Making Art from Lives

Mistaken Identity. Detail from cover
Mistaken Identity. Detail from cover

The day the proof copy comes back from the printers is always the big day, and Mistaken Identity was no different. It looked so good. Sheila and I were both excited, and so was everyone else who saw the first copy. And the excitement was even greater when we saw the e-book listed for sale on-line. (See the side panel to get the e-book.)

Sheila is not a literacy student. She is a friend of long standing, someone I have worked with over the years on many projects and feminist actions. And she is no stranger to print—she collaborated with Persimmon Blackbridge on Still Sane, a classic art show and book about a coming out as a lesbian in the grasp of mental health services in the ‘70s.

Sheila has stories to tell. Some of her stories are about being mistaken for a man–something that happens to her frequently, and leads to experiences that are by turns frightening, humiliating, and frustrating. It is a tribute to her spirit, and her generosity of spirit, that she continues to make her way in the world without bitterness.

She began by writing a few of her stories, encouraged by her partner, barbara findlay, who, in Sheila’s words, “taught me (Sheila) that mistakes about my identity were not my mistakes.”  Sheila showed a few of the stories to me, and barbara suggested that we might turn them into a book and print copies for a few of Sheila’s friends.

As we worked together to get her stories of mistaken identity into book format, I saw the same process, the same emotions, the same kinds of learning that I recognized from publishing students’ work. Because Sheila’s story is current, and fresh in my mind, I’m going to tell it here in my blog, and connect it to what I know about teaching writing to literacy and basic education students.   

An English teacher dreams…

An English teacher might hope and expect, that, when people write, they get better at writing. When they write accounts of their own lives, or create material that has personal meaning, they have a powerful motivation for writing well, and for learning the elements of writing, editing and proofreading.

But asking students to write for an audience, to write for publication in print or online, results in so much more than an improvement in sentence structure and organization (although believe me when I say that would be enough).

Far beyond the dream…

When students write for an audience, they make art out of their lives. We don’t think of ordinary people making art; we don’t think of literacy students writing literature, but they do and they will if you invite them to, make it safe, and provide them with an audience.

Out of that complex process of making art comes so much more than an improvement in literacy skills. To make art out of life, you must reflect on life, step back a bit from your story and acquire some analysis and vocabulary to talk about it; you make connections between the story you’re telling and other parts of your experience, and with the world.

You take the risk of putting your story out, and you get feedback from friends and from strangers. You discover you’re not alone, or that people admire you for your courage in living and telling your story, and your skill in writing it. It is in the making and sharing of the art that the healing comes.   

15 thoughts on “Making Art from Lives

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  5. Congratulations on the new book, Sheila and Kate! Kate, may I quote you on the ‘Far beyond the dream’ excerpt in a report I’m doing for Vancouver’s Mental Health and Addictions Consumer Initiative Fund? This was so true for the writing group I just facilitated with them …

  6. It is fascinating to think about where books come from. One of your students, Kate, said how would we know how a book is made if we didn’t make one ourselves. (or words to that effect) Another literacy student once told me that libraries were dangerous places with all those books lined up like bullets headed for her. A lot of our students think the only reason they need to learn to read is to get a credential, get a good job, etc. We ask them to deal with books all the time and even hope they will come to love them. The distance between “bullets” and themselves and their stories on the printed page is not as great as we think. Thanks you for being the kind of teacher who is willing to walk that road with them.

  7. Hey Kate..what a great opener…an intro that leaves one wanting more and already starts the penny dropping. And did I mention how thrilled and honoured i am to be “an example” in your blog ?? LOL..I will make my “blog” comment after my swim. I want to give it my best reflection, and that’s swimming of course.

  8. As a writer and former teacher who ALWAYS encouraged people to tell their stories, I appreciate this post. Our lives are indeed art.

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