Today’s subject is difficult to write about without sounding flaky. So maybe I will save my flaky subject for another day and write instead about my friend Asmaa, who arrived in Canada with her husband and two children a little over a year ago, as a refugee. As I’ve mentioned before, I was part of a neighbourhood group that sponsored the family, which now numbers five; their son was born in September. I realized pretty quickly that there are different ways to help, when sponsoring a family. Money is important, but time is maybe even more important, and can be harder to give. This is all to say, the relationship was not one I entered into without deliberation: what am I able and willing to give? I didn’t want to commit to something I couldn’t sustain. We began by inviting the family for a meal not long after they’d arrived. They spoke no English, nor French either. We communicated at the table using Google translate, hand gestures, facial expressions, etc. My kids thought it would be impossible — what would we say, and how, to these perfect strangers? — but I knew it wouldn’t be. So much can be said through laughter and the willingness to engage. And I knew it was important for my kids to see and discover what was possible.
Last winter, I spent time with Asmaa, tutoring her twice weekly in ESL until she got a placement at a language school. Then, I spent time with her at midwife appointments, helping with translation (although I’ve learned only a couple of words in Arabic), but mostly just being along to ask questions and hang out. And then her baby was born, and although I didn’t arrive in time for that, I was with her and her family in the hours immediately after his birth. And then, this fall, we started ESL again together, because she can’t go back to school until the baby is old enough for the daycare on site. Today, we talk almost entirely without Google translate. Think about that! She has lived in Canada for just over a year, and we have had conversations about everything from wearing hijab to wedding ceremonies to favourite foods to shopping and many other subjects in between. Sometimes we don’t open the ESL books. We just talk instead.
The subject I sat down to write about, today, is this: it is the mystery of our spiritual existence. Sometimes it seems so clear to me that while we live in an embodied world, as embodied beings, it is the mystery of spiritual existence that matters most (to me): communicating that which is somehow beyond words, beyond our logical understanding, truth that is felt and experienced and craved and known. Everything I do is about this — about expressing and experiencing the mystery of connection, the unseen but felt truths beneath the surface, the big repeating foundational transitions through which we all pass.
I will write more about this some other day. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about being with Asmaa in her living-room, holding her baby, sampling her food (makdous: grape leaves stuffed with ground walnuts and red peppers and packed in olive oil), and trying to imagine and understand what she’s left behind and what she hopes to find here. I think of the mistakes I’ve made. The time I asked her what she played when she was child — had she ever played soccer? I asked, knowing this was far-fetched, but not entirely comprehending how far-fetched. No, she had not played soccer. Play did not apply to her childhood, I understood.
I’m out of time for now. Kevin thinks I should write more about my mornings with Asmaa, but I’m not sure whether even this post may be a violation of our friendship. Yet I do want to understand better what I’ve learned while talking with her and sharing time with her, and the best way for me to understand anything is to write it out. I often realize, when I’m with Asmaa, that the full picture is so much more complicated than I can comprehend. Sometimes I feel quite rocked, to my core, by something she’s said. Lost in translation. Found in translation?
Signing off for now.
I am standing in a stream of sunlight that warms me to my bones, despite the cold air. The sun is low in the sky during this season, this month, my least favourite. I’m walking the dogs, both of whom have cancer, both of whom still seem to enjoy being alive. My youngest and I are waiting at the corner where he meets a friend for the walk to school. We are early. He says, Let’s talk about something!
The wish to be writing is deeply on my mind. The messages I send to myself through my cartoons give me a hit of confidence I can’t access otherwise. How much I want to finish writing this book, but more, how much I long for it to be a beautiful creation, beautifully written. Do I still know how? The fear of my own brain and its lack is profound.
I am in the kitchen, making a salad for supper. No one else is home; they’ve all gone to a soccer game. I am leading a workshop in less than hour and I’ve turned on the radio in a form of panic that is slowing my every move to a crawl. I could hardly turn off the computer and stop writing—editing—the scene I worked on earlier today. Already, it is very dark outside. I pick away at the plastic box of greens, bought on special, most of the leaves covered in slime, viscous and clingy, while the news tells me about Justin Trudeau’s exchange with President Duterte of the Philippines. Trudeau’s version is rosy, while in his Duterte swears and says Bullshit! Trudeau seems quintessentially Canadian in the way that I suspect I can be—Pollyanna-ish. Chirping about the possibility: not about what is, but what might be, what we wish it to be. Like this salad. I wash the grossest leaves and put them into the bowl. I chop an avocado. Do you have time for this? Yet I am calm and deliberate. Add the word meditation after any activity and you will find your approach changes. You sink into the greens, their individual peculiarities invite you to notice—red veins, stems, the smallest leaves are toughest and least affected by the slime.
I bike past two men walking in the park. As I pass, I hear one say to the other: “So this woman is really into baking cakes …” Whatever I was expecting to hear, it was not this.
I am standing in a stream of sunlight, wishing every hour of every day were spent standing in a stream of sunlight. I crave warmth. I crave comfort in all forms. I am writing a scene in which my character, an older woman, cannot look at the world without seeing its potential for danger, risk, misery, grief. Everywhere she looks. I think the woman is me, today. It is not that I am sad, exactly, only that I see how limited we are in the span of our lifetimes to alter the direction toward which human experience leans. I admire the human spirit. We make beauty out of grief, song from sorrow, we find ways to cope, to share our joys; but we seem also to be wired to damage and destroy so much of what we create, either by accident or design. I seem to walk around in a constant state of grief and outrage. I yell at the Style section of the Globe: you shouldn’t be allowed to sell pants for $3000! It’s immoral, it should be illegal! Why do the rich seek to enrich themselves further? Why is greed a fundamental operating principle? Why are those with the least blamed and shamed for what they do not have? Why do I have so much when so many have so little, not even security, not even a home?
I am standing in the sunlight. Let’s talk about something, my youngest says. Okay, I say, what do you want to talk about? I hope it is about moose or elk or eagles. I hope it is about the way bears and frogs hibernate. I hope it is about how high he can climb the dead apple tree in our backyard and what he sees when he’s at the top.
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.
It’s a gorgeous fall day. I’m getting ready to go for a bike ride, followed by some writing time. Yet it feels like my inward landscape, my interior weather is at odds with the beauty of the day. My inward landscape and weather is affected by who knows how many forces, some obvious, some unwanted, some self-imposed, some hormonal, some downright mysterious and I’m thinking that right now I can’t sort out what, exactly, is making me unhappy. Because that is what I am. I am eaten with anxiety, abuzz with nervous energy, my mind whirling, distracted, bewildered, impatient, upset. On my brief run this morning, I attempted to be mindful: pay attention to the sounds around me, pay attention to what I was seeing, pay attention to smells (not good — it was garbage day). Within seconds, my mind was already flitting down dark alleyways of repetitive negative thought. I would bring it back to the streetlight shining on a pile of wet leaves, but a few steps later, my mind was gone again, chasing thoughts that feed on misery.
Why would my mind want to feed on misery? Why wouldn’t it, instead, be drawn to the sound of my feet making a rhythmic beat on the pavement? Why not sink into the sound of breath, patterning with the beat of my feet?
I have upon my back a straw. I either have to figure out how to contain it, how to compartmentalize my responsibilities so as to contain it and carry it, or the straw is going to break me.
That is what I’m thinking about today, as I prepare to climb onto my bike and pedal across town, with the hopes of finding a new scene for my book. My books needs many new scenes. That is the other news of the day, but that does not discourage me. I love these characters — why would I not want to spend more time with them?
Wish me luck, friends. So much depends upon it.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, fires.
But ordinary life goes on, and outside my window is a cool Friday evening, with sunlight splashing shadows through the still-green leaves of early September. I wrote today. After a week of disappointing attempts to write, this was truly a gift. I wrote with a friend, and when we were done, we read to each other what we’d just written, and that was the most magical part of all — that joy of sharing what did not exist only an hour before. I may have to add this point to my manifesto (see below): read what you’ve written to an appreciative audience immediately upon writing it!
re the manifest0: On one of the last days at the cottage, I wrote out a set of reminders for myself, in an attempt not to lose what I’d gained. But then I got home, and it was all too much — the hours of each day consumed themselves, often quite wonderfully, but with only a few words set to page, and the words seemed weak, the magic drained from them by the heaviness of early mornings, forms to be filled, course prep, answering emails I’d abandoned, meals, scheduling, driving children, walking dogs, and on and on. That is why this afternoon’s blissful writing time was such a gift.
For the record, here’s my message to myself, from the office overlooking the lake.
Something I am learning is that writing by hand is actually the very quickest way to access a character or a scene. Something has changed for me over the past year, and at an accelerated pace this past month (the beautiful amazing writing and resting month of August, 2017, as I shall hereafter recall it). In my hand and on the page, I find access to fiction. This book has been a long time coming to fruition, and perhaps that is due in part to my needing to learn a new way to write and think — the Lynda Barry way (but also the post-concussion way). When this book is done, I will dedicate it to my friend Lisa, who introduced me to Lynda Barry. The detail and complexity of thought that arises now that I’ve trained my hand to listen, to be a force in motion, to be the leader, not the follower, of my thoughts — it astonishes me daily.
The other key to freedom, which I must share with my students, is the lack of a delete button when writing by hand. It sounds so obvious, but if I were writing this on-screen, I would have just gone back and deleted a whole line — probably not an important thought, but nevertheless it would have vanished forever. Here on the page, even a crossed-out line still exists. And there is an impetus to push forward, not to recreate and reattempt what one has already written, but to find out where the somewhat misshapen present is taking one.
I am not permitting myself to delete when I’m writing on the laptop, when I transcribe material — this is the first draft, I’m telling myself, and it can be refined later. I allow myself to add more words, but not to delete. The draft needs to exist as it stands, for now, until it is complete.
I will also print my drafts when they are done.
I’m writing this like a manifesto for my future self, as a reminder!
Something else to remember, for later: the back of the mind needs to know it has time and space to come forward — permission to come forward. That is why ritual is so important, and timed writing is so important, because it is training the back of the mind to trust, and the front of the mind to trust, too. Give it time! I must commit to 2.5 hours every day, if possible, and sacrifice all else. [Future self says: bloody hell, are you ever optimistic, cottage self!] What will this look like in practical terms? I hardly dare ask. I think the habit is imperative, no matter what project I’m working on, now and in the future.
Priorities. I need to stop taking on responsibilities I haven’t got time to learn how to do, or to do well. Instead, I want and intend to focus on what I already do well. Writing. Writing writing writing! I am a writer unleashed! The only person who is messing with my priorities is me. I can see that clearly now. I have put all kinds of blocks and obstacles into my own path as a writer. This may be out of fear. Fear that I will run out of things to say, fear that I’m really not that talented. Fear I’m delusional.
But right now, at the peak of this surge back into writing, I want to laugh at myself, gently mock myself, and say, hey, not everything you write needs to be published. That doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re the one who is going to determine your own writing future, not anyone else. It’s weirdly true, I can see. I can’t determine prizes and publishing deals and grants and recognition and audience, but that is immaterial — material and immaterial. It’s the identity that makes all the difference. It’s being a writer, inhabiting the body of a writer, loving the mind of a writer, making space for this writer, time for writing, challenging myself to difficult tasks, challenging projects, pushing myself to do this thing I believe I was born to do.
And stop undoing all that I’ve done to get here. Stop ignoring where I am and how I’ve gotten here. Stop undermining myself.
I don’t mean to become arrogant. I mean to become fully myself. Sorry, fourteen-year-old daughter of mine, I do believe a person can grow and change. I do. I’ve seen myself at so many different stages, witnessed real change, seen my body change and my mind too. I know this is possible, it is possible to be a writer and be comfortable being a writer. It is possible to nourish and feed myself as a writer, and damn well to do the writing. Damn well do it.
Oh Lord, I want to keep doing it. I don’t want this holiday at the cottage to end. I want every morning to sit at my desk and write. So do it [says cottage self to cowering future self]. Do it, and sacrifice in other areas instead. Experience the discomfort of that. The discomfort of honouring your work and your vocation above your other responsibilities.
End of manifesto.
Note to self: read this post whenever you’re feeling lost, confused, down, uncertain, anxious, whenever you’ve lost faith. Read this post!
Excerpts from my notebook, written sometime during the past eight days, which we spent at my stepmother’s boat-access-only cottage. I wrote every day. Every time I sat down to write, I began by drawing an “attendance cartoon” (Lynda Barry-style), to a random song from my Spotify playlist. Then I wrote for 3 minutes, beginning with the question: What’s on your mind?
I am staring out at the lake, through the piney trees from my perfect sheltered vantage point in the bunky — my office for this week. We are so fortunate, so very fortunate, to get to spend time here every summer, so that this place has become part of our lives and our children’s lives. Today is sunny and warm, and the water is warm, apparently — I have not set foot into it yet. I did drive the pontoon boat yesterday, proving again that I can.
What would I give up to write more? I don’t know. Let’s make this new writing plan / routine work. Please, dear God, I don’t want to give anything up.
The scene I worked on before lunch is unfinished. Instead of finishing it, I ate lunch with the family, then read in the sun for hours. I am reading I Capture the Castle and I’d forgotten how romantic it is and also how much that romance moves me, or triggers in my mind such delicious feelings.
Finished I Capture the Castle, furious at the description of the constipated mad genius father (a writer), whose inspiration may derive from violently attacking his family members, including throwing his teenaged daughter Cassandra into a wall, almost breaking her arm. Is it that I hate the implied privilege of the artist — Artist with a capital A — or is it the male artist in particular whose privilege I abhor? But haven’t I been reading about women writers, too, how are childless or who steer clear of their children for long stretches, so as to write? And what would I sacrifice in the long run? Would I give up coaching or teaching, let alone parenting intensely, in order to serve the “genius” of artistic creation? No. It seems a nonsensical thought. Yet when I am writing, don’t I want to go on living in this other world and not come back — or not for a long while?
I don’t know how to draw a mosquito. My eyesight seems to be getting worse. I stare at letters that my hand is making and the words are blurred. Somehow I can keep writing without seeing.
From this angle, the boat parked in the middle of the lake looks like a car that’s been driven there by accident, and is half-sinking. I am not doing a good job on a number of fronts. That is the feeling I am having. But it’s been an exciting couple of weeks of writing. Writing and imagining. Yet other things have fallen to the side, and I wonder how I will have anything to give to my students this fall, or even to my children. The forecast is calling for rain. What is joyous about my writing right now is the pleasure I’m taking from it, that doesn’t seem connected to worries about publication. This might not last. My eldest daughter says I’m always trying to improve myself and failing: I’m really just always the same. The more I think on it, the more I’m convinced she could be right.
I think all of this burst of writing comes from calling myself, naming myself, WRITER. Can I change in other regards? I don’t want to be a prickly person, constantly challenging others.
Sunlight is shining through the glass door and warming my office / bunky. I had a feeling after yesterday’s work that I’d written a scene that was the culmination of about 15 years of trying to write that particular scene, with that particular combination of effects — a scene about children playing in a makebelieve world where pretend and real blend together so seamlessly it’s almost impossible for the children to tell them apart. That feeling of being immersed in imaginary play. I’ve been sitting here trying to remember the first version of that scene while staring out the window at the roofline of the cottage, shingles, pines, smoke from the fire, child outside petting Suzi (dog) who was recently sleeping in the sun on my stoop. Gillian Welch is playing “Revelator” on Spotify and this mood seems exquisite and impossible to capture, and yet that’s what I’m attempting to do when I write.
The brain is on my mind, the two selves, as described in Thinking, Fast and Slow, by a psychologist who won the Nobel for economics. The experiencing self is not made happy by the same things that please the remembering self. Writing, I think, is the most peculiar linking of the two selves — the remembering self immersed in the experiencing self. My knowledge on this subject is pitifully inadequate.
Today I am having difficulty focusing and getting into characters. This has been an intense week and I fear it coming to a close, but I’m also growing a bit weary and perhaps a rest will be good — a day off.
Sometimes I draw something, and I think, that comes right from the back of my mind. The front of my mind couldn’t have drawn that.
The way my attendance cartoon matches with the song and a mood and whatever is happening is uncanny, although this may only be my mind making magical connections. Today, on the day we leave the cottage after having been here for eight days, the song is Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.” It is a song about the changing seasons; it even has a chevron of geese flying south. And I’m sitting here with rain falling on the roof, cool or almost cold, fog rising off the lake, and smoke rising from the chimney in the main cottage, reflecting on this time of transition. In the cartoon I’ve drawn this morning, I press my hand against the window from inside the cottage and try to say goodbye. This has been the most blessed month. Time has stretched and expanded and we have been content.