I’ve entered a new phase in my life. It should have a name, but it’s a little too nascent to be properly defined, as yet. In this phase, I’m not teaching and The X Page Workshop has wrapped up, and collectively the team has yet to decide what comes next. My focus, therefore, turns not outward, but inward.
All this year, I’ve been seeking space. Last fall, when I was drowning in responsibilities, the word SPACE became my mantra, and my goal. I worked so hard to give myself this gift. It’s here now. And I’ve recognized that my new goal is to allow the space I’ve elbowed open to remain spacious, not to clutter it with new pursuits. What if I give my writing the attention I’ve given everything else? That is the question before me. It’s an experiment. I wonder: will the writing life, its necessary solitude, its self-generated energy, continue to call so loudly now that I can turn toward it?
Here is the gift of time, to explore.
Here is where I inevitably get caught up in looping guilty thoughts, ranging from, can we afford this?, to if we can afford this what have I done to deserve this?
There lives inside me a desire, an impulse, to give rather than to receive. The discomfort I feel when receiving — praise, thanks, gifts, anything good — is profound; it makes me almost ungracious. I’ve been trying to learn how to say thank you for years. To say it and to absorb it and to accept it. I don’t want to hoard my riches. But I don’t want to squander them either. If I am to accept this gift of time, I have to accept it despite not knowing whether anything good or useful will come of it. That’s hard. I know that if I put my time into teaching, into running workshops, good and useful things will come of it. So it’s hard to step away from purposeful actions toward an activity that seems indulgent, self-indulgent, even, and not obviously of use to anyone else.
You see, in this new phase, I am a writer.
I mean, I am writer whose focus is on writing. Stories, a new novel, cartoons. I’m not, in this phase, a writer whose focus is on sharing her skills with others. I’m a writer who is practicing her skills. I need the practice. The practice calls me.
I am setting new routines, in order not to squander my riches: these gifts of time and space. Exercise early. Meditate when the house has emptied out. Follow the rituals that ease me across the border into a creative state: open my notebook, listen to a song while drawing a self-portrait, write for three minutes (or more) answering the question: What’s on your mind? And then writing, or editing, or cartooning. Also, and as important, reading. Books, fiction. On Monday, I read an entire novel (Normal People, by Sally Rooney.) Today, what’s on your mind? turned into a meditation on love, a spoken-word poem, inflected by the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack I’d been listening to. I hung up a load of laundry in the sudden sunshine. I meditated while standing in the grass in the back yard. I decided to write this post before setting up at the dining-room table to work on cartoons.
It feels easy.
It feels pleasurable.
It feels good.
I’m not a hedonist by nature. I’m ashamed, maybe, to enjoy feeling good. To enjoy ease. Something whispers that I’m not deserving. What a strange barrier to fulfillment. Truth be told, I’m drained and exhausted, teetering on the edge of burn-out. I know in my bones that this phase is as necessary as the other phase. The inward feeds the body and the spirit to prepare it for the outward. It’s good to feel good. To swim with the current. To sit quietly and breathe deeply. The scent of flowering trees is especially intoxicating just now. Am I ascending or descending? It’s too early in this phase to know. Either way, it feels good.
“We are changing all the time. You become what you love.
You’re always asked to sort of stretch a little bit more. But actually, we’re made for that.
There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us. And we’ve just got to be available. Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is a most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet, or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world. But in any case there’s absolutely no excuse for our making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health. Whether we think it’s going to go on forever. Those are just thoughts anyway.
But this moment we’re alive. So you can just dial up the magic anytime.”
– Joanna Macy in an interview with Krista Tippett (On Being)
I heard today on the radio that Teva Harrison died this past weekend. If you don’t know her work, you can read this piece by Teva in The Walrus, which includes her artwork, on finding four-leaf clovers. Teva was 42 years old when she died. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37. In the years in between, she became known for her work documenting her life with cancer, in text and illustrations / cartoons. Here’s another example from The Walrus. She also published a book called In-Between Days, which combines text and illustration into a unique form of non-fiction (reviewed here in The New York Times).
I don’t want Teva to be gone from the world.
I’m thinking of my stepmother, Marg, too, whose photograph sits just above the upper lefthand side of my computer screen. I can look at there anytime and she smiles back. And although she’s been gone almost exactly one year, each time I look at her photo, I experience a fresh, breathtaking disbelief that lasts for no more than a nanosecond — when I don’t believe she’s gone at all. How could she be, when she seems so alive and smiling at me, as if about to speak?
“Rilke invites us to experience what mortality makes possible. Mortality links us with life and all time. Ours is the suffering and ours is the harvest.
– from In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
Sometimes I think that art is a tiny sacred task that involves carrying fragments of material toward the light. We can’t carry too much at one time. Eternity is too vast for us to understand, but our mortality gives us a window, an entrance. So we pick up a grain of sand and swim with it toward the surface we imagine far above us. This is art. We don’t need to be great to do this work. We don’t need to be visionary. We don’t need to be anything but ourselves.
“This great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: in taking from us a being we have love and venerated, death does not wound us, without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.” – Joanna Macy reading from her translation of Rilke
This moment, we are alive. You are alive and reading these words, as I am alive, writing these words. What song wants to sing itself through us? The task sounds so easy, so joyous — doesn’t it? We just have to make ourselves available. Offhand, here are a few ways I personally dial up the magic: go for a run; talk with a friend; share an experience and share some experience; pet a puppy; meditate; read that book; cry; draw; stretch; be outside; write a story; sit for awhile and think, and breathe.
Hold, love, release. Repeat.
End-of-term launch party.
I’m done teaching for another term. My course was on the creative process: how to set goals, envision a major project, and lay the groundwork necessary to complete the work. I spent a couple of days this week and last meeting with students to hand back their final projects (stories in comic form), and to chat about the term. Some themes emerged in our conversations. Here’s what we learned.
The importance of mistakes. So many students talked about how important their mistakes had been in shaping their project, how an apparent mistake had turned out to be important or valuable to their drawing, or how freeing it was to allow themselves to make mistakes. My theory is that through mistakes our unconscious mind gives us important information we couldn’t otherwise access; and drawing is the perfect medium for this communication with the self, because we see our “mistakes” pretty much instantly, and have to figure out what they’re trying to tell us.
The freedom of stepping away from perfectionism. Students also expressed how freeing it was to embrace their mistakes, or even how freeing it was just to give themselves permission to make mistakes. Creating a major project by hand is time-consuming and laborious, and if you don’t accept the mistakes you’ll inevitably make, you’ll never finish what you’ve started.
The calm that exists inside creation. Every student in the class put a lot of time into their projects, and some put in vast swathes of time, far more than they’d anticipated, or really, that was required to meet the project’s guidelines. (In other words, they didn’t care about the rubric, they cared about the work itself.) Students talked about losing themselves in what they were doing. It didn’t feel like work. It was fun, it was relaxing. The time flew. There is a meditative quality to making things by hand, to being focused in this way; engaged.
The time for this is always with us. (To paraphrase Lynda Barry.) This feeling of calm, this experience of getting lost inside a pleasurable task, is available anytime. And yet, we seem to need someone to remind us of this, we need a reason to get engaged in this way, a task, a project for a class to give us the excuse to get lost in making something that requires focus and effort, that is time-consuming, and that ultimately may have no material or monetary value. We feel like we have to prove that it’s worth it. I wonder why? When it seems so obvious, looking at these wonderful students and their amazing artwork — their unique, truthful, serious, funny, silly, brave, thoughtful beautiful art — that it is worth it.
This course gave the students permission to make art. To draw. To colour. To turn their lives, their observations, their ideas into cartoons. Many expressed how valuable this practice was for them, and how much they hoped others would get the chance to take the course too. “Everyone should have to take this course!” “You have to teach it again for the sake of future students!” In truth, I’m not sure what I taught was a course so much as a concept: what I tried to do was make space for the students to make space for themselves.
Anyone can draw. Most of the students had no idea what they were signing up for when they entered my classroom on day one. They thought they were taking a creative writing course; the course description was vague; they were surprised to learn they’d be doing so much drawing. They weren’t sure they could do it. Many hadn’t drawn since high school, or even grade school. “I never thought I could draw well enough to …” And to a person, they could — they could tell the stories they wanted to tell through cartoons. (“Well enough” went out the window; “well enough” had no place in our classroom.)
Pride in accomplishment. The final projects undertaken by the students were big!! This was no small undertaking. And everyone did it! The deadline got met, and each project proved to be as unique and individual as the person who created it.
Thank you, Artists of ENGL 332! Thank you for your trust. It was an adventure.
Tomorrow morning (Wednesday), my students and I will be presenting our artwork at St. Jerome’s. It’s our last day of class this term, and in Monday’s class we worked on making artist’s statements (that’s mine, above). My instructions went like this: Include your name; Include a sentence or quotation that offers insight into who you are as an artist — why you make art, or why you believe art matters, or what motivates you, or inspires you; Include illustrations/cartoons.
The results were, in my opinion, brilliant. Within less than 45 minutes, students had created tabloid-sized, unique, creative, personal statements, illustrated with humour, freedom and personality — utterly delightful. I can’t wait to hang up these statements tomorrow. When I expressed surprise that so many of the students had managed to finish their work during the time allotted, they said they were used to it by now. Virtually every exercise I run in class is time-based — you have 7 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes. Done. During one particularly gruelling exercise, I remember joking that the title of the course shouldn’t be Creativity Unplugged, it should be Creativity Under Pressure. And then a student requested I play “Under Pressure” by Queen/David Bowie. And I did.
And we got the work done, whatever it was.
Yesterday was an opportunity to reflect on what we’d expected coming into this course, and what had actually happened. I feel that these public “check-outs,” by their nature, encourage people to say nice things, so I take it all with a grain of salt, but it was gratifying to hear that students had absorbed from the course exactly what I’d hoped to offer.
I hoped that discipline and routine and structure would nurture creative practice, and curiosity. Yes. (Though one of the students said he loathed the timed exercises.)
I hoped that students would find the exercises relaxing, meditative, so engaging that they’d lose track of time. Yes.
I hoped that students would rediscover their inner child. Yes.
I hoped that students would be delighted and surprised by the things they were making. Yes.
I hoped that students would see progress in their technical skills. Yes.
I hoped that we would laugh a lot. Yes.
I wanted to let the course unfold naturally, to go with the flow, the way I do when I’m writing and drawing, and I think that I got a whole lot closer to this goal than I ever have before, as a teacher. I wasn’t even that scared or anxious … most of the time.
And tomorrow morning we’ll display some of what we made, do a little more drawing, a little more talking, give away a few prizes, and enjoy being together one last time before the term ends.
Too much. There’s too much on my mind. The kids were home last week on March break, and I looked at the surfaces around our house, covered with debris, and I thought, this could be a metaphor for the surface of my mind. I’m drowning in details, in crumpled to-do lists, in scattered responsibilities, in unmet needs, in forgotten or neglected tasks.
My solution is multi-pronged, and does not, as one might think would be prudent, involve a lot of cleaning. Whenever I clear a surface, more debris appears.
Instead, my solution is in connection. Connection outward and connection inward. I go to a kundalini yoga class, and chant, whirl, and root myself deep inside my body. I go to church and rest within an hour of spiritual reflection. I draw and I write. I go for a walk with a friend. I meditate. I help lead workshops, and I stand at the front of a classroom trying to connect students to the transformative magic of their own creativity.
I’ve been sharing a journal with one of my children, as a way to “talk” back and forth about big subjects. Our household currently has three teenagers, a time of life that is especially full of big questions — what is the purpose of my life, what am I supposed to do next, who am I, where can I find meaning? There aren’t one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, it seems to me, so I can only offer ideas, suggestions, places to search.
One of my teenagers said to me, earlier this week, that people are looking for connection with something bigger than themselves. That’s it, isn’t it. That’s the general answer. I think it’s why religion has played such a critical role in human society: religion is explicitly about connecting with something larger than oneself. Most religions involve community, ritual and practice, and some personal sacrifice; all of which are important ingredients, in my experience, to feeling connected to a larger purpose and meaning. It’s important to be aware that there are healthy connections, but there are also dangerous connections (if you’ve connected with something that demands that you hurt or denigrate other people, or yourself, for example, that is not a healthy connection with a larger cause).
Sitting in church on Sunday, I thought about who I am becoming as I age and grow more rooted within myself. I’m not someone who needs a clear surface to thrive. I don’t need to live in a clean house. But I am someone who needs to pay attention to the things that are causing the clutter, the people whose lives coincide with my own, whose interests interest me, the people who share my space (and I don’t just mean my own family); I carry their cares close, in other words. The debris isn’t all mine; I’m not even sure a quarter of it really belongs to me; certainly I generate far less than I take responsibility for. And that’s where I need to take care, be more mindful — recognize and accept responsibility for the choices I make, and recognize and let go of that which is not mine to tidy, clean up, or carry.
Somehow, it’s my spiritual self that recognizes what matters. Yet the spiritual self is the easiest to neglect, and the hardest to talk about. Here’s what I’ve been telling myself to maintain those connections, inward and outward, that give me meaning and purpose: If you don’t have time to meditate, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to go to church, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to talk to a good friend, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to be alone, you’re too busy. (Here’s the thing: even though I’m busy, I almost always have time.)
I’ve been doing an intensive writing week. I have little transferable advice to pass along regarding strategies for how to write a novel, unless you’re interested in the pathological approach. I’ve spent seven days writing almost non-stop, abandoning all else, and I can report back to you that the overwhelming sensation involved is: compulsion; essentially, it felt too psychologically painful to stop until done. So I wrote till I was done, and the whole book was out of me. (Important side note: Much editing awaits ahead.)
I finished this morning. I was working off a previous draft, and an outline, so this wasn’t material conjured from thin air, these are characters I’ve been exploring in one form or another for several years now. I know them. Writing scenes felt like describing events that I’d witnessed. I just had to look around, pay attention, and write what I was seeing.
I marked each writing session by drawing — the drawings I’ve used to illustrate this post — while listening to music (the song titles are incorporated into each drawing). After drawing, I wrote for three minutes — “What’s on your mind?” — the same prompt I use when leading creative writing classes, and it’s brilliant. Just dump it out. And then GO.
There must be another way to do this work, of course, and my goal is to give myself enough space during my regular life that I can aspire to write under more regular, ordinary circumstances. Because, I’ll be honest, all I crave is more of this. More and more and more and more. Writing like this feels as natural as breathing. Effortless? In truth, yes. The way that going for a hike in the woods is effortless. Because I was so occupied, it was like I was living in another world. And now, thankfully, that world exists outside of me in a form accessible to others.
The relief I feel is extreme. I can’t describe it accurately. I was so afraid that something would happen to prevent me from pouring the whole thing out — the whole story. And to imagine leaving those characters half-formed, half-finished with their tasks, was excruciating.
I’m writing this now to help myself remember what it feels like to be in this rare place. I want to record what it feels like to be inside this altered state, because I can’t assess it clearly from inside, yet I know I’m not exactly myself, even now. I’m still too attached to that other world, which feels more vital, more marvellous, more enticing than the mundanity of this real world, which is loaded with responsibility, distraction, good intentions (mine) causing problems, irritating details that mustn’t be overlooked. I know it’s good in the real world too, but this other world — it’s like getting to live inside of a novel, which is somehow even more profoundly affecting than simply reading a novel. If you know the pleasure of reading a novel, and falling into that other world (or any invented and stylized world, of any form), I hardly dare tell you that writing a novel is a million times more intoxicating, more absorbing, more wonderful, because that will sound like hyperbole. (Or maybe, too, I fear sounding like a junkie craving another hit.)
But it’s not hyperbole, it’s true. It’s that wonderful, that absorbing. I must make space to do this — just this.