Category: Prizes

Putting on my writer’s pants

Photo by Zara Rafferty

It never rains but it pours, I am here to tell you.

It’s been awhile since I put on my writer’s pants, pictured at left, and headed out into the world. But I’ve got three such events scheduled in under a week.

This coming Sunday, May 26th, I will be reading at the Elora Writers Festival in the afternoon, and then zipping back to Kitchener for the KW Arts Awards that same evening. (I wonder whether that latter event calls for something fancier than pants?)

Just a few days later, on Friday May 31st, I’ll be hosting a reading at Words Worth Books in Waterloo (FictionKNITsta! they are calling it, and I will have to figure out how to pronounce that out loud, seeing as I’m the host!).

All events are open to everyone, and I hope to see some friendly faces out there. See posters below for more info.

In further writing news, not necessarily involving my writing pants, I am now preparing to teach a creative writing course at the University of Waterloo this fall. As I put together a syllabus with — hopefully — reasonable expectations for both students and self, I find myself gathering helpful hints. For example, a Facebook friend recently posted that she gives her creative writing students a strict 1000-word limit for projects, because that’s plenty of wordage in which to tell whether or not a project is working, and it also encourages tighter editing. And she has only so much time.

Further suggestions and tips are most welcome.

Here’s the course calendar description, which I did not write: “Creative Writing 1 – Aimed at encouraging students to develop their creative and critical potentials, the course consists of supervised practice, tutorials, and seminar discussions.”

In short, it’s a workshop setting, with a limited number of students, and the direction of how it will be structured is entirely up to me, and my somewhat frighteningly ambitious instincts.

Here’s what it feels like, right now

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squirrel on our back fence, yesterday, sheltering itself from the rain

I’ve been quiet.

There’s a time to be quiet and a time to make noise, and it’s time to be quiet. I’ve made a lot of noise this fall, that’s what it feels like. I’ve done my best. And because I chose to write about every stage of this journey, it seems only fair to close up the chapter begun on October 2nd, when my book was named a finalist for one of Canada’s biggest literary prizes.

A quirk about the GGs is that there is no instant reveal ceremony. Instead, all the finalists are informed of the results in advance, and then asked to keep their knowledge secret until the day of the announcement. I’ve tried to play by the rules, but you can read me like a book. I carry my happiness and my sadness in my body. I’ve been through a massive range of emotions since Oct. 2nd, and I’ve tried to accept every shift, every climb, every jitter, every fall. I’ve tried not to resent what I’m feeling. Just feel it. Just be there with it.

I’ve known for over a week, now, that The Juliet Stories was not chosen by the jury as the last book standing.

I’ve felt quite alone in that knowledge. It’s a lonely place to be, accepting good wishes for a result that you already know will disappoint. I suppose that’s been my rawest emotion: the sense that I am disappointing friends and family with this result.

I told my two big kids on Sunday, after I’d had a difficult day, struggling with how I would get through one more day until the announcement. I was so weary, so distracted, so short-tempered, it wasn’t fair to them. So I told them, to give them context; I make a habit of naming my emotions (and encouraging them to name theirs) so we all know what we’re working with. This was late on Sunday evening. They were sad to hear the news, yes, but mostly they were purely compassionate, empathetic. They forgave me my snapping.

I said, “I’m really sorry to be disappointing you.”

And my daughter came across the room like a heat-seeking missile to hug me, hard. She said, “You’re not disappointing me, Mom. I’m just disappointed in the jury’s choice.”

I needed to hear it, and I’m blessed to have heard it from my own thoughtful child.

It’s not like I ever felt that my book deserved to win over anyone else’s. I still believe it was luck that landed me on the list. But if luck got me that far, it meant I might get luckier still. And I got pretty close to that light. I’ve lived a simple life, propelling myself toward this possibility from a young age. Writing books was the one thing I consistently wanted to do and so I figured out how to write books with a singular focus: reading, studying, practicing, and working toward this goal — which is an amorphous goal, and I’m not sure one that should rely so heavily, in my own judgement, on prizes or sales, but I’m also not sure how else to measure my success in meeting it. Essentially, it’s been the goal of signing my name amidst the names I’ve read and studied and admired.

It’s been the goal of writing a beautiful book. Or two. Or more.

I’m not sure, now that I’m here, what I imagined it would be like. What if this is as good as it gets? The festivals, the readings, meeting other writers — all things I’ve truly enjoyed this fall, but also things that are new and strange and exciting because they are out of the ordinary. Would I enjoy them so much if they became ordinary? The prize part has surprised me most of all. It’s left me drained. I’d say humbled, but it’s more a sense of helplessness, a lack of control. I ask: wouldn’t I do this all over again? And yes, I would. Without question. Crazy, huh.

I’m still feeling quiet. November is a good time for quiet, and I’m craving winter’s hibernation. But I’m going to try not to hide out completely, not to avoid people. Now you know how I’m feeling. Now we know where we are. Right?

Reading at IFOA for the GGs

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hospitality suite at IFOA

You’re going to suspect that I do nothing but jet around to festivals and parties. Heck, let’s pretend it’s true. Let’s pretend I’m not sitting at home in a slubby hoodie neglecting the sick kid on the sofa who is playing video games. At the very least, I’ll provide no photos of my current state.

I’ll admit it. I ache. I think it’s a combination of playing soccer on Sunday followed by all the driving and standing and sitting required by parties and readings. I have it down now: I’ve got comfy but good-looking shoes for the standing parts and the parties, and I save the heels for the readings themselves.

I’m doing a bad job of telling this story.

Yesterday, Kevin and I drove off to Toronto, mid-afternoon, leaving my mom to look after the sick kid and everyone else (dogs too! good grief!). I checked in at IFOA (Toronto’s International Festival of Authors), and the organizers let me use a hotel room to change in (for some reason, I didn’t get a hotel room out of this event, perhaps because Toronto considers Waterloo to be a suburb or a cousin once removed? In any case, no hotel room for GG finalist Carrie Snyder). Kevin and I also ate sandwiches and eggplant dip in the hospitality suite: supper.

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here’s what I decided to wear

Then we went to the IFOA party. I can’t remember the title, but it was crowded with industry folk, and it was hot. I was happy to talk to the people I knew, but equally happy to stand on the sidelines and just observe. Best moment of the evening: when we were approached by a very excited woman who came right up to Kevin and said, “Junot Diaz?!” Needless to say, my husband is not acclaimed American writer Junot Diaz (who wasn’t at the party in any case), but when we checked the author photos in the IFOA guide, we thought, hey, maybe he should put on a name tag. And grow a goatee. Because otherwise, people, I’m basically married to Junot Diaz.

The woman was embarrassed when she realized that I was the writer, and that she’d never heard of me. People keep joking that I may need to change the title of this blog, but I’m not too concerned. I reassured her, and she said she’d buy my book. (But I’m thinking she’ll probably buy Junot’s instead.)

Should I do more name-dropping? It seems almost obligatory. Here’s who we talked to at the party: Sarah MacLachlan (my publisher); various Anansi people; a lovely woman from the Canada Council who had read my book thoroughly enough to know exactly which story I was going to read when I told her the title (I was impressed!); Iain Reid (One Bird’s Choice); Linda Spalding (fellow GG finalist) and her husband Michael Ondaatje; Ania Szado (a writer with whom I toured back in the Hair Hat days); Eva Stachniak (The Winter Palace; she is Ania’s friend); Mark Medley, books editor of the National Post, who commissioned my best writing assignment ever, which just ran on Saturday: a review of Alice Munro’s new book, although it is more ode than review; the woman who thought Kevin was Junot; and a few others, though possibly by accident. We were there for an hour and a half, so clearly we didn’t excel at the mingling.

Then Kevin spotted Vincent Lam (The Headmaster’s Wager; fellow GG finalist). Vincent was leaving the party, so we thought we’d better follow him, because I didn’t really know where I was going for the actual event. Vincent and his wife were both super-friendly, and possibly super-human (he’s an emergency dr and she’s a family doc and they have three kids under 7). We had a nice chat. After awhile, we were joined by an IFOA publicist, and Linda Spalding, and set off for the theatre, quite clearly going the wrong way. There we all were, tramping around in the dark surrounded by a very high fence. “I’m sure IFOA will provide us with a ladder,” said Linda Spalding. Thankfully, no ladders proved necessary. Eventually, we went the right way, and were soon backstage at the theatre. Our group now included Robert Hough (Dr. Brinkley’s Tower) and Tamas Dobozy (Siege 13) and the poet Phil Hall (Killdeer).

I tweeted a terrible photo. Vincent Lam tweeted a better one. Guess which is which.

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We met Shelagh Rogers. She gave me a scarf because it was freezing backstage, and you’ve seen what I was wearing. I read second to last, which gave me ample time to freak out. I handled my nerves by going into an almost comotose stillness during the first several readers. Conserving my energy, I thought, if I thought anything at all. It was kind of peculiar, actually, and prevented me from doing any useful networking backstage. But when it was nearly my turn, the stillness broke and I got very jittery, which was quite unpleasant. I don’t usually get so jittery. I had to go for a little walk in my noisy high heels. But then I thought, just harness the energy and be glad you’ve got it: better lots of energy than none. I also thought, perhaps rather melodramatically, You’re doing this for Juliet, so just go out and do it.

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that’s me onstage

So I went out and did it. I settled down instantly, under the lights. I read “She Will Leave A Mark” from the first section. I think the story carries more poignance and depth after you’ve read the second section, but it’s a good story even on its own. I love reading. The only emotion I felt at the very end of the story was, well, a kind of bittersweet sadness. Because the moment was over.

I enjoyed being asked by the stage manager if I’d like something to drink at the booksigning table (white wine, please!). And I enjoyed signing books. Kevin brought our stack and had all the GG finalists sign them, but there was a mix-up with Vincent Lam’s. Kevin is going to need to find a second wife named “Sandra” in order for the dedication to make any sense. More proof that my blog title is in no danger of becoming obsolete. But then Michael Ondaatje shook my hand and told me he’d loved my reading. Hm. So maybe fifty-fifty.

The evening was starting to get really fun, probably because my publisher Sarah and her husband Noah Richler were on the scene, so we were talked into going back to the hospitality suite, which we hadn’t planned on doing, being responsible parents from Waterloo, Ontario. Just being around Sarah and Noah has the effect of regressing me to my pre-child self — almost; but let’s not call it regression. Let’s call it staying in touch with my spontaneous glam girl side. I’m shocked to report that side still exists.

But I’m not shocked to report that spontaneous and glamourous doesn’t go exceptionally well with early mornings and sick kids and walking wet dogs in the rain.

No regrets. This is an strange and happy little bubble of a moment. I’m going to float while it’s floating. (But thanks to kids and dogs I’m quite sure that I won’t float away.)

On being a professional writer who also provides free content

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October hosta

For about 48 hours after the GG announcement, I found it very amusing to narrate my life by captioning all activities with “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder …”, as in “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is going to finish these supper dishes before anyone gets a bedtime snack,” or, “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, would like a cup of tea and a back rub.” I’m not sure anyone else found it quite so amusing.

But it amused me this morning too, as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, stood on a stool in the downstairs bathroom attempting to remove spiderwebs with a wad of toilet paper, and a giant nest fell down her sweater sleeve. (“I told you that bathroom is infested, Mom!” “Yeah, there’s definitely a weird looking nest above the sink.” “That’s an orb spider.” “A what?!” “Don’t worry, it’s not poisonous.”) It continued to amuse me as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, trudged upstairs to clean the bathroom floor. (“Someone peed on the floor!” “There’s pee in the upstairs bathroom!” “Somebody missed the toilet!”) And the fun kept on rolling as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, sorted a dark load of laundry while repeatedly shouting up the steps, “I’m in the basement, come down if you want me to zip you up!” Apparently, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, had misheard the request. “He said that he wants you to pick him up from nursery school.” “Oh.” Sorry kid, but GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is leading a writing workshop for high school students this afternoon, and can’t. GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, also has a vague toothache in the very same spot where the dentist put in a filling last winter (remember that?), which seems like ominous timing given she’s flying to Vancouver in two days. GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is also panicking slightly about what to pack for her trip (how many shoes can she fit into a carry-on bag?). GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, got up in the middle of the night to turn off her alarm and did not go to yoga this morning. Despite getting extra sleep, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, did not look fabulous in the mirror this morning; she really should have gone to yoga.

GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is putting the hammer down. Stop this now, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder.

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This feels like a miscellany day. I’ve been having some random and more serious thoughts on a related subject.

It’s the subject of being paid for one’s writing. The Globe and Mail (a newspaper in Canada) is going to attempt a “paywall,” by asking subscribers to pay for content; apparently, readers are not pleased. The New York Times does this as well, and the truth is, ever since it did, I’ve stopped reading NYTimes articles online. And I’m a writer! I get that writers and editors need to be paid for the work they do, and I respect the work that they do; so why not pay for quality online content? I think the answer is three-fold: one, I’m lazy and it seems like too much work to set up an account and try to remember passwords, etc.; two, I still get most of my news from the daily paper and from CBC radio; and three, there’s a ton of free content online.

Let’s address that final issue. I write a blog. I provide free content, practically every day! I understand why professional writers dislike bloggers — professional writers would like to make a living doing what they do, thanks very much. Most bloggers, like me, do this in our spare time. I have no desire to monetize my blog, nor to figure out how to make money off of it, mainly because I do it for fun. It would change everything to try to blog for a living.

That said, here I am, trying to write for a living. It’s dismal to report, but freelance rates, per word, have actually gone down since I first started freelancing, over a decade ago. I’m not sure freelance writing (for magazines and newspapers) was ever an excellent money-making occupation, but in today’s climate it’s an excellent way to sponge off your spouse. So, is being a writer a sustainable occupation?

GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, has yet to figure out how to make it so.

And it isn’t for lack of trying. I’m beginning to wonder whether being a writer, a serious writer of fiction with hopeful freelancing on the side, is in actual fact a hobby, or an act of volunteerism, or of love, or of obsession, rather than being what one could legitimately call an occupation. A job.

This isn’t meant to be a pity-me rant. I don’t feel pitiable, not at all; I’ve been doing exactly what I want to do; and I do make (some) money at it. Nevertheless, I feel prepared to look at coolly at my options and draw some fairly harsh conclusions. Our four kids need more than I can offer them as a writer; and I don’t believe the burden should be carried unequally by Kevin. The question is: what, then? Well, I’ve got some ideas, to be revealed in good time. For the immediate present, I’m sticking with the status quo, doing the freelance jobs that come in, working on a new book, applying for grants, hustling, and jumping up and down for The Juliet Stories. And blogging.

I love writing. I never started writing fiction thinking that it would earn me a living; and that wasn’t why I started blogging either. With my writing, every step along the way has felt like a gift: the first time I had a poem accepted for publication; the first time an editor at a magazine wrote back to tell me she liked my story (even though she was turning it down); the first time I earned a grant for an unfinished manuscript; the first time an editor called to tell me that she loved my book and wanted to publish it; and on and on. In between all of these steps were innumerable impersonal rejection letters, fat self-addressed envelopes stuffed with rejected stories, and, once I’d acquired an agent (another exciting step), calls of reassurance that also brought news of “no, thanks.” None of this could have been undertaken if it weren’t answering an extreme personal call — a deep probably irrational desire — to keep writing, keep learning, keep practicing the craft. None of this would have been undertaken if I hadn’t loved doing it.

Certainly, none of it was undertaken with an idea of dollar signs dancing in my head, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I’m a highly impractical person, and I encourage my kids to dream impractically too. To pursue doing what they love, no matter what it pays in monetary terms.

But the thing is, we also have to figure out how to pay the bills. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m doing what I love, and I’ll keep doing it forever; but I’m going to have to do something else, too. My word of the year, this year, was actually two words: work and play. An interesting, difficult, troublesome choice, I think, and prescient.

A wild autumn wind

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When I woke up from my nap this morning, the word that came to mind was “replenish.” But now the same word sounds a little bit suspicious, like the advertising copy for a facial cream or something. Nevertheless, replenishment is on my mind. Or maybe just napping. That was my second nap of the morning, truth be told. I went right back to bed after my early morning run and slept until the kids had be dragged up, too; and after walking CJ to the bus stop, I came home and crawled back into bed again, and let myself sleep for as long as I wanted. Which would seem to suggest I have no deadlines pressing.

In fact, I’ve just met a couple of deadlines, so I am feeling the relief of that; and giving myself permission to take some extra rest.

My inbox is quiet.

This week is a quiet interlude sandwiched between several very busy ones.

One of the questions asked yesterday evening at the book club I visited was: what changes now that your book is a GG finalist? And I had to say: well, nothing very obvious, really. Like any opportunity, you make of it what you can. I think (though I’m open to argument) that this nod is meant to acknowledge work done, not to fix my feet in any literary firmament, nor to launch me in some way. What really matters is the work I’ll continue to do. Maybe this will make that work more possible to continue, but then again, maybe not. Whatever I try to publish next will have to stand on its own merit, not on what came before.

I’ve been wondering: why are we drawn to books with stickers, or movies that have won awards? I’m as guilty of it as the next person. I know it’s not a guarantee of excellence, and yet I’m still willing to take a chance on something that has some kind of communal stamp of approval on it. I may not even mind if I don’t ultimately like the book or movie–it won’t feel like time wasted–because at least I’ve participated in a cultural conversation, just by showing up. And so, it occurs to me that perhaps the most tangible benefit of having one’s book stickered is that it gives the book (briefly, at least) the opportunity to enter into a wider conversation.

Wow, that’s some autumn wind today. It’s wild out there.

Sometimes I think what I’m hoping for, and maybe waiting for, maybe in perpetuity, is not replenishment, but a strong wind to blow clean the mind.

(But replenishment sounds so much easier.)

Back on the good old ground

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"are we going to be millionaires?"
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These photos were taken on Tuesday, just after the kids arrived home from school.

I think a person can sustain a high of excitement for about 24 hours, tops. So, yes, I’m right here on the good old ground today, and it’s a fine place to be. I sense that Tuesday’s news has genuinely begun to sink in. That’s almost a little bit sad. I never want it to feel commonplace; when I think about The Juliet Stories, I always want to feel as shocked and astonished and flooded with joy as I did on Tuesday morning.

But then again, those emotions are unsettling and burn a lot of energy. I’ve gotten up early the past two mornings to exercise, and my energy level is feeling on the wane. Wax and wane.

There are stickers. Did you know that? My publisher is going to send me some “GG Finalist” stickers that I can take around to bookshops and stick onto my book. I promise not to let my children stick them onto our sticker table, or their clothing, or their faces, even though that would make for a funny photo.

This morning, I did an interview with a local paper. We met at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo, which gave me the opportunity to buy the other four GG finalist’s books. Don’t they all look lovely?

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The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam, The Purchase by Linda Spalding, Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy, and Dr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough

But ’tis time to return to regularly scheduled activities. I have deadlines to meet, and this weekend I’ve also got a turkey to bake and family to host. (I’ll be sure to host the family and bake the turkey, not the other way round.)

And now, a few links, if you’re not saturated already.

* Please go on and listen to a few songs from Danny Michel’s new album, Black Birds are Dancing Over Me, which is so very joyful. “Go on and let someone love you,” has been the line running through my head these past few days.

CBC Hamilton’s piece on me (I was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and I’m happy to be claimed by any place I’ve lived that would like to claim me!).

Me and the kids on local TV (Kevin walks into the background of the opening shot, too).

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