Writing by Numbers—by B.A. Markus

1. Show Up

A link to the Spoken Word residency at the Banff Centre shows up in my feed. I didn’t get a teaching contract with the English Montreal School Board in the fall so I’m not feeling too enthusiastic about spending the $65 non-refundable application fee. I’ve applied to the Banff Centre residencies at least six times and never gotten in. And I’m not convinced that what I’m working on, a collection of dramatic monologues based on interviews with mothers called “What Mommy Needs,” is even a spoken word piece. Most of all, I’m not ready for another rejection. In the end I justify spending the money because it counts as “Doing something about my writing.”

2. Pay Attention to What Has Heart and Meaning

In January, I get offered a contract at the school board that’s going to last until the end of June. The application for Banff is out there but I know my chances of getting into the residency are even less than my chances of getting a permanent teaching gig in Montreal. It’s amazing I got the contract for six months. Money is important to me. I’m two kids beyond not worrying about heat, secure housing, and groceries. But I haven’t given up on “What Mommy Needs.” I’m doing interviews when I can. And I’ve started to tell stories at Confabulation and Yarn in Montreal. It’s great to be performing again. I start to think about how I could use storytelling in the mommy monologues. Maybe my project is spoken word after all.

3. Tell Your Truth as You Understand It

A month into my teaching contract I get the acceptance letter from Banff with an offer of financial aid. In ten seconds I go from delight to despair. I can’t go to Banff. I just signed a contract. Two days later it occurs to me that I could ask the principal if there is any way I could leave my job for two weeks to do the residency. But I have my doubts. He’s young and ambitious. He likes to follow the rules. And there are fifty teachers who would gladly grab my contract if I left. I practice my speech, aiming for the sweet spot. Somewhere between grovelling employee and self-assured writer. He cuts me off mid-grovel. He says I can go.

banff residencycohort
My cohort: participants and faculty of the 2017 spoken word residency at the Banff Centre (I am in the second row from the bottom, second from the right). The photo above this essay shows me performing at Confabulation, a storytelling series in Montreal.

4. Remain Open to Outcomes

Waiting for the plane to Calgary, I download the schedule for the residency. I’d assumed that my time at Banff would be two weeks of uninterrupted writing time. Now I see that most of my days at the residency will be filled with workshops led by the faculty. Attendance is compulsory. I vow that I will spend all my unscheduled time either working on “What Mommy Needs” or getting regular exercise in the pool at the Banff Centre.

At the end of the first day, one of the faculty members asks if anyone plays the piano and I put up my hand. He’s doing a poem at the faculty show in a couple of nights and he wants some simple piano in the background. In Montreal, I live surrounded by professional musicians. Now I feel like an amateur. I practice for the show on a Steinway grand because that’s the kind of piano you get to play at the Banff Centre. The show goes well. Afterwards, one of the other residents asks me if I’d like to collaborate with her and play piano while she performs her poem. She wants to record us in the studio.

Despite my promise to devote my unscheduled time to “What Mommy Needs,” I spend many hours in my hut playing piano and singing Jewish prayers, Christian spirituals, and French cabaret songs.

My plans for daily swims are also squashed, by the appearance of a giant sty that swells my right eye shut.

We are going to do a show at the end of the residency. I intended to perform an excerpt from “What Mommy Needs,” but instead I write a story about identity that includes three sung sections. I’ve never sung while telling a story. I start to think about how I could integrate music into “What Mommy Needs,” which is now definitely a spoken word project.

“This writing project has transformed me. And all I had to do was follow the numbers.”

On the last day of the residency, I meet with one of the faculty members, a historian and dub poet whose work weaves together poetry, performance, and primary research. When I start describing my ideas for enhancing the performance experience in “What Mommy Needs,” she starts shaking her wise head. “No, no,” she says. “‘What Mommy Needs’ is a book.”

I come back to Montreal with a musical story about identity, a professional recording of me playing piano behind someone else’s poetry, and the possibility that I’m actually writing a book. This writing project has transformed me. And all I had to do was follow the numbers.

The four “rules” I followed are by Angeles Arrien.

You can watch an example of my spoken word performance below:


bamarkusphotoB.A. Markus is a writer, teacher, and performer living in Montreal. She is an award-winning creative nonfiction writer, a Grammy- and Juno-nominated songwriter, and her reviews, essays, and stories can be found in anthologies and publications such as Carte Blanche, Queen’s Quarterly, and The Montreal Review of Books. She tells stories live at the Confabulation and The Yarn storytelling events and is currently writing a series of monologues, entitled “What Mommy Needs,” about what mothers do to survive the realities of motherhood. BAMarkus.com

Photo credit: Jean-Sébastien Dénommé (header banner)

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