Writing and the Art of Self-Forgiveness

“I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

Ann Patchett - This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.'”

-Anne Patchett, The Story of a Happy Marriage (2013)


Doesn’t Ann Patchett look nice?



Exorcise with Kindness: Lynda Barry’s Dog Demon

resilience-279x300Lynda Barry describes her graphic story collection One! Hundred! Demons! (2002) as  “Autobiofictionalography,” a term that captures the often murky distinction between life and art. The book catalogues moments from the author’s life, most of them painful, in which she encounters a figurative “demon” in the form of childhood abuse, awkward teenage encounters and hard-won adult epiphanies. All are rendered with courageous honesty and self-deprecating humour.

Barry’s demonic confrontations take place in both the fictional past and present; at the the time of the original event and the moment of creative exorcism as she translates these events into art. The result is a technicolor palimpsest of past and present. The innocence (and ignorance) of the younger Barry overlaps with the hard won wisdom of the mature artist who looks back with love and anger.


100-Demons-DogsThe story that touches me the most is one called “Dogs,” about an abused dog that Barry adopts from a shelter. The dog comes with fear and aggression issues and the author has a terrible time trying to domesticate the animal. As the animal becomes more and more aggressive, Barry becomes increasingly stern and dominant in her approach to training. This power struggle persists for some time with no improvement in the dog’s behaviour.

The demonic exorcism occurs when Barry begins to identify with the dog; as a younger person, she too had been bullied, abused and neglected. Her approach to disciplining the animal isn’t working, she realizes, because the dog needs to learn how to trust her. The only way that will happen is if she gives it all the love, security and kindness that she possibly can. Some dogs do well with strict discipline, but this dog needs to be nurtured, reassured, even spoiled a little. Heaping love on the animal is what tames it in the end, not harsher, stricter discipline.

I can relate to both Barry and the naughty dog in this this story. Like most people, I’ve got some wounded, frightened parts of me–ones that make me act in no-so-great ways. We all get jealous, compare ourselves to others, become competitive, anxious and perfectionistic. Other times we feel sad, unmotivated, helpless or bored. This is all very human.

But the way we often react to such weaknesses in ourselves is to crack the whip; we criticize own own efforts, harp on our failures, tell ourselves scary stories, neglect and deny ourselves the very things we need in our lives to feel safe, loved, free and inspired. Often, when we feel anxious about being unprepared or incapable, we encourage ourselves to overwork and over-prepare or else we let ourselves ruminate about worst-case-scenarios.
Lynda Barry-Dogs

Wouldn’t we all benefit from being gentle with the worst parts of ourselves, like Barry with her ill-mannered dog?

“Use the Difficulty”: A theory of art turned theory of life


Years ago, watching T.V., I came across an interview with Michael Caine on Parkinson, the long running UK talk show. In this interview he speaks passionately about the adage, “Use the Difficulty,” which he has used and shared throughout his life.

He likes telling the story about how he heard the phrase, apparently, and repeats it often in interviews, including a 1992 Fresh Air  interview Terry Gross in which he said,

“Well, I was rehearsing a play, and there was a scene that went on before me, then I had to come in the door. They rehearsed the scene, and one of the actors had thrown a chair at the other one. It landed right in front of the door where I came in. I opened the door and then rather lamely, I said to the producer who was sitting out in the stalls,

‘Well, look, I can’t get in. There’s a chair in my way.’

He said, ‘Well, use the difficulty.’

So I said, ‘What do you mean, use the difficulty?”’

He said, ‘Well, if it’s a drama, pick it up and smash it. If it’s a comedy, fall over it.’

This was a line for me for life: Always use the difficulty.”

From an interview with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross on her program “Fresh Air,” November 17, 1992, collected in Terry Gross, All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists (2004)

Here is a youtube video of Caine telling the same story ten years later on Parkinson. Yes, he’s very charming.

What I love about this is how Caine instinctively adapts a theory of acting into a theory of life, essentially equating creative practice with life itself.

For Caine, “Using the Difficulty” means that one responds to the obstacles that life throws at us by performing a spontaneous creative act.

The producer’s explanation, “if it’s a drama, break it; if it’s a comedy trip over it,” suggests that there are many different ways to “use the difficulty.” In the context of the theatre, the playwright and director determine if the play is a comedy or tragedy. But in life, we are both actor and director. We may not write the script, but in choosing how we respond to difficulty, we set the tone of the scene.

Revisiting this idea raises my spirits tremendously during a time in my life when I often feel powerless in the face of certain obstacles. For me, “using the difficulty” is powerfully life affirming; it says that whatever the adversity, we can always work with it creatively.

Caine’s favourite piece of wisdom is equivalent to the golden rule of improvisation: the ethos of “Yes, And” popularized by the Actor/Writer/Teacher Del Close. Both depend upon assuming an attitude of acceptance towards what is happening right here and now.

This does not, emphatically, mean that you approve of or condone the obstacle before you, but that you’ve simply realized that it is in fact real and that you have a decision to make. Will you pick it up to use as a prop? Will you turn it into locked door? A shelter? A battering ram?  Will you trip over it for comedic or tragic effect? Ultimately, you get to interpret its meaning and choose your next move.

In making these choices, we make meaning of our lives.  We may or may not have control over the difficulties we encounter, but we always have a choice in how we respond to them. The circumstances we find ourselves in may be absurd, unfair or just plain wrong, but when we “use the difficulty” we affirm our freedom to act as conscious co-creators of our story. And, in doing so, we make an art of life.

How to Live. What to Do.

Wallace Stevens’ poem “How to Live. What to Do.” Doesn’t offer what it promises. Or, perhaps it does and that’s the problem.

For years I thought this was one of my favourite Stevens poems. Flipping through a collection I would see the title and think, “Oh yeah, I love this one!” then flip to the page to take a look but then would get confused a few lines into reading it, put the book down, and forget the whole incident every happened until the next time I saw the title in a Table of Contents and thought, “Oh yeah, I love this one!”

This loop repeated until the year I taught an undergrad course focused entirely on Stevens at McGill. We didn’t read every Stevens poem, but we read a lot of them and towards the end of the term I again approached “How to Live. What to do.” I had put it on the syllabus without thinking too much about it because I saw the title in the T of C and thought, Oh yeah, I love this one!” But this time, I actually had to take a closer look.


In the poem, two men come upon a giant rock face set in the middle of the forest. Its size dwarfs them and its surface is utterly featureless and inscrutable. The poem tells us nothing about these men, very little about this rock and surely nothing about How to Live and What to Do.

Or does it?

Here’s what the poem does tell us:

-It is evening. The moon out.

-The wind moves around the men, making sounds.

-The rock itself tells them nothing;

-It bears no image and has no voice

-It is “high and bare” and “[b]eyond all trees.”

The two men stand and rest beside this reservoir of non-meaning.  There is only this rock and the wind and definitely no instructions on “How to Live. What to do.” Only this sound of the wind: “heroic . . [j]oyous and jubilant and sure.”

This poem says what most of us surely already know but prefer not to accept: that the rules for living a meaningful life cannot be written or drawn. And yet there is still joy and surety in this poem. How can that be in the absence of something more?

It is the nonsense of rock and sound that produce this joy. Both are present and beautiful and real. Art is just like that and life, the poem teaches us, can be like that too, if we allow it.

Here’s a link to a great response to this poem over on Weird Deer