A creative writing course? Parisian croissants sound less flaky.
The Writer’s Studio is a one year continuing education course at SFU. It costs real money – a trip to Hawaii kind of money – and the bulk of time is spent with a small group of students, workshopping material.
Seemed like I was signing up to pay a lot of dough to hang with strangers that potentially knew less about writing than me – difficult, but not impossible. Yet the glossy marketing brochure showed smiling groups of academic people sitting around a boardroom table, and the course reviews, by all accounts, were excellent. Especially on the back of that brochure – positively glowing, life changing remarks.
Like comments on book jackets, the course reviews provide the ending punctuation, should you be intrigued by the title. I held my breath and dove into Saturday lectures and Thursday workshops, the lull and promise of narrative and words more seductive than the sugarcane fields and hibiscus of Maui.
Rarely do words in glossy text live up to their promises, but these ones did.
The first day of class I was nervous. Of course, I learned later, everyone was, filled with similar apprehensions and doubts, but hoping for the best. And by best, I mean visions of Hemingway and the Lost Generation mingling in French cafes, together at last with like-minded creatives. Substitute East Van for the Left Bank.
Nine people comprised our fiction cohort, all from various backgrounds, different sizes and shapes and professions. It took one short session, however, to realize despite these differences, our shared passion for stories, dedication to telling them, and unwavering devotion for literature, would bind us like Crazy Glue.
For our first short story submission, my fellow students set their narratives in India, Singapore, Scotland, Turkey. My story took place in Whole Foods. I panicked, emailed our instructor, fearing I was a fish out of water. This salmon was fledgling on sandy shores instead of the ocean’s depth.
Diplomatically, she assured me we all had our own voices, mine was just more local. Soldier on, she advised.
I did, and I’m grateful. For in my group, I met my tribe.
By critiquing their work each week, I not only watched them become better at their craft, but my own writing improved. In their hands, my stories came to life, my characters became three dimensional. My protagonist rose from the page and I could see her, smell her, understand her better.
Writing is hard, lonely work. Some days, my computer screen may as well be made of mud; murky, brown, senseless. Astonishingly, my group reads my submission, and find the sparkle, however buried, that I was aiming for. Their comments and insights help me to remove the debris and sediment that stand between the story and its heart.
There are words. And then there are the right words.
Besides personal growth, it’s been more inspiring and emotional watching my group evolve. Within a year their prose became more colourful, their stories riskier, characters more vulnerable. Witnessing these tranformations was worth the price of admission.
A short, parallel story.
As a little girl, I dreamed of running a marathon. I ran and ran, won a few ribbons, acquired a few injuries. Every time I increased my mileage, muscles tore, stress fractures occurred, my spirit broke. Man. I wanted to run a marathon, but my body didn’t seem equipped. Finally I joined a running group, and four months later I ran the Vancouver Marathon. In fact, I ran the entire race with a woman who had never ran a step before our first group run.
Well, until mile 20, when she left me, the veteran runner, in her dust.
When a common goal is shared, collectively, we are better. Together, the bar is raised. Winnie the Pooh says it’s so much better with two. With nine, even more so.
Our course is finished, we had our official ceremony this week. (Notably, the keynote speaker was a TWS graduate, Arleen Pare, 2014 winner of the Governor General’s award for poetry, who started writing at age 50.) Our group continues to meet every other Thursday. We’ve traded fluorescent lighting for soft living room lamps, swapped lattes for wine, but kept our format the same.
The three hours we spend discussing story are among my favorite of any week. We are many things, readers and writers first, unlikely friends last.
I’m sitting in a classroom, trying to slink underneath my desk so that the teacher won’t call on me. I sit amongst my clique, my fiction group. The poets are in the front of the room, young adult genre and non-fiction groups occupy the left side of the room. Three weeks into our year-long course and alliances have formed, we gravitate quickly to our own kind. A familiar feeling from twenty-five years hence. It’s high school all over again.
Actually, it’s the Writer’s Studio at a downtown university, my year to study creative writing. The crucial word here is creative, also known as my personal nemesis. By throwing tuition into this course, I’m banking on acquiring some. Or at least chiseling away cliched layers of assumption and habit to reveal whatever lies at my core. I’m hoping to find a garden planted with seedlings of inspiration, but fear a black hole.
The people that surround me are so brimming with creativity that I’m terrified into submission. A girl, wearing a hand-knitted toque, reads her reaction to a homeless woman she encountered during our break with such emotion in her voice that we fall over her words, and into stunned respect for her gifted prose. Sweet Caroline, I think, don’t make me read my vacant observation next.
We are each handed a blank piece of paper and asked to create a three dimensional sculpture to illustrate our currently writing. My heart sinks because in a pinch, I can pull an unusual adjective out of my pocket, but this requires imagination and craft. I fold and rip my piece of paper so that it opens inwards, like my protagonist, while other students produce works of origami, sculptures of mountains, vessels with twirling rudders attached, and a chess board. With dread and reluctance, I stand to show the room my crude structure.
This course not only inspires me, it terrifies me. And it’s the terror that tells me it’s the right thing.
While I am absolutely ecstatic that my kids are back at school and I am back to being productive (which may or may not involve Downton Abbey), I am not thrilled about the nightly ritual of making lunch. Also known as fruitless labour, since it involves assembling food that is sure to return uneaten.
There’s a law in my house: if I make it, they won’t eat it.
Yet, I persist. Not only because the school would call Child Services if I sent them without lunch regularly, but actually because I’m hellbent on hearing the words, “That lunch was awesome today, thanks mom!”.
To be fair, food is not my strong point. Knowing this, I frequently turn to them for help. So, what are the other kids eating for lunch that you would like to have? Apparently, those little bags of mini-Oreos are all the rage. No, I mean food that actually has a nutritious component? Silence.
Every now and then I get excited about an idea – buoyed by their initial response to a product. It may not have been super positive, but it wasn’t one of disgust, either. My enthusiasm inevitably sends me to Costco, to buy a year’s supply of the damned things, only to have them return in their lunch bags after school. I thought you liked Cheddar Bunnies? No, we’re sick of them now.
Swear words run through my head, vision of sugar plum-like but with symbols.
It’s beyond tiring. The natural peanut butter and almond butter they find disgusting. Putting grapes/carrots/orange slices/something healthy into little containers is futile. Putting anything between bread besides Nutella is useless. They’re sick of bagels. Going to the trouble of making a salad or wrap for them is like straightening my hair for the windstorm – why would I bother?
So, I don’t go all out with lunch. But old habits die hard, and I find myself wandering the aisles in the grocery store in the hopes that something will jump of the shelf, at the same time nutritious, inexpensive, and already prepared, that I can send to school with them, that will not end up in my overflowing kitchen garbage. I’m looking long and hard, but still haven’t found anything.
Whichever mother came up with the phrase “Let them eat cake”? – I totally get her.
It’s the generalization I have trouble with. And it’s always the summer. When was the last time you casually asked someone, how was your winter?
When people ask me tomorrow, on the first day of school, “How was your summer?”, as is friendly and customary, I’m momentarily confounded.
First of all, I have trouble remembering last week, never mind a two month period. Three months, if you want to get technical, but that hearkens us back to June and June is always a white-out . A cupcake laden, certificate wielding (best reader/runner/joker/slacker) month of gift bags of wine for teaching/driving my child/managing the team/feeding my family. Surely, June can’t count as summer.
Really what they mean is how was your July and August, the time since I last saw them. August was really only 4 days ago, if I need to break it down. I can get there, that’s not so far. July is a stretch, but August is doable. An image is coming – a soccer ball, a concert, sushi takeout. Okay, so that was the Labour Day weekend, not exactly August, but close enough.
It will do in a pinch.
My short-term memory aside, I couldn’t possibly summarize my summer in the three words it will take to past my acquaintance, so I leave it at “Great!”. Although not strictly true, there were moments of great, alongside those moments of frustration and wanting to clone myself.
Summer is never as idyllic as I hope. Or as simple as the name suggests. But it’s inevitable end is tempered by those three magical words.
Back. To. School.
Her name was Miss Ritcey. She wore tweed skirt suits, sensible shoes, and a hint of a smile.
A few of us were pulled from our classrooms once a week and taken to the library to spend the morning with her. We sat in table groups, hardly believing our luck.
On our first day, she called us into a circle, and said quietly, “A boy wants to go home, but there is a man with a mask in his way. Who is the man in the mask?” We were allowed to ask her questions with yes or no answers. We fell over ourselves coming up with possibilities, before realizing the key to the answer was asking the right question. We finally got to the idea of sport, and then baseball, and the answer: the man was the catcher for the other team – the boy was afraid of being tagged out. It was drastically different from the Halloween or horror ideas that initially popped into our collective heads.
From then on, we were hooked. Unaccustomed to learning being fun or engaging, her class was like a mirage to a delirious desert traveler. Days spent in our regular classroom dragged by, while we waited for that quiet knock which signaled her presence in the building.
She lead us in discussions ranging from books to science. We did the talking. She mostly listened. Everything fascinated her.
When she did speak, she was quiet and deliberate and began all of her sentences with, “Now, people.” As though we were adults. As though we were important. As though she was giving the Throne Speech instead of addressing a motley group of kids aged ten to twelve.
For those few hours each week in the library, it was cool to be a geek. No idea was ridiculous. No question was stupid. No contribution went unnoticed.
We became our very best selves. Freed from chalkboard pointers, we dared to dream. We learned what it meant to think outside the box. We were encouraged to be different. We were encouraged to be daring. Miss Ritcey often smiled, but never laughed. We emulated her, and listened carefully to our classmates, used our powers of critical thinking to debate ideas rather than dismiss them out of hand.
She didn’t need to raise her voice. Robbie and Jennifer – prone to misbehaving – sat quietly for a change. We were all in awe of our wise teacher, mesmerized by her serene aura. Lulled by the calm oasis she created, despite it being in the basement of the school, where three rows of books amounted to the library. Her presence induced a pavlovian response to learning, cobwebs cleared from our brains and we readied for takeoff.
From grades four to eight, Miss Ritcey parachuted into our school, a Mary Poppins amongst mortal teachers. After that I never saw her again. I never kept in touch. She was constantly on the move, rotating schools around the city, and it was long before email existed. Dropping by to see her wasn’t an option. I haven’t seen or heard of her for thirty years, but I will never forget. Her voice was one of reason, her body was one of composure, her pores reeked wisdom and the palest scent of Chloe, and especially the unwavering respect she showed each and every one of us.
Miss Sally Ritcey, wherever you are, you encouraged us to believe in ourselves, instilled in us a hunger for knowledge, and a desire to be different. Thank you.
“Wisdom begins in wonder.” – Socrates
Who was the teacher that made a difference in your life?
My daughter started high school this September, and we are floundering, groping for a life preserver in harrowing seas, searching for something to hang on to before the next wave pulls us under. Not her, my daughter – oh no, she is having the time of her life – but we, as in my husband and I, and my comrades, grade eight moms with whom I drink wine.
They make it look so easy on Glee, the parents don’t even have a role to play. Which is exactly the point. I wasn’t quite ready to not play a part.
We were excited to start high school, and this time I mean both my daughter and I. Eight years in the same school, ten if you count preschool, and we were ready for a change. Change is good, keeps you young, invigorates your mind, restores sanity ( so I’m hoping). Even though change meant leaving her idyllic and inspiring elementary school, we squared our shoulders and bought a new, sturdier backpack for those heavy textbooks she would be hauling back and forth, and showed up for the first day wearing new, albeit ripped, jeans and a slightly nervous smile.
It turned out to be as shiny as the apple she refused to eat, having discovered pizza bagels in the cafeteria. High school was all that and more: locating her classes and navigating between campuses was challenging and interesting, bigger classes and a much larger school meant more friends, more boys, more teams, more clubs, more everything. All good, all exciting, two thumbs up, four if you count mine. (I personally had a little trouble finding her classes for parent teacher night, so let’s downgrade that to three, but why am I even in the picture?) My daughter was loving high school, is loving high school.
The problem, however, is she outgrew her knee-highs and grew into a social life overnight, while I simply rolled over in my sleep.
In the good old days, like two months ago, she did what we did on the weekend. If that meant trooping to her sister’s soccer game and then visiting friends for dinner, we did it together. But not now. Now there are football games to watch and movies to go to and mass sleepovers to attend and dances and the all-worrisome parties. Our measly social life is in peril, our babysitter is perennially busy. That is sad, seeing as we have only recently rekindled our dormant extracurricular lives; but what is even worse is this feeling that our cozy little bubble, the one that was all-knowing, all-hearing, all-seeing, due to my ability to hover over my daughter and discuss with other parents the innermost thoughts of our children (and occasionally break into her computer when there were discrepancies), this bubble has been burst open to reveal one single bold question mark.
I knew that starting high school would be the beginning of new independence for her, even went so far as to wish for it; I just didn’t expect it to hit so quickly.
So now we are scrambling to find and institute new boundaries. Huddling with other parents to compare notes and gather whatever information we can. Enrolling in social media lectures to help with this affront. I book her weeks in advance for babysitting, and ignore her inevitable eye roll.
And now we hope. Hope that all of those lessons we droned into her made some tiny impact, and that the choices she will make – without us hovering – will be good ones.
It took seven minutes for the tickets to sellout online.
From the moment the date was announced, there was a collective clamoring for babysitters. The emails have been flying around, fast and furious, about what to wear. Once the women were sorted, the emails sailed around once again, this time asking whether tuxedos or simply shirts would suffice for the menfolk. Then began the chatter about the before parties, and for those with more stamina, the after parties.
Thrown in to the regular hectic schedule of shuttling children to activities and feeding them their vegetables this week, a rush on pedicures at Four Seasons Nail Salon, and an unusual amount of coiffed women walking the hallways.
(I have even made my own feeble attempts at beauty, to be honest. I exfoliated my elbows in the shower yesterday, and last night I slathered self-tanner on my legs, which triggered my eczema to kick in at around 2 am. Instead of getting out of bed to find my cream I scratched and tore at my skin like a madwoman, and woke up with an angry rash all over my calves, and orange palms. My elbows, however, are very smooth and dazzling, so I’m hoping people will look no further.)
The only thing that can whip our little elementary school into a frenzy of this magnitude, and make me worried about my so-white-I-look-sickly skin, is the Fundraising Gala, which is being held tonight at a very generous parent’s swank home. Donations to be auctioned off have been gathered, the tents have been built, the caterer has been dicing all day. Typically the hottest thing on the auction block is the class art projects that our children have laboured over. Tonight, these will be auctioned off at an enormous expense, and this year it is my mission to not get drunk and monopolize, or perhaps sit on, the donation sheet. (If I got out more, and experienced open bars on a regular basis, I would not be like a kid in a candy store with the free booze. This I know.)
It’s not the Academy Awards, but let’s face it, for me it’s as close as I get, which makes it all the more exciting. I am looking forward to drinking champagne and eating tiny little quiches that will burn my fingers and leave spinach stuck in my teeth. I am looking forward to laughing about nothing in particular and not worrying about the soccer carpool. I am looking forward to finding a corner to dance in, although there is no dancing advertised (I scrutinized the invitation). We will do all of this and raise funds for our children’s school, an investment in their future, hoping it will make things a bit easier for teachers, and make their excellent school even better.
The elevated atmosphere around our school and the hype in the air reminds me of the formals my university held every year at a local hotel, way back when I was a student. The big difference being, of course, there were no children to care for the next day while nursing that hangover. But that’s tomorrow. Tonight, we party.