Category: Writing

Updating an old dream

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When I was growing up, I planned to be a writer. I would say that I dreamed of being a writer, but that’s not entirely accurate. I did dream of it, but not in the fantastical way I dreamed of owning a horse farm or of living in a straw bale house off the grid with a homeschooled brood of offspring. Instead, I planned for it. I would become a writer. I remember a very particular moment of clarity, in my parents’ house, in the bathroom (where as a self-absorbed teenager I spent many an hour gazing into the mirror), when I declared to myself that this was what I would do: I would write books.

I aimed myself at the goal with relative consistency after graduating from high school, though I floundered around a bit, seeking the right degree (theatre? music? playwriting? history?), and it took me until I was 19 (almost 20) to declare a major and work away at it like a person possessed: English literature, of course. At night, I would compose poems on my pre-Windows laptop, eyes closed, drumming out the day’s events through my fingertips and transforming the swerving emotions and experiences into imagery, metaphor, allusion, relishing the splendor of language.

I am often asked for advice on how to become a writer. Write, is what I say. And read. Write because you love to. Write what you love. Write as often as you can, doesn’t matter what: dream journal, cooking blog, poetry scribbled in the margins. And read read read for the love of it, too.

Reading for a degree in English literature can kind of kill the love, for a few time-crunched years, pencil clutched to underline key sentences and scribble down themes for future essays and exams. Nevertheless, reading widely, reading work you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, can only be a good thing in a cumulative way. I finished the degree, applied for grants, and went happily off, like a heat-seeking missile, to do graduate work, also in English literature. I was thinking I would do a doctorate and secure myself a job. But things were looking pretty grim for doctoral candidates in English literature back then, and I swiftly grasped that there was only one valid reason to go on in my studies: if I really loved it, then yes, I should. Otherwise, it was time to thank academia for my two excellent degrees, and figure out how to become that writer I’d planned to be.

Skip ahead. Skip over the boring bits, the hours and days and months and years spent writing and reading, and, of course, believing. At the age of 29, my first book was published. It took another eight years to write a second book worth publishing. By that point, I’d lived out the reality of being a writer. I’d been home with young children for years. I’d found paid work here and there as a freelancer and “mommy blogger,” which afforded me babysitting, which afforded me writing time.

I kept circling around the question: do I want to be a writer?

Wrong question, as it turns out; misleading, distracting. I already knew the answer: yes, I wanted to be a writer, and had proven that I could be. The real dilemma, the one much harder to face, and more personally painful to articulate, was whether I wanted to continue being a practicing writer if I couldn’t make a living at it. And the answer to that, I began to recognize, was no.

Last fall, I decided to switch career paths. I applied to midwifery school. (I also worked frantically on a new novel, feeling the urgency of time ticking down.) This wasn’t a decision taken quickly or lightly. I knew what it would mean: I wouldn’t be writing books, at least for the length of the degree, possibly longer. A book is the product of time and space and does not simply appear in a burst of inspiration; it’s a long-term gamble, is what it is. That’s what being a writer is, too. And my appetite for gambling was waning. This does not seem strange to me. The timing seemed ripe for a change. My youngest would be going to school full-time. I’d put my eggs in one basket for two decades, practicing a particular craft, gaining experience and technical skill, and earning praise from peers, without ever making a living at it. In most professions, this would be a bizarre and depressing outcome: imagine a doctor with two decades of training being unable to earn a living. It would be a sign of personal failure; this would have to be an exceptionally bad doctor. But in the arts, it’s practically expected, and we all understand that, even if we don’t speak openly about it. It’s the price of admission. You get to be a writer, but it’s for love, not money.

I love writing. But I wanted to support my family. I wanted to give us some stability, to take the pressure off my husband as sole provider, and, yes, to experience the reward of working in exchange for a paycheque. It was time to a get a job-job (or, more precisely, to train for a new career). I was excited and I was ready for a change — eager, even.

And then the novel I’d been working on sold here in Canada. This happened literally on the very same day I received my acceptance letter from midwifery school. I was kind of a mess.

It felt like the intersection of two possible lives. In one, I was a writer, still doing work that would seem relatively unstable to anyone with a job-job, but many steps closer to earning a living. In this version, I would be building on the foundation I’d worked so hard to lay. In the other possible life, I was starting from scratch, a student in the process of becoming a midwife, also a long-held dream. The decision was agonizing. It took weeks of “discernment” (read: long circular conversations with friends and family; thanks, friends and family), and I questioned myself repeatedly after turning down my place in the program. But there was fresh work to be done. I rolled up my sleeves and revised my new novel. I prepared for my first teaching job.

Summer trundled by. I loved sitting my office and working all day. It felt right, as it always has. It feels right.

At last year’s Wild Writer’s Festival, I was on a panel that included Alison Pick, and she was talking about her decision to work as a writer. She recalled that she’d just been hired at a job-job when her first book sold, so she was able to turn down the job-job and keep writing, and she’s never looked back. Every time she’d start thinking, uh oh, I’m going to need a job-job, something new would come along.

As far I’m concerned, that’s living the dream. Keeping at bay that wolf at the door.

So I’m publicly updating the plan I had as a teenager staring at herself in the mirror. Seems about time. What I’m planning seems no more unlikely, delusional, or ambitious than the original dream, which was, I’ll be the first to admit, highly unlikely, delusional, and ambitious. So here goes. Dare I say it out loud? I want to be a writer whose living is sustained by her writing. I want to be a writer who keeps getting to sit in her office and write, day in, day out, day in, day out. Oh, the places I’ll go in my mind.

“A person is a person through other persons”

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This morning, I walked. It wasn’t a run, and it didn’t flood me with world-conquering endorphins, but it was sanctioned by a health care practioner, and I was glad to be moving through the world, no matter how slowly. “Try a thirty minute walk,” the physio said. “And if you feel fine after 24 hours, bump it up to thirty-five. When you get to an hour without symptoms, you can try 5-10 minutes of easy jogging.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’m on it!

This is progress. And the pace, on this misty-moisty morning, suited me just fine. Everyone who passed on the sidewalk said hello. I noticed people sitting on their front porches, quietly observing, one of the many details I miss when running down an early morning street.

I’m still humming after yesterday’s creative writing class. As I sat there, in our acoustically challenged bunker of a classroom, listening to four different animated conversations rising and falling, and all of them about a poem, I just felt good. I saw why the teachers I know love doing what they do. My mushy general goal for the class is engagement: with words, with language, with emotions. Beyond that, I’d really like it if on occasion we were all transported just a little bit, to somewhere not quite ordinary. Maybe I’m secretly trying to recreate my poetry book club in classroom form: a safe place to talk about big ideas, like mortality and love and what really matters to us, and why.

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I discovered another fascinating, inspiring and moving obituary in yesterday’s paper: Anne Goodman, a professor of adult education and community development at OISE, and a woman who was many other things, too, in a life cut short by cancer. She led the kind of life I admire, shifting her energy to different work as she felt called, with deep engagement at every step, always true to herself. The title of today’s post is a quote from the obituary. In 1999, a pivotal experience altered Dr. Goodman’s life’s direction. She met a man, a stranger, on a path somewhere in Toronto who needed immediate help. The remains of his murdered teenage daughter had just been found, down that path — he was going there, now, he told Anne Goodman. She walked with him, listened to him, and stayed with him when they came to the place where the police were. She said that she couldn’t let him go alone.

I am struck by this story. So often all we have to offer is a willingness to walk along with someone else. Maybe we’re the listener, or maybe we’re the one talking, but without a shared willingness to connect, we can neither give nor receive. One more thing: that we really don’t know what’s ahead, we just don’t. So prepare a carefully plotted path, but stay open.

All of which is to say: I loved saying good morning, this morning, to strangers on the sidewalk. I did not wish I were running instead, because I was thrilled to be walking. There is agency and there is circumstance, and right now, circumstance is ascendant: I’d love to be waking early, racing trails, and swinging kettlebells, but instead I’m doing less, not more, and reflecting on stillness rather than motion. You know me. It’s not what I’d choose, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring and embracing while it lasts.

:::

Side note: I will be reading at Word on the Street tomorrow afternoon, 4pm, an event that’s paired with Doors Open. So you can tour a heritage site (I’ll be at the Walper Hotel) and pause to listen to some readings while you’re at it. Lots of terrific, big-name authors are coming to town.

Experiments in expertise

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You all really liked that other colour of green, didn’t you? It’s okay, you can tell me. I can take it. I really like it, too. But it didn’t fit with my vision for the room! To use a metaphor, as I’m wont to do, it’s like editing one’s own writing: kill your darlings, is how Stephen King puts it. The point being, just because you love something doesn’t mean it fits. Sometimes you have to paint over a colour you really love, or remove a plot point that charms you, or exise your favourite sentences (actually, in writing, that is almost the rule rather than the exception. Your favourite sentences will inevitably be the ones you have to sacrifice in honour of the whole.)

Stick with your vision. This will make you happier in the end.

Yesterday, the Giller longlist was announced. I didn’t hear about it until rather late in the day, which put in perspective the difference between this year and last. Last year, I was on tenterhooks the morning of the announcement, which kicks off prize-season here in CanLitLand. And then I wasn’t on the list. It felt crushing, but I coped, and pretty soon I felt better. But it was kind of a relief, this year, not to have that pressure of waiting and wondering and then coping and forging onward. A year from now, I’ll be going through this all over again. I can’t even ask the question: should literary prizes matter so much? One hopes a deserving book finds its readers no matter what, but the prizes do help focus attention, especially on books that might go otherwise overlooked.

I want to congratulate everyone on the list — and also hug everyone not on the list, especially those who it seemed might find their way there. One small observation: there are 13 writers on the list, and 4 are women. I wonder about that. And then I observe that the jury is made up of two Canadian women (Esi Edugyan and Margaret Atwood) and one American man (Jonathan Lethem). So, who knows. I realize that’s not a profound conclusion, but I haven’t got one.

One more thing: looking over this list of authors, I notice how many are of my own generation, or just a little older than me. Makes me realize that “the establishment” is fluid. The list also reinforces my sense that CanLitLand is about the size of a neighbourhood, and that I’ve found it a lovely place to dwell. Despite the pressure and anxiety around prize lists, I’m looking forward to having a new book out next fall, because it’s a reason to travel and meet other writers, and that’s my favourite part of living in CanLitLand.

I woke up without a headache this morning. I’ve been sitting at my desk for over an hour, and I still have no headache. This feels worth celebrating! Perhaps with a sunshiny walk: I saw the physio yesterday, and he said I could try a half hour walk once or twice a day. He also did acupuncture, and I swear it helped. As yesterday afternoon turned to evening, it felt like the fog was lifting.

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I cut this lad’s hair yesterday outside in the backyard. I’m trying to remember when I became an “expert” haircutter, and I think it was as a teen, when I simply insisted that I knew what I was doing, and my mother let me experiment on my younger siblings, who suffered some occasionally unflattering cuts as a result. (Edna, please forgive me that bowl cut?) But some of the cuts actually turned out, cementing my “expert” status! (Or, more accurately, my delusions of expertise.) I remember giving my mother a brilliant haircut right before her high school reunion. In turn, this anecdote should give you a succinct understanding of who my mother is: a woman who would let her teenaged daughter give her a haircut right before her own high school reunion!!! She trusted it would work out, you see. That’s pretty awesome mothering, in my opinion.

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Stripes! We should have done stripes just like these! This girl had her second gymnastics class yesterday evening. Flushed and happy afterward, she wondered whether she could take more than one class a week. “I might have found my special thing, Mom!” (She’s been terribly worried because her siblings all have their “special things” that they love to do, soccer, mainly, while she’s dabbled in, but never loved, quite a few activities including dance and tennis.)

I tried to ease her anxiety by explaining that we may discover many special things that interest us deeply at different times in our life, and that experimenting is a good thing, but I’m to blame for putting the anxiety in her head in the first place, by suggesting that we all have “special things.” I meant to encourage her to explore her interests, but instead I planted a seed of worry. Parenting. Try, fail, try again, fail better.

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One of this girl’s “special things” started yesterday evening, and we were both really excited to get the season underway. Swim team! Last fall, she was a novice who couldn’t do a flip turn or a start dive, and now she seems like a veteran. Here’s a thought. A sign that something may be our “special thing” is that we return to it with excitement, enthusiasm, and commitment, even when it’s no longer new. Even when we already have a sense of what to expect from ourselves. Even when we’re acquainted with our limits, and know our own strengths and weaknesses. If, even then, we want to participate and keep learning and stretching and growing, then we’ve landed on something special.

All shook up

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I present to you the chaos in which we are currently living. We are having the house re-treated for bed bugs this coming week, which means moving all of the furniture away from the walls, so Kevin decided to finish the painting project in the living-room. Praise be! I’d resigned myself to the likelihood that we’d be looking at empty walls blotted with holes pretty much indefinitely. And now we’ll enjoy a freshly brightened space instead.

As it is, it feels like we’re living with uncertainty pretty much indefinitely.

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this morning, in process, two walls done

I keep getting messages from friends concerned about my ability to take it easy and rest. I would like to assure you that this is not actually a problem. In fact, I’m finding it alarmingly easy to rest, for the simple reason that my head hurts when I don’t. I can see why you’d think it hard for me, given the pace at which I prefer to live my life, but what’s perhaps more distressing is how easy it is for me to shut down, lie down, close my eyes, and not do anything at all. The only problem, I suppose, is of identity. I prefer the Carrie who operates at high efficiency and can be relied on to squeeze the marrow out of her days and hours. The-meditational-Carrie-on-the-couch-whose-head-hurts-when-faced-with-effortful-tasks seems a foreigner, a stranger, from whom I may learn something, someday, but whose presence is, it must be said, a bit of a drag. It reminds me of the six weeks, or so, post-partum when everything would feel off-kilter and I would long for life to return to normal; and eventually, it did, or rather to a new normal. I imagine, at some small distance from now, writing an essay reflecting on this slightly bizarre time in my life.

A friend on FB recently posted a status that went roughly like this: “I’m thinking of all those times when I thought ‘I’m barely holding on.’ Perhaps it’s those moments that are conspiring to help me let go.”

I like that. The positives of this experience seem to relate to letting go. Maybe that’s why I’ve been playing the piano more often, and singing: my head likes it, and I feel very free as my fingers and voice improvise and play with rhythm and melody. I’m shifting plans to make life easier, too. On Friday, I realized that there was no way I could drive myself to and from Toronto for a reading; so Kevin drove me, and we got to spend an unexpected evening together. Hardest of all is not limiting physical activities, but cognitive ones, as I’m healing. This includes limiting writing time, reading time, and time conversing with friends, all of which I find surprisingly taxing. I trust that my friendships and books will wait for my return; my anxiety circles instead around a fear that I won’t be able to write with clarity and depth, given this injury seems to affect most strongly my ability to focus for long periods of time: that’s why I’m continuing to blog. It gives me hope.

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Here’s how Kevin and I are living right now: like grad students. It’s like we’re camping inside of our ordinary lives. It changes the perspective. There is comfort in simplicity, in a bed on the floor and not much more, the entire family crowding in on a Saturday morning to laugh and talk and snuggle.

What happens when we’re shaken up? What happens when we can’t be our best selves? What happens when we’re asked to live in flux? What happens when we let go of all that we can’t control?

New year all over again

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ALBUS Started yesterday. Grade seven. Junior high. New school, starts earlier, ends earlier. Walking with friends. Returned home excited, likes the idea of moving around from classroom to classroom, subject to subject, having a variety of teachers. Likes his locker’s colour and location. Did not jump on my idea of decorating it. His main worry: that he might be late for class and get detention due to being unable to open his lock. Not reassured by parents telling him this is not, generally speaking, a leading reason students get detention. Practiced piano as soon as he got home. Had no homework.

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APPLE-APPLE Started yesterday. Grade six. Same school as last year, same classroom, same teacher, same classmates her age. There are new grade five classmates added to the mix, so that’s the only real difference. One of the new students is a soccer-loving girl! So that’s different too. They played soccer together during recess, and today she took her own ball to school, as the school’s ball is flat. Did her homework as soon as she got home. Also, I brushed her hair in the morning while she was practicing piano. She didn’t object in the least. (But I didn’t have time to brush it again this morning.)

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FOOEY Started yesterday. Grade three. Same school, same wake time (7:25!), same exit time. Walking with friends and brother. Returned home satisfied with first day, reporting that she’s in her former kindergarten classroom (there is a new wing of brand-new classrooms for the all-day, every-day kindergartners). Went directly to a friend’s house after school to play. I did not, therefore, get a full and immediate report. But she did play the piano after supper: she didn’t want to practice, just noodle on a particular song that we could play together. That was nice. (And I just had to show her carefully chosen outfit in full!)

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CJ Look at this guy! He started this morning. Senior kindergarten. Will get to school using a combination of bus and walking. Gave me lots of hugs and kisses and waves as we waited outside the new kindergarten wing. There were six kindergarten classes going in, a huge crowd. His best friend is with him. He said he was excited. I came home and cried my eyes out. Can I admit that?

Now, here are some out-takes from this morning’s shoot.

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I am making them hold hands. Ha!

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We’re holding hands, we’re smiling. Are we done yet?

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Seriously, Mom. Are we done?

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Wait! How did that one look? Let me see, let me see!

And the school year begins again. And here I sit alone (save for my doggie companions, who think this office actually belongs to them), in quiet, if not at peace. Too much happening, too much to prep for, too much I can’t prep for, can only plunge into. The good news is, I’ve been able to get up early-ish to run these past two mornings, and my head doesn’t hurt. The bad news is, even during these happy running moments my mind is turning over and over in restless sifting of must-dos and worries. I think of running as a curative for my restless mind, but sometimes the mind doesn’t want its rest, or refuses to take it. I’m not fighting it because there must some purpose to it, some need it is meeting. I’m not fighting it because life has its rhythm of cycles, of tides, of pull, and rest will come again, I know.

Exciting! New! Upcoming! Forthcoming! Woot!

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photo credit: Nancy Forde

So, this fall is shaping up to be very writerly and literary, with plenty of events and launches to look forward to, in addition to which I’m excited about a few other things too and I’ve decided to tell you about the whole kit and kaboodle.

Thursday, Sept. 5: Mark your calendars and come if you can. I’ll be reading at the Starlight in Waterloo for the Eden Mills Writers Festival, and here’s the lineup, musical and otherwise: Jim Guthrie, Bidiniband, and I Am Robot And Proud, with readings by Dave Bidini and me. Tickets $14, doors open at 8pm.

Thursday, Sept. 12: Think me good thoughts from 6-9pm! I’ll be teaching my first official creative writing class.

Friday, Sept. 13: It’s the launch of Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding, at 323 Richmond St. E., Toronto. I’ve got an essay in this anthology, and will be presenting my comical/tragical breastfeeding stories along with Sarah Campbell, Rachel Epp Buller, and Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This. Tickets $20, 8-11pm, with book included, plus wine and munchies.

Satuday, Sept. 21: I’m tentatively booked to read at Word on the Street in Kitchener from my essay published in this summer’s New Quarterly (and also in the brand-new anthology How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting, which will be hot off the presses). 4-5pm at the Walper Hotel. Free.

Sometime in late September/early October: I’ve been invited to doula (offer labour support) for my brother and sister-in-law, who are expecting their first baby. I’m so excited. Anyone else giving birth and wanting support? Consider me. For real. I also take excellent birth photos.

Thursday, Oct. 3: It’s the launch party for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenting, and Loss. I’ll be reading from my essay in the collection, but you can also get a sneak preview of it in this summer’s edition of The New Quarterly. The launch is being held in conjunction with The New Quarterly, at their own launch of this year’s Wild Writers Festival. Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo. Free! Doors open at 7:30pm.

Saturday, Oct. 5: Run for the Toad! This will be my third year racing the 25km trail run. I’ve nursed several soccer injuries this summer, first the ankle, now the head injury, which have cut into training time, so I think this time around I’ll simply celebrate being there and doing my best to complete the course.

Saturday, Nov. 9: Wild Writers Festival! Do mark your calendars for this event, held right here in Waterloo, and now in its seccond year. Last year’s festival was wonderful, and this year I’ve been asked to lead a panel of amazing fiction writers. Visit the website for more details (the festival runs from Nov. 8-10).

And that’s all for now, folks.

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