Today I would like to tell you about an article I read in The New Yorker. I would like to tell you, without resorting to cliche, how the article struck a chord in me; but I’ve just used the phrase “struck a chord in me.” (Having spent far too long trying to think of a better phrase.) The article, “Lessons from My Mother,” was written by James Wood, a lovely, reflective piece about, as you’ve guessed, his mother, who passed away not so long ago. His mother was a teacher, beloved by her students, a force to behold in the classroom, charismatic, quirky, entertaining, empathetic; and yet she disliked her job, even hated it, or so James Wood thought, when he was a child. Upon reflection, after her death, he came to believe that his mother strongly disliked teaching, and yet was powerfully, “helplessly,” drawn to the profession, that it was her true vocation, even if she was tormented by nerves and anxiety as she prepared for her classes. It was almost as if she had a form of stage fright, or crippling self-doubt, which she dealt with by preparing relentlessly, obsessively (locking herself in the bathroom to cram before classes). Yet she never quit teaching. She threw herself in.
Why did this essay — or more precisely, this tiny tangent within the larger essay — strike a chord? For a chord was struck, strongly, and not just because I read the article standing in the bathroom, as I read most articles (no one bothers you when you’re standing behind a closed bathroom door, as James Wood’s mother could have told you) — it was his mother’s insecurity, her lack of confidence, that drew my attention. I keep returning to this insight, like it’s a revelation: that a person doesn’t have to love or even like what she does to be drawn to doing it; that a person may not love or even like her vocation, the very work she’s meant to do.
I’m drawn to doing work that makes me nervous, anxious, that taps on my insecurities like it’s tapping on rotten roots, especially when I’m preparing for it. I think we have a cultural obsession with loving what we do — as if the ultimate Life goal is to strive for work that only rewards you with good things, in which case, anxiety or nerves are giant red flags — you’re doing the wrong thing! Look elsewhere! Reading about James Wood’s mother gives me peace of mind. A person may fear doing the very thing she is put on this earth to do. A person may fear that which draws her like a magnet. But a person still recognizes her purpose, and her duty, and simply gets on with it.
Yesterday, I taught my last class of the term.
At the end of class, a student asked, “Does every class you teach feel like this one?” And I knew what he meant. I said, yes, it does. Every class, by the end of term, feels like our classroom felt last night: a buzzing, humour-filled, serious, safe space shared by interested thoughtful equals. There’s magic there. Every term progresses in the same way, from nervousness and skepticism and even a bit of boredom and wondering what we’re getting out of this, to a gradually increasing warmth and trust. Trust is the most important ingredient. How to build trust among strangers? It doesn’t happen all at once. We’re hesitant to share. We’re afraid of being judged. We’re dealing with our own private stuff; turmoil, sadness, anger, loss, stress, anxiety. And we’re writing all the while, often deeply personal material, material we weren’t necessarily expecting to discover, material that we want to protect.
So we have to figure out how to share, how to trust, how to listen, together. And every class, every year, it’s been the same, in my experience: by the last class, we reap the rewards of our work. It’s so hard to say goodbye.
For the last class, I like to read from Ann Patchett’s essay, “The Getaway Car,” from her collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, especially the section where she talks about studying creative writing with the great short story writer Grace Paley:
“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. … She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes, I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say. I would not begin to know how to teach another person how to have character, which was what Grace Paley did.”
Wow, I love that. I could read it over and over.
When I started teaching, four years ago, I needed money, and I was grateful for work. But it turns out that money was the least of it.
I teach because I love the process, and because I’m excited by possibility and potential in all shapes and sizes, and because it challenges me to be creative and constantly learning, and because I admire my students, each one of them, for being brave enough to go through this process, which isn’t always easy, and which they may not have expected to go through when they first signed up. There’s magic in the classroom. I’ve witnessed it. And I’m greedy. I want to keep witnessing it.
Should I have gotten that PhD, way back when it was a real possibility? Have I missed my calling? In some ways, I know I’m not a great teacher, and I’m no academic; I’m more of a coach, setting up practices and games, or a trail guide, leading a group into the woods for an adventure, or a host at a rather quiet party. Maybe I should be exploring possibilities outside of academia. Maybe there are other routes, other pathways, to teaching.
Maybe you have brilliant, simple, creative, helpful ideas you could share. Please, and thank you.
Soon, I will teach my last class for another term. Because I am a sessional lecturer, there is no guarantee I will teach again. But I would like to; I would like, in addition to the introductory creative writing course I’m teaching now, to teach an advanced course that combines writing and drawing and collaboration, and demands serious commitment, a heavy workload; at the end of the course, everyone would have made a book (illustrated, but for adults).
Here are the questions this course would address, and engage with:
“What is creativity and where can I find it?”
“How can I get into the creative flow?”
“How can I stop procrastinating and do what I want?”
“Is creativity something I can practice? Can anyone?”
(In the above exercise, captions are paired with random illustrations; this is an example of an exercise one might do in my imaginary course.)
Last month, I spoke to a writer’s group about time management, and the question that arose most urgently was: How do I stop procrastinating? How do I get started? Which led into an even more complicated question: How do I get into the creative flow? Is this something you can learn and practice?
Yes, I said. You can practice getting into the creative flow. You can learn.
I believe this to be true. But in answering the question, last month, I got stuck on the how. And so I’ve been thinking about it, or my unconscious mind has been thinking about it, ever since. It isn’t just about discipline. (It is somewhat about discipline.) It’s about trusting that you can access something, fall into something, step into something that is unseen and unknown, without knowing or seeing it in advance. Can this be taught? I would like to try.
P.S. The course would be based around Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. It would be an unabashedly Lynda-Barry-styled course, even though I am a low-key Canadian who possesses not even a tenth of Lynda Barry’s charisma, and even though I am a writer not an artist; I believe the material would rise above my personal limitations.
I am walking into Waterloo Park through the entrance by Father David Bauer Drive, my bag heavy over my left shoulder, filled with everything I will need for class tonight. It is cold but I’m starting to sweat under my pink jacket, which I bought on sale two and a half years ago, when I spent some of my earnings from my book on cross country skis, and this jacket, now a bit dingy and dirty.
It is the first day this fall that I have worn the pink jacket to teach.
I walk through the gravel parking lot and past the skateboard park where two young men are showing off their tricks. They’re pretty good. I admire their focus and their bursts of energy followed by relaxation. I notice that the trash I stopped to pick up last week has not been replaced by more trash, and I feel satisfied; perhaps I feel self-satisfied.I look to the swing sets and I am so happy when I see him, there again. Last week, he wasn’t here, and I wondered if something had happened to him, or even if perhaps I’d invented him or imagined him — he is a teenager, an older teen, who sits on the swings every Tuesday afternoon at 4 PM. He doesn’t just sit on the swing and look at his phone, he swings, pushing himself into the air, pumping his long legs. His bicycle is parked nearby. My heart is happy to see him — I feel this literally, a little popping of happiness under my ribs.
And then I’m on, not stopping to watch him, of course, not stopping at all, only glad to know he is there, a grown kid, swinging back and forth, faithful to some impulse only he can know.
I cross the bridge over the little creek. And through the trees on the little dirt path to the vast parking lot.I forget and step onto the pavement, rather than walking the narrow strip of grass along the edge of the parking lot, like I always do. Quickly, I step back into the grass, but is it too late? Too late for what. You’re being obsessive compulsive, I tell myself, the universe does not care whether you step on pavement or grass. Your habits and rituals are here to serve you, not to ensnare you. I know, I know; I don’t stop until I reach the road, the long line of cars stretching in both directions like a fast-moving river.
Write a love letter to someone you do not know.
Dear child playing the piano behind the closed door,
I can’t hear your voice, only your teacher’s, and she accompanies your ragged efforts with a determined tone, as if her words will pull from you the correct notes and rhythms. I stand and casually walk past the closed door, peeping through the narrow rectangle of glass, into a room that isn’t exactly how I would have imagined it: larger, and with more light. It has always sounded like you are playing in a dark closet. I glimpse you in this stolen way. You are older than I’d imagined, a young teen with hair cropped short into a pageboy cut; you might even be a boy rather than a girl, as I’d assumed. How can I write a love letter to someone I cannot see?
I sit again, and listen intently to the music you are making with your fingers. You keep a patient beat, hesitating as you try to read the notes you have failed to practice at home. I know this sonatina, by Muzio Clemente, one of my favourites as a young musician. You start, you pause, you try again. You have a dogged patience to your persistence, a haphazard understanding of what you’re trying to achieve, but a willingness to go on.
As I turn the page, you lose the beat altogether, and your teacher steps in to direct you, her tone not patience but not unkind. She sings along. She claps. She makes counting noises to pull you onward, and for a little stretch, here, it is only her, and you pause as if unable to continue. The song seems to grow longer and longer, and I wonder if you will ever finish it. You were wearing a white and grey t-shirt on this hot day, your face bent away from the door, as you perched on the piano bench and watched your teacher gaze at your music, which she was holding in her hands. On a chair nearby, your school backpack.
You have reached a form of conclusion, though I’m not sure it’s yet the end, and your hands crash out two chords — smash, smash — after which you continue on, your fingers chopping at the keys, dragging yourself toward the end, which requires a trill to complete. “And that’s a sharp,” the teacher reminds you, and you try to trill a second time, then stagger into the real end, the one we’ve all been waiting for.
You whack at the finishing chords. They are not the correct chords.
“What key are you in right now?” asks your teacher, and you are forced to backtrack, to begin to take another crack at this ending, again.
Have you practiced this song, this week? Are you sight reading the notes and hoping the teacher won’t notice? What are your expectations for yourself? Do you enjoy playing the piano? Does this song speak to you, or is it like a truculent closed mouth, a turned head, an impenetrable mystery whose meaning is contained behind the closed door, and which even your teacher cannot illuminate for you, though she tries, a scene you might remember when you’re older, much older, with some fondness, and, even, then, regret.
Write while listening to music.
Sept. 29 Listening to music at half time, Jacob Hespeler High School, to the pounding of basketballs on wood, to the squeak of shoes; Eminem, but I don’t know which song. The music, the moment. Pounding rising beat and intensity. The girls huddle up and shout their little cheer. Music’s over. Game on.
The music is still in my head as I stare into space during a time out. It makes me feel excited, determined, pumped up. Cliches. How to express the whirling sensation in the blood, under the skin, like a flame licking kindling, burning up that dry wood, these old dry bones have life in them yet. I am exactly the wrong age. Not old enough for wisdom, not young enough for spirit.
Write while listening to music.
Oct. 3 At the Beckett school of music. From behind closed doors, a cacophony of voices, instruments, songs, chords, melodies. A piano teacher sings along with her student, “One, two, three, four, One two three four, One two and three four.” Further away, the sounds of a piano being played by expert hands, a fluttering waterfalling of notes rippling over the keys.
From behind the nearest closed door, the one behind which my daughter is playing her violin, a lively piano bubbles up, chirpy in tone, and then her violin bites into the opening bar — a tango. She is slightly off-key. They march together, piano and violin, and suddenly the counting goes awry and they stall out, confused, and I can hear their voices trying to sort it out. Two competing pianos now pound at each other with the violin dancing its sprightly tones. Both pianos stop at once. The pianist behind the other door stumbles and hesitates, chopping out a four-beat march in a minor key, stopping and starting, a herky-jerky effect. At a patch of confidence, the speed increases. Then stops.
I hear again the rippling of notes from somewhere far away, rolling, rolling, effortlessly, decoratively.
On the drive here, I could not countenance the thoughts crossing my tired mind; listening to a song on the radio, a brand-new lively pop song that tormented me with its worn-out familiarity. My eyes could scarcely focus and I said, I can’t be this tired all the time. Because the thoughts wandering into my mind and tapping with some irritation on the bones of my skull, were saying, I can’t bear art. I can’t bear how profoundly it can fail to do its job. I can’t bear the necessity of selling it for survival. I can’t bear to make it. Elena Ferrante has been stalked for months so as to rip her from anonymity and I can’t understand why, can only see the pain of it, and how necessary her invisibility to her work.
All of this music sounds like the cacophony in my head, the crossed wires, and missed connections. The random pairings of discordant melodies and misshapen chords, the staggering array of possibilities that is yet, as yet, and possibly forever, incoherent. I can’t make sense of it. I can’t strip it down and hold its many shapes and piece them together again. I can’t bind it in place. I can’t even hear it. My powers are waning, if ever they were waxing, and I fear what I cannot do and I fear the effort wasted. Yet I can’t stop writing. I’m still writing. No matter the unthreading it leaves in its wake.
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