Category: Big Thoughts
Yesterday, I drove to Toronto for a reading, and stopped in for a jolly afternoon visit at my publisher’s new office. I was going to visit my sister too, and really make a day of it, but she was sick. (I should have brought her chicken soup, but my germophobe tendencies won out.)
I noticed that many of yesterday’s conversations revolved around the idea of space.
Space for the mind to think. Space to breathe. Space to relax. Time is a form of space, and when it’s packed, it can feel cramped and tight. But even time that is packed with events and duties can feel spacious, in certain moments. My goal is to make even a busy day feel spacious, by settling into the present event, and offering my full attention.
I don’t always manage it, it’s true. When I’m tired, when I’m anxious about what’s coming up next, when I’m pulled in different directions, when I’m longing to do something else instead … then there’s no space, no flow, limited attention. I can ruin my own fun in this way. I call it: pushing myself ahead. What I mean is, I’m pushing myself out of the moment I’m in by occupying the ones upcoming, rehearsing them in advance, usually with a worried or impatient furrow to the brow. There’s also the problem of pushing myself back, going over errors in the past. And what about pushing myself entirely out of the picture?
My meditation right now is focused on Generosity. (Fittingly, I use an app called Headspace.) “What would you like to give to yourself?” asked the friendly voice of Andy-the-meditation-guide this morning. What would I like to give myself? My mind went blank.
Finally, I thought, forgiveness … enjoyment …
Forgiveness? Well, I understand it. I’m feeling guilty for slipping out early after my readings these past two nights. Terribly guilty. Both evenings I had a long drive before me, and I was very tired. I’d given my best effort on stage. I wanted to go home and sleep. No matter the circumstances: slipping out early is antithetical to how I’ve disciplined myself to behave. So I’m crawling with discomfort at having prioritized rest over being gracious, polite, respectful of the readers yet to come and of my hosts. I don’t know what’s right. And clearly I don’t know how to forgive myself for this decision.
As for enjoyment … I had a fun day yesterday. Once it got rolling, I didn’t worry, I felt relaxed and content. My uncertainty came when it ended. I wasn’t sure when to end it, when to transition to the next part, the part where I drive home and go to bed. I didn’t know what was best for me; indeed, as I write this post I can hardly let myself pose the dilemma in those terms: what was best for me? Maybe I didn’t know what was best for me because I frequently fail to take that into account; I was genuinely stumped by Andy’s question, thrown back on my heels. When I do something for myself, I feel like I’m stealing it. I shouldn’t take this. It isn’t mine.
Of course we all do many things we don’t particularly want to, for reasons of necessity, and we can find ways to enjoy rather than endure many of these. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about those little things we do for ourselves. What are they? And do you give yourself permission to enjoy these little things, wholly, without guilt, without suspecting you’ll be penalized? Do you give yourself that kind of space? It’s occurred to me that I do this only rarely. And that if I were to give something to myself, that is what I would give: the ability to recognize what I want, and to enjoy it when it comes.
Sounds easy. Strange it should be so hard.
This morning I hosted the final session in my inaugural, experimental series of Writing Adventures. The feedback I received circled around the theme of welcome, I think. Participants thanked me for giving them space and and a place to write, as well as guidance throughout; the space felt safe; there was something spiritual or peaceful about the exercise, or about the environment that was created in the room. Several participants told me that the writing had been therapeutic. Some found it challenging or hard, while others expressed that they’d had a lot of fun.
Ultimately, the sessions confirmed for me that this is not a writing exercise, although it uses writing as its medium. It’s an exercise about making or creating, about shaping experience, about exploring the unknown. It’s about being led to a place we never meant to go, to find something we didn’t know we were looking for. It’s an exercise that can bring a sense of peace or resolution to a problem that your mind may be working on, quietly, behind the scenes—I frequently uncover an emotional theme, something I haven’t otherwise been able to acknowledge or recognize. That is why the same “map” or “guide” can be followed again and again on these adventures and never become repetitive; there is always another story waiting to be found. We live within ever-shifting emotional states that affect how we interact in ways both profound and mundane.
Finally, I observed again that there is no perfect time to sit down and write. Forget about finding the perfect time, writers of the world! There will always be external blocks rearing up—I’m too tired, my to-do list is too long, I should be spending this time with X, it’s been a long day, I can’t squeeze it in, I just don’t feel like I can go there, not right now, maybe tomorrow, I’m too distracted, I can’t sit still. All legitimate barriers. But these barriers dissolve as soon as I sit before the page and open myself to what’s waiting to be found. Maybe those moments when we are least inclined to force ourselves to attend are the moments when we most would benefit from stopping and listening to the quiet (or clamouring!) voice within.
I arranged the first Adventure as a three-session series because it’s an exercise that becomes easier to do with practice: you figure out what risks you can take, what rules you need to break (interior self-binding rules, mainly), and how to let go and follow where you’re led. It’s the letting go that’s the hardest. It’s letting go of the voice in your head that says, This is not important. It takes practice to learn how to reply to that voice: It doesn’t matter whether or not this is important, I’m doing it. What that voice in your head won’t tell you is that you actually can’t know while you’re making something what value it may have, what necessary step it represents in the piecing together of a larger puzzle, and where this is leading you.
Imagine this. You are crossing a creek in the middle of a thick fog come down to earth. It’s like saying of a stepping stone, the only one you can see right now before you: This is not an important stone. You wouldn’t, would you. You would in humility understand implicitly that you just don’t know. You just don’t know—and it doesn’t matter. To think that it matters is to completely miss the point of what lies before you. So you step on the stone, and you come to another, and you just don’t know. And that is how you find not only where you are, but where you’re going.
P.S. No new Writing Adventures scheduled yet. Please send me a message or comment below if you are interested in participating in future Adventures, and you will be the first to know. Also, I would love to hear, from those of you who participated in the sessions, whether there was anything you strongly liked or, perhaps even more importantly, disliked.
My word of this year is PEACE.
Usually I test out a few words and make an impulsive final choice right before meeting with my WOTY friends. This year, peace was the first word I tried and it felt immediately right. Maybe it’s the way it makes me feel the instant I say or think it. Just to repeat the word peace makes my breathing a little deeper and steadier, seems to calm or comfort me.
The word peace seems connected to the state of being I described in my previous post, on my changing relationship to writing. I don’t want to suggest that I’m no longer anxious about what I’m writing, that I’m not scared sometimes when I write, that I don’t worry about what I’m making. I’m saying that I can feel those emotions and still sense beneath them a sturdiness of purpose and identity that feels solid or rooted, or whole. Maybe, I think, confidence and purpose pours forth from a place of peace.
I am also drawn to the word because pacifism is an important part of my faith tradition. What does pacifism mean, as a lived principle? I want to study how to make peace a part of my life and being. I want to reflect on the concept of peace—is it merely the absence of negatives, of conflict or war? Or is it, rather, the presence of something powerful, even in situations of conflict or distress? Yes, I think so. Peace exists underneath. It can be the source of something, or it can be a state of being. In my meditation right now, I’m exploring the difference between a state of mind that is created by positive thinking, such as “You can do this!”, and a state of mind that is not dependent on exterior forces or encouraging self-talk. It can’t be forgotten or mislaid. It’s just there. It’s like water flowing underground, or like a river that is always flowing. Peace like a river.
What I hope not to explore this year is passivity—an offshoot of the word peace. My intention is not to ignore or avoid conflict. I want to figure out how to address and acknowledge conflict, how to engage with different opinions and ideas, how to disagree without feeling threatened. How to let others be. How often do I choose not to speak my mind, or not to step up and engage, because I’m uncomfortable acknowledging that to do so would be to admit disagreement? It isn’t that conflict doesn’t exist, it’s only that I’m pretending it doesn’t exist. That is not, ultimately, a peaceful stance. It is a passive stance.
Here’s what I believe: Problems can’t be solved or resolved without some conflict, some clashing between different points of view, some emotional discomfort; it often feels easier to walk away, to ignore the problem or complain about it behind the scenes, without confrontation; and sometimes walking away is a measured decision, if we’re not prepared or strong enough for confrontation, or if the problem isn’t worth the risk of disruption to an important relationship. But if change is wanted, change is needed, change is longed for, it’s worth asking: How does change come about? What’s my part? All change is disruptive. It causes discomfort. This year, I challenge myself to engage, to disagree, to disappoint, to carry uncomfortable emotions, to take responsibility for my beliefs, and to express them from a place of peace.
Peace is a kind word. It’s a caring word. I think it’s a word that will take me outside of my own head and desires, and connect me to others.
This year, I’m going to rely on the strength of this word. It’s shaping up to be a year of travel, of new responsibilities and ventures, and of trying to keep my shit together while the whirl of our family’s activities and personalities, mixed with my own ambitions and desires, spins and dances and pulls me in many different directions.
Peace. Peace. Peace.
My word for last year was WRITE.
I wrote a lot. I’m not sure any of it will be published, although it does seem to have informed the project I’m working on now—its value is incalculable, in other words, and I think maybe that became the point for me as the year progressed. I wrote to understand why I write, and to be disciplined, and the more I wrote the more I understood that I love writing, and that I don’t need to remind myself to write because it is intrinsic to my being, it is how I create, most naturally, it is my chosen discipline. Maybe within this, by following and exploring this word, I allowed myself to write that which I didn’t consider to be publishable; I allowed myself to explore, to roam, to wander, to try, to experiment, to follow where led rather than pushing.
I did some pushing in the first half of the year; and the second half of the year, I’m seeing now, was quite different—I wrote a new novel manuscript in the first half of the year because I felt that I needed to; and when it was done, I saw that it wasn’t ready and I’ve yet to sort out whether I can ever make it ready, and so, for now, I’ve let it go. I let it go, and for the second half of the year I let myself write other things instead, things I suspected a publisher wouldn’t be interested in; I decided that my own calculations and guesses about a publisher’s interest didn’t matter, couldn’t matter, and that I needed to write what was welling up inside of me. And that’s been really wonderful.
Writing is my livelihood. But when I focus on its potential to earn me a living, it dies, somehow. I think that’s what I learned this year.
I allowed myself to be reacquainted, really fundamentally, with the idea that a writer is someone who, when faced with a blank page, does not know anything. (To paraphrase Donald Barthelme.) It’s terrifying; it’s thrilling. It means I don’t know what I’ll find, and it means I’ll definitely find a lot of things I’m not looking for, the value of which may not be explicit or recognizable. As hard as it is, I have to write even knowing that I may never write anything publishable, anything that earns money ever again. I don’t see that as a sad thing. It’s made me assess what I value, and how I assign value to the things that I do—how I spend my time.
Unexpectedly, I feel far more confident as a writer than I ever have before. Maybe because I’ve recognized that writing & invention through writing is intrinsic to my being. I’m less afraid of the scarce resources in the publishing industry. It doesn’t scare me to consider the possibility that I may never publish again, that there are no guarantees of success. I know and believe that what I’m doing has value—I value it. And I want to celebrate the wonderful words and stories of others. The success of other writers doesn’t feel like a threat to my own existence as a writer (we don’t talk about it much in this industry, but the professional jealousy that can arise from scrambling to secure scarce resources has corrosive potential on a personal level.)
I can’t explain this sense of calm and purpose. Will it stay with me? It may not, it’s true. I accept that change is eternal. But it feels like there’s been a shift over this past year in how I approach my writing, and the shift feels fundamental.
Next up: Word of the Year 2016. Stay tuned.
Today is slipping by. I am mapping writing adventures. I am arranging practice schedules and shirt orders for a soccer team. I am hungry. I haven’t eaten lunch. I haven’t left this office for hours. I’ve written nothing but emails, messages, reminders.
My Writing Adventure is completely full, with interest expressed in future Adventures, should I attempt this again.
I’ve been invited to France — to France! — this spring, to promote the translation of my novel there (details have not been confirmed, nor is this a sure thing, but the possibility exists). In the meantime, I have signed up for several mandatory soccer coaching courses. I have a public appearance this coming Tuesday at the Kitchener Public Library (“An evening with Carrie Snyder“), and other events booked elsewhere in February and March, April, May. We are planning a daunting family holiday. I want to go cross-country skiing with my daughter while there’s snow on the ground. My muscles ache from early morning workouts.
Yesterday, I read this article on my phone while waiting to pick up my daughter from a yoga class. It’s a light-hearted how-to article countering all of the inevitable new-year-new-me-resolution articles of this season: “How to be a moderately successful person.” And I sat in the car and wondered: Could I aspire to be this person? For serious? Something about the less-ness of it twanged a genuine longing in me.
I’m not complaining!! But wow. On some days, like today, like every day this week, I am overwhelmed by the ways in which I manage to fill up my life, the variety of activities and challenges I willingly, happily, excitedly sign myself up for. It occurs to me that I may be hiding from something — from the quiet and stillness of empty space and time. Am I hiding from the possibilities that exist in doing less, caring less, aspiring to less? Or am I, in fact, doing less by doing more, my attention too scattered to finish whatever book will be my next? Is all of this an elaborate distraction? It’s possible. But I love doing so much of it. I love being on the field with the kids. I love writing with other people, together. I love spending time with my kids in different contexts. I love the adventure of travel. I’ll admit freely that I fear inertia. I’ve been stuck before, I’ve been restless and lonely and bored.
Truly, I am not that, right now.
I’m looking forward to sharing my word of the year with you, as soon as I’ve had a chance to share it first with my WOTY friends. I think my new word relates to all of this, this swirl of activity and these swirling thoughts. Next post, maybe.
I think I was always a little bit afraid of David Bowie. I was afraid of his many guises, his shape-shifting abilities, his restlessness, the enormity, the almost-dangerous energy of his creative fervour. I’m a no-make-up low-key woman who has never quite understood the appeal of punk or glam-rock; I prefer my world stripped down to the bones, rather than glammed up. So, his work made me a little bit afraid, I think, even if I found much to admire in his seemingly infinite curiosity and innovation.
This video, Lazarus, was made while he was dying and aware that he was dying; it was made while he was continuing to be himself — a creative genius — and to inhabit himself fully, as he was, throwing himself openly in to the arms of creation. I look at him in this video and I am afraid, but I am meant to be afraid, I am unsettled, but I am meant to be unsettled, I am in grief, and I am meant to be in grief, I am moved, I am horrified, I am worried for him, I am filled with thanks and sorrow. He lets us see him weak and dying, blind and shackled by illness, he lets us see him afraid, working feverishly until the end, drugged, in the grip of the desire to make more and more and more, and he lets us see him dancing, briefly, and then he goes away and shuts the door. He has to let us see him at his worst, at his weakest, in order for us to know him, believe in him, trust him, come with him.
What is art?
I want to know, and I think about this constantly, and perhaps all the more right now as I invite others to come create with me. How tempting it is to define art by what pleases us, individually, personally; or even to define art by what we cannot do ourselves, but admire.
What is art?
It isn’t that art is anything, it’s that it can be anything. It involves the shaping of life and experience, of image, of idea, into something that speaks beyond itself. For example, walking to meet the kids after school is not art. But if I write a poem about walking to meet them, or a story, or I photograph the small details I’m seeing on that walk and create a collage or meditative post on the blog, or I stop to mark each corner by laying a painted stone, or the children and I create a dance to mark the walk and perform it as we’re walking home from school — this is art. We’ve altered and interpreted an experience. We’ve tried to express how it makes us feel; or we’ve asked someone to look differently at their own similar experience; or we’ve challenged or upset the experience in some way, we’ve caused a disruption, we’ve called for attention. We’ve broken the routine, deliberately.
What is art?
It is comfort. It is disruption. It is an answer, but more often it is a question. It is personal. It is political. When we create, when we make something, we make ourselves vulnerable, there is no denying that risk is involved. If you watch David Bowie’s last video, you see this truth laid bare, and you see how intrinsic vulnerability is to the process of creating art. It is a scary thing to do. Sometimes, it’s a scary thing to watch or witness, too.
I believe it takes practice and discipline to make art; that, too. And those who pursue their art at the highest level of focus and craftsmanship, like David Bowie did, will work enormously hard to learn their craft, hone their skills, test their vision, challenge themselves through professional collaboration, and practice, practice, practice. What is practice? It means to do, doesn’t it. It implies commitment, repetition, but it also means you just show up and do the thing you’re practicing. So, on a fundamental level, I think, what it takes to make art is a simple willingness to try, to experiment, to take what may be a single, tentative step in the dark, into the unknown.
So often, we stop ourselves by judging what we’re doing, and by comparing what we’re doing to what others are doing. Yes, comparison can be instructive; we all learn from those more skilled and knowledgeable. But I think the point of how David Bowie lived his life is that comparison is much more often pointless, and not only pointless, but destructive — creatively destructive. Comparison either diminishes or elevates what you’ve made; and in some strange way, has nothing to do with what you’ve made, why you’ve made it, where it comes from. What pours forth from you? What pours forth from you at this precise moment in time? Nobody but you can create what you can. To create is to embrace what you’ve got inside you, even while you let it out, let it go, let it take shape in the world.
Anyone can do this. In any variety of ways. What you make might not be polished, it might be very humble indeed, it might be raw, it might not make perfect sense, it might not match the vision in your head. But here it is, you’ve made it. You’ve arrived, you’ve departed.
“The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” -David Bowie