This past winter, I developed a 12-week course based on Lynda Barry’s Syllabus (it’s a book), an idea that came from a chance conversation with the woman who camped next to my friend and me at the Omega Institute in New York last summer; we were all there to take Lynda Barry’s workshop. Our tent was an enormous embarrassing behemoth that towered over her one-person marvel of efficiency. Of course, she’d just hiked the Appalachian Trail. And we’d just driven in from Canada in a Ford Fiesta. Let’s just say, we didn’t exactly bond. But one afternoon, we all found ourselves in the swimming hole together, paddling back and forth through the muddy weedy water, and she mentioned that she taught Syllabus as a course (and that she was an English professor). I wondered how, exactly, she taught Syllabus as a course. But we didn’t paddle long enough for me to ask.
At some point, over the fall, I decided to try to figure out how I would teach Lynda Barry’s Syllabus as a course. The result was a 12-week creativity course, which I ran over the winter with a handful of dedicated volunteers, who answered the call-out on my blog, and who stuck with it. And let me tell you, sticking with it was a lot of work. I designed the course to fit within the parameters of a 12-week university term, which would include approximately three hours of in-class time per week, plus homework. All work was done by hand, writing and drawing, in notebooks. My volunteer students did not live nearby, so we couldn’t recreate the energy that would be found within a classroom; nevertheless, they did the work. They sent me samples of their work every week, and at the end of the course created a final project: a short book that combined drawings and text. I can’t express how much joy this brought me.
Of course, I did all the work, too. (To tell the truth, I wanted to invent the course so I could take it!)
Reflecting on its effect, I’ve stumbled upon several unexpected discoveries and insights.
So, here are two BIG THINGS I discovered through my creativity course.
One. External motivation bolsters internal motivation. Inventing for myself a tougher-than-strictly-necessary challenge allowed me to achieve what I set out to accomplish. I must stress that I did this instinctively, not deliberately. In other words, I made the task harder than it needed to be, by increasing the stakes: I involved other people. This had the effect of keeping me on track. Even during weeks that were stress-filled and busy, I continued to create course curriculum and to do the work, because my students were out there, doing it along with me.
What I learned is that a certain level of stress and challenge makes a task more meaningful, and therefore more achievable. We probably all have different thresholds for what would constitute a useful amount of stress, but my takeaway is that I must turn toward challenge and difficulty, rather than away from it.
I also re-discovered the value of creating an external reason for doing something, a goal, an excuse, even if the reason is an invention of your own making. It’s why runners sign up for races—the goal keeps them honest (and keeps their loved ones from questioning why the heck they’re spending a beautiful Saturday morning running 28 kilometres). We need tangible goals, and it helps for these goals to be connected to timelines and deadlines. A goal gives us permission we wouldn’t give to ourselves: Without the invented excuse of the course, for example, I wouldn’t have had the guts to sit in a public place sketching strangers. But the goal is also there to be completed, an accomplishment at the end of all that effort: without the course, I also wouldn’t have made the rough draft of a short graphic novel.
Two. Broadly speaking, creation has two different stages. Both are valuable and necessary. And both require different kinds of time.
The first stage is gathering. The second stage is synthesis.
At the gathering stage, you may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re making things, but you don’t know how they’ll fit together; they may not seem to fit together at all, in fact. If you can let yourself relax and enjoy this stage, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have. You have to give yourself permission to make what you’re making without judging its ultimate point or purpose. You’re making it because it’s an adventure. You have no idea what’s going to bubble to the surface and emerge, and you’re constantly surprising yourself. This work takes up a the bulk of the creativity course.
The wonderful discovery is that this work can be done in bits and pieces, spread out over the hours of your week. All winter, I got up early and wrote from 6:30-7:30AM, for example, never getting to finish what I’d started, and simply picking up where I’d left off when I returned the next day. It’s comforting to know that a great deal of work can be done in this way—that it can fit into lives that are otherwise occupied.
Synthesis is a totally different stage. Synthesis is when you weave your material together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. Synthesis requires an intensive span of uninterrupted time. It is much more difficult (I would say impossible) to do in fits and starts. You also need the capacity to be ruthless and focused. During this stage, you analyze your gathered material for a theme, or repeated images, and you build a coherent narrative around your theme and images. You enter the synthesis stage with an open mind. Your focus is structural. During this stage, you become inventive in terms of fitting disparate pieces together. You also throw out a lot of excellent material because it just doesn’t fit the larger purpose. This is less painful than you imagine it will be in advance because the larger purpose takes precedence. And also because you know the rest of your gathered material may be used for purposes and projects you haven’t yet imagined.
At the synthesis stage, you’re making something bigger, something that will ultimately feel complete (and also, inevitably, imperfect).
In practical terms, you need concentrated time at this stage: a writing week, I would call it. But the good news is, your material can wait for you to make this time.
The other good news is that once you’ve got your structure firmly imagined, you can return to creating the missing pieces using the same strategies you used during the gathering stage.
Here’s my takeaway, and it’s big. When we’re approaching a project, large or small, too often we expect ourselves to start with synthesis: with the big idea, the overview, the unifying theme, the purpose. We start here, even though we have only the vaguest notion of what we might find in our explorations. It actually makes no sense: our ideas haven’t yet been gathered—how could we synthesize them? The pressure can feel crushing. And nothing destroys creativity faster than pressure (and expectation).
What if we gave ourselves permission to start with the gathering? What if we let our ideas accumulate slowly over a long period of time? What if we let the story—the bigger project—find us, lead us, guide us, rather than trying to control and determine it by force? What if we found joy in the process of creation? What if the process was truly joyful, surprising, adventurous, kind of amazingly awesome, in fact?
So that’s a summary of how I spent my winter. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the discoveries I’ve made through my creativity course have been huge, even life-changing. My gratitude goes out to that fellow camper in her hyper-efficient tent, for sparking the original idea. But most of all, my gratitude goes out to those adventurous volunteers who did the work along with me, and kept me honest. I can’t thank you enough.
Girl Runner is the gift that keeps on giving — miraculously and when I least expect it. Yesterday, my agent called with the news that Girl Runner had earned more royalties, enough to help me shore up the flood walls once again.
It’s been a few years since Girl Runner was published, and she owes me nothing. Early on, when the manuscript first sold, I was overwhelmed by the expectation that I would need to write a follow-up that would tick all of the same boxes — sales, attention, literary recognition; a successful book, in other words, that most ephemeral of books. Any attempt was doomed from the outset by my expectations. For awhile, I’ll confess to my great shame that Girl Runner felt like a weight that I had to get out from under, not proof of success, but proof that I was an idiot who had lucked into a fortune much beyond my capacity to repeat. And that may be true enough. But the funny thing is that I don’t mind, now, not at all. I love that Girl Runner exists. She’s been a gift in my life. In a strange way, Aganetha is as real to me as anyone I’ve ever met, and I’m glad I got to know her.
The truth about gifts is that we don’t ask for them. We don’t choose them. We receive them. We can accept what we receive or we can reject what we receive. I don’t know why I spent so much time struggling against the gift that was Girl Runner. My overwhelming emotion now is gratitude.
Whoever I write and publish next, she doesn’t need to be Aganetha. She just needs to be herself.
I can do that.
To do it, I may need a writing week (or four or ten), but I know that I can. It’s strange and foolish and fortunate to feel such hope and optimism in the midst of a personally difficult time in my own life. But this is what writing does for me — gives me hope. There is hope in telling a story, hope in finding a voice. Hope and power, too.
Writing is a gift. It’s the gift I stumblingly try to give when I lead workshops and teach. Story, voice, hope, power: this belongs to you, too. Here.
Blank. I sit before the screen, blank. My thoughts are with people I care about, people I love, people who are facing an illness that everyone fears: cancer. Cancer is so much more prevalent than it once was, it seems. Or maybe cancer existed in greater numbers than was spoken of, once; there was a time when cancer marked a person with shame, though that makes no sense to me. Cancer used to be like Voldemort: a word too terrible to speak. People hid it, kept it secret. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Now, everyone knows someone who has cancer. Most of us probably have close friends or family whose lives have been changed by cancer. It’s a presence in our landscape, it’s almost a place. It has its own geography, its own language, its own time zone.
In my own life, cancer has visited people I love, people very close to me. One of my brothers survived childhood cancer. You’d never know it, now. But I’m sure he knows it. We know it. When he turned forty, it seemed like a dream, a wonderful ordinary dream. I thought about how many other children, treated in his era, were not so fortunate. I thought of the loss to their sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends.
Cancer opens question marks in a life. The unknown looms. What will happen? How long do I have? What do I need/want to get done here on earth? What’s urgent, what matters, and what’s superficial, what can I cast off? But the question marks are always there, have always been there, we’re just not thinking about them. I want to think about them. Life is precious. This is a statement both banal and cliched; and completely absolutely heartbreakingly true. Life is always precious. It seems all the more precious when we’re made aware of how fragile life is. Tough, but fragile. Because life isn’t ours to hold onto. Life is a gift. I think of this New Yorker story about super-rich tech men who are building bunkers in the American desert, preparing to survive nuclear war or some other human-made disaster, and I think: What arrogance, to imagine that you can control what will happen to you; what a waste of resources, splurged on the self. This is how you want to spend your numbered days? All the money in the world can’t buy you immortality. You are mortal, as we all are, you are made of flesh and blood.
So, what to do? What to do, sitting here, feeling blank, feeling angry, feeling afraid, staring at this screen, knowing most piercingly that life is precious, that today is precious, that this hour is precious? I don’t know, any more than anyone else. It is not only life that is precious, it is time, our measure of life. Time is a luxury. Time passes, and we pass through time. Today, I will bake a birthday cake for a nine-year-old. I’ve already wrapped a few carefully chosen presents for him. I’ve walked him partway to school. We hugged at home, but he did not want a hug when we said goodbye on the sidewalk. Today, I will write for awhile and draw for awhile. Today, I will play on a soccer field with a group of lively eleven and twelve year old girls. Today, I will eat cake and watch an excited boy blow out candles, make a wish, open gifts.
I will wish for presence given to the task at hand, each one in turn. Every minute, poured into the task of love and care, patience, devotion, hope, joy, even grief, even that. Whenever I am discouraged, I take a really deep breath. Whenever I am afraid, I take a really deep breath. Life is precious. Breathe deep. Life is a gift. Breathe deep. Right now, today, this hour, life seems like a wonderful and ordinary dream, for which I give thanks.
P.S. I want to add to these reflections after reading two obituaries in the Globe and Mail newspaper today, one about Penelope Reed Doob, a scholar of dance and literature, the other a personal memory about Richard Wagamese, a Canadian-Ojibway writer. Penelope Reed Doob was not only a scholar, but also did medical research, founding a company involved in finding a cure for HIV/AIDS in the late-1980s/early-1990s. “I wanted to save lives,” she is quoted as saying. “However, I eventually wondered what I was keeping people alive for. I thought that dance was one reason why people should enjoy life.” The piece about Richard Wagamese recalls his story about a librarian who helped him when he was homeless. “She opened the world for him. He told us that the librarian taught him to read, see, hear and feel through everything she introduced to him.”
What connects the dots between these thoughts and my reflection, above? To state that life is precious, that it is a gift, is the most obvious of observations. It’s almost too basic. Life must also be worth living—a worth that is felt and experienced. What makes life worth living? For Penelope Reed Doob, it was dance, it was art. For Richard Wagamese, it was also art, music, books, education. For me, it’s play, art, words, creating, sharing, good food, the list goes on and on. There is surviving and there is living. Living should not be a luxury, available only to the privileged or the lucky.
That is all.
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.
Just realized why this morning is feeling emptier than usual. For the past couple of months, I’ve spent Wednesday and Thursday mornings tutoring a new neighbour in ESL, and as of Monday, she’s attending formal ESL classes, which was always the goal. My intention was only to tide her over while she waited to get into the program.
Last week, we spent Thursday morning walking and riding the bus together, so her new route to school would become familiar. The next day, I listened to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast; the February post is Junot Diaz reading Edwidge Danticat’s story “Seven.” At the story’s end, two characters, who are immigrants from Haiti, ride the bus together. The phrase that spoke to me was: trying to see through her eyes.
I spent Thursday morning trying to see through my friend’s eyes, and it seemed that although we moved through the same physical space together, what we saw and heard did not mean the same thing to both of us. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How privilege, skin colour, gender, age, wealth, familiarity, health, past experiences alter the world as we move through it. We exist in relation to what surrounds us, and in relation to how we perceive and are perceived.
Here’s what I wrote after listening to “Seven.”
When I am with my friend, I feel as though I am almost wearing her skin, her headscarf, I feel the exposure and vulnerability of being a newcomer, unaccustomed to the weather, to the language, to what is safe and what is dangerous. As we walk along a sidewalk, I see she fears the big black dog whose owner clips its collar to a leash on our approach — she recoils as she passes the dog, politely pulled off the sidewalk by the owner, who says good morning. But she does not seem to fear the white man and woman who come toward us with dyed and shaven hair, who I fear might be skinheads. Instead, I recoil.
Later, as we arrange ourselves on the bus, it is I who stagger unsteadily to a seat, uncertain of my balance, while my friend stands braced against the stroller and a pole, concerned for me. Her face is tired. She has been in Canada for almost three months. I think suddenly, she is tough, tougher than I can guess, tougher than me. All this time, I have wanted to protect her, but as I see her now I am ashamed to have been so reductive. She has told me about the guns coming to Syria, bang bang. She has endured more than I can imagine. Even so, I recognize her anxiety as she tries to orient herself. I want to assuage it, to reassure her.
I tell her, This is the stop. I pull the line and stand. The men move out of our way to let the stroller by. I want to help her lift the stroller, but she doesn’t need my help. We begin to walk. She sounds out the letters on the building across the street: “Don McLaren Arena.” Yes, I say, ice skating. I mime ice skating. She laughs and I think she doesn’t understand so I continue to mime. She taps her head. What she’s trying to tell me is that she will remember “Don McLaren Arena” — this is her stop. Great idea! I stop ice skating and exclaim.
We walk in silence for awhile. I don’t want to fumble with my phone and Google translate in this bright sunshine. I see a man walking a big black dog, ahead, different man and dog. They are walking on a cross pass away from us. In Syria, dogs inside the house? I ask. She laughs, No! Brother, chickens, sheep, dog, she says. Outside. I tease her: Maybe someday, you will have a dog. In Canada, so many people have dogs and cats. No, no, no, she says. No dog, no cat. A bird, she says to me.
I can see her face, turned toward me, smiling, an objectively beautiful face, no makeup, clean and memorable. She is wearing a light-coloured headscarf.
A bird, I say.
A bird, she agrees. We walk past Tim Horton’s where she and her husband have come to buy coffee and roll up the rim to win. He won another coffee. She was hoping for a car, a TV. But just a coffee. No one wins the car, I tell her. She tells me that a little dog scared their daughter, who is five, who began to scream in fright, and the dog’s owner, a woman, picked up the dog and held it in her arms. It was okay? I ask. It was okay.
My friend is opening up the world to me. I see that I can’t see through her eyes, though I try, though I want to. I can only walk beside her, often in silence. Wondering what this place looks like through her eyes. Is it ugly or beautiful? Welcoming or closed? Is it safe or dangerous? Is it home? Could it be home? Everything looks both brighter and starker when I’m walking beside her. There is a clarity to the light, and a barrenness, as if the objects and structures are being stripped back to their bones.
The light is bright for February, and we are warm. Even my friend, wrapped in her black coat, always cold, admits that she is now warm. The baby starts to fuss as we near their apartment. I don’t want to say goodbye. It seems I receive as much from her friendship as she could possibly receive from mine, because I enjoy her company, because I am happy when I am with her, more curious, more alert, more aware, because even a bus ride feels purposeful, somehow, when I’m trying to see through her eyes.
I’m blogging during the Superbowl, pausing to go watch the commercials and the half-time show.
I want to write about the lovely rituals that are sustaining me these days. At some point every day I spend 15 minutes doing kundalini yoga while listening to music (Mongolian throat singing; Tanya Tajaq; and Leonard Cohen’s last album are my current go-to’s). I follow yoga with 10 minutes of meditation, using Headspace, which is an online app. I’ve added in 15 minutes on the spin bike once a day, too, to get my heart rate up and start working on my cardio again, now that my head can handle it. And I’m walking about four times a week. Of course, I’m also writing by hand and spending a lot of time drawing, too. My hours are blessed and peaceful.
I am grateful.
I’ve been thinking that artists must be humble, must have humility before a higher power, as Leonard Cohen himself seemed to, because to make art is to be reliant on gifts beyond our grasp. We can only beg to be blessed, to be used, to serve, to be spoken through. So the work that gets done, the effort and discipline, it’s like trying to break a code, or tap some mystery that we know does not belong to us and cannot be grabbed, only given. Maybe that’s why my daily rituals seem so powerful to me.
I used to believe that work was the thing. Now I believe almost wholly in mystery. I believe in stumbling, through work but also through ritual, through faith, through any trick that might cast a spell, into the path of mystery; you might say, also, into the path of grace. I believe that whatever I’m here to do, I do not know, and it isn’t up to me to decide. What’s up to me is the choice to show up, again and again, with hope. To sing great praise, to open myself, to listen. I know nothing. I know nothing of what I am making, only that I am making it, planning it and studying for it (reading, researching, filling my brain with information and images) and making it. Surprise is the best part of the exchange. I am almost always surprised by what I’ve made, on the other side of making it. It is a simple joy. I want to share this joy, because it seems so easily discovered, like it’s always there, always waiting to be found.
I believe in mystery. I believe that anything I’ve made comes not from me, but through me, and it is not for me, and anything I gain from it is not for me, but for a power greater than myself, something I can’t know, but only glimpse, as through a glass darkly.