For the X Page workshop, I’ve been doing the writing exercises we assign and practice each week; I’ve always written along when leading workshops or teaching, mostly because writing something new is always an adventure and I don’t want to miss out on the experience. On Friday (May 14, 2021), I’ll be leading a writing workshop for the Canadian Nonfiction Collective’s conference, in which we’ll be doing some of these same writing exercises. (Check here, if you’re interested in attending!)
The exercises are based on Lynda Barry’s method of writing and drawing by hand: allowing the hand to be the eye that leads us into the story, and shows us the images that we’ve kept and may not even know are alive within us. I’ve seen this teaching method work over and over again to unearth stories, scenes, details, emotions and insights that would otherwise lie dormant. The process can also unearth material that’s painful or unexpectedly emotional, but what I’ve noticed is that the writing itself also seems to be a tool for healing — telling a story, letting it be shaped by our present self, can be healing.
Though we won’t be doing this is in either workshop, my personal temptation is to veer off into fictional territory, and expand the scene or story out into what could have been or could yet be, or swing into the viewpoint of another person. It’s a very malleable writing method.
(And of course I call on other methods and practices during different stages of the writing process; but even revision and editing can feel free-wheeling and surprising when I’m deep inside the process, which is always an adventure. Using Lynda Barry’s generous, expansive methods have helped me learn how to turn down the voice in my head that is telling me “this is good” or “this sucks.” That’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from this practice: that little voice is my ego, and my ego is terrified of making a mistake, and wants so badly to impress others that it is really not trustworthy.)
These days of lockdown and aimless waiting affect us all differently … but what I often feel is disconnected, lonely, a bit apathetic or lacking in energy or drive.
When I open my notebook and begin to write, something changes. It might only change for those minutes when I’m writing, but while engaged with the pen and the page, I go somewhere else in my mind. I travel. The monotony shifts, the day is different — it opens into a different place or time or perspective. And that’s a little gift to myself, which I hope to give to others, too.
Listen up. Life feels pretty off-kilter here in Ontario, month 13 of pandemic, and projections showing us flying off the rails, if, if, if. Or maybe no matter what.
Uncertainty. It’s where we’re at. Can we laugh while crying? Damn, I sure hope so.
To counteract the blahs, we’ve been trying to think up activities, ways to demarcate our days, things to plan for (like Fake Prom, last spring). One kid floated the idea that we should make a family newspaper, in the tradition of The Snyder News, a “popular” newsletter which I forced my brothers to help me produce back in the late 1980s. At its peak circulation, it cost more in Xeroxing and postage than the meagre subscription price was bringing in, causing it ultimately to fail. (Do not put me in charge of the money side of any venture.)
Back to the future (i.e. the present), while brainstorming who would write what for our family publication, someone suggested having an advice column, and I experienced in that moment a deeply personal calling: “Oh, this is so exciting! You can send me your problems and I’ll give you advice!” Awkward beat of silence. “Nobody has any questions that need my advice? They can be anonymous!”
“I think you give us enough advice already.”
“I know, you could call your column: ‘Unsolicited Advice.'”
(Insert overnight pause, to process my hurt feelings.)
And: Challenge accepted! Here’s my rough draft, which I’ll share with you first (since no one in my family reads my blog, as far as I know, and if they do, spoiler alert!).
Unsolicited Advice, by M.C.
Just think of everything that could go wrong! That’s a good place to start. After that, think of everything you could do to prevent anything bad from ever happening ever. If that feels overwhelming, you can start by closing all cupboard doors immediately after opening them, rather than leaving them swinging for an indefinite period of time because you think you might come back later for more chips, or whatever. Imagine all the concussions you’ll prevent! While you’re at it, close that drawer too! While less consequential in terms of disaster prevention, at least no one will catch their sleeve causing them to send a cup of hot coffee flying (worst-case scenario) or snagging their sweater (sad face emoji). And there’s more! (fortunately, my contract is on-going!), but these basic principles will get you started, and you’ll be off to the races.
Speaking of the races, if you’re thinking of running a race, or even just running, be sure to wear shoes designed for this specific purpose and not for some other event such as hiking or swimming or tennis (unless you’re experimenting with barefoot running, in which case, nothing can save you!). Double-tie your laces, and stretch beforehand—dynamic stretches, not the static kind like we used to do in gym class when I was a kid (this advice is based on real scientific advancement). When running, be careful not to step in any holes. That’s just generally good advice! But always worth restating! If on your run, you see an angry mob of Canada geese approaching (very dangerous, especially during mating season), spread your arms and scream. You’ll see! Highly effective. Be sure to practice your screaming before you get yourself into a situation that may involve Canada geese. You can scream into a pillow or just practice during Mario Kart races.
To reiterate, in case this isn’t sinking in (one can never be too careful!): our basic principle is prevent, prevent, prevent. Remember that fun goes hand-and-hand with risk (don’t hold hands, for heaven’s sake, do I even need to tell you that?), and is also pleasurable, addictive and difficult to avoid, and is therefore an ongoing threat to your health! It’s best to maintain a hyper-heightened risk-assessment mindset at all times. But be careful! Overloading your frontal cortex with stress hormones (which may or may not be a thing, just google it), could cause mental burnout. Counteract those effects with a calm and boring meditative practice, which is generally considered safe, provided you don’t burn incense while you’re at it (fire hazard alert!), but on the very rare occasion has been known to accidentally hypnotize practitioners into believing everything is okay (don’t hyperventilate, M.C.!), which causes them to let their guard down and enjoy their day, which may lead them to have fun (remember = risk!), so be sure to meditate with caution. You have been warned!
This column is accepting questions (and we remain disappointed); however, it seems reasonable to assume that the volume, force, and acuity of our unsolicited advice may serve as a disincentive. Who needs to ask questions, when all the questions you’ve never even thought to ask are already being answered? I understand: And that’s my job, as advice columnist, at your service.
Remember: stay alert, be afraid, and never stop worrying.
Inquiries for the universe…
A few years ago, after returning from a three-week writing residency in France, I put an idea out into the universe: hey, universe, could you send more cross-disciplinary collaboration my way? I’d worked with a wonderful actor / writer / translator as part of the residency, and both of us hoped to find a way to create together again. The universe didn’t align for the two of us to reconnect, though we tried; however, as so often happens, another door opened. In fact, a few different doors, one leading to the next. The first was that I began spending several mornings a week with a young woman who had recently come to Canada with her husband and children; she couldn’t get into a language program, so I volunteered to help her with some English studies. Really, what I remember most about those mornings are our conversations. I realized that my neighbourhood, my work, my friend group, even my church was its own bubble, a comfort zone, and pretty homogenous; and that I had a strong desire to connect with people across the possible barriers of language, religion and culture. The idea for The X Page storytelling workshop grew out of this friendship.
And lo and behold, The X Page became a forum for cross-disciplinary artistic collaboration, as well as new friendships and connections. Our third season starts this week, and will happen entirely online. We’ve adapted, but the goals remain the same: artistic collaboration and exploration, and cross-cultural conversations and connections. It genuinely feels like I sent an idea out to the universe, and the universe answered.
Today, I’ve woken with another kernel of an idea: Hey universe, could I expand on the X Page workshop somehow, to make its goals available more broadly, to many more people? Here’s the spark: Before drifting off to sleep last night, I read a New York Times article about an Australian community-building concept called “The Shed.” Apparently, these “sheds” began as retreats for retired and out-of-work men, and only recently have women started their own “sheds.” The story is about women taking over part of an unused school building; their shed is run by volunteers who are also participants, and it’s a mix of socializing (playing games, eating together) and crafts/ skills, like sewing, painting, gardening, cooking, singing in a choir. It’s a mix.
When I woke up, I was still mulling over the idea of “the shed,” which sounds a bit like a community centre, but which also seems more ground-up, or holistically invented and sustained.
It’s also all very post-pandemic, and impossible right now: gathering together, in person. But hey, universe: is there something here? What do you think? Maybe it’s the idea of a shared project, like “the shed.” Maybe it’s the fact that it’s free for all. Maybe it’s the concept of having space for a variety of activities, which I’ve found makes connections across barriers easier. I’m feeling this rather urgently right now: somehow we have to find ways to make more connections, especially outside of our bubbles, in order to nurture our sense of collective care. We’ve got big urgent crises to cope with. We need to find ways to have difficult conversations, and common ground. Social media does not work for these purposes; it seems almost designed to push us to greater and greater extremes. Belonging comes from something else, I’m convinced of it—outside of algorithms that fail to surprise us, that try to sell us more stuff, and that compete for our attention by exploiting our emotional weak points.
My attention is invaluable. So is yours. It is our time here on earth. It’s what we’ve got to give.
So if you’ve spent a few minutes of your attention reading this post, I send you immense thanks. And to the universe, I send this flicker of an idea: in what ways can I deepen my involvement in building community and connection on the ground, in the real world, both now and whenever we can meet in person again?
When I was a kid, I would write myself letters — letters to my future self: “Dear Carrie Older Than Me …” I would put the letter into an envelope, seal it, and write the date on the front when I could open it and read it. Sometimes, when I’d open the letter, I’d write back to myself: “Dear Carrie Younger Than Me.”
I’d ask and answer questions.
Unanswerable questions. Mundane questions.
Sometimes, I’d forget to open the letter. It didn’t seem to matter much. The important act was writing the letter. I suppose this was a way to imagine myself as a changed but interested party. The difficulty was imagining beyond the limits of my current self. Yet I persisted in the attempt. Who am I writing to now? Who is this post addressed to? Maybe there is a sense of a future self in these words; but it’s always the present self who remains the curious one, the one searching around for a way to define her hopes, to express where she’s at, what she’s doing to sustain herself.
I wonder whether I’m persistently motivated by the idea that I will change, and become better? What would it feel like to be at peace with this imperfect self? (Funny that my assumption is that change will result in betterment; or that betterment requires change.) But here’s the truth revealed by the pandemic, in case I’d missed it: Change happens, no matter what. Time holds us to this promise. It’s strange, but I think waiting itself is a way to cope; but what am I waiting for? The pandemic reveals my relationship to time. If I’m waiting, I won’t be present. Presence can be painful, when the unknown is so clearly in charge; but the unknown is always before me. And presence is what I want, and it’s available. It’s here. Now.
Dear Carrie Older Than Me,
How are you doing? Are you floating along on the surface of things? Are you remembering to breathe? Are you being kind to yourself? Have you found a container for your fears?
Are you someone whose feet are on the ground, do you feel rooted and strong? Do you have the courage of your convictions? Do you shed your fears or do you live beside them?
Please write back in a year, or ten; or a hundred, or so.
xo, Carrie Younger Than You