One of the best things about our family holiday was seeing the kids settle in and really enjoy each other’s company. I still can’t believe how easy it all felt, to travel so far and make collective decisions, with late bedtimes and no set routine to guide us.
In truth, we’re not the world’s most adventurous family, and nobody was disappointed if a day consisted of a little walking, a little swimming, and a made-up game, like the above, where we attempted to throw pebbles through this perfectly shaped hollow log. Points for multiple consecutive through-stones.
This was perhaps the most adventurous outing we attempted: we followed a map drawn by our host to a nearby logging road and hiked a trail in search on a large and ancient tree. And we found it! The kids agreed to pose while I tried to take the perfect family photo. And tried. And tried.
And gave up, eventually. Too much personality on display, and who would want it otherwise? The forest was eerily empty of any sign of animals (neither cougars, nor bears, nor even squirrels could be seen). But as we were leaving, this marvellous slug was spotted on the path. Everything’s bigger on the West Coast, it seems, even the slugs.
Here is a portion of a conversation I had with Kevin the evening after my reading at the Sunshine Coast Festival. Let me set the scene: we were sitting outside on a deck at a glass-topped table covered with the remnants of a delicious supper we’d prepared for our family, of grilled and shredded chicken, refried black beans, tortillas, and a salad made entirely from vegetables grown in the garden of the house where we were staying: zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes in a ranch dressing.
The kids had gone inside, probably to watch the Food Network. We don’t have TV at home, and while we were at the house on the Sunshine Coast the kids became entranced and mildly obsessed with shows they found on the Food Network, which was all they watched. Their interest extended beyond the television, and they played and continue to play (especially the younger two) games based around preparing imaginary and elaborate dishes that include bizarre ingredients, and judging their relative success and merit. Just this morning, for example, while I sipped coffee and read the newspaper, I was offered fish and shrimp covered in caramel (um … ok?), and beans and rice topped with peach salsa.
That was a long aside.
Back to the glass-topped table, outside on the deck, at the house overlooking the Georgia Strait where we stayed while on the Sunshine Coast. I’d held the stage for an hour that morning, reading from Girl Runner and talking about my research for the book, and I’ll admit that I was feeling pretty high. It’s rare, at a festival, that you’ll be asked to hold the stage for a full hour (most often, authors are paired with other authors and a moderator, a format that works well when the chemistry is good, but tends to elevate one or two voices above the rest, if the chemistry is even a bit off). In all honesty, I was pretty nervous going into that solo hour, even though I’d prepared obsessively and practiced my presentation in advance. It is an honour to be given an hour of anyone’s time, let alone an hour’s worth of warm and generous attention from a sizeable audience. Trust me, in a writer’s life, this cannot be taken for granted. It’s a gift.
And that is essentially what I said to Kevin, while we stared out at the ocean and marvelled at being here, even if just for a few days: “It feels really good to get to do what you feel you are meant to be doing — it feels so good. So useful. To think of all those people giving me an hour of their time and attention. It is such a gift. This is a most lucky life.”
I think my strongest longing, as a human being, is to be useful. It’s why I so enjoyed parenting small children, and why I wanted to be a midwife. But children grow, and I’m not on the midwife path; instead, here I am, forty years old and still writing. And it doesn’t always feel useful. It often feels frivolous, self-indulgent, narcissistic. I try to apply my skills in wider ways, and to other causes. But it always comes back to this: I love writing fiction. I’m good at organizing ideas into a coherent shape. Out of everything I can do, this is what I can do best.
So I sat at the glass-topped table with my husband, and I savoured the moment, my heart and mind filled with what felt like inexpressible thanks. And now I’m trying to express it, because that is what writers do.
This could be a really really really long post about our truly wonderful family adventure on the West coast of Canada, but I am so pressed for time, having just returned from the truly wonderful adventure with all of the laundry / deficit of food in the house / soccer games upcoming this evening / unanswered emails that it will have to be a really really really short post.
In some ways, I wish we could always be on holiday. I don’t mean I wouldn’t work, because I love my work, and in fact work was a key part of this holiday — I appeared at the Sunshine Coast Festival to present on Girl Runner, and I wrote lots while away, too. I mean, our family would be together all the time, but without the pressure of the every day. We would no doubt bore of this … sleeping in, going for hikes and walks, playing beach volleyball in the ocean, eating out, doing very little in the way of cleaning or upkeep or chores … but it was sweet while it lasted, and I hadn’t tired of it yet.
I hope to post in greater detail soon. The photo above and the one at the top were taken in Vancouver, on an early morning run to Stanley Park. I kept stopping to take photos. It was that beautiful, and that out of norm, for me. Although, strange aside, several people I met while on the Sunshine Coast had been to Waterloo region, and recalled it as a most beautiful place; to which I replied … huh? Please don’t take this the wrong way, Waterloo. I mean, I’ve chosen to live here, not anywhere else on earth, and I love you for many reasons, but geographical features and natural beauty do not top my list. I’ve never been inspired to stop and snap a pic whilst running beside the railroad tracks through campus, for example. To compare:
Meanwhile, in bookish news:
* I’ll be appearing at the Chapters in Waterloo with The Candy Conspiracy on Saturday at 11AM (click link here for more details)
* It’s just been announced that I’m on the 2015 Journey Prize jury, along with Tanis Rideout and Anthony Da Sa (and it’s amusing to compare the descending head sizes on the official Journey Prize poster)
* Finally, I just opened a package from House of Anansi with the brand-new paperback edition of Girl Runner, including a guide for book clubs, with truly challenging questions (think you could answer them all?)
All for now.
While I’m blogging lots this week, and because I won’t be blogging much (I suspect) in the week or two ahead, I’ll take this moment to highlight another tab, above, on my web site: Upcoming Events. It’s not new. But it’s handy. It’s where I keep track of readings, speaking engagements, festivals, launches — everything book-related.
For starters, next week I’m heading to the Sunshine Coast Festival in Sechelt, B.C. This is my first time at the festival, which I hear is amazing, and my first time on the Sunshine Coast, and my first time bringing the whole family along to an event like this (they likely won’t come to the reading itself, but the organizers have kindly invited our family to several other events and found us a family-friendly cottage by the ocean to stay in, while we’re there — see, amazing!). This is also our first major summer family holiday ever. The last time we flew somewhere together, we spent Christmas in Nicaragua — and we only had three kids. That’s a long time ago. (Note to self: must find a way to return to Nica again; I’ve visited once a decade since childhood.)
Then, in September, I’m going to Spain! I’ve been invited to the Hay Festival in Segovia, with the Spanish-language version of Girl Runner: La corredora. This trip will be a whirlwind, hosted by my Spanish publisher, Alfaguara, which is launching the book this fall. (The family is staying home; sorry, guys.)
I return home in time to visit the Halton Hills library, which has chosen Girl Runner for its One Book: One Community program (very exciting!), and then just a few weeks later, in October, I’m flying out to Victoria (solo) where I’m a guest speaker at the Victoria marathon. Sadly, there’s no way I’ll be in shape to run the marathon, but in my dreams I somehow manage to conquer the half. This hasn’t been a high-mileage summer. I’ve been averaging three runs a week, rarely more than 10km, often less. One change is that I rarely run alone anymore. Almost all of my exercise is social, right now: meeting a friend is motivating, and it’s fun. But if I’m going to add more miles, I will have to do some longer solo runs.
Kevin is recommending that I start listening to podcasts while running. He’s become a convert to the short story form by listening to The New Yorker fiction podcast while running around the neighbourhood with the dogs. I listened to one just this morning, while making poached eggs for Fooey (it’s her Birthday Eve!): a story called “Love” by Grace Paley, as read by George Saunders. If you think you don’t like short stories, try out this podcast. It combines the reading of a story with a conversation afterward between a well-known writer and the New Yorker story editor: it’s like listening in on a really informed book club discussion.
Love is poaching eggs for your almost-ten-year-old; love is kicking a soccer ball for two hours with your seven-year-old; love is watching a leader’s debate (Canadian version) with your twelve-year-old; love is driving back to camp to fetch your fourteen-year-old; love is sharing earphones and stories with your husband.
Hm. That was really cheesy. I feel compelled to apologize a) for writing it and b) for not erasing it. But hey, maybe you’ll want to make your own list? Enjoy your weekend.
I’ve started a new FAQs page. You can find it here, or under the Extras tab, above. So far, I’ve published the answer to just one question, but when I started writing the answer to this one question, I realized it was also the answer to another question and another question. Which probably proves that I’m really bad at FAQ pages. Or that I wouldn’t be able to write a wiki-how page to save my life. Anyway, here’s the first question, and my answer.
Q: How do I find a publisher? (a.k.a. How do I make money as a writer?)
You want to know how to get published. I could answer you with the traditional find-an-agent + agent-finds-publisher = publish your book. This is what worked (and continues to work) for me. But with the rapid rise of self-publishing, about which I know nothing, my experience has come to seem quaint, old-fashioned, and possibly irrelevant. Will the traditional model work for you? I don’t know.
Also, I suspect it’s not the question you’re really asking. The question inside your question is: how do I make money as a writer?
It’s assumed that publishing a book is the surefire way to make money as a writer, but here’s an unscientific breakdown of what happens when we drill down into the esker of being-a-writer and examine the striations: very few writers make a good living by publishing their books; some writers make a modest living by publishing their books; many writers make a token amount of money by publishing their books; and a number of writers make nothing, or indeed spend their own money, publishing their books.
So, I’m going to ask you to put aside the money question, and the publishing question, just for now. The only thing I can tell you about with any authority, or usefulness, is how to be a writer.
There are a variety of ways to develop your craft. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Write in a journal, sit in a public place and write observational notes, compose essays, short stories, poems. Earn a degree in literature, if you can. Ask others, whom you respect, admire and most of all trust, to read and critique your work. This is imperative! Be brave. Critique your own work after letting it sit quietly untouched for at least a week, or a month, or even a year. Revise what you’ve written. Read, read, read some more to study how your favourite writers shape their sentences, find music and harmony in language, and develop narrative. Remember you are learning a craft. Writing is not like thinking or like speaking. It is its own medium. You can’t dictate a great idea onto a page; don’t worry, no one else can either.
Send your stories and poems to literary magazines. Do not be flummoxed by rejection. Hope for helpful critique that will serve you as you write with ever-greater clarity, toward a purpose you alone can achieve. What do you want to say? What do you want to make people feel and think? What are the stories you want to tell — that you feel compelled to tell? If you pursue a creative writing MFA, do it not with the goal of getting published, but as a means of deepening your craft in a concentrated, challenging, and hopefully supportive environment. Learn how to defend your choices; learn how to be open to criticism. There is always more to learn. You are a writer because you are curious, and open, and never done with learning.
Okay, Carrie, enough already, this is completely impractical, you’re saying: How will I have time to read, read, read, and write, write, write, when I’m trying to finish my degree and working two jobs and looking after my family and struggling just to get by?
Yes. I say to you. Yes, dammit, yes!
I wish I had an answer to your question. There’s a gap between being an aspiring writer and becoming a published writer, and then there’s another gap between becoming a published writer and being recognized as an established writer, and there’s yet another gap, which no one ever tells you about, between being an established writer and feeling like an established writer. Complicating all of this, there’s no single direct path to follow, as any published writer will tell you — but what makes it all the more difficult is that supports along the way are few and far between, especially in the early years of developing your craft, but even in the middle years, even in the latter years. (This is also a really old problem that never seems to go away: how to support and develop artistic talent? Especially difficult because art doesn’t make money in a straightforward way, like, say, drilling for oil does; although it could be argued that both are equally speculative ventures, with uncertain outcomes.)
This brings us to grants. The first grant I ever earned as an aspiring writer was from the Ontario Arts Council: it’s called the Writers’ Works in Progress Grant. If you’re from Ontario, look into it. If not, there may be equivalent grants for artists and writers in your community. When I received this grant, I was 27 years old, I’d earned a BA and MA in literature, had worked full-time for several years at a newspaper, and along with publishing a handful of poems and stories in literary magazines, had completed a novel (never published) and a volume of short stories, and had acquired an agent. In other words, I was already quite a long way down the path of aspiring writer. I applied for this particular grant at least three or four times before earning it: selection is by blind jury. I could apply now and not receive it. The point is, grants can fill a gap, but applying takes time, energy, and is something of a crapshoot. (Prizes are a more glamorous subset of grants, but are an even greater crapshoot.)
The other point is, you can be an aspiring writer for what may seem like a very long time; a ridiculously long time; even a foolishly long time. When I go to literary festivals, I sometimes feel like we’re sizing each other up back-stage, sussing out with mutual pity and secret sympathy the heartbreak and delusional determination that each of us must be carrying to be in this vaguely humiliating position of professional, published writer.
But then, I read a really fine book by a completely brilliant writer that fills me with love and joy and admiration and awe, and I think: Who cares! Who cares if it’s pitiful and foolish to want to be a writer, to continue after all these years to write, write, write, and read, read, read. Because this is possible, after all. It is possible, maybe, to write something that will fill someone else with love and joy — or even simply divert someone, entertain someone, amuse someone.
Which brings me around to why anyone would want to be a writer. You might tell yourself that you’re writing for yourself, to please yourself alone, and in some ways, yes, you must do that. But that’s not the only reason, or even the most important reason. You’re writing also outwardly, to reach out, to connect with an ongoing and continuing conversation, out of a long tradition of written work, trying to speak to your moment, which is cast here in time. You’re writing to be read, you hope. We all hope, all of us writers. And maybe we will be, and maybe we won’t be. But please, please, I urge you: don’t write just for yourself. Think about how what you’re writing can reach out — think beyond yourself.
Think of writing as a gift. It’s a gift you’ve been given, if you have a talent for it. And it’s a gift you can offer, if you have a talent for it. A gift is something that resides beyond you. You don’t get to decide how it’s received. And you don’t get to choose what you’re given. This is where grace enters in and takes this whole answer of mine to a place that has nothing to do with money, or success, or any practical, useful measure, socially or culturally or otherwise, and which may explain why making art is not like drilling for oil and never can be: you’re writing for reasons that have nothing to do with money or success. We’d like to connect the two and say that if you are deserving, you will be rewarded; but we also like to define what a reward is: money, success, fame, a fat publishing contract, The New York Times bestseller list, a movie deal.
And so it may be. And so we may wish.
But if it’s not, that doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re a writer because you chase the words, you polish the sentences, you seek out the core of the story, and you never seem to tire of it. You may never be entirely comfortable. You may never be entirely satisfied. You may always believe you could do better. You could rightly call this restlessness, anxiety, obsession; but you could equally name it urgency, hopefulness, and openness. Don’t worry about what it is: it’s what fires you to do the work. No matter the reward.
So that’s my admittedly impractical, useless, absolutely-no-money-back-guarantee formula. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Do the work. It’s a gift.
Respectfully yours, Carrie
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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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