THIS MATTERS: Colin Thomas has been fired from the Georgia Straight

wuxtry_black“I just got fired from The Georgia Straight,” Colin Thomas (arguably one of the most thoughtful, thorny, and experienced critics in the Vancouver theatre scene) wrote on his blog yesterday morning, “Thirty years. No warning. No compensation.” While Thomas’ higher-ups at the Straight seemed reluctant to give any particulars as to WHY his theatre review services would no longer be needed at the weekly arts and culture paper where Thomas’ writing was the keystone of their theatre section, the feedback he reports to have received hints at a couple of things:

  1. There is pressure at the paper to “find fresh ways to do things” (this is usually a euphemism for “find ways to make more money).
  2. Thomas’ critical reviews, much appreciated by the Vancouver theatre world, have been considered, well, too critical.

This news comes just as I am learning that Maclean’s Magazine (a respected Canadian news magazine to which I have a print subscription) will switch from a weekly print edition to a monthly one. (Meanwhile, Rogers Media, which owns Maclean’s, will keep its low-res, poorly composited entertainment rag Hello! Canada as a weekly publication). Whoever heard of a news magazine that only prints monthly?! Sure, new digital content will be available online each week, but it’s just not the same. The internet is opinion. The internet is this blog post and this blog and the millions  of other blogs where people with something to say and time to say it hammer it out every once in a while. The print edition of Maclean’s is, for the most part, a well-researched, thoughtful, and balanced publication. It is not a blog post. It is a goddamn Canadian institution.

News of Thomas’ ouster also comes as Nick Mount, U of Toronto professor and also (former) editor of fiction at high-brow Canadian magazine The Walrus quits his post over the magazine’s push for more “family-friendly” content in its fiction section. The f*ck? Um….are children reading The Walrus? Are people really worried that a piece of fiction published in THE WALRUS could possibly be more corrupting than the violent porn and hate-filled vitriol literally at the fingertips of every kid with a computer or a wireless device?

All this is to say that this is a sad, and scary, time in Canadian print media. That a theatre reviewer of a major Vancouver arts and culture publication (really, THE theatre reviewer of THE arts and culture publication) can be fired, just like that, for doing their job to the best of their judgement and considerable expertise is nothing short of disturbing. Thomas writes:

Janet [Smith, arts editor at the Straight] also said that “there have been complaints from some companies.” “What complaints?” I asked. “You know: that you never like anything,” she answered with a laugh. I replied that it’s very hard to do good theatre and that I figure, if one show in three is worth recommending, that’s a good average. Then she added that some unnamed complainants feel that I am sometimes too hard on younger artists. (There is nothing I enjoy more than championing younger artists.) She gave an example. It was one of the worst shows of the year.

Thomas isn’t being facetious when he says he enjoys championing young theatre makers. Though generally difficult to please (his presence in an audience makes for a nervous performance, I can tell you), Colin Thomas is notoriously supportive of emerging artists. [Full disclosure: Thomas once reviewed a show I was a performer in (an early version of Chernobyl: The Opera), and called it “most impressive”. A few years later, he reviewed a show I wrote (Olya the Child) and raked it over the coals for being “unrealistic”. Though I disagree on the finer points, overall, he was right on both counts: Chernobyl was solid in both concept and execution, whereas the script I wrote had holes. I had a good cry about it and moved on. Like an adult]. While you might not agree with Thomas’ opinion about a specific show, he isn’t malicious–even when reviewing a total train wreck, he will praise this or that aspect of the production if praise is due. Most theatre artists who have commented on Thomas’ firing on social media, many of whom have been on the receiving end of both positive and negative criticisms, have said his comments have not only helped them to grow as artists but also to learn to handle criticism constructively.

I honestly don’t know what kind of credible arts and culture paper would take complaints about a solid reviewer being “too critical” seriously, and I don’t know what kind of “younger artists” do not yet understand that thick skin is a prerequisite for survival in this very difficult game. Yes, Thomas sometimes misses the mark, and yes, ultimately, his reviews are just his opinions. But they are informed and passionately defended opinions, based on a love of good theatre, a drive to hold it to a high standard (albeit his high standard, which may not be the same as yours), and not on elitism or malice. You don’t have to agree with him, but the fact remains that for thirty years, Thomas’ sometimes provocative reviews have provided great jumping-off points for wider discussions about theatre in Vancouver. This is a good thing.

Canadian print media is the going to be the poorer for its recent attempts to make its publications more profit-driven, more friendly, more “feel-good”. And The Georgia Straight is certainly the poorer for losing Colin Thomas.

 

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On Being Afraid of the Work (Flowers and Toads)

Over the weekend I read (for class) an excerpt from a book called I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Mainly My Own by Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig. In chapter 2, Taussig discusses the failures of written notes at recording and communicating his experiences in the field and the ways in which he has found drawing pictures (quick sketches, diagrams, etc.) to be more immediate and fruitful. What he describes as the failure of fieldnotes can, I think, be applied to any attempt at a faithful record of events or expression of an inspiration–in the transcribing, something is lost or changed; what is important remains elusive and what is unimportant intrudes on the page (or the canvas, or the stage, etc.) in a rather unsatisfactory way. Taussig quotes the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé: “the flowers that fall from my mouth are changed into toads.” *

This, I think, is one of the chief reasons why I have so far failed to really really commit to my work as a writer. Sure, I’m writing, I’m writing papers and blog posts and the occasional stage piece for a friend, but this is not my work. I do have a specific work, (images lodged in the back of my brain, sentences scattered across notebooks and computer files) but it is always the very last thing I attend to. Of course, I am good at coming up with reasons for why this is so, the main one being that all of the other writing I do has deadlines and my “work” does not. Only I will know if there is still something owing, and it is likely only I will care. And I get busy. And I get lazy. And the only person I’m letting down is myself, so I don’t do the work.

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that I would do the work if I were braver, even if it was time-consuming. I obviously don’t mind writing–I’m writing right now!–but I do mind failure, especially when it comes to something that, while it remains little more than a shadow with a few defined edges, has been internally nurtured and kept safe for a not insignificant period of time. I feel a responsibility to get it right, to do justice to whatever whisper found its way to me. I know what creative failure fails like, and it is sour, and it is indelible, and it stains the beautiful ideas that had given themselves so perfectly and trustingly to me. I am in possession of delicate buds that I hope upon hope will burst into bloom, but I am afraid to touch them lest they turn into toads in my clumsy hands.

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

[* Sadly, I could not find this quotation on the Internet so I do not know from whence in Mallarmé’s oeuvre it came.]

The Troika Collective presents “Olya the Child”

Olya the Child presented by the Troika Collective as a site-specific production in the Emily Carr Parkade as part of the 2015 Vancouver International Fringe Festival, now until September 20.

Poster design: Sonja Kresowaty

Poster design and illustration: Sonja Kresowaty

Shameless plug alert: obviously my promotion of this play is a little biased as I wrote the script and my friends are in the company. But you should see it!

From the press release (which I also wrote):

The company that created and performed Chernobyl: The Opera for sold-out audiences and brought Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost to Vancouver for its North American premiere presents Olya the Child, an original play that explores the meaning of family through the eyes of a Russian orphan.

Performed as a site-specific work in the Emily Carr parkade on Granville Island, Olya the Child draws parallels between tales of feral children (children raised without human contact) and the unique challenges of international adoption. Ten-year-old Russian orphan Olya Kadnikova (Jessica Hood) has been taught all her life to wish for a family, and for a home outside her state orphanage. She is surprised to be adopted by Canadian housewife Deborah Johnson (Jalen Saip), who hopes that a daughter will bring love into her failing marriage. When adjusting to their new relationship proves more difficult than expected, both child and adoptive parent must examine their illusions, motives, and emotional capacities to decide if the beauty of their old dreams can overcome the challenges of their current realities.

Featuring collaborative physical storytelling by an ensemble cast, by turns both whimsical and bleak, Olya the Child takes its audience from the concrete jungle of a state orphanage in Moscow, through the efficient metropolis of the Frankfurt Airport, to the sometimes claustrophobic comfort of suburban Vancouver as it questions the nature of love, family, and the fairy tales we tell about them.

I think I knew my life as a performer was never going to materialize the first time I saw a script I wrote onstage. Don’t get me wrong–performing was intoxicating, and every so often my heart longs for the feeling of being onstage, for the camaraderie of waiting in the wings, mouthing the words of the scenes as my fellow actors performed them, listening for the audience response. In the intensity of that kind of focus and stillness, one show could feel like a whole week of living. But when I saw this event from the other side, when I sat in the house and listened to the actors instead of the audience, speaking words I wrote, reacting to the situations I created, interpreting a story of my imagining, I knew there was no help for me. I didn’t want to be this character or that one every night for a couple of weeks–I wanted to be every character, and their circumstances, and their language, and their rhythms, and their world, always. So I pulled myself away from performing, gently but painfully, and I kept writing.

Luckily for me, when I was studying performance in my bachelors degree I managed to establish relationships with wonderful theatre artists that I am still happy to have as collaborators and friends and who, for whatever reason, are willing to stage my plays. Friends like Aliya Griffin, founder and Artistic Director of the Troika Collective and director of Olya the Child. It was Aliya who said to me one night over drinks, “I want to stage a play about feral children, but also about Eastern European orphans. Do you think you’d be interested in writing it?” and I said yeah. We discussed the issues with one another, watched the same documentary (as well as conducting our own research), and knew the piece would be staged in a parkade, but apart from that I had complete freedom to create the story as the cast of characters grew and shrank depending on the draft I was working on, and the amount of Russian I would require the cast to speak shrank considerably from the first draft to the current one (I don’t speak Russian myself, and it’s not an easy language).

Knowing that everything you write needs to be performed in a real physical space is a major restriction for a playwright, but I’m very familiar with Aliya’s work as a director and I know what she is capable of when she has the right cast, that is, a cast that is willing to play and explore and help create physically what the lines I wrote can only say verbally. I don’t usually get too involved in rehearsals for the pieces I write, but I had the opportunity to participate in the auditions this time and to catch a sneak peek at some of the orphanage and airport scenes in rehearsal and I am very excited, and very grateful.  I think it takes a certain leap of faith to write a script, and assume that other artists (directors, actors, even graphic designers) are going to be interested in putting as much of their energy and their talent into as you did, and it is the most humbling and gratifying experience to watch it happen.

Though I’m listed as the playwright on this piece, I don’t feel that I wrote it alone; Aliya was reading drafts and providing feedback every step of the way. One of the interesting things about writing plays as opposed to other kinds of creative texts is that the collaborative process (which occurs in almost all creative writing no matter who is listed as the actual author) becomes visible onstage–the words may be mine but the work of art is collective. And if I do say so myself, I think my collaborators and I have examined a complicated and sometimes thorny subject with gentleness and care, opening a conversation rather than closing a door, and I hope, of course, that you will come and see it.

Olya the Child runs at the Emily Carr parkade on Granville Island September 10 – 20. Tickets are $14 (plus a $5 Fringe membership) and can be purchased online through the Vancouver Fringe website (ignore the note that says “Coarse Language”; the play is, in fact, family friendly).

P.S. Check it out! Olya the Child was recently featured in local paper The Source: Forum for Diversity [“Complicating the FairyTale: Play casts a spotlight on international adoption” by Simon Yee]

Please Stand By – Nifty Going Biweekly

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The sad day has finally arrived–the day on which I finally admit to myself, and confess to you, my much-appreciated readers, that weekly blog posts are no longer sustainable. Between work, my masters program, theatre with the Troika Collective, work on my own creative projects, bathroom renovations, headaches, and trying to actually spend some quality time with my husband now and again, I just can’t guarantee I will always be able to write this blog the way I want to. I’ve never wanted to simply “produce content”, and if I don’t have the time to really engage in the world enough to have something to write about, that’s all I’ll be doing. I’m already embarrassed by some of the navel-gazing, nothing-ish posts I’ve churned out during busy times in the past and I owe you, and this blog, and myself, better than that.

Being a creature who loves form and structure, and wanting everything to be clean cut, I do wish I’d been able to hold out for my next bloggerversary (or even my half-way marker, which would have been at the end of May) to make this change. I wish I wasn’t just throwing up my hands in the middle of any old week and saying, “Okay, that’s it, I’m too busy, I can’t do it this way anymore” on February 27, of all days, a day that means nothing in terms of anniversaries or counting my achievements in a neat and tidy way. My aesthetic sensibilities are chafing as I write and I would almost rather quit the blog altogether, except that when I floated this idea by one of my most loyal fans (i.e., my mother) she said no, and told me to try switching to biweekly posts instead. Seeing as how my mom hasn’t steered me wrong yet, I’m giving it a try.

So you won’t be hearing from me as often anymore. And I’m sorry. I feel like I’ve failed to come through on a promise but please believe me when I say it really truly needs to be this way (and that’s not to say if I’m ever feeling especially inspired I won’t write on an off-week just for fun). Though I don’t always know who’s reading my posts, or how often, please know I am always flattered by and grateful for it, and this is actually breaking my little blogging heart.

So please stand by. I hope it just gets better from here.

[UPDATE: Upon publishing this post, WordPress informed me that it was my 230th post. So I guess I DO get a nice, clean-cut benchmark for weekly posting after all.]

The Bloggerversary Edition: Nifty is 4!

I’ve been on the fence about whether or not to acknowledge my “bloggerversary” this year. I knew I was going to roll out a new look (hope you like it!) but I wasn’t sure whether to proclaim the milestone from the roof tops (“Oh my god! I’ve been writing this blog for FOUR WHOLE YEARS!”) or whether to just let the day pass by (“M’h. No big deal. Let’s write about something else.”).

Of course, I already did let the day pass by. The four-year anniversary of my very first post was actually on November 29. But I was on Salt Spring Island last weekend having a wonderful time and drinking martinis…so…yeah. And besides, is four years of (over)sharing on the Internet really such a thing to celebrate? Is it an accomplishment? Can I look at it and say, yeah, I get to feel like a real blogger now?

In many ways, no. It’s weird, but although I set out to be a blogger four years ago and began by following a lot of bloggers on Twitter and going to blogger meetups, etc., the more I’ve blogged the more I’ve pulled away from the idea of “being a blogger”. This is partially explained by personal growth–as I have become a more confident blogger I have also become a more busy person with more going on in my life, and I simply don’t have time to be an active part of an online community. But it’s also a question of how I identify myself. Would I call myself a blogger? Trick question. I don’t not call myself a blogger, but generally speaking I consider myself a writer. And having a blog can be an amazing gift for a writer–it holds me accountable to writing at specific intervals and has allowed me to share my writing with an audience (and sometimes to be a part of one as well–I have absolutely loved loved LOVED watching and reviewing theatre for NiftyNotCool).

As a blogger/writer/what-have-you, I’ve had some uncomfortable moments too: For every solid piece of writing there’s a mediocre one just taking up space. Being on the Internet gives people access to me, in ways that I don’t always foresee. Posting my opinions means sometimes people will disagree with me, occasionally very unpleasantly. And after blogging about sensitive issues, some of the responses I’ve received have forced me to re-examine my position, even my motives for writing. Does the fact that I am good at saying something about something mean that I should? Do I have a responsibility to post about certain issues because I am an okay writer who has a blog? Do I also occasionally have a responsibility NOT to write about certain issues, because I am not the best person to address them? Should I occasionally leave some silence in cyberspace for someone who isn’t white/cis/hetero/middle class (not that I take up much room, but still)? Why am I talking? Am I trying to help? Enlighten? Learn? Or am I just talking to hear/read myself think?

While monitoring the site stats for NiftyNotCool, I’ve had the thrill of watching a post go viral (my post on the recent teacher’s strike in BC has been viewed almost 50 000 times, most of them occurring within the first two days of its existence), and I’ve also bruised my ego realizing that the majority of my site traffic still comes from people googling the phrase “nifty nudes” [which is depressing, because obviously those people aren’t really interested in what I have to say and are visiting my blog posts about Wreck Beach by accident while looking for porn, but also intriguing: who knew so many people were on the hunt for specifically “nifty” nudes?]. At the end of the day, what do my stats really mean? Very little, most likely. WordPress hosts my site for free (I just pay for my domain name) so I don’t make anything off the little ads that sometimes run at the bottom of posts, no matter how many people view them. I’m not getting book deals or job offers. No one hands me a medal for having 20 000 views in a day or harangues me for only having two.

So what the heck have I been doing for four years? Shouting into the darkness? Well, sometimes. But other times, more and more as my blog and I grow older, I manage to say something that lands. And every once in a while somebody tells me that I have expressed something that they were feeling. And then I do think there’s a place for NiftyNotCool here in cyberspace, and there is a reason that I talk–not just to hear/read myself think but also so that every once in a little while somebody else can hear themselves too. And as a writer that’s just….wonderful.

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Photo: Bill Kresowaty

 

 

The Diamonds and the Jar

jelly-jar1Once upon a time there was a jar with clear sides and a lid. The jar was mostly full of air but at the bottom of the jar there was a tiny heap of earth sitting in a shallow pool of water. Living on the tiny heap of earth were tiny plants. When they were warmed by the light which shone through the glass the water in their leaves rose into the air and up under the lid of the jar. At night the jar was cool and the water fell as rain. As the tiny plants died they left their nutrients in the tiny heap of earth so that other tiny plants could grow. In this way, the jar, though small, was perfect.

Living amongst the tiny plants on the tiny heap of earth were tiny tiny people. They were so small that for them, the tiny heap of earth was a world and the tiny plants were a forest that stretched as far as they could see. They ate the fruits that grew on the tiny plants and lived in their boughs, and breathed in the air that the plants breathed out. When the tiny people died their bodies left nutrients in the tiny heap of earth so that other plants could grow, and other tiny people benefit. In this way, the people, though small, were perfect. This is not to say that there was no toil, or grief, but that there was balance.

It was quite by accident that someone found the diamonds. Most of them were buried deep within the heap of earth but some had made their way to the surface over time and lay glittering in the light, scattered here and there, small as berries. The tiny people who found these diamonds had never seen anything like them before but since everything else the earth gave up was good, like the plants, they believed the diamonds were good too. As they would with a new fruit, they touched one of the diamonds to see if it would sting their skin. It did not. They smelled the diamond, to see if it was rotting or acrid. It was not. They licked the black diamond, to see if their throats closed or their bellies revolted at the taste. They did not. One of the tiny people, the bravest or perhaps the most curious, put the diamond in their mouth, and swallowed it.

It was in this way that the people who lived in the jar discovered the wonders of the diamonds. When you had eaten one of these diamonds, you were stronger, and faster. Distances that would have taken days to walk were a very small matter for a person who had eaten a diamond. “Miraculous!” the people said, “the diamonds are gifts of energy from the earth!” And they were.

Life became easier for the people in the jar. The extra energy they received from the ground meant they could spend less time on toil, and more time in leisure. They could think about, and create, things that were beautiful, not only things that were necessary. They could visit family who had married into other tribes or moved into other villages because the trip was now a matter of hours, rather than a matter of days. Children who had grown up after the discovery of the diamonds did not know a world without them–they imagined this world would be a hard, inefficient, and ignorant place.

Of course, like anything that comes from the ground and is eaten, a single diamond could provide energy for an hour or two, no more. And when the miracle of the diamond had passed, a hunger for another would begin.

Not that the people needed to eat diamonds all the time. “Of course not,” they would say to each other, “that would be silly.” They ate the diamonds only to hasten their various labours, and when they needed to travel. Diamonds were not needed during times of leisure, only times of work. And yet there were those who occasionally ate them for fun, because they loved the speed of their movements, loved the freedom and strength and grace these diamonds seemed to give them. And of course, people often ate diamonds to travel even short trips, because it was faster that way, and would save time.

In fact, it seemed that once people began to save time by eating diamonds, they realized how precious time truly was. Their predecessors had plodded through life, taking for granted that another minute would follow this one, another day would follow that. “How backwards,” the people thought now, “how erroneous, to waste time as our grandparents did! Let us always give time its due, and value efficiency in ourselves and others.”

Efficiency meant diamonds were required, but that was alright, because they were so small, and scattered in so many low places on the heap of earth (now that the people knew what to look for), and there were so many of them. But even the sands in the desert are not innumerable if you begin removing them grain by grain. Eventually there were only a few places where diamonds could be found and the people, unable to imagine a life without their gifts, began to fight over them, and to panic.

Fortunately, or so it seemed, the most clever and enterprising of the tiny people realized that like the plants that grew from roots buried deep beneath the earth, the diamonds on the surface were just fragments of the treasure to be found by digging. And so the people dug. They cut down their tiny trees and built tiny machines to harvest the tiny piece of earth on which they lived. Many of the plants were cleared away to make room for holes, and left to rot in piles. Leisure was unheard of now–diamonds must be mined, diamonds to improve the lives of the people! What did they care that the pace and scale of the work required the consumption of even more diamonds? Efficiency demanded fast work, fast work required energy, and energy required diamonds. It made perfect sense, and yet–

There were some people in the jar, strange people, but maybe wise people, whose eyes could see farther than others’, and whose memories were longer. “We used to have more trees,” they said, “we used to have better air. Can’t you tell?” But the people busy digging ignored them. “Plants grow,” they said, “and air is all around us. There is no shortage.”

But the wise people were not so sure. Once they began looking they could not stop, and the more their eyes saw the more their eyes filled with tears. It wasn’t only that the trees and plants were being depleted–made into machinery or cleared away. There was something about the diamonds themselves, something that happened when the people ate them. The air they exhaled was different from other air, harsher, heavier. People were used to coughing after eating a diamond, and called the condition “diamond lung”, but considered it only an annoyance. The wise people were not so sure. The air in villages where many people lived became thicker, heavy with their crystalline exhalations, and the weakest of the people were often ill, and sent to spend time in the forest. Somehow the plants helped.

The wise people saw this, and were worried. Eating the diamonds dirtied the air, and plants cleaned it. But people were killing the plants to mine more diamonds, and eating what they mined so that they could continue mining diamonds. “You must stop,” said the wise people, “you must let go of the gift of the diamonds.”

But it was hard to let go. People wanted to see their loved ones in distant places. People wanted to work quickly, to have time for more beautiful, pleasurable, and elevated things. They knew, of course, that the diamonds were not like the plants–they did not grow and they were running out. And yet this only increased the people’s  hunger; finding diamonds beneath the earth became imperative. “If there aren’t many left,” the people reasoned, “then it is better that we have all of them so that we can be sure we will have all we need.”

The wise people shook their heads. “Stop,” they said, “the air is being poisoned! If we stop now, we may still have a chance. The plants could grow back, the air could clear.” And a few of the braver, wiser people said, “We live in a jar, with a very tight lid. When the clean air is gone, there will be no more.”

The people were incredulous. “A JAR?!” they cried, “I have never heard anything more ridiculous! The earth is huge! The sky is immense! How can any sensible person believe that we live in a jar? We are powerful! We are important! We master the earth, we don’t live in a jar.” The ones who had suggested this were called heretics, lunatics, dangers to the good of the people. They were shunned and went into the forests by themselves, as far away as one diamond could take them, then built simple little houses, and never ate diamonds again. “A jar!” sneered the people, watching the wise ones leave, “Unbelievable!”

Nevertheless, it was true. The people were so tiny that only those gifted few could see the glass that encased their whole world. They did not know that their sky was a lid shut tight. They ate the diamonds, and dug for them, and ate them, and dug for them, all the while poisoning the air and destroying the plants that could have cleared it. They did not stop. They did not stop for a long time. They did not stop until their children woke up blind, their eyes unable to see through the crystalline fog that surrounded them. They did not stop until breathing was so difficult that the even sleep was laborious. They did not stop until the air was so thick that light could not filter through, and the remaining plants shed their leaves, and dropped their fruits, and died.

It was then that the people discovered that you cannot eat efficiency, and time cannot be saved. The faster you chase it, the more it runs out, like air in a jar whose lid is closed tight. They renounced the diamonds, cursed them, cast them in a pit and buried them, but it was too late. The small amount of time they had left was just enough to eat the last of the fruits, and to breathe the last of the air. No one, not even the ones who had been wise, could save themselves, because their world was a jar whose lid was closed tight, and there was no other.

(Good gracious, people, can’t we please try to save our jar? We still have time, but not much.)

I miss my journal (blogging is not the same)

The other night I was inspired to write a bit in my journal (currently a lovely, if scratchy-papered, leather-bound affair with an owl on the front). I was shocked, and somewhat ashamed, to find that I hadn’t written for almost two months. Flipping through the pages I realized that for the last few years I’ve been journalling, on average, once a month (or less). And the few entries I have written haven’t really been massive epistles to make up for lost time either–just little blips here and there, a note about Christmas, a paragraph about a recent disappointment or a recent triumph. I feel like I’m growing apart from an old friend. And it makes me sad.

I used to journal at least a few times a week. In grade 6 it was a bit of an obsession–trying to get through journals as fast I could, MAKING myself write at least one page per day, even when I had nothing to say except “Only 26 more days until this journal is done and then I can write in the new one with the tiger on the cover!”, etc. I’m not entirely sure why I was so obsessed with my next journal, as opposed to the one I was currently writing in. I think the sight of those blank pages made me feel that SOMETHING, something better than now, was waiting to be written in that next journal. Usually, it was just more of the same silly poetry and over-abundance of exclamation marks and musings about how close I was getting to the final page. I always finished a journal with a humorously wistful “Last Page” post (humorous because it usually involved me summing up the wisdom I believed my 11-year-old self had gained and finishing, as I often still do, with my signature).

Once I hit junior high and high school and became confused and insecure and angst-ridden, the tone of my writing was decidedly less positive. My childish indignation about popularity politics and boys I thought were icky (or cute, depending) gave way to a deep and abiding conviction that these things mattered–that being popular was a worthwhile goal, that whether or not any boys liked me was a measure of my value as a person. That my clothes mattered and my bra size mattered and that I was helplessly alone (even when I was loved all along). Receiving only 75% on my grade 8 science final necessitated a long walk in which I cried in the forest and wrote of my disappointment in myself. Envying my best friend her boyfriend resulted in pages of self-loathing. Arguments with my sisters or my parents were chronicled in capital letters with multiple exclamation marks immediately followed by regret. Often, I turned to my journal not for silent understanding but to say I was sorry.

It wasn’t all bad of course. I wrote about whether the boy I liked had talked to me that day. I told the story of my first kiss (and several weeks later, my fun fun time with mono). I could detail exactly the intensity of eye contact in a “romantic” situation, or what it felt like to have a boy reach for my hand for the first time while we watched a movie in the dark. I seemed to remember each and every electron that fired when everything I was experiencing was so new. I recorded my dreams, and wrote about vampires (which were a thing for me, I guess when I was 15), and Peter Pan, and my best friends, and all the places I was seeing, and what I wanted to do when I grew up (writing or theatre, depending).

When I revisit my old journals I always expect to find them funny, and instead I find that I am sad. Sad that the girl I was didn’t love herself more, or see how much she was loved. Sad about some of the not-so-good situations she got herself into due, in part, to her low self-esteem. Sad that I wasn’t always respectful to my parents, or understanding with my sisters. And sad about good things too. Sad to read about a school chum that isn’t here anymore. Sad to read about best friends that live so far away now. Sad that my hometown keeps changing without me, and for the beautiful places I have been that I can’t properly remember.

Which is why my journals are so important to me. They aren’t great literature. But they are a record of a life, unexceptional as it may be. I don’t want to forget how it felt to be those other people I have been, but I do forget, and, when I need them to, my journals bring those other Laurens back.

But only if I write in them. I know that I journal more when I am sad than when I am happy. I journal more when things are new than when they are routine, even though I know that life does keep changing in slow and subtle ways. And it’s too bad. In the sad times I’m always dismayed to look back in my journals and find I had little to say about the happy ones–I was having too much fun, I guess, or taking my happiness for granted. I read once that “misery stains backwards through the pages of life”, and it’s so much easier for that to happen if I neglect to write about the good times.

In a weird paradoxical way (familiar to procrastinators everywhere, I’m sure), the guilt I feel about neglecting my journal actually makes me want to write less. Opening my journal makes it obvious how poorly I’ve been keeping it up lately and it makes the guilt worse. So I cart my journals around with me like reproachful bricks until I FINALLY make myself write, at which point there is so much to say that my efforts are merely perfunctory.

I know there are other reasons I’ve been terrible with my diaries. For example, as mentioned above, I write less when I’m happy and in general, I am quite happy nowadays. I also am not as self-centred as a I used to be. I’m not saying I was a selfish teenager, just that the things that bother me the most nowadays aren’t necessarily personal insults or failures (the kinds of things I used to exhaustively record in high school because I was not as good at coping with them), but broader issues like violence, Canadian politics, and misogyny. (I don’t know how to journal about being afraid of the MRA movement, and the recent massacre in Isla Vista, for example. I don’t know how to bring that into my record of my life and I don’t know if I want to.) And, of course, I don’t have the free time I had when I was 13 (it turns out my parents were right–taking care of a household, even a small one like mine, IS a lot of work, and having their children help out without complaint WOULD have been very useful).

And then there’s this blog. It’s like a journal, in a way (and here I do attempt some larger issues), but it’s changed the way I write for, and about, myself. Instead of being honest with myself in private I’ve been presenting my emotional life in a public forum, and using my journal merely as a log of achievements and setbacks. I try to be truthful, but “presenting” is definitely what I do in this blog–it’s not, and can never be, a replacement for my journal. It’s glossy, it’s vague, and it’s CLEAN. Much cleaner than my emotions really are. I admit my confusion to myself less and less nowadays, and instead take a solid position because a solid position is easier to blog about. Sometimes, that kind of writing is necessary and useful and for that reason I continue to enjoy this blog. It’s a great new friend.

But blogging is not the same as my journal. My journal, truly, is singular, an entity that spans multiple handwritten books (a dozen? Two dozen?) written and collected over the past 20 years. My journal has been with me since I was a child. It has never left. It has always waited patiently with blank pages and the promise of better things to write about. I have neglected it and I am sorry.

Journals boxes! There are two more of these stored at my parents' house.

Journals boxes! There are two more of these stored at my parents’ house.

My Rights to Write (and What)

Broadly speaking, at least here in fairly progressive, egalitarian-ish, freedom-of-speech-y Canada, my right to write just about whatever I want, however I want, is not in dispute. Which is great for me, because when I cannot communicate or am not being listened to, I shrivel up inside and a little part of me begins to die.

Which is why it is important to consider both what I legally have the right to write and/or publish, and what I should MORALLY have the right to write and share.

Legally, I have the right to publish just about anything except hate speech, another person’s work, recommendations that people cause harm to themselves or others, or slander. Fair enough. I don’t want to write any of those things anyways.

Morally, the waters of artistic freedom become quite a bit muddier. Do I, for example, have the moral right to incorporate recognizable traits of real people in fiction, in doing so assuming or inventing their motives and private thoughts? What parts of a person truly belong to them? Their life story? Their thoughts/feelings? Their physical appearance and behavioural ticks? What parts of a real person, place, or experience am I allowed to use? Assuming that some of my work will always adapt or be influenced by people, places, and experiences that I encounter either in my own life or through the media, what would be the more moral course? Representing people, places, and experiences exactly as I perceive them (or exactly as they perceive themselves), or using artistic license to transform these things, creating something that I can bend to my narrative? What are the responsibilities that come with my rights to write, and to seek publication of this writing?

I think any conversation surrounding what I, as an artist, have an ethical green light to incorporate into my work needs to begin with a recognition that I am writing from a place of comparative privilege. Though I am a woman, and young (two strikes against me in a western literary canon still dominated by old males), there are many cultural privileges that go along with being white, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class, and dare I say, reasonably photogenic. Because of this, there are also some limitations as to what I can ethically and skillfully represent in my work.

For example, can I ethically or skilfully represent (in fiction) the experience of a culture or race different from my own? Maybe, but doing so would require not only careful and comprehensive research, but also an examination of my own motives for telling a story that is not mine. Do I want to tell this story because I feel a kind of personal connection to it, and feel that this is the story that is burning inside me to be told? Or do I want to tell this story because I want praise for writing about a “difficult” subject, or because I just want to expose the “beauty” of the Other, or because I believe that the true owners of the story are not equipped to tell it themselves? If my motives fall into any of the latter categories, I am not “engaging” with material or “exploring” it–I’m exploiting it. And that’s not okay with me. As I mentioned, when I cannot communicate or am not listened to, part of me shrivels and dies. Many cultures and marginalized groups have for centuries had the stories ripped from their mouths, and I don’t want to be part of the machine that consumes others’ stories, but never listens.

In some ways this is very freeing. It liberates me from the paralyzing idea that good or provocative writing cannot come from inside me, that it must be centered in a world (real or imagined) that is more “exotic”, more action-packed, or more thrilling than the one I inhabit. It also liberates me from the idea that my writing must contribute to some kind of social good by deliberately telling the story of a marginalized group. Don’t get me wrong–stories that have been relegated to the fringes need to be told, however, as my old theatre school chum (and literature PhD candidate) Lucia Lorenzi pointed out recently, what makes us think these marginalized groups aren’t capable of telling their stories themselves? If I want to do social good through my engagement with literature, it may, in fact, be a great idea for me to get out of the way and let people tell their own stories, and then, to make sure I read them. It is not necessarily for me to be the privileged mouthpiece of an unprivileged group. Maybe I just need to listen.

That said, I still want to write about that which intrigues and moves me. And even if I take some obvious topics out of the equation (at this time, for example, I do not feel even remotely equipped to tell a story about Indigenous people and the legacy of colonialism, or about the slave trade, or the effects of racism in the southern United States), I still find there is so much to explore that I haven’t personally experienced. I don’t personally know what it is to be physically or mentally ill. I don’t know what it is to be pregnant. I don’t know what it is to experience physical violence. I don’t know what it is to grow up without a parent. I don’t know what it is to be a parent. I don’t know what it is to be a man (or a boy). I don’t know what it is to be elderly, or to look a different way, or to be illiterate, or to be homeless. Does this mean I cannot tell stories that feature characters that have had these experiences? Am I relegated only to stories of white middle-class navel-gazing?

I hope not. I hope that when I write the empathy that I feel for my characters will allow me to tell their stories with fairness and grace, neither sanctifying nor condemning them, never relegating them to the role of the “mystical African American/Indigenous person/elderly Asian person/prostitute with a heart of gold/homeless person” who swoops in and solves the whiny protagonist’s personal crisis with some grand/folksy/poetic pronouncements on life. I hope that my ability to feel pain, fear, doubt, shame, anger, disappointment, love, joy, and grief will guide me through, even through those stories I’ve never experienced myself. If they can’t, I can’t see how I will grow as an artist.

I must remember that no one (not even a biographer) writes real people. They write a representation of them. There is art there. And art, at least in my practice, comes with both aesthetic and ethical responsibilities that I have no desire to eschew.

Nope. Not a pipe. Just an image of one.

Nope. Not a pipe. Just an image of one. Magritte is the bomb.

Dear English Paper: Go Write Yourself

Dear English Paper,

I’ve been avoiding you, and I’m sorry.

In a way, this is all my fault. I took my first undergraduate English literature course when I was 18 years old and now, nine years later, I still don’t seem to have learned my lesson. I admit that it was arrogance on my part to register in a first-year fiction course with the assumption that I (who have been taking upper level English classes for the past few years) would find it easy. In my defense, I thought it might be interesting to get back to fiction basics, and also, the student bus pass I get when I take courses is SUPER cheap. All excuses aside, we’re here now, and I know it’s childish of me to hide from you.

But does this really have to be so hard? It’s not that I don’t want to write you, I do! In fact, I absolutely love having written an English paper, it’s just that I don’t want to go through the act of writing you, rehashing the same old MLA guidelines over and over, dealing with word counts and pretentious-sounding titles. We’ve been through it all before and every time it exhausts me.

We have some history, you and I. It’s not as though you’ve always been kind to me–I recall several occasions during which I was slumped on the rug between the shelves of the library’s journal collections crying because I couldn’t find the article I was looking for (and when I did find it, it wasn’t useful anyways). There’s been a lot of wasted printer ink. A lot of late nights. I give and I give and I give, English Paper, and it’s never enough for you, is it?

But I don’t want to blame you. You want me to be better. You want me to read more critically, think more deeply, and write more persuasively. I understand this, but it still hurts. In the dead of night when I’m hunched over my laptop and I want nothing more than to close my eyes and sleep or maybe, just maybe, read a damn book for pleasure now and again, it hurts.

I want you to know that the relief I feel every time I hand you off and stop thinking about you is immense. But something keeps drawing me back to you, English Paper, and I just can’t keep myself away–soon we are entwined in the same familiar dance: introductory paragraph, argument, textual support, properly cited references, conclusion… I spice it up with a few clever turns of phrase, something daring, something a bit flashy even, but soon that spark disappears and we go through the motions, plodding along, torturing one another until I’m so sick of you I stop caring whether I’ve done right by you, whether I’ve done the best I could.

Tell me, English Paper, how does the family dynamic affect the characters’ emotional growth in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers? And would you say any of them find fulfillment? Why or why not?

But you won’t tell me. You’ll simply blink at me, your blank face transmitting nothing but my own words, words which seem foolish upon reevaluation. You will take my words, and give me nothing.

And yet, here we are. All paths lead to you. It is time for me to conclude this epistle and meet you face to face once more, on the barren white battlefield of our difficult and pedantic love.

Adieu, adieu

NiftyNotCool

DearEnglishPaper

Rachel Lebowitz and Anakana Schofield on taking 10 years to write one book

Last Thursday my fiction professor David Chariandy decided to take us on an impromptu field trip to the Rhizome Cafe to hear Vancouver-to-Halifax transplant Rachel Lebowitz read from Cottonopolis, her new book of  prose and poetry, with a special a guest reading by Vancouver writer Wayde Compton (we missed the first part of his reading but his work was pretty intriguing).

cottonopolisI must confess that I generally don’t like readings, or at least, don’t like the idea of readings. I worry that if I don’t like the work I’ll be depressed and wonder how on earth this person managed to be published, or if I love the work, I’ll be depressed and wonder how on earth I will ever have anything of worth to contribute. Lebowitz and Compton put my feelings in the latter camp of course; however, the evening as a whole was surprisingly encouraging and I think it has to do with actually meeting published writers, instead of just being scared (or jealous) of them.

13237125Prof. Chariandy (whose 2007 debut novel Soucouyant was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award) is never one to miss a learning opportunity and shortly after the reading he was able to commandeer the time and attention of not only Rachel Lebowitz but Ireland-to-Vancouver transplant and author Anakana Schofield as well (Schofield was recently the recipient of the Amazon.ca First Novel award for her book Malarky). Both Lebowitz and Schofield seem to take time very seriously in their respective processes, i.e. both writers worked for years on their respective books. Upon learning that we were an undergraduate writing class, Schofield joked that she and Lebowitz would give us their top ten tips for taking ten years to publish one book, but between the two of them they actually came up with a great list.

So here, in no specific order and paraphrased/remembered only to the best of my abilities, I give you Rachel Lebowitz and Anakana Schofield’s “Top Ten Tips for Taking Ten Years to Publish One Book”:

  • Read, and read widely. If YOU aren’t reading, how can you expect your work to be read by others?
  • Don’t publish work that isn’t good, even if it’s “publishable”.
  • Take time to NOT write. There’s no reason for the constant pressure for writerly output if you’re just spinning your wheels–time spent on your family, your interests, yourself will find its way into your work.  To be a good writer you have to actually LIVE life.
  • Choose your “influences” carefully. Your influences should be artists (from various disciplines) that you believe to be the best of the best. Your influences should inspire you to be better. Your influences should be truly excellent at their craft, rather than writers that write at the level you’re already operating at (i.e. your influences should not be your peers, necessarily, unless your peers are jaw-droppingly good).
  • Don’t condescend to your reader. Writing to the lowest common denominator because you think it will increase your chances of being published does not a good writer make (see point about not publishing work that isn’t good). Assume a readership that is as intelligent as the work you are trying to create.
  • If you find yourself consistently writing around the same locale or idea, that’s fine, so long as you continue to challenge yourself in your writing. As long as you need to write about a certain thing, write about it. Once it’s out of your system, you can write about the next thing that haunts you. To put it another way, there’s no need to write about something outside your scope of knowledge, interest, and experience just for the sake of it. The fact that a subject is “new” for you doesn’t necessarily make it more worthy, unless you have genuine passion and interest around it.

Find those first six tips helpful but need more advice on how to stretch out the writing process to ten full years? Schofield rounded out our top ten with some time-spending techniques:

  • Lose parts of your manuscript all over your apartment.
  • Get a guinea pig.
  • Don’t kill your teenager (presumably keeping both guinea pigs and teenagers alive is more effortful and time consuming than killing them off).
  • Stay off the cheese (I’m not sure if this one is meant to speed you up or slow you down actually. Either/or I guess, depending on how much you like cheese).

Of course my list is no replacement for meeting these warm and talented writers in the flesh but I found their conversation with us so darn nice and useful that I just had to record it for posterity. I apologize profusely if I’ve misrepresented either Lebowitz or Schofield–I did my best to get the gist of a pretty fast-paced conversation, but obviously some things were lost in translation.

I was able to purchase Cottonopolis from Rachel Lebowitz that night (and get it signed too, woot!) and will hopefully be able to get my hands on a copy of Malarky soon. I’m certainly intrigued and appreciative and looking forward to some good reading.

[For more about Rachel Lebowitz’s process, you may want to check out Lebowitz’s 2010 interview with Desk Space. For more of Anakana Schofield’s informative and hilarious musings, visit her website at anakanaschofield.com. Particularly the “About” page and her blog.]