Tonight is my last creative writing class of the term. Because I’m a sessional lecturer, with a contract that expires at the end of each term, there’s no guarantee of teaching a next class. And so there’s no way around this: I’m feeling blue.
When I started teaching three years ago, I didn’t expect I would come to love it. But I have. I will miss working with students when this term ends. I will miss the interaction, the opportunities to relate, to respond, to collaborate, to light a spark, or even just to be present in someone else’s life in a different way than I can be when I’m here in my home office, slumped over the keyboard. (Posture, Carrie, posture!) I will miss what I learn from my students, too. Once upon a time, I would have said that writing fiction is all I know how to do, but I don’t think that’s true, actually. I’m proud of the work I’ve done in my fiction-writing career, but when I send a book out into the world, there it goes, no longer mine. I can’t change what I’ve made. It’s gone from me, and exists at a remove from the present tense. Teaching is almost the opposite experience: it’s about sharing ideas with others in a present, real, interactive, reactive, responsive, empathetic way. I love my quiet space here at home; but I also love being with people, people who are learning skills and becoming themselves, and developing rich inner lives, confidence, a voice. It’s been a privilege to be a teacher. I hope the opportunity comes around again.
A blog reader recently asked me: who or what is your centre?
I would like to consider this thoughtful stranger’s question. Who or what is my centre? Who or what is all of this energy emanating from? Who or what are my guiding principles and goals? Perhaps I’m being too scattershot in my approach at present. Perhaps I need some kind of guiding light, guiding mission statement, coherent ideology. I’ve been less and less willing to put these musings out into the universe, to publish them on the blog; but in silence there is no possibility for connection. I thought of this as I ran with the dogs this morning; it was still dark. We were running down a big hill, and I thought, I fear saying too much, but by saying nothing, I offer nothing. What are photographs, what are blog posts, what are stories if not an attempt to preserve the present moment? But is it preservation I’m after? No, more accurately, it’s being a witness. It’s trying to put into order what I’m seeing. And I’m compelled to share what I see. I want to apologize for my urge to share. But there it is. I’ll admit it motivates me. Is this the what at my centre?
Who or what is my centre? I think of the divine, a connection that unites every living thing, and perhaps every thing that ever lived or will lived. I think of powers beyond my understanding. I think of grace. And spirit.
And I think of presence.
I am motivated by the desire to be present, wholly present, no matter what I am doing.
I am motivated by the idea that play is holy, sacred, a space of safety and learning, a space where imagination and improvisation are celebrated, and all are urged to play along, no matter the skill level. Cooperation amidst competition. Play as learning. Learning as play.
Writing is play: that’s what I hope my students know, too.
I don’t want to be so serious that I lose the lightness of being alive.
For inspiration and comfort, let me direct you to this poem, below.
Part One, Sonnet IV
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins behind you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.
— By Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Joanna Macy
(To hear Joanna Macy read some of her translations of Rilke’s poems, visit the On Being website, where there is also an episode featuring Joanna Macy in conversation with Krista Tippett. On Being is one of my favourite Sunday afternoon kitchen accompaniments, on those rare Sunday afternoons when the house is quiet, and I’m actually at home.)
Confession: I do not enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to myself talk.
I do, however, enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to others talk about a subject I’ve opened up for them: this is the method I’ve been using in my class, asking the students to break into smaller groups and discuss a subject, then return to the larger group to share their thoughts, and I love how ideas begin to flow, to cross-pollinate, to deepen, and I am simply a facilitator, responding to the discussion, but not imposing my will upon it. I am not there to be the expert. I am not an expert. This is not to downplay my experiences, simply to state the facts: I have no advanced degrees, no areas of speciality. I am a human being, alive to the world around me, I am a parent, attuned to my children’s needs as best I can be, I am a reader who loves language and the structuring of ideas in many forms, and I am a writer who will never be convinced that accomplishment matters—my own accomplishment, that is. What is accomplishment? It sounds so final. I am interested in process.
I am always willing to examine a problem from a different angle. I am willing to change my mind, based on new evidence, or a new argument.
I want to play and be playful, no matter how old I get.
And so my goals are changing before my eyes. They are changing as the year progresses, this year in which my focus has been WRITE. When I woke up this morning, early and exhausted, I thought that this past year has not been about WRITING at all, but about the after-effects of having written. I wrote, I published, and I am living the part that comes next. And I do not love it. I do not even seem to like it, most of the time. Even while I pour myself into it, even while I work to make the most of what has been offered to me, I only find myself growing wearier and wearier, drained, exhausted, perhaps even depressed. Lost. Uncertain. Bereft of a clear goal to call me onward; a steady dull and dulling march that I continue because I don’t know how to stop.
Here I am.
What comes next? How do I access my passion once again? How do I reset my routines, alter them, even minutely, to feed the life I want to have? If I can’t name that life, can’t see it, how can I make changes to my routines in order to step toward it?
Here is where my imagination stalls out. What do I want?
I want to write challenging stories: stories that challenge me, conceptually, that push me in a new direction.
I want …
Do I want to train for a race? Do I want to teach more classes? Do I want to change careers? Do I want to study yoga or meditation more deeply? Do I want to spend more time with children? Do I want to coach more soccer? Do I want to go on a writing retreat? Do I want more quiet writing days or weeks? Do I want to host more friends for dinner? Do I want to sponsor and host a refugee family? Do I want to make more music?
Oh, what small voice is calling me?
Why can’t I hear you, small voice?
Sometimes I wonder if I need ever write anything else here on this blog, if I haven’t perhaps already written everything I need to write; if the same ideas come around again and again. I just finished reading a memoir by Sally Mann, the American photographer, which is called Hold Still. In May of 2009, I wrote about Sally Mann after viewing, by chance, a documentary on her called What Remains, which was also the title of one of her major photography projects (click here to read that post). Mann’s memoir is lovely, and loving, and offers what feels like genuine and at times unintentional insight into the artist’s mind, her blind spots, her fervour, her view of herself, which may not line up perfectly with the way she is viewed by others.
When you make something, and you send it out to be seen, you lose control over how it is received. She gets that.
There are times when I feel naked, exposed, a character in a story I hadn’t realized I’d been writing. Sometimes I do not know how to be the person at the front of the room. Sometimes I don’t even know if I know how to be the person in the quiet of this room. I don’t know if these people are different people; I would like them not to be, and yet I recognize that a performance is performative by nature, and the domestic self is simply not–but what of the creative self? Does creativity not draw on a bit of everything thrown together, domestic and performative, insightful and riven with blind spots?
It’s been a gruelling start to the new school year, and the marathon of responsibilities continues apace, and to be honest, I feel like I am living a version of life that is unworkable, unsustainable. To fit here, I have to prop my eyes open, I have little time to see friends, I rarely cook or bake, I stagger from one task to the next, I write almost nothing, and I am doing a poor to mediocre job at all tasks required of me. “How do you find time to … ? How do you do it? How do you make time for …?” This question, in its many guises, is asked often of me, and I want to cry when I hear it.
I don’t know. I’m not doing it. I do not have time to. I do not make time for. I am marching bleary-eyed and uncertain toward a goal I cannot see and cannot claim, and yet, I march.
The post that I wrote about Sally Mann, in 2009, was called “On endings.” It’s lovely. I loved re-reading it. It brought me a frisson of excitement, because I was writing about writing the stories that would become The Juliet Stories, and because the retrospective is a comforting viewpoint. But I feel in some ways that I remain in exactly the same position now as then, in 2009: stretched for time, though in new and different ways, and questioning questioning questioning my purpose, my role, my goals, even my desires. Exhaustion rolls through me like fog and bleaches my mind. What remains?
“A year feels like nothing to me anymore, writing-wise,” I wrote, then, more than six years ago. I continue to agree whole-heartedly.
I also see now what I knew already then: that time is what separates those who make something from those who don’t. Well, it’s one of the things. But it’s huge. If your mind is a tangle of appointments and schedules and to-do lists and undone-never-finished-tasks and children and worries and travel and work, you do not have time to spread out your thoughts and sink into them. The physical scattering, the distractions and interruptions, the segmented sliced-up hours: your mind is scattered. How can it settle?
I’ve applied for a grant to earn some time; whether I get this grant remains to be seen, but it’s like I’ve bought a lottery ticket, and I am sitting here holding the ticket and imagining what I would do with this time. I imagine this time clean and crisp and clear, textured by weather and hunger and coffee, hour upon hour without interruption. I imagine it on a windswept hilltop or in a one-room cottage. I am clearly immersed in fantasy. Time is such a luxury. I would like to think I could write my next book beside soccer fields and swimming pools, but I think that I can’t, actually. I can’t. Let’s be honest. Sally Mann makes her photographs alone, hour upon hour in a darkroom. She takes her photographs alone, often, travelling for days or weeks, alone, as she works. The deep gritty stuff happens alone, in quietude, when you’ve fallen down into the depths of yourself, and it is work that doesn’t fit well with much else.
This is not the news that anyone wants to hear–no one wants to hear it. I don’t want to hear of sacrificing one thing for another. But I am already sacrificing many things for many others. One does. It’s the way it goes. The question is: am I doing this consciously, am I choosing this, must I do this, or can I choose otherwise? What would I sacrifice in order to earn that quiet time?
I don’t know. I’m really not sure. I can’t see yet.
Quiet discipline is a massive gamble, and it seems to require the courage (not to mention the resources) to say: this is what I’m going to do, even if it doesn’t work out, even if nothing comes of it, even then, it will have been worth it.
It isn’t summer anymore. We’ve leaped into fall. A friend told me she was trying to figure out how to preserve her summer-self; and if I could, I would bottle the kids’ playfulness and super-summer energy, and that hat-wearing blissfully-at-peace-vibe I’m getting from Kevin in these photos. For myself, I’d be content to stand in the lake taking photos.
But in all seriousness, I do find myself taking time, post-summer, to wade in the water. By which I mean, to step into the flow that surrounds me at any given moment of the day. On Friday evening, for example, CJ and I went outside to figure out why there was an enormous transport truck blocking traffic at our corner (a driver lost in the uptown construction woes, we surmised) — once outside, we decided to go for a night walk around the block, just the two of us, and there was the moon, a sliver shrouded in mist, and we walked and he talked, and talked, and talked. In all the busyness, all the exhaustion, there is time for this, and many more tiny moments that come calling, quietly, for attention.
I’ve had a most beautiful weekend. Later on that same Friday night, just after I’d gone to bed, I got the phone call I’ve been anticipating: my sister-in-law was in labour. I leaped out of bed, gathered a few items, including my camera, and drove my fogged-up car down the street. And here, in their quiet house, time slowed down, or lifted, suspended itself to wait patiently for the work that was being done, and before dawn, the emergent babe took her first beautiful breath.
Being with someone in labour is like inhabiting the most meditative space I can imagine. I am honoured to have been invited to share, again, in this experience.
Later that same day, now Saturday, I dragged myself from a sinking nap, dressed in soccer gear, and went with our family to celebrate the end of Albus’ and Kevin’s soccer season — pizza followed by a just-for-fun game: the boys’ team v parents/siblings/coaches. It had been raining, the grass was muddy, and I was out-schooled and outrun by the 14-year-old boys, and yet, wasn’t it fun to play? Something else, I just remembered: in the middle of the night of the birth, my brother and I were suddenly famished, and we ate granola bars covered in chocolate that tasted like heaven.
Yesterday, waking after sleeping through the night, for 11 hours straight (!), the flow flowed on. Fort in the living-room. Processing photos. Friends to play. Kids climbing over the back fence. I baked a fruit crisp and listened to the radio. A run in the park with the eldest girl (hill intervals — she wanted to do hill intervals!). We ate supper all together. The floors did not get vacuumed. All together, we played backyard volleyball until it got too dark. There was time, there was time. Even though I also had to do class prep for today, and answer emails, and get organized for the trip to Spain: I leave tomorrow. I hope to step into a different flow when I walk out the door for six days of being an author, all on my own. I plan to travel old-school, with a notebook and pen rather than a laptop. So, no blogging from abroad. But lots of observations, I hope, lots of words on the page, descriptions, mysterious scenes, tangible building blocks for more stories to come.
Work that is not work, but play.
In my previous post, I published a list poem detailing some of the things in our downstairs bathroom (because, why not?). It included the description of a painting that hangs there, and I was amused to notice while brushing my teeth the other day that my description, written from memory, bears little resemblance to the actual painting.
I remembered horses, for example. There are no horses. I remembered the scene being of a marketplace. The scene is clearly of a busy city street.
I like that there are differences between what I remembered and what exists in actual fact, because I think it’s instructive of how memory fictionalizes reality all the time. At least, that’s my theory. And I like that my memory invented horses in the painting. Horses are a touchstone for me. They symbolize the freedom of childhood, but also some of the confusion of childhood too; I think of going to an auction of wild mustangs with my grandpa, in Tennessee, when I was a kid, and realizing it wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. Wild mustangs! We were going to see wild mustangs! But the horses were skinny and dusty and untamed and seemed frightened, being herded through chutes and into pens. And I just felt … sad to see them like that. A sadness I couldn’t express.
At least, that’s what I remember now, thirty years removed from the experience.
I could write a poem about it, probably. Perhaps I should.
A friend wondered why I’d specified, in the previous post, that the line poem exercise be written by hand, rather than typed — it’s a good question, and here are my reasons. For practical purposes, it keeps laptops off desks in the classroom. But for even more practical purposes, writing by hand forces you to pour out your ideas less automatically, more deliberately. You can’t help but slow down, as pen tries to keep up with train of thought. The exercises we do call for a lot of scribbling, scrawled point form or almost shapeless idea-noting, and even some doodling: this happens best on paper. Finally, writing is a craft and there is something tangible about words written on a page. You can see that words are building blocks, you can move them around, remove them, play with them. So that’s why. (She says, as she types this post via keyboard onto screen.)
In other news, I’ve been working on a ridiculously long post that may or may not actually come into being. It’s really too long to be posted here, but I don’t have a better forum on which to share it. If and when I post it, I’ll give you a heads-up so that if you don’t want delve into a long-form manifesto on art, you can’t skip it! I think it’s an important subject, but I also don’t want to lose readers.
Happy Friday. (Spain next week, here I come!)