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.
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.
My favourite literary magazine, The New Quarterly, is hosting the fifth annual Wild Writers Festival at the Balsillie School in Waterloo, on the weekend of Nov. 4th, and I will be there too! Join us to share in the delight of the written word.
Details, including ticket information, are available on their website. Note that there are free events as well as ticketed ones. (My event is FREE, and I’ll be moderating a panel at 1:30 on Saturday on the subject of finding your voice in fiction, featuring the amazing multi-award nominee Kerry Lee Powell, Brent van Staalduinen, Kirsteen MacLeod, and Sharon Bala.)
Highlights from the rest of the weekend include:
On-stage interview on Friday night with Rosemary Sullivan, acclaimed biographer, most recently of Stalin’s Daughter, (and once-upon-a-time, my professor); Saturday writing workshops with Alyssa York, Isabel Huggan, Erin Bow, Michael Helm, among others; a “speakeasy” with Zarqa Narwaz on Saturday night at the Berlin hosted by my friend, and terrific writer, Tasneem Jamal; and Sunday brunch with, among others, 2016 Booker prize nominee, Madeline Thien.
I mean, really!
To register and buy tickets, click here.
PS To say it’s been a busy week/month/season would not begin to cover it. I’ve got more notebook exercises to share, and reflections on attempting to take a rigorous coaching course (mid-way through), and political thoughts aplenty, but this post, as is, will have to suffice for the moment.
How to sum up an experience like Omega, you ask, sitting in your office, once again, with a dog curled alertly at your feet? A child has just rushed in to tell you that she has gotten to 7 juggles (of the soccer ball, with her feet) in the “summer juggling camp” organized by your husband, to keep your children active and entertained, while you were away.
You were way for six days, but it could have been months. It could have been that you fell down into a different world, unrelated to your own, as vivid, as real, but somehow without connection to your own. You crossed a drawbridge that let itself down, into a small, contained universe which you inhabited almost like you’d become a child again.
You drew pictures. You wrote by hand. You went to class. You ate meals provided for you, and you compliantly accepted the food that appeared, eating something called “chickpea scramble” for breakfast every morning, almost obediently. You napped on pillows under a table with your fellow classmates. In the evening before bed, you went to tuck shop and bought a snack. You swam in a swampy seaweed infested lake. You laughed till you cried with your friend. You had a camp name. You were, in fact, a child at camp, again.
There were marvellously awful moments, such as when you struggled in full-on sun, sweat pouring off you, to erect an enormous, ridiculous tent, while the campers nearby reminisced about recently hiking the Appalachian Trail, popping up their compact tents in mere minutes. You almost cried, running in the heat to seek out duct tape—for the love of God, duct tape!—to repair your ridiculous and broken tent. And then you slept in luxury on a queen-size mattress, inflated with a motorized roaring machine that irritated those hardier neighbours who had recently hiked the Appalachian Trail.
There was the morning you rose at 4AM to attend a two and a half hour kundalini yoga class, that consisted largely of sitting cross-legged whilst chanting under the instruction of a tone-deaf guru.
There was the heat, the thunder storm, and the morning you had to take the rain-soaked tent down and pack up in the mud, only to be confronted by a breakfast of turmeric-soaked lentils immediately afterward.
But this was bliss.
It was blissful to spend hours every day writing and drawing. You didn’t know you could draw. You didn’t know you had characters inside of you, their faces waiting to be seen, their hidden emotions so certain on the page, present in a few quick lines you’d sketched there. After class, you would find your way back to the classroom to work—writing and drawing, drawing and writing. Determined as a child. Delighted as a child. You would want to thank this genius teacher, whose genius is her delight in the process, and her generosity. There was no waste in Lynda Barry’s class. Time was honoured. It was honoured with work, and it was honoured with rest, and it was honoured with delight in what you were all making, individually and together.
You went on this adventure, and you came home again.
But you’re still there, you think. Half of you is still there, safe and bewildered and surprised and elated.
Thank you, Lynda Barry.
I miss you, blog. I do. But I’m pouring all of my writing time—and there is never quite enough—into writing of another sort, just now, so I have little left for you. I have the feeling you are durable enough to manage any absence. I also have the feeling that you are a metaphor for how to manage a packed life: in order to do what you must do, in addition to what you want to do, you have to choose what not to do, too. You have to prioritize.
Magical thinking is not so magical, as it turns out. It doesn’t work, for one thing. And for another, it tricks the mind into believing that the perfect circumstances may arise, just around the corner, perhaps tomorrow, when you will accomplish that thing (whatever it may be) that you’ve been meaning to do, intending to do, nay, longing to do. Magical thinking can magically think you right out of ever doing that thing.
Time can be expansive, it can open up most generously and patiently; but not always, not infinitely, not forever. Our time here is brief and it is precious.
I’m choosing less blogging. More writing. I’m choosing less email. More writing. I’m choosing more running. Less beer. I’m choosing more playing. Less cooking. I’m choosing more love. Less worrying. I’m choosing today. Not tomorrow.