Debunking Fame as the only legitimacy

When I saw the callout for proposals for workshops for LitFestNewWest it was on a whim that I began to create it the very same day. It came together as if I’d been writing proposals forever. Once it was accepted, Esmeralda Cabral and I fine-tuned it and fleshed out how we might do it together prior to the actual event, and that took more time.

The initial idea was easy because the kernel for the idea was found in J.J. Lee’s book, The Measure of a Man. In 2014 I was in a workshop led by Wayde Compton, writer, author, Associate Director of The Writer’s Studio. At some point J.J. Lee’s book came up. The book was published in 2011 to acclaim and as a finalist on many nonfiction literary award lists. I was amazed that an entire book of multiple story lines could arise from the artifact of a simple suit jacket that had belonged to his father.

I couldn’t think of a single thing that I owned from my father’s life that I could imagine building an entire book around. One day I walked absentmindedly into my bedroom, stared up at the open closet’s top shelf and immediately spotted this caramel-coloured, leather camera case. I took it down, the roughness of the weathered leather felt good in my hands. Inside was my father’s 8mm Paillard – Bolex movie camera.

My father took home movies of my twin brother and I when we were babies and toddlers. I was shocked when I saw it. I had always said that I was the only photographer in the family. I’d forgotten about him, the camera, and the home movies, regular intervals of us gathered round, eager to see ourselves on the grainy screen in the living room and the laughing. Family as foreign tribe revisited.

At the time, I’d started to write a story that made reference to my father’s emotional absence from our lives and when I saw the camera, the shocking realization between my observation about his emotional absence, and yet his consistent focusing of his viewpoint onto us from behind that camera’s lenses opened up all sorts of questions about him for me. And all because of thinking about J.J. Lee’s approach to his book.

But just a minute. Who was I to give a workshop on memoir? I haven’t published a memoir! And I’m getting the distinct feeling that there is some unspoken code that one must not give writing workshops about subjects where they have not achieved publishing success. I thought about that and eventually, in a defiant manner, rejected it because it is my pet peeve that “fame” seems to have become the criteria for the legitimizing of the sharing of, well, just about everything – knowledge, bullshit, sexist, racist, homophobic blah, blah blahing. I know you get it!

I thought back to Mona Fertig’s project that arose from her late father’s life-long work as an artist who received little, if any, recognition.  In 2008, when I’d moved to Salt Spring, I interviewed Mona and wrote a feature on her as she was embarking on her Unheralded Artists trade book project, a focus that many others said she was crazy to embark upon. Still she did it with many books now published under her MotherTongue Publishing.

And I began to think that we all need to find a way to fight the idea that we are only qualified to share our knowledge if we become “famous”. Because that is not how most of the world learned throughout history. They learned from elders, though storytelling. From trial and error. Through persistence. Via sharing in small groups, from a teacher challenging them from the front of the classroom.

And it is that kind of quiet sharing, one person to another — a grandmother teaching her grandchildren to knit, a fisherman showing them how to tie lures inside a wobbly boat on a lake with an Aurora Borealis of greens and browns highlighted on the lake’s surface by the sun’s first rays in the early morning.

And it is this form of sharing that is the way of The SFU Writer’s Studio which was started by Betsy Warland. It’s a commitment to relate as equals, mentor-students, one not more important than the other, that makes the SFU Writer’s Studio community a bonded one, person to person and then via social media for those who choose to stay connected after they move on.

So, as a bit of a stretch, I consider putting on our workshop, Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing, to be a very small political act specifically because I haven’t published a memoir. And yet, I do have something to share with others (as Esmeralda does) who may be farther back on the path than I am when it comes to writing overall.

Maybe you could assess your strengths and decide whether you have some level of knowledge and or passion, regardless of whether you’ve received notoriety from it or not, that you could share. Consider it a circumvention. That’s surely the attitude that self-publishing arose from.

And in that sharing, you might just help someone else think differently about something that they’re wrestling with personally, and maybe that’s enough. At the very least, it’s a start. It’s what J.J. Lee’s book did for me.

On Mind Games and Writing

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One of the reasons that the SFU Writer’s Studio emphasizes community is that without like-minded individuals around to talk with, to share writing or poetry with, to give and receive feedback from, not only does inspiration and creativity get put on the back burner, but your writing and whatever it is that you’re working on begins to feel less real.

The gremlins of doubt begin to get louder. Poser. Wannabe. And, it’s a good idea to have a preemptive plan of attack or a little mind game on hand. It works for mental health. It works for creativity.

So, in the past year, I’ve made the conscious decision that it’s really best not to question what I’m doing when it comes to my writing as long as I am doing it and still feel engaged, otherwise, I might question the project right out of existence.

If it matters and I’m still getting something out of what I’m working on, and I’m still inspired to grapple  with the questions that come up around parts of the manuscript,  and I am able to more clearly see a finish line, then I’m just going to keep going because it’s now a personal commitment, the same way, I imagine, a runner has in adding to the number of kilometers they aspire to and think about meeting that goal as well.

I see no point in questioning that I’m sitting in a room writing about things that matter to me, but may not matter one bit to anyone else, or the entire project will seem irrelevant. And when the reward is in the doing, who gets to make that decision?

I do.

And, you know, I just want all the writers out there to ask themselves this:

What’s everyone else doing that’s really life and death important? Honestly? Have you ever thought about that? The percentage of people who spend their lives working on something that will be life-changing for others or add to their enjoyment in as great a way as a really successful artistic venture can bring joy to audiences (even if just through the eyes of one reader on a page) is actually limited to a relatively small number of people worldwide.

But comparison isn’t necessary or advised.

If you really want to write, you will. If not, you won’t. It’s simple.

Getting published? Well, we all know, that’s another story.

Got any tricks for keeping yourself on track creatively? Share them.

This Story’s Ending is Just the Beginning

The 2012 Writer’s Studio is officially over. Evaluations handed in. Party over. Dishes done.

Saskia’s house, our very own Bloomsbury, quiet until the next salon and wonderful news shared with us by our non fiction mentor, Brian Payton, about a novel he’d been working on for nine years, off and on. Creativity: found. A story’s time come. And, then, the right ones in New York bidding for the pages in battles, one assumes, as visceral as any others over desirable and contested geography.

Now, back at home, I am stuffed with this ending: relief.  Hear me, I say to myself. No sense searching for new tricks out there. No mystery. What we need, inside each one of us. Full-fledged, pen carrying members of the local literary community. Duck in and out at will the way children leave supportive families carrying their love on paths to new identities, more conscious writing selves. And feeling this way, I can think of no better words – don’t ask me why –  than the ones we are all familiar with in this old Leonard Cohen poem ….

The Music Crept by Us

I would like to remind

the management

that the drinks are watered

and the hat-check girl

has syphilis

and the band is composed

of former SS monsters

However since it is

New Year’s Eve

and I have lip cancer

I will place my

paper hat on my

concussion and dance

 

I wonder how everyone else is feeling?