I’m using this graphic without permission, because I don’t know exactly where it came from — a friend posted it on FB, and the link took me a website called Mind/Shift, but I didn’t see the graphic there. It looks like it’s by an artist named Sylvia Duckworth — thank you, Sylvia, for drawing me.
This is me.
At times, I’ve done a good job of conforming and I think I can work with others, but basically, this is me. (I’m wondering whether my siblings might all agree that this is them, too. And even a couple of my kids. And my husband. Anyone else feel like you’re looking at a self-portrait?)
I’m in the midst of a decision, and it feels like many of these parts of my personality are demanding airtime: hate the rules, dream big, make lots of mistakes, work independently, risk taker, think with my heart. Instinctively, I understand that to achieve anything, I must fail. It’s the only way to learn. I just don’t think of it as failing, I think of it as problem-solving, circling around an issue, coming at it from a variety of angles, experimenting, playing, rejecting what doesn’t work, trying again, ever-hopeful, dreaming big. But here’s what’s worrying me: if I want to succeed, I’m afraid that I have to look successful — already successful, already complete, already the man with the plan. (And yes, I know I’m a woman; do women find it harder to present like a man with a plan? Here’s an interesting article on the stress women undergo when trying to step into positions of leadership.) I’m afraid that I have to present like I know what I’m doing. Expertise inspires confidence, yes? And I do know what I’m doing, but I also don’t know what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t be interested in doing more of it if I thought I knew everything already — I’m interested because I don’t know, and because I want to learn (yes, as the graphic points out, I’m also easily bored). Because while I intend to get really good at a bunch of things, I never want to feel like I’m done learning.
(Counter-intuitive idea: maybe that’s part of mastering a subject — when you know enough to know you’ll never be done learning. To quote Donald Barthelme: “It is appropriate to say that the writer is someone who, confronted with a blank page, does not know anything.”)
On Saturday, at Waterloo’s Wild Writers Festival, I put a roomful of generously attentive people through a writing boot camp: an hour of intensive labouring and pouring out over the empty page, following guided prompts dreamed up by my imagination. I was amazed, as I always am, at what was waiting to be discovered in the unknown, such fascinating stories leaping onto the page; and I hope the experience for most participants was the same. A sense of excitement, adventure, of who knows what is coming next? I wonder, however, whether the workshop would be as welcoming if you weren’t a creative person — or, more accurately, if you didn’t see yourself as a creative person? Here’s an interesting stat from an article I read on Mind/Shift (titled “Can any school foster pure creativity?”): 95% of second-graders self-identify as creative; but only 5% of high school seniors believe they are creative. I recognize that the writing workshop I devised on Saturday might be a really difficult undertaking if you didn’t identify as creative; but what latent creativity is hiding inside even those who no longer believe they are creative? What if virtually all of us are hard-wired to be creative, at least to some degree? What is the purpose of creativity? Could it be essential to human survival?
Play, beautiful beings. Play on.
No, I haven’t eaten lunch yet. Yes, it’s almost 2PM. Yes, this is a common occurrence when the working hours of my day (i.e. when the kids are at school) get away from me. No, I should not be blogging right now. Yes, there are excellent leftovers in the fridge! Yes, I’m looking forward to eating them shortly. (Potato soup and cornbread, if you’re wondering.)
Yes, I came here specifically to share with you a couple of things.
Yes, I’m going to do that now, before microwaving that soup! (It was delicious last night, and I love leftovers.)
Item # 1: As a last-minute addition to my schedule, I will be leading a writing workshop at this weekend’s Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo. Here’s the link if you’re interested in attending. [There is a temporary problem with the link, but the Wild Writer folks are looking into it, so please check back if it doesn’t work right away.] Also, please check out the rest of the program, some of which is completely free to attend. If it didn’t conflict with my own workshop, I’d be going to hear Tasneem Jamal’s panel (free!); and before I even knew I’d be leading my own workshop, I’d already signed up for one with the amazing graphic artist, Meags Fitzgerald. (Even though I can’t draw! Eep!)
Item # 2: While cooking the soup and cornbread yesterday, I listened to a recent On Being podcast. I had to keep pausing to take notes. It’s an interview with Mary Catherine Bateson, who is the daughter of Margaret Mead, and who grew up aware of herself as an “observer/participant.” She is also the author of “Composing a Life,” and like the title of her book, so much of her thinking resonated strongly with me.
I leave you with two separate but linked ideas that I scribbled down between peeling potatoes, both from the wise mind of Mary Catherine Bateson:
“One of the things we press on [our children] is competition. Because we have so much bought into the idea that competition is a law of nature, and the only source of creativity. And incidentally that is not a true biological fact. There is competition as a part of the evolutionary process, but there is a tremendous amount of cooperation also involved, even at the cellular level.”
“Play is a very important part of learning.”
PS I would like to take time to parse these ideas, and to explain how I intend to integrate them into my current state of mind and being, but it’s now 2:02, and yes, a person needs to eat!
Discernment is something Mennonites are expert at; in fact, Mennonites are so good at discernment that it sometimes seems it’s code for clearly we don’t all agree so let’s keep discerning in perpetuity so as to never make a decision. Given that this is my cultural background, perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy process so much. But I do also like to come around to decisions now and again. That said, discernment is rather brilliant, in my opinion. What it does is allow a decision to unfold slowly, with voice given to many different opinions and angles; it’s a process of listening as much as speaking.
This post is a continuation of my thoughts from yesterday’s confession: that I don’t like being the speaker at the front of the room.
I’ve been trying to discern why.
It isn’t that I don’t like being in a leadership position. In fact, I enjoy taking the lead, to which my younger siblings could attest. But there are different styles and types of leadership, and the leadership I prefer to practice is the kind that asks questions, that operates in relationship, that collaborates with, that is creative and responsive and in the moment. I want to ask questions. I want to hear stories, I want to hear and try to understand other perspectives. I want to see my small ideas opening up small ideas in someone else, and I want to be opened up too; I want to learn too.
It’s the reason I like reading and writing short stories, the kind that end in a questioning, open way that unfolds into the reader and the reader’s experience, rather than telling the reader what the answer is. Resonance. That’s what I’m looking for, in everything I do.
Yesterday evening, off I went with my eldest son to coach his soccer team. I was as tired as I’d been all day. There wasn’t time to eat supper. But when we got onto the field, the hour flew by, my exhaustion vanished. I love coaching soccer. I don’t love it because I’m an expert. I’m not. I love it because it’s a creative undertaking, and because I find myself, in this role, engaged with the kids on the team: trying to figure out what will motivate them as individuals, assessing their levels of interest and skill, and asking them to push themselves in small ways—for each player this will be different. I also love it because it’s fun. We’re meeting up so they can play a game.
I think we all need to play. We should all be doing something every day that feels playful, just for fun, something that lifts us out of the ordinary. Something we don’t have to do for any reason other than it makes us happy.
When teaching is going well, it’s for the same reasons. It’s because we’re engaged in a creative enterprise together. Writing and revision should feel playful. I know this won’t always be the case, and writing is work, no doubt about it, but for me—and what I want to share—is that writing, especially fiction, is play. You get to live inside your imagination like you haven’t had permission to do since you were a child. You get to explore whatever interests you. You get to ask questions and wonder and roam freely around your own mind, making it all up, drawing from the back of your mind “perishable moments you hadn’t even noticed that you noticed.” To paraphrase Lynda Barry.
And that’s about where I’ve gotten in my process of discernment. Expect me to release a mission statement in the next decade or so.
P.S. Read this, from the New Yorker (wish I had a subscription!): an inspiring and moving essay by George Saunders about his own creative writing teachers. (Side note: how the heck did Tobias Wolff have time to help parent three children, work full-time leading graduate classes in creative writing, thoroughly read every submission to the program, and write and publish his own books?)
P.S. 2 Here’s how I started this morning. I slept in until 6:45. Then I listened to this song and did kundalini exercises for about half an hour, while the older kids started their day too, but before the younger two got up. It was a good start and I feel much more rested. First discernment decision: I’m limiting my 5AM exercise to no more than three times per week; I’m open to dropping to even less if I’m still really tired. I will reassess in six weeks.
Sometimes I wonder if I need ever write anything else here on this blog, if I haven’t perhaps already written everything I need to write; if the same ideas come around again and again. I just finished reading a memoir by Sally Mann, the American photographer, which is called Hold Still. In May of 2009, I wrote about Sally Mann after viewing, by chance, a documentary on her called What Remains, which was also the title of one of her major photography projects (click here to read that post). Mann’s memoir is lovely, and loving, and offers what feels like genuine and at times unintentional insight into the artist’s mind, her blind spots, her fervour, her view of herself, which may not line up perfectly with the way she is viewed by others.
When you make something, and you send it out to be seen, you lose control over how it is received. She gets that.
There are times when I feel naked, exposed, a character in a story I hadn’t realized I’d been writing. Sometimes I do not know how to be the person at the front of the room. Sometimes I don’t even know if I know how to be the person in the quiet of this room. I don’t know if these people are different people; I would like them not to be, and yet I recognize that a performance is performative by nature, and the domestic self is simply not–but what of the creative self? Does creativity not draw on a bit of everything thrown together, domestic and performative, insightful and riven with blind spots?
It’s been a gruelling start to the new school year, and the marathon of responsibilities continues apace, and to be honest, I feel like I am living a version of life that is unworkable, unsustainable. To fit here, I have to prop my eyes open, I have little time to see friends, I rarely cook or bake, I stagger from one task to the next, I write almost nothing, and I am doing a poor to mediocre job at all tasks required of me. “How do you find time to … ? How do you do it? How do you make time for …?” This question, in its many guises, is asked often of me, and I want to cry when I hear it.
I don’t know. I’m not doing it. I do not have time to. I do not make time for. I am marching bleary-eyed and uncertain toward a goal I cannot see and cannot claim, and yet, I march.
The post that I wrote about Sally Mann, in 2009, was called “On endings.” It’s lovely. I loved re-reading it. It brought me a frisson of excitement, because I was writing about writing the stories that would become The Juliet Stories, and because the retrospective is a comforting viewpoint. But I feel in some ways that I remain in exactly the same position now as then, in 2009: stretched for time, though in new and different ways, and questioning questioning questioning my purpose, my role, my goals, even my desires. Exhaustion rolls through me like fog and bleaches my mind. What remains?
“A year feels like nothing to me anymore, writing-wise,” I wrote, then, more than six years ago. I continue to agree whole-heartedly.
I also see now what I knew already then: that time is what separates those who make something from those who don’t. Well, it’s one of the things. But it’s huge. If your mind is a tangle of appointments and schedules and to-do lists and undone-never-finished-tasks and children and worries and travel and work, you do not have time to spread out your thoughts and sink into them. The physical scattering, the distractions and interruptions, the segmented sliced-up hours: your mind is scattered. How can it settle?
I’ve applied for a grant to earn some time; whether I get this grant remains to be seen, but it’s like I’ve bought a lottery ticket, and I am sitting here holding the ticket and imagining what I would do with this time. I imagine this time clean and crisp and clear, textured by weather and hunger and coffee, hour upon hour without interruption. I imagine it on a windswept hilltop or in a one-room cottage. I am clearly immersed in fantasy. Time is such a luxury. I would like to think I could write my next book beside soccer fields and swimming pools, but I think that I can’t, actually. I can’t. Let’s be honest. Sally Mann makes her photographs alone, hour upon hour in a darkroom. She takes her photographs alone, often, travelling for days or weeks, alone, as she works. The deep gritty stuff happens alone, in quietude, when you’ve fallen down into the depths of yourself, and it is work that doesn’t fit well with much else.
This is not the news that anyone wants to hear–no one wants to hear it. I don’t want to hear of sacrificing one thing for another. But I am already sacrificing many things for many others. One does. It’s the way it goes. The question is: am I doing this consciously, am I choosing this, must I do this, or can I choose otherwise? What would I sacrifice in order to earn that quiet time?
I don’t know. I’m really not sure. I can’t see yet.
Quiet discipline is a massive gamble, and it seems to require the courage (not to mention the resources) to say: this is what I’m going to do, even if it doesn’t work out, even if nothing comes of it, even then, it will have been worth it.
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
Friday, noon. I sit in perfection on the deck of a cottage overlooking a calm lake, pines and birch and cedar moving in a light breeze, the sound of children playing on the rocks below, wading in the shallows. An iridescent dragonfly flutters up and away. The sun is hot. I am wearing a swim suit underneath a brown faded sundress, and a half-drunk cup of coffee is at my elbow.
It feels like this could last forever.
Of course, it can’t and won’t. But there are times when a moment gives the illusion of settling and holding and the mind and body relax so completely that there is no thinking about later, tomorrow, work, duty, responsibility. Ambition vanishes too.
Because what am I part of if not something much greater than my mere human ambition can imagine?
I want for all the gift of rest, respite, dignity, play. At a moment like this, I can imagine no greater gift than somehow creating space for rest and respite, for all who live on this earth. Yet instead we seem most adept at inventing barriers, walls, borders, crises, battles, weapons, dogma that excludes, ideologies of fear and control. There is too much to grieve. I become overwhelmed. I grow weary and distracted. I can’t think clearly.
I sit and watch the lake water move in patterns of eternal symmetry.
Perhaps, I think, my mind is being cleared. Perhaps I will return home less weary, more aware of what matters to me, which patterns I wish to nurture, and which I wish to discard, in order to be a participant in a world where all of these gifts may be shared.
Relief. Simple pleasure. Ease. Rest. Hope.
PS I reviewed Lawrence Hill’s new novel, The Illegal, for The Globe and Mail, and it’s online now, and will appear in tomorrow’s paper. The book is a fast-paced, prescient read on a subject that could not be more timely — the movement of people across borders.
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