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.
A person wonders whether she can carry home the things she learned, whether transformation in a radically different setting from home is sustainable. A person yearns to be the self she was while she was away. But a person knows, coming home is coming back to a crowd of needs waiting to be met. Even the house needs her. A person has so many loves. Loves are obligations but loves are also earned and cherished and what would a person write about were she to have no loves to tend to?
I can hold two oppositional thoughts in my head at the same time. I want to go home. I miss my family. I want to stay forever in this ridiculously rich creative space.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m home from Omega, in upstate New York, home from the Lynda Barry + Dan Chaon workshop, a 5-day intensive experience in a summer-camp-like setting, with an amazing yoga class every morning, ultra-healthy vegetarian/vegan food served three times daily, virtually no responsibilities, no chores, and perhaps most critically, almost no emotional labour except for the work that poured onto the page. My mind was uncluttered and immediately more open to images and connections. Will I be able to be joyful, I wondered on the evening we arrived, will my spirit find lightness? Is it still possible? I had my answer in less than a day: yes. It was so easy, under the circumstances, to be playful, attuned to what’s under the surface, easy to meet any challenge.
Writing isn’t easy, but it’s enjoyable, said Lynda Barry. She likened it to seeing runners go by in the middle of the day, and you can tell they’re enjoying it, but you never once think, hey, that looks easy. Writing — it’s the same. What this week kindled in me is a fire for the writing. For the possibility in writing, which is seductive to someone who entertains as rich a fantasy life as I do.
After Lynda Barry said goodbye, on the last morning, Dan Chaon, with whom she co-taught this workshop, helped us debrief our experience. Someone asked him about writing to an audience, and his answer had me in tears. It must have answered something very deep inside me, something neglected, lost, forgotten. I’m writing to my peers, he said. I’m writing to the writers I love, my kindred spirits.
I’m writing to my peers.
Am I capable of thinking of the writers I admire as peers? How does it change my mind and body to think: I am writing to Helen Oyeyemi. I am writing to Rumi. I am writing to Eden Robinson. I am writing to Ann Patchett, to Rilke, to Mavis Gallant, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to Mary Oliver. Feelings of love and awe and excitement come over me. I am writing so my work will speak to their work. In Lynda Barry’s classroom, we show our drawings to each other, but we also show our drawing to each other’s drawings. It sounds flaky, but it’s a reminder: this work, once created, lives a life separate from our own.
On Wednesday, I walked the labyrinth on campus, and spent a lot of time writing — my own writing, not guided writing. It was late in the evening. I decided to do one last project before snack and bed, something I’d been wanting to do for awhile: make the Rilke poem I’ve memorized and repeat often into a little cartoon. For the pictures, I looked at my peers’ attendance cards, hanging from the walls, and I chose images that seemed to speak to the words in the panel, and I copied them as best I could. All the drawings are drawings I admired, made by hands and minds I did not know. Then I taped the cartoon to the classroom wall and left it there for the rest of the week.
It was the kind of space that makes a person want to leave behind gifts. But on the last day, I untaped the cartoon from the wall and brought it home. It was the kind of space that makes a person want to believe she can bring what she found there home.
I know we were in another world, a bubble of creative vibes and chickpea scramble, but what was happening in the world was with us too, if at a remove. I mean, there we were in the United States of America during the week when the president spoke out in support of Nazis. There was pain and confusion in that classroom too. This feels like a crisis, said Lynda Barry, doesn’t it feel like a crisis? And everyone said yes. We are facing a crisis. What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do?
She didn’t have an answer. She just had us knuckle down and draw ourselves as a dejected Batman, draw the statue of Liberty with our eyes closed, make a map of a familiar walking path. And then she made us show our neighbour.
xo, Carrie aka Treetop Annie
On the weekend, I walked to the library with my elder daughter. While she browsed in the non-fiction stacks — the theoretical physics section — I played a little game that has served me well over the years: I wandered a little further (no theoretical physics for me) and plucked titles at random from the shelves, my choices based only on title or subject. In quick succession, I skimmed and rejected two books on Scottish folk and fairy tales, but my third choice had me sitting cross-legged on the floor, entranced.
It was a biography of Rachel Carson, the American scientist who became famous for her books about the sea and the beauty of the natural world, and who is remembered now as the author of Silent Spring, a book that warned the public about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Silent Spring was published in 1962; Rachel Carson died in 1964 of cancer. If you google Rachel Carson, you will find that to this day she is reviled in some circles as a “feminizi ecoterrorist.” The biography, Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear, and published in 1997, is a little more nuanced. It evokes a portrait of a self-effacing, deeply intelligent, patient, hard-working woman who was led by her love of nature and science to become outspoken on conservation issues. Rachel Carson began her career as a government biologist, writing educational pamphlets on a variety of subjects. But she’d always wanted to be a writer. Science became her subject. And with enormous effort and obsessive care, Rachel Carson fashioned a successful literary career; eventually, she became successful enough that she could afford to resign from her government post, in her mid-40s, to devote her life to writing about science in poetical narratives that appealed to a broad audience.
It goes without saying that Rachel Carson was an unusual woman for her era. What strikes me most, however, is how fresh and relevant her message remains today.
Even though the book was an enormous tome, I decided to check it out and carry it home, and I spent the weekend reading it with pleasure. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy biographies, especially of writers. I look for clues, I nod in recognition, or admit to envy for those who have a knack for self-promotion. Rachel Carson’s attention to detail, her push for publicity, her irritation with her first publisher, who failed to promote her first book — all of this impressed me. She had a vision for the entire publishing process and she saw it through, little deterred by criticism, yet open to critique, actively seeking it out, so as to better her own work. She also frequently turned down promotional opportunities, speeches, honorary degrees, etc., to preserve time and space for her research and writing. She knew how to say no. (Is it too late for me to learn?)
Rachel Carson lived with her mother, who kept house for her; she was the main breadwinner for her family, which included at times her older sister and brother, mother and father, and later, her orphaned nieces. She did not marry, had no children. Our lives, in their domestic details, do not much meet and overlap.
But reading about her life has got me thinking about the importance of devotion to a subject; no, the critical imperative of devoting attention to a subject, if one is to hope to learn, to understand, to teach, to share knowledge, to find solutions to human problems large and small. Our lives on earth depend upon it. We cannot be lead by those who would ignore deep, complex knowledge in favour of simplistic superficial fixes. We cannot give power to ignorance. (Too late? Well, then let’s stand true against powerful ignorance.)
Here is Rachel Carson on her belief in the universal accessibility of science:
“We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”
Here is Rachel Carson on the human tendency to focus on egocentric problems, and to fail to see our place in the vast sweep of time:
“Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.”
And here is Rachel Carson on the danger of seeing humankind as separate from nature:
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
Her solution? Wonder and humility.
“Focus attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us everyday.”
Recognize your place in the grand sweep of time. Know yourself to be part of the natural world. Wonder at your participation in the cyclical turnings. In this way, by becoming very small, by being a piece of something much larger than yourself, you will be of the world around you, not against it. I am fascinated by her repetition of the word “destruction” — her insistence that the human belief that we are above nature, not of nature, springs from a dangerously destructive impulse, that it invents and experiments with destruction.
I love when a book finds me.
To tell the truth, I don’t have a lot to say this morning. Yesterday, I came across a photo in the newspaper and felt like I had to respond to it. Because I can now draw, I drew it. I don’t even know how I would write about it. What are the limits of my imagination? The limits of my knowledge are vast. I don’t know the details of what is being shown, except that this photo was taken in Mosul, Iraq. All that seems certain is that these are two people, human beings, a father and his daughter, caught up in the horror of war, which is a man-made horror. “What is happening?” my youngest asked, when he saw this picture. “Their house has been bombed,” I said. “Who bombed them?” But I don’t even know that. According to the caption on the original photo, they live in Islamic State territory, so maybe they’re being bombed by whoever is fighting against Islamic State. Where is evil, in this picture? Where is the enemy? Why is it so easy to destroy, to reduce a building to rubble, to displace lives?
And the question I am most afraid to ask: How is our safety and security linked to this picture?
Propped on my desk right now is a little card on which I’ve written out the Ten Tenets of the City of Joy (I read the Ten Tenets in a newsletter from the Stephen Lewis Foundation, a charity I support). The City of Joy is a residence in the Democratic Republic of Congo that serves women who are survivors of sexual violence (rape is used as a weapon of war in a many conflicts, including in the DRC). You can read more about the City of Joy here.
The Ten Tenets give me something concrete to hold on to when I am feeling despair. Right now, I’m drawn to # 6: Give what you want most. And # 10: Practice kindness. But let me push this reflection further — I am not a victim of violence or a survivor of war. I am, in many ways, the beneficiary of the misery of others; the systems that work for me create disadvantage and disaster for others. And I don’t know how to change that. What would I be willing to sacrifice? I’d like to add one more tenet for myself. # 11: Listen.
I don’t know if this is a good state in which to begin a blog post, while sobbing over today’s newspaper, but I’ve been silent because I don’t know where to begin, not because I have nothing to say, so I will begin here.
This post is written in response to the murder of six Canadian men in a Quebec mosque. It is written in response to Trump’s ban from the US on refugees and people born in seven countries with largely Islamic populations (perhaps temporary, but we shall see; extreme policies are often floated as temporary measures only to become slyly entrenched).
This post is also written in response to the outpouring of peaceful protest that began the day after Trump’s inauguration, less than two weeks ago, and continues today. I was fortunate enough to march in Toronto, in the women’s march, and although I was glad to share the moment with my sister, sister-in-law, and friends, I felt mostly sombre: I thought, this is just the start.
This morning, as soon as the house was emptied of kids, I began to weep, reading the stories of the men who were killed in Quebec City. Ordinary people who lived ordinary Canadian lives, and who believed in ordinary Canadian peace. The attack feels like a betrayal of Canada’s promise. We want to welcome refugees and immigrants. But bigots live here too, violence lives here too.
I am part of a neighbourhood group who has sponsored a refugee family from Syria; they arrived in December. I am fortunate enough to be quite closely involved in their lives here in Canada, helping with ESL, and also, I hope, offering my friendship. They are a beautiful young family, and their project is so enormous — moving to our cold country in winter, speaking no English, two small children, knowing no one — it sometimes overwhelms me to think about it. Yet they appear completely willing to embrace their new reality. I want them to thrive here.
I want Canada to be the promised land, where people thrive. But it isn’t always, is it.
Think about this land. The literal land over which I’m walking. There were people living on this land long before my ancestors (or a branch of my ancestors) settled here as farmers. These people were betrayed by the newcomers, by us, by Canada; not only was the land parcelled up and sold, but for almost a hundred years, residential schools tried to eradicate their cultures, to white-wash and convert and also to outright destroy, a history I learned nothing about in my Canadian education, a history running parallel to the stories we learned, obscured, buried. And this history isn’t past, it continues to inflect our present. When we invite newcomers to Canada, we can’t pretend this isn’t, also, our story: bigotry, violence, destruction, greed.
This might sound small, but I’ll tell you what guts me — the thought that my new friend, new to Canada, could be harassed for wearing her headscarf. I know this could happen — I know this does happen. It happens because of Othering.
I want Canada to be a place where Othering does not happen, where we don’t decide we know everything we need to know about a stranger based merely on how we’ve grouped him or her: according to race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, according to the flimsiest of superficial evidence, according to our own biases and blindness, according to our lack of imagination and empathy. I want Canada to be a place where strangers are welcomed because they have the opportunity to become known, for being themselves, complicated human selves.
Trump’s executive orders are Othering a huge swath of humanity: refugees, Mexicans, Muslims. Be afraid of these people, he is saying, they are not like us.
But they are. They are just like us. They are human. We are all human.
If we forget that, if we erase that, if we ignore that, we are doomed to division, to fear, to hatred, to war.
I am looking for hope. Hope seems to me something that you do, and by doing make real. So I’m looking for hope by spending a few mornings a week with a woman who was uprooted from her home by war, by designing and sharing curriculum that may inspire others to create, by coaching youth soccer, by walking and talking with friends, by getting up early to write, by marching, by making music, by meditating, by praying.
I keep looking for more ways to hope. Tell me yours, please.
Greed might rule but it will never satisfy.
These words popped into my head this afternoon, around 1:15PM. Donald Trump is now president, and he says he is going to put America first. Why does it surprise me that greed rules, that greed as an organizing principle would dominate and ascend to power? It makes perfect sense, and yet I am surprised.
I have been thinking about what makes a person happy; we talk about happiness a good deal in our culture, claiming it, acting it out on social media, even while wondering how to get it. I’m not interested in happiness. What I want is to be at peace, to a live a life that is at peace in the world, with others, and with myself. I don’t mean that I want to avoid conflict, though I don’t choose to antagonize without careful thought. I mean that what I want for myself, and what I hope my children will choose, too, is a life that is bigger than the self.
Greed is inherently self-interested. It is voracious. It is never satisfied. It also happens to be the engine of capitalism as it is currently imagined, and we are therefore caught up in it, whether we like it or not. I am not against trade or entrepreneurship or free markets; I believe, naively you may say, that even business could be run in a way that puts others first. But greed is easier to marshall. It’s in all of us. And our greed isolates us, making it easy to stir up envy, fear, paranoia and blame.
Greed is what we are primed to feel, and how we are taught to live—competing against each other for scarce resources, feasting like gluttons, aiming for the top, winning at any cost, fuelled by our desires, never satisfied.
Never at peace.
How to be at peace?
The answer is simple, not simplistic: focus on the needs of others. Not in a servile way, not in a way that denies your own needs, and not in a way that seeks to control or change others, but with an open heart that is present. Listen. Give your attention. Give what you have. Give your time. Give your energy. Give your talents.
What more could any of us hope for, in this life, than to be present in the life of another? To be invited to share is a gift.
It’s also incredibly easy to do. Think very very small. Think of inviting a neighbour for dinner. Think of going for a walk with a friend. Think of kicking a ball with a kid. Think of what you love to do (to cook, to play soccer, to run, to draw, to sing), and do it. Invite someone else to do it with you.
When our focus turns to others, greed vanishes, and in that moment it has no power over us.