I love the mystery of the sudden flashback. You know, that long-forgotten moment that pops into consciousness, seemingly unprovoked. I often I wish I could go back over my thought process in a backward time-lapse so that I can figure out what exactly it was that brought the memory about. Most times it remains a mystery, though I’m certain there’s some reason my brain is illuminating that random moment at that particular time.
This whole thing is the most captivating aspect of memoir writing to me – digging up these moments that are tucked into corners of the brain and working out why they stayed in there, and connecting them all together to determine how they form something of a road map in the development who the person is today.
I digress. The point is it happened the other night. We’re watching TV and out of nowhere I’m recalling sitting in Mrs. Salisbury’s grade one classroom and we’re all drawing landscapes with crayons. And we’re colouring our clouds blue. It must have been a six-year-old “thing.” Maybe we were just too lazy to colour in the expanse of the sky so we were indicating the blueness of it by colouring the smaller bits because it was faster.
I remember, too, Mrs. Salisbury, questioning this convention. “Look out the window! Clouds aren’t blue!”
“She’s right” thought the little kid who simply hated to get things wrong in front of people. And forevermore the little kid coloured the sky blue around the white, sometimes grey clouds.
So I get wondering, was I remembering an early lesson in critical thinking? Or was it a lesson in social conformity? Because it’s fun to imagine what that teacher would have said if we were, say, painting our clouds in rainbows or purple plaids or orange polka dots or fiery flames. Would she admire our creative expression? Or would she say “clouds are not plaid!”
It seems the universe wanted me to give more thought to the life lesson question, because the very next morning I open up the “365 Days of Flow” inspirational app on my iPad to find this little image:
Mrs. Salisbury was a teacher; without a doubt she was trying to get us to think critically and draw what we see. And I’d hope that she’d be glad to know I developed some really good critical skills. But what the grown up me also knows is that artists are both critical thinkers AND innovators who express things in new and individual ways.
That girl who still hates to get things wrong needs to be reminded, often it seems, that creative expression is never “wrong.” It is fun, experimental, relaxing, illuminating, challenging, rewarding and meditative. And none of those things is ever wrong.
And I can say with absolute certainty that when my grandchildren show me their drawings, I’m gonna say, “look at those fabulous blue clouds!” And we’ll find other things at which to hurl our critical skills. Like Disney movies.
It's rainy and blustery here, but nothing serious so far. The sky doesn't give any indication of the size of that cloud formation, which swirls over a large part of the Atlantic and a significant part of America.
I'm itching to get home tonight, but I stop and think about how small I am, how small my city is, in relation to that cloud.
This post is dedicated to my most recent Creative Non-fiction class, who I'll be saying farewell to soon. I've always used photography as a metaphor for writing in my classes, particularly this semester, during which I have also been carrying out my 365 photo project. Following is some of that waxing metaphorical about some very common writerly issues:
(My apologies to professional photographers everywhere. But you get the picture.)
1. A photographer creates images on paper. A writer creates images in a reader’s mind. That’s why all the writing teachers always say, show it don’t tell it. Have faith in the reader to see the images you’re creating.
2. The best photographs, like the best stories, don’t have unnecessary stuff in them. Once a photography teacher I had said: “You line up your shot, and then you take everything out of it, one by one, until the picture doesn’t make sense any more. Then you put that last thing back in and shoot.” When you’re telling a story, you’re creating those mind images, and you want to take out the stuff that might be cluttering them because it’s cumbersome. If something isn’t essential to the story; if it doesn’t move the story along in some way, take it out.
3. If the focus isn’t clear, it’s not a good picture. Do you know what your story is about? Are you sure? Can you say what it's about in one sentence? If you don’t have a clear idea as to what the point of your story is, you might end up putting a lot of that extra stuff in it and it won’t be clear in your reader’s mind either.
4. The simplest of photographs can have tremendous impact, just like simple language and uncomplicated sentences. Just like taking out the extra stuff, you want to take out unnecessarily fancy words and convoluted sentences. If you use simple language almost all of the time, that one fancy word or complicated sentence used on just the right occasion, will have much more impact.
5. Zoom in close; it’s all in the details. If you resort to generalizations, clichés, worn phrases, wagonloads of adjectives and adverbs, and assuming that your reader will know exactly what you mean when you say things like “and so forth” or "this or that" or what you are implying by ellipses at the ends of sentences… you’re falling into the trap of writerly laziness. Get in close with lots of detail, and the pictures you create will be much more interesting.
6. When you’re zooming in, look for story elements that provide interest, such as colour, textures, layers, lines, perspective, movement, life, light and emotion. A good photograph conveys multiple dimensions. So should a story.
7. A photographer doesn’t have to stand there and explain her picture before an audience can appreciate it. Similarly, it’s usually best for a writer to jump straight into scene rather than explaining all the background up front. Scenes are much more interesting than background. There are ways to weave in necessary explaining stuff later; and sometimes it isn’t necessary at all. A little mystery never hurt anybody and it might even make a story more enticing.
8. A photographer carries his camera everywhere because he knows that opportunity can present itself anywhere. A writer carries a notebook with him wherever he goes because he knows that ideas weave in and out of the consciousness all day long, and a really great idea could be gone in a moment. A photographer acts on sudden inspiration. So should a writer.
9. Just as a photographer takes hundreds of pictures in the hopes that one or two of them might be really wonderful, a writer writes a lot. Like a photographer who plays with angles and depth of field and lighting, the writer experiments, tries new things, gets outside her comfort zone, plays with language and style. I go on and on about journaling in my classes because the number one way to write better is to write a lot.
10. A photographer is always scanning for subjects. Her eyes are always searching for interesting shapes, nuances, forms, colours – everything is a potential shot. Similarly, writer is always scanning for the story. “Look at your world through the writer’s eyes” I tell every single class. Inspiration doesn’t rain on you magically, you have to pay attention.
Frank sat at the edge of my class near the door, a row behind everybody else. That wasn’t unusual; in the space of a classroom – churches and restaurants too – lots of people feel more comfortable sitting at the perimeter of the room. And in the Continuing Education realm, people enter the class with all manner of experience with writing groups, often no experience at all, so it’s not uncommon either that some folks rear up like a deer in headlights when I provide the structure of the lessons, particularly the story circle which makes up the latter half of every class.
The story circle, in which the writers read aloud the product of the past week’s labours, can cause fear to strike down like lightning. It’s like having to give a speech but WORSE! You’re being asked to share your art. Your baby. This thing you’re compelled to make even though you feel like a big fake and it’s all folly and if you share it with other people everyone will look upon you as the ridiculous fraud you feel you are.
When learning of the story circle aspect of the class, Frank pretty much said, “I’m not doing that.” His face said it first and he upheld that decision his face made for the rest of the twelve weeks.
Of course I’m not going to force anybody to read their stories. I know of that fear. I know of that wanting to hold my creations close to me where I know nobody will hurt them and ridicule them and look upon me with pity and say “Look at her, sad thing, thinks she’s a WRITER.”
But I also know what it feels like to release my art to a supportive family, and the importance of doing that in the creative process – how it builds in one the courage to try new, reveal more. I held out hope that Frank would change his mind because it’s never failed that each class does become a family, always generous with encouragement and support. And it never fails that I see the gratitude and sense of exhilaration washing over writers when they have shared a piece. I hear it in their sometimes shaky voices, see it in their often trembling hands as they hold their pages; I feel it lingering, palpable like heartbeats, after the last sentence has been delivered.
One day Frank thrust an envelope at me – it contained a stack of memoir stories from his childhood. “They’re just a bunch of crap” he said, “but will you have a look?” It was a memoir class and I think he was hoping some of them would do for the assigned writings.
They were so not crap. The stories were engaging and lively and full of movement and the memoir writer’s goldmine – “moments.” They reminded me of one of my writerly heroes, Roddy Doyle who has so beautifully captured the perspective of a child. I’d been reading them on the subway that subsequent week and met up with my sister after work one night for dinner on a patio, and handed her the stories to look at while I visited the restroom to freshen up. She shared my enthusiasm for them and read some of the passages aloud in character as we sat there waiting for our salads.
My reaction to the stories wasn’t enough to convince Frank to read any of what he still called “crap” in class, but he did eventually concede to have one of his peers read aloud another story of his. She was a beautiful and elegant orator, and read his story with reverence. And even though she was so different from Frank, so far from his personal aspect, when she finished the group let go approving outbursts and applause. That remains a seminal writing teacher moment.
Another of those seminal moments occurred recently when Frank showed up on Facebook with a professional photograph and images of his published book, Our Land is the Sky – a series of stories about a family of crows he wrote for his grandson, which I had enjoyed in their draft stages.
He sent me a copy of the book and that up there is what he wrote inside. It represents a validation of all the reasons I work to encourage people to tell their stories, even though I have to do it outside my day job, and sometimes I complain about having to read yet one more story. That up there is the payback. Riches.
Keep telling the stories Frank, I know there are a lot more in there.
And if you have a little story lover in your life, why not put the stories about Jimmy Fastwing under the Christmas tree? Click on the images below to find out where you can get a copy. You won't be disappointed.
"I don't want to analyze myself or anything, but I think, in fact I know this to be true, that I enter the world through what I write. I grew up believing, and continue to believe, that I am a screw-up, that growing up with my family and friends, I had nothing to offer in any conversation. But when I started writing, suddenly there was something that I brought to the party that was at a high-enough level." —Aaron Sorkin
Believe in yourself and believe in love. Love something. We’ve got to learn to love something deeply. I think it’s love. It sounds sentimental as hell, but I really think it is. To paint a leaf, or a twig, or a piece of dung from a horse, it doesn’t matter; the shadow it casts can be wonderful.
Andrew Wyeth (the Wisdom project)
Wisdom isn't an old guy on the top of a mountain with a loin-cloth and waist-length hair. Wisdom isn't an answer. Wisdom is a question. I went to see a shrink once. And I was so disappointed that the shrink didn't have a big bag of answers. I came to be very grateful for it later, that what they have is a big bag of questions. You have the answers. Wisdom is the constant questioning of where you are.
Exploring a few more questions:
What is the simplest truth you can express in words?
All we have is now.
If you had to teach something, what would you teach?
I actually learned how to teach because there was an idea that so inspired me I had to teach it – that we all have stories to tell, and all those stories are important.
With the growth of mass media/communications in the last century came the subsequent explosion of targeted messaging, public relations, spin and the manipulation of information in general, and we seem to be subjected to versions of “reality” that are increasingly narrowed, ironically. If we all told our own stories from the perspectives of our own personal windows on the world, we might use our own critical skills and reject certain “realities” being constructed by those with louder voices and taller platforms.
So, I did it. I learned how to teach so I could encourage people to tell their own stories.
What is the most defining moment of your life thus far?
There are a few. My interest in memoir and personal stories has caused me to examine these at length; for people who write in this vein, these moments – the points at which everything changes and nothing is ever the same again – are a goldmine to explore. Here’s one I tell to most of my classes at some point in the semester:
I went to university when I was 30. I was in the process of ending my marriage, and my girls were still really young. All my life I’d been called an underachiever in school; that my output was not reflective of my abilities. I just wasn’t that interested in some of the subjects, and my brain refused to process others – usually those involving numbers and equations. Many years later I would learn about the concept of learning styles, and that the way curriculum was disseminated in the 60s and 70s didn’t much accommodate mine. I’m not here to throw blame – I just didn’t bother corralling my mind and imagination within the walls of the classroom; I got by as a mediocre student, and that was good enough for me.
It is with this background I find myself in an English class, a few weeks into my first semester of university. I am in a class with a bunch of kids that got to university because they got good grades in high school. I am there because as a “mature student” they had to let me in.
So I’m sitting there in misery because we’re about to get back our first papers. I submitted a critical analysis of a William Faulkner short story which I am sure is a piece of crap; I am certain Professor Long will call me aside after and ask me what in heaven’s name am I thinking in hanging about these halls that were built for academic types, not underachievers like me.
Before handing back the papers, Long begins to write a breakdown of the grades on the board; first he writes down the letters A through F and under each the number of students who got that grade. I believe he is trying to illustrate that most everyone did badly, to ease the shock of those grades at the tops of those papers. There is one A, a couple of B’s, several C’s, lots of D’s and one F – which I am convinced is mine. In my head I’m making plans for quitting this nonsense and getting on with my life without a degree. I’m not one of these people.
While I consider hightailing it out the door and avoiding the humiliation altogether, my paper is dropped in front of me and at the top of it is the A. I’m in danger of hyperventilating, and I leave the room to collect myself in the hall while all the complaining smart kids are standing around Professor Long’s desk seeking some sort of explanation as to these foreign looking letters at the tops of their pages.
Ken Long would go on to shine light on more understandings that year, but this moment was the first time I understood that knowledge comes not only with study, but also with living. That my own critical perspective has weight and value. It was at that moment that the concept of lifelong learning, and idea that education could have something in it for me, revealed itself like the proverbial clap of thunder. I left that room feeling considerably more valuable as a human than I did when I walked in.
Another ten years down the road I would go on to pursue another degree in adult education because I wanted to share this type of experience. If I could make learning experiences a fraction as meaningful as Ken Long did for me, I will have made a difference in my little corner of the world. And what more could one ask for?
Is there such a thing as perfect?
I like to think that it’s imperfections that make the world and its people interesting and beautiful. In fact, I think “perfection” is a dangerous concept. Who’s to say how perfect is defined? By its implication, everything considered not perfect is somehow lesser than the thing labelled perfect by the person who has somehow acquired the right to name it so. We’ve all got a lifetime of experiences, beliefs, understandings that would cause us to see a thing in a different way, and what if we don’t see it the same way as that person who labels a thing perfect? Does that automatically render us imperfect?
It seems I’ve written myself into a theme here. You know that “A” paper I wrote about above? It was technically an A-. Not perfect, and yet the most beautiful thing I had seen in a very long time. Let’s call it beautiful thing number 35.
I came across a bunch of thought provoking questions, which I thought would be great way to reflect via some blog posts during this week leading up to the aforementioned LANDMARK BIRTHDAY. Some of the questions are “meaning of life” kinds of things, others get you probing who you are and what makes you do the things you do. Some are very simple – although I do believe a simple and fast answer to a seemingly simple question can bring sometimes astounding and often deep answers.
Mostly I just think it will be a fun way to check into who this gal has become as she rounds 50, and maybe (hopefully) illustrate some of the things I’ve actually learned over these 50 years.
(I’m not going to tag you as one would do in your standard meme; but I would love to hear your answers to any of the questions – whether in the comments or on your own blogs. If you're so inclined – tag yourself!)
What does love feel like?
What made you smile this week?
What are your favourite simple pleasures?
Hanging laundry on the line. Clean sheets. Open windows. That first sip of coffee. Walking. The smell of dirt in spring. Rainy days. Lilacs. The smell of the woods. Barbeques.
What is your fondest memory from the past three years?
It has to be this party.
What book has had the greatest influence on your life?
If I had to narrow it down to one, I think it would be The Secret Garden. Certainly the first time I encountered that story I wouldn’t have known of the lessons inherent in it: that in the natural world one finds healing and true meaning in our existence; and that nurturing things/people outside yourself brings is what brings true happiness and fulfillment; and that beauty invites spiritual awareness and growth.
But now, having read that story a number of times over my lifetime, it's clear that my perspective and understanding of all these things is a major force in how I view the world, and how take meaning from my life and what’s happened in it. Occasionally, in my denseness, I need to re-visit these lessons – but they are lessons that I know deep within me. That story, The Secret Garden, beautiful thing number 34.