Paul Willcocks: Our lives and our stories matter

I spent a lot of last year immersed in someone else’s life. Jo Manning, a celebrated artist who now lives in James Bay, had written her second book, a memoir. I had the good fortune to edit Etched in Time, as it came to be called.

Journalists — if they’re any good — soon learn that everyone’s life is interesting.

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But Manning’s was more interesting than most. She was born in Sidney in 1923. Her father, a doctor, never really escaped the horrors of battlefield surgery in the muddy trenches in First World War France. Her mother, Jo wrote, was “a tall, thin, unhappy woman, with long, dark hair worn in a bun.”

It wasn’t an easy childhood. But whose is?

Then came high school and escape to the Ontario College of Art during the Second World War, with instructors including the Group of Seven’s Frank Carmichael, who believed women were not real artists, and female students were filling time until they married. A marriage to a man with his own demons, children and finding a path to a career in art as an acclaimed printmaker, with works in the National Gallery of Canada and an international reputation.

And a second, happier marriage and a new chapter in the Ontario countryside and then here in Victoria.

Manning is a strong writer and keen observer, and at times her life feels like something from a John Irving novel.

But people’s stories — your stories — are compelling.

Especially when they begin to write them down. A paragraph about high school triggers a memory of a class, a moment, a friend. That brings back details — the music you listened to that summer, the good and bad things that happened. And on the process goes.

Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov titled a memoir, and that is what happens once you start writing about your life experiences.

Our stories are bigger than ourselves. Future generations will have lots of sources for our official history — unemployment rates, laws, governments, wars that were fought.

But to understand the way people experienced that history, they need our stories.

Manning is of my parents’ generation, not far removed from my life experience chronologically. I suppose I knew, in a theoretical way, how different Canada was.

But that’s not the same as reading one woman’s experiences of those differences — the near impossibility of divorce in 1960s Canada, the barriers set up for women, and the ways they went over or around them.

Our stories don’t just tell about our lives. They tell about our times. Manning writes about a summer waitressing — badly — at the Muskoka Lodge, north of Toronto, where Lorne Greene and Lou Jacobi provided the evening entertainment.

The lodge, she notes, catered to the Toronto Jewish community unwelcome at other resorts.

You might not want to publish a book. But you can write a few pages about something in your life. Your first job, a good or bad day as a child, a friend, a funny story.

Those few pages might lead to more. Or they might not.

But either way, you have captured something of your life and shed some light on the times you lived in. You can leave it in a drawer or share it with family or friends or tuck it away to be read when you aren’t around anymore.

Etched in Time reminded me how much our lives and our stories matter.


Etched in Time is available through Amazon, Chapters/Indigo online and at Your local bookstore can order it for you, or you can buy a copy at the book launch at 2 p.m. on March 30 at Amicus Douglas House, 50 Douglas St.

Paul Willcocks is a former Times Colonist publisher and editorial writer.

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