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.”
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.
this morning, my thoughts do not settle on any one subject. instead, my mind flits like a bee from flower to flower, or like a fallen leaf blown and tumbling across the frozen grass. I am quite content. this is the third consecutive morning I’ve gotten to sit and write. that is all. the house is quiet and there would be quite a list of things to do, should I care to seek out things to do, what with the holidays fast approaching; but I’m not doing those things. I’m doing just one thing. I’m sitting and writing (and occasionally, also, drawing). I have been trying to make this possible for a long time, and while it may be possible this week, or for a few days this week, it is not possible most of the time. I’ve been asking myself: what would you do, if you could just sit and write? and I think the answer is: I would sit and write.
what would I write? that could only be discovered upon the writing of it.
I’ve been thinking about how we, as humans, seek fixes and cures from a variety of sources. my own fix and cure is writing, first and foremost, though my list would also include hard-core exercise, meditation, prayer, faith, song, poetry, drawing, and being with people I love. what are we trying to fix and cure? what am I trying to fix and cure? do we need reassurance that our lives matter, that there is a meaning or a solution to pain?
this past weekend, I was feeling resentful, thinking of how everything I’d done had been for someone else — nothing for myself. and then I thought: good grief, that’s life, Carrie! the point of being alive is to do things for others, not just yourself! that is what brings peace, comfort, contentment. and it’s hard. it requires work, maybe even sacrifice. but it’s the best fix, the most reliable cure.
does my struggle to see writing, specifically my own writing, as a fruitful act, relate in large part to this? — that writing feels like a selfish undertaking (because I love it so much), an indulgence, of benefit to me specifically, and to no one else in particular, and I can’t get behind that idea with conviction. so I’m constantly thinking, instead, as I did in church on Sunday, of other uses for my writing skills: I could write and deliver sermons, I thought; I could do the children’s story, I’m good with kids. this fiction-writing business, what’s it for? am I using it a disguised form of personal therapy? and if so, isn’t that the opposite of treating it as art?
(I want to treat my writing as art.)
there is and remains a desire to take my work and to share it, somehow. that’s the missing piece (is that the missing piece?). I crave connection. I am not a child. I want to play, but also to build something lasting. do these two desires fit together — the desire to play and the desire for a stable outcome? a child’s fort gets knocked down. she was kind of bored of it anyway, something she hadn’t even noticed until the blankets had been folded and put away. in the newly empty space, she begins playing again, imagining something new. there is a rigidity to adult systems. we want monuments. we want permanence. by god, we fight against our transitory state of being on this earth. but maybe what’s beneath all of that is not merely the obvious, not just fear of death and extinction, but also a craving to connect, to cement our connections with others over time. a child is content to play with a child she’s never seen before and will never see again; the richness for her is contained entirely in the moment. I am not a child. but I need to play like a child in order to write. and I need to build on my work like an adult in order to keep writing.
what have I accomplished in 2018? I’ve got no publications to point to, no evidence, no proof of achievement. just notebooks full of cartoons and scribbles, a manuscript of worked and reworked stories, and the kind words of students who’ve passed through my classroom this year. enough? perhaps I’m most proud that I’ve kept at the work itself — the play. I can’t point to the monument of publication, but I’ve been constructing something else, less rigid, but perhaps more lasting. I’ve turned the soil (metaphorically, you understand) on a garden patch where my writing can grow and thrive alongside the writing of peers and friends. if writing is my gift as well as my obsession and my fix, my cure, I want to share it, not simply by publishing, but also by playing in the moment (alone; and with others). mentorship stretches in many directions; a system of mentorship is not fixed or rigid and I need both to mentor and to be mentored. these are the structures I’ve sought out, to build and to nurture — my accomplishments in 2018: I’ve given myself this morning, and the promise of many more mornings just like this one.
to sit and write.
Set your timer and write for three minutes. This is your prompt: What would you change if you could?
What would you change if you could?
I would make a few key strategic changes in priority that would blow my current life to smithereens. I see myself running in the woods with the puppy, my mind as open as the sky, no lists churning, just the hidden lives of my characters, these avatars of the self, the better and clearer self, and I see myself returning home to a clear office, light and empty, to pour out what I’ve found in effort and solitude.
It would be amazing.
I wrote this passage a month ago, during an in-class exercise.
For the next part of the exercise, you put boxes around all of the phrases that jump out at you and then use one as a title for a new story. This passage had plenty to choose from.
CHANGE; BLOW MY LIFE TO SMITHEREENS; I SEE MYSELF RUNNING; MY MIND AS OPEN AS THE SKY; CHURNING; HIDDEN LIVES; AVATARS OF THE SELF; LIGHT AND EMPTY; SOLITUDE
Which would you pick? I chose “Avatars of the Self,” a story I’m still working on.
While I haven’t blown my life to smithereens in the past month, I have made changes. After agonizing for ages, I dropped one of the courses I’d signed on to teach this winter. (I’m still teaching the new course, Creativity Unplugged.) Essentially, by this simple act, I’ve given myself the gift of time.
The question is, can I accept the gift of time without filling it with more responsibilities? (I’m going to try.)
Set your timer and write for three minutes. This is a your prompt: What are your goals as a writer?
What a great prompt for today. Because it’s all I’m thinking about right now — how to feed and sustain this writer self, how to hustle for her without resentment or bitterness, how to celebrate her, how to make space, and as important, hold space. I am going to honour this being that I’m becoming and I’m going to honour her with offerings of food and care and kindness, and in this way, I will let myself be.
I wrote this passage one week ago.
Earlier this month, I went to the Wild Writers Festival here in Waterloo, and was especially inspired by a panel on mentorship; it expanded my definition of mentorship, which can and should include peer-to-peer support. It’s what I try to foster and nurture in my classes; and I recognized, profoundly, it’s time to do this for myself. The key to feeding the writing self is nurturing community. I know how to do this. It takes energy and vulnerability. It’s generative, it’s sustainable, it’s beautiful, it’s meaningful, it’s worthwhile. And maybe, just maybe, it will blow my current life to smithereens … and make space for a better, clearer self.
Who will you be in 25 years? This is an exercise I’ve done twice this fall, with different results each time. The first time, I was led through the exercise by someone else. Today, I led my students through the same exercise.
Here’s how to do it, if you want to try:
Draw a self-portrait as if you were posing for an author photo on the back of the book you’ve always dreamed of publishing. Use crayons. If you have a notebook, draw the portrait on the very last page. (10 minutes)
Next, write your author bio blurb. Remember to write in the third person. Cast yourself deep into the future (25 years or so), and discover who you imagine yourself to be. (10 minutes)
Here’s mine, from today. (Note: I draw self-portraits as if I were 25 years younger …)
Carrie Snyder has devoted her life — or the better part of it — to the pursuit of an ideal self that she first imagined into being as a seven-year-old child, when, as a reader of far-ranging taste with a wild imagination she said to herself (and to anyone who would listen): I’m going to do that too! I’m going to write books! While the perfection of her notion would prove impossible to achieve, the truth of its imagery was uncanny (she saw a forest path and a treehouse hideaway, which, as she grew, became representations rather than literal spaces). Through writing, Carrie found herself transported, frequently, into a deeper understanding of her relationship to the world itself and to its many mysteries. She came to a kind of peace with its mysteries, by holding them to the light and examining their facets with care and attention — and love. Love figures heavily in Carrie’s work, specifically in her discipline to craft, and to sharing the joy of a discipline with others. She has not yet finished, and she hopes she never will. What has changed, with time, is her understanding that finishing something is temporary, and that what lasts is the pull of discovery itself. The process. The adventure of it. She will never be satisfied nor think her work on earth complete, and that is the fuel that invites her to continue — to be the ideal self she imagined at age seven: an artist. Someone who by alchemy transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. Someone who sees what is possible. Someone who looks at the world and loves it with her attention.
Here is the original exercise, completed in October, with a different result (except for the youthful portrait).
Carrie Snyder, despite crippling bouts of self-doubt, has managed to put herself forward, into positions of service, of leadership, roles that demanded the ability to see herself as more powerful and more capable than anyone else did, and by believing, to become. She was not always confident. Was not always the presence she presented. At times, she thought she was doubled, the face to the world not the face she turned to herself. Was it possible to live doubled like this? What did it mean to do work that challenged and frightened her to her very core — could she get up the next day and rise again? But something deep inside ran like an engine or furnace, the flame of desire, the flame of meaning, and she knew she could live in no other way — could she? She tried listening to reason, to her heart, to her spirit, but the fire was the constant that gave her life, renewed her desire to inhabit bodies and minds bigger and braver than her natural own. She said: If I can do it, then I will. She said: Be the change you want to see. And she was. And that was marvellous to her. Because if she could do this, anyone could — anyone loved and believed in and cherished. Carrie Snyder cherishes herself, believes in herself, loves herself and that has made her strong enough to love, believe in and cherish each of you —
each of you —
each of you — beautiful, aching beings
PS It’s tempting, when presented with two things, to compare them … but let’s not. I like that both of these projections into the future are, in fact, deeply embedded in the emotional reality of a present moment. Like putting a thumb-tack onto a map to say: I was here.
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