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.
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.
New ritual: I begin my desk-time by lighting a candle. The expectant flare of the match and comforting flickering flame marks a small opening moment to help me begin. The candle, which I almost felt ashamed of purchasing (impulse buy; no reason why; it was on sale), is suddenly useful, a tiny reminder of the word I’ve chosen to meditate on for this year: perhaps as a guide, perhaps as warning. Even the tiny flame of a single candle is mesmerizing, its movements mysterious, its light enticing.
The word fire initially drew my attention because I was thinking of creative fire, of passion, of burning brightly in pursuit of art. Which sounds howlingly pretentious, I realize. But I felt comforted by the image that accompanied the word: of a furnace, deep inside, glowing with steady bright heat.
Fire is dangerous, as elements are. I pictured, too, a fire that burns across a prairie, leaving behind blackened space, but also a place for new growth in fertile soil — not a wasteland, after all.
Fire is sacred, precious, life and death. Without it, we would be hungry and cold in the dark.
A fire either is, or is not. When I blow out this candle, its flame vanishes. What keeps a fire alive? It needs oxygen to burn, and energy. It devours fuel. Some fuel burns bright and quick, while other fuel burns slow and steady. But in time, all fuel will run out and must be replenished.
You can’t leave a fire untended. It will burn out, or burn out of control. Either way, it needs attention.
What fires am I tending now? What feeds my fire?
I think of the story of the Little Match Girl, which I adored as a child of melodramatic bent. How the brief flame of each lit match gave the girl temporary comfort and relief — and visions of warmth and plenty — even while she froze to death, shoeless, in the street. Fire as illusion of heat.
Fire as passion, fire as creative, fire as necessary; fire as destructive, fire as hungry, fire as all-consuming, insatiable.
I fear this word and yet it draws me. What would happen if I let my fire burn? What does that even mean? Do I know?
One last image that keeps coming around: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “First Fig.”
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light!
PS The cartooning project continues, day by day. I’m posting a daily cartoon on Twitter and Facebook, and plan to use some here too, in future posts.
My word of the year for 2017 was STAND. As an exercise, partway through the year, I looked up all the meanings and synonyms for the word, and wrote them onto an index card that I carried around in my purse until at some point it turned into this stained and crumpled piece of paper you see above. The definition filled the entire card, in tiny letters, both sides.
1. v. To be upright, to be on one’s feet, to rise to one’s feet
2. v. Put, place, set
3. v. Take a position
4. v. Support, uphold, argue, champion, defend
5. v. Be present, remain, stay, exist, persist, continue, prevail, hold
6. v. Endure, abide, sustain, remain, last, bear up, carry on, withstand, suffer, submit to, face, weather, stomach, persevere
7. v. Be
There’s more, too. Of course STAND is also a noun with several meanings, including: position; kiosk; and a group of trees.
It was my original intention to explore meanings #3 and #4, above. I was going to take a stand and protest and speak out. But instead my year leaned heavily on #5 and especially #6. The many meanings of STAND expanded. The word took the shape of a tree in my mind, rooted with a strong spine, a good word and a good image for a year that rippled and buckled with unexpected heartache and news difficult to digest (most of which I’ve chosen not to write about on this blog, because it is either too personal or not directly my own story to tell).
STAND came to feel like a necessary, useful word, easy to incorporate into my thinking. I finished the year with greater confidence and inner quiet, at least about my writing. The word, and especially the image of a tree, seems to invite patience and calm, to look at the world and one’s own desires and human failures from a wide-angled view, as from a tree-top. In retrospect, I think I strived for less this year but nevertheless did the work I wanted to do. What more can a person ask for? It’s going to be hard to let this word go.
But it’s time to choose a new word, for a new year. I’m meeting with a group of friends tonight to share our new words. (I will share my word with you after I’ve shared it with them.) The bar is high. I’m a bit afraid. What hidden part of myself is seeking illumination?
To be continued …
PS If you choose a word of the year, please leave your word for 2018 in the comments.
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.
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