I like to write along with my students during our writing exercises. In class last night, our last exercise was a list poem created by imagining ourselves into a familiar room, and writing down details about the room, each detail making up a new line in the poem. The order was simply the order in which the detail occurred to us; we did not rearrange lines for this exercise. I’m breaking one of the class rules by re-reading the piece just one day after writing it; but I’m keeping the most important rule, which is not to edit or attempt revision for at least five days after writing it. This is as it was.
Here is my poem, for the record.
bathroom downstairs at our house
my face in the mirror
CJ’s face in the mirror, jumping and jumping and jumping but not seeing himself
my face with blemishes, frown lines of bafflement or pain stuck there now, un-erasable
the window out of which we cannot see
the blue stool that CJ is jumping from, jumping from
the window open and a light breeze, hot not cool
“what do you think of yourself? do you like it? can you see?”
the shower with the faint blue mould in the corners, faint grey scum on the tiles, a bar of soap melting in the corner
the towels hanging from a hook, one striped, one white and slightly mottled from years of use
the cupboard, paint peeling at the edges
the red door, open
debris in the corners, fuzz on the floor, fragments of hair and nails and dust and us
the toilet and the painting above it of a marketplace in Nicaragua, stick people almost, pinks & purples yellows & blues powder & light oxen & people churches & horses
and my face in the mirror
In other, but perhaps related news: I gave CJ a hair cut on Saturday. He spent a lot of time staring at himself in various mirrors, saying “Who is this strange guy in the mirror?” in a faux-shocked voice. He seems to like the change, very much. (While I miss the crazy curls more than I thought I would, somehow.)
Want to write your own list poem? Choose the first room that pops to mind, set a timer for seven minutes, and get writing (use paper and a pen or pencil; do not type).
PS My siblings (aka Kidstreet) have just released a new single. It’s called Daydream. Listen here!
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
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
The girl who runs: here is the cover for the Spanish version of Girl Runner.
I am not the girl who runs, at present. I am the girl who spends an hour a day exercising the finer muscles of her core while listening to blissful yoga chants. Just add blissful yoga chants and suddenly it’s an hour of calm. Picture the fireplace going, the pocket doors closed to keep out the dogs, a meditative atmosphere. I can’t complain. (I am also a bit old to be referring to myself as a girl.)
This was a good weekend.
I went to two parties in one day, which upped my average for parties attended this year by about 150%. I danced in high heels (my physiotherapist might not have recommended this, but I seem unscathed by the experience). I played and sang Christmas carols. I slept in on Sunday morning. (Thank you, dear pancake-making husband.)
Yesterday, we failed to bake Christmas cookies, discovering ourselves out of butter rather late in the day. So much for keeping to a promised schedule. This is why I do not, as a general rule, make such schedules in Blogland. Too many schedules to follow out here on the other side of the screen.
I just submitted final grades for my course, so barring any glitches, I’m done for the year. Onto the next project, next deadline. Phone off, pot of tea, beans simmering on the stove for supper, laundry spinning, house blessedly quiet but for the dogs.
The timer I put on this blog post is about to go. I’ve been putting timers on many activities lately. It’s a really efficient way to get work done, and not get caught up in the time-destroying web that is email & social media. (No offence, email & social media; I like you quite a lot, but you have the ability to crush my focus into a zillion broken shards with just a few simple clicks on a few important and educational and — my personal catnip — inspiring links.)
There goes the timer. Exiting Blogland.
I’m nearly done marking, and find myself reflecting on how better to structure my course next year, should I be invited to teach again. I’m also thinking about how I might structure a higher-level creative writing course: what elements are missing from my current curriculum that perhaps belong in a separate course altogether?
My goal for next year would be to teach grammar in a creative way, because without the tools to build complex yet clear sentences, it is virtually impossible to construct complex stories. And all stories are complex when you break them down: there are so many elements that go into storytelling, many of which become instinctive when one has practiced writing for years and years, but which are actually very tricky to manage–slippery to manage, evasive, elusive, invisible, unrecognized, subtle, and unavoidable. Setting, plot and sub-plot, voice, character-building, relationships, dialogue, mood, verb tense, movement through time, descriptive language, meaning, thematic layers, back-story, interior and exterior action, emotion, perspective. Have I touched on everything? Probably not. Beginnings and endings. Deciding when to tell what you know. Eliminating that which is extraneous, even though you love it dearly. Editing. Rewriting. Not becoming attached to any part of what you’ve made, so that you can cut it out, if necessary. (Writing is not like parenting: writing requires a ruthlessness that I would never draw on, as a parent.)
And here’s the issue: to manage all of these things, or any of them, really, you must construct sentences that support what you’re trying to do. There is real technical skill underpinning excellent writing.
So I find myself dreaming up writing exercises that would seamlessly include practice in the craft as well as the art. I think it’s possible. It’s kind of exciting to dream this stuff up, actually.
This is not what our living-room looks like at present. This is my aspirational living-room.
On another note …
Things that go well, and things that do not, and things that mysteriously fit into both categories at the very same time:
– helping children practice instruments in the morning, before school
– walking dogs to meet kids after school
– being injured and unable to run and doing an hour of daily core-strength exercises instead
Snapshot 1: “Nope. I’m not going to practice this morning. I’ll practice later! After school!” “But that doesn’t seem to work. Later never comes.” “But I don’t want to do it now!” “But it’s always now. It will be now after school.” “Well I don’t want to do it right this second!” “It’s a privilege to get to play the violin. We can’t keep having this conversation.” “Ok! I will play! But you can’t comment!”
A few minutes later …
“Why are you so excited when CJ practices, but not with me?” “CJ lets me help him.” “But you can’t help me. You never played the violin.” “Your teacher can help with the bowing, but I can help with the notes.” “I don’t want to talk about it now…”
Snapshot 2: Kids running down the sidewalk after school, excited to see dogs. “Wow, you guys are fast today. You’re the first kids I’ve seen.” Small dog in pink sweater decides to stop and produce on someone’s front lawn. I remove mittens, pull plastic bag from coat pocket, stoop to clean up. What happens next happens all at the same time. Pack of schoolchildren appears. Dog slips collar and begins trotting toward street. Neighbour girl excitedly runs to pet dog who has slipped collar, and who is not the friendly dog! I toss mittens, grab for loose dog, try to hand other dog’s leash to daughter while not dropping half-filled plastic poo-bag, and warning (in what I hope are non-frantic tones) the neighbour girl away from the (undeniably cute) dog who is not friendly. Time skips in jagged leaps. Pack of schoolchildren passes, unharmed. I see myself kneeling on the quiet snowy sidewalk, half-filled poo-bag in one hand, skittish dog in the other, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with the collar. “Mom, you almost threw your mittens in Suzi’s poo!” “What? There’s more poo?” “It’s right there.” “This is way too much drama for me!”
Snapshot 3: The remains of supper are on the table. I’m lying on a blue yoga mat between the couch and the bookshelf that doubles as a computer desk. Kevin is perched on a stool near my knees, replying to work emails on the computer. I’m doing repeats of bridge, which I kind of hate, kind of intensely. Fooey is kneeling on the couch, leaning over the back, observing me from above. AppleApple is moving around restlessly on the beanbag chair near my head, observing me from above. Dogs arrive on scene, enormously excited at the discovery of a human trapped at the licking and sitting-upon level. Imaginary announcement over imaginary PA system: “Could all family members please report to the yoga mat behind the couch? Calling all family members…” The pay-off will be running again. And, possibly, abs of steel, and glutes that could crack a Christmas walnut. Bad image. Time to stop writing.
* title is tongue-in-cheek; but you got that, right?
I had my students write about home yesterday evening. I joined them on the writing exercise, as always, and found myself feeling prematurely homesick. I imagined walking through our front door into the hall strewn with shoes and school bags and discarded socks and dead leaves and muddy patches, the living-room to my right strewn with musical instruments and sheet music and toys and books, the dining-room table ahead strewn with newspaper sections and homework, the breakfast counter beyond strewn with home folders and asthma inhalers and hairbands. I mentally picked up abandoned cereal bowls and cups of tea and carried them to the kitchen, where the counter was strewn with several apples going soft and permission forms and butter knives slathered in peanut butter and honey. There were towels and more socks on the bathroom floor. I could imagine the sound of a French horn being played in the backyard (Star Wars theme song), and footsteps thumping down the stairs, “Hey, Mom, what’s for supper?,” and the phone ringing (a child’s friend on the other end). I could hear the sound of a piano being practiced by a 6-year-old. Kevin coming in the door carrying a grocery bag with milk and eggs and checking his email on his phone, the dogs dashing to greet him excitedly.
And I won’t be here for any of this for the next ten days. What will they do without me to pick up their socks and sign their permission forms and carry their cereal bowls to the kitchen? Well, that’s just the surface stuff. What I’ll really miss is the music and the reading and the chaos and the hugs-in-passing and the many requests.
The feeling of being both surrounded and needed.
Where I’m going, I’m not quite so necessary. I’ll miss the active mothering stuff I’m so accustomed to managing all day, every day. That said, I hope to be useful and to make good use of my time away.
And I also hope to have fun. All work and no play makes Carrie a dull woman, to steal an old proverb. Damn, but it feels true right now. Lighten up, I remind myself, shoulders scrunched, hurrying off to something or other, always a few minutes late and therefore rush, rush, rush.
This, I must change. That is my goal for this trip. Lighten up.
I’m heading out West. First to Wordfest in Calgary, then the Summit Series in Banff, then to the Vancouver Writers’ Fest. Click here to find my events listings. When I’m home again, I’ll be back and forth to Toronto, and other places in Southern Ontario. I’m entering my personal literary marathon-season.
CJ told me yesterday that they were talking about Making Healthy Choices in Health class. (He’s six.) “I said, EXERCISE. And FRIENDS.” Wow, I replied, thinking, this is wise advice, young guru, which I shall take to heart.
Right now, I’ll admit that I’m missing my friends. If there’s one element absent from my fall schedule it’s time for friends. (And, to a lesser degree, for exercise.) So I’m hoping to connect with people on this tour out West, to make new friends and see old friends, to push myself out of my introspective shell, be brave, and in this way to alleviate or even prevent the homesickness from setting in. But also to lighten up.
To lighten. As in to brighten, hearten, gladden, illuminate, restore.
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