FIRE is my word of the year, and its many meanings are very present with me at present. On my run this morning, I thought about how a fire can be an emergency, how it can burn down a house, or raze a forest. Going through fire is a metaphor for suffering and surviving, for being tempered by a painful experience. But after a fire, the soil is enriched by ash and carbon, and new life begins to grow.
Like fire that is an emergency, loss changes the landscape. Losing Marg was like going through fire. Of course, it was also like many other things, too, because Marg was extremely generous in her dying, and did everything possible to show her love and care for us, despite how sick she was. She had clarity about what was happening, and her wisdom gave us clarity, too. The fire tempered her, and it tempered us, too.
After loss comes grief. Sometimes grief comes even before loss — as we see loss coming toward us on the horizon. Grief isn’t predictable. It doesn’t follow a set timeline. At different points this spring, I recognized that grief was my companion, and that it was helping me to set my course.
Immediately after Marg’s death, I felt like a sleepwalker, numb, too tired to think, but slowly and steadily I drifted toward a different phase of being in the world — of being in the world. I began to meditate outside in our back yard. I let myself rest. I let myself not do next to nothing; listen, pay attention, breathe. Instinctively, I gave myself space. And with space, with breath, with oxygen to feed it, my interior fire began to flicker to life again. It was in that burnt out quiet space, in the aftermath and ash, that new shoots of green began to grow. I thought about (think about) Marg all the time. She was and is present in my mind, in my decision-making. Her clarity guides me, and her willingness in life to step forward, to be responsible, to take charge and to lead.
Because fire has another meaning, too — fire as passion, as heat and light and desire. There are times when I live without noticing how I’m feeling, numbed by routine and responsibility and the relentless obligations of being a mother to four children, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer. These are times when I’m dull, ticking boxes, struggling to keep my weak flame lit. And then there are times when I’m on fire! I’m paying attention — my attentiveness becomes acute, and I can see clearly what matters and what doesn’t matter.
From a place of quiet attention, comes clarity.
I have been tempered by fire, and my sense of purpose is strengthened. This I know: to feed my spirit, to remain grounded and whole, I must live creatively. Living creatively means improvising, sometimes; it means pursuing work that may not have a financial value; it means making space for others to play too. Since Marg’s death, I’ve found myself making choices from a place that feels powerful and certain. I ask: what matters to me, and am I acting on what matters to me? Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at church because when I saw the call for volunteers, instead of questioning the impulse, wondering whether I had the authority to speak, or the time to prepare, or the courage to stand up, I just said yes: this matters to me, and I will do it.
Another example: This spring, as I heard about protests in Nicaragua, as the situation became ever more troubling and desperate, as protestors were being killed, I wondered: Why isn’t this news being covered in the Canadian media? What can our government do to help the situation? And then I asked: Is there anything I can do? Yes! I could use my resources, skills, and contacts to write an opinion piece appealing to the Canadian government and getting this news before the public, at least to a small degree — I pitched the idea to an editor at the Globe and Mail, and wrote the piece while sitting in a tent on a rainy afternoon last weekend. I consulted with Nicaraguan contacts to ensure my facts were accurate. I sought feedback. And the piece was published in today’s Opinion section of the Globe. It’s a small act, but it’s something.
I’ve discovered something powerful about acting on what matters to me: It gives me fuel for the fire, energy to do more.
There are so many small ways to be whole, to feel whole. I don’t seek a work-life balance, because my work and life are utterly intertwined. I’m not interested in the concept of balance. I’m interested in recognizing which fires need to be fed, and which should be smothered. That’s a different kind of balance. It means asking: what do I have control over and what do I need to let go of?
A fire can burn out of control. Some emergencies cannot be prevented or stopped, can only be endured, withstood, survived, contained. But there are many smaller fires: a candle, a campfire, the flame inside a wood stove. These fires draw us, warm us, soothe us, invite community. The constantly changing shape of the flame is meditative and centring. We gather with others around the light and heat.
I hope to have more news to share in the weeks to come. More irons in the fire. More heat, more light. Meanwhile, more summer.
Oh my goodness, I’m flying off in a million different directions these days. Is this only the second week of summer holidays?? We kicked off our summer with a weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm. The heat was something else. We watched all of the World Cup games, went to the beach, performed the annual burning of the homework, lit some fireworks, chilled around the fire taking turns playing DJ, listening to our favourite songs. It was sweet.
Kevin flew off to Montreal for a couple of days last week.
Then we drove to Kingston for a soccer tournament (that’s me on the end feeling like a champion … and looking somewhat shorter than our team’s tallest players, some of whom aren’t quite 13 yet! Keep growing, girls!). In a bizarre twist, our team actually won all three of our opening games … but did not advance to the semi-finals. I’ve never seen a tournament organized like this, and hope never to see one like it again. The good news is, our team had a blast during the off-hours, plus on the field the girls played like stars, revealing inner grit and resolve and team joy, coming from behind to win each of the games. We had lots to cheer for.
I spent Sunday afternoon driving across Ontario to drop CJ at camp, where he’ll spend the week. It was a very long day, and the air conditioning in my little car DID NOT WORK. (Did I mention how hot it’s been?) Thankfully, I had a driving companion — Angus came along for the ride, and kept us entertained. We spent quite awhile making top 5 lists in the following categories: soups, salads, and sandwiches. Of course, this was over the supper hour when we were barrelling toward camp and not wanting to stop unless absolutely necessary. Discussion of our top 5 sandwiches inspired a long riff on the classic old-fashioned assorted sub. We were so hungry! Angus texted Kevin, who had already arrived home with the girls, requesting he pick us up exactly these sub sandwiches from Pepi’s, a local pizza place that Angus had heard makes good subs. Kevin kindly agreed. Then Kevin texted with the bad news: a hose had burst and the kitchen and basement were flooded.
Fortunately, this calamity had only just happened, likely less than half an hour before their arrival home. What could have been a total disaster was just a really messy cleanup (which I wasn’t too terribly sorry to have missed).
The sub sandwiches from Pepi’s were waiting when we got home … very late … The sub was exceptionally tasty. Definitely my # 1 sandwich. Also, the basement was drying out. Also, there were mountains of laundry.
In other news, the kid pictured above got her cast off. (Wrist broken in a soccer game.) But she can’t play for another couple of weeks. She is not loving her role as bench-warmer.
In other other news, I’m working on a potentially BIG project. So is Kevin! (Different projects.) I will share news when/if these projects get off the ground. I feel energized. It’s Marg. Her example was powerful, and I’m lucky to have known her — a woman who used her skills and talents and personality and time here on earth to take charge, take a stand, stand up, speak out, clear and grounded in her intentions and values. Sometimes this means walking toward conflict, rather than away. Difficult decisions, taking responsibility — this is tough stuff for those of us trained to be nice and likeable. I think we need to stop fearing conflict, fearing push-back. Our power is within us, people. I feel it when I run in the mornings. I feel it when I write. I feel it when I reach out to my community. I know what I love, I know what I believe in. I know that the world will always be troubled, there will always be weariness, grief, injustice, greed, unchecked self-interest. I can’t fix that. What I can do is respond to opportunities to be otherwise, to be the change. I remember that I started coaching soccer because I noticed no moms were coaching, and I thought that was weird and a bit sad. Why did the dads get to have all the fun? Then it occurred to me — why was I complaining about it? I could just volunteer and coach! It’s pretty simple, really. If you see something that bothers you, ask yourself: can I change this? If not, can I respond in some other proactive way?
Respond with love, not fear, at every opportunity. That’s the key.
The hardest day of the week to get oriented. There seem to be an infinite number of tasks that could be tackled — a few that should be tackled, and many that are just pleasant possibilities awaiting attention. But to be done properly these tasks require full attention. There are many ways to begin, but here is one that’s been working for me: I put on Marg’s green scarf and sit in the back yard and meditate.
On my general to-do list:
- Fall creative writing course at U of Waterloo: revamp reading list; tweak structure of peer review workshops; tweak participation rubric.
- Winter creative writing course at St. Jerome’s (new course!!!!): solidify curriculum, leaving room for student input within broader units.
- Write/edit/submit short stories: I’m working on editing a short story collection. I keep picking away at the stories, one by one; highly satisfying. I’m also setting the goal of submitting these polished stories, one by one, to literary magazines.
- Edit/submit poems: Same as # 3, only in poetry form.
- Expand/explore career options: Here is where I begin to drift off, untethered. I’m feeling a significant pull to further my education. I’ve narrowed my field(s) of interest to the following: spiritual work, counselling/therapy/coaching, writing/art therapy, conflict resolution, public speaking.
On Twitter, today, I retweeted an opinion from a thread on CanLit by Amanda Leduc, who wrote: “Literature is a special thing only insofar as it helps us to navigate the world & connect with one another.” Someone else replied: “I hear what you’re saying, but I have also talked to people who are alive today because literature literally saved their lives.”
And I wonder what I believe?
My experience as a teacher leads me to believe that writing can be powerful medicine, that telling our stories and being heard, no matter the medium, can be powerfully validating. Reading or seeing or hearing a story or image that strikes a chord within us can also be powerful. It can heal, or create an opening for healing. Who knows why something moves us? It may have nothing to do with the technical prowess of its creator.
I’m not saying that technical skill doesn’t matter or is immaterial. My God, when I read a book by someone who’s mastered the craft, I’m utterly transported. Most recently, that would be Ali Smith’s Autumn. I wanted to linger — am lingering, in memory — inside the richness and simultaneous spareness of her style. Yet I flew through the book and couldn’t put it down. That’s magic. There’s magic in deciding to pick up a book and read it, and discovering in it exactly what you need.
There is magic in the process, in all parts of the process, that’s what I’m saying. There’s work and then there’s magic. And magic doesn’t come in a form that’s graspable; magic, spiritual depth, grace — however you term it — does not arrive because you demand its arrival. A writer is not someone with special powers. A writer is someone who, with luck, occasionally finds a way to share an idea or an image with the the world, or whatever tiny piece of the world picks up our book and reads it and finds something within those pages. But there are lots of other ways to connect, even for writers. I come back to connection, to navigating the world. The world is what interests me. Relationships interest me. And, yes, spiritual life in particular interests me, even though or maybe because it’s almost impossible to put that life into words. (This is why we need images.)
Long story short. I’m happy to keep writing and practicing the craft of writing (see items #3 and #4 on above list). But I think I’m being called out beyond the borders of the page. I think there are other ways and means of connecting to the world using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about writing and shaping narrative, but also using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about being human, being mortal, being fallible, being forgiven, and loving and being loved.
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?
What would a writing community look like?
Okay, here’s the thing: I don’t know. But I have a few ideas. Could you please add yours?
A small workshop group that meets regularly to read and critique each other’s writing. In the classroom, I create small groups who read each other’s rough drafts, prepare comments, and present their editorial feedback in person, face to face. Because each student has submitted work for scrutiny, they recognize each other’s vulnerability in their own. Often students will tell me that they were paralyzed with anxiety before their first workshop, while afterward they feel energized, surprised to discover that they actually enjoyed the experience.
A writing partner. I meet with a friend on occasion to write at her kitchen table, while she does the same. When we’re finished, we read each other what we’ve written (or show each other, if it involves cartoons, which it might). I like working while someone else is working too — working in parallel. But best of all, I like the immediacy of sharing what I’ve just made, which is too fresh and new to be anything but marvellous. And because what we’ve made is so fresh and new and marvellous, there is no critique involved. We just enjoy, and let the thing be what it is. I really like that.
An online group or FB page. When I was running the template for my creativity course, I made a FB page so that participants could share the work they were doing. But not everyone used it. I’ve noticed this with other online FB groups to which I belong … not everyone feels comfortable posting in a semi-public forum to semi-strangers.
A fellow traveller. Occasionally, I meet to talk shop with a local writing friend. We’ve never shared our works-in-progress with each other; instead, we give each other the support and encouragement of fellow travellers on an often bumpy road. There’s a lot we don’t need to explain to each other, and that’s a relief. Over the years, I’ve also reached out to more experienced writers to ask for advice, and have received kind and generous responses.
A blog, like this one. You’re out there. I love hearing from you, because I confess the conversation can feel one-sided at times. Maybe that’s why I forget that my blog has offered me terrific literary connections over the years — almost a decade’s worth of connections, in fact.
Literary magazines. I drop in to The New Quarterly’s office on campus to say hello from time to time. I also find that just reading other writers’ work gives me a sense of connection. Sometimes I just have to respond, often on my blog, though occasionally I’ve written a letter to a writer I don’t know to express appreciation.
Other creative writing teachers. I have not accessed this community at all. There are only a couple of professors who teach creative writing at UW and I’ve utterly failed to reach out to them.
Something I notice as I gather up these ideas. My ideal community is give-and-take. It is non-hierarchical; everyone involved is a participant whose voice has equal value. It feels really good — like friendship does. It’s a conversation. It’s about sharing.
And that’s it, off the top of my head.
Please share your thoughts and ideas with me. Are you a writer seeking community? Maybe you’ve established community already? Maybe you’re not a writer, but you can pinpoint what connections have fed your work and life? What does community mean to you, in practice, not just in theory?
People often ask me: Are you still writing?
I can’t help but parse the phrasing. The word still. Of course, it may appear that I might have somehow stopped writing, that I am no longer writing, because I’ve published so little since Girl Runner came out in the fall of 2014. During these past four years, it is true, I’ve published two picture books for children, a handful of short stories and essays in Canadian literary magazines, a performance piece for an arts festival in France, and these personal blog posts. That’s clearly not enough to keep the lights on, so to speak.
Are you still writing?
I understand the question. I know it’s asked out of kindness and curiosity. How to explain that writing is like breathing, for me? I could not stop. When I do stop, it will be because I’ve also stopped breathing. My life depends on this form of expression.
Are you still writing?
I am always writing, I explain. I explain, Not everything I write will be published.
I recognize that this is a painful truth. I recognize that to state this fact makes me vulnerable. We all like success stories. Painful truths we like so much less, we humans. We like winners because they win. We pity losers for losing. Is it shameful and possibly career-ending to admit: I’m trying, but I’m not living up to the standards being set? To admit: Success is out of my control? To admit: What I love doing may not be what the market wants? Some of us would prefer deception to truth. I wonder whether in the arts community, as in any career involving public scrutiny, we are more inclined to stare away the painful truths, to hide them, and perhaps this is the evolutionarily correct instinct.
Well, I’m going to tell you the painful truth anyway. I’m trying. I’m still writing.
There are problems that we have the capacity to solve with ingenuity and effort, and there are gravity problems. Gravity problems are problems that no amount of ingenuity and effort can solve: gravity just is, a force, like time, that doesn’t bend to human will.
I’ve been fortunate to shift some of my attention, these past four years, into teaching creative writing, work I’ve come to love. It is rewarding to receive immediate feedback, to test ideas live, to adventure in the company of others. Teaching is the opposite of writing literary fiction, at least in my experience. In my experience, to write literary fiction requires enormous patience, bottomless trust in one’s own instincts, and the fierce will to continue alone, for long stretches of time. It requires so much energy. All the energy comes from within. This can be hard to sustain in the absence of … I was going to say success, but I think the more accurate word is community.
There must be a better way!
This post has taken an unexpected detour. This isn’t the post I thought I was writing.
I need new fuel for the fire, that seems apparent from what I’ve written here. I’m out of steam. I’m still writing, but I’ve also given up hope. In my classroom, I strive to foster a creative community — it’s a goal that’s set and maintained and evaluated throughout the term. With deliberate effort, I make space for peers to meet, to share their work, to share the weight of vulnerability, and to learn how to offer useful critique, which is really a brave form of support.
I have never created such a space for myself. I’ve never even considered it as a possibility.
This is not a gravity problem. This is a problem that can be solved by ingenuity, effort, and most importantly, the willingness to be vulnerable.
Writing = breathing. If I hadn’t sat down this morning to write, I wouldn’t have stumbled across this discovery: what I’m feeling and experiencing can’t be solved alone. What I need is community, a writing community.