I’m celebrating all the women in my life today, particularly my daughters and my nieces. In Canada, the theme for International Women's Day and Week 2011 is Girls' Rights Matter, recognizing the importance of equality and access to opportunity for girls and women, and inviting us to not only reflect on the situation of girls in Canada, but to look beyond our relative privilege at home and recognize the situation of girls around the globe.
I’m filled with gratitude that I could raise my daughters to be educated, independent and strong. To be able to choose careers, to choose partners, to contribute to their communities, to vote and to make their own decisions about their own lives. Compared to many, many young women internationally, they are exceedingly lucky.
When it adopted its resolution on the observance of Women's Day, the UN General Assembly was recognizing that the participation, equality and development of women are fundamental in securing peace, social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights (UN Women Watch). We’ve come a long way. And we’ve got a long way to go to implement meaningful change for all of us, not just us lucky few.
To all the women who have enriched my life with your love, strength, compassion, humour, intelligence, generosity, kinship, support, ideas, knowledge, creativity, silliness, thoughtfulness, awareness, kindness, stubbornness, talent, work and art – you are, collectively, a bright and shining mosaic, and beautiful thing number 22.
The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all. ~Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Leader of Burma's Democracy Movement
I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the personal story these days. Not that such thoughts are exactly new – anyone who’s read the stuff on the other pages of this space will know it’s exactly why I develop and deliver courses in writing stories and why I’m here. But in the past few days I’ve read some stuff by some fellow bloggers who have illustrated again how the personal story can take something – something so big, so out of control that we feel powerless to understand it, let alone do anything about it – and make it, well, understandable. The personal story gives you cause to experience something like, say, a tanked economy or a major flood disaster, through the eyes and mind of the storyteller – and through that experience you find a bit of yourself reflecting back.
Most semesters, I wind up telling my class about a couple of students I had when I worked for a short time in a small private “school” teaching English as a Second Language. Ronaldo* and Michel* were required to spend six hours a day in this little class because they had been injured on the job and were receiving workers’ compensation benefits. In order for these benefits to continue, these guys had to be enrolled in a school like this to learn some alternative skills so that they could go on and find different jobs and get off the benefits.
I can tell you it wasn’t much fun for them. Michel had been in Canada for more than ten years, Ronaldo more than twenty; both employed in labour jobs since soon after their arrival. Ronaldo injured his back when he fell down a hole. He found it difficult to sit in the classroom for six hours a day, and sometimes would take his book to the back of the room and rest it on the top portion of a computer desk so he could stand up during the lesson. Michel had a repetitive stress injury and suffered substantial pain doing small tasks, like writing and using a computer.
They would talk about how they’d loved their jobs. Ronaldo worked in the Public Works department, and he told me he felt such satisfaction when he got ready for work every day. He loved the physical work, the look and feel of the hardhat on his head and the “good” tired he felt when he got home at night. Michel had always felt a great sense of pride in that he came over to Canada alone, worked long enough to eventually send for his family, and ultimately start his own business.
You might, then, imagine how drilling through pages of ESL grammar workbooks every day didn’t mean a whole lot to these guys. Each was competent, intelligent and hardworking, and would have much preferred to be out working than stuck in a classroom plodding through sentence structures and verbs and tenses and collecting compensation benefits. They were allowed a few sick days a year, and no vacation. No vacation. Collecting worker’s compensation benefits precluded them from the meagre two-week vacation the rest of us are allowed by law.
Knowing that adults have meaningful learning experiences only if they are able to apply what is being taught to their own lives and circumstances, I took every chance I got to apply their personal lives to the lessons. Thus I heard many stories – about their favourite meals, fishing and camping trips, family gatherings, soccer matches, weddings, boyhood games and the challenges they faced when they first came over to a new culture.
At the time I was participating in a minor travel writing competition – and it occurred to me that these guys could learn to write English much more effectively if they were writing their own travel stories. At first they said “NO WAY….I don’t have that kind of education….I can’t write a story….I couldn’t even do that in my home language!”
“Pffft” I said.
I assured them that we would work slowly – sentence by sentence. Each would prepare an outline and that turned out to be not so bad. Then they worked one paragraph at a time, present that paragraph on the board, wherein we, as a group, would critique it and make grammatical and spelling corrections.
They were empowered. They found pleasure in it. And then magic happened – both Ronaldo and Michel purposefully went after bringing out the beauty in their minds’ images with techniques that were way ahead of their appointed learning schedule, according to those dreaded workbooks, things like metaphor and symbolic language – naturally and without prodding by me. They closed their eyes, saw the images and put them down on paper. I’ll never forget those images – Ronaldo’s sand that looked and felt like fine sugar, or Michel’s soft moon hanging heavy over the spruce forest. Mostly I won’t forget the pleasure of living the stories through them.
The best thing learned was this: One story, down on paper, meant it belonged out there on the stage with all the others. And after being sequestered in a small classroom to plod through meaningless grammar lessons as though they were being imprisoned and punished for their chance injuries, these guys managed to turn the language into something that mattered to them.
I had to leave this job not long after because it just didn’t pay me enough to live on, and I’d found another one that did. But I’ll never forget Ronaldo and Michal for showing me what I’d sensed all along – that personal stories are not only important documents of the lives of people and their families, but they invite us to look at ourselves and others and find elements of our experiences that are shared. I suppose that’s the humanity part – there even when we’re seemingly worlds apart.
*Ronaldo and Michel are pseudonyms.
Today was the next-to-last class for the current run of my Creative Non Fiction course. I don’t talk much about my classes here. That’s because for any person taking a writing (or any kind of art) class, there is a level of personal risk invested. For lots of people, just signing up for a class like this requires a measure of courage. Whatever kind of art you make, it’s part of you. And when you share that art or even your own special process of making it, that’s like baring a part of yourself for what is to you, scrutiny and judgement. My job as facilitator is to create a safe space in the hopes that people will take those kinds of risks and take their art to a new level. I like to think of those classrooms as a nest: where ideas are born and fostered, where the world is not allowed in until those ideas are let loose to fly.
I know what the rewards are for anyone who dares tell a story, that’s why I do it. And being able to participate in the unfolding of a story is a greater gift than its new (or old) writer could ever know.
If I’m honest, after twelve weeks I am looking forward to getting Saturdays back for awhile. But, as always, I’m also thinking I’m really going to miss spending Saturdays with a group of people who have grown and evolved into something very special. Kind of like a snowflake – most beautiful and utterly unique. Today I’m feeling like I’ve grown a bit more, and that I’ve got an even greater appreciation for the story than I did when I came in. Each person in this class has contributed a little bit more to who I am – as a faciliator, and as a person. I couldn’t be more grateful.
This post was inspired by one of my favourite blogger pals Steve “Little Hat” of My Missing Life, and some questions he put to me the other morning right after I posted the Princess story. He had noted that I had posted in early morning, before I’d be going to work, and wondered about my writing habits/discipline, as he, like many, many creative people, is struggling with finding time and motivation make his art happen.
There was a time more than ten years ago that I sat on a bus in downtown Detroit and, for the first time, called myself a writer in my head. I can remember the moment clearly. We had just come through the tunnel and turned off Jefferson Ave. on to Beaubien St. and I looked out the window and said to myself, “I’m a writer.”
I’d been fighting against a crippling creative block for 20 or so years, and it suddenly occurred to me that the most effective thing I could do to facilitate the writing process was to simply open the door and let the writer in. My thinking was that there wasn’t going to be any writing happening if my thought process grew out of ideas like: “one day I’ll be a writer,” or “I’d sure like to write a story about that someday,” or “I love to imagine myself as a writer,” or “I dabble…”
That little moment of affirmation, if you want to call it that, didn’t solve my creative block issues, but it set me on a new and more clearly lit path on which to move forward. It motivated me, instilled in me some sense of responsibility for what I wanted to accomplish, and it made me look at the world in a new way and find inspiration everywhere. And now, every single time I teach a class, there is a “put your writer’s hat on / call yourself a writer” lesson.
In a recent class we were talking about writing strategies, where and when we write, and when we find ourselves most productive. I talked about what many famous writers call the golden rule: sit down and write; make yourself “office hours” and keep them, even if no writing comes of it (but it usually will).
I’m all for that, but I can’t work that way. It all sounds sensible – everyone knows the story of John Grisham and how he got up at an ungodly hour and wrote fiction every morning before he went to his day job as a lawyer. I am, simply, not that regimented. I too have a day job with defined office hours and frankly, that alone goes against every grain of how I operate internally, but that’s another blog post. I think if I tried to conform to having more office hours on top of that, my head might pop off.
My way of accomplishing writing is sort of akin to something John Irving said:
The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything.
This is not to say John Irving wouldn’t keep office hours, he’s a much disciplined writer. But the important thing for me is that ever since that day I looked out the window on the bus and called myself a writer, I BECAME a writer and writing became something I do all the time. Sometimes that involves a pencil, sometimes a computer, sometimes my head, sometimes a paintbrush or a hunk of clay, or the proverbial scribbles on the proverbial napkin, or text messages to myself as I sit in the middle of a meeting, or during quiet times at work… writing happens all the time. Writing has got itself into all the nooks and crannies of my life.
I do make an effort to limit the distractions. Us bloggers, just by the nature of our forum face a world of distractions in our social media worlds. And then there’s that little thing called LIFE. Relationships, homes, jobs, activities, exercise, eating, socialising, appointments… But having called myself a writer all those years ago – writing has fit itself in and amongst all these things.
I told my class that day that, because of my creative block issues, I’ve had to trick myself into releasing creativity. I am most productive (and inspired) when I’m in public facing all kinds of distractions: in restaurants, streets, stores and as my regular readers know, on public transit. Writing for me is messy and unfettered, kind of like my head (and heart).
The particular post Steve commented on? I didn’t get up at an ungodly hour to write it. I wrote it partially in my head as the story unfolded (because I was stupidly not carrying a notebook); partially at home, just getting the important parts down but because I was too tired to make it comprehensible; and made it publishable in the morning. This post was done much the same way. That’s my messy process. It’s not what I would call the “right” way, but it’s a way that works for me.
Now you. When do you do it? Do you have a process? Do you keep hours? Does it flow like honey? Or do you have to wrestle it down ‘til it cries “I give up?” How did you find your process? Was it a reinvention of yourself, or was it a natural progression of who you were in the first place?
It's International Literacy Day today. This is a re-post of a piece I did a year ago. I hope you'll read it and think about how lucky you are to be able do so.
I teach creative writing courses in a continuing education department of a college. Most would consider these to be “special interest” courses, which people take for enjoyment. And that’s great – one of the reasons I teach these courses is because I enjoy it.
But there is another really big reason I do it. It’s because I believe that lifelong learning is a fundamental right of every human being, and that lifelong learning makes better citizens, communities and countries. I teach courses because I want to help people achieve that feeling of satisfaction and power I get when I expand my own knowledge. When a learner says to me “I’ve changed because of this course” the sense of gratification I feel in having engendered, just a little, someone’s personal growth and the power they feel at having told a story is enormous.
But adult learning is so much more than that which I promote in my own little world. According to UNESCO, one in five adults is not literate. Two-thirds of those adults are women. 75 million children on this planet are not in school. You want to talk about how literacy is about personal empowerment and human development?
Then think about what it means that that 776 million adults lack minimum literacy. It means that 776 million people lack the skills necessary to overcome poverty. 776 million people lack access to information about how to take care of themselves and their children, about how to find help and support, how to achieve gender equality and how to carry out sustainable development so they can support themselves and their communities. Literate parents raise literate children. People who are literate participate more in their communities and they make their voices heard through actions – like voting.
And just as literacy is a tool of personal empowerment and human development – illiteracy is a tool of oppression and domination. We all know the Taliban work hard to oppress and dominate by withholding education. It’s not a new idea – it’s been going on for centuries, and continues around the globe.
Today is International Literacy Day. Stop for a few minutes and think about what literacy means in your world. What your access to education and information affords you and those around you. Think about what it means as you sit at that computer, accessing and contributing to the world of ideas and information on the World Wide Web.
Think about the sheer courage that girl in Afghanistan must drum up just to go to school in the morning because she probably heard stories about angry dudes throwing acid the faces of girls who go to school. Think about your laid-off neighbour who is suddenly faced with navigating the “information society” for a job his high school education didn’t equip him for all those decades ago. Think about your new neighbour who has escaped an oppressive regime but lacks the language skills to read a simple street sign, a carton of milk, a prescription bottle or the newspaper.
And maybe instead of buying coffee at Starbucks this week, give that ten bucks to an organization like this one or this one or one in your community (check your local library), and imagine the possibilities for a world in which 776 million people don’t lack basic literacy skills and have a chance to rise above poverty and oppression. Literacy is power. Share the power.
I’ve had a remarkable week. I’m not new to these expressive arts classes. But I am new to the level and intensity my “expressions” have reached this time out.
Expressive arts is a practice or activity whereby one uses artistic materials and tools from the entire spectrum of the arts, such as words, images, sculpture, dance, song, music, poetry or drama to express ideas. Expressive arts can simply be fun, sometimes personally illuminating activities for people; or with a trained expert such as a therapist, they can be used to promote growth or healing. In this program I’m in, we approach it from the recreational level, but that doesn’t mean some real big things don’t happen. Art is, without a doubt, a powerful explorative tool.
In the classes I’ve taken, people have come to all sorts of emotional and cognitive awareness. Me – I’m in it for a way to enhance my creative writing teaching skills, to come to a greater personal awareness and understanding and to grow, to become freer in my expression, and to simply have fun exercising some creative inclinations.
Usually in these classes, I’m a steady one. That’s because I’m generally pretty steady. I have my demons and skeletons, but I’m really don’t have a need to exercise them in a class like this. I do lots of internal work when I’m here, but I tend to take it, and the ideas I’ve generated and uncovered, home with me to process and work out privately or with people I’m close to.
And that’s okay – it doesn’t make the experience any less meaningful if you don’t have earth shattering revelations. On the other hand, it would do me loads of good, I think, to live more of this stuff out loud, but I think if there’s going to be a giant regurgitation and letting go every piece-of-crap-and-burdensome-weight-and screwedupness – it should probably happen in a therapist’s office. And that, frankly, scares the shit out of me.
This year though – I have become aware of some real changes in me. I can dance and move with pure abandon. I can grab an instrument and play it loud to my own music. And the other day, I became totally and completely engulfed in a poster-sized drawing. The strong, dark strokes energised me and moved me forward. I stood at a table and went after the drawing as if it were the only thing that existed in that moment. I was determined to finish it and yet I still have no idea what it is that will complete it. It's still calling me to finish it.
I rarely draw. I often make dolls, or mandalas. Often I collage. I have not made a drawing as a form of expressive art in years, and even then, they were the least meaningful to me.
Don’t ask me what it means. I don’t know. I need some time alone with it.
But I can say, that to be so lost within a work, so focused on an image creating itself under my hand, was pretty bloody astonishing. And to think I always thought I knew what was up there in my head.
This morning I'm getting ready to head off to Hamilton for one of our monthly writing workshops. I'm not teaching my regular Saturday classes this semester and I'm really missing it. I do have an online class going, but despite the technology available to us, it lacks the interaction and fellowship achieved in an "in-class" setting. So these workshops replace a bit of that for me.
And it's always great to see some of my former class members again and to meet writers from the other courses. I have great respect for all of them, coming out on a winter's day and reading some work to a bunch of strangers. It's one thing writing a story and posting out there on the web – there's a good level of "safe" in that, when the only tangible thing in front of you is a computer screen. It's another thing to sit live with a group of people and read a story in your own voice – to share a very personal thing: your art.
But I can say, through experience, any fear or hesitation is soon replaced with something akin to exhilaration and gratitude. Writing a story is a very personal and introspective, sometimes intense experience. Sharing that work in a safe environment and receiving honest and well-intended feedback from peers is an critical part of the process. It gives you courage and confidence to take creative risks, and it exercises your critical thinking skills, seeing your own work through the eyes of others, and sharing your reaction to theirs.
So here's to today's writers who are coming out to the workshop. I can't wait to hear your stories and to share what little bit I can offer in your writerly growth.
And then I'm off to my sister's for a family dinner and a sleepover. Tomorrow I expect we'll loaf about and watch the last bits of the Olympics, including the biggest event for Canadians, gold medal hockey. Televisions in homes and pubs across the country will be tuned in to that game. And while I'm not a regulary hockey watcher, it's lots of fun to take part in a national nail-biter of an experience.
A few weeks ago I started reading May Sarton's journal, "The House by the Sea." And then I stopped because work happened. Today I picked her up again today and came across this passage:
"I do not believe that keeping a journal is for the young. There is always the danger of bending over oneself like Narcissus and drowning in self indulgence. If a journal is to have any value either for the writer or any potential reader, the writer must be able to be objective about what he [sic] experiences on the pulse. For the whole point of a journal is this seizing events on the wing. Yet the substance will come not from narration but from the examination of experience, and an attempt, at least, to reduce it to essence. Secondly – and this is curious – what delights the reader in a journal is often minute particulars. Very few young people observe anything except themselves very closely. Then the context - by that I mean all that one brings to an experience of reading and thinking and feeling – is apt to be thin for the young. And to get to the nub, I guess what I am suggesting is that rarely is there enough of a self there."
I heartily agree and heartily disagree with Sarton's ideas. Yes, I too believe the job of the journal is not merely that of a vehicle for self absorption. Its job is to facilitate seeing – both behind and beyond the end of one's nose. I truly believe that if you spend time writing what YOU see, you become more compassionate and appreciative of the world you find.
I believe, as Sarton does, the journal is for "siezing events on the wing" and in doing so, we look for the essence and thus the beauty in experience. I don't share, however, her idea that the young are not capable of seeing beyond the ends of their collective noses. I have encouraged my own daughters to journal from the time they could express themselves with a pen, and I have done same with my nieces and nephews. And each one of them exhibits a large and original self as it exists within the big ol' world. And each one of them finds appreciation in those "minute particulars" as Sarton calls them.
Yes – I do believe that with each year on the planet we grow more wise and more appreciative of the small gifts. But the gifts are not just available to the mature. Everyone's story has value – and every child and young person is as deep as a well if we ask them to be. And we would all be well served to remind ourselves of the clarity of vision we once had – which would only strengthen the depth of the knowledge and joy we continue to collect as we walk along this life's journey.
Sure – many youth and young adults are focused on the self. That's because they are looking hard to find that self! Maybe it's our job to foster that seeking rather than tell them there isn't anything worth finding until they have been graced with the gift of years. See, that's the thing about years – each one builds on the last. Each story is a chapter. And the early chapters are setting the stage for all things new and innovative.
Give a kid a journal today. Invite them to "sieze those events on the wing" and search for the essence in each experience. Because from my experience, they're really good at it.
Expressive arts activities scare me. Many of them are derived from psychotherapeutic practices, and those scare the hell out of me. There are certain cans of worms that are just begging to be opened, and I figure if I work with expressive arts activities enough, those cans of worms are eventually going to be opened. As they should I suppose.
People come to expressive arts for lots of different reasons. Some people want to enrich their counselling, healthcare or teaching practices. Others think the arts are a great basis for exploring and expressing the self. And others just want to play and develop the creative process. Some just have things to say, and need to find ways to say them. I want to help people tell their stories, and the expressive arts world offers an abundance of fun and rewarding strategies for enhancing creativity and expression.
To help others utilize expressive arts, for whatever reason, you have to do some of the therapeutic stuff, the internal explorations. For me, that’s always a personal challenge, particularly doing that out loud. In front of people. I’m an avoider – naturally inclined to leave those cans of worms closed. And I’m reserved. I feel quite comfortable expressing myself in writing. It’s safe. It’s solitary. As for the other arts – not so comfortable.
Last week I did some of that work with uncharacteristic courage. I danced without inhibition. I did theatre games without fear. I told stories aloud and be damned my sieve-like memory and drifty focus.
I felt good. I wasn’t tackling nagging cans of worms like some were. I was just doing. Expressing in ways that are usually most uncomfortable for me but this time they weren’t and it felt really good.
And then there was the sand tray.
Sand tray (or sandplay therapy) is best known for its use by psychoanalysts and play therapists in creating a safe “world” in which to symbolically represent one’s internal self. The client will choose from a variety of miniature figures and toys and create a scene or world in a tray of sand. The client and/or the therapist will then interpret what is symbolically represented in the tray. Expressive arts practitioners utilize sand tray for freeing and creating stories, and all the interpreting is left to the person making the world. The expressive arts practitioner may ask questions designed to open or highlight certain elements and/or characters and/or objects in the story.
I’m usually one of the ones who are happy to let others take the “action” role in these types of activities, but when it came time to experiment with the sand tray, I jumped in and said, “this stuff scares me, so I should do it.” I approached the activity with what I thought was a blank slate. I wanted to assemble and place the figures and toys without thought, and come up with a story completely off the cuff, and enjoy playing with my imagination and exercise my [very limited] improv muscles.
As it happened, there was nothing ridiculous about the world I created in the sand tray. The themes are not new. I told an old story of searching. Looking for home. Searching for place, and space and solidness and not finding it.
What’s new is the interpretation. It’s a story is about mindfulness. Being mindful of the things that are driving the search, and recognizing the places you’ve already been so you aren’t walking in circles. It’s not a story about the end, real or anticipated. Really, there’s nothing futile in searching and not finding the pot of gold right away; there is nothing to be gained in trying to see the end before you get there. As I wrote in a story years ago – it’s like jumping to the end of the book, when the story is right here, right now.
Funny, that particular story is one that I told aloud last week. I told that one because I know it, am familiar with it and I could then focus on the challenges of telling of it aloud. That’s what I thought. Uh oh.
On we go, me and my cans of worms. I think it’s time to get off the main road.
To learn more about sand tray, click here:
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.