” how to write about something so massive, so pervasive, so threatening?”
Like so many of us who have been engaging online during this period of social distancing and self-isolation, I too have been reflecting on COVID-19 and what its spread has meant for all of us.
But how to write about something so massive, so pervasive, so threatening? How to address the daily news stories with their tallies of deaths from the virus, and the mounting numbers of confirmed cases?
I don’t know.
In emails and messages with fellow poets and writers, I’ve observed some common threads, statements like: how do we even begin to write about this? Or, I want to write about this, but… And then there’s the really big one: are you managing to write at all?
I’ve tried to stay true and disciplined to my own writing practice. I’ve committed to keep working on my ongoing projects. But then I think about:
healthcare workers, transit workers, cleaners tasked with sanitizing public spaces
grocery store employees, restaurants serving take-out
the elderly, the isolated, the vulnerable
How does a writer keep writing in light of the fact that so many others are risking their health and potentially their lives to keep the rest of us safe?
I’m not sure I have an answer.
I know folks are quoting and checking out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe is probably better known to us as the author of Robinson Crusoe, and in many ways, we are all finding ourselves isolated in our own, private islands (and yes, stay home!). It is comforting to know that we humans have been through pandemics before, and that somehow, we will get through.
But for Defoe, the Journal ends with the belief in divine intervention, that somehow the plague stopped because it was God’s will. I’m not much into divine intervention (and no slight intended to those who are), but the interesting thing is that Defoe charges: “let the philosophers search for reasons in nature to account for it by”. He meant that philosophers could try as hard as they want to try and explain the end of the plague, but Defoe was sticking to his divine intervention theory.
I want to think about Defoe’s statement differently. As writers, we are the philosophers who will reflect on recent events, not necessarily as scientists or doctors, but as thinkers, as meaning-makers.
As wordsmiths, we will search for language to make meaning of the generosity of spirit we’ve seen in so many communities, the care for the vulnerable, and the recognition that we truly are all part of one global community.
So as I sit pensively thinking about COVID-19, I recognize that as writers, we might be experiencing writers’ block, at a loss for words to describe the immensity of our global situation. But as writers, I know too that eventually, the words will flow.
What meanings will we create from our experiences of this social isolation, of having lived through the pandemic caused by this coronavirus?
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 insidea classroom nowadays, but it says something about how adults viewed childhood when I was a kid. Back then, children were meant to play.
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?
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.
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.
Do you hear.
Yes I hear.
Lifting belly is amiss.
This is not the way.
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 playswith 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“It’s really important to work together. It goes back to community. it’s important for womxn to support one another”
For my next interview in the occasional series on womxn writers, I was fortunate to be able to speak at length with the accomplished poet, Debbie Okun Hill. A member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers’ Union of Canada, and a past president of The Ontario Poetry Society, Ms. Okun Hill continues to write poetry and blogs on her website, Kites Without Strings, and recently judged the Golden Grassroots Chapbook contest for The Ontario Poetry Society, which you can read about on her website.This interview was conducted on August 14, 2019, and has been edited for length.
RS:One of the questions I’m interested in is about poets and their engagement with the community. You’ve been past president of The Ontario Poetry Society, and former co-host of Sarnia’s Spoken Word event. Are there any other community groups that you help to organize, and more importantly, why do you think it’s important for poets to engage with their community? How does your contribution to the community affect your work as a writer?
DOH:I believe as a writer it’s important to find a caring community; it’s just so nice to have that support. Many writers tend to be introverts — they’re used to being on their own. They enjoy solitary activities like reading and writing but at some point, they have to go out and meet other people for encouragement, support, and the generation of new ideas — it’s all part of the learning process. You learn by going out into the community, you learn about what readers may like to read, and you can test your ideas with different people.
For example, when I returned to creative writing after a long hiatus, I joined a local group called Writers in Transition, which was based in the Sarnia area. It was a great group with established and emerging writers who met weekly to workshop new work. Because the membership included an eclectic mix (poets, short story writers, novelists, columnists, and people writing non-fiction) the variety of genres enriched me and fed my love for writing. Sometimes you feel that it’s such a drain to be a writer, but when you’re with other people who love writing, and who share the same dream, you support each other.
even though I started with writing short stories, I feel that this community
helped me in my journey to become a poet.
later, I stumbled upon The Ontario Poetry Society (I don’t even remember how!),
but this provincial organization was also supportive and warm and welcoming at
a time when I was just learning about this genre. When they asked me to be part of the
executive, initially I said no, but I soon reconsidered. I’ve always believed that
being part of a community makes the experience richer, and TOPS gave so much to
me that I wanted to give back and thank them.
discovered that being part of the executive, being part of that community was
so helpful, because it helped me with my confidence. For example, when my writing
wasn’t going well, I could fall back upon something really positive such as my work
with the organization.
a writer, it’s so easy to get down, to fall into a negative space when the
writing isn’t going well, or to feel down when you’ve sent something out, and
you don’t receive any feedback. But once you work behind the scenes, and you
get involved, perhaps help to edit an anthology, or judge a contest, all of a
sudden you realize that sometimes things are rejected only because they may not
fit that particular publication, or maybe everyone’s written about apples and
so the person who writes about a peach gets published just because it’s a
little bit different. So, it’s another part of the learning process.
As for participating in and co-hosting Sarnia’s Spoken Word event for eight years, I discovered the tremendous value in sharing work in front of an audience. You know, poetry is meant to be heard and shared. It was gratifying to watch writers grow in such a warm and caring environment. For me, the participants were like family and each month we gathered together to applaud and celebrate how unique everyone was.
there are so many literary communities that one can join or participate in. Not
every group will be a good fit but each one has the potential to make our work
stronger. Sometimes the time commitment interferes with the writing but overall,
it’s worth it.
RS:I’d like to ask about your trajectory as a writer, and how important you think it is for writers to take themselves out of their comfort zones.
DOH:I believe any kind of writing is helpful, because it helps you understand the world a little bit more. Diversification is a really good thing. So is moving outside one’s comfort zone. And sure, it’s nice to be an expert specializing in a particular area but there needs to be a balance.
instance, I worked at Lakehead University earlier in my career, and I was
exposed to so many different people. I realized after a time working with the professors
that, because of their careers, they had to specialize and dedicate themselves
to such a small part of the world, even though they were doing important work.
But I just feel that the more you know about many things, you become richer as
a person, especially if you step into different genres. I believe it enriches
what you’re doing, especially when you’re just starting out as a writer, you
don’t always know the direction you want to go in.
I’ve mentioned already, I started out writing short stories and then people
suggested I write poetry, and now I’ve been writing poetry for over fourteen
years. So sometimes you don’t know what genre you want to write in until
you start experimenting and trying different things. And for the past few years
I’ve been slowly moving away from poetry, and I’m really enjoying blogging, but
blogging reminds me of going back in time to when I was a journalist, and the
enjoyment I received from interviewing people. Moving towards blogging is a bit
of a break for me – a break from the poetry.
And then there’s art. I’ve always loved art. So it doesn’t surprise me that art started to creep into my poetry, first as a subject matter, and more recently in writing ekphrastic poems. So maybe eventually I will go beyond poetry and move into another genre like the fine arts, photography or something like that. I know there are people who are inspired by music, and I think that all the arts (dance, theatre, music, writing) they all feed each other. And you’ll notice that poetry is changing, you’ve got the Instagram poets, for example. People just need to have those spaces for creative expression. Most human beings want to be creative.
RS: This blog and these interviews are meant primarily to focus on the spaces for womxn writers. What is your perspective on the importance of supporting and encouraging womxn writers? Have there been moments in your own life when you’ve felt the need to encourage and support womxn writers?
DOH:I’ve been fortunate in my life that I grew up with a mother who never hindered my childhood dreams but encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. The way I see people helping each other is like the interaction between trees in the forest. I’ve done a fair bit of work on the emerald ash borer, so I also studied a lot about trees. As a result of that work, I’m starting to learn that it’s important to be diverse and to support people as they are. It’s important to support womxn, but also immigrants, people from all cultures, and I feel it’s really important to work together. It goes back to community. It’s important for womxn to support one another, and for men to support womxn, we need to support trans folk, and it’s important for all of us to support all genders. Similar to the trees, we’re all adapting, but in the end, everyone needs to support each other.
like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If we’re all still at the lower level trying
to get shelter, or food, or love, it’s challenging to be creative because we’re
still trying to get those other needs met. But when we support each other, and
provide those spaces where we can move up the hierarchy, then we find that
space to become creative, and we find the voices that we can share with other
involvement with the Sarnia writer’s group, now that I think about it, was
mostly composed of strong womxn, and because many were older and started to
pass away, it was a really difficult period because I felt I was losing my
mentors. Just imagine! They had all been writing together for a long time, and
they were friends, and had been together for thirty or forty years. They were
very good writers and when I met them, they were very very supportive of each
other, which I thought was so nice to witness. They shared ideas. For instance,
if someone heard there was a contest, or someone heard there was a submission
call, they would share that information. They wouldn’t hide it from everyone
else; they would openly share it. And then when someone had a poem published or
a short story published, they would all celebrate and embrace that. They made
people feel good. If someone received a rejection, they would say, ok, well,
just keep going.
also mentioned that the writing industry had changed a lot. Back in the 70s and
80s there weren’t that many writers, so it was fairly easy to get published in Chatelaine
or CBC. They acknowledged that in the early 2000s that things had changed.
But yes, the older womxn were writing at a time when it was difficult for womxn
to be writing, but they were quite successful in what they were doing, so they
were quite inspiring. One of the womxn was I think a journalist back in the
1940s, so she was one of the first womxn in the newsroom, and she had to fight
to write hard news, because they wanted her to write for the women’s pages. A
couple of these womxn are (or were) well into their 90s, and so it’s encouraging
to see older womxn who are still writing.
was a wonderful experience to be part of that group. I hope I too can be so
supportive to other womxn and writers.
RS: Whose work (which writers) inspire/s you the most? Or more generally, what inspires you?
DOH:In response to the second question: quiet. The stillness that we no longer have in the world. Because I’m an introvert, I need quiet time to think and reflect. If I don’t have it, then my mind starts racing too much and the creative side doesn’t emerge.
Art has always
inspired me. Many years ago, I worked at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and I found
that most inspiring because I could write about art and interview artists. That
was the best of both worlds for me, because my love for art and writing were combined.
I also find
nature inspiring. I live in the country, well sort of on the edge of the urban
and the rural, and I just love the quiet and the outdoors, and being with
nature. We have rabbits in our backyard, and milkweed, so I see monarch
butterflies in the summer, and it’s always a lovely surprise when I open my
curtains. It’s just fascinating to spend time with nature. So I find when I’m
stuck and cannot write, I just go outside and get in touch with nature. It’s
important to be away from people just to recharge my batteries.
So nature, art,
and just having that quiet time and that space and time to think. And it is
worth the sacrifice living outside the cityscape in order to have that.
In response to
the first question: I absolutely have to say Margaret Atwood. I have to admit I
haven’t read all her books, but when I was in high school, we read and
studied The Edible Woman, and somehow it just stuck with me. For
whatever reason, it spoke to me and it introduced me to metaphors and symbols
which are literary devices that still appeal to me. Surfacing was also
really significant for me. Atwood’s work just inspired me because of its
symbols and deeper layers of meaning. I believe the strongest writers are the
ones who, perhaps they don’t always consciously do it, but they make magical
work also inspired me. Her work was so poetic, and different, and powerful, and
it really affected me. When I first picked up Beloved, I couldn’t read
it. I was a new mother and the subject matter was too disturbing. However, eventually I went back to it, and
read it, and even though it was a painful book, it was well-written and left
the reader with a powerful message. In hindsight, she needed to tell that story
and to make the reader angry. Morrison took that anger, gave it a voice to educate
people, and hopefully it makes people think twice.
enough, Agatha Christie, which is totally different because her mystery novels are
light but clever with her twisted puzzles, the working with the reader’s mind
and just her brilliance in trying to solve the mystery. And maybe that’s the
kind of writing I like, where you have to analyze it and try to figure it out.
And maybe that’s where the poetry comes in, where you have different layers.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.