I’ve been having a reoccurring conversation with a colleague: at what point can one may safely identify oneself as a “writer”? Is a writer someone who enjoys writing? Who writes a lot? Who writes for their living? Or is there a certain level of proficiency required? To use a bad medical metaphor: someone may enjoy cutting people up, and in a bizarre world may find idiots willing to pay them to do it, but unless they are trained and certified, they should not be calling themselves “surgeons.” So when I hack away at words, am I in danger of malpractice?
Warning: Weird Al is not licensed by the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons.
As you know, my goal is to expand myself beyond news writing into the more creative genres of poetry and fiction. To that end, I’ve decided to hang out where the literary people go. (While walking into a barn hardly makes one an animal, if one spends enough time there, a person does start to smell like one.) I finally went to Speaking Crow poetry open mic at Aqua Books. I took a young poet friend from church, both to encourage her as a writer and so I didn’t have to walk into a new place alone. I expected a circle of chairs where we’d join 10-15 other amateur poets reading and giving each other feedback.
We walked into a long room that had a stage with a podium and row upon row of chairs. It resembled a church, with the exception of the bar at the back and the lighted “applause” sign up front. (I’m sure my pastor would have fun with one of those.) I’d say there were at least 100 people in those seats and 17 readers that night. The conspiracy theorist sitting next to us, who smelled of alcohol and reads his 5-syllable acrostics here regularly, said this was the largest gathering of Crows he’d ever seen. We were a mix of teenage rappers, gray-bearded impersonators, prolific authors, foul-mouthed political satirists, Aboriginal spiritualists, storytellers, award winners, and comedians. The level of writing challenged and impressed me.
My friend and I each read three poems. Like a true chicken – I mean “coach” – I let her go first. She was the only one to receive spontaneous applause (started by the other teenage poet in the room) after a passionate piece about accepting differences. Most of us received applause when our names were announced and when we left the stage, which was plenty gratifying, although they may just have been happy to see some of us go. I began with a little experimental poem using computer terms to describe the isolation of motherhood:
It all starts with a mother-bored
no connection options
left to her own devices
demand for enhanced performance
embedded in her system
no communication with the network
components of a lost memory
Then I read one of my favourites, “Now I Lay Me Down,” reflecting on my late night moments of remorse on the floor beside my sleeping toddler’s crib before we knew why he was so difficult to reach and redirect.
Unlike when I preach at my church, I had everyone’s eyes; also unlike at church, I couldn’t begin to guess what they were thinking. When I read the last few lines about sleep and hair, I heard the emcee on stage beside me gasp. I wish I could have asked him why.
I finished my 3 minutes of glory with the “Deep Cleanser” poem I wrote for this blog and published in the MB Herald. That one got even more audible audience reaction than the second, and I wondered: Did they love my use of metaphor? Were they offended or moved by my message about the power of Grace to transform? The next day, I woke up and gasped myself when it hit me that they may have taken the “he” in “where you need him most/ he travels deep/ works while you sleep” as referring to a “member” of something other than the Trinity. The thought that I may have introducing myself to the poetry community as sexually provocative, rather than spiritually and artistically evocative, made me want to drink my cleanser. Which brings me back to the messy issue of identity.
Last weekend at the Manitoba Book Awards (where Dora Dueck’s This Hidden Thing won Book of the Year!), I wanted to meet novelist David Bergen. Remembering my colleague’s cautions, I wondered, should I introduce myself to him as a writer? I don’t want to sound arrogant or presumptuous. (But neither do I want to sound like just another reading fan.) He’s won the Giller Prize and numerous Manitoba book awards; I’ve won 2 Canadian Church Press awards (and they weren’t even first place). His name is on the front of books; mine is buried in the table of contents. He creates life out of nothing; I dumpster dive, transcribe, revise, hit & miss. The only thing we have in common is a hometown I was eager to leave.
Am I “another writer”?
Surgeons shouldn’t be hacking flesh without the paperwork, but there is no ID card for writers. Maybe writing is more like parenting: you pop out the baby, and presto: you’re the parent. You barely know which end to wipe first, but you learn as you go. And perhaps writing is more like faith: you tell Jesus you want to follow him and, even though you’re still a bumbly mess who doesn’t know the poisoned apple from the fruit of the Spirit, he says confess it with your mouth, tell it on a mountain, identify yourself with me. The more you do, the more like Jesus we become.
“Hi David. Congratulations on your award. I’m Angeline, another writer refined in the fires of Niverville.”