Yesterday, while grabbing a book to bring along to a soccer field I mentally composed a perfect blog post. Maybe I’ll blog on my phone beside the soccer field, I thought. But the post vanished, and instead, beside the soccer field, I chatted with other parents (whom I see far more often than I do my closest friends) and watched, mesmerized, our daughters pass the ball with great skill and determination. The book stayed unopened in my hand.
The perfect imaginary blog post is not unlike the perfect imaginary book, I suspect, a subject Ann Patchett addresses in her very funny and quite serious essay on writing, “The Getaway Car,” in her new book of essays, THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE.
Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it … But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart.
Two things in that passage. One, the obvious point that writing is not a natural act; and two, that we narrate our lives, and it’s the second I’ve been thinking about most.
Yesterday, I imagined writing from inside the new car. I would tell you about the sudden shock of snow, the windshield wipers working, the warm hum from the vents. I might add in a snippet of caught conversation between me and a child. I might even admit to a burst of irritation at the stupidity of another driver. There would be the hush of tires turning. The flash of lights and the smear of their colour across the wet windshield in the early dark.
It’s fitting that I put my book advance toward a new vehicle, as the new vehicle has become my second home in a way that seems almost outrageous when I add up the hours. I’ve undone every green dream I ever had, whilst supporting my children in their extra-curricular interests. On Monday, between 5:05pm and 9:15pm, I spent a total of two and a half hours in our new vehicle, including an hour and a half venture, around town, that had me climbing out at home with a numb posterior. During that particular round, “Aggie” and I visited a far-flung indoor soccer field, a gymnastics club on the opposite side of town, and a pool, before returning home. And it snowed the whole time. The best part was when the eldest voluntarily joined me for the final trip of the evening. “What should we talk about?” he asked cheerily, and, as we’d already covered the intricacies of the PS4 gaming system he’s hoping for, we moved on to music, and soccer, and the mall, and fantasizing about food we’d like to eat.
That’s the one good thing about all this time in the car. It’s time with the kids, and we talk, a lot.
But later, home again, kids in bed, I said to Kevin, “When I’m all done driving these kids around, I’m going to be old. That’s what’s going to happen. I’ll be done driving them, and I’ll be old.”
photos in this post taken by child in passenger seat
Meanwhile — and this may save me — I’ll be “narrativizing” my life.
Yesterday afternoon, I listened to a Writers and Company podcast: Aleksandar Hemon interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel. Hemon uses his own experiences in his fiction, without qualms or apology: “The way I write fiction most often is that I imagine a different outcome of a situation.” Hemon observes something unfolding and ending, a snippet, a glimpse, or a straightforward hike from A to B, and he wonders: what if X had happened instead? A character might appear to be based on himself, yet he seems to harbour no worries about being mistaken for a character. In short, the line between fiction and non-fiction does not seem to trouble him. He’s writing stories, not history, whether they are “true stories” (non-fiction) or fiction. “We go toward the things we do not know in literature. To go in the opposite direction is to write only about the easy things.” (I’m paraphrasing; I took notes while listening, as non-fiction versus fiction has become a bit of an obsession while I try to teach it to my students, and while I reflect on what writing/publishing The Juliet Stories has both given me and cost me.)
I feel myself urgently wanting to use what I’ve got at hand, and to spin it into something different; “to arrive at something,” as Hemon puts it. There is life. There is the rendering of life into story. I’m missing quite a few pieces in my life, right now. Apparently I can’t squeeze everything in to satisfaction, not while driving for hours a day. What gets lost? Wouldn’t I love to host more suppers? Yes. My social life is pinched. I’m tired far too early in the evening. The laundry overwhelms. But there’s something about writing that can set life into balance, for me. I arrive at something there that I can’t here.
Hey, our green living-room is on the CBC’s book site today. It accompanies an interview I did with them on blogging — on being a blogger as well as a fiction writer.
This morning, I walked again. But I’m restless nevertheless, so it occurred to me to try something different. What I’m missing about running is not just the physical release, but also that sense of taking part in a moving meditation.
But in challenge is opportunity!
Yesterday afternoon, I had time to listen to the radio and bake bread, and I tuned in to Tapestry on CBC Radio One, where I can always find peace on a Sunday afternoon. The subject was “crazy busy,” as in, “Hi, how are you?” “Oh, I’m crazy busy!” More to the point, the subject was finding stillness in a culture that has latched onto the concept of being so busy we just can’t slow down.
Now, I like busy. I’ve even been told that I scare people a little bit with my busyness. But I also like still. Or say that I do. I say that I like stillness, but perhaps in truth I privilege busyness over quietude. I sit in stillness at my writing desk, but my mind is whirring with energy and imagination. I find stillness of mind when I run, but it’s curious, isn’t it, that I need to be in motion to fall into such calm. So here’s a radical challenge for me: how to be still, while being still?
Meditation, of course.
If you listen to the Tapestry program (if you’re not too crazy busy, they’ve got podcasts of past shows), you’ll hear that it ends with a discussion on meditation. The man being interviewed suggests starting by repeating a mantra, word or phrase, preferably in a language not your own: he gave “maran atha” as an example, which is from the Aramaic, and means “Come, O Lord.”
This morning, I tried meditating. I set a timer for twenty minutes. The dogs were very interested as I sat on the floor, knees crossed, eyes closed, within licking range (not helpful, dogs!). I thought the words maran atha over and over, and it kind of reminded me of “marathon,” which seemed just about right on a number of levels. I ended up meditating for half an hour, and what worked best was to say the words in combination with this four-cornered breathing pattern I remembered learning in yoga a few years ago. It probably has a name.
Breathe in for a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Breathe out for a count of four. Hold for a count of four.
I found it easiest to breathe in, hardest to breathe out. I like metaphors, so I decided this means I’m in a place where I’m more prepared to take it all in, rather than pour it all out. It was really really really lovely and when I opened my eyes I felt like I’d been quiet for awhile and gone somewhere, quietly. I’m thinking of setting my alarm early so I can take time to start my day like this. Even if I’m not rising early to run — to meditate in motion — I can keep to a routine of rising early and entering the day with a practice.
|reading at the launch of Waterloo’s Wild Writers Festival, yesterday evening|
|photo speaks for itself|
|with Tamas Dobozy, fellow local writer and GG finalist|
|with my husband, Kevin, who told me my hair looked fine (but I think it’s a bit wild, no?)|
So. That was quite a day.
Apparently I only stopped grinning ear to ear when it was entirely impractical, such as while doing a reading from The Juliet Stories.
I know it’s cheesy to say so, but yesterday was truly special. It was a day out of ordinary life, yet still grounded in it. I don’t expect to have many days like it in my lifetime. Below, at the risk of sounding giddy and foolish, a few highlights.
– I’m glad that I posted early on yesterday, when the news was still so fresh and astonishing. That post is a keepsake in words. (And I’m glad for all the moments my blog has captured over the years that I’ve been chronicling our family’s adventures, big and small.)
– I rode a wave of excitement yesterday, generated by the goodwill of friends and family. Thank you, all who joined in to share the moment. (It reminded Kevin of when we had our first baby: the genuine outpouring of happiness that greeted that arrival.)
– A friend arrived, early afternoon, offering Goat cheese and “Grapes” (wine): get it? Double Gs to celebrate the GGs. And bless her heart, because I hadn’t eaten lunch. And I needed someone to hug. And the glass of wine didn’t hurt either.
– My kids! Oh my goodness, they arrived home all together in a clump, and Kevin had met them partway and shared the news, and they were positively giddy (at least the older ones were). Beaming. Everyone fighting for hugs. Albus’s first question, which he kept repeating in hopes of receiving a different answer, was: “Are we going to be millionaires?” Um, sorry, kiddo, you may not realize this but I’m a CANADIAN LITERARY WRITER. That will never happen.
– When a TV camera arrives at your doorstep, you will discover where you draw the line in terms of what you’re willing to share publicly. Did I rush to shovel the Lego off the floor? Did I brush my hair? Did I make my children turn off the wii? No. But I did remove my crocs, which I wear as slippers around the house, and put on shoes instead. So apparently that’s my line and there ain’t no crossing it: crocs.
– The publicity. I’ve got to tell you, it will sound crass, but it’s sweet to know that news of my book’s existence is being broadcast around the country. I’m not sure a writer can ask for anything more than that. Here are links to the articles: I spoke to Mark Medley at the National Post first (he caught me literally within 15 minutes of the announcement, smart man); Victoria Ahearn at The Canadian Press interviewed me next, which was lovely because a lot of papers carry the CP stories (and everyone used Vincent Lam’s photo, which makes sense as he’s the most well-known of the five finalists); I spoke to Paul Irish at the Toronto Star next (mid-wine, actually); then I spoke to Robert Reid at The Record, and they also sent a photographer to last night’s event. Apparently I’m on the front page today, but I haven’t seen this to confirm it. And then the TV crew showed up while I was making lentil soup for supper.
– Can you believe the beauty and candour of those photographs? My friend Nancy Forde took them at the party last night. She also took my author photo, which appears on the inside cover of The Juliet Stories. How lucky am I to have a personal chronicler of life’s big moments on the scene with camera in hand? (She also took photos at my book launch, way back when.) If you want more Nancy, visit her work on Flickr. She’s got a gift.
– I squeezed in a run before the reading. Thank goodness for running. There is no better way to burn nervous energy, quickly and efficiently.
– My mom reminded me that occasionally things come along that are more important than a good night’s sleep. Isn’t that the truth.
This morning I blogged that one of the awesome things about doing interviews this week is meeting people in their air conditioned office spaces. And, okay, admittedly, that is pretty sweet, as I sit here at my own desk in a room that is pushing 90 degrees F.
But that’s not actually the best part.
The best part is meeting people — and the conversations themselves.
Here is the benefit of being an observer: the world is endlessly fascinating. There is always more to learn. There are different approaches to problems, different enthusiasms, different values, different organizational systems, different social approaches, and I could go on and on. I must say I had no inkling of how absorbingly interesting it would be to conduct interviews — the research part of my job. I was thinking of it as a necessity, I guess, a means to an end, the end being the writing itself. And truth be told, I was ever so slightly intimidated by the thought of asking strangers personal questions.
But the more work I’ve done, the more I appreciate the privilege of getting to ask questions. To focus my energy entirely on someone else’s interest or cause or life’s work or story or niche area of expertise. It’s a real gift to get to listen. And it’s proving to be a bigger piece of the writing-for-money puzzle than I initially bargained on. Yes, communicating the end story is hugely important, but the end story can’t exist without first going through the process of trying to understand a subject in-depth.
I know. This all sounds very obvious.
Perhaps what has me most happy, on this extraordinarily warm Friday afternoon, is the discovery that I’m really enjoying the work I’ve chosen to do — the work for money, I mean. There is such variety in it. I love variety! I’m a serial enthusiast by nature; this is kind of the perfect outlet for those instincts.
One more unexpected and happy discovery: The work itself feels very genuine, even though the situation is by its nature contrived — by which I mean, I’m writing stories that have been assigned to me, about people I wouldn’t ordinarily get to sit down and talk to. But the conversations don’t feel contrived or artificial. (My hope is that the people I’m interviewing feel the same way too.)
It’s been a good first week of the summer holidays. And I capped it off by dropping in at my local Chapters, in my other guise as fiction writer, and signing their stock of Juliet Stories. The girl was so super-friendly, it made my day.
Next up: soccer sidelines, and a picnic supper.
Lazy Sunday morning.
My two littlest are playing an elaborate imaginary game together. (During yesterday’s game we overheard CJ saying, in a very harrassed-sounding tone: “I have to do the laundry and make the supper and clean the house and I just can’t do it all by myself! You are going to have to help!” “Is he being the mother?” I wondered, but we couldn’t tell, and didn’t want to disturb the game to ask.)
My bigger daughter has given up trying to join in on the game and is practicing the piano instead.
The eldest kid is at his second swimming birthday party of the weekend.
And Kevin is at a soccer game. I’ve got one tonight too. We admitted to each other that we didn’t really feel like playing. I said, “I just don’t want to get injured,” and he laughed, because that was exactly what he’d been thinking. Honestly, after every game I limp home with some injury or another, which heals itself in time for the next game; so does he. I’m pretty sure this a factor of age. AppleApple pooh-poohed my complaints of injury, and said it was just to be expected — something always hurts after a soccer game! But, then, she’s 9, and heals quickly. I’m a good deal older, and appear not to have the same bounce-back abilities.
This was a lazy week, exercise-wise, in part due to a soccer injury. I did something to my hamstring, and couldn’t lift my leg for two days. Awkward for stairs, unhelpful for long distance training. Skipped my Monday morning swim in part because of the injury, but also because I had a deadline and I was worried about being too tired (I’m quite sure I could not exercise as voraciously were I working full-time; positive, in fact). Skipped my Tuesday evening run due to injury, plus insane heat. Ran Wednesday morning as usual, felt twitchy for first kilometre, then fine. Dragged self to spin/kettlebell class, but barely, Thursday morning. Skipped Thursday evening run due to thunder storm. Skipped getting up early on Friday due to meeting friend for breakfast. Finally, yesterday, forced self out for a long run after spending the day cleaning house.
And here is what I can report. I didn’t really feel like a) cleaning the house or b) going for a long run, but I sure felt a hell of a lot better after accomplishing b) than a).
I spent six hours cleaning the house. I do not exaggerate. It was filthy, disorganized, and disastrous. At the end of those six hours, I felt discouraged, grumpy, and accusatory. Cleaning is so pointless. Within minutes of it being scrubbed, someone walked on my kitchen floor! Can you imagine! With feet that had ever so recently been outside! And with predictable results! Also, every cleaned thing had the effect of showing up every thing that still needed cleaning and therefore looked infinitely dirtier as a result of being in proximity to the cleaned thing.
So I went for a run. I made it 15km. It wasn’t easy; in fact, it was a lot harder than the cleaning had been, in many ways. It took at least as much mental fortitude to continue. I wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace I was demanding of myself. But at the end, after I’d finished what I’d set out to accomplish, by golly didn’t I feel amazing. Elated. Content. Cheerily conversational.
Which is why our house is likely to be, for the most part, not that clean. And why I am likely to be, injuries notwithstanding, reasonably fit.
Whenever I get around to cleaning, I think about my Grandma King, whom my mother remembers rising at 5am in order to scrub her kitchen floor (she also worked a full-time job and looked after five children.) Different times, I guess. When a woman was judged on the cleanliness of her kitchen floor. But we’re still judged, aren’t we? Or maybe it’s that we judge ourselves, and harshly, comparing ourselves to models of perfection, to super-women, and inevitably falling short, as Anne-Marie Slaughter points out in her excellent and nerve-striking article in The Atlantic.
I heard myself on the radio yesterday, briefly, talking about The Juliet Stories. I called AppleApple down to listen (she was the only one nearby). I was mashing garlic to make a ranch dressing and listening to myself talk on the radio. The voice on the radio didn’t sound a thing like the voice in my head; in fact, the radio voice sounded much calmer, approachable, resonant, friendly. “Did that really sound like me?” I asked AppleApple afterwards, who looked perplexed. “Of course,” she said. Here’s the thing: I liked the sounds of that woman on the radio. But she didn’t remind me of myself, except only fractionally. Myself was the woman mashing garlic, wearing running gear, feeling irritable, noticing the dirty windows, trying to work up the gumption to get out for a run.
I was experiencing myself as a projection. And in a sense, that’s what this blog is too. A projection. Incomplete. The person I show myself to be rather than the messy much more complex and in all likelihood somewhat disappointingly contradictory person that I really am. I think we women like to compare ourselves to projections. It’s one of the reasons women always want to know, “How do you do it?” We’re imagining that it can be done. We’re looking for the secret formula. We’d apply it, if only it existed. I’m certain it’s not only women who do this, but maybe men do it differently. Maybe men don’t admit as readily to being imperfect or wrong; or maybe they don’t care; maybe they’re better at managing guilt.
These are horrible generalizations. Please, disagree. Tell me what you think.
My lazy Sunday children have now moved into my office; therefore, it’s time for me to move out. It’s lunchtime.
Everything is winding down, summer holidays are nearly upon us, and the truth is that I’m feeling a little bit flat. A little bit weary. I sense that I’m jealously guarding my reserves of creative energy as if in fear they might run out, which is perhaps not the best strategy; after all, creativity feeds on its own bubbling forth. And I don’t actually believe it can be spent, entirely.
But my instincts feel protective, somehow. Cautious. Inward-looking.
I spent yesterday writing. My working title is The Girl Runner; but that might not last. All I will say of what I’ve written is that it’s unexpected in tone and content, and the writing itself feels like disappearing into a daydream. From which it can be hard to emerge. It’s like getting lost. But I’m often not aware I’m lost until I realize how much I’m struggling to connect with what the kids are saying to me, or to respond with coherence to their requests.
It’s possible that their mother memories will include them prompting me to finish sentences, reminding me of what we were just talking about. It’s convenient to blame the writing; but it’s not always even that. Sometimes I’m distracted by a scheduling conflict, or by some errand I’ve just remembered needs doing, or by a voice on the radio, or a newspaper article, or a conversation or dream freshly recalled. I don’t know why it is sometimes so difficult for me to ground myself in the present moment. There are times when I must deliberately force myself to follow a spoken response through to its conclusion, force myself to pay attention to the reply, force myself to hold the thread rather than to drift.
Scattered. I wonder, and worry: How can such a scattered woman manage a functional daily life, manage to keep her children fed, manage deadlines, and plotlines?
Perhaps this explains why I wrote The Juliet Stories as a fragmented narrative: why I ask the reader to piece together clues, and take leaps. I was honoured to read an extremely sympathetic review in The Winnipeg Review posted earlier this week; the reviewer understood and was not frustrated by the leaps in the book. Read her review here.
And if you’re interested in listening to me (try to) talk about the connections between the book and my own experience, earlier this week the CBC ran my “riff” on Shelagh Rogers’ book show, The Next Chapter. Click here, and find me at 37:13 (with thanks to the friend who figured that out).
At the very end of the interview, I mention that I haven’t asked my siblings how they feel about the book, and I say something air-headed like, “I hope that’s not a bad thing! [Giggle]” *(Aside: I should probably make it policy never to listen to interviews of myself.) Anyway, my brother Christian heard the interview, so he dropped by the other evening to let me know that he really liked the book. We ended up having a funny conversation about the real events he recognized, and how they were dropped into such different contexts, all mixed up; and I was relieved to hear that he didn’t read himself as the brother Keith. In fact, I think he might be the perfect degree of closeness to recognize exactly how fictional the Friesen family is. He said his wife, on the other hand, is exactly the wrong degree of closeness, knowing just enough about our family to imagine that the book is somehow veiled history. If you know just a few things about our family’s past, I can imagine it would be easy to make the leap. But if you were there for it too, there is no leap, because it isn’t what happened, and we’re not the characters.
If I ever write a book about my family, it will be a very different book, about a very different family; and, frankly, I can’t imagine attempting it. But there’s no doubt families are enormously compelling, and if I ever storm up the nerve to try, it would make for an interesting exploration.
If asked, I will tell you that I pray none of my children become writers. Personally, I think it would be a bit of a curse to have a writer for a child. We’re dangerous. And probably maddening. *(Another aside: I read a tweet recently in which a writer noted that writers of fiction are constantly being asked “what’s real?”, while writers of non-fiction are constantly being asked “what did you make up?” Obviously, audiences have a compulsion to understand the links between fact/fiction, life/imagination, memory/invention. Etc.)
Which brings me round-aboutly to The Glass Castle, which I’ve been reading all week. In fact, I went to bed extra-early last night in order to finish it. It’s a memoir about a family of such incredible dysfunction that it staggers the mind. What amazed me most profoundly was the love expressed throughout — love of child for parent, and parent for child — despite the author’s childhood of parent-induced agony and chaos and hunger and violence. Love is so complicated. It isn’t reasonable. It guarantees nothing. It can be the source of terrible wrongs. And yet even the most disastrously-expressed love seems to answer something in us; seems to be something we need and crave, and could not survive without.
I’m not bringing this post around to any kind of coherence. Other than this: writing can be an act of love. But it is sometimes — often? — an act that feels more like dire necessity, or selfish need; it takes me away from my children, it removes me from the present moment, it deposits me in imaginary spaces. I don’t know where it comes from, or why I need to do it. I just hope it does ultimately create artifacts of coherence, and patterning, and some kind of connection and truth. Because that’s what love is, isn’t it? Love is connection, no matter how tangled.