I have a list in my head entitled: Jobs That Kids Can Do Themselves! I can see the title written out in perky brightly coloured bubble letters on a piece of paper and I can see the children discovering the list, glancing at it, and sighing, Oh Mom. (On the imaginary list: pick up dog poo in back yard; clean shoes after stepping in dog poo in back yard; feed and water dogs; put away clean laundry; put dirty laundry into hamper; hang wet towels; empty dishwasher; put dirty dishes in sink; empty recycling and compost bins; make breakfast and lunch; clean up after breakfast and lunch; find friends to play with…)
I have driven many many kilometres this weekend. I have driven them in my new little car. On Tuesday we gave in to the ongoing overlapping scheduling puzzle that has been our reality, as a one-car six-person family, these past few years, and we bought a second vehicle, a little pod that can efficiently travel from the mothership.
Sunset over salt mine, Goderich, Ontario.
On Friday night I was with friends in Goderich — old friends. I was reminded that even within a larger group, I look for moments of intimacy amidst the noise. I like to listen. I like to hear.
On Saturday afternoon I read at a festival in Bayfield, in a space that had been the town hall, with four other writers, and the stories they told were essential and moving and spiritual, somehow, and as the last reader of the eventful first half, I felt myself pulled into the flow in the room, and saw how there was space and focus for what I was about to offer and I was so glad and grateful to the other writers for opening up that spiritual river. How I loved stepping into the water. How I loved Aganetha, speaking through me. On the way home, driving my new little car through the rain, I didn’t want to listen to the radio, I didn’t want talk or music, I wanted to hear my own thoughts, I needed space to let the emotions of the afternoon work their way through my system. I heard myself saying, Aggie Smart is a wonderful character. Give yourself that. Let yourself know it.
One of the writers at Saturday’s event told me afterward that they were embarrassed by the organizer’s introduction of me, which was particularly awkward—title of my last book wrong, said she couldn’t find any information about me online, except some weird site called Obscure CanLit Mama, which perhaps she didn’t realize was mine—and when I got up to speak, I tried to riff off her intro and said that I didn’t mind being obscure, and wrote for the words on the page and the stories I wanted to tell, which perhaps just made everything all the more awkward. And then I read. I dove right into those words on the page. I wasn’t upset by the intro at all, actually, even if the other writer thought it was infuriatingly dismissive of my career and experience. Oddly, I’d thought it was accurate and reassuring. How nice that she couldn’t find much about me online, I thought. Maybe I can do this writing thing and remain obscure. (Although, is that really true? I’m not going to Google myself to find out.)
An author at the event told a story about Alice Munro writing while her kids were at school, and covering her typewriter when they arrived home again; I like that un-precious approach to the work. It fits with how I see myself, as a very ordinary person living a very ordinary life, who happens to enjoy an imaginative extra-life, like a room in the attic full of dress-up clothes stuffed into old-fashioned trunks or with secret passageways that I can visit and escape to, but I’ll still be back downstairs in time to help make supper and coach a soccer game. Life has many rooms. I want to live fully in all of them, whichever room I’m in.
Yesterday, I delivered my youngest child to overnight camp, and he is away from me until tomorrow. This picture breaks my heart just a little. He looks so anxious, but also like he’s trying to reassure me that he will be okay.
The writing work that I’ve submitted recently sits out there waiting for responses and there is no guarantee that anyone will like it or want it. I want other writers to know this, especially writers beginning their careers: know that even the writers you think of as more established, or as having had some success, receive rejection, sometimes, or have to begin projects over again, or abandon them altogether, sometimes. In fact, I think it’s good for a person never to get so comfortable in her abilities that her work can’t be critiqued by thoughtful professionals. It’s good never to become so precious, so valuable commercially, that no one holds you to account. (Even though that sounds awfully tempting and a person can dream!)
The best things in life are never the easiest, even if the experience of them feels easy. Getting to ease is hard.
Maybe I exercise because it is a form of extremity, it removes barriers, can push the self beyond the beyond to a purer place that doesn’t traffic in the ordinary obstacles that come between people, that we use to keep ourselves safe and protected and apart.
Behind me, a daughter inhales her asthma puffer. I can hear her breathe out slowly, then pull the medication into her lungs.
Behind me, my other daughter and her friend practice what I think are dance steps, her friend instructing her, one-two-push. But when my older daughter joins their conversation, I realize that a soccer ball is involved, and the friend is teaching my younger daughter a fancy soccer move, in our living-room. Maybe she will use it in her game tonight.
The nervous little dog comes into this office and lies down near my feet. She is distressed by change and change is constant in our house, in the summertime.
If I were to write a poem today what would be my subject?
If I were to write a short story today what would be my subject?
Here is the blog post I’ve written today. What is its subject?
The American writer, James Salter, died recently, aged 90. His output, said the obituary, was modest: six novels, two short story collections, a memoir. I think that output sounds quite fantastic. Nine books in total, not much more than a book a decade. I think it must have meant he cared deeply about what he published and rejected a lot of his own ideas and attempts. This is just a guess.
Enjoying this room I’m in. Hope you are too, wherever you are.
I sit down to write here, on the blog, and my mind goes round and round the purpose of this blog. I wonder why people are reading, perhaps, and why they may not be reading. I wonder why I am writing. Do I have something to say? Is my purpose to amuse, to inform, to muse, to form? Do I call out in hopes of a response? Am I launching quirky missives from an insular and isolated place? Am I writing as a writer, as a mother, as a seeker, as a knower? Am I writing to you? Or to me? Or to no one at all, to the ether?
I’ve come a long way on this path of being a writer. When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer like L.M. Montgomery or Lois Lenski. I wanted to be a writer like Emily of New Moon. I wanted create imaginary romantic worlds of adventure and mystery. As a teen, I was in love with language, and saw in it a violent risky potential. I wanted to write like Michael Ondaatje. I wanted to write barely coherent poetic scenes of romance and mystery and adventure. I didn’t care whether or not my stories or poems made sense, only that they burst with emotion and the fullness of self, perhaps. As an older teen and into my twenties, I wanted to write like Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. I wanted to craft brilliant sentences that both hid and displayed meaning, sentences that were as rich and big and complex as a whole story, characters whose motives were murky. I wanted to conjure worlds at a tilt from my own, veined and layered and dark.
And so I wrote and I read and I wrote and I read.
In some fundamental way, I refused to believe that I might not be a writer, someday. I willed myself to continue through years of small steps forward, and crushing rejections. I determined to improve. I determined to learn and to master the craft of storytelling. How to do this particular thing and do it well: how to tell a compelling story, not neglecting plot for style, not neglecting sentence structure for pace. I got better.
I got to where I am right now, here, sitting before this laptop, wondering, wondering. Do I still want to be a writer, so fiercely, so absolutely, so determinedly? Who do I wish to write like, now? Or, more importantly, perhaps, than I originally understood: what stories do I long to tell? And if I have no story that I long to tell, why craft the structure, why lovingly build the sentences? If the house is empty? (Is the house empty?)
Engagement is a key word of our era. That seems to me the purpose of social media. Anyone who wishes to earn attention, to market her work, must learn to engage with her audience, to maintain a call-and-response relationship, the bigger the better. It comes naturally to some, and less naturally to others. I put myself in the latter camp. Yet this blog is a form of engagement, whether or not I choose to see it that way. And when I recognize this and admit it, I become more and more uncomfortable as purveyor and publisher of posts. I cannot understand what I am doing, nor what my purpose may be. Is it, as originally intended when I started the blog in 2008, to narrate my every day life, to keep it in some form, and if so, for whom? For my children? For myself when I am older? Am I marketing my books? Practicing my craft? Indulging in cheap philosophy? Is this a publicly-kept journal?
Could I live without engagement? This specific form of engagement? (Silly question. Of course I could.)
Less, is the message that’s been coming my way. Not more, more, more, but less, less, less. For so long, I’ve fought to become more, to achieve more, to do more. I’ve worked toward big, specific goals and dreams. Now I’m confronted with this strange glimpse of myself, something I was afraid to see: I see that I will never write as wonderfully as I’d hoped to. I’m not possessed of a special gift. I’m a hard-working woman, that’s all, and I had a dream.
I’ve written that in the past tense without even noticing: and I had a dream. Strange. Isn’t it? Maybe the dream is shifting, deepening, altering course, becoming something else.
What now? What next?
Now: Life is strangely lovely at present. It is unexpectedly wonderful to hear less, less, less calling me. I feel myself relaxing into moments in a way that feels almost unfamiliar, unknown. I feel the pace changing. I feel myself at peace with what I have, right now.
Next? Being a writer isn’t something you quit. Writing is how I process the world around me; I’d be impaired without it. I continue to write, as always, but right now it’s a form of listening; without shape. I think my purpose is to listen, right now. I feel quiet. I feel a great deal of affection–of love–for those around me. The days are full, vivid, layered and veined and rich. I feel human. I feel flawed. I can’t think of anything I need or long for or crave, not even direction, right now. I feel present.
What I don’t feel is at an end with this blog. But I want to be honest about my ambivalence toward its purpose, and my use of it, at present. Thank you for listening.
PS Photos are from this past weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, taken after the sun went down, on the longest day of the year. Homework got burned, marshmallows got roasted and mushed between graham crackers, and the mosquitos almost won. Almost.
School project being completed at 10PM by kid after soccer practice: not exactly what I wanted to be assisting with, but nevertheless well worth my time. Why? Read on. (Yes, that is a pyramid made out of rice krispie squares.)
On Facebook last week, I posted a photo of my daughter at one of her track meets, and expressed my pride at being there to watch her race. Among the complimentary and sweet messages in response, an acquaintance posted this comment: Can you write a book or blog about how you manage your time?
It got me thinking: could this be a book that I could write? (Kevin says no; he thinks the subject would bore me silly.) (Note: “Could this be a book I could write?” is a surprisingly common question that I ask myself.) I do have a facility for squeezing a great deal into my day, including time for watching my kids do the wonderful and ordinary things that they do. And yet I often think my facility for organization has more to do with privilege than talent, because I don’t have to spend a great deal of time on tasks that may be essential or unavoidable to others, such as a long commute whether by car or public transit, or a full-time job performed primarily for money. Truth is, I resent and rage at any perceived waste of my time, such as waiting in long line-ups to sign official forms, or sitting in traffic on my way to an event I don’t want to attend. I’ve tried my best to work at being patient in these situations, and to learn patience and stillness from them, but I feel keenly any waste.
What’s being wasted? Time. Precious and diminishing with every breath.
Yet I’m quite willing to “waste” copious amounts of time doing things like this: meditating followed by journalling / blogging.
So it strikes me that a significant element to effective time management is defining what you consider wasteful, and rearranging your life to perform those tasks as infrequently as possible. Again, I recognize that it’s a privilege to be in position that would allow a drastic life change, like quitting a job, but most of us can probably find some small ways to change the lives we’re living if the lives we’re living cause us enough pain. How does change happen? In my own experience, it happens in a variety of ways, but most often it happens because I notice a point of discomfort, pain, unhappiness, and recognize that things I am doing (or not doing) are at least in part the cause of my unhappiness.
What comes next is that the routine has to change. The structure has to change. You can’t say “I’m going to make a change,” and not create the structure to support it. Small example: None of us are getting up at 5AM to run because we feel like it; it’s because we’ve decided it’s worth doing, and we’ve arranged our schedule, our habits, our routine to support our choice: we’ve checked the weather, we’ve laid out appropriate workout clothes, we’ve gone to bed a bit early, we haven’t had a drink, we’ve set our alarm, we’ve arranged to meet a friend or friends, and with the wheels in motion, we simply show up and do what we’d planned. But without the supporting structure to carry us through—to carry the idea through to action—we’d sleep in, telling ourselves, I’m too tired right now, I’ll just do it tomorrow, or I’ll run tonight instead, or … and the imagined moment never arrives.
It’s like painting lines for bike lanes sandwiched between live traffic and parked cars and then blaming cyclists and drivers for colliding. It would be more useful and more accurate to blame the structure instead, rather than putting the onus on human beings to make rational, correct, perfect choices at all times, in all situations, in all weathers. Human failure is inevitable. Therefore, change the structure, put the bicycles in a separated, unobstructed lane, and everyone will both feel and be safer.
Structure is what shapes our lives, far more than we accept or acknowledge, and this is true right down to whether or not we floss our teeth, or eat lots of veggies. That we are “creatures of habit” is a truism because it’s true. So scan your daily life for routines that aren’t serving what you value. Maybe there’s room for a change, here and there.
I realize it’s more philosophy than step-by-step advice, but here is my time management strategy in a nutshell.
1. Identify what matters to you.
2. Be curious, be open. Respond to pain or unhappiness (and to joy too!)—recognize it, don’t ignore it.
3. Figure out what changes are possible.
4. Don’t think about making a change, actually force change to happen by altering the routines and structures that govern your daily life.
One last piece of my time management strategy: celebrate every little thing worth celebrating. The sandwich that tastes good, the kid who is telling you a story, the green of the clover coming up in the back yard, being outside, a good nap, holding a 3-minute plank, chatting with other parents beside a soccer field on a particularly fine late-spring evening, driving with a child and having a side-by-side conversation. Don’t waste your own time by wishing you were somewhere else. Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, take it in. Tell yourself: This is not a waste. This is my life.
PS I feel like this post has a slightly preachy or evangelical tone. Please don’t think I think you should be getting up at 5AM to run; rather, I think you should be getting to do your own personal version of an early-morning run, that is, the thing that’s kind of hard but makes you feel alive.
Today I went to my 9-year-old’s grade four class to read them The Candy Conspiracy and talk about writing. For the venture, I brought along a file folder of all the edits and original storyline ideas and drafts, and read to them from the very earliest draft. The funny thing was, it was really funny, perhaps rather more darkly funny than the version that made it to the published page. The original draft included mysterious characters called Grubbers (which vanished entirely by draft 3). The kids spontaneously imagined their own versions of the characters, with hands up afterward to describe what they thought the Grubbers looked like. Shrivelled up vegetables, elves, gremlins, little green blogs or specks, tiny green worms. Everyone had a different version in his or her imagination.
And that got us talking about the magic of the imagination. Don’t get me wrong. I love illustration, and illustration paired with text can make magic too. But the simplicity of words on the page, projected into our minds, is at once personal and collective. We all hear the same words, but what we see comes from our own personal landscape of experience, textured with individual differences.
I have left myself a mere eight minutes to write and publish this post before picking the kids up from school. There is much I could write about, perhaps too much, and here is a shortlist of topics I was thinking about covering.
Playing soccer in the back yard. (OMG so fun! Even I’m getting into it and testing out my mad dekes on … okay, on my 7-year-old, whose mad dekes are way madder than mine, but hey).
Being a depressed miserable writer. (Such a great topic, right up there with my collection of belly-button fluff. I’m sure you’re all sorry not to hear more about it.)
Our continuing efforts to try to train the dogs. (Having a dog is like having a toddler FOREVER.)
Coaching soccer. (Best game ever last night, as our Mighty Green Grapes, with only 5 players on the field for a 7 v 7 matchup, held their own mightily and with an intensity that could only be admired and cheered in the off-and-on rain. The coaches were verklempt by the end.)
The weekend. (That seems like a long time ago.)
Food I haven’t had a chance to cook or bake. (Just kidding.)
Laundry. (Sorry. I do like talking about laundry.)
Running without pain! (Hurray!!! In this beautiful spring weather! This is what I worked for all winter!)
Time. (And the way I’m forever running on the edge of behind, and yet not quite falling off, like a tiny figure on a giant treadmill, arms and legs whirling. Or like a metaphor with the wheels about to fall off.)
Girl runner, yesterday, school track meet: won her age group in the 1500, 800, and 400.
I’ve got a six sticky notes affixed above this computer, with reminders about where to funnel my writing energies, should I sit down at my desk in the morning at a loss. Four of the notes have been stuck up there for a year; two are new this year.
Here is what they say:
* Blog 3x/week + photos
This reminds me that I rarely take photos with my real camera anymore. There’s a practical reason for this, and it isn’t just because I’m short on time, or prioritizing differently, though that may play into it too. The practical issue is that the computer on which I process my photos is dying a long slow death, and frequently and suddenly conks out, taking with it any work I’m doing. It conks out most often when the work is processing photos. Further, the device I use to connect the camera to the computer is faulty and it takes multiple frustrating attempts to download the photos so that I’m even in a position to process them, at which point the screen inevitably goes black. It’s all rather discouraging, and time consuming … so the quality of photos on this blog, and therefore the quality of photos recording my family’s life, has dropped steeply. Nevertheless I’m still blogging two or three times a week, with images via my cellphone’s camera.
This reminds me that I am not just a novelist, but a short story writer, and that every once in awhile, if inspired, I should write a new one. I try to keep at least one unpublished story in reserve, in case (fantasy!) a literary magazine comes calling with a request. (Actually, this has happened twice in the past year, so it’s not a complete fantasy.) In time, I expect to have enough stories to fill a new collection. How much time? Who knows. It’s not like the world is clamouring for new collections of short stories, so I will give this project as much time as it takes. No rush.
* Poem a day “Light” + write + attention
This refers to my 2015 meditation journal. I aim to write in this journal for 15 minutes every day, often immediately after meditating. Some days, 15 minutes turns into much much much longer. Some days, I save this journaling as a reward for completing other writing. Truth is, I really love writing in this journal, and don’t need the reminder. However … very few poems have emerged. It’s mainly stream-of-consciousness prose. The title “Light” refers to the file name for this year (last year’s file name was “The woman formerly known as”). “Write” is my word of the year (and a very good word it’s been for me, so far), while “attention” is my secondary word. I’ve applied my secondary word mainly through meditation.
* Memoir on learning how to swim
This is a personal essay I’ve been working on, off and on, since last summer.
* Essay on being edited, relationship with editors
This is a personal essay, the idea for which was given to me by the editors of The New Quarterly, which has never developed into more than an idea. Yet I leave it up there, just in case it sparks something.
* Novel Forgiveness in Families
This refers to the novel I’ve been working on. Funny thing is, that isn’t the title, and I have no idea why I ever thought it might be. (But I know exactly where I got it from: it’s the title of an Alice Munro story, one I think about from time to time, from her collection “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You,” another marvellously evocative title.) (Also, it occurs to me just now that “Forgiveness in Families” would be an excellent title for an essay that perhaps I will write someday.)
I have room for two more sticky notes above my computer.
I’ve decided to add a seventh called * Dispatches, personal essays. In fact, without needing any reminders and completely unprompted, I’ve been steadily working on a collection of personal essays, off and on, using a variety of raw material, some of which has arisen out of daily journaling. It’s interesting to me that most of that journal material is dead wood, yet every once in awhile something blooms from it, or mushrooms up. It’s a reminder of how patient one must be to see a long, deep project through from beginning to end. How do the little fragments cohere? It’s a lovely mystery. Looking back, retrospectively, I sometimes wonder how I’ve had time to do the work that gets done. And yet, I do, and it gets done. Inch by inch, brick by brick, seed by seed, sticky note by sticky note.
I may even add an eighth sticky note. This one will be called * Children’s project, but I’ll leave it undefined for now. My nine-year-old would like me to write a children’s chapter book; and I’ve got plots and plans for more pictures books, too.
Which reminds me, details about our local launch party for The Candy Conspiracy are being finalized as we speak! Here’s the short-point version: Saturday, May 30th, 1PM, Waterloo Public Library, and yes, there will be candy! (How could there not be?) Poster and more details coming soon. And apparently I’ll be on local daytime television talking about this tomorrow. Eek!
Twenty minutes can feel like no time at all, when I’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole of the internet, reading truly fascinating but perhaps not necessarily useful stories on … well, see, there’s the problem. I must have read at least five truly fascinating but not necessarily useful stories in the past twenty-four hours, following links from Twitter and Facebook—to genuine news stories or long-form articles, not top-ten lists—but I can’t recall the contents of a single one. Poof. The minutes vanish.
But twenty minutes can feel like a very long time when I’m sitting in silence listening to the sound of my thoughts skittering, seemingly randomly. Oh, there’s my mind trying to make a plan for later on today, and a list of things I can’t forget to remember to do. There’s my mind slipping sideways into what seems to be a dream. Bring it back, follow the breath. Breathe, breathe, meditate. Oh, there’s my mind dashing off to wonder how much longer. And under it all, there’s my body, trying to hold fast, remain still and calm but strong. What this exercise seems to be, at its core, is a daily weather report: here’s what you’re feeling today. Here’s how your body and mind is coping with challenge. Bring an umbrella.
Today’s weather report of my body and mind: very tired, wandering, a bit directionless, with a chilly breeze of underlying anxiety about upcoming events.
I’ve been struggling to write, here. Not elsewhere, but specifically here, in Blogland. I was at a book club on Monday evening, a friendly thoughtful group, and they asked interesting questions, including one I found difficult to answer: How do you manage the attention? My gut instinct? To reply: uh, what attention? The truth is that I’ve been managing attention by pretending there’s a solid wall between my public life and my private life, and that the two don’t intersect. It’s a mental trick I sustain when blogging, too. I pretend no one’s reading. It’s like I’m writing this in a special private journal that oddly ends every time with me pushing “Publish.” It’s a trick that doesn’t work terribly well, I’m beginning to understand, not just in Blogland where readers respond to posts (which I love), but also in the real world. (I can hear you thinking: you’re just grasping this now?). For example, on Monday afternoon, my 9-year-old had a new friend over, and when the dad came to pick her up, and I was making small-talk in the front hall, he said, “I saw you in the newspaper.” Private Carrie fought with Public Carrie, confused. He’d seen me in the newspaper? Had I been charged with some crime? Oh, right, I’m a writer. I actually had to say it out loud, as if explaining it to myself, “Oh, yes, I’m a writer.” “I know,” he said. Oh, right.
So the separation is illusory at best, and delusional at worst.
Further, the whole pretence breaks down completely when I admit, both to myself and to you and to the lovely women at Monday night’s book club and likely to that dad in the front hall, that I want people to read what I’m writing. Of course I do! The sustainability of a writer’s career depends on readers. If I were operating a retail business, it would be counterproductive, not to mention just plain ridiculous, to open a shop only to pretend the shop doesn’t exist. A customer walks in. Carrie pretends she’s in her living-room, in yoga pants, looking after sick kid. Customer is confused, feels like an intruder, apologizes for wishing to purchase something from shop Carrie continues to pretend does not exist. (Why doesn’t anyone come to my shop, Carrie wonders? Maybe I’m not very good at making _____. Maybe I should quit trying and become a midwife.)
In other words, ambivalence isn’t actually ambivalent. It’s pretty damning. Like my dad would say, shit or get off the pot. (I really like that saying, actually; I use it a lot, when giving myself advice.)
But here’s the thing. What I’m selling in my shop is not me—it’s my writing. And that does feel genuinely separate. I’m in my living-room, in my yoga pants, with my sick kid, holding out a book. Holding out a blog post. This is the thing, I’m trying to say, Forget about me. So it’s confusing. I write in hopes that people will read what I write, not to attract attention to myself. I read Nick Hornby and Bill Bryson and Miriam Toews and Ruth Ozeki and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Kim Thuy because I really like their writing. I wouldn’t need to know anything about them to like their writing. I may feel I know them, because they are all somewhat autobiographical writers, but knowing them is not my motivation for reading their work: I read because I love what they do with story, with language, with structure and form, and because I’m moved and entertained by their writing.
I guess my overarching question is: Is seeking attention critical to finding readers? Is it a job requirement? What if I focus instead on being the best writer I can possibly be and stop sweating everything else? What if I simply support a project at every stage of development, including talking about it after it’s been published–and let go my attachment to the attention, personally. Then the transition between public and private might be much less jarring, much less important.
During today’s meditation, I had a sudden vision of seeking balance between interior and exterior. Between maintaining a quiet private interior focus, which is what I need in order to write, and an accepting reflective public exterior focus, which is what I need in order to be in the world as a writer. How can I be as authentic and free in my public life as I am in my private life? I breathe in, and I breathe out. Breath itself is a balance between interior and exterior.
So, how do I manage the attention? Maybe I’ll figure it out someday, twenty minutes at a time.
PS I’ll be at the Kitchener Public Library this evening, presenting the prose awards for the Dorothy Shoemaker prize, which I adjudicated this year. And I’ll be in Fort Erie on Friday evening as part of the Ridgeway Reads reading series.
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