I spent the weekend at a location somewhat north and west of home, out in the country, at my brother and sister-in-law’s farmhouse, on a little retreat. A writing retreat to be specific; although I wrote very little.
In truth, I’m all written out.
So I leaned heavy on the retreat aspect of this weekend’s potential. Last Thursday, I sent the final revisions for Francie’s Got a Gun; next step: copy edits. I worked on the dedication and acknowledgements this weekend. I re-read the project that had been set aside during these several months of revisions. I re-read my old notebook, too. Napped a bit. Walked. Picked tomatoes from my sister-in-law’s garden and made a salad. Stayed up late talking and reading stories with my writing companions (who got lots of writing done! Yay!).
I’m home again, now. A new week before me, and how strange not to have Francie waiting for my attention. Of course, I felt elated upon finishing. Relieved, delighted, stunned. But emotions are complicated. Today, I also feel tired, a bit worn out, depleted, anxious about what to focus on next, pretty sure I need to give myself a break, and hoping I’ll be kind to myself during this transition to whatever’s next.
Maybe I’ll try to dream up a ritual or a plan or some structure — stepping stones? — to bridge the uncomfortable gap between projects. What’s your survival strategy, to enjoy life and reset and stay calm and present between projects?
Checking in here with an update on the revisions for Francie’s Got A Gun.
My editor replied back last Friday on my “revisions of the revisions” and as I type this out, I realize this may be why it’s so challenging to reflect on the revision process, or try to answer a common question: How long did it take you to write that book, or a variation of that question, How did you write that book? The answer to the latter question is: Magic? Witchcraft? I’ve totally forgotten and have no idea and fear I’ll never be able to do it again? The answer to the former question is: Years? But also: An hour every morning, from 6-7AM for several months. And then bursts of intense days, as my life allowed. But also intense weeks. Waiting, setting it aside, attempting other projects. And then more weeks, intense and wonderful. And now a trickle of back and forth, a week, days, hours. At various points in this process, I have felt energized, confused, worn down, hopeless, thrilled, manic, exhausted, possessed.
I wrote a first draft of this book, by hand in my notebook, after my second concussion when I couldn’t look at screens at all, in 2017. It bears little resemblance to the tightly crafted draft I worked on this past week, on-screen, marked up with queries and comments back and forth about details that are getting (mercifully!) finer and finer.
It’s getting close.
So, here’s my update on my latest efforts to revise: This past week, I worked on the revisions of the revisions of the revisions. Aaaand … we still have a round or two to go, to tighten and respond to some challenging bits. Deadline next Friday.
Here’s what I’ve been reflecting on this week: I love doing this work. It’s all I really want to do. I seem to have a bottomless appetite and energy for it, every part; I want to learn, and the urge to learn, that sense that I still have more to learn, feeds me. Some elements come more naturally (grammar, use of language, experimenting with structure); others require enormous effort (timelines and plot, to name two). It’s been such a joy to get to pour my energy and my admittedly somewhat obsessive personality fully into pursuing this work: writing fiction. Full-time. I’m gobsmacked and amazed that I get to do it. I walk the dog around the block after dinner, letting myself soak in the novelty and surprise of getting to do this work that I love.
This isn’t to say that I don’t have bleak moments, or guilty ashamed moments, caught up in treacherous ego and attachment to outcomes; I spent most of the “revisions of the revisions” wading through exactly that ugly, tiresome swamp. Berating myself for my efforts. Bleak with a feeling of worthlessness. I’m sorry to say it. I wish those feelings and thoughts never came. But they do, as I’m sure they come for most of us. So I kept on doing the work that was before me, despite being consumed with self-doubt. I rejigged the timeline (excruciating!) and revised and revised and revised and sent the draft back for more comments. I also talked to a therapist (art therapy, in fact). I’m telling you this because it’s important to name the supports that keep me afloat. Continuing to work kept me afloat, my little writing group kept me afloat, early morning exercise kept me afloat.
And the joy returned, the gratitude returned. Instead of you suck and you’ll always be a mediocre writer, I heard: This is your work, and you’re able to do it; what more do you need? And the answer is, honestly, nothing. This is my work and I’m able to do it. Whether it’s good or bad or middling, well, that’s not for me to decide. It’s none of your business, as Lynda Barry would say.
It’s Thanksgiving in Canada this weekend. Sending out heaps of gratitude, with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, and stuffing, and pie for dessert.
The last time I did this exercise was at the end of April (I’d just gotten my first dose of vaccine, and we were in full lockdown in Ontario, kids home from school, nowhere to go, almost all connections happening online). Anyway, at the end of May, I just forgot to check in, and by the time I’d remembered, it was the middle of summer. And now summer is over. Seems like a good time to take the temperature.
What felt good this month? At the beginning of September, we were still at the cottage. I was blissed out and unconnected from the “real world”; the re-entry back to school, children moving out, work commitments was steep, brisk, and sometimes brutal. But I’ve kept some important habits from the cottage days, especially habits of mind and routine. I do yoga every morning. And I’ve been establishing boundaries around my working hours, recognizing how important it is to say “this is a day for catching up on reading,” or “this is a writing week,” or “Sunday is for resting.” So it’s been a productive month. Best of all, I’ve been able to run regularly, and without pain. I do not take this for granted! I savour every stride. (Blog post on this to come!) What did you struggle with? Changes, changes, changes. Kids growing up. How to be a supportive parent to teenagers. Plus the usual ever-needed inner work to address self-doubt, anxiety, fears. But I’ve been more deliberate about talking to a counsellor, journaling, and saying the hard parts out loud, and that’s helping. It also helped to listen to several recent On Being podcasts, including one with Stephen Batchelor called “Finding Ease in Aloneness,” where he talked about never being finished. That idea was oddly comforting to me. If I don’t have to worry about getting to some imaginary finish line, I’m free to enjoy the scenery. Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I’m not at the cottage, but even here at home, I’ve been careful not to overload my plate, and I’m feeling relaxed. I have time to do the things that matter to me. I’m meeting deadlines. I’m taking concrete, practical steps to make certain dreams a reality. I’m cooking excellent homemade meals using fresh veggies from our CSA boxes. I’m reaching out to people who matter to me. Cases here in Ontario, and locally, remain low. I’m cautiously optimistic that vaccines and other measures are helping, a lot, and my outlook is: let’s enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it. How did you take care of yourself? In so many ways! A highlight this month has been early morning back yard yoga with my friend Kasia (check out her in-person and online offerings this fall!). Am I binging on self-care? So be it. I’m calmer, kinder, more compassionate, and I see that daily in my interactions with my kids and others. I’ve been thinking that care / self-care really is a practice. It has the potential to extend into everything you do. For example, on this morning’s run, I passed a woman who was smoking, and my first thought was judgemental, pretty harsh and self-righteous if I’m being perfectly honest, something along the lines of you’d be much happier and healthier if you’d just quit smoking and try running; and then I thought, what if instead of this judgement, I poured out care onto this stranger, even just in my thoughts? What if I thought toward her, this stranger, you are worthy, exactly as you are. Oddly, it boomeranged back, and I felt kinder toward myself too. You are worthy echoed through my thoughts, for her, for myself. What would you most like to remember? That I live in an imperfect country, on stolen land, where for 150+ years it was government policy to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their families to live in residential “schools” under the pretence of education, and with the aim of destroying family connections, and eradicating Indigenous cultures and languages (thankfully, these cultures and languages survived, which speaks to their resilience, to the depths of their roots). But the abuse, the cruelty, the deliberate ignorance, the greed, the evil … this is Canada’s legacy, too, as much as we want to imagine ourselves tolerant, prosperous, peaceful, and open-minded. Let’s be honest about who we are! The reverberations are ongoing. There’s too much to say here, and I’m not the one to be saying it, but it’s what I want to remember, every day, and especially today: the first time Canada is marking a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. I’m home alone, thinking about what Canadians could learn, and how our country could be changed, even healed, if we listened. What do you need to let go of? I need to let go of my fear of being judged. Of being wrong. Of getting something wrong. I need to accept that I will definitely, absolutely, guaranteed get some things wrong, especially when stepping outside my comfort zone. Okay. Exhale. I don’t want to live in my comfort zone. I want to be broken open, to see the world through others’ eyes, to connect, to learn, to care more not less. Oh how I hate doing something, anything wrong. But if I give in to self-loathing and perfectionism, I’m paralyzed. I’d rather try than hide. xo, Carrie
PS I highly recommend taking the virtual tour at the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School, which is facilitated by the Woodland Cultural Centre. It’s an eye-opening walk through the longest-running residential school in Canada’s history, located in Brantford, Ontario. (Or donate to them; the educational work they’re doing is heart-rending and invaluable.)
CBC Radio is also running programming all day today, so listening to Indigenous voices and stories is as easy as turning on your radio, or you can stream it online through the link.
Today, this month, I turn and return to gratitude. I’ve been looking for poems about thanks and thanksgiving for a church service I’m helping to plan, and I’ve noticed the poems that draw me are tempered with grief, there are many colours woven into the fabric of the experience of thanks they describe. I’ll post one, by Jane Hirschfield, below.
Monday morning thank-you list:
1. Kasia’s yoga class this morning, and her invitation to greet the day by saying, “Good morning, I love you,” to ourselves. (Wow! That changes the wake-up script!)
2. Enough time to work on revisions. Solitude.
3. Invitations to speak. Connection.
4. New projects, old projects, ongoing projects.
On the “new projects” front, in addition to the novel, I’ve got a couple of creative non-fiction pieces being published in anthologies, this year and next. Both are very personal, and a bit raw — “In This River” has just been published in an anthology called Impact: Women Writing After Concussion. Here’s me talking about my concussion (oh, soccer!) and reading an excerpt from my piece. I also “composed” and played the music that accompanies this video (“composed” in quotation marks because it’s just pure improv). A strange after-effect of the concussion: I was able to improvise very freely on the piano; more to do with rhythm than melody, almost as if some interior barrier had been breached.
video edited by Jun Kim
(Monday morning thank-you list, cont.)
5. Stretching myself, learning new skills … like the opportunity to make the recordings, above.
As I think about my relationship to my writing life, I am aware that publishing is a piece of it, and that means a different kind of work and effort and engagement with the world: presenting, public speaking, sharing. Looked at from one perspective, publicity work terrifies me, I’ll be honest. I’m terrified of feeling exposed, of being drained, of being judged wanting, of feeling ashamed. But looked at through the perspective of thanks, everything changes. Good morning, I love you! What if THANKS were the baseline I returned to many times each day?
Thanks brings me closer to wonder and admiration. Thanks brings me closer to patience, calm, the ability to pause. Thanks brings me closer to others. It’s a lens of perspective that gives me a different relationship to time and to self.
(and one last thank-you on the Monday morning thank-you list)
I love these things because they make possible my engagement with everything else. I don’t want to live an entirely interior life — I love that part, it comes easily for me; but I want to be in the world, I want to connect, share, respond, serve, workshop, teach, coach, relate, cradle, hold, feed, nurture, offer of what I’ve been given. You know? It’s a short life. I want to live in it.
"When Your Life Looks Back," by Jane Hirshfield
When your life looks back —
As it will, at itself, at you — what will it say?
Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool.Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from.Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many.
Your life will carry you as it did always,
With ten fingers and both palms,
With horizontal ribs and upright spine,
With its filling and emptying heart,
That wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return.
You gave it. What else could you do?
Immersed in air or in water.
Immersed in hunger or anger.
Curious even when bored.
Longing even when running away.
“What will happen next?” —
the question hinged in your knees, your ankles,
in the in-breaths even of weeping.
Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in.
Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face.
No back of the world existed,
No unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for.
This, your life had said, its only pronoun.
Here, your life had said, its only house.
Let, your life had said, its only order.
And did you have a choice in this? You did —
Sleeping and waking,
the horses around you, the mountains around you,
The buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts.
Those of your own kind around you —
A few times, you stood on your head.
A few times, you chose not to be frightened.
A few times, you held another beyond any measure.
A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure.
Mortal, your life will say,
As if tasting something delicious, as if in envy.
Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.
Summer holiday was sweet. I spent more than two weeks at a boat-access-only cottage, where I saw only a few (very dear) people, slept soundly, did yoga twice a day, swam, kayaked, cooked meals, read, napped, showered outside, tried to watch every sunset.
Fear and anxiety also visited. There was so much space to notice. I noticed what a variety of fears my mind entertains, how many worst-case scenarios play out in vivid detail, flashing through my brain, even as I seek to soothe myself, or try to control outcomes. This is going on a list to discuss with my therapist.
My fears did not stop me from driving the boat, kayaking in rough waters, swimming in the lake, or staying as the lone adult at the cottage. My fears did not stop me. But I wonder: could I change the habits and patterns of my brain? Could the fears diminish in intensity? I don’t want to transfer my fears to my children (another fear!); parenting is an ongoing practice of attempts, improvisations, chance encounters with sorrow and appreciation, raw emotion, apologies for what could have been, letting go, embracing.
Today, I am alone in the house for the first time in a very long time. I can’t seem to settle. The house feels too big for the people who remain here (two children have moved out, graduating to university studies, one living in residence, one living in an apartment with a partner). Less laundry, yes, less grocery shopping, less chaos; less.
Who am I in the quiet? What’s my purpose, again? (Another item on the to-be-discussed-with-therapist list.)
I am not restless, exactly. But I seem always to be seeking, seeking. Expecting more of myself: to be kinder, better, more generous, softer, funnier, sharper, more confident, humbler, less demanding, firmer, more grounded, freer. Do you sense the contradictions? Do you feel the same desire to live amply, comfortably amidst contradiction?
For the past five weeks, I set-up an automatic response on my email that went something like this: “I’m on a writing sabbatical.” I was tempted to keep it forever, but on Tuesday of this week, I turned it off, at least temporarily. This is the week between writing sabbatical and actual holiday (but how to tell the difference between those two amazing and lovely states of being?!). My writing sabbatical felt like a holiday except possibly even better, because it felt so purposeful. I felt so purposeful within it, doing the work. This week of errands and catch-up and to-do lists has been distinctly unsatisfying, by comparison.
To update you on my current project, I spent five weeks working daily (with the exception of most weekends), revising this novel called Francie’s Got a Gun, which is scheduled for publication next summer (2022). Some days got a bit chaotic and I couldn’t stop, working deep into the evening hours, while others had a more orderly rhythm and pace. But overall, I kept returning to the idea of patience, and inviting patience into the process. It’s hard to explain, maybe, but once I get rolling it’s very difficult to stop. My challenge, once working, is to find a way to stop, to detach myself from the work at the appropriate hour: to rest, to relax, to let the thing be.
So I practiced. I stopped to eat supper with my family almost every evening. I went for walks. If my 13-year-old knocked on my door for a dog walk mid-afternoon, I always said yes, no matter where I was at. And I forced myself to take real breaks on weekends, to see friends and family, to take a few (small) trips, to socialize, unwind, or simply just to remove myself from the work.
I practiced taking breaks away because I knew it would benefit the work. Toward the end of the process, I was hugely tempted to pull an all-nighter to finish everything all in one fell swoop, but I stopped myself. Patience, patience. My eyes were tired, it was already late, my brain was addled. The writing would be better in the morning, after a rest. (And I’m sure that it was.)
One of the places I worked, at my youngest’s swim lessons, sitting outside under a tree near the pool.
I’m not a big believer in balance (seems like a concept designed to torment the person attempting and failing to achieve it); but I do believe in focus. I believe that to go deep and be present, I need to set up the conditions that allow me to focus on one thing at a time. Dog walk with son. In-depth revisions. Backyard picnic with friends. This is easier when I have sufficient time to focus on the things that matter deeply to me. What made it possible to ease away from the book on the weekends was knowing I’d be able to focus full-tilt the following week. And this all falls apart when my week-days are split between a bunch of must-dos, errands, meetings and external responsibilities, the disruptions and lack of sustained time prevent focus from ever happening in the first place. Disappointment, disillusionment, derangement is the result. That’s why the conditions need to be deliberately set up, revisited often, and maintained; that’s why I might actually need “I’m on a writing sabbatical” as my automatic email response in perpetuity.
During this week in-between, this liminal week, I’m reflecting on what life will be like with fewer children living at home this fall (only two!!!!); and I’m daring to look ahead a few years and invite some dreaming about what I may want, as the house empties out. (So far the biggest issue has been that I can’t calibrate my cooking for a smaller group; the leftovers my meals create is a legit problem!)
What’s next for Francie’s Got a Gun? Within the next few weeks, I expect to hear back from my editor with comments and notes, and I’ll set up the conditions to get further revisions completed before the manuscript goes to copy editing. There’s a timeline, and it’s a real pleasure to work within it. Comforting. When that work is done, I’ve got more work planned, more projects underway, more reasons to protect many hours of each day to write (and research, and revise).
I almost wrote “just” to write. But no. Why tamp down the fire? Why minimize the desire, the joy, the pleasure I take from this discipline? It’s enough. It’s enough. It’s enough to fill to the brim this one small and precious life.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a writer of fiction and non-, reader, planner, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, mentor/coach, forever curious. I'm interested in the intersection between art and spirituality. What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty? What if everyone could make art?