Accidental Activist

You had us from the opening line

We will remember David Hillen for his endless optimism, his never-say-die attitude, and his ongoing message of hope for our embattled core.

By Ben Bull
Published December 14, 2005

A couple of years ago, I decided to do something I'd been meaning to do for years: I decided to write.

It didn't much matter to me if I was any good at it, I just wanted to try it and see. My first piece was a meandering not-so-short story about a bloke's trip to work.

Yeah, I know - 'rush out and buy one' - right? There was no planning involved on my part. No forethought, no careful crafting of the 'arc' - just a blank page and a couple of precious hours with the kids out of the house.

Five thousand words later, I was done.

Now, most writers I know are content simply to stuff their masterpeices in a drawer, where it is safe from criticism forever; but my wife persuaded me to "workshop it".

"What the hell does that mean?" I asked her, stuffing it in a drawer.

"You have to read it to your peers," She said. "Get their feedback."

"Peers? I have peers?" I replied, confused, "It all sounds a bit scary."

I can still remember that musty Summer evening, strolling around the core, looking for the locale - trying not to hyperventilate too much.

As the writers circle kicked off, I was treated to a poem about a songbird, a story about a boy's Christmas, and a satire about spectacles. All of these pieces had one thing in common: they were excellent.

However, to my amazement, all were systematically panned by my 'peers' in the room.

It was merciless! How I cringed when I heard the sweet singing songbird referred to as simply "boring."

How I curled up and died when the quaint little ditty about spectacles was discarded as "a very curious subject to write about"!

As the evening progressed my pitiless peers lobbed their barbs of mass destruction indiscriminately around the room.

Wham! "Your story has no structure."

Blast! "It's way too short."

Ka-Boom! "It's far too long."

Crash! "I've never been so bored."

When it came to my turn I took a deep breath, cleared my throat, and turned to face my executioners.

I gave it all I had. I varied my tone, sped up and slowed down in all the right places, and might have even thrown in the odd accent or two. It was an all out performance!

When it was over I sat back, closed my eyes, and waited for the Fire in the Hole.

But it didn't come. Instead, a gentle looking older man in the corner held up his hand, looked at me sternly, and said, "Ben - You had me from the opening line."

What? I was stunned. Where was the explosion? Where were the hand grenades? My insides coiled and uncoiled and recoiled. Could this really be happening?

Well, not quite. The bullets started flying soon enough.

"You're using too many tricks," said a Writing Prof from Mac.

"You've used too many words," said the not-so-sweet old lady with the poem about the songbird.

"I'm not sure where this is going," said the lady with the glasses.

But I didn't really hear any of that. The only thing I remembered then - and to this day - is that first comment.

It came from David Hillen. David, in case you don't know, was a passionate downtown advocate and frequent Hamilton Spectator columnist.

His column, Living Downtown, was penned with his wife, and those of us who read it will remember it for its endless optimism, its never-say-die attitude, and its ongoing message of hope for our embattled core.

David died a few days ago but his memory, and his dreams for our beloved downtown Hamilton, live on. They live on in the hearts and minds of beleaguered downtown activists everywhere. And they live on here at RTH.

We would never seek to compare ourselves to David.

In many ways he was better man than all of us here at RTH. In every one of his columns, I never once noted a hint of the vicious criticism of our civic leadership - the sort that often finds its way onto our pages.

He was positive man, leading the charge in the best way possible - by example. David's downtown beautification project, 'Cannon-Can', is surely typical of his never-failing optimism and hands-on approach to fixing up the core.

Here's hoping we can all learn something from Mr. Hillen. He will be missed.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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