Category: Big Thoughts
A good writing day is like manna, like heaven on earth, like a happy dream. You feel purposeful, adventurous, inspired. You’re carried along, you’re surprised and delighted by what you find.
But that’s not today.
Today’s revelation comes from a different place: Today was a slog.
You weren’t very happy with the bones of the story you’d laid out yesterday, and it felt insurmountable — the problems to overcome, the incoherent structure, the didactic tone, the clumsiness, the exposition. But you went ahead and tried, anyway, to dig into the story. To write.
And guess what! Note to self!: Even a writing day that feels like a slog is a glorious accomplishment. Maybe even more than the day that felt easy. Because you didn’t give up. Because you were kind to yourself. When you read over the ragged sentences, you didn’t say: this is crap! (Even if it was.) You said: this is a very rough draft. All drafts start out rough.
This is what a rough draft looks like.
This is a start. You start by telling the story to yourself.
Then you dig in, you get your hands dirty, you notice what’s alive and you go there and pay attention, and gradually these piles of bones begin to fit together, to fill out into a story that you can do something with.
Revise, play, revise, play.
It’s play, this process. Like playing imaginary games as a child, where there were rules but you were making them up as you went, and there were always more possibilities, depending on who or what drifted into the scene, and you got to get dressed up and be someone else, a changeable someone depending on what was needed, and you packed a snack, and you climbed a tree, and you sat up there, pretending till it seemed the world was yours to make and make up.
The slog is all of this. So don’t fear it, jump in.
- What felt good this month? This month passed in a flash! I won’t say it’s been easy, but a few things that felt good involved small actions that directed my energies outside of myself. Being a fiction writer doesn’t offer many opportunities to directly serve or (even interact with!) others, which is something I struggle with, but these actions made sense for me, right now: I donated blood (first-time), and will donate again, because I can—(At the clinic, I kept thinking of that slogan “It’s in you to give”; it felt like an uncomplicated way to be helpful); I’m in the midst of helping organize season three of The X Page: applications are open now to refugee and immigrant women in Waterloo Region, who are interested in storytelling—please spread the word!; I enjoyed Tuesday morning conversations with my grandma, who lives in Indiana; I got more involved at church; and I had fun sending out daily messages for two weeks to my word of the year group, as we did a “tea cleanse” together. My days are spent mostly inside the same rooms of the same house with the same people; reaching out felt really really good.
- What did you struggle with? Apparently, I struggled to remember this question existed! Somehow, it got lost while writing the original draft for this post; I’m answering it today, March 2. I struggled to figure out how to support my children, all living under this same roof, while also offering them independence, autonomy, and the “right” amount of responsibility. Are my expectations too low, too high; do they have enough opportunities to separate from me and be with their peers? Teenagers need their peers, a lot. The pandemic has made these important years for developing independence very challenging to navigate (and it wasn’t easy in the first place). So, parenting. That’s been a struggle, and these micro-decisions, made daily, weigh on me.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I’m okay. It feels like spring is in the air … but not quite near enough. I’ve been working steadily on a writing project, and have heard from my editor with a revised timeline for my new novel: all good! Within the waiting, I can still be productive and find focus and hope.
- How did you take care of yourself? This one’s a bit tricky, at least this past month. I’ve got solid habits and routines: I practice those daily; sometimes they bring me joy, but sometimes they’re just plain shoring me up, which is often what they felt like this month. Self-care has looked like this: Rarely drink alcohol. Exercise most days. Stretch often. Eat homemade food. Give myself permission to veg. Tell my body how awesome it is (this is more important for women raised in the 1980s and 90s than you might realize!). Play the piano: I’ve been doing this almost every day, and it’s freeing and fun.
- What would you most like to remember? That I like reading novels all in one gulp! Take a Saturday, Carrie, and just lay on the couch and read a novel from start to finish. It’s the best escape imaginable. (Just finished Lily King’s Writers and Lovers; and before that, Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions.)
- What do you need to let go of? Shame. The fear of doing things wrong and offending people. The fear of being unworthy, or embarrassing, or flaky, or foolish. It would be so lovely to give myself the gift of trust. I’d love to enter the world freely, messily, making mistakes and owning up to them, and learning from them; getting back on the horse, again and again. I need to let go of my craving for acknowledgement and permission. And just get on with doing the work.
Yesterday afternoon, I set out solo in the sunshine. I love the people in my house and I love my house; yet the need to escape was powerful. To move.
On the busier sections of path, snippets of conversation floated past:
“The single-best way to leave a legacy, guaranteed, is to have a lot of children—” (Spoken by one young man to another, both wearing sunglasses, coming toward me on the trail.)
“Actually, I had a bit of a set-back this week. My tennis friend called and said ‘I have bad news….'” (Two women crossing my path diagonally.)
The sun was so warm, I took off my scarf and hat, unzipped my jacket.
On the quiet stretches of path, I told myself stories about who I wanted to be, who I remembered being. Who knows what a calling is anyway? I miss interacting with people. I miss working with students, I miss coaching. I said this out loud, so I could really hear it.
I listened to an On Being podcast three times yesterday, while mixing and kneading bread dough, doing laundry, searing a small roast, chopping veggies (though not while out walking): Krista Tippett’s conversation with Ariel Burger. I listened and listened and listened, trying to absorb the wisdom.
Do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
It sounds very basic: a recipe for being a witness, not a spectator.
I wondered what to do if the person being humiliated was yourself; what then? (The podcast does not discuss power.) I see people who are hurt and wounded by their interactions with systems designed to crush and humiliate them, hurt by people acting within those systems, and I think: what protection is there against this cruelty, injustice? We are asking too much of individuals to fight for themselves, by themselves.
Maybe that’s the power of witness? If you can, if you are able, be a witness, a true witness, and do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
Be a blessing.
Be a blessing? How? Alone in my studio, writing stories? With my family? Reaching out to friends?
We are also called to be as strangers to each other, to recognize and acknowledge that others can and will surprise us, if we allow them to. If we approach each other (strangers, family, friends) neither from a place of fear, nor from a place of over-familiarity, what will we learn?
To be a blessing is to push against, as well as to meet. My ideas, experiences, perspective, beliefs will not match up perfectly with yours, no matter how we might wish it. Unity is not conformity.
The divine in me sees the divine in you.
But you are not me. I am not you.
To be blessed is to be given something to carry. A blessing can be heavy. It can ask a lot of the other, the one who is seen. As a coach, as a teacher, as a parent, what I hope to communicate is the deep value in trying; not striving, necessarily, it doesn’t have to be so strenuous; trying. To say: I tried, is to acknowledge your own effort. To say: You tried, is to see someone else’s, to name it.
There’s a lightness to trying. There’s acceptance that trying doesn’t always lead to success. There’s room for surprise. Experiment. Consider. Be blessed. Leap. What if you try and you discover something different, something unexpected, something you weren’t looking for? Isn’t that wonderful too? To try is to leave room for curiosity.
Everyone looked after me all day. My favourite part was going around the table and hearing what everyone considered to be the thing they were most proud of in 2020. (Mine was painting my door yellow, and transforming my office into my studio.)
I’m glued to Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian show on Netflix that thankfully has about a thousand episodes (give or take). When I learned there were many seasons yet to watch, I ran out of my studio hollering: “Winter is saved!”
Kevin’s new year’s eve bonfire kept burning out last night. “I smell like smoke,” I told Heather on our starting-the-new-year-off-right walk. We came upon a statue that was like a horror movie, a man’s face replaced with an owl and maybe a possum (?); squirrel and duck for hands. We laughed so much.
We drove to Claire’s farm to pick up eggs and meat, and Claire showed us the pigs in the barn. Back home, we started a new 30-day yoga cycle with Adriene, called “Breath.”
Strange what my pen and hand tell me—not always what I want to hear. Mostly, I walked with my family this morning, on a spontaneous walk through fresh snow. But this was how I felt, trying to reach across the barriers of self/other.
Welcome to my studio. I enter this small warm room, close the yellow door, and feel—welcomed in. Happy to be here, at this desk, to look out these windows, to feel excited, wondering what I’ll find today?
I’m trying to read a book before falling asleep, rather than scrolling the news on my phone. My theory is that my dreams will be better, more interesting. But last night, the children in this book found a dead dog and my sleep was restless; tired today. (Soundtrack on repeat: “Exile” T. Swift and B. Iver)
It’s a lot to ask, that stories drop into my hands from their perfect mutability in my mind. I ask for grace and energy, I ask for a stronger work ethic, I ask for magic; but it’s desire I need, to answer longing with scratches on the page.
Yesterday, as Trump’s followers over-ran Congress, I was doing that terrible thing where I was watching a livestream on my laptop, scrolling my phone, and texting people, as if by consuming too much information, I’d find an answer to the question—what is going to happen?
I promised myself I’d sit down and draw even if I felt completely empty. That would capture the day too—an empty page, some pen scratches and scribbles.
My drawings this week all kind of look the same, I told Kevin on our after-dinner walk with Rose. Not much is changing. We are in liminal space—waiting. Not transition, but waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Today I made a list of things I want to do every day: go for a walk, the longer the better; burn and create energy with intense cardio; yoga; cartoon; play piano; afternoon tea break. I’d also like to meditate and read; and of course write. And cook. (But not clean.)
Good news: started my day in my studio and wrote part of a story almost immediately! Not-bad news: I can’t draw cars. This one looks like a bus, sort of. Above: me and Nina going for a walk, early Monday morning tradition.
Panic attack reading news of a stay-at-home order starting Thursday in Ontario. Felt like I was drowning. But what changes, I asked? Put on headphones and draw—follow pen into memory, shape, imagination. You’ve got resources. Sources.
Sidewalks slick with ice, we walked, skated, slipped, slid on a short dog walk after supper. Waiting for us to pass was a fox in the little park across the street. It sat perfectly still, alert, focused on our presence, till we were gone.
And now we’re all caught up. What do you think of my new journaling method? I’m on month two, and I’ve noticed a growing interest in attempting to draw background and setting, as well as figures. I’ve noticed, too, that this exercise slows me down and changes the flow of my attention, no matter what I’m feeling.
It’s a new year, and here we are. Oddly, I’ve chosen to anchor this post with a photo taken on a drive to the country, though I’m so rarely inside a car these days that it’s hardly representative. Mostly, I’m inside my studio, inside my house, looking out my window.
Today is sunny. I should really go outside for a walk, though the blue shadows are already long, even at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We live in a northern country. The seasons tell us what to wear, how to be. January has often been a month of contemplative reflection for me. But I’m not sure I can take more contemplative reflection than I’ve already got on the go. I live too much inside my head already. Inside this house. Inside these studio walls.
Go outside, Carrie! Soak up some sunshine!
Do not go back to sleep
You must ask for what you really want
Do not go back to sleep
How can I ask for what I want when I don’t know what that is?
Have you ever asked yourself what you really want? I find it is an impossible question to answer. I’ve sat here looking out the window at cars and people and dogs passing by, and I just can’t think what it is that I really want. The answer could be so very small, or so very big. I might want a cup of tea, for example; or I might want moral authority. (Is that even something a person can want or aspire to?)
Or maybe I want something that I don’t even know that I want. Maybe I want to be surprised. The thought of being surprised brings forth significant anxiety, I realize, typing those words; and yet, I think I do in some way want to be surprised—preferably happily surprised. It seems to be an element lacking in this current arrangement of life under lockdown. As a creature of habit, I’m mostly quite content following my daily routines, which are healthy and nourishing, and yet, and yet—
I want a little more energy and determination. I want to laugh with a friend.
I want to go outside and partake of this brisk, bracing season.
PS There’s more to that poem, in the translation that’s on my bookshelf:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
Two years ago, I was preparing to teach the graphic-art-based creativity course at St. Jerome’s, which was really a class about developing an artistic practice, setting goals, and staying open to how a project may change and grow as it unfurls. There’s discipline, the verb, and discipline, the noun, and together they sustain an artistic practice. The hope is that the practice will hold and develop over a lifetime, unique and personal: a pathway into the flow, a mindset, a series of ever-renewing explorations that feed on curiosity and feed curiosity.
If all things flow, I can never step into the same river twice; yet I yearn to find ways to fix experience as it flies. That’s the paradox of being alive, existing inside these breathing time-stuck human bodies: how to occupy the liminal space between immersion and interpretation, how to dance between these ways of being in the world; liminality is what art emerges from, the desire for engagement mixed with the need for something more than preservation — for response, for improvisation, for metaphor, image, song. My practice(s) is a way to step into the river, and also a means of capturing what’s here to be found.
I started a new notebook this morning. To mark the first page of each new notebook, I trace my hand and write my birth date and today’s date, a ritual I learned in a Lynda Barry workshop. As I traced my hand this morning, using a brush rather than a pen, I thought: I love the artistic practices I’ve created. They are cobbled together from different times, teachers, discoveries, experiments, using different mediums, tools and technologies; and they do change as I change and adapt, but they are unique to me and durable.
I love writing by hand, even though I don’t always use it as a method of writing new material. There are easier ways to write, but some stories and reflections call out to be discovered by hand.
I love the playfulness of crayons, which I’m using in my current daily drawing project, begun on December 1st as a month-long trial, and which I’m considering continuing into January, maybe beyond. (I’m also considering scanning these cartoons + captions and posting them weekly on the blog; this will only work if it’s easy. That’s one of the principles of my personal practices, the ones that have stuck: they’re easy to maintain, the materials are easy to acquire, the technology is easy to access.)
I love my studio, this lively yet meditative space that I use daily, which is a retreat, a place I look forward to being in, comforting, cozy, tidy, organized, small, contained yet spacious (the high ceiling, the white walls).
There isn’t much movement out there. We are locked down again in Ontario. There isn’t much movement anywhere, on any front, not in my own personal or professional life. But in this studio space, on the pages of these notebooks, there is movement. There is a river ever-flowing, into which I can step, and be transported.
And that is a gift.
My project ideas for 2020 have changed quite a bit; some came to fruition, others vanished almost as quickly as I’d conceived them. Now, I’m planning my projects for 2021, and looking forward to sketching out new ideas and goals on a fresh index card, and glueing 2020’s into this latest notebook. How will 2021’s projects grow, change, develop? Only time will tell. But they’ll exist, in nascent form, in ripening and in bloom, inside these notebooks, in crayon drawings, in pen, in Scrivener and Word files, and here, online. Sharing what I’m making is an important facet of my practice, too; thank you for being out there.
If you’ve got a moment, drop me a line or leave a comment and tell me about your artistic practices, what you’re doing right now to step into the river, both to enter the flow and to fix experience as it flies.
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