5 lovely things writers can learn from pointy, obfuscating theorists.
Last week, I flew back to snowy Ontario from Hawaii because I was invited to visit my alma mater with This Cake. What an honour/trip it was to give a reading and lecture to current students at my old college!
It’s been 15 years since I graduated with my BA in Cultural Studies. I never studied English at University, and in my undergrad, I didn’t take a single creative writing class. My background, believe it or not, is in post-structuralist theory. Yep: the pointy, dense, circuitous, unreadable stuff.
I struggled with theory (I actually dropped out of an MA program in Communication & Cultural Studies after only one week in the program). The jargon! The obfuscation! The egos!
But I loved it, too.
The reason I loved learning theory? It was the magic and grace of my favourite professor, Molly Blyth. She taught us in her living room (the original living room school), with cups of tea and comfy chairs. She taught with music, stories, and a full heart. Rare.
Last week, I learned that Molly Blyth is now teaching my book in her seminar. Whoa.
Today I’d like to share with you the top 5 things I learned from Molly’s class (this is cribbed from my talk at Trent last week). This is critical theory, but it’s also just good sense. Minus the jargon.
5 LOVELY THINGS I LEARNED FROM THEORY:
Language is unsteady. We rely on it as if it’s airtight – as if the words we use to name an experience are actually the experience itself – but the truth is, it’s more wobbly than that. Word and meaning are not fused together.
For writers, that gap between word and meaning is very important. That gap is your workspace. Your laboratory.
A piece of writing is always part of a larger conversation. We are working under the influence of everything that we read, and when we write something, we are adding our voice to the dialogue. Don’t bother pretending otherwise. Embrace influence: this is how you will innovate. If you try to work without it, you risk writing weak imitations of other authors’ work anyway.
When you do work in the slippery, ambivalent space that is located between words and their meanings, it will feel weird and challenging. It’s hard work. It is normal to want to avoid it. Don’t beat yourself up about your resistance. And remember that writing is not all analysis and thought – your heart must also be involved. It’s important to have faith, too.
The mind wants things to be resolved. That’s all it wants. Not opened up, disturbed, complicated, or unfinished. It certainly doesn’t want anything to be contradictory or unanswerable. So give yourself a break – don’t read theory (or short fiction) before bed. Read something that resolves neatly, like a detective novel, before bed. Give your brain what it craves so you can sleep.
I’m still reeling from the flashback last week: walking those old hallways, visiting Molly’s living room again as a grown up, remembering what it was like to be 20 years old (dancing to The Breeders, getting my first email address, publishing my first short story).
When I was in school, I was so concerned with what I was going to do with my life. I spent a lot of time wringing my hands about what my “career” would be, how I’d make my mark, what I was meant to do.
In hindsight, of course, I can see that everything unfolded exactly as it should have. And maybe this is what 2012 is all about: one cycle truly coming to rest.
Here’s to cracking open a new one.