It’s Saturday afternoon at the Kenora Library. Three large oak tables are arranged in a U-shape. Fourteen of us are sitting around this convivial U scribbling on a large sheet of paper with pens recently pulled from the freezer by Charles Wagamese who is leading a NOWW writing workshop on warming up the pen. While we doodle to get the frozen ink flowing, he tells us he’s going to talk about the space of time before you get into the work of writing. I’m curious. I’m a fan of Charles’s essays and stories, the deep humanity of them. But I have to be honest, I’m preoccupied with my elderly mother who is in terrible pain. I booked a flight a few hours ago and will fly to her tomorrow.
Charles tells us he turned to writing in high school because he wasn’t a good artist like all the other native kids. Writing was an emotional act, negative and painful. Eventually he found a freer and healthier approach through a variety of warmup techniques. This is what he’ll guide us through this afternoon.
Charles collects the pens. (The ink did start to flow.) Our first warmup is to look at a diagram of Aboriginal cosmology on a flip chart and then write whatever words come to mind, placing a hyphen between each letter for three minutes: o-n-t-h-e-s-h-o-r-e. Whoa, that’s slow, also pleasant, how my pen slides easily on the paper but it feels frivolous while Mom is in pain. I should be packing.
She cracked a bone while walking down a steep hill last week. It’s been one loss after another for her. This is a cruel betrayal, only last summer Mom hiked on the Columbia Ice Field.
Three minutes, Charles says, any words describing the five senses, write the sound of the words in syllables, a hyphen between each sound: h-t, sow-r, bl-a-k. Hot, sour and black feel new and fresh, I relish the sound in my ear and the sight of them as chunks on the page.
How is Mom to keep moving with those 85 year old brittle bones? I’m sick about where this is going for her, and us kids.
Five minutes, the seasons, hyphens between entire words: ice - white - glare - gray - black - green - luminous - tender - glitter - warms - glow - gentle. To recall the melting lake over the past few days is a lovely diversion. The letters are becoming freer, large and loopy on the page. Charles tells us he’s done six pages like this to warmup, it helps him see the nature of what is getting warmed up. One begins to sense the composition in a different way, even spaces between words make a sound.
My thoughts are still with her, but right now it feels good to write. It has given me pause from worry.
Charles says first thoughts have tremendous energy. Keep your editor brain in a quiet corner to be invited back later. For five minutes, with your non-dominant hand, write about the four stages of life. The words gush out faster than my left hand awkwardly transcribes them: “tender, curious, hungry, energy, confused, liberated, freer, confident, tired, sorrowful, reflect, pain, slow.” Charles says writing with the non-dominant hand takes one to a deeper more honest place. It can be revealing and powerful.
I ask Charles if he can describe his process for the powerful story I heard him tell about his parents’ generation picking blueberries in the 1930s and 40s. Charles tells us he found some people who were there and talked to them. He went to the blueberry patch for sensory details and even checked out the blueberries for sale at Safeway. Go to where you’re writing about he suggests, hunt and gather details, open yourself up and you might get a gift, the world gives back.
In the remaining minutes we’re to write about anything, to keep the hand moving no matter what, to lose all logic, control, grammar and spelling while tracking the words that go past. A seagull flies across the window and I remember, as I often do when I see birds, that Mom wished to be one in 1945, the way they could fly up in a rush, away from the Russian front which was close on their heels. But this is what comes: “coffee mellow golden cream swirl - a gift to look forward to give structure and to anchor the day to precede something or to follow - a ritual that is life force giving and sparks a cohesive anchor or structure of safety that all is well and moving one way or another - a coffee to pause and note nothing stays the same all is in flux so that a crisis will pass - anger will pass - you will pass so savour it and savour it and savour it - reflect with a fine cup of coffee with her, add a square of chocolate too.”
This afternoon of writing exercises has prepared me, I’m ready to go. All I have to do is pack and when I arrive, we’ll have coffee and be grateful for the time together.
Before we leave, Charles presents a gift of two minerals for each of us. Sodalite is royal blue with fine white veins crisscrossing it. He tells us sodalite clears confusion before creating. Chrysoprase feels smooth and is mint-green in colour. This gem opens one to new surroundings, brings fresh ideas and draws out hidden talent. I’m not sure of my talent but after this afternoon I’m thankful for more clarity and a fresh outlook. I will place them on my writing desk to remind myself to take the time to warm up the pen.