A Wealth of Voices: Paige Lindsay in Conversation with Carin Makuz

Carin Makuz

Carin Makuz, whose creative nonfiction piece "What We Write About When We Write About Avocados" appears in the Malahat's Summer 2018 issue, discusses writing prompts, workshops, and the women's shelter where she volunteers in her Q&A with Malahat volunteer Paige Lindsay.

 

Carin Makuz is a writer, small-time litter warrior, and workshop facilitator at a women's shelter in Southern Ontario. She is also the creator of The Litter I See Project and upholSTORIES. Most recent work appears in the anthology GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos of Our Times (Frontenac House, May 2018).

Your creative nonfiction piece, “What We Write About When We Write About Avocados,” centres around writing workshops that take place in a women’s shelter. How long have these writing workshops been on offer and how long have you been volunteering with the shelter?

I’ve been doing the workshops for five or six years but have been a volunteer there for over ten. I started in the kitchen, going in on Friday afternoons to bake and make fruit platters for the women and kids as they came in from appointments, work, school. It’s a nice time to meet people and chat. One year I grew a little potted veggie/herb garden. I’ve helped out with child care, painting, cleaning, whatever I can do. The volunteer program as organized by the shelter is truly amazing in its variety. The writing workshops I do are just one of many ongoing activities.

Clearly, these workshops have not only made an impact on the lives of the participating women, but also on yours. Was there anything that surprised you while writing about this experience?

In every workshop it strikes me how different are the stories the women share. There’s a tendency in society to want to stereotype someone who has lived with domestic abuse but the truth is there’s no one way in. Yes, children who grow up with abuse have a greater risk but, even so, each of them has a story that’s unique to their situation. What got to me as I wrote this piece was how I wasn’t just sharing the workshop experience but, more importantly, sharing the voices of women who can’t speak for themselves. Because they have no platform, or they’re too afraid, or they don’t think anyone will listen, or they’re just too busy trying to survive. I always ask them what they do to express themselves creatively... do they write, sing, dance, paint? Most say they ‘used to’ do this or that. And those who are drawn to writing, often say they only write about sadness or anger, which is fine, but limiting, as it can easily become its own endless loop. All of which just reinforces for me the need to get their voices into the world in whatever way possible, but also to ensure the women have greater access to hearing their own voices. Something really special happens when they read their words aloud... when they are listened to, sometimes for the first time.

In your workshops you provide the women with “visual prompts and random words” as entry points into writing. Do you employ similar strategies in your own writing practice?

I love working with prompts. I have a morning practice of ‘fast writing,’ just ten minutes or so. I often give myself a word or phrase I really dislike, they seem to work best. I think I got the idea from a story Wayson Choy told about taking a workshop led by Carol Shields in which he was given the prompt ‘pink,’ which he immediately hated. He asked for another. Shields said no. Apparently what he wrote that day from the despised ‘pink’ eventually became The Jade Peony. It’s that same kind of resistance in the shelter workshops, which is what ‘Avocados’ is about. And how it eventually breaks down and a kind of magic happens. It’s exactly that resistance, the writing from absurd and unlikely points of view, that often brings us to what matters, to things we didn’t even know mattered.

Although you are the narrator of this piece, the reader is given access to a wealth of different voices. Have any of the women mentioned in your story read it? If yes, how was it received?

I’m so glad you said this, the ‘wealth’ of voices. I’m glad that comes across. That’s really everything I wanted to convey. As for the women at the shelter, they’re transient. I rarely see the same people more than once or twice so, no, they haven’t read the piece and I have no way of knowing if they ever will. But in every workshop we talk about the idea of compiling a collection of writing, in chapbook form, that can be read by incoming residents and they love that and offer up their pages for photocopying. Another thing we do is make postcard size collages with messages of support on the back; the cards are then distributed, anonymously, to women at other shelters. There’s a lot of power in these actions, not only for the women receiving the cards, or reading the chapbook, but for those doing the writing. To know their words might help or comfort another person, gives some (not so small) purpose to what they’re going through. Additionally, the shelter will be giving former residents the opportunity to share their stories on the website so that women who are wondering about contacting a shelter can read the experiences of others who’ve been there and know their own story will be welcomed, and heard. For those who have a real interest in pursuing writing in some form, I give them my copies of literary journals, lists of other markets, books of poetry that I think will inspire them. I don’t know how any of it is received. Again, these are women in major flux. But they do, unanimously, love the idea that what they write, say, share, is not nothing. That seems to be the biggest gift and surprise [for them] with every workshop.

I can see from your blog that you have many different irons in the fire at once. Is there a project you are working on right now that you are particularly excited about?

Haha! Yes, many irons. Apart from writing projects, my big passion is the environment with a special focus on litter. As a writer and reader, I’m equally concerned about literacy, and so a couple of years ago I created a site called The Litter I See Project, which is essentially litter-inspired writing from writers across Canada. How it works, I send them a picture of litter (I have a vast collection!) and they respond in any (short) form... poetry, prose, memoir, first thoughts, anything at all. The result has been amazing with well over a hundred writers currently on the site. The point being to increase conversation of both issues: litter and illiteracy, and maybe even inspire the occasional small domino effect of action. The bigger plan (as time allows) is to take the project to schools, get kids involved in both the writing, but also the ‘noticing’ of litter, and to understand the problem of illiteracy and the power and privilege of reading.

It’s always about the words...

 

Paige Lindsay

Paige Lindsay

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