The Hub Writers’ conference: Authors and AU faculty reflect on writing, creative process, and new book

Writers’ conference: Authors and AU faculty reflect on writing, creative process, and new book

By: Angie Abdou and Reinekke Lengelle

Writing is about much more than telling a story to entertain or for reporting researching findings. Writing is about making meaning of our lives, transforming our relationships, and growing ourselves as people. As my Athabasca University (AU) colleague and fellow writer Dr. Angie Abdou puts it, “I would say it comes out of a thirst for meaning and the desire to not waste my life, to live it as well as I can. Writing is the only way I know to arrive at that deeper understanding and sense of meaning.”

Earlier this summer, I had an opportunity to interview Abdou about her latest book This One Wild Life. What interested me most in her story is how and what she learns from her writing and how she both constructs and deconstructs herself.

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

As I was thinking about your book and your work in teaching writing at AU, I thought about what we can and cannot teach when it comes to writing.

What can a student learn that doesn’t require them to reinvent the wheel—like a direct download from writer to aspiring writer?

My answer to this question changes every year, as my own attitude toward writing and reading (which always go together in my mind) evolve. The most obvious help that classes provide to an aspiring writer comes in terms of structure, motivation, recommended reading, and deadlines. Never underestimate the value of a deadline!

The most useful teaching, I believe, comes in the form of direct feedback on written work. That one-on-one mentorship can be invaluable. I can help writers see their strengths so they know how to let them shine. I can direct my writing students toward like-minded published writers and books that do similar things to what they’re trying to accomplish so they’re aware of the conversations already going on about certain topics or in certain forms or voices. Then they can figure out how to insert themselves into that conversation in an original way. I can highlight where an aspiring writer’s work is already original and fresh so they can lean into that originality. In those ways, at a university, we can teach most elements involved in writing: characterization, setting, point of view, style, plotting, theme, and so on.

Ideally the students are motivated and learn what they can from the assigned readings and from drafting and redrafting and then the actual teaching comes as personalized one-on-one mentorship.

Dr. Angie Abdou

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

Author Elizabeth Gilbert says in an interview that there are three kinds of people: some who don’t learn, some who learn from their own (painful) experiences, and some who can learn from others and avoid suffering (at least to some extent).

When I read The One Wild Life, I got a strong sense that you learn best by experiencing things yourself and by reflecting on those experiences, and that you see life as an evolutionary process, where we have to risk and then subsequently risk talking about it vulnerably.

Have there been mentors and/or other writers who have helped spare you from having to learn all the hard lessons yourself?

To say it another way, when has someone provided you with a map of the trail so that you didn’t have to go up the wrong side of the mountain?

This is a great question and made me laugh because you saw in my book that I really do (sometimes!) go up the wrong side of a mountain, figuratively and literally. Yes, you’re right I tend to learn from experience first and then reflect on that experience in my writing second. I very much agree with your idea of life as “evolutionary process” and the role of risk, though this is an understanding that I’ve arrived at relatively recently.

At the same time as I value experience and personal reflection, I also can credit many mentors who’ve saved me a bumpy journey, or at least guided me through the bumps. Often these are other writers—deep-thinking, reflective people—who are friends so the mentorship comes through personal conversation and through their books. Steven Heighton is one such friend writer and his recent Athabasca University Press book, The Virtues of Disillusionment, for example, helped me feel very content and accepting of my writing career as I age. That long essay puts issues of ego and writing and striving for success into perspective succinctly and clearly, which speeds me along to a point of good understanding and saves me some of the grunt work. I appreciate that “map of the trail” —as you put it— that comes in a clear-thinking, honest book. As well as appreciating the understanding offered, I also value the companionship such books provide (the “I’m not the only one who feels this way” or “I’m not the only one who has had this struggle”)—not having to go the hike alone, to extend our metaphor.

Dr. Angie Abdou

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

I like how you question the need for always sharing experiences on social media and how that is a habit that can take us away from presence. As I read your thoughts on that, I reflect on my own habits too. And then I thought, yes, keep something internal, like savouring a meal without having to take a photo of it. Before social media this was never “a thing,” so it’s a sharp contrast with how we used to live.

How might you sum up your insights to share with novice authors who are finding their footing and need to balance a need for media presence with the dangers of social media? I like your solution of noticing, putting your phone down, and asking your husband Marty to mediate some of what you see when things are hard.

Yes, part of me would love to walk away from social media forever. I fantasize almost every day about becoming invisible online—I don’t like how much of my life it takes and its ever-present nature. The fact that I dream about shutting it down so much tells me I really do need to be vigilant about the role it has in my life. That said, I agree it’s not realistic for writers—or aspiring writers—to think they can be invisible online. Much of book promotion falls to the authors and social media is the easiest and first point of access to potential readers and book buyers. I recently asked my editor if it’s really necessary for writers to be on social media. I had deluded myself that she might say, “No, Angie, don’t worry about it. Close down everything. Be free!” Her response, of course, was without hesitation: “Yes, it’s absolutely necessary, more now than ever, for writers to be on social media.”

So, that’s the world we live in. We can’t escape it. We have to learn how to live in it, how to manage it. I make a habit of leaving my phone at home whenever I can (whether I’m heading out in nature for some activity or heading downtown for dinner with my husband). Taking breaks is key. I listen to my body; when I’m scrolling through a feed and I start to feel bad (whether it’s despair at the negative news, professional envy, a sense of exclusion, a feeling that I’ve missed out, or any negative feeling at all), I put the phone away, look up a the mountains, and feel grateful for the real world, which always needs to take precedence over the virtual one. That’s a start. I know I need to do more to manage my online time. I’d like to take scheduled breaks, make more use of out-of-office messages, and set a precedent of not being always available and not being bound to breakneck turnaround. I’m always trying to figure out how to treat the iPhone and the social media platforms as useful tools without giving them too much power over my life, mood, and well being.

Dr. Angie Abdou

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

I believe writers live thrice. We live it, we write about it, and then we share our writing—we’re compelled to. Maybe it’s a constant reflective loop that is a part of our evolution? I’ve read that anyone who thinks they can be a writer has enough ego, but what I see you doing is deconstructing the ego so that it doesn’t wag the dog.

Is writing ego construction and ego deconstruction? What do you think you’re trying to do for yourself at the deepest level?

Did you read [Karl Ove] Knausgaard to give you courage? That in comparing yourself to him, your disclosures looked pretty innocent? I liked what you said about him in the book and your interviews and I think the price he paid was high.

I always learn so much from you because we approach writing and reading differently. You give me new ways to think about these activities that I’ve done my whole life. Yes, ego construction and deconstruction sounds like exactly what I’m doing. The “why?” and the “what does it accomplish?” are interesting questions too. I am compelled to write; I can’t seem to help myself. I would say it comes out of a thirst for meaning and the desire to not waste my life, to live it as well as I can. Writing is the only way I know to arrive at that deeper understanding and sense of meaning.

I was very curious about the whole Knausgaard project and about other auto-fiction writers like Rachel Cusk, who approaches writing the self very differently but also draws heavily on her life and shares uncomfortably personal truths. The honesty and the deeply personal nature of the writing resonate with me. The raw vulnerability and the willingness to expose oneself in that way to get to some truth about human existence feels important to me—maybe because we live in an age where “truth” is so slippery and people constantly curate and filter their lives for social media. Because I was drawn to those types of books, I wanted to enter into that kind of conversation with my own book. I always think of writing and reading as an ongoing conversation and want to write what I like to read. I do suppose I drew courage from Knausgaard just in terms of thinking, “This is part of the writing life—being honest and living with the consequences.”

Dr. Angie Abdou

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

The story of your cottonwood tree gave the book a kind of integration that I appreciated; we could keep coming back to that with you. This story also made me smile. I come from a family of tree lovers and my late partner Frans, who was an atheist, used to greet an ancient beech tree on his walk back home from his busy workdays. He called himself an “animist.” As an academic himself and raised in the ’60s, when there was a real shift away from conservative values, he left his Catholic roots behind and was a firm atheist.

As I was reading your book and watched you speak in interviews about the book, I thought, I know why academics criticize blind faith in religion, but does this mean we have to be purist atheists to be taken seriously as academics?

Again, I was glad you talked about the experience with the tree and I noticed it gave me space to breathe into my own sense of being connected to life in ways that I can’t (and don’t even want to) explain. In the year I was writing my book on grief after Frans’s death, I watched YouTube videos on near-death experiences for about a week solid and it grounded me and gave me hope. I still like to think I will “see him again” someday and if that is a childish dream, I will, as an agnostic, allow myself that dream. If it doesn’t happen, I won’t be there to find out anyway!

What is the place for mystical experiences within academia when religion and believing is a taboo? Aren’t such experiences, like you had with the tree, sites of meaning making? We don’t even need to say “this is god.” While we can be rightly critical of the dangers of “group think” in religious and political contexts, can we as academics still create space for students to experience and reflect on spiritual or mystical experiences without always explaining it away with rationality? I think as writers and poets, we must resist everything from becoming verifiable and evidence-based. We can’t be creative as scientists without what we let ourselves dare to imagine. At least that’s my sense.

Thank you, Reinekke. Because of my academic training and career, I sometimes feel restricted from being honest about spiritual matters or stories, feelings, or ideas that someone might dismiss as “too flakey” or “too hokey.” My poet friend Christian Bök likes to advise writers to “lean into the weird” and I think of his advice when I find myself leaning back from describing an event like my tree experience. I agree with everything you say above. There’s an incredible arrogance in thinking that we can know, understand, or classify everything about human life and the wider universe—that all can be explained by—and contained within—human reason and logic. As I get older, I’m more interested in exploring what exists beyond that.

Dr. Angie Abdou

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

Frans used to say about singing, “Don’t go to the music, let the music come to you,” and that is what I hear you saying about writing at the end of your book (and parenting). It’s a more easeful way to be and work. The French call it working with “souplesse” and I believe it’s part of becoming a wise professional. It also sounds like it is bringing you ease and reading that part made me inhale and exhale deeply and smile.

That’s exactly it. You remind me that a good reader can often explain a book and its ideas better than a writer. If I could explain it so succinctly and easily, I might not have felt so compelled to write the book. That’s the lesson I learned through the writing—working, parenting, living with souplesse (a word I just now learned from you). I am going to write, “Don’t go to the music, let the music come to you,” at my desk as a reminder. It’s perfect. Thank you.

Dr. Angie Abdou

Later this summer Abdou and Lengelle will share additional interviews about writing, teaching, and specific courses at AU.

Angie Abdou is an associate professor of creative writing at Athabasca University. Her first novel, The Bone Cage, was a finalist for Canada Reads 2011 and a MacEwan Book of the Year. In Case I Go (Arsenal Pulp Press 2017), her fifth book of fiction, was a finalist for the 2017 Banff Mountain Book Award, in the fiction and poetry category, and Chatelaine Magazine called it one of 2017’s most riveting mysteries. Angie’s first book of nonfiction, Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom (2018), chronicles a year in the life of a busy sport family. A starred review in Booklist calls Home Ice “a first-rate memoir, a fine example of nonfiction, and a must-read for parents with youngsters in organized sports.” The follow-up memoir, This One Wild Life, debuted on the bestselling Canadian nonfiction list in spring 2021. Angie teaches courses in fiction and creative nonfiction.

Reinekke Lengelle is assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Athabasca University.  She designed and teaches the courses Writing the Self (MAIS 616) and Narrative Possibilities (MAIS 621) and she is revising and will be teaching Mourning & Trauma (MAIS 662). Her new and award-winning book Writing the self in bereavement: a story of love, spousal loss, and resilience was published with Routledge in 2021.

  • July 16, 2021
Guest Blog from:
Angie Abdou and Reinekke Lengelle