I have been thinking recently that there is something missing in a lot of our cultural products these days. While there is passion and drive in a lot of what we read and view, there seems to be a level of dedication to craft something for people to ponder and reflect over. This thought really became apparent to me when I learned of the passing of William Whitehead. “Bill” had been a small fixture to many of cultural items I remember from my youth – from the number of Nature of Things documentaries he wrote for to being loving partner to noted Canadian writer Timothy Findley. And his 2012 biography Words to Live By documented his dedication to his crafts and his loves.
Blurb – Back dustjacket
So – who is William Whitehead?
You probably know who Timothy Findley was – an internationally renowned writer know to friends and family by the initials of his full name: Timothy Irving Frederick Findley – Tiff. And if you ever attended one of his public appearances – a reading, a talk, a book signing – you may have noticed someone hovering nearby: someone tall, with a big smile, brown hair and eyes, carrying a bit too much weight and wearing a pen on a cord around his neck.
That was me.
While I had the pleasure of meeting Bill a few years ago, I had often seen him at Findley’s public events always giving a hand or a nudge when needed. But his dedication to life in general shone through in biography. Yes, he was “the guy” in Findley’s life but when I read his book, I realized how many documentaries and shows I had witnessed that Bill had been involved with. His work had influenced me, even when I never even noticed his name on the credits.
Words and Pictures – Page 179
Another of the writer’s jobs was to devise a title, something I enjoyed. For a Nature of Things on the relationship of bodily fluids to the salt was from which we evolved, I suggested “Blood, Sea and Tears.” For a series on the uncertainties of youth employment” “Future Tense.” Once, when I was asked to write a script for a short film on the creation of soundtracks for dramatic films, I turned the job down, telling the producer that his documentary didn’t need a script. He was appalled. “But how will the audience be able to understand what’s going on?” I explained. Most of the film was split screen – half showing the dramatic action and half displaying the sound man creating the final soundtrack: coconut shells on sawdust-filled pads for hoof beats, smashing a cabbage onto a table for a blow to the head, etc. Then I said, “Look. Instead of hiring me to write a script, how would it be if I simply gave you a title and a subtitle, free of charge?” He was puzzled, until I told him what I had in mind: Track Stars: The Unseen Heroes of Movie Sound.
The unscripted film won a nice award – and certainly not because of the title alone. It was a good piece of work.
But, of course, Bill was involved with Findley and played an important role in his life and his work. In this book, Bill documented his relationship well, talking about the good times and the bad. More importantly he showed us that love – not matter who that person is – must be endured, and the reward for that endurance is a trust and companionship that comforts our existence through this life.
Words To Die For – Pages 214 – 215
As every successful writer knows, he is expected to do much more than just write the words. He must also help to sell them. this means weeks on the road, or on the water or in the air – living in hotels, rushing from interview to interview, often sacrificing lunch or – even worse -trying to answer an interviewer’s questions while also trying to take in some food.
The wors book tour for Tiff was in 1990, for Inside Memory. Nine solid weeks, with only one day free of travel or publicity work. Tiff had to go to an emergency ward in Halifax to deal with exhaustion and the flu. By the time we reached Vancouver, he was again close to collapse. At that emergency ward, the doctor – seeing me – suspected AIDS. While the blood test was being analyzed, he directed us to stand by in the waiting room. When he appeared, he looked grimly at Tiff – and suggested that it might be a good idea if I came along as well. This immediately signalled to us that what we were about to hear was dire.
It wasn’t. the results of the test were negative. Tiff could see that I was ready to explode with accusations centring on “Then why the hell did your attitude imply the reverse!” And he hurried us out of the room.
I began to wonder, though – were Tiff’s beloved words slowly killing him?
Bill has had a rich life in which he created – directly or indirectly – some wonderful items for many of us to enjoy and learn from. There is a dedication he gave to his existence that was both light-hearted yet engrossing that feels unique and somehow missing from others as we regard their biographies.
Words To Die For – Page 247
Will there be sun for me tomorrow?
I hope so. I’ve had the most wonderful life. Glorious people, fabulous place and more love and laughter than can be imagined. It’s hard to express how grateful I am for my life: grateful for everything, but not grateful to anything. I’ve never felt the need to imagine some all-powerful being who is responsible for creating everything I know and love. Many have been imagined. I view the various divinities that are worshipped in different ways by different groups, the various eternal paradises that are promised, as wishful thinking. I hope that all such worshipper will allow me to find my own way out of this life in much the same way I found my way into it: innocent of knowledge about how, where, when and why everything I know came into being.
I had shared the news of Bill’s passing on a few social-media fronts and there were many comments back of sadness and discussion threads about his life. But his autobiography is a testament of his life and his unique contributions to lives and loves around him. I encourage people to read William Whitehead’s Words To Live By and to consider and cherish his existence. As I cherish his book on my bookshelf.