Artist-in-Reticence

Artist-in-Reticence

A month ago, I found out that I was going to be a literary artist-in-residence. I was shocked and delighted, but also uncomfortably pleased with myself for managing to secure such an opportunity. I felt honoured. And excited. Yet an underlying sense of hubris was there as well, with a scratchy voice in my inner ear like Gollum’s. “This is mine,” it muttered desperately and with uncharacteristic arrogance.

I was so disquieted by this side of myself that I quickly began turning inward. I started to question why I had applied for the residency and whether I deserved it. Who was I to represent an entire movement, shaking free from the societal norms of silence regarding infertility? What was I doing masquerading as a writer with ideas and skills to pass onto others? How could I have thought that my proposed programs would even appeal to the public, let alone connect them in any meaningful way to their own writing? Where had I found the audacity to even apply?

I spiraled. I sunk rapidly into self-doubt, and the inner critic I have spent the last year learning to dismiss crept up behind me, sunk her fingers into the flesh of my upper arms, and held on, hissing countless shortcomings against the back of my neck.

I spent the next three weeks flip-flopping. Some days I found myself grateful and looking forward to the residency. Other times, I couldn’t find reprieve from tension headaches and aching shoulders. I carefully programmed and diligently carried out preparations. I interrogated my motives and challenged my integrity.

The one thing I didn’t do was write.

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About Jennifer

Jennifer wrote her first poem at the age of six, and she has been involved in the world of words as an editor, a blogger, and an article writer.  She is published in and shortlisted for a growing number of local, national, and international electronic and print publications, regularly reads at literary events, co-runs a writing group, and actively pursues educational opportunities to further develop her craft.  Most recently she had an essay, titled Bairnlorn, appear in the Globe & Mail, placed first in the My City, My Words poetry contest, and wrote and handcrafted two board books for her son.

You can follow Jennifer on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and/or Pinterest.

I had allowed the denigrator inside to stay my hand – to leave my pen capped upon the table, my laptop still beneath a pile of disheveled papers. I was disappointed in my paralyzed state and worried of what it could mean for my forthcoming residency. So when a friend pointed out an opportunity to craft a story for a contest with a quickly approaching deadline, I chose to dismiss the snicker within and to embrace my competency and creativity.

I wrote. I edited. I reworked and polished. By the time I was done, I was proud of the piece I submitted, and – more importantly – I had reconnected to my belief in myself and in what I know I can accomplish as a writer. More to the point, I had gotten out of my own way.

There is a danger in too much analysis. Being someone who has elected to pursue a passion founded in looking and thinking deeply, I recognize the irony in these words. But if all we do is examine, prod and second-guess, we will never get to the work. Silencing the voices – be they unabashedly prideful or shriveling in their timidity – allows us to get what we must onto the page.

I know the cacophony of conflicting thoughts will return. Again and again, I will have to face the introspective noise of my mind. It is inevitable. However, I chose how finely I tune into the din and how I counter its effect. This time, I was able to prevail because of a deadline. Now and then, it takes breaking down my goals. It could involve the skills of a good listener or the bend in a familiar forest path. It may require the soft, arching back of a cat beneath my hand, the scent of Nag Champa as I meditate, or the sweetened bitterness of a caramel latte. The key could be space or perspective or focus.

Mostly, it is simply about getting myself into the chair, in front of my screen or notebook, fingers poised.

Come and Join the Midlife Memoir Breakthrough

A Five-Day Live Event (18-22 March) in Sydney with Joanne Fedler

In this hands-on, intimate workshop (an eclectic mix of teaching, instruction, writing exercises, meditations, ritual, sharing and other joyful activities), I will teach you how to take the material of your life – the moments that counted, no matter how shattering or modest – and weave them into a memoir that makes sense of it all.

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As a writer, I must see the long view of each letter I type. I need to comprehend the immortality of character, the timelessness of setting. I acknowledge that whatever I put to paper might inspire relief from suffering, or instigate it. I may just as easily alienate readers as unite them, depending upon how I incorporate theme or voice into a work. I have to understand the permanency of every paragraph or stanza, and the way each story potentially endures long after I have set down my pen.

Our words are a legacy.

Several years ago, a home in my neighbourhood sold, and the new owners dug up the entire front yard, justifiably intent on changing the area to suit their tastes. As the landscaping progressed, however, I was flabbergasted as their preferences become apparent to the neighbourhood.

Enormous, stark white slabs of stone were installed vertically like obtrusive, glittering sentries at a number of points across the corner property. The large gaps between each conspicuously erected monolith were then dotted with a few tiny plants, leaving the ground largely unadorned and the great stretches of mulch desolate. The visual effect of these seemingly pretentious columns left me wondering if the outlandish garden was a cry for attention or simply an unsightly display of status.

I had failed to see the role that time would play. But the new owners had not.

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About Jennifer

Jennifer wrote her first poem at the age of six, and she has been involved in the world of words as an editor, a blogger, and an article writer. She is published in and shortlisted for a growing number of local, national, and international electronic and print publications.Most recently she had an essay, titled Bairnlorn, appear in the Globe & Mail, placed first in the My City, My Words poetry contest, and wrote and handcrafted a board book for her son.

She also tells terrible jokes.

They knew what weather would do; how a year of exposure to dust, sunlight, sea air, and rain would stain the impermeable rock. They recognized the simple truth that plants grow and that they need space to do so. They understood the topography of the land and how to place elements that worked with the gentle slope bowing into the street from their front door.

I realized it slowly, over the course of the next twelve to eighteen months. The genius of it.

They had gifted our neighbourhood with a version of the stone circles of Europe.

The bright granite was now darkened with patches of slate, moss, and charcoal, the gleam replaced with the satin finish of aged stone. The heathers had spread into the empty pockets of soil, and the mix of species bloomed at different times, seasonally offering a carpet of tiny purple or white clustered buds. Bees crawled over the foliage, greedily collecting pollen from the bell-shaped flowers. Crows rested on the natural pillars, cocking their heads in response to the gaze of passersby. Sparrows hopped over the ground, darting amid the crevices between the evergreen groundcover in search of shelter or food.

It was a tiny piece of the magic one feels while standing within Stonehenge.

It is into this model of patience, and the twin branches of deliberate unfolding and organic growth, that I write. My creativity is best expressed when I keep these lessons in mind. When I lean into the possibilities that may ripple from casting a story into the waters of the world, I should consider how those vibrations will colour, grow, and bring life to the perspectives of others. Without reflection, I risk creating a literary landscape out of touch with my intention and my readers. But with it, I can hold on to the long view and create something lasting and beautiful.

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When I was two, I almost went blind in my right eye.

A close friend of my mother`s had noticed that my left eye was not tracking properly. It was turning out so that it appeared misaligned, and so a trip to the eye doctor`s was quickly arranged. I was examined and assessed and eventually given the diagnosis of constant extropia, also known as lazy eye.

Rather than attempt to saddle such a young patient with glasses, the optometrist opted to cover my working orb with a bandage to force my left eye to perform. For at least a couple of months I toddled more than most toddlers might as I explored my world with half of my sight literally under wraps. I have no memory of this experience but, with a son of my own so similarly aged, I can closely estimate how frustrating this must have been for both me and my parents.

Eventually, though, the professionals realized that they had made a mistake. In covering my good eye in the endeavor to exercise my poor one, the former had ceased to work. The gauze and tape had performed their task too well, and the perfect vision I had known in my right eye had been overturned by mandatory inertia. The doctor was alarmed by the severe inactivity upon re-exposing it, and he ceased the flawed experiment to try and remedy the eye`s unresponsiveness.

I was given thick glasses with a strong prescriptive lens on the left side and wire hooks curling out the arms and around my ears. My right eye reclaimed its dominion. And bandages were reserved for scraped knees.

Life returned to normal. For a time.

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About Jennifer

Jennifer wrote her first poem at the age of six, and she has been involved in the world of words as an editor, a blogger, and an article writer. She is published in and shortlisted for a growing number of local, national, and international electronic and print publications.Most recently she had an essay, titled Bairnlorn, appear in the Globe & Mail, placed first in the My City, My Words poetry contest, and wrote and handcrafted a board book for her son.

She also tells terrible jokes.

When I was in the car one morning, being driven to my first grade class, I composed my first poem. It was a four-line ode to the sun and it was the inaugural beautiful hint at how writing might become a part of my life.

The next evidence, though, was not so sweet.

Four-eyes. Bookworm. Typing these terms of mockery still cover my irises with liquid pain. For all of elementary school, through surgery for my lazy eye when I was ten, and up until a couple of years after the procedure when I was finally told I no longer needed glasses, I was teased in such a way. I had been gifted with a mother who worked in the municipal library and whose vocation compelled her to share her love of reading with her children. So with plastic frames often perched atop a nose firmly stuck in a book, my childhood destiny was written.

But amongst the traumas of pre-pubescent bullying, I can still find ways to be grateful. Without those trying, formative years, I would not have become discerning in my selection of close friends. I learned a great deal about how to read people and understand the nuances of expressions, words and even emotions. My people watching skills surely developed while I pumped my legs alone on the swing, and my ability to gain solace with my own thoughts and company must have had their foundation in the field`s perimeter of gravel and dirt, over which my two feet carried me on countless recesses.

These are the skills upon which I began to create my authorship, both as a girl who contributed a couple of articles to the school newspaper and as a young person trying to write a happy ending for her life. Those glasses, the names, and the way my vision had to adapt and then adapt again – all of it means something. Each flicker of experience has contributed to who I am now, and to how I am able to share parts of myself on the page.

I am thankful my eyesight was not permanently marred by an optometrist’s misguided efforts to help. More so, I am grateful for the opportunity to remember how we can’t cover up what is working and concentrate solely on what is dysfunctional. Too often we focus on the negative, but in doing so we rob ourselves of examining a full life. I, for one, want to explore the width, depth and height of who I am and what I have been through with a writer’s vision: with eyes wide open and lifted toward the shifting colours of an infuriating, peaceful, grieving, joyous, confusing and insightful horizon.

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Alright. That’s enough of that ship.

It is precisely in avoidance of such a collapse into cliché that I can turn to my writing community. They are there to help me keep my grammar in check, and to encourage me to delve deeper into my characters or setting. They commiserate over growing piles of rejection letters. For all the obvious reasons, I am grateful for those trusted individuals I have finally learned to recognize as an integral part of my writing process, but there is more to it than that. There was a learning curve, as I slowly acquainted myself with what it means to engage with other writers, and its particular sweep revealed a plethora of subtle advantages.

  1. I was able to practice sharing my story, not simply through edited selections of writing, but also through comments and discussion. This process has helped me to become clearer on what I want to share as I write my book, to experiment with exposition versus scene, and to better appreciate what others find engaging and valuable.

2. In those first tentative shares of my writing, I opened myself up to feedback, even if it was initially on the saccharine side (most writers, I find, are blessed with the instinct to gingerly handle such fledgling offers). Practice at dealing with critique is necessary, and learning to do so gradually allowed me to build my way up to a place where I became eager for the feedback, knowing that it will improve my work and make me a more critical thinker.

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About Jennifer

Jennifer wrote her first poem at the age of six, and she has been involved in the world of words as an editor, a blogger, and an article writer. She is published in and shortlisted for a growing number of local, national, and international electronic and print publications.Most recently she had an essay, titled Bairnlorn, appear in the Globe & Mail, placed first in the My City, My Words poetry contest, and wrote and handcrafted a board book for her son.

She also tells terrible jokes.

  1. Joining online forums, workshops, and meet-up groups introduced me to a wider array of people who provided me with the opportunity to think beyond the confines of personal perspective, and to make some thoughtful assumptions about what others might read in a particular passage. I can look at my writing with an eye for what others might take from it now, whereas before I could only see it subjectively. One of the best scholastic exercises I ever undertook was having another person read something I had written out loud. I was fortunate in that the person I was paired with was the one in the class furthest from my own experiences. The difference in literal voice – the timbre, the pauses, the emphases – was astounding, and it made me realize how what we hear in our own heads as we write may not be close to how it is interpreted by our readers.
  1. Simply listening proved invaluable. In witnessing the stories of others, I became grounded in the knowledge that while my own tale is unique and needs to be told, that it is also just one amid those of everyday people, living lives of joy, tragedy, confusion, suspicion, and resolution. There is great comfort in knowing how relatable each of our individual threads can be.
  1. I became connected to the hard work that I need to be doing. Occasionally, this happened because I could sense the hallow excuses of others and began to more easily recognize them when they came tumbling out of my own mouth. But mostly, it was because as I listened to the members of my writing community comment on what they were giving up to write, I found myself moved to push through the inspirational droughts.
  1. It gave me cause to celebrate their wins – collaborations, shortlists, awards, personal word count bests, filling in longstanding plot holes – and to know that each step is in itself a victory. It helped me view firsthand the reality that successes are possible.
  1. I realized that when I stay connected to my writing community that I stay connected to my writing.

That last point was probably the most important one for me. I know now that finding my community is one of the biggest things that I changed to move from writing being a hobby to it being what I do every day. Somehow, in all the years that I dabbled in what I claimed as a passion, it never occurred to me that surrounding myself with similarly focused people could help me to make my craft a priority.  Knowing others have some sort of expectation of me as a writer – whether to compose a poem, dig into research or an outline, or deliver a finished chapter for feedback – makes me take myself more seriously. And it manifests as a driving force that keeps my pen moving across the page and my fingers dancing across the keys.

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I have recommitted to writing. This is the anthem I have been singing for the last two-thirds of a year—a requiem for wasted time, claimed during the approach of my son’s first birthday. I was in a place of relative peace as this promise to myself was made, and I quickly rediscovered both the freedom and passion offered by the craft, yet there was a needling at the back of my skull, a heaviness which rolling my shoulders and repeatedly pivoting my neck could not dislodge. I have sung this song before, but whenever my life has become busy, or other priorities have demoted my aspirations, those notes have inevitably faded into silence.

How many times must we restart something before we get it “right”?

The thought that I will lose momentum again is an avatar of fear. She stacks plates in the cupboard while I wash dishes that can wait, she sulks beside me when I sink into the couch to watch television, and she lurks over me, analyzing every word I scrawl or type. She has been with me almost my whole life and I know she isn’t going anywhere. She has always been the bully who will knock over the tower of blocks only I have the vision and dedication to build.

But blocks can be restacked. The pieces can be picked up as many times as is necessary and reconfigured to create more inventive and sustainable structures.

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About Jennifer

Jennifer wrote her first poem at the age of six, and she has been involved in the world of words as an editor, a blogger, and an article writer. She is published in and shortlisted for a growing number of local, national, and international electronic and print publications.Most recently she had an essay, titled Bairnlorn, appear in the Globe & Mail, placed first in the My City, My Words poetry contest, and wrote and handcrafted a board book for her son.

She also tells terrible jokes.

While doubt will probably always threaten to topple my undertakings, I have discovered an interesting way to stand against this shadow-self. I write about her. I have started to compose pieces that delve into my feelings about the act of writing itself, and it has opened up a path into my own process that I could never have discovered without the unwanted companionship of disquiet.

I have begun to view her as a character.

In engaging my own sense of levity and curiosity about my fear, I have made her less powerful. I see her now as flawed and complex, a composition of erroneous assumptions and misguided efforts to protect. It doesn’t mean that when she flattens my work that it doesn’t hurt, but I better understand her attempts to intimidate and support inactivity. I can turn my back on her and walk away when she is being belligerent or enabling. And I can be empathetic of her struggle… while simultaneously plotting to kill her off in the sequel.

Realizing that I have an actual relationship with my craft, and that I can identify my anxieties, confidences, and quirks as the cast of a story, has created a new space into which I can write. I no longer feel outside of what I am doing, but rather I participate actively in all the arguments, harmonies, and silences that surround my work.

It turns out that I am not singing some precarious melody. I am the anthem. I am the story.

Author Potential Profile Assessment

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