This morning it was sun hats. It had to be something. Fooey couldn’t find hers, last minute, of course, and left wearing an old one and not very happy. Not the best start to her walk, but hopefully being outside in the bright fall sunshine quickly cheered her up.
I’ve been up since 5:15am, swam laps for an hour, came home to get kids organized and fed, and worked on a couple of music-related projects with the kids. AppleApple is learning “Across the Universe” for her Singer’s Theatre audition (her choice; and a tough tune to perfect. She amazes me with her patience and not just willingness, but eagerness, to take suggestions from me in her efforts to improve). And Albus practiced piano before school, too. (This year, we’ve agreed that he earns a star sticker for every “good” practice, and when he has 100 stars, he gets a reward; likely Lego-related. The girls can earn stickers too. Will this last? It may. He’s highly motivated by rewards and by money. Apparently the lad takes after his dad, which probably means he’ll go far, whether or not he ever learns to write neatly).
I can’t write neatly either, come to think of it. Thank heavens I learned to type at an early age. It comes in handy, being able to spit words as quickly as thought.
On a dimly related topic, I’m considering a different writing strategy this fall. Because I’ve spent years working on the same material, and crafting and re-crafting it, it’s daunting to leap into something entirely fresh and new, with brand-new characters who have brand-new stories to tell. Daunting, but exciting, too. In the past, I’ve never written for length or volume. My style is fairly compressed. But for this project, I’m considering tracking my words-per-day, and writing lavishly, spilling words, aiming in my first draft to give ample voice to characters within a fairly tight and dedicated plotline. My role-model for this project is Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. In other words, mystery, dark pasts, multiple perspectives.
I’m calling it The Swimmer.
Yesterday evening, while running, I had a vision: a shelf of pretty paperbacks, all different, with my name on the spines. I’ve been thinking of myself as a book-a-decade writer, ie. someone unable to produce excellent work quickly, someone who gestates stories very very slowly. And I’m not afraid of the potential slowness of the process, either; I’m a fan of patience, and patience rewarded. But here’s the thing: I’ve also never had the chance to work as many hours a week as I do this year, and in years to come the hours will grow. What if I put my head down and work the way I’ve worked at becoming triathlon-ready? It was thrilling to let myself imagine creating a variety of books, to chase down the ideas floating around my brain, to gather and bring them to coherence. I may be pursuing a career in a dying industry, but I refuse to believe it. Go read a book, any book, and you’ll remember what you’re missing out on as you surf the web late at night.
And with those thoughts, I’ll begin today’s writing day, trying to remember to sit up straight, not to slouch or twist in my ergnomically-sound chair, and to get up and take regular rest breaks. I’m also turning off my email for chunks of time throughout the day. No distractions.
Oh, and swimming and running are just the best times for thinking about my characters. And on the flip side, thinking about my characters makes swimming and running easier because time just slides by.
Problem: six-year-old’s pants no longer fit; discover salient fact at exact moment pantless child needs to be leaving for school; discover half a minute later that box in attic containing six-year-old hand-me-down clothes has next to no pants, oodles of pretty dresses
Solution: six-year-old leaves wearing pants that are slightly too big, but at least not too small; mama makes mental note to buy child more pants, preferably soft; mental note not good enough, should probably go on list; which list?
Problem: ten-year-old’s brand new labelled-as-non-marking shoes leave marks on gym floor, therefore ten-year-old can’t wear them as his indoor shoes (yes, the school requires children to have two pairs of shoes at all times, one for inside, the other for out); too late to go shoe shopping; old shoes wrecked and don’t fit
Solution: ten-year-old’s feet approximately same size as mama’s; ten-year-old agrees to wear mama’s old running shoes to school; but will this work for longer than one day?; mental note to add shoe-shopping to list (maybe); which list?
Problem: late bedtime due to late soccer practice and excursion to get binders that ten-year-old needs for school; three-year-old wakes incapable of speaking to anyone in tone other than grumpy, grouchy, or extremely put out; three-year-old threatens mutiny re attendance at nursery school
Solution: early to bed, early to bed, early to bed (mutters mama, thinking, oh dear, this is all on me tonight, as husband will be working late)
Problem: rising super-early to exercise, mama is Just Plain Tired by the time kids straggle off to school; precious few hours of work-time available; fuzzy-headedness not conducive to deep thought
Solution: one super-short nap; not sure it’s working, as mama is currently blogging and is not, therefore, starting to write her brand-new book, which she’s not scared of starting, really, honestly, okay, she’s pretty nervous about this (file under Things to Get Over; It Will Be Okay, Promise; You Can Do This, Just Take a Few Deep Breaths)
Problem: too much mama multitasking; items slipping through cracks; library books overdue; lists festering; brain overload; can’t read recipe for crockpot while serving porridge and trying to write notes to children’s teachers AND field question from husband about lunches without snapping irritably in reply
Solution: nothing comes to (over-stuffed) mind
Problem: there always seems to be more; it’s not predictable; no amount of list-making can answer the unknowable future
Solution: embrace improvisation; accept failure, reject defeat; welcome to the joy of being alive
What’s this? you may ask. Why it’s a Quidditch pitch, of course.
And what about this? Ah, this is the breakfast bar disguised as play area, craft area, Lego-building, snack-time, reading, puzzle-making, crap-dumping area. And dimly visible beyond it, the living-room, complete with giant homemade movie-watching fort.
And here are some movie-watching fort-building Quidditch-playing recently eye-examined kids.
This week, the last before school starts, has been a quiet one. I’ve had no writing time. Zero. There seemed little point, having sent the line edits back to my editor at the end of last week (that’s worth a small hurray!), and not having the fortitude to imagine starting a new project in the midst of this. And by this, I point you to the photos above, which capture only a portion of the domestic chaos in our rooms and yard.
The appropriate implement for cleaning our living-room, at this point, would be a snow shovel.
I spent the first day or two of this week making feeble attempts to clean up. I think it was fort day that smacked me in the face with the obvious: there’s no point in cleaning up when the kids are still playing. And what else should they be doing during these last days of summer holiday? Of course they should be building Quidditch pitches out of duct tape and sticks and buckets and hula hoops. Of course they should be setting up gigantic (and sweltering) movie theatres with precariously balanced air mattresses and every pillow in the house, and of course their mother should let them eat popcorn in the living-room just this once, even though it’s sure to spill, just because. So I did. And they spilled. And it wasn’t the end of the world; or the end of anything, really.
I can’t say I’ve enjoyed this week, but it’s nobody’s fault but my own. Where I’m at is caught in my own end of summer turmoil. I find myself performing small (private) feminist rants (while washing the dishes) about a decade wasted in not climbing the corporate ladder (ha! as if that would ever have been me), and erupting in bitterness because Kevin gets to go out the door to work every morning while I stay home and pop popcorn and plan supper and watch the kids stir up enormous messes (er, play creatively). It’s time, as they say, for a change.
Today, Kevin is home from work, and we are getting stuff done. “It feels like it’s fall,” said Fooey this morning as I hung laundry and we listened to a squirrel’s teeth gnawing on a black walnut, and the fallen leaves blew around the porch stairs. “Is it still summer?”
It is. It is! It’s that melancholy late summer that gets me every year. It’s full of promise and hope, somehow, the way endings always are. And restlessness. And a stomach full of butterflies.
There’s a post I wrote awhile ago, a year and a half ago, to be precise, to which I keep returning. (Read it yourself, here, if you’d like).
The question I was asking then (and which I continue to ask) boils down to what kind of life I’m seeking to live: is it a life with unexpected twists and turns and seemingly disconnected variety, or a life of intense and singular highly focussed work; or is there perhaps a third way, a way in between those two extremes?
A year and a half after articulating that question, I can’t say an answer has appeared. Has life, as it’s been lived since then, spoken? Not in any expected way. Not loudly. Not directly. But also, have I been listening to the universe in the same way? Expecting it to reply? I have not. And I’m not sure why.
Instead, I’ve been running.
Is that a metaphor? Have I been running away? Or toward? Or is running a question and answer contained in itself? This morning, I woke up a bit later than usual, but realized that without a run, my day would be consumed by negative energy, and that I needed to run as far and as fast as I could in the time available, in order to burn that energy off.
Where is this negative energy coming from? It manifests itself in a general grumpiness, irritability, sometimes in a muddled mind, or I get lost in thought. Not practical, useful thought, but distant drifting foggy thought in which I cannot find my way. There is something about running (or biking or swimming or any exercise that gets me working physically) that burns off the fog, that releases me, even if only briefly, into a happy state. Afterward, I feel productive. Alive. It’s like an energy exchange: bad for good.
What will you do with your life?
My youngest starts school in a year. A year, therefore, is my self-imposed deadline. Deadline for what? For direction. For the universe to point me wherever I’m meant to be going, or for me to point myself, to step off, to launch, to turn around, to choose. I type that as if it were absolute, as if I might choose the wrong path, as if there is a right path and a wrong path; and there’s not. I believe many paths could be right. Success (happiness? contentment?) is dependent on how I walk the one(s) I choose. Nevertheless. My youngest entering school carries the pressure of a deadline. I’m at an age when it feels like, to paraphrase a character in The Juliet Stories, I’m holding in my hands a diminishing collection of possibilities.
So. I have a year to figure this out. I don’t know about you, but a year doesn’t feel as long as it once did. Turn your head, laugh, and it’s vanished.
“You did a good job of keeping everyone busy this week, so you could write your book, Mom.” — AppleApple
I’m a bit of a beast when it comes to getting things done. I should modify that claim: it applies only to things that matter quite a lot to me. But when I set myself a goal, I figure out how to get there. No procrastinating. No excuses. Obsessive? Single-minded? Something of a perfectionist? And yet I’m extremely lackadaisical in other regards. You should see the living-room floor right now, for example. Apparently, clean house is not one of my goals.
Getting through the line edits for The Juliet Stories was.
Here’s how it was accomplished. 1. A blog-friend put me in touch with her babysitter, who was able to entertain four children for several hours on short notice, so I could go over my editor’s notes in detail. 2. Another friend took all four children for a morning of play at her house, and fed them lunch, so I could have a phone conversation with my editor before beginning the edits. 3. Kevin took Friday off, and spent the entire weekend with the kids, on his own, while I holed up in the playroom to work. 4. The two older kids agreed to go to soccer camp this week. 5. A friend babysat the little kids on Tuesday and Thursday, and another friend did the same on Wednesday: lunches, snacks, outings. 6. I sat in front of the computer and forced myself to concentrate on the minutiae.
The only part of the book that remains unwritten is the acknowledgments. I’m saving the writing of them for a rainy day, as a treat. Sometimes I find myself drafting all the thank-yous in my head, with a kind of dreamy gratitude. Because the above paragraph represents only a fraction of all the help this book has received from friends, and family, and babysitters who have come to feel like family. It’s been a group effort.
And, lest I dare to compare, it’s been different from the first time around, when I wrote Hair Hat almost secretively, and with a deep unwillingness to identify myself as a writer, almost as if I couldn’t believe it myself. (Impostor syndrome, perhaps). This time around has been messier. The process has taken longer. It’s involved way more people. I’ve had to ask for more help. And, thanks in large part to this blog, I’ve gone public with all the mess and agonizing and stops and starts and work and luck and gratitude; and that’s made it all easier, actually.
Maybe it’s gauche to go so public with the ups and downs, airing my dirty laundry; or maybe it’s like opening the front door and inviting the neighbours in. I hope it’s the latter. But it’s a fine line.
Thanks to all who’ve accepted the invitation and walked in to my untidy house.
I am working again today, my third consecutive day, though perhaps with less enthusiasm and energy than on days one and two. Friday, I ploughed with confidence through the first two stories, slow and steady, and with the phrase “take heart,” in my mind.
Yesterday, I tackled my nemesis and felt satisfied. I wrote a new scene for another story and felt calm. And then I spent hours waiting for a couple of words to arrive: dialogue that must say enough but not too much, that will illuminate, leave space for mystery, and not confuse the reader. Oh, and complete a story with a few final rhythmic beats, too. Harder than you might think.
And this is the easy stage. Except maybe it’s not. Maybe there isn’t an easy stage. Yes, the stories are structurally sound. They are thoroughly imagined. That intensive and demanding work is long since done. But we’re down to the details, the nitty-gritty, the word here that could be stronger, the paragraph there that is too vague, the stray fluff that if left in might distract a reader, might sap energy from the larger story.
It’s work that makes me feel like pulling my hair out, like running for hours (in the opposite direction). I know these stories all too well. Can I walk through such familiar terrain and observe with fresh eyes? I cannot. It is impossible. The best I can do is force myself to pay attention, slow down, creep along, praying for a depth of concentration that will allow me to finish what I’ve started. To see it through to the end.
It should be easy. A word here, a word there. Grace notes.
That’s a musical term, but I’m hearing it differently all of a sudden. Notes that grace the whole; but also, notes that arrive by grace.
That sums up the work I need to do today, and the work I’ve been doing. Waiting for grace. Sitting with my stories, picking slowly through them, hoping for grace. I can’t rip the words out of thin air. I have to invite them over. And be here when they arrive. They’re whimsical, fickle, unreliable guests. There’s no predicting how they’ll surprise me.
Which is why I’m still hanging around waiting, I suppose. It’s tedious. But somehow I trust I won’t be bored, in the end. Neither will you, dear reader, I hope.