Success and the Long Game

What does success mean to a writer — or any artist?

My mentor, Laisha, very early in our collaboration talked about “playing the long game” — treating writing as a long-term commitment, working at the craft regularly, finishing projects that may take months or even years to reach completion. Most importantly, continuing whether or not the work is recognized or celebrated.

I will tell you that I am not, by nature, a patient person. It is very hard for me to follow through with ideas, to let things unfold in their own time, to stay with things that offer no guarantee of reward. What has made the difference with my writing — unlike flamenco dancing or other true but less gripping loves, like sewing or painting — is passion. I need to write, and that need has kept me going since I first started recording my thoughts, ideas and experiences in journals when I was 12 or 13 years old.

This love affair I have with words experienced a cooling period this year. The passion didn’t disappear, but it seemed my ability to create anything new did.

I got what I wanted for my work. My writing was published, shortlisted for awards, and it even won a few. People read my work — or heard my work, when I was invited to read it — and responded to it. I tried to step back and see my writing as objectively as I could in the context of this little bit of success. I tried to read it fresh, as if I wasn’t the author. When I did this, I began to really wonder how I made it — where on earth this writing came from. I knew it was mine, but it no longer felt like mine. It felt like this work had been given to me as a gift; that anything that received recognition arrived through some kind of channel while I was in a particularly receptive phase.

In June I was invited to read as part of the Southbank Writer’s Series and I accepted with excitement and gratitude. But as I tried to choose what to read I asked myself, “If a piece of my writing hasn’t been recognized in some way, is it bad? Can I, should I, read it?”

That’s where a little bit of success got me. Not to a new, relaxed confidence in my work but a deeper kind of self-doubt.

I stopped believing I could ever write anything like those poems or essays ever again. It wasn’t up to me. It was up to the benefactor, the source of these pieces that I happened to open up to and embrace, in a particularly magical time. It had little to do with me at all. I stopped believing this art was borne of my own hard work, years of labouring at a craft; it came from somewhere else, something I didn’t have control over.

Of course, I won’t ever write what I’ve written before. That’s the thing about art; you’re always a beginner when you start a new project. You begin from the same place, no matter how skilled or experienced you are with your craft. And that is a little bit terrifying.

Here’s what I’ve learned about playing the long game. Extrinsic rewards, like publication or a writing prize, don’t necessarily feed the work — at least not directly. It is wonderful to be read, for my work to be shared, and especially to have met so many brilliant writers this year because I kept writing and kept submitting my writing. I’m so very grateful that my work has led me to so many amazing writers, who have inspired and encouraged me in so many ways.

Back to that godsend, Laisha, who says: writing is a practice. It’s an art, a craft, something she practices every day. I’m back to trying to experience writing as a process, a spiritual practice, too. Reconnecting with what makes me most happy, most fulfilled — going deep, discovering new connections, insight into what my experiences mean. Finding stories where I didn’t realize there were any. Feeling purposeful, doing what I’m supposed to be doing, whether or not the pages I write turn into anything more.

What does your art mean to you? How do you define success? Have long, fallow periods been part of your process? I am very interested in the ebbs and flows in the work of other artists and writers. Please, do tell. Leave me a comment. Drop me a line.

Full Circle: A Collaboration

Rain, a photo by Isabel Antunes inspired by my story, Shame Shame.

Recently one of my personal essays, Shame Shame, was published at Hippocampus, an online literary magazine devoted to memorable creative non-fiction.

I was so excited when I received the acceptance email over Christmas, I leaped out of my chair, screamed and jumped up and down.

Acceptances are rare! But word that my piece would finally be published inspired such joyous dancing because it’s so close to my heart. Since I wrote it a full year ago I’ve been very eager for it to find its proper literary home.

My essay retraces the fall of 1989, when I was bullied by two girls at school over a boy. This piece is about more than bullying, though. It’s about first love and loss, and how vulnerable we are as teens, constantly trying to gauge our worth while, at the same time, unable to really see ourselves.

Writing it dredged up all the fears I experienced the first time around; thinking about publishing it raised new fears. Would one of the girls who bullied me read it and insist it never happened? Would, after everything else, they try to take that away from me, too?

I’ve received amazing support for having written and shared my story — every day, from known and unknown sources, more likes, comments and shares! It feels good to have told the truth about what was for so long a pent up secret, and for people to respond to my story by calling it gutsy and beautiful.

What was also exciting about having this particular piece published in Hippocampus was the opportunity to provide a photo to accompany it. With the support of the publisher, Donna Talarico, I asked the photography teacher at my old high school to invite a few students to an anti-bullying day collaboration. They each read my story and used it as inspiration to take some photos around the school.

It was difficult to decide which piece to submit to the magazine, but after careful consideration I chose Isabel Antunes’ Rain. It so perfectly captures the mood of the piece — the endless rain, the girl in the jean jacket walking away, alone, under the umbrella. I love how Isabel tied the imagery from my story into the piece so beautifully.

Centennial photography students Ian Garcia & Isabel Antunes.

The timing of publication for Shame Shame lined up with anti-bullying day here in Canada — the perfect opportunity to wear my pink shirt, meet the photography students at my old school and get one last tour before it gets torn down in a few months.

I would love for Isabel’s photo and my story to keep making the rounds online. If you have a moment to read the piece and feel inspired to comment, like or share, please do. Hippocampus keeps a tally on social shares for each story and at the end of the month, the one with the most shares receives a “Most Memorable Award” — a special badge added to the archived article, which will also be notated on a most memorable page.

An amazing opportunity for my story to continue to reach new readers over time!




Everyday Inspiration

2016 Everyday Inspiration collageEvery January I make a collage/vision board to kick off a new year. This is how I want to approach the world in 2016: celebrating the big and small, developing as a writer and connecting with people by living a creative life.

On the theme of everyday inspiration, this gorgeous song is currently turning in my head — both the original by Martin Tielli, one of my favourite singer/songwriters and artists, and the beautiful version by Art of Ensemble with Sarah Slean. They’re both rich and gorgeous.

What’s currently inspiring you to keep doing what you’re here to do?

Time Travel Is Lonely

nicolewriting11.jpgSince March I’ve been trying to get a grasp on writing in a very new genre for me. For years I wrote poetry because I was drawn to a form I could get in and out of quickly. By nature I’m impatient, and once I became a mom (nearly 8 years ago now!) poetry was the most practical option.

But ever since I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “High Tide In Tucson” in 1999 I knew the personal essay was the form I was made for. Telling stories, personal stories, based on my life experience, was what inspired me to write poetry in the first place. Timing is everything, and over the past few years I’ve been biding my time, knowing the moment would arrive when I’d finally take a swan dive into creative non-fiction.

This summer I took a ten week online course on the Lyric Essay — a kind of hybrid form which I’ve come to think of as the place where poetry and the personal essay meet. Over ten weeks I drafted ten essays. Nowhere near enough experience to claim mastery over the form. But I’ve been able to tell some of the stories I’ve been dying to tell in a more expansive form. And I’ve learned some things about storytelling, and also, the human heart.

I’m not the first person to say that we all have stories to tell. But what was a major discovery for me was just how many. I’ve carried around with me a few stories that I thought of as the major ones — the ones I use to trace some loose narrative arc over my life, and draw some kind of meaning from.

Once I pushed past the major stories I’d been saving up, there were  more stories. Interesting stories! And then there were more. Now I know I will never run out of stories. There’s no way we can ever exhaust them all. The experience of digging deep, back in time, can itself be exhausting, though.

Creative non-fiction, my friends, is not for the faint of heart. In travelling back through time, reading old diaries, listing to music from other eras, revisiting photos of different “me’s” over the past four decades, I found myself sleepwalking through my life until the story was done. My heart was scraped raw with trying to dig out the honest story, the true feelings, the real impact. But I always came back so much wiser, with the gift of the long view to make sense of things.

One more thing I learned in all this time travel. The heart is strong, and very, very resilient. Way more resilient than any of us may think. Every stop I made back in time was at a point of heartbreak. Love and loss are where the power lie for me. And those stories are the ones that intrigue me and always have the most to teach me. As strong and resilient the heart is, I will admit that as I relived old times I felt immersed in a lingering malaise which only let up once I felt the story was done.

Some stories took a long time to get there; one took six months. For six months I wandered around thinking of the person I missed, wishing I could be the girl I was then with the guy he was then. And then the story was finished. The feelings dissipated and were replaced with a feeling of peace. The story made sense. It was right to have ended where it did. Writing it, and only writing it, helped me see that.

The story I just finished writing — a lyric essay in the form of a screenplay — is the most heartbreaking story I have to tell. It took me 24 years to approach it, and four or five attempts before I even hit on the right form. I’m still in it, but I’m looking forward to the peace that will come when I can finally call it done and let it go. Writing it was painful. I felt real sorrow and resisted writing the ending until I felt strong enough to do it, with a lot of encouragement from my instructor (the wonderful Gretchen Clark). But completing it gave me back something invaluable — someone I lost. It was worth revisiting the heartache so boldly.

I can’t wait to do it again.

Where In The World Is Randy Gould? (A Bit About Me And Music)

Randy Gould

A story about music and musician, Randy Gould

When I was a teenager, nothing mattered more to me than music. It was almost like a physical place I lived in. Music was all-encompassing, resonating inside me, both creating and following my shifting moods.  It provided a kind of solace away from the real world while reinforcing my own private reality. I listened to music all the time, from the moment I woke up in the morning and was getting ready for school, to the second I burst into the door when I got home. I still have a crazy passion for music and suspect I always will.

As a teenager and in my 20s I was probably pretty annoying about music. Not because I was obnoxious about my snobby taste in bands. I was never an early adopter (or early dismisser) of whatever was cool. I was often, in fact, a late adopter. My musical tastes typically reflected those of people at least ten years older than me. I was the odd girl rocking out to “Lunatic Fringe” in my bedroom while everyone else was lining up to watch “Rattle and Hum” at the theatre. And even though I loved Ann and Nancy Wilson I firmly believed (and still do) that Karen Carpenter was the best female singer who ever lived. I was also inclined toward classical music thanks to an enthusiastic grade 4 teacher who inspired me to borrow “Hooked On Classics” records from the library. I stayed out of most musical conversations at school and on the bus because I was — let’s face it — pretty nerdy about music.

But it wasn’t because of my out of step tastes that I was annoying. It was because I was so completely dazzled and subsumed by music, to the point of distraction. In the same way that I can’t hear people talking to me when I’m reading, I have trouble pulling away from the experience of listening to a song I love. I remember when I finally had my own car and could listen to whatever I wanted to while driving that my trances interfered with socializing with others. In my teens there were bitter arguments over what to play in the car when riding anywhere with my family. It got down to a kind of mental arm-wrestling. The winner had to have the best argument and my brother was really good at it. Why should we listen to Pearl Jam in the car on the way Christmas dinner, asked my frustrated, religious, Christmas carol-loving Mom? Because what does Auntie Alma wear every Christmas? Pearls. And what does Auntie Gina give us every year? Homemade jam. In spite of my mom’s protests, we listened, briefly, to “10”. Jim Reeves and the Christmas polka had to wait.

But I digress. The one exception to my completely out of step old soul musical tastes was contemporary Canadian music, which I was right on top of. My first concert was Platinum Blonde at Expo Theatre in 1986 when I was 13. I was an avid fan of any video show and most Canadian bands. I was delirious with joy on rare MuchMusic free weekends when I could tape music videos on our recently acquired VCR; many of the bands were by default Canadian thanks to CanCon regulations.

But of all my musical education, live concerts were the best. They were major events and also one of the major sources of conflict in my home. My parents were kind enough to allow me to buy tickets, but logistics were the issue. No question, my dad would drive me and my friends downtown and home again, and that was great. But there was that long, uncomfortable post-concert hangout that drove my patient Dad crazy and prompted him to ask me, a bit unkindly, if I was a groupie. I had no idea what that meant but could tell it was something unsavoury and that he disapproved. My friends and I just wanted to be there until the last moment with other fans like us. Getting a glimpse of a rock star and maybe an autograph was part of the experience.

I had the sense not to tell my parents until very recently about my phone calls and visit to the home of a local musician when I was 15. Randy Gould was the guitarist of Vancouver band, Blvd. Although there would have been no way of convincing my parents at the time, he was nothing like the typical rock musician stereotype. He was not egotistical or narcissistic, nor did he harbour any sordid motives in talking to me and my friends. In every interaction he was kind, maybe a bit amused, and he went along with the antics of a silly teenage girl in order to teach us the truth about rock stars: that they they were just ordinary people, like everyone else. I’m grateful to Randy for that lesson, and recently wrote about that slushy January afternoon when I met him in 1988 (and will be submitting my story to the CBC’s Creative Non-Fiction competition by deadline tomorrow).

So where is Randy Gould, 25 years later? I wish I knew. I’ve tried to find him so I could thank him for being so sweet to me and my friends. A few years ago I came across a woman on facebook who used to know him and was also looking for him. “He was such a nice guy,” she said, and promised to let me know if she found him. In spite of my efforts I haven’t been able to find him or any recent references to him on the web. I don’t want to imagine worst case scenarios, and really hope he’s just out there laying low, quietly doing what he loves.

Via my story and my blog post, I have vague hopes that my gratitude, 25 years later, will reach Randy Gould some way, somehow. But if not, I’ll tell the people here: my story is for you, Randy. Thank you for the music and for being a positive force — and most of all, for helping me tell a great story.

My Great Uncle, The Poet

IMG_20131114_0001 (396x600) You probably have a legend in your family. A relative you may have never met, but whose story is important and has been passed down to you.

This young man is my Uncle Gab. He was made an RCAF Sargeant in December 1940, and was killed in a training accident over Scotland in July 1941. He was 23 when he died, with a fiancée waiting for him back in Canada. His widowed mother was waiting for him, too.

My mom arrived on the scene 10 months after Gabriel died, but for the longest time I didn’t realize they’d never met. It seemed like she knew him. The stories my grandparents, aunts and uncles told must have felt very real to her. I could sense the admiration and love my older relatives had for him when they got talking about the past.

I, too, was intrigued by his story. He applied twice to the RCAF. The first time there was a change in enlistment protocol and he had to apply again a year later. He wanted very much to serve as a pilot and air gunner, and took training in Toronto, Halifax and smaller places. The day after he was made a Sargeant, he was sent to the UK for additional training.

The story goes that the day his plane went down he and another airman had switched places. Normally my uncle would have flown the plane but on this day he was the gunner. I always think of Randall Jarrell’s poem “The Ball Turret Gunner” and wonder if that’s where my uncle sat, in the bottom of a round glass globe, realizing, very suddenly, that he was in a terrible situation. Four other men were on the plane, but Gab was the only one who was killed. His death record states the facts plainly: “Multiple injuries. 5th degree burns. Dead.”

On several occasions my Mom showed me her uncle’s handsome photo and the handwritten poem in faded brown ink she kept in a photo album. Sometimes I asked her to take out the album so I could look at the poem. I’d read it again and again, trying to memorize it. I’d forget about it for a time, then ask her to show me again. But it wasn’t until I was in university, writing poetry and studying the great writers that my interest in the poem piqued. Did my uncle really write this beautiful poem? How did it come to be written? Was there more writing, and if so, did it any of it survive?

The fact that this poem survived, likely written while he was overseas, suggests to me that he placed it somewhere with care — that he wanted it to make it back to Canada even if he didn’t. Equally intriguing to me is that this elegant poem was written in English. Although he attended a bilingual school, Gabriel’s first language was French.

One question leads to another. Was he passionate about reading? Did he read English and French poetry for fun? Did he have a favourite writer? Did he consider himself to be a writer, or just someone who enjoyed playing with words from time to time — or just on long, lonely days spent far away from the people he loved back home?

I know from Gab’s military application that he considered himself an avid sportsman. I love that he also had this thoughtful, artistic side. Musical talent has passed through the genes on both sides of my family. Even my relatives that don’t play an instrument sing beautifully. A few of us like to draw and paint and are quite good at it. As for the literary arts, there’s just this incredible mystery man, my great uncle.

I recently wrote about Uncle Gab in my submission for the CBC Canada Writes Bloodlines competition. It was the first time his poem would have been published. And I’d like to publish it a second time here.

I’m proud of you, Uncle Gab. Thank you for your courage to serve, and for this.

After The Last Long Daring Flight

After the last long daring flight
When her wings no longer spread
And her nose up into the night
Will no more be steered ahead

Then I’ll know my solo hours are passed
And my work is over ere below
And I am bound for wider airways
Where no longer I’ll be flying low

When from the dream I awaken
And hear the angels around me sing
Then God towards me will turn
And hand me a pair of golden wings

Then I’ll fly in heaven forever
Far over these lands down below
And I’ll whisper a fervent prayer
For the dear ones I used to know.