This blog is like a corkboard on which to post thoughts, observations, whatever is front-of-mind right now. It acts as a public journal, an I WAS HERE scrawl on the wall. Trouble is, recently, whenever I sit down to post something, it’s not clear to me what’s front-of-mind. Mind is a-jumble. Influences are disparate and scrolling, images aflame, voices shouting, protests, outrage. What calls my attention is both very personal and tiny (my morning routine, for example) and overwhelmingly political and heavy (can’t even begin to list it parenthetically).
This morning I read an article by Lori Fox in The Globe and Mail that pretty much sums up what I’ve been ranting to Kevin about for these past many months. Please read what she’s written and know that I’m nodding along. At one point in the article, she writes about her own “small, selfish” dream. It’s a lovely dream. To paraphrase: Work that is useful and that she loves doing. Enough, and the time to enjoy it. A life with dignity and love.
It’s small enough, isn’t it, that everyone should dare to dream such a dream? Everyone should have the means of achieving it? It doesn’t sound selfish to me.
Originally, when I sat down to write this post it was about my own lovely week, which I spent reading stories, editing stories, and talking about stories. But when I wrote about how lovely it was, and how purposeful and peaceful I felt doing this work (tiny, personal), I also found myself tracking into the weeds of dismay and guilt, confusion and fury (overwhelming, political) as I reflected on how it was privilege that allowed me to do this work.
Earlier in the week, I watched this interview with Kurt Anderson on PBS (my favourite American news source), and it stirred in me emotions that I’ve been unable to unstir. Essentially, he argues that 1976 was the most equitable year on record (in America), and due to a wealth-driven philosophy that focuses on profit to the exclusion of all other concerns, we now find ourselves living in an economy that offers that “small, selfish” dream to fewer and fewer people. I realize that I live in Canada, not the US, but we’re not immune to troubling inequity. When I eat a peach, I can’t help but think of the hand that picked it, and wonder where that person is from, how much they’re being paid, and where they’re sleeping. Essential work is being done by people who are treated as less-than. And the system makes us complicit, even as we’re stuck in it.
How many people do you know whose work is precarious, cobbled-together gig by gig, without benefits or retirement packages? Look around, and you’ll see that defines a lot of us, even those who seem to be doing okay. How many jobs that were once secure and well-paid are now being done by people who work on contract or freelance? Remember when earning a PhD meant tenure-track job-security? I remember when writers were paid a dollar/word for book reviews published in the newspaper. You can argue that sectors that are struggling are sectors that are becoming obsolete in today’s economy; but that’s not necessarily true. Is education obsolete? Are the arts obsolete? What about news? Long-term care? Sectors struggle for many reasons, but what I see is that a profit-only model doesn’t work for the people who actually do the labour. Because in the profit-only model, labour is a cost. You squeeze the costs down, you make more profit. Ultimately, that means you’re squeezing people — you’re paying people less and less to do more and more. And the people are us.
I can observe all of this, and be outraged, but it tends to lead me toward paralysis. What’s the fix, what’s the cure?
Yesterday, I sat outside and read Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout, which I noticed, upon finishing, is labelled “A Novel.” I think that’s an American thing? The book is actually a collection of linked short stories, my favourite form, although I know linked short stories don’t sell well, so maybe “A Novel” is a marketing thing. In any case, the book doesn’t need to be anything other than what it is: stories about characters (often Olive, but sometimes not) navigating their broken paths and trying to figure out how to talk to each other and protect themselves across divides of class, race, culture, age, abuse, pain, illness, secrecy, experience, self-doubt. It’s brilliant, and I wept often, throughout.
Upon finishing, I thought: I just want to sit and read stories all day long. And then I’ll take a break and write stories for others to read. And then I’ll meet with people who love reading and writing and we’ll talk about it, and I’ll edit my stories and theirs. When I do this work I’m not always right, but I know what I’m doing and why.
Is this a roadmap for a career???? God, let it be so. At the very least, it’s a roadmap for making sense of life. For helping me see and understand and know what matters. And it ain’t profit, my friends (but you already know that!). We all know it, gut-deep: profit isn’t profitable when it costs us our communities, our health, our dignity.
Here’s my own small, selfish dream: I want to read, write, edit, discuss; work that has it uses, its purpose. And I want others to be able to do this work too, as they’re called to it.
Truth: A lot of my work is done on a voluntary basis (it’s my speciality!). But here’s the thing: volunteer work is not necessarily noble. People volunteer because they can afford to. I’m worried that my willingness and ability to work for little to no recompense is part of the problem. Consider the arts sector, where many initiatives survive because of people like me: Doesn’t this very structure — reliance on voluntary labour — create barriers toward participation for everyone who can’t afford to work for free?
But what’s the alternative in a sector that’s not profit-driven and never will be, that survives on grants, fundraising … and underpaid / unpaid labour?
It’s a dilemma that’s been troubling me. A lot.
And I’ve come around to a solution, of sorts: Universal Basic Income. It’s not perfect, but it seems like the viable place to start. A baseline of security, so everyone can afford their own tiny, personal dream: Enough and time to enjoy it. Dignity and love. Work that is useful and that you love doing.
(See what I mean? This post is WAY TOO MUCH, but it’s where my head is at, right now.)
Last post, I wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek (I hope!) that it had just occurred to me that as I get older, I could be getting worse not better.
Here’s what comes to mind when I think worse, not better: Less ambitious, less courageous, more cautious, more conservative, less likely to throw myself into something new wholeheartedly, crabbier, boring, predictable, less engaged with the world, more fearful, content with the status quo, narrow-minded, petty, envious, self-indulgent, less willing to give of myself.
You probably have your own personal list of worse, not better.
Which makes me wonder, what’s on the better, not worse list? Funnier, looser, less concerned about what others think, flexible, giving, generous of mind and heart, trusting myself and others, sharing responsibilities, moral clarity, openness, curiosity, wonder, kind and tough, practical and impractical, disciplined and relaxed.
Oh dear. Some push-pull on that list.
What if: Instead of fearing that I’m getting worse as I get older, I acknowledge that I’m changing? My ambitions are changing. My desires are changing. Having checked the major life goals off my list (education, family, career), it seems harder to name what I want. Maybe the goals at this stage (mid-40s) are looser.
At moments, I do sense a wholeness, a oneness, an understanding of purpose that feels deep and wordless, and wondrous. But it is fleeting, as ecstatic experiences tend to be. I get the feeling, in these moments, that our purpose here on earth is to be brazenly present and wholly human, insatiably curious vessels of grace poured into imperfect containers, cracked and fragile and not meant to last. We’re meant to be brief, and aware of our limitations; in our brevity, we sense eternity; in our faultiness, generosity of spirit.
I used to dismiss religion’s various visions of heaven or paradise. Hated it, actually. But I’m starting to understand, more deeply, why these visions exist. Because here on earth, we’re bound to invent a series of flawed experiments, no matter how heart-felt our intentions. Criticism is easy, also necessary, also demonstrates involvement in the process; but the ease with which a critic can point out flaws, versus the challenge to she who attempts change, or reversal, or to implement a new idea, structure, system, vision, dream—well, it’s a pretty massive gulf. It’s why Canada keeps commissioning reports and implementing few/none of the reports’ recommendations.
The will to act almost has to be collective.
And while we wait for collective action, people suffer. As individuals, we see our neighbours suffering, and we find band-aid solutions, work-arounds, we tinker with the machinery we’ve inherited, upheld by greed and power and inertia. But we can’t knock it down till enough of us amass at the gates and demand change.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. Hope despite set-backs. Hope despite seeing the same script played again and again. How to serve hope, see hope, carry hope? And I think, ah, that’s where the vision of heaven comes in. It’s something to hold onto, to imagine, to dream of. It’s often present in art. Think of gospel songs: crossing the river, being called home, carried home, the relief and sweetness of rest after labour. This represents what we long for, and can’t quite glimpse. Wholeness, resolution, peace.
I can’t possibly know exactly what a better world would look like, let alone figure out how to get there. Just like I can’t even seem to see what a better Carrie would look like, let alone figure out how to get her there. I do hope I’m not getting worse. I hope the small actions I undertake every day in hopes of being healthy, humble, self-aware, humorous, curious, generous, trustworthy and trust-giving, are not outweighed by my multitude of neurotic tics, anxieties, fears, lethargy, indecision, vanity, ignorance, injury and self-interest. But who knows, really?
I’ll just have to hope without knowing, be without knowing, and take action without knowing, exactly, the consequences. Better or worse? Change keeps happening whether we notice or not, sanction it or not. So, whether better or worse, definitely different. Hopefully braver. Hopefully clearer. Hopefully lighter. But who knows.
Watching: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” (Ted Talk)
Listening: Today’s program from Tapestry, on “how to ethically navigate the pandemic’s new normal as restrictions begin to lift” (CBC Radio)
Lately, I’ve been writing more in my own private journal, circular interior debates questioning my work here on earth (you know, basic existential navel-gazing). I’ve also been recording minor daily interactions that have become normal, but would have seemed strange pre-pandemic. Neither of these genres are blog-friendly, mainly because the posts are lengthy and, as mentioned before, circular. I go round and round, wondering and questioning and hopelessly meandering toward discerning … discerning what, exactly?
There’s the rub.
Lately, I’ve been:
Watching: Never Have I Ever (teen drama/comedy, Nexflix); Slings & Arrows (90s Canadian nostalgia, CBC Gem)
Reading: Untamed, by Glennon Doyle; Such a Fun Age, by Kylie Turner
Eating: greens greens and more greens from two different local CSA farmers
Doing: a 30-day fitness challenge with my soccer girls, which include planks and burpees; ergo, making myself get up by 7 every morning, making myself stretch, do planks and burpees, and ride the spin bike while watching Murdoch Mysteries (almost excessively Canadian, Netflix)
Now is the season of my case-by-case risk-assessment examination of each and every interaction proposed by a family member. It was always going to be easier to shut everything down than to open up again. We knew that. In practice, it feels brutal. What is the emotional cost of weighing the risks versus the reward each time a family member wants to get his hair cut, go to the mall, play outside with a friend? But truly, what it boils down to is: how do I decide, based on guidelines from politicians and public health and my own grasp of available data, whether I’m keeping my family safe or being over-protective? If you think it’s uncomplicated, well, that’s an opinion, one of many gradations of opinions on this subject, because we all have different thresholds, different information, different values, different interior emotional lives, different family dynamics, different pressures, different people we’re protecting, different fears, different experiences, different needs, different imperatives.
So, I revisit my friend Katie’s guidelines: STOMP. Space: more is better; Time: less is better; Outside: better than inside; Masks: important; People: fewer is better. (Maybe it could be SHTOMP, with the H for Hand-washing: often and well.)
Recent thought: What if, as I get older, I’m actually getting worse, not better?
Lately, I have no sense of myself in the wider world, or even in the small world of my own house. Lately, I feel no direction pulling me. I feel no peace, either. I am not content. I am dissatisfied with the state of the world, and with my own response to the needs crying out to be addressed. I am overwhelmed and muddled. I keep thinking that a major plot line will present itself to me, a direction. If I could join the revolution, where is that happening, and how, and can I enlist? What slogan would I write on my scrap of cardboard, to lift over my head, as I march down the street?
Black Lives Matter
No Justice, No Peace
Migrant Labourers Deserve Dignity and Rights (too long; writing slogans clearly takes talent)
Don’t Bring Guns to Wellness Checks!
Defund the Police
Universal Basic Income
Art is for Everyone
Pay All Essential Workers Like They’re Essential, Because They Are
Fuck the Gig Economy
Ban the Stock Market
Indigenous Lives Matter
Canada: We’ve Got Some Serious Work To Do
Cruel systems surround us. Unless we’re cut by them, we can stay blissfully unaware. If we’re the beneficiaries, maybe we’d rather not know, for when we do know, we don’t know how to untangle ourselves either. Systems are entrenched, heavy, crushing. I’m suspicious of any solution that puts the onus on the individual. But I can’t do nothing with all the everything I’m seeing!
For example: What would make it possible for people to work with dignity at jobs that we know are essential? What if, for example, people who love farming could afford to be farmers? What would that look like? Why do we accept profit as the most important goal? Who benefits from the push for corporate-style agriculture with heavy equipment, ruinous pesticides, antibiotics, fertilizers, and a low-paid migrant labour force? Where is the dignity in that? What if human dignity (and, by extension, environmental dignity) were the focus for all systems instead? I imagine this every day, and I haven’t got a clue what work to do to get us any closer.
One precious life, one precious life, one precious life, and what am I going to do with it; what am I doing with it? What I want to make manifest boils down to this: Dignity for All.
photo by Sam Trieu
We are at the halfway mark of season two of The X Page Workshop.
And I’m reflecting on how things, especially ineffable things, are made manifest.
Four years ago in April, I travelled to France to participate in an interdisciplinary arts festival, where I collaborated on a performance project with Kelly Riviere, a translator and actress, who has since become a playwright. We loved working together. For me, it awakened a hunger for more creative collaboration; but when I returned to Canada, I couldn’t figure out immediately how to connect my solitary writing work with the work of other artists in other disciplines.
I believe that The X Page workshop is an answer to the hunger I first recognized while working with Kelly in France. My hunger wasn’t exactly a desire to do theatre. Or to write plays. Or to perform. I think what I really wanted was to be a part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to know how other artists and creators work, and I wanted to work in collaboration with them.
photo by Sam Trieu
In essence, I believe the existence of The X Page is an example of how something as ineffable as a wish or a dream, or even an emotion, can be made manifest, can become something that takes form, that exists, that is in the world. There’s no map for doing this. In truth, there’s not even a destination. When I think of the disparate threads of my own experience that inform this project, it’s almost comical. You couldn’t replicate this as a plan! But it’s not about making a plan, and that’s what I’m recognizing and, honestly, what I’m most in awe of. How we make the things we make without knowing what we’re making. I LOVE that.
As the workshop took incipient form, I remember my sense of purpose as I pulled friends, acquaintances, and people I’d only just met into the project, seeking advice, partnership, sponsorship, support, reaching out, calling people (and I hate talking on the phone!), emailing, meeting in person, fundraising, grant-writing, making decisions, making mistakes, learning from my mistakes. My energy was almost obsessive in nature. I didn’t know if the idea would work, I didn’t know what we would make in the end, and I didn’t know if the project would be sustainable. I just knew we had to do it.
And here we are, in season two.
photo by Sam Trieu
My point is that we are all, at all times, in the midst of doing things that will make manifest other things.
To this point, I’ve noticed a tendency to self-sabotage, to downplay success and magnify failure. I do this privately, and I do it publicly.
Truth: I don’t like this quality in myself.
Also truth: My absolute greatest fear is being blinded by pride and ego, and becoming a giant asshole.
And it’s become clear to me that self-sabotage in no way prevents that fear from coming true. Nope. Instead, it hampers my ability to bring into being other projects, as or more ambitious than this one. And that is not a manifestation I’m interested in nurturing.
My goal this year is to notice a) what is being made manifest and b) how I respond to what is being made manifest. Specifically: What I’m bringing into the world. The things I dislike, as well the things I love. And I don’t think that self-sabotage is the way to bring the things I care about into the world. Self-critique, accepting mistakes, taking responsibility, forgiving myself, learning, changing, observing, seeking counsel, and recognizing what’s not mine to bear — all of those are excellent qualities that I hope to claim for myself; and none involve self-sabotage.
I’ve brought some things into the world that I love so much!
My children, but also my relationships with my children, which are ever-shifting, growing, changing.
My collaborative connections with people I admire, but also the work that goes into developing, maintaining, and cherishing these relationships.
My friendships, but also the nurturing and care both given and received within these relationships.
And, of course, my writing, but also my relationship to my writing, the way I’m learning to value it, prioritize it, make space for it, and celebrate the moments that I decide are worth celebrating.
- A new story in Room magazine.
- A successful grant application for a work-in-progress. (With thanks to ECW Press for their recommendation.)
I often set myself a project that spans the full year. This year, I’m considering chronicling my daily writing life, but I haven’t figured out how best to frame it. Should I keep it short, as in a daily tweet? Today’s would read something like …
Tired, late night @ Edna King’s show in Guelph. Writing group cancelled this AM; I miss them, we haven’t met in a month. Fell asleep on couch reading Song of Achilles. Drew self-portrait, wrote What’s on Your Mind + blog post. Next, continue revising new novel. #writinglife
But in all honesty, one day is going to look a lot like the next, and a tweet has limited space for the animating details.
The long-form version of today’s chronicle goes something like this …
Today, I’ve been staggering around like a zombie after getting 4 hours of sleep last night; not conducive to clear-headed composition. I went to my sister’s show last night, an intense experience (EDM) that sent me into a form of dance/trance, which I spent thinking about my character, Bess, from the new novel I’m writing, set in the 16th century. My eyes were closed much of the time, and I kept gazing into my mind’s eye for Bess, trying to see what she was seeing: the image of darkness and enclosure, the image of an open night sky.
I’m reading Song of Achilles, historical fiction, and this morning, I fell asleep within ten minutes of picking up the book.
I was disappointed that my writing group meeting was cancelled again, as we’ve struggled to find time to meet this year. Our aspiration is to meet every other week, but we’ve only gotten together once in 2020 due to illness, travel, and other meetings and complications. I look forward to those mornings so much. It’s one of the only spaces where I have neither need nor compulsion to explain anything about #writinglife. We’re all in the industry, struggling, staying hopeful, doing the work, and encouraging and believing in each other. I’m missing that medicine.
While walking the dog, I thought about this blog post. I thought: what if I were honest, publicly, about this path I’m on? I’m giving myself a year; one year, in which to research and write with full commitment. January was blissful. I spent many hours of many days simply sitting and writing. It was blissful and it was filled with anxiety. I also sent out six grant applications at the beginning of last month, and four were rejected earlier this week. Truth! Ugh! Painful! Shameful! Humiliating!
But, on the other hand, also in January, I learned that my short story, “16-Century Girl,” published last winter by The New Quarterly, had been submitted for a National Magazine Award.
And, I filled another notebook! I’m working on two separate and very different fiction projects. One is historical fiction, and I’m close to completing a first draft (“close to completing” could mean 6 weeks or 6 months, or even longer). The other project is very new, and I’ve only been working on it for a few months; too new to discuss, though it does have a name: I’m calling it Two Women. I work on Two Women by hand, composing with pen and paper, and I’ve filled three notebooks so far. I’m working on Bess in Scrivener, and I’m composing it as if amassing a great heap of loose scraps, writing forward until I reach the end.
This week, I reached an end, of sorts, for Bess, and started back at the beginning, preparing for a slow, careful, thorough revision by setting up the Scrivener file beside a Word doc with the same text, and going through line by line, scene by scene, deleting, rewriting, composing new scenes. Don’t ask me why I’m taking this route. I’m writing this novel completely on gut instinct and dream-like visualization. The manuscript is short but dense. I’m curious to see whether it wants to be fleshed out further, or whether its structure and tone demands that it remain short and dense.
Also while walking the dog, I had a thought about the auto-fiction short story collection I’ve mostly completed; could each story be punctuated by one of my 4-panel cartoons, as a way of creating a breath between the stories, which are heavy and kind of demanding, and I don’t think anyone would want to sit down and read them all at once? Something needs to ease the transition between stories; maybe the meditative cartoons I’ve been drawing would fit there?
So that’s today, as of 2:03PM. As soon as I press publish on this blog post (if I do indeed decide to publish it), I’m setting up Bess in the side-by-side format, to work through whatever scene comes next. I have to pick up kids at 2:45, but I can return home and keep working on Bess till it’s time to make supper.
The other writing I’ve done today was in my notebook. As is my habit, I answered the question: What’s On Your Mind? as a means of dumping out surface anxieties before getting to work. I also drew a self-portrait — dancing last night — to Lizzo’s “Juice”.
Lastly, I will report that I continue to wait, with seemingly perpetual hope, patience, and possibly delusional optimism, to hear from my agent about two completed manuscripts (one for children, one for adults). Would you like to wait with me? We could be here awhile. But in the meantime, while I wait, I’ll be writing and dreaming and writing and dreaming, in full-on bliss, stealth-attacked by anxieties, and holding dear to prayers and visions. Truth.
After a summer to reflect on The X Page workshop and its reverberations, our ad hoc collective is preparing for a second season, with new workshop sessions starting in January, 2020.
In connected news, I’ve been freshening up my website, and have built a new page devoted to The X Page — please visit, look around, share. We are currently in the process of seeking candidates for the next season, so if you’re in the Waterloo Region, and you’re interested or know someone who might be, send them here.
The original project was a lot of work, there was no way around that conclusion, and many of us felt burnt-out following the final performance. Our discussions this summer circled around how to make the project sustainable for all involved, and we began to define the different leadership roles with more specificity, create a long-term plan for funding, and identify elements from the original production that could be revised or reframed. We also wanted to make space within the workshop for former participants to return in leadership roles.
For the 2020 season, The New Quarterly literary magazine has taken over a number of administrative tasks and responsibilities, which frees me and Lamees (who co-coordinated the first workshop with me) from much of the grinding effort necessary to get the project off the ground. I’m excited to be the production’s “stage manager,” a role which I rather accidentally filled last time around (and loved!), while Lamees will be working more directly with candidates during the recruitment process. I’m thankful for our ongoing conversations with Pamela Mulloy, the editor of The New Quarterly — and with others — as we continue to learn from and develop this project. This is not a static process.
Personally, it’s been a gift from the universe to be able to work on a project that combines so many of my interests, including Lynda Barry’s life-changing exercises (the “X page” of the workshop’s title), multi-disciplinary creative team-work, and the power of personal storytelling. I’ve got a running theory that the antidote to (and inoculation from) xenophobia, misogyny, and fear of others’ cultures, religions, and beliefs, is immersion in stories. You can’t sit with someone and listen to their stories without being changed in some way. Especially the particular stories that emerge from Lynda Barry’s X Page — stories that may on their surface appear ordinary, every day, but therein lies their power: X Page stories are rich with sensory detail, evoking images that transfer from speaker to listener, images that pull us directly into another human being’s experience. Being part of this process, through the workshop, is powerful.
Please spread the word.
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