Category: Teaching

Two new experiences

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snow on the roof, yesterday

New experience #1: I marked my first assignments this past week. My goal is to reward effort and engagement, as well as skill and effect, and I erred on the side of generous, which is probably a rookie mistake. I have my students handing in a finished piece along with two drafts and discussion of the editing/writing process, with comments supporting their revisions. The projects that showed greatest improvement between drafts were without exception those critiqued by friends or peers. I thought that was interesting, and shows the importance of sharing work, and of editors, even if your editor is your roommate. Even if you disagree, another perspective gives you something to argue against, and more often than not provides insight into weaknessess that are impossible for the writer to see in a time-crunched situation. I explained that I’m very private with early drafts (which are terrible, let’s be honest), and I set my work aside for a month or even longer, and then return with fresh eyes; but my students don’t have the luxury of time. I have a system of trust worked out: my first reader is always Kevin, who has to say (mainly) nice things, and of course the book never comes near publication without having been first seen and commented on by my agent (who is my second reader), and by professional editors, including copy editors and proofreaders. That’s a lot of eyeballs! And I rely on them to lift my work.

Lately I’ve been happily re-reading favourite books to find stories to share with the class, partly to add variety to the evening (I read passages outloud), and partly to demonstrate the different ways writers successfully do what they do — particularly in terms of technical considerations. Last night, I read the opening to Eden Robinson’s “Traplines,” what has very flat, stark delivery and description, with a rare punch of a metaphor to shock the system: the reader is tipped immediately into the action. I wanted to show them that, too. Then I read the opening to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?,” which begins with a long section describing furniture, zero dialogue, no flash, yet is highly suspenseful. How does he manage it? The furniture is outside on a man’s front lawn and driveway, set up like it would be inside the house, with everything plugged in, and it’s clearly no garage sale. Why? Wouldn’t you like to know? Again, even though it’s done with seemingly straightforward description, the story tips the reader immediately into the middle of something.

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dog crate as end table, in living-room

I find myself talking about plot, especially in stories, as something that can be found most naturally through setting and character, through relationships, through characters’ reactions to situations; suspense is created by partial telling, by those bread crumbs dropped on a trail. Too little, and the reader is confused; too much, and the reader is bored. It’s a balancing act. A student asked me to provide a rubric for story-writing, but I can’t. You can’t go down a checklist and write the perfect story. (Besides, forget perfection!) I have the feeling I might not be a great creative writing teacher, in all honesty, because my thoughts on the subject tend toward broad and vague rather than prescriptive, but my goals, as the course has progressed, have changed slightly: I want them to get time to write, in class, because writing is all about practice, and I want them to hear/read good writing.

Yesterday, before class, I read a fascinating essay on Raymond Carver’s relationship with his first major editor, whose name was Lish (I’ve forgotten his first name). Lish, a writer himself, claimed to have rewritten the early Carver stories so thoroughly that he felt he should have been considered a collaborator or even co-author rather than an editor. The essayist, who reviewed archived materials, had to agree that Lish’s fingerprints were all over Carver’s first two collections, which were lauded for their minimalist style. Carver’s style changed in his later collections; not coincidentally, he’d distanced himself from Lish at that point. The essayist felt that Lish’s changes (which included actually writing new endings, and removing up to 70% of the original text) strengthened Carver’s work — at least, his early work.

At the end of the essay, for comparison, were two Carver stories: the same story, but very different, and published at different times. The first version (“The Bath”) is striking for its brusque almost brutal style: it’s short, clipped, and has an ambiguous ending. The second version (“A Small, Good Thing”) is more than twice as long, and striking for its flirtation with sentimentality that allows it an ending of enormous emotional power. Guess which one I liked better? Yet it can’t be denied that Lish’s influence took Carver from obscurity and brought him to a level of fame and success — and confidence — that allowed Carver to drop Lish and head off in his own direction.

Long tangent. It’s kind of a puzzle, isn’t it. What would I do if a student handed in a finished story that had been essentially rewritten by another student? Yikes! Don’t do that, students! That’s not the kind of editing I’m advocating. And yet, Carver’s stories exist and I’ve loved them ever since I started reading them: does it matter how they came to be? I’m not sure, actually. I found myself wondering if it was Lish I was reading rather than Carver as I read “Why Don’t You Dance?” to the class last night, and did Carver have a different version somewhere else that maybe I would have liked better (since I rather like stories that flirt with the sentimental).

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!!!

New experience # 2: I spent Tuesday evening marking in my office on campus. When I checked my mailbox, look what I found: actual mail! My friend Nath sent me a postcard from England, where she’s living this year. I was touched. And excited. And I must admit that I approached my mailbox with slightly more expectation before yesterday’s class, but found it once again in its natural state. As an aside, I’m really liking my office. It’s a weirdly comforting place to come to. I’m essentially unplugged there, and undisturbed by technology. It has no personality except for that fabulously awful brown easy chair, which I can’t look at without thinking “bacteria,” but I will miss it when the term ends.

Back yard beauty

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It feels odd to check in here and offer no news. But it’s true. I have no news. I have instead the general happenings of an ordinary couple of days.

I finished my second round of revisions on Tuesday evening by completely neglecting my two youngest offspring (the two eldest were at soccer tryouts with their dad). I knew I was close, and couldn’t stop myself. Here’s how our after-supper conversation went.

CJ: I’m bored!
Me: I’m sorry.
CJ: Can Grandma come play?
Me: Let’s text her and find out.
[a round of texting ensues]
Me: I’m sorry, but Grandma can’t come. She’s visiting your new baby cousin right now.
CJ: [flings self on floor in attitude of despair] Grandma is ALWAYS with the new baby now!
Me: The new baby is four days old. I think you’re exaggerating. [thought bubble: wow, new baby as potential rival, that didn’t take long]
CJ: But I’m bored! We don’t even have Netflix!
Me: How about a video on YouTube? Like Little Bear.
CJ: I hate Little Bear.
Me: What do you want to watch?
CJ: Pokemon.
Me: Seriously? Pokemon? It isn’t too scary? [thought bubble: or utterly nonsensical?]
CJ: Pokemon!
Me: Pokemon it is. I’ll just be in my office … [an hour later: revisions done!]

On Wednesday, I went out for coffee and croissant with a friend to catch up and celebrate the France deal (she speaks French; I do not).

On Thursday, I presented my students with way too much information on the elements of short story writing.

Unrelatedly, I also made a list of things I want. It’s a bit extravagant, and includes a treadmill desk and a laptop. Also running tights and a haircut.

Must have been in list-making mode, because I then made another list of potential words of the year for next year. This year’s word is STRETCH. I think about it from time to time and wonder how it fits in with everything that’s happening. And I remind myself to do yoga and actually physically stretch.

It’s a full moon tonight. The sun is shining. This morning, I went out to the back yard and took these photos.

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Notes from the desert island

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the leaves have all since fallen off this tree

I’m distracted. It appears to be Wednesday already, which means I’ve got course prep to finalize, and photocopying to do, which means also that I get to visit the mailroom at the English department and check my mailbox. My mailbox never has anything in it, and yet it gives me such pleasure to check.

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my mailbox, in its natural state

I was musing about this little slice of happiness while driving AppleApple to swimming last week, and she said maybe it makes me feel part of something bigger, to have a mailbox at the English department. I think she’s on to something. It’s not that I don’t love my home office (I do!), but I work very much alone (not counting the two dogs), very much on projects of my own devising (which I love, don’t get me wrong). This brings me great satisfaction, but not a sense of connection with a larger community. It’s desert island work, in a way. I’m tapping away under my palm tree, shoving notes into bottles and heaving them out to sea. Every once in awhile (or quite often, lately) a bottle returns with a note that says, I love your note! Or something to that effect, if we’re following this metaphor to its conclusion, which we really must, having committed ourselves thus far.

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there she goes, Girl Runner

I’m trying to parse the oddness of what I’ve been feeling as Girl Runner sells abroad. I receive a phone call, or an email, that seems out of the blue: Carrie, we’ve had offers from X,Y, and Z, and we recommend accepting Z’s. And I reply, Sounds good to me! And then I go back to my office and try to maintain good posture whilst working on revisions, staring at the words on the page, and wondering at the power these very words seem to have, and how that power, which might almost be magic, seems utterly separate from me. It’s as if Aganetha Smart (that’s her name, my Girl Runner) is off on adventures all her own, while I’m here in my ordinary office waving goodbye, and admiring her efforts, but quite distanced from them.

I just got a phone call. Spain, people, and all of Latin America. If you visit the publisher’s web site, you’ll see they distribute through Central and South America, as well as to the US Spanish-speaking market. It gives me particular joy to see “Nicaragua” listed among the countries. So, you see, there she goes, Aganetha, off on another adventure.

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Suzi, hard at work

Meanwhile, my two colleagues, Suzi and DJ, sigh in their dog beds under my desk, and relax into the afternoon. The other evening, AppleApple and I got a kick out of imagining the conversations I might have with my home office colleagues, Suzi and DJ, as they “get the job done.” Suzi: “Rearranged the blanket on the couch with my paws. Totally got ‘er done.” DJ: “Snored so loud I woke myself up. Knocked that one out of the park.” Suzi: “Shortest bathroom break ever. Did you hear me scratching at the door? Genius.” DJ: “That’s nothing. I’ve been eating something unidentifiable under the porch for the last hour. Rocked it.” (Not sure why the dogs like to brag about their efforts around their water bowls, but that’s what we heard.)

Moving on. Work, Carrie, work! Focus! C’mon. Get it done.

Giddy-making news

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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!

Updating an old dream

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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.

“A person is a person through other persons”

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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.

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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.

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