Playing in the toolbox

But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising?

When I was in kindergarten, my classroom, like many of its generation, had a sandbox and a wooden jungle gym. Children were encouraged to play in the sandbox, and to climb the jungle gym. It’s hard to imagine having a jungle gym inside a classroom nowadays, but it says something about how adults viewed childhood when I was a kid. Back then, children were meant to play.

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As adults, many of us seem to forget how to play. And when I say play, I mean it as an activity in and of itself. Maybe we play tennis, or golf. Maybe we play guitar in some corner of our basements. But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising? Are we comfortable colouring outside the lines, and discovering where those colours will take us?

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I’ve been re-reading Julia Cameron’s work recently, and she’s big on play. In her book, Walking in This World, Cameron writes that “We’re so respectful of ‘great’ art that we always, chronically, sell ourselves short. We’re so worried about whether we can play in the ‘big leagues’ that we refuse to let ourselves play at all.”

Right now, I’m working on a new novel, and worrying if it makes any sense. That’s because the novel is experimental and has characters who don’t make much sense to the everyday world. But they’re funny, and working on this book makes me laugh. As I sit down to work on my novel each day, I feel always like I’m just playing with my literary toolbox.

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And so, Cameron’s point speaks straight to my art. What if I became so worried about the quality of my novel, that I just gave up in despair of writing something “worthy”? I know this happens to folks sometimes, but fortunately I have Julia Cameron and others to back me up. What if we just all played?

Thinking in this way reminds me of one of the most interesting poets I encountered back in graduate school. Reading Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly” for the first time was like an exercise in frustration:

Dear me. Lifting belly.
Dear me. Lifting belly.
Oh yes.
Alright.
Sing.
Do you hear.
Yes I hear.
Lifting belly is amiss.
This is not the way.
I see.
Lifting belly is alright.
Is it a name.
Yes it's a name.
We were right.

--"Lifting Belly" by Gertrude Stein, from The Yale Gertrude Stein, Selections, with an Introduction by Richard Kostelanetz, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

“Lifting Belly” was frustrating until I realized how it plays with language, with rhythms, with ideas about poetry. Stein’s poem challenged me to challenge my own thinking, and forced me to re-evaluate the nature of play.

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So I’m heading back to a kind of intellectual kindergarten classroom. I’m heading back to that literary toolbox, and performing mental gymnastics all over my literary jungle gym. I’m heading back to play. Because, as Julia Cameron asserts, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Winter, writer

It’s easy to begin the new year with a blog about new prospects, resolutions, new hopes and aspirations, especially as we all look forward to this new decade. But I want to begin this year’s blog, this new decade with the idea of winter. Real winter — the kind that brings double-digit, sub-zero temperatures. The kind that makes you look out your kitchen window and think: I have to shovel again?! That kind of winter.

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Why would I want to think about that kind of winter, you may ask? Why start the new year and the new decade writing and thinking about the depths of snow and cold?

It’s because winter is a fallow period, a time when the earth and all the plants and animals are meant to rest, and I want to consider that especially as it applies to writing.

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If in nature winter is a time for shutting down, for saving energy, can it also be a time for us? for building up our reserves? As a writer, this may feel like a frightening prospect — aren’t I supposed to be writing every day? Aren’t I supposed to be producing those 500 words, or that finely edged and nuanced poem?

Maybe.

Or maybe winter is the time to watch the snow, to sit and think. To be.

So this winter, I’m looking at the next three-month writing period as a time for quiet reflection. I envision it as a time to pick up left-behind loose ends, to examine them in an afternoon light that reflects the blueness of an icy snowdrift, and as an opportunity to see new crystals sparkling there. My winter writing this year will intentionally be a period that allows the snow to gather, that allows me a kind of breathing room. A time to rest.

Before we know it, the snow will melt. (It will. I promise!) Before we know it, the muddiness of spring will awaken our hopes for something cleaner, fresher, alive. Before we know it, the projects and deadlines and to-do lists will sharpen our focus, sharpen our discipline as we sit at the computer or pad of paper, scribbling.

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But before any of that happens, I hope you will consider joining me this winter, this new year, in what is for me, a new idea: winter as a meditation, a pause, a stillness. Winter as a time to collect, to germinate new hopes, new dreams. Winter, writer: a toast to the quiet energy within.

Walking and writing

I think that human tenacity inspires me. Our bounce back-ability, you know? That we can recover from so many things. And I think something else that inspires me is that we really have everything in us that we already need. Who we are is already inside of us, is already there, and it’s just a question of unearthing it. So, when I write stories, novels, I think they are about people unearthing themselves.

A little while ago, I thought it might be interesting to do an occasional series on womxn creatives. The focus is to interrogate womxn’s writing processes and to generate a space for all writers to investigate and reflect on their writing practices.

I’m beginning my series with the talented and amazing Gwen Tuinman (https://gwentuinman.com/). Gwen Tuinman is a novelist, short story writer and poet. Fascinated by yesteryear and the landscape of human tenacity, she fashions troubled characters shaped by nature, nurture and circumstance. Gwen is also creator of The Wild Nellies (https://thewildnellies.com/), womxn’s creativity collective and co-creator of Poetry and Spoken Word Quarterly Readings and Performances. Born and raised in rural southern Ontario, she currently resides in Whitby, Ontario.

My interview with Gwen was conducted in Whitby on May 24, 2019. It has been edited for length.

RS: You are a writer, community organizer, event planner. You run the Poetry and Spoken Word Collective, the Wild Nellies – how do you juggle all of it?

GT: I’ve gone through waves… I try to meditate in the morning just to still my mind, and to state an intention and the intention that I state pretty much every day is that I will focus on the task I’m doing to the best of my ability. My friend, Ellen Wong is a Happiness Expert, and she recently printed something on her blog that mindfulness is focusing awareness on what you’re doing at the time. I try to be more purposeful about that, so that when something from another project is creeping into my mind, I’ll say: “not now” or I’ll just jot it down, put it on a sticky note, tack it up somewhere, and I’ll get back to it later. I’ve also found that it’s easy for the business side of things to creep into my art, but my art is at the core of everything, so I need to really protect that.

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Sometimes I do feel a little bit swamped, but then I find also that the things I will naturally eliminate from my schedule, like taking time to go for a walk, or going to the gym are very easily swept aside. When that happens, I feel everything crowding in on me. But when I make time for those things, it does something to me mentally and physically, and I find I’m more able to continue on with the task at hand.

RS: How important do you think it is to contribute to the community? How does it affect your own work as a writer?

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GT: I think it is important because the statements and observations that people in the arts make through their work need to be shared with the community. I think people can sometimes see themselves reflected back in what they hear in a poem, or see in a piece of art, or in a piece of music or what have you, and then we see that commonness of the human experience. It’s so easy now to be isolated with our technology and our busyness, and our long commutes, so to be able to share that, to be in a community, and to be able to share those connections through art I think is necessary.

Through the work that I’m doing, I’m meeting so many extraordinary people. They encourage and inspire me to think bigger, on a bigger scale in terms of projects, and I find that really exciting. I’m also really inspired by other creative people’s process, and usually when people talk about that, there comes with it a story, and so, hearing those stories opens my heart, and it shows me different ways that I can conjure a world in my writing, whether I see it done through poetry, or through a sculpture or through painting.

RS: You do a lot of work for womxn – the Wild Nellies for instance is all about encouraging and supporting and engaging with womxn creatives. How important is it for you to engage with other womxn creatives? Why do you think it’s necessary for womxn to have these kinds of spaces?

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GT: When I first had the idea for the Wild Nellies, I just thought it would be really neat for womxn to get together and then I had conversations with a couple of other womxn creatives who are close to me, and tossed some ideas around. We started developing this idea of having groups of womxn who would perform together, and then the idea that came to me was that we should diversify, not only in terms of the types of art that the womxn create, but also to diversify in terms of culture, age, and so on.

I remember reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, and the thing that I most strongly remember about that book is that I was so smitten with the notion that the womxn gathered, and they entertained and told stories to each other, and they cooked for each other and it was a time just for them. And they cared for each other, and I think that truth be told, the idea for the Wild Nellies is kind of like my “red tent”. I shouldn’t say “my”, because I’m not possessive of the space. It’s a metaphoric red tent open to any womxn (and nonbinary) creatives.

I think when it’s a group of womxn, we communicate, and we share our stories more freely, and it feels like a safer space in some way. There’s no deferring to men, and we’re like a big circle, you know? I really like that and the feedback from other womxn is that they enjoy that aspect too.

I also think that as artists, our work reflects humanity, so we need to be among people, many people from different walks of life. If we don’t connect with our community, interact socially and creatively among people, our view of the world is much restricted. We need to escape the garret and live.

RS: I want to ask about your writing process. What do you find works for you?

GT: I’ve been thinking a lot of the “why” of my writing, you know, trying to figure that out, and when I simmer down everything that I write, I think, whether it’s poetry, short stories, or the novel work, I’m writing about characters, particularly womxn, who are navigating the social restrictions of their era.

The first novel I wrote, I was very proud of saying it was “organic”, which I think is just a “hip” way of saying I was pantsing it! (laughter) I knew my characters like the back of my hand, I knew what was going to happen, I knew how it was going to end, but I didn’t have a really tight plan. I just wrote as I went along. On the second novel, I did in fact draft a written plan, so I knew, not necessarily chapter to chapter, but I knew the plot more precisely, and I had drafted out the events that would unfold, and I’ve been sticking to that. The characters do throw surprising zingers sometimes, so overall, I really have to remain flexible.

I do write the novel for the first half of every day. I find it really hard to take a break from writing. As a matter of fact, I feel really agitated if I take a day or two off from writing. I feel really antsy. It’s kind of like that feeling that you have when you’ve made a list, and you know that there’s one thing from a list that you forgot, and it eats at you. That’s kind of how I feel.

I also walk around my neighbourhood with a tape recorder at the end of the day, and I record my thoughts as I go. I’ll say, “Oh, I think my character would do something like this, but wait a minute, what if…” You know, that kind of thing. So I talk it out. I rarely go back and listen to that tape recorder, but I’ve said it, and it’s on there. I find it helps me a lot to talk that through.

RS: What inspires you?

GT: I think that human tenacity inspires me. Our bounce back-ability, you know? That we can recover from so many things. And I think something else that inspires me is that we really have everything in us that we already need. Who we are is already inside of us, is already there, and it’s just a question of unearthing it. So, when I write stories, novels, I think they are about people unearthing themselves.

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I’m writing pieces about empowerment for womxn, but really about a woman empowering herself, and believing in herself. Coming back to that place where she believed in herself, before all this “stuff” happened, just having that attitude, really having that belief that the universe is going to deliver, you know? Just keep doing your thing. It’s like the thing that you need, or the person or people you need, they’re coming towards you. You can’t see them right now, but they’re coming, and you’re drawing them towards you, so just keep on keeping on. I find that notion inspires me.

RS: Whose work (which writer) inspires you the most?

GT: Richard Wagamese, particularly Medicine Walk, and I really appreciate Joseph Boyden. I’ve really enjoyed some Louise Erdrich and Margaret Atwood as well.