“The Writer at Work” (#fiction)

I have been struggling all week to write a blog post and have been drawing a rather unfortunate blank. As I watched East Vancouver roll past the Skytrain window on my way home from work on Wednesday afternoon, I realized with a great deal of relief that I had already written a cheeky little piece of fiction about this very struggle (to which I’m sure we can all relate…..maybe….ha ha).

And so, for your reading pleasure, I give you, The Writer at Work.

The Writer at Work

Knowing the importance of sleep to an intellectual and productive mind, our friend the writer never rises before the sun. On this day, he opens his eyes at his accustomed hour intending to begin his labours at once, however, he feels the dream that had visited him just prior to his waking is of great artistic significance and therefore, for the sake of his work, he is forced to lie abed nearly three quarters of an hour more in an attempt to recapture it. Alas, the dream has escaped him. No matter. When one is blessed with genius such as his, brilliant visions are forever unfolding in one’s mind, in a never-ending parade of wit, pathos, and profundity. The formidable task of his life is to render these visions in writing so as not to deny the world their splendour.

Speaking of his task, our friend resolves to begin straightaway, though not, of course, before the completion of an elaborate toilet in which hair, face, and hands, especially, are carefully attended to. Our friend the writer has such deep respect for the pages which background his gleaming passages that he cannot abide those bohemian writers, hunching in ateliers, hair uncombed and face unshaved, ink-stained fingers marking the very pages they are trying to seduce! Inexcusable slovenliness, our friend thinks, and now, satisfactorily washed and dressed (albeit still in his red velvet dressing gown, one of those pet comforts which serve to aid his genius), he is ready to begin his work. He rings for Mrs. Pimms (his housekeeper) and requests his usual cup of tea.

Before beginning any actual writing, it is our friend’s wont to wander through the rooms of his elegant home, with his cup of tea in hand and the sash of his dressing gown trailing behind him. The symmetry and comfort of his fine rooms and furnishings pleases our friend immensely, knowing as he does the importance of an appropriate environment to the maintenance of the creative faculties. Indeed, one could not wish for a more suitable birthing place for new literature. So thinks our friend the writer as he opens the French doors of his parlour and steps out onto his veranda. His gardens too are pleasing to the senses, sweet-smelling and well proportioned. Not so much as a leaf or a blade of grass is out of place—the gardener is clearly as meticulous in his work as our friend is in his writing. Perhaps a god may understand how such men feel, lovingly perfecting the fruits of their labours! By now, the sun is shining rapturously overhead; the morning-time has passed.

“Fol de rol,” our friend hums, pattering his fingers on the sides of his dressing gown, “there is no greater inspiration than Mother Nature herself. I shall take my luncheon out of doors, yes, I believe this will be the best course of action, and I will tell Mrs. Pimms so at once. I have an excellent feeling about this day, it will be, I believe, quite productive.”

Our friend is possessed of a firm belief that as he endeavours to work, so must he live. Therefore, he does not rush his repast but savours each separate course, allowing himself ample time for digestion and enjoyment between them. One would not rush ahead to the next chapter before being perfectly satisfied with the first, no indeed! Such a process would be the mark of a sloppy artist and such is our friend’s devotion to his craft that he takes great pains to exercise the same thoroughness and care in all aspects of his daily routine. Consequently, it is nearly three o’clock before our friend’s slippered feet can be heard padding along the carpeted hall towards the door of his study.

And what a study! It is the crown jewel of our friend’s estate, its contents, both furniture and objects, judiciously selected and carefully aligned to allow for the maximum influence of the creative muse and the greatest ease of transference from idea to page. And books! Such a collection of books, both new and antiquarian, both famous and obscure. And such wisdom, such inspiration to be found in their pages! Our friend turns to them now, for who would begin his work without first feeding his mind, allowing it time for proper focus and concentration? He lifts a book from the shelf and begins to read, furrowing his brow as he does so.

“Ah, Aristotle, you old scoundrel!” he cries, throwing down the venerable tome with the knowing smile one reserves for the peculiarities of one’s intimates, “Homer old boy, what have you to say this afternoon?” He flips lovingly through the pages of the masterpiece, but simply cannot bring himself to read more than a few lines at once. “Excellent works to be sure,” as he often remarks to his acquaintances, “but much better in the Greek, ever so much better in the Greek. ‘Tis a pity I have only the translations, mere shadows of the original genius; I can hardly bear to read them.” On one occasion the host of a dinner party did indeed have a very fine old copy of Homer, and in the superior Greek no less, but alas on this particular evening our accomplished friend had forgotten to bring his glasses.

Our friend the writer has a very broad, very beautiful desk of carved mahogany, and he sits at it now, satisfied at last that his mind has achieved its proper alignment of focus. He retrieves a stack of paper from one mahogany drawer and places it carefully on the surface of his desk, smoothing it with his hands and noting its superior creamy texture (our friend does not work on cheap paper). Opening another drawer, our friend retrieves his ink bottles and pens, carefully wiping each with a cloth and then meticulously arranging these tools on his writing surface in the particular way which he finds most agreeable. He picks up a pen and settles deep into his chair, closing his eyes for a moment to invite the visions of his mind to hold sway. At last he is ready to begin.

When he opens his eyes, our friend the writer notices that the sun is beginning to lower into the trees outside his study window in a glory of crimson and blush. It is nearly time for dinner, and our friend never works after he sups, believing that to write by any light but sunlight would cause damage to his eyes. Another day of creation, therefore, is drawing to its inevitable close. “Ah,” he sighs, as one who bears the burden of a monumental talent, “a writer’s work is never done.”

Why a picture of ducks? Why not?

Why a picture of ducks? Why not?

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.

A Story about a Story about Vancouver

Swing set in the old 'hood.

Swing set in the old ‘hood.

The other night I visited an old friend I hadn’t seen in a little while (no particular reason for this gap in our social calls, just busy summers for the both of us), and after doing that thing where you say “Whelp, time to go” but then you stand and talk in the porch for fifteen more minutes, I stepped out of her house into a warm August evening. I reached the main drag just as my 7 Nanaimo Station bus zipped past the stop on the other side of the street, but the weather was fine and I realized that all was not lost: sure, I could wait half an hour for the bus to come again, or I could take the other bus, the 7 Dunbar, and reach home via a circuitous route that would take me through my old neighbourhood.

I chose the latter, and as I watched the familiar landmarks glide past my window, my little bus trip became a journey (internally at least), and that journey became a story, and that story became about Vancouver, and when I got home I wrote some of it down, and as I did that I discovered the story was more important to me than I had expected, and then it became apparent that I could not write this particular story about Vancouver this week. Probably not next week either. Because I realized that the story I want to write about Vancouver is one that deserves more attention than my mind can give it right now. It deserves more crafting and more subtlety than what I can do in the week between blog posts. At the moment, it exists in my mind purely as potential, with images and lovely turns of phrase gravitating towards it. Careless handling will collapse the whole enterprise, and I don’t want to do that with this one.

So this is not that story. This is a story about the story. Pointless? you ask. No, I answer, because although this is not the story, this is also a story that is important to me. A story about the way that inspiration sometimes finds you. A story about how we leave our mark in every place we go, and how those pieces of ourselves that we sloughed off (thinking we’d grown, thinking we were “past that”)  still loiter in the streets of our old haunts, waiting for a circumstance of municipal transit to carry us back.

It’s a story about realizing the value of something, even if it’s just personal value, and being aware enough to understand that it deserves more than the usual effort, that it requires being patient. It’s a story about how, in a culture in which so much is shared (especially by personal bloggers such as myself), sometimes it is important to keep some things close, if even for a little while, and consider them carefully before shoving them into the world.

It’s a story about how exciting it can feel to have a story you’re itching to write, and how precious and perfect that electric moment before creation can be.