Last week I attended live webinar sessions on publicity and marketing, hosted by Penguin Random House, and open to any PRH author. (Please don’t stop reading just because I said “webinar”!) My only expectation was that this would be outside my comfort zone; and that I needed to attempt to engage on this subject, and at least acknowledge the truth that to publish a book is to be called to champion that book. And let’s be frank: the call to personally champion and publicize one’s own book feels overwhelming. (A stat dropped during one of the sessions: over 200 books are published each week — that may be a US-specific stat, but the point remains. It’s a crowded marketplace. What’s a writer to do?)
First, I want to confess that I enjoyed the webinars a lot. (This may be a sign that a) I’m starved of peer-to-peer contact and b) must start inviting friends over again to the back yard shack — it’s been a long, cold winter!)
Second, the most practical advice I gleaned is to tailor your approach to your own interests, abilities, affinities. Also useful: if you’re using social media for publicity purposes do it like this: get on, post, get off. At one point, someone said “You’re looking at branding yourself for a clear trajectory long-term,” and I wrote in my notes (oh god, I have not done this well at all!), by which I meant having “a clear trajectory.” I won’t even touch the subject of branding, but the question that kept humming around my brain was: Is anyone going to ask what happens when you make yourself into a brand? (No one did, me included; honestly, it wasn’t the right forum for that question, if there is a right forum.)
Third, the sessions made clear that most successful writers get good at a bunch of things (podcasting, publishing a newsletter, posting videos on TikTok or streaming on Instagram Live, or teaching, speaking, etc.), and the books they publish are just one thread in a web of activities, built around their interests and expertise. Okay. But does this apply more aptly to writers of non-fiction: academics, public figures, chefs or doctors? Maybe; I observed that most of the best-selling authors profiled in these sessions were writing non-fiction. However, I think this approach can make sense for fiction writers too — if it builds and develops naturally.
Confession: I’m resistant to the idea of self-promotion. It feels self-serving, and I’m uncomfortable with that; further, it’s the part of the job that in the past drained my energy and ambition, filled me with dread and fear. Even writing this post is giving me twitches of shame. I sense myself needing to explain: everyone does it, it has to be done, they’re telling me I need to be good at this, I’m just trying to figure out how. Please forgive me, please don’t hate me.
That desire to be liked goes deep, but it’s not just that; I’ve been conditioned to believe, way down deep, that women who stand up and demand an audience aren’t just unlikeable, they’re vulnerable. These are deep fears. Drawing attention to myself, becoming a target, getting mired in ego, serving self not others, making claims that maybe can’t be met, over-stepping, saying the wrong thing, getting too comfortable and getting knocked down … so many fears. But here’s what I know: anytime I approach a problem or a goal from a place of fear, I get knotted up, confused, entangled, and overwhelmed.
There is another way, a different approach: to come from a place of clarity, grounded, focused on the goal, attuned to changing contexts, curious, open to learning, and connected to the source of my own values and purpose. Picture a tree with deep roots, branches moving, changing with the seasons. (There’s my vision for a clear long-term trajectory!)
Here’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m going to accept my own challenge, and begin this marketing/publicity exploration from a place of curiosity, by asking:
What resources are already available to me? What am I already practiced at doing? What do I already know?
What would I like to learn or try out? What am I curious about?
Who is with me on this path? Who are my collaborators, mentors, friends and peers? Where do we meet?
What compelled me to write this book, and why does it matter so much to me? What themes and interests are woven into this book that connect with my world and perhaps also with yours?
Answers (musings, reflections, wonderings, and likely more questions), coming soon.
PS I’ve been signing up for more live online events, and I’ve noticed that it’s the live part that works. Has anyone else found this too? Even with my microphone and camera off, it feels like I’m part of something — an audience member, a participant, engaged, ever so slightly necessary to the proceedings; pre-recorded doesn’t compare. (Then again, neither does live in-person, but we take what we can get right now!)
- What felt good this month? It’s February 1st, and the beginning of January seems eons ago. I’m grateful to my cartoon journal entries for recording the emotional ups and downs — but especially the ups. Otherwise, I might forget that January was a productive writing month, for example, or that our family looked forward to fun activities, which brightened the overall dulling effect of our generally similar days. In January, I’ve started charting out daily/weekly aspirational goals in my notebook (a messy page of activities that I can check off): these include things I value but might not otherwise prioritize, like reaching out to friends and family, or reading, or playing piano. I’ve been giving myself permission, and even incentive (three cheers for reward sheets!), to follow through on aspirational goals that have little worldly value, but feed me in every other way: spiritually, creatively, and in relationship with others.
- What did you struggle with? Career stall-out; stasis. It helps that there’s been a spotlight in Canada on the plight of artists, including writers, during the pandemic; I’m not the only one with a pushed pub date, or other delays and disappointments. But here’s the thing: the struggle has felt surface level, ego-level. Underneath, I’m full of hope and belief in my writing direction, in the research I’m doing, and in nurturing this life-long habit of curiosity and exploration, no matter the outcome. Process interests me, rather endlessly. So how could I complain or worry, when I’m able to tick through that list of entertaining and enriching daily aspirational goals and activities?
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I have no idea. This question is impossible! I’m relieved that the US has a new president. That happened! I’m a month older than when we last checked, and I feel essentially the same in terms of goals, hopes, dreams, concerns. I waver between, it’s going to be okay, eventually, isn’t it, right?, and, be here now, that’s what matters. I live in the latter as often as possible.
- How did you take care of yourself? I’m trying to notice my irritating flaws (pretty easy to spot when confined in tight quarters with five others + dog), name them, and laugh at myself when I notice I’m going down one rabbit hole or another. Should it irritate me so much that Kevin leaves the cupboard doors open? Or that people let the dog out but never back in again?
- What would you most like to remember? That I can trust myself to make decisions that support those I love, and myself, even when the conversations are challenging.
- What do you need to let go of? Timelines. Control over timelines. The paralyzing idea that I’m losing time to this pandemic, that my life is suspended in some fundamental way; that as the months tick past and nothing changes, I’m aging past relevance. Whoa, I’ve named a lot of fears here. Now to let them go … I think the checklist of aspirational activities helps with the letting go: when I sit at the piano and play Bach, I don’t think, you are wasting time. I just sink into the moment and concentrate on what I’m making, and feeling, and hearing, and experiencing — time travel through music, connecting across the centuries with other minds and hands and ears. And these moments are always available, maybe even especially right now! I’ve only got to give myself over to them, and let go of my need to predict the future. (BTW, this is my favourite question, every time! It’s so cathartic to name the thing that needs letting go, often something that catches me by surprise. I highly recommend answering it for yourself, and all the better if you write it down.)
Onward into February!
PS Here’s a sample aspiration chart …
My most recent list of categories goes like this: cardio; yoga; get outside; stretch; extra exercise; piano; cartoon; nap; read; meditate + “Source” (my word of the year, 2021); write; transcribe; revise; research; grants; cook/bake; clean; orders; family time; friends; sibs/parents; fun; thankful; X page.
This, I promise myself, shall be a quick post, written in haste while the bread for our supper bakes.
Yes, I’m onto the sourdough trend, like everyone else on Instagram; and I’m rather chuffed to say I developed my starter from scratch during the early days of this lockdown when it seemed like there was almost nothing to do except huddle-on-sofa-scrolling-the-news and make-your-own-sourdough-from-scratch, and so I did both.
But anyway. We’re past that point at our house, now. I think it’s week 5? We’re into the rhythm of being with each other all the time; and hardly with anyone else. The kids, by some strange miracle, recently started a running club, plus they cleaned the basement, like really cleaned it, like three days’ worth of organizing, purging, rearranging, and decision-making, in order to make a rec room haven. Impressive!
And, at last (and so far!), this has been a good writing week for me, which is more than I can say for all the other weeks. Today, for example, I spent an hour and a half drawing ideas for my 16th century novel. It was an odd way to start my writing day, and not in the least what I’d planned or intended, but it helped. It lit a flame. After lunch, I worked on a chapter from another project. And that’s been the day. What more do I need? It was ever so satisfying. Tangible, calm, simple.
Sit down, do it.
Hey, just realized my recipe for a writing day is kind of like my recipe for sourdough! You mix up a starter. It spend days on the counter. You feed it: flour and water. It ferments and bubbles. When it’s ready, you fold part of it into a bowl with more flour and water. You bake it. You serve it. And you feed the part you didn’t use, so you can use it tomorrow. You do this over and over again. Every day. It’s repetitive. It requires only a few ingredients. Every loaf is a bit different. But every loaf draws on the same bubbling, fermenting starter, and so it’s also of the original source — like every story I write draws on the same bubbling fermenting starter of my mind, and I have to keep feeding it, and I have to keep using it, and it’s exactly that simple. (Oh, and during those times when you can’t use it, you can put your starter in the fridge for awhile and it will wait till you’re ready again.)
Feed it, use it. Feed it, use it. Feed it, use it.
Recipe for a writing life.
PS Here’s today’s loaf, fresh out of the oven! And my post just done! Did you know that if you put your ear close to the bread when it’s fresh out of the oven, you can hear it “singing”? It pops and crackles.
This photo is completely unrelated to this post, and purely for your amusement (or, if you don’t much like dogs in glasses, mine).
This morning, sitting cross-legged and meditating in my friend Kasia’s virtual-yet-live yoga class, my head was quiet with deep and peaceful thoughts. Hours later, though I scribbled a cue for myself in my notebook, the same head seems to be noisy with surface natter.
We’ve entered our fourth week in lockdown, or whatever this is called.
There are times, like during this morning’s meditation, when I feel grounded and calm. But I think my family would likely point to all the times I’ve appeared wild-eyed or grim, or perhaps both in delightful combination.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always intended to improve as life goes on; and how it’s pleasant to consider that hard times can be improving times; but, let’s be honest, hard times also expose fundamental personal weaknesses and flaws in the most obvious and predictable ways. For example, pre-children, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Post-children, I was merely a mild hypochondriac, too focused on my kids’ needs and on our packed schedule to be obsessively tracking and self-diagnosing my own (mostly psychosomatic) symptoms. In the midst of this pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful service beyond the walls of this house, the terrible hypochondriac in me has returned, and she turns up most regularly in the middle of the night.
So … am I improving as life goes on? Or am I regressing?
Am I helper or do I desperately need help?
Maybe it’s both; and maybe it always is, always was, always will be.
This was not the post I’d intended to compose. Instead, as happens when I come to this space, this is the post that wants to be written. This is how writing works, in my experience. It is always a surprise, and, crucially, it’s never a painful or disappointing or scary surprise. I just find it interesting; curious; the strangeness of what’s lurking in my subconscious amuses me. Discovering it makes me feel better.
Recommended new podcast: Sugar Calling (NYT), which is Cheryl Strayed talking to writers, starting with George Saunders, who read out a letter he’d written to his students in which he told them that the job of the writer continues even now (and that we can all do this job): be a witness to this moment. Now isn’t the time for interpretation or elucidation; it’s the time to pay attention to your interior emotional life, to the things you notice around you, to the details. (Honestly, it’s always that time, for a writer; but now is even more keenly the time.)
In that spirit, to finish this post, here are a few small details I’ve recently observed about this time.
I open the snack drawer, hoping to find a stray chocolate almond. I know there won’t be any; they were finished off days ago and Kevin won’t be shopping till at least tomorrow. But I open the drawer in hope. And lo — I discover the very large bag of dried apricots! I’d forgotten about the apricots! The apricots are orange and bright and sweet. And I am happy.
When I wander to the living-room to narrate, unprompted, this tiny emotional journey to my (mostly indifferent) daughters, the elder child lights up: she’s experienced the same hope / disappointment / surprise / happiness each time she opens the snack drawer too.
(At this time, I often wander into rooms to narrate, unprompted, my mundane experiences to whoever is sitting there. I don’t always get a reply.)
A second observation, which I haven’t yet dumped on my children (because I think they will mock me for it), is this little oddity: I’m actually enjoying washing my hands. Multiple times a day. For at least twenty seconds each time. I’ve always washed my hands somewhat obsessively, but after watching a how-to video, I knew I could do even better; however, the thought of all that hand washing, and the actual fact of it, was almost overwhelming. The way thinking about changing your baby’s diapers day after day after day can feel overwhelming if you let your mind go there. The endless futility of the task! Standing there, doing the same thing over and over and over again. I felt impatient every time I squirted soap on my hands, washing, washing, washing.
But more recently, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the hand-washing ritual has become almost welcome. It feels like a deliberate pause, a gentle self-massage, a quiet moment to myself. I plant my feet, and breathe deeply (our soap smells really good). Weird, huh.
My mantra these days (whispered only to myself) is: What’s your rush? What’s your hurry?
That feeling of impatience that arises at various moments throughout the day — I know it’s not coming from my circumstances, because there’s literally nowhere to rush to. So it must be coming from deep within my self. (Where do I think I’m going? Why do I need to get there? What could be better than here and now?) And if I notice this, I can feel my way through it, somehow, to a place where at least for a few breaths, I’m in no hurry at all.
This post is for my dad, who says he likes reading these blog posts (though we also communicate one-on-one). He noticed that I’d had a regular flourishing of posts when the pandemic was first announced and we were suddenly thrown into this strange time of global uncertainty and disruption; and then, I kind of stopped.
It’s been pretty up and down over here. And sharing the downs is harder than sharing the ups. This is not a great time to be a hypochondriac, for example. Is everyone else in a panic when they wake with a runny nose? The anxiety alone causes tightening in my chest. In truth, it’s not that hard for me to stay home with my family. I can easily list five things to be grateful for today! But to be stuck home, sick, would be a totally different story, one I find overwhelming to imagine; just as I find it overwhelming to imagine being a health care worker right now. So, I vacillate between many different emotions, including guilt for enjoying any part of this time.
My mood shifts throughout the day, and from one day to the next. I had a night of shimmering, comforting dreams. The next night, I woke every hour certain something was catastrophically wrong (like, a global pandemic, maybe?). Last night, I slept from the moment my eyes closed till the moment my alarm went off.
I know my mood affects my family’s mood. When I am frightened, anxious, spiralling from too-much-Twitter feed (note to self: remove that app from your phone!), I’m helping no one. I’m seeding worry in our tiny family plot. And, yes, that’s going to happen from time to time. What I’m trying to do, when it does happen, is to recognize that it’s happening, name it, and ask my family for forbearance and forgiveness. Apologize. Accept feedback. Forgive myself. Try again. And do my level best to change the channel by seeking out activities that improve my mindset.
Here are my current top five comfort-giving, mood-boosting, survival-tactic activities:
My first sourdough loaf, six days in the making, an experiment necessitated by the national yeast shortage. Can you believe this loaf is made of flour, water, salt, and time? And that’s all???
One. Baking, cooking, cleaning
I must confess, if I were to get sick and need to self-isolate within our house for 14 days, as the guidelines suggest, my biggest challenge (assuming I was still functioning well enough to stand and breathe), would be to stop baking, cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry. Performing these tasks assures me that I’m nurturing my family, and also that I’m in control of something: keeping the house functioning, relatively smoothly.
On the flip side, maybe I should practice ceding control over some of these tasks, while everyone is home together now?
Two. Meditation and yoga
I have a new best friend. Her name is Adriene, and she posts free yoga on her YouTube channel, and our relationship is entirely one-sided, but feels strangely real at the moment, especially when I sneak away from the family, close the door, and join her for a 20 minute heart-and-hip opening practice, or some such, which inevitably scrolls into another video of whatever yummy-sounding Adriene-offering is popping up next. Combined with my real friend Kasia’s nightly live-streamed yoga classes on Facebook, I’ve been doing excessive amounts of yoga. I’ve also been meditating. A lot. My office, which is tiny, has become a yoga and meditation studio, primarily.
For some reason, I’ve been framing all this yoga and meditation as a guilty pleasure, maybe because it feels really good, and I keep wanting to do more and more of it, and that seems … wrong, under the circumstances? But my eldest daughter pointed out last night that as far as guilty pleasures go, this one is downright healthy, and possibly even healing and helpful. So I’m giving myself the permission to do as much yoga as I need to, to get through the day.
Three. Going outside
I feel better when I’m outside early in the morning, when hardly anyone else is out and about; this is when I’ve been running. I’m nervous about adding any non-essential traffic to the sidewalks and parks right now; but it’s amazing how even a short dog-walk around the block after supper can lift the spirits. The birds are awake and busy. In our backyard this afternoon, I kept kneeling to look at tiny green sprouts unfurling their heads from the ground.
How can we live without fresh air, and sun? It seems essential.
Four. Talking to friends and family
My sibs and I have been meeting on Wednesday evenings for a catch-up. Like everyone else, we’re using Zoom. I also text quite regularly to check in with friends and family. I’m pretty sure this interaction, even from afar, is saving my sanity and restoring my humour right now. I never feel lighter of heart than after I’ve spent some time with my sibs. And feeling light of heart — it’s a challenge right now, I confess.
My kids have their video games. Kevin likes Netflix. Sometimes the two of us watch something together (like Schitt’s Creek on CBC’s Gem; and Sex Education and Feel Good on Netflix) while drinking a beer. (I haven’t taken up video games yet). What got me through some extra-anxious hours recently, however, was the combination of listening to a podcast (on a subject completely unrelated to the pandemic) while playing free-cell solitaire online. Who knew? I also like lounging around reading random articles in The New Yorker, and re-reading comfort-fiction like Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton’s National Velvet. And I’m watching the late-night hosts on YouTube attempting to broadcast, with varying degrees of success, from locations around their houses. There’s also writing & drawing, which should probably have its own separate category; on the rare day I don’t do it, I notice.
In terms of distractions, I know things are bad when I start compulsively scrolling through Twitter; that’s a sign that my anxiety and focus are spiralling dangerously downhill. (Follow-up note to self: remove that app already!) So I’m trying to minimize that form of entertainment, which is actually more of a form of self-immolation.
So that’s my list. What’s comforting you right now?
I heard a news item on the CBC this morning that said people are spending 20% of their days on devices, now. The average Facebook user spends an hour a day scrolling the site. I was listening to the radio on my phone in the kitchen, and I looked up to see my 12-year-old holding her i-pod and her phone (wifi-only) while eating breakfast at the dining-room table. There are evenings when, after supper, chores and homework have been done, everyone gathers quietly in the living-room to stare into their phones and screens. It’s peaceful and it’s creepy. At least we’re in the same room? On Wednesday, I suggested we play a game instead. I don’t even like playing games, but it was the only family-oriented indoor activity I could think of. Everyone was so enthusiastic! We played Boggle till bedtime. It was fun. We were not silent and we were together. It reminded me of being on holiday.
Why don’t we do this more often?
Oh, right. Because we’re tired. This takes energy, when the other option is easy. So easy.
Last night, by the time we got home from soccer practice and picking up our eldest from work (dark, rainy, 8PM = not ideal biking weather), a child suggested playing a game, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy to engage. I’d just been coaching 15 kids for an hour and you should have seen the state of kitchen. Instead, I tackled that. I could have asked the children to help, I suppose. But I didn’t have the energy even to ask for help (it does take energy, because I haven’t sufficiently ingrained in my children the necessity of helping around the house without complaint or argument). So no games. The kids didn’t think it would be fun without the parents, and the parents were toast. The living-room was once again a zone of screens and silence.
I was going to blog about something else in this quick post. I was going to blog about being mindful of persistent negative thoughts, which shape the sometimes negative narratives I tell myself, without even noticing, which affect my enjoyment of the world, generally. But this subject is not so different. What is shaping our life together as a family? What is shaping my children’s childhood experiences? It’s frightening and numbing to think that a powerful shaping factor could be these devices we willingly invite into our lives, and hold so close to us, all day long.
Recently, I asked my students to draw themselves in relation to their phones. The responses were a mixture of love/hate. We feel attached. We feel connected. We feel trapped. We feel helpless. Our phones are reprogramming our brains, the CBC report said, and I believe it. I’m writing a book? I should be writing a series of tweets or a video game or recording on a YouTube channel. It would be more practical.
What’s your relationship to your phone? Are you reading this on your phone?
PS Ditch your screen and come see me tomorrow at the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo. If you’re a young writer between the ages of 13-17, there’s still space for you in my morning workshop. Or just come hang out with great Canadian writers and catch some free events.
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