Writing in an age of absence

“Living things don’t all require light in the same degree….Some of us make our own light.”

Louise Glück

This was to be the time for creation. 

We were told, in the separation enforced on us, that we were gifted with the time and space to develop ourselves, our minds, our ambitions. We were told that great works of art were created during plagues. Boccaccio’s Decameron. Shakespeare’s King Lear. This was to be our motivation, anodyne bits of trivia meant to enliven our spirits.

As writers, we heard this in the beginning of 2020, when the pandemic was frightening and new, and the realization that life was to change radically was only beginning. Many of us took this as a call to action and set up their artistic goals with the seriousness of purpose of a military mission. Some of us may have succeeded in their tasks. Others did not. For too many of us, we were given a vehicle for creativity without the fuel needed to activate it. With human activity minimized, our drive to fulfill our artistic needs seemed unattainable. 

What ignites our creativity? The complexities of our relationships, voyages to new lands, our stresses and concerns? Ultimately, it is within ourselves that we find inspiration. Yet if we can’t find inspiration in a time where we are most entombed in our solitude, are we somehow deficient as artists?

Of the many things the pandemic has made me lose is a sense of artistic agency, that the struggle to create in a void is intrinsic to the writing life, in hale times and in plague days, amongst friends or in the wilderness of our loneliness. Over the past year, I’ve spent countless moments staring at desolate screens waiting for the blank whiteness of the page to yield…something. An image, a novel idea, a new novel plot turn, a turn of phrase I can pocket to be used in the future. When the time comes to write, there was nothing but a lacuna where imagination should have been. It was the pandemic, I told myself. COVID-19 had damaged my creative spark.

In the best of times, writer’s block feels like a lesion on one’s mind that arrests any effort to control language. Perhaps that is true to a large extent. I’ve heard of pandemic fatigue and COVID-19-related writer’s block being a very real and very crippling phenomenon. Stresses, anxieties, a limited existence alongside a surfeit of uncertainty lurk in the silent areas where we write. 

This week, I did a thought experiment, asking myself a simple question–was the pandemic so empty as I had thought? Even in a relatively vapid existence, there were slivers of stimuli available to reaffirm the basic beauty of the world: inflamed red leaves falling to the ground during an autumn drive; the damp feel of summer grass in an emptied field; light skipping over a stream burrowing through a neighbourhood park. I still had the ability to capture and contain the world in thought. The pandemic may have injured my inner life, but it had not obliterated it.  

“Living things don’t all require light in the same degree,” writes poet and Nobel laureate Louise Glück. “Some of us make our own light.” We are not deficient when words are lost to us. We writers suffer as the world suffers. Our capacity for strength and weakness are unique to ourselves, as singular and specific as fingerprints. If others succeed and we fail, such is our condition as artists and as humans. We must accept the capacity to fail as natural and hardly shameful. Plagues take their course. Blocks and barriers crumble after time. We owe kindness to ourselves as much as we owe it to others.   

The winter days are short, and islands of receding snow litter the lawn that I stare at daily. The world is empty, empty like the pages in front of me, waiting to be filled. 

If not today, soon.

And if nothing is filled, let the page still stand in front of me, a witness to my struggle, waiting for the moment I can create my own light.    

-Saad Omar Khan

Q & A with A(ndrew) & A(nn)

Long time members of the 11th Floor Writers, Andrew Fruman & Ann Yu-Kyung Choi candidly answer three questions about writing and mental health.


Question 1: What benefits does writing have on your overall mental wellness?
Andrew: It’s a release for what’s going on in my head. So it can be therapeutic, in a similar way to talking things out. There have been many periods in my life when I have been depressed, including recently, and writing has helped me during those times. And it doesn’t just provide me with an outlet, but does so in a creative and constructive manner.

Ann: I struggled with clinical depression in my teens and my twenties. All my counsellors and therapists advised me to write, so for the longest time I associated writing with pain. Every misery, every thought of self-harm and suicide – everything I could not tell even my closest friends – I buried in my writing. Even now as I write this my heart is pounding, but that’s okay. I’ve been in a good headspace throughout my thirties and forties, and now at 52, I’ve got a much better understanding of my mental wellness needs. This has allowed me to see that writing is simply capturing whatever my thoughts are at any given moment whether I’m working on a manuscript or journalling. 
Question 2: What value is there in writing when you don’t feel like it?
Andrew: I often don’t feel like writing. Maybe I’m tired, or I don’t think I have the right mental energy for it, but once I start going, it doesn’t take long for those feelings to change. Just sitting there getting the words out, pushes my brain in the right direction, and I’m always thankful I chose to persevere through my initial reservations.

Ann: Writing has become part of my regular routine just like any job. That said, there are different types of writing. I still journal but only when I’m feeling crappy. It allows me to clear my head since the more I’m able to communicate my thoughts, the better I understand where I am emotionally and mentally. Writing is different from talking to someone since we’re tapping into different parts of the brain. It requires a lot of mental and creative energy. We’re trying to bring order to our thoughts. I feel my brain hard at work when I’m trying to come up with the right word and phrasing or trying to synthesize complex ideas and emotions. Even now as I write, I feel focused and productive – which is a good thing when I’m not feeling in the mood to do anything else.
Question 3: How does being part of a writing community help you move past barriers or obstacles in the writing process?
Andrew: It’s hard to be your own critic. Whether that’s from a positive or negative standpoint. I find that’s especially true if I’ve been working on something for a while. So receiving regular feedback is necessary in gaining perspective on my work. Being part of a group also provides an encouraging support system, which helps make writing feel like less of a solitary pursuit. We all help each other and it’s exciting to see us grow together.

Ann: Being part of a writing community has allowed me to expand my understanding of living the writer’s life. Most of us juggle multiple writing projects, deal regularly with rejection of our written work, and balance family and other professional responsibilities. Being together for as long as we have has allowed a strong sense of trust to develop. We are willing to share and take risks with our writing because of that. This is immensely important because of the emotional vulnerability involved with sharing works-in-progress. I really appreciate the diversity of ideas and opinions that each person brings. It is also gratifying to witness and to be a part of others’ professional growth and success.  I love celebrating together.

(left to right) A Fruman, A Choi, C Briggs, D Smith, M.B Russell, M Miller, N Mungai, M Lynch, S Khan

Check out our anthology, Voices From the 11th Floor, published by The Soap Box Press

Our thirteenth year together!

We can’t believe it’s been 13 years of writing and working together. Our membership has changed over the years. We invite you to read our bios and check out what we have been up to in our News, Etc. page.

Andrew Fruman, Ann Y.K. Choi, Christopher Briggs, Dianah Smith, M.B. Russell, Marianne Miller, Njoroge Mungai, Maureen Lynch, Saad Omar Khan

Chris M Briggs’ debut novel released!

A huge congratulations to 11th Floor Writer Christopher M Briggs! His debut novel, Trial, was published by The Soap Box on December 19, 2019. Visit our news, etc page to view photos and read about the event. Copies of Trial can be purchased by visiting The Soap Box’s website.

 

Our First Publishing Fair and Anthology Launch!

We are excited to share that our writing circle, the 11th Floor Writers, will be co-hosting From Pen to Published with The Soap Box.  Hear from authors and industry professionals,  attend workshops hosted by the 11th Floor Writers and guest facilitators, and celebrate the launch of our anthology Voices from the 11th Floor!

 

Learn about the world of publishing from the people who are in it.

Location: University of Toronto, Sidney Smith Hall, 100 St George St, Toronto, ON M5S 3G3
Saturday November 17, 2018
from 12 – 7 PM

Sid Smith is an accessible building with ramps, powered entrances, and an elevator. We encourage anyone with questions to contact The Soap Box directly.

For detailed information, including a list of speakers, workshops, and guest facilitators, visit From Pen to Published via The Soap Box website.

 

Recommended Reading

Introducing Omar Khan’s Sawdust Castles: A Memoir

khanOmar Khan was born in India and moved to the Gwalmandi area of Lahore in Pakistan with his family in 1947. His memoir begins, “When migration is forced upon people to escape the brutalities of political and social upheaval, it increases their pain that much more.” From there, we join the Khan family’s struggles, challenges, and celebrations as they build new lives in a place where they are made to feel like outsiders: “People in our area never reconciled to our way of life. The dress we wore was a source of ridicule …The unfamiliarity of Urdu was an additional source of amusement for the locals …”

Set against this political and social backdrop, this memoir is about a family and the heart of their experiences. What makes it such a compelling read is Khan’s brilliant way of building short narratives, each balanced with tension, humour, and raw emotion. His rich storytelling allows readers deep into his soul. Sometimes the pain is gut wrenching. As a teenager, Khan helplessly watched Yasoob, his cousin and best friend, descend into “the dark world of paranoid schizophrenia”. Khan does not hold back. Vivid images, rich in description with turns of phrases that are eloquent and evocative draw the reader into each scene.

Indeed, Khan does not shy away from the intricacies of relationships or the day-to-day struggles he and his family faced. His often challenging relationship with his mother, a woman who beat him regularly for the smallest infractions, is explored in depth. Khan’s own coming of age and the consequences of his choices and actions are relayed in an honest and often humorous manner that captures his vulnerability and resilience.

A powerful read, Sawdust Castles portrays the complexities of love, family, sacrifice, and growing up. It will not only resonate with readers because of the universality of the themes it explores, but engage and delight them with its candid and inspired storytelling.

Sawdust Castles is available on Amazon.

Ann Y.K. Choi

 

 

On “Sawdust Castles” — A Son’s Perspective

Knowing an author colours your reflections on any book. Perhaps that’s why it’s best to keep a distance from writers you may have the opportunity of knowing: the separation between the writer as a personality and the writer as a creator becomes blurred, and your engagement with the text and the story becomes weighted with the baggage of familiarity.

That’s a principle I couldn’t abide by when my father, Omar Khan, wrote his memoir, Sawdust Castles. It was an inevitability that I would read it. I was part of the process, in a sense, giving him advice, acting as a sounding board for ideas as he navigated his own personal history for the vignettes that would form that arc of his story. I hadn’t read it in its entirety once it was completed, only snippets and anecdotes, parts that would make the whole as my father needed another eye during the writing and editing process. Once completed, I thought reading the memoir through from its beginning to the end would have been a mere recapitulation of the snippets of text I had read, or the conversations I had during this process.

This wasn’t the case when it came to diving into the story of my father’s early life. The immersion into the narrative all readers feel when absorbed in a book became a strange experience for me. I was pulled into seeing “Omar Khan” the character not as my father or even as an author so much as a boy in a hostile world, suffering from loneliness, witnessing and being the victim of considerable violence, but also finding joys in small pleasures: glimpses of young girls on parade, experiencing the camaraderie of school mates, feeling the ecstasy of religious fervour at Sufi shrines.

To say that I had learned something new about my father after finishing his memoir would only be partially true. Many episodes I read were certainly new. Some of those individual stories were harrowing explorations into parts of my father’s life that were understandably kept hidden (the incidents involving the policeman and my father’s schizophrenic cousin Yasub being particularly arresting). Other passages were familiar the way family legends become part of your own personal lore. More than anything, however, reading my father’s memoir was a fascinating experience in literary possession. “Omar Khan” the character became an avatar for my own childhood, my experience of childhood isolation, my longing for a better way of living, the particularities of those feelings that I had thought so specific to my childhood and early adulthood reflected in my father’s life.

“I am naive enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough,” says Harold Bloom. Reading Sawdust Castles has left me with more than a profound understanding of my father. It has left me with the realization that our parent’s lives are more than artifacts of our familial history, that the variations of their lives echo in our own. Sawdust Castles, my father’s story, has, in a very personal and unique way, become my own.

Saad Omar Khan

Sawdust Castles is available on Amazon.ca.

For more reviews on Sawdust Castles, please see this review in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.