Set your timer and write for three minutes. This is your prompt: What would you change if you could?
What would you change if you could?
I would make a few key strategic changes in priority that would blow my current life to smithereens. I see myself running in the woods with the puppy, my mind as open as the sky, no lists churning, just the hidden lives of my characters, these avatars of the self, the better and clearer self, and I see myself returning home to a clear office, light and empty, to pour out what I’ve found in effort and solitude.
It would be amazing.
I wrote this passage a month ago, during an in-class exercise.
For the next part of the exercise, you put boxes around all of the phrases that jump out at you and then use one as a title for a new story. This passage had plenty to choose from.
CHANGE; BLOW MY LIFE TO SMITHEREENS; I SEE MYSELF RUNNING; MY MIND AS OPEN AS THE SKY; CHURNING; HIDDEN LIVES; AVATARS OF THE SELF; LIGHT AND EMPTY; SOLITUDE
Which would you pick? I chose “Avatars of the Self,” a story I’m still working on.
While I haven’t blown my life to smithereens in the past month, I have made changes. After agonizing for ages, I dropped one of the courses I’d signed on to teach this winter. (I’m still teaching the new course, Creativity Unplugged.) Essentially, by this simple act, I’ve given myself the gift of time.
The question is, can I accept the gift of time without filling it with more responsibilities? (I’m going to try.)
Set your timer and write for three minutes. This is a your prompt: What are your goals as a writer?
What a great prompt for today. Because it’s all I’m thinking about right now — how to feed and sustain this writer self, how to hustle for her without resentment or bitterness, how to celebrate her, how to make space, and as important, hold space. I am going to honour this being that I’m becoming and I’m going to honour her with offerings of food and care and kindness, and in this way, I will let myself be.
I wrote this passage one week ago.
Earlier this month, I went to the Wild Writers Festival here in Waterloo, and was especially inspired by a panel on mentorship; it expanded my definition of mentorship, which can and should include peer-to-peer support. It’s what I try to foster and nurture in my classes; and I recognized, profoundly, it’s time to do this for myself. The key to feeding the writing self is nurturing community. I know how to do this. It takes energy and vulnerability. It’s generative, it’s sustainable, it’s beautiful, it’s meaningful, it’s worthwhile. And maybe, just maybe, it will blow my current life to smithereens … and make space for a better, clearer self.
Who will you be in 25 years? This is an exercise I’ve done twice this fall, with different results each time. The first time, I was led through the exercise by someone else. Today, I led my students through the same exercise.
Here’s how to do it, if you want to try:
Draw a self-portrait as if you were posing for an author photo on the back of the book you’ve always dreamed of publishing. Use crayons. If you have a notebook, draw the portrait on the very last page. (10 minutes)
Next, write your author bio blurb. Remember to write in the third person. Cast yourself deep into the future (25 years or so), and discover who you imagine yourself to be. (10 minutes)
Here’s mine, from today. (Note: I draw self-portraits as if I were 25 years younger …)
Carrie Snyder has devoted her life — or the better part of it — to the pursuit of an ideal self that she first imagined into being as a seven-year-old child, when, as a reader of far-ranging taste with a wild imagination she said to herself (and to anyone who would listen): I’m going to do that too! I’m going to write books! While the perfection of her notion would prove impossible to achieve, the truth of its imagery was uncanny (she saw a forest path and a treehouse hideaway, which, as she grew, became representations rather than literal spaces). Through writing, Carrie found herself transported, frequently, into a deeper understanding of her relationship to the world itself and to its many mysteries. She came to a kind of peace with its mysteries, by holding them to the light and examining their facets with care and attention — and love. Love figures heavily in Carrie’s work, specifically in her discipline to craft, and to sharing the joy of a discipline with others. She has not yet finished, and she hopes she never will. What has changed, with time, is her understanding that finishing something is temporary, and that what lasts is the pull of discovery itself. The process. The adventure of it. She will never be satisfied nor think her work on earth complete, and that is the fuel that invites her to continue — to be the ideal self she imagined at age seven: an artist. Someone who by alchemy transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. Someone who sees what is possible. Someone who looks at the world and loves it with her attention.
Here is the original exercise, completed in October, with a different result (except for the youthful portrait).
Carrie Snyder, despite crippling bouts of self-doubt, has managed to put herself forward, into positions of service, of leadership, roles that demanded the ability to see herself as more powerful and more capable than anyone else did, and by believing, to become. She was not always confident. Was not always the presence she presented. At times, she thought she was doubled, the face to the world not the face she turned to herself. Was it possible to live doubled like this? What did it mean to do work that challenged and frightened her to her very core — could she get up the next day and rise again? But something deep inside ran like an engine or furnace, the flame of desire, the flame of meaning, and she knew she could live in no other way — could she? She tried listening to reason, to her heart, to her spirit, but the fire was the constant that gave her life, renewed her desire to inhabit bodies and minds bigger and braver than her natural own. She said: If I can do it, then I will. She said: Be the change you want to see. And she was. And that was marvellous to her. Because if she could do this, anyone could — anyone loved and believed in and cherished. Carrie Snyder cherishes herself, believes in herself, loves herself and that has made her strong enough to love, believe in and cherish each of you —
each of you —
each of you — beautiful, aching beings
PS It’s tempting, when presented with two things, to compare them … but let’s not. I like that both of these projections into the future are, in fact, deeply embedded in the emotional reality of a present moment. Like putting a thumb-tack onto a map to say: I was here.
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?
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