Riding the Cinnamon Donkey: Art, Writing, Futility, and Fun.

At a gallery show a few years ago, my favourite piece was hanging from a pushpin in the bathroom, just over the back of the toilet. The artist, a painter, had the better part of two dozen canvasses displayed on the walls proper—colourful, bitingly hilarious work—but the piece I have in mind was a sheet of standard-size printer paper covered entirely in looping scribbles from a blue marker. Near one of the corners, the artist’s mother had written something along the lines of “Eric’s first drawing, age 1.”

It seemed poignant to me. Out on the gallery floor, his latest work was technically accomplished and striking, but there, in the least-rarefied room of the building, was proof that he hadn’t been born an artist—he’d practiced for decades to get where he was. It was a parable for artistic growth, maybe. A statement.

When I asked Eric about it later that night, he confirmed that yes, it was indeed authentically his first drawing. His mom had held onto it and given it back to him some years later. I asked him if he was worried that it would get ruined, given that it was unceremoniously pinned up to a bathroom wall. He laughed.

“Not really,” he said. “It’s kind of shit.”

***

I don’t remember what the first thing I wrote was. That’s not a bad thing. I don’t even really like to look back on stuff I’ve written more than a month ago, let alone the garbage I pumped out as a kid. My parents kept a selection of my school projects and drawings from grade school to give me, and I, in turn, threw them to the back of my bedroom closet so that people couldn’t dig them up and laugh at me. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: Stay out of my bedroom closet.]

As a guy who now pursues writing as at least a dogged amateur if not a professional, I would love to tell you that I was a precocious kid—that the seeds of genius were plainly planted in every line I wrote, that younger-me dashed off stories as imaginative and vivid as the storyboards that eleven year-old Martin Scorsese drew for the movies he would later go on to make. (Seriously, look them up. They’re bananas.)

But no, not even close. Let’s take a look at the historical record through two of my “favourite” remaining childhood creations to get a sense of the type of critical thought I was engaging in over my formative years: 

EXHIBIT A: “Cool Man” (c. 1995, artist age six)

A drawing of a tall man with enormous, square rocket launchers on each shoulder. He wears sunglasses, and he is grinning in a way that one assumes was meant to give the figure a cocksure air, but instead—thanks to the skill level at which the figure was drawn—comes off as vaguely sociopathic. This does not give the viewer faith in how the man is going to use those rocket launchers. There are literally no other details to be found on his body.

Above him, in crooked block letters, hangs the words from which he derives his name: COOL MAN. There is no background. There are no contextual details, no cues as to the morality or ethics of our rocket-launchered subject. There is only COOL MAN.

EXHIBIT B: “Hippo’s” (c. 1997, artist age eight)

Starting off strong with a misused apostrophe on the title page, this small, first- or second-grade project takes a quick right onto Disaster Avenue and hits the gas. I don’t have it here in front of me (thankfully), but I have cringed over it so many times that I remember very well what was in it.

I can only guess that this was your usual you’re-like-eight-years-old-so-just-do-whatever-about-whatever-and-don’t-eat-glue sort of project, and as such, I know that the standard was not exactly sky-high, but man—mine sucked. Even now, nineteen years later, I can still tell that I didn’t know one goddamn thing about hippopotamuses. In fact, I am one hundred percent certain that the reason I titled it “Hippo’s” was because I had no fucking clue how to spell anything past the first five letters of the word.

Inside, it’s no better. I clearly didn’t, you know, check a book or anything. I just slapped together six pages of one-sentence “sections” related to everything I thought I knew about hippos—namely, that they could run fast, and that they were big. On the page for “Family,” I wrote something about how mother hippos were protective, which I think was more of an assumption than anything. I coloured them purple because that’s the colour they were in cartoons. Two of the six pages were blank.

I don’t know if they were giving out Fs to second-graders back in ’97, but I can only hope my teacher found it in her heart to flunk my dumb face. Based on these two projects, I’m just surprised I ever learned how to read, let alone grew to want to become a writer.

***

I always wonder what happens to those break-dancing toddlers you see on Youtube. They make it onto Ellen Degeneres and Good Morning America: little tykes with incredible skills. Samita, age four, can play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, with a precision that will move you to tears, on her plastic Fisher-Price keyboard. Gary, age two, has his black belt in Judo. Morgan, a fetus, has been accepted to MIT.

Do they keep at it? Does that toddler who could do head spins on Ellen eventually grow up and win, like, the Nobel Prize for breakdancing? With that much of a head start, why aren’t I hearing more about these kids down the road? And if they can’t succeed, given that they were shaming my adult accomplishments into stunned silence before they were allowed to pick out their own shoes, what chance do the rest of us have?

***

Even though I don’t remember the first thing I wrote, I do remember the first thing I had published. I was fifteen. By that point I had started to enjoy writing, at least a little.

At the time, the Winnipeg Free Press had a column called “Teen Talk” or “Kid Komplaints” or something like that. It was published weekly, in the Saturday edition I think, and it was a forum for teenaged writers to voice their opinions on life, society, and how unfair it was that their parents wouldn’t trust them with the car keys even though they were already sixteen and a half and totally responsible.

My own article was about how teenagers were not treated with the respect they deserved. (I wanted to turn the previous sentence into a sort of punchline, but I think that stands pretty well on its own.) In order to appear as though I were a serious writer, one deserving of distinctly adult respect, I created the email address “i_like_to_write@hotmail.com” and used it for all of my “professional” correspondences. (Trying to give people my email verbally was the worst, especially over the phone: “yeah, I- yeah. It’s—are you ready? It’s: I, underscore, like, underscore, to…”)

After the editor presumably shook her head in despair at my email address, the Free Press decided to publish my piece, and I was over the moon. They sent a photographer to my house for a proper headshot, and since I wasn’t expecting him, the photo they published alongside my article makes me look like the world’s youngest crackhead. I was paid twenty-five dollars. I wound up writing three more articles for the same column, if memory serves. And then I ran out of things to complain about (life was actually pretty good).

My writing dropped off for a while at that point, at least for the next four years or so. I never forgot how much I enjoyed the process of writing, though, of seeing my work published, of having my voice passed onto thousands of strangers, of making people laugh. It was in me, then, hooks up to the eyes, and it wasn’t going anywhere. 

And my favourite part of that little island of writer-hood in the early years of my life: I don’t know if this is true, but word came down the grapevine to me a while later that a friend of mine, a man whose own work I very much admired, kept my articles on his bedroom wall for a few years. I never asked why, which now strikes me as important—was it a dart target? was it a weird sex thing?—but back then all I knew was that if I was funny enough for him to look at on a daily basis, I could do just about anything.

Connecting with an audience, any audience, is an experience that I think all artists treasure—transforming your own emotional process and viewpoints into painting/dance/words/music/or even food, and then getting to see the thing you’ve produced connect with another person, moving them to feel anything… it’s a heck of a drug. But finding that process with someone you look up to is magical. I can’t imagine anything else that would make you feel quite as validated as seeing tears well up in your mentor’s eyes, or a laugh start up their throat, as they experience your work.

***

I’m older now. Not old-old, but old enough that I sure don’t qualify for the Teen Talk column anymore. I write more seriously, and no longer am I only interested in making people laugh. I had envisioned the process of becoming a writer as fairly straightforward: write stuff, sell stuff, sign autographs, get married to a competitive volleyball player, and drink coffee at all times of the day. Possibly while wearing strange hats or smoking a pipe. (The only one I was right about was the coffee.)

Don’t get me wrong: I love writing. It’s the thing that I think I’m meant to do, in a big, cosmic, infinity symbol tattoo kind of way. But holy cow, some days, I wish I was meant to do something like pro baseball or finance instead. Art is a whole lot of trying, as I understand it. Or at least writing is. And trying. And trying. And usually failing. And scrounging for cash. And sleepless nights. And explaining to your grandparents what exactly the hell it is you plan on doing for the next forty years, again, and why.

I know that I write slower than some authors. If Stephen King is a Ferrari, I’m closer to a Zamboni. I take a LONG time to write even negligibly short stories. I will spend hours on a paragraph, usually then deleting it anyway. I will think all day about the relative placement of a comma, and whether it changes the pace or cadence of a sentence. I’m not Gustave Flaubert, either. I’m just genuinely slow.

And should I actually finish a piece? The journal submission process as an amateur writer is a delight. It’s the artistic equivalent of trying to get on the phone with a representative from the CRA: tedious, needlessly agonizing, and with only a very small chance of success.

You spend weeks and months writing a story. You show your friends, get feedback, clean it up and edit it based on their suggestions. You read it aloud to yourself at home, ensuring that every word fits. You think about it, you live inside of it, when you should be in the real world. Hours shoot by and you don’t even look up. And when you’ve got a submittable draft, it’s a sunrise moment: things are looking bright.

You take your masterpiece and you attach it to an email or seal it into an envelope, then shoot it into the void. Hopefully, when it lands in whichever mountain of near-identical submissions represents the journal you sent it to, it’s picked up by a sympathetic intern. Hopefully that intern reads more than the first two paragraphs before deciding it’s just not doing it for them and shooting you a form rejection letter. And hopefully that rejection, warm and welcome as a stainless steel turd, lands in your inbox or mailbox sooner than four months down the road (but don’t get your hopes up too high on that one).

And in the meantime? Don’t think about it every day. Don’t check and re-check your mail. Don’t read your story over a hundred times, combing it obsessively for mistakes that you may have missed when you submitted, as though that’s the reason you haven’t heard anything back (you might actually find one, and that’s unbearable).

Had I known that this was the life of a writer? For so many of us—most of us, realistically—just hunching over a keyboard with a cooling cup of coffee, stringing words together for eternity and developing back problems and hoping? Well, I’d still be doing it. But I’d be a whole lot more cynical about it.

***

I volunteer once a week with Story Planet, a children’s literacy group out in Bloordale village. Friday mornings, they hold what are called “Storymaker Workshops:” a class of students come in, anywhere from about grades one to seven, and they work with a group of volunteers to come up with a story. Along the way, our facilitator, Aaron, teaches them about story structure, characters, plot, setting, and imagination. All the essentials.

I like being there. I hate that it’s early, but it’s worth getting out of bed for. I like volunteering; I think it’s a pretty good use of one’s time. But as a writer, it’s much more than that. Getting to observe the process of the kids creating a story out of the ether is as entertaining as it is informative. They’re always unique: twenty-something different tangents threading through each other to become a story not quite like any that’s ever been heard before. Pirate cats and sneezing mushrooms and chocolate planets and ninjas. Just when we think we’ve heard it all, we get a story about the son of Freddie Mercury getting powers from a secret Queen album and avenging his father’s soul, or about the Greek god Hephaestus joining up with a team of superheroes on a distant planet.

Even to the questions we think we know all possible responses to, we get answers we’ve never heard. When talking about characters, Aaron asked a class whether characters always had to be human beings. Could they be something else, perhaps? Say cars, like in the Pixar movie, or monsters? They could be animals, the class decided. One student suggested that dogs could be characters. Another shouted out that the main character could be a donkey.

“Or, or—“ one student sputtered excitedly, “it could, it could be a… cinnamon donkey!”

I’ll admit: I’ve been laughing about it since. Mostly because the kid wasn’t wrong. The main character in a story could be a cinnamon donkey. Or a vanilla panther. Or a hot-and-sour lemming. Who am I to say?

Watching imagination be flexed so freely and without self-consciousness reminds me that I don’t have excuses. There are as many stories out there as there are people, and a couple trillion more besides. The world has room for one more. It also reminds me that writing is, despite the crushing loneliness and sense of financial disarray, lots and lots of fun. (Or at least it can be.)

***

When I started this piece, the title I had in mind was “Be a good parent: keep your kids away from art and buy them a baseball glove instead.” I was going to just tack that title on the top anyhow, but now that I’m here it doesn’t seem right. If I ever have kids (I don’t know if I’ll have time between all the book signings and celebrity mansion parties), I’m going to set them straight though: writing—all art—isn’t an easy career. It’s a lot of work. You don’t go from scribbles to the AGO overnight—and the world will know if you stop practicing. If you want to ride the cinnamon donkey, you’d had better be prepared for him to buck a time or two.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be a career at all. Right now, twenty-six years in, I’m still not a professional. And that’s okay—maybe I never will be. But I’ll always be a writer. You don’t have to be F. Scott Fitzgerald to enjoy jotting down some stories; you don’t have to be Picasso to find enjoyment in your brushes. At the risk of sounding trite (forgive me; it’s an amateur writer’s mistake): art is what you make it—so make sure that at the end of the day, you’re making it fun.

I’ve got years ahead of me down here in the word mines. And the demand just got harder—it looks like I’ll be going to grad school for creative writing in the fall. (I couldn’t stay away from the stuff if I tried.) Don’t bother trying to help me—it’s a self-imposed exile from the real world that I’m under. You could buy me a coffee should you cross my path, though… and don’t you dare make fun of my posture.

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