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Heather O’Neill recounts the lessons she learned from her father in Wisdom in Nonsense.

When Montreal author Heather O'Neill delivered last year's CLC Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta, her father loomed large. That day she shared life lessons from the man who raised her after his divorce. 'He was actually really good at that,' O'Neill says in Wisdom in Nonsense, a newly published edition of that lecture. 'He was a little worse at what he regarded as an integral part of parenting: the dispensing of life advice.' Here, in her own words, is one of those 13 lessons for a young Heather.

Lesson 11 | It's the Thought That Counts

My dad used to give me cheques for my birthday. They would be for enormous amounts that dazzled me. Once he gave me a cheque for a hundred dollars. The only thing was that he wouldn't sign them. He said that he didn't have the funds in his account right at the moment, but he would sign it as soon as he did. I collected the cheques in a vinyl wallet in my underwear drawer, certain that one day I would be a millionaire, as they were really adding up.

They represented not what he could give me, but what he wanted to give me.

There was always another less spectacular, unassuming gift as well. One year, he bought me a copy of Anne of Green Gables for my birthday. I don't know why he thought I would like it. Maybe a store owner suggested it to him, or maybe a girlfriend.

I read it and was madly in love with Anne Shirley. I was angry that the book was over. I was upset with her. I thought I would be miserable for the rest of my life now because every girl would fall short, compared to Anne Shirley. I didn't like that other people were able to read Anne of Green Gables. None of the other readers loved her the way I did. I wanted what we had to be exclusive. If she was a real person, she would have had to file a restraining order against me. I reread the book almost immediately after finishing it.

I saw on the back of the book that there were other titles in the collection. I asked my dad if he would buy me the next one. It was rather obnoxious because my birthday had just passed and I was asking for something else. But to my surprise and delight, my father immediately said, "Yes." We took the bus to the bookstore downtown. We found the books on the shelf, and my dad bought not one, but every title in the series. The cashier put all eight books in a paper bag. I carried them in my arms on the way home. I never wanted to be separated from them.

This is one of my loveliest memories. But did he really know what he was getting into? He should have known then that there was something wrong with the way I read. The same way you can tell when there is something wrong with the way someone drinks, say.

Over the next few years, I began to read in a desperate, wild, brave, obsessive manner. People associate reading with doing homework and being good at school. But that's the ordinary kind of reader. That's not the type of reading that I'm talking about. I'm talking about extreme reading. Reading stuff that doesn't make sense, the degenerate intellectuals, the off-Broadway playwrights, German postwar melancholia of inherited guilt, the Edwardian snobs, the treatises on public toilets written by 1960s homosexuals.

I also began writing more and more. Since he couldn't curb my journalling, my dad suggested that I might record his advice and pass it on to others afterwards. Perhaps if I were to write a book it could be called The Pensées of Buddy O'Neill. And that it could be the foundation of a universal school of thought, like Scientology.

But my writing began to be its own monster. My professors were always surprised at my prolific writings, because I just seemed like a white trash girl destined to work at a Dunkin' Donuts and give birth to juvenile delinquents. But I was reading all the time, thinking about any philosophy that I could get my hands on, and interpreting texts. I was developing an odd aesthetic that incorporated my childhood reality and the high art of literary fiction. You might not agree with these analogies, but I was going for this:

  • A cross between Marguerite Duras and a used-car salesman;
  • A mix of Satyricon and a McDonald’s Birthday Party;
  • Isabel Archer as a 1970s Las Vegas underage showgirl;
  • Percy Shelley explaining to a court why he can’t afford child support;
  • Agatha Christie and the paranoid lady on the ground floor who was involved in everyone’s business;
  • Hunter S. Thompson and the little kid on the Big Wheel who went around and around the block with a big attitude;
  • Samuel Beckett and the couple that fought all the time threatening to kill each other then sat down for tea;
  • Jean Rhys if she worked in a peep show booth on St. Laurent Boulevard and when you put a coin in the slot and the door went up, she would be sitting there naked and frowning and not following any of your instructions. And she made you cry;
  • A cross between Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and the cast of The Muppet Show;
  • Lewis Carroll and late-night news anchors who are always laughing when the camera comes back to them;
  • George Bataille and a skipping-rope chant;
  • Vladimir Nabokov and the doll section of the Hudson’s Bay department store;
  • Ralph Ellison and all the lamps my dad took out of the garbage;
  • Words of wisdom from a Bazooka Joe comic and Friedrich Nietzsche;
  • Margaret Atwood and my absent mother.

Although I was clearly leaving my dad behind intellectually, it was he who had given me, in part, the confidence to think of my life as being worthy to mix with those of the geniuses.

From the book Wisdom in Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons from My Father by Heather O'Neill, Copyright © 2018. Reprinted by permission of The University of Alberta Press and Canadian Literature Centre.

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