I’ve been wandering through a book kindly sent to me by my Canadian publisher, Anansi, called The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, by Sharon Blackie. One of her suggestions is to find a place to return to, daily if possible, outside somewhere. A place where you can sit and simply be, and observe the natural world around you.
At first, I fantasized about biking or walking to a nearby park to sit beside the little creek that runs through it. But after several days of not biking or walking to the park to do this, I recognized that, as is often the case, fantasy and reality are two divergent paths. I do love my fantastical life, as lived in my imagination, but down here in reality, setting into action even small life changes requires a different toolbox.
Let me back-track.
I’ve just finished a three-day workshop on instructional skills (teaching skills), which was intensive, immersive, challenging, and rewarding. My takeaway could apply to life as surely as it applies to lesson-planning: to meet your objective, you need to identify it clearly, and create a process that leads you toward it.
So if my objective or goal is to sit outside in nature, and specifically, to find a place that I can return to daily if possible, what process would lead me toward that goal?
The answer turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, in this example. Best of all, it emerged naturally. After several days of not biking or walking to the park, one morning last week, I went to the back yard and sat down on a stump. Something must have called to me. I’d just walked my youngest up to meet his friends before school and instead of going into the house as usual, I went into the yard. The dog was with me, the air was sweet and temperate, and the buds were at their very newest, just barely emerging in a soft fuzz of yellow and green overhead. I took off my sandals and sat with bare feet in the grass. I closed my eyes. I listened to the birds and the traffic, and the jingle of the dog’s collar.
Aha. I’d found my spot, my place outside in nature to which I could return almost daily.
So I’ve been returning, not quite daily, but often enough to see already small changes in the grass and weeds and flowers. Today, I opened my eyes after a ten-minute meditation and thought, This is my work, too.
It might not look like work. And it might not register as work, because it is so full of pleasure. But I know that in order to write, to create, and yes, to teach, I must be contemplative. I must reflect. I must be quiet and listen and observe and watch, and be. In this quiet place — quiet on the inside, I mean — such wonderful fantastical ideas play across my mind. So much of my work happens in the imagination. So it is inevitable that some of these ideas will capture my interest enough to be named as possibilities to pursue here in the real world.
The process by which these possibilities are achieved seems to me both practical and mysterious. We are ever-changing, and our needs and interests are ever-shifting. The process by which we move toward goals, and the goals themselves, also change and shift, as they must; often unconsciously. I like when I can recognize what’s happening and celebrate it. I like when I can recognize what I want to have happen, and can tweak my daily routine to see it come about.
Exercise is one area where it’s been easy for me to set goals and achieve them. These goals have changed and continue to change, affected by injury, age, and intention. I am aware of both the changing nature of my goals, and of the changing processes required to meet them. Therefore, I feel ease and flexibility in my approach. Parenting is the same for me, somehow; ever-changing, but replete with clear objectives: to support and to love. The work might be hard, but the meaning of the work is clear.
Naming a goal is perhaps the most difficult step. Narrowing it down. Understanding it, understanding why you want this particular change, or outcome. Committing to it. Why do I want to sit quietly in nature as often as possible? Immediately, answers float to the surface. Because it calms me, because it connects me to something bigger than myself, because it clears my mind. It helps me to see the bigger picture. It feeds my spirit.
What if I were to name a different goal: to publish another novel. I’ll confess that my motives feel less clear in this example, even though the goal appears straightforward. Certainly, I understand the process. But the underlying objective, the greater why of it all, eludes and troubles me; no doubt it’s different now than it was when I first published. And so I wonder … Is it to further my professional career, both as a writer and a teacher? Is it to share knowledge in a creative way? To entertain an audience? Is it to earn a living? Is it to publicly express ideas important to me that can’t be otherwise expressed? Is it to garner attention and feed my ego? (How I fear this last intention, how I fear it might be a secret intention I hide even from myself.)
It seems to me that writing a novel expresses a different intention than publishing a novel. I’m at ease with the former; I’m uncomfortable with the latter.
Yet I want to name it as a goal. I want to publish another novel.
I want to learn from the process, again, how to go forth into the world carrying an idea, and how to share it openly, generously, without fear or shame. I want, also, to polish an idea until it becomes a publishable book, full of breathing characters that live beyond me.
Somehow, my body understands that sitting quietly on a stump is part of the process that will lead me there.
What would a writing community look like?
Okay, here’s the thing: I don’t know. But I have a few ideas. Could you please add yours?
A small workshop group that meets regularly to read and critique each other’s writing. In the classroom, I create small groups who read each other’s rough drafts, prepare comments, and present their editorial feedback in person, face to face. Because each student has submitted work for scrutiny, they recognize each other’s vulnerability in their own. Often students will tell me that they were paralyzed with anxiety before their first workshop, while afterward they feel energized, surprised to discover that they actually enjoyed the experience.
A writing partner. I meet with a friend on occasion to write at her kitchen table, while she does the same. When we’re finished, we read each other what we’ve written (or show each other, if it involves cartoons, which it might). I like working while someone else is working too — working in parallel. But best of all, I like the immediacy of sharing what I’ve just made, which is too fresh and new to be anything but marvellous. And because what we’ve made is so fresh and new and marvellous, there is no critique involved. We just enjoy, and let the thing be what it is. I really like that.
An online group or FB page. When I was running the template for my creativity course, I made a FB page so that participants could share the work they were doing. But not everyone used it. I’ve noticed this with other online FB groups to which I belong … not everyone feels comfortable posting in a semi-public forum to semi-strangers.
A fellow traveller. Occasionally, I meet to talk shop with a local writing friend. We’ve never shared our works-in-progress with each other; instead, we give each other the support and encouragement of fellow travellers on an often bumpy road. There’s a lot we don’t need to explain to each other, and that’s a relief. Over the years, I’ve also reached out to more experienced writers to ask for advice, and have received kind and generous responses.
A blog, like this one. You’re out there. I love hearing from you, because I confess the conversation can feel one-sided at times. Maybe that’s why I forget that my blog has offered me terrific literary connections over the years — almost a decade’s worth of connections, in fact.
Literary magazines. I drop in to The New Quarterly’s office on campus to say hello from time to time. I also find that just reading other writers’ work gives me a sense of connection. Sometimes I just have to respond, often on my blog, though occasionally I’ve written a letter to a writer I don’t know to express appreciation.
Other creative writing teachers. I have not accessed this community at all. There are only a couple of professors who teach creative writing at UW and I’ve utterly failed to reach out to them.
Something I notice as I gather up these ideas. My ideal community is give-and-take. It is non-hierarchical; everyone involved is a participant whose voice has equal value. It feels really good — like friendship does. It’s a conversation. It’s about sharing.
And that’s it, off the top of my head.
Please share your thoughts and ideas with me. Are you a writer seeking community? Maybe you’ve established community already? Maybe you’re not a writer, but you can pinpoint what connections have fed your work and life? What does community mean to you, in practice, not just in theory?
People often ask me: Are you still writing?
I can’t help but parse the phrasing. The word still. Of course, it may appear that I might have somehow stopped writing, that I am no longer writing, because I’ve published so little since Girl Runner came out in the fall of 2014. During these past four years, it is true, I’ve published two picture books for children, a handful of short stories and essays in Canadian literary magazines, a performance piece for an arts festival in France, and these personal blog posts. That’s clearly not enough to keep the lights on, so to speak.
Are you still writing?
I understand the question. I know it’s asked out of kindness and curiosity. How to explain that writing is like breathing, for me? I could not stop. When I do stop, it will be because I’ve also stopped breathing. My life depends on this form of expression.
Are you still writing?
I am always writing, I explain. I explain, Not everything I write will be published.
I recognize that this is a painful truth. I recognize that to state this fact makes me vulnerable. We all like success stories. Painful truths we like so much less, we humans. We like winners because they win. We pity losers for losing. Is it shameful and possibly career-ending to admit: I’m trying, but I’m not living up to the standards being set? To admit: Success is out of my control? To admit: What I love doing may not be what the market wants? Some of us would prefer deception to truth. I wonder whether in the arts community, as in any career involving public scrutiny, we are more inclined to stare away the painful truths, to hide them, and perhaps this is the evolutionarily correct instinct.
Well, I’m going to tell you the painful truth anyway. I’m trying. I’m still writing.
There are problems that we have the capacity to solve with ingenuity and effort, and there are gravity problems. Gravity problems are problems that no amount of ingenuity and effort can solve: gravity just is, a force, like time, that doesn’t bend to human will.
I’ve been fortunate to shift some of my attention, these past four years, into teaching creative writing, work I’ve come to love. It is rewarding to receive immediate feedback, to test ideas live, to adventure in the company of others. Teaching is the opposite of writing literary fiction, at least in my experience. In my experience, to write literary fiction requires enormous patience, bottomless trust in one’s own instincts, and the fierce will to continue alone, for long stretches of time. It requires so much energy. All the energy comes from within. This can be hard to sustain in the absence of … I was going to say success, but I think the more accurate word is community.
There must be a better way!
This post has taken an unexpected detour. This isn’t the post I thought I was writing.
I need new fuel for the fire, that seems apparent from what I’ve written here. I’m out of steam. I’m still writing, but I’ve also given up hope. In my classroom, I strive to foster a creative community — it’s a goal that’s set and maintained and evaluated throughout the term. With deliberate effort, I make space for peers to meet, to share their work, to share the weight of vulnerability, and to learn how to offer useful critique, which is really a brave form of support.
I have never created such a space for myself. I’ve never even considered it as a possibility.
This is not a gravity problem. This is a problem that can be solved by ingenuity, effort, and most importantly, the willingness to be vulnerable.
Writing = breathing. If I hadn’t sat down this morning to write, I wouldn’t have stumbled across this discovery: what I’m feeling and experiencing can’t be solved alone. What I need is community, a writing community.
I’ve got a new essay on mentorship up at TNQ, the local award-winning literary magazine that has accompanied me throughout my career: you’ll find all of the plot points in the essay, including publication, rejection and cause for hope. I hope you’ll read it.
I am standing in a stream of sunlight that warms me to my bones, despite the cold air. The sun is low in the sky during this season, this month, my least favourite. I’m walking the dogs, both of whom have cancer, both of whom still seem to enjoy being alive. My youngest and I are waiting at the corner where he meets a friend for the walk to school. We are early. He says, Let’s talk about something!
The wish to be writing is deeply on my mind. The messages I send to myself through my cartoons give me a hit of confidence I can’t access otherwise. How much I want to finish writing this book, but more, how much I long for it to be a beautiful creation, beautifully written. Do I still know how? The fear of my own brain and its lack is profound.
I am in the kitchen, making a salad for supper. No one else is home; they’ve all gone to a soccer game. I am leading a workshop in less than hour and I’ve turned on the radio in a form of panic that is slowing my every move to a crawl. I could hardly turn off the computer and stop writing—editing—the scene I worked on earlier today. Already, it is very dark outside. I pick away at the plastic box of greens, bought on special, most of the leaves covered in slime, viscous and clingy, while the news tells me about Justin Trudeau’s exchange with President Duterte of the Philippines. Trudeau’s version is rosy, while in his Duterte swears and says Bullshit! Trudeau seems quintessentially Canadian in the way that I suspect I can be—Pollyanna-ish. Chirping about the possibility: not about what is, but what might be, what we wish it to be. Like this salad. I wash the grossest leaves and put them into the bowl. I chop an avocado. Do you have time for this? Yet I am calm and deliberate. Add the word meditation after any activity and you will find your approach changes. You sink into the greens, their individual peculiarities invite you to notice—red veins, stems, the smallest leaves are toughest and least affected by the slime.
I bike past two men walking in the park. As I pass, I hear one say to the other: “So this woman is really into baking cakes …” Whatever I was expecting to hear, it was not this.
I am standing in a stream of sunlight, wishing every hour of every day were spent standing in a stream of sunlight. I crave warmth. I crave comfort in all forms. I am writing a scene in which my character, an older woman, cannot look at the world without seeing its potential for danger, risk, misery, grief. Everywhere she looks. I think the woman is me, today. It is not that I am sad, exactly, only that I see how limited we are in the span of our lifetimes to alter the direction toward which human experience leans. I admire the human spirit. We make beauty out of grief, song from sorrow, we find ways to cope, to share our joys; but we seem also to be wired to damage and destroy so much of what we create, either by accident or design. I seem to walk around in a constant state of grief and outrage. I yell at the Style section of the Globe: you shouldn’t be allowed to sell pants for $3000! It’s immoral, it should be illegal! Why do the rich seek to enrich themselves further? Why is greed a fundamental operating principle? Why are those with the least blamed and shamed for what they do not have? Why do I have so much when so many have so little, not even security, not even a home?
I am standing in the sunlight. Let’s talk about something, my youngest says. Okay, I say, what do you want to talk about? I hope it is about moose or elk or eagles. I hope it is about the way bears and frogs hibernate. I hope it is about how high he can climb the dead apple tree in our backyard and what he sees when he’s at the top.
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.
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