Creativity, Mental Health

Criticism and Trauma, Responsibility and Worth

[Image: illustration of a brain on a white background that is coloured in brown and has words in yellow, orange, and red that read things like: fear, anger, shame, fight, escape, threat, opposition, conflict, criticism, etc.].

CW: ableist language, discussion of childhood trauma, self-worth, and verbal abuse

A question that I constantly grapple with is:

How can I be a responsible writer?

I create a lot of work that is raw and personal. I open up. I express myself. I also get nervous about the ways I express myself. I frequently question my self-expression.

How do I express myself openly and honestly while also remaining responsible and aware of how my words can affect other people? How do I strike that balance between realness and consideration for others? How do I remain considerate while simultaneously not overly censoring myself?

I feel sometimes that I lean towards self-censorship too heavily.

Let me explain. I want to be a responsible creator. I want to express myself while also being considerate of other people’s experiences, not causing harm, and not perpetuating ignorance or oppression. I want to speak to the ways in which I experience oppression and privilege, and all other things. I want to explore the complicated tangle of everything. I want to be honest and raw and real without crossing a line into being ignorant or harmful. But the reality is, I’m a flawed human being. I don’t know everything. There are many ways in which I experience privilege. I strive to be aware of all of them, to understand the perspectives of those who don’t experience the same privileges as I, and to check these privileges at the door. To paraphrase sociologist Michael Kimmel, the insidious nature of privilege is that you often aren’t aware that you have it, or of the extent to which you have it. Unless someone points it out or we go out of our way to learn, our privileges can often remain invisible to us. The dynamics of power and oppression are built into the foundations of society and internalized by us in deep, unconscious ways and it takes ongoing effort to root all of that out.

This work is something I am committed to. It is also always ongoing, which means there will always be more to learn and ways in which I am ignorant. I’m learning and people who are learning screw up. People who are learning miss things, make mistakes, stumble, go slow, doubt themselves, have revelations, get confused, feel overwhelmed, forget, but ultimately keep going. People who are learning can be wrong and can cause harm. People who are learning must remain humble, take their egos out of play, and be open to having their perspectives challenged.

I remind myself of this often as I create. I will screw up. I must remain humble. I have to keep learning.

Fucking up is human. It is inevitable. I know this and yet I am absolutely terrified of it.

A lot has come out recently about “call out” or “cancel” culture in leftist communities. I won’t dive into this messy conversation in this piece because I think there’s plenty better suited to the task and I’m actually looking to explore an adjacent issue here. If you’re interested in critiques of callout/cancel culture, Kai Cheng Thom has written some fantastic stuff on this topic that I would recommend.

I have never been “cancelled”. I’ve never had the following for that. I have been called out, often rightly so, and sometimes… questionably so. As someone who has shared their creations online for several years, I have seen people read things into what I have made I did not put there. I have been accused of making arguments I’ve never made and of believing things I’ve never believed. There have been instances where I’ve felt like my work has been examined under a microscope in the worst possible light, like people have scanned it looking for flaws, imperfections, and potentially problematic aspects without taking it in as a whole, without recognizing that I am a whole, that the person whose work they are about to tear to shreds is a human being capable of feeling things. When this happens, it can be scary. This is in part because my work is often very honest and raw and I already feel vulnerable putting it out there. It’s scary to watch someone pick up that vulnerability and use it as a weapon, aiming it back at me. It’s scary because with that vulnerability, I’ve given them the tools to hurt me. This is especially true when the jump is made from “you’ve said something problematic or ignorant here” to “you are a problematic, ignorant, or bad person”. People can look at my work, which reflects who I am as a person, say that something about it is bad and therefore I am bad.

I’ve also watched this happen to creators I admire on a much larger scale, where thousands of people go from critiquing their ideas to calling for them to be de-platformed, cancelled, or disposed of. I’ve seen critiques of creations turn into attacks on the creators themselves. I’ve seen people’s work be willfully misrepresented, taken out of context, and examined in the worst possible ways. This makes me want to hide. It makes me want to get off social media. It makes me want to stop writing.

It makes me want to silence myself.

I believe that we need to hold each other accountable, but I think that needs to come from a place of helping each other to learn, grow, and do better rather than one-upping, attacking, and disposing of each other. There are exceptions to this. Sometimes, people are genuinely dangerous and not open to learning. I also don’t believe that marginalized people are responsible for gently educating the people who oppress them, but that’s where allies need to step in and step up. Anyway, this stuff has all been talked to death at this point. Like I said, this is not a piece specifically about call out or cancel culture, though these things do factor into how I feel, there’s stuff going on with me internally that I want to explore.

I’m traumatized and mentally ill. I’m in therapy, and this week, my homework is all about looking at “stuck points”. Stuck points are strong beliefs about self, others, or the world that develop as a result of trauma and are not particularly accurate. Part of the work I need to do to heal is to identify and unlearn my stuck points.

When I was four years old, I was joking around with my friends about their dog and called the dog “stupid”. They responded by yelling at me that he wasn’t stupid and that I shouldn’t have said that. I ran upstairs in a flurry of tears and panic. I found my mother and begged her to punish me. I told her that I had done something bad, that I was a horrible person, and that I deserved to be punished. She calmed me down enough to find out what had actually happened. I told her. She refused to punish me, just said I should apologize to my friends and that I wasn’t a bad person. I was surprised to learn this. In my head, having done something wrong and being a horrible person who deserved punishment were the same thing.

I want to say that I have grown beyond that little kid who ran to their mother claiming to be bad and asking to be punished, but that hurt and scared child still exists within me. One of my stuck points, a major one I’ve carried for most of my life, is that I am a bad person. I know, rationally, that this isn’t true, but there is a less rational part of me that holds this belief as though it’s a core aspect of my identity. Accepting criticism and navigating conflict can be very difficult for me. Hearing that I’ve done something wrong immediately makes me think that I am wrong, I am bad, and I deserve to be hurt, punished, or thrown away.

In therapy, I learned that criticism is so scary for me because of my trauma, because I was exposed to belittling, dehumanizing criticism at a very young age. My therapist said there are two types of criticism: 1) “here’s what’s wrong with this and how it could be improved” and 2) “this is a piece of shit”. As a child, I became intimately acquainted with the “this is a piece of shit” form of criticism, so that’s what I hear every time I’m criticized, that I am a piece of shit, and it’s scary. This is something I need to unlearn.

I have a hard time differentiating between constructive criticism and shit-talking criticism.

All criticism feels scary because it all calls my self-worth into question.

I can get really defensive because my brain thinks that accepting the (often valid) critiques of my behaviour means I must also accept that I am bad, worthless, and deserving of punishment. Sometimes, the people critiquing my work are also saying these things about me, which sucks. Often, however, people are not adding that cruel baggage onto their critiques. It’s me who does that.

I can’t control how other people respond to me. I can’t make people who are being cruel be kind. I can’t do much to change the broader culture around “shit-talking” criticism from my tiny platform, aside from refuse to engage in it and focus on constructive critiques of ideas instead. What I can do, however, is work on unlearning the stuck point that tells me that I am bad. If I do this, a few things will happen. One is that I will be able to stand my ground and stand up for myself in situations where people are hurting me. I will no longer gaslight myself, apologize profusely, and beg for forgiveness or punishment. The other is that I will become much better at accepting valid criticism. If accepting critiques of my behaviour or words does not mean having to accept that I am fundamentally bad, if it no longer leaves me feeling panic-stricken, I will be in a much better place to actually respond to valid criticism.

If I can heal from my traumatic childhood experiences with criticism, I can respond better when I cause harm. If I make the shift from “I am fundamentally bad” to “I am fundamentally good,” then fucking up and getting called out isn’t going to be the end of the world. Cause, right now, with the way I am, I don’t think I would survive being cancelled. And that’s going to become a problem if I keep creating and putting my work out there. I am going to be criticized. I need to be able to identify valid, constructive criticism from shit-talking criticism. I need to be able to protect myself and feel fundamentally secure in my basic goodness when people project their shit onto me. I am going to need to be able to hear, process, and accept valid criticism when I screw up, stumble, or act from a place of ignorance. I need to be the mother to the little kid who runs up the stairs claiming to be worthless and begging to be punished. I need to hold their hand, tell them they are not bad and deserving of punishment. I need to tell them to turn around, go back downstairs, listen to the people they’ve hurt, apologize, and try to do better, all without any self-flagellation, all while being secure in the knowledge that they have inherent worth and nothing will change that.

All of these things will help me to better respond to criticism and hold myself accountable, to be the responsible creator I want to be.

Being a responsible creator is not just about striving to do no harm, but correcting the harm you have caused without spiralling into shame and self-abuse, without making it all about you.

I believe we need to have a two-pronged approach to address these issues. The first is to address the issues with how we treat each other in our communities, the social side of things. The second is to address our own baggage. What is your history with receiving criticism? How do you code and respond to it? What about that might need some work? If we do this internal work, that can also help us to navigate the work that needs to be done in our communities.

Does your trauma affect how you receive criticism? Does it impact how you dish our criticism? Have you ever projected your trauma onto someone else? What did that look like?  I think these are important questions for all of us, and they are questions I will continue to ask myself in my life and on my path to figuring out how to be a responsible creator.

Creativity

Hello, Imposter Syndrome, Old Buddy, Old Pal

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[Image: picture of a tarnished silver frame on a wooden surface with the same image copied inside the frame, creating an image within an image]. Photo by PictureThis.

 

CW: casual mentions of apocalypse, death, and a lack of overall meaning.

I did a reading the other night. I was sandwiched between authors who spun stories and poetry full of metaphor, who spoke words layered with meaning, who filled the room with depth and imagery. I got up and read my plain language piece: here is something that happened to me and how I felt about it. I sat back down.

Self-consciousness arose with the question: am I even a writer?

Hello, imposter syndrome, old buddy, old pal. How have you been?

The webs I weave with my words aren’t complex or layered. I am direct. I say what I mean. I’ve always struggled to get into writing that has more substance than that. I don’t read between the lines and so I don’t write between the lines either. It’s not that I think my way is better or worse, it’s just what comes naturally.

Some people tell me that they like that. They say it’s easy to digest, accessible. Simple, direct language that allows them to dive into the content of what is being said. My writing does the job of delivery quickly.

It’s also not for everyone. I know there are some who see my work as novice, childish, indulgent, or one-dimensional. Maybe they’re right. That’s okay with me, actually. I’m writing to express, not writing to please.

Occasionally, something I’m working on develops depth without my conscious intent and I think, “Oh, look, I’ve done it! There are multiple ways to read this. It has L a Y e R s”. It’s exciting when that happens, but I can’t force it. Forcing makes it come out sounding hollow and pretentious. I may create something “wrapped in meaning,” but there’s no meat in the center, the center remains empty. It’s better, I believe, to write the meat first and see if any layers follow. Sometimes they don’t and that’s okay too.

Whenever imposter syndrome rears its head, I try to answer with, “So what?”

“Am I even a writer?”

“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not, but so what?”

“Am I a bad writer?”

“Maybe, but so what?”

“Is my writing overly simplistic, straightforward, and lacking in depth?”

“Maybe it is, but again, so fucking what?”

As far as I know, I have just this one life. I don’t know what will happen after I die and I also don’t know whether everything I create will be destroyed in an apocalypse in the near future. In the grand scheme of the universe, everything is temporary and nothing really matters. I know I am alive now and I like to write, so I write. It feels good. It’s therapeutic. It helps me to express what I otherwise find difficulty expressing. It helps me to articulate my own existence. It helps me to connect with others. So what if it isn’t worthy of awards, honorariums, or acclaimed publication? So fucking what? That’s not the point.

Anyone writing for the sole purpose of accruing money or fame is in the wrong line of work. Chances are good that writing won’t pay your bills, and people are more likely to make fun of you than hand you accolades. Trying to write the next great novel? Try writing a novel first. It’s hard.

Writing makes you vulnerable. You don’t necessarily need to be writing the way that I do, either, where I intentionally lay myself bare to the world. Creating is a vulnerable process, one that involves speaking to experiences and feelings we often keep hidden from the wider world. It can result in rejection, misunderstanding, or a lack of recognition (i.e. enthusiastically putting your creations out into a world full of people who couldn’t care less about it). It can also result in connection and that can be really powerful. One of the best pieces of feedback you can receive as a writer, I have found, is “I’ve felt that way too”. I measure the “success” of my work in relation to that sense of connection more than anything else.

For me, writing is a process of learning how to articulate my lower-case “t” truths. Who am I today? What am I experiencing? What do I think? What do I feel? How am I navigating this broken, bizarre, beautiful world? How am I like you? How am I unlike you?

My truths tend to come out in plain, straightforward, just-read-the-actual-lines-themselves-not-between-them language. This is not the case for everyone and that’s also fine. There are many powerful writers out there who find ways of expressing their truths through layers of symbolism, double meanings, vivid imagery, and otherwise evocative language. What they create is beautiful.

What I create is also beautiful.

Our capitalistic society will have us believe we are all in competition with each other. Whose writing is bad, whose is better? Who deserves this or that prize? Who is otherwise unworthy? Who should be ashamed of daring to express themselves without having a degree, perfect grammar, or an extensive knowledge of the literary canon of old/dead white men.

It can be argued that writing is a skill, yes. Effective communication is a skill. Weaving words and making meanings are skills. But we should interrogate how we measure these skills because, often, our methods of measurement are rooted in colonial white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, classism, and other forms of power imbalance and oppression.

It can be argued that writing is a skill, yes, but you do not have to be skilled at writing in order to be a writer. In fact, you will never become skilled if you never practice, if you never write. You must give yourself permission to be an unskilled writer, to be bad, and to be embarrassed. You must give yourself permission to go through the awkward and uncomfortable process of getting better. You must remember not to take it all so seriously. We will all die, existence might be a dream, and the world may be ending sometime soon. Allow yourself to write if you are so inclined and allow yourself to write badly. You will always be able to find other people in the room who are more skilled than you. You will likely always be faced with imposter syndrome.

Sure, okay, you’re an imposter. I’m an imposter. We’re all imposters pretending not to be imposters.

Really, we’re all creators. Capitalism tells us to compete, but we don’t have to listen. Other writers are not your competition, they are your friends, your inspiration, your support, and your community.

I can get up in a room to read my work sandwiched between authors who spin stories and poetry full of metaphor, who speak words layered with meaning, who fill that room with depth and imagery. I can get up and read my plain language piece to my community of writers without shame. Whether I am worse or better does not matter. What matters is that we write and share that writing, that we support and encourage each other wherever we are in our learning.

Maybe you don’t like my writing, don’t think it’s any good. Maybe you’re outraged that some novice, unknown writer is breaking an unspoken rule by writing about writing. Maybe I am an unskilled writer. Maybe I am an imposter.

So what? That isn’t going to stop me.

Creativity

Where We Have Gone, Where We Are Going

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[Image: coniferous trees with mist around them. Dry pine needles and patches of snow on the ground].

“I am a semi-autobiographical speculative poet—a monstrous kind of hybrid—and the joy is being all of those at once, regardless of the social acceptability of multiplicity.”

I published the essay Where Do We Go Now on January 15, 2019. I wrote it over the holidays while staying with my family, which might be why it includes references to my parents and young writer self. I was in a place to reflect back on everything that had come before while figuring out how to move into the future.

I like this essay, mostly. I think it says some important things. I wrote it in a passionate, charged haze. It was partially a response to a book I’d just read on creativity, as well as feeling stuck and uninspired writing short sci-fi and horror stories, which I’d done for the previous year-and-a-half. I was feeling bound in by those forms, not allowing myself to write what I wanted but focusing my energy on what I dubbed “real” writing, i.e. whatever I thought would be publishable and digestible. I figured poetry and personal essays, what I’ve always written, didn’t count. I’d bought into the “real writers write this, not that” bullshit.

Luckily, the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert got me out of this funk. Say what you will about Gilbert (I’m generally not a fan of hers), but reading that book was what I needed to get over myself. It helped me see that the lines I had drawn between “fake” and “real” writing were silly and unnecessary, blocks that were getting in the way of my drive to create.

I like this essay, mostly, though it does read as a little pretentious to me now. My writing over the past year has gotten more casual, more chilled out. I think that’s for the better. I think that piece was also strongly influenced by all of the science fiction I’d been writing. It has a vague kind of surrealism to it, especially with the use of the “we” pronoun. I suppose it was a transitional piece from speculative fiction to personal essay.

“We have learned that we must make space for the joy, and making space for the joy means allowing ourselves to make things that may not make sense to anyone else.”

When I wrote Where Do We Go Now at the beginning of this year, I had no idea about zines and the journey I would go on with them. I was just on the cusp of finding out. I think I had some vague sense that I just needed to follow my instincts and my next big project would emerge, and that’s exactly what happened.

I stumbled across Clementine Morrigan’s work again. I had read some of their stuff years ago and then lost track of them. I think Instagram recommended a post of hers, which prompted me to look them up again. I ended up on her website browsing through their zines. I purchased a few e-zines. One was about writing. I enthusiastically absorbed them late one winter night. I could write a zine, I thought. In February, I set to work on my first zine, One Year on T, a compilation of essays and poems about transitioning as a non-binary person. I published it in April.

Two zine fairs, three zines, over a dozen blog posts, more than a hundred poems, and pages upon pages of unedited freewriting later, we’re here in November. I have a clearer sense of where I’m going than I did in January, though nothing is concrete. I am still experimenting, exploring, searching, and questioning. I’m happy to have switched gears into writing whatever I want. I’m happy I chose to believe that what I love to write counts as “real” writing. I’m so, so happy I started writing zines. In Where Do We Go Now, I wrote about doing a poor job of managing my “archive” of previous work, of there being so many disparate, disorganized pieces and projects behind me. I apologized to whoever might eventually stumble over them. Well, that person ended up being me from the immediate future. For my first zine, I pulled together pieces I’d written about gender over a period of four years. For my second, I reviewed old journal entries I’d written at the ages of 17 and 22. For my third, to be published soon, I combed through everything I’d written in the period between finishing my first zine and now. Zine writing has made me the curator of my own work, work that would otherwise go stale and turn to dust in the dark. As a medium, zines have helped me to pull together, disentangle, and make sense of my otherwise disorderly of writing.

“We have learned that conventional packaging, like conventional styles, may not be for us and that is okay as well. Creating a book from cover to cover may not be for us… It is a waste of energy to beat ourselves over the head with the concept of the book we feel we are supposed to be writing. If a book comes, it comes. If it does not come, it does not come. We will keep writing anyway.”

I’ve often struggled with the idea that “real” writers write books, and because I have never been able to finish writing a book I must not be a real writer. Listen, I know this is bullshit, but it’s bullshit that I’ve internalized, and so I’ve felt like a failure for not being able to do this. A book did not materialize out of this year, no, but a path towards one did. I don’t think I could ever write a book in the conventional way, from cover to cover, but I can write zines, and what is a zine but a small book? I could see myself writing a book the way that I learned to write zines this year, by curating my messy archive, by combing through and threading together my work.

“So long as we keep going, keep creating, I believe the path will become clearer with each step.”

So far this has held true, and so I will continue to trust that moving forward will clear away the fog on my path. This year is coming to a close and I will move into the next one with everything I have learned and created. I will move into the next one with poetry and essays and zines, with ideas and curiosity, and without oppressive rules. The future is still uncertain, the future is always uncertain, but I’m continuing to gather more tools to move into it with. I am committed to the practice of writing however that practice may change.

Like at the beginning of a traditional book (one I’ll never write), I would like to go into the next year by acknowledging who helped me get here. I would like to thank my mom for giving me Big Magic to read, which reignited a spark in me and convinced me to commit to writing every day. I would like to thank Clementine Morrigan for all of the work that they do, which is powerful, insightful, expansive, unapologetic, and endlessly inspiring. Thank you for introducing me to zines. I would like to thank my best friend for providing me with such thorough and useful feedback on my zines, assuring me that I could confidently put them out into the world. I would like to thank my partner for teaching me how to bind zines and spending a long day tabling with me at a fair without complaint. I would like to thank my mom again, and my nan, for always reading and commenting on my work even when no one else does. I would like to thank a friend I hosted a radio show with for doing a show on writing with me as well as giving me their copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which deepened my writing practice. I would like to thank one of my friends for encouraging me to table at Queer Between the Covers, which was so worthwhile. I would like to thank Broken Pencil for nominating One Year on T for the 2019 Zine Awards and inviting me to table at Canzine. I would also like to thank everyone who has ever read or engaged with my work. As a mostly unknown writer, your comments and feedback mean a lot to me. It could be easy to feel like I’m putting stuff out to empty airwaves, but a number of supportive and encouraging people consistently remind me that’s not the case. As creators, we are not solely responsible for our work. We do not exist in isolation. We are propped up, inspired, assisted, driven, pushed, and supported by our communities. I owe so much to the communities of friends and creators I am a part of. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Here I am, at the close of another year and about to enter a new one. I cannot know what it will bring, exactly, but I suspect it will not be more of the same. It’s almost never more of the same, things change too much for that. The path is a little clearer now. I can see a few steps ahead. My footing is a little surer. I’ve had another year to learn to expect ground under my feet. I know I’m going to keep creating because, just like change, creativity is one of the only constants in my life. I intend to keep writing poetry, essays, and zines, but I am also open to other possibilities. I’m sure that other possibilities will enter my orbit in 2020, just as they did this year. So, here we go: moving because we cannot stop moving, choosing how to move rather than what to move towards, and feeling good about this direction.

Creativity, Life and Death, Sex/Relationships

17.22.750 Chapbook + Patreon

I am launching two new things today! The first is my chapbook, the details of which are below, and the second is a Patreon page, which exists to support my writing. Depending on the tier, patrons can get access to my zine, chapbook, works in progress, details about my writing process, and other bonus content.

This means that you now have two options for accessing my zine/chapbook, either by purchasing them through PayPal or by becoming a patron! Let me know if you have any questions about this here.

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[Image: black text centred over white background that reads, “17.22.750”].

17.22.750 Chapbook

What does it mean to be the 26-year-old editor of your 17-year-old self? What does it mean to come back, years later, and publish something never meant to be shared? Can modern-day me consent to publish past me? I suppose I’m going with yes.

17.22.750 is a 35+ page chapbook comprised of approximately 750-word entries I wrote at the ages of 17, 22, and 26. It is about growing up and having lots of questions. These younger versions of me navigate school, work, relationships, heartbreak, existentialism, gender, sexuality, in addition to fear and excitement over an always unknown future. Originally private entries written on 750words.com, from high school to university to adulthood, I spill out the clutter in my head with stark honesty.

Order the Chapbook | $5.00 CAD

Once your payment has been processed, please allow 1-2 business days for me to email you a copy.

Creativity

Ugh, What Have I Made Here?

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[Image: open page in a book to a chapter entitled, “We Are Not the Poem” with dark shadow splotches on it].

 

CW: brief mention of addiction/abuse

Why does everything have to be so productive? Productive as in produce, as in make rather than do. We don’t create to create, we create to make, to come up with a product. In the end, it isn’t about the process at all. It’s about the final product. That’s where my mind is always at—product. How do I dismantle this way of thinking? How do I undo it? Even while writing this, I’m thinking it could be a blog post or an entry for a zine. It’s all about making rather than doing and it’s all about putting on display. That is what the Internet has given us, a tool where we can put everything on display. That’s neither inherently good or bad. It is what it is. It all depends on how we use it. On the one hand, it’s incredible that almost anyone can share anything. Marginalized voices can be amplified like never before. I can publish zines and blog posts and poems without going through some publishing company and getting their sanctioned approval. There’s opportunity in that. It’s powerful.

On the other hand, however, this seems to add a degree of pressure to turn every pastime you enjoy into something productive, every hobby into a side hustle, everything you create into a product to be consumed.

Just because I can share doesn’t always mean that I should. We all have to map out our own boundaries about what to share and what to keep private online. The technology is still pretty new so we often have to learn by the process of trial and error. We may accidentally violate our own boundaries and the subsequent discomfort from that teaches us about where they actually are.

Everyone has different boundaries and what may look like oversharing to some may not be even scratching the surface for others. Take, for example, some of my trauma. I grew up with a father who abused drugs, alcohol, and me and my family. I both write about this all the time and avoid ever writing about it. I write around it. I write about how it shaped me, what it means for me as a person today. I write about the pain I carry. I don’t write about the details of what happened.

While I may indulge certain facts, certain facets of my identity and life online in great detail, I too have boundaries, things I will not touch. I have thought before that I should write about what I experienced as a way to support other survivors, but there’s a much stronger side of me that says, “No, this is mine. This is personal, private. This will not go on display for the world to pick apart”. I would not be able to survive having my story scrutinized by an audience, would not be able to take people’s empathy or criticism, from, “I’m so sorry that happened to you” to “Why didn’t you do this or that?” It would be too much. No, it is mine. I get to keep it and work through it on my own. Maybe one day I will share if I feel ready, when it is no longer haunting me, when I could take the empathy, criticism, the questioning, the eyes. I need to be able to stand up to the eyes, to hold my ground, to know I will be okay no matter what they do.

That’s how I draw my boundaries. That’s how I know whether or not it is okay to share something. It’s about whether I can do so safely.

Being able to share and levelling the playing field around sharing is powerful. It’s a powerful world- and life-changing tool we as a generation have been given and have made. I’m grateful to be alive at a time where I can speak to my experiences as someone other than a white cishet man and there is the potential that someone will listen. I am in awe of that but I’m also actively learning about how to use rather than abuse it. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that everything I create must be productive and that all of me must be put on display to be consumed by an audience. This is the downside of social media, and, you know, capitalism: you can share but that doesn’t always mean that you should, that you have to. Artists are not creative machines that exist for the sole purpose of production.

It’s 2019 and I’m stumbling around over here trying to cobble together some sort of career as a writer and that means sharing things online. In 2019, it has to. That’s the landscape. I’m learning about my boundaries and how to respect them. I’m slowly, slowly, slowly figuring out what I need to do. I’m letting myself evolve. I’m alive in 2019 and sometimes it feels like the world is ending and I’m trying to make a career for myself in a field with no direct path and everything is chaos and welcome to being alive, I guess.

I’m trying to teach myself to write in order to write, not just to make writing.

I’m learning and I’m failing. Is this piece something I should share? Is it good enough? It came from a free-write. It’s rambly. It’s trying to express multiple things at once and not necessarily successfully. Does that matter? Not everything you do has to be something you make, not everything you make has to be good, and sometimes you can produce without making a final product. Produce what, more questions? I’m not sure.

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, very likely I don’t, and this is where I am writing from. Often writing to make and sometimes writing to write.

Creativity

Online Exhibitionism and Over/Sharing

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[Image: Head-to-shoulders picture of Sage, a masc-leaning non-binary person with short red hair, looking off to the right with a serious expression. Their shoulders are bare and there are birch trees painted on the wall behind them].

 

I think that a lot of us are exhibitionists when it comes to over/sharing on the Internet.

There’s something thrilling about sharing intimate details about your existence with complete strangers online. I have the option of keeping my personal writing safely tucked away in a journal but like the idea of the world-at-large having access to it. Why is that?

I spill my guts when I write. I would never share half of what I write about with someone I had just met in person, and yet I feel comfortable hitting “publish” and releasing my words for the world to see. I even attach my face and real name, upping the risk of my work coming back to bite me.

I’m a very non-confrontational individual in person. I don’t do well with conflict. It triggers all kinds of stuff and effectively shuts my brain down, so I avoid it whenever possible. In contrast, my writing can be very confrontational. I’m able to be a lot more direct about what I think and feel. I touch on controversial issues sometimes. People don’t always like what I have to say, and I know my art has inspired ire on more than one occasion. Back when I turned scripts into videos on YouTube, I even managed to make a few waves of hatred wash over me. That hasn’t always been easy to deal with, especially when sharing something vulnerable has resulted in dozens upon dozens of strangers viciously attacking my ideas, physical appearance, and worth as a human being.

The Internet is not a safe space. I know this and yet I continue to open up to it anyway.

Someone did something to piss me off recently and I wrote a short poem about it. Mind, this is not a person in my life. This is someone I met at an event, have no relationship with, and likely will not see again. I do feel I owe it to the people in my life to have direct conversations with them, not passive-aggressively publish poems about them on social media. I’m not a monster. Anyway, I had some feelings about a negative interaction with a person I barely know, then wrote and posted a poem online about the experience. This wasn’t a call out. The person was not named or identified. I just needed to express my frustration and this felt like a pretty harmless way to vent, but I was also aware of how aggressive and confrontational the piece I created was. It very much carried a, “Fuck you, fuck you very much” kind of tone.

“I might get some hate for this,” I thought, pausing for a moment, “Well, then, bring it on”. I hit the “post” button.

I didn’t get any hate for that poem. In fact, a few people commented about how they related to my experience. This is the most positive reaction you can hope for after releasing something controversial, and it’s not always the one I’ve received. I was, however, ready for hate, or at the very least, criticism for that piece. I almost welcomed it.

I might not be comfortable with controversy or conflict in my day-to-day life, which I believe has something to do with the trauma I carry, but I welcome it within the realm of my art. Okay, maybe welcome is a strong word, but I don’t shy away from it. My mother has commented before that I have a tendency to create things that provoke strong reactions. I don’t shy away from difficult topics and I let people know exactly what I think. Obviously, I’m imperfect, I get things wrong, and I know that my opinions are just opinions, but I’m not afraid to speak out, question doctrines, and go against the grain in my work. I have subsequently provoked strong reactions from all sides. Some folks don’t appreciate my existence as a vocal queer and trans feminist, while others aren’t a fan of my questioning what can feel like dogmatic thinking. It can be easy to feel isolated and alienated when one speaks out in such a way, but what’s interesting is how many folks come out of the woodwork to say, “I feel that way too”.

I’m not afraid to write something that you don’t like.

It’s taken me a while to get here as a creator, but I’m happy that I’m here now because it gives me free rein to make whatever the fuck I want. I don’t need anyone’s approval. I might struggle without it, yes, but I don’t actually need it. It’s still scary to share my writing and deal with criticism and hate online, but the risks are worth it, and I get better at dealing with them the more that I do.

I believe that one of the most effective forms of activism I can practice is to unapologetically write about my own experiences. This should not be where my activism begins and ends. This also may not be right for everyone, but it is right for me. It is where I am the most effective. And in order to be effective, I can’t live in fear about how other people will react. I can’t mould my experiences and expression so that they are comfortable and uncontroversial to all who encounter them.

Face-to-face, particularly if you don’t know me very well, I come off as passive, shy, and timid. At my core, however, I am not any of these things. If you take the time to get to know me or read my writing, you learn that. Contrary to what some may believe, I’m actually pretty brave and I don’t take shit. My writing is one of the avenues where I can express that.

Maybe this is why I love sharing my work with complete strangers online. In person, I’m slow to warm up. I grapple with social anxiety, stimulus overload, homo/transphobia, and trauma—which all cause me to wrap myself in a protective shell around new people. After people get to know me better and see my real personality, I often hear the comment, “You’ve changed!” No, I haven’t. I was always this way, you’re just now seeing who I really am. It is through my writing that I can show myself right away. I can be honest and open without dealing with everything listed above. I can show myself in a way otherwise reserved for the people I’m close to.

I think there are lots of reasons why we share intimate parts of ourselves online, but this is one of mine: to show the world who I am and not apologize for it.

– – –

P.S. Ironically, I felt pretty nervous about publishing this. I almost kept it forever buried in my drafts with the justification that wasn’t very well written and therefore undeserving of publication. Upon further reflection, I realized that goes against what I wrote about and I owe it to myself to practice what I preach. So, here’s the final product: imperfectly edited, somewhat messy, and a little exposing. It is both exciting and daunting to share. Feel free to love, hate, or not give a damn about it. Thank you for reading.

Creativity

Where Do We Go Now

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[Image: Straight-on shot of a foggy trail in a forest full of trees and green shrubbery]. Photo by crista. 

 

In the past, when we were here, we always had some sense of next. We did not move on from one project until we had another in mind that we were itching to begin. This time, however, the path ahead is unclear. There is a path in that there is ground under us as we put one foot, slowly and carefully, in front of the other, but our eyes cannot help us. There is nothing but fog in our vision. The harder we try to look, the cloudier the future appears. So we leave it alone. We leave it alone and we keep walking with the hope that we keep finding ground for purchase. There are no guarantees. We checked the warranty. It was a joke, a poor one, and it laughed at us. No, there is nothing that says our feet will always meet with solid ground. We are on solid ground now. We could stop here. We won’t because something inside tells us to keep going. We reassure ourselves, There has always been ground, there has always been ground. The sun has always risen and there has always been ground. It is a fallacy, our reassurance, but what else do we have?

The fog clears when we look back, though not entirely. We are given access to the recent past. If we would like to go further back, we must seek out the archives. The archives are a mess and we are responsible for that. For years, we have been saying that we will do something about the archives, devote time to their organization. For years, we have been baffled by this task. Where to start, what to do… We have made mistakes and lost whole reams of the archives. Gone, forever, are those creations, right along with the selves who made them. It is like those selves never existed, that is, until we find a scrap of something somewhere and realize all is not lost. My grandmother printed out a poem I sent her in an email, that self is not lost. I filled a photo album with my earliest scribbles, that self is not lost. I found a password for a website I kept up in university, that self is not lost. Do not get us wrong, some of the selves are lost. We cannot properly mourn them because we cannot remember them, but we can mourn the loss itself because we know it is there.

It is very likely that we will die before ever properly addressing the archives. We will die on this path, in this fog, and we will leave behind a mountain of notebooks, drives, documents, folders, websites, scribbles, accounts, and marginalia in no particular order. What we need is for a curator to come along and take up the task of piecing everything together and extracting the inevitable secrets that will come out of this process. We say secrets because we assume that when you make an image from 1,000 puzzle pieces, you must learn something about the whole that has until that point remained unknown. We, the creator and abandoner of the archive, would like to extend a heartfelt and sincere apology to any future curators. You have your work cut out for you, and you will probably not be comfortable with everything you find.

Apologies, we got lost in the past for a moment. That happens. The chaos of the past and its gradual disintegration is distracting. What we must do now is address the future and the question at hand:

Where do we go now?

Forward, yes, obviously. Let’s not be pert, shall we? We clearly cannot go sideways and we’ve already walked over what is behind us, which leaves one option: the slow march towards our death. We have always gone forward and we must continue to go forward. That is the way of things.

The above question is really asking about how we choose to move forward rather than what we are moving towards. We cannot know that. We can only know the ground we are standing on and the body we are standing in. We can know some of what we have done before. We can remember some of the results. We can know what we have learned, and we can take that into the fog.

So what have we learned in, say, the past year?

We are a strange kind of writer, it would seem, compelled to write in strange kinds of ways. If we force ourselves to write more seriously, to pick one form and stick to it, to stay within the confines of a set of rules and regulations, to write what is publishable, to nail down what kind of writer we are, to impose the external on the internal, to steer clear of what feels natural, to pull teeth in the name of what is hard, we kill the joy. Challenge yourself, yes. Leave the realm of your comfort, and leave it often, but do not kill the joy because when you kill the joy, you kill the writer. We cannot restrict ourselves to short stories with plots and characters within specific genres. We can write these things and we can benefit from the challenges they pose, but we cannot wrap our whole identity around them because that kills the joy.

I am a semi-autobiographical speculative poet—a monstrous kind of hybrid—and the joy is being all of those at once, regardless of the social acceptability of multiplicity.

We have learned that we must make space for the joy, and making space for the joy means allowing ourselves to make things that may not make sense to anyone else. Making space for joy means allowing ourselves to play with our work rather than treat our work like the most serious part of our life. There are far too many serious things in life for the creative to be so serious, especially for the creative to be the most serious. What a drag, regarding it as the most serious. What a drag it begins to be.

We have learned that we are good enough—that our odd prose, unruly poetry, and memoir wrapped up like fiction are good enough. We are not great. We are not masterful. We likely will not change the world outside of our own. We may never reach more than a handful of people, or we may reach out and touch many people who simply will not care. None of that matters. It is good enough. Good enough to get the job of creating done, good enough to keep us on the path.

We have learned that conventional packaging, like conventional styles, may not be for us and that is okay as well. Creating a book from cover to cover may not be for us. We are not certain yet, maybe it will at some point, but writing a book is not the only legitimate way to be a writer, especially in the digital age. Writing can be packaged in many different ways, and that packaging can also change. It is a waste of energy to beat ourselves over the head with the concept of the book we feel we are supposed to be writing. If a book comes, it comes. If it does not come, it does not come. We will keep writing anyway.

If a book does not come, we will keep writing anyway.

If an audience does not come, we will keep writing anyway.

If money does not come, we will keep writing anyway.

If praise does not come, we will keep writing anyway.

If genius does not come, we will keep writing anyway.

Do you know why? Because we always have anyway. We have never written a book, drawn a large audience, experienced monetary success, received critical reception, or been visited by genius and yet we have always kept writing anyway. This is because, for us, writing and living hold hands. Writing does not need to give any gifts other than itself and when writing is burdened by the above expectations, it feels overwhelmed. It leaves with its tail between its legs. It sees that we are not grateful simply for its presence. It asks, “Am I not good enough for you?” and if the answer is anything but yes, it leaves. Writing knows its worth.

Yes, yes, yes. You are enough, my friend. I am enough. We are enough.

I don’t feel like I ever chose to be a writer, it was more like writing chose to be with me. It came upon me one afternoon when I was twelve and gave me my first poems, which I frantically scribbled down. I didn’t quite know what they were. Thoughts and feelings and questions that had swirled around inside of me were finally given a place, were put down on a page where I could see them for the first time. I rushed these poems to my mother, and thank goodness it was my mother and not my father as this was the moment that put me on the path. I rushed them to my mother, elated, put them in her hands and said, “Look what I did!”

She went quiet for a while, reading. Had I done something wrong? Was she upset? Did she hate them?

Then she looked at her child, who was still very much a child, and said,

“Sage, you’re a poet”.

I have been ever since.

Later, my father said, “Poetry doesn’t make any money. Out of all the books at the bookstore, the books of poems are the ones that never sell”. Thank god I did not take my poems to him first. A part of me must have known that would be the death of my early writer self. He was a poet and a published author. I knew these things and yet I took my poems to my mother instead. His relationship with writing was one of the tortured artist—critical and judgemental, invested in suffering and addiction—and the fledgling writer within me said, “Guard yourself against that. Take these poems to someone who will be able to see them and see you without projection”. Thankfully, there was such a person in my life then. Otherwise, those poems may have stayed hidden, with who knows how many others for how many years. Like so many writers, I may have kept everything I wrote a secret, and what a shame that would have been. Not because I feel like the world would have suffered without my work. Most of the world is without my work as it is. No, I would have suffered, and like my father, I would have invested my energy in shame, judgement, and addiction.

My creative projects seem to divide themselves and line up nicely one after the next, each one lasting between one and two years. Before now, I was writing short sci-fi and horror stories. Before that, I was focusing on video production. Before that, I was experimenting with creative writing in-between piles of essays. Even further back, I practiced drawing every day for a year in order to improve my skills. There always seems to be a focus, an intense interest in something creative that can, at times, border on obsession. Then, once my curiosity has been satisfied, I quickly and neatly move onto the next thing. But writing is almost always at play, the undercurrent to everything else, though occasionally, such as with the drawing, it is not involved at all. Sometimes I need a break, but it keeps surfacing again and again in various ways. And hopefully, I keep learning.

So, where do we go now?

My plan is to do a little bit of everything and see where that takes me. I won’t impose restrictions, rules, or guidelines on what I do, except for two very basic ones:

  1. Write every day for 30-60 minutes.
  2. Read at least 20 pages a day.

This will make sure that I keep creating as well as engaging with other creations. In terms of where we go from here, so long as we keep going, keep creating, I believe the path will become clearer with each step. I believe the ground will continue to be there because I need to believe that. Writing and I may not know exactly where we’re going, but we’ll be able to see where we are. What else do we really need?