Category: Big Thoughts
I’ve been doing an intensive writing week. I have little transferable advice to pass along regarding strategies for how to write a novel, unless you’re interested in the pathological approach. I’ve spent seven days writing almost non-stop, abandoning all else, and I can report back to you that the overwhelming sensation involved is: compulsion; essentially, it felt too psychologically painful to stop until done. So I wrote till I was done, and the whole book was out of me. (Important side note: Much editing awaits ahead.)
I finished this morning. I was working off a previous draft, and an outline, so this wasn’t material conjured from thin air, these are characters I’ve been exploring in one form or another for several years now. I know them. Writing scenes felt like describing events that I’d witnessed. I just had to look around, pay attention, and write what I was seeing.
I marked each writing session by drawing — the drawings I’ve used to illustrate this post — while listening to music (the song titles are incorporated into each drawing). After drawing, I wrote for three minutes — “What’s on your mind?” — the same prompt I use when leading creative writing classes, and it’s brilliant. Just dump it out. And then GO.
There must be another way to do this work, of course, and my goal is to give myself enough space during my regular life that I can aspire to write under more regular, ordinary circumstances. Because, I’ll be honest, all I crave is more of this. More and more and more and more. Writing like this feels as natural as breathing. Effortless? In truth, yes. The way that going for a hike in the woods is effortless. Because I was so occupied, it was like I was living in another world. And now, thankfully, that world exists outside of me in a form accessible to others.
The relief I feel is extreme. I can’t describe it accurately. I was so afraid that something would happen to prevent me from pouring the whole thing out — the whole story. And to imagine leaving those characters half-formed, half-finished with their tasks, was excruciating.
I’m writing this now to help myself remember what it feels like to be in this rare place. I want to record what it feels like to be inside this altered state, because I can’t assess it clearly from inside, yet I know I’m not exactly myself, even now. I’m still too attached to that other world, which feels more vital, more marvellous, more enticing than the mundanity of this real world, which is loaded with responsibility, distraction, good intentions (mine) causing problems, irritating details that mustn’t be overlooked. I know it’s good in the real world too, but this other world — it’s like getting to live inside of a novel, which is somehow even more profoundly affecting than simply reading a novel. If you know the pleasure of reading a novel, and falling into that other world (or any invented and stylized world, of any form), I hardly dare tell you that writing a novel is a million times more intoxicating, more absorbing, more wonderful, because that will sound like hyperbole. (Or maybe, too, I fear sounding like a junkie craving another hit.)
But it’s not hyperbole, it’s true. It’s that wonderful, that absorbing. I must make space to do this — just this.
I’m sitting in my cozy office, wearing reading glasses, listening to my favourite Spotify playlist (song of the moment: “Ya veras,” by Systema Solar), office door closed because my elder daughter is practicing piano obsessively. Kids are all home from school, which makes Rose-the-pup very happy. Kevin is mid-flight to Fort McMurray for a work trip. All schools, including the universities, are closed today due to freezing rain. I started teaching more than six years ago, and today’s is the class I’ve ever missed. (Not-Humble-Brag # 1)
I’ve decided that this post’s theme is the Not-Humble-Brag.
I’m uncomfortable with bragging. But it makes me even more uncomfortable to pretend that I’m not bragging. (Side note: Why call it bragging? Why not label it differently in my own mind, as good news, and own the sharing of it?) (Side note # 2: My superstitions are kicking in strongly, as all my instincts scream: if you announce that you have good news, you will be deservedly and instantly punished with bad news!)
Okay, superstitious self, what if the Not-Humble-Brags are less earth-shattering, more like gentle observations of loveliness? Hey?
For example, I’ve got a new story in the latest edition of The New Quarterly! (Not-Humble-Brag # 2)
The story is from an auto-fiction collection I’ve been working on steadily for a rather long time, and which makes me happy every time I dip into it, to revise, edit, polish, or write a brand-new story. On Monday evening, when I was in my office marking madly, my eldest daughter came rushing in. She was glowing. She’d just read the story in TNQ — “16th Century Girl” — and she’d loved it. She said, You should just do this, Mom. You should just write. She said she’d been thinking about writers who just wrote regardless of success during their lives, just wrote anyway, no matter what, and that could be me, as she saw it. You’re such a good writer, Mom, she said.
That night, I woke in the middle of the night and wondered whether I could “just write.” Would it satisfy me? What sacrifices would be involved?
Last night, I again woke in the middle of the night. This time, I asked myself: What is your ideal career path? Who is your role model?
I remembered that for a very long time, my ideal was Alice Munro. A mother and grandmother, devoted to the short story, who dabbled in other money-earning ventures, such as a bookstore she owned with her first husband, and teaching creative writing for a year or so early in her career; but mostly, who simply sat at her table, stared out the window, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Brilliantly. When I appeared at a literary festival named in her honour, I was told that she was known as a quiet, dedicated volunteer, serving pie at community functions to people who had no idea who she was, even if they’d come to the small town hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Even before her retirement a few years ago, she rarely engaged in readings or public appearances. Add the Nobel Prize on top of that, and could there be a more romantic ideal?
Next, I thought of Grace Paley, the American short story writer, teacher and activist. Here’s what Ann Patchett writes about Grace Paley, with whom Patchett studied in university: “Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story. Grace turned out a slender but vital body of work during her life. She kept her editors waiting longer than her students. She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person.” (from “The Getaway Car,” an essay in Patchett’s This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage.)
In my mind, Alice Munro and Grace Paley don’t represent competing versions of “how to be a writer”; for both women, being a writer was not about performing as a writer, it was about doing what needed to be done. There are different ways to do this.
If I were an academic, I would keep very close track of every publication, conference, appearance, event, workshop, review, panel, and award. I discovered this lack in my own accounting last fall when a colleague and I were applying for an academic grant (a SSHRC). Creating a somewhat comprehensive CV involved picking through old calendars, emails, and boxes of clippings. The exercise was instructive, and weirdly buoying. Look at all these things you’ve done, woman! (Not-Humble-Brag # 3)
But there’s a reason I haven’t kept track of these things very well.
As a writer, what I’ve done is not as important as what I’m going to be doing. What matters is what I’m making, not what I’ve made. (I realize that’s not completely accurate; past publishing history opens doors unavailable to many, which is a privilege and not to be minimized.) But there is no tenure. No security.
To be a mid-career, mid-level literary writer is … well, it’s a form of invisibility, to be perfectly frank. It takes fortitude. It takes devotion to an idea of oneself, an aspirational self, and it takes devotion to a singular cause, which is craft. Like Grace Paley, I don’t (can’t) compartmentalize my writing from my life. And yet my life ranges rather widely and wildly. It sprawls. My attention is divided. My loves are many. If I were to “just write,” as my daughter says, what would that mean? What path am I carving, in this career my CV claims I’m building?
We were awarded the grant, by the way. (Not-Humble-Brag # 4)
Now, to spend the rest of the afternoon, this gift of unexpectedly free mid-week calm, “just writing.”
Weekends, I’ve been spending quite blissfully, drawing and writing in preparation for the creativity course I’m teaching at UW this term. I’d planned to blog more often and in more detail about this course, but it feels like a fragile and unique undertaking that needs to be protected from scrutiny, the way that creative projects need to be protected from scrutiny, lest they crumble beneath the weight of judgement, of what they’re supposed to become.
A creative undertaking can’t really be expected to become anything at all. It just needs room to grow, the way a baby can’t be expected to become anything in particular, though we might imagine in the infant’s freshness a future filled with everything we would want for our beloved. But it isn’t up to us to fill the infant’s future for it; only to give the child room to grow, and food and light and attention and care and love.
This is beautiful moment in my life. I can’t describe it better than that, but I would like to remember it, somehow, to remember the sense of purpose and calm I’m feeling as I move through the hours of my days. There are specifics to grab on to, to help explain what is happening (early morning exercise, reading books for pleasure, writing days, vegetarian suppers, family meals, biking in snow, productive & inspiring meetings, bringing The Shoe Project to fruition here in KW, meditation, yoga, music, cartooning), but beneath these specifics is something deeper, and I think it’s forgiveness — that I’m recognizing that my imperfections and errors are not shameful, but merely human, and as I would forgive others for their imperfections and errors, so I remember to forgive myself. Life feels both serious and light; not something I can put my hands around, but whose mysteries I’ll feel compelled to track for as long as I’m able.
I feel at peace with my calling, such as it is, to collect and record.
I feel at peace, and determined. At peace and resolute. There isn’t much time to do what we’re called to do. There is and there isn’t. So I’m doing it while I can.xo, Carrie
How often do you sit and draw in public? Or sit and write in public? Can you imagine sitting and colouring in a child’s colouring book in public? That was the first task I set for my students this week. Most students completed it. I did too.
And as I sat at my daughter’s violin lesson, crayoning colour onto a rabbit (who was wearing running gear) chasing a rooster (who was not wearing running gear), I kept hoping no one would notice. As soon as someone did, I felt compelled to explain: this is an assignment for blah blah blah. See, actually, I’m not flaky or weird. I’m doing this for a legitimate reason.
Because colouring rabbits and roosters with crayons is not legit all on its own.
Why not? Because I’m not a child.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I grew up, I put away childish things.
I don’t know where that came from — well, I do: 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 11 — but the words just popped into my head, and I want to rebel! I will not put away childish things!
I’m feeling such excitement about making space to make things. I’m feeling excitement because I’m making space! I’m making space for myself, and for others. We’re going to make so many things! We are already making things! I don’t know what these things will be. I don’t know. I’m going to let myself rest in the not knowing.
from Lynda Barry’s What It Is
… To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape!
The two questions Lynda Barry is referring to, in her cartoon, above, are the ones we’re always asking ourselves, the ones that pop into our brains unbidden and stop us from making things: Does this suck or is this good? If it sucks, why bother? If it’s good, what’s it gonna do for me?
You can’t really stop yourself from asking those questions. I mean, the critical brain has its uses. But you can find an answer that will quiet both questions.
The answer is: I don’t know. But I’m doing it anyway.
It’s only week one, but already the work my students are showing me is blowing my mind. I’m seeing in many of them this huge appetite to make things. Like they’ve been waiting for someone to come along and tell them to make things. And these things, these amazing, expressive, funny, sad, wild things are just waiting inside of them to be made.
I’ve never coloured in a public place before, though I often write and draw in public. In order to do this, I claim a built-in excuse: I’m a writer! What a privilege it is to give myself that kind of permission — permission to do these fundamentally embarrassing tasks in public.
Why embarrassing? Because someone might look at what I’m making? A little bit, maybe.
Because no one else is doing it? A little bit, maybe.
Because making things is kind of pretentious, while also being kind of childish? Ah. Yes. That.
At night, our brains dream, constructing metaphors out of images from our daily lives, whether or not we are aware of this activity. And our waking bodies and minds want to do this too — to construct meaning from the material that surrounds us, and that we carry in us. We want also, joyfully and freely, to play. To wonder. To be here and not here. To lose track of time because we’re so occupied by our task.
This is not merely a childish desire, it is a human desire, it propels us and compels us, and sometimes it makes us sick and sad and unhappy, when we bottle it up or it struggles within us, unrecognized.
The desire to make things, to express our creativity, is fundamental. It is human.
On the page with the running rabbit and rooster, I coloured the leaves on the tree green — didn’t even think, just reached for green. Why green? I thought, pressing the crayon into the soft paper, feeling a bit annoyed with myself. Does the grass need to be green, too, and the sky blue? I found pleasure in choosing magenta for the tree’s trunk. But my flowers were yellow. I wanted everything to look pretty. In the end, I wasn’t satisfied with the colours I’d chosen, but I wrote my name at the bottom in purple block letters. A child would turn the page and start colouring another picture.
I’ll do the same. Because I don’t know yet what I’m making. I don’t know, I don’t know. But I’m doing it.
Do you need permission to do this too? If it helps, you can say that I told you to. Make things. Colour in public. Draw your own tiger. You have permission. You always, always have permission.
Yesterday was my birthday. But I did not feel contemplative; I have avoided contemplation for this entire holiday. I’ve given myself a solid break from my office, from email, from planning, from organizing. Instead, I’ve read books, watched movies in the theatre (with popcorn), done some yoga and walking, hung out with family, worked on puzzles, listened obsessively to Joni Mitchell’s Blue. As soon as thoughts of duties and responsibilities approach, or anything to do with the future, both near and far, I’ve turned away.
The next four months of this new year resemble quite closely the past four months of this old year, with changes only minimally implemented or inched toward. Is change so important? And if so, why?
Because you can’t leave a fire untended. It will burn out or burn out of control.
Because some fuel burns bright and quick, while other fuel lasts a long time.
How many fires can one person tend? What fuels me, long and slow, sustaining? Are there fires I could let burn out, or would I grow cold?
(Do I just need more sleep, maybe? I’ve slept so much this holiday. It’s been blissful.)
What is it I want from this coming year?
What did I want from this past year? I can’t recall.
But I can tell you what I got. This past year, I recognized and accepted my own grief (and shame) for all the ways in which my writing career has not been what I’d hoped and perhaps even expected it would be. This was the fire untended, burning out. Without even noticing, I’d been setting other fires, here and there, and this was the year I became a pyromaniac, when the flames from all these fires rose so high, so hot, the smoke so thick I couldn’t see myself, or breathe. Now the question hangs: Which fires? Which fires, Carrie, will you continue to tend?
I seem to vacillate between wanting to lead a big bold busy demanding life, and seeking the small peace a spirit can aspire to embrace. The former requires support and agreement from others, attention that must be earned and commanded (and that feels good and affirming); but the latter hangs only on the self allowing the self to live without any notice at all (and that feels hard and awfully quiet).
Both are possible, in theory. But in practice, the balance isn’t so easy to calibrate.
Begin with the honest admission that one person cannot do all the things, all at once, all the time. Acknowledge that some things take up more space than other things. (A career, for example; becoming an expert in anything, for example.) Come January, as before, I’ll still be teaching, coaching, coordinating The Shoe Project KW. I’ll still be mother of four, wife, friend, daughter, sister, puppy trainer, laundry-doer, meal-maker, chauffeur, occasional bathroom cleaner. I’ll still go to the gym, practice yoga, try to run, meditate. And then there’s my writing. And all of the things that support it: grant-writing, story submissions, revising, research, reading, speaking, relationships with peers.
Yet here it is — writing — at the end of the list, because it’s one of those things that takes up a lot of space, if done with devotion and cause for hope. And I’ve not been willing or able (which is it? is it important to know?) to give writing that kind of space. I’ve squeezed it into an ever-smaller corner of the room, in truth, as if this part of myself only deserves attention if there’s proof of validity, permission, signs pointing toward success. And there hasn’t been, not for a long while. This is the year, 2018, I’ve come to recognize: there may not be. And with that the reckoning: what now?
What if it turns out I’m not a very good writer? What if I can’t earn (more) money as a writer? Are these the same things? What if I’m not very good and I can’t earn money, but I still want to make space — lots of space — to keep trying? Is that okay? Especially if it means not doing other more worthy, more admirable, more noticeable, more helpful things?
How can I convince myself that it’s okay?
You step onto a treadmill because it is a guarantee that you will move (paradoxically, it is also a guarantee that you will stay in one place). What is the desire to press ever-forward? To progress? You want new experiences and challenges, but you want, too, to build a big roaring fire around which to gather — the fire itself ever-changing, as the mind is ever-changing, and this body. It is time that keeps turning, or that is the sensation — that time churns forward, with or without you. Maybe you feel obliged to run in order to keep up with time itself. But isn’t time always with you, wherever you are, whether you are running or sitting, paused in thought or too busy to stop and think, or feel? There is no need to run, to catch up. You aren’t behind, no more than you could ever be ahead. You’re exactly where you are.
Is there a word for the tiny balls of icy-snow that form when the temperature hovers around freezing? Whatever it is, it’s blowing down from the colourless sky right now and accumulating on rooftops and pavement. Almost Christmas. Just past the darkest day of the year.
This season, I’ve noticed the lights. People put up lights every season, of course, but this is the first season that I’ve paused in real appreciation to celebrate and enjoy the beauty and poignance of this collective effort — to light the early evenings and dark long nights. I’ve paused to admire blue icicle lights blinking on an apartment balcony, and whole houses lit up with tumbling disco colours projected upward from a source planted in the ground. I’m especially fond of a giant snowman tethered in a friend’s front yard, dancing with all colours of the pastel rainbow. It’s fair to say the lights have brought me great joy.
This is a difficult time of year. It’s a difficult time to be alone, or sick, or scared, to be estranged from or apart from or without or lacking, to be hungry or cold or lost, to be in need. Absences are starker.
But light also happens.
It’s like collectively we’re signalling to each other — that we know it’s dark out here, and this may be inadequate, but we’d like to offer up a bush wrapped in garish luminescence.
Like the giant snowman tethered in my friend’s front yard, light also signals lightness, ease, relaxation, being silly, goofy, making each other laugh. All of this I wish for you. Because life isn’t an either/or construction; we can grieve in the same moment that we’re peeing our pants with laughter. And in truth, we know this all the more profoundly during this season — that light needs the dark to be seen, to truly shine and sparkle and glitter.