How losing gets a bad name

I just got back from five days of watching tennis in Toronto.

Yes, I did say tennis.

I had a great time. It was fantastic just sitting in the sun in the Rexall Centre watching hours upon hours of superb athletic performance. What drew me to tennis in the first place was that it’s as much a mental game as it is a physical one, and you can’t win a match by only playing a physical game or vice versa. You can be the best player in the world, but your head can be somewhere else, and your opponent will use that against you. And they will win, more often than not.

Which is exactly what happened during the second match I saw on Wednesday. My absolute favourite player got beat pretty bad, all because his head just didn’t seem to be in the game. Not only that, but the guy who beat him went on to win the entire tournament.

It was a classic underdog story. As I often consider myself an underdog in life (for better or worse), it was quite gratifying to see.

It also made me think, though, about how hard we try to “win” in life. When, more than we would probably like to admit, it’s just not our time. That, and winning never really looks like what we think it will. And so even when we lose, we aren’t actually losing out on anything other than what may have been.

What we need to focus on is the process, not just the end result. I imagine that’s how this guy won the tournament: by looking at the big picture, as hard as that might’ve been at the time.

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I’ve tried to stay away from portrayals of the “woe’s me” disabled person in this blog, but I will be one of the first people to readily admit that the disabled life is hard. It’s hard because we are often praised just for showing up and aren’t really expected to do our best, and are still told that’s enough. It’s hard because a lot of us walk that fine line where we have to justify being “disabled” in some circumstances but “not disabled enough” in others, often within the same day. It’s hard because most able-bodied people have never even considered what it would be like to be disabled (even though, if everyone lives long enough, the likelihood of becoming disabled at some point is pretty high), and so they will say something that doesn’t make a lot of sense just because they’re flustered. Or worse.

But it’s especially hard because the world we’re all familiar with was made for people walking on it to thrive.

And the ones who can’t often feel like the losers; that in the game of life, we didn’t really make the cut.

I say all this because the last night in our hotel, we met a girl with her mom and grandmother in the elevator. She was likely eight or ten years old and was being pushed in a buggy-like stroller. I didn’t notice until later that she had bandages on her legs. And when I got out of the elevator, she just stared at me. Curious, and maybe a little envious.

This beautiful, beautiful girl. Staring. At me. Like all she wanted was just to be on her own in an elevator.

I can still remember her eyes, because I had seen them before.

I didn’t know anything about her life, but when we made eye contact, all I wanted to do was tell her it would be ok. Whatever she was going through, whatever she was feeling, was only going to help her in life. Mostly I wanted to tell her she wasn’t losing; far from it.

She may not have felt like she was winning, especially not if “winning” was based on what it looks like on tv. But it never really looks like that in the grand scheme of things. That doesn’t mean she would be constantly losing, though, either. Winning would just look different.

It would look better, actually. Maybe not at the time, and maybe not right away. But it would be winning, in the bigger picture.

It was a small exchange, and there were no words spoken between us. But I’m telling her now: don’t worry about winning. In the end, winning is nice, but it will rarely ever meet your expectations.

It’s all in the journey. That’s where the real winning takes place.

Why my body is not a narrative device

I just read a wonderful article by Christopher Shinn that appeared in The Atlantic last week. In it, he argues that disabled actors need to be cast in disabled roles. I’m not going to say anything more, because you should just read it.

And you should read it because he’s being brave and real and putting himself out there even though he’s part of the culture he’s writing about (he’s the head of playwriting at the New School of Drama in New York), and that takes major guts. It’s what I’m trying to do with this blog.

You should read it because it hasn’t been said enough. And those are the kinds of things that tend to be the most important.

Needless to say, I completely agree with him.

I agree with him because, if there’s one thing that really bothers me, it’s this notion that disabled bodies are this metaphor for loss, suffering, weakness, and all the other negative things that nobody else wants to embody. We are used in film and literature alike not as a supporting role but as the role. As if our lives have to revolve around the fact that we’re disabled.

I’ve been struggling with this in my own writing as well. How can I possibly celebrate disability when the main character has gone through some really awful things in her life? How can I emphasize the agony that disability can sometimes be, while at the same time portray that it’s not as big a deal as everyone thinks it is; when, in those precious moments, the disabled experience is actually quite fun and enjoyable?

It feels like I’m at a crossroads of sorts, one that seems oddly familiar, maybe because I seem to be circling around and around the issue without ever getting a satisfactory answer.

But maybe it’s the issue that needs reframing, not my examination of it.

The disabled body can be a rich metaphor, one that is made up of trauma, adversity, achievement, and despair – the list goes on and on. And as a culture, we seem to love our metaphors (especially English majors, a.k.a. me). We like our stories. We can’t really help it.

But the important part is that the metaphor ends somewhere. A metaphor in and of itself should not be just a metaphor – and if it is, that’s a pretty weak metaphor. It should not automatically be assumed that the vessel for the metaphor is any or all of the attributes thrown at it.

Basically, just because a disabled body may look weak, or vulnerable, or abnormal (with a dash of freakery thrown in there for good measure), doesn’t mean that’s the reality. Metaphors are used as a narrative device. They should not be perceived as truth just because metaphors are the Key to All Things Literary and, therefore, should be revered.

Disabled people are people, after all. They are not made-up beings that only appear in sappy films and books where the disabled person is there to make the other supporting characters look good and like they have all their shit together. They are dynamic. They live and breathe. They screw up. They love. They hate. They are not only one thing at a time.

Nobody is.

But this seems to be how disabled people are type-casted. I hope that’s changing. In fact, I think it must change in order to, you know … move on from the land of perpetual metaphors.

I’m not saying it will be easy, and in fact English majors may have the most difficult time with this (that’s ok, as we’re awesome in other ways). I’m only saying that it’s necessary.

Because that feeling of watching a movie where the main character is disabled and you feel all awkward once the lights come on, knowing that your body was used as a symbol of weakness and fear?

That sucks. And it sucks because it’s not real. That’s only part of the story.

And if anyone is most likely to get it right, guaranteed it’ll be the person who has lived it themselves and not someone who thinks they’ve lived something like it.

How the thing that scares you to death can pay off, part two

Yesterday, I printed off the first thirty-three pages of my novel for editing. I was equal parts ecstatic and terrified. And, also, weirdly emotional.

I quickly realized that I was so emotional because those thirty-odd pages are the blood, sweat, and several bucketfuls of tears I have accumulated in the past two decades. I also realized that it is only now that I am at a point where I finally feel like I can share them (hence the equal parts ecstatic and terrified).

Which has been a process I can’t even put into words. Maybe there are no words. Maybe I’ll find them eventually.

I am quite certain, though, that there are some words still to come that will surprise even myself. Ones that will be terrifying and beautiful and brilliant and downright chilling all at once.

But for now, I’m just surprised that those thirty pages came out. Period. And, yes, in their current form, the words are real and raw. They require smoothing. But that’ll come. I can’t ignore them anymore by pretending they don’t exist because they’re here, staring me in the face, unblinking. They will not be the first one to turn away. I’ll be forced to look at them, analyze them, shape them.

I’m horrified. I’m also thrilled beyond words.

The past few months I’ve had the curious sensation that I’ve been holding on (to what I’m not quite sure) for dear life. My mood has swung the full pendulum, sometimes multiple times a day. I’ve been sick. I’ve laughed till my stomach hurts. My tear ducts have felt like they’ve been sucked dry. I’ve felt emotions so visceral they can’t be described.

But, deep down, I know I’ve wanted this all along: this life. As a writer.

I’ve heard former U of W creative writing alum Katherena Vermette coin the brilliant phrase living life as if your fingernails are cut too short. (If I were Facebook friends with her, I would ask permission to paraphrase her so blatantly. Unfortunately, I’m not. I hope she doesn’t mind too much.)

That’s what I feel like I’ve been doing. I kind of love it.

I’m choosing to love it, even though sometimes it’s hell. If I’m honest, most of the time it’s hell.

And the funniest thing is, I’ve just started down this road. I don’t know if that should make me laugh or cry, or both at once.

But even if I come out of this with the shortest fingernails on the planet, I know I have to do it. It might not be fun, but it’ll be worth it. Some part of me has always known that. I’m just living it now.

But I’ll keep holding on. And maybe, just maybe, the words will save me.

In many ways, they already have.

 

Writing Process Blog Hop

I’m still relatively new to the world of blogging, but when the super smart and talented Will Fawley asked me to be part of a Blog Hop, it was just the kind of thing I couldn’t say no to now that I am – apparently – a blogger.

So I’m going to answer four questions about my personal writing process and then pass it on to three other blog writers to do the same. And be sure to check out Will’s answers at thewildestedge where he writes about books and other interesting things (he also has an MFA in Creative Writing, so I’m not lying when I say he’s pretty dang smart, and no I’m not in the least bit envious).

What am I working on?

At the moment I’m working on an idea inspired by one of the papers I wrote for my studies this year. I’m still trying to flesh the idea out, so the details are still a bit fuzzy and change depending on the time of day, but the narrative is written from a young adult disabled girl’s perspective (go figure), and that’s pretty much how far I’ve gotten in terms of solid details. In addition to the things I write on this blog, I’m also trying to familiarize myself with the personal essay as another way to explore and express my feelings and ideas about disability and the disabled experience.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Well, to be honest and to my great disappointment, there’s not too many people writing fiction about disability. There is some out there, for sure (and some of it’s seriously great stuff great if you know what to look for), but it’s precisely that disparity which caused me to write about disability in the first place.

Why do I write what I do?

Ha. I could probably take a whole day answering this question. Basically, the short answer is that I feel an immense personal responsibility to give a voice to the voiceless, whether or not that is people with disabilities or any other minority who can relate to a marginalized existence. Writing is very personal to me, which is most likely another reason why I didn’t start a blog until recently, but I definitely want to change that in order to open myself up to people reading my work as well as being invited to read other’s work I might not have considered in the past.

How does my writing process work?

Depends on the day. If I just want to get my idea out there, and don’t really have an idea about the “nuts and bolts” of it, it can honestly be quite a slog. At other times, though, if an idea comes to me more fully formed, I can write it out more or less the way I want it and then come back to do some editing once I have created a bit of distance between the idea itself and my need to get it out on paper. For my blog, blessedly, I tend to write on a subject and then have a publishable post in an hour or two. The trick I’ve learned, though, is to only share the post on Facebook a day later when I have read the piece enough times that I have a pretty good idea whether or not other people will respond to it (as well as to ensure I’ve weeded out all the nasty typos that threaten to keep me up at night).

And that’s it. Wasn’t so bad.

Here are the writers I will pass the next phase on to:

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Kathryne Grisim (a.k.a. mom) (foodmusings.ca)

Kathryne Grisim of Food Musings believes that food=love. She writes about her culinary adventures whilst traveling, cooking and dining with her family and friends. Her work has appeared on Huffington Post.

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Alison Ralph (alisonralph.wordpress.com)

My name is Allison Ralph and I am a photographer, writer, storyteller, aspiring painter, social justice advocate, traveler, lifelong learner, closet comedian, foodie, Whovian, a reader of blogs and excellent books, a drinker of fine loose-leaf teas, and a TCK. The minute I got my hands on a camera at the age of 6, I became a photographer, and I’ve been telling stories ever since. I use my blog to tell some of my stories, to explore writing, to find my voice, to showcase my photography, and to have fun!

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Sara Walker (jstanotherstory.blogspot.ca)

27 year old blogger extraordinaire! Just kidding. She is a reader who could easily spend her days basking in the beauty of a good book. Sara is creator of the book blog, Just Another Story, which has just celebrated its 4th anniversary. While Sara is not much of a writer, she loves sharing her thoughts on the books she has read. Discussing literature is one of her favourite things to do.

 

How artists will one day save the world

Over the last two months, I’ve had a chance to work with writers of all different stripes. I’ve re-discovered, in many different ways, how quirky and gracious and stubborn and imaginative and devastatingly fabulous we all are. And I love that about us. I love being part of that. I love being able to call myself one of them.

Against that background, I saw a movie last week called Finding Vivian Maier that made me think a lot about why people choose to be artists in the first place, whether in the form of a writer or something else. And what I’ve come up with is this: we are screwed up beings, artists. There is something in us that refuses to walk to the drum beat of this world. There is something in us that needs to get out.

I’ve heard this sentiment before, and I’ve heard it in a myriad of ways. I’ve heard that only writers would be crazy enough to actually do what we do. And we all laugh at that, because it’s funny. But maybe it’s funny because it’s also true.

This isn’t to say that we need to refer directly to that one thing we perceive as “wrong” in the world (if we indeed do perceive something as irrevocably wrong) in order to effectively deal with it, or let it out as it were. But the marvellous thing about being artists is that we can do a little dance around the thing that might be wrong. We can poke fun at it, merely observe it, or even capture it in all its glory and/or dispair (or both).

The point is that we can, and that we do.

Art is the point. It’s the point at which we choose to let that little niggling feeling that something may be wrong, without necessarily knowing what it is, out of ourselves. It’s the point at which that something, that it, becomes larger than our actual selves can be. It’s the point at which that something becomes the point.

The point behind our art. (I might be a bit dramatic in saying the point to living, but it’s something like that. That vital, anyway.) The point that can’t be ignored, least of all by the artist themselves. Whether others are invited to pay attention to that point is all a part of the artist’s journey.

The crux of the film Vivian Maier lies in the fact that her work was discovered after her death. And not just a little bit of work, but what can only be described as boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of her life’s work. The unanswered question remains whether she wanted her life’s work discovered; whether she would love the attention her work has received, or abhor it.

But that’s not really the point. Not to me, anyway.

The point was that she did it in the first place. Something compelled her, and whatever that compulsion was, only she will know.

That’s the beauty of being an artist.

 

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How my sinuses caused a writer’s epiphany

As I write this, I can’t breathe. (Ok, ok, obviously I can breathe, but that’s what it feels like. If you haven’t noticed by now, writers tend to exaggerate. That’s kind of the job).

I went for a walk Thursday night when my eyes started streaming unexpectedly with tears. Sometime between then and Saturday morning my sinuses decided to not just move in but throw themselves a big welcome party. And then blow up.

The good news, though, is that since I haven’t left my apartment for the last sixty hours, I’ve had a lot of time to think. And read, which causes me to think some more.

And, in true writer fashion, I’ve come to convince myself that my sinuses wish to teach me a lesson in the form of a metaphor. They could’ve done it in a much nicer way that would’ve required less tissues and gingerale, but I guess they had to get my attention somehow.

And what I’ve learned is this: my wonderfully complicated concept for a novel is stuck up in my brain and is literally making me sick. It’s not going to write itself. I have to get it out somehow.

I would like it to come out perfectly. I would like to coax it out slowly, at just the right temperature, while measuring out the exact amount of love and support that will allow it to mature and blossom beautifully. I would like it to come out all neatly tied up in a little bow that I can read to myself – God forbid I would show it to anyone else – and think Gosh, aren’t I smart. Way to go, me. This is simply the most wonderful thing I’ve ever read – probably the most wonderful thing I ever will read.

Not going to happen.

It’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be fabulous. And it won’t be pretty. It might not make sense to anyone else but me.

But it will. Words can be changed. Nothing’s ever written in stone.

And I have to let it out. Even if it sucks. Especially if it sucks.

Only once it’s out can I then make it better. Only then will I be able to mould it into what I really want it to be rather than relying on it to come out as a brilliant piece of art in the first place.

And that’s ok. I shouldn’t expect myself to produce a Giller-prize winner on my first try, on my first draft.

And yet, I do.

But thanks to my sinuses, they have taught me that even when I’m not writing a masterpiece – even when it seems like I’m repeating myself ad nauseam with words and phrases that have been written a million times before by other people – I still have to let it out. That’s kind of the point.

All I can do is write. The rest will take care of itself.

And I’ll feel much better, anyway, once I have a slab in front of me to work with rather than an immaculate hand-made bowl that I hope to slap together out of thin air.

“So let go/just get in/oh, it’s so amazing here/it’s all right, cause there’s beauty in the breakdown.” -“Let Go,” Frou Frou

Why finding out who you are is the most important – but hardest – thing you’ll ever do

I’ve always struggled to both find and promote my own identity, and because of this I have come to find reading about other’s processes of discovering their own identity fascinating. As a writer who writes about identity and all the ups and downs that come with accepting yourself (as, essentially, that’s what writing means to me), I’m doubly fascinated by such a process because it makes me wonder why the search for identity seems to lie at the core of every person and, indeed, every character. (Couple this with a search for voice, as I wrote about last week, and my mind is blown. It can also leave me a little heart broken – but in a good way.)

Maybe this is because an identity is something every person wants. However, this sense of identity that has pervaded popular culture appears fixable and, honestly, a bit too static for my taste. If you are a girly girl, for example, you should be flirty and constantly lovely and wear cute dresses that always look as if they were just bought that day. If you’re a guy’s guy, you should be strong and uber-masculine and always protect your woman and never show emotion.

These are extremes, obviously, but what about those of us (and, I expect, the majority of us) who lie somewhere in the middle?

Those are the kinds of stories I want to read about. They’re also the stories I want to write. But, I’ve been finding, writing those stories can be just as hard – and maybe even more so – as living them.

The ultimate “searching for identity” book I always seem to come back to – even though I only first read it last summer – is Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. I was originally struck the first time I read it, and I continue to be struck, by how her lovely narrative can somehow seamlessly hold two disparate parts of herself up to such eloquent commentary: the first “part” as, essentially, who/what she thinks she should be and the second “part” as who she actually is. Without going into any more specific details about the book – because you should all seriously check it out or place it on hold at your local library – her narrative is roughly divided into a back-and-forth commentary between these two “parts” of herself. And what I find so amazing is that she is both refreshingly critical and heartbreakingly pragmatic about these two parts that are at odds with each other most of the time. But whether she essentially becomes or accepts these two somewhat contradictory parts of herself as being who she really is (or whether she is something else altogether), her struggle to answer that question definitively is a messy one that, at times, obliterates everything else in its path.

Which is the part of the book that I find myself the most drawn to. There’s this image I seem to have in my head of the person I want to be – the person, in some ways, I deeply yearn to be – and this other person I actually am. The person I am I can be disappointed with at times, but I can also be elated and surprised and utterly astounded by at others.

I have to learn – and I am, happily, slowly learning – not just to be moved by the utterly astounding person, though, but also by the one who disappoints me at times. Because in those two persons, and not just the one who does everything “right” all the time, is who I really am. And when those two persons come out on the same day, it doesn’t mean that I’m confused about who I really am.

It means I am comfortable with who I really am, and am comfortable with showing who I really am to others. Even though that can be hard. (Correction: is hard.)

Lucy Grealy taught me this in the words of her memoir. She was able to move me, as a person, towards an identity I might not like all sides of on my best days, and who I definitely don’t like all sides of on my bad ones.

But that shouldn’t change who I am, or who I want to be. And that realization is the hard part, but the good part. It’s also the part that makes me utterly, heartbreaking human.

I might be doomed to search for the words that will one day describe who I really am at my core – the ones we all search for as we either come closer to or further away from our identity.

Or I might never find the words.

But the search, I am just starting to tell myself, makes it all worthwhile. The search is the sweet part, the goal elusive and temporary.

And being ok with holding these two disparate parts in equal measure, rather than having one being in a state of perpetual competition with the other, might be the best lesson I will ever teach myself.

“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” -D.W. Winnicott