The Writer’s Midwife was conceived through my own journey with critique/feedback. I had been in a few critiquing circles and had seen different ways they could operate. Some were more gentle than others. Even with the experience in the gentle ones with rules so that it would not turn into a hack-and-slash-free-for-all, I quit writing for two years. I just couldn’t bear the weight of not being “good enough”. It wasn’t until I could see my work separately from myself that I began to see the value in feedback whether I wanted to hear it or not. Now I write all the time and do not let anything stop me. I am free to workshop my work with the focus being on what the poem wants to say. I view my poems as little entities sent out into the world and I am responsible for letting them speak in the cloak of my voice. It is a privilege and I want them to be the best they can be.
Having said that, “The Writer’s Midwife” has come up against some pressure about feedback and how to give it. I never started out thinking that the midwife in me would ever give feedback. That is an entirely different part of myself. I started this out by thinking that the midwife would embody the encouragement and compassion to keep others going on the path of writing and never, never give up no matter how much criticism and rejection a person came across on their writing journey. I never imagined myself giving the feedback. Having said that, I need to be clear, I do give feedback and I do critique and I have had awesome teachers to model how to deliver this. However, this is a totally different persona in my mind. This is the editor in me. The editor in me sees a work and divorces it from the person to a degree ( I know this is very post-structuralist or post-modernist of me? I can’t remember. I need to look up my literary theory handbook). It is not my goal to be ruthless, but I all of a sudden pull out my microscope and fall into the language and see the intricacies. The author disappears for a time. The author reappears for me after I formulate my feedback and experience of the piece. I deliver the feedback in my own voice. It is hard to give feedback because I recognize that writing is a vulnerable act and inevitably the author will take it personally unless her or she is prepared not to. Therefore, I keep the two separate: the editor and the midwife.
At least, I would like to. I am starting to notice that people are coming to me and wanting advice on their pieces. I have also noticed that I have to prepare them for the difference between the two voices. The midwife and editor come from the same place in that they both want to see the birth of a work living up to its full and bloated potential. Both of these personas recognize the true and blossoming potential of the writer as well and wants to see them show up to the world when they are truly ready. However, with that comes the tough love with raw and honest feedback.
A person would benefit from being completely ready for this. I was not and I stopped writing. Being “in the closet” is not a bad thing if you find yourself too vulnerable to receive anything other than praise. Stay there until you are ready to emerge and make the work better. I retreated back into the closet for two years, sometimes quite literally. It was a much different feeling when I re-emerged. Now, I don’t workshop a work unless I’m stuck. I go by the feeling in my body when something is finished and it is invigorating. As my mentor, Richard Harrison, says, work the poem until it has nothing left to say. By whole body lets out a great sigh when a poem has nothing left to say. Even at this stage, another author who I admire, Barb Howard, told me to find the gift in rejection. Writer’s constantly grow and they can rest assured that they will look back at the rejected work and be grateful their “shit” was not published, after all the writer may look back and not like their earlier work. Although, I think we should also be gentle with ourselves and realize where we were at the time it was written whether it was published or not.
When I was listening to a CBC interview with Toni Morrison, she said that writing was the only thing that was hers. She owned it. She was the authority. No one else could judge it or put labels on it while it was safely in the writing stages. Enjoy the autonomy that writing gives. Remember that you are in control. If you find yourself seeking approval, recognize this and acknowledge this need, but also remember that this may not be the time to send your work out to the world. Enjoy the safety and playfulness of the stage when writing is just that, writing.
There is something about writing and discussing the writing process that prevents people from going off topic. Since the “Skin & Stories” workshop has begun, I find myself rarely having to bring the group back, so to speak. People love to talk about language and words. With that personal experiences always emerge. What happens in people’s lives always emerge in the conversation about language. At the most recent workshop, I asked for feedback since we have surpassed the halfway mark. I have been feeling paranoid that I haven’t been meeting the needs of all of the individuals in the group so I wanted to check in. What I discovered is that not one member was desiring anything more. They were comfortable in the camaraderie and found themselves writing and viewing the world in a different way. The members agreed that the mundane, the everyday was no longer going unnoticed. Geese and bunnies were no longer just an insignificant event in a day…they were actually being brought to life in journals! I get goosebumps just thinking about the power language has to remove us from ignorance!
Language is contagious. Just talking about it in a circle of peers keeps people coming back to their journals over and over. The repetition is what will bring stories and poems into the world. This workshop is doing exactly what I had dreamed about…words are being birthed into the world. I am honored that women gather week after week in my presence to talk about their writer-selves. This is an incredibly vulnerable act and it takes a safe space to be able to bring forth the intimacies of language onto the tongue. I am glad I was able to create such a space.
One of the students emailed me the other day and said that I must have the best job in the world because all I do is send out a prompt and words pour out of people. While me “job” is amazing, it is not me that encourages words to fall out. It is that thing that is greater than us. It doesn’t matter what beliefs you have or even if you have a belief in a higher power…there is something bigger than us that pries the words from our fingers and onto the page. We are an authority as far as what happens with those words, but there have been countless times I have come across authors who say they were uncertain where the voice in their heads came from. Words and the act of writing take you out of yourself and it is often a wonderful escape. At the same time, I’ve noticed, a writer cannot escape themselves. Their true voice will always emerge. I remember when I had the pleasure of seeing Ami McKay after The Virgin Cure was released she said that she always thought she would tell her grandmother’s story of being one the of the only women physicians on the streets of New York in the 1800s. Ami paced the streets of New York trying to channel her grandmother’s voice for the story. What emerged was not her grandmother at all, but a young girl who was in a brothel. Hence, Moth was born. The doctor (grandmother) was a major character in the book, but she was not the main character by any stretch of the imagination. Ami surrendered to the voice in her head that said, “The story needs to be told this way.” In this way, we are passive as writers. The dance of having to step aside from yourself and letting the words come that need to be spoken.
As a writer, I am constantly in awe of this process. Language is a virus that I am more than happy to contract and even more delighted to pass on.
When Bob Stallworthy graciously spoke to the Skin & Stories workshop this past Monday, he really cemented the magic of poetry for me. Bob Stallworthy is a poet, although he was speaking to all genres. Naturally, the first question that flew his way was, “What the heck is poetry, anyway?” With that question I immediately was transported to this place of wondering how I would write poetry if I had no idea how. More importantly, how do you teach poetry to someone who has never dabbled in the genre? After pondering this question for some time, I realized one of the most important things a person can do who wants to write poetry is to READ it! High Schools have ruined many future poets with their boring worksheets on “elements of poetry”: personification, metaphor, simile and alliteration. Poetic devices. No one reads poetry and thinks, “Oh! There is some personification!” Unless that person sets out in search of those devices, they don’t usually surface that way. Poetry works as a whole. Poetry is an experience and we get the pleasure of seeing a poem work the magic of language.
Poetry has been one of those forms that I naturally gravitated towards but never knew what I was doing. Even now, when I workshop a poem (get it critiqued), people will notice something such as a line break or the placement of a word that created an effect I had no idea was there. My unconscious mind wraps itself around poetry quite easily and it isn’t until I rework a poem that I get to ask myself what just happened.
Currently, I am reading a book called, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield which is indispensable when attempting to ask the question: What is poetry? Hirshfield defines it as, “the clarification and magnification of being.” My mentor, Richard Harrison, would define it as “the dramatization of a voice” whereas, a short story as the “dramatization of a character” and the novel as the “dramatization of a world.” For me, poetry is less about emotion and feeling and more about a focus and a dance with language. Poetry gives you very little space to move around in, so everything has a purpose. Every comma, period, line break and combination of words had its own meaning that also works with the poem as a whole. Rhythm emerges in the cadence of the speaker’s voice. Lastly, it is about experience of an event which Bob pointed out to us. I always look at poetry as a ride through someone else’s gaze, someone else’s lens. I get out of my own head for a while when I read poetry. I want to be along for the ride!
If you are attempting to write poetry for the first time, try to abandon everything you were taught in high school and write about an experience…I have the most fun when it is seemingly inconsequential such as your fish swimming around on the mantle or my baby girl kissing the spines of books in the shelf. These apparently insignificant memories trudge up meaning when set to poetry…you might be surprised what you find.