A friend and fellow writer and former student says to me in an email this morning, “I’m thinking that perhaps I am a writer of sorts.”

Don’t let him fool you. He’s a writer.

It’s easy for me to say from where I sit, outside of his head and about 75 km away.  However, I’ve listened to and read his stories and I’ve seen his peers respond to them with genuine enjoyment. He’s focused and comitted.  I do wholly understand his rather hesitating, roundabout way of sort of saying that particular thing. If that beating around the bush kind of saying something were to occur in one of his stories, I’d have been all over it with my 3B pencil.  But I get *that* one.

See, it’s a decision, really.  And my tongue-in-cheek friend has heard me say it numerous times while sporting my teacher hat: “Call yourself a writer.  Because when you do, things happen, the world changes. You start to see in a different way – with a writer’s eyes.”

Me – I made that decision sitting on a bus in downtown Detroit on my way to work one morning in another decade. I was looking out the window at that decrepit and beautiful city and its people and its myriad stories when I said it to myself, “I’m a writer.”

For some people, like me, it takes a long time to get to that point of self-validation. For others it was always there – it never had to be stated or authenticated in any way. Me, I had to validate. All my life I had been artistically disposed, and it was much encouraged as I was growing up. When I got to my later years in high school though, the encouragement began to be withdrawn, culminating in about 30 seconds, when I was told that really important people in my life thought I wasn’t good enough to be able to make a living at being an artist. Without going into the [obvious] psychological gold mine swirling around that statement, I will say I’ve nailed it down as the prime source of a subsequent life-long creative block. It’s a battle I fight to this day.

I’m not going to use this spot to blame and point and say “if only” because it’s my life and my process and on that bus ride in Detroit that day I claimed it back. Anyway, there are generations of situations and realities surrounding that moment which begat the internal thwarting of my creative process. But I will say that now I can acknowledge and understand that being artistic or creative is something that doesn’t have to produce a masterpiece every time (or any time) to be valid and worthwhile. And it doesn’t matter how many people say yes, you ARE good at it, but it sure feels great and is exceedingly motivating when someone does.

What matters is that you make your art a way of being.  Because then it becomes a way of seeing, and then it becomes a way of living with authenticity.  And with that you find living to be richer with more colour and meaning.  And you wonder why you had to dilly-dally around with the whole “validating” exercise in the first place.

Enjoy one of Jeff’s stories here.  Another one is scheduled to be run in the same spot in a few weeks.

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a bright star among our kind

27 September 2009

Back in university I took all the available Romantic Literature classes. These classes were recommended to me because they were being taught by the engaging and eminent Canadian author Alistair McLeod. But I came to fall in love with the Romantics; their explorations of the human spirit and beauty and ways of seeing, and innovative ways of exploring art. These were my kind of people.

As anyone might, I was fascinated with John Keats and what he managed to achieve in his young life. How does one become one of the greatest of all poets in a mere 26 years on the planet? Art like this – seemingly out of nowhere and of such immense skill and richness is what makes me believe in a higher power.  And what would he have achieved if his experience and view upon the world had ripened with maturity?

One of the papers I wrote at the time was a comparative study of Keats’ “Bright Star” and that of another lesser known poet (my apologies to him but I can’t remember who it was). I came to love that poem, and have reprinted it in my online journals more than once.

That winter I became very ill with a rotten flu which sent me to bed for days, and it was one of those nights in bed when a ghost who lived in our house at the time manifested himself to me in human form. Up until then my girls and I had experienced his presence in a number of ways, most notably when he knocked things off the plate rail in the dining room. But it was not until I was awakened one night that I actually saw the ghost, as I rolled over and opened my eyes to see him hesitate for a moment before he walked into my closet. I nicknamed him John Keats then, as I’d been studying the poet in bed while I was confined there.

Of course the ghost was not John Keats – as I’m sure the furthest he’d ever travelled was Italy where he died. But he was so ingrained in my consciousness during those weeks that it seemed the natural name for the otherwordly fella who’d decided to hang around in the sick room. The ghost actually looked more like Johnny Cash, but he was alive at the time and naming him after a dead poet seemed much more appropriate.

All that is why I’m really looking forward to seeing Jane Campion’s new movie “Bright Star” about Keats and his love affair with Fanny Brawne, the inspiration for that poem. I think it might be a good time to take our poet back off the bookshelf and revisit his notions of inspiration and beauty with a perspective some seventeen years or so have given me.

Last Sunday Cathy and I had really great “sister date.”  We met up downtown at the Harbourfront Centre where Nick Hornby was reading from his latest novel Juliet, Naked and was interviewed by the Globe and Mail’s Carl Wilson.  We both enjoyed the reading, thinking the newest novel will feature more of his really insightful characterizations with their idiosyncrasies and questionable judgement/actions/maturity that is so smack on to many of us that we relate to them over and over again.  Hornby lets us take the mickey out of ourselves. 

In talking about this, he told Wilson that he more often does it with male characters because he came of age in the feminist era, during which time there was a lot of new respecting and appreciating women so exposing their quirks and silly behaviour just doesn’t feel right.  Which made me chuckle, thinking he sounded like one of his characters. 

Cathy and I were both surprised to hear him say that he never feels any sense of accomplishment when he looks at his books lined up on his shelf (not to mention those movie treatments of several of them).   He said he looks back in his mind to himself at work, and all he can think about are the long hours lost to sitting at that computer playing solitaire.  (I wondered how many of us that laughed at his statement were having a chuckle at ourselves.)

At first I felt a little crushed – if Nick Hornby doesn’t experience a sense of achievement in his creative accomplishments, will little ol’ me ever feel it?  I mean, what are we working for?  I don’t particularly aspire to best-selling novels or anything like that, but I do feel a great sense of satisfaction in building and sustaining this blog and getting the odd story out there now and then.  But why keep going if there is never a sense of having accomplished something meaningful at the end of it all? 

But then I got to thinking, what if Nick Hornby looked at his bookshelf and said “There, I’ve done it.  I’ve achieved everything now.”  What would be the impetus then for him to write another story?  If he felt he’d achieved all he had to, then why attempt to ascend to the next level?  In that respect, I think his looking at his bookshelf and thinking only of those hours lost to solitaire games might just be a healthy thing after all.  If we lose our direction, that goal at the end of it all and the reason for moving from the place where we’re at, then why move at all? 

Anyway, the thought of Nick Hornby, famous author, sitting at his desk moving virtual cards around, maybe feeling stuck or tired or lazy or uninspired endeared him to us in much the same way as his characters do.

After the event, us sisters went and had lunch and a couple of beers on a sunny pub patio and talked about that.  And lots of other stuff, as sisters do.

kreative_blogger_awardMy new friend over at Menopausal Stoners has kindly issued me this award.  And as I said to her, this kind of encouragement from writerly peers is the best kind.  So my job, as it should be, is to pass it along:

… if I could, I’d give it right back to PENolan, the terrific writer who gave it to me.  I just discovered her blog, Menopausal Stoners  last week, and I think her honesty, critical perspective, humour and forthrightness is something we could all aspire to. 

But I will pass it on to two relatively new bloggers, Roscoe Dialogues and London Lives, as I like both their styles, they’re good at painting pictures of their respective worlds, and I hope they keep writing. 

And I’d give one to Wandering The Road Less Travelled because she’s a truly creative soul, raising a bunch of creative kids, and she’s always trying new ways to express herself and no matter what blog she’s writing on I keep following her, if only to look at her gorgeous photographs. 

And Joy Frequencies – because like PENolan, I detect a kindred spirit in her, and her positivity is something this world needs real bad. 

Now I’m supposed to list seven things I like, not including people:

  1. September.  Mellow, sunny September with its foods and luscious warm days and cooling evenings and all its promise of things new.
  2. Patios, decks and porches.  Sitting, talking, partaking, sipping, sharing, watching, sunning…
  3. Cities – there is always something to see, some hidden beauty somewhere, something to write about.  I have fallen in love with every great city I’ve visited, and I love my own.
  4. The country – the slowed pace and quiet and sense of freedom are divine.  I’m staying with old friends in the country this weekend and my soul gets happier and my shoulders are feeling more a little more at ease each day the weekend grows closer. 
  5. The summer harvest.  Eating local foods in season is all the rage.  Duh!  Who wasn’t eating foods in season before?  It’s a goldmine for the  mind, body and spirit.
  6. Public radio.  Usually Canada’s.  But sometimes NPR and BBC and other international ones, thanks to this ol’ internet thing and CBC Radio Overnight.  Public radio is a treasure trove of stories.  If I haven’t mentioned it before, I kind of have a thing for stories.
  7. Blogging.  I’m not being original here, I know.  But the feeling of setting a piece of writing free is powerful.  And when people actually take time out to read it, it’s gratifying.  And meeting like-minded writers and artists from around the world is exceedingly rewarding.  I love being a part of this big beautiful exchange of ideas. 

Thank you Tricia.

This week I’m reading the Hemingway memoir, A Moveable Feast.  Last week I read John Steinbeck’s memoir, Travels with Charley. 

Hemingway is reflecting on a time early in his career, living amongst artists and writers in Paris, struggling to make ends meet, and having doubts about his calling as a writer.  Steinbeck, near the end of his career, on an extended road trip around America with his dog Charley, had seen enormous success and recognition for his writing. 

So, I’m reading about Parisian cafes and shopkeepers and horse races this morning and it occurs to me, what if Hemingway never got famous after all that?  I’m struck with something akin to grief, thinking that if his fortunes had taken a different turn, would he have written these stories?  I mean, the events happened – what if I never got to read about them? 

For some reason I got to thinking about some balanced rock sculptures I saw in the Humber River a few years ago.  I walked by this spot regularly then; and one day, dozens of the otherworldly things were just there in the water.  I love the dichotomous nature of them: the ancient, permanent rocks balanced tenderly and precariously on top of one another – one swift wind or current and it’s all over.  A few days later, they were gone.  Not kicked over by unappreciative teenagers – there were no little piles to signify such a violent end.  The rocks that remained in the water were scattered as would any in a shallow riverbed.  In creating the mystery of the sculptures’ arrival and disappearance, the artist was telling a story.

So what if, like the rock sculptures, Hemingway’s life came and went and most of us didn’t know it?  His writing/living experiences in Paris could have been anyone’s.  And if the name Ernest Hemingway was as familiar to people as Joe Shmoe, would the story be of less value?

Steinbeck seemed to put effort into making his story less about John Steinbeck Famous Author than a man with questions, desires, doubts, faults and vulnerabilities.  And had this reader never have read one of his stories before this one, she would have fallen in love with him for the first time.

And she’d still want to be transported back to Paris in the 1920s to sit at a café and drink brandy and eat fresh bread dipped in oil with artists and writers.

And she still thinks about the story of those rocks.

So if ten people – or ten million people read a story, would it make any difference?  Would it make any difference in your desire to tell it?  I think those ten people might have something to say about that.

 

A rock balancing artist making sculptures near my home in Toronto’s Beaches.

dancing for mitch

14 June 2009

There’s a scene that always really moves me in the movie Elizabethtown.  The scene is during Mitch’s memorial service and his wife Holly is on a stage, in Mitch’s world, far away from her world.  Holly is taking her turn to speak about Mitch to the reluctant audience that is Mitch’s family. The thing that is so moving is that she has her hackles up against the suspicious relatives when she walks into the room, but when she gets on the stage she gives them the whole honest truth about how she has been managing her grief.  About how Mitch’s death panicked her, and she felt the overwhelming need to accomplish and learn all the things she had never accomplished and learned while he was alive to share them with her. 

As she moves into a largely inappropriate comedy sketch (a result of her needing to learn how to laugh), she starts to break down the audience’s armour.  And by the time she sets the needle down on Mitch’s favourite song, Moon River, and begins to tap dance for Mitch, (another hastily learned thing), she finds loud support and applause.  Holly kicked away the hackles, and she was rewarded with love.

Once I took a writing class in which there was a young girl who overcame great personal fear just to tell her stories to us each week.  You could see that fear in her.  You could see her summoning inner resources even as she lingered for a moment looking in the window of the classroom before her hand would function against the door handle and open the door. 

Every one of her stories reflected her facing off against that wall with a determination that belied her masked exterior.  Her stories inspired us, and our reactions to her readings of them conveyed that.  But she didn’t finish the semester, and I remember wishing otherwise to my friend who was the facilitator.  “She’s just not ready” said my friend. 

There are lots of reasons why so many of us harbour the idea that risking honesty and truth will result in some sort of failure.  Maybe, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggests below, we could shift the responsibility of our expression to another force.  Our Mitch, our muse, or a higher power altogether.  And then maybe we can put it out there without those hackles that hold us back. The failure would not be ours to risk.

Last week, someone in my class took a personal risk and told a story.  That person reminded me of Holly.  Because like her, that person was rewarded with unbridled thanks and support. 

“We’re all in it together” said an old friend of mine recently.  Yeah, and that’s why we love to hear each others’ stories.  I really hope that young girl discovered that truth; that she’s found the gumption to shed those hackles.

Welcome, O Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

– James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man