My word for last year was WRITE.
I wrote a lot. I’m not sure any of it will be published, although it does seem to have informed the project I’m working on now—its value is incalculable, in other words, and I think maybe that became the point for me as the year progressed. I wrote to understand why I write, and to be disciplined, and the more I wrote the more I understood that I love writing, and that I don’t need to remind myself to write because it is intrinsic to my being, it is how I create, most naturally, it is my chosen discipline. Maybe within this, by following and exploring this word, I allowed myself to write that which I didn’t consider to be publishable; I allowed myself to explore, to roam, to wander, to try, to experiment, to follow where led rather than pushing.
I did some pushing in the first half of the year; and the second half of the year, I’m seeing now, was quite different—I wrote a new novel manuscript in the first half of the year because I felt that I needed to; and when it was done, I saw that it wasn’t ready and I’ve yet to sort out whether I can ever make it ready, and so, for now, I’ve let it go. I let it go, and for the second half of the year I let myself write other things instead, things I suspected a publisher wouldn’t be interested in; I decided that my own calculations and guesses about a publisher’s interest didn’t matter, couldn’t matter, and that I needed to write what was welling up inside of me. And that’s been really wonderful.
Writing is my livelihood. But when I focus on its potential to earn me a living, it dies, somehow. I think that’s what I learned this year.
I allowed myself to be reacquainted, really fundamentally, with the idea that a writer is someone who, when faced with a blank page, does not know anything. (To paraphrase Donald Barthelme.) It’s terrifying; it’s thrilling. It means I don’t know what I’ll find, and it means I’ll definitely find a lot of things I’m not looking for, the value of which may not be explicit or recognizable. As hard as it is, I have to write even knowing that I may never write anything publishable, anything that earns money ever again. I don’t see that as a sad thing. It’s made me assess what I value, and how I assign value to the things that I do—how I spend my time.
Unexpectedly, I feel far more confident as a writer than I ever have before. Maybe because I’ve recognized that writing & invention through writing is intrinsic to my being. I’m less afraid of the scarce resources in the publishing industry. It doesn’t scare me to consider the possibility that I may never publish again, that there are no guarantees of success. I know and believe that what I’m doing has value—I value it. And I want to celebrate the wonderful words and stories of others. The success of other writers doesn’t feel like a threat to my own existence as a writer (we don’t talk about it much in this industry, but the professional jealousy that can arise from scrambling to secure scarce resources has corrosive potential on a personal level.)
I can’t explain this sense of calm and purpose. Will it stay with me? It may not, it’s true. I accept that change is eternal. But it feels like there’s been a shift over this past year in how I approach my writing, and the shift feels fundamental.
Next up: Word of the Year 2016. Stay tuned.
What are you working on now?
It’s a question I’m asked often. My vague answer — and it’s totally truthful — is that I’m too superstitious to say. I’ll tell you when something’s done, for real. There are too many lost and abandoned ideas and manuscripts along the path to publication; yes, even as a published author, yes, even now. I prefer to mourn these passings alone, and get on with the work. It’s part of the job. Believe in what you’re making while you’re making it, but never be precious about it when you’re finished: this attitude has served me well over the years. I’m not sentimental about the process. It does mean it looks like I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded — all those dead manuscripts in my attic. Whenever I explain this process to a class of students, they collectively make the “poor you” sound: awww. It’s funny. I think they think I’m being confessional. Pity is the universal response to hearing about failure, but it’s a response that misses the point, which is that creativity is driven by trial and error. Listen up: This is how publishable books get written! Only rarely do we get it right the first time; virtually never; okay, actually never! The point is: do the work, don’t sweat the result, because you are doing the work, it’s a process of discovery, enjoy it, wrestle with your ideas, let go, reassess, press onward, learn learn learn, this is the thing.
But wait! This was supposed to be a post about new work!
I’m pleased to tell you that two new stories have entered the world, published in two Canadian literary magazines. I’ve got an essay in CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries, about re-reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; and I’ve got a story in Brick magazine called “Why Give Yourself Away?” The former is transparently non-fiction, an essay; but the latter is an oddity that I’m defining as fiction, perhaps for my own sanity. Read it and judge for yourself. (CNQ publishes a few essays from each issue online, but mine doesn’t happen to be one of them, and Brick doesn’t publish its stories online, so you’ll have to get your hands on print copies; the links above will lead you to sources for purchase.)
The first piece in this issue of Brick is an interview with a French artist, Sophie Calle, by Eleanor Wachtel. If you’re interested in what compels artists to create, it makes for compulsive reading; Calle sees the world in such a head-spinningly different way, and she’s gotten so much done just by doing it. Inspiring.
Confession: I do not enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to myself talk.
I do, however, enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to others talk about a subject I’ve opened up for them: this is the method I’ve been using in my class, asking the students to break into smaller groups and discuss a subject, then return to the larger group to share their thoughts, and I love how ideas begin to flow, to cross-pollinate, to deepen, and I am simply a facilitator, responding to the discussion, but not imposing my will upon it. I am not there to be the expert. I am not an expert. This is not to downplay my experiences, simply to state the facts: I have no advanced degrees, no areas of speciality. I am a human being, alive to the world around me, I am a parent, attuned to my children’s needs as best I can be, I am a reader who loves language and the structuring of ideas in many forms, and I am a writer who will never be convinced that accomplishment matters—my own accomplishment, that is. What is accomplishment? It sounds so final. I am interested in process.
I am always willing to examine a problem from a different angle. I am willing to change my mind, based on new evidence, or a new argument.
I want to play and be playful, no matter how old I get.
And so my goals are changing before my eyes. They are changing as the year progresses, this year in which my focus has been WRITE. When I woke up this morning, early and exhausted, I thought that this past year has not been about WRITING at all, but about the after-effects of having written. I wrote, I published, and I am living the part that comes next. And I do not love it. I do not even seem to like it, most of the time. Even while I pour myself into it, even while I work to make the most of what has been offered to me, I only find myself growing wearier and wearier, drained, exhausted, perhaps even depressed. Lost. Uncertain. Bereft of a clear goal to call me onward; a steady dull and dulling march that I continue because I don’t know how to stop.
Here I am.
What comes next? How do I access my passion once again? How do I reset my routines, alter them, even minutely, to feed the life I want to have? If I can’t name that life, can’t see it, how can I make changes to my routines in order to step toward it?
Here is where my imagination stalls out. What do I want?
I want to write challenging stories: stories that challenge me, conceptually, that push me in a new direction.
I want …
Do I want to train for a race? Do I want to teach more classes? Do I want to change careers? Do I want to study yoga or meditation more deeply? Do I want to spend more time with children? Do I want to coach more soccer? Do I want to go on a writing retreat? Do I want more quiet writing days or weeks? Do I want to host more friends for dinner? Do I want to sponsor and host a refugee family? Do I want to make more music?
Oh, what small voice is calling me?
Why can’t I hear you, small voice?
Last week, I travelled to Madrid, Spain, to promote the Spanish-language version of my book.
La corredora is officially off and running.
I took many notes and sat observing on park benches whenever possible. Hearing Spanish opened old pathways in my brain, and if there’s something I’m missing right now, being home, it is the absence of Spanish being spoken all around me. I loved being immersed in the language, but also appreciated not being expected to speak it; I worked with a talented interpreter during all interviews and media events. She made me sound fluid and articulate, which was pretty much a miracle, because at moments it felt like I’d forgotten how to speak fluently in either Spanish OR English.
I went for a run in a beautiful city park. I walked everywhere I could, orienting myself. I visited the Prado museum. I visited the World Press photo exhibit at the architectural school. I went to Segovia and saw the remains of an ancient Roman aqueduct. I ate paella, and gazpacho, and bread dipped in olive oil and salt, and the potato omelettes that I think are called tortillas. All of the orange juice was freshly squeezed.
I talked and talked and talked about Girl Runner.
I slept fitfully and rolled with the time change, as is necessary. I had little access to wifi, and therefore only sporadic access to my family at home, which paradoxically made me a little less homesick, I think. I was too busy and occupied to let myself think about missing them. But I missed them.
I felt welcomed by everyone I met, in a way that I can’t fully describe. It was not just that everyone was kind; it was more than that. It was that everyone was open, present, generous with their time, engaged. The experience was immersive, as the best travel experiences are.
I arrived home late Sunday night after being in transit for around twenty hours (includes time waiting in airports), taught my class last night, and have a One Book, One Community event tomorrow evening in Georgetown.
This is what life feels like right now. A blur. A beautiful, remarkable, strange and mysterious blur through which I am walking. Or maybe that’s sleep-walking.
I can’t remember being this tired before, although I’m sure that must be hyperbole. I have spent way too much time today organizing the online system for students to hand in their work, work which I must then read and mark. Also, side note, I just volunteered to coach my eldest son’s indoor soccer team (and was immediately accepted). I blame sleep deprivation. If I ever write another publishable book, it will be a solid gold miracle.
But it’s been quite a ride with this one.
I’ve started a new FAQs page. You can find it here, or under the Extras tab, above. So far, I’ve published the answer to just one question, but when I started writing the answer to this one question, I realized it was also the answer to another question and another question. Which probably proves that I’m really bad at FAQ pages. Or that I wouldn’t be able to write a wiki-how page to save my life. Anyway, here’s the first question, and my answer.
Q: How do I find a publisher? (a.k.a. How do I make money as a writer?)
You want to know how to get published. I could answer you with the traditional find-an-agent + agent-finds-publisher = publish your book. This is what worked (and continues to work) for me. But with the rapid rise of self-publishing, about which I know nothing, my experience has come to seem quaint, old-fashioned, and possibly irrelevant. Will the traditional model work for you? I don’t know.
Also, I suspect it’s not the question you’re really asking. The question inside your question is: how do I make money as a writer?
It’s assumed that publishing a book is the surefire way to make money as a writer, but here’s an unscientific breakdown of what happens when we drill down into the esker of being-a-writer and examine the striations: very few writers make a good living by publishing their books; some writers make a modest living by publishing their books; many writers make a token amount of money by publishing their books; and a number of writers make nothing, or indeed spend their own money, publishing their books.
So, I’m going to ask you to put aside the money question, and the publishing question, just for now. The only thing I can tell you about with any authority, or usefulness, is how to be a writer.
There are a variety of ways to develop your craft. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Write in a journal, sit in a public place and write observational notes, compose essays, short stories, poems. Earn a degree in literature, if you can. Ask others, whom you respect, admire and most of all trust, to read and critique your work. This is imperative! Be brave. Critique your own work after letting it sit quietly untouched for at least a week, or a month, or even a year. Revise what you’ve written. Read, read, read some more to study how your favourite writers shape their sentences, find music and harmony in language, and develop narrative. Remember you are learning a craft. Writing is not like thinking or like speaking. It is its own medium. You can’t dictate a great idea onto a page; don’t worry, no one else can either.
Send your stories and poems to literary magazines. Do not be flummoxed by rejection. Hope for helpful critique that will serve you as you write with ever-greater clarity, toward a purpose you alone can achieve. What do you want to say? What do you want to make people feel and think? What are the stories you want to tell — that you feel compelled to tell? If you pursue a creative writing MFA, do it not with the goal of getting published, but as a means of deepening your craft in a concentrated, challenging, and hopefully supportive environment. Learn how to defend your choices; learn how to be open to criticism. There is always more to learn. You are a writer because you are curious, and open, and never done with learning.
Okay, Carrie, enough already, this is completely impractical, you’re saying: How will I have time to read, read, read, and write, write, write, when I’m trying to finish my degree and working two jobs and looking after my family and struggling just to get by?
Yes. I say to you. Yes, dammit, yes!
I wish I had an answer to your question. There’s a gap between being an aspiring writer and becoming a published writer, and then there’s another gap between becoming a published writer and being recognized as an established writer, and there’s yet another gap, which no one ever tells you about, between being an established writer and feeling like an established writer. Complicating all of this, there’s no single direct path to follow, as any published writer will tell you — but what makes it all the more difficult is that supports along the way are few and far between, especially in the early years of developing your craft, but even in the middle years, even in the latter years. (This is also a really old problem that never seems to go away: how to support and develop artistic talent? Especially difficult because art doesn’t make money in a straightforward way, like, say, drilling for oil does; although it could be argued that both are equally speculative ventures, with uncertain outcomes.)
This brings us to grants. The first grant I ever earned as an aspiring writer was from the Ontario Arts Council: it’s called the Writers’ Works in Progress Grant. If you’re from Ontario, look into it. If not, there may be equivalent grants for artists and writers in your community. When I received this grant, I was 27 years old, I’d earned a BA and MA in literature, had worked full-time for several years at a newspaper, and along with publishing a handful of poems and stories in literary magazines, had completed a novel (never published) and a volume of short stories, and had acquired an agent. In other words, I was already quite a long way down the path of aspiring writer. I applied for this particular grant at least three or four times before earning it: selection is by blind jury. I could apply now and not receive it. The point is, grants can fill a gap, but applying takes time, energy, and is something of a crapshoot. (Prizes are a more glamorous subset of grants, but are an even greater crapshoot.)
The other point is, you can be an aspiring writer for what may seem like a very long time; a ridiculously long time; even a foolishly long time. When I go to literary festivals, I sometimes feel like we’re sizing each other up back-stage, sussing out with mutual pity and secret sympathy the heartbreak and delusional determination that each of us must be carrying to be in this vaguely humiliating position of professional, published writer.
But then, I read a really fine book by a completely brilliant writer that fills me with love and joy and admiration and awe, and I think: Who cares! Who cares if it’s pitiful and foolish to want to be a writer, to continue after all these years to write, write, write, and read, read, read. Because this is possible, after all. It is possible, maybe, to write something that will fill someone else with love and joy — or even simply divert someone, entertain someone, amuse someone.
Which brings me around to why anyone would want to be a writer. You might tell yourself that you’re writing for yourself, to please yourself alone, and in some ways, yes, you must do that. But that’s not the only reason, or even the most important reason. You’re writing also outwardly, to reach out, to connect with an ongoing and continuing conversation, out of a long tradition of written work, trying to speak to your moment, which is cast here in time. You’re writing to be read, you hope. We all hope, all of us writers. And maybe we will be, and maybe we won’t be. But please, please, I urge you: don’t write just for yourself. Think about how what you’re writing can reach out — think beyond yourself.
Think of writing as a gift. It’s a gift you’ve been given, if you have a talent for it. And it’s a gift you can offer, if you have a talent for it. A gift is something that resides beyond you. You don’t get to decide how it’s received. And you don’t get to choose what you’re given. This is where grace enters in and takes this whole answer of mine to a place that has nothing to do with money, or success, or any practical, useful measure, socially or culturally or otherwise, and which may explain why making art is not like drilling for oil and never can be: you’re writing for reasons that have nothing to do with money or success. We’d like to connect the two and say that if you are deserving, you will be rewarded; but we also like to define what a reward is: money, success, fame, a fat publishing contract, The New York Times bestseller list, a movie deal.
And so it may be. And so we may wish.
But if it’s not, that doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re a writer because you chase the words, you polish the sentences, you seek out the core of the story, and you never seem to tire of it. You may never be entirely comfortable. You may never be entirely satisfied. You may always believe you could do better. You could rightly call this restlessness, anxiety, obsession; but you could equally name it urgency, hopefulness, and openness. Don’t worry about what it is: it’s what fires you to do the work. No matter the reward.
So that’s my admittedly impractical, useless, absolutely-no-money-back-guarantee formula. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Do the work. It’s a gift.
Respectfully yours, Carrie
Yesterday, I drove my eldest to camp and dropped him off. The weather was sunny and hot. The car’s thermometer said it was 30 degrees outside. But as we came closer to our destination, a wall of grey cloud rose up on the horizon. Rain could be seen falling in sheets from a distance, lightning flashing occasionally. Albus took it in good humour—it always storms when he’s at camp. He had to go for cover during a severe tornado warning, several years ago.
We carried his gear to the dining hall along with everyone else who was arriving, and it soon started to thunder and lightning, and rain. After a brief introduction, the kids began gathering into their cabin groups, and the parents were sent on their way. I had brought an umbrella, and walked to the car in heavy rain, feeling chuffed with myself for being so prepared. But the air was cool, and I felt almost chilly in my t-shirt and knee-length leggings. When I started the car, I saw the thermometer now read 17 degrees.
I turned on the radio and found CBC as I left the camp grounds and headed east on the small country road, then south on the slightly larger country highway (Grey County 10) that cuts down to Clifford, through Hanover and Neustadt. But I didn’t get very far. Eleanor Wachtel was engaging three writers in a conversation on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which kept my mind occupied, even as I watched the ominous shelf of heavy cloud to the west, which seemed to be blowing my way. I accelerated to pass several cars, because I had the impression that I could somehow outrace the storm. I was in a strip of clear sky overhead, no rain, no wind, as I drove down the strip of paved road between vast stretches of fields, punctuated by little clumps of thickly treed areas, a few houses, fences, barns, but mostly fields and trees.
I crossed Highway 21, which goes to Southampton, and Lake Huron. I remember glancing to my right, again, to assess the location of the cloud, still thinking I could outrace it, if only I could get past this slow-moving trailer-home in front of me. Only a few hundred feet out the passenger window, I glimpsed a stream in amongst trees, the whole of the scene stirred into a whirl, as if it were being thrashed by an invisible force. I can see it right now in my mind’s eye: a grey force, rattling the leaves and branches, bending the trees, stirring the water, within a rapidly descending fog. It’s that near to me, I thought. I’ve got less than a minute and it will be here. And then it struck the tiny car full-force, a powerful wind, heavy rain. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. I kept driving like an automaton, not sure what else to do, following the trailer-home. We crossed a small bridge that took us between a thick patch of trees planted close to the road, and I could see debris flying, and the car was struck with a branch, the treetops were whirling, and I knew, suddenly, that this was very dangerous weather. But what could I do?
I must stop somewhere with less trees, I thought. The trailer-home pulled into the gravel at the side of the road, and other cars coming from the opposite direction were doing the same, so I pulled over too, coming to stop in an area with a few trees far enough from the road that I didn’t think they could fall on me. I didn’t even notice the power lines overhead. On the radio, making it all the much worse, a siren began sounding, interrupting the voices of the women talking about George Eliot, and an automated voice informed me that the area in which I was driving was under a tornado watch or warning, and that I was being advised to take shelter immediately.
Take shelter? Where? I’m sitting with the car still in drive, my foot on the brake pedal, my body shaking uncontrollably, asking the automated voice where exactly would it advise me to take cover? My new car felt approximately as substantial as a tin can. At moments, the blasts of wind seemed to lift it almost off the ground. I imagined it spinning through the air like a blown piece of trash. I realized that there was no point in keeping the car in drive, and that my muscles must relax in order to stop shaking. I geared into park, and remembered that I had a cellphone.
I began texting Kevin. No response. Here is my series of (completely over-the-top hysterical) texts to him:
I’m in tornado.
Can’t find hazards
Should I leave car and get down in ditch?
How big is storm?please help if you can
The reason I considered abandoning the car and getting down in the ditch was because only a couple of days ago I heard a news report about a massive tornado in western Canada that ravaged an area for hours, and two teens, brothers, recounted how they abandoned the pickup they’d been driving and lay flat in a ditch waiting for the storm to pass—should I do the same? Is this what one does? It came to me that I possessed zero survival knowledge in this situation, and that my instinct was paralysis, essentially: to freeze and fearfully hope for the best. Hope that I wouldn’t be the unfortunate person who finds herself in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
But I could find the hazards! I dropped the phone on the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment to find the manual. The car is new enough that I’d not yet had occasion to use the hazards, and couldn’t have found the symbol if my life depended on it—couldn’t even remember, in my state of mind, what the symbol for hazards looked like. In the index I found the page listing: “Page 176,” I said out loud, which curiously made me feel better, and I turned to the page, and read that the hazards are conveniently located near the radio controls.
Ah. That’s it. I pressed the button and felt more in control. I’d forced myself to behave in a calm and rational manner. The storm was not abating, however, so it occurred to me to phone home. My elder daughter answered, and I freaked her out while trying to sound calm, and then Kevin came on the line. He looked up the storm on the radar. Yes, I was right in the heart of it, but it was one long narrow path running north to south, and should be by me soon. He assured me that it was nowhere near camp, which eased my mind enormously. I kept thinking of how I’d left my kid in a camp dining-hall in what was maybe a tornado.
The trailer-home pulled out. I decided to pull out too.
I stopped once more when the wind got heavy again, parked in the shelter of a driving shed with another woman in her vehicle, both of us glancing at each other but what else could we do? Then I resumed driving again. The sky was alight with flickers of lightning, almost constant. I started to think I was imagining them. The storm didn’t seem to vanish, as promised. A utility pole that had snapped in half dangled over the highway on wires. It occurred to me, as I passed it, that I shouldn’t have parked underneath the electrical lines, earlier. I listened to a call-in show on the newly-called federal election, but I was hardly listening. I was in a dream-state, really. My focus on the road, my emotions pressed down deep. I chased the storm all the way home, kilometre after kilometre of tension and rain and wind—at one point tracking west to try to escape it, only to finish in Waterloo, on the homestretch, under a torrent of hail, and thick rain.
As I drove down Bridgeport, minutes from home, the sun came out and shone in my eyes—but it was raining heavily. The contrast was comical. Then it stopped suddenly, suddenly clear. The street ahead was blocked off by emergency vehicles, so I took a detour, and finally, I was in our driveway, home. On our front steps I leaned down and picked up a piece of hail that was quickly melting, as big as a quarter. I was jelly-limbed. Kevin fed me burritos. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t sit. When I lay down, I couldn’t rest. I felt both drained and wired all at once.
It wasn’t that I thought I was going to die—not really. But it did occur to me that this was a situation in which death would not be a completely unreasonable outcome. “Don’t let anyone publish anything I’ve been working on,” I instructed Kevin over the phone. “It’s not ready. It shouldn’t ever be published.”
“Um, okay,” he said.
I didn’t feel a need to give him last-minute instructions on child-rearing, because he knows what to do and what could I say in a ridiculously cliched phone conversation in the middle of a storm to make a worst-case scenario outcome better? But my publishing legacy—that seemed important to try to control.
Is it sad that I’m in the middle of projects that are incomplete, insufficient, unready? It isn’t that sad. I’ve published some good things, and it would be fine to leave it at that. It also isn’t sad because the potential of the incomplete and unready is good, when a person is around to fulfill it, and here I am, alive and well, sitting with earplugs in, listening to my daughter play and sing a song she’s composed on the ukulele—she’s even printed out the lyrics and chords—and I’m writing something, even if it’s only this. I’m here and I can keep working away at these ideas and projects and can hope, eventually, maybe, to finish something else I’ll be proud of, worth sharing.
When I walked through the door, safely home, I was drained of emotion. I’d spent the last two and a half hours trying to feel nothing at all—or instinctively feeling as little as possible, emotions useless in the situation, because they’d only overwhelm rational action and thought. I felt removed. The sensation was physical—that was why it felt so peculiar, so particular. It was like my eyes and ears couldn’t transmit deeper information to my brain, like there was a fog of rain between my brain and my body. My body was this blurred heavy weight that I was dragging like stone, but it was also me, I could recognize it as me. But this was a me that was blurred, heavy, indistinct. I couldn’t feel myself. And I didn’t care.
And now, let me be a little less melodramatic: passing through the storm was a minor trauma. Had I not been alone, it might not have seemed so dire, in truth.
After devouring the burritos and drinking several enormous glasses of water, I binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine with AppleApple. Later, I played the ukulele in the dark, somehow recalling lyrics and chords to a vast number of Leonard Cohen songs, which made me feel 18 again—exactly 18 years old, when Leonard Cohen songs were my summer soundtrack and longing and love were fresh and his lyrics made perfect and perfectly romantic sense: “I loved you in the morning, your kisses deep and warm, your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm. Many loved before us, I know that we are not new, in city and in forest, they smiled like me and you. But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie, your eyes are soft with sorrow, hey that’s no way to say goodbye.” (Except, I see now, in looking up the lyrics, that I’ve remembered them wrong, and the love or chains line comes in a later verse… but it is a good line, possibly the best in the song, so I’ll leave it as it is, and sing it like that, when I sing it again, in the dark.)
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