A.J.B. Johnston will be in Halifax speaking to the Probus Club on May 21 at 10 am, talking about his latest book, Grand Pré, Landscape for the World (Nimbus Publishing), co-written with Ronnie-Gilles LeBlanc.
I might never have become a writer if it hadn't been for the fact that at the age of barely thirteen, I found myself in a grade eight classroom in Calgary, speaking only German. Between culture shock and fear of failure, I learned English so fast it took even my teachers by surprise. But it left me with a life long feeling of language inferiority, so I became obsessed with writing. At Simon Fraser University, I earned a BA in English, read prodigiously, and eventually became the ESL teacher I had so desperately needed and never got.
The ESL teaching phase lasted about seven years, which is about as long as I can stand doing the same thing. Before that I was writing in house copy for a large high technology company and was called a 'communications manager'. I also spent another seven years working, make that hanging on with bared teeth, as a freelance journalist. I wrote on health, the arts and education for community newspapers and magazines in Vancouver and continued to write on technical subjects for a high tech magazine. I was finally learning to master my second native tongue. To pay the bills, I became rather good at writing market research reports for a Vancouver company.
As I got older I became interested in Memoir and Biography, and developed a course for people who want to tackle memoir writing. Eventually, in 2008, I actually wrote a well received biography on a Vancouver sculptor, The Life and Art of David Marshall, the first in a series of The Unheralded Artists of BC, published by www.mothertonguepublishing.com. I also started doing more editing and amusing myself with writing a blog, firstname.lastname@example.org. My requisite 10,000 hours of writing are now complete; I am working on the next 10,000.
My love of biography continues as I am editing a fascinating book written by my father in law, who witnessed one of the most horrendous and nearly forgotten episodes of the second world war. My son has translated this riveting story of how the Russians invaded and destroyed what was once a great East Prussion city, Koenigsberg, and committed genocide on over two million innocent civilians. It's a story that hasn't been told and I am happy that I have the skills to help bring this historic event to light.
Writing in one's first or second language is never easy, but it is at the very heart of any civilized society; as long as we value clear, honest, truthful writing, we are fine. If we forget this, if we fall victim to propaganda, elision and official lies, we are lost. In today's complicated world of competing propaganda messages, we might all want to re-read Orwell's 1984. It could still happen.