Pandemic Diary: Controlling the narrative, changing the story, again

i

I’m starting a new job next week. My heart is aflutter and my stomach in butterflies. I’m half-excited and half-terrified—no, I’m 90 per cent excited, 10 per cent terrified, and 10 per cent heartbroken—also, 100 per cent bad at math. But the excitement is paramount, and the other feelings remind me that life is complicated and one needs to feel all the feelings to be truly alive.

So, the job—it’s one designed for me, literally, they rewrote the job description after they saw my CV—and the result of that lucky turn of life’s roulette wheel in which, to para-quote Louis Pasteur, chance favours the prepared mind (or, as Seneca less elegantly put it, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”–ok, it might have been elegant in ancient Latin, but in English, I dunno, meh).

(The secondary theme of this story, btw, as per Lennon and McCartney, that we all get by with a little help from our friends.)

So, there I am, suddenly under-employed and in considerable financial strain because COVID, divorce, effective doubling of life’s expenses, also, feeling a little purposeless and unfocused, frustrated with the indifferent performance of my novels, drowning in pandemic (and divorce) accelerated existential angst (also wondering how many mid-life crises can one woman have in a single decade, I mean, isn’t there an upper limit? isn’t there supposed to be just one? surely three was enough, and there really is no need for a fourth and fifth to be happening simultaneously—look! shiny thing! Corvette! And look at you, you sexy thing, come over here and sit in my lap—I digress, point: existential angst), that 50th birthday is now three years and three months away, if I’m going to make a change, leap, move, now’s the time, now’s my prime sell date—where am I going to jump?

Don’t know, don’t know. I pull out my CV, try to craft a cover letter—I’ve had an amazing career, let’s face it, but it’s damn unconventional. I’ve done nothing by the book, and where am I now? Towards what was I building? I don’t want to be an editor or manager, the “natural” next steps… I want to write, and also teach—how is it that I love that piece of my work so much, I never thought I would—but, like, also get paid on a regular basis, and, also, I don’t know, be part of something bigger, I’m so tired of it being just me in my studio with my laptop and the voices in my head, I’m so tired of being my only colleague and employee, and also, I don’t know, I have all these skills, but let’s face it, I’m very, very bad at math—the most basic income/expenses kind of math and, despite writing about them and worshipping them most of my life, not an entrepreneur at heart at all, could someone just, like, take care of that part of things for me for a while, and just leverage, use me for the things I’m really, really good at?

(Words. Story. I know you can’t tell from this post, but words are my superpower and I’m a hell of a storyteller.)

And there they are…

Them: Yo. Over here. You’re what we didn’t know we were looking for.

The company. The job ad. The opportunity. The month-long interview process, during which they revisioned and rewrote the position to better suit what I brought to the table.

The offer.

Wah.

I’m so excited, people, most of the time I’m forgetting to be terrified, and that, of course, is very good.

ii

How I find out about the job: I post on Facebook that I need work. I am, of course, by this point, monitoring Indeed and Canada Job Bank and, yes, there are quite a few jobs for communications professionals and underemployed journalists and I guess that’s what I am, but most of them… a) I could do in my sleep, bored already, b) they’re a step backwards, like, maybe 10 years, more like 15, actually, junior and mid-career positions and, dammit, I’m old and at my peak. Past my peak? Ugh. What an awful place to be, damn COVID and the economy, and I’m broke and stressed—I grit my teeth, send off resumes, think that perhaps I’d prefer working as a cemetery labourer, look at that, the city is looking for one and the pay is actually almost as good as being a mid-level corporate communications flack, and I’d get to work outside, digging graves and pruning bushes, ooh, operating a fork lift to move tomb slabs and gravestones, maybe? Why not? Maybe this is the next life stage: cemetery worker, communing with ghosts on the night shift and spooking canoodling couples behind gravestones at dawn and dusk, hey, how would that work as a cozy mystery–a cemetery worker-cum-detective…

Gravestones on my mind (how heavy are tomb slabs, anyway, and how hard is a forklift to operate?), I post on Facebook that I’m looking for a job. Money, really, a job being the most obvious legal way of obtaining a steady flow of it. “I write,” I say, “but, really, I’m willing to do anything unreasonable.” But dammit, I think, the problem is—I’m a career writer. Like, literally, I have virtually no other skills—ok, yeah, I also teach, and fine, public relations, strategy, blah blah blah, but my particular superpower is story, except at the moment, no one seems to want it and I’m just going to curl into a fetal position and cry, and then apply to be a cemetery labourer, except they’re not going to hire me, because I don’t have a fork lift licence, but maybe, I could go get a fork lift, licence, and…

A woman who’s the current president of a business communicators organization and whom, a couple of years ago, I taught how to plot and write a bad romance novel (set the bar low for your first manuscript, people, that’s how the professionals do it—repeat after me, an amateur thinks it has to be perfect, a professional knows it needs to be done), tells me to connect with her on Linked In. “I get all these communications job alerts all the time,” she says. “I’ll forward the interesting ones to you.”

I send her a request to connect. She sends me two job links immediately. Flags one. “You’d be perfect for this one,” she says. She’s right. They put “storyteller” right in the job description. And the job description—who wrote this baby? I want to work for her. I’m mostly qualified for the job, maybe a corporate gap here and there, and certainly not their typical candidate, but I can totally do this job and then some, and the company hits all my sweet spots too, and also, did I mention, that job description? It’s incredible. It was written by someone who is clearly looking for me.

I shoot my CV and highly customized cover letter off within 24 hours.

Other friends shoot me job links too, and I’m full of gratitude. Send off a resume here or there. But—it’s that job I want. Everything else, it will give me money. This one? I WANT IT. I REALLY, REALLY WANT IT.

The human resources manager calls me within a week. Yes! The following week, I’m talking with a VP, then onward and upward—or maybe, sideways. I’m not quite sure about the hierarchical structure of the company… it’s bigger than any place I’ve ever worked for before, and the hiring process reflects this. There are personality profile tests, and a writing assignment, and a lot of butterflies in my stomach—an intensive background and criminal check and employment verification process (I have no secret Criminal Code offences that I did not know about, phew, but I literally hold my breath for two days until the results come in—I mean, weird stuff happens, suppose someone with my exact name and birth date—it could happen—has defrauded credit card companies, ran a crack house, or laundered money for the local mafia—did I mention, I have a really good imagination, OMG, I’m going to fail the criminal check because of identity theft, my conspiracy theory friends were right, I never should have joined Facebook—what? I’m all good. Oh thank god).

Finally, an offer that kind of makes me pass out with its awesomeness—you’ve got to understand, I’ve freelanced for 20 years, I’ve never had BENEFITS—and after I recover consciousness, I breathe easy for the first time in months.

Except, I’m also terrified.

But, mostly, excited.

iii

I prepare my cover letter and CV alone—but I have an “eye-for-detail, Grammar-Nazi” friend proof it. (That, kittens, is also how the professionals do it—always, a second (fiftieth) set of eyes on the copy—and no, nobody proofs these posts, every single typo is mine, shut up, the blog is a labour of love, why do you always criticize me?) In my interviews I’m alone too—except, well, I’m not. The first interview catches me off-guard. I’m unprepared for the types of questions HR throws at me and it’s been a while (don’t ask how long) (ok, like 20 years) since I’ve been the person answering the questions in an interview.

(When I interviewed for the journalism teaching job at the Poly, we were all just journos shooting the shit together, speaking the same language, more of a conversation about the state of our beloved and traumatized industry than an interview as such. I didn’t stress about it as an interview at all. I sweated buckets over this one.)

I spend a solid week preparing for the second one, with the help of a friend more experienced in the art. The night before the interview, as the final pre-interview test, he throws question after question at me and critiques my delivery of my story for two, three hours—until I’m in tears and I hate him and at one point, I yell at him that he’s really terrible at giving constructive feedback and “That wasn’t good enough” isn’t actually feedback a person can work with—what, precisely, was wrong with it? How would it be better?

My friend calls me in the morning to make sure I don’t oversleep for the 8 am (gasp) interview. No worries there—I’ve been awake for hours.

Practicing. Rehearsing. Kinda panicking, but in the “panic now so you don’t panic when it counts” way.

And so in the real interview—alone but not—I’m confidence personified; sparkly and on fire—I know my story inside out and I’ve got specific examples galore for everything and anything I might be asked about.

I’m not asked about most of it—I tell the stories anyway.

I also do this, on Facebook:

“I need magic tomorrow at 8 am MST. Send ravens, four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, prayers, vibes, fist bumps—you know. All your magic.”

My social network obliges.

What? I believe in magic. I’m alone in the ring, on the Zoom call—but not really. My crew’s got my back.

iv

When the offer finally comes, my crew is as much on pins and needles as I am.

Him: Especially me.

Jane: Because you love me and are excited for me and…

Him: Because I just can’t take any more “Why do you think it’s taking so long? Do you think I fucked up the interview? Should I not have told the Brian Mulroney story?” middle of the night texts from you.

Jane: First, they were middle of the day texts…

Second—they didn’t really take that long (and I skipped the inappropriate part of the Brian Mulroney story—but ask me sometime over a glass of wine, it’s hilarious)—less than a month from application to offer, so, really, for a big corporation? That’s moving at the speed of light.

It’s just that… when you really want something?

You: And you really want this?

Jane: I. Really. Want. This.

That’s a change in my story. I sent out those first resumes in January  and February 2021 with a profound sense of… let’s be honest, failure. It felt like failure—I had made a pretty comfortable living writing since I’ve been 17, with only a brief two-year detour into a “real” job, the best part of which was that I met half of my future editors while working it. In 2015, I had given myself five years for the novels and the fiction and that part of my life to become a dominant revenue stream and, well. Seven novels—four of them published—three novellas, and dozens of short stories and anthology contributions later, I have to confess that my ambition outstripped my capability—or the realities of the market—and the financial pressure on my creative work to perform, perform, perform and pay the rent was… well, exhausting.

But… a) I did it (did I mention… four published novels, seven written? Take that and stuff it up your teapot spout, Aunt Augusta) and b) along the way, I discovered… that I have a very deep, innate understanding of the storytelling process, more importantly, that I can show and share this process with others. I’m an effective teacher and I get high on teaching. And—as has been the case since I’ve been 17, maybe even seven—I can turn anything—anything—into a compelling story.

Including the frequently random, occasionally traumatic events of my life.

So, in this story, at a time when I need a career refocus, a new challenge and financial stability—a big company comes to me and says, “Hey! We want you to show our people how to craft effective, compelling stories.”

Sign me up, yes, please, here I come.

v

Him: So, like, you know you’re going to have to work Monday to Friday, eight to five or whatever their hours are? Week after week? Month after month?

Jane: Yes.

Him: Are you going to be able to cope?

Jane: Yes.

Because, truth be told—freelancing and self-employment, for all the theoretical freedom to wake up at the crack of 9:15 am, is a 24/7 hustle. And so is motherhood.

Monday to Friday, lunch and coffee breaks, paid vacation, health-spending account, pension plan, interest-free loan to buy a personal computer, and money magically appearing in my bank account every two weeks?

I think I can handle it.

vi

Forgive the long, self-indulgent dive into my navel—I realize there’s not much take-away here for you for your own current drama. I’m writing this post to control MY narrative—to shape my story. I’m so excited to be starting this new chapter and, as with everything I do—I’ll be doing it full out.

And documenting the process, of course.

So. This is the last entry in the Pandemic Diary project. I realize the pandemic is not over but I’m done with making is the star of my story. Starting next week—a new chapter, maybe even a whole new book—definitely, a new project on the blog. I’m not yet sure what I’ll call it. An Artist in Corporate Canada? Adventures in Storytelling? Madwoman in the Corner Cubicle?

Maybe I’ll just let it flow naturally, each post a stand-alone.

The future is full of possibilities.

I’m so excited.

So very, very excited.

xoxo

“Jane”

A little corporate, a little punk.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it… no, wait, actually, let me change it…

I believe, rather ardently, in the power of story. If your religion is Christianity, his Islam and hers Wicca—and theirs veganism—my religion is story.

Story is, perhaps, not everything—other things must exist, else there would be no ingredients for story, and no one to tell stories to—but it is all-powerful.

The stories we tell other people, the stories we tell ourselves, they shape our reality. They change the past, define the present, and create the future. That, loves, is power.

Sometimes, in our interactions with other people, our stories clash. There’s a fight. Perhaps one loses and the other wins. Perhaps both break into bits and they create a new story from the flotsam and jetsam of both. Sometimes, two conflicting stories manage to meld into a cohesive—but tense!—single one.

One of the amazing thing about story is its fluidity, adaptability. In oral traditions, the story changes a little bit in every telling. And this happens even in our more rigid, current product-focused traditions. Look at all the remakes of movies, retellings of classical literature. Story changes. That is its nature.

That is its power.

Our personal stories are among the most powerful stories. And these can change too—we can change them. At will, almost. But it’s hard, because stories don’t exist without an audience, and we are rarely the only audience for our story. Family and friends, even if they don’t really like our old story, are used to it. They redirect us to it, in every interaction. Even when we are telling them a new story—they act as though they are hearing the old one.

That’s hard. And discouraging.

I think that’s why, when we are working to change a story, we look for new people. We want a new audience for the new story we are creating. We don’t want the tried and true audience that says, “No, that’s not what happened—I know this story, the Prince woke the Princess up with a kiss and they lived happily ever after, that’s what happens in this story, why aren’t you telling it like that?”

Because I’m changing it, love.

If you can’t listen to the new story without trying to pull me into the old one—that’s okay. It’s natural. I understand. I’m going to tell the story to someone else, who hears it.

The greatest gift we can give our friends and loves, when they are changing their story… is to listen to the new one.

Her: Suppose the new story is all bull shit?

Jane: It’s their story. Their bullshit.

This is, by the way, very hard. Terribly hard. Exceedingly hard. The closer you are to a person and the more enmeshed in their old story, the harder it is to really hear—never mind support—their new story. I’ve failed at this, in the most significant relationships in my life, so I’m not preaching to you from a moral high horse. It’s hard. So hard. Sometimes, impossible. And then, the greatest gift you can give your loves is the opportunity, space, encouragement to find a new audience for their story.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

😉

“Jane”

The kids are all right, but you’re old and out of touch: a love letter to libraries inspired by Susan Orlean et al.

In brief: The Internet is a technology, not a medium; People think in pictures; The kids are all right (but you’re old and out of touch); Story is eternal; Libraries will save us all

I’m here, I made it, I’ve got my seat, my macarons and my tea, and there, they are, today’s stars: in the middle, Susan Orleanthe Susan Orlean—to her right, Michael Harris, to her left, Carol Shaben. It’s July 10, an overcast Wednesday night in Canmore’s Communitea, and I’m vibrating with excitement, poised for stimulation.

On offer is Literary Journalism at Communitea: Editors in Conversation. The programme is part of the Banff Centre’s showcase of its Literary Journalism program, and begins with readings by each of the journalists—and non-fiction authors, who are also serving as faculty in the program. It ends with a Q&A that infuriates and inspires me. But more on that anon. First, the readings.

The first reading comes from Carol Shaben. It’s a piece from her 2012 book Into the Abyss: How a Deadly Plane Crash Changed the Lives of a Pilot, a Politician, a Criminal and a Cop. I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on how well the chosen reading—a look at how the criminal of the subtitle, Paul Archambault, met his end (probably) as a homeless alcoholic on a cold winter’s night in Grande Prairie—reflects the overall tone of the work. There are no homeless alcoholics from Grande Prairie in the audience, so I cannot ask them if how they and their life are presented bothers them as much as it bothers me, and I am too cowardly to ask Shaben what the fuck she was thinking when she likened the word “hero” to the “N” word—and whether a white person ever has any right, ever, to make that analogy? Still. The prose is beautiful, and I see pictures in my head.

The most powerful reading of the evening follows, in the presentation by Michael Harris of the opening of The End of Absence (2014). In this Governor General Award winning book, Harris tackles, from the point of view of “the last generation to remember the world before the Internet,” the implications of the technology on solitude, daydreaming, and free time. In his chosen reading, he introduces us to Linda, a woman born in a small, tech-free Malay village who, after emigrating to Canada, returns home with a laptop to introduce her mother to the wonders of Google. “This can show you anything, everything in the world,” Linda says (I paraphrase Harris’s paraphrasing). Her mother asks, “Can it show me my mother in the afterlife?”

Harris stops the reading; perfect delivery. Do you need to know anything more about the thesis he takes in The End of Absence? No.

Finally, Susan Orlean—author of The Orchid Thief, made into the Spike Jonze-directed movie Adaptation, now do you know who she is?—reads from her newest work, The Library Book, which nominally chronicles the 1985 Los Angeles Public Library fire, but which is above all a love letter to libraries. She presents two excerpts that bracket the book—one from its beginning in which she’s a child getting a taste of freedom and the joy of discovery roaming the stacks of a library unattended, and one from its end, in which, as an adult, she still adores libraries and sees them not just as repositories of stories and knowledge, but as community and relationship-builders. Her relationship with her mother—who died mid-way through Orlean’s creation of The Library Book—and her mother’s influence on the writer comes through loud and clear even in the brevity of the chosen readings.

I’m there to see, hear Susan Orlean, who was one of only two female journalists featured in Robert S. Boynton’s The New New Journalists, which celebrates the heirs to the “new journalism” of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese. Her reading is spectacular—my introduction to Michael Harris and his work an unexpected boon. The Q&A that follows—unstructured and unlead, left entirely up to the whim of the audience—thrusts me into existential angst, which I spend the entire car ride back to Calgary, and a partially sleepless night, processing.

In the morning, several things are crystal-clear (aren’t mornings wonderful?). Ready?

People think in pictures

“Reading is a highly unnatural act,” Michael Harris says in response to a question/statement from an educator who’s finding it harder and harder to get her students to read long, meaty things. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Reading is a highly unnatural act, and lovers and creators of books and other printed word material are most successful—only successful—when their words make their readers see pictures.

Let me say this again, because some printed word lovers are in such snobby denial of this (no matter how much they enjoy obscure French cinema) that you might have missed it the first time: our goal as writers is to make our readers see pictures in their heads. They take our words and turn them into an individually-created, unique-to-them, perfectly-cast visual reel. When our words make readers see pictures, we succeed. When our words stay words, flat and two-dimensional, we fail and reading us is a slog.

This, by the way, is also why video did not kill the radio star. It just gave radio more competition—and, as the explosion of podcasts continues to show, pressure to reinvent itself. Spoken words are the first, the original stories. We learned story, the structure of story, the enjoyment of story—and the purpose of story—in Nana’s lap as pre-literate children. This is also why, printed word lovers, you should always read your work aloud before hitting publish or send—that spoken cadence is one of the things that makes us see pictures in our heads. It’s also the reason we still read Jane Austen but know Ann Radcliffe’s fiction mostly through Jane’s references to her (ditto Sir Walter Scott).

Speaking of spoken word and radio stars—Michael Harris is a fan and creator of podcasts, but questions from the audience and some of the answers to them cast them as a “new kid on the block” (and that’s a direct quote). People! Podcasts are almost as old as blogs, indeed, the internet. People have been trying to find ways to use the internet to distribute audio since our new year zero (that is, the birth of the internet). The word was coined in February 2004 by The Guardian’s Ben Hammersley, and you could upload and download podcasts to Apple’s iTunes since 2005. Compared to the book, the newspaper, radio and even television, the podcast is a younger medium, I’ll grant you. But new kid on the block? Only if you’re living in 1999.

The kids are all right

Which, actually, based on their questions, a large chunk of the Wednesday audience might have been, and while I hate to accuse my idols of being out of date, the presenting journalists could be accused of the same, especially when the Q&A moved—as it inevitably does when old people start talking—to “what’s wrong with kids these days” and a discussion of the differences between the internet and books.

Let me demolish the first point immediately and quickly. There’s nothing wrong with kids these days, except that they are living in a world the complaining old people created, but which no longer operates by the most of the rules these some old people want them to follow. Young people (all people today) are expected to process too much information, much of it irrelevant, are exposed to too much stimulation, much of it damaging, and are subject to too much future uncertainty, none of it of their making—and they are dealing with this shit situation in the best way that they can.

And if they don’t want to read long, dense, BORING articles, short stories, and books—it’s up to their creators to make their work engaging, powerful, immersive and evocative—to make their audience see the story they tell in words… in pictures.

Want to engage them in a topic they’re not interested in, and that you have to deliver because it’s on the curriculum? (They’re right, you know. It’s probably not relevant. What do you, with your 1990s education, know about the world they’re going to face in the 2030s and beyond? Dick all, sweetheart. Dick all. And the curriculum you’re delivering was probably created by someone educated by the 1960s. Or earlier.) Give them podcasts, TedTalks, YouTube videos, and blogs as starting points. They will read the “dense” stuff that requires deep concentration when it is engaging, necessary, and relevant to them. There is no merit in reading a fat boring book just because it is a book any more than there is any merit in enduring a six-hour miniseries on the history of button museums in Europe just because it’s on the History Channel (My three least favourite words: “It’s educational!” Gag).

Susan Orlean speaks quite engagingly against the fetishization of length and the mistaken view that a 20,000-word feature is better than a 7,000-word feature which is better than a 2,000-word feature which is better than a 750-word column simply because one is longer than the other. (From the point of a view of journalists who get paid by the word, of course longer is better. I love and miss 7,000 word features—nobody’s commissioned me for one since 2008.)

Let me speak passionately against the demonization of youth. People, in general, prefer the easier thing. Hutterites use laundry machines, not washing boards (and the Amish have a blog—seriously, check out AmishAmerica.com). And old people have always complained about young people. Step carefully when you do so, my icons and silverbacks of the Establishment: when you start to complain about young people today, it means you no longer understand the present and so the future will leave you far behind.

The Internet is not a medium

As it is leaving behind those people who speak of the internet as a medium. The thrust of that particular aspect of the Q&A riffed off Susan Orlean casting a book as a finished, static product, compared to the flowing, ever-changing—almost uncapturable—nature of the internet. A visually evocative metaphor—I see the river of headlines, fake news debris, cat video rafts, memes on tubes, careening towards me, past me, smashing the dams totalitarian governments try to put up around it, oh, yes! A visually evocative metaphor, but wrong, so wrong when, at the heart of it, the Internet is seen as a medium—and that was how Orlean, and apparently everyone in the audience saw it.

Slow processor that I am, I nonetheless tried to speak up here, on the verge of apoplexy, but they were all too busy discussing the static/non-static nature of the two media—books and the Internet—and everyone was taking for granted that the Internet was a medium.

Photo by Hannes Wolf, Unsplash

It’s not. The internet is no more a medium than the printing press is a medium. They are both revolutionary technologies that made new media possible and knowledge more accessible and more easy to disseminate by new and old media alike.

The internet is amazing, and it continues the democratization of knowledge and the elimination of cultural gatekeeping and exclusivity that widespread literacy and the printing press began. It is a radical technology, an enabler—a creator and a destroyer, and yes, it brings with it a lot of crap, but we had haters, Fox News, The National Enquirer, scammers, badly written books, and poorly researched news stories and outright hoaxes long before we had the internet.

Amazing, radical, powerful—but not a medium. This is not just pedantic semantics. It’s a critical distinction. Seeing the internet as a medium and not a technology is the misconception that is still killing traditional publishing and print news media.

(Think about it—a book is a book whether it’s been meticulously copied by hand on sheep skin parchment, come off a 16th century printing press, or popped out of a Print-on-Demand Espresso machine. It’s still a book when I read it on my ereader or my phone.)

Not a medium, not a medium, not a medium! A technology. A technology that makes possible the dissemination and presentation of, for the most part, the old media: static pictures, moving pictures, sound, words…

Libraries will save us all

Libraries got this. Perhaps not all of them—there are social dinosaurs everywhere—but the good ones for sure got this immediately (I see the Calgary Public Library—the second most used library in North America, by the way–as really leading the way here). Just as they made books on tape and then on CD, and also videos and DVDs, available to their patrons, they looked to the internet as a technology that would enable them to better fulfill their mission of making knowledge (stories) available to as many people as possible, as effectively as possible. They invested in apps and operating systems that made loans of ebooks and digital audiobooks possible almost before there were ebooks (i.e., before traditional publishers stopped living in 1999 and made ebooks available). I know this, because at one point, in 2011 or so, on my very first ereader, I had read just about every single ebook the Calgary Public Library had in its system.

Libraries recognized that people don’t just come to libraries for physical books. They come, as Susan Orlean notes, for stories, For knowledge—and for community and for connection. They come to come together over story, whether as isolated mothers dragging their barely sentient toddlers to story time at 11 am every Monday or as freshly laid-off or retired seniors looking to rebuild a post-working life social network via workshops on podcasts (try it, Mom!) or the mysteries of the internet (it’s not a medium, Dad!).

If you want to save the world, rich people, invest in libraries. Parents and grandparents, if you want to make sure the kids today turn out all right, make sure they know how to use libraries.

Because libraries saw the power and potential of the internet to deliver more stories and more knowledge to more people, they will be here tomorrow. Because book sellers, traditional publishers, and newspaper tycoons didn’t—because they saw themselves as static, established and powerful, and the internet as an upstart “medium—a competitor they could snub and ignore instead of a technology they could and should harness—they are perishing.

And people like me, who used to make a decent living writing for the old media have had to reinvent ourselves ahead of our industry, and leave it behind.

My former editors moan, constantly, about our desertions to the corporate world, to public relations agencies, to new business ventures made possibly by the (not-so-new) internet. But they can’t afford to pay us to stay. And while I love, love story–I’m not independently wealthy and I need to sell my words to those who will pay for them, ya?

(My former editors are, increasingly, jumping ship themselves. They love their magazines and newspapers, as much as they loved their first typewriters. But, like, they gotta eat. And pay for their kids—still 1990s style, if not 1960s style—education.)

Story is forever

What will save us? Frankly, we need to save ourselves. We can—as some folks on Wednesday night did—moan about how hard it is to be a writer, a journalist. (It was never easy. Just stop.) Or we can embrace the potential offered by this (not-so-new) improvement on the printing press and look for the opportunity social democratization of stories offers us. And ride it.

The good news is that whatever else might be dying, whatever might be under threat now, whatever might be changing—stories are safe. Susan Orlean highlights this point beautifully several times.

Stories are safe. And not just because of libraries. Because while not every human being loves to read (and that’s ok)—every member of the species Homo sapiens is wired for story. Hunger for story is constant, and the part of our bio-evolutionary make-up that makes cultural transmission possible. The medium, the method of delivery will change—is changing. The nature of the stories we want and need will change –is changing, must change if we are to survive changes to our culture. But our hunger for story? That will last until the apocalypse, and, if any of us survive, beyond.

The next Banff Centre Literary Journalism talk is on Wednesday, July 17, and features Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is one of the most astounding non-fiction books I have ever read.

I’ll be there, vibrating with excitement, and you should come too.

Register here:

https://www.banffcentre.ca/houseprogram/literaryjournalism-in-conversation-july17

Featured Reading:

Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben

The End of Absence by Michael Harris

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Suggested Follow-up Reading:

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Story by Robert McKee

(These are targeted at fiction writers, but the principles are all the same.)

And also, while we’re lauding librarians:

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktoo by Joshua Hammer

All books available at the Calgary Public Library.

xoxo

“Jane”

Her story, my story, our story

Calgary celebrates this year’s flood anniversary with a heavy rain but the river stays in its bed and our alley does not turn into a lake. A friend, away from Ground Zero at work, texts me anxiously. It’s all ok, I tell her—I wonder how many years have to pass before we relax in June—and how many years after that that a flood will come again, catching us off guard?

I am in a very reflective mood—not full-on navel-gazing, because I’m thinking not so much about myself as about story, and not just my story. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Noah Yuval Harari says, “You are not a story,” and he argues that realizing this fact is one of the ways we will save the world. A funny statement from a historian—one who weaves stories for the present from stories of the past. And, he’s wrong. So wrong. We need stories. Stories is how we make sense of the world. It’s not truth and justice that carry the day. It’s the best story. Whoever has the best story persuades, conquers, wins.

In the many handwritten, unpublished “posts” I have from this year to date, my favourite—and the one that, perhaps, one day I will be able to share with you—is called “The End of Mommy Blogging.” It’s my story of how my children’s sentience and desire for privacy are killing my blog by altering, limiting the stories I can tell. Nowhere is this more blatant than in the largely untold story of the last six months and Flora’s health situation. “Don’t write about it, don’t tell anyone, my life, my story, my disclosure, my refusal to be seen as the disease, to carry a label,” she says, and I nod, I understand, I try to comply—but badly.

I understand her need to control the story, but the story of her illness is also my story, our story, and to not be able to deal with it the way I always deal with shit—to express it as a controlled, structured narrative, to turn suffering and pain and angst into story—into art—that makes some sense of the suffering—not doing that is very hard.

“Write about something else,” Flora commands. But she’s 14 and she doesn’t understand that there is nothing else. Her illness and her suffering touch every other part of my life, external and internal. Nothing exists in separation from it: my relationship to her brothers; my work, such as it is at the moment; my marriage—the best metaphor for which, right now, is me and Sean as two drowning rats, trying to keep their heads above water, each trying to help the other stay afloat, but fuck, it’s hard, would you do all of the work for a while, and also hold me up while you’re doing it? my little rat feet just can’t paddle any more…

My story, his story, her story, our story.

Every once in a  while, I force myself to interact with other people. And I can do it, for a while, so long as they don’t ask me how things are, how I’m doing. I cannot dissemble or evade. I cannot say, “I’m fine.” I’ve tried, and “fine,” in my throat, turns into a wail and comes out as “My daughter is really sick.” But that’s all I can say, because her story, so now, they need to find something else to talk to me about. And they say, “How is everything else?”

And I don’t understand how they don’t understand that there is nothing else.

There is only my child’s suffering. My helplessness. Worse, my ineptitude, resentment, anger.

The anger is getting better. Meditation in not a panacea—I’m pretty sure it does not cure cancer and heart disease, sorry, Buddhist and yoga fanatics—but it does dissolve anger. How can one be angry at gravity, the theory of relativity, electrons, basal ganglia, your right arm? Breathe in and out, wish I could pray, but what sort of asshole god would let this happen to a child, breathe…

“Things could always be worse.” Flora says this every once in a while, and then we all say, “And they have been, let’s not forget, they have been.” And there is so much suffering around us, and so much of it, almost all of it, so much worse. My child will live. And may be—very likely, actually—win a Nobel Prize for research into genetics that will alleviate some of this suffering.

Weirdly enough, telling yourself others have it much worse than you does not alleviate suffering. It just makes you feel guilty for feeling bad.

What I have learned, during the flood, now, is that guilt is a bad motivator.

Flora disagrees. Trots out examples I can’t share with you. But she’s wrong. Guilt makes you ashamed of what you feel, what you want. (“I just want things to be normal, and I’m so tired of all this shit!”) Guilt makes you deny your needs and desires.

Maybe it propels you towards the required action—the action deemed necessary, usually, by others. But it keeps you from peace, acceptance of your shadow, and it keeps you from the action that is truly right for you and the situation.

Meditation, by the way, does not really seem to dissolve guilt. But gratitude does.

So, I practice being grateful for you, even though I can’t really accept your help, because your help comes with obligations I can’t fulfill, do you see that?

Ender’s been sick much of this week, a little lump on the couch in the kitchen, fading in and out of sleep and refusing medicine but demanding cuddles. I give him what I can; Sean stays home from work two days to multi-task, study for his final and cuddle the Ender. We’ve decided, long ago, that children are energy vampires when they are sick. They need you to sit beside them and hold them so they can use your life force to replenish theirs. Hey, it sounds cynical—if you have kids, you know it’s true.

Ender’s illness is simple, easy to care for—my duties, role, responsibility easy to see and fulfill.

“You’re not angry with Ender for being sick!” Flora.

Bam. Guilt. Flare of anger. Fucking ungrateful child, does she not see… Breathe. She probably doesn’t—after all, a loved child should take it for granted that a parent drops everything for her when she has an owie.

I look at all the things I’ve dropped and I wonder how, if I will pick them up again. You are there too, our friendship and our love, the time we used to spend together. And my work. Fuck. Right there, in broken pieces.

In my story, I mourn it more than I mourn you. Can you understand that, and will you forgive it?

We don’t flood yesterday, we probably won’t flood tomorrow. “This is a happy moment.” Gratitude dilutes guilt. Meditation slowly turns anger and resentment into compassion and acceptance.

Breathe.

Flora: Tell me a story.

Jane: Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved stories…

Flora: You’re so lame.

Jane: I’m what you’ve got.

Flora: Tell me a real story.

Jane: One upon a time there was mother who told stories…

Her story, my story, our story.

xoxo

“Jane”