I’ve been wandering through a book kindly sent to me by my Canadian publisher, Anansi, called The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, by Sharon Blackie. One of her suggestions is to find a place to return to, daily if possible, outside somewhere. A place where you can sit and simply be, and observe the natural world around you.
At first, I fantasized about biking or walking to a nearby park to sit beside the little creek that runs through it. But after several days of not biking or walking to the park to do this, I recognized that, as is often the case, fantasy and reality are two divergent paths. I do love my fantastical life, as lived in my imagination, but down here in reality, setting into action even small life changes requires a different toolbox.
Let me back-track.
I’ve just finished a three-day workshop on instructional skills (teaching skills), which was intensive, immersive, challenging, and rewarding. My takeaway could apply to life as surely as it applies to lesson-planning: to meet your objective, you need to identify it clearly, and create a process that leads you toward it.
So if my objective or goal is to sit outside in nature, and specifically, to find a place that I can return to daily if possible, what process would lead me toward that goal?
The answer turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, in this example. Best of all, it emerged naturally. After several days of not biking or walking to the park, one morning last week, I went to the back yard and sat down on a stump. Something must have called to me. I’d just walked my youngest up to meet his friends before school and instead of going into the house as usual, I went into the yard. The dog was with me, the air was sweet and temperate, and the buds were at their very newest, just barely emerging in a soft fuzz of yellow and green overhead. I took off my sandals and sat with bare feet in the grass. I closed my eyes. I listened to the birds and the traffic, and the jingle of the dog’s collar.
Aha. I’d found my spot, my place outside in nature to which I could return almost daily.
So I’ve been returning, not quite daily, but often enough to see already small changes in the grass and weeds and flowers. Today, I opened my eyes after a ten-minute meditation and thought, This is my work, too.
It might not look like work. And it might not register as work, because it is so full of pleasure. But I know that in order to write, to create, and yes, to teach, I must be contemplative. I must reflect. I must be quiet and listen and observe and watch, and be. In this quiet place — quiet on the inside, I mean — such wonderful fantastical ideas play across my mind. So much of my work happens in the imagination. So it is inevitable that some of these ideas will capture my interest enough to be named as possibilities to pursue here in the real world.
The process by which these possibilities are achieved seems to me both practical and mysterious. We are ever-changing, and our needs and interests are ever-shifting. The process by which we move toward goals, and the goals themselves, also change and shift, as they must; often unconsciously. I like when I can recognize what’s happening and celebrate it. I like when I can recognize what I want to have happen, and can tweak my daily routine to see it come about.
Exercise is one area where it’s been easy for me to set goals and achieve them. These goals have changed and continue to change, affected by injury, age, and intention. I am aware of both the changing nature of my goals, and of the changing processes required to meet them. Therefore, I feel ease and flexibility in my approach. Parenting is the same for me, somehow; ever-changing, but replete with clear objectives: to support and to love. The work might be hard, but the meaning of the work is clear.
Naming a goal is perhaps the most difficult step. Narrowing it down. Understanding it, understanding why you want this particular change, or outcome. Committing to it. Why do I want to sit quietly in nature as often as possible? Immediately, answers float to the surface. Because it calms me, because it connects me to something bigger than myself, because it clears my mind. It helps me to see the bigger picture. It feeds my spirit.
What if I were to name a different goal: to publish another novel. I’ll confess that my motives feel less clear in this example, even though the goal appears straightforward. Certainly, I understand the process. But the underlying objective, the greater why of it all, eludes and troubles me; no doubt it’s different now than it was when I first published. And so I wonder … Is it to further my professional career, both as a writer and a teacher? Is it to share knowledge in a creative way? To entertain an audience? Is it to earn a living? Is it to publicly express ideas important to me that can’t be otherwise expressed? Is it to garner attention and feed my ego? (How I fear this last intention, how I fear it might be a secret intention I hide even from myself.)
It seems to me that writing a novel expresses a different intention than publishing a novel. I’m at ease with the former; I’m uncomfortable with the latter.
Yet I want to name it as a goal. I want to publish another novel.
I want to learn from the process, again, how to go forth into the world carrying an idea, and how to share it openly, generously, without fear or shame. I want, also, to polish an idea until it becomes a publishable book, full of breathing characters that live beyond me.
Somehow, my body understands that sitting quietly on a stump is part of the process that will lead me there.
Every day I sit and draw, often for as long as an hour. I listen to music and pencil in lines on paper that recreate small scenes from my day. When I’ve pencilled in the lines to some satisfaction, I take my pen and ink in the drawings. If I had even more time, I would add watercolours. (I’m not ruling this out at some point in the future.) I’ve now drawn 92 daily cartoons and I’m aiming for 365. It’s often what I’m doing in the evening, instead of doing something else, but my evenings were never much use to me for writing anyway, as my brain seems to fog up. Drawing calls on something different than writing. Lines are different from words. Lines slow time. They’re meditative. My whole being follows the line. I can’t describe how content I feel while drawing. Why? Because I expect nothing. Because the discovery is always surprising. Because it occupies all the parts of me that would ordinarily be running madly off in all directions, it pulls them into cohesive effort. Because it stills my thoughts. It takes all of my focus even while making focus feel effortless.
If I hadn’t gone to Lynda Barry’s workshop two summers ago, I would never have known this was possible — drawing. I never would have known, because I would have assumed, as I’d assumed since grade two, that I essentially stunk at art. I haven’t taken an art class since grade seven. Sometimes I wonder whether the concussions changed my brain in some subtle way that has allowed me to focus differently. I remember art class in grade seven — I dreaded it, in the same way that I dreaded sewing in family studies. I had no patience, none, for the projects we were assigned. I knew before I made something that it would be subpar, clunky, painfully literal, the colours weird and blobby, the angles wonky, a minor disaster in the form of clay or pastels or terry-cloth. And it always was.
The things we’re good at are almost inevitably the things for which we have terrific patience. I can polish a story for hours, for example, but I can’t even finish reading an article in the business section; it’s all in the attention, or the ability to pay attention.
I have no idea why I’m making these cartoons. But, you know, I have no idea why I write stories about made-up people. It’s all a bit absurd and indefensible. And it’s also awesome and wonderful, and I’m so damn lucky to have the time, freedom, tools, and privilege to unpack my deepest, most mysterious emotions in these ways. I would call it almost essential. Without art, without these creative forms of expression, I would be helpless beneath the weight of untranslated experience.
Sometimes it feels like I’m bursting to connect what’s inside me with everything that’s outside of me. At least to try. I think maybe all human beings have this need. We need to know our stories. We need release from our stories, too, or to integrate them into our selves, the way a tapestry may be woven from threads of many colour and textures. I sense in art the power to heal (which is different from the power to resolve or simplify or even to comfort). It’s the power of purpose. Art is action, at its core. At its core, it is connection.
New ritual: I begin my desk-time by lighting a candle. The expectant flare of the match and comforting flickering flame marks a small opening moment to help me begin. The candle, which I almost felt ashamed of purchasing (impulse buy; no reason why; it was on sale), is suddenly useful, a tiny reminder of the word I’ve chosen to meditate on for this year: perhaps as a guide, perhaps as warning. Even the tiny flame of a single candle is mesmerizing, its movements mysterious, its light enticing.
The word fire initially drew my attention because I was thinking of creative fire, of passion, of burning brightly in pursuit of art. Which sounds howlingly pretentious, I realize. But I felt comforted by the image that accompanied the word: of a furnace, deep inside, glowing with steady bright heat.
Fire is dangerous, as elements are. I pictured, too, a fire that burns across a prairie, leaving behind blackened space, but also a place for new growth in fertile soil — not a wasteland, after all.
Fire is sacred, precious, life and death. Without it, we would be hungry and cold in the dark.
A fire either is, or is not. When I blow out this candle, its flame vanishes. What keeps a fire alive? It needs oxygen to burn, and energy. It devours fuel. Some fuel burns bright and quick, while other fuel burns slow and steady. But in time, all fuel will run out and must be replenished.
You can’t leave a fire untended. It will burn out, or burn out of control. Either way, it needs attention.
What fires am I tending now? What feeds my fire?
I think of the story of the Little Match Girl, which I adored as a child of melodramatic bent. How the brief flame of each lit match gave the girl temporary comfort and relief — and visions of warmth and plenty — even while she froze to death, shoeless, in the street. Fire as illusion of heat.
Fire as passion, fire as creative, fire as necessary; fire as destructive, fire as hungry, fire as all-consuming, insatiable.
I fear this word and yet it draws me. What would happen if I let my fire burn? What does that even mean? Do I know?
One last image that keeps coming around: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “First Fig.”
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light!
PS The cartooning project continues, day by day. I’m posting a daily cartoon on Twitter and Facebook, and plan to use some here too, in future posts.
Today is my birthday. It’s the first day I’ve had time to reflect, active reflection, since we waded into the Christmas season, and when I sat down before my notebook such a whirl of disconnected thoughts poured out. I am thinking of starting an autobiographical cartooning project, as shown above. I’ve developed a relatively efficient way of making a 4-panel cartoon: I write for 3 minutes using the prompt “What’s on your mind?”; then I use a timer to draw four cartoons, scenes from the past 24 hours of my day, each completed in exactly 2 minutes; and finally I pair ideas or phrases from “What’s on your mind?” with the cartoons, creating captions that aren’t directly related, and yet, combined, tell a little story. I’ve been making these half-hapzardly, often while waiting at piano lessons, squeezed into a tiny amount of time. I love creating a visual artifact. I love creating something to keep.
I have sad news. On the morning of December 23, we said goodbye to DJ. Above is the cartoon I drew that morning, while she lay on the floor beside me, still very much alive. We were fortunate to have a vet come to our house, and the whole family was present in the room as DJ passed out of this world in the most peaceful way possible, with loving hands on her, truly surrounded by love, so I can’t be sad about that. And although I miss her goofy presence underfoot, I also can’t be sad that her suffering has been relieved. The end felt like a surprise, even though we were preparing for it for a long time, and even though signs had been accumulating that the time was coming. But really, DJ was fine right up until she wasn’t, and thankfully, we were able to respond quickly. As we made the decision, and prepared to say goodbye that morning, one of the kids wept, “I don’t want DJ to be a body!” That struck a chord deep within me. Yes. Oh, yes, I know what you mean.
I didn’t want DJ to be anything but what she was: alive, breathing, present, animated, here with us. But when I look at the photo, below, taken on her last walk that morning, I see her distress. And I know we can’t keep what isn’t ours to keep.
It is hard to say goodbye. I am struck over and over this holiday season by how hard it is to say goodbye. Even a welcome change can create a hole, nostalgia for what was. I’m thinking of the new parkland across the street, created by knocking down the houses that were there before, none of them very pretty, and yet, I found myself in the days immediately after they were gone irrationally missing them. Absence is absence. It’s why we keep telling ourselves stories that may not be serving us. It’s why we hang on to old pain and shame. It’s why we are afraid of making space for something new. Instinctively, we know that any absence, any loss, any goodbye will reshape us in ways impossible to predict.
Today has been a great day, a good birthday, and I’ve been doing exactly as I please and wish, which is my definition of the perfect birthday. I woke early to go for a walk with a friend. Kevin made me breakfast. I went out for coffee with two of my brothers. I treated myself at the bookstore. I hugged my mom, and my dad. I worked on the logistics for this new cartooning project, figuring out how to scan and edit images. I listened to music while drawing and writing. Oh, yes, and I blogged. Tonight, Kevin is taking me out for dinner.
Every year that comes around is a blessing. This past year has been full. Full of the unexpected, the hard, the surprising, and the miraculous. I learned how to draw this year! How unexpected is that? Never saw it coming. I also wrote a book by a hand, something that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been concussed. I’ve been kinder to myself in many ways, this year, accepting aging (I’m wearing new reading glasses, for example), deepening relationships, sending roots down into the earth, humbled by my work, demanding time to exercise and also to write. Many tears. Much warmth. Quiet, too. I can’t guess what will come in this new year. I have ideas, plans, stories to write, poems to memorize, kids to snuggle, friends to embrace, a new word to play with, songs to learn, habits and rituals to nurture.
Cartoons to create.
Below, from December 15: “I didn’t leave room for a caption.” Hey, lots of learning to do, too.
PS Soundtrack for this post: Lullaby, by the Dixie Chicks.
In the past couple of creative writing courses I’ve taught, I’ve devoted an entire class to listening to and writing fairy tales. Why? Sometimes I introduce an exercise without fully understanding its necessity, until I’ve been through it several times. After my fairy tale class yesterday, my brain was spinning, like I’d learned how to spin flax into gold. I may not entirely understand why the fairy tale is so valuable to listen to and enter into, but I’m getting closer.
Fairy tales are full of archetypal imagery: images that are powerful and timeless, even if they may be interpreted differently by different cultures and in different eras. Brothers and sisters; transformations; talking beasts; wise women and witches; kings and queens; red shoes; axes; forests; water. As we wrote our own fairy tales, some of these images no doubt found their way into our stories, and we knew they had meaning beyond themselves, we understood it at gut level. A dark forest conjures a meaning different from a river; the moon means something different from the sun; the power of a witch is different from the power of a king or a queen. Maybe we also understood that the meaning of these images was somehow malleable, too, and that we could work with it, we could subvert it, we could make it our own—we understood that meaning shifts. Sometimes it’s even our duty to shift meaning or fight against it.
Fairy tales are by their nature grim, even gruesome; the characters suffer horrors and sorrow that is difficult to comprehend. And yet the stories are told in a way that makes them enjoyable to listen to—not frightening, but compelling. One of the hardest tasks as a writer is to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader: fairy tales do exactly that. How do fairy tales protect us, even as they reveal traumatic narratives? Perhaps it is in part our detachment from their one-dimensional characters. But I think protection also relies on the use of archetypes to contain and control horror, and shape meaning.
What is the difference between meaning that is political or ideological and meaning that is literary? The world is not magical. In other words, what happens to us is not meaningful, in and of itself. We make it magical: we create the meaning. We impose shape onto the events we witness, onto our own experiences, onto the random gathering of routines, activities, sights and sounds, interactions and reactions that make up our lives—much of what falls through and into our lives is like the weather, out of our control. This could be terrifying, paralyzing. It is not a truth our brains accept easily; in fact, our brains are built to create narrative to explain the randomness, to comfort ourselves, in order to survive and to thrive. The same source of comfort drives our impulse toward religion, politics, and poetry: narrative. We need narrative because we need meaning. Meaning comes from shape, pattern, images that carry thematic weight, from threads being pulled together to weave a tapestry that is so satisfying to our brains that we don’t care that it’s not real because it feels real—it feels as it should.
Why do we seek to understand the motive of a man wielding an AR-15 in a church? (I’ve been wondering and wondering about this, because in my opinion, trying to pin down a motive in cases like this is a waste of our collective energy; but most news media would disagree.) There may be a fundamentally human reason driving this search: because without motive there’s no sense of cause and effect, there is only shapeless unformed chaos resulting in death and grief. Audiences want their stories to make sense, and the news media are storytellers and we are their audience. Think of all the different ways we impose narrative on the world around us—my interest is largely literary, but political narratives are inevitable and create competing storylines that truly fail to intersect. Some narratives exclude, lock out, imprison rather than connect.
How can literary narratives help us? By creating empathy—through windows and doors, through the lens of another’s eyes. By refusing to be ideological. By appealing to our human frailty and flaws—by showing us our possibilities and our hopes, and our failures. By releasing us from our humanness, too, sometimes, the way that fairy tales do. Fiction is inherently unrealistic (even so-called realism). Fiction will always be much more and much less than reality is—it contains both too much or too little of reality to be real. Fiction is interpretation. Fiction pushes the writer to identify what matters in whatever moment is being described. It creates magic inside of us all of a sudden! We become magical when we write and also when we read, because we are transforming what is into what could be—a recreation that has substance, shape, and meaning.
Something from something, as Etger Keret writes.
I wrote this in a white heat of emotionless thought after yesterday’s class, as if it were tearing from me whole: the reason I write, the power of writing, the value of it.
“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside of us.” – Silvana Ocampo
Write these words on my heart.
A person wonders whether she can carry home the things she learned, whether transformation in a radically different setting from home is sustainable. A person yearns to be the self she was while she was away. But a person knows, coming home is coming back to a crowd of needs waiting to be met. Even the house needs her. A person has so many loves. Loves are obligations but loves are also earned and cherished and what would a person write about were she to have no loves to tend to?
I can hold two oppositional thoughts in my head at the same time. I want to go home. I miss my family. I want to stay forever in this ridiculously rich creative space.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m home from Omega, in upstate New York, home from the Lynda Barry + Dan Chaon workshop, a 5-day intensive experience in a summer-camp-like setting, with an amazing yoga class every morning, ultra-healthy vegetarian/vegan food served three times daily, virtually no responsibilities, no chores, and perhaps most critically, almost no emotional labour except for the work that poured onto the page. My mind was uncluttered and immediately more open to images and connections. Will I be able to be joyful, I wondered on the evening we arrived, will my spirit find lightness? Is it still possible? I had my answer in less than a day: yes. It was so easy, under the circumstances, to be playful, attuned to what’s under the surface, easy to meet any challenge.
Writing isn’t easy, but it’s enjoyable, said Lynda Barry. She likened it to seeing runners go by in the middle of the day, and you can tell they’re enjoying it, but you never once think, hey, that looks easy. Writing — it’s the same. What this week kindled in me is a fire for the writing. For the possibility in writing, which is seductive to someone who entertains as rich a fantasy life as I do.
After Lynda Barry said goodbye, on the last morning, Dan Chaon, with whom she co-taught this workshop, helped us debrief our experience. Someone asked him about writing to an audience, and his answer had me in tears. It must have answered something very deep inside me, something neglected, lost, forgotten. I’m writing to my peers, he said. I’m writing to the writers I love, my kindred spirits.
I’m writing to my peers.
Am I capable of thinking of the writers I admire as peers? How does it change my mind and body to think: I am writing to Helen Oyeyemi. I am writing to Rumi. I am writing to Eden Robinson. I am writing to Ann Patchett, to Rilke, to Mavis Gallant, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to Mary Oliver. Feelings of love and awe and excitement come over me. I am writing so my work will speak to their work. In Lynda Barry’s classroom, we show our drawings to each other, but we also show our drawing to each other’s drawings. It sounds flaky, but it’s a reminder: this work, once created, lives a life separate from our own.
On Wednesday, I walked the labyrinth on campus, and spent a lot of time writing — my own writing, not guided writing. It was late in the evening. I decided to do one last project before snack and bed, something I’d been wanting to do for awhile: make the Rilke poem I’ve memorized and repeat often into a little cartoon. For the pictures, I looked at my peers’ attendance cards, hanging from the walls, and I chose images that seemed to speak to the words in the panel, and I copied them as best I could. All the drawings are drawings I admired, made by hands and minds I did not know. Then I taped the cartoon to the classroom wall and left it there for the rest of the week.
It was the kind of space that makes a person want to leave behind gifts. But on the last day, I untaped the cartoon from the wall and brought it home. It was the kind of space that makes a person want to believe she can bring what she found there home.
I know we were in another world, a bubble of creative vibes and chickpea scramble, but what was happening in the world was with us too, if at a remove. I mean, there we were in the United States of America during the week when the president spoke out in support of Nazis. There was pain and confusion in that classroom too. This feels like a crisis, said Lynda Barry, doesn’t it feel like a crisis? And everyone said yes. We are facing a crisis. What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do?
She didn’t have an answer. She just had us knuckle down and draw ourselves as a dejected Batman, draw the statue of Liberty with our eyes closed, make a map of a familiar walking path. And then she made us show our neighbour.
xo, Carrie aka Treetop Annie