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2016 Lecture of a Lifetime focuses on the power of storytelling

Aritha van Herk delivers poignant talk for University of Calgary’s 50th anniversary year

University of Calgary English professor Aritha van Herk delivered a rousing talk about the power of stories at the 2016 Lecture of a Lifetime, a prestigous annual event at the university. Photo by Adrian Shellard

By Heath McCoy
May 3, 2016

“The story is never finished.” That is, perhaps, both the greatest and most surprising lesson about storytelling that author Aritha van Herk has learned in her distinguished, nearly four-decade career as a writer. 

That was a key theme of van Herk’s talk last Saturday (April 30) at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning as she delivered the 2016 Lecture of a Lifetime – one of the University of Calgary’s most prestigious annual events, each year showcasing one of its leading academics. Professor van Herk has taught creative writing at the University of Calgary for the past 33 years.

Focusing on “the power of story and the stories of our lives, how we tell our stories and how our stories tell us,” van Herk revealed that whenever she’s writing she’s always shocked and humbled to discover, as she admits, “how much I don’t know.”

“Writers who dust their hands off and say ‘that’s the definitive work’ are really fooling themselves,” says van Herk. “Because a story is never completed. When I was working on Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, the more I researched, the more I discovered I didn’t know. And that’s marvelously freeing because you learn all kinds of new information, you continue to be intrigued with the story you’re writing, and, ultimately, you realize that the story is endless.”

The same lesson applies to her latest works, including the University of Calgary’s 50th anniversary commemorative book, The Age of Audacity: 50 Years of Ambition and Adventure at Calgary’s Own University and her new book of prose poetry on the Calgary Stampede, Stampede and the Westness of the West. As van Herk points out, the story of both the university and the Calgary Stampede is ongoing and ever evolving. “An anniversary is only a marker, not a closure,” she says. “It’s an invitation to more stories.”

She adds: “When I’m working with students, or on a book, or any of the many projects I’m engaged with, I always discover that there’s far more to it than I thought there was.”

Read more about van Herk's 50th anniversary commemorative book for the University of Calgary.