I presented the following Craft Talk on Saturday January 24, 2015 at Writing North 5: Our Wits About Us the fifth annual celebration of Canadian writing, sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild.
It was a great gathering of writers, with myself, Catherine Banks, Trevor Strong and John Donlan as the writers who were invited to present. There was much discussion of how we use humour in our work, and how keeping a sense of humour sustains us as writers.
Ahhh the wisdom of wit.
On the Saturday, we were each given an hour to present a talk about our Craft and mine went a lil something like this…..
Thanks for coming out this afternoon or hanging in if you’ve been here all day.
I’m going to start off with a quote that I return to often, especially when I feel…. lost or tired or…. uninspired.
It’s Norman Bethune’s take on the Function of the Artist and I’ve changed all the “he’s to she’s” just cuz.
The function of the artist is to disturb. Her duty is to arouse the sleepers, to shake the complacent pillars of the world.
She reminds the world of its dark ancestry, shows the world its present and points the way to its new birth. She is at once the product and preceptor of her time.
After her passage we are troubled and made unsure of our too easily accepted realities. She makes uneasy the static, the set and the still. In a world terrified of change, she preaches the revolution – the principle of life. She is an agitator, a disturber of the peace – quick, impatient, positive, restless and disquieting.
She is the creative spirit working in the soul of Man.
– Norman Bethune
Isn’t that fabulous?
I want to talk today about how we survive as Storytellers.
I don’t mean financially. Finances aren’t really my strong suit, though I have managed to keep food on the table and a roof over my head for over 20 years – while keeping my work as a writer at the centre of my life.
I want to talk about… choices we make -everyday – that will help us survive and keep our sanity intact and our creative juices flowing.
I also want to talk about the… bumps along the way and how it is that we can develop the capacity to keep on keeping on. How we can learn to constantly Start Again.
For me, the first choice was accepting the fact that my main focus in this life would be writing and that I needed to craft a life that allowed me the time I need to do the work.
I began, as all of us do I suppose, fitting my writing work in around the rest of my life. Around my family life and especially around my rent paying work. I wrote when I had time and energy. Grabbing moments here and there, usually in the middle of the night, to scribble down thoughts or let something pour out me.
It was a conscious decision to flip that mindset for myself and put the writing at the centre.
I started to find work that I could fit around the writing. Part-time work, short-term contracts that gave me swaths of time to write.
It was what I had to do to keep going as a writer.
I know this approach isn’t for everyone, there are families to feed, responsibilities to be met and a million other considerations to take into account.
But for me… the writing just wouldn’t fit into the spaces left over if I worked 9-5 Monday to Friday.
I’m a slow writer (see Slow Rot Deep Rot post). I need heaps and heaps of time open before me in order to find my way. I need a lot of… staring time…. and walking time… and thinking time…along with the scribbling time.
My first tip then, is… To Find the balance that works for you.
Each of us needs to work it out for ourselves. How we balance our Work life (writing work and other work if necessary) – our everyday living life including our relationships and and the tending of our own bodies and souls.
That’s what I really want to talk about. The importance of finding a writing practice or a writing life that takes into account …. our needs as humans and the needs of the ones we live this life with.
Each of us needs to try this and try that. Write in the morning, write after midnight. Work part time full time any time you can find. We need to try something and and if it doesn’t work… we need to start again. Try something else.
I’d say that a most excellent place to start is TIP #2 – Find your people – fellow writers and teachers who have courage and heart and who will push you and support you at the same time.
I was blessed early on with some fantastic teachers. I started out as an actor, studying Theatre at York University and I took a few writing classes “on the side” thinking it would make a nice double major.
The first Creative writing course I ever took was with a man called Mathew Corrigan. He was tough. And he hated my stuff.
It’s true. And I can’t say I blame him.
See… When I began to write, in that university setting, I thought that WRITING was… fancy and smart… and that I so … wasn’t – fancy. And maybe I wasn’t even smart enough. I very much had the…. oh man I so don’t belong here… feeling.
I’m from the … other side of the tracks.
And I felt that difference.
We’re reading James Joyce and Thomas Mann and Margaret Atwood…
And we are trying to emulate them. We did a lot of… pastiches in that class. Writing in the style of…. these great authors.
It was a good idea in that it let us try on a bunch of different … styles. But it was also… not so great in that it made it even harder for some of us to find our own voices.
I liked the class. I liked writing and I liked …. the challenge that Corrigan presented to me. I wrote and wrote and Mathew Corrigan kept knocking me back and knocking me back. He actually gave me my first ever “F” and I was all….
“How the hell can I FAIL a creative writing assignment” Right?
Well, I’ll tell ya how – The work I was turning in was…. stilted and over written and… rang false.
Then one day I dropped all the “fancy shit” and I wrote a piece about finding a half dead cat on the street and sneaking it inside to feed it and let it warm up. I was homesick. I felt so lost in the city and at the school. I wrote about this scraggly-assed street cat and how I couldn’t keep her because I was living in a room in an Italian Family’s house and I wasn’t to have any visitors at all – four legged or two legged. I wrote about having to let the cat go again and wishing her well.
I wrote about how she walked away, stronger looking than she had been, but still scrawny as hell.
I wrote about how it was time for me to find another place to live.
Corrigan smiled when I read out that piece in our workshop. He finally smiled. But still, the writing wasn’t super. He said something I will never forget. He said, “It’s not fair, Pam. Really. You read so much better than you write.”
(cue the laugh track)
Hey – it was rough, sure, but it echoed in my ears for years. And it’s probably part of why I began to write and perform my own one woman shows. It is also why I continue to read all my work out loud over and over to hear it and then… figure out how to get THAT onto the page. Oh punctuation (shakes fist in air) – you are my bane!
My next writing teacher was Susan Swan. Susan taught me a LOT of things, but there is one really important thing that I want to share with you.
My writing was still rather clunky and… let us say… overwrought and I was still trying to be… smart … or writerly or something.
Susan had us do an assignment where we brought one of our favourite people – real or imagined – to York for the day. I brought… Morgan le Fay and had her teach a class in Women’s Studies. I was all apologetic. Seems like a great idea to me know, but that day…. I felt like it was… silly. All the guys brought in fricken Einstein or Heidegger or somebody, and I kept thinking… oh this is too… fantastical or something.
Susan was confused by my … embarrassment and stumbling apologies in the workshop. She asked me to stick around after class. I was so nervous, like I’d totally messed up or something. We met and talked and she asked me why I was embarrassed and I said something like… Oh I dunno… that fantasy stuff wasn’t very serious writing or something. She laughed. She said, “You’re smart right?”
I shrugged and said, “I guess.”
She asked me what I liked to read.
I read all sorts of stuff, of course, but I do love me some good fantasy or magic realism.
She said – “Good writing is good writing, Pam. Whatever genre. You know that as a reader.”
She said – “Write the stuff you want to read. Write the book you have always wanted to read.”
So came, years later, my first novel Mostly Happy.
One more teacher for you who taught me something invaluable. Tony Stephenson, who writes mystery novels (as Anthony Quogan) and taught playwriting. We were to write a one-act play in his class. I began a comedy – about a broke young writer who moved into the gazebo of an established prairie poet who, I must confess, bore a striking resemblance to Ken Mitchell. I thought that was pretty funny shit. Tony said it was OK but….
Earlier he had given us an assignment to write a scene wherein… the person we hate the most in the world, justifies themselves to us.
I wrote a scene about an asshole named Jake speaking to his stepdaughter Kat. I remember writing the scene in a weird … fury. I left it sitting out on the kitchen table and in the morning, my roomate was sitting at the table with his coffee, reading it. He looked up and said, “Wow, that Kat is a real bitch, eh?” I blinked. Then I smiled, thinking, Hey, I might get an “A” on this one.
Tony didn’t hate the comedy about the chick living in the gazebo taking pot shots at the prairie poet, but he lay it down on his desk and said…. “I think you should write the play about Jake.”
I felt instantly …. cold.
I said – “There is no fucking play about Jake.”
Tony smiled and said, “Sorry, Pam. But there so is.”
And so… I drafted my first play Saddles in the Rain.
These things I learned so early on, have stayed with me. I’m sure you’ve heard them all a bizzilion time. But here they are again.
- Write in your own voice, not the voice of others
- Write what you want to read
- And write the stuff that scares you most – the stuff that makes you want to throw the hell up
OK… moving on.
I decided that I would be…. a writer. I would write that play.
And it’s been a wild and often heartbreakingly hilarious ride.
If I’ve learned anything it is that you have to keep a good sense of humour about it all.
Here’s my thing. When I was 11, an ouija board told me that I would die at 30.
And I BELIEVED IT.
So when I decided that I would write that damned play about Jake and Kat, I decided that I needed to write it and get it produced by the time I was 30. Get their story out and into the world. That was my mission.
And I did it.
And the way it happened was… hilarious.
I entered a draft of the play in a contest out in BC and an old friend who had moved out there, somehow got her hands on a copy and decided that she wanted to produce it. Meantime I’d worked on the play with the Saskatchewan Playwright’s Centre and Tom Bentley Fisher saw a staged reading and wanted to produce it at 25th Street Theater. We all worked together and Saddles was produced in 1994.
And it was hard hard hard to see it up on the stage.
And I threw up a lot as we worked through the rehearsals.
But we did it.
And all was well.
I was 29 and I wrote the play that Tony had basically DARED me to write, and I saw it produced.
(pat hands) DONE.
And then… I didn’t die.
And I was all….. “What the fuck?”
“Now what the hell am I supposed to do?”
I thought that one play was it.
I did my job.
I told that story.
What else was there to say?
I was working two jobs, paying off my student loans.
I worked, I came home, I went to bed.
There was no writing happening.
There wasn’t much of anything happening.
I quit my jobs and took to the road for a year – seeking a new place to live and … a new… purpose for being.
I landed in Saskatoon, with the beginnings of a new play in my head.
There was more to say. OK.
So… I started again.
I went back to acting and worked here and there and I got started on that new play called Dancing with the Magpie. I still haven’t managed to wrestle that tale into it’s true shape, but it got me writing again.
I got a job at a place called Tamara’s House where I worked with female survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. I wrote and performed barefoot – a one woman show that wove my personal story of healing in with the historical tale of King David’s daughter, Tamar who had been raped by her half brother Amnon and told to … keep quiet about it.
I thought barefoot was genius good and it connected with people, but… not many people came to see it. That hurt, but…. ya gotta laugh, right? I mean really… did I think people would flock to a show about Child Sexual Abuse?
I had to keep going.
I wrote and performed OK:The Passage of Georgia O’Keeffe. As I told you last night at the reading, writing OK was my way of… recovering from writing and touring barefoot.
Again…. I performed the show for small but appreciative audiences.
I got enough good feedback to keep me hooked on the writing thing.
While I was on the Fringe with O’Keeffe, I saw a call for a contest in The New Quarterly. The idea was to write something, anything, a story, poem, comic, essay, whatever with the title Bad Men Who Love Jesus. The title stuck with me and after the tour, I went back to work at Tamara’s House and one day, sitting on the steps out front before my shift, I wrote a weird little…. story about a girl named Bean.
That night, I read the story to Mansel (AKA The Raggedy Man).
I tell you this, because I never do that. We don’t share our stuff til it is pretty far along. But this story… this story that just fell out of me all in a rush was just so…weird. I had to read it to him.
I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel – or some kind of story or something about…stuff found in a shoebox. Like someone’s LIFE found in a shoebox. The things they have carried through their life.
Mansel listened to my weird little Bean story and said – “That’s the one. Tell me her story. What is in Bean’s shoebox?”
Leon Rooke was the judge of that contest.
He chose my tale for The Bad Men Who Love Jesus issue (86).
It was a proud day.
He also taught me a good lesson.
He left my piece entirely alone as an editor except that he cut the final paragraph.
His note said… “It is enough. End here. Trust the audience.”
Another most excellent tip for this overwrought overwriter.
And so it came to be that I wrote my masterpiece – Mostly Happy.
And so…. after 6 years of heartrending work…. I had my first novel published.
Hooray Yippee HUZZAH!
Now I was well and truly a “writer” and from here on in it would be SMOOOOOOOTH sailing. Right? Sure.
I did a six week tour – sleeping on friends couches and reading in bookstores and bars and people’s houses.
I won a few awards – which was fabulous.
I sat back and waited for the riches to ROLL IN.
Cue the laugh track….
My biggest year of royalties was over 2000.00 and it was a miracle.
Then, of course, the returns happened and… I’ve been in the negative with the royalty situation ever since. I think, maybe if I can just sell one hundred more books, the dollars may begin to roll again. Could happen. (click here to jump over to Goodreads and find a place to buy the book)
We have high speed internet but no running water.
In the winter, I often pee in coffee can instead of running to the outhouse.
A Folger’s can actually – because it has that handy handle on the side and is easy to carry out for dumping with your mittens on.
I live in beauty, by the glorious river of weeds and I’ve been working on a new novel called Sanctuary (spit).
I spit as the residents of Dog River spit at the mention of Wollerton. (spit)
See… I’m four years into the novel and about six weeks ago, I sank into despair.
I sank and sank and sank until I was lying in bed seriously contemplating burning the manuscript. I’ve heard of people doing that and I could never understand it.
You can always keep working, right?
You can always work on that … bit in the middle.
You can always make it better.
But I lay there and I thought.
I just. can’t. do it.
I don’t want any one to see this – ever.
It is just…. oh God… I’ve no idea what this even IS anymore.
It’s a hot mess.
I want to burn the manuscript and cut off all my hair and begin again as an artist.
Begin again as a human.
Because that is how it feels. Like I have failed, not only as an artist but… as a human. That I am a horrid waste of space and the planet would be better off without me.
I lean towards rituals and strange… vows made with myself.
I began growing out my hair after touring Mostly Happy.
Well….. First, I fell down in exhaustion.
I took to my bed for a week or so.
I let myself rest for a bit and then… I wanted to get writing again. But nothing was coming.
I applied for some jobs.
I scored a most awesome gig as the Saskatoon Coordinator for the SWG, and I dove into programming for the community.
I just … couldn’t seem to get started on a new project. Nothing…stuck.
I took a vow not to cut my hair until I was back at work on a project.
The hair was pretty long before I found my way into Sanctuary.
I’ve had trims in the last three years, but not many.
The urge to cut it all off right now is strong.
As though the cut will somehow … free me… to…start again.
Cuz I do fear that this … thing… may never be what I want it to be.
I fear that I don’t even know what the hell I want it to be anymore.
I fear that… four years of work or not, I may need to walk away from it.
Oh man, that is hard to say.
When I was in that awful awful state, I did two things.
I reached out – to fellow writers who I knew would understand and who I also knew would have my back. I reached out to Lia Pas and Tracy Hamon and they both took time to respond. To sit with me and talk me down or up or whatever you want to call it.
I can’t emphasize enough how important this contact with other writers is. Ours can be such a lonely road.
I count my blessings every day that I found a fella who also gets it. Who knows when I’m working and who knows the ups and downs of this crazy creator life.
We are blessed to travel along together.
For those of you in the crowd who have yet to… partner up. I would say… please please please find someone who will support you in your work. We have enough obstacles to face as we try to live as Creatives, may your partner never become one of them.
The other thing I did on that most horrible of days was to dip into my “for the dark times” file. I keep a file of…. nice comments, good reviews, inspirational quotes and videos by folks like Neil Gaiman (Make Good Art) and Ursula Le Guin (We will need writers who remember FREEDOM), and bibs and bobs of writerly wisdom I’ve found along the way. It’s great to dip into when I need a boost and don’t wanna… bug anyone else.
In that dark time, came the call for a title for this talk.
So… I decided to tackle what I most needed myself.
How to survive.
This gathering could NOT have come at a better time for me.
I needed to be amongst you all.
I needed to hear what it’s been like for you all to live this life.
In that dark time, I dreamed that I was here, up on a stage and that Tracy was cutting off all of my hair.
We almost did it.
We thought… that would be so friggen… profound.
Me letting go of the manuscript.
Tracy up here, cutting my hair off – doing what she did for so many years to survive as she wrote her poetry.
I thought of writing a show for the two of us.
Yeah…. that’s it. “Let’s put on a show!” That’d be cool.
I attended my second 10 day Vipassana Retreat.
I’ve been practicing Vipassana meditation for a year now.
At the 10 day retreat, you go into silence… and you sit…
You sit for 10 hours a day.
And you practice.
And it brings things into focus.
Vipassana is a very … workmanlike method of meditation.
I like that.
It’s about… doing the work.
It’s about paying attention to the sensations on and in your body.
It’s about tuning in to … the vibrations of the very atoms that make up this body.
It’s about learning that this body is not like any other body. That there is no real benefit in comparing your experience with anyone else’s. and that you rarely know what their actual experience is anyhow.
I was in the front row at this last retreat. Sitting in what felt to me like a row of meditation goddesses. All serene and Buddha like and there was me, hunkered down like some crazy Baba Yaga filled with searing pain and just trying to hold my shit in so I wouldn’t jump up screaming “screw this” and run from the meditation hall. Once we could talk, it became clear that they were fighting their own battles. Looking serene on the outside and often just as raging as me on the inside.
We all work out our own salvation – in our own way.
We sit and we work, using the technique we have learned.
On these retreats, we hear audio of our teacher, encouraging us with lovely chants in Pali and offering instruction, reminders….
We hear words like…
Work diligently, diligently…
Remain very alert…
I love this practice.
And I love how it supports my writing practice.
How these words I hear while sitting, also echo for me as I sit to write.
This concept of being aware of what is actually happening right here in this body at this moment is also integral to my work as a writer. Developing the capacity to see things the way they really are as opposed to the way I would like them to be. Developing my capacity to simply…. observe.
And to see that…. everything is in a constant state of flux and flow.
That this despair I feel in this moment, with this piece of work…. will change.
That this elation I feel in this moment, with this piece of work… will change.
I see, again, that my job is to do the work.
To start again…
I changed my mind about the hair cutting show.
I didn’t burn the manuscript of Sanctuary.
I saved it.
I will let it sit until Spring and then I will take another look and … who knows what I will see.
And… I will keep the hair. For now.
We are headed off to the land of Frida Kahlo after all.
I shall wear my braids and make a pilgrimage to the Blue House.
I will read poetry and breathe in the warm air of Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.
I will pay attention to the world around me and I will see what comes to me.
I will fill the well.
As storytellers, we need to tend to our spirit.
All people need to do this, of course. But I think especially those who create. Who strive to see and to understand and to carry forth that individual vision to others. I think this tending of our spirit as well as the tending of the body help us to do as Georgia O’Keeffe admonishes us – to “keep our vision clear”.
Many of us go into the dark for our work.
We must find ways to tend to our own wounds, so they don’t cloud the work.
And we must find ways to balance our lives so that when the work is rocky – we are not taken down by it.
We lose so many to despair.
My hope for you is that you find your way through it to the other side.
…and through it
…and through it
…and through it again.
That you always have the courage and the strength to start again. To continue to work.
Now… this is to be a practical session on craft, so we best do some crafting.
I want to do a thing, take you on a bit of journey right now – a guided visualization if you will. There’s someone I’d like you to meet who will offer you far far better advice than I ever could on how to survive as a story-teller.
Don’t worry, it’s not too hippy-dip or anything, just a wee romp through our imagination. It isn’t very long, so if there are those among us who DETEST this sort of thing, I’d encourage you to give it a whirl if you can, or just sit and relax while the rest of us take a little trip.
Here’s a recording of the guided visualization I created for the writers attending Writing North 5. It runs just over 14 minutes.
Get comfortable and listen in – if you’d like.
It was, of course, your Self that you found at the end of the path. Your inner story-teller or guide or highest wisest self. Your muse — whatever you would like to call her.
And I honestly think that it is within that each of us will find the best tips on how to survive.
All we need do is make the time to listen.
To find a way to shut out the constant NOISE from outside and truly listen to that still small voice inside each of us.
So that’s my thing.
To review… these are my 5 main survival tips….
- Find good teachers (and your tribe) Gather with these ones often
- Find the balance and seek out ways to tend your soul and body and mind – stay healthy, including making a file “for the dark times” that you can pull out and review when you fall into despair
- Do your own work – not comparing yourself to others
- Listen to your Self
- Keep going – always. Get up, shake it off, and start again.
Big big thanks to the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild and the University of Saskatchewan for inviting me to town for Writing North 5.
Being among you was a boon and a blessing for me.
Go easy ~p