Walking alone

at Meira's House on Sugarbush Road launch

I had my last mentorship meeting with Meira Cook this week. For the past 4 months, I’ve been sending her 10-20 new or revised poems every 2 weeks, then meeting for coffee to read and hear her comments.

I’ve accomplished so much:

– Together, we worked on 129 different poems!
– Some 45 of them were written during the mentorship; the rest were started or completed (in rough form) in the year prior.
– About 20 of the ones we worked on went through significant revisions or additions and were submitted to Meira twice. Many times she told me “This needs to go on!” and as often as I could, I added a stanza or two. She was right: they were always better poems in the end.
– “Stigma” (inspired by a conversation with the director of the Schizophrenia Society) crossed her desk numerous times, growing like a weed – we laughed that it would become my “opus.”
– At least 90 of the poems we worked on feel ready to be seen (but ask me again in a year: I’m sure most of them will look totally different).
– I submitted to 5 literary journals over the past 4 months.
– 5 of the poems we workshopped were selected for publication in 2 journals (Rhubarb chose 4 of my favourites, and Geez liked “Stigma”)!
– I chose a manuscript focus and submitted my first grant proposal.
– I was asked to read at a chapbook launch. My biggest letdown is that I will be unable to attend the mentorship wind-up performance this week, but reading at St. Margaret’s with Joanne Epp, Sarah Klassen, and Sally Ito was a nice surprise that mitigated my disappointment.
– I no longer fear the blank page! (Or worry that by adding to a poem I will dilute the good stuff.)


Obviously, I’ve generated a lot of material and developed confidence, but the biggest thing I’ve gained is skills. When I look back on where I was 4 months ago, and the work I was performing/submitting then, I’m embarrassed for my younger self and proud of where I’ve come.

– I’ve added the “so what” metaphysical aspect and/or the “hard edge for the softness to rub up against” to many poems that began as simply “nice” memories.
– I’m aware of “register.”
– I’ve learned there is such a thing as too much alliteration. (and too many adjectives, and too many metaphors…)
– My “You’re not Nisselling” collection has developed its own affectionate-exasperated tone, generating a couple series around the loveable real-life characters of “The imaginative child” and “the diminutive professor.”
– I still find found poems and list poems challenging, but now I have a better idea of what they require (more irony on both levels and a more surprising ending, respectively).
– My images are more surprising, and (I love it when Meira says this:) more “devastating.”

Some of the issues we’ve discussed:

How does one write about another people group’s suffering without objectifying or sounding voyeuristic? It’s very difficult, but I do know of some poets who’ve done it well (eg. Di Brandt). And how should a poet approach a manuscript? At times, Meira praised my drive to grow and generate and publish as my greatest strength; other times she cautioned me to “follow my aesthetic” and not look ahead to the final product, the reader, the publisher, the book. I wonder if she interpreted my motivation as impatience for success and recognition, rather than as an outflow of my forward-thinking personality? She both challenged me to think in terms of how the pieces work together in the collection and to not get distracted from the art in front of me by considering the manuscript as a whole – on this issue, I’m still unclear.

Moving forward:

I hope to do a 2 or 3 week intensive program at the Banff or Sage Hill (Saskatoon) writing school next spring. I’m looking into taking a University composition course, and I plan to register for every workshop the Guild offers! Whether or not I receive the grant, I will continue to build my “You’re not Nisselling” autism collection. I’ll keep meeting with my monthly poetry group, reading at Speaking Crow, submitting to journals (reaching my goal of “10 rejections by Christmas” will be tricky if my streak of beginner’s luck continues!), and returning to Meira’s notes as I revise, revise, revise!

It’s going to be a challenging adjustment, not having Meira to run all my poems and ideas by (or her lovely presence to look forward to sharing)! I’m still a lot way from finding my own voice and trusting my gut. Meira’s suggestions have been so encouraging and eye-opening. Almost invariably, the poems I was unsure of were the ones in which she found some delightful juxtaposition of devastation and humour, observed and magic realism, or half rhymes and musical sounds. The drafts that gave me initial pride often required the most revision (too glib, too unclear, too wordy).

Her parting blessing: “To succeed as a poet, you need 3 things: talent, tenacity, and luck. You have loads of talent and tenacity, and you’ll make your own luck! You might not believe this: it will take time, but time is on your side. Someday, you will have a published collection of poetry.” This is what I will hang onto in the years ahead.

I’d encourage anyone with the itch to write to join the Manitoba Writers’ Guild (only $60 annually) and apply for a mentorship. It’s priceless!

a word about/on/of/for/with/by finding my own voice

My worst fear is not rejection slips. My worst fear is that I will be published in a book that will turn out to be redundant and unnecessary and end its life in the 50 cent bin at an Esso on the #1 Hy-way in Saskatchewan (shudder). With the volume of books already published, how does an inexperienced writer hope to add anything new?

On her blog Borrowing Bones (doradueck.wordpress.com), Dora Dueck recently explored the relationship between reading great writers and writing. In response to my questions about how to remain generative rather than reactionary, Dueck interviewed Shirley Hershey Showalter, who is reading 100 memoirs before writing her own, on the topic of finding one’s own voice while listening to the chorus of writers who’ve gone before us.

As I read their conversation, I recalled two diverse quotes on originality. One is Janet Fitch’s wisdom to “avoid clichés.” And she doesn’t just mean the threadbare ones: “When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché.” Whatever happened to imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? Oh, sorry. You’ve probably heard that before. While I agree that sometimes the “tried and true” is more “tired and thirty,” aiming for originality seems like a ticket to madness. (A naked man juggling dead squirrels on the roof is unique, but without fitting any of our cultural categories, he says nothing.)

And then you have C.S. Lewis’ wisdom: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

If I had to choose one, I’d say Lewis is the more necessary. But as an editor, I’d have to say he takes it too far in the other direction. Many people tell the truth. Badly. I suspect part of the problem is that they were unwilling to tell the whole truth. But the fact is, there are myriad ways to share facts, and many are not worth reading. Or at the least, not worth reading twice.

Returning to Dora Dueck’s blog, I was intrigued (as were others) by her image of the stream (borrowed from Willa Cather): “A woman writer stands in the stream of literary history, but lets it fall away to reveal the purer self that sings naturally in her own body, in her own voice.” At first this analogy left me with only cold, wet feet and more questions. How does one control what will wash away and what will not? If I do not yet recognize my own poetic voice, how do I know it will not erode or dissolve as soon as my toes hit the water? Then I found this:

In an essay on (about/of/for/with) his influences in Rhubarb, Rudy Wiebe”> begins with an etymology lesson. Influence is the preposition “in” plus the Latin “fluence” – to flow.

“Is Rhubarb asking: what, in a lifetime, has flowed in you,
Rudy Wiebe? Or is it “flowed into,” or “flowed through/
within/past/under/over/beside/ out of/against,” all those
powerful, essential prepositions which in English shapeshift
and control our meanings? Or is the question really:
what, with all this flowing somewhere in you, has remained behind to make
you the writer you continue trying to become? Tell us, make it up (down/out?)
as necessary.”

When I think of the literary stream flowing through me, not under or around me, rather than imagining it washing me from the outside, I imagine the stream becoming part of me, like the water I drink; what I love, remember, and cling to from other writers (like Wiebe and Dueck) – those “flowings in” will irrigate me, silt up my banks, colour my own flow with its algae and grasses. Because the stream flows in me, rather than me standing in it, my literary traditions and mentors cannot wash away my experiences and beliefs (trapped inside me) – these will make my voice my own.

Spring shivers

I’ve been so busy writing for the Herald and my research assignment all winter that I haven’t had time or energy to write creatively. But other than a few twinges of guilt for leaving this blog high and dry, I haven’t been hard on myself for it. In my paid editing/interviewing assignments, I’ve been developing my writing skills (as poet Sarah Klassen reminded me), and I’ve met many book-shelving, coffee-pouring, truck-driving writers who would love a writing day job, even if it is not of the literary sort.

When the snow starts to melt, I feel the poetry and story writing urge rise again. But it takes a while to rake up the winter leaves in my head and let the imagination breathe. You’ll see what I mean. Yesterday I sat in my favourite coffee shop downtown, people-watching and furiously writing in a scribbler. Here’s what I created:

Would I still be me
if I cut off both arms
Me with less blood
still bad at baseball

Whenever you dig a new well, the first thing you draw is mud. It’s all good. Anyone can survive spring in my corner of the world, as long as you have a good pair of boots. And a lot of patience.

While the stress is away, the mice will play

You can’t imagine (or if you’re a student, maybe you can!) the difference I feel this week now that all my classes are over.

Teaching is like a never-ending debt: there is always one more paper to grade, email to answer, Powerpoint to tweak, or handout to print. I was always looking ahead to the next class, next assignment, next exam. I guess it’s like that with most jobs, but for a while now I’ve been wishing for a job I can leave at the office, rather than take to bed with me. And I don’t mean that I was thinking about it in my sleep (although I was; some nights I took Gravol so I could stop teaching in my dreams), but I actually took my work to bed. Between the dictionary, textbooks, laptop, and student papers spread across the bed, there was barely room for my husband!  (And that’s a shame because, even after 10 PM, he still uses more complete sentences than my students’ papers.) I envied him for being able to do his work from 8:30-4:30 and then come home and read or think whatever he wanted to, for getting paid for every hour he works, and for getting coffee breaks with people who keep him sane. (Not that he needs help. I do. When I spend too many hour alone with student essays and lecture notes, I start talking to myself and I don’t like what she says.)

Without the pressure of the classroom, the ideas for my blogs are coming faster than I could get them down! I’ve always felt more creative in the summer; I thought it was the weather. (In Manitoba, everybody emerges from a low grade depression in April.) I didn’t realize it was the change in my internal barometer, not the meteorologists’ that made the difference. But even with the end of the college year, for the past three years I haven’t had complete relief because I was always mentally (emotionally?) preparing for the next new course the following year. Now that I’m taking a year off teaching, I have nothing to do but write!

Of course, I am starting two new (writing!) positions next week, so I will owe a “debt” of work to a new employer. But I’ll be paying in words, rather than in grades and Powerpoints, so I’m not worried! Certainly not about copy editing. I’m a little nervous about the historical research position, mostly because it’s so vague. (“Find all the human interest stories in the development of the Stewardship Ministries department of the MB Conference. Oh, but first you need to figure out who all the humans are that have those stories.” I have not doubts that once I find the humans, I’ll be able to draw the stories out of them–that’s what I do best.)

It’s made me realize that the best thing I can do for myself as a writer, is to relax (play, rest, trust) as a human being.

So what’s the problem?

I want to be myself, but I think I’m trying too hard.

I’m afraid of criticism. I’m afraid of disappointing myself. Afraid to let go and let creativity flow. Perfectionist. Frozen. Blocked.

I want to write. I do write: articles about other people, by asking questions, piecing together facts, rearranging quotes. I chip away around others’ ideas till only the story sculpture remains. I like my sculptures. But I want to pick my own colours, boldly approach the blank canvas, and paint with words.

When I was a teenager I filled notebooks with poems, journal entries, and short stories. I’d wake up (even if I hadn’t been sleeping) to a line of music and in ten minutes would have a page of meter and metaphor, internal rhyme…and peace. The last time I felt words slip out of me–no pushing–was when I wrote a song in College. My boyfriend, a music major who liked to embarrass me by serenading in Italian outside my dorm window, came up with piano accompaniment, and we sang it together in church.

Annie Dillard says that some writers who get stuck write the alphabet or old nursery rhymes over and over until a new line comes. Perhaps this time Mother Hubbard finds a Kitkat or one of the three pigs learns karate. One writer always retypes everything he wrote the day before and hopes he doesn’t stop when he gets to the end. The idea is just to write something, because nothing comes from nothing (as Maria von Trapp would say), but something always leads to something else. My theory is that if I write about the fact that I can’t write, and why I can’t write, and how I could write if…I’ll be writing again.

And if I press past my fears as a writer, maybe I’ll dream up more than a work of fiction; perhaps I’ll live freer in my own story too.