Dressing the part
Here’s a little story: three years ago, I got invited to a literary festival and carpooled up there with a number of other literary peeps. I happened to be driving, and spent the entire time during my drive to Toronto to pick everyone up worrying about the following things:
a) Everyone would think I had a hate-on for the environment because I was driving my parents’ SUV;
b) Was my playlist cool enough? Those in the car with me were people that I’d known on Twitter but hadn’t yet met IRL. They were all bookish and well known on the literary scene and super cool and I? I was a newbie. i didn’t even live in Toronto. Did I have the right CDs? Was my music indie and cool enough? The SUV’s CD player was filled with my parents’ Tragically Hip albums and I was parking my car at the meeting spot in TO when I realized I’d forgotten to take them out. Catastrophe;
c) I wanted to get snacks for the drive but I wasn’t sure what to get. As I drove, I thought: I could get muffins from Tim Hortons, but are they organic? Would everyone scoff at my support of Tim Hortons when the muffins from Whole Foods were healthier and probably that much better, besides? Didn’t all writers eat organic and care about the environment and get politically involved? Should I have worn my cooler, more stylish pair of glasses? Did I even have a pair of glasses that was sufficiently cool enough? Was I not a writer because I hadn’t yet figured out my whole life in relation to any these things?
I got to the pre-determined meeting spot exactly on time, or maybe (probably) a few minutes late. It was friendly handshakes and smiles all around that York Mills parking lot. And the first thing that I noticed was that one of the carpool guests was carrying a box of Timbits.
You know where this is going, of course. Everyone loved the SUV (“So luxurious! This is amazing!”), everyone scarfed down the Timbits and professed their secret love for Timmy Ho’s, and when the Tragically Hip came on during the drive up to Kingston (because in my worry at being a little late, I’d forgotten again to take the CDs out of the stereo), everyone agreed that they were, given the location we were travelling to, the perfect soundtrack for the day.
I have always wondered what that means, to look like a writer. Glasses help, yes, as do cool scarves and Moleskine books and tattered jackets with holes in the elbows. But I was also always concerned with what it meant to be a writer, specifically in and around having another job. When I lived in Edinburgh I remember thinking that I couldn’t call myself a writer anymore, despite having acquired that longed-for MFA, because my job was in administration and I could only write one day a week. I couldn’t really be a writer–not really, not the kind of writer-with-integrity that I wanted to be–if I was spending so much time doing something else. Why wasn’t I slaving away in a garret? Why was I feeling crushed under the weight of paying back those student loans and occupied with mundane real-life details when I was supposed to be fully immersed in this thing that I’d spent so much money learning to do? Why wasn’t I writing and performing pieces at Edinburgh’s various writing collectives? Why wasn’t I dressing the part?
“I think you’re actually more of a writer,” a friend in Edinburgh said to me, “because you’re trying to make your work survive in and around the rest of your life. No matter what it takes.”
I didn’t believe her, even though I listened. It’s taken me years to understand this, the idea that one can try to stay true to one’s art and also be a person in the real world at the same time. What a revelation. (I am slow, I’ll confess.)
I am doing a writing residency this summer, at The Banff Centre. I leave for Banff in just under two weeks. I’ll be working on two projects while I’m there, and it’ll be the first time in my life that I’ve done this kind of thing, sought out and paid for and secured the time and space to focus on nothing other than writing. It feels like a thing real writers do, go away on residency. When actually it’s just a thing that very lucky writers get to do, if time and space and real life and money all coincide in the right way. When actually, you’ve been a writer all along. I feel very lucky, or blessed, or whatever you want to call it.
Armed with skill and it’s frustration, and grace, too. I might even play some Hip on that plane ride to celebrate.