Tonight is my last creative writing class of the term. Because I’m a sessional lecturer, with a contract that expires at the end of each term, there’s no guarantee of teaching a next class. And so there’s no way around this: I’m feeling blue.
When I started teaching three years ago, I didn’t expect I would come to love it. But I have. I will miss working with students when this term ends. I will miss the interaction, the opportunities to relate, to respond, to collaborate, to light a spark, or even just to be present in someone else’s life in a different way than I can be when I’m here in my home office, slumped over the keyboard. (Posture, Carrie, posture!) I will miss what I learn from my students, too. Once upon a time, I would have said that writing fiction is all I know how to do, but I don’t think that’s true, actually. I’m proud of the work I’ve done in my fiction-writing career, but when I send a book out into the world, there it goes, no longer mine. I can’t change what I’ve made. It’s gone from me, and exists at a remove from the present tense. Teaching is almost the opposite experience: it’s about sharing ideas with others in a present, real, interactive, reactive, responsive, empathetic way. I love my quiet space here at home; but I also love being with people, people who are learning skills and becoming themselves, and developing rich inner lives, confidence, a voice. It’s been a privilege to be a teacher. I hope the opportunity comes around again.
A blog reader recently asked me: who or what is your centre?
I would like to consider this thoughtful stranger’s question. Who or what is my centre? Who or what is all of this energy emanating from? Who or what are my guiding principles and goals? Perhaps I’m being too scattershot in my approach at present. Perhaps I need some kind of guiding light, guiding mission statement, coherent ideology. I’ve been less and less willing to put these musings out into the universe, to publish them on the blog; but in silence there is no possibility for connection. I thought of this as I ran with the dogs this morning; it was still dark. We were running down a big hill, and I thought, I fear saying too much, but by saying nothing, I offer nothing. What are photographs, what are blog posts, what are stories if not an attempt to preserve the present moment? But is it preservation I’m after? No, more accurately, it’s being a witness. It’s trying to put into order what I’m seeing. And I’m compelled to share what I see. I want to apologize for my urge to share. But there it is. I’ll admit it motivates me. Is this the what at my centre?
Who or what is my centre? I think of the divine, a connection that unites every living thing, and perhaps every thing that ever lived or will lived. I think of powers beyond my understanding. I think of grace. And spirit.
And I think of presence.
I am motivated by the desire to be present, wholly present, no matter what I am doing.
I am motivated by the idea that play is holy, sacred, a space of safety and learning, a space where imagination and improvisation are celebrated, and all are urged to play along, no matter the skill level. Cooperation amidst competition. Play as learning. Learning as play.
Writing is play: that’s what I hope my students know, too.
I don’t want to be so serious that I lose the lightness of being alive.
I’m using this graphic without permission, because I don’t know exactly where it came from — a friend posted it on FB, and the link took me a website called Mind/Shift, but I didn’t see the graphic there. It looks like it’s by an artist named Sylvia Duckworth — thank you, Sylvia, for drawing me.
This is me.
At times, I’ve done a good job of conforming and I think I can work with others, but basically, this is me. (I’m wondering whether my siblings might all agree that this is them, too. And even a couple of my kids. And my husband. Anyone else feel like you’re looking at a self-portrait?)
I’m in the midst of a decision, and it feels like many of these parts of my personality are demanding airtime: hate the rules, dream big, make lots of mistakes, work independently, risk taker, think with my heart. Instinctively, I understand that to achieve anything, I must fail. It’s the only way to learn. I just don’t think of it as failing, I think of it as problem-solving, circling around an issue, coming at it from a variety of angles, experimenting, playing, rejecting what doesn’t work, trying again, ever-hopeful, dreaming big. But here’s what’s worrying me: if I want to succeed, I’m afraid that I have to look successful — already successful, already complete, already the man with the plan. (And yes, I know I’m a woman; do women find it harder to present like a man with a plan? Here’s an interesting article on the stress women undergo when trying to step into positions of leadership.) I’m afraid that I have to present like I know what I’m doing. Expertise inspires confidence, yes? And I do know what I’m doing, but I also don’t know what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t be interested in doing more of it if I thought I knew everything already — I’m interested because I don’t know, and because I want to learn (yes, as the graphic points out, I’m also easily bored). Because while I intend to get really good at a bunch of things, I never want to feel like I’m done learning.
(Counter-intuitive idea: maybe that’s part of mastering a subject — when you know enough to know you’ll never be done learning. To quote Donald Barthelme: “It is appropriate to say that the writer is someone who, confronted with a blank page, does not know anything.”)
On Saturday, at Waterloo’s Wild Writers Festival, I put a roomful of generously attentive people through a writing boot camp: an hour of intensive labouring and pouring out over the empty page, following guided prompts dreamed up by my imagination. I was amazed, as I always am, at what was waiting to be discovered in the unknown, such fascinating stories leaping onto the page; and I hope the experience for most participants was the same. A sense of excitement, adventure, of who knows what is coming next? I wonder, however, whether the workshop would be as welcoming if you weren’t a creative person — or, more accurately, if you didn’t see yourself as a creative person? Here’s an interesting stat from an article I read on Mind/Shift (titled “Can any school foster pure creativity?”): 95% of second-graders self-identify as creative; but only 5% of high school seniors believe they are creative. I recognize that the writing workshop I devised on Saturday might be a really difficult undertaking if you didn’t identify as creative; but what latent creativity is hiding inside even those who no longer believe they are creative? What if virtually all of us are hard-wired to be creative, at least to some degree? What is the purpose of creativity? Could it be essential to human survival?
Play, beautiful beings. Play on.
Discernment is something Mennonites are expert at; in fact, Mennonites are so good at discernment that it sometimes seems it’s code for clearly we don’t all agree so let’s keep discerning in perpetuity so as to never make a decision. Given that this is my cultural background, perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy process so much. But I do also like to come around to decisions now and again. That said, discernment is rather brilliant, in my opinion. What it does is allow a decision to unfold slowly, with voice given to many different opinions and angles; it’s a process of listening as much as speaking.
This post is a continuation of my thoughts from yesterday’s confession: that I don’t like being the speaker at the front of the room.
I’ve been trying to discern why.
It isn’t that I don’t like being in a leadership position. In fact, I enjoy taking the lead, to which my younger siblings could attest. But there are different styles and types of leadership, and the leadership I prefer to practice is the kind that asks questions, that operates in relationship, that collaborates with, that is creative and responsive and in the moment. I want to ask questions. I want to hear stories, I want to hear and try to understand other perspectives. I want to see my small ideas opening up small ideas in someone else, and I want to be opened up too; I want to learn too.
It’s the reason I like reading and writing short stories, the kind that end in a questioning, open way that unfolds into the reader and the reader’s experience, rather than telling the reader what the answer is. Resonance. That’s what I’m looking for, in everything I do.
Yesterday evening, off I went with my eldest son to coach his soccer team. I was as tired as I’d been all day. There wasn’t time to eat supper. But when we got onto the field, the hour flew by, my exhaustion vanished. I love coaching soccer. I don’t love it because I’m an expert. I’m not. I love it because it’s a creative undertaking, and because I find myself, in this role, engaged with the kids on the team: trying to figure out what will motivate them as individuals, assessing their levels of interest and skill, and asking them to push themselves in small ways—for each player this will be different. I also love it because it’s fun. We’re meeting up so they can play a game.
I think we all need to play. We should all be doing something every day that feels playful, just for fun, something that lifts us out of the ordinary. Something we don’t have to do for any reason other than it makes us happy.
When teaching is going well, it’s for the same reasons. It’s because we’re engaged in a creative enterprise together. Writing and revision should feel playful. I know this won’t always be the case, and writing is work, no doubt about it, but for me—and what I want to share—is that writing, especially fiction, is play. You get to live inside your imagination like you haven’t had permission to do since you were a child. You get to explore whatever interests you. You get to ask questions and wonder and roam freely around your own mind, making it all up, drawing from the back of your mind “perishable moments you hadn’t even noticed that you noticed.” To paraphrase Lynda Barry.
And that’s about where I’ve gotten in my process of discernment. Expect me to release a mission statement in the next decade or so.
P.S. Read this, from the New Yorker (wish I had a subscription!): an inspiring and moving essay by George Saunders about his own creative writing teachers. (Side note: how the heck did Tobias Wolff have time to help parent three children, work full-time leading graduate classes in creative writing, thoroughly read every submission to the program, and write and publish his own books?)
P.S. 2 Here’s how I started this morning. I slept in until 6:45. Then I listened to this song and did kundalini exercises for about half an hour, while the older kids started their day too, but before the younger two got up. It was a good start and I feel much more rested. First discernment decision: I’m limiting my 5AM exercise to no more than three times per week; I’m open to dropping to even less if I’m still really tired. I will reassess in six weeks.
Confession: I do not enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to myself talk.
I do, however, enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to others talk about a subject I’ve opened up for them: this is the method I’ve been using in my class, asking the students to break into smaller groups and discuss a subject, then return to the larger group to share their thoughts, and I love how ideas begin to flow, to cross-pollinate, to deepen, and I am simply a facilitator, responding to the discussion, but not imposing my will upon it. I am not there to be the expert. I am not an expert. This is not to downplay my experiences, simply to state the facts: I have no advanced degrees, no areas of speciality. I am a human being, alive to the world around me, I am a parent, attuned to my children’s needs as best I can be, I am a reader who loves language and the structuring of ideas in many forms, and I am a writer who will never be convinced that accomplishment matters—my own accomplishment, that is. What is accomplishment? It sounds so final. I am interested in process.
I am always willing to examine a problem from a different angle. I am willing to change my mind, based on new evidence, or a new argument.
I want to play and be playful, no matter how old I get.
And so my goals are changing before my eyes. They are changing as the year progresses, this year in which my focus has been WRITE. When I woke up this morning, early and exhausted, I thought that this past year has not been about WRITING at all, but about the after-effects of having written. I wrote, I published, and I am living the part that comes next. And I do not love it. I do not even seem to like it, most of the time. Even while I pour myself into it, even while I work to make the most of what has been offered to me, I only find myself growing wearier and wearier, drained, exhausted, perhaps even depressed. Lost. Uncertain. Bereft of a clear goal to call me onward; a steady dull and dulling march that I continue because I don’t know how to stop.
Here I am.
What comes next? How do I access my passion once again? How do I reset my routines, alter them, even minutely, to feed the life I want to have? If I can’t name that life, can’t see it, how can I make changes to my routines in order to step toward it?
Here is where my imagination stalls out. What do I want?
I want to write challenging stories: stories that challenge me, conceptually, that push me in a new direction.
I want …
Do I want to train for a race? Do I want to teach more classes? Do I want to change careers? Do I want to study yoga or meditation more deeply? Do I want to spend more time with children? Do I want to coach more soccer? Do I want to go on a writing retreat? Do I want more quiet writing days or weeks? Do I want to host more friends for dinner? Do I want to sponsor and host a refugee family? Do I want to make more music?
Oh, what small voice is calling me?
Why can’t I hear you, small voice?
Sometimes I wonder if I need ever write anything else here on this blog, if I haven’t perhaps already written everything I need to write; if the same ideas come around again and again. I just finished reading a memoir by Sally Mann, the American photographer, which is called Hold Still. In May of 2009, I wrote about Sally Mann after viewing, by chance, a documentary on her called What Remains, which was also the title of one of her major photography projects (click here to read that post). Mann’s memoir is lovely, and loving, and offers what feels like genuine and at times unintentional insight into the artist’s mind, her blind spots, her fervour, her view of herself, which may not line up perfectly with the way she is viewed by others.
When you make something, and you send it out to be seen, you lose control over how it is received. She gets that.
There are times when I feel naked, exposed, a character in a story I hadn’t realized I’d been writing. Sometimes I do not know how to be the person at the front of the room. Sometimes I don’t even know if I know how to be the person in the quiet of this room. I don’t know if these people are different people; I would like them not to be, and yet I recognize that a performance is performative by nature, and the domestic self is simply not–but what of the creative self? Does creativity not draw on a bit of everything thrown together, domestic and performative, insightful and riven with blind spots?
It’s been a gruelling start to the new school year, and the marathon of responsibilities continues apace, and to be honest, I feel like I am living a version of life that is unworkable, unsustainable. To fit here, I have to prop my eyes open, I have little time to see friends, I rarely cook or bake, I stagger from one task to the next, I write almost nothing, and I am doing a poor to mediocre job at all tasks required of me. “How do you find time to … ? How do you do it? How do you make time for …?” This question, in its many guises, is asked often of me, and I want to cry when I hear it.
I don’t know. I’m not doing it. I do not have time to. I do not make time for. I am marching bleary-eyed and uncertain toward a goal I cannot see and cannot claim, and yet, I march.
The post that I wrote about Sally Mann, in 2009, was called “On endings.” It’s lovely. I loved re-reading it. It brought me a frisson of excitement, because I was writing about writing the stories that would become The Juliet Stories, and because the retrospective is a comforting viewpoint. But I feel in some ways that I remain in exactly the same position now as then, in 2009: stretched for time, though in new and different ways, and questioning questioning questioning my purpose, my role, my goals, even my desires. Exhaustion rolls through me like fog and bleaches my mind. What remains?
“A year feels like nothing to me anymore, writing-wise,” I wrote, then, more than six years ago. I continue to agree whole-heartedly.
I also see now what I knew already then: that time is what separates those who make something from those who don’t. Well, it’s one of the things. But it’s huge. If your mind is a tangle of appointments and schedules and to-do lists and undone-never-finished-tasks and children and worries and travel and work, you do not have time to spread out your thoughts and sink into them. The physical scattering, the distractions and interruptions, the segmented sliced-up hours: your mind is scattered. How can it settle?
I’ve applied for a grant to earn some time; whether I get this grant remains to be seen, but it’s like I’ve bought a lottery ticket, and I am sitting here holding the ticket and imagining what I would do with this time. I imagine this time clean and crisp and clear, textured by weather and hunger and coffee, hour upon hour without interruption. I imagine it on a windswept hilltop or in a one-room cottage. I am clearly immersed in fantasy. Time is such a luxury. I would like to think I could write my next book beside soccer fields and swimming pools, but I think that I can’t, actually. I can’t. Let’s be honest. Sally Mann makes her photographs alone, hour upon hour in a darkroom. She takes her photographs alone, often, travelling for days or weeks, alone, as she works. The deep gritty stuff happens alone, in quietude, when you’ve fallen down into the depths of yourself, and it is work that doesn’t fit well with much else.
This is not the news that anyone wants to hear–no one wants to hear it. I don’t want to hear of sacrificing one thing for another. But I am already sacrificing many things for many others. One does. It’s the way it goes. The question is: am I doing this consciously, am I choosing this, must I do this, or can I choose otherwise? What would I sacrifice in order to earn that quiet time?
I don’t know. I’m really not sure. I can’t see yet.
Quiet discipline is a massive gamble, and it seems to require the courage (not to mention the resources) to say: this is what I’m going to do, even if it doesn’t work out, even if nothing comes of it, even then, it will have been worth it.
This could be a really really really long post about our truly wonderful family adventure on the West coast of Canada, but I am so pressed for time, having just returned from the truly wonderful adventure with all of the laundry / deficit of food in the house / soccer games upcoming this evening / unanswered emails that it will have to be a really really really short post.
In some ways, I wish we could always be on holiday. I don’t mean I wouldn’t work, because I love my work, and in fact work was a key part of this holiday — I appeared at the Sunshine Coast Festival to present on Girl Runner, and I wrote lots while away, too. I mean, our family would be together all the time, but without the pressure of the every day. We would no doubt bore of this … sleeping in, going for hikes and walks, playing beach volleyball in the ocean, eating out, doing very little in the way of cleaning or upkeep or chores … but it was sweet while it lasted, and I hadn’t tired of it yet.
I hope to post in greater detail soon. The photo above and the one at the top were taken in Vancouver, on an early morning run to Stanley Park. I kept stopping to take photos. It was that beautiful, and that out of norm, for me. Although, strange aside, several people I met while on the Sunshine Coast had been to Waterloo region, and recalled it as a most beautiful place; to which I replied … huh? Please don’t take this the wrong way, Waterloo. I mean, I’ve chosen to live here, not anywhere else on earth, and I love you for many reasons, but geographical features and natural beauty do not top my list. I’ve never been inspired to stop and snap a pic whilst running beside the railroad tracks through campus, for example. To compare:
I know, right? Ocean, sunrise, boats, mountains. Sigh.
Meanwhile, in bookish news:
* I’ll be appearing at the Chapters in Waterloo with The Candy Conspiracy on Saturday at 11AM (click link here for more details)
* It’s just been announced that I’m on the 2015 Journey Prize jury, along with Tanis Rideout and Anthony Da Sa (and it’s amusing to compare the descending head sizes on the official Journey Prize poster)
* Finally, I just opened a package from House of Anansi with the brand-new paperback edition of Girl Runner, including a guide for book clubs, with truly challenging questions (think you could answer them all?)
All for now.
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