Nothing Venture 1

One problem I’ve run across in my writing career is picking a compelling enough topic that readers are drawn to it. The other requirement is that the topic should be compelling to the writer, so that all the writing and rewriting is done. It’s not as easy a conjunction as one might think, and  seems to be more important when writing on a topic that is close to a  contemporary issue. The issue needs to be big enough to attract readers, or if considered minor, the treatment has to be compelling enough that readers are brought to regard the work itself highly.

I might call this the Anna Karenina syndrome. The issue of infidelity in aristocratic society was the 19th century’s equivalent of soap opera, and not in itself sufficient to raise a novel above the commonplace. Even the suicide by throwing ones self in front of a train was nothing extraordinary in those times (1877). Tolstoy’s novel excelled because of the genius of the writing.

We are not all given to be Tolstoys, and sometimes it can take awhile before we act accordingly.
I fondly hoped that when I came to write the contemporary novel that fictionalized an actual endeavour I participated in, my writing and the topic would work together to produce something  significant. At least, I should have hoped for this, because nothing less would make the project worthwhile. As I look back, however, I don’t see myself understanding this, and consequently set myself up for failure. But I had better tell you about the action that produced the idea of the book.

In 1972, Imperial Oil, a division of Exxon (then called Esso), announced the closure of four oil refineries across Western Canada and the consolidation of production at a new refinery to be built in Edmonton. To keep the older refineries running while they took away the people they wanted to operate the new one, they hired what they called ‘term employees’ who would take their places until closure day. These people would not enjoy the same benefits as the regular workers in Imperial Oil’s operations, but would have an accelerated career in refinery operations for almost three years.

As a condition of employment it could be considered justifiable, and I was one of the people who applied. I mention that at the time I had been married only two years and had been working almost exclusively in the Arctic Islands on a schedule that saw me away much more than at home. The home front demanded I exchange the Arctic for something close to home. Refinery work is shift work, but at least I’d sleep in my own bed for three nights out of every four.

The term employees were all younger men who had a technical background and all were able after a month or so training to fill in a shift slot as a junior operator – able to run out of the control room at the request of a unit operator to check on or rectify a problem that showed up on the control panel. We also had to fit into the work patterns long established before us, and turn a deaf ear to all the older men – too close to retirement for transfer to the new refinery – who had taken years to advance to the positions we were hired to fill. This was also the first employment I’d had that was unionized and I decided that I should join to see how things worked out in practice.

Quite soon, I joined those who had a concern that not all the longer term employees were getting the early retirement benefits they were entitled to. There were a number of other issues about the company letting some things slide because the place was supposed to close down in a couple of years. But the topic that I felt most concerned about was the refinery itself. The Calgary Refinery was not the old, decrepit piece of junk that the company’s propaganda would have the public believe. The bulk of the units at the time were, at 20 years vintage, the newest in operation in Canada. It seemed such a waste that the plant should be scrapped while other companies existed that could find business reasons to keep it running. Our first plan was to picket an upcoming Western Canada development conference soon to be held in Calgary – and next time I’ll tell you what transpired.


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One Response to “Nothing Venture 1”

  1. joylene Says:

    Looking forward to your next post, Chris. It’s a good thing that you’re chronicling these escapades. Fascinating, seeing into the mind of a writer.

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