Re-imagining Narrative

I had planned to take one or two classes at SFU this autumn, making some more headway in what may be history’s longest undergraduate program, but as I was unable to get space in any of the classes I desired, I abandoned that plan for the semester.

I like taking courses in the autumn and winter. Doing so helps to keep me socially and intellectually engaged at a time of year when darkness descends on the Pacific Northwest like a cold, wet blanket and tries to drive me into anti-social hibernation, so when SFU didn’t work out I looked around for some non-credit alternatives. What I found was a small, informal drop-in writing class operating out of the Carnegie Centre in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

I have taken quite a few writing classes in quite a few autumns and – if you’ll excuse the sweeping generalisation – I don’t think it is wholly unreasonable to say that they are often filled with middle-class discontents who feel a strong urge to say something but are fearful of digging deeply enough to find out what that is. I suspect that many of us aren’t in these classes to learn how to write as much as we are there to try get past the crippling fear that discourages us from saying what’s in our hearts. Even if only to say it to ourselves.

I’ll go further, and suggest that evening writing classes are, for many, a form of therapy. We have a lot to feel grateful for. Reasonably good paying jobs, a spouse, children perhaps, a comfortable home. We aren’t overly worried about where the money will come from to pay the rent or the mortgage next month and besides, even if there is a shortage, we have excellent credit. We really don’t have a lot to worry about.

So why is there all this existential angst motivating us sign up for writing classes? Why are we, despite having achieved what most people in the world would consider an enviable level of success, still not satisfied? Many will claim that they simply need a hobby, or to get out of the house while their husbands watch hockey (women make up the majority of writing class participants by a wide margin), or because they simply like language. Most of the time, I think these reasons are bollocks.

Whether we take courses or not, we are all writers. Our lives are filled with narratives, every one of which we helped to write. When we go to the store to buy cigarettes, when we try to get someone into bed, when we pay our telephone bill, when we wonder if we should leave our spouse, when we get on the SkyTrain to go to work, when we spank our kids, and when we sit in that little tan cubicle and pray to every god that can be conjured that Friday doesn’t take too long to arrive, we are writing and playing a role in a narrative of our own creation.

The narratives under which we conduct every moment of our lives are not static, written by someone long ago and that imprison us now. Narratives are fully dynamic. Every single word, thought and action customise our narratives, as if there were continuous streams of invisible energy flowing in and out of them from all directions – building, shaping, steering. If it seems to you that the narratives are fixed and static, it is simply because too many of us have resigned ourselves to static images of narrative. Too many of us have become negligent in our innate responsibilities to dream and to imagine freely. Instead, we lazily re-imagine the same narratives over and over.

We aren’t writing. We’re re-writing. We’re copying down “I will not talk in class” one hundred times because the teacher told us to. One hundred times a second. But we are our own teachers. It’s time to give ourselves new assignments.

If you’re skimming this and thinking that, because it seems to be speaking only to those who have a desire to write, let go of that. Though the inspiration comes from my own experiences with a pen and paper, writing in this context is largely a metaphor.

We are all writers. If you ever open your mouth and utter a word, you are expressing something that you have written in your mind, in your imagination. If you have ever smiled, or frowned at someone, you have expressed something that you have written in your heart.

We are all writing and performing at every moment. Whether we perform using dated, dog-eared old scripts that we helped to write in the distant past, or are in every moment attentively writing fresh, new narratives that evolve with life and vigour, we are making a choice.

What does your narrative look like?

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