Category: Writing

“You’re doing something else in the normal world”

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I’m in a pre-holiday panic, characterized by a sense of paralysis as the lists in my head get jumbled and I can’t remember who needs what and when and where and why, and how it will all get done I do not know. At least I slept well last night. I woke looking like I’d swallowed a giant salt tablet, which I kind of did, given my new love of all things brined and fermented. Have you tried a real brined pickle, tangy from fermentation rather than vinegar? I’m now attempting to brine a rutabaga because it was the only brine-able vegetable I could find in the fridge last night. You might not think brining random root vegetables at 10:30PM the wisest use of my time, given the panic mode, but that is the truth of panic-mode. We’re not the wisest at 10:30PM.

Yesterday. Oh boy. Kettlebells and spin, and forgot my running shoes, so had to borrow a pair, which didn’t really fit, so I ended up going barefoot. Brief nap interrupted by dogs howling. Sleepy daughter needed a late breakfast, had to be forced to do her homework, had to be driven to school around lunchtime. I grudgingly ate lunch (it wastes so much time!). Before I knew it, it was meet-the-bus time. Walk home together time. Make an early supper time. Try to force sleepy swim daughter to do more homework time. Then we were off to swim lessons. Last one of the season for CJ, who didn’t pass, as I knew he would not, having observed his progress in the pool. He’s improved enormously, but he can’t figure out his kick, and lies there floating atop the water, legs churning with energetic futility, propelling him literally not an inch.

As we stood in the change room, me trying to towel off his wet legs, him howling that I was torturing him with the towelling of the wet legs, I thought, yup, this is torture alright. I’m crouched in a germ-ridden change room with a melodramatic five-year-old and my book is at home not getting written!

At home, we ate the soup I’d made earlier. Too many veggies, according to one child. Too spicy, according to another.

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soccer boy

Then the soccer lad and I walked to the library to pick up the carshare car, and headed to his last house league game of the season. They won! And he scored! It was a fun game. I enjoyed the conversation that accompanied our outing, too. I was so grumpy as we walked to library, growling at every little thing that wasn’t just perfect in the world around me (lousy drivers nearly running us over in the crosswalk, lousy fellow sidewalk walkers cruising two abreast as if expecting us to jump into the snowbank in deference to their passage, etc.) I suddenly heard myself, bitching about everything, and wondered out loud whether really good people (like Nelson Mandela, I said) did this. Were they grumpy out loud? Did they complain about other people in such a petty terms? Surely not. Albus figured that really good people kept it to themselves. Maybe they let off steam in private. But they didn’t say mean things in public.

How do you let off steam, I wondered? Albus figured it was different for everyone. He wasn’t sure how he let off steam. Come to think of it, neither was I, only that on certain days, due to certain circumstances, I was more likely to be grumpy and intolerant and judgemental. Like yesterday. Stretched too thin, to pull my word of the year into the conversation.

After soccer, we parked the carshare car at the library and walked, shivering in the Arctic breeze, to the grocery store to check the last to-do of the day off the list (brining rutabagas wasn’t actually on the list, in fact). We had fun dashing down the aisles, as we always seem to, and were the second-to-last customers in the whole store. Albus has discovered my weak spot, which is anything with a bargain sticker on it: therefore, he talked me into getting him a tray of sushi for a bedtime snack, half-price. I texted Kev, who drove over to pick us up. What did we do before texting? Psychic means weren’t nearly so reliable. And then I ate the last pickle and brined the rutabaga and ate two more bowls of soup, plus a grapefruit, plus had a cup of tea with Kev, then tried to read in bed, until I discovered myself reading with my eyes closed, which never works. I try it every night, and it never ever works.

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And now I’m sitting here wondering about presents un-bought, and when to schedule in time to go seek them out, and food-ordering, and how it will all fit together, and how I can leave the book behind for a few days, so as not to torment myself with the fact that I’m not working on it, and instead enjoy the holidays, and family, because the holidays don’t come often, and occasions for togetherness don’t come often either.

How can I set aside this unfinished work? I’m breathing its air.

Alice Munro was recently quoted in an interview saying this: When you’re a writer, you’re never quite like other people — you’re doing a job that other people don’t know you’re doing and you can’t talk about it, really, and you’re just always finding your way in the secret world and then you’re doing something else in the “normal” world.

It’s true. You can’t talk about it. It’s not that people aren’t willing to listen, it’s that it’s impossible to talk about. The secret world is paper-thin, full of holes, peopled with shadows and questions and puzzles and blazing pictures. It doesn’t all fit together, and this is impossible to explain too. That the work carries from project to project, never finished, never solved. It’s the never-ending-ness that causes enormous anxiety, which in turn fuels the work. You’re always trying to pull it together, as a writer, and failing, and it’s the failure that keeps you at it. To fail is to recognize what yet could be. How to talk about that?

Home delivery

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No more home delivery. No more mail person clomping up my porch steps. No more familiar ting of the metal lid being lifted and dropped. I don’t receive a lot of hand-written letters these days, but I get a lot of mail, and not the junk kind, either. I’m self-employed, and most cheques for my speaking and writing work arrive in my mailbox, often unexpectedly. Gazing out my office window, it always cheers me to see the mail person marching along the sidewalk, with our stack of letters in her hand. So. So? Maybe it’s just a luxury to expect my mail to be delivered at the door. Maybe it is. But it makes me sad to know that this delivery system for communication is vanishing.

I’m facing off against Girl Runner today; that’s not a good way to frame it, but truth is, doubt is plaguing me. The only way to make this anxiety go away is to do the work. I know that. Why is it so hard to begin?

Reassuring words from Kevin, to get me going this morning: Once you get started you will find your pace, just like running. Your personality is that you get better and faster the longer you go.

True. I gain confidence over the long haul. I gain resistance to pain. I shed fear, or it shuts down, somehow, and doesn’t matter. I’m talking about my experience as a runner, but I’m also talking about writing. About anything, really. About being a mother. About being a friend.

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Was I ever grumpy this morning. Broken zipper on snow pants discovered at the last minute, digging through the attic for another pair, bitter cold pouring through the opened front door as the impatient child waited for her little brother. But I’m not grumpy because of that. I’m grumpy because my mind is elsewhere, edging toward questions and solutions, big questions, elusive solutions.

I’m grumpy, maybe at least a little, because I went out with my siblings last night, stayed out rather late, did not object to another pitcher being ordered, and then set my alarm and went for an early run this morning (with a friend; if I hadn’t been meeting her, I would have stayed in bed).

I’m grumpy because I know what I need to do, and I’m afraid of failing.

I’m grumpy because I’m afraid of failing.

Shouldn’t I know better? It’s not failing I should fear. It’s inertia.

Out-takes from this weekend’s “I need a new author photo” self-portraiture session

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on the prow of an imaginary ship, hair whipping in the wind

fake album cover

I knew it would be tough to get to my desk these past few days. And it has been. And I probably should be napping instead of posting right now (I’m feeling crummy and am actually on antibiotics, as a matter of fact). But dammit, I need to write!

Friday was a good news day. I finished marking on Thursday night, as planned, if a little later than hoped, spent Friday morning double-checking my math, and then delivered the graded portfolios to campus for pick-up, my writing hand still cramped up from all the unfamiliar work. In future, were I to teach again, I might abstain from making detailed comments and suggestions unless such feedback were directly requested by a student. But it’s what I had to offer, this time around, and it’s done now.

Almost as soon as I’d finished that fairly enormous task, which has occupied a large part of my fall, all of the suppressed anxiety about final revisions for Girl Runner kicked in. I kid you not. The anxiety must have been sitting there just waiting to pop. I literally finished packaging up the portfolios and alphabetizing them (because I am nothing if not needlessly organized), and then texted Kevin with a “Help! What’s happening to me?”-style of message.

ooh, pretty colours

He requested that I check CJ’s “feelings” handout, which we’ve all been referring to with a certain amount of seriousness since he brought it home from school. (A funny after-dinner activity last week involved CJ directing me to act out, with facial expressions, a variety of feelings. Bored. Sad. Worried. Frustrated. (“Not angry! I said ‘frustrated’!” “But this is my frustrated face!”

Pensive; also, Cold (note red nose)

Tired, yet Prepared for a Challenge?

Oh, and Happy, Excited, and Proud. I counted three positive feelings and a whole lot of not so positive ones, but fair enough. Maybe we humans have a better understanding of the gradations between unhappy emotions, and the happy ones are more mysterious, kind of lumped together into one weird and wonderful and slightly scary experiential glob. I’m noticing as I’m considering this that my happy feelings seem somehow less trustworthy than my unhappy ones. Their transitory nature seems more fragile, more vulnerable to chance (that’s what makes them scary, I think). I wonder if by thinking this way (completely unconsciously) I prevent myself from experiencing Happy as fully as I could.

Tangent. Oops.

Anyway. So I went to CJ’s feelings sheet, studied it for a moment, and texted Kevin back: Uh oh. It appears that I’m feeling Anxious.

I will slay you with my sombreness

Less than an hour passed before the phone rang. And my feelings went from Anxious to, well, Relieved, but that’s not on the feelings sheet. (As AppleApple said, “I don’t think all of the things I’m feeling are on there.”) The person on the other end of the phone was my US editor, calling with warm and believe-you-me very welcome praise for the newest draft of Girl Runner. Yes, I’ve still got the final revisions to complete, but I can’t wait to get to them, and oh man, was I ever Relieved — and no, that’s not exactly the same as Happy — to get that call. “But aren’t you ‘Excited?'” Fooey asked me when she got home from school and I’d reported the good news. And then she said, “Or maybe ‘Proud.'” Well, maybe the latter, yes — why not!

Serious writer face, with a hint of scorn?

Hauling my feelings with me from afternoon into evening, I decided to run a little further than planned while at my daughter’s soccer practice. With geeky headlamp in place, I proudly (if slowly) conquered 12km: the furthest I’ve gone since the concussion. But I woke up Saturday morning feeling a bit queasy and headachy, which could indicate a bit of a regression. Consult feelings sheet: Sad. But by evening, I felt well enough to get dressed up for a party. And take photos! And at the party, I felt well enough to stay out past our (purely self-imposed) curfew (given the early morning soccer game we had to get to). I was having too much fun to be Entirely Responsible. In short, I was Happy.

Proud. Take that, reading public

My creative project for the weekend involved trying to take a self-portrait that could work as an author photo. It was entertaining, but I’m afraid I did not succeed. I’m including here some of the many out-takes.

“That one’s pretty,” said Kevin, looking through my efforts last night (see photo at bottom of post). “It could work as an author photo.”

Calm; and possibly already had a drink?

“But could it work as my author photo?” By which I meant, is this the facial expression I wish to present to the reading public? What feelings am I hoping to conjure up and send out into the world? I’m vain, I’ll admit that up front. I’d like to look pretty in my author photo, and preferably not tired and weary. But I’d also like to look not overly serious or somber. Instead, I’d like to look like someone who you’d want to meet for tea, someone you’d trust with your story — with your feelings. Friendly, approachable, calm, but with spirit and humour. And while I’ll admit to being vain, vanity is the last thing I’d like to project.

And on this abrupt note, I must declare: End of post. I’m late to meet the school bus!

Inspirational lectures, Carrie-style

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I taught my last class yesterday evening.

We ended with a “poetry slam,” and the students got to read/perform something they’d written for the course. I brought snacks. It was fun. 
At the very end of class, I handed back an assignment and said, “And I’d like to give you all a copy of my first book.” Was I ever surprised when the class erupted in cheers. “Really? Wow, I’m so relieved,” I said. “I thought maybe it was kind of lame on my part, like, hey, guys, here’s my book …” “It feels like we’re on Oprah,” someone said (of course with irony). “Like we should be checking under our chairs.” “Yes, there’s a publishing contract for everyone under your chairs,” I said. That was a joke. But I did give them all a copy of HAIR HAT, which isn’t obtainable anyway by other means, since it’s out of print, a fact I’d shared with them in an earlier class during my inspirational lecture on “Being a Writer is All About Rejection and Disappointment”; though I had to revise my lecture somewhat after selling GIRL RUNNER the very next week. “Being a Writer is All About Rejection and Disappointment, Except When It’s Also About Your Dreams Actually Coming True!”
A few students were curious to know whether I’d teach again. I got the general impression that they hoped I would, and that they hoped I’d enjoyed teaching them. I know it will/would be easier next time, having laid out a curriculum that worked quite well, and would work better with a few minor tinkerings and adjustments. But I can only do it if I have the time. And that remains to be seen.
I do think it was good and useful work, and I’m glad to have been given the opportunity to do it. It felt, I’ll admit, like a major responsibility for which I have no training; in other words, a fairly daunting task, now undertaken, and accomplished. Except for the final marking. Oh, right. The marking.
I’ll miss the room, above.
I’ll miss the warm, comfortable atmosphere that developed in the room as the term progressed and we all got to know each other. I’ll miss hearing the students’ stories, too.
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I won’t have to miss my office quite yet, however, as I’ll be back to visit regularly over the next week or two in order to plough through that aforementioned marking. I like marking there. It’s quiet and I’m not distracted, and it feels like it’s what I’m there to do, so I do it. Also, I work hard because I want to get done and go home. There’s food at home.
Wish me luck.

Realism and kindness

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the box, in its early stages

I made a mistake last night.

AppleApple’s completed project on “the history of women in the Olympics” sat on our dining-room table, ready to be hauled in to school today. I saw an empty spot on the box (she designed the visual project using a large cardboard box with doors that open to reveal photos of athletes, with blurbs about their accomplishments). I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be the perfect tribute to fill that empty spot with a photo of the project’s author, on the soccer field, with a little blurb in the style of the blurbs she’d written about the other athletes? So I took it upon myself to do this, even though it was really late at night, and I was really tired, and in no way had the child herself asked me to.

This was my blurb: “AppleApple’s name, b. 2002. Swimmer, soccer player, runner. Aspiring Olympic athlete. Dreaming of representing Team Canada at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games.”

She walked in from swimming this morning, 7:30AM, saw her box in the dim light of day, and freaked out. “What did you do to my project?” she wailed. To say that she didn’t like my addition would be a serious understatement. She was in tears. She couldn’t explain why. (Was it because I was putting undue pressure on her to become an Olympic athlete — not my intention? No! It wasn’t that! she told me in a very irritated tone.) Carefully, I peeled off the photo and blurb, apologizing sincerely, and sincerely wondering at myself for trying so hard and getting it so wrong.

“Realism and kindness are your hallmarks,” my mom texted me this morning, on a separate subject altogether. I appreciate her encouragement.

It seems not to apply in this instance at all. That probably makes me doubly appreciative.

I would like to think that some of the time it’s true to my character.

This morning, I was re-reading blog posts from this time last year. Much sounds the same: swim meets, soccer, busy, busy, busy. But there’s one main difference. I was writing. I was writing a draft of Girl Runner, in fact. Happiness shone out of my words. This is what those blog posts told me: I am happiest when I’m writing.

This fall has been hard because I’ve been missing my writing. It’s as simple as that. I’ll get back to it soon. It’s as simple as that, too.

Based on a true story

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Last week I blogged about fiction versus non-fiction, and a friend posted a link to an article titled “Based on a True Story. Or Not.” If you’ve got time to ponder the subject, go off now and read it. If you’re in a hurry, here’s my brisk summary:

The essay is about the use of autobiography in poetry. We, the reader, tend to assume that a personal-sounding poem is autobiographical. So what happens when we, the reader, discover that a personal-sounding poem is in fact fictional? Do we have a sense of being cheated out of something “real,” or of having been fooled or tricked by the poet? Why do we want so badly to know that the poet wrote out of experience rather than imagination? Why does it matter to us?

Because it does matter, at least to many of us.

I’ve visited quite a few book clubs for The Juliet Stories. There is one question asked every time, usually immediately, a variation of: “Is this story something that really happened to you?” How I answer the question probably depends on my mood, and I often feel rather weary as I try to explain my creative process. But even if I don’t welcome the question, exactly, I don’t disdain it. I’ve come to believe the question must tap into something fundamental within us, something held in common, as readers. That we come to a story looking for truth. We come looking for the connections between author and subject. We want to believe in the veracity of what’s being told. (Maybe we want to be part of the story or become closer to it, by being witnesses rather than “mere” readers.)

The closer a story appears to be to autobiography, the more jarring it is to be told: this is fiction. We’re not comfortable with something we suspect to be full of half-truths, which are also, of course, half-falsehoods. I find it very difficult to wrestle with these distinctions. I’d rather say, “None of this happened” than “Bits of this happened”; while the thought of saying “This all happened” makes my skin crawl. I’ve got no desire to be a memoirist, clearly.

But every story I’ve ever written has been inspired by a glimpse of something actual, whether it be a house I once lived in, or the memory of an emotion that washed over me in a specific situation, or an amulet from childhood, or by knowledge I’ve personally gained cooking or horseback riding or running. I get my ideas from life. But an idea isn’t a story, an emotion isn’t a story, a glimpse isn’t a story. To make a story, I imagine what might have been if life were different. I seek alternative explanations for those things I can’t explain. I go off the trail. I wonder. I make it up.

As a fiction writer, I’m not asking my readers to be witnesses, to paraphrase the conclusion of the essay cited above. I’m asking my readers to imagine.

Curious, though. What am I asking of readers here on the blog? This isn’t fiction, obviously. This is it. Here, perhaps, I’m asking you to be witnesses.

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Yesterday at 9AM I wanted to write a post that listed in fine detail every damn thing I’d already accomplished since waking four hours previously; but I was too tired to do it, and instead went upstairs and fell into the oblivion of a nap. It will sound like bragging. Maybe it is. I don’t mean it to be. I myself am astonished and only want to record it because I doubt I’ll believe it years from now, the pace at which I’m currently pushing myself, wondering whether it’s too much, whether I’ll stumble, and badly. (Note: Kevin was working in Toronto yesterday, and usually shares half these duties.)

5:04 – Alarm. Brush teeth, dress.
5:11 – Daughter’s alarm. Help her get ready for swimming.
5:19 – See daughter off with carpooling friend.
5:33 – In darkness, leave house for a run on snowy roads.
6:29 – Home after 10.2km (slow; muscles never warmed up in the cold).
6:33 – Dash out with whining dogs for walk, chilled.
6:47 – Feed dogs. Shower. Dress. Scarf toast with PB.
7:00 – Wake eldest son to watch dogs and be on alert for rising children. Leave for pool. Listen to news on the radio, blast the heat.
7:15 – Pick up daughter and friend at pool. Feed them bananas. Chat.
7:25 – Drop off friend.
7:35 – Home. Feed myself and daughter poached eggs on toast.
7:55 – See friends waiting for elder son to walk to school, run out and tell them go; he’s sick. Call school to report his impending absence.
8:00 – Send daughter to bed.
8:03 – Wake small children. Dress smallest.
8:15 – Feed small children vanilla yogurt with cut-up pears. Empty dishwasher, begin filling again.
8:19 – Check lunch boxes, add desserts, make snack to put into smallest’s coat pocket for field trip, as per instructions on form sent home by teachers, lost, and then after much searching, found. Start load of laundry. Wash beans for supper.
8:29 – Get small children into outdoor clothes. Not quickly enough.
8:37 – Wake eldest daughter. Drive small children to meet friends for their walk to school (they usually walk there).
8:47 – Wake eldest daughter again. Pack her school bag.
9:01 – Drive eldest daughter to her school (she usually walks there, too).
9:10 – Check on sick eldest son, returned to bed. Make him a cup of tea.
9:20 – Crate dogs. Nap.
9:50 – Woken by whining dogs. Get up. Feel grumpy. Get on with it.

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