by Diane Schoemperlen
First Things First is a collection of early short stories by Schoemperlen, published from the mid-’70s––while studying English at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University––up to the early ’90s. This wide breadth of publication gives a reader a bird’s-eye-view of the evolution of an author. And this isn’t to suggest the writing’s poor early on. Even at the start of her writing career, Schoemperlen was intensely observant, she understood the power of strong imagery, she had a firm enough grasp on the human condition in order to write believable characters, and she was consistently innovative with the short story form. The clear evolution has more to do with the author’s confidence, which is understandable, as it takes both significant skill and experience to be self-assured with one’s own writing. This tends to present in Schoemperlen’s work as what feels like a forcing of profundity, really working hard to hit a memorable phrase or something that makes the reader stop and think, which looks, to me, like a fledgling author trying desperately to prove herself––which also makes sense in the context of her discussion in the preface. As we go, this quality slowly disappears, greatly improving later work as a result.
I struggle with how to reconcile my feelings for a book like First Things First well enough to write a coherent review. There’s a wide margin from story to story with regards to creative features that work and don’t work, with stories I absolutely love, those I dislike tremendously, and some that just leave me lukewarm. I can suggest that Schoemperlen remained inventive throughout, but it didn’t always work out in the end. On one hand, originality, in my mind, is commendable in its own right; on the other hand, how strongly should I count this as a positive feature if I didn’t feel that the end result always came together well? I suppose I enjoyed most of the later stories, so we ended on the right foot, but I can’t discount the fact that I had difficulty getting into the earlier work. (I very honestly found myself with a sudden desire to get caught up with my pharmacy reading instead; QT-prolongation has never before seemed so interesting.)
I kind of wish this wasn’t my first foray into Schoemperlen’s work, as it would likely be much more interesting to study her writing evolution from the perspective of a fan of her popular or award-winning work. That said, the fact that it was observable to an outsider is still somehow encouraging to me as an amateur author: Maybe there’s hope for me yet.