I mostly use this blog only to post about my writing: readings at local series, published stories in literary journals and reviews of my work. I haven’t written very much about the other side of my writing life. For the past several years I ran writing workshops in many spaces in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and downtown core. The people in my workshops were usually dealing with homelessness and other manifestations of systemic poverty. I ran hundreds and hundreds of these workshops. They became part of my life. Something I loved about the workshops was meeting the other writers who ran them. These people always had their own reasons for doing this work. We all had our own reasons. It wasn’t something I asked about very much, because I try to respect privacy and you probably have a pretty personal reason to go into tough spaces and ask people to write poems. One of the other workshop facilitators I knew was Rob, who took his own life last weekend.
There’s a tendency in our society to not go out of our way to hear stories that make us feel uncomfortable. To not go into spaces that are unfamiliar to us and just…listen. And withhold judgment again and again and again, until it’s a new kind of muscle. I witnessed innumerable stories during workshops that I likely would never have heard otherwise. When I heard that Rob was gone, I thought, fuck, the world has lost someone who knew how to listen. Rob was a writer, so we belonged to same tribe of sorts. We exchanged opinions about university programs and presses. He was hesitant and my impulse was always to push him harder. Send your manuscript out!, I told him, again and again. I offered connections, encouragement, things I try to give to people when I can. I don’t want to think about his book.
I wanted to write this post because suicide creates a silence around the person who died. This is so sad to me because I knew Rob to be someone who helped other people with their silence. Making a space for writing and reflection in an environment where people deal on a daily basis with violence and poverty is a way of fighting silence.
My life has been touched by suicide before. It is impossible to speak for another person. Speculation feels disrespectful, the wrong story to speak. But I would like to say that I knew Rob to be a kind person who knew how to be quiet and listen to other people’s stories and hold them delicately. I have found this to be a very rare skill in other people. We never discussed why we wrote or why we ran workshops, but I felt a common understanding with Rob of the importance of expression and the importance of respecting other people. I was excited when I heard he had started running workshops because I felt like he got it. Whenever I ran into him and we talked about how things were going, he had a quiet excitement, a deep sense of hesitation, an eagerness to talk. That’s what I want to remember.
It’s very surreal now to think that I won’t see Rob again. Just around, at readings, stuff with friends, regular stuff. We are/were (sorry I’m having mortality verb tense issues here) both shy people and our conversations would usually happen in sections, picked up and dropped off at various times. Anyone who isn’t an extrovert will understand this. It’s like running laps.
One of the last long conversations I had with him was about the problem of depression and isolation in our society. Someone we both knew had passed away a couple weeks before. We talked about how it’s important to reach out and how there are very strict unspoken rules in our society about communication. Who you can talk to and when and how real you can be. Who you can be with people. Who you can be with people who want to hear you. I think this is the closest we ever got to talking about why we ran workshops with people who are routinely robbed of voice, ignored. If a person doesn’t say what’s in them to say, it dies.
I felt that we both knew this. I saw him again a bunch of times after that, but we didn’t continue that conversation. I wish we had. Conversations have a time and a place. That death had opened something for us, about the importance of reaching.
We saw each other after that in public places — streets, reading — where people don’t know how to talk to each other, where there is no space for quiet voices, but I am learning to listen harder.