People often ask me: Are you still writing?
I can’t help but parse the phrasing. The word still. Of course, it may appear that I might have somehow stopped writing, that I am no longer writing, because I’ve published so little since Girl Runner came out in the fall of 2014. During these past four years, it is true, I’ve published two picture books for children, a handful of short stories and essays in Canadian literary magazines, a performance piece for an arts festival in France, and these personal blog posts. That’s clearly not enough to keep the lights on, so to speak.
Are you still writing?
I understand the question. I know it’s asked out of kindness and curiosity. How to explain that writing is like breathing, for me? I could not stop. When I do stop, it will be because I’ve also stopped breathing. My life depends on this form of expression.
Are you still writing?
I am always writing, I explain. I explain, Not everything I write will be published.
I recognize that this is a painful truth. I recognize that to state this fact makes me vulnerable. We all like success stories. Painful truths we like so much less, we humans. We like winners because they win. We pity losers for losing. Is it shameful and possibly career-ending to admit: I’m trying, but I’m not living up to the standards being set? To admit: Success is out of my control? To admit: What I love doing may not be what the market wants? Some of us would prefer deception to truth. I wonder whether in the arts community, as in any career involving public scrutiny, we are more inclined to stare away the painful truths, to hide them, and perhaps this is the evolutionarily correct instinct.
Well, I’m going to tell you the painful truth anyway. I’m trying. I’m still writing.
There are problems that we have the capacity to solve with ingenuity and effort, and there are gravity problems. Gravity problems are problems that no amount of ingenuity and effort can solve: gravity just is, a force, like time, that doesn’t bend to human will.
I’ve been fortunate to shift some of my attention, these past four years, into teaching creative writing, work I’ve come to love. It is rewarding to receive immediate feedback, to test ideas live, to adventure in the company of others. Teaching is the opposite of writing literary fiction, at least in my experience. In my experience, to write literary fiction requires enormous patience, bottomless trust in one’s own instincts, and the fierce will to continue alone, for long stretches of time. It requires so much energy. All the energy comes from within. This can be hard to sustain in the absence of … I was going to say success, but I think the more accurate word is community.
There must be a better way!
This post has taken an unexpected detour. This isn’t the post I thought I was writing.
I need new fuel for the fire, that seems apparent from what I’ve written here. I’m out of steam. I’m still writing, but I’ve also given up hope. In my classroom, I strive to foster a creative community — it’s a goal that’s set and maintained and evaluated throughout the term. With deliberate effort, I make space for peers to meet, to share their work, to share the weight of vulnerability, and to learn how to offer useful critique, which is really a brave form of support.
I have never created such a space for myself. I’ve never even considered it as a possibility.
This is not a gravity problem. This is a problem that can be solved by ingenuity, effort, and most importantly, the willingness to be vulnerable.
Writing = breathing. If I hadn’t sat down this morning to write, I wouldn’t have stumbled across this discovery: what I’m feeling and experiencing can’t be solved alone. What I need is community, a writing community.
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.
I’ve got a new essay on mentorship up at TNQ, the local award-winning literary magazine that has accompanied me throughout my career: you’ll find all of the plot points in the essay, including publication, rejection and cause for hope. I hope you’ll read it.
Earlier today I was writing, but then I had to stop writing because it was time to make a salad dressing, eat supper with my family, and clean up after supper. I was in a difficult part of the book, really struggling with it, and now I’m sitting down hours later, wondering how to find my way back in to that difficult spot? I feel a dull anger, but I don’t think it’s really to do with the interruption of thought, I suspect it’s a deeper frustration with my own inabilities to solve the problems in this book, which I fear I may not be clever enough or determined enough to do. The problem is that there is no big aha moment at the end of the book. There is no big reveal. No twist. The evil character remains evil. That’s another problem. The evil character is not an appealing and charismatic anti-hero who was once good and has fallen out of goodness, nor is he a polarizing or morally dubious character; no. All of his instincts and actions are reprehensible. Perhaps this points to a flaw in my imagination. I just can’t find his goodness, except possibly when he was a child. At the end of the book, has he changed? What’s revealed about him, ultimately?
So I sit here looking at the final page of this book, literally the final page, wondering where the redemption lies. Wondering whether this is a book about forgiveness or about revenge, or maybe it’s a book about being unable to forgive — and what happens then?
And then a few hours go by, and I’ve written a new ending that feels right, somehow, and the candle on my desk hasn’t burned out once this whole time. And now it’s bedtime. It’s getting late. I have a cartoon to finish and exercise early in the morning. It’s funny, and also comforting, to read what I wrote earlier in the evening. What I’ll probably remember about today is not the irritation or the frustration, which turned out to be momentary, fleeting, but the feeling of wholeness that arrived at the end of it all.
You have to withstand discomfort to make anything.
Title: Finding Footing
Captions: I ran with Heather this morning. It was snowing. The snow was so deep we couldn’t find our footing. We talked about our words of the year: fire and fresh. At home, I put unmelted snow from my hair on Annie’s forehead.
(What I like about this cartoon is the image of the snowflake that appears in each panel. It creates a visual motif that links the pictures with the text. The “on” should be “onto” but when writing in pen, mistakes get made and they’re permanent. So be it.)
The joy of embarking on a new project is the mystery of what its process will unearth. It’s too early into the cartooning project to guess what’s yet to be learned by doing it. What I’ve noticed so far is that already I have a sense of how many words can fit into each panel. Brevity and clarity are paramount. Thematic clarity is valuable, but sometimes a scattered cartoon, written and drawn in haste, can have its charms.
Captions: This particular cartoon is very time-challenged. Things that happened today: Forgot to pick up Angus from work … Tuned out during scripture reading at church … Walked backward into the cold wind with Calvin.
(This cartoon was written and drawn in almost exactly 10 minutes, which I think is the absolute minimum amount of time required.)
Some days I’ve drawn two cartoons, one on a political subject, and the other more personal. For the purposes of keeping the project streamlined, I’m allowing myself to post only one cartoon each day (on Facebook and Twitter); so far, I’ve chosen the personal over the political. The political cartoons have gone into blog posts instead. I don’t feel that I’ve settled on a drawing singular style, yet. I like that. I like the freedom to experiment with both subject matter and style.
Title: Is It Like Climbing A Mountain Of Snow?
Captions: What happens if I don’t feel like drawing? Is it like climbing a mountain of snow to get to campus? Like doing the dishes and vacuuming? If I just show up, just do it, just keep going, it will happen?
(This was the one day so far that I really didn’t feel like cartooning. I’m glad that I did. It’s a good reminder to just show up and do it, even if you don’t feel like it; good advice for life in general, for writing in particular.)
Questions I’m mulling: What makes a good cartoon? What’s too personal, in terms of subject matter? Would these cartoons be of interest only to family and friends? Is it possible to find the universal in the daily? (Of course it is! The question, really, is how?)
Title: Messy House
Caption: “My house is messy,” Asmaa said, and I said, “I won’t look.” But she wanted to show me. On the coffee table, a pan of butter, markings where dough was rolled out. She brought me a plate of baklava. “Too sweet?” “No!” I ate three.
(Most of these cartoons pair random scenes from the day with largely unrelated captions, and I enjoy discovering how these two dissimilar things respond to each other, but for this one, all the scenes drawn come from the story described in the text.)
Something interesting I’ve observed: that cartoons have the capacity to envelope sad, difficult narratives in a way that eases the pain, I think. Something I think about quite a lot is how to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader. I see in cartooning a possible means of tackling challenging subjects in non-traumatizing ways. Cartoons remind me of poems, a bit.
Title: This Day
Captions: This day has almost crushed me, yet it hasn’t been hard, objectively. I felt close to collapse, inside and out. I felt swarmed inside by anxiety that was almost pain. Yet, I did all of the things.
(Here, I think the scenes from the day soften the description of depression/anxiety in the text.)
Things I like about this project: I get to draw everyday. It’s an opportunity to reflect on my day, and pay attention to it in a different, unusual, creative way. It’s also an opportunity to invent thematic coherence and narrative out of the raw material of life. Life is raw. We humans, we have a tendency to pattern. Pattern may be illusion, but it is powerful. Pattern brings comfort — order to disorder, shape to chaos, coherence to uncertainty.
Title: Suddenly I Felt That I Understood
Captions: Today, I baked bread and I read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. In it, she quotes a line from Emily Dickinson… “After great pain, a formal feeling comes —” Which suddenly I felt that I understood absolutely.
(The drawing of my hands kneading bread dough didn’t really turn out. But now you know what that panel is all about. Kind of looks like two islands separating in the middle of a lake … or, I don’t know; what do you see? I’m trying very hard not to re-do any “mistakes” in the cartoons, but rather to accept them as speaking from or to some secret part of myself I couldn’t otherwise reveal.)
My word of the year for 2017 was STAND. As an exercise, partway through the year, I looked up all the meanings and synonyms for the word, and wrote them onto an index card that I carried around in my purse until at some point it turned into this stained and crumpled piece of paper you see above. The definition filled the entire card, in tiny letters, both sides.
1. v. To be upright, to be on one’s feet, to rise to one’s feet
2. v. Put, place, set
3. v. Take a position
4. v. Support, uphold, argue, champion, defend
5. v. Be present, remain, stay, exist, persist, continue, prevail, hold
6. v. Endure, abide, sustain, remain, last, bear up, carry on, withstand, suffer, submit to, face, weather, stomach, persevere
7. v. Be
There’s more, too. Of course STAND is also a noun with several meanings, including: position; kiosk; and a group of trees.
It was my original intention to explore meanings #3 and #4, above. I was going to take a stand and protest and speak out. But instead my year leaned heavily on #5 and especially #6. The many meanings of STAND expanded. The word took the shape of a tree in my mind, rooted with a strong spine, a good word and a good image for a year that rippled and buckled with unexpected heartache and news difficult to digest (most of which I’ve chosen not to write about on this blog, because it is either too personal or not directly my own story to tell).
STAND came to feel like a necessary, useful word, easy to incorporate into my thinking. I finished the year with greater confidence and inner quiet, at least about my writing. The word, and especially the image of a tree, seems to invite patience and calm, to look at the world and one’s own desires and human failures from a wide-angled view, as from a tree-top. In retrospect, I think I strived for less this year but nevertheless did the work I wanted to do. What more can a person ask for? It’s going to be hard to let this word go.
But it’s time to choose a new word, for a new year. I’m meeting with a group of friends tonight to share our new words. (I will share my word with you after I’ve shared it with them.) The bar is high. I’m a bit afraid. What hidden part of myself is seeking illumination?
To be continued …
PS If you choose a word of the year, please leave your word for 2018 in the comments.