Category: Word of the Year
Twenty minutes can feel like no time at all, when I’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole of the internet, reading truly fascinating but perhaps not necessarily useful stories on … well, see, there’s the problem. I must have read at least five truly fascinating but not necessarily useful stories in the past twenty-four hours, following links from Twitter and Facebook—to genuine news stories or long-form articles, not top-ten lists—but I can’t recall the contents of a single one. Poof. The minutes vanish.
But twenty minutes can feel like a very long time when I’m sitting in silence listening to the sound of my thoughts skittering, seemingly randomly. Oh, there’s my mind trying to make a plan for later on today, and a list of things I can’t forget to remember to do. There’s my mind slipping sideways into what seems to be a dream. Bring it back, follow the breath. Breathe, breathe, meditate. Oh, there’s my mind dashing off to wonder how much longer. And under it all, there’s my body, trying to hold fast, remain still and calm but strong. What this exercise seems to be, at its core, is a daily weather report: here’s what you’re feeling today. Here’s how your body and mind is coping with challenge. Bring an umbrella.
Today’s weather report of my body and mind: very tired, wandering, a bit directionless, with a chilly breeze of underlying anxiety about upcoming events.
I’ve been struggling to write, here. Not elsewhere, but specifically here, in Blogland. I was at a book club on Monday evening, a friendly thoughtful group, and they asked interesting questions, including one I found difficult to answer: How do you manage the attention? My gut instinct? To reply: uh, what attention? The truth is that I’ve been managing attention by pretending there’s a solid wall between my public life and my private life, and that the two don’t intersect. It’s a mental trick I sustain when blogging, too. I pretend no one’s reading. It’s like I’m writing this in a special private journal that oddly ends every time with me pushing “Publish.” It’s a trick that doesn’t work terribly well, I’m beginning to understand, not just in Blogland where readers respond to posts (which I love), but also in the real world. (I can hear you thinking: you’re just grasping this now?). For example, on Monday afternoon, my 9-year-old had a new friend over, and when the dad came to pick her up, and I was making small-talk in the front hall, he said, “I saw you in the newspaper.” Private Carrie fought with Public Carrie, confused. He’d seen me in the newspaper? Had I been charged with some crime? Oh, right, I’m a writer. I actually had to say it out loud, as if explaining it to myself, “Oh, yes, I’m a writer.” “I know,” he said. Oh, right.
So the separation is illusory at best, and delusional at worst.
Further, the whole pretence breaks down completely when I admit, both to myself and to you and to the lovely women at Monday night’s book club and likely to that dad in the front hall, that I want people to read what I’m writing. Of course I do! The sustainability of a writer’s career depends on readers. If I were operating a retail business, it would be counterproductive, not to mention just plain ridiculous, to open a shop only to pretend the shop doesn’t exist. A customer walks in. Carrie pretends she’s in her living-room, in yoga pants, looking after sick kid. Customer is confused, feels like an intruder, apologizes for wishing to purchase something from shop Carrie continues to pretend does not exist. (Why doesn’t anyone come to my shop, Carrie wonders? Maybe I’m not very good at making _____. Maybe I should quit trying and become a midwife.)
In other words, ambivalence isn’t actually ambivalent. It’s pretty damning. Like my dad would say, shit or get off the pot. (I really like that saying, actually; I use it a lot, when giving myself advice.)
But here’s the thing. What I’m selling in my shop is not me—it’s my writing. And that does feel genuinely separate. I’m in my living-room, in my yoga pants, with my sick kid, holding out a book. Holding out a blog post. This is the thing, I’m trying to say, Forget about me. So it’s confusing. I write in hopes that people will read what I write, not to attract attention to myself. I read Nick Hornby and Bill Bryson and Miriam Toews and Ruth Ozeki and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Kim Thuy because I really like their writing. I wouldn’t need to know anything about them to like their writing. I may feel I know them, because they are all somewhat autobiographical writers, but knowing them is not my motivation for reading their work: I read because I love what they do with story, with language, with structure and form, and because I’m moved and entertained by their writing.
I guess my overarching question is: Is seeking attention critical to finding readers? Is it a job requirement? What if I focus instead on being the best writer I can possibly be and stop sweating everything else? What if I simply support a project at every stage of development, including talking about it after it’s been published–and let go my attachment to the attention, personally. Then the transition between public and private might be much less jarring, much less important.
During today’s meditation, I had a sudden vision of seeking balance between interior and exterior. Between maintaining a quiet private interior focus, which is what I need in order to write, and an accepting reflective public exterior focus, which is what I need in order to be in the world as a writer. How can I be as authentic and free in my public life as I am in my private life? I breathe in, and I breathe out. Breath itself is a balance between interior and exterior.
So, how do I manage the attention? Maybe I’ll figure it out someday, twenty minutes at a time.
PS I’ll be at the Kitchener Public Library this evening, presenting the prose awards for the Dorothy Shoemaker prize, which I adjudicated this year. And I’ll be in Fort Erie on Friday evening as part of the Ridgeway Reads reading series.
Oh, the word WRITE. How I love it, on a day like today, after a week like this week, when my mind is rich with ideas and enthusiasm, and the joy that comes from working. Work that sometimes, truly, feels like play.
I think we fall into our themes. We can’t always understand them, or know why they’ve become the themes to which we’ve devoted our creative lives, but they’re there. If I am to identify the themes that have occupied me in projects past, and that are highly likely to continue to occupy me during the years to come—many productive writing years, oh Lord, please, grant me—they include the following: midwifery; abortion; pregnancy and birth; mothering; siblings; running; competition; feminism; activism; rule-breaking or unconventional behaviour; gambling and debt; small-time criminality and the huckster or the shyster; peace and justice; adoption; parentage; memory; forgiveness; gifts or gift-giving; music; fame/performance; horses; spirituality; love; friendship.
I’m absolutely bubbling over with joy at having all of these pieces of life to explore. And more, and more. (Where does The Candy Conspiracy fit into the thematic framework? Hedonism? Entertainment? Fun purely for the sake of fun? Yes, sometimes all I want to do is goof off and have fun–can that be a theme too?)
I’m listening to my eldest daughter play the piano. She’s practicing her songs for the Kiwanis festival later this month. The music is beautiful, though right now she’s going over and over a few rough patches. She’s got a batch of hot-cross buns rising on the counter and she was singing the song this morning, in her pyjamas. The other kids are off with Kevin at his office, helping him reorganize and rearrange, though it’s just as likely that they’re playing video games rather than lugging stuff around.
On Wednesday, we found ourselves with a free evening. Nobody had anything to do or anywhere to go. This is so rare on a weeknight that we all felt celebratory. After supper, the adults drank a beer and the kids each had a pop and we sat around the table talking and drawing. Everyone took a turn suggesting a subject to draw, and we had two minutes to try to draw whatever it was.
Above are our people, drawn on the chalkboard, which is where we started.
It’s Good Friday. I’m going to make paska this afternoon, a Russian Mennonite Easter bread, although I’m not Russian Mennonite. Eggs, spring, colour, sweet bread, new life.
Breath; body; song.
What are the first three things that pop into your head, in answer to the question: what are you grateful for right now? These were mine, this morning. Oddly, each feels imperfect right now, reminders of frailty rather than strength. My breath is still raspy from the remnants of the flu. My body continues to be tired. Physically, I can’t do everything that I want to do, right now; or, more precisely, not at the level of my expectations.
Expectations. Can I let them go? On every front, in every way, in order to appreciate more deeply the experiences that open to me?
Lastly, song. Why song, I wonder? This morning’s violin practice was fraught with frustration, the child ignoring rhythm, playing quarter notes as eighth notes, and I shouldn’t mind so much, but as I strummed along on my ukulele feeling like an eccentric background musician, it was driving me around the bend. No patience. We never found our rhythm. (Side note: the ukulele accompaniment is her idea; mostly we like this practice time together.) So, song? I’m trying to write a character who is a singer, and I’m struggling just now. But then I turn on the radio and hear a song like this, and I’m stopping in a parking lot and pulling out my little notebook and writing down the lyrics: “When I grow up I want to be a picture of my mother holding on to me.” (Jenn Grant, from the 2014 album Compostela, track is called “Bring Me a Rose,” and you can listen on CBC’s music site, here.)
Imperfect as breath, imperfect as body; evidence of promise, hope, connection, life.
I keep track of my book-reading life in a separate section of this blog (under Extras), but as this is the year of WRITE, I’d like to highlight the connection between writing and reading by sharing some of my book-related reflections here, too. Because really, it can’t be a year of WRITE if it’s not also a year of READ. (And if you ever want advice from me on how to be a writer, here’s the only decent answer I’ve got: PRACTICE your writing like you’d practice the piano; and READ all the time, everything you can get your hands on, especially but not exclusively in the styles and forms you admire.)
So. Reading life. Below are three books I’ve read recently. But first I want to tell you about the newspaper article I read this morning in the Globe & Mail, an interview with two young women, both 13, both in grade 8 (and therefore the same age as my eldest, who is a boy). It’s the most clear-eyed, clear-headed perspective on sex education that I’ve ever come across. I love these young women! (Their parents must be pretty awesome too.) I’d like to have my older kids read this interview and then discuss it with them. Here’s a brief excerpt: What do you wish boys would understand? “Boys need to understand that women aren’t sex objects or lesser people. … Girls aren’t this whole other world. Boys and girls actually aren’t that different and they should be treated like they aren’t that different. Otherwise nothing is going to change.”
What I’m reading …
〉 Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
* Christmas gift from Kevin to me
I’ve become a Sarah Waters fan. This book seriously creeped me out, but I could not stop reading it. It’s set in Victorian England and it’s gritty and dirty and full of evil plots and human foulness, and lots of things I’m actually quite squeamish about, but I was completely taken in. Plot twists? By the dozen. Never saw ’em coming. Waters is phenomenally good at storytelling, and at capturing the intimate details of an historical time period. I’m taking mental notes as I read her. I wasn’t sure what the message at the core of the book was, exactly — it seemed emptier at its core than The Little Stranger — but I didn’t really care either. I just wanted to devour the book and piece everything together. When I have time, I will definitely be reading more of Sarah Waters. (Problem is, I couldn’t put the book down, and was up late on a few nights, turning pages….)
〉 Fair Play, by Tove Jansson, translated from the Finnish, with a foreword by Ali Smith
* bought on my Kobo
This book challenged me. I really wanted to love it, and found that I could only like it. It is a series of small stories about two characters, loosely (or perhaps not so loosely) based on Jansson and her partner, a woman who was an artist. I kept mixing up the main characters’ names; they didn’t seem that different from each other, and that was one of the problems I had with the book. The other problem was the structure of the stories, which at times seemed overly and overtly plotted, even while most ended with a severe abruptness that seemed indicative of an undeveloped thought. Yet, even while my writer brain critiqued the stories’ structure, I was nevertheless drawn into this slightly odd world being portrayed, of two artists and friends (the specifics of their relationship are never explained, but they do live together at times and often share a bed), who share their lives and their work with each other. I can’t imagine having such a close friendship with another artist, one who would criticize my work even while I’m making it; that’s a level of collaboration that I really can’t fathom. I can’t fathom knowing another woman quite this well, I suppose, too. It’s a bit strange, as I’m thinking about this now, that we totally normalize pairing up and sharing our lives and space with a sexual partner, but a platonic friendship with the same depth of understanding and time spent together seems strange (or it seems strange to me, anyway). The exception to the strangeness was that brief period in my life when I had roommates, and it seems connected specifically to youth, pre-marriage. There were so many things I liked about being that close to my friends — sharing food, social lives, plans, down-time, the daily small miseries and joys. I know there were downsides too, and irritations; Jansson depicts these well. This book made me long for closer friendships — closer than is possible in my current life, which revolves around raising kids.
〉 A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker
* ordered on Amazon.ca as an impulse buy when purchasing photo albums for Christmas gifts
The opening chapters of the book are well-written and fascinating, and support my own style of writing, which he calls “classic prose.” I really loved seeing Pinker diagram and break down sentences to show why they work (or don’t), in terms of the basic structure. We can only hold a very limited amount of information in our short-term memories, so the order in which our brain receives new information matters in terms of the ease of making connections between parts. That’s why a poorly written sentence stops us up, makes us puzzle over the parts as we try to connect them in the sense the author has intended. And a well-written sentence simply skims by, clear and well-lit. In a sense, it explains to me why it’s easy to overlook excellent writing: because it’s easy to understand, a reader assumes it’s a) easy to write and/or b) simplistic. But in fact clear writing, or classic prose, a) takes great skill to write and can be used to b) effectively communicate complex ideas. Pinker gets bogged down in his final chapter, which put me to sleep night after night, in which he logically and rationally argues over points of grammar and usage. I found his arguments sensible, on the whole, until he started arguing for rather than against particular grammatical sticking points — then he sounded just like the grammar police he was railing against. Point being: grammar is not a science. Grammar is an agreed-upon set of rules that aid clear communication, and when not-agreed-upon, well, that’s where history and tradition butt up against popular usage. Unfortunately, I come away from the book without a clearer idea of how to teach students to punctuate their sentences “properly.” I simply could not wrap my head around Pinker’s “grammar trees,” in which he diagrammed sentences using different names to categorize the parts of the sentence than the names I’m familiar with. I don’t know if this is because I’m stupid about theory (which I am, in some ways), or whether grammar is just too complicated no matter how clear you try to make your explanation, especially when you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty bits. I couldn’t imagine trying to take Pinker’s trees to my students in an attempt to make common grammatical errors clearer to them.
Now, your turn. What are you reading?
PS A review of Girl Runner from the Daily Mail in the UK arrived in my inbox this morning. I’m too chicken to read it, but Kevin promises me it’s good. Apparently this is an accurate excerpt: “Original … moving … engrossing.” (Dunno what words came in between those, but I sure hope “not” wasn’t among them …)
Whenever I float the idea of not blogging anymore (and it’s an idea that keeps bubbling up, with somewhat alarming frequency, actually), I know exactly what I would miss most: connections. A friend texted after my last post to say it had reminded her of a cartoon she’s kept for years: a woman stands alone, thinking, “I wonder if I would be happier if I put as much effort into accepting myself as I do into changing myself.”
That got me thinking.
What if I were to focus on accepting myself? What would that look like?
It would mean I wouldn’t shame myself for wanting to share my thoughts out loud. I would stop calling it a compulsion (a pretty judgemental word).
It would mean I might see my writing in simpler terms. I would accept what I’m able to create and do.
It would mean, maybe, too, that I wouldn’t be so frustrated during these rough patches (like right now) when I’m squeezed for writing time and my days are spent looking after sick kids, out of routine; because these days are gifts too, and my work is not only to write write write, but to live live live. To be alive is to be with others, to be interrupted, to fail, to be frustrated, emotional, achy, tired, weak, and surrounded by the fruits of your labours, which sometimes feel really heavy. If I accept myself, I accept that my days are broken. I accept that I have limits and limitations. I accept, too, that I’m on a path of my own choosing and virtually everything I do is in service to something or someone I care deeply about–how fortunate is that!
I have a question for myself: if I focus on accepting myself, would I discover that I am an ambitious woman, or a woman who is content with muddling along? Can I be both?
“Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – an empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.” — Mary Oliver, Our World
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