The edits have arrived. So I’ll be back to Juliet for one last think before the copy editing stage. And you know, I’m feeling ready to say goodbye. I’ve been working away at the new book, and discovering new characters, and writing in a different way than I did with Juliet. It feels more free-flowing, less controlled, and more plot-oriented, but that’s okay. Different is good.
As I start this new book, and finish Juliet, I’ve been inspired by Miriam Toews’ career so far. I just finished reading Swing Low, her biography of her father, written and imagined in his voice; and before that gulped down Irma Voth, which was set in Mexico, in a Mennonite compound where a movie was being filmed. A couple of points here. Miriam Toews played a lead role in a movie made by a Mexican director set in a Mexican Mennonite compound (compound might not be the right term, but my sense is these farms are not like villages or towns). And her father died of suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression. What inspires me is that she found ways to incorporate real-life experience into her work. There is no straight line between fact and fiction; it’s threads spun and wound and sewn into beautiful fictional patterns. I suspect that she could not do otherwise. Her creative life is necessary, and can’t be separated from her life. I get a sense of urgency, poignancy, and necessity when reading her work.
And I also experience overwhelming gratitude: that her work exists, that she works so hard to create it, and that I get to read it.
She writes the kinds of books I hope to write … hope that I am writing. Not that I want to mimic her voice, but that I want to build a career out of the things that matter to me, and write books that are heartfelt, maybe even heartbreaking, but also hopeful. That I not fear the insistence of life experience nosing its way into my fiction; but that I not limit my imagination either. I aspire to variety backed by consistency. Which is not the same as predictability.
“Be careful, Carrie. You’re becoming predictable.” I remember a mentor telling me that, many many years ago. I would have been eighteen. I remember thinking that she had a point; and it frightened me. I knew she didn’t mean I should become erratic; no, she was cautioning me to stay creative, to continue to push my limits, not to rest easy.
Many years later, and I don’t rest easy. Except at night, when I sleep very deeply indeed. (Except for last night, when I didn’t. I didn’t rest easy, either metaphorically or literally. Too many thoughts — work, deadlines, food, scheduling — whirling through my mind).
Today marks the launch of a debut collection of stories: Up Up Up, by Julie Booker. It also marks the first time I’ve “blurbed” for a book. You can go to bookstores (in Canada), pick up this brightly titled book, and turn it over to the back cover where you will find these words:
“Up Up Up is perfectly titled: a debut collection that positively bubbles with life, humour, and surprise. In these swift and sparkling stories — confections of unexpected density –Booker’s voice never fails to illuminate the bright side of the dark side. Booker’s radiant charm is in her seeming artlesness: dialogue that leaps from page to ear, flawed characters who try and try again, and — listen, you can almost hear it — the joyful hum of boundless curiosity.”
And then you’ll see my name. Woot! (Why is woot a word? I don’t know, but I like it).
I had not heard of Julie Booker–this is her first book–before reading these stories, and it was a delight to put my stamp of approval on them. So go get the book and get reading! Twenty short stories make for excellent just-before-bed fare.
I couldn’t get the poster to upload, but wanted to let you know that I’m reading tonight in downtown Kitchener at The Museum (formerly known as the Children’s Museum). Doors open at 7pm, but the readings don’t start till 7:30. It’s a free event. I don’t know whether or not there will be drinks available. Should have asked.
Back from my early morning swim, feeling buoyant. Seems to be the feeling I get after my early morning swims. Could also be due to a piece of good news received in the mail yesterday. I opened the non-descript envelope hurriedly, on my way into the house to turn down the crockpot, with CJ waiting in the truck outside in the driveway (yes, I’m that kind of mother; but the truck wasn’t running). I was running late for an appointment, and didn’t want the lentils in the crockpot to scorch. Then I saw the envelope. It was from the Ontario Arts Council, and I knew what that might mean–grant application denied. Or, the opposite. Ripped it open, read the first line, saw the cheque, and began bouncing and screaming. Remembered to turn down the crockpot. Raced outside to tell CJ. Wondered whether I had indeed remembered to turn off the crockpot. Raced back inside to check. Yes, crockpot turned down. Raced back to truck. CJ mildly interested. Should I really be driving under the circumstances? I asked. It was a brief spell of intense joy, and I’ve learned to embrace those spells full-on when they come, because they don’t last, they can’t, and the intensity quickly dissipates. That’s okay. But the huge smile and feeling of goodwill toward all humankind–that was nice. I will try to keep the feeling of goodwill going.
I am starting off the new year with a writing push: this week and next. Yesterday was one of those terrific and productive writing days, which means it was also overwhelming and I got lost and could scarcely drag myself out to fetch a glass of water. I’m not sure there’s another way to do it, however, not if I want to get deep into the really good stuff, the access to the underground.
When I finished writing, around eleven o’clock, I was a restless ball of nervous energy. So I picked up a book. I gave it to AppleApple for her birthday (age 8), signed by the author, who is local: Plain Kate, by Erin Bow. Erin warned me that the book, written for young adults, is too dark for younger children, and should be read only by more mature adolescents and teens, but AppleApple is an avid and wide reader, and she wasn’t frightened by the Harry Potter series, which seem pretty dark to me. So, AppleApple started Plain Kate, and got nearly the end, absolutely devouring it; and then suddenly stopped, shut up the book, and could not go on. It was too scary, she said. Since she’d obviously been taken by it, I wanted to know why it was so scary. She couldn’t articulate it. When I picked up the book, I understood why.
Plain Kate is a gorgeously written evocation of a dark imaginary world that nevertheless feels not invented but real: the setting is vaguely Eastern European-feeling, and the time is time past, when superstition flourishes, and magic is real and feared. Kate, the protagonist, is an utterly unprotected and orphaned child with a gift for carving, an outcast accused of witchcraft who must flee the only town she’s ever known. I won’t give away more. (I should also add that, inspired by Kate, AppleApple requested “carving tools” for Christmas, which we tracked down, along with protective leather gloves, so she now has her own carving kit; one evening, while she was reading Plain Kate, we found her sitting outside, in her coat, in the cold, on the back porch, whittling a stick; let me tell you, I love this child!).
So, a dark world; and having now read it, I do understand why AppleApple was too scared to go on (my plan is to read her, out loud, the last little section, because, not to give too much away, the book ends with cathartic brilliance). (And to quibble with the young adult designation, please know, adults, that this could just as easily be a book for you).
I was most intrigued by the author’s conception of magic: a witch possesses true power, but has to give of him or herself in order to receive or use the magic. In the book, the giving is quite literal: there is blood, and a lot of it. And as I read obsessively to the end (staying up till all hours), I thought about the magic that I attempt to access, when writing; I know it’s there, and I know I can get to it, but not without sacrifice.
In order to open my mind to the words, I have to open all of my emotional self: it feels, when I’m going through the process, that I am raw, that by opening my mind, I am exposing myself to the darkness and danger depicted in Plain Kate’s world. Margaret Atwood writes often, especially in her poems, about going underground, going down, and that’s what it feels like to me, too; that the underworld of the Greeks is more real than not. That the passage between here and there is always waiting. I don’t mean that I write about horrible and sad things, or that underground and underworld are synonymous with a kind of hell or darkness, only that so much of human experience sleeps under the surface, and we all know it’s there. Is it something to be feared? Maybe, sometimes. Anything powerful can overwhelm, for good or for ill. Power/magic/the divine isn’t to be sought out lightly. But anytime you’ve been moved by a ritual or a work of art, you’ve been touched by something under the surface, a powerful human connection held in common. Someone has gone under to bring back a piece of light for you.
That’s what Erin Bow has done in Plain Kate.
As I work today, I recognize what it takes to do this work: that in order to receive, I have to give of myself. I’m making it sound perhaps more exalted than it plays out in reality: sitting still and thinking and searching around for the words and placing them and then going back and replacing them, many times over, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. The toll it takes is on my body (restless, cramped, and still), and my relationships (my children miss me: “You’re working again?”; my husband misses me; I’m largely shut off from the outside world); and on my mind. I staggered down last night for a glass of water, finally, and I thought, good grief, I could not live like this. Imagine having all the time in the world to write: I’m imagining a nightmare. But I’m not a magician of brilliant creative powers, I have a more modest gift: I aspire to be a healer. I hope I remember this when writing time is short, and I am complaining about the ordinary everyday: folding laundry, feeding children, exchanging hellos in the schoolyard, racing to meet the demands of routine. That is where life happens. Just because it happens up here, out there, on the surface, doesn’t mean it’s superficial. I couldn’t go under, from time to time, without all the spirit-feeding everyday to sustain me.
Now. To see what’s waiting for me today.
Must must must link to this provocative and well-argued piece
, by Kerry Clare, on women’s fiction, and how it continues to be viewed by critics as being of lesser value than men’s fiction, even now, long after Virginia Woolf wrote about the issue in A Room of One’s Own
: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop–everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”
In her essay, Clare posits that the gestational approach to plot in a book like Lisa Moore’s February is indeed very much unlike the conclusion-driven fiction that we consider to be traditionally male; but that the layered and continual sock-folding nature of “feminine” fiction should not and cannot be dismissed simply because it approaches time and human transitions differently.
I guess my question is: do women really understand time and action differently than men do? Is this a feminine quality, or does it relate more to the fact that more women than men, even now, spend time folding socks, and completing repetitive daily tasks? Do our bodies call us to observe and reflect upon repetition and a less linear understanding of time, are women by nature gestational beings? Just asking. I don’t know.
Read the article. And then comment, because I really want to know what you think (… as I sit here, writing what seems to me to be a prototypically feminine book).