Here is a portion of a conversation I had with Kevin the evening after my reading at the Sunshine Coast Festival. Let me set the scene: we were sitting outside on a deck at a glass-topped table covered with the remnants of a delicious supper we’d prepared for our family, of grilled and shredded chicken, refried black beans, tortillas, and a salad made entirely from vegetables grown in the garden of the house where we were staying: zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes in a ranch dressing.
The kids had gone inside, probably to watch the Food Network. We don’t have TV at home, and while we were at the house on the Sunshine Coast the kids became entranced and mildly obsessed with shows they found on the Food Network, which was all they watched. Their interest extended beyond the television, and they played and continue to play (especially the younger two) games based around preparing imaginary and elaborate dishes that include bizarre ingredients, and judging their relative success and merit. Just this morning, for example, while I sipped coffee and read the newspaper, I was offered fish and shrimp covered in caramel (um … ok?), and beans and rice topped with peach salsa.
That was a long aside.
Back to the glass-topped table, outside on the deck, at the house overlooking the Georgia Strait where we stayed while on the Sunshine Coast. I’d held the stage for an hour that morning, reading from Girl Runner and talking about my research for the book, and I’ll admit that I was feeling pretty high. It’s rare, at a festival, that you’ll be asked to hold the stage for a full hour (most often, authors are paired with other authors and a moderator, a format that works well when the chemistry is good, but tends to elevate one or two voices above the rest, if the chemistry is even a bit off). In all honesty, I was pretty nervous going into that solo hour, even though I’d prepared obsessively and practiced my presentation in advance. It is an honour to be given an hour of anyone’s time, let alone an hour’s worth of warm and generous attention from a sizeable audience. Trust me, in a writer’s life, this cannot be taken for granted. It’s a gift.
And that is essentially what I said to Kevin, while we stared out at the ocean and marvelled at being here, even if just for a few days: “It feels really good to get to do what you feel you are meant to be doing — it feels so good. So useful. To think of all those people giving me an hour of their time and attention. It is such a gift. This is a most lucky life.”
I think my strongest longing, as a human being, is to be useful. It’s why I so enjoyed parenting small children, and why I wanted to be a midwife. But children grow, and I’m not on the midwife path; instead, here I am, forty years old and still writing. And it doesn’t always feel useful. It often feels frivolous, self-indulgent, narcissistic. I try to apply my skills in wider ways, and to other causes. But it always comes back to this: I love writing fiction. I’m good at organizing ideas into a coherent shape. Out of everything I can do, this is what I can do best.
So I sat at the glass-topped table with my husband, and I savoured the moment, my heart and mind filled with what felt like inexpressible thanks. And now I’m trying to express it, because that is what writers do.
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
It’s actually been a difficult week. I’m on the periphery of two difficult recent losses, women gone too young, both taken by cancer; and wondering how, trying, hoping to support those friends for whom the loss is much much closer, terribly personal. I’m trying not to be paralyzed by the idea that a small gesture is too small, or to fear doing or saying the wrong thing; but I also want to acknowledge that it can be hard to know what to do or say in situations that fall outside of our normal every day interactions. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I wonder how many of us are paralyzed by the fear that we might do or say the wrong thing? Maybe that’s because it is easy to do or say the wrong thing. I think about what mattered when Kevin’s dad died seven and a half years ago, and remember that the questions and interest of people too many steps removed from the situation seemed callow and offensive, even when well-meant and kindly spoken. But the cards and casseroles were wonderful, no matter who they came from, and the presence of friends at the funeral really did help. So from this, I would observe that presence and a simple offering is far and away more valuable than trying to say the right thing. I remember another friend telling me (from personal experience) that the worst thing to say to someone who is grieving is “you must be feeling …” or “you must be so …” Just say, I’m sorry for your loss, he told me. Consider how common the “You must be …” sentence construction is and how often it gets applied to situations out of the norm. I wonder why. No matter the intention, it comes off sounding like the speaker is trying to dictate the ground rules for emotion. Thinking about everything I’ve written here, I’m coming around to concluding that to do is far more valuable than to say, in difficult times. After all, isn’t that our impulse when faced with someone else’s grief or loss: to do something. It’s just that we don’t always know what to do, what’s appropriate, what’s needed, what would help rather than add to the burden.
Perhaps some of you might be willing to share in a comment what words or (more likely) deeds helped you through a difficult time. And thanks for listening.
PS A link to an article in Slate magazine about a woman who designs empathy cards with messages she would have liked to have received during her cancer treatment.
Waiting for the school bus.
Funny postscript to my last post on my forgetful daughter. Yesterday, the school bus arrived, she said goodbye, I watched her walk across the street and board the bus. A couple of minutes later, the front door slammed open and she rushed into the house. “What’s happening?!” we said. “No time to talk! I just forgot a few things!” “And the bus driver BROUGHT YOU BACK?” “Yes!” Rush, rush, slam.
I ran to the door to see what she’d forgotten — backpack, lunch? Nope.
SHOES. Running shoes.
And the bus driver brought her back. Now that’s a special bus driver.
Here are a few other things we do in the morning, before leaving for school (with apologies for lousy cellphone photos).
Practice piano and violin. Read.
I really enjoy our mornings. Kevin and I both get up before the kids. I run or go to an exercise class. He runs the dogs and does yoga and strength exercises in our living-room. He makes a giant smoothie for the kids’ breakfast (yogurt, kefir, almond milk, bananas, frozen fruit). Various people take showers. Dishwasher is emptied (by the kids; this is a new routine). Big kids pack their own lunches. Kev packs his lunch, plus lunches for the younger two (I think they could manage it on their own, but if he’s willing to do it …). What else? First load of laundry goes in the washer. Musical instruments get practiced. Forms get signed. Dogs get fed. Weather gets checked. Music is played.
It’s a sweet start, and worth the early hour, says the woman who remembers being a night owl, once upon a time.
Yesterday, my youngest stayed home from school. I didn’t want to alter my routine too drastically and he is old enough now to be accommodating and to entertain himself quite easily. I said I was going to meditate for twenty minutes, and he was okay with it, especially when I told him to bring his little mini-super-hero figures into my office so he could play while I meditated. I told him he could make noise, but please not to ask me for anything for those twenty minutes (genuine emergencies excepted; but the beauty of having an office is that the kids already know that rule about interrupting me).
He played for the first ten minutes or so. Then I heard him leave. I heard him come back. And it got very quiet. I knew he was in the room with me, but I didn’t know what he was doing.
When I opened my eyes at the end of the exercise, that’s what I saw: see photo above. He was meditating. He had chosen to sit cross-legged with his hands in a prayer position. This is not how I sit when I meditate. He wasn’t copying me; it was the position he chose on his own. When I asked him about why he’d chosen to sit that way, he couldn’t explain it. He had a few questions about the voice in the computer (I use a guided meditation app). Who was that man, and is he real, and can other people hear him too?
I have a couple of observations about meditating. I love it. Or maybe I only have one observation. That’s it. Clearly this is something my mind takes to; reminds me of running, a bit, how when I found the running, it seemed to answer some question in me that I hadn’t known was there, silently being asked.
I love following the tracks of my thoughts into a corner of the mind where I am suddenly falling backward into deep snow and staring at an enormous open sky, in awe.
Even today, meditating alone (with dog snoring at my feet), with my mind in a state of apparent dissatisfaction–even today, I loved the exercise. Why?
My mind flitted today, ran everywhere, often to places I did not want to be.
I kept returning to breath and that helped, but didn’t cure what ailed my mind, its anxiety that I was doing everything wrong.
But you know what? Even while I worried, I knew on a deeper level: This is not an exercise interested in right or wrong. Do it, and it counts. You will learn something, every time. Not necessarily something big and astonishing. But something interesting–it’s waiting to be found, every single time. Today’s exercise was a good reminder to the frustrated, dissatisfied self: you won’t always think you’re doing a good job at the tasks you’re doing; maybe you’re even right about that. But the real work isn’t confined to a single instance, it’s in the accumulation of many instances. It’s in repetition of effort, and returning again and again to the discipline you’ve chosen to get to know more deeply. You can’t know in advance where it’s taking you. You don’t know exactly what you’re making. But that’s the beauty and the mystery.
“I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am bliss, I am, I am.” —from the song “I am the light of my soul”
These are the words that came into my head as I finished today’s meditation, which was for thirty minutes. It amazes me that I am now able to sit still for thirty minutes. Me! Sitting still, doing, apparently, nothing but breathing. Today, as I was falling into and out of my breath, feeling the stillness and comfort of my body, I heard a car zoom by on the street outside, and I had a strong and joyful sense of the world going on around me in its whirl and bustle, and yet here I was, still and at peace. Still and at peace and not necessary. That sounds odd. It’s what I felt.
It was a very peaceful feeling. I felt the world whirling on around me and without me and it didn’t need me to whirl too. I could sit here in stillness and all would be well; maybe I even understood in that moment that sitting here in stillness was as important as all of the whirling I do.
I have filled my life up with responsibilities and cares. I love being in motion, driving somewhere with somebody to something, or setting goals for myself in everything I do, from swimming lengths to running miles to lifting weights, to the word count I keep track of with pleasure on my new novel. I am also keenly aware of the needs that must be met to keep this family operating in a healthy and happy way. The dog hair that must be vacuumed. The meals planned and prepared.
So it is somehow profoundly soothing to also see the flip side, to recognize that I am not as necessary as I tell myself. That if I am busy, it is because I’ve chosen to be busy, not because busyness is essential to my being. That there is always room to sit still for a few moments and breathe, and pay attention.
I feel hopeful today.
I am hopeful about my writing. I am hopeful about my children and my relationship with each of them. I am hopeful about what meditation is bringing into my daily life. I am hopeful about practice. I am hopeful about today. And right now.