Chris Kay Fraser is a writing coach and founder of Firefly Creative Writing, a small business in Toronto that helps people reconnect to the joy and power of writing. She has devoted her life to walking with others to strange, raw and delightful places words can reach.
“I Have a Voice Here”: Writing as a doorway to Community, Belonging and Agency
by Chris Kay Fraser
Let’s start here: three million years ago, our early ancestors learned to throw, and we started to learn how to be in community.
Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the US, explores this moment in his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World (https://www.vivekmurthy.com/together-book). Once we could throw, he explains, we could hunt, which worked much better in groups. When hunting worked, we had more food than we needed. Working together made more and more sense.
But here’s the tricky part… To make community work, we needed trust. And to build trust, we needed a way to show each other who we were. That’s where stories came in. When we told stories, we saw each other’s inner worlds, found out who was safe to leave our kids with, who we should follow through the woods, who we should avoid. Murthy states that “humans survived as a species not because we have physical advantages like size, strength or speed, but because we have the ability to connect as social groups.”
Can we pause here? This is incredible to me. Stories are how we learned to trust. And trust is what got us this far as a species. And here we are in 2023, in a moment of collective loneliness so wide and deep that Murthy compares it to an epidemic.
It’s a beautiful spring day in grade four. We come in from lunch to see that our desks are rearranged. This is curious, and a little exciting. We dash around, looking for our new seats.
I find mine; it’s with most of the other desks in a big C-shape around the outside of the room, facing in. The other desks, six or so, are in a little cluster in the middle.
Class gets started and everything seems normal, and then something heavy moves through me. I don’t remember if the teacher explains it, or if I just know, but the island in the centre is for the good kids. These were the kids who have the best grades, who are polite and well-dressed, who don’t speak up or speak out.
The rest of us are the moat. Our job is to watch.
It’s fourteen years later and I’m 23, confused by everything and drowning in the hyper-competitive world of university. I find myself at a five-day film-making program in an old logging camp on a small island off the coast of Vancouver.
The school (gone now) is called the Gulf Islands Film and Television School, or GIFTS. It presents us with an impossible task—to learn everything about writing, shooting, producing, and editing a film in five days, working with a group of strangers.
It’s not the technical challenge that get us though. The first night, we’re put in pairs to play a game called, “That’s a great idea.” We face our partner, and take turns spouting every idea we can possibly think of for a film.
“Stop motion animation about chipmunk lumberjacks!”
“A documentary about the secret life of shoes!”
“A horror movie that takes place in an M&M’s plant!”
The other person can only do one thing. They say, “That’s a great idea,” over and over and over until the timer goes off.
I am sitting across from my partner, feeling my imagination melting out of its stranglehold. His eyes are bright, his enthusiasm genuine. My ideas start coming faster, filling the forest air. By day three, we are making dollies out of sofas and roller skates and throwing cameras in the evergreen air, just to see the footage.
We all become artists that week, not because of the quality of our films (though we all love every single one of them), but because we are taught to believe in ourselves and each other, and we are shown how.
On my way home, I stand in the fierce wind on the ferry deck, trying to figure out how I can spend the rest of my life in this feeling.
It took me a long time to understand why that experience at the film camp changed me so drastically, but few weeks ago I was talking to Toronto-based writer and teacher, Kate Klein, (https://rebelpedagogy.ca/) and I got a clue. Kate is working on a book right now called Rebel Pedagogy about how spaces of adult learning and connection can be a way to heal and repair school wounds.
And that term, “school wounds,” went right to my softest insides.
It was the moat of desks in grade four, but it was also standing in line in gym class waiting to hear my classmate finally call my name. It was walking home with a report card in my backpack that felt like a ticking bomb, my worthiness in a naked, little column.
It wasn’t just school; it was all the systems that hold this culture of evaluation at their core: colonialism, capitalism, classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so much more.
We are taught young that human hierarchy is natural and inevitable.
Which is the opposite of what we were figuring out three million years ago, when we started to come together.
And it’s the opposite of what stories are for.
Let’s talk about writing, then.
For most of us, our first experiences of making stories happens in school, right at the heart of that culture of evaluation.
Our first collections of words are given back to us marked up in red pen with a number at the top announcing their worth. We’re told how stories work—beginning, middle, end, show-don’t-tell, avoid adverbs. We become trained to follow structures outside of us, and tokens of external validation (thank you for that term, Hannah Gadsby) instead of following our inner cues—the wild call of our imaginations, the comfort of creation, the joy of the way words can build trust.
If we don’t explicitly work against it, these patterns and assumptions follow us into adult writing spaces, and they push us away from each other when we get there.
My job these days is to build community for writers. I spend my time running workshops and retreats, and overseeing a stupendous team. And every day, school wounds get in the way.
When we’re stuck in the culture of evaluation, we think our job is to rank. We sit safely in the quiet of our minds putting other writers down (“Don’t they know an essay should only have one argument and three supporting facts?”), or we lift them above us (“I’ll never write like that”).
Middle of the room/moat.
And all around, loneliness surges.
I know we can do better. I believe that it’s our job as a writing community to believe in our imaginations, and to spread that to one another, even when it’s hard.
So, I want to leave you with four wishes:
- Remember that stories are a meeting place. They are how we learned to trust, and if we let them, they’ll lead us back there.
- Know that comparing yourself to others is meaningless, and it will leave you alone. When you start to feel the tug of the culture of comparison, recognize it as woundedness and not truth. Remember something better is possible.
- Keep close to the joy of writing. Writing is an act of joy. Whatever that is for you—the exquisite “yes” of finding the right word to finish a poem, the feeling of handwriting racing across the page—hold on to it. It will carry you much further than external validation.
- Whatever you want to write next, hear me when I say: That’s a great idea. That’s a great idea. That’s a great idea.
Murthy writes, “our ancestors’ default setting was togetherness.” Under all the pain and layers, I believe that hasn’t changed.