A Certain Faith: A Letter to Carol Shields

Dear Carol,

You left us thirteen years ago, which means you might be the most contemporary person I write to. Your children and grandchildren are alive and your voice is still very present in Canadian literature. This makes me a little nervous, the way I would feel writing to someone still alive. From all accounts, you were very supportive of writers; in fact, you have just released a new book of advice on writing, edited by your daughter, Anne Giardini, and grandson, Nicholas Giardini. It is just weeks old, so I have not read it yet. There has been lots of nice press about it, though, so it got me thinking about you.

The title of your new book is ‘Startle and Illuminate’, a good title, and interesting because you have another book with a similar title: ‘Random Illuminations: Conversations with Carol Shields’ by your friend Eleanor Watchel. Perhaps this comes from a phrase you used, or a mindset you had – I don’t really know. But illuminate is exactly what your stories do.


“This is why I read books: to feel that my experiences have relevance,” you said in an interview once, and it is exactly how I feel.

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I started reading you in my late teens. I think I was prowling through my aunt’s extensive bookcase and came upon ‘The Republic of Love’. That was it. It seemed oddly novel to read a love story set in a Canadian city, now, here. I guess I was still in the age where I thought everything good was old, but I knew who you were. I knew that there were some really cool Canadian ladies just tearing up the worldwide literary scene, and you were on top of the pack, so I read your book.

I’ve read it four times.

I’ve read ‘Larry’s Party’ and ‘The Stone Diaries’ twice.

This is not for lack of access to books. This is because of your incredible superpower: writing the inner life of real people. It is so beautifully compelling.


You work is about real people, real lives, real moments between extraordinary ones. Reading your work, I was aware that this was the sort of thing I wanted to write. I saw such value in exploring people’s lives and relationships and inner workings.

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From what I can tell, you have been more receptive to and respectful of the writing process than anyone I can think of. You had the inclination to write from a young age, you were noticed for it. In ‘Random Illuminations’ you tell Eleanor Watchel “Even though in my high school yearbook I was the one who was going to write the novel, I never believed that for a minute. I’d never met a writer; it just seemed like too difficult a thing to be.” This doesn’t seem to come from fear or self-doubt – I think you were just too sensible to want to be a writer. You went to university and met the man who would become your husband. “When she first met him, my mother mentioned to my husband, Don, ‘I hope you’re going to encourage Carol to keep writing.’ Don looked blank. We were engaged to be married, and I had never mentioned to him that I had done any writing.” You wanted a home and children. You were a 1950’s housewife. You were a perfect product of the society you were raised in.

The urge resurfaced though, didn’t it? You took a writing course even with two small children. You started to write, slowly, a story a year, then poems for a while. And then, novels. You had five kids and you wrote for an hour at a time, two pages a day, no matter what, and in nine months you had a novel (interesting, this gestational timeframe!).


I’m sure you had troubles. I’m sure you got stuck. Maybe it is that when you speak of your writing there is no driving ego in your voice, no drama, no defense. You sound warm, cheerful, intelligent. You talk about writing like, well, like it’s your job. Because it was, eventually. Maybe the problem with so many of us is that we think our writing is this sacred centre, a gold nugget inside of us that we protect fiercely. You were not precious about your work. You were curious, analytical, serious. You worked in bursts when you could, when it was there. It doesn’t sound like you had any particular ambition. (Though you still managed to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Governor General’s award for the same book…)

Your work affirms that what I want to write is valid. Sometimes I worry: ‘Oh yes, what the world really needs is another story about a white, middle-class woman’s struggles with whatever streak I am on that day, and yet you have shown how these stories, these intimate glimpses into ordinary life can be beautiful and powerful – illuminating. We need those stories. I needed yours.

Your books tend to have sub-layers, a thread that moves through the story, whatever the characters are obsessed with: Fay’s study of mermaids in The Republic of Love, the stone carving in The Stone Dairies, and the construction of mazes in Larry’s Party. As I reflect on you, and consider your work as a whole, they all work as beautiful metaphors for the writing process. The sea-deep mystery of mermaids – their unknowability, their elusiveness. The digging, the focused etching of stone carving. And, my favourite, the mazes. There is an entrance, a disorienting, sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating journey through to the exit. You can’t rush a maze. You should move through placidly, methodically. It is unproductive to panic. You move through a few steps at a time. You reach a dead end, you retrace your steps, and try another way.

You summarize this process so succinctly in this interview:

“I don’t know the whole plot. Sometimes I know where I want to go. I just don’t know how I’m going to get there. And this can be frightening for a writer, although, after a point, you develop a certain faith in your process, and you know you’ll hit those hard times, but you know somehow you’re going to work it out as you go.”

I’m starting to see that discipline is a certain kind of faith. We are all building our own mazes, getting lost, and finding our way out, whether in our writings or in our lives.
I am so looking forward to your new book.

xo L


Get ‘Startle and Illuminate’ here.

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