This is a post about anxiety, identity, community. It is about being a writer, and a facilitator, and a member of this writing community.
There is a mythology built up around writing that often means those of us who struggle with neurodivergence, non-typical abilities, or even simply a lack of experience or formal education can feel excluded from writing circles (as well as many other spaces). The “giftedness” of writers is often seen as more meaningful, more valuable, than the labour of writing. Only a select few are able to be Writers, says the myth. Only those who write everyday. Only those who are willing to bleed their hearts onto their keyboards. Only those whose writing is worthy. And who gets to be worthy? Who is the gatekeeper, who is the arbiter of worthiness?
So many people come into my workshops and say “I’m not a writer,” or “I don’t call myself a writer,” or, more hopefully, “I don’t call myself a writer yet.” It’s heavy. Although I do call myself a writer, I feel the weight of it and wonder if I’ve earned the title. (I have. You have. A writer writes – that’s all. And we each have a unique creative voice, and there is value in every voice.)
When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and things started to go haywire in my brain and the rest of my body, Writing in the Margins had just officially launched. After two years of Smutty Story Circles and many, many years of dreams, my business was finally real!
I was crushed when I had to cancel the majority of my scheduled workshops, and I still struggle with anxiety about whether or not I’m “fit” to do this work. Because I am not just a writer, I am also a person who facilitates writing. There’s no one-word pithy descriptor, but that’s part of my identity. Creating those safer spaces, cracking open the potential for silenced voices to speak. Have I earned either identity?
The last Patchwork session was a challenge for me, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It tripped my anxieties about identity, but it also gave me the incredibly valuable experience of being in community. One primary goal of Writing in the Margins is to create safer spaces for marginalized writers, and I include myself in that category. My activism has always grown out of my experience. I started Possibilities because when I came out as bisexual, there was nothing available. I started the Smutty Story Circle because when I started to rediscover my sexuality, I wanted a safe venue for exploration that didn’t include the risk of partnered play. At every point, my goal has been to create the spaces that I need, and trust that there are other people who also need such spaces.
This means that I am not able to come into these spaces as an external expert. I am not able to speak from a place of distant authority. I come into these spaces needing them just as much as any of my participants. Sometimes this fact overwhelms me, and I worry that I am a fake, a fraud, that I will never be able to make a living doing this because why should anyone pay me for this? I wonder if I should “leave it to the experts” – to people who can swoop in as experts and rescue the rest of us, people who have distance and authority. People who are not neurodivergent, who are not disabled, who are not processing trauma. People who have their shit together.
And at this point, as at so many other points in my public life, I wonder – if I admit to my fragility, frailty, fallibility… if I admit the impact of my neurodivergence and disability on my work… is that a mistake? As an entrepreneur, should my marketing really include “sometimes stares blankly into space instead of writing, because the words are tangled up in a maze of insomnia and pain”?
But regardless of the marketability of my truth, the act of radical openness is, for me, both personal and political, and it’s something I have committed to as part of my activism. I write. I am a writer. I am an entrepreneur. I am an excellent workshop facilitator, and my workshops have benefited many people. And I am *also* neurodivergent, invisibly disabled… “crazy” and “broken,” says my cruel inner critic. Sometimes I cancel workshops because of the pain. Sometimes I fumble through a workshop because of the fog. This does not make me less, no matter how deeply ingrained are my fears that it does. This does not make you less, neurodivergent, disabled, marginalized writer. It doesn’t. I promise. You will feel that it does, like I do. But that feeling is a lie, told to us over and over and over by a culture that cannot handle our stories or our voices, and that is more dull, more hurtful, more boring because of it. We are amazing. Our frayed edges are beautiful.
This work means the world to me. The process of creating spaces that are safe not only for my participants but also for me, for us each to be vulnerable and imperfect, and for these spaces to still be creative, welcoming, supportive and productive is amazing.
I come home from workshops where I really feel “on” with a sense of purpose and vocation. I love teaching, and there are many times when it feels like I really connect with my participants as a facilitator. When I’m “on,” I feel supercharged and confident. I do the work and feel that I am in control of the process, and I love it. I feel like I am helping people, like I am doing good work. Sometimes I even feel like I’m rescuing my participants, captaining a life boat.
I come home from workshops like the last Patchwork session, where I feel very “off,” with a very different feeling. Sometimes I feel doubt and anxiety, I feel like a fraud – the “not good enough” gets to me. But more often, I come home with a feeling of profound connection and hope, feeling less like a saviour and more like I’ve been saved. The illusion of control slips away and I become aware of the fact that the only person I have ever rescued in a writing workshop is myself, and that the only person I will ever rescue in a writing workshop is myself, and that is how it should be. That is how it must be. There is no captain, no matter how important facilitation can be to the process. Facilitating is not leading, and nobody does the work of speaking for anyone else. I can’t write my writers’ stories. I can’t heal their traumas. And even if I could, in the long run it wouldn’t help. We all swim solo in the ocean of our experience.
When I am stumbling through the work and my body is getting in the way, when all I can do is open up the space, it becomes so clear to me that the real work of Writing in the Margins, the heavy emotional lifting, is done by you. You are the brave, beautiful, amazingly talented writers who attend the workshops and pour your fantasies and fears, your daydreams and your histories, onto the page. As a workshop facilitator, I am peripheral to your process, and I am so honoured to be there. As a writer, I participate. I pour my own fantasies and fears, daydreams and histories, onto the page. We can’t rescue each other, but we can rescue ourselves together. That’s what this is. That’s what we do. And it’s amazing.
At these moments I am so grateful for the guidance I received from Jen Cross of Writing Ourselves Whole when I first started facilitating writing workshops. She suggested Pat Schneider’s book Writing Alone and with Others, and all of my workshops have been run using Schneider’s Amherst Writers and Artists’ Method, which includes the facilitator writing along with the participants, sharing at least once in each workshop, and responding compassionately and encouragingly to any just-written work shared within the group. This workshop framework flattens the hierarchy that often exists in teaching and learning spaces, and makes the workshop space more equitable and collaborative. Rejecting the traditional top-down approach to teaching means that there is room here for all of us to be fully, fallibly human.
I’m struggling to write this blog post. I picture you, unknown reader, having found this site in a search for writing workshops in Calgary or online. I imagine you reading this and thinking “why would I attend a workshop if the facilitator struggles just as much as I do? Why would I spend money when I already know that I’ll be doing all the work? What is the value of this?” I imagine you closing your browser tab in frustration, never calling me, never emailing me, never attending a workshop. And because I want this to be a sustainable business so that it can remain part of my activism, and because we live in a capitalist system, and because I want to eventually be able to quit my day job and do activism and academics and facilitate writing workshops full-time, I think “maybe I shouldn’t post this.”
But what happens if you do close this window?
What happens if your response to this post is to say, “why would I spend my money when I can do this at home?”
Do you pick up a pen? Open a text document? Go for a walk and let a story percolate? Do you sit down at your kitchen table, or your desk, or in a coffee shop, and write? If you realize that you don’t need me in order to write, how can that be anything other than wonderful?
So I’ll post this.
And some of you will read it, and go write, and I will never hear from you. Or you’ll find another workshop facilitator whose style suits you better.
And maybe some of you will read this and feel safe, and we’ll write together, swimming laps in our personal pools and stopping to chat at the end of each lane. We won’t save each other, but we’ll save ourselves. In the Trauma Writing Circle, we’ll comfort our hurt selves and give voice to our injuries. In the Smutty Story Circle, we’ll revel in our 3exual selves, dipping our pens into luscious wells of fantasy and desire. We’ll write together in Patchwork and read together in book clubs, and we’ll go on retreats together and find ourselves in a cabin sharing stories and knitting up our frayed edges. I’ve been doing this a while now, and I’ve seen how powerful it can be.
Our writing will be beautiful. The only one in control of our stories and our journeys will be ourselves, and we will exist for the short duration of each workshop and retreat in a bubble of community that is reaching towards safety together, respectful of each other’s stories and selves, inclusive and accessible and compassionate and supportive. We’ll create and inhabit that space together. And that makes me glad.
I like the days when I’m “on” and the work flows smoothly, but I learn so much from the days when I’m “off.”