I spent the holiday weekend researching and writing a paper on midwifery, and combined with the book reviews I’ve been working on, and the bits and bobs of commissioned work for The New Quarterly, I’ve (re-)discovered something: I love to write. Really, I love to write just about anything. But there’s a catch. I love to write to a deadline, to a commission, to a purpose, to an end. What’s hard, and beginning to feel near-impossible, almost stagnating, is writing purely for its own sake. I don’t mean these blogs, which feel purposeful in that they’re acting like journal entries and recording details about my family’s changing daily lives. I mean stories, poems. And I don’t mean that I write stories or poems that don’t need to be written–every story and poem I write comes from a place of genuine inspiration and need. The problem is that many of these don’t have a home, and after many years of working quietly and patiently upon material, what one wants is a home for it. Readers. A purpose. An end.
I’ve been reading Noah Richler’s cheery article in The Walrus on book publishing. His wife is the publisher of Anansi, a small and lovely Canadian publishing house, so he has a double view into the issues plagueing the industry. Which are not small. Do people even want to buy actual hold-in-the-hand, printed on paper books anymore? Who buys books? Did you know that Google has surreptitiously digitized whole libraries of books which will be/are available online? For free. And there’s the problem. Writing is work, like any other. Writing a book of fiction can take years. Who pays for those years of work? The idea is that one gets paid at the end, with the publication and plenty of sales; and, yes, this model works out for a few.
But for everyone else?
The publishers don’t know the answer to this either, big and small alike.
In researching for this paper, I discovered a big change: everything’s online. Journal articles are searchable and fully accessible with a university library account and a couple of clicks. Heck, entire books are available too. On the one hand, this is marvelous, saves a huge amount of wasted time and travel, allows one to scan a variety of sources looking for those most useful. On the other hand, reading text online is not fun, hard on the eyeballs and the back and the butt. I ended up printing out the most useful articles and headed to the library for the actual books. Is this because I’m old-fashioned? I also like to curl up in bed with a nice fat paper-printed book.
I’ve got too many ideas today, and too little time. It’s nearly lunchtime, my littlest would like to be held non-stop (runny nose, teething?), and I’m babysitting an extra, too.
Above, see pictured the food for our family Thanksgiving dinner, a snotty-nosed little tiger, and CJ’s latest favourite place to play (even better if a grownup is doing dishes).
Nope, that’s not Apple-Apple striding ahead out in front, in her very first running race ever; there she is, that very small figure most decidedly bringing up the rear. This was at the start of the 2.3 km race, and we had instructed her to pace herself. Which she did. “I was really exhausted because it was the farthest I’ve ever run, but when I saw the finish line I felt so excited that I forgot that my body was so exhausted and I sprinted as fast as I could!” She came in sixth in a field of about twelve seven-year-olds; interestingly, she will run in the same field next year, as she’s still only six. (But there is no six-year-old category). Albus–also pacing himself–also headed out in dead last, then worked his way somewhere closer to mid-pack, at 41st. There was some debate about the size of his field. Suffice it to say, he felt supremely pleased with his performance. And the parents were equally pleased.
This was a Kevin-in-charge event, and I received all reports via texts, as I was on my way to class. It was called a “Fun Run,” and Kevin and the kids were under the misapprehension that it would involve a jog around another school with their running club (or something of the sort), when instead it was a mini-cross-country meet, with loads of kids from other local schools, loud music playing, coaches readying their charges, nervous excitement, wearing your school’s shirt. Kevin said even if he’d known it was a cross-country meet, it wouldn’t have made a difference, because in his experience (rural living), cross country meets only involved, at most, fifty kids total.
Next time, we’ll dress the children in race-appropriate clothing. Apple-Apple was wearing a button-up shirt, for example. This is what happens when we co-parent. But it’s small stuff compared to the overall payoff, which, this fall, has meant that I get to say “yes” to more opportunities.
This past week, I was fortunate enough to doula at another birth, this time a friend’s–in fact, my first friend-birth (the others were people not known to me previously). It was, as it has been on each occasion, a revelatory experience, a true gift, the kind of experience that doesn’t translate easily into words–even for me. I drove home thinking, I must do this again, how can I do this again? I’m focussing my research paper on midwifery, generally, and have been reading a variety of texts, including a manual from 1671 written by a midwife; for some reason, this subject remains deeply interesting to me. I know this isn’t the case with a lot of topics, so it feels like I’ve struck on something that resonates core-deep. If I were to pursue a doctorate now, I suspect it would relate to midwifery in some fundamental way. But I don’t think doctorate is where this interest will take me. I can’t see the destination clearly. Maybe I don’t need one right now; maybe this journey, this process, this research and continuing hands-on experience is enough.
My other great pleasure this fall has been a renewed appreciation for writing. (Though it’s been almost entirely non-fiction. Hmm).
Speaking of writing (though in this case, writing fiction), I’ve just discovered that The New Quarterly has posted a sneak preview
of their upcoming, soon-to-be-available fall edition, featuring my Juliet stories. Take a look! Those are my cows on the beach on the front!
Oh, and here’s the info
on the Oct. 22nd reading related to those stories, though, yikes! As soon as I saw it, my heart started to beat about twice as fast. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a reading …
My photos are loaded onto a different computer. I may add some in later, but will not let lack of illustration get in the way of a small update. With a life packed perhaps slightly too full, there seems no time to blog. And I miss it. It’s like journaling, which was something I used to do every day, by hand (unfortunately–of perhaps fortunately, depending on one’s perspective–those journals are essentially illegible, written in code, due to my “handwriting” which is a cross between cursive and print–an unsuccessful, take-it-behind-the-barn-and-shoot-it cross. Except I can’t because it’s all I’ve got).
Darn. Tangents always seem to happen in Blogland.
Here are some of the things currently filling my days …
Books: I’m writing a review for a former colleague at the Post, who is now publishing a magazine called Lake Simcoe Living; we’re rounding up some books to recommend for holiday giving and reading, and as such, I got to thumb through catalogues (not literally, because everything’s online now), make a shortlist, consult with her, then call publishers for review copies, which was something I used to do almost daily, but haven’t for years. Of course, all the publicists I used to talk to have moved on. But publicists are friendly; it’s their job. I’ve got two beautiful books already sitting at my elbow, waiting to be read and reviewed (that’s on my to-do list for this morning)–one of them I’m especially excited about: it’s called Earth to Table: Seasonal Recipes from an Organic Farm, by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann. The photos are gorgeous and make me want to fondle vegetables, and then cook them.
Mark your calendars: I will be reading at the launch of The New Quarterly’s fall issue on October 22. That’s a Thursday. Which is the same evening that I also happen to have my first midterm. Seriously. Did I mention that I’m taking a women studies class? The professor thinks I’ll be finished in plenty of time. I’m excited about this class because I’m focussing my major paper on midwifery and doula’ing, and have already spoken to her about it. Yes, I’m a keener. Why the heck else would I be taking a class, if not to squeeze all potential learning out of it?
October 22, Art Bar, which is in the Centre in the Square, in Kitchener. I’ll be reading around 8:45pm, but doors open much earlier. Details to follow.
Kevin’s in Toronto running a slate of training classes, and this morning was HAIRY. I was a chicken with its head chopped off. Picture a cartoon Carrie suspended mid-air with legs and arms stretching in four different directions. And her head popping off. But we made it. And I enjoyed a brisk jog too. Which reminds me that I meant to blog about exercise. Am I fitting it into my life? I felt in better shape this summer with all the family biking we were doing. But I do bike to and from campus once a week, at a racing pace (why am I late, no matter where I’m going?). Biking after dark sure gets the heart pumping. I am covered with flashing red lights, but still feel only an invisible obstacle away from mangling myself. I also run home from school a couple of mornings a week. And I walk to school every day to pick up the kids (briskly on the way there, as, yes, I’ve started leaving later and later, because, really, why be early, when you can enjoy the adrenalin rush of not being sure you’ll quite make it in time?).
Does a joking tone translate in Blogland?
Stop typing. Stop typing, now. Time to work!
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?