The balancing point of what you want to do and what you need to do to sustain yourself can seem like a near-invisible wire.
When I talked to Creative Writing and Journalism (CREW) student Joe Enns, it struck me that he seemed to have cracked the code to living as close to a balanced life as anyone can in 2022.
We met up outside the VIU Nanaimo campus Starbucks on a calm Wednesday evening. Enns was enjoying the last rays of the setting sun when I found him. We chatted about lifting COVID-19 restrictions and reclusive classmates as I set up my voice memos app. Sounds of coffee grinders and closing café chatter flowed out of the ajar window above us.
Over our steaming drinks, Enns told me that writing is like living twice.
“It’s kind of like living an observed life,” he said. “Lots of philosophers and writers talk about living an observed life, or it’s meaningless to live an unobserved life, so for me it’s like getting to live a more interesting life.”
Enns is currently taking fourth-year CREW classes, but this isn’t his first time attending university. He graduated from BCIT with a Bachelor of Science in Ecological Restoration in 2009. This degree led him to habitat work as a fisheries biologist.
After seven years in Penticton working for the Okanagan Nation Alliance, he and his partner, Kelly Corbett, decided they wanted a change.
Corbett herself is an acrylic painter. “Her art got to a point where she was so successful that we were like, ‘Well, we could go anywhere, we could work anywhere in the province,’” Enns said.
Ultimately, they settled in Nanoose Bay. They moved in 2018 while Enns was facing health issues.
“My feet were slowly going numb, and so I thought I had a back problem,” he said. He has experienced chronic back issues since he was eighteen. “I went and had an MRI done, and it turns out I have arthritis in my lower back.”
The condition is known as Foraminal Stenosis.
“My bones are growing into my nerves and it’s cutting off my nerves; that’s why my feet are going numb,” he explained. His doctors told him he had to rethink what he did for work.
Enns described his previous jobs as being “stressful or sitting at a desk.” As he faced the future, he considered environmental work or a master’s degree in fisheries. Enns looked at VIU, and although the university didn’t offer those degrees, the CREW program caught his eye.
“I’ve been interested in writing since I was a teenager,” Enns said. “We didn’t have a TV growing up, so I used to just read a lot. I always thought I’d get into writing.”
Still unsure of his next step, Enns started a fisheries-focused blog.
“I wrote these huge technical posts, I read them and I thought, ‘no one will ever read this,’” he said. “I was thinking of going to school anyways, so maybe I should learn how to write for people.”
In September 2019, Enns went to his first class in the CREW program: Intro to Writing Poetry.
“I didn’t really know much about poetry. I [knew] that I liked to read it,” Enns said. “I knew that most famous writers do stuff with poetry. So, there’s something about poetry that helps with writing any genre. Maybe I should figure out what poetry is, or what it means.”
The first-year course “blew his mind.”
“In a good way?” I asked as he was taking a sip of his drink. Enns quickly clarified that it was a positive mental explosion.
“I was like, ‘That is what poetry is?’” he said. “It was incredible what I learned that first year in Sonnet [L’Abbé]’s class … It probably changed my writing more than any class. I apply the same things we learned in that class to my fiction, non-fiction, everything.”
That poetry class also happened to be my own first class in the program. It was a fairly tight-knit group—only about five of us regularly attended class and we sometimes shared very personal poetry we had written.
I was surprised and touched when Enns remembered some feedback I’d given him in that class, describing his poem as a list of images.
“That’s exactly what it is!” Enns told me. “That’s how I write. I just write a list of images, and then one image really pops out, and so I put that at the top—kind of charge the line that has the most energy … I rearrange and start to form it from there.”
Enns mentioned the “ghazel”, an Arabic form of poetry made up of rhyming couplets, as useful for building upon what the previous lines remind you of.
“It’s like a list, but a daydream at the same time.”
He believes that poetry is making a comeback, just in a twenty-first century format.
“If you think about memes and all these short form things we’re doing on social media and texting and stuff, they’re kind of like little poems,” he said. “People can definitely relate to them.”
When I asked Enns why he writes, he became thoughtful. The Starbucks playlist and mixers buzzed through the window and chatting students coming out of class filled in the space where his voice had been.
“When I’m writing, I’m kind of figuring out life at the same time,” he said. “During the day … our brains are looking for patterns, so for me it’s like trying to put together a puzzle of what’s happening around me and then seeing if there’s some pattern.”
He thinks publishing his writing adds to this dimension. “You see your own thoughts in other people’s heads, which is kind of cool, because other people’s thoughts are in my head all day long from reading other people’s things and from TV stories, so it’s like joining one big conversation of humanity.”
When asked if there were any recurring themes in his writing, Enns said, “I only have one idea, which is rivers and fish and nature.” He still takes sonar counts (Sound Navigation Ranging) to detect schools of fish on the Fraser River during summers for the Pacific Salmon Commission.
“There’s never-ending stories there,” Enns said. “I’m out on the river at two in the morning driving around with logs and all kinds of stuff coming down the river.” He gets to see the sunrise or sunset every shift.
Enns also paints. For him, it’s a family affair. His great-grandfather lived across the road from his elementary school in Sumas Prairie, and the two were close.
“He lived to be [around] 94, and I was the oldest great-grandchild, so he was still alive for quite a while when I was a kid,” Enns said.
His great-grandfather had taken up oil painting upon retirement. “I thought it was just so cool,” Enns said. His great-grandfather encouraged him to keep at it when he showed him his drawings. He made Enns a painting of two puppies on the flat side of a sawed-off tree conk, a large fungus that grows on trees, which he still has to this day.
“Any family gathering, people pull out their paintings [from him], and it’s like something left over of him,” he said.
Because of the family connection, Enns knew oil painting was in his future. “I always thought ‘Oh, [I’ll paint] when I get older,’” he said. “But then, I just decided I don’t think I should wait: what if I don’t make it to retirement age? Maybe I should start doing it now.”
Enns began painting in 2014. He watched YouTube tutorials, read books, and tried different oil painting methods. He practiced with portraits and figures.
It started out as a slow hobby, but Enns became frustrated with his productivity. “I did three paintings all year, and at the end of the year I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to change how I’m doing things; I’m hardly painting at all.’”
At the start of 2021, Enns made it his goal to paint a portrait a week. He used the Museum by Sktchy app, where people post their selfies for artists to paint, then share and compare interpretations. His output has increased rapidly.
He recently had an additional challenge when he was one of nine artists chosen to compete in the Langley Art Council’s BC-wide competition on February 27, creating a painting of a live sitter in just four hours. Enns was nervous.
“Usually I’m just in my room listening to records and painting away, not under pressure with a lot of people watching,” he said.
With his partner’s work in six galleries ranging from the Vancouver Island to Winnipeg, Enns considers being around all that art—and her—helps inspire him.
“She makes a full-on living from it, which is hard to do as a painter,” he said. “That also is encouraging, cause then I can think that I can possibly make a living doing this.”
Enns has sold many of his paintings over the years, through art shows, trades, and his website. He has an upcoming portrait show in a White Rock gallery this April, and a two-month display from July to August at the McMillan Arts Centre in Parksville.
When he was working full-time, Enns said his biologist work “distracted” him from his hobbies. Now, he has multiple outlets to interest him with painting, writing, and his summer job on the Fraser River.
“I think it’s good, because it gives me a range of things to do … Fisheries work provides good inspiration for writing, but painting is a good distraction from that, so I’m not just thinking about writing all the time.”
Enns’ different pursuits definitely feed each other.
“I often think about my process of painting compared to my process of writing,” he said. “When I paint, I really try to be messy; I try to be expressive.”
After mixing his paint on the palette—not the canvas, so as to avoid smudging—Enns said, “I try to put down very strong brushstrokes and then leave it, even if it’s wrong,” then repeat.
He compares this to his “list of images” writing strategy. “The line is like the brushstroke, so I try to find a really strong line, a really strong brushstroke.”
In a digital storytelling class, Enns created a mixed media project, connecting 100-word stories with some of his paintings in an eBook. He thinks of it as a natural development, as he writes in the same room as his paintings.
“I think that probably informed some of my stories and characters in the past.”
Enns has had a couple of highlights during his time in the CREW program, like going to an open mic reading at the White Rabbit Café with his first-year poetry class.
“It was really cool to see everyone excited about going and reading their poetry in front of a bunch of strangers,” he said.
Another special moment was having his short fiction story shortlisted for a Freefall contest, and two of his poems being featured in the upcoming spring issue of The Fiddlehead.
“Everything that I’ve had success with or [is] getting published is stuff I’ve written in class,” he clarified.
Enns is swiftly approaching CREW completion, with only three courses left. When approached with the all-too familiar question of post-degree plans, Enns wasn’t sure he had an answer.
“Everyone thinks I have some kind of major plan, like I’m working towards something where it all comes together, but I don’t really have anything like that,” Enns said and laughed. “I’m just winging it.”
He has also considered applying to Master of Fine Arts programs, liking the structure and community an academic environment provides.
“I’m just kind of doing things that interest me. Because of my arthritis, I can’t get too bogged down with working, so I’m just trying to figure out a way to live for the long term.”
The flexibility offered by writing and painting has been a great alternative.
“My back has been great since this,” Enns said over his now-empty Starbucks cup. “A creative lifestyle has really cut out stress … It’s been really good.”
As I said goodbye to Enns before he headed off to class, I found myself reinspired by some of the strategies he’d shared and excited to get home and write my own stories. Even if Enns was “winging it,” he seemed to have found the time in his life to do what he loved, and that’s certainly something I aspire to.