Category: Word of the Year
Holidays. We’re screaming toward them at breakneck speed and despite there being no snow yet this December, Christmas is coming. Christmas will come. I’ve ordered a turkey.
Accomplishments in recent days include: remembering to order a turkey; not forgetting to go to CJ’s open house at school; not forgetting to pick up AppleApple from yoga; and sorting through our mail pile (overflowing the ample basket in which we toss everything), and my kitchen pile (papers that are too important to recycle, but not important enough to tend to or file immediately). I also created a brand new file folder into which I put random professional items that need attention…eventually). I’m calling this my “Friday morning to do” folder.
It’s Friday morning. I didn’t do any of what’s in there.
Just saying. But at least I got the damn piles sorted.
I also finished marking and submitted my grades. Bittersweet, but there it is. Done with teaching, for now.
I’ve already found a replacement for my teaching energies (unpaid, however; if it’s unpaid, I will excel at it). A week ago, I was given the head coach job of my daughter’s U11 rep soccer “development” team (they don’t call it a “C” or “B” team, but that’s what it is). It’s her first time playing rep soccer, and it’s my first time coaching on the rep side. And I’m going to need a special folder to keep that part of life organized. Or a time slot. How to partition off the various sections of my life, so I can stay focused on whatever I’m focused on? I’d like to complete a few things, in addition to rolling along in the usual way, immersed in all tasks that have no end.
More meditation? Problem with meditation right now is that I drift off; meditation becomes nap time. Not kidding.
I’ve also been helping, to a small degree, to find and prepare housing for the refugee family our neighbourhood association has sponsored. But this morning, I’m not at the new apartment with some of the others from our group, who are cleaning and sorting and sewing; this morning, I’m cleaning and sorting at home, and then I’m going to spend a few hours with friends before racing off to complete a rather daunting list that must be done before our first Christmas begins: around 3PM this afternoon, with the arrival of Kevin’s family.
Why am I blogging?
Because in all of this remembering to do things, and creating lists, and flurry of emails and information and errands and doing and hopping out of bed and going to bed too late, I haven’t been chronicling. Maybe that’s okay; I don’t need to press publish on every last thing that happens. But I do need to write. I need to write.
Discernment is something Mennonites are expert at; in fact, Mennonites are so good at discernment that it sometimes seems it’s code for clearly we don’t all agree so let’s keep discerning in perpetuity so as to never make a decision. Given that this is my cultural background, perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy process so much. But I do also like to come around to decisions now and again. That said, discernment is rather brilliant, in my opinion. What it does is allow a decision to unfold slowly, with voice given to many different opinions and angles; it’s a process of listening as much as speaking.
This post is a continuation of my thoughts from yesterday’s confession: that I don’t like being the speaker at the front of the room.
I’ve been trying to discern why.
It isn’t that I don’t like being in a leadership position. In fact, I enjoy taking the lead, to which my younger siblings could attest. But there are different styles and types of leadership, and the leadership I prefer to practice is the kind that asks questions, that operates in relationship, that collaborates with, that is creative and responsive and in the moment. I want to ask questions. I want to hear stories, I want to hear and try to understand other perspectives. I want to see my small ideas opening up small ideas in someone else, and I want to be opened up too; I want to learn too.
It’s the reason I like reading and writing short stories, the kind that end in a questioning, open way that unfolds into the reader and the reader’s experience, rather than telling the reader what the answer is. Resonance. That’s what I’m looking for, in everything I do.
Yesterday evening, off I went with my eldest son to coach his soccer team. I was as tired as I’d been all day. There wasn’t time to eat supper. But when we got onto the field, the hour flew by, my exhaustion vanished. I love coaching soccer. I don’t love it because I’m an expert. I’m not. I love it because it’s a creative undertaking, and because I find myself, in this role, engaged with the kids on the team: trying to figure out what will motivate them as individuals, assessing their levels of interest and skill, and asking them to push themselves in small ways—for each player this will be different. I also love it because it’s fun. We’re meeting up so they can play a game.
I think we all need to play. We should all be doing something every day that feels playful, just for fun, something that lifts us out of the ordinary. Something we don’t have to do for any reason other than it makes us happy.
When teaching is going well, it’s for the same reasons. It’s because we’re engaged in a creative enterprise together. Writing and revision should feel playful. I know this won’t always be the case, and writing is work, no doubt about it, but for me—and what I want to share—is that writing, especially fiction, is play. You get to live inside your imagination like you haven’t had permission to do since you were a child. You get to explore whatever interests you. You get to ask questions and wonder and roam freely around your own mind, making it all up, drawing from the back of your mind “perishable moments you hadn’t even noticed that you noticed.” To paraphrase Lynda Barry.
And that’s about where I’ve gotten in my process of discernment. Expect me to release a mission statement in the next decade or so.
P.S. Read this, from the New Yorker (wish I had a subscription!): an inspiring and moving essay by George Saunders about his own creative writing teachers. (Side note: how the heck did Tobias Wolff have time to help parent three children, work full-time leading graduate classes in creative writing, thoroughly read every submission to the program, and write and publish his own books?)
P.S. 2 Here’s how I started this morning. I slept in until 6:45. Then I listened to this song and did kundalini exercises for about half an hour, while the older kids started their day too, but before the younger two got up. It was a good start and I feel much more rested. First discernment decision: I’m limiting my 5AM exercise to no more than three times per week; I’m open to dropping to even less if I’m still really tired. I will reassess in six weeks.
Confession: I do not enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to myself talk.
I do, however, enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to others talk about a subject I’ve opened up for them: this is the method I’ve been using in my class, asking the students to break into smaller groups and discuss a subject, then return to the larger group to share their thoughts, and I love how ideas begin to flow, to cross-pollinate, to deepen, and I am simply a facilitator, responding to the discussion, but not imposing my will upon it. I am not there to be the expert. I am not an expert. This is not to downplay my experiences, simply to state the facts: I have no advanced degrees, no areas of speciality. I am a human being, alive to the world around me, I am a parent, attuned to my children’s needs as best I can be, I am a reader who loves language and the structuring of ideas in many forms, and I am a writer who will never be convinced that accomplishment matters—my own accomplishment, that is. What is accomplishment? It sounds so final. I am interested in process.
I am always willing to examine a problem from a different angle. I am willing to change my mind, based on new evidence, or a new argument.
I want to play and be playful, no matter how old I get.
And so my goals are changing before my eyes. They are changing as the year progresses, this year in which my focus has been WRITE. When I woke up this morning, early and exhausted, I thought that this past year has not been about WRITING at all, but about the after-effects of having written. I wrote, I published, and I am living the part that comes next. And I do not love it. I do not even seem to like it, most of the time. Even while I pour myself into it, even while I work to make the most of what has been offered to me, I only find myself growing wearier and wearier, drained, exhausted, perhaps even depressed. Lost. Uncertain. Bereft of a clear goal to call me onward; a steady dull and dulling march that I continue because I don’t know how to stop.
Here I am.
What comes next? How do I access my passion once again? How do I reset my routines, alter them, even minutely, to feed the life I want to have? If I can’t name that life, can’t see it, how can I make changes to my routines in order to step toward it?
Here is where my imagination stalls out. What do I want?
I want to write challenging stories: stories that challenge me, conceptually, that push me in a new direction.
I want …
Do I want to train for a race? Do I want to teach more classes? Do I want to change careers? Do I want to study yoga or meditation more deeply? Do I want to spend more time with children? Do I want to coach more soccer? Do I want to go on a writing retreat? Do I want more quiet writing days or weeks? Do I want to host more friends for dinner? Do I want to sponsor and host a refugee family? Do I want to make more music?
Oh, what small voice is calling me?
Why can’t I hear you, small voice?
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
Photo unrelated, but perfectly summery.
A wall of green hides me, hangs over me, stands before me. I am hidden from the people walking by on the sidewalk, but they are hidden from me too; I have to duck my head, crane my neck, follow their movements deliberately. An old man on a bicycle, pedalling vigorously, upright, with a wicker basket on his handles and a sunhat, and sunglasses. A student carrying grocery bags in each hand, heavy, his backpack loaded and heavy on his shoulders too. Cars are a steady stream, accelerating and slowing, accelerating and slowing, their engines grumbling, whining, squeaking, roaring.
A white butterfly darts through the bright green branches of the lilac, which leans into the porch before me. A car waits to turn the corner, blaring top forty pop: I recognize this song but can’t name it.
A woman walks by with her crying baby strapped to her chest, pushing an empty buggy—a fancy big-wheeled buggy like Princess Charlotte would be pushed in, which looks impractical. An SUV knocks a construction sign set in the street near our house and the vehicle sounds like it’s losing a part from its undercarriage.
“No you’re not. You are being punished. You don’t get what you want.” The woman in a floral print shirt, brown khakis and sandals speaks to a small child whose hand she is holding. The woman is so much larger than the child that I see nothing except for his or her shoes, pink sneakers. They are already gone and out of sight. Her voice was loud, irritated. I’m sure I’ve spoken to my own children with such loudness and irritation at times, although one rather wishes not to do so, especially in public. It depends on the day one is having. It depends on the patience already drawn upon, how deep the well. You don’t know, you haven’t been with us all day, you don’t know how many times I’ve kept my temper—sometimes I would think this as I would hear myself speaking with irritation to a truculent child.
But my memories are rose-tinted now, and I can hardly remember children being truculent or me being irritated, I only remember the luxurious pace of our hours, pushing a stroller with a child on a tricycle before me, pushing her along with the front of the stroller, slowly slowly progressing home from the library. Caroline Street was so hot in the summer. We would look for the pool of shade under the lone mulberry tree. I wasn’t sure the children should eat the berries that fell from the tree: “We can look it up when we get home, so we know for next time.”
A man drives by in a silver sedan, both hands on the steering wheel, a cigarette on his lower lip, his mouth open, big black headphones over his ears, sunglasses over his eyes. Why does his image stick in my head after he’s flashed past?
The leaves of the lilac are enormous, very bright where the sun strikes them. Ivy clings to the roof of the porch. By summer’s end it may trail across the roof and along the bricks by the front door. I love the way it hangs, green leaves cascading from thin brown vines.
A wall of green. The birch tree with leaves hanging heavy. The young maple tree in the front lawn beyond ours. The dark green of a coniferous bush by our front window. Green grass and clover in our yard, and a green and white hosta with tall searching stems atop which white flowers may bloom, soon.
The porch boards are grey, and dirty. They should be swept.
I haven’t cleaned anything in a very long time.
Cars roll by, cars roll by, cars roll by. And there is a bird, cheeping madly in the branches or wires over my head. Another bird, a different call, calmer. A woman in running shoes going for a brisk walk, determined.
A pair walks by on the opposite side of the street, boy and girl, the boy has a full-sleeve tattoo, which seems almost ordinary these days, if I may say so without sounding elderly, and I suppose that I can’t. Kids these days … The pair walks in perfect lock-step, though I doubt they know it. Step, step, step, their legs scissoring together and apart in perfect rhythm with each other.
The hum of insects rises, falls way. I wonder why it rises. I wonder why it falls. A child is shouting and running, a very small child in a yellow t-shirt, running with his arms pumping strongly, shouting words I don’t understand. He stops and walks. His mom and dad walk behind him, and he waits for them to catch up. “Ryan, you want Brother to move out?” “Just till my birthday, and then he’ll come back …” Maybe they aren’t mother and father after all. I can’t make sense of their conversation. They are past me. No one stops on the sidewalk and finishes their thought for my benefit.
Would these strangers mind if they knew I were writing about them?
Why do people accelerate their cars so enormously when they can see a stop sign coming up ahead? Isn’t it a waste of energy? Delusional, almost? Thinking they can get themselves to their destination faster if only they press the pedal to the floor between stop signs and turns? Do I do the same thing?
A truck rumbles noisily.
A man carries a cellophane bag of washed baby spinach in one hand, a cup of take-out coffee in the other, rubber sandals, white t-shirt, brown khaki shorts, and sunglasses on his head. He looks peeved, but I think that is just the expression he carries between his eyes, the crinkle, because of the sun. Why doesn’t he put on his sunglasses?
A woman with dark skin and long curly hair also wears her sunglasses on her head. She is staring at her phone and walking briskly, head inclined downward, dressed all in black, black pants, black tank top, black glasses, black phone. She treats the phone as if it were part of her hand. She is not thinking about walking down this sidewalk, she is somewhere else, thinking abut something else, somebody else. Smiling, the edges of her lips lightly upturned.
This is not a story. It has no end.
I sit down to write here, on the blog, and my mind goes round and round the purpose of this blog. I wonder why people are reading, perhaps, and why they may not be reading. I wonder why I am writing. Do I have something to say? Is my purpose to amuse, to inform, to muse, to form? Do I call out in hopes of a response? Am I launching quirky missives from an insular and isolated place? Am I writing as a writer, as a mother, as a seeker, as a knower? Am I writing to you? Or to me? Or to no one at all, to the ether?
I’ve come a long way on this path of being a writer. When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer like L.M. Montgomery or Lois Lenski. I wanted to be a writer like Emily of New Moon. I wanted create imaginary romantic worlds of adventure and mystery. As a teen, I was in love with language, and saw in it a violent risky potential. I wanted to write like Michael Ondaatje. I wanted to write barely coherent poetic scenes of romance and mystery and adventure. I didn’t care whether or not my stories or poems made sense, only that they burst with emotion and the fullness of self, perhaps. As an older teen and into my twenties, I wanted to write like Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. I wanted to craft brilliant sentences that both hid and displayed meaning, sentences that were as rich and big and complex as a whole story, characters whose motives were murky. I wanted to conjure worlds at a tilt from my own, veined and layered and dark.
And so I wrote and I read and I wrote and I read.
In some fundamental way, I refused to believe that I might not be a writer, someday. I willed myself to continue through years of small steps forward, and crushing rejections. I determined to improve. I determined to learn and to master the craft of storytelling. How to do this particular thing and do it well: how to tell a compelling story, not neglecting plot for style, not neglecting sentence structure for pace. I got better.
I got to where I am right now, here, sitting before this laptop, wondering, wondering. Do I still want to be a writer, so fiercely, so absolutely, so determinedly? Who do I wish to write like, now? Or, more importantly, perhaps, than I originally understood: what stories do I long to tell? And if I have no story that I long to tell, why craft the structure, why lovingly build the sentences? If the house is empty? (Is the house empty?)
Engagement is a key word of our era. That seems to me the purpose of social media. Anyone who wishes to earn attention, to market her work, must learn to engage with her audience, to maintain a call-and-response relationship, the bigger the better. It comes naturally to some, and less naturally to others. I put myself in the latter camp. Yet this blog is a form of engagement, whether or not I choose to see it that way. And when I recognize this and admit it, I become more and more uncomfortable as purveyor and publisher of posts. I cannot understand what I am doing, nor what my purpose may be. Is it, as originally intended when I started the blog in 2008, to narrate my every day life, to keep it in some form, and if so, for whom? For my children? For myself when I am older? Am I marketing my books? Practicing my craft? Indulging in cheap philosophy? Is this a publicly-kept journal?
Could I live without engagement? This specific form of engagement? (Silly question. Of course I could.)
Less, is the message that’s been coming my way. Not more, more, more, but less, less, less. For so long, I’ve fought to become more, to achieve more, to do more. I’ve worked toward big, specific goals and dreams. Now I’m confronted with this strange glimpse of myself, something I was afraid to see: I see that I will never write as wonderfully as I’d hoped to. I’m not possessed of a special gift. I’m a hard-working woman, that’s all, and I had a dream.
I’ve written that in the past tense without even noticing: and I had a dream. Strange. Isn’t it? Maybe the dream is shifting, deepening, altering course, becoming something else.
What now? What next?
Now: Life is strangely lovely at present. It is unexpectedly wonderful to hear less, less, less calling me. I feel myself relaxing into moments in a way that feels almost unfamiliar, unknown. I feel the pace changing. I feel myself at peace with what I have, right now.
Next? Being a writer isn’t something you quit. Writing is how I process the world around me; I’d be impaired without it. I continue to write, as always, but right now it’s a form of listening; without shape. I think my purpose is to listen, right now. I feel quiet. I feel a great deal of affection–of love–for those around me. The days are full, vivid, layered and veined and rich. I feel human. I feel flawed. I can’t think of anything I need or long for or crave, not even direction, right now. I feel present.
What I don’t feel is at an end with this blog. But I want to be honest about my ambivalence toward its purpose, and my use of it, at present. Thank you for listening.
PS Photos are from this past weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, taken after the sun went down, on the longest day of the year. Homework got burned, marshmallows got roasted and mushed between graham crackers, and the mosquitos almost won. Almost.
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