Category: Fire

The creative life, blooming

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I post a lot about the solitary writing life, but when surveying the overall trajectory of my hours and days, I see far more connection and overlap with the lives of others, doing and seeking out and creating and organizing activities that are meant to be shared collectively. I need alone time, surely. It’s also practical to avoid interruption when working deeply, whether it’s writing scenes in a novel, reading a book, or organizing a library space. But mostly, I’m actually with people. Not alone. (It helps to have 4 children, 4 siblings, a close set of families, to work in an elementary school where 250 kids troop through my library each week, a church community, an open-door/open-kitchen policy for our kids’ friends, and etc.)

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A goal I often consider, when organizing group projects, is how to keep the experience / activities sustainable. It takes energy to make things happen. Pouring out creative energy to serve others’ creativity can be equal parts exhilarating and exhausting —I  love it, I absolutely love it, and I need more sleep when in the midst of it. So I savour it when it’s happening, and know how special the moment is.

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I try to be thoughtful when committing to projects; I’m willing to test the waters and step back or rejig if it isn’t working (especially if it doesn’t feel sustainable). Projects with endurance are most often structurally cohesive, clear in their goals, and invitational to community-building. Sometimes, I can even think about my novel projects like this—or at least the structures I’ve built around my writing in order to make it sustainable and enduring. Looked at in this way, it’s not just about what I’m writing or about practicing the craft of writing—it’s about the relationships developed and strengthened and linked by writing; but made deeper by other experiences together too.

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The X Page workshop is rolling, now in its fifth season: what a gift. I would describe the structure as highly collaborative, creative, spacious. During a recent workshop session, I felt transported to a more generous vision of relationships, and brought into intimacy with people who, though not strangers, were not known to me or to each other (many of them) just a few weeks ago. Magic. Human-made, transformative energized magic. Under the expert direction of our performance coach (who works with MT Space Theatre company), we watched and took part in the “sculpting” of a story. It came to life before our eyes. Or—it was already alive, but with each telling, each gesture played with, the story deepened before our eyes, layered with emotional weight, but also lightness. I felt transformed by the beautiful gift of the collective. Collective experience, collective effort, collective appreciation. And individual bravery, risk-taking. 

Arriving at this moment was not an easy or instant process. It has taken time, preparation, flexibility, expertise and creativity, trial and error, the generosity of many many leaders and participants and peers and mentors, over many years. Impossible to calculate the effort, and as impossible to measure the reward in terms useful for things like grant proposals. In those moments, watching this story form and deepen and bloom this week, I felt so gratified. I felt like this was the point of everything I’ve ever done. It was the very opposite of being alone. Or solitary.

It was special.

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I also see that a moment like this is ephemeral. Art, experienced. Community, experienced. The creative life: blooming, brief, precious. I savoured it. I savour it.

xo, Carrie

Why give yourself away?

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I’ve been thinking about a book of linked stories that I wrote around 2014-2015, immediately before and after publishing Girl Runner, the novel that at this point in my career seems likely to be my biggest hit, as it were. Girl Runner sold internationally, was translated into a number of languages, and people still invite me to come to their book clubs to discuss it (which means it’s being read, which is quite remarkable, honestly, for a book that celebrates its tenth birthday this year). In short, that book changed my life; but not in ways that I could have predicted, and I’m curious to re-read stories written in the aftermath of success, because what I remember from that time is that I did not feel successful. I felt estranged from myself. I was stressed and under pressure. I fully expected to build on the success of Girl Runner to publish more and bigger; but nothing came. It wasn’t that I was blocked—I wrote a lot—novel drafts, short stories. It’s that what I wrote wasn’t … well, it’s hard to say this out loud, but it wasn’t what was wanted.

I don’t know if I have a gift for writing, but I have a love for it, and a desire to do it—and so I write. For a little blip of time, a decade ago, I could imagine that the foundation was set, and I could spend the rest of my life writing and publishing books, and, crucially, making a living from that work. This hasn’t been the story, though; this hasn’t been the arc of the plot. I’m no longer grieving this as a loss; but I did, and I think a version of that grief is contained in that short story collection (which I titled Why Give Yourself Away?). Why Give Yourself Away was so unwanted, perhaps so unlikeable, that an editor made the assumption I’d submitted the manuscript in order to break a two-book contract. Yikes. When I heard that, a few years after the fact, it was real blow. Because I’d been serious—that book of stories was exactly what I wanted to write and to publish at that moment in my career. I’m not commenting one way or the other from this perspective—was it better for my career that those stories remain in my attic, or would they have been a worthy contribution to my overall published work? I have no idea. Francie’s Got A Gun probably wouldn’t have existed had that project been published, for the plain and simple reason that I wouldn’t have needed to write Francie—I walked through fire for Francie, and that’s something you only do when the need is obsessive and otherwise insurmountable. Writing Francie was a feat of endurance and single-minded optimism. Not hope—hope is softer and more organic, elegant. Francie exists because I was irrational in my need for her to exist.

(And perhaps I love Francie all the more for it.)

Nevertheless, those old stories intrigue me. I wonder what’s captured there—a mortifying self-pity? A Karen-like whine that the world isn’t bending to my will? Something’s in that collection that made an editor cringe. Yet I recall the stories in my mind as almost magical; maybe writing them was medicinal. It got me through. As writing always seems to. It gets me through.

What fascinates me about structuring a narrative is how crucial the unravelling is—the when and the shape of the viewpoint. Am I more ruthless when following a linear structure? I suspect so. Those stories were linear. The project began as an attempt to record in immense detail a single day, on the day that it was happening. The narrator (a version of myself) was unsparing to the point of cruelty to herself. But if I were to return to that narrator now, wouldn’t I see her actions differently? In returning—in recasting the structure as circular—forgiveness, gentleness, curiosity can’t help but creep into the perspective. I have kind feelings toward my younger self. Sometimes, I pause to thank my younger self for her courage, her wild leaps of imagination, her insistence on becoming, and for her mistakes. 

If I am fortunate, I will grow old, I will become elderly, and I will thank all my younger versions of self for their persistence and doggedness and belief that everything they did mattered. No matter how small. No matter the visible result.

Think of everything you’ll do in your day that is unseen or unnoticed or unrecognized. Hold a few of these in your mind for a moment, cup your hands around the small actions, gifts and gestures. I did not know the answer to the question Why give yourself away? when I was writing those stories, but the question itself landed differently in my ear at that time. I thought I was giving away pieces of my life to fiction or poetry, or flaying myself open as a means of creating art, and you know, maybe I was, and maybe that’s exactly what it meant at that moment to give myself away.

I won’t rewrite those stories. They stand, as they were, of that time. But I might write a new book with that title. Maybe. Honestly, who knows? I circle, I alight, I take flight.

Why give yourself away? The question lands differently in my ear now—I hear giving as ongoing life-affirming generosity that returns to you a thousand fold, because now I believe that my self is formed of a deep well, a source that is infinite, and that source is love. Unconditional ocean-like, star-like love. “Not the sad edge of surf, but the sound of no shore.” I can’t always access this love, nor am I always in tune with it, but that’s okay. I’m moving in that direction; I’m circling it, in fact. The tree in Francie represents that circling motion—accumulation of experiences, young/ancient core protected and held by rings of capacity.

Why give yourself away? What choice do you have? What you keep, what you hold tightly and cling to, will wither and harden, or pain you for being unspent. The hours are brief, and what you give will be returned to you in another form that you likely won’t be able to see, but you’ll feel and know because those around you will respond to it. If what you give is harmful, you’ll know that. (And by the way, I believe that even if what you’ve given is harmful, by giving it, you’ve opened yourself to the possibility of change—to give is to transform.) If what you give is greater than yourself, you’ll know that too.

This is not about giving everything to everyone, spilling your guts or breaking boundaries: Love the self you are giving away, meet yourself in unconditional love, begin there and expand ever-outward.

Why give yourself away? Because it’s how you find your way back to your source. But that answer is a bit too long. 

Because, love.

xo, Carrie

May you live with ease

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I have been drawing and writing again: four weeks in my new position at a school library and creative energy has returned — it isn’t all being used on the job. In fact, working in the library seems to energize and soothe me in equal measure. The space is mine to play with, building on themes, displaying books, decorating with paper crafts (bulletin boards and such, see example above — not my forte, but I’ll learn!), reading stories to classes, and finding tasks for the many many library helpers (close to 30 grade 5/6 students) who the previous library clerk had brought in. The space has a wall of windows, and when I unlock the door and walk in every morning, I feel a sense of excitement and gratitude. 

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I love to put things in order. A library that is being used properly will forever give me things to put in order. And I LOVE reading to children and interacting with children.

Yet I also recognize and honour that the decision to change course took courage and did not feel straightforward or easy — it was painful to leave the students and staff and those fulfilling relationships at my previous school. I miss them. 

There are situations and experiences that may not be healthy for us, or suited to true needs, long-term, but may nevertheless be valuable and wonderful in the moment. To leave something is not to diminish its worth.

Last year (2022), I focused on what I was feeling, trying to understand better the underlying sensations and emotions that were fuelling my decision-making and moods and interactions (often without my awareness), and this year (2023) I’ve focused on identifying my needs—so that I am better able to meet those needs, and not expect others to meet them for me. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when I know what I need, I become less needy. 

But I don’t always know what I need. Or I think I need a particular something, when really, what would satisfy and fill me is something else quite different.

I didn’t write much this fall; my creative spark vanished. I couldn’t find it, and didn’t even want to, particularly, or care much. All my creative energy went into problem solving at work—and I liked it, in many ways, because it made me feel useful and mildly heroic, which writing and drawing never really does, to be perfectly honest; but it was a sacrifice that ultimately was making me very sad, on some fundamental level. My rational mind didn’t notice or care, but my body did, my heart did, my guts did, my intuition noticed: and Sad Carrie was not really helping anyone.

What I was missing more than anything, what I needed, was my creative spark. I didn’t consciously know this till the spark reappeared. 

Every morning before going to my new library job, I have time (and energy and the desire) to draw and write—and so I do. And the pleasure it gives me is without measure. There’s no purpose to it other than joy. No use. No rational worth or monetary value.

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I’ve been reunited with this joyful part of myself.

To be joyful in the world is such a gift. Joy isn’t blind or ignorant, and joy doesn’t ignore suffering; it bubbles out of ordinary encounters, it is born of gratitude and grace, and interior space, which allows a person the bandwidth to be attuned outwardly, or open somehow, sensing and knowing the sacredness of every interaction and experience — that is what I mean by joy. 

Joy can’t be manufactured, but it can be quietly drained from the body and mind by overwhelm and exhaustion. You can’t meditate yourself into a place of joy when you are drowning. The collective message to people in overwhelm and exhaustion and burnout and grief, drowning under a weight of responsibilities and impossible tasks, is: save yourselves! Do some yoga, or be more mindful, or whatever “wellness” trend is being pushed at the moment. I love yoga, and I appreciate the value of mindfulness; but when drowning in overwhelm, there isn’t a person on planet earth who can meditate themselves back to joy. Maybe to temporary relief of symptoms; maybe to a hope for a different path, or a glimpse at possibilities; but when the light goes out, it’s dark.

What lights your creative spark? 

What are you feeling?

What are your feelings telling you about your needs?

What do you need?

Food, shelter, health, safety. What about ease? What brings you ease, and how does your ease express itself? How do you live when life is not such a struggle? How does your joy appear? How do you know when you are joyful? 

My ease bubbles out in laughter. My ease fills a page with colour and lines. My ease delights in reading a book to a group of children and listening to their comments and questions.

May you be be safe. May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you live with ease.

xo, Carrie

To find a place

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Where am I? Where do I place myself? How much say do I have in where I’m placed?

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn titled “Longing for Light,” that has the line: “Make us your bread, broken for others, shared until all our fed.” It feels like a very Mennonite sentiment. It rings true, it compels me: this desire to use one’s energy and work for a purpose that helps others, or serves others. But, I wonder, do I need to be broken to be of service? If I’m broken like bread, turned to crumbs, what then?

It’s an old puzzle, I think, trying to figure out how to give without depletion. I’d hoped and believed that I had the tools and skills necessary to make the job in the office sustainable. But I did not. This has left me feeling like a failure. What I’ve failed to do is to work within my means, at a job that I truly loved doing; instead, I kept burning all available fuel, day after day, till it was becoming harder to be kind, especially to myself.

I’m in a school library now, as of this week. It’s quieter, but students will come and fill it with noise. It’s a different job, easier. It’s only day two, but I’m not a zombie when I walk out of the building. “I didn’t rescue anyone today!” I texted to Kevin after work on Monday. His reply: “Just yourself.”

What will I do with more energy, again? Do I have the self-control not to get myself into trouble, the patience not to sign myself up for other jobs and volunteer positions till I’ve got no space to think again? I’ve missed having the bandwidth to write. I’ve missed writing. My thoughts are clearer on the page. Contradictory impulses: I don’t want this spare energy to go to waste; I don’t want to be used up till I’m nothing but crumbs.

I want to do no harm. I want to serve others. I want to live with ease. I want to share joy.

What I learned in the office job is how to ask questions. Ask and ask till I could be sure I understood what the other person wanted or needed. What is being asked of me? It isn’t always so clear. I learned that I’m steady in a crisis—focused, calm, decisive, very present. I’m a good listener, when very present. I would like to combine these skills with training that would place me in a job or occupation that calls on them, regularly, while giving me some power to solve or resolve the problems being presented.

It’s quite possible that no job or occupation has the power to solve or resolve problems—or not to satisfaction, not the problems that are unfixable. But I’d like to try. Not to demand perfect or ideas solutions, but to move in practical ways toward wholeness, support, improved states of mind, healthier relationships.

Where will I place myself?

So much depends upon that. I feel it very strongly. Where I place myself—where I’m placed, physically, in the world—changes the possibilities that open (or close).

As a writer, it has seemed there are fewer opportunities to be placed, to find a place, especially in the company of others. My kids are growing up, and out of the house. I need to be placed with people, with strangers, with colleagues, with a crowd, children or teens or adults, young and older and old, or a mixture; friction, conflict, noise, laughter, issues raised, questions, needs to be met, time to be managed, hands held, stories heard.

My job-job has given me that—a place. Many places, in fact. Many different people to interact with. I’m currently placing myself part-time in a school library. That leaves space to be placed somewhere else, too, or to work/train toward a different kind of placement. I would like to explore working in a context that involves conflict—defusing it, specifically, and helping those caught up in conflict to move toward resolution.

Longing for light. Longing to be light—lighter in spirit, light-hearted, light on the path.

xo, Carrie

Roots, old and new

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On April 1st, I started a 30-day journaling project (inspired by Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals). What I’ve noticed so far is that prompts really help. On days when I try to jot down random thoughts, not much comes squeezing out. I’m preoccupied by surface tasks and must-dos, and a feeling of emptiness prevails. This is a most unpleasant feeling. So, today I said to myself, what advice would you give your students, if they were feeling stuck? You’d say, Stop trying to “journal” and do a daily diary (a la Lynda Barry), or an X Page prompt (ditto). Get out of your own head. Come alive by entering the world.

Other prompts have worked well too. My word-of-the-year group is spending April responding to each other’s words (we were each assigned someone else’s word to reflect on). My assignment was to reflect on the word ROOT. One of the associations that jumped out was “long-standing friendship.” A long-standing friendship, like a long-standing tree, has deep roots, has weathered many storms, and has had good fortune.

Reflecting on this imagery, related to ROOTS, and separate from the word-of-the year assignment, I landed on a journaling prompt: What roots in your own life are long-standing? And also, what roots are tender and new? It’s spring, after all! People are planting seedlings, tiny buds are opening. Feel free to use this prompt if it sparks something in you, too.

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Long-standing roots

Words unfurling across a page, a screen, scrawled in the margins and end pages, marking time, holding ambition, bright with rage, lyrical, lyrical, lyrical

Born family, brothers and sister, all of us rooted in time, in blood and DNA

Music, song, rhythm, pulse

My feet walking, running, my body in motion, powerful, strong

Friendships that hold, light in the window, light at the door, and bread, and wine, and laughter and forgive me

Performance, putting on a show

Reading, imagination’s flow

The trees themselves, and water, mud, grass under bare feet

A big appetite, hoarding, cheapness, knowing best

A quietness amidst chaotic flow

The impulse to make places home

Loneliness, fear of not belonging

Thrift against decadence, earnestness

Wanting to make people laugh, to entertain, to put at ease, and yet aloof, sharp edges

Horses, dogs, children

Memory, curiosity, mystery, questions without answers

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Tender new roots

Medication to lift the load

Healing estrangements, more trust, talking about tough stuff, tender stuff too

Kids moving home and away, vegetarian meals

Big job interview, looking for work that satisfies my need to earn a living and to feel/be purposeful

Transitioning X Page workshop to a sustainable long-term project

Parenting teenagers and young adults

Spending time with little kids again, delighting in their presence

Library skills

Getting reacquainted with teaching

Practicing social skills and conflict resolution

Expanding my skill set, seeing my skills as having other applications, exploring outlets for my desire to connect, create, be fruitful, self-sufficient, purposeful, to serve

Doing “the work” to counter harmful patterns and habits

Yoga and meditation—soaking it up!

Body awareness, body love, healing

Caring for elders, patience, tenderness, listening to the wisdom of elders

Honouring needs, resting, relaxing, spontaneity

xo, Carrie

The practice

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I’m attempting to post here about once a week; but that is not always possible. There are weeks when I prioritize writing in my notebook over writing publicly if I have some moments to spare; or lying on the couch and reading a book. Setting priorities is becoming a habit, of necessity. Am I filling my cup, so that I can serve the needs of others? For example, I’ve figured out that it takes me at least 2 hours to get up and out the door in the morning — one hour minimum to do my wake-up and exercise routine (including yoga and meditation), and one hour precisely to shower, dress, make and eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and screech out the door clutching a travel mug of coffee, the correct set of keys for the job of the day in my pocket, and a backpack over my shoulders loaded with whatever items I’ve determined will serve in the hours ahead (this may include but is not limited to licorice, Birkenstocks, head-phones, notebook and pen, and folder with instructions on various systems and processes).

Point being, setting priorities requires first knowing what these priorities are — not ignoring what makes me a happier healthier person. It helps to identify why I’m choosing to do certain things instead of other things. What I’ve discovered is that the why is usually about pleasure, ease, fun, enjoyment, fulfillment, connection, and purpose. The good things in life. My exercise routine makes me happy, energized, calmer, in tune with my body and mind, which sets the whole day on course, so I choose it over sleeping in — and I get to bed earlier in the evening in order to make this habit sustainable. I love savouring my cup of coffee, which makes it perfect to enjoy while sitting at a desk somewhere. But breakfast is a sit-down affair with the newspaper and two poached eggs on toast, so I make time for that (even if it’s just 12 minutes — I’ll literally calculate how much time I have to relax and enjoy this ritual, setting a timer on my phone to cue me when it’s time to switch gears).

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This morning during quiet meditation, a complex and wild and wonderful thought came upon me. Here it is: everything I’m doing to serve and understand my own needs reverberates outward, so that I am able to better serve and understand the needs of those around me. When I teach creative writing, what I’m actually offering are methods and practices for how pay attention to the world, how to observe others with curiosity and openness, and how to respond (through writing) without judgement. This is a deep mindset shift, I think. Attention without judgement, without the desire to manipulate or change or profit from, is love. If you pay attention to the world, you will love it more than you realized was possible. This love will break you down and build you up. And you will want to serve others because you can see them more clearly. The skills I’ve honed and continue to hone as a writer might make me a better writer; but I’m coming to believe that’s a side product of the real gift of these skills — of creativity itself. At the core of my being, I don’t want to be a better writer in order to publish books that become bestsellers and earn me fame and fortune. I want to practice writing and creativity because I believe these deeply intuitive and generative acts will help me become a more observant, open-minded, human being while I’m here on planet earth.

I teach creative writing. And I’ve struggled with this, because I don’t believe it can really be taught effectively. I can’t download my knowledge of how to write creatively into the minds of students in a rational, lecture-based, logistical way. All I can do is open opportunities for students to interact with their own minds and experiences creatively — and with each other. Creativity isn’t a state of being that can be monetized or harnessed for profit. If you get into it, if you allow yourself to follow the energy and be led by whatever magic and mystery and grace is pulling you, money, power, and profit will feel so insignificant that you won’t be able to make sense of them. They don’t make sense, in the vast universe of creative action and practice.

Here is what I know: To create is also to destroy. It is to witness the breaking down of what appears substantial, and to witness and partake in a generative improbable renewal. The impossible presents itself. What you discover in this state can’t be explained adequately through words, so words climb into images and images emerge and show themselves to be transferable between human beings, and expression of deep emotion and experience is possible. It is possible.

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So. I teach creative writing, but what I really hope to do is to plant seeds. I know that my job in the schools (not teaching creative writing) is an outward expression my own potential beginning to root and grow. By becoming more grounded and secure (paradoxically, through becoming more vulnerable and soft), I can serve others with less fear, judgement, and hunger for external reward. Every day I’m in a school, I have the opportunity to practice paying attention. I love this practice. I get to do it over and over again. I ask, how can I help you? I listen to what the other person is saying. If possible, I look them in the eye. If appropriate, I ask how they are doing. I listen to what they tell me, and I repeat back to them what I’ve understood them to say, because I want to be sure it’s clear to me. If possible, I try to solve their problem, or brainstorm a solution they can try (it’s usually a small problem that has a simple solution).

That’s it. That’s the practice. Greet, listen, repeat, ask questions, acknowledge, try to understand, solve or resolve.

Greet, listen, acknowledge.

Over and over again, throughout the day. I know these interactions have the power to change me. They have the power to change my approach to creativity and writing too. It’s an integrated and interactive and generative cycle, the relationship with self, other, and creative spirit.

What are you practicing these days? Where are your practices, habits, and routines leading you?

xo, Carrie