Michael V. Smith
Mostly when I’m teaching, I am trying really hard to get out of the way of the student’s own creative process. So I don’t want to dictate what students make. I like to give a writing prompt that invites them to source their own material, to give them a degree of choice in how they find what they wanna write about. So I trust a lot in the unconscious, that the unconscious is just gonna deliver something that has value for them. Cuz the unconscious doesn’t like to waste its time.
You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
Michael V. Smith:
I’m Michael V. Smith. I teach creative writing at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus and I’m a writer and a performer. And sometimes a filmmaker. When we moved online two years ago, I really did a lot of work to rethink how I was gonna build more capacity for myself teaching online because you just have to find more time in the day in order to generate your videos and generate your asynchronous materials.
And so I took a really deep dive into some of the core principles that I had been looking at. And I’d been thinking a long time about how we evaluate and I decided to go with process over product. So that meant I was rewarding students, mostly, for engaging in the process. I would give them exercises to do, for example, and each week, and it was a complete or incomplete. They either did them or they didn’t. So that became super helpful for me because I could review all of the material people were generating every week and see what they understood and what they didn’t. They would try stuff and I’d get a feedback loop. And if I noticed a big pattern—a whole bunch of people didn’t quite get this or didn’t quite land it—well, then we could spend a little bit of time unpacking that the next week. I also stack my courses so that your first drafts are worth very little.
So they’re worth 5% of the final grade. So it encourages experimentation. It encourages you to just try stuff and see what lands and what doesn’t. And I think many of these choices are helping the students cuz they’re acquiring skills rather than trying to work on making something perfect. I thought maybe by giving it a process over product, we might lose some quality, but we didn’t at all. I found the grades were actually better because the work was also better. What I noticed is when you are valuing product, when you’re giving good grades and the majority of your grades in the class for people writing good things and handing great things in, you can have a really great writer who hasn’t learned a single thing in your course, cuz they haven’t actually done any of the things you told them to do, but they know how to make a good short story.
And they give you a good short and you reward them for making a good short story. And they haven’t learned anything from you. But if you’re valuing process, then you’re giving them grades for trying the things you’re trying to teach them. I’m very keen on skill development. I want to teach them strategies and tools that they can use. So process over product means you’re valuing the experience of making and the trial and error. And you’re also valuing that people don’t have to be perfect at everything. The first time they do it.
Excerpt from My Body Is Yours
I spent the first thirty years of my life trying to disappear.
My body betrayed me. When I was a small, slim shaggy-haired boy in middle school, a friend’s mother told me every time she saw me, in her hardened gravelly voice—usually while turning blood sausages on the stove—that I was a handsome boy, yes, but I would make a beautiful girl.
She wasn’t alone. Until I reached puberty, everyone mistook me for a girl. My voice was high-pitched, my hair was long—it was the 1970s—and my eyelashes were like butterfly wings. I was the skinniest kid anyone had ever laid eyes on. I used big adjectives I’d learned watching Phil Donahue. I was soft.
For five or six years of my young life, I wanted simple, obvious things: to have a different voice, a different body, different hair, different clothes, different parents, a different home. I clenched my little fingers together at night under Star Wars sheets and prayed to a random god to make me someone else. I prayed to be hairy. I prayed for my voice to drop. I prayed for my father to stop drinking and for my mother to calm down and love me. I prayed for friends. I prayed for money. I prayed for invisibility, and I prayed to be seen.
I think I survived for as long as I did because, without knowing it, I had that magical skill that young people in dire situations need: a simple naïve ability to hope that my prayers could be answered if I clung to them long enough. Or maybe that’s half the answer. I somehow understood that hope put into practice was hope granted. Hope was work. And I worked long and hard. Not at making a new body, mind you, or faking it better, but at making myself into who I wanted to be—which was a convoluted way of allowing myself to be who I was—despite the accidental and deliberate shit slung at me. I think Donahue taught me that too.
My Body Is Yours is my memoir that looks at how I escaped masculinity. So all the trappings of masculinity that materialized through my life and the terrible things it did to me <laugh> um, and how I managed to reconcile masculinity for myself so that I felt more comfortable in my own, my own gender.
I always tell my students who are making long-form work, that there’s two books that they’re writing. There’s the book that you intend to write. There’s the idea you have. And every day you’re working on that idea. And then, when you’re done, you’ve made a thing. And that thing you’ve made is much more complex and sophisticated and interesting than the original idea. And even in memoir writing, it was the same thing. I had a very different idea for what kind of memoir I was writing. And when I got done the book I realized, oh, I’m actually investigating this thing. I had originally set out to write a, a cultural analysis of masculinity.
And what I ended up writing was a memoir of how masculinity from culture manifested in my life. So it was important to get rid of the original idea and just nurture the thing that actually got made. Because, again, if we’re talking about the unconscious, the unconscious has its own agenda. It has its own patterns that it sees. So when I was writing My Body Is Yours, I knew all of the story points, right? I knew my history. I knew what I was generally writing about. And I had already written a few essays. I had this advice column in Xtra West where I was writing about my sex life, um, every week under a persona as Miss Cookie LaWhore, the drag queen. So I already had some material and I already had some insight, but I learned all kinds of things by putting stuff together.
It was amazing to me how much I didn’t recognize certain patterns in my life until I actually wrote the book and started to put things in order. And it was only in writing about it that that kind of, I guess I kind of, it invites that perspective to travel through time. And that maybe that’s what, one of the real tools of a memoir that what you’ve learned at the end of your journey, you recognize ways it could have been applied earlier, which helps you as you move forward to apply it again. That kind of insight only came from careful reflection in stacking things up in a row. I wouldn’t have found that otherwise, I don’t think.
Coming out in 1988, 1989 was when I started to tell friends. And in 1990s, when I told my whole family, well, that was a real political time in the queer community. AIDS action was, uh, was huge. There was a lot of demonstrations in my communities. There were marches in the streets and there was a lot of political movement and a lot of people were dying. And one of the big slogans that was a, was really the slogan of that movement was “silence equals death.” Silence equals death, really sank in, uh, for me. Being in the closet was so torturous and everybody named me as a queer person all the time, I was that kind of gay that everyone—you can see from five blocks away, you’re like, yep, there’s one walking down the street right now. I just kind of glow queer. Giving voice to something that was so reviled in 1990 and learning that I had to love myself, that I had to comfort and care for myself and nurture this side of me.
That’s carried everywhere in my life. Silence does equal death. Silence kills us. And I think that’s what writing in lots of ways is trying to do. What writing is trying to do is keep us all alive by sharing stories that help give us greater context, insight, compassion, understanding for lives that are not ours. Certainly reading kept me alive for years because I was reading about other people living a life I wanted to have and it gave me a kind of hope. And reading also parented me. It taught me other ways of being in the world. It gave me new insight. It gave me comforts. It gave me imaginative possibilities. It gave me new ways of thinking and seeing and being. Books are tools for self-improvement and protection and, and holistic nurturing and a greater sense of community and finding your people. People say that, you know, books, can’t be, you know, shouldn’t be self-help.
They shouldn’t be didactic. It’s like Jesus, if they’re not didactic, then I’ve really gone about writing and reading the wrong way.
On nights my grandparents drove
home to their bungalow
on Rideau Street, Kemptville, Ontario
with crickets scissoring their legs at every
stop sign the Nova met, wind whistling
to a tune my Grandmother pulled
fresh from the air the dark
delivered to the curve
of her tongue
I would feign
sleep for the feeling of my
grandfather’s arms collecting
my body from the dog-haired
The warmth of his torso
matched mine. His evening stubble.
One hand beneath my backside and
the other along my spine.
of my eyelids lightly shut.
The crunch of gravel, five
paces over cement tiles
to the wooden deck, three steps up
and two more to the door, propped
open by my grandmother.
No lights in the house. Whispers
about where they’ll put me, am
I still asleep, do they bother
with pajamas, here, leave his shoes
by the door.
Lit by the dark
the deep smell of leftover
ground beef and onions
in a cast iron pan, boiled icing
and vanilla cake.
He sails me in the ship of his arms
through the kitchen, the dining room,
down the narrow hall, past the large
wooden coat rack and the front door
sealed in old plastic.
the oak stairs for too long
to be believed, the sweetness
of that time between floors
made moreso by the dread
of the last four paces
which deliver me
to the spare bed.
My body cold everywhere
my grandfather no longer is,
like a wisdom the body knows
of what the future does
and doesn’t hold.
Every class. Uh, first class for every class. I introduce myself and I talk about my background. That I’m queer, that I’m femme identified that I’m a white settler from a small town.
I’m the first person in my family to go to university. I come from a blue collar family and I didn’t feel safe in institutions. I didn’t see myself represented in the classroom. I don’t see my language represented in the institution. The way I talk to my family is very different than how faculty want me to talk to them that I’m not supposed to swear. And I’m not, you know, there’s just a kind of vocabulary that comes with the academy, which is not welcoming to my people. So I try to bring that into my classroom to talk so that I’m really embodying the idea of safe space or brave space. However, I think there are two sides of the same coin. That we are trying to create a space where everybody’s included. And everybody’s welcome. To me, I think that is a queering of the academy in some ways.
I’m bringing the tools I learned of how to be a community player, how to be welcoming, how to be inclusive. And I’m bringing that into the conversation. That kind of generosity, that spirit of generosity. I’m trying to call in manifests sometimes in really simple ways, like it means not assuming somebody’s done something wrong. So if there’s a, uh, let’s say a homophobic slur, um, not assuming that they’re ignorant and they put the homophobic slur in there by accident. Sometimes that’s the best way to move forward is to say, “Maybe you’re not aware. I’m not sure, but I wanna let you know that this is a real slur and if you’re not queer and you’re using it, I just wanna be sure where you are positioned in relationship to it.” In some ways it’s just approaching it with curiosity, rather than with a set of assumptions.
And that often helps people save face too, because even if it was <laugh> an accident, they could say, oh no, I put it in there on purpose. I’d rather, I don’t mind being lied to if somebody gets the point <laugh> . It also comes out, I think, in the workshop setting where students get to give their perspective on things. Like this made me feel really alienated. And this made me feel really, um, warm and drawn in. And recognizing how your reader responds to certain things is really educational. So I find that super helpful. This idea that what a writer is trying to do in the workshop setting is gather information about how their writing machine worked. They’ve created a little word machine that’s supposed to do some things. You’ve got some intention of what you want it to accomplish. And then you get to see how that writing machine, when people got on the, you know, the, the bicycle <laugh> of your poem, where they went with it and what they did with it. And I find that as a strategy, much more productive in the classroom than cutting people out, shutting people down, turning people off, squashing conversation, removing us from uncomfortable things. It, it, those uncomfortable places are the places where the real learning happens.
Excerpt from “Soundtrack”
Thriller came to me first via my sister’s brief new boyfriend, Jesse who brought the cassette over after school. They were attending General Vanier Secondary in grade nine, two years ahead. I just turned 12. So Lisa had to be 13. Jesse probably had the first mullet I ever saw. Well before it was a thing with hockey jocks, all those loose curls kissing the back of his neck, his wisp of a mustache pierced left ear lobe, cuz the right ear signaled gay. Though lots of folks in ‘83 thought any man with an earring had to be queer, sporting a dangly silver pair of handcuffs, which my sister explained was because Jesse had moved from Toronto. All the kids in the big city wore an earring. Toronto fresh on the tongue. Not a week or so into school, some thug ripped the handcuffs out, tearing his earlobe clear through. Conformity violence is one of the strategies, small town men use as a social control, which I challenged in my twenties by being visible as fuck in case you’re wondering why I’m a fag who wears pink, but I still didn’t get my own
George Michael hoops pierced until I was 31 cuz of that old, too familiar story. Nobody had seen anything like Thriller before. MJ moon walking so much singularity into culture. The red leather jacket, a music video as short film, those large ensemble, pop dance numbers, zombies dancing, hello genius, the white socks and short type pants, one white glove. Details so fresh they made metonomies. I learned to dance watching the videos for that album. 38 years later, I still thrust my knees forward and flip onto the ends of my shoes in the signature Billy Jean ballerina redux balancing on the dance floor of my toes. Like I know how to hold four decades at bay.
So I got an equity enhancement grant from the University of British Columbia to make, um, an oral history project that was a live story sharing moment. It it’s called “Soundtrack” because there are two writers and we each pick a soundtrack, an album that’s like the soundtrack of our lives. So we write about Michael Jackson’s Thriller where we were when we were listening to that album, what was happening in our lives. And so you get a kind of anecdotal oral history, but you also get that relationality that I’m so interested in. So what does Hasan Namir—what was his experience like as an Iraqi queer person listening to Michael Jackson’s thriller and what was it like for small town Cornwall, Ontario, me to be listening to it. And I think the difference in those two experiences is telling and what we have in common is also really telling.
I’m really interested in the way that history erases our lives. And so having a low-stakes memory project that talked about the queerness we experienced in whatever moment in our lives is a way I think of recording the stuff that isn’t easily captured as history gets recorded. That history tends to be these big, broad categories. And I’m really interested in history on the domestic sphere. My first novel Cumberland was looking at the way in which the economy, free trade, had a huge impact in the domestic sphere of my life. All the plants started closing in my small town and moving to the states or moving to Mexico because of free trade. My parents kept losing their jobs and that, so that history had a real impact in my daily life, that is hard to capture outside of writing. Like where is it recorded in the history books, what blue collar working class people’s lives looked like in the realm of free trade?
And that’s the same kind of thing I’m looking at in Soundtrack. We know the big history. We know that in the late eighties, early nineties, a lot of people started to get way more political because of AIDS LA LA LA LA LA, but what’s that look like in our lived lives? What are the ways in which that history impacted us, influenced us, moved through our relationships to each other? I’m really invested in that. I think it’s a great way for us to not allow the large stereotypes of history to be the story that gets told. Again, I guess it’s reaching for nuance because I think that’s where we find the greater degree of understanding. It’s not in black or white thinking it’s in these, it’s in the 50 shades of gray <laugh>.
So this exercise is one that I call looking around. I have adapted it from Linda Barry, from her really amazing book, What It Is. And she’s got this exercise where you pick an object and then you look around from that object. So I often give my students, a car or sometimes I’ll bring an object in, I’ll bring a chair or something, but let’s say we pick a car. So they have to look to the left and see what’s on the left of the car in their imaginative mind. Then they look to the right and see what’s on the right. And they look ahead and they write down what’s ahead and they write behind. And then they look up and then they look down and sometimes they make them wander around within the car too. Sometimes they open the glove box and they look under the seat and they look in the backseat.
Sometimes I get them to imagine what six feet below the car in the ground, buried in the ground somewhere. What I really love about this exercise is we take a singular object. It can be small and inconsequential. And from that tiny incidental thing, they create an entire setting. They create a whole landscape. So it’s teaching them that your imagination is really productive. It’s really easy to find the story by just starting in any old place and looking around in your imaginative mind. And it brings the world in. It makes them recognize that wherever they stand, whatever innocent thing they pick, that that object is embroiled in a larger cultural landscape that is full of complexity. So Orhan Pamuk says that all stories, aren’t about characters. All stories are about places. They’re about time and place. What we are seeing when we’re reading a novel is the character revealing itself, him or herself in relation to a world that’s antagonistic to them. And that’s what Linda Barry gives you—she gives you the world. So all you then need to do is ask questions of that thing in relationship to the things you found. Wander through that landscape. And you can find the story that way. I just find that so thrilling how hugely productive it is and how deeply entrenched it is in this idea of context or relationality. That stuff is where the real meat is for me in writing.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon, in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Michael V. Smith’s work, including his most recent poetry collection Bad Ideas. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Michael V. Smith shares how he brings community-building tools into the academy and how memoir allows a writer to travel through time. He discusses:
0:55 | The benefits of valuing process over product in writing courses
3:43 | Reconciling masculinity while writing My Body Is Yours
6:21 | The difference between the book you intend to write and the book you’ve actually written
8:38 | The impact of the slogan “silence equals death,” and how writing helps keep us alive
13:00 | Queering the academy and embodying a brave space in the classroom
16:35 | His oral history project Soundtrack and capturing lived history on a scale that is often erased
22:03 | Adapting a Lynda Barry exercise to help students build a setting and generate narrative