Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Creativity and hope

On August 24, I drove up to St. Peter's College, Muenster, for a fiction-writing workshop arranged by Barb Langhorst and offered by Meira Cook, a novelist and poet from South Africa now living in Winnipeg. I hadn't been working on my novel, Soul Weather, over the summer, and thought this workshop would be a perfect chance to leap back in with both feet. The late afternoon light was muzzy and golden from the B.C. forest fires, so that the fields looked like something out of Millet--an improbable comparison since Millet's fields are quite intimate and the prairie definitely is not. Sometimes I would arrive at a high point where I could see forever--where I could see the land falling away--a falling that I could imagine going on forever. Intriguingly, the smoke intensified this sense of infinity. People who talk about flat Saskatchewan don’t realize how much the landscape rolls, particularly north of Regina. The Qu’Appelle Valley and the land around it is shaped, doubtless, by the glaciers and their run-off, if not so dramatically as the valley itself. As I drove north, it changed quite suddenly at Raymore and became the flat fields made for industrial farming.

The roads were very quiet on a Friday night, as were the towns, many of them looking like the still, empty spaces in Edward Hopper’s paintings. You’d see the odd car’s trail of dust down a grid road or a kitchen light on, or a single child on a bicycle, and it made me wonder why it is so easy—or so tempting—to imagine other people’s lives at dusk. I suppose it’s a dreamy time of day for the imaginer and that the landscape or cityscape or townscape suppresses enough detail that you are liberated into imagining. Some of the aspen colonies (tied by their rhyzomatic structure--a stand of aspens is a single organism) have begun to turn yellow.

Possibly the one iota of American-ness left in me is the love of driving country roads. Time is both structured and unstructured: in one way, it's you and the miles unfolding, not needing to worry about anything more complicated than the traffic, the scenery, and the destination. In another way, that simple, open structure gives you time to wool-gather, to meditate, to let your thoughts turn to whatever seems to be top of mind.

Three things twined around in my mind. One was beauty and disaster. The thick, golden light, I well knew, was the result of the fires in B.C., which in turn was the result of climate change, which most human beings have resolutely decided to do nothing about, but to go on driving gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, eating beef, cutting down trees in their yards, drinking bottled water. (Hint: the purity of water is controlled more rigorously in public supplies than in bottling plants. If you think bottled water is purer than what comes out of your tap, you are often wrong.) The summer we had severe fires in northern Saskatchewan, I came upon Monet's "An Impression" driving late one afternoon along Wascana Lake. The reddened sun cast a long reflection in the ruffled water of the lake, and I was forced to contemplate the relationship between beauty and disaster only to discover that they can't be contemplated, really, only acknowledged.  There is no meaning in the fact that disasters and losses in one place can produce beauty in another. But it is true nevertheless--just as the B.C. forest fires were rendering the prairie, thousands of miles away, golden and muzzy, ironically bringing infinity closer.

The second was my characters.  Over the summer, I had been working largely on an abecedarius that is an attempt to capture the myriad facets of my mother's very complicated personality and life. It's a complex exercise in memory, where my desire to be as true to her life as I can be often conflicts with a larger goal of capturing the lives of women who were mothers in the post-war years.  This project kept me sequestered in my mother's often depressed, often anxious, frequently playful and creatively practical frame of mind when I wasn't trapped in my own memory. In contrast, the characters of my novel are relatively young, half of them men, none of them wives or English professors or mothers or gardeners or cat mommas. (Lyra has just arrived to cuddle upright, his paw on my shoulder and his head nestled into where my heart theoretically should be, so I'm reduced to one-finger typing.)   How liberating to simply be curious about someone else's mind and world view, to imagine the world from their perspective, to contemplate their challenges (rather than my own, which are getting a bit dull as I get older)!  And then to create scenes that will embody my vision, translating this very wordy, complex individual into tight dialogue or her/his treatment of other people.

I thought of my characters almost rebelliously.  I have been reading Martha Nussbaum's Monarchy of Fear, an analysis of the current moment in American politics begun the night Trump was elected.  She argues (I am barely doing her justice here; I recommend the book; it's short, and it is never a bad idea to spend time with a philosopher who also loves literature) that fear is one of the primal human emotions that rises at least in part out of our helplessness for years after we are born.  Fear is not born of thought but simply of a sense of looming danger (24).  She saw the "politics of fear" on that election night in 2016:  "Fear is not just primitive, it is also asocial.  When we feel compassion, we are turned outward; we think of what is happening to others and what is causing it....Fear [on the other hand] is intensely narcissistic....Even when, later on, we become capable of concern for others, fear often drives that concern away, returning us to infantile solipsism" (29).  Fear often turns to anger and into a defence of the self--and all the people like oneself--our in-group.  Drawing on classical texts from early Greece and Rome, Nussbaum concludes that this asocial anger is often retributive:  "I'll get them!"  "Payback sort of makes sense," Nussbaum observes, but it also leads to a kind of "leadership" that is more concerned with retribution than with thinking about governing effectively and fairly.  Voilรก!  A perfect description of American Congress and of Trump's presidency.  No wonder I wanted to think about characters who are young and hopeful--though fairly realistic (and a tad naive).

The weather was entirely different the day I returned from St. Peter's College.  It was raining, intensifying some colours but mostly making the landscape grey and bland.  I was anxious to get home, and simply set my car to the speed limit and concentrated on the road and the traffic.  I was coming down with a cold that would give me a gut-wrenching cough for 17 days.  No thoughts about infinity, about beauty and tragedy.  But I had come to the final chapter of Nussbaum's book, and in spite of the more muted landscape and my wicked cough, she made me hopeful.  This final chapter was written shortly after one of the many mass shootings in America, and Nussbaum herself was trying to flip the switch from fear to hope because they are two sides of the same coin.  Even the ancient Greeks and Romans realized that both view the outcome as crucial; both involve great uncertainty, and both leave us feeling we have little control of the outcome.  

Hope is a choice, as the thinkers I've been reading observe.  When we talk about hope or feel its effects, we use the language of expansion, of flight.  "Hope is the thing with feathers," Emily Dickinson wrote.  When we are hopeful, we breathe a little more deeply.  When we talk about or feel fear, there is an automatic circling of the waggons, a tight redefinition of my in-group, often a desire to build a wall between a "pure" in-group and the filthy, evil out-group that is often described as an animal or an insect--robbed of its humanity.  Think of Trump's walls, but also think of ghettos in the Second World War or the wall between Israel and Palestine.  Think of almost any civil war.  

For Nussbaum, there are two antidotes to toxic fear.  One is art, which she calls "loving, imaginative vision," and the second is respectful dialogue that acknowledges the full, complex humanity of people who have opinions different from ours.  It won't strike you as surprising that art plays a singular role in respectful discussion.  Where do you meet and understand people quite unlike you?  Where do you hear their voices--voices of choirs, bands, drummers, orchestras, spoken word poets?  Where do you have access to differing world views-in a literal sense--besides in art galleries?  It is no wonder that one of the effects of Canada's attempt to achieve reconciliation with indigenous peoples is an emphasis on indigenous art in our galleries, in our concert halls, in our libraries and on our bookshelves.  The Saskatoon Public Library has a reconciliation corner that contains copies of the report and books related to reconciliation. The Mackenzie Art Gallery  has just hired someone to help diversify their collection and to reach out to audiences on a number of issues, including race and gender.  That's how we begin to understand, how we have access to artists' sense of ugliness, trauma, and injustice, but also to the beauty, hope, and compassion of people whose lives have been so unlike our own.   

In a small way, these priciples were enacted in our workshop at St. Peter's College.  We were a group of nine divided quite neatly in two:  five young students from St. Peter's, and four older women.  Yet no one offered an opinion that was not respectful; everyone taught me something about humanity and craftsmanship.  Meira's pedagogy involved lots of discussion, lots of exercises and comment on those exercises--writing samples that made us feel vulnerable.  We could have seen the workshop as a zero-sum exercise: if praise was given to one person, there was less for us; if someone had an aha! moment, they might take our place in a tight publishing queue.  Instead, generosity and curiosity reigned.

Nussbaum appeals to Walt Whitman to explain art's role.  Whitman believes the United States needs poets because "the poet is 'the arbiter of the diverse,' 'the equalizer of his age and land.'  What Whitman meant is that poets have the professional habit of love in the sense that I have described it:  that is, they see whatever they see as full real, and infinitely complex, and as separate from the ego" (221).

But there is another way that creativity fosters hope.  Quite simply, if we are going to be artists we need to be hopeful.  When I sit down to translate my ideas about a poem into an actual (and effective) poem, or when I transform my ideas for a quilt into an object that keeps people warm while delighting them visually, I am at the cusp of hope and fear.  Writer's block and procrastination are a manifestation of fear:  will my idea be good enough?  Will I be able to make that leap between idea and words or between idea and character, setting, plot, narration?  Will the 100-plus fabrics I often put into a scrap quilt create chaos or will the block pattern impose order?  If I am unsure about my skill, my craftsmanship, or when I am thinking too much of myself and not of the work itself, I remain in the territory of fear and probably either scale back my efforts or find excuses not to try them at all.  In contrast, when I am focused on the work and on the fact that a draft is something to make better in myriad ways, I am hopeful.  When I recognize that my poem is in trouble, but go to my book shelf to read poets who have encountered the same difficulties, I am hopeful.  I believe that the failing poem is a problem to be solved, not a failure of artistry.  Right now, an applique project requires that I applique some tiny birds.  I will practie them on bits of leftover fabric until I can do them well enough. When we go to classes, to workshops, when we practice or read other authors, when the visual artist sketches, when the orchestra has rehearsals, we are hopeful because we feel that we can gain the skills that allow us to come closer to realizing our vision.  We acknowledge the important role of craftsmanship in the creative process.  Craftsmanship, in turn, allows us to build hope on firm ground.


  1. Always interested in hearing about writing classes at St. Peter's. One of these days I'll attend one! I live only an hour from Muenster.

    Looking forward to the publication of your next novel.


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