Embracing the writing life, and the life of writing

I came late to writing, both as an ostensible vocation, and also as a activity, something you do “just because”. Don’t get me wrong, throughout school I wrote, and wrote well. I was often praised for the quality of my writing – from my piece on Ronald Regan in Grade 3 (um…don’t ask…) all the way through essays about the works of Timothy Findley in high school, to my paper in fourth year Political Studies entitled, “Virtual Space and Idea Sharing Amongst Public Interest Groups in Canada”.

That paper, in many ways, represents one of my greatest regrets, at least in terms of my intellectual efforts. That, in 1997, I was excited about the ideas it contained, that it got a great response from my Professor, and that I never followed through with anything else in that vein, around ideas and issues that still preoccupy me today. One part of me knew I was on to something, but the dominant part of me, the part that often won, told me that it wasn’t important enough, that I wasn’t smart enough to take that on.

The origin of that bossy and belligerent, distracting and obstructionist part of me is something that I have thought about a lot recently. As I try to move forward, trying to embrace writing as something I enjoy, and something I do productively, I still bump up against those doubts, against the voice in my head that says I shouldn’t, or I can’t.

The birth of uncertainty

I can see the possible origins of that voice when I look back, as best I can, over my life. I grew up in a nice, middle class family, in the capital of Canadian suburbia, Mississauga, Ontario. My parents were both people who I can see, more clearly with hindsight, thought deeply about ideas and issues. But they both came from families that worked desperately hard to make ends meet. The practical considerations that were drilled into their heads through these experiences – about the precariousness of housing, of income, of security – held them back, and, I think, stifled the entrepreneurial and visionary spirit that they had in their hearts.

I don’t know this explicitly but, to me, it felt like these experiences also shaped the mindset with which they viewed education, and career or vocational pursuits. These, I came to understand, were purely practical matters. Of course, if it so happened that one found a career that one also enjoyed, that was icing on the cake. To expect to enjoy one’s work, however, was indulgent; it just wasn’t realistic.

So I went through school, and I was drawn to a confusing mix of subjects: At various times my interests led from history, to law, to art, to politics. Despite being in a student milieu that gave English, as a subject, little regard, I still remember particular assignments in English with more clarity than much of my other work. At the end of the day, however, guided by the results of various aptitude tests (no doubt biased by what I considered my practical alternatives) I chose to pursue architecture. It was a good choice, I reasoned, because it combined the practical benefits of “professional” status with the opportunity to be creative.

Throughout my university studies, which eventually led me away from architecture and towards political studies, I was drawn to, and loved, the subjects that challenged my ideas, made me think in new ways. I loved thinking through the implications of new perspectives, of debates that turned the status quo on its head. In retrospect, I’m not sure how I ever imagined I could do anything other than think, write and share ideas – as a teacher or a writer (or both). But I never liked the idea of teaching kids (possible because so few teachers in my early years had ever really grabbed my attention), and becoming a Professor seemed like an uncertain option (this was in the era when universities were moving towards contract faculty, and investing in “practical” programs). And writing…well, you know, you can’t make a living writing.

What I failed to learn

After I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in June of 2001, a little over a year after graduating with my MPA, I started dipping my toes into writing, for the sake of writing. I wrote abortively in a journal, and eventually, in 2006, started this blog. I aspired to write more. I loved the feeling of getting my thoughts and feelings out of my head. But I struggled, and still struggle, in getting over my crippling self consciousness. Even in my journal I never felt completely free to write whatever I wanted. I was always judging what I was writing. I was always writing as if it was to impress someone else.

As I struggled with this block I couldn’t seem to get through, I started to read books by authors who talked about their struggles to write, or their different motivations for writing. I read Wayne Tefs’ Rollercoaster: A cancer journey, which opened my mind to writing from my experiences with cancer. But one of the first books like this that I picked up was Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. In it, DeSalvo talks about how valuable writing can be for dealing with grief and trauma, about strategies for doing that, and about how famous writers used their writing to heal themselves.

Like with many books, what you get out of them really depends on the circumstances and context in which you are reading them. What I carried with me most strongly from my first reading of the book, was DeSalvo's stories of authors who wrote while ill, who wrote some of their most successful, notable or influential works while bedridden, institutionalized, or approaching death. What I took from that was a mixed blessing because, while it inspired me to believe that one can write in almost any circumstance, it also caused me to question myself, and why I had so little ability or apparent desire to write in all the time I spent in hospital which, over the course of my illnesses, as been nearly six months. Morphine, I like to think, was a contributor. But I still wonder: Do I actually have what it takes?

I picked up her book again just the other day, while thinking about this post. This time, this is the passage, from page 31, that quickly got my attention:

I didn’t know that if you want to write, you must follow your desire to write. And that writing will help you unravel the knots in your heart. I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing—and only through writing—all you need to know about your craft. And that while you’re learning, you’re engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labor. I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.

I didn’t know that the writers whose works we read harbored hopes and dreams like mine when they were young but that they acted on their desires, whereas I wasn’t acting on mine. I didn’t know that they kept writing notebooks as children and as adolescents; that their youthful attempts at keeping journals, at constructing essays, poems, and stories, were as flowery or pompous or inept or as full of promise as my few aborted attempts. And so my need to use writing as a process of self-discovery, self-enrichment, and self-healing was derailed for twenty years.

Reading this, my heart swelled, my back straightened. I felt like she was speaking to me, like she was writing my story. I thought of how I remembered English class in high school. We talked about books, but we spent very little time talking about their authors, and even less about what it was like to be an author, what motivated different authors to write, and how important the actual act of writing, writing as a craft, honed over years of practice, was to their success. For all we knew, these authors woke up one day with an idea for a book and proceeded to write it. Wham! Bam! Thank you Harper Collins!

There are things you can’t change, and things you can

I think about how growing up the exposure you have to writing, to writing as a tool – for healing, coping, growing – is so dependent on the experiences of your parents and others close to you. Many writers have writers for parents (fiction writers, academics, journalists), and they learn the value of writing for making sense of ideas. If your parents are, for argument’s sake, an engineer and a nurse, there is no reason to expect them to understand this. Indeed, maybe they haven’t needed to.

Suffice it to say, I don’t think I developed a true appreciation for the value of writing – to me – until very recently. There is part of me that regrets this, that laments the lost time and opportunity, the possibility that life could have started to make sense so much earlier. But, most of the time, I look forward, excited at the possibilities for the future.

I still struggle with just writing. There are days when I feel too tired, or writing seems too hard, or that there are too many other shiny, bouncy things to play with. But then I have to reckon with all the ideas ricocheting around in my head. I think about all the years I struggled, unable to get them out, to make sense of them. All the years I didn’t realize writing was the secret, my intellectual saviour. The saviour of my sanity.

And then I sit across from my youngest son, as he practices writing his name in lower case letters. I go back and forth with him, trying to show him how fun it can be to write an “e.” He doesn’t seem impressed. I turn to my eldest son, who has become frustrated with his reading progress. I explore, try to find that hook, something that might really interest him to read. He isn’t impressed, either.

When things are quiet, and the boys have gone to bed, I think about them, and how they see me. I think about the example I set for them. Sure, I talk about writing and reading, and I have bookshelves piled with books, fighting for space with their toys in our two bedroom apartment. But how often do they actually see me read, on my own, just for fun? Do they even know that I love to write, that writing is what I want to do, more than anything? I think about the difference between aspiration and action, between wanting to do something and actually doing it. I think about how not being able to cross this divide, from aspiration to action, has been the single biggest barrier to my own happiness. And yes, for the record, that includes having cancer.

So, I think differently about writing now. Of course I write for myself; I love writing, and as I break down more of the barrier that holds me back I feel better and better. But on those days when I really struggle with writing – with what to write, how to write, or why to write – I remember my boys. Those days, when I feel so beat down, and I don’t know if I have anything to give them as a parent, I remember that I have writing, and all that it has taught me. I know the best way to teach a child, to influence a child, is by example. So I write. I can give that to them.

I hope that if my boys write, they’ll be ok.