I’ve started a new FAQs page. You can find it here, or under the Extras tab, above. So far, I’ve published the answer to just one question, but when I started writing the answer to this one question, I realized it was also the answer to another question and another question. Which probably proves that I’m really bad at FAQ pages. Or that I wouldn’t be able to write a wiki-how page to save my life. Anyway, here’s the first question, and my answer.
Q: How do I find a publisher? (a.k.a. How do I make money as a writer?)
You want to know how to get published. I could answer you with the traditional find-an-agent + agent-finds-publisher = publish your book. This is what worked (and continues to work) for me. But with the rapid rise of self-publishing, about which I know nothing, my experience has come to seem quaint, old-fashioned, and possibly irrelevant. Will the traditional model work for you? I don’t know.
Also, I suspect it’s not the question you’re really asking. The question inside your question is: how do I make money as a writer?
It’s assumed that publishing a book is the surefire way to make money as a writer, but here’s an unscientific breakdown of what happens when we drill down into the esker of being-a-writer and examine the striations: very few writers make a good living by publishing their books; some writers make a modest living by publishing their books; many writers make a token amount of money by publishing their books; and a number of writers make nothing, or indeed spend their own money, publishing their books.
So, I’m going to ask you to put aside the money question, and the publishing question, just for now. The only thing I can tell you about with any authority, or usefulness, is how to be a writer.
There are a variety of ways to develop your craft. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Write in a journal, sit in a public place and write observational notes, compose essays, short stories, poems. Earn a degree in literature, if you can. Ask others, whom you respect, admire and most of all trust, to read and critique your work. This is imperative! Be brave. Critique your own work after letting it sit quietly untouched for at least a week, or a month, or even a year. Revise what you’ve written. Read, read, read some more to study how your favourite writers shape their sentences, find music and harmony in language, and develop narrative. Remember you are learning a craft. Writing is not like thinking or like speaking. It is its own medium. You can’t dictate a great idea onto a page; don’t worry, no one else can either.
Send your stories and poems to literary magazines. Do not be flummoxed by rejection. Hope for helpful critique that will serve you as you write with ever-greater clarity, toward a purpose you alone can achieve. What do you want to say? What do you want to make people feel and think? What are the stories you want to tell — that you feel compelled to tell? If you pursue a creative writing MFA, do it not with the goal of getting published, but as a means of deepening your craft in a concentrated, challenging, and hopefully supportive environment. Learn how to defend your choices; learn how to be open to criticism. There is always more to learn. You are a writer because you are curious, and open, and never done with learning.
Okay, Carrie, enough already, this is completely impractical, you’re saying: How will I have time to read, read, read, and write, write, write, when I’m trying to finish my degree and working two jobs and looking after my family and struggling just to get by?
Yes. I say to you. Yes, dammit, yes!
I wish I had an answer to your question. There’s a gap between being an aspiring writer and becoming a published writer, and then there’s another gap between becoming a published writer and being recognized as an established writer, and there’s yet another gap, which no one ever tells you about, between being an established writer and feeling like an established writer. Complicating all of this, there’s no single direct path to follow, as any published writer will tell you — but what makes it all the more difficult is that supports along the way are few and far between, especially in the early years of developing your craft, but even in the middle years, even in the latter years. (This is also a really old problem that never seems to go away: how to support and develop artistic talent? Especially difficult because art doesn’t make money in a straightforward way, like, say, drilling for oil does; although it could be argued that both are equally speculative ventures, with uncertain outcomes.)
This brings us to grants. The first grant I ever earned as an aspiring writer was from the Ontario Arts Council: it’s called the Writers’ Works in Progress Grant. If you’re from Ontario, look into it. If not, there may be equivalent grants for artists and writers in your community. When I received this grant, I was 27 years old, I’d earned a BA and MA in literature, had worked full-time for several years at a newspaper, and along with publishing a handful of poems and stories in literary magazines, had completed a novel (never published) and a volume of short stories, and had acquired an agent. In other words, I was already quite a long way down the path of aspiring writer. I applied for this particular grant at least three or four times before earning it: selection is by blind jury. I could apply now and not receive it. The point is, grants can fill a gap, but applying takes time, energy, and is something of a crapshoot. (Prizes are a more glamorous subset of grants, but are an even greater crapshoot.)
The other point is, you can be an aspiring writer for what may seem like a very long time; a ridiculously long time; even a foolishly long time. When I go to literary festivals, I sometimes feel like we’re sizing each other up back-stage, sussing out with mutual pity and secret sympathy the heartbreak and delusional determination that each of us must be carrying to be in this vaguely humiliating position of professional, published writer.
But then, I read a really fine book by a completely brilliant writer that fills me with love and joy and admiration and awe, and I think: Who cares! Who cares if it’s pitiful and foolish to want to be a writer, to continue after all these years to write, write, write, and read, read, read. Because this is possible, after all. It is possible, maybe, to write something that will fill someone else with love and joy — or even simply divert someone, entertain someone, amuse someone.
Which brings me around to why anyone would want to be a writer. You might tell yourself that you’re writing for yourself, to please yourself alone, and in some ways, yes, you must do that. But that’s not the only reason, or even the most important reason. You’re writing also outwardly, to reach out, to connect with an ongoing and continuing conversation, out of a long tradition of written work, trying to speak to your moment, which is cast here in time. You’re writing to be read, you hope. We all hope, all of us writers. And maybe we will be, and maybe we won’t be. But please, please, I urge you: don’t write just for yourself. Think about how what you’re writing can reach out — think beyond yourself.
Think of writing as a gift. It’s a gift you’ve been given, if you have a talent for it. And it’s a gift you can offer, if you have a talent for it. A gift is something that resides beyond you. You don’t get to decide how it’s received. And you don’t get to choose what you’re given. This is where grace enters in and takes this whole answer of mine to a place that has nothing to do with money, or success, or any practical, useful measure, socially or culturally or otherwise, and which may explain why making art is not like drilling for oil and never can be: you’re writing for reasons that have nothing to do with money or success. We’d like to connect the two and say that if you are deserving, you will be rewarded; but we also like to define what a reward is: money, success, fame, a fat publishing contract, The New York Times bestseller list, a movie deal.
And so it may be. And so we may wish.
But if it’s not, that doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re a writer because you chase the words, you polish the sentences, you seek out the core of the story, and you never seem to tire of it. You may never be entirely comfortable. You may never be entirely satisfied. You may always believe you could do better. You could rightly call this restlessness, anxiety, obsession; but you could equally name it urgency, hopefulness, and openness. Don’t worry about what it is: it’s what fires you to do the work. No matter the reward.
So that’s my admittedly impractical, useless, absolutely-no-money-back-guarantee formula. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Do the work. It’s a gift.
Respectfully yours, Carrie
Where I’m writing from (above).
Poolside, underneath a wonky umbrella, at a picnic table, with birds cheeping from a ventilation system nearby, and the sound of water moving rhythmically in the 50-metre pool. My eldest is taking a lifeguarding course, three hours every morning for the next two weeks. I decided to stay, this morning, and work here.
Where I was on Saturday (above).
I spent the better part of the day driving to and from the overnight camp where our kids have been going for many summers. I picked up the girls, who had been away for the week and were in varying stages of tired and hungry and happy. We stopped at a diner on the way home. Driving almost defines my summer so far, but this week and next will be a different flavour: swimming pools, staying close to home.
Maybe we’ll have more of this, too (above).
Yesterday, the kids spontaneously decided to make supper in two teams: boys v girls. Boys made dessert, girls made the main meal. They plan to switch it up for another evening this week. Kevin took them shopping for ingredients. I offered a few tips (such as you don’t have to tape parchment paper into a cake pan!!!), but mostly tried to stay the heck out of the kitchen, and let them follow their recipes and help each other out. I even went for a run to avoid the hovering. Unfortunately, it was hot and I kept having to stop and walk, which couldn’t have been fun for my running partner, who was totally fine. We made it 10 km, but I was all kinds of pitiful. I kept fantasizing that someone might have dropped a water bottle near the path, or maybe I’d see a puddle, or maybe that guy on the bike is carrying water and I can ask him for a drink … Moral of the story: on hot days, carry some damn water, Carrie.
The meal I returned to: French onion soup, caesar salad, and oreo-shaped cake for dessert with freshly whipped cream. Best of all, the food was excellent. The judges ruled that the teams had tied. Points for everyone. (CJ has been giving himself points lately: a point for feeding the fish, a point for emptying the dishwasher, watering the plants, reading a book, brushing teeth, practicing soccer, etc. etc. I like this very much. The simple self-reward.)
These three are home for the morning together (above).
This is a possible illustration of what’s happening right now. Jenga turned into a housing complex. Bananagrams as furniture. Go-go people. Random cars. And some ukulele playing. On Sunday morning AppleApple and I sat and played our ukuleles for at least an hour, leaning toward folk and spiritual songs. She wants to learn how to sing harmony, inspired by the musically talented counsellors at camp. She also may have a broken collarbone, but that’s another story. I will fill you in later this week when we get x-ray results, but it looks like that injury during the soccer tournament was more serious than we’d realized. A reminder than comfortably held patterns and assumptions may experience unexpected breaks.
How to roll with it? How to comfort anxiety? How to let yourself be carried along peacefully with the new direction of the flow? Always learning. Playing and singing spirituals seemed like a good way to go, yesterday morning.
PS Here’s what I’ve been clicking on, reading, and listening to this week: From Those People, a personal piece on race and unrecognized, unacknowledged privilege. I think this is a necessary read, especially if you have white skin; from the NPR, setting goals by writing about them; from The New Yorker, free podcasts of fiction writers reading and then discussing a favourite short story published in the magazine. AppleApple and I listened to two while driving together: Nathan Englander reading John Cheever’s The Enormous Radio, and Paul Theroux reading Elizabeth Taylor’s “The Letter Writers.” (No, not that Elizabeth Taylor.) One final link: from Hazlitt, I enjoyed reading Dreams Are Boring, by Sasha Chapin, about the romanticized and false link between madness and inspiration.
I sit down to write here, on the blog, and my mind goes round and round the purpose of this blog. I wonder why people are reading, perhaps, and why they may not be reading. I wonder why I am writing. Do I have something to say? Is my purpose to amuse, to inform, to muse, to form? Do I call out in hopes of a response? Am I launching quirky missives from an insular and isolated place? Am I writing as a writer, as a mother, as a seeker, as a knower? Am I writing to you? Or to me? Or to no one at all, to the ether?
I’ve come a long way on this path of being a writer. When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer like L.M. Montgomery or Lois Lenski. I wanted to be a writer like Emily of New Moon. I wanted create imaginary romantic worlds of adventure and mystery. As a teen, I was in love with language, and saw in it a violent risky potential. I wanted to write like Michael Ondaatje. I wanted to write barely coherent poetic scenes of romance and mystery and adventure. I didn’t care whether or not my stories or poems made sense, only that they burst with emotion and the fullness of self, perhaps. As an older teen and into my twenties, I wanted to write like Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. I wanted to craft brilliant sentences that both hid and displayed meaning, sentences that were as rich and big and complex as a whole story, characters whose motives were murky. I wanted to conjure worlds at a tilt from my own, veined and layered and dark.
And so I wrote and I read and I wrote and I read.
In some fundamental way, I refused to believe that I might not be a writer, someday. I willed myself to continue through years of small steps forward, and crushing rejections. I determined to improve. I determined to learn and to master the craft of storytelling. How to do this particular thing and do it well: how to tell a compelling story, not neglecting plot for style, not neglecting sentence structure for pace. I got better.
I got to where I am right now, here, sitting before this laptop, wondering, wondering. Do I still want to be a writer, so fiercely, so absolutely, so determinedly? Who do I wish to write like, now? Or, more importantly, perhaps, than I originally understood: what stories do I long to tell? And if I have no story that I long to tell, why craft the structure, why lovingly build the sentences? If the house is empty? (Is the house empty?)
Engagement is a key word of our era. That seems to me the purpose of social media. Anyone who wishes to earn attention, to market her work, must learn to engage with her audience, to maintain a call-and-response relationship, the bigger the better. It comes naturally to some, and less naturally to others. I put myself in the latter camp. Yet this blog is a form of engagement, whether or not I choose to see it that way. And when I recognize this and admit it, I become more and more uncomfortable as purveyor and publisher of posts. I cannot understand what I am doing, nor what my purpose may be. Is it, as originally intended when I started the blog in 2008, to narrate my every day life, to keep it in some form, and if so, for whom? For my children? For myself when I am older? Am I marketing my books? Practicing my craft? Indulging in cheap philosophy? Is this a publicly-kept journal?
Could I live without engagement? This specific form of engagement? (Silly question. Of course I could.)
Less, is the message that’s been coming my way. Not more, more, more, but less, less, less. For so long, I’ve fought to become more, to achieve more, to do more. I’ve worked toward big, specific goals and dreams. Now I’m confronted with this strange glimpse of myself, something I was afraid to see: I see that I will never write as wonderfully as I’d hoped to. I’m not possessed of a special gift. I’m a hard-working woman, that’s all, and I had a dream.
I’ve written that in the past tense without even noticing: and I had a dream. Strange. Isn’t it? Maybe the dream is shifting, deepening, altering course, becoming something else.
What now? What next?
Now: Life is strangely lovely at present. It is unexpectedly wonderful to hear less, less, less calling me. I feel myself relaxing into moments in a way that feels almost unfamiliar, unknown. I feel the pace changing. I feel myself at peace with what I have, right now.
Next? Being a writer isn’t something you quit. Writing is how I process the world around me; I’d be impaired without it. I continue to write, as always, but right now it’s a form of listening; without shape. I think my purpose is to listen, right now. I feel quiet. I feel a great deal of affection–of love–for those around me. The days are full, vivid, layered and veined and rich. I feel human. I feel flawed. I can’t think of anything I need or long for or crave, not even direction, right now. I feel present.
What I don’t feel is at an end with this blog. But I want to be honest about my ambivalence toward its purpose, and my use of it, at present. Thank you for listening.
PS Photos are from this past weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, taken after the sun went down, on the longest day of the year. Homework got burned, marshmallows got roasted and mushed between graham crackers, and the mosquitos almost won. Almost.
Girl runner, yesterday, school track meet: won her age group in the 1500, 800, and 400.
I’ve got a six sticky notes affixed above this computer, with reminders about where to funnel my writing energies, should I sit down at my desk in the morning at a loss. Four of the notes have been stuck up there for a year; two are new this year.
Here is what they say:
* Blog 3x/week + photos
This reminds me that I rarely take photos with my real camera anymore. There’s a practical reason for this, and it isn’t just because I’m short on time, or prioritizing differently, though that may play into it too. The practical issue is that the computer on which I process my photos is dying a long slow death, and frequently and suddenly conks out, taking with it any work I’m doing. It conks out most often when the work is processing photos. Further, the device I use to connect the camera to the computer is faulty and it takes multiple frustrating attempts to download the photos so that I’m even in a position to process them, at which point the screen inevitably goes black. It’s all rather discouraging, and time consuming … so the quality of photos on this blog, and therefore the quality of photos recording my family’s life, has dropped steeply. Nevertheless I’m still blogging two or three times a week, with images via my cellphone’s camera.
This reminds me that I am not just a novelist, but a short story writer, and that every once in awhile, if inspired, I should write a new one. I try to keep at least one unpublished story in reserve, in case (fantasy!) a literary magazine comes calling with a request. (Actually, this has happened twice in the past year, so it’s not a complete fantasy.) In time, I expect to have enough stories to fill a new collection. How much time? Who knows. It’s not like the world is clamouring for new collections of short stories, so I will give this project as much time as it takes. No rush.
* Poem a day “Light” + write + attention
This refers to my 2015 meditation journal. I aim to write in this journal for 15 minutes every day, often immediately after meditating. Some days, 15 minutes turns into much much much longer. Some days, I save this journaling as a reward for completing other writing. Truth is, I really love writing in this journal, and don’t need the reminder. However … very few poems have emerged. It’s mainly stream-of-consciousness prose. The title “Light” refers to the file name for this year (last year’s file name was “The woman formerly known as”). “Write” is my word of the year (and a very good word it’s been for me, so far), while “attention” is my secondary word. I’ve applied my secondary word mainly through meditation.
* Memoir on learning how to swim
This is a personal essay I’ve been working on, off and on, since last summer.
* Essay on being edited, relationship with editors
This is a personal essay, the idea for which was given to me by the editors of The New Quarterly, which has never developed into more than an idea. Yet I leave it up there, just in case it sparks something.
* Novel Forgiveness in Families
This refers to the novel I’ve been working on. Funny thing is, that isn’t the title, and I have no idea why I ever thought it might be. (But I know exactly where I got it from: it’s the title of an Alice Munro story, one I think about from time to time, from her collection “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You,” another marvellously evocative title.) (Also, it occurs to me just now that “Forgiveness in Families” would be an excellent title for an essay that perhaps I will write someday.)
I have room for two more sticky notes above my computer.
I’ve decided to add a seventh called * Dispatches, personal essays. In fact, without needing any reminders and completely unprompted, I’ve been steadily working on a collection of personal essays, off and on, using a variety of raw material, some of which has arisen out of daily journaling. It’s interesting to me that most of that journal material is dead wood, yet every once in awhile something blooms from it, or mushrooms up. It’s a reminder of how patient one must be to see a long, deep project through from beginning to end. How do the little fragments cohere? It’s a lovely mystery. Looking back, retrospectively, I sometimes wonder how I’ve had time to do the work that gets done. And yet, I do, and it gets done. Inch by inch, brick by brick, seed by seed, sticky note by sticky note.
I may even add an eighth sticky note. This one will be called * Children’s project, but I’ll leave it undefined for now. My nine-year-old would like me to write a children’s chapter book; and I’ve got plots and plans for more pictures books, too.
Which reminds me, details about our local launch party for The Candy Conspiracy are being finalized as we speak! Here’s the short-point version: Saturday, May 30th, 1PM, Waterloo Public Library, and yes, there will be candy! (How could there not be?) Poster and more details coming soon. And apparently I’ll be on local daytime television talking about this tomorrow. Eek!
It ain’t pretty. I am consumed.
First, to the news: I’m pleased to announce that Girl Runner is going to Greece! The book has been picked up for translation by Thines Editions. This brings the foreign sales of Girl Runner to eleven languages, plus the US and the UK & Australia. I know. Astonishing, huh.
Every once in awhile it comes to me: thousands of people have read Girl Runner. Thousands of people have taken into their minds this story shaped by my mind. That is a staggering thought, and comes close to fulfilling what I’d hoped to achieve, in thinking back on my early years of hoping to become a writer. It was to be read. Those people who’ve read Girl Runner aren’t thinking about me, Carrie Snyder, they’re thinking about her, Aganetha Smart.
I think that gives me a certain amount of flexibility too, in terms of the choices I intend to make in my career, the projects I intend to pursue, their variety. I see myself as someone who can shape-shift to some degree, with a malleable voice, rather than someone who has a very distinctive style and voice and subject. I can use that in positive ways rather than seeing it as a weakness, but it’s a talent more readily used by someone who doesn’t have a big personal public profile. These stories come from me, but they aren’t me. Or more precisely, I am not them. I am just the mediator, in a sense, or perhaps the medium, the interpreter between worlds.
Ultimately, I’d like to be read because I send out into the world interesting, creative, curious, insightful, moving, maybe even life-giving stories.
It’s a lot to ask. Because it means I want my writing to be excellent. It puts the weight on the writing, and is my writing good enough? Is my thinking deep enough? I don’t honestly know.
For the purposes of achieving this goal, I’m challenging myself to direct attention and energy onto the books that I write, and to otherwise be at peace with my authentic, ordinary self when asked to appear in public. It’s my problem, not anyone else’s, is what I’m getting around to—I’m the one who has been dissatisfied, in the past, with my public performance or persona, always thinking that I should be more charismatic, more out there, more … well, more not myself. Recently, I’ve been trying to let go. And I’ve found myself surprisingly content with being adequate, average, competent at the jobs that are not within my main area of expertise. I’m not splendid or charismatic on stage, but what I can do is make people feel comfortable in the slightly awkward formal environment. My sense is that that’s something I’m able to offer, and that’s good enough. Forget trying to shine or, much worse, to outshine. It’s not who I am. I’m more of a cozy fire in the fireplace, a friendly candle on the table, a light in the window to show you the way home, here to make you feel comfortable in your environment.
So. Let go. Let go of chasing fame in any way, shape, or form. And keep writing for the writing in any way, shape, or form.