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?
End-of-term launch party.
I’m done teaching for another term. My course was on the creative process: how to set goals, envision a major project, and lay the groundwork necessary to complete the work. I spent a couple of days this week and last meeting with students to hand back their final projects (stories in comic form), and to chat about the term. Some themes emerged in our conversations. Here’s what we learned.
The importance of mistakes. So many students talked about how important their mistakes had been in shaping their project, how an apparent mistake had turned out to be important or valuable to their drawing, or how freeing it was to allow themselves to make mistakes. My theory is that through mistakes our unconscious mind gives us important information we couldn’t otherwise access; and drawing is the perfect medium for this communication with the self, because we see our “mistakes” pretty much instantly, and have to figure out what they’re trying to tell us.
The freedom of stepping away from perfectionism. Students also expressed how freeing it was to embrace their mistakes, or even how freeing it was just to give themselves permission to make mistakes. Creating a major project by hand is time-consuming and laborious, and if you don’t accept the mistakes you’ll inevitably make, you’ll never finish what you’ve started.
The calm that exists inside creation. Every student in the class put a lot of time into their projects, and some put in vast swathes of time, far more than they’d anticipated, or really, that was required to meet the project’s guidelines. (In other words, they didn’t care about the rubric, they cared about the work itself.) Students talked about losing themselves in what they were doing. It didn’t feel like work. It was fun, it was relaxing. The time flew. There is a meditative quality to making things by hand, to being focused in this way; engaged.
The time for this is always with us. (To paraphrase Lynda Barry.) This feeling of calm, this experience of getting lost inside a pleasurable task, is available anytime. And yet, we seem to need someone to remind us of this, we need a reason to get engaged in this way, a task, a project for a class to give us the excuse to get lost in making something that requires focus and effort, that is time-consuming, and that ultimately may have no material or monetary value. We feel like we have to prove that it’s worth it. I wonder why? When it seems so obvious, looking at these wonderful students and their amazing artwork — their unique, truthful, serious, funny, silly, brave, thoughtful beautiful art — that it is worth it.
This course gave the students permission to make art. To draw. To colour. To turn their lives, their observations, their ideas into cartoons. Many expressed how valuable this practice was for them, and how much they hoped others would get the chance to take the course too. “Everyone should have to take this course!” “You have to teach it again for the sake of future students!” In truth, I’m not sure what I taught was a course so much as a concept: what I tried to do was make space for the students to make space for themselves.
Anyone can draw. Most of the students had no idea what they were signing up for when they entered my classroom on day one. They thought they were taking a creative writing course; the course description was vague; they were surprised to learn they’d be doing so much drawing. They weren’t sure they could do it. Many hadn’t drawn since high school, or even grade school. “I never thought I could draw well enough to …” And to a person, they could — they could tell the stories they wanted to tell through cartoons. (“Well enough” went out the window; “well enough” had no place in our classroom.)
Pride in accomplishment. The final projects undertaken by the students were big!! This was no small undertaking. And everyone did it! The deadline got met, and each project proved to be as unique and individual as the person who created it.
Thank you, Artists of ENGL 332! Thank you for your trust. It was an adventure.
Too much. There’s too much on my mind. The kids were home last week on March break, and I looked at the surfaces around our house, covered with debris, and I thought, this could be a metaphor for the surface of my mind. I’m drowning in details, in crumpled to-do lists, in scattered responsibilities, in unmet needs, in forgotten or neglected tasks.
My solution is multi-pronged, and does not, as one might think would be prudent, involve a lot of cleaning. Whenever I clear a surface, more debris appears.
Instead, my solution is in connection. Connection outward and connection inward. I go to a kundalini yoga class, and chant, whirl, and root myself deep inside my body. I go to church and rest within an hour of spiritual reflection. I draw and I write. I go for a walk with a friend. I meditate. I help lead workshops, and I stand at the front of a classroom trying to connect students to the transformative magic of their own creativity.
I’ve been sharing a journal with one of my children, as a way to “talk” back and forth about big subjects. Our household currently has three teenagers, a time of life that is especially full of big questions — what is the purpose of my life, what am I supposed to do next, who am I, where can I find meaning? There aren’t one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, it seems to me, so I can only offer ideas, suggestions, places to search.
One of my teenagers said to me, earlier this week, that people are looking for connection with something bigger than themselves. That’s it, isn’t it. That’s the general answer. I think it’s why religion has played such a critical role in human society: religion is explicitly about connecting with something larger than oneself. Most religions involve community, ritual and practice, and some personal sacrifice; all of which are important ingredients, in my experience, to feeling connected to a larger purpose and meaning. It’s important to be aware that there are healthy connections, but there are also dangerous connections (if you’ve connected with something that demands that you hurt or denigrate other people, or yourself, for example, that is not a healthy connection with a larger cause).
Sitting in church on Sunday, I thought about who I am becoming as I age and grow more rooted within myself. I’m not someone who needs a clear surface to thrive. I don’t need to live in a clean house. But I am someone who needs to pay attention to the things that are causing the clutter, the people whose lives coincide with my own, whose interests interest me, the people who share my space (and I don’t just mean my own family); I carry their cares close, in other words. The debris isn’t all mine; I’m not even sure a quarter of it really belongs to me; certainly I generate far less than I take responsibility for. And that’s where I need to take care, be more mindful — recognize and accept responsibility for the choices I make, and recognize and let go of that which is not mine to tidy, clean up, or carry.
Somehow, it’s my spiritual self that recognizes what matters. Yet the spiritual self is the easiest to neglect, and the hardest to talk about. Here’s what I’ve been telling myself to maintain those connections, inward and outward, that give me meaning and purpose: If you don’t have time to meditate, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to go to church, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to talk to a good friend, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to be alone, you’re too busy. (Here’s the thing: even though I’m busy, I almost always have time.)
If you’ve done any writing workshops with me, you’ll remember the X page, which is a Lynda Barry staple, a page in your notebook on which you draw a big X — you “wreck the page,” as she says — and on this page, you pour out your sensory memories that emerge from whatever image you’re exploring. In the photo below, you can see that blank X mark amidst the text that surrounds it on the board, behind the writer, Tasneem Jamal. This photo was taken yesterday evening, when Tasneem was leading the writing session of The X Page, a writing and theatre workshop for immigrant and refugee women, which I’m coordinating with the help of many wonderful local partners. Last night was our first workshop session!
While the women were writing their stories in their notebooks, I modelled Tasneem’s instructions on the board (those are my X page scribbles). I got to write two new X page stories, which are brief 7-minute recollections based around an image anchored in memory. Our prompt for the evening was “suitcase,” or bag or backpack or purse.
“Backpack stuffed with my life”
I am sitting on the floor in the Detroit Airport, leaning against my backpack, a hiking backpack, that is stuffed with my life, or the life I expect to be leading in this place I’m going, somewhere I lived as a child and have not returned to for a decade. I’m 19 years old. I grin into the camera my dad is holding, already sunburned. My jeans are hot, as the day is warm. I just want to say goodbye and go — get on the plane and fly away, mostly because I am scared, though I would admit that to no one, certainly not myself. I feel as though I am fulfilling a calling that I am meant to return to this place that in my memory was a kind of paradise — Managua, Nicaragua. It was not a paradise in any way that is easy to explain. I was a child when I lived there, and I felt free.
“Grandma King’s purse”
I am inside a memory I didn’t know I’d kept. I can see my grandma’s purse held open, and I am being permitted to dig through it to look for candy, but I see all kinds of treasure here — tissues, lipsticks, keys, a wallet I want to open, gum in stick form, pens, an address books, yes, candy, wrapped; mints. Peppermints striped red and white in crackling plastic. I sit on Grandma’s lap and smell her scent, nothing fancy, her hair spray. She gets her hair set at a salon, but I wouldn’t know that, not yet, it’s a detail that will fascinate me when I’m seven or eight. She does not touch her hair in between appointments. She is not a snuggly grandma. Yet here I sit on her lap in the front seat of a car on a hot day, windows down, in the parking lot of — maybe — a grocery store. We are waiting for someone to return. I did not know I’d kept this memory. Yet here it is.
Walking home from campus this afternoon, I kept formulating and reformulating my “artist’s statement”; writing an artist statement is something I’ve asked my Creativity Unplugged students to think about doing for our end of term launch party. What would mine be? What would yours be?
Maybe this is my statement:
Life is about seeking beauty: go and find it, record it, and share it.
But I think my statement would also have to include this:
Life is about seeking beauty: go and find it, record it, and share it. We can go together.
Context: A student introduced me to the Hourlies project, wherein you draw a cartoon marking each waking hour over the course of a 24-hour day. I’m going to assign this as our class’s Reading Week homework. Fortuitously, I decided to test it yesterday/today, on what would become a snow day, and therefore essentially useless to me for other purposes.
Observations: I couldn’t do this project while doing any other project requiring sustained attention. But I’m playing around with ideas for how to do it again — perhaps once a month, or perhaps, when I’ve got time to spare, doing a marathon version over a week; and I’m brainstorming about how to do it as its own standalone project. I really really really did not want to stop today, and in fact made an extra panel (there are two 4:00PMs). I learned a massive amount, which you can see for yourself by comparing the first panel to the last.
Feedback: Welcome, please.
I’m sitting in my cozy office, wearing reading glasses, listening to my favourite Spotify playlist (song of the moment: “Ya veras,” by Systema Solar), office door closed because my elder daughter is practicing piano obsessively. Kids are all home from school, which makes Rose-the-pup very happy. Kevin is mid-flight to Fort McMurray for a work trip. All schools, including the universities, are closed today due to freezing rain. I started teaching more than six years ago, and today’s is the class I’ve ever missed. (Not-Humble-Brag # 1)
I’ve decided that this post’s theme is the Not-Humble-Brag.
I’m uncomfortable with bragging. But it makes me even more uncomfortable to pretend that I’m not bragging. (Side note: Why call it bragging? Why not label it differently in my own mind, as good news, and own the sharing of it?) (Side note # 2: My superstitions are kicking in strongly, as all my instincts scream: if you announce that you have good news, you will be deservedly and instantly punished with bad news!)
Okay, superstitious self, what if the Not-Humble-Brags are less earth-shattering, more like gentle observations of loveliness? Hey?
For example, I’ve got a new story in the latest edition of The New Quarterly! (Not-Humble-Brag # 2)
The story is from an auto-fiction collection I’ve been working on steadily for a rather long time, and which makes me happy every time I dip into it, to revise, edit, polish, or write a brand-new story. On Monday evening, when I was in my office marking madly, my eldest daughter came rushing in. She was glowing. She’d just read the story in TNQ — “16th Century Girl” — and she’d loved it. She said, You should just do this, Mom. You should just write. She said she’d been thinking about writers who just wrote regardless of success during their lives, just wrote anyway, no matter what, and that could be me, as she saw it. You’re such a good writer, Mom, she said.
That night, I woke in the middle of the night and wondered whether I could “just write.” Would it satisfy me? What sacrifices would be involved?
Last night, I again woke in the middle of the night. This time, I asked myself: What is your ideal career path? Who is your role model?
I remembered that for a very long time, my ideal was Alice Munro. A mother and grandmother, devoted to the short story, who dabbled in other money-earning ventures, such as a bookstore she owned with her first husband, and teaching creative writing for a year or so early in her career; but mostly, who simply sat at her table, stared out the window, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Brilliantly. When I appeared at a literary festival named in her honour, I was told that she was known as a quiet, dedicated volunteer, serving pie at community functions to people who had no idea who she was, even if they’d come to the small town hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Even before her retirement a few years ago, she rarely engaged in readings or public appearances. Add the Nobel Prize on top of that, and could there be a more romantic ideal?
Next, I thought of Grace Paley, the American short story writer, teacher and activist. Here’s what Ann Patchett writes about Grace Paley, with whom Patchett studied in university: “Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story. Grace turned out a slender but vital body of work during her life. She kept her editors waiting longer than her students. She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person.” (from “The Getaway Car,” an essay in Patchett’s This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage.)
In my mind, Alice Munro and Grace Paley don’t represent competing versions of “how to be a writer”; for both women, being a writer was not about performing as a writer, it was about doing what needed to be done. There are different ways to do this.
If I were an academic, I would keep very close track of every publication, conference, appearance, event, workshop, review, panel, and award. I discovered this lack in my own accounting last fall when a colleague and I were applying for an academic grant (a SSHRC). Creating a somewhat comprehensive CV involved picking through old calendars, emails, and boxes of clippings. The exercise was instructive, and weirdly buoying. Look at all these things you’ve done, woman! (Not-Humble-Brag # 3)
But there’s a reason I haven’t kept track of these things very well.
As a writer, what I’ve done is not as important as what I’m going to be doing. What matters is what I’m making, not what I’ve made. (I realize that’s not completely accurate; past publishing history opens doors unavailable to many, which is a privilege and not to be minimized.) But there is no tenure. No security.
To be a mid-career, mid-level literary writer is … well, it’s a form of invisibility, to be perfectly frank. It takes fortitude. It takes devotion to an idea of oneself, an aspirational self, and it takes devotion to a singular cause, which is craft. Like Grace Paley, I don’t (can’t) compartmentalize my writing from my life. And yet my life ranges rather widely and wildly. It sprawls. My attention is divided. My loves are many. If I were to “just write,” as my daughter says, what would that mean? What path am I carving, in this career my CV claims I’m building?
We were awarded the grant, by the way. (Not-Humble-Brag # 4)
Now, to spend the rest of the afternoon, this gift of unexpectedly free mid-week calm, “just writing.”