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.
We did it! The X Page storytelling workshop culminated in a show in front of a sold-out audience, and the experience was so profound and meaningful that I don’t want to try to peel it apart. Suffice it say, we could feel the attention and support of the audience as the performance unfolded on stage; and throughout, I felt pure joy to be witnessing these unique personal stories told with such confidence and personality, and staged so brilliantly and effectively.
I’ve been thinking about the material world. How we attach value to things, and how we measure value according to a concept so abstract it only exists because we’ve collectively agreed to believe in it — money. We seem to believe that for a thing to matter it has be material, its worth evaluated and determined on the open market. It’s a formulation that makes no sense to me at all. It seems to me, instead, that a material thing only has value when it is attached to meaning that is beyond its material form. Things don’t matter to us because of what they cost or what we can sell them for; things matter because they connect us to the ephemeral, to experiences, to memories, to images and stories.
So much of what I do has no monetary value attached. Sometimes I get paid for my work; often I don’t. I have a new story in PRISM International that took four years to write. It’s a little over 1,000 words. I earned $90 for it. I was thrilled and happy to earn anything at all (literary magazines are run on a shoestring and a prayer, and I don’t take payment for granted). My point is not that I should have been paid more, or even that I should have been paid anything, but that the value of that story, to me, is unrelated to monetary compensation. It’s unrelated to material compensation of any kind. I wrote it to explore an idea. I loved working and reworking the words on the page. The language and structure were surprising. I felt rich every time I waded into its words. I felt fed. I felt alive.
I felt the same during our Tuesday night workshops. I felt the same during the performance on Sunday.
I believe the value of the workshop was in the connections made, the space carved out for stories to be told and heard, and the hope and joy, and sense of belonging, that comes from working with others toward something bigger than yourself.
I believe the value of my little story “Early Onset” is in its existence: strange and unsettling, and, to paraphrase the words of its main character, “terrible good, terrible good.”
We need to have enough material goods to live more than a life of struggle, survival, and trial. Beyond that, what we long for won’t be answered by the material. No prize, no public acknowledgement, no stack of cash will satisfy; quite the opposite. If we’re doing what we’re doing for material reasons, receiving material reward only makes us hungry for more, greedy for it, like addicts. Trust me; I know. I know what we’re longing for can’t be bought or sold. I know that meaning and purpose, belonging, are not commodities. I know that within us is always enough; and I know that we’re always seeking, nevertheless. We’re seeking to connect, even briefly, with mystery, with the unknown and unknowable, from whence we’ve come and to which we will return, carrying nothing.
We’re always becoming who we might be.
I am a maker of experiences, not things. Even when I make things, it’s because they’re attached to experiences — stories, cartoons: my attempt to translate experience into a form accessible by someone else, its effect ephemeral, the tiniest vanishing ripple on the greatest lake. Enough. I am enough. You are enough. We are enough. And isn’t this life just terrible, terrible good?
Sometimes my skin feels too porous, and emotions pour in almost painfully. Yesterday, I started reading a personal essay in the newspaper written by the mother of a child on the autistic spectrum who was being bullied by classmates, people he thought were his friends. I had to stand up and walk away, so strong were my feelings of sickness and pain, gut-deep, a grief and horror that seemed to wash through my bloodstream.
I stood by the sink and wept.
Stories of exclusion, cruelty, judgement of others trouble me so deeply I can hardly tolerate the pain. I guess here in my mind, I live in a world in which people see each other, are kind to each other, have compassion for each other; but in the real world, there is a lot of pain inflicted even by people who are trying to be kind; pain is also inflicted by people who only want to be left alone, people who don’t want to engage, people who don’t care, who are struggling with their own troubles; and there is pain actively inflicted by people who fear and hate others for their differences, people who don’t want to understand or learn or listen, people who actively target others, weaker and more marginalized than themselves.
I can’t make sense of it.
It just doesn’t make sense in my brain.
I don’t have solutions. I can only to attempt to make spaces for that version of the world that exists in my mind to exist in real life. I’ve tried in the classroom, on the soccer field, inside my own family, and in this storytelling workshop. I know I’ve gotten things wrong. I suspect I’m sometimes the person who’s inflicted pain when trying to be kind, and acting in ignorance. But I’d rather try than hide. There is no alternative that makes sense to me.
For the past 11 weeks, I’ve been privileged to be part of The X Page Workshop. It was envisioned as a creative and collaborative undertaking that would bring together women from different cultural backgrounds, all of whom are making lives for themselves and their families in Canada. Each week, a group of almost 30 of us have met to work on writing and staging stories. Together, we’ve made something that’s rich and enriching. Just with stories! Just with stories and goodwill, trust, kindness, and effort. When we’re together in the beautiful space at the Centre for Peace Advancement, as we have been every Tuesday evening since March, I feel immersed in the possibility of the world inside my mind becoming a real place. It feels like a real place, then and there.
Just thinking about being there brings me a sense of peace and ease.
It isn’t perfect. Why should it be? This world in my mind has conflict, but it also has ways of talking about conflict, because there is trust, and the trust is constantly being earned. Each small thing offered, in this world in my mind, is actually a really big thing. Our gifts to each other don’t have to be grand gestures, large acts, or come from a place of material wealth.
I think the best gift we can give to someone else is to see and acknowledge them without wanting or trying to change them in any way.
To live in this world in my mind, I have to try to live with unconditional love. And that means feeling too porous sometimes to the brokenness in the real world. That means loving what’s broken, too, unconditionally. And that hurts. But it’s the only thing that makes any sense to me at all.
I would like to write more here. But it has to come naturally. I’ve been writing in other places; in my notebook, mostly while teaching but sometimes at other quiet moments during the day; on screen, too. There aren’t so many quiet moments. Most of the moments are more like the ones pictured above.
I want to write about heartache and discontent and anxiety and bruising effort. I want to write about not giving up. I want to write about my dishevelled house, and how it reflects my dishevelled life; neither feels under my control. I’m wandering through the chaos, trying to keep track of the bare minimum, whatever that might be. Meeting deadlines? Providing the occasional meal? Showing up on time? Showing up at all — while spreading in all directions are needs unmet, leaves and sticks dragged in and chewed to shreds by Rose the puppy, dirty dishes on every surface, dirty laundry on every floor, dog beds, dog toys, shoes to trip over, and as far as the eye can see, stacks of books and papers and bills and the parts of a homemade car being crafted for a physics project, glue gun, twisted wires, discarded wheels.
I want to write about the quiet moments, so that I remember that they exist. That I can conjure them into being. I want to write about clearing space. What is space? What is this desire to fill it? Is it inertia that fills space? (It’s so hard to keep space uncluttered. I don’t know how to do it.) What would it feel like to walk through this house and not see anything that needs doing? What would I do with more space, more quiet? Would my dreams expand? The breath in my lungs? Would I feel more settled or less settled?
At least an hour ago, I sat down in my newly cleaned and organized office with the intention of writing a blog post. The post has been writing itself in my head for the past few days, while I vacuumed, organized, biked on errands, walked the dog — at any time when I had a few uninterrupted moments to myself. But when I sat down, at least an hour ago, instead of writing this post I answered emails, created a rough outline for the new course I’ll be teaching this winter (Creativity Unplugged), scrolled news headlines, and even watched a short video on “Coach Burnout.”
In other words, I’ve done everything except write the blog post I’d been meaning to write.
My new office is brilliantly organized (if I do say so myself). It feels peaceful. It’s amazing the difference this makes in my mind, opening space both literally and figuratively. A critical organizational piece is a filing unit discarded from one of my daughter’s rooms: in it, I’ve labelled a set of accessible folders to collect material that has been piling up, related to projects of immediate importance. Maybe a photo of this would be the easiest way to share the news I seem to be avoiding — it isn’t bad news, not at all, just a shift in my energies, and that feels … well, a recurring theme in my dreams is our house being torn apart, or moving into a new house, or not recognizing rooms that should be familiar.
Change. Risk. The potential for failure.
Change. Adventure. The potential for … success? That seems too limited in its definition, too vague. The potential for … hiking new trails, seeing the landscape from new perspectives, learning new things about myself, my limitations but also my gifts. They’re one and the same, in some fundamental way.
The labels read as follows (not weighted in any particular order): ENGL 332, The Shoe Project, Soccer Coaching, MA Theology, ENGL 335.
Let me break it down, by category.
ENGL 332 is the new course I’ve been contracted to teach this winter. It will be based on Lynda Barry’s workshops, and on her books What It Is and Syllabus. The exercises and projects will be a combination of text and drawings, largely hand-drawn, and the outline is taking shape in my mind (and on paper, as mentioned above) even now.
The Shoe Project is a *big* project I’ve been working on all summer, since reading an article about it in the Globe and Mail in June, and contacting The Shoe Project’s executive and artistic directors about starting a local version of the project here in KW. It’s a writing & performance workshop that connects local artists with women who are immigrants, to write, shape, and tell their stories. This project is currently being fuelled on energy, connection, and collaboration, and the next step is funding, which is a high bar indeed, but not, I believe, impossible.
Soccer coaching continues even as our season winds down. We played our last league game on Tuesday, but still have practices and a final tournament that will take us into September. Whether or not I coach again next season has yet to be determined, but remains a strong possibility.
MA Theology is the wild-card, about which I’ve offered no hints, in part because I applied only recently on something of a whim when a spot opened up, and in part because, well, I must be feeling some hesitance about it, some desire to explain why, even to myself. The full title of the program is MA (Theology): Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy. I *think* my interest was sparked last fall when a student discussed the idea of leading writing workshops in different settings and for different purposes — therapeutic purposes. But I think, too, that as I continue to coach and to teach, I’ve been craving more tools and knowledge with which to approach conflict, as well as a way to frame my beliefs around the value of creativity in nourishing and healing the spirit. I will be attending part-time. As my sister said, “Well, you know your limits!” to which I replied, “Or I know how to test my limits!!” “Haha yes, that’s more accurate.”
ENGL 335 is the final file, and that’s my usual creative writing course, which I continue to update and revamp in an attempt to simplify the marking scheme, and ease the workload, which I think has become too heavy and rigid over the years. I’ve been asked to teach this course in both the fall and winter terms, which means I’ll be teaching two courses this winter, plus going to school part-time. I’ll confess this thought woke me at 4AM two mornings ago. (Knowing my limits v testing my limits?)
My writing is not, you may observe, in those files. Instead, my current project, a collection of stories, is much closer, piled at my left elbow, very much a presence on my desk, and in my mind, and a very pleasurable presence indeed. It feels peaceful to work on these stories as they call out to me; I work on them with contentment and patience, not as if they are a crisis or emergency (which is how other writing work has felt, sometimes).
What I think is this: I’ve got too much energy to pour it all into my writing. Whenever I’ve tried to do so, tried to live the fantasy of “being a writer,” I’ve been mostly unhappy, plagued by self-doubt, banging my head against immovable plot points, overcome by inertia, thinking thinking thinking — and that’s no way to solve a problem or write a book or help the people around you. You need patience for all of these pursuits, patience and clarity, not anxiety. You need to clear your mind, and weirdly, my mind is clearer, my purpose stronger, my focus keener and energy smoother, when I’m occupied on a variety of fronts. I am a woman who requires a certain amount of extremity to thrive. The calm comes from being within the whirl; when all is calm and little is required of me, my mind becomes the whirl.
Did I already know this?
But it feels like a brand-new revelation: to stop fighting who I am, and get on with living the life that’s pulling on me.
Yesterday, at piano lessons, I wrote out some plans in an attempt to frame my goals in terms that were clear and measurable.
The template I followed was to name my identity or ROLE (or the identity or role that I wanted to claim), name GOALS for myself within that role, and name STRATEGIES or practical tasks I could do to achieve that goal, or some parts of that goal. The final piece of the puzzle was to BUILD ACCOUNTABILITY into my goals—in other words, involve others.
And I recognized that accountability is where the concept, and shape, of writing communities takes on real life and value.
This exercise helped me understand that my starting place should be with a role and goals; that’s the only way I’ll be able to understand what a writing community, and accountability, means to me, or what kinds of community feed and sustain the goals I’m setting for myself.
Here’s how the exercise looked on the page, roughly speaking.
For role, I started with WRITER.
I named two goals: PUBLISH NEW BOOK + PUBLISH SHORT STORIES/ESSAYS IN (LITERARY) MAGAZINES
Then I named strategies for approaching each.
PUBLISH NEW BOOK: Find publisher for The Swimmer (new novel manuscript); rewrite/edit Francie (novel manuscript in progress); research toward new manuscript; write new manuscript (novel; as yet undefined)
PUBLISH SHORT STORIES/ESSAYS: Contact editors; send out stories; polish stories; maintain a spreadsheet to track submissions; write new stories and essays; apply for grants or writer-in-residence positions
I noticed that there were two distinct categories within each larger goal: 1. strategies for getting published and 2. strategies for writing new work
Ergo, a third goal: WRITE NEW WORK.
And, my strategies for the goal.
WRITE NEW WORK: write on campus (i.e. free from distraction); contact editors (pitch story ideas); write with friends.
What surprised and pleased me about this analysis is the level of accountability (aka writing communities) already built into existing strategies. (Maybe you would find the same?!) For example, built into “find a publisher” is accountability: my agent is involved in this process. I’m not tackling it alone. However, I’ve got little/no accountability built into rewrite/edit my work-in-progress. This is of my own doing: I’m extremely private and superstitious about work in progress. The closest I’ve come to building accountability into this stage is to write/rewrite in parallel with a friend; Kevin is also my first reader on all manuscripts, but he’s not an editor, and besides, our marriage depends on him NOT offering editorial advice on my rough drafts. So here is a gap where I can ask: do I need more accountability at this stage in the process? And my honest answer is: I don’t know. I’ve handled this stage on my own FOREVER, and with measurable success.
But I’m open to considering a change.
I would be even more open, in fact, to seeking earlier editorial feedback on the short stories and essays I’ve been writing. This could be a wise step to add before submitting to magazines. Food for thought.
To return to the goal of writing new work, I wonder, at present, what does “writing with friends” look like? What’s the picture it makes in my mind? Perhaps it means what I’m already doing: Parallel writing at a friend’s kitchen table. Perhaps it means another workshop with Lynda Barry (though not this summer, sadly). I also think it means writing along with my students in class. However, given my current daily commitments, I don’t think it means organizing or leading writing workshops or a larger writing group … but perhaps it will mean that someday.
If you feel inspired or intrigued, I hope you’ll give this exercise this a whirl! Name your role, your goals, your strategies, and the ways in which you plan to build in accountability. How will you measure success?
I will measure success in BIG tangible goals, but also in TINY steps along the way: every time I write something new, including this post, I’ve met a goal. I’ve dropped a pebble on the path. Do cartoons count? YES! Private journal rants? YES! Letters to the editor? PROBABLY, HEY WHY NOT!
Yesterday, I also named and analyzed two other roles: TEACHER and FRIEND/FAMILY MEMBER. I won’t go into detail here. But we all have more than one role, so it’s worth considering how these roles overlap and interplay, and limit or feed each other.
Naming your ROLE will change how you frame your approach. How you see yourself is key, it’s critical, it’s the MOST IMPORTANT PART of this whole exercise. It’s also worth remembering that this isn’t a one-time assessment, but needs to be examined and altered as we continue to grow and change, as new roles are thrust on us, often out of our control, or new circumstances bring loss. Personally, I loved doing this exercise. Maybe you will find it clarifying too?
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