People often ask me: Are you still writing?
I can’t help but parse the phrasing. The word still. Of course, it may appear that I might have somehow stopped writing, that I am no longer writing, because I’ve published so little since Girl Runner came out in the fall of 2014. During these past four years, it is true, I’ve published two picture books for children, a handful of short stories and essays in Canadian literary magazines, a performance piece for an arts festival in France, and these personal blog posts. That’s clearly not enough to keep the lights on, so to speak.
Are you still writing?
I understand the question. I know it’s asked out of kindness and curiosity. How to explain that writing is like breathing, for me? I could not stop. When I do stop, it will be because I’ve also stopped breathing. My life depends on this form of expression.
Are you still writing?
I am always writing, I explain. I explain, Not everything I write will be published.
I recognize that this is a painful truth. I recognize that to state this fact makes me vulnerable. We all like success stories. Painful truths we like so much less, we humans. We like winners because they win. We pity losers for losing. Is it shameful and possibly career-ending to admit: I’m trying, but I’m not living up to the standards being set? To admit: Success is out of my control? To admit: What I love doing may not be what the market wants? Some of us would prefer deception to truth. I wonder whether in the arts community, as in any career involving public scrutiny, we are more inclined to stare away the painful truths, to hide them, and perhaps this is the evolutionarily correct instinct.
Well, I’m going to tell you the painful truth anyway. I’m trying. I’m still writing.
There are problems that we have the capacity to solve with ingenuity and effort, and there are gravity problems. Gravity problems are problems that no amount of ingenuity and effort can solve: gravity just is, a force, like time, that doesn’t bend to human will.
I’ve been fortunate to shift some of my attention, these past four years, into teaching creative writing, work I’ve come to love. It is rewarding to receive immediate feedback, to test ideas live, to adventure in the company of others. Teaching is the opposite of writing literary fiction, at least in my experience. In my experience, to write literary fiction requires enormous patience, bottomless trust in one’s own instincts, and the fierce will to continue alone, for long stretches of time. It requires so much energy. All the energy comes from within. This can be hard to sustain in the absence of … I was going to say success, but I think the more accurate word is community.
There must be a better way!
This post has taken an unexpected detour. This isn’t the post I thought I was writing.
I need new fuel for the fire, that seems apparent from what I’ve written here. I’m out of steam. I’m still writing, but I’ve also given up hope. In my classroom, I strive to foster a creative community — it’s a goal that’s set and maintained and evaluated throughout the term. With deliberate effort, I make space for peers to meet, to share their work, to share the weight of vulnerability, and to learn how to offer useful critique, which is really a brave form of support.
I have never created such a space for myself. I’ve never even considered it as a possibility.
This is not a gravity problem. This is a problem that can be solved by ingenuity, effort, and most importantly, the willingness to be vulnerable.
Writing = breathing. If I hadn’t sat down this morning to write, I wouldn’t have stumbled across this discovery: what I’m feeling and experiencing can’t be solved alone. What I need is community, a writing community.
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.
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.
I am sitting near the window in my dining room. The kettle is rattling on the stove. So far, I’ve scarcely glanced out the window, except to acknowledge that I am sitting near enough to it to see out. But it occurs to me that it’s the window over the kitchen sink where I should write this, and the kettle is now nearly at the boil, so I will be going there — now.
I choose a tea made for relaxation and stand at the window looking out over the sink. My timing is poor — the subjects I’d intended to observe are coming inside. Why? Because they are done — the older child beat the younger one at a game of soccer, played with a mini ball and nets. The older one tells me the score but I do not remember it long enough to write it down. I see now that the yard is growing dark and it will be difficult to observe much of anything. A neighbour’s porch light glows bright yellow from beyond the back fence — far away, but the brightest thing there this is. Green leaves still hang on the branches of the big maple, moving fitfully in the breeze. The leaves on the black walnut are of a lighter green, almost yellow, pointier, and hang like drips, trembling. The sky has gone the colour of bath water, clouds pale like veins or striations of veins.
I have the sensation of already having written all of this, of having stood here writing these words, already, before, as if there were nothing new in them. And yet. And yet the very sureness of their existence is the surprise — that they are known or flow from me as if already known. I hear the youngest begin to sing in the shower; the bathroom’s just off the kitchen. He is singing his own version of the Spanish words to Despacito.
I see plane lights blink red and white across the darkening sky. By the time I write down the words that prove they exist, they are gone. I glance back up to confirm it — gone. The leaves now look like hair overhanging swampland. I see in the window my own face, reflected against the blackening surface. This is not what I came here to see. Tired and ghostly. The youngest emerges in a towel, leaving sopping wet footprints across the tiles.
“I’m cold, Mama.”
All the writers I read about, the ones I long to emulate, write in longhand on lined yellow notepads. Well, I think, this will have to do.
I am writing this in block letters into a notebook, standing up, staring out of a dark window at my own face whose reflection can’t escape being sectioned by the shining porch light, while the youngest, now in pajamas, returns to guzzle water. He stands far too near to me. The sound of the water being gulped and gasped down his wide open throat — “Dogs can’t drink water like people, Mom!” — disgusts me irrationally. He belches. His chest is bare. He is gone.
I’ve now written long past the clock. Will my students do the same? Will they get lost in their own windows?
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!
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
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