The other day, while making Christmas cakes, I heard a radio interview with Inuit writer and storyteller Michael Kusugak. Michael’s story Baseball Bats for Christmas remains one of my favorite seasonal books. Feeling dyspeptic with the mallification of the winter celebration? Listen to seven-year-old Arvaarluk’s description of Christmas in Repulse Bay on the Arctic Circle: “Christmas was a time when you took your most favourite thing and gave it to your very best friend.”
I’m sorry to mention the “C” word when it is not even December yet, and that’s not really what I’m musing about. Really, I’m musing about experience, imagination, and research. Michael said something about wind that made me pause over my mixed peel. He was remembering being a kid, out hunting with his family, sleeping in an igloo. He said that it was completely quiet, even if there was a blizzard outside, because with the round shape of the igloo, “there was nothing to catch the wind.” He went on to say that when he grew up and went south and watched movies set in the north and he heard the wind whistling and howling he was mystified, wondering “where does that noise come from?” In a world without trees and high-tension wires there is nothing for the wind to howl against. The movie makers got that wrong.
When we write about things we have not experienced we imagine and we research. A detail like this, the silent igloo, can make us feel intimidated. It is the questions that we did not think to ask that can trip us up. British writer Gillian Cross has a funny piece about this in which she tries to get a child character to go out and play in 1842 but she can’t seem to get him dressed or speaking. “How could I advance my characters a step if I had to check for Historical Correctness at the end of every sentence?” We can certainly be paralyzed by such considerations. But there’s another side to this. What about that wind that encounters no resistance? What about a wild but silent storm? What about a place that is quieter than we have ever experienced? Does this idea, this small accuracy about the real world, give your story-making instincts a nudge? As usual, anything we find out about, anything, is potential material and the aspects to our job that are the most intimidating are simultaneously the most inspiring.
Here’s the whole interview: (Tune in just to hear Michael tell, in Inuktitut, the world’s shortest story. Inuktitut is a lovely language to listen to, with a kind of chiff on the edges of the consonants.) http://www.cbc.ca/nxnw/featured-guests/2011/11/13/michael-kusugak/
– Sarah Ellis