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.