Category: Big Thoughts
The worst has happened—in terms of your literary life in Canada, that is, which are terms admittedly insular, and insignificant, perhaps, to all but those who’ve published a book of literary fiction in this calendar year. But there it is. Within this specific framework, at this specific moment in your publishing life, the worst has happened. You’re not on the long-list of the premier Canadian fiction prize.
This has just happened.
You’re surprised (and relieved) not to feel envy for those upon whom the light is shining. But you don’t. They need the light too. You don’t begrudge them a single spark.
What you feel, immediately, perhaps inexplicably, is shame and very little else. You feel like vanishing. You feel as raw as if you’d been sliced open, as vulnerable as a scurrying animal exposed in an alien environment. Shame is the most powerful emotion right now. You can’t imagine going outside of your house ever again.
So what are you going to do?
So you sit here writing. You sit and write because what else could you possibly do, especially if you can’t go outside ever again, even though it is a beautiful sunny day? You sit here writing, laughing at yourself, saying, you’re right here, breathing and alive, and you aren’t going to die from this. Your family is beautiful and funny and active, and they love you no less for this. You haven’t done anything wrong or evil. You haven’t hurt anybody. You haven’t actually failed, because there was nothing you could have done differently to pass. You are the same woman you were this morning, and you will be the same woman tomorrow. You will find your footing.
You are not made for the sprint distance, but for the long hard lonely run.
It isn’t meant to be easy, because if it were, it would count for nothing in your mind.
It’s meant to be hard. You learn most when it’s hard. You learn how to access reserves of strength and humour you did not know you had. You learn how to feel things deeply. You learn compassion for the deep, painful feelings of others. You learn repair. You learn self-governance and self-control. You learn discipline. Maybe, after you’re through writing this post, you’ll learn perspective, too, letting go, you’ll go eat some lunch. So, this is the worst that could happen? So, your reward is not going to be a bright prize and audience applause? You don’t know what your reward is going to be. It doesn’t matter. You aren’t doing this for the reward, you never were, and you never will. You’re doing this for life. You’re doing this to pattern words into story, to carry a reader into another world, to share your ideas in ways that can be taken in deeply and felt.
You want readers to find your book, so this is a disappointment. You know disappointment. It’s a totally non-lethal side effect, a condition of being who you are, someone with high hopes, dreamy and possibly delusional optimism, joyful dogged effort. And joyful dogged effort can’t be stopped by disappointment, only paused briefly, stalled briefly, here in this little rut of a moment that must be walked through to be gotten through.
It’s going to hurt, yes. It hurts, yes. This too is life. This too shall pass. Already it occurs to you that you may, in fact, be able to leave your house and go outside again. Perhaps even later this afternoon. It’s going to be okay.
And tomorrow you’ll write something else because tomorrow this will look different to you again. This is of the moment. This a record of what is happening now.
I’ve been thinking that I need a better answer to the question: How do you fit everything in? I usually laugh and say, I have no freaking idea, or something to that effect. But that’s not quite true. That’s the lazy answer. Because of course I have some idea. I’m doing it, after all. It isn’t just magically happening, it does take thought, care, effort.
Here’s the thing: the real answer is awfully long and detailed, hardly useful in interview situations, when the pithiest answer is best. But this is my blog, and we don’t care about pithy so much here, at least not all the time. So here, I present to you the non-pithy, heavily detailed, low-down from one woman’s organized life. (Note: I’m not suggesting you adopt these measures yourself; I recognize that many would not wish to lead such a strictly organized life. Please take this as descriptive rather than prescriptive.)
1. First of all, as you already know, I don’t procrastinate. Think of it, do it, done. If it can’t be done, make a note in a calendar so that it will be done. This unclutters my brain a great deal.
2. Keeping detailed notes in an online calendar also unclutters my brain, and prevents me from dropping too many balls in one day.
3. If I drop a few balls, I forgive myself. I think that’s key.
4. I lower my standards and relinquish control. The house isn’t very clean. The sheets aren’t regularly changed. The laundry is washed and dried, but may pile up for days unfolded in baskets in the basement. The meals aren’t planned. The kids aren’t terribly well-groomed. The garden is unkempt. And it’s okay. Because the domestic front isn’t exclusively my responsibility anyway — there are six of us in this house. As soon as I recognized this (and it wasn’t easy), I stopped critiquing others’ contributions. I would observe that an absence of critique makes it easier for others to take responsibility and contribute.
5. I’ve gotten good at assessing my own patterns of behaviour. For example, it’s no good to schedule exercise at lunchtime, which other people seem perfectly capable of doing; that will never happen for me. At lunchtime I will be working so intently on something else that I will forget to eat lunch, let alone remember or choose to exercise. So why fight the pattern? Instead, I schedule exercise early, or at times when I won’t be doing anything else, and will be outside somewhere (i.e. kids’ soccer practice).
6. Yeah, I schedule exercise. I schedule friend-time. I schedule writing time. I schedule everything. Some of it is actually jotted on the calendar, and some is just me, in my own head, blocking out time, observing the flow of the day, grabbing the moment and designating it: writing time. Or: interview time. Or: course prep time.
7. If the schedule isn’t working, I reassess on a deep level, or, often, I just go with the immediate flow and change course in the moment. The schedule is there because it works. If it doesn’t work, the problem is the schedule, not me or my family or us. I ditch what’s not working.
8. I don’t let the work that requires deep thought and focus overlap with all the rest of the work that requires deep thought. If I’m writing an essay, I want to be writing an essay and that is all. I try to apply this same principle to all activities. If I’m reading to my kids before bed, I want to be reading to my kids before bed and that is all. If I’m out for coffee with a friend, I want to be out for coffee with a friend and that is all. Heck, if I’m driving across town on errands, I want to turn on the radio and listen or stare out the window and daydream and that is all. You get the pattern.
9. I try to finish what I’ve started, or finish what I’ve decided needs finishing during this block of time. Big projects will not be finished in one go, or even in ten or twenty. But they can be finished in many small chunks of concentrated time. My dad used to have a sign on his office door that read: “If I do just a little bit every day, eventually I can let the task completely overwhelm me.” I remembered that recently, and had to laugh. Because that pretty much sums up my strategy. I do a little bit of many things every day. Thankfully, I don’t feel overwhelmed. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel interested, engaged, challenged, and fruitful.
10. Finally, I don’t try to do it all.
I realize it may look like I do. But I don’t. Instead, I try to make what I do count. I’m actually strategically and instinctively an opportunist (not in a bad way, I hope; I mean, I look to recognize and enjoy opportunities that exist, rather than demand the existence of ideal/idealized opportunities).
Sometimes opportunity is about efficiently gleaning multiple benefits from one task. For example, my teaching gig is a) a job, b) interesting and intellectually challenging, c) a chance to free-write during in-class exercises, d) helpful (I hope, for my students’ sakes!), and e) excellent training in public speaking.
Other times, opportunity is about embracing what’s immediately important. For example, this fall is about promoting Girl Runner. It is not about writing a new novel. If I try to make it about writing a new novel, I won’t enjoy going out into the world to share Girl Runner. And that would be a real shame. It would be a shame for two reasons. One, because there’s no way I can write a new novel amidst all this distraction, so I would be unhappily beating my head against an invisible wall. Two, if I were wishing to do something else, I would fail to appreciate what’s happening now.
Life’s short. I have right now. If I’m managing to wreck right now with my own expectations and worries, well, I’m wasting all I’ve got. I believe that.
I feel like I should mark the moment somehow. Today, my third book and first novel, GIRL RUNNER, is officially published here in Canada. Dreaming of this day as a teenager in high school, plotting and hoping to become a real writer, what did I imagine it would be like? Feel like? I no longer know. There is excitement, but it is muted with a weight I probably wouldn’t have guessed, as a teenager. There is satisfaction, joy, even, but tempered by perspective, by years of struggle, by a kind of wondering at my own persistence and determination, and I don’t mean that in a self-flattering way — I mean, I wonder at my ridiculous, stubborn refusal to give up this singular dream, even when it made absolutely no sense, financially or practically or even artistically. I had to write a lot of very bad prose on my way to learning how to write like I wanted to be able to write.
I’m thinking this morning of writers I have admired. How I loved L.M. Montgomery’s stories of orphaned girls, soaked though they may have been in sentimental romance. I didn’t want to grow up to discover that Montgomery’s own life had been unhappy. I wanted her as happy as her heroines, as plucky, as daring, as beloved. There can be such a distance between what a writer puts onto the page and her own life. We may write what we wish to have been or done, we may write to seek forgiveness for a wrong or to seek peace, we may write to escape, because the imagination is powerful enough to carry us somewhere else, somewhere better, for awhile.
I’m not sure where I fit into this, exactly, as a writer and a human being.
I was thinking today that my ever-present theme is the connection between past and present, and how the past leaves its imprints on the present. I have an interest in history (thanks, Dad!). But it isn’t the interest of an historian, who tries to piece together from available evidence the most factually accurate narrative. It’s the interest of a story-teller, who needs facts only as stones tossed into a wide lake, so she can see the ripples spreading out across the disturbed surface of what only seems to be.
I’m going hifalutin’ this morning, I see.
I wonder how L.M. Montgomery felt when her first book was published? And her next, and her third? How did she feel when Anne of Green Gables became so beloved that the author herself was subsumed by her invented character? Isn’t it strange how these characters we create can come to seem more real than us? That is a possibility I’m considering this morning, as I think about Aganetha Smart, the girl runner in my book, and Juliet, of my JULIET STORIES, and the man with the hair hat, from my first collection HAIR HAT. I don’t know quite how to express this idea, but it seems those characters are more real, more knowable, more plausible than I myself could possibly be. I’m human, after all. I’ve done all kinds of things that make little sense, or don’t fit neatly into a plot or storyline. I’m contradictory. Sometimes I’m selfish, sometimes generous, sometimes oblivious, sometimes keenly attuned to the needs of others, sometimes a good friend, and no doubt, sometimes not. I’m trying, like we are all.
But my characters, they’re there, fully formed, on the page, comprehensible. Complete in a way I’ll never be.
Tonight, I’m going to the launch party for GIRL RUNNER here in Waterloo. It’s a party for the book, for the character of Aggie and all that she is, all of her accomplishments, and the richness of her life. I’m going to celebrate her existence. How she came to me, and came through me, is a mystery I’ll never know or be able to explain. This is not something I could have imagined, as an aspiring writer in high school — how separate from my creation I would feel. How grateful. How small. How glad.
Eleanor Catton, the 28-year-old writer who won the Booker last fall for her novel The Luminaries, continues to win further prizes too, and recently declared her intent to set up a grant with her earnings that would give writers time to read. Yes, you read that right. Time to read. Click here to read the entire article in The Guardian.
“My idea is that if a writer is awarded a grant, they will be given the money with no strings attached except that after three months they will be expected to write a short piece of non-fiction about their reading …
“We’re very lucky in New Zealand to have a lot of public funding available for writers, but they generally require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn’t understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing. I’m also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.”
I’m making several connections as I read this.
I’m thinking about generosity, creativity, and the many reasons a person may feel compelled both to read and to write. I’m thinking about teaching creative writing again this fall, and agonizing over how best to encourage in my students a love of reading and words and ideas and stylistic play and leaps of connection and openness and generosity, yes, creativity, yes. It’s the necessity of marking that troubles me, not because it takes time and effort, but because aiming for a particular grade is not necessarily conducive to developing a love of writing and reading.
Which leads me back to Eleanor Catton’s idea for a grant that does not require of the writer a full-fledged project at the end or the beginning, but rather openness, curiosity, patience.
(And she’s coming to the Eden Mills Writers Festival on Sunday, Sept. 14, where I do hope we’ll get the chance to meet.)
There are so many moments in a week.
On Thursday, I felt like an adventurous mother, pulling off the feat of getting the kids organized and out the door by 9AM, with picnic lunch, full gas tank, sweaters, and gear for the beach. We drove two hours to a park I’d never been to, my hope for a fun day only dimming slightly when a) we had to stop by the side of the road for a bathroom emergency and b) when the sky went dark and rain spattered our windshield. The GPS, with its insistent female voice, kept sending us on a route contradictory to the directions I’d decided on independently, so with Fooey’s strident encouragement — “Trust your instincts, Mom!” — I turned it off. We found our friends’ campsite, ate lunch together, and tramped up enormous dunes to find Lake Huron in a wild state, more ocean than lake. The sun came out. The kids swam. I reclined in the sand with the wind whipping my hair. And I was able to get us organized and back home in time for soccer practice.
Then Friday. I met Kevin for lunch so we could discuss finances. We ate at a Korean place. Toward the end of the meal, I saw a woman standing and staring into the restaurant through the glass for a long time. “I think a character is coming in,” I said. She was elderly, squat and stooped and clothed in many layers, and seemed a rather unlikely patron. “What should I try here?” she asked us, shuffling directly to our table. “What do you like?” I said. “Oh, vegetables. As long as they’re cooked so I can get ’em down.” “Ummm….the food’s quite spicy,” I hedged. “Oh, I like the Chinese food.” “Well, this is Korean, it’s not really the same.” “How about that one with the egg?” [pointing to the colourful menu items posted on the wall] “Yes, the bi bim bap is very good,” said Kevin. “But does it have VEGETABLES?” “Umm…”
We got the story from the server, a young man with dyed pale orange hair who told us that the woman comes frequently, asks patrons for recommendations, sits at a table, but never orders. He hates to ask her to leave.
Then Friday, arriving home from lunch. I caught a strong rather strange sweet smell when I opened the front door. No one appeared. A large bath towel was on the kitchen floor in front of the fridge. DJ was licking the floor. It was definitely a what the hell? moment. Evidence was everywhere. A mostly empty container of tamarind sauce open on the counter. Brown spatters. Clean-up had clearly been attempted. I impressed myself (if no one else) by muttering and speaking firmly rather than yelling. Maybe I’ve grown. The next forty minutes were spent on hands and knees discovering new patches of stickiness, and then opening the fridge and discovering the accident had occurred inside there. Well, the fridge needed to be cleaned, I reasoned. I called the culprit in, but I did not yell. Instead I concluded this session by sending several bitter texts to Kevin, as if he were somehow to blame. “Just spent last 45 minutes cleaning tamarind sauce off floor and inside fridge. Lid loose!” “These are the perks of working from home, of which you are spared.” “I don’t think I will meet for lunch again anytime soon.”
He did not text back. I think this was wise of him.
Finally, this morning. Chilly, rainy, windy. I am running. I’d left the house saying I would go 15-20 kilometres, tops. I’d left the house not in the mood for a long run, not at all. Around 15 kilometres, I’m flying through a favourite wooded path quite far from home. I’m thinking, this is why I resist going on long runs — because once I’m out here, I’m all in. Distance breaks down resistance, changes my brain, changes my understanding of pain and suffering, I think. 15-20 kilometres tops?! Ha! I’m feeling way too good. I cover 25 instead, and maintain pace. I think this is how my brain works on writing too, that the challenge is jumping in, because I know it will be hard, it will take me far away, it will hurt, but I know too that once I’m in, I’ll be gone. I’ll only want to go further. And, like running, good writing breaks down resistance, breaks down the self-conscious mind and pulls me into its flow. And I’m away.
I can’t always be away. Maybe I have to come back and clean up the tamarind sauce and be surrounded by shouting voices of children and get filled up with energy and anxiety and stories, so that I can go out again. And go long.
We spent the Easter weekend on the farm where Kevin grew up, and his mom still lives.
We helped her begin to sort through and organize the rooms, the closets, cupboards, drawers, nooks and crannies. This is no small project in a house that’s been home for nearly forty years.
I boxed up books to give away, many of which had been bestsellers at some point in the past four decades, already out of date, out of style; some were too musty even to donate. It was an odd conflation of realities, having just spent several days at the British Library, where I pored over printed texts that were four or five centuries old. By what random chance did those books survive? Nothing I read in the BL would be considered great or lasting literature, though some was popular in its time; survival over the centuries was a matter more of being kept by generations of someones who were not like me, I guess, as my instinct is to purge, rather than to cling to, at least in a general sense.
The work got me thinking about how transitory and brief are our lives on this earth. Consider my files of manuscripts in our attic. I wonder, should I burn them now so as to spare my children having to decide what to do with them, some day? What’s precious, after all?
I come home thinking that what’s precious is today.
But today is also ephemeral, which is why we keep so much, trying to keep what can’t be kept. We’ve all got our means and methods, our junk drawers, our shoeboxes. I say this as an inveterate collector and curator of the daily now, in the form of this blog, knowing that what I’m compelled to do is only fractionally more lasting than the day itself, and then only because it freezes and distorts the complicated layers of each beautiful breath and heart beat into a small, glancing story.
I come home thinking that it’s really really important to pay attention to what you’re pouring your life into. I think: don’t worry about whether or not you’re making things that will last. Don’t worry period, actually. Make and do the things that bring you and those around you some daily sense of being loved and cared for. Be as alive as you want to be, while you’re here.