I was so ready for this. For this weekend. A festival of women writers called “Growing Room,” put on by the ROOM journal collective.
I’ve been happy in our move, I can certainly count the ways I like Tsawwassen, but I was unusually excited about the opportunity to be in the middle of writers again. Never mind that I wouldn’t know anyone. Or would have to plan and plot my getting there on a map. I was reading at the launch of ROOM’s latest issue (below) on Saturday evening, since it contains a creative non-fiction piece of mine (“Notes Toward an Autobiography”). Why not spend the day at panels and workshops? Why not spend the next day too? Just to hear the familiar vocabulary of writers’ talk. Just to hear them read, even complain, about their work.
Why not indeed? And a rich two days they were. A highlight: a panel on writing about trauma with Evelyn Lau, Christine Lowther, and Sonnet L’Abbe. Another: a panel on “rewriting the stories we tell about our bodies” with Lorna Crozier, Francine Cunningham, Nilofar Shidmehr, and Juliane Okot Bitek.
And a workshop with Betsy Warland, author most recently of Oscar of Between–a Memoir of Identity and Ideas, and earlier, Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing, which I bought and began “breathing” on the train and bus ride home. (Betsy Warland was as lovely in her teaching as I was warned she would be.)
Two days in the public air of writing. Which I don’t need a lot of, but sometimes need desperately. There I was, among some of the tribe, and I felt at home.
Not insider though. And I mean this less as a but than in addition to, for everything good about the weekend is secure. But every person, a new acquaintance. And me on the edge of many of the issues and/or controversies current in Canadian literature, some brought to the fore in a panel on literary gatekeeping and accountability, for example. I simply know too little about them.
“I have felt on the outside since being a very young child, for a number of reasons….Being an outsider inspired me to create new options for myself as well as others.” Betsy Warland, interview ROOM 39.4
Lately I’ve been bumping into this notion of the writer as outsider–on the edge of things, more observer than participant–in the autobiographical statements of various writers. I can relate. Outsider, of course, may be true for many people; perhaps everyone has their “at home” and their “out of place.” But especially artists and writers, it seems, often have this sense of themselves. Often it’s the motivation to produce something that reaches toward others.
“I’m feeling ‘old’ at the festival,” I told my Vancouver daughter, who put me up for the night. Old as in age, but also oldly different in the world of experiences I’ve inhabited. A world which seems, on the surface at least, to not have that much currency.
Daughter took the role of comforter, as she sometimes has to. “Just write from what you know and who you are, Mom,” she said. And Betsy Warland, who understands outsider, and “between,” reminded us to sustain ourselves by tenacity, to make “lack” (whatever it may be) “a generative force.”
It came together for me when Lorna Crozier quoted the Irish poet Eavan Boland:
“I want a poem/ I can grow old in.”
Oh me too!
I looked up the Boland poem. The line goes on. “I want a poem/ I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.”
Whatever the outsider place, this said to me, others too are in that place. Others growing old(er). And words will be wanted. I’ll keep looking for them as a reader. I’ll keep on writing them.
Well written Dora. I’m glad you found a place among unknown, but very familiar people. Is soul mates too strong a term for these fellow writers?
Thanks Mary. I think “soul mates” also has the sometimes long process of friendship in it, so maybe a little strong for this foray, but a sense of “at home” for sure. I appreciate the comment!
Thanks, Dora. There’s something about writer outsiders finding each other, savouring the rare fellowship. We miss you here in MB!
Hello Dora. I came to find you again after reading Notes Toward an Autobiography in Room. What a wonderful read.
And yes, yes, yes, to the final question of that piece: I do believe you might be very ‘lucky’ if you ‘try the crazy, untested, memoir-ish recipe’.
I, for one, would love to read it.
Thanks, Colleen. I imagine you must have picked up the Mennonite undertow of the piece! 🙂
This post made me want to read your essay in Room, Dora. I identified with you the whole way through it. I like your daughter’s words to you. And I love the Eavan Boland poem also. To be the only grey-haired writer in a room full of younger women is an experience that takes a little getting used to. But go whenever you are called. And write to the ones of us who need your words to grow old in and even to die in.
I can’t tell you how often I think of your work in this very area, Shirley, of going/being where we’re called, at this precise stage! Thanks for your comment, and all of your work. Re the essay, it began as a response to the Mennonite Girls Can Cook phenomenon, thinking of all aspects of cookery in my own life, from my mom being somewhat a-typical for Mennonite women (not a great cook, busy reading and ministering, as it were) through my own attempts to learn, and even the “smallest” (or biggest) meal of all: communion.
Writers as soul mates: a strong expression, but soul mates they seem to be. I remember meeting someone for the first time, not knowing much about that person at all, but feeling like she was a soul mate, then discovering she was a writer. Something about the way they observe, the way they express themselves, the way they love words….I too often felt like an outsider, different, until I met one of these “soul mates ” and had that “aha” moment, that there were actually other people who loved to play with words and ideas.
I miss you, Dora, soul mate, writer, friend.
I feel like I’m choking up a little, so beautifully put, Elfrieda. Miss you too! And you too are writing words to grow old in.
I love this account of your weekend, and your thoughts on insider/outsider. I experience that as both/and on so many levels, and appreciate your relating to that also.
Thank you April, and I’m glad you can relate too. It’s so easy to think I’m the only one.– And thanks for the wonderful work you’re doing to bring words into all kinds of necessary places.
I’m very pleased you were able to soak in this experience. Your thoughts related to where you are as a writer and highlighted by the Irish poet made me think – “What a beautiful place to begin your memoirs!”
Thanks dear friend! (A friend who also knows deeply into this account and more.)
Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Dora!
I can re-read Burrowing Bones many times and always find a ‘jewel’ to treasure. “Feeling like an outsider” is very familiar to me but I rarely consider it a negative. “You have your unique place” my husband often reminds me. I am consoled by the fact that you also feel like that sometimes.
Thank you Shirley! I would agree, it’s not really a negative, but like a position one has, allows for observation etc. “You have your unique place” is definitely a good reminder.