Category: Word of the Year
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
Sunday morning. Family reading by the fire. The French horn being practiced, drowning out the radio. Smoothies and eggs for breakfast. I’m sitting in comfy pants at my desk looking at photos I took yesterday afternoon out in the wintry countryside, for my brother and sister, who are the band Kidstreet.
I got up early every morning this past week, but not on the weekend. I wrote every day.
I write during the day, but because my working hours are foreshortened due to children arriving home from school, or music lessons, I’m always looking for additional time slots, especially useful if I’m in the flow of a project; less useful if I’m trying to manufacture a scene or story from scratch. On Tuesday I took my laptop to gymnastics and wrote, and on Friday I took my laptop to soccer practice and wrote. I even took my laptop to piano lessons, and wrote, although that was more of a challenge, as I had bored children waiting on the bench beside me, angling for snacks and chat. I couldn’t use the ear plugs I usually do, while writing. (I even use ear plugs when I’m home alone with the dogs in the middle of the day; it’s a physical cue that helps me focus.)
On Friday, I had a fascinating correspondence with my Dutch translators, who sent over a series of questions about the nuances of words and phrases in Girl Runner.
The coming week will be different, as I’ve got three book club appearances on three consecutive evenings — two involve a meal in a restaurant for a book club called “An Appetite for Reading.” Will I be able to get up early every morning? I’m going to try. But no running. I was going to say, no running, sadly, but you know, I have to accept where my body is at, and be grateful that I’ve got options: spinning, yoga, swimming, walking, strength-training. I tried doing run/walk intervals this week, and the pain re-appeared immediately. It had been gone, even through heavy spinning and swimming, so it appears to be running-induced. Which means that for now, I’m a runner in spirit only … religiously doing my physio exercises and testing out running shoes on the treadmill, while walking and writing. (Ironically, I just got a new gig testing running shoes for a running magazine and boxes of shoes keep arriving at the door.)
And now, I think it’s time to write a poem, before another Sunday morning vanishes. Piano being practiced. Swim lesson prep has begun. Ear plugs in.
One of my editors asked whether I’d be willing to be interviewed by her daughter, who is 16 and an aspiring writer. I’m totally recycling and being efficient, but I’m thinking there might be others out there with similar questions (or, if you’re a writer yourself, other answers): here is our exchange.
1. What is the best part about being a writer?
If you love to write and to read, if you love language, if you love living in the imagination this is the best job in the world. When I sit down at my desk, I never quite know what’s going to happen, so every day feels like an adventure. There’s something magical about using text to communicate complex ideas, to share imaginary characters, places and times with readers, and perhaps most exciting and daunting is the ability to draw emotion out of a reader — to cause someone to feel something simply by giving them words on a page.
There are many ways to be a writer — that might be something you want to think about, as you consider a career as a writer. I primarily write literary fiction, but I’ve also worked as a freelance writer, writing reviews, doing more journalistic non-fiction and memoir-type non-fiction (for newspapers, magazines, and online).
2. What is the worst part about being a writer?
There are many worst parts, to be perfectly frank.
Right up front, let’s be honest about money: writing is a tough career in which to make a living. Many (most?) literary writers survive on grants and small advances, or paid appearances; or they write freelance, which requires lots of networking, pitching, and constant scrabbling to keep steady work coming in the door; or they teach creative writing; or they have day jobs.
It takes years of practice to hone talent, and to master the craft to a degree that you can make these words do what you want them to do. (Of course, that’s also an exciting part — there is always more to learn; I’m still learning!) Especially during the early years of being a writer, you face a lot of rejection. You either accept this as a natural part of the job, carry on, and try to learn from critique, or you’ll become despairing. You’ll need to grow a thick skin to protect yourself, which is hard, because most writers are sensitive people — attuned to emotional nuance. Even established writers face rejection, self-doubt, and criticism. It’s part of the job.
Personally, I find it difficult to move between the quiet interior work of actually writing to the necessity of publicity, when a book comes out — readings, appearances, panels, interviews, etc. Public speaking draws on a different part of my personality, and I find I operate better if I’m in one mode or the other, not trying to do both at once. That isn’t always possible to arrange.
I think one thing that isn’t often admitted is that writers are plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. This is not something you outgrow. I’ll never be absolutely certain that I’ve achieved what I intended to with my work — in fact, I think I’m quite certain that I haven’t, and never will. I don’t mean that I feel like a failure, or that I’m not happy with what I’ve created; just that I always believe it could be better.
But I don’t write simply to create a finished product. I write because I love the process itself. And I write always with a good deal of hope and optimism that I’ll achieve something new and different in each project I undertake.
3. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Read books that challenge you, books that teach you the long history of writing that we’re all building on, books that you admire. Read the writing you yourself would want to write. Don’t worry about losing your voice or not being original. If you write regularly you will develop and find your voice. I recommend writing as widely as you read, too. Write daily. Every bit of writing counts and can teach you something. Write in a journal. Write poetry in the margins of your school notes. Write academic essays. Write for your school newspaper. Write a blog. (This advice is based entirely on my own writing path: I took English lit in university, BA and MA, and filled journal upon journal with thoughts, dreams, stories, ideas, poems, etc. I still write every day, whether it’s writing for publication, or just for myself.)
4. What is the one thing that you would like to achieve through writing?
I don’t think I can narrow my hopes down to one particular achievement. I use my writing to communicate many different things, in different ways, in different forms. I would like to entertain readers, to catapult them into a parallel world, and take them out of their lives for a little while. I would like also to pour empathy into the world. Beauty and light, stories that may cause readers to look at their own lives differently, or to look at others differently. I do think about this. I think about what I’m putting into the world when I write. I want to add depth and understanding to human interaction, not subtract from it or be harmful. I try to write with an openness of spirit and heart and mind — and I try to live that way too.
5. Why do you think writers are important to society?
Words are powerful tools. Ideas can be powerfully communicated through them. I have a theory that all conflict and therefore the possibility of peace boils down to two ingredients: land and stories. Land is obvious: humans have been fighting over land (resources, territory, wealth) since the beginning of human history. Stories are less obvious, but no less important: a nation’s stories about itself can include or exclude, bury or illuminate, and these stories are narratives about belonging and power. All stories are. Maybe I’ll go back to your previous question and say that if I hope to achieve anything with my writing, it would be to illuminate stories that have been forgotten or left untold.
But I’m also interested in narrative and emotional complexity rather than myth-making: this complexity is usually lost in policy-making and politicking generally, and I think that’s where writers come in. Writers are not politicians. It’s our job to show the complexity of individual human experience. It is only by seeing “the other” as complex that we see him or her as human, which is a necessary imaginative leap toward understanding.
Here it is, in all its simplicity. My word of the year for 2015: WRITE.
(Because you don’t do enough of that already, said one of my WOTY friends last night. But you know what? I don’t, exactly.)
I’ve chosen WRITE, in its variations, both the active verb, to write, and the noun or subject, writing. I want to explore this calling of mine, if it is indeed my calling. Mainly, I want to do it—to write! I want what I do this year to be in service to my writing. I want, also, to examine what makes good writing so that I can teach it better.
If I get to the end of the year, and feel like I’ve wasted my time or not applied myself, or been in some way made very unhappy by the pursuit of writing for itself, for its own end, then I will re-examine my calling, such as it is. Perhaps there is a greater purpose to which I should be applying myself.
But for now, this year, I want to live in my imagination and write fiction, specifically. Work with intensity, patience, and discipline.
I’ve allowed myself a back-up word, a tagline or footnote, if you will, and that is: ATTENTION. ATTENTION feeds into WRITE. I want to pay attention to the way I’m spending my time. And if attention comes my way, I want to receive it with grace, humility, and thanks, as food that feeds my writing life.
I feel strongly that this year will be about paring down, cutting out what feels wasteful or unnecessary, not trying to squeeze so much in, and focusing instead on the richness in a long-held moment—like playing a series of whole notes rather than eighth or sixteenth notes. It might appear boring on the surface. Much of the pleasure may be taking place way down deep, rather than visible in the exciting places visited or activities raced through. The adventure is in the mind: that is what it means to write.
I think it’s like doing a puzzle.
Or practicing yoga. Or following the long arc of a story.
This year I’m going to spend more time holding the long notes. Talking. Jamming on instruments. Napping, even.
The adventure in the mind is supported by a framework of routine and discipline, which is healthy, spiritually nurturing, and makes a body strong. I love my routines. I feel so comforted by them, supported in them. I look forward to what they offer me, even when I don’t feel like setting my alarm early.
This morning, for example, I stretched in front of the fire in the dark living-room, with chants playing in the background. I was frozen solid from my walk with Nina; we’d decided to cut it short when we started losing feeling in important body parts. As I stretched myself toward warmth, in the dark, I was taken by the comfort of the dark. This is a dark time of year, but in the dark the mind goes quiet, listens inward, has time to rest and reflect.
PS Are you choosing a word of the year? If so, and you’re willing, please share it in the comments. I would love to hear what you’re working on this year.
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