I’m writing again. And that means that most spare scraps of the day are poured into that work … and not into, say, doing the dishes, prepping supper, photographing my adorable children, or blogging. Gee, I still dislike that term. But can’t think of a better one.
Saturday, so we arose late, hoping CJ would sleep in (he did, a bit, following a just-before-seven nurse), and that the other children would go downstairs and play together (they did), and that they would FEED themselves. They didn’t. Inevitably, hunger arrived, wasn’t addressed, and led to an argument between Fooey (age four) and Albus (age eight). Over Duplo. Apple-Apple, meantime, has been in the position pictured above since waking this morning, save for a brief breakfast out of bed. It is now almost eleven. She’s reading the Harry Potter series at a rate of about a book per week, and is already on book three. Surely there is poetic justice in me having a daughter who cannot remove herself from a book–I get to understand first-hand how difficult that can be to watch. I fight the urge to jump up and down waving my arms while telling her: look at this wonderful world; don’t you want to go play road hockey with your brother?; wouldn’t you like to chat or something? But she’s lost in this other place. She doesn’t even blink.
“When you’re reading, it’s like you’re almost in another world, isn’t it, Mom? It’s almost like you’re a character in the book. And then when you close the book, the world disappears.”
Yup, like magic. I get it. I hope I’ll get there again, myself. I read all day long, but not in the same way. I skim the newspaper, dash through emails, scan other people’s blogs, troll through recipe books, I read aloud to the kids, process the endless stream of info that arrives in backpacks from school, lie in bed and savour a chapter or two in a personally chosen book before sleep arrives. Much of life revolves around text. Reading isn’t dead. But falling so deeply inside a book … that feels beyond my capacity to manage right now. There isn’t enough room, enough space in the day.
This morning began like most Saturday mornings. I didn’t get downstairs till almost 10, though I’d been up for several hours. I changed the sheets on four out of five beds (couldn’t budge Apple-Apple), put away bales of laundry, tidied. Experience tells me that, when working on a project, it is unwise to move to another section of the house, even for a brief errand, because another project/child/need will suck me in. Last night, Kevin and I spent about two hours, post-supper and post-dishwashing PUTTING AWAY TOYS. We worked in tandem, sorting, organizing, throwing away, moving methodically through drawers and bins and across swathes of strewn carpet. Maybe we have too many toys. Or too many toys with tiny bits. Because we have places to put everything; that’s not the problem. It’s just that everything seems to migrate, up and down, piled into baby buggies and baskets, dumped and dragged, carted and reorganized for the sake of some marvelous imaginary game that it would seem cruel and foolish not to allow. Their methods of cleaning up, though sometimes quite enthusiastically practiced, don’t match up with mine. Albus, for example, would happily organize his room according to his own ideas, and it would look “perfect” to him: there would be multiple piles stacked on dresser tops and in the middle of the floor; there would be a forest of containers, each with three or four items rattling about within. “But I like it this way, Mom!”
Made it downstairs. Have now breakfasted and self-caffeinated. Laundry is on the list, as is vacuuming. Unless I get called to doula at a birth! My friend is due–was due–this Thursday past. Every time the phone rings, Kevin looks at me and I look at him–is this it?
Do any of you have Sigg water bottles? If so, the company is doing a voluntary recall due to tests that showed their old liners were leaching a nasty chemical. This week, we replaced a family’s worth of rather battered bottles for pretty new ones, which have a different liner. Which will leach heaven knows what, but hey. Better than disposable. Blue Skies Yoga and Eco-Store
will exchange your bottles, no questions asked. That’s Apple-Apple’s brand-new ladybug bottle behind her in bed. Always hydrate while reading.
I’ve been reading memoirs.
First, I re-read an old favourite: James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, which is not, strictly speaking, a memoir, but a fictionalized account of the author’s experiences as a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales before World War Two. I’ve loved Herriot’s books since childhood; they’re funny, poignant, a bit sentimental, and the writing is what I’d call hard-working. It does the job. Sometimes that’s really all that’s required, and anything more would seem out of place.
Next, I read The Way of a Boy, by Ernest Hillen, a memoir about the three years he spent as a child in a Japanese work camp in Dutch Indonesia, during World War Two. This is an entirely and remarkably unsentimental memoir; it seems like the author re-entered his boy self in order to tell this very pure and moving story. Inherent in his telling is complete trust in the reader. I liked this book a great deal. There were many loose threads, as the boy and his brother and mother were moved from camp to camp, losing contact along the way with many of the characters, and there was no attempt to tie up these threads; true to life. The portrayal of the author’s mother was humbling: she was unselfish, stoical, expressed and seemed to feel no pity for herself and their situation. She was also strong, brave, loving, and most impressively, eschewed martyrdom–rather than giving her share of food to her children, as other mothers did, she unapologetically ate it in order to stay strong for her family; she stayed up late reading, if books and light were available; and on occasion, she swore like a sailor. Ernest Hillen came to Canada after his family was released from the camps (he was then about ten or eleven), and grew up to work as an editor. According to the foreword, by Charlotte Gray, he never spoke of his experiences in the camps or even thought much about them until he began work on the memoir, some forty years later. Remarkable is the detail he was able to bring to the surface.
Finally, I’m thoroughly enjoying another memoir recommended to me by a friend: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, written by Alexandra Fuller, who grew up in Africa as the daughter of white African farmers. This story is skillfully told within a non-linear frame, and is so far extremely entertaining. The character of the mother is (again) drawn with particular brilliance (what is it about us mothers??), though in this case much less flatteringly.
All of this is “research.” Pleasant, easy research, I must add. Next week marks the return to some regular writing hours. My sense is that I’m going to dive into my own attempt at memoir; with a couple of caveats. Should the work seem like a slog, should it not come naturally, I’m not going to push it. And I really only have to write a chapter or two and an outline before running it by my agent, who will take it further, if that seems the right direction.
Those stories, on the same subject, still feel very present and vital. There may even be more of them yet to write.
An acquaintance who reads this blog emailed to remind me of the value of fiction (that wasn’t necessarily what she was trying to do, but that’s where I went with her thoughts): that as human beings we need–we long for–the purpose and order created by the artistic act of reimagining the human experience. Fiction isn’t made-up life, it’s life re-made.
What’s memoir? I’m not sure I know. But at this point, it feels possible to frame this story I’d like to tell in two vastly different ways. I’m going to try, anyway.
For those of you interested in reading a couple of the aforementioned stories, I will let you know when they become available in the fall edition of The New Quarterly.
Here’s an article I stumbled across online that offers a tiny window into the wastelands of CanLit obscurity. It rang rather horribly true. I’ve spent this summer deliberately not writing. Not writing poetry, not writing stories, not writing anything except the occasional blurb-like blog entry. Instead, I’ve been going, doing, cooking, eating, drinking, biking, talking, dozing, rising, reading. At first, I thought I’d go crazy without an outlet for my imagination; oddly, it’s been the opposite, which is frightening me ever so slightly as I prepare to return to a more regular writing life, afforded by children returning to school, and regular babysitting hours funded by dwindling grant monies.
My heart is querying: why? And I’m querying: heart, can you bear to return to that sheaf of rejected poems? Can you bear to begin again another new project? Can you bear to travel to those dark and lonely places?
It’s occurred to me that were I to remove the ambition of being a writer from my psyche, mine would be a full and fulfilling life. With that hole of doubt and hope plastered over, life looks simple–not simplistic. A clean wall on which to hang new photographs, less mirrors.
This post isn’t a question. It’s the hum of an observation.
But here’s a question: what if the gifts I’ve interpreted as belonging to “writer,” actually belong to some other vocation?
I know I’m good at: expressing emotions, witnessing moments, sitting quietly, focussing deeply, finding humour, sharing beauty in imagery and language, listening, reflection, taking responsibility, organizing, planning, assessing situations and staying flexible.
I know sometimes I’m: too introspective, overly analytical, reticent, impatient. Sometimes my expectations (for myself and for others) are way too high. I eat cheese almost every night before bed. My favourite dream hasn’t change since childhood, and it involves riding a wild horse.
Enough with the sequitors and non-. I will leave this post as … to be continued. Ain’t life interesting?
Up early to prepare for another round of daily swim lessons, our last of the summer. This time, CJ and I will be in the water, too, which complicates matters. My planning brain has been working overtime to calculate what combination of changerooms, snacks, and locks will precipitate maximum smoothness of transitions, but the success of the venture really comes down to patience and flexibility–mine. Today’s weather is calling for morning thundershowers. And we have no vehicle at our disposal. This is your mission, should you choose to accept.
Everyone’s still sleeping. Our schedule has gotten later and later on both ends of the day. I find myself looking forward to more routine, less lazing about. It’s a fine line.
I like getting up early when it’s quiet. Maybe I should rethink my office set-up (currently in CJ’s bedroom), so I could use my work computer in the early morning.
Here’s what I wanted to get down on paper (virtually): CJ walked down the back porch steps yesterday. I nearly screamed, discovering him mid-stride. No holding onto the railing or anything. If I want to go there, I can make myself feel downright woozy imagining him doing this without me present and able to catch him should he stumble. Because even though he can, it doesn’t mean he can with consistency. Yikes. The risks these babies take as they grow and develop, and us with them.
It’s been a year since I started this blog, and it’s with gratitude that I note this. How thankful I am to have this scrapbook of our daily lives. But here are two unexpected gifts it’s given me: better photo-taking skills, and more bravery in talking about my writing life, warts and all.
Thanks to everyone who’s read along.
This has been a peculiar week for Obscure CanLit Mama. I refer to myself in the third person because the literary facet of my life usually feels exactly that compartmentalized, like it belongs to another person. I wonder whether this is healthy; perhaps it is even self-defeating. Would I pursue my chosen career more aggressively if “writer” were more integrated into my identity? As I type that previous sentence, a broad smile breaks across my face; the words chosen and career look affected, and pursue and aggressively are downright fraudulent, not within my character, not in that way. If a writer is someone who writes, then I am she. It’s the extra elements, the bruising elements of being a working writer that I cannot seem to cope with, that I’m downright allergic to. (Sentences ending with prepositions, gah; there’s subtext in that there grammar, ladies and gents.)
Here’s what I like about writing and publishing: the relationships that are formed, the shelter of finding mentors who appreciate and care deeply about the words set on the page, who shine a light between the cracks. Here’s what I dislike about writing and publishing: seeking out those relationships. The fear of rejection is ever-present. There is such sadness when a relationship fails or is lost. I wish my carapace were tougher or my confidence overwhelming; or, perhaps, I don’t wish that at all, because how could I write with passion and vulnerability if either of those things were true?
I’ve been thinking about the word “gift.” It seems true that we are born with–are given–unique gifts; what we do with these is our choice. Translating experience into words on the page comes naturally to me; I’m introspective, and an observer; I love language and a story well-told. But there’s another element to the gift: it’s given to us, not chosen by us. Ever received a gift that you didn’t quite know how to appreciate? Ever received a gift, smiled with strain, and wondered, now what the heck am I supposed to do with this? At the end of all my days–and at the end of every day–I want to know that I’ve done all that I could possibly do, that I’ve acted in this world for good, that my life has intersected with the lives of others in positive ways. And I remain unconvinced that writing is the way to do this. (She says, while writing). Because writing requires solititude and interior concentration, because it takes one out of the world rather than into it, and because the end-point of creativity is an artistic product that has no absolute value, and that may indeed remain largely unappreciated, it can seem, as a way to live a life, well, self-indulgent.
Not unlike this post.
Which is, promise, coming around to that window into an Obscure CanLit life.
This week, I had the lovely and surreal experience of having my photograph taken by an artist who will be painting my portrait. He was commissioned for the project by The New Quarterly, which will publish the portrait, along with a reflection on what it means to be a subject, as part of a series that includes other Canadian writers like Russell Smith, Diane Schoemperlen, and Sharon English. I dressed up in a swingy summery dress and posed in our backyard, feeling possessed of an unexpected confidence, and not-unexpected humour; if you can believe it, several large trees were being chopped down on our property and thrown into a viciously loud chipper while this was going on. What a funny life. Children racing about, Kevin home to help, men with spiked boots wielding chainsaws, the aroma of freshly baked banana bread, a shouted conversation in our living-room … and myself, posing for a portrait as a writer. Come to think of it, it didn’t feel that far-fetched, as if I were dressing up in someone else’s identity, it felt just exactly like my life.
So perhaps all of this anxiety and doubt is emerging from the other, and disappointing, literary occurrence of the week: a rejection letter on a manuscript of poetry. How heartbreaking to discover the fat package in the mailbox, and to read the kind and thoughtful letter from the editor, saying that this might have been an acceptance letter in a different year, that she believed several of the poems were “truly brilliant,” and that the collection was strong. But.
It’s such a familiar heartbreak: the hope for a new relationship, not to be. And the hope for those words, too, to find a home.
I stuck the manuscript into the kids’ scrap paper pile. It made me feel somewhat better this morning when they noticed the new paper, and wondered if it came from one of my books (yes, I frequently recycle drafts in this way; sorry, imaginary future archivists). The kids didn’t see it as failure. They read some of the words with interest, then turned the pages over to colour on the blank backs. I look forward to coming across these scraps in the weeks to come–the transformation of what might have been into something that no longer belongs to me, the odd word or phrase jumping out and grabbing me, a sweet reminder.
Finally, I should add that I still believe in this manuscript of poems, and still have hope of finding it an Obscure CanLit home. Someday. (Maybe writer is more integrated into my identity than I recognize. This post is making me think so–see, I had to write it out in order to discover it.)
This little fellow is sick. No wonder he was so grumpy around suppertime last night (though he was THIS happy earlier in the day, when he insisted I clip this into his hair). We spent large portions of last night nursing, and just holding him in bed. It’s a reminder of those early infant days, when night-time does not equal sleep-time. He’s napping right now and I’m watching the monitor for rustlings. There he is.
Albus is playing with a transformer, pretending to blow things up. The girls are reading quietly (Apple-Apple is trying out Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, one of my all-time favourites).
I want to thank everyone who expressed support and interest in the Nicaragua writing project. I’ve had encouraging comments, public and private, from a variety of friends, family, and even my former editor.
Uh oh, there he is again (baby, that is). Better run.
Back again. Thinking about time management … that could be my biggest stumbling-block in writing anything (she says, typing one-handed, feverish babe on hip).