People often ask me: Are you still writing?
I can’t help but parse the phrasing. The word still. Of course, it may appear that I might have somehow stopped writing, that I am no longer writing, because I’ve published so little since Girl Runner came out in the fall of 2014. During these past four years, it is true, I’ve published two picture books for children, a handful of short stories and essays in Canadian literary magazines, a performance piece for an arts festival in France, and these personal blog posts. That’s clearly not enough to keep the lights on, so to speak.
Are you still writing?
I understand the question. I know it’s asked out of kindness and curiosity. How to explain that writing is like breathing, for me? I could not stop. When I do stop, it will be because I’ve also stopped breathing. My life depends on this form of expression.
Are you still writing?
I am always writing, I explain. I explain, Not everything I write will be published.
I recognize that this is a painful truth. I recognize that to state this fact makes me vulnerable. We all like success stories. Painful truths we like so much less, we humans. We like winners because they win. We pity losers for losing. Is it shameful and possibly career-ending to admit: I’m trying, but I’m not living up to the standards being set? To admit: Success is out of my control? To admit: What I love doing may not be what the market wants? Some of us would prefer deception to truth. I wonder whether in the arts community, as in any career involving public scrutiny, we are more inclined to stare away the painful truths, to hide them, and perhaps this is the evolutionarily correct instinct.
Well, I’m going to tell you the painful truth anyway. I’m trying. I’m still writing.
There are problems that we have the capacity to solve with ingenuity and effort, and there are gravity problems. Gravity problems are problems that no amount of ingenuity and effort can solve: gravity just is, a force, like time, that doesn’t bend to human will.
I’ve been fortunate to shift some of my attention, these past four years, into teaching creative writing, work I’ve come to love. It is rewarding to receive immediate feedback, to test ideas live, to adventure in the company of others. Teaching is the opposite of writing literary fiction, at least in my experience. In my experience, to write literary fiction requires enormous patience, bottomless trust in one’s own instincts, and the fierce will to continue alone, for long stretches of time. It requires so much energy. All the energy comes from within. This can be hard to sustain in the absence of … I was going to say success, but I think the more accurate word is community.
There must be a better way!
This post has taken an unexpected detour. This isn’t the post I thought I was writing.
I need new fuel for the fire, that seems apparent from what I’ve written here. I’m out of steam. I’m still writing, but I’ve also given up hope. In my classroom, I strive to foster a creative community — it’s a goal that’s set and maintained and evaluated throughout the term. With deliberate effort, I make space for peers to meet, to share their work, to share the weight of vulnerability, and to learn how to offer useful critique, which is really a brave form of support.
I have never created such a space for myself. I’ve never even considered it as a possibility.
This is not a gravity problem. This is a problem that can be solved by ingenuity, effort, and most importantly, the willingness to be vulnerable.
Writing = breathing. If I hadn’t sat down this morning to write, I wouldn’t have stumbled across this discovery: what I’m feeling and experiencing can’t be solved alone. What I need is community, a writing community.
Earlier today I was writing, but then I had to stop writing because it was time to make a salad dressing, eat supper with my family, and clean up after supper. I was in a difficult part of the book, really struggling with it, and now I’m sitting down hours later, wondering how to find my way back in to that difficult spot? I feel a dull anger, but I don’t think it’s really to do with the interruption of thought, I suspect it’s a deeper frustration with my own inabilities to solve the problems in this book, which I fear I may not be clever enough or determined enough to do. The problem is that there is no big aha moment at the end of the book. There is no big reveal. No twist. The evil character remains evil. That’s another problem. The evil character is not an appealing and charismatic anti-hero who was once good and has fallen out of goodness, nor is he a polarizing or morally dubious character; no. All of his instincts and actions are reprehensible. Perhaps this points to a flaw in my imagination. I just can’t find his goodness, except possibly when he was a child. At the end of the book, has he changed? What’s revealed about him, ultimately?
So I sit here looking at the final page of this book, literally the final page, wondering where the redemption lies. Wondering whether this is a book about forgiveness or about revenge, or maybe it’s a book about being unable to forgive — and what happens then?
And then a few hours go by, and I’ve written a new ending that feels right, somehow, and the candle on my desk hasn’t burned out once this whole time. And now it’s bedtime. It’s getting late. I have a cartoon to finish and exercise early in the morning. It’s funny, and also comforting, to read what I wrote earlier in the evening. What I’ll probably remember about today is not the irritation or the frustration, which turned out to be momentary, fleeting, but the feeling of wholeness that arrived at the end of it all.
You have to withstand discomfort to make anything.
My word of the year for 2017 was STAND. As an exercise, partway through the year, I looked up all the meanings and synonyms for the word, and wrote them onto an index card that I carried around in my purse until at some point it turned into this stained and crumpled piece of paper you see above. The definition filled the entire card, in tiny letters, both sides.
1. v. To be upright, to be on one’s feet, to rise to one’s feet
2. v. Put, place, set
3. v. Take a position
4. v. Support, uphold, argue, champion, defend
5. v. Be present, remain, stay, exist, persist, continue, prevail, hold
6. v. Endure, abide, sustain, remain, last, bear up, carry on, withstand, suffer, submit to, face, weather, stomach, persevere
7. v. Be
There’s more, too. Of course STAND is also a noun with several meanings, including: position; kiosk; and a group of trees.
It was my original intention to explore meanings #3 and #4, above. I was going to take a stand and protest and speak out. But instead my year leaned heavily on #5 and especially #6. The many meanings of STAND expanded. The word took the shape of a tree in my mind, rooted with a strong spine, a good word and a good image for a year that rippled and buckled with unexpected heartache and news difficult to digest (most of which I’ve chosen not to write about on this blog, because it is either too personal or not directly my own story to tell).
STAND came to feel like a necessary, useful word, easy to incorporate into my thinking. I finished the year with greater confidence and inner quiet, at least about my writing. The word, and especially the image of a tree, seems to invite patience and calm, to look at the world and one’s own desires and human failures from a wide-angled view, as from a tree-top. In retrospect, I think I strived for less this year but nevertheless did the work I wanted to do. What more can a person ask for? It’s going to be hard to let this word go.
But it’s time to choose a new word, for a new year. I’m meeting with a group of friends tonight to share our new words. (I will share my word with you after I’ve shared it with them.) The bar is high. I’m a bit afraid. What hidden part of myself is seeking illumination?
To be continued …
PS If you choose a word of the year, please leave your word for 2018 in the comments.
Title: poem excerpt by Rilke, drawings by Carrie
Captions: No one lives her life. We come of age as masks. / Our true face never speaks. / Somewhere there must be storehouses where all these lives are laid away. / Maybe all paths lead there, to the repository of unlived things.
Observation: It is easy (and a total delight) to cartoon every day when I’m on holiday. The challenge will be to create cartoons on days when I’m spread super-thin and scarcely keeping up. It will also be a challenge to accept the cartoons that suck — or, more accurately, to move past the idea that my drawing sucks while I’m drawing. This will be good practice in flipping the switch, like Lynda Barry tells us and like I tell my students: turn off that little voice that’s asking DOES THIS SUCK or IS THIS GOOD? Because you don’t know and you can’t know! Instead, tell yourself I DON’T KNOW BUT I’M DOING IT! Sometimes, when I make a glaring error in a drawing, I feel a sense of relief: it’s no longer perfect, and now I can relax and just make the thing without worrying about ruining it.
The mistake I made here was in the first panel, when I drew myself with dots for eyes, which is not my usual style.
Title: Worst sore loser
Captions: This morning we played soccer, and I was the worst sore loser. / The kids and Kevin are playing a board game. / Everyone agrees it’s better that I don’t play. / Self-awareness only goes so far in terms of self-improvement.
On this last day of this old year, I’m trying to figure out how to present my cartoon project. Process fascinates me. I love a long-term project and having completed quite a few know that the process must be simple and easy to manage. The parameters need to be strict enough to make completion challenging yet attainable. Any long-term project will test commitment, and therefore requires enough flexibility to prevent one bad day from destroying the whole task. My goal is to cartoon every day. Will I accept stick figures on a bad day? A single panel cartoon? What if I forget one day? Any long-term project also needs accountability. So I’d like to publish my cartoons throughout the year, likely here on my blog. I don’t publish every day, so I will likely weave the cartoons into weekly posts. We shall see. This is an ongoing experiment, and I am at the very beginning of it.
One of my favourite blog readers is visually impaired (Hi Kerry!), so I’m going to title and caption the cartoons in hopes that this will allow her to “see” them too.
Title: How to be a good person
Caption: Annie is doing a project today where she tries to be a good person. / She is trying mainly, as far as I can see, to pay attention to other people’s needs. / Giving of your time and attention are similar tasks. / Both are hard to do, and we spend lots of both without great thought.
What am I hoping to accomplish through this project? As with any long-term project, the excitement is in the surprise. I DON’T KNOW BUT I’M DOING IT! When I did my 365 self-portrait project, I learned how to be a subject and how to embrace the frame. I also learned the value of editing a day down to a single image. When I did my triathlon project, I discovered previously unrecognized reserves of determination, confidence, and inner strength. When I designed the creativity course last winter, I discovered the surprising joy of putting lines on a page. I learned brevity and gesture. When I write a novel, I discover whole new places and people. Ideas that are otherwise ephemeral become embodied. When I meditate for a year on a single word, the word becomes part of my being.
With this project, I’d like to become a better artist and cartoonist. I’d like to find my voice and style. I’d also like to practice a new way of holding and cherishing the daily, mundane, fleeting bits and pieces of life. I want to pay attention. I want to distill my ideas into an accessible format. But who knows? Who knows what will be accomplished? The project is the process, as it always it.
Title: I know this isn’t a job
Captions: I know this isn’t a job / But I feel so lucky that I get to make up tasks for myself, like this one / And somehow, sometimes, it turns into something real / something I can give to someone else.
PS Soundtrack for this post: Way With Words by Bahamas
Settle in. This is a long one. I’m going to try to answer the question: How do you write? It’s a question about process, about routine, and one I want to quiz other writers on too — how the heck do you do it? What does your day look like? How do you organize yourself to conceive, research, and complete large projects?
Is there a secret set of rituals? And if so, can I access that, please?
I always forget, by the time a book is published, how it was written. I retain a vague memory of the timeline, but the days and weeks and months and years muddle together, and so I create a new narrative: the how I wrote this book narrative. It’s highly romanticized in retrospect.
The bad news: there is no magic formula, or if there is, I’ve never figured it out.
This past year, from January till December of 2017, I’ve been writing a new novel. I just finished what I’m calling Draft Three. Let this post be a record of how I wrote it, while the memory remains fresh in my mind. (To be fair and frank, this novel’s conception includes two failed novels written between 2014-2106, both weird cousins to this one, but that’s another story.)
Here’s how I wrote this book, Drafts One through Three.
Step one: I didn’t stop writing it, even after the lousy first draft. (My first drafts are always lousy; 100% guaranteed; but if I’m bored with a novel after the first draft I take it as a sign to move on to something new.) I finished a sort-of version of a first draft in April. How lousy was it? It didn’t even have an ending. But it existed, and its characters existed. So that was an accomplishment. In case there are clues that I can follow later, here’s how I wrote this early draft: Due to my concussion, I couldn’t work on a screen for any length of time, nor was I exercising early in the morning. From January – March, I set my alarm and rose at 6am, three or four mornings a week, and wrote until 7:30am, when it was time to help get the kids to school. I wrote in my office, in pajamas, wrapped in a blanket, sitting in my great-aunt Alice’s rocking chair by the window. I wrote by hand, in pen or pencil, in a notebook. That’s all the time I put into it. Sometimes I was so tired, I would close my eyes and drift back to sleep. The light on those mornings was inky black changing to blue black and indigo as the sun rose. There were a lot of crows in the trees. Often, I wouldn’t know what storyline or scene might arise when I sat down. It felt dreamlike. In April, when my head was better, I arranged for a full writing week. I transferred the pencil scratches to my laptop, adding material, trying to complete the book. But no.
Step two: Keep writing, even when hopelessly pressed for time. The book wasn’t done. I started teaching in May. I carted my notebook and pencil to campus and spent an hour before class, writing in my office. That hour, twice weekly, was the sum total of my time (mental and actual) available for writing. Life imposes its own demands at times, unavoidable and all-consuming. At the end of June, I arranged another writing week and attempted to finish the novel, using the new notebook material. Still no ending, but complete enough to warrant printing it out: I called this Draft One. In July, the English department assigned two more instructors to my shared office, and they overlapped with my office hours, so I stopped writing on campus. I felt deeply discouraged. I’d lost my writing space, couldn’t solve the problems in draft two, kids were out of school, soccer season in full swing, I was marking and reading student stories, etc. I satisfied my need to write (which is constant and near-daily) by writing along with my students inside and outside of class.
Step three: Embrace inspiration when it arrives. In August, on our family holiday to Quebec, I brought along some books to read. One was Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, a favourite writer of mine. While reading it, I had a brainwave: a different approach to my novel. I remember exactly where I was: in a leather chair overlooking the indoor pool surrounded by fake tropicals and rococo plaster statuary. It would mean rewriting my novel from scratch. You might think this sounds exhausting. I felt exhilarated. Marking completed, August offered many opportunities for writing time. The week after returning from Quebec, I wrote every day. Again, I wrote in my notebook by hand. This time, I transferred the text immediately to my laptop, rewriting and revising as I went. But a major plot problem loomed, confirmed by research.
Step four: Don’t be afraid to play! In the middle of August, I spent a week in New York State at a writing workshop with Lynda Barry and Dan Chaon. The exercises were unrelated to my novel, and I didn’t try to link them up, but in that open playful environment, ideas flowed freely, my mind was uncluttered. On a walk on the second evening, a solution to the major plot problem floated in. Every evening, I went to our classroom space and worked on the novel, with freedom and joy. When I sat down to write, I followed Lynda Barry’s ritual: I listened to a song and drew an attendance cartoon; then I wrote for 3 minutes to dump out whatever was on my mind (this may be my own addition to the ritual); and then I got to work. Back home, I wrote as often as possible on weekdays. At the end of August, at my dad and stepmother’s cottage, I wrote every day, in 2-3 hour stretches morning and afternoon, kayaked before dinner, and spent the rest of the time with my family. Home again, I continued to write, whenever I could squeeze it in, even after school started and I was back to teaching. By the end of September, I was done. This time, my novel had an ending. I printed it and called it Draft Two.
Step five: Don’t stop now. Kevin read Draft Two. I was hoping he would say: this is brilliant, send it to your agent! He did not. Re-reading it, I agreed. I got back to work. This required identifying potential writing days each week, keeping these days clear, guarding them jealously, jamming errands and volunteer work and teaching and marking and answering email into the other days. I aimed for two or three writing days each week; not always possible. Again, I wrote by hand in my notebook, then transferred to screen. I started my writing time with a song and a cartoon. The momentum at this point became relentless. I could not turn myself off.
I finished. Draft Three.
As I reflect on these stages, I notice that the early gathering stage requires some small amount of regular time, the creation of a routine that allowed me to sit down and gather scraps, though I couldn’t quite see what I was making. But the later work required great swathes of time and focus. Just ask my family. For example, last Saturday, I decided to go through Draft Three line by line, and without considering the consequences sat down in my office around 10am. I proceeded to sit for hours and hours without eating or drinking or moving. Kevin dragged me out to a carol sing with friends around 2:30pm. Socially, I was almost useless. Home again, I drifted instantly back to my office, forgetting to eat or drink. Supper came and went. I did not move. I broke away, but returned around midnight, overtaken by another idea. This week, I was supposed to be marking my students’ final stories. But I had to finish the book. Do you see. I had to finish. It’s almost an addiction, I would have to say. The switch gets flipped and I can’t turn it off.
This is why I resist, sometimes, sitting down to write. Yet it’s the only way to finish a major project.
Here is one last thought. I work like this, this obsessively, on projects that fail, too. There is no guarantee that obsessive attention will result in success. However, the desire to continue pouring energy into a project, obsessively, has, in the past, allowed me to write books I’m truly proud of. Sometimes a project is dead, and I know it and accept it. But a project that lives tells me too. A living yet unresolved project feels like an itch deep inside my brain, almost painful; I know something is missing and I’m not sure how to fix it, but if I allow myself to sit with dissatisfaction, to hold cognitive discomfort, if I trust myself and trust the process, a new idea inevitably comes, a new thread to play with. The experiment begins again, afresh. I work and work and work until I run out of time or I finish what I’ve started.
It is painful to run out of time, but life needs time, too. I’ve sacrificed a lot of family time in order to write. I have and I do. I must, if I’m to write. Writing is my life’s work. I’m beginning to accept what that means. Sometimes there is no balance in the balancing act.
This is how I write.
P.S. Kevin is reading Draft Three now. I’ll keep you posted. Back to marking …
I am sitting near the window in my dining room. The kettle is rattling on the stove. So far, I’ve scarcely glanced out the window, except to acknowledge that I am sitting near enough to it to see out. But it occurs to me that it’s the window over the kitchen sink where I should write this, and the kettle is now nearly at the boil, so I will be going there — now.
I choose a tea made for relaxation and stand at the window looking out over the sink. My timing is poor — the subjects I’d intended to observe are coming inside. Why? Because they are done — the older child beat the younger one at a game of soccer, played with a mini ball and nets. The older one tells me the score but I do not remember it long enough to write it down. I see now that the yard is growing dark and it will be difficult to observe much of anything. A neighbour’s porch light glows bright yellow from beyond the back fence — far away, but the brightest thing there this is. Green leaves still hang on the branches of the big maple, moving fitfully in the breeze. The leaves on the black walnut are of a lighter green, almost yellow, pointier, and hang like drips, trembling. The sky has gone the colour of bath water, clouds pale like veins or striations of veins.
I have the sensation of already having written all of this, of having stood here writing these words, already, before, as if there were nothing new in them. And yet. And yet the very sureness of their existence is the surprise — that they are known or flow from me as if already known. I hear the youngest begin to sing in the shower; the bathroom’s just off the kitchen. He is singing his own version of the Spanish words to Despacito.
I see plane lights blink red and white across the darkening sky. By the time I write down the words that prove they exist, they are gone. I glance back up to confirm it — gone. The leaves now look like hair overhanging swampland. I see in the window my own face, reflected against the blackening surface. This is not what I came here to see. Tired and ghostly. The youngest emerges in a towel, leaving sopping wet footprints across the tiles.
“I’m cold, Mama.”
All the writers I read about, the ones I long to emulate, write in longhand on lined yellow notepads. Well, I think, this will have to do.
I am writing this in block letters into a notebook, standing up, staring out of a dark window at my own face whose reflection can’t escape being sectioned by the shining porch light, while the youngest, now in pajamas, returns to guzzle water. He stands far too near to me. The sound of the water being gulped and gasped down his wide open throat — “Dogs can’t drink water like people, Mom!” — disgusts me irrationally. He belches. His chest is bare. He is gone.
I’ve now written long past the clock. Will my students do the same? Will they get lost in their own windows?