Category: Writing

Swimmers and writers, chanting and flutes

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Friday night, full moon. I went for a walk/run while AppleApple had soccer, and my ratio was down to 1:1. One minute of walking to one minute of running. Yesterday afternoon, I ran again, again while AppleApple had soccer, and it actually felt like running, as I upped the ratio to 1:2. One minute of walking to two minutes of running. Boy did I fly on those two-minute stretches of bliss.

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This morning I woke up early to stretch. On Saturday, we moved the dog crate out of my office and installed it in the living-room, where it takes the place of an end table beside the sofa. Classy, I know. But it means I can unroll my yoga mat on the office floor, turn on some kundalini music on YouTube, and stretch. I didn’t want it to end. The only irritatant was that YouTube played ten-second mini-commercials between songs, which sort of broke the vibe. Drink milk! Soothing spiritual music. Special K breakfast shakes! Chanting and flutes. More milk!

It’s a packed week. I needed to start it off with chanting and flutes. And apparently a breakfast shake (I went with egg on toast instead).

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she’s in the purple suit: 100-metre IM

Saturday evening saw me standing for four hours in the steamy warmth of a pool observation deck, watching AppleApple’s first meet. I still don’t quite get swimming as a spectator sport, but I completely get it as an individual challenge. It’s so different from soccer in that way. As a swimmer, AppleApple chooses for herself how much effort to pour into her practices, and how much pain she can tolerate in races. As a soccer player, so much depends on your team, on your coaches, on ephemeral unquantifiables like chemistry, and equally ephemeral quantifiables like politics. You can pour enormous effort into practices, work and compete fiercely in games, but your fate is ultimately at the mercy of other people’s opinions. I suppose it’s a bit like a writer’s career, now that I think of it. The work is an enormous part of the challenge, but not everyone is going to like your style, no matter your technical skills or intensity of focus; in a strange way, success is not up to you, as the writer. And it’s not up to the soccer player, either. You do your best, and hope it pays off. But as a swimmer, the responsibility is all yours. Assuming you have access to quality coaching and the financial support needed to train hard (a big assumption, I recognize!), the only barrier (and this is huge) is your own body, and your own mind. You earn the time you’re able to earn. Period.

Runners, too.

Amazing news yesterday: two Canadian women have broken the Canadian women’s marathon record, which had stood for an astonishing 28 years.

Ok. I just got totally side-tracked reading Lanni Marchant’s blog. She doesn’t post often, but had written a play-by-play from her marathon at the World Championships this summer, which didn’t go well for her. I’d like to read her play-by-play of what worked in her record-breaking race yesterday. Fascinating stuff (to me), even though I can’t call it research anymore, the book having been already written. My next area of research, I think, is going to take me to the U.K. Someday. Optionally, I may start in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, that being easier to access while still getting home for supper. If it’s still possible to get back and forth to Toronto, an open question given Toronto’s major traffic woes: I’ve got two possible trips to Toronto planned in the next week and I can’t figure out how to get there and back in a reasonable amount of time. Tips, anyone? I’d love to see Aleksandar Hemon’s interview at IFOA on Saturday afternoon, and am this close to buying a ticket, if only I can figure out how the heck to get there and back. (I’ve got my class reading an essay from The Book of My Lives.)

It’s been a year since … I got a haircut

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I’m a bit distracted this week.

I’m up early, I’m exercising, I’m napping, I’m ferrying children to activities, I’m sitting with good intentions at my desk, I’m making lists and plans, but my attention is a wanderer. I’ve found myself dissolved in tears. I’ve found myself bizarrely flat with calm, and the next moment zapped with elevated emotion.

It was a year ago, tomorrow, that I got the news about Juliet being a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. Strange that this same season, a year later, should occasion another, altogether different heightened career moment. I note also that apparently it’s been a year since I last got a haircut. What with all the glamourous travel, I splurged. But I haven’t had a good excuse to get one since, and may have inherited a few parsimonious personality traits that will prove impossible to kick. The children enjoy mocking me for my regular (and joyful) 50% off purchases at the grocery store (“Really, Mom? Fifty-per-cent-off yogurt?” “What? It’s organic!” “When does it expire?” “Everyone knows expiry dates are inaccurate!”) Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’d like a haircut, but need to convince myself that there’s a good reason to get one.

This morning marked the start of what promises to be a new era in our lives. AppleApple has begun early morning swim practices, thrice weekly. I woke her at 5am on the dot. She was excited, ready to go when her ride arrived (thank goodness for carpooling). I set off through eerie fog on a brisk walk, punctuated every eight minutes by one blissful minute of running. I was alone in the neighbourhood except for the man on the bicycle who was scavenging bottles from people’s trash. He said good morning, and I felt ashamed for having been afraid, momentarily, of someone up so early, working so hard.

I managed an hour’s exercise. A shower. A breakfast of poached eggs on buttered toast. All before picking up my swimmer and her friend from the pool. AppleApple devoured two bananas on the (short) ride home. She had to leave for school, and running club, while I went for a nap. Oh boy, did I need that nap.

I’m worried about her. I hope she will learn to nap, or to go to bed early. This is a big challenge, and much as I love early rising, it works only when lost sleep gets replaced.

Other sports currently being practiced by my children: football (Albus, who’s up at 6:30 twice weekly for practice); karate (Albus); swimming (CJ: “We did dolphin jumps!”); gymnastics (Fooey). And we haven’t even started soccer.

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So … distractions. Work. Edits. Revisions. Readings. Reading. Teaching. Ferrying. Truck needing repair (again!). Vertigo. Permission forms. Agendas. Signatures. Homework. Piano practice. Field trip volunteering (what was I thinking?). Local food (why am I irresistably drawn to ordering a half-bushel of eggplant for pickup on Friday? Along with a half-bushel of tomatoes? Talk me down, someone?).

Tonight, the start of what I can only hope will become a mini-tradition. I’m taking my family out for hamburgers to celebrate selling the US rights to Girl Runner. We should have celebrated the Canadian rights with … pancakes and maple syrup?

Good news comes

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“squirrel-ducks” by Barry Lorne, newly hung in living-room

Good morning.

I’ve got news. I’ve got really big news. I’ve been sitting on this news for a few days because it’s the kind of news you have to share with family and close friends in person, and because, too, I needed time to process it, and because, honestly, it didn’t seem real.

It’s real.

Here is a milestone. X marks the spot. I stood in my living-room on Monday afternoon with the phone pressed to my ear, and it seems it was sunny, as I struggled to absorb what my agent was telling me: that we’d had a pre-emptive bid for my new novel, Girl Runner, from HarperCollins in the United States. The terrific editor to whom I’d spoken earlier that afternoon wanted to buy the book. Now.

Yeah. My agent had told me I’d want to be sitting down. I told her, no way, I’m too jittery, but she was right. I had to sit down. Then I had to tell Kevin before anyone else. I texted him to come home right now. The kids, who’d been listening in with interest in the background, had to wait, but Kevin hurried. Maybe he actually ran. (As there’d been a fair bit of whirlwind build-up over the previous week, he guessed what my news might be.) Albus was so excited he hugged me spontaneously. AppleApple wanted to take photos to mark the occasion.

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it was really sunny

I felt weirdly calm.

And then there was supper to make, and swim team practice, and gymnastics, and by the time all of that was done, and the kids were tucked into bed, it was after 9, and Kevin, buzzing with excitement, was off to a soccer game. I was glad to see that he and the kids were excited, because I felt … well, I suppose it was shock.

It was the shock of a long-held dream becoming reality. In an instant. I couldn’t take it in.

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I slept surprisingly soundly that night, and woke early to meditate. (Side note: so far, I’m really bad at meditating. My brain seems to think this is useful planning and organizing time, and it’s damn near impossible to get it to alight for more than an instant on my chosen mantra. But I won’t be discouraged!)

After a night of processing the news, and after my agent convinced me afresh that this was really happening, I was able to come around to two overwhelming emotions.

Relief. Gratitude.

I’m helping to support my family. I can see the burden lifted off of Kevin. It’s almost like something visible has been lifted from his shoulders. Most critically, and here is where relief and gratitude mingle most strongly: I’m getting to do what I love. That’s what all of this means. I’m going to sit here and write books. That’s all I want to do. I’m not even very good at much else.

I loved writing Girl Runner. My mind is already teeming with another book idea, although there are more edits and revisions to tackle first. I probably can’t quite comprehend what it will be like to be part of the publicity push to bring Girl Runner to an audience, especially in a new market. I’ve never even been to New York! I sound like a little country mouse. Maybe I am. But I’m ready. I’m more than ready. I’ve been working my whole life for this, and whatever comes, however it tips me sideways, lifts me up, knocks me down, challenges and changes me, my arms are wide open. My eyes are wide open. My mind is wide open.

You’ve been part of this, too, you know. All who’ve read and commented and emailed encouragement, support, worry, kindness. You’re here, too. Thank you.

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.

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