“The other thing I say in Out of Line after ‘if you don't have community, art will break your heart’ is your heart will be broken anyway, eventually, but it's better with community. You will recover faster and you won't die of heartbreak if you have community.”
Tanis MacDonald: The other thing I say in Out of Line after “if you don’t have community, art will break your heart” is your heart will be broken anyway, eventually, but it’s better with community. You’ll find a way to heal with community. Now, I don’t mean for that to be, uh, pessimistic. I just mean life breaks your heart, right? Art breaks your heart. Trafficking with, with beauty and danger breaks your heart. You will recover faster and you won’t die of heartbreak if you have community.
Claire Tacon: You’re listening to Parallel Careers where writers, who also teach, share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
Tanis MacDonald: My name’s Tanis MacDonald. I’m a writer of poetry and creative nonfiction, mostly the personal essay. I’m also a scholar. I’m a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. And I’m originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, but I’ve been living in Ontario and in the Waterloo region for about 16 years.
I think poetry attracts people who in some ways want a break from the logic that sometimes dominates prose. I say sometimes because, of course, there’s plenty of strange prose out there as well. But when I say that the, uh, poetry attracts people with its strangeness, one of the things I find very interesting in poetry is how two disparate ideas can sit alongside each other. And I think they sit alongside each other in daily life all the time, but we train ourselves A) not to see them, B) to say they’re contradictory so they can’t exist, when everyone’s life is a lived contradiction, quite frankly, right? But poems often strive to have those two things exist in the same space and talk about the kind of resistance to having them be in the same space or a kind of welcoming where, where the space that they sit in is, is meant to be except we’ve been resisting looking at it all this time.
So my last poetry book is called Mobile. And in some ways it’s modeled on Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies. And when I say it’s modeled on, I don’t do the same work as Lee does in that classic text. But his Civil Elegies got me thinking about a female experience of the city. And the more, more I looked around, the more I could see that actually a lot of women writers were writing about a female experience of the city. And I really wanted to add my voice to that. When I moved to Toronto when I was 21, I knew no one, I had no relatives here. And I, I was really sort of striking out on this kind of new ground. And I had to learn everything from, from the ground up. That was also an introduction to the fact that I, I came from a working class background because I didn’t quite realize it until I was in Toronto and and I met lots of people who volunteered that, that was my background.
They told me and I went, oh, um, yes, yes, I guess so. Right. So Mobile is a, a kind of exploration of what it’s like to be, uh, young and female in a city and to start to experience its delights and its dangers.
Excerpt from Mobile
The Bluestocking’s Opening Lecture
after Sonya Huber
There is no extra credit for the truth.
No points will be deducted for lying.
Rough words are allowed but first
pay attention to their shine. Lateness
is allowed because I’ve been that girl with
the problem. Lateness is not encouraged
because same. I know it is shocking
to be read after so much knocking.
I will ask you to work with metaphor. Do not
tear up the pea patch. Pain is allowed, but
it’s not a currency. It is addicting
to be read. I will write the prescription;
but don’t make me your pusher. Let it be said
you may call me by name after you’ve read
two of my books. You may think this is elitist.
Please discuss, at length, with the person
sitting next to you. I love it when you turn
to each other and speak. I will be grinning
as you talk. Do not be alarmed. These are only
my teeth. This is only happiness.
Music transition ends
Tanis MacDonald: So there are three sections to Mobile. The first one is the young woman in the city with not much money. The second bit is I decided that, uh, I needed to write from the perspective of an older woman and a woman with a different kind of experience. And so I stayed with this idea of class and I worked with the trope of the older woman, often, uh, older sort of bag woman, often known as Crazy Jane. Yeats writes about her as Crazy Jane and, uh, the 19th century painter, Richard Dadd has a picture that he calls Crazy Jane and a number of sort of canonical writers have worked with this idea of a homeless, um, “mad” woman.
And I use “mad” woman in, in quotations there. That she is both a kind of wise woman and she lives outside the bounds of, of polite society. So I have my, um, my Jane figure that I also kind of mashed up with the urbanist Jane Jacobs. And I thought, what if Crazy Jane was Jane Jacobs? That’d be cool. Right? And in the end, of course she’s not, Yeats’ Crazy Jane. She’s not Jane Jacobs, but she is a kind of amalgam of those kinds of ideas. So she is living rough on the streets and she’s trying to leave capitalism and colonialism behind her and of course is struggling to do so because it’s embedded in all of the systems that, that we live in.
You know, in the classroom, I know that, uh, sometimes, uh, beginner writers are looking for work they can relate to. Work that seems to mirror, or speak to, their kinds of circumstances.
And I think that’s good. Everyone needs, um, those voices around them. But I also tell them that, as they study, it’s okay to write back to people who do not satisfy you to say, Hey, W.B. Yeats. I don’t know about you writing about this old woman over and over again and using her as a kind of, um, aphorism machine. That’s a woman with blood and bone and circumstance, and you are using her as an opportunity to put wisdom, your wisdom, in her mouth. And so it’s okay, I think to say, Hey, this image that has existed in the cannon for centuries, come over here and I’m gonna treat you more nicely. I’m going to, I am going to do something, something different with this.
My new book, uh, Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female is coming out in the, the spring of 2022.
And in some ways, in my head, these are parallel books. So, on the surface, I’m still, I’m still with walking. I’m still with walking and thinking about how that affects the body, questions of mobility. I have degenerating disc disease and also very, very bad sciatica. And so walking is a, a big part of my life because sometimes it really, really hurts and sometimes it relieves the pain. So I’ve got a, a kind of dual relationship with this idea of walking. So we see some of that as a kind of carryover from, from Mobile, particularly looking at the aging female body and, uh, what it takes to, to move under your own locomotion sometimes well and sometimes not so well. Right? Which is one reason why I’ve called the book Straggle, because I wanted a word for walking that wasn’t about achievement, that wasn’t about covering the miles, crushing the miles.
It wasn’t about working out or working up a sweat. It’s also not so much about wandering, but thinking what happens, again, when your walking isn’t perfect. Where you have to accommodate ways of, ways of walking that, um, maybe people don’t wanna look at or don’t wanna talk about. And so I say that Straggle is a book about what happens when someone like me puts on their, their shoes.
Excerpt from Straggle
Walk this way, says Steve Tyler.
Walk this way, said my grade eight geography teacher. He asked us to push our desks aside to create a wide aisle down the middle of the room and he showed us how to walk. He described and then demonstrated how we should walk: young men and then young women. It’s hard for me to recall what he prescribed for the boys as that advice was completely overshadowed by his demonstration of how women walk. He didn’t mince or simper; he didn’t prance or giggle. He started at one end of the room and glided across the room like old Hollywood glamour. He moved like Harlow through Monte Carlo. He attributed to us not only the grace and coordination none of us had at thirteen, but also the breasts and hips most of us hadn’t grown yet. He instructed us then to put the desks back and he never referred to it again. From older siblings, we learned that he taught this lesson every year.
This was an exercise in gender prescription, no question, and I am torn between thinking of the demonstration—its seriousness, its unusualness, its annual repetition—and thinking about its legacy. Thirteen-year-olds are inundated with people telling them what to do, admonitions against some behaviours, earnest exhortations in favour of others, and I am struck that the geography teacher didn’t mock us, or parody us, or shout directions at us. It seems as though he took the problems of our bodies seriously and offered a serious answer. No doubt his answer was limited—in gender, in style, in aspect—but it was an answer offered more thoughtfully than most answers to impossible questions. The question he tried to answer was not “How do I walk?” but what we wanted to know but could not ask: “How can I be in the world?” and “What happens if my body doesn’t fit in the world?” His answer may have been “Walk this way because it will give you a way to fly under the radar, walk this way until you can get away from your parents and this small prairie city, walk this way as a performance, walk this way to wear a mask that will protect you until it’s safe to walk any damn way you please.” He put his own body on the line to answer what we could not, would never ask.
Tanis MacDonald: Giving feedback in a course or even in a workshop is, I think, really important because people should know the power of being read. They should know the power that if they write something down on a piece of paper, someone’s going to read it and take it seriously and ask what they want to do with it and what kind of effect they want that to have. And I think in, in some ways, it’s every writer’s dream and it’s every writer’s fear. Right?
So a couple of years ago, uh, in my poetry course, I could see some people having some trouble with revision strategies. That they would revise, but just, you know, a line or a couple of words. And I thought, you know, many of you are holding yourselves back from, from taking a leap into, um, a poem that was still in a first draft stage and people were thinking of it as finished or almost finished.
And so I thought, I think the only way to do this is to give people a real example of, uh, what it can be like. And I also thought, I think it’s a good idea when you instruct other writers is to have them read some of your own writing and to be vulnerable the way they are vulnerable with each other and with me and showing new work. So I knew the only way I could do this was to start from scratch, show them that my first drafts are as crappy as anybody’s. So, over the break, I had 10 day to do this. I drafted something the very first morning. I came back to it that afternoon, did a redraft. I came back three days later, I drafted again. And then I have, uh, an online writing group and I said to them, could you take these and mark them up?
Because I, I also wanted them to see me getting feedback from people who knew my writing. And also I wanted them to see that if you ask 10 people for feedback, five people are gonna say, I love this line. And the other five are gonna say, get rid of this line. And then it’s up to me as the writer to make that determination.
And then I took all of this. I showed them all the drafts. I showed them all the feedback. And then I said to them, But this feedback isn’t necessarily right. What do you think? And I thought, you know, that was definitely, um, in some ways, a, a kind of a humbling process. And I also thought it’s fair. If I had been writing all over their poems, they should get a chance to write all over mine. And some people, and some people did say, I hate this image, don’t use it! Right? This is too wordy! And they said the things to me that I had been saying.
And so I have say that that was, you know, that was gold, uh, seeing people do that. And also seeing people wrote me very thoughtful, um, feedback as well.
Excerpt from Out of Line
This is for You
This is for you, sitting in the back of your high school class, or maybe in the front, bored and barely passing or passing without trying and wondering why it all seems so formulaic. This is for you in the library, reading anything and everything you can get your hands on not because you are so fascinated, though you might be sometimes, but because you never know what book might give you that sliver of light, the key to getting out of this place, this school, this set of expectations. This is for you who goes to church or temple or gurdwara at your parents’ insistence and gets lost for a moment or two in the rhythm of the words or music or prayers or readings, or the harmonies of hymns that you haven’t believed in for years but still, they sound like leaving, like art that gets made somewhere far away from here. This is for you working that job you wanted, or that job you needed to pay the bills, still thinking about the key to getting out of this place, but you don’t want out—you only want more of what you get when you pick up a pen or a paintbrush or a sander, here in this place.
I am thinking of you making art in unlikely and sometimes stringent circumstances: writing on your lunch hour, or taking photos with your phone, or curating books and films and paintings to declare what you love, or saving old beautiful things from the landfill, or kerning the lettering on an event poster. Special shout-out to those of you who have to listen to people all day telling you that it’s not art, that it’s banal, that it’s more useless information, that the care you take and attention you give will add up to nothing. I will tell you this one thing in hope that it will sustain you: you know, what needs doing.
Music transition ends
Tanis MacDonald: My 2018 book Out of Line: Daring to be an Artist Outside the Big City started out because, uh, I wanted to write for beginner writers, my students, and everyone else who was interested in the book, about the writing life. The writing life, that isn’t especially glamorous, and that takes place outside a big metropolitan city. Now I live in Waterloo and it’s a city, a medium size or a small city, but it has the kind of opportunities and, uh, arts policies that you get in a small city. It is not, uh, an exciting rain of opportunity like you might be getting in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. Nothing against any of those cities, but a lot of writers don’t live in those cities and they still write and they still make art.
And it’s a very special problem. It was more of a problem, uh, before we had Zoom and Zoom readings became popular. But I also note that as, uh, people are longing to go back to in-person readings, I’m a little reluctant, I think, but, but then I’ll go back to my very small audiences. What about the, the big, national audience that I can get in an online reading? So Out of Line is a book for people who are making art and making a living outside the big city, people who aren’t getting, uh, huge grants. People who probably like very much where they live and don’t, or can’t move to that big metropolis and so are living out the art-making dream without the kinds of trappings that we often associate with the art-making dream. Living in a big artist studio, having lunch with your publisher every, you know, once a month. Like these kinds of things that are both real and kinds of big-city clichés about, about making art.
When I think of success as a writer, I mean, it’s very easy to look at money and the ability to, uh, win awards as success.
But I think for most working writers, success is writing more days a week than not. Being published sometimes in a small publication. To have, have one editor say, yes, I know people will want to read this so it’s gonna go in my magazine. We’ve chosen your piece out of the 3000 that we got this year. So that is success. That is a, a kind of way to keep going.
So I think success is whatever keeps you happy in your art-making life. I remember thinking if I got a book published, that would be it. I could die happy because my book was published and then my book was published and I didn’t feel like dying happy. I felt happy that the book was out. But then I, I saw the flaws in the book and I thought, Hmm, I can do better. I can do more. I’m ready to write another book. And I did that.
So when I talk to students about that, I say, you know what you will count as a success is going to change and you need to give yourself time to, um, to get better at what you do. And that takes, that takes a long time.
In this episode, Tanis MacDonald encourages us to challenge the voices in the canon that do not satisfy, and examines her changing relationship with both walking and art.
1:06 | How poetry attracts people with its strangeness and makes space for two disparate ideas to sit alongside each other.
1:58 | Writing about a female experience of the city in her poetry collection Mobile.
4:40 | Reclaiming the “Crazy Jane” trope and writing about a character who is struggling to leave capitalism and colonialism behind.
7:06 | Considering questions of mobility in her forthcoming book Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female.
11:24 | Being vulnerable with students and using her own work to teach revision strategies.
14:26 | Her book Out of Line: Daring to be an Artist Outside the Big City and how to measure success as a writer.
Shut Up and Write
The idea of getting together in a room to write for two hours with your students, with your colleagues, with whoever wants to join, is something that is called in other communities, “shut up and write.” <laugh> And I think if you are meeting in, say a local coffee shop or a place where there is conversation going on around you, I think that’s a valuable title, shut up and write. So you’re getting people from all over and all you have to do is show up with your writing material, sit at the table and go at it and not talk. And then you have a break where people can talk for 10 minutes, get coffee, whatever, come back. Write for another hour. But where I was doing it in the university, I thought it was unfair to say to students, shut up and write <laugh>.
So I think we just called it a write-in or Thursday afternoon writing or whatever. But it was really a great thing. And we haven’t been doing it online because that’s a little harder to get that idea of, of being in the same room. But sometimes people ask, you know, how can I make myself sit down and do this? And I say, there’s nothing like making a writing date with someone. And it doesn’t have to be a group—two people can do it. You agree to meet at a particular coffee shop and neither of you can get a refill until you’ve written for an hour.
And there’s, there’s a kind of synergy that happens when everyone in the room is writing. It’s like I can see like the thoughts flying around the room and people kind of getting energy from the fact that other people are, are thinking and writing. Even if you come with nothing in your head and you just sit down, something is gonna show up in 3 minutes, in 5 minutes, in 10 minutes, simply because you’re bored sitting there. And you’re going to start to write something and then you’re going to start to write the thing you really want to write. And before you know it, you’re couple thousand words in.
An exercise that I teach mostly in poetry courses, but this could definitely be adapted to any kind of prose course, writing fiction or creative nonfiction. This is an exercise called “Finding the word hoard.” So a word hoard is adapted from an Old English concept of a treasury of words. Now, if you are a writer, I know you have noticed this, that you will use the same words over and over. I do too. We all do. It’s a habit of mind, but part of being a writer is having a kinds of, uh, variation in the language that you choose, and it’s also an exercise in freshening your mind, getting your mind to think differently, right, and to not stay in the same rut. Because there is something about using the same word over and over again that just means that you are thinking the same.
You can use a, a rhyming dictionary or a thesaurus just on, on the very basic level, to change up your word choice. But anyone can do that. But I think it’s more interesting to do it the word hoard way. It’s best working in at least pairs or in threes.
What you do is you take a draft of something that you’ve written that seems fine, but not great. And you’re thinking of how to revise it. I would ask you to take your, your draft of your poem or your, or your page of prose in hand and circle or highlight two or three words that you want to stand out. They’re important words to the story or to the poem.
Then what I need you to do is to give your chosen words to your partner. Your partner doesn’t know the context of the word. So when I last did it, I circled the word “rabbit” and I circled the word “smithy.” So I had those two, I gave rabbit and smithy to my partner. My partner doesn’t know the significance of these words. So all I’m asking the partner to do is to riff on the word that they’re given for three minutes. Listing rhymes, half-rhymes, words with assonance, consonance, alliteration. So my partner wrote for rabbit: habit, Hobbit, inhibit, half-wit, rarebit, robot, ribbit, writ, bit, rat, ratchet, robbed it, hatchet, have it, Robert, rocket.
Okay, this is my word hoard. I go back to my draft and I think, okay, not all of these are gonna fit, but they’re very unexpected words. So I might start thinking, what’s the difference between rabbit and robot? Is there something robotic about that rabbit? What it’s going to do: it’s gonna shake up your associations, the words that you use and it’s also instantly going to “music-ate,” your language, right? You’re gonna get that kind of rhythm and that kind of repetition of particular kinds of sounds throughout the poem. And also, of course, you’re gonna get this idea that it’s, um, the emphasis on rabbit, the rabbit is gonna be in there with all these associative words at the same time.
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