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Writing Workshops and the “Woke” Mind

Posted on Oct 12, 2017

Writing Workshops and the “Woke” Mind   By Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer   Civilization—the very way we understand the construction of our lives—is a collective narrative, a kind of agreed-upon bestseller. Society is constantly being rewritten—and sometimes this rewriting is called progress. In the last year or so, we have witnessed our collective (western) narrative being subjected to a brutal, ideological editorial, one that aims to curtail our hard-won freedoms. It would be nice to complacently think that this US-led editorial has no affect on the greater world—but this is categorically not so. We are seeing, first hand, the way in which regressive narratives do damage (the Quebec City Mosque attack, for example). In such unstable times, understanding narrative, narrative building, and the craft of fiction are crucial skills citizens must try to master in order to parse everyday world politics. In a climate of “alternative facts” and “fake news” it is more important than ever to create—in the guise of writing workshops—what I will call “imagination” laboratories. This paper aims to show how writing workshops exceed their prescription of simply teaching people how to write. The writer, teacher, and political activist, Grace Paley, writes that “[t]he idea of writing from the head or from the view or the experience of other people, of another people, of another life, or even of just the people across the street or next door, is probably one of the most important acts of the imagination that you can try and that can be useful to the world” (Paley 202). In that writing fiction aims to bridge the radical alterity of others, it intervenes on phobic ideologies. As well, by imagining other lives, other worlds, and doing so by way of poetic language, and with respect, story-making insistently disrupts the over-arching hegemonic narrative. The writing workshop opens minds by virtue of practicing small disruptions over time. And the products of these workshops—diverse stories from many “woke” minds—are in turn consumed and ignited by many awakening readers. I’ve been running successful creative writing workshops for about fifteen years. I have taught beginning level students, youth, advanced workshops, and I have taught these workshops in-class and on-line. I have taught fifteen-year-old, and eighty-five-year-old, people. I’ve taught exercised-based classes, prompt-based classes, reading-based classes and workshop-focused classes. I’ve had my students Q&A such writers as Roddy Doyle, Nicholas Shakespeare, Francine Prose, Jonathan Lethem and many others. I have worked through student work one-on-one and in groups. I have asked students to facilitate my classes, and I have asked them to make creative work that has no words in it. I have asked my students to dance. I have asked them to interview strangers. I have asked them to bring in their favourite stories. I have asked them to read critical and political theory. I have asked them to cut up or erase existing work. I have asked them to write the thing they most fear and the things they would never ever dare write about. I have asked student-writers to drive their metaphoric cars over little old men. I have asked them to tell impromptu, off-the-cuff stories. I have instructed my students in yoga and breathing exercises. I have bribed with Smarties! I have taught them the strictest rules about narrative arc and sentence structure and then asked them to read one of Gertrude Stein’s most difficult, confounding novels. I have then asked them why Gertrude Stein is a genius. And I have weathered their fury at me, and enjoyed their laughter. Workshops provide a place for transformation – albeit slow transformation – and they do this by...

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Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves

Posted on Oct 3, 2017

Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves

Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves Review by Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer This is an astonishing YA novel set fifty or so years in the future, in a time when white people have lost the ability to dream. The novel follows an ad-hoc family of indigenous people as they flee from white ‘Recruiters’ whose singular aim is to harvest from their marrow the dreams of indigenous people.                 The premise gave me such shivers when I first heard about this book. I love dreams. I long for them and am always happy when I recall them upon waking. I keep a dream journal and think about motifs in my dreams and how they change as I do. I chose a therapist based on his interest in dreams and so that I could think harder about the way dreams are letters from our unconsciousnesses. I love the idea of dreams punning. In this regard, I am a hundred percent a Freud acolyte. I have learned more asleep than I ever have from my waking hours. The idea of losing the ability to dream suggests we have lost our unconscious aspects, which is to say, we have become so distanced from 0ur animal selves and so connected to our civilized, social, and literate selves that we no longer have access to our unruly natural aspects even in our sleep. In this way, Dimaline suggests that it is possible to be wholly repressed. From a Freudian perspective, this would mean that not only have we succumbed to a subjective indoctrination (the civility that language and our societal paradigm forces upon us) but that we have acquiesced to a woundedness that can never be healed. Dimaline seems to argue that white culture is headed in this direction (or that white culture has crashed). That the world Dimaline creates is in the throes of climate devastation and that cities are flooded and no longer viable threads its way through the narrative in a way that haunts the text and the lives of the indigenous group struggling in that landscape. It’s refreshing, I have to say, to read a novel that deals with climate and the horrors of capitalism (colonialism) as a resource hungry maw that cares not for the effects it wreaks and the devastation it leaves in its wake. Our culpability as a section of humanity is writ large in Dimaline’s story. The story of colonialism (capitalism/individualism/science) is inseparable from the story of climate change and this novel does a lot of work to reveal and witness its own thematic prognosis concerning climate end-times. It’s horrifying to read and just as important. The Marrow Thieves is a brilliant thought experiment (and in the context of the novel, never feels like one — it just feels like a great story). Francis (French/Frenchie) is a Metis boy who joins a group of indigenous people running north. The group comprises young and old, and as the novel unfolds, we get to know the stories of all the people. What’s remarkable  (even if perhaps it shouldn’t be in this day and age) about this novel is that there are almost no white characters in it, and even when they appear, they have very tiny roles. No white voices at all in this novel means  that “white” becomes synonymous with violent oppression and genocide. This was very uncomfortable for me as a white person which is obviously, on some level, the entire point. As social commentary, Dimaline nails it. We are in the future but the future (as they say) is now. White colonialism has stolen many a dream,...

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Robert McGill’s War is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature

Posted on Sep 22, 2017

Robert McGill’s War is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature

Professor and author Robert McGill examined my novels Perfecting and All The Broken Things in the context of their Vietnam connection. I am honoured by this. It’s a wee dream come true to have a scholar read and critique my work at length (and before I’m dead!). To read more about this book, click through the image of its cover below....

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Butterfly Effect

Posted on Sep 22, 2017

Butterfly Effect

I was commissioned to imagine the end of the Trump era — the only constraint was that the president was not allowed to be harmed in any way. I sent in the butterflies. Butterfly Effect That spring, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drove right in and staked a claim and got to work cutting brush. Hell, there was no one to stop them, and anyway, it was just another patch of desert along the Rio Grande. It didn’t occur to them that it might be private property. George, who was interning as a summer biochemistry student, was just doing his job. He wanted to eventually work for the CoE for two reasons. One, they had pretty good benefits; and two, he wanted to help people. What’s more, the corps was an equal-opportunity employer, and so he met folks from all different backgrounds. He knew they were preparing the ground to build Trump’s wall, but he was just following orders. At the time, he thought that was good enough. Read the rest...

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The Viral Appeal of Baroness Von Sketch

Posted on Aug 3, 2016

The Viral Appeal of Baroness Von Sketch

I wrote about my current favourite comedy show for the Walrus: The Viral Appeal of Baroness Von Sketch by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer There comes a time in a woman’s life between age thirty-five and death that I call cronedom, a period so abhorrent society does its utmost to neuter it, to shut the lid on its earthy melody. Apparently, nothing happens for women in cronedom—we just get wise and sit around waiting for someone to require our expertise. The crone shrivels up and dies patiently waiting and waiting. (Keep reading here)...

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Wilhelm Homberg’s Excreta

Posted on Aug 3, 2016

Wilhelm Homberg’s Excreta

Here is a scatological story I wrote. Shawn Syms has published it in the Winnipeg Review: Wilhelm Homberg’s Excreta By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (Wilhelm Homberg’s pyrophorus was originally discovered in the process of trying to make an oil that would transmute mercury to silver) The four young men I hired for the job are magnificent. I supply Gonesse bread, bought each Wednesday and Saturday at market, and wrapped in dampened linen in between to keep the loaves soft. The men may eat nothing else. This is the finest white bread in all Paris—in all the world, I might add. And for drinking, let water not pass their lips. Only champagne. This is the recipe upon which I harvest the finest pyrophorus. I have forgotten the names of my boys, but I have the curve of their torsos to memory. It is true that two of them look alike, and I sometimes mix them up. But when I watch them take exercise each day, I know them. I know the way their muscles undulate. By God, they are strong! And they are singular in their expulsion, too—oh, yes, I witness my boys excrete. (Keep reading it...

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