One of my editors asked whether I’d be willing to be interviewed by her daughter, who is 16 and an aspiring writer. I’m totally recycling and being efficient, but I’m thinking there might be others out there with similar questions (or, if you’re a writer yourself, other answers): here is our exchange.
1. What is the best part about being a writer?
If you love to write and to read, if you love language, if you love living in the imagination this is the best job in the world. When I sit down at my desk, I never quite know what’s going to happen, so every day feels like an adventure. There’s something magical about using text to communicate complex ideas, to share imaginary characters, places and times with readers, and perhaps most exciting and daunting is the ability to draw emotion out of a reader — to cause someone to feel something simply by giving them words on a page.
There are many ways to be a writer — that might be something you want to think about, as you consider a career as a writer. I primarily write literary fiction, but I’ve also worked as a freelance writer, writing reviews, doing more journalistic non-fiction and memoir-type non-fiction (for newspapers, magazines, and online).
2. What is the worst part about being a writer?
There are many worst parts, to be perfectly frank.
Right up front, let’s be honest about money: writing is a tough career in which to make a living. Many (most?) literary writers survive on grants and small advances, or paid appearances; or they write freelance, which requires lots of networking, pitching, and constant scrabbling to keep steady work coming in the door; or they teach creative writing; or they have day jobs.
It takes years of practice to hone talent, and to master the craft to a degree that you can make these words do what you want them to do. (Of course, that’s also an exciting part — there is always more to learn; I’m still learning!) Especially during the early years of being a writer, you face a lot of rejection. You either accept this as a natural part of the job, carry on, and try to learn from critique, or you’ll become despairing. You’ll need to grow a thick skin to protect yourself, which is hard, because most writers are sensitive people — attuned to emotional nuance. Even established writers face rejection, self-doubt, and criticism. It’s part of the job.
Personally, I find it difficult to move between the quiet interior work of actually writing to the necessity of publicity, when a book comes out — readings, appearances, panels, interviews, etc. Public speaking draws on a different part of my personality, and I find I operate better if I’m in one mode or the other, not trying to do both at once. That isn’t always possible to arrange.
I think one thing that isn’t often admitted is that writers are plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. This is not something you outgrow. I’ll never be absolutely certain that I’ve achieved what I intended to with my work — in fact, I think I’m quite certain that I haven’t, and never will. I don’t mean that I feel like a failure, or that I’m not happy with what I’ve created; just that I always believe it could be better.
But I don’t write simply to create a finished product. I write because I love the process itself. And I write always with a good deal of hope and optimism that I’ll achieve something new and different in each project I undertake.
3. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Read books that challenge you, books that teach you the long history of writing that we’re all building on, books that you admire. Read the writing you yourself would want to write. Don’t worry about losing your voice or not being original. If you write regularly you will develop and find your voice. I recommend writing as widely as you read, too. Write daily. Every bit of writing counts and can teach you something. Write in a journal. Write poetry in the margins of your school notes. Write academic essays. Write for your school newspaper. Write a blog. (This advice is based entirely on my own writing path: I took English lit in university, BA and MA, and filled journal upon journal with thoughts, dreams, stories, ideas, poems, etc. I still write every day, whether it’s writing for publication, or just for myself.)
4. What is the one thing that you would like to achieve through writing?
I don’t think I can narrow my hopes down to one particular achievement. I use my writing to communicate many different things, in different ways, in different forms. I would like to entertain readers, to catapult them into a parallel world, and take them out of their lives for a little while. I would like also to pour empathy into the world. Beauty and light, stories that may cause readers to look at their own lives differently, or to look at others differently. I do think about this. I think about what I’m putting into the world when I write. I want to add depth and understanding to human interaction, not subtract from it or be harmful. I try to write with an openness of spirit and heart and mind — and I try to live that way too.
5. Why do you think writers are important to society?
Words are powerful tools. Ideas can be powerfully communicated through them. I have a theory that all conflict and therefore the possibility of peace boils down to two ingredients: land and stories. Land is obvious: humans have been fighting over land (resources, territory, wealth) since the beginning of human history. Stories are less obvious, but no less important: a nation’s stories about itself can include or exclude, bury or illuminate, and these stories are narratives about belonging and power. All stories are. Maybe I’ll go back to your previous question and say that if I hope to achieve anything with my writing, it would be to illuminate stories that have been forgotten or left untold.
But I’m also interested in narrative and emotional complexity rather than myth-making: this complexity is usually lost in policy-making and politicking generally, and I think that’s where writers come in. Writers are not politicians. It’s our job to show the complexity of individual human experience. It is only by seeing “the other” as complex that we see him or her as human, which is a necessary imaginative leap toward understanding.
Here it is, in all its simplicity. My word of the year for 2015: WRITE.
(Because you don’t do enough of that already, said one of my WOTY friends last night. But you know what? I don’t, exactly.)
I’ve chosen WRITE, in its variations, both the active verb, to write, and the noun or subject, writing. I want to explore this calling of mine, if it is indeed my calling. Mainly, I want to do it—to write! I want what I do this year to be in service to my writing. I want, also, to examine what makes good writing so that I can teach it better.
If I get to the end of the year, and feel like I’ve wasted my time or not applied myself, or been in some way made very unhappy by the pursuit of writing for itself, for its own end, then I will re-examine my calling, such as it is. Perhaps there is a greater purpose to which I should be applying myself.
But for now, this year, I want to live in my imagination and write fiction, specifically. Work with intensity, patience, and discipline.
I’ve allowed myself a back-up word, a tagline or footnote, if you will, and that is: ATTENTION. ATTENTION feeds into WRITE. I want to pay attention to the way I’m spending my time. And if attention comes my way, I want to receive it with grace, humility, and thanks, as food that feeds my writing life.
I feel strongly that this year will be about paring down, cutting out what feels wasteful or unnecessary, not trying to squeeze so much in, and focusing instead on the richness in a long-held moment—like playing a series of whole notes rather than eighth or sixteenth notes. It might appear boring on the surface. Much of the pleasure may be taking place way down deep, rather than visible in the exciting places visited or activities raced through. The adventure is in the mind: that is what it means to write.
I think it’s like doing a puzzle.
Or practicing yoga. Or following the long arc of a story.
This year I’m going to spend more time holding the long notes. Talking. Jamming on instruments. Napping, even.
The adventure in the mind is supported by a framework of routine and discipline, which is healthy, spiritually nurturing, and makes a body strong. I love my routines. I feel so comforted by them, supported in them. I look forward to what they offer me, even when I don’t feel like setting my alarm early.
This morning, for example, I stretched in front of the fire in the dark living-room, with chants playing in the background. I was frozen solid from my walk with Nina; we’d decided to cut it short when we started losing feeling in important body parts. As I stretched myself toward warmth, in the dark, I was taken by the comfort of the dark. This is a dark time of year, but in the dark the mind goes quiet, listens inward, has time to rest and reflect.
PS Are you choosing a word of the year? If so, and you’re willing, please share it in the comments. I would love to hear what you’re working on this year.
I’m nearly done marking, and find myself reflecting on how better to structure my course next year, should I be invited to teach again. I’m also thinking about how I might structure a higher-level creative writing course: what elements are missing from my current curriculum that perhaps belong in a separate course altogether?
My goal for next year would be to teach grammar in a creative way, because without the tools to build complex yet clear sentences, it is virtually impossible to construct complex stories. And all stories are complex when you break them down: there are so many elements that go into storytelling, many of which become instinctive when one has practiced writing for years and years, but which are actually very tricky to manage–slippery to manage, evasive, elusive, invisible, unrecognized, subtle, and unavoidable. Setting, plot and sub-plot, voice, character-building, relationships, dialogue, mood, verb tense, movement through time, descriptive language, meaning, thematic layers, back-story, interior and exterior action, emotion, perspective. Have I touched on everything? Probably not. Beginnings and endings. Deciding when to tell what you know. Eliminating that which is extraneous, even though you love it dearly. Editing. Rewriting. Not becoming attached to any part of what you’ve made, so that you can cut it out, if necessary. (Writing is not like parenting: writing requires a ruthlessness that I would never draw on, as a parent.)
And here’s the issue: to manage all of these things, or any of them, really, you must construct sentences that support what you’re trying to do. There is real technical skill underpinning excellent writing.
So I find myself dreaming up writing exercises that would seamlessly include practice in the craft as well as the art. I think it’s possible. It’s kind of exciting to dream this stuff up, actually.
This is not what our living-room looks like at present. This is my aspirational living-room.
On another note …
Things that go well, and things that do not, and things that mysteriously fit into both categories at the very same time:
– helping children practice instruments in the morning, before school
– walking dogs to meet kids after school
– being injured and unable to run and doing an hour of daily core-strength exercises instead
Snapshot 1: “Nope. I’m not going to practice this morning. I’ll practice later! After school!” “But that doesn’t seem to work. Later never comes.” “But I don’t want to do it now!” “But it’s always now. It will be now after school.” “Well I don’t want to do it right this second!” “It’s a privilege to get to play the violin. We can’t keep having this conversation.” “Ok! I will play! But you can’t comment!”
A few minutes later …
“Why are you so excited when CJ practices, but not with me?” “CJ lets me help him.” “But you can’t help me. You never played the violin.” “Your teacher can help with the bowing, but I can help with the notes.” “I don’t want to talk about it now…”
Snapshot 2: Kids running down the sidewalk after school, excited to see dogs. “Wow, you guys are fast today. You’re the first kids I’ve seen.” Small dog in pink sweater decides to stop and produce on someone’s front lawn. I remove mittens, pull plastic bag from coat pocket, stoop to clean up. What happens next happens all at the same time. Pack of schoolchildren appears. Dog slips collar and begins trotting toward street. Neighbour girl excitedly runs to pet dog who has slipped collar, and who is not the friendly dog! I toss mittens, grab for loose dog, try to hand other dog’s leash to daughter while not dropping half-filled plastic poo-bag, and warning (in what I hope are non-frantic tones) the neighbour girl away from the (undeniably cute) dog who is not friendly. Time skips in jagged leaps. Pack of schoolchildren passes, unharmed. I see myself kneeling on the quiet snowy sidewalk, half-filled poo-bag in one hand, skittish dog in the other, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with the collar. “Mom, you almost threw your mittens in Suzi’s poo!” “What? There’s more poo?” “It’s right there.” “This is way too much drama for me!”
Snapshot 3: The remains of supper are on the table. I’m lying on a blue yoga mat between the couch and the bookshelf that doubles as a computer desk. Kevin is perched on a stool near my knees, replying to work emails on the computer. I’m doing repeats of bridge, which I kind of hate, kind of intensely. Fooey is kneeling on the couch, leaning over the back, observing me from above. AppleApple is moving around restlessly on the beanbag chair near my head, observing me from above. Dogs arrive on scene, enormously excited at the discovery of a human trapped at the licking and sitting-upon level. Imaginary announcement over imaginary PA system: “Could all family members please report to the yoga mat behind the couch? Calling all family members…” The pay-off will be running again. And, possibly, abs of steel, and glutes that could crack a Christmas walnut. Bad image. Time to stop writing.
* title is tongue-in-cheek; but you got that, right?
This happened on Friday (see above).
Friday was one of those days, which feels, at the moment, like all of the days, when every must-do is done slightly behind schedule, and therefore with ratcheting tension; that was Friday, especially so. Friday included an early-morning physio appointment, a work-related phone call wherein the phone wouldn’t work, marking assignments, work-related emails that couldn’t be ignored, taking care of the sick kid (who as of this writing is still sick!), and answering the door regarding incoming packages. It was the kind of day where I was reminded that working from home is convenient for everyone except for the person working from home. Need someone to sign for your package? Carrie’s home! Sick child needs attention, feeding, and care? Carrie’s home! The dogs are disastrous bundles of anxiety and need walking? Carrie’s home! I can hear the bitterness accumulating in my tone now. I guess I haven’t gotten it out of my system.
Not running right now (injury) isn’t helping. I’ve been walking on my treadmill regularly. Helps a bit. Doing my physio exercises faithfully. Hoping the exercises help the hamstring issue, because they ain’t helping with the excess of nervous energy.
Back to Friday. I was late heading out to pick up CJ. AppleApple had arrived home and wanted to come along and bring the dogs, who needed walking, as mentioned. Dogs proceeded to stop at several amazingly inconvenient locations and moments, en route, to relieve themselves, including once in the middle of a street (!!), which required some quick work with the plastic baggy. Anyway. We were late. I ended up leaving AppleApple in charge of the dogs near the school grounds, and running (remember how I’m not supposed to run?) all the way around the school in an effort to get to CJ before the bell rang. I was not successful. This was totally my fault for leaving so late plus bringing the dogs, mother-guilt, mother-guilt, mother-guilt, sprinting across the playground. There he was, panicking and near tears. Also, my hamstring hurt a lot, after just that short run. Which seems like not good news. But it felt like a day of not good news; or, more precisely, off-kilter news, not-quite-right news.
As we were walking around the school to reunite with AppleApple and dogs, CJ smiled at me, having already cheered up, and I said, “Oh, and look, you’ve had a big day! You’ve lost your tooth!”
His face simply fell. “What????” He reached into his mouth to feel for the tooth.
“Did you not know you’d lost your tooth?”
“No!” He was near-tears again. The tooth had been dangling by a thread when he left in the morning. I’d offered to pull it, but he was hesitant and Kevin was in a hurry, and so we didn’t try. And now the tooth was gone, lost for real. First baby tooth of my last baby. The Tooth Fairy in me was grieving. And CJ was really worried about the Tooth Fairy too. Would she deliver without the goods?
“I think I swallowed it,” he said solemnly. “But not when I was eating my apple. I didn’t have an apple today!”
Later that evening, we problem-solved. CJ composed a note. It went something like this: “Dear Tooth Fairy, I lost my tooth. I can’t find my tooth. Next time I will let my mom pull my tooth. I hope you find it. Love, CJ.” [Note: certain portions of this letter may have been dictated by a certain mother…]
In the morning, he came running find me, clutching the note, on which the Tooth Fairy had made her reply. “Mom, the Tooth Fairy really is magical!!!!” [Note: the Tooth Fairy focused her message on brushing. Certain portions her letter may have been dictated by a certain father, who is in charge of the dental portfolio, in our family…]
On another subject, sort of, I’m wondering how much longer to sustain the Santa Claus myth for my Fooey, who, at age 9, is seriously suspicious: “When I move out of this house, you’ll have to tell me if Santa Claus is real!” Um. Okay. I don’t even particularly like carrying out these illusions, a part of me feels deceptive, but the other part knows that the kids love and even crave the illusions; my older two were crushed when, as a novice parent wanting to be honest, I told them the truth about Santa Claus, when they asked me, around the ages of 3 and 4. Crushed! They reminisce about it to this day (not around the younger kids, however). “Oh, Mom, you just didn’t know any better,” they say, rather fondly. They’ve forgiven me. But they’re careful to make sure I keep things going for the younger two. In fact, it was AppleApple who stepped in and took charge when Fooey demanded to know why the pyjamas from Santa Claus always come from Land’s End…
This post has gone in a direction entirely unforeseen. From griping about working at home to the realities of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. How can I be a fiction writer and be so ambivalent about sustaining illusions? Honestly.
PS This Obscure CanLit blog has been shortlisted for two prizes at the Canadian WeBlog Awards, in the categories of Life and Writing & Literature. I’ll admit to being slightly baffled about this, but nevertheless pleased and flattered.
I want to write about a subject of some difficulty to process and confess.
I’ve been thinking about how I ascribe value to the things that I do. If something is hard, I assign it greater value. If something comes easy, I assign it less. Therefore, when a task or job or skill comes naturally for me, I tend to shrug off its worth. Oh, that was easy, that was nothing.
I respond to success by accepting or seeking out tasks of greater difficulty. I readily take on challenges. I choose to do the things that will be hard precisely because they will be hard. I take on this work in order to improve underused or underdeveloped skills, and to force myself out of my comfort zone. I choose it on the premise that it’s healthy for the ego and the soul to attempt and practice activities, tasks, or jobs that expose inner flaws, that force one to confront fears, that are therefore in many ways gut-wrenchingly difficult. Any accomplishment that comes out of such a frightening and challenging place is, frankly, astonishing and wonderful.
But I’m beginning to question the wisdom, at this time in my life, of this approach.
I’m beginning to wonder whether by tackling tasks of great challenge and difficulty, tasks that do not necessarily align with my natural talents, I’m unconsciously selling myself short. Rather than resting and calling myself to go more deeply into that which comes (superficially) easily, am I displaying a kind of boredom and restlessness, a mind that demands constant stimulation, even in negative form?
I seem to be good at writing fiction. Storytelling comes easy to me, more easy than anything else I’ve ever tried, always has, as far back as I can remember. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s what I need to focus on, strictly, as a life-long cause, as a hard-earned practice.
Just because something comes easy doesn’t mean it’s not hard, that’s what I’m beginning to perceive, to glimpse, ever so dimly. In fact, it may be the more difficult path because it comes easy, because I fail to value it, because ease can lead to boredom, because by delving deeper into a natural-born talent I risk discovering my limits. And that’s bloody terrifying, way scarier than failing at something I already know I’m not particularly good at.
It seems that the challenge that’s before us is not always the most obvious.
To do what I want to, as a storyteller, I need to bear witness to what is. I need to shed light. But I want, too, to bring light. And maybe that’s more about imagining what could be.
I’ve been thinking about this: about shedding light and bearing light, and how the two are not the same at all, yet I want to be able to do both at once. I want to illuminate the dark areas of our culture and our lives, and I want to bring light while doing so.
It’s a small “big thought” on a day when it seems the snow will never stop falling, nor the wind whipping. The kids are hoping for a snow day tomorrow. Maybe I am too …