Category: Writing

On becoming a writer of historical fiction

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getting ready for school

Awaking out of my comforting morning nap, a number of blog post subjects floated to the surface along with me, and then apparently floated away on a light breeze because I can recall none of them.

Oh, yes, I remember one thought. Back in undergrad, I had a fascination with a 16th-century poet who published a handful of poems in the popular press, and who identified herself as a woman: the first known to do so, though of course, the popular press meant these weren’t poems printed in a bound book, but poems printed in short runs on a few sheets of paper, rather like an advertising flier — “popular” as in cheap and meant to be easily available, light entertainment, easily consumed — so there may have been other women poets before her, lost to the recycling bins of time, or others who published but did not identify themselves as women (as is apparently the case TODAY for many female bloggers who write on “male” topics like science and technology). Anyway. As I’m writing this out, I’m realizing how much more research I would need to do into the physical details to really get this right, but the point being, I had a fascination with a female poet who published in the second half of the sixteenth-century (that’s Elizabeth I’s era) in London, England, and because almost nothing is known about her life, I imagined a life around her, and she’s remained a character of interest to me, in an era of interest to me.

About a century later, the first handbook on midwifery that was written by a female midwife was published. (Male midwives had published other handbooks before her; and yes, there were male midwives in 17th-century England.) I read that handbook for a research paper a few years ago, and was horrified and fascinated by the techniques and remedies recommended therein. I’ll spare you the details, or perhaps save them for a book. Let’s just say, midwifery through the ages was not for the faint of heart. And that was the thought that bubbled to the surface this morning: somehow linking these two women and writing about them. Do they belong in the same book, separated by nearly a century? Could I take liberties with time? I’m a fiction writer! Of course I could!

The key will be discovering the plot that might emerge around two such characters. Or perhaps she is only one character. I won’t do all my thinking out loud, here, promise. But my mind is drawn to starting up a new, big project, and having just completed a manuscript of what I’d have to call historical fiction, I’m thinking, hey, I liked that a lot. I could write more of that. Plus, I’d get to start with one of my favourite past-times: research! Maybe I could even hang out in a rare book archive, like the one I used to frequent as a grad student in Toronto.

Writing in the present is trickier. Habits and moral codes change, trends and brands and music and tastes in colour and fashion and food all change at a rapid pace, important details the inclusion of which may stale-date an offering before it comes close to publication. I’ve never been cool anyway. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. I’m not going to write today’s version of “Generation-X,” like Douglas Coupland. (Although, as an aside, I do enjoy tapping away and adding to and subtracting from a never-finished manuscript set in the present, which I find endlessly amusing, but regrettably plotless; it reads rather like a series of sit-com scenes.)

This is no way to conclude a blog post, and yet, I shall.

Where the wild things are

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I walked CJ to the school bus this morning, and noticed our paired footprints on the way home. And that’s my teeny-tiny attempt at positivity regarding this January-in-April weather we’ve been “enjoying.” I run outdoors all winter long, and this morning’s run was one of the coldest all year, thanks to a bitter wind and sharp flecks of snow. I’ve also got a hole in my running tights, and I’d really like to retire them for the season. Yes, that’s a first-world-white-woman problem, right there.

What was I going to blog about? I had ideas.

A blog is a nice place to gather one’s thoughts, I find. Maybe that’s why I don’t really want to stop. There’s a scrapbook mentality to this blog: every day is different, but every day is also focused and structured by the necessity of being and expressing where I’m at right now.

I read a piece in Maclean’s this morning about meditation, about using our minds to come to terms with ourselves. That is totally not the quote. I’ll go get the magazine. Here it is: Meditation is “a dignified attempt to come to grips with being human with the resources you have right there. Not depending on some guru, or some drug, or some psychotherapy. Just a very simple technique that, repeated again and again and again, will eventually change the way you relate to the world at the deepest level.” The person being quoted is Jeff Warren, a Toronto meditation teacher and journalist, who sounds like he could be guru-like, but who doesn’t like gurus. I, too, distrust the guru figure, even while acknowledging that I can learn much from mentors and teachers … I think it’s a fear of idolatry, but maybe it’s a fear of dependence, too, because I also dislike self-help books, or anyone claiming to be able to fix anyone else’s life. And yet I feel myself drawn to writing a self-help-like book — collecting and distilling all of the bits and pieces of discovery that keep me going and keep me digging — which seems super-hypocritical. I’m simultaneously pulled toward looking for ways to find and express a more meaningful life, and resistant to latching on to a single path or expression. As an individual, my path is singular, my voice is singular, there’s no way around that. Maybe that’s why I like fiction: it allows me to embody and express a wide variety of opinions and beliefs, none of which may be exactly my own.

Back to Maclean’s magazine (awkward segue), I’ve discovered a new (unpaid) talent: writing letters to the editor. I rattled off a critique of their deliberately inflammatory headline a few weeks back, in which a screaming toddler was labelled with the question: “Is she a brat or is she sick?” Ugh, I thought. Stop it with the name-calling! She’s neither, of course: she’s a normal toddler. That’s the gist of my letter and they printed it.

As I put in a load of laundry this morning, I thought, I often write from a position of response rather than call. I react to what exists with emotion and opinion. The non-fiction essays I’ve written have almost all been assigned rather than originated and pitched by me. This has been a stumbling block to my freelance writing career. When I write an essay on an assigned subject, I never know where I’m going to end up, but I know it’s going to be a fascinating exploration of unexpected territory. I know also that these thoughts and discoveries wouldn’t exist without someone else inviting me to make them exist. It burns a lot of energy to come up with an idea and spin it into existence, all on my own steam. This may be my downfall, as a writer, my Achilles’ heel, the personality flaw impossible to overcome.

But that’s okay.

Because my goal is to make writing my comfort zone, my place of meditation and peace, and not my bread and butter. I’d like to stop complaining about not making money as a writer. (I’m sure you’d appreciate that too.)

I’d like to free my writing from the burden of earning.

I have a feeling that particular complaint will never vanish, no matter how long I work at writing. The tension between creativity and a comfortable lifestyle is built right into the artistic enterprise. I, personally, can’t imagine how to change the system so that creative energies are compensated in a steady and reliable way. I’ve tried! I just can’t imagine it. And while I’m appreciative of the important role grants have played in supporting my work, I really hate asking for money. Just hate it. I want to earn my living, plain and simple.

A few awesome things

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1. Children washing dishes. This will look like bragging, but trust me, it happens far too rarely for the parents to claim superior parenting skills. Basically, the dish-washing child was inspired by the promise of a “reward” after all the evening chores were done — watching old family movies together. I had laundry to fold, Kevin was making school lunches, so Fooey decided, all on her own, to speed up the chore process by doing the dishes. Actually, neither Kevin nor I thought she could do them quite so thoroughly, but she did. She washed all the dishes. And her brother was inspired to “towel,” as he put it. We should put this knowledge to use, and we may, if the schedule becomes as insanely busy as it promises to be next fall, but for now, I prefer just to enjoy the moment for what it was: kids working together toward a common cause, helpfully.

2. Spring! It’s coming. I know it. Evidence surrounded us yesterday evening as the little kids and I took the dogs for a walk to our tiny neighbourhood park. Along the way we met friends, and more friends, and even more friends, everyone feeling the call of the after-supper sunshine, despite the bitter wind and necessity for hats and mitts and coats. We spent an hour out and about, visiting, playing, and remembering what it feels like to emerge from hibernation and be in the beautiful melting world again. Yes, snow is forecast for today, but I can feel the spring. I can feel it!

3. Dogs. Dogs are awesome. Our dogs are especially awesome, because, well, they’re ours, I suppose. They’ve been part of our family for a little over six months, now, and we have watched them settle in to our lives and claim our house and yard as their own (we’ve got a winter’s worth of clean-up work to do out back, but that’s another story). Without the dogs to walk, I never would have left supper on the table and spent an hour outside yesterday evening — instead, I would have been cleaning up and prepping for tomorrow and herding children toward bed. But because the dogs needed walking, I set aside all of my perceived efficiencies and off we went on a discovery of spring and neighbours and fresh air. And you know what? The dishes still got done, the piano got practiced, snacktime was had, chapters were read before bed, and kids fell asleep. So it all worked out, with the added bonus that I was a happier woman for having gotten outside and socialized. So thank you, dogs.

4. Letter writing. An edited version of my letter, which I posted on the blog yesterday, appears in today’s Globe and Mail “letters to the editor” section. So it touched a nerve, and got through. I’m pleased. Now, when do I get my own column? After my (embarrassingly brief) retirement from blogging, two blog readers emailed suggesting I pitch myself as a columnist to a magazine or other news outlet. I can think of lots of obstacles in the way, one being that I would need a unique angle. Another obstacle is in my own head: it’s one thing to hold an opinion and quite another to state it out loud and take responsibility for the noise it creates. Disagreement, conflict, tension, debate. Would that be something I’d be open to? Am I less open to it because I am a woman? That bothers me, and I wonder. And now I’m off-topic.

5. Coffee in the morning. Tea in the afternoon. It’s the little things.

Practice

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What is practice?
It is daily. It is intentional. It can change. It needs to meet you where you are.
Practice is work. You do it even when you don’t feel like it.
Practice is patient, even if you are not.
Pratice adds up, it builds on its own forceful persistence. It cannot but change you, for doing it, so be sure that you are practicing what you wish to practice.

Ten minutes of blogging bliss

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Can I do it?

All day I’ve been pouring my energies into an alternative non-fiction project, which I shall have to title sooner or later. I’m currently calling it: The Woman Formerly Known As …

Having been so very very good, I’m rewarding myself with ten minutes to blog. Because in ten minutes I will have to leave the house to pick up the kid who rides the bus. Can I offer a small weather-related complaint as an aside? Why is it so cold? Why does the air blow so arctically when spring is, surely, just around the corner? Why is there no sunshine? Why must yet another winter storm approach on the horizon? Why won’t it stop being grey?

That was more than one complaint.

Mildly interesting unrelated tidbit: We’ve had a month of breakdowns. First, the truck (remember that?): transmission. I won’t quote you the fixin’ price, but it hurt. Next, the oven! I had to borrow my dad’s oven a couple of Sundays ago in order to bake bread. Thankfully that was fixed within a week, and for a somewhat smaller fee than the transmission. And now, the boiler that heats our entire house and provides all hot water. On Saturday, suddenly everyone was wandering around shivering and wrapping themselves in blankets and draping themselves with dogs, when I thought to check the thermostat. Falling swiftly. I am thankful to say that has also, now, been fixed.

But seriously.

What else? I’m afraid to ask. I’m afraid it’s some kind of obvious metaphor that I’d rather not apply to my life right now.

I’ve nothing more to add. And look: it’s only been thirteen minutes! Which is admittedly a couple minutes more than ten. I’m going to pop in a photo and press publish, and presto, it’s school bus time.

Experiments in the key of Carrie

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Dear readers,

Shortest break ever, huh.

A few things. If you are a blog subscriber, please don’t unsubscribe. I will continue to post updates from time to time. Like now.

I find myself throwing around two vastly different ideas on how to continue blogging, with the intention of keeping it a healthy outlet and connector, rather than a time-consuming distraction or vanity-feeding outreach. My first idea is to become a weekend poster, or “slacker blogger” as suggested by a friend. As an all-in personality, this suggestion sounds tough, but just might work. I’ve got the notion that I would like to pour my daily blogging energies into the writing of a non-fiction book, so maintaining an irregular, special occasion, weekend blog would fit well with that. My second idea is to form a paid subscriber base that would make blogging a job rather than a hobby. I throw that idea out there, while acknowledging that it’s problematic from a number of angles. One is that I have serious inborn qualms about mixing creative endeavours with monetary ones. Two is that I may not have the time to give paying subscribers what they’re paying for, and that would be stressful.

So many other things to write about!

* March break: over and done, and after a long week home alone with the children I am inspired to find alternative plans for our summer holidays. My half-baked plan to let the kids look after themselves while I put ear plugs in and worked was a total fail. What was I thinking??

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* Making tea: I read a little article in Geez magazine on making your own infusions/tea by using ingredients like dried orange peel, ginger root, cinnamon stick, cloves, etc. So I’m drying the peel from the orange my son ate this morning.

* Ingratitude is on my mind. How to help my children express and feel gratitude for the many offerings they receive, rather than sulking or complaining about the things they wish they’d received instead? Hm.

* After my last post, I was grateful to hear from readers who hadn’t commented before. The one-sided nature of blogging can feel lopsided and strangely weighted, like I’m writing to a mirror-self, and that sometimes bothers me. I appreciate when people comment, or tell me in person that they’ve related to something I’ve written. It makes writing feel like less of an isolating, interior occupation — which writing so often does. I would miss that about blogging. I think I would miss it too much to stop altogether. That is my weekend reflection. What other medium allows me to connect, in a genuine and honest and real and perhaps most importantly immediate way, with so many people all at once?

So, thanks for reading. Til next time. xo, Carrie

P.S. In response to my vague idea about blogging for subscribers (above), a reader emailed to say: “It occurs to me that it might be possible to think about a blog not on a subscriber model (which might pressurize a daily post), but on a supporter model, which could be more fluid.” She also sent a link to this TED talk by Amanda Palmer on “The art of asking.” Here’s the link. Here’s a taste: “For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the internet … is taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough.”

Wow. Thanks.

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