Yesterday, at piano lessons, I wrote out some plans in an attempt to frame my goals in terms that were clear and measurable.
The template I followed was to name my identity or ROLE (or the identity or role that I wanted to claim), name GOALS for myself within that role, and name STRATEGIES or practical tasks I could do to achieve that goal, or some parts of that goal. The final piece of the puzzle was to BUILD ACCOUNTABILITY into my goals—in other words, involve others.
And I recognized that accountability is where the concept, and shape, of writing communities takes on real life and value.
This exercise helped me understand that my starting place should be with a role and goals; that’s the only way I’ll be able to understand what a writing community, and accountability, means to me, or what kinds of community feed and sustain the goals I’m setting for myself.
Here’s how the exercise looked on the page, roughly speaking.
For role, I started with WRITER.
I named two goals: PUBLISH NEW BOOK + PUBLISH SHORT STORIES/ESSAYS IN (LITERARY) MAGAZINES
Then I named strategies for approaching each.
PUBLISH NEW BOOK: Find publisher for The Swimmer (new novel manuscript); rewrite/edit Francie (novel manuscript in progress); research toward new manuscript; write new manuscript (novel; as yet undefined)
PUBLISH SHORT STORIES/ESSAYS: Contact editors; send out stories; polish stories; maintain a spreadsheet to track submissions; write new stories and essays; apply for grants or writer-in-residence positions
I noticed that there were two distinct categories within each larger goal: 1. strategies for getting published and 2. strategies for writing new work
Ergo, a third goal: WRITE NEW WORK.
And, my strategies for the goal.
WRITE NEW WORK: write on campus (i.e. free from distraction); contact editors (pitch story ideas); write with friends.
What surprised and pleased me about this analysis is the level of accountability (aka writing communities) already built into existing strategies. (Maybe you would find the same?!) For example, built into “find a publisher” is accountability: my agent is involved in this process. I’m not tackling it alone. However, I’ve got little/no accountability built into rewrite/edit my work-in-progress. This is of my own doing: I’m extremely private and superstitious about work in progress. The closest I’ve come to building accountability into this stage is to write/rewrite in parallel with a friend; Kevin is also my first reader on all manuscripts, but he’s not an editor, and besides, our marriage depends on him NOT offering editorial advice on my rough drafts. So here is a gap where I can ask: do I need more accountability at this stage in the process? And my honest answer is: I don’t know. I’ve handled this stage on my own FOREVER, and with measurable success.
But I’m open to considering a change.
I would be even more open, in fact, to seeking earlier editorial feedback on the short stories and essays I’ve been writing. This could be a wise step to add before submitting to magazines. Food for thought.
To return to the goal of writing new work, I wonder, at present, what does “writing with friends” look like? What’s the picture it makes in my mind? Perhaps it means what I’m already doing: Parallel writing at a friend’s kitchen table. Perhaps it means another workshop with Lynda Barry (though not this summer, sadly). I also think it means writing along with my students in class. However, given my current daily commitments, I don’t think it means organizing or leading writing workshops or a larger writing group … but perhaps it will mean that someday.
If you feel inspired or intrigued, I hope you’ll give this exercise this a whirl! Name your role, your goals, your strategies, and the ways in which you plan to build in accountability. How will you measure success?
I will measure success in BIG tangible goals, but also in TINY steps along the way: every time I write something new, including this post, I’ve met a goal. I’ve dropped a pebble on the path. Do cartoons count? YES! Private journal rants? YES! Letters to the editor? PROBABLY, HEY WHY NOT!
Yesterday, I also named and analyzed two other roles: TEACHER and FRIEND/FAMILY MEMBER. I won’t go into detail here. But we all have more than one role, so it’s worth considering how these roles overlap and interplay, and limit or feed each other.
Naming your ROLE will change how you frame your approach. How you see yourself is key, it’s critical, it’s the MOST IMPORTANT PART of this whole exercise. It’s also worth remembering that this isn’t a one-time assessment, but needs to be examined and altered as we continue to grow and change, as new roles are thrust on us, often out of our control, or new circumstances bring loss. Personally, I loved doing this exercise. Maybe you will find it clarifying too?
Last night I dreamed I was being chased by a man with a gun. I ran and hid while he hunted me down.
I woke and all the hairs on my arms were standing on end. My mind was racing. I lay there in the dark, looking at the ceiling, trying to get the picture out of my mind—of a man with a gun, pointed at me. What I thought about, too, as I lay there, too awake and disturbed to sleep, was what it would be like to have experienced a situation like that for real, like the kids of Parkland. What a name. Parkland. Sounds like the name you’d give to a wholesome suburban community, though possibly a satirically wholesome suburban community. I thought about waking in the night to stare at the dark, mind racing, after being in lockdown in your classroom, after hearing gunshots in your school’s halls, after seeing someone shot and killed, after hiding, terrified, thinking you will die. And I thought, the March for Our Lives is not hyperbole for these kids. I thought, if someone with a gun has come into your school, you understand, in a way that others may not, how dire the situation is, how far gone, and you’d do anything, now, to prevent this happening to another kid, in another school.
I thought, this won’t end until enough people refuse to accept it as their reality.
I’m so glad I don’t live in the United States. It breaks my heart to say so, because I am a dual citizen, and because dear friends and family live in the States and love their country, and because there are so many good and wonderful things in the US. I grew up in the States. It was once my home. I remember when Canada seemed terribly foreign, even though my dad’s family had Canadian roots. Canada was cold and unknown, and I didn’t want to move here. I was ten. I’ve never moved back to the States. I’m almost wholly Canadian now. We have our own problems and even our own gun problem; but it doesn’t compare, nothing compares to the madness of the gun—the worship of the gun—in the United States of America. It’s almost as if guns are more sacred than life itself, in the USA. Certainly, the right to own and carry a gun is more protected than the right to be protected from gun violence. If the best answer politicians can come up with is more guns, arm the teachers, “harden” the schools into what amount to prisons—that’s not protection for the kids, that’s protection for the guns, again. Sell more guns.
I want to march. I want to go to Washington and march against the almighty gun.
The kids who are marching, the kids who’ve organized this, the brave outspoken truth-telling kids of Parkland feel like they’re living in a war zone. They’re living in a developed nation, a nation of enormous prosperity and wealth, yet they are not safe—they know they are not safe. They know this will happen again, and again, and again, in churches, in schools, in homes,on streets, and so they march. I hope they never give up hope. I hope they march and march and march for their lives until they change the course of history. I’d believed for so long that there was no changing this story—that mass shooting would follow mass shooting would follow mass shooting, with nothing but thoughts and prayers to comfort the survivors. But these Parkland kids, they give me hope. They’re changing the narrative. They’re digging in their heels.
I always thought the gun would win, because don’t people with guns always win?
But, no, they don’t. They don’t. Violence doesn’t always win. Power and bullying doesn’t always win. Money doesn’t always win. Oh, how I want to believe this.
Oh, how I love the kids from Parkland.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, fires.
But ordinary life goes on, and outside my window is a cool Friday evening, with sunlight splashing shadows through the still-green leaves of early September. I wrote today. After a week of disappointing attempts to write, this was truly a gift. I wrote with a friend, and when we were done, we read to each other what we’d just written, and that was the most magical part of all — that joy of sharing what did not exist only an hour before. I may have to add this point to my manifesto (see below): read what you’ve written to an appreciative audience immediately upon writing it!
re the manifest0: On one of the last days at the cottage, I wrote out a set of reminders for myself, in an attempt not to lose what I’d gained. But then I got home, and it was all too much — the hours of each day consumed themselves, often quite wonderfully, but with only a few words set to page, and the words seemed weak, the magic drained from them by the heaviness of early mornings, forms to be filled, course prep, answering emails I’d abandoned, meals, scheduling, driving children, walking dogs, and on and on. That is why this afternoon’s blissful writing time was such a gift.
For the record, here’s my message to myself, from the office overlooking the lake.
Something I am learning is that writing by hand is actually the very quickest way to access a character or a scene. Something has changed for me over the past year, and at an accelerated pace this past month (the beautiful amazing writing and resting month of August, 2017, as I shall hereafter recall it). In my hand and on the page, I find access to fiction. This book has been a long time coming to fruition, and perhaps that is due in part to my needing to learn a new way to write and think — the Lynda Barry way (but also the post-concussion way). When this book is done, I will dedicate it to my friend Lisa, who introduced me to Lynda Barry. The detail and complexity of thought that arises now that I’ve trained my hand to listen, to be a force in motion, to be the leader, not the follower, of my thoughts — it astonishes me daily.
The other key to freedom, which I must share with my students, is the lack of a delete button when writing by hand. It sounds so obvious, but if I were writing this on-screen, I would have just gone back and deleted a whole line — probably not an important thought, but nevertheless it would have vanished forever. Here on the page, even a crossed-out line still exists. And there is an impetus to push forward, not to recreate and reattempt what one has already written, but to find out where the somewhat misshapen present is taking one.
I am not permitting myself to delete when I’m writing on the laptop, when I transcribe material — this is the first draft, I’m telling myself, and it can be refined later. I allow myself to add more words, but not to delete. The draft needs to exist as it stands, for now, until it is complete.
I will also print my drafts when they are done.
I’m writing this like a manifesto for my future self, as a reminder!
Something else to remember, for later: the back of the mind needs to know it has time and space to come forward — permission to come forward. That is why ritual is so important, and timed writing is so important, because it is training the back of the mind to trust, and the front of the mind to trust, too. Give it time! I must commit to 2.5 hours every day, if possible, and sacrifice all else. [Future self says: bloody hell, are you ever optimistic, cottage self!] What will this look like in practical terms? I hardly dare ask. I think the habit is imperative, no matter what project I’m working on, now and in the future.
Priorities. I need to stop taking on responsibilities I haven’t got time to learn how to do, or to do well. Instead, I want and intend to focus on what I already do well. Writing. Writing writing writing! I am a writer unleashed! The only person who is messing with my priorities is me. I can see that clearly now. I have put all kinds of blocks and obstacles into my own path as a writer. This may be out of fear. Fear that I will run out of things to say, fear that I’m really not that talented. Fear I’m delusional.
But right now, at the peak of this surge back into writing, I want to laugh at myself, gently mock myself, and say, hey, not everything you write needs to be published. That doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re the one who is going to determine your own writing future, not anyone else. It’s weirdly true, I can see. I can’t determine prizes and publishing deals and grants and recognition and audience, but that is immaterial — material and immaterial. It’s the identity that makes all the difference. It’s being a writer, inhabiting the body of a writer, loving the mind of a writer, making space for this writer, time for writing, challenging myself to difficult tasks, challenging projects, pushing myself to do this thing I believe I was born to do.
And stop undoing all that I’ve done to get here. Stop ignoring where I am and how I’ve gotten here. Stop undermining myself.
I don’t mean to become arrogant. I mean to become fully myself. Sorry, fourteen-year-old daughter of mine, I do believe a person can grow and change. I do. I’ve seen myself at so many different stages, witnessed real change, seen my body change and my mind too. I know this is possible, it is possible to be a writer and be comfortable being a writer. It is possible to nourish and feed myself as a writer, and damn well to do the writing. Damn well do it.
Oh Lord, I want to keep doing it. I don’t want this holiday at the cottage to end. I want every morning to sit at my desk and write. So do it [says cottage self to cowering future self]. Do it, and sacrifice in other areas instead. Experience the discomfort of that. The discomfort of honouring your work and your vocation above your other responsibilities.
End of manifesto.
Note to self: read this post whenever you’re feeling lost, confused, down, uncertain, anxious, whenever you’ve lost faith. Read this post!
This is a post I meant to write on my birthday, which was yesterday. Yesterday, I fully intended to plan out my writing adventures for this upcoming year. I would journal and blog and make schedules and send messages and plot workshops onto calendars. Instead, I indulged every lovely whim: I was treated to lunch by a friend, hugged my dad, went to the movies, opened presents and cards, and went on a dinner date with Kevin. When I sat down at 10PM to write in my journal, I was promptly interrupted by my youngest, who needed me to read Harry Potter to him — the last book in the series has become too dark for him to read alone in his bed: “It’s like she [JK Rowling] dug down so far that she hit a sewer pipe and then she just kept digging!” He pronounced it “swer” pipe. I love when my children mispronounce difficult words — it means they’ve learned the word by reading it. Thus ended the journaling.
Listen, my mind is humming with ideas and plans. Listen, I’m going to get them down on the page, out into the world.
I’ve been working on sketching out the curriculum for a 12-week creativity course, based on Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. (That’s what it looks like, above.) The course involves a lot of writing and perhaps even more drawing, using a variety of materials (crayons, watercolours, pencils, ink). The goal of the course is to create an illustrated handmade book, roughly in the form of a short graphic novel, although the book could take any form, really, so long as it has stories and drawings. In order to refine the curriculum, and understand my own capacity to teach this course, I’m going to test out my ideas over the next twelve weeks. I am looking for a few guinea pigs to test the ideas with me. You don’t have to live nearby, as I’d also like to discover whether it would be feasible to administer and take this course from a distance.
Are you interested?!
If so, please contact me, and I will send you details of what I’m imagining for this very rough, experimental, alpha version of the course. It’s a reasonably big commitment (12 weeks of serious writing and drawing assignments), but I’m looking forward to exploring in new and creative ways. I’m looking forward to building new stories.
UPDATE, JAN. 3, 2017: Thank you to everyone who volunteered to be a guinea pig! The trial spots have all been filled. Stay tuned for progress reports throughout the term, and let me know if you would like to be contacted with info about future courses.
The dark is luminous when I walk the dogs, early. I forget to dress the little one in her pink sweater and she shivers and hurries along the paths carved between snowbanks. We slip and skid and crunch over packed ice. Morning has not yet broken. Night is a form of protection. It hides us from ourselves.
We sleep and dream, and we travel in our dreams.
In my dreams I sort out the riddles of my immediate future. I prepare elaborate plans. I wake, convinced these plans have been set in motion, convinced I’ve solved all problems.
When I walk the dogs, early, it is like the dreams are still within me or upon me, as night surrounds me. I am completely myself, the dreamer.
The dreamer has always lived in me, and I in her.
“I feel sorry for you when you read the newspaper, Mom, because you always seem so disappointed and so sad.”
“I’m not disappointed, exactly.”
“It’s like your beliefs get crushed, over and over. You’re too optimistic.”
“I’m hopeful. I think I can have hope without being naive. I’m sad and I have hope.”
“Morning has broken,” I say to the child who is still lying in bed. I sweep open the curtains. There is morning, breaking on our skyline, which is segmented by the roofs of apartment buildings. There is morning, streaks of pink and orange splitting the dark.
Must everything be broken, even morning? What do these words mean?
The day floods the dreams. And so begins the stark, bright march through the hours of consciousness, of schedules, of time marked, and meals prepared and eaten, and chores and errands ticked off the ever-lasting list.
Morning has broken, like an axe splitting the frozen sea inside. Something must do the job. Can my dreams come with me like shadows, attached to my feet, weighing nothing? Can I do everything I want to do, now that I am awake?
Today is a good day.
Every day is a good day.
That is not true, but every day could be a good day. Since I returned from France, I have endeavoured to hang onto the laid-back vibe that surfaced, slowly, and prevailed while I was there. It was so easy to be laid-back when my mind was emptied of its many duties and responsibilities, and I had only to focus on what mattered to me, and what I decided would matter to me.
Of course, that mind has once again been cluttered with necessities, but I am trying, trying, trying to maintain a focus on what matters. Does it matter that we will be a few minutes late because a child is disorganized (or because I am)? No. It does not matter. In France, I was amused to realize that it was no advantage to be early or even to be precisely on time, because no one was ever early or even precisely on time. Better to arrive a few minutes late without breaking a sweat. Now, that doesn’t quite work here in Canada, but at the same time, it isn’t a bad policy to follow: to not break a sweat. I don’t know if I can keep that laid-back feeling of … hey, this isn’t a real problem, this is a problem of vanishing effervescence which serves me not to trouble over. So many of the day-to-day problems are like this. If only I could let them go.
But how to let go the child yelling “hey, Mom!” from the other room as I clutch my train of thought while trying to respond politely, laidbackly.
Certain things seem easier, it is true. I’ve been reading and researching even if it looks (and even feels) like leisure. Just because I’m enjoying it doesn’t mean it’s not productive. Also, I’ve been much better at ignoring emails until a designated time, when I churn through the whole lot; or designating a particular half hour to a particular subject, like soccer messages (aargh!), or tax prep (double argh!). But you know. It all needs to get done.
I returned from France feeling content with my life. In France, I decided not to complain anymore about the things I’m asked to do, but to do these things with excitement and a sense of adventure. I decided to not worry so much about whether I did an awesome job, and simply content myself with doing my best and showing up. I get asked to do a lot of different things, some of which I’m not, frankly, all that good at, and probably never will be. So all I can do is try.
What I remembered, in France, is that a person is rewarded for her curiosity, her interest, her excitement, her willingness to leap in whole-heartedly. Really, those are simple ingredients. They require no talent. They require no skill. They require only a willingness to learn, to listen, to observe, to engage, to dig in, to do. I have those things! Sometimes I almost annoyingly have those things. I know that the light is going out of me when I lose those things. It takes so little to spark them again. I lose them when I’m exhausted, run down, distracted, overwhelmed.
You know, this can happen, in this life.
I wish the busyness of my every day life was renewing, but sometimes its effect is draining. Okay, so be it. I decided to have four kids, and I enjoy all of the richness and interest that come with raising them; of course there is a downside. There is always a downside. So how to make space within the chaos, how to prioritize, how to make space for my mind to wander, as it needs to, and to dream, and to come untethered from the schedule and the organizing and the mass of must-does.
I must go pick up children for violin lessons right about now.
Dare to dream, remember to dream, wander. Let the mind wander. Feed it on clean air, on walks outside, on friendship, and on work. Good work. Work that feels good to do.