Today’s subject is difficult to write about without sounding flaky. So maybe I will save my flaky subject for another day and write instead about my friend Asmaa, who arrived in Canada with her husband and two children a little over a year ago, as a refugee. As I’ve mentioned before, I was part of a neighbourhood group that sponsored the family, which now numbers five; their son was born in September. I realized pretty quickly that there are different ways to help, when sponsoring a family. Money is important, but time is maybe even more important, and can be harder to give. This is all to say, the relationship was not one I entered into without deliberation: what am I able and willing to give? I didn’t want to commit to something I couldn’t sustain. We began by inviting the family for a meal not long after they’d arrived. They spoke no English, nor French either. We communicated at the table using Google translate, hand gestures, facial expressions, etc. My kids thought it would be impossible — what would we say, and how, to these perfect strangers? — but I knew it wouldn’t be. So much can be said through laughter and the willingness to engage. And I knew it was important for my kids to see and discover what was possible.
Last winter, I spent time with Asmaa, tutoring her twice weekly in ESL until she got a placement at a language school. Then, I spent time with her at midwife appointments, helping with translation (although I’ve learned only a couple of words in Arabic), but mostly just being along to ask questions and hang out. And then her baby was born, and although I didn’t arrive in time for that, I was with her and her family in the hours immediately after his birth. And then, this fall, we started ESL again together, because she can’t go back to school until the baby is old enough for the daycare on site. Today, we talk almost entirely without Google translate. Think about that! She has lived in Canada for just over a year, and we have had conversations about everything from wearing hijab to wedding ceremonies to favourite foods to shopping and many other subjects in between. Sometimes we don’t open the ESL books. We just talk instead.
The subject I sat down to write about, today, is this: it is the mystery of our spiritual existence. Sometimes it seems so clear to me that while we live in an embodied world, as embodied beings, it is the mystery of spiritual existence that matters most (to me): communicating that which is somehow beyond words, beyond our logical understanding, truth that is felt and experienced and craved and known. Everything I do is about this — about expressing and experiencing the mystery of connection, the unseen but felt truths beneath the surface, the big repeating foundational transitions through which we all pass.
I will write more about this some other day. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about being with Asmaa in her living-room, holding her baby, sampling her food (makdous: grape leaves stuffed with ground walnuts and red peppers and packed in olive oil), and trying to imagine and understand what she’s left behind and what she hopes to find here. I think of the mistakes I’ve made. The time I asked her what she played when she was child — had she ever played soccer? I asked, knowing this was far-fetched, but not entirely comprehending how far-fetched. No, she had not played soccer. Play did not apply to her childhood, I understood.
I’m out of time for now. Kevin thinks I should write more about my mornings with Asmaa, but I’m not sure whether even this post may be a violation of our friendship. Yet I do want to understand better what I’ve learned while talking with her and sharing time with her, and the best way for me to understand anything is to write it out. I often realize, when I’m with Asmaa, that the full picture is so much more complicated than I can comprehend. Sometimes I feel quite rocked, to my core, by something she’s said. Lost in translation. Found in translation?
Signing off for now.
Settle in. This is a long one. I’m going to try to answer the question: How do you write? It’s a question about process, about routine, and one I want to quiz other writers on too — how the heck do you do it? What does your day look like? How do you organize yourself to conceive, research, and complete large projects?
Is there a secret set of rituals? And if so, can I access that, please?
I always forget, by the time a book is published, how it was written. I retain a vague memory of the timeline, but the days and weeks and months and years muddle together, and so I create a new narrative: the how I wrote this book narrative. It’s highly romanticized in retrospect.
The bad news: there is no magic formula, or if there is, I’ve never figured it out.
This past year, from January till December of 2017, I’ve been writing a new novel. I just finished what I’m calling Draft Three. Let this post be a record of how I wrote it, while the memory remains fresh in my mind. (To be fair and frank, this novel’s conception includes two failed novels written between 2014-2106, both weird cousins to this one, but that’s another story.)
Here’s how I wrote this book, Drafts One through Three.
Step one: I didn’t stop writing it, even after the lousy first draft. (My first drafts are always lousy; 100% guaranteed; but if I’m bored with a novel after the first draft I take it as a sign to move on to something new.) I finished a sort-of version of a first draft in April. How lousy was it? It didn’t even have an ending. But it existed, and its characters existed. So that was an accomplishment. In case there are clues that I can follow later, here’s how I wrote this early draft: Due to my concussion, I couldn’t work on a screen for any length of time, nor was I exercising early in the morning. From January – March, I set my alarm and rose at 6am, three or four mornings a week, and wrote until 7:30am, when it was time to help get the kids to school. I wrote in my office, in pajamas, wrapped in a blanket, sitting in my great-aunt Alice’s rocking chair by the window. I wrote by hand, in pen or pencil, in a notebook. That’s all the time I put into it. Sometimes I was so tired, I would close my eyes and drift back to sleep. The light on those mornings was inky black changing to blue black and indigo as the sun rose. There were a lot of crows in the trees. Often, I wouldn’t know what storyline or scene might arise when I sat down. It felt dreamlike. In April, when my head was better, I arranged for a full writing week. I transferred the pencil scratches to my laptop, adding material, trying to complete the book. But no.
Step two: Keep writing, even when hopelessly pressed for time. The book wasn’t done. I started teaching in May. I carted my notebook and pencil to campus and spent an hour before class, writing in my office. That hour, twice weekly, was the sum total of my time (mental and actual) available for writing. Life imposes its own demands at times, unavoidable and all-consuming. At the end of June, I arranged another writing week and attempted to finish the novel, using the new notebook material. Still no ending, but complete enough to warrant printing it out: I called this Draft One. In July, the English department assigned two more instructors to my shared office, and they overlapped with my office hours, so I stopped writing on campus. I felt deeply discouraged. I’d lost my writing space, couldn’t solve the problems in draft two, kids were out of school, soccer season in full swing, I was marking and reading student stories, etc. I satisfied my need to write (which is constant and near-daily) by writing along with my students inside and outside of class.
Step three: Embrace inspiration when it arrives. In August, on our family holiday to Quebec, I brought along some books to read. One was Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, a favourite writer of mine. While reading it, I had a brainwave: a different approach to my novel. I remember exactly where I was: in a leather chair overlooking the indoor pool surrounded by fake tropicals and rococo plaster statuary. It would mean rewriting my novel from scratch. You might think this sounds exhausting. I felt exhilarated. Marking completed, August offered many opportunities for writing time. The week after returning from Quebec, I wrote every day. Again, I wrote in my notebook by hand. This time, I transferred the text immediately to my laptop, rewriting and revising as I went. But a major plot problem loomed, confirmed by research.
Step four: Don’t be afraid to play! In the middle of August, I spent a week in New York State at a writing workshop with Lynda Barry and Dan Chaon. The exercises were unrelated to my novel, and I didn’t try to link them up, but in that open playful environment, ideas flowed freely, my mind was uncluttered. On a walk on the second evening, a solution to the major plot problem floated in. Every evening, I went to our classroom space and worked on the novel, with freedom and joy. When I sat down to write, I followed Lynda Barry’s ritual: I listened to a song and drew an attendance cartoon; then I wrote for 3 minutes to dump out whatever was on my mind (this may be my own addition to the ritual); and then I got to work. Back home, I wrote as often as possible on weekdays. At the end of August, at my dad and stepmother’s cottage, I wrote every day, in 2-3 hour stretches morning and afternoon, kayaked before dinner, and spent the rest of the time with my family. Home again, I continued to write, whenever I could squeeze it in, even after school started and I was back to teaching. By the end of September, I was done. This time, my novel had an ending. I printed it and called it Draft Two.
Step five: Don’t stop now. Kevin read Draft Two. I was hoping he would say: this is brilliant, send it to your agent! He did not. Re-reading it, I agreed. I got back to work. This required identifying potential writing days each week, keeping these days clear, guarding them jealously, jamming errands and volunteer work and teaching and marking and answering email into the other days. I aimed for two or three writing days each week; not always possible. Again, I wrote by hand in my notebook, then transferred to screen. I started my writing time with a song and a cartoon. The momentum at this point became relentless. I could not turn myself off.
I finished. Draft Three.
As I reflect on these stages, I notice that the early gathering stage requires some small amount of regular time, the creation of a routine that allowed me to sit down and gather scraps, though I couldn’t quite see what I was making. But the later work required great swathes of time and focus. Just ask my family. For example, last Saturday, I decided to go through Draft Three line by line, and without considering the consequences sat down in my office around 10am. I proceeded to sit for hours and hours without eating or drinking or moving. Kevin dragged me out to a carol sing with friends around 2:30pm. Socially, I was almost useless. Home again, I drifted instantly back to my office, forgetting to eat or drink. Supper came and went. I did not move. I broke away, but returned around midnight, overtaken by another idea. This week, I was supposed to be marking my students’ final stories. But I had to finish the book. Do you see. I had to finish. It’s almost an addiction, I would have to say. The switch gets flipped and I can’t turn it off.
This is why I resist, sometimes, sitting down to write. Yet it’s the only way to finish a major project.
Here is one last thought. I work like this, this obsessively, on projects that fail, too. There is no guarantee that obsessive attention will result in success. However, the desire to continue pouring energy into a project, obsessively, has, in the past, allowed me to write books I’m truly proud of. Sometimes a project is dead, and I know it and accept it. But a project that lives tells me too. A living yet unresolved project feels like an itch deep inside my brain, almost painful; I know something is missing and I’m not sure how to fix it, but if I allow myself to sit with dissatisfaction, to hold cognitive discomfort, if I trust myself and trust the process, a new idea inevitably comes, a new thread to play with. The experiment begins again, afresh. I work and work and work until I run out of time or I finish what I’ve started.
It is painful to run out of time, but life needs time, too. I’ve sacrificed a lot of family time in order to write. I have and I do. I must, if I’m to write. Writing is my life’s work. I’m beginning to accept what that means. Sometimes there is no balance in the balancing act.
This is how I write.
P.S. Kevin is reading Draft Three now. I’ll keep you posted. Back to marking …
I am standing in a stream of sunlight that warms me to my bones, despite the cold air. The sun is low in the sky during this season, this month, my least favourite. I’m walking the dogs, both of whom have cancer, both of whom still seem to enjoy being alive. My youngest and I are waiting at the corner where he meets a friend for the walk to school. We are early. He says, Let’s talk about something!
The wish to be writing is deeply on my mind. The messages I send to myself through my cartoons give me a hit of confidence I can’t access otherwise. How much I want to finish writing this book, but more, how much I long for it to be a beautiful creation, beautifully written. Do I still know how? The fear of my own brain and its lack is profound.
I am in the kitchen, making a salad for supper. No one else is home; they’ve all gone to a soccer game. I am leading a workshop in less than hour and I’ve turned on the radio in a form of panic that is slowing my every move to a crawl. I could hardly turn off the computer and stop writing—editing—the scene I worked on earlier today. Already, it is very dark outside. I pick away at the plastic box of greens, bought on special, most of the leaves covered in slime, viscous and clingy, while the news tells me about Justin Trudeau’s exchange with President Duterte of the Philippines. Trudeau’s version is rosy, while in his Duterte swears and says Bullshit! Trudeau seems quintessentially Canadian in the way that I suspect I can be—Pollyanna-ish. Chirping about the possibility: not about what is, but what might be, what we wish it to be. Like this salad. I wash the grossest leaves and put them into the bowl. I chop an avocado. Do you have time for this? Yet I am calm and deliberate. Add the word meditation after any activity and you will find your approach changes. You sink into the greens, their individual peculiarities invite you to notice—red veins, stems, the smallest leaves are toughest and least affected by the slime.
I bike past two men walking in the park. As I pass, I hear one say to the other: “So this woman is really into baking cakes …” Whatever I was expecting to hear, it was not this.
I am standing in a stream of sunlight, wishing every hour of every day were spent standing in a stream of sunlight. I crave warmth. I crave comfort in all forms. I am writing a scene in which my character, an older woman, cannot look at the world without seeing its potential for danger, risk, misery, grief. Everywhere she looks. I think the woman is me, today. It is not that I am sad, exactly, only that I see how limited we are in the span of our lifetimes to alter the direction toward which human experience leans. I admire the human spirit. We make beauty out of grief, song from sorrow, we find ways to cope, to share our joys; but we seem also to be wired to damage and destroy so much of what we create, either by accident or design. I seem to walk around in a constant state of grief and outrage. I yell at the Style section of the Globe: you shouldn’t be allowed to sell pants for $3000! It’s immoral, it should be illegal! Why do the rich seek to enrich themselves further? Why is greed a fundamental operating principle? Why are those with the least blamed and shamed for what they do not have? Why do I have so much when so many have so little, not even security, not even a home?
I am standing in the sunlight. Let’s talk about something, my youngest says. Okay, I say, what do you want to talk about? I hope it is about moose or elk or eagles. I hope it is about the way bears and frogs hibernate. I hope it is about how high he can climb the dead apple tree in our backyard and what he sees when he’s at the top.
We had crafts, we had games, we had dancing, we had a performance on the ukulele by my youngest child. Best of all, my whole family, even the teenagers, came out to support their mom.
A snapshot: Two adorable, serious-faced twin sisters come up to the signing table to meet me. They ask where I got the idea for the book. I explain that my little brother Clifford loved wearing pajamas when he was a boy, and that my story grew from there. Clifford happens to be standing nearby, so I point him out. Look, I say, Cliffy still loves wearing pajamas — he’s wearing them right now! Their minds are blown. A character from a book is standing beside them, weirdly all grown up!
Thanks to all who came out, thanks for the Waterloo Public Library for hosting, and special thanks to my dear friend Zoe for putting on her jammies and helping to lead and organize the fun.
PS Yes, I wore my jammies too!
Waterloo friends, the Waterloo Public Library is helping me throw a launch party for my new picture book, Jammie Day! When: Saturday, Nov. 25 (that’s tomorrow), at the main branch of the WPL, from 2:30 – 4. Books will be available for purchase. Wearing your jammies is optional, but welcome (kids in jammies will receive a small prize; not sure whether this applies to adults, too …). I’ll be reading from the book and there will be music, crafts and a scavenger hunt.
(Will I, or won’t I, be wearing jammies, too?)
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm mother of four, writer of fiction and non-, dreamer, planner, mid-life runner, soccer coach, teacher, taking time for a cup of coffee in front of this computer screen. My days are full, yet I keep asking: how can I fill them just a little bit more, with depth, with care, with light.