I read John and Christine’s hurried email on the bus while on my way to our interview at the Millennium Library. “There’s been an accident.” it begins. They don’t outline the details, but I’m about to learn someone has jumped from the fourth floor landing. When I arrive, the gates are pulled shut. People mill about the entrance, asking in hushed tones what happened. I wait quietly at one of the tables, inattentively reading a magazine because it calms me, and I don’t know what else to do.
John, Christine and I exchange messages, and they leave their shared office space on the second floor to meet me in the foyer. Shaken by the news, we decide to move forward with the interview in the food court at City Place.
The incident is a startling reminder of where we are. John and Christine are devoting seven months to a writing residency housed not in some chilly academic institution, but at a public library in the heart of Winnipeg’s downtown.
Speaking about the Millennium Library, John says, “It’s a place we feel entirely positive about. It does a lot of good in this community, and it’s kind of a wonderful to be a part of the building itself and be embedded here.”
Christine adds, “There are people who come every day. They’re working on something. And there’s that feeling of camaraderie of industry.”
Despite rattled nerves, or perhaps because of them, our conversation continues eagerly until John apologetically reminds Christine they have to leave to meet with one of the writers.
“I’m so sorry we have to go,” John says. “It was good to follow that experience with a nice conversation.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
FULL: So you’re working with writers at the Millennium until April, for a total of seven months.
Christine Fellows: It’s kind of amazing, because this is a residency where the primary goal is to work with other writers and give feedback on writing, so we’re able to meet with people more than once.
John K Samson: Both of our practices are fundamentally based on the editorial process, and the process of revision. So with this amount of time, we’re able to watch the work develop a bit. I feel like that’s what we all need, a community of writers.
FULL: Community is such a crucial thing to improving and producing good work.
CF: We were with a writer today, and she was talking about trying to find community, which is the big challenge when you’re starting out. She was saying how she had this experience of going to play ultimate frisbee, and it was advertised as, “You don’t have to have any skills!” and when she went, it wasn’t really like that.
JKS: “They never passed to me,” she said.
CF: “They never passed to me.” And that’s the good thing about the arts because even though some people would like us to think otherwise, it is actually not a competition.
FULL: In any community there’s going to be a certain amount of arrogance, but I feel a lot of people in Winnipeg get it. You can’t really afford to be a jerk in the arts community here.
CF: It’s going to bite you in the ass immediately.
FULL: And it’s wonderful to have a community of other artists for support and guidance, especially if you can’t afford a university education.
CF: The academy also isn’t for everyone. Neither of us have degrees, and not to discount that that is a valuable way to learn, but there is a place for all of us, and especially with the creative arts, the academy isn’t always the place.
FULL: It’s interesting to me, because being able to dedicate specific time to analytical thinking in a university context can be highly engaging, but it can also create a certain distance from the world. I feel for both of you, your writing is so connected to the small moments of everyday life, and about that true experience. Sometimes education can distance you from that.
CF: And the truth isn’t always found in a true thing. The facts are interesting, but they’re not where the story is.
FULL: So what would you say the thing on top of the fact is that makes the story?
CF: It’s a truth I guess, and then it’s that other thing that lets your brain open up and start reaching for the weird.
JKS: I think it might have something to do with empathy for others, so trying to kind of theorize a world outside of yourself in a way.
I feel like there’s something political about story and character. The specifics and details of life, maybe that’s where the stories are. Or maybe the story doesn’t matter; it’s the context of the story.
CF: It’s like that John Berger quote, I remember, because he just died —
JKS: — my favourite writer
CF: He was really old, but still —
JKS: We’d just framed a picture of him in my office two days before he died.
FULL: That’s an odd coincidence.
CF: Isn’t it? John had him in this chipped frame that bothered me for years, and I was like, “Can we put him in a nice frame surrounded by white light?” I think I killed him symbolically.
Anyway, he came from a visual arts background, and he thought of being a writer as being an observer. I feel like outside of the academy, maybe, we’re encouraged more to just pay attention and be a bit invisible. Whereas when you’re in the university, you’re concerned with gaining recognition and getting good grades. Doing this residency, it’s been so refreshing not to hear anybody say, “Getting good grades is important to me.”
JKS: I think I’m opposed to quantifying relationships in general, and writing is a relationship with the world.
Like I think about social media, and how it quantifies our social capital. There are numbers attached to everything: likes, followers. And grades are another one of those things. There is no way to quantify who we are.
CF: And failure is such an important part of learning. The biggest part. So why aren’t we told to be a bunch of failures? We’re going to be way smarter for it.
FULL: It’s really refreshing to hear that, because in an academic institution, it feels like there’s no room for error. It’s constructed in such a competitive way. If you want access to scholarships, if you want to go on to other programs, the number matters.
JKS: There’s something about discovering what you think about something instead of deciding. I feel like the arts are kind of uniquely suited for that. You can explore an issue without having a thesis necessarily. And I think that’s what I love about it.
I also feel lucky to have come of age when I did, because there was no audience for what I was doing, and I was able to develop something in a kind of comfortable obscurity, which was the punk-rock scene of the early nineties. I’m not sure how people do it now.
FULL: From what I’ve seen, people just have layers. I look at a platform like Instagram as a tool. I can get very frustrated with it. So instead of attaching too much value to that, I try to figure out how it can somewhat represent what I’m trying to do, and hopefully, people will stick around and come actually see what I’m trying to do.
JKS: — in person
FULL: In person, or in a context like my website, which is where I’m trying to really get at something.
I know people who post one thing on Instagram, but what they work on in their art practice is quite different. They have layers of projects.
JKS: That’s kind of hopeful
FULL: I spent a long time being like, “This sucks! I hate this! Why do I have to participate in it?” But that doesn’t get you anywhere. So then it’s a matter of trying to shift it, and think about how to actually use it.
And I respect what you do, just staying out of it, but I think that’s a privilege you have because of the time you started your work, and it’s something that people aren’t really allowed to do anymore.
JKS: Interesting. I do feel that’s an important distinction. Because some part of me is like, “Why is anyone on this?”
CF: Say it in an old man voice!
JKS: But also, there’s no choice really. It goes on with or without you.
FULL: And I definitely have friends who stay off social media. But they’re not artists, or people trying to run a business.
JKS: When I was on Instagram briefly —
CF: — your foray
JKS: I found this app called “Like Blocker.” It blocks out likes, so you can’t see the number, and I felt that was very liberating.
FULL: The likes can get you down.
JKS: Yeah, what people like, and what they don’t like. And again, it’s this attempt to quantify. That’s something that rankles with me.
FULL: When you are critiquing a writer, do you not feel that there is a kind of quantifying as well?
JKS: No, I feel it’s different. It’s more like accepting a piece of work on its own terms, which I feel you can’t really do when you have to adjudicate it. There are writers that we meet with whose writing won’t be read by other people necessarily, and that’s not why they’re writing. To accept that as a valid form of expression is important. And to accept it in its own context, to make it the best expression of that impulse as possible, is just as valid as someone who’s going to be read by lots of people. I always think that it doesn’t really matter if it’s received by three people or three hundred people, it needs to be received by someone, even if it’s just one person.
CF: And because we’re collaborating on this, it’s not just one guy sitting at a table saying, “This is what I think.” We often disagree. We actually discuss this stuff. It’s a conversation between us. It allows us to come to place where we think about things that we’ve never had to think about, or haven’t been presented with, or get really excited about.
JKS: I’m wary of the professionalization of the arts in general. This idea that certain people are artists and certain people aren’t. And they’re seen as valid because of these criteria that don’t have much grounding.
FULL: They’re often rooted in class, like access to a kind of education.
JKS: Yeah, access to education for one, and the patriarchy is another, whose voices are heard, and music is still —
CF: — it’s such a dude-fest.
JKS: It’s such a dude-fest. It really is. It’s better than it was, but it’s still —
CF: — shocking dude-fest.
JKS: A shocking dude-fest. Looking at those structural problems in society, art is an expression of those problems, and to take away that expression of people who don’t qualify as card-carrying artists, it’s uh —
FULL: It’s a way of deleting a certain experience.
JKS: Absolutely. It’s been really been lovely to have such a varied group of people come through our office.
CF: There have been some songwriters, which is great, because that’s our form. We’re meeting songwriters we have never met or heard of before, and they’re amazing. There’s one guy who’s like, “I would never play a live show, like ever.” How else would we meet this guy? And he’s incredible!
JKS: Amazing. He leaves CDs of his work in bathrooms around town.
CF: In bathrooms and on busses and stuff.
JKS: He’s writing incredible songs. But he has no interest in the industry, in any way.
FULL: He just wants to continue making his work, and hope that other people will recognize it and enjoy it.
JKS: Hope may be too strong a word. I think he’s not super interested in other people finding it. He’s making it for himself, and maybe like five other people. Randomizing the place of where people will find it is fun for him.
CF: It delights him.
FULL: It is fun to have art that is your art. Or to allow something to gestate for awhile before throwing it out into the world. Art can be a way of working out an understanding of the world and figuring out how to function in it.
CF: Oh absolutely. I feel like I don’t know what I think or feel about anything until I surprise myself by what just came out. We’re doing a lot of work in the background.
I find it very jarring the way music is released. You were doing something, and you were still putting the stuff around the edges, and suddenly it’s out there. I remember going to the Federal Express with my box of reel-to-reel tape that I had to send to the mastering plant, and it was the only recorded copy of my album. I was just handing it off into the ether, and it wouldn’t come back for a couple of months. You’d sort of forget about it. Now there’s no forgetting about anything.
JKS: There’s something to be said for the ephemeral, and I feel like that’s missing sometimes.
CF: Except when the big solar flare happens, and it’s all going to be gone!
FULL: It’s all ephemeral.
JKS: That’s a useful way to think about it sometimes too.
CF: I find it hopeful.
FULL: It is, the scale.