“Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – an empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.” — Mary Oliver, Our World
This morning, when the plumber arrived to hopefully fix our toilet before our annual scotch party this Saturday, I was on the couch by the fire with the dogs, enjoying the last minutes of my nap. I answered the door, trying to appear not to have been recently asleep. We exchanged pleasantries and I showed him the problem, then removed myself to chastise and crate the dogs, who had threatened to remove the plumber from his leg. Then I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Now, I tell myself that the plumber has no idea what I ordinarily look like, so perhaps he wasn’t as frightened as I was by the sight of me.
My hair had dried funny and a sizeable clump was standing straight out over my left ear.
And I looked approximately a decade older than I actually am due to raccoon-like, circular, darkish, bruised-looking dents around my eyes. Goggle eyes!
Evidence of early morning swim. It lasts longer some mornings.
The good news is this: I got up to swim.
I’m managing to rise early every single week-day to exercise. More good news: I was able to run intervals at an indoor track yesterday. Very very slowly. When I tried out the running a couple of weeks ago, it’s possible I was going way too fast. Oops. That’s not like me at all. Ahem. But even a slow run is thrilling when it’s pain-free. Add in the daily walking at my treadmill desk, and I’m actually covering a lot of kilometres these days.
And I’m trying to meditate, just the tiniest bit. Ten minutes a day. It reminds me of swimming laps. I do a lot of counting and controlled breathing while swimming laps.
Today, AppleApple wondered why I don’t swim faster; this was not exactly a critique. Despite being a quite damning critic of the inefficient swimming styles she observes in the lanes all around us, she says my stroke actually looks like it’s being done correctly. But with such a proper-looking stroke, she thinks I should be going faster, and I agree. So perhaps there are unseen inefficiencies. Next time, on her suggestion, I’m going to try rotating my shoulders more — stretching forward on the glide like I’m making myself as long as I possibly can. (Why do I always imagine that I can improve, no matter what I’m trying to do? Is that a really irritating trait?)
The plumber has left. The dogs have calmed down.
It’s time for meditation, followed by walking and writing. Nobody will be here to see the goggle eyes or to judge the sticky-out chlorinated hair, not even me. I’ll be gone too; that’s what it feels like when I’m writing, like I’ve left the room, left this season and place and time. Away: inventing imaginary memories for imaginary people who seem so strangely real.
(Note to self: check mirror before picking up kids for piano lessons.)
List of things to do today, on this Sunday, a month after Christmas…
wash bedding; bake bread; make chicken stock; vacuum; exercises; write
Write comes last, but it’s where I’ve begun (well, a second load of bedding is whirling in the washer as I type, but laundry is like that, must be attacked in a steady march throughout the day).
What we’re struggling with, on the parenting front…
motivating a child who does what’s asked, but no more: and I wonder, are some born without a strong internal self-motivational engine and how best to foster/plant the seeds of creativity and initiative? Are we the dreaded helicopter parents if we schedule this child’s life on his/her behalf, or are we neglectful if we allow her/him to drift, seemingly content not to discover or pursue any interests arising from within?
Do we all have interests arising from within? What is interest? Is it creativity, curiosity, the desire for knowledge and challenge? Is it also, perhaps, the desire for more, a positive form of anxiety, a positive channeling of our dissatisfaction with what we already have?
What we want for our children is universal: we want them to be content, but also to be productive, kind, thoughtful, engaged individuals. It’s that last bit we want most of all: to be engaged. Engagement means (to me) that sweet spot where the interests within an individual connect to the world without.
What is working, on the parenting front…
this four-part system of apology. It goes roughly like this. 1. I’m sorry for [insert specific wrong-doing]. 2. It was wrong because [insert specific harm caused to the other person]. 3. Next time I will [insert possible amendment(s) to future behaviour]. 4. Will you forgive me? [to which the wronged person replies “I forgive you.”]
It feels a bit odd and formal when introduced for the first time, but I must say there’s a real appeal to it in practice, and makes saying sorry both more meaningful and more satisfactory to all parties involved.
Good ways to spend some “free” time on the weekend …
playing Bach on the piano; walking to the library with a cranky child; helping coach small boys on the soccer field; lingering, being silly with family over a supper of hamburgers and caesar salad; legendary power nap on the couch by the fire; beer and conversation with Kevin
PS I actually wrote this list on our chalkboard wall this morning. So it really will happen. If it’s on the wall, it must happen.
It’s a long week, this one. I’ve had a lot on my plate, and therefore have been unable to put into practice, with regularity and insularity, my word-of-the-year: WRITE. The first two weeks of January stand out as this kind of cocooned ideal, during which there seemed just the right balance of, well, everything. Early mornings, quiet concentration during school hours, busy after-school activities, family suppers, time to unwind late in the evening. Add onto the schedule, and something has to give. And that something is so often this: WRITE.
To write takes inward focus. Publicity work pulls the energy outward. There’s attention, and there’s attention: two different meanings for that word. I can’t and won’t complain about receiving attention for my writing, because this is what sustains a career. But how to receive attention and also remain vigilant and protective of my quiet time? I haven’t figured it out. I’d like to ask someone who would know better than I do, someone who’s received far more attention and yet continues to make space and time to write. Someone like Miriam Toews. I wish I’d asked her last fall when I had the chance, when we were in the same place together, on several occasions.
It’s winter. This is good inward-delving time, always has been. The pull is to this keyboard and screen, which take me into my mind, into scenes that surprise and intrigue me, chasing characters I’ll never meet, yet who feel completely real. I don’t know why I want to do this, nor what practical use it could possibly serve, yet here’s where I’m drawn: into the imagination.
Maybe because real life is hard, sad? Maybe I’m seeking symmetry and wholeness and the balance only fictional framing can offer.
I wasn’t going to blog this morning, because I didn’t want to disappear into internet-land, where time melts away. But I wanted to share a morning thought, a fireside thought, so I’ve set my timer for 15 minutes, and here goes.
I spend a lot of time taking care of myself.
I didn’t always.
I spend a lot of time taking care of myself and my family seems to have benefitted, too.
Mothering doesn’t mean never doing anything for yourself. Okay, this is easier to state and to claim once your babies are weaned, potty-trained, sleeping through the night, and going to school full-time. Much much much easier. And maybe that period of mothering did mean never doing anything exclusively for myself, and maybe I didn’t feel like a martyr because I found the involvement in my babies’ lives so satisfying.
But now–now. Now, I wake up early to exercise. I don’t have to. No one’s making me. But it makes my whole day better. So I do it.
I do it even though the only way I can manage it is if I nap to compensate for lost sleep. So I do. I prioritize napping. Today I napped a little longer because last night I was at a book club in a restaurant, speaking and reading, and that took more energy than my usual evenings demand. And I wanted to get up early and meet my friend and go for a walk this morning. So I did.
I walked, I did physio exercises by the fire, I napped extra long. Tonight, I’ll be at the same book club, only with different ticket-holders. (4 minutes left on timer! Agh! The pressure!)
This morning, I also helped with violin and piano practice and getting kids off to school. I was pleasant and calm, without having to remind myself to be pleasant and calm — I was pleasant and calm because the walk was good, talking with a friend was good, the feedback from the book club was good, and even though I was extra-tired, I knew I could nap extra-long.
Does my life seem ideally rather than realistically organized? Maybe so. I’m extremely fortunate not to be working outside my home during school hours. And that I get to take my laptop to gymnastics and soccer and work at odd hours. And that I get to write for a living. I don’t know whether I deserve any of this (probably not), but I know that it’s taken deliberate work to arrange my days and hours, given life’s many variables, in a way that allows me to take care of myself. I’ve thrown out a lot of bad habits along the way.
And I’ve (noooo! 15 minutes gone by. Setting timer for another 7…)
What was I going to say?
Take care of yourself, people, that’s what I was going to say. Recognize what feeds you, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel cared for and loved, what challenges you to be your better self. Recognize it. And do it. I know this isn’t realistic advice for everyone. I know not everyone has support or financial resources or time. Maybe you’re in a whirl of despair or depression. This will sound naive and blinkered, this advice. Or maybe you’ve already figured all of this out!
What’s your recipe for self-care? What are the things you do that make your day better?
Here’s my recipe, right now, January 2015: wake up early, exercise, naps, friends, being with the kids, music while driving, Friends episodes while doing boring physio exercises, books, writing, and the phrase “I accept”
PS Timer totally went while I was typing that last sentence …
Sunday morning. Family reading by the fire. The French horn being practiced, drowning out the radio. Smoothies and eggs for breakfast. I’m sitting in comfy pants at my desk looking at photos I took yesterday afternoon out in the wintry countryside, for my brother and sister, who are the band Kidstreet.
I got up early every morning this past week, but not on the weekend. I wrote every day.
I write during the day, but because my working hours are foreshortened due to children arriving home from school, or music lessons, I’m always looking for additional time slots, especially useful if I’m in the flow of a project; less useful if I’m trying to manufacture a scene or story from scratch. On Tuesday I took my laptop to gymnastics and wrote, and on Friday I took my laptop to soccer practice and wrote. I even took my laptop to piano lessons, and wrote, although that was more of a challenge, as I had bored children waiting on the bench beside me, angling for snacks and chat. I couldn’t use the ear plugs I usually do, while writing. (I even use ear plugs when I’m home alone with the dogs in the middle of the day; it’s a physical cue that helps me focus.)
On Friday, I had a fascinating correspondence with my Dutch translators, who sent over a series of questions about the nuances of words and phrases in Girl Runner.
The coming week will be different, as I’ve got three book club appearances on three consecutive evenings — two involve a meal in a restaurant for a book club called “An Appetite for Reading.” Will I be able to get up early every morning? I’m going to try. But no running. I was going to say, no running, sadly, but you know, I have to accept where my body is at, and be grateful that I’ve got options: spinning, yoga, swimming, walking, strength-training. I tried doing run/walk intervals this week, and the pain re-appeared immediately. It had been gone, even through heavy spinning and swimming, so it appears to be running-induced. Which means that for now, I’m a runner in spirit only … religiously doing my physio exercises and testing out running shoes on the treadmill, while walking and writing. (Ironically, I just got a new gig testing running shoes for a running magazine and boxes of shoes keep arriving at the door.)
And now, I think it’s time to write a poem, before another Sunday morning vanishes. Piano being practiced. Swim lesson prep has begun. Ear plugs in.
One of my editors asked whether I’d be willing to be interviewed by her daughter, who is 16 and an aspiring writer. I’m totally recycling and being efficient, but I’m thinking there might be others out there with similar questions (or, if you’re a writer yourself, other answers): here is our exchange.
1. What is the best part about being a writer?
If you love to write and to read, if you love language, if you love living in the imagination this is the best job in the world. When I sit down at my desk, I never quite know what’s going to happen, so every day feels like an adventure. There’s something magical about using text to communicate complex ideas, to share imaginary characters, places and times with readers, and perhaps most exciting and daunting is the ability to draw emotion out of a reader — to cause someone to feel something simply by giving them words on a page.
There are many ways to be a writer — that might be something you want to think about, as you consider a career as a writer. I primarily write literary fiction, but I’ve also worked as a freelance writer, writing reviews, doing more journalistic non-fiction and memoir-type non-fiction (for newspapers, magazines, and online).
2. What is the worst part about being a writer?
There are many worst parts, to be perfectly frank.
Right up front, let’s be honest about money: writing is a tough career in which to make a living. Many (most?) literary writers survive on grants and small advances, or paid appearances; or they write freelance, which requires lots of networking, pitching, and constant scrabbling to keep steady work coming in the door; or they teach creative writing; or they have day jobs.
It takes years of practice to hone talent, and to master the craft to a degree that you can make these words do what you want them to do. (Of course, that’s also an exciting part — there is always more to learn; I’m still learning!) Especially during the early years of being a writer, you face a lot of rejection. You either accept this as a natural part of the job, carry on, and try to learn from critique, or you’ll become despairing. You’ll need to grow a thick skin to protect yourself, which is hard, because most writers are sensitive people — attuned to emotional nuance. Even established writers face rejection, self-doubt, and criticism. It’s part of the job.
Personally, I find it difficult to move between the quiet interior work of actually writing to the necessity of publicity, when a book comes out — readings, appearances, panels, interviews, etc. Public speaking draws on a different part of my personality, and I find I operate better if I’m in one mode or the other, not trying to do both at once. That isn’t always possible to arrange.
I think one thing that isn’t often admitted is that writers are plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. This is not something you outgrow. I’ll never be absolutely certain that I’ve achieved what I intended to with my work — in fact, I think I’m quite certain that I haven’t, and never will. I don’t mean that I feel like a failure, or that I’m not happy with what I’ve created; just that I always believe it could be better.
But I don’t write simply to create a finished product. I write because I love the process itself. And I write always with a good deal of hope and optimism that I’ll achieve something new and different in each project I undertake.
3. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Read books that challenge you, books that teach you the long history of writing that we’re all building on, books that you admire. Read the writing you yourself would want to write. Don’t worry about losing your voice or not being original. If you write regularly you will develop and find your voice. I recommend writing as widely as you read, too. Write daily. Every bit of writing counts and can teach you something. Write in a journal. Write poetry in the margins of your school notes. Write academic essays. Write for your school newspaper. Write a blog. (This advice is based entirely on my own writing path: I took English lit in university, BA and MA, and filled journal upon journal with thoughts, dreams, stories, ideas, poems, etc. I still write every day, whether it’s writing for publication, or just for myself.)
4. What is the one thing that you would like to achieve through writing?
I don’t think I can narrow my hopes down to one particular achievement. I use my writing to communicate many different things, in different ways, in different forms. I would like to entertain readers, to catapult them into a parallel world, and take them out of their lives for a little while. I would like also to pour empathy into the world. Beauty and light, stories that may cause readers to look at their own lives differently, or to look at others differently. I do think about this. I think about what I’m putting into the world when I write. I want to add depth and understanding to human interaction, not subtract from it or be harmful. I try to write with an openness of spirit and heart and mind — and I try to live that way too.
5. Why do you think writers are important to society?
Words are powerful tools. Ideas can be powerfully communicated through them. I have a theory that all conflict and therefore the possibility of peace boils down to two ingredients: land and stories. Land is obvious: humans have been fighting over land (resources, territory, wealth) since the beginning of human history. Stories are less obvious, but no less important: a nation’s stories about itself can include or exclude, bury or illuminate, and these stories are narratives about belonging and power. All stories are. Maybe I’ll go back to your previous question and say that if I hope to achieve anything with my writing, it would be to illuminate stories that have been forgotten or left untold.
But I’m also interested in narrative and emotional complexity rather than myth-making: this complexity is usually lost in policy-making and politicking generally, and I think that’s where writers come in. Writers are not politicians. It’s our job to show the complexity of individual human experience. It is only by seeing “the other” as complex that we see him or her as human, which is a necessary imaginative leap toward understanding.
Here it is, in all its simplicity. My word of the year for 2015: WRITE.
(Because you don’t do enough of that already, said one of my WOTY friends last night. But you know what? I don’t, exactly.)
I’ve chosen WRITE, in its variations, both the active verb, to write, and the noun or subject, writing. I want to explore this calling of mine, if it is indeed my calling. Mainly, I want to do it—to write! I want what I do this year to be in service to my writing. I want, also, to examine what makes good writing so that I can teach it better.
If I get to the end of the year, and feel like I’ve wasted my time or not applied myself, or been in some way made very unhappy by the pursuit of writing for itself, for its own end, then I will re-examine my calling, such as it is. Perhaps there is a greater purpose to which I should be applying myself.
But for now, this year, I want to live in my imagination and write fiction, specifically. Work with intensity, patience, and discipline.
I’ve allowed myself a back-up word, a tagline or footnote, if you will, and that is: ATTENTION. ATTENTION feeds into WRITE. I want to pay attention to the way I’m spending my time. And if attention comes my way, I want to receive it with grace, humility, and thanks, as food that feeds my writing life.
I feel strongly that this year will be about paring down, cutting out what feels wasteful or unnecessary, not trying to squeeze so much in, and focusing instead on the richness in a long-held moment—like playing a series of whole notes rather than eighth or sixteenth notes. It might appear boring on the surface. Much of the pleasure may be taking place way down deep, rather than visible in the exciting places visited or activities raced through. The adventure is in the mind: that is what it means to write.
I think it’s like doing a puzzle.
Or practicing yoga. Or following the long arc of a story.
This year I’m going to spend more time holding the long notes. Talking. Jamming on instruments. Napping, even.
The adventure in the mind is supported by a framework of routine and discipline, which is healthy, spiritually nurturing, and makes a body strong. I love my routines. I feel so comforted by them, supported in them. I look forward to what they offer me, even when I don’t feel like setting my alarm early.
This morning, for example, I stretched in front of the fire in the dark living-room, with chants playing in the background. I was frozen solid from my walk with Nina; we’d decided to cut it short when we started losing feeling in important body parts. As I stretched myself toward warmth, in the dark, I was taken by the comfort of the dark. This is a dark time of year, but in the dark the mind goes quiet, listens inward, has time to rest and reflect.
PS Are you choosing a word of the year? If so, and you’re willing, please share it in the comments. I would love to hear what you’re working on this year.
Tonight, I’m meeting with my Word of the Year friends. This will mark nearly a decade of participating in this ritual. I’m not positive I can remember all of the words chosen, but here are most of them, from oldest to newest: Create. Imagine. Spirit. Heart. Work/Play. Stretch. Success.
Success was my most recent word: the word for 2014. Chosen in anticipation of a big year career-wise; chosen because I realized that I was terrified and strangely ashamed by the idea of Success, and I wanted to explore why. I tried, but didn’t dig very far into the why. Maybe that would have required therapy. But I dug deep into the idea of Success and its meanings, its definitions, and learned that it’s very personal. There are external markers of Success that we tend to rely on: how much we earn, what we own, how much recognition we receive for our efforts.
Conversely, there are internal markers of Success that no one else will ever see or recognize. These are your values. What matters to you. What you care about. And it may just be that what you care about doesn’t align perfectly with what the world cares about.
That’s good to know. It helped me during this year to separate my own hopes and disappointments and dreams from the hopes and disappointments and dreams out there.
It was a good year, there’s no doubt about it. What I remember best and value most are the friendships and connections. New connections, ongoing friendships, give and take, small adventures. Fun. I’ll remember a gathering of friends and family in my living-room, singing and playing on the night I turned 40. I’ll remember skiing with a friend in the bitter cold last winter; and with the kids too. I’ll remember the generosity of friends hosting and feeding me in London, England last spring. And being part of the Published-A-Book-In-Canada Class of 2014 on tour this past fall. Looking back, it’s the people, I see.
I’m good with that definition of Success: not as a popularity contest, but as the formation of real bonds, strong connections.
Think of those throngs of people marching in Paris yesterday. To my mind, that is Success: an outpouring of collective, peaceful strength.
Up next: word of the year, 2015. Stay tuned.
… in a real kind of way, that my book is coming out in the US and the UK in February. The finished book arrived yesterday, in hardcover, from the US. The day before, my UK publisher sent word of a thrilling endorsement from Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants):
Carrie Snyder has written an extraordinary, accomplished debut novel of love and family: a wonderful story of a free spirit forced to make difficult choices. Aggie Smart is a truly memorable heroine: she grabbed my hand on page one and never let go.
So I guess it’s happening, elsewhere: the book is coming into existence, again.
I laid out all three English-language Girl Runners on the counter and the little kids admired the differences. Both were quite taken by the tiny child leaping or flying over the barn in the UK version.
A lot is happening, elsewhere. I’m thinking of the news from Paris of murder and hostage-taking, which is immediate, and news of missing and murdered aboriginal women, which is on-going, and “domestic violence gone awry,” also on-going, and the myriad of stories happening in our world that are, at core, messages of violence and annihilation, and hatred. And here I am, cocooned in warmth, snowed in, a dog snoring at my feet; the world looks beautiful and bright and wind-swept from my window. Here I am. With all this going on, out there. But it’s in here too, in me, as I think about a world of many wrongs and griefs.
What I’m going to do right now is write.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm mother of four, writer of fiction and non-, dreamer, planner, mid-life runner, teacher, photographer, taking time for a cup of coffee in front of this computer screen. My days are full, yet I keep asking: how can I fill them just a little bit more, with depth, with care, with light.
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