Category: Big Thoughts

On endings

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I’ve been re-reading old blog posts. The photos are fun, but it’s the changes that are most remarkable to see in fast-forward (or fast-rewind).

Consider the post from Monday, May 18, 2009, titled “On Endings,” which seems rather appropriate for this last day of 2012. In this post, I’m writing about trying to finish a story, one that would become, in one way another, part of The Juliet Stories. I am amazed by my own resolve under circumstances that look, from this vantage point, very difficult indeed. My youngest was not-quite-fourteen-months. My eldest was not-quite-eight. I was home with the littlest children full-time, and I was finding it trying.  Kevin was recovering from a broken knee. Friends had been bringing us meals (bless you, friends!). We’d had “the barfing thing” four times in four months. I was sleeping sporadically, still nursing at night. I must have been utterly exhausted. No time for exercise, no time even to imagine exercise — who could get up early after being woken half the night?

And yet, I was writing.

There was no guarantee that what I was writing would become anything anyone would ever want to read, let alone publish, let alone nominate for a major prize. I was writing because I had to write this particular story, in this particular way. I was doing what I had to do, and if there is a lesson in here, it is simply do what you have to do. Don’t look for reasons not to do the things you have to do. Come alive. Do! I think that even if that story I was writing had not turned into The Juliet Stories, it would have been worth writing, because it brought me hope, because it gave me space and allowed me to dream.

In the blog post “On Endings” from May, 2009, I reflected on a documentary I’d just seen on the photographer Sally Mann, an artist who was suffering from doubt and set-back — and yet her art seemed without question worthy and beautiful. How could she doubt?

Here’s what I wrote in response:

“There’s no telling whether these years of work will this time add up to something of beauty and merit, but I felt a kinship watching her [Sally Mann] struggle, mourn, reflect, create. It’s a blessing and curse to want to translate experience into art — not just to want to, but to do it. The work involved. Working toward an end you can’t see until you find it. Will it be whole, or still-born? All the infinitessimal choices along the way that shape the final artifact, that leave you wondering — why this and not that? So much room for criticism, self and other. There’s the artifact created, and the one intended, and the multiple ones that might have been.”

Weirdly, I see that her art show was titled “What Remains.” I say weirdly because that very nearly became the last line in the epilogue to my book, but we decided to cut it. I’m still not sure about that cut. It’s the only one I question and wonder about. This is the ending that almost was: “Tell me, for I need to know. What remains?”

*

I have a million other things I’d like to blog about, here, as we stand on the threshold of a new year. These are all on my mind: Chief Theresa Spence’s ongoing hunger strike; the need to protect and cherish the land we live on, the air we breathe, the water we drink; the nihilism of a sub-group of young men, worldwide, who commit acts of terror, from the random-seeming shootings in the United States, to suicide bombers elsewhere, to the violent rape that is moving protestors in India to rise up against a casually misogynist culture. There is more, I know. I wonder, will this be a year in which protest brings about hope and healing? What is my (small) part in creating a more hopeful world? We all long for peaceful communities, whole relationships, happy families. We are imperfect.

We work toward ends we cannot see.

The tired Sunday post

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Mother Nature and Junot Diaz

If you read my blog you’ll find Kevin’s Halloween costume funny (I hope); everyone else will just be baffled (especially because Kevin never remembered how to pronounce his last name). At the party last night, Kevin spent a lot of time explaining to everyone else who he was, and why. I spent a lot of time eating cheese and pickles and olives and cheese again. Wasn’t sure I’d make it into party-land standing, let alone wrapped in vines plucked off the side of our house, but a nap with the dogs on the couch gave me a couple more hours of stamina.

Yesterday was a Chapters day, and I enjoyed myself despite (because of?) spending five hours behind a table stacked with my books, smiling and waiting for people to approach. Thankfully, many friends turned up — for the hugs, right? One bought me a coffee and a protein box from Starbucks, which lasted all afternoon. And I sold a bunch of books, and not only to friends. I tried to tailor my pitch to whomever was approaching. Mention the setting? But offset it by adding, “It brings a child’s innocence to a politically-charged situation.” (Thanks to Charlene Diehl for the suggestion: I was riffing about pitch ideas on Facebook during the slower moments yesterday.) I also said that it was a good book club book, and I’d got strong and heartfelt responses from readers. I used vague phrases like: “mother-daughter relationships,” “family drama,” “memory.”

During a mid-afternoon lull, I had four back-to-back long conversations with people who apparently were just looking to chat and didn’t buy the book (that was a low point). I gave advice on how to get published. I declined free manuscript reading. One woman said she rarely reads in English (she is French), but that she felt extremely drawn to the book. She stayed for a long time, but never quite made the leap to purchase; I wondered whether I should have pushed her harder, but pushing is not really my forte. My inner-Menno recoils in horror at all this self-promotion. What if I’d said, “Maybe there’s a reason you’re being drawn to the book.” But I couldn’t, and didn’t. (But I’ll admit I wondered afterward: maybe there was a reason.)

A woman originally from Romania said she thought it would be too close to her own experiences to read, and apologetically walked away; but then changed her mind and came back all in a rush and bought it as a gift for a friend.

Mid-afternoon I posted on Facebook that no men had yet to buy my book, but lots of them were smiling at me. Of course, three minutes later a man bought the book. By the end of the afternoon, I figured about half the sales had been to men. Some were buying gifts for their wives. One had never met a writer, and complimented me on my author photo. He’s the one who had the best line of the day. After I’d signed the book for him, he said, “Damn, I should have had you write ‘Thanks for a wonderful night!’ so I could show it to my ex.”

See. I wouldn’t get any of this stuff if I’d stayed home instead.

This morning I listened to an interview with Junot Diaz (the real one) on YouTube — Kevin had found it while researching his costume. I guess this is one way to discover a new writer — be mistaken for him. It’s a very long interview, but if you’ve got time while kneading bread or doing dishes, listen in. I started around the 19th minute, where he’s talking about the book being an archaic medium because it moves at a human rhythm, not at the rhythm or speed of a machine; it’s archaic because we have been trained to become machines, and to forget that we are humans. He also said that to find something new, you have to first be lost.

I resonated with so many of the things he was saying, and I think other writers will too. (Be warned: he did use the F work often enough to interest Fooey, who was playing in the living-room. “It’s that word Mommy uses when she’s driving,” she said. Argh! I keep promising the kids I’ll stop swearing in the car, and I keep failing miserably. Just like a human or something.)

On being a professional writer who also provides free content

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October hosta

For about 48 hours after the GG announcement, I found it very amusing to narrate my life by captioning all activities with “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder …”, as in “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is going to finish these supper dishes before anyone gets a bedtime snack,” or, “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, would like a cup of tea and a back rub.” I’m not sure anyone else found it quite so amusing.

But it amused me this morning too, as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, stood on a stool in the downstairs bathroom attempting to remove spiderwebs with a wad of toilet paper, and a giant nest fell down her sweater sleeve. (“I told you that bathroom is infested, Mom!” “Yeah, there’s definitely a weird looking nest above the sink.” “That’s an orb spider.” “A what?!” “Don’t worry, it’s not poisonous.”) It continued to amuse me as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, trudged upstairs to clean the bathroom floor. (“Someone peed on the floor!” “There’s pee in the upstairs bathroom!” “Somebody missed the toilet!”) And the fun kept on rolling as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, sorted a dark load of laundry while repeatedly shouting up the steps, “I’m in the basement, come down if you want me to zip you up!” Apparently, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, had misheard the request. “He said that he wants you to pick him up from nursery school.” “Oh.” Sorry kid, but GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is leading a writing workshop for high school students this afternoon, and can’t. GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, also has a vague toothache in the very same spot where the dentist put in a filling last winter (remember that?), which seems like ominous timing given she’s flying to Vancouver in two days. GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is also panicking slightly about what to pack for her trip (how many shoes can she fit into a carry-on bag?). GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, got up in the middle of the night to turn off her alarm and did not go to yoga this morning. Despite getting extra sleep, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, did not look fabulous in the mirror this morning; she really should have gone to yoga.

GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is putting the hammer down. Stop this now, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder.

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This feels like a miscellany day. I’ve been having some random and more serious thoughts on a related subject.

It’s the subject of being paid for one’s writing. The Globe and Mail (a newspaper in Canada) is going to attempt a “paywall,” by asking subscribers to pay for content; apparently, readers are not pleased. The New York Times does this as well, and the truth is, ever since it did, I’ve stopped reading NYTimes articles online. And I’m a writer! I get that writers and editors need to be paid for the work they do, and I respect the work that they do; so why not pay for quality online content? I think the answer is three-fold: one, I’m lazy and it seems like too much work to set up an account and try to remember passwords, etc.; two, I still get most of my news from the daily paper and from CBC radio; and three, there’s a ton of free content online.

Let’s address that final issue. I write a blog. I provide free content, practically every day! I understand why professional writers dislike bloggers — professional writers would like to make a living doing what they do, thanks very much. Most bloggers, like me, do this in our spare time. I have no desire to monetize my blog, nor to figure out how to make money off of it, mainly because I do it for fun. It would change everything to try to blog for a living.

That said, here I am, trying to write for a living. It’s dismal to report, but freelance rates, per word, have actually gone down since I first started freelancing, over a decade ago. I’m not sure freelance writing (for magazines and newspapers) was ever an excellent money-making occupation, but in today’s climate it’s an excellent way to sponge off your spouse. So, is being a writer a sustainable occupation?

GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, has yet to figure out how to make it so.

And it isn’t for lack of trying. I’m beginning to wonder whether being a writer, a serious writer of fiction with hopeful freelancing on the side, is in actual fact a hobby, or an act of volunteerism, or of love, or of obsession, rather than being what one could legitimately call an occupation. A job.

This isn’t meant to be a pity-me rant. I don’t feel pitiable, not at all; I’ve been doing exactly what I want to do; and I do make (some) money at it. Nevertheless, I feel prepared to look at coolly at my options and draw some fairly harsh conclusions. Our four kids need more than I can offer them as a writer; and I don’t believe the burden should be carried unequally by Kevin. The question is: what, then? Well, I’ve got some ideas, to be revealed in good time. For the immediate present, I’m sticking with the status quo, doing the freelance jobs that come in, working on a new book, applying for grants, hustling, and jumping up and down for The Juliet Stories. And blogging.

I love writing. I never started writing fiction thinking that it would earn me a living; and that wasn’t why I started blogging either. With my writing, every step along the way has felt like a gift: the first time I had a poem accepted for publication; the first time an editor at a magazine wrote back to tell me she liked my story (even though she was turning it down); the first time I earned a grant for an unfinished manuscript; the first time an editor called to tell me that she loved my book and wanted to publish it; and on and on. In between all of these steps were innumerable impersonal rejection letters, fat self-addressed envelopes stuffed with rejected stories, and, once I’d acquired an agent (another exciting step), calls of reassurance that also brought news of “no, thanks.” None of this could have been undertaken if it weren’t answering an extreme personal call — a deep probably irrational desire — to keep writing, keep learning, keep practicing the craft. None of this would have been undertaken if I hadn’t loved doing it.

Certainly, none of it was undertaken with an idea of dollar signs dancing in my head, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I’m a highly impractical person, and I encourage my kids to dream impractically too. To pursue doing what they love, no matter what it pays in monetary terms.

But the thing is, we also have to figure out how to pay the bills. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m doing what I love, and I’ll keep doing it forever; but I’m going to have to do something else, too. My word of the year, this year, was actually two words: work and play. An interesting, difficult, troublesome choice, I think, and prescient.

An idle restlessness

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One of the questions I’m asked most often is: how do you get everything done? The funny thing is that from my perspective, I actually have quite a lot of time to sit around and stare out the window. It does seem to be true that I get a lot of different things done, but I’m not going crazy; often I don’t feel busy enough. I had no explanation for this until my friend Zoe informed me last week that she’d figured it out.

She said: You don’t procrastinate.

And dammit, if that isn’t the truth.

Oddly, this can cause problems.

It’s true. Getting stuff done too promptly can cause all sorts of unforeseen hassles. “Jumping the gun” is the phrase that comes to mind. Then I have to undo what’s been done.

But it’s also true that the habit of not “putting off til tomorrow what could be done today” is a useful personality trait when one is aiming for maximum efficiency. (And I do realize that maximum efficiency is not what everyone is aiming for.)

Over the years I’ve come to recognize the drawbacks of not procrastinating, and now force myself to slow down on certain major decisions. Because I know that once decided, I will throw myself in whole-heartedly. When I’m in, I’m all in. Knowing this has caused me to sit on the fence for longer than comfortable when making big (and sometimes even small) decisions. However, once a decision is made, I don’t wait around, I get to it.

This applies to basically everything. I don’t say I’ll run tomorrow instead when it isn’t raining or cold; if I’ve planned to run, I just run. If I see that the floor needs to be vacuumed, I just vacuum it. If a kid is expressing a particular need, I try to address it immediately. (I mean the less tangible, emotional needs that I know they can’t meet themselves; sorry kids, if you’re really thirsty you can get that glass of water all by yourself.) Sometimes this means dropping other less pressing tasks. Sometimes it means staying up late at night, or blocking off time on the weekend. Often, very often, it means doing something I don’t feel like doing.

But as soon as I start doing it, I’m good.

Maybe that’s because I tend to be almost obsessive when on task. Doesn’t matter what the task is.

But here’s the thing: If I’ve finished up everything I’m working on, and have not decided what to throw myself at next, I find myself in a restless idle state that does not suit me. Do I need to find more things to do? Or do I just need to learn how to enjoy the idle moments when they arrive? Because there’s always something more to be done. Always — should I choose to take it on. I could be going for a walk this afternoon with my camera in hand, snapping fall photos. I could be writing a poem about chickens for my poetry book club this evening. I could be stretching. I could be reading. I could be writing.

Or I could be sipping a cup of tea and staring out the window, and, frankly, that possibility seems the most likely.

(But part of me wants to be doing more! So much more! … But what?)

[p.s. Update on afternoon activities: I wrote the damn chicken poem for poetry book club, feeling the pressure now that I am a GG finalist, even if not for poetry. And I read out loud to the (largely unresponsive) dogs from Lorna Crozier’s new book of prose poems, The Book of Marvels (what do dogs know about prose poems? These things are marvelous). And I drank a cup of cooling coffee that has sent me into serious over-caffeination. Should have stuck with tea. Otherwise, I’m altogether happy with this afternoon’s not-quite-staring-out-the-window activities.]

A wild autumn wind

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When I woke up from my nap this morning, the word that came to mind was “replenish.” But now the same word sounds a little bit suspicious, like the advertising copy for a facial cream or something. Nevertheless, replenishment is on my mind. Or maybe just napping. That was my second nap of the morning, truth be told. I went right back to bed after my early morning run and slept until the kids had be dragged up, too; and after walking CJ to the bus stop, I came home and crawled back into bed again, and let myself sleep for as long as I wanted. Which would seem to suggest I have no deadlines pressing.

In fact, I’ve just met a couple of deadlines, so I am feeling the relief of that; and giving myself permission to take some extra rest.

My inbox is quiet.

This week is a quiet interlude sandwiched between several very busy ones.

One of the questions asked yesterday evening at the book club I visited was: what changes now that your book is a GG finalist? And I had to say: well, nothing very obvious, really. Like any opportunity, you make of it what you can. I think (though I’m open to argument) that this nod is meant to acknowledge work done, not to fix my feet in any literary firmament, nor to launch me in some way. What really matters is the work I’ll continue to do. Maybe this will make that work more possible to continue, but then again, maybe not. Whatever I try to publish next will have to stand on its own merit, not on what came before.

I’ve been wondering: why are we drawn to books with stickers, or movies that have won awards? I’m as guilty of it as the next person. I know it’s not a guarantee of excellence, and yet I’m still willing to take a chance on something that has some kind of communal stamp of approval on it. I may not even mind if I don’t ultimately like the book or movie–it won’t feel like time wasted–because at least I’ve participated in a cultural conversation, just by showing up. And so, it occurs to me that perhaps the most tangible benefit of having one’s book stickered is that it gives the book (briefly, at least) the opportunity to enter into a wider conversation.

Wow, that’s some autumn wind today. It’s wild out there.

Sometimes I think what I’m hoping for, and maybe waiting for, maybe in perpetuity, is not replenishment, but a strong wind to blow clean the mind.

(But replenishment sounds so much easier.)

Take your chances when they come

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I’ve put away the canning kettle for the season. And while this wasn’t a banner canning year for me, I was reminded, as every year, that it’s not that hard to do. It’s time-consuming, finicky, hot, and has to be done when the fruit is ripe, that’s all. Listen to the radio. Accept help. Try not to whimper because you’ve got one more canner full of jars to boil and it’s nearly midnight on a weeknight.

For some reason, it’s worth it to me. Maybe it’s the colourful jars in the cupboards. Maybe it’s looking forward to a winter of sauces and chilis and soups in the crockpot.

Speaking of seasonal, I had a little thought in church on Sunday (I take the family occasionally, to touch base with the Mennonite in us — Kevin excepted, though he still has to go). The thought was this: Sometimes I’m open to soaking in experiences, observing, learning, participating, doing. And sometimes I just want to reflect. And these two states of being don’t really overlap, much, for me. Or maybe they do, in ways I just can’t see. Maybe what I’m trying to talk about is that sometimes I feel like I’m skimming along on the surface of things, and other times I’m very still and quiet, and I can sense the sacredness in everything. When I’m skimming along, I don’t even really like the word sacred. It sounds too serious, too self-conscious, too heavy, too inward-looking. I appreciate and respect it, but I don’t like it.

I don’t get to decide what kind of mood or state I’m in. I’m just there. It’s like being in the mood to play the piano, or write a poem. I have to accept where I’m at.

It’s hard to accept where I’m at when it’s somewhere I don’t want to be.

I’m skimming along right now. I’m frustrated by my inability to be still and quiet.

But here’s another tiny thought: sometimes — really, most of the time — it doesn’t matter what I’m in the mood for. I have to take my chances when they come. I have to can the tomatoes while they’re ripe. I have to run during soccer practice, and read stories at bedtime, and cook supper when everyone’s hungry for supper. And right now I have to get revved up for readings and for meeting new people and a bit of travelling — and even a bit of travelling is a lot, for me.

One of the places I’m travelling to is Winnipeg. I’ll be there a week from this coming Monday (!!), reading at the Thin Air Writers Festival. I found this lovely blog post on their site, written by Rosemary Nixon who appeared at the festival last fall. I’ll admit to some gnawing apprehension about leaving the kids and dogs and Kevin, with all the scheduling excitement to manage on their own, but Rosemary’s post reminded me of the potential that is waiting in this new experience — exciting.

A lot of life is about getting it done. And that’s fine, that’s probably even good, and necessary, and right. I’m privileged enough without getting to do what I’m in the mood for all the time. So the tricky part is appreciating what’s going on, floating on random flotsam and jetsom amidst the current that is carrying me along, and, maybe, glimpsing something mysterious in the trees that is there to be seen.

Maybe even while skimming along, I’m catching and keeping the things that will sustain me when I’m ready to be still and quiet again.

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