The longer I teach, the more I learn.
If I were to write a dissertation, now, my subject would be the short story. I would take a scalpel to the form, carve three-dimensional paper sculptures to show how beautifully various the short story can be. My focus, as a reader and a writer, has long been on Canadian literature, but the more widely I read, the more I wonder what Canadian literature stands for. Where are we right now? What are we lacking? Are we constrained by our Canadian-ness, because our patron is the state? Our violence is secretive and shameful. We don’t dare feast or riot. We would never burn the house down, and if we did, we’d make sure no one knew it was us. Also, outwardly, we appear reasonably satisfied with this state of affairs.
I could be wrong. I could be entirely very very wrong. Generalizations are almost certainly wrong, at least to some degree.
But here’s what I’ve learned, from teaching. For the past five years, I’ve assigned Canadian short stories for my students to read and discuss, and my students’ complaint has been consistent: why are these stories so similar? At first, I was baffled: the differences between the stories were so clear to me; subtle, perhaps, but clear. But as I’ve started to read and assign stories from international writers, some in translation, I’ve come to understand that my students were more perceptive than I. This is not to dismiss my beloved Canadian stories. But I see, now, that there is a world of stories out there that are different and not just in subtle ways, but in juicy, technically audacious ways: stories that are ugly, ungainly, colourful, lawless, unconventional, impolite, rowdy, hungry. Imperfect. Stories that dare to be disfigured, furiously cryptic, ridiculous, structurally untidy, fascinating, open, broken, big. Stories that can take the criticism, because they’re out there doing the dirty work, and they’ve got more important things to worry about.
The world is waiting to be read.
I can’t pretend to know what Canadian literature stands for, nor what it lacks, nor what it needs. I think we are in troubled waters, troubled times, but I’ve been devoted to CanLit for my whole life, steeped in the stuff, and this is my trouble, too. Times of transition are always troubled times. I believe this. Transition is what gets us somewhere new. Truth and reconciliation: painful. It’s painful to be wrong, but how much more painful is it to be a child of 12 for whom suicide is the answer to their pain, how much more painful to be this child’s family, community. This is our country, right now. This is Canada. And somehow, I think it’s our literature, too. Now is not the time to turn more inward, to hide away, to ignore, not listen, not try. It feels imperative — to try. To pay attention.
I want to write stories like the ones I’ve been reading from around the world, and I can try. I may not be able to, but others will. If I’m a very fortunate teacher, maybe my students will. Meanwhile, I can keep learning, listening and reading.
Something rather odd about my life right now is how much time and energy I devote to doing things that are outside the realm of my natural inclinations (and, I might add, training and talents). As someone who could happily hole up for hours and days, reading, researching, thinking, writing, completely in my own head, alone, I find myself surrounded by people almost constantly, and often in a position of leadership, influence, or decision-making. Writing is almost about absence, about sublimating the self to the work, but teaching, coaching and parenting require presence — and not only that, they require a presence. I can’t merely observe and reflect, I have to express my observations verbally, often immediately, without time to weigh my words, in response to whatever is happening in the moment. It’s like doing improv. Some people are born to express themselves in this way. I’ve had to learn it. I’m still learning it. I will never stop learning it. I was a shy child, a tongue-tied adolescent, happy in the company of a best friend rather than a crowd, and I’ve always preferred the scripted scene to the unscripted one. I wish I were a bigger personality, sometimes. I wish I liked tap-dancing in the spotlight.
But what can I say? I’ll just have to go on being myself.
One of my favourite professors in undergrad was so painfully shy that you almost had to strain to hear him. He lectured to a spot on the floor, or gazing out the window over our heads, caught up in his train of thought. Yet I remember him well, his gentleness and humanity. So maybe being a presence is inconsequential in comparison to simply showing up, simply being present, being yourself. Why yearn endlessly to be who we are not? Why not, instead, accept, embrace, trust and marvel at who we are, and how even with our limited capacities we are able, nevertheless, to do and be more than we could have imagined?
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing that is more than your own.
I realize, coming into my office this morning, that my reading life is a mirror for my actual life, and at the moment both appear scattered, reflective of broken or partial attention. I have never in my life had so many half-read books stacked all around me, on my bedside table, the dining-room table, a stool in my office, in my purse (the big one), on the staircase. Here is a list:
On the stairs, with the intention of being carried up to the bedside table (already totteringly tall): Elena Ferrante’s My Days of Abandonment, abandoned early on; American War, by Omar Al Akkad, which I started yesterday while sitting on these very stairs.
On my bedside table (this includes only the books at the top of the pile): Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which I was enjoying, but that was last month, and I’ve only just remembered that I was reading it; Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, of which I read the last few chapters, then tried to start at the beginning, probably a mistake. Both of these are buried under the Rachel Carson biography, not yet finished—my interest waning, perhaps unfairly, with her growing success.
Beside me in the office on my rocking chair, we find Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. The folded-down page corner informs me that I’m mid-way through, but as I skim through chapters apparently already read, I realize how little I’ve retained and long to read them again, as if gazing upon fresh material. Also on the rocking chair, tucked into my purse (the big one): The Middleman, by Bharati Mukherjee.
Over here on the stool, on the other side of my desk: Monstress, by Lysley Tenorio; In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniel Mueenuddin; Etger Keret’s Suddenly, A Knock on the Door; and Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes.
Out there on the dining-room table: Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, with a pretty red ribbon repurposed as a bookmark, denoting where I stopped in the middle of story (almost impossible to manage, given that so many of her stories are breathtakingly brief). Also on the table, Destination Unstoppable, by Maureen Monte, bought after hearing her interviewed on a sports podcast, thinking it might make me a better soccer coach; but it’s a self-published book with the obvious self-published problem of not having been edited, a flaw that kills the transmission of most decent ideas, at least those presented in book-form.
Is that all? I also have some re-reading to do for my creative writing class, and 125 poems to read, comment on and somehow apply marks to, as of tomorrow at midnight.
In the bathroom, there are New Yorker magazines with many half-read articles marked with folded pages. On my phone, I have access to even more articles, including in-depth ones that I want to read, such as an interview with Lydia Davis in the Paris Review (see book waiting on the dining-room table).
Rare photo evidence of this child reading a book.
What of this is my addled brain retaining? I dip in, with pleasure and surprise, images flicker through my brain, some hold, briefly alight; and I am interrupted, pulled back out. What am I accumulating to use, to inform, to enjoy?
Where is the through-line in this mess of partially digested images and voices? What am I keeping? What does this tell me about my life, right now?
Six small, important takeaways from my winter creativity course…
- Set a timer to get started. Give yourself tasks that can be completed in a set amount of time (7 minutes or 12 minutes or 30 minutes); or, give yourself a set amount of time in which to get started, then reassess when the timer goes (you will almost always want to add more time to the clock). Getting started is the hardest part. And you have to get started over and over, so you’d better figure out a way to trick yourself into beginning anew, repeatedly.
2. Don’t worry about making mistakes. In some of my favourite drawings, I made a big mistake early on but completed the drawing anyway. The mistake became an important part of the drawing, often creating depth that perfection couldn’t have; and making the mistake unconsciously freed me as I completed the work.
3. Mix it up. Even if your larger project is all text, and your expertise is writing, take time to draw if you’re feeling cramped or blocked. (Or sing or dance, etc.) Do/make/create something completely different, seemingly unrelated to what you’re working on. Remind yourself how fun it is just to make something.
4. Do the work even when you’re not feeling inspired. This goes back to item number one: just get started. You have an infinite capacity to surprise yourself.
5. Create routines that support your creativity. Perhaps more importantly, create routines that support your own mental health. Get outside. Meditate. Make time for friends. Volunteer. Help others. Share your enthusiasms. And when it’s time to do the work, do it. Don’t procrastinate. See item number one: set that timer and make something.
6. You can’t know what you’re making while you’re making it. “A writer is someone who, when faced with a blank page, knows absolutely nothing.” (to paraphrase Donald Barthelme) Remember this and be comforted, take heart. Your job is not to know what you’re making, or to explain what you’re doing, your job is to make something. See item number one.
This past winter, I developed a 12-week course based on Lynda Barry’s Syllabus (it’s a book), an idea that came from a chance conversation with the woman who camped next to my friend and me at the Omega Institute in New York last summer; we were all there to take Lynda Barry’s workshop. Our tent was an enormous embarrassing behemoth that towered over her one-person marvel of efficiency. Of course, she’d just hiked the Appalachian Trail. And we’d just driven in from Canada in a Ford Fiesta. Let’s just say, we didn’t exactly bond. But one afternoon, we all found ourselves in the swimming hole together, paddling back and forth through the muddy weedy water, and she mentioned that she taught Syllabus as a course (and that she was an English professor). I wondered how, exactly, she taught Syllabus as a course. But we didn’t paddle long enough for me to ask.
At some point, over the fall, I decided to try to figure out how I would teach Lynda Barry’s Syllabus as a course. The result was a 12-week creativity course, which I ran over the winter with a handful of dedicated volunteers, who answered the call-out on my blog, and who stuck with it. And let me tell you, sticking with it was a lot of work. I designed the course to fit within the parameters of a 12-week university term, which would include approximately three hours of in-class time per week, plus homework. All work was done by hand, writing and drawing, in notebooks. My volunteer students did not live nearby, so we couldn’t recreate the energy that would be found within a classroom; nevertheless, they did the work. They sent me samples of their work every week, and at the end of the course created a final project: a short book that combined drawings and text. I can’t express how much joy this brought me.
Of course, I did all the work, too. (To tell the truth, I wanted to invent the course so I could take it!)
Reflecting on its effect, I’ve stumbled upon several unexpected discoveries and insights.
So, here are two BIG THINGS I discovered through my creativity course.
One. External motivation bolsters internal motivation. Inventing for myself a tougher-than-strictly-necessary challenge allowed me to achieve what I set out to accomplish. I must stress that I did this instinctively, not deliberately. In other words, I made the task harder than it needed to be, by increasing the stakes: I involved other people. This had the effect of keeping me on track. Even during weeks that were stress-filled and busy, I continued to create course curriculum and to do the work, because my students were out there, doing it along with me.
What I learned is that a certain level of stress and challenge makes a task more meaningful, and therefore more achievable. We probably all have different thresholds for what would constitute a useful amount of stress, but my takeaway is that I must turn toward challenge and difficulty, rather than away from it.
I also re-discovered the value of creating an external reason for doing something, a goal, an excuse, even if the reason is an invention of your own making. It’s why runners sign up for races—the goal keeps them honest (and keeps their loved ones from questioning why the heck they’re spending a beautiful Saturday morning running 28 kilometres). We need tangible goals, and it helps for these goals to be connected to timelines and deadlines. A goal gives us permission we wouldn’t give to ourselves: Without the invented excuse of the course, for example, I wouldn’t have had the guts to sit in a public place sketching strangers. But the goal is also there to be completed, an accomplishment at the end of all that effort: without the course, I also wouldn’t have made the rough draft of a short graphic novel.
Two. Broadly speaking, creation has two different stages. Both are valuable and necessary. And both require different kinds of time.
The first stage is gathering. The second stage is synthesis.
At the gathering stage, you may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re making things, but you don’t know how they’ll fit together; they may not seem to fit together at all, in fact. If you can let yourself relax and enjoy this stage, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have. You have to give yourself permission to make what you’re making without judging its ultimate point or purpose. You’re making it because it’s an adventure. You have no idea what’s going to bubble to the surface and emerge, and you’re constantly surprising yourself. This work takes up a the bulk of the creativity course.
The wonderful discovery is that this work can be done in bits and pieces, spread out over the hours of your week. All winter, I got up early and wrote from 6:30-7:30AM, for example, never getting to finish what I’d started, and simply picking up where I’d left off when I returned the next day. It’s comforting to know that a great deal of work can be done in this way—that it can fit into lives that are otherwise occupied.
Synthesis is a totally different stage. Synthesis is when you weave your material together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. Synthesis requires an intensive span of uninterrupted time. It is much more difficult (I would say impossible) to do in fits and starts. You also need the capacity to be ruthless and focused. During this stage, you analyze your gathered material for a theme, or repeated images, and you build a coherent narrative around your theme and images. You enter the synthesis stage with an open mind. Your focus is structural. During this stage, you become inventive in terms of fitting disparate pieces together. You also throw out a lot of excellent material because it just doesn’t fit the larger purpose. This is less painful than you imagine it will be in advance because the larger purpose takes precedence. And also because you know the rest of your gathered material may be used for purposes and projects you haven’t yet imagined.
At the synthesis stage, you’re making something bigger, something that will ultimately feel complete (and also, inevitably, imperfect).
In practical terms, you need concentrated time at this stage: a writing week, I would call it. But the good news is, your material can wait for you to make this time.
The other good news is that once you’ve got your structure firmly imagined, you can return to creating the missing pieces using the same strategies you used during the gathering stage.
Here’s my takeaway, and it’s big. When we’re approaching a project, large or small, too often we expect ourselves to start with synthesis: with the big idea, the overview, the unifying theme, the purpose. We start here, even though we have only the vaguest notion of what we might find in our explorations. It actually makes no sense: our ideas haven’t yet been gathered—how could we synthesize them? The pressure can feel crushing. And nothing destroys creativity faster than pressure (and expectation).
What if we gave ourselves permission to start with the gathering? What if we let our ideas accumulate slowly over a long period of time? What if we let the story—the bigger project—find us, lead us, guide us, rather than trying to control and determine it by force? What if we found joy in the process of creation? What if the process was truly joyful, surprising, adventurous, kind of amazingly awesome, in fact?
So that’s a summary of how I spent my winter. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the discoveries I’ve made through my creativity course have been huge, even life-changing. My gratitude goes out to that fellow camper in her hyper-efficient tent, for sparking the original idea. But most of all, my gratitude goes out to those adventurous volunteers who did the work along with me, and kept me honest. I can’t thank you enough.
This is my 1500th post since launching my blog, nearly nine years ago. Today is a gorgeous spring day, and I am spending part of it indoors, writing, which is just where I want to be, in fact. This morning, a cardinal visited the bare branches of a small tree outside my window, a bright little jewel dancing and holding my attention, until he flew away. Friends invited us for an impromptu lunch. It’s a holiday and it feels like the weekend, only more relaxed. Across the street, there are police visiting the neighbours, but I don’t detect any violence, no shouting. When we walked by earlier, the neighbours were sitting in a patio area behind the small apartment complex, and it looked like they were having a meal together. People are outside.
I might have a small sunburn. My fingers are getting warmed up on the keys.
Last night I went to my sister Edna’s show. She made music that was like a soundtrack for a movie inside my head. I closed my eyes and the half hour vanished, fed by beats that rumbled up through the floorboards and through my whole body, a soundscape that produced vivid images in my mind. Mostly images of war, but I think that’s because of what’s happening not so covertly in a number of countries which Donald Trump (or his generals) have deemed evil. How many beautiful children of God were incinerated when a bomb the size of a bus was dumped into the wilderness of Afghanistan, its burn radius a mile wide? Yesterday, I waited with my Syrian friend at a bus stop and we talked about two homeless men we’d seen asking for change, sitting on the sidewalk as we walked by, and she said in Lebanon there were Syrian children at every stoplight crowding up to cars, begging, or trying to sell a single tissue at a time from a box of Kleenex. Small children, this high, she showed me. I saw the same sight when we visited Nicaragua a decade ago; I remember. I could not think what to say, except, That is so sad. I felt the shame of a response so wholly inadequate. As if I could fix it, as if there were an adequate response. I did not give change to the men sitting on the sidewalk, but, I told my friend, sometimes I do. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Same, same. Does it make a difference? I did not say this last part out loud.
There are too many things that infuriate and enrage me, so I choose not to think about them most of the time. Banks that seem to exist to make money for the wealthiest. A stock market that seems to exist to make money for those who know how to game the system. Corporate boards that seem to exist to inflate the already obscene salaries of the wealthiest. Corporations that traffic in the tools of warfare. Leaders who will never suffer for even their most craven and cruel decisions. The insulation of individuals due to privilege and extreme wealth. Why isn’t there a maximum wage? The furrow in my brow grows deeper.
I’ve had a good week. In addition to being asked to teach again this fall, I’m taking over the spring creative writing course at UW, something I’ve never done before. If I think about it too much, I’ll panic at the unexpected workload, but I wouldn’t have said yes if didn’t think it was manageable. Teaching is my version of a writing grant. Plus I get to work with young people. There’s an office on campus. A classroom. A big library. I can bike or walk to work.
No matter what happens, people need to get their stories out. Sometimes I think this is my life’s work: bearing witness, and helping others to bear witness. Bear witness, expel torment, see the red cardinal in the bare tree.