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 heard a news item on the CBC this morning that said people are spending 20% of their days on devices, now. The average Facebook user spends an hour a day scrolling the site. I was listening to the radio on my phone in the kitchen, and I looked up to see my 12-year-old holding her i-pod and her phone (wifi-only) while eating breakfast at the dining-room table. There are evenings when, after supper, chores and homework have been done, everyone gathers quietly in the living-room to stare into their phones and screens. It’s peaceful and it’s creepy. At least we’re in the same room? On Wednesday, I suggested we play a game instead. I don’t even like playing games, but it was the only family-oriented indoor activity I could think of. Everyone was so enthusiastic! We played Boggle till bedtime. It was fun. We were not silent and we were together. It reminded me of being on holiday.
Why don’t we do this more often?
Oh, right. Because we’re tired. This takes energy, when the other option is easy. So easy.
Last night, by the time we got home from soccer practice and picking up our eldest from work (dark, rainy, 8PM = not ideal biking weather), a child suggested playing a game, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy to engage. I’d just been coaching 15 kids for an hour and you should have seen the state of kitchen. Instead, I tackled that. I could have asked the children to help, I suppose. But I didn’t have the energy even to ask for help (it does take energy, because I haven’t sufficiently ingrained in my children the necessity of helping around the house without complaint or argument). So no games. The kids didn’t think it would be fun without the parents, and the parents were toast. The living-room was once again a zone of screens and silence.
I was going to blog about something else in this quick post. I was going to blog about being mindful of persistent negative thoughts, which shape the sometimes negative narratives I tell myself, without even noticing, which affect my enjoyment of the world, generally. But this subject is not so different. What is shaping our life together as a family? What is shaping my children’s childhood experiences? It’s frightening and numbing to think that a powerful shaping factor could be these devices we willingly invite into our lives, and hold so close to us, all day long.
Recently, I asked my students to draw themselves in relation to their phones. The responses were a mixture of love/hate. We feel attached. We feel connected. We feel trapped. We feel helpless. Our phones are reprogramming our brains, the CBC report said, and I believe it. I’m writing a book? I should be writing a series of tweets or a video game or recording on a YouTube channel. It would be more practical.
What’s your relationship to your phone? Are you reading this on your phone?
PS Ditch your screen and come see me tomorrow at the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo. If you’re a young writer between the ages of 13-17, there’s still space for you in my morning workshop. Or just come hang out with great Canadian writers and catch some free events.
Today has not been the kind of day that I would call productive.
I’m sitting here with a marked-up manuscript at my elbow that is calling out for revision, for new scenes to be written, for work and attention and focus. I’m at the point in this project where I keep thinking, Don’t let me die before it’s done! Which makes me reflect on the courageous creativity of people who know their time is limited, like Gord Downie, who, in his final year-and-a-bit, wrote and sang the songs he knew he needed to share with those he loved. There is a real terror that the end will come before you’ve finished the work you intended to do. That terror is real.
And yet, I’m sitting here and have not dug in. On Saturday I spent nine hours glued to my desk, working on this book. Total luxury. Today, I’ve been unable to manufacture focus.
My mind is elsewhere …
As some of you may know, we have two dogs. They came to us as a mismatched pair, rescue dogs who were found, abandoned, wearing matching pink sweaters in the middle of freezing February in an industrial Ohio town. How they survived even a few hours in the “wild” I’ll never know, as they are almost entirely lacking in good sense. They were then impounded and doomed, only to be rescued by a Canadian group, who subsequently struggled to adopt them out as a pair … until we came along. We’ve had this motley pair in our home for more than five years. It took the dogs at least two years to settle in and fully trust us. Suzi still wakes up and begins howling around 5AM every morning. One of the challenges of caring for rescued animals is that their histories are unknown; even their ages are unknown. What we do know is heartbreaking: they were abandoned.
More than a year ago, DJ was diagnosed with cancer. Luckily, it’s slow-growing and she continues to enjoy life, eating well, going for walks, even while there are signs of her illness’s progression in her body. Today, we received news that it is highly probable that Suzi has cancer too, but hers appears more aggressive.
Truth is, I’m pretty broken up.
This is what I’m thinking about as my book waits by my elbow. Two little dogs.
I’m thinking about how a dog doesn’t have a mission in life, or not an articulated mission, not a mission in the sense that we invent such things; a dog doesn’t need a mission to enjoy its time here on earth, from what I’ve observed. A dog thrives on routine, loves food, and is highly attuned to the humans with whom it interacts. A dog can greet you at the door better than anyone. A dog is also reliant on the kindness of those who care for it; and therefore like all innocent creatures a dog is vulnerable to mistreatment and abandonment. It breaks the heart, as I’ve said. We’ve tried to imagine our dogs’ lives before they came into ours; we’ve tried to imagine them as adorable puppies; we wonder when they first met, and why they got along (two female dogs usually don’t bond like this). We’ve also fictionalized them in our imaginations, turning them into doggie detectives (more lucky than bright), and, most recently, cartoon super heroes (DJ’s superpower is her terrible breath, Suzi’s is her ear-piercing whine). Maybe I’ll write them into a book, someday, who knows. If there’s time.
This post feels too close to eulogy. The dogs are sleeping under the table, near my feet. They’re still here. Today is today. Pet your doggies while you may.
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?
It’s a gorgeous fall day. I’m getting ready to go for a bike ride, followed by some writing time. Yet it feels like my inward landscape, my interior weather is at odds with the beauty of the day. My inward landscape and weather is affected by who knows how many forces, some obvious, some unwanted, some self-imposed, some hormonal, some downright mysterious and I’m thinking that right now I can’t sort out what, exactly, is making me unhappy. Because that is what I am. I am eaten with anxiety, abuzz with nervous energy, my mind whirling, distracted, bewildered, impatient, upset. On my brief run this morning, I attempted to be mindful: pay attention to the sounds around me, pay attention to what I was seeing, pay attention to smells (not good — it was garbage day). Within seconds, my mind was already flitting down dark alleyways of repetitive negative thought. I would bring it back to the streetlight shining on a pile of wet leaves, but a few steps later, my mind was gone again, chasing thoughts that feed on misery.
Why would my mind want to feed on misery? Why wouldn’t it, instead, be drawn to the sound of my feet making a rhythmic beat on the pavement? Why not sink into the sound of breath, patterning with the beat of my feet?
I have upon my back a straw. I either have to figure out how to contain it, how to compartmentalize my responsibilities so as to contain it and carry it, or the straw is going to break me.
That is what I’m thinking about today, as I prepare to climb onto my bike and pedal across town, with the hopes of finding a new scene for my book. My books needs many new scenes. That is the other news of the day, but that does not discourage me. I love these characters — why would I not want to spend more time with them?
Wish me luck, friends. So much depends upon it.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm mother of four, writer of fiction and non-, dreamer, planner, mid-life runner, soccer coach, teacher, taking time for a cup of coffee in front of this computer screen. My days are full, yet I keep asking: how can I fill them just a little bit more, with depth, with care, with light.