TO RSVP: Send me a message and tell me which event(s) you will be attending.
I took a break from facilitating conversation series in June (April was a series of conversations about shared and divergent values in relationships with cis men, and May was a series of conversations about parenting during the pandemic), but I’m back for July with a series on the topic of competition and comparison!
This conversation series is a response to a few conversations I’ve had with other folks about feeling burdened and overwhelmed by comparison – by the constant invitation offered by social media and by cultural norms to compare ourselves constantly to each other and to ideas about what we “should” be doing, what we “should” have accomplished.
Both comparison and competition create a hierarchy, winners and losers, some folks doing better, some folks doing worse.
I don’t love competition. (At all.) It makes me super uncomfortable. It’s important to acknowledge that, because I’m not an unbiased facilitator in these conversations.
However, I recognize that comparison and competition are complex and nuanced topics, and that even in my own life there have been times when comparison helped me get closer to my preferred self, and when competition felt playful and enlivening.
Part of my preparation for this series of conversations has been crafting narrative questions that don’t assume competition and comparison are always problems, and that invite participants to talk about these experiences in rich and meaningful ways, so that we can come out of the conversations feeling strengthened and more connected to our values and our sense of agency.
This conversation series will focus on how we have experienced, and also how we have responded to competition and comparison in our lives in a few different areas.
There will be three scheduled chats. I’m capping attendance at 10 participants per chat, and I will only run each chat if I have at least 3 confirmed attendees.
To RSVP, send me a message and I’ll send you the link(s) for the topics you’re interested in.
July 2, 5:30-7 pm mountain time – Competition and Comparison in Parenting
In this conversation, we’ll talk about:
– how competition shows up in our parenting lives, including our kids participation in competitive games and sports, and competition within our families
– how comparison shows up in our parenting lives, including comparing our kids’ development to normative developmental timelines, comparing ourselves to other parents, comparing ourselves to the norms and expectations placed on parents, and comparing ourselves to our own parents
– the effects of competition and comparison on our experiences of ourselves as parents, and how we witness competition and comparison impacting our kids – what these discourses make possible, and what they make more difficult, and how we might take a stand in relation to ideas of competition and comparison
July 9, 5:30-7 pm mountain time – Competition and Comparison at Work
This conversation will be about work, and about how capitalism and norms of productivity invite us into both competition and comparison, and how we respond to these invitations. We’ll talk about:
– how competition shows up at work, including competing for resources with our coworkers, competitive workplaces, and what it even means to “be competitive”
– how comparison shows up at work, including comparing ourselves with colleagues, comparing ourselves to the idea of having a “dream job”, and comparing our working lives with the hopes we had for ourselves when we were younger
– the effects of competition and comparison on our experiences of ourselves at work – what these discourses make possible, and what they make more difficult, and how we might take a stand in relation to ideas of competition and comparison
July 16, 5:30-7 pm mountain time – Personal Histories of Competition and Comparison
This chat is all about how we witnessed and experienced competition and comparison in our early childhood homes and communities, how competition and comparison are framed within our cultures, and our own personal experiences with competition and comparison that may be shaping how we experience them now.
This will be another incomplete, last minute, hastily written letter. Still shiny, I would like to think, but shiny like the rainbow slick on a puddle – a brief glimmer in a storm.And wow, are we in a storm.
The Shiny! Speculative Writing Group will be meeting tomorrow, June 7, from 4-6 pm mountain time. Email me for the link.
There is never a cost to attend the Shiny! writing group, but I would like to invite any participants at tomorrow’s event to make a donation of whatever amount you feel the writing group is worth towards supporting a Black creative, or towards one of the organizations supporting protesters right now.
I recognize that this group includes a lot of folks who are living with financial precarity, made worse for the folks in Alberta by the UCP attacking AISH. If making a donation is not possible, I would invite us each to find some other way of offering support. Supporting the work of standing against anti-Blackness and police violence is so necessary. Being part of that work is so necessary.
I would also like to invite the non-Black members of this group to engage meaningfully with the work of Black writers this month. Not just the critical and necessary non-fiction writing about this current political moment, but also the writing of Black romance writers, humour writers, and, of course, speculative fiction writers. Check out the Spring book list at Well Read Black Girl for some ideas.
Have you heard about the Heavy Hitters Poetry Festival? Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body is Not An Apology, is performing on June 9th! You can get tickets here – https://awfulgoodwriters.com/
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, whose short story Evidence is featured in An Unexpected Light, and was the very first prompt we used in this group, has a book called M: Archive that follows that trajectory and imagines Black ongoingness after a worldwide cataclysm. Relevant! https://www.alexispauline.com/
We are collectively witnessing a phenomenal volume of Black pain in the news, and it is so critical that we do witness this, that we see it, recognize it, understand that it is not ‘shocking’ or new. That we recognize how anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence are two strong threads in the rope of capitalist colonialism, and that we work to fray and unravel and dismantle that rope.
But we also have to recognize, and have to actively seek out, the other stories. Black lives matter all the time, not just when they are suffering. Black joy matters. Black imagination matters. If you are invested in supporting a movement for change, I really believe that you must also be invested in seeking out more than just the trauma.
So, you may have guessed that tomorrow’s writing group will focus on what is happening politically right now.
It’s going to be a bit of a different session, more reflective writing than fantastical writing, though I think that reflection can also be speculative in nature. At its best, reflective writing invites us to speculate about our own preferred selves and lives, and can be incredibly future-enabling work.
My goal in writing these prompts was to find ways that we could engage as a group with what is happening culturally and politically in ways that generate and sustain hope without turning away from pain and struggle, and in ways that invite a variety of voices without appropriating stories or experiences that are not our own.
I wanted to invite us to step more meaningfully into our own story, rather than taking the too-frequent path of stepping into the story of someone who is marginalized in ways we are not. I didn’t want to set us up to “imagine what it’s like for someone facing this injustice” because, although I think it is absolutely critical that we read the first hand accounts of people who are facing hardship, and we believe them, that is different than trying to speak in their voices.
It is sometimes easier to imagine ourselves into a life that seems like it is harder than our own, easier to cast ourselves out into that other voice and experience, than to really sit with our own experience, and with the ways in which our own lives are entangled in systems of oppression and harm, the ways in which our own stories are shaped and constrained by colonialism and capitalism, the ways in which we have been invited to be complicit and the values we hold that do not align with these systems of harm. I hope that this event can help us polish off some of those shiny values.
So these prompts are meant to invite reflection on our own experience of this time, on the stories we are being told of this time, and what we can contribute at this time.
My hope is that this event tomorrow will leave participants feeling that their critical eye on the stories we’re being shared has been sharpened, and that their hope for the future and energy to take action in support of justice have been strengthened.
Here are our writing prompts for tomorrow:
What is the story of this time, right now?
This may not seem like a speculative writing prompt, but “the story” of any time is always an act of imagination. There is no single true story of any event. In this prompt, I want to invite us to consider what we are being told about the nature of this current political and cultural moment. Who is telling us this story? What is being valued in this story? Who does this story serve? Does this story align with our own experience or understanding of this time? What is the story we are telling of this time? What is the story we want to tell?
What is the story of this time, 50 years from now?
This is a more directly speculative prompt. What is the mythology of 2020 that evolves over the next half century? How do you imagine the grandchildren of this generation will speak about this time?
What is being asked of you at this time?
This is an invitation to use our speculative writing powers to imagine what we might have to offer, and what might be asked of us or needed from us at this time. What do we have to offer? What do we wish we had to offer?
If you plan to attend tomorrow, please let me know! If there are less than four confirmed attendees, I will be cancelling the event.
The following is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given on August 24, 2019. The second part of this event was an interview with Kay and Sam, which will be shared next week. Both of these posts are shared in celebration of BPD Awareness Month. The image is a still from the presentation., with Kay on the left, Tiffany in the middle, and Sam on the right.
Welcome to “Recognizing BPD Superpowers”, on the topic of sharing and celebrating the hopes, skills, insider knowledges, and experiences of folks who identify with Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD. This includes people who have claimed the label for themselves, people who have had the label applied to them, and people for whom both are true.
I want to note up front that this presentation will include references to self-harm, suicidality, and to some of the stigmatizing and pathologizing language that is often applied to folks who are identified with BPD. This has the potential to be triggering. If, at any point, you need to take a break – that is a-okay! Also, it’s a long post! Sorry!
Before we get started, I’d like to introduce you to my co-facilitators.
Kay D’Odorico is a queer, neurodivergent human of Indigenous and European descent. They advocate for Sex Workers and own and operate their own perfuming business full-time here in Mohkinstsís.
Sam is just a human pursuing her best possible self. She is passionate about her recovery, her intersections, and wishes to hold space for others while creating it for herself.
Both of these humans have been phenomenal supports and collaborators, and I’m honoured to have shared this space with them. The narrative interview with these two lovely humans, which followed this presentation, will be shared next week on this blog.
My name is Tiffany Sostar. My pronouns are they/them. I’m a narrative therapist, community organizer, editor, writer, workshop facilitator, and tarot reader – I do a bunch of different things, and they all sort of orient around engaging with stories. The stories people tell about ourselves and others, the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and others, and, especially, how we can tell our stories in ways that make us stronger. That phrase – telling our stories in ways that make us stronger – comes from Auntie Barbara Wingard, an Australian Aboriginal narrative therapist who has done profoundly meaningful work on many topics, including creating ways for Indigenous communities to grieve together in ways that are consistent with their cultures.
My own work is significantly influenced by the work of Indigenous narrative therapists and community organizers, including Auntie Barb, Tileah Drahm-Butler who is another Australian narrative therapist, and Michelle Robinson, who is a community organizer and politician here in Calgary. (You can find one of Aunty Barb’s projects, a walking history tour here, and one of Tileah’s project, a presentation on decolonizing identity stories here, and Michelle Robinson’s Patreon and podcast here.)
Colonial Violence and BPD
As a white settler who works in the field of mental health, a field that has historically been incredibly harmful to marginalized communities, including Indigenous, Black, trans, queer, two-spirit, fat, unhoused, sex working, substance using, and so many other communities who have come to professionals for help and been met with stigma and harm, I think that recognizing how much I have benefitted from the work of marginalized communities is critical. Any good work that I do in communities that are more or differently marginalized than I am myself is entirely due to the generosity and wisdom of the people within those communities who have shared their insider knowledges.
This workshop happened on Indigenous land, and this blog post is being written on Indigenous land. All land is Indigenous land. Here, I am on Treaty 7 land. It is the land of the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Kainai, Siksika, and Piikani First Nations, and the Stoney Nakoda, including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations, the Tsuut’ina, the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and all of the other Indigenous men, women, and two-spirit folks who are here as a result of child removals, forced relocations, economic pressures, or other reasons.
This work was inspired by Osden Nault, and we had been talking about getting this project underway for quite some time. We both noted the lack of BPD voices in resources and writing about BPD, and wanted to do something to address that. This presentation, and the resources that are currently under development, would not have happened without Osden. They also co-facilitated the first group discussion that created the foundation for this workshop. Osden is an artist of Michif and mixed European descent, whose art practice and research are both grounded in queer, feminist, and Indigenous world-views. Osden lives in Tkaronto on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations, under the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which precedes colonial treaties on this land. Even though they weren’t at this workshop, their influence was present!
This presentation was, and is, part of a larger series of resources that the BPD Superpowers group is creating around BPD, some of which will be shared during BPD Awareness Month in May of 2020. If you live in a colonial country and don’t know whose land you’re on, it would be worth looking that up. The land you’re on is now part of this project, too.
Here in Canada, the Final Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people found that:
“The significant, persistent, and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human rights and Indigenous rights violations and abuses – perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state, designed to displace Indigenous Peoples from their land, social structures, and governance and to eradicate their existence as Nations, communities, families, and individuals – is the cause of the disappearances, murders, and violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, and is genocide. This colonialism, discrimination, and genocide explains the high rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.”
We must talk about colonial violence when we are talking about trauma-related mental health experiences, which many people experience BPD as being, because otherwise we risk perpetuating harm. For example, the 2014 research paper “Characteristics of borderline personality disorder in a community sample,” published in the Journal of Personality Disorders, finds that Native American and African American communities are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with BPD, and with other conditions such as depression, anxiety, etc.
I think that, knowing this, we must look at racial trauma, and acknowledge how racial trauma impacts individuals if we are going to talk about these experiences and diagnoses. Otherwise, we are missing key context.
Rebecca Lester, in her paper, “Lessons from the Borderline” writes:
“Most people diagnosed with BPD grew up in situations where their very existence as a person with independent thoughts and feelings was invalidated (Minzenberg et al., 2003). Sometimes, this entailed chronic abuse, either physical or sexual. Sometimes it was more of a grinding parental indifference. People diagnosed with BPD overwhelmingly experienced their early lives as involving constant messages that they do not – and should not – fully exist.”
How can we separate this from the findings of the Final Report, which identify exactly this dynamic of abuse and identity invalidation as having been directed at Indigenous communities since the beginning of colonization? I don’t think that we can.
What even is a “personality disorder”?!
So, borderline personality disorder, like many “personality disorders” is a contested and controversial term and diagnosis. Heads up for some stigmatizing and pathologizing language in this next section. I want to give you a bit of context for the social location of BPD, and for my own positioning here.
I have never received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Although there are many BPD characteristics that I do strongly identify with, and I share an experience of trauma that many BPD folks might recognize, I do not feel a strong attachment to the BPD label. In my own life, I am comfortable recognizing certain shared experiences without claiming a shared identity.
In my own work, I do not diagnose the community members who consult with me for narrative therapy, but I do respect and work with the diagnoses that people bring into our sessions. There are lots of reasons for this, but one important one for locating myself within this work is that as a narrative therapist, I am interested in externalizing problems – meaning, locating the problem outside of the person I am consulting with. I think that many contemporary ways of speaking about borderline personality disorder invite us to view BPD as a set of traits inherent to an individual.
BPD is often described as a volatility that can make people dangerous, an instability, a lack of cohesive identity – all of these ways of speaking about BPD locate it within the person, rather than within their context. I think that this obscures the many ways in which folks who have been identified with BPD respond to the problems in their lives. These ways of speaking, of telling a story about BPD, can end up having the consequence of giving BPD more agency than the person in front of us!
And I think that this is a problem.
I also think it’s a problem that can arise even when we’re not being malicious or trying to be stigmatizing – “You can’t help it, it’s the BPD” is a framing that invites neither accountability nor dignity and agency, even though it appears to be a compassionate approach.
Instead, I am interested in how people respond when BPD shows up in their lives. I’m interested in learning when this problem first showed up, what it wants, and how people have responded to it. What are they valuing when they pick up a DBT workbook and start developing their strategies for emotional regulation? What are they hoping for when they continue to show up in relationships despite the BPD voice telling them to bail? Who taught them that they could respond? Who in their lives knows what they cherish, and would not be surprised to learn that they are taking actions to respond to the problems in their lives?
Rebecca Lester writes:
“I understand BPD somewhat differently than my clinical colleagues who see it as a dysfunction of personality and my academic colleagues who see it as a mechanism of social regulation. In my view, BPD does not reside within the individual person; a person stranded alone on a desert island cannot have BPD. Nor does it reside within diagnostic taxa; if we eliminated BPD from the DSM, people would still struggle with the cluster of issues captured in the diagnosis. Rather, BPD resides – and only resides – in relationship. BPD is a disorder of relationship, not of personality. And it is only a ‘disorder’ because it extends an entirely adaptive skill set into contexts where those skills are less adaptive and may cause a great deal of difficulty. Yet due to the contexts in which the skills were developed, the person has a great deal of trouble amending them (Linehan, 1993). Since BPD resides in relationship, BPD can also be attenuated through relationship: it is not a life-sentence, and it is not even necessarily problematic if managed constructively.”
One of the foundational beliefs of narrative therapy is that the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem, and the solution is rarely individual. I think that this is an important framing to bring to discussions of BPD.
So that’s where I stand.
Questioning the Discourse
How about the discourse around BPD?
In her fantasy book Borderline, author Mishell Baker, who identifies as BPD herself and has written a badass BPD heroine for the novel, writes, “Sometimes, the first thing people learn about borderlines is that you can’t trust them. And there’s not always much learning after that.”
That’s why it is so important to think critically about the stories we are telling about BPD, and about people who are identified with BPD. To keep learning. To interrogate what we have been taught or told about what it means to live with BPD experiences.
Does the story leave room for the dignity and agency of the person being described?
Does it position the person as the expert in their own experience?
Who does this story serve, and what are the potential outcomes of this story?
We need to ask these questions anytime we read an article, a post, a book, a webpage – what, and who, is being supported in this narrative?
What, and who, is being diminished?
Bring these questions with you anytime you engage with writing or speaking about BPD (or anything else!)
BPD is recognized as one of ten personality disorders in the DSM, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. In the ICD-10, the manual used by the World Health Organization, this diagnosis is named “emotionally unstable personality disorder.”
The Mayo Clinic defines a personality disorder as:
“A type of mental disorder in which you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving. A person with a personality disorder has trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people. This causes significant problems and limitations in relationships, social activities, work and school.”
We’re going to come back to this idea of “trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people” because, in fact, many participants in our BPD Superpowers group identified themselves as being uniquely and specifically skilled in observing their environments, relationships, and selves, and in building community and empathizing and connecting with other people. Although it is true that many folks experience BPD as getting in the way of their relationships at times, this does not mean that they cannot perceive and understand what is happening around them.
BPD and Abuse
This framing, this story of what a personality disorder is, can be weaponized against a person who is identified with BPD. It can actually leave them more vulnerable to abuse, because it frames them as being somehow inherently and perpetually incapable of accurate perception. Even if this is not what a clinician might mean when they use this language, this is what you get from a quick google search. Very little discussion of the social contexts within which these so-called “personality disorders” arise, and almost nothing that describes the skillful and intentional ways in which people respond to these problems.
Gaslighting refers to actions that cause someone to question their own memory, perception, or sanity. Gaslighting can happen intentionally – lying about, denying, or misrepresenting what has happened.
But it can also happen unintentionally when we treat someone’s perception as unreliable, when we default to the idea that they are lying or mistaken, when we refuse to position them as the experts in their own experiences. The discourse of personality disorders as meaning that a person “has trouble perceiving situations” can create a context within which a person with BPD is being constantly, and often unintentionally and non-maliciously but still harmfully!, gaslit. It can leave people who are identified with BPD in the position of not being believed if they are subjected to abuse. It is not a helpful framing.
How are we witnessing BPD?
As an alternative framing, it might be helpful to ask ourselves what is influencing how we are witnessing the people in our lives who are identified with BPD. Are we kind witnesses to their experiences? Are we holding space for them to share their insider knowledges into what they need, what they are experiencing, and what is helpful for them?
And on the topic of helpful or unhelpful, here is what Wikipedia has to say about BPD:
“BPD is characterized by the following signs and symptoms:
Markedly disturbed sense of identity
Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment and extreme reactions
Splitting (“black-and-white” thinking)
Impulsivity and impulsive or dangerous behaviors (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)
Intense or uncontrollable emotional reactions that often seem disproportionate to the event or situation
Unstable and chaotic interpersonal relationships
Frequently accompanied by depression, anxiety, anger, substance abuse, or rage
The most distinguishing symptoms of BPD are marked sensitivity to rejection or criticism, and intense fear of possible abandonment. Overall, the features of BPD include unusually intense sensitivity in relationships with others, difficulty regulating emotions, and impulsivity. Other symptoms may include feeling unsure of one’s personal identity, morals, and values; having paranoid thoughts when feeling stressed; depersonalization; and, in moderate to severe cases, stress-induced breaks with reality or psychotic episodes.”
The wiki page also includes the Millon subtypes, which include Discouraged borderline, Petulant borderline, Impulsive borderline, and Self-destructive borderline. Fabulous.
So that’s Wikipedia, which is one of the first places that many folks look when they receive a diagnosis of BPD or when they are trusted with a disclosure from a friend or family member, or when they hear about someone having BPD.
If you are here as a friend, family member, or someone in community with folks who are identified with BPD, imagine what it might feel like to read that about yourself, and to have that be the dominant narrative of who you are. Imagine what it might feel like to know that people around you are reading this about you, and may be talking about you and people like you in these terms.
If you are here as a person who identifies with BPD, know that I and every one of the people involved in this project, and many people beyond this group, see you for more than these degrading and diminishing descriptors. We recognize your superpowers. We recognize your resilience. In one of the group discussions, a participant said, “Every single person with BPD who is still with us, and those that aren’t still with us, I think that we absolutely deserve to be acknowledged and that our hard work should be acknowledged. Not tokenized or pedestalized, but having that work acknowledged and witnessed.”
And I agree with Rebecca Lester when she writes:
Through challenging embedded bias, honoring the testimonies of individuals, questioning of our own motivations, and renewing a commitment to reduce injustice, silencing, and suffering, our intellectual, clinical, and human potentialities are being stretched and, if we are fortunate, will continue to grow.
What I find most compelling about my clients with ‘borderline’ symptoms is that they are still struggling to exist despite the deep conviction that they do not deserve to do so. And they are still struggling to connect with others, despite being told again and again that they are manipulative and controlling and difficult. Far from being inauthentic, then, these individuals are reaching out into the world in the most honest, direct, vulnerable ways they possibly can, all the while bracing for the invalidation and hostility that they know is likely to follow. They cannot help but reach for connection, and to hold out faith, however dim, that they will find it. I find this incredibly inspiring; it puts front-and-center the impulse for growth and health that I believe exists in all of us, no matter how encrusted with despair, dysfunction, hopelessness, or defeat.
I learn from these clients every single day. Their struggles and their resilience humble me. They remind me that intellectual critique is but one piece of a much larger puzzle, and that they have experiences that deserve to be heard and validated, even when (perhaps especially when) they challenge our interpretations. They push me to become a better scholar, a better clinician, and, I hope, in the end, a better human being.
One of the contributors to the BPD Superpowers project, Dottie Ayala, shared the following on her facebook page and has given us permission to use this quote in the resource.
with my bpd symptoms, I just can’t handle cbt or dbt thanks to fucked up experiences in the past. And I don’t trust any therapists bc they’re only getting my POV about what’s happening and I think they side with me more than is valid sometimes. And also trusting someone else’s judgement more than my own is so damaging as an abuse survivor.
but I notice my reactions getting less and less severe over the years and that’s just like a combination of introspection, community, and also others holding me accountable. Plus realizing I have bpd helped me be able to recognize when I’m having a flare and prepare accordingly.
basically, mental health care can look really different for different ppl. I feel like my doctors act like I’m resisting treatment when really I’m just resisting being harmed more.
Dottie Ayala, Facebook post
Difficulty in relationships is one of the most common traits associated with BPD, and yet our group has maintained such a strong focus on community and the role of cherished friends and community members. This group, and so many folks identified with BPD beyond this group, prove how thin and simplistic are the dominant narratives of BPD.
I’m going to end with the list of superpowers that were identified in our group conversations. These superpowers will be explored more fully in the collective document, which I hope to have ready to share by the end of this month!
The Superpower of Community (and community care)
The Superpower of Showing Up
Dialectics as a Superpower (holding multiple true stories)
Empathy and Compassion
The Superpower of Quick Turnaround of Emotions
The Superpower of Being Able to Get Out of a Bad Situation
The Ability to ‘Chameleon’
Check back next week for the next BPD Awareness Month post, which will be the video and transcript of the interview with Kay and Sam.
I have been trying to write this letter for most of the month, and it is arriving a full two weeks late. It has been a time, hasn’t it?
I’ve been thinking about what Shannon wrote in our very first in-person meeting – “The calm that exists because of it is wonderful and is like a vacation that never ends. I remember vacations and loving the way the days were shaped by desire and curiosity. I remember loving them. I know you love them. Imagine a world like that.”
I’ve been thinking about all the pressures we are under to be productive in this time of isolation and lockdown and physical distancing, and how we are also under a competing pressure to experience this time as a break, a rest, a reset, a vacation of sorts. I’ve been thinking about how both of those pressures land in unkind ways for many of us.
Right now, maybe not “more than ever” but certainly more than usually, we need ways to reach for hope, to find the shiny threads hidden in the gutters, to seek out possibility, to imagine our way into the future. We need ways to do this that are justice oriented, that are aware of existing power structures, that are welcoming of diverse experiences, that hold space for the discomfort and fear and grief of this time in our lives. We need robust hope, a light that can show us the next step forward.
So, here we are. The Shiny! speculative writing group meets again.
This month there will be no in-person meeting. And I’m not sure when we’ll have our next in-person meeting! We’ll be listening to the recommendations of health professionals, and then being a little extra careful because some of us have compromised immune systems or complex health concerns (including me!)
Instead, we will be meeting from 4-6 pm Mountain time on Sunday April 5 in a GoToMeeting chat. If you’d like the invite link, please send me a message.
In this letter, you will find a craft lesson, writing prompts, some recommended reading, and some shared writing.
How do we practice craft during a crisis? Plot, pacing, dialogue, point-of-view… all of these things seem so far beyond what many of us are experiencing in our daily life. How do we bring these onto the page? How can we write anything good while everything around us is terrifying and bad?!
If you’re having trouble writing anything at all, let alone anything that feels like it’s “good” writing, you’re not alone. Even Neil Gaiman has been having a tough time with it.
So, instead of our usual craft lesson, this month let’s try something else.
Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, writes, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.“
This month, let’s remember that craft includes shitty first drafts, incomplete paragraphs, stories that go nowhere, ideas that tumble around the page and end up looking like a mess. This is craft, too.
So just write anything.
Write five first lines, with no demand on yourself to take them further than first line.
Write one snippet of dialogue.
Write a list of ideas, no matter how far-fetched.
Set your timer for 10 minutes and free associate from the word “pandemic” and then set another 10 minute timer and free associate from “hope” and then spend five minute searching for resonances between your two lists. (Free associating just means that you start with the word and then you write as many words as you can think of that are in some way connected.) When your mind takes you down a path during this process, follow it – turn the timer off and go.
However you show up for yourself at this time, however you show up at the page (or not!) is craft.
I know it doesn’t feel like it. Trust me, my beloved magpies, I know. I feel the failure, too! I, too, saw that post that went viral about documenting our lives during this time for future historians, and even though I’ve had a three-pages-every-morning routine since my dad died, I still haven’t managed to journal in the morning this month. I know it feels like failure.
My favourite craft book is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, and the title reminds me that right now we are steering our craft through the storm.
Now is the time to be kind with our creative selves.
These gentle invitations to the page are craft, too.
This month’s shared writing comes from Agnieszka, and although it was written before the pandemic was determined to be a pandemic, before we went into isolation, before we realized that everything would change… even though it was written before this time, the portal described is exactly what we need right now.
Now, with so many pressures to be productive, to be creative, to be well… it’s a possibility that some of us will experience create productivity, creativity, wellness, in this time. But let it pass. Just breathe. Hold onto the wall. Just be in the now. In the doorway.
A portal opens or closes
A portal opens or closes March 1, 2020
(My gut hurts from worry about too many difficult things, unsolvable problems, total fear of failing at all dreams, time passing by, kids growing away from me, me hanging on too tightly and causing issues for their future but letting go causes issues for their future too. But, there is nothing coming from all this effort! I’ve been too serious, too worried. That’s always the problem – worry shuts down creativity… But does it really??)
I want this mind to open. Let life pass. Let ideas pass. Let hope and newness and possibility pass. Why be so crammed in the dinghy basement of tension, freaking out, pressure, fear, and self-judgement? Why breathe only comparison and self-judgement? Let possibility pass.
Let possibility pass. The door IS open. Yes, it is. Regardless of words not coming out perfectly. Just a chance to practice, to imagine, no matter what, doesn’t matter what. Just let them pass. Breathe. Let whatever IS there just be there.
And stay. Stay quietly calm, present, patient. Curious.
Let it pass. Give it time. The door stays open. Approach slowly. No, it won’t suck me in. It’s okay. Hang on to the wall. Take small steps. Breathe deep and slow.
So. This is a threshold then. Afraid that I’ll get lost. It feels like fear on the inside. If I let go of the worry, what will be there? The story of success is bullsh*t, I know… If I let go of the tensions, what will keep me upright…?
Maybe it’s okay to let the tension go and just be. Just be. Lie down. Rest. And maybe it’s not all up to me.
The tension lessens. The door is still open. Nothing needs to happen. Just let possibility pass. Stay here waiting.
Breathing into the vast space. Take shelter in the sky. Letting the blue feed me. Drinking in the safety of the ground. Letting skin be warmed by the sun. That’s it.
Coming back into being. Not past, not future. Just now. Just being now. In the doorway. When the breath passes through, the stories and possibilities will pass through as well.
Reading it also part of our writing craft!
This month I have some excellent recommendations, along with short study guides.
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. By adrienne maree brown. This book! It is the spark that grew into An Unexpected Light and it is a constant source of inspiration. I highly, highly recommend it. It also includes many, many references to speculative fiction works and writers.
Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories for the Transformative Justice Movement. Edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. This collection of stories is a brilliant place to spark your ideas for justice beyond the prison industrial complex and ideas of punishment and exile. If transformative justice is part of the future you want to imagine, this book will offer you a lot to work with.
Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture. By Nora Samaran. This book (which is phenomenal and inspiring) grew out of Samaran’s essay “Nurturance is the Opposite of Rape Culture,” and both the essay and the book invite us to imagine what might become possible if we cultivated communities based on nurturance rather than violence. Where the essay focuses specifically on men and women and rape culture, the book expands this conversation to include all of society. For those of us wanting to write speculative fiction that includes care and nurturance, this will help. (For those of us who want to understand violence, this is also an incredibly valuable book.)
Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief. Edited by Cindy Milstein. I think that learning how to grieve, and how to write grief, and how to grieve together, and how to become comfortable with grief and grieving – these will be critical skills for those of us who want to write through to more possible futures. It’s a beautiful and moving book.
I want to share hopeful short fiction. I think it is so important! But in reality, I have not been able to focus on reading any kind of fiction this month. And I won’t share what I haven’t read, so instead… I love this essay by Aislinn Thomas. “Disability, Creativity, and Care in the Time of COVID-19.“
And I recommend watching Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts and Netflix. (Participants in An Unexpected Light have been invited to participate in weekly watch parties while we’re all in isolation together. Would you like to participate? Let me know!)
Here are the three prompts for our next writing session. (Which, again, will be happening on April 5, from 4-6 pm mountain time, on gotomeeting. If you’d like the link, let me know!)
The last prompt is an invitation, and a hope. I hope that you will contribute to the zine!
An enchanted apple. (Or pomegranate seed. Or fruit from some sort of super fancy tree. Or, like, a really amazing raspberry.)
The soft relentlessness of waves on sand.
Write something for my Succulent Zine! (April 10 is the deadline for the zine.)
I love the comic about how we are basically houseplants with complicated feelings, and it got me thinking about how isolation means we need to be succulents, able to survive and thrive in conditions of scarcity and intensity, and how fear also turns out lives into deserts, and how precarity does the same.
So I thought we could use that metaphor, and make a little zine about what gets us through, and how we get each other through.
What are our skills of survival?
What are our strategies of mutual aid and collective action and care?
How are we keeping ourselves going, and what can we teach each other?
Many of us are in communities with generations-long histories of succulent lives in deserts of ableism, transantagonism, queerphobia, colonialism, white supremacy. Oppressed and targeted communities know the way forward.
If you’d like to write something about how you’re feeling about the news, the health guidelines, the government response, your own experiences of isolation as a result of disability or illness that were not accommodated and how this has given you insider insight into what gets you through
This is the text of the introductory email sent out to participants in the Shiny! speculative writing group. The email is a digital version of the launch party we hosted in Calgary on January 26, 2020. (This email will also be sent out to new participants who sign up for the email list.)
The goal of this post is to let you know what to expect from the group, set out the various ways to participate, and share the schedule for 2020. This email also includes some writing generously shared by participants at our first Shiny! writing group meeting on February 2, 2020.
Our monthly emails (the first of which will be coming out mid-February, 2020) will not include quite so much background, and will not be as long.
So, first, introductions.
The first introduction is for the group itself.
Shiny! a speculative writing group is an offshoot of An Unexpected Light, a six-month online course in narrative therapy and speculative fiction. Although Shiny! extends the work that we’re doing in that course, and exists because course participants asked for it, you do not need to be a past or present (or even future) participant in the course in order to be part of this group. You can download the syllabus and find out more about upcoming rounds of the course here.
An Unexpected Light was created in response to a growing sense of hopelessness and despair within my communities, and Shiny! extends this work into an ongoing, inclusive, joy-and-justice oriented writing group.
Hello! I’m Tiffany. I will be our facilitator.
I’m a white settler on this land, and the in-person events for Shiny! will happen at Loft 112 take place on Treaty 7 land. This is the traditional and ongoing home of the Indigenous signatories of Treaty 7, which include the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani First Nations; the Stoney Nakoda, including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations; and the Tsuut’ina First Nation. This land is also home to the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and to all of the Indigenous folks who live here. The ongoing effects of colonization and capitalism mean that this land is home to many Indigenous folks whose traditional land is elsewhere or unknown. Shiny! is explicitly an anti-colonial and anti-racist group, and recognizing the ongoing effects of the colonial project is part of that work.
I am non-binary, and use they/them pronouns. I co-facilitated a Non-binary Superpowers narrative therapy group with my colleague Rosie Maeder in Adelaide, South Australia, and we published a collective document in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work. You can read a PDF of that document here.
I’m also fibromyalgia-enhanced, and constantly working to make peace with my inner demons.
I have degrees in English (Hons) and Women’s Studies (Hons) from the University of Calgary, and a Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work from the Dulwich Centre and the University of Melbourne. I’ve been published in a few places, and have worked as a professional editor for quite a while. I’ve been facilitating writing workshops and groups for over a decade.
We will be getting together in person most months in 2020, with the opportunity to write together, and to share our writing and respond to each other.
The next introduction, you!
This group is open to participants of every gender, orientation, ability, neurotype, race, class, body size, and experience with writing. Youth over 12 are also welcome.
You do not need to be a published or experienced writer to join us – everyone has a unique and valuable voice, and imagining possible futures is work for everyone.
You do need to be interested in and invested in justice and liberation in order to participate in Shiny! The goal of this group is to write possible futures that are more just, more inclusive, more free than what we have now. The status, as Doctor Horrible so rightly put it, is not quo. I hope that this group will help us find ways to challenge the status quo, to find ways forward into futures that are more colourful and more liberated. Futures that refuse patriarchy, colonialism, racism, fatphobia, ableism, ageism, transantagonism, heteronormativity, and all the host of other systems and structures of harm that surround us in the present.
I am so excited to share this space with you!
So, what can you expect from this group?
The in-person meetings will include time to share snippets that we’ve read and appreciated over the last month and to reflect on writing that has really resonated for us, time to write together, and time to share our writing.
These meetings will happen on the first Sunday of most months at Loft 112, from 4-6 pm.
Our confirmed 2020 dates are:
March 1 (at Loft 112)
April 5 (location and time TBD – this will also be the launch party for the spring round of An Unexpected Light!)
May 3 (at Loft 112, tentative)
June 7 (at Loft 112)
July and August dates TBD
September 6 (at Loft 112)
October 4 (at Loft 112)
November 1 (at Loft 112)
December 6 (at Loft 112)
Participants are welcome to write between sessions and bring that writing to the group if they want.
The emails will hopefully support that writing! And also be a way for people to fully participate from a distance.
The Shiny! online component exists in order to make the group accessible to participants who can’t make it to the in-person meetings because of work schedules, childcare, disability, distance, or any other reasons.
There will be two emails per month. The first will be short, and will be sent out the day of the in-person writing group and will share the writing prompts that set for that session.
The second will be more substantial and will go out mid-month, with the first email going out mid-February 2020.
The longer emails will include:
Some reflections on our topic for the upcoming month.
A couple writing prompts.
Selections of writing shared by participants in the last month.
A small link roundup relevant to our topics.
And a craft lesson each month!
These lessons are entirely optional, and nobody will be grading you! But if you want to fine-tune your craft, hopefully these lessons will be a resource. The craft topics requested at the launch party are:
Narrative voice and perspective
How to write short fiction
How to write mystery
These longer monthly emails will be shared as blog posts, which you can find on my website or on Patreon, with a link to the blog post sent out to the email list. If you would like to be added to the email list, let me know!
Here are the two prompts we wrote on at our first writing group session on February 2, 2020.
First, we read an excerpt from Alexis Pauline Gumbs story Evidence in Octavia’s Brood. This was a letter written from Alexis beyond capitalism to Alexis within capitalism. (Although I can’t share that excerpt publicly here, you can find more of Gumb’s amazing future-thinking in this podcast episode.)
The prompt was: Write a letter to yourself from a future beyond an oppressive system that currently constrains you. (Some of these letters are generously shared below, and brought me to tears in the session!)
Our second prompt was generated using the Magic & Fairy Tale Storycubes, and we wrote stories that included a knight, a wizard, and a treasure chest.
Letter to Self from a Post-Apocalyptic Future.
February 2, 2020
(How amazing that I can send this to you! So much has changed over all these years…)
The world made it through!
Somehow, we were able to stop destroying.
I don’t think anyone believed it would ever actually happen… that humanity would finally see Itself as intrinsically part of the Organism that is Earth… that all the self-harming practices – even if they relieve the pain of regret-isolation-sorrow – could be lessened respectfully… and that we-Earth can love us/Itself with compassion again.
Yes! We forgave each other! And Earth forgave us! Forgiving/forgiven for all the damage and harm done out of fear and misunderstanding. We moved forward, toward a patient re-learning how to care for and respond to the loneliness that drove us to distraction, production, the whole illness of progress.
Honey, I know that you *know* how hard this is to do. When the pain strikes, and it seems like nothing will stop it and pretending to “be normal and go shopping” seems like the only way out.
Sweetie, forgive yourself for not knowing. Continue doing what you are doing. I am telling you from here that imagining different possibilities in response to the pain and the regret and the fear, is exactly what was needed.
Relieving the pain makes perfect sense! No judgement against any human on Earth! Searching for true relief – the collective relief, for everyone, every life – through patient, respectful questioning – that is the work that eventually brought us towards Healing. Hope and peace.
We finally saw what really mattered! We saw how incredibly beautiful it all was, we all were! How unbelievably “enough”! And we could stop the cutting, the burning, the packaging, the injecting, the improving. And we stopped!
We looked at each other and at the Earth, and we were stunned. By the sheer beauty and wealth of just being and wealth of Being Just.
We really breathed! We breathed the Air. The Water that remained was slowly but steadily healing Itself because the Earth loves to heal. The Green things gracefully returned.
We were patient and respectfully waited. We used language and music and art and all the ingenuity of Earth to bless Life. With respect and awe.
Agnieszka, I know you offered yourself in Love and Compassion to People/Earth around you.
And I know you were often bound by rules/constructs in your society that created tensions and fear. I am so glad that you didn’t let it stop Your loving and forgiving (despite the harsh pressure to focus on the capitalistic bottom line).
I am so glad you persisted, because your persistence kept the Love growing, and practicing forgiveness allowed it to grow big enough for the Healing to take.
This Healing couldn’t happen without Forgiveness. So, thank you.
Love yourself fiercely. Always.
It’s the fuel of all our Potential.
From a place where you have all the time, the energy, space to do things. Where you are no longer obligated to keep a space in your mind for bills, money and the like.
Don’t worry, each step takes you closer. Each choice, and while it seemed impossible, you weren’t the only one. Everyone wanted to be free of the burden that is capitalism. Time has the value you want in it, and not defined by dollars. Passion is first and no longer questioned as a “side hustle”. I remember the horror, the sadness each time someone asked “what next” expecting the answer to be monetizing. There’s no worry about those kinds of things. There is space enough for everyone to explore, enjoy and live.
Lazy and productive are opposite sides of a coin that is no longer valid. And with them went famine, suffering and the pain of depriving people of the necessities.
The calm that exists because of it is wonderful and is like a vacation that never ends. I remember vacations and loving the way the days were shaped by desire and curiosity. I remember loving them. I know you love them. Imagine a world like that.
Don’t worry. You’ll see it. You’ll enjoy it, and it will all be surrounded by the wonderful relationships you, we, spent so long cultivating.
I wish these letter could carry pictures to show but they only carry words and you’ll have to trust. Trust me. I am you. Trust yourself, and walk forward.
It all fell apart. Everything broke. Nothing is the same. The toil and pain, the exhaustion and the sadness, the aches, the darkness. And more than anything, the fear. It all came crashing down around us. We just couldn’t keep it aloft. It had gotten too heavy. It got wide, and tall, and blocked out all the goodness in the world. It grew sharp edges that tore at our hands, covered in the salt of our sweat, and seeped into our aching muscles. Our nerves were on fire, and our tears streamed non-stop. Until one-day we gave up. We gave in. We stopped holding it up. In the end, it fell heavy upon us. Set to crush every person to nothingness.
We were crushed. We died. But it was not at all what we expected. For what died was not our spirit. Not our bodies. No. What died that fateful day was our fears. Our old ideas. For when it all came crashing down, we realized its immense size and weight were illusions. It’s needles and knives, imagined. Like kinetic sand, it only held its shape because of we all pushed so hard to keep it up. Once we stopped pushing, once we stopped caring, it crumbled into such a fine dust that a light breeze was enough to whisk is away.
Now a warm wind blows, unencumbered by our fears. It fills our souls and lights our minds. We understand that we do not need towers, we need plains. We are all important. There are no gods among us, because it will only create devils. There are no leaders, only advisors. We are all peers, on different legs of the same journey. With different destinations, but all going in the same direction. Towards hope, and love.
So, Joseph, keep your hope. Do not give up as you may have thought about. Be ready to give in. And together we will all get through. The other side is so different and so much better than anything we know right now. Better that we could have imagined. You can do it.
I am so excited to share this space with you.
(Though also excited to never again try and create so many rows and blocks of content in the email list platform. Yeesh!)
There is no cost to participate in this group, but if you’d like to support the work, you can find me on Patreon or you can make a donation through etransfer or at the events.
Have you missed the in-person writing workshops that used to run regularly through Writing in the Margins? Me too!
Introducing Shiny! a speculative writing group.
We’re having a launch party on January 26, from 4-6 pm, at Loft 112 in the East Village here in Calgary. Our first regular writing event will be February 2 from 4-6 pm at Loft 112, and we’ll be meeting on the first Sunday of most months throughout 2020.
Shiny! is an offshoot of An Unexpected Light, a six-month narrative therapy and speculative fiction course. This writing group is open to anyone, whether you’ve taken the course, or are planning to take the course. The group does extend the Unexpected Light conversation about how we tell stories of hope and possibility in times that feel increasingly impossible, but participation in the course is not required.
This launch party will be a combination info session, coffee-and-tea chat, and writing group. Come find out what it’s all about!
Our goal is to build and support a community of writers engaged in creating what Walidah Imarisha describes as, “fantastical literature that helps us to understand existing power dynamics, and helps us imagine paths to creating more just futures.”
Shiny! will include an ongoing online component, with monthly emails including writing prompts and opportunities to participate in virtual writing community, as well as details about in-person events in Calgary, Alberta (and elsewhere). The online component isn’t quite ready to launch yet, but is being designed so that the group will be accessible to folks who can’t make it to in-person events, for whatever reason.
All forms of speculative writing are welcome – science fiction, fantasy, mythology, poetry, and speculative non-fiction including memoir.
Shiny! is an explicitly welcoming space for marginalized and targeted groups, including trans, queer, fat, disabled, neurodiverse, Black, Indigenous, people of colour, and others. An Unexpected Light’s syllabus is full of the speculative work of marginalized writers, and their ability to imagine more just and possible futures has made our work possible.
Everyone has a valid and valuable voice, and writers of all experience levels are welcome.
This launch party will take place on Treaty 7 land, the traditional and ongoing home of the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani First Nations, the Stoney Nakoda, including the Wesley, Chiniki, and Bearspaw First Nations, and the Tsuut’ina First Nation. This is also the home of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and of all the Indigenous folks who live here.
There is no cost to attend, but donations will be accepted to help cover costs.
Read Walidah Imarisha’s interview at EAP Magazine.