Writing Wholly (Holy) Unto Oneself & A Bit About Writerly Self-Esteem.

I remember my mother seated at the kitchen window
   her cat’s eyes glasses staring out into the night
   trying to find divinity and divinity’s reasons

   my mother believed God moved the sparrows around day after day
   as a teenager I believed the sparrows moved God around
   all the inexhaustible crutches He leaned upon
   all the underweights of silence to find his way

   now the only god I believe in are the sparrows themselves
   unaltered by my belief

   from “All Our Wonder Unavenged” by Don Domanski

“Holy shit, Gandalf’s coming!” One of my peers exclaimed as he ducked into the Icehouse. Ross laughed, “Looks like Don is here.” I left my cozy armchair and poked my head out the door. There was Don Domanski, walking stick in hand, his long robe and impressive beard floating in the wind while ravens crowded the branches above his head, coveting his necklaces of crystals and other charms. When I was an undergraduate creative writing student, Dr. Ross Leckie invited professional poets to our workshopping seminars. He wanted us to have holistic real-life examples of revision: a manuscript’s before (drafts) and after (publication). Don took his chair like a Tolkien lord and spoke about synchronicity. That drafts and the poetic mysteries can come together to reveal personal truths, such as when he remembered,

my mother seated at the kitchen window
   her cat’s eyes glasses staring out into the night
   trying to find divinity and divinity’s reasons…

At UNB Fredericton, there’s a tiny white house adjacent to the King’s College building. That’s the Icehouse and it has a long literary history. But I swear, in that chilly bare-beamed room, my self-esteem took as much of a beating as those rattling old pipes. Then, I thought if I assumed a writerly persona that emulated one of the great’s (maybe an Emily, Bronte or Dickinson), I could walk away from brutal peer critiques unscathed. However, those critiques as well as other external feedback reminded me again and again that yes, I might be talented, but I was unlikely to be successful. So, although I felt I needed an alter ego—and an ego it can be—mine never swelled to superhero proportions.

“While some writerly alter-egos are content with a pseudo Beats lifestyle, others are so in love with the idea of writing that they haven’t asked themselves who they want to be as a writer.”

Depending on whether you’re The Bat to your Bruce Wayne, The Cat to your Selina Kyle or Molly Shannon’s incarnation of Emily Dickinson (mine!) the writer in you may often demand capitulations. Whether it’s love-handle-hugging costumes, clever puns, or ironic soliloquies, romantic ideas of eccentric authors wrestling with their craft influence us in many ways. The pressure to aspire to those who are greatly admired can’t help but filter in. While some writerly alter-egos are content with a pseudo Beats lifestyle, others are so in love with the idea of writing that they haven’t asked themselves who they want to be as a writer. So, what happens when the struggle with all that spandex gets real and as Michelle Borel says, it’s time to “Drop the ‘E’ and Go!”?

You must put the work in. The writing world is probably one of the only spaces where “faking it till you make it” doesn’t apply. Learn the skills, write you. They happen at the same time. And when we choose to walk our own path, no matter how daunting or unachievable that may seem, we learn to set down what no longer serves us. I share the same belief with Ifeoma Esonwune, founder and CEO of Network for the Empowerment of Women Halifax, “that everyone is uniquely endowed and that every dream is realizable”. That is what it means to have self-esteem in writing.

Self-esteem also forms through a sense of being conjoined with the creative impulse—call it source or the sparrows or ribbons of wind that sweep down along the earth—and that mystery becomes known as “process”. In mastering your craft, you may find that writing isn’t one-sided. For me, process is when the critic has been shut out, when my ego has had its moment at the bottle and sleeps, the page is stark tabula rasa and I pull the outside thing through myself, through my tongue and tone. That is the sparrows. “Revision” is when my piece replies to me, saying, “I want this, not that”, leading me forward into a defter text. That is communion.

Now, I want only the sparrows and I anticipate communion with my writing.

A writer’s confidence also lies in trusting that process, however you define it, while admitting flexibility and passion. You want to write all the genres? Write ‘em but be prepared—it is difficult to master each. Is that important, and should you feel lesser if you can’t? Ross said I was an “A+ poet, A prose writer”. I was, and still am, OK with that. Poetry claimed me first. I also enjoy singing opera, but I’ll never perform. However, when Jean-Philippe Raîche and I can no longer count who had what of how many bottles of wine and the poetry gods have long abandoned us for their beds, we sing “Ombre Mai Fu”. Remain flexible so that there may be space for joy. Creativity recharges in what our corporatized society calls “unproductive time”.

It also grows when we exercise our individual voices. For instance, at open mics and literary readings. However, there are protocols. It is flat-out offensive for someone to offer “feedback” without asking if you would like to hear their point of view. That’s not tolerated among authors and it should not be any different for an emerging or “unknown” writer. Politely stop them and say, “Thank you for your interest but I didn’t ask for your feedback.” When they rebut, as often they do, you can repeat yourself or ask for their credentials. Yes, you can do this! Anyone who feels they have a worthy suggestion won’t ego dump all over you. They will ask questions and then, if they feel their comments are still appropriate, they will ask if they may offer their opinion.

Each of us is uniquely endowed.

As Don read from All Our Wonder Unavenged and answered our questions, I realized he wrote wholly unto himself. Of the poetic mysteries, he was both seeker and Pythia. He’d made the pilgrimage up those steps, paused to read the lintel, and went forward into the inner sanctum. Don didn’t need external validation. He was sure his poetry had divined something profound for himself. When he departed that day, he left me with sparrows.  

If you’re trying to find divinity and divinity’s reasons in writing—you won’t. You’re looking for something mythical—a bat signal, claws that never need sharpening, “——an Element of Blank”.

Your unique endowment doesn’t need to be validated by a jury of your peers. You’ll never find the sparrows outside of yourself. Redress who you are, what you love, and what calls you to record it in your voice. Keep your fingers outstretched for those ribbons or for that idea that knocks again and again on the inside of your head and says, “Hey, me, write about me!” When you seek your own mastery and mystery, you will establish a certainty within yourself that goes beyond self-esteem. You’ll find divinity and joy in writing you.

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KAYLA GEITZLER, MA, is from Moncton, within Siknikt of the Mi’kma’ki. “A Rad Woman of Canadian Poetry” & Attic Owl Reading Series host, she was Moncton’s first Anglophone Poet Laureate. Her first poetry collection was a finalist for two awards. Kayla is co-editor of the multilingual anthology Cadence Voix Feminines Female Voices. She was a technical editor on pipeline projects & designed ATC courseware. As an editor, writing consultant & instructor, Kayla's affordable expertise helps writers & organizations achieve success.