At least an hour ago, I sat down in my newly cleaned and organized office with the intention of writing a blog post. The post has been writing itself in my head for the past few days, while I vacuumed, organized, biked on errands, walked the dog — at any time when I had a few uninterrupted moments to myself. But when I sat down, at least an hour ago, instead of writing this post I answered emails, created a rough outline for the new course I’ll be teaching this winter (Creativity Unplugged), scrolled news headlines, and even watched a short video on “Coach Burnout.”
In other words, I’ve done everything except write the blog post I’d been meaning to write.
My new office is brilliantly organized (if I do say so myself). It feels peaceful. It’s amazing the difference this makes in my mind, opening space both literally and figuratively. A critical organizational piece is a filing unit discarded from one of my daughter’s rooms: in it, I’ve labelled a set of accessible folders to collect material that has been piling up, related to projects of immediate importance. Maybe a photo of this would be the easiest way to share the news I seem to be avoiding — it isn’t bad news, not at all, just a shift in my energies, and that feels … well, a recurring theme in my dreams is our house being torn apart, or moving into a new house, or not recognizing rooms that should be familiar.
Change. Risk. The potential for failure.
Change. Adventure. The potential for … success? That seems too limited in its definition, too vague. The potential for … hiking new trails, seeing the landscape from new perspectives, learning new things about myself, my limitations but also my gifts. They’re one and the same, in some fundamental way.
The labels read as follows (not weighted in any particular order): ENGL 332, The Shoe Project, Soccer Coaching, MA Theology, ENGL 335.
Let me break it down, by category.
ENGL 332 is the new course I’ve been contracted to teach this winter. It will be based on Lynda Barry’s workshops, and on her books What It Is and Syllabus. The exercises and projects will be a combination of text and drawings, largely hand-drawn, and the outline is taking shape in my mind (and on paper, as mentioned above) even now.
The Shoe Project is a *big* project I’ve been working on all summer, since reading an article about it in the Globe and Mail in June, and contacting The Shoe Project’s executive and artistic directors about starting a local version of the project here in KW. It’s a writing & performance workshop that connects local artists with women who are immigrants, to write, shape, and tell their stories. This project is currently being fuelled on energy, connection, and collaboration, and the next step is funding, which is a high bar indeed, but not, I believe, impossible.
Soccer coaching continues even as our season winds down. We played our last league game on Tuesday, but still have practices and a final tournament that will take us into September. Whether or not I coach again next season has yet to be determined, but remains a strong possibility.
MA Theology is the wild-card, about which I’ve offered no hints, in part because I applied only recently on something of a whim when a spot opened up, and in part because, well, I must be feeling some hesitance about it, some desire to explain why, even to myself. The full title of the program is MA (Theology): Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy. I *think* my interest was sparked last fall when a student discussed the idea of leading writing workshops in different settings and for different purposes — therapeutic purposes. But I think, too, that as I continue to coach and to teach, I’ve been craving more tools and knowledge with which to approach conflict, as well as a way to frame my beliefs around the value of creativity in nourishing and healing the spirit. I will be attending part-time. As my sister said, “Well, you know your limits!” to which I replied, “Or I know how to test my limits!!” “Haha yes, that’s more accurate.”
ENGL 335 is the final file, and that’s my usual creative writing course, which I continue to update and revamp in an attempt to simplify the marking scheme, and ease the workload, which I think has become too heavy and rigid over the years. I’ve been asked to teach this course in both the fall and winter terms, which means I’ll be teaching two courses this winter, plus going to school part-time. I’ll confess this thought woke me at 4AM two mornings ago. (Knowing my limits v testing my limits?)
My writing is not, you may observe, in those files. Instead, my current project, a collection of stories, is much closer, piled at my left elbow, very much a presence on my desk, and in my mind, and a very pleasurable presence indeed. It feels peaceful to work on these stories as they call out to me; I work on them with contentment and patience, not as if they are a crisis or emergency (which is how other writing work has felt, sometimes).
What I think is this: I’ve got too much energy to pour it all into my writing. Whenever I’ve tried to do so, tried to live the fantasy of “being a writer,” I’ve been mostly unhappy, plagued by self-doubt, banging my head against immovable plot points, overcome by inertia, thinking thinking thinking — and that’s no way to solve a problem or write a book or help the people around you. You need patience for all of these pursuits, patience and clarity, not anxiety. You need to clear your mind, and weirdly, my mind is clearer, my purpose stronger, my focus keener and energy smoother, when I’m occupied on a variety of fronts. I am a woman who requires a certain amount of extremity to thrive. The calm comes from being within the whirl; when all is calm and little is required of me, my mind becomes the whirl.
Did I already know this?
But it feels like a brand-new revelation: to stop fighting who I am, and get on with living the life that’s pulling on me.
I tried to write a post titled “Things that make me mad: an abbreviated list,” but the truth is that the things that make me mad also make me sad and frustrated and at-a-loss and despondent and infuriated and outraged and disgusted and sometimes, very occasionally, hopeless.
Also, the list is really really long. Mostly it relates to news stories, which I access via a variety of sources (CBC Radio; The Globe and Mail; The New York Times; The New Yorker; satirical news commentary on YouTube; Twitter; and all of the rabbit holes down which a person can disappear when visiting social media). I’m starting to wonder whether this constant source of outrage-fuel is useful; and if so, what’s it good for? I want to stay informed, but I also want to direct my outrage toward solutions, or at the very least prevent my outrage from spiralling into feelings of hopelessness and despair. How many more of my rants does Kevin need to hear on Space Force, Basic Income, Buck-A-Beer, climate change, and gun laws? Just to name a few subjects on which I have strong opinions.
What can a person do?
My solution, such as it is, is to throw myself into projects that connect me to other people. My solution is engagement on a manageable (read: small) scale. My engagement is not necessarily directly related to the rant-inducing daily stream of really-bad-decisions made by rich-white-men-who-seem-uniquely-unqualified-to-be-in-power. ARGH. The injustice makes my brain boil. Where was I?
Engagement. Small scale.
Ah. Here’s the problem: The news can be a distraction. Outrage is a form of emotion that, let’s confess, feels really good — it stokes righteous flaming emotion deep down in the primitive part of my brain. And that’s problematic. It distracts from real life, which is right here waiting for me, in my house, in my neighbourhood, in my community.
It helps to sit down and work on a story, for no other reason than the story wants to exist. It helps to spend my evenings outside on a soccer field coaching young teens in their development as a team and as individuals. It helps to make plans for my fall and winter courses, dreaming up ways to deliver concepts that will inspire and challenge. It helps to read fiction and poetry. It helps to meditate. It helps to ride my bike whenever and wherever possible. It helps to walk the dog, to eat supper with the kids, to clean the house, to visit far-flung family, to spend an afternoon at the beach. It helps to finish what I start.
Why? Because even small scale acts of kindness and connection and attention are effective ways to fight against that which outrages me — ways to put into action my beliefs.
It helps, too, to dream big, to make plans for future projects that are beyond the scope of my current experience, to make connections with other people who work in the arts, to apply for grants, send out stories, throw bottles into the sea. Make space for more opportunities to unfold. Here’s a fun thing to try: write a letter to yourself, addressing yourself like you would a dear friend. What advice would you give yourself? Can you name all the things about yourself that you like, that give you strength and courage? What questions would a good friend ask you? (I did this at the beginning of June, and reading over my “Dear Carrie” letter now, I recognize that it has helped shape my summer in positive ways.)
What helps you?
The hardest day of the week to get oriented. There seem to be an infinite number of tasks that could be tackled — a few that should be tackled, and many that are just pleasant possibilities awaiting attention. But to be done properly these tasks require full attention. There are many ways to begin, but here is one that’s been working for me: I put on Marg’s green scarf and sit in the back yard and meditate.
On my general to-do list:
- Fall creative writing course at U of Waterloo: revamp reading list; tweak structure of peer review workshops; tweak participation rubric.
- Winter creative writing course at St. Jerome’s (new course!!!!): solidify curriculum, leaving room for student input within broader units.
- Write/edit/submit short stories: I’m working on editing a short story collection. I keep picking away at the stories, one by one; highly satisfying. I’m also setting the goal of submitting these polished stories, one by one, to literary magazines.
- Edit/submit poems: Same as # 3, only in poetry form.
- Expand/explore career options: Here is where I begin to drift off, untethered. I’m feeling a significant pull to further my education. I’ve narrowed my field(s) of interest to the following: spiritual work, counselling/therapy/coaching, writing/art therapy, conflict resolution, public speaking.
On Twitter, today, I retweeted an opinion from a thread on CanLit by Amanda Leduc, who wrote: “Literature is a special thing only insofar as it helps us to navigate the world & connect with one another.” Someone else replied: “I hear what you’re saying, but I have also talked to people who are alive today because literature literally saved their lives.”
And I wonder what I believe?
My experience as a teacher leads me to believe that writing can be powerful medicine, that telling our stories and being heard, no matter the medium, can be powerfully validating. Reading or seeing or hearing a story or image that strikes a chord within us can also be powerful. It can heal, or create an opening for healing. Who knows why something moves us? It may have nothing to do with the technical prowess of its creator.
I’m not saying that technical skill doesn’t matter or is immaterial. My God, when I read a book by someone who’s mastered the craft, I’m utterly transported. Most recently, that would be Ali Smith’s Autumn. I wanted to linger — am lingering, in memory — inside the richness and simultaneous spareness of her style. Yet I flew through the book and couldn’t put it down. That’s magic. There’s magic in deciding to pick up a book and read it, and discovering in it exactly what you need.
There is magic in the process, in all parts of the process, that’s what I’m saying. There’s work and then there’s magic. And magic doesn’t come in a form that’s graspable; magic, spiritual depth, grace — however you term it — does not arrive because you demand its arrival. A writer is not someone with special powers. A writer is someone who, with luck, occasionally finds a way to share an idea or an image with the the world, or whatever tiny piece of the world picks up our book and reads it and finds something within those pages. But there are lots of other ways to connect, even for writers. I come back to connection, to navigating the world. The world is what interests me. Relationships interest me. And, yes, spiritual life in particular interests me, even though or maybe because it’s almost impossible to put that life into words. (This is why we need images.)
Long story short. I’m happy to keep writing and practicing the craft of writing (see items #3 and #4 on above list). But I think I’m being called out beyond the borders of the page. I think there are other ways and means of connecting to the world using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about writing and shaping narrative, but also using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about being human, being mortal, being fallible, being forgiven, and loving and being loved.
Anxiety is not a stranger in this house.
Lately, it’s been visiting me regularly. I suppose it could be grief. It could also be the loose, unfinished nature of the work I try to do. I’ve trained myself to be patient, to trust, to allow things to unfold in their time, not to push too hard, not to rush the process. But it’s taken training because I am actually someone who appreciates a firm decision. I like to make plans and execute them. In the fuzzy existence of being a writer, plans seem forever in flux, at the mercy of whim or economics or both. I like to take action, I like to make and to do. But there is only so much I can make or do or act upon in this fuzzy existence of being a writer. If that is where I exist. If that is what I am.
Anxiety is not a stranger.
I haven’t cartooned for two days. Soccer season is upon us, and most evenings are packed and late. I haven’t shifted my routine to cartoon at another time, or even to cartoon in another fashion — by speeding up the process, or limiting my expectations, drawing faster, messier, more piecemeal. I’d come to expect something of myself in my drawings, which had become less and less like cartoons. (That sentence is written deeply in the past tense, I realize.)
Anxiety preys on expectations.
I’ve been writing. Diligently. Every day. But the project is self-indulgent. It’s all about the writing itself, language, structure, stripped down sentences, ideas, and not at all about the plot. I’m torn: do I write to please myself, or do I write to please others? I think that by pleasing myself I will please almost no one else.
Anxiety is another word for doubt. Self-doubt.
It is rainy today. I haven’t sat outside on my stump. Sometimes, the meditation soothes me, especially listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. Being outdoors soothes me. Yesterday evening, we gathered to bury the ashes of my stepmother. The beauty of where we were came rushing up to meet us. A wide softly sloping ploughed field, a stand of thick green trees. As the brief ceremony beside the grave began, I saw a hawk holding over the field, riding the air currents in a soft sloping arc.
Later, we sang: I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.
The comfort of the gospel songs felt like medicine, and made holy space, and we kept hearing a lone bird chirping in the trees overhead, as if it were joining our song.
Anxiety reminds me of all the smart, brave, kind things I should have done and did not do. Anxiety reminds me of all the wrong, stupid, foolish things I have done. Anxiety plants inertia.
Sometimes, it seems I am so closed, even to myself, that only writing will dig up what hurts. But I don’t know what hurts, if anything. I don’t know why a sensation of nervous energy froths beneath my ribs, no matter how I rise early to exercise it into submission. I wonder, what have I learned from sitting down to write this post? Perspective is a long game. Introspection comes up short.
I’ve been wandering through a book kindly sent to me by my Canadian publisher, Anansi, called The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, by Sharon Blackie. One of her suggestions is to find a place to return to, daily if possible, outside somewhere. A place where you can sit and simply be, and observe the natural world around you.
At first, I fantasized about biking or walking to a nearby park to sit beside the little creek that runs through it. But after several days of not biking or walking to the park to do this, I recognized that, as is often the case, fantasy and reality are two divergent paths. I do love my fantastical life, as lived in my imagination, but down here in reality, setting into action even small life changes requires a different toolbox.
Let me back-track.
I’ve just finished a three-day workshop on instructional skills (teaching skills), which was intensive, immersive, challenging, and rewarding. My takeaway could apply to life as surely as it applies to lesson-planning: to meet your objective, you need to identify it clearly, and create a process that leads you toward it.
So if my objective or goal is to sit outside in nature, and specifically, to find a place that I can return to daily if possible, what process would lead me toward that goal?
The answer turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, in this example. Best of all, it emerged naturally. After several days of not biking or walking to the park, one morning last week, I went to the back yard and sat down on a stump. Something must have called to me. I’d just walked my youngest up to meet his friends before school and instead of going into the house as usual, I went into the yard. The dog was with me, the air was sweet and temperate, and the buds were at their very newest, just barely emerging in a soft fuzz of yellow and green overhead. I took off my sandals and sat with bare feet in the grass. I closed my eyes. I listened to the birds and the traffic, and the jingle of the dog’s collar.
Aha. I’d found my spot, my place outside in nature to which I could return almost daily.
So I’ve been returning, not quite daily, but often enough to see already small changes in the grass and weeds and flowers. Today, I opened my eyes after a ten-minute meditation and thought, This is my work, too.
It might not look like work. And it might not register as work, because it is so full of pleasure. But I know that in order to write, to create, and yes, to teach, I must be contemplative. I must reflect. I must be quiet and listen and observe and watch, and be. In this quiet place — quiet on the inside, I mean — such wonderful fantastical ideas play across my mind. So much of my work happens in the imagination. So it is inevitable that some of these ideas will capture my interest enough to be named as possibilities to pursue here in the real world.
The process by which these possibilities are achieved seems to me both practical and mysterious. We are ever-changing, and our needs and interests are ever-shifting. The process by which we move toward goals, and the goals themselves, also change and shift, as they must; often unconsciously. I like when I can recognize what’s happening and celebrate it. I like when I can recognize what I want to have happen, and can tweak my daily routine to see it come about.
Exercise is one area where it’s been easy for me to set goals and achieve them. These goals have changed and continue to change, affected by injury, age, and intention. I am aware of both the changing nature of my goals, and of the changing processes required to meet them. Therefore, I feel ease and flexibility in my approach. Parenting is the same for me, somehow; ever-changing, but replete with clear objectives: to support and to love. The work might be hard, but the meaning of the work is clear.
Naming a goal is perhaps the most difficult step. Narrowing it down. Understanding it, understanding why you want this particular change, or outcome. Committing to it. Why do I want to sit quietly in nature as often as possible? Immediately, answers float to the surface. Because it calms me, because it connects me to something bigger than myself, because it clears my mind. It helps me to see the bigger picture. It feeds my spirit.
What if I were to name a different goal: to publish another novel. I’ll confess that my motives feel less clear in this example, even though the goal appears straightforward. Certainly, I understand the process. But the underlying objective, the greater why of it all, eludes and troubles me; no doubt it’s different now than it was when I first published. And so I wonder … Is it to further my professional career, both as a writer and a teacher? Is it to share knowledge in a creative way? To entertain an audience? Is it to earn a living? Is it to publicly express ideas important to me that can’t be otherwise expressed? Is it to garner attention and feed my ego? (How I fear this last intention, how I fear it might be a secret intention I hide even from myself.)
It seems to me that writing a novel expresses a different intention than publishing a novel. I’m at ease with the former; I’m uncomfortable with the latter.
Yet I want to name it as a goal. I want to publish another novel.
I want to learn from the process, again, how to go forth into the world carrying an idea, and how to share it openly, generously, without fear or shame. I want, also, to polish an idea until it becomes a publishable book, full of breathing characters that live beyond me.
Somehow, my body understands that sitting quietly on a stump is part of the process that will lead me there.
People often ask me: Are you still writing?
I can’t help but parse the phrasing. The word still. Of course, it may appear that I might have somehow stopped writing, that I am no longer writing, because I’ve published so little since Girl Runner came out in the fall of 2014. During these past four years, it is true, I’ve published two picture books for children, a handful of short stories and essays in Canadian literary magazines, a performance piece for an arts festival in France, and these personal blog posts. That’s clearly not enough to keep the lights on, so to speak.
Are you still writing?
I understand the question. I know it’s asked out of kindness and curiosity. How to explain that writing is like breathing, for me? I could not stop. When I do stop, it will be because I’ve also stopped breathing. My life depends on this form of expression.
Are you still writing?
I am always writing, I explain. I explain, Not everything I write will be published.
I recognize that this is a painful truth. I recognize that to state this fact makes me vulnerable. We all like success stories. Painful truths we like so much less, we humans. We like winners because they win. We pity losers for losing. Is it shameful and possibly career-ending to admit: I’m trying, but I’m not living up to the standards being set? To admit: Success is out of my control? To admit: What I love doing may not be what the market wants? Some of us would prefer deception to truth. I wonder whether in the arts community, as in any career involving public scrutiny, we are more inclined to stare away the painful truths, to hide them, and perhaps this is the evolutionarily correct instinct.
Well, I’m going to tell you the painful truth anyway. I’m trying. I’m still writing.
There are problems that we have the capacity to solve with ingenuity and effort, and there are gravity problems. Gravity problems are problems that no amount of ingenuity and effort can solve: gravity just is, a force, like time, that doesn’t bend to human will.
I’ve been fortunate to shift some of my attention, these past four years, into teaching creative writing, work I’ve come to love. It is rewarding to receive immediate feedback, to test ideas live, to adventure in the company of others. Teaching is the opposite of writing literary fiction, at least in my experience. In my experience, to write literary fiction requires enormous patience, bottomless trust in one’s own instincts, and the fierce will to continue alone, for long stretches of time. It requires so much energy. All the energy comes from within. This can be hard to sustain in the absence of … I was going to say success, but I think the more accurate word is community.
There must be a better way!
This post has taken an unexpected detour. This isn’t the post I thought I was writing.
I need new fuel for the fire, that seems apparent from what I’ve written here. I’m out of steam. I’m still writing, but I’ve also given up hope. In my classroom, I strive to foster a creative community — it’s a goal that’s set and maintained and evaluated throughout the term. With deliberate effort, I make space for peers to meet, to share their work, to share the weight of vulnerability, and to learn how to offer useful critique, which is really a brave form of support.
I have never created such a space for myself. I’ve never even considered it as a possibility.
This is not a gravity problem. This is a problem that can be solved by ingenuity, effort, and most importantly, the willingness to be vulnerable.
Writing = breathing. If I hadn’t sat down this morning to write, I wouldn’t have stumbled across this discovery: what I’m feeling and experiencing can’t be solved alone. What I need is community, a writing community.