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.
It’s the day before my birthday. I get all contemplative at this time of year, and on this date, specifically. I’ve got journal entries from Dec. 28th (hand-written) going back a decade or more, reflecting on the year past and hopes for the future. Something about reading over these entries fills me with melancholy, though I can’t quantify why, exactly. It’s not because I wish things had gone differently. Maybe it’s the passage of time, generally. Maybe I recognize that I wasn’t always so confident or certain. That shouldn’t make me sad, though. I had to be who I was to become who I am. Today I read the entry from 2005. So much of what I’ve accomplished since then seems improbable. So much could not have been predicted. I had no inkling that I would devote a year to triathlon and marathon training, nor could I have imagined the confidence and determination gained by training and racing. My parents were still together at that point. My father-in-law was still alive, as were both of my mother’s parents. I suspect those losses, yet to come, shaped me, too, and that grief and struggle made me into someone slightly different, someone more open to challenge and conflict and error.
The truth about becoming a better writer is that it’s a long-term process. You start with a flair for language, a love of story and words, as a young writer; you may have a gift for innovation or for structural sense, enormously important building blocks to work with. But it’s patience, only, that will make you a better writer, as you practice the craft faithfully and with hope, while you wait for life to tell you what matters to you, and what it is you want to say, what you want to put into the world. I think about that now. I didn’t used to, so much.
I’m okay with getting older. I’m so much more at ease being me, living in this body, aware of my own limitations and flaws, and comfortable pushing against them, when I feel inspired, or settling right into them, when I’m just plain tired of trying to be better. Sometimes good enough is plenty.
I’ve embraced my own high expectations. I haven’t been crushed by them.
This past year has been an odd one. This is the year that gave me Girl Runner. Wow. This was also the year of employment uncertainty and the stress of financial strain, of unexpected expenses and hits. This was the year I got turned down for virtually every grant and job I applied for. Yet somehow this was also the year of out-of-the-blue serendipity: job offers and book deals. This was the year my writing earned me a good living. Wow, again. This was the year I did not get a hair cut. Yikes! This was the year I applied for midwifery school, got in, and decided not to pursue that career route. This was the year of the concussion. This was the year I taught my first course. This was the year I didn’t can anything. The year we got a dishwasher. The year I drove more kilometres in support of my kids’ activities than I’d ever dreamed possible. The year my green dreams faded to a paler shade.
Here’s what I wrote in 2005 about parenting, and it rings so very true all these years later: “Basically what I want for my kids is the world to be open for them, and them to feel comfortable within it, never excluded or discouraged.”
Maybe I wanted that for myself, too. Maybe that’s exactly what I’ve found and what I continue to try to nurture, for all of us: to be participants in the world around us.
We do a lot of asking for things, searching and applying and imagining ourselves elsewhere, making our requests. It’s part of participating in the world. Maybe getting turned down and turned away is part of participating too. So often what comes to us, when we’re open, is not what we’d asked for or anticipated. We just can’t know. Maybe that’s what makes me sad, on this day of looking back and looking ahead: I really can’t know. There is no way to prepare for what’s ahead. How to let go? How to be open to what the world has to offer, to be determined and ambitious and demanding of ourselves, and also at peace with what we’re given?
I’m a little bit terrified of looking ahead at the year to come. If all goes well, here is what will happen. I will finish Girl Runner and see it published here in Canada. I will get a good head shot (and that long-neglected hair cut). I will research toward a new book, and start writing it. I will consider teaching again. I will play soccer again, come spring. I will return to running longer distances. I will practice yoga blissfully in my peaceful office. I will get a standing desk or even a treadmill desk. I will see my children do wonderful things: play soccer, swim, play piano, do gymnastics, play with friends. I will enjoy their company. I will continue to be blessed in my marriage.
If I write it all down, I fear it won’t come true. I want to knock on wood. Conversely, I want to write it all down and not fear at all what may come, because it’s only by hoping and dreaming for the best that the best can come to pass. That’s what I’ve learned. Forget superstition. The fear of dreaming and possibility is really the fear of disappointment. And tough though it is to accept, disappointment can be overcome. Much more difficult to overcome is the refusal to imagine, period.
So, here I am. December 28th, 2013. Dreaming big, as always.
We had to bake Christmas cookies. So said this lass, and she would do the mixing and measuring herself to make it happen. So while I whipped the butter and sugar, she sifted the dry ingredients. When it came time to combine the two, there seemed not nearly enough dry to sufficiently turn the wet into cookie dough.
“It looked like too much flour,” Fooey explained.
And then I explained that baking is like a chemistry experiment, and doesn’t respond well to measurement by whim. So we re-measured the dry, added it in, then added even more, and voila, cookies. We ate them plain as we didn’t have time to frost them, but it was a double batch, so we’ve got three trays’ worth of dough waiting in the fridge, wrapped in wax paper, ready to be rolled out and baked as an after-school snack. So far, we haven’t quite managed to follow through on that plan.
Today we’re getting the water softener replaced. We figured out something was wrong when we turned on the tap the other morning and nothing came out. Kevin was able to bypass the softener, so we do have water. Really, it could have been worse. But then the stove’s front panel stopped working. So it’s been that kind of a week.
Yesterday evening, while I was out at a soccer practice, Kevin received delivery of my manuscript, marked up with comments. I resisted the urge to read through it for about, oh, thirty seconds, and then gave in, and skimmed and scanned over a bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup. A short while later, I opened a message about the possibility of teaching again. At which point, I slid these two separate Big Things to the back of my mind and ordered them to stop yammering at me. And then I sliced up apples and pears for snack and wrangled the little kids into bed, read them the death scene from The Lion, The Witch, and Wardrobe, which required reading them the resurrection scene, too, which meant the lights went out later than planned. By then, Kevin and Albus were home from their soccer practice, and AppleApple was delivering a school presentation to the dogs (for want of a better audience), and we made tea and hot chocolate, and Albus and I texted while standing side by side in the kitchen, cracking each other up. (Butt jokes never really go out of style, I find.) And then Kevin went to hockey. The laundry never got folded. I set my alarm for an early morning boot camp. I climbed into bed.
Guess what was waiting for me — yup. My thoughts. All night, a mash-up of Girl Runner and teaching anxiety dreams played in my head. I spent an hour, around 3AM, wide awake, thinking thinking thinking. Begging my thoughts to turn off, please. Knowing everything would be clearer come morning. (Or at least less dire; I find middle-of-the-night rumination very unhelpful in this regard.)
Early this morning, I dragged myself out to boot camp. The theme appeared to be: train like a volleyball player! I have never done so many jumps — onto platforms and balls and just generally into the air, arms up — in my life. Now I’m at my desk with a where-do-I begin sensation. So I begin with the blog, naturally.
little Albus, kindergarten era, pre-texting
And I’ll end the blog by circling back to Christmas, the preparations for which seem especially scattered and ill-thought-out this year. Children do not have gifts. We will be scrambling at the last-minute, I fear. I seem to be waiting for someone else to take the initiative, to organize the outing to the toy shop, or the baking of the cookies (thanks, Fooey!), while I sit at my desk and wander through my imaginary world, trying to fit all the pieces together that still need fitting. Trying to make it all work.
I heard myself say to myself, around 3AM this morning, “Carrie, you can’t do everything.” Don’t tell me that! I told myself. Truth is, I long for multiple lives, for the ability to step from one identity to another, from one kind of work to another, with singular devotion to each. I would be so many things, if only there were little rooms in life that one could exist in simultaneously. Here’s my wish list of multiple lives: writer, devoted mother, teacher, long-distance runner, midwife, singer-songwriter, stage actress. Oh, and I’d have horses, too.
Anyone else have the multiple lives fantasy?
I’m basically scooping my daughter’s homework deadline, but I just had to share her response to a school assignment to write a six-word memoir. After trying out a variety of ideas that played around with her connection between the imaginary and the real, she came up with the six words above, and had me take an accompanying photo. I love the dreamy, peaceful, joyous expression on her face. The saddle is from my own pony-owning era, with safety stirrups that I remember my Gramps, who loved horses too, insisted I use. We couldn’t find a bridle with reins in the attic, so she’s got a skipping rope instead. Hey, the imagination works wonders. Her little brother and sister have also been welcomed into this imaginary world and AppleApple happily responds to all requests to “go ride Nellie.”
(As an aside, do you think you could write a six-word memoir? Could I? Maybe I will ask my students to try this exercise when we meet for the first time tomorrow.)
This is turning into Carrie’s bad news bed bug and concussion blog, but I figured you might like an update on my head. I saw a sports medicine doctor today. If you’ve got a few minutes, take time to watch this surprisingly helpful and succinct video on concussions made by a doctor in Montreal. Unfortunately, I’m not even at step one of the steps to recovery: I’m still suffering symptoms even while at rest. But overall, I was relieved to know that I haven’t done anything too terribly wrong, with the exception of going back on the field to play out the game in which I suffered the concussion. In retrospect, I realize I would never let one of my kids do that, but apparently my judgement wasn’t the best following a blow to the head; and it’s not a mistake I’ll make twice. Otherwise, I’ve been properly conservative in my attempts to return to activity. I’m going to see a physio tomorrow, who also specializes in post-concussion syndrome, and will report anything of interest. Meanwhile, I need to be cautious even about my cognitive activities (argh!), which obviously take precedence over any exercise-related activities. The doctor’s words that stick in my head are: “You will get out of shape. I know that’s frustrating.” I think my main goal for right now is to accept that, and be grateful for all that I can do in the weeks and months ahead.
For example, I recognize that I won’t be able to race the Run for the Toad this year. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, rather that I would pay a very heavy price to complete it. Running seems to be a major symptom trigger. At this point, if I feel well enough, the doctor suggested an easy walk, and possibly an easy swim. But if I’m honest about how I’m feeling, even an easy walk hurts rather than helps right now. So does looking at my computer screen. Which means I’m signing off for now.
Thanks for all who have reached out to me recently with thoughtfulness and care!
woman watches spring
Writing a book can be a funny thing. Occasionally it feels like control has been unintentionally ceded to some other power: the original vision just doesn’t fit on the page. The character refuses to do what the writer has planned. This doesn’t happen all that often, but it can.
Writing a life, well, do we get to that? Do we get to write our own plotlines, choose who we will become? To some degree I strongly believe that the answer is yes. Right up until it seems to be out of our hands.
I’ve had a strange week. It’s been wild, it’s been wonderful.
What can I say? Well, not everything. Okay, frankly, not much. Hardly anything at all, in fact. And I apologize for being mysterious, and will let you know that the news that I cannot tell is good, and that it is writing-related.
You know that saying, It never rains but it pours?
soccer coach, in reflection
Throw into the mix: Kevin away in Winnipeg, a mysterious allergic reaction that sent me to the doctor, solo parenting on the weekend, having to coach our youngest’s soccer team, and several more soccer games including my own on Sunday evening, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s been … overwhelming.
Imagine me walking uptown on Saturday with my brood of children, running errands in the brilliant sunshine. I say, “Kids, I feel ten feet tall.” “But you’re short, Mom. We’re short people.” “I know. But I feel like I’m much taller than I actually am. I feel like I’m floating.”
I have spent more than twenty years aiming myself toward this moment. More than twenty years working to accumulate the knowledge and skill to write books that people will want to read. More than twenty years of tenacity and, let’s admit it, almost obsessive effort, even against self-doubt and the rejection that comes to every creative person who opens herself to the world. And here I am, more than twenty years on, dropped into the perfect moment in which the universe says: What you wanted? Here it is.
How are you?
I always reply, as expected, I am fine. Most of us do, right? It’s a polite greeting, back and forth, not meant as a deeply searching opening.
But, how are you? No, really, you can tell me.
And then I’ll tell you.
I’ll tell you, in truth, that I am struggling. Fold down the corner on this page. It’s only one page in a whole book. Mark it off. This too shall slip into the past. There is nothing specific to attach my struggle to, and perhaps that is why I am struggling. There is no news. I wait for news, knowing I can’t control when it arrives, nor what message it will bring. If I could learn how to live within this, what a gift it would be. I could learn real peace of mind. But so far, I am struggling.
In my dreams last night I signed a book contract only to discover that there was no editor to help me edit the book, and I would need to go it alone based on a few scribbled notes that included instructions to write “a wedding scene.” My book has no wedding scene, nor any obvious place to include a wedding scene, given that the main character never marries. Also, I wouldn’t get paid until the edits were complete. On the plus side, assuming I could complete the edits, I would earn a healthy sum. On the minus side, my personality in the dream could be summed up as: socially awkward. It’s my second socially awkward dream this week.
What can it mean?
This dream melded with another in which my entire family was riding in a helicopter while I ran in a field underneath them, watching the helicopter tilt and crash-land. But everyone was okay. We went into a nearby house and I realized we’d forgotten to bring the piano books. Crisis in dreamland! How would the children practice the piano?
So, how are you?
Me, I’m flat as day-old soda pop.
But this morning is clear and sun-filled. All of my kids still love to be hugged tight. Tonight is poetry book club. There is the possibility, always, that peace of mind is within, waiting for me to alight upon it. So, just now, I’m going outside, friends. I’m leaving this desk for a little while. I’m going outside.
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