Category: Big Thoughts
People often ask me: Are you still writing?
I can’t help but parse the phrasing. The word still. Of course, it may appear that I might have somehow stopped writing, that I am no longer writing, because I’ve published so little since Girl Runner came out in the fall of 2014. During these past four years, it is true, I’ve published two picture books for children, a handful of short stories and essays in Canadian literary magazines, a performance piece for an arts festival in France, and these personal blog posts. That’s clearly not enough to keep the lights on, so to speak.
Are you still writing?
I understand the question. I know it’s asked out of kindness and curiosity. How to explain that writing is like breathing, for me? I could not stop. When I do stop, it will be because I’ve also stopped breathing. My life depends on this form of expression.
Are you still writing?
I am always writing, I explain. I explain, Not everything I write will be published.
I recognize that this is a painful truth. I recognize that to state this fact makes me vulnerable. We all like success stories. Painful truths we like so much less, we humans. We like winners because they win. We pity losers for losing. Is it shameful and possibly career-ending to admit: I’m trying, but I’m not living up to the standards being set? To admit: Success is out of my control? To admit: What I love doing may not be what the market wants? Some of us would prefer deception to truth. I wonder whether in the arts community, as in any career involving public scrutiny, we are more inclined to stare away the painful truths, to hide them, and perhaps this is the evolutionarily correct instinct.
Well, I’m going to tell you the painful truth anyway. I’m trying. I’m still writing.
There are problems that we have the capacity to solve with ingenuity and effort, and there are gravity problems. Gravity problems are problems that no amount of ingenuity and effort can solve: gravity just is, a force, like time, that doesn’t bend to human will.
I’ve been fortunate to shift some of my attention, these past four years, into teaching creative writing, work I’ve come to love. It is rewarding to receive immediate feedback, to test ideas live, to adventure in the company of others. Teaching is the opposite of writing literary fiction, at least in my experience. In my experience, to write literary fiction requires enormous patience, bottomless trust in one’s own instincts, and the fierce will to continue alone, for long stretches of time. It requires so much energy. All the energy comes from within. This can be hard to sustain in the absence of … I was going to say success, but I think the more accurate word is community.
There must be a better way!
This post has taken an unexpected detour. This isn’t the post I thought I was writing.
I need new fuel for the fire, that seems apparent from what I’ve written here. I’m out of steam. I’m still writing, but I’ve also given up hope. In my classroom, I strive to foster a creative community — it’s a goal that’s set and maintained and evaluated throughout the term. With deliberate effort, I make space for peers to meet, to share their work, to share the weight of vulnerability, and to learn how to offer useful critique, which is really a brave form of support.
I have never created such a space for myself. I’ve never even considered it as a possibility.
This is not a gravity problem. This is a problem that can be solved by ingenuity, effort, and most importantly, the willingness to be vulnerable.
Writing = breathing. If I hadn’t sat down this morning to write, I wouldn’t have stumbled across this discovery: what I’m feeling and experiencing can’t be solved alone. What I need is community, a writing community.
Every day I sit and draw, often for as long as an hour. I listen to music and pencil in lines on paper that recreate small scenes from my day. When I’ve pencilled in the lines to some satisfaction, I take my pen and ink in the drawings. If I had even more time, I would add watercolours. (I’m not ruling this out at some point in the future.) I’ve now drawn 92 daily cartoons and I’m aiming for 365. It’s often what I’m doing in the evening, instead of doing something else, but my evenings were never much use to me for writing anyway, as my brain seems to fog up. Drawing calls on something different than writing. Lines are different from words. Lines slow time. They’re meditative. My whole being follows the line. I can’t describe how content I feel while drawing. Why? Because I expect nothing. Because the discovery is always surprising. Because it occupies all the parts of me that would ordinarily be running madly off in all directions, it pulls them into cohesive effort. Because it stills my thoughts. It takes all of my focus even while making focus feel effortless.
If I hadn’t gone to Lynda Barry’s workshop two summers ago, I would never have known this was possible — drawing. I never would have known, because I would have assumed, as I’d assumed since grade two, that I essentially stunk at art. I haven’t taken an art class since grade seven. Sometimes I wonder whether the concussions changed my brain in some subtle way that has allowed me to focus differently. I remember art class in grade seven — I dreaded it, in the same way that I dreaded sewing in family studies. I had no patience, none, for the projects we were assigned. I knew before I made something that it would be subpar, clunky, painfully literal, the colours weird and blobby, the angles wonky, a minor disaster in the form of clay or pastels or terry-cloth. And it always was.
The things we’re good at are almost inevitably the things for which we have terrific patience. I can polish a story for hours, for example, but I can’t even finish reading an article in the business section; it’s all in the attention, or the ability to pay attention.
I have no idea why I’m making these cartoons. But, you know, I have no idea why I write stories about made-up people. It’s all a bit absurd and indefensible. And it’s also awesome and wonderful, and I’m so damn lucky to have the time, freedom, tools, and privilege to unpack my deepest, most mysterious emotions in these ways. I would call it almost essential. Without art, without these creative forms of expression, I would be helpless beneath the weight of untranslated experience.
Sometimes it feels like I’m bursting to connect what’s inside me with everything that’s outside of me. At least to try. I think maybe all human beings have this need. We need to know our stories. We need release from our stories, too, or to integrate them into our selves, the way a tapestry may be woven from threads of many colour and textures. I sense in art the power to heal (which is different from the power to resolve or simplify or even to comfort). It’s the power of purpose. Art is action, at its core. At its core, it is connection.
Last night I dreamed I was being chased by a man with a gun. I ran and hid while he hunted me down.
I woke and all the hairs on my arms were standing on end. My mind was racing. I lay there in the dark, looking at the ceiling, trying to get the picture out of my mind—of a man with a gun, pointed at me. What I thought about, too, as I lay there, too awake and disturbed to sleep, was what it would be like to have experienced a situation like that for real, like the kids of Parkland. What a name. Parkland. Sounds like the name you’d give to a wholesome suburban community, though possibly a satirically wholesome suburban community. I thought about waking in the night to stare at the dark, mind racing, after being in lockdown in your classroom, after hearing gunshots in your school’s halls, after seeing someone shot and killed, after hiding, terrified, thinking you will die. And I thought, the March for Our Lives is not hyperbole for these kids. I thought, if someone with a gun has come into your school, you understand, in a way that others may not, how dire the situation is, how far gone, and you’d do anything, now, to prevent this happening to another kid, in another school.
I thought, this won’t end until enough people refuse to accept it as their reality.
I’m so glad I don’t live in the United States. It breaks my heart to say so, because I am a dual citizen, and because dear friends and family live in the States and love their country, and because there are so many good and wonderful things in the US. I grew up in the States. It was once my home. I remember when Canada seemed terribly foreign, even though my dad’s family had Canadian roots. Canada was cold and unknown, and I didn’t want to move here. I was ten. I’ve never moved back to the States. I’m almost wholly Canadian now. We have our own problems and even our own gun problem; but it doesn’t compare, nothing compares to the madness of the gun—the worship of the gun—in the United States of America. It’s almost as if guns are more sacred than life itself, in the USA. Certainly, the right to own and carry a gun is more protected than the right to be protected from gun violence. If the best answer politicians can come up with is more guns, arm the teachers, “harden” the schools into what amount to prisons—that’s not protection for the kids, that’s protection for the guns, again. Sell more guns.
I want to march. I want to go to Washington and march against the almighty gun.
The kids who are marching, the kids who’ve organized this, the brave outspoken truth-telling kids of Parkland feel like they’re living in a war zone. They’re living in a developed nation, a nation of enormous prosperity and wealth, yet they are not safe—they know they are not safe. They know this will happen again, and again, and again, in churches, in schools, in homes,on streets, and so they march. I hope they never give up hope. I hope they march and march and march for their lives until they change the course of history. I’d believed for so long that there was no changing this story—that mass shooting would follow mass shooting would follow mass shooting, with nothing but thoughts and prayers to comfort the survivors. But these Parkland kids, they give me hope. They’re changing the narrative. They’re digging in their heels.
I always thought the gun would win, because don’t people with guns always win?
But, no, they don’t. They don’t. Violence doesn’t always win. Power and bullying doesn’t always win. Money doesn’t always win. Oh, how I want to believe this.
Oh, how I love the kids from Parkland.
I’ve got a new essay on mentorship up at TNQ, the local award-winning literary magazine that has accompanied me throughout my career: you’ll find all of the plot points in the essay, including publication, rejection and cause for hope. I hope you’ll read it.
Earlier today I was writing, but then I had to stop writing because it was time to make a salad dressing, eat supper with my family, and clean up after supper. I was in a difficult part of the book, really struggling with it, and now I’m sitting down hours later, wondering how to find my way back in to that difficult spot? I feel a dull anger, but I don’t think it’s really to do with the interruption of thought, I suspect it’s a deeper frustration with my own inabilities to solve the problems in this book, which I fear I may not be clever enough or determined enough to do. The problem is that there is no big aha moment at the end of the book. There is no big reveal. No twist. The evil character remains evil. That’s another problem. The evil character is not an appealing and charismatic anti-hero who was once good and has fallen out of goodness, nor is he a polarizing or morally dubious character; no. All of his instincts and actions are reprehensible. Perhaps this points to a flaw in my imagination. I just can’t find his goodness, except possibly when he was a child. At the end of the book, has he changed? What’s revealed about him, ultimately?
So I sit here looking at the final page of this book, literally the final page, wondering where the redemption lies. Wondering whether this is a book about forgiveness or about revenge, or maybe it’s a book about being unable to forgive — and what happens then?
And then a few hours go by, and I’ve written a new ending that feels right, somehow, and the candle on my desk hasn’t burned out once this whole time. And now it’s bedtime. It’s getting late. I have a cartoon to finish and exercise early in the morning. It’s funny, and also comforting, to read what I wrote earlier in the evening. What I’ll probably remember about today is not the irritation or the frustration, which turned out to be momentary, fleeting, but the feeling of wholeness that arrived at the end of it all.
You have to withstand discomfort to make anything.
Today, I quit caffeine, cold turkey. I mean, I like ginger-turmeric tea … but this morning I missed my frothy mug of coffee, made by Kevin. Caffeine makes me jittery, so it’s the right choice. It will be worth it, once I get through this ugly headache.
I notice that I’m struggling with how to use this blog as a creative space, now that I’m focused on my cartooning project. I could post each cartoon here, daily, but I worry that my blog subscribers won’t want their inboxes inundated with daily posts. (Our inboxes are all full enough, right?)
Currently, I post the cartoons daily to Facebook and Twitter. (Although after a recent conversation with a good friend, also a writer, I’m considering quitting Twitter cold turkey, just like I’m quitting caffeine.)
I like publishing daily. The cartoons feel of the moment, and I enjoy sending them out in the world almost as soon as they’re made (I’ve given myself a buffer zone of one day, so yesterday’s cartoon gets published today).
I notice, too, that the cartoons are capable of holding a lot of thought, distilled into a few lines, and they seem to be taking the place of my blog, in terms of being a satisfying investment of creative energy, a comforting location for thinking out loud, for marking the moment. I just like making them. I like using this method to reflect on my day: by drawing scenes from it and distilling its meaning into a few sentences, a single theme or image. My journal pages are sloppy and untended, dumping grounds, piles that contain trash and beauty and who can tell which is which in all the mess? The cartoons are contained and coherent.
Life it not always coherent. The purpose of art is to give life shape, and meaning.
So making a cartoon feels strangely purposeful.
My question is: Should I be publishing my cartoons daily on this blog? I’m not sure. I suppose I could publish a cartoon and also write a blog post, should the desire overtake me…
Thinking out loud. Your thoughts?
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