Thursday, June 9, 2011

the workshop

It was a Saturday morning - too early for me, and I'd only driven an hour to get there. It was altogether too early for Ivan Coyote, who had arrived from Vancouver the night before, and had gotten very little sleep. There were about a dozen of us who had gathered to attend a memoir-writing workshop, facilitated by one of my favourite writers. A few locals, a few fans, and a few attendees of the local storytelling festival that my hometown hosts each year. I fall into all three categories.

We all had different reasons from being there, as was made clear by the round of introductions. But at the same time, we had a common goal - to write, whether we were at the beginning, middle, or end of a project.  I love Ivan's work. And I write. Years ago, I interviewed my grandmother for a memoir project that I neither started nor finished. But I never thought about the other writing I do, my personal reflections, as memoir until I began to read Ivan's work and hear her stories, both live and on the Internet. Up until then, I'd taken my own experiences and attempted to fictionalize them in some way. Sometimes it worked.  Sometimes it didn't. Even now, at the back of my brain, my inner critic mutters "but who would want to read about you?"

I learned a lot last Saturday. I learned that I don't have to know everything about a topic in order to write about it. I can write what I know, or I think I know; I can write what may or may not have happened. Somewhere in the spaces between the notes, the melody will appear. I learned that the "Heather's Pick" I was suckered into buying last week (for my US friends, Chapters is a Canadian bookstore chain that denotes so-called good reads as "Heather's Picks." ) was not a waste of fifteen dollars after all, but an opportunity to explore and evaluate some extraordinarily bad writing. These tips, in and of themselves, are invaluable for any writer. But I confess, right now, to deeper lessons, which were not overtly taught, but  much more poignant than I could have imagined.

  • I miss my grandmother. I miss her a lot. She died just over a year ago, and was a mainstay in my life for almost 45 years. I miss her beautiful Dutch accent, which I never hear anymore. I miss her telling me that she doesn't like my hair - no matter how I had it cut, she liked it better the time before. She left me her stories. I have done very little with them besides hoard them on a bookshelf, waiting for the right moment, inspiration, time to research, plan, et cetera. Today would have been her 100th birthday, and I need to celebrate her remarkable life.
  • While I initially said that I was there to work with my grandmothers stories, I recognize the validity of sharing my own unique experiences. "The truth about stories is, that's all there are." (Thomas King)
  • I don't need to take any more workshops that teach me how to write, and where to find inspiration. I tell myself I'm a beginner when I am not. I constantly undervalue my own work. I'm not saying that I wouldn't choose to take a workshop with Ivan again, or Ferron (and I will, this August), or any other person I consider to be a mentor, or a personal inspiration. But when I am there, I need to recognize what I want and need to extract from the experience.
  • I need: to take that ever-growing pile of writing that fills my notebook, my hard drive and my brain, and do something with it. I really have no clue what my next step should be. I need honest, constructive feedback on my work. I need some kind of mentor who can help me navigate this process, because I feel stuck in a mire of words upon words. Am I as good as I think I am? I don't know....
  • When Ivan asked us to write about a room either in our childhood home or another room of significance, I should have avoided writing about my grandmother's kitchen (my other grandmother, this time). It was a cop out. I've written about my grandmother's kitchen many times. In fact, I wrote a piece about my grandmother's kitchen three weeks ago, when I was trying to formulate some early memories based on some photos I had found.
I should have written about the room I was sitting in. I was so triggered by that room. There I sat, in a circle of chairs, feeling very small and alone. Just as I felt when I was a little girl in Guides, and I would  sit with the rest of the troop in a circle in the very same spot, struggling for an acceptance that I would never find. The room resonated with that old energy, and instead of channeling it into words, I let it get the best of me. I should have scuffed my stocking feet along the hardwood floors and taken myself to the cathedral windows, leaned on the deep windowsills covered with cracked yellow paint. I could have looked out across the lawn, towards the United Church (they call it Church Street for a reason). I would have seen the blue/green glimmer of the river I love, in the distance. I might have remembered something positive about my childhood. I am no longer the child who doesn't fit. No Girl Guide leaders will whisper to each other about my undersized uniform, or my lack of a suitable gift exchange present. There are no girls who will giggle behind my back, or in front of me. They can't force me to sleep in a room by myself during the annual sleep over because it happened thirty-five years ago, and we are all gone from this place. If I can still hear their voices echoing from corner to corner, it's because I let myself believe, for one fleeting second, that they were right. I didn't belong. I would never succeed.

I acted accordingly, letting the opportunity to ask questions and create conversation slip away because of my sudden shyness. I forgot, for a while, to view my location and my situation from a place of power. But  I regained my equilibrium (in the car, but I didn't cry...I couldn't, my sister-in-law was waiting a few blocks away and ready to cut my hair, and it would have taken way too much explaining....)  I realized that in spite of asking very few questions, and therefore not getting the answers that I really needed, I received more than I could have hoped for.

Another time, given the same opportunity, I won't let those chances slip by me again. If I had a do-over, and achieved the same result, I would consider it time well spent. After all, I had a golden morning with one of my favourite writers, and storyteller extraordinaire. Priceless.


MakingSpace said...

You did what was right for your soul at that moment. And you did write about it - here. And beautifully. And from a place of safety.

Love the Ivan piece too.

MakingSpace said...

OMG I just left your website and went to one that had this article linked:

Powerful. Writing is powerful.