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Why I Write: An Address to King’s College MFA Creative Non-Fiction Students

Why I Write: An Address to King's College MFA Creative Non-Fiction Students

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Photos courtesy of Michael Creagan.

Why I Write

by Jackie Torrens
Address to King’s College MFA Creative Non-Fiction Students, Summer 2019

I

Thanks for having me here today to give this talk on Why I Write. I don’t know why you write – I would love to know why you write, actually – that would be helpful to me to hear. I’m hoping you will tell me your Why during the time we have for questions and answers.

Jackie Torrens speaks on Why She Writes.

Jackie Torrens provided an inspirational send-off for MFA students as they concluded their two-week King’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction Summer Residency and continue on in their nonfiction writing journeys.

Initially I thought I was going to be able to show some clips from my documentary films but I’ve been working in the country all summer with only spotty access to the internet, so assembling clips was all but impossible. Instead, I wrote this essay on the topic of what was asked of me: why I write. And hopefully this will be helpful to you or, at the very least, not boring to you and if it is? Well, this too shall pass.

Some background on me, for context. As a writer, I started off in poetry. I planned that this was the only kind of writing I was ever going to do. Then I had a rather devastating three year period of writer’s block and, when that broke, I found myself writing a play, of all things.

So I wrote plays for awhile – much to the disgust of my poetry mentor, who thought I was slumming in an inferior writing genre. Writing for theatre led to my getting into acting for theatre – something I never thought in a million years I would do.

That led to my writing and acting for television and film – and that led to writing and acting for radio, where initially the radio powers-that-be thought I was some sort of sketch-writing comedienne and so, in order to circumvent that misguided impression, I started doing documentaries for radio and that led to my becoming a documentary film director and writer, which I have been doing since 2013.

So, in essence, I am a motley story-telling creature who works in various jobs and genres in the field of narrative. Fiction and non-fiction fluid, as the kids would say.

Of course, fiction is non-fiction, in that it contains truth about real life. Non-fiction is fiction, in that the real life it shows must be artificially composed into a structure.

My whole career to this point has been following the bread crumb trail of Story in whatever form it’s come to me, and wherever it’s led me, through the dark and alternately sun-dappled forest of life.

I’ll start at the start, in childhood – as I think many writers’ literary ambitions are born during this time.

One of the reasons why I write is because my parents died when I was a young child and with them went the first story of myself – the origin story of the self that most people get to hear some version of straight from the lips of the mother god and father god that creates them and brings them into this world.

My parents’ early deaths, and being left in the care of a resentful step-mother who banned all talk of my dead parents, conspired to keep my origin story from me. And so I think I gravitated to narrative in childhood because, in the absence of being told the story of me, it occurred to me that I could create my story, and then create other stories, and that maybe Story would save my life.

As a child, these notions were instinctual in me. It meant that I felt I had a calling to Story from as young as I can remember.

Orphans are anchorless people. Anchored people take their place in this world for granted – wherever they go, there’s a starting point in which to return. Or flee, depending on what kind of parents you’ve been saddled with.

But anchorless people are untethered. We feel as though we’ve come from a void. We’re free-floating boats in danger of drifting off into the deep blue sea, with nothing and no one looking for us, to bring us safely back to port. As a child, stories were anchors for me. I turned to them for guidance. I read them for clues in how to go about things. I read them for SOS signals that there were others out there, stumbling along in the dark as well.

Fairy tales were an early favourite. They didn’t seem far-fetched at all. They seemed documentary-like to me, accurate to real life…what with their dead mothers and fathers and cruel step-mothers. They were also instructional…here’s what to do if you encounter a wolf…here’s how to survive a witch who wants to shut you away…

From fairy tales I graduated to what I call 19th Century Orphan Literature – in terms of literary representation, a good century for us parentless types. Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House…I mean, Dickens is littered with orphans. You can barely turn a page without tripping over one.

These fellow moorless characters became siblings to me and I took note of the resilience they modeled and the empathy they taught me.

So one reason why I write comes from that early gratitude for the writing that’s come before me and how it helped and consoled and guided and tethered me. And it inspired in me a cautious hope that something I write may one day return the favor to someone living now or yet to come in the human life line.

II

I am going to read to you now an excerpt from a Hans Christian Anderson story.

“Everything has been written down,” said the young poet.” Our time is not the old time.”

“No,” said the wise woman.”In the old time wise women were burnt, and poets went about with empty stomachs, and very much out at elbows.

The present time is good, it is the best of times; but you have not the right way of looking at it. Your ear is not sharpened to hear…There is plenty here to write poems about, and to tell of, for any one who knows the way…but you must understand how—you must understand how to catch a sunbeam. Now just you try my spectacles on, and put my ear-trumpet to your ear…and leave off thinking of yourself.”

The last was a very difficult thing to do—more than a wise woman ought to ask.

That’s from a story called What One Can Invent.

In my early twenties, I was exclusively writing poetry, with no plans to write anything else. Poetry seemed to me then, and still does now if I’m honest, to be the apex of all the writing genres. “The best words in the best order,” said Samuel Coleridge.”The place where metaphor is king”, as my poetry mentor put it.

I respected and loved my poetry mentor. His name is Don Domanski and he’s from here, Nova Scotia. He’s won the Governor General’s award, if such things mean anything to you. A review one time described his work as a cross between Ted Hughes and the Brothers Grimm, which I think is very apt. Surrealist imagery with conscious intent is how I think of his work.

He was very good to me and expected a lot and had very high work standards and a belief that artists are called upon to be generous to one another – exactly what I was looking for in a mentor.

Mentors are hard to come by. Good mentors even more so. Good mentors are like coming across a unicorn – if you find one, hold onto them and hope you’re not hallucinating.

One of the many things my mentor taught me was to be discerning when searching for feedback. Only go to other writers whose work you respect for their opinions. If you don’t like their work – or have never read their work – what’s the point of getting their thoughts on what you’re up to?

I worked hard with and for my mentor. But eventually, I crumbled under the weight of his writing brilliance and my writing…well, terribleness.

I was at the beginning of learning my craft, but I really had no notion of artistic process and how long it takes to develop your voice. And it takes a such longtime. Students of Michelangelo had to work under him for 30 years before they could put out their own shingle, declaring they were finally masters of their craft.

And I was so disappointed that I wasn’t a prodigy, and I had no patience to wade through all the crap that I was writing, that I had to write in order to improve. And my mentor’s voice was so strong, so well developed, he had decades of writing on me – and my voice was just starting and easily influenced and I felt like all I was accomplishing were terrible poems that were weak copies of his indomitable voice. And where was mine? Where was my voice? I had, as the wise woman put to the young poet, not the right way of looking at things. My ear wasn’t sharpened to hear.

And so began a period of three years where I wrote nothing. It was devastating. I thought I would never write again. And this was supremely distressing because I had no other plan, no other plan at all for my life. I had only ever thought of writing. Now what was I supposed to do?

During that time of no work, I took in other people’s work. Other people’s poems, other people’s novels, other people’s plays, other people’s documentaries. Which was really painful. It stirred in me resentment and jealousy. Sometimes, when I read work or saw work that I considered “bad”, I was glad about it. A petty part inside of me crowed.

Related segue: a few years ago I attend a party, where I don’t know many people. The host introduces me to a male friend of his, and then leaves us sitting together to chat. I ask him what he does for a living. He tells me he works in a government office. He doesn’t sound very excited about his job.

The man then asks me what I do for a living.”I’m a writer,” I say.”Oooooooooooh, you’re a writer,” he says, “Fancy,” in a way that signifies he doesn’t think it is fancy or anything good at all.

He then proceeds to trash talk writers and artists as deluded, privileged wanker assholes who need to join the real world and get real jobs. Of course, as I don’t need to tell anyone here, the work of writing is real work. And lots of writers and artists have so-called real jobs, in addition to the very real job of writing. Wallace Stevens walked to his bank job each day and wrote at night. Kafka worked at the insurance company. Sylvia Plath got up with the blue light of dawn to write before her day of taking care of her young children began.

However, even after other people join us this man at the party keeps taking jabs at me and my occupation. So much so that a bell of recognition rings inside me. I pull him aside.”What’s your novel about?,” I ask.”What?,” he says.”The novel you’re writing – what’s it about and how far have you got?”

It was a total guess on my part. But then he begins to tell me about the novel he’s trying to write, in secret, and where he’s having problems. Essentially he’s stuck after the inciting incident. We talk shop for a bit and then he says, “I’m worried I won’t ever finish it.” “Well you better,” I say. “Cause you’re going to be one bitter old f*** if you don’t.”

Back to my three year period of writer’s block, eventually I buckle down and get serious. I tell myself there lies the path of unhappiness and despair if I do nothing and resent the industry of others. As Salinger’s Zooey says to Franny, an actor in the midst of a paralyzing artistic crisis:

“…the thing is, Franny – you raved and you bitched when you came home about the stupidity of audiences…But that’s none of your business, really. That’s none of your business, Franny. An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s…”

So I locked myself away daily in a room and if I couldn’t write, I read. I read things related to what I wanted to write about. I kept to a strict schedule.

As Annie Dillard puts it, “A schedule protects against chaos and whim…Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

That’s from Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life.

And one day, my writer’s block finally breaks and words dribble out. Eventually the words become a play. A one-person play that I decide I will perform, even though I have never thought of acting ever. “It’s terrifying to go onstage,” say actor friends of mine. “Prepare yourself.”

And I was afraid. But I wasn’t terrified. I felt I had already faced something much scarier: to not write. Nothing could compare to that fear.

By the way, it’s a very useful thing for a writer to try their hand at acting, if they get a chance – because actors are servants of Story as well. Acting educates you about dialogue and motivation of course. But also the actor’s work of bringing a single character to life within the context of a larger story is an exercise in macro focus on individual character arcs that writers would find useful. Acting helps you consider Story and it’s structure from a different perspective. Same house, but you’re in a different room, looking out a different window.

Other people’s good and bad work, and my own good and bad work – they are both useful to me. Good work is the thing to reach for, to aspire to, to be inspired by, to be glad it exists in the world and that you get to witness it.

But someone who creates something “bad” is still braver than someone doing no work at all. And the debris and rubble of that failed work might be used in the construction of the next project, which might be good – or even great. In any event, another reason why I write is because I will be one bitter old f*** if I don’t.

III

I am going to read you an excerpt from a 2015 newspaper article from the Globe and Mail. It’s by a reporter named Jana G. Pruden. She was writing about a couple named Cliff and Wilma Derksen, whose daughter was abducted in 1984. Her killer was eventually found and brought to trial. Rather astonishingly, the Derksens decided to forgive the man who murdered their daughter.

Pruden wrote that Cliff Derksen had “told his family he believed that at hard and important moments in court they should take off their shoes as though in the presence of something holy, like Moses before the burning bush. In that way, they would transform the courtroom, in its ugliest moments, into something sacred.

It turned out to be a powerful subversion.”

That’s from an article called A Radical Grief.

Story is Alchemy. It transforms the experience of Life into Art. Story takes what is Unseen and makes it Seen, it makes Meaning out of the Void. Story is Magic. Story is Defiant. Story is Defiant Magic.

When I found myself waving goodbye to poetry and embarking on writing in theatre and TV and film, there was a time when I worried that my writing and acting and directing in different genres meant that I was flighty and superficial. That I was flitting about because I didn’t have the stamina and depth to devote myself to one area and one area only.

By the time the opportunity to enter the world of documentary came into my life, I was well over that nonsense. I realized each job, each genre adds something new and vital to my writing. It keeps me from stagnating…relying on tricks…it keeps me forever a student, my head open to what I don’t yet know…

My first documentaries were radio documentaries. I love the challenge of telling a story using only one of the five senses. It compels me to hear differently. You contemplate the power of sound in a way you haven’t before. You listen to rain, to sirens, to laughter, to tone, to leaves rustling in the wind, to the low hum of a garbage truck far down the street. You are as close as you’ll ever get to having dogs’ hearing.

In fiction writing, the writer can get caught up in a string of lofty words or turn of phrase. As an actor, I’ve had to wrestle with dialogue that you know the writer is in love with. The words read great – but they don’t sound like real people talking.

In documentary, you can’t force your brilliant words and ideas into a participant’s mouth. Instead you must lie in wait and observe the poetry inherent in real life – through a real person’s struggle to formulate in real time their thoughts, through the repetition and rhythm of our speech patterns, through what a real person sometimes unconsciously reveals when they are trying to conceal. It’s the difference between the writer imposing on real life, as opposed to plucking from it.

In my radio documentary on artists who create in miniature, I was watching one of the women I was following work late into the night. She was sewing a tiny tapestry that would hang on a tiny wall in a tiny room. A single inch of the miniature tapestry contained over 1200 hand-sewn stitches.

I asked her what she thought the fascination with miniatures was. She thought about it and said, “To get an overview you have to be a good distance away, which in real life is frequently impossible. You take a look at something that’s built in miniature and you have an entire area right there and you get that distant view without having to be distant.”

The first thing I ever directed was a short film I had written. It was called Pickled Punk and it was about a fetus in a jar, who affects the lives of a group of artists who come in contact with my bottled protagonist.

I wrote it after a period of creative stagnation. I had lost my curiosity for a time. I was worn down. Depressed, actually. And then, by chance, I got a job where I was around a particularly talented cinematographer. Whose job it is to see. To look at the world and make pictures out of it. Like Lazarus, it brought me out of the dark and back into life. To consider seeing was so inspiring.

And so I started directing in order to help my writing become much more visual.

Now, with my documentary films, what we see and how we see it is very important to me. My shoots always include what I call “Art Days” – that’s where we film visually creative additions to the documentary story. One example of what I mean is in my documentary film Free Reins, about a woman who runs a therapeutic horse farm for kids with communication disorders.

One girl we meet in the film so identifies with horses that she acts like one. She trots, she neighs, she gallops. She wants to be a horse. For one segment, where she walks her favorite horse into the woods, I wanted to recreate how a horse sees the world. Horses have binocular vision, which allows them to focus on things with both eyes at the same time. So I and Kevin A. Fraser, my cinematographer, experimented with two go-pro cameras until we had a reasonable fact simile of how a horse sees the world. It puts the viewer into the horse’s head.

Poetry has educated me in metaphor, acting coaches me in dialogue and motivation, radio trains me to hear, directing wills me to see, documentary reminds me to observe the poetry inherent in real life as opposed to imposing poetry on it.

As e.e. cummings put it…

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are open)

IV

A son once asked his father what the meaning of existence is. The father replied that no one really knows – but that everyone’s life is their answer to that question. What answer is your life? What answer is mine?

I write because I seek understanding. To understand and be understood. I want to be open to Story in whatever form I am lucky enough to have it come to me. Story is my north star. That’s what I follow. However I get there, I know where I’m going.

And right now, I’m going to circle back to the start…

Whenever the bits and particles and molecules and whatever else were coming together inside my mother to form the beginnings of me, there were other bits and other particles and other molecules coming together inside my mother to form my twin.

My mother found out she was pregnant with me at the very same time she found out there was a tumor inside her and that she was dying from it. In fact, the growth of me accelerated the growth of my tumor twin. My growing into existence was simultaneously draining my mother of hers.

As soon as I was born, she was pushed back into the hospital where doctors cut off her cancerous breasts – barely two years later, she died. Within a few years, my father followed her. Stomach cancer. Maybe my father manifested disease in sympathy for my mother, by having my twin expand in his belly.

My life, from the very inception, has never existed without death’s presence. My twin is like a transparency laid over top of me. And far from being morbid, it makes life bloom in technicolor for me – we’re alive! We’re alive! We’re alive right now! What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel? What is this all about?

My twin pushes me into decision because there’s no time to waste. It demands I live a life worth living – and we both agree, my twin and I, that there’s no better life to live than to follow than the star of Story. The Ultimate Defiance to Nothingness. The Answer to the Void. It’s the primary reason Why I Write: My Twin Insists.

You know that advice for writers, ‘write like you are dying’? There’s no “like” about it. We are. So here’s hoping we all get to it, and pronto.

I wish you the best for your work. I hope you never forget in your hearts and minds why you write. Thank you for listening to me today.


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