There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged.
What I’ve enjoyed about this experience in France is being given something to do, an assignment, a commission. It gives me purpose and direction. In my usual writing life, I am the sole source of my purpose and direction. I have to propel myself toward something no one else can see and when the work is done I have to convince people to care. It takes a lot energy. The pleasure of this commission is that I’ve been asked to do something, and I’m doing it, to the best of my abilities. It’s up to the Festival to convince people to care about what I’m making, just as they invented the goal. It takes so much weight off.
My sense, as I’ve worked, is of being at play, in a playful and free state of mind, digging in, like a child with a wad of modelling clay having just been told: go ahead and get messy!
When I am busy and rushing around, I imagine that what I want is to be still, to do nothing. But here I am, today, with nothing pressing to do, well-rested, in a state of quiet and relaxation, and it is almost as if I’ve come to a stop and can’t begin again. The idea that we will get to do whatever we want in our state of needing-to-do-nothing ignores that it is a state that requires some force to exit. I think I sense this in my every day life, that it is easier to keep going than to stop and recalibrate. Now is my chance to recalibrate, now that I am at a stop, and it’s up to me to decide what that means.
Today, I went for a run on the trail by the river where I’ve been walking almost every day. What a good choice it was to run, as I knew it would be. The air was sweet, the wind was cool, it was sunny, I got a good sweat going, I made myself work on some stretches and let myself go easier on others. I heard songbirds, and saw the green popping out faintly on the trees, and my thoughts came calmly and clearly.
I thought about doing rather than thinking. How important it is to do. To do is to be. I’m proudest of myself and most satisfied with my life when I am active, involved, taking risks, in the public space, using my body, along with my mind. My idlest and least productive times have been when I’ve had “all the time in the world,” or “nothing but time.” During those seasons (winter, age 19; fall, age 23), I tried to write and produced nothing; more nothing than at any other time in my life. For example, as soon as I got a job, age 24, I started to write again. Another example: I started to write Hair Hat as soon as I’d given birth to my eldest, but not during the months of relative idleness before. That says to me something quite profound: that my being a writer is not dependent on having grand expanses of free time. It may even be dependent on the opposite, on being squeezed for time because life is so interesting and full, and I’m doing so much, and then in reverence and thanks can I come to a quiet space and write, in a way that feels crucial, important, necessary. If I could go around the planet working on commissions like this, I would; but this is unique, this is grace.
Something came to me while I was running — running past a ramshackle farmhouse with a red attic door and orange brick outbuildings, running past a field of bright yellow blooms, running under a row of fat-trunked trees with bird-shit splattered on the pavement below them — I thought, in order to write I must have something to say, and I’ll only have something to say if I have something to do.
I need to do.
If I want to be the writer that I want to be, I need to do more … but what? … than write.
I haven’t taken many photos at the museum, where I’m spending my mornings. I mean to, and then get caught up in the work and forget everything else. I’ve been commissioned to write a completely open-ended piece that will be performed in the museum a week from Sunday (by an actress, not by me).
Here is my morning routine: I walk to the museum, enter at a back door that is unlocked and propped slightly open, climb a wonky circular staircase, which I swear is going to fall off the wall any minute, and ring the bell outside an industrial metal door on the second floor. Eventually someone comes to let me in, although I usually have to knock for awhile too, and one day had to wander around the grounds until the museum director happened by. Behind the door is a large room with big windows, big tables, shelves of books, filing cabinets, several desks, mysterious bubble-wrapped items, and a workspace where today a man was framing photographs: new prints made from old film (or would it be plates?), photographs originally taken in the late 1800s. These will be part of the exhibit too, which focuses on portraiture.
I follow the director down a hallway where he unlocks another door, this time to a small storeroom that has become very familiar. Here, I sit on a step-stool and write, while looking at paintings, photographs, etchings, sketches—whatever the director brings and props before me. His gentle delight when he offers me a new portrait has become familiar too. It is an astonishing and simple way to spend several hours. I sit, I study, I look, I think, I lean closer and examine, I wonder, I write. Out of this, I hope to make something new and original.
Adolphe Felix Cals, “Portrait de Leonie-Rose Davy,” 1874.
Today, I walked through several empty rooms in the museum below, where the director has taped paper print-outs of paintings on the white walls to indicate where the real paintings will be hung. The exhibit is due to open a week from Saturday. On one wall, I saw a print-out of the portrait, above. As we stood in the empty room, the director gestured toward the woman and said, “It is you!” I have not seen the painting in person, only in the catalogue. I have not studied her face up close, nor sat with her in the storeroom. I hope there will be time before the exhibit officially opens to stand in front of her and wonder about who she was.
After I left the museum, and walked to the boulangerie to buy half a baguette for lunch, and to the fromagerie to buy some very soft cheese to eat with the baguette, I came back to my apartment and looked up an old photo I remembered taking during my 365-project (when I took a self-portrait every day for a year): our expressions are so similar, it is uncanny. What do you think?
I surrender to the mystery.
I tell you, spend a little time on your own and you start to develop a picture of yourself that is not that flattering. Do you know what I’ve done for the last hour? I’ve eaten a chocolate croissant, watched a bunch of HIGH-larious and/or weep-inducing videos on FB, and drunk a small glass of white wine (Reisling, from the Alsace region, purchased for less than $6 at a nearby supermarket). To tell the truth, I’m feeling pretty happy. I’m wearing my new sweater, which I purchased earlier this evening in a small boutique up the street, because I didn’t bring sweaters and it turns out that spring in France is chilly, like spring everywhere, really, except back home in Canada where apparently spring is winter, and there’s literally a foot of snow on the ground.
If I were to live alone …
Well, first of all, I would start talking to myself. Out loud. Loudly. Everywhere. With dramatic emphasis and an occasionally nagging tone, and a lot of swearing. In the second person. As in “you.” That sweater is totally you, I mean, it’s practical and it’s warm and it’s a nice colour, plus you got it for a deal. Nicely done, Carrie!
Oh, and the conversation would be banal. Even the swearing would be banal, as it would refer to the tiny irritations that come from doing every day tasks alone, like opening bottles of wine with cheap corkscrews. I worked my way in, but by God, it was touch and go for a few minutes.
Have I mentioned I’m in a new town, where I’m staying in a small flat? Louviers is about an hour and a half south of Dieppe. I arrived here on Sunday. I’ll be here for most of the next two weeks. I assumed I would want to write all the time. But I spent this morning writing at the museum and was completely spent by lunchtime—emptied out, emptied of words, emptied of the desire to process ideas. So this afternoon, I went for a long walk. There is a beautiful walking path beside the river, paved, and it goes for miles and miles between all the little towns in this region. I thought I would use the walk to think about things, but instead I just walked, as one does, and watched the families on bicycles and roller blades and scooters, and saw some swans and ducks, and a lot of dog turds. You really have to watch out for dog turds (I told myself, as I walked along).
The other thing I’ve taken to doing is hanging around outside the tourist office, which is fortuitously nearby. The wifi in my flat can’t be coaxed into working with my phone, so if I want to text or upload photos, I simply stand outside the tourist office and borrow their free wifi. I do feel like a bit of deviant or thief as I nonchalantly lean on the bricks between the windows, hunched over the screen of my phone, but I’m like a junkie for the wifi; I can’t get enough. I guess I could go inside, but there really isn’t anywhere to sit: it’s just a woman behind a desk with a shelf of brochures, and I’ve already taken several maps. I think the woman behind the desk is beginning to wonder about me. Tonight, after purchasing the sweater and the chocolate croissant, I stood outside the tourist office and texted Kevin while watching three young men fish in the river, a few metres away. I stayed for awhile, missing home, enjoying the happily timed back and forth conversation with my husband.
I wonder what this town will look like to me when I’ve been here for two weeks. Already its winding narrow streets are beginning to map themselves in my mind.
There is a hookah bar directly across the street from my flat. Also a Turkish kebab shop—two, in fact—a pizzeria, and a “Flanders-style” bar. When it starts to get dark, I close the shutters. Closing the shutters involves opening the windows, which look like huge doors and are level with the street. When they’re open, I could high-five strangers walking by on the sidewalk, not that I’ve tried. Then I unfold the shutters, pull them in, and close the latch, and shut the windows, and sit in my suddenly dark flat and see myself for who I really am.
Last night, at Fooey’s dance class I read an article in The Atlantic about the benefits of changing careers in mid-life, or, more accurately, the health benefits of doing something new and difficult and challenging, forcing the brain to learn new skills and patterns. Coincidentally, yesterday I also spent over an hour filling out a career-profile questionnaire at the University of Waterloo’s career site, which asked me to reflect on six “pride” moments in my life, and what skills I’d needed to achieve those; I filled it out thinking I would make an appointment with a career counsellor and get some professional advice on the subject, but the results were so baffling that it stopped me right there. The quiz claimed I was investigative and would be suited to careers like doctor, dentist, accountant, actuary, and a bunch of other jobs that didn’t sound like me at all. I was also entrepreneurial, and careers in that area include sales and marketing, publicity, human resources, which, let’s be honest here, are definitely not me. I scored extremely low in the areas that include work I’ve actually pursued: writer, artist, teacher, and coach.
I had to laugh. The quiz seemed so pointless. The results indecipherable, meaningless. Yes, I’m curious and organized, I’m a risk-taker and I’m logical, I’m assertive and introverted, I’m intuitive and practical, I like helping people and being independent.
(At this point, you may be wondering: why, Carrie? Why are you taking quizzes on mid-life career changes? And for that, I have no answer.)
Upon reflection, the quiz’s results were rudimentary, but the process itself was useful and perhaps revealing. In analyzing it myself (and I do like analysis), here’s what I observe: my “pride” experiences revolve around learning new things. Learning how to swim: I rated learning to swim at age 35 as my highest pride story. Learning how to coach. Learning how to teach. My other pride moments were watching and helping my children learn new things, gathering a group of friends to write together, and when The Juliet Stories was named a finalist for the GG’s, which was a moment that I felt (and feel) I could claim no credit for, yet was nevertheless a moment of enormous pride.
Another theme that I noticed: I love doing physical tasks. I love using my body. I love playing and coaching soccer. I love boot camp. I love walking and running. I love yoga. I loved cycling. I love doing these things alone and with others. Even when I’m injured, I’m physically confident and strong. It brings me great pleasure to move.
I also like helping people, and I like connecting people. I like working with kids. I like being playful. I like shared experiences, such as singing, game-playing, puzzle-making, eating together, gatherings.
In a similar vein, I cherish coming through something meaningful with someone else. It’s what I loved about being a doula. I was able to walk through an intense emotional and physical experience with someone else in a way that was respectful, caring, and supportive.
I don’t know what career these skills and interests are suited to, but I’m quite sure it isn’t an accountant.
My question is: is it a writer?
The Atlantic article suggested that the career change need not be drastic, it may be a matter of adapting one’s career in some way; learning something new but in the same field. The woman writing the article had been a broadcaster, and became a writer: in both, she was telling stories, but in different mediums.
The open doors before me are ones I’ve walked through before, in one guise or another: I’m going to France next week and I will write while I’m there, I will see my work presented, I will do some publicity for the French translation of Girl Runner; when I get home, I’m leading a full day of workshops at an elementary school; and in May, a writing workshop in the woods (click the link and scroll down to find info on “Words in the Woods”). The most unusual door I’ve walked through recently involves coaching soccer.
What I learned when teaching is that I’m a dreadful lecturer, but I’m good at devising hands-on tasks to illuminate ideas or concepts. I like workshops. In a sense, that’s what a coach does: devise practices around themes that get players physically involved in tasks they need to learn and master. I love the challenge of it. I even love the risk of it—that my plan may need to be adapted. That it’s an experiment. That the outcome isn’t known or guaranteed. I feel nervous before practices and workshops, but often elated and consumed while inside of them. And afterward I can reflect on what did or didn’t work; I enjoy the critical analysis.
When I think about doing this kind of work, it excites me.
So here’s my analysis of results.* I want a career in which I get to learn new things, be physically active, help others, experience intense emotions, be creative, and teach through practical and applied means. Writing may or may not be a part of it, from what I’m exploring, although right now, writing is what I know best; I can claim to be an expert because others have recognized my expertise. That said, with enough study and practice, I’m perfectly willing to believe that I could become an expert in another area.
*I have no job matches associated with these observations.
Yesterday, I drove to Toronto for a reading, and stopped in for a jolly afternoon visit at my publisher’s new office. I was going to visit my sister too, and really make a day of it, but she was sick. (I should have brought her chicken soup, but my germophobe tendencies won out.)
I noticed that many of yesterday’s conversations revolved around the idea of space.
Space for the mind to think. Space to breathe. Space to relax. Time is a form of space, and when it’s packed, it can feel cramped and tight. But even time that is packed with events and duties can feel spacious, in certain moments. My goal is to make even a busy day feel spacious, by settling into the present event, and offering my full attention.
I don’t always manage it, it’s true. When I’m tired, when I’m anxious about what’s coming up next, when I’m pulled in different directions, when I’m longing to do something else instead … then there’s no space, no flow, limited attention. I can ruin my own fun in this way. I call it: pushing myself ahead. What I mean is, I’m pushing myself out of the moment I’m in by occupying the ones upcoming, rehearsing them in advance, usually with a worried or impatient furrow to the brow. There’s also the problem of pushing myself back, going over errors in the past. And what about pushing myself entirely out of the picture?
My meditation right now is focused on Generosity. (Fittingly, I use an app called Headspace.) “What would you like to give to yourself?” asked the friendly voice of Andy-the-meditation-guide this morning. What would I like to give myself? My mind went blank.
Finally, I thought, forgiveness … enjoyment …
Forgiveness? Well, I understand it. I’m feeling guilty for slipping out early after my readings these past two nights. Terribly guilty. Both evenings I had a long drive before me, and I was very tired. I’d given my best effort on stage. I wanted to go home and sleep. No matter the circumstances: slipping out early is antithetical to how I’ve disciplined myself to behave. So I’m crawling with discomfort at having prioritized rest over being gracious, polite, respectful of the readers yet to come and of my hosts. I don’t know what’s right. And clearly I don’t know how to forgive myself for this decision.
As for enjoyment … I had a fun day yesterday. Once it got rolling, I didn’t worry, I felt relaxed and content. My uncertainty came when it ended. I wasn’t sure when to end it, when to transition to the next part, the part where I drive home and go to bed. I didn’t know what was best for me; indeed, as I write this post I can hardly let myself pose the dilemma in those terms: what was best for me? Maybe I didn’t know what was best for me because I frequently fail to take that into account; I was genuinely stumped by Andy’s question, thrown back on my heels. When I do something for myself, I feel like I’m stealing it. I shouldn’t take this. It isn’t mine.
Of course we all do many things we don’t particularly want to, for reasons of necessity, and we can find ways to enjoy rather than endure many of these. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about those little things we do for ourselves. What are they? And do you give yourself permission to enjoy these little things, wholly, without guilt, without suspecting you’ll be penalized? Do you give yourself that kind of space? It’s occurred to me that I do this only rarely. And that if I were to give something to myself, that is what I would give: the ability to recognize what I want, and to enjoy it when it comes.
Sounds easy. Strange it should be so hard.
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.