Category: Writing

I am running

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Being ambitious is good when it motivates and propels you. But what if it prevents you from enjoying what you’ve accomplished, because you’re forever pressing ahead with the more that you could be accomplishing?

Kevin offered me that perspective, yesterday, when I was pushing for more, more, more, better, better, better, as I always, always do.

I am thinking about that today.

I am thinking, too, about running. How it’s such a piece of me, now. I only started running regularly about three years ago, so it hasn’t always been a piece of me. But it is, now. It seems fundamental to my health and well-being. When I am feeling down, like I was yesterday with my more, more, more-ness, I drag on my stinky old running clothes and squeeze time to find space for a run.

Yesterday evening, with a thundershower threatening, and a less-than-ideal location (busy semi-rural roads, some with bike lanes, some without), I dropped my daughter at her soccer practice and off I ran, beating a steady rhythm on the pavement, watching out for cars. Around the sixth kilometre, I struggled, worrying I’d gone out too fast, knowing I couldn’t turn around since my route was one big loop. But by the next kilometre the difficulty had vanished and all I heard was the steady drumbeat of feet and breath.

I felt powerful. I felt alive.

“You are your own best medicine,” Kevin said afterward.

It’s a hard thing to do, to run. It doesn’t really get easy. It shouldn’t, anyway. That’s not the point of it. The point of it is to throw yourself into effort and to be present inside your body’s work. And then your head goes quiet. And you enjoy what you’ve accomplished, even as you are accomplishing it.

I’m afraid that writing has been and will always be for me a place of intense discomfort as well grace.

I’m afraid that writing costs me in ways that are physical and emotional, that in order to pour myself into words on the page, I have to make payment. I don’t say this lightly. Creativity cannot be taken for granted. It may be a gift, but it cannot be freely received. The very act of creating means holding something unfinished and imperfect to the light, and loving it for what it might be, even while accepting all it cannot be. It means you’re never really satisfied with what you make. Because you know (and only you do) what you imagined you could have made. It means living an every day life uncomfortably suspended with your unfinished work.

I suppose we all have unfinished work. Unfinished business. Longings. Discomforts. I suppose this is not unique to the writer and it sounds self-pitying to suggest so. Let me be clear: I’m not sorry to be a writer. I’ve chosen this as much as it’s chosen me. I could have been, and could yet be, something else.

I think it’s just that I’m beginning to understand what it is I’ve chosen, by being a writer.

And why I need to run, if I am to write. I am not running away. I am not running toward. I am running. It can never be like that with writing. So I’m thankful, thankful, thankful to be able to run.

Putting on my writer’s pants

Photo by Zara Rafferty

It never rains but it pours, I am here to tell you.

It’s been awhile since I put on my writer’s pants, pictured at left, and headed out into the world. But I’ve got three such events scheduled in under a week.

This coming Sunday, May 26th, I will be reading at the Elora Writers Festival in the afternoon, and then zipping back to Kitchener for the KW Arts Awards that same evening. (I wonder whether that latter event calls for something fancier than pants?)

Just a few days later, on Friday May 31st, I’ll be hosting a reading at Words Worth Books in Waterloo (FictionKNITsta! they are calling it, and I will have to figure out how to pronounce that out loud, seeing as I’m the host!).

All events are open to everyone, and I hope to see some friendly faces out there. See posters below for more info.

In further writing news, not necessarily involving my writing pants, I am now preparing to teach a creative writing course at the University of Waterloo this fall. As I put together a syllabus with — hopefully — reasonable expectations for both students and self, I find myself gathering helpful hints. For example, a Facebook friend recently posted that she gives her creative writing students a strict 1000-word limit for projects, because that’s plenty of wordage in which to tell whether or not a project is working, and it also encourages tighter editing. And she has only so much time.

Further suggestions and tips are most welcome.

Here’s the course calendar description, which I did not write: “Creative Writing 1 – Aimed at encouraging students to develop their creative and critical potentials, the course consists of supervised practice, tutorials, and seminar discussions.”

In short, it’s a workshop setting, with a limited number of students, and the direction of how it will be structured is entirely up to me, and my somewhat frighteningly ambitious instincts.

Thursday afternoon, 1:21 p.m., I hang laundry outside

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Today.

Quiet in the house. Construction noises loud outside.

Outside, 20 degrees C, sunny, windy. Clothes on the line whipping in the breeze. Small dog settling into dead leaves in raised garden bed, beside newly greening rosemary and thyme.

Thinking of the books I will write.

Seeing their spines in my mind’s eye. Sweet imagination.

Even while pressing down anxiety, clothespin in hand: What’s happening after school? Where do I have to be, when? Which carshare car have I booked? How early does supper need to be on the table?

I think, pasta with the last of the tomatoes.

Small dog stands, alert, to warn me of approaching pedestrians, big diesel trucks, other dogs, a squirrel.

Locating myself in time, to this moment.

Thinking of all the books I will write.

Everyone will get to where they need to be, even if they are a little bit late. Even if we are always, perpetually, just a little bit late. Rush, rush. “Mom, we’re fast-pokes, you and me.” (Fooey, age 7, and always organized and ready to go.)

Thinking a run in the woods. Touring the science fair. Soccer under this swept sky. What good kids I have. I will write them a book.

Clothes flapping to dry under a promising sky.

All the books I will write. All the books I will write.

Yes and no

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Woke up early to run this morning, and woke up my eldest girl too. She wasn’t going for a run. Nope: science project due today, with a few finishing touches to complete: framing text and photos and placing them on her backboard. “Herbal Medicine.” She even prepared her own Garlic Tincture for the project. She left for school looking proud and happy and DONE! That is a good feeling.

She didn’t get a nap, but I did. Thankfully. Doing dishes at 10 o’clock at night is not conducive to early morning exercise.

I drifted down into sleep thinking about this article that’s going around called “Creative People Say No.” According to the piece, a signficant proportion of creative people say no to things they consider distractions in order to get their work done. The article irritated me. Why? Do I disagree? Do I just dislike saying no?

I don’t disagree, in fact. I know the time it takes to complete a project. The quality of that time matters, too. If you’re going deep, you need to sink down slowly, stay under, and not be presumptively yanked out. (Being presumptively yanked out seems the very definition of parenting, frankly.) I fight for my time, and resent when it’s taken away. In fact, I probably do say no quite often. When I’m deep inside a project I believe it wise and wholesome and productive to say no to the following major distractions: Facebook, Twitter, email.

But there are many things I cannot say no to.

I can’t say no to the dishes, no to the science fair project, no to the sick child, no to the solo parenting weekend due to Kevin’s work, no to providing meals and clean clothes, no to walking the dogs, at least not all the time. And there are many things I don’t want to say no to, too. I want to see my kids play soccer and swim. I want to help them practice piano. I want to meet friends for lunch and early morning runs. I want to connect and be connected, and therefore I say yes.

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Reading that article gave me a sense of panic, I suspect. Given all these things I can’t say no to, how can I possibly create? But I do! I do create. There is more than a smack of privilege to this whole “saying no” thing, an assumption that a creative person owes to his or her art an aloof and introverted life. 
That actually doesn’t work very well for me.

That said … how different would my life look if I worked in a traditional full-time job, if my office were not in my home? What would I have the privilege of saying no to, under those circumstances? We might have a dishwasher that the kids could load and unload. Kevin might share sick kid duties. Our meals might be less from scratch, or more from the crockpot. Then again, I might not be able to meet friends for lunch quite so easily.

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Kevin and I are thinking about these details quite a lot right now, imagining sharing the roles at home and at work more evenly, imagining our lives shifted slightly, again, to accommodate me stepping even more fully into work, and him stepping even more fully into home. I say yes a lot, but I’ll tell you, I would happily say no to the dishes.

My poetry book club: an interview, with notes

Photo by Nancy Forde. Humour by all of us, and some more than others.

 *Note # 1: Last month, in honour of Poetry Month, my poetry book club was asked to take part in an interview for a literary blog. And then due to a staffing change our chance at modest book club fame fell through — but we’d already answered the questions and posed for a group photo (any excuse to get together and eat cake, really!). So I’m posting our photos and responses here instead.

*Note # 2: Yes. We are called the Smeops. No. No one will ‘fess up and take credit for the name.
*Note # 3: Please imagine a friendly omniscient interviewer voice leaning toward the microphone to ask these questions. Like Carol Off on As It Happens. Humour me?
Note # 4: These are the books we’ve read since our first meeting, October 17, 2010, though not in strict order of reading. (And here is my blog post on that inaugural meeting!)
Pigeon, Karen Solie
Morning in the Burned House, Margaret Atwood
I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being, Johanna Skibsrud
Bloom, Michael Lista
Methodist Hatchet, Ken Babstock
The Cinnamon Peeler, Michael Ondaatje
New and Selected Poems, Vol. II, Mary Oliver
Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins
Human Chain, Seamus Heaney
The Anatomy of Clay, Gillian Sze
Groundwork, Amanda Jernigan
The Book of Marvels, Lorna Crozier
Horoscopes for the Dead, Billy Collins
Seal up the Thunder, Erin Noteboom
Note # 5: There will be no more notes. There will be questions and answers. Questions, more answers. And so on. And so forth. Until the end. At which point there will not appear even one more note.
Photo by Nancy Forde. We are, from left to right: Eugenia, Amanda, Christyn, Matthew, Maggie, Craig, Carrie, Karl, and Nancy.
Why did you decide to start a poetry-only book club?
Geez, these questions are hard. Reading poetry is a lonely pursuit, and that seemed a shame and possibly unnecessary. It feels great to share a good poem. – Karl
I didn’t help start it, but I wanted to join because I find that reading poetry alone is not as much fun as reading or discussing it with others. I love hearing how other people responded to or interpreted a poem, and frankly, even how different it can sound when read by other people. – Eugenia
Well, I usually tell people I like poetry over a book club because we are all restricted with time, and if for some reason you can’t read a whole book of poetry before the meeting, well you still get a feel for it and can comment, something that doesn’t usually happen in a book club.
 Second, it’s not common and so has that mystique about it as well as a little bit of my third point …
We get to be the “cool” kids. Everyone wants to be in our club! Joking aside I know I personally feel a little boost in my ego whenever I say I belong to a poetry club.
 Oh, and the food, wine, and “adult time” are also big draws. Plus I laugh the most there than anywhere else. 
 Amanda
Good question. The inward nature of the goings-on between poem and reader seems at odds with a book club. Maybe it is. And yet in my opinion, this poetry-only book club does work, somehow: we sporadically gather, chosen book at hand, noteworthy pages marked up, and if we’re so inclined, tip our experience of a poem outward into the room, in hopes of getting a little closer to it, and in hopes of being understood by the others sitting there. I didn’t start this club, but I joined in order to read and talk poetry with good people who like to do the same.  Maggie
The poetry-only book club was Karl’s idea. At first, we were only three, and we got through two Canadian collections together (P.K. Page and George Johnson), and then one of us moved, which left just me and Karl, awfully small for a club. Who reads poetry, we wondered, and more importantly who wants to join us and talk about it? I remember putting the idea out onto Facebook and my blog, and I remember my surprise and pleasure to discover that poetry-lovers are everywhere. All you have to do is ask. That was two and a half years ago. At some point, we named ourselves The Smeops. We first met to discuss Pigeon, by Karen Solie. After that, we read Morning in the Burned House, by Margaret Atwood. Our next book will be Seal Up the Thunder, by Erin Noteboom (aka the amazing YA author, and our neighbour, Erin Bow), who is an on-again-off-again Smeop. She didn’t want us to read her poems, but she hasn’t come for awhile, so this is our way of getting back at her. – Carrie
I enjoy poetry, but am more apt to pick up a novel before a collection of poems. By joining the club, I give myself a reason to read poetry. – Christyn
The club had already begun when I was kindly invited into the fold when I had recently moved into Waterloo from having lived rurally for a decade. Carrie asked me if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance. I am an English Lit alumna and, as a single mother, the idea of having adult conversation not related to Dr. Seuss (or, only sometimes related) was enticing. If I can’t get a sitter, everyone is accommodating and allows to me to host [I lied: *Note # 6: Nancy is a consummate host, and we love coming to her house! The photos were taken there, in her kitchen, and her cozy back room.] It’s wonderful to have a “night out” in my back room discussing the potency of words with people who are great fun and all have different opinions/approaches. A chance, also, to get to know members of this new community and feel some belonging. – Nancy
How does your club choose which books you will read?
Members suggest them. – Karl
Randomly. – Maggie
Haphazardly, at best. We don’t have a group leader, and at times we wish we did, but no one wants to be “uber-Smeop.” So we muddle on collectively. Occasionally, we meet without a specific collection, and bring favourite poems to share. We’ve chosen a few collections after hearing a particularly amazing poem read aloud. Those meetings are some of my favourite. I love hearing someone read a poem out loud. We have some brilliant readers in the group, although Karl will dispute his talents. Nancy can bring us all to tears. Craig does voices. I’m pretty sure he did a Yeats poem performed as heavy metal — that really happened, right? Back me up, someone. – Carrie
I think it was, more specifically, “Yeats as Metallica,” not to be confused with my own “Babstock as Jim Morrison.” Not one of my prouder moments. It was the olives talking. – Karl
People come across poems, throw out suggestions. I read “I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being” one night because a friend had sent the link to me via my blog and we all thought we might take on Johanna Skibsrud collection as a result.  Nancy
In your experience, how do the discussions in a poetry book club differ from those in a regular fiction-based book club?
I’ve not been part of a fiction book club. Anyone? – Karl
They don’t, really, at least in my experience. Members in both types of clubs interpret the works in individual ways, and share their reactions based on life experience and personality. – Eugenia
Maybe we can say that our poetry club is more than just an excuse to get drunk on wine? Sorry, that observation’s based on the book club experiences of certain household spouses who shall remain nameless. – Craig
I rather wish we could spread our idea more and show people that poetry is for everyone, not just the few literary elite. In the group we all come from different backgrounds and yet, for the most part, we generally agree on a work of poetry. We may differ in opinion on exact poems, but I’d say on the whole we agree — and we tend to like the works that are the most “readable.” (Erin would make fun of me for that word!) – Amanda
I’m not convinced there is any definitive difference. There may be a little more talk around form, language and sound as opposed to plot, character and theme, but this is of course a generalization, considering the many books that dabble in more than one genre. – Maggie
An observation: often, even people who love reading poetry feel inadequately equipped to talk about it — until they come to our book club, that is! Our conversations are lively, sometimes in-depth, occasionally moving, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Poetry wrestles with the Big Themes: life, death, memory, love. So does fiction, I realize, but a poem is so distilled. There isn’t plot to discuss, or character development; instead there are big ideas, compressed. With a poem, it’s tempting to say, “I liked this one,” or “I didn’t like that one,” so the challenge is to go beyond that and understand why (Matthew tries to keep us focused!). – Carrie
Poetry covers so many facets of life and its experiences and interpretations, that our discussions are similar (all over the map). I find that the poetry club elicits an emotional side of me that a book club never did. In the few hours we get together, every emotion can be covered. There are tears, moments of silence, confusion, anger, and lots and lots of laughter. It’s a safe place to examine life. I love seeing how each of us (so different in so many ways) will take away something so similar, yet so different from each of the collections. I walk away every time with a new perspective of life and a new nugget of knowledge. – Christyn
Well we have a historian, a few writers (who’ve also published poetry), a computer scientist, teachers, someone who works with the deaf, I’m a trained actor. We all have different passions and we certainly can disagree. But I think it’s the ability to read a collection and get a sense of a poet within a month. My favourite part of the night is when we’ve all brought found poems or ones we’ve loved or love or just discovered and we read them aloud to one another. So, whereas a book club may discuss that one book’s plot, climax, character development, emotions about certain chapters, etc. I would think the fact that we read poetry that can sometimes have been composed over decades by the poet—at different times in their lives—we get perhaps a broader spectrum of the person penning the poetry: when they were in love, depressed, enlightened, lonely, pensive. Also, it’s amazing to see the different reactions even a poem of 10 lines can evoke. The poet writes the poem but it can hit each of us in its own subjective way (as books can), but because the words/content of poetry or on a much smaller scale than entire chapters of words in books, often I think we talk about how one “line” or one “phrase” or even one “word” made the poem for us (or ruined it, etc.)  Nancy
Photo by Nancy Forde
Can you share a few of the club’s favourite collections?
My favourites so far: Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood, and Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins (not strictly speaking a single collection). – Karl
I’ve particularly enjoyed the times when we’ve goaded ourselves into sharing poetry that we’ve written. There’s great vulnerability and exhilaration in doing that. I’ve sometimes thought that a good poem is like a good wedding, because attending someone else’s wedding can make you want to reflect on your own commitments, and a good poem can make you want to cobble words together yourself. That doesn’t ring true for everyone, of course, but there’s some kind of consonance there for me. – Matthew
We hardly ever have consensus on a collection, but the poet who garnered the most positive response was Billy Collins. – Eugenia
And of course I’m going to list Billy Collins as a fav 😉  Amanda
Fortunately, there’s little consensus, which keeps the discussions lively. But every once in a while, we stumble across the sublime, and there’s pause for thought. These are the intimate moments that are great to share. – Maggie

We’ve found that a collection of poetry is almost always uneven, but the joy is looking for that poem that resonates. We don’t always agree on which poem was magical, but we like disagreeing. I’d say disagreeing keeps us together. – Carrie
The most favourite was Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room(also the most light-hearted). We also have others that bring about lots of laughter and inside jokes! – Christyn
I think Billy Collins was popular with everyone across the board and Margaret Atwood is so hard not to appreciate. I missed out on a couple of collections but fell in love with Mary Oliver and I absolutely was thrilled by Michael Lista’s Bloom, though not everyone loved it. We have good fun about who loves what and why (or why they seriously do not).  Nancy

The suddenness of Spring

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On May 6th, eighteen years ago, I met Kevin in circumstances that do not bear blogging about but which were, I assure you, youthful and spontaneous and highly unlikely to lead to marriage, children, home-ownership, and a stable future. But that’s what happened.

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I love that we met at this time of year. It’s exactly when the leaves burst out overhead, when the fruit trees and magnolias bloom, when the forsythia blazes yellow. Today, just three days past the anniversary of when we met, and already that moment of fragility and show is transforming into something else. How can the blossoms already be falling off the branches? But they are. How can the pale green just-unfurled leaves be fattening into a canopy overhead? But they are. How does the world fill itself in with such lushness, seemingly overnight?

But it does.

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Yesterday, I proofread an essay that will be appearing in the next edition of The New Quarterly, and later this year in a collection of essays titled How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting. I hadn’t read the essay for several months and how heartening it was to discover its strength and solidity. I’ve had a thought about my long-pondered non-fiction project. I’ve decided that it will be a series of essays. This essay, for example, is called “Delivery,” and it’s about the year leading up to the birth of our fourth baby. But it’s also about grief and denial and love. I have my doubts about doing memoir. My life is not that interesting. But an essay elevates ordinary experience by connecting stories to universal themes, and a series of essays can add up to the portrait of a life in flux, which is about as memoir-ish as I’m likely ever to get. I don’t like writing The End. I don’t like considering the past Done. But I do love considering the past.

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The other project I’ve been working on this week is a tight plot synopsis for Girl Runner. This will help me down the road in edits. And it will help my agent pitch the story to a film agent. Sadly, unlike in books, there are no surprise endings in plot synopses. I have to give away all my secrets.

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In Blogland, however, the secrets will have to be kept some while longer. Thanks for your patience while we wait together.

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