A new writer for a new year. Louise Ells was studying in the UK while I was living in London. Because I liked her written voice, I invited her to write for Canadian Writers Abroad. And she has. Below is her thoughtful piece on returning to Canada, and on the knotty relationship between writing and life abroad. Her biography and links to her work are at the end of her text. -DM
Home, Yet Not Home by Louise Ells
How had I forgotten that birdsong all but disappears in the winter? And that spring can arrive and then depart in a matter of days – the transition between winter and summer so fleeting that snow boots and flip flops share the entryway mat. How had I forgotten the way groups of retired men gather in Tim Hortons in the early morning, every morning? And the size – the sheer size – of this province?
I was born and raised in northeastern Ontario. After Grade 13 I left for a gap year in London – which turned into seven years spent in the UK, Europe and India. I returned to Canada to go to university, fast-tracked my degree, and then left again, this time for eleven years in the Caribbean, before once again returning to Ontario.
During my most recent time away from Canada (six years in England) I earned a Master’s and then a PhD, both in Creative Writing. For my Master’s I wrote a novel set in a fictionalised version of my once-home of Grand Cayman and a poetry cycle about Hurricane Ivan, and for my PhD I wrote a collection of short stories set in a Canada I believed to be true to life. I learned the term verisimilitude.
Now, living again in the province where I was born, I am surprised on a regular basis by how much this small part of northeastern Ontario is the same as it was when I was a child. (Surprised too, however, by how much has changed since I last lived here: McDonald’s sells decent coffee. The trash – just as much litter along the sides of the roads here as in England. Warmer winters, less snow, fewer mosquitoes than I remember.)
Robert McGill suggests that fiction is “more important than ever as a vehicle for knowing place” (McGill, 9) and I suspect it may be easier for me to see, or to imagine, the places I write about from a physical distance. I have started a new collection, and these stories appear to be set in East Anglia – the Cambridgeshire fens, the Norfolk Coast, the Suffolk Brecks. Home, yet not home. Alice Munro, whose work shaped my doctoral dissertation, has named Eudora Welty as an influence. “Should the writer, then, write about home?” asked Welty. “It is both natural and sensible that the place where we have our roots should become the setting . . . of our fiction. Location, however, is not simply to be used by the writer – it is to be discovered, as each novel itself, in the act of writing, is discovery.” (Welty, 795) Perhaps my writing fiction set in Canada, while I was not there, was a good way for me to discover the place I come from, the landscape that shaped me. If my name is added to the list Debra is compiling with this blog – Atwood, Gallant, Laurence, Robertson – then I am in fine company.
It took me the best part of four decades, and four years spent reading Munro’s work, to understand how deeply my writing voice is rooted in the land where I grew up, and to embrace this as a fundamental part of what makes me the writer I am. Away, over the years, I sometimes found myself homesick, not for Canada exactly, but for an imagined past in Canada, which might have been real in a parallel life. Robert Thacker cites Munro as saying of her return to Ontario from British Columbia that she was “homesick in advance for this life, this place” and suggests her Ontario-set stories were “a sociological rediscovering of ‘home’” (Thacker, 2014).
I miss living in the UK, sometimes so much it becomes a physical ache, but I am here now, in Canada, and some days I would choose to be nowhere else. I think of Alex Colville, whose home was just down the road from my father’s family farm in Nova Scotia: “only by living in a little place for a long time can one build up a sort of extensive body of complex knowledge and understanding of what goes on,” he said. This is my chance to do just that.
Why a PhD in Creative Writing? Debra asked me soon after we started corresponding in 2013. It is a good question. I followed my bliss, I could have said, and that would have been true. I spent four years reading, and staring out windows thinking about the similarities and differences between women’s writing and women writers, and about the reason Munro deleted a comma here, or changed a single word there, and I spent weeks at a time going off on tangents in the name of research. People ask me now, was it worth it? I don’t ask for a definition of “worth.” Am I guaranteed a career as a writer, or as an academic? No. (Currently I work as a secretary.) How long will it take me to pay off the debts I amassed for the privilege of my degrees? A long time, perhaps longer than I have left to earn a living. What did I learn? Ah – now this I can answer.
The four years I spent immersed in Munro’s work and mine confirmed that, although I will continue to write both poetry and novels, it is the short story form where my writing strengths lie. Those years helped me focus on what it is I am trying to accomplish with my fiction, what sort of story I want to write. Reading a selection of contemporary Canadian writers’ work made me question the Canadian canon and work towards a definition of a “Canadian voice” in order to contextualize my own short fiction. The act of creating my collection forced me to consider how Canadian short fiction, beyond Munro’s, informs my work, and forced me to understand my creative choices, and forced me to clarify how to think about my process and how to voice those thoughts.
Reflecting on my collection after I had written it enabled me to see what distinctive features run through my stories and discover recurring patterns which are, not unsurprisingly, mirrored in my own life. Thirteen of my narrators are childless, none by choice (unable to fall pregnant, terminated pregnancies, or outlived their children) and of the three who have children, one is estranged from her only child. It was only after I read the collection as a whole that I realised how frequently a literal hole or gap appears in one of my stories: three holes in the ice for example, as well as more figurative gaps. And so on, and so on, and so on.
I can echo the narrator of my collection’s titular story, “Notes Towards Recovery”: “You never know what you’ll learn over the course of your life.” I have, through writing my dissertation, become a closer reader and more useful critic of my fiction, as well as becoming a teacher and an academic. As my degree progressed, I developed confidence: to use commonplace settings, to leave spaces in the narrative, to write about everyday women. Completing this degree helped me discover my voice. It made me a writer.
Since I moved back to Canada, I have been awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Canada Council Grant. My writing journey continues.
- Colville, A. ‘Home from Away’ viewed 30 November, 2016,
- McGill, R., 2002. ‘Somewhere I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: Alice Munro’s Fiction of Distance,’ The Journal of Commonwealth Literature vol. 37, no. 1. pp. 9 – 29.
- Thacker, 2014. ‘”This Is Not A Story, Only Life’: Wondering with Alice Munro.” Talk given at The Alice Munro Symposium, University of Ottawa. 9, May.
- Welty, E., 1998. Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, and Memoir. New York: Library of America.
Louise Ells grew up in northeastern Ontario, then combined work (chef, roofer, co-pilot on a submarine) with years of travel, including an overland trip from London to Kathmandu. She has a Creative Writing MA (Distinction) from Bath Spa University and a PhD from Anglia Ruskin University. Her doctoral dissertation comprised Notes Towards Recovery, a collection of thematically linked short stories, set in a fictionalized version of Canada, and a critical commentary examining Alice Munro’s revision strategies in Dear Life. Her fiction and poetry have been published in The Masters Review, Harts & Minds, Words And Women: Two, The Cardiff Review, and Open Minds Quarterly, amongst others. Some of her writing can be read here.