Forgive the giddiness. There’s a whole boatload of giddy-making news today.
Let’s start with Alice Munro. You’ve already heard, of course, but she earns top billing, because NOBEL PRIZE! Awarded today to a woman from a small town in Ontario who has spent her career here in Canada quietly writing short stories. She rarely makes public appearances. She is the opposite of someone who seeks the spotlight. And yet the light seeks her out. I’ve seen her read and speak twice, rare occasions that remain vivid in my memory. A year ago, I was asked by the National Post’s books editor to review her last book, Dear Life, and I accepted, in fear and trembling and excitement, because it seemed the opportunity of a lifetime: to write a tribute (hardly a review) to an author whose work I’ve admired, loved, and read and re-read for comfort and pleasure for the better part of my life. (Who Do You Think You Are? whispered to me as I worked on the piece, and whispers to me now as I re-post it, but there it is. I’m a fan. If Alice Munro were a hockey team, I would know all the stats.)
Now, I’m going to share some other news in entirely un-Munrovian fashion (first of all, by sharing it) with a tweet I saw this morning:
“@HouseofAnansi at #fbf13 hit it out of the park w / 3 sales of @carrieasnyder new bk #GirlRunner in Holland, France & Italy on same day. Wow!”
To interpret for you: House of Anansi is my Canadian publisher, currently attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, and, yes, they’ve sold the rights to Girl Runner in three more territories: more translations! Wow, indeed. My family is looking forward to celebratory meals of Italian, Dutch, and French specialities. Suggestions welcome. Spaghetti, gouda, and baguette with stinky cheese? (I said no to Albus’s request for pizza, unless it’s a non-north-Americanized version.) We’re going to start preparing and eating these meals at home, however.
And now, back to work. Revisions, revisions, and prepping for class tonight where I’ll be talking about … revisions!
I present to you the chaos in which we are currently living. We are having the house re-treated for bed bugs this coming week, which means moving all of the furniture away from the walls, so Kevin decided to finish the painting project in the living-room. Praise be! I’d resigned myself to the likelihood that we’d be looking at empty walls blotted with holes pretty much indefinitely. And now we’ll enjoy a freshly brightened space instead.
As it is, it feels like we’re living with uncertainty pretty much indefinitely.
this morning, in process, two walls done
I keep getting messages from friends concerned about my ability to take it easy and rest. I would like to assure you that this is not actually a problem. In fact, I’m finding it alarmingly easy to rest, for the simple reason that my head hurts when I don’t. I can see why you’d think it hard for me, given the pace at which I prefer to live my life, but what’s perhaps more distressing is how easy it is for me to shut down, lie down, close my eyes, and not do anything at all. The only problem, I suppose, is of identity. I prefer the Carrie who operates at high efficiency and can be relied on to squeeze the marrow out of her days and hours. The-meditational-Carrie-on-the-couch-whose-head-hurts-when-faced-with-effortful-tasks seems a foreigner, a stranger, from whom I may learn something, someday, but whose presence is, it must be said, a bit of a drag. It reminds me of the six weeks, or so, post-partum when everything would feel off-kilter and I would long for life to return to normal; and eventually, it did, or rather to a new normal. I imagine, at some small distance from now, writing an essay reflecting on this slightly bizarre time in my life.
A friend on FB recently posted a status that went roughly like this: “I’m thinking of all those times when I thought ‘I’m barely holding on.’ Perhaps it’s those moments that are conspiring to help me let go.”
I like that. The positives of this experience seem to relate to letting go. Maybe that’s why I’ve been playing the piano more often, and singing: my head likes it, and I feel very free as my fingers and voice improvise and play with rhythm and melody. I’m shifting plans to make life easier, too. On Friday, I realized that there was no way I could drive myself to and from Toronto for a reading; so Kevin drove me, and we got to spend an unexpected evening together. Hardest of all is not limiting physical activities, but cognitive ones, as I’m healing. This includes limiting writing time, reading time, and time conversing with friends, all of which I find surprisingly taxing. I trust that my friendships and books will wait for my return; my anxiety circles instead around a fear that I won’t be able to write with clarity and depth, given this injury seems to affect most strongly my ability to focus for long periods of time: that’s why I’m continuing to blog. It gives me hope.
Here’s how Kevin and I are living right now: like grad students. It’s like we’re camping inside of our ordinary lives. It changes the perspective. There is comfort in simplicity, in a bed on the floor and not much more, the entire family crowding in on a Saturday morning to laugh and talk and snuggle.
What happens when we’re shaken up? What happens when we can’t be our best selves? What happens when we’re asked to live in flux? What happens when we let go of all that we can’t control?
click on photos to see in full
I haven’t been getting enough sleep and it may be due to my late-night reading material. I just finished Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which should not be dismissed merely because it has an Oprah book club sticker on it. I really loved this memoir. It was everything I hope for in a book: I was entertained, I was moved, I learned new things, I met fascinating characters, it touched me, it felt relevant to my own experience without being preachy, it expressed a deeper human truth while remaining particular and individual, and it had a compassionate moral outlook. And it was written by a woman. Hurray! I’ve been mildly troubled by my male-author-heavy recent reading trend. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading books by both men and women, but I kept waiting for the female-authored book that would speak to me with authority. And Wild did.
I won’t give a detailed plot synopsis, because you’ve probably already heard about the book or even read it yourself, but the narrator is hiking 1100 miles of wilderness trail, by herself, age 26, several years after the death of her mother, as a way to recover her life from a seriously scary downward spiral. Because I read it as an ebook, I can’t easily thumb through to find favourite bits, but I loved when this troubled spirit recognized that her efforts to get out of herself, to escape, had been not actually what she longed for. What she longed for was to get in. It was such a simple and profound way of expressing the paradox of the human mind and spirit: how the easy way out is always a trap, because it prevents us from finding what we really crave, which is a way into ourselves — and the way in is hard. And yet, it’s also not hard because it’s so right, because it lines up who we want to be with who we are, I think. Peace. Grace. Stillness.
So, two things I loved about the book. One, it was about hard physical effort. I related to that as a path to entering into one’s life and self. Two, the acknowledgements. I read the whole book with pleasure and ease, and it almost came as a shock to see the author thanking mentors, grant-giving institutions, writers’ festivals, and writing retreat centres. Right! I thought. This effortless-seeming book was written by a writer. Obvious, I know. But it gave me a feeling of kinship to recognize the work behind the scenes, to remember that every wonderful piece of writing began as an idea, and was supported by an invisible web, and brought to being by the same hard yet right process of steady work. That it didn’t just emerge whole. Cheryl Strayed wrote this book the same way she walked the trail: with help, alone, in doubt, and in hope. Sure, there are some ecstatic moments along the way, but writing a polished and complete book is kind of like walking 1100 miles of wilderness trail (or so I imagine): it’s a grind. You’re going to hate that you’re doing it some days, and think you might actually be crazy. You’ll be afraid and have to tell yourself that you’re not. You’ll be humbled by all you’re not, and also by all you are.
It’s the grind that yields.
In other news …
Most of the fallen tree is now piled in our front yard.
I spent yesterday afternoon deliberating with other members of The New Quarterly’s story jury, as we picked out a winner and runners-up for their emerging writer story contest. I learned a few things that I hope to apply in my creative writing class this fall. One is a total ban on sex scenes — I mean in their stories, not in the classroom; well, actually, I mean both, but the latter does not generally require mentioning. Only well into one’s writing career should one should attempt to write a sex scene, and even then … which reminds me, Cheryl Strayed wrote a really good sex scene. So it’s not that it can’t be done well, it’s just not a promising place to begin. Everything I type right now seems to be loaded with double-entendres. Which is probably part of the problem.
Anyway, that was yesterday, and I also zoomed all over town on my bike. My muscles are aching from lifting weights yesterday morning, and they’re still aching from a push-up extravaganza on Friday morning, not to mention the general battered and bruised feeling I carry following my evening soccer games (now on Thursdays and Sundays), and Saturday’s long run. I’m taking today off except for yoga stretches.
I scored a replay-worthy goal in Sunday’s game. It’s the goal I’ve been envisioning for months. I believing in envisioning, by the way. I believe if you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it in real life. The goal came off of a beautiful cross on a strong run up the left wing. I was on right forward, and running hard. The ball crossed ahead of our centre forward and I caught it on my right foot at the top of the box, controlled it like I knew what I was doing. The centre forward, behind me, told me I had time, take my time, and I did, somehow calmly positioning the ball and as the defender rushed me, I shot it over the goalie’s fingertips, skimming an inch under the bar, and swishing the back of the net.
I get to describe it in detail because it may never happen again. But it happened once. I could not stop grinning for about ten minutes. It was one of those magical sporting moments that keep a person coming back to a game–when it feels like the moment is unfolding separate from thought, purely on instinct, and you know in advance you’re going to do exactly the right thing. You have utter confidence in yourself, and it seems like it’s suddenly so easy. (Of course, it’s not). Everyone who’s played a sport knows what I’m talking about it. Come to think of it, it’s another example of grace.
AppleApple got a goal of her own in last night’s game. CJ and Kevin and I all came along to watch.
And now it’s back to work. The younger kids are at daycamp. Albus will be home from camp in two more sleeps. AppleApple is watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, which she read this spring. And I’m writing scenes that are kind of like candy. They are so fun to read, and to write, it’s weirding me out.
Me to him – Do you ever think: hey, maybe Carrie will be happy being a writer? I get flashes of that sometimes. I’ve been pretty happy these past few weeks working on Girl Runner, running, being with the kids.
Him – It sounds like a good life. Not sure you can cure the restless feeling.
Me – I’m oddly buoyed by this stranger writing me this kind letter urging me to keep my focus.
Him – You have to think about the amount of effort that letter took.
To the stranger who wrote me a letter: thank you.
To all readers who have read a book they love: consider writing the author a letter. We read alone, and we write alone, which is a paradox, because we read and we write to experience connection. Who knows, your letter may be a sweet spark.
hot and grumpy
Inevitably, having said I was doing a lot of training, along came a random stomach bug (food poisoning?) to lay me low early yesterday morning and now I’ve missed two planned runs. But I prioritized rest and recovery, and am feeling back to normal today, if normal includes being covered in a sheen of perspiration. We don’t have air conditioning. The upstairs thermostat reads 89 degrees (why Fahrenheit? I don’t know).
hot but less grumpy
Kevin gets to go off to his air conditioned office every day, but the rest of us are here, making do with a few fans and running low on popsicles. I’m wearing clothes I’d wear to hot yoga (see photo above), and brainstorming cool foods for supper: gazpacho and fattoush!
even the dogs are grumpy
I don’t envy AppleApple her babysitting duties
On Monday evening, I took the kids to the pool for two hours (two hours!), and discovered that CJ swims far better than I thought he could, given his general sinky-ness in swim lessons, while Fooey swims rather worse (she needs to learn the flutter kick, mainly, and become more efficient at breathing between strokes). CJ wanted to practice, but Fooey was annoyed by my instruction. It’s funny how my kids break down along these lines: Albus and Fooey are similar in many ways, while AppleApple and CJ are similar in others. The latter two accept my instruction as helpful, while the former two loathe it.
I’m more like the latter two. But I try to work with what works for each kid. So Fooey played and splashed, while CJ played and practiced and splashed, and AppleApple did laps and dolphin dives and dove to the bottom of the deep end and found $2.50 in change. When we clambered out two hours later, we were actually, wonderfully, briefly, COLD.
This morning I received a letter from a reader, through my publisher. She’d read both of my books, going so far as to track down Hair Hat, which is out of print, at U of T’s Robarts Library, and she wanted to tell me that she foresaw a bright career developing for me, if I could keep my focus.
Because I do wonder about that: are my chances for success, for a long and happy career, all wrapped up in the focus, in the drive, in the setting of high expectations? At this stage in my life, I’ve come to think the answer to that is No. There’s luck, too, and striking the geyser of zeitgeist, which is beyond unpredictable. And yet, I’ll tell you too, that I keep operating as if the answer is Yes. Because it’s what I’ve got, and I seem to have lots of it. (It being focus, drive, high expectations, etc.)
I operate with the knowledge that failure is ever-present and ever-possible, and that it can only harm me if I let it get in the way of trying. Knowing failure keeps me oddly serene, oddly comforted.
I just keep writing. Like Dory hums in Finding Nemo (yes, I’m quoting a kids’ movie): “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming,” only I hum writing instead of swimming. I’m nearly midway through my revisions of Girl Runner, or at least midway through the manuscript. I’m writing lots of new scenes and loving my main character ever so much. I think you’ll love her too. My editor said she thought readers would Google the character’s name, believing her to be real, and I almost feel that way about her too. What a strange job I have, making people up from scratch. I can’t explain why it makes the slightest bit of sense to do it.
Am I keeping my focus in order to have a bright career?
Probably not, though I’d welcome it if it landed on my doorstep. I keep my focus because I love telling stories. I love digging into the lives of others. I love having them say and feel and do things I could never say or feel or do. I love asking enormous questions. I love being allowed to wonder.
I’ve been paying attention to my reading habits more closely this year, and I’ve been surprised by what draws me, by what I find my appetite craving. In children’s literature, it’s the classics that pull me in, even on the millionth read. I’ve also enjoyed without reservation reading fiction by men, this year (which, although I haven’t deliberately avoided in my long reading life, seems anomalous somehow). And I’ve been pulled, relentlessly, to non-fiction, especially memoir.
I enjoy a variety of styles, and often stand back to admire the craft involved in, say, a light and amusing “easy” read, as much as in a book that is complex and innovative. Sometimes I want to be entertained, pure and simple. Sometimes I long to be challenged, or to gaze in awe and wonder. The lightness or darkness of a book’s subject matter or intellectual heft does not matter greatly to me. My taste is broad.
I don’t read idly, however. I read professionally. I really enjoy this aspect of my reading life. It’s hugely energizing and inspiring.
Always, always, as I read, I look for clues. I read to discover how to write better — how to write what I would want to read. And what I want to read is a book that connects.
Here’s another way of putting it: I want to want to keep reading.
The books I love are not a chore. They do not bore.
I’ve observed that certain issues get in the way of my pleasure. Some are fixable, some perhaps not. Lazy copy editing is troubling and very fixable. Laziness in general is troubling. If I’m mentally editing out unnecessary passages, paragraphs, or stray words, it’s going to cause me to stumble in my enjoyment. I can forgive a story an enormous flaw, because I truly believe that sometimes stories are bettered by their flaws. (Consider, for example, Little Women, and Jo never getting together with Laurie, instead marrying that shambling professor who, despite Louisa May Alcott’s valiant attempts to tell the reader how much we should love him too, simply cannot measure up to what might have been — that is a flaw that doesn’t ruin the the reading experience, but keeps it going in the imagination ever after.) But I can’t excuse the lazy flaw, the needed-another-draft, the published-too-soon flaw.
A writer who works, that gives me pleasure.
The evidence of a writer’s work, craft, and practice comes across clearly, to me, in a book’s structural and narrative coherence and imagination. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s not brought about by the kind of writing people imagine writers to be doing: the fevered, drunken, mad creative flurry whose allure appeals in adolescence and fades sharply thereafter. I outgrew it too many years ago now to remember, without some effort, why I ever found it appealing (which I did, and which many aspiring writers/artists do).
What I admire now is the invisible work behind the seemingly effortless offering. Brilliant, I think. And also, thank you. Thank you for your work!
I’m reading two works of non-fiction right now (yes, simultaneously). One I’m enjoying enormously. The other, not so much. The comparison is not entirely fair, as comparisons never are, but there it is.
The one I’m adoring and rationing out while wanting to devour is The Books of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon, a memoir that defies easy description because it is about matters moral, ethical, disturbing, and deeply enlightening. The one I just finished, hurrying because I wanted the essays to end, please, is Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, a memoir on spirituality that felt sloppy, incomplete, and, yes, that dreaded word, lazy. It was a book that seemed to want to give me advice. It told me what to think, rather than opened me to new thoughts. Hemon is telling stories. Lamott distracts with anecdotes. Stories are puzzles that go deep and don’t necessarily tell us what to believe, but instead ask us what we do believe and why, and we wonder how we got to where we are and whether we might change, and how. Where does an anecdote take us? Back to the writer herself, who sure as heck doesn’t want us to forget she’s there. Be brave enough to get out of the way, I wanted to tell Lamott, and let your stories speak for themselves.
I don’t think this necessarily divides along gender lines, although I’ll admit it troubles me slightly that the books I’ve been loving this year have mostly been by men. I don’t know why that is, and there may be no conclusions to be drawn. But here’s what I’m learning from my reading this year: I want to get out of the way when I write, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction. I want, also, to connect. And I do not think those ideas stand in opposition.
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