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?
Hey, happy summer, everyone!
School ended a week ago, and I would like to report on our free-range plan for the summer of 2017, but I keep being interrupted by the free-range children. Kevin has been working from home in his new “office,” on the upper deck of the front porch, but this morning he had to go to his office-office, so it’s just me and the kids and dogs, with no buffer in between. Since sitting down, I’ve fielded the following questions/observations: a) how do you turn the hose off in the back yard? b) where is my swim suit? c) do we have the third book of Amulet? I already looked on the upstairs shelf. d) hey, the NDP is having a leadership race [from the child reading the newspaper at the dining-room table behind me].
Could be worse. And I’m just blogging. If I were trying to write, my response would be ARGHH!!!
In fact, Kevin has been home because I have been trying to write this week, trying to shape my months of handwritten, circling narrative into novel-form, and I’m at the point in the project where, frankly, it all falls apart. My current philosophy (and by current, I mean, as of yesterday afternoon), can be summed up thusly: just finish it, including all of your bad (wild, implausible) ideas, and see what happens. As I counselled a student yesterday in my office: the perfect story you’re holding in your head has to get out of your head in order for others to read and experience it—and in order for that to happen, you have to accept that your perfect story will be wrecked in the process, at least to some degree. You can’t take that perfect story out of your head and place it on the page intact. No one can. But there isn’t another way to be a writer. Let your perfect imaginary story become an imperfect real story.
I’m trying to take my own advice.
Here. I present to you something that brings me joy every time I see it. [insert little arrow pointing up] You could call it a chore board, but that’s a rather pedestrian title given the magic it has created in our house this past week. Every morning, I write down chores that need doing, and the children sign up for them; the later you sleep, the less appealing your chore. Today, the last one out of bed got: “clean upstairs bathroom.” We’ve also banned video games or shows between the hours of 9am – 4pm. (Exception: older kids use their cellphones; I’m not great at monitoring this.) It’s still early days, but the chores are getting done with minimal fuss, perhaps because the assignment comes from the board, not from a nagging parent.
Other summer observations: I’m not waking up very early. This is the natural consequence of staying up too late! In addition to the kids running riot over regular bedtime hours, and soccer practices lasting (unofficially) till sundown, I’ve also been staying up late to watch feminist movies. Must explain. I’ve gotten myself, somewhat unofficially (?), onto the board of a locally run feminist film festival and my inbox is now full of films to view and consider. (Anyone out there with ideas for must-see recent feminist films, give me a shout!) But the only time I have to spare for movie-watching is rather late at night, post-soccer practice. Ergo, not waking up early. Ergo, early morning exercise-rate, somewhat reduced.
Oh, I want to mention one more lovely addition to the routine: a shared journal with my eldest daughter. We write back and forth to each other, or draw back and forth, or quote poetry back and forth. I’ve devised a quick summarizing list that is easy to complete, if we’re writing late at night, when we’re too tired for originality. Filling out the list has become something I look forward to, every day. My answers are sometimes long and rambling, sometimes brief. (Want to try answering the list in the comments, below? I would love that.)
- Something that surprised you today.
- Something you’re proud of today.
- Something silly.
- Something happy.
- Something sad.
- Something you’re thankful for today.
I will return with deeper thoughts (or not) as the free-range summer permits.
Our Globe and Mail newspaper never arrived this weekend, so Kevin went out to buy one. He was gone so long that I started to fear that it might turn into one of those sad mysteries … “He went out for the newspaper and he hasn’t been seen since.”
When he did come back, he was carrying zero newspapers.
He had been to four or five different shops (gas station, pharmacy, convenience store). He said people in the shops had looked at him with bafflement, perplexity, confusion, pity. Like, you mean, an old newspaper? It was as if he’d stepped out of a time warp and into the future (actually, the present), where nobody buys newspapers anymore.
I don’t know what people do while they’re eating breakfast. Or lunch. Or having a cup of tea. But I read the newspaper, and life feels off-kilter without it. Scrolling through an article on my phone is not the same experience, not at all.
Next thing you know, I’ll be blogging about how emails and texts are not the same as a nice handwritten letter. Which is true, but …
Balance. Is there such a thing? I’ve stopped looking.
This week, I biked to the university library on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, where I took over a carrel on the 9th floor and did research. Personal bliss. But every day can’t be spent zooming through the park and poring over dusty old books. On Monday, I volunteered on a class school trip to city hall, and today I am home with a sick child, who was up half the night, but is now drinking tea and told me I could go and blog. She is reading.
I’m really not kidding when I say that researching at a library is just about my happiest state. Researching, writing. I could do this all day. I don’t even take snack breaks.
Which is why it was odd to find myself, last week, spending a full day as a children’s entertainer at a school, reading my book The Candy Conspiracy to approximately 450 kids, and filling in the space around the reading with age-appropriate activities. I even brought my pineapple ukulele. I was pretty nervous in the lead-up (see happiest state, above). I tested my plan with my live-in focus group before unveiling it to the public: the 8-year-old sang along happily to my made-up songs; the 10-year-old informed me in no uncertain terms that I would be embarrassing myself. Ergo, kindergarten through grade two got to sing and pretend to be Juicy Jelly Worms and Clever Children. Grades three through six got a more traditional author visit, with a Q&A and a make-your-own book project. Each session lasted 45 minutes. At the end of the day, I crawled home and collapsed into dreamless sleep on the couch, like a toy whose batteries have run out. Apparently Robert Munsch did coke. I forgive you, Mr. Munsch.
This is feeling like a randomized news roundup. Let’s continue. This morning I went to boot camp and pulled a muscle in my back. Now I can’t look to the left. I’ve been writing in the car in the evenings when I take my eldest daughter to soccer or theatre, or, like last night, both, back to back. Here is a list of the books I’ve read since leaving France: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin (you must read it even if you’ve seen the movie!); How Should a Person Be, by Sheila Heti (so Canadianly weird); Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; a bunch of short plays; and one more play called Yellowman, by Dael Orlandersmith. None of these are the dusty old books I’m poring over at the university library.
Today marks 21 years since I met my husband. We always remember the buds on the trees busting out overhead. This morning, while he took our sick child at the doctor’s office, I walked the dogs up the street with our 8-year-old to meet his walking-to-school buddies, and he pointed out all the things that were coming to life around us: the tulip in our front yard (only one, randomly placed), the strawberry patch, the buds on the trees. It’s happening! Instead of going on a date tonight, Kevin will be driving our oldest daughter to Oshawa for a soccer tournament. I will be tending a sick kid and prepping for her team’s first soccer festival (non-competitive tournament) tomorrow, which it looks like she’s going to be too sick to play at; but I’m the coach, so I will be there. This is what 21 years has brought. We can do this! From randomized news roundup to randomized positive self-talk. Let’s stop here.
Yesterday, we gave the kids a snow day. This was not my idea, but Kevin was very keen on it, so I agreed somewhat begrudgingly as it meant sacrificing a quiet day at home in my office, alone. Quite a lot of snow had fallen overnight, but it was crisp, clear, and beautiful, as you can see from the photo above. In the morning, Kevin took the kids sledding; some safety boundaries were pushed to great hilarity, apparently (good thing I hadn’t gone along!). In the afternoon, AppleApple and I went cross-country skiing. We still had all of our regular after-school activities: piano lessons, soccer practice, and a soccer game. It was awfully late when we gathered together again for supper. The boys had been home alone, playing dominoes, waiting to eat until we’d all arrived. Well after 7PM, we sat down to a very popular meal of soft tacos. I could sense the difference the unofficial snow day had made for everyone. We were so relaxed, and especially kind to each other. We sat for ages after we’d finished eating, talking and laughing; everyone.
It’s a luxury to take a holiday in the middle of the week. Kevin and I are both very fortunate to have jobs that allow us this level of flexibility, and yesterday was a reminder to take advantage of that freedom from time to time.
Today, my office is quiet. The dogs are sprawled out napping near my feet. I’ve set the timer for fifteen minutes.
I have some news. I’m going to France in April. (!!!) I’ll be away nearly three weeks, attending events at an arts festival in Normandy, and promoting the publication of the French translation of Girl Runner (or, Invisible Sous la Lumiere, as it is being called). I’ve been commissioned to write a short piece as part of the arts festival, and will be given an artist’s residency at a museum for about ten days. I’ve been dreaming of a writing retreat for a long time … just never imagined it would happen in France!
One sad thing about the trip is that I’ll be missing the performance of AppleApple’s adaptation of Macbeth. Of course, in 18 days, I’ll be missing much more than that. I think I’m missing everyone and everything in advance right now. Premature homesickness. Adventures are so much harder to throw yourself into when you’re leaving behind children.
Two readings coming up this weekend. I’ll be in Hamilton on Sunday evening at an event called Lit Live, and in Toronto on Monday evening at the Rowers Reading series. Check my upcoming events page for more info.
Ding-ding-ding! That’s my time. Tomorrow I’ll try to remember to tell you about turmeric tea, the laundromat, and swimming.
Every now and again, I think, well this is a bit much. Last night, the power went out after Kevin and I had gotten the kids to bed … which was already really late in the evening. It had started to rain (though not enough to counter this drought we seem to be staggering into.) I showered in the dark, climbed the stairs to bed in the dark. Then, just as we were ready to sleep, the power popped back on, and with it all the lights we hadn’t turned off; and an annoying alarm began to sound loudly and regularly.
Kevin dashed to the basement to try various switches. Kids started coming to find me, one in tears: “I’m so tired, and I can’t sleep, and I’m scared, what is that?”
“I’m tired, too, and I can’t sleep either, but don’t worry, we’ll figure this out.”
But the alarm went on and on and on. Finally, fighting inertia, I went downstairs, where I discovered Kevin perched on a stool in the dining-room about to violently dismantle a smoke detector — except I realized in that moment that it wasn’t the smoke detector making all that noise, it was the carbon monoxide detector, plugged in to an outlet nearby.
“Wait!” I said.
Kevin paused, screwdriver in hand, curses temporarily stalled.
I unplugged the device from the wall.
Silence. Blissful peace and quiet.
Then Kevin had to clean up the mess he’d made from knocking the smoke detector around, and I plugged the carbon monoxide detector back in again, and all was well.
Because it had been a very long day already, this all felt a bit like the proverbial straw. But it wasn’t, I guess. I keep thinking the straw has landed, yet life goes on. We figure it out.
I went to CJ’s grade one class yesterday and read The Candy Conspiracy, and talked about writing and storytelling, and watched them make up their own stories about imaginary worlds made of candy. CJ and I walked home together, CJ chatting all the way. I ran twice yesterday, with a friend in the early morning and by myself at a soccer practice in the beautiful light of evening, covering 14km total, which is far and away the furthest I’ve run since last fall. Kevin took Suzi to the vet for a minor infection. I made quesadillas and beans & rice and asparagus for supper, and somehow we all managed to sit down together at 5PM to eat and share stories about our day, before rushing off to soccer and gymnastics. It was the usual jumble of quiet and rush, and being with others in so many different ways. So many different conversations I get to have every single day. Today I’ve done a radio interview to promote the launch, and met with my party planners to finalize logistics for Saturday. And that doesn’t include all the emails and texts to various friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances.
On today’s menu: samosas and pakoras for supper; piano lessons this afternoon; and this evening, two soccer practices and one rather-far-out-of-town game, necessitating reliance on the help of one grandma (my mom) and at least one friend (my co-coach Marnie). Maybe rather than worrying about needing to rely on others (for rides, for babysitting, for carpooling), I should embrace how much necessary connection it brings into my every day. Connection is good. Connection is community. Hopefully the giving and receiving is mutual or evens out in some cosmic way. It’s humbling to need help and to ask for it; I’ve gotten much better at it.
All for now.
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