I am someone who keeps an eye on my neighbourhood. I know the comings and goings of many of its residents, in part because I work from home with a window that faces the street, in part because our house is at a transitional section in the neighbourhood, through which much traffic travels on foot, bicycle, and by car, into and out of the uptown core. Across the street, several houses were knocked down last fall to make space for a park, which does not yet exist; it’s a plot of sandy land whose purpose, as yet, seems unclear.
I see, and I remember.
One morning, last week, I saw a woman in the middle of the street pushing a shopping cart. I heard her first, her screams could have been the shouts of girls teasing each other, but I quickly understood this was something else. I went to the front door and saw her in the street, pushing a shopping cart half-filled with what looked like clothing, screaming at a minivan that had stopped so as not to hit her. The van tried to pass, and she took a swing at it, a lit cigarette in her free hand. Then she came into our driveway, pushing the cart, and veered in behind the neighbouring apartment building. At this point, I called the police, my heart racing. I lost sight of her when she went behind the building, but my eldest, whose bedroom window overlooks our backyard, said he’d seen her squeeze through the fence at the back of the apartment building, and run through our neighbour’s yard. She’d abandoned the shopping cart and was carrying several bundles of belongings, shrieking at the world like her brain was fire.
On the phone, the dispatcher asked for a description. Perhaps I should not write down a detailed description here. I’d never seen her in our neighbourhood before. Her thighs were exposed, no pants, though I think she was wearing underwear. A dark blue long-sleeved sweater. Shoes? Flip-flops, I think.
The police did not arrive on my watch. I heard later from other neighbours, who had also called the police, that she was eventually found. A police officer called me later that afternoon to ask follow-up questions on what I’d seen. I could only describe what was on the surface, visible, a rough chronology of a brief series of events. He promised me, when I asked, that the woman had been found and that she would be okay.
What was happening inside her mind to turn her so violent and probably—it’s only occurred to me now—afraid? What happens to a person that they become this untethered to reality? She was out in public without pants. Cursing at anyone who came near. Screaming, slamming her shopping cart into the side of the apartment building, swinging at cars, seemingly in her own version of reality, trapped in a world that must look very different to her than it does to me.
I don’t know what to do with this scene, this snippet of a story that is not a complete story. It only has a beginning, no middle, no end.
I see it happening through the window, and my instinct is to hide. I wonder what people with training in such situations would say or do, what their approach would be, as they’d attempt to intervene. Would they try to bring her back into this world? How would they assess the danger she represents—to herself and/or to others. I wonder how a person can get so lost. What trauma is she expressing, what has she experienced?
I felt afraid of her. Afraid for her.
I keep wondering what my responsibility is as a human being in this situation. As a bystander. A witness. What is the appropriate action to take? And maybe I’m wondering something more, too: what if my responsibility goes deeper? What training or education would I need in order to become more than a bystander or a witness? What if I wanted to get involved, to help, not just to “help” — what would I need to learn?
The hardest day of the week to get oriented. There seem to be an infinite number of tasks that could be tackled — a few that should be tackled, and many that are just pleasant possibilities awaiting attention. But to be done properly these tasks require full attention. There are many ways to begin, but here is one that’s been working for me: I put on Marg’s green scarf and sit in the back yard and meditate.
On my general to-do list:
- Fall creative writing course at U of Waterloo: revamp reading list; tweak structure of peer review workshops; tweak participation rubric.
- Winter creative writing course at St. Jerome’s (new course!!!!): solidify curriculum, leaving room for student input within broader units.
- Write/edit/submit short stories: I’m working on editing a short story collection. I keep picking away at the stories, one by one; highly satisfying. I’m also setting the goal of submitting these polished stories, one by one, to literary magazines.
- Edit/submit poems: Same as # 3, only in poetry form.
- Expand/explore career options: Here is where I begin to drift off, untethered. I’m feeling a significant pull to further my education. I’ve narrowed my field(s) of interest to the following: spiritual work, counselling/therapy/coaching, writing/art therapy, conflict resolution, public speaking.
On Twitter, today, I retweeted an opinion from a thread on CanLit by Amanda Leduc, who wrote: “Literature is a special thing only insofar as it helps us to navigate the world & connect with one another.” Someone else replied: “I hear what you’re saying, but I have also talked to people who are alive today because literature literally saved their lives.”
And I wonder what I believe?
My experience as a teacher leads me to believe that writing can be powerful medicine, that telling our stories and being heard, no matter the medium, can be powerfully validating. Reading or seeing or hearing a story or image that strikes a chord within us can also be powerful. It can heal, or create an opening for healing. Who knows why something moves us? It may have nothing to do with the technical prowess of its creator.
I’m not saying that technical skill doesn’t matter or is immaterial. My God, when I read a book by someone who’s mastered the craft, I’m utterly transported. Most recently, that would be Ali Smith’s Autumn. I wanted to linger — am lingering, in memory — inside the richness and simultaneous spareness of her style. Yet I flew through the book and couldn’t put it down. That’s magic. There’s magic in deciding to pick up a book and read it, and discovering in it exactly what you need.
There is magic in the process, in all parts of the process, that’s what I’m saying. There’s work and then there’s magic. And magic doesn’t come in a form that’s graspable; magic, spiritual depth, grace — however you term it — does not arrive because you demand its arrival. A writer is not someone with special powers. A writer is someone who, with luck, occasionally finds a way to share an idea or an image with the the world, or whatever tiny piece of the world picks up our book and reads it and finds something within those pages. But there are lots of other ways to connect, even for writers. I come back to connection, to navigating the world. The world is what interests me. Relationships interest me. And, yes, spiritual life in particular interests me, even though or maybe because it’s almost impossible to put that life into words. (This is why we need images.)
Long story short. I’m happy to keep writing and practicing the craft of writing (see items #3 and #4 on above list). But I think I’m being called out beyond the borders of the page. I think there are other ways and means of connecting to the world using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about writing and shaping narrative, but also using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about being human, being mortal, being fallible, being forgiven, and loving and being loved.
Anxiety is not a stranger in this house.
Lately, it’s been visiting me regularly. I suppose it could be grief. It could also be the loose, unfinished nature of the work I try to do. I’ve trained myself to be patient, to trust, to allow things to unfold in their time, not to push too hard, not to rush the process. But it’s taken training because I am actually someone who appreciates a firm decision. I like to make plans and execute them. In the fuzzy existence of being a writer, plans seem forever in flux, at the mercy of whim or economics or both. I like to take action, I like to make and to do. But there is only so much I can make or do or act upon in this fuzzy existence of being a writer. If that is where I exist. If that is what I am.
Anxiety is not a stranger.
I haven’t cartooned for two days. Soccer season is upon us, and most evenings are packed and late. I haven’t shifted my routine to cartoon at another time, or even to cartoon in another fashion — by speeding up the process, or limiting my expectations, drawing faster, messier, more piecemeal. I’d come to expect something of myself in my drawings, which had become less and less like cartoons. (That sentence is written deeply in the past tense, I realize.)
Anxiety preys on expectations.
I’ve been writing. Diligently. Every day. But the project is self-indulgent. It’s all about the writing itself, language, structure, stripped down sentences, ideas, and not at all about the plot. I’m torn: do I write to please myself, or do I write to please others? I think that by pleasing myself I will please almost no one else.
Anxiety is another word for doubt. Self-doubt.
It is rainy today. I haven’t sat outside on my stump. Sometimes, the meditation soothes me, especially listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. Being outdoors soothes me. Yesterday evening, we gathered to bury the ashes of my stepmother. The beauty of where we were came rushing up to meet us. A wide softly sloping ploughed field, a stand of thick green trees. As the brief ceremony beside the grave began, I saw a hawk holding over the field, riding the air currents in a soft sloping arc.
Later, we sang: I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.
The comfort of the gospel songs felt like medicine, and made holy space, and we kept hearing a lone bird chirping in the trees overhead, as if it were joining our song.
Anxiety reminds me of all the smart, brave, kind things I should have done and did not do. Anxiety reminds me of all the wrong, stupid, foolish things I have done. Anxiety plants inertia.
Sometimes, it seems I am so closed, even to myself, that only writing will dig up what hurts. But I don’t know what hurts, if anything. I don’t know why a sensation of nervous energy froths beneath my ribs, no matter how I rise early to exercise it into submission. I wonder, what have I learned from sitting down to write this post? Perspective is a long game. Introspection comes up short.
I’ve been wandering through a book kindly sent to me by my Canadian publisher, Anansi, called The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, by Sharon Blackie. One of her suggestions is to find a place to return to, daily if possible, outside somewhere. A place where you can sit and simply be, and observe the natural world around you.
At first, I fantasized about biking or walking to a nearby park to sit beside the little creek that runs through it. But after several days of not biking or walking to the park to do this, I recognized that, as is often the case, fantasy and reality are two divergent paths. I do love my fantastical life, as lived in my imagination, but down here in reality, setting into action even small life changes requires a different toolbox.
Let me back-track.
I’ve just finished a three-day workshop on instructional skills (teaching skills), which was intensive, immersive, challenging, and rewarding. My takeaway could apply to life as surely as it applies to lesson-planning: to meet your objective, you need to identify it clearly, and create a process that leads you toward it.
So if my objective or goal is to sit outside in nature, and specifically, to find a place that I can return to daily if possible, what process would lead me toward that goal?
The answer turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, in this example. Best of all, it emerged naturally. After several days of not biking or walking to the park, one morning last week, I went to the back yard and sat down on a stump. Something must have called to me. I’d just walked my youngest up to meet his friends before school and instead of going into the house as usual, I went into the yard. The dog was with me, the air was sweet and temperate, and the buds were at their very newest, just barely emerging in a soft fuzz of yellow and green overhead. I took off my sandals and sat with bare feet in the grass. I closed my eyes. I listened to the birds and the traffic, and the jingle of the dog’s collar.
Aha. I’d found my spot, my place outside in nature to which I could return almost daily.
So I’ve been returning, not quite daily, but often enough to see already small changes in the grass and weeds and flowers. Today, I opened my eyes after a ten-minute meditation and thought, This is my work, too.
It might not look like work. And it might not register as work, because it is so full of pleasure. But I know that in order to write, to create, and yes, to teach, I must be contemplative. I must reflect. I must be quiet and listen and observe and watch, and be. In this quiet place — quiet on the inside, I mean — such wonderful fantastical ideas play across my mind. So much of my work happens in the imagination. So it is inevitable that some of these ideas will capture my interest enough to be named as possibilities to pursue here in the real world.
The process by which these possibilities are achieved seems to me both practical and mysterious. We are ever-changing, and our needs and interests are ever-shifting. The process by which we move toward goals, and the goals themselves, also change and shift, as they must; often unconsciously. I like when I can recognize what’s happening and celebrate it. I like when I can recognize what I want to have happen, and can tweak my daily routine to see it come about.
Exercise is one area where it’s been easy for me to set goals and achieve them. These goals have changed and continue to change, affected by injury, age, and intention. I am aware of both the changing nature of my goals, and of the changing processes required to meet them. Therefore, I feel ease and flexibility in my approach. Parenting is the same for me, somehow; ever-changing, but replete with clear objectives: to support and to love. The work might be hard, but the meaning of the work is clear.
Naming a goal is perhaps the most difficult step. Narrowing it down. Understanding it, understanding why you want this particular change, or outcome. Committing to it. Why do I want to sit quietly in nature as often as possible? Immediately, answers float to the surface. Because it calms me, because it connects me to something bigger than myself, because it clears my mind. It helps me to see the bigger picture. It feeds my spirit.
What if I were to name a different goal: to publish another novel. I’ll confess that my motives feel less clear in this example, even though the goal appears straightforward. Certainly, I understand the process. But the underlying objective, the greater why of it all, eludes and troubles me; no doubt it’s different now than it was when I first published. And so I wonder … Is it to further my professional career, both as a writer and a teacher? Is it to share knowledge in a creative way? To entertain an audience? Is it to earn a living? Is it to publicly express ideas important to me that can’t be otherwise expressed? Is it to garner attention and feed my ego? (How I fear this last intention, how I fear it might be a secret intention I hide even from myself.)
It seems to me that writing a novel expresses a different intention than publishing a novel. I’m at ease with the former; I’m uncomfortable with the latter.
Yet I want to name it as a goal. I want to publish another novel.
I want to learn from the process, again, how to go forth into the world carrying an idea, and how to share it openly, generously, without fear or shame. I want, also, to polish an idea until it becomes a publishable book, full of breathing characters that live beyond me.
Somehow, my body understands that sitting quietly on a stump is part of the process that will lead me there.
What would a writing community look like?
Okay, here’s the thing: I don’t know. But I have a few ideas. Could you please add yours?
A small workshop group that meets regularly to read and critique each other’s writing. In the classroom, I create small groups who read each other’s rough drafts, prepare comments, and present their editorial feedback in person, face to face. Because each student has submitted work for scrutiny, they recognize each other’s vulnerability in their own. Often students will tell me that they were paralyzed with anxiety before their first workshop, while afterward they feel energized, surprised to discover that they actually enjoyed the experience.
A writing partner. I meet with a friend on occasion to write at her kitchen table, while she does the same. When we’re finished, we read each other what we’ve written (or show each other, if it involves cartoons, which it might). I like working while someone else is working too — working in parallel. But best of all, I like the immediacy of sharing what I’ve just made, which is too fresh and new to be anything but marvellous. And because what we’ve made is so fresh and new and marvellous, there is no critique involved. We just enjoy, and let the thing be what it is. I really like that.
An online group or FB page. When I was running the template for my creativity course, I made a FB page so that participants could share the work they were doing. But not everyone used it. I’ve noticed this with other online FB groups to which I belong … not everyone feels comfortable posting in a semi-public forum to semi-strangers.
A fellow traveller. Occasionally, I meet to talk shop with a local writing friend. We’ve never shared our works-in-progress with each other; instead, we give each other the support and encouragement of fellow travellers on an often bumpy road. There’s a lot we don’t need to explain to each other, and that’s a relief. Over the years, I’ve also reached out to more experienced writers to ask for advice, and have received kind and generous responses.
A blog, like this one. You’re out there. I love hearing from you, because I confess the conversation can feel one-sided at times. Maybe that’s why I forget that my blog has offered me terrific literary connections over the years — almost a decade’s worth of connections, in fact.
Literary magazines. I drop in to The New Quarterly’s office on campus to say hello from time to time. I also find that just reading other writers’ work gives me a sense of connection. Sometimes I just have to respond, often on my blog, though occasionally I’ve written a letter to a writer I don’t know to express appreciation.
Other creative writing teachers. I have not accessed this community at all. There are only a couple of professors who teach creative writing at UW and I’ve utterly failed to reach out to them.
Something I notice as I gather up these ideas. My ideal community is give-and-take. It is non-hierarchical; everyone involved is a participant whose voice has equal value. It feels really good — like friendship does. It’s a conversation. It’s about sharing.
And that’s it, off the top of my head.
Please share your thoughts and ideas with me. Are you a writer seeking community? Maybe you’ve established community already? Maybe you’re not a writer, but you can pinpoint what connections have fed your work and life? What does community mean to you, in practice, not just in theory?
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.
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