Passion and Profundity – John Vaillant’s Inaugural WiR Presentation

“In these unclaimed spaces, you get to know yourself…It’s the hardest and bravest thing you can do.” ? John Vaillant

John Vaillant, AU’s Writer-in-Residence (WiR) for 2016-2017, gave a spellbinding presentation at AU last week. On Thursday, February 2, dozens of AU students, staff, tutors, and others gathered for Vaillant’s presentation at AU’s Edmonton campus, or connected by internet or phone.

Vaillant is the award-winning author of two non-fiction books, The Golden Spruce (2005) and The Tiger (2010), one novel, The Jaguar’s Children (2015), and numerous magazine articles. During his tenure as AU’s WiR, Vaillant is working on his next book, a non-fiction account centred on the devastating 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires.

For his inaugural talk at AU, Vaillant spoke on “Reckoning the present: mediating the tension between the muse and the news.” Although the writing process was a central theme, Vaillant’s topic resonates with anyone who finds the external world threatening to interfere with or overwhelm their internal peace.

For thirty-five minutes, Vaillant invited those present into his “internal drama”—his everyday struggle to control the pull of opposing forces of what’s without and within.

While Vaillant’s twenty years of writing have been fueled by his interest in current events, there’s a point where what’s happening in the world serves to both distract and destruct the creative process.

Vaillant described the need to develop time and space for creativity and to guard it against the onslaught of daily life. Additionally, Vaillant recommended carving out mental space, blank time in which you can “take risks creatively, emotionally, and intellectually.” Creativity is stifled by 24-hour news. People need empty space to fill with their own thoughts. “It’s in these unclaimed spaces,” said Vaillant, “you get to know yourself…It’s one of the hardest and bravest things you can do.”

Ultimately, It’s a constant balancing act, especially for writers like Vaillant whose books are founded on current events. “If I wasn’t engaged with current events,” said Vaillant, “if I didn’t care deeply about the state of the world, I’m not sure what I would be writing about.”

Vaillant put the crowning touch on his talk by setting aside his notes and relating his experience of beauty found in art when, in the militaristic madness that followed 9/11, he found himself immersed in the absorbing exquisiteness of a performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Vaillant swept his AU audience along with him for that beautiful moment when the power of Yo-Yo Ma’s muse became the antidote to the news.

That moment alone made it worth being there.

While I initially thought I was missing out by not attending in person, watching Vaillant’s presentation online actually contributed to an atmosphere of intimacy. The camera’s angle didn’t show any other participants, so for almost forty minutes it was just John talking to me. Being jolted back to the here and now for the lively question period that followed was like having the theatre lights snapped on at the end of a mesmerizing movie.

I found Vaillant’s presentation so relevant for our times, insightful and compelling. So much so that I abandoned note-taking and just listened. Fortunately, AU has already posted a recording of the presentation online, so I was able to watch it-absorb it-again.

We at AU are fortunate indeed to have John Vaillant as our Writer-in-Residence this year. If you missed this presentation, which other audience members are calling “profound”, “thought-provoking”, and “inspiring”, or, like me, want to watch it again, you can access it from AU’s Writer-in-Resident News & Events page.

For information on John Vaillant’s term as AU’s Writer-in-Residence, visit http://writer-in-residence.athabascau.ca.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario.

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