Writing: what I’ve learned

In the beginning, writing was a fun school assignment. It was a way to compete with my friends. It helped to wean me off my toys, offering an age-appropriate medium for the expression of my imaginative impulses.  

Then, when I was sixteen, going on seventeen, while hiking across a glacier in the Rockies, I experienced something I couldn’t quite make sense of. In response to the experience, I tried to make sense of it by writing a poem. It was, I think, my first true poem. I also now suspect that I turned to the page only because I had no one else to talk with about the experience. 

If writers, like super heroes, have secret origins, my experience on the glacier and my effort to make sense of it with words is my secret origin. Like every super hero’s secret origin, it has shaped everything else that has come after. I never finished that first true poem; I don’t think I’ve ever stopped trying to write it either. 

Twenty-nine years after that first unfinished and forever-revised poem, I now know this about writing: Luke got it backwards. Flesh becomes word, and not the other way around. The marks on a page don’t affect us. We affect them. The influence we suppose we feel in words originates in us. We make marks work. We make marks words. The power of words is us imaginatively transubstantiated.

The power of writing, then, is always the power of a community. Like a currency, writing is only as influential as the people who call it their own. If you want to craft writing that wins friends, influences neighbours, or earns money and acclaim, the marks on the page are probably the least important consideration.

Don’t write each day; instead, ingratiate yourself each day to the right people. It’s gatekeepers all the way down.

I also now suspect that words have limited efficacy when it comes to making sense of the kind of experience I had on the glacier. The experience originates, I think, in a part of our brains that experience, know, and understand without using the marks, sounds and physicalizations we learn as children to express as language. If this suspicion is correct, it is probably impossible to express in words the experience I had on the glacier. My adolescent turn to words, poetry and writing, to make sense of my encounter with the infinitesimal nature of human experience, was probably futile from the outset. 

Fortunately, writing has helped me to understand myself, others, and the world around me, even if it can’t magically motivate people to action or express the inexpressible. Despite its mundane limitations, writing can be very satisfying, especially when I catch in words some feeling, intuition or idea that had previously seemed ineffably out of reach. Rationally, I know writing — my writing — is little more than an elaborate game of solitaire; irrationally, I also know that it feels important. I’ve always been one of those kids who takes play very seriously.

In another twenty-nine years, I will be seventy-four, going on seventy-five. With so much life left to learn from, I wonder who I might yet become. Will the person I am today be as much of a stranger to me then as that sixteen year-old is a stranger to me now? It seems likely. It also seems likely that the different texts I have created or will create will be insufficient to forge a persistent identify over time. My past selves, my present selves, and my future selves, like any other reader, make of texts whatever they bring to them at the time of the encounter. There is no indelible message that can be preserved in the bottle of my words, even for my future selves. Waves in the ocean of experience leave no trace. 

If all of this is true, why write at all? It’s a fair a question, and one that I often ask myself. If there are so many other enjoyable activities that are much more likely to win friends, influence neighbours, and earn money and acclaim, why bother writing, why persist in a habit which serves no greater purpose than its own perpetuation. At the age of forty-five, going on forty-six, this is my answer: writing deeply is like breathing deeply; you understand its value, whenever you take the time to do it.

A Voice Of Venus: Feel It, Express it, Release it

On Tuesday, I went to Nadine’s featured spoken-word set at the female-focussed (but friendly to all) Voices of Venus (at Umi Cafe). This was my third time attending the monthly event which includes an all woman open-mic set followed by a set featuring one woman poet. Each time I’ve attended, I’ve enjoyed myself and encountered plenty of quality spoken word, storytelling and / or singing.

Nadine is charismatic, talented, sincere, intelligent, and a seasoned performer. Accordingly, her set was engaging, thoughtful, and fun.

She also read a poem that almost made me cry my eyes out in public.

It may come as a surprise to some people but I am an unrepentant cry-baby. Just about anything can make me cry: happy, sad, sentimental, poignant, whatever.

What’s more: I like crying. Once I got over the notion that crying is a bad thing, I discovered a good cry always makes me feel better. Sometimes, I cry simply because I’m feeling cranky and I know it will make me feel better.

This attitude towards crying may come as a surprise to some people because I rarely — if ever — cry in the presence of others. I don’t cry around other people because their reactions to crying rarely serve my aims in crying. I want to feel the feeling, express it, and release it — not deal with other people doing onto me as they would have me do onto them.

So, despite my cry-baby tendencies, I’m pretty good at keeping a cork in the water works until I can find a time to do it productively.

But this poem almost popped the cork:

Poem For My Son
The smallest human in the world
In the fastest moment I’ve known
Became the biggest thing in my life.
I held you.
You smelled
Like mine.
I closed my eyes
And I made a silent,
Selfish wish
That you could be my baby

I opened my eyes.
Your eyes
Wide and round,
Deepest brown,
Were a gift.
They told me
Was the time
For unabashed adoration,
Silly smiles,
And songs
For finding
Delight in
Your soft baby skin.
My heart within
My chest
Achingly tumescent
With love that grew
Almost too quickly.
You were always you
And for too short a time
You were also
All mine.

Wild days.
I shut my eyes
When you fall
Hard and swift.
I see it coming
I can’t let it happen
If I watch.
It’s my small gift
To let you falter
And fall
And get back up again.
And again.
I make the silent, useless wish
That I could protect you from everything.
That you could live free
From harm,
From hardship
From pain.
Yet keeping you from pain
Is keeping you from life.
I want you to live
I want you to fight
To survive.
I pray these bumps
Will help you grow strong
Enough to weather life’s storms.
And when you come home,
And I will kiss your tears
I will be the safe port.

Crazy day.
I steel my gaze,
I temper my rage
When you try gage
My limits
And push
Every. Single. Button.
I have.
I KNOW that I love you
Because I haven’t sold you
To gypsies.

Deep breath.
In the breath
Of the swiftest moment I’ve known
You’re transformed
From a trial
Into the sweet child
With the mile-wide smile
That tells me
This is the time
For forgiving
For forgetting
For unabashed hugs
And flinging your
Little arms
Around my neck
Making my heart swell
Almost too quickly.
I love you so much
It hurts.

You are hardest
Best work
I’ve ever done.
The price of this love
Is frustration.
The price of this love
Is exhaustion,
Irrational apprehension
About strangers
And street traffic
And surprise zombie invasions
I would go to
My grave for you
And yet
I’ve never felt such responsibility
To stay alive.
I’ve never had such
Motivation to thrive,
To try.
You’ve inspired me
In ways I can’t describe.
Loving you
Awoke something inside
That was dormant.
Loving you
I finally see
The way to the
Woman I’ve always wanted to be.

The smallest human in the bookstore
In the most tender moment I’ve known,
Watched my face,
Your eyes
Wide and round,
Deepest brown
Perhaps wondering
Why I wept as I read
The words of Robert Munsch
In one short verse
Had written my truth:

I love you forever
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be

There are a couple of reasons that explain why this poem effected me.

First, because Nadine is a friend, I can’t dismiss her words as the rosy-coloured exaltations of some insincere stranger. I know she means it.

Second, after a lot of hard work, I’m finally at a place where I am happy enough and sure enough that I can reflect honestly on my childhood and recognize it for what it was. And, as of late, I have been reflecting.

So, when my friend Nadine spoke these words, the cork almost popped because I know growing up, I never felt anything like the love she expresses for her child from either of my parents.

I’m not even sure how to describe what this knowledge feels like. It’s not hurt. It’s not sadness. It’s not envy. It’s not bitterness. It’s some kind of unfulfilled pre-linguistic mammalian need akin to hunger or thirst. If I were a cat, I’d probably take a blanket between my teeth and start pushing at it with my paws.

To be diplomatic, I should say explicitly my parents (who separated when I was six) kept me watered, fed, clothed, and sheltered. They never physically abused me. They always encouraged me to read and do well at school. They bought me plenty of toys. We always had pets. I was even sent on an exchange to France once. I’m also sure they received much worse parenting than I did and, when all is said and done, they probably did the best they could given their own personal histories.

Unfortunately, for me, it doesn’t change the fact that they were emotionally negligent, manipulative, and even hostile. I learned pretty early on that my parents couldn’t and shouldn’t be trusted and without trust, there can be no love.

By the time I stopped talking to them, I didn’t even really like them that much. It’s the smartest decision I’ve ever made.

It may seem paradoxical to some but realizing and recognizing that I grew up in an uncommonly unhealthy emotional environment is a tremendously good thing. For most of my life, I told myself and everyone else that my childhood was no big deal and that my parents weren’t all that bad. It wasn’t a case of me lying to myself. I didn’t know any better.

Thanks to some loving animals, some great teachers, and some incredibly caring and patient friends — and a bit of hard work — I now know better. And in knowing better, I can feel it, express it, and release it. What can I say? I’m a fortunate guy.

Thanks for the poem, Nadine. 🙂

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Life Not Imitating Art and Why It Should: The Possibility of It

I was very fortunate to attend Wilfrid Laurier University at a time when Dr. Leslie O’Dell arranged to have Janet Wright direct a play starring Ted Follows. He was supported by a gaggle of undergrads.

I had a fairly minor part and didn’t interact too often with Mr. Follows on- or off-stage; even so, he provided me with one of the most important acting lessons I ever received and, I am willing to guess, he probably didn’t even do it consciously.

I still remember the moment quite clearly. I was a minor character, amongst a crowd of supporting characters and not directly involved in the central action but nevertheless a participant, and Mr. Follows made wordless eye-contact with me.

With that one look, he not only made me feel important as an actor and character, he also added depth to our characters’ relationship, he drew me into the scene, and, as a result, he spurred me to give more. With one simple look, I was transformed from a self-moving prop to a living person. Hegel would approve.

Ever since that moment, as an actor, writer, and director, I’ve have been acutely aware of the power and importance of eye-contact on-stage — with or without words.

For example, I was in a large ensemble piece once when another actor and I inadvertently created an unscripted relationship and story between our two characters because we both knew we could always look to each other for non-verbal communication and interaction. And this happened without any discussion whatsoever. It simply happened because we were both looking to connect and communicate even when we weren’t speaking lines. Sure, only one or two folks in the audience would have explicitly picked up on the relationship but it enriched the on-stage dynamic and our performances. It made for better theatre.

Regrettably, I have never been able to incorporate this behavior into my day-today living. I rarely make eye-contact with strangers and I have a hard time holding eye-contact, even with folks I know and care about. I can hold a person’s gaze in character in a way that I can’t do as myself. It’s difficult to describe but looking openly into someone’s open gaze actually feels physically unmanageable and overwhelming — like the feeling of watching the river from close proximity, as it tumbles over the Niagara falls.

I also suspect — rather, I should say, I know — it is a preemptive self-defense mechanism. Somewhere along the way I learned that one way to avoid conflict and trouble is simply to avoid engagement and there is nothing more engaging than eye-contact. It’s a theme that has even turned up in my poetry: if no one moves, if everyone sits perfectly still, no one will be hurt.

It occurred to me today, after reading Nadine’s post about a shared experience, that the strategy actually doesn’t work. The baddies, the crazies, the conflict, the trouble will come whether eye-contact is made or not. Eye-contact isn’t the problem it’s the baddies looking for trouble and if they want trouble with me, it won’t matter if I look them in the eye or not. Moreover, even if this strategy did work, the cost of avoiding the occasional upsetting moment is too great — missing out on all those great unscripted relationships that might have started with one open look.

Case in point: the only reason I was with Nadine at yesterday’s very enjoyable Voices of Venus poetry reading is because Jessica, the talented headliner, looked over her shoulder a few months ago, made eye-contact, and smiled at a stranger as we both entered the Elmdale Tavern to catch some theatre — an unexpected and rewarding friendship that began with one friendly look.

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