Should I be writing these blog posts? I asked my husband this week. Or, should I be writing these blog posts but choosing not to publish them, perhaps? It is a real concern, voiced not only by me, but by others, who worry about me.
How honest to be, in the moment?
Is it possible to convey that a moment is transitory and fleeting, that it comes and is felt intensely and perhaps irrationally, and then it is gone, and all is well?
All is well.
Here are the past seven days, summed up in brief.
Saturday, ran half-marathon, went to street party.
Sunday, all day at Eden Mills Writers Festival, read, met lots of people.
Monday, early morning spin & weights, no nap, caught up on emails, field hockey practice, made ratatouille for supper, on my own with kids, Kevin gone most of the day and evening.
Tuesday, early morning run, biked to campus, dreadful funk, writing, reading, prepping for class, field hockey practice, gymnastics.
Wednesday, early morning yoga, cloud lifted, music lessons, teaching, supper at 10PM.
Thursday, early morning run, class work, updating web site, driving to Burlington, three and a half hour interview for magazine story I’m writing, road construction, home before midnight.
Friday, slept til 7, PD day, children home, chaos, biting (not me), tears (not me), friends (not me), lost child (panic!), found child (thank God!), jotting notes on interview, story needs editing, ear plugs insufficient, no lunch, friend drops off chocolate croissants instead (is this heaven?!).
I’ve spent the last two days in a state of heightened gratitude, noticing every little every thing that I love and am able to do because of Girl Runner, because of choosing to stick with writing. I’m getting to teach. I’m getting to pursue subjects in-depth that fascinate and pull me—to talk to people who have accomplished extraordinary things. I’m getting forums to say what I think, to write about what I love and care about. That last one is hard, in truth. It’s hard because there’s no hiding, especially here. Obscure CanLit Mama is not a persona, or a character, it’s me, a patchwork version of me, but me nevertheless.
It isn’t always pretty. I’m not always pretty.
About a year and a half ago, I experienced an odd moment at the end of a yoga class, lying in that clear-headed state of savasana. I heard the words “Goodbye Obscure CanLit Mama” loud and clear. I did not know what it meant. Was it something, or nothing, how could I know? I still don’t know. Some day I will say goodbye to Obscure CanLit Mama, but when or how or why? I don’t know.
This is true: I’m not quite so obscure anymore–but want to think of myself as obscure because it makes me feel safe; I don’t know what I’m doing; if there is an awkward moment, somewhere, somehow, I will find it; a little part of me is still in grade ten, lonely, baffled, tongue-tied, naive; I try to be kind and sometimes I’m clumsy.
Do we ever grow up? Do we ever get smart about the things we were stupid about as kids?
It’s Friday, 3:25PM, and one of the dogs has just decided to jump onto the treadmill and join me. I think it’s time to get off.
Here’s what’s immediately ahead: vacuum (like, immediately immediately); supper (argh, supper?); folding three days’ laundry; longish training run (tomorrow morning); readings at Word on the Street Kitchener (tomorrow, noon, at Entertaining Elements with accompanying appetizers) and at Word on the Street Toronto (Sunday, 1PM, Vibrant Voices Tent).
Ear plugs out.
New things are happening around our house.
The kids started school. Yeah, that was a few weeks ago already. I’ve been a touch distracted.
New instruments are being played. CJ has started the piano. Fooey has retired from piano and taken up the violin. AppleApple has the opportunity to play both the French horn and the cello through her school, and on Tuesday evening practiced that horn for an hour and twenty minutes. I kid you not. Then she went outside and practiced some more. The neighbours kid you not. “It doesn’t sound quite so much like an elephant’s butt,” her helpful father told her. And Albus joined the school orchestra (he plays the viola), because, he told me, participants will be rewarded with a trip to Canada’s Wonderland at the end of the year. Hey, whatever works.
I’ve newly begun teaching, again. It’s much easier the second time around. So much easier. It helps not to be suffering the effects of concussion, too. (How did I manage that last fall??)
Also new: swim kid is no longer swim kid. She’s just going to be soccer kid, field hockey kid, cross country kid, music kid, theatre kid, hanging-out-with-friends kid. This was no small decision. But I think I’m mourning it more than she is, which means it’s absolutely the right decision (she had tears, but moved on). Truth be told, we couldn’t fit the extra commitment into our lives. It’s hard to stop doing something you’ve enjoyed, and that has brought you success. But success doesn’t always mean you should keep doing it. When you’re good at lots of things, you’ve gotta choose what you absolutely love. (I mean, this is a kid who will obsessively focus on whatever is before her. She’s playing the damn horn again as I type. I mean, the melodious completely non-elephant-butt-like horn. She’s trained herself, with literally hour upon consecutive hour of practice over the summer to juggle—with her feet—a soccer ball 379 times without dropping it, when she could barely manage 2 back in June. Discipline is not her issue.)
Here is the reward: she would have been swimming for two hours last night. Instead, when I walked through the front door, home from teaching, I was greeted by this sight:
Sweeping toward me, decked out in feathered mask and cape, she burst forth in low dramatic tones. Shakespeare? Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, to be precise. “She’s in a mood,” said her father, fondly.
One more reward: eating supper together as a family.
See? We tried. We really did. It’s what we do around here.
Good things I did yesterday: wrote in journal, wrote blog post, received kind messages from friends, publisher, agent, etc., made detailed class plan for teaching gig tonight, read (and wept) through Katherena Vermette’s GG-winning poetry collection North End Love Songs while curled in front of fire, walked dogs, did not put on brave face, picked up kid from field hockey practice, napped, drove kid to and from gymnastics, ordered Chinese for supper, laughed, shared sadness with family who refused to come to my pity party, played piano duet with 6-year-old, read picture books to kids, folded laundry, went to bed knowing all was well, set alarm for early morning yoga.
Dumb things I did yesterday: did not eat lunch, did not answer phone.
Six-year-old: “So your book didn’t get a medal?”
Eleven-year-old: “Go for a run, Mom, you’ll feel better.”
A list of Canadian authors also with books out this calendar year, also not on this year’s Giller long list, posted in my FB feed yesterday by a friend: Margaret Atwood. David Adams Richards. Ann-Marie MacDonald. Caroline Adderson. Michael Crummey. Johanna Skibsrud. David Bergen. Kate Pullinger. Fred Stenson. Rudy Wiebe. Emma Donaghue. Thomas King. (To which I will add those names I’d hoped or expected to see there too: Richard Wagamese. Tasneem Jamal. Kim Thuy. Dionne Brand. Kathryn Kuitenbrower. Claire Cameron. Angie Abdou. Michelle Berry. And I could go on.) All of which is to say, I’m getting over myself. It usually takes me exactly 24 hours to get over myself. Hi, self.
I want to argue with my own expectations. I do. I want to blame them, get angry at them. But they’re such an integral part of me. Here’s how Kevin put it (this is why I married him): “If you really didn’t care, well, you wouldn’t care. You wouldn’t be who you are.”
The worst has happened—in terms of your literary life in Canada, that is, which are terms admittedly insular, and insignificant, perhaps, to all but those who’ve published a book of literary fiction in this calendar year. But there it is. Within this specific framework, at this specific moment in your publishing life, the worst has happened. You’re not on the long-list of the premier Canadian fiction prize.
This has just happened.
You’re surprised (and relieved) not to feel envy for those upon whom the light is shining. But you don’t. They need the light too. You don’t begrudge them a single spark.
What you feel, immediately, perhaps inexplicably, is shame and very little else. You feel like vanishing. You feel as raw as if you’d been sliced open, as vulnerable as a scurrying animal exposed in an alien environment. Shame is the most powerful emotion right now. You can’t imagine going outside of your house ever again.
So what are you going to do?
So you sit here writing. You sit and write because what else could you possibly do, especially if you can’t go outside ever again, even though it is a beautiful sunny day? You sit here writing, laughing at yourself, saying, you’re right here, breathing and alive, and you aren’t going to die from this. Your family is beautiful and funny and active, and they love you no less for this. You haven’t done anything wrong or evil. You haven’t hurt anybody. You haven’t actually failed, because there was nothing you could have done differently to pass. You are the same woman you were this morning, and you will be the same woman tomorrow. You will find your footing.
You are not made for the sprint distance, but for the long hard lonely run.
It isn’t meant to be easy, because if it were, it would count for nothing in your mind.
It’s meant to be hard. You learn most when it’s hard. You learn how to access reserves of strength and humour you did not know you had. You learn how to feel things deeply. You learn compassion for the deep, painful feelings of others. You learn repair. You learn self-governance and self-control. You learn discipline. Maybe, after you’re through writing this post, you’ll learn perspective, too, letting go, you’ll go eat some lunch. So, this is the worst that could happen? So, your reward is not going to be a bright prize and audience applause? You don’t know what your reward is going to be. It doesn’t matter. You aren’t doing this for the reward, you never were, and you never will. You’re doing this for life. You’re doing this to pattern words into story, to carry a reader into another world, to share your ideas in ways that can be taken in deeply and felt.
You want readers to find your book, so this is a disappointment. You know disappointment. It’s a totally non-lethal side effect, a condition of being who you are, someone with high hopes, dreamy and possibly delusional optimism, joyful dogged effort. And joyful dogged effort can’t be stopped by disappointment, only paused briefly, stalled briefly, here in this little rut of a moment that must be walked through to be gotten through.
It’s going to hurt, yes. It hurts, yes. This too is life. This too shall pass. Already it occurs to you that you may, in fact, be able to leave your house and go outside again. Perhaps even later this afternoon. It’s going to be okay.
And tomorrow you’ll write something else because tomorrow this will look different to you again. This is of the moment. This a record of what is happening now.
I’ve been on and off this weekend. It’s harder to be on than off, and I wish sometimes to have been born an extrovert, feeding off the energy of being out there in the world, but the truth is that I’m the one wearing the ear plugs, drinking the cold coffee, in the comfy sweatshirt and crocs, hair in a messy bun, smelly dogs snoring nearby, cozy, informal, lost in her own head. And when I’m asked to be a woman with a measure of formal poise and polish, it takes some inner cinching, like I have to put on a corset and sniff smelling salts and throw my shoulders back in an effort to practice posture taught in some long-ago comportment class.
Yet that is part of what I do, as a writer. It’s part of the job. I don’t just stay at home in my comfy pants. When requested, I go out and address an audience, I attempt a performance. While trying to be myself.
I do my best, I guess, is what I’m saying, in a situation that takes me out of my comfort zone.
I don’t know why I feel compelled to be ever-improving, but my approach is that being taken out of one’s comfort zone is a good exercise for the spirit. It can be humbling. It can be enlightening. It can be neither of those things, and still be a good and decent practice to attempt.
At my launch party, I was one writer among friends, family, neighbours. It was so easy to be on. At Eden Mills Writers Festival yesterday, I was one writer among many writers, none of them old friends, family or neighbours. It was much more challenging to be on. There was a moment when I plunked down in the one free chair in the cottage which functioned as the “artists’ room” while Eleanor Catton, fresh off a plane from New Zealand, sat on the floor nearby. I couldn’t think of a thing to say to her. (Should I have offered her the chair?) I was ridiculously tired and it was only 4PM. I’d done my reading, signed books, talked to people, circulated, listening to other readings, found myself in tears listening to Miriam Toews’s, talked to more people, finally looking for a place to rest for a bit — but the rest I craved was for my mind, not my body. So many good writers, all in one crowded cottage room! It felt like ideas were everywhere and I could not properly absorb any of them. I grabbed the empty chair and sat like a stone. I felt, I guess, overwhelmed by the circumstances. (It probably didn’t help that I was wearing red rubber boots.) What to say to Heather O’Neill? Lynn Coady? Miriam Toews? David Bezmozgis? (I don’t know!)
Maybe I’ll think of something next time. This is just the beginning of the fall touring season here in literary Canada, and many of these same writers will be popping up at festivals elsewhere. Maybe what I’m feeling is a touch of impostor syndrome. Maybe it’s basic shyness. Maybe it’s an excess of stimulus. Maybe it’s cognitive dissonance. Maybe it’s nothing I need to overcome, just accept–that I will be tired after reading and speaking to people, that I will need to sit still like a stone for a bit to recover. I did recover. The afternoon went on. I made a new friend, a poet from Winnipeg named Katherena Vermette, who won the Governor-General’s Award for poetry last fall. I ate pie sitting beside Leon Rooke, across from Thomas King. (Though I didn’t know what to say to them either, truth be told.)
Perhaps it’s telling that my most cherished moment of the weekend was an “off” moment. What I mean is that I wasn’t “on,” I wasn’t performing, I wasn’t trying to connect in any way. I was running a race. It’s been nearly two years since I ran a race. On a last-minute whim, I signed up for a half-marathon that covered country roads not far from here. I went alone and ran alone. My watch didn’t even work, so I just ran. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t taxing, if you know what I mean. I knew what I needed to do. I waited for all the things I expected to happen to happen, and they did. I pushed harder and faster as the race went on. My mind lost the capacity to do anything but propel me forward. It hurt and I knew it wouldn’t hurt me. For motivation during the last couple of kilometres, I imagined my 11-year-old daughter telling me not to give up–You’re almost done! I imagined her saying in a slightly exasperated tone. Don’t slow down now! So I didn’t. I crossed the finish line alone. I drove home alone. I went on with my ordinary every day, practically bursting with pride at the speed I’d managed, the pace I’d kept.
But it isn’t quite fair to compare these two things. The race was undertaken for the joy of it. The readings are undertaken to bring my book out into the world. I may know what to expect from the former, but I don’t know what to expect from the latter. I don’t know how hard to push myself, how hard to push, even. It might hurt, and maybe I’m afraid it will hurt me, too. I don’t know if there’s a finish line, or whether I’ll recognize it if there is one. I don’t know or entirely trust my stamina, my energy, my own desire. I don’t know the parameters. There is no script. Most of all, I don’t want to be alone while I do it.
I’ve been thinking that I need a better answer to the question: How do you fit everything in? I usually laugh and say, I have no freaking idea, or something to that effect. But that’s not quite true. That’s the lazy answer. Because of course I have some idea. I’m doing it, after all. It isn’t just magically happening, it does take thought, care, effort.
Here’s the thing: the real answer is awfully long and detailed, hardly useful in interview situations, when the pithiest answer is best. But this is my blog, and we don’t care about pithy so much here, at least not all the time. So here, I present to you the non-pithy, heavily detailed, low-down from one woman’s organized life. (Note: I’m not suggesting you adopt these measures yourself; I recognize that many would not wish to lead such a strictly organized life. Please take this as descriptive rather than prescriptive.)
1. First of all, as you already know, I don’t procrastinate. Think of it, do it, done. If it can’t be done, make a note in a calendar so that it will be done. This unclutters my brain a great deal.
2. Keeping detailed notes in an online calendar also unclutters my brain, and prevents me from dropping too many balls in one day.
3. If I drop a few balls, I forgive myself. I think that’s key.
4. I lower my standards and relinquish control. The house isn’t very clean. The sheets aren’t regularly changed. The laundry is washed and dried, but may pile up for days unfolded in baskets in the basement. The meals aren’t planned. The kids aren’t terribly well-groomed. The garden is unkempt. And it’s okay. Because the domestic front isn’t exclusively my responsibility anyway — there are six of us in this house. As soon as I recognized this (and it wasn’t easy), I stopped critiquing others’ contributions. I would observe that an absence of critique makes it easier for others to take responsibility and contribute.
5. I’ve gotten good at assessing my own patterns of behaviour. For example, it’s no good to schedule exercise at lunchtime, which other people seem perfectly capable of doing; that will never happen for me. At lunchtime I will be working so intently on something else that I will forget to eat lunch, let alone remember or choose to exercise. So why fight the pattern? Instead, I schedule exercise early, or at times when I won’t be doing anything else, and will be outside somewhere (i.e. kids’ soccer practice).
6. Yeah, I schedule exercise. I schedule friend-time. I schedule writing time. I schedule everything. Some of it is actually jotted on the calendar, and some is just me, in my own head, blocking out time, observing the flow of the day, grabbing the moment and designating it: writing time. Or: interview time. Or: course prep time.
7. If the schedule isn’t working, I reassess on a deep level, or, often, I just go with the immediate flow and change course in the moment. The schedule is there because it works. If it doesn’t work, the problem is the schedule, not me or my family or us. I ditch what’s not working.
8. I don’t let the work that requires deep thought and focus overlap with all the rest of the work that requires deep thought. If I’m writing an essay, I want to be writing an essay and that is all. I try to apply this same principle to all activities. If I’m reading to my kids before bed, I want to be reading to my kids before bed and that is all. If I’m out for coffee with a friend, I want to be out for coffee with a friend and that is all. Heck, if I’m driving across town on errands, I want to turn on the radio and listen or stare out the window and daydream and that is all. You get the pattern.
9. I try to finish what I’ve started, or finish what I’ve decided needs finishing during this block of time. Big projects will not be finished in one go, or even in ten or twenty. But they can be finished in many small chunks of concentrated time. My dad used to have a sign on his office door that read: “If I do just a little bit every day, eventually I can let the task completely overwhelm me.” I remembered that recently, and had to laugh. Because that pretty much sums up my strategy. I do a little bit of many things every day. Thankfully, I don’t feel overwhelmed. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel interested, engaged, challenged, and fruitful.
10. Finally, I don’t try to do it all.
I realize it may look like I do. But I don’t. Instead, I try to make what I do count. I’m actually strategically and instinctively an opportunist (not in a bad way, I hope; I mean, I look to recognize and enjoy opportunities that exist, rather than demand the existence of ideal/idealized opportunities).
Sometimes opportunity is about efficiently gleaning multiple benefits from one task. For example, my teaching gig is a) a job, b) interesting and intellectually challenging, c) a chance to free-write during in-class exercises, d) helpful (I hope, for my students’ sakes!), and e) excellent training in public speaking.
Other times, opportunity is about embracing what’s immediately important. For example, this fall is about promoting Girl Runner. It is not about writing a new novel. If I try to make it about writing a new novel, I won’t enjoy going out into the world to share Girl Runner. And that would be a real shame. It would be a shame for two reasons. One, because there’s no way I can write a new novel amidst all this distraction, so I would be unhappily beating my head against an invisible wall. Two, if I were wishing to do something else, I would fail to appreciate what’s happening now.
Life’s short. I have right now. If I’m managing to wreck right now with my own expectations and worries, well, I’m wasting all I’ve got. I believe that.
I did not take photos during the party. These are by AppleApple. It was such an evening, a moment out of time, and all I can say is thank you to everyone who made it happen. Kevin told me I was laughing in my sleep last night.
I feel like I should mark the moment somehow. Today, my third book and first novel, GIRL RUNNER, is officially published here in Canada. Dreaming of this day as a teenager in high school, plotting and hoping to become a real writer, what did I imagine it would be like? Feel like? I no longer know. There is excitement, but it is muted with a weight I probably wouldn’t have guessed, as a teenager. There is satisfaction, joy, even, but tempered by perspective, by years of struggle, by a kind of wondering at my own persistence and determination, and I don’t mean that in a self-flattering way — I mean, I wonder at my ridiculous, stubborn refusal to give up this singular dream, even when it made absolutely no sense, financially or practically or even artistically. I had to write a lot of very bad prose on my way to learning how to write like I wanted to be able to write.
I’m thinking this morning of writers I have admired. How I loved L.M. Montgomery’s stories of orphaned girls, soaked though they may have been in sentimental romance. I didn’t want to grow up to discover that Montgomery’s own life had been unhappy. I wanted her as happy as her heroines, as plucky, as daring, as beloved. There can be such a distance between what a writer puts onto the page and her own life. We may write what we wish to have been or done, we may write to seek forgiveness for a wrong or to seek peace, we may write to escape, because the imagination is powerful enough to carry us somewhere else, somewhere better, for awhile.
I’m not sure where I fit into this, exactly, as a writer and a human being.
I was thinking today that my ever-present theme is the connection between past and present, and how the past leaves its imprints on the present. I have an interest in history (thanks, Dad!). But it isn’t the interest of an historian, who tries to piece together from available evidence the most factually accurate narrative. It’s the interest of a story-teller, who needs facts only as stones tossed into a wide lake, so she can see the ripples spreading out across the disturbed surface of what only seems to be.
I’m going hifalutin’ this morning, I see.
I wonder how L.M. Montgomery felt when her first book was published? And her next, and her third? How did she feel when Anne of Green Gables became so beloved that the author herself was subsumed by her invented character? Isn’t it strange how these characters we create can come to seem more real than us? That is a possibility I’m considering this morning, as I think about Aganetha Smart, the girl runner in my book, and Juliet, of my JULIET STORIES, and the man with the hair hat, from my first collection HAIR HAT. I don’t know quite how to express this idea, but it seems those characters are more real, more knowable, more plausible than I myself could possibly be. I’m human, after all. I’ve done all kinds of things that make little sense, or don’t fit neatly into a plot or storyline. I’m contradictory. Sometimes I’m selfish, sometimes generous, sometimes oblivious, sometimes keenly attuned to the needs of others, sometimes a good friend, and no doubt, sometimes not. I’m trying, like we are all.
But my characters, they’re there, fully formed, on the page, comprehensible. Complete in a way I’ll never be.
Tonight, I’m going to the launch party for GIRL RUNNER here in Waterloo. It’s a party for the book, for the character of Aggie and all that she is, all of her accomplishments, and the richness of her life. I’m going to celebrate her existence. How she came to me, and came through me, is a mystery I’ll never know or be able to explain. This is not something I could have imagined, as an aspiring writer in high school — how separate from my creation I would feel. How grateful. How small. How glad.
Eleanor Catton, the 28-year-old writer who won the Booker last fall for her novel The Luminaries, continues to win further prizes too, and recently declared her intent to set up a grant with her earnings that would give writers time to read. Yes, you read that right. Time to read. Click here to read the entire article in The Guardian.
“My idea is that if a writer is awarded a grant, they will be given the money with no strings attached except that after three months they will be expected to write a short piece of non-fiction about their reading …
“We’re very lucky in New Zealand to have a lot of public funding available for writers, but they generally require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn’t understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing. I’m also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.”
I’m making several connections as I read this.
I’m thinking about generosity, creativity, and the many reasons a person may feel compelled both to read and to write. I’m thinking about teaching creative writing again this fall, and agonizing over how best to encourage in my students a love of reading and words and ideas and stylistic play and leaps of connection and openness and generosity, yes, creativity, yes. It’s the necessity of marking that troubles me, not because it takes time and effort, but because aiming for a particular grade is not necessarily conducive to developing a love of writing and reading.
Which leads me back to Eleanor Catton’s idea for a grant that does not require of the writer a full-fledged project at the end or the beginning, but rather openness, curiosity, patience.
(And she’s coming to the Eden Mills Writers Festival on Sunday, Sept. 14, where I do hope we’ll get the chance to meet.)
Have I reached peak busyness? I’m not sure. After all, I start teaching next week. But with the book officially launching in Canada on Saturday, I feel sure that I’ve reached peak anticipatory activity in advance of launching book. I’ve also got a headache. And I could barely keep up with my running partner this morning. It felt like I was running on empty, thank you running metaphor. (There are so many running metaphors. Very popular with headline writers. How could they resist?)
To avoid spamming you with perhaps an unsavoury amount of self-promotion, let me direct you to the “News” page on this web site, where I’m trying to keep track of such things: there’s been an excellent profile in the National Post newspaper this week, for example.
It’s time to meet kids coming home from school. I shall therefore sign off abruptly.
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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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