I think I was always a little bit afraid of David Bowie. I was afraid of his many guises, his shape-shifting abilities, his restlessness, the enormity, the almost-dangerous energy of his creative fervour. I’m a no-make-up low-key woman who has never quite understood the appeal of punk or glam-rock; I prefer my world stripped down to the bones, rather than glammed up. So, his work made me a little bit afraid, I think, even if I found much to admire in his seemingly infinite curiosity and innovation.
This video, Lazarus, was made while he was dying and aware that he was dying; it was made while he was continuing to be himself — a creative genius — and to inhabit himself fully, as he was, throwing himself openly in to the arms of creation. I look at him in this video and I am afraid, but I am meant to be afraid, I am unsettled, but I am meant to be unsettled, I am in grief, and I am meant to be in grief, I am moved, I am horrified, I am worried for him, I am filled with thanks and sorrow. He lets us see him weak and dying, blind and shackled by illness, he lets us see him afraid, working feverishly until the end, drugged, in the grip of the desire to make more and more and more, and he lets us see him dancing, briefly, and then he goes away and shuts the door. He has to let us see him at his worst, at his weakest, in order for us to know him, believe in him, trust him, come with him.
What is art?
I want to know, and I think about this constantly, and perhaps all the more right now as I invite others to come create with me. How tempting it is to define art by what pleases us, individually, personally; or even to define art by what we cannot do ourselves, but admire.
What is art?
It isn’t that art is anything, it’s that it can be anything. It involves the shaping of life and experience, of image, of idea, into something that speaks beyond itself. For example, walking to meet the kids after school is not art. But if I write a poem about walking to meet them, or a story, or I photograph the small details I’m seeing on that walk and create a collage or meditative post on the blog, or I stop to mark each corner by laying a painted stone, or the children and I create a dance to mark the walk and perform it as we’re walking home from school — this is art. We’ve altered and interpreted an experience. We’ve tried to express how it makes us feel; or we’ve asked someone to look differently at their own similar experience; or we’ve challenged or upset the experience in some way, we’ve caused a disruption, we’ve called for attention. We’ve broken the routine, deliberately.
What is art?
It is comfort. It is disruption. It is an answer, but more often it is a question. It is personal. It is political. When we create, when we make something, we make ourselves vulnerable, there is no denying that risk is involved. If you watch David Bowie’s last video, you see this truth laid bare, and you see how intrinsic vulnerability is to the process of creating art. It is a scary thing to do. Sometimes, it’s a scary thing to watch or witness, too.
I believe it takes practice and discipline to make art; that, too. And those who pursue their art at the highest level of focus and craftsmanship, like David Bowie did, will work enormously hard to learn their craft, hone their skills, test their vision, challenge themselves through professional collaboration, and practice, practice, practice. What is practice? It means to do, doesn’t it. It implies commitment, repetition, but it also means you just show up and do the thing you’re practicing. So, on a fundamental level, I think, what it takes to make art is a simple willingness to try, to experiment, to take what may be a single, tentative step in the dark, into the unknown.
So often, we stop ourselves by judging what we’re doing, and by comparing what we’re doing to what others are doing. Yes, comparison can be instructive; we all learn from those more skilled and knowledgeable. But I think the point of how David Bowie lived his life is that comparison is much more often pointless, and not only pointless, but destructive — creatively destructive. Comparison either diminishes or elevates what you’ve made; and in some strange way, has nothing to do with what you’ve made, why you’ve made it, where it comes from. What pours forth from you? What pours forth from you at this precise moment in time? Nobody but you can create what you can. To create is to embrace what you’ve got inside you, even while you let it out, let it go, let it take shape in the world.
Anyone can do this. In any variety of ways. What you make might not be polished, it might be very humble indeed, it might be raw, it might not make perfect sense, it might not match the vision in your head. But here it is, you’ve made it. You’ve arrived, you’ve departed.
“The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” -David Bowie
What are you working on now?
It’s a question I’m asked often. My vague answer — and it’s totally truthful — is that I’m too superstitious to say. I’ll tell you when something’s done, for real. There are too many lost and abandoned ideas and manuscripts along the path to publication; yes, even as a published author, yes, even now. I prefer to mourn these passings alone, and get on with the work. It’s part of the job. Believe in what you’re making while you’re making it, but never be precious about it when you’re finished: this attitude has served me well over the years. I’m not sentimental about the process. It does mean it looks like I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded — all those dead manuscripts in my attic. Whenever I explain this process to a class of students, they collectively make the “poor you” sound: awww. It’s funny. I think they think I’m being confessional. Pity is the universal response to hearing about failure, but it’s a response that misses the point, which is that creativity is driven by trial and error. Listen up: This is how publishable books get written! Only rarely do we get it right the first time; virtually never; okay, actually never! The point is: do the work, don’t sweat the result, because you are doing the work, it’s a process of discovery, enjoy it, wrestle with your ideas, let go, reassess, press onward, learn learn learn, this is the thing.
But wait! This was supposed to be a post about new work!
I’m pleased to tell you that two new stories have entered the world, published in two Canadian literary magazines. I’ve got an essay in CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries, about re-reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; and I’ve got a story in Brick magazine called “Why Give Yourself Away?” The former is transparently non-fiction, an essay; but the latter is an oddity that I’m defining as fiction, perhaps for my own sanity. Read it and judge for yourself. (CNQ publishes a few essays from each issue online, but mine doesn’t happen to be one of them, and Brick doesn’t publish its stories online, so you’ll have to get your hands on print copies; the links above will lead you to sources for purchase.)
The first piece in this issue of Brick is an interview with a French artist, Sophie Calle, by Eleanor Wachtel. If you’re interested in what compels artists to create, it makes for compulsive reading; Calle sees the world in such a head-spinningly different way, and she’s gotten so much done just by doing it. Inspiring.
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.
Discernment is something Mennonites are expert at; in fact, Mennonites are so good at discernment that it sometimes seems it’s code for clearly we don’t all agree so let’s keep discerning in perpetuity so as to never make a decision. Given that this is my cultural background, perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy process so much. But I do also like to come around to decisions now and again. That said, discernment is rather brilliant, in my opinion. What it does is allow a decision to unfold slowly, with voice given to many different opinions and angles; it’s a process of listening as much as speaking.
This post is a continuation of my thoughts from yesterday’s confession: that I don’t like being the speaker at the front of the room.
I’ve been trying to discern why.
It isn’t that I don’t like being in a leadership position. In fact, I enjoy taking the lead, to which my younger siblings could attest. But there are different styles and types of leadership, and the leadership I prefer to practice is the kind that asks questions, that operates in relationship, that collaborates with, that is creative and responsive and in the moment. I want to ask questions. I want to hear stories, I want to hear and try to understand other perspectives. I want to see my small ideas opening up small ideas in someone else, and I want to be opened up too; I want to learn too.
It’s the reason I like reading and writing short stories, the kind that end in a questioning, open way that unfolds into the reader and the reader’s experience, rather than telling the reader what the answer is. Resonance. That’s what I’m looking for, in everything I do.
Yesterday evening, off I went with my eldest son to coach his soccer team. I was as tired as I’d been all day. There wasn’t time to eat supper. But when we got onto the field, the hour flew by, my exhaustion vanished. I love coaching soccer. I don’t love it because I’m an expert. I’m not. I love it because it’s a creative undertaking, and because I find myself, in this role, engaged with the kids on the team: trying to figure out what will motivate them as individuals, assessing their levels of interest and skill, and asking them to push themselves in small ways—for each player this will be different. I also love it because it’s fun. We’re meeting up so they can play a game.
I think we all need to play. We should all be doing something every day that feels playful, just for fun, something that lifts us out of the ordinary. Something we don’t have to do for any reason other than it makes us happy.
When teaching is going well, it’s for the same reasons. It’s because we’re engaged in a creative enterprise together. Writing and revision should feel playful. I know this won’t always be the case, and writing is work, no doubt about it, but for me—and what I want to share—is that writing, especially fiction, is play. You get to live inside your imagination like you haven’t had permission to do since you were a child. You get to explore whatever interests you. You get to ask questions and wonder and roam freely around your own mind, making it all up, drawing from the back of your mind “perishable moments you hadn’t even noticed that you noticed.” To paraphrase Lynda Barry.
And that’s about where I’ve gotten in my process of discernment. Expect me to release a mission statement in the next decade or so.
P.S. Read this, from the New Yorker (wish I had a subscription!): an inspiring and moving essay by George Saunders about his own creative writing teachers. (Side note: how the heck did Tobias Wolff have time to help parent three children, work full-time leading graduate classes in creative writing, thoroughly read every submission to the program, and write and publish his own books?)
P.S. 2 Here’s how I started this morning. I slept in until 6:45. Then I listened to this song and did kundalini exercises for about half an hour, while the older kids started their day too, but before the younger two got up. It was a good start and I feel much more rested. First discernment decision: I’m limiting my 5AM exercise to no more than three times per week; I’m open to dropping to even less if I’m still really tired. I will reassess in six weeks.
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?
I’m not going to write in detail about Canada’s federal election last night, other than to say that I heard the news about a new government being voted into office as I was driving home in stormy weather from Grimsby, Ontario, after reading to a packed house, along with Peter Kavanagh (author of The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times). (Side note: That the Grimsby reading series could pack the house on the same night of the Canadian federal election AND the Blue Jays’ first home game in their best of seven series is an enormous tribute to the organizers. For the occasion, I wore my lucky jeans and t-shirt, which I’ve been wearing for the last three Jays’ victories — and when I don’t wear them, they lose, which means I have to wear them again tonight, even though tonight I’ll be coaching my eldest’s soccer team for the first time and the jeans and t-shirt are decidedly un-coach-like garb! Superstitions are so inconvenient. And yet so alluring to a certain personality-type. Busted. That’s me, clad in the same jeans and t-shirt for days on end, thinking it will change the outcome of a baseball game. But they won last night! They won! So …)
This photo dates from last week when the Jays clinched their best-of-five series. It marked the second time I wore the lucky shirt/jeans combo. And look at how they won!
Where was I?
Here I am, on a dull fall day in October, relieved to know that a new government will be setting the tone in Ottawa, a new government will be speaking for Canadians on the world stage. To be perfectly candid, I burst into tears when I heard the news on the radio, driving along the wind-whipped Skyway, alone in my little car. I burst into tears because it felt like the end of an angry and fearful man’s government. It felt like Canadians were saying: enough with the fear and anger—we want to be united not divided. Politicians disappoint, and I’m not naive; there are disappointments to come with this new government. But I’m also not willing to be cynical about the difference tone can make, at the highest level of leadership: if you think Canada is not a racist or xenophobic country, check out some of the letters to the editor in the Globe and Mail over the past few weeks, opinions unleashed and legitimized by the fearful, angry campaign run by the guy who is now our former prime minister. I burst into tears because the guy who won last night said: A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.
Maple leaves collected by me and CJ on our walk home from school yesterday.
Now to see those words put into policy. Now to see the reversal of the damage done.