Being with Other Writers

Before I can say anything else, you need to understand that I am an editor as well as a writer. According to several of my co-workers, I am a relentless editor. Which is, in fact, all a matter of perspective. I know how to take uneven writing and smooth it out. I know how to take good writing and make it better. I also know when someone is testing me, and if they can do it well, I’ll let it slide. But what makes people think me relentless, and perhaps rightly so, is my outspoken devotion to the text rather than the author.

This is interesting in the context of my writing circle. I’ve been part of critical writing groups before: a university-level creative poetry class and a short-lived, but intense writing collective. Both a long time ago. Before I was serious about being an editor, but in both those settings, I had permission to be critical. Every one of us was there to be tempered into something better. We had all asked for it, and so we were none too shy about taking our turn holding someone else’s work in the fire or beating it against the anvil.

What I am in now is different. The women of this experience have not asked for criticism, though that may come. For now, they seem to be just learning to make space for writing in their spare time, so every piece of writing produced is inherently valuable as having been produced. I do my best to listen and accept their work on this level.

But not without small internal struggles. Their work is understandably very raw, which the editor in me doesn’t have a lot of patience for. I chronically self-edit my work. Sure, I may freestyle for a while, but once the flow stops, I go back and review. Change a word, delete a clause, rephrase a sentence. Find myself where the words ended and start moving again. I’ve been doing this for years. So it takes a while for me to comprehend how someone would not edit as they write something to be shared with others. Seriously, how do you not edit??

The fact is I have the most writing experience and training of the three of us. I don’t remember a time when I was not encouraged to write. I identify as a Writer, and I have built time for writing into my daily habits. But that doesn’t mean I win. More rightly, it means that I have an obligation to look for the best and encourage as I have been encouraged. Whether I like the writing or not is inconsequential. At this moment, it means I must ask the right questions to allow the story to be told and serve the author rather than the sequence of the words.

Of course, I’m not quite so arrogant to think that I’m not getting anything out of the experience. This opportunity arrived at just the right time, and as I have engaged with these others, my own stories are starting to shift into focus. I have been reminded that the act of writing, while solitary, does not always function best in isolation. More than that, if I can gag the editor for the sake of others, perhaps I can silence her for myself on occasion.

Playing with perspective

I’ve joined up with a couple of women from work to form a small writing circle. We seem to have similar goals, so we got together to find some encouragement and accountability in each other, and to expand as writers, which includes giving ourselves assignments for the week.

This week we are experimenting with perspectives. One of my weaknesses as a writer has always been the inability to speak from within views I have never held. Ten-plus years of blogging hasn’t done much to encourage me to do otherwise. My typical style of writing doesn’t involve any sustained alternate perspective, and this will be a problem for a project I’m starting to commit to.

But I hit a snag: I’ve rarely been one to follow an assignment to the letter. Which is why I’m 2700 words down a side track and haven’t even started any of the short pieces I agreed to write. Instead, I’m exploring the opposite perspective of a strong old memory, which has me wandering in the mind of a youngish man (mid-20s) struggling with emotions and actions he feels are both inappropriate and justified. The memory is filled with conflict, and I’m not looking so shiny through his eyes. So it’s a bit tough.

That said, this exercise is important for three reasons. One, it gives me practice writing a character I know to have strength and weakness. I’m far too inclined to keep characters one-dimensional, or not really characters at all, so in this, I am forced to acknowledge and play with the roundness of a fictionalized person. Two, it forces me to omit information I know to be true from my perspective, but which he could not have guessed at or would have conveniently ignored. Third, it’s a chance to play with an unreliable narrator. My leading man is not omniscient, though I wasn’t much for keeping secrets from him, and he is far from unbiased. So despite the conflict, I’m enjoying myself and exorcising a few demons along the way.

You won’t get to read this story, even if I can manage to tell it with some skill. The events are too personal, too identifiable to anyone who knew me then, and I’m not interested in dredging the past out of its murky depths. The point is not to share the product. The point is to use what I have created (and will create in subsequent drafts) as training for the stories I don’t yet know need to be told. Which feels very much like moving forward.

Off the Cuff: Surrealism

We were at the art gallery tonight, in what turned out to be a semi-insane attempt to attend a gallery talk on Surrealism and Science. Because two or three hundred other people seemed to have the same idea (go figure: Tuesdays are pay-what-you-will). So there we were crammed into the nooks of a gallery exhibit. Hot and crushed and part of a very real swarm of art enthusiasts. But once the lecture started, it all faded away.

Surrealism may be my favourite artistic movement. The subversion of it. Reinvention and reordering. Disorder and absurdity that isn’t nonsense. It turns sense on its elbow and I like that. Although I’ve tried out cultivating order, rationality, and logic in my daily interactions, they aren’t my native tongues. I feel at home in the images of Surrealist works. Bizarre and unsettling and chaotic as they sometimes seem, they remind me that not everything is understood scientific or rational terms.

That’s where it all began to resonate; the Surrealists movement was a reaction to the rationality and scientific emphasis they had been raised with in the context of dealing with World War I. These concepts were (to them) inadequate tools for deciphering the psychological aftermath of the war. So they pushed into myth and subconscious and attempted to recreate understanding by reassembling the known and unknown outside of reason.

In listening to the talk, I realized I often place too much emphasis on making sense of the world using tools that are mostly foreign to me. Like handing a mitre box to a weaver and expecting a brilliant charcoal sketch. I try to use reason to process and communicate my world; I don’t intend to dismiss reason and logic, but I need to recognize that I don’t live in those spaces. I live in the soaring rustle of crows’ wings, the crunch of gravel under bicycle tires. In rain falling through the trees outside my front window. In the sweep of colour against a stranger’s skin. A laugh, a phrase, a perfectly timed exchange passing through my hearing. Goldfish in all the wrong-but-right places.

I knew this. But I had forgotten. I will likely forget again. And this is ultimately what art is for: to come inside and kick around the furniture we thought we had placed so perfectly. Remind us of all the cubby holes where we tucked ourselves away.