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.
Choice is power. But the illusion of choice renders us vulnerable to exploitation. I woke from this morning’s 20-minute nap with this thought clear in my mind.
I’d been reading an article in The New York Times (a very long-read, as this manifesto before you threatens to be), called “You Are Now Remotely Controlled.” Upon waking, I sat down with my notebook and began to write. “I’m having an important idea,” I told my youngest, home from school today because his teachers are striking in support of strong public education. “When will you be done with your idea?” he asked, at last. He wanted me to pour him a bowl of cereal. “It’s turning into a very big idea,” I said. He poured his own bowl of cereal.
I want to use this reflection to pull together a number of disparate thoughts / observations / concerns about choice, autonomy, responsibility and shame. I want to reflect on how the illusion of choice shames us into believing that we are willing participants in our own exploitation, that we’ve willingly consented to give away our private lives, and that we deserve what we get. We might even believe that we prefer it this way. Anyone with a car can drive Uber or Skip the Dishes to earn a bit of extra cash; anyone with a room can rent it out at their convenience; anyone with an internet connection can publish a blog for free; anyone with a cellphone can become an “influencer.”
But it’s this illusion of choice, this illusion of independence and personal autonomy, that makes us vulnerable. It is only when we know we are oppressed that we can fight back. If we are kept in a state of confused distraction, if we feel shame about our personal choices (which may in fact be “choices”), we will remain disorganized, overwhelmed, stressed out, and isolated, even while believing ourselves to be ever more connected. Sure, we’re connected — but to what, and by whom?
I can’t stop thinking about something Trump said while still a candidate for the presidency: “I love the uneducated.” I think he instinctively understands the moment in which we’re living, which makes him especially dangerous. We think he’s joking when we says things like this, but he’s actually incredibly transparent: he’s stating his game plan (and it’s not just his). As citizens of democratic countries, we not only want to imagine ourselves free, our identity relies on it. Paradoxically, this makes us vulnerable to manipulation too; when identity is at stake, recognition of a different version of reality can be too painful to accept. The less we know, the less equipped we are to understand and interpret our triggers, which are attached to our pain, let alone to distinguish between facts and “fake news.”
It’s my observation that the gig economy is a function of this moment in time, too. We’ve been sold the idea that contract employees are willingly trading security for independence. But the gig economy only makes sense if those employed by contract can earn enough to live at a similar standard to those employed in traditional jobs. And it’s clear we can’t. Also clear that the gig economy puts pressure on the individual to support themselves in ways that go beyond their capacity as individuals to fulfill — to negotiate higher wages, save for retirement, etc. Further, the gig economy has the effect of eroding traditional jobs — with labour so cheap, and labourers so plentiful, who can afford tenured professors, for example?
What “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” focuses on, though, is the power that data mining — which feeds artificial intelligence — gives to private corporations, whose interests fundamentally put them at odds with our interests, with the public good. Instead, we become consumers to be activated by “remote control.” Our phones are always with us. (Mine is plugged in beside me right now, ringer on.) We can’t imagine life without this device that only recently entered our lives — I didn’t carry a cellphone on my person till around 2010, yet I went into full-on panic when briefly separated from my phone due to a mix-up this past weekend. What would entertain me while I did chores? And what if someone needed to reach me? I was like a smoker separated from her pack of cigarettes.
Okay, so I’m addicted to my phone. I confess it. Aren’t most of us? Despite surviving the majority of my life without it, I seem convinced that my well-being depends on it. Yet it is this device, according to “You Are Now Remotely Controlled,” that makes it so easy for me to be monitored and manipulated — it is an important tool, among many other tools in the “internet of things” that is turning us into robots.
I am writing the first draft of this reflection by hand, in my notebook. The act of writing by hand becomes, in our era, an act of rebellion against the norm. A notebook cannot be surveilled. It is not connected to anything but itself. (Not to mention that my handwriting is virtually illegible, even to me.)
Surveillance capitalism traffics in prediction. The better a corporation is at predicting what we want / how we feel, the better it is at telling us what we want by understanding what we’re feeling. We are not, in fact, private autonomous individuals making multiple choices independently every day, we are highly predictable creatures with our inner lives, habits, routines and decisions being carefully monitored and collected digitally.
I’d like to connect the NYT article to a program that aired on the CBC’s Ideas on Friday evening, which was so compelling that I didn’t turn it off, even after I’d finished the dishes. It was part 2 in a series called “Why journalist Emily Bell is calling for a civic media manifesto.” Bell observes that it is legitimately becoming more difficult for us to find trustworthy news sources, especially at the local level. (Note that the two sources I’ve used for this post are The New York Times, which is probably the biggest independent newspaper in the world; and CBC radio, a public broadcaster funded by the Canadian government.) As anyone who works in journalism knows, the industry has suffered massive job losses and cuts over the past decade; we also know that bloggers are no replacement. A journalist without independence (or without adequate independent funding) is not free to do their job. “Influencers” are an example of personal journalism that is manipulated, easily and cheaply, by corporate interests. Why? Because an individual is personally vulnerable. An individual lives on a knife’s edge. She has children to feed, her reputation to protect. Freelancers need to get hired again, and again, and again.
This is what the gig economy thrives on. It’s the illusion of choice that I flagged way back when, at the beginning of this very very long essay.
An individual will sacrifice a great deal in order to feed her children, keep a roof over her head, and ensure she’ll get hired again. And she’s exhausted. There’s only one of her. How can she afford to anger the rich and powerful? When I worked as a sessional lecturer, I talked to a department chair about the insecurity built into the system: they tried to explain that I was fortunate to be given courses for two consecutive terms. That’s eight months of work. The standard for contract lecturers, in my experience, is to be given a contract for a single term (four months of work). And then you have to reapply, or perhaps, if you’re lucky, you’ll be offered a contract again, seemingly out of the blue. There is no stability. I was trying to explain, in return, that this made it very difficult to plan ahead. And they explained that the budgeting system made it impossible for them to make better offers. As I sat in their office, I thought, We are two human beings trapped in an inhumane system. How many people at the university were employed as contract lecturers, I asked them? And they said there was no data available on that. They suggested I could find the data myself, contact fellow adjuncts and contract lecturers and try to organize, to protest. I was flabbergasted. I was one person. I had limited resources, was already overstretched and underpaid. I was exhausted.
The NYT article suggests that protection for individuals requires governments to pass stronger laws, supported by the slow but certain democratic impulses of their citizens; this may be the solution. But is it too late? As Emily Bell points out, large data-mining corporations now possess more information than any single government. What would regulation look like? Who would enforce it? Who has the power? I fear totalitarianism by stealth. I fear all that we are accepting without question.
“Who will write the music, and who will dance?” writes the article’s author, Shoshanna Zuboff.
I can think of a number of policy changes that would help. A living minimum wage would go some distance toward reducing inequality. Strong public education with well-paid teachers is foundational, too. (“I love the uneducated.”)
But in Shoshanna Zuboff’s words I hear something that’s already within us — it’s our capacity for creativity, our capacity to write the music, real music, not computer generated. Algorithms are inherently boring. They are designed to predict the future; in other words, they’re predicated on predictability. It’s why I find Amazon’s suggestions for books I might like so boring — what I want is a human being who loves reading, in a bookstore, handing me a selection that’s a bit off the wall and unexpected, something I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. Human beings have the capacity to surprise ourselves and others. In surprise is delight. An algorithm offers, instead, a solution. But our brains don’t necessarily want solutions and efficiencies — we want absurdity, we want to be able to laugh and to weep at what we intuitively understand is not fixable. We crave mystery, though it can be difficult to recognize that — a page-turner, I would argue, takes us toward a solution, but we read it because we love the process of getting there.
Here’s a good example: Little Women is a beloved and much-read book not because of its tacked-on happy ending, but because of its imperfections — because we know the happy ending feels tacked-on (as Greta Gerwig’s film’s version brilliantly subverts). But if Jo and Laurie had married, I doubt Little Women would still be read, and relevant, today. We love Little Women for its complexity, for the messy emotions it evokes in us, and because it reminds us of our own imperfect lives. When I was a kid, I read it over and over again, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it — how it could have turned out differently for Jo, how unfair things were, how it lit in me a longing for a different ending, and yet how I had to accept it, nevertheless. This is the pleasure, the delight of the “wrong” solution, the solution unknown to the algorithm.
Something else. When we can buy anything and receive it instantly, we are denying ourselves another pleasure, that of anticipation, of weighing our desires against our needs, of imagining what the wanted thing might give us. We have been lulled into believing that the easy path is desirable. Yet we know in our bones that everything we care about deeply is hard. Parenting is hard. Love is hard. It aches. But it brings us to life. That is what we are losing. You know that feeling when you walk into a room and everyone is staring at their screens? And they glance up and their eyes are blank and they look numb? The men who design the tech that would manipulate our every decision are very smart at efficiencies, and at making us want more and more of whatever is being sold; but what makes life worth living? There’s a basic immorality at play in the systems they create — or any system created to maximize profit: an indifference to what’s being destroyed. And what’s being destroyed is the humanity of the humans lured into and trapped in these systems.
I gave up being a contract lecturer not exactly because I didn’t like teaching, but because I despised the system, and could not support it, if I could afford to choose otherwise. So I calculated what we could afford, and I chose otherwise. But the truth is that I didn’t really want to be a tenured professor either; I could see that their roles were untenably uncomfortable too, in many ways. It makes me wonder what to wish for.
The problem with systems designed for maximum efficiency is that these systems almost invariably fail to count some losses as actual costs; the losses that count are the ones found on a ledger. The loss of an individual’s security is not counted as a cost. Nor is the loss of an individual’s creative life. Nor the loss of pleasure, relationships and community-building when an individual is stretched to the limit just to survive, or when an individual has as colleagues other individuals who are treated as second-class.
We are not machines. We can’t live like we are. We won’t thrive. Here’s my own personal proof: I’m close to completing a project that I started a year ago in February, which I call “The Hourlies.” Each month, I’ve taken a 24-hour period and drawn a cartoon depicting each waking hour. It’s laborious, time-consuming, very dear to me, and completely non-monetizable. It’s also an enormous accomplishment in which I take great pride.
Drawing a cartoon is an act of creative rebellion. And each act of creative rebellion is an antidote to the paranoia, despair and fear that we’re being fed daily.
You know, Trump is half-right in his paranoia and fears — we are being monitored and many news sources are untrustworthy; he’s tapped into real fears and that gives his message currency and power. It’s just that he’s also the logical conclusion of what happens when we let paranoia, disinformation, ignorance, gossip, fear, greed and self-interest become our guiding principles. So let’s not do that, even though we could, even though we’re being pushed to. If we become like Trump’s example, we will live only on the surface of our lives, sating our base desires, but cold to the best of ourselves, to our openness, generosity, curiosity, and our imaginations, where images live.
Images can be used to manipulate us, too, of course; Trump knows how to draw a crude portrait that calls out our basest emotional responses — disgust, envy, greed, rage and fear. But images nevertheless remain my personal source of hope.
I think we can fight images with images.
Images can become stories, poems, drawings, songs. Images can be made into something that helps us see and know that we are human, we are alive, we are not machines. Visit with your own personal imagine. Let the joy of surprise and creation pull you away from your devices and screens, at least for a little while, every day. Call it your own personal rebellion against the surveillance economy. Get a cheap composition notebook and a black pen, and let yourself be led.
Maybe our creativity will disrupt the cruelty of efficiencies. Maybe policy will follow.
Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom.
My word of the year is MANIFEST.
I chose this word despite feeling discomfort about its complexity, and despite recognizing that I don’t completely understand its multiple meanings nor how the word will be useful in shaping or framing my outlook this year.
Sometimes a word just wants to be used. This word kept coming up. I kept seeing it and hearing it. And it arrived with a clear image. A manifestation is what’s visible. To make manifest is to show. Within the word is its reason for being, its implicit shadow: everything that is latent, hidden, unconscious, unseen, unknown and mysterious under the surface. The image I see is of surfacing. I’m in a deep body of water, carrying an offering to the surface. My offering is small, no bigger than a grain of sand, and I have a long way to go from the ocean floor to the open sky. But I enjoy the work. I’m swimming happily toward the surface with my grain of sand. When I pop through, I’ll float on the surface for a little while, resting, holding my grain of sand up to the sky in case a bird wants to carry it away. It won’t be long till I dive down to the bottom, again, to find another grain of sand.
Something that is manifest is readily perceived by the senses; it is what’s shown.
A manifestation can also mean the spiritual made real.
There are things that are declared, or announced, before they spring into being; to make manifest is to bring into being that which did not exist. My life’s work, I think. Because I also believe that what isn’t yet seen does exist, just not in tangible form. My life’s work is to go underground and surface, again and again.
When I frame my work as a spiritual quest rather than a career, it makes sense in a way that soothes and comforts me. It makes sense in a way that other framing does not and never has; I’m left cold and anxious, seething with envy and practical concerns, when I try to frame my work as a career, something that is transactional in nature, something I do in order to receive something in return—money, success, fame, or even simply a decent living. Nope. That’s asking my work to be something it fundamentally isn’t.
Accept what is before you. Be led. Open pathways for others, but don’t be angry or worried or dissatisfied if the path you see for them is not the path they see for themselves.
A story should call us, should lead us, we should follow it; if we’re dragging that story behind us like a dead weight, we know it’s not alive. It makes sense to me to visualize and live my life, as much as is possible, in this way—being called, following where I’m being led, whether or not it makes sense or is logical or dutiful or practical or immediately rewarding. I can’t know what I’m making. I can’t know what I’m doing in the moment of doing it. I’m just swimming, swimming, swimming toward the light carrying this little grain of sand.