The art of the unpublished memoir

Personal memoirs open a portal into the obscure passages in a life, touchstones to memories and buried moments inaccessible in any other way. For me, as an obituary writer, the impossible becomes possible. Reading memoirs lets me step inside my subject’s world, guided by this no-longer-living person. I become Dante to his Virgil.

Basil Stuart-Stubbs died May 29th in a Vancouver hospice of pancreatic cancer. He was 82 and lived a life filled with books. He wrote a few of them but mostly he loaned them out or, in gloved hands, lifted spindly, tattered spines and archived them with care.

As the head librarian at the University of British Columbia, Stuart-Stubbs, along with Earle Birney, created the definitive Malcolm Lowry archive, the world’s foremost reference source for research about Lowry.

“Adiós,” she added in Spanish, “I have no house only a shadow. But whenever you are in need of a shadow, my shadow is yours.” (from Under the Volcano)

But the Lowry collection is only a fraction of what this humble gentleman left us with. Canadian authors, in particular, owe him a great debt of gratitude for his huge role in the 1986 Public Lending Rights legislation, compensating Canadian authors for having their works in Canadian public libraries.

This afternoon, while leaning into a gentle, succulent east Toronto breeze as it lifts the curtains above my desk and drains the last moments of an afternoon, I sink into Stuart-Stubb’s words describing his life.

He helped his father stock shelves in a Moncton, New Brunswick general store during the Depression with shoe polish, mustard, bird seed, laundry bluing and antiseptic.

“A sales session was more like a social event,” he wrote, “at the end of which almost as an afterthought, my father would pull out his order pad and jot down the merchant’s requests.”

Later, he and his dad dropped off brass polish to guards at the Dorchester Penitentiary–the massive and foreboding stone castle on the crest of a hill. He loved drinking homemade ginger beer with the deputy warden, playing the player piano, and passing the time in the basement shooting range.

I am always reminded of the gift it is for me to read these tales and then weave them fresh for my readers–such subtle unraveling, the fabric of Canadian history. And my indebtedness, always, goes to the courageous authors of these memoirs.

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About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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