I’ve been needing a creative kick in the pants. More, a swift kick in the creative pants.
And I’ve been giving lots of thought to this blog and what I want to do with it. I suppose part of that is the time of year, this time of birth and renewal, and most of us start to think about change naturally. But I’ve been feeling a little stuck here; losing motivation for participation in the blog world.
Not long ago I protested to my lovely friend Susan that I don’t participate in blogging as a social networking forum; that I wish this to be a creative endeavour – to improve my writing, to become braver about what I put out there, and to foster my creative perspective. But all that can’t be entirely true because blogging is a social endeavour by its nature. And oh I love the friends I’ve made here; you’ve all enriched my world, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
But it is like minds I seek in the comments section, not numbers. I’ve had lots of fun participating in blog challenges; and it has found me some of YOU, but it also turned me off to one element of blogging – in that many people dart in and out of other’s writings to make a quick, superficial comments, just for the sake of making an appearance. And for the higher count in your comments section you’re obliged pay the person back by visiting them and adding to their numbers. After a period of that, the numbers just didn’t mean anything to me anymore.
Having said all that, I do want to come back and visit you more, and find more of you. Things distracted me this year. A new job in a new industry, which required lots of learning and new commitments. And later in the year a new man. Things with him have settled into something warm and comfortable; a kind of matured happy that accommodates me sitting in the same room with him and being able to sit at my computer and write. Like now.
If I were to listen to myself when I offer advice to others about how to kick-start creativity, I would say “journal more. Just journal. Get the moments down, write with no mind to 'good' or 'clever.' Just let go of the need to be good."
I’ve never lost inspiration – I still find that everywhere; and so it seems natural that I have been thinking about expressing that in a new way. It’s my resistance from making a commitment that has stopped me from full out beginning a 365 Project. But here I am, committing: a photo a day for 365 days.
I’ve always loved taking pictures, and occasionally I can produce a pretty good shot. I take lots of photos these days, mostly thanks to a half decent phone camera. Sometimes I take pictures to help me find the appropriate words later. Sometimes I just like an image and can't articulate why. Or I take a picture because I don't want to forget a moment. Sometimes there are just no words.
So I have given birth to a new, sub-blog of sorts – a photo journal – my 365 project. In keeping it separate from this blog, I hope to better sustain the focus for both. This space will still be dedicated to the story, and my endeavouring to become better at telling one. The photo journal is more for me; going public keeps one accountable. It’s a forum in which I can write bad sentences and post shitty photos (and hopefully some good ones!) and just record my daily comings and goings for a year.
So it’s not so much a change for this blog, but just adding a new project on the side. Getting back to journaling without mind to how the writing sounds, to it being clever or interesting, will improve the original project. Of that I have no doubt.
My Photo Journal is found here: 365 Project: Photo Journal
I am pretty much relentless in preaching the benefits journaling in every class I teach. Journaling is a fundamental tool for lifelong learners, writers, artists, teachers and people in general.
If you want to see things more clearly, write about the things you see in a journal. If you want to be transformed by the things you learn, reflect on what that learning has to do with you in a journal. If you want to foster the creative process, write freely in a journal. If you want to improve your writing and communication skills, write in a journal regularly. If you want to re-discover your authentic self – well, you know what to do.
Journaling makes you more aware, it causes you to focus on what’s going on within and around you and to think more critically. Journaling teaches you to write and think freely, and therefore enhances creativity and opens your mind to alternative ideas and options. If you journal, you are more likely to be aware of, and act upon, the hundreds of fleeting ideas and inspirations that thread in and out of your consciousness every day.
If you are aware of the things that inspire you, you are more likely to seek them out; you are more likely to gravitate to the things, people and situations that fulfil you.
This morning it’s deeply overcast; one of those rainy mornings when you wish it was Saturday but it’s really Thursday and so you drag yourself out of bed, late, and don’t care about what the clock says because everybody is late on a rainy day.
The atmosphere has an indigo-charcoal cast and soft, smoky clouds are obscuring the tops of the buildings. It’s warmer than usual and it’s raining lightly but it seems like the rain is coming down hard because of the thrusting winds.
I walk outside and one of those winds sweeps up smacks me wet in the face and so I look at the streetcars approaching the stops outside my building. One going east to Union Station would be a relatively fast ride, and then I could navigate my way through the station and walk the underground malls all the way to my office. I’m gauging the favourableness of that as opposed to the 25 minute blustery rainy walk when I get a look at the steamy windows of the streetcars and I think about the vacant, rude, blackberry punching humanity crammed inside, and that times a hundred teeming through Union Station, and I open up my polka dotted umbrella and tilt it into the wind and walk up into Spadina Avenue for my journey north-east to work.
Right away I smell the rain on the city and I’m glad I’ve chosen the walk, even though gusts blow up one side of me and down the other and I’m hanging on to my umbrella wrestling it back to its job. I get up to Front Street and other people are wrestling their umbrellas too and some are crouched up tight in their hoods and scarves. On King Street the streetcars are glistening behind the swishing windshield wipers and the streets are shining under the rain and the clouds seemed to have sunk down to encompass the coffee shops too.
I get close to Bay Street amidst all the suits and black umbrellas and while I’m waiting for a light I imagine all of those bankerly types suddenly swooping up into the air like the would-be nannies in Mary Poppins, high heels flying off and scarves fluttering; and I imagine them flipping and whirling, getting smaller as they move off past the cloud draped buildings and over the lake toward Niagara Falls.
I get to my office with mashed up hair and a runny nose and I prop my dripping umbrella next to my desk and get myself a cup of jasmine flavoured tea and know that my wet ankles will dry before long.
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’m flying. I’m landing. Skittering along; halting to find I’m the wrong way around.
I’m floating. Above life looking down. I’m on the edge, a precipice with one foot hanging over, saying it’s going to go. Inviting, welcoming the rest of me to come along. Fall or fly? Still, I saw at the chains that hold me there.
I’m waiting. Waiting and moving. Moving around on the set of another play. Other characters are giving me cues but these are not my lines and I fumble them and the audience is not amused.
I’m watching. The clock. An extra hour we’ve been given this week but in the middle of the night as I’m rehearsing the lines it’s a long, heavy hour mocking me there.
I’m heavy. Heavy, floating, slow across the stage. Waiting for sleep but that damn clock mocks.
There has been a soft rain falling off and on since last night, and as I walk to work under the heavily overcast skies this morning everything is glistening luminous under the dim light; the pavement a wet black canvas painted here and there with splashes of colour reflecting the city pulsing above it.
Earlier, I lay in bed watching the sky through a gap in the curtain, thinking I was as reluctant to come to wakefulness as that sky was. Last night’s rain capped a gorgeous, warm and sunshiny Sunday – that kind of weekend day you look upon as a gift at any time of year, but particularly this one. The day was gentle; I walked and shopped and puttered around my home, and later my table housed a big pot of vegetable barley soup and toasted rosemary bread and warm company and suddenly I find myself in deep autumn with not a little pleasure.
The slowed pace amidst the low clouds and glistening streets extends that autumnal comfort even on a Monday morning. Once upon a time when I was a driver on the highway trying to get to work in mornings like this, I would curse at the way even a soft rain like this would slow everything down. Now I feel lucky to be able to find pleasure in the slowed pace of a city under a rain. It wasn’t all contentment – I wanted to walk right past my office and spend the morning in it.
I’m not sure I’ll move so peacefully into winter, but who knows? Maybe I just need to learn to carry with me in my mind the gentleness of a rainy morning.
The other evening I’m walking home. It’s not late but it’s after dark. I look unremarkable in Monday office wear – the kind of clothes you drag yourself into in that seven o’clock Monday morning sigh. I haven’t washed my hair, it looks unremarkable too. I’m wearing a casual fleece jacket over top of the Monday office clothes and a favourite scarf in reds and greens. If anything, the colours of the red jacket and scarf are the only things not unremarkable about my aspect on an autumn Monday evening in which I just want to get home.
I’m walking fast. At that time of the evening, the office tower crowds have left the sidewalks and got onto their trains and I’m free to hoof it as fast as a like. I cut down from King Street and through a parking lot and round south onto Blue Jays Way and as I get around the corner a young guy materializes on my left jolting me to awareness with a sudden “WOW.”
“Wow!” he exclaims again, beholding me with his arms held out at his sides.
I’m not particularly surprised, there are animated people everywhere in the city, and I give him the, albeit amused, attention he’s looking for without breaking my stride. He beholds my unremarkable aspect, held to his spot by some perceived marvellousness.
“You look GREAT!” he says, maintaining a respectful distance and I don’t feel threatened by him. I smirk, to let him know I’m on to his play for a handout or a trick even. He backs off a little, acting bowled over by the aspect of me:
“The way you rounded that corner, that was gorgeous!”
I don’t break my stride but I give him a little laugh, appreciating his original delivery but I’m not falling for it and I’m not going to give him any money.
As I walk south toward home, I carry with me the enjoyment of his in-the-moment earnestness, and what seemed to me an artistic perspective of an otherwise unremarkable woman rounding a corner in a red jacket and pretty scarf.
And I wonder if, really, he maybe did see something in that woman that betrayed recent events he couldn’t have known about; those kind that, despite her unremarkable approach to Monday‘s workday in a city office, had her feeling just as beautiful as the person he created in his clever appeal.
Wherever it came from, the fella's creative perspective is beautiful thing number seventy.
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.
Gordon Pinsent, I mean.
The weekend was like the most spectacular gift the gods of late summer could muster: sunshiny, clear, breezy and free of commitment. It was the kind of weekend that enveloped me in its wide, generous arms and wouldn't let go. And I was happy to stay there and honour its whims. It was two days of hanging out in the harbour – people watching, reading, photographing, feeling the sun and relishing the freedom.
None of my attempts to photograph the light on the lake can capture how spectacular it looks – like billions and billions of floating diamonds shining so bright they hurt my eyes.
Me and a strawberry ice cream cone wander into a crowd of chuckling people to find a busker riding the smallest bicycle in the world. Just beyond, a lady dressed in officy looking gear hobbles in painful looking high heels and sips from a giant can of Sapporo beer.
In the middle of one meandery walk I sit on a bench under a tree, and the feeling of the breeze on my skin is like swaths of silk being trailed across it. A man sits next to me and we both try to capture photographs of greedy squawking seagulls going after bits of bread being thrown into the water by some girls. His camera is much more impressive than mine, and I soon give up on the birds and try out some shots of peoples’ feet and legs as they walk by.
I loll on the grass and flip pages of a magazine while I watch the action on the water. People crowding around the perimeters of tour boats and sailing ships. Others kayaking and canoeing toward the island. Sailboats leaning deep in the wind. Plane after plane setting down into the airport.
Sunday, Carly texts me from the baseball game and says she will come down and meet me after. We have a beer next to the bandshell and we’re glad we don’t have to listen to the bad girly hip hop music for too long. Kelsey texts and she’s coming down too so we plan a simple meal and buy a bottle of wine and go back to my place.
We eat baguette with olive oil and fresh grated parmesan and black pepper and we catch up on our news and plans. We admire the colour in our meal: red field tomatoes, yellow corn on the cob, orange and red peppers, green asparagus. We think the corn might be the best we’ve had this season. Later Carly takes off to go meet up with some friends and Kelsey and I finish the wine. I walk out with her to meet the streetcar, and then walk down by the water to try and hang on to that last few minutes of the weekend, feeling thankful for the spontaneous summer supper with my girls.
It’s the kind of weekend that sets you right again. I’m facing Monday with a deeper suntan and a rested mind. And it wasn’t until it the weekend was over that I realised just how much I needed those two days of glorious late summer and doing nothing in particular with them.