The secret to writing books is to give yourself a ridiculous expanse of luxurious empty time and space to dream, play, and not do anything that taxes the mind with external cares.
Is this true? Well, I’ve found it to be true.
It means you might not do much else with your day, your hours. You might cook dinner. You might go for a walk, or a run. You might see a friend. You might do a puzzle. You might scroll through Netflix watching the intros to thirty shows as entertainment before bed.
I struggle justifying how much time is spent on staring out the window. Or writing things that don’t turn out, writing draft after draft after draft. So many words assembled tenderly, hopefully, excitedly, only to be discarded.
If this is what it takes to write books, is it worth it? Who am I serving? Just myself?
Well, what if the answer is yes? Yes, I’m serving my writing, at the expense of many other things I could be doing with this one precious life.
What makes you feel purposeful, as you go about your day? What tells you, gut-deep: you are worthy? I don’t know. I’m asking.
It’s a funny thing to be a human, to want to be purposeful, to want to make decisions independently, freely, but to be inextricably embedded in a culture, context, generation, family structure, biology, language(s), place.
I notice that I easily accept the value of tasks or actions that measurably help someone else, like donating blood; concrete chores also have value, and doing them feels valuable, like laundry and cooking; it’s also easy to measure worth by monetary reward, doing X and receiving Y in return. In my experience, writing is generally untethered from any of these logical measurements. But I don’t believe anyone’s worth rests on external evaluation; or on evaluation, period.
You are worthy because you are fighting it out here on planet earth.
You are worthy because you are worthy.
I drew that cartoon a few days ago. I keep returning to look at it. There’s something there that’s whispering to me: peace, and calm, and acceptance, and worthiness. I’ve been drawing daily cartoons again, as a way of journaling. I draw a moment I want to remember, and on this particular day, the moment I wanted to remember was being asleep and dreaming about my new book, which has a tree on its cover — the dream vibe was contentment.
This is a photo of a squirrel eating tinfoil on our fence; there was also a cardinal, but he took off and is the streak of motion in front of one of the blue chairs.
The days have begun to whirl again. After such stillness and waiting, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I’m trying to declare the weekends sacred, and Sundays for meditation, reflection; a worthy aspiration, at the very least.
The truth is that I feel energized after a long quietness. So I’m not resenting an upsurge in activity even as this new stage unfolds and unfurls. But I must be cautious, awake: I don’t want to drift back into the non-stop tumble in which we found ourselves, pre-pandemic.
But, listen. It’s good. I’ll have news to share soon on a couple of creative projects. I’ve got work that feeds my heart and mind, and wonderful people around me and radiating out in expanding circles in whose company I delight, and from whom I am continually learning. I’ve been hanging laundry on the line. My children make music in the living-room. The gardens are bursting and blooming. What more do I need?
(Well, it would be nice if everyone in this house each had a chore they really loved … the way that I love doing laundry… and if that chore could be complementary, say, if someone just loved cleaning bathrooms, and someone loved vacuuming, and someone loved clearing the counters … now that would be heaven.)
But listen, too: our community, our country, our land, the whole world, it is shook up and reeling and in pain and in need, and we can’t fall asleep or wander half-dazed into how it was before, we need to be AWAKE and AWARE and CURIOUS and HUMBLE. I want this place I live in to be a little bit better because I’ve tried, in whatever ways, no matter how small … and that means stumbling, and being quiet, and apologizing a lot of the time too. There is so much to learn, and so much pain that cascades through generations. Every ceremony, every ritual, every practice, every meal I cook food for someone else, every time I stop and listen, pause, listen, pause, reflect, sit, still, breathe, laugh, hug, cry … no action is neutral. This past week in Canada, 215 children were found buried in a secret grave on the grounds of a former residential school, and this is our present. This is not history. This is our now. So much cannot be fixed, must not be forgotten; bad governments, bad systems, hierarchies built to maintain power, no matter the costs. And here we are, human beings, whirling and bumping into each other, trying, trying, trying to figure this out. Individuals trying to look each other in the eyes, to listen, to say, You matter. I’m sorry. I want to help. Help me?
Slow down, sit, listen. Someone is trying to tell you something (not me).
That’s my present, right now. That’s my goal. Slow down, sit, listen. Breathe. Pay attention. Burn something, that too. A candle, a stick of incense. Ego.
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.
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