The room is full of kids in the twelfth grade—a half-year away from university, a scant four years away from being able to work as lawyers, teachers, doctors. Yet they're kids, gangly, all budding newness and bright eyes and gigantic feet.
They look up at me as their teacher does the introduction. This is Kate Inglis, a writer, and she's here today to talk to you about, well—why I don't just let her tell you?
I haven't taught workshops beyond the third grade for a few years now. I sat down the night before and had to rethink it all—what would be my angle? Creative careers, and how your artistic predilections can actually be delightful as well as bankable in ways you can't see yet? Should I do the prompt again where I get them to tell me who they are, using metaphor? I love that one. They tell me about swirling hurricanes and the buzzing of crickets and lakes with water like glass. Or should I get them to give me the backstory to unusual photos? Animate this scene. A boy and a girl stand in an abandoned house. Why are they there?
There wouldn't be time for a reading, for me to talk much about my books. That's okay. The more important thing at that age is to talk about process and potential, to get them generating something. A quick review of who I am, then, and straight into some prompts.
"I wrote two middle-grade/YA novels about pirates; one book of silly monster poetry for 4-8 year-olds; and—"
Crap. How to explain the next one?
"—I had a baby, and he died. So I wrote about that."
The room goes silent. A couple of them clap their hands to their mouths and gasp. Fair enough. It's a backwards thing. It's not supposed to happen.
They're still young. They're in English class. It has to be gentle. But that's was what my writing often was, too: a veil of gentleness. Sometimes, it was to get the rage out. To force the world to look at him, see him. But much of the time, it was the practice of twisting sadness until it became a sort of peace. It was me grappling, reconciling. It was me reaching to shape this narrative until he became his own self, on his own journey rather than being defined by what happened to him, what went wrong.
"He is so much more than an incubator," I tell them. "He brought a sort of magic into my life. It's hard to explain. But writing about it—in book form, which my next one will be—is beautiful. It's a beautiful sad. Can you imagine? Can you imagine why being able to imagine in this way, when everything goes wrong, can save your life?"
The room felt pliable, as rooms get when you can hear a group of people thinking, considering.
"Nothing had ever really happened to me. I'd never been properly upset before. I grew up in a warm house with plenty of food and love. I'd never been sick or hurt. And then this happened. And I had writing to figure it out. This is why art is important."
We went on in our talk—about how when you're authoring, you're carrying on the ancient and truly thrilling practice of channeling voices.
"Your teachers will tell you to figure out the Who—What—Where—Why—When, but that's just your plot. That's not going to give enough on your protagonist, and you won't make a great story unless you deeply understand your protagonist. What drives them? What makes them afraid, and what makes them feel love and laughter? What holds them back?"
We flipped through my copy of Secret Path, the story of 12 year-old Chanie Wenjack, an Ojibwe boy who died fifty years ago when he rightfully ran away from the abusive residential school that had taken him 600 kilometres from his family. He walked in the direction of home for as long as he could.
"Is he lost, or brave? Is he scared, or determined? Tell me what he's thinking."
They wrote and wrote. We talked about how empathy is at the root of character as well as life in a post-Trump world, essential to heal all these divides. We talked about how powerful it is to give a voice to people who have either been voiceless or unheard or forgotten, and how much it helps us to see each other in each other—rather than to just see each other as OTHER.
The bell rang. They hesitated, looking at me.
"This isn't just sad," I said. "These are the best stories. The ones that take someone's suffering and shape it, form it, use it. As writers, we take this character—you, me, Chanie, even baby Liam—who might be feeling lost, and scared, and brave, and determined all at once—and we give them love by paying attention. We will almost always find understanding. Even a bit of magic. Even if it's fifty years too late, it counts. It matters to try, and this is art."
How has your creation or enjoyment of art—music, books, films, and your own words—helped you to find your feet in a life after loss? If you had to choose a word—lost, scared, brave, or determined—what would suit you most right now?