transforming my office
This is my birthday gift from my dad. It’s still a work in progress, as you can see, but already I sense how it will alter and expand my space in this lovely little room.
When I first moved into my office, just over a year ago, I loved the blankness of the space, the empty walls, the echoing newness. I wanted to spend time in the room before building anything permanent into it — to see where the light fell, to see what was really missing or necessary.
I set up my wheelie computer desk, which I’ve been writing on since grad school, c. 1997; my chair; a plastic office organizer with drawers, formerly Kevin’s; my great-aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair (she was a tiny woman); and a cast-off cupboard with doors, inside which I hid my piles of paper. After we got dogs this summer, the dog beds somehow migrated here too. The dogs love the heated floor and finding retreat from the constant attention of the children. (The children know to knock.)
It didn’t take long, really, for the blankness to be replaced by clutter.
And darned if I could no longer blame the clutter on other people — for the first time since about 1999, I had a space that was all mine. Which meant the mess was all mine too. The room began to seem small. Piles of books teetered atop stacks of paper. Soccer cleats took up residence on a windowsill. Framed artwork was stacked in the corner, facing the wall. Behind the doors of the cast-off cupboard, items became so crowded and sprawled as to be basically unfindable.
I couldn’t afford built-in shelves and desk, but thought maybe I could put my GG finalist earnings ($1000) toward Ikea shelves and a desk. And then my dad got wind of my plan. Before he became a professor of Anabaptist history, he seriously considered apprenticing as a carpenter instead. He used to make our Christmas gifts out of wood when we were kids. Now he’s retired. He’s got a wood-working studio in his garage. So he volunteered to take on the job of Carrie’s office.
I’ve been working in here for the first few days of this new year, still using the old wheelie desk, c. 1997, but with the architecture of the shelves in front of me, giving my eye some relief from the blank wall. I’ve been writing steadily. For my birthday, I bought myself Scrivener — no longer a trial version. This promises to be a big book. I’m not sure how big, but it seems quite big already and it’s not done yet. Oh, and it’s a novel. I’ve also started believing my character is a real historical figure, which is weird. I’m making her up but I feel like she really lived.
I’m imagining a hibernating winter with these shelves warm with books and pictures, the dogs in their beds, the clutter temporarily wrangled and contained. I imagine a filled space, and the comfortable march of words. I’ll be writing.
I’ve been re-reading old blog posts. The photos are fun, but it’s the changes that are most remarkable to see in fast-forward (or fast-rewind).
Consider the post from Monday, May 18, 2009, titled “On Endings,” which seems rather appropriate for this last day of 2012. In this post, I’m writing about trying to finish a story, one that would become, in one way another, part of The Juliet Stories. I am amazed by my own resolve under circumstances that look, from this vantage point, very difficult indeed. My youngest was not-quite-fourteen-months. My eldest was not-quite-eight. I was home with the littlest children full-time, and I was finding it trying. Kevin was recovering from a broken knee. Friends had been bringing us meals (bless you, friends!). We’d had “the barfing thing” four times in four months. I was sleeping sporadically, still nursing at night. I must have been utterly exhausted. No time for exercise, no time even to imagine exercise — who could get up early after being woken half the night?
And yet, I was writing.
There was no guarantee that what I was writing would become anything anyone would ever want to read, let alone publish, let alone nominate for a major prize. I was writing because I had to write this particular story, in this particular way. I was doing what I had to do, and if there is a lesson in here, it is simply do what you have to do. Don’t look for reasons not to do the things you have to do. Come alive. Do! I think that even if that story I was writing had not turned into The Juliet Stories, it would have been worth writing, because it brought me hope, because it gave me space and allowed me to dream.
In the blog post “On Endings” from May, 2009, I reflected on a documentary I’d just seen on the photographer Sally Mann, an artist who was suffering from doubt and set-back — and yet her art seemed without question worthy and beautiful. How could she doubt?
Here’s what I wrote in response:
“There’s no telling whether these years of work will this time add up to something of beauty and merit, but I felt a kinship watching her [Sally Mann] struggle, mourn, reflect, create. It’s a blessing and curse to want to translate experience into art — not just to want to, but to do it. The work involved. Working toward an end you can’t see until you find it. Will it be whole, or still-born? All the infinitessimal choices along the way that shape the final artifact, that leave you wondering — why this and not that? So much room for criticism, self and other. There’s the artifact created, and the one intended, and the multiple ones that might have been.”
Weirdly, I see that her art show was titled “What Remains.” I say weirdly because that very nearly became the last line in the epilogue to my book, but we decided to cut it. I’m still not sure about that cut. It’s the only one I question and wonder about. This is the ending that almost was: “Tell me, for I need to know. What remains?”
I have a million other things I’d like to blog about, here, as we stand on the threshold of a new year. These are all on my mind: Chief Theresa Spence’s ongoing hunger strike; the need to protect and cherish the land we live on, the air we breathe, the water we drink; the nihilism of a sub-group of young men, worldwide, who commit acts of terror, from the random-seeming shootings in the United States, to suicide bombers elsewhere, to the violent rape that is moving protestors in India to rise up against a casually misogynist culture. There is more, I know. I wonder, will this be a year in which protest brings about hope and healing? What is my (small) part in creating a more hopeful world? We all long for peaceful communities, whole relationships, happy families. We are imperfect.
We work toward ends we cannot see.
Haircut, Monday evening, while waiting for the hot chocolate to cool, because, as always, “This hot chocolate is too hot!”
I wasn’t going to blog this morning, but I’m operating so efficiently that I genuinely believe I can write and post this in ten minutes (which is the time I’m allotting towards it). I have already been for a run (with a friend, in the dark, and oh it’s dark these mornings, which is why you’ll see me wearing a headlamp, even though I discovered it left a funny mark on my forehead this morning). I have a soup simmering in the crockpot. I got the kids up, dressed, fed, and off to school by myself, as Kevin headed off early to Toronto (thankfully he walked the dogs before he left, that might have been the straw for my this morning). I’ve had a nap. I’ve eaten breakfast! I just made a fresh pot of coffee.
I’m going to spend the day writing.
But I did want to report back re sad neglected advent calendar. Monday ended on a high: I put slips of paper into each empty pocket. I was so excited to tell the kids when they got home from school: check the calendar!
Monday’s activity? “Look at photo albums.”
“Oh! I just did that!” said Fooey. (Yes, that’s what gave me the idea, thought I. The photo albums were still out.)
Yesterday’s activity: “Write our family Christmas letter.”
Which AppleApple and I accomplished in an hour of manic productiveness after swimming, while the little kids got their own snacks and brushed their own teeth (Kevin and Albus were at soccer). Now comes the hard part: printing and sending. If you think you’re not on our list and you’d like to be added to our list (where is our list? note to self: find!), you are welcome to send me your address via email.
Today’s activity: “Wear red and green.” (Because today is “green” day in CJ’s “big school” classroom and I didn’t want to forget.)
I can’t remember what tomorrow’s is. But trust me, all of the activities are extremely low-key, or things I’d already planned to do. For those more ambitious, a friend sent me a link to this Pinterest page with advent activities that are, admittedly, quite do-able, but kind of overwhelm me with their impossible enthusiasm nevertheless.
Time’s up. Enjoy your Wednesday, whatever it is you’re doing today. (Just noticed that I’m not wearing red or green …)
This is what I feel like doing today.
Instead, I am having one of those exquisitely Mondayish days. And Monday is winning. Damn you, Monday! The hours are cruising past while I blither away at apparently endless and infinitely finicky odds and ends that must be done somehow by someone and soon. I’m telling you, spreadsheets are involved.
“This is the most disappointing advent we’ve ever had,” said one of the children this morning.
And I’ll admit, I have not found a good way to fill those little slots with daily seasonal activities, despite having an envelope full of ideas in my office. We had the “candy cane meltdown” last week, wherein a slip of paper promised candy canes we proved not to have. We’ve had way too much hot chocolate for breakfast. The Christmas decorations never got made. The snowflakes for the front window did, but remain as clutter on the dining-room table. And for the past two mornings, the children have found nothing in their advent calendar. Nothing. Serious seasonal fail.
I should at least write on a slip of paper, “Make toast!” or “Pet the dogs!” I think the kids would prefer that over nothing. They might even prefer to imagine that we’re going to do activities that I know in advance we won’t have time for, such as “Bake cookies!” or “Go skating!”
All of which is to say that this Monday finds me quite entirely overwhelmed by the details of the season. Who has bought gifts for whom? What’s our budget? What’s happening when? Can we split childcare over the holidays? Is everyone happy? Will everyone be happy? I know, I do, that it will all come together, and that the time I’ve spent today will help make it so, but oh, this is tedious.
Meanwhile, the novel waits patiently (or maybe not so patiently; I’m pretty sure the novel has the bit in its 210-pages-of-teeth and is begging me to gallop for the finish line. But listen, novel, we’ll just have to go back to the beginning and start the race all over again, so, really, what’s your hurry?). I hear, from a novelist much more experienced than I am, that I should look into Scrivener, a program that helps keep track of all the book’s bits and pieces. Unlike Word, which makes me feel like I’m composing one insanely long drawn-out thought that may have completely gone off the rails way back when and is missing several dozen terribly important pieces but I can’t stop now and must simply forge ahead til I reach the end. Writers out there — thoughts? (Also, it occurs to me that I could really use a Scrivener-like-program to organize my entire life. Talk about bits and pieces.)
This is a perfect writing day.
Rainy, grey, dark, gloomy. No pull to go outside or run errands in the sunshine (not that the pull is very strong for me anyway, when I’m on a writing roll). I woke from my post-spin-class cat-nap to the sound of heavy rain on the roof. That sound makes me feel content, dreamy, and ever so slightly guilty for sending my children off to school without umbrellas or rain jackets. I’m their weather girl. And apparently I’m good at maintaining the long-standing weather-person tradition of totally wrong forecasts. I should get a green screen and a pointer, and do my hair and makeup.
Attention: Minor profound thought of the day coming right up.
Writing fiction is not a responsive job. In a responsive job, you show up with your talents and skills, and respond to the needs presented to you. Your schedule, also, responds to other people’s needs. I imagine this could be very satisfying: here is a need being treated by my specific skills. I sometimes fantasize about having the skills to do work like that.
I don’t, really. (Although I could, perhaps, find a job as a copy editor or a creative writing teacher, given my current skill set.)
Writing fiction is quite different. I’m going to call it an originating job. In an originating job, you set your talents and skills to projects of your own devising, and hope to heck that others will connect with what you’re doing, and see value in it. The work (and the schedule) is self-directed. If I want anything exciting to happen, I must make it happen. I must see what could be, believe in it, and bring it about. I must pursue my goal against inevitable headwinds of creative dissonances and deeply uncomfortable emotions: doubt and uncertainty caused by a lack of exterior motivation. No one needs a book. (If I break my arm, I need a doctor; but a book of fiction answers no such direct need.) Being a fiction writer can feel excruciatingly meaningless. Completely unnecessary. It’s quite easy to go from wondering, can I do this, to why am I doing this?
That is why Wild Optimism is a huge part of my every day existence. The belief that I have something to say. The desire to express it. The sheer chugging energy that fires me toward an end. That is also why sometimes I am tired and weary, and I fantasize about people calling me up and begging to pay me pots of money to write books for them! That is why I fantasize, too, about doing other work, where I could walk into a room and respond to a need, immediately. I long for a different skill set, sometimes, or an enhanced and deeper skill set.
But I love the freedom and seemingly endless possibilities that come from doing an originating job.
Attention: No conclusions shall be drawn today.
I’m meeting Kevin for lunch tomorrow, to brainstorm and discuss our future plans, big and small. I’m sure we’ll have all the answers by tomorrow afternoon. Well … at least we’ll have a lunch date together.
this morning, convalescing kid with companions
Recently I sat down and wrote out a schedule. My goal was to identify any spare pockets of time into which I could slot one of the following activities: exercise, writing, social time, Kevin time, and cleaning. (My standards are low, but even basic maintenance for a family of six without a dishwasher requires a little effort every day.) I discovered a few extra spots for running or yoga, plus worked out my strategy for maximizing my writing hours (hint: it involves scheduling separate time for email). Social time seems to be the hardest to come by.
But I did find an extra fifteen minutes here and there to throw at vacuuming and cleaning out cupboards and filing the stacks of paper that fly into the house and somehow multiply and spread to every available surface. To which I say, Whoo-hoo, without much enthusiasm.
But now I’ve got a kid home sick, and the schedule’s gone out the window. This is temporary, right? Right??
Last night, I visited another book club, my fifth this fall. I’ll admit that I was exhausted and drained after spending the previous night at the hospital, but I had a feeling that I needed not to cancel last-minute. I needed to go. And didn’t I! I was hosted by a group of mothers and daughters whose comforting warmth and welcome restored my energies. You just never know when these unexpected gifts are going to arrive. I returned home feeling repaired and strengthened by the evening.
I also got to show the book club the reprinted version of The Juliet Stories, which arrived yesterday. Oh my goodness! It looks quite different: GG finalist sticker embedded in the cover design, and new quotes from reviews on the back and front.
Kevin has made me a little gift: he put together a video with photos from this past month’s GG adventure, set over top of the clip on The Juliet Stories that was played on Monday evening on CBC radio’s As It Happens. Small story about that clip: I got to listen to it twice. First, I heard it live. I was washing the dishes, and I always listen to the CBC while washing the dishes (perhaps this is reason enough to remain dishwasher-free). Kevin was at a soccer game with AppleApple and the other kids were playing soccer in the rainy dark backyard, and suddenly there was my name and then my voice. I didn’t call the kids in. I listened alone, appreciating the quiet. What a sweet life moment. An hour later, the whole family got to hear it together: we streamed it from the Winnipeg station online. AppleApple was beaming from ear to ear: her Halloween costume is mentioned in the intro. (Several of her siblings were slightly jealous.) When my reading came on, CJ said, “Who is that?!” “Who do you think?” And he was suddenly too shy to say, but he knew.
Click here to see the video. Thanks, Kevin. It’s quite the keepsake.