Our Stories | St. Michael’s Magazine: Justin Rutledge

Justin Rutledge

Siren Songs

What I really wanted to be was a writer, and I guess to some extent I am; however I wanted to be a real writer. I wanted the English language to tattoo everything I did and emanate from my pores like booze on a hungover afternoon. I wanted to live a writer’s life, not just study it. Reflecting on my years at the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s College, I don’t think I would have ever guessed that I would make my living with a guitar, but the road is long, and just as strange.

I must begin with a little caveat: I never graduated from St. Mike’s at UofT. Sadly, it is true. However, I had every intention of doing so, and still do. Honestly. My years were spent coursing like blood through the hallowed halls of the University, and I dreamed of proceeding gracefully towards my PhD. I did have lofty ambitions. During the first month of school, I recall scheduling a meeting with John O’Connor, an English prof at St. Mike’s. I had been assigned the daunting task of writing my first essay at university. I wanted to write about the absence of sex and love in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I asked him if I were being overly ambitious (I knew damn right that I was,) and he replied, “Isn’t that what you’re here for?” That’s stuck with me to this day.

And then there was Professor John C. Meagher who held three PhDs and spoke 14 languages (so I’ve heard.) He was also the most brilliant man I have met and perhaps will ever meet in my life. I had been an avid reader of poetry for some time, but it wasn’t until I took his course that I understood the dedication it takes to meet a poem on its own terms, savouring it in its glorious entirety. His tests were so rigorous that the entire class failed the first one, prompting a valiant outcry from us all for him to have pity on our feeble minds and ease up a bit. Sure enough he did, and I think he got a kick out of it all. The only A+ I ever received on e.e. cummings was in his course. I’ve rarely felt as proud since.

While I never became a real writer, I did become a songwriter. After my third year I took a year off to write and create an album of music I could be proud of. Unfortunately, it resulted in my not returning to St. Mike’s. Fortunately, though, it did eventually lead me to opening for Dolly Parton, playing with Blue Rodeo at Massey Hall, a Juno nomination, a collaborative project with Michael Ondaatje, and countless other moments I will never forget. Looking back to my university days, I know I owe much to those hallowed halls, and to those who encouraged my ambition.