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Meg Inwood: The Pen

07/09/2013 05:29 EDT | Updated 09/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Ve'ahavta's Creative Writing Contest, in its 13th year, gives homeless men, women, and youth the opportunity to have their voices heard through written works of art. Facilitated preparatory writing workshops have taken place in Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax with thousands of eager participants. Writing entries are evaluated by panel of judges, which have included Tony Blair, Michael Ondaatje, Michael "Pinball" Clemens, and Ron Maclean, among others. Winners are awarded with cash prizes which have the potential to dramatically change their life circumstances. The Creative Writing contest has proven to be a life-changing experience for many -- including contestants, judges, and audience members who will hear live readings of the winning entries at a concluding Coffee House event. This year's event takes place Tuesday, July 9th, 8:00pm at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto (1950 Bathurst Street). What follows is the second place entry written by Meg Inwood.

I stared at the page, then at the pen in my hand. The page was blank. Still. Again. I wanted to write so much I could feel a knot in the pit of my stomach, but I couldn't get to the place inside myself where the words come from. I gave up and flipped the book shut, pushing it to the other side of my kitchen table.

You should be used to it by now, I told myself. It's been over a year. It's not a part of you anymore. It's not as though you're worse off for it. If the biggest problem in your life is that nothing is hurting you enough that you can write about it, you're doing pretty well. I knew all that was true. Still, there were times when, if it meant I could write just one thing the way I'd used to, I would have picked up the pipe and smoked crack again.

I'd been clean for about a year and a half. I'd forgotten what the date of my last blast was, and I was happy about that. If the date wasn't important enough for me to remember anymore, maybe it meant that crack wasn't so important to the person I was trying to become. I liked the new me a lot more than the old me: The new me didn't owe back rent, and even had a bit of money for groceries. The new me always had a pack of cigarettes, and was waiting to be accepted into an academic bridging program that would lead to college. Since I'd started becoming this new person, I'd even started to repair my relationship with my dad, which meant more to me than I'd ever thought it would.

The one thing the new me couldn't do, though, was write. Much as I liked the new me, I felt as though I was missing a hand, or blind in one eye. It had been that way since a few weeks after I'd stopped smoking. That's when I'd been physically recovered enough to realize how much of an emotional mess I was, how confused and scared and conflicted I felt. When I'd sat down to write it out, which had always worked for me before even if the writing wasn't very good, I'd found myself unable to think of a single way to express how I felt. I'd forced myself to put words on paper, but they were bad writing and hadn't helped me in the slightest. In fact, in a way I'd felt worse. It had been the same ever since, and despite the fact that I knew it wasn't likely to change after this long, it hadn't gotten any easier to live with.

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Words were all around me, all the time, when I was a kid. My dad taught high-school English and truly loved the language. He taught me to read when I was four, the same year my mother left and didn't come back. That might have had something to with why books quickly became my favourite things, and reading my favourite activity. Also, reading was something I could do on my own while my dad did his marking after dinner. I would curl up on the sofa with my books and read, but often I'd look over at him, sitting at the dining room table with papers all around him, in the circle of light cast by the ceiling fixture that hung over the table. To me, he looked like he was doing what he'd been born to do. I'd watch him writing and I would feel safe and happy.

It was around that time that I started badgering him to show me how to write as well.

My dad always used the same pen. I asked him about it once, and he told me he'd had it since before I was born. It made soft, precise clicking sounds when he set it on the paper, and it seemed to dance across the page in his hand. I loved that pen and always begged him to let me use it, but he rarely did. When I was still learning how to print, I used to think that using my dad's pen would let me write like him, quickly and easily, like a dance, like magic. I would tell myself that when I grew up, I'd have a pen like that.

Now I was grown up, though, and I knew better. Even if I had a magic pen that danced in my hand, I'd still be looking at a blank page.

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The envelope had the college's name and motto in the top left-hand corner. I was so nervous I wasn't sure if I'd be able to open it, even though I knew I had no real reason to be. I fit all the admission requirements, but still...

Academic bridging exists for people like you! I said to myself. At the very least, they need enough warm bodies to fill a class. I swallowed, trying to dispel the large heavy object that had suddenly taken up residence in my gut. I got a finger under the edge of the flap and ripped, then pulled the pages out.

Multiple pages ̶ a good sign! I relaxed enough to realize how shaky I was. I unfolded the pages and found one with the college's letterhead at the top, then started skimming. I caught the words pleased to offer...beginning September 7th...The object in my gut disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived, leaving me feeling hollow in the best possible way. I sat there for a minute, staring at the letter, staring at my hands. When they stopped trembling, I got up to call my dad.

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"I'm proud of you," he said to me. We were just finishing up the dinner he'd invited me over to share with him, as a way of celebrating. I was happy to see him, but not quite so thrilled about the food. I love my dad, but 20 years of bachelorhood have yet to teach him how to cook.

"Don't be proud yet, Dad. I haven't even started the course." I wanted him to be proud of me, but not until I was done the program. What if I messed up in the middle somehow? I'd disappointed him enough since I'd left home.

"Not so much for getting in," he told me, "though I'm proud of you for that too. No, I meant for applying in the first place, for getting to a place in your life where you could do something like this. I wasn't sure, a few years ago, if you were going to get to this point so soon, or..." he trailed off, but I heard the "at all" he'd stopped himself from saying. I guessed he was trying to spare my feelings, which I couldn't help thinking was funny. I certainly hadn't thought I'd get to this place in my life a few years before! I almost laughed, but stopped myself. He was trying to show me that he had faith in me now, and I didn't want him to think I was laughing at that.

"I know. It's okay...I mean, thank you," I was getting flustered. Even after almost a year of being back in touch, there were times when we were awkward with each other. I hoped that would get better with time; I didn't want to feel weird around him. After all, he's the only parent I have.

"Don't thank me yet." Now he seemed to be nervous. "I have something for you. A congratulatory gift, let's call it." He went into the living room and came back with a slim little gift-wrapped box. He handed it to me, looking diffident.

"You didn't have to do this. But thank you." I was already unfolding my pocketknife to cut through the three feet of tape I knew he would have used to wrap even something as small as this. "You still can't wrap a present to save your life, you kn--"

I'd gotten the wrapping cleared away, revealing a plastic case whose top lifted off. As I opened it, my jaw literally dropped. Sitting nestled in the case was my dad's pen.

I looked back and forth between the open case and his shirt pocket, from which the top of an identical pen was protruding. I didn't get it, and my face must have made it obvious.

"I bought a new one this afternoon and put my old one in the case," he explained. "I'd always planned to give it to you when you left home to go to school but...well, when you left, I wasn't sure if you'd be able to hang on to it, and I didn't want it to get lost."

"You're right, I would have lost it. And it's not like I left home to start school, either," I pointed out.

"There's that, too. Anyway, I kept the new one because I still need it to grade essays, but if you'd rather switch them back, we can do that. I just thought, everyone needs a good pen that's easy to use if they're in a lecture class, and...oof!" He was babbling, which I didn't mind, but I cut off whatever else he'd been going to say by going around the dining room table and hugging him until I felt his ribs creak.

"You know perfectly well I've always wanted this pen," I said softly.

"Well...maybe. But I wasn't sure." He pushed back his chair and looked up at me. "Look, Little Bit, let's clear these dishes away and go out to get some dessert." My dad hadn't called me that since I was 12 years old and had informed him that I was too big to be a "Little anything" anymore. I looked away for a second, putting his pen -- my pen -- back in its case. I slipped it into my purse, which was hanging on the back of my chair, and reached for his plate. By the time I looked up again, the tears were out of my eyes and only the smile was left on my face.

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It was late when we got back. It was a two-hour trip home by bus at this time of night, and I didn't want to keep my dad up too late by asking him to give me a ride. He doesn't function at all if he doesn't get his eight hours' sleep at night. I cleared my throat.

"Look, Dad, do you mind if I stay here tonight? If you have enough time in the morning, maybe you can drop me at the subway on your way into work." He nodded, and I went on, "Just grab me a blanket and pillow, and I'll curl up on the sofa." He wanted to make up my bed, but I told him to go up and sleep.

Alone downstairs, I sat on the sofa and looked into the dining room. The light was still on, casting a pool of light onto the table, perfect and golden. My fingers were aching, wanting to curl around the pen. I got up and fished my writing book out of my purse. I'd never stopped carrying it with me, even though it seemed to be laughing at me sometimes. I got the pen case out too, then went over and sat at the dining room table. I looked at the page. It was blank. After all, I said to myself, the worst that can happen is that it will stay blank. I thought about staring at a blank page, time after time. At the very least, maybe I could write about that.

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The pen danced in my hand, moved quickly and easily. I barely heard the soft clicking noises it made as I lifted it to form another word, another sentence. I wrote for hours without feeling a cramp in my fingers. Maybe the pen was magic, after all.

When my dad came downstairs early in the morning, he found me at the dining room table, asleep in the pool of light. I had pillowed my head on my arm, and under my arm was my book. Pages and pages of it were covered in writing. They were covered with the words of this story.

Read the third place entry here. For more information about Ve'ahavta please visit us at www.veahavta.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter

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