Alexa Gilker is the vivacious, down-to-earth wordsmith behind Whitespace Writers, a series of workshops that aim to get to the heart of why we write. She talks with her hands, has great taste in lipstick, and prefers good, solid Germanic words over those amorphous Latin ones. I’ve been taking her classes for several weeks, and I can’t even begin to tell you what a difference they’ve made in my confidence and artistic honesty. I sat down with Alexa recently to chat about feminism, diversity, truth, and of course, her secrets to good writing.
An Alberta girl with the itch for international adventure, it was a life-threatening stint of typhoid fever in India that ultimately brought Alexa back to Canada. She studied writing and women’s studies at the University of Victoria, and her first play, Beautiful Obedient Wife, won Pick of the Fringe at the 2012 Victoria Fringe Festival. Alexa has been writing professionally ever since.
After spending time in Toronto teaching writing and film history, she returned to the west with her partner to freelance. They spent a winter locked away in a little cabin in Windermere, and it was then that Alexa realized she couldn’t just sit and write. She needed to teach, to engage with a community of fellow storytellers. And so, Whitespace Writers was born – a place to connect with other voices, to nurture authenticity, and to honour the fire within you that calls you to create.
P: So, before studying writing, you concentrated on women’s studies – how does that influence your work? Would you call yourself a feminist writer?
A: I don’t intentionally come to my work saying ‘I’m a feminist writer’- just because I don’t believe that writing can have a political agenda. You just tell the truth, and if the truth becomes political, that’s beyond your control. My goal is always to just tell the truth of my experience, which happens to be a female perspective.
It’s funny – the last show I worked on, which was called The Good Story, was not a feminist play, in the sense that it didn’t have explicitly feminist themes. But all the actors were women, and the director and writer were women, so we got billed as a feminist theatre company. That was really interesting. I don’t pretend to stand for all women, and I can’t speak for all women. I just speak for myself. But I remember being in an undergraduate poetry class where we had to describe each other’s writing, and everyone agreed that mine was a feminist voice.
I just write about my experience of being a woman. You just have to tell your own truth. I read a great quote a while ago by Denise Levertov: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” I agree with that – and that goes for men, too. Men also have a lot of pressure to write a certain way, to only speak about certain things and topics.
P: One thing I’ve noticed in class is the wonderful diversity of our voices. It’s definitely exposed me to perspectives I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out.
A: Diversity is one of the most important elements of this workshop. You hear lots of different voices. It’s hard to seek out voices you’re not immediately drawn to, and it’s magical to find that you do identify with certain things about these stories that you didn’t think you would. It encourages and pushes the boundaries of your own writing.
P: Absolutely. That being said, can you explain a little more about the concept of white space in writing, and how it relates to finding our own unique voices?
A: When I was teaching writing in college, it wasn’t fun or creative. It was a lot of business writing, and writing for academic purposes. I was in Toronto, so I was working with a lot of people from different cultures who came from these fascinating backgrounds of melded families. I specifically worked with kids who were failing, and the goal of my class was to get them to write college-level English. But it was painful for me, because they had these beautiful, interesting voices. I had kids come in and say things like “my mother is from Ghana, and my father is from Jamaica, so he technically speaks English, but it’s Patois English, which is completely different from the English I’m learning here.” The student grew up with both languages in their family, plus learning Canadian English, so their voice is this fascinating mash of language choices and syntax. Even in the simple things, like Patois conjugation -“she walk” versus “she walks.” In college, that wouldn’t be considered correct – but that’s how Patois grammar works!
So, through teaching this course, I got really interested in language, and how we speak, and what our authentic voices are. We think that in order to write, we need to get rid of all that flavour, and learn proper syntax and writing. I think that ends up stripping away our authentic voices.
White space in writing is really just like the concept in graphic design – you leave a certain amount of space between letters or words or images, and it changes the whole look of things. I was interested in this idea of the space between the words, and wanted to teach a course where we weren’t interested in the mechanics of writing – punctuation, spelling, learning to craft the perfect sentence. I wanted to dwell in the space between words, which is where I believe our stories actually start. I wanted to explore how we nurture that place where story lives inside of us as memory, experience, imagination. I didn’t want to teach a course about writing from a mechanical point of view. We focus on getting out those authentic stories.
P: Focusing on the art instead of the craft! Can you speak a little more about the difference between art and craft?
A: Art is the place where your passion for writing lives. It is the fire inside of you that says, “I have a story that needs to be told, that’s bubbling up, that needs to come out of me.” Art is the desire to pick up the brush, the passion that says “I have to put this on a canvas. I have to do this.” Craft is knowing that if I mix blue with yellow, I’m going to get green. Craft is important, because it takes the art and makes it palatable, but without art, without passion, you don’t even want to tell the story. A lot of professionals have this problem when they are creating for someone else. Sometimes, we have to rely on craft alone – which is a skill that writers need – but I think that we spend a lot of time in workshops and writing classes focusing on this craft, and not enough on our art.
In class, I talk a lot about word vomit, and how sometimes you need to get something out before we can work out the craft side. That can all come later. We need both art and craft, but for the most part of this workshop, we focus on nurturing our art.
P: So how do you, personally, focus on your art? I love that you do all of the exercises right along with us.
A: I recently started journalling again, which I haven’t done for years. That’s been wonderful to sort through my own brain. I journal in the form of prayers – maybe that’s the playwright in me, feeling like every monologue must be directed at someone – but it’s definitely helped me to skim off the top until I can get to the really good stuff.
Taking the time in the workshop for me to write creatively is the most freeing feeling. I do write for other people, it’s my living, so writing for myself is liberating. It’s amazing to sit in class and just write whatever. It allows the rest of my writing to have a break, and it allows me to trust my own voice, to get other opinions on my writing. Writing creatively and freely without pressure does help me remember that this is my actual voice, that I trust it, and to fight for that voice in my professional life as well.
A: My opinion on mediocre writing is not necessarily that it’s mediocre, just that it’s often that the writer doesn’t know their own voice. They’re trying to sound like everyone else. There’s a lot of noise out there right now, just because there are a lot of blogs, a lot of news sources, there’s twitter – we’re getting language thrown at us all the time. A lot of people are not tapping into their own authentic voice, so it all ends up sounding the same.
This workshop is really great for bloggers who want to figure out how to rise above the noise. Your voice is very important. It needs to be heard. I strongly believe that everyone’s voice deserves space, and is unique and interesting and valuable. This workshop can help you come back to the roots of what your voice actually sounds like. We don’t need more popular bloggers – we need more authentic voices. There’s nothing wrong with erring on the popular side, but how do you make that new? It’s impossible to sound authentic if you’re trying to sound like what you think everyone else wants to hear, and what everyone else sounds like.
P: That’s one of the things that I’ve taken away from the workshop. The importance of authenticity, even if I think my authenticity might be a little boring.
A: We often think our own experiences are boring or not interesting. I grew up in suburban Calgary. It’s not the most interesting city in the world – I’m not from LA, I’m not from Paris. I’m from the suburbs. I had a normal middle-class upbringing, so it’s easy to feel like, who needs my voice? What stories do I have worth telling?
But not one story is the same. Not one person uses thes same image. The more you exercise your authentic voice, the more you start to realize that your voice is unique – you have experiences that only you have had. That’s what we try to do in Whitespace. We want to encourage people to tell their stories. This doesn’t mean that everything has to be completely accurate, because all memory is fiction, but it’s important to tell that truth that lives inside of you.
P: I totally get that. I’ve often thought that I’m not really allowed to be an artist, because I haven’t suffered enough. But what I’m finding is that I’m interested in these “mundane” stories that are being told in class. The author might think they’re stale, but I certainly don’t. I’m starting to understand that my stories might be fascinating to other people, too. It really gives me permission to use my authentic voice, and it’s incredibly empowering.
A: That’s an important beginning of claiming your story as gold. The way that I’ve had it described is, let’s say, you’ve found your great-grandmother’s journals from when she first arrived in Canada. She was just writing a daily journal on peeling potatoes and how good the crops were that year. Would that be a treasure to you? Absolutely. So that’s exactly what your words are now. They are going to be a treasure to other people and to future generations.
P: I love that. So do you have any favourite writing tips for the road?
A: Yes! Tell your truth, tell the truth. Whether or not it’s experienced or imagined. We’re not always writing our own experiences, we’re creating new characters. You’re not always writing from your own perspective, but you can still tell your character’s truth. In a first year creative writing course, I had the Canadian poet Carla Funk as a professor. I handed in a poem that was in sonnet form, in iambic pentameter, referencing Walt Whitman’s O Captain, My Captain – and it was so not my voice. Everyone else there was writing these stories that were what they thought writing should be. There’s nothing wrong with writing sonnets in iambic pentameter, but that’s not my true voice. I can fit my true voice into that form now, but it’s about art informing the craft, not craft informing the art.
I believe that a story comes first, and then it chooses the form it wants to live in. I might have a story that just wants to live in one poem. Or a story that needs to go on the stage. Sometimes we can use our craft and use form to better control the story, and better get it out there. And you can certainly find more truth in that method sometimes, but I think it always has to start with the art.
Also, I love this quote by Robert Graves – “The art of poetry consists in knowing how to manipulate the letter ‘s’”.
Whitespace Writers is beginning again in January – and if you ask me, dedicating yourself to discovering your art and honing your craft is the perfect New Year’s Resolution. And you, lovely reader (lovely writer?), can get 5% off of the Finding Your Voice and Refining Your Craft workshops by using the promo code “WHOLESOMEHANDBOOK” at checkout!
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