“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” ― James Baldwin
When I started this blog segment I intended to focus on Lavender: the writing process, the tremendous amount of work, persistence, faith, loyalty, supportive friends and dumb luck it took to get it from screenplay to screen. I thought that it may be of interest to people who write and who are trying to get published or produced. However, it’s gotten much more personal than originally intended.
That, at least partly, was inspired by seeing Robert LePage’s 887 at the St. Lawrence Centre. I saw it just as I began writing, ‘Lavender’: Seed to Screen. It was the personal aspects of his story which allowed me to connect with it. To place myself in his shoes and better understand a world that was both familiar and foreign to me. To gain an understanding of the other side of the October Crisis, and the Québécois point of view.
I started adding personal bits to make this story more approachable to a wider audience. It wasn’t that simple. I found myself getting closer and closer to the bone.
I’m still not sure how deep I want to cut.
An article I read on caregiving suggested using journal writing as a way to keep one’s sense of self. Perhaps that’s what this is. Me keeping alive a sense of self. When caring for someone else you often feel guilty doing anything for yourself, you even skip meals and lose hours, days, weeks of work. A social life is a struggle—at best.
The position pays near as well and gets you about the same amount of respect, as being a writer which, in a world where money is king, is little to none. Most people don’t classify work as being such until there’s a paycheck attached. Nanny is a job, stay-at-home mom isn’t. And the mom doesn’t get to go home to have a break.
Sometimes losing one’s sense of self can be the best thing that can happen to a person. Many preconceived notions of who we are come more from other people telling us who they need, or want, us to be. As we start to change the people who are comfortable with those notions might not like what they see. But if you start to like yourself more, I’d say you’re on the right track. So, to hell with ‘em. No worries, though, your friends will remain your friends. It may separate the weeds from the wheat, but so be it.
The reason this story has taken the direction it has may be as Virginia Woolf said, “It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me.” But you have to be willing to explore deeper into the hurt to do that. In trying to make the whole you need to revisit the parts, recall that which, through the kindness of memory, you forgot. And you don’t know if there’s other parts still missing.
There’s the question of what to share. Are there limits? Should there be?
Anne Lamont said, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” It’s true. But you must be prepared to deal with the repercussions. When telling a story as honestly as you can, you may find that lies are a weapon used by those who fear the truth. Some will try to discredit you. Appeals to conscience can be futile, appear naïve, and even be dangerous.
Those who don’t believe in the conscience will blame you when they feel its sting, and lash out at you, rather than facing it. Even if you are simply recalling their actions. I try not to judge, but to write events as they happened and talk about how they made me feel—if the need strikes. I think of what Nick Cave said in his brilliant lecture, The Secret Life of the Love Song, when he loosely paraphrased William Blake, “I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.”
As for everyone having their own definitions of right and wrong, that’s fair enough. But I often think of what C.S. Lewis said about some people not knowing right from wrong until the wrong is done to them—then they know it well enough. If someone is an ass to you, and you’re an ass back, and they don’t mind, fair enough. If you’re an ass back and they go six-ways psycho, there’s a problem. As ye judge, so shall ye be judged.
And, as Flannery O’Conner pointed out, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” When it comes to writing memoir or any non-fiction, they still say that the truth is your best defense.
Flannery’s, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.”, is another line I find . . . reassuring.
Perhaps, I’m writing this to show that creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum—though, sometimes, it feels like you’re screaming into one. That writers and artists don’t lock themselves away from the life and world—anymore than anyone else does when they work—but are very much a part of it. As Leonard Cohen said, “’Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” Or from Stephen King‘s, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”
Am I trying to find my way back to life?
I’ve gone over and second guessed this piece countless times. I know it’s still filled with all sorts of errors. It’s hard to say something clearly when you don’t know what the hell it is you’re trying to say. As William Zinsser pointed out in On Writing Well, “Anyone who can think clearly can write clearly, about any subject at all.” I don’t feel that I’m thinking too clearly.
Clarifying my thoughts may be the reason behind this, “Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.” – Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.
Or it could also be practice. Writing is work, hard work, long hours, often tedious. Work that goes into creating is rarely recognized by people outside the arts. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours are left unacknowledged.
It’s not always recognized by people within the arts community, either—especially if you do it well, because then it seems to have natural flow and is therefore not really work. I heard someone speaking at a lecture, on how to write for grants, say that comedy, when done well, is less likely to get a grant because it seems so effortless.
I wonder if humanity used to think the same way about building houses and cooking food as it does about writing and creating books, films, music and other art. It’s lovely to cook a meal, if you can find the time, but we’re animals and other animals don’t cook, therefore for it’s a luxury. Or, a house is nice but we already have caves. Indoor plumbing, it’s not natural, ‘tis the devils work. Without vision it’s hard to see long term benefits.
As I wrote, I felt the need to thank, in some small way, people who gave me love, support and inspiration. I won’t be able to thank all of them. It’s especially difficult when trying to keep it in the context of the screenplay. Many supported me in the more personal aspects of my continuing development. I apologize to those I neglect to mention and hope you know who you are as well as what you mean, and have meant, to me.
Part of writing this was to honour my students who helped give me the courage to write personal non-fiction. When working as a writer-in-residence in Father John Redmond and then James Cardinal McGuigan, with Now Hear This’ SWAT (Students, Writers and Teachers) outreach program, I was struck by the courage of teens who opened up and wrote about very personal issues. They shared their deepest thoughts and feelings, sometimes with the class. High School isn’t exactly the most understanding and compassionate of environments. It can be worse than the internet.
When writing about things and people who hurt you, you feel it, again. You have to. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer no tears in the reader.” The loss becomes fresh, the pain of betrayal, the anger and emptiness of knowing that it was people you trusted that inflicted it. In knowing they cared so little they felt nothing while doing it. Or that betrayal, to them, wasn’t a big deal—as long as it wasn’t them being betrayed.
Maybe it’s true what they say, you teach people how they can treat you.
Through it all, along with the friends who were so incredibly loyal to me, there was the stories, poems, paintings and songs.
Kevin Spacy said, “If you’ve done well, it’s your duty to send the elevator back down.” Perhaps, in a similar way, if you make it to shore after your ship goes down, it’s your duty to throw another line in the water.
I do it out of gratitude, acknowledgement and admiration for all the writers who tossed ones in the water for me to find and pull my way through times when I felt like I was drowning—sometimes with a foot on my head. And, of course, for all those still at sea. I think, again, of Leonard Cohen, “All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free then.”
Words and music were my companions in the isolation, when going through what felt at times like what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. Though, I didn’t complete the journey.
When I picked up a book, or saw a play, or heard music that spoke directly to my pain, the pieces seemed to be whispering, You’re not alone. I’ve been there. I got through it. So will you. And those pieces helped to make me whole.
Oddly, even the poets, painters, writers and musicians who killed themselves still left hope behind.
Those life lines meant a great deal to me throughout my life. Especially through the ups and downs during the 15 years it took to get my first screenplay, Lavender, to the big screen; so much happened in those years. And the journey isn’t over.
However, I’ve decided to take a break from Lavender: Seed to Screen until the New Year, anyway. It’s been far more emotional, time consuming, and draining than first intended. It’s not what I’d call a pleasant experience.
It’s very different than writing fiction or poetry (which is also draining and emotional, and emotionally draining, to be sure). You don’t have the mask and the metaphor to hide behind. And part of the joy in writing fiction is, while exploring deeper truths, you get to do it by being someone else for a while. If you’re fortunate enough to find a character that, through the power of empathy and imagination, you can inhabit, or who can inhabit you. It is the job of an artist to make themselves invisible, after-all. God did a brilliant job of it with his universe project.
And, with fiction, you’re more free to entertain, reality and facts mean less as long as you stay true the story you create. It also allows you to make sense of things. As Tom Clancy observed, “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” Keeping that statement in mind, if you live in a world where everything makes perfect sense, odds are, you’re living a fiction. Just sayin’.
Speaking of reality, and this is no small thing, I need to get working on something that pays. Money may not be my king, but it certainly helps pay the rent and put food in my belly.
I hope, I have already tossed some life lines in the water: Just J dealt with grief, Chill with bullying and insecurity, and Lavender with fear, the fragility of the mind, and coming to terms with our past. And with Mum’s book, Such Little Time, well, love is always filled with hope.
But I know this is different. And I will finish this story. When the days are longer. Not now, not at the darkest time of the year.
This is a time for light. ‘Tis the season of laughter and joy.
So, whether you’re lighting a tree, or the menorah, or taking part in any other celebrations, religious or otherwise, which, through the power of innovation and imagination, bring light into a darkening world, I wish you all my best. May you be surrounded by love and allowed to celebrate in peace, and extend that acceptance and joy to others in their celebrations, over this holiday season.
Or whatever celebration you favour and whenever you celebrate it.
All my love and respect,