Author & Teacher

Banff Writing Residency

Before I left for nine days in Banff, I had a list of things to finish. One of those things was my September post. I never got to it because I had so many other things to finish up, and if I had any writing time, I wanted to spend it on my novel. Or an essay.

I packed – this time I’d left behind my blue plastic bin of craft books and brought only the one written by my instructor, Douglas Glover, and only because I wanted him to sign it. I still brought my hotel room stash of peanuts (I eat them when I am away from my nut-allergic kid) and cereal and fruit and wine.

Arriving in Banff felt different than any other residency or conference I’ve been to. Yes, the location was different than UBC, or Sage Hill, or the Festival of Words, or Fernie. It feels quieter in Banff, which is strange because I was physically closer to more of the writers than I usually am at these things. The hotel rooms were right next to each other, meals were more or less eaten together, and we saw each other most evenings for readings.

The first night, I went to the dining room after visualizing the whole scene – first I would scan my card, then put my things on a table, then find a plate. I knew how the seating worked, and that there would be other artists to join, but I wasn’t sure how the rest of it worked.

I sat at dinner the first night and thought about the missing September post. I’d broken my promise to write one post a month this year.

But then, I thought of how anxiety-inducing packing was (partly because nothing fits anymore) and how rigid I’d been in ensuring I had all the same snacks, and the right journals, and the right pens —

And that’s when I realized I’d forgotten my good writing pens. I was in Banff with only a pencil that needed sharpening, some art markers, and the shitty ballpoint in my hotel room.

And just like that, I realized I was so far out of my comfort zone nothing else mattered. All these obsessive touchstones were rendered meaningless, if one was out of place.

In trying to get through life these past few years, I have created mini-checklists that move me forward. For a while they were simply things like “get out of bed” and “take a shower.” At school, I had the same lists – setting up lessons, coaching my poets, completing progress reports. Done. On to the next thing. I forced myself to write with a timed app. 20 minutes, 300 words, 45 wpm. I could choose the setting I wanted. And I got words. Check. Check. Check.
Checklists within checklists. Rules. Like bowling lanes with the bumpers up. Or blinkers on a horse. Just keep looking ahead to the next thing.

Something as simple as forgetting my pens (and there were six: three fountain pens with two colours of ink, two VTech micros, one blue one black, and a pink Papermate) and sticky notes and bird-shaped paperclips meant that all bets were off. Who cares if I forgot a blog post? Does it matter if the work I submitted was terrible? And if no one ate with me at dinner, well, their loss.
In fact, I decided I would do everything differently. (And that’s how I came to read on the opening night – instead of hiding and pretending I could get out of it, I volunteered.)

Writing has been such a strange struggle for me for so long. Working on my essay with Doug Glover and the incredibly talented and diverse group of writers in my cohort made me feel capable again. My essay is, as my daughter would say, a “hot mess,” but I am still a good reader. I am a good critiquer. I still check in on my classmates to make sure they are okay.

I’d submitted my essay in “hot mess” mode on purpose, so I’d get a lot of suggestions. I usually send in work that has been re-worked over and over, and read by others so I don’t show up to workshop looking like an idiot. In this case, my essay was looked at by one other person, and she is the one who brought it from “steaming pile of crap” to “hot mess,” so I am grateful.

The first day of workshop, Glover says, “Forget everything you think you know about Creative Non-fiction.” It fit right in with my plan to just let things ride. The space that letting go (Goodbye to All That!) created in my writing brain was soon filled with new, and different ideas. Things I know I can do.

The day I left Banff I slapped some words down in a silly little goodbye letter  to my cohort – I wish they knew how hard it’s been for me to focus on just sitting down and starting. The words were secondary – the fact I could do it, unbidden and with a sense of enjoyment, was the true gift of the residency.

The most important lesson I learned is what I knew before the MFA, before the drama and sycophancy and sometimes-toxicity of the writing community: writing should be fun. Have fun with a sentence, then add another sentence. Our workshop group was noted as being the group of writers who laughed the most. Strange, when you think that all of us were writing some really difficult, personal pieces.

I will return to the essay I was working on, but it’s not time yet. It will come. I learned the only person putting pressure on me, is me, and I decided in Banff that I would get back to the fun of writing.

Maybe I’ll post a blog next month. Maybe I won’t. We’ll see.

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