Sunday, November 15, 2015
REVIEW: A LIFE WITH WORDS
Written in the third person, Richard B. Wright’s memoir reads like a novel, yet is highly personal. When you think about tackling several decades of your life, it can be daunting to capture what that little girl or boy inside you was really like. Wright’s choice of using the third person is a wonderful tool to frame his life story.
This entertaining read starts out in Midland, Ontario, where Wright grew up during the 30s and 40s. At that time, the Midland port, with shipbuilding capabilities and large granaries, was a hive of activity that supported wartime commerce opportunities. Having read many author biographies and interviews, I so enjoyed the commonplace human things that Wright includes in his memoir. Early in his career, for instance, while in a sales role, he states he had in his "new attaché case, 3 sales memos, a tuna fish sandwich and a paperback copy of Zorba the Greek…” which painted a delightful picture of the balance between the banalities of work life and learning his craft.
Halfway through the book, I’m thinking, I like how this young boy has evolved to adulthood. He was creative and lucky in landing his first few jobs by that age-old method of sending out masses of letters offering up his skills. His first few bosses were interested in his humour and talent for using his words well. It made me want to meet this character – the man who would become “author Richard B. Wright.” Another warm image that resonated for me was Wright’s early and steadfast awareness of his love of words, his desire to be around them every day, and for words to factor in his daily work. While I might share that love of words, I, along with many others, remain in the "wannabe" writer camp! Wright recalls advice from early mentors that “he had to remember that a serious writer was interested not just in providing entertainment but also in using the power of language to understand experience.”
Another aspect of Wright’s ‘writerliness’ that I enjoyed was the varied techniques he employed to tackle the work of writing, which includes determining how to overcome the inevitable struggles. “Thinking and feeling his way into this book … after a while (he) began to feel and sense those times…” of which he is writing, captures how he launches into a new project. Clearly having an innate penchant for early editing, he “knew he had to overcome this compulsion to tinker endlessly with his sentences.” Wright would often reflect on his father’s snow shoveling advice, evolved as a result of the regular and heavy snowfalls of Midland winters: “Just go through and don’t try to make it perfect. You can widen it later.” He applied this to his editing process over time.
As I came to his third last chapter, “The Age of Longing”, his memoir was beginning to feel like a mystery novel with the ever-mounting tension suggesting that a difficult life experience was imminent. Not so. As it turns out, Wright’s tension was more about what is usually experienced by published novelists who regularly have the “will (I) be able to write another book that the publisher would accept” type of anxiety. Considering this, my admiration for Wright grew after seeing the impressive list of 13 books that he has written to date.
I appreciated his comments following his mother’s death: “After the death of parents we make our own grim calculations; now orphans in middle age we consider, if only briefly, the time remaining to us…” This leads me to the one area of disappointment in Wright’s memoir: I would like to have heard more about this talented man’s emotional and social experiences. We’re not given much understanding of the nature of his family life, or that with friends and colleagues. References to his wife are positive. His wife Phyllis clearly has supported him throughout his career, including moving to different locations and changing occupations from time to time.
But as I write this and re-read some passages, perhaps there is more about his inner life than I realized. When Wright reflects on his own journal comments during his writing process, “… I offer a few random notes from journals, kept under lock and key lest they fall into the wrong hands and my lazy and infrequent observations be revealed for what they are, a perfunctory record of banality…” So apologies, Mr Wright if there is more here than my remarks suggest – and, I would be delighted to know more about you as a husband, friend, or father should a ‘memoir sequel’ be something you consider!
Wright’s closing essay, “What Happens When We Read Stories”, is brilliant. He writes: “Without words we are reduced in our capacity to endure vicissitudes or express our wonder at being alive.” May I express my sincere gratitude to Richard B. Wright for sharing his life’s work to date in this beautifully crafted memoir. He provided me with inspiration and entertainment. I expect it will for others: readers and wannabe-writers alike.
Jennifer Mackie has lived in Guelph for over 40 years, is a business consultant with never enough hobby time for reading, sports, online puzzles and quilting. She reads for entertainment and to discover the world of ‘curious’. Along with finding value in the story, she enjoys experiencing different writer’s styles and methods for how they entice one into their made up worlds.