Category: Big Thoughts
In the past couple of creative writing courses I’ve taught, I’ve devoted an entire class to listening to and writing fairy tales. Why? Sometimes I introduce an exercise without fully understanding its necessity, until I’ve been through it several times. After my fairy tale class yesterday, my brain was spinning, like I’d learned how to spin flax into gold. I may not entirely understand why the fairy tale is so valuable to listen to and enter into, but I’m getting closer.
Fairy tales are full of archetypal imagery: images that are powerful and timeless, even if they may be interpreted differently by different cultures and in different eras. Brothers and sisters; transformations; talking beasts; wise women and witches; kings and queens; red shoes; axes; forests; water. As we wrote our own fairy tales, some of these images no doubt found their way into our stories, and we knew they had meaning beyond themselves, we understood it at gut level. A dark forest conjures a meaning different from a river; the moon means something different from the sun; the power of a witch is different from the power of a king or a queen. Maybe we also understood that the meaning of these images was somehow malleable, too, and that we could work with it, we could subvert it, we could make it our own—we understood that meaning shifts. Sometimes it’s even our duty to shift meaning or fight against it.
Fairy tales are by their nature grim, even gruesome; the characters suffer horrors and sorrow that is difficult to comprehend. And yet the stories are told in a way that makes them enjoyable to listen to—not frightening, but compelling. One of the hardest tasks as a writer is to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader: fairy tales do exactly that. How do fairy tales protect us, even as they reveal traumatic narratives? Perhaps it is in part our detachment from their one-dimensional characters. But I think protection also relies on the use of archetypes to contain and control horror, and shape meaning.
What is the difference between meaning that is political or ideological and meaning that is literary? The world is not magical. In other words, what happens to us is not meaningful, in and of itself. We make it magical: we create the meaning. We impose shape onto the events we witness, onto our own experiences, onto the random gathering of routines, activities, sights and sounds, interactions and reactions that make up our lives—much of what falls through and into our lives is like the weather, out of our control. This could be terrifying, paralyzing. It is not a truth our brains accept easily; in fact, our brains are built to create narrative to explain the randomness, to comfort ourselves, in order to survive and to thrive. The same source of comfort drives our impulse toward religion, politics, and poetry: narrative. We need narrative because we need meaning. Meaning comes from shape, pattern, images that carry thematic weight, from threads being pulled together to weave a tapestry that is so satisfying to our brains that we don’t care that it’s not real because it feels real—it feels as it should.
Why do we seek to understand the motive of a man wielding an AR-15 in a church? (I’ve been wondering and wondering about this, because in my opinion, trying to pin down a motive in cases like this is a waste of our collective energy; but most news media would disagree.) There may be a fundamentally human reason driving this search: because without motive there’s no sense of cause and effect, there is only shapeless unformed chaos resulting in death and grief. Audiences want their stories to make sense, and the news media are storytellers and we are their audience. Think of all the different ways we impose narrative on the world around us—my interest is largely literary, but political narratives are inevitable and create competing storylines that truly fail to intersect. Some narratives exclude, lock out, imprison rather than connect.
How can literary narratives help us? By creating empathy—through windows and doors, through the lens of another’s eyes. By refusing to be ideological. By appealing to our human frailty and flaws—by showing us our possibilities and our hopes, and our failures. By releasing us from our humanness, too, sometimes, the way that fairy tales do. Fiction is inherently unrealistic (even so-called realism). Fiction will always be much more and much less than reality is—it contains both too much or too little of reality to be real. Fiction is interpretation. Fiction pushes the writer to identify what matters in whatever moment is being described. It creates magic inside of us all of a sudden! We become magical when we write and also when we read, because we are transforming what is into what could be—a recreation that has substance, shape, and meaning.
Something from something, as Etger Keret writes.
I wrote this in a white heat of emotionless thought after yesterday’s class, as if it were tearing from me whole: the reason I write, the power of writing, the value of it.
“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside of us.” – Silvana Ocampo
Write these words on my heart.
I heard a news item on the CBC this morning that said people are spending 20% of their days on devices, now. The average Facebook user spends an hour a day scrolling the site. I was listening to the radio on my phone in the kitchen, and I looked up to see my 12-year-old holding her i-pod and her phone (wifi-only) while eating breakfast at the dining-room table. There are evenings when, after supper, chores and homework have been done, everyone gathers quietly in the living-room to stare into their phones and screens. It’s peaceful and it’s creepy. At least we’re in the same room? On Wednesday, I suggested we play a game instead. I don’t even like playing games, but it was the only family-oriented indoor activity I could think of. Everyone was so enthusiastic! We played Boggle till bedtime. It was fun. We were not silent and we were together. It reminded me of being on holiday.
Why don’t we do this more often?
Oh, right. Because we’re tired. This takes energy, when the other option is easy. So easy.
Last night, by the time we got home from soccer practice and picking up our eldest from work (dark, rainy, 8PM = not ideal biking weather), a child suggested playing a game, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy to engage. I’d just been coaching 15 kids for an hour and you should have seen the state of kitchen. Instead, I tackled that. I could have asked the children to help, I suppose. But I didn’t have the energy even to ask for help (it does take energy, because I haven’t sufficiently ingrained in my children the necessity of helping around the house without complaint or argument). So no games. The kids didn’t think it would be fun without the parents, and the parents were toast. The living-room was once again a zone of screens and silence.
I was going to blog about something else in this quick post. I was going to blog about being mindful of persistent negative thoughts, which shape the sometimes negative narratives I tell myself, without even noticing, which affect my enjoyment of the world, generally. But this subject is not so different. What is shaping our life together as a family? What is shaping my children’s childhood experiences? It’s frightening and numbing to think that a powerful shaping factor could be these devices we willingly invite into our lives, and hold so close to us, all day long.
Recently, I asked my students to draw themselves in relation to their phones. The responses were a mixture of love/hate. We feel attached. We feel connected. We feel trapped. We feel helpless. Our phones are reprogramming our brains, the CBC report said, and I believe it. I’m writing a book? I should be writing a series of tweets or a video game or recording on a YouTube channel. It would be more practical.
What’s your relationship to your phone? Are you reading this on your phone?
PS Ditch your screen and come see me tomorrow at the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo. If you’re a young writer between the ages of 13-17, there’s still space for you in my morning workshop. Or just come hang out with great Canadian writers and catch some free events.
I’ve been trying to write a blog post this afternoon. But it quickly devolved into a rant. The patterns of violence and destruction bewilder and grieve me, and they seem so intractable, yet I want to stand against them. I want to write against these patterns.
The world is too much with us. The world is too much with us. The world is too much with me.
I walked to meet a friend last night, along a busy street, the moon quite large in the sky, and lovely, and my head was full of grief. My grief is not specific, nor are tears cathartic. This world. This world is too much with me.
What is my response to fear? What do I do when I’m afraid, or threatened? Do people want to own guns because they’re afraid? Is it to feel a power that is otherwise unavailable to them? Why would anyone want the power to kill? I don’t understand.
I finished a draft of my book, but I need to return to it and write more. There is more, and it’s about this subject, at least in some ways, critical ways. I know I need to write more, but I have been unable to retreat into that imaginary world yet; today has not been a terrifically productive day. A child home sick. My mind cluttered and muttering.
The world seems divided between people who believe they can keep themselves safe by force, will and wealth, and people who know there is no safety, only thoughtful measures to lower collective risks. I’m in the latter camp. I think this makes me an optimist. I sing despite knowing. I write despite knowing. I love despite knowing. Also, I pray despite knowing. I believe in those thoughtful measures. I believe something can be done—it’s not good enough to say nothing can be.
What I’m having a hard time with is forgiving. I feel so angry toward the people who peddle the guns. The people who profit from weapons of war. I feel so angry. The world is too much with me. Forgive me.
I cannot honestly believe that I am writing a book by hand.
In August, I started this manuscript over from scratch, writing each new chapter by hand. Many of the chapters were originally written by hand, so for many of these pieces, I am writing them by hand more than once. That’s a lot of pages in a lot of notebooks. It is excruciatingly slow, in terms of how many words I can produce in one sitting.
And yet, I trust the process. It is like cooking from scratch. Takes a lot longer, worth the wait.
What I say to myself, when approaching a new character, a new scene, or when reworking material in a new way, is this: you have to translate it. Most of the scenes already exist in some form—I’m solidifying a plot-line that already exists. But each scene feels new, in this new iteration, and so it must, in order to be exciting. It feels like a process of translation, like I’m taking dead scenes and bringing them to life with the power of my hand, which seems to know more about life and aliveness than my brain does.
But it is so much work. It requires a patience and degree of determination that feels almost herculean, almost too much for my mind to bear. Yet I want so badly to finish this project. At this point, that is what is driving my ability to continue—the desire to finish. The desire to see this story through to its end. The desire to let these characters live, not just inside my head, but for real, on the page, accessible by the minds and imaginations of anyone else who can read.
It is such an intense struggle, it is difficult to put it into words. It is also so extremely satisfying, I would almost call it excruciatingly satisfying when I’m finished a scene and can read it, shocked and surprised by what’s been discovered. It feels like I am a conduit. It’s not that I relinquish responsibility for these characters, only that I am as surprised by their aliveness as if I were reading someone else’s work. Maybe it’s that I am transported by these characters, maybe it’s that I’m alive somewhere else and inside of someone else while I am writing these scenes—maybe that is why I feel like a conduit rather than an author. I feel like an observer. That’s what I mean when I describe my writing as translating, when I pick up the pen, open the notebook, and write a new scene—I’m translating from the back of my mind into words. The front of my mind doesn’t know what the back of my mind already knows, and so it is a surprise, even if I am making it, creating it, all of it. I am surprised by myself, by my capacity to plot, to pull together images, to thread connections like beads on a string.
I feel the same way when I am drawing, now—whenever I am lost, I tell myself to let my hand lead me, to discover what my hand wants to show me. My hand always knows. My hand always knows more than my thinking brain.
I look with surprise, admiration, even awe, and say, oh, that’s what this means, oh, that’s where I am, oh, that’s who I am right now, oh, that’s what I’m feeling, oh, that’s what I want, oh, that’s what’s hurting me, oh, that’s where the pain is, oh, that’s what’s on my mind. Oh, that’s how it all fits together.
Like Lynda Barry said, writing isn’t easy, but it can be pleasurable. Just like those runners jogging by in the middle of the day. You’d never look at them and say, oh, that looks easy. But you understand that they are getting something from their efforts, something like pleasure, or a feeling of accomplishment, or surprise, or enjoyment, or transcendence. Transcendence is both why I write and why I run. For that lovely floating feeling of being apart from it all.
And also of it all.
And also free.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, fires.
But ordinary life goes on, and outside my window is a cool Friday evening, with sunlight splashing shadows through the still-green leaves of early September. I wrote today. After a week of disappointing attempts to write, this was truly a gift. I wrote with a friend, and when we were done, we read to each other what we’d just written, and that was the most magical part of all — that joy of sharing what did not exist only an hour before. I may have to add this point to my manifesto (see below): read what you’ve written to an appreciative audience immediately upon writing it!
re the manifest0: On one of the last days at the cottage, I wrote out a set of reminders for myself, in an attempt not to lose what I’d gained. But then I got home, and it was all too much — the hours of each day consumed themselves, often quite wonderfully, but with only a few words set to page, and the words seemed weak, the magic drained from them by the heaviness of early mornings, forms to be filled, course prep, answering emails I’d abandoned, meals, scheduling, driving children, walking dogs, and on and on. That is why this afternoon’s blissful writing time was such a gift.
For the record, here’s my message to myself, from the office overlooking the lake.
Something I am learning is that writing by hand is actually the very quickest way to access a character or a scene. Something has changed for me over the past year, and at an accelerated pace this past month (the beautiful amazing writing and resting month of August, 2017, as I shall hereafter recall it). In my hand and on the page, I find access to fiction. This book has been a long time coming to fruition, and perhaps that is due in part to my needing to learn a new way to write and think — the Lynda Barry way (but also the post-concussion way). When this book is done, I will dedicate it to my friend Lisa, who introduced me to Lynda Barry. The detail and complexity of thought that arises now that I’ve trained my hand to listen, to be a force in motion, to be the leader, not the follower, of my thoughts — it astonishes me daily.
The other key to freedom, which I must share with my students, is the lack of a delete button when writing by hand. It sounds so obvious, but if I were writing this on-screen, I would have just gone back and deleted a whole line — probably not an important thought, but nevertheless it would have vanished forever. Here on the page, even a crossed-out line still exists. And there is an impetus to push forward, not to recreate and reattempt what one has already written, but to find out where the somewhat misshapen present is taking one.
I am not permitting myself to delete when I’m writing on the laptop, when I transcribe material — this is the first draft, I’m telling myself, and it can be refined later. I allow myself to add more words, but not to delete. The draft needs to exist as it stands, for now, until it is complete.
I will also print my drafts when they are done.
I’m writing this like a manifesto for my future self, as a reminder!
Something else to remember, for later: the back of the mind needs to know it has time and space to come forward — permission to come forward. That is why ritual is so important, and timed writing is so important, because it is training the back of the mind to trust, and the front of the mind to trust, too. Give it time! I must commit to 2.5 hours every day, if possible, and sacrifice all else. [Future self says: bloody hell, are you ever optimistic, cottage self!] What will this look like in practical terms? I hardly dare ask. I think the habit is imperative, no matter what project I’m working on, now and in the future.
Priorities. I need to stop taking on responsibilities I haven’t got time to learn how to do, or to do well. Instead, I want and intend to focus on what I already do well. Writing. Writing writing writing! I am a writer unleashed! The only person who is messing with my priorities is me. I can see that clearly now. I have put all kinds of blocks and obstacles into my own path as a writer. This may be out of fear. Fear that I will run out of things to say, fear that I’m really not that talented. Fear I’m delusional.
But right now, at the peak of this surge back into writing, I want to laugh at myself, gently mock myself, and say, hey, not everything you write needs to be published. That doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re the one who is going to determine your own writing future, not anyone else. It’s weirdly true, I can see. I can’t determine prizes and publishing deals and grants and recognition and audience, but that is immaterial — material and immaterial. It’s the identity that makes all the difference. It’s being a writer, inhabiting the body of a writer, loving the mind of a writer, making space for this writer, time for writing, challenging myself to difficult tasks, challenging projects, pushing myself to do this thing I believe I was born to do.
And stop undoing all that I’ve done to get here. Stop ignoring where I am and how I’ve gotten here. Stop undermining myself.
I don’t mean to become arrogant. I mean to become fully myself. Sorry, fourteen-year-old daughter of mine, I do believe a person can grow and change. I do. I’ve seen myself at so many different stages, witnessed real change, seen my body change and my mind too. I know this is possible, it is possible to be a writer and be comfortable being a writer. It is possible to nourish and feed myself as a writer, and damn well to do the writing. Damn well do it.
Oh Lord, I want to keep doing it. I don’t want this holiday at the cottage to end. I want every morning to sit at my desk and write. So do it [says cottage self to cowering future self]. Do it, and sacrifice in other areas instead. Experience the discomfort of that. The discomfort of honouring your work and your vocation above your other responsibilities.
End of manifesto.
Note to self: read this post whenever you’re feeling lost, confused, down, uncertain, anxious, whenever you’ve lost faith. Read this post!
Excerpts from my notebook, written sometime during the past eight days, which we spent at my stepmother’s boat-access-only cottage. I wrote every day. Every time I sat down to write, I began by drawing an “attendance cartoon” (Lynda Barry-style), to a random song from my Spotify playlist. Then I wrote for 3 minutes, beginning with the question: What’s on your mind?
I am staring out at the lake, through the piney trees from my perfect sheltered vantage point in the bunky — my office for this week. We are so fortunate, so very fortunate, to get to spend time here every summer, so that this place has become part of our lives and our children’s lives. Today is sunny and warm, and the water is warm, apparently — I have not set foot into it yet. I did drive the pontoon boat yesterday, proving again that I can.
What would I give up to write more? I don’t know. Let’s make this new writing plan / routine work. Please, dear God, I don’t want to give anything up.
The scene I worked on before lunch is unfinished. Instead of finishing it, I ate lunch with the family, then read in the sun for hours. I am reading I Capture the Castle and I’d forgotten how romantic it is and also how much that romance moves me, or triggers in my mind such delicious feelings.
Finished I Capture the Castle, furious at the description of the constipated mad genius father (a writer), whose inspiration may derive from violently attacking his family members, including throwing his teenaged daughter Cassandra into a wall, almost breaking her arm. Is it that I hate the implied privilege of the artist — Artist with a capital A — or is it the male artist in particular whose privilege I abhor? But haven’t I been reading about women writers, too, how are childless or who steer clear of their children for long stretches, so as to write? And what would I sacrifice in the long run? Would I give up coaching or teaching, let alone parenting intensely, in order to serve the “genius” of artistic creation? No. It seems a nonsensical thought. Yet when I am writing, don’t I want to go on living in this other world and not come back — or not for a long while?
I don’t know how to draw a mosquito. My eyesight seems to be getting worse. I stare at letters that my hand is making and the words are blurred. Somehow I can keep writing without seeing.
From this angle, the boat parked in the middle of the lake looks like a car that’s been driven there by accident, and is half-sinking. I am not doing a good job on a number of fronts. That is the feeling I am having. But it’s been an exciting couple of weeks of writing. Writing and imagining. Yet other things have fallen to the side, and I wonder how I will have anything to give to my students this fall, or even to my children. The forecast is calling for rain. What is joyous about my writing right now is the pleasure I’m taking from it, that doesn’t seem connected to worries about publication. This might not last. My eldest daughter says I’m always trying to improve myself and failing: I’m really just always the same. The more I think on it, the more I’m convinced she could be right.
I think all of this burst of writing comes from calling myself, naming myself, WRITER. Can I change in other regards? I don’t want to be a prickly person, constantly challenging others.
Sunlight is shining through the glass door and warming my office / bunky. I had a feeling after yesterday’s work that I’d written a scene that was the culmination of about 15 years of trying to write that particular scene, with that particular combination of effects — a scene about children playing in a makebelieve world where pretend and real blend together so seamlessly it’s almost impossible for the children to tell them apart. That feeling of being immersed in imaginary play. I’ve been sitting here trying to remember the first version of that scene while staring out the window at the roofline of the cottage, shingles, pines, smoke from the fire, child outside petting Suzi (dog) who was recently sleeping in the sun on my stoop. Gillian Welch is playing “Revelator” on Spotify and this mood seems exquisite and impossible to capture, and yet that’s what I’m attempting to do when I write.
The brain is on my mind, the two selves, as described in Thinking, Fast and Slow, by a psychologist who won the Nobel for economics. The experiencing self is not made happy by the same things that please the remembering self. Writing, I think, is the most peculiar linking of the two selves — the remembering self immersed in the experiencing self. My knowledge on this subject is pitifully inadequate.
Today I am having difficulty focusing and getting into characters. This has been an intense week and I fear it coming to a close, but I’m also growing a bit weary and perhaps a rest will be good — a day off.
Sometimes I draw something, and I think, that comes right from the back of my mind. The front of my mind couldn’t have drawn that.
The way my attendance cartoon matches with the song and a mood and whatever is happening is uncanny, although this may only be my mind making magical connections. Today, on the day we leave the cottage after having been here for eight days, the song is Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.” It is a song about the changing seasons; it even has a chevron of geese flying south. And I’m sitting here with rain falling on the roof, cool or almost cold, fog rising off the lake, and smoke rising from the chimney in the main cottage, reflecting on this time of transition. In the cartoon I’ve drawn this morning, I press my hand against the window from inside the cottage and try to say goodbye. This has been the most blessed month. Time has stretched and expanded and we have been content.