Award-winning playwright brings unique artistic perspective to share with campus community
BY RACHELLE COOPER
Governor General Award-winning playwright Djanet Sears, U of G's new writer- in-residence, says her creative process is similar to that of a potter forming a bowl from a blob of clay.
A potter, however, can go out and buy clay. “ I have to create my own source material — the words — and I think that's what makes writing extraordinarily hard, yet so incredibly rich,” says Sears.
“When I have some ideas, I start what I call a vomiting process. I vomit images and feelings in the form of language on the page to create the clay. A subsequent part of my process involves kneading the clay, that material I've created, to find out what's there and what it wants or needs to be turned into.”
What started as Sears's blobs of clay have become some of Canada's most celebrated plays. She wrote Canada's first stage play published by a woman of African descent, Afrika Solo, in 1990. The sequel to that play, Harlem Duet, won the 1998 Governor General's Literary Award, the Dora Mavor Moore Award and the Floyd S. Chalmers Award for outstanding new Canadian play. In 2003, Sears received the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award. Her most recent play, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, finished a six-month run in Toronto at the DuMaurier Theatre in March.
Sears is grateful to have the opportunity to dedicate the next four months to writing in Guelph. Being away from all her own things in Toronto removes distractions and allows her to concentrate, she says.
“A great writer once told me that the biggest trick to writing is ‘bum in seat.' You just have to sit there and do it and wait for the resistance to go.”
Sears is just beginning her “vomiting process” for two ideas that she's planning to mould into a play and a piece of fiction.
Besides being physically removed from her things, Sears says the other big attraction to Guelph was the talented faculty here.
“You guys have an exciting group of people who teach here. The range of people — Judith Thompson, Sky Gilbert, Kim Renders, Thomas King, Dionne Brand — and what they're doing are really quite stunning. Not only are they wonderful academics and outstanding practitioners with remarkable reputations, but they're also incredibly nice people. It might be something in the air here. I'm just hoping some of that genius that is wafting around this university seriously considers dropping in on me.”
In addition to her own writing, Sears will be visiting classes on campus to talk about her work and is holding office hours to allow student writers and members of the community to discuss their writing with her. She is scheduled to visit the two literature classes that are currently studying Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God and Harlem Duet. She will also be giving a public talk, “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of Her Own Stories,” Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Room 224 of the MacKinnon Building.
College of Arts dean Jacqueline Murray says she's delighted that the Canada Council for the Arts helped bring Sears to Guelph.
“The writer-in-residence program allows us to bring into our community outstanding writers like Djanet Sears, who complement and expand on the writers on our faculty,” says Murray. “It is an unparallelled opportunity for our students to meet and discuss writing as an art and a craft, and to receive feedback from writers like Sears, who are shaping the next generation of Canadian literature.”
Prof. Alan Shepard, director of the School of English and Theatre Studies, says Sears “brings a unique artistic perspective to the University. Artistic communities, to stay vital, need brilliant visitors. That's why Djanet's presence on campus is so important.”
Sears is no stranger to speaking in front of university classes and meeting with students one-on-one. She has been an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto since 2000.
When meeting with students, she encourages them to find their own writing process.
“They already know a lot about how and where they like to write, whether it be at a coffee shop, in bed or at a desk. I try to get them to find out things about their own writing process that are already in place but that they just aren't aware of.”
As for her own writing, Sears says the ideas that form her clay often come to her via the difficulties she sees around her.
“It's a mixture of things that irritate me that leads me to ask questions and create scenarios to try and work out those difficulties,” she says. “I sometimes blast all the parts of the problem into characters and have them start to interact with each other. If I'm lucky, the writing becomes unified, maybe like the firing of clay in a kiln. My sense of it is that the writing itself becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. It comes alive.”
She says that although her own creative method is the same for writing fiction as for non-fiction, writing the spoken word takes extra care.
“People don't usually speak to each other in complete sentences, so I can't write that way. I talk aloud in my head a lot to try to get the pauses, the hesitations and the repetitions in all the right places.”
The beauty of writing for the theatre is that it becomes a collaborative effort after a certain point, says Sears. If she gets stuck on a certain part, she invites performer friends over to her house to read from her latest work.
“Hearing it aloud sometimes helps me move it forward.”
Once she has finished a play, her work is far from done because she often directs her own work.
“The whole thing explodes and brings forth a new dimension. On a stage, work on a page commingles with breath and creates something that lives. There's something about theatre that's magical that you don't get anywhere else. It's almost like being in a church or a temple: to breathe, to laugh, to cry at the same time as the people next to you and the people in the room you don't know. For that short period of time, you become a community or even family.”
While on campus, Sears will have office hours Wednesdays and Thursdays starting at 1 p.m. For an appointment, contact Elizabeth Gilbertson at Ext. 53147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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