This morning I hosted the final session in my inaugural, experimental series of Writing Adventures. The feedback I received circled around the theme of welcome, I think. Participants thanked me for giving them space and and a place to write, as well as guidance throughout; the space felt safe; there was something spiritual or peaceful about the exercise, or about the environment that was created in the room. Several participants told me that the writing had been therapeutic. Some found it challenging or hard, while others expressed that they’d had a lot of fun.
Ultimately, the sessions confirmed for me that this is not a writing exercise, although it uses writing as its medium. It’s an exercise about making or creating, about shaping experience, about exploring the unknown. It’s about being led to a place we never meant to go, to find something we didn’t know we were looking for. It’s an exercise that can bring a sense of peace or resolution to a problem that your mind may be working on, quietly, behind the scenes—I frequently uncover an emotional theme, something I haven’t otherwise been able to acknowledge or recognize. That is why the same “map” or “guide” can be followed again and again on these adventures and never become repetitive; there is always another story waiting to be found. We live within ever-shifting emotional states that affect how we interact in ways both profound and mundane.
Finally, I observed again that there is no perfect time to sit down and write. Forget about finding the perfect time, writers of the world! There will always be external blocks rearing up—I’m too tired, my to-do list is too long, I should be spending this time with X, it’s been a long day, I can’t squeeze it in, I just don’t feel like I can go there, not right now, maybe tomorrow, I’m too distracted, I can’t sit still. All legitimate barriers. But these barriers dissolve as soon as I sit before the page and open myself to what’s waiting to be found. Maybe those moments when we are least inclined to force ourselves to attend are the moments when we most would benefit from stopping and listening to the quiet (or clamouring!) voice within.
I arranged the first Adventure as a three-session series because it’s an exercise that becomes easier to do with practice: you figure out what risks you can take, what rules you need to break (interior self-binding rules, mainly), and how to let go and follow where you’re led. It’s the letting go that’s the hardest. It’s letting go of the voice in your head that says, This is not important. It takes practice to learn how to reply to that voice: It doesn’t matter whether or not this is important, I’m doing it. What that voice in your head won’t tell you is that you actually can’t know while you’re making something what value it may have, what necessary step it represents in the piecing together of a larger puzzle, and where this is leading you.
Imagine this. You are crossing a creek in the middle of a thick fog come down to earth. It’s like saying of a stepping stone, the only one you can see right now before you: This is not an important stone. You wouldn’t, would you. You would in humility understand implicitly that you just don’t know. You just don’t know—and it doesn’t matter. To think that it matters is to completely miss the point of what lies before you. So you step on the stone, and you come to another, and you just don’t know. And that is how you find not only where you are, but where you’re going.
P.S. No new Writing Adventures scheduled yet. Please send me a message or comment below if you are interested in participating in future Adventures, and you will be the first to know. Also, I would love to hear, from those of you who participated in the sessions, whether there was anything you strongly liked or, perhaps even more importantly, disliked.
Here we are, day one of a new year. I’ve walked the dogs through gently falling snow flakes. The children slept till 10AM. We have this one last day of our unusually relaxing holiday to do as we please, each of us, before the new year’s schedule clocks in tomorrow morning.
Of course I am thinking about what I’d like to do this year, in addition to what I’m already doing; what would I like to try, what experiment shall I undertake, what challenge, what adventure, what’s calling? And I have a small idea, a possibility I’ve been mulling for awhile that seemed affirmed yesterday by the conflating coincidences of driving across town on an unexpected errand while listening to an interview on the radio with Elizabeth Gilbert, who was talking about the creative impulse. The creative impulse is not benign, she said (and I paraphrase). If it isn’t put to use, if it isn’t acknowledged and fed, if it isn’t set free, it will find its own damaging purpose.
I began thinking about rage, just under the surface.
I was driving along a street I don’t very often take anymore, and it triggered a memory: that I’d stopped for gas, at a gas station that no longer exists, in fact, with two toddlers strapped into car seats in the back of our old red truck. I was enormously pregnant with my third child, and it was hot, a summer’s day, and we’d just gotten a load of groceries. I filled up the truck with gas, and as I was walking around the hood of the truck to climb back in to the driver’s seat, a man approached me. He looked, if not homeless, then close to homeless, and with a rough voice he asked if he could bum a cigarette.
My response shocked even me.
Rage. It was rage that poured out, with no warning, no pre-emptive interlude. “Do I look like I would have a cigarette?” I snapped at him, almost shaking with my fury, indicating my pregnant belly.
“No,” he replied sheepishly.
I got into the truck and slammed the driver’s side door, vibrating with rage.
I didn’t know what had come over me. I didn’t know why I was so very angry. I couldn’t think of a good reason to be feeling what I was feeling in that moment.
But now, I think maybe I understand. Like raging people all over this earth, my wider, deeper emotions were not accessible to me at that time in my life. I was repressing a great deal: disappointment about my career, the sense of boredom and aimlessness as I struggled to be a stay-at-home mom, exhaustion from the drudgery of the day-to-day. There were many things I was not telling myself, or allowing myself to feel, because I couldn’t have borne it. So when tapped or triggered, there was only one emotion on offer: rage. Rage is a defensive emotion. It lashes out so as to prevent us from feeling anything else.
I’ll never know exactly why the man’s question set me off, but I think I was afraid of him, and did not want him near me. I felt vulnerable. I also felt morally righteous. Whatever it was, I was feeling something for which rage was a cover. I was ambushed by my own inexplicable fury.
I think unless we allow ourselves to experience a full range of emotions, including those emotions that indict us for our own failings — jealousy, envy, disappointment, humiliation, fear, uncertainty, grief — we will be at the mercy of that one emotion that is always on tap, always available, a defence against what the world may think of us, and what we may think of ourselves deep inside. Rage rage against the dying of the light. Yes. But rage rage against the accusations that we know to be true, and the terror of being fragile, and the admission of loneliness and failure, and the misery of not knowing everything best.
Rage rage against being human and fallible.
Rage rage against culpability.
Rage rage against knowing thyself, because to know thyself truly is to know some awfully dark truths, is to acknowledge enormous imperfections, and ugly vanities, and moral failings.
Yet I maintain that it is better to know thyself than to remain lodged in clotted rage, railing against the world, and spewing harm and hurt. The hurt your rage will cause to your own self is far greater than any hurt you could bring upon yourself by knowing yourself truly. It is only when we see ourselves as vulnerable and weak and wrong (rather than wronged) that we can see others with compassion, and love too.
And the rage will diminish.
It really will. It will not shock you with its sudden emergence, or hurt those you love most dearly. You will feel its potential, yes, but you will know what it means, and hear what it’s saying: you will feel behind the rage to the emotion that rage is trying to protect you from feeling, and you will be able to name it, and to access it, and to experience it. It is only through experiencing the deeper emotion that you can understand yourself, and get through that emotion.
I am alert now to my own rage. I know it’s trying to tell me something more profound. Why am I so angry? Is this moment deserving of my anger? So rarely it is. Almost never, in truth. And pouring out my rage, pouring it onto to someone else, is unacceptable, always. I believe that. So if it happens, when it happens, I try to name that too. To apologize immediately. Never to let myself off the hook. To reflect. There is always more work to do. Because it is easy to mistake rage for purpose, for fuel. At least it’s better to feel something than nothing, maybe? But the opposite of rage is not emptiness, it’s not nothing, it’s not depression, it’s not powerlessness, it’s not silence. The opposite of rage is connection.
Here is my idea. This coming year, I would like to host writing adventures in my home. It will be an experiment, I confess. The point will be to use the physical act of writing — writing by hand onto the page — to bring us into a meditative state of focus, in which we can access memories, draw them forth. We’ll leap from the intensive imaginative images we’re experiencing in our minds into the adventure of fiction. The exercises will be guided, the space will be safe, and none of us will be able to guess in advance where we might travel to on any given evening. Being or becoming a writer is not the point. The process is the point. Play is the point. Adventure is the point. Discovering and mapping our own inner imaginative space is the point. Anyone can participate. Everyone has a creative impulse. This is just one of a myriad of ways to express it, but it’s the method I can offer, if you’re looking for an opening, if you’re looking for a way in. Or out. Or deep down.
Please send me a message if you’re interested and I’ll keep you in the loop as the idea becomes a plan.
Happy New Year!
PS The title of this post is the first line of a poem by Rumi called “The diver’s clothes lying empty.” Look it up if you don’t already know it. Read it out loud. It will tell you everything I’ve written here, and much more.
Tonight is my last creative writing class of the term. Because I’m a sessional lecturer, with a contract that expires at the end of each term, there’s no guarantee of teaching a next class. And so there’s no way around this: I’m feeling blue.
When I started teaching three years ago, I didn’t expect I would come to love it. But I have. I will miss working with students when this term ends. I will miss the interaction, the opportunities to relate, to respond, to collaborate, to light a spark, or even just to be present in someone else’s life in a different way than I can be when I’m here in my home office, slumped over the keyboard. (Posture, Carrie, posture!) I will miss what I learn from my students, too. Once upon a time, I would have said that writing fiction is all I know how to do, but I don’t think that’s true, actually. I’m proud of the work I’ve done in my fiction-writing career, but when I send a book out into the world, there it goes, no longer mine. I can’t change what I’ve made. It’s gone from me, and exists at a remove from the present tense. Teaching is almost the opposite experience: it’s about sharing ideas with others in a present, real, interactive, reactive, responsive, empathetic way. I love my quiet space here at home; but I also love being with people, people who are learning skills and becoming themselves, and developing rich inner lives, confidence, a voice. It’s been a privilege to be a teacher. I hope the opportunity comes around again.
A blog reader recently asked me: who or what is your centre?
I would like to consider this thoughtful stranger’s question. Who or what is my centre? Who or what is all of this energy emanating from? Who or what are my guiding principles and goals? Perhaps I’m being too scattershot in my approach at present. Perhaps I need some kind of guiding light, guiding mission statement, coherent ideology. I’ve been less and less willing to put these musings out into the universe, to publish them on the blog; but in silence there is no possibility for connection. I thought of this as I ran with the dogs this morning; it was still dark. We were running down a big hill, and I thought, I fear saying too much, but by saying nothing, I offer nothing. What are photographs, what are blog posts, what are stories if not an attempt to preserve the present moment? But is it preservation I’m after? No, more accurately, it’s being a witness. It’s trying to put into order what I’m seeing. And I’m compelled to share what I see. I want to apologize for my urge to share. But there it is. I’ll admit it motivates me. Is this the what at my centre?
Who or what is my centre? I think of the divine, a connection that unites every living thing, and perhaps every thing that ever lived or will lived. I think of powers beyond my understanding. I think of grace. And spirit.
And I think of presence.
I am motivated by the desire to be present, wholly present, no matter what I am doing.
I am motivated by the idea that play is holy, sacred, a space of safety and learning, a space where imagination and improvisation are celebrated, and all are urged to play along, no matter the skill level. Cooperation amidst competition. Play as learning. Learning as play.
Writing is play: that’s what I hope my students know, too.
I don’t want to be so serious that I lose the lightness of being alive.
I’m using this graphic without permission, because I don’t know exactly where it came from — a friend posted it on FB, and the link took me a website called Mind/Shift, but I didn’t see the graphic there. It looks like it’s by an artist named Sylvia Duckworth — thank you, Sylvia, for drawing me.
This is me.
At times, I’ve done a good job of conforming and I think I can work with others, but basically, this is me. (I’m wondering whether my siblings might all agree that this is them, too. And even a couple of my kids. And my husband. Anyone else feel like you’re looking at a self-portrait?)
I’m in the midst of a decision, and it feels like many of these parts of my personality are demanding airtime: hate the rules, dream big, make lots of mistakes, work independently, risk taker, think with my heart. Instinctively, I understand that to achieve anything, I must fail. It’s the only way to learn. I just don’t think of it as failing, I think of it as problem-solving, circling around an issue, coming at it from a variety of angles, experimenting, playing, rejecting what doesn’t work, trying again, ever-hopeful, dreaming big. But here’s what’s worrying me: if I want to succeed, I’m afraid that I have to look successful — already successful, already complete, already the man with the plan. (And yes, I know I’m a woman; do women find it harder to present like a man with a plan? Here’s an interesting article on the stress women undergo when trying to step into positions of leadership.) I’m afraid that I have to present like I know what I’m doing. Expertise inspires confidence, yes? And I do know what I’m doing, but I also don’t know what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t be interested in doing more of it if I thought I knew everything already — I’m interested because I don’t know, and because I want to learn (yes, as the graphic points out, I’m also easily bored). Because while I intend to get really good at a bunch of things, I never want to feel like I’m done learning.
(Counter-intuitive idea: maybe that’s part of mastering a subject — when you know enough to know you’ll never be done learning. To quote Donald Barthelme: “It is appropriate to say that the writer is someone who, confronted with a blank page, does not know anything.”)
On Saturday, at Waterloo’s Wild Writers Festival, I put a roomful of generously attentive people through a writing boot camp: an hour of intensive labouring and pouring out over the empty page, following guided prompts dreamed up by my imagination. I was amazed, as I always am, at what was waiting to be discovered in the unknown, such fascinating stories leaping onto the page; and I hope the experience for most participants was the same. A sense of excitement, adventure, of who knows what is coming next? I wonder, however, whether the workshop would be as welcoming if you weren’t a creative person — or, more accurately, if you didn’t see yourself as a creative person? Here’s an interesting stat from an article I read on Mind/Shift (titled “Can any school foster pure creativity?”): 95% of second-graders self-identify as creative; but only 5% of high school seniors believe they are creative. I recognize that the writing workshop I devised on Saturday might be a really difficult undertaking if you didn’t identify as creative; but what latent creativity is hiding inside even those who no longer believe they are creative? What if virtually all of us are hard-wired to be creative, at least to some degree? What is the purpose of creativity? Could it be essential to human survival?
Play, beautiful beings. Play on.
No, I haven’t eaten lunch yet. Yes, it’s almost 2PM. Yes, this is a common occurrence when the working hours of my day (i.e. when the kids are at school) get away from me. No, I should not be blogging right now. Yes, there are excellent leftovers in the fridge! Yes, I’m looking forward to eating them shortly. (Potato soup and cornbread, if you’re wondering.)
Yes, I came here specifically to share with you a couple of things.
Yes, I’m going to do that now, before microwaving that soup! (It was delicious last night, and I love leftovers.)
Item # 1: As a last-minute addition to my schedule, I will be leading a writing workshop at this weekend’s Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo. Here’s the link if you’re interested in attending. [There is a temporary problem with the link, but the Wild Writer folks are looking into it, so please check back if it doesn’t work right away.] Also, please check out the rest of the program, some of which is completely free to attend. If it didn’t conflict with my own workshop, I’d be going to hear Tasneem Jamal’s panel (free!); and before I even knew I’d be leading my own workshop, I’d already signed up for one with the amazing graphic artist, Meags Fitzgerald. (Even though I can’t draw! Eep!)
Item # 2: While cooking the soup and cornbread yesterday, I listened to a recent On Being podcast. I had to keep pausing to take notes. It’s an interview with Mary Catherine Bateson, who is the daughter of Margaret Mead, and who grew up aware of herself as an “observer/participant.” She is also the author of “Composing a Life,” and like the title of her book, so much of her thinking resonated strongly with me.
I leave you with two separate but linked ideas that I scribbled down between peeling potatoes, both from the wise mind of Mary Catherine Bateson:
“One of the things we press on [our children] is competition. Because we have so much bought into the idea that competition is a law of nature, and the only source of creativity. And incidentally that is not a true biological fact. There is competition as a part of the evolutionary process, but there is a tremendous amount of cooperation also involved, even at the cellular level.”
“Play is a very important part of learning.”
PS I would like to take time to parse these ideas, and to explain how I intend to integrate them into my current state of mind and being, but it’s now 2:02, and yes, a person needs to eat!
Confession: I do not enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to myself talk.
I do, however, enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to others talk about a subject I’ve opened up for them: this is the method I’ve been using in my class, asking the students to break into smaller groups and discuss a subject, then return to the larger group to share their thoughts, and I love how ideas begin to flow, to cross-pollinate, to deepen, and I am simply a facilitator, responding to the discussion, but not imposing my will upon it. I am not there to be the expert. I am not an expert. This is not to downplay my experiences, simply to state the facts: I have no advanced degrees, no areas of speciality. I am a human being, alive to the world around me, I am a parent, attuned to my children’s needs as best I can be, I am a reader who loves language and the structuring of ideas in many forms, and I am a writer who will never be convinced that accomplishment matters—my own accomplishment, that is. What is accomplishment? It sounds so final. I am interested in process.
I am always willing to examine a problem from a different angle. I am willing to change my mind, based on new evidence, or a new argument.
I want to play and be playful, no matter how old I get.
And so my goals are changing before my eyes. They are changing as the year progresses, this year in which my focus has been WRITE. When I woke up this morning, early and exhausted, I thought that this past year has not been about WRITING at all, but about the after-effects of having written. I wrote, I published, and I am living the part that comes next. And I do not love it. I do not even seem to like it, most of the time. Even while I pour myself into it, even while I work to make the most of what has been offered to me, I only find myself growing wearier and wearier, drained, exhausted, perhaps even depressed. Lost. Uncertain. Bereft of a clear goal to call me onward; a steady dull and dulling march that I continue because I don’t know how to stop.
Here I am.
What comes next? How do I access my passion once again? How do I reset my routines, alter them, even minutely, to feed the life I want to have? If I can’t name that life, can’t see it, how can I make changes to my routines in order to step toward it?
Here is where my imagination stalls out. What do I want?
I want to write challenging stories: stories that challenge me, conceptually, that push me in a new direction.
I want …
Do I want to train for a race? Do I want to teach more classes? Do I want to change careers? Do I want to study yoga or meditation more deeply? Do I want to spend more time with children? Do I want to coach more soccer? Do I want to go on a writing retreat? Do I want more quiet writing days or weeks? Do I want to host more friends for dinner? Do I want to sponsor and host a refugee family? Do I want to make more music?
Oh, what small voice is calling me?
Why can’t I hear you, small voice?