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Margaret Laurence’s Problems – And How She Wrote Books Anyway

Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence’s problems didn’t stop her from writing great books — literature studied in universities. Here’s what Laurence struggled with, and how she wrote books anyway.

“Although I had some ideas about what happened during the years after [Margaret Laurence] was diagnosed with cancer,” says biographer James King, author of The Life Of Margaret Laurence, “I was still quite flabbergasted with the news of her suicide.”

I didn’t know how Laurence died until today, for two reasons. One, it was widely reported that she died of lung cancer. Two, I always got her mixed up with the great Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who is alive and well (I hope!). The stigma of suicide shouldn’t overshadow Laurence’s amazing writing career and accomplishments — and it won’t if we speak about it openly and honestly.

May Margaret Laurence rest in peace, and may we learn from her experiences and writing journey…

Margaret Laurence’s Problems

Childhood losses. Laurence’s mother died when she was four, her father died when she was nine, and her half-brother died when he was two.

Insecurity about writing. In Dance on the Earth: A Memoir, Laurence speaks of her sense of not being able to write, and describes the importance of discovering themes she really wanted to write about. Biographer James King says the biggest revelation in his biography about Margaret Laurence is not her suicide, but about how much she suffered and how insecure she was. “I think it shocks people that someone can be so famous yet so unhappy,” he says.

Rocky relationships with other writers. King says that Laurence’s friendship with Margaret Atwood was ruptured because Laurence felt rivalry with the younger writer. Laurence also resented that Atwood had phoned her daughter about Laurence’s drinking.

Cancer diagnosis. In  1986, Laurence was diagnosed with lung cancer. According to The Life Of Margaret Laurence, the prognosis was grave because the cancer had spread to other organs. There was no treatment offered beyond palliative care. Perhaps to spare herself and her family further suffering, Laurence ended her life at her home in Lakefield, Ontario, on January 5, 1987. She was buried in her hometown in the Neepawa Cemetery in Manitoba.

“Laurence was a tangled mess of contradictions: single-minded and tough-rooted, yet a trembling leaf vulnerable and hypersensitive,” writes Canadian author Fraser Sutherland. “She had the old-fashioned notion that fiction tells a higher truth, imparting wisdom. That penchant for the spiritual sometimes warred with an intense physicality so that, with fatal results, she could not bear the disintegration of her own body. Her self-image, fully justified, was that of an intensely moral person, which is why the attempt of Christian fundamentalists to keep The Diviners from reaching the tender eyes of Lakefield teenagers shook her to the core.”

How Did Margaret Laurence Write Books Anyway?

Laurence authored six novels, a travel book, a collection of short stories, a book of connected stories, a literary survey, four children’s books, and a memoir, and compiled an anthology. Her books include The Stone Angel, The Diviners, and The Fire-Dwellers.  Some of these books are studied in universities; many are used in Canadian high school English classes.

Laurence found the right balance. “I’ve never been able to force a novel,” she wrote in Dance on the Earth: A Memoir. “I always had the sense something being given to me. You can’t sit around and wait until inspiration strikes, but neither can you force into being something that isn’t there.” Writing inspiration needs to be actively coaxed, I think.

She used writing to cope. “[Writing] was the consistent way in which she had coped creatively with the losses she had endured as a young child — it allowed her to mother herself,” he says. “She could not deal with the loss of her husband in the same way and…she sought the comforts of alcoholic oblivion on a daily basis.”

Laurence was inspired. “Amazingly, the gift was given to me once again,” writes Laurence in Dance on the Earth. “One morning, in the spring of 1971, I woke up with a thought in my mind. I took a notebook out to the lawn and began to write a novel that I knew even then would be called The Diviners. It felt as though I had been waiting for it, and it had been waiting for me. I couldn’t write it fast enough.”

Despite her problems, Margaret Laurence wrote books that are being studied today. If she can do it…why can’t we?

Fellow scribes, what have you learned from this glimpse into Margaret Laurence’s writing career? I welcome your thoughts below.

Partial Source: Reconstructing Margaret Laurence.

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