It does not have to be serious. It does not have to be “real”.
Creating silly art for the sake of it is a gift you can give to yourself.
Creating silly art for the sake of it is a gift you can give to the world.
You are not meant to take your art so seriously that it drains you of joy.
Your desire to create is a gift you were given to bring more joy into your life.
Embrace the ridiculous. Make silly art. Don’t worry about what “counts”.
Respect your desire to create by allowing yourself to create whatever the hell you want.
For years, I thought I had to be a fiction writer to be a “real” writer. I don’t know why. I suppose I didn’t understand that creative non-fiction is a legitimate art form. I thought that I couldn’t just write about my life, I had to write about something interesting, something people would actually want to read. I didn’t think that the kind of writing that comes naturally to me, creative non-fiction and poetry, “counted” as real writing.
So, I wrote short stories. I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as writing creative non-fiction and poetry. I also wasn’t particularly good at it, but I persisted. If I was going to be a writer, then I needed to be a real, legitimate writer.
Then one day, I sat down at the computer and typed up an essay about the challenges I was facing trying to access hormone replacement therapy. All of the logistical and emotional details poured out of me. Writing that essay felt effortless, cathartic, and therapeutic, but I told myself that it wasn’t “real” writing and I needed to get back to my fiction the next day.
I ended up submitting that essay to an anthology that wanted to publish it. Years later, I included it in my zine about transitioning. I’m unable to recall most of the fiction I wrote years ago, but the creative non-fiction and poetry have stuck with me. Non-fiction has felt more meaningful, and even though I tried to push it away, I couldn’t stop writing it.
I have since learned that this thing I do where I write about my life is called creative non-fiction, many writers do it, and it’s a perfectly legitimate art form. It is creative, expansive, cathartic, therapeutic, vulnerable, brave, painful, and also ART.
These days, I write what I want. When I noticed I was writing more about kink, I went, okay, that’s a scary subject to tackle publicly, but I’m going to make a zine about it. When I found myself writing more poetry than prose, I embraced that. When I started to enjoy adding text to my photographs, I indulged in that too. I create because I am driven to. I believe it makes more sense to create what I want rather than what I think I should. Both I and my art are better off for it.
Content note: this piece contains casual mentions of apocalypse, death, and a lack of overall meaning.
I did a reading the other night. I was sandwiched between authors who spun stories and poetry full of metaphor, who spoke words layered with meaning, who filled the room with depth and imagery. I got up and read my plain language piece: here is something that happened to me and how I felt about it. I sat back down.
Self-consciousness arose with the question: am I even a writer?
Hello, imposter syndrome, old buddy, old pal. How have you been?
The webs I weave with my words aren’t complex or layered. I am direct. I say what I mean. I’ve always struggled to get into writing that has more substance than that. I don’t read between the lines and so I don’t write between the lines either. It’s not that I think my way is better or worse, it’s just what comes naturally.
Some people tell me that they like that. They say it’s easy to digest, accessible. Simple, direct language that allows them to dive into the content of what is being said. My writing does the job of delivery quickly.
It’s also not for everyone. I know there are some who see my work as novice, childish, indulgent, or one-dimensional. Maybe they’re right. That’s okay with me, actually. I’m writing to express, not writing to please.
Occasionally, something I’m working on develops depth without my conscious intent and I think, “Oh, look, I’ve done it! There are multiple ways to read this. It has L a Y e R s”. It’s exciting when that happens, but I can’t force it. Forcing makes it come out sounding hollow and pretentious. I may create something “wrapped in meaning,” but there’s no meat in the center, the center remains empty. It’s better, I believe, to write the meat first and see if any layers follow. Sometimes they don’t and that’s okay too.
Whenever imposter syndrome rears its head, I try to answer with, “So what?”
“Am I even a writer?”
“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not, but so what?”
“Am I a bad writer?”
“Maybe, but so what?”
“Is my writing overly simplistic, straightforward, and lacking in depth?”
“Maybe it is, but again, so fucking what?”
As far as I know, I have just this one life. I don’t know what will happen after I die and I also don’t know whether everything I create will be destroyed in an apocalypse in the near future. In the grand scheme of the universe, everything is temporary and nothing really matters. I know I am alive now and I like to write, so I write. It feels good. It’s therapeutic. It helps me to express what I otherwise find difficulty expressing. It helps me to articulate my own existence. It helps me to connect with others. So what if it isn’t worthy of awards, honorariums, or acclaimed publication? So fucking what? That’s not the point.
Anyone writing for the sole purpose of accruing money or fame is in the wrong line of work. Chances are good that writing won’t pay your bills, and people are more likely to make fun of you than hand you accolades. Trying to write the next great novel? Try writing a novel first. It’s hard.
Writing makes you vulnerable. You don’t necessarily need to be writing the way that I do, either, where I intentionally lay myself bare to the world. Creating is a vulnerable process, one that involves speaking to experiences and feelings we often keep hidden from the wider world. It can result in rejection, misunderstanding, or a lack of recognition (i.e. enthusiastically putting your creations out into a world full of people who couldn’t care less about it). It can also result in connection and that can be really powerful. One of the best pieces of feedback you can receive as a writer, I have found, is “I’ve felt that way too”. I measure the “success” of my work in relation to that sense of connection more than anything else.
For me, writing is a process of learning how to articulate my lower-case “t” truths. Who am I today? What am I experiencing? What do I think? What do I feel? How am I navigating this broken, bizarre, beautiful world? How am I like you? How am I unlike you?
My truths tend to come out in plain, straightforward, just-read-the-actual-lines-themselves-not-between-them language. This is not the case for everyone and that’s also fine. There are many powerful writers out there who find ways of expressing their truths through layers of symbolism, double meanings, vivid imagery, and otherwise evocative language. What they create is beautiful.
What I create is also beautiful.
Our capitalistic society will have us believe we are all in competition with each other. Whose writing is bad, whose is better? Who deserves this or that prize? Who is otherwise unworthy? Who should be ashamed of daring to express themselves without having a degree, perfect grammar, or an extensive knowledge of the literary canon of old/dead white men.
It can be argued that writing is a skill, yes. Effective communication is a skill. Weaving words and making meanings are skills. But we should interrogate how we measure these skills because, often, our methods of measurement are rooted in colonial white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, classism, and other forms of power imbalance and oppression.
It can be argued that writing is a skill, yes, but you do not have to be skilled at writing in order to be a writer. In fact, you will never become skilled if you never practice, if you never write. You must give yourself permission to be an unskilled writer, to be bad, and to be embarrassed. You must give yourself permission to go through the awkward and uncomfortable process of getting better. You must remember not to take it all so seriously. We will all die, existence might be a dream, and the world may be ending sometime soon. Allow yourself to write if you are so inclined and allow yourself to write badly. You will always be able to find other people in the room who are more skilled than you. You will likely always be faced with imposter syndrome.
Sure, okay, you’re an imposter. I’m an imposter. We’re all imposters pretending not to be imposters.
Really, we’re all creators. Capitalism tells us to compete, but we don’t have to listen. Other writers are not your competition, they are your friends, your inspiration, your support, and your community.
I can get up in a room to read my work sandwiched between authors who spin stories and poetry full of metaphor, who speak words layered with meaning, who fill that room with depth and imagery. I can get up and read my plain language piece to my community of writers without shame. Whether I am worse or better does not matter. What matters is that we write and share that writing, that we support and encourage each other wherever we are in our learning.
Maybe you don’t like my writing, don’t think it’s any good. Maybe you’re outraged that some novice, unknown writer is breaking an unspoken rule by writing about writing. Maybe I am an unskilled writer. Maybe I am an imposter.
“I am a semi-autobiographical speculative poet—a monstrous kind of hybrid—and the joy is being all of those at once, regardless of the social acceptability of multiplicity.”
I published the essay Where Do We Go Now on January 15, 2019. I wrote it over the holidays while staying with my family, which might be why it includes references to my parents and young writer self. I was in a place to reflect back on everything that had come before while figuring out how to move into the future.
I like this essay, mostly. I think it says some important things. I wrote it in a passionate, charged haze. It was partially a response to a book I’d just read on creativity, as well as feeling stuck and uninspired writing short sci-fi and horror stories, which I’d done for the previous year-and-a-half. I was feeling bound in by those forms, not allowing myself to write what I wanted but focusing my energy on what I dubbed “real” writing, i.e. whatever I thought would be publishable and digestible. I figured poetry and personal essays, what I’ve always written, didn’t count. I’d bought into the “real writers write this, not that” bullshit.
Luckily, the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert got me out of this funk. Say what you will about Gilbert (I’m generally not a fan of hers), but reading that book was what I needed to get over myself. It helped me see that the lines I had drawn between “fake” and “real” writing were silly and unnecessary, blocks that were getting in the way of my drive to create.
I like this essay, mostly, though it does read as a little pretentious to me now. My writing over the past year has gotten more casual, more chilled out. I think that’s for the better. I think that piece was also strongly influenced by all of the science fiction I’d been writing. It has a vague kind of surrealism to it, especially with the use of the “we” pronoun. I suppose it was a transitional piece from speculative fiction to personal essay.
“We have learned that we must make space for the joy, and making space for the joy means allowing ourselves to make things that may not make sense to anyone else.”
When I wrote Where Do We Go Now at the beginning of this year, I had no idea about zines and the journey I would go on with them. I was just on the cusp of finding out. I think I had some vague sense that I just needed to follow my instincts and my next big project would emerge, and that’s exactly what happened.
I stumbled across Clementine Morrigan’s work again. I had read some of their stuff years ago and then lost track of them. I think Instagram recommended a post of hers, which prompted me to look them up again. I ended up on her website browsing through their zines. I purchased a few e-zines. One was about writing. I enthusiastically absorbed them late one winter night. I could write a zine, I thought. In February, I set to work on my first zine, One Year on T, a compilation of essays and poems about transitioning as a non-binary person. I published it in April.
Two zine fairs, three zines, over a dozen blog posts, more than a hundred poems, and pages upon pages of unedited freewriting later, we’re here in November. I have a clearer sense of where I’m going than I did in January, though nothing is concrete. I am still experimenting, exploring, searching, and questioning. I’m happy to have switched gears into writing whatever I want. I’m happy I chose to believe that what I love to write counts as “real” writing. I’m so, so happy I started writing zines. In Where Do We Go Now, I wrote about doing a poor job of managing my “archive” of previous work, of there being so many disparate, disorganized pieces and projects behind me. I apologized to whoever might eventually stumble over them. Well, that person ended up being me from the immediate future. For my first zine, I pulled together pieces I’d written about gender over a period of four years. For my second, I reviewed old journal entries I’d written at the ages of 17 and 22. For my third, to be published soon, I combed through everything I’d written in the period between finishing my first zine and now. Zine writing has made me the curator of my own work, work that would otherwise go stale and turn to dust in the dark. As a medium, zines have helped me to pull together, disentangle, and make sense of my otherwise disorderly of writing.
“We have learned that conventional packaging, like conventional styles, may not be for us and that is okay as well. Creating a book from cover to cover may not be for us… It is a waste of energy to beat ourselves over the head with the concept of the book we feel we are supposed to be writing. If a book comes, it comes. If it does not come, it does not come. We will keep writing anyway.”
I’ve often struggled with the idea that “real” writers write books, and because I have never been able to finish writing a book I must not be a real writer. Listen, I know this is bullshit, but it’s bullshit that I’ve internalized, and so I’ve felt like a failure for not being able to do this. A book did not materialize out of this year, no, but a path towards one did. I don’t think I could ever write a book in the conventional way, from cover to cover, but I can write zines, and what is a zine but a small book? I could see myself writing a book the way that I learned to write zines this year, by curating my messy archive, by combing through and threading together my work.
“So long as we keep going, keep creating, I believe the path will become clearer with each step.”
So far this has held true, and so I will continue to trust that moving forward will clear away the fog on my path. This year is coming to a close and I will move into the next one with everything I have learned and created. I will move into the next one with poetry and essays and zines, with ideas and curiosity, and without oppressive rules. The future is still uncertain, the future is always uncertain, but I’m continuing to gather more tools to move into it with. I am committed to the practice of writing however that practice may change.
Like at the beginning of a traditional book (one I’ll never write), I would like to go into the next year by acknowledging who helped me get here. I would like to thank my mom for giving me Big Magic to read, which reignited a spark in me and convinced me to commit to writing every day. I would like to thank Clementine Morrigan for all of the work that they do, which is powerful, insightful, expansive, unapologetic, and endlessly inspiring. Thank you for introducing me to zines. I would like to thank my best friend for providing me with such thorough and useful feedback on my zines, assuring me that I could confidently put them out into the world. I would like to thank my partner for teaching me how to bind zines and spending a long day tabling with me at a fair without complaint. I would like to thank my mom again, and my nan, for always reading and commenting on my work even when no one else does. I would like to thank a friend I hosted a radio show with for doing a show on writing with me as well as giving me their copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which deepened my writing practice. I would like to thank one of my friends for encouraging me to table at Queer Between the Covers, which was so worthwhile. I would like to thank Broken Pencil for nominating One Year on T for the 2019 Zine Awards and inviting me to table at Canzine. I would also like to thank everyone who has ever read or engaged with my work. As a mostly unknown writer, your comments and feedback mean a lot to me. It could be easy to feel like I’m putting stuff out to empty airwaves, but a number of supportive and encouraging people consistently remind me that’s not the case. As creators, we are not solely responsible for our work. We do not exist in isolation. We are propped up, inspired, assisted, driven, pushed, and supported by our communities. I owe so much to the communities of friends and creators I am a part of. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Here I am, at the close of another year and about to enter a new one. I cannot know what it will bring, exactly, but I suspect it will not be more of the same. It’s almost never more of the same, things change too much for that. The path is a little clearer now. I can see a few steps ahead. My footing is a little surer. I’ve had another year to learn to expect ground under my feet. I know I’m going to keep creating because, just like change, creativity is one of the only constants in my life. I intend to keep writing poetry, essays, and zines, but I am also open to other possibilities. I’m sure that other possibilities will enter my orbit in 2020, just as they did this year. So, here we go: moving because we cannot stop moving, choosing how to move rather than what to move towards, and feeling good about this direction.
In the past, when we were here, we always had some sense of next. We did not move on from one project until we had another in mind that we were itching to begin. This time, however, the path ahead is unclear. There is a path in that there is ground under us as we put one foot, slowly and carefully, in front of the other, but our eyes cannot help us. There is nothing but fog in our vision. The harder we try to look, the cloudier the future appears. So we leave it alone. We leave it alone and we keep walking with the hope that we keep finding ground for purchase. There are no guarantees. We checked the warranty. It was a joke, a poor one, and it laughed at us. No, there is nothing that says our feet will always meet with solid ground. We are on solid ground now. We could stop here. We won’t because something inside tells us to keep going. We reassure ourselves, There has always been ground, there has always been ground. The sun has always risen and there has always been ground. It is a fallacy, our reassurance, but what else do we have?
The fog clears when we look back, though not entirely. We are given access to the recent past. If we would like to go further back, we must seek out the archives. The archives are a mess and we are responsible for that. For years, we have been saying that we will do something about the archives, devote time to their organization. For years, we have been baffled by this task. Where to start, what to do… We have made mistakes and lost whole reams of the archives. Gone, forever, are those creations, right along with the selves who made them. It is like those selves never existed, that is, until we find a scrap of something somewhere and realize all is not lost. My grandmother printed out a poem I sent her in an email, that self is not lost. I filled a photo album with my earliest scribbles, that self is not lost. I found a password for a website I kept up in university, that self is not lost. Do not get us wrong, some of the selves are lost. We cannot properly mourn them because we cannot remember them, but we can mourn the loss itself because we know it is there.
It is very likely that we will die before ever properly addressing the archives. We will die on this path, in this fog, and we will leave behind a mountain of notebooks, drives, documents, folders, websites, scribbles, accounts, and marginalia in no particular order. What we need is for a curator to come along and take up the task of piecing everything together and extracting the inevitable secrets that will come out of this process. We say secrets because we assume that when you make an image from 1,000 puzzle pieces, you must learn something about the whole that has until that point remained unknown. We, the creator and abandoner of the archive, would like to extend a heartfelt and sincere apology to any future curators. You have your work cut out for you, and you will probably not be comfortable with everything you find.
Apologies, we got lost in the past for a moment. That happens. The chaos of the past and its gradual disintegration is distracting. What we must do now is address the future and the question at hand:
Where do we go now?
Forward, yes, obviously. Let’s not be pert, shall we? We clearly cannot go sideways and we’ve already walked over what is behind us, which leaves one option: the slow march towards our death. We have always gone forward and we must continue to go forward. That is the way of things.
The above question is really asking about how we choose to move forward rather than what we are moving towards. We cannot know that. We can only know the ground we are standing on and the body we are standing in. We can know some of what we have done before. We can remember some of the results. We can know what we have learned, and we can take that into the fog.
So what have we learned in, say, the past year?
We are a strange kind of writer, it would seem, compelled to write in strange kinds of ways. If we force ourselves to write more seriously, to pick one form and stick to it, to stay within the confines of a set of rules and regulations, to write what is publishable, to nail down what kind of writer we are, to impose the external on the internal, to steer clear of what feels natural, to pull teeth in the name of what is hard, we kill the joy. Challenge yourself, yes. Leave the realm of your comfort, and leave it often, but do not kill the joy because when you kill the joy, you kill the writer. We cannot restrict ourselves to short stories with plots and characters within specific genres. We can write these things and we can benefit from the challenges they pose, but we cannot wrap our whole identity around them because that kills the joy.
I am a semi-autobiographical speculative poet—a monstrous kind of hybrid—and the joy is being all of those at once, regardless of the social acceptability of multiplicity.
We have learned that we must make space for the joy, and making space for the joy means allowing ourselves to make things that may not make sense to anyone else. Making space for joy means allowing ourselves to play with our work rather than treat our work like the most serious part of our life. There are far too many serious things in life for the creative to be so serious, especially for the creative to be the most serious. What a drag, regarding it as the most serious. What a drag it begins to be.
We have learned that we are good enough—that our odd prose, unruly poetry, and memoir wrapped up like fiction are good enough. We are not great. We are not masterful. We likely will not change the world outside of our own. We may never reach more than a handful of people, or we may reach out and touch many people who simply will not care. None of that matters. It is good enough. Good enough to get the job of creating done, good enough to keep us on the path.
We have learned that conventional packaging, like conventional styles, may not be for us and that is okay as well. Creating a book from cover to cover may not be for us. We are not certain yet, maybe it will at some point, but writing a book is not the only legitimate way to be a writer, especially in the digital age. Writing can be packaged in many different ways, and that packaging can also change. It is a waste of energy to beat ourselves over the head with the concept of the book we feel we are supposed to be writing. If a book comes, it comes. If it does not come, it does not come. We will keep writing anyway.
If a book does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
If an audience does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
If money does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
If praise does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
If genius does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
Do you know why? Because we always have anyway. We have never written a book, drawn a large audience, experienced monetary success, received critical reception, or been visited by genius and yet we have always kept writing anyway. This is because, for us, writing and living hold hands. Writing does not need to give any gifts other than itself and when writing is burdened by the above expectations, it feels overwhelmed. It leaves with its tail between its legs. It sees that we are not grateful simply for its presence. It asks, “Am I not good enough for you?” and if the answer is anything but yes, it leaves. Writing knows its worth.
Yes, yes, yes. You are enough, my friend. I am enough. We are enough.
I don’t feel like I ever chose to be a writer, it was more like writing chose to be with me. It came upon me one afternoon when I was twelve and gave me my first poems, which I frantically scribbled down. I didn’t quite know what they were. Thoughts and feelings and questions that had swirled around inside of me were finally given a place, were put down on a page where I could see them for the first time. I rushed these poems to my mother, and thank goodness it was my mother and not my father as this was the moment that put me on the path. I rushed them to my mother, elated, put them in her hands and said, “Look what I did!”
She went quiet for a while, reading. Had I done something wrong? Was she upset? Did she hate them?
Then she looked at her child, who was still very much a child, and said,
“Sage, you’re a poet”.
I have been ever since.
Later, my father said, “Poetry doesn’t make any money. Out of all the books at the bookstore, the books of poems are the ones that never sell”. Thank god I did not take my poems to him first. A part of me must have known that would be the death of my early writer self. He was a poet and a published author. I knew these things and yet I took my poems to my mother instead. His relationship with writing was one of the tortured artist—critical and judgmental, invested in suffering—and the fledgling writer within me said, “Guard yourself against that. Take these poems to someone who will be able to see them and see you without projection”. Thankfully, there was such a person in my life then. Otherwise, those poems may have stayed hidden, with who knows how many others for how many years. Like so many writers, I may have kept everything I wrote a secret, and what a shame that would have been. Not because I feel like the world would have suffered without my work. Most of the world is without my work as it is. No, I would have suffered, and like my father, I would have invested my energy in judgment and shame.
My creative projects seem to divide themselves and line up nicely one after the next, each one lasting between one and two years. Before now, I was writing short sci-fi and horror stories. Before that, I was focusing on video production. Before that, I was experimenting with creative writing in-between piles of essays. Even further back, I practiced drawing every day for a year in order to improve my skills. There always seems to be a focus, an intense interest in something creative that can, at times, border on obsession. Then, once my curiosity has been satisfied, I quickly and neatly move onto the next thing. But writing is almost always at play, the undercurrent to everything else, though occasionally, such as with the drawing, it is not involved at all. Sometimes I need a break, but it keeps surfacing again and again in various ways. And hopefully, I keep learning.
So, where do we go now?
My plan is to do a little bit of everything and see where that takes me. I won’t impose restrictions, rules, or guidelines on what I do, except for two very basic ones:
Write every day for 30-60 minutes.
Read at least 20 pages a day.
This will make sure that I keep creating as well as engaging with other creations. In terms of where we go from here, so long as we keep going, keep creating, I believe the path will become clearer with each step. I believe the ground will continue to be there because I need to believe that. Writing and I may not know exactly where we’re going, but we’ll be able to see where we are. What else do we really need?