I’ve been running a lot, and will continue to run a lot for as long as I can stave off injury and chronic pain, no matter the weather. Winter has descended early on Southern Ontario, and I’ll admit that it takes a little more gumption to layer up and run out into a stiff headwind over icy sidewalks. You have to really want to, for some reason beyond the running itself — and for me, that’s my mental health. Running clears my mind. Clears my anxieties. Makes me feel stronger, powerful.
But I do have to run early, it has to be the first thing I do upon waking, or I lose the gumption. I don’t mind running in the dark, oddly enough. My favourite path is reasonably well-lit, and I’ve come to love the quiet of the early morning, its solitude almost dream-like, the darkness a strange comfort, womb-like. There was little wind this morning, and I kept a steady pace, earbuds in, tuned to a podcast called Dolly Parton’s America, which at one point brought me to tears, as the host described the unexpected connections between Dolly Parton’s Tennessee mountain home, and his own father’s Lebanese mountain home. About how different musical instruments and rhythms, patterns and vocalizations find confluence across culture and time, come together, remind us of our common need for expression beyond words or even actions. So that happened on this morning’s run: I was crying.
And then, as I turned onto a busier stretch, I was yelling at the cars buzzing by, their noise and fumes drowning out the podcast.
Emotions: they’re all over the place. Where do they come from, where do they go?
When I got home, I replayed one section again, to drink in what Dolly Parton had said. I’m telling you: You have to listen to this podcast! I’m starting to believe that Dolly Parton is not only a brilliantly talented songwriter and musician, but also a wise, grounded human being, who is carrying a message for our moment that we’re having difficulty hearing. To paraphrase what the podcast’s host said: Dolly Parton is expressing an ethos, a spirituality, in which no one is cast out. No one is condemned from the community. She has her opinions, but she will also allow that you have yours; and she has a massive capacity to see the other, to understand complexity in human behaviour. (I wonder if this points to a difference between being an artist and being an activist; both are necessary and important to instigating and envisioning change, but the roles don’t necessarily overlap, because the strengths of an artist are different from the strengths of an activist. Their ways of framing experience often run counter to each other.)
I spent last week watching documentaries, having bought a pass to our local feminist film festival — founded by a friend nine years ago — which runs every November. I crammed in as many movies as I could: I saw a movie about the family of Colton Boushie, thrust into a public spotlight, speaking with clarity out of their pain; a movie about women incarcerated in New Brunswick, making art together, cast in and out of the system and trying to see their way clear; a movie about an Israeli family in which the father transitions to becoming a woman; a movie about an all-woman sailing team who sailed in a race around the world; a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and a movie about Toni Morrison. (What made it really special was that I saw each movie with a friend or with one of my two older kids.)
At the end of seeing all these movies, I said: How anyone makes it through this world whole is beyond me. And maybe we don’t. Maybe we don’t make it through this world whole. But there are moments of clarity, amidst the confusion. Moments when people are called by some force beyond themselves to take a stand. Moments when they call others in and hold them. Moments of forgiveness. Moments beyond pain and suffering. The victories might be small and temporary. But no matter.
If you pay attention to someone else’s story, you’ll see under the armour and bluster and noise to the complexity of need and of fear and of hope beneath. We all want a safe place to call home. We all want to feel safe, and loved, without condition. How can we be that for each other? It comes naturally to want to be that for my family and friends, but can I try, too, to be that for those with whom I have little connection and less understanding? Can I ask for the same in return?
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.
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.
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.
Context: A student introduced me to the Hourlies project, wherein you draw a cartoon marking each waking hour over the course of a 24-hour day. I’m going to assign this as our class’s Reading Week homework. Fortuitously, I decided to test it yesterday/today, on what would become a snow day, and therefore essentially useless to me for other purposes.
Observations: I couldn’t do this project while doing any other project requiring sustained attention. But I’m playing around with ideas for how to do it again — perhaps once a month, or perhaps, when I’ve got time to spare, doing a marathon version over a week; and I’m brainstorming about how to do it as its own standalone project. I really really really did not want to stop today, and in fact made an extra panel (there are two 4:00PMs). I learned a massive amount, which you can see for yourself by comparing the first panel to the last.
Feedback: Welcome, please.
I’m sitting in my cozy office, wearing reading glasses, listening to my favourite Spotify playlist (song of the moment: “Ya veras,” by Systema Solar), office door closed because my elder daughter is practicing piano obsessively. Kids are all home from school, which makes Rose-the-pup very happy. Kevin is mid-flight to Fort McMurray for a work trip. All schools, including the universities, are closed today due to freezing rain. I started teaching more than six years ago, and today’s is the class I’ve ever missed. (Not-Humble-Brag # 1)
I’ve decided that this post’s theme is the Not-Humble-Brag.
I’m uncomfortable with bragging. But it makes me even more uncomfortable to pretend that I’m not bragging. (Side note: Why call it bragging? Why not label it differently in my own mind, as good news, and own the sharing of it?) (Side note # 2: My superstitions are kicking in strongly, as all my instincts scream: if you announce that you have good news, you will be deservedly and instantly punished with bad news!)
Okay, superstitious self, what if the Not-Humble-Brags are less earth-shattering, more like gentle observations of loveliness? Hey?
For example, I’ve got a new story in the latest edition of The New Quarterly! (Not-Humble-Brag # 2)
The story is from an auto-fiction collection I’ve been working on steadily for a rather long time, and which makes me happy every time I dip into it, to revise, edit, polish, or write a brand-new story. On Monday evening, when I was in my office marking madly, my eldest daughter came rushing in. She was glowing. She’d just read the story in TNQ — “16th Century Girl” — and she’d loved it. She said, You should just do this, Mom. You should just write. She said she’d been thinking about writers who just wrote regardless of success during their lives, just wrote anyway, no matter what, and that could be me, as she saw it. You’re such a good writer, Mom, she said.
That night, I woke in the middle of the night and wondered whether I could “just write.” Would it satisfy me? What sacrifices would be involved?
Last night, I again woke in the middle of the night. This time, I asked myself: What is your ideal career path? Who is your role model?
I remembered that for a very long time, my ideal was Alice Munro. A mother and grandmother, devoted to the short story, who dabbled in other money-earning ventures, such as a bookstore she owned with her first husband, and teaching creative writing for a year or so early in her career; but mostly, who simply sat at her table, stared out the window, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Brilliantly. When I appeared at a literary festival named in her honour, I was told that she was known as a quiet, dedicated volunteer, serving pie at community functions to people who had no idea who she was, even if they’d come to the small town hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Even before her retirement a few years ago, she rarely engaged in readings or public appearances. Add the Nobel Prize on top of that, and could there be a more romantic ideal?
Next, I thought of Grace Paley, the American short story writer, teacher and activist. Here’s what Ann Patchett writes about Grace Paley, with whom Patchett studied in university: “Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story. Grace turned out a slender but vital body of work during her life. She kept her editors waiting longer than her students. She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person.” (from “The Getaway Car,” an essay in Patchett’s This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage.)
In my mind, Alice Munro and Grace Paley don’t represent competing versions of “how to be a writer”; for both women, being a writer was not about performing as a writer, it was about doing what needed to be done. There are different ways to do this.
If I were an academic, I would keep very close track of every publication, conference, appearance, event, workshop, review, panel, and award. I discovered this lack in my own accounting last fall when a colleague and I were applying for an academic grant (a SSHRC). Creating a somewhat comprehensive CV involved picking through old calendars, emails, and boxes of clippings. The exercise was instructive, and weirdly buoying. Look at all these things you’ve done, woman! (Not-Humble-Brag # 3)
But there’s a reason I haven’t kept track of these things very well.
As a writer, what I’ve done is not as important as what I’m going to be doing. What matters is what I’m making, not what I’ve made. (I realize that’s not completely accurate; past publishing history opens doors unavailable to many, which is a privilege and not to be minimized.) But there is no tenure. No security.
To be a mid-career, mid-level literary writer is … well, it’s a form of invisibility, to be perfectly frank. It takes fortitude. It takes devotion to an idea of oneself, an aspirational self, and it takes devotion to a singular cause, which is craft. Like Grace Paley, I don’t (can’t) compartmentalize my writing from my life. And yet my life ranges rather widely and wildly. It sprawls. My attention is divided. My loves are many. If I were to “just write,” as my daughter says, what would that mean? What path am I carving, in this career my CV claims I’m building?
We were awarded the grant, by the way. (Not-Humble-Brag # 4)
Now, to spend the rest of the afternoon, this gift of unexpectedly free mid-week calm, “just writing.”