For the X Page workshop, I’ve been doing the writing exercises we assign and practice each week; I’ve always written along when leading workshops or teaching, mostly because writing something new is always an adventure and I don’t want to miss out on the experience. On Friday (May 14, 2021), I’ll be leading a writing workshop for the Canadian Nonfiction Collective’s conference, in which we’ll be doing some of these same writing exercises. (Check here, if you’re interested in attending!)
The exercises are based on Lynda Barry’s method of writing and drawing by hand: allowing the hand to be the eye that leads us into the story, and shows us the images that we’ve kept and may not even know are alive within us. I’ve seen this teaching method work over and over again to unearth stories, scenes, details, emotions and insights that would otherwise lie dormant. The process can also unearth material that’s painful or unexpectedly emotional, but what I’ve noticed is that the writing itself also seems to be a tool for healing — telling a story, letting it be shaped by our present self, can be healing.
Though we won’t be doing this is in either workshop, my personal temptation is to veer off into fictional territory, and expand the scene or story out into what could have been or could yet be, or swing into the viewpoint of another person. It’s a very malleable writing method.
(And of course I call on other methods and practices during different stages of the writing process; but even revision and editing can feel free-wheeling and surprising when I’m deep inside the process, which is always an adventure. Using Lynda Barry’s generous, expansive methods have helped me learn how to turn down the voice in my head that is telling me “this is good” or “this sucks.” That’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from this practice: that little voice is my ego, and my ego is terrified of making a mistake, and wants so badly to impress others that it is really not trustworthy.)
These days of lockdown and aimless waiting affect us all differently … but what I often feel is disconnected, lonely, a bit apathetic or lacking in energy or drive.
When I open my notebook and begin to write, something changes. It might only change for those minutes when I’m writing, but while engaged with the pen and the page, I go somewhere else in my mind. I travel. The monotony shifts, the day is different — it opens into a different place or time or perspective. And that’s a little gift to myself, which I hope to give to others, too.
- What felt good this month? This month has been a haze. What’s felt good in the past week or so is getting outside to run in the park, early in the morning. Delighting in the capacity of my body to run, to take deep breaths, to move. And yesterday, I got my first dose of vaccine. That felt nerve-wracking but real: a dose of hope. I’m loving the X Page workshop sessions: it feels like such a gift right now, when our province is locked down, being part of these intimate, meaningful conversations as new stories get discovered, told and shaped. Sometimes I think that’s my life’s calling — it’s not writing after all, but witnessing, creating structures that invite deep listening and telling, discovery and connection: sharing storytelling skills. Other things that felt good: Friday night games night (online) with my sibs and their partners; and, just in the past week, reconnecting with friends, after some weeks of feeling too down and inward even to try.
- What did you struggle with? Everything? We are locked down in Ontario, and will be for the next month or so. My mood swings daily, hourly. I feel like I’m possibly going crazy and a few minutes later, I feel fine. Sometimes I can’t bear to open email or problem-solve a single thing. But usually if I push past the feeling and just attempt the task, I can do it, I can manage just fine. The word “languishing” is floating around right now. Yup. That’s about right.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? At the beginning of the month, dread was in the air: the signs of a disastrous rise in cases were all around us, but somehow, the kids were still going to school and we were able to visit friends outdoors in what felt like relatively normal social situations. By mid-month, that ended. I channelled my rage toward decision-makers into making a bunch of phone calls to politicians to argue for a sufficient safety net and protections for those people most affected by the pandemic’s surge. That felt cathartic. I won a small grant to research a project I’m working on. But, but, but … I’m struggling with changes, combined with a sense of stagnancy amidst the onrush of passing time. It was hard to say goodbye to my eldest, who moved out to a new apartment. His room looks really empty at the end of the hallway.
- How did you take care of yourself? The usual. Meditation, yoga, writing, drawing, X Page meetings, texting friends, journaling, getting outside, exercise, stretching, preparing and eating good food. Not stressing over the messy state of the house. Watching shows with Kevin: Call My Agent; Le Bureau; and right now, Shtisel. My daily routine can feel a bit stale at times, but it keeps me going: the alarm goes off early, and I get up and the day begins, and that is good. “Why am I doing this?” I asked myself one early morning this week. “Because you can!” I replied. Gratitude. Loving engagement.
- What would you most like to remember? That I am blessed. That my resources run deep. That I can ask for help, if I need it. That not everything can be fixed, but brokenness isn’t a flaw; can even deepen compassion, and understanding.
- What do you need to let go of? Fear of failure. This hampers me almost more than I bear to admit. My answer to this question last month was so wise, I want to hold onto it: “Outcomes,” I wrote. “Process is so much more valuable than outcomes.” When my fear of failure rises, I get stuck on the holy grail of outcomes, which invites judgement, comparison, and demands quantifiables. Is it possible to live more freely? Maybe I need to let go of my idea of myself as a writer, or my idea of what that looks like, and how my experience compares. I’m attracted to the idea of a calling; maybe I need to let go of that too. What does a purposeful life look like? I long to be a “good” person, but what does that mean? Does fear of judgement, of getting things wrong, stop me from responding with my full heart — stop me from being a person who listens deeply, who responds with care, and who can laugh at herself because she loves herself, flaws, failures, and all?
Just need to check in and mark this day. Which contains some significant news.
First, my eldest child is moving out to his own apartment! Last night, his sister baked him “Goodbye Brownies” and while we ate them, we went around the table and took turns expressing what we’d miss about having him around the house. And I didn’t even need to initiate this lovely, heart-warming ritual — his siblings did it all! So I feel my work as a parent is basically complete.
I’m feeling proud of him, and excited for him, and aware that change is ever with me, and I will adapt even if it takes time.
Second, I got my first dose of vaccine today. I had to overcome my irrational fears of the rare clotting complication: the doctor who gave me the vaccine was very very kind and helpful in explaining the risks; and I feel … well … I feel like I’m on the way somewhere, not there yet, but on a path that will lead to different vistas. Not back to before. The landscape will be changed, but how, and for better? It’s not clear.
What a day!
I started it with a solo run in the park, not fast, stiff wind in my face, taking walk breaks as needed, enjoying the quiet and the cold, fresh air. I gave thanks for right now.
I’ll do it again. I give thanks.
Listen up. Life feels pretty off-kilter here in Ontario, month 13 of pandemic, and projections showing us flying off the rails, if, if, if. Or maybe no matter what.
Uncertainty. It’s where we’re at. Can we laugh while crying? Damn, I sure hope so.
To counteract the blahs, we’ve been trying to think up activities, ways to demarcate our days, things to plan for (like Fake Prom, last spring). One kid floated the idea that we should make a family newspaper, in the tradition of The Snyder News, a “popular” newsletter which I forced my brothers to help me produce back in the late 1980s. At its peak circulation, it cost more in Xeroxing and postage than the meagre subscription price was bringing in, causing it ultimately to fail. (Do not put me in charge of the money side of any venture.)
Back to the future (i.e. the present), while brainstorming who would write what for our family publication, someone suggested having an advice column, and I experienced in that moment a deeply personal calling: “Oh, this is so exciting! You can send me your problems and I’ll give you advice!” Awkward beat of silence. “Nobody has any questions that need my advice? They can be anonymous!”
“I think you give us enough advice already.”
“I know, you could call your column: ‘Unsolicited Advice.'”
(Insert overnight pause, to process my hurt feelings.)
And: Challenge accepted! Here’s my rough draft, which I’ll share with you first (since no one in my family reads my blog, as far as I know, and if they do, spoiler alert!).
Unsolicited Advice, by M.C.
Just think of everything that could go wrong! That’s a good place to start. After that, think of everything you could do to prevent anything bad from ever happening ever. If that feels overwhelming, you can start by closing all cupboard doors immediately after opening them, rather than leaving them swinging for an indefinite period of time because you think you might come back later for more chips, or whatever. Imagine all the concussions you’ll prevent! While you’re at it, close that drawer too! While less consequential in terms of disaster prevention, at least no one will catch their sleeve causing them to send a cup of hot coffee flying (worst-case scenario) or snagging their sweater (sad face emoji). And there’s more! (fortunately, my contract is on-going!), but these basic principles will get you started, and you’ll be off to the races.
Speaking of the races, if you’re thinking of running a race, or even just running, be sure to wear shoes designed for this specific purpose and not for some other event such as hiking or swimming or tennis (unless you’re experimenting with barefoot running, in which case, nothing can save you!). Double-tie your laces, and stretch beforehand—dynamic stretches, not the static kind like we used to do in gym class when I was a kid (this advice is based on real scientific advancement). When running, be careful not to step in any holes. That’s just generally good advice! But always worth restating! If on your run, you see an angry mob of Canada geese approaching (very dangerous, especially during mating season), spread your arms and scream. You’ll see! Highly effective. Be sure to practice your screaming before you get yourself into a situation that may involve Canada geese. You can scream into a pillow or just practice during Mario Kart races.
To reiterate, in case this isn’t sinking in (one can never be too careful!): our basic principle is prevent, prevent, prevent. Remember that fun goes hand-and-hand with risk (don’t hold hands, for heaven’s sake, do I even need to tell you that?), and is also pleasurable, addictive and difficult to avoid, and is therefore an ongoing threat to your health! It’s best to maintain a hyper-heightened risk-assessment mindset at all times. But be careful! Overloading your frontal cortex with stress hormones (which may or may not be a thing, just google it), could cause mental burnout. Counteract those effects with a calm and boring meditative practice, which is generally considered safe, provided you don’t burn incense while you’re at it (fire hazard alert!), but on the very rare occasion has been known to accidentally hypnotize practitioners into believing everything is okay (don’t hyperventilate, M.C.!), which causes them to let their guard down and enjoy their day, which may lead them to have fun (remember = risk!), so be sure to meditate with caution. You have been warned!
This column is accepting questions (and we remain disappointed); however, it seems reasonable to assume that the volume, force, and acuity of our unsolicited advice may serve as a disincentive. Who needs to ask questions, when all the questions you’ve never even thought to ask are already being answered? I understand: And that’s my job, as advice columnist, at your service.
Remember: stay alert, be afraid, and never stop worrying.
Inquiries for the universe…
A few years ago, after returning from a three-week writing residency in France, I put an idea out into the universe: hey, universe, could you send more cross-disciplinary collaboration my way? I’d worked with a wonderful actor / writer / translator as part of the residency, and both of us hoped to find a way to create together again. The universe didn’t align for the two of us to reconnect, though we tried; however, as so often happens, another door opened. In fact, a few different doors, one leading to the next. The first was that I began spending several mornings a week with a young woman who had recently come to Canada with her husband and children; she couldn’t get into a language program, so I volunteered to help her with some English studies. Really, what I remember most about those mornings are our conversations. I realized that my neighbourhood, my work, my friend group, even my church was its own bubble, a comfort zone, and pretty homogenous; and that I had a strong desire to connect with people across the possible barriers of language, religion and culture. The idea for The X Page storytelling workshop grew out of this friendship.
And lo and behold, The X Page became a forum for cross-disciplinary artistic collaboration, as well as new friendships and connections. Our third season starts this week, and will happen entirely online. We’ve adapted, but the goals remain the same: artistic collaboration and exploration, and cross-cultural conversations and connections. It genuinely feels like I sent an idea out to the universe, and the universe answered.
Today, I’ve woken with another kernel of an idea: Hey universe, could I expand on the X Page workshop somehow, to make its goals available more broadly, to many more people? Here’s the spark: Before drifting off to sleep last night, I read a New York Times article about an Australian community-building concept called “The Shed.” Apparently, these “sheds” began as retreats for retired and out-of-work men, and only recently have women started their own “sheds.” The story is about women taking over part of an unused school building; their shed is run by volunteers who are also participants, and it’s a mix of socializing (playing games, eating together) and crafts/ skills, like sewing, painting, gardening, cooking, singing in a choir. It’s a mix.
When I woke up, I was still mulling over the idea of “the shed,” which sounds a bit like a community centre, but which also seems more ground-up, or holistically invented and sustained.
It’s also all very post-pandemic, and impossible right now: gathering together, in person. But hey, universe: is there something here? What do you think? Maybe it’s the idea of a shared project, like “the shed.” Maybe it’s the fact that it’s free for all. Maybe it’s the concept of having space for a variety of activities, which I’ve found makes connections across barriers easier. I’m feeling this rather urgently right now: somehow we have to find ways to make more connections, especially outside of our bubbles, in order to nurture our sense of collective care. We’ve got big urgent crises to cope with. We need to find ways to have difficult conversations, and common ground. Social media does not work for these purposes; it seems almost designed to push us to greater and greater extremes. Belonging comes from something else, I’m convinced of it—outside of algorithms that fail to surprise us, that try to sell us more stuff, and that compete for our attention by exploiting our emotional weak points.
My attention is invaluable. So is yours. It is our time here on earth. It’s what we’ve got to give.
So if you’ve spent a few minutes of your attention reading this post, I send you immense thanks. And to the universe, I send this flicker of an idea: in what ways can I deepen my involvement in building community and connection on the ground, in the real world, both now and whenever we can meet in person again?
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a writer of fiction and non-, reader, planner, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, mentor/coach, forever curious. I'm interested in the intersection between art and spirituality. What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty? What if everyone could make art?