Guest post by Maria Meindl
My first novel The Work is about a woman who falls in love with the charismatic leader of a theatre group and stays with him for two decades, even though — at least on the surface of things — there’s not a lot in it for her. The question I get asked most often is whether it’s based on personal experience.
The answer is, yes and no.
Have I stayed fruitlessly loyal for years and years? Ooooooh yeah! And I wanted to get inside that experience in The Work. I have lived through a prolonged romantic obsession; I see these sorts of relationships around me all the time, but they’re not common in literature. They’re difficult to write about. I guess a short, self-destructive love affair provides a better story arc. Yet I’m fascinated with what makes a person stay and stay and stay … and stay. What is she getting out of it?
Rebecca, my protagonist, is competent — too competent at times — yet she falls prey to someone who manipulates and takes advantage of her. I tried to understand what, in her personality, might make her susceptible, but mostly I wanted to show that anyone is susceptible.
And what about the theatre group, SenseInSound, which functions on the borderline between therapy and self-expression, and has many cult-like qualities? I teach a form of movement (Feldenkrais Technique), which required a long, intensive training, and I’ve also participated in various of disciplines that unite body and mind. (And by the way, they’re almost always referred to as The Work.) In my PhD research I’m studying the history of physical culture in 19th and 20th century Europe, so I know the territory.
I have never had an experience where a leader or teacher abused their power — or not seriously — but I know it happens. And I absolutely see how it can. I drew from my own experiences then speculated … What if…? What if someone crossed the line right now?
But I didn’t want to make this aspect of the story cut-and-dried. I didn’t want to show a cult leader pulling people into his orbit and spitting them out as broken souls. People benefit from The Work, or at least, they find a way to present their experiences in a positive light. In the end, The Work is the main character in The Work. It’s beneficial in small doses, but when people entangle themselves with it too closely, it becomes harmful.
The theatre company spends a long time in process, continually reshaping its plays, building them, then tearing them down and rebuilding them again. These sections of my book almost wrote themselves, and I think that’s because I love process so much.
My fascination with process is the inspiration behind my reading series, Draft, which I founded in 2005 in the Leslieville area of Toronto. We invite both emerging and well-known authors to share their work-in-progress at the readings. Reading new work to a sympathetic audience can sometimes provide more ideas for revision than ten pages of comments. And for the audience, there’s something special about hearing work that is unfinished. It means that you are actually part of the author’s process. You’re part of the writing.
It took me a long time to write my novel — not because I was keeping some kind of noble distance until it was ready to be shared, but because I couldn’t seem to make The Work work. Of course I got impatient, because I kept running out of money and wanting to do other projects. From an artistic point of view, though, I enjoyed my long engagement with The Work. I prefer being in process to finishing a project. I could have kept on changing the book forever, but I knew it was time finally to polish it up and move on.
The Work is the first part of a trilogy, which moves backwards in time. It looks at The Work in different eras. One book takes place in England in the 1950s, and the other is divided between Berlin in the 1930s and 1980s California. These prequels show The Work not just in different, eras but in the hands of different practitioners, and they draw on the historical research I’ve been doing for my PhD. As a writer, I find this daunting project reassuring. It’s always good to know there’s plenty of Work on the horizon!
Maria is the author of The Work. Her first book, Outside the Box from McGill-Queen’s University Press, won the Alison Prentice Award for Women’s History. Her essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications including The Literary Review of Canada, Descant and Musicworks, as well as in the anthologies, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die and The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood. She has made two radio series, Parent Care, and Remembering Polio for CBC Ideas.
From 1993 to 2010 she ran The Writing Space Press with Diana Kiesners. She was a member of the editorial board of Descant magazine from 1995 to 2001. In 2005, Maria founded the Draft Reading Series which specializes in unpublished work by emerging and established writers.