Category: Writing

Fighting through the January blues

Tricia and I make a flying leap
So far, we can’t think of a team nickname. Suggestions?

(Photos by Stephen Edgar)

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Driving children to and from activities last night, I realized that I’m in a sweet spot in my book. I know what’s happening and what needs, yet, to happen. Two crucial characters have solidified in my mind. I have some exciting scenes to lay out. I could sit and write non-stop if someone would bring me emergency supplies (and if I didn’t have children to feed, snuggle, tuck in, clean up after, and drive to and from activities). I don’t know how long this sweet spot will hold, but I hope it’s right up until the very last page of the book.
I can’t believe I ever tried to write a novel without Scrivener. It’s the most useful structural tool I’ve ever encountered, for writing. Now to see whether I can write a novel with the help of Scrivener. If I can’t, I might as well stop trying, honestly. (The wonderful thing about Scrivener is that it would be useful for any complex book-length project, so if I fail at novel-writing, I’ll turn my hand to some other literary challenge instead.)

Artistic discipline and athletic discipline

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“Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred.”
– from “Practice” in Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton

I loved this book. I bought it for my new Kobo, which my two eldest got me for Christmas — their own idea, their own money, their own surprise. I hope to use it to buy more of the books that I might not quite make the leap for in the bookstore. But I’ve now learned that it might inspire me to buy certain books twice, because having read Swimming Studies as an ebook, I long for the actual physical artifact of this particular book, so that I can share it, and so that I can leaf through its pages.

I was sad to reach the end of Swimming Studies. It is a memoir written in a style that I found both affecting and aesthetically serene. Shapton shares a series of moments, linked by their connection to her own life, and to swimming. She resists the impulse to analyze (I admire this, being compulsively analytical myself). She draws scenes that are coloured with very specific detail, that open the possibility of a story the way clues do. It gave me the sensation of looking at old photographs, and wondering about the people captured there. It gave me the sensation of disturbing a private scene, almost, and not fully grasping the significance of everything going on.

I find myself wondering over certain small scenes, like one early on: Why did the women behind the counter at the coffee shop rebuff her mother’s friendliness, in the early dark of morning, and why did her mother keep trying to be friendly? Or even just resonating with a familiar sound I have never paid attention to: the clanging of a frozen rope against a flag pole.

I like that the book seemed to belong to no established genre, nor to care. It didn’t need to fit easily into a category. I did not find myself becoming impatient with some parts that I imagine others might find indulgent: the minute descriptions of pools she remembers swimming in, or her collection of swim suits. I kind of just loved the whole thing.

I can’t imagine growing up with an athletic discipline and routine underpinning my daily life. But I know all about artistic discipline. I find it fascinating to glimpse the mind and experience of someone who has lived both. And I wonder if I could find some lesson, some inspiration here, some ease with the small; the ordinary transformed by attention; the possibility for forward motion within a scene that looks set and still. If ever I were to write a book based on my blog, I think this is where I would begin.

New space, new year

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transforming my office

This is my birthday gift from my dad. It’s still a work in progress, as you can see, but already I sense how it will alter and expand my space in this lovely little room.

When I first moved into my office, just over a year ago, I loved the blankness of the space, the empty walls, the echoing newness. I wanted to spend time in the room before building anything permanent into it — to see where the light fell, to see what was really missing or necessary.

I set up my wheelie computer desk, which I’ve been writing on since grad school, c. 1997; my chair; a plastic office organizer with drawers, formerly Kevin’s; my great-aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair (she was a tiny woman); and a cast-off cupboard with doors, inside which I hid my piles of paper. After we got dogs this summer, the dog beds somehow migrated here too. The dogs love the heated floor and finding retreat from the constant attention of the children. (The children know to knock.)

It didn’t take long, really, for the blankness to be replaced by clutter.

And darned if I could no longer blame the clutter on other people — for the first time since about 1999, I had a space that was all mine. Which meant the mess was all mine too. The room began to seem small. Piles of books teetered atop stacks of paper. Soccer cleats took up residence on a windowsill. Framed artwork was stacked in the corner, facing the wall. Behind the doors of the cast-off cupboard, items became so crowded and sprawled as to be basically unfindable.

I couldn’t afford built-in shelves and desk, but thought maybe I could put my GG finalist earnings ($1000) toward Ikea shelves and a desk. And then my dad got wind of my plan. Before he became a professor of Anabaptist history, he seriously considered apprenticing as a carpenter instead. He used to make our Christmas gifts out of wood when we were kids. Now he’s retired. He’s got a wood-working studio in his garage. So he volunteered to take on the job of Carrie’s office.

I’ve been working in here for the first few days of this new year, still using the old wheelie desk, c. 1997, but with the architecture of the shelves in front of me, giving my eye some relief from the blank wall. I’ve been writing steadily. For my birthday, I bought myself Scrivener — no longer a trial version. This promises to be a big book. I’m not sure how big, but it seems quite big already and it’s not done yet. Oh, and it’s a novel. I’ve also started believing my character is a real historical figure, which is weird. I’m making her up but I feel like she really lived.

I’m imagining a hibernating winter with these shelves warm with books and pictures, the dogs in their beds, the clutter temporarily wrangled and contained. I imagine a filled space, and the comfortable march of words. I’ll be writing.

On endings

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I’ve been re-reading old blog posts. The photos are fun, but it’s the changes that are most remarkable to see in fast-forward (or fast-rewind).

Consider the post from Monday, May 18, 2009, titled “On Endings,” which seems rather appropriate for this last day of 2012. In this post, I’m writing about trying to finish a story, one that would become, in one way another, part of The Juliet Stories. I am amazed by my own resolve under circumstances that look, from this vantage point, very difficult indeed. My youngest was not-quite-fourteen-months. My eldest was not-quite-eight. I was home with the littlest children full-time, and I was finding it trying.  Kevin was recovering from a broken knee. Friends had been bringing us meals (bless you, friends!). We’d had “the barfing thing” four times in four months. I was sleeping sporadically, still nursing at night. I must have been utterly exhausted. No time for exercise, no time even to imagine exercise — who could get up early after being woken half the night?

And yet, I was writing.

There was no guarantee that what I was writing would become anything anyone would ever want to read, let alone publish, let alone nominate for a major prize. I was writing because I had to write this particular story, in this particular way. I was doing what I had to do, and if there is a lesson in here, it is simply do what you have to do. Don’t look for reasons not to do the things you have to do. Come alive. Do! I think that even if that story I was writing had not turned into The Juliet Stories, it would have been worth writing, because it brought me hope, because it gave me space and allowed me to dream.

In the blog post “On Endings” from May, 2009, I reflected on a documentary I’d just seen on the photographer Sally Mann, an artist who was suffering from doubt and set-back — and yet her art seemed without question worthy and beautiful. How could she doubt?

Here’s what I wrote in response:

“There’s no telling whether these years of work will this time add up to something of beauty and merit, but I felt a kinship watching her [Sally Mann] struggle, mourn, reflect, create. It’s a blessing and curse to want to translate experience into art — not just to want to, but to do it. The work involved. Working toward an end you can’t see until you find it. Will it be whole, or still-born? All the infinitessimal choices along the way that shape the final artifact, that leave you wondering — why this and not that? So much room for criticism, self and other. There’s the artifact created, and the one intended, and the multiple ones that might have been.”

Weirdly, I see that her art show was titled “What Remains.” I say weirdly because that very nearly became the last line in the epilogue to my book, but we decided to cut it. I’m still not sure about that cut. It’s the only one I question and wonder about. This is the ending that almost was: “Tell me, for I need to know. What remains?”

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I have a million other things I’d like to blog about, here, as we stand on the threshold of a new year. These are all on my mind: Chief Theresa Spence’s ongoing hunger strike; the need to protect and cherish the land we live on, the air we breathe, the water we drink; the nihilism of a sub-group of young men, worldwide, who commit acts of terror, from the random-seeming shootings in the United States, to suicide bombers elsewhere, to the violent rape that is moving protestors in India to rise up against a casually misogynist culture. There is more, I know. I wonder, will this be a year in which protest brings about hope and healing? What is my (small) part in creating a more hopeful world? We all long for peaceful communities, whole relationships, happy families. We are imperfect.

We work toward ends we cannot see.

A taste of the holidays

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does it ruin the scene to know that this cookie recipe came from the back of a Chipits bag?

My nap-dream this morning: I found a beautiful overnight bag in a child’s closet. It had so many zippered pockets, and every pocket that I opened was full of small items we’d lost over the years. I didn’t want to wake up. It was so satisfying to keep unzipping pockets, reaching in and finding small lost treasures.

In other news, AppleApple has lost her third pair of swim goggles since September.

In other other news, Kevin brushed her hair out this weekend.
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It hadn’t been brushed for ages and was looking a wee bit knotted. Turned out the volume and curls and length had been hiding the severity of the situation. It took Kevin two rounds, adding up to about two hours of careful combing.

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I feel wrong posting about cheerful everyday things. I just need to confess that.

I am heartened by the news that share prices for gun manufacturers have dropped steeply, and that investors, individual and collective, are investigating what they’ve been supporting, perhaps without the conscious knowledge that they were. We should all do that, you know.

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Today is the last day to order The Juliet Stories online and receive it before Christmas. But local bookstores, like Waterloo’s own Words Worth, will be open all weekend and on Christmas eve. If you’re in the neighbourhood and want me to sign a copy especially for somebody, give me a shout. Happy to.

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The house is quiet. Yesterday we had the first taste of Christmas holidays, with the teachers’ one-day-protest keeping the kids home from school. We took in a few extra kids too. Lots of cookies got baked and decorated and eaten. I put the hammer down: no ‘lectronics, period. And look what happened:

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little boys watching big boys play Risk (photo better seen in full on Flickr: just click)

Of course, the house was also rendered a complete disaster zone, the full extent of which was only discovered when I was about to put the kids to bed last night. “I know why you won’t have time to read to us,” said CJ. “Because there are toys all over my bed!” Note to self: organize group cleanup effort before sending friends home. There were bowls of water of one room. Bowls of water, spilling everywhere! This is where creative children will lead you. And I embrace it, if not quite so whole-heartedly at bedtime.

Kevin worked from home yesterday, to help out, but even so, I only managed an hour and a half in front of the computer. But with Scrivener, that hour and a half got used very productively. Why? Because I could pull out an individual scene and work on it. Then I could cross-reference it with another, with ease. I worked on five scenes and finished one. It helps that I have a complete draft in place–not sure how it would feel to start from nothing with this program. Thus endeth today’s Scrivener report.

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Reflecting on my grouchy mood by day’s end yesterday, must find strategies, over the real holidays, to counteract and mitigate. Here are some initial thoughts on the subject: a) find alone time, b) exercise and get outside, and c) can’t think of a c right now. Listen to beautiful music? Play the piano? Relax with the doggies and Kevin in front of the TV? Bake sticky buns? Hot yoga? Read books?

I found it hard to put CJ on the bus this morning. I was struck with sudden terror as he walked up those steps, his little backpack on his back. But then I made myself step away from the fear.

Love, keep pouring out.

Dark days

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I took a holiday from electronics over the weekend. The word “electronics,” aka ‘lectronics, is heard often in our house, and is often a source of conflict, as I, responsible mother, repeatedly refuse my children time on their ‘lectronic devices.

Yesterday, driving home from a soccer game, the whole family in the car, the youngest in tears because we weren’t watching a movie or letting him play on his brother’s Playbook — during the relatively short car ride — I had one of my ranting moments, this with the theme “Addicted to Electronics.” It’s kind of like a Ted talk, only unedited, and interactive.

“But what about all the time you spend on Facebook, and doing your blog, and writing?” my eldest pointed out. “What about email? And you have your Blackberry that you’re always checking.”

So we drew some lines. Games and Facebook are kind of the same thing: entertainment. Email/texts are, for me, and for better or for worse, like the telephone; they connect me to friends and family. Writing and blogging can be useful and creative. “If you want to write a story on the computer, I will make sure you have a computer to use,” I said. “But an hour of wii-time on Saturday and Sunday seems like enough.”

I don’t want to ban ‘lectronics from our lives. I want us to use them in ways that are positive, that don’t cause conflict, and that don’t prevent us from exercising our brains and collective selves in non-‘lectronic creative ways.

This is what passes for family meetings these days. I actually think it was a fairly effective conversation, by the end. I had my rant, the kids got to counter with their arguments, and we all finally agreed that Facebook and computer games needed to be limited, but that there are occasions when ‘lectronics are useful tools.

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I’ve spent the weekend in a kind of hibernation. I’m sick, but functioning, up all night coughing, slogging through during the day. “How can I feel so yucky, and still rock a 10 kilometre run?” I asked Kevin on Friday night. I took two extra-strength Tylenol and ran for fifty minutes at soccer yesterday — our team had no subs. I felt terrific during the game; chilled and feverish afterward. I’m a believer that exercise is curative. But I still feel sick.

I don’t think my electronic hibernation this weekend was about feeling sick, though. I think it was about the latest shooting in the United States. I didn’t hear about it until late Friday afternoon. I’d spent all day setting up my new book in Scrivener, cut off from the world, marvelling at this brand-new-insanely-useful tool, feeling like I could have happily chained myself to my desk for the next three months and just lived in my imaginary world. Which isn’t practical. So at around 4pm, I turned it off to get ready for our complicated Friday evening ritual, which involves a carshare car, a picnic, soccer equipment, and me in running gear.

But first I checked Facebook.

And then I saw the news. And then the news was all I could see or think about or handle, except I couldn’t handle it. Fury and rage. That was my gut response. The thought that these weapons are legally obtainable. The thought, maybe, that these weapons even exist. Tell me why we need them. Why does anyone on earth need a gun that can rapid-fire hundreds of rounds of deadly ammunition? And if you think you need something like that, I’m pretty sure that should disqualify you from getting access to it. As I ran, sick and sad and furious, on Friday night, I thought, this could be my hill. This could be where I take my stand. But I drove home, alone, weeping so hard that I had trouble seeing the road ahead.

How to pick one hill? I feel a familiar sinking. The injustices and wrongs and evils are too numerous to list, let alone to comprehend. Child soldiers, dictatorships, unsafe factories where people work like slaves so we can buy our clothes for cheap, repression, rape, self-interest, tar sands, money and the lack of it and the greedy excess of it, drones, refugees in Canada denied health care, hunger even right here in our very own wealthy country. Is evil ordinary or extraordinary? Can it ever be contained? What is the meaning of safety and security? What is the meaning of prosperity? How can I do no harm? Or even just do less harm? How can I help.

This is the darkest time of the year. The holidays at this time of year celebrate the coming of light, and all that that means.

I don’t know that I know what it means.

These are the words that come to me: Pour out your love, you won’t run out.

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