My word for last year was WRITE.
I wrote a lot. I’m not sure any of it will be published, although it does seem to have informed the project I’m working on now—its value is incalculable, in other words, and I think maybe that became the point for me as the year progressed. I wrote to understand why I write, and to be disciplined, and the more I wrote the more I understood that I love writing, and that I don’t need to remind myself to write because it is intrinsic to my being, it is how I create, most naturally, it is my chosen discipline. Maybe within this, by following and exploring this word, I allowed myself to write that which I didn’t consider to be publishable; I allowed myself to explore, to roam, to wander, to try, to experiment, to follow where led rather than pushing.
I did some pushing in the first half of the year; and the second half of the year, I’m seeing now, was quite different—I wrote a new novel manuscript in the first half of the year because I felt that I needed to; and when it was done, I saw that it wasn’t ready and I’ve yet to sort out whether I can ever make it ready, and so, for now, I’ve let it go. I let it go, and for the second half of the year I let myself write other things instead, things I suspected a publisher wouldn’t be interested in; I decided that my own calculations and guesses about a publisher’s interest didn’t matter, couldn’t matter, and that I needed to write what was welling up inside of me. And that’s been really wonderful.
Writing is my livelihood. But when I focus on its potential to earn me a living, it dies, somehow. I think that’s what I learned this year.
I allowed myself to be reacquainted, really fundamentally, with the idea that a writer is someone who, when faced with a blank page, does not know anything. (To paraphrase Donald Barthelme.) It’s terrifying; it’s thrilling. It means I don’t know what I’ll find, and it means I’ll definitely find a lot of things I’m not looking for, the value of which may not be explicit or recognizable. As hard as it is, I have to write even knowing that I may never write anything publishable, anything that earns money ever again. I don’t see that as a sad thing. It’s made me assess what I value, and how I assign value to the things that I do—how I spend my time.
Unexpectedly, I feel far more confident as a writer than I ever have before. Maybe because I’ve recognized that writing & invention through writing is intrinsic to my being. I’m less afraid of the scarce resources in the publishing industry. It doesn’t scare me to consider the possibility that I may never publish again, that there are no guarantees of success. I know and believe that what I’m doing has value—I value it. And I want to celebrate the wonderful words and stories of others. The success of other writers doesn’t feel like a threat to my own existence as a writer (we don’t talk about it much in this industry, but the professional jealousy that can arise from scrambling to secure scarce resources has corrosive potential on a personal level.)
I can’t explain this sense of calm and purpose. Will it stay with me? It may not, it’s true. I accept that change is eternal. But it feels like there’s been a shift over this past year in how I approach my writing, and the shift feels fundamental.
Next up: Word of the Year 2016. Stay tuned.
Today is slipping by. I am mapping writing adventures. I am arranging practice schedules and shirt orders for a soccer team. I am hungry. I haven’t eaten lunch. I haven’t left this office for hours. I’ve written nothing but emails, messages, reminders.
My Writing Adventure is completely full, with interest expressed in future Adventures, should I attempt this again.
I’ve been invited to France — to France! — this spring, to promote the translation of my novel there (details have not been confirmed, nor is this a sure thing, but the possibility exists). In the meantime, I have signed up for several mandatory soccer coaching courses. I have a public appearance this coming Tuesday at the Kitchener Public Library (“An evening with Carrie Snyder“), and other events booked elsewhere in February and March, April, May. We are planning a daunting family holiday. I want to go cross-country skiing with my daughter while there’s snow on the ground. My muscles ache from early morning workouts.
Yesterday, I read this article on my phone while waiting to pick up my daughter from a yoga class. It’s a light-hearted how-to article countering all of the inevitable new-year-new-me-resolution articles of this season: “How to be a moderately successful person.” And I sat in the car and wondered: Could I aspire to be this person? For serious? Something about the less-ness of it twanged a genuine longing in me.
I’m not complaining!! But wow. On some days, like today, like every day this week, I am overwhelmed by the ways in which I manage to fill up my life, the variety of activities and challenges I willingly, happily, excitedly sign myself up for. It occurs to me that I may be hiding from something — from the quiet and stillness of empty space and time. Am I hiding from the possibilities that exist in doing less, caring less, aspiring to less? Or am I, in fact, doing less by doing more, my attention too scattered to finish whatever book will be my next? Is all of this an elaborate distraction? It’s possible. But I love doing so much of it. I love being on the field with the kids. I love writing with other people, together. I love spending time with my kids in different contexts. I love the adventure of travel. I’ll admit freely that I fear inertia. I’ve been stuck before, I’ve been restless and lonely and bored.
Truly, I am not that, right now.
I’m looking forward to sharing my word of the year with you, as soon as I’ve had a chance to share it first with my WOTY friends. I think my new word relates to all of this, this swirl of activity and these swirling thoughts. Next post, maybe.
I think I was always a little bit afraid of David Bowie. I was afraid of his many guises, his shape-shifting abilities, his restlessness, the enormity, the almost-dangerous energy of his creative fervour. I’m a no-make-up low-key woman who has never quite understood the appeal of punk or glam-rock; I prefer my world stripped down to the bones, rather than glammed up. So, his work made me a little bit afraid, I think, even if I found much to admire in his seemingly infinite curiosity and innovation.
This video, Lazarus, was made while he was dying and aware that he was dying; it was made while he was continuing to be himself — a creative genius — and to inhabit himself fully, as he was, throwing himself openly in to the arms of creation. I look at him in this video and I am afraid, but I am meant to be afraid, I am unsettled, but I am meant to be unsettled, I am in grief, and I am meant to be in grief, I am moved, I am horrified, I am worried for him, I am filled with thanks and sorrow. He lets us see him weak and dying, blind and shackled by illness, he lets us see him afraid, working feverishly until the end, drugged, in the grip of the desire to make more and more and more, and he lets us see him dancing, briefly, and then he goes away and shuts the door. He has to let us see him at his worst, at his weakest, in order for us to know him, believe in him, trust him, come with him.
What is art?
I want to know, and I think about this constantly, and perhaps all the more right now as I invite others to come create with me. How tempting it is to define art by what pleases us, individually, personally; or even to define art by what we cannot do ourselves, but admire.
What is art?
It isn’t that art is anything, it’s that it can be anything. It involves the shaping of life and experience, of image, of idea, into something that speaks beyond itself. For example, walking to meet the kids after school is not art. But if I write a poem about walking to meet them, or a story, or I photograph the small details I’m seeing on that walk and create a collage or meditative post on the blog, or I stop to mark each corner by laying a painted stone, or the children and I create a dance to mark the walk and perform it as we’re walking home from school — this is art. We’ve altered and interpreted an experience. We’ve tried to express how it makes us feel; or we’ve asked someone to look differently at their own similar experience; or we’ve challenged or upset the experience in some way, we’ve caused a disruption, we’ve called for attention. We’ve broken the routine, deliberately.
What is art?
It is comfort. It is disruption. It is an answer, but more often it is a question. It is personal. It is political. When we create, when we make something, we make ourselves vulnerable, there is no denying that risk is involved. If you watch David Bowie’s last video, you see this truth laid bare, and you see how intrinsic vulnerability is to the process of creating art. It is a scary thing to do. Sometimes, it’s a scary thing to watch or witness, too.
I believe it takes practice and discipline to make art; that, too. And those who pursue their art at the highest level of focus and craftsmanship, like David Bowie did, will work enormously hard to learn their craft, hone their skills, test their vision, challenge themselves through professional collaboration, and practice, practice, practice. What is practice? It means to do, doesn’t it. It implies commitment, repetition, but it also means you just show up and do the thing you’re practicing. So, on a fundamental level, I think, what it takes to make art is a simple willingness to try, to experiment, to take what may be a single, tentative step in the dark, into the unknown.
So often, we stop ourselves by judging what we’re doing, and by comparing what we’re doing to what others are doing. Yes, comparison can be instructive; we all learn from those more skilled and knowledgeable. But I think the point of how David Bowie lived his life is that comparison is much more often pointless, and not only pointless, but destructive — creatively destructive. Comparison either diminishes or elevates what you’ve made; and in some strange way, has nothing to do with what you’ve made, why you’ve made it, where it comes from. What pours forth from you? What pours forth from you at this precise moment in time? Nobody but you can create what you can. To create is to embrace what you’ve got inside you, even while you let it out, let it go, let it take shape in the world.
Anyone can do this. In any variety of ways. What you make might not be polished, it might be very humble indeed, it might be raw, it might not make perfect sense, it might not match the vision in your head. But here it is, you’ve made it. You’ve arrived, you’ve departed.
“The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” -David Bowie
What are you working on now?
It’s a question I’m asked often. My vague answer — and it’s totally truthful — is that I’m too superstitious to say. I’ll tell you when something’s done, for real. There are too many lost and abandoned ideas and manuscripts along the path to publication; yes, even as a published author, yes, even now. I prefer to mourn these passings alone, and get on with the work. It’s part of the job. Believe in what you’re making while you’re making it, but never be precious about it when you’re finished: this attitude has served me well over the years. I’m not sentimental about the process. It does mean it looks like I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded — all those dead manuscripts in my attic. Whenever I explain this process to a class of students, they collectively make the “poor you” sound: awww. It’s funny. I think they think I’m being confessional. Pity is the universal response to hearing about failure, but it’s a response that misses the point, which is that creativity is driven by trial and error. Listen up: This is how publishable books get written! Only rarely do we get it right the first time; virtually never; okay, actually never! The point is: do the work, don’t sweat the result, because you are doing the work, it’s a process of discovery, enjoy it, wrestle with your ideas, let go, reassess, press onward, learn learn learn, this is the thing.
But wait! This was supposed to be a post about new work!
I’m pleased to tell you that two new stories have entered the world, published in two Canadian literary magazines. I’ve got an essay in CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries, about re-reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; and I’ve got a story in Brick magazine called “Why Give Yourself Away?” The former is transparently non-fiction, an essay; but the latter is an oddity that I’m defining as fiction, perhaps for my own sanity. Read it and judge for yourself. (CNQ publishes a few essays from each issue online, but mine doesn’t happen to be one of them, and Brick doesn’t publish its stories online, so you’ll have to get your hands on print copies; the links above will lead you to sources for purchase.)
The first piece in this issue of Brick is an interview with a French artist, Sophie Calle, by Eleanor Wachtel. If you’re interested in what compels artists to create, it makes for compulsive reading; Calle sees the world in such a head-spinningly different way, and she’s gotten so much done just by doing it. Inspiring.
Tonight is my last creative writing class of the term. Because I’m a sessional lecturer, with a contract that expires at the end of each term, there’s no guarantee of teaching a next class. And so there’s no way around this: I’m feeling blue.
When I started teaching three years ago, I didn’t expect I would come to love it. But I have. I will miss working with students when this term ends. I will miss the interaction, the opportunities to relate, to respond, to collaborate, to light a spark, or even just to be present in someone else’s life in a different way than I can be when I’m here in my home office, slumped over the keyboard. (Posture, Carrie, posture!) I will miss what I learn from my students, too. Once upon a time, I would have said that writing fiction is all I know how to do, but I don’t think that’s true, actually. I’m proud of the work I’ve done in my fiction-writing career, but when I send a book out into the world, there it goes, no longer mine. I can’t change what I’ve made. It’s gone from me, and exists at a remove from the present tense. Teaching is almost the opposite experience: it’s about sharing ideas with others in a present, real, interactive, reactive, responsive, empathetic way. I love my quiet space here at home; but I also love being with people, people who are learning skills and becoming themselves, and developing rich inner lives, confidence, a voice. It’s been a privilege to be a teacher. I hope the opportunity comes around again.
A blog reader recently asked me: who or what is your centre?
I would like to consider this thoughtful stranger’s question. Who or what is my centre? Who or what is all of this energy emanating from? Who or what are my guiding principles and goals? Perhaps I’m being too scattershot in my approach at present. Perhaps I need some kind of guiding light, guiding mission statement, coherent ideology. I’ve been less and less willing to put these musings out into the universe, to publish them on the blog; but in silence there is no possibility for connection. I thought of this as I ran with the dogs this morning; it was still dark. We were running down a big hill, and I thought, I fear saying too much, but by saying nothing, I offer nothing. What are photographs, what are blog posts, what are stories if not an attempt to preserve the present moment? But is it preservation I’m after? No, more accurately, it’s being a witness. It’s trying to put into order what I’m seeing. And I’m compelled to share what I see. I want to apologize for my urge to share. But there it is. I’ll admit it motivates me. Is this the what at my centre?
Who or what is my centre? I think of the divine, a connection that unites every living thing, and perhaps every thing that ever lived or will lived. I think of powers beyond my understanding. I think of grace. And spirit.
And I think of presence.
I am motivated by the desire to be present, wholly present, no matter what I am doing.
I am motivated by the idea that play is holy, sacred, a space of safety and learning, a space where imagination and improvisation are celebrated, and all are urged to play along, no matter the skill level. Cooperation amidst competition. Play as learning. Learning as play.
Writing is play: that’s what I hope my students know, too.
I don’t want to be so serious that I lose the lightness of being alive.
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.