When I was growing up, I planned to be a writer. I would say that I dreamed of being a writer, but that’s not entirely accurate. I did dream of it, but not in the fantastical way I dreamed of owning a horse farm or of living in a straw bale house off the grid with a homeschooled brood of offspring. Instead, I planned for it. I would become a writer. I remember a very particular moment of clarity, in my parents’ house, in the bathroom (where as a self-absorbed teenager I spent many an hour gazing into the mirror), when I declared to myself that this was what I would do: I would write books.
I aimed myself at the goal with relative consistency after graduating from high school, though I floundered around a bit, seeking the right degree (theatre? music? playwriting? history?), and it took me until I was 19 (almost 20) to declare a major and work away at it like a person possessed: English literature, of course. At night, I would compose poems on my pre-Windows laptop, eyes closed, drumming out the day’s events through my fingertips and transforming the swerving emotions and experiences into imagery, metaphor, allusion, relishing the splendor of language.
I am often asked for advice on how to become a writer. Write, is what I say. And read. Write because you love to. Write what you love. Write as often as you can, doesn’t matter what: dream journal, cooking blog, poetry scribbled in the margins. And read read read for the love of it, too.
Reading for a degree in English literature can kind of kill the love, for a few time-crunched years, pencil clutched to underline key sentences and scribble down themes for future essays and exams. Nevertheless, reading widely, reading work you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, can only be a good thing in a cumulative way. I finished the degree, applied for grants, and went happily off, like a heat-seeking missile, to do graduate work, also in English literature. I was thinking I would do a doctorate and secure myself a job. But things were looking pretty grim for doctoral candidates in English literature back then, and I swiftly grasped that there was only one valid reason to go on in my studies: if I really loved it, then yes, I should. Otherwise, it was time to thank academia for my two excellent degrees, and figure out how to become that writer I’d planned to be.
Skip ahead. Skip over the boring bits, the hours and days and months and years spent writing and reading, and, of course, believing. At the age of 29, my first book was published. It took another eight years to write a second book worth publishing. By that point, I’d lived out the reality of being a writer. I’d been home with young children for years. I’d found paid work here and there as a freelancer and “mommy blogger,” which afforded me babysitting, which afforded me writing time.
I kept circling around the question: do I want to be a writer?
Wrong question, as it turns out; misleading, distracting. I already knew the answer: yes, I wanted to be a writer, and had proven that I could be. The real dilemma, the one much harder to face, and more personally painful to articulate, was whether I wanted to continue being a practicing writer if I couldn’t make a living at it. And the answer to that, I began to recognize, was no.
Last fall, I decided to switch career paths. I applied to midwifery school. (I also worked frantically on a new novel, feeling the urgency of time ticking down.) This wasn’t a decision taken quickly or lightly. I knew what it would mean: I wouldn’t be writing books, at least for the length of the degree, possibly longer. A book is the product of time and space and does not simply appear in a burst of inspiration; it’s a long-term gamble, is what it is. That’s what being a writer is, too. And my appetite for gambling was waning. This does not seem strange to me. The timing seemed ripe for a change. My youngest would be going to school full-time. I’d put my eggs in one basket for two decades, practicing a particular craft, gaining experience and technical skill, and earning praise from peers, without ever making a living at it. In most professions, this would be a bizarre and depressing outcome: imagine a doctor with two decades of training being unable to earn a living. It would be a sign of personal failure; this would have to be an exceptionally bad doctor. But in the arts, it’s practically expected, and we all understand that, even if we don’t speak openly about it. It’s the price of admission. You get to be a writer, but it’s for love, not money.
I love writing. But I wanted to support my family. I wanted to give us some stability, to take the pressure off my husband as sole provider, and, yes, to experience the reward of working in exchange for a paycheque. It was time to a get a job-job (or, more precisely, to train for a new career). I was excited and I was ready for a change — eager, even.
And then the novel I’d been working on sold here in Canada. This happened literally on the very same day I received my acceptance letter from midwifery school. I was kind of a mess.
It felt like the intersection of two possible lives. In one, I was a writer, still doing work that would seem relatively unstable to anyone with a job-job, but many steps closer to earning a living. In this version, I would be building on the foundation I’d worked so hard to lay. In the other possible life, I was starting from scratch, a student in the process of becoming a midwife, also a long-held dream. The decision was agonizing. It took weeks of “discernment” (read: long circular conversations with friends and family; thanks, friends and family), and I questioned myself repeatedly after turning down my place in the program. But there was fresh work to be done. I rolled up my sleeves and revised my new novel. I prepared for my first teaching job.
Summer trundled by. I loved sitting my office and working all day. It felt right, as it always has. It feels right.
At last year’s Wild Writer’s Festival, I was on a panel that included Alison Pick, and she was talking about her decision to work as a writer. She recalled that she’d just been hired at a job-job when her first book sold, so she was able to turn down the job-job and keep writing, and she’s never looked back. Every time she’d start thinking, uh oh, I’m going to need a job-job, something new would come along.
As far I’m concerned, that’s living the dream. Keeping at bay that wolf at the door.
So I’m publicly updating the plan I had as a teenager staring at herself in the mirror. Seems about time. What I’m planning seems no more unlikely, delusional, or ambitious than the original dream, which was, I’ll be the first to admit, highly unlikely, delusional, and ambitious. So here goes. Dare I say it out loud? I want to be a writer whose living is sustained by her writing. I want to be a writer who keeps getting to sit in her office and write, day in, day out, day in, day out. Oh, the places I’ll go in my mind.
This morning, I walked. It wasn’t a run, and it didn’t flood me with world-conquering endorphins, but it was sanctioned by a health care practioner, and I was glad to be moving through the world, no matter how slowly. “Try a thirty minute walk,” the physio said. “And if you feel fine after 24 hours, bump it up to thirty-five. When you get to an hour without symptoms, you can try 5-10 minutes of easy jogging.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’m on it!
This is progress. And the pace, on this misty-moisty morning, suited me just fine. Everyone who passed on the sidewalk said hello. I noticed people sitting on their front porches, quietly observing, one of the many details I miss when running down an early morning street.
I’m still humming after yesterday’s creative writing class. As I sat there, in our acoustically challenged bunker of a classroom, listening to four different animated conversations rising and falling, and all of them about a poem, I just felt good. I saw why the teachers I know love doing what they do. My mushy general goal for the class is engagement: with words, with language, with emotions. Beyond that, I’d really like it if on occasion we were all transported just a little bit, to somewhere not quite ordinary. Maybe I’m secretly trying to recreate my poetry book club in classroom form: a safe place to talk about big ideas, like mortality and love and what really matters to us, and why.
I discovered another fascinating, inspiring and moving obituary in yesterday’s paper: Anne Goodman, a professor of adult education and community development at OISE, and a woman who was many other things, too, in a life cut short by cancer. She led the kind of life I admire, shifting her energy to different work as she felt called, with deep engagement at every step, always true to herself. The title of today’s post is a quote from the obituary. In 1999, a pivotal experience altered Dr. Goodman’s life’s direction. She met a man, a stranger, on a path somewhere in Toronto who needed immediate help. The remains of his murdered teenage daughter had just been found, down that path — he was going there, now, he told Anne Goodman. She walked with him, listened to him, and stayed with him when they came to the place where the police were. She said that she couldn’t let him go alone.
I am struck by this story. So often all we have to offer is a willingness to walk along with someone else. Maybe we’re the listener, or maybe we’re the one talking, but without a shared willingness to connect, we can neither give nor receive. One more thing: that we really don’t know what’s ahead, we just don’t. So prepare a carefully plotted path, but stay open.
All of which is to say: I loved saying good morning, this morning, to strangers on the sidewalk. I did not wish I were running instead, because I was thrilled to be walking. There is agency and there is circumstance, and right now, circumstance is ascendant: I’d love to be waking early, racing trails, and swinging kettlebells, but instead I’m doing less, not more, and reflecting on stillness rather than motion. You know me. It’s not what I’d choose, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring and embracing while it lasts.
Side note: I will be reading at Word on the Street tomorrow afternoon, 4pm, an event that’s paired with Doors Open. So you can tour a heritage site (I’ll be at the Walper Hotel) and pause to listen to some readings while you’re at it. Lots of terrific, big-name authors are coming to town.
I like to note what’s working for our family at any given time, even though this is bound to change.
Piano practice: What’s working is to tailor a small reward system to each individual child. Albus earns screen time following piano practice. Fooey puts a sticker on her school calendar every time she practices, and earns small rewards (books or crafts) for every twenty practices. AppleApple likes to play the piano and doesn’t like keeping track of things, so she doesn’t want or need a reward.
I’ve put a dishwasher emptying schedule on the chalkboard. The three eldest take turns unloading, and put a check mark beside their name each time. This helps balance it out on days when one child can’t take his or her turn. No fighting over who has done it more often. CJ is too small to unload the dishwasher, so his job is to the water the plants every few days. He gets a checkmark too.
The laundry is an ongoing issue for me, for which I seem to have less and less patience. Since the bed bug situation began, I’ve been running everything through the drier as a precaution. A pattern has taken hold: the laundry gets washed, dried, then left for days sitting crumpled in baskets until I finally undertake the task of folding and distributing it. This does not make me happy. Last night, while I was at class, AppleApple and CJ spent an hour folding and distributing laundry: they made it into a game, apparently. This makes me very happy.
this is my office, with bonus points to anyone who can actually find it, or move that duct-tape-covered chair
Everyone was waiting up to hear about my first class last night.
this is my echoing classroom
I can report that the classroom is not an ideal workshopping space, and I’m hoping to get the class moved. I can also report that that my concussion symptoms did not feel worse after teaching for three hours, for which I am more than grateful, I am deeply relieved.
I woke this morning feeling better relative to every other day this week.
A friend sent me a link to Tabatha Southey’s reflection on her own experience with concussion
. Given that it’s Tabatha Southey, it’s very funny, and also comforting: I relate to the feeling of disassociation she describes, and her inclination to start crying just about whenever. I am not a crier, generally speaking, yet I’ve found myself slipping easily into tears. (Parking ticket? Tears! Children holding hands on the way to school? Tears! Someone “hates” the supper I’ve made? Tears!) It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, though that may be my disassociative self talking. Nothing seems like a bad thing, really, which makes life very liveable.
But I look forward to exiting this fog. I really do.
It worries me to think of my brain being bruised. It worries me to consider bruised the part of me that I rely on for judgement and self-critique and sensible advice and the ability to focus intensely. It’s given me a whole new perspective on injury and fitness, and also on the idea of pushing beyond one’s limits. I can push my muscles beyond what seem to be their limits, and I trust my body’s capacity for endurance, but it never occurred to me that I might have to extend the idea of physical limits to my brain. It doesn’t seem the same, to me, as a hip injury or an ankle sprain: I wouldn’t shy away from activities that might re-injure those body parts, but would I risk re-injuring my head? I don’t think so. My head is my livelihood.
A few more good things, before I sign off: my kids like to read the newspaper, comics and obituaries. I know it’s off-beat, but I gravitate toward the obituaries, too: all those stories, the attempted summing up of all those lives. Here is AppleApple, before leaving for school this morning: “Mom, you have to read today’s obituary about a nun who was 109 years old
!” That makes me happy, too.
And I’m oddly happy living with my dresser drawers emptied out and the majority of my clothing temporarily stored in giant plastic bags (a bed bug precaution). I have a tiny rotation of clothes available, all are clothes I like wearing, and the lack of choice every morning is a peaceable thing. I may never go back to full drawers again.
Finally, I’m very happy with the random tasks that got accomplished over the summer. The following messy places got thoroughly cleaned and organized: the fridge (!!), the art table and accompanying bins and shelves (why do we have so many art supplies?), the children’s rooms and their bookshelves, the bathroom cabinets, the swim stuff, the bins of gift bags in the attic (I know, you wouldn’t think that’s much, but it felt like an accomplishment), and my home office. My office, with its tidy new filing box, makes me especially happy.
Oh, and one more good thing! Here’s the link to the official announcement in Quill & Quire about Girl Runner.
“Do you plan on waking up tomorrow morning?” Kevin asked me last night, as we were reading in bed.
“Um, yes, waking up in the morning would be my plan,” I said.
He meant, should he set his alarm or did I plan to wake up early, but the phrasing seemed ominous under the circumstances. My bad news is that it appears my concussion symptoms have not gone away, as I’d hoped, despite a restful week at the cottage. I tested things out last week with three short easy runs that caused me no ill side effects. So I thought it was safe to do a longish run yesterday in preparation for the 25-km trail race, just a few weeks from now: off I went, enjoying a speedy comfortable 13km run in beautiful weather, returned home feeling terrific, and gradually became aware as the afternoon turned to evening that I wasn’t feeling so terrific anymore. Headache, nausea.
In fact, I was feeling so off that I realized I couldn’t play in my soccer game. You know me. That’s huge! It was our last game of the season, and we were playing in the cup final. It was painful to stand on the sidelines, but my team played an awesome game under the lights (with a sliver of a moon overhead), and I was so glad I’d come out to cheer. We won! So my team went undefeated all year, won the regular season, and the cup final, and as you can see from the photo, we were all pretty happy. Look, shiny medals!
Come to think of it, this is my first experience being on a winning team, mainly because I only recently started playing team sports — this is just my second season. And here’s my observation: it was really fun to win, but it was more fun simply being part of a team that enjoyed playing together (which is probably a good recipe for a winning team). We were well-matched in effort and skill, the talk on and off the field was positive, supportive, and helpful, we put together some awesome plays, and I learned a lot playing with these women. The coach was pretty awesome too. So bottom line: winning is fun, but playing for a happy team is more fun.
I feel fuzzy-headed, today, though. Is my writing fuzzy-headed too?
I’ve made an appointment with a sports medicine doctor who specializes in concussions. Maybe should have done this weeks ago? But there’s no point beating myself up with should’ves and could’ves. I will keep you posted on progress, and meantime, I’m going to do NOTHING exercise-related. I’m also going for a nap as soon as the guy punching a hole in our basement wall is done (yes, we hired him to do it; something boiler-related).
We’re having a nice gradual entry into extra-curriculars this fall. This week Fooey’s gymnastics starts. Piano lessons continue. We have two meet-the-teacher nights, one of which I have to miss due to teaching myself — my class starts this week. I also have a reading on Friday in Toronto, and I encourage and invite you to come: click on the link for details. I’ll be speaking with three other panelists, including the delightful Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This, in support of a new anthology (in which I have an essay) called Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding. These are light-hearted, funny reflections on breastfeeding, and I’m looking forward to sharing stories (and in my case reminiscining, since that time has passed for me, now).
So that’s my week. I also have more revisions to get to following an excellent editorial meeting on Friday re Girl Runner. I keep meaning to make an official announcement with links, but I can’t find any links, so I’ll just go ahead and tell you, in my semi-addled state, that if all goes according to plan Girl Runner will be the lead novel on House of Anansi’s list next fall! Gimme a woot-woot!
This is a Twitter pic of me reading at the Starlight in Waterloo on Thursday night. Fooey and AppleApple watched with great interest as I applied my “going-out” makeup in the dining-room mirror, with Fooey offering plenty of style advice (AppleApple agreed that Fooey was the expert, and shared her own method for choosing her outfits: “I reach into my drawer in the dark and pull out whatever’s on top.” Then she pairs whatever she finds with soccer shorts). My friend Zoe came along to the reading and promised me that I didn’t look old and haggard. I forgot to ask her about looking “witch-like,” which I think the photo evidence suggests may be the case. In any case, Zoe and I are already excited about planning a launch party for Girl Runner. It’ll be epic!
But, oh right, there’s still work to be done before then.
And I must rest my head, too. Good morning.
photo credit: Nancy Forde
So, this fall is shaping up to be very writerly and literary, with plenty of events and launches to look forward to, in addition to which I’m excited about a few other things too and I’ve decided to tell you about the whole kit and kaboodle.
Thursday, Sept. 5: Mark your calendars and come if you can. I’ll be reading at the Starlight in Waterloo for the Eden Mills Writers Festival, and here’s the lineup, musical and otherwise: Jim Guthrie, Bidiniband, and I Am Robot And Proud, with readings by Dave Bidini and me. Tickets $14, doors open at 8pm.
Thursday, Sept. 12: Think me good thoughts from 6-9pm! I’ll be teaching my first official creative writing class.
Friday, Sept. 13: It’s the launch of Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding, at 323 Richmond St. E., Toronto. I’ve got an essay in this anthology, and will be presenting my comical/tragical breastfeeding stories along with Sarah Campbell, Rachel Epp Buller, and Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This. Tickets $20, 8-11pm, with book included, plus wine and munchies.
Satuday, Sept. 21: I’m tentatively booked to read at Word on the Street in Kitchener from my essay published in this summer’s New Quarterly (and also in the brand-new anthology How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting, which will be hot off the presses). 4-5pm at the Walper Hotel. Free.
Sometime in late September/early October: I’ve been invited to doula (offer labour support) for my brother and sister-in-law, who are expecting their first baby. I’m so excited. Anyone else giving birth and wanting support? Consider me. For real. I also take excellent birth photos.
Thursday, Oct. 3: It’s the launch party for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenting, and Loss. I’ll be reading from my essay in the collection, but you can also get a sneak preview of it in this summer’s edition of The New Quarterly. The launch is being held in conjunction with The New Quarterly, at their own launch of this year’s Wild Writers Festival. Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo. Free! Doors open at 7:30pm.
Saturday, Oct. 5: Run for the Toad! This will be my third year racing the 25km trail run. I’ve nursed several soccer injuries this summer, first the ankle, now the head injury, which have cut into training time, so I think this time around I’ll simply celebrate being there and doing my best to complete the course.
Saturday, Nov. 9: Wild Writers Festival! Do mark your calendars for this event, held right here in Waterloo, and now in its seccond year. Last year’s festival was wonderful, and this year I’ve been asked to lead a panel of amazing fiction writers. Visit the website for more details (the festival runs from Nov. 8-10).
And that’s all for now, folks.
|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.
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