For those of you forced to endure even one minute of my ongoing, seemingly bottomless writerly angst, this post is for you. Here is an excerpted acceptance letter I received earlier this week from the editor at The New Quarterly (which is a very fine Canadian literary magazine that has stood the test of time):
“I am thrilled with this story, the leaps and turns it makes in the later section from the heat and humiliation and incomprehension and secret delight of the child trying to make sense of her surroundings … to the more mature suspicion of her own memories and motives. The way, I guess, that it moves from the specifics of a particular time and place, from sensation, to a more distanced, abstract, reflective mood. … Consider this story accepted (for the summer or, more likely, the fall issue) …. I hope you are feeling a mounting excitement yourself about what you are doing with these stories, the shape they are finding.”
It goes against my instincts to post Good News Related to My Writing, especially with Compliments; hopefully I won’t regret this later. But if I’m sharing the agony, it seems fit to share a moment of joy, too. This particular writing project is well into its third year, and has seen a variety of conceptions and forms tried on and discarded, and this letter echoes my own feelings (and egregiously superstitious hopes) about its current shape: “a mounting excitement.” There’s still a heap of hard, even excruciating, work to be done before it reaches anything I’d dare to call to a book. But. Nevertheless. Yes. This moment is here to be enjoyed. It isn’t necessarily going to lead, directly or indirectly, toward something else, it just is what it is; and it’s good.
I’m beginning to understand what “labour of love” really means, when referring to an artistic endeavour. This collection over which I’ve been labouring for several years is beginning to qualify, methinks: it matters deeply to me that I get it right, that the end product feels real and true and good, and until then it’s like being caught up in compulsive behavior. This need to push on and try to finish the book to satisfaction, no matter what. That’s the love part: it doesn’t matter any more to me whether the book will ever be published, whether anyone else on earth will read it, just that I get it right.
Labour of love = hopeful futility?
Every once in awhile a labour of love gets published to great acclaim, and it seems so obvious, such a perfect ending, well, of course, this was bound to happen when he/she slaved over it obsessively for sixteen years, naturally, the end point is worldly reward. But it’s ever so much more likely that’s the exception, not the rule. It’s ever so much more likely the labour of love lives in a shoebox in the attic instead.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Just that the other version makes for a better story. And I like a good story.
So this past weekend we took a whirlwind weekend jaunt to Archbold, Ohio to be at my grandma’s 90th birthday party. The drive used to take about five hours, but we couldn’t manage it in less than seven this time. The border suddenly seemed like an almost impermeable membrane, and I’ve never felt as unwelcome in a country that is actually mine. Border guards are no longer border guards: they belong to the Department of Homeland Security. We were tagged and made to stop and wait at customs. It’s almost impossible not to feel slightly criminal in such situations: when told by highly armed men that you must leave your vehicle in their possession, and given confusing instructions about what you are permitted to bring along, and what you must under no circumstances take with you. It all ended up being a fairly brief clerical issue, cleared up within half an hour, but it felt deeply uncomfortable. And then we drove into Detroit, which is an abandoned city, almost like a ghost-town, its roadways permanently under construction. We’ve been crossing the border for almost twenty-five years, and it seems like that entrance onto the I-75 is a forever changing detour.
We had decided to follow our GPS rather than using one of those old-fashioned devices known as a “map,” and that resulted in a rather roundabout route to Archbold, made worse by our collective hunger (we hadn’t anticipated the border issue, and had decided to wait for lunch till crossing), and needing to find a bathroom, and the driver (me) making a series of wrong turns (husband says, “Go left”; driver turns right). I consider myself generally calm, as is my gentle husband, but suspect, based on Saturday’s evidence, that we are not destined to win the Amazing Race.
The hotel was a lovely oasis, with a beautiful swimming pool. We slept remarkably well, seven in one room. And on the way home, just across the Canadian border, we ate lunch at a Viet-Thai restaurant that we came upon completely serendipitously.
Today is my writing day, and it’s short, and I’m Monday-morning-brained. But I’ve had a piece of good news, professionally: I’ve earned a small grant toward this book. It shouldn’t matter so much, but does make the work feel that much more purposeful. The project is about half-finished, and then will need some sturdy rewriting and editing at the opening chapters/stories. These are BIG stories, much longer and more intricate than I’m used to writing. Yet I want them also to feel as clean and cut-to-the-bone as possible. So that nothing remains but that which matters to the story. Nothing like life, really, yet hopefully illuminating thereof.
Random thoughts kicking around …
1. My friend Katie’s Facebook status recently read (to paraphrase): “Katie is grateful for all of the reasons she is tired.” I’d like to borrow and adopt that as my own default tagline. There’s nothing wrong with complaining and worrying sometimes, but I’m a big believer in attitude making a genuine difference in how our lives proceed. Not that daily gratitude will prevent disaster and sadness, but that disaster and sadness will be made easier to bear. I am thankful not to have to test this theory, except in small ways, at present.
2. Experience = wisdom. Right? Somehow I’ve always accepted as fact that layers of experience, age, will gradually result in wisdom gained. Except I’ve had the revelation that it’s possible to keep discovering the same things over and over again, in slightly mutated form, such that it would seem all that marvelous experience hasn’t been exceptionally integrated into a grand interior mural of cohesive wisdom, but is hanging about in separate clumsy segments waiting for me to trip over it again. Partly, this is to do with age itself, and the feeling that time continues to speed up, and the fact that my brain is actually about two seasons behind, right now. It’s so hard to maintain a focus, to remember the resolutions, to stick with the plan (while trying to remain flexible) and ultimately better oneself. The previous sentence would be a terrible mantra.
3. Speaking of mantras, my siblings, when confronted with the above rambling non-mantra, suggested I should keep a “Life’s Little Lessons” kind of diary. A list somewhere with those nuggets of wisdom recorded.
4. Just had another thought: maybe it’s not that important to remember these lessons. Maybe experience simply kicks in during a regular day as situations arise, everything from walking to the library in the rain pushings a stroller and pulling a three-year-old on her bicycle (and enjoying it, as experience tells me such moments are fleeting), to rewriting a story a million times over, because there is always something more to learn.
5. Little Life Lessons have a tendency to sound bland, trite, and obvious written down.
6. Still, it might be nice to return to thoughts like: I like baking bread! Or, I’m glad for everything that makes me tired! Or, three-year-olds need to feel like they’re independent sometimes! Or, you can always say your sorry, even if it was an accident! Et cetera. Yup, that could become addictive. (Why each life lesson cries out for an exclamation point, I cannot say. But it does!)
7. Writing. I want to blog about the writing, but nothing coheres into firm thought, just the usual angst-ridden blether. I’m finishing a poetry collection right now, mostly on young motherhood, and memory. And I’m continually writing and rewriting these stories in the Nicaragua book, and wondering how many more years will be wasted/usefully applied in pursuit of that book, and whether perhaps the subject is just too loaded and therefore doomed. Perhaps I will understand more clearly when this draft is done, but if experience has taught me anything … no, I won’t.
8. What was that about daily gratitude? Here’s a little life lesson: it is infinitely easier to be grateful for and to love my children than to be grateful for and to love my other creative outlet of writing. I have such a simple relationship with my children, despite the minute complexities. I just love them. I trust my instincts about them, and have never questioned this journey we’re on together. But the writing … I love it and crave it and need it; and hate it and resent it and agonize over it. I haven’t yet discovered the antidote.
Today’s topic … nope, haven’t got one. I’m tired, end-of-the-week drained. Needing to prep for the arrival of guests this evening. Fooey wants me to bake a cake. Bread dough rising. Plus two potential evening outings on the horizon. If I can rally some oomph.
Fooey’s got a friend here and they are playing so sweetly in the room next door. “Neighbour CJ” has joined them, too. I’m supervising by ear.
This week I’ve gotten a bit more writing time; but not enough, and it’s painful to leave chapters mid-telling, with the over-arching narrative hanging there too, just scribbled notes left for myself, for later, which hopefully I’ll be able to interpret. My printing is appalling, a cross between failed cursive script and all-out scrawl, with idiosyncratic short-form thrown in for good measure. Spent one walk to school, post-writing-stint, struggling to delineate and then sear into my memory a series of plot changes and character developments. One kind mentor once told me that the writing will wait for me; mostly I agree and am comforted by that thought, but sometimes I wonder what gets lost. Nothing brilliant; just unique to that moment.
A friend and I have chosen a “word of the year.” We each chose our own, and will focus and reflect on that word for the full year, checking in periodically to evaluate and discuss. I’m excited about this project because it feels manageable–one word! And I love words. And it has the potential to anchor me in a variety of situations. The word I’ve chosen is “imagine.” Or its variation “imagination.” I wanted an active word related to potential change and growth and movement, because my life feels very rooted already, and I want to challenge myself to question and be flexible and aware of the possibilities even within a grounded, locally-lived life. I’m also someone who likes to dream, whether or not these dreams come to fruition, but as a way of exploring and adventuring. And I hope the word will be a reminder that there are always alternative solutions to even the most insignificant conflict, if something isn’t working.
Just took advantage of CJ’s nap, and put the telesitter to use for the others, and edited a couple of stories/chapters in this Nicaragua book. Feel infinitely better. It’s what I’d fantasized doing last night.
Now to prep supper, do snack, and get really really bundled up for the walk to school. That should solve the stir-crazy feeling for today.