynthia's a total professional and a font of useful information and suggestions about how to navigate the cyberway with ease.
Getting ahead of myself there, though. The next morning... okay that SAME morning... after not sleeping more than an hour and a half, I lay awake for a couple of hours before convincing myself I would not be getting any reasonable amount of shut-eye. The clincher was a huge bang out side my window (or perhaps inside my room). See, I never did figure it out. Janie had enthusiastically informed me at the bar the previous night, within minutes of my arrival, that most murders in hotels happen in the rooms closest to the stairwell. Well, guess where my room was? And that hallway had a certain "Red Rum" sort of feel to it, if you know what I mean. It was a long, long walk down there, and I had joked to the crowd about feeling as if I would make better time on a little red tricycle (a la Danny Torrance in The Shining). Janie seemed only slightly sorry for having told me about those "statistics" that, for all I knew, she made up just to frighten the shit out of the only CFA in the group. I mean, we all had hotel rooms of our own, but I was the only one dumb enough to accept the one by the stairs. I even considered changing rooms, but drunk with excitement and only a couple of beers, I decided, "What the hell? If a murderer breaks into my room, I'll have a story to tell, and isn't that what life is all about?"
Maybe that's why I didn't sleep much. Either way, the next day (Saturday) I had to get up, shower, make my way down to the dining room--a nice little one too, with a lovely breakfast laid out, of which I had toast and coffee. My intention had been to get out and see the town, maybe dine at some little local establishment, but I took three steps outside and realize that the pouring rain would have me drenched and shivering in the same clothes I was supposed to be wearing all day. So breakfast at the hotel it was.
I sat and wrote some notes in my sleepless stupor, listening to the chatter all around me, suddenly realizing I was going to be talking to people, addressing a crowded room, and even singing later that night--all on less than two hours sleep--not even counting the sleeplessness of the night before.
Anyway, it all went well. I have images from that day that, for whatever reason, have stayed with me. Me wandering around the kitchen of the civic centre (where the event was held) looking to fill a tiny glass with water to solve my parched throat. Cynthia Good answering question-after-question from a very appreciative crowd. My mad driver, Janie, having to pull over several times on a two-mile stretch of straight road to check her map for where the civic centre was, finally asking a kindly old couple, who pointed to an innocuous-looking building at the top of a hill. "There ya go," the kindly old feller said. There it was, within twenty seconds' drive. Other lingering images I really shouldn't mention in public, but there are many, I assure you.
Joan Clark and I took part in a panel discussion, moderated by Cynthia and that, to me, was the blurriest part of the day. I answered some questions, too tired, really, to try to sound wise and that was perhaps for the best. I was relaxed. I spoke my truth. I came out okay. They were an extaordinarily appreciative crowd, most of whom I spoke with indiviually afterwards and many of whom bought books of mine to have signed.
There were also many readings and a few book launches following the invited guests, but too many for me to mention--although I was particularly fortunate to hear Corey Redekop read from his new zombie novel, Husk. It was a great performance that whet my appetite for the book.
At night, the musicians came out and, man, were they plentiful and talented. One singer or band after another left me amazed and, really, I felt privileged to be there. The highlights, of course, were Lee Thompson singing his original songs and the incredible Babette Hayward, who is bound for great things on the national scene, I'm sure. She just had us all enthralled with her voice and words, including a great rendition of a Dylan song.
That undertaking of Dylan gave me the inspiration and courage to sing one of my own. I mean, as I said that night, "If you're gonna play Woodstock, you's got to play some Dylan." So, playing on stage for the first time in over fifteen years, I belted out 'The Times They Are a-Changing,' along with "Richard Corey" and my own original song, "Just Get Away." Nobody seemed to mind too much that I missed a few chords and probably a few notes. I didn't feel like I embarrassed myself, although it's highly likely that I was simply too high on life at that moment to pay much notice to what anyone thought. The moment of grace, for me, however, came when Janie brought her immense singing talents to the stage and sang "Caledonia," a song I admit I'd never heard before but managed to strum along with. An indelible moment among many indelible moments.
Do I even need to mention that a crowd of us went back to the room after that and sang songs and chattered like monkeys in a chinaberry tree till well into the morning hours? Didn't think so. I believe I slept for three hours or so that night. Good times are sleepless times.
Next day, after a heartwarming breakfast, a few more introductions and a lot more goodbyes, my patient and generous driver made sure I caught my flight, and just like that--as if not a single moment had passed--I was back on that little plane, gazing out at the suddenly sunny New Brunswick autumn landscape, with calls of "Come back soon" still ringing in my ears.
And those calls still ring. I'm not sure how, but I will go back.
Where I come from--a province rich in creative talent--we often like to say we have the best "scene" in Atlantic Canada, perhaps even in the country. But after that weekend in Woodstock, I have to say, there's more to Atlantic Canada than our little neck of the woods. As one fellow said at breakfast, "I've been to a lot of these things, and this one was the best." Aye, and that's how I felt too. But it's not about comparisons and superlatives. Suffice to say that New Brunswick has riches of its own, and I can't wait to tell the people in my world all about it.
The day after my return, I wandered up the corridor towards my class on campus, and a colleague, appraising my sluggish demeanour with an apt grin, asked, "So how was New Brunswick?"
I looked at her and grinned. "I think I'm still there."
"That says it all," she said with a laugh.
"Yep," I said. "That says it all."