Miriam Toews' Convocation Address

I’m a novelist. I write fiction. And so I’d like to tell you a story of my time here at King’s, which was way back in 1990/91. I’ll tell you this story because there were two very important things that I learned during my time here and I’d like to share them with you.

I was twenty five years old and had moved here from Winnipeg with my partner and our kids who were three years old and three months old. The plan was that I’d do a one year degree program in journalism, which I did, but not without a struggle. I was so nervous in the first term. Just to convey to you exactly how nervous I was: There was a banner over the entrance to J school that read A DEADLINE IS NOT A SUGGESTION and it literally scared the crap out of me. Every morning I’d say goodbye to my family and make the long walk from North Halifax to King’s. As I walked my stomach would twist itself into knots and I’d have to run into this little grocery store on the other side of the commons and ask to use the bathroom. The woman who ran the store didn’t speak much english and I spoke none of her language but over time we developed an unspoken arrangement. She seemed to understand my anxiety and my need to use her washroom, which wasn’t technically available for customers, every morning on my way to school.

At one point in the school year we were so broke we couldn’t pay our electricity bill. I had casually mentioned this to a classmate of mine and he told me that there was a fund at King’s that existed to help poor students out. It wasn’t a lot of money but it was there. I couldn’t believe it. I went to the secretary and explained my dilemma and she said okay, how much is the bill? I told her what it was, about a hundred bucks, and the next day she had a cheque, or maybe cash, I can’t remember, and we paid our bill. I learned that not all institutions are created equal. That it is possible to get help when you need it, when you ask for it, no strings attached. Thank you, King’s, for your trust and compassion. The second vitally important thing I learned at King’s I learned from a professor of mine named Ian Wiseman. Tall, thin, bald, passionate about the truth, laid back, and often laughing. He was a poet and he brought that sensibility of economy and precision to the task of journalism. He was my radio and television professor and he taught me more about the art of narrative than anyone has since. I had a habit of embellishing my non-fiction stories, my assignments here at King’s, of adding details that weren’t necessarily “factual” but that enhanced the story, that made it better and, at least in my opinion, more interesting. Ian Wiseman was the first person (besides my parents, but they were my parents…) to tell me that I was a good writer. He liked my stories! He appreciated them and they made him laugh. He did try to encourage me to keep things as factual as I could, this was journalism after all, but he really knew I couldn’t help embellishing and tweaking. He understood me.

I should mention, too, that he never minded when I occasionally brought my kids to class if I couldn’t find a sitter, or even on assignment with me. I did a number of interviews with a microphone in one hand a baby in the other and a three year old running around me in circles. It worked out. You do what you have to do.

As the year progressed it became pretty obvious that I lacked the hustle and drive required to be a journalist. I wasn’t that hungry for the facts. I didn’t have a burning desire for the straight goods. I just wanted to create better dialogue for the people I interviewed and give their stories some narrative arc, maybe throw in some metaphors, develop one central character, toss in a goofy tic, or a tragedy. I wanted to make up shit, which is the technical term for what we novelists do. The year went on and so did my struggles.

One day, towards the end of the term, Ian Wiseman stopped me in the hall. You know, Miriam, he said, if you want to be a journalist then that’s what you should be. I thanked him. And then he said, but you know what you should really do? And then he gave me the best, the most insightful, the most valuable advice I have ever received in my life: Miriam, he said, when you finish your year here, and you’ve done well, you really have, you should go home to your ramshackle house in Winnipeg, hang out with your kids, and write fiction.

Ian Wiseman had, in that moment, saved my life. He had understood what I needed to do with my life before I had really known myself. I followed his advice to the letter. I went home to Winnipeg and for the next twenty years I hung out with my kids and wrote fiction. I wish Ian Wiseman was here to see me get this today because he’d laugh his head off and he’d also be proud. Sadly, Ian died from the effects of Multiple Sclerosis several years after saving my life with his sage advice.

Thanks, King’s, for your help when I was down and out and thanks to the grocer who let me use her employees only washroom every morning on my way to King’s, and thanks, Ian Wiseman, for your wisdom and insight and for getting me started on my career, that has led me back to King’s today. Congratulations again to all of you graduates. I hope that your time here at King’s has been as important to you as mine was to me. Have fun celebrating today and my very best to all of you in the days and years to come.