I attended another writing conference this weekend in Toronto – this one devoted to supporting the teaching of creative writing – and I felt a bit out of my element. A conference dedicated to the study of creative writing pedagogy (teaching – I had to look it up) and the promotion of creative writing standards and practices that would include academic papers and keynote talks by national and international writers and creative writing teachers and researchers? I was intrigued and terrified that I’d be sent to the corner in a dunce cap.
Truth be told, I came away with much more than I expected, which always means success in my eyes. Gold nuggets of information and a desire to write more often and with more skill – if a conference can do that, then I leave satisfied. But of course, there was much more to be learned – lessons about my faltering ego, and being kind to one’s self (or myself in this case), and giving other people a break too – we are only human after all. The lessons I learned came in messy little packages – as my bits of learning always do.
Lesson #1: Reversion to one’s teenage self when you are feeling immature and stupid makes you look immature and stupid.
I discovered recently (after some self-reflection aided by a therapist who calls bullshit when required) that it hits a nerve when I feel someone thinks they are smarter than me. Scratch that. When they think I’m a dummy. Scratch that too. When I assume that they think I am in fact, a dummy. Make no mistake; I realize I’m surrounded all the time by people who are more intellectually gifted than I am. It’s when I get the message that they perceive me as some kind of a clunk that seems to set me off. Of course – I can’t quite nail what it is that they’ve done. It isn’t as blatant as them saying, “What a clod!” They don’t roll their eyes or shake their head when I talk. Except for the odd pompous brainer, it’s normally nothing they’ve done at all. It’s my perception of their perception of me. So, it really isn’t anything about them, it is in fact all about me and my own perceptions of myself and of others. Doh! Darn it.
After sitting through a few discussions on theory that was over my head, along with a dinner conversation that made me feel like I was Peppermint Patty trying to make it through English class, I started to feel the abrasion of mhoa-wa-wa in my head and reverted back to my fifteen year old self.
“Whatever. Like I’m even listening. You’re so boooooring, my ears feel like they’re bleeding. Who are you anyway? I’m outta here.” Okay, so that was my inner voice, not anything I actually said, but I was zoning out and shutting down, and decided I didn’t care about PhD papers or the research and practice of creative writing in the 21st Century.
Of course, I do care. I want to learn and grown as a writer and a teacher, and some (inner) pouting and debriefing with some wise and wonderful friends and fellow conference goers was enough to set me straight and get me grounded. Meanwhile though, I missed out on having some interactions with some brilliantly creative minds, because I didn’t want to ask questions and look like a giant dolt. So instead I shut out what they were saying, and in turn missed out on what likely could have been potentially enlightening conversations with wonderful people who came with thier own status crap to deal with.
My inner time machine took me back to 1984 and I wasn’t budging. At least not until the next morning when I took on the day with a new approach. More like a 43-year-old approach. One that set up day 2 with a mission to get one gold nugget out of every workshop. Lo and behold, I did.
I listened to PhD types read papers that didn’t really speak to me, but waited for the moment when they looked up from the pages of dry-as-bone notes and went off on a tangent about something that struck them – a point they were passionate enough about that they simply couldn’t stick to the presentation at hand. That is where the treasure was. The moment they looked out and engaged with the crowd, they had my attention and gave me my gold nuggets. Ahoy matey.
Lesson #2. Every person who walks the earth or attends a conference comes with their own set of baggage – and I don’t mean Louis Vuitton.
Presenting a theory in front of a crowd of literary minds could cause one a little stress, which would be a great explanation for why some of them needed to keep their nose on the page. And if at times they lifted it only to hold it high in the air – well – that made more sense too, once I thought about it. Every person is looking to be respected and to be heard. If that comes from having a brilliant creative mind, or a strictly theoretical and scholarly mind – well – so be it, we all have our strengths. I guess it’s as hard to be brilliant and humble as an adult as it is for a high school student to be both cool and kind. Not impossible, not unheard of, not even unusual – but it takes confidence and faith in yourself to pull it off. Being the whole package is one tough gig.
On occasion, the theory, the craft, the talent, energy and the engagement came together and we were given a brilliant artist, whose numerous strengths were rolled into a giant presenting machine. I was witness to a few of those as well – and of course, those are who I learned the most from.
In my opinion, power in creative writing is more important than perfection. But I would be foolish to think I’m above trying for both. Foolish of me though, to think that graduation meant my education was over.
Lastly, I learned that some things never change.
Lesson #3: In social settings, if all else fails, have a good story up your sleeve and a kick-ass pair of shoes on your feet.
Being part of any gathering – social, professional, academic or otherwise – you can’t go wrong with a good story or two to bridge the gap and make highbrow scholars just people. Same goes for those who are famous, in a different class, or just plain ignorant or indifferent. Storytellers bring a people back to earth, or at the very least, entertain.
The kick-ass shoes? What can I say? I ‘m always looking for an excuse.