I often include the following lines at the end of my biography: “He is fascinated by people’s lives and the ways in which they live them.”
And it’s true. I think of what writers and theatre artists do as being the scientific study of lives and living. For the most part, we don’t focus on landscapes or colour fields—the focus of our interest is people. How they live. What they do. What they say they do.
I’m coming to the end of my year as the Edmonton Public Library’s Writer in Residence, which has probably been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. This is not only because it affords me the time to work on my own projects. (I’ve got about five different plays on the go this year and each one has made a quantum leap forward.) One of the best parts of my job has been the one-on-one consultations I’ve had with people in the city who have chosen to bring me their writing.
Previous Writers-in-Residence had an office at the Stanley A. Milner branch. But because Milner currently looks like something out of a Mad Max movie, I decided to go mobile. I’ve set up shop on the floor of various branches throughout the year, sitting at a small table with a sign that reads “Do not feed the Writer in Residence.” (Okay, not actually. In fact, two writers—thus far—have brought me baked goods. I approve of that.)
And people come. I’ve had visits from a wild, beautiful range of people, from seven-year-olds to sex workers. They sit down across the table from me and talk about what they’re working on. But because writing is so personal, we inevitably end up talking about their lives. It’s a bit like therapy; I like to think that I’ve inherited a few skills from my psychotherapist dad. So the question for the author who has written something obviously based on her own experiences, but doesn’t know how her book should end is “So what do you want from your own life?” And boom, we’re into the good stuff.
These appointments underline my firm belief that everyone is interesting, if they tell the truth about themselves. Most people choose to tell me the truth. Those that lie are interesting for a little while, but mostly because I’m interested in that person’s choice to hide something. And generally these lies are not all that convincing anyway; they crumble with a little bit of prodding. So then we’re back to the real, extremely interesting person.
It took me a while to figure out that I didn’t have to pretend to be like someone else in order to write well. In my mind, the people who are the most interesting artists are those that consistently tell the truth about themselves—the messy, honest truth. What do I really think about something? How do I understand how the world works? Can I put that into words?
The program gives you the opportunity to say something true about yourself, no matter what it is. Maybe it’s a memory. A detail from your neighbourhood. A person who helped make you who you are. It doesn’t take long—a two-minute video can be made pretty quickly—and there are people at your local library who can help.
A few months ago, I had the honour of working with a class full of teenagers from Syria who had just marked their first year in Canada. Each of them worked on videos for the Digital Storytelling program. I encouraged them, above all, to tell the truth about something in their experience of the past year. And they did—the stories that came out were heartbreaking, funny, encouraging, frustrating and hopeful. Some of them chose to talk about war and dislocation. Others just wanted to talk about playing soccer in Canada. All of the videos were true, and because they were true, they were beautiful.
I encourage you to take a stab at making your own video. Make it true, and it’ll be beautiful.
If you want to connect with David, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’d love to sit down and talk about your writing. And yes, it’s okay to bring him food.